GIFTED FEET AND TORTURED SOULS: WHEN ADRIANO MET MUTU AT PARMA

Nestled between the industrial Milan and the rolling landscapes of Florence, Parma sits peacefully in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Red and beige-hued bricks form its Romanesque buildings while breathtaking frescos adorn their interior. Beauty is evident, but on closer inspection, the city’s architecture reveals scars of Parma’s past.

The iconic Duomo di Parma only partially showcases its original design. Decimated by an earthquake in the 12th century, the cathedral was left in need of mass renovation. Almost 500 metres away, along Parma’s winding cobbled streets, lies the Palazzo della Pilotta, a palace turned museum, whose asymmetrical facade tells the sorrowing story of World War Two bombings. Parmensi resilience is a defining quality, one that is perhaps best captured through its football.

In 2002, Parma welcomed two new forwards, Adrian Mutu and Adriano. The duo, despite their youth, were seen as the men to fire Parma to glory. The club was riding on the wave of an illustrious decade; financed by food conglomerate Parmalat, the Gialloblù took home three Coppa Italia, two UEFA Cups, one Cup Winners’ Cup and a European Super Cup over 10 magical years.

The prior season, however, had seen a slump in form. Parma’s unprecedented success piqued the interest of national powerhouse Juventus, who wasted little time in recruiting two of their burgeoning stars, Gianluigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram. One lacklustre campaign and three managers later, the Bianconeri were back, this time to prize club top-scorer Marco Di Vaio away from their grasp. Parma’s misery was compounded when captain Fabio Cannavaro also decided to jump ship, signing a four-year deal with Internazionale. The decimated squad, much like Parma’s landmarks, required reconstruction.

Parma’s triumphs throughout the 1990s had been built on sublime attacking talent. First came Faustino Asprilla, plucked from the murky, Narco-governed world of Colombian football. The South American striker formed a lethal partnership with Gianfranco Zola as the pair kick-started a Gialloblù revolution. Next came the truly exceptional strikeforce of Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa. Creative and potent in equal measure, both imbued Serie A with their stunning talent.

Like most good partnerships, there was a balance to Mutu and Adriano’s respective games. The former had been a creative force for Hellas Verona, regularly cutting in from the left to carve out chances. The latter, a powerful centre-forward with a cannon of a left foot, had recently bulldozed his way through Italy’s defences in the purple strip of Fiorentina.

Parma’s attack was completed by Japan international Hidetoshi Nakata, forming a forward line that had even the most casual of football hipsters purring. The man tasked with turning talent into cohesive play was Cesare Prandelli. Admired for his work with Verona, guiding the provincial side to Serie A promotion, the Italian coach immediately got to work, implementing a 4-3-3 formation and fluid style of play to provide his new-look strikeforce with a platform upon which to express themselves.

“Their impact was immediate,” lifelong Parma fan Giovanni Dougall tells These Football Times. “Adriano scored three in his first three games. It took Mutu until game week four to open his account, but once he started, he didn’t stop.”

Mutu’s first goal came against Perugia in October. In the words of Dougall: “Mutu was being ushered towards the line down by the right of Perugia’s penalty area, then, quick as a flash, a Cruyff turn and he was free, using his pace and power to brush off challenges before tucking the ball into the bottom corner.”

Subsequently, Mutu took flight. Adriano’s hold-up play became the perfect foil, allowing the Romanian to drive inside and instantly punish his opponents. Mutu would regularly return the favour, opening up back lines with defence-splitting passes or perfectly-weighted crosses for his colleague to finish with aplomb. At times it was like watching a skilled matador and an irrepressible bull; Mutu providing the elegant yet elusive glides while Adriano, the powerful bison, devastated in the penalty area.

A 4-0 rout of Torino in early December highlighted exactly how captivating the pair could be in the iconic blue and yellow of Parma, Mutu adding to midfielder Matteo Brighi’s opener before helping to orchestrate Adriano’s contest-ending brace. An avalanche of rave reviews followed. So too, did burdening comparisons.

