O Fenômeno and the Mystery of 1998

This is arguably the most high-profile mystery in professional sport. It involves the division of socialism, political upheaval and a shocking example of the corruption caused by remuneration. The story involves two protagonist nations- one which solved their countries epidemic through football, and another where the beautiful game acted as a catalyst, providing the bewildering prelude for this epic tale. It all started the morning of the 12th July 1998 when the football world was shaken.

Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was widely considered the greatest player of his era. Winner of the 1997 Ballon d’Or the previous year, the F.C. Internazionale forward possessed a ferocious mixture of skill, pace, and exquisite finishing. Naturally, as the world’s best player, the striker was put on a pedestal by his native Brazil and heralded as the man to help O Canarinho win back to back World Cups following their ’94 triumph.

Brazil’s journey to consecutive finals was a relatively straightforward one. After finishing top of Group A they overcame South American compatriots Chile before seeing off European contenders in the form of Denmark and the Netherlands to set up a meeting with the hosts, France. Ronaldo meanwhile was living up to his nickname- O Fenômeno ‘The Phenomenon’ scoring 3 goals and providing a further 4 assists en route to the final at the State de France.

Ostensibly dealing with the immense pressure of carrying a nations weight on his shoulders, Ronaldo had his teammates and supporters alike brimming with confidence going into the match. Holding footballers in near demi-god status is nothing new for Brazil. The countries yellow kit has always been the embodiment of sporting excellence and Pelé, Brazil’s figurehead, was often heralded as a genius throughout the 60’s and early 70’s. Since then, many others have attempted to sit on his lofty throne-Ronaldo included-with Neymar becoming the latest poster-boy to fill the void.

This leads us to the day of the final, where, hours before kick-off, Ronaldo suffered a ‘convulsive fit’ in his hotel room. Found struggling for breath and foaming at the mouth, medics were called and the star was quickly rushed to hospital. The news was not made public knowledge at first leading to a media frenzy when his name was omitted from the original team sheet. Moreover, just as everyone was coming to terms with the revelation, there was another shocking announcement. Minutes before the match was due to start word filtered through that Ronaldo had in fact been reinstated in the first XI and would start the final.

What followed was both astounding and unbearable for Brazilians in equal measure. The striker looked a shadow of himself, wandering around the pitch aimlessly without a shred of his usual swagger or panache. France stormed into a two-goal lead at the break courtesy of Zidane’s headed brace and in a game billed as two of the world’s finest athletes going toe to toe, it seemed only one had shown up. Desailly’s dismissal in the 68th minute did little to quell Les Bleus onslaught and Petit made it three following a Vieira led counter-attack late on thus concluded the game as a contest.

Since then many have tried to decipher exactly happened to Ronaldo that day. Unfortunately, the truth seems to be as elusive now as it was 19 years ago. One reoccurring factor in the debacle centres around Brazil’s shady sponsorship deal with global sports brand Nike. In 1996, the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) signed a $150 million contract with Nike and in the process, afford the company unprecedented power. Clauses in the agreement meant Nike could dictate the location and opposition of up to five international fixtures per year, alongside selecting eight of the starting personnel.

Nike’s sovereignty appeared to reach its pinnacle when representatives entered the Brazilian dressing room following the announcement of Ronaldo’s omission. After they left, the striker had been reinstated in the team so as you can imagine, much has been made of Nike’s influence in the decision. The financial magnitude of not having the world’s best player on the pitch for the world’s biggest sporting event was unfathomable. It seems Nike acted swiftly to ensure their prize asset would be wearing the iconic tick in front of a global audience.

It’s a theory indirectly echoed by the misfortunate Edmundo, who saw his dream of staring in a World Cup final realised then subsequently shattered in a matter of minutes. The man who was due to start in place of O Fenômeno for all of 42 minutes stated “Nike’s people were there 24hrs a day as if they were a member of the technical staff. It’s a huge power, that’s all I can say.” Strong words from a man at the centre of the controversy.

The other major conspiracy was first broken by TV station Globo. They reported that Brazil had traded their chance at glory in an agreement with FIFA to throw the game, suggesting that Ronaldo was simply ‘playing his part’. It was alleged that FIFA had offered O Canarinho; £23 million, an easy route to the 2002 World Cup final, and the promise that Brazil could host the tournament themselves in the upcoming decade. Seems farfetched although given FIFA’s corruption, the fact they won the ‘02 title- and then hosted in 2014, who knows.

It was suggested that Sepp Blatter and co. wanted to ease socio-political tension by gifting France glory and thus facilitating a sense of unity amidst ongoing civil unrest. With arguments rife over the nation’s immigration policy at the time, many thought Les Bleus glory on home soil would help subside feuds and unite the people. Especially as ten of the players had heritage from outside of France. This polarised culture was epitomised by Nationalist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Riding on the wave of anti-multiculturalism, he branded the team ‘unworthy’ of representing France on the basis that the lack of ‘white faces’ in the side misrepresented the countries identity.

Now onto the infamous ‘convulsive fit’ itself. Numerous opinions have been offered- from the seemingly plausible, to the outright crazy. Brazilian paper Folha de S Paulo suggested Ronaldo had suffered a nervous breakdown due to pressure, citing an incident where he smashed a bicycle against a wall one week prior to the final and linked his behaviour to symptoms of depression. Other sources conveyed that Ronaldo’s mental state was hampered by the news that his then-girlfriend Susan Werner was allegedly having an affair with a Brazilian journalist.

