Anti Joga Bonito (Love All Football)

Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.

Culture of success: Wenger’s last days?

Champions League Round of last 16: Arsenal vs. Bayern – 1:3

It’s almost exactly 8 years ago that these two met in this competition at precisely the same stage of 1/8 finals (February 23rd, 2005), with Arsenal ultimately getting knocked out on goal difference due to Bayern’s home win by 3 goals to 1 (Arsenal won the return leg 1-0). The two had locked horns before that in the 2000/2001 tournament, with Bayern also going through on that occasion, on the strength of a home win in Munich (1-0) that the Gunners could not overturn at home (2-2 at Highbury). So the historic odds were not favorable to the Londoners tonight, and given the form of the visitors, there is no huge shame in the evening’s final outcome (and especially considering that 2 of the 3 goals for the visitors were highly scrappy).

Back then in 2005, the result was definitely not a given, as Arsenal was still considered one of the favorites within the English Premier League (EPL), and Wenger & Ferguson formed a formidably intimidating & untouchable duo of senior football aristocrats that would invite much ire from new contenders, and notably a newly competitive Chelsea (under José Mourinho’s direction) and its defenders. So it was that I rejoiced with much glee at Bayern’s win 8 years ago with the following article (in French: http://www.subfoot.com/artman2/publish/2004_2005_39/Le_probl_me_de_la_France_Bayern_Munich_-_Arsenal_3_267.shtml – but don’t bother reading it, it’s mainly rubbish really).

It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you...

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you…

Fast forward 8 years and, at the time of writing, Arsenal are 5th in the EPL and in their 13th consecutive season in the last 16 of Europe’s top clubs, a feat that very few can lay claim to (certainly not Manchester City, nor even great Fergie’s Manchester United, who – it should be reminded – were eliminated at the group stage by ‘lowly’ Basel last season). Yet, if you were to assess the situation only on the basis of UK tabloids’ reports (and around Europe generally, modern day lowest common denominator consensus obliging), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal are about to be relegated to oblivion to the netherworld i.e. the Championship and/or (shock horror) the Europa League. So it is that Wenger cuts an increasingly lonely and isolated figure each day, deemed to be out of touch with the faithful and generally assessed by the “experts” as being inept and responsible for the “ignominy” of Arsenal not collecting any titles for now eight consecutive seasons. Needless to say, you would not find many takers for a bet in Arsenal’s favour, and certainly not in the British media who were still busy digging their teeth into Wenger & his team for the home defeat in the FA Cup versus Blackburn Rovers on the weekend.

As a self-declared Mourinho die-hard supporter, it would be easy for me to rejoice at this witch-hunt against one of the most disingenuous managers in the history of the EPL (alongside Fergie). However, I’m not one to join with the chorus of the obvious. Not because of any sympathy with Wenger, but rather because the obnoxious sense of entitlement exuded by segments of Arsenal fans and especially a number of UK tabloid hacks (some of them disgruntled Arsenal fans) is simply so base & short-sighted that it is impossible to relate to with any degree of seriousness.

From the standpoint of criteria applying to any other profession, what Wenger has accomplished as general manager since taking over is simply outstanding. Not only is the club financially stable and debt-free, but Arsenal consistently competes at the top level on all four fronts (EPL, CL & the two cups) and furthermore offers a style of play that, while sometimes nerve-wrecking, is nevertheless broadly entertaining and technically laudable. Add to that an increasing propensity for supporting local British talent, and you have a near perfect recipe for an-all time darling for the cause of British football.

That it is not the case today is partly Wenger’s own fault, as his autocratic and generally defensive communication style has over the years alienated many. A lack of good fortune also played its part in near misses that might have allowed for more breathing space, such as the defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final at the end of the 2011 season. Wenger probably has his share of blame in all this, at a technical level (coaching & recruitment skills in recognizing the importance of, and consolidating defensive capabilities) but potentially more so through the subtle but pernicious influence of his obstinate defense of the club’s impressively consistent but unglamorous results. By doggedly defending as a major achievement the club’s track record of finishing in the last 4 (of the EPL) and accomplishing decent runs in the Champions League, he has arguably contributed to lowering ambitions in the dressing room. It is impossible for outsiders such as journalists and fans to assess such things, one can at best speculate.

A pisstake but so close to the truth

A pisstake but so close to the truth

But fundamentally his low stock of late is less reflective of a real problem of competency than the paradox of modern football fans’ expectations, which were brilliantly illustrated by WSC in a recent issue (as below). At the end of the day, having tasted glory in the modern era, and despite the fact that they should know better than to envy the increasingly ridiculous shenanigans of Abramovitch and his poodles, or the outrageous financial dealings of the Glazers ilk, some segments of Arsenal fans (or is it really only journos, ultimately?) can’t help themselves but yearn for a piece of glory, and as time goes by, are increasingly prepared to throw caution to the wind just in order to have their 5 minutes of indulging greater fantasies of basking in the sunlight of a trophy. For victory is never guaranteed, it must be earned.

