Saturday, 15 November 2014

Mighty Mouse and the Dinosaur: Kevin Keegan at Hamburg

In August 1960 a promising but amateurish young band travelled to Hamburg in the back of an Austin minivan. They had come to seek fortune in the vibrant underground music scene emerging from the city’s crumbling docklands. It was hard work for these young men in the viceland of the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s bristling red-light district.

They gigged almost every night, hostage to the whims of their employers: “Mach schau…mach schau (make a show),” was the mantra dictated to them by the owner of the Kaiserkeller, one of the nightclubs in which they played. And though at first they earned little and slept in a dingy room beside the ladies’ toilets of the Bambi Kino, a seedy movie theatre, they would go on to become megastars.

The band’s name was, of course, the Beatles, and they had come to Hamburg from another great seafaring town, Liverpool. Seventeen years later, with the group dissolved and Beatlemania just opened on Broadway, a footballer named Kevin Keegan made the exact same trip, albeit in rather more glamorous circumstances.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Felix Magath and controlling the centre

Wolfgang-Felix Magath wasn’t always the sadistic, cheese-toting crank he’s now portrayed as being. A long time ago, before Fulham, Hangeland and the Quarkwickel, he was a footballer.

And a very good one at that: for parts of the seventies and eighties, he was considered Germany’s finest playmaker, a cerebral presence at the heart of one of Europe’s best domestic sides. This was Hamburg-era Magath: subtle, creative and intelligent, a man the great Ernst Happel labelled “a monastery student”.

Yet this unlikely image of Bruder Felix, a benign and thoughtful football monk, flies in the face of the current perception of him as some sort of autocratic OAP with a hatred for lethargy. For when it comes to Magath, a gloomy present masks an illuminated past.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Elusive Trophy

Thirty years ago, Joe Fagan’s Liverpool took on Argentinian club Independiente for the honour of becoming “World Club Champion”. It was the only title that had eluded the Merseysiders, but in order to win it they would have to overcome one of South America’s finest cup teams and a miserable English record in the competition…

In December 1984, near the midpoint of the English domestic season, the players and coaching staff of Liverpool F.C. took some time off from the First Division grind and travelled by plane to Tokyo. They had flown halfway round the globe not as part of a drive for the introduction of a winter break, but in order to contest the wonderful, wild and often dangerous Intercontinental Cup.

Opposing them in their efforts to become the de facto best team in the world would be Independiente, Argentina’s “El Rey de Copas”, the undisputed kings of the Copa Libertadores. It was to be a clash of the world’s two most prolific continental sides of the previous 20 years; between them, Liverpool and Independiente had won 11 European Cups and Copas Libertadores from 1964 to 1984. As it turned out, the match would also be a curtain call for both teams as masters of their continents.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Spilled milk and fallen trees

Twenty years ago Palmeiras were obliterating all around them with an all-star team bankrolled by an Italian company. Now in their centenary year, Verdão are in danger of being relegated from Brazil's top division...

“Who could stop an attack formed by Rivaldo, Evair and Edmundo?” asked Brazilian magazine Placar in 1994, before providing the simple answer to its own question: “Nobody.”

The same year Brazil won its tetra in the USA, that 'trio mágico' fired Palmeiras to its fourth and most recent Brasileirão title. Laying waste to all defences that dared oppose them, these three players scored 38 of their team’s 58 goals that season. They were the sharp end of one of Brazil’s most attractive modern club sides, a team powered by Sampaio, Mazinho and Zinho, and fortified by a backline including the great Roberto Carlos.

This was Parmalat-era Palmeiras, a Brazilian dream team bought with Italian milk.

Twenty years later, Palmeiras are unrecognisable from their present incarnation. Now the dairy millions have evaporated and Verdão are a mediocre yo-yo side perpetually drawn into the relegation churn.

Read More on FourFourTwo >>

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Long Way Back for Deportivo La Coruna

Ten years on from reaching the Champions League semi-final, Deportivo La Coruna, the first La Liga champions of the 21st century, are aiming to re-establish themselves in Spain’s top flight after a decade of struggle.

