Sunday, 30 October 2011


Noam Tommsky

What with the current accusations against John Terry and the ongoing Suárez/Evra imbroglio, the issue du jour in football seems to be racism – not the usual mindless terrace racism, but player-on-player racism – and so it fell to Jeff Stelling, the eminently sensible chair of Sky Soccer Saturday, to ask the show’s assembled quartet of heavy-hitting moral philosophers to debate the matter. Thus, after Le Tiss and Merse had duly pronounced, the ever-eloquent Tommo was invited by Stelling to ponder on what might happen to the accusers if the allegations cannot be proven (not are proven to be false, which is another thing entirely). Here is the Liverpudlian pundit’s considered response:
I think it’s extremely difficult, Jeff: the racism card and everything that gets brought about… and it, it seems strange: once one starts, everybody else is very much, sort of, brings everything into the spotlight, yet again. And it should be put away but we know it will always come back out and everything. But it’s difficult. These allegations that get brought: we have investigations, everyone has to go through with it, and then it gets – I think I remember, quite a few years ago, with Stan Collymore and Steve Harkness and what have you, and nothing was proven. It was extremely difficult and it just goes away. If that happens, I would think that that would happen again, it would get done, because people’ll say ‘What happens with Evra?’ and ‘What happens with Anton Ferdinand?’. It’s extremely difficult where you go with it, but I’m with the guys over the John Terry thing: I think it would be extremely difficult for him to play for England again.
Er, quite. 

Next week, Tommo will discuss the impact of the global financial crisis on football. Maybe.

Friday, 21 October 2011


Another cartoon from the inimitable pen/brain of Jake Goretzki, one that is especially appropriate ahead of Sunday’s Manchester derby, contested by two clubs born in the narrow Victorian streets of the world’s first industrial city. 

There is enough in this cartoon to prompt a Marxist investigation of the way in which these entrenched group identities (neo-tribalism) form perhaps the principal barrier to the overthrow of the capitalist class; a sort of divide-and-conquer strategy from the top down intersecting with a football-as-opium-of-the-masses dynamic from the bottom up, the net effect of which is to prevent a co-ordinated mass protest from fans of all teams at the obscene salaries paid to players and the exorbitant ticket prices they are charged. But we won’t go there... 

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


They say a manager’s greatest and most important attribute is having a good nose for a player (or is it a good eye? Are they the same thing?). If that were true, They, then how come half of this lot weren’t/aren’t any good at the old management game (hardest game in the world)? They all have formidable snot-boxes – the best/worst XI ever to come from these islands, no less…*


With early onset combover and a soft, flat, wide, Nile delta of a snout, Big Ron was a man who built a career trying to use the gift of the gab to distract you from his washed-up old Brit gangster on the Costa del Crime look. Trouble was, he also needed the gift of the gab to distract you from the fact that he talked a lot of unholy gibberish (“Let Incey have his rabbit; just make sure you pick up any eyebrows at the front stick”), which is a logical impossibility that he’d have been well served in recognizing. Eventually, having already slipped beyond bargepole-touching range of any employer who had the sort of managerial jobs pecunious enough to pay for his bling insurance, all this gobbledegook-spouting caught up with Ron’s other career, punditry, which foundered on that most sanctified of football’s hypocrisies: namely, that even the most prehistoric, benighted views are permissible – nay, encouraged – provided they’re expressed behind closed doors (or when the microphones are off). The Keys-Gray Principle. That Marcel Desailly declined to break Ron’s nose when he heard he’d been called a “useless, lazy nigger” was not out of any particular gallantry on his part, nor because he was in fact lazy (careful!), but for the simple reason that he couldn’t actually locate the bone. He did ask if he could borrow it as a makeshift beanbag in the ITV studio, however. Ron declined.


What with everything else that’s going on with ‘Arry’s puffy, hangdog visage – the twitching, the saddle-bags, facial contours akin to the sort of alien geological feature found, without fail, in those out-of-helicopter money shot of tourist board ad campaigns in the young, thrusting nations of Western Europe's semi-periphery – it’s easy to overlook what an extraordinary hooter he has, a gnarled old thing that looks from underneath like an old ball that his dogs have been chewing at.


There was more than one legendary manager in Nottingham during the 1970s and 80s, as supporters of the world’s oldest professional club will gladly mither you about given half a chance. With his windswept canopy of vertical hair, a set of Scooby Doo-graveyard teeth, and a conk that looked like an illegal immigrant hiding in a rolled-up carpet, Jimmy Sirrell had the appearance of someone about a month off launching as a Ken Dodd tribute act on the northern variety club circuit. These days, he’d probably be lynched by some hysterical curtain-twitching vigilantes just for looking like that.


