General Football

Defending the Magnificence of Lionel Messi


Messi

“Vintage Messi”

How many angels
Can dance on the head of a pin?
How magnificent
Is Messi?
There is no answer
It’s like counting the bubbles
In a bottle of Champagne

“An explosion of the exceptional!” shouted Peter Drury into his microphone as Lionel Messi ghosted between 3 Bosnian defenders and caressed the ball past Asmir Begovic and into the bottom corner. It was a goal most of the world had been waiting for and it took some 8 years in the making.

Messi last scored at the World Cup finals in 2006 and before his gorgeous slide rule finish against Bosnia, he had gone 8 years without hitting the back of the net. At 27 years of age and with an Argentine squad built to bring the best out of him, 2014 was expected to be the year Lionel Messi finally illuminated the world.

While things didn’t quite go to plan and Argentina succumbed to the Germans in Rio De Janeiro, a simple question arises – hasn’t Messi already shown us how good he is? Has not La Pulga already lit up our footballing world with his utterly unreal genius? How much does he have to do to win over his critics?

6 La Liga titles, 3 Champions League crowns, 2 Copa Del Rey’s, 2 UEFA Super Cups and 2 FIFA Club World Cups. 4 Ballon d’Ors, 3 European Golden Shoe awards, holder of the Guinness World Record for most goals in a calendar year (91), first footballer ever to score consecutively against all teams in a professional league, most hat-tricks in the Champions League, most goals scored in the Champions League knockout phase, only player to score in 21 different cities in the European Cup.

This guy isn’t really all that good, is he?! 1 poor World Cup and an indifferent World Cup final and everything else about Lionel Messi turns to dust. Let’s forget his slaloming run and finish v Getafe, his gravity-defying header in the Champions League final against Manchester United, his quite magnificent (and hugely under-rated) drop of the shoulder and finish vs. Athletic Bilbao and countless other memorable moments and just focus on 5 games he had with his country.

Comparisons with Diego Maradona, inevitable as they might be, have overshadowed what a brilliant technician this diminutive player from Rosario is. While we are fed snippets of Maradona from THAT game against England in 1986 and his occasional brilliance for Argentina, we consume every single frame of Lionel Messi every single week. We have taken for granted the things Messi can do with the ball at his feet.

How many of us have actually seen more than 4 full games (if that) of Diego Maradona? Have you seen him guide Napoli to the Scudetto in 1987? Of course you haven’t. While we see Messi decimating and obliterating opponents in La Liga every week, we just sit back and lazily compare him to this IDEA we have of Diego Maradona in our heads. This image that the media has put into our minds clouds our judgement of Messi. Can we not simply be astonished by what this player, humble as a deer, can produce on a football pitch?

He may not have deserved the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup, but it wasn’t because he played poorly. 2 winners, 1 match-winning assist and a nerveless penalty are by no means abysmal. James Rodriguez and Thomas Muller had better World Cups than him and either one of them should have lifted the coveted trophy but to criticise Messi for an award he had no say in is lazy, if not ignorant, at best.

I’ll let Messi drop a quote that just about sums up the media’s lackadaisical and fickle attitude in today’s world:

“It took me 17 years and 114 days to be an overnight success.”

There was a Nike commercial 5 years back featuring Carlos Tevez where the Argentine outcast challenges you - “Can you make the ball do what YOU want?” Lionel Messi can. Every day.

Muchas Gracias.

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General Football, Player Profiles

The Puzzle That Is Iker Muniain


The story goes that a 17-year old Iker Muniain waltzed his way past a long queue and straight in front of the bouncer at a night club and asked to be let in. ”Don’t you know who I am?” ”I know who you are, you’re Iker and you’re 17-years old. Now fuck off home.”

Spot the similarities?

Spot the similarities?

There was a time when Iker Muniain was hailed as the golden boy of Spanish football – hell, InBedWithMaradona labelled him “the future of world football” not 2 years back but since then many talents have come and passed and Muniain, nicknamed “Bart” by the Spanish media after the Simpsons character, is yet to find his true place in the game.

Thiago dazzled at Barcelona and is now fulfilling his promise in Munich; Isco rose to prominence with some style from the obscurity of Valencia’s ‘B’ team; Alvaro Morata is attracting admiring looks from Arsenal; Koke has become a mainstay in Diego Simeone’s remarkable Atletico unit while Gerard Deulofeu continues to build on his raw potential. Iker Muniain, once the brightest of the above lot, seems to have pulled on the handbrake while the others have kept on flying.

It feels like he’s been around since a long time but he’s just 21 years old and has already played more than 150 games for Athletic Club de Bilbao. He was part of the highly rated Spanish Under-21 sides that won the UEFA Under-21 Championship in 2011 and 2013 and won the La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year award in 2011.

There was a time when this young boy from Pamplona was dazzling his way up to the top of the world, most notably in the Europa League (in the 2011/12 season) when he was part of the Athletic side that dismantled Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United home and away. And even though Athletic were beaten in the final, Muniain had risen from the shadows and his stock was promptly driven beyond the borders of Spanish football into the global game.

Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain in happier times

Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain in happier times

He is the ultimate mischief maker in that Athletic side and carries around the ‘bad boy’ image with immaculate ease. He possesses the self-confidence found in every emerging player in the excellent Spanish Canteras without it threatening to spill over into arrogance. He is a well-grounded person but ever since that stellar season under Marcelo Bielsa, he has often felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Muniain was given his Athletic debut by the much maligned Joaquín Caparrós and his fire was well and truly stoked by Caparrós’ successor, Marcelo Bielsa. Muniain, along with Oscar de Marcos, were a key part of Bielsa’s pressing philosophy. The talent that Caparrós unleashed was moulded by the hand of Bielsa.

No matter the size of the opponent, Muniain’s desire to take him on was a joy to watch. The image of  Muniain chasing, harrying and hunting down Atsuto Uchida (during the Schalke v Athletic Europa League match in 2011/12) at the Veltins Arena is indelibly etched in the minds of Athletic fans. He humiliated Uchida on the night, and no matter how much the Japanese right-back tried to get near him, Muniain cheekily kept slipping away.

He has been compared to Bojan Krkic (of Barcelona fame) in terms of his personality. While Ander Herrera is known for his iron will, Muniain has been described as an overly sensitive character, who deals with loss by blaming himself and sulking around for days over a thing as simple as a missed opportunity. This spills over into training the following week and messes with his schedule.

Bielsa, in his own unique style, describes Muniain thus:

“This is a player extremely impulsive, and his actions on the field are usually generated by his emotions.”

You will never find him running his mouth at another player or a coach; instead, he’ll find a fault in his own game, berate himself over it and keep playing it in his head a thousand times making it impossible for anyone to console him. This does paint him in an image starkly contrasting with the fearless winger we have grown to admire.

Devastating loneliness at the Arena Națională in Bucharest

Devastating loneliness at the Arena Națională in Bucharest

Bielsa moved him from the left-wing into a more central position but Iker doesn’t possess the qualities of a true No. 10. His goal-scoring ability has always been his weak point and while his ball control has improved massively since his emergence, he just hasn’t settled into a position.

As David Cartlidge so eloquently put, Muniain’s battle seems to be more of a mental one rather than a positional one. He doesn’t seem to believe in himself as much, with simple decisions not
coming easily to him anymore.

During that memorable 2011/12 season, Muniain averaged 1.3 key passes per game in La Liga. Last season that figure went down 1/game and has dipped to just 0.7/game this season. He averaged 41 passes per game during that season but that figure has come down to 33.3/game this term.

There has been a sort of revival under Ernesto Valverde this season but not enough to justify the swashbuckling potential with which he once illuminated Old Trafford. One hopes he can throw off the handbrakes, take off his seat belt and press down on the accelerator once again as he so wonderfully did in 2011/12.

Se lo quite, Iker (take it away, Iker).

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General Football

Henrik Larsson’s Impact Indelibly Etched at Old Trafford


He came, he played, he conquered. Those words have never rung more true in the case of Henrik Larsson’s incredible impact on Manchester United in the winter of 2007.

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Larsson won the unqualified admiration and respect of Sir Alex Ferguson during those two months. However, as the United manager revealed later, he wanted to sign the Swedish striker when he was still in his prime at Celtic but was rebuffed by Celtic’s majority shareholder, Dermot Desmond.

“I was ready to make the bid when he was at Celtic but Dermot Desmond rang me and said, ‘You’ve let me down, Alex, you’ve got tons of players, we need him.’ ”

Manchester United had not won the league since 2002-03 and with Roman Abramovich’s riches and Jose Mourinho’s arrival, their barren run in the Premier League, already stretching to 3 years (their loges drought in the Premier League era), looked set to continue in 2006-07. Gary Neville admitted the players were beginning to doubt if they would ever taste the glorious scent of success domestically with Chelsea seemingly romping away with all there was to win.

But with Cristiano Ronaldo finally starting to mature and forming a telepathic partnership with Wayne Rooney, the Red Devils started to mount a very serious siege on Chelsea’s dominance and found themselves top of the table going into the new year. But with the perennially injured Louis Saha and with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer entering the winter of his career plagued by knee injuries, Sir Alex decided to delve into the transfer market for a temporary stop-gap solution in January to keep the embers of United’s title charge burning till May.

And as has happened so many times in his glittering 26-year old reign at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson struck gold.

Henrik Larsson arrived from Swedish side Helsingborg on a two-month loan and his impact, on the whole United dressing-room, was immediate. Every player was lifted just by the presence of this great striker they had heard so much about and Sir Alex had this to say about him:

“On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones.”

Larsson was a little surprised himself when he first heard of United’s interest:

“The first I heard of it was when the Helsingborgs manager, Stuart Baxter, came to see me and asked me if I wanted to go to Manchester. My immediate reaction was ‘yes’ and I felt very excited but I wanted to speak to my family about it before I agreed anything. But, once I’d discussed it with them, they were all in agreement that I should do it. I looked at the situation and knew that, at my age, I probably wouldn’t get this type of opportunity again.”

Larsson, throughout his career, was known not only for his prowess in front of goal, but his marvellous footballing brain and intelligence which made him such a force in the 18-yard box. It is exactly this trait that won Sir Alex over.

“For a man of 35, his receptiveness to information on the coaching side was amazing. At every session he was rapt. He wanted to listen to Carlos, the tactics lectures; he was into every nuance of what we did. In training he was superb: his movement, his positional play. His three goals for us were no measure of his contribution.”

