To be widely regarded as a sporting superstar is an accolade gifted to precious few, even more so within any specific sport. Football is certainly no different. Reaching even beyond that exalted status though, there is a higher, more exclusive plane. Access to it is granted only to the legends, those whose passing can require a tear from the eye, a lament for the soul and thaw even the coldest of hearts. It can be difficult to identify what extra quality, what characteristic, what trait, separates those legends from the mere outstanding superstars. And yet, we instantly know it when we see it. Strangely, it’s not a strength. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. In art, in music so many had it, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain for example; it’s an almost perfect imperfection. In football, among others, George Best had it, Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone had it and, without doubt, Diego Armando Maradona had it.
That difference is an extra quotient of a human characteristic that is often labelled as ‘vulnerability’ but should perhaps be better understood as the quality of humanity. It allows those so gifted to dream and reach out for the unimagined spectacular, but also to be prey to the same weaknesses and temptations that the ordinary fan feels. It’s to be favoured by the Gods, to have an angel sit on the right shoulder and whisper into your ear, whilst at the same time being compelled to unconsciously take heed of the devil sitting on the left shoulder, seductively offering an enticing reward for succumbing to a destructive but irresistible temptation.
The difference between the sporting superstar, admired and revered by so many, and the true legend who claims both of those rewards, but also receives that most precious of gifts, love, in abundance, is that they are both above the ordinary, and yet they are part of it, at the same time. They’re one of us. Their successes do not show us how meagre we are. They show what we can achieve, not despite any disadvantaged life chances, but despite our vulnerabilities, despite our human weaknesses, despite our humanity. Reflecting on Maradona’s passing, Jonathan Wilson wrote, ‘Diego Maradona was revered in Argentina, a tortured genius who suffered for his greatness and whose meaning in the history of the sport is derived from considerably more than just his on-field achievements.’ As so often, Wilson delivers his words with impressive precision, as astutely accurate as a Maradona strike on goal,
It’s easy to perceive someone such as Maradona, as a boy from the barrio, a street kid who learnt who to play football on the discarded, dusty and uneven patches of ground in the Lanús district of Buenos Aires; as someone who came up through football the hard way, and shone so bright to become the greatest player of his generation – some would argue of all time – leading his various clubs to silverware and his country to the summit of world football. That seems more than worthy enough of course, to be someone who offers a legacy not only of glorious moments on the football pitch, skills to entrance and beguile, but also offering hope to similar aspiring kids the world over who, despite their disadvantages, dream of sporting success. Such a legacy surpasses the achievements all but a very select few. That however, for all its merits, would be selling the legacy of Diego Maradona so very short.
In 1928, the Argentine newspaper El Grafico published an editorial suggesting what a statue capturing the essence of the game in Argentina would need to feature. It should, the editorial asserted be, ‘An urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use … His knees covered with the scabs of wounds disinfected by fate; barefoot or with shoes whose holes in the toes suggest they have been made through too much shooting. His stance must be characteristic; it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball.’ I refuse to believe that I am the only one reading these words who does not recognise a description of Diego Maradona, albeit that they were written a dozen years before he was born.
Simply put, Maradona’s legacy is of the “tortured genius” identified by Wilson, and also the “intelligent, roving, trickster” portrayed in that elegant El Grafico editorial. Despite being less successful on the international stage than Maradona, Leo Messi will hoover up more medals and silverware, and doubtless be regarded as a true great of the sport. It’s unlikely however that he will ever be loved, truly loved, as much as Maradona was, especially in Argentina where he is “revered” as Wilson asserts. A few examples from the turbulent life of Maradona, and how they have come to be understood, can perhaps offer a little insight as to why that would be the case.
In 1984, Maradona left Barcelona to join Napoli in Serie A following a dispute with Barça president Josep Lluís Núñez. Often seen as one of the lesser lights of Calcio, and cast into the shadow of the financial powerhouse clubs of the north, I Partenopei had never previously been crowned as champions of Italy. That would change when Maradona arrived though. Two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup triumph brought unheralded success to the Stadio San Paolo. For those true legends however, triumph demands payment in full. Inevitably, accompanying the victories, was the dread cloud of drug abuse, other scandals and alleged links with the Camorra – the notorious Neapolitan mafia. Bans and fines followed as his time with the club deteriorated. Eventually after serving a 15-month for cocaine abuse he left Napoli in disgrace, moving to Spain and Sevilla.
