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.

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Format That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Something that can distance many modern fans from the Test game is the strange truth that most of the cricketing public have never taken part in a match lasting longer than seven or eight hours, never mind an entire working week.

In no other major sport does such a clear distinction in terms of code exist between the élite and the grassroots: playing a Premier League match at Stamford Bridge hardly compares to turning out for a pub team on Hackney Marshes, but the format is almost identical. For Irish supporters the situation is compounded by the reality that even hardened national team stalwarts have only sporadic international experience outside the limited-overs system, rendering Test cricket in the flesh an almost alien spectacle, essentially a different game to the one played in grounds up and down the island.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

In the Name of the Father

First published on FourFourTwo

In February of 1974, Danny Coster gave birth to her son Jordi by Caesarean section. The operation was carefully timed to coincide with a short period of time off work that Danny’s husband Johan had been granted by his employers. It just so happened that Johan was one of the world’s greatest footballers, and his employers FC Barcelona one of the world’s greatest football clubs – and who, the weekend that Jordi Cruyff was born, had no fixtures scheduled to be played.

So it was that Jordi Cruyff was predestined to a life spent living not just with his famous surname, but also his symbolic given name. Sant Jordi – Saint George – is the patron saint of Barcelona and Catalonia, and Johan Cruyff had fought with the Francoist authorities of 1970s Spain in order to circumvent a ban on the use of Catalan names and register it to his son in that form (as opposed to the Spanish “Jorge”). It was a name that would forever bond Cruyff junior with Catalonia, and by extension the iconic status held by his father within the region.

Bosnia Divided in Brazil

First published on Sports Illustrated and Roads & Kingdoms

There is a natural desire, on the part of everyone from pundits to fans to football bureaucrats, to exult in the power of the World Cup to unify.

This is especially true in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is making its World Cup debut next month. Sports Illustrated's Jonathan Wilson noted that "tens of thousands of fans of all ethnicities took to the streets of Sarajevo to celebrate Bosnia's qualification for World Cup 2014. ... There, general delight suggested that something unexpected and beautiful had occurred, and it hinted at a possible future unity."

Inevitably, the focus of much of the attention will be on how this divided country's qualification for a World Cup has united the entire nation after nearly twenty years of post-civil war rehabilitation. "A few years ago you could not imagine Bosnians, Serbs and Croats supporting the team, but that could change now," Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Safet Sušić was recently quoted as saying in an article pointedly titled "Bosnia goes from the battlefield to the World Cup."

But on the ground in Bosnia-Herzogovina, it looks for all the world like Sušić is wrong.

Read More on >>

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Mostar Derby

Although few things divide a city like a river, nothing segregates people so completely as a civil war. Mostar is as recognisable for its ethno-cultural partition as it is for the famous Ottoman bridge spanning the Neretva River.

The rupture between the primarily Catholic Croat west bank and the largely Bosniak Muslim east is exemplified by the intensity of the Zrinjski-Velez derby. The animosity between the teams is rooted not only in sectarianism, but also in their divergent political views. More than any other in the Balkans, the Mostar derby is a microcosm of a century or so of Bosnian history, with the clubs defined as much by politics and war as by players or fans. 

The Opus of the 'Nearly Man'

Rather than a case of ‘what might have been’, Lance Klusener’s was a career that all too briefly ‘was’. Notwithstanding a period as one of the best all-rounders in the game, his time as a professional cricketer was consistently hindered from ‘being’ by a succession of injuries as varied in length and gravity as a Scott Boswell over. In terms of his batting, Klusener’s attacking style was initially a thrilling complement to his aggressively tight seam bowling, a secondary aspect of his game that, on the back of some stellar knocks in the late 1990s, eventually came to define him as a cricketer. Though his transformation from background metronome to star turn was for the most part limited to the one-day game, this Dave Grohl of turn-of-the-millennium South Africa occasionally showed he could be as destructive a bat at Test level as in the shorter forms. One such demonstration occurred at Port Elizabeth in 1999 – undoubtedly Klusener’s annus mirabilis – when he made 174 against an England attack containing luminaries such as Darren Gough, Andrews Caddick and Flintoff, and Phil Tufnell.