Iain Dowie has the face of a man who’s just arrived back at the sanctuary of his home following a 3-day ketamine bender that has effectively transformed his sinuses into large buckets of wallpaper paste through which no oxygen can pass, only then to trip over his doorstep, break his nose, and have to go and sit in A&E for a further 17 hours. Indeed, Dowie – who, wisely, declined the opportunity to name his daughter Zowie – has the sort of beak that, lacking groove between bridge and frontal bone, looks like something hurriedly glued back on to that nasty old Toby jug you know, the one that only a free-floating fear of death is persuading you to keep. Ill-suited both to summarising (due to words tumbling out of his mouth like knickers out of a broken suitcase) and management (due to words…), the goal-every-thirteen-games frontman has taken his bunged-up, cloth-mouthed blather to Sky Soccer Saturday where he regularly has viewers recommending him decongestion remedies.


Let’s face it, if you’re universally known as ‘Snozzer’ it’s more than likely you’re going to have a bugle-and-a-half, and Sillett had a bugle-and-a-half: one nose, plus half of someone else’s – though probably not the crooked conk of Steve Ogrizovic who was in goal when the happy-go-lucky, touchline-jigging, cue ball-headed Snozzer took Coventry City to unlikely FA Cup glory in 1987. Since retirement (well, redundancy), Sillett has put his nasal architecture to good use by doubling as an awning, providing much needed shade at his nephew’s otherwise excellent pâtisserie in Aix-en-Provence.


Tapered like a No Frills parsnip, with a possibly superfluous shallow groove pinched in at the end, the nose of reincarnated hawk Gareth Southgate brings to mind the sort of highly specific kitchen utensil which, the moment you feel an urge to buy it, marks you out as irreversibly middle class. Dorking-based thrash metal combo, Southgate’s Sniffer, got to number 342 in the charts in 2007 with the single ‘He’s got a Nose Like a Pasta Shape’ and perhaps that’s what the utensil is, luvvy, an instrument for cutting pasta shapes – which all seems a bit of a waste, since the tip of the pizza-advertising penalty scuffer’s nose is also believed to be the only thing other than diamond that can cut diamonds.


A few months back, half-watching some up-and-coming golfer called Rory McIlroy win a major, it occurred to me that the young Ulsterman might well be the lovechild of Leeds-bankrupting tantrum-monger David O’Leary and disgraced former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, on the admittedly shaky basis that McIlroy has the latter’s hair and the former’s runtish snout. This is a nose that looks like it’s been sellotaped into position by someone trying to attend two parties on the same night: a League of Gentlemen-themed fancy dress do (as local shop proprietor, Edward) followed by an Irish stereotype-perpetuating leprechaun shindig (real leprechauns having already commandeered his nose as their ski-jumping hill, of course).


Beating off stiff competition from the likes Alex McLeish and Mick Harford in the Managers with Noses Splattered Across their Faces on Several Occasions category (“Eh, Pally-lad, he’s went an’ fookin’ elbowed us in the nerz again, y’knaa”) is Steve Bruce, a man for whom the phrase ‘chiselled features’ isn’t necessarily a compliment. In fact, Bruce has a conk that looks like it’s just emerged from a 120-hour torture session with some especially brutal South American secret police, a schnozzer with so many asymmetrical planes and ridges that he is constantly fending off adolescent skateboarders looking for a place to, like, hang and bust some sick tricks, yeah?


Looking like he’s had his sniffer poking through the glory hole of a Siberian portaloo for close on a fortnight, the Govan Guv’nor has a bonnie wee neb, alright; no question about thaaat. However, while the beetroot tinge to Fergie’s increasingly Dickensian snout would appear to suggest that he’s fond of a ‘constitutional’ or three of a morning, one should always be wary of cause-effect conclusions around the consonant-shunning clock-watcher, for he only has to fart in the same week as another club loses a match to have such an event ascribed to some ingenious, mystical ‘mind games’ on his part. Absolloolly no question about thaaat


They say that even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day. Well, so does a broken face– specifically, Mick McCarthy’s broken face, its hooter permanently set at 5.28. Luckily, the Irishman’s Yorkshireman’s phizog also doubles as a makeshift sun dial, with the receding back-combed silver corona – which has definitely had the hairdryer treatment (although probably not from Fergie, who he occasionally helps win titles by obligingly selecting reserve teams against Man Utd) – resembling something like a watery sunrise, an event that takes place at 5.28am on 4 May, the date when Wolves’ inevitable nosedive will be definitively confirmed as relegation.


