Continuity – The Real King of Europe

Real Madrid head to Kiev in search of an unprecedented Champions League three-peat, and their fourth title in 5 years. It’s an astonishing run of dominance given the comparative strength of their fellow European superpowers.

Looking back to the start of this run – victory over city rivals Atletico in 2014 – it is noticeable how little the team has changed. Los Galacticos, the club most famous for often and outlandish statement signings under Florentino Perez – are now a squad built on stability. The only outfield signing from the last 5 years that started the final in either 2016 or 2017 is Toni Kroos, signed in the summer of 2014 after Real won their 10th European title – La Decima.

Barring injury – the following will be playing their fourth Champions League final for Real Madrid – Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Isco, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Keylor Navas, Raphael Varane, Kroos, Casemiro and Gareth Bale will be appearing in their third. The importance of having been there, done that should not be diminished.

So is continuity the secret to success, specifically in Europe? After all, in the past 5 years Real have only managed to win the domestic title once (2016-17) and the Copa Del Rey once (2013-14). When Manchester United made 3 European finals between 2008-2011, ten players appeared in all 3 final matchday squads. Bayern Munich had something similar when they also made 3 finals in 4 seasons between 2010-2013, the foundations of the side built around Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario Gomez.

Real have seemingly learnt from their own past indiscretions. In consecutive summers between 2000-2003 they signed Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham – the Zidanes y Pavones era – a blend of superstars with youth products from La Fabrica. Despite winning the Champions League in 2002, the trend of marquee signings continued, marginalising some of the club’s unsung heroes – namely Claude Makélélé, Fernando Morientes and Steve McManaman.

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Galacticos – David Beckham, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Raul

Zidane remarked on the sale of Makélélé: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” It was rumoured that Zidane was being paid 6 times more than his compatriot. With the engine gone and much of the club’s identity with it – Real would not make the final again for 12 years. They – rather incredibly to think now – went out at the last 16 stage for 6 seasons in a row between 04/05 – 09/10. The policy of signing established stars (Cannavaro, van Nistelrooy, etc.) did not work on the continent and players came and went with increasing regularity.

What has followed has been an extended period of quiet in terms of transfer activity, and any business Real do is always with long-term thinking in mind. The last outfield player they signed over the age of 25 was Luka Modric in 2012.

Mateo Kovacic (21) and Marco Asensio (18) joined in 2015. The following year, after beating Atletico on penalties, the only “arrival” was the return of Alvaro Morata from Juventus. Last summer, post 4-1 thumping of Juventus in Cardiff, they signed two teenagers in Dani Ceballos and Theo Hernandez. Such restraint in the transfer market has never before been seen under Florentino Pérez.

Barcelona’s approach has been somewhat different – spending huge sums of money, particularly recently. Despite dominating domestically, they have been unable to match Madrid in Europe. The Premier League’s plight in chasing down Real has proved even less fruitful. After 8 finalists in 8 seasons between 2005-2012, the Premier League only had 1 representative in the semi-finals and 0 in the final in the subsequent 5 campaigns. All of the elite know that Champions League success is the pinnacle, and ultimately what they will be judged on. Real’s dominance becomes all the more remarkable when you consider recent transfer spend across Europe’s biggest players.

Since Real won La Decima in 13/14 (according to Transfermarkt):

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It is the settled side that is so familiar now – the relationship between Modric and Kroos, the importance of Benzema for Ronaldo, a back 4 that have played over 1,400 games for the club combined. It is admittedly easier to keep a team together that can’t stop winning, but it is to Zidane’s credit that he has resisted the urge to make changes.

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The XI for the final vs Juventus in 2017. The very same side is expected to start in Kiev

Their domestic form has suffered dramatically after failing to replace James and Morata in the summer – finishing 15 points behind Barcelona. But Zidane has kept that Champions League team in tact – and once again they head to the final as favourites.

Looking ahead to the game, some of Real’s performances this season offer hope to Liverpool. They were second best for large portions of the games at the Bernabeu vs Juventus and Bayern.

One of Klopp’s biggest concerns should be the influence of Kroos and Modric. Both ice cool and technically superb – if they can work their way through Liverpool’s press then the counter attack will always be on and with Ronaldo waiting, that will spell trouble for Liverpool.

I expect Liverpool to set traps for Casemiro in possession which could prove rewarding, and it will be interesting to see how Marcelo plays up against Mo Salah. I do not expect Real nor Marcelo to change style for anyone, which should give Salah space on occasion. At the other end, Lovren and Van Djik will need to be aware of Ronaldo drifting onto Alexander-Arnold in the box. Whether they can stop him is another matter entirely.

A quick count suggests Real’s starting XI already have a total 31 CL winners medals. Six of Liverpool’s expected starting XI had not even played in the Champions League before this season. Tall order.

 

Trouble Dutch & Ripe Red Devils: A Lowland Contrast

The Netherlands have failed to qualify for consecutive major tournaments. They’ve managed to do so even with the expanded format of Euro 2016 that meant countries including Albania, Hungary and Romania all made it to France last summer. They followed that by failing to even make the playoffs of this World Cup qualifying campaign.

In recent memory the Dutch have consistently been a force to be reckoned with. Penalties denied them a place in the final at both World Cup 1998 (Brazil) and Euro 2000 (Italy). Back then, their striker options were Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, Roy Makaay, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

It could not feel more different now. The Oranje’s only world class player in Arjen Robben has retired from international football. A lack of new blood means they remain reliant on the likes of Wesley Sneijder, despite his visible decline since he orchestrated Inter Milan’s treble in 2010. The best they can currently do for target men are Vincent Janssen and Bas Dost.

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Forlorn Oranje players as they concede to the Czech Republic in Euro 2016 qualifying. 

By contrast, Belgium have sauntered through qualification – unbeaten with 9 wins and a draw, scoring 43 goals in the process (England by comparison scored 18). Their squad is a litany of superstars from Europe’s crème de la crème. If the first wave of talent included Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini, then the next was Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel, Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco and more. Those mentioned do not include arguably the most in-form player on the planet bar Leo Messi in Dries Mertens, who has had an electrifying 2017 at Napoli. Nor does it include the Premier League’s two best centre backs in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.

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An all-star line up. L-R Top Row – Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen. Bottom Row – Toby Alderweireld, Radja Nainggolan, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Thomas Vermaelen.

Back in 2009, Belgium were 66th on the FIFA world rankings, below Bahrain, Burkina Faso and Canada. The Netherlands were 3rd. This is the team that Belgium had out when they lost 2-1 to Armenia in a 2010 WC qualifier:

STARTING XI: Gillet, Van Buyten, Swerts, Deschacht, Dembele, Martens, Simons, Defour, Sonck, Mirallas, De Camargo

That team is almost unrecognisable. In that qualifying campaign they came 4th in their group. By the time the next World Cup had come around, Belgium were widely tipped as the dark horses to lift the trophy.

After finishing runners-up in 2010 and 3rd four years later, from the outside the Dutch were stronger than ever. But perhaps that tournament in Brazil was a misnomer. Louis Van Gaal, pragmatic in his assessment of the squad’s attributes, played a defensively minded team that heavily relied on Robben’s pace on the counter attack. Many remarked that despite going deep into the tournament, it was not the Dutch way.

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Happier times for the Dutch during their 5-1 demolition of reigning world champions Spain, in the group opener of World Cup 2014.

Guus Hiddink and Danny Blind were tasked with bringing back that identity of “Total Football”, but it has been a catastrophe – the low point of the latest campaign a 2-0 loss in Bulgaria.

So then why now the visible gap in talent? They have long been renowned for developing world class players. As recently as 2011, UEFA officials advised England to adopt “Holland’s excellent grassroots model” – based on outstanding facilities at the centre of local communities that promote sponsorship and volunteering among locals. It is said to be the equivalent of having 2,700 professional academies, for a population of only 17 million.

All age groups play 4-3-3, possession focused football where individuality is encouraged and winning does not matter. There have been suggestions that the emphasis in development regardless of the result has gone too far the other way, and while players still have the technical quality, they lack a winning mentality and mental toughness.

Other suggestions include the notion that the Eredivisie is no longer good enough. Due to the money elsewhere, Dutch clubs are no longer able to attract the calibre of players that they used to be able to, meaning home-grown players are not cutting their teeth against the quality required to help them make it.

Further, there has been a disappointing trend of players under-performing following moves to Europe’s big leagues. Jordy Clasie (Southampton), and Vincent Janssen (Spurs) are prime examples. Middlesbrough paid £12 million for Maarten de Roon. Then there is Memphis Depay’s 18 months at Man United. The starts that Davy Klaasen (Everton) and Jaro Riedlewald (Crystal Palace) have made to Premier League life do not suggest the situation is improving.

There was a time when the Dutch dominated Europe’s aristocracy – none more so than at Real Madrid when Sneijder, van der Vaart, Robben, van Nistelrooy and Huntelaar all shared the Bernabeu stage together. Of the current Dutch squad, only 2 are on the books of Europe’s elite, and both rarely play – Jasper Cillesen at Barcelona, and Daley Blind at Man United.

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Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart and Ruud van Nistelrooy together at Real Madrid.

Compare that with Belgium. In 2008 – there were 2 Belgian players in England’s top flight. Now there are 18, and critically 12 of them play for the “Big 6”. You could very well argue that the most important player at each of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea are all Belgian.

So what then is the secret to their success?

The upturn has been credited to Belgium’s former Technical Director Michel Sablon, and his 2004 blueprint “Global Analytique Global” – a fusion of French physical power and tactical efficiency, and (ironically) Dutch individual technique.

Sablon’s model has remarkable similarities with what the Dutch youth set-up has long prided itself on. He promoted the focus on player development over winning matches, going as far as removing league tables, with mandatory small sided games in the junior ranks. He commissioned research that showed a youth player in an 11v11 match would touch the ball on average 4 times every 20 minutes. As a consequence, “circulation de balle” was made fundamental: goal-kicks, direct free-kicks and throw-ins were dispensed with to stimulate build-up play.

Only from age 12 are 11-a-side games introduced. Every school, youth academy and village team was mandated to play 4-3-3 with classic, dribbling wingers. PowerPoint presentations were shown to the parents of boys entering club academies outlining the ideology. During the transition, it meant their national youth teams lost, and lost often – but to Sablon “the identity and the development of the players was much more important than that”.

The turning point for the senior team announced itself in 2012. Prior, the Red Devils had been accused of “personifying a ‘Louis Vuitton’ generation of spoilt brats in a gilt-edged bubble of inflated salaries and PlayStation intellectualism” by the media. This was none more apparent than during a Euro qualifier with Turkey when Eden Hazard, after being subbed, proceeded straight down the tunnel, out of the stadium and was snapped eating a burger in the car park while the match continued inside.

