Friday, November 14, 2008

Jan Molby

Understand: for a Manchester United fan, Liverpool are the enemy. More than City, more than Arsenal, more than Leeds, more than Chelsea. The two greatest clubs in English football come from two cities less than an hour apart with a bitter historical rivalry. They are the most successful clubs in the Country with the biggest support, the most glorious histories and the biggest auras. Arsenal and Chelsea have new weight, glamour, wealth and meaning in the age of Premier League games being followed worldwide, but it is not the same as the Legendary qualities of the two big clubs from the North-West. So its difficult for me to write about any Liverpool player with affection. Their enduring and incredible success in the 1980s was hard for a young United fan to deal with. They won everything. We won nothing, existing on reputation and occasionally glorious football, not unlike the modern-day Tottenham Hotspur.

My brother - less than two years younger than me - is a devoted Liverpool fan. He lives it in a way I never have. Losses wound him, depress him, effect his daily wellbeing. He hates United more than I hate Liverpool, I imagine. Our triumphant dominance of the 1990s has been hard for Liverpool fans to swallow and increased the keenness of the rivalry. But it was different when we were younger. Then I could watch Liverpool matches - as long as they were not playing United - with some neutrality. The years of crowing and nose-rubbing hadn't really taken their emotional toll yet. I didn't have quite so much invested. I watched the 1984 European Cup Final with my brother, rooting for Liverpool against Roma. And, oddly enough, the 1986 FA Cup Final, when Liverpool played Everton. Back then, the FA Cup Final felt like as big a deal as the World Cup Final, somehow. We got up early and watched the entire build-up, cameras on team buses, interviews with fans etc. Wembley always seemed to lie under a blanket of sunshine. Its different now. I just had to rack my brain to recall who won this year's FA Cup Final. The Premier League, the Champions League - they really have changed football.

In 1986, Liverpool were on for a Double, having beaten Everton to the League title by 2 points. Everton, who had been League Champions in 1985 and would be again in 1987, were possibly the best team in the Country at the time, capable of scintillating football. But Liverpool were frighteningly experienced and efficient, their game a passing-and-moving machine with Ian Rush the best centre-forward of the 1980s scoring an unhealthy amount of goals. It was a mouthwatering prospect of a Final - the two best teams in England, their passionate fans moving on London en masse. And among an array of the biggest stars of English football - with the likes of Lineker, Dalglish, Rush, Sharp, Steven and Reid all on show - Jan Molby was man of the match by a mile.

Molby fits into that category of great players with weight problems. Like Puskas and Ronaldo his sometime tubbiness hardly seemed to matter. Throughout his Liverpool career his weight fluctuated, but after his first season or so he never ever looked slim, or even anywhere near fit. His qualities were of a different nature. He allowed his partners in Central midfield - usually combative Englishman Steve McMahon but often Scot Kevin McDonald - to do the running and harrying, and he got on with shaping and directing play as only he could. In a team of great passers - Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Dalglish - Molby's ability to spot an opening and to put the ball exactly into that space were unsurpassed. This video of the goals in that FA Cup final gets the order all wrong (Everton scored first, before halftime, and the first two Liverpool goals are in the wrong sequence) but what remains undimmed is the excellence of Molby's vision and technique. Wearing the Number 10, as is only proper, he provides killer passes for each of the three Liverpool goals, one a skidding cross with pace, one a deft flick into acres of space and the other a simple short ball for Ronnie Whelan to chip into the only unmarked part of a crowded penalty area. He did the same thing for the entire second half of the game, spreading the play all over the pitch with beautiful passes, exhausting a stretched Everton:

If his technical ability was ever to be called into question, one look at his CV would serve as an eloquent answer. Bought by Ajax from his hometown club, Kolding, in 1982, he spent two years in the first team there, winning a Dutch Championship in 1983. Ajax - home to Crujiff, Van Basten, Huillet, Bergkamp etc - is a club where technical excellence is mandatory. Molby combined a delicacy of touch and fantastic range of passing with a thunderous shot and his physical stature; he could operate as either playmaker or as holding midfielder, forming such a formidable physical barrier as he did. When Liverpool Manager Joe Fagan paid £200,000 for him in 1984, he arrived in a team undergoing a subtle transition. That was the Liverpool way. Big name, big money transfers were rare. Players were replaced from within. After the League and European Cup double of 1984, Graeme Souness, the teams midfield general and leader, left for Sampdoria in Italy. Phil Neal was in his last season at the club and Dalglish was nearing is own retirement. Molby had to find his way in a team of big egos and huge talents and in his first Season, when he was never a first team regular, Liverpool missed out on the League title and lost the European Cup Final to Juventus on the night of the Heysel Stadium disaster. With Fagan's retirement the next Season, Dalglish became player-manager and Molby became a regular fixture in the side. His versatility meant that he often played as a deep-lying midfielder, somewhere between an old-fashioned sweeper and the modern Pirlo role, where he could break up play and begin attacking moves from deep within his own half. However, he was better suited to playing as an attacking midfielder, and in that Double-winning Season he scored 21 goals for the club.

That was a good year for Molby. After that triumphant FA Cup appearance he flew out to Mexico with the Danish squad which would play perhaps the best football at the 1986 World Cup. Molby was a fixture in a stellar squad alongside the likes of Laudrup, Elkjaer, Lerby, Arnesen and Olsen. with Laudrup already an incredibly accomplished playmaker, he played in a more defined central midfield role, but that Danish team was built to attack ceaselessly, meaning that he got forward as much as anybody. His typical pass spreads the break out wide for the second Danish goal in this match against West Germany:

Denmark made a nonsense of the "Group of Death" they had been drawn in, defeating Uruguay (6-1!), Scotland and the Germans on their way to a confrontation with Spain where their fearlessly attacking approach was undone by the clever counters of a fine Spanish side.

