Rob Rensenbrink – Anderlecht’s ‘Snakeman’.

Pieter Robert Rensenbrink, forever known as Robbie Rensenbrink was born in Amsterdam in July 1947. Unlike many of the stars of the great Oranje teams of the 1970s born in the Dutch capital around that time however, he slipped through the Ajax recruiting net and began his career at another Amsterdam club, the then amateur set up at DWS. Despite outstanding success as his career developed after moving on from DWS, he would never return to play club football in his native country. If his international fame was garnered in an oranje shirt, the colour of his club success would be purple.

Although hardly the powerhouse that Ajax came to be, DWS were a more than decent club and had been Eredivisie champions in the 1963-64 season, finishing second and then fourth in the following terms. A teenage Rensenbrink joined in 1965 but, by that time, the club was in a steady decline and would hardly entertain aspirations of the title again. The club was a useful launch pad club for Rensenbrink, but hardly one that could contain the burgeoning talent of the forward. In his final season with the club, he netted 15 league goals in 34 games for a club destined to finish in mid-table. It was no mean feat. In 1969, a move across the border to Belgium and initially Club Brugge would see his abilities given full range.   

It should perhaps be considered less of a surprise that a left-sided player chose such a left-field move, when the conventional wisdom dictated that the inevitable move from DWS would be to either Ajax or Feyenoord – who were about to launch into a period of continental domination. Even deciding on a move to the Belgian league that, in the Netherlands at least, was considered as being inferior to the Eredivisie was strange enough, but choosing Cub Brugge , who hadn’t won a league title for almost half-a-century only added to the mystery. Rensenbrink was however, apparently sold on the club’s ambition, headed at the time by another Dutchman, Frans de Munck. For both club and player, the move would deliver success, albeit only briefly.

In his first season, Club Brugge finished second to Standard Liège, trailing the champions by a single point, and took a European spot after winning the Belgian Cup, trouncing Daring Club de Bruxelles 6-1 in the final. Success against Kickers Offenbach and FC Zürich took Club Brugge to the last eight of the Cup Winners Cup, where they fell to Chelsea, the eventual tournament winners. Back in domestic matters, another second place rubber-stamped the club’s progress and the gap to Standard Liège was now down to a single point, but it would be Rensenbrink’s last term in Bruges. The forward had averaged a goal every other game for the club and had become hot property.

By the end of the 1970-71 season, whilst Rensenbrink had been in Belgium, Dutch club football had ascended the heights of continental competition with first Feyenoord, and then Ajax lifting the European Cup. The latter would remain top of the European tree for three successive terms. It looked like time for Rensenbrink to end his Belgian sabbatical and return to the Netherlands, choosing between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, with a mix of the continent’s other major clubs also showing interest.

Rensenbrink however felt at home in Belgium and, instead, elected to move across the country to join Anderlecht. Across the following nine years, with Rensenbrink’s play driving them forwards, Anderlecht would collect a trove of domestic silverware, including two Belgian league titles, four Belgian Cups, and a brace of League Cups. In Europe, they would win the Cup Winners Cup in 1975-76, with Rensenbrink scoring twice in the final against West Ham United, and be losing finalists following year, before again lifting the trophy in 1977-78 defeating Austria Wien in the final with another brace from Rensenbrink in a 4-0 romp.

As well as netting his fair share of goals, Rensenbrink was also the consummate team player and formed an effective forward line with Belgium internationals Ludo Coeck, the legendary Paul van Himst and Hungary’s Attila Ladynski. The success was almost instantaneous with goals flowing. Rensenbrink’s first league season with the club brought 16 goals and the league championship returned to the Parc Astrid. Those goals proved to be all important as the title was determined on goal difference. Both Anderlecht and Rensenbrink’s former employers, Club Brugge finished the season on 45 points. Brugge’s defensive record was slightly the better, conceding 19 goals to Anderlecht’s 22, but the goals scored column comfortably eliminated that deficit, Rensenbrink’s haul significantly contributing to the club’s total of 67 strikes, ten clear of Club Brugge’s.

The club’s manager at the time was the German, Georg Keßler who, as coach of the Netherlands, had given Rensenbrink his first cap for the Oranje back in May 1968. It would be the overture to a glittering international career that saw Rensenbrink reach successive world Cup Finals in 1974 and 1978 and, in the latter, come within millimetres of delivering football’s Holy Grail to the Nethgerlands. Across the following years at Anderlecht, Rensenbrink would play under three more managers – Belgians Urbain Braems and Raymond Goethals plus, briefly, Dutchman Hans Croon. Each would enjoy success there, and each would have much to thank for the skills and contribution of Robbie Rensenbrink.

It wasn’t merely the Dutchman’s goals that made such a difference to the club’s fortunes however. Now comfortably into his twenties, his style had been established and his skills well-honed. Left-footed, he could both conjure a pass or deliver a powerful shot with minimum of apparent effort, often suggesting to some that his work-rate was sometimes below par when, in fact, it was merely another deceptive quality. His lythe running style was both distinctive and often beguiling to opposing defenders, who were often either deceived by his dribbling skills or the coruscating bursts of speed that left opponents trailing in his wake. These abilities conspired to earn him the nickname that would both stay with him throughout his career, and come to almost define an uncanny knack to wriggle out of seemingly impossible situations. Het Slangenmens (The Snakeman) would coolly slither free and deliver a devastating killer bite with either an assist or goal.  

Despite repeating his first season goal tally of 16, the 1972-73 season term saw Anderlecht slip from their top position to a lowly sixth place, as Club Brugge gained a measure of revenge, for their near miss the previous term, lifting the title. The following three seasons though would see Rensenbrink soar, scoring 20, 19 and then 23 in domestic competition, and adding valuable strikes in Europe as well. In 1973-74, with their Dutch star forward netting those 20 goals, Anderlecht regained the title under Urbain Braems, scoring a mightily impressive 72 goals across the 30-game league programme.  They also added a Belgian League Cup triumph to underscore their status and Belgium’s top club. The following term, with Braems still at the helm despite losing the title to surprise champions R.W.D. Molenbeek as the league was restructured to accommodate 20, rather than the previous 16, clubs some compensation was garnered by defeating Royal Antwerp to again win the Belgian Cup.

By this stage, Rensenbrink had been joined at the club by Arie Haan. The pair had played together in the 1974 World Cup Final, and would do so again in 1978. As the great Ajax team was disintegrating after Ștefan Kovács left to take charge of the France national team, many of their stars were drifting away, and Haan had decided to join Rensenbrink in Brussels. He would add another dimension to the club, delivering even more success – as would the arrival of another Dutchman – when Hans Croon took charge for a single season, succeeding Braems. It was a time that could have also seen Rensenbrink leave Brussels.

During the 1974 World Cup Finals in Germany, Johan Neeskens had agreed a deal to join Barcelona, and reunite with Cruyff and Rinus Michels in Catalunya. Ajax decided that the man they wanted to replace Neeskens was Rensenbrink. With the money received from Barcelona, they considered themselves to have a strong bargaining hand. Anderlecht, however, declined the cash offered, and suggested to the Amsterdam club that the only deal they’d consider was if Johnny Rep was involved as part of the fee for Rensenbrink. Ajax decided against pursuing the transfer on such terms and Rensenbrink stayed in Brussels. The success enjoyed by the club over the next few seasons suggested that the Belgian club had been wise to hold onto their star player. 

The domestic cup success had granted Anderlecht another entry into the Cup Winners Cup competition and, this time, they would take full advantage, with Rensenbrink being a key element in the success, scoring eight goals in the nine tournament games. A first round tie against Rapid București threatened an early exit after a 1-0 defeat in Romania. Back in Brussels though, inevitably, it was Rensenbrink scoring the winning goal, netting a penalty five minutes into the second period after Gilbert van Binst had levelled the aggregate scores.  A comfortable 3-0 home leg win over FK Borac Banja Luka in the next round saw Rensenbrink open and close the scoring, with a goal from Ludo Coeck sandwiched in between. It rendered the second leg almost meaningless and a 1-0 defeat for Anderlecht was only of interest to statisticians. 

In the last eight, Anderlecht were paired with Wrexham for, what looked on paper at least, a fairly comfortable passage into the last four. As things turned out though, the encounter was anything but comfortable. After the first leg in Brussels, Anderlecht only held a slim single goal lead, thanks to another strike by Van Binst. The visit to north Wales would be a test, especially as, going into the game, Anderlecht had gone four successive away games without a goal. The game was tight and, after a goalless first period with the welsh team holding their own, the second half would bring goals. On the hour mark, Stuart Lee squared the aggregate scores and the momentum now clearly lay with the Welsh club, as they pressed for the decisive strike. Anderlecht rallied however and with 15 minutes to play there had been no further score. At such times, teams look to their star players to step up, and Rensenbrink delivered, netting a killer ‘away goal’. Anderlecht were in the last four.

The semi-final pitted them against East German club Sachsenring Zwickau. Ties one step away from a major European final can often be close affairs, but this wasn’t one of them. A brace by Van der Elst and, somewhat inevitably, a goal by Rensenbrink gave Anderlecht a 0-3 away win and the opportunity to coast to the final in the return in Brussels. Another goal each for Rensenbrink and Van der Elst eased the club over the line and into a final where they would face West Ham United also in Brussels at the Heysel Stadium.

Once more it was the twin threats of Van der Elst and Rensenbrink that carried the day. After Pat Holland had put the Hammers ahead, both Anderlecht players scored to turn the game around. Keith Robson squared things up with 20 minutes to play, but both Van der Elst and Rensenbrink added further goals to deliver the Belgian club’s first European trophy. Rensenbrink netted from the penalty spot, and with time slipping away, it was the Dutchman, delivering a Man of the Match performance, who set up the clinching goal for Van der Elst. Rensenbrink’s eight goals in just nine games had powered Anderlecht to triumph. Just over a month later, the club returned to the Heysel and defeated Lierse SK 4-0 to retain the Belgian Cup, with Rensenbrink scoring once more.

Despite the success he enjoyed in Brussels, Croon left Anderlecht at the end of the season, returning to his native Netherlands and taking over NEC. The vacant manager’s chair was filled by the legendary figure of Raymond Goethals, who continued the trend of success, with Rensenbrink rapidly becoming the club’s talismanic striker. The following season, despite a strong attempt to retain their European title, Anderlecht fell at the last hurdle, losing to Hamburger SV in the final. Rensenbrink’s still notched seven goals in his nine games in the tournament, but further continental success would have to wait. There was also frustration in the club’s league campaign, as Anderlecht finished as runners-up to Club Brugge.

The club was going through a period of change at the time, as Goethals adjusted the squad to his liking, and they were again frustrated in the league, once again losing out to Rensenbrink’s former employers, Club Brugge; this time by a single point. Whatever changed around him though, Robbie Rensenbrink remained as a constant and, in the 1977-78 season, the club prospered anew, winning their second Cup Winners Cup trophy in three years. As in the final to years earlier, Rensenbrink was vital to the club’s success. In total, he scored five goals in the Anderlecht’s run to triumph, with two of those saved for the final, and the crushing 4-0 defeat of Austria Wien.

Although, it’s tempting to reduce Rensenbrink’s contribution to Anderlecht’s success in reaching three successive Cup Winners Cup Finals merely to the goals he scored, that would be to deny the consistently unassuming nature of his commitment to the team’s success, and the fruitful partnerships he formed with other players, particularly of late with Van der Elst. The Dutchman’s name however, is forever written into the annals of the tournament as its record goalscorer. His 25 strikes in 36 games surpassed that of Gerd Müller and Gianluca Vialli and, as the Cup Winners Cup is now assigned to the annals of history, it’s a record that will stand for all time.

The following season, Anderlecht finished as runners-up in the Belgian league once more, this time losing out to Beveren. It would be the first season Rensenbrink had played in the Belgian capital without winning either a domestic or continental trophy. It also saw his lowest scoring return since joining the club, recording just a dozen goals in 31 league outings. It seemed that the conclusion of his time in Brussels was approaching. The end was confirmed at the end of the 1979-80 season. Now 33 years old and having scored just three goals, with Anderlecht finishing in a lowly fifth position in the league, changes were afoot.

Goethals left, and was replaced by Yugoslav manager Tomislav Ivić. In his first erm with the club, he would deliver Anderlecht their first league title since 1974, but Rensenbrink wouldn’t be part of the celebrating players. In the summer of 1980, he moved to the USA, following on the footsteps of Cruyff, Neeskens and a few other former Oranje team-mates, joining the Portland Timbers. It would be a brief tenure in the Oregon city though. In 1981, the ambitious second tier French club Toulouse persuaded Rensenbrink to return to Europe and assist in the club’s renaissance. Again, it was a short stay, but the move did have the happy ending of Rensenbrink’s 12 game stint with the club delivering promotion, before he decided on retirement. The stature of his career in both domestic football with Anderlecht and on the international stage with the Netherlands was assured, but could so easily have been massively enhanced.

Less than a month after defeating Austria Wien in the 1977-78 Cup Winners Cup Final, Rensenbrink would be in Argentina with the Oranje in pursuit of the Dutch World Cup dream. He would score four times in the initial group stage, and once more in the second group that delivered the Netherlands to their second successive World Cup Final. After Dirk Nanniga had equalised Mario Kempes’ opening goal for the hosts, with the last seconds of the game draining away, a long free-kick from Krol found Rensenbrink closing in from the left flank to collect the ball with just goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol to beat, but at an acute angle. Prodding the ball past the beaten goalkeeper, the world held its breath as the ball bounced towards the unguarded net. Robbie Rensenbrink was about to become immortalised in the annals of Dutch football, and etched into the records of the world’s greatest football tournament. Streets in his native Amsterdam would be named after him, children born at that time would bear his name and his fame would surely eclipse even that of Johan Cruyff. A second or so later though, the ball seemed to drift off course. It struck the post and was hacked clear. Those street names remained the same, young boys were named Johan, and Cruyff was still the Dutch icon; Robbie Rensenbrink merely a member of the supporting cast. 