His United career could not have got off to a more picture perfect start. At home to Aston Villa in the FA Cup, United were struggling to break down a resolute Villa defence featuring future English international Gary Cahill. In the 55th minute, Michael Carrick, signed in the summer and so often the focal point of every Manchester United attack, found Cristiano Ronaldo 30 yards from goal. Ronaldo, closed down quickly by the Villa defence, laid it off to Rooney who swivelled on the ball and played a slide rule pass to Larsson.

Larsson was being immediately harried by two Villa defenders but his feather-like first touch was exquisite and allowed him to get his effort away with no back lift. Thomas Sorenson, Aston Villa’s goalkeeper, stood and watched as the ball flew past him and nestled in the back of the net.

Pandemonium.

Every single Red shirt raced to congratulate and celebrate with Larsson as the roof flew off Old Trafford. The stage was set and as per the script, Henrik Larsson duly delivered.

He went on to score his first and only Premier League goal against Watford and also grabbed a priceless winner against Lille in the first knockout round of the Champions League. What is so special about that goal was not the finish, but the build-up that led to his header. He dropped off on the halfway line and as soon as Ronaldo received the ball on the left-wing, Larsson made his run into the penalty area. Ronaldo floated the ball bang on the penalty spot and Larsson, having rolled off the attentions of the Lille center-back, calmly headed it into the bottom corner to secure United’s progress.

Deceptive run, textbook header, goal. Henrik Larsson’s career summed up in five glorious seconds on the Old Trafford turf.

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Sir Alex revealed that after he had played his last game for United against Middlesbrough, the players and the staff gave him a send off he is unlikely to forget for a long time:

“In his last game in our colours at Middlesbrough, we were winning 2-1 and Henrik went back to play in midfield and ran his balls off. On his return to the dressing-room, all the players stood up and applauded him, and the staff joined in. It takes some player to make that kind of impact in two months.”

United were desperate to extend his loan till the end of the season but Larsson had made a promise to his family that he would return in March, would not be swayed. Despite this, Sir Alex had nothing but words of praise for him:

“He’s been fantastic for us, his professionalism, his attitude, everything he’s done has been excellent. We would love him to stay but, obviously, he has made his promise to his family and Helsingborg and I think we should respect that – but I would have done anything to keep him.”

United subsequently went on win the Premier League and Larsson got his medal through special dispensation by the Premier League panel even though he did not play the required ten games that are needed to get that accolade. His last appearance at Old Trafford came a few weeks after he had left United when he captained a Europe XI side in a UEFA Celebration Match. He was given a memorable and rapturous standing ovation by the United fans.

You will always be remembered fondly by United fans – du kommer alltid att bli ihågkommen, Henrik.

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General Football

Remembering Freddie Ljungberg


When you mention the name Freddie Ljungberg to Arsenal supporters, the conversation inevitably turns to that wonderful curling effort at Wembley against Chelsea in the FA Cup final or to the delightful lob against Juventus which is remembered more for Bergkamp’s merry dance with the ball around the Juventus defence.

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Even though Arsenal had scouted Ljungberg for more than a year, he was a very un-Arsene Wenger signing in that the French manager hadn’t seen him play live before signing him (another top English club tried this recently to comical results which makes this an even more remarkable success story). The story goes that Wenger, watching Ljungberg put in a stellar performance in Sweden’s victory over England on television, was convinced inside the first 30 minutes by the Swede’s remarkable talent.

“I am small, and people told me to go to Italy or Spain, where the play is less physical. So I made a point that I wanted to go to England. It was daunting.”

Arsenal proceeded to sign him for a bargain £3 million from his boy hood club Halmstads BK in 1998. Arsenal’s opponents on his debut? Manchester United. Ljungberg came off the bench and scored as the Gunners ran riot with a 3-0 victory but this was followed by a rather frustrating spell on the sidelines as he suffered from ankle and abdominal injuries.

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“Normally I never get nervous, but that day, of course, it was my debut in England and fans were screaming my name,  I think, from the whistle go, and I was like, I remember I was shaking on the sideline… it was an amazing feeling and I’ll always take that memory with me.”

But the Gunners did not have to wait long before the Swede found his touch again and he became a regular fixture in Arsene Wenger’s starting XI following the departures of Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars in 2000. He formed an almost telepathic understand with Dennis Bergkamp and Bobby Pires. It was the 2001-02 season where the Premier League world was illuminated by the bright red striped hair and the black and white boots of Freddie Ljungberg.

 The Arsenal faithful, smitten when he coloured his (already unusual) hair red, came up with this beauty:

“We love you Freddie, because you’ve got red hair, we love you Freddie because you’re everywhere, we love you Freddie, you’re Arsenal through and through!”

And when the hair was shaved off, it was cut down to “We love you Freddie, because you’ve got no hair”. 

Ljungberg developed something of a liking for the big moments – when the stakes were high and the pressure was on, you could bet your bottom dollar that he would step up to the plate. After scoring a wonderful volley in Arsenal’s 2-1 win against Liverpool at Anfield, he repeated the feat 2 weeks later against the Scousers at Highbury (this time it ended 1-1, however). He grabbed a clinical brace against Juventus in the Champions League during that season as well and restored parity against Manchester United, a game which the Gunners eventually won 3-1

But it was his goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup final during the same season that will remain a highlight of his glittering Arsenal career. Edu picked up the ball in Arsenal’s half and swept it out to Ljungberg on the left. Three Chelsea players closed in on him but he breezed past two, muscled John Terry off the ball, left him on the seat of his pants, opened his body up and curled the most majestic effort past a helpless Carlo Cudicini to seal the victory.