1986 was probably the best year of Molby's career. Liverpool won nothing in the 86-87 Season and he began to struggle with persistent injuries in 1987, which only added to his weight problems. From then on, until his eventual departure in 1996, he was in and out of the team, playing at Centre-half and in central midfield but rarely as a first choice. He was still often an impressive performer, illuminating games with his touch and awareness. He was persistently linked with transfers to big Continental clubs, but the feeling persists that he had gone native, with his strong Scouse accent, his love of a flutter and a beer. In 1988 he was sentenced to three months imprisonment for drink driving, and after Liverpool stood by him, perhaps he remained at the club out of some misguided loyalty. Better if he had moved abroad, where his talents would have been better appreciated. He did win trophies at Liverpool, however - two league titles and two FA Cups, scoring 44 goals (mainly penalties) from 218 appearances. But his remains a frustrating career, with its sense of a talent never really fulfilled.

That talent never really ebbed, however. He scores the second goal, a penalty, in this game against Leeds from 1993, but more notable are the two passes preceding the penalty, which show him as the beautifully visionary playmaker he was. First he scoops the ball between two defenders to put Rush clear on goal inside the box. Then he creates the penalty with a finely measured through ball into space. Both first time, instant touches. His left foot was always a precision instrument:

One last clip, an oddity. Many Liverpool fans in attendance claimed this as one of the greatest goals they had ever seen. From an Anfield League Cup tie, Liverpool vs Man United, November 1985. Paul McGrath had scored to put United 1-0 up when Molby ran with the ball from his own half, nutmegged Brian Robson, beat a defender, then hit a dipping 30 yard shot into the top corner. Only there was a dispute on so there was no football coverage on TV. No cameras at the game. Absolutely unimaginable today. No film of the goal, or of Molby's second, a penalty a few minutes later. So somebody has taken the time to recreate it, and it looks impressive, and easily within the scope of Molby's talent:

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

FIFA's Film Factory

A Sunday Afternoon, sometime in the mid 1980s. There was never much on tv on Sundays. Old films. Westerns, English dramas from the 40s and 50s. The steady march towards Bullseye and Songs of Praise.

One Sunday, I come across some football on tv. It is unmistakably Brazil. Those yellow shirts, the blue shorts, lean shaggy haired players. But it looks different. The camera is at ground level, roaming around, tracking players as they move across the pitch in tight close-up. The ball is rarely if ever in shot. Instead we can identify where it is by following the eyes of the players, so tightly are the cameras focused upon them. And the commentator. It sounds like - can't be - it sounds like Sean Connery. I am spellbound.

That film was "G'Ole!", the Official FIFA film for the 1982 World Cup. FIFA continue to make an Official film for each World Cup, but the form peaked in the 1980s, with "G'Ole!" and its 1986 follow-up, "Hero". Until very recently I hadn't seen "G'Ole!" in full since that initial viewing on a sunday in the 80s, when I must have been 10 or 11. Its became more and more difficult to get hold of. Unavailable on DVD, videotapes change hands for ridiculous amounts on eBay. It seems odd that FIFA continue to make these films but show no regard for the archive they possess. Clips from these films show up in various other Football documentaries - the brilliant 2006 BBC series "World Cup Stories" (oddly, also unavailable on DVD) was built around various sequences - and they always stand out due to the quality of the footage. There is only one clip from "G'Ole!" on YouTube, but it does manage to convey in 4 minutes or so the exact tone and feel of these films - the amazing, intimate footage, the distracting, often awful music, the epic tone the games are embued with. And of course, Sean Connery saying "Barshalona":

The strangest fact of these films is that they are so vulnerably at the mercy of their director. FIFA might have commissioned a piece which made great use of the exclusive footage they could provide, but it seems doubtful they were quite prepared for how idiosyncratic the results might be. Directors have agendas, stories they are determined to tell, images they wish to include, themes they need to address. FIFA just wanted goals compilations, you feel.

"G'Ole!" was directed by Tom Clegg, best known at that time for "McVicar" (1980), and since then something of a jobbing television director. Clegg, with the aid of writer Stan Hey, seems set upon painting a lyrical portrait of Spain as a beachside utopia, its people uncorrupted by the modern world, living in their beautiful small towns beneath the fiercely blue Iberian skies. There is one montage midway through the film which is filled with shots of old people sitting chatting in town squares, sophisticates at outdoor cafes, children playing and crowds at the beach. The football almost takes a back seat, as Clegg indulges his interest in the World Cup as carnival. There is perhaps slightly too much footage of fans dancing and chanting and drinking, alongside one too many trips to the stadium on the team coach, and the film loses focus towards its climax. Its also bizarrely lecherous - topless sunbathers in the Mediterranean draw a lot of the camera's attention, as so bikinis glimpsed on dancing girls in the Brazilian crowd. Clegg dips in and out of the tournament, allowing us to briefly visit with various sides. So we start off with Maradona and Argentina, then move on to Brazil, France, Spain, Italy and England. Other teams appear in games, as if from nowhere. Poland suddenly materialize in the semi-final, despite not having featured at any point in the hour before. But Clegg is plainly fascinated by minnows. He spends extended passages locked with the Kiwi and Cameroonian teams, watching them at their hotel bases, following them to the stadium and observing their team talks, their running onto the pitch, their valiant failures. The players are generally denied personality - we hear their names, but their roles are quickly sketched stock ones. Platini is skillful, Robson bright and aggressive, Maradona fouled, Rossi redeemed. Nationalities are defined by cliches, too - the relaxed Brazilians, engaged always in Samba, the resilient, methodical Germans. We are expected, it seems, to already know who these players and teams are and what they mean.

But despite its many quirks,"G'Ole!" is still a fantastic piece of work. Mainly because it features so much incredible footage. The 1982 World Cup was a vintage competition, containing perhaps the greatest game in the competition's history - Brazil vs Italy. Spain, at that time still something of a post-Franco backwater, has always been a beautiful, cinematic location, and Clegg and his team shoot and edit the whole thing so that it is all atmospheric and visually arresting. Connery is incomparable and Rick Wakeman's score is not the abomination that his work on the next FIFA film would be. But its the raw material that makes it all work, and in the 1980s there were a handful of giants in International football who these films focus on - Maradona, Platini, Zico, Ruminegge. To see any of them on a pitch, shot so intimately, so cinematically, is thrilling for a nostalgic football fan.