But then Marc Wilmots took charge. A friendly against who else but the Netherlands was the blue touch paper. Belgium outplayed, outfought, and outclassed them in a 4-2 victory. Wilmots had banished the old, opportunistic and defensive minded way of playing. They have been dreaming big ever since.

The team has drawn similarities with France’s world cup winning “Rainbow nation” – a symbol of multicultural possibility. Hazard, Nainggolan, Lukaku, Kompany, Dembele, Chadli, Fellaini and Witsel all have at least one parent born outside of Belgium. Immigration has brought with it a new dimension for Belgian football. “Le football de rue” with its North African influence – expressionism, trickery, intricacy; fine-tuned in the concrete cages you find in the outskirts of Liege and Brussels.

Like France, Belgium has a complex political and demographical situation. Football is uniting a country that historically many have considered not to be a country at all. Its biggest political party, the NVA, is committed to the long-term break up of the country. Yet there is a new wave of optimism – known as “Belgitude”. The Belgian national team, in its excellence, in its youth, in its disconnection from the country’s internecine hang-ups, is at the forefront of the movement.

This was highlighted in an exchange between the NVA and Belgium captain Vincent Kompany. NVA chairman Bart De Wever, on winning electoral control of Antwerp, told supporters: “Antwerp is for everybody, but tonight, especially for us.” A few days later, after winning a World Cup qualifier in Scotland, Kompany tweeted: “Belgium is for everybody, but tonight, especially for us!”

Beyond a new blueprint and the benefit of immigration, what else is contributing? Looking at domestic club football, the only way for teams to survive financially is to cultivate young talent and then cash in through transfer fees. This is Belgium’s competitive niche, and coaches and clubs have gotten very, very good at it. Benteke, Courtois and de Bruyne all came through at Genk. Witsel, Fellaini and Michy Batshuayi at Standard Liege.

For the current crop, if they left Belgium early, then they did so in search of Europe’s most renowned football academies. Hazard, Mirallas and Origi all came through at Lille while Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Vermaelen blossomed at Ajax.

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Both Spurs and Belgium are reaping the rewards of Alderweireld and Vertonghen coming through the youth system together at Ajax.

There is definitely much to be said for the benefits of a talented group of players coming through together – the effect they have on each other – consistently raising the bar and driving improvements from within. Hazard only needs to look to Naples (Mertens), Madrid (Carrasco) or Manchester (de Bruyne) to know that a couple of below par performances and he could find himself out of the team. That competition even at international level can only be a good thing. The time is surely now for them to deliver in Russia.

By contrast, the Dutch at the moment seem shell-shocked into submission by the ghosts of their glorious ancestors. The soul searching will continue and the re-building will begin in earnest. Don’t be surprised if they are back competing at the deep end of international tournaments before long.

Fan Delusion with Player Loyalty

“F*CK OFF PAYET, DIMITRI PAYET, 

WE JUST DON’T WANT YOU ANYMORE

YOU’VE GOT SOME F*CKING FRONT

YOU MONEY GRABBING C*NT

F*CK OFF DIMITRI PAYET”

Fans attitude towards Dimitri Payet in the aftermath of his expression to leave has been entirely predictable. Outrage that he should want to move on, even greater outrage that he would want to leave to join lowly (Champions League winners) Marseille, and avaricious accusations of a player solely motivated by wealth.

The reality is that when Payet gets his move to Marseille, he will take a substantial pay cut. Quite the contrary to moving for financial gain, he wants to move because his wife and 3 young children have not settled in London, and are desperate to move back to the south of France. A player accused of only acting in the interests of himself, is in fact acting in the interests of his family.

Let’s pretend for a second that this is about money. It’s worth remembering what brought Payet to West Ham in the first place. It won’t have been for the pie, mash and liquor, nor the prospect of following in the footsteps of compatriot Julien Faubert. West Ham had finished outside the top 10 in the two seasons previous, this was not a move with trophies on his mind – he was offered a huge wage increase to head to East London. It was made clear at the time he did not want to leave, but was pushed out by Marseille due to the club’s financial woes.

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Payet seems certain to move on now after West Ham accepted the latest bid from Marseille

Fan forums lambast the player for signing a new 5 year deal last February. The contract will have been as much in the interest of the club than the player. Tie him to a longer deal, keep his transfer value as high as it can be for someone of his age. Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale both signed long term deals before going to Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively within 12 months. In any case, try refusing an offer from your current employer to double your salary.

His heartfelt message to the fans after signing the new deal was one that the club, in all likelihood, would have orchestrated and choreographed, via the club’s press and social media representatives. This is just the way football works now. If fans think player’s comments / tweets are from the heart then they are sadly mistaken – just ask Victor Anichebe.

There is no doubt that refusing to play is a callous act and breach of contract, there is no defending that. But perhaps it is the last move of a desperate man. It is widely reported that Payet had requested a transfer in the summer, only to be refused. Luka Modric was fined for refusing to train for Spurs while attempting to force his move to Real Madrid. Yohan Cabaye similar when Arsenal made a bid while at Newcastle. How many West Ham fans know that Bobby Moore once tried to force a move to Tottenham, who had offered him more money and a realistic chance of winning a league title? Probably not many. Players ultimately resort to forcing the club’s hand when things aren’t going their way.

But loyalty breeds loyalty, doesn’t it? And how often do club’s show unnerving loyalty to their players? Just as a player attempts to force a move out of his contract, clubs do the same when they are ready to put a player on the scrapheap. It happened just this season with Bastian Schweinsteiger – banished to train with the kids in the hope that he would grow disillusioned and request a transfer away. Players are short term commodities for their clubs, pawns that they are ready to discard at any moment, and they know that. I’ve always thought it’s a bit rich for teams to demand loyalty from the very players they would sell if it suited their needs.

Fickle attitudes extend to the terraces too. What about fans treatment to player’s that are struggling for form? They boo their own  – see Fellaini at Old Trafford, Eboue at the Emirates. Whether it has been at you or one of your teammates, does this lend to a reciprocation of loyalty?

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Emmanuel Eboue consoled at the Emirates after being booed by his own fans

The stereotypical fanatical fan holds its club and their support in an over inflated sense of importance / entitlement, in an industry which has sold its soul to the cash cow. This isn’t the player’s fault – the astronomical transfer fees and wages – they are a by-product of the Premier League, Sky Sports, foreign ownership, super agents – yet it is the players who bear the brunt. You only have to see the media’s obsession with the spending habits of Raheem Sterling to understand that.

 

When comparing with our own jobs, do we, or would we, really act any different? And yes, football is a job. A job that, despite growing public antipathy, many of the professionals love. That’s a benefit that they enjoy, due to their talent and dedication, that the vast majority of us will never experience. But football is a short career, and can be curtailed in an instant through injury. No one would criticize a normal person if he moved to a better-run company or a company that offered to boost his wages significantly, so why should it be different for footballers?

Why shouldn’t players want to maximise their earnings, regardless of how they wish to use their wealth. This trend is particularly stark with South American players, many of whom were born into under privileged families, and see football as a way out of that. It most likely explains why Hulk, Ramires and Oscar are all playing their football in China, as they seek to augment their earnings as a priority over a fulfilling career. I can despair at Axel Witsel snubbing a move to Juventus in the prime of his career to cash in and go to Tianjin Quanjian, but I certainly can never begrudge him for it.

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The Chinese Super League has attracted several South American players, including Oscar, Hulk, and Carlos Tevez

There is also often more than meets the eye, or better put, a more accurate tale when the media spin is removed. Take Emmanuel Adebayor, master chief mercenary – lazy, disloyal, in it for the money, etc. Whilst a lot of this will be accurately levelled – he has also given an awful lot to charity. His contract disputes with Man City were rumoured to centre on his insistence that the club donate a portion of his wages a week directly to charity. Here is a player, fully aware of his earning power at his peak, getting his own while also using his position to help others.

The van Persie transfer to United is an interesting one. A player who had watched everyone leave Arsenal, from Henry and Vieira to Fabregas, Nasri, Adebayor, and more. He served the club for 8 seasons, in 277 games scoring almost a goal every other game. He won an FA Cup in his first season, then nothing in the proceeding 7. In his last two seasons, he was arguably the league’s best player. Not getting any younger, and watching his own club stagnate due to a stubborn manager with a preposterous attitude in the transfer market, he decided to leave. His time for a Premier League title was running out. He moved and won one. It’s worth remembering that Arsenal accepted that transfer offer from United.

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Sagna, Alex Song, Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri all once of Arsenal

Samir Nasri, never one short of a word or two, got the same vitriol when he moved to City. He summed it up perfectly:

“I have won trophies and I have a better life so I am really happy about everything. If the fans can’t move on it’s too bad. 

“They see that as a treason or that I betrayed them but it’s not that. I’m not like that. I just look at what’s best for me and that’s what Bacary Sagna did, what Adebayor did and what Kolo Touré did. For them [the fans] the only reason has to be for the money. But it isn’t just for the money.”

“I just think it’s stupid. I’m not an Arsenal fan, I am not from London. If we want to be honest we are players and we are just looking at what are the best interests for us and our career.”

Ashley Cole is consistently ridiculed for his comments in his autobiography when he said he “almost crashed his car” upon hearing Arsenal were “only” offering £55,000 a week in his new contract. Ridiculous to me and you yes, but Cole knew his worth. He was the best left back in the world at the time. He went to Chelsea, trebled his salary, won the league, 4 FA Cups, the Champions League and the Europa League. Arsenal won precisely nothing during that 8 year spell. A most logical decision when the emotion is taken out of it.

Steven Gerrard and Francesco Totti are often used as shining examples of player loyalty, but can they be compared to people like Luis Suarez? Or Zlatan? Gerrard was born and raised in Liverpool. Totti was born and raised in Rome. They have bigger emotional attachments to their clubs, they have roots in the area where their club is based. What helps is that they also happen to have played for two of the biggest clubs in Europe.

The only loyalty left is with the fans. The teams will dump a player if they have a better option. The player will dump a team if they get a better option. The fans are the ones that show blind loyalty. The sooner they realise that, and stop with the outrage, the better.

 

 

 

 

 

Boys from the Bloc

A player’s upbringing is often referenced when assessing their best and worst characteristics. Two players that spring to mind in recent years are Luis Suarez and Carlos Tevez. Both tenacious, ruthless, and never far from controversy. There’s no doubt that their attitude is what has made them such special players, and that never say die approach is a by-product of the difficult circumstances in which they grew up in. When you have nothing, you have it all to gain.

Tevez has recounted tales of a childhood blighted by crime and deprivation, of walking to school in the morning past the bodies of slain neighbors in the street. He credits his dribbling ability to having to weave around shattered glass and syringes in an effort to avoid disease. He called football “the best thing that can happen to you.”