Perhaps that was true for the Oranje, but for the purple shirts of Anderlecht, the respect and appreciation ran so much deeper. More than 200 goals in his term with the club speaks loudly enough, but coupled with the fact that Anderlecht not only achieved their first European triumph, but reached three consecutive Cup Winners Cup Finals, while he was wearing the purple shirt, only adds to the lustre of his reputation. In 2008, Robbie Rensenbrink was voted Anderlecht’s greatest ever foreign player. It was a well-deserved accolade, and one that reflects the legendary regard for a player who turned down opportunities to star in his own country to become a hero in purple.    

(This article was originally produced for These Football Times’ “Anderlecht! magazine).

Amarildo Tavares da Silveira – The man who replaced Pelé, and no one noticed.

In 1962, The World Cup jamboree travelled to Chile on the west coast of South America, that narrow strip of a country squashed between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Four years earlier, in Sweden, a teenage Pelé had introduced himself to the world and, along with his team-mates, had taken Brazil to the world title – the first team ever to win it playing outside of their own hemisphere. Now back in South America, the boys from Brazil, were the hottest of favourites to retain their title, and with Pelé now four years older, few doubted who the star of the show would be. The Seleção would indeed triumph, but after the glittering entry onto the international stage in 1958, in Chile, Pelé’s role would be little more than a cameo, offering a different, unheralded, player the opportunity to take on a starring role.

Pelé’s went into the tournament carrying a groin injury, but starting the tournament without their star player was simply unimaginable and, on 30 May, a little under 13,000 people at the Estadio Sausalito, Viña del Mar saw coach Aymoré Moreira send out his team to begin the defence of the World Cup, as the holders faced Mexico. Moreira, was the brother of Zezé Moreira, who had coached Brazil at the 1954 World Cup, where Brazil were beaten 4-2 in the infamous ‘Battle of Bern’ after topping their group. Aymoré Moreira had one big advantage over his sibling though. He had Pelé – at least for a while. Alongside Pelé in the forward line were more heroes from four years earlier, Garrincha, Didi, Vavá and Mario Zagallo. El Tri were hardly on a run of outstanding form, but in the first half, their defensive doggedness kept the Brazilians at bay. Coach Igancio Trelles was well aware that once the holders took the lead, there would be precious little chance for his team to regain a foothold in the game.

When the half-time break came and went without their defence being breached the Mexicans gained in confidence as frustration grew among the Brazil players. At such times, a team needs its stars to open the seemingly locked door. Fortunately, ten minutes after the restart, Pelé illustrated that he had the key. Driving forward into the right-hand side of the Mexico penalty area, he skipped past one challenge, and then another before being bundled out of possession. The ball broke back to a Brazilian though, who immediately fed the ball back to the young star. Evading one more rash challenge, he looked up to see Zagallo running in from the opposite flank. A neatly clipped cross found the Botafogo winger, who threw himself forward into a diving header to fire the ball past Antonio Carbajal in the Mexico goal, and Brazil had the lead.

If the world had required evidence of, not only Pelé’s impudent skills, but also his seemingly indispensable value to the Brazilian team, it came with 17 minutes left to play, cutting in from the right, he outpaced one opponent, ran round a second and skipped past a third, despite a clumsy attempt to bring him down. Regaining balance, he then dribbled past a fourth Mexican before driving home left-footed. It was a strike of rare genius and locked out the game. To many, it seemed likely that, with Pelé’s exuberance at their disposal, Brazil were well on course to retain the Jules Rimet trophy. Far fewer were aware at the time though that the effort of shooting whilst falling had further damaged that groin injury. There would be a price to pay later.

Three days later at the same stadium, Moreira sent out an unchanged team to face Czechoslovakia. The Czechs had triumphed in their first game during a tight encounter against Spain. The winning goal coming late from Jozef Štibrányi. Avoiding defeat against the holders would give them a great opportunity to progress to the quarter-finals, and coach Rudolf Vytlacil et up his side to frustrate in the manner that Mexico had achieved until undone by Pelé. As things transpired though, their effort would be more successful. Brazil had dominated the early period of the game in terms of possession, but the Czechs were understandably unadventurous, concentrating on keeping a firm defensive block in place. As in the earlier game, it felt like a stroke of Brazilian genius would be required to prise their opponents open. This time however, Pelé wouldn’t have the answer.

The key incident in the game happened on 25 minutes. Garrincha had already struck a post amongst a flurry of efforts on the Czech goal from distance, heroically denied by goalkeeper Viliam Schrojf. Then came Pelé’s effort. Firing from outside the box, the ball was deflected by Schrojf and struck the upright and bounced clear. As it did so, Pelé immediately turned towards the Brazil bench with an arm raised, clearly in pain. He hobbled away, holding the top of his left thigh.

There was little chance that any rudimentary medical treatment would remedy the injury and, to all intents and purposes, Pelé’s World Cup was over there and then, just a quarter of the way into the second group game. Substitutions were still a thing of the future, and the player seemingly destined to star in the tournament was shuffled out to the left wing to hobble pointlessly up and down the flank, more as a spectator of the game than a participant in it. Bereft of their most influential player, and reduced to ten men, Brazil were reduced to the realms of mere mortals, and the game petered out into a goalless draw. It was an ideal result for Czechoslovakia and, as things later transpired was sufficient to see them through to the quarter-finals. For Brazil, the draw was far less important than the fate of Pelé, when it quickly became clear that their assumedly serene passage to retaining the trophy was now in immediate peril.

The following day, Spain defeated Mexico thanks to a last-minute goal from Atlético Madrid midfielder, Joaquín Peiró. It meant that, if Brazil could then defeat the Spaniards three days later, it would assure both the holders and Czechoslovakia of progress to the last eight. Without the services of Pelé however, that would be a far less easy task than may otherwise have been the case. Brazil needed someone to come in and replace their star player, preferably without the team’s play missing a beat.

Amarildo Tavares da Silveira, simply known as Amarildo, was a team-mate of Zagallo’s at Botafogo, after starting his career with Flamengo. Botafogo were back-to-back Rio State Champions in 1961 and 1962, and this success earned Amarildo a place in the Brazilian squad to defend the World Cup in Chile in 1962, after making his debut for the Seleção just the previous year. It was to the 22-year-old, less than a fortnight shy of his 23rd birthday, that Moreira would turn. It’s doubtful that the instruction would have been along the lines of “Go out there, replace Pelé, and don’t let anyone notice the difference,” but in reality, that was the task in front of him. It was the only change in the team that faced Helenio Herrera’s Spain, including the likes of Ferenc Puskás and Francisco Gento on 6 June.  Amarildo was keenly aware of the burden of responsibility he was being asked to bear. “Pelé was considered irreplaceable … so I was the replacement for the irreplaceable.” It was a huge ask for a 22-year-old. “For me the responsibility was enormous,” he later recalled. “Pelé was always a star and I was called in to replace him in the game against Spain. It was mata-mata (do or die).”

In all likelihood, Spain needed a victory to qualify, and the canny Herrera tweaked his line-up that had struggled so far. Out went Luis Del Sol, José Santamaría and Luis Suárez, replaced in a team that focused on pacey attacks and mobility to unsettle a Brazilian back line that had hardly been tested as yet in any meaningful way. In this game that would change. In the first period Spain had the advantage. Although many attacks petered out on the edge of the Brazil box, the Europeans looked the more dangerous. It was there of little surprise when one of their efforts from range found the back of the net. Adelardo driving home from just outside of the box, ten minutes ahead of the break. A neat exchange of passes created the gap and Gilmar was beaten beyond his right hand as the ball found the corner.

The second period started in much the same pattern, with Spain pushing forwards. Another goal may now settle the issue. It nearly came from a free-kick to the right of the Brazil penalty area when a run forward by Spanish skipper Enrique Collar was unceremoniously baulked. The offence may even have been just inside the area, but Chilean referee Sergio Bustamante took the easy option and placed the ball just outside. Puskás floated over the free-kick. A weak defensive header fell to Joaquin Peiro, and his bicycle kick deceived Gilmar. Inexplicably, however, Chilean referee Sergio Bustamente appeared had spotted a supposed offside infringement, and the goal was scrubbed off. Watching the video, it’s difficult to discern the offence, but Brazil had escaped, and were in need of a hero. He would arrive in the shape of the player who had stepped into Pelé’s boots.

Cutting in from the left, Zagallo arrowed a low cross towards the near-post, meeting up perfectly with his fellow Botafogo player’s run and Amarildo struck an unstoppable first-time effort past Gilmar. Somewhat against the run of play, Brazil were level, but there was more to come from the unexpected hero. The game was now fairly even, with both teams aware that a goal for either would probably see them qualify, while conceding would make progress very unlikely. With ten minutes to both teams seemed to run out of ideas, pressing with vigour, but without much penetration. The winning goal was, however, imminent.

With eight minutes left, Garrincha teased and taunted two defenders on the right flank before reaching the dead ball line and floating a cross towards the back post. Rising to head home the winner was Amarildo. Just as Pelé had answered his team’s call against Mexico, the player chosen to replace him had done the same in this game. From being a goal down, Brazil had come back to win 2-1. They were through to the quarter-finals and the defeat of Spain had dragged Czechoslovakia over the line with them. “My history changed that day,” said Amarildo.

The last eight game pitched Brazil against England, and while Amarildo, of course, retained his place in the team, this match would very much be remembered for the performance of Garrincha. The bowlegged winger gave a warning of what would follow, when an early foray saw him beat three English defenders before a last desperate challenge by Johnny Haynes halted his progress. England wouldn’t be as fortunate on his next attempt. With 30 minutes gone, it was the head, rather than the dazzling, beguiling feet, of Garrincha that opened the scoring, nodding in from a Zagallo corner. Before the break though, England were level when Gerry Hitchens pounced on a chance after a header from Jimmy Greaves had hit the crossbar. 

The equality didn’t last long. Six minutes after the restart it was another header, this time from Vavá that restored the Brazilian lead, and not long after a ferocious curling shot by Garrincha closed out the game to put Brazil into the semi-finals, where they would meet the hosts. Amarildo didn’t score in the game, but his busy presence was a constant threat, as it would be in the next game. This was Garrincha’s star performance and a supporting role from the Botafogo forward was all that was required.

The crowds at the Estadio Sausalito in Viña del Mar had climbed steadily as Brazil progressed, and by the time they defeated England, had reached the heady figure nearly 18,000. For the semi-final, against the hosts, taking place at Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, that figure would increase four-fold, making it the highest attendance for any match in the tournament – including the final.

The vast majority of the support was for the home team of course, but passion and desire can only take you so far. Chile had finished as runners-up in their group. Victories over Austria and Italy – the latter during the infamous Battle of Santiago – meant that the final game, against West Germany, who had enjoyed similar successes, was to decide who would claim top spot. A 2-0 victory to the Europeans settled the issue, and the hosts were compelled to face the Soviet Union who had topped their group, remaining undefeated. First-half goals from Leonel Sánchez and Eladio Rojas however, bracketed a single strike from Igor Chislenko, and took Chile into the last four. It was the minimum requirement for a host country, but their next task would prove to be beyond them, despite a number of ‘interesting’ decisions by Peruvian referee Arturo Yamazaki.

In such games, the first goal becomes even more important than usual. If the underdog, albeit the home team, goes ahead, belief grows into convincing proportions. If the first strike goes the other was though, there’s an inevitable feeling of harsh reality dawning. Chile nearly achieved that first goal when Rojas struck the post with Gilmar beaten. It would be a false dawn. With six minutes on the clock it was Garrincha opening the scoring for Brazil. The holders had already had, what appeared to be, a clear penalty denied by the eccentric Yamazaki, and a goal wiped out for offside. This time though there would be no reprieve. A cross from the left evaded all touches and ran through to Garrincha who cut inside before firing a ferocious shot into the top left-hand corner of Escuti’s net. The diving attempt to save was little more than a gesture.

Brazil were now in comfortable command and just past the half-hour mark, it was Garrincha scoring again, to double the lead, running in to head home from Zagallo’s left wing corner. Downcast Chilean heads suggested that the players knew the game was inexorably slipping away from them, but two minutes ahead of the break, skipper Jorge Toro offered up some hope with a wonderfully struck free-kick that had Gilmar clutching at fresh air as it fizzed past him and into the net. After the half-time break, again, the first goal would be surely crucial, and Brazil didn’t have long to wait.

Two minutes in, and another corner did for the hosts. This time it was Vavá heading home, although Escuti’s elaborate dive to try and stop the effort may well have merely diverted the ball away from a defender standing on the line, and into the net. The Chileans were nothing if not dogged however, and when a handball from Zózimo was penalised, Leonel Sánchez drove the penalty left-footed into Gilmar’s left corner with the goalkeeper rooted to his line. Each time Brazil had extended their lead to two goals, Chile had dragged the deficit back to a single strike, but how many more times could they go to the well before the bucket came up empty? The question would be posed when Vavá notched his second headed goal of the game, with Amarildo waiting behind him, had he fluffed his lines.

With just a dozen minutes left, Chile became increasing desperate in their efforts to retrieve the game and organisation descended into ill-discipline.  Two minutes after falling 4-2 behind, Honorino Landa was dismissed for a foul on Zito, and then, to even things up, Garrincha followed him three minutes later after lashing put at Rojas. As he left the field, the winger was struck by an object thrown from the crowd. Any pain was mitigated by the fact that, despite the dismissal, Garrincha would be allowed to contest the World Cup Final, against Czechoslovakia four days later, back at the same stadium after Chile had beaten Yugoslavia with a last minute strike by Rojas to claim the bronze medals.

