Sunday, 24 July 2011


the Argentine back four and 'keeper hit the town

Picture Latin American fútbol and there’s doubtless a series of fairly well-thumbed images that will be conjured forth, images that are perhaps stereotypes, it’s true, but stereotypes generally have some sort of foothold in fact (and, at any rate, they are clichés of which Latin America’s football culture seems fairly reluctant to disabuse us). 

So it is that some or all of the following images could come to mind: big hair, massive hair, hair beneath which faces are lost (from Kempes to Coloccini via Higuita and Valderrama), the kind of hair otherwise spotted only at festivals called Poodle Rock III featuring Van Halen, Whitesnake and Poison; hair-pulling, naturally; higher tackles than a ladyboy in twelve-inch stilettos; gesticulating urchin players and pompous, pencil-‘tached refs locked in a mutually antagonistic spiral until either a multiple sending-off or 19-man brawl occurs; chain-smoking managers, brass bands, and players rolling histrionically about the place like an avant-garde dance troupe performing a piece called Pigs in Shit.

Oh, and one thinks of Argentina versus Brazil in the final of the Copa América.

Not this year. The teams that have contested the last two finals (2007 and 2004) have both been eliminated on penalties at the quarter-final stage. For the first time since 2001 (when Argentina withdrew from the tournament, as it happens), the inventors of o jogo bonito and their heavyweight southern neighbours will be watching on TV, while their conquerors, the two ’Guays, Para- and Uru-, fight it out in the final.

This is a great pity. Not only have these two countries produced many of the game’s greatest ever players – Pelé, 
Didi, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho; Maradona, Messi, Monti, Sivori, Di Stéfano – they also perhaps share, with due respect to Holland-Germany and one or two others, international football’s fiercest rivalry, one stoked not only by their tussles in the Copa, but also by the format of the South American World Cup qualification program, which chucks all the South American nations together in a big spicy olla of a round-robin.  

The measure of their rivalry is not to be found in the lists of trophies – for the record, in the Copa América, Brazil have eight tournament wins (including four of the last five) compared to Argentina’s record-equalling (with Uruguay) fourteen, while in the World Cup it is five plays two, although the two giants of South America have never before met each other in a World Cup final. Rather, it is in the bilious passions they arouse, in a thousand and one mordant anecdotes of demented enmity, in that quintessentially irrational loathing that grips them. 

All of which put me in mind of a poster campaign that an Argentine condom company, Tulipán, ran in 2001, prior to a big World Cup qualifier. The poster, in the famous albiceleste colours, carried the cocksure boast: “Ya estamos pensando en la revancha” (“We are already thinking about revenge”), with the initial letters of the two countries’ names tracing, with oh-so-clever typography, a penis and bum, the latter of indeterminate gender…

The game was played, and, in accordance with the ancient Greeks’ laws of hubris, Argentina duly lost for having tempted the Fates, Brazil seeing off their Southern neighbours 3 – 1. 

In the aftermath, when the samba parties were beginning to empty out (5 or 6 days later), the Brazilian Minister for Culture (that’s right, the State) commissioned a poster by way of riposte (rebuttal?) in which the previously capitalized, tumescent ‘A’ of Argentina had become a drooping, flaccid, lower-case sad-case: an ‘a’ with erectile dysfunction. 

Its strapline reads – in Spanish rather than Portuguese, lest any Argentines could claim not to have understood – “No fue la primera vez, tampoco la última” (“It wasn’t the first time, nor the last”).


Friday, 22 July 2011


king kenny, ken?

“Don’t do it!” I pleaded. “It’s sentimentality, pure and simple” I screamed. “You’ll just become a laughing stock, like that other Messiah-seeking club, Newcastle,” I reasoned. But Liverpool went and did it anyway. They listened to the great swell from the Kop – Dog-leash, Dog-leash – and appointed as manager the man widely regarded as the club’s Greatest Ever Player: ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish. “It’ll end in tears,” I mused, a feeling only confirmed when we lost at Blackpool in his first league game at the helm.

