Ronaldo – A season with Barcelona.

When setting out on a path of a nascent career, it’s often sage advice to listen to the sage counsel offered by elders, those who have travelled that journey before you, meaning that following in their footsteps can become a less tortuous trek. The 1994 Brazil squad that travelled to compete in, and ultimately, lift the World Cup in the USA contained two of the finest strikers the South American country has ever produced. Carlos Alberto Parreira’s squad had the established star quality of Romário de Souza Faria, known merely as Romário, and the, as yet untapped, talent of a 17-year-old forward who would grow to outshine the squad’s star striker. His name was Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, known to the footballing world simply as Ronaldo, or O Fenômeno (“The Phenomenon”).

Six years earlier, a 19-year-old Romário had left his native country, and moved to PSV Eindhoven, enjoying five successful years in the Netherlands before Barcelona took him to Catalunya to join the Johan Cruyff ‘Dream Team’ in exchange for a £2million cheque. Now in the middle of his two-season term at the Camp Nou, legend has it that Romário advised the tyro forward, who was being courted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe to take a step into the relatively shallow end of the big pool and join PSV for a couple of seasons to establish himself before considering a dive into the deep end with one of the continent’s behemoth cubs.
The teenager followed the advice and, in the footsteps of Romário, joined the Dutch club, building a fearsome reputation in two seasons full of pulsating performances and goals galore. Despite suffering the first of what would become a series of knee injuries, a tally of 54 goals in just 58 games was evidence of a burgeoning talent.
At the end of the 1996 season, it was clear that Ronaldo’s reputation had outgrown the relatively restrictive environments of the Eredivisie. It was time to hold his nose and jump into the deep end, and there were plenty of suitors seeking his services. Leaked rumours from agents to newspapers fed the feeding frenzy as the giants of the European game circled around, and seductive whispers to the player hinted at the riches that could be garnered by this or that move. For some, the concern over that knee injury cautioned at discretion, but the incandescent light of the teenager’s talent glared brightly. Both Milan clubs and Juventus were interested, as were Manchester United, but they would be disappointed.
After leaving England following the 1990 World Cup, Bobby Robson had coached Romário for two years at PSV before moving to Portugal for a successful four-year period first with Sporting CP and then Porto, collecting trophies and developing his own reputation as an experienced and successful coach. When Cruyff’s notoriously short fuse caused a divorce between coach and club that made Kramer v Kramer appear like a love-in, Barcelona decided that they wanted fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal, to take over. The problem was that Van Gaal’s contract with Ajax prevented him taking up the post until the summer of 1997. Barça needed someone to step in for a season and keep things on the straight and narrow until Van Gaal could take over, and approached the Englishman.
Seduced by the opportunity to coach one of the greatest cubs in the world, Robson swopped Porto for Barcelona, and became the man who convinced the Blaugrana hierarchy to break the transfer world record with a £19.5million move to ensure that Ronaldo would continue to track the moves of Romário and exchange the quieter backwaters of Dutch football for the goldfish bowl experience of playing for Barcelona. With Cruyff now gone, and what was considered by many to be a low-key appointment to replace him, Barcelona were keenly aware that they needed to reassure their fans, as Robson recalled. ‘The President [Josep Lluís Núñez] 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.’ Still a teenager and with just two seasons of European club football behind him – and suffering an injury that meant he missed all but 20 games of his second season, that risk was clear, but so was the talent, and Robson’s assessment delivered great dividends.
On 17 July 1996, in Miami, where the Brazilian squad were preparing for the Atlanta Olympic Games, accompanied by Barcelona vice President Joan Gaspart, a beaming Ronaldo with the toothy smile that would become his trademark together with the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ arms outspread goal celebration, held up a Blaugrana shirt and was presented to the Barcelona fans as their latest acquisition. Robson was delighted. As he later recalled, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player at that age have so much’. Under the Englishman, still only 19 at the time of entering the Camp Nou, Ronaldo would deliver a legendary season that no Cule, who experienced his time there, would ever forget.
Om 20 August 1996, Ronaldo first trotted into action on the Camp Nou pitch in a Trofeu Joan Gamper game against the Argentine club San Lorenzo, for a 30-minute introduction to the fans from the substitutes’ bench. The following day, another brief cameo saw him play for 20-odd minutes against Internazionale – twelve months later Ronaldo would be wearing the Nerazzurri colours of the Italian club. Barça would win both games, but the Brazilian failed to find the net in either appearance. When the at least semi-serious stuff got under way on 25 August however, and Atlético Madrid visited the Camp Nou for the first leg of the Supercopa de España, it took him just five minutes to open his goalscoring account. A second goal a minute before time ensured the club had a healthy 5-2 lead to take back to the capital for the return.
Had it been a bit of a false dawn though? Before the return, Barcelona played their first two La Liga games, away to Oviedo and then in the ‘Derby’ game at the Camp Nou against Espanyol. Again, Ronaldo drew blanks, and then missed the return game at the Vicente Calderón, where Barça locked out the aggregate win to collect their first trophy of the season. Some fans began to wonder if the hype around the new arrival had been mere promotional hubris. If goals were needed to dismiss such concerns, Ronaldo would deliver.
Across the next nine games, the first a Cup Winners Cup encounter against the Cypriots of AEK Larnaca and then eight La Liga fixtures, the Brazilian would find the back of the net 14 times, only failing to score in the home game against Tenerife and on the visit to Andalusia to face Sevilla.
In the first game following the draw with Tenerife, Ronaldo would score what was surely the goal of the season, and for many, one of the greatest goals ever seen in Spanish domestic football when the Blaugrana travelled to Galicia to face Sociedad Deportiva Compostela on 12 October. The home club is based in the city of Santiago de Compostela, where the reported tomb of Saint James provides the culmination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), a testing journey for Catholic pilgrims stretching from France. In this game, Ronaldo would lead the home defence on a Camino of their own, burying them with a goal worthy of adulation.
Barcelona were already two goals clear when the Brazilian bullied one of the home players out of possession around the halfway line and, despite having his shirt pulled, set off towards goal. From there, with a combination of power, determination and no little skill, he beat six more players before placing the ball into the net. As he rolled the ball home, Robson rose from the bench holding his arms in the air, then placed his hands on his head in sheer disbelief at what he had just been privileged to witness.
It was one of the Ronaldo’s two goals in that game, but a strike of rare quality and Nike, the player’s sponsors, took full advantage. Interspersed with flashes and dramatic backing track of clashing noises, the American sportswear giant produced an advert opening with the words, ‘What if you asked God to make you the best soccer player in the world? And he was listening?’ the film of Ronaldo’s goal then runs and ends simply with his name. It’s unknown how many more of the company’s items were sold on the back of the promotion, but it left an indelible mark on football, promoting the Brazilian as the image of Nike and a star of the game.
A further two goals were added the following week in the eight-goal romp against Logroñés and, on 25 October, a 3-2 win against Valencia saw Ronaldo net his first hat-trick for the club. The first goal was a herald of what so many of the striker’s goals would look like. Pace and power bursting through the Valencia back line, he closed on former Barça goalkeeper Zubizarreta ‘giving him the eyes’ left, before clipping the ball past him into the opposite corner with nonchalant confidence. Peeling away to receive the adulation of the crowd, the outstretched arms celebration was now becoming a regular feature of Barcelona games.
His second strike followed a counterattack from a Valencia corner. A headed clearance fell to Figo who controlled before drilling a 50-metre pass that found Ronaldo sprinting clear. Exquisite control, and a driving run. that denied any meaningful challenge. was finished by a drilled left-foot shot into the corner of the net. Ten minutes later, the Camp Nou rose to applaud their team and star striker from the field with a 2-0 lead and the game surely won.
Within a dozen minutes of the restart however, the scores were all square again as Valencia plundered two early goals. It was left to Ronaldo to win the game again for his team, with the best goal of the game. Barcelona had pressed for the third goal, but returning to the Camp Nou, with a combination of agility, good fortune and belligerent defiance, Zubizarreta had denied them. With 15 minutes to play, Valencia looked likely to escape with a draw, but as Ronaldo gained possession on the edge of the centre circle, such aspirations were about to be cast aside. There were four defenders between the Brazilian and Zubizarreta as he advanced with the ball at his feet. It was nowhere near enough. Striding forward, he dismissed a couple of challenges as swotting away a fly, entered the penalty area, he then opened his body and coolly slotted the winner home. Great players score great goals. Great players score important goals. Great players win games for their club. Ronaldo was, without doubt a great player. Barcelona were top of the league and numbered among their squad, La Liga’s nearest thing to a nuclear deterrent. Ronaldo’s season in Catalunya was going like a bomb.
Injury had denied Ronaldo the chance to play against Red Star in the first leg of next round of the Cup Winners Cup, but a 3-1 win had set things up nicely for the return leg six days after the victory over Valencia. A visit to Belgrade’s Rajko Mitic Stadium with a lead to protect is hardly the sort of game for an all action attacking display, and Robson would have been well content with a 1-1 draw to see the club through to the last of the competition, even with Ronaldo drawing a rare blank.
Across the next nine La Liga games though, what had looked like a mere blip, perhaps caused by sensibly defensive orientation for a difficult away leg, seemed to develop into something more serious. Ronaldo was absent for drawn games at home to Sporting de Gijón, and then away to Atleti, before returning against Real Valladolid and scoring in a 6-1 win. It would be his last goal for half-a-dozen games, including the first Clásico of the season where Robson’s team lost out 2-0 Real Madrid in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. The result would carry great significance at the end of the season, as would the game when Ronaldo finally found his shooting boots again in the home game against Hércules CF on 13 January 1997.
The Alicante-based club would be relegated at the end of the season, with a goal difference of -52, far and away the worst in the entire division, and yet were the only club to beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the entire season. Ronaldo got back on the goal trail after 15 minutes, adding to Luis Enrique’s opening goal. Defeat over one of the weakest clubs in the division looked assured with plenty more goal to come. Remarkably however, Barcelona conceded three times without reply and were beaten. Hércules were far from finished with raining on Barcelona’s parade though and would inflict even more damage later in the season. By then though, the dream of Ronaldo at Barcelona was turning into something entirely different. The defeats had damaged Barça’s league standing and they were now in third place, their lowest mark of the season. The club needed their Brazilian to start firing again. Fortunately, the goal against Hércules breached the dam.
A goal in the 2-4 win away to Real Betis was followed up by a brace in the six-goal triumph over Rayo Vallecano. It set things up nicely for a Copa del Rey tie against Real Madrid. On 30 January, the Camp Nou was packed with more than 95,000 fans as the cup competition offered an opportunity for a quick riposte to the reverse suffered against Los Blancos a few weeks earlier.
Ronaldo had already seen one shot evade visiting German goalkeeper Illgner’s stretching right hand but also slide past the far post after a driving run, when he opened the scoring on 13 minutes. A delicately placed through ball caught the Real Madrid defence square and, once clear of the back line, there was no catching the Brazilian as he easily converted to give Barcelona the lead, turning away with arms outstretched and sending the Cules into raptures of delight. After that, the game would swing this way and that as the teams struggled for the advantage. At the full-time whistle however, a tenuous 3-2 lead was all the Catalans had to take to the capital.
Before the return, a 2-2 draw against Real Oviedo saw Ronaldo score again, but the result did little to eat into the lead that Los Blancos had created at the top of the league. At least there was the satisfaction however, of completing the Copa del Rey elimination of Barcelona’s bitter rivals with a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on 6 February. That month however would prove to be a decisive period in the league season for the club.
Beginning with the draw with Oviedo on 2 February, Barcelona would play seven games up to including a shocking 4-0 defeat away to Tenerife on 1 March. In that time, they would only win twice and lose three times. Ronaldo would only score in one of those, netting a hat-trick in the 4-1 trouncing of Real Zaragoza.
The Cup Winners Cup returned after that defeat in the Canary Islands, and Ronaldo netted in the 3-1 home first leg win over the Swedish club AIK Solna. The victory heralded an uplift in for the club that would see them only lose two more games until the end of the season. It also saw the beginning of a rich vein of goals from Ronaldo.
A 3-0 victory over Compostela, victims of his ‘wonder goal’ earlier in the season, saw him score again, topping out a 3-0 win in the next La Liga game. Ronaldo had missed the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final but a 2-2 draw, away to Atlético Madrid had left Barcelona with every chance of passage to the last four of the competition. The return leg however would be one of the games of the season, and the Brazilian striker would figure prominently.
Any confidence garnered from the draw in the capital had evaporated by the 30 minutes mark, with Atléti scoring three times without reply and apparently coasting to victory. With Ronaldo in your team however, the cause is hardly ever lost. Robson took off two defenders, gambling with extra forwards and following a half-time rallying call, the comeback of the season was on track. Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored the first goal and, four minutes later the visitors’ lead was hanging by a thread when he netted again.
Milinko Pantić had scored all three of Atléti’s first-half goals and he restored a measure of the advantage just past the hour mark, to make the score 2-4. Barcelona and Ronaldo were far from done though. Figo scored their third goal on 67 minutes and the Brazilian completed his hat-trick, four minutes later to square the tie before Pizzi scored the decisive goal inside the final ten minutes to send Barcelona into the semi-finals and the Camp Nou into delirium. Robson’s substitutions and inspiring half-time talk was doubtless a key factor, but it’s doubtful if such a resurrection could have been achieved without the stunning play of Ronaldo. Any team who decided to stand toe-to-toe in a goals slugfest against a side featuring Ronaldo were always likely to end up on the wrong end of the result.
Four days after the pulsating victory, Barcelona travelled to UD Logroñés for a La Liga fixture. They would win 0-1 but, despite playing the 90 minutes of the game, Ronaldo wouldn’t score. The next run of games would show that to be a particularly unusual statistic. A Ronaldo goal on 12 minutes in the return leg against Solna in the club’s next game was enough to ease Barcelona into the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup, where they would face the Serie A club Fiorentina the following month.
Back in domestic matters another goal contributed to a 4-0 victory over Sevilla on 23 March to keep the club’s league title aspirations alive and, three days later, a brace in the 0-4 demolition of Las Palmas in the first leg of the last four encounter of the Cops del Rey all but rendered the return leg redundant. Impressively, in one of Europe’s top leagues, Ronaldo was now almost guaranteeing at least one goal per game at this crucial stage of the season. At the end of the month another strike earned a 1-1 draw in Valencia as Ronaldo’s 69th minute goal equalised Machado’s first-half goal.
Moving into April, Sporting de Gijón were given short shrift at the Camp Nou as Barcelona rattled in another four goals without reply. Ronaldo, of course, getting his regular goal per game strike. Three days later, the forward was rested as Barcelona cruised into the Copa del Rey Final firing a further three goals past a hapless Las Palmas team. The ‘rest’ was understandable as the key fixtures of the season were on the horizon. The final wouldn’t happen until the end of June. Although few suspected it at as the teams left the field after the semi-final, when the destination of the trophy was decided, Ronaldo wouldn’t be there.
The home leg against Fiorentina was closely contested and the Italians’ defence became one of the very few to deny Ronaldo a goal in a 1-1 draw. The return leg in Italy would be a severe test for the team in pursuit of European glory, with a win likely to be needed if progression to the final was to be achieved. Before the return leg though, Barcelona played out another three league fixtures. A 2-5 win over Atléti at the at the Vicente Calderón confirmed not only Barcelona’s apparent superiority over the home team, but also Ronaldo’s propensity to score against them at will as he rattled in another hat-trick. A 3-2 defeat away to Real Valladolid, the club that Ronaldo would later take over many years later, seriously dented Barcelona’s drive towards the league title, as Ronaldo scored the only goal in the 3-2 reverse. Finally, the second goal in a 2-0 home victory over Sporting de Gijón set the team up for the visit to Italy. In a game where defence was key for the Catalan club, it was of little surprise that the Brazilian’s chances to add to his fearsome tally were few and far between, but a tactical masterclass by Robson masterclass saw Barcelona over the line with a 0-2 win and passage to the Cup Winners Cup Final.
Success, of course, especially of the level that Ronaldo was delivering, can be a two-edged sword and, despite a reportedly long-term contract being agreed after the move from PSV, those clubs who had hesitated twelve months ago, where now casting envious eyes at the most valuable property in world football. Understandably, Barcelona sought to agree a new deal with the player that would tie him to the club. Negotiations began but, following the triumph in Florence, the striker would play just five more games for the club. Barcelona would win them all and, of course, he scored in a goal in each one.
A 1-3 victory over CD Extremadura began May’s fixtures, but the next game, the return Clásico was much more important, especially given the club’s league defeat in the capital earlier in the season. In a closely contested game that may have eliminated Barcelona’s title hopes had they been defeated, Ronaldo was the man to deliver at the decisive moment. Just ahead of the break, a run into the box from Figo was halted by Roberto Carlos’ crude challenge. Ronaldo’s low shot from the spot was blocked by Illgner, but when the rebound was squared back to the Brazilian, he tapped the ball into the unguarded net, before delivering his customary celebration. Surely there was no way that the cub would allow him to leave now.
Four days later, a confident Barcelona team travelled to Rotterdam to face Paris Saint-Germain in the Cup Winners Cup Final. As with so many European finals, the game was disappointing as a spectacle but, on this occasion, when presented with an opportunity from 12 yards, Ronaldo despatched the penalty and the trophy went to Catalunya.
There would be just two games remaining in Ronaldo’s season with Barça, although the club had a greater number to complete. Goals in each of a 1-3 win away to Celta Vigo and then at home to Deportivo La Coruna saw his Camp Nou race run. Contract talks that originally looked on the way to a happy conclusion had broken down and for the following season, Ronaldo would take his goals to Intetrnazionale.
Another record transfer fee, making Ronaldo only the second player in history to twice break the world transfer record, alongside Maradona, boosted Barcelona’s bank balance, but that was scant compensation to the Cules and coach Robson who also would only serve one season before Van Gaal moved in, and the Englishman was promoted upstairs.
Reflecting on his time with Ronaldo, Robson would remark that he “was marvellous …. out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete … The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.” From someone who knew the player better than most, it’s an apt summary of Ronaldo’s season at Barcelona.

