Author Archive: Gary Thacker

Josef Masopust – A golden career and 100 seconds of immortality.

Santiago, the capital of Chile was enjoying a balmy summer afternoon on 17 June 1962. The hot sun beat down, precluding almost all strenuous activity and everything was quiet and relaxed. Except that is for the area within and surrounding the Estadio Nacional, where the World Cup Final was being played between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. The game had started fairly evenly, with the Europeans pressing eagerly, but Brazil, even without the injured Pelé – ironically injured in a group game against the same opponents a dozen days earlier, looked dangerous. As the clock clicked around to 2.45pm local time though, the first goal was scored. Despite the reigning champions being widely favoured to retain the trophy, the strike came at the other end of the field.

Collecting the ball inside the opponents’ half, Sokol OKD Ostrava outside right, Tomáš Pospíchal ran forward across field before jinking right towards the Brazil area around 25 yards from goal. Looking up, he noticed the run of a team-mate towards the Brazil box. Stabbing the ball into the gap, soon to be filled by his team-mate, he paused as the white-shirted player reached the ball ahead of Gilmar and central defender Zózimo, before driving home right-footed under the diving goalkeeper and into the corner of the net. As the defender and goalkeeper fell into each other in a crumpled heap, Josef Masopust spun away, arms aloft in joyous celebration, soon to be engulfed by Pospíchal and his other team-mates. On that June day, at that moment, Czechoslovakia were ahead, and on their way to becoming champions of the world. Sadly, for the Czechs, the dream would only last around 100 or so seconds before a speculative shot from a tight angle on the left-hand side by Amarildo somehow deceived the previously excellent goalkeeper Viliam Schrojf at the near post to bring the scores level. 

Ahead of the final, Schrojf had conceded a mere four goals, three of them in a dead rubber of a group game against Mexico when qualification had already been secured. His error however all but doused the Europeans’ aspirations, as Brazil would contain any further thrusts from them and go on to score further goals from Zito and Vavá to ensure that the Seleção would become only the second team in history to retain the Jules Rimet trophy, following the successes of Italy in 1934 and 1938. Masopust’s goal was relegated to being a footnote in the history of football but, for those 100 seconds, the country’s greatest player had offered up the dream of the most unlikely of victories. Later, he would relate that, “When we qualified in 1962 people were telling us, ‘When you get there, don’t even bother unpacking because you’ll be coming back straight away.’ Even when we were leaving for Chile, no one came to wish us good luck or anything.” For those one hundred seconds though, such thoughts were put aside, and anything was possible, and Josef Masopust touched immortality.

Born in Střimická, then Czechoslovakia, but in an area now part of the Czech Republic, on 9 February 1931, the fourth of six children in the family. The village no longer exists, as it was demolished to allow extraction of coal in the 1950s. The young Josef Masupost though would endure the torrid times of German occupation as a young child though, when the village, part of the Most district in the Ústí nad Labem region was used as a forced labour camp by the invaders to extract the precious fuel from the ground.

At the end of the hostilities though, the now teenage Masupost began his career in football by joining the nearby ZSJ Uhlomost Most club, playing in a local league where he spent five years in the backwater of the burgeoning country’s sporting regeneration learning his trade. By 1950, now an accomplished 19-year-old midfielder player, he was ready for the step up to the big time as he joined first division club ZSJ Technomat Teplice. At the time, conscription into the armed forces was in force and after completing his term, he joined the club that would later find European fame as Dukla Prague, but were then known as ATK Praha. He would play for the club for 16 years winning eight league titles and three national cups. Dukla Prague also reached the semi-finals of the 1966–67 European Cup, before losing out to Celtic, who went on to win the competition.