Some of the best footballers on the planet in the 1990s emerged from the Eastern Bloc – the Soviet controlled communist states of Eastern Europe – from the signing of the Warsaw Pact in 1955 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For decades the Bloc was shrouded with concealment, seclusion and suppression. When the wall fell, the talents hidden behind the Iron Curtain were unveiled. It opened the eyes of the world to Balkan football.

Was it their upbringings, and the environment they developed in on their journey to international spotlight which set them apart? Arrogance, passion, fearlessness, assassin like composure – just some of the attributes these players became renowned for. 

Hristo Stoichkov

Moments after CSKA Sofia forward Hristo Stoichkov lobbed Barcelona keeper Andoni Zubizarreta in the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in April 1989, home coach Johan Cruyff turned to his assistant and said “I want him in my team.”Barcelona won the tie, but having scored all three of his side’s goals across two legs – Stoichkov had made his mark. 

His foreign exploits had been delayed by Bulgaria’s draconian system during communist rule. Footballers had been banned from moving abroad before the age of 28. Signed by Sofia at 18, within a year Stoichkov was involved in a brawl in the Bulgarian Cup final that earned a season long ban.

By 25, he had  got his move to Barcelona, having just won the European Golden Shoe, with 38 goals in 30 games. Two years on and he would be a European Cup Winner. Despite not being a typical number 9, often occupying a deeper role off Romario, he scored over 20 goals in each of his first 4 seasons. They won 4 straight La Liga titles.

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Stoichkov wearing the captain’s armband at Barcelona

It’s pretty safe to say that Stoichkov the player was a narcissistic arsehole. Angry, always on the cusp of implosion, but more often than not unplayable. “He is a football genius and it is normal for a genius to be a little crazy” said a former teammate.

The World Cup in 1994 was his magnum opus. Bulgaria had never won a World Cup game. 3 goals in the group stages helped them to progress to the last 16, where he scored in the victory over Mexico. Then came the infamous 2-1 Quarter Final win over Germany, Stoichkov scoring the first before Yordan Letchkov and his diving header entered World Cup folklore. His penalty in the semi final v Italy was not enough to take them all the way, denied by a Roberto Baggio brace. Stoichkov was awarded the Golden Boot, and named alongside club teammate Romario in the team of the tournament. 

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After the World Cup , he was awarded the Ballon D’Or. Collecting the trophy, he said “There are only two Christs; one plays for Barcelona, the other is in heaven.” His hometown renamed itself Stoichkova in his honour.

Gheorge Hagi

If Stoichkov’s story is one of rags to riches, then Hagi’s is one of oppression to expression. He grew up under Nicolae Ceauşescu’s tyrnannical dictatorship in Romania.

Ceauşescu was neurotic. He gave himself titles, like “The Conductor” or “The Genius of the Carpathians” and had a king-like sceptre made for himself. By 1989, the state’s influential positions were all filled by his family members. That same year, Gheorghe Hagi, led Steaua Bucharest to the European Cup final against AC Milan. He was a linchpin of the side that went an astounding 104 matches unbeaten in domestic competitions.

Hagi was European football’s hottest property. His goal return of 76 in 91 games for Steaua was incredible for a midfielder. He was diminutive but strong, incredibly difficult to dispossess and had a left foot steeped in culture. 

But he wasn’t going anywhere. The secret police in Romania were the most notorious in the communist bloc. He feared he would never see his family again.

After decades of corruption, the country was in crisis as Ceauşescu sold off food and fuel in a bid to pay off national debt. He and his wife Elena were found guilty of genocide, subversion of power and misuse of state funds at a show trial, were executed on Christmas Day 1989.

For Hagi, a new world opened up. He transferred to Real Madrid. Now 25 and in the prime of his career, the Bernabeu was surely the ideal place to showcase his talents. 

“I failed,” said Hagi. “Faced with all those superstars, I nearly shat my pants.” After 14 goals in two seasons – he found himself at Brescia of Serie B, lining up for an Anglo-Italian Cup tie against Notts County, just months before the 1994 World Cup. 

Romania were minnows of a group that included Colombia, led by Carlos Valderrama, who had thrashed Argentina 5-0 on their way to qualification.

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Hagi at his 3rd World Cup in France, 1998

But Romania would beat them 3-1, the victory including a Hagi strike from the left touchline that became one of the iconic goals in the tournament’s history. He set up both of Florin Răducioiu’s goals in the game that announced to the world he was back. 

Romania exited during the quarter finals, but the team returned home heroes. Hagi was admired like a king – mobbed everywhere he went. He became adored in the way that Ceauşescu had tried to manufacture for himself over decades of oppression.

Hagi went to Turkey, and under Fatih Terim, guided Galatasaray to every title available, including a UEFA Cup win over Arsenal in 2000. Not having lost any of his fire, he was sent off in the final for punching Tony Adams. He finished off his career with a European Super Cup win over his old team Real Madrid. Hagi scored 48 goals in his last 3 seasons in Turkey, a remarkable feat given he was a midfielder into his mid-30s. 

Pavel Nedvěd

Pavel Nedvěd describes the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as “perfect timing.” He was only 17 and living in Prague. The wall signified a barrier to any kind of meaningful future, even for a footballer of his talents.

“It was the right moment for me, perfect for my career.” Under Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, players needed to be over 32 and play a number of games with the national team before they could move abroad.

Nedvěd remembers how they took to the streets for non-violent demonstrations. “We went with our keys in our hands, shook them to make noise so that (the regime) would understand that it was time for them to go. We fought for liberty and freedom of expression, which are now granted but before were not allowed.”

Back then he considered the Italian league beyond his talents. The Czech football coach, Zdeněk Zeman, who managed Lazio, soon convinced the hesitant youngster to join him.

In 5 seasons at the club he won a Scudetto, 2 Coppa Italia’s, the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and two Supercups, at a time when Italian football was at its peak. He would move to Juventus, despite fan protests attempting to block the club from selling him and Juan Sebastian Veron.

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Nedved is mobbed by teammates including Hernan Crespo, Seba Veron and Fabrizio Ravanelli after a goal for Lazio

He was completely two-footed, with rockets in both boots and could play anywhere across midfield. Sven Goran Eriksson, his manager at Lazio, described him as an “atypical midfielder, totally complete”.

Nicknamed “The Czech Fury”, his glittering career led to nine league titles, and ten cup winners medals. Nedved’s personal trophy cabinet includes six Czech Republic Golden Ball awards,  one Serie A Footballer of the Year, one Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year, three UEFA Team of the Year,  Euro 2004 Team of the Tournament, Golden Foot, and the Ballon D’Or in 2003 – ahead of Thierry Henry and Paolo Maldini.

Andriy Shevchenko

Andriy Shevchenko was 9 years old at the time of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He recalls the lack of communication or warning from the state in the aftermath. Plumes of radioactive isotypes leaked into the atmosphere for 9 days, after a hurried late night power-failure stress test in which safety systems were deliberately turned off. It affected hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, exposed to nuclear particles that to this day mean cancer in children, among other illnesses, are common in the region.

By the time of the accident, Shevchenko was already part of the Dynamo Kyiv youth setup. Before he was 18, he was making his first team debut. This was the best team in Dynamo’s history – under the tutelage of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, they won five straight league titles, spearheaded by Shevchenko and diminutive strike partner Serhiy Rebrov.

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Serhiy Rebrov with Shevchenko at Dynamo Kyiv. Their pace and link up play terrorised defences across the continent

They thumped Barcelona 4-0 at the Camp Nou in 1997 in a game that made the whole of Europe stand up and take note. Shevchenko scored a hattrick.” Dynamo topped their group but were eventually knocked out by Juventus in the quarter-finals.

They would go better one year on in 1998-99. Shevchenko goals against Lens and Arsenal helped Dynamo finish top of their group. Real Madrid were no match in the quarter-finals, where Shevchenko scored all three goals in a 3-1 aggregate win. In the semi-final he added another two against Bayern Munich, where they lost 4-3 on aggregate. Shevchenko finished the Champions League’s top scorer.

At only 22, he had contributed 92 goals over five seasons, earning a move to AC Milan. Lobanovskyi hailed him as “the white Ronaldo”.

He was electric from the off. 24 league goals in his first season, finishing with the golden boot. Another 24 league goals followed the season after. In 2003, he scored the winning penalty as Milan beat Juventus to lift the Champions League. He flew to Kyiv to place his winners’ medal at the grave of Lobanovskyi, who had died a year earlier. The following season, another 24 league goals brought Milan’s first Scudetto for five years.

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Shevchenko celebrates a goal with Hernan Crespo in the Derby della Madonnina vs Inter – he holds the record in this fixture with 14 goals

There was ignominy later in his career after a big money move to Chelsea, put down to injury problems, early decline, and competition for one spot against an unstoppable Didier Drogba. But his exploits at Kyiv and Milan make him one of the best strikers of his generation.

His record speaks for itself. He is ranked as the fifth top goalscorer in all European competitions with 67 goals. With a tally of 175 scored for Milan, Shevchenko is the second most prolific player in the history of the club. He is the all-time top scorer of the Derby della Madonnina (between Milan and Internazionale) with 14 goals. He is Ukraine’s record goalscorer with 48 goals, he won the golden boot twice in the Champions League in 1999 and 2006, and won the Ballon D’or ahead of Deco and Ronaldinho in 2004.  The boy from Kiev had done Lobanovskyi proud. 

Stoichkov led his country to the World Cup semi-finals, Hagi and Shevchenko to the quarters. Nedved took a wonderfully talented Czech Republic side to the semi final of Euro 2004. This summer, it was a surprise to see any of the nations at the Euros despite the expanded format. They are a shadow of their former selves. Bulgaria did not even make it, whilst the other three all finished bottom of their groups. Oh what they would give to have their superstars back. 

Phoenix from the flames – Juventus’ 10 year turnaround

It was arguably the best squad in European football, and the strongest in the clubs illustrious history. For the 2005-06 season, Juventus’ roster included the following:  Alessandro Del Piero, Pavel Nedved, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Trezeguet, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram, Giorgio Chiellini, Patrick Vieira, Adrian Mutu, Mauro Camoranesi and Emerson. Not to mention, the team was led by coach Fabio Capello, winner of 5 Serie A titles, 2 La Liga’s and a Champions League.

Reigning champions from the previous season having finished 7 points clear of AC Milan, they dominated from start to finish. The next closest team, Inter, finished 15 points behind. The “Bianconeri” won 27 games, and lost just once. They boasted the best attack (71 goals) and best defence (24 conceded) in Italy that season. Here they are dismantling Roma 4-1 at the Olimpico with goals from Trezeguet (2), Nedved and Ibrahimovic, and also wins against Empoli,  Inter and Fiorentina.