Funnily enough, it seems to me as if the real losers who need to prove themselves in all this were not the boys in red & white, but the ones in black. It has now been relegated to the archives, but few care to remember Bayern’s identity-tormenting 2006-2007 season that not only ended without trophies, but saw the club ‘demoted’ to a year in the Europa League, which at the time prompted scathing comments from that most sensuous of goalkeepers, Oliver Kahn. More recently, Bayern qualified for the Champions League final twice in the last 3 years, only to be outplayed both times, by Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, neither of which were seen as favorites on the day.

Like the German national team, Bayern Munich tend to impress in the early stage of competitions and the first few rounds of “when things get serious”, attracting plaudits from everyone including your mom to that annoying bloke at the office whose understanding of football stems solely from reading tabloid headlines. But they then proceed to fall flat at the critical moment like a deflated soufflé, and with remarkable regularity. Will it be so again this year, or will they finally show the mettle required of winners? If not, perhaps there is a bit of a challenge remaining for Pep Guardiola – the universal darling of all – to bring his managerial skills to bear. It would certainly help to counter what otherwise seems to be an illustration of a penchant for safety in his rather sedate choice to tie the knot with the Bavarian ogre that looks set to win the Bundesliga by a considerable margin. But then again, it will not be the first time that he inherits a well-developed structure & winning team to perform with – a fact that will be conveniently forgotten by all as soon as he wins any trophies. Because as we all know, success washes away all sins.

Respect Aimé

Aimé does his version of Clint Eastwood with a trademark piercing look, testing of his critics

Aimé Jacquet is truly one of football’s coaching greats (and just greats, period), and in the course of a very, very belated catch-up with Albin Michel’s wonderfully compact and perfectly delicious “C’est quoi le foot”, I was again reminded that I had not sufficiently recognised this in the past. My very genevois and often very pig-headed opposition to all things French surely does not help – but I am aware of it and I change my mind (heck, I even drive a French car).

A short, light but highly informative and insightful read, it is essentially a long, interview-format conversation with one of football’s most intelligent and humble coaches, recorded back in 2000. A number of topics are covered through a series of some fairly basic – if not irritably naive – questions, but they serve as excellent bouncing boards for Aimé to expand on his vision and aspirations for the beautiful game. What is particularly endearing about him is the sense of passion for the game, but also balance in the way he discusses various challenging topics: even when commenting upon the odious hate campaign that was conducted against him by the influential dedicated sports magazine “L’Equipe” at the time, he shows no sign of personal bitterness or pettiness, instead managing to address the sense of injustice committed on his person in a factual and calm manner. He even manages to not make fun of rugby, while perfectly sensibly explaining why it and other sports such as basketball are not likely to be able to soon rival football for world dominance.

In this unassuming little treasure that has been gathering dust in my library for many years now, I also happened to find the following gem that perfectly resonates with the fundamental premise of this blog and that I just had to share, and which I especially dedicate to all my Barça brown-noising friends (Google translate for non-francophones, or write to me if you are really lazy, I might just feel like translating it for you):

Question: On a vu pas mal de scènes de violences ces dernières années. Croyez-vous que le foot devient trop violent?

Answer: Franchement, non. Il faut seulement avoir bien présent à l’esprit que les joueurs étant de mieux en mieux préparés, beaucoup plus athlétiques qu’il y a une vingtaine d’années, le jeu s’en ressent et devient plus engagé. Les duels sont plus rudes, plus impressionnants pour l’oeil extérieur. Mais, dans ce je plus dense, ce sont encore, et comme toujours, les techniciens qui vont faire la différence, hier un Platini, aujourd’hui un Zidane. L’erreur à ne pas commettre, c’est de croire qu’un Platini ou un Zidane sont décisifs par eux-mêmes et par eux seuls. Ils le sont parce qu’un incontournable, un considérable travail de conquête et de reconquête du ballon est accompli par toute l’équipe avant qu’ils puissent “entrer en scène”, si j’ose dire. Une certaine forme de perversité, voire de malhonnêteté, a longtemps consisté à nous convaincre qu’il fallait choisir entre un football physique, athlétique, bien sûr pas trop glorieux, et un football technique, léché, bien sûr plus noble. Faux débat! Discussion sans fondement! Il y a toujours eu dans le football. à toutes les époques, des duels à livrer, des défis physiques à relever, des “pressings” à assurer. On ne peut pas plus s’en dispenser aujourd’hui qu’hier et même plutôt moins, alors que les joueurs sont devenus de véritables athlètes. Si l’on refuse cette exigence, cette évidence, pas de salut! Après, place à l’imagination, place aux créateurs, et à tout ce que vous voulez.

Home Advantage

Despite appearances to the contrary, having a family and a social agenda means that important milestones will sometimes be missed, so hopefully all 3 of my blog readers will forgive me for not posting anything on the last 4 games. I promise to catch it up over the next two game days. However, AJB is back tonight for a riveting Ukraine-Sweden game that is promising to be a firecracker!!! Sorry, forgot to turn off the Sky Sports / BBC hype pump, that wasn’t me talking.