Before that though, there was a prestigious game played in Mexico in 1959 that, although no one knew at the time would serve as a dress rehearsal for that World Cup final three years later. Dukla Prague were on a tour of Latin America and one of their scheduled game was against Santos in Mexico City. Rudolf Kocek, the former chairman of the club and the Czech football association, would describe it as his “most memorable match.” The previous year, a teenage Pelé had led Brazil to World cup triumph in Sweden and Santos were widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading clubs.

All conditions seemed to favour a South American triumph. The game as played at noon as, the story goes, fans could not only take in the game but also move on to watch the bullfighting in the cool of the evening. The crowd of some 90,000 seemed to bear out the theory. Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians felt more at home in the heat and were quickly two goals clear, but Masopust would drive his team forwards, not only subduing the prodigious skills of the player destined to become lauded as the greatest on the planet, but also notching two goals as the Czechs fought back to win 4-3. It was a titanic achievement and put down a marker for the future had it only been recognised.

It’s true to say of course that while Pelé was still a teenager Masopust was now entering the prime years of his career. He had a natural athleticism that, coupled to a unique dribbling style of swaying past opponents, often described by fans as ‘the slalom’ made him the almost complete midfield player, and yet he also had a feverish appetite for work. Many, at the time, compared his style to that of József Bozsik, a star of the Magical Magyar Hungarian side that dominated so much of international football in the 1950s. Some criticised an apparent lack of ability to win the ball in tackles when defending, but an innate ability to read the game, more often than not, allowed him to anticipate opponents’ passes, cutting off attempted moves and springing his team forward with dribbling or accurate passing. His value to Dukla Prague is illustrated by the fact he played almost 400 games for the club, scoring 79 times and creating many others. Although as he later lamented, “We didn’t get paid as such, just our army wages.”

Czechoslovakia had qualified for the 1958 World Cup, but had failed to escape from the group stages, eventually losing out on a play-off against Northern Ireland. Despite the progress of Masopust and Dukla Prague in the intervening years therefore, and a third-place finish in the first European Championships in 1960, the low level of expectation as the squad left for South America was probably entirely reasonable. 

The Czechs were based in the Pacific coastal city of Viña del Mar in the Valparaíso Region and would play all of their games at the compact Estadio Sausalito, where the crowd attendance never topped 15,000 for any of their games. On the last day of May 1962, they began their campaign with a game against the fancied Spain team featuring the likes of Luis del Sol, Ferenc Puskás, Luis Suárez and Francisco Gento. Brazil had already comfortably beaten Mexico 2-0 the previous day, with Zagallo and Pelé getting the goals. It was likely that all of the other teams would be playing for second place in the group.

If the Brazil game had been one of open flowing football, this one would never reach such heights. In a physical encounter, with excesses from both sides, a goalless draw seemed the likeliest of outcomes until, with just ten minutes remaining an error, and squandered possession, saw Jozef Štibrányi break clear to score the winner. It had been the sort of encounter where the dynamic play of Masopust would excel and he did as much as anyone in the team to guide the Czechs to victory. There was just a couple of days break before the game with Brazil. The South Americans had enjoyed an extra day’s rest, but that wasn’t the main difference between the teams.

The game, as a contest was probably ruined midway through the first half when Pelé tore a thigh muscle. In these days, substitutes weren’t allowed and Brazil were compelled to place the limping star player out on the flank as a passenger to the team. It meant that the game fizzled out a goalless draw, but Masopust remembered a specific incident in the game, when facing the limping Brazil number ten. “At one point, he had the ball on the wing. I ran to close him down. I was going to finish him off but when I was about a metre and a half away, I saw he was injured so I pulled up so I wouldn’t make things worse for him. When he saw this, he kicked the ball out of play.”

In the other game, Spain defeated Mexico, and would face Brazil in their final game. On 6 June, even without Pelé, Brazil overcame the Spaniards 2-1. It meant that Czechoslovakia were guaranteed qualification, and despite Václav Mašek scoring the fastest goal in World cup history, netting after just 15 seconds, the Mexicans rallied to restore a bit of pride and won 3-1.