Ljungberg went on to win the ‘Barclaycard Premiership Player of the Year’ award at the end of that season as Arsenal won the ‘Double’. When asked in an interview with the BBC what the highlight of his career was, he had this to say:

“Winning trophies are highlights. Also, the connection I have with Arsenal fans. On a personal note, I won the Premier League player of the year award [in 2001-02]. That hasn’t happened to other Swedish players and was nice for me.”

But it wasn’t all rosy in the behind the scenes because when he first arrived in London, he had no idea what anyone in the dressing room was saying to him:

“In the old days at Arsenal, there was amazing banter with the English players. For the first two years, I didn’t understand a word.”

He has played alongside many of the greats but there was only one who captured all his attention at training and on match days – Dennis Bergkamp:

“He had so much talent and ability but he never showboated it. He did it for the team. He never felt the need to show that he could do this or that for the fans. That’s something I really respected – he always wanted the best for the team.”

Despite playing a major role during Arsenal’s dominant years are the turn of the century, Ljungberg always fought with consistent niggling injuries and severe episodes of migraine. He had a cancer scare in 2005 but it turned out to be a case of blood poisoning from one of his large collection of body art.

He played through an ankle injury as Arsenal succumbed to Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final and it is that competition which has proved to be a thorn in his career. 

“We had a great team for many years at Arsenal but in the Champions League on a few times somehow we conceded an away goal in the last minute. You think you are through and it is all happy days and then someone scores and you can’t get back. In a short, not winning the Champions League was my low point.”

 His injuries eventually took their toll as the higher authorities at Arsenal decided to part company with him after 9 remarkable years. He joined their London rivals West Ham United on a four-year deal, which was followed by a moves to Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, Celtic and J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse but was never able to touch the heights he did during his peak years at Highbury.

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One of the biggest influences in his career was, unsurprisingly, Arsene Wenger.

“He was a great manager, and before I signed for Arsenal I had other options. But I had a big meeting with him for like an hour, and we discussed how he saw football and how I saw it, and we agreed on how we saw the game. And from then on, he developed me and gave me advice, I trained with great players and we all challenged each other and he made us be better all the time.”

When asked about how his modeling career went, he always brushes it off with a laugh.

“My pictures were printed off and put up at the training ground – in the toilets, the diner and I was everywhere. There was a lot of banter going on. In the end, I ordered in a few boxes of the underwear for the players and after that they were quiet. It was all a bit of fun.”

He eventually announced his retirement on August 24th, 2012 and decided to focus on his property and fashion business in the near future. He doesn’t have an plans to come back into football..just yet.

“There’s different things I want to do in life, and I always said it depends if you have a family and kids and stuff, I think you have to take that into consideration for future plans and stuff. But I always loved fashion and architecture and that’s something that interests me. I’ve been asked quite a lot lately, or ‘when you get older’,  about the managing aspect of things because I like the tactical, and I have some experience in the game… that’s something as well that I’m thinking about. But I think it will all be decided if I have a family and kids.”

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General Football

The Enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa – El Loco


The Mad One

The Mad One

The story goes that one evening when he was in charge of the Chilean national team, Marcelo Bielsa felt a twinge of doubt, a mental block. Any other coach would normally turn to his mentors, delve into the video shelf for old videos looking for anything to help him or in some extreme cases, turn to alcohol (we know who it was). Bielsa went straight to the Santiago Zoo to find his motivation.

That’s just who he is and where the nickname comes from – El Loco, The Mad One. His unique personality shapes every team he manages, his philosophy a blend of passion, obsession, eccentricity and to a certain extent, craziness. He does not give exclusive interviews and prefers to answer those seeking his presence in his press conferences. Even then he refuses to look into the journalists’s eyes, preferring to keep his head lowered and his eyes on the microphone.

Another fascinating tale about El Loco goes that for 12 hours straight over a barbeque session (or asado, as some may prefer), Guardiola and him spoke of nothing but the beautiful game. Guardiola had spent the previous 11 hours travelling just to seek Bielsa’s advice. Salt shakers and ketchup bottles became the center of attention as talk of positional and possession football became intense and ideas flowed freely. Guardiola, being a football man himself, was completely taken by this mad Argentine who had left a mark on him. Pep would, of course, imbed this philosophy of possession football and high pressing on arguably one of the finest club sides the world has ever seen.

He had this to say about Guardiola during his first press conference as the Athletic manager:

“Guardiola has recovered the idea of multifunctional players: right backs to wingers, left backs  and midfielders to central defenders, etc. He has taken advantage of his versatile players, something that was not appreciated not long ago. It is crucial that a coach, when he manages great football players, does not interfere with their talent. But, he has improved them. He has made them to do things they probably do not master, but his players still make the sacrifice. They do it for the team.”

Before he took the Athletic Bilbao job, his last spell in Spain ended in typical Bielsa fashion – he left Espanyol after managing them for just 6 games (of which they only won one). 12 days before his first official game, he knew he was going to go. The Argentina national team post was up for grabs and there was no one who could stop him.