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

Leônidas da Silva

In 1936, Leônidas da Silva left Botafogo to join Flamengo. Already a star in the domestic Brazilian game and an established player with the Selaçao, across the next half-dozen seasons his reputation as one of the all-time greatest players from that South American cradle of footballing gods would be firmly established. Short in stature, but big in ability and goals, his talent was the kind to put fans on the edge of their seats, entertain and thrill. It’s that extra special ability that marks a player out as a world star. 

Leônidas was born in Rio de Janeiro in September 1913 at a time when access to football clubs presented anything but an easy path for black players, regardless of ability. At that time football was very much an elitist sport, with its European hierarchy keen to maintain a perceived purity by limiting access along demarcated lines of class and colour. Until 1918 the Federacao Brasileira de Sports had prohibited any black players from taking part in team games, let alone joining and representing football clubs. Change came in agonisingly small steps though and, even after the prohibition ended, on into the 1920s, black players were seldom seen representing clubs in Rio de Janeiro.

By 1923 however, when Vasco da Gama won the Rio state championship with several players of various backgrounds, both in terms of class and colour, it was becoming increasingly clear that to prosper, Brazilian clubs would need to abandon their trenchant and abhorrent limits to access. This change would allow players of Leônidas da Silva’s generation to rise from prescribed obscurity to international fame. By 1933, legalisation of the professional game in Brazil was conceded, partly compelled by a desire to prevent the country’s greatest talents seeking fame and fortune elsewhere was passed and, for a 20-year-old Leônidas, despite some clubs clinging on to old ways, a door was opened.

As a precocious teenager, Leônidas had begun his career at the local junior club São Cristóvão, before moving to Sírio e Libanez, where he came under the eye of coach Gentil Cardoso, who would be an important figure in his next career step. Cardoso moved on to Bonsucesso and, the young Leônidas’ goal-a-game strike rate was sufficient to convince the coach to take the blossoming talent across Rio de Janeiro with him.

If anyone had thought that his early form would not be sustained at the new club, 23 goals in his single season with the Rubro-Anil, quickly diminished such doubts. His performances for the club saw him selected to represent Rio in an interstate game against São Paulo. For some, the selection of a still teenage Leônidas may have looked a little presumptuous, but bagging a brace in a 3-0 victory confounded the doubters and suggested a higher accolade was on the way.

It was, and later the same year he was called up for the national squad, although not selected for the starting team. That would need to wait until the following year when a debut for the Selaçao came in a game against Uruguay in Montevideo. Netting both goals in a 1-2 victory for Brazil was sufficient to both establish him on the international team, and convince Peñarol that his services would be beneficial to the club.

It was also while still at Bonsucesso that Leônidas first deployed a skill that would become his trademark. During a game against Carioca in April 1932, standing with his back towards goal a cross seemed to have drifted too far behind him for any attempt on goal. Arching his back however, Leônidas threw himself into windmill motion with his feet suddenly appearing above his head and volleyed the ball into the net. Although the true inventor of the bicycle kick remains shrouded in the mists of history, with some convinced that the technique had been deployed elsewhere in South America before Leônidas’ agility confounded the watching crowd on that April afternoon, it was the teenage forward who forever afterwards would be associated with its introduction to the world.

 In 1933, Peñarol swooped to take him to Montevideo and an entrance into the professional game, unavailable at the time in Brazil. A short stay in Uruguay was successful enough as Leônidas found the back of the net 11 tines in 16 league outings for the club but, with the new legislation allowing professionalism back in Brazil now in force, the siren calls of a return home were persuasive enough to persuade the forward to return to Brazil, joining Vasco da Gama, and helping them win the Rio state championship.

With his reputation now growing, a journey to the 1934 World Cup in Italy was assured, but Europe would have to wait another four years before the full flowering of Leônidas’ would be displayed before them. A first round 3-1 defeat to Spain in Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris, meant the shortest of World Cup journeys was brought to an abrupt halt. Inevitably however, it was Leônidas who scored Brazil’s sole goal of the tournament, ten minutes after half-time. By this stage of the game however, Spain were already three goals clear and the young forward’s goal was merely a consolation and, perhaps, an hors d’oeuvre for what would follow four years later, fittingly in France.

After returning from the World Cup, Leônidas joined Botafogo securing another Rio state championship, before the move that every Flamengo fan rejoices in as, now 23 years old, and entering his prime, he joined the Rubro-Negro. It was a time of massive change for a club once regarded as one of the most elitist and reticent to change. The signing of Leônidas, one of the club’s first black players, was an illustration of the changes apparent at the club.

José Bastos Padilha had assumed presidency of the club in 1934 and began to institute the changes that would elevate Flamengo from merely being one of a number of similar clubs in Rio de Janeiro to becoming the state’s, and perhaps even the country’s, most popular club. As well as the dashing talents of Leônidas, Flamengo also acquired the services of Domingos da Guia, bringing the Brazil international defender back home after a two-year exile in Argentina with Boca Juniors. Both would become adored by the Flamengo fans as icons of the club’s success.

