A journey through time: the career of Esteban Cambiasso

The next day, he headed north from his Genoa commune to present his findings at the request of Massimo Moratti, president of Internazionale. His discovery regarded the migration of a certain Francesco Cambiaso, an Argentine migrant of Genoese descent. 

In the late 19th century – as a consequence of a mass wave of European migration – Francesco made the transatlantic journey to the port of Buenos Aires, and it was here where he, his wife, and their family of 11 children settled. The peninsula’s population had been decimated after years of ongoing civil war and in the aftermath of its bitter conclusion, Italian and Spanish workers sought to rebuild the nation, whilst seeking better lives for their offspring.

Upon arrival, a transcript error meant the Cambiaso family name officially became ‘Cambiasso’ and it was here in Buenos Aires, decades later, that a young Esteban was brought into the world. The relevance of this document relates to Cambiasso’s eligibility to play for the Nerazzurri. The club had struggled to register the player back in 2004 following his transfer from Real Madrid due to a lack of space on their non-EU player quota. It was Vassallo’s seminal findings, however, that would act as the catalyst for Cambiasso’s claim to an Italian passport, thus completing his move to Inter.

Despite this historical occurrence helping to shape the career path of the youthful midfielder, it was another preceded family event that so nearly led him to forge a profession with his hands, not feet. In 1908, Esteban’s ancestor, Antonio, founded the Villa del Parque – a district of Buenos Aires where years later the GEVP basketball school would be built. Esteban’s father, Carlos, was a basketball fanatic and his mother Tita had an adoration for cestoball (an Argentine sport not too dissimilar to netball). “When I was just three-years-old, my parents noticed how much I liked basketball and they took me, along with my brother Nicolas, to the GEVP basketball school where our elder brother Frederick already played.”

Esteban spent his formative years carrying a ball wherever he went, hedonistically playing with his siblings whilst also learning tactics and plays in the garage from his mother, using stools to replicate opposition players. He was meticulous and studious from an early age and would spend hours observing and trying to replicate his childhood sporting idol, Michael Jordan.

The game of fútbol would have to wait until schooling before it snared Cambiasso’s heart away from baloncesto. By now, he had also been awarded the nickname Cuchu, after popular national television character Chchufilito on account of his skinny frame, blonde hair and warm-hearted nature. His coaches noticed Esteban’s aptitude for starting moves – acquired from playing point guard – and immediately sought to instill in him the art of the pivot role.

Six years honing his new-found craft brought with them a place at Argentinos Juniors’ prestigious academy and mounting interest from Europe. Ajax were coming off the back of a historic campaign having been crowned champions of both the Netherlands and Europe. Manager Louis van Gaal had been notified of Cuchu’s talents and made clear his interest in taking the 15-year-old to Amsterdam. Worried about the drastic cultural shift at such a tender age, his family opted to hold out for a more logistical move to materialise.

And materialise it did, in the form of the game’s great behemoth, Real Madrid. Offered the chance to adorn the iconic Los Blancos shirt without any language barriers proved too good an opportunity to dismiss. So, bags packed, a young Cambiasso travelled to the Spanish capital. “A few months before I had also looked at Ajax but the Dutch culture was so different from Argentina that my family and I were scared. I made the decision to follow a dream: Real Madrid,” Cambiasso recalled in an interview with Marca. “At the age of 15, I found myself surrounded by the biggest stars and they treated me very well, especially Sánchez, Hierro, Redondo, Alkorta and Chendo.”

Two years brought with them 41 appearances and two goals for Castilla, yet cultural barriers or not, spending his adolescent years’ miles away from loved ones took its toll. Indeed, Cambiasso was unsettled and was also lacking the level of competition his budding development craved. “I was given the chance to return to Argentina after two years in Madrid B because I needed more competition. Already in the first team, the politics of the moment meant that most of the side was made up of academy players and Galácticos, and I wasn’t either of those.”

He returned home to his native land, signing for Independiente and broke into senior football with immediate effect. Cuchu was lauded, his play inspired and he exuded confidence and composure well beyond his years. He would also regularly interact with iconic manager César Luis Menotti, always asking for advice as the midfielder passionately continued his quest for self-betterment. It became apparent that Cambiasso was far more than just another player of the beautiful game – he was a devout student.

He went on to taste his first silverware, beginning an addiction for excellence, claiming the Juventud de América twice with Argentina’s under-20 side and becoming a youth world champion in 1997. A transfer to River Plate followed as Cambiasso began to establish himself as one of his country’s brightest stars. 

There was nothing extravagant to his game, his trickery seldom, but for the purists, spending a few minutes watching him orchestrate River’s midfield was all it took to convince them of his excellence. His movement was ergonomic, passing purposeful and command of a game impeccable.

As his reputation grew, so too did Real’s re-kindled interest, and this time Cuchu would take the opportunity with both hands. The 2002/03 campaign saw Cambiasso attain major titles, first winning the Intercontinental and UEFA Super Cups, before adding the coveted La Liga crown. Sitting at the base of midfield whilst rotating seamlessly with the maestro Claude Makélélé, the duo added much-needed balance to Madrid’s attacking flair.

Unfortunately, this was not an opinion shared by club president Florentino Pérez whose acrimonious sale of Makélélé after his request of a pay rise brought about a period of decline. The obdurate Pérez did not see the benefit of the deep-lying midfielder and lambasted both Makélélé and Cambiasso for their “lack of technical ability and pace.”

Another two years in Spain had drawn to a bitter end and once again Cambiasso was on the move. It is here where Inter and Moratti made their move. The Lombardy outfit had been long-term admirers of Cambiasso and negotiated with Madrid about a possible transfer when their Brazilian jewel Ronaldo moved in the opposite direction. At the time, the deal wasn’t feasible but now thanks to the tireless research of Vassallo, the Argentine of Italian decent was officially unveiled as an Inter player.

He arrived into a side of familiar faces. Inter had a strong Argentine core and Cambiasso felt right at home, teaming up with international compatriots such as Javier Zanetti, Nicolás Burdisso, Julio Cruz, and Juan Sebastián Verón.

The club embarked on an era of unassailable dominance, powering their way to five consecutive Scudettos. Having witnessed the decline of Carlo Ancelotti’s Rossoneri and the Old Lady’s dramatic fall from grace in the face of the Calciopoli scandal, the Nerazzurri were enjoying unrivalled success, the type of which had not been seen since the days of Helenio Herrera’s reign.   

Cambiasso played at the fulcrum. A commanding warrior whose craft, guile and industry first helped Roberto Mancini break Italy’s duopoly, before elevating José Mourinho’s men to conquer Europe. “I won the treble with Cambiasso,” said a gleeful Mourinho to The Independent back in 2015, “he belongs to my golden team.” He commandeered the pitch much like a prize conductor leads his orchestra, each player dancing to Cuchu’s masterful beat. His presence was their baton, the ball their metronome, and cunning yet deadly counter-attacks their symphony. 

Despite his success largely emanating from domestic football, if one were to pinpoint the perfect microcosm of Cambiasso’s career, it would be his hand in one of the greatest goals the World Cup has ever witnessed. In a group game against Serbia at the 2006 tournament, Argentina put together an awe-inspiring 25-pass move that culminated in Cuchu finding the back of the net. “A monument of geometry” was how El Mundo chose to describe it, and Cambiasso was at the epicentre of play. The fact the game is remembered for that magical goal – as opposed to it marking Lionel Messi’s first-ever World Cup goal – spoke of its artistry.

Incredibly, four years later, after Inter’s superb treble-winning season, both Cambiasso and Zanetti were omitted from Diego Maradona’s Albiceleste squad. The team lacked solidity at right-back and a deep-lying midfield passer, which inevitably cost Maradona the chance to immortalise his Argentine legacy as a manager, and furthermore, his job. National greats such as Ossie Ardiles chastised the coach’s lack of team cohesion and top-heavy approach by stating: “It is a team game, and it is the team that always comes first, not the individuals.”

After the disappointment of not playing on football’s grandest stage, Cambiasso returned to a very different Inter. The winds of change had begun to take effect as Mourinho exited for Cuchu’s old suitors, Real. After such an unprecedented campaign, the team regrettably regressed. Spanish tactician Rafa Benítez replaced the outgoing Mourinho but didn’t even make it to Christmas.

Brazilian legend Leonardo was Benítez’s successor who, despite inspiring an instant upturn in form, again proved to be an underwhelming appointment. Three managers in the next two seasons was an indication of the unsettlement at the club. Cambiasso, though, remained a stalwart, helping teammates and managers alike, but when long-standing club president and close friend Moratti was not re-elected, he decided to bring the curtain down on an illustrious decade in Milan. 

Needless to say, global interest in the now all-encompassed veteran was rife, however, Cambiasso’s personal allure had always been for the English game. He was somewhat of an Anglophile, intrigued by the lifestyle and enamoured by the football. So, rather than enjoy the relaxing confines of Major League Soccer, he put pen to paper on a year’s deal with plucky Premier League newcomers, Leicester City.