The two teams for the final of the World Cup in Berlin that summer contained 8 Juventus players. Thuram, Vieira and Trezeguet for France and Buffon, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Camoranesi and Del Piero for winners Italy.

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An all star selection of players celebrate a goal in 2005 – L to R Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Emerson, Giorgio Chiellini, Pavel Nedved, David Trezeguet and Mauro Camoranesi

But then only 5 days after the World Cup victory, Italian football was in crisis. Juventus were the most celebrated of three clubs to be relegated after being implicated in a match-fixing scandal, known as Calciopoli. Lazio and Fiorentina were also relegated, but their sentences were reduced to points deductions on appeal.

An independent led investigation proved (via wiretaps) that Luciano Moggi, Juventus General Manager, had been influencing the selection of referees for his club’s matches. The investigation unearthed the true extent of Moggi’s influence – he appeared to dominate most facets of Italian football, from the selection of referees to the manipulation of transfers. Even the coverage of matches on television fell under his spell, with presenters ordered to boost the image of Juventus by neglecting to show unflattering instant replays.

As part of the Calciopoli findings, Moggi was banned from football for 5 years, and resigned immediately from his post at the club. Juventus would play the 2006-07 season in Serie B, starting with a 9 point deduction (reduced from 30 on appeal).

It is the equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team turning out in the Championship. Juventus were a European superpower – dominating both domestically and in Europe. Despite the multitude of talented opposition in Serie A, they won the Scudetto 7 times in 11 years between 1995-2006. Towards the end of the 90s, they were the best club side on the continent, reaching 3 consecutive Champions League finals between 1996-1998, while it took a Herculean effort from Man United’s all-conquering 1999 side to deny them a place in a fourth consecutive showpiece, in that infamous 3-2 semi-final.

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Edgar Davids, Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane together in Juventus colours

Gary Neville regards them as the best team he ever played against. Writing for the Telegraph last year he made the following remarks:

“When I think of Juventus, it immediately brings back fond, but sobering, memories of my time when we were growing as a team and learning all about how to succeed in the Champions League.

They had everything that I would love to have in my team. Up front, they had the silk of Del Piero, the power of Christian Vieri and a tremendously quick and clinical striker in Alen Boksic.

“We measured ourselves against them and I still look back on the team of del Piero, Zidane, Davids and Deschamps as the best I ever faced.”

Following confirmation of the club’s punishment, Europe’s biggest clubs were able to hand pick their players and at affordable prices.  The exodus soon began. Vieira and Ibrahimovic went to Inter, Zambrotta and Thuram to Barcelona, Cannavaro and Emerson to Real Madrid.

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Juventus before the UEFA Champions League group A match at the Allianz Arena on October 18, 2005 in Munich, Germany.

If you thought the club’s fans would understand the need for players to move on at the peak of their careers, you would be wrong. When Cannavaro, World Cup winning captain, Ballon D’or winner and national hero returned to play for the club in 2009, a banner was unfurled inside the stadium that read:

“Real Madrid dumped you, Napoli repudiated you, only your greed brought you back here.”

He was regarded as a traitor, a player who left the club in its hour of need. But that summer in 2006 it was all about the players who stayed. In the prime of their careers, Buffon, Del Piero, Nedved, Camoranesi and Trezeguet all played, for one season only, as second division players. They won the title. It never appeared spectacular or fun, and with four losses and ten draws it was no procession, but the players who stayed still won the title.

Those who stayed to help the club bounce back are now considered heroes in Turin. Del Piero and Trezeguet in particular – who formed arguably the best strike partnership that we have ever seen – scoring an incredible 461 goals between them (290 for ADP, 171 for Trezeguet), sitting 1st and 4th respectively on the club’s all time top goalscorers list. Here they are in perfect tandem during the 3-1 Champions League semi-final victory over Real Madrid in 2003.

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Trezeguet and Del Piero celebrate one of their 461 goals together in the black and white

Almost 10 years to the day that they opened their Serie B campaign in the coastal town of Rimini, and drew 1-1 in front of 10,500 spectators, Juventus have smashed the Italian transfer record to take Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli for €75 million. 10 years on from the summer that they had to hand over their best players to domestic and European rivals, they are now getting their own back. Higuain scored a staggering 36 league goals last season to win the Capocannoniere, equalling an 87 year old league record. As well as cutting the legs from Napoli, they have done the same to Roma, taking midfield maestro Miralam Pjanic to Turin. They now, once again, have arguably the best squad in Europe, and must consider themselves among the favourites for this season’s Champions League.

Their 10 year resurgence has taken time, patience, and plenty of logical and astute decisions. It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Upon returning to Serie A, the club was almost gripped by paralysis, not knowing whether to slowly rebuild or go all out pursuing the title. There seemed to be no clear vision for the future.

Five managers turned up in the three years that followed promotion. Didier Deschamps, then Claudio Ranieri, Ciro Ferrara and Alberto Zaccheroni all came and went. The club finished 7th in consecutive seasons in 2010 and 2011 and to signify the extent of their shortcomings, were knocked out of the Europa League by Roy Hodgson’s Fulham after losing 4-1 at Craven Cottage.

Failure came in regular doses and players such as Amauri and Christian Poulsen arrived as “high-profile signings”. At this point there seemed very little prospect of the cycle of mediocrity being broken.

But then three answers came at once: a new stadium, a new manager, and Andrea Pirlo.

In their last Champions League campaign at the old stadium (2005-06), the Delle Alpi had an average attendance of just 12,285 in the group stage. Even the visit of Bayern Munich attracted only 16,076.  The capacity was 69,000. The only way was to rip it up and start again.

While the Juventus Stadium’s capacity is significantly reduced at 41,000, it’s almost always full, and its atmosphere is incomparably improved. Today, it’s a blur of energy and noise, with the stands placed just metres away from the pitch. After moving in, Juve lost just two Serie A home games in four seasons.

Then came Antonio Conte as manager, a once tenacious midfielder and fan favourite who played almost 300 games for the club between 1991-2004. He instantly made his mark, switching to a wing-backs formation and, building a 3 man wall of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci, in front of  Gigi Buffon – which still stands today.

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Buffon, Bonucci, Chiellini and Barzagli celebrate a shut out and 3 points at the Etihad

And what of Pirlo. Discarded by AC Milan and presumed over the hill. It was a complete misjudgement and monumental mistake. Flanked by the tireless Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, Pirlo the conductor was pivotal to Juventus’ success, as they ran away with the Scudetto – unbeaten across the entire campaign in 2011/12. Milan came 2nd – 4 points adrift. Pirlo topped the league assists chart with 13.

The club have been on an upward trajectory ever since. They have now won 4 Scudetto’s in a row, added two Coppa Italia’s, and made the Champions League final in 2015 – beating Real Madrid in the semi final before succumbing to Barcelona in an excellent final. Conversely, AC Milan are deep in the doldrums, having finish 8th, 10th and 7th in their last 3 campaigns. They have sold 6,000 season tickets for this coming season, which is half the amount sold by English League Two side Portsmouth.

Marco Tardelli, 1982 World Cup winning hero, likens the Calciopoli punishment to a necessary purging. “It was very bad but it gave the club an opportunity to start again and to clean their image, to be more transparent about what they were doing,” Tardelli says. “The other teams, who acted in the same way but did not get relegated, did not get the clean break. Juventus started again and now they are better.”

The squad has continued to improve, and they have done some remarkable business in the transfer market. The most notorious is Paul Pogba joining on a free from Manchester United. But as well as Pogba and Pirlo joining for free, so too did Sami Khedira (last summer from Real Madrid) and Dani Alves (this summer from Barcelona). Patrice Evra joined for £1.5 million in 2013 and has been a near ever-present since. Andrea Barzagli cost £220,000 from Wolfsburg. Carlos Tevez, a world class player at 29 years old, cost only £6.75 million, and scored 40 goals in 66 games for the club as he took them to within touching distance of a treble in 2015.

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Pogba and Tevez were instrumental in Juventus’ domestic league and cup double and their run to the Champions League final in 14/15

When Tevez expressed his desire to return home to Boca Juniors, Juventus were quick to act, replacing him with compatriot Paulo Dybala from Palermo – a revelation last season with 19 league goals. Mehdi Benatia from Bayern Munich completes the impressive quartet of summer signings along with Pjanic, Alves and Higuain.

Dybala will partner Higuain as the forward line of what will be an incredibly difficult Juventus team to beat this season. When Pogba leaves and possibly Leo Bonucci too, they will be huge losses but the strength in depth is such that they will not suffer.

It is often mentioned that Arsenal have never replaced Patrick Vieira, and Manchester United have never replaced Roy Keane. Whisper it quietly, and while Pogba’s potential is almost exponential, there are some who consider Pjanic to be the better player here and now, in his prime at 26.  He is a ready made replacement, and they will be circa €70 million better off from that swap.

The current Juventus XI below leaves out both Bonucci and Pogba should they go, as well as Evra, Mario Mandzukic, Hernanes, Stephan Lichsteiner and many more. It would be a leap to say that they could beat the crop of 05-06, but one thing is for certain – Juventus are back.

05-06 JUVE    16-17 JUVE

 

French Fancied despite Lost Boys of Génération ’87

It was meant to be so different. The year is 2004. The French senior side would falter in the Quarter Finals to eventual winners Greece in defence of their European title, but the big story was the breakthrough of “Génération ’87”, France’s new batch of stars who had just won the Euro U17 Championships on home soil. This team captivated the imagination of the French public – they had enjoyed so much success but Zidane, Makelele, Thuram and others were all nearing retirement; a new era was required. Génération ’87 was the name given to the successful U17 squad, and when France were named as the host city for Euro 2016, the stars had seemingly aligned. This was a group of players who would all be 28 or 29 come the tournament and presumably at the peak of their powers. There wouldn’t be many that would have predicted that not one of that U17 squad would be lining up for Les Bleus come this summer, and even less could have predicted the complexities behind their omission.

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Ben Arfa and Fabregas during the U17 European Championships final

 

That fledgling XI back in 2004 was spearheaded by Karim Benzema, playing in front of Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez. Ben Arfa would be the tournament’s top scorer, as France beat Spain 2-1 in the final despite the best efforts of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique. Each has been on their own rollercoaster since, which has led to them holidaying, and not playing, this summer.

Nasri, always a divisive character, retired from international football at just 27 after 41 caps. He quit after not making the World Cup squad in 2014, citing “everything” about international football made him unhappy – the scrutiny, manager, even team-mates. Nasri had received a 3 game ban after their Euro 2012 exit for a foul mouth tirade at a journalist, before manager Didier Deschamps raised a civil lawsuit against Nasri’s then girlfriend after she called him a “shit manager” on Twitter following the World Cup squad announcement. Nasri had just enjoyed a fabulous season at Man City, so was perhaps unsurprisingly vexed at his omission, but as Deschamps has gone on to prove, his preference is the collective over the individual.