For all the trials and tribulations that the latter end of his time in Naples caused however, the image of Maradona, adorning frescoes on the side of buildings in the city are still treated with great reverence and his number ten shirt was later retired by the club as a sign of respect and gratitude. Following his passing, a move is now afoot to rename the Estadio San Paolo stadium after him, reborn as the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona. Thousands flooded the streets of Naples minutes after the news of his death broke. No one was dismissing the scandals or drug abuse, but this was news of one of their own passing. At such times, forgiveness, sadness, love and adoration wash away thoughts of such ills. Interviewed in The Guardian, as he plastered a poster reading “Maradona, Naples is crying” to a shop front, Manuel Pellegrini spoke for the city. “He was just a Scugnizzo Napoletano [Neapolitan for naughty rascal] like us.” He had vulnerabilities and weaknesses like Neapolitans, like Naples itself, like us all, but that was why they took him to their hearts. It’s what made him more adored, loved.
The World Cup, the greatest football show on earth, has been the scene for so much of what has come to define Maradona. He selected the tournament in 1986 for perhaps the most famous four minutes of his entire career. For many football fans around the world, those brief 240 or so seconds captured the man, the legend that was Maradona, and yet the actions, their consequences and their legacies have been interpreted in so many different ways.
Eschewing chronology, beginning with the second goal against England in the quarter-final of the tournament in Mexico, the slaloming run from halfway, swaying past defenders unhindered by their futile attempts to disrupt his progress, before slotting the ball past Peter Shilton is regarded by many as the greatest goal in World Cup history. Commentating for the BBC at the game, Barry Davies offered support to such assertions. “You have to say that is magnificent,” he remarked. And so, it was. The dribble past so many lunging challenges was like a will o’ the wisp dancing elusively, this way then that, the ball convinced that it was part of his foot, and no one else could dare to take it away. Selecting the biggest stage for your grandest moments is truly the hallmark of legends. Yet if that was football from the Gods, four minutes earlier, the first Argentine goal has been painted as an entirely different picture, when Maradona claimed assistance from a celestial hand in giving Argentina the lead.
The details of the goal are well enough known without going through them again, but it’s the consequences, and interpretation of them, that are of more important in understanding Maradona’s legacy. To so many in England, the goal was regarded as ‘cheating’ which of course, it was. Context is everything though, and the incident was no less contrary to the laws of the game than for the England players – as many others of different nationalities had done, and would continue to do in the tournament – to repeatedly foul their nemesis as the best way to prevent him from harming their cause.
Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right as the hackneyed old cliché goes but, as time has passed, many have come to regard the referee as the villain of the peace for not spotting the subterfuge, rather than Maradona for perpetrating it. After all, who amongst the England players or the many millions of fans watching, if guaranteed they would not be penalised for the offence, would not have done exactly the same thing? Again, Maradona’s deception, the temptation to be a “trickster” was surely one we would all fall prey to. Do we not envy his opportunism in the first goal as much as his majesty in scoring the second one?
In Argentina, there was never much doubt as to which goal brought the most pleasure, albeit perhaps also aided by a sizable measure of schadenfreude for the angst of a former imperial country brought low by the conjurer’s deceptive art and sleight of hand. The “intelligent, roving, trickster” deftly picking the pocket of the dim-witted, aristocratic and wealthy invader, before scampering away to celebrate with his kin. So many Argentines would have wanted to inflict the same embarrassment on the English, especially with the Falklands War so redolent in South American minds, but Maradona spoke for, acted for, them all.
Even for the English, whilst some may still harbour dark thoughts and carry a grudge many years later, many others have accepted, forgiven and even acknowledged the quicksilver thinking that scored the goal. A span of almost three dozen years offers plenty of time for reflection.