Perhaps a sounder opinion is that of Ronaldo’s roommate at the tournament, Roberto Carlos, who stated he believed the ‘fit’ to be nothing more than a panic-attack due to immense expectation consuming the forward. “Here was a 21-year-old player, the best player in the world, surrounded by contracts and pressure. Something had to give and when it did, it happened to be the day of the World Cup final.”

One of the only men to know for sure is Ronaldo himself, and whether you believe him or not, the striker only subscribes to one explanation. After being grilled in court following an investigation into the CBF’s and Nike’s relationship, the ’98 Golden Ball winner simply reiterated that he was medically cleared to play and just put in a sub-par performance.

“We lost because we didn’t win.”

La Duodécima: a different kind of success

Last night saw Real Madrid’s coronation as unprecedented twelve-time European champions. La Duodécima was the culmination of 18-months arduous and meticulous work by manager Zinedine Zidane and his staff. What it has showed however, is the change in philosophy Real as a whole have undertaken. Once lambasted for their cut-throat policies, Madrid’s recent success has come via methodical planning, smart business and a clear strategy. Below are four reasons why Los Merengues dominated the 2016/17 season.

  1. Isco over Bale

One thing that has defined Los Blancos over the years is the political influence of their numerous club presidents. When Gareth Bale was brought to the Bernabéu for around £77 million, he was Florentino Pérez’s man. Last night we saw Pérez finally release his stranglehold on team affairs. Bale had been injured in the matches building up to the final and his replacement Isco was in inspired form. Years gone by may well have seen the president take it upon himself to place Bale in the starting line-up for commercial over footballing reasons – as well as to satisfy his own egotistical persona. The fact Zidane was able to field Isco speaks volumes to the trust his employer has in him.

  1. The Importance of Casemiro

It was 14 years ago that Real opted to sell Claude Makélélé, a player generally regarded as one of the finest defensive midfielders of his generation. The Frenchman’s acrimonious departure was down to his request of a pay rise being refused. Whilst his Galáctico teammates raked in the big bucks, Makélélé’s importance in the team was often an afterthought. This was a team that wanted to attack with little regard for the art of defending.

Last night Brazilian Casemiro was awarded man of the match by WhoScored with a rating of 8.8. He comfortably made more tackles (7) than any other player on the pitch and allowed further advanced midfielders Modric, Kroos and Isco, licence to overload the attacking third. Not to mention scoring the goal that put Madrid into the lead. His impact was monumental and indicated the shift in mentality to how highly defensive play is now regarded in the Spanish capital.

  1. Resting Ronaldo

Cristiano has missed a total of 14 games this season, more than any other year since 2009. Now at the age of 32, it seems Zidane has found the perfect balance between satisfying the Portuguese’s relentless desire to play, and keeping him fresh for the big occasions. It would be so easy to play Ronaldo at every opportunity. He is by far the most marketable asset the squad boasts and as proved on countless occasions, is a constant goal threat. This more astute and measured approach adopted by the clubs hierarchy however has paid dividends, seeing Ronaldo hit his seasonal peak at the most opportune time.

  1. The use of Academy Products

Marco Asensio’s goal put the cherry on the icing of the cake but its significance ran much deeper than simply rubbing salt into the wounds of the Old Lady. In a similar vein to Guardiola’s early Barcelona days, Zidane has made use of his links to the clubs academy to promote youth from within. It’s a strategy one doesn’t stereotypically associate with Los Blancos but the results are there for all to see. Asensio’s strike was his apex in a breakout campaign and with the clubs new-found remit of youth-production, you can bet this won’t be the last time we’ll see a former Castilla man score big goals at senior level.

 

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Mindgames, mavericks and a clash of tactics

It was late summer on the coast of Catalonia, 1996. Englishman Sir Bobby Robson had just taken the reins at F.C Barcelona, bringing with him a young Portuguese translator. Standing at just over 5 ft 9”, the diminutive figure of one José Mourinho cast a stern expression over a room filled with Spanish journalists, who joined himself and Sir Bobby for the manager’s first press conference at the Nou Camp. Although seemingly moody from his onlooking countenance, local media and indeed, the footballing world over, would soon come to realise that this was nothing more than a habitual characteristic of Mr Mourinho’s.

In his early years, José was a methodical and articulate character. His general demeanour reflected that of an individual willing to absorb as much information as humanly possible; analysing every and any situation meticulously. His first training session involved meeting the first team players of which one in particular, unbeknownst to Mourinho at the time, would provide the prelude for one of the modern era’s most absorbing rivalries.

Josep Guardiola was truly a man of the city. Having risen up through La Masia’s ranks under the stewardship of none other than Johan Cruyff, the Catalan-born defensive midfielder personified Barcelona’s footballing philosophy. The pair would establish a firm friendship over Mourinho’s four-year stint with the club. Sir Bobby, known for his attacking style would entrust Mourinho to lead defensive sessions with the squad, complementing each other’s approaches to fuse a deadly combination.