Even his arrival at Athletic wasn’t without that element of ‘Bielsista’. Inter’s then President Massimo Moratti approached him about the managerial vacancy there only for him to say no without even blinking an eye. Why, you ask? Because he had already promised ex-Athletic skipper Josu Urrutia that if he was elected as the club president, Bielsa would follow him in. As things turned out, Urrutia won the presidency and Bielsa followed. That sense of loyalty and sticking to his principles is a wonderful sight in today’s money-grabbing football environment.

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One of the biggest followers and disciples of Marcelo Bielsa is the current Barcelona manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. Martino was Bielsa’s leader on the pitch during his early managerial career at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. Martino even resembles Bielsa on the touchline – sporting spectacles, always thinking about the next move, pacing around on the touchline with his head down wondering how to outfox the man in the opposition dugout.

When he took over at Chile, the national team were a joke – the fans were used to seeing them finish near the bottom of their Copa América and World Cup campaigns and were resigned to their fate when he arrived. The impact he and his coaching staff had was not immediate – the first six games were the same as in previous times – lethargic, lacking confidence and looking every bit a beaten side. And then the Bielsa effect kicked in. The team (a talented bunch from the outset) started buying into his philosophy and the results started to flow. The high pressing game was embedded into every player and for the first time in a long, long time, the whole nation was riveted and rallying behind their national football team. During his tenure, Chile finished 2nd in World Cup 2010 qualifying, above both Argentina and Brazil.

One of the main beneficiaries of his time with Chile was Alexis Sánchez. Sánchez was always a very gifted and blessed footballer but he lacked that final polish which separates the true greats from the rest. He had a knack of dribbling one too many times and a very frustrating tendency of losing possession at the most inopportune moment. Under Bielsa, he went from a gifted yet erratic footballer to the wonderful player he is today with Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola summed up El Loco’s philosophy when he described his Athletic team before the Copa Del Rey final in 2012:

“They run up, they run down, they run up, they run down, they run up, they run down …”

He may never land a job in Europe again because of the unique culture he brings with him but his mark is indelibly etched in European football and will be remembered fondly by those who’s life’s he touched. The only person coming close in terms of his influence is Zdeněk Zeman (the current Italian crop of youngsters have him to thank). Wonderful manager and an even better man.

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General Football, Player Profiles

Thank You for the Memories, Robert Pirès


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‘To me, before his knee injury, Pirès was the best left attacking midfielder in the world. With us he was just flying.’ –  Arsène Wenger shortly after Robert Pirès moved to Aston Villa. No arguments there, Monsieur.

When he was still a kid harboring dreams of making it as a professional, Pirès could always be found wearing either  a Benfica kit or a Real Madrid one (his father was a Benfiquistas Águias fan while his mother was Spanish). ‘I was lucky enough that both Benfica and Madrid wanted to sign me. Benfica was in ’96 or ’97, but I didn’t want to join them because I wanted to keep playing and improving at Metz. In 2000, Madrid wanted me. But Arsenal wanted me too and I chose London.’

The general raising of eyebrows in the direction of that is natural and Pirès’ response is something Arsenal fans have grown accustomed to – ‘Because of Arsène. I spoke to him lots of times, I knew what he wanted and I knew that I would play. Madrid is a great club, of course, but it’s a club with little stability. Everyone thought I was on my way to Madrid but I didn’t want that.’

But like most professional footballers in today’s cut throat environment, his ability wasn’t always as apparent as it is today. He almost quit the game at the tender age of 15 when, playing for the ‘C’ team at Reims, his priorities, like your everyday teenager, lay elsewhere. ‘I wanted to go out with my mates, party… girls… that happens to everyone.’ Luckily his mother had other ideas – after seeing her son toiling with his career, she knocked down and told him ‘You don’t know what you want, it’s football – it’s your dream and it could be a great job.’ And once Bobby got that into his head, there was no looking back.

He stayed at Metz until the age of 25, claiming he didn’t want to leave as he was playing first team football in the French top division week in week out and even getting a chance to pit his footballing wits with the elite (well, almost) in Europe (Metz were in the UEFA Cup back then). He was guaranteed a place in the starting eleven in every game and he was certain he would eventually break into the French national squad at some point in the not too distant future.

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A big club finally came calling in 1998 – Olympique de Marseille shelled out £5 million for his services and Pirès endured a very emotional 2 seasons there. In his first season, the club missed out on the league title by a solitary point and then were battered 3-0 in the UEFA Cup final by a Juan Sebastián Verón-inspired Parma. Controversy and a “big head”, as his President at Marseille put it, marred his second season at the club at the end of which he boycotted the team and effectively ruined any hopes the fans had of seeing him in the Les Phocéens colors again.

Arsenal, and Arsène, gave him a way out of French football as they paid £6 million in 2000 for Pirès but before his first game for the club (away to Sunderland), Wenger left him on the bench. Pirès recalls Arsène telling him ‘I’m going to leave you on the bench and you’re going to see what English football is like.’ By half-time, Pirès was already re-evaluating his decision to switch shores. ‘It was hard, very different to France, but in the end I got used to it. I wouldn’t say you’re scared but you can see that you have to change how you play – English football is physical, they kick you very hard.’

He struggled to make him mark initially with his comments about the physicality of English football not going down too well with the Arsenal faithful. But as the old saying goes, ‘You can kick and beat a person till he’s bleeding dry, but you can’t keep a good man down’. An exquisite solo effort against Lazio proved to be the turning point for Pirès and the resurrection had begun.