It was a woeful start to life in the east-midlands as the club found it’s self languishing at the foot of England’s top-flight for almost the entirety of the campaign. Cambiasso, however, remained sanguine. He had forged a reputation on English shores as a leader on and off the pitch, a pass-master, and fierce competitor. “For me, winning a cup or winning the league with another team is the same now as having the possibility to save Leicester in the Premier League.” Speaking to the BBC with conviction, he truly believed they could stay up, and as a result, his teammates took notice. 

An incredible run of seven wins from their last nine fixtures was enough to cement the Foxes’ league status for another year and put together the blueprint which would eventually lead Leicester to the Premier League’s summit just 12-months later. The Blues had fallen head over heels for the man they called “magic”, his character had transcended sport and the city became infatuated by his charm. Unfortunately, this was not enough for him to renew his contract as Cambiasso packed up his box of tricks and headed for Greece.

Olympiakos is where Cuchu lived out his Indian summer, helping the Piraeus-based club win back to back Super League titles. Now 37, he has decided to call time on a glittering career and start training towards his coaching badges – a natural step for one of the game’s greatest modern-day students. He has genuine passion and admires many current managers with differing methodologies, not least Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone: “They both convey authenticity and that generates credibility, the most important characteristic to be a leader.”

An under-20 world champion, treble winner and national treasure; how divergent his story might have been if the Cambiaso family tree wasn’t so rich with Italian history. For now, it’s fair to say he can take a step back, safe in the knowledge that he has created his very own history, an heirloom of stories that will echo throughout eternity. 

Kerlon and the demise of a great that never was

Few things evoke emotion quite like observing something extraordinary on the football field. An act that defies all logic and belief. The gasps of those in attendance, the clattering of seats as spectator’s rise to their feet in unison. Witnessing something awe-inspiring is magical at the best of times, yet when such aptitude is conjured by an adolescent, it only adds to the allure that you are witnessing something truly spectacular.

Back in September 2007, the Estádio Governador Magalhães Pinto – more commonly known as the Mineirão – played host to the Clássico Mineiro. Within the boundaries of Belo Horizonte – Brazil’s sixth biggest city – Cruzeiro squared up against bitter local rivals Atlético Mineiro and tensions, alongside temperatures, were running high.

Cutting in from the right flank, Kerlon Moura Souza scooped the ball aloft and embarked on a mazy dribble, accelerating forward whilst balancing the ball atop of his head in a buccaneering style. His ingenuity ultimately proved to be short-lived as in a matter of seconds, he was unceremoniously manhandled to the ground courtesy of a rather vicious elbow. The perpetrator, Atlético’s right-back Dyego Rocha Coelho, seemed incensed at Kerlon’s audacity to attempt such grandstanding trickery.

In many ways, the incident stands alone as a microcosm of Kerlon’s career. Something that started with such promise and flamboyance, capturing the imagination of everyone present, ended by being sent crashing back down to earth before its time with a sharp reality check.

The attacking midfielder rose to prominence in 2005, representing Brazil at the Under-17 South American Championship. Kerlon brought the tournament to life, demonstrating flawless technique and composure well beyond his tender years. The team boasted budding stars such as Marcelo, Denílson and Anderson, but there was only one player who had the indigenous partisans waxing lyrical.

Notching eight goals over the span of just seven games, Kerlon led the Seleção to glory on Venezuelan soil, vanquishing Uruguay in the final. He had also developed a penchant for a truly unique trick – the aforementioned head balancing act dubbed drible da foquinha or in English, ‘the seal dribble’. He was much more than just a goalscoring show-boater, though. The youngster exuded an air of star quality and carried himself in a confident manner, irrepressibly scoring and creating a variety goals, from meandering solo runs to blistering long-range free-kicks.

Billed as the ‘next Ronaldinho’, A Foca (The Seal) continued his annus mirabilis by earning a debut appearance for Cruzeiro. With fans and the media rhapsodising his every kick of the ball by this point, interest in the precocious talent was also rife. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona were all astutely aware of Kerlon’s exploits and had been scouting him, leading to rumours of an imminent €25 million transfer across the Atlantic.

 

He remained loyal at first, continuing to develop and ply his trade for his boyhood club Cruzeiro. However, unbeknownst to the starlet at the time, his fortunes were about to take a turn for the worse. Struggling to adequately adjust to the rigours of senior football, the boy wonder initially stagnated, his brilliance limited to a few fleeting moments here and there. Injuries had also begun to take their toll; a dark by-product of football that has the cruel ability to thwart even the most sublime. 

A Foca played three seasons at La Bestia Negra in total before securing his eventual move to Europe. The suitors were Internazionale; however, such was the complexity of the deal, Kerlon found himself originally signing for Chievo. The Nerazzurri completed the signing via their Veronese counterparts due to a lack of space on their non-EU quota but were assured the player was worth a season’s wait by his notorious agent, Mino Raiola. The measly €1.3 million fee for 80 percent of Kerlon’s contractual rights, however, was an indication of his decline. 

Despite breathtaking online footage alongside ballyhoo from Raiola, Chievo fans were to be left disappointed as Kerlon arrived in northern Italy with more baggage than just his possessions. A knee injury sustained in March 2007 would plague his maiden European campaign, which concluded with just four outings and no goals to show for his efforts.

Unconvinced upon the Brazilian’s return that he was ready to don the iconic blue and black stripes, manager José Mourinho – renowned for his lack of faith in youth – farmed the 21-year-old out on loan again, this time to Ajax. If Kerlon’s career had hit some stumbling blocks thus far, it was about to completely derail. After being presented in Amsterdam, it was announced that the midfielder would actually spend the campaign representing Jong Ajax – the reserve team.

Joining back up with Inter in 2010, Kerlon looked a shadow of his former self. A myriad of injuries had begun to not only punctuate but actively consume the youngster’s once rathe-ripe career. Another devastating knee injury that summer carried with it embittered undertones, similar to those another certain national phenomenon had experienced a decade earlier.

He also spent a great deal of time with his teammate and known trouble-maker, Mario Balotelli. Speaking to ESPN Brasil, Kerlon remarked: “He [Balotelli] had a habit of arriving at training before anyone else and peeing on all the players’ boots … it was very funny.” Whether such practical jokes were as warmly received by Mourinho is unknown, yet one can imagine that given his fractious relationship with the Italian, Kerlon’s amusement may not have been best placed.

Ostracised and desperate to rekindle the kind of form that had seen him heralded as Brazil’s future saviour, he headed back to his native peninsula. Paraná Clube were the latest club to take a gamble on his waning ability, agreeing a loan deal a day before Kerlon’s 23rd birthday. Alas, this proved to be yet another false dawn.

 

A Foca was reaching his nadir. Even a move back home hadn’t borne fruit, and now the sad state of affairs – both mentally and physically – were beginning to take their toll. Succumbing to regular injuries can often do more mental damage than anything else and this, combined with the demanding pressures of elite sport, led Kerlon to flounder badly.

He signed for regional third division outfit Nacional Esporte Clube in a deal that really summed up the melancholy surrounding how far he had fallen. Injuries and sheer ignominy of his fall from grace led to one singular appearance ending his time back in Brazil. Once a national treasure, his career now seemed trapped deep in the bowels of an echo chamber, with every one of Kerlon’s efforts reverberating with the same infuriating, futile result.

A complete change of scenery was in order and so, bags and extra baggage packed, he headed to Japan. Rather than being welcomed into the J1 League, though, it was another side dwelling within their respective third tier in the form of Fujieda MYFC that marked his new home. Indeed, Kerlon’s name on the list of forgotten wunderkinds had all but been carved in stone. 

Surprisingly, then, his time in Asia acted as somewhat of a miniature renaissance. The midfielder managed to shake off his injury-plagued past to play relatively consistently for the first time in nearly four years. A return of nine goals in 22 outings may not have set the world alight, but the world is exactly what it meant to Kerlon.

Reinvigorated, he moved back across the Pacific, endeavouring to succeed stateside. After a brief spell training with the Atlanta Silverbacks, he duly signed for ASPL team Miami Dade. Despite the club again residing in the lower echelons of domestic football, the Brazilian was beaming. “I always had the dream and the intention to play in the United States, whether it’s in MLS, NASL, or the ASPL. I really like the country, I really want to be here, because I am closer to Brazil, and this opportunity came to me. I am very happy to be here.”

Miami were only founded a year prior to Kerlon’s arrival, yet its convenient location, coupled with a plethora of South American teammates, helped the midfielder feel right at home. Playing at St. Thomas’ University stadium – with a capacity of just 2,444 – it was a far cry from the Clássico Mineiro, but at this point just playing competitively was enough for the 27-year-old. Stints in both Malta and a third spell in Brazil have passed Kerlon by since. Now 29, the nomadic journeyman and once enigmatic prodigy represents Slovakia’s Spartak Trnava with a handful appearances under his belt this calendar year.