Mutu was billed as the next Gheorghe Hagi, his nation’s biggest star. Similarly, Adriano’s form saw him touted as the new Ronaldo, with Brazilians desperate to see a world-class striker fulfil his potential following the cruel injuries that curtailed O Fenómeno. However, for now, it appeared hype only elevated the players’ performances to greater heights.

The only question remaining was whether they could perform against calcio’s elite. Typically, Parma had blown teams away, their attacking trident too hot to handle, but defeats to Milan, Inter and arch-rivals Juventus portrayed them as more of a best of the rest than serious Scudetto challengers – a tag they shed when Milan visited the Stadio Ennio Tardini.

Red smoke from lit flares billowed across the away end as the Milanisti tried to impose themselves on the city of Parma. The Gialloblù, in true fashion, remained resilient, countering with the usual sound of horns blaring from the tannoys and banners aplenty lining the Curva Nord. Parma were not here to be walked over; they were here for the fight.

A pulsating tension radiated from the stands, but rather than the usual exhilarating play, the game became a cagier, Catenaccio-esque contest. The sides cancelled the other out and at half-time, the match remained scoreless. Only a moment of magic would be enough to separate the two and in the 77th minute, that’s exactly what happened.

Regaining possession on the halfway line, Mutu took the ball under his spell. As the space opened up ahead, the forward drove into it to reach the byline. Spotting Adriano’s surge into the penalty box, Mutu delayed his cross before rolling a delightful ball across the face of the six-yard box. A quick change of pace from the Brazilian was enough to bamboozle Rossoneri captain Paolo Maldini and, with the deftest of flicks, he caressed the ball past the outstretched leg of Dida.

Parma one, Milan nil was the final result, the club’s sixth match undefeated. Indeed, having beaten Lazio the week before, courtesy of a last-gasp Adriano winner, Parma looked on course to book their place in European competition. Ultimately, it would be a nearly season for Parma, missing out on the Champions League, finishing fifth, and seeing Inter’s Christian Vieri capture the Capocannoniere ahead of both Mutu and Adriano, who came second and third respectively. More worrying, however, was the club’s financial situation.

Parmalat’s debt stood at around £300m and they would soon file for bankruptcy. With such turmoil, Parma’s hand was inevitably forced, reluctantly selling their two brightest stars. Mutu had earned himself a big-money move to Chelsea while Adriano returned to former employers, Inter.

The story of both players’ tragic fall from grace thereafter is well-documented. Mutu, no stranger to the Romanian nightlife scene when back on international duty, tested positive for cocaine and was subsequently arrested, later released in disgrace. It was the death of Adriano’s father that derailed his prosperous career, causing the striker to spiral into deep depression, dealing with the trauma by way of alcohol.

Neither the club or players would be the same again, but, for that one season, talent truly trumped turmoil. Much like the city walls of Parma, the players’ al dente exteriors cloaked their fragile minds, yet in Parma’s hour of need, both shone through to help rebuild a crumbling city.

SAN IKER CASILLAS

In the heart of Madrid lies the iconic Plaza de Cibeles. Its opulent surroundings are furnished by a lavish fountain at the centre of which stands a statue of the Greek Goddess, Cybele. Many years ago, Real Madrid unofficially adopted the fountain, using the plaza as a vehicle to parade the fruits of their victories.

Football romanticists often blur the lines between sport and sanctity. It’s commonplace for the beautiful game to become their creed, transcending the normality of human competition to enter a realm of divinity. For those who subscribe to the church of La Roja, 16 June 2002 marked the coronation of their messiah.

Pilgrims, adorning red, gold and blue apparel, flocked east from their Iberian communes to converge upon the city of Suwon. South Korea’s World Cup Stadium, masquerading as the Spaniards’ Mecca, was the venue for a last-16 fixture which pitted Spain against the Republic of Ireland. The match seemed a formality with Spain the overwhelming favourites, and they took the lead before half-time, Fernando Morientes stealing a march on Gary Breen to flick his near-post header past the helpless Shay Given.