After finishing second in their group, the Czechs had faced two other East European teams, overcoming Hungary by a single goal in the quarter-finals, before defeating Yugoslavia to earn the right to play in the final. So far, they had been the only team to prevent Brazil from scoring in the tournament, with much of their progress being down to a stingy defence and the extravagant goalkeeping skills of Schrojf who, ahead of the game, would be presented with the award for being the tournament’s outstanding goalkeeper. It was a moment dripping with irony as, soon into the game, it would be a catastrophic error by the previously excellent Schrojf that punctured Czech dreams.

As was the case four years earlier, Brazil experienced an early shock when they fell behind to a goal from the outstanding Czech player, and later Ballon d’Or winner, Josef Masopust. With just 15 minutes played, the Dukla Prague midfielder’s intelligent run from deep, matched up with a slicing pass from Tomáš Pospíchal. First to the ball before Zózimo could get a challenge in, Masopust drove the ball under the diving Gilmar, and Czechoslovakia were ahead. In the past, the Seleção had been able to call on the Mercurial skills of Pelé when falling behind, but for this game, the great man was merely a spectator and it would be his understudy who delivered instead. In the group game, the Czech defence had been organised, determined and resolutely unfazed by Brazil’s attacks, both before and after Pelé’s injury. If they could do so again, they could claim football’s top prize. The dream however was to last a mere 100 seconds.

Amarildo later recalled how the astute observations of Brazilian physio Paolo Amaral deserved an assist for the equaliser. “After the group stages had finished in Viña del Mar, we had gone to watch the Czechoslovakia game against Mexico. Their goalkeeper Schrojf – every time the Mexican wingers came down the wing to cross, he always came off his line to intercept the ball. He did this four or five times. Amaral said ‘Look, Amarildo, the keeper always comes out before they cross the ball.’ It didn’t seem like a big thing at the time, but I must have made a mental note of it.”

A throw-in on the left flank found Amarildo, and the man who had only ever expected to be a back up player at the tournament entered central stage in football’s biggest game. Controlling, he quickly turned to scamper away from Andrej Kvašňák, and then shimmied past Svatopluk Pluskal. In the Czech goal, seeing that the forward was now only a metre or so from the goal-line, Schrojf was already moving away from his near post, anticipating a cross from Amarildo. Noticing the inviting gap presented however, Amarildo remembered his conversation with Amaral. Instead, he decided to channel his inner- Pelé and take on the improbable shot. Caught out by the audacity, Schrojf could only stumble back towards the post he had relinquished as the ball arrowed past him and into the net. As Czech hands fell no top of heads in despair, the young forward was mobbed by team-mates. “Normally when I’d score, I’d jump in the air, but I didn’t get a chance. It felt like the whole team, including Amaral were on top of me.”  Although the game was now only level, the general feeling was that now that Brazil had breached the Czech dam, more chances would surely follow. They did, but without being converted.

After the break, the Czechs assumed a more front foot approach and were arguably unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when a clear handball by Djalma Santos went unpunished by Soviet Union referee, Nikolay Latyshev. It was a fleeting moment that, when passed, would carry a cost. In the 69th minute, the killer blow fell. With the Czechs now tiring, it was Amarildo creating the goal, neatly tricking a defender, before checking back to float a perfect cross for Zito to head home at the far post. The victory was confirmed ten minutes later as another error by Schrojf put the result beyond any Czechoslovakian aspirations. A high looping cross into the box from Djalma Santos appeared to be an easy catch for the goalkeeper but, perhaps bothered by the low rays of the setting sun, Schrojf lost the flight of the ball, fumbling the catch, and Vavá accepted the tap in with elation.

As so many had forecast, Brazil retained their title. For all but around 115 minutes of action however, they had done so without the services of Pelé. Others had stepped forward to fill the void. Garrincha had been unplayable at times, and shared the Golden Boot award as the tournament’s top scorer with Vavá. For many though, it was the unknown forward, thrust onto centre stage that had done most to prevent the loss of the team’s shining light from condemning them to darkness. As the medals were awarded, Pelé shed tears of joy for the success, and Amarildo beamed with satisfaction. A player unknown outside of his own country had stepped into the great man’s shoes, and delivered.

After his success, Amarildo would be rewarded with a move to Serie A, joining the Rossoneri of AC Milan, where he would play for five years, scoring 32 goals in a shade more than a century of league games pitted against the most obdurate defences in the world of football at the time. He would then move on to Fiorentina, winning the 1969 Scudetto with I Viola, before returning to Brazil in 1974 with Vasco da Gama. Captain of the great Brazilian side of 1970, Carlos Alberto Torres has little doubt about the scale of Amarildo’s achievements in Chile. “In the 1962 World Cup, we lost Pele,” he said, before adding that, “The team then released Amarildo on the world, a player who even today is remembered very fondly, and who helped Brazil win their second World Cup.”

(This article was original produced for the ‘Footy Analyst’ website).

Bobby Robson and the almost perfect season at Barcelona.

In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call the president of FC Barcelona. Ostensibly it was to discuss a potential transfer target from the Portuguese club, but the conversation moved on to another target that the Catalans had focused on.

At the time, the Blaugrana were a club in turmoil. A messy divorce from Johan Cruyff had left the club rudderless. The board had decided on Louis van Gaal as the man they wanted to put all the pieces back together again. At the time however, the coach was contracted to Ajax, and wouldn’t be available for another twelve months. Barcelona, a ship perilously holed and taking in water needed an experienced hand at the tiller to guide the club into safer and calmer waters before handing over to Van Gaal. They had settled on Robson as the ideal candidate. As things transpired though, the Englishman would deliver a season that bordered on being the very best in the club’s history, and convinced them to maintain his services, even after Van Gaal’s appointment, as a lifebelt that the club could use if the Dutch coach came up short.

Robson was content at Porto and, with the club’s future looking bright, there were very few jobs that could tempt him away. One would be a return to his beloved north-east and Newcastle United. That chance would arrive later. The other was to take charge of one of the continent’s iconic clubs, FC Barcelona. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities that he simply could not ignore. He would also take José Mourinho with him.

Many coaches, even the most experienced, would have blanched had been offered such a poisoned chalice to quench their ambitious thirst. Cruyff had achieved legendary status at the Camp Nou and was worshipped by the Cules, delivering four La Liga titles, three Supercopa de España successes, and a Copa del Rey, domestically. In Europe, he had added a Cup Winners Cup and led the club to achieve their Holy Grail of a European Cup win as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup. It was the hardest of acts to follow.

Robson had no doubts however and, in his first press conference was in no mood to apologise for sitting in the seat previously occupied by the Dutchman. In firm tones, he insisted that there would be no shadow of Cruyff haunting his time as coach. ‘I am not afraid to follow him,’ he confirmed. ‘When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.’ It was typical Robson, calm, honest and reassuring, but sustained by the confident belief that he would deliver.

Cruyff’s final season had been a disappointment, and one that convinced the Dutchman that the time to leave had arrived. Rows with the club’s hierarchy may have been the trigger causing the split, but the deterioration of the teams’ performances were a strong underlying cause. Third place in the league, seven points adrift of champions Atlético Madrid was hugely disappointing, although it did offer a place in the upcoming season’s Cup Winners Cup competition, an opening that Robson would seize upon. It had followed a season where second place to Real Madrid had felt so much worse. Barcelona had also fared poorly in cup competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey to Radomir Antić’s Atléti as Los Colchoneros completed the domestic double, and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The club’s squad was packed with talented players but needed a renaissance. Robson would deliver that, and bring in a player who would achieve a God-like adoration at the club.

Despite only being seen as a stop-gap appointment, Robson was not shy in venturing his opinion when the president asked about how the squad could be improved. ‘The President said to me “we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ He was, but it was a risk worth taking. Barcelona sent $19.5million to PSV Eindhoven and, in return, received the services of the player who earned the nickname of “El Fenomeno” – Ronaldo.  Eight months, and 47 goals in 49 games later, when Van Gaal took over from Robson, the Brazilian would also move on, joining Inter Milan. The fee of $27million also delivered a handsome profit on the club’s investment.

With the services of the Brazilian prodigy added to the Blaugrana squad, Robson got to work rebuilding the belief in the squad he inherited that had fallen short across the previous two seasons. Early evidence of the transformative effect of Robson was illustrated in August of the same year when his team hammered the previous season’s double winners 5-2 in the first leg of the Supercopa de España with the goals coming from Giovani, Pizzi, plus El Pequeño Buda, Iván de la Peña and, inevitably setting the tone for the coming season, a brace from Ronaldo. Atléti would fightback in the home leg, but their 3-1 victory was short of hauling back the deficit and Robson had his first trophy.

Cruyff had bequeathed Robson a European qualification and, in September, Barcelona set off in pursuit of the Cup Winners Cup. A hesitant opening encounter with AEK Larnaca was safely, if less than wildly convincingly, passed thanks to another two goals from Ronaldo. It took the Catalans into a meeting with Red Stat Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 4-2 home win followed by a goalless draw in Belgrade was encouraging, sending the club into the last eight and a tie with Swedish club AIK.

The home leg came first and, when the visitors took an early lead inside two minutes, a test was looming for Robson’s charges. With assured serenity however, they struck back through Popescu to equalise and further strikes by Ronaldo and Pizzi meant that the goalless draw achieved in Stockholm was more than enough for a place in the semi-finals.

Alongside Barcelona, Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain made up the final four. Robson’s team were paired with the Italians, the first leg again being played at the Camp Nou. This was a much sterner test, and despite Nadal giving the Blaugrana the lead, a goal from Batistuta squared things up and gave I Viola the advantage heading to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the return leg. To turn matters in Barcelona’s favour, facing such an uphill struggle, would require a coaching and tactical masterclass. Robson delivered one.

On 24 April, the Blaugrana produced the perfect disciplined performance to return with a 0-2 victory and progress to the final in in Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadion against PSG who had defeated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate. As so often is the case in showpiece finals, the game itself failed to live up to the billing, but a penalty from Ronaldo was sufficient to take the trophy to Catalunya. Robson had two trophies out of two. After the fallow period of the last days of Cruyff’s tenure, Robson had turned Barcelona back into a strutting powerhouse of a team hungry for trophies.  

At the same time, as well as improving their league performances, things were developing nicely in the Copa del Rey. A round of Sixteen encounter had brought the club an extra El Clásico meeting with Real Madrid. The ties are played over two legs and the first game, at the Camp Nou promised success when Ronaldo gave the Blaugrana the lead. Goals by Šuker and Hierro though put a different complexion on the game before Nadal and Giovanni gave Robson’s team a fig leaf of cover to take to the Spanish capital for the return leg. It demanded another ‘Fiorentina’ performance and Robson’s team delivered with a 1-1 draw.

The next round saw a titanic battle with cup holders and reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. A 2-2 draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderón appeared to give the Barcelona the edge, but the return game would go down in history as a goal glut decided the tie. With 30 minutes on the clock, the Camp Nou was subdued into stunned silence as a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić had Atléti three goals clear and apparently coasting to victory, but Robson had drilled his team well and given them an almost unshakeable belief in themselves. At the break he delivered his words of wisdom and the team responded with vigour. Five minutes before half-time, Robson had made his intentions clear. Laurent Blanc and Popescu were taken off with forwards Pizzi and Stoickov replacing them. The response was immediate.

Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored and then repeated the feat three minutes later. Inside the opening five minutes of the second period, a declaration of intent had been made. Atléti were hardly happy to roll over though and, a minute after the Brazilin had cut the gap to a single goal, Pantić hit his fourth of the night to double it again. Figo struck back on 67 minutes, and the Catalan cauldron of a stadium was at fever pitch with 20 minutes to play, as Ronaldo squared things on the night. In a basketball -like game inside the final ten minutes it was Pizzi who notched the winner. As well as his team being able to deliver disciplined away performances, Robson had shown that they could also indulge in a slug-fest with the best that Spain had to offer and still prevail.

Having defeated the previous two seasons’ champions, the Copa del Rey was now surely there for the taking, and so it proved. Las Palmas were buried under a seven-goal aggregate thumping and, in the final, 83,000 fans would see the Blaugrana twice fight back from falling behind against Real Betis with Figo hitting the winner in extra-time. It was a third trophy garnered by Robson. Strangely however, it would have been somewhat of cold comfort for the Cules. Weeks earlier, their dream of a complete whitewash of all available trophies had disappeared with a freak league defeat against a club who were already relegated at the time.

With three games left to play, Barcelona had been in pole position to become league champions and put the club in position for a clean sweep of titles. A visit to the Costa Blanca and Alicante-based club Hércules looked a fairly straightforward task. There was however a measure of discontent in the club with rumours of Ronaldo moving on to Inter becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and, the Brazilian was unavailable to Robson for the game, along with Pizzi and Giovanni. Even then though, with depleted forces, there seemed little danger – or was there?

Despite their troubled season, Hércules had already upset the Bluagrana, being the only club to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a victory. Robson was also reading the runes as despite his tremendous success the possibility of him being retained instead of Van Gaal was seemingly a lost cause. The dark clouds were gathering, although few people outside of the club recognised it.

The game itself was a bewildering occasion. After just three minutes, it seemed that form was playing out as Guardiola put Barcelona ahead and, although they couldn’t add to the lead, there seemed little danger from a team with nothing to play for. Perhaps that freedom from the weight of relegation, now a mathematical certainty however, released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito Escudero equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic sliding in to divert the ball past Vítor Baía.