The quarter-finals pitched Masopust and his team against fellow East Europeans, Hungary. Despite the flowering talent of Flórián Albert, this was no vintage Hungary team, and certainly a pale shade of the cherry red shirted players who were now scattered around Europe following the Soviet Union invasion of their country. That said, they had still topped their group, forcing England into second place. In a tense and close game, it was Masopust’s first-half precise through ball that deceived the Hungarian defence and set up Adolf Scherer to score the only goal of the game. Although Hungary pressed for much of the second period, even striking the bar on one occasion, Schrojf and his back line held out to send Czechoslovakia into the last four.

The quarter-final had seen the Czechs travel to the Estadio El Teniente in Rancagua, but the semi-final, again facing another Ease European team, would be back at the Estadio Sausalito in Viña del Mar. On 13 June at the Estadio Nacional, Santiago Brazil defeated hosts Chile 4-2 in front of more that 76,000 fans. At the same time, Czechoslovakia faced Yugoslavia with less than 6,000 fans watching for the right to play the holders and reigning champions in the World Cup Final. The game was refereed by Swiss official Gottfried Dienst who, four years later would be in charge of the World cup Final at Wembley and decide that Geoff Hurst’s shot had crossed the line to give England a 3-2 lead. This game had far less controversy with the fist period being goalless before Josef Kadraba gave Masopust’s team the lead three minutes after the restart. Dražan Jerković equalised with 20 minutes to play, but two goals inside the last ten minutes, the second a penalty from Scherer saw the unlikely Czechs bounce into the final.

The game would be played on 17 June, a special date for Masopust. “The day of the final was special for me,” he recalled. “Not only because I was about to play in the World cup final, but also because it was my wife’s birthday. So I would have the chance to celebrate two things that day if it had worked out differently.” Sad to say however, that even if the Czechs had prevailed, celebrating his wife’s birthday would have been a long-distance affair. Whenever the team travelled abroad, at least one family member of each player was required to stay at home to ensure that the other didn’t defect. It was a fuel and heartless, but hardly unusual, display of paranoia by the Eastern Bloc regimes, and would hardly have been inspiring for the squad, but it was just the way of things at that time, and there was little point in questioning it.

Whilst Brazil were overwhelming favourites to win the game, even with Pelé merely a massively interested spectator, the Czechs knew their place in the great scheme of things. “I have to be honest,” Masopust confessed. “And say that we didn’t really believe we could win against brazil. We knew the quality of their squad and we didn’t really believe it.” Their preparation was hardly helped by a pre-game presentation to Schrojf for being the tournament’s outstanding goalkeeper. It was more than a little ironic given the error in the game that cost so much.

Having played in front of small crowds in compact stadiums, going out into the bowl of the Estadio Nacional with nearly 60,000 people jammed in was an entirely different experience. “Only when we went out in the tunnel, did we hear the noise and the atmosphere ahead,” Masopust recalled. Fifteen minutes later, his name was briefly written into World Cup history. Understandably, he remembered the event clearly. “We were attacking down the left wing. I was running into the box and I saw a gap in the defence. I got the ball, so I just hit it in the net.” And then the understatement. “I was happy.” As mentioned though, that elation was fleeting. The hundred seconds were already ticking away. “But before I could comprehend the joy I should have been feeling, they scored and ruined it for me.

The game ended 3-1 and the Czechs accepted their fate with all due humility. “We felt we’d done our best, but Brazil were just the better team. We really had no grudges after the match.” The team that had slipped out of their country to head to chile with barely an echo of support were greeted back home as heroes when they returned though. “It had changed 100%,” Masopust recalled. “We could hardly get through customs. It was crazy.” Much as with his goal though, the fame and celebrity were fleeting. “After that, though, I think our lifestyle was pretty much the same as before. From the fans’ point of view, it was a huge success, but officially not really. We only got 5,000 Czech crowns (equivalent at the time to around 180$), from which they wanted taxes. We were quite disappointed.” Despite that period of disillusionment, the successes of Josef Masopust were recognised when he was awarded the Ballon d’Or later the same year.