Being placed on the pedestal of unrelenting Brazilian expectation as a luminary for future success before even venturing into the professional game is no mean feat. Many have tried and failed to live up to the lofty billing set by standard-bearers such as Pelé, Ronaldinho and co. However, Kerlon really was a national – and indeed internet – sensation. He may have fallen drastically short of what his formative displays promised to provide but nevertheless, his reputation will live on for generations to come, even if it is only through the archives of YouTube. 

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How the modern full-back became football’s hottest commodity

“No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.”

Jamie Carragher’s remark in the Sky Sports studio may have appeared nothing more than a whimsical jibe directed at fellow pundit Neville, however, intentional or not, it was far more nuanced. The humorous insult corresponded with the changing times. In its formative years, the Premier League’s full-backs were generally characterised by their defensive qualities of being able to support their centre-back and occasionally overlapping their fellow wide midfielder. 

As we now know, though, this is an antiquated concept. Modern day full-backs have far more emphasis in the attacking third and build-up phases of the game, with defensive principals in some cases becoming almost an afterthought. Even centre-backs are now tasked with carrying the ball out from deep and aiding transitions and – as is often the case – these responsibilities were embedded across the continental European game long before becoming culturally accepted on English shores.

Players like Franz Beckenbauer were pioneers, giving new meaning to what it meant to be a defender. A talented midfielder in his early playing days, Beckenbauer was moulded into a sweeper due to his unique outlook on the game. Der Kaiser could bring the ball out from the back and had an uncanny knack for splitting opposition lines with pinpoint passes. Despite the Libero role essentially becoming obsolete in the modern game, the basic principles of what the German stars game encompassed still resonate today.

Regarding full-backs, the positions current fundamentals can be accredited to the influence of great Brazilian sides of yesteryear. World-renowned for playing with captivating flair, the iconic yellow strip has always been the embodiment of attacking excellence. The Seleção’s full-backs have proven to be no different, with players as early as the 1958 World Cup demonstrating their offensive panache.

The tournament winners bucked the trend of using the universal W-M formation at the time and sought to play using zonal marking. As South American football expert Tim Vickery notes, full-backs Nílton and Djalma Santos brought the tournament to life and by doing so “set the template for the position.”

Brazil’s blueprint of what the role should incorporate has provided unequivocal success in generations gone by and perhaps reached its apex in June in the Champions League final, with no fewer than three of the four starting wide defenders hailing from the South American peninsula. Indeed, the electric form of Dani Alves, Marcelo and Alex Sandro helped carry Real Madrid and Juventus to Cardiff respectively and only further accentuated the nation’s proclivity for its production of these sublime talents.

The former has been a pillar of success throughout the past decade for both club and country and is arguably one of the greatest right-backs to grace the game. Alves was methodically utilised by manager Pep Guardiola during his time in Catalonia as someone who was integral to maintaining the Blaugrana’s width. With inverted wingers Pedro and David Villa often drifting inside to create overloads in central areas, Alves’ sheer lung capacity allowed him to offer an outlet on the flank, and in turn prevented his opposite number from tucking inside to create a narrow defensive unit.

Of course, not everyone can dominate the ball like Barcelona and so this takes us to Italy. The Azzurri have long been admired for their defensive resoluteness and – according to football historian Jonathon Wilson – are the nation that originally gave the game what we know today as wing-backs. Many Serie A sides, as well as the national team itself, currently play with a back three or five, providing defences with requisite protection and thus allowing full or wing-backs ample license to roam forward and wreak havoc.

This was evident not only in Juve’s 2016/17 Champions League run but also at the 2016 European Championships. Antonio Conte had implemented a 3-5-2 system with wide defenders Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi helping to alleviate pressure. Their presence shored up the back line in times of threat and allowed the Italians to pin opposition wingers in their own half through surging forward runs. Although the tournament ended in bitter defeat after a penalty shoot-out loss to Germany, they could leave France with their heads held high.

Conte has since gone on to manage Chelsea and has taken the Blues atop of English football’s summit. He has done so via a sagacious variation of his Italian formation, opting for a 3-4-3 which has seen two relatively underwhelming players in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses blossom playing as auxiliary wing-backs. Runners-up Tottenham also chose a similar system with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker lauded for their ability to command an entire flank by themselves.

The dexterous athleticism personified by these players can often leave their opponents looking pedestrian, however to just credit their immense cardiovascular ability would be doing them a disservice. A recent trend in the last five years has seen many journalists and pundits use the term ‘inverted full-backs’. Much like the wingers, full-backs are now also being tasked with tucking inside and helping support their defensive midfielders.

This tactical switch – again championed by Guardiola – has showcased the wonderful technical aptitude some of these lateral defenders are blessed with. With football mirroring the game of chess, as so many of the game’s great thinkers elude to, the switch makes sense as it shields the centre-backs and goalkeeper with added protection – much like moving a rook or bishop in front of the king and queen.

After Philipp Lahm was deployed as a pivot, many other coaches sat up and took notice, with some then experimenting for themselves. In certain circumstances, it has proved an instant success and some cases have even seen full-backs make the permeant move to a midfield birth. This is true of both Raphaël Guerrero at Dortmund and Fabinho in Monaco. Managers Thomas Tuchel and Leonardo Jardim have often been praised for the tactical nous and progressive strategies with this being just one example.

The latter has been given further reason to move Fabinho inside, if not for his newly discovered skillset, then for the stellar breakthrough campaigns of both Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé. The duo have been the platform upon which the French club’s attacking philosophy has been built. They have transformed Monaco from a very much cautious-first side into a vibrant attacking football utopia. With the principality outfit conquering their domestic league and earning global plaudits en route to a Champions League semi-final, both players alongside numerous teammates are unsurprisingly in high demand.

With English club’s initial disdain ostensibly over, they have finally come to realise the complete use of a full-back and the impact they can have. Couple this with transfer fees only rivalled by the likes of China, and it’s little wonder this type of modern defender is now football’s most sought after asset. Perhaps budding youngsters no longer harbour ambitions of becoming a Gary Neville per se, but in today’s game, who wouldn’t want to be a full-back? 

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The glitz and the struggle of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s rise to prominence

“I apologised to him after my goal, and he told me that I should score two more. I said okay!”

As it happened, Aubameyang would go one better and score three more that day as his Borussia Dortmund side mercilessly crushed Hamburg 5-2. After serving a suspension for breaching club regulations, the forward announced his return to the side in typically explosive fashion.

The striker is used to dealing in extremities. From donning the iconic Rossoneri stripes, playing in a park in Newcastle, struggling to make the grade in France’s second tier and thriving in the upper echelons of European football, this is a player whose journey to the top has been far from linear.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was born in Laval, a quaint French town situated 300 kilometres from Paris. Raised by a Spanish mother and Gabonese father, it was the latter who originally instilled a passion for football in the youngster. Having played out a modest club career himself, his dad was an ex-Gabon international, capped 80 times and famously helped his nation to the 1996 African Cup of Nations quarter-finals.

Upon retirement, he took up the position of technical scout at AC Milan. By this point, he had also fathered three sons and was eager to help them make a smooth transition from the amateur to the professional game. The eldest, Catilina, was the first to up sticks and move to the Lombardy outfit, swiftly followed by middle child Willy and finally Pierre-Emerick himself.

Having spent time in numerous French academies, Aubameyang jumped at the prospect to follow in his elder’s footsteps by joining the seven-time European champions. Life in Italy started buoyantly and the striker quickly became an integral part of the Primavera side. His blistering pace was evident for all to see and was put to devastating effect during a tournament in Malaysia. I Rossoneri finished the 16-team competition in fourth as Aubameyang was awarded the Roberto Bettega Trophy – given to the top scorer – for his seven goals in just six games.

After discussions between Milan and his father, both decided the best course of action was to send the budding adolescent on loan to gain some invaluable first-team experience. This took Aubameyang back to his native France, representing Dijon FCO. The move seemed a good fit; Aubameyang Snr. was friends with manager Faruk Hadžibegić from their time playing together at Toulouse and his Ligue 2 side presented an ideal platform for the prospective striker to further develop.

As Aubameyang attempted to cut the mustard (sorry) at Dijon, Hadžibegić watched studiously from the sidelines. “He was only 19 when he arrived in Dijon, but already at that age his speed and sense of purpose was interesting,” he recalled when speaking to Jeune Afrique. His first professional goal came against Tours in a scrappy 2-1 win and he went on to finish the campaign with a respectable 10 in all competitions.

His impressive displays led to international call-ups by Italy’s under-19 side, then a month later, France’s under-21s. Gabon had always been the nation of Aubameyang’s heart, however. The country was in his ancestral blood as well as in ink across his back via a tattoo of Africa.Naturally, Gabon came calling and Aubameyang never looked back. In 2009, he scored on his debut versus Morocco, a promising sign of what was to come.