One of the most enduring moments of his time at Arsenal is THAT goal he scored against Aston Villa at Villa Park. A long ball by Ljungberg was brought down in typically composed fashion, a delightful touch took it over the head of the advancing George Boateng and as Peter Schmeichel prepared to charge and close down the distance to goal, Pirès, with all the grace of a ballet dancer, nonchalantly dinked it over his head and trotted off to celebrate. He subsequently won both Arsenal’s player of the year award and the FWA Footballer of the Year awards (he topped the assists chart for that season despite missing the last couple of months with a ligament injury).

Contract negotiations with the club stalled in 2006 when it was reported that Pirès wanted a new 2 year deal but Arsenal, in keeping with their club policy, were only willing to give him a 12-month extension. Despite an indifferent start to the season, Pirès picked up the pace and was instrumental in Arsenal’s remarkable run in the Champions League, which culminated in a meeting with Barcelona at the Stade de France. Unfortunately, that night will always haunt Robert Pirès. I will let him describe what he felt (quotes from FourFourTwo magazine):

‘I’ll never forget that. I knew Villarreal wanted me but I hadn’t made a decision, yet what happened in the final left me feeling very bad. That was the end; my mind was made. I knew a player had to go off after that red card but I never thought it would be me. When I saw it was my number, it killed me. I didn’t want to kill Arsène, but Jens? Yeah, I’d have killed the German! Bastard! It was the worst moment of my career. When I saw the number I thought, no, no, it can’t be!’

As fate would have it, those 18 minutes would be the last he ever played for Arsenal. Villarreal offered him a way out and he gladly took it citing Arsène’s “loss of trust” in him as a major reason he had to make the move. He hadn’t even made a single appearance in La Liga before his knee gave out again and he needed corrective surgery that kept him out for 7 months. When he eventually returned, he made his peace with Barcelona when he scored the opening goal as Villarreal trumped the then league leaders 2-0. Without him, Villarreal were languishing in 11th place and sinking without trace. In a matter of 6 weeks, the return of Pirès saw them climb to 5th and straight into the UEFA Cup. With Juan Roman Riqualme’s infamous erratic behavior on full display, Pirès led the club the following season in blistering form. In May 2010, Villarreal chose not to extend his contract and he duly returned to England for a final time on a 6-month contract with Aston Villa.

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He was a player with an almost ethereal touch, a footballer who knew what he possessed, a man with ice for nerves and a steely determination which, throughout his career, served him well. He will always be fondly remembered by fans around the globe for that famous goatee, which he claims started as a joke between him and Nicolas Anelka before the Euro 2000 final against Italy.

‘We wanted to do something silly. I went back to Arsenal and they called me D’Artagnan and everyone loved it. I liked the name and there were four of us – Wiltord, Titi [Henry], Patrick and I. Three plus one, so it was perfect for the English. There’s no secret to the beard – if you have a trimmer, it’s a piece of cake.’

Nous t’aimons, Robert Pirès.

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General Football

Marat Safin – The Misunderstood Genius


The first image that comes to mind when someone speaks of Marat Safin is that famous fiery temper, racquet smashing antics and out-of-the-blue emotional outbursts on the court when things went awry. It is not surprising given that he broke 87 racquets in a year, a record that still stands (a grand total of 1155 racquets have been broken by Safin during his 12 year professional career). But what people ignore, or perhaps don’t know, is that there was so much more to this immensely powerful player than just his temperamental side.

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He won two Grand Slams in his career – the US Open in 2000 and the Australian Open in 2005. He reached the world No. 1 ranking in his career, a position he held for a total of nine weeks. And given his dislike of grass courts, he managed to reach the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2008 (becoming the first ever Russian to reach this stage at the All-England Club) before succumbing to the irrepresible Roger Federer.

Safin’s journey into the world of professional tennis began in 1997 and just one year on, he stunned the world after blitzing Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten at the French Open in consecutive matches. The blueprint had been laid, this would be the stepping stone into the world of champions for the giant Russian.

In 2000, Safin climbed to No. 1 in the ATP ranking when he clinched his first Grand Slam trophy at the US Open, becoming the first and till date the only Russian male to win this tournament. He produced some scintillating tennis in the final to overcome bookies favorite Pete Sampras in straight sets.

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Safin, at the top of his game at the turn of the century, reached three more Grand Slam finals, all at the Australian Open (2002,2004 and 2005). He blamed nervousness and and physical exhaustion for his losses at the 2002 and 2004 events respectively but it was in 2005 that he finally managed to shake off the hoodoo and clinch his second Grand Slam title in five years.

His hiring of Peter Lundgren, Roger Federer’s coach till 2003, was seen as an inspired choice and despite catching fire after falling into an active volcano prior to the 2005 Australian Open, he was considered as one of the favourites for the title. The tournament still ranks as one of the best Grand Slams in history. He broke millions of hearts as he saw off home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in the final in four sets. But the match of that particular Grand Slam came against Roger Federer in the semi-finals, a five set epic which Safin edged 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-7, 9-7. Safin, in typical languid and non-descript fashion, described this as “a brain fight”.

But inbetween this sparkling run of form, Safin endured a nightmare in 2003 when a succession of injuries prevented him from playing at major tournaments. It was early years then, but this would prove to be a constant thorn in Safin’s career down the line. The final straw came in 2005 when he suffered a serious knee injury during the clay court season. He struggled on with the help of painkillers but never fully recovered from this.