Four years later, after Czechoslovakia failed to qualify for the 1966 World cup, Masopust retired from international football. As a reward for his services to his country, he was allowed to move abroad working as coach, first in Indonesia, and then latterly back in Europe, in Belgium.  Prague was his adopted home city though and he later returned to live in his old army flat overlooking the Dukla Prague stadium, where he died in 2015.

Artur Friedenreich – The ‘Pelé before Pelé’

Artur Friedenreich

In 1888, as the first football league season was born in England, Brazil passed the ‘Golden Law’ abolishing slavery in the last South American country where it had been acceptable for one person to own another one. Inevitably however, de facto trails de jure by a significant period, and it would be wrong to assume that all discrimination and abuse ended with that piece of legislation. It was therefore, into a land still burdened by history and bigotry that, on 18 July 1892 the son of Oscar Friedenreich, a German merchant, and Mathilde, a Brazilian laundress – a white father and a black mother – entered the world. Despite the troubled environment and the hurdles faced, Artur Friedenreich, described by Eduardo Galeano in ‘Soccer in the Sun and Shadow’ as the “green-eyed mulatto who founded the Brazilian way of playing” would grow up to be a sporting superstar.

As with so many other countries in the continent, football had burrowed deep into the soul of Brazilian culture. Overwhelmingly however, in the early years of the twentieth century, it remained the preserve of the white man. To succeed in such an environment, Friedenreich – born at the junction of streets named Vitoria (Vctory) and Triunfo (Triumph) and with skills developed on the streets of the city of São Paulo – would not only need to be an outstanding player, he’d also need to conquer power, privilege and prejudice. In doing so, this Robin Hood in football boots would steal the game away from the wealthy, advantaged and white, gifting it to the humble, the poor and the downtrodden. He would provide a way for those that emerged from the streets, from the depths of deprivation and despair to journey to the Seleção and deliver a brand of football the country would become synonymous with. As Galeano explained. “Friedenreich brought to the solemn stadium of the whites the irreverence of the brown boys who had fun playing with a ball of rags in the suburbs. Thus, was born a style, open to fantasy, that prefers pleasure to the result.” Without Artur Friedenreich, the Brazilian Jogo Bonito may never have entranced the world.

Despite the barriers blocking access to football for blacks and mulattos – those of mixed race such as Friedenreich – largely thanks to being raised in Europeanised family, football quickly became an important part of the young boy’s life, and his father’s eager support and encouragement carried him through periods of doubt when his nascent ability had yet to find its way out. It was therefore, hardly surprising that, the first club he played for was SC Germânia, a club set up in the city for the benefit of German immigrants. Despite his father’s national credentials though, there were still hurdles to cross. Before turning up at the ground to train or play, Friedenreich would have to spend time straightening his naturally curly hair to appear more European. Some reports even suggest that he would also smear his body with rice powder to hide the darkness of his skin

Still in his teenage years, Friedenreich’s hours of playing on the street, often with a bound ball of rags rather than a football, had honed his skills and dictated the way he played. Even in his prime, he stood well under six feet tall and his wiry physique would see him comfortably fit into the ‘Flyweight’ division of boxing. As such, he had the low centre of gravity that allowed him to weave quickly, dribbling past less adroit opponents, play quick passes, and the pace to dart into spaces, collecting the ball with unerring control. To many, his performances were as some lithe dancer, hypnotically guided by an unheard Samba beat. Add onto that list of qualities, the determination and case-hardened hunger for success etched into his soul, and the package was complete. The first ‘Black Pearl’ – the first Pelé – would set light to the blue touch-paper of Brazilian football. Fireworks would follow!