Nancy Sinatra may or may not have sung “This hooter’s made for snorting…” but if she did, it could well have been a ditty dedicated to the bristling Sky Soccer Saturday pundit with the eagle’s beak, Tommo. Assuming the former Liverpool caretaker manager was ‘ambinostrous’, reasonable estimates suggest that he would be able to hoover approximately four grams of Gianluca per sitting (sitting, not session) – all of which would be fine, of course, except for the fact that he has less actual words in his vocabulary than he does winners’ medals on his mantelpiece, and thus, as a man already permanently having to suppress the word ‘fucking’ from blurting out, being wired on chalk would make him an absolute pre-watershed liability: “Dat’s a fuckin’ stonewall penalty, Jeff, da. Un-fuckin-credible…” Being a professional Scouser, not only could Tommo score the hypothetical cocaine simply by poking his head out of the window (not to mention probably snort it from there as well), but it also goes without saying that the aforementioned Fergie used to get right up his nose (even when he was sat thirty yards away in the Man Utd dugout). Indeed, so one-eyed can Tommo get that you might say he can’t see past the end of his own nose… So, Stand Up, Pinocchio: a (Nyron Nos)worthy winner. By a nose.

And there you have it. Honourable mentions go to the mandrill-snout of Huguenot chancer, Alan Pardieu; to the goose-necked, goose-beaked gurner, Jack Charlton (’n’ that); to half-ewok, half-pipistrelle, Joe Fagan; and to Tony Mowbray [pictured at top], recently cast as the eponymous hero of Terry Gilliam’s movie, Mr Punch (possibly because the casting director got him mixed up with Jimmy Nail). They should not despair, however: Michael Jackson has shown that you can always fuck up your nose a little more. The door is still open. Break into this side and you might even get a life-size statue outside the stadium for your trouble, too. But it’s not that important, so don’t go cutting off your nose to spite your face, now…

* Absolutely no scientific method went into the compilation of this list. I demand the right to a little incompetence.
§ Article dispatched from a stone throwing party in a glass house.

Friday, 14 October 2011


With the summer plans of the majority of Europe’s elite players now decided, attention returns once more to the throb and rumble of domestic football. And at the end of a week in which Premier League-watchers have got their quasi-socialist knickers in a twist (at least twenty years too late, frankly, no matter how sensible their long-term arguments) over the contentious TV rights-selling plans voiced by Liverpool MD Ian Ayre, it is no bad thing that both the league in general and his club’s supporters in particular – its fans in the Far East included – can look forward to arguably their blue riband fixture: the visit of Manchester United to Anfield.

Focussing again on on-field matters – and thus reminding (or congratulating) ourselves of the potential commercial hegemony of the League As A Whole when compared to all other European leagues – provides an opportune juncture for supporters of Liverpool to take stock of where they will be by the time the summer rolls round. Specifically, it is time to ask – before today’s result obscures too much, good or bad – how Kenny Dalglish’s Anfield makeover is coming along now that the honeymoon period is definitively over.

Any statistician would tell you that a seven-match old Premier League season is not a significant enough period to arrive at hard-and-fast conclusions, but it might be sufficient to provide clues as to emerging tendencies. Certainly, this would be implicit in the views aired last week by the latest Kop Idol, Luis Suárez, who, in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, has unequivocally written off the club’s title aspirations, about which the red 58% of the city was so bullish back in May: “We have no limit and want to stay in the top four. The main reason why it is so difficult is because the two Manchesters and Chelsea are unreachable. But we can win the cups.”

What to make of Suárez’s remarks? Do they provide a hefty dose of realism to a club not slow, of late, to inflate small grounds for optimism into harbingers of imminent glory (something of which I have been guilty)? Are they an unnecessarily negative pronouncement from someone who has become, very quickly, arguably even more central to Liverpool’s fortunes than was Fernando Torres at his coruscating peak? Are they symptoms of a loss of faith in the Uruguayan regarding Dalglish’s ‘project’ at Anfield?