Robson would leave the club just a year into the job whilst José chose to stay with new manager Louis van Gaal identifying him as a promising young coach. Mourinho went on to manage Barcelona to the triumphant lifting of the Copa Catalunya in 2000 after van Gaal afforded him licence to coach the side in the competition. Outright managerial spells in his native Portugal and England would follow, bringing him paramount success but it wasn’t until 2009 that the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ would encounter his old ally again.

Guardiola had spent the last year building an empire at his boyhood club. Barcelona won an unprecedented sextuple in his first season in charge and were showing no signs of slowing. Mourinho, now at Inter Milan met his adversary in the Champions League group stages where the San Siro played host to a 0-0 draw. The corresponding fixture brought about a 2-0 victory for Pep’s men before their sides would meet again in the semi-finals. Things turned ugly when Mourinho’s men knocked the defending champions out, besting them 3-2 on aggregate amidst claims a penalty should have been awarded in Barca’s favour. Inter would go on to lift Ol’ Big Ears in a season that saw the Milan club win the treble.

The feud intensified further upon José’s arrival at Barcelona’s arch-rivals Real Madrid in 2010. The defining moment of the year came when Madrid were demolished at the Nou Camp, conceding five without reply as Barca swept to victory. Later on in the season, the two teams would contest four fixtures in little over two weeks. It is this fortnight that quintessentially captures the duo’s rivalry with their old friendship souring rapidly.

Madrid would clinch the Copa Del Rey, defeating Barca after which, Pep would sarcastically express his admiration for the linesmen’s collective eyesight for ruling Pedro’s early goal offside. Mourinho responded “Up until now there was a very small group of coaches who didn’t talk about referees and a larger group who did. Now, with Pep’s comments, we have started a new era with a third group, featuring only one person, a man who criticises when he makes good decisions”. With the Portuguese’s sharp tongue finally infuriating Guardiola, he broke his cool persona labelling Mourinho “the fucking boss” of the press room, suggesting that his side were inferior on the pitch. Barcelona went on to knock Madrid out of the Champions League, claiming the European trophy and league title.

Their sides came to loggerheads once again in 2012 during a two-legged contest for the Spanish Super Cup. Mourinho found himself embroiled in controversy after tempers flared in a hostile first tie. The aftermath of the 2-2 draw saw Mourinho poke Barcelona’s assistant manager Tito Vilanova in the eye in a heated ruckus involving players and coaching staff. Many Catalans later claimed his actions were bringing the game into disrepute. Sadly for them, it was Real who would have the last laugh, going on to win La Liga that season with the ‘Special One’ claiming to have broken the Catalan’s dominance.

The pair didn’t meet again until 2013 where both found themselves under new employers. Pep’s Bayern overcame José’s Chelsea on penalties to lift the UEFA Super Cup, Mourinho bitterly remarked that “the best team clearly lost”. Since then it has been a contrast of fortunes between the coaches. Guardiola finds himself at Manchester City having accomplished three consecutive Bundesliga titles whilst Mourinho, now at United endured a hellish third season at Chelsea after winning the Premier League the previous year. Two Manchester Derbies have thus far brought one win a piece with begrudged civilness seemingly the new mantra.

It is a long-standing rivalry between the two, but one that has enticed spectators from across the globe. Whether you align yourself with Guardiola’s slick, attacking brand of football or Mourinho’s psychological, steely defensive masterclasses one thing to take away is that these are two of the greatest managers in the modern era. Fleeting friendships, conflicting ideologies, personality clashes and a whole lot of jaw-dropping football.

The divergent path and uncertain future of the Ox

The 2nd March 2010 marked the professional debut of a baby-faced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Having broken onto the scene at the tender age of 16, one may assume this was a footballer destined for stardom. But it had not been a simple journey.

Schooled in Portsmouth, Chamberlain’s first big decision was whether he even wanted to be a footballer. He joined Southampton’s famed youth academy shortly after his 7th birthday but was also a gifted Rugby player. Trials at London Irish were offered to the precocious talent however his decision quickly became clear when Saints blocked the move.

The first six years of academy football ran smoothly for Alex as he began to showcase an aptitude for technical flair. Upon entering adolescence however, another stumbling block occurred. With his teammates all shooting up in stature, Chamberlain remained a rather diminutive figure and struggled to compete physically with some of his peers. It is at this point where many academies make the decision to cut players of Chamberlain’s ilk but it speaks to the intelligence and foresight of Southampton that they instead made the decision to nurture his burgeoning panache rather than sever ties.

Matt Crocker had recently been appointed head of the South coasts clubs academy and immediately set about creating an environment where gifted youth players could flourish. Specific drills were designed where Chamberlain could drift in and out of ‘coned off zones’ of the training pitch only he was allowed in. This gave him ample time to receive passes and turn out without the fear of being on the receiving end of a good old English clattering.

He repaid his coaches trust with stunning performances where he would regularly exemplify his speed of thought and pace to leave defenders in his wake. Chamberlain’s swift rise to prominence had also caught the attention of first team manager Nigel Adkins, who promptly beckoned him into the first team set-up.

It would be in the 2010/11 season where Chamberlain would truly burst onto the scene. Featuring in over 40 games in all competitions – and netting 10 goals – the now 17-year old helped Saints to promotion from England’s 3rd division and earned a spot in the League 1 team of the year. His dazzling displays left North London outfit Arsenal in little doubt as they snapped up what they believed was a future England star for a £12 million fee.