A Dangerous Friend

For better or worse, anger is as much a part of football as the creative corruptibility of the game’s administrators, inclement midweek nights in Stoke-on-Trent and the consistent outscoring of Emile Heskey at international level by Latin American goalkeepers. Whether through Roy Keane’s on-pitch nod to Edmond Dantès in the 2001 Manchester derby at Old Trafford or the submersion of Twitterspace beneath a hormonal torrent of adolescent fury, football allows wrath – which often masquerades under the guise of ‘passion’ – to be manifested amongst its players, fans, and officials with a raw, unbridled fervour that might otherwise go unexpressed. As one of the more powerful – yet unstable – emotions, the exhibition of wrath on and off the pitch is an unavoidable consequence of human nature. It’s symptomatic of how we are, and football is merely an outlet through which many choose to articulate anger – and indeed the wider spectrum of emotion. Though anger is not always a bad thing – particularly with regard to sporting contest – it’s a state of mind that’s hard to control, a fuse burning down towards detonation that some find more difficult to extinguish than others. It can be channelled into something positive, but can also ‘go off’, a fact which is often made evident by certain events that surround the sport. 

Diaspora and English Cricket

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia came into effect. As well as calling a halt to decades of war in Europe, the treaties signed as part of the Peace paved the way for a reimagining of national identity on the continent. Westphalia resulted in the subsequent pre-eminence of the ‘nation-state,’ a sovereign entity which is essentially a combination of geopolitical and cultural components. Nation-states are now the most common form of statehood, but one of the few remaining non-Westphalian states is the United Kingdom, an amalgamation of four different nations. Yet, a great curiosity in relation to the UK’s homogeneity is the sporting independence of its constituents. An example of this is the England cricket team, itself a body which has always looked beyond the geographical entity it represents in order to ensure its international competitiveness. Now, in an era when the predominance of nation-states is being challenged by the emergence of ‘diaspora’ as an ethnic and cultural marker, as well as trans-national groupings like the European Union, English cricket goes some way to illustrating the often mercurial nature of nationality. 

Footballers as Role Models

A young man signs a piece of paper.  At sixteen or seventeen years of age, this marks the point when his path through life begins to diverge from those around him. He has just become a professional footballer, and though still not permitted to vote, the opportunities that will be afforded to this novice mean he is to be saddled with a very adult responsibility. With the stroke of a pen, he has been unwittingly transformed from pubescent jock into a role model for rudderless teens, frustrated middle-aged men and, by extension, the rudderless teenage children of frustrated middle-aged men. 

From a very young age, professional footballers are elevated to a status to which many with twice their years would struggle to adapt. Exactly what is it, then, that qualifies these particular individuals to assume such a burden? Are they philosophers, thinkers, boys whose academic capacities predestine them for the life of an exemplar? Intellectuals, maybe, earmarked as statesmen or sociological commentators? 

No, actually. They kick balls around a pitch, which they often don’t even do particularly well. 

The Berlin-Dresden Rivalry

Considered a poor cousin to its West German neighbour, with few of its clubs experiencing major success on the international scene, the 52-year history of the East German Oberliga nevertheless yielded some fascinating points of interest. Perhaps, the most notable story involves Dynamo Dresden and Dynamo Berlin, two clubs whose histories are intricately intertwined. Though these teams had been the leading forces in the Oberliga – from 1975 to 1990 no other team won a league title – both suffered after the dissolution of the league and failed to achieve much of note in the reunified Germany. Thus far, Dresden have managed four seasons in the 1. Bundesliga, from 1991-95, and currently sit in the second tier of the German football pyramid. Berlin had it even worse after reunification, spending most of their time in or around the third or fourth tiers. However, the modern mediocrity of these two clubs belies an absorbing and complex past.