Four years later, in Italia 90, Argentina played the hosts Italy at the semi-final stage at the Estadio San Paolo. The Azzurri, one step from the final on home soil would surely have been offered the most vociferous of support. In Naples however, the adoration of Maradona as a Scugnizzo Napoletano, a favoured son who erred but brought so much joy, weighed heavier than that for the national team. Is there any greater love?
In the tournament hosted by the USA in 1994, the ever-present vulnerability rose to the surface again. A positive drugs test for exposed Maradona’s defining vulnerability. He was expelled from the World Cup in disgrace but, despite this transgression and the harm it did to Argentine chances in the tournament, there was enough forgiveness and understanding in the country to welcome him back into the fold as coach of the national team later.
Relating Maradona’s legacy to Naples or Argentina, albeit easy to illustrate and illuminating artificially restricts his legacy, where in reality it spreads across the global football community and beyond. In New Zealand, ahead of a rugby match against Argentina, the All Blacks delayed the Haka to offer their opponents a New Zealand shirt bearing the number ten and Maradona’s name. It may seem like a peripheral event, a sideshow, something happening on the fringes of the tributes to a lost genius, but maybe it shouldn’t be seen that way.
Maradona was born in Argentina and starred for La Albiceleste as well as coaching the national team. In club football, as well as starring for Barcelona, Napoli and Sevilla, he played for Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors and Newell’s Old Boys, and coached clubs in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico. All would claim a part of Maradona’s legacy as their own. That legacy however is far bigger and spreads far wider than that.
That legacy belongs to all football, across the world, and may even spread to other sports too. It’s a legacy that speaks not only of a God-given talent, not only of a career blessed by towering heights and benighted by despairing lows, but of both at the same time. It’s a legacy that speaks of all of our strengths, all of our vulnerabilities and what makes us who we are. We applaud, we acclaim and we loved Maradona for who he was, not some wholly virtuous person devoid of inner demons, but because he was like us, because he inspired us. He was a “tortured genius”. He was that “urchin with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes” and he was that “Scugnizzo Napoletano”. He was all of those things and so much more. What he wasn’t however was perfect. Like us all, he had vulnerability and that’s what linked him to everyone else. It’s why we loved Maradona and why his legacy should be exalted as belonging to a very human legend.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times ‘Maradona’ magazine).
Two days after Christmas in 1931, the Charles family of 19 Alice Street in the Cwmbwrla district of Swansea had their second child. As the family grew, he would go on to be the eldest of three sons, and second eldest of five children born to Ned Charles and his wife Lilian. A younger son, Mel would go on to become a professional footballer, play at the highest club level in Britain, and represent Wales on the international stage, including at the World Cup of 1958 in Sweden. It’s an impressive pedigree, and yet Mel was only the second most famous son to emerge from that house in Alice Street. The boy who was born on that late December cold winter day in 1931 would also turn to professional football and carve out a career in Britain and abroad that would make him a legend of the game and forever written into the annals of Leeds United. His name was John Charles.
Charles was educated at the local Cwmdu Junior School and, when he at the age of 14, his burgeoning talent as a footballer had already been recognised by Swansea Town, then in the third tier of the English league pyramid, who signed him to their ground staff. With the physique of someone many years older, and a natural football ability, he was marked out for great progress, but the reality of his tender years made the club reluctant to push him too far too quickly, and he never graduated to the club’s first team. A number of appearances for the club’s Reserve team, competing in the Welsh Football League was the limit of his progress at the Vetch Field. Others would not be so reluctant to give the titan of a youngster the opportunity to prove that old footballing maxim that ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’.
Gendros is another area of Swansea, half a mile or so from Cwmbwrla, and Charles played for a youth club team there. At 17, he was spotted by Jack Pickard, a scout for Leeds United, and invited for a trial with the Yorkshire club. It took little time to impress the coaching staff at Elland Road and Charles moved to Leeds. The one bone of contention for the club, at the time merely a fairly modest second tier outfit, was where the Welsh tyro should play. Such was the talent of the teenager that every position he was tried in – full back, centre-half, wing-half and even centre-forward – seemed well within Charles’s compass of ability to excel at.