The following year, the Hungarian coach Izidor Kürschner joined the club, bringing a European style of disciplined play with him and, combining it with the natural Brazilian ebullience, set the stage for success, although Kürschner would not be around long enough to enjoy it. In September 1938, a game was arranged against Vasco da Gama to inaugurate the club’s new stadium, the Estádio da Gávea. By now with Leônidas delivering goals, the club’s stock was on the rise. An unexpected two-goal defeat deflated the plans though and Kürschner was dismissed. Fortunately, however, his patterns of play had been established at the club and much of the success that would had been set in motion during his time in Rio..

Despite the legalisation of professionalism in 1933, a number of clubs in the Rio state had declared against the change, stubbornly hanging on to their amateur status and the self-aggrandisement that came with it, creating a split and two leagues in the state. Five years later the tide of reality had swept such reticence away and the two leagues combined. Flamengo had been part of the professional Liga Carioca de Football, but despite competing in a weakened format for five years, had failed to win a state title for a dozen seasons. That would now change. Before that however, Leônidas had unfinished business with the World Cup.

The fame and reputation of Brazil had hardly been enhanced by their route to France, as the withdrawal of Argentina had sent the Selaçao across the Atlantic without having to kick a ball in anger. The reputation of Leônidas hardly needed further promotion however, and he landed in France as one of the most eagerly anticipated arrivals. Brazil’s opening game was played on a rain-sodden pitch at Strasbourg’s Stade de la Meinau, and Leônidas quickly proved that reports of his prowess were certainly more than mere hubris.

With his Flamengo team-mate, Domingos da Guia, alongside him, playing as the centre forward of the Brazil team, he opened the scoring after just 18 minutes. The game had any number of twists and turns to come though. By the break, Brazil led 3-1 but at the end of 90 minutes the scores were back level again at 4-4.

To crash out at the first time of asking in successive World Cups was now unthinkable to Leônidas, and three minutes into extra-time he put Brazil back ahead. The goal was remarkable for being scored wearing just one boot. By this time, pitch had turned into a mud bath, with the cloying surface only reluctantly relinquishing its hold on players as they trudged wearily on. As Leônidas closed in on the Polish goal, the mud refused to release his right boot, clinging desperately to it like a spurned lover. It tore clear of his foot and he ran to score in his stockinged foot. Fortunately, with Brazil playing in black socks, and the mud covering Leônidas’ foot, the missing boot was not noticed by the referee, and the goal was awarded. Ten minutes later, he added his hat-trick goal, this time fully shod, and a later Polish goal was insufficient to redress the balance. Brazil prevailed 6-5 thanks to Leônidas’ goals, and Poland went home.

The victory sent Brazil into the last eight to face Czechoslovakia at the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux. If the first contest had been full of goals, this was one full of controversy – plus goals and outrageous skill by Leônidas, of course.

Inside ten minutes, Brazil were down to ten men when Zezé Procópio was dismissed by Hungarian referee Pál von Hertzka. In typical Leônidas fashion however, the iconic forward put the Selaçao ahead on the half-hour mark. It was a lead the ten men held onto until midway through the second-half when a hand ball in the area by Domingos da Guia, allowed Oldřich Nejedlý to equalise from the penalty spot. Despite extra-time being played, there were no more goals, but plenty of other action.

On the Czech side, goalscorer Oldřich Nejedlý left the field after reportedly fracturing an arm, and skipper and goalkeeper František Plánička broke a leg, but heroically stayed on the pitch. For Brazil, both Leônidas and Perácio Brazil were compelled to leave the field injured and, with the Brazilian Arthur Machado and the Czechoslovak Jan Říha both sent off in the final minute of the regulation 90, and no substitutes allowed for the injured players, it’s interesting to contemplate how many were left on the field to contest the closing minutes of the game.

In a game that resembled a battlefield there was one moment of mesmerising action when Leônidas attempted a shot with his trademark bicycle kick. Never having seen such extravagance previously, it initially left Von Hertzka confused as to whether the technique was within the laws of the game, and afterwards, Paris Match mused over the incident, suggesting that, “Whether he’s on the ground or in the air, that rubber man has a diabolical gift for bringing the ball under control and unleashing thunderous shots when least expected.”

Two days later, in the replay, Leônidas scored, more conventionally, to equalise Kopecký’s opening goal and, five minutes later, Roberto scored the winner to put Brazil into the semi-finals of the World Cup, and a mouthwatering contest against the reigning champions, Italy.. The physical endeavours against the Czechs would exact an expensive price though. Despite scoring in the replay, the injuries sustained by Leônidas would prevent him from facing the Azzurri. Without their star forward, the Selaçao would lose out 2-1 to the Italians, who would go on to retain their title.

Returning for the play-off game against Sweden to decide third place, Leônidas posed the question as to how different things would have been against the Azzurri had he played. He scored twice against the Swedes as Brazil ran out 4-2 winners to secure the bronze medal. The goals elevated him to top spot in the goalscoring table, securing both the FIFA World Cup Golden Boot and FIFA World Cup Golden Ball. His selection in the tournament’s all-star team was the most obvious of calls.

Back home, glory followed for Leônidas with Flamengo as they won the Campeonato Carioca, finishing three points clear of Botafogo. It was their first state title for 12 years and set the foundations in place for a team that would go on win the title three times in the following decade. His time wearing the famous red and black shirts of Flamengo was however coming towards an end, just as it reached its zenith. In 1941, he was convicted of forgery, and attempting to avoid compulsory military call-up, leading to an eight-month prison sentence. He wouldn’t play for Flamengo again,, and would later move to São Paulo where he would play until 1950, retiring at 37 years of age.

Across the years, many Brazilian forwards have been lauded for their play. The likes of Pelé Jairzinho, Romário, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Zico and Garrincha are names that trip of the tongue leaving the sweetest of tastes. In another era, one where a global television audience could have delighted in the exploits of Leônidas da Silva’s extravagant skills, he would surely share a place with them in the pantheon of Brazilian superstars. Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case. For fans of Flamengo however, he will always be one of the country’s greatest stars.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times – Flamengo’ magazine)

‘Out of the Blue – Chelsea’s unlikely Champions League Triumph

I’m delighted to announce that my next book, “Out of the Blue -Chelsea’s unlikely Champions League triumph” will be published on 11 April. It traces the remarkable tale of the club’s 2012 season that went from the depths of disappointment and a spiralling tailspin of decline, to culminate in what Martin Tyler described as “The greatest night in the history of Chelsea Football Club.”

You can pre-order on Amazon to secure your copy now. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Out-Blue-Chelseas-Unlikely-Champions/dp/1801500819/ref=sr_1_5?crid=3HMAT9YE71O9O&keywords=gary+thacker&qid=1646649708&s=books&sprefix=Gary+Tha%2Cstripbooks%2C2014&sr=1-5

Müller v Lewandowski

If, as a famous showbiz celebrity once said, “points make prizes” in TV game shows, in football it’s goals that deliver trophies. That’s why so many of the clubs to have dominated European football across the decades have numbered a top marksman among their players as they accumulated silverware. These are the players that make the difference. In the biggest games, they score the important goals, and plenty of them. The great Real Madrid sides of the late 1950s had Di Stefano, Benfica had Eusebio, Ajax had Cruyff and Milan had Van Basten.

Very few clubs, though, can look back over their history and celebrate two occasions where their domestic and European dominance has been powered by the potent force of one of the world’s most efficient goal scorers. Bayern Munich however, can claim membership to that most exclusive of clubs. In the late 1960s and across the following decade, Gerd Müller, ‘Der Bomber’, was the sharpest of cutting edges that saw the club slice through opposition defences with merciless efficiency.

Thirty years after Müller hung up his boots, another striker, albeit of a different type took up the mantle when Polish striker Robert Lewandowski joined Die Roten from Borussia Dortmund. As fate would have it, neither striker cost the club a fee. Müller moved to the Bavarian club from minor club 1861 Nördlingen in 1964 and Lewandowski joined on a free transfer after his contract at Dortmund had expired. The old saying that anything that costs nowt is worth nowt, could hardly ever have been wider of the mark as both players would go on to achieve legendary status with Bayern Munich!

When a club has had two such globally acclaimed marksmen in their squads, over the years, inevitably debate ensues as to which of these outstanding talents best served the club. While such things are often useful topics for discussion over a few beers with diverse opinions flowing as freely as the alcohol, undisputed conclusions may be less easy to reach. Pursuing a definitive answer is as elusive as a clean sheet attained against either of these forwards but, let’s see take a look at each of their records and see what we think. There are many similarities and just as many differences between the two forwards to clarify and, also perhaps, confuse, the issue. At the end of this, you may not agree with my conclusion, but at least it’ll feed into the debate.   

Somewhat fittingly for a player who would become a legend with region’s most famous club, Gerd Müller was born in Bavaria, just over a couple of months after the end of World War Two. He was born and raised in the town of Nördlingen, part of the Donau-Ries district, in Swabia, and joined Bayern after playing with local club, TSV 1861 Nördlingen in the Bezirksliga Schwaben league.

Scoring more than 50 goals in a shade over 30 games was enough to bring the teenager to the attention of Bayern, who were then playing in the second tier Regionalliga Süd of the German league pyramid. There had also been an opportunity at the time to sign for 1860 Munich, who were in the Bundesliga, and the top club in Munich at the time. Instead, the youngster opted for red, rather than blue, as joining the lower league club would give him a greater opportunity of breaking into the first team. It was a momentous decision for all concerned and, across the next 15 years, his goals would take the club from the relative obscurity of second tier domestic competition, to the pinnacle of European club football domination.

Bayern already had the nucleus of the team who would later deliver Bayern’s their most successful era. When Müller, Sepp Maier and Franz Beckenbauer were already at the club and the newcomer’s goals would light the blue touchpaper, igniting the legendary period of success. In his first term, Müller scored 33 league goals in just 26 appearances, as Bayern powered to the top of the table scoring 146 times in the process. The next highest total was 87. They then topped their Promotion Play-Off group to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga. The German top tier didn’t know what was about to hit them.

Despite what would later seem like a restrained goal tally of 16 across all competitions, in his first season at German domestic football’s highest level Müller and team-mates lifted the DFB-Pokel to announce their arrival, and then retained the trophy the following year as Müller’s goals total rose to 43 in 45 appearances. Across the next couple of seasons, those goal tallies were 30 and then 37 as Bayern first took the league title and then lifted the DFB-Pokel again.

The 1969-70 was a rare trophy-less season for Die Roten but, when Müller returned from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico where he had underscored his ability by winning the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer with ten strikes, three ahead of Brazil’s Jairzinho, the next few seasons would see a stratospheric level of success for the club and goalscoring by Müller. Thirty-nine goals and another DFB-Pokel triumph in the next season were merely the hors d’oeuvres for what would follow.

In 1971-72, Bayern would win the first of three successive Bundesliga trophies, and Müller would break the Bundesliga single season scoring record, netting 40 times in 34 games. It’s a record that stood for almost 50 years, until a certain Polish striker, playing for the same club, usurped it in the 2020-21 season. If goals were the most precious of footballing currencies, Müller’s bank was overflowing the following year. He scored 66 goals across all competitions in 49 games for the club. Eleven of those strikes came in the European Cup when, despite Müller being the competitions top scorer with 11 goals. They would count for nothing in the end though. Bayern fell to reigning champions Ajax after a humbling 4-0 defeat in Amsterdam. The club would only have to endure a brief wait to reach Europe’s top table though.