"Hero" is just as strange and fascinating an experience. Written and directed by Tony Maylam, otherwise best known for either his stiff adaptation of "The Riddle of the Sands" (1979) or his cult horror "The Burning" (1981), it tells the story of a tournament in a determinedly poetic and personal way. At the same time, it is hilariously bombastic and epic in its treatment of a ball game, creating an odd but effective dynamic. Maylam focuses on a series of individuals - each of whom could be the "Hero" of the title - and his cameras follow them in flashes through a game, creating a mini-narrative within the wider story of the World Cup itself. What makes "Hero" so sublime is the choice of players - some of the finest in the world at that time; including Michael Laudrup, Enzo Francescoli, Hugo Sanchez, the aforementioned Platini and Zico, and Emilio Butragueno.

But football is a game primarily concerned with the creation, identification and use of space on the pitch. Accurate passing and individual technique - dribbling ability, the skill to beat a man - come to the fore. As such, television cameras are ideally located to capture the most vital action on the pitch. From their position above and to the side, tv cameras can show us the wider picture - tactical configurations, movement off the ball, the spaces opening and closing all around - while also showcasing the vignettes of skill from individuals involved in the play. Both "G'Ole" and "Hero" virtually ignore the former aspect of the game in their zeal to glorify the latter. The films are both shot by cameras at ground level on the side of the pitch, so that we see the action as the players do. The field becomes a three dimensional system of moving lines, ripples of motion, the ball crossing and creating these lines, the players dancers and warriors, clashing, slipping past one another with feints, bursts of speed, rapid passes. "G'Ole!" contains more passages viewed from the traditional angle, but "Hero" embraces its predecessor's innovations wholeheartedly, and long sequences are seen from pitch level. Occasionally Maylam will cut away to show us the actual tv coverage of a goal or a vital moment. So we witness Maradona's extraordinary second goal against England with commentary by the BBC's man : "And that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the World!" But for the most part the voice we hear is that of Michael Caine, his narration slightly removed, affectless, even ironic.

Of course the real "Hero" of the film is Maradona himself, and the last half hour effectively follows his progress through the latter stages of the tournament. He had a big role in "G'Ole", too, with an extended segment showing his brutal treatment first by the Italian, then the Brazilian team, climaxing in his sending off for retaliation. An early scene in "Hero" shows him being kicked and hacked to the ground time and again versus South Korea, but his first goal seems to liberate him - as the film itself acknowledges - and from then on the camera is more interested in his brilliance in manipulating the ball. Francescoli instead is shown being stymied by rough treatment, battered as he is by the Danes in a 6-1 defeat for Uruguay. Its an odd, elliptical approach to a portrayal of a tournament, leaving out so many goals, players and incidents, and yet it works. It self-consciously casts these matches as epic narratives, with heroes and heroic acts, high stakes and gripping climaxes. Maradona alone seems to have read the script, and he provides the film with everything it needs to succeed. The last 20 minutes of the film follow his Argentina through the final against West Germany, and it is loaded with importance, it feels thrillingly epic. Rick Wakeman's score almost spoils it, but what could possibly spoil Maradona's effortless first-time pass for the winning goal or his surging run past four Germans?

What makes these films feel significant is that they feel like the birthplace of modern football coverage. In the 1980s, there were not multiple camera angles of each and every moment available to television viewers, there weren't steadicam operators running along the touchline, automated cameras located above the pitch on wires, cameras behind the goals, cameras in the tunnel. There was one camera. There was no footage of the beautiful girls in the crowd, the crazily face-painted foreign fans playing drums and dancing. There was one camera. It followed the ball around the pitch. Slow motion replays showed the same shot - from that single camera - again and again, just more slowly.
Whereas nowadays modern football coverage looks like "G'Ole!" and "Hero" did. Classily shot and edited, with every single conceivable angle covered by one camera or other. The crowd cut to throughout, the benches watched. Sky had a digital option a few seasons ago where the camera followed a single player throughout a game, if the viewer wished. These films have been surpassed by tv.

Which is the major problem faced by the contemporary FIFA films. The only subsequent one I've seen the entirety of is "The Grand Finale", the film of the 2006 Finals, directed by Michael Apted and narrated by Pierce Brosnan. You might imagine that in this age of YouTube and Goals compilation dvds FIFA would crave a more personal, even slightly pretentious treatment of a tournament, but no - "The Grand Finale" is a goal compilation film with padding, in essence. It focuses on seemingly random games without much context as to what is occurring throughout the rest of the competition, so we see Spain tonk Ukraine 4-0 and are told they were eliminated in their first knockout game. Argentina are introduced with an onscreen count of the number of passes in the lead up to their amazing goal against Serbia, the only action shown from that game. We briefly glimpse Brazil beat Ghana 3-0 in the first knockout round and Brosnan tells us that France subsequently knocked them out. The Epic sense of the earlier films is entirely absent, the sense of continuity and coherent narrative close behind. What we get is mainly the same shots I saw on tv as I wactched these games with a few nice passages thrown in. There is no obtrusive soundtrack (instead we hear the crowd noises, its sighs and roars, loud over the top) , no lyricism, no attempted poetry. It all feels hard, slick, empty, depressingly modern. As does the football played. Watching it soon after viewing "Hero" and "G'Ole!", the pace of the games is shocking. In the 80s, teams played football almost languidly - Brazil stroked it fondly to one another, players trotting about the pitch with their socks rolled down to reveal shinguard-less legs. Now the ball pings about, everybody sprints, tackles erupt in seconds. Even Argentina, guided by Riquelme's slow-slow-slower-quick-quick-slow style knock the ball around at amazing speed. Maybe the cooler climate (Germany, compared wit Spain and Mexico) is responsible. But I think the game has changed in this regard. Perhaps that is why "The Grand Finale" is so lacking in stars comparable to the giants of those films of the 80s. Artistry is more difficult at 1000 miles an hour. For Film directors too, apparently.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Football in sun and shadow 6

A group of clips of Number 10s. Playmakers. Inside-Forwards. Whatever.