At the time, the club was managed by the legendary Major Frank Buckley and, after reviewing the performances of the Welsh teenager in a variety of positions, across a number of reserve team games, he decided to give Charles his first team debut as a centre half. The game chosen to launch the untapped talents of John Charles upon an unsuspecting footballing world was a Friendly against Scottish club Queen of the South, on 19 April 1949.
Three weeks earlier, Scotland had visited Wembley for a Home International fixture, and returned with a convincing 1-3 victory in front of 98,000 spectators. An England defence captained by Billy Wright and also comprising Neil Franklin, Jack Aston and Jack Rowe had been tormented by the Scots, and especially their centre forward Billy Houliston. It would be the task of the novice centre half, John Charles, to harness Houliston and achieve something
that Wright, and similar luminaries of the English game had failed to do weeks earlier. The game ended in a goalless draw and, afterwards, a frustrated Houliston would remark that Charles was “the best centre half I’ve ever played against”. He wouldn’t be the last forward to voice that assessment across the coming years.
To no one’s great surprise, Charles was retained at the heart of the Leeds defence for the following Saturday, and a league game against Bristol Rovers at Elland Road. Another blank for the Yorkshire club’s opponents added the nascent belief that Leeds had a rare talent on their hands. There were two league games remaining to play out the season and Charles featured in both of them. In the summer, Tom Holley, the erstwhile stalwart centre half and skipper of the team of the team, recognised the reality of the changed situation, and retired from the game to pursue a career in journalism. John Charles had quickly made the elder man redundant and established himself as a key element in the Leeds team. In his new guise, Holley would later write of Charles. “Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best centre half he had played against and without hesitation named John Charles. The same week, Billy Wright was asked, who was the greatest centre forward he had faced, and he again answered John Charles.”
The following term Charles played every game in Leeds’s campaign, establishing himself as an outstanding defender and on 8 March 1950, his talents were recognised by the Wales national team when he made his debut for the country in a Home International fixture against Northern Ireland at Wrexham. Needless to say, the visitors failed to find a way past Charles and his fellow defenders, with the game ending in a goalless draw. He was still only 18 years of age, and had become the youngest player ever to represent Wales. It’s a record that stood for more than four decades, until broken by Ryan Giggs in 1991.
From 1950 until 1952, Charles completed two years of National Service with the 12th Royal Lancers, based in Carlisle. The journey was hardly a simple matter but he was allowed to travel back to Yorkshire to play for Leeds as well as fulfilling his duty by turning out for his regimental team that went on to win the Army Cup in 1952 with Charles captaining the team and lifting the trophy. The same period also saw his time on the pitch limited by two cartilage operations.
It was a time when Leeds began to take regular advantage of the versatile nature of Charles’s talents. With the club struggling to find the back of the net with any consistent reliability, Charles was pushed forward into the centre forward position. In October 1952, the move produced instant dividends, with 11 goals in six games. The move had worked but, at the same time, it also illustrated the growing dependence the club had on the young Welshman as, in his absence, the previously almost watertight defence was shown to have as many leaks as a colander. It meant a number of changes between front and back for Charles – often within a game – but he coped admirably and Leeds profited. In a number of games, he would begin as a forward, Leeds would establish a lead on the back of his talents, and then he would be switched back into defence to hold on to the advantage. It sounds like a strange, and somewhat unreal scenario, but it worked and, years later Juventus would adhere to the same formula in Serie A, with spectacular success.
In 1953-54 season, Charles was given an extended run at centre forward and netted an impressive 42 league goals in just 39 games. It was a club record haul and the remarkable strike rate made him the top scorer in the division. He was still in his early-twenties, but now unmistakably the most important, and potent, weapon at the Elland Road club. Inevitably, the Welshman’s success was also beginning to draw admiring glances from both First Division clubs and even abroad, such was the fame of his exploits. Understandably, Charles was keen to progress his career and a desire to play at the highest possible level fed his ambition.
In 1955, he was appointed as club captain and led the club to runners-up spot in the Second Division and promotion to the top tier of English football. His 29 goals, in the 1955-56 season, as an ever-present across the 42-game league programme, was a key factor in the club’s success. Now at the top level of the English game, there were hopes among the Leeds hierarchy and fans that Charles’s ambition would be sated for a while and, conversely perhaps what would surely be less success for the player in the top tier may dissuade any potential suitors. It was a forlorn hope.