The next season saw the precocious international again out on loan, this time with Lille. The step-up in playing standard to Ligue 1 was challenging, however the move had again been thoroughly calibrated by his employers. Lille were a small team full of effervescent young talent. The squad orientated around its youth-centric approach, boasting the likes of Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Mathieu Debuchy. Moreover, boss Rudi García gave his players license to attack with freedom; it was the perfect environment for the striker to be nurtured.

Unfortunately, the heightened expectation of a club longing for European ventures appeared too much for him to handle. A measly two goals ended Aubameyang’s time in the French municipal and the player headed back to Italy with his confidence sufficiently knocked. Milan though – still assured of their forward’s qualities – decided to have a second crack of the whip and sent him on-loan to Ligue 1 again, this time to Monaco.

Alas, Aubameyang once more came up short, another two-goal spell bringing about a premature conclusion to life on the south coast. The club – itself in disarray – were consequently relegated that year with Aubameyang jumping ship in January to join Saint-Étienne.

At Les Verts, it seemed the Gabonese international had finally found a home. His loan move was promptly made permanent and the settled striker began to exemplify just how lethal he could be. His first senior hat-trick came in 2012 against Lorient as Aubameyang finally began to score freely, just as he had done for Milan’s Primavera.

He also started to overtly emanate his inner-extravagance, opting to warm up for a game against Olympique Lyonnais in diamond-encrusted boots, reportedly worth €3,000 – a taste for lavish lifestyle ostensibly inherited from his brief stint in Monaco’s opulent principality. Despite this, he was consistently reminded of his humble beginnings, not least when Gabon played a friendly in a park in Newcastle ahead of their international fixture at St James’ Park.

With the player’s endeavours both on and off the pitch proving prosperous, interest in the 23-year-old mounted. He had managed to replicate his father’s achievement 16 years previously by helping Gabon to a quarter-final finish at the 2012 African Cup of Nations and his fruitful period at Saint-Étienne was crowned with victory in the 2013 Coupe de la Ligue final. Strike partner Brandão’s solo effort against Stade Rennais was enough to clinch the first major silverware of Aubameyang’s career.

The summer of 2013 saw a multitude of offers flood in for the hot prospect. Interest from Russia and England was eventually bested by Germany as he duly signed for Borussia Dortmund in a deal worth €13 million. He left Les Verts a champion and with Chairman Bernard Caïazzo’s blessing, who stated: “He [Aubameyang] is a humble boy, available and very professional. He received much more lucrative offers than Dortmund, but rather than privilege the financial aspect, he opted for an intelligent career choice.”

Intelligent it was. Dortmund were amid a phenomenal era under the enigmatic stewardship of Jürgen Klopp. The club had won consecutive Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and were coming off the back of a Champions League final with domestic rivals Bayern Munich. As Aubameyang knew all too well by now, though, things don’t always work out the way they should.

After hitting a hat-trick on his league debut against Augsburg, he struggled as Klopp sought to accommodate both him and Polish international Robert Lewandowski, resulting in the striker being deployed out wide. It made sense given his electric pace but a lack of defensive discipline soon led the manager to bench him. The future looked bleak, and when Lewandowski was sold to Die Roten, Dortmund decided to sign Torino’s Ciro Immobile for €18.5 million.

The previous year’s Serie A top scorer seemed a shoo-in to succeed, yet after being handed multiple chances, the forward failed to impress. In a disastrous season where Dortmund flirted dangerously with relegation, Aubameyang opportunely took his chance and netted 11 goals in the last 15 Bundesliga matches to steer Die Schwarzgelben into a comfortable seventh-placed finish.

Klopp duly resigned and was replaced by Thomas Tuchel. For all the influential footballers, past and present, in Aubameyang’s career, it was the revolutionary laptop manager in Tuchel who elevated the player to new heights.

Immediately placed centrally – both figuratively and literally – in Tuchel’s plans, the Gabonese star picked up the 2015/16 campaign where he had left the last. His sensational return of 39 goals from 49 appearances showcased his manager’s well-founded faith. With every goal coming inside the 18-yeard-box, Aubameyang confessed he had been meticulously studying the movements of his idols Hernán Crespo and Ronaldo in the off-season to best hone his craft.

After collecting the individual awards of African and Bundesliga Player of the Year, he jubilantly stated: “It was Thomas Tuchel’s first season as coach and I was played centrally always. The whole team had a great year, one that I enjoyed a lot. Our style has changed a bit, from trying to score within five seconds to a more calm, and in some regard more educated style of play. We try to find the right moment – and then we explode.”

His goal celebrations became talking points, too. Seen sporting both Batman and Spiderman masks, as well as performing the odd front or backflip, one may assume they were just another part of the player’s exuberant persona. After all, this was a man parading haircuts that would even make Paul Pogba blush. The truth, however, is far more sentimental. The masks are for his son Curtys who idolises both superheroes, whilst the acrobatics pay homage to Real Madrid legend Hugo Sánchez, his late grandfather’s favourite player.

Last season saw Aubameyang become a true world-class entity. He recorded a staggering 40 goals in 46 games, culminating in being awarded the Torjägerkanone and Dortmund clinching the DFB-Pokal. His strikes including the opener in the Ruhr derby, two versus Real Madrid, a hat-trick against Benfica which saw BVB progress to the Champions League quarter-finals, and the aforementioned four he racked up against Hamburg.

With his formative barren loans a far cry from the player you see today, Aubameyang’s transformation from a savvy speed merchant into an incalculably clinical predator speaks volumes to the tireless diligence put in behind the scenes. Now linked with numerous multi-million euro transfers away from the Westfalenstadion, it’s little more than his aptitude merits.

Many fans the world over will no doubt marvel at the thought of celebrating his foray of goals, whilst marketing executives are left salivating at the commercial prospect of seeing Aubameyang’s diamond earrings and bleach blond patches of hair in their club’s strip. As for the man himself, he’ll continue to work hard and live an unassuming quiet life, his only marvelling coming from the comic books he reads to his son.

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How a defiant upbringing elevated Tim Cahill to Premier League stardom

Passion often brings out the rawest of human emotions. It’s what drives us, and in many senses, what defines us. In the cutthroat realms of professional sport, passion can also act as the singular factor in determining how high an individual’s ceiling is. Talent only goes so far and when you reach that limit – as cliché as it sounds – it comes down to how badly you want it.

Passion for his trade is something Timothy Filiga Cahill has always had in abundance, although, with the number of obstacles he’s had to overcome you may have been excused for thinking his obsession lay in hurdling, not football. 

Born in Sydney, Australia to an English father and Samoan mother, it was the former who originally instilled a passion for the beautiful game within the young Cahill. He was the middle of three sons and idolised his dad growing up. Tim Cahill Snr. was a football fanatic and made it his mission to bestow into his son’s hearts, an undying love for the sport that had stolen his. 

Trips to the city’s parks became a regular occurrence as heated contests ensued between the siblings over their adored family ball. It wasn’t all fun and games, though. His father wanted Tim to appreciate the arduous work and shear hours of painstaking practice it took to forge a career in sport. He’d make Tim and his brothers take off their right boots so that they only struck the ball with their left. “A great footballer has two feet,” he’d reiterate.

It wasn’t long before young Tim’s love affair manifested itself within his education, and it’s here that his formative development was first blocked. Whilst other pupils wrestled each other to the ground in an attempt to emulate their rugby idols, Tim and brothers were far too preoccupied kicking around empty coke cans – due to the school’s lack of football equipment – to take any notice. Bexley North Public School carried a strong ethos for rugby league and to say Cahill was discouraged from playing the sport he loved would be an understatement.

Despite his father’s protests, Bexley refused to succumb to his demands in making football a curricular activity. With no fewer than nine of Cahill’s relatives playing professional rugby, it’s little wonder the school wanted to explore his multinational gene pool that was ostensibly brimming with untapped potential. This wouldn’t perturb Cahill from playing football, though, as he actively sought out Sunday teams he could represent instead. 

His first trial came at local semi-professional outfit Sydney Olympic. Notwithstanding Cahill’s belief he had done enough to impress the on-looking adjudicators, his bubble was promptly burst once word was relayed that they believed him to be too small and not fast enough to make it in the professional game he so desperately craved to play. However, instead of crushing a disdained young boy’s spirits, Cahill firmly reassured his father that he’d one day prove the coach wrong. His initial disappointment acted as a harbinger of motivation as the future Socceroo trained harder than ever.

After continuing to impress for amateur sides, he unexpectedly received a phone call from the Samoan FA. Word had spread of Cahill’s aptitude and he was invited to partake in an under-20 international tournament aged only 14. The youngster had always identified himself as an Australian national but the chance to spend some rare time with relatives and play on such a grand stage proved impossible to turn down.

Cahill’s perseverance and effervescent attitude was finally rewarded with recognition and it wasn’t long before he had changed the obdurate mind of the same coach who questioned his ability just three years earlier. He signed for Sydney Olympic and immediately set about demonstrating why their new-found faith was well placed.