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Safin has won five ATP Tennis Masters Series titles, among them a record-tying three in Paris (2000, 2002 and 2004). The other two titles were won in Toronto and Madrid. He also played a vital role in Russia’s Davis Cup wins in 2002 and 2006.

Safin’s final tournament came in the Paris Masters in 2009. A second round loss to Juan Martin Del Potro brought down the curtains on Safin’s career. A special presentation was held on Center COurt follwing the game and was attended by fellow tennis professionals including Del Potro, Tommy Robredo, Novak Djokovic, Gilles Simon and Ivo Karlovic.

Safin boasted a brutally powerful and accurate serve and phenomenal groundstrokes ability. His packed a fearsome punch with his backhand, a major weapon in his armoury. Bjorn Borg has admitted he has not seen anyone hitting the ball with such fierce brutality as the giant Russian in a long, long time. Safin was also unusually quick for a player of his size.

But ever since suffering that knee-injury in 2005, he lost form and consistency. He became erratic and his emotional outbursts, for which he was consistently fined, increased in ferocity. He claimed that grass was his least favorite playing surface and the reason for hsi poor showings at Wimbledon.

We have been lucky enough to see this charismatic Russian play at the peak of his powers, defeating favorites and champions along the way, upsetting the odds as he powered along. He has had his critics, but let’s put that aside and remember and appreciate him for the wonderful tennis he played and for the joyous moments he produced on the court for himself and for us tennis fans. A tip of the hat for you, Marat Safin.

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General Football

Time to Give Bundesliga it’s Due


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There is a tendency in today’s football world to think of the top leagues in Europe as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and everyone else (whoever that may be). There is no mention of Bundesliga when one thinks of top teams (Bayern Munich may be the exception) – simply a mention of it is met with an ignorant wave of the hand and ridiculed as rubbish.

When Marco Reus snubbed the likes of Arsenal to move to Borussia Dortmund (from Borussia Mönchengladbach, if anyone cares) there was shock and disarray among fans. That it was a perfectly logical move for a player brought up in the Dortmund youth system mattered not – “how could someone reject a move to one of the world’s most elite clubs?” was the general line of thought.

Borussia Dortmund have won the German Championship on 8 occasions and have lifted the European Cup once compared to Arsenal’s zero but that matters not because the fact remains that Arsenal play in the most popular (which, I am at pains to say, does not make it the best) league in the world while Dortmund plough on in one of the most criminally under-rated leagues around Europe.

Let me clear one thing up – I am not endorsing it as the best league in the world, nor the best league in Europe – but simply as a league which should be appreciated and watched more by fans who claim they love fast-paced, pulsating, edge of the seat football yet shun the Bundesliga on grounds that is ‘boring’ or too ‘one dimensional and predictable’ since Bayern keep dominating games and dismantle inferior opposition and that there’s ‘no variety’ on offer in this league.

Five different clubs have won the league in the last 10 years – how’s that for ‘variety’? In this period, the Premier League has had four different winners while La Liga and Serie A have seen three. The Premier League has seen 4895 goals scored in the last 5 seasons at an average of 2.73 goals per game while the Bundesliga has seen the ball nestle in the back of the net 4146 times in the same period at an average of 2.87 goals per game. That little statistic blasts away any myth about the Bundesliga being a ‘boring’ or ‘slow-paced’ league out of the window.

While there is a perennial dearth of talent in England, the Germans have been producing home-grown talent like well-oiled machines. Where there is a war between Premier League clubs and the English FA waged on a weekly basis, the German clubs have a strong and beneficial understanding with their governing body. According to Reuters, only € 80 million are spent on academies out of the € 2-billion turnover in Bundesliga whereas € 95 million are spent in England each year and we all know how that story goes.

Why is the concept of a “big four” or a “top two” so widely accepted and revered? Isn’t an open league, with every team going blood and thunder every week for three points, the dream scenario for football fans? Take the example of VfL Wolfsburg. They clinched the Bundesliga crown in 2009 (while playing some exhilarating football along the way) but finished a lowly 15th in the 2010-11 season.

The Bundesliga has one of the highest average attendances of any league in Europe – the average attendance during the 2010-11 season was 42, 673 (according to Bren Goetze). This is no small part down to the incredibly low ticket prices at Bundesliga games compared to the extravagant prices of the Premier League (remember the ridiculous € 70 per ticket Arsenal asked of Manchester City’s fans recently?). Clubs in Germany are majority-owned by the fans (I suggest googling the ’50+1′ rule if you are not aware of how the ownership of Bundesliga clubs in divved up – it is a fascinating concept).

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There is a romantic element to the league – it was revealed earlier this year that Bayern Munich had loaned €2 million to Borussia Dortmund in 2002 when Die Borussen were on the verge of liquidation. Can you imagine that happening anywhere around the world? When Portsmouth were swept under with administration twice in the last 3 years, no club in the league pyramid offered a helping hand (though admittedly, most are busy paying off their own debts accumulated over the years with careless spending and reckless ownership changes).

Simply put, the Bundesliga doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves because of the lack of coverage and exposure around the world. Fans are ignorant to it’s beauty and excitement. I suggest you prop yourself down in front of the television this weekend, switch over to Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Werder Bremen (17:30 GMT) and let the sweet joy of German football take over your senses. If you give it a chance, you will fall in love with the Bundesliga.