Never have I been more wrong about anything. Ever. Not even when I predicted that the Internet was a fad, or when I invested my life savings in flavoured ‘tongue sandpaper’ to help heavy-drinking smokers de-scunge of a morning.

As we all know, Dalglish’s tenure has, up to now, been little short of a miracle, transforming a side that was failing – flailing – to pull itself clear of the relegation dogfight into one that pushed hard for Europe and accrued more points per game in the second half of the season (1.833) than any other side save Manyoo and Chelski (it would have been better than even these two, too, were it not for campaign ending back-to-back defeats), in the process galvanising the entire club, top to toe.

How did it happen?

Evidently, getting rid of those preposterous and odious buffoons, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, was the turning point. Lest it be forgotten, their leveraged buy-out in February 2007 had mortgaged the club to the hilt, prodding it onto a vicious hamster wheel of money-down-the-drain debt-servicing. With a 3-2 executive board vote (can you guess who the two were?) finally removing the Statler and Waldorf-shaped shadow from the club on 15 October 2010 – in what they would describe, with no little chutzpah, as “an epic swindle”, prompting a threat to sue for £1 billion – we began to photosynthesise again. The club was swiftly sold, to new Yankee-doodle-everything’s-fine-and-dandy owners, New England Sports Ventures: chalk to the Texo-Canadian cheese and held in extremely high regard across the Pond, having turned around the fortunes of another iconic-yet-underachieving team, the Boston Red Sox. Even so, the gloom was still not entirely lifted, nor would it be as long as Roy Hodgson was pottering around Melwood like Terry Tibbs’s dullard chauffeur.

Hicks and Gillett look on in dismay from the Executive Box 

Of course, both Woy and his apologists – of whom there are many – point to the rot having set in the previous season, when the Rafa-lution started to run out of momentum, largely due to the cowboy (cowboy) executives and a dithering Rick Parry. Before this, however, Liverpool were a solid member of the so-called “so-called Big Four” and had become accustomed to life in the Champions League, with its cloying-yet-starting-to-grow-on-me anthem. In May 2009 they had finished a close second to a Manchester United side featuring Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov as forward options (occasionally deployed by Fergie in the swastika formation), and boasted, in the complimentary talents of Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, and Javier Mascherano, arguably Europe’s second best midfield triumvirate. Add to that a peaking Fernando Torres to score the goals and Pepe Reina to keep them out, and Liverpool were primed to challenge for that elusive nineteenth title. Then we spent all our money on debts (and Robbie Keane). 

Despite the hugely disappointing follow-up season, in the fans’ eyes Rafa was still surfing the vast credit accrued during those six crazy minutes™ in Istanbul (and another near-miraculous European Cup final appearance two years later), but not in the eyes of Hicks and Gillett. The occasionally crabby, truculent Spaniard departed “by mutual consent” in June 2010 with a £6m golden handshake, leaving relatively little time for Hodgson – appointed on 1 July, after Dalglish’s application had been rejected – to strengthen a top-heavy squad overly reliant on the aforementioned figures (minus Alonso and, soon, Mascherano). 

Now, no one disputes that Hodgson is a decent, affable man, one whose appointment (widely backed in the media, lest it be forgotten) was considered a safe-pair-of-hands move for the choppy waters through which the Ferry ‘cross the Mersey was sailing; even so, it cannot really be argued now that he was unlucky, that he was anything other than ill-equipped to deal with the enormity of both the club and its problems. True, he persuaded Torres to stay (albeit without quite coaxing a smile out of him) and signed the impressive Raul Meireles. Jon-Jo Shelvey and Milan Jovanović arrived, as arranged by Rafa, along with Rangers prospect, Danny Wilson. English football’s Peter Pan, Joe Cole, was brought in on a free (and £100k-a-week) and out-of-contract Fábio Aurélio returned only months after rejecting a pay-as-you-play deal. However, it would be the singularly underwhelming signings of Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen that stung the Liverpool fans’ pride, and that would thus eventually define his short, tempestuous stewardship. 