Comparisons to Theo Walcott inevitably followed given the Southampton link however what has always set Chamberlain apart is his technical ability. Whilst Walcott was revered for his blistering pace, there is far more of a subtle intelligence to Chamberlain’s game.

It’s here where his career trajectory began to change. The links to Walcott kept coming and given his athletic attributes, the man aptly known now as ‘the Ox’ was pigeonholed into playing as a winger. That is not to say he does not possess the requisite qualities to play out wide, far from it, but one cannot help feeling that the decision was made due to underlying sub-conscious racial stacking.

As much as the Ox now has the build and physical skills of what people inherently associate with a black athlete, the choice to deploy him as a winger totally disregarded his in-game intelligence and technique. Qualities that would see him better placed centrally. People point to injuries and mentality, however, being played out of position has always been Chamberlain’s biggest obstacle in continuing to develop.

So where does he go from here? Chamberlain has one year left on his contract with the Gunners and appears at a crossroads. Like many of his English teammates (think Wilshere, Gibbs, Jenkinson & Chambers) the next career choice will be pivotal in deciding the Ox’s future. Will he be in and out of Arsenal and England sides as a winger who never quite fulfilled his potential? Or would a change of scenery – and perhaps position – reignite his prosperous career?

A rumoured move to Liverpool has been sounded out and with it come both pros and cons. Manger Jürgen Klopp has favoured a 4-3-3 formation since his arrival at Anfield with Mané and Coutinho often utilised as wide forwards. Chamberlain could look to international compatriot Adam Lallana as a player who has shone in one of the three central positions and this may be an encouraging factor. What attracts Klopp to Chamberlain is his ability to play his popularised high-intensity football and how he moves with the ball, breaking down opposition lines as he goes.

The issue for Chamberlain is again that he would not be a surefire starter. Now 23, it is integral that he is playing regularly if he still harbours ambitions of being a consistent name on the international stage. With the arrivals of players such as Granit Xhaka in the summer, the path to a central midfield birth looks well and truly blocked at Arsenal and, for that reason, perhaps a move away is his only option in the search for progression.

In years to come will we be talking about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the England great who could take games by the scruff of the neck? Or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, that quick winger who was just ‘alright’?

 

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Blood, War and Total Football

“Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost.”

It was a poignant remark by Rinus Michels, aptly named ‘The General’ but one that all too well encapsulated the national abhorrence between two of the beautiful game’s greatest dynasties. West Germany and the Netherlands.

The birth of the rivalry from a sporting standpoint is disputed, however, the reasoning behind such animosity lies deep-rooted within the begrudged German occupation of Holland during the second World War. In 1956, the Dutch ousted their foes 2-1 in the first ‘friendly’ between the pair since the demise of Nazi Germany. This hollow victory proved to be short-lived.

From 1957-’88 West Germany would dominate the fixture. A 10 match unbeaten run infuriated and humiliated the Oranje as deep loathing between the countries grew evermore apparent. Despite a 7-0 thrashing in ’59, it was another match that bore the greatest significance. In 1974, Munich, Germany played host to the World Cup final. West Germany faced the Netherlands in a fixture of epic proportions. The hosts seemed to have only recently cottoned onto the Dutch’s general resentment towards them and amidst waves of security threats, tensions were at breaking point.

For the neutral, the game had all the makings of an instant classic (pardon the clichés). Mainly down to the fact either side’s captain was heralded as a footballing icon. Now arguably the two greatest European players of all time, a contest between the pair on the World stage promised to be enrapturing. The inverted winger versus the libero. Total football meets Der Kaiser. Johan Cruyff against Franz Beckenbauer. They were two of the games pioneering ideologists, bound by footballing admiration, divided by nationalism.

Holland were widely touted as pre-tournament favourites. The great Dutch side of the ‘70’s had coasted their way to the final, undefeated with 5 wins from 6, hammering the likes of Argentina 4-0 along the way thanks to a Cruyff inspired brace. The hosts had a similarly comfortable route, only losing once to their neighbouring compatriots East Germany 1-0 and seemed to be thriving on the indigenous euphoric support.

Munich’s Olympiastadion was the venue for the final which saw 78,200 spectators stare on in eager anticipation. One Englishman made the final, referee Jack Taylor, who was soon to be at the centre of much heated controversy. Holland took the lead in the 2nd minute from the penalty spot as a trademark mazy dribble from Cruyff saw him brought down inside the area. From there on out, it seemed the Netherlands biggest mistake was not trying to beat the Germans, but belittle them.

“I didn’t give a damn about the score. 1–0 was enough, as long as we could humiliate them. I hate them.” Those the words of Dutch midfield maestro Wim van Hanegem, and it was perhaps all the years of enraged oppression during the war that motivated Holland not to want to win, but to dominate. The Germans, with their emotions stereotypically in check, adopted a far more pragmatic approach, which saw them first equalise, then score the eventual winner. The aforementioned controversy arrived when German striker Bernd Hölzenbein went down rather softly (to put it politely) in the area resulting in Taylor pointing to the spot. The game’s second penalty was converted and legendary forward Gerd Müller’s first-half strike would later decide the final. The impact of the defeat rippled around Holland and significantly damaged the Dutch’s national psyche.