If volume was the key in that season, during the one that followed it would be the value of each strike that was just as important. Once more the Bundesliga title was secured and this time, with Ajax’s reign crumbling as they were eliminated from the European Cup by the Bulgarians of CSKA, the throne as kings of Europe was vacated. Bayern would claim that seat by defeating Atlético Madrid in Brussels Heysel Stadium. Müller would score twice in the 4-0 victory, taking his tournament total to eight, and become top scorer once again.

It was a season of great triumph for Müller on the international scene as well. That summer West Germany would win the World Cup, defeating the brilliant Oranje side of Cruyff, et al in the final played at Bayern’s own Olympiastadion and it was the Bayern striker who scored the winning goal. It took his total of goals in World Cup Finals to 14, a record at the time and was the last of 68 goals for the Mannschaft, accumulated in just 62 games in the national team across eight years.

He would again be top scorer in the European Cup the following season, scoring five goals as the trophy was retained and would be again in 1975-76. There was one more step for Bayern to take in order to establish themselves as the top football club on the planet and they achieved that the following season, defeating South American champions Cruzeiro of Brazil. It was, of course, Müller who broke the resistance of the Brazilians in the home leg, scoring after 80 minutes before a second goal rounded out the win. A goalless draw in Brazil confirmed Bayern’s status. It would be Der Bomber’s final trophy with the club, before retiring after the 1979-80 season.

Some would argue that Müller was fortunate that for much of his time with the club, Bayern were the dominant force not only in German football, but also in European competition, and that much of his success was due to that. It’s perhaps an argument that has some merit, but also many flaws. The counter logic is that it was very much the case that Müller’s goals fuelled the success and, had he not have been there, perhaps that era may not have materialised. That same argument however, may apply more to the success that Robert Lewandowski achieved with Bayern.

In contrast to Müller’s arrival at Bayern as a promising but unproven teenager, Lewandowski was very much the finished article when he joined the club. The Pole had played for five years in his native league, before his Lech Poznań haul of 24 goals in 34 games across the 2009-10 season convinced Borussia Dortmund to lay out the relatively meagre fee of €4.5 million to take him to the Bundesliga.

In four seasons at the Westfalenstadion a haul of 103 goals in 107 games would make him the hottest of hot properties among Europe’s elite goal scorers and his decision to allow the contract with the club to run down meant that he could sign a pre-contract agreement with Bayern in January 2014 and join the club at the end of the2014-15 season. Bayern had acquired another legendary striker without having to lay out the millions of euros that their talents surely would deserve.

Whereas Müller had joined a club that couldn’t claim to be the best in Munich, let alone in Germany or across Europe, when Lewandowski moved, the club were not only the reigning German champions and cup holders, but had won the Bundesliga title in nine of the seasons since the turn of the century and lifted eight DFB-Pokels in the same period and won the Champions League two seasons earlier. It’s an arguable point that Lewandowski had the easier task assuming iconic status with a dominant Bayern than Müller did with a struggling one. Equally however, it could be argued that it was far easier for Müller to establish himself in a second-tier team, and remember, he purposely chose Bayern on over 1960 Munich for that precise reason, than for Lewandowski to risk his growing reputation by joining a club where his inclusion in the team would be put to the sternest of tests.

Sure enough, much as was the case with Müller, the Polish striker’s first season with the club was probably best described as a steady start, rather than a spectacular one, but it would provide a solid base to build outstanding success upon. From that season onwards, Bayern would retain the German league title every year, up to and including the recently completed 2020-21 season, with precious little suggestion of that situation changing any time soon.

Lewandowski’s goals would be a key element in that success and, after his initial season brought a mere 17 Bundesliga goals in 31 appearances, 186 goals in 189 Bundesliga appearances made him the most prolific striker in Germany. Three DFB-Pokels were also secured, together with four DFL-Supercup, a UEFA Super cup and FIFA Club World Cup. In 2019-20 season though as the Covid pandemic forced a radically different conclusion to the format of the Champions League conclusion, Bayern reclaimed their crown as the best club in Europe winning the trophy in splendid isolation at an empty Estádio da Luz, Lisbon against Paris Saint-Germain. To echo, or arguably surpass, Müller previous exploits in the same competition, Lewandowski was the tournament’s top scorer, and his total of 14 topped any of Müller’s in previous seasons.

Last season, Lewandowski also lowered the flag on another of Müller’s achievements. The record of 40 Bundesliga goals in a season had stood unchallenged for almost half a century but, when Bayern achieved their 51st league title last season, Lewandowski contribution of 41 goals in just 29 Bundesliga outings finally eclipsed that mark. To have achieved such a tally at all is truly remarkable. To have done in a mere 29 games, when it had taken Müller five games more to score one goal less, elevates it to the level of legendary status, as the player himself acknowledged. “I don’t fully realize it yet. Of course, I am very proud and happy but I think it will only get through to me with time … I must admit that I thought it was impossible to do.”

To look back on the Bayern careers of the two strikers is both illuminating, and provides conclusive evidence that each was an outstanding striker and yet, perhaps due to the differing eras in which they played, less than fully helpful, and a more prosaic analysis looking at broad statistics may be more productive.

Gerd Müller was a one-club man once he had left his home town club and played in Bayern red for 15 years. In that time, he scored 563 goals for the club, averaging 37.53 per year. Comparing goals to games ratios, those 563 goals came in 605 appearances, equating to 0.93 per game. It’s a highly impressive series of statistics, especially when considering that many of those goals were scored in European football’s premier club competition, but Lewandowski’s figures hardly pale by comparison.

The Polish striker will be 33 by the time the new season gets under and may still have a few years – and goals – remaining at the height of his goalscoring powers but, looking at the statistics to date, the difference to those of Müller, albeit over a much shorter period of time are also highly impressive. In seven seasons with the club, Lewandowski has netted 294 goals, averaging 34.57 strikes per twelve months’ period. It’s a total that stacks up slightly behind that of Müller, but not by a wide margin. Looking at goals per game, the difference is even smaller. Across appearances, those 294 goals average out at 0.89. In purely ‘goals as gold’ Müller’s record therefore shines slightly brighter, but Lewandowski has won more tournaments than his predecessor.

Seven Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokels and four DFL-Supercups means he has won 14 domestic trophies and single triumphs in the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup raise that tally to 17. Plus, of course, these have been achieved in less than half the number of seasons that Müller was with the club. On the other hand, while Müller’s total of four Bundesliga titles and the same number of DFB-Pokel’s, totalling eight, is behind Lewandowski’s domestic haul, his three European Cups and Intercontinental Cup win outstrip the Pole’s wider titles. Plus, of course, if due weight is given to those European trophies, Müller’s record perhaps even comes out on top, albeit that they took eight seasons more to accumulate. 

their levels of success, depending on how they are considered, may suggest a great number of similarities between Gerd Müller and Robert Lewandowski, but perhaps their greatest difference, is in the style of play. Der Bomber was the consummate penalty area predator. He was short, with that low centre of gravity often gifted to the world’s outstanding footballers and an exquisite sense of balance, speed of thought and action that allowed him to maintain poise and position where others would have fallen away. Added to that, he had that quintessential instinct to be in the right place at the right time to finish of a move. So many of his goals were tap ins, or finishes from inside the six-yard box, that could suggest a large slice of fortune consistently favoured him, but that would be to ignore the skill that put him in such deadly scenarios.

Contrastingly, Lewandowski is probably the better all-round footballer, with all the attributes required to successfully lead an attack. He’s tall, strong, quick enough, with the game intelligence to seek out opportunities and proficiency with both feet and head to execute them efficiently. Where he perhaps eclipses Müller is in his ability to also be a link for his team-mates, using his physical presence to hold up play and bring team-mates into the game. There aren’t any definitive statistics to support the assertion, but it isn’t difficult to assume that Lewandowski would seriously outweigh any numbers of Müller, when it comes to assessing the ‘assists’ provided to team-mates for their goals.

Comparing players across eras when they played with different team-mates, against different opponents often in different competitions and at different times of a club’s development is akin to the Labours of Sisyphus. Just when you think you have one point established, it’s called into question, and the boulder rolls back down the hill. Both Müller and Lewandowski were, and are, outstanding exponents of the art of goalscoring, albeit in different ways, but it would be shallow and somewhat callow to leave the argument there, without pinning my colours to the mast.

So, in the interest of setting myself up for contradiction, I’m going to say that the exploits of Gerd Müller, joining a club in the second tier, firing them to promotion, and then on to domestic and continental domination outweighs the achievements of Robert Lewandowski, albeit by a small margin, and that’s not taking into account his exploits on the international stage where Lewandowski’s aspirations have perhaps been compromised by playing for a less competitive country in football’s major competitions. So, there we go, I’d put Müller, slightly ahead. But, what do I know?  Over to you.

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

Helenio Herrera and ‘Il Grande Inter’

In May 1960, after delivering the Inter Cities Fairs Cup and his second successive La Liga title, Argentine-born coach Helenio Herrera left Barcelona. Despite the impressive domestic success and the bonus of a European trophy, a failure to usurp Real Madrid from their status as the aristocrats of continental football, plus rumours of disputes with a number of players, including star performer Ladislao Kubala, created a rift between club and coach that proved too wide to bridge.

Herrera had created a Barça side that ironically, months later, would go on to eventually dethrone Los Blancos as champions of Europe in the First Round of the European Cup under new coach Enrique Orizaola, thanks to a brace of goals by midfield general Luis Suárez, nicknamed ‘El Arquitecto’ (The Architect). The Catalans would fall short of the ultimate prize though, losing the final in Bern’s Wankdorf Stadium. Barcelona’s wait to land the big trophy would go on for another 30 years. For Herrera, and indeed Suárez however, a period of continental domination was just a few short years away. That success would be achieved not in Catalunya, but the Lombardy region of Italy, where a club struggling to re-establish itself as a force in Serie A, and who had never won a European trophy, was about to become the continent’s dominant power. The era of Il Grande Inter was about to be born.

Angelo Moratti had amassed a fortune in the oil business and took over as president of the club officially known as Football Club Internazionale Milano – but forever recognised as ‘Inter’ – the year after their last Scudetto triumph in the 1953-54 season. Despite significant investment however, it was a time of stagnation rather than progress as Inter floundered domestically failing to secure any trophy in the next seasons until the turn of the decade and, indeed, hardly threatening to do so.

Moratti chopped and changed his coaches with dizzying regularity but without achieving any significant progress. Legendary former player Giuseppe Meazza served two brief tenures and English coach Jesse Carver also called the San Siro his home, albeit briefly. With the turnover of coaches in double figures by May 1960, the president decided to bring in the man who had delivered success in Spain and brought Herrera to the San Siro, paying a hefty financial cost to do so. Just days short of his fiftieth birthday the self-proclaimed champion and prophet of attacking football picked up the Nerazzurri banner, and Moratti finally had the right man for the job, although the road to success would be more than a little bumpy.

Football in Italy was a very different beast to that played in Spain and, despite arriving as the man who decried the stupefying play of defensive football that dominated Serie A, Herrera quickly learned to adapt to his new environment. The famous Italian sports writer Gianni Brera described the transformation. ‘As soon as he could open his mouth [Herrera] thundered against the ‘catenaccio’, but after a month he put in a libero; the following year he rediscovered Burgnich and placed Picchi behind Guarnieri’s back; After a few seasons of overwhelming victories with a calculating and even stingy game, solidly founded on defence, Herrera went out into the world to preach as his own the pragmatic verb of `Catenaccio a la Italiana.’