Without wishing to fence-sit: maybe, maybe not. Either way, these opinions should not really be evaluated on the basis of whether true or false (he could be bluffing, after all), for they are not ‘objective’ scientific statements, made from some loftily neutral perspective beyond what they purport to describe. They need to be understood as actions, ones that can themselves are part of, and can alter, the course of events (much as economists will tell you that consumer confidence has been adversely affected by gloomy forecasts, opinions, coming from Downing Street). As anyone who has played in a sports team will tell you, Suárez might – might – have unwittingly started to undermine the self-belief in the squad, like a slow puncture, imperceptible at first…

Anyway, regardless of such conjecture, it is self-evident that the two Manchester clubs have hit the ground running, just two points apiece dropped and goals aplenty. City’s extended spending spree in Europe’s luxury stores is starting to lose its starchy newness and settle together snugly as an outfit, while Fergie’s youthful additions and re-introductions (Jones, Young, De Gea, Cleverley, Welbeck) are meshing with the whippersnapper deadliness of Nani, Hernández and Rooney to promise much for the foreseeable future. The duopoly looks settled for now, but nothing is guaranteed. Granted, the two clubs have formidable shock absorbers in place for any potentially destabilising events, but you simply never know – this time last year, everyone said double-winning Chelsea were looking unstoppable, that Ancelotti was going to emulate Mourinho with back-to-back titles in his debut seasons. Then they fired Wilkins and off flew the wheels…

So, things can change quickly, but let’s assume that any misfortune befalling these juggernauts (further repercussions of the Tevez affair; the removal of Rooney or Silva through injury) is not substantial enough to derail them. Then, as Suárez says, Liverpool should reasonably surmise that they are competing with Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal for two Champions League spots, in pursuit of which they have already defeated the latter at the Emirates, in almost identical fashion to the controversial Merseyside derby at Goodison (winning 2-0 after their opponents had been reduced to ten men with the game goalless), giving them excellent away wins in what ought to be two of their more difficult fixtures. Yet Arsenal are already being dismissed as top-four contenders in some quarters (including their Chief Executive, it seems) having lost over half their league games and been humiliated 8-2 at Old Trafford; Chelsea, meanwhile, have started brightly under Vilas-Boas and look strong. So, maybe it is a simple shootout for fourth with Spurs, a team that battered Liverpool 4-0, of course (having themselves been trounced 5-1 at the Lane by Man City and lost at Old Trafford).

Now, however you appraise the significance of all that, it is not so much the results as the manner of Liverpool’s play that suggest to some of the less blindly reverential supporters that the club’s transfer activity in the summer, while adding depth, has not augmented the quality in a manner concomitant with the financial outlay. A nervy victory over Wolves and a home draw (the perennial problem of the Rafa era) with Sunderland, as well as defeat at Stoke when having utterly dominated the game, suggest that Liverpool do not yet have the requisite attacking dimensions at their disposal. The key question is whether this is a problem of the parts or of the whole, of the individuals’ talents or the cohesiveness of the group?

Liverpool's summer shopping still have it all to prove...

Of the three North-eastern lads purchased – at a cost of £75m – by Dalglish to bolster the squad/team, only Stewart Downing can be said to have performed creditably so far. As for the albatross-lugging Carroll, it is now widely accepted that Liverpool had no part to play in his exorbitant fee, merely telling Chelsea that they would have to pay £15m more for Torres than the Geordies wanted for their big Number 9. However, while this arrangement may have balanced the books (Carroll + Suárez = Torres + Babel, give or take), it nevertheless provided ‘information’ about the club’s behaviour in the market and thus continues to have an economic ‘half-life,’ affecting their subsequent dealings. Indeed, there is a feeling Liverpool have paid over the odds for almost all their summer purchases (save Charlie Adam, maybe). Certainly, there is a disparity in the price of Downing when compared to his former Villa teammate, Ashley Young, fast becoming a key man for both club and country. 

It could well be that Liverpool’s stuttering displays are because Dalglish is set on mixing and matching his formations to suit the opponent. On the other hand, it could be that they are caught between styles of play, two in particular (perhaps at the same time): the first, wing-based, is an attempt to adopt a 4-4-1-1 that seeks to maximise the gifts of Carroll with service from the flanks (albeit, in the continued absence of Gerrard, with the hitherto ineffectual Henderson or the slow Kuyt on the right), with Suárez free to roam in the hole. The other is a Dalglishian twist on the 4-2-3-1 system beloved of Rafa, the twist being that the most advanced player, Suárez, has the licence to drop deep and the three could interchange when Liverpool were in possession. With Maxi, Kuyt and Meireles as the advanced midfield trident in the second of these formations, Liverpool finished last season in rampart form (barring the last two games, only one of which had anything at stake). It was the living, breathing embodiment of that Boot Room pass-and-move tradition in which Dalglish was steeped, and seemed to foreshadow how the team would play this season.