Sweet revenge would have to wait ‘til a match in Hamburg, Germany in 1988, when the Netherlands finally bested their German counterparts, overthrowing them 2-1 in the semi-finals on route to being crowned European Champions. It is the most enjoyable match ever for many Dutch fans and holds its place at the epicentre of this phenomenal rivalry. Many natives partied long into the night chanting profanities such as “In 1940 they came, in 1988 we came.”

Since then the conflict between the two has cooled somewhat on the international front. A match in 1990 saw an altercation between Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler end in the dismissal of the pair but that marked the last high profile dispute to date between the nations on a sporting field. A rivalry incensed by political upheaval, played out on a football pitch.

“Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost.”

 

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Radja Nainggolan: Rome’s modern day warrior

Rome is a city steeped in ancient history. The Italian capital is home to many an iconic landmark, not least the imperious Colossuem. It’s here where gladiators would compete against one another much to the adulation of 80,000 onlooking spectators. These brutish warriors would enthral crowds with their skilful mastery of a blade and fearless approach to near-death experiences.

These days, such events have of course been outcast on the grounds of barbarianism, however, society still craves such exhilarating contests. The Stadio Olimpico plays host to the cities modern day entertainment through their football side- A.S. Roma and although the teams eternal God Francesco Totti is heralded as Il Gladiatore, it is another Giallorossi star who has showcased a battle-hardened attitude and a lethal skill set.

Radja Nainggolan has been in the form of his life for Roma since the start of 2017. His consistent, uncompromising tenacity has met a well-balanced mix of added composure that has seen the Belgian catapult himself to the forefront of conversations concerning the world’s best midfielders.

A.S. Roma themselves have also hit a rich vein of form since the turn of the year thanks to a slight tactical tweak. Manager Luciano Spalletti decision to alter his side’s formation after the winter break has paid dividends. Having previously deployed a back four – most commonly in a 4-2-3-1 – Spalletti and his coaches have recently opted for a 3-4-2-1 and the results, particularly on Nainggolan’s game, have been outstanding.

Before arriving in the Lazio region Nainggolan was more of an advanced playmaker. His time at Cagliari showcased the players’ wonderful ability to drive forward with the ball into the final third, finding and creating space and breaking opposition lines. It was his dynamism and versatility that originally caught the eye of Roma when he signed in 2014 but due to a combination of his effectiveness defensively and a plethora of creative individuals already at the club, Nainggolan often found himself playing a deeper-lying position. A role he performed honorably.

That was until Spalletti was appointed in January 2016 for his second spell in charge of the Lupi. Having recognised the impact Nainggolan could have further up the pitch he swiftly reverted the Belgium to an attacking midfielder. Since then the man nicknamed Il Ninja by fans has taken his game from strength to strength and now at 28 years of age, it appears Nainggolan has hit the peak of his powers.

With Roma now playing Nainggolan alongside either Mohamed Salah or Diego Perrotti and the team’s width coming from marauding wing-backs Emerson and Bruno Peres, he has the license to drop deep when under pressure then burst forward on the counter to support lone striker Edin Džeko. It’s this move away from his previously regimented position combined with a freer flowing Roma side that has seen the Belgian take his game to new heights.

The brilliant thing about the Belgian’s game is it is so multifaceted. Whether in or out of possession, attacking or defending, Nainggolan always has something to offer his side. When defending he regularly pulls wide to help the wing-backs when they are caught out of position. The most notable tackle he performs is down the flank, sliding in with the outside of his foot to hook the ball away from his opponent. This not only ensures a turnover of possession, but also allows Roma to retain the ball mount a counter attack. This is evident from the fact he averages 1.6 tackles a game, a highly commendable statistic for an attacking midfielder.

Once in possession Nainggolan is an excellent dribbler. Although only standing at 5ft 9, he uses this to his advantage getting as low as possible to shield the ball from opposing players. He is equally adept at shifting his body weight from side to side in order to throw oncoming players off balance. This ensures he can outmanoeuvre oncoming challenges without having to be overly skilful. This speaks to Nainggolan’s footballing intelligence that he is able to turn a seeming shortcoming like height into an advantage through his low centre of gravity.

After Nainggolan has successfully won the ball and evaded incoming challenges, he is equally as productive dribbling into the final third. In this attacking phase Il Ninja likes to stay wide then burst inside. The intricate movements of Salah and Perrotti often creates space for him to exploit and as seen on so many occasions, he can be deadly when shooting from distance.

Long shots are what makes Nainggolan’s game so spectacular. He epitomised his aptitude for the sensational recently in a fixture at the San Siro against Internazionale. From opening the scoring with a bending effort into the top corner after cutting inside, Nainggolan ran the game. His second strike was a wonderful microcosm of his overall game. Picking up the ball deep inside his own half, he ran a full 70 yards before unleashing a ferocious shot that bested keeper Samir Handanović to double Il Giallorossi’s lead. His scoring exploits haven’t stopped there either. Nainggolan has already racked up 8 goals in 2017, a figure only surpassed by Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuaín and something that saw him feature in WhoScored’s Serie A team of the month for February.