Promotion for any club can lead to a difficult initial period as players struggle to come to terms with the increased demands of higher-level competition, but for John Charles, this was hardly the case. Leading from the front the Welshman scored 38 goals in 40 league appearances establishing a record for the club in top flight competition, as Leeds finished in an impressive eighth position. By now, Buckley had been replaced by Raich Carter as manager of Leeds United, but there was only one man who was recognised as the most important asset of the club, and that was John Charles. In some newspapers, Leeds were even referred to as John Charles United. It was perhaps an exaggeration of his value to the club but, if so, only a slight one. Any doubts as to whether John Charles could deliver at the highest levels had already been brought into doubt with his performances for Wales – but his debut season in the First Division not only dispelled any lingering doubts, it also inevitably intensified interest in him from other clubs.
The white-hot heat of the John Charles talent was simply too hot for Leeds to hold onto, and a deal was agreed with Italian giants Juventus for him to move to Turin at the end of the 1956-57 season for a world record fee of £65,000. In his final game for Leeds before departing for Italy, they faced Sunderland on 22 April 1957. In what was somewhat inevitably a hugely emotional game, Charles scored twice in 3-1 win to sign off his time at Elland Road. He had scored 157 goals in 257 games for the club, many of them coming from a defensive position. John Charles had joined Leeds United as a young promising teenager with potential as yet undiscovered. At 26 years of age, he left for Italy as the most valuable footballer on the planet. Tall and muscular, but with abundant skill coupled and irresistible determination, quite simply put, John Charles was one of the best footballers ever to draw breath, and comfortably the most complete talent to arise from the British Isles at the time. Years later, Sir Bobby Robson, a playing contemporary of the Welshman would eulogise on the talents of John Charles. “Where was he in the world’s pecking order? He was right up there with the very, very best. Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stephano, Best. But how many of them were world class in two positions? The answer to that is easy: None of them.”
In five years with Juventus, John Charles became a legend with the Turin club. The practise first deployed by Major Buckley, years earlier, of selecting Charles to play as a forward until a sufficient lead was established, before dropping him back to defend was turned into a fine art at the club and, of course he netted the winner in his debut for La Vecchia Signora in a 3-2 victory over Hellas Verona. His first season in Italy saw him become Serie A’s top scorer as Juventus won the Scudetto. It set a pattern. Together with Omar Sívori and Giampiero Boniperti, Charles formed what quickly became known as The Holy Trident as two more league titles followed, together with a brace of Coppa Italia tirumphs. The esteem that the fans had for Charles in Turin was exemplified when, in 1997 at the club’s centenary, the Welshman was voted as Juventus’s best ever foreign player.
In 1962, Don Reive, now in charge at Elland Road and seeking to build the club agreed a record fee of £53,000 to take Charles back to Elland Road. The move caused such excitement among supporters that admission fees were increased for the start of the new season. There’s an old adage in football though that you ‘should never go back’. John Charles was now past his thirtieth birthday and although much of the skill and physical prowess remained, five seasons in Europe’s toughest league had inevitably taken its toll and despite typical application to the cause, it was doomed to fail. Eleven games and three goals were a poor return on the investment and it quickly became clear to the player that, after years of the Italian lifestyle, a return to the British way of life was a bridge too far. Leeds agreed a fee with Roma that would give them a nominal profit on the money given to Juventus, and John Charles returned to Italy.
After once more scoring on his debut, his time in Rome was almost as short as that on his return to Yorkshire. Further moves followed, first back to Wales and Cardiff City – joining younger brother Mel – then to non-league Hereford United in a short period as Player-Manager, before going back to Wales and Merthyr Tydfil and eventually retiring in 1974. He passed away in 2004, aged 85. Perhaps it was appropriate that, in the end, his final illness struck him while in Italy, where had been invited to work as a television pundit. Juventus quickly offered to pay the costs to get him back to Britain alongside his wife, two doctors and a nurse. At 4.30pm on 21 February 2004, at Pinderfields Hospital, he passed away.