Zico destroys Liverpool, 1981:

Berlusconi's favourite player, the greatest Montenegran player of all time, and one of the best in the world on his day, Dejan Savicevic, Il Genio:

Enzo Francescoli, who will be the subject of a long piece here some day:

Gunter Netzer, the great German playmaker, and Der Bomber. Plus a lovely German song:

Enzo Scifo, little Italian-born Belgian with great feet and a beautiful range of passing:

The greatest hairstyle ever seen on a football pitch, and one of the greatest passers of the ball, too. Watch for a couple of sublime assists from Colombia's 5-0 defeat of Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1993, where "El Pibe" utterly dominated the game:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Claudio Borghi

It must be like being the cleverest pupil at your school. You always do the best, gets the highest marks in tests, receive unending praise from a teacher. Then you have to leave, and go to another school, a school for older children. Maybe you're not the cleverest pupil anymore. Maybe somebody else - another who was the best in their class - maybe they are cleverer, maybe they do better in tests, maybe they get more praise. Maybe, for the first time, they make you feel inferior.
Or maybe not. Maybe you're the one making the others feel inferior, all the way through school, through every grade and age. But then you reach University. And you don't stand out at all. Here, everyone was the cleverest at their school. This is a thousand people who have always made others feel inferior.

Now imagine you're a young footballer. You play as the link between the forwards and the midfield, in the hole. Your passing is beautiful - visionary, incisive, perfectly timed. You can dribble too, able to swerve and turn at speed past dumbfounded defenders. You score your fair share of goals. You have been something of a phenomenon at your club - a golden boy, of whom great things are expected. You are called up to the National Team, hoping to play a major role in the World Cup. Only there is another player, who plays in your position, who has also been called up. He is, there can be no denying it, better than you are. He is the best player in the World, maybe the best player of all time. He leads your country to victory at that World Cup, scoring some unforgettable goals, and you are lost in his wake. You never play for your country again. Your career -while continuing in a variety of countries for a multitude of clubs - flounders, to an extent. You never live up to those early expectations. You are Claudio Borghi. You are a Nearly Man.

Borghi's great misfortune was to emerge as a young playmaker in the mid-1980s when Maradona was at the peak of his abilities. If he had been Chilean or Paraguayan or Mexican, he would have probably become a legend. As it was, he starred in the Intercontinental Cup Final in Tokyo in 1985, when Juventus beat his club, Argentinos Juniors, on penalties. Italy was so impressed by his extraordinary promise that AC Milan signed him in 1987, but the "3 foreigners" rule meant that he was loaned out to Como (the foreigners preferred by coach Arrigo Sacchi were Van Basten, Gullet and Rijkaard) and upon his return he fell out with Sacchi and was sold on, ricocheting via Switzerland's Neuchatal Xamax to River Plate, Flamengo, Independiente and a clutch of clubs in Chile. That club career would undoubtedly have panned out differently had Borghi been playing for Argentina at the crux of an attack spearheaded by Valdano. The confidence and increased status in world football that would have given him would probably have extended his stay in Europe. Instead Maradona was the chosen one, and the timing could not have been better for his career. Borghi, in contrast, is known now primarily as a Coach, having enjoyed a remarkably successful tenure with Colo Colo, Chile's biggest and most historically prestigious club.

Its not something you read about all that much. The reserves, the substitutes, and how they feel about their role, holding up the squad at the heaviest point. What it must feel like to be a gifted player, only not gifted enough. Sport loves a hero, so those who carry out an important but unseen task are of no interest, and the media obsession with every aspect of football has seemingly worsened this state of affairs. To be an understudy. The strange pressure of it, the resentment, the effect it must have on one's self-worth...

It is more obviously pronounced in a National team, where a player who is the first choice at his club can become second or even third in line. A truly great player can overshadow a dozen others with his talent, his intimidating influence. Zinedine Zidane was always going to be the conductor of the French national team from his first emergence as a young player. But his talent was so vast and so much more complete than that of his rivals that they were all but cast into the wilderness. If Zizou was fit, he played. Hence Johan Micoud, a fine attacking midfielder in his own right, played rarely for France, if at all, when in another generation, he might have been the creative lynchpin. Vikash Dhorasoo, another mercurial playmaker suffered a similar fate (his documentary, "Substitute", basically chronicles his frustrating experiences as Zidane's understudy during the 2006 World Cup). Robert Pires would possibly have developed as a traditional playmaker in the hole if not for Zidane's pre-eminence in the position. Instead he played on the wing, in tandem with Zidane, his talent too great and versatile to be ignored.

National teams are rife with great players being second-best to even greater players, or just to players who fit into the coaches tactical approach better. In modern International football, Riquelme keeps out the genius of Aimar for Argentina. Quaresma and Simao constantly leap-frog one another for Portugal. The Brazilian squad is so bursting with talent that there will always be immense players left on the bench or not even in the selection at all. How does any manager contain Ronaldinho, Kaka, Elano and Diego when there is only really room for a single attacking midfielder on the pitch? He tries to pick as many of them as he can and his team is an unbalanced mess, albeit an unbalanced mess stuffed with genius. So Ronaldinho and Kaka - as the biggest stars, the most proven talents - have been the two most favoured in the past. But this demeans a talent as great as Diego's. He is too good to be a nearly man. They all are.

In the 1980s, the heroic athleticism of Bryan Robson was generally preferred to the classier, silken skills of Glenn Hoddle by a series of England managers. Hoddle was the sort of player teams should be built around. Instead he never lived up to his undoubted talent for his country. This fate has befallen a series of the more obviously talented players to emerge in English football over the past three decades, from John Barnes to Matt LeTissier. Though neither of those players was regularly excluded because of any other single rival, they still lost out to the likes of Steve Hodge and Steve McMahon. It happens in other European countries too.