C.R.E.A.M. – clowns rule everything around me.

It is interesting to observe how far the co-opting, and at the same time, the sanitisation and the numbing of fans’ passion has gone, and that corporations now feel quite unabashed in offering up their definition of what being a fan is about in full public view. Gone are the classic images of footballers fooling around with the ball in airports or just kicking it around in the stadium. The central theme running through one of the tournament’s main sponsors campaign (a company known for its various electronic products) is that what constitutes “the most dedicated fan” seems mainly linked to ability to dress silly and heavily going in for face painting. Never mind keeping up a positive attitude when things are not going well, or attending far away games in Eastern Europe surrounded by unfriendly cops. But commitments of that type do not make for media-friendly images that can be used to create that diffuse but sufficiently bland warm feeling that gives sponsors the sense of purpose in funding such nonsense.

Ukraine-Sweden, 11 June 2012, 20h45 kick-off: 2:1

Team: Ukraine

Voronin considers his future career options

Hollywood factor: Andriy Voronin’s signature pony tail offers a number of options: ideally that of a Eastern European baddie in straight-to-DVD spy thrillers, but failing that there might just be space in porn. What? He’s cut it off (the pony tail)? That’s what happens when you join Liverpool, all your self-confidence goes down the drain (exhibit B: Fernando Torres).

Old/mean man kudos: At 35, Andriy Shevchenko is Ukraine’s most senior and undoubtedly most illustrious player, having starred at AC Milan and then, erm, Chelsea. Notwithstanding that, despite looking as if he has just managed to grow his first beard, Bayern’s Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is another credible contender at 33. Otherwise, all of Ukraine’s players are really nice guys in touch with their sensitive side.

French connection: This is another stretch: former Lyon defender Pape Diakhaté, currently with Spanish club Grenada FC, officially spent 4 seasons at Dynamo Kiev from 2007 to 2011 (although he was loaned out for 2 of them). That should be amply sufficient to get him invited to the late evening piss-up on M6 that passes for a football discussion show, to offer his views on “what it’s like over there”. There might be a last dash attempt for pre-retirement heroics for Sheva, especially after that lovely flying header and if the new owners at PSG fail to land a current big name like Ibrahimovic or Tevez.

The more stupid, the better. This one is courtesy of a soft drinks company.

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: 22-year old Andrei Yarmolenko is not exactly a household name just yet (as such transfer targets quickly become), but has managed to get himself noticed during Kiev’s recent Champions League outings. With a total of 12 goals (to 28 appearances) for club last season, and another 4 (out of 7) for country, he could be the new big thing for the right club. With Bili the Kid at Everton, blue would perhaps be a good destination for him, unless Arsène decides he can’t afford Dzagoev but wants to add to list of his alternative signings from Eastern Europea. Otherwise, on the left wing, Yevhen Konoplyanka was equally if not more impressive throughout the evening, showing lots of technical skills and courage to take on opponents directly.

Team: Sweden

Sebastien Larsson

Hollywood factor: Am I the only one to have noticed the striking resemblance between Sunderland’s Sebastien Larsson and comedy stand up “executive drag” star Eddie Izzard? I wonder who’s better at the other one’s skills – Larsson with the jokes, or Izzard with the ball?

Old/mean man kudos: In addition to Sweden, 34-year old Olof Mellberg has played in Spain, England, Italy and now Greece, for the last 3 years (at Olympiakos)! If that isn’t proof of a big heart, I don’t know what is.

French connection: Unlike for the Ukranians and many other nations covered so far, the Swedes seem to quite like playing in France. Goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson spent two years at Rennes from 2004 to 2006, Kim Källström has been at Lyon forever, while Johan Elmander got Europe to take notice while at Toulouse, from 2006 to 2008; a bit sadly for him, only Bolton was watching.

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: at lot has been said of midfielder Rasmus Elm, currently serving at AZ Alkmaar and with 10 goals to his name this season. At 24, he might be a ripe for a new challenge.

– – – – – –

Historic moment of the match: The dramatic and emotionally loaded hug between Andriy Shevchenko and the grumpy old Oleg Blokhin following the former’s 2nd goal – they indulged in another one at the end of the game.

Hero of the game: Shevchenko, for that beautiful 1st headed goal, created from nearly nothing, and for confounding his critics (including this scribe) by deciding the game with the 2nd (and getting one over Ibrahimovic in the process).

Galliani was there too, to show support & dedication for his Swedish darling.