With Menez, a loss of form and his nomadic journey across Europe have limited his chances of a recall to the senior squad. He has 24 caps, but last played in 2013 and despite a 16 goal season at Milan in 14/15, injury this season has put paid to any faint hopes he might have had of a return.

Ben Arfa is a different beast entirely. The jewel in the crown in 2004, his talent has never been in question, and it was great to see him back in full flow this season at Nice – dazzling defences and scoring incredible goals, 18 for the season in total – leading to speculation of a transfer to Barcelona. This is a man who could not get in the Hull team ahead of David Meyler only 18 months ago. Ben Arfa has only played for France 15 times, despite debuting in 2007, due to injury, loss of form and ultimately a lack of discipline. He could only make the standby list for this summer. In response to questions asking why Ben Arfa had not made the 23, Deschamps responded by saying “My aim was not to pick the best 23 players but to go for a group capable of going very far in the tournament together.”

And then there is Benzema. Real Madrid talisman and Champions League winner but will not be in the blue of France this summer. Many outside of France see it as a huge loss, while many inside consider it a relief; a blessing. A scapegoat of the 2008 Euros squad – branded arrogant and insolent by teammates and the press (along with Nasri), he then wasn’t selected for the 2010 World Cup. When he returned, there was a 16 month international goal drought, in which Benzema suggested the fault lay at the door of his teammates for not supplying him with any good passes / crosses. France’s top goalscorer at the World Cup in Brazil in which he and the team played excellently despite falling to Germany in the Quarter Finals, the stage was set for Benzema to carry his team to glory on home soil this summer. Legal issues involving a prostitution ring and underage girls was forgotten in 2013, but last November, Benzema was arrested by French police for his alleged part in blackmailing fellow France international player Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. He was not considered for selection by Deschamps.

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Benzema, Ben Arfa, Nasri and Menez in action for the senior side

The feeling from most fans is not one of sorrow. They resent his self-styled image as a bad boy from the “banlieues” – the suburbs with a mainly immigrant population that ring most French towns and cities.

“The problem with Benzema is that he wants the glory of playing for France but he doesn’t want to be French,” said a fan in Paris (Benzema is of Algerian descent). He wants to impress his mates in the banlieues with how hard he is and how anti-French, that’s why he doesn’t sing the Marseillaise. We’re all glad he’s out of the team.”

Benzema has a different opinion. In 2011, he told So Foot magazine that, “Basically, if I score, I’m French. And if I don’t score or there are problems, I’m Arab.”

The racial connotations surrounding the national side are of paramount importance at a critical time for France. Deschamps lawyers are once again busy, this time in response to comments from Eric Cantona who suggested players had been left out because of their ethnicity. Cantona said “Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name… Benzema and Ben Arfa, their origins are north African. So, the debate is open.”

But of course Deschamps was the captain of the “rainbow team” – the World Cup winners of 1998, made up of a group of players whose origins lay outside France or from its non-metropolitan regions. The team was the direct product of a new multicultural France. The press dubbed the team “Génération Black, Blanc, Beur” (the black-white-Arab generation).

The winning 1998 World Cup side

While the current squad still contains players of non-French descent, there is a growing list of players who could, but have chosen not to play for France. Those that spring to mind include PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, compatriot Yacine Brahimi (Algeria) and Bayern’s Mehdi Benatia (Morocco). All born and raised in France, including stints at the infamous Clarefontaine academy for both Brahimi and Benatia, each has decided to represent other nations. This is not to say that those mentioned should have chosen Les Bleus, but it is telling that more are making the decision to not play for France in comparison with 20 years ago.

The players mutiny during the World Cup in 2010 caused a huge disconnent between players and fans. The mutiny  was privately blamed by some on black or Muslim players, including the French convert to Islam, Franck Ribéry. Speculation was that the team had fragmented over the lack of the football team’s “national identity”.

Speculation that the FFF were discussing limiting the number of places for minority players at Clarefontaine caused further unease. Players as young as 12 would have been passed over to make room for more white players. The proposed quotas sparked an uproar, with Benoit Assou-Ekotto, born in France to Cameroonian parents, asserting “I have no feeling for the France national team; it just doesn’t exist,”

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New hope in the form of Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet

Yet despite everything that has happened to compromise the quality of this summer’s 23 man squad – France go into the tournament optimistic of success, and rightly so. A young team with an abundance of talent, led by Paul Pogba, a boy from the banlieues of Paris. While injuries to number 1 centre back Raphael Varane and probable starter in midfield Lassana Diarra have caused concern, it is still a squad packed with quality, particularly in attack. Two of the Premier League’s best players this season, Antony Martial and Dimitri Payet are rumoured to be fighting out for the final starting place for Friday’s opener, while Kingsley Coman will have to settle for a role off the bench despite a breakthrough season at Bayern. The trio of Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi will be the most dynamic midfield at the tournament.

They have still had to leave players out. As well as Ben Arfa, the tournament comes too soon for Ousmane Dembele, widely regarded as the best teenager in Europe, having just earned a move to Borussia Dortmund following a great season at Rennes. We in England have been saying how Jamie Vardy “has” to start for England after a 24 goal campaign whilst Kevin Gameiro (29 goals and Europa League winner at Sevilla), Benzema (28 goals) and Alexandre Lacazette (23 goals) have all been deemed surplus to requirements by Deschamps.

There is no doubt that this is a crucial tournament for France. Since the debacle of 2010, the French football supporting public in general had fallen out of love with the national team. During the match against England at Wembley in November, and then again in March, when the French thrillingly beat Holland 3-2 in Amsterdam, that love restored. Let’s hope their star studded squad are ready to put on a show, and unite a nation in need of something to celebrate.

Simeone at Atletico – Transfer Triumphs and Tactical Nous

Diego Simeone is a winner. As a player he won 2 Copa America’s with Argentina in a 106 cap career, and won both the Scudetto and Coppa Italia at a time when Italy was the most competitive league in the world. Perhaps most impressively, he was part of the 95/96 Atletico Madrid side that completed the La Liga & Copa Del Rey double. When he returned as manager in December 2011, he was already in the hearts of the Calderon faithful. What he has gone on to achieve in 4 and a half years at the club is nothing short of extraordinary. He stands on the brink of immortality with his old stomping ground, the San Siro, the venue for this season’s Champions League final.

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Simeone enjoying a victory in his playing days at Lazio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While success was hard to come by for Atleti between Simeone’s playing days and his return as manager, they were not without their fair share of superstars. In the late 90s, they had Christian Vieri –  24 goals in 24 games before a big money move back to Serie A and Lazio, then Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, scorer 33 goals in his only season in which Atletico were relegated under the tutelage of Claudio Ranieri. It would be Fernando Torres who would fill the void after a relegation clause sent Hasselbaink to Chelsea. When Torres left, in came Diego Forlan, then Sergio Aguero, then Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Mario Mandzukic and now Antoine Griezmann. You would be foolish to think it is going to stop there – with Angel Correa and Lucas Vietto at 21 an 22 respectively, waiting in the wings for their opportunity.

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This strike partnership of Forlan and Aguero could only take Atletico to 9th and 7th place finishes before Simone’s arrival

Looking at Atletico’s conveyor belt of forwards lends a snapshot into their transfer success in recent years. Vieri went for £18.75 million, Hasselbaink for £16 million. Torres for £28 million, Aguero £38 million, Falcao  £45 million, Costa £32 million, Mandzukic £16 million. Yet with each sale and departure they have continued to improve – a staggering feat, making big re-sale profits in almost every instance. This makes a mockery of what we have heard in England for the last decade – particularly in North London – where acting as feeder clubs to Manchester City or Real Madrid has offered the excuse for a lack of progression or silverware.

Even when they have splashed big money on players, such as Jackson Martinez, and it hasn’t worked out, they have reacted quickly and smartly to serve their interests. Martinez arrived last summer for 35 million euros, and after two goals was off to China within 6 months for a 7 million euro profit. Simeone deserves a huge amount of credit for his ability to re-build teams, replace seemingly irreplaceable players and continue driving the club forward.

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Simeone in his second spell as a player with Atletico, captained by current and rejuvenated forward Fernando Torres.

The tactical element of Simeone’s management is well known and consistently the most talked about subject – no more so than the clash of styles that became the main talking point before, during and after Atletico’s semi final victory over Bayern Munich. “Cholismo” triumphing over Guardiola, the godfather of possession football. Atlético’s tactical setup consists of a template of pressing traps, defensive solidity and effective counter-attacking. But this isn’t revolutionary – its a style of play similar to that which has brought Jose Mourinho equal amounts of success and criticism for over a decade. “If you have the ball, you are more likely to make a mistake”. 

On the surface, Atlético’s defensive approach appears uncomplicated enough. They defend deep, pack the centre of the pitch and force teams to go wide. Yet there is something more. Simeone has created a spider’s web of a defence so drilled it knows precisely when to shut down passing lanes, squeeze space and strangle danger-men. Where his approach differs from Mourinho is that he allows his full-backs, Felipe Luís and Juanfran, to race down the flanks and deliver balls into the box for Torres, Griezmann et al. 

Simeone arrived in December 2011. The previous season, Atleti had finished 7th – 38 points behind Barcelona and 15 points above the relegation zone. They had been 9th the year before. But when “El Cholo” landed, he already had Radamel Falcao at his disposal, fresh from a 17 goal Europa League campaign with Porto, a player at the height of his powers and a natural goalscorer. Simeone was an instant success, guiding the Rojiblancos to the Europa League final – past Lazio, Besiktas and Valencia. They would beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final, with two stunning Falcao goals paving the way to victory. He would win the golden boot for the second successive campaign with 12, 34 goals for the season in total. More silverware was soon to follow – a 4-1 drubbing of Chelsea in the European Super Cup in August 2012, via a Falcao hattrick.

The transformation in this results business in such a short space of time under Simeone was there for all to see. In his first full season – he had moved Aletico up to 3rd, finishing 10 points clear of 4th and adding yet more silverware – coming from behind to beat rivals Real Madrid 2-1 in the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabeu. 3 major trophies in under 18 months.

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Falcao and Diego Costa in partnership. Very much second fiddle, Costa became the main man on his departure, with 27 La Liga goals in 2013-14.

The piece de resistance would come the following season. Falcao moved on after 70 goals in 91 appearances. A seemingly over the hill David Villa would be his only replacement at 32 and for only £1.5 million. Jose Gimenez was bought for £600k, Saul Niguez promoted from the youth ranks. Net spend is a punchline with which to ridicule Arsenal fans but in the summer of 2013, Atleti made £23 million transfer profit.  In Simeone’s first summer in charge the year previous, he had spent just £3 million.  Amassing 90 points, Atletico marched to their first La Liga title since Simeone had won it as a player. They were minutes away from winning the Champions League before Sergio Ramos took the game to extra time and ultimately beyond Simeone’s embattled soldiers.