In the 1960s Italy possessed two extraordinary playmakers - Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera. Mazzola was the star of the all-conquering Inter Milan team of the 60s, while Rivera played for AC Milan (the picture above shows Rivera tackling Mazzola). They were similarly gifted players, both capable of pinpoint passing, either able to dribble or shoot from distance. Rivera was perhaps the more silken of the two, Mazzola a burlier, more athletic presence. Each was the talisman for his club, winning numerous Scudettos and a couple of European Cups each. However, Italian National coach Ferruccio Valcareggi believed that they could not play together. He favoured Mazzola (despite Rivera's greater popularity) and started him in the first matches at the 1970 World Cup. Without Rivera, who had been so effective when Italy had won the 1968 European Championship, the Italian offence couldn't get started. So Valcareggi developed a scheme he called "stafetta" (which translates literally as "relay"). He would play Mazzola for the first half and Rivera for the second. Italy progressed to the final, with Rivera in particular shining as he scored the winner in the 4-3 semi-final victory over West Germany. For the final however, Valcareggi reverted to type and played Mazzola alone until eight minutes from time, when he brought on Rivera. Italy lost 4-1. You could never really refer to either man as a "Nearly Man". But they strangled one another's International careers. Both must have wondered what it would have been like if not for the other.

Rivera in action:

In the late 1980s, Guiseppe Giannini was the playmaker for the Italian team and captain of Roma. But the emergence of Roberto Baggio meant that he lost his place in the starting line up for the national team at the 1990 World Cup, and he retired from Internationals in 1991. He could see what was coming, and he was too proud to be another nearly man, no matter how much genius Baggio possessed. Some players seem almost offended by the competition for the role their career has taught them to consider theirs alone, as if its unseemly. Others are inspired by it. And some, like Claudio Borghi, find themselves facing a force they cannot defeat, a skill they cannot match, and they slip quietly away.

What, then, of Claudio Borghi? Well here he is, wearing the Number 10 shirt and scoring a quite sublime goal from late in his career, somewhere in Chile I think, in the only clip I could find:

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Theres something happening but don't be scared

Before tonight's absorbing Champions League Semi-Final match (Man Utd 1- 0 Barcelona, Hurrah!) on ITV, the final ad break was taken up entirely by one single commercial. An awesome commercial. If you like football, you'll probably like the advert - its thrilling, brilliantly shot and even quite funny, especially in the appearance of Marco Materazzi.

I instantly wondered who had directed it. Somebody young and hip, at the cutting edge of cinema, perhaps? Well, no actually, it was Guy Ritchie. I hate his films, but that is based mostly on his inability to write a single believable line of dialogue or create an interesting, convincing character. Visually, he has always been assured behind a camera. His films are all slickly put together with a control and feel for the surface of things - for colour and visual tone and atmosphere - which seems perfectly suited to advertising.

For this advert, he seems to have tapped into a style which has been conspicuous in Pop culture over the last year or so - the first person POV. "Cloverfield" and "[Rec]" have both used this device with a degree of success in the context of horror stories over the last few months, and "The Diving Bell & the Butterfly" used it to heartwrenchingly emotional effect. But what Ritchie's advert (entitled "Take It to the Next Level") is really reminiscent of, especially in its non-football scenes and its vomiting shot, is the briefly infamous video for the Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up". It also recalls, to an extent, the Michael Mann Gridiron advert I posted here last year, in its relentless motion and the procession of superstars it parades fleetingly before our eyes. The song is "Don't Speak" by the Eagles of Death Metal. It becomes instantly the best thing Ritchie's ever done:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Football in sun and shadow 5

Diego Forlan with an absolutely perfect finish:

Karel Poborsky with the best goal and the worst hair of Euro 96:

Henrik Larsen with a truly diving header:

Wayne Rooney, remember the name:

Denilson, he of the quick feet:

Tevez for Corinthians:

"Thats the greatest soccer goal I've ever seen!"

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Francesco Totti

And so we come to that thorniest, most awkward of questions: what exactly defines a great football player?
Is it purely down to skill, to the ability to manipulate the ball, to make it do your bidding? Is it some physical gift - the stamina to run back and forth, tackling and passing, for two hours, the pace to outsprint athletes faster than most people will ever dream of being after a flying ball, the strength to barge giants off their feet, the spring to leap and hang in the air? Is it some combination of all these gifts? Or is it defined purely by success? Great players win things. They drive their teams to win matches, to win trophies, cups, leagues. A truly great player enforces his will on a team, on a game, on a season. He wins things. Doesn't he?

There has always been some question over the status of Francesco Totti. It is taken for granted that he is a good player. Outrageously skillful, with vision and cunning, it would be foolish to deny his natural talent. But in Italy - and most especially in Rome - he is regarded as just about the equal of any player on earth, as one of the best in the World, a true modern great. The rest of Europe is not quite so sure. There are a few reasons for this. Totti has never really performed effectively enough on the biggest stages for some. He has been to a couple of World Cups, to European Championships, without ever making too great an impression, some say. Others would query his temperament. He is prone to lashing out if things aren't going his way, and also likely to drop out of games if his team is up against it. He is neither the perfect playmaker, ala Zidane, nor an outright goalscoring centre-forward. Teams have to play around him, critics would suggest. He can't adapt.

Well, to all this I say: Totti is a great player, worthy of comparison to the greats of the modern game. Loyalty to his home town club has served to make his talent seem smaller than it is - he has often been held back by the restrictions of the team at A.S. Roma. When playing alongside colleagues of the right calibre, Totti has delivered the goods, scoring and creating goals and crucially, winning trophies. Roma won Serie A under Fabio Capello, when Totti was given Batistuta and Emerson as team-mates, and he could express himself, safe in the knowledge that some of his own side were on a similar wavelength. Under Spaletti, Roma are a force in Europe, Italian Cup Winners, and Totti has won the Golden Boot as Europe's top goalscorer. The question of what he might have accomplished had he moved to Madrid or Milan is an intriguing one, but irrelevant to the issue of his quality as a player. He has proven that already, in Rome.