From Nobodies to Minnows

From his spectacular vantage point on the north-west corner of Belgrade’s ancient walled fortress, The Statue of the Victor stares watchfully across the confluence of the city’s two great rivers, the Danube and the Sava. Built in the 1920s, Pobednik stands in memoriam of wartime triumphs over two fading imperial glories, the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans. Between them, these once-powerful, utterly contrasting empires served, as much as anything else, to shape the nature – and, by extension, the ensuing history – of the peninsula upon which their borders met. 

Now, Pobednik remains a steely-bunned, dutiful sentinel at a place that once marked the bygone frontier separating the Occident and the Orient. Tasked with identifying threats on the horizon, his regard also takes in what was, in 1928, a marshy expanse of mostly-unsettled land stretching from the left bank of the Sava to Zemun, previously an Austro-Hungarian border town. For many years, this area found use as a buffer zone between Ottoman Belgrade and the lands of the Dual Monarchy. Sixty-five years ago, with the White City no longer an outpost of the Eternal State, it became what is now New Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s Brutalist capital-in-waiting. It was here, in the city that Tito built, that I played my first cricket match in Serbia.

The Prospect of a Serbian Jackie's Army

Over the years, the Irish have left Ireland in their millions. Many went west to what for them was a stars’n’striped home-from-home. Others, however, chose an eastward path to that neighbourly island which still bears the standard of Saint Patrick upon its flag. As a consequence, the passing of the centuries brought about the development of a vast and enduring Irish diaspora in Great Britain. During the 1980s and 1990s, this fact was catapulted to the forefront of footballing life by Jack Charlton and an Irish national team containing the likes of Mick McCarthy, Ray Houghton et al. Yet, in that same decade, and seemingly in a parallel universe, war-torn Serbia witnessed an equally widespread scattering of its people. Now, through the recruitment of players such as Zdravko Kuzmanović, Neven Subotić, and others, Serbian football is reclaiming some of its exiles, leading to the very real possibility of the emergence of a Serbian ‘Jackie’s Army.’

Radnicki and Ideology

The south of Serbia, with its rich and complicated past, is something of a historical and political melting pot. Niš, the region’s most populous city, is no different. Over the years, the city bore witness to the coming and going of a multitude of would-be conquerors, each of whom recognised the city’s importance as a gateway between East and West, a metaphorical confluence of cultures, ideologies, and nations. Consequently, Niš has long been possessed of a certain flexibility of nature, an ability to seamlessly adjust to the incursion of a previously unfamiliar authority. This year, the city’s illustrious football club, Radnički, has been obliged to exhibit a similarly acquiescent character. 

Marakana to Maracana

Nestled picturesquely amidst the forested hills of Eastern Serbia is the small, industrialised town of Majdanpek. The region in which it lies – Bor – is known for its relatively extensive mineral wealth, particularly its rich deposits of copper, as well as that shiny metal most widely and greedily valued by the human race; gold. However, despite a long history of mining that saw the arrival of many aspiring prospectors and a 20th century industrial boom, it was not until 1972 that the town’s most cherished discovery first saw the light of day. 

That year, Dejan Petković was born. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Deconstructing the Plovdiv Pistolero

In the middle of the 4th century B.C., the all-conquering army of Philip II of Macedon swept southwards through the Balkans, thus setting into motion an enduring legacy that would be continued and expanded upon by Philip's more renowned son; the famous, infamous, and glorious Colin Farrell. In the course of that marauding charge - in 342 B.C., to be precise - Philip passed through the now-Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, renaming it after himself as he did so (Philippopolis). The arrival of Philip preceded centuries - millennia, even - of invading forces pitching their tents at the walls of Plovdiv, attempting to make the city their own. 72 B.C. saw the Romans give it a shot, under the leadership of Marcus Lucullus. More than a hundred years later, in 46 A.D., Plovdiv finally ceded to the Romans and their Emperor Claudius.