It’s not just shooting that Nainggolan offers however. His creativity has come on leaps and bounds this campaign too. He usually opts for lofted through balls which ultimately prove very effective given Roma’s prowess in the air. With a success rate of 58.6% Roma are the best team in the division at winning aerial duels. Add to that the 29 goals of Džeko and you can start to see why the Romans are also Italy’s top scorers. Nainggolan currently averages 1.5 key passes per 90 minutes, a figure that marks his best return from a single campaign.

Even when out of possession Roma’s star can be just as influential. His proficient reading of the game allows him to maintain the teams shape when defending and cut off any potential passing lanes. In an attacking sense the fact Nainggolan often drops deeper gives Salah and Perrotti greater freedom to roam in the number 10 role and, when he does arrive on the scene, it’s usually timed to perfection. In movements not too dissimilar to Frank Lampard, Il Ninja can arrive on the edge of the penalty area at the most opportunistic of times allowing him to capitalise on any second balls or cut backs.

One thing to note is that Nainggolan always likes to be at the heart of the action. This can be seen from his WhoScored ratings where he achieves a 7.54 as a trequartista, a 7.41 as a pivot, but only a 7.04 in central midfield. Ostensibly unhappy to let the game bypass him, the Belgian much prefers getting stuck in whether that be making a last ditch challenge or scoring a 30-yard screamer.

His manager Spalletti was himself a midfielder throughout his modest playing career and is also not afraid to make big decisions. This was evident when he dropped Totti last February after the fan-favourite spoke to the press about his frustration at a lack of game time. Nainggolan too is a fiery character and many a manager may either tread on eggshells round such a precocious talent or alternatively become embroiled in a monstrous row resulting in factions within the squad. Spalletti seems to have formed a near-perfect relationship with the player, even if he cannot always control his manic attitude.

Nainggolan regularly drinks, smokes and is no stranger to the Roman nightlife however his boss appreciates the midfielder doesn’t do anything in half-measures and has even stated he believes him to be ‘as valuable as Paul Pogba’.

His hectic lifestyle is reflected on the pitch with Nainggolan operating as a constant bundle of energy. He appreciates you must jump at opportunities in life and make the most of what you have. Born and raised in Belgium by a single mother with his twin sister and three half-brothers, Nainggolan is used to hard times. It seems though his upbringing has only acted as a harbinger of motivation when it comes to fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer.

Having been heavily linked to Chelsea and Arsenal last summer, there’s no doubt his rise in form will have potential suitors readying their chequebooks once again come July. Yet with Roma on course to comfortably qualify for the Champions League and Italy being Nainggolan’s home for the past 11 years, it will take something special to uproot the star.

If Francesco Totti is Rome’s Gladiator, then Radja Nainggolan is an all-action warrior who is more than living up to the meaning of his first name from his ancestral homeland of Indonesia.

The King.

 

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Grazie Claudio

As Andrea Bocelli sang the iconic Nessun Dorma, I wiped a tear from my eye. Sitting in the West Stand at the King Power Stadium, starring at the Italian classical singer as he serenaded us with his perfect rendition of an all-time classic, I didn’t think I could have loved a man more. But the Italian I am referring to was not Bocelli- it was the man to his left. The ever loveable, Claudio Ranieri.

Being a Leicester fan has certainly been a journey. In my 24-years I’ve seen a Stoke City pitch invasion after they clinched promotion to subsequently see us relegated to England’s third tier. I’ve seen Yann Kermorgant chip a penalty straight at Cardiff’s keeper in Wales to cost us a chance at Premier League Football. I’ve seen ‘that’ infamous Deeney goal that again ended another play-off heartbreak. And still. As I stood marvelling in what my club had just achieved, all the hardship that had forgone this moment only made it feel sweeter.

Ranieri is a charming individual of true compassion. He will walk into a press conference and shake every journalist’s hand in the room before sitting down. He is kind, intelligent, astute and most of all, highly respectful. From always being the nearly man with Chelsea, Valencia and Roma amongst others, God only knows how it must have felt for the nomadic journeyman to lift arguably football’s most prestigious domestic prize.

What he gave to me. To every fan, is almost indescribable. He took the impossible dream and made it a reality. For that, we are forever grateful. His compassion is only topped by his modesties and despite the events that have ensued, he will live on as the man who helped mastermind a memory that will be passed down from generation to generation in this small Midlands city.

Much has been made of his dismissal and football is a cruel, cut-throat business, however, Ranieri can walk away with his dignity intact. He never once blamed anyone for the horrid run of results and refused to be drawn into an argument with any of his critics. I’ve read and heard a lot of damming statements about my club in the past 24 hours but myself, like any other fan, wants to celebrate what Ranieri gave us, rather than start pointing fingers.

Whatever his is next for football’s ultimate gentleman, he will forever be in Leicester folklore. He is the man who achieved the greatest upset in the history of sport. Immortal.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Grazie Claudio.

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What does the future heart of England’s defence look like?

As the Three Lions crashed out of the 2010 World Cup on South African soil in an all too familiar sight, many believed England’s so called ‘Golden Generation’ was over. Despite the controversy of Frank Lampard’s infamous disallowed goal the truth was that the team simply wasn’t good enough. Since then the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher have called time on their careers and the heart of the nation’s defence hasn’t looked the same since.

Whether it be Terry’s warrior like blocks and tackles, Rio’s slick passing and composure, or Carragher’s intelligent reading of the game and sheer passion, a nation built upon iconic defenders has hit a slump. The likes of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have tried their best to paper over the cracks with the former often doing an admirable job, however, something’s missing. There’s no Bobby Moore, no Des Walker, no Tony Adams.

