6-fernando-redondo
General Football

The Timeless Legend of Fernando Redondo


“What does this player have in his boots? A magnet?!” – a completely flabbergasted and bedazzled Sir Alex Ferguson asks while looking around at journalists in his post-match press conference following Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League at Real Madrid’s hands (or boots?) in the 1999-2000 season.

A lot happened during that pulsating encounter (Raul Gonzalez’s brace and David Beckham’s valiant but eventually fruitless fightback), but the one moment that stands out, that is indelibly etched in Real Madrid and Champions League folklore, came from Fernando Redondo’s magical left boot.

He burst forward on the left-wing and found himself squared by Henning Berg with seemingly nowhere to go but backwards. He tried to shake Berg off but was forced to go wide to the touch line (or so you might think looking at the video). As Berg tried to get close to him, Redondo pulled off one of the most gorgeous back heels you are every likely to see. With his left foot, he back-heeled the ball diagonally across (and between Henning Berg’s legs). Berg kept running forward for a moment before realising what had happened. Redondo was in the clear; he controlled the ball on the touchline, looked up, played it across the face of the goal to Raul who tapped it into an open net.

Immortality. When Fernando Redondo found his groove, he was simply on another level.

“If he had done it to me, I’d have kept running to Buenos Aires,” said Iván Campo (only half jokingly), then of Real Madrid (you might also know him from his days at Bolton Wanderers during the latter stages of his career). Poor Henning Berg, distraught and bewildered, left the club in the summer (make of that what you will).

hqdefault

Henning Berg doesn’t know what’s coming next..

Redondo began his illustrious career at Argentinos Juniors and moved to Tenerife after five relatively unheralded years in his home country. He spent four years in this volcanic city, racking up 103 appearances and winning the club’s player of the year twice. His exceptional ability, on both defence and offence, was noticed by Real Madrid who bought him in the summer of 1994 where the legend of Fernando Redondo did not grow so much as soar into the land of immortality.

He was labelled a defensive midfielder, in the strict sense of the term, but he was never truly just that. He was, as Ivan Helguera later said, “a complete midfielder”. Redondo was never blessed with searing pace or an incredible engine room that would see him cover every blade of grass on the pitch; what he did have was a remarkable ability to read the game and pick off opposition passes with uncanny consistency. He did this with astonishing accuracy and a deftness of foot that would leave the opposition in knots. And he had that kind of ability and control on a football that only the greatest players to play the game ever had. And boy, what ability.

Amy Lawrence (of The Guardian) wrote this about him prior to the Manchester United battle:

“A volatile, unyielding Argentine midfielder who, with Hierro, is a big influence inside the Bernabéu. He’s great with his elbows: should be an interesting duel with Keane.”

A ridiculously narrow-minded assessment but one we have come to expect from folks who are not used to watching much football outside the English leagues. At the final whistle of the second leg, Redondo had not only won over fans inside Old Trafford, he had put some journalists back in their seats with their foot firmly in their mouth.

fernando-redondo-2

He is still considered as one of greatest midfielders of all time by those who played with him

Yet, despite that glorious piece of skill at Old Trafford, Redondo’s finest performance for Real Madrid perhaps came in the 1998 Champions League final against Juventus. He was up against the so called holy trinity back then – a midfield of Zidane, Deschamps and Edgar Davids. Redondo was utterly magnificent that evening, snapping at tackles, intercepting pass after pass, and immediately releasing the ball to launching counter attacks. With the amount of talent on display, Redondo still won the man of the match.

Redondo won the Real Madrid player of the year twice (1996-97 and 1999-2000) during his 6 year spell at the club. Apart from the player of the year awards at Tenerife, he also picked up the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year award in 1999-2000 and the Golden Ball at the Confederations Cup in 1992.

He only played 29 times for Argentina, either due to clashes with the national manager or due to injuries that curtailed his playing career after he left Real Madrid.

It is utterly criminal how infrequently Redondo is mentioned in football conversations worldwide. When fans and coaches discuss the greatest players of all time the names that pop up are inevitably the same – Pele, Garrincha, Maradona, Best, Xavi, Messi, Zindane, Ronaldinho, etc. Here was a player who just wanted to play football, no matter which club, no matter the opposition. From the streets of Argentina to the relegation battles at Tenerife to the glorious years at the Santiago Bernabeu, Fernando Redondo showed us what magic on a football pitch looks like.

Standard
euro-2016
General Football

All signs point to a defensive tournament in France


There was a time when international tournaments, or even international friendlies, served as the great meeting of minds – a conglomeration of different cultures and traditions, a chance to pit your wits against the unknown, to exchange ideas and to be exposed to a completely new style of playing. Uruguay’s completely unexpected defeat of Brazil at the Maracana in 1950, Hungary’s stunning 7-3 sweep of England in 1953, Pele’s introduction to the world stage at the 1958 World Cup, Garrincha’s stunning 1962 tournament, Argentina in 1986, among many others.

euro-2016

Euro 2016 might well see a lack of goals due to the new format

With the emergence of television and the internet, this is not the case anymore. Everyone, from Asia to South America, can access the attributes of each team by the click of a button. The Guardian has an entire page dedicated to this – click on a team and the entire roster shows up with every player’s strengths and weaknesses clearly defined. National football lags well behind club football, both in terms of tactical acumen and the viewer’s interests. The time and understanding it takes to build a deadly unit is unfortunately not available to international coaches, they have to make do with the 10 days they are given in between the club season.