The system adopted had its origins with the Swiss coach Karl Rappen. Managing an amateur national team against the growing professionalism sweeping the global game in the thirties, Rappen devised as system of play that would rely more on the collective efforts of his team, rather than individual talents. Deploying a midfield player, to support his back line of dedicated man-to-man markers, who could fill in and cover when danger threatened but also be in the ideal position to promote attacks when possession was gained, allowed his team to flourish and became known as the “Verou” (French, for ‘door bolt’). Adapting this into the system that became known as ‘Catenaccio’ (Italian for ‘bolt’), Herrera discarded the idea of the free man, the ‘libero’ or ‘sweeper’, having any attacking responsibilities, with his concentration solely dedicated to defence. 

That defence, with the ‘bolt’ firmly locking the back door, became the key, as Inter’s fortunes began to rise and, after a shaky start to his time in Italy – at one stage Moratti’s legendary trigger finger was twitching and about to move Herrera on – the new coach’s work began to deliver success as his team developed.

The recently deceased Tarsizio Burgnich was stationed on the right of the Inter defence. The defender had spent time with Juventus, picking up a Serie A winner’s medal in 1961, despite only appearing in 13 games for Turin’s Old Lady, but had been moved on by I Bianconeri as they considered his physical and uncompromising dedication to the task of defending as more of a liability than an asset. In Herrera’s Inter team though, the man who was arguably the most diligent man-to-marker in Europe found his spiritual home. If Burgnich was all fire and fury, with hints of sulphur emanating from his attitude on one flank, on the opposite side, Giacinto Facchetti lost nothing in defensive dedication, but also added a touch of flair, pace and creativity garnered from his earlier days playing as a forward.

In the centre, the underrated Aristide Guarnieri, who had been with the club since joining from Como in 1958 was the ideal man to play in the ‘stopper’ role, alongside Carlo Tagnin, winning aerial duels and crunching tackles. Behind them, providing the bolt, was the former wide player who came to define the role as the Italian libero, Armando Picchi. Before moving to Inter in 1960, Picchi had played as a full-back for SPAL, but Herrera quickly recognised that he had the qualities required to be the key man in his defence and, after experimenting with him in the role during the 1961-62 season, his suspicions were confirmed. Picchi’s dominating performances in front of goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti, who was brought in from Fiorentina in 1963, led to Herrera making him the team’s captain when former incumbent Bruno Bolchi moved to Verona.

Further forward on the left flank, Mario Corso, often referred to as “God’s Left Foot” for his ability to deliver pinpoint accuracy on his crosses into the box, had an uneasy relationship with Herrara. As is so often the case with elaborately skilled forwards Corso lacked in tactical discipline, a characteristic key in Herrera’s team but, despite the coach’s frustration and apparent personal dislike of Corso, his ability on the pitch stood him in good stead and ensured that the coach would consistently select him. The winger was probably the only ‘loose cannon’ in the Grande Inter arsenal.  On the opposite flank the Brazilian forward Jair de Costa was equally effective going forward, if a little more attuned to his coach’s requirements going the other way.

In midfield Gianfranco Bedin was in place, but he wasn’t the perfect fit. Herrera wanted someone to control the midfield, a player who could build his attacks. In such circumstances, who better to turn to than ‘The Architect’. Herrera persuaded Moratti to sign Luis Suárez, recent winner of the Ballon d’Or, from Barcelona. It cost the club a world record fee of 250 million lire – around £200,000 in today’s money. Much as Herrera was required to change his tyle to succeed in Italy, so too was the case for Suárez. The man who had been the attacking midfielder fulcrum at the Camp Nou, was deployed a deep-lying playmaker and would become the key element in the success of the team, but success was less than instant.

A young Sandro Mazzola would also make his name with Herrera’s team. A one-club player across a 17-year career with the Nerazzurri, he was the son of the famous Valentino Mazzola who lost his life when the Gran Torino team was destroyed in the Superga air crash in 1949. He played alongside Angelo Domenghini, a former winger who would win the Golden Boot no less than five times. The pair rounded out Herrera’s 5-3-2 plan.

Herrera’s first term in charge brought little improvement as Inter finished third in Serie A, behind champions Juventus and stadium neighbours AC Milan. Inter’s record of conceding just 39 goals across the season though – the equal lowest in the league – suggested that the team was beginning to develop the hard-nosed reputation for defensive solidity that would become their watchword. The following season improved a little, but Inter still failed to top the league. This time finishing as runners-up to AC Milan. Their goals conceded figure continued to improve with just 31 goals breaching Herrera’s defence this term, as the pieces slowly dropped into place. The progress however was too slow for Moratti and, the coach who expensively arrived with a big reputation, and even bigger mouth lauding his own abilities, looked to be on the precipice.

With Moratti’s limited patience exhausted, former Inter player and coach at Mantova, Edmondo Fabri was lined up to take over. Fabri had been awarded the prestigious ‘Seminatore d’Oro’ award the previous season, but events in South America would thwart Moratti’s plans. Italy endured a difficult time in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, failing to progress from the group stages under the joint stewardship of coaches Paolo Mazza and Giovanni Ferrari, and being part of the infamous ‘Battle of Santiago’ game against the hosts. Mazza and Ferrari were moved on and Fabri was chosen to lead the Azzurri. If, at first, the chain of events frustrated the Inter Milan president, twelve months later it would seem like the most fortunate of serendipities.

After a less than auspicious start to the Serie A campaign, wherein they only won two of their opening seven games up to 28 October, Inter found their stride and wouldn’t lose again until early March when Atalanta became the only club to complete a league ‘double’ over Herrera’s team. The run set up a triumphant march to the title and at the end of the season they topped the Serie A table on 49 points, having conceded just 20 goals across the 34-match programme. The following season, Inter’s record would improve totalling 54 points and conceding a mere 18 goals. Unfortunately, a resurgent Bologna would match the points tally, and in a play-off for the Scudetto, Inter would lose out as a late own goal by Facchetti and then a second by Danish striker Harald Nielsen sent the trophy to Bologna. There would be significant compensation in Europe however to placate the loss of domestic silverware.

Entering the European Cup for the first time, as champions of Italy, Inter faced Everton in the Preliminary round, disposing of the Merseysiders with a 1-0 win at the San Siro after returning from Goodison Park with a goalless draw. It took Herrera’s team into a confrontation with French champions Monaco and another one goal victory at home looked to be scant cover for the return played in Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. Inside 17 minutes though, a brace by Mazzola had trebled Inter’s advantage and despite Théodore Szkudlapski reducing the arrears approaching the hour mark, the French team were never really in the hunt and a late Suárez goal confirmed Inter’s progress to the last eight, and a date with Partizan Belgrade.

In late February a 0-2 victory in the Yugoslav capital virtually settled the tie before the return at the San Siro, where a 2-1 win sent Inter into the semi-finals, where they avoided Real Madrid, instead being paired with Borussia Dortmund. Again, a strong performance in the away leg put Inter into a strong position with goals from Mazzola and Corso earning a 2-2 draw. The path to the final was completed at the San Siro as goals from Mazzola again, and Jair were enough for a 2-1 win and progress to the final in Vienna’s Praterstadion, and a meeting with Real Madrid on 27 May 1964.

The Los Blancos domination of the competition’s early years had faded a little, but the Spanish champions were still a formidable unit, containing the potent attacking power of Di Stéfano, Puskas and Gento. It looked like a classic confrontation between the attacking flair of the Spanish club and the obdurate defence of Herrera’s team with the Nerazzurri looking to steal a one goal win. Against such expectations however, by the time Felo breached the Inter backline with 20 minutes to play, Mazzola – who was equal top-scorer in the tournament – and Milani already had the dominant Italians two goals clear and a second for Mazzola six minutes later confirmed Inter as champions of Europe. The fact that they displaced city and stadium rivals AC Milan to achieve that status only made the taste so much sweeter. The trophy stayed at the San Siro, but the red and black ribbons adorning it, were replaced by blue and black ones.

If there’s one thing better than winning the European Cup, it’s doing so in the same season as becoming champions of your own country as well. In the following season, with Herrera now lauded as a genius by all and sundry, not least by Angelo Moratti himself, the Grande Inter era was well and truly underway. Domestically, Inter returned to the top of the tree, reclaiming the Scudetto, finishing four points clear of AC Milan.

In the European Cup, a seven-goal aggregate romp past the Romanians of Dinamo București took the reigning champions into the quarter-finals and a tie against Glasgow Rangers. A brace from Suárez and another goal by Peiró put Inter three goals clear five minutes into the second period at the San Siro and apparently on course for a comfortable passage, but a goal by James Forrest kept the tie alive for the second leg at Ibrox. Back in Glasgow, a fortnight later, Forrest scored after just seven minutes, leaving the vast bulk of the game for the Scottish champions to net the all-important second goal. When resolute defence is required however, Inter were never going to come up short and they kept the eager Scottish attack at bay for the remainder of the game and advanced to the semi-finals where they would meet another British club, the English champions, Liverpool.

Bill Shankly had taken Liverpool to their first title since just after the Second World War and his team was now striding confidently into Europe, looking to build on that success. The first leg was played at Liverpool, and a 3-1 win for the Reds looked to have put them in a strong position.  Back in Milan however, amid controversies over officials and Inter’s tactics, the Nerazzurri scored three times, without reply to reach their second successive final. The luck of the draw saw the game against Benfica played at the San Siro and a single strike by Jair ensured the trophy would remain in the stadium.   

In between the two continental triumphs, Inter had also competed in the Intercontinental Cup against Argentina’s Independiente de Avellaneda, champions of South America. After both clubs had won their home legs, the play-off was decided at Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the Spanish capital. In a game plagued by continuous rain and ill-feeling between the teams, Corso scored the decisive goal in the second period of extra-time. The Grande Inter were at their zenith. Champions of Italy, Champions of Europe, and Champions of the world.

A third successive Scudetto fell into Inter’s hands in the 1965-66 season and their period of dominance was showing few signs of ending. As so often is the case in football however, hindsight would identify that this was perhaps the last hurrah for a team where so many vital components were reaching the latter stages of their careers. A defeat to Real Madrid in the semi-final of the European Cup saw their continental dominance slip away, and yet they reached their third European Cup Final in 1967 and, after defeating the might of Real Madrid and Benfica on the previous two occasions, a game against the little-known Scottish club, Glasgow Celtic, looked a relatively comfortable trask.

Ahead of the game, there were warning signs for the Italians. Suárez was injured and missed the game, being replaced by Bicicli. It was hardly a like-for-like change, as Leo Turrini explained. “It was like substituting Leonardo da Vinci for a whitewash.” It was an opposite comment. Despite Mazzola giving Inter an early lead from a penalty, Inter wilted under intense pressure from the Scots and Celtic scored twice to become the first British club to be crowned as Champions of Europe.