At 17, the blossoming talent was clear and other clubs sought his services. Although records are unclear and some evidence is doubted by many scholars as to his precise goalscoring records, it’s indisputable that he was a potent force. By the time he was 20 he was the top goalscorer in the São Paulo league, scoring 16 times. It’s an accolade he would claim numerous times over the following 17 years or so of his career.

By 1914, he was becoming a recognised star of the Brazilian game and when the Seleção played their first game as a recognised national team, the name of Artur Friedenreich, then playing for Clube Atlético Ypiranga, was inevitably included on the team sheet. The game itself was somewhat less celebrated than others that would follow. The opponents on that day were in fact, English club Exeter City who were returning to from a tour of Argentina at the time.

It took place on July 21st, 1914 at the Estádio das Laranjeiras, just weeks before the outbreak of World War One. Although debuts on the international stage are always memorable events, there was another reason why Friedenreich would recall his confrontation with the West Country’s Grecians, as he lost two teeth during a heavy tackle from one of the tourists, but completed the game after receiving hasty dental treatment. The game ended in a surprise 2-0 victory for the Brazilians – the game was still amateur then, and would remain so for years to come. Friedenreich didn’t score either of the goals, but some sources report that he had a hand in the second goal scored by Osman Medeiros.

Five years later though, now unquestionably South America’s first footballing superstar, he did score the winning goal in the final of the 1919 Copa America against Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. The extra-time strike, added to his hat-trick against Chile in a group game made him the tournament’s top scorer. By now, the style of Brazilian football, driven by Friedenreich, had shed the traditional tactics of the early European pioneers of the game in the country. He was the flagbearer for the revolution to the style that would take Brazil to the summit of world football. After the triumph, a São Paulo newspaper would describe the new style of play “which dictates that the ball be brought by all the forwards right up to the oppositions goal, where shots were taken from any distance, and the collective whole of the forward line is not necessary, it’s enough for two or three players to break away with the ball, which by it’s devastating speed disorientates the defence.”

The 1919 victory was probably the zenith of Friedenreich’s career. Huge crowds thronged the city to acclaim the success and especially the exploits of Friedenreich. The boot with which the winning goal was struck would later be placed on display in the window of a jeweller’s shop, after being taken on a tour of the city, for all to marvel at and pay homage. It’s somewhat strange to say therefore, that just two years later, and then at the peak of his powers, and arguably the best player in the world, Artur Friedenreich would not be part of the Brazil team that travelled to Argentina for the 1921 Copa America competition.

Argentina was a predominantly white country and the authorities there announced that only white players would be allowed to represent the country and compete in the tournament. There were even cartoons in the Argentine newspapers championing the decision and pointing fingers towards Brazil, declaring that “The monkeys are coming.” In a shameful and cowardly decision, Brazilian president Epitacio Pessoa cravenly followed suit, apparently concerned that having black players may bring shame on his country. He need not have worried. His decision did that on its own. Friedenreich was excluded from the Seleção and the hosts won the trophy winning all three of their games. Brazil would win just once, defeating Paraguay 3-0, but defeats to Argentina and Uruguay were perhaps just reward for Pessoa’s craven collaboration.

Perhaps the sad reflection of the decision, the consequences of it or a combination of both and the inevitable awakening of a more open attitude, the whole scenario had a transforming effect on both Brazilian football in general and Friedenreich in particular, feeding the springing seeds that would flower into the ending of racial discrimination in Brazilian football. His career with the Seleção would span eleven years but, with games so sparse, inevitably compromised by the demands of travel in that time, would only comprise 23 games. A similar length of time in modern days would more usually mean many more. Neymar for example has played over 100 games for Brazil since his debut in 2010.