Robson’s team now needed two goals to maintain their advantage in the league over Real Madrid. In the following 40 minutes they laid siege to the home goal but, despite dominating the game and firing shots in from all angles and distances, the goals that had come so easily to them throughout the season – they would score 102 times in 42 league games, by far the best in the division – were now beyond their reach. At the end of the game, the club that would finish one spot from the foot of the table had completed a league double over Barcelona, and destroyed their hopes of league glory.

Real Madrid overcame Extremadura by five goals in their corresponding fixture. Barcelona’s doom was set, as Robson recognised. ‘Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.,’ he lamented. It was. Los Blancos efficiently wrapped up the required points and a season that offered a clean sweep of trophies had been scuppered by a relegated club whose wins over Barcelona had denied them the best season in their history.

At the end of the season, Van Gaal arrived and, in gratitude – with a thought as to whether his services may be needed again – Robson was offered an emeritus post as ‘Technical Director’. Van Gaal did well in the early years of his tenure at the Camp Nou, delivering successive league titles, but was it any better than Robson would have done? Statistics can be made to support any argument, but by the time Van Gaal left the Camp Nou, his win percentage was 55%. Robson’s had been 65%.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).

Bobby Robson at Porto: Cult status, glory and triumph over adversity.

After Robson was harshly sacked by Sporting president Sousa Cintra, with the club top of the league and heading towards their first Portuguese championship title for a decade, the out of work Englishman was quickly snapped up by Porto, and the former Three Lions manager continued his European sojourn with a move to the Estádio das Antas in January 1994. Significantly, he also took José Mourinho with him as his assistant.

As is so often the case when a new manager joins a club, when Robson arrived, Porto were suffering a period of decline. A fall in performances had seen the club slip away from their traditional place near the top of the Primeira Divisão, and crowds at the Antas had tumbled to around 10,000, echoing around a stadium built to accommodate more than five times that amount. In typical Robson fashion however, the renaissance was put into place without delay.

Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Silva had delivered successive titles for the club before returning to his native country to take over at Cruzeiro and had been replaced at the start of the 1993-94 season by former coach, Tomislav Ivić. In his first period with the club, the Croatian had enjoyed plenty of success, but this was a different time and with Ivić struggling and the club’s fortunes plunging, Porto chose the season’s winter break to move him on and insert Robson.

By season’s end the decision had been massively vindicated, and Robson had the club pointing in the right direction once more. Porto had closed the gap behind champions Benfica to a mere two points and, but for a home defeat by Sporting against the Lisbon club on 14 May, Robson may even have snatched the title. The change in fortunes was also reflected in European competition. The league title won by Silva in the previous season had granted Porto entry into the Champions League but, by the time Robson was appointed, their progress in the group stage had faltered following a punishing 3-0 defeat to AC Milan.

Robson rallied the team though and, despite losing to a goal just two minutes from time against Anderlecht in Brussels, a win in the return game, a thumping 0-5 victory away to Werder Bremen and a creditable draw against Milan – who would go onto the win the trophy – saw Porto finish in second place and advance to the knockout phase with the victory over Bremen proving decisive. The Bundesliga club finished two points behind Porto and Robson had guided his new club to the semi-finals. A pairing with the winners of the other group, meant a visit to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona, and a 3-0 defeat ended the European adventure.

Success was achieved though in the domestic cup competition.  A 6-0 victory in the quarter-final of the Taça de Portugal over second tier club Desportivo das Aves took Porto into the last four and a tie with Estrela da Amadora. Played at the Estádio José Gomes in Amadora, the 1-2 victory looks closer than it actually was. The home team’s goal only coming as a late consolation penalty when the game was already settled.

As fate would have it, Porto’s opposition in the final was, none other than Sporting, the club that had sacked Robson six months earlier. Following a goalless draw on 5 June, the replay decided the destination of the trophy five days later, when an extra-time goal from Brazilian defender Aloísio gave Robson the cup and perhaps one of his sweetest victories. Robson now had some success to build on.

Fate also delivered something else for Robson to build on. Living in the same apartment block as the Englishman was a 16-year-old football obsessed boy called André Villas-Boas. The precocious youngster would slip notes under Robson’s door, offering him advice on suggested formation, team selection and tactics. On occasions, the young man would also accost the manager on the staircase in the building, over perceived errors.  So many others ibn a similar scenario would have simply rebuffed the overly enthusiastic Villas-Boas, but the kindly and astute Robson saw something in the teenager and offered him support and encouragement instead.

He would appoint Villas-Boas to work at the club’s observation department, where he came into contact with Mourinho, and later assisted him in gaining his UEFA ‘C’ coaching badge at a course in Scotland, whilst also arranging for him to spend time observing training at his old English club, Ipswich Town. Unknowingly, Robson had mentored two men who would later, both, lead Porto to domestic and continental success. Over the next couple of seasons though, despite serious health issues, the former England manager would enjoy triumphs of his own.

In his first full season, the club suffered a traumatic loss when 26-year-old midfielder Rui Filipe was killed in a car accident on 28 August 1994. The new season was just a week old and Robson was compelled to guide his team through a season when, for so many, football seemed a peripheral matter. The club rallied though and, by the end of the term, sat atop the Primeira Divisão table by a clear seven points from Sporting, with Benfica trailing in third place, a further eight points adrift.

There was a particularly sweet moment for Robson when the title was secured with a 0-1 victory away to Sporting. Robson was not the sort of person to seek out the man who had dismissed him, in order to gloat, but there would doubtless have been a small measure of satisfaction for him in winning the title at the Estádio José Alvalade. There was also success in the Portuguese Supertaça. Repeating their success over Benfica in the previous year’s final, Porto again triumphed over the Lisbon team, securing the title on away goals with a 1-1 draw in the capital and a 0-0 draw at home.

The following season began with great expectancy, as a new contract was offered and accepted by Robson. Fresh from their title success, Porto launched into the new term determined to retain their title, but ill health befell Robson. In the early months of the season, he was diagnosed as suffering from a malignant melanoma and would be absent from the team for a prolonged period. For anyone, it was a trying time, but cancer had haunted Robson since a first diagnosis back in 1991. It’s a tribute to his strength of character and immense commitment that he could, once again, overcome the illness that so many others had succumbed to.

Fortunately for Porto, by this time, the manager’s methods and tactics had become ingrained at the club and, when he returned to pick up the reins, was able to guide them to that second successive title. This time the gap to the runners-up, Benfica, had grown to 11 points. Sporting would have surely been ruing the haste with which they dismissed the manager who had now come to dominate Portuguese football. They finished in third place, 17 points adrift of the champions.

So dominant was Robson’s Porto in the 1995-96 that their total of 84 goals across a 34-game league season was 15points clear of the next highest total and their defensive record of conceding a mere 20 was also the best in the league. Goals had now become the currency of choice at the Estádio das Antas, and the players and fans of the club were cashing in.  Domingos Paciência secured the Bola de Prata title as the league’s highest scorer and Robson was lauded as ‘Bobby Five-0’ for the number of times the club recorded victories by that margin.

The impression Robson was making in the country also spread beyond the confines of the Porto stadium. Then, an aspiring young coach, who would later work for clubs across the world, including a period as an assistant to Jesualdo Ferreira back at Porto in 2008, José Gomes would often skip university commitments to watch Robson carry out training sessions with his players. There were far more important lessons to learn from watching the veteran English coach, than to be garnered from sitting behind a desk.

‘“The way that this man, in his 60s, passed such passion to his players.”’ He remembered. ‘I looked at him and it was impossible to split him from English football. He was like a symbol of what English football means.” Gomes vividly recalls a drill in which António Folha, the Portugal winger, enraged Robson with repeated errors. “He was shouting at him, ‘Stupid, stupid,’” he says. “But a few seconds later Folha, in the same exercise, did well and Robson dropped to his knees on the ground [he mimics a figure with arms aloft], shouting, ‘Fantastic. Fantastic.’ The guy is 62 and living one simple football exercise with such intensity and love. I keep this picture in my mind for ever, because it is the way a manager must respect his job.[1]”’

Contented with the lifestyle in Porto and energised by the success the club was enjoying Robson was settled in Portugal, with surely only two possible jobs that could lure him away. One would be the challenge to take over at his home town club, and revitalise the fortunes of his beloved Newcastle United. His chance to do so would come along later. Before that though, a telephone conversation with Joan Gaspart, the vice-president of FC Barcelona would lead to a chance to coach at perhaps the most famous football club in the world. It was the second of those two jobs that simply couldn’t be ignored.

In his two full seasons with Porto, Robson would win no less than 55 league games, losing a mere three. His team would score 157 goals in 68 games, conceding just 35 and deliver successive Primeira Divisão titles to add to a Taça de Portugal triumph and successive Supertaças, all that despite being struck down with a life-threatening condition. In 2016, Futebol Clube do Porto commissioned a statue of the then sadly departed Robson. It sits on a bench overlooking the 18th green at the Pestana Vila Sol Golf course in Vilamoura, a favourite spot of Robson’s. It seems an apt reflection of the affection the club had for Bobby Robson.


[1] https://english.aawsat.com//home/article/1589126/jos%c3%a9-gomes-robson-was-symbol-what-english-football-means

(This article was originally produced for the Footy Analyst website).

Euro ‘96 – When football really came home.

During the summer of 1996, even the weather seemed keen to co-operate. June was sunny and bright as England basked in the warm glow of Britpop and Cool Britannia. Songs rang out reflecting the mood of the time. In football too, a song both captured the zeitgeist and focused its attentions on the possibility of success for England. For the first time in 30 years, England were hosting a major football tournament.

“It’s coming home,” went the refrain, and only the disinterested, sad and hoarily hardened cynics resisted, because, “They’ve seen it all before. They just know. They’re so sure.” For the rest of us though, happy to be washed along on a tide of optimism, we thought it was possible, because “Thirty years of hurt, never stopped us dreaming.” With home advantage England could become champions of Europe. Even if the abysmal record of the Three Lions in past European Championships was less than persuasive, and despite how “all those oh-so-nears, wear you down, through the years” Skinner, Baddiel and The Lightening Seeds convinced us. Football was coming home.

The dog days of Graham Taylor’s unlamented reign at the helm of English football were behind us. We could write off USA ’94, and look forward, not back. In stepped Terry Venables, cockney-charm, chirping like a sparrow with an infectious grin and air of persuasive confidence. Everybody loved Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses, and here he was, reincarnated as Jack the Lad, El Tel, late of the Camp Nou, QPR, Crystal Palace and Spurs now leading England. Cushty! He hadn’t got the right tie, the correct accent and probably little idea whether he should use a fork or knife to spread the pate de foie gras on his toast. To all England fans though he was the man for the job, the man of the moment, the man to deliver. Bright as a button, sharp as a knife and someone who the players apparently respected.

The FA had commissioned Jimmy Armfield to research and recommend the best man to succeed Taylor, and when the hugely respected Armfield came up with Venables, despite typically stuffed-shirt alarm at the prospect of someone of that ilk being England manager, how could they gainsay Armfield? On 28 January 1994, they reluctantly appointed Terry Venables, albeit on a short-term contract. He had wanted to take the team into the next World Cup tournament in 1998 as well and, in 1995 Venables sought an extension to allow that. The FA, however, already considered themselves hamstrung by Armfield’s recommendation and bounced into an appointment they really hadn’t wanted to make. There was little chance of the contract being extended and Noel White, the International Committee’s chairman, reports suggested, haughtily rebuffed such thoughts. Instead, they declared that any further contract would be decided on results in competitive matches, in effect meaning the European Championships.

Not unreasonably perhaps, Venables was hardly impressed by the apparent lack of confidence in him, and announced he would leave after the tournament anyway. Even before a ball had been kicked in Euro 96, Glenn Hoddle had been appointed to replace Venables when he left. There were disturbing echoes of the way in which the same organisation had shamefully treated Bobby Robson ahead of the 1990 World Cup. Ironically, had either manager chosen to fight their case based on their success at the tournaments, The FA would have needed hitherto unseen levels of bravery to move them on. 

Home teams are consistently among the favourites for most international competitions, and this was no exception. Despite England’s less than wholly convincing performances in the mini tournament during the previous year, misdemeanours involving dentists’ chairs, damaged aircraft and a main striker who hadn’t netted for his team in a dozen games, oh yes and a manager who had already been pointed, pushed and prodded towards the ‘Exit’ door, optimism among fans remained high.

There was plenty of competition though, and hardly any of the continent’s big-hitters were absent. After 1992, UEFA had decided to extend the tournament from eight teams to 16. It meant that the cream of European footballing talent would qualify. Only the Poles and Belgians, who had both performed badly in the qualifying groups, plus the Republic of Ireland, after losing out in a play-off against The Netherlands, would be among realistic contenders missing out. The Dutch, Germans, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Russians and Czechs all rocked up to play in a tournament spread across eight English cities. With London being the only one south of Birmingham, the whole country had the opportunity to delight in the displays of Denis Bergkamp, Hristo Stoichkov, Marcel Desailly, Zinedine Zidane, Gheorghe Hagi, Fernando Hierro, Pavel Nedvěd, Paolo Maldini, Gianfranco Zola, Jürgen Klinsmann, Davor Šuker, Zvonimir Boban and Luis Figo among so many other stellar names. With such a recipe of stars, a few tasty games were on the menu, along with a couple of delicious chips, and a sadly bitter taste of pizza.

After a disappointing draw against Switzerland, England’s game against the Auld Enemy was a case in point. In the first game, Shearer had got off the mark kickstarting the tournament and breaking his goal drought. He had missed the last three games of Blackburn’s season, with doubts about him being fit for the tournament, but they proved unfounded and he would net again against Scotland. Not long after, the Scots were awarded a penalty, giving Gary McAllister the chance to level things up.