“They were big,” wrote Sid Lowe of Deportivo La Coruna in 2011. “For a while, they were amongst the biggest.”

How quickly we forget.

We forget a team from the provincial north-west of Spain that didn’t just catch up with Barcelona and Réal Madrid, but often surpassed them; a team with Valerón, Makaay, Rivaldo and Bebeto among its alumni. We forget a team that won major competitions, and won them in style. We forget that once upon a time, they called Deportivo La Coruna “Super Depor”, and for good reason.

Now, they are no longer “Super Depor”; just plain old “Depor”.

Football Against The Tide: The Italian Islands

Unlike the languages of the other major Italian islands, the Venetian dialect considers the word for the sea, mar, to be feminine. Each year, on Ascension Day, the Venetians marry the sea, symbolically making it their property, and all its possessions – its dowry – their own. Ultimately, from their betrothal to the waves, they gained an empire. So it was that Venice developed a very different relationship with its mar than islands like Sardinia and Sicily did with their own màre and mari

For Venice, the water that surrounded it was both the protector and the one in need of protection. “They wrapped the sea around them like a cloak,” writes Roger Crowley in City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire. But to those other great islands, exposed in the open Mediterranean rather than tucked away in a corner of the Adriatic, the sea brought invaders; rapacious mainlanders out to superimpose their own culture over that of the islanders. While Venice harassed the mainland, in the process establishing colonies as far afield as Israel and Egypt, the mainland harassed Sardinia and Sicily.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

How El Tel tamed the Orwellian beast of Barcelona and won La Liga

First published on FourFourTwo

Picture the city of Barcelona in the summer of 1984. The place is getting a facelift, with cranes dotting the skyline and new parks and plazas springing up across the city. The streets and boulevards buzz with an optimism brought on by a regeneration that began late in the previous decade.

It’s a sun-drenched scene, tourists gawping enviously as locals amble down tight alleys and broad avenues, lounge in cafés shaded by parasols and generally exalt in the underlying feeling of renaissance. There’s a colourful, glamorous vibe about this city; Barcelona is on the up.

Now insert Terry Venables into that scene.

For 1984 was the year that the man later styled by journalist Mihir Bose as the “False Messiah” walked into the Nou Camp as coach of FC Barcelona for the first time, a club as much in need of revival as the city itself. Venables was an unlikely saviour; the previous 24 years of his professional life had revolved around a quadrangle of locations all within a 30-mile radius of his birthplace in Dagenham. Yet here he was managing one of the world’s biggest and most iconic clubs, a cockney in charge of Catalonia's most powerful symbol.

Venables took over during a period of turbulence at Barça. Diego Maradona was on his way out, his constant feuding with club president Josep Lluís Núñez having made the act of football a mere sideshow to the El Diego soap opera. Núñez himself ran the club as if it were the Airstrip One of George Orwell’s 1984, a grand institution moulded into a personal fiefdom through inane propaganda, ruthless politicking and outright intimidation.

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it,” wrote Orwell, words that were oddly reflective of Núñez’s reign as Barça president, during which time he had ruthlessly seen off all would-be challengers to his domination of the club. If Barça was Airstrip One then Núñez was Big Brother and, fittingly, 1984 was to prove one of the most pivotal years of his regime.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Acceptance of mortality and the Shoaib Akhtar run-up

Coming off a run-up that wouldn’t look out of place at a Jamaican sprinter’s convention, Shoaib Akhtar’s approach to the crease was equally as terrifying as the deliveries that followed it. 

As he lobs the ball casually to the bowler, it seems almost as if the mid-off fielder is unaware of both the emotional carnage currently paralysing the batsman’s brain or the impending physical threat that promises to wreak an equally devastating, yet more external, havoc on the thin layer of bone that protects it. Cursing the callousness of a player who would willingly put a varnished leather rock masquerading as an instrument of sporting contest into the hands of a man planning to hurl it at a be-padded bundle of nerves such as himself, the batsman pretends to count the men behind square-leg for the fortieth time. Anything for a stay of execution.