Yesteryear hedonistic park play appeared invaluable as he was lauded for his aptitude with either foot. He also developed an uncanny knack for arriving in the penalty area at the most opportunistic of moments. Originally deployed in a deeper position, it was the timing of his runs and remarkable leap to latch onto crosses that saw him moved further up field to supplement the side’s strikers.

The burgeoning attacking midfielder was watched by scouts across the country on multiple occasions before deciding to stay local, signing for Sydney United in 1997. Unfortunately for United, by this point, the precocious talent harboured greater ambitions than simply becoming an A-League stalwart.

Having grown up watching the Premier League on television with his father, British football had always been a pipe dream for the starlet. With an assured confidence from being associated with a professional club, he came home from school one day and boldly proclaimed his desire to venture abroad in pursuit of a Premier League career.

Despite still being diminutive in stature and not possessing an exceptionally technical repertoire, Cahill’s positive outlook was driven by an uncompromised desire and peerless work rate. No one wanted to be a professional footballer in Australia quite like Tim Cahill.

Determined not to be the reason Cahill’s career aspirations weren’t fulfilled, his parents duly obliged and even took out a loan to get the ambitious adolescent to English shores. Cahill Snr. made use of the few contacts he had back home and managed to arrange a trial with both Millwall and Nottingham Forrest.

Acclimatising to a new culture whilst simultaneously living away from home for the first time is far from easy. Moreover, his auntie refused to take him in, citing it as an imposition given the youngster’s lack of street smarts. Couple this with the magnitude of trialling at the notoriously tough Millwall and the task ahead was not one to be scoffed at.

Cahill, brazen as ever, backed his own ability and went toe-to-toe with brutish defenders almost twice his size. And just like that, before he even had the chance to leave London for Nottingham, Millwall scout Bob Pearson was on the phone to the Cahill household offering his family an official contract. 

Cahill would later jubilantly remark: “I remember cleaning boots at Millwall on £250 a week and feeling like a millionaire. I’d made it then. At the time, if I never played for another club it wouldn’t have bothered me too much because I’d have made it with a football team in England.”

It wasn’t all rosy for the gifted youngster, however. Playing in adverse weather conditions that were a far cry from the sunny parks of Sydney, Cahill would bemoan sustaining blisters from training in the snow. Times were tough and the 18-year-old would often call home in tears – although they were often met with a dose of tough-love from parents who had sacrificed so much to give him this opportunity. 

He progressed to debut for the first team in 1998 before helping the Lions to the 1999 Football League Trophy final. It was during the early noughties that Cahill really started to make a name for himself, securing promotion from the old Second Division before appearing in two playoff semi-finals. If England’s elite didn’t know who Cahill was yet, they were about to have an everlasting event etched into their memories.

Millwall, now under the stewardship of Dennis Wise, had miraculously made it to the 2004 FA Cup semi-finals, with Cahill at the fulcrum playing between the lines of midfield and attack to devastating effect. The competition’s last four pitted the Lions against Sunderland, and on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford, the youngster – affectionately known after Charles Dickens’ fictional character ‘Tiny Tim’ – truly announced himself.

Player-manager, Wise – a small and cunning midfielder himself – had created a system where the Aussie could flourish. Cahill acted as a foil for front man Neil Harris with Wise and David Livermore duly taking on the defensive responsibilities behind.

In the 26th minute, the ball ricocheted kindly into the path of the onrushing Cahill. Showing composure beyond his years, he coolly dispatched the chance into the top corner past the helpless Black Cats keeper, sending Millwall to Wembley. Amid an emotionally-charged celebration, Cahill headed straight for his father and brother Sean who had managed to fly over and catch what was the biggest moment of his career to date. He owed his family everything.

The summer of 2004 marked the start of Cahill’s Premier League dream. After initial interest from Crystal Palace faded, it was David Moyes’ Everton who stumped up the £1.5 million asking price to prize Tiny Tim away from the Den. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cahill currently resides amongst the pantheon of Australian greats. He is his nation’s top international goalscorer, netting at three World Cups alongside being a Toffees, and indeed Premier League, icon. He endears himself further to Evertonians by holding the best goalscoring record post-war against their fierce Merseyside rivals Liverpool and has gone on to play professionally across four continents.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay Cahill is the shift in mentality he has so infectiously inspired across Oceania. Football is now the most participated team sport in Australia with his personal academy, Foxtel All-Stars, aiming to help produce the next generation of national heroes.

Whilst talent inevitably opened doors, it was perseverance, determination and above all passion that saw Cahill smash through the glass ceiling and cemented his legacy as one of his nation’s greatest players.

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How Benfica became a global figurehead in player development

The concept of aggregation by marginal gains was first championed by British cycling performance director Sir David Brailsford. In an interview with the BBC during the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympics, he remarked: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

It’s a comment that may well have gone under the radar had it not been for Team GB’s unequivocal success on home soil. With 12 medals secured – eight of them being gold – Brailsford’s team had truly hegemonised the cycling world, leaving other nations in their wake. The notion of making slight but effective improvements in numerous areas has since transcended two wheels and now holds its rightful place at the epicentre of general sporting development.

Benfica have been at the forefront of player development for many years. However, since the grand opening of their award-winning academy, the Caixa Futebol Campus in 2006, they have gone a step further and successfully blended technological advancements in sports science with innovative coaching techniques to help foster a truly exceptional environment for youngsters to flourish within.

Overlooking the Rio Tejo, the Caixa Campus is a world-renowned academy of excellence. Located in the region of Seixal, just south of Lisbon, the centre is currently home to 15 youth sides, the B-team and the first team squad. The complex spans 19 hectares and consists of nine grass pitches – one of which hosts the B-teams matches with a capacity of 2,720 – two artificial surfaces and a 360-degree indoor ‘football laboratory’ where players’ individual physical fitness components are put to the test. This state of the art facility also accommodates nearly 60 academy prospects who live too far from Portugal’s capital to make the daily commute and are consequently housed in a lavish on-site hotel.

The Águias (Eagles) are renowned for their near-nonpareil scouting network, with 172 scouts currently deployed across the globe. The improvement of the academy, though, has become apparent in the past five years with the production line of homegrown talent accelerating rapidly.

At the heart of the Campus is Benfica legend turned general academy manager Nuno Gomes. The ex-striker is proud of the ongoing project that has produced players of the calibre of Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva, André Gomes and Gonçalo Guedes in recent times, however he believes this is just the start. Speaking to Wired magazine earlier this year he stated: “The programme here is working, but we want more.”

What’s unique about Benfica’s structure is its almost religious belief in cutting edge sports science. The Portuguese outfit ensures every decision taken regarding their academy starlets is based upon sound data analytics, with the subsequent results there for all to see.

Off the pitch, players’ sleep patterns are recorded, diets are logged and surveys about mental wellbeing are mandatory. On the pitch, GPS sensors and heart rate monitors are worn to track distances and speed, and upon completion of matches, scans are undertaken by each player to highlight any muscle fatigue. All of this data is then calibrated and methodically analysed in order to calculate tailor-made training regimes and diet plans for each player.

Tracking all these variables in the hope of marginal gains helps Gomes and his team meticulously study all aspects of the players’ lives, allowing the staff to liaise efficiently and purposively, from the first team manager to the sports psychologist to the in-house chef. It’s an interdependent environment where no stone is left unturned, and it’s working wonders.

When club president Luís Filipe Vieira spoke to TVI back in 2016, he confidently announced: “We are going to have a team made up 100 percent of players who came through the Seixal academy. That’s our long-term plan and I have no doubt we’ll get there.”

Although it’s hard to doubt that the academy is capable of making such lofty aims a reality, the economic circumstances that dictate this dream make it highly improbable.

With the club unable to match the vast financial clout of Europe’s elite, the Águias have adopted an approach of monetising many burgeoning homegrown stars in order to balance the books. Moreover, as noted by Portuguese football expert Tiago Estêvão, in an era evermore dominated by super agents, the likes of Jorge Mendes have been responsible for using the Caixa Campus as a springboard to reap client’s greater deals elsewhere, much to the detriment of Benfica.

The aforementioned Sanches is a prime example. Having only completed one season of senior Primeira Liga action, the academy graduate was courted by German giants Bayern Munich and, with Mendes coaxing the starlet behind the scenes, a deal of €35 million was quickly struck as Sanches joined Die Roten.

Bernardo Silva, another represented by Mendes, was plucked from the grasp of Benfica after just a single first team appearance and placed into the grateful arms of Monaco. That particular transfer was greeted with begrudged animosity by Benfiquistas who, as Portuguese football writer Marco Lopes points out, was regarded as ‘the most exquisite [academy] talent since a certain Rui Costa’.

This label of being a selling club is nothing new. Over the past seven years Benfica have parted company with no fewer than 12 crucial players for a staggering €376 million, and although the shift in mentality to nurture homegrown talent has been promising, with Benfica having made a habit of selling accomplished youth, it begs the question whether Vieira’s goal will ever be realised?