Perhaps part of the issue is that his gifts are quite so extravagant. He can do everything well - he dribbles at pace with disguise, the ability to drop the shoulder always an instant away. He is two footed, and his passing and shooting with each foot is frequently extraordinary. He excels at the rapid interplay around the opposition box, quick passes with the out-step, backheels and drag-backs. And he is a fantastic finisher, often scoring the most spectacular, unlikely goals:

He is particularly adept at what Italians call the "cucchiaio" - the chip. This is a compilation formed entirely of clips of Totti sending perfectly dinked balls over the despairing grasps of goalkeepers from all areas around the penalty box. He often takes penalties the same way, and it is as if he feels no pressure, taking a penalty in the 2000 Semi-final shootout with Holland in Amsterdam before a Dutch crowd just that way. And scoring.

But what I most like about Totti is his imagination and his vision. The fact that he scores so many inventive goals testifies to the latter, and his range of passing and prompting is evidence of the former. Having begun life as an orthodox "trequarista" or playmaker, he has been reinvented at Roma in the last two seasons in Spaletti's new tactical formation. He now plays up front, often as a lone striker. But Roma's midfield is full of players who burst forward when they break with the ball, and the effect allows them to join Totti in attack, prompting him to play his perfect little through balls to the feet of his onrushing midfielders. He drops deep to control the play but also roams in the opposition half, dragging defenders in his wake, leaving space for his team to exploit. Or, if he sees an opportunity, Totti can go it alone, either by shooting or trying to trick his way into the box:

It was in this system that Totti scored 26 goals for Roma in the 06/07 Season. He seems to have improved with age, his football intelligence and experience giving him maturity and perhaps better decision-making than in his youth. He is now Roma's highest ever goalscorer and holds the record number of appearances for the club. In modern European football, only Raul and Del Piero, Totti's great rival in the Italian National team, really compare in terms of long-term service to one club. His standing in Italy is perhaps unmatched - he won Italian footballer of the year 5 times between 2000 and 2007. It was a near National state of emergency when he was injured in the last few weeks of the 2005/06 Season in the run-up to the World Cup. He was considered vital to his country's chances of success in the tournament, since Italy lacked another attacker of similar creativity and brilliance. He had an operation which required the insertion of metal plates, yet made it, only semi-fit, to the World Cup, where he played a fleetingly crucial role in Italy's triumph.

His Italian career probably explains why he is regarded with such ambivalence outside Italy. He ousted Del Piero from the role of first choice playmaker in the qualifying campaign for the 2000 European Championships, and was perhaps the Azurri's best player in the tournament itself. Then in the second round match with South Korea at the 2002 world Cup, with so much riding on his performance, Totti was sent off. Italy went out. At Euro 2004, when he was again under great pressure to perform and frustrated with his marking, he lashed out and spat at Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen, and was banned for three games. Without him, Italy's attack malfunctioned badly, and they again went out. His role at the 2006 tournament went some way to redemption, but he subsequently retired from International football to concentrate on Roma.

Disgracefully, he has never won either the FIFA World Player of the Year award, or the Ballon D'Or. But they don't define greatness, or even quantify it. Only what he does on the pitch does that, really. And he does amazing things on the pitch:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Football in sun and shadow 4

Diego Armando Maradona. The greatest player of my lifetime by a very wide margin. It would be wrong to have him share a post with lesser players, he deserves his own collection of clips. So:

This is what is called a proper range of passing:

Dribbling, attracting some of the most ferociously brutal tackling I've ever seen, making opponents fall over, flip-flops, drag-backs, multiple stepovers:

Deliberately injured (and out for months) by Athletic Bilbao's Goikoetxea during his time at Barcelona, Maradona returned to Bilbao with a score to settle. So he decided to start a fight:

He didn't warm up like anybody else, either:

"Hero", the Official FIFA film of the 1986 World Cup understandably concentrates on Maradona. The entire thing is on Youtube in 10 minute chunks and its all worth a watch, especially part seven, featuring France vs Brazil, Platini vs Zico etc. But this part is Argentina vs England. The greatest goal ever. Michael Caine, synthesiser music. Ace.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Football in sun and shadow 3

Teofilo Cubilias, the greatest Peruvian footballer ever. And a No. 10. Nuff said.




Ariel Ortega, who more or less specialised in scoring goals just like this:

The 1985 FA Cup Final. Man Utd down to 10 men after Kevin Moran has been sent off, against the new champions Everton. Up steps Norman Whiteside:


Thursday, January 17, 2008

European 1990s XI

I buy a lot of football magazines. What I don't buy, I tend to leaf through in shops and read for free. I was reading one I'd never seen before - some sort of Premiership 1990s special that went through that decade, Season by Season - in a shop the other day, and it posited a Premiership XI from the 1990s. This, you'll agree, is an irresistable idea. Best enjoyed in the company of some opinionated Football fans of differing views, but enjoyable and provocative even in the dry pages of a glossy nostalgia football magazine. It is a great team, too, and I find it hard to disagree with a single player:

GK: Schmeichel

Defence: Dixon Adams McGrath Pearce

Midfield: LeTissier Keane Gascoine Giggs

Forwards: Cantona Shearer

Alright, I might include Denis Irwin instead of Lee Dixon, if pushed, and always believed Paul Gascoine was a supremely overrated player, but it is hard to think of a top quality alternative to play in the creative position in Central Midfield from the 1990s. Glenn Hoddle is more of a player of the 1980s, Scholes of the 2000s, and the only other players I can think of who could play there are Zola and Gary McAllister. So Gascoine can stay too. Otherwise, its hard to imagine many teams breaching that defence because with Keane patrolling in front of Adams and McGrath, theres not a weak link in sight. The midfield, Keane's destructive capabilities aside, is full of creativity and genius, with goals coming from all four players. And that forward line would terrify Claudio Gentile - each player a terrific mix of brawn and skill, Cantona dropping into the hole, Shearer playing on the shoulder.