The break provided respite and reinvigoration in equal measure for the boys in green. Manager Mick McCarthy showcased his tactical nous, calling upon veteran forward Niall Quinn, and reshuffled the midfield in a shake-up that gave his side a new lease of life. On came the Irish onslaught, each player to a man showing the kind of determination that so often characterises the tournament’s plucky underdog. They eventually saw their will rewarded in the form of a penalty. Alas, Ian Harte stepped up only to see his effort turned away by a fresh-faced Iker Casillas.

The 21-year-old goalkeeper was having a sublime game but was eventually beaten from the spot in the dying embers by Robbie Keane. It was an equaliser that forced the contest into extra-time, followed by a subsequent penalty shoot-out. Emboldened by his earlier heroics, Casillas rose to the challenge to thwart both David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane, crushing Ireland’s dreams and sending Spain triumphantly through to the last eight.

The outpouring of emotion in the aftermath of the result saw Casillas heralded as San Iker – Saint Iker – an appropriate title given his miraculous performance. Despite all the plaudits, though, the limelight to display such aptitude was only afforded to the youngster by way of another’s misfortune.

Thanks to a freak accident which involved Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares’ poor handling of an aftershave bottle – a slip unbecoming of such a talented artisan – a shard of glass severed the Spaniard’s right foot on the eve of the tournament. “It was a terrible piece of bad luck for Cañizares and I am certainly not happy,” remarked Casillas. “But football is like that. Now Ricardo, [Pedro] Contreras and myself will have to fight it out for the [starting] place and any of us could be chosen.”

In truth, Casillas was being overly humble. Ricardo and Contreras were both decent goalkeepers, coming off the back of modest seasons with Valladolid and Málaga respectively, but neither compared to the Madrid shot-stopper. He was now well established as Los Blancos’ number one and ready to make his mark on the international stage.

Casillas was a product of La Fábrica and took the traditional route into Real’s senior side via Castilla. As a native of Madrid, his progression was met with universal approval. Every fan loves to see a local come through the ranks, and those of a certain generation had fond memories of Madrid’s 1966 European Cup-winning side – an all-Spanish line-up with numerous players birthed at AD Plus Ultra – a local Madrid team that acted as Real’s academy until 1972.

Ironically, it was another Cañizares injury, five years before Iker’s World Cup bow, that gave him his first opportunity with the seniors. Speaking to Spanish football expert Sid Lowe, Casillas reminisced about Real’s last-minute decision to call him up for a Champions League tie against Rosenborg: “Bodo Illgner was injured and Cañizares had a knock, so they needed me as a third keeper. They literally pulled me out of a technical design class. You can imagine the teacher saying: ‘Well he’s supposed to be working in my class.’

“The headmaster, who was a big Madrid fan, called me. He knew I was in the youth system and every time I saw him he’d talk about Madrid. He told me that I had to get to the team hotel near Barajas, ready to fly to Norway.”

He was only 16 at the time and, injury crisis or not, his inclusion in the matchday squad was a sign of just how highly the club rated him. Boarding the plane and sitting beside Morientes, the schoolboy felt as though he’d “won the lottery” – a feeling his father José knew all too well.

Every weekend José would attempt to predict the national football scores, entrusting a young Iker to register his betting slip at the local bookies. One fateful evening as the scores rolled in, he couldn’t believe his eyes – all 14 results were bang on the money. The only problem was his son’s red face. Iker awkwardly confessed to his dad that he’d forgotten to place his bet earlier that day, costing the Casillas family the estimated £1.2m jackpot.

Childhood misdemeanours aside, his parents were delighted at the news of their son’s call-up and had done everything in their power to help him along the way to stardom. Even they, however, couldn’t have envisaged that he’d be a two-time European champion by the age of 20.

Becoming the youngest goalkeeper ever to take the field in Champions League history – a record that stood until Benfica’s Mile Svilar broke it in 2017 – Casillas played as if he’d been between the Bernabéu’s sticks his whole life. He combined spectacular athleticism with intrinsic positional awareness, his reflexes were lightning-quick, agility cat-like and concentration impeccable.