One man trying his hardest to fulfil his employer’s wishes is first team manager Rui Vitória. Demonstrating the club’s commitment to cohesion at all levels, the 47-year-old has taken time to observe copious academy and B-team sessions and has since blooded the best imported talents such as Victor Lindelöf and Ederson in the first XI.

Last year in an interview with A Bola, Vitória reaffirmed his unwavering belief in the academy: “I’m very alert to Benfica’s B-team and youth teams. Of course I can’t be sure that the players I believe will get to the first team in three years, will do so, but there’s a system in place and we have lots of alternatives. Benfica’s future is guaranteed.”

The relatively infant Caixa Campus recently marked its 10th anniversary since its construction, with worldwide recognition. After winning the prestigious title of Best Academy at the 2015 Globe Soccer Awards, general manager Gomes was beaming with adulation. “It is an award that fills us with pride, it is a sign that we are working well. There are very few academies that are better than ours in terms of their working conditions.”

On-field achievements have been prevalent, as demonstrated by two appearances in the first four UEFA Youth League finals, although Benfica lost both. Despite their only major award coming away from the field of play, the club’s continual progression to the latter stages of European youth competition only further accentuates its outstanding academy.

The conflict of interest between managing the eye-watering €300 million debt and ensuring their youth products see out their peak years in Benfica red remains a challenge, but as the first team claim a historic fourth consecutive league title with a combination of shrewd recruits and homegrown personnel, the positives are there for all to see.

Even if President Vieira’s plan of a solely homegrown first team never materialises, Benfica’s firebrand and avant-garde strategy towards progressive and innovative youth development that has won so many plaudits will surely continue to go from strength to strength – even if it is by the finest of margins. 

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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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Why the target man will always have a place to thrive in modern football

Football is a game forever in a state of flux. Methods are under constant scrutiny from its foremost pioneers as they exasperatedly analyse copious patterns of play in order to concoct some form of innovation. Whether it be Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation, Helenio Herrera’s Catenaccio, or Johan Cruyff’s Total Football, the sport owes such great thinkers for its continued augmentation. Their vision has ensured their place in the history books through the invention of these distinct ideologies.

However, despite continued alterations to rules, formations and tactics, one position that seems to always find its way back into fashion is the target man. It may not be as glamorous as a slick winger, as energetic as a marauding wing-back, or as visually pleasing as a creative midfielder, but the target man is unquestionably effective. Having been dismissed as outdated on numerous occasions, powerful strikers continue to prove doubters wrong by enjoying one revival after the next to maintain a place in modern football’s landscape.

Britain – and in particular the Premier League – has always held a penchant for target men (albeit somewhat incoherently at times with the rest of Europe ostensibly progressing their respective games past the requisite skillset of a ‘big man’). This has often led to a myriad of criticism as England’s top flight is condemned for its indefatigable efforts to retain the use of such a player.

One of the main reasons why target men were most recently outlawed in the late-noughties was due to the rise of tiki-taka football. A concept championed by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, it seems as though a new era of false 9s and inverted wingers took precedent over out and out wide men and a big number 9. Even the Premier League – the bedrock of target men – began to see fewer long balls, reaching an all-time low of 60.9 per game in the 2012-13 campaign. English managers, media and the fans alike began to accept the need for greater positional fluidity throughout the team and that the lack of mobility offered from a target man had negative effects on a side’s functionality.

Yet, in typical fashion, big powerful strikers have managed to muscle their way back into manager’s plans on English shores. This season has seen that aforementioned statistic rise back up to 69.3 as players such as Andy Carroll, Christian Benteke, Salomón Rondón and Fernando Llorente have found a new lease of life. It may not provide spectators with the most visually stunning game, however aesthetics is often compromised in what is a results-driven business.

 

So how and why has their latest renaissance come about? How have players seen as near-neanderthals compared to the majestic panache of their team-mates managed to forge their way back into the limelight?

One explanation comes in the form of a backlash to modern-day tactics. The objective of football is to score, and many align themselves to the idea that to do so, you must get the ball into your opponent’s penalty area as quickly and as effectively as possible. For all the intricate thinking and complex movements, coaches of the ilk of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis still subscribe to the notion that over-complicating the process is unnecessary and that the same end results can be achieved through direct, physical play. Or in the words of Bill Shankly: “Football is a simple game complicated by idiots.”

Looking closer into this – and linking it back to Guardiola’s philosophy – we are seeing a new form of centre-half come to the fore, perfectly adept at carrying the ball out from the back and experts in transitioning defence to attack when in possession. But these attributes are often detrimental to others which one would consider pure defensive qualities. A perceived weakness aerially from these modern ball-playing centre-backs has aided the recent ascension of the newly revitalised target man.

Another tactical use for the traditional number 9 is to beat an aggressive frontline press. Popularised by Jürgen Klopp via his iconic gegenpressing, more and more sides have adopted this approach where players will hunt in packs in order to win possession in the final third. This can be devastatingly effective, with a turnover high up the pitch often leading to lethal counter-attacks when the opposition are out of balance.

Playing a long-ball negates the ability to press as opposed to passing out from the back, and who better to latch onto such balls than a target man who can flick it on or hold the ball up and bring his team-mates into play. This tactic is often deployed by teams of modest stature to bring some parity to fixtures where they are largely out-weighted in terms of creative quality.

 

Although they serve a purpose, a target man is not solely limited to lesser sides. As demonstrated by Didier Drogba at Chelsea, a tall, powerful forward can also possess a great deal of star quality. The striker’s use was best exemplified during the Blues’ maiden Champions League triumph in 2012. The Ivorian used every ounce of his muscular frame to hold up play, win flick-ons and, perhaps as importantly, defend set-pieces – an advantage often overlooked when discussing strikers. His inspired displays helped Chelsea overthrow two technically superior sides in the form of Barcelona and Bayern Munich and saw them anointed kings of Europe.

With the upper echelons of England’s football pyramid played at such a frantic tempo and the need to be physical coming from the games mob roots, it’s understandable that the target man has been able to stand the test of time. This fortitude is mainly greeted by deep sighs from a community that is becoming ever more saturated with self-proclaimed ‘football purists’, although it’s called the beautiful game for a reason; whilst fallible defenders exist, the modern-day target man will continue to thrive.

Even Guardiola, the godfather of the pass-and-move game, has adapted his game model to incorporate more aerial play. His coaching transformation at Bayern Munich was never more apparent than in games where he fielded two out and out wingers in order to supply Robert Lewandowski with ample service. This was not only so the Polish international could showcase his aerial prowess but also for the ever-lurking Thomas Müller, who would regularly feed off second-ball opportunities that fell his way as a by-product of the original cross.

Guardiola has since conceded the need to tweak his game model even further as he continues to learn the ins and outs of Premier League football. It would be foolish to suggest that we will ever see the Catalan boss cave into the overwhelming, cocksure media and fandom that seem desperate for him to fail and start aimlessly lumping the ball up field. On the other hand, with his recent preference for wingers to play on the flank of their dominant foot, it would also be ill-informed to suggest that he won’t continue to incorporate a greater emphasis on aerial play into Manchester City’s game.

So, the next time Andy Carroll takes a headed opportunity with great aplomb, rather than chastising it as a brand of anti-football, we should just appreciate that football comes in many art forms and it’s these contrasting styles that help shape the game we love.

 

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Ricardo Quaresma and the storied journey of an enigmatic prodigy

Portuguese football is embedded with a rich heritage of sublime attacking talents. From the great striking exploits of Eusébio to Barcelona star turned Galáctico icon Luís Figo, Portugal is a nation that’s been blessed with players of breathtaking calibre through the years. Their craftsmanship has imbued fans across the peninsula and led to many unenviable comparisons for their future produce.

At the turn of the millennium, two rising stars were burdened by this weight of expectation. After being billed as the next Figo, these indigenous adolescents were turning heads with their blistering pace and majestic trickery. Both wingers – with jet black hair and deep Mediterranean tans – were undoubtedly the most exciting talents the famed Sporting CP academy had produced in years. Their names were Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma.

The latter, one-and-a-half years Ronaldo’s senior, was widely considered the more naturally gifted of the duo. Born and raised in the nation’s capital, Quaresma was affectionately nicknamed O Cigano [the gypsy] due to his mother’s Romani decent. He and Ronaldo formed a strong bond both on and off the field with a similar style of play and comparably troubled upbringings. With both players’ careers seemingly destined to dovetail en route to greatness, it strikes a peculiar chord to learn that they went on to walk vastly opposite paths.

Quaresma’s first taste of the professional game was handed to him by Sporting legend and B team manager Vítor Damas. Having risen through the youth ranks from the age of 14, the winger dazzled with all the swagger and panache fans have now become accustomed to over the years. Damas – an ex-goalkeeper for the club himself – earning no fewer than 332 caps, saw the untapped potential in the youngster and immediately afforded him licence to roam. His faith proved to be well placed when, after just 15 appearances, Quaresma was beckoned into the first team set-up.