Part of the reason for this dearth of courageous, no-nonsense, almost brutish centre backs is due to the games evolution. The likes of Barcelona have paved the way for a new era where it’s not enough for a defender to just defend. This has been met by media backlash on English shores and for years we would still see Champions League matches where the likes of Terry would organise his 10-man defence as his counterpart Pique carried the ball over the halfway line.

Attitudes in recent times seem to be changing, however, there’s still a clear divide. Some usher in the new era of John Stones and his riskful passes whilst others dismiss it, calling for a safety first approach. Speaking of Stones, he is currently one of seven English centre-halves under the age of 25 that play regular Premier League football. So what does the future heart of England’s defence look like?

Much to the begrudgement of some, it appears that John Stones is firmly part of England manager Gareth Southgate’s plans moving forward. An ex-central defender himself, Southgate has sought to create a new ‘English DNA’. The idea being to move away from the physical, full-throttle game deployed generation after next and to a more continental game model. Love him or loathe him, Stones epitomises this strategy and the only real question seems to be who will partner the 22-year-old?

Of the aforementioned six others who could be the answer, only two have senior international pedigree thus far. Phil Jones was heralded as potentially the ‘greatest ever Manchester United player’ by the legendary Sir Alex Fergusson back in 2013 but seems to have lost his way a bit since. Defensive errors, injuries and long spells in the reserves have plagued Jones’ seasons throughout Moyes’ and van Gaal’s reigns at the club and the defender’s career looked over before it had truly begun.

This season has seen a reinvigorated Jones perform admirably under Mourinho as he strived to get his career back on track. Unfortunately, another cruel injury has hampered his progress but things once again are looking promising for the Blackburn academy product. Still only 24-years of age, Jones has every chance of getting back to the defender his early career promised him to be.

The other individual is Middlesbrough loanee Calum Chambers. Again put on a pedestal by the Gunners faithful following his transfer from Southampton, Chambers struggled to deal with the new-found pressure. Now at the Riverside and finding his feet again, there is hope that Chambers can add to his three England caps. The worry comes from Arsenal’s track record with indigenous talent. Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin can all vouch for how hard it is to hold down a regular starting birth at the Emirates so it may be the case that a permanent move away is the youngster best bet to aid his career development.

Two of the remaining four have been called up by their nation but are yet to see the field of play. Michael Keane and Ben Gibson are currently plying their trade for Burnley and Middlesbrough respectively and formed a decent partnership for the under-21 national side over the past couple of years. Of the two it’s been Keane that has shone the brightest in Sean Dyche’s backline this season and seems destined for a bigger move sooner rather than later.

The remaining duo come in the form of Harry Maguire and Alfie Mawson. Both 23-years of age, it’s safe to say a lot is expected. Maguire moved to Hull from Sheffield United and Mawson followed Stones’ footsteps in leaving Barnsley and now plays for Swansea. Despite a rough start to the campaign both have enjoyed new leases of life under new management and look the real deal.

With regards to fitting England’s new found image, Chambers, Gibson and Mawson would be the three who jump out as more natural ball-playing centre-halves. That’s not to say there’s not a place in the squad for the likes of Jones, Keane and Maguire but as England look to embark on yet another project, it seems the former trio have the upper hand.

Should Chambers refuse to leave Arsenal and fail to cement his place at his parent club, you’d imagine Southgate will turn to Gibson or Mawson. Both players must remain focused and probably move to bigger clubs in the future in order to cement that role with Phil Jones’ career dip acting as a timely reminder of how quickly one can fall from grace.

In truth, no-one can say for definite who will lead England’s backline in 5 years’ time and others such as Southampton’s Jack Stephens, Arsenal’s Rob Holding or someone from the lower echelons of the football pyramid may well emerge in the meantime. What we do know is that Stones is leading the chasing pack with Gibson and Mawson surely firmly in Southgate’s thoughts.

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Unsung Heroes – Matt Crocker

“All kids need a little help, hope and somebody who believes in them.” Sporting icon Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson believes it’s impossible for youth talent to succeed without having the confidence of a senior figure behind them and with that in mind, no-one has helped bring through more England internationals over the last 10 years than Matt Crocker. From Cardiff to England via Southampton, this is his story.

Having spent 10 years on the books of Cardiff City as a player, Matt Crocker realised at the age of 19 he wasn’t going to make the grade. Without the deemed ability to succeed, he focussed his passion for the game into coaching working with Cardiff’s academy where he eventually established himself as one of the key figures in the club’s youth programme. He was driven and committed to helping others succeed where he had fallen just short.

Matt’s work with the academy over a 6-year period laid the foundations for the ongoing success the Bluebirds have enjoyed in regards to talent production. The model he helped implement has seen the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Chris Gunter, Adam Matthews, Joe Ledley and Cameron Jerome all come through the Welsh club’s ranks so it comes as no surprise that Crocker’s next job saw him ply his trade at one of the most prestigious youth set-ups in Europe, Southampton.

In 2006 he was appointed head of the Saints youth academy and hasn’t looked back. Famed for their track record of producing Premier League and international stars, his work only proved to further enhance the South coast club’s sterling reputation. In his early years, Southampton amassed large sums for the transfers of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale, with the latter now considered one of the world’s best players.