But I think I can just possibly come up with a better 1990s XI. In the 1990s, of course, Serie A was pre-eminent. Juventus and Milan were Europe's dominant clubs and South Americans, Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch players all went to Italy to play their football. Spain's Primera Liga was beginning the rise that woud see it become perhaps the continent's dominant league - neck and neck with Premier League - in the new Century. And France, Holland and Portugal still produced their fair share of decent teams. So my 1990s XI will be drawn from across Europe, excluding the Premiership. Whereas the Premiership team is an obvious 4-4-2, my team would play 4-1-2-1-2, with a holding midfielder, two wingers and a playmaker at the apex of a midfield diamond. Gotta have a playmaker. I think its quite a handy little team:

GOALKEEPER : Jose Luis Chilavert

This was probably the hardest position to fill, apart from Number 10. Peter Schmeichel was so obviously the World's greatest Goalkeeper during the 1990s that he overshadows all of his rivals. Oliver Kahn came close, but he really only rose to proper International prominance near the end of the decade. Walter Zenga is almost exactly the opposite, his career defined by his exploits in the 1980s and slipping from the spotlight in the 90s. The likes of Edwin Van der Sar, Fabian Barthez and Marcel Preudhomme were never quite excellent enough for such a spot. But Jose Luis Chilavert was. The 6"4 Paraguayan played only briefly in Europe during the decade - for Zaragoza from 1988-1991 (he came back to Strasbourg in 2000-2002) - but that creates enough of a loophole for me to exploit adroitly. Chilavert had a massive personality and he was agile and dominant in the air, while also an excellent shot-stopper. What he would add to this team that none of his contempories could is Goalscoring ability. In all, he scored 37 goals over the course of his career, 8 of them for Paraguay, most from free kicks and penalties. He once scored a hat trick for Velez Sarsfield. Here's a video of his goalscoring exploits, including one from his own half against River Plate. Not a save in sight, though, but you'll just have to trust me, he was a good Keeper:


The fact that he's the most-capped Brazilian player of all time (with 156 caps) says it all about the man Roma fans christened "Il Pendolino" (The Express Train) because of the way he shuttled up and down the wing from his area to the oppositions all game. Stupendously fit and pacy, he also possessed a beautiful first touch and silky dribbling ability, which enabled him to drive his side on down the right, from where he supported attacks and sent in some lovely crosses. His stamina and timing in the tackle made him an excellent defender, combative in the challenge and stubborn as a marker. But that relentless drive forwards is what makes him (hes still playing at 38) a special player, and the original of a certain type more common in the game now than in the last decade. He has become an adjective. Attacking fullbacks - from Danniel Alves to Alan Hutton - are now routinely referred to as Cafu-esque, the ultimate compliment for that position. This video shows just about all of his talents:

LEFT BACK: Paolo Maldini

After the first leg of last year's Champions League Semi-Final at Old Trafford between Manchester United and AC Milan, Sir Alex Ferguson commented appreciatively on Paolo Maldini that he had played the entire match without making a single tackle. Fergie was applauding Maldini's peerless reading of the game, his ability to see danger before it developed and snuff it out at source. This is the kind of vision the great defenders tend to gain with experience, and it may compensate for the losses they suffer in pace and agility as their careers wear on. Maldini was born with such vision. Perhaps its because hes from a football family, with his father, Cesare, also a respected Italian player and Coach. Perhaps football really is in some players blood. The richness of Maldini's blood is such that he has become Italys most-capped player, has played in Eight Champions League Finals, and was the first defender to win World Soccer's Player of the Year Award, in 1994. He began his career as a left back, then moved to Centre Half, and has switched back and forth ever since. In his prime he had every asset a defender needs - in addition to the aforementioned vision, he was strong and pacy, good in the air, hard in the tackle, and always assured on the ball. No winger would fancy playing against Maldini and no right back would fancy having to track his driving runs upfield, either. He is also a fantastic leader and inspirational Captain, and would weigh in with his share of goals, many of them belters, as this video demonstrates:

CENTRE BACK: Franco Baresi

If Maldini possessed that defensive vision, that ability to sense danger, then Baresi was the very personification of it. He never seemed flustered, never seemed hurried. He never even seemed to have to sprint, moving across the pitch in a light jog, timing his tackles with the judgement and grace of a pickpocket. He was nearing the end of his playing career as the decade began and his experience and knowledge were immense - he would play 532 games for Milan, winning six league titles and three European Cups. He played in two World Cups for Italy (that would have been 3 if he had not refused to play for Coach Enzo Bearzot in 1986). His playing style was that of a Beckenbauer-style Libero. He generally operated behind the defensive line, tidying up, directing operations and picking passes. He was an inspirational captain, and Milan hold him in such high regard that they retired the No 6 shirt when he gave it up, in 1994 at the age of 37. He still works there, as a Youth Team Coach, and you get the feeling that some day soon he'll return as First Team Coach.
One final quality I remember him possessing, in common with many great Italian defenders - he was quite dirty. But extremely clever about it. His fouling was always "professional", almost subtle, never needless.
He wasn't exactly renowned for his goalscoring but this video features quite a lot of that nevertheless, alongside some perfectly timed tackling and a few nice little fouls:

CENTRE BACK: Fernando Hierro

In contrast, Hierro had an incredible goalscoring record for a Centre-Half. 439 games for Real Madrid played, 102 goals scored. From Central defence. 89 Spanish caps, 29 goals scored. From Central Defence. He was fantastic in the air, was part of it, leaping prodigiously and powering the ball goalwards with that thick necked, broad-shouldered force his general physical grace seemed to belie. But he was a beautiful ball-player, too, with a tremendous range of passing, an ability to make space for himself in the thick of things and a lovely first touch. He took - and scored from - many of Real Madrid's free-kicks and penalties. He was so good creatively that Sam Allardice used him as a defensive midfielder, rather in the mode of a Quarter-Back, during his final season at Bolton Wanderers. Of course, he excelled in the position. As a defender, he would be the animal to Baresi's artist - doing the dirty work, winning the headers, covering the ground. But they are both leaders, and any forward line would be intimidated by them.
This goal is a great demonstration of his technical ability:


