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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Robson and the almost perfect season at Barcelona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Euro ‘96 – When football really came home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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