Ostensibly needing time to acclimatise to the step up in playing standard, it came as a pleasant surprise to see the winger establish himself as an integral member of the squad within his first season of Primeira Liga action. His ability to cut in from either flank and shoot or cross with the kind of curve that had only previously been seen from the likes of David Beckham made him an instant hit. Notching five goals in his maiden campaign, he helped Sporting secure an illustrious league and cup double.

The following 2 years saw the mercurial starlet continue his meteoric rise. His nonchalant demeanour yet agile verve was only dampened by his fiery temperament, which at times had begun to tarnish some mesmeric displays. Whilst Quaresma and Ronaldo’s stock skyrocketed, Sporting slumped and it soon became infeasible for the Lisbon outfit to retain the services of their prodigal sons.

A transfer in the region of €6 million agreed, the plucky 19-year-old moved to one of the biggest establishments in world sport – FC. Barcelona. In a summer that also saw the departure of Ronaldo to Manchester United, both youngsters looked to be well on course to attaining the elite level their aptitude promised to provide. Unfortunately, whilst Ronaldo’s childhood traumas acted as a harbinger of motivation, Quaresma’s helped shape the catalyst for his self-destruction.

 

O Cigano joined the Blaugrana at a time of change, with newly elected club president Joan Laporta seeking to aide the Catalans ascent after a period of decline. Following the advice of club icon Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard was appointed manager alongside a plethora of new signings.

Quaresma’s arrival went somewhat under the radar as marquee recruit Ronaldinho stole the headlines. Having been purchased for a cool €27 million from Paris Saint-Germain following his Brazilian World Cup triumph in the summer, all eyes were firmly on the buck-toothed wonder. But a new contract, quickly accelerated social profile and even a cameo in Nike’s famous Olé advert, all appeared too much too soon for Quaresma to handle.

Rijkaard had attempted to instil his tactical vision within Quaresma, giving him a crash-course in positional play. Much like his coaches at Sporting, Rijkaard realised the stunning potential at his fingertips, however felt in order to fully harness it, the winger must learn to be tactically disciplined.

Adopting an attitude not dissimilar to that of a petulant child, the player and manager’s relationship soured rapidly as Quaresma’s toys came crashing out the pram. Uninterested in being told how and where to play, his polemic rant to the press encapsulated the wingers’ pent-up frustration: “At Sporting I was always given a free role and I was brought to Barça under the pretences that I would be allowed to play the same way.” He continued: “I have not gotten the opportunities nor do I have the confidence of the manager.”

Quaresma belligerently disregarded his manager’s coaching, deeming it patronising as opposed to a quest for self-betterment. This wasn’t the last time he would spark conflict with the hierarchy of his employers in what became an all too familiar trend. After refusing to play again for Rijkaard, he was swiftly sold back to his native Portugal, this time to Porto along with €15 million in return for the services of playmaker Deco.

It was here where Quaresma spent the next four years of his career and began to rekindle the kind of form that had once seen him heralded as Portugal’s next saviour. Over a second stint in his homeland, he scored 30 goals and helped the Dragões to three consecutive league titles. He also honed a skill that would later become his trademark – the trivela.

Quaresma’s form reached its pinnacle in his final two years as he cemented a regular place in the national side’s starting line-up. His exceptional form was thanks in no small part to coach Jesualdo Ferreria. Porto’s manager cited the importance of not putting too much tactical strain on the now 22-year-old and allowed Quaresma to express himself. “I don’t want him [Quaresma] to lose his personality and individuality otherwise he’ll turn into an average player rather than the genius he is.”

It wasn’t long before he was attracting a host of potential suitors and, fresh from carving his own name into the history books with Chelsea, José Mourinho was the man to offer Quaresma a shot at big-club redemption with Internazionale. An €18 million fee was agreed and the youngster was once again thrust into the spotlight.

 

Frustratingly, his time at Inter played out in near perfect symmetry to that of his spell at Barcelona. Starting with systematic difficulties grasping Mourinho’s regimented tactics, another clash in footballing ideologies left Quaresma far down the pecking order. In a year that former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo captured his first Ballon d’Or, Quaresma was embarrassingly presented with the Bidone d’Oro – an award given to the worst player in Serie A.

A loan spell inevitably followed, this time to London and Mourinho’s previous employers, Chelsea. The winger appeared enthused at the prospect of teaming up with his former national team mentor Luiz Felipe Scolari but it wasn’t to be. Scolari was relieved of his duties in favour of Guus Hiddink just a solitary week after Quaresma’s arrival and, four pitiful games later, another torrid campaign was ended.

Back in Italy, after Inter failed in their attempts to offload the troublesome virtuoso, he seemed unwilling to tailor his game accordingly to incorporate Mourinho’s defensive mindset. Used sparingly in a season where the Nerazzurri took Europe by storm, winning an unprecedented treble, Quaresma’s name on the list of forgotten wonderkids seemed to have been all but carved in stone.

He left Inter in the summer of 2010 for Turkish side Beşiktaş. After two wholly underwhelming years in Lombardy, he stayed true to his rollercoaster of a career and began his latest upsurge. A stellar first year saw the Portuguese midfielder score 11 goals, each more sensational than the last. He helped his new club to the Turkish Cup final where he scored the opener and was subsequently awarded man of the match as Beşiktaş ran out 4-3 winners on penalties.

The next season started in a similar vein. Using every ounce of his guile and creativity, Quaresma would leave defenders and fans alike dumbfounded as he jinked and scurried his way past challenges before beginning his onslaught on the opposition goal. The selfish predictability showcased at Inter and Chelsea looked a far cry from the rejuvenated, incalculable, savvy speed merchant Sporting fans remembered so fondly.

It wasn’t to last, though.

In Beşiktaş’ last-16 Europa League fixture against Atlético Madrid, Quaresma was hauled off at half-time. Trailing 1-0, O Cigano was unable to control his inner rage, breaking into a vehement tirade branding manager Carlos Carvahal ‘worthless’ before allegedly hurling a water bottle in his direction.

The ugly scenes left the player and coach’s relationship in tatters and, for the third time in little over eight years, Quaresma found himself at loggerheads with his boss. On this occasion, the board showed its folly and opted to side with their star man as Carvahal was duly dismissed.

 

The summer brought about the final straw for the insouciance talent. His toxic attitude was slowly poisoning the rest of the squad, something that did not sit well with the chairman. He was told he could stay if he agreed to a pay cut. He refused. What ensued was nothing short of war.

From being accused of urinating in the changing room by club officials to his arrest for assaulting a police officer when pursuing an individual believed to have mugged his mother, Quaresma’s time at the club was drawn to a bitter end. With his fall from grace having now hit rock bottom, he was released in disgrace.

After a drastically lacklustre time in the Middle East with Al Ahli followed by seven months in free agent wilderness, Quaresma returned home to Porto and was presented with the number 7 shirt in front of 10,000 fans. It was perhaps apt, then, that the club which gave him the original springboard to get his early career back on track provided the 30-year-old with yet another chance of a rebirth.

The next season-and-a-half broadcast the wonderful ability of the now seasoned veteran as he captured the joy of supporters but also the regret when the question of ‘what if’ was raised. Having supposedly quelled his indignation from years gone by, an incident in 2014 made him descended into yet another apoplectic fit.

After being racially abused for his gypsy heritage, Quaresma had to be restrained by friends and officials as he confronted Fernando Marçal. After cooling down he later stated: “When I hear people say there is no racism these days it makes me laugh. When something happens in Portugal it’s always the fault of gypsies, blacks, immigrants. It’s tough to live with this.”

For all his flaws, Quaresma is extremely proud of where he comes from and fiercely loyal to those he respects. Having rejoined Beşiktaş in 2015, it seems O Cigano may have finally matured. Reflecting on his misspent yesteryears in an interview with O Jogo, he recently confessed: “I didn’t have the patience at Barcelona, I couldn’t bear being on the bench. It was an idiotic attitude. Perhaps I could have done more with my career but in life there are opportunities that either you take or they pass by and sometimes we fail at those.”

Reinvigorated and with his new found moral compass, Quaresma was selected for his nation’s Euro 2016 campaign. An extra-time header against Croatia and match-winning penalty versus Poland helped Portugal on the way to claiming their first major international title. If his first spell at Beşiktaş was his nadir, then last July marked his apex.

For all his trials and tribulations, this is a player who should be remembered for his graceful élan rather than a sinful inability to kowtow. Despite his stoic past, Quaresma’s raison d’être is, and always will be, his seamless ability to embellish football pitches with the kind of artistry we’re only used to seeing from world-class entities.