The final had taken place on 25 May, and seven days later, a chance to secure the Scudetto title in a game against modest Mantova was squandered. The home team were in mid-table, with Inter leading the table on 48 points, one ahead of Juventus who faced Lazio at home. If Inter won, the title was theirs. The Nerazzurri attacked and were unfortunate when Mazzola struck the bar, with a young Dino Zoff in the Mantova goal well beaten, but at half-time there had been no breakthrough. Four mniutes after the restart though, came the vital moment. Inter lost possession as Di Giacomo stole the ball away, with only sweeper Pichi, and then goalkeeper Sarti to beat. The defender managed to usher the home player towards the sidelines and, Di Giacomo turned a seemingly innocuous looking cross hopefully into the box. Incredibly though, under no pressure, Sarti missed the ball and it flew unhindered into the net. Inter fell behind, and the Scudetto fell into Juve’s hands. In Turin, I Bianconeri went two goals clear and, despite conceding a late Di Pucchio goal, Juventus won and Inter lost. The title went to Turin. It closed out the majesty of Il Grande Inter.

In his time with the club, as well as the Intercontinental Cup, Herrera would deliver three Scudetti, two European Cups and three Supercups to Moratti and Inter. Had Italy performed in Chile, Herrera would probably have been fired in favour of Fabri and who knows how Inter’s future would have shaped up. In 1968 Herrera left Inter, moving to Roma, before briefly returning to Inter in 1973. By then however the magic had gone. The Nerazzurri would have to wait another 35 years, until the arrival of José Mourinho to once more ascend to the summit of European club football. Three and a half decades is plenty of time to appreciate the success of Helenio Herrera’s time at the San Siro and celebrate the glory of Il Grande Inter.

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

Baggio and AC Milan – The star-crossed relationship doomed to fail.

There comes a time in most players’ careers when their club sees them as surplus to requirements. Sometimes that can occur when there’s a perception that age has blunted their skills and a younger player seems to offer a better return on investment, or when there’s an apparent mismatch between the coach’s vision for the squad and the talents the player can offer. At other times, it can simply follow a fall out between player and club. On some rare occasions, it’s a combination of all three – with a little extra spice thrown in as well.

At the end of the 1994-95 season Roberto Baggio had reached that precise situation with Juventus. It had been Baggio’s fifth season living with Turin’s Old Lady, and the most decorated. He had joined Juve from Fiorentina in 1990 and collected a UEFA Cup winner’s medal in 1993, as I Bianconeri comfortably overcame Borussia Dortmund 6-1 on aggregate with Baggio netting one of the half-dozen goals. In 1994-95 however, Juve surpassed that achievement with something to spare, establishing domestic domination by securing the Italian domestic double of winning the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia. Sadly, for Baggio, despite collecting a couple of winner’s medals, his on the field contribution to the triumphs had been restricted, featuring in only 17 of the club’s Serie A games and not featuring at all in Copa Italia Final.

By now, it had become increasingly clear to Baggio that he would be unlikely to significantly figure in any success the club enjoyed moving forwards. Coach Marcello Lippi had transferred his affections to the prodigious young talent of Alessandro Del Piero, now in his major breakthrough season at the club. Across each of the previous four seasons, Baggio had featured in more than 40 of the club’s games, but the emergence of Del Piero had flattened that off to a mere 29 in the 1994-95 term, with the youngster playing in 50. At 28 years of age, Baggio was probably still in his peak years, but Del Piero was seven years younger and, from the club’s point of view, held greater long-term value. If not exactly willingly passed on, the baton had been removed from Baggio’s hand, and given to Del Piero, and the club’s domination of Italian football only emphasised the accepted wisdom of the move.

The Juventus management had already informed Baggio that the only way they would consider a new contract for him was if he agreed to a 50% cut in his salary, and a reduced role within the squad. It hardly led to cordial relations between Baggio on one side and Lippi, Luciano Moggi and Umberto Agnelli on the other. A parting of the ways was inevitable and, with the announcement from the club that the number ten shirt would be worn by Del Piero for the new season, the final nail was driven home.

If being shown the door by Juventus was inevitably an unwelcome turn in Baggio’s career, there were plenty of other suitors lined up and willing to pay the required fee to secure his services. In England, as ever, Manchester United were among the club’s linked with one of the established stars of European football. After all, this was just one season after Baggio had starred for the Azzurri on the football world’s biggest stage at the World Cup in the USA and, as the BBC’s  Stefano Bozzi stated, “single-handedly hauled Italy to the final.”

Blackburn Rovers had just secured their first league title for more than 80 years and, funded by the largesse of Jack Walker, sought to bring the Italian maestro to Ewood Park to cement their arrival in the big time.

In Spain, La Liga champions Real Madrid looked to take the player to the Bernabeu, adding Baggio to a squad already boasting the talents of Butragueño, Zamorano, Fernando Redondo, Michael Laudrup and Raul. President Ramón Mendoza was entering the final few months of his decade heading the club and delivering Baggio would have been an ideal parting gift to the Madridistas, but it wasn’t to be. Both Milan clubs were also interested and, eventually it was the persuasive pressure of Silvio Berlusconi and manager Fabio Capello that won out, with the Rossoneri agreeing a reported £6.8 million fee to take Baggio to the San Siro.

After initially struggling with early season injuries – a propensity to injury was a stick that his critics repeatedly used to beat him with as his career progressed – Baggio enjoyed a successful first period with the Milanese club and it fell to him to strike a penalty to win the game against his former team Fiorentina in the game that decided the Scudetto would be adorned with red and black ribbons for that season. Securing the title by a clear eight points from Juventus in the runners-up spot must have carried an extra level of satisfaction of Baggio. For much of the season, with George Weah as the lone striker supported by Baggio and Savićević, Milan were a potent attacking force.

In raw statistics, his seven goals in Serie A games netted during his first term in Milan hardly speak of a huge influence, but the contribution of players such as Baggio transcend mere statistics. His influence on the field and perceptive play created numerous chances for his team-mates, as is suggested by the 12 ‘official’ assists he recorded in that season. It was the highest in Serie A. Much as with the fans at Juventus, the tifosi on the Curva Sud took Baggio, their new fantasista, snaffled away from rivals in Turin, who had brought the Scudetto with him, to their hearts. As the fans in Turin must have lamented losing Baggio, he was acclaimed in Milan as the fans voted him their player of the season.

Even before the season was out however, cracks in the relationship between Baggio and Capello began to develop. The coach, who was in his last season at the San Siro before briefly moving on to Spain and Real Madrid, was the hardest of taskmasters and his strict patterns of play left little room for the flamboyant skills and ‘street football’ talents of Baggio. The Curva Sud adored him but, for a time, Capello merely tolerated him.

In such a relationship the coach, especially one with such a list of achievements with the club, would always win. As the season wore on, Baggio’s playing time became increasingly curtailed. Capello cited the old chestnut of the player having fitness issues, and being unable to perform at the required level for a full 90 minutes. It was something that Baggio contested, but without being able to change the coach’s stance. In his 28 Serie A appearances during the season, he would only play the complete 90 minutes on seven occasions. He was substituted in the second period on 16 occasions, and took to the field from the bench twice. As with Juve’s successful season when integrating Del Piero into their team ahead of Baggio, titles talk, and Capello delivering the Serie A title left little room for Baggio’s disappointments to gain ground with the club’s hierarchy.

The following season, Uruguayan coach Óscar Tabárez replaced Capello as Milan sought to build on their title success. For both club and Baggio however, the appointment heralded a difficult time. If Capello’s authoritarian ways had rubbed painfully up against Baggio’s style, the pragmatism of the new man on Milan’s bench hardly saw an improvement. The coach’s oft-referenced statement that “There is no place for poets in modern football,” hardly suggested a meeting of minds between coach and player, a situation that was played out a Baggio began the new season occupying the bench more often than not, a scenario that a perplexed Zinedine Zidane described as “something that I will never understand in my lifetime.”

Through dedication and applied determination when granted playing time however, Baggio’s ability eventually won over the coach and as the season progressed, he was increasingly deployed, either in his favoured position playing behind Wear, or less effectively shunted out to a wide position on the left flank.

In September, following their league title win the previous season, and with Baggio now settled into the starting eleven, Milan began their Champions League campaign placed in a group also comprising Porto and the Scandinavian pair of Rosenborg from Norway and Sweden’s IFK Göteborg. Strongly fancied to fill one of the top two places alongside Porto, Milan opened their campaign on 11 September at home to the Portuguese club. Despite twice taking the lead however, a late goal by Jardel gave the visitors a 2-3 win, and Milan suddenly had a mountain to climb.

Two weeks later, things looked to have improved with a 1-4 win in Norway, but Baggio had been relegated to the bench and didn’t feature. By the middle of October, when Milan lost 2-1 in Göteborg despite leading from a Weah goal, he didn’t even make the bench. Two weeks later, he came off the bench to face the same opponents with Milan holding a narrow 3-2 lead and scored the fourth goal – his first in European club football’s premier competition to steer Milan safely over the line. 

With two games remaining, away to Porto and then home to Rosenborg, avoiding defeat in Portugal and then winning against the Norwegians in the San Siro offered a surely achievable passage into the quarter-finals. A 1-1 draw against Porto, on 20 November with Baggio starting but replaced for the final dozen minutes or so looked to have seen the more difficult of the two tasks achieved. Less than two weeks later though, with domestic form falling away, the Berlusconi axe fell. In the early days of December 1996, with the club only having won eight of their first 22 games, the president decided that the Uruguayan was not up to the task of replacing Capello, and moved to secure the services of previous coach, and the man who led the Azzurri into the World Cup in 1994, Arrigo Sacchi.

To outsiders, the prospect of reuniting Baggio with the coach of the Italian team that he had starred in during the tournament in the USA looked an exciting proposition. As with so many of his coaches however, Baggio had experienced an uneasy relationship with the national team’s coach, and their relationship had been often tepid, and occasionally frosty.

The situation at the San Siro however, demanded a reconciliation for the good of all concerned and the new coach sought to exploit the potential of Baggio offering him both encouragement and playing time. The ploy faltered however. Perhaps due to the inconsistent and differing coaching and tactical requirements of playing under three different coaches in eight months or so, a loss of form, or the general malaise sweeping through the squad, the magic in Baggio’s boots dimmed and Milan’s season deteriorated.

Sacchi’s first game was the decisive group encounter against Rosenborg. Strong favourites to win and qualify, the new coach started with Baggio in the team. At half-time however, with only a last-minute equaliser from Dugarry getting Milan into the dressing room on level terms, Sacchi withdrew Baggio in favour of Marco Simeone. It was to little avail however as a 70th minute strike by Vergard Heggem condemned the Rossoneri to a humiliating defeat, and elimination.

After winning the Scudetto the previous season, a mid-table eleventh position, elimination in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia – ironically at the hands of Baggio’s former club Fiorentina as the player sat frustratingly on the bench – and a chastening experience in Europe was a shuddering disappointment, and something not to be tolerated by the eternally demanding and impatient Berlusconi. 

The summer saw not only the end of Sacchi’s brief return spell and Capello’s return to the San Siro, but also the exit of Baggio. Never truly convinced of Baggio’s worth to any squad organised along the lines that he insisted his team’s follow, Capello declared that the player would not be part of his plans for the new season. It was time to move on.

Baggio’s initial choice was a move to Parma but, as was becoming a recurring theme in his career, the Parma coach, Carlo Ancelotti persuaded the club not to pursue the transfer as he felt the player would not fit into his tactical planning, then set as a rigid 4-4-2. It was a decision he would later admit to regretting, but at the time, it eliminated Parma from Baggio’s options and instead he moved to Bologna.

In his two seasons at the San Siro Roberto Baggio would feature in 67 games for the Rossoneri, 61 of them in Serie A. He would score 19 goals, of which a dozen came in the league. He would also contribute numerous unrecorded assists and apply a creative touch to the club’s attacking play often only best appreciated by the fans on the Curva Sud, rather than the coaches sat on the bench. He collected a Serie A winner’s medal and played Champions League football for the first time in his career, and yet there remains a sense of unfulfilled destiny.