A ball boy for Juventus during the great days of Charles’s Italian adventure with Juventus, Roberto Bettega was now president of the club. Speaking after news of the death, his words were for the fans of Juventus, but they would echo the sentiments of the fans who worshipped Charles at Elland Road. “We cry for a great champion, and a great man. John is a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner and represented the sport in the best and purest manner.” Never cautioned or sent off in his entire career, it was a fitting tribute.
Jack Charlton, another of the great Leeds United defenders, and someone who inherited the shirt left by Charles had little doubt about where the Welshman should be ranked among the pantheon of the world’s greatest players, and why. “I had just arrived at Elland Road and they were all talking about John Charles,” Charlton recalled. “He was quick, he was strong, and he could run with the ball. He was half the team in himself. He was tremendous.” But there was to Charles than that. “John Charles was a team unto himself,” Charlton explained. “People often say to me, ‘Who was the best player you ever saw?’ and I answer that it was probably Eusébio, Di Stéfano, Cruyff, Pelé or our Bob (Bobby Charlton). But the most effective player I ever saw, the one that made the most difference to the performance of the whole team, was without question John Charles.” It’s an entirely apt and accurate description. In a period that saw Leeds United rise from being a mediocre second tier club, to one established in the top rank of English football, the overwhelming reason was the emergence and development of John Charles, the boy who came from the Welsh valleys to become a Leeds United legend.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ Leeds United magazine).
Following his dismissal at PSV, Bobby Robson joined Sporting Clube de Portugal. In a number of ways, the move would be a milestone in Robson’s career, although his time in Lisbon would only last a shade over seventeen months. Portuguese football had traditionally been dominated by the big three clubs in the Primeira Divisão, Benfica, Porto and Sporting. When Robson arrived in the Portuguese capital to take charge on 1 July 1992, between them, the three clubs have been national champions on 57 of the 58 seasons played since the Primeira Divisão was inaugurated in the 1930s. Benfica had triumphed 29 times, Sporting 16 times and Porto on 12 occasions. Only Belenenses had briefly unlocked the Triopoly’s domination – and that was back in the 1945-46 season.
On the face of it therefore, it appeared that Robson was joining one of the country’s elite clubs, with every chance of success. The reality he faced however was quite different. Sporting hadn’t won the league title for a decade – their longest absence from being anointed as the country’s top club in the history of the league – and, in the previous season had finished in an embarrassing fourth place, squeezed out of the top three positions by Boavista. In the season before that, they had finished in third place, but the gap to champions Benfica was a dozen clear points. For both of those seasons, Sporting had been led by the former Brazil captain, Marinho Peres. On 8 March 1992 however, with the club in third place and struggling to keep pace in the league, he was dismissed, António Luís Dominguez replaced him until the season’s end. Whilst, for any new manager, inheriting a successful club is rare indeed, the one that Bobby Robson took charge of on the first day of July 1992 was, in his own words, in ‘a terrible state’.
The former England manager had landed in a new country, to take over a club in decline and run by José de Sousa Cintra, a president that Robson would come to later describe as a ‘loose cannon’. On top of that, the new manager didn’t speak a word of Portuguese and, by and large, the playing staff had a similarly loose grasp of English. There was one major compensation however, that would make itself plain when Robson arrived at Lisbon’s airport. He was met by the man that the club had appointed to ease the new manager through those early difficult days and make communication between him and his players at least functionable. Often described at the time as an ‘interpreter’ even from the start José Mourinho was much more than that, as Manuel Fernandes, the former Sporting playing legend who served as Robson’s assistant explained.
Fernandes knew Mourinho from the time they had worked together at Vitoria de Setubal and Estrela da Amadora. Just 29 at the time, and developing his coaching and tactical knowledge, Fernandes recalled how the Mourinho had studied at school and become fluent in English, and recommended his services to the club – but not only for his translation skills. ‘He was never just a translator at Sporting,’ Fernandes emphasised. ‘I was the first assistant and he was the second assistant. Mr Robson distributed tasks for me and Ze [Mourinho] every day. When he eventually left Sporting, Mr Robson wanted to take Ze with him because he saw what he could do.’