By 1925, Friedenreich’s international career was finished. Despite this, his fame showed little sign of diminishing. He was now playing for CA Paulistano and, for some time, the club had been invited invited to play a number of friendly games across the country so people could see the great Friedenreich in the flesh. In 1927 however, the call came for the club and their star, now 37, to travel to Europe for a series of games. For players of a much younger age than Freidenreich, the demands of travelling across the Atlantic by boat before arriving in a different continent and play eight games, with more travelling in between would be difficult enough, but Friedenreich would hardly let down the fans who came to watch not only the team with the strange footballing style, but also the star player whose reputation had crossed the ocean before him. In those eight games, he would score 11 goals, and richly entertain the spectators.

Despite his athletic prowess, and natural fitness, time and tide eventually takes its toll on all things, and age was something Friedenreich could only temporarily ward off. An inability to even walk out of the door of his house only added to the pressures he was under. Although living the life of a celebrity, he did so without the financial income to sustain it, earning a relatively meagre salary, especially given his international renown. Despite this, he still tried to live an extravagant lifestyle, with reports suggesting that he owned more than 100 suits, and developed a taste for particularly expensive beers.

The first World Cup tournament held in Uruguay in 1930 should have been the perfect stage for Freidenreich’s swansong, but it wasn’t to be. Despite being in his late thirties at the time, there was little doubt that he would have warranted a place in the squad that travelled to Montevideo for the first global celebration of the game. Due to some unexplained mix up however, only players from the states of Rio de Janeiro were selected, and Freidenreich, along with other stars from the São Paolo area missed out.

As the years rolled on, he began playing less and less, and when he did play, often it would be for far smaller clubs than in his heydays. Professionalism was gradually spreading through the football ranks in Brazil and by 1933, the game had dispensed with amateurism completely. Whether through a fit of pique for missing out on what could have been hugely financially rewarding times when playing his best years, or merely through idealistic grounds, Friedenreich raged against the changes, and in essence decided to walk away from the game. At 43 years of age, on 21 July 1935, he played his last game for Flamengo in a 2-2 draw against Fluminense.

Finished with football, he began working for liquor company until he retired. His latter years saw the once great hero of Brazilian football brought to his knees by Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment for the condition would drain his financial resources without ever coming close to arresting the deterioration of his mental faculties and memory. He died on 6 September 1969 aged 77, leaving behind a wife and son, whom he called Oscar after his father, penniless.

One of the tragedies of Freidenreich’s mental deterioration was that, towards the end of his life, he had little or no memory of his footballing achievements, or even his name at the end, and was totally unable to corroborate any records offered up by others, hence leaving clouds of doubt over his goalscoring abilities. Perhaps the least contentious account however comes from a former team-mate, Mário de Andrada. Friedenreich’s father began to keep a notebook record of his son’s goals from the day he first started playing, and in 1918, feeling he would no longer be able to maintain the record, he passed the task on to Mário de Andrada, who vowed to ensure the records were maintained for posterity.

In 1962, Andrada showed the records to Brazilian journalist, Adriano Neiva da Motta e Silva, more commonly known as De Vaney. It suggested that across his career spanning 1,329 games, Friedenreich had scored a staggering 1,239 goals. The figures become even more impressive when taking into account that many of those games were played well past the peak of Friedenreich’s powers, through his late thirties and into his forties. Originally, De Vaney added more fog to the uncertainty by inadvertently reversing the figures, before they were corrected. The error hardly aids legitimacy and confidence, especially as Andrada’s written records were lost when he died.

If there are doubts about his precise goalscoring records, there is little to diminish the role that Freidenreich played in both shaping the way that Brazil played football and helping to break down the malignant walls of discrimination. Eduardo Galeano wrote that, “From Friedenreich onward, Brazilian football that is truly Brazilian does not have right angles, like the mountains of Rio de Janeiro and the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer.” The lyrical description does great honour to the former star. To some he was the greatest Brazilian footballer of all time, but without television images to enhance the legend, that accolade often falls to the “’Pelé after Pelé’”

The great man was once asked if there would ever be another player to compete with his own achievements. After musing for a second, Pelé shook his head slowly. “My parents closed the factory,” he said with a smile. That may well be true, but if his parents did bring down the shutters on that factory, the keys to initially open it for black players to flourish in Brazilian football were crafted and used by Artur Friedenrich, the ‘Pelé before Pelé’.