Leaving Juventus to join Milan hardly looked like a step down, something illustrated by the club’s league success during in his first season, but there surely should have been so much more to follow. So many players of outrageous talent have fallen foul of a coach’s lack of ability to integrate such magical talents into their team. Throughout his career, this scenario blighted the career of Roberto Baggio, but perhaps never more so than during his time with Milan.

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

Pablo Aimar – Valencia’s Argentine hero.

Pablo César Aimar Giordano was born on 3 November 1979 in the commercially important city of Rio Cuarto, located in the south of Córdoba province, in central Argentina. Situated in the fertile grasslands of the region, the city quickly became established as a centre for the development, processing and export of local agricultural produce. For fans of Valencia Club de Fútbol however, by far the city’s most important product and export was the young Aimar, whose exploits at the Estadio de Mestalla provided them with a feast of entertaining and exciting football, contributing to one of the club’s most successful periods, and giving him iconic status among fans of Los Murciélagos.

Born with an extravagant natural ability for football, the young Aimar was spotted at an early age by Alfie Mercado, coach of the Estudiantes de Río Cuarto, and would train there three times a week, honing his skills, learning the game and developing into a prodigious talent. Still in his early teenage years, news of the emerging talent quickly spread and, in 1993, River Plate acted to secure his services – before anyone else could beat them to it.

Initially, the teenager’s father was moved to rebuff their advance. With understandable parental concerns, he had planned out a future for his son in the medical profession. It took a visit and persuasive arguments from national footballing hero, iconic former River Plate captain and, at that time, manager of the club, Daniel Passarella to seal the deal. All thoughts of medicine were put to one side, as Aimar moved to Buenos Aires joining River Plate’s youth set up. From there progress would be little short of meteoric.

Still only 16 years of age, Aimar debuted for the club’s first team on 11 August 1996 away to Colón at the Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao López. At the time, River were enduring a difficult time and a 1-0 defeat left them in the lower reaches of the Clausura classification. Better times lay ahead for both club and their ambitious tyro recruit though as the young midfield player sought to establish himself in the team.

By early 1998, it has become increasingly difficult for new coach, Ramon Diaz to ignore the persistent claims of the young Aimar for an increasingly regular berth in the first eleven, alongside such luminaries as Enzo Francescoli, Marcelo Salas and Juan Pablo Angel. To underscore his case, in February of that year, the young prodigy scored the first of his 21 league goals for the club, netting against Rosario Central. He was still on 18 years old.

River would go on to secure the Apertura title 1999 and the Clausura in 2000. They were just a couple of the five titles that Aimar would win with River across his time in the Argentine capital, but his time there would be limited. Much as how his fame had spread in his native land, the global football grapevine is an efficient tool for passing on news of emerging talents, and by the end of 2000, the wealthy echelon of a number of top European clubs were making siren overtures to River Plate to take Aimar across the Atlantic.

At the end of the 1998-99 La Liga season, Argentine coach Héctor Cúper moved from Mallorca to take control of Valencia. He had led the island club to a highly impressive third position in the league during the previous season, finishing one place above Los Murciélagos, and was clearly bound for higher things. Valencia acquired his services and, by the end of 1999, profiting from the Champions League place secured by that fourth-place finish, the previous season, had established their credentials in the competition, remaining unbeaten, and topping their initial group ahead of Bayern Munich, with Rangers and PSV Eindhoven trailing behind. In the second group phase, a runners-up place behind Manchester United and quarter-final victory over Lazio took Valencia into a final four confrontation with Barcelona, and a 5-3 aggregate passage against the Catalan club. In the final against Real Madrid however, Valencia’s brave run was halted with a 3-0 defeat to Los Blancos. A third-place finish in the league however offered up another chance at continental glory.

Once more, the first group stage was completed with some comfort, as Valencia topped their section again. It took them into a second stage grouping alongside Manchester United – for the second year running – Austrian club Sturm Graz and the Greek club, Panathinaikos. In December 2000, following a 3-1 home win over the Austrians, a goalless draw in Athens placed Valencia in a strong position to qualify for the knockout stage, when the competition resumed after the winter break. By that time though, their ranks would have been swollen by an expensive signing from South America. 

In December of 2000, Aimar would play his final game for River Plate in a 3-2 defeat to Club Atlético Lanús. He had worn the club’s famous colours on 82 occasions, delivering 21 goals but, just as importantly and perhaps even more significantly given his role in the team, the record books reveal that he had also assisted in creating a further 28 goals. The new year would place him in a new club, in a new country and a new continent. Aimar’s talents had been acquired by Valencia for the princely sum of €24million and he would move to Spain in the following January. It made the young midfielder, still just a month or so past his 21st birthday, Valencia’s most expensive acquisition to date. His performances would soon serve to justify the expenditure.  

Despite his high value, there was no initial easy path into Cúper’s starting team, with the Argentine coach wary of disrupting the core of his successful regular selections until Aimar became fully ingrained into the role he was required to play. As the weeks progressed though, his speed and creativity proved to his compatriot that he would be a valuable asset, one that would only improve both the team’s performances and results with his dazzling displays. 

On Valentine’s Day, Manchester United visited the Mestalla in the Champions League. They would face a Valencia team featuring the debut of Pablo Aimar. The game ended goalless but the playmaker’s display had many observers purring – not least among them Johann Cruyff, then coaching Barcelona. Cúper was also convinced and Aimar made his league debut the following weekend against Las Palmas and scored to mark the occasion in a 2-0 win.

Although it’s always difficult being parachuted into a successful team halfway through a season, Aimar’s Valencia career was up and running. He would participate in all of the club’s remaining Champions League fixtures, as Valencia finished above Manchester United before progressing past English clubs Arsenal, and then Leeds United, to reach their second successive final, this time against Bayern Munich. Although the contest was much closer than the heavy defeat against Los Blancos in the previous final, Valencia again finished as runners-up as the Bavarian team won in a penalty shoutout after a 1-1 draw.

In contrast to their experience in the Champions League, Valencia had a less successful time in the domestic league and, a fifth-place finish precluded any opportunity for a tilt at reaching a third consecutive final. Instead, they would compete in the UEFA Cup. Perhaps considering that his stock was at its highest point, Cúper decided to leave the club, taking over at Internazionale. If some considered that the departure would herald a spiral in fortunes Valencia, the arrival of Rafa Benitez to take over, would quell such fears.

In contrast to his predecessor’s pragmatic tactical approach that restrained the full flowering of Aimar’s creative talents, Benitez more expansive ethos would allow it to bloom. Playing in a midfield three alongside David Albelda and Rubén Baraja, the diminutive Argentine enjoyed a sensational and hugely influential season. He would play 40 games for the club across all competitions and, although only returning half-a-dozen goals, Aimar’s play was a key factor in Valencia winning the La Liga title for the first time in 30 years. The final table, with Valencia seven points clear of second place suggests a stroll to the title, but for a long time that as hardly the case.

On 30 March, with Valencia tied on points with Real Madrid, Benitez took his team to the holiday island of Tenerife to face the local club at the Estadio Heliodoro Rodríguez López. It was a key turning point of the season. Had they faltered and failed to return with the full three points Los Blancos would have pounced, and with 23 minutes remaining that looked to be the likely outcome. The club’s official website recalls how the game was finally decided as “Pablo Aimar scored a great goal of the time, one of those worthy of a title [before] … The Argentine went crazy taking off his shirt.”

The goal, and win, dismissed any lingering concerns that Valencia would stumble and fall to the irresistible pressure coming from Real Madrid. How important was the goal? The Valencia website offers an answer. “After retiring, Aimar acknowledged that the goal he ‘remembers the most’ and ‘the most beautiful of his career as a professional was that one, scored against CD Tenerife.” From there Benitez’s side went on to win five of their final six league fixtures, the other being a draw away to Mallorca, and secured the title with a 0-2 win against Málaga with games in hand.

Perhaps suffering from an anti-climax following the tremendous success of 2001-02, or that sort of difficult ‘second season syndrome’ Valencia’s fans had far less to cheer during the following term, despite Aimar enjoying his most prolific goals season with the club, scoring 11 goals in 46 games across all competitions and eight in 31 league games. Ironically, Valencia were eliminated by Cúper’s new club in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and domestic form was little better. A fifth-place finish was disappointing, a gap of 18 points to champions Real Madrid was even more so, although qualification for the UEFA Cup would deliver a massive dividend the following term. 

The collapse in the league position from champions to a distant fifth place suggested to many that the title victory had been a mere lucky break season, when everything occasionally falls for you. After the poor defence of their title, Valencia needed to deliver a riposte and dismiss such talk. They did so.

Across the 38-game league season they lost only seven games and, two of those were the final fixtures of the season after the title had been secured. It meant that Valencia had climbed back to claim their place at the top table of Spanish football, securing the title by two points from Barcelona.  Their tally of goals scored at 72 was only one less than top scoring Real Madrid but, to emphasise their dominance, the 27 that Valencia’s defence conceded was precisely half that of Los Blancos. Again, Aimar was a key influence in the team’s success appearing in 25 of the club’s La Liga fixtures. There was further glory to come in Europe.  In the UEFA Cup, Aimar would feature in eight of the club’s ties as Valencia progressed to the final and overcame Marseille to lift the trophy. Aimar would appear in the game staged at the Ullevi in Gothenburg, but only from the bench. The club’s ‘double’ season, as well as being his most decorated, would also be last of his truly exceptional terms with the club.  

Aimar’s final two seasons with Valencia were as difficult as the earlier three had been delightful. Instead of being allowed to demonstrate his skills to thrill and delight the fans at the Mestalla, much of his time was spent starting from the bench, or returning to it after being withdrawn. Following the success in Europe, Benitez had expected the club to continue its development by adding the players he requested for the squad, but he was to be disappointed, famously declaring that “I was hoping for a sofa [a defender] and they’ve brought me a lamp [Fabián Canobbio, an attacking midfielder]” He decamped to join Liverpool to be replaced firstly by a returning Claudio Ranieri, and then, after an unsuccessful period, by Antonio López.  

The following term brought Quique Flores to the club as coach and, although Aimar’s time on the pitch did increase, there was little doubt that much of the magical talent displayed under Cúper and then Benitez had dissipated. At the end of the season, with his contract running down, Valencia decided to accept an offer of €11million from Real Zaragoza and Aimar left the Mestalla and his adoring fans.

Pablo Aimar played a total of 216 games for Valencia scoring 34 goals and, doubtless, contributing assists to a number twice that great. For players such as Aimar, however, mere figures are an inadequate way of measuring their worth to a club. Entertainment, enthralling and exhilarating performances have no numerical reference, but are the very criteria by which fans judge players of his ilk. Quantitative evaluations are worthless measures in assessing his time in Valencia. Qualitative evidence is required. So, let’s take such contributions from three sources, each of which is well qualified to offer an informed opinion.

The official club website offers evidence of the affection that Aimar is held in by fans of the club up to the present day. “Every time Aimar returns to the Mestalla,” it relates. “The public stands up, nostalgically remembering the famous songs of yesteryear: “Come on… Pablito Aimar, glory will return, like Kempes and the Louse, another immortal kid ”. It’s an affection that is clearly reciprocated. During an interview after he had announced his retirement and took up a post coaching the Argentina U17 team, Aimar made his feelings about Valencia clear. “I had a very beautiful time in Valencia. Two of my children are Valencian. I have a special affection for the city. Hopefully they will reach the top again, [my] team [drifted away], since then it has had good moments and others not so much, but surely it will return to the position it deserves,” he said.