Los Blancos finished the 2000 Champions League group stage as runners-up, meaning they faced the daunting prospect of a tie against holders and treble winners, Manchester United. After an impenetrable display from Casillas in the first leg, Madrid headed to Old Trafford with the tie still scoreless. The second leg got off to a cagey start but soon came alive as a Roy Keane own-goal and Raúl brace proved enough to send Real through.

Casillas was fast making the Bernabéu a fortress, quelling any assault on his kingdom with consummate ease. Another home clean sheet in the semi-finals against Bayern Munich helped Real navigate their way past the Bavarians to set-up an all-Spanish final against Valencia. Los Che went into the final in confident manner – they had finished above Los Blancos in LaLiga and were buoyed by their league-closing victory over Zaragoza – in stark contrast to Real Madrid’s loss to Valladolid, ending their campaign miserably in fifth.

What ensued was a one-sided battle that swiftly re-established the historic power balance. Real drew first blood, with some nifty wing play from Steve McManaman culminating in Fernando Morientes’ back post header. A sensational scissor-kick from the Englishman then doubled their lead before Raúl provided the coup de grâce, rounding the keeper and driving a dagger through Valencianista hearts.

Casillas had conquered Europe and become a master of his craft under the umbrella of football’s most successful behemoth, all before leaving adolescence. The next two years brought his first league title, a second Champions League trophy, and that memorable performance in Suwon. For all his on-field achievements, it was the admiration of his character that meant the most to Casillas. “I don’t want to be remembered as a good goalkeeper,” he said, “I want to be remembered as a great person.” His aura was infectious and washed over Madrid like water on the banks of the Río Manzanares.

San Iker’s theology had pervaded the Spanish capital, and whilst his national status was also revered, it was Casillas’ captaincy of Spain’s greatest generation that really allowed him to cross the blurred borders of football and faith to cement his demigod legacy. With Raúl excluded from the squad, Casillas was handed the armband for Euro 2008 and never looked back. Spain topped their group before meeting Italy in the quarter-finals; a nation whose footballing religion is so ingrained in society, it makes up the very fabric of their cultural identity.

The Azzurri had their own cultic figurehead in Gianluigi Buffon. The keepers are great friends, but after 120 minutes of nail-biting play, it was the church bells of La Roja that rang proudly as silence befell Italy. Casillas – just as he had done six years earlier – saved two penalties in the shoot-out, first flying to his right, tipping Daniel De Rossi’s shot round the post, then getting down to his left, thwarting Antonio Di Natale.

It wasn’t quite the Bernabéu but Vienna’s Ernst-Happel-Stadion was starting to feel a lot like home. It was the site of his man of the match performance against the Italians and, four days later, saw him keep another clean sheet as Spain dispatched Russia 3-0. Austria’s largest stadium was also the venue for the final, where Spain would do battle with Germany for the title of Europe’s best nation. Despite being without their leading scorer, David Villa, Fernando Torres stepped up in his absence to seal a historic victory. With yet another clean sheet to his name, Casillas became the first goalkeeping captain to lift the European Championship.

Two years later, Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral bells were ringing louder and prouder than ever before. Spain had beaten the Netherlands to become world champions for the first time in their history with San Iker leading La Roja to glory. His two one-on-one saves at the feet of Arjen Robben allowed Andrés Iniesta to strike deep into extra-time and etch his name into Spanish folklore. Casillas won the tournament’s golden glove and, as his holy hands caressed the trophy in Johannesburg, few could contest his status as Spain’s finest ever goalkeeper.

The image of Casillas, eyes shut and jaw agape in sheer adulation as he held the trophy aloft, was produced and sold into the public domain en masse. It became the centrepiece of shrines the length and breadth of the nation, adorning the walls of every child’s bedroom. “When you win the golden glove and it’s come on top of a team prize, it’s very special,” Casillas told FIFA. “Winning an individual award when your team hasn’t won leaves you with an empty feeling inside. But I was lucky in that we won the World Cup and I was named best goalkeeper of the tournament, so it doubled the happiness for me.”