Rollin’ Wit Da Dane(s)

There is a change of media base for this one as we mosey on over to BBC1 to watch the game with Jonathan Pearce and that brightest of consultant commodities, Martin Keown. In the jingle just before the teams’ exit onto the pitch, the Dutch and the Danish teams are represented by pictures of windmills and Danish swirls, respectively. Presumably these symbols have been statistically verified to be the ones that the majority of British people most immediately associate with the two countries. I suppose they could have done worse with some Gouda cheese (or worse even, tulips) and a great Dane. Something has gone terribly wrong with British media this year – is it the Murdoch scandal, the lowest expectations of the national squad ever, or the depressing reality of the jubilee? The in-studio consultant panel – a star studded affair with uncle Arry and the token Dutch star Seedorf – is also oddly dressed, as if Diddy was hired as the wardrobe consultant and is preparing to whisk them all of to the grand re-opening of Studio 54.

The disco-ready BBC1 panel: Uncle ‘Arry, Clarence Seedorf & Lee Dixon

Netherlands – Denmark, 9 June 2012, 18h kick-off;

Team: Netherlands

Hollywood factor: Nigel de Jong’s world cup kung fu kick in the final has already landed him offers to take over from Jackie Chan once the latter reaches 80, or co-star alongside Jason Streatham as a crazy side kick in Crank 4.

Old/mean man kudos: Without any doubt it has to be Mark Van Bommel, possibly Europe’s most detested leg-breaking midfielder.

French connection: The Dutch and the French don’t mix. Not in the same animated, confrontational manner as the Dutch and ze Germans, but the fact is that you will be hard pressed to find Dutch internationals in Ligue 1. Most of them come from either Ajax or PSV and when they are ready to move on to bigger and better things, tend to favor the EPL. I mean, even Khalid Boulahrouz managed to get hired by Chelsea – not one of José’s best picks. Must have been a tip from Frank Arnsesen. I have located the trace of one Rajiv van La Parra, who played for two seasons at Caen (2008-2011, the first season being in L1), but he came from Feyenoord Rotterdam – told ya! Before him, there was Boudewijn Zenden at Marseille (2007-2009), and an unremarkable last season for Patrick Kluivert at Lille in 2007-2008.

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: There’s not that many in this team, apart from Willems (18) and Gregory Van der Wiel (23); the others are all over 25, including Affelay, who is fairly well tied to Barça and 26. Most already play in the EPL. Speculation will probably be rife for a Sneijder move to either City or United (Manchester), but hopefully it will all be wishful thinking. Someone may be tempted to come and fetch Maarten Stekelenburg from Rome, hoping he will be able to emulate the inspirational Dutch goalkeeper magic demonstrated by Tim Krul (for Newcastle) and Michael Vorm (for Swansea) this season. Oops, well, not after letting that one through his legs.

Team: Denmark

Richie Cunningham – must have been Danish, he’s even wearing the colours.

Hollywood factor: Simon Kjaer’s true blond locks and looks constitute significant credentials for featuring in all sorts of surfer or skater movies.

Old/mean man kudos: More old than mean, but at 33, Dennis Romedahl is definitely the senior fella in this squad. Apparently he has stated that he feels he can continue for another 8 or 9.

French connection: After frantically transferring around Europe for a number of years like a crazed US college kid on a Euro-rail back-pack holiday with a countdown, Christian Poulsen officiated in midfield for the newly promoted Evian Thonon Gaillard last season – and somehow they managed to stay up. They’re sponsored by a yogurt, you know.

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: He’s Danish, but he’s at Ajax, which is probably what has got Christian Ericksen noticed by a number of observers. It wasn’t really a great evening for him – according to Seedorf at half-time, the Danes were locked in a style of play that does not help to bring out the best of his skills.

– – – – – –

Historic moment of the match: The completely against the run of play first Danish goal by the fabulously named Michael Krohn-Dehli, whose picture on UEFA’s Matchcentre is reminiscent of a really haggard Richie Cunningham.

New Delhi scores for the Danes

Hero of the game: probably Krohn-Delhi, if the Danes manage to hold on to the score (I am publishing this on the 92nd minute of the game).

Czech yourself

Russia – Czech Republic, June 8, 2012 – 20h45 kick off; 4-1

After this convincing display, albeit against an opposition that is more intimidating in terms historical achievements than present might on the pitch, Russia will certainly climb up in most specialists’ and especially tourists’ rankings as potential favorites. It’s always so with wins with significant goal margins. But to be fair, they did show good command of the ball and potency in attack, so it is actually not unfair for them to inherit the status of favorites to qualify from this group. A quick review of their essential features as per this tournament’s key assessment criteria.

Russia

Ivan Denisov’s Hollywood future

Hollywood factor: Igor Denisov would be a great Russian baddie sidekick in a James Bond flick, but the problem is that the Russians have slipped down the bad guys’ pecking order.

Old/mean man kudos: With the singular exception of the youthful Dzagoev, the average age of the starting 11 is probably somewhere around 29 if not even 30, so there are many contenders for this role. Defender Aleksandr Anyukov looks the meanest though (see photo below).