Little did the midfielder know though, as he stood over the ball that, hovering in an helicopter in the skies above Wembley, a certain spoon-bender of repute was strutting his mind-bending stuff. Eschewing misshapen cutlery for apparent telekinetic powers, Uri Gellar would claim that it was his influence that caused the ball to move slightly before the kick was struck, and Seaman saved. Whatever the merits of such claims, and let’s face it there are hardly any, Paul Gascoigne delivered some personal magic later notching one of the iconic goals of the tournament to secure the victory, flipping the ball over Colin Hendry’s head, before volleying home. Apparently, it compelled the bleached-hair Gascoigne to return to the dentist’s chair for a check-up. Fortunately, only a mouthwash was required.

Around the same time, the Czechs, playing in their first European Championships since the break with Slovakia, were flaunting some of their ‘sexy football’ for the slavering delight of Ruud Gullit, working as a pundit for television. The unfancied Czechs would go far. A 2-1 victory over Italy stamped their passport to travel to the next phase, and their 3-3 draw with Russia was probably the game of the tournament. Two goals up inside 20 minutes, they were trailing 3-2 in the dying embers of the game, before Šmicer equalised to bounce them into qualification. Germany, playing as a unified nation for the first time in the final stages of a tournament were typically efficient, if somewhat less raunchy than the Czechs.

Berti Vogts was leading Der Mannschaft after stepping up from being assistant to Franz Beckenbauer when they won the World Cup defeating a sorry, and somewhat bedraggled Argentina in 1990. His first tournament in charge was the European championships held in Sweden. West Germany had struggled through the group stages, with a 2-0 win over Scotland being their only victory, but then beaten the hosts to reach the final where they would face Denmark, the late replacements for the absent Yugoslavians. With a number of players retained from the World Cup triumph they were clear favourites to land the title, but in an uninspiring display, lost out as the Danes became probably the most unlikely European Champions until the Greeks usurped that title. The USA ’94 World Cup had also been disappointing. Again, they had reached the knockout stages, before falling to a surprise package as Bulgaria eliminated them. 

Although the united Germany squad of 1996 still retained some of the victors of 1990, it hardly carried the same pedigree and although the Germans are invariably considered as feasible contenders for such tournaments, hopes were perhaps not as high as they had been. Perhaps more artisan and less artist however, this group wouldn’t make the same mistakes as in 1992 and 1994, but the seemingly evenness of the players at least offered Vogts opportunities to vary his team, and he took them.

For example, Fredi Bobic opened the tournaments paired with Stefan Kuntz against the Czechs. Neither would score in the 2-0 victory and against Russia, it was Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff upfront. Again, a victory a comfortable victory failed to secure a ‘same eleven’ selection. It was Klinsmann and Bobic fronting up in the goalless draw against Italy that secured qualification. At least Klinsmann’s brace against the Russians saw him retained. Was it because Vogts was undecided, or was it a ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ mentality? It’s difficult to say, but if there were changes at the front, one player was sure of his position. Deployed as sweeper, Matthias Sammer was imperious in the group games, as Germany qualified without conceding a goal. His contribution would later be honoured with the Player of the Tournament award, and he would also collect the Ballon d’Or later in the same year.

It was also Croatia’s first tournament as an independent country, and they excelled in their debut on the big stage with a cast list of stars. As well as Boban, Robert Prosinečki, Alen Bokšić and Igor Štimac were just a few of the celebrated names wearing the chequerboard shirts, but in the game against Denmark, it was Davor Šuker’s audacious chip Peter Schmeichel that was both delicious and more than a ‘flash of an ankle’ sexy to boot.

Going into their last group game, England needed to beat the Dutch to ensure qualification. It was a game long-remembered by England fans, and a performance that Venables later heralded as, “perfection – my most thrilling experience in football”. The front duo of Shearer and Sheringham shared four goals to dismay the Dutch, as England scored three times in eleven intoxicatingly, dizzy minutes of scintillating attacking football. So many England fans had hoped, some had dared to believe, others had been convinced. After this game, that conviction spread like a plague and an ex-England manager did ‘not, not, like that’ a whole lot more than a game back in October 1993. Realism and perspective were thrown out of the window. Surely now all things were possible for England. Sadly, for the Scots, a late, seemingly mere consolation goal at the time, notched by Kluivert actually saw the Dutch qualify by the narrowest of margins, and with lamented characteristic regularity, Craig Brown’s team were eliminated.

After the more ‘knockabout’ play of the group phase, the knockout stages of competitions are often tighter and such was the case in this tournament, with single goal victories and penalty shoutouts being the order of the day in all of the remaining matches. Dutch courage was insufficient against Gallic efficiency from 12 yards. Despite their reverse against England, for much of the game, it was the Dutch who threatened most, but with Desailly and Blanc solid and, for the most unruffled, they held firm. A header sent wide of the French goal by Ronald de Boer was probably the best chance of a tight first period. Late on, a free-kick by Phillip Cocu was deflected narrowly wide. Eventually both sides seemed to run out of ideas, and the goalless draw grew increasingly inevitable.

The Netherlands squad was hardly a vintage crop, when compared to both past and future vintages, although it did contain the essence of the Ajax team that had only lost out on penalties to Juventus in the Champions League final a few weeks earlier. Their vulnerability from 12 yards was exposed again when Clarence Seedorf’s effort was saved by Bernard Lama. It was left to Laurent Blanc to close out the win and, although he stumbled when striking the ball, it found the back of the net, and the Dutch went home.

The French had been less than impressive in the group games; certainly, for a team that could boast the talents of Marcel Dessaily, Laurant Blanc, Youri Djorkaeff and, of course, Zinedine Zidane. A single goal win over Romania and a draw against Spain was stodgy rather than spectacular for a squad that, with some changes, would secure the World Cup two years later. Only in the final group game against Bulgaria did they deliver on the promise of their squad, with a 3-1 victory. For all that, they were through to the semi-finals.

The Spanish had also been less than impressive. A goal by Alfonso had snaffled a draw against Bulgaria in their opening game, and after the draw with the French, it took a goal inside the last five minutes against Romania to get them over the line and deny a Bulgarian team who had Hristo Stoichkov to thank for all three of their goals. The Spanish would face England in the last eight in a game bereft of goals, but full of drama.

Germany edged out Croatia, in a game that looked like denying their captain any further part in the tournament. Reportedly suffering from a hamstring injury, Klinsmann was substituted ahead of half-time, after putting his side ahead with a penalty. With the reported injury normally meaning at least two weeks absence, it looked highly unlikely that his championships were over. It wouldn’t be the case however. Injuries had bitten into the German squad already, with Jürgen Kohler, the manager’s original choice as skipper lasting a mere 14 minutes of the opening game before suffering ligament damage against the Czechs. Others would follow as Steffen Freund was unavailable for the final thanks to more ligament trouble and Dieter Eilts would only last just past half-time in the final. There was even a rumour in Germany that Vogts was minded to hand outfield shirts to his goalkeeper substitutes in the final, although such talk was probably apocryphal.

In the other game, England and Spain played out 90 minutes and extra-time before facing their own shootout from 12 yards.  After the exhilaration of destroying the Dutch, Venables’ team were now expected to sweep aside the Spanish, but this is England, and things like fulfilling expectations and delivering sustained form are for others. Spain dominated for much of the game, had what seemed to be a perfectly good goal ruled out and three decent shouts for a penalty turned down by French referee Marc Batta. All came to nought, and Wembley was strangely relieved to get to the lottery of spot kicks.

Half-a dozen years earlier, under Bobby Robson, England had lost out to West Germany on penalties in a World Cup semi-final and, when Stewart Pearce buried his spot-kick against the Spanish, his screaming celebration doubtless convinced any tardy phantoms, inhibiting his soul, of the merits of a quick getaway. With the passion of Pearce washing away doubts, England amazingly triumphed from 12 yards, and went on into the last four.

In the remaining quarter final, another sumptuous chip, this time by Karel Poborský not only moved the Czechs past Portugal into the last four, but also went a long way to persuading Manchester United to sign the scorer – and caused a swoon for the watching Gullit.

The last four pitted England against Germany and the French, stuttering somewhat, faced the Czechs who were still the surprise packet. There was little doubting the quality in Aimé Jacquet’s squad if they could deliver on it but, aside from that win over Bulgaria, they just hadn’t been able to produce their best. On the other hand, the Czech team was revelling in their status. Arguably, Nedvěd was their only player of true world class, but their ebullient form had wowed many fans, not just the dreadlocked Dutch manager of Chelsea.

Czech ambition was cautioned by the absence of Jan Suchopárek, Radoslav Látal, Pavel Kuka and Radek Bejbl for semi-final. The French were also at less than full strength, but the loss of injured skipper Didier Deschamps and the suspended Christian Karembeu were probably less of a hinderance. A resolute display by defence and goalkeeper would be required if the Czechs were to have anything like a decent chance of progress. Fortunately, they got both. The French pressed and pressured, but, between the sticks, Petr Kouba denied all of their efforts and when the game entered the ‘Golden Goal’ extra time period, for both teams, concerns about conceding overcame ambitions of scoring and time drifted away into a goalless draw. Unlike against the Dutch, this time it would be the French missing out. Each team had successfully converted five spot kicks when midfielder Reynald Pedros stepped up to put France ahead again. His effort was saved by Kouba however, and Czech captain Miroslav Kadlec’s cool finish extended his team’s adventure into the tournament final.

Over the years, in so many games between the English and the Germans, there’s been this siren call tendency for England to return to the red shirts of 1966. Sometimes they won, more often they didn’t, and all though the colour of shirt being worn was a hardly a ‘material’ factor influencing those outcomes, they provided a comforting familiarity when facing the Germans. In a coin toss for who would wear their preferred colours, Sir Bert Millichip lost out and the Germans wore white and black, potentially opening the door for England to go for red. In this tournament though, Umbro, England’s kit suppliers, had opted for what was officially called a ‘two-tone indigo’ design for the ‘change strip.’ For the first, and only time, in tournament football England wore it in the semi-final. To most fans, it just looked grey, and that dull, somewhat flat shade hardly served to brighten hopes, and disappointingly, the suppliers of Gascoigne’s boots, hadn’t made his studs an inch longer, otherwise the whole thing could have been different.

Encouragingly, Shearer gave the hosts an early lead with his fifth goal of the tournament, making him the top scorer, but Kuntz equalised just past the quarter-hour mark. After the remainder of the game and extra-time was played out without any further score, a repeat of that day back in Italy was inevitable. A cross from Shearer that eluded the touch of Gascoigne thanks to those darned short studs was the nearest anyone came to breaking the deadlock. England against Germany in the semi-final of a tournament was to be decided on penalties.

Shearer netted with efficiency, firing high to the left of the ‘keeper as Köpke dived low to his right. Häßler drove low and hard to level. Platt reprised Shearer’s strike and although Köpke got much nearer this effort, he was still comfortably beaten. Strunz sent Seaman the wrong way to level again. Pearce did the same to Köpke. Whither now you demons of doubt? Taking a long run up, defender Reuter stifled any English party plans by scoring, although Seaman got close to the shot, thumping the ground in frustration afterwards. Gascoigne was coolness personified with his penalty, but emotionally charged pumping his fists and exhorting the fans when the ball hit the net, but Ziege squared things again. In effect, it was now sudden death. Sherringham heaped pressure on the last nominated German, but Kuntz was unfazed and drilled high to score.

All five first choice kickers had now gone, and delivered. It was down to those who had either avoided the manager’s eagle eye, or merely been deemed less than worthy. As the barrel of the gun in a game of Russian Roulette is revolved, eventually, and inevitably, the chamber with the bullet will find its way underneath the hammer. Gareth Southgate, stepped up. Bang went the gun. Bang went England’s hopes as Köpke parried Southgate’s effort. It now needed the Coup de Grace. Bang went Möller’s penalty, and England were out. As in Italy six years earlier, they had fallen to the Germans on the very brink on a major final. As in Italy six years earlier, England would lose the manager who had taken them so close. Venables had managed England in 25 games, losing just once.

The final would be between the Czechs and Germans. For most pundits, the result was a given but, in the guise of Czechoslovakia, the East Europeans had more than a decent pedigree in European Championships. They were champions in 1976, ironically against the Germans when Antonin Panenka introduced the world to a type of penalty that would forever bear his name. Back then, they had shocked West Germany, again strong favourites, by easing into a two-goal lead inside the first 25 minutes, and it was only an equaliser by Hölzenbein inside the final couple of minutes that took the game to penalties. The Czechs had another surprise in store for their opponents this time around.

Certainly not overawed by the occasion, Dusan Uhrin’s side gave as good as they got throughout the first period and, when Poborský was felled inside the penalty area on the hour mark, Patrik Berger stepped up to convert. At the time, the midfielder was playing in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, but that didn’t stop him hammering home the spot kick. With 30 minutes to play, Germany were facing a second defeat to the Czechs in a European Championship Final. They needed a saviour.

Oliver Bierhoff was plying his trade as a striker with mid-ranking Serie A side, Udinese and, aside from the group game against Russia, hadn’t featured actively in the tournament. With 20 minutes remaining though, and the Czechs still holding their precious lead, Vogts removed Mehmet Scholl and sent Bierhoff on to supplement the German front line. Four short minutes later, he headed home a free-kick from the right and the Germans were level.