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Diego Godin celebrates the goal that clinched the La Liga title for Atletico at Camp Nou

The fact that Atlético smashed the seemingly impregnable La Liga duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid  is truly remarkable. It is impossible to fluke your way to a league championship, and for Atlético to end up victorious in spite of the chronic structural and financial disadvantages faced, is something that was largely without precedent in the history of the game, until Leicester’s success this season. They did it while de-clothing and ridiculing all of the shite that we hear today about player rotation and prioritising one trophy over another. Simeone did it with a core group of 14/15 players, with next to no rotation, few substitutions, and all while also gunning for the Champions League title.

Two stalwarts of that side, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis earned big money moves to Chelsea. Thibaut Courtois went with them, having only ever been on loan. Antoine Griezmann, along with Mandzukic and keeper Jan Oblak would arrive. I recall thinking what a shame it was that Griezmann had chosen Atletico over other admirers. This was a team surely on its way down after a season like no other, and never to be repeated. Griezmann had been showcasing his talents in Sociedad with a 20 goal season alongside Carlos Vela.

How foolish that view seems now. 25 goals in his first season and 31 not out in this campaign. Barcelona and Real were taken to the wire in La Liga only for Atleti to falter on the penultimate weekend at Levante. But Simeone is on the way to his second Champions League final in 3 years, having de-throned Barcelona and stifled Pep’s Bayern.

The squad for Milan will be unrecognisable from the final two seasons ago. Arda Turan, Mandzukic, Miranda and Toby Alderweireld followed Costa, Courtois, Diego and David Villa out the door. But there are new stars. Jan Oblak has been a revelation, Jose Gimenez and Saul are among two of the most exciting youngsters on the continent. In Yannick Carrasco, they have blistering pace to ignite a counter attack. They are not just a defensive unit – in Koke and Griezmann they have genuine attacking superstars. The resurrection of Fernando Torres is yet another string to add to the bow of Simeone. The romantic in me wonders whether he is willing to take a gamble and trying the same with Falcao this summer.

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Whatever happens in Milan, Simeone’s success with Atletico is unparallaled. While not all admire his tactical blueprint nor his antics on the touchline, the manner in which he has instilled a freshness has been impressive. New players have been integrated, including exciting young ones, but they have bought wholesale into the basic tenets of Simeone’s style – the drive and intensity that have underpinned his glorious four-and-a-half year tenure.

Who would bet against them come Saturday? This is a group of players who possess an unshakeable belief in their manager; a manager who knows how to drag something visceral and primal out of his players. What they lack in beauty is made up for by the intensity of their passion, the emotion of their football and the delight they take in bloodying the noses of Europe’s super clubs.

The definition of a team that is more than the sum of its parts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talented and Troubled – The Boys from Brazil

“The game changer for me was Nike,” said Tim Vickery of the BBC and South American football expert, “in the old days, Brazil was something which only ever figured once every four years, during a World Cup. Nike got involved in 1996 and 1997. Suddenly the profile of the national team went right through the roof.”

All of the Brazil team were suddenly known back in England, helped by some superb adverts including this one in an airport ahead of the 1998 World Cup. There was such an increase in interest and the team were able to ride that wave. 

A team of global superstars, who made it to 3 World Cup finals in a row between 1994 and 2002, winning twice. But the story of the individual is somewhat different. The premature decline of careers is an odd but recurring theme. For the majority, their path leads home—their peak years in Europe all too often ending abruptly. But why?

There is no doubt that Brazil has had some of the greatest individual talents on the planet in recent memory. Between 1994-2007, the Ballon D’or went to a Brazilian 8 times – from Romario to Kaka via Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. But for many, their ability to stay at the top level can be questioned. There are extenuating circumstances of course, particularly for Ronaldo and the ACL injuries he suffered to both knees. But for Ronaldinho and Kaka their careers begin to decline at 27 and 28 respectively, a time when players are meant to be at their peak. Robinho was once the most sought after player in Europe but tailed off as early as 25. The examples are plentiful – an abundance of talent that was either never fulfilled or ended up being short lived. Diego Ribas, Denilson, Adriano, Elano – they all fall into that category. The less said about Alex Pato’s career post Milan the better – including his current farcical spell at Chelsea, which smacks of nothing more than a gentleman’s agreement between club and agent. He’s a world away from the player that scored this goal in the Camp Nou. 

There are anomalies of course. Cafu and Roberto Carlos, Brazil’s two buccaneering full backs had long and distinguished careers – both playing at Europe’s top table into their late 30s. But the general trend for Brazil’s superstars is that they haven’t stayed the course, certainly not in Europe, all too often. What role does Brazilian culture play in this?

Socrates, Brazilian demi-god, midfield star of the 1982 World Cup side and two-pack-a-day-man was once quoted as saying, “I found Europe very regimented. Everything is so correct and organised. But there’s more to life than football, and sometimes I didn’t want to train, but to hang out with friends, party or have a smoke. They didn’t appreciate that.”

“Every case is different, but there could well be a common denominator here,” Vickery has said. “The idea in Brazilian society of consuming is very strong. This idea of what you are is what you have—you show off your material possessions. These players grew up in a time before the expansion of credit and mass consumption. So they’re spending their youth as a kid outside the sweet shop—looking at it and not able to get in. Once they started earning large sums of money they could consume whatever they liked. So after a certain amount of time, some players simply don’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to be a top professional footballer anymore.”

It is likely that outlook has contributed to the early downturn in many of the Selecao stars careers. It may also go some way to explain their substantial mercenary contingent. Hulk is a primary example, and Willian was at both Shakhtar Donetsk and Anzhi Makhachkala before arriving in West London. Jo, Ramires and Alex Teixeira are all earning mega bucks playing for the same team in China, and by the looks of his debut Teixeira is not going to struggle for goals in the Super League.

The Prince and the Animal

Romario has been part of some of the best strike partnerships in recent memory – with Stoichkov at Barcelona and both Bebeto and R9 for the Selecao. But his partnership with Edmundo aka “The Animal” is the most intriguing. The self-proclaimed ‘Bad Boys of Brazilian Football’, a combination of egotistical men with explosive tempers battling for supremacy could be compared to a Shakespearean plot – but this was real life – and whilst on-field the pair’s lethal goal scoring made them near-undroppable, away from match days, the men were unprofessional, unbalanced and often inebriated. They could be harmonious both on and off the pitch, whether it be dismantling Manchester United at the World Club Championships in 2000 (with a helping hand from Gary Neville) or releasing their own rap duet. But trouble was never far away. 

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Edmundo (10) and Romario (11) together at Vasco de Gama

It didn’t last at Vasco. Romario was in electric form scoring 41 times in 46 games, and with Edmundo not keen on playing second fiddle, it was Romario who moved on. Following his exit, Romario said: “They say his dream is to play alongside me in the national team. My dream is to never play with him again.”

Romario was a goal scoring machine; a square meter was like an acre to him. This goal against Real Madrid for Barcelona is extraordinary. Known as Baixinho, or “Shorty” in Brazil, he would often stay out all night womanizing and turn up to training having not slept. He claims to have bedded over 1000 women and scored over 1,000 goals. Quite the double. His love for night-time, women and parties stirred many problems from the early stages of his career, when he was kicked off the national U-20 team in 1985 after he was caught running around naked in the corridors and urinating off the balcony in the hotel where the team was staying. 

By 2004, the pair joined forces once more at Fluminense, the third Rio de Janeiro based club to bring the duo together. After signing, Romario had declared: “When I was born, God pointed at me and said “That’s the man”. Age was clearly not dampening his confidence. Older? Certainly. Greyer? Definitely. Wiser? Questionably. The club fired him after he had a fight with the coach, and attacked a fan who had thrown six live chickens at him during training. He went back to Vasco, and scored 30 goals, winning the golden boot. By this point he was 39 years old. 

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Romario getting into the party spirit after a victory

Edmundo was no shrinking violet. He changed club 17 times in an 18 year career due to his inability to get on with anyone around him, including opponents, but he had considerable ability. Vasco’s 3rd goal against United shows that much. A brief spell in Europe came at Fiorentina in the late 90s, forming a mercurial attacking trio with Rui Costa and Gabriel Batistuta. With the club top of the Scudetto in February, and as the club’s only fit striker with Batigol sidelined, Edmundo couldn’t resist the lure of the Rio Carnival and flew home mid-season, missing 4 games – none of which Fiorentina won. 

In an attempt to change his image, Edmundo held a party for his one year old son and invited the press. He hired a circus and to impress photographers he posed for pictures while giving a chimpanzee named Pedrinho beer. Global outrage ensued along with a fine from the government’s environmental agency. 

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Edmundo and Pedrinho

Joga Bonito

The care-free and relaxed approach to the game of several Selecao stars was a huge factor in the popularity of the national team and its leading lights. This advert from 2006 encapsulates that perfectly. They expressed themselves on the pitch, showboating, playing with a smile, indicative of the Brazilian way. They were global icons, every young player wanted to be like them. 

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Brazil’s glittering frontline for the 2006 World Cup in Germany

There is no disputing Ronaldinho’s achievements as a player having won a world cup and joining an elite group of players such as Cafu to have won both the Champions League and Copa Libertadores. At one point Ronaldinho was the greatest player in the world and one of the best ever to watch. But his time at Barca was cut short by his lifestyle, the club didn’t want him to lead the young prodigy Messi astray, and he left at the age of 28. He was only on the Milan party circuit for a few years before moving on from there looking less and less the player he was. It was then back in the freedom of his home country at Flamengo the club set up a hotline called Disque-Dentuco (Dial Toothy), designed for fans to let the club know which nightclub he was in that evening, presumably to lure him back home to bed. 

With more than 350 career goals in club football, mostly at the very top level, and a return of 62 goals in 97 appearances for Brazil, Ronaldo’s place in the pantheon of modern greats is secure. He won his first Fifa World Player of the Year award at the tender age of 20 in 1996, honoured three times in total, won the Ballon d’Or twice, and has 15 World Cup Finals goals. 

 

 

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Il Fenomeno in full flow

 

But Il Fenomeno always struggled with the balance of his commitment to the game and his lifestyle outside of it. There is a fabulous rumour that whilst at Real Madrid, they had to put a lock on the freezer at the training ground as Ronaldo kept eating all of the Magnum ice-creams.  

Adriano was another who battled with his weight, his lack of work ethic ending an enormously promising career in Serie A by 26. At Parma, he struck up a fearsome partnership with Adrian Mutu, presumably not a good influence off the field, which took him to Inter Milan. From July 2004 to June 2005 Adriano scored 40 goals for club and country. He was unplayable, unstoppable and utterly irrepressible. He was also not one to mess with. 