Even with Mourinho there to ease the communication and assist in coaching, plus the services of Dutch defender Stan Valckx, who had followed him from PSV to Lisbon, the first season would always be difficult as Robson sought to bring some order to what was a largely chaotic club run by a president who thought it correct practise to sign players without the manager’s knowledge, let alone his approval.
There was the basis of a more than decent squad present at the club however, with perhaps just the right leadership required to make it blossom. As well as Portugal striker Jorge Cadete, who Robson would turn into the league’s leading marksman in his first season with Sporting, there was also the still largely untapped talents of a young Luís Figo. Still a few months short of his twentieth birthday, the midfielder would be a major asset for the new manager and so impress him, that he would take him to Barcelona a few years later.
The previous term’s fourth place finish in the league had at least ensured European football for Sporting, and they faced Grasshoppers Zurich in the first round of the UEFA Cup. The Swiss club was managed by Leo Beenhakker who had previously been in charge of Ajax, Real Madrid and the Dutch national team amongst many others. Despite their celebrated manager however, Sporting would have considered themselves as strong favourites to progress against a club from what was realistically considered at the time to be very much a second-rate league – especially following the first leg.
On 16 September, with the Primeira Divisão just underway, Robson led Sporting into Europe. Playing the first leg of the tie away, Sporting fell behind to a penalty, ten minutes ahead of the break, converted by Switzerland international Alain Sutter, after Harald Gämperle had been fouled inside the area. With a minute to play before half-time though, Krasimir Balakov, restored parity and secured an important away goal, heading home from a José Leal cross. Things got even better for Robson inside the final ten minutes, as Balakov set up a chance for Andrzej Juskowiak, whose left-footed strike gave Robson and his new team a more than satisfactory away victory. With the home game to come, things were looking bright. Just two weeks later, such assumptions would be swept away as the extent of Robson’s task became clearer.
On 30 September, at the Estádio José Alvalade in front of 40,000 expectant fans, Sporting fell behind to a goal from Brazilian forward Giovane Elber just past the half-hour mark. They still held the advantage thanks to those two away goals, but the lead that had seemed secure was now looking tenuous in the extreme. One more goal for the visitors would drastically swing the balance of the tie. The scoreline remained unchanged until the final half-dozen or so minutes of the game when things deteriorated in a rush of goals.
On 84 minutes, Joël Magnin put the visitors two goals ahead in the game and into the lead on aggregate. Cadete scored a minute later to mirror the scores from the first leg, heading home a cross from José Leal, but it was a temporary respite. In extra-time, it was Elber again putting the Swiss team ahead, and this time the advantage was decisive. Needing to score twice, Sporting fell away and were eliminated.
The old maxim of now being able to concentrate on the league would have offered little comfort to Robson, who needed a period of success to build some momentum to his team. Additionally, Sousa Cintra had, perhaps unrealistic, aspirations of European triumph for his club and, while for the moment, Robson would have been forgiven for failing with a team that had clearly underperformed recently and was new to the Englishman, the following season, European elimination would cost Robson his job.
Former manager Marinho Peres had now landed at Vitória Guimarães, who had finished just one place and three points behind Sporting at the end of the 1991-92 season. Given that the new English coach had been chosen as the long-term replacement for the Brazilian, it’s safe to say that had the Braga-based club performed better than Sporting, Robson’s position would have been in peril. On 28 March though, with Vitória Guimarães in 15th position and in danger of relegation, Marinho Peres was again shown the door. At least Robson had nothing to fear from the Ghost of Seasons Past.
The league season was very much a mixed bag for Sporting as Robson wrestled to arrest the decline that had set in and point the club in the right direction. They would finish in third place, an improvement on the previous season, and the gap to the top club had closed from 12 points to nine. It was very much a season of transition though, with the benefits hopefully to follow in the new term.
The potential benefits of Robson’s work were already beginning to deliver hints of revival though. In the four games against the other two major clubs, Sporting only suffered a single defeat. A 1-0 loss, at the Estádio da Luz, to a Benfica side boasting the talents of Paulo Futre, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa and Stefan Schwarz was hardly a significant reverse at all though. The next season promised more progress but, three months into the season with prospects very much on the up, the hair-trigger volatility of the club president, would bring Robson’s time in the Portuguese capital to an abrupt end.