"You talkin' to me?"

But no – the midfield sophistication and guile of Raul Meireles, so crucial to the club’s recovery, has been jettisoned, ostensibly over a request for the relative pittance (particularly when you consider what is being spent on Joe Cole to play for Lille, and in the past on Babel, Voronin, et al) of an extra £30k per week, as had been promised him by Roy Hodgson. For many, he was the best midfielder on the staff – including Gerrard – but last year’s PFA Fans’ Player of the Year (yes, they knew) has now gone, walking straight into compatriot Andre Vilas-Boas’ first-choice midfield combination at Chelsea and taking with him 50 caps for Portugal and that Iberian gift for subtle positioning and rapid ball circulation, the sort that means a partially unlocked defence cannot recover through ponderous or careless touches (a trait much in evidence with Henderson, it has to be said). 

With a surplus of midfielders having been accumulated at Anfield, was this the wrong one to sacrifice? For all Adam and Lucas’s strengths, neither is especially adept at the short, quick passing game (although the Brazilian is improving all the time), while Gerrard is no midfield general. Indeed, his presence in that area of the field all too often confuses matters for those around him, people of more sober temperament and lesser physical gifts. Far better to have him purvey his unpredictable and slightly frenetic brand of making-things-happen in the final third. In this light, surely the Portuguese’s talents – especially his link-up play with Suárez – should have been the cornerstone of this campaign’s stratagem. 

Well, all this is now moot, and for many Liverpool supporters Meireles’ departure on the last day of the window remains the great mystery of the recent transfer activity. Have they broken that great truism of sports management: if it ain’t broke… Or are we jumping the gun? Is it blasphemy even to question Dalglish’s vision, given his reputation at the club and the outstanding job in stabilizing a very rocky boat in January? Only time will tell. 

Nevertheless, while Carroll, Gerrard, and Downing will hope next June finds them chasing glory between the Black and Baltic Seas, Liverpool need to ensure that they have late summer Champions League trips of their own on the horizon. In order to try and secure that, Fenway Sports Group probably need to go shopping once more next January, and there are unlikely to be many bargains to be had. 

Friday, 7 October 2011


[illustration by Si Mitchell]

In a recent survey conducted by CrazeeStats magazine, it was revealed that all but six of the greatest goalkeepers in history had surnames beginning with the letter Z (and one of the other six was Yashin). Why is this? Well, according to leading anthropologists – and corroborated by ancient documentary sources called “cassette tapes” – the phenomenon can be traced back to the school playground, once a site of plangent innocence rather than of behavioural hot-housing for future racketeers. Once upon a time, teams for the frenetic ten-minute games of schoolyard footy were selected alphabetically, A to Z, rather than on merit or preferentially. Each pick was able, in turn, to choose which position they were going to then occupy in the game. Invariably, goalkeeper was the last option, the positional wooden spoon, as it were… 

And thus came the Z-men:

First-choice Bulgarian ’keeper through the late 1990s and into the noughties, the shaven-headed Zdravkov once flickered on the radar of Arsenal yet failed in a trial to convince Arsène Wenger to part with his money (“too old,” the Professor Yafflish Alsatian is reputed to have told the thirteen-year-old). His club career began with Levski Sofia and thereafter alternated between his homeland and Turkey, while the high point of his 70 caps at international level was with the Stoichkov-led squad at Euro 1996 unlucky to exit at the group stages. His other two tournaments (1998 and 2004) were less successful, with only a single point accrued. After retirement in 2007, he went on the Bulgarian version of Survivor but was evacuated due to illness.

Legendary one-club ’keeper with Colombia’s Deportivo Cali, Zape won three Categoría Primera A titles with los azucareros (‘The Sugarmakers’) and came runner-up a further six times. In 1978 he helped them to their (and any Colombian club’s) first final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition, where, after a scoreless first leg in Cali against Boca Juniors, he shipped four at La Bombonera. At international level Zape won 47 caps for los cafeteros, forming part of the side that finished runners-up in the 1975 Copa América before hanging up his gloves in 1985.

The thirty-year-old Zhevnov, current captain of the Belarus national side, has recently moved to Russian powerhouse Zenit St Petersburg so as to further…sorry, to act as backup to Vyacheslav Malafeev. The golden moment of his career so far came last September, when Belarus stunned France in the Stade de France with an 86th-minute winner following several fine Zhevnov saves that had kept the game goalless.