After his father died, his commitment to football wavered and it was that troublesome combination that was the downfall of a player who to this day should have been leading the Brazilian line alongside Neymar at the World Cup in his homeland. Alcohol and depression played a large part. He has even been linked in the media to funding a well-known drug cartel. Allegedly on Christmas Eve 2011 at 6am after leaving a club, Adriano accidentally shot a woman in the hand whilst playing around with his bodyguard’s pistol. He hasn’t officially retired, and is on the books at Miami United but has only played once in the past 4 years. He is still only 34 years old. 

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Adriano upon signing for Corinthians in 2012

 There are many more examples. Take Denilson, who was hailed as potentially Brazil’s best winger since Garrincha when he broke the world transfer record in 1998 with a £21.5m move to Real Betis. But in seven years, he scored 13 goals in 186 appearances and went out on loan following Betis’ relegation to the Spanish Segunda Division in 1999/00. His time at the top was over by 29, and the rest of his career was spent in the US, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

And what of the Santos contingent of Diego, Robinho and Elano. Diego, a player of precocious talent and capable of the improbable – ultimately failed to fulfil his potential, particularly at Juventus where he moved to for big money and was expected to replace Alessandro Del Piero. He lasted only a season, before moving to Wolfsburg, where he was fined over €600,000 for disciplinary issues. Robinho’s career was effectively finished after one good season at Man City. He’s played 99 times for Brazil but his club journey has been marked by inconsistency and a lack of discipline. Elano was last spotted in India, arrested for allegedly assualting the owner of FC Goa after the 2015 Indian Super League Final. 

As for the Selecao’s current crop. The flair and flamboyance remains through Neymar, Douglas Costa and Felipe Anderson. But their World Cup side was littered with functional players – Oscar, Fred, Ramires and so on. With Dunga back in charge, the chances of seeing a free-flowing and exuberant Brazil team in the near future seems unlikely. As for Neymar, with a frankly ridiculous 46 goals for his country already at 24, can he stay the course unlike so many others? Let’s hope so. 

Diminishing Returns and The Premier League’s New “Middle Class”

What a season we are experiencing in the Premier League. Genuine unpredictability, innovation to the fore, promoted teams riding on the back of momentum, the established elite being outplayed on a regular basis. Why?

The theory of diminishing returns is a micro-economic concept that suggests adding factors of production to an already effective process will, over time, yield lower incremental per-unit returns. Put simply, and applying this to football, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Premier League’s best clubs to improve, and maintain the gap between them and the “New Middle Class”, regardless of their financial clout. Is this just a freak campaign and normality will be restored next season? Or have we reached a key, transitional period in the Premier League era?

There is no doubt that the new Premier League TV deal is one of the major catalysts for this season’s excitement where everyone is seemingly capable of beating everyone. The next TV deal, for which UK rights alone were announced in February as an unprecedented £5.136bn, again from Sky and BT for the live rights, do not begin until next season. A further £3bn is expected to have been accumulated by then for the overseas rights, making a staggering £8bn total for the clubs from 2016 to 2019.

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Infographic after 13 games highlighting the season’s unpredictability

What does this mean in relation to diminishing returns? Well, when more clubs than ever before can afford very good players, those who can afford the elite players only need those elite players to be injured, or off form, or not as good as they hoped, to make the playing field even. Hence we have a properly competitive league and, at the moment, Big Money is losing. When the bottom club from this season earns more TV money than most of Europe’s top clubs with the exception of Real Madrid and Barcelona but including Bayern Munich, there is going to be a compression effect. The difference then comes down to coaching, motivation and hard work.

That is what is happening this season. There has to be a limit to what money can buy you in football, given the unpredictability of the transfer market. So you can pay £30 million for a player – is that player so much better than the one a poorer club buys for £15 million? Maybe he is at his peak, but maybe that’s not often enough. Maybe the pace and power of the Premier League doesn’t suit him. Maybe he doesn’t suit his new team’s style. Maybe the vicissitudes of form and fitness levels the playing field.

Examples of where a club has found great value for money in a player, contrasted to huge amounts spent on a seemingly inferior counterpart, are almost never ending. Leicester’s bargains in Mahrez, Vardy and Kante are oft mentioned, but what about others? Liverpool bought a 26 year old Adam Lallana for £25 million while across Stanley Park, Everton paid only £4.2 million for 21 year old Gerard Deulofeu. 19 year old Delle Alli cost Spurs £5 million. West Ham paid £12 million for one of the players of the season this year in Dimitri Payet, while Manchester United spent £25 million on Memphis Depay.

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Gerard Deulofeu

Southampton’s business ahead of the 2014/15 season was a classic example of what good scouting and a well thought out transfer policy can provide. Luke Shaw went for £27 million, replaced by Ryan Bertrand for a third of the price. The money made on Shaw, Lallana, Lovren, Chambers and Lambert was re-invested in Dusan Tadic (£9 mill), Graziano Pelle (£8 mill) and Sadio Mane (£10.5 mill). With still in excess of £25 mill net spend, they finished 7th in the league.

Admittedly for every success story there is a club that is getting it all wrong. The less said about Sunderland’s transfer business the better. Newcastle’s pursuit of replacing the departed talent of Cabaye and Ben Arfa led them to the £12 million purchase of Remy Cabella, and deciding not to learn their lesson, a year later spent the same amount on Florian Thauvin. Payet cost the same price, and from the same league, but the difference between him and those two players and their ability to adapt to this league could not be more marked.

Manchester City’s pursuit of a centre back partner for Vincent Kompany is a classic case in point. All notion of sense and logic has disappeared at the club as they again and again plunder millions on players who do not seem up to the task, while Spurs paid £11 million for Toby Alderweireld – a far more reasonable sum for a player they knew was capable of performing in the Premier League. City are not alone – Manchester United have already rather brilliantly proven how £250 million can be spent to almost no effect.

But it’s much harder for the very best clubs to improve. The result is that the quality of the top four is static, relative to the big leaps that can fairly easily be taken by the Premier League’s rest.  The point is not that the gap is ever going to close, but that it is narrower than it has been for over a decade. For the league as a spectacle, that can only be a good thing.

Look at what Stoke City have achieved under Mark Hughes – the strides they have made in the last couple of years. Their front line is made up of 3 ex-wonderkids in Shaqiri (Bayern), Bojan (Barca) and Arnautović (Inter), who lost their way but are now flourishing under Hughes in a team playing fast, attractive football. They are part of this “New Middle Class” along with Palace, Southampton and others. The bourgeoisie are making inroads on the aristocracy.

This is the worst nightmare for the likes of Abramovich or any other billionaire corporate owner because if your money can’t guarantee you success anymore, then you might have to start relying on other things, such as high quality scouting, good youth training and stability. But the biggest, richest clubs are no good at that stuff, really, and they’ve never had to be since being rich. Like a lot of wealthy people, they mostly use price tags to define quality, not knowledge.

If you want the best, go and buy the best – and that’s really the only mantra they know. Chelsea did it just over a decade ago – buy Makelele, Carvalho, Robben, Drogba and win back to back titles. Simple. But what if that’s run its course? Maybe very big money has stopped working. Are these clubs going to change though? Or will we see huge bids tabled for Ighalo, Vardy and Mahrez this transfer window? Transfer bids which more likely than not lack the oversight as to whether the player suits the club and the club suits the player. Like when Liverpool paid £35milion for Andy Carroll, or £32.5 million for Benteke, despite a lack of wingers at the club and a reluctance to put the ball in the box.

You still need to get a lot of other things right, but it means that when a top club’s best players are injured or off-form, the poorer clubs’ best players are good enough to beat the richer club. That for me is the biggest change I have seen this season. Growing up, and looking back to around the turn of the millenium, it felt like the only time Manchester United or Arsenal got beaten by one of the smaller teams in the league was through a backs to the wall, gritty performance – requiring a fair bit of luck and some resolute defending to secure the 3 points. This season, we are seeing mid table teams genuinely outplay the so called big guns – and it has happened to all of them. Stoke’s performances against both Man City and Man United, Bournemouth’s back to back wins over United and Chelsea, Watford’s 3-0 demolition of Liverpool, and Southampton’s 4-0 obliteration of Arsenal on Boxing Day. That’s before you even look at Leicester’s games or West Ham’s away wins at the Etihad, Anfield and the Emirates.

The environment is changing and the result is the Premier League is probably more competitive than it has been in a decade or so. There is a danger it could have a negative impact on European performance as constant attrition leads to weariness – which we have already seen in the Champions League this season – which in turn has lead to complaints about the quality of our best teams.

But quality is hard to define and, besides, which is preferable – a league in which one team lead 2nd by 19 points after 19 games, as in France with PSG, or one in which no one has a clue what is going to happen? With only 10 points separating 1st and 9th at the halfway point – I know which one I prefer.

 

“The New Maradona” – The Nearly Men

The “New Maradona” is a well worn tagline since the retirement of the diminutive genius in 1997. Several players have been burdened with the title, and there is even a dedicated Wikipedia page to the list. The feats of Leonel Messi over the past decade mean that the tagline is all but extinct, but it is worth remembering those who fell in between the careers of the two superstars. One may be forgiven for thinking from the title that the players on this list could be considered as failures, but my intention is to highlight the opposite, and all have had stellar careers in their own right.

Ariel Ortega (El Burrito)

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The defining moment in Ortega’s career came during a hot summer’s afternoon in Marseille. July 4th, 1998, Argentina vs Holland at the Stade Velodrome in the World Cup quarter final. The team’s playmaker in the infamous no10 shirt, Ortega had impressed in the early rounds and was considered a front runner for player of the tournament. With the score 1-1 Ortega, receiving a pass from Juan Sebastian Veron, turned and unleashed a drive from fully 35 yards that cannoned off the post. With their opponents reduced to 10 men, Argentina were in the ascendancy as the game progressed to extra time. Ortega, taking the ball in the box, went over the outstretched leg of Jaap Stam, and was about to be booked for diving, but yellow turned to red when Ortega rose to his feet and headbutted the considerably taller Dutch goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar. The game is of course most fondly remembered for Dennis Bergkamp’s winning goal to cap arguably the game of the tournament, and Argentina’s tournament was over. Fine margins.

El Burrito, aka “The Little Donkey” was a mercurial talent with a penchant for the lob. A typical Argentinian exponent of the art of the gambeta, “Orteguita” delighted many with his fancy footwork, and his pure love for the game was as contagious as it was evident. His career started and ended at River Plate, with spells across Europe in between at Valencia, Sampdoria, Parma and Fenerbahche. Infamously tempermental, Ortega struggled to settle and despite impressing on the pitch wherever he went, only last a season at each European club he represented. His time in Fenerbahche was cut short when he failed to return from international duty in 2003 for over 2 months, culminating in a 19 month ban and a hefty fine set by FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Committee. River was where he particularly excelled. He won 1 Copa Libertadores and 6 Primera Division titles, the first of those coming in 1991 and the last in 2008. In the club’s glorious 2000-01 season, he was hailed as one of the fantastic four little dribblers – along with Pablo Aimar, Juan Pablo Angel and Javier Saviola.