On the field, Hodgson’s Liverpool began abysmally and thereafter scarcely improved. Amidst a woeful run in the league, Northampton visited Anfield and dumped us from the Carling Cup (“formidable opponents”, said Hodgson, of the Cobblers. Cobblers!). Thus, with the team playing with all the cohesion of a troop of psilocybin mushroom-swallowing anarchist gibbons at the start of a game of hide-and-seek (for which Woy was largely responsible, with his overly defensive and inflexible set-up), it became increasingly disconcerting and painful to look on at his general passivity in the technical area, standing there, dogmatic and devoid of a Plan B, not so much concentrating on the pitch as not looking at the crowd; unquestionably, this indecision invited more catcalls and opprobrium from the stands – and boy, did the Kop give it to Woy like no previous manager had got it. 

The undoubted nadir of Hodgson’s chin-stroking fecklessness was the year’s final game: a 0-1 home defeat to an exceedingly average Wolves side. So appalling were Liverpool that night that even the standard insults – “they can’t string three passes together” – had to be scaled down accordingly. But at least, during these dark days, the Liverpool fans retained something of their famous humour: baited by Evertonians during the 2-0 derby loss at Goodison with the chant “going down, going down, going down,” Liverpool’s travelling support replied “so are we, so are we, so are we…” Magic. 

The irritation caused by Hodgson’s tactical rigidity and general ponderousness pervaded his media dealings, too. As well as responding to criticism of Liverpool’s results with stock reference to the “dead wood” left by the previous regime (bound to have had his squad wondering to whom, exactly, he was alluding), among the worst of his PR blunders – mistakes, incidentally, that the cussed Dalglish was never going to make – was that of being overly deferential to Sir Fergie, de facto head of a sect of British managers at the LMA – a body that only the previous season had voted Hodgson Manager of the Year for his work at Fulham – an unofficial lobby (including Allardyce, Pulis, Bruce, Holloway, Moyes, and McCleish) that would often do the Govaner guv’nor’s media bidding whenever an upstart and/or foreigner (Wenger and Benítez, in particular) got out of line. But perhaps the most fatal PR gaffe was his sarcastic reference to the “famous Liverpool support” after the aforementioned Wolves game, a mistake that would precipitate the end. 

To the exultation of many and surprise of few, Dalglish took over as caretaker on 8 January. Despite the temptations (and distortions) of nostalgia, it should be recalled that this was not an instantaneous, Disney-like transformation in which Kenny’s sheer charisma made everything spic’n’span anew as he swept about the place, regally; indeed, it is almost astonishing to recall that Liverpool didn’t actually win until his fourth game, at Wolves, as a gallant 10-man FA cup defeat at Old Trafford was followed first by the dismal completion of Blackpool’s double over us, then a Merseyside derby draw. That being said, the first month was all about a rapid and necessary reorganization. To this end, the appointment – sorry, Dalglish’s appointment – of Steve Clarke to organize the defence and structure the training sessions was crucial in helping a recently careworn playing staff shed their inhibitions and produce a corresponding upturn in results. 

Meanwhile, for a net spend of zero, Kenny finally got rid of Ryan Babel’s cult muppetry and unburdened everyone of the sulking Torres (who had started to live up to the nickname El Niño). Torres’ departure, in particular, was a blessing that had already started stepping daintily out of its disguise; the pouting and moping and preening had for some time betrayed a sour, loveless marriage, a relationship that, at the time, we couldn’t quite let go, even though, had we cared to notice, the evidence before our eyes was overwhelming. How drunk on schadenfreude we would get, then, seeing the erstwhile apple of our eye depart for Chelsea and subsequently fail to, erm, ‘land a date’ for a whole 903 minutes of increasingly despondent, too-many-chiefs cul-de-sac running, while we nipped off down the pub and pulled an absolute stunner (metaphorically), probably even hotter than our outgoing beau / belle when he / she had first arrived from Sunny Spain. 