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

Papin!

papin

“If we had had Jean-Pierre Papin  up front, we would have won the World Cup in 1982!” It was a plaintive lament from, Michel Hidalgo, a frustrated coach, looking back. He had seen his team entertain and entrance, but lack that killer instinct, bereft of a striker with the gift of scoring, someone who would convert the footballing domination of his team into goals. He knew who the perfect fit would have been but, unfortunately for Hidalgo, Papin was still in the ranks of junior football at the time, with INF Vichy. Continue reading →

Ali Daei – International goalscorer extraordinaire!

Ali Daei

So, here’s a question for you? Who do you think had scored the most goals in international football? Pelé? Nope, not even close. Ronaldo? Closer, but no cigar. Ferenc Puskás I hear some of the more ‘mature’ voices claim. Well, not quite, although he was the record holder until 2003. Continue reading →

Steed Malbranque – One of Tony Blair’s ‘favourite’ footballers.

Steed Malbranque

 For reasons surpassing normal logic, former prime minister Tony Blair was invited onto the BBC’s Football Focus programme in 2005 to discuss his supposed love of the beautiful game. When asked to name his favourite players, the politician apparently went with Teddy Sheringham, Arjan de Zeeuw, and Steed Malbranque. Continue reading →

Carlos Kaiser – The ‘real’ (well not quite) False Nine.

Carlos Kaiser

The title may be a little misleading. If you don’t know the story, let’s make something clear from the start. It’s questionable if there was anything genuinely ‘real’ about the footballing career of Carlos Kaiser. To begin with, Kaiser isn’t really his name. Brazilian footballers often get tagged with a nickname, or a derivation of their real name, that then becomes known the world over as their official footballing nomme de guerre. Pelé being a prime example, although Edson Arantes do Nascimento is a bit of a mouthful anyway. Continue reading →

Gol di Turone – Ten centimetres, cruel fate and Roma’s despair

Gol di Turone

On 10 May 1981, Juventus entertained Roma at the Stadio Comunale in Turin. The match up looked likely to be the deciding encounter of the 1980-81 Scudetto. With just two more games to follow afterwards, I Bianconeri sat atop of the table on 40 points, with Roma a single point behind. The home team were perennial challengers for the title. They had topped the table in 1976-77 and 1977-78, before finishing third and then second in consecutive seasons. They had a team brimming with the cream of Italian talent, supplemented by expensive imports, and the club were determined that this season would see them reclaim their rightful spot as Italy’s top club. Continue reading →

Fernando Torres – Atlético Madrid’s El Niño

torres_fernando-1040x572

 As with most football clubs honouring their outstanding players when the curtain is finally drawn down on a glittering career, atleticodemadrid.com, probably provide the most succinct reflection on the high regard in which Fernando Torres is viewed by all Atleti fans. In just six words, they capture the essence of his contribution to the cause. “Fernando Torres Atlético de Madrid legend.” Continue reading →

1966 and all that. 1970 and all what? How football can affect governance. Well, maybe.

1970

Football and British politics may seem uneasy bedfellows with very little common ground. There’s the importance of having the correct person in the ‘Number 10’ role in both spheres of course, and whenever there’s a bit of on-the-field glory, the temptation for politicians to drape themselves around any popular adulation appears to be overwhelming. Can however football shape or influence the political mood of the nation? It’s said that a rolling stone gathers no moss, but can a rolling ball shape the zeitgeist? Continue reading →

Fernando Torres – The Nou Camp Matador.

torres

There are many reasons why certain goals are memorable. They can come in big matches, be part of an ongoing rivalry between the goalscorer and the team he nets against. Perhaps it’s the type of goal where the player runs the length of the pitch before rounding then goalkeeper and scoring, something especially difficult in an away game against a massive club in one of the biggest tournaments. Or, perhaps it’s the sort of goal that rewards a team for outstanding fortitude against the odds, when all seemed lost. Some goals have a few of these elements, but very few have them all, and this is the tale of one that does just that; a goal that Gary Neville described as “Un-bel-eive-able!”