In the summer, Sporting had acquired the services of Paulo Sousa from Benfica, and the Portugal international was the ideal creative influence for the side in midfield and the 1993-94 season began spectacularly well. Robson’s team went undefeated for the first eight games, winning seven games and drawing one, including a run of six successive victories from the start of the term. On 24 October, a 3-0 victory over Vitória Guimarães confirmed Sporting’s position at the top of the table and favourites for the title. It seemed that Robson had delivered a spectacularly quick turnaround of the club’s domestic fortunes. Similar progress had been achieved in the UEFA Cup. A first-round victory over the Turkish club Kocaelispor, was followed by success over Celtic. A 1-0 defeat at Parkhead left Sporting with something to do in the return, but a brace by Cadete, with a goal either side of half-time was sufficient to turn the tables and send Sporting into the Round of Sixteen.
Between the two legs of the Celtic tie, Sporting suffered their first league defeat of the season, losing 2-1 at Boavista. It was a blow for the club but, given their electric start, it hardly put a pause into their march forward. Returning to league action after eliminating the Scottish club, a home game against Porto offered the ideal opportunity to restate their title credentials. In a bad-tempered game however, Sporting fell behind to an early goal by Domingos Paciência and, despite pressing, couldn’t get a foothold back in the game. Successive losses after an eight-game unbeaten run including seven victors, felt like a looming crisis, but Sporting were still top of the league and a home 2-0 win over SV Austria Salzburg in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Round of Sixteen suggested that there was still plenty of hope for the club in European competition.
Four days later, another win, this time in a league fixture away to GD Estoril reaffirmed the Sporting’s domestic credentials and, with a two-goal lead to defend in Austria in the second leg against Salzburg, those two league defeats were now looking like a blip, rather than a sustained problem. The return leg against Salzburg in Austria at the Lehener Stadion on 7 December would, however, be Robson’s last one in charge of Sporting.
Entering the final seconds of the game, all seemed well. Sporting had played out the first 45 minutes without any major problems and, although defender Leo Lainer’s long-range left-footed strike had somehow deceived Costinha in the Sporting goal, two minutes after the restart and offered some hope to the Austrians, entering the last minute of the game, Sporting still led on aggregate. The home team were also down to ten men by this time, after Kurt Garger had been dismissed for a second yellow card offence, handling the ball to prevent Cadete breaking clear of the Salzburg back line, as the home team desperately pressed for the goal that would level the tie. The sending off surely settled the issue.
The 90 minutes had passed with injury time drifting away when a final desperate Salzburg assault saw the ball with Adi Hütter 30 yards or so from goal. With little else on, he chanced his arm with a long shot on goal. The ball bounced on its way, but still, improbably beat a diving Costinha, perhaps hampered by injury, who seemed to misread the pace of the ball. A few second were all that separated sporting, and their English manager, from a place in the quarter-finals. Deep into injury time, the scores were level and extra-time would be required to settle the game.
With both teams tiring, the extra 30 minutes ebbed and flowed, Sporting hit the post but, when the goal came it would be a killer strike for Robson’s team. With six minutes remaining, a fumbled clearance in the Sporting box saw the ball fall towards Hütter who underscored his hero status by volleying an unstoppable shot past Costinha. Shortly afterwards, a truculent Sousa Cintra sacked Robson in a fit of pique.
As with the sacking of Robson at PSV, the move hardly did the club any favours in the short or longer term. Carlos Queiroz was brought in to take over, but the club stumbled from the top spot Robson had taken them to, and finished back in third place. When the Englishman had taken over the club Sporting had been waiting a decade for their next title win. That delay would be extended until the turn of the century, and a further 11 managers would pass through the club before Sporting were crowned as champions once more.
Sousa Cintra’s rationale for sacking Robson had been his failure to deliver European success. The former England manager was dismissed in December 1994. More than a quarter of a century later, Sporting are still waiting for a European triumph. As for Robson, he made the short trip to Porto and began a new project in Portuguese football, delivering success that would have frustrated Sousa Cintra even more.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).