Because of the lack of time to develop sophisticated systems, most of the football on show at international level is soporific and uninspiring. Coaches, under severe pressure already from both fans and directors alike, prefer to keep a more rigid structure. When they don’t, when they fall in the trap of patriotism, like Luiz Felipe Scolari did at the Estádio Mineirão in the last World Cup (Brazil 1-7 Germany, in case you were living under a rock and missed it), it can leave an indelible stain in the careers of both the coach and the players. As Jonathan Wilson (that of the magnificent ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ tactical encyclopaedia) rightly pointed out, coaches prefer to build from the back and with a more conservative outlook.

There are sometimes teams who can come together and build a strong unit – like the Spain side from 2008-2012 and Chile at last year’s Copa America but these are exceptions rather than the norm. Chile had a coach who took over from the previous one and did not change a thing, except the intensity of the team’s pressing. So when the same squad, who had been playing together for a prolonged period, found its rhythm, they were irresistible. Spain simply had a lot players playing at the same club so that level of understanding helped first Luis Aragones and then Vicenete Del Bosque to shape them into a monster side.

Take the currently ongoing Copa America, for example. In the first week, a paltry 14 goals were scored across 8 games (involving 2 goalless draws and 2 1-0 wins). That’s an average of 1.75 goals a game. The last European Championships, held in 2012, offered a measly 2.45 goals per game. The two before that? 2.48. Just to put things into context, the last Premier League season had an average of 2.72 goals per game.

With the current tournament expanding to 24 teams, the minnows, the teams who would likely not have qualified for the tournament in its previous format, will set up a huge defensive wall and ask the stronger team to breach them if they can. In the current format, even three draws might be enough to take a team through to the knockout phase since the best third placed teams will go through as well.

Another huge reason, and this nothing can be done about, is the lack of playing resources a coach has on offer. Unlike at club level, you can’t sign players and are often left with players already burning out for a huge club season. Teams who often channel their attacks (and indeed, their hopes) on one creative outlet – Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sweden, Gareth Bale for Wales, Marek Hamšík for Slovakia, just to name a few – are often left with nothing to offer if the player has an off day or is injured.

Slovakia-Marek-Hamsik

Marek Hamsik carries the hopes of Slovakia on his shoulders

Having poured over all sorts of tactical guides offered by blogs and magazines world over, there are hardly any surprises left for the fans to fawn over. Iceland, who have the potential to be the dark horses at this year’s tournament, were somewhat of an unknown but a stellar qualifying campaign left their entire rise to success exposed to the whole world. Now you can read about them on pretty much every respected football blog, from their tactics to their behind the scenes meteoric rise.

All signs point to this being yet another defensive tournament. There might be a surprise or two from the minnows, but don’t expect any team to light up the tournament. Since drawing games might well be enough in the group stages, teams are unlikely to go all guns blazing. Here’s hoping for an exciting tournament, anyway.

Standard
Grande_Torino_scan
General Football

The Forgotten Tale of Ernö Erbstein


Grande_Torino_scan

Il Grande Torino. Erbstein is on the extreme right (standing)

Ernö Erbstein was a coach who created the magnificent and imperious Il Grande Torino, the great Italian side who won five successive Serie A titles in the 1940s. He was tragically killed, along with the rest of the squad, in a plane crash at Superga in 1949.

If you look up his name anywhere on the internet, you won’t find many English articles or stories about him. It’s a tale that was sadly forgotten by the English speaking public but thanks to Dominic Bliss and his exquisite book on Erbstein, his story is now available for anyone who wishes to know more about the legend.

Erbstein was a coach well ahead of time, a pioneer whose influence and methods are felt in today’s footballing world as well. He took the then famous W-M system (or the 3-2-2-3 formation) and using his gifted talents and penchant for getting the best out of players who were discarded by other clubs, he turned average players into world beaters.

Erbstein was a major part of the Jewish-Hungarian football culture in the early 1900s and had begun to make his mark it Italy as a coach but due to the major anti-Semitic sentiment throughout Europe at that time, he was forced to give up his fledgling managerial career in Italy and flee back to Budapest.

Erbstein started his managerial career at Bari in 1928, the season before the creation of Serie A and Serie B. Since this was the last Italian championship season, the teams who finished in the top 9 in their group would qualify for Serie A next season (there were 2 groups, Group A and Group B). Bari, despite their extremely good home form (a trait that would become increasingly familiar in Erbstein’s teams), would only finish 13th and had to settle for a place in Serie B next season.

Erbstein moved onto Nocerina next season, a step down into the Southern Division of the Prima Divisione (the leagues below Serie B were divided into 4 groups – A, B, C and the Southern Division of which Nocerina were a part of). Erbstein guided the team to a joint 2nd finish (the club were expected to finish in the bottom half) but unfortunately, due to financial issues, the directors decided not to stretch the purse strings any further and they dropped a division to the Seconda Divisione.