There were no more goals inside the scheduled 90 minutes and, as with so many other games in the knockout phase of the tournament, the final would go into ‘Golden Goal’ extra-time. Up to this stage, despite the innovation of the ‘next goal wins’ scenario, no team had managed to net that precious commodity. That would change in the final. Just five minutes into the added period, a long punt downfield was headed on by Bierhoff to Klinsmann. The German captain controlled, turned and then fed the ball back to Bierhoff. Closely marked, he feigned right then left, before twisting to fire in a shot that was deflected, and then almost saved by Kouba, before almost apologetically finding its way into the net. Germany had won. It was the first time that a Golden Goal had settled a European Championship. Four years later, in the next tournament, David Trezeguet would repeat the feat for France, netting the last Golden Goal to decide a European Championship.

So, on reflection, how should Euro 96 be remembered? The red rose-tinted glasses can focus on a tournament when England harboured a serious hope of success and despite falling short in the end, it was hardly the sad, unlamented elimination, scuttling away, tails tucked firmly between their legs, after falling ignominiously to dismal defeat. Plus, of course, at least Gareth Southgate could dip his crust into the largesse offered by Pizza Hut.

On the other hand, as well as the upswing of Britpop and Cool Britannia, any nationalistic fervour flared on the back of footballing aspiration can often dip into a much less attractive dislike of otherness. With the media of the day hammering away at the EU’s understandable reluctance to allow imports of British beef during the Mad Cow Disease epidemic, that slippery slope into xenophobia claimed many. A game against Germany is always enough to persuade a Red Top mentality to call up jingoistic war memories, and there was plenty of that going around at the time. Some things hardly ever change.

For all that though, there was something very simple about Euro 96 that should be remembered and treasured. Not only did England hardly let anyone down, the tournament also gave people in the country an opportunity to appreciate the skills of some of the world’s best footballers as the best teams across the continent came to visit. With the average attendance at games topping 41,000 – to date, the second highest of any European tournament before or since, it’s safe to say that many took the opportunity to do just that.  

Wembley had an abundance of fixtures of course, but away from the capital, there were plenty of delights to go around. Old Trafford were treated to a preview of the final as Germany and the Czech Republic, both competing in their first tournament as new countries, met in the opening game of Group C, and Anfield was royally entertained by that 3-3 draw between the Czechs and Russians. Villa Park hosted the Scotland games aside from their match up at Wembley against England, and Midlands fans watched Craig Brown’s team hold the mighty Dutch to a draw, and then beat Switzerland by a single goal, when one more strike would have sent the Tartan Army into the quarter-finals. Fans at Hillsborough could say ‘I was there’ when Šuker’s outrageous chip had Peter Schmeichel routed to the spot and The City Ground watched as Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’ of Figo, Rui Costa and Sousa flattered, then faded. North-East fans had the privilege of watching the incomparable Stoichkov score twice at St James’ Park, and Leeds fans saw Zidane at Elland Road.

You see, football really did come home in 1996, but it wasn’t about England winning the tournament. Instead, perhaps it was as a chance for fans across the country to engage with the continent’s greatest exponents of the game. Football was invented in England and to have it celebrated there was a rare privilege. Regardless of how England performed as a team, that was only a small part of the real Euro 96 story of when football came home. 

Giuseppe and Franco Baresi.

When two brothers play their home games in the same stadium, it’s probably safe to assume that any sibling rivalry is sacrificed for the greater common good of the team they represent. For Franco and Giuseppe Baresi however, such niceties are hardly applicable. The more celebrated sibling, Franco, was the iconic defender and long-time captain of AC Milan, the Rossoneri. Meanwhile, older brother Giuseppe wore the blue and black stripes of Internazionale, as a midfielder and captain for the Nerazzurri. 

Born in Travagliato, near Brescia around 80 kilometres from Milan, in February 1958, the elder brother always had a head start on Franco, who entered the world two years later. It meant that, in their footballing career, by the time that the younger brother turned up at the San Siro to trial for Inter, Giuseppe was already settled in the club’s Primavera system. Having a brother already established at the club may have made it easier for Franco to obtain a chance to impress the club, but when the Inter coaching staff decided that he was too small and not sufficiently physically developed to join the club, any advantage was irrelevant. They sent him away with advice to build himself up, come back next year and try again. At that moment, any hopes of the two siblings being brothers in stripes of the same shade were dismissed.

At such moments in a nascent career it’s always tempting to speculate how the history of the player and clubs may have turned out differently had Inter decided to take a punt on the skinny kid looking to emulate his brother, but there is no doubt at all that it was fellow occupiers of the San Siro, AC Milan who profited from the decision. Following a further rebuttal after a trial, this time by Atalanta, Franco Baresi eventually convinced Rossoneri coach Guido Settembrino that he was worth taking a chance on and he joined the AC Milan, guaranteeing that, after another five years or so, the brothers would be facing each other each time the Milan derby, the Derby della Madonnina, was played, and as captains of their respective clubs, to boot.

Although split between blue and red, one thing the brothers did share, was an early tragedy in their lives. Whilst still in their teenage years, both their parents died, but the event fired the dedication and commitment of the brothers to succeed. Giuseppe would make his first team debut in 1977, once again heading his brother, but this time, Franco had closed the gap, as he followed along into the top tier of Italian football just a season later. Both would enjoy successful careers, and whilst the masterful Franco would achieve the greater honours, it would be naive to ignore those of Giuseppe, who would play almost 500 league games for Inter across a 16-year career and represent Italy 18 times.

Most of Giuseppe’s triumphs came in the early years of the eighties. The first silverware arrived in the 1977-78 Coppa Italia. By now he had been elevated to captain of the team and developed a versatility that allowed the coach to deploy him either as a central defender or a defensive midfielder, and it was in the former role that he led his team to victory over Napoli at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Two years later, the Scudetto was landed by Inter and Giuseppe, finishing three points clear of Juventus. This time, Giuseppe was following Franco, as Milan had secured the domestic title the years before, only then to suffer s precipitous fall of fortunes. The same season that Inter were champions, would see a low for his younger brother as AC Milan were relegated for the first time in the club’s history following a match-fixing scandal. Contrary emotions for the brothers.

The Rossoneri would bounce straight back up to the top tier, but endure another relegation in 1981-82, before again returning at the first time of asking. Whilst Franco was struggling with Milan’s yo-yo fortune however, Giuseppe was prospering. Another Coppa Italia victory in 1981-82, this time beating Torino over two legs, brought another winners medal and a trophy lift for the elder brother. Half-a-dozen fallow years then passed before a second Serie A title in 1988-89 and a UEFA Cup success three years later. 

If Giuseppe’s mot prosperous yeas were the early 1980s, Franco would enjoy the latter part of that decade and the early years of the following one. After the miseries of relegation, Milan forged forward to build a dynasty of success with Franco Baresi as captain of the team that came to conquer and dominate European football. Serie A titles in 1987–88, 1991–92, 1992–93, 1993–94 and 1995–96 were enough to illustrate the club’s premier position in Italy, but it was the European Cup successes in 1988–89, 1989–90 and 1993–94, plus triumphs in the Intercontinental Cup in 1989 and 1990, that meant Franco’s achievements would offer him the fraternal bragging rights, were he ever in the mood to use them. Add in his 81 appearances for the Azzurri and the case is unanswerable

Together, the brothers achieved eight Scudetti in a period of 16 years at the height of Serie A football, and no less than 23 major honours in total. They also accumulated 99 caps between them, and yet strangely were only ever selected in a squad for a major international tournament on one occasion, during the 1980 European Championships played on home soil. Even then, the brothers were kept apart as only Giuseppe enjoyed any playing time as Italy finished in fourth place after losing out to Czechoslovakia for the bronze medal in a penalty shootout that went to no less than 17 attempts before the unfortunate Fulvio Collovati became the only failing to find the back of the net.  

There’s a certain symmetry to appreciate when considering the equity of the Baresi brothers sharing their skills across both clubs who shared the San Siro, not quite equals perhaps, but certainly more than merely significant elements in their individual clubs’ successes. That lingering thought remains though. How would the fates have played out differently had Franco not been refused the chance to join his brother at Inter. How much more successful would they have been as Brothers in Arms?

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Brothers in arms’ series for These Football Times).

Diego Maradona and the legacy of a very human legend.

To be widely regarded as a sporting superstar is an accolade gifted to precious few, even more so within any specific sport. Football is certainly no different. Reaching even beyond that exalted status though, there is a higher, more exclusive plane. Access to it is granted only to the legends, those whose passing can require a tear from the eye, a lament for the soul and thaw even the coldest of hearts. It can be difficult to identify what extra quality, what characteristic, what trait, separates those legends from the mere outstanding superstars. And yet, we instantly know it when we see it. Strangely, it’s not a strength. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. In art, in music so many had it, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain for example; it’s an almost perfect imperfection. In football, among others, George Best had it, Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone had it and, without doubt, Diego Armando Maradona had it.

That difference is an extra quotient of a human characteristic that is often labelled as ‘vulnerability’ but should perhaps be better understood as the quality of humanity. It allows those so gifted to dream and reach out for the unimagined spectacular, but also to be prey to the same weaknesses and temptations that the ordinary fan feels. It’s to be favoured by the Gods, to have an angel sit on the right shoulder and whisper into your ear, whilst at the same time being compelled to unconsciously take heed of the devil sitting on the left shoulder, seductively offering an enticing reward for succumbing to a destructive but irresistible temptation.

The difference between the sporting superstar, admired and revered by so many, and the true legend who claims both of those rewards, but also receives that most precious of gifts, love, in abundance, is that they are both above the ordinary, and yet they are part of it, at the same time. They’re one of us. Their successes do not show us how meagre we are. They show what we can achieve, not despite any disadvantaged life chances, but despite our vulnerabilities, despite our human weaknesses, despite our humanity. Reflecting on Maradona’s passing, Jonathan Wilson wrote, ‘Diego Maradona was revered in Argentina, a tortured genius who suffered for his greatness and whose meaning in the history of the sport is derived from considerably more than just his on-field achievements.’ As so often, Wilson delivers his words with impressive precision, as astutely accurate as a Maradona strike on goal,

It’s easy to perceive someone such as Maradona, as a boy from the barrio, a street kid who learnt who to play football on the discarded, dusty and uneven patches of ground in the Lanús district of Buenos Aires; as someone who came up through football the hard way, and shone so bright to become the greatest player of his generation – some would argue of all time – leading his various clubs to silverware and his country to the summit of world football. That seems more than worthy enough of course, to be someone who offers a legacy not only of glorious moments on the football pitch, skills to entrance and beguile, but also offering hope to similar aspiring kids the world over who, despite their disadvantages, dream of sporting success. Such a legacy surpasses the achievements all but a very select few. That however, for all its merits, would be selling the legacy of Diego Maradona so very short.

In 1928, the Argentine newspaper El Grafico published an editorial suggesting what a statue capturing the essence of the game in Argentina would need to feature. It should, the editorial asserted be, ‘An urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use … His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball.’ I refuse to believe that I am the only one reading these words who does not recognise a description of Diego Maradona, albeit that they were written a dozen years before he was born.

Simply put, Maradona’s legacy is of the “tortured genius” identified by Wilson, and also the “intelligent, roving, trickster” portrayed in that elegant El Grafico editorial. Despite being less successful on the international stage than Maradona, Leo Messi will hoover up more medals and silverware, and doubtless be regarded as a true great of the sport. It’s unlikely however that he will ever be loved, truly loved, as much as Maradona was, especially in Argentina where he is “revered” as Wilson asserts. A few examples from the turbulent life of Maradona, and how they have come to be understood, can perhaps offer a little insight as to why that would be the case.

In 1984, Maradona left Barcelona to join Napoli in Serie A following a dispute with Barça president Josep Lluís Núñez. Often seen as one of the lesser lights of Calcio, and cast into the shadow of the financial powerhouse clubs of the north, I Partenopei had never previously been crowned as champions of Italy. That would change when Maradona arrived though. Two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup triumph brought unheralded success to the Stadio San Paolo. For those true legends however, triumph demands payment in full. Inevitably, accompanying the victories, was the dread cloud of drug abuse, other scandals and alleged links with the Camorra – the notorious Neapolitan mafia. Bans and fines followed as his time with the club deteriorated. Eventually after serving a 15-month for cocaine abuse he left Napoli in disgrace, moving to Spain and Sevilla.

For all the trials and tribulations that the latter end of his time in Naples caused however, the image of Maradona, adorning frescoes on the side of buildings in the city are still treated with great reverence and his number ten shirt was later retired by the club as a sign of respect and gratitude. Following his passing, a move is now afoot to rename the Estadio San Paolo stadium after him, reborn as the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona. Thousands flooded the streets of Naples minutes after the news of his death broke. No one was dismissing the scandals or drug abuse, but this was news of one of their own passing. At such times, forgiveness, sadness, love and adoration wash away thoughts of such ills. Interviewed in The Guardian, as he plastered a poster reading “Maradona, Naples is crying” to a shop front, Manuel Pellegrini spoke for the city. “He was just a Scugnizzo Napoletano [Neapolitan for naughty rascal] like us.” He had vulnerabilities and weaknesses like Neapolitans, like Naples itself, like us all, but that was why they took him to their hearts. It’s what made him more adored, loved.

The World Cup, the greatest football show on earth, has been the scene for so much of what has come to define Maradona. He selected the tournament in 1986 for perhaps the most famous four minutes of his entire career. For many football fans around the world, those brief 240 or so seconds captured the man, the legend that was Maradona, and yet the actions, their consequences and their legacies have been interpreted in so many different ways.