Fulham’s fans have had to put up with some indignities in recent times – not least the statue of Michael Jackson that will be ripped down the moment Mohammad Al-Fayed sells the club (unless of course, much like another London-based institution that no-one really wants, it’s still “bringing in the tourists”) – but they always knew they were in safe hands, goalkeeper-wise, with Mark Schwarzer being backed up for three years by the Swiss, Zuhberbühler. That said, the number two would never actually make a first-team appearance for the Cottagers. However, before the cuckoo decision to wind down his career in the UK (all the while sending his salary back to an account in his homeland, no doubt), Zuhb’ had a distinguished career with Grasshoppers and FC Basel. On top of this he won 51 Swiss caps, turning out at both Euro 2004 and 2008 as well as the 2006 World Cup, during which he kept four clean sheets in four games only for Ukraine to eliminate Switzerland on penalties in the round of 16.

Rising from his local side via FC Vienna to Austria’s top club, Rapid Vienna, where he won eight league titles, Zeman was an integral part of his country’s wunderteam of the 1950s – truly the golden era of Central European football. Indeed, in neighbouring Switzerland in 1954 he helped achieve the country’s best ever World Cup finish, reaching the semi-final stages before being knocked out by a West Germany side that went on to upset the Mighty Magyars in the infamous ‘Battle of Berne’. Winning 41 Caps in total, Zeman is considered Austria’s second greatest ever ’keeper behind Rudi Hiden.

Voted the top African ’keeper of the twentieth century by the continent’s federation (CAF), Badou ‘Zaki’ Ezzaki was an iconic figure, skippering the Moroccan national side for eight years and Real Mallorca for three of his six seasons there, during which time he became the first man ever to save a Ronald Koeman penalty and was voted best ’keeper in La Liga for three years in succession. He remains idolised on Mallorca for his loyalty – refusing lucrative contracts when the islanders were relegated in 1988 – although his coach, Llorenç Serra Ferrer, defended his eventual mid-season exit in 1992 as the product of homesickness. He won the African Ballon d’Or in 1986 after Morocco’s excellent showing in the Mexico World Cup (they topped England’s group before exiting 1-0 to eventual runners-up West Germany), at which point he was undoubtedly among the world’s top shot-stoppers.

Furrowed of brow and increasingly tardy in his descent to the dirt, the lugubrious Zubi is nonetheless considered an all-time great in Spain, for whom he racked up the small matter of 126 caps during a career spent playing for three iconic clubs: the Basque-only Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona (jettisoned after the 4-0 humbling by Milan, at the end of the Dream Team years) and Valencia. Although once the world’s most expensive ’keeper, Barça’s new Director of Football is largely remembered here for his performance at the 1998 World Cup, for which he was contentiously picked over Real Madrid’s younger and sprightlier Santi Cañizares. Spain’s Basque manager, Javier Clemente, defended his selection by saying “You don’t invite people to dinner who you feel uncomfortable with. It’s as simple as that. Zubi’s my friend. End of story.” Such favouritism led to more than a touch of embarrassment after the opening defeat to Nigeria, skipper Zubi scoring an own goal then allowing a tiddler from Amokachi under his body in a 3-2 loss that precipitated their first-round exit.

Despite being voted World Goalkeeper of the Year for three years running (1989-1991) by the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians (IFFHS), Walter Zenga remained largely unfulfilled at club level, winning but a solitary scudetto despite his dozen years at Inter coinciding with the most open period in Serie A history (Napoli, Sampdoria and Verona all won their first titles during this era). Even so, L’Uomo Ragno (‘Spiderman’) won 58 caps for Italy, coming close to landing the World Cup on home soil in 1990. After briefly starring in an Italian soap opera, he finished his career in the USA (where he caused a stir by celebrating a goal by necking his girlfriend, almost conceding into an unguarded net from the resulting kick-off), before going into management at Eastern European powerhouses Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade.