Ortega played 87 times for Argentina, scoring 17 goals. He was called to carry the heavy honour of wearing Argentina’s No10 shirt as early as 1994, after Diego Maradona’s ephedrine-induced retirement from the US World Cup. As Maradona’s substitute throughout the qualifiers, the two became close. “Everyone thinks El Burrito is a little idiot but I think he is very intelligent,” Maradona said of him years later. His last appearance for his country came in 2010, with Maradona now manager of the national team. It was 7 years after his penultimate outing, and 17 years since his debut; a tribute to Ortega’s longevity at the highest level of the game.

Despite battling alcoholism throughout his career, El Burrito played until he was 39, ending his career with a testimonial in which 60,000 fans packed into El Monumental to bid goodbye to their hero. A talent who many consider did not live up to his potential, Ortega will be remembered with the utmost fondness by River’s fans.

Juan Roman Riquelme (El Torero)

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Very occasionally a player emerges in world football who, in style and method, defies categorisation. He is the player who invents his own idiom, plays in a manner and at a tempo that is entirely his own. “El Torero”, “El Senor Football”, “El Eterno No10”, The Lazy Magician – Juan Roman Riquelme is quite possibly my favourite player of all time. An artist imprisoned in a world of athletes. The way that he dictated play for Argentina in 2006, particularly in their performances against Ivory Coast and Serbia, is something that will live long in the memory. Never before or since have I witnessed a team with world class players all over the pitch play to the beat of one man. It’s personified by the Cambiasso goal, and its some of the finest football I’ve ever seen played.

A revered player who made his first division debut for Boca Juniors in 1996 at 18, he would become one of the most emblematic wearers of the iconic No10 jersey, gaining supporters and critics in equal measure as he took a rebel stand off the pitch and stayed true to his pace and style on it, no matter what.

“He broke the mould. Understanding, mental speed, respect for the game and love for the ball. I will miss you Roman,” tweeted the journalist Juan Pablo Varsky to his 579,000 followers. The veteran sports columnist Horacio Pagani described Riquelme as “the second inventor of football; the first were the English over one hundred years ago”. And the former Real Madrid player turned TV pundit Quique Wolff suggested Boca retire the No10 shirt as a mark of respect.

Players such as Riquelme embody the reason I love football. Romantic notions of the role of the No10 in Argentinian football say this is the position where the thinking takes place: the player who pauses. He was a cultural artefact. In many ways he was the consummate individualista. He could flourish only in teams built entirely around him, but could exist solely in those that functioned as a collective. His lack of physical prowess made him unconditionally dependent on his team-mates. Following his return to Boca in 2007, there developed at la Bombonera the ‘Law of Riquelme’, which stipulated that if any player saw those feet, you gave him the ball, regardless of the situation. They would invariably get it back, but only to return it to its rightful owner. The ball belonged to Riquelme.

His critics often dwell on the fact that he did not run much and in Argentina many of his opponents have labelled him “pecho frío”, literally cold-chested, apparently a phrase born among the gauchos to refer to a horse unwilling to pull a heavy cart and much used in football to describe players who go missing or fail to give the impression of making much of an effort. He had gone from Boca to Barcelona only to find a manager who did not want him and rarely played him. His departure from Boca had been acrimonious, as he fought hard for either a wage that reflected his contribution to the club or the possibility of moving freely to an employer who would do so. He took a public stand against the then president, now governor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri – the eldest of nine siblings from a humble neighbourhood confronting the heir to one of the richest and most powerful families in Argentina.

Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was in 2006, when his presence at Villarreal put the small club on the European map, and his steady, slow leadership of a complex orchestra was at the heart of some of the most wonderful World Cup football Argentina have ever performed. Riquelme can be said to represent the raw essence of the potrero – the vacant lots where the little boys of Argentina nurture their desire for the ball – and would describe his working week as Monday to Saturday “because on Sundays I can’t really call it work, I enjoy playing the matches so much”. He has lived and played by his own code, which many have found unpalatable, remaining loyal to childhood friends, his neighbourhood, his family and his clubs.

The other 3 players on this list are all River Plate legends. Riquelme is Boca Juniors’ favourite son. He played for them between 1996-2002, and again between 2007-2014. He played over 380 games for the club, scoring 92 goals. He won the Primera Division 5 times, firstly in 1998 and lastly in 2011. There were 3 Copa Libertadores title in 2000, 2001 and 2007. He captained a star studded Argentina Olympics team in 2008 in Beijing where they won the gold, beating Brazil 3-0 in the semi finals on the way. He was voted Argentine footballer of the year in 2000, 2001, 2008 and 2011. Into the twilight of his career, he only appeared to be getting better.

In 2014 he joined Argentinos Juniors, where he had started as a kid player, and secured the club’s return to the First Division last December. Even the most diehard River fans, whose hatred of the Boca emblem often clouds their judgment, found this a noble and humbling football statement. Once this feat had been accomplished, Riquelme retired, aged 36.

Pablo Aimar (El Mago)

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As a youth, compatriot Leonel Messi stated in 2002 that Aimar was one of his biggest influences as a player, which tells you all you need to know about El Mago’s talent. Like two others on this list, Aimar began at River Plate, and was part of the magic four alongside Saviola and Ortega. Whilst Saviola may have taken the plaudits from the World Youth Championships in 2001, 4 years previous Aimar also led Argentina to the title, winning the Bronze Ball in the process.

Performances at River were enough to convince Valencia to pay £13.7 million for him in 2001. At 22 years old, Aimar, with his big mop of hair and outrageous ability, threatened to take over the world. After a particularly impressive performance in a 2-0 defeat of Barcelona in 2002 the Spanish newspapers christened him “The Little Angel”. He was seen as the perfect link between midfield and attack, creating chance after chance with his clever movement and lightening-quick feet.

The Valencia side that Aimar joined were a special team. Alongside players including Santiago Canizares, Roberto Ayala, Vicente, Ruben Baraja, Gaizika Mendieta and compatriot Kily Gonzalez, they disrupted the Madrid/Barca stronghold, winning La Liga in 2002 and 2004. In that time they also won the Uefa Cup in 2004, and missed out on penalties in the Champions League final in 2001 to Bayern Munich. Aimar played over 200 games for the club between 2001-2006, a regular in the no10 shirt for arguably Valencia’s greatest ever team.

Reminding yourself how talented he was by watching old clips of him is a thrill and, yes, there is every chance that this chipped rabona against Levante in 2005 that clipped the inside of the far post and somehow stayed out was not intended to be an effort on goal. But it was Pablo Aimar. It would be nice to think that he meant it and while the angle suggests otherwise.

Mainly because of injuries, it did not quite work out as it should have done for Aimar. He moved to Zaragoza in 2006, but was unable to stop their relegation in 2008. He moved to Benfica where his career saw a resurgance, winning 4 league cups and 1 league title. In the 2009–10 campaign, Aimar was reunited with former River Plate teammate Javier Saviola, who was let go by Real Madrid following his own injury struggles. The two combined as double trequartista to support striker Óscar Cardozo, along with fellow Argentine Ángel Di Maria on the wing. Saviola said of Aimar, “I have never played with another player who knows where I’m going to be or just lifts his head knowing where I’m going to.” Benfica ended a 5 year wait for the league title that season.

Aimar earned 52 caps for Argentina over 10 years, representing the nation in two World Cups and as many Copa América tournaments, as well as a Confederations Cup. He reached the final of the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2007 Copa América with the Argentine national side. Aimar returned to River in January 2015 for pre-season training, but his last competitive match was over a year ago and so the chances of us seeing him again are increasingly slim.

Javier Saviola (El Conejo)

Saviola

Still plying his trade in one of Europe’s top divisions for Hellas Verona, there are not many who can compete with Saviola when it comes to a distinguished list of previous employers. His career has taken him to Verona via Barcelona, Real Madrid, Monaco, Sevilla, Benfica and Olympiacos – following his explosion onto the football scene at River Plate between 1998 and 2001, where he scored 45 goals in 86 games.

Few can argue that Saviola was anything other than a phenomenon at the outset of his career. Part of River’s “magic four”, he helped lift the club to two league titles ahead of eternal rival Boca Juniors. El Conejo (The Little Rabbit), for his part, finished as the league’s top scorer for one of those winning seasons and was awarded the accolade South American Footballer of the Year award for 1999. He was 18 years old at the time. His link to the New Maradona mantle became all the more profound at the World Youth Championships in 2001 – held in Saviola’s native Argentina. Argentina stormed to the title, being Paraguay 5-0 in the semi-finals and Ghana 3-0 in the final. Saviola scored 11 goals in 7 games, including two hat-tricks. He was awarded both the Golden Ball and the Golden Shoe. His scoring feat at the tournament will take some beating. The only other player to have finished the competition with both awards is none other than Diego Maradona himself.

Interest in Europe was naturally sky high, and Saviola made the big money move to Barcelona. He formed an exciting strike partnership with Patrick Kluivert in his first season, with 17 goals in 36 games (Kluivert scored 18). Subsequent seasons saw 20 and 19 goals in all competitions respectively. When Samuel Eto’o and Henrik Larsson arrived at Camp Nou, Saviola was considered surplus to requirements and was loaned out to Monaco and then Sevilla. At Sevilla, he won the Europa League, scoring 6 goals in the competition. This earned him a place in the 2006 World Cup squad, where he scored in the opening match against Ivory Coast and played superbly in the 6-0 demolition of Serbia, providing two assists, and had a hand to play in THAT Cambiasso goal. Saviola has played 39 times for the national side, scoring 11 goals, with his last appearance in 2007. He was part of the Olympics team that won the gold medal at Athens 2004.

Whilst its unquestionable that Saviola peaked very early in his career, he has continued to find success and the back of the net across Europe. A lucrative move to Real Madrid in 2007 did not work out, but in 2010 he won the Primeira Liga with Benfica and was awarded the Portuguese Golden Ball for the league’s best player. As recently as 2014, he won the Greek Superleague with Olympiacos, scoring 14 goals in all competitions.

The youngest player to be listed on Pele’s FIFA 100 list of the 125 greatest living footballers in 2004, Saviola’s career appears to be coming to a close, and he has found opportunities limited this season behind the evergreen Luca Toni. Maradona is a close friend, but like many others before him, El Conejo has struggled to turn potential into super-stardom and match the maestro’s success in the game.