On 24 April 2012, Chelsea turned up at the Camp Nou to defend the slenderest of leads, thanks to a backs-to-the-wall effort at Stamford Bridge where, in a game overwhelmingly dominated by the visitors, Didier Drogba had managed to snaffle a precious goal on one the home team’s rare visits to the opposition penalty area. Now they had it all to do keep their Champions League aspirations alive in a game where Barcelona were sure to be looking to secure the goals their domination should have earned a couple of weeks previously in west London.

Things didn’t start well for the visitors. A dozen minutes in, Gary Cahill tweaked a hamstring and had to be replaced. It would get worse. Despite holding out until ten minutes before the break, a rare goal by Sergio Busquets brought the aggregate scores level. Two minutes later, a malevolent rush of blood to the head saw John Terry dismissed after a senseless knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez. It didn’t end there. Just two minutes ahead of the break, Andrés Iniesta netted the second for Barcelona to put them ahead, and leaving Chelsea “…a mountain to climb,” in the words of Martin Tyler. The game looked well and truly up for Roberto di Matteo’s team.

A goal by Ramires in injury time at the end of the half seemed scant consolation. Yes, it put Chelsea ahead on away goals, but surely wouldn’t be enough. The second period would inevitably bring a Blaugrana onslaught and down to ten men, with both first-choice centre-backs off the field it looked like it would need something extraordinary if Chelsea were to survive; something quite “unbelievable” in fact.

Sitting on the Chelsea bench as the white line held firm against the home team’s swarming attacks was Fernando Torres. Born in Fuenlabrada in the Madrid Metropolitan Area, El Niño had log been a hate figure for the Cules in the Camp Nou. As well as hailing from the heart of Castilian Spain, in his first period with Atletico Madrid, he had scored seven goals in a mere ten games against Barcelona, and last year took that total to 11 in 17 games. The goal he would notch in this particular game however may well have been the most galling for the Cules.

As the expected onslaught raged on the pitch, Torres watched from the sidelines. For over half-an-hour the attacks battered at the white wall Di Matteo had organised to prevent his team capitulating under the pressure. Chance after chance was squandered, but still a Barça goal didn’t come; Messi even crashed a penalty against the bar and away, as the home team charged forward. With just one substitute change remaining, Chelsea’s Italian manager threw the fresh legs of Torres into the fray with ten minutes to play, detailing him to defend the left flank of the stubborn defence.

Another home attack broke down, and the ball fell to Torres. Trying to drive downfield to ease the pressure, he hit the ball forward and then chased. Possession was lost though, and Torres slowed to an amble, then a trot forsaking his defensive position. The ball was driven into the Chelsea box for the umpteenth time, but another block diverted the ball up onto Ashley Cole’s chest. The full-back lashed the ball clear, with surely ne’er a thought to it being a potential through ball. It was simply a hack away from danger.

As the TV screen followed the ball however, Fernando Torres also honed into view. His aborted breakout had taken him past the last defender, and as the ball dropped to his feet around the halfway line, he was clear. Only                 Carles Puyol was even in the same screen, but he was some 15 metres behind the galloping striker. Back in Spain, and at a ground where he had scored a number of times previously, Torres shed the cement overcoat that had hampered so much of his play for Chelsea, skated clear, rounded Valdes and rolled the ball into the net. “Ooooh,” orgasmed Gary Neville as Torres turned away, sinking to his knees in front of the home fans who were probably shouting anything except “Bueno, El Niño!” Two minutes into injury time, Torres had returned and thrust an estoque into the worn-out bull that was the Blaugrana team.