Erbstein

Erbstein developed fitness techniques, scouting systems and tactics well ahead of his time

Erbstein had no choice but to leave the club and by this point, a lot of heads had been turned by this young Hungarian who was taking extremely average sides and giving the big boys a run for their money. One such club, Cagliari, became interested in his services and he decided to try his hand with the I Rossoblu. He led the club straight into Serie B in his first season, with a perfect home record to boot. The team lost just twice all season and qualified comfortably into the second division of Italy’s elite. The team went on to finish 13th in Serie B next season, with their home record being solid again (they lost just thrice at home) and letting in just 38 goals, the fourth best defensive record in the league.

One of the stand out features of every Erbstein team, during his entire career, was solidity at the back, pace on the wings and a center forward who could put himself about physically and finish off the moves that the wingers had started. Erbstein relied heavily on his wingers to track back and win the ball, and then start the counter attack with dizzying speed. His was a brand of total football, 30 years ahead of Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff.

Erbstein was let go by Cagliari as the board expected the team to get better results than what the coach could coax out of a very workmanlike side. He rejoined Bari for a brief spell before moving onto Lucchese at the start of the 1933-34 season, where he would create the blueprint that would be applied, with stunning results, at Torino a decade later.

Lucchese were in Group F of the Prima Divisione back then, and yet again, using his astonishing repertoire of managerial skills, Erbstein topped their group and won promotion to Serie B next season. They finished a respectable 7th next season, just 8 points off the eventual champions Genova. Next season, they went on to win the division and for the first time in his career, Ernö Erbstein would have a chance of managing in Serie A.

Olivieri_Aldo

Aldo Olivieri, one of the greatest Italian goalkeepers

One of the most well known players of this Lucchese team was the goalkeeper Aldo Olivieri. Erbstein, throughout his coaching reign, always had an eye for talent in the lower leagues and since his teams could never compete with the big teams financially, he looked to promote youth both from within the club as well as the lower divisions. Olivieri would go on to to win the World Cup with Italy in 1938 and is still regarded as one of the Italian greats.

Lucchese would go on to finish the next season in 7th place and by this point, the Torino president, immensely impressed by this Hungarian’s forward thinking approach to coaching, had lured Erbstein to Turin. But the following season, Erbstein’s off field problems would well and truly begin. As the Nazi campaign gained steam, Mussolini’s Fascist movement allied with them the noose on the Jewish community in Europe tightened. Erbstein fled back to Budapest with his wife, Jolan and his two daughters, Susanna and Marta. For the next 6 years, Erbstein’s primary job became the survival of his family. As the Germans realised that they were losing the war, their focus turned to eradicating as many Jews as possible. The net closed in on Budapest and Erbstein had to join a labour camp or face the penalty of death.

Fortunately for him, the commander of the group he was in was a man he had fought alongside at World War 1 and with his help, Erbstein managed to stage a miraculous escape with 4 other prisoners (one of them being the legendary future Benfica manager Bela Guttman) and the family was reunited soon after the Russians broke through in Hungary. You can read the full story of his struggles during the war here.

Schieramento

Il Grande Torino, the “total football” system implemented by Erbstein

Even during the war years, it emerged that Erbstein had been making clandestine trips to Turin to help scout players and impart advice to the Torino president, and this helped create a bond of mutual friendship between the two. Once the war was over, Erno came back to Torino in the role of a technical advisor and what he considered his team. The team, led by the captain Valentino Mazzola, would win the Scudetto every year till the plane crash. The fluidity of the team, the way the wingers moved inside and the inside forwards moved to the wings, the center forward dropping off and the inside forward or the center half making a run into the box to finish off a move against Juventus, was a hallmark of the side Erbstein had built since 1938.

Unfortunately, Erbstein’s fledgling career was about to be cut brutally short. The plane carrying the Torino squad back from Lisbon after playing a friendly, was flying low due to heavy fog and zero visibility. The pilot did not see the Superga hillside and crashed the plane into a church wall. All 32 men on the flight died immediately, some only recognisable by the things in their pockets.

150302155932-superga-wreckage-large-169

The wreckage of the plane carrying Erbstein and the Torino players and staff

Over 500,000 people turned out for the funeral procession, such was the love and attention Erbstein and his Torino side had earned from the industrial town. His daughters, when they heard the news, went into shock and have not recovered fully since. Here was a man in the prime of his career who was taken from the world by ill fate, a man who gave the world so much and still had so much left to do.

There are not enough column inches I can dedicate to this man and to the great Torino side. I would highly recommend reading the book by Dominic Bliss to gain more insight into the world of Ernö Erbstein.

Ci manchi, Ernö Erbstein. Thank you for beginning a revolution the ripples of which are still felt in the footballing world.

Standard
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.

Standard
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).

Standard
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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Standard
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.

Image

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.

Image

“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.

Image

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.”

Standard
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.

07-12-dupla.jpg_88717827

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.

Standard
General Football, Player Profiles

Thank You for the Memories, Robert Pirès


Image

‘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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Standard
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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Standard