Though he knew this moment would come, and ought to have been prepared for it, the batsman nevertheless experiences a moment of spatiotemporal uncertainty. His is a dead-brain-walking, an entity trapped inside a skull trapped inside a piece of titanium soon to be crushed by a covered piece of cork. For an instant he equates his lid with the infernal box belonging to that strange Austrian doctor who kept on talking about killing cats, before he realises that fear is pushing his mind towards the abyss of mental instability and a future largely comprised of the frenzied scribbling of Urdu script on cold, white, padded walls. The batsman casts such thoughts out of his mind and tries to focus on the task at hand, namely, surviving that most utterly sadistic of cricketing occurrences: a Shoaib Akhtar delivery.

Shot by Both Sides: The Oriundi and Italian football

First Published in Pickles Magazine

Perennially under-appreciated, the oriundi are as much a part of Italy’s social history as its footballing tradition
Much has been written about nationality, and almost nothing agreed. The concept of belonging to a nation, whether de jure or de facto, is so personal, so circumstantial, so arbitrary as to be almost indefinable, or at the very least ambiguous. Yet there are those who wish to see things merely in black and white, who would deny others the right to a greyer version of nationality. Throughout the long history of the oriundi, this has been very much in evidence. In the 1930s, they were “traitors” to Italy who fled conscription, while in 1962, a poor showing at the World Cup was attributed to “foreigners” within the Nazionale – Gianni Brera dismissed the oriundi as “lazy”. In modern times dissenting voices have mainly originated from the ranks of organisations like the Lega Nord, an unfailingly delusional right-wing political group. Lega members have even gone so far as to declare their support exclusively for Azzurri born north of the Po Valley.

But to scorn the oriundi is to ignore both the history of Italian football and the country itself.  In the late nineteenth-century, fed up of economic hardship, agricultural stagnation and disease, thousands of Italians departed Italy for what was at the time one of the world’s most prosperous regions: the La Plata basin. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Italy and the nations of the region, whose cultures resultantly overlapped in terms of cuisine, fashion, language and, of course, football. Over time the descendants of these emigrants began returning to Europe, a number of them as professional footballers who were “repatriated” as part of a drive to ensure the success of the Nazionale. The cult of the oriundo was born.

Institutions in Decline

AC Milan, Serie A and Silvio Berlusconi are all in decline. Remember the better times.

In 1992, Gianluigi Lentini was signed by AC Milan for a world record transfer fee of £13m. The press carped on about it in scandalised terms: murmurs about Vatican outrage here, griping about moral decadence there. A world away from Milan, in a tidy but dull Dublin suburb, hearing mention not of millions but billions of lire in relation to the transfer was a shock to the system for a young Irishman to whom £1 meant a week’s worth of Maxi Twists. More so since the club had splashed out on the sly, lethal Papin that very same summer. Didn’t they realise they already had Van Basten, Gullit, Donadoni? Why did they need any more? A short, greasy man the papers kept calling a “mogul” appeared to be losing his mind, spending most of his cash on football players. It all seemed so impossibly glamorous.

From the moment the news of Lentini’s signing broke, an obsession with all things AC Milan and Serie A took root in the mind of that once-innocent Irish lad. It turned out to be a fascination that inexplicably failed to dwindle in the face of relentless corruption, falling standards and apathetic crowds, not to mention the rise of less alluring competitions – such as the admirable but overly wholesome Bundesliga. Though both the club and the league may have lost the lustre of their 1990s peak, they retain the glorious pomp that separates Italian football from the rest through the projection of a uniquely Italian bravura: a bizarre magnetism derived from the country’s chaos, drama and style. “If there’s one club that sums up everything good, bad and ugly about Italian football, it’s AC Milan,” was the perfect summation of The Rough Guide to Cult Football. “Their history covers glory and shame, brilliance and bluster, technical genius and boardroom chicanery.”

Even in decline, it’s a combination that’s hard to resist.