Leo Messi once said that, “Aimar is my idol,” and if that is not enough, there’s the occasion when, back in December 2004, Aimar played for Valencia as they visited the Camp Nou to face Barcelona. Messi was absent from the Blaugrana team at the time, but Aimar found him at the end of the game, and gave him his shirt. As the Valencia website suggests. It was “a magical moment that neither would forget.”

But, let’s leave the last word to probably the greatest Argentine player of all time, and perhaps the best that the world has ever seen, especially playing in a role similar to that of Aimar.  In an interview with World Soccer magazine in 2003, the recently lost, but much lamented, Diego Maradona said of Aimar that, “Pablo is the only current footballer I’d pay to watch. He’s been the best player in Argentina over the last couple of years and is even more talented than Riquelme or Saviola.” Who is going to argue with Diego? Not me, and not fans of Valencia Club de Fútbol either.

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

Les Ferdinand – The Toon’s instant hero.

Sometimes achieving hero status at a club can take a while. You labour long and hard for a club, offering dedicated service, often playing through injury, and never giving less than 100% effort for the cause. For others, however, there’s an aura that they bring with them, they fit perfectly into the template that the club – and the fans – are looking for. When Les Ferdinand joined Newcastle United in 1995 as the St James Park club paid QPR £6million for his services, he was already an established star, an England international and the complete article as a centre forward. The famous Newcastle United number nine shirt fitted him like a glove.

In his first term with the club, Ferdinand’s goals and powerful presence leading the Magpies’ line convinced, many on the Gallowgate decided that here was the next true Geordie hero in that famous striped shirt. Heir the likes of Milburn, under the tutelage and rampaging ethos of Kevin Keegan, Ferdinand delivered from the off.

Netting 25 times in just 37 league outings, Ferdinand’s arrival and contribution was one of the main reasons that Newcastle were to come oh-so-close to lifting the Premier League title. At one stage, they were twelve points clear of rivals Manchester United, but Ferguson’s team’s relentless pursuit eventually wore down Keagan’s entertainers, being crowned champions by four clear points. A disastrous run from the end of February saw four defeats and a draw in six games, as the wheels came off and Ferguson eased his team over the line.

It was a time when what was truly an outstanding season for the club felt so much like a loss. Newcastle had come closer than any of the Toon Army had dared hope to that title, and in the wake of that disappointing run, Keagan felt that further team strengthening was required. For Ferdinand however, the season was a personal triumph. As well as his goal haul, he was named as Player of the Season, and given a place in the Premier League Team of the Season. Of all the positions in Keagan’s squad, it seemed that the one least likely in need of added strength was the strike force. The manager though had other ideas.  Ferdinand’s strike partner in that fantasy line up – Alan Shearer of Blackburn Rovers – would be the surprise addition to the Newcastle squad, with a world record price tag hanging around him.

When the home town hero returned to his native Newcastle, Ferdinand was persuaded to hand over the number nine short to the new arrival, and although it was probably never said in such frank terms, the position of the club’s key striker was also passed on at the same time. To his credit, Ferdinand accepted the move with good grace. Whilst many others would have been tempted to stamp their feet petulantly at such a perceived insult, and demand a transfer, Ferdinand merely buckled down, continuing to give of his best in the interests of the club. 

The following term, with Shearer now positioned alongside him, although perhaps the reverse description would be more accurate, Ferdinand played both goalscorer and provider. Still managing to notch an impressive 21 strikes across all competitions, he also provided the muscle and power as Shearer’s side-kick; a role that hugely contributed to the club skipper scoring 25 league goals and topping the Premier League scoring charts. At the end of the term, Newcastle would again fill the runners-up spot to Manchester United, but this time, the yawning gap of seven points reflected a more season-long forlorn quest to topple the champions, rather than any late calamitous fall. It was a pursuit hardly helped when Kegan surprisingly decided to quit the manager’s chair midway through the season, being replaced by Kenny Dalglish. The move also heralded the end of Ferdinand’s time at St James Park.

Despite Keegan’s avowed adherence to ‘cavalry charge’ football, with the two-pronged forward line of Shearer and Ferdinand, Dalglish had other ideas. By the end of the season, it was clear that one of the two strikers would be moved on to raise funds for other purchases. There was no way the onus would fall on Shearer, Ferdinand was inevitably the fall guy.

It seems likely that, in an ideal world, Dalglish would have preferred to keep both his star strikers, but with Shearer the established and undoubted number one choice, it would have meant an extended time out of the team for Ferdinand, and at that time of his career, it was never going to be a viable proposition. When Spurs came in with a bid that would give Newcastle the money back that they had paid to QPR for Ferdinand’s services two years previously, the club accepted the bid, and Ferdinand took a ‘Shearer-esque’ move himself – also returning to the club he had followed as boy.

Some moves work out better than others however, and often emotion can cloud judgement. Although the striker would stay at White Hart Lane for some five seasons, he never hit the heights of goalscoring prowess that he had achieved in black and white stripes. His 33 league goals for Spurs across those five seasons compares unfavourably compared to 42 strikes in just two years at St James Park. Ferdinand too, later regretted the move. Saying later to Sky that he had wanted to “stay at Newcastle for the rest his career.”

Two years is a short time to endear yourself to a group of fans, but there was an undoubted affection between Les Ferdinand and the fans on the Gallowgate and around St James Park. In 1997, during his first game back at the ground wearing Spurs colours, Ferdinand was moved by the fans’ reaction to him. Talking to the Newcastle Chronicle, he related that, “At the end of the game, as soon as the whistle went, all the supporters started singing my name. Jesus,” he added. “I didn’t expect that. It was unreal. When I speak to people now and say I was only in Newcastle for two years, they cannot believe it.

(This article was originally produced for the Pundit feed website).

Wolfgang Frank – Klopp’s Mentor and unheralded innovator of German football.

Many coaches are reluctant to laud their mentors. Whether it be a case of not wanting to appear inferior. or perhaps a fear of leaving themselves open to a charge of lacking individuality and creative talent, thereby diminishing their reputations, a lack of acknowledgement to the source of their influences is hardly uncommon.

Others though, are more open. Johann Cruyff always recognised the influence of Rinus Michels, and as Liverpool canter away at the top of the Premier league, the top man at Anfield, is equally open. In his book, ‘Klopp: Bring the Noise’ Rafa Honigstein quotes the Liverpool manager as declaring that Wolfgang Frank was “the coach who influenced me the most,” describing him as “an extraordinary human being.” Now, coaches of such distinction as Michels need little introduction, but who was the man held in such high esteem by Jürgen Klopp?

Born in the West German town of Reichenbach an der Fils in the Baden-Württemberg region of the country, Wolfgang Frank enjoyed a relatively unspectacular career as a forward, playing 215 first team games, and netting 89 goals across a dozen seasons with seven different clubs. He also played half-a-dozen games for the West Germany B team, although never achieving a full international cap with Die Mannschaft. A fairly low-key coaching career followed his retirement from playing but, in 1995, when he joined a 1. FSV Mainz 05 team struggling at the foot of 2 Bundesliga, he would instigate a tactical and organisational revolution that would not only transform the club, but also inspire one of Karnevalsverein’s players to become a global force in football coaching, and redirect the course of German football.

Much as Klopp credits Frank with his tactical inspiration, the Liverpool manager also points out that Frank’s own philosophy was also inspired from others. Both Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan with their pressing style that suffocated opposition teams and Ajax’s Totaal Voetbal observed whilst Frank was playing in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar, provided themes for his tactical template. With Mainz five points adrift at the midway point of the season, the club were prepared to take a gamble on something revolutionary, and Frank was the Lenin to lead it.

At the time, the standard formation in German football required a sweeper, something that become de rigueur Franz Beckenbauer. The problem was, of course, that very few clubs had players of such talent, and that was certainly the case with Mainz. Frank changed his defensive line to a back four, labouring hard on the training pitch to drill his players into the new system, and eschewed man-to-man marking on set pieces in favour of a ‘zonal’ system. Off the pitch, he also recruited people from the local university to provide video analysis, to help in development of the system. Something that is now seen as commonplace, was hardly the case in 1995.

The gamble paid off handsomely, and in the second half of the season, Frank’s team accumulated 32 points, a total that eclipsed every other club in the two top tiers of German football. Mainz strolled to safety and, unwittingly perhaps, Wolfgang Frank revolutionised German football producing a system that allowed clubs with inferior financial resources to both compete and, often, outshine the financial powerhouses of the game. Klopp’s time with Dortmund is an illustration of the success of the system he took from his mentor.

In 1997, with his reputation enhanced, Frank was persuaded to move to FK Austria Wien. It was a short stay however, and he returned to Mainz the following year. In his absence, the club had installed, and then removed, Reinhard Saftig and Dietmar Constantini, neither of whom favoured his system, and it was a case of rebuilding on his return. Whilst Frank had been in the Austrian capital, a certain midfield player with Mainz, by the name of Jürgen Klopp, had made it clear to the club’s hierarchy that the replacement coaches were destroying the work Frank had done, advising that only a return to the former coach’s way of playing would reinvigorate the club. His case was given merit when Frank’s return brought more than respectable seventh and then ninth place finishes for the club.

The latter season however saw a sliding doors moment for Frank, Mainz and Klopp. Seduced by what he perceived as a better opportunity to further his ambitions of coaching in the Bundesliga, Frank left to join MSV Duisberg. It was the beginning of a sad decline in his career. He would last just four months at the Schauinsland-Reisen-Arena, before being moved on. From there he gradually fell down the ladder, coaching at eight different clubs in the following eight years, with only limited success, before ending his coaching career with Belgian club K.A.S. Eupen in 2012.

Back at Mainz, the club made similar mistakes to when Frank had left them previously. Coaches came and went, without any signs of progress, and by February 2001, the club was in dire danger of relegation, once again. General Manager, Christian Heidel, decided it was time to grasp the nettle once more, and return to the tactics that Frank had proven to be so successful. Eckhard Krautzun was dismissed, and the decision was taken to appoint someone not only steeped in the Frank philosophy, but also who had advocated his return before, and had the required charisma and respect among the squad to deliver. The reins were handed to Jürgen Klopp, who took over in his first managerial post.

True to his mentor’s philosophy, Klopp reinstalled the Frank system and duly reaped the rewards as his team garnered 21 points from a dozen games and, again Frank’s philosophy exorcised the spectre of relegation. Unlike Frank however, Klopp remained with the club, taking them to the unheralded heights of promotion to the Bundesliga and the undreamt of heights as an established club in the top tier of German football.

After seven years coaching the pillars of Frank’s tactical approach and adding his own personal developments, Klopp moved on to Dortmund and more unheralded success, taking the philosophy he had built from Frank’s foundations to new heights. The debt he owed to his former manager was hardly forgotten however. Upon reaching the Champions League final with Dortmund in 2013, Klopp messaged Frank to offer his thanks for all he had done to foster his coaching career.

Later that same year, Wolfgang Frank passed away, at his home in Mainz. In another act of homage, Klopp gathered his former team-mates from the successful days with the club to attend the funeral. It was both a tribute and a respect paid to coach often overlooked in the history of German football, but one whose tactical innovation altered the direction of the game, opening the door to not only Klopp, but also a whole new generation of managers including Joachim Low and Ralf Rangnick.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Pundit Feed’ website.

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).