Another European Championship followed, however it came amid the player’s toughest time in his illustrious career. A fractured relationship with Real manager José Mourinho meant Casillas was now just another spectator at the Bernabéu, watching Antonio Adán and Diego López take control of goalkeeping duties.

He was ostracised by Mourinho and even received abuse from some quarters of the club’s fans, who gave him the nickname ‘Topor’ (a portmanteau of ‘topo’ and ‘portero’ – Spanish for ‘mole’ and ‘goalkeeper’) after he allegedly leaked club information to the media. It was a troubling time for Iker, who saw his divinity questioned and had to watch painfully as arch-rivals Barcelona renovated their Cruyffarin chapel under Pep Guardiola to become Spain’s dominant force once more.

Casillas’ perceived petulance was tarnishing his legendary status and all signs pointed towards the exit door. It looked as though only a miracle could save him from a truly unworthy ending. Fortunately, miraculous saves are what San Iker dealt in almost exclusively, and redemption proved to be just around the corner.

Carlo Ancelotti was appointed as Mourinho’s successor and immediately reinstated Casillas for Copa del Rey and Champions League fixtures. The veteran repaid the favour by captaining Los Blancos to both trophies in 2014. He became the first goalkeeper not to concede a single goal until the final of the Copa – where they beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Mestalla – before creating an even greater piece of history in Europe.

Real’s 4-1 victory over city rivals Atlético meant Casillas lifted La Décima, becoming only the third man ever – after Franz Beckenbauer and Didier Deschamps – to lift the Euros, World Cup and Champions League as team captain. His accomplishments saw him firmly reinstated as the club’s number one, and once again in the hearts of Madridista’s. He had risen from the dead, a resurrection befitting of his sobriquet.

If there is a single image that defines Iker Casillas’ illustrious career, it is one taken of him in May 2014 at the Plaza de Cibeles. Celebrating La Décima, the goalkeeper stood on a platform behind the fountain of Cybele, holding the coveted trophy above his head. Thousands of onlooking fans could barely contain their jubilation – in their eyes it was an apt metaphor: Casillas was right where he belonged, standing tall amongst the gods.

How Surinamese migrants revolutionised Dutch football

Suriname is a country located on the north-eastern Atlantic coast of South America. It is the smallest nation on the continent and plays host to a population of just over half a million. It’s culturally similar to the Caribbean and ships numerous produce such as rice, bananas and sugar. Its greatest exports, however, come in the form of truly gifted footballers.

After originally being explored by the British in the late 17th century, it was the Dutch that colonised Suriname and began to make the most of their agricultural riches. They relied heavily on African slaves to harvest the land and ship goods back to the port of Rotterdam, and eventually – after an agreement with Britain was struck – made Suriname a constitute of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Suriname’s national language became Dutch and it remained a colony of Netherlands right up until gaining independence in 1975. Despite some positives deriving from self-governance, many of the nation’s inhabitants chose to emigrate to their former European rulers, given the increased opportunity of employment and supplementary salaries.

It is here that the next generation of Oranje stars were born. As Dutch football writer Sander Ijtsma notes, “Holland’s national team has undoubtedly benefitted from using Suriname-born players, who had the potential to make quite the impact.” The Netherlands is widely known for its egalitarian society, however, as many Surinamese locale will tell you, the first wave of mass migration was not received warmly by all.

You had to be at least twice as good as a white player in the same position. Many players quit the game because they weren’t being given the chance to prove themselves. Today, people’s eyes are more open but in the past it was a real struggle.” Those are the words of former Ajax, Milan, Barcelona and Netherlands international Winston Bogarde. Fortunately, in some cases ability trumped prejudice and the Eredivisie was graced by faces of Surinamese descent that would later go on to become Dutch greats.

Holland were coming off the back of a golden era. The 1970s side revered for its Total Football had imbued the beautiful game with revolutionary tactics and awe-inspiring play. Les Oranje reached consecutive World Cup finals in 1974 and ’78, ultimately losing both. Form dipped during a transitional period as the great team of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol paved the way for a more multi-cultural squad. What followed marked the Netherland’s greatest international achievement to date.