Eschewing chronology, beginning with the second goal against England in the quarter-final of the tournament in Mexico, the slaloming run from halfway, swaying past defenders unhindered by their futile attempts to disrupt his progress, before slotting the ball past Peter Shilton is regarded by many as the greatest goal in World Cup history. Commentating for the BBC at the game, Barry Davies offered support to such assertions. “You have to say that is magnificent,” he remarked. And so, it was. The dribble past so many lunging challenges was like a will o’ the wisp dancing elusively, this way then that, the ball convinced that it was part of his foot, and no one else could dare to take it away. Selecting the biggest stage for your grandest moments is truly the hallmark of legends. Yet if that was football from the Gods, four minutes earlier, the first Argentine goal has been painted as an entirely different picture, when Maradona claimed assistance from a celestial hand in giving Argentina the lead.

The details of the goal are well enough known without going through them again, but it’s the consequences, and interpretation of them, that are of more important in understanding Maradona’s legacy. To so many in England, the goal was regarded as ‘cheating’ which of course, it was. Context is everything though, and the incident was no less contrary to the laws of the game than for the England players – as many others of different nationalities had done, and would continue to do in the tournament – to repeatedly foul their nemesis as the best way to prevent him from harming their cause.

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right as the hackneyed old cliché goes but, as time has passed, many have come to regard the referee as the villain of the peace for not spotting the subterfuge, rather than Maradona for perpetrating it. After all, who amongst the England players or the many millions of fans watching, if guaranteed they would not be penalised for the offence, would not have done exactly the same thing? Again, Maradona’s deception, the temptation to be a “trickster” was surely one we would all fall prey to. Do we not envy his opportunism in the first goal as much as his majesty in scoring the second one?

In Argentina, there was never much doubt as to which goal brought the most pleasure, albeit perhaps also aided by a sizable measure of schadenfreude for the angst of a former imperial country brought low by the conjurer’s deceptive art and sleight of hand. The “intelligent, roving, trickster” deftly picking the pocket of the dim-witted, aristocratic and wealthy invader, before scampering away to celebrate with his kin. So many Argentines would have wanted to inflict the same embarrassment on the English, especially with the Falklands War so redolent in South American minds, but Maradona spoke for, acted for, them all.

Even for the English, whilst some may still harbour dark thoughts and carry a grudge many years later, many others have accepted, forgiven and even acknowledged the quicksilver thinking that scored the goal. A span of almost three dozen years offers plenty of time for reflection.

Four years later, in Italia 90, Argentina played the hosts Italy at the semi-final stage at the Estadio San Paolo. The Azzurri, one step from the final on home soil would surely have been offered the most vociferous of support. In Naples however, the adoration of Maradona as a Scugnizzo Napoletano, a favoured son who erred but brought so much joy, weighed heavier than that for the national team. Is there any greater love?

In the tournament hosted by the USA in 1994, the ever-present vulnerability rose to the surface again. A positive drugs test for exposed Maradona’s defining vulnerability. He was expelled from the World Cup in disgrace but, despite this transgression and the harm it did to Argentine chances in the tournament, there was enough forgiveness and understanding in the country to welcome him back into the fold as coach of the national team later.

Relating Maradona’s legacy to Naples or Argentina, albeit easy to illustrate and illuminating artificially restricts his legacy, where in reality it spreads across the global football community and beyond. In New Zealand, ahead of a rugby match against Argentina, the All Blacks delayed the Haka to offer their opponents a New Zealand shirt bearing the number ten and Maradona’s name. It may seem like a peripheral event, a sideshow, something happening on the fringes of the tributes to a lost genius, but maybe it shouldn’t be seen that way.

Maradona was born in Argentina and starred for La Albiceleste as well as coaching the national team. In club football, as well as starring for Barcelona, Napoli and Sevilla, he played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors and Newell’s Old Boys, and coached clubs in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico. All would claim a part of Maradona’s legacy as their own. That legacy however is far bigger and spreads far wider than that.

That legacy belongs to all football, across the world, and may even spread to other sports too. It’s a legacy that speaks not only of a God-given talent, not only of a career blessed by towering heights and benighted by despairing lows, but of both at the same time. It’s a legacy that speaks of all of our strengths, all of our vulnerabilities and what makes us who we are. We applaud, we acclaim and we loved Maradona for who he was, not some wholly virtuous person devoid of inner demons, but because he was like us, because he inspired us. He was a “tortured genius”. He was that “urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes” and he was that “Scugnizzo Napoletano”. He was all of those things and so much more. What he wasn’t however was perfect. Like us all, he had vulnerability and that’s what linked him to everyone else. It’s why we loved Maradona and why his legacy should be exalted as belonging to a very human legend.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times ‘Maradona’ magazine).

John Charles – The Gentle Giant.

Two days after Christmas in 1931, the Charles family of 19 Alice Street in the Cwmbwrla district of Swansea had their second child. As the family grew, he would go on to be the eldest of three sons, and second eldest of five children born to Ned Charles and his wife Lilian. A younger son, Mel would go on to become a professional footballer, play at the highest club level in Britain, and represent Wales on the international stage, including at the World Cup of 1958 in Sweden. It’s an impressive pedigree, and yet Mel was only the second most famous son to emerge from that house in Alice Street. The boy who was born on that late December cold winter day in 1931 would also turn to professional football and carve out a career in Britain and abroad that would make him a legend of the game and forever written into the annals of Leeds United. His name was John Charles.

Charles was educated at the local Cwmdu Junior School and, when he at the age of 14, his burgeoning talent as a footballer had already been recognised by Swansea Town, then in the third tier of the English league pyramid, who signed him to their ground staff. With the physique of someone many years older, and a natural football ability, he was marked out for great progress, but the reality of his tender years made the club reluctant to push him too far too quickly, and he never graduated to the club’s first team. A number of appearances for the club’s Reserve team, competing in the Welsh Football League was the limit of his progress at the Vetch Field. Others would not be so reluctant to give the titan of a youngster the opportunity to prove that old footballing maxim that ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.

Gendros is another area of Swansea, half a mile or so from Cwmbwrla, and Charles played for a youth club team there. At 17, he was spotted by Jack Pickard, a scout for Leeds United, and invited for a trial with the Yorkshire club. It took little time to impress the coaching staff at Elland Road and Charles moved to Leeds. The one bone of contention for the club, at the time merely a fairly modest second tier outfit, was where the Welsh tyro should play. Such was the talent of the teenager that every position he was tried in – full back, centre-half, wing-half and even centre-forward – seemed well within Charles’s compass of ability to excel at.

At the time, the club was managed by the legendary Major Frank Buckley and, after reviewing the performances of the Welsh teenager in a variety of positions, across a number of reserve team games, he decided to give Charles his first team debut as a centre half. The game chosen to launch the untapped talents of John Charles upon an unsuspecting footballing world was a Friendly against Scottish club Queen of the South, on 19 April 1949.

Three weeks earlier, Scotland had visited Wembley for a Home International fixture, and returned with a convincing 1-3 victory in front of 98,000 spectators. An England defence captained by Billy Wright and also comprising Neil Franklin, Jack Aston and Jack Rowe had been tormented by the Scots, and especially their centre forward Billy Houliston. It would be the task of the novice centre half, John Charles, to harness Houliston and achieve something

that Wright, and similar luminaries of the English game had failed to do weeks earlier. The game ended in a goalless draw and, afterwards, a frustrated Houliston would remark that Charles was “the best centre half I’ve ever played against”. He wouldn’t be the last forward to voice that assessment across the coming years.

To no one’s great surprise, Charles was retained at the heart of the Leeds defence for the following Saturday, and a league game against Bristol Rovers at Elland Road. Another blank for the Yorkshire club’s opponents added the nascent belief that Leeds had a rare talent on their hands. There were two league games remaining to play out the season and Charles featured in both of them. In the summer, Tom Holley, the erstwhile stalwart centre half and skipper of the team of the team, recognised the reality of the changed situation, and retired from the game to pursue a career in journalism. John Charles had quickly made the elder man redundant and established himself as a key element in the Leeds team. In his new guise, Holley would later write of Charles. “Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best centre half he had played against and without hesitation named John Charles. The same week, Billy Wright was asked, who was the greatest centre forward he had faced, and he again answered John Charles.”

The following term Charles played every game in Leeds’s campaign, establishing himself as an outstanding defender and on 8 March 1950, his talents were recognised by the Wales national team when he made his debut for the country in a Home International fixture against Northern Ireland at Wrexham. Needless to say, the visitors failed to find a way past Charles and his fellow defenders, with the game ending in a goalless draw. He was still only 18 years of age, and had become the youngest player ever to represent Wales. It’s a record that stood for more than four decades, until broken by Ryan Giggs in 1991.

From 1950 until 1952, Charles completed two years of National Service with the 12th Royal Lancers, based in Carlisle. The journey was hardly a simple matter but he was allowed to travel back to Yorkshire to play for Leeds as well as fulfilling his duty by turning out for his regimental team that went on to win the Army Cup in 1952 with Charles captaining the team and lifting the trophy. The same period also saw his time on the pitch limited by two cartilage operations.

It was a time when Leeds began to take regular advantage of the versatile nature of Charles’s talents. With the club struggling to find the back of the net with any consistent reliability, Charles was pushed forward into the centre forward position. In October 1952, the move produced instant dividends, with 11 goals in six games. The move had worked but, at the same time, it also illustrated the growing dependence the club had on the young Welshman as, in his absence, the previously almost watertight defence was shown to have as many leaks as a colander. It meant a number of changes between front and back for Charles – often within a game – but he coped admirably and Leeds profited. In a number of games, he would begin as a forward, Leeds would establish a lead on the back of his talents, and then he would be switched back into defence to hold on to the advantage. It sounds like a strange, and somewhat unreal scenario, but it worked and, years later Juventus would adhere to the same formula in Serie A, with spectacular success.

In 1953-54 season, Charles was given an extended run at centre forward and netted an impressive 42 league goals in just 39 games. It was a club record haul and the remarkable strike rate made him the top scorer in the division. He was still in his early-twenties, but now unmistakably the most important, and potent, weapon at the Elland Road club. Inevitably, the Welshman’s success was also beginning to draw admiring glances from both First Division clubs and even abroad, such was the fame of his exploits. Understandably, Charles was keen to progress his career and a desire to play at the highest possible level fed his ambition. 

In 1955, he was appointed as club captain and led the club to runners-up spot in the Second Division and promotion to the top tier of English football. His 29 goals, in the 1955-56 season, as an ever-present across the 42-game league programme, was a key factor in the club’s success. Now at the top level of the English game, there were hopes among the Leeds hierarchy and fans that Charles’s ambition would be sated for a while and, conversely perhaps what would surely be less success for the player in the top tier may dissuade any potential suitors. It was a forlorn hope.

Promotion for any club can lead to a difficult initial period as players struggle to come to terms with the increased demands of higher-level competition, but for John Charles, this was hardly the case. Leading from the front the Welshman scored 38 goals in 40 league appearances establishing a record for the club in top flight competition, as Leeds finished in an impressive eighth position. By now, Buckley had been replaced by Raich Carter as manager of Leeds United, but there was only one man who was recognised as the most important asset of the club, and that was John Charles. In some newspapers, Leeds were even referred to as John Charles United. It was perhaps an exaggeration of his value to the club but, if so, only a slight one. Any doubts as to whether John Charles could deliver at the highest levels had already been brought into doubt with his performances for Wales – but his debut season in the First Division not only dispelled any lingering doubts, it also inevitably intensified interest in him from other clubs.

The white-hot heat of the John Charles talent was simply too hot for Leeds to hold onto, and a deal was agreed with Italian giants Juventus for him to move to Turin at the end of the 1956-57 season for a world record fee of £65,000.  In his final game for Leeds before departing for Italy, they faced Sunderland on 22 April 1957. In what was somewhat inevitably a hugely emotional game, Charles scored twice in 3-1 win to sign off his time at Elland Road. He had scored 157 goals in 257 games for the club, many of them coming from a defensive position. John Charles had joined Leeds United as a young promising teenager with potential as yet undiscovered. At 26 years of age, he left for Italy as the most valuable footballer on the planet. Tall and muscular, but with abundant skill coupled and irresistible determination, quite simply put, John Charles was one of the best footballers ever to draw breath, and comfortably the most complete talent to arise from the British Isles at the time. Years later, Sir Bobby Robson, a playing contemporary of the Welshman would eulogise on the talents of John Charles. “Where was he in the world’s pecking order? He was right up there with the very, very best. Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stephano, Best. But how many of them were world class in two positions? The answer to that is easy: None of them.”

In five years with Juventus, John Charles became a legend with the Turin club. The practise first deployed by Major Buckley, years earlier, of selecting Charles to play as a forward until a sufficient lead was established, before dropping him back to defend was turned into a fine art at the club and, of course he netted the winner in his debut for La Vecchia Signora in a 3-2 victory over Hellas Verona. His first season in Italy saw him become Serie A’s top scorer as Juventus won the Scudetto. It set a pattern. Together with Omar Sívori and Giampiero Boniperti, Charles formed what quickly became known as The Holy Trident as two more league titles followed, together with a brace of Coppa Italia tirumphs. The esteem that the fans had for Charles in Turin was exemplified when, in 1997 at the club’s centenary, the Welshman was voted as Juventus’s best ever foreign player.

In 1962, Don Reive, now in charge at Elland Road and seeking to build the club agreed a record fee of £53,000 to take Charles back to Elland Road. The move caused such excitement among supporters that admission fees were increased for the start of the new season. There’s an old adage in football though that you ‘should never go back’. John Charles was now past his thirtieth birthday and although much of the skill and physical prowess remained, five seasons in Europe’s toughest league had inevitably taken its toll and despite typical application to the cause, it was doomed to fail. Eleven games and three goals were a poor return on the investment and it quickly became clear to the player that, after years of the Italian lifestyle, a return to the British way of life was a bridge too far. Leeds agreed a fee with Roma that would give them a nominal profit on the money given to Juventus, and John Charles returned to Italy.