French connection: There have not been many Russian players in Ligue 1. This is kind of surprising given the many lavish and luxurious facets of life in France. The low appeal of the hexagon may have to do with the high taxes, the absence of Russian owners, or simply the general lack of all round bling-bling status, though that may be changing rapidly as PSG prepares for another big splash this summer. But honestly, I don’t even feel like googling the players’ names, I am that unconvinced of finding anything (help is welcome as always).

Alan’s technique versus Petr’s physique (& hair)

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: Alan Dzagoev – the very prospect of being able to lean on the simplicity of his first name for buddy-buddy post match interviews (for UK journos) places him above many on the shopping list for an early summer deal, not to mention his two great goals of the evening. If Roman doesn’t bite, don’t put it past Wenger to break the piggy bank (and try to definitely dispose of Arshavin in the process) for another promising quick-footed midfielder.

Czech Republic

Hollywood factor: Although already 31, Arsenal’s own Tomáš Rosický conserves a youthful insouciance that is quite endearing (for example his haircut suggests he is no more than 15 years old). If Arnold Schwarzenegger is ever tempted for a reprise in his classic role, for example in Terminator 5, I would recommend Rosický to play alongside the former guvna as an older version of John Connor (that other kid in Terminator 3 was completely out of his depth). But really, let’s face it, it’s all gone terribly wrong since Jan Koller retired from national service. (copyrighted pun by prince O of Subfoot.com fame)

Mean man in defence, Aleksandr Anyukov; the Czechs no longer have one like him. Where is Tomas Ujfalusi anyway?

Old/mean man kudos: High of his Champions League performance, it should be Cech but that soft fuzzy helmet is suggestive of a lingering fragility not suited to the big boots that come with this responsibility. Though not exactly old at 26, Petr Jiráček’s has a potential bad boy/rock star look that put him in contention for this role (as well as a move to AS Roma). However, overall the boys in white are light on this key factor especially prized by Roy Keane, so they won’t be his favorites to make it through the next round.

French connection: Bordeaux’s own Jaroslav “mini-Nedved” Plasil, the talented but typically underachieving midfielder (as per the now established tradition of post 1990’s initially promising Czech talent). Seriously, it’s all gone terribly wrong since Jan Koller left Monaco.

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: On a serious note, the young 23-year old Václav Pilař, who impressed with Viktoria Plzen in this year’s Champions League group stages, and elegantly converted the only Czech goal of the evening, could be a good buy for someone with a slightly longer term vision then the average EPL chairman. I bet David Moyes could make him fit in well at Everton.

– – – –

Historic moment of the match: The very smooth 2nd goal chip by Roman Shirokov.

Roman chips over Cech for the 2nd goal of the night.

Hero of the game: Alan Dzagoev, and notably for his convincing 2nd goal and passionate but classic celebration.

Harry Redknapp’s quip of the game: He’s good that Roman Pavlyuchenko guy, we should try to buy him for next season.

Greece in pole position (for 2nd place?)

One of the most annoying things about modern football official journalism is the American inspired desire to sanitise fan rivalry with stupid photos like this one.

So the European national football championship is finally off to a great start, and I am not talking about the ceremony, which is scrupulously avoided by monitoring the Djokovic-Federer game that was on at the same time. No, the appraisal refers to the opening game opposing 1/2 hosts Poland to Europe’s boo boys, Greece. Although it ended 1-1 after Greek captain Karagounis failed to take the advantage for his side from a penalty kick, it was a most entertaining and fairly dramatic affair, with Borussia Dortmund’s in form hot commodity striker Lewandowski confirming his potential by grabbing his first of the tournament. The two red cards, one for each side, also raised the intensity. Though Greece will rue the missed penalty that could have brought them precious 3 points, they can probably be quite satisfied to grab one point from this first and always delicate fixture against the hosts where they were clearly not the favorites.

What follows is less match commentary than a team review, the format of which I will try to build on during the following games – enjoy, comments welcome.

Poland-Greece, Friday June 8, 2012 – 18h kick-off

Greece Team Profile

Hollywood factor: This one has to go to Giorgos Samaras as young Evan Almighy, although defender’s Holebas haircut and vociferous complaining to the ref (after claims for a penalty for a handball by Polish defender Perquis fell on deaf ears) could easily have him landing a minor role in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

Samaras considers a return to Greek football (or perhaps the prospect of quarter finals).

Old/mean man kudos: Either captain Karagounis, for sheer experience, or Dimitris Salpingidis the goalscorer, for his greater “300” hard man coefficient (respectable beard helping).

French connection (1): A lonely Giorgos Tzavellas (on the bench, unsubstituted) featured in this year’s resurgent Monaco side. Otherwise it is difficult challenge to make the connection, as Greek players resolutely prefer the German Bundesliga as their main export destination. Who says Greeks and Germans can’t get along? Or that the Greeks don’t fancy the Euro?

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: I could see Roberto Martinez fancying the deft footwork of young Ninis to rejuvenate his Wigan side. Otherwise, Sam Allardyce may already be on the phone for hard man Salpingidis.