Still playing with the idiosyncratic verve synonymous with the Dutch style, Surinamese stars such as Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit broke onto the scene and combined technically exquisite football with a dash of South American flair. Their exuberance breathed new life into the squad as they went on to capture the 1988 European Championship.

Whilst the Netherlands may have no longer been as slick as the previous decade, the injection of a different kind of football proved an unequivocal success. Another Surinamese star turned Dutch icon, Edgar Davids, believes his native land takes great influence from bordering Brazil. “Suriname has many similarities to Brazil. There’s lots of poverty and a lot of kids on the street who have no money, come from broken homes and have plenty of time on their hands. They play football all the time and they learn to play with their bare feet.”

After ending their major tournament hoodoo and bringing international acclaim to the low country, Surinamese migrants were finally celebrated more than criticised. This was never more prevalent than when a charity match was organised in 1991 to help raise funds for victim’s families of a plane crash just outside of Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. The match pitted a Suriname side containing the likes of Gullit, Rijkaard and Bogarde against a Dutch select XI in front of a mutual partisan crowd. Suriname ran out 3-1 victors.

It’s not just the national side that has benefited either. In 2009 FIFA reported that there were nearly 150 players in the Eredivisie who could claim ancestry to the South American peninsula. One of the few Surinamese journalists, Humberto Tan, believes Holland would have been in a much worse state throughout the 1980s had it not been for Surinam’s influence. He controversially remarked: “Without the Surinamese, the Dutch team would be like Germany. The team would be weak, soft, strange, they wouldn’t be very creative and wouldn’t be exciting to watch.”

Sadly the delicate issue of racism returned to fore once again in 1996. With rifts appearing in the national squad during Euro 96, newspapers and various other media outlets rather presumptuously claimed there was a divide between the white and black players after pictures emerged of the team eating lunch on separate tables. Tan rubbished the rumours explaining the rift was more to do with manager Guus Hiddink placing too much faith in the senior players and disregarding their youthful counterparts.   

With Louis van Gaal’s legendary Ajax side lifting the 1995 Champions League, many thought that Surinamese players like Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert deserved more recognition on the international stage. The obdurate Hiddink, however, held a diametrically opposing view. The Surinamese were also often unfairly awarded the epithet ‘lazy’ due to their laid-back Caribbean culture, but whether this insular stereotype played a part or not has never been proven.

With the sardonic attitude surrounding Surinamese players in the mid-90s, it begs the question as to why more of them did not chose to represent their homeland internationally. The answer lies in the current socio-political landscape of Suriname. Since its independence, the country has been a place of unease as dictatorships have seen unemployment figures and famine continually rise. One law states that any citizen who migrates to the Netherlands is no longer eligible to represent the national side.

This puts young indigenous players in an uncompromising position when pursuing a career in football. The standard of coaching is poor in comparison to Europe and the league structure also leaves a lot to be desired, creating a kind of catch 22 situation. So when youngsters are offered academy trials and professional contracts in the Netherlands it’s little wonder they opt out of Suriname’s national programme.

Currently ranked 118th in FIFA’s footballing ladder, and their only star of any note being Giovanni Drenthe – Royston’s brother – the nation’s hopes of qualifying for a maiden World Cup or Olympics seem bleak. 

On top of this, cosmopolitan cities such as Amsterdam offer some of the world’s finest coaching and can act as a modern springboard to the top of the European game. Gullit reaffirmed this belief when he stated: “The coaching in Holland is some of the best in the world. Players are raised with attention to tactics and technique. That has benefited the Surinamese players and also the Dutch players. That mixture has helped produce interesting and exciting teams and it’s made us what we are.”

To this day Les Oranje still profits from Surinamese players, with the latest crop of international stars including Virgil van Dijk, Jeffrey Bruma, Michel Vorm and Georgino Wijnaldum. The relationship between the two nations has been arduous at times but the proclivity to migrate has ascended the Dutch to glory and will surely bear more fruit than just bananas in years to come.

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