Towers and Babel, by Peiter Breughel

With Towers and Babel jettisoned, in from those twin bastions of esoteric nightlife, Amsterdam and NewCASTLE-like, came Luis Suárez for £22.8m – already cheap at half the price (by which I mean cheap at double the price) – and an injured Andy Carroll for £35m, a fee that has twisted many a knicker. Not that it needed to, for John Henry himself has stated that Liverpool didn’t even enter the negotiations; these were conducted directly between Chelsea and Newcastle, the former told by Liverpool that they would be paying +£15m for whatever the latter wanted for Kevin Nolan’s court order-constrained lodger. 

El pistolero has obviously made a gigantic impression and confounded even the most optimistic Reds with his bravery, industry, intelligence, movement, craft, and craftiness. With some footballers it’s justifiable to imagine moments of zero danger, simply because these players don’t have the skills or wit to extricate themselves from a tight spot; with Suárez, there’s always some danger, even in the tightest angle, back to goal, the trickster can pull something out of the hat… 

As for Wor Andy, the jury must remain out (a phrase that would surprise no-one if heard in a rather more literal context in the near-future). He is, of course, a monster in the air; time will tell whether he can be successfully integrated into a team that had recently rediscovered the pass-and-move method that once made the club European top dogs. It’s certainly hoped by everyone at Anfield that he can at least start the season fit, if only so that he doesn’t bench-warm alongside Sotirios Kyrgiakos where the two of them resemble a pair of Latino heavies off Miami Vice. Had Andriy Voronin still been there too, the ponytail frenzy in the dugout would probably have started to attract scouts. Porno casting scouts, that is... 

rumours of segregation along hair lines in the LFC dressing room proved persistent

Anyway, Kenny’s first five months of action have brought us much jubilation: the goals and wit of Raul Meireles; the arrival of Lucas as a midfielder of substance; the successive emergence of Flanagan and Kelly at right full-back (an Irish folk duo?); the 3-1 defeat of the Mancs, including a virtuoso performance from Suárez and the shortest aggregate distance hat-trick in the history of the game (about by 4.5 yards) by the perma-grafting Kuyt, not forgetting the Kop joyously regaling Dalglish with a polyharmonic rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. 

Maxi Factor

Yet perhaps the greatest symbol of the club’s metamorphosis under Dalglish was the seven-goal-in-three-game purple patch enjoyed by Maxi Rodríguez – a player who has, lest we forget, won over 50 caps for Argentina (and scored of one of the greatest World Cup goals of all time), but who had not, it’s fair to say, set the world on fire. Or even Merseyside, where arson is on the school curriculum. In fact, had bookies offered 10,000-1 odds in January on Maxi notching two Premier League hat-tricks before the season was out, one imagines that not even his Mum would have taken a punt. Perhaps it was the form of Maxi and his interplay with Suárez and Meireles against Birmingham and Fulham that led Fenway Sports Group (the new name for NESV), after much umm-ing and aah-ing, to offer Dalglish a contract (a news story to file alongside ‘Sun Rises’), the finalization of which was then inevitably followed by a lacklustre home defeat to Tottenham in a game that would have guaranteed European football (a defeat that many supporters see as a blessing in disguise) and an end-of-school loss at Villa Park. 

The optimism fired during those five months has not, it seems, been unduly scratched by the slightly centre-mid-centric and British-flavoured summer transfer activity (along with persistent rumours of Meireles’ departure). Liverpool’s shopping began with the capture of Jordan Henderson, a Moneyball-influenced signing, no doubt (i.e. above-average stats in a below-average performing team; re-sale value), which was followed by landing the impressive gap-toothed Scottish pivote, Charlie Adam (a replacement for Xabi Alonso, maybe?), and the much-maligned Stuart Downing, Aston Villa’s Player of the Year, to put crosses on a certain Geordie yed.