Poland Team Profile

Hollywood factor: In the tradition of the inimitable Ralph Macchio, we could easily see the hosts’ goalkeeper, Szczesny, adopt the funky “Z-man” moniker (on the strength of the two Z’s in his name) and develop a great career playing nerdy kids up until the age of 40.

Old/mean man kudos: none whatsoever – this is clearly a bunch of young boys with plenty of acne to boot, à la Gunners quoi. The only alternative may be coach Smuda, but only if eligibility guidelines are relaxed.

French connection (1): Ludovic Obraniak, the “outsider” to this team who has shown his talent at Bordeaux this season after leaving Lille following their title win in 2011. Too bad he couldn’t demonstrate more of that on the few opportunities he had to make the difference this evening.

I’m not only good, I’ve got a big mouth too!

New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: Though his complex name may considerably reduce journo enthusiasm, Błaszczykowski’s carefully crafted metro-sexual (Beckham-approved) hairstyle, as well as regular forays into the final 3rd of the opposition’s half, and the superb cross for the first goal, will surely suffice to make him a UK tabloid darling for a reasonably priced move to the EPL – at the very least at QPR, maybe even for Liverpool (if Benitez was still there). Alternatively, Newcastle United might be tempted to increase their francophone credentials with Obraniak. Failing all that, Lewandowski might also find his way there, perhaps at Arsenal with his buddy Szczesny (especially if RVP moves on).

– – – –

Historic moment of the match: in a heavily symbolic moment that will have the rest of Europe cheering in approval, the unfortunately (Tintin baddie-like) named Greek defender Papastathopoulos sees the first red of the tournament, as Greece is reduced to 10 men. Cue riots in Athens.

Hero of the game: it’s a close call between super subs Dimitris Salpingidis (goal + won penalty for the Greeks) and Przemyslaw Tyton, the sub goalie whose first intervention consisted in saving the penalty shot from Karagounis.

Przemyslaw Tyton’s… erm…. titanic save? Yeah, I know…

(1) According to the official French media essential elements guide by the excellent Subfoot.com (read article), there has to be one.

The thinking man’s game

Cover of Stephen Foster’s most entertaining compilation.

As most of Europe, as well as (hopefully) a good part of the rest of the world, attempts to forget its present economic concerns by indulging in all sorts of football related debauchery (score guessing, animated arguing with family and random strangers, hair pulling, beer drinking and other less edifying activities such as flag waving, face painting, and the Mexican wave), it seems a good moment to share (edited sections of) the following piece by Mark Eltringham, published in Stephen Foster’s excellent “The Book Of Football”.

Far from me to give prominence to a competition involving national teams, but somehow the mounting sense of excitement at the prospect of a gourmet diet of two games per day, following a fairly dull period of three weeks after the end of the club seasons, deserves recognition and some reverence. The occasion may not be a perfect one, but this is about a bigger issue – the general role and place of football in modern society. Therefore while this piece should certainly rub true fans’ sensibilities the right way like Johnny Gill, it is also and maybe especially aimed at rugby, basketball, cricket and other minor sports followers and non-believers, certain FB smart alecks who like to pretend like they are above it all, and tourist fans compelled to tune in because of a sense of obligation to the rising nationalist fervor (1) and the fear of being unable to participate in office and pub conversations. A message for you suckers:  if you don’t get it even after this, stay off our jocks for the next month or so.

The fact is that there is undoubtedly something about football that speaks to people in a universal language. No other sport, with the possible exception of boxing, has more to say about what makes us human. I know that followers of rugby and cricket like to think that they occupy the intellectual high ground, but that is mainly a class thing. The fact is that the only decent quotation about rugby is a comparison with football (2), as you’d expect from a sport burdened with the inferiority complex of an overshadowed little brother. And cricket appears to have inspired very little in the way of original thought…

1 Jun 1986: the inspirational doctor lines up before the World Cup match against Spain at the Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico. Brazil won the match 1-0.
Credit: David Cannon/Allsport

The working man’s ballet can even claim the moral high ground, because it is (or was) the sport and cultural focus of the working class. And, as John Rose demonstrates in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the working autodidact is a much more attractive figure than his or her advantaged and educated middle-class contemporary. Self-taught or otherwise, rough, straight-talking and passionate about their football, this was the crowd depicted by LS Lowry in Going to the Match, his famous painting that fetched £2m at an auction in 2000. These people formed the bulk of the crowd when I first started going to games, in what we now think of as a Golden Age, in the mid-70’s. This was the England and the game I knew, a million miles from the cosy, mythical Darling Buds England of John Major, yet no less poetic for that. Sure, it was a dark poetry most of the time and you had to tolerate unromantic things like toilets that swam with piss (ndrl. that reminds me of les Charmilles), but it was magical nonetheless. Something was lost to the game at the same time they sorted out the toilets and Man United started winning things again (3).

So profound is football’s fascination for intellectuals, that individuals positions have their own canon. Inevitably the goalkeeper has attracted most interest. Albert Camus was himself a goalkeeper before taking the tiny step to become an existentialist. Nabokov spoke poetically about the goalie’s unique role in the game (4). Wim Wenders went one step further by making a whole film about the existential angst that grips the custodian, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick.