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Before the fame: David Beckham’s formative years at Manchester United

Beckham’ is a phrase synonymous with a man who has built an empire on the back of a glittering sporting career. Its’ reputation is further enhanced through his partner in marriage Victoria – a 1990s British pop sensation turned fashion designer and entrepreneur. The pair’s combined persona has seen them conquer the world, becoming one of, if not the most famous couple on the planet. It’s a remarkable rise from humble beginnings, but perhaps as shocking is that the fact the first page of a Google search of his name yields no football related results.

Other than the documentation of his career on Wikipedia, the web search is littered with social media accounts, links to numerous books, and stories about his latest fashion ventures. It’s hard to comprehend when you consider his achievements on the field, yet it’s clear to see Beckham has transcended and surpassed the mere realms of the beautiful game. However, it’s this appetite for a celebrity lifestyle channelled through his tunnel-vision of becoming a professional footballer, that led him to succeed at Manchester United.

Beckham enjoyed a career spanning 21-years, earning 115 International caps and winning six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, a La Liga title, two MLS Cups, one Ligue 1 title and a Champions League crown. From kicking a ball around Ridgeway Park to becoming a treble winner in ’99 and embedding his legacy Stateside, this a career that should be remembered and celebrated for pure footballing aesthetics. This the story of Manchester United player David Robert Joseph Beckham, the footballer.

Born and raised in the East London suburb of Leytonstone, Beckham spent his formative years in England’s capital playing football for nothing more than sheer enjoyment and cathartic release. He would spend many hours kicking a ball around the shrubbery of Ridgeway Park with his father David Edward (Ted) Beckham.

A football fanatic himself, Ted had high hopes for his son, with David being the middle sibling in a family of three – and the only boy. He went on to coach him for his first ever club, Ridgeway Rovers, imparting onto him his own coaching knowledge but perhaps most significantly, his adoration for the family club Manchester United (his middle name Robert coming from Ted’s admiration of Sir Bobby Charlton).

Beckham reminisced in an interview in 2007 about how he was mocked at school when expressing his ambitions of a professional career in football: “They said ‘what do you want to do when you’re older?’ I’d say, ‘I want to be a footballer.’ And they’d say, ‘No, what do you really want to do, for a job?’ But that was the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

The youngster’s talent quickly became apparent with trials at Leyton Orient and Norwich City coming in swift succession. It was North London-based Tottenham Hotspur, however, that managed to tempt a young Beckham to sign for their school of excellence. During this time, he would represent Brimsdown Rovers where he would continue to excel, winning the title of the club’s under-15 player of the year in 1990. The youngster looked destined to climb up Spurs’ youth ranks before turning out for the Lilywhites’ senior side in years to come. Funny how quickly things can change.

Most children’s 14th birthday is comprised of eating cake, spending time with friends and family and opening presents such as a new phone or bike. Beckham spent his in a corporate box wearing a shirt and blazer before being handed a tie. This wasn’t just any tie – it had a complete red surface broken only by one adorning emblem: the crest of Manchester United Football Club. Beckham had spent the afternoon in the company none other than Sir Alex Ferguson. He and the great Scot chatted at length over dinner before enjoying some belated birthday cake.

Fergusson was aiming to coax Beckham into signing on as a schoolboy for United and hoped to convince him of the benefits of doing so. In truth, it took little persuasion. He was a boyhood United fan who had always dreamed of playing in front of the Old Trafford faithful, hearing his name echo around the iconic stadium. The only hesitation he held was the need to move away from his East London home and start a new life up in Manchester. After some deliberation, the Beckham household decided the pros far outweighed the cons and he signed on the dotted line.

After impressing as a schoolboy Beckham shone in the Red Devils’ youth academy, helping lay claim to the FA Youth Cup in 1992 alongside the likes of Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers. A young Beckham scored in the first fixture of a two-legged final against Crystal Palace, which saw United victorious 6-3 on aggregate.

His performances in the cup run led to a call-up to the first team, where Beckham make his senior debut as a substitute against Brighton in the League Cup. Another cup appearance against Port Vale would follow – along with the former academy product making his Champions League bow – however, to cement a more permanent place, he’d have to take his skills out on loan.

Preston North End were the benefactors after an agreement was struck, and manager Gary Peters jumped at the chance to take the shy 19-year-old on loan. At first, the young Londoner was sceptical: “I thought it was a sign that a club was trying to get rid of a player,” he stated in his book My World. But Sir Alex’s thinking when sending him to the third division proved quite the opposite.

The month in Lancashire shaped Beckham’s early career. He was exposed to first team football and given the responsibility for set-pieces. Any young professional would have been excused for feeling the pressure, but not Beckham. He rose to the challenge, scoring two goals in five appearances including one directly from a corner.

The player, now back in Manchester and reinvigorated from his time just north of the city, was ready to make his league debut. A 0-0 draw with Leeds United in 1995 was the second time he had stepped onto the hallowed turf for a first division match, after representing United as a mascot nine years earlier. He would go on to play a further four times for United in the 1994-95 season, which ultimately ended in disappointment with the side losing the Premier League by a solitary point to Blackburn and being bested 1-0 in the FA Cup final by Everton.

The 1995-96 campaign would start in a similarly underwhelming vein as the Red Devils lost 3-1 to Aston Villa, and although Beckham got United’s goal, the fans and media alike were far from impressed. With Ferguson offloading experienced personnel in favour of entrusting youth, Beckham saw game time aplenty and it wasn’t long before the naysayers and doubters became firm believers. The team took the league crown come May and brought the FA Cup back to Manchester too.

The next season saw Beckham score the second most iconic goal of his career (I’ll get to the first later). With United leading 2-0, he spotted the Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan off his line and attempted an audacious halfway line shot which soared over the helpless keeper and came crashing down into the back of his net. David Beckham had truly announced his arrival on the Premier League stage. He went on to help his team retain the league title and collected an individual accolade of PFA Young Player of the Year.

This was also the season where the now 21-year-old broke into the England set-up. From his debut against Moldova in 1996, he grew into a first team regular for his country and appeared in every qualifying match en route to the 1998 World Cup finals.

Having scored a sublime free-kick – which were fast becoming a natural trademark of Beckham’s – against Colombia in the group stages, England would progress through to the last-16, where they met Argentina. It is here that one of Beckham’s most ugly scenes on a football pitch ensued. After being fouled by the now Atlético Madrid boss Diego Simeone, he retaliated by kicking a leg out at El Cholo, which subsequently led to his dismissal. England saw out the minutes but were later eliminated on penalties.

The next big chapter in his illustrious career came in 1999 when, in the space of just a few days, Manchester United would complete an unprecedented English treble. After first winning the Premier League, where he would score a final day equaliser against Tottenham on the way to securing the title, and then the FA Cup, United contested the Champions League final against German giants Bayern Munich.

Trailing 1-0 in the 90th minute, Beckham would deliver two corners that were duly converted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham to send Manchester, and indeed most of the country, into euphoria. His performances also saw him finish runner-up in FIFA’s World Player of the Year vote.

The Reds would go on to capture both the 2000 and 2001 Premier League trophies with ruthless efficiency. Beckham, now a vital cog at the heart of United’s well-oiled machine, scored 15 goals across the two campaigns, registering 31 appearances a piece both years. In 2001-02 he found yet another gear and, despite losing the title to Arsenal, took his personal performances to an all-time high. He recorded 16 goals in all competitions, which would later prove to be the best goal-scoring season of his professional career.

The most iconic goal of his career arrived on 6 October 2001, while in action for Englanf. England trailed Greece 2-1 with the game fast approaching its conclusion. The Three Lions needed at least a draw to ensure qualification through to the 2002 World Cup, but things were looking bleak.

However, in typical fashion, up stepped David Beckham. As he had done against Bayern Munich two years earlier, the United man produced a moment of brilliance. Over 25-yards from goal, Sheringham had won England a free-kick. Beckham bent it – like only he could – into the top corner. The vilification he had suffered at the hands of supporters after the 1998 World Cup had vanished. From zero to hero, Beckham was once again the country’s idol. 

After a successful summer, which saw Beckham captain England to a respectable quarter-final showing, where they were beaten 2-1 by eventual winners Brazil, he returned to Manchester to find his longstanding United bridges beginning to ignite.

Sir Alex Ferguson had become tired of his off-field antics with wife Victoria and had lost belief that football was the driving force behind the star’s decisions anymore. The bridges went up in full flames in 2003 when a locker room altercation led to Beckham needing stitches after a boot was kicked in his direction by the manager. Despite this, he would go on to see the season out and help the team to his sixth Premier League title.

He would leave United in the summer of 2003 for a fee of €35 million. He became a Real Madrid Galéctico and was now at a club that met the ambitions of his new-found worldly image.

The rest is history and has seen Brand Beckham firmly establish itself at the pinnacle of celebrity culture. However, it remains important to remember and praise David Beckham the footballer, long before he became David Beckham the multifaceted superstar. He possessed a right foot and mentality that escalated his social mobility far beyond the field of football, but to Manchester United fans of the 1990s, he’ll always be that kid from the Class of ’92 who helped take Manchester United to heights they had never experienced before 

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