After once more scoring on his debut, his time in Rome was almost as short as that on his return to Yorkshire. Further moves followed, first back to Wales and Cardiff City – joining younger brother Mel – then to non-league Hereford United in a short period as Player-Manager, before going back to Wales and Merthyr Tydfil and eventually retiring in 1974. He passed away in 2004, aged 85. Perhaps it was appropriate that, in the end, his final illness struck him while in Italy, where had been invited to work as a television pundit. Juventus quickly offered to pay the costs to get him back to Britain alongside his wife, two doctors and a nurse. At 4.30pm on 21 February 2004, at Pinderfields Hospital, he passed away.

A ball boy for Juventus during the great days of Charles’s Italian adventure with Juventus, Roberto Bettega was now president of the club. Speaking after news of the death, his words were for the fans of Juventus, but they would echo the sentiments of the fans who worshipped Charles at Elland Road. “We cry for a great champion, and a great man. John is a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner and represented the sport in the best and purest manner.” Never cautioned or sent off in his entire career, it was a fitting tribute.

Jack Charlton, another of the great Leeds United defenders, and someone who inherited the shirt left by Charles had little doubt about where the Welshman should be ranked among the pantheon of the world’s greatest players, and why. “I had just arrived at Elland Road and they were all talking about John Charles,” Charlton recalled. “He was quick, he was strong, and he could run with the ball. He was half the team in himself. He was tremendous.” But there was to Charles than that. “John Charles was a team unto himself,” Charlton explained. “People often say to me, ‘Who was the best player you ever saw?’ and I answer that it was probably Eusébio, Di Stéfano, Cruyff, Pelé or our Bob (Bobby Charlton). But the most effective player I ever saw, the one that made the most difference to the performance of the whole team, was without question John Charles.” It’s an entirely apt and accurate description. In a period that saw Leeds United rise from being a mediocre second tier club, to one established in the top rank of English football, the overwhelming reason was the emergence and development of John Charles, the boy who came from the Welsh valleys to become a Leeds United legend.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ Leeds United magazine).

Robson – The Sporting Clube de Portugal seasons.

Following his dismissal at PSV, Bobby Robson joined Sporting Clube de Portugal. In a number of ways, the move would be a milestone in Robson’s career, although his time in Lisbon would only last a shade over seventeen months. Portuguese football had traditionally been dominated by the big three clubs in the Primeira Divisão, Benfica, Porto and Sporting. When Robson arrived in the Portuguese capital to take charge on 1 July 1992, between them, the three clubs have been national champions on 57 of the 58 seasons played since the Primeira Divisão was inaugurated in the 1930s. Benfica had triumphed 29 times, Sporting 16 times and Porto on 12 occasions. Only Belenenses had briefly unlocked the Triopoly’s domination – and that was back in the 1945-46 season.

On the face of it therefore, it appeared that Robson was joining one of the country’s elite clubs, with every chance of success. The reality he faced however was quite different. Sporting hadn’t won the league title for a decade – their longest absence from being anointed as the country’s top club in the history of the league – and, in the previous season had finished in an embarrassing fourth place, squeezed out of the top three positions by Boavista. In the season before that, they had finished in third place, but the gap to champions Benfica was a dozen clear points. For both of those seasons, Sporting had been led by the former Brazil captain, Marinho Peres. On 8 March 1992 however, with the club in third place and struggling to keep pace in the league, he was dismissed, António Luís Dominguez replaced him until the season’s end. Whilst, for any new manager, inheriting a successful club is rare indeed, the one that Bobby Robson took charge of on the first day of July 1992 was, in his own words, in ‘a terrible state’.

The former England manager had landed in a new country, to take over a club in decline and run by José de Sousa Cintra, a president that Robson would come to later describe as a ‘loose cannon’. On top of that, the new manager didn’t speak a word of Portuguese and, by and large, the playing staff had a similarly loose grasp of English. There was one major compensation however, that would make itself plain when Robson arrived at Lisbon’s airport. He was met by the man that the club had appointed to ease the new manager through those early difficult days and make communication between him and his players at least functionable. Often described at the time as an ‘interpreter’ even from the start José Mourinho was much more than that, as Manuel Fernandes, the former Sporting playing legend who served as Robson’s assistant explained.

Fernandes knew Mourinho from the time they had worked together at Vitoria de Setubal and Estrela da Amadora. Just 29 at the time, and developing his coaching and tactical knowledge, Fernandes recalled how the Mourinho had studied at school and become fluent in English, and recommended his services to the club – but not only for his translation skills. ‘He was never just a translator at Sporting,’ Fernandes emphasised. ‘I was the first assistant and he was the second assistant. Mr Robson distributed tasks for me and Ze [Mourinho] every day. When he eventually left Sporting, Mr Robson wanted to take Ze with him because he saw what he could do.’

Even with Mourinho there to ease the communication and assist in coaching, plus the services of Dutch defender Stan Valckx, who had followed him from PSV to Lisbon, the first season would always be difficult as Robson sought to bring some order to what was a largely chaotic club run by a president who thought it correct practise to sign players without the manager’s knowledge, let alone his approval.

There was the basis of a more than decent squad present at the club however, with perhaps just the right leadership required to make it blossom. As well as Portugal striker Jorge Cadete, who Robson would turn into the league’s leading marksman in his first season with Sporting, there was also the still largely untapped talents of a young Luís Figo. Still a few months short of his twentieth birthday, the midfielder would be a major asset for the new manager and so impress him, that he would take him to Barcelona a few years later.

The previous term’s fourth place finish in the league had at least ensured European football for Sporting, and they faced Grasshoppers Zurich in the first round of the UEFA Cup. The Swiss club was managed by Leo Beenhakker who had previously been in charge of Ajax, Real Madrid and the Dutch national team amongst many others. Despite their celebrated manager however, Sporting would have considered themselves as strong favourites to progress against a club from what was realistically considered at the time to be very much a second-rate league – especially following the first leg.

On 16 September, with the Primeira Divisão just underway, Robson led Sporting into Europe. Playing the first leg of the tie away, Sporting fell behind to a penalty, ten minutes ahead of the break, converted by Switzerland international Alain Sutter, after Harald Gämperle had been fouled inside the area. With a minute to play before half-time though, Krasimir Balakov, restored parity and secured an important away goal, heading home from a José Leal cross. Things got even better for Robson inside the final ten minutes, as Balakov set up a chance for Andrzej Juskowiak, whose left-footed strike gave Robson and his new team a more than satisfactory away victory. With the home game to come, things were looking bright. Just two weeks later, such assumptions would be swept away as the extent of Robson’s task became clearer.

On 30 September, at the Estádio José Alvalade in front of 40,000 expectant fans, Sporting fell behind to a goal from Brazilian forward Giovane Elber just past the half-hour mark. They still held the advantage thanks to those two away goals, but the lead that had seemed secure was now looking tenuous in the extreme. One more goal for the visitors would drastically swing the balance of the tie. The scoreline remained unchanged until the final half-dozen or so minutes of the game when things deteriorated in a rush of goals.

On 84 minutes, Joël Magnin put the visitors two goals ahead in the game and into the lead on aggregate. Cadete scored a minute later to mirror the scores from the first leg, heading home a cross from José Leal, but it was a temporary respite. In extra-time, it was Elber again putting the Swiss team ahead, and this time the advantage was decisive. Needing to score twice, Sporting fell away and were eliminated.

The old maxim of now being able to concentrate on the league would have offered little comfort to Robson, who needed a period of success to build some momentum to his team. Additionally, Sousa Cintra had, perhaps unrealistic, aspirations of European triumph for his club and, while for the moment, Robson would have been forgiven for failing with a team that had clearly underperformed recently and was new to the Englishman, the following season, European elimination would cost Robson his job.

Former manager Marinho Peres had now landed at Vitória Guimarães, who had finished just one place and three points behind Sporting at the end of the 1991-92 season. Given that the new English coach had been chosen as the long-term replacement for the Brazilian, it’s safe to say that had the Braga-based club performed better than Sporting, Robson’s position would have been in peril. On 28 March though, with Vitória Guimarães in 15th position and in danger of relegation, Marinho Peres was again shown the door. At least Robson had nothing to fear from the Ghost of Seasons Past. 

The league season was very much a mixed bag for Sporting as Robson wrestled to arrest the decline that had set in and point the club in the right direction. They would finish in third place, an improvement on the previous season, and the gap to the top club had closed from 12 points to nine. It was very much a season of transition though, with the benefits hopefully to follow in the new term.

The potential benefits of Robson’s work were already beginning to deliver hints of revival though. In the four games against the other two major clubs, Sporting only suffered a single defeat. A 1-0 loss, at the Estádio da Luz, to a Benfica side boasting the talents of Paulo Futre, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa and Stefan Schwarz was hardly a significant reverse at all though. The next season promised more progress but, three months into the season with prospects very much on the up, the hair-trigger volatility of the club president, would bring Robson’s time in the Portuguese capital to an abrupt end.

In the summer, Sporting had acquired the services of Paulo Sousa from Benfica, and the Portugal international was the ideal creative influence for the side in midfield and the 1993-94 season began spectacularly well. Robson’s team went undefeated for the first eight games, winning seven games and drawing one, including a run of six successive victories from the start of the term. On 24 October, a 3-0 victory over Vitória Guimarães confirmed Sporting’s position at the top of the table and favourites for the title. It seemed that Robson had delivered a spectacularly quick turnaround of the club’s domestic fortunes. Similar progress had been achieved in the UEFA Cup. A first-round victory over the Turkish club Kocaelispor, was followed by success over Celtic. A 1-0 defeat at Parkhead left Sporting with something to do in the return, but a brace by Cadete, with a goal either side of half-time was sufficient to turn the tables and send Sporting into the Round of Sixteen.

Between the two legs of the Celtic tie, Sporting suffered their first league defeat of the season, losing 2-1 at Boavista. It was a blow for the club but, given their electric start, it hardly put a pause into their march forward. Returning to league action after eliminating the Scottish club, a home game against Porto offered the ideal opportunity to restate their title credentials. In a bad-tempered game however, Sporting fell behind to an early goal by Domingos Paciência and, despite pressing, couldn’t get a foothold back in the game.  Successive losses after an eight-game unbeaten run including seven victors, felt like a looming crisis, but Sporting were still top of the league and a home 2-0 win over SV Austria Salzburg in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Round of Sixteen suggested that there was still plenty of hope for the club in European competition.

Four days later, another win, this time in a league fixture away to GD Estoril reaffirmed the Sporting’s domestic credentials and, with a two-goal lead to defend in Austria in the second leg against Salzburg, those two league defeats were now looking like a blip, rather than a sustained problem. The return leg against Salzburg in Austria at the Lehener Stadion on 7 December would, however, be Robson’s last one in charge of Sporting.

Entering the final seconds of the game, all seemed well. Sporting had played out the first 45 minutes without any major problems and, although defender Leo Lainer’s long-range left-footed strike had somehow deceived Costinha in the Sporting goal, two minutes after the restart and offered some hope to the Austrians, entering the last minute of the game, Sporting still led on aggregate. The home team were also down to ten men by this time, after Kurt Garger had been dismissed for a second yellow card offence, handling the ball to prevent Cadete breaking clear of the Salzburg back line, as the home team desperately pressed for the goal that would level the tie. The sending off surely settled the issue.

The 90 minutes had passed with injury time drifting away when a final desperate Salzburg assault saw the ball with Adi Hütter 30 yards or so from goal. With little else on, he chanced his arm with a long shot on goal. The ball bounced on its way, but still, improbably beat a diving Costinha, perhaps hampered by injury, who seemed to misread the pace of the ball. A few second were all that separated sporting, and their English manager, from a place in the quarter-finals. Deep into injury time, the scores were level and extra-time would be required to settle the game.

With both teams tiring, the extra 30 minutes ebbed and flowed, Sporting hit the post but, when the goal came it would be a killer strike for Robson’s team. With six minutes remaining, a fumbled clearance in the Sporting box saw the ball fall towards Hütter who underscored his hero status by volleying an unstoppable shot past Costinha. Shortly afterwards, a truculent Sousa Cintra sacked Robson in a fit of pique.

As with the sacking of Robson at PSV, the move hardly did the club any favours in the short or longer term. Carlos Queiroz was brought in to take over, but the club stumbled from the top spot Robson had taken them to, and finished back in third place. When the Englishman had taken over the club Sporting had been waiting a decade for their next title win. That delay would be extended until the turn of the century, and a further 11 managers would pass through the club before Sporting were crowned as champions once more.

Sousa Cintra’s rationale for sacking Robson had been his failure to deliver European success. The former England manager was dismissed in December 1994. More than a quarter of a century later, Sporting are still waiting for a European triumph. As for Robson, he made the short trip to Porto and began a new project in Portuguese football, delivering success that would have frustrated Sousa Cintra even more.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).

Where ‘Eagles’ Dare – Estádio da Luz.

Since 2011, for every Benfica home game, the Águia Vitória (victory eagle) – in fact a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) – flies over the stadium, alighting on the crest of the club. It is one of the things that marks out this particular stadium as something special. Constructed in 2003 for the UEFA Championships of the following year, Benfica’s Estádio da Luz – Stadium of Light – where the Eagles dare to play such successful football is one of the more iconic football grounds in Europe. Such status if often reserved for stadiums with longer periods of history and whose longevity is replete with episodes of drama or legends of outstanding players, but the stadium located in the aptly named Avienda Eusébio da Silva Ferreira happily, and comprehensively, bucks that trend. Continue reading →