…. football’s place as a source of inspiration for observers of the human condition is assured. Now that the working man is an endangered species, its role as the working man’s ballet may be past, but it will continue to be the thinking man’s ballet.

Not a great thinker, but endlessly inspirational nonetheless. (5)

(1) Though I am delighted that the so called nationalist fervor has been largely absent this time around, notably due to subdued expectations in both England and France, two very dominant media BS generators, as well as merciful absence of Switzerland this time around (I know I will get heat for that, but I stand by it).

(2) Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentleman’s game played by beasts. Henry Blaha, rugby player, 1972.

(3) This section is very UK-centric, but easily adapted to any other setting. For example, the very fact that most Americans (but not all – more of them are getting wiser with each Clint Dempsey goal) don’t even get what the fuss is about even when the World Cup is on, says it all.

(4) The goalkeeper is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Less the keeper of a goal than the keeper of a dream. Vladimir Nabokov, autobiography, Speak, Memory, 1951.

(5) In a sublime yet totally unconscious (true dat) effort to sidestep any hint of Euro-centrism, the photos of two Latin American greats grace this extract. However, feel free to suggest other European greats that have been just as inspirational (except Cruyff please: not tolerated in these pages, in line with KGB Mou strict code of ethics).

Chelsea’s Special Footprint

So, the Russian finally has his coveted European trophy… and I am sure he was amongst those least likely to think he would earn it with this assistant coach, following the worst season (from an EPL standpoint) since his arrival. Hop Di Matteo!

But is it so unexpected? 9 years after the start of the Chelski project, but more importantly, 8 years after the arrival of another previous assistant and the club’s first successes in this modern era, these are the ripe – and yes, somewhat unlikely – fruits to be reaped from the seeds that the Special One sowed back then. In their joy, the current team may not be bothered to thank him now (and will be forgiven if so), but this footprint was not missed on those that know the club’s history of play, and notably during the two legs against Barça. It was during those two ties that Chelsea laid the foundations of their defensive solidity and concentration, with grit and determination borne from the teachings of their first mentor who turned them from perennial underachievers (à la Spurs) to champion material.

For days the papers will be full of praise for the two main heroes of the evening, Peter Cech & Didier Drogba, and rightly so. Even in victory, Didier has shown that he is a great and humble athlete. What they may forget to mention alongside their (and their teammates’ various exploits along the way) is who put them up there, along with the relatively uncelebrated (at that point in time) Frank Lampard and John Terry. But it is not this scribe who will forget that the signing of the Ivory Coast striker, fresh from a great (but single) season with Marseille, was one of José’s first signings for the Blues, and yet one of the most heavily criticised. If you do not believe me, see the following links 1, 2 and 3 for some good examples of the kind of shock and incredulity back then, which went on for a while as the Drogba scored “only” 16 goals that 1st season. £24m may have been a lot to pay back then, especially for someone who had previously not fetched more than £4m (£3.3m according to some reports). But who will dare to come out and claim now that it was too much? Probably not one of France’s golden generation, Mr. Frank Beef, who was strongly suggesting an exit for the striker during the “disappointing” 2010-2011 season that saw the Blues get only to second place in the EPL.

We all love a good comeback story, and last night’s victory is all the more endearing for this generation of players because so many – in the style of the afore mentioned french defender – had written them off and already consigned them to the dustbin of football has-beens. It is a silly mistake to have made, especially since José’s Inter had shown similar verve in accomplishing their historic treble only two years ago.

Which is all very reassuring – there is balance in the universe after all. It’s not just about joga bonito, but also about determination, spirit, abnegation, collective solidity, self-confidence – in other words, normal football. At the very least, the Blues should be acknowledged and thanked for restoring that balance once again.

Random Thoughts 1 (on a rainy football-less Saturday)

It’s very quiet today in terms of football watching opportunities… there is the German cup final tonight… maybe I’ll watch to see if Kloppo can take one further title away from the loud Bavarians. It would be good if they end up complete losers across all competitions, in the same style as Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. But they are still favorites for next Saturday, no diggedy.

In the meantime, management of second tier EPL clubs is invited to take notice of the old guard sale at Milan AC. The departures of Gattuso, Nesta, Van Bummel (that’s purposeful – lame & cheap – but purposeful) and Inzaghi (the only man that José ever said he is afraid of) have been confirmed, and Seedorf as well as Zambrotta are also expected to move on. Good buying opportunities (in terms of increasing media profile and WAG coefficient) for QPR (if they stay up), and perhaps especially Reading, whose new boss’s wife has set the bogey.

But there is fortunately some major action taking place tomorrow. The EPL final round has turned out to be more of a hyping up opportunity than the media could have ever dreamed of, and Fergie has not disappointed by upping the stakes with a fine volley of his expertly crafted mind games. Mark Hughes must be wetting himself at the opportunity to ingratiate himself in the eyes of his former mentor, and who knows, maybe also the Glazers. Will certainly take a special place in the red’s hearts if he manages to frustrate Mancini’s boys.