I guess you know you’ve made it when the award for the best in your profession is named after you, as with Pulitzer, Nobel, and Novello. Such is the case with the ’keeper in Spain with the cleanest of sheets, presented with the Zamora Trophy in honour of the 60-cigarettes-a-day dandy with the turtle neck and flat cap widely known as El Divino. Sandwiching a spell at Barça during the early 1920s with stints at crosstown rivals Español, Zamora then moved at the end of his career to that paragon of anti-Catalanism, Real Madrid, pocketing a tidy 40k of the 150k-peseta transfer fee (his unhealthy concern with his finances once saw him banned for a year for tax avoidance). A colourful character, to say the least, although being given the medal of the Order of Republic in 1934 was no doubt a little too pinko for this nationalist and Españolista; indeed, at outbreak of civil war in 1936, he was arrested by Republican forces and detained in the notorious Modelo prison, where, according to Phil Ball, “instead of being executed, he was given a ball by the guards and taken out into the yard for a game, so that they could say they had played with the legendary ’keeper. Over several tension-filled days…Zamora kept his executors at bay with tales of his playing days and an endless series of penalty competitions.” Eventually, he was slipped out and driven over the border in disguise, his sheets no doubt soiled…

With a name like a Superman villain and a face exuding the Wanted! poster menace of an international super-criminal, Dino Zoff commanded respect wherever he went; with his gigantic farmer’s hands, he also commanded the penalty area wherever he went. One of the places he went was Spain, in 1982, for the World Cup, at the end of which, after epic matches with Brazil, Argentina, and West Germany, he lifted the trophy at 40 years young. Zoffy, as he would have been called in England, won 112 caps in total for the Azzurri as well as five Serie A titles while playing most of his career for Juve. Thereafter, he managed Lazio during the Gazza Years, before taking Italy to Euro 2000, where they lost to Trezeguet’s Golden Goal. In 2004, UEFA voted him Italy’s ‘Golden Player’ of the last 50 years, while the zedists at the IFFHS considered him only the third best ’keeper of the last century.

This article featured on Guardian Football's 'Things We Like This Week' List...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


It is, I am well aware, quite difficult to claim of someone capable of eating an apple through a tennis racket that he’s the very embodiment of The Beautiful Game, but such is the case with Ronaldinho Gaúcho, the footballer who – Bo Selecta!-faced or otherwise – has managed to combine (albeit briefly) outrageous Ipanema fantasia with ‘end product’ better than anyone in the modern era. And yes, I’m including Messi in this calculus, a player whose end product is prodigious, granted, but whose devastating, tic-like zip-zappings are now more or less, well, inevitable and thus, by definition, not particularly surprising or outrageous. Mind-blowing they may still be, but slow-release: a dispassionate, cerebral appreciation of the continued rarefied genius of the wee man, like playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 for the umpteenth time, as opposed to seeing The White Stripes live, unable to take your eyes off Jack as he prowls about the stage, a ball of pure potential, capable of anything. Where Messi is a fastball, Ronaldinho was a curveball (not really sure why I’m using a baseball analogy here, by the way, but the past tense is not an accident), like going to your girlfriend’s parents’ house and having not her Mum, but her Dad come on to you… If Messi is a couple of zesty caipirinhas, then Ronaldinho is a swig of mescaline. Three parts ERANU to one part UVAVU.

I know what you’re going to say now: “show me the evidence!” right? OK, if you insist, I shall. Of several possible examples, we could start with his famous ‘triple sombrero’ against a befuddled Athletic Bilbao – the equivalent of evading a pair of determined pick-pockets in a narrow alleyway while simultaneously playing keepy-uppy. Then there’s the pañolada (a handkerchief-waving tribute) he received from the Bernabéu galleries when substituted near the end of his one-man evisceration of Real in 2005 – akin to The Pope being made Chairman of Glasgow Rangers. Or take his stupendous 25-yard arrowed toe-punt in the quarter-final of the 2005 Champions League against Chelsea – we all know the Brazilians have a propensity to combine dancing with anything (whence capoeira), but the samba hips he used to mesmerise Carvalho prior to this strike was pure, unadulterated Brazilliance. It’s a goal I would wager almost no other player in history would have been capable of scoring, simply because it wouldn’t have even occurred to them, irrespective if they’d been able to pull it off. (Oh to have had a Paris Saint-Germain season ticket in 2001-02, when alongside him in a batshit midfield was the street football sorcery of Jay-Jay Okocha, not to mention the comparatively prosaic talent of a young, sensibly-coiffeured Mikel Arteta.)

If that’s not enough, there’s the fact that he perfected a supercharged version of what is undoubtedly the most difficult dribbling move yet conceived, the elástico, the one in which he rolls the ball anti-clockwise for a nanosecond with the outside of his right foot, moving it through about thirty degrees, feigning a-starboard, then, in the same motion and without his foot leaving the ball, flicks his foot round to the other side like a cobra, jinking off left and away. Not incidentally, a very common way of translating the phrase “he thrills me” into Spanish is “me da ilusión”: literally, he gives me illusion. And that’s the thing about La Liga-era Ronnie: he was an illusionist. Even when I saw the elástico for the first time and slowed the video down, the legerdemain (legerdepied?) still escaped me. How the…? Where…? Wha–? Shit. The. Bed.