I wrote about Redondo before, in my very first football post on this blog. Having such a strong Defensive line behind him would liberate him to a great extent, and he could boss midfield all game, sending those beautifully angled little passes through to the toes of his playmaker, playing one-twos, going on little dribbles. But not much would get past him going the other way.
Time and again in this video we see him go by players with a little trick, a swerve. He was an Argentine player, after all. But who amongst the candidates for the leading defensive midfielders in World Football today displays a similar skill level when on the ball? Makelele? Mascherano? Toure? Nobody. Of his peers in this position, the only one I really considered was Matthias Sammer. But Redondo was a class act:

LEFT WING: Hristo Stoitchkov

He sometimes played up front, but he was originally (and best deployed as) a winger. On the wing, his explosive pace and high-speed dribbling propelled him past reeling full backs, and his distance shooting made him an unpredictable opponent. His goals were generally spectacular, like his tantrums, his arguments with opponents and officials, and his free kicks. He was a scowling, passionate force of nature. He won European Footballer of the Year in 1994 and was joint top scorer at the 1994 World Cup, when he led Bulgaria to the semi-finals. On his day, he was virtually unplayable:


When I first became properly aware of Luis Figo (this was back in the days before you could watch football from just about every conceivable European League if you subscribed to the right satellite channels, back when you had to wait until they were paired with British teams to see some European Giants in action. Unless they were Italian, in which case they were on Channel 4) I really hated him. He seemed to dive more than any other player I had ever watched. He was constantly tumbling, tripping, rolling, getting up with a look at the referee, a wagged finger at an opponent. It seemed gamesmanship. But it wasn't really. He did go to ground easily, but then he got kicked all the time. His style relied on dribbling skill, on his ability to make an oponent look stupid, and many retaliated for their humiliation by hacking at his legs. Figo went down to protect himself and because he had to go down. Another part of that hatred was fear - it was obvious what a great player he was, how constantly dangerous, and when he played against a team I liked, I feared his effect on the game. He's still playing, so I won't go into his huge list of honours, because he'll likely add to it this year.
He always combined a massive heart and workrate with his sublime skill, and never seemed to fear the often outrageous tackles he suffered. He wouldn't offer very much defensively to this team, but then why should he, when he could contribute skills like this:


The Number 10. There were so many high-quality playmakers and attacking midfielders, inside forwards and link forwards in European football in the 1990s that I found it really dificult to pick just one. As you'll see from my next choice. For example, any of these players could have easily played in this team: Hagi, Savicevic, Rui Costa, Del Piero, Laudrup, Rivaldo, Effenberg, Scifo, Ortega, the start of the decade Maradona was still playing in Europe, but his very best years were behind him. So, instead it must be Zizou, who was pretty much indisputably the greatest player in the world for a few years in the late 90s and into the early years of this century. Do I really have to write up his catalogue of attributes? That caress of a touch, the outrageous vision, his ability to glide into space...I once read a quote about Maradona that said that when he played near his potential, he made it seem as if the other 21 men on the pitch were playing one game while he was playing another one entirely. Zidane, at his best, approached similar heights. His teammates often resorted to just giving him the ball and hoping he would do somethiing extraordinary. And he did, many times. Like the great playmakers, he was particularly adept at finding space where there seemingly was none. He would recieve the ball with a marker in close attendance, often two, then his feet would move, a swirl, a flick, all in a blur, and he had a yard, somehow. Enough time to pick out and deliver a pass nobody else had seen or launch himself on a run, dragging defenders into areas they prefer not to go in.
He scored big goals, too, important goals. That volley in the Champions League final in Glasgow for Real Madrid. Two goals in the 98 World Cup final in Paris. He was a big game player. He could carve open any defence.
This video focuses more on the "performing seal" aspects of his play than the excellent passing and setting of a tempo he was master of, but it has some awesome moments:

FORWARD: Roberto Baggio

The player who came closest to stealing Zidane's Number 10 shirt was the little Italian schemer, the Divine Ponytail himself. He was probably the World's Greatest Player in the years between the decline of Maradona and the rise of Zizou, and he almost singlehandedly dragged Italy to the final of the 1994 World Cup. He was both European and World Player of the Year in 1993, won Serie A with both Juventus and Milan as well as the two minor European Cups with Juve. He generally played a little further forward than Zidane and scored more poacher's goals, but was equally adept at dropping into midfield and linking play, building attacks with his acute passing and elusive dribbling. His technique was matchless, his vision and spirit at a similar level. I remember the excitement of his emergence at Italia 90, his class and stature obvious even then - you can generally tell when a major new player has arrived. Baggio was certainly one.
He could play in a two man forward line, he and Zidane alternating position and confusing centre backs with their movement and interplay while the other frontman, more of a spearhead, would have to be able to take on defenders on his own or hold the ball up. Baggio, scoring some awesome goals:

FORWARD: Ronaldo

He was nicknamed "The Phenomenon". There is no hyperbole in that name. At his brief peak, before injuries, psychological and commercial pressures and his own gluttony began to affect him, Ronaldo was an amazing player, almost unstoppable. In his single Season at Barcelona, he scored 34 goals in 37 games. And if there exists the suspicion that he never quite reached his potential, then that is only a sign of just how enormous his potential was. He won two World Cups and three World Player of the Year awards. Not bad for a player playing below his potential.
He was a new kind of forward. He would get the ball, take it beyond defenders with his exceptional pace and close control, then bury it. He could shoot from long distance with incredible accuracy and power. He got tap-ins, headers. He dribbled around goalkeepers, placed first time balls in corners. He was a goalscorer, but so much more. Defences were terrified of that raw pace, the way he could spring beyond them as if they weren't there.
Running onto the kind of delivery that Baggio and Zidane could provide, he would score many goals.
This short video is purely of his Barca season, but is a reminder of how incredible he was in his youth, when he still bounded along, three or four defenders in a cloud around him. What a player:

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