Kanouté is celebrated by his teammates.

In Spain, it will be fascinating to see if Real Madrid can reach the 100 point mark by winning their last game at home against Mallorca, and perhaps even reach the +90 mark on goal difference – which makes for a nearly +3 average per game. Not bad for a defensively minded team masterminded by the enemy of football. Sevilla will be happy to turn the page on this season, but sad to lose one of its final greats from the phenomal epoch of the UEFA Cup double, Frédéric Kanouté, whose contribution and partnership with Luis Fabiano, Dani Alves, Jésus Navas and the others was a key factor in the success of the club. A great but yet very underrated player (check out his wiki if you don’t know his career, a couple of interesting points about his personal life and engagement on political issues), Kanouté also confirms in this little clip how much humility, integrity and sense of loyalty he has – estarás en nuestros corazones para siempre, Freddy!

Super capitano Javier Zanetti

Regarding Italy, it’s a big day tomorrow for the four clubs competing for the final C1-qualifying 3rd spot, namely (in current pecking order) Udinese, Lazio, Napoli & Inter, as well as Lecce & Genoa who will battle for survival in Serie A. Big thanks to my man Nick for passing on this superb post in honour of super capitano Javier Zanetti – like Clark Kent (copyright: Prince O), he never ages (and yet never has to resort to any kryptonite).

Finally, a mention of this documentary sent to me by my good friend P, otherwise known as Blu (of Downtown Boogie fame). Interesting but somewhat annoying documentary on corruption – while starting out promisingly on a cross-sports theme, it quickly becomes boring as it transpires that – despite it’s title (Sport, mafia & corruption) – it is going to all about vilifying football and presenting financial crime operating through online betting sites as an inevitable corollary of the former. Against a doomsday keyboard background that would have been great for a follow-up to the tedious Angels & Demons, and accompanied by a narrator whose voice sounds as if he is recounting the story of a genocide, the documentary descends into “modern football” bashing and low common denominator / soft leftie consensus on the general (and highly original) theme that “money is bad/corrupts”. They roll out a few statistics on the amounts involved – all of which pale in comparison to the sum of monthly irregularities in the financial industry. I am not saying there is no problem, but the general doom-mongering tone, as well as the gimmicky typewriter sound accompanied filming location sites legends, are supremely unhelpful. Still, I suppose it should be highly recommended viewing for all Juve fans – it seems this kind of stuff is still news to them.

  • Highlights: reminder of the dodgy Milan win against Napoli for the 1987-1988 title (see 5mins 30secs, or this YouTube video, around 6mins).

Posticipo Brillante

The front pages of the Italian press will tonight be all black and white, but for the nerazzurri, it is like a re-birth. One almost wishes that the season was already over, as one could hardly pen a more fitting & emotionally uplifting scenario to wrap an otherwise difficult season that has tested the frontiers of complexity. This evening’s Milan derby has done a lot to restore pride and happiness, as well as remind the nerazzurri of the kind of passion that has been missing for most of the season. Even the ridiculously incompetent (or purposefully malignant?) refereeing trio could not dent the force of the hosts tonight, despite denying them a goal and then gifting a non-existent penalty to the visiting Milan AC.

Il Principe started things off brilliantly with a true poacher’s goal, but the fans then had to endure the now predictable officials’ “helping hand”. Unsurprisingly, the squad suffered after the gifted penalty was converted, and was further tested after the second goal by Ibrahimovic. But the ageing “senators”, led by the tireless and as usual exemplary captain Zanetti, have again confounded the critics by digging deep for that agonistic spirit that has characterised the side that won the historic triple in 2010. Let them now come forward and argue that the squad is old and depleted – they would be hard pressed to find evidence of fatigue and resignation in tonight’s performance. This was partly helped by the compact 4-5-1 formation (with Wesley occasionally venturing forward in support of the otherwise lonely Milito), but fundamentally this game was all about heart, guts and motivation in standing up for self and fighting injustice. Because it would clearly have been a case of daylight robbery had the visitors managed to get away with 3 points.

Instead of suffering what most observers mights have already banked on, the blue & black soldiers rose to the occasion, similarly in many ways to the return leg in 2010 in its dramatic intensity and sense of overwhelming favoritism for the opponent. And with what aplomb! Douglas Sisenado gifted us one of those goals that had forever endeared him to the nerazzurri fans in the past and notably in 2010, reminding all of his attacking flair and capacity to take responsibility.

The joy of this victory is doubly delicious as it presented the final blow to the cousins’ aspirations, condemning them to a title-less season and putting Allegri’s last season’s success into a more humble context.

It was certainly a most appropriate way to pay homage to one of the longer serving faithful, for whom it was the last game at home, Iván Ramiro Córdoba Sepúlveda.

The dream continues!