Now, if you’re already chuntering into your beard of righteousness that fantasia and ilusión are “not what football is about,” then I truly pity you – for I’d go so far as to say you’re likely a joyless, puritanical curmudgeon and champion bonfire-pisser, the unwitting personification of an ascetic-capitalist worldview (one that’s simultaneously deliriously irrational and hyper-rational) in which everything is reduced to numbers, and thus somebody who libidinously computes their OPTA stats, working out performativity, efficiency, box-to-boxery, jiggery, pokery, and other supposedly quantifiable aspects of the game, too timorous to be swept away by the unfettered imagination into a terra incognita beyond measure. Well, hear this: until they can quantify the effect on results of Freaking The Absolute Bejesus Out Of The Opposition (in which Little Ronald excelled), you can shove your stats where the sun don’t shine. (No, not Manchester.)

Anyway, despite all the jazz, pizzazz, and razzamatazz of his back-to-back-FIFA-World-Player-of-the-Year-winning extended peak, Ronaldinho was far from a circus act – well, he was a circus act, but one who also happened to win games at the highest level. As I say, end product. Even had he not won matches, you’d still (to prove yourself sane) have to acknowledge him as a unique talent, an exemplar of what that most joyous of thinkers, Spinoza, considered the whole point of being human: increasing the capacity of what a body can do, augmenting its powers (potentia), and thus the affects it is capable of transmitting. Never seen the elástico before, have you? You didn’t think you’d see that on a football field, did you? Buzz, innit? Exactly. 

Yet for all the bewitching skill, this can be no crude hagiography. As students of Shakespearian (or indeed Greek) drama, not to mention the Coen brothers, know only too well, all heroes have their tragic flaws. Ronaldinho’s seems to have been that he was a fundamentally indolent and/or self-indulgent man. And much like that other inveterate idler, Jeffrey Lebowski (a.k.a. The Dude), on this score he was, at Barça under Rijkaard, the man for his time and place. He fit right in there… You see, laid-back Frank started to give him (or not punish him for taking) every other day off to attend salsa classes in an attempt to get in the boxes of foxes – much like most of the other unattached men in Western Europe, then – until such latitudinarianism and half-arsedness began to grate with the somewhat more intense Samuel Eto’o, whereupon he was duly packed off to Berlusconi’s vintage footballer Valhalla in Meeeeelan.

He was far from a spent force at this stage. Even so, it is undeniably a shame that Ronaldinho’s handlers failed to consult the controversial 1988 episode of Family Fortunes in which the 100 people surveyed were asked to “name something beginning with ‘F’ for which the Italians have shown an aptitude.” For, coming in above “football”, “fashion” and “fascism”, was “food” (the answer winning a weekend at a health spa, ironically), a fact that, combined with the obvious signs that their charge was something of an incipient epicurean, might have seen them search out a foodie backwater as a place of employment. Dagestan, maybe. Instead, Ronaldinho – evidently giving a better workout to his loyalty card at the gelateria once frequented by Ronaldo than he was to himself, his former thrust now confined to the bedroom and dancefloor – just Chris Waddled around for a while, contributing to the general air of superannuated decline at the rossoneri, before returning to Flamengo still a comparatively young man.

Recently recalled to Brazil’s colours, only time will tell whether the dying of the light will provoke some rage, some discipline, and an unlikely revival in the late autumn of his career. But even if it doesn’t, the frightening swerves from the buck-toothed boy who debuted for Luxemburgo have provided more than enough jogo bonito for one lifetime. How apt that the man who has given us these delights and highlights came from a city called Porto Alegre (‘Happy Harbour’).

Ronaldinho – they will one day recall – was so good he made you laugh.

* This is a slightly modified (i.e. error-free) version of the original article, which appeared first on The FCF. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


Over the coming months, I intend to post some of the highly amusing and sardonic football-related bits ’n’ bobs that have come gushing (or trickling) out of the barkingly unorthodox neuronal firing of the grey-area inhabiting Mr Jake Goretzki, cartoonist and general satirist extraordinaire. Here’s the first:

Like it? Well, more of Jake's work can be found here. Feel free to write him long emails explaining that there are not as many clubs as he thinks in the Lake District.