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General Football

Remembering Garrincha


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Perhaps “remembering” Garrincha is a step too small, even though he remains one of the greatest players to have graced the game. Perhaps the phrase “beautiful game” was coined just looking at this magician’s prodigious talent. This is a player who should be celebrated and not forgotten and written off as yet another tale of a flawed genius who let drink get the better of him.

It is truly tragic that we live in a world so rich most people don’t even know his name.

This world has a cruel way of bashing the genius out of a man, throwing him out and labelling him a freak because he’s different from the rest. But some geniuses endure the test of time. Garrincha is one of those timeless geniuses.

Those who saw him play claim he was better than Pele. Perhaps there’s a certain romanticism to the whole thing, but there was no doubt about Garrincha’s ability to entertain. One of his best characteristics, and one of many reasons why he was so loved in his native Brazil, was that he played in the moment without a care in the world. He was never worried about winning or losing, trophies or accolades – all he wanted to do was play football.

One of his famous stories goes like this – when he saw his team mates celebrating their triumph in the 1958 World Cup, he stood on the pitch bemused because he had remarkably misunderstood the tournament format – he thought they were going to play all the team twice before the final.

Garrincha, nicknamed “The Little Bird”, is hailed as the best dribbler in footballing history. He absolutely, completely and utterly owned the 1962 World Cup. Brazil’s opponents in the semi-finals were Chile whose approach during the whole game was to scythe down Garrincha at his knees in order to stop him. Garrincha scored twice as Brazil won 4-2.

Another tale has it that when playing against the Soviets, Garrincha faked his way past a defender so emphatically, the opponent fell flat on his back. Garrincha turned around, helped him up, then beat him again.

He was born with crooked legs, a curved spine and a left leg longer than his right. His magnificent talent on the pitch was matched by his absolute disarray off it. He was flawed, but he loved what he did to his dying breath.

This was Garrincha – a joy to the people, the angel with the bent legs, whose outstanding ability with the ball was never matched. Raise a glass, tip your hat, bow down to a man who truly made football the beautiful game.

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General Football

The Rise & Demise of the ‘Libero’


Football has seen it’s fair share of tactical changes in different eras but the word ‘libero’ has all but vanished from its vocabulary. In this piece, I will examine the rise of the libero, it’s use in the infamous Catenaccio system and it’s eventual demise.

Helenio Herrera - pioneer of Catenaccio

Helenio Herrera – pioneer of Catenaccio

Libero is an Italian term meaning “free” but the concept of using an extra defender did not have it’s origins in Italy.  A libero was a defender who played as the deepest outfield player, behind the two center-backs, and was relieved of any man-marking duties. His duties included sweeping across the back-line and providing the insurance his team needed.

The most infamous use of a libero was in the Catenaccio (Italian for ‘door-bolt’) system used by Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale side in the 1960s. But it was the Austrian coach Karl Rappan who first toyed with the idea of using a spare defender to shut out teams more talented than his side. He believed that unless you had 11 talented players on the pitch, tactics took on a whole new level of importance.

Karl Rappan's Verrou system

Karl Rappan’s Verrou system

Rappan’s system was called the verrou (French also for ‘door-bolt) and implemented three defenders with the sweeper (called verrouilleur) playing just in front of the goalkeeper. The verrouilleur was a strictly defensive position, with the player given little to no license to roam forward. His role was restricted to collecting the ball and punting long clearances downfield without a second thought.

Nereo Rocco’s “real” Catenaccio

Nereo Rocco’s Triestina side brought the system to Italy (often referred to as the “real” Catenaccio) in the late 1940s where it would be polished and used to devastating effect by Helenio Herrera’s Inter. Rocco used a typical 1-3-3-3 system which had a very defensive approach to the game. Another variation of Rocco’s system was a 1-4-3-2 formation (pictured on the right). Triestina went on to finish 2nd in Serie A that season which contributed to the rise of the libero in Italian football.

But there were a few teams who refused to accept that the potential of a libero would be limited to defensive duties. Franz Beckenbauer was the perfect example of this. If a player was capable of playing the ball out of defence, it could be used as a deadly weapon. The biggest advantage of having an attack-minded libero in the side was when he moved into the attacking half, it wreaked havoc since the opposition didn’t anticipate marking an extra man. A technically sound libero also helped in a smooth and swift transition from defence to attack thus prompting the innovation of counter-attacks.

But soon most coaches grew tired of this brand of football since it’s obvious weaknesses were starting to surface. Deploying an extra man in defence meant they were over-run in midfield where they were playing with a man less. The top sides (except Inter) started experimenting with other systems but the lower and weaker sides persisted with it since it allowed them to sit deep and not worry about concession of the possession in midfield.

Rinus Michel’s Ajax side started the demise of the libero and eventually rendered it obsolete with their brand of ‘Total Football’ in the 1970s and it never caught on again. In modern day football, a ball-playing center-back is a player who comes closest to fitting the bill. Players like Daniel Agger and Lucio fall in that category but the best example is that of Gerard Pique at Barcelona. He is supremely confident and comfortable with the ball at his feet and feels at ease when bringing the ball out of defence. Pep Guardiola used Sergio Busquets as the holding midfielder in his system – Busquets drops back when Pique charges forward. This does not take anything away from Busquets who is equally adept with the ball at his feet and sprays the ball around to start Barcelona attacks.

Some of the notable liberos of the past include Franz Beckenbauer, Armando Picchi, Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi.

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