More recent years have seen Matt and his staff invest copious amounts of hours into developing the latest line of star-studded Saints talent. Players such as Callum Chambers, Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana have all represented England at senior level and subsequently been sold for fees ranging from £16-30 million. Just a few examples of borne fruit from Crocker’s labour.  Matt believes Saints are the flagbearers in terms of youth production and adds other clubs look to them as an example of excellence.

“I think there are a lot of clubs looking to Southampton and the way they implement young players. Other clubs with financial problems usually cut back on academies. Even in administration, Southampton didn’t. The academy shouldn’t only be regarded as one of the best in England, but as one of the best in Europe.”

(Crocker speaking to FourFourTwo)

Crocker’s esteemed success led to him being personally head-hunted by the FA in 2013 as he became the governing body’s new head of coaching and player development. With such an exceptional track record first at Cardiff, then Southampton few could contest the decision. Since then, he has set about implementing what he describes as a new ‘England DNA’.

“What we’re trying to do is to create a culture or an environment where you go and watch an England team for five minutes and you should be able to know it’s an England team whether they’re wearing the kit or not. We need to clearly define ourselves tactically and technically in terms of what we’re looking for, but also socially and psychologically what our players should be like.”

(Crocker speaking to The Guardian)

His current remit is to take inspiration from other teams and cultures to help innovate a consistent ‘English playing style’ from the Under-16’s right the way through to the senior squad. The task in hand is no mean feat given our nation’s well-documented failings over the past five decades but if ever there was a man to help guide potential stars and plan for future greatness, it’s Matt Crocker.

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Guerrilla FC: The Washington Revolution

The notion of ‘winning at all costs’ is one ingrained in the American sporting psyche. As former American Football coach Vince Lombardi puts it “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” It’s a sentiment also established at the heart of Britain’s societal values, so it’s perhaps no surprise that football, or ‘soccer’, has advocated such beliefs up until the 1990s.

In many ways, as Jonathan Wilson notes in his book ‘Inverting the pyramid’, England’s success at the 1966 World Cup did more damage than good. Our inherent belief that hard-work, big tackles and bravery were somehow superior to team-orientated tactics, mixed with individual expressive flair, had been falsely proven. This is not a polemic of the national side, however there is a strong argument to suggest the lifting of the Jules Rimet Trophy set our nation, and subsequently America, back a good decade or two in regards to the development of strategic play.

The inception of the Premier League, and indeed MLS, has led to the sport’s continued augmentation and immersed us within the rich beauty of the game. For the first time in England (and in the U.S’s case since the demise of the NASL) we were seeing an influx of talent.

Unfortunately, many contested this transition, and as a result many young players saw  their football education somewhat stunted. Recent years have suggested a change in emphasis on English shores, however, it seems our historical idealisms are very much still prevalent in American grassroots soccer.

That’s where Guerrilla FC come in. The club was founded in America’s capital Washington D.C. earlier this year and in the same vein as Barcelona’s club motto ‘Més que un club’ they aim to be more than a club. Chatting to the president and co-founder Justin Salhani, he tells me the club was born from the idea of a revolution. They wanted to challenge the hierarchy of soccer within the States and change local’s perception of football culture.

“When we were kids in the mid/late 80s/early 90s good coaching was hard to find. There was a generation of flair players who idolised Arsenal, Barcelona, Zidane, Ronaldinho and the like, but trying to emulate these teams and players were often performing acts of subversion against coaches who valued hard work over intelligence or technique.”

Guerrilla FC stands for those not willing to conform to the norms of American soccer and instead wish to show that ‘football’ is so much more than just ‘soccer’. Having been heavily influenced through his youth by the Premier League and Continental European football, Salhani and co. wanted to establish a ‘football utopia’ in Washington, something that is exemplified on the pitch, and a style of play similar to the South American approach.

Their revolution spans much wider than the football pitch though. The club wants to form an identity. They sell their own merchandise and produce a magazine to help those from the DC area understand what they are about and encourage others to get behind the cause. Salhani views art, culture and fashion within football as a powerful vehicle to help instigate change.

“We want to build an environment and culture in DC. To do so, we need to spread our message. Art and culture is the best way to spread ideas and build up an emotional connection to Guerrilla FC. It’s also a vessel to show what we are about. Our art speaks to our identity.”

At the moment the club is strictly amateur, a decision that seems unlikely to change unless their revolution reverberates across America prompting wholesale changes to the format of MLS. So what’s next for Guerrilla FC and do they hold any long-term aspirations?

“In the short term, we are trying to attract more attention in the DC area and build a larger community around our team. Then we will discuss expanding the team and potentially begin preparing for more competitive tournaments or qualifiers (the US Open Cup qualifiers have been discussed, but that is someway off).

In the long term, we want to bring culture to the city. We want to establish a base or HQ where the team can gather to watch matches and philosophize about the game (a café, bookstore, pub, or some sort of hybrid).”

It certainly is a fascinating project and the start of a movement that will no doubt resonate with many football fans the world over. Trying to implement change is a far from easy task but with the undisputed history of football culture behind them, the revolution will be heard.

For more information on the club, check out their website: http://www.guerrillafc.com/

 

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