Doubtless FSG have their plans for creating revenue to pay for this splurge – perhaps to consolidate their pre-eminence over United in the lucrative Far East markets (that’s shirt sales, not opium) – although they now seem resigned to the fact that Anfield cannot be adequately upgraded to the sort of stadium capacity that would allow us to compete more evenly, with Manyoo, the Arse and Chelski, at least, if not the bottomless petrodollar funds of the upstarts from Eastlands. 

What is undeniable is that, only months after the most depressing episode – both on and off the field – in living memory, the club has its soul back. The glass is once again half-full. What was there to worry about? It’s Kenny, for fuck’s sake. And there’s a certain beetroot-hootered knight who knows there’s someone at Anfield ready to go mano a mano

So, as I sit here delighted and mystified after the most turbulent, bewildering and ultimately joyous season in Liverpool’s modern history, the lesson in it all seems to be this: maybe there are times – specifically, when your club is going in more directions simultaneously than a herd of wildebeest being set upon by hungry lions – when misty-eyed sentimentalism is as logical a reason as any other to appoint a favourite son as manager.

Making of a Legend: Dalglish at Liverpool:

8 seasons as a player (1977-1985):
won six titles, three European Cups, an FA Cup, and four consecutive League Cups.

6 years as manager (1984-1990):
won three titles and two FA Cups. Heysel meant there was no European competition, then Hillsborough happened (April 1989.


I didn’t actually want the name – at least, not as first choice. For extensive reasons you’d be better off not knowing about, I initially wanted my football blog to be called Transversality (the French for ‘horizontalness’, whence le transversal being their word for ‘crossbar’). I then hoped to call it something like Between the Lines, a favourite phrase of Rafa Benítez’s for the space in which elusive footballers operate, and an obvious pun for writing aspiring to be analytical, insightful. Neither was available. And anyway, the regularity with which the likes of Jamie “Giggsy’s literally on fire” Redknapp and Andy O’Townsend were using the phrase made it about as appealing as leprosy. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before Shearer caught up.

So, after a bit of head scratching, I plumped for False 9. Nice phrase, but what, in relation to football, does it mean?

Put simply, a false nine is a player who appears to be operating as a conventional centre-forward, what the majority of British pundits think of as a “target man” (whence the number 9 in the traditional shirt numberings), but who constantly drops deep to receive the ball, essentially leaving the centre-halves with no-one to mark and thus a tactical dilemma: to pursue or leave him for a midfielder to pick up...

False nine
The term has entered common football language of late due to the phenomenal Lionel Messi’s coruscating displays as a false nine for the all-conquering Barcelona, where he’s flanked by the not inconsiderable talents of David Villa and Pedro (previously, he had played in a wide role on the right, with Ronaldinho on the left and Samuel Eto’o as an orthodox #9).

However, according to the guru of football formations, Jonathan Wilson, Guardian columnist and author of Inverting the Pyramid: a History of Football Tactics, Messi is far from the first to play that (non-)position. In fact, he believes that this sort of strikerlessness was actually a piecemeal innovation that could be seen in prototype form as early as the 1920s in South America, through the Austrians of the 1930s, but that first became discernibly systematized by the great Hungarian team of the 1950s, the ‘Mighty Magyars’ that trounced England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, then 7-1 in Budapest’s Nepstadion the following year (both of which remain record defeats: home and all-time respectively), with Nándor Hidegkuti in the false nine role, supported by the likes of Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik and all-time greats Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis, later to become fulcrums of Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively.

Hidegkuti scores for Hungary at Wembley, 1953

However, let’s not get bogged down in all that just now. Let us allow it to drift into midfield and be picked up by someone else. There will be time for theorizing later. For now it should be noted that the name of the blog was also chosen not solely for its cerebral tone – its hint of a philosophical approach to football beyond pseudo-profound statements about seagulls following trawlers in search of sardines – but also because it permits me to indulge in that most well-thumbed yet never tiresome of formats: the list. Not only that, I have three options as to how many items will comprise the list – nine, for obvious reasons; eleven, for the number of players in a team; or I could go with good old ten, the fans’ favourite, on the pretext of it being, well, a “false nine”…