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 →
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.
The history of football in latter years of the 1950s and the early ones of the following decade is dominated by Real Madrid in European club football and the Seleção Brasileira on the international stage. It propelled the names of players such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Francisco Gento, Ferenc Puskás, Pelé and Garrincha into legendary status. Had things been slightly different however, and but for a bad break or a kinder turn of fortune, some of those names may well have been supplanted by that of Robert Jonquet. Continue reading →
There’s a statue prominently positioned outside of the Emirates Stadium. It’s a tribute to a player who, not only brought glory and success to the Arsenal Football Club, but was also a key element in a new era of flowing, attacking and entertaining football. Unlike so many other statues in similar situations though, it doesn’t depict a trophy being held aloft, or any kind of celebratory pose. Instead it’s the image of a footballer, stretching acrobatically to control a ball. The player depicted is Dennis Bergkamp and the pose conjures up the Dutchman’s ability to exert his control over a ball, to bring it under his spell, often in the most difficult of circumstances. As representations of footballers’ abilities go, it sums up the player’s time with Arsenal perfectly. Continue reading →
On 5 June 2017, in the Italian city of Florence, Giuliano Sarti, one of the most decorated goalkeepers in the history of Italian football passed away following a brief illness, aged 85. Sarti had been a prominent member in two of the country’s greatest club sides. In the fifties, he played under Fulvio Bernardini at Fiorentina as I Viola topped Italian football securing the Scudetto in 1955-56, and losing controversially to Real Madrid in the second European Cup tournament. The Coppa Italia and European Cup Winners Cup were later added with legendary Hungarian Nándor Hidegkuti in charge. After almost a decade in Florence, he would join Inter Milan in 1963, becoming a key element in the success of Helenio Herrera’s ‘Grande Inter’ team, winning a further two Scudetti, successive European Cups and Intercontinental Cups. On the way, he would also become the only Italian goalkeeper to appear in four European Cup Finals. Continue reading →
In the Madrid suburb of San Cristóbal de los Ángeles, a proud father had watched his young son score any number of goals in the very same way, controlling a pass, feinting to deceive defenders, once, twice, and then coolly slotting the ball past a despairing goalkeeper. They were goals of skill, ability, and an inbuilt calmness with ice-cold conviction They also led to the parents of his team-mates to christen the player ‘Aguanis.’ To his doting father however, he was Raúl González Blanco. Continue reading →
All the best stories follow a similar line. Firstly, there’s this little guy, unknown, quiet, but dedicated, never upsetting anyone, simply getting on with his ever-so-simple understated life. Deep down though, locked away in the secret secluded corner of his mind, where amazing hopes can survive untouched by the harsh cruelty of reality, he has his dream. He dreams about the day when everyone will know his name, recognise him, respect him and smile; when they’ll celebrate his achievements, and nod approvingly at him; when he becomes a big guy. It’s never going to happen of course, he’s sure of that, but he has his dream to keep him warm on the cold and lonely nights, and he keeps wishing.
Then, there’s this big guy. He’s OK. Quite often not a bad sort of chap really, but he’s hogged all the glory for himself, and when the little guy tangles with the big guy, the outcome is only going one way, isn’t it? Both the little guy and the big guy want to be on the big stage where all the brightest lights shine. Even if he gets there, the little guy knows he may not get a starring role. He may only appear briefly, but if he can just beat the big guy, he would have his ticket to the ball, get to mix with the big players, his wish would come true. It would be something no-one could ever take away from. For a while at least, he’ll have become a big guy as well.
Sadly, of course, dreams are mere whims of fancy. They’re never meant to played out in real life. Never tested in real life. Never seen in real life. That little guy can wish all he likes, but to quote Lev Grossman, “If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.” Dreams are for stories, as novelist Grossman would confirm, and that’s where they stay. Well, perhaps. Sometimes, just sometimes, wishing can make it so, dreams get into stories, and stories get into real life, and the little guy does become the big guy. Sometimes, just like the stories that so often begin with, “Once upon a time…” the little guy gets to go to the ball. Don’t believe me? Well read on. Continue reading →
In the history of Europe’s premier club competition, be it as the European Cup or, more latterly, the Champions League, only one club who have never lifted the trophy – in either guise – can claim to have eliminated reigning champions on three occasions. That club is CSKA Sofia or, to give it the full Anglicised title, the Central Sports Club of the Army, as located in Sofia. Both Juventus and Real Madrid have eliminated more champions, but CSKA’s achievement remains unique. So too are the stories and strings of apparent coincidences surrounding the story of the oft disregarded Bulgarian club that became European football’s Slayers of Champions. Continue reading →
Delighted to announce that my third book, and first novel, is now available to pre-order from Amazon.
In ‘As You Like It’ Shakespeare wrote that, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
This book illustrates the Bard’s point. It’s a story of friendship, love, success and failure all set against the back drop of a small Spanish football club. There are ups and downs, shocks and surprises. The big problem is that although everyone is playing some sort of game, sometimes you don’t realise that you’re being played yourself.
If asked to suggest the greatest players to emerge from South America this century, very few, if any, would raise a hand to make a case for Joffre Guerrón. Perhaps however such lack of recognition would be inappropriate. Despite often being regarded as merely one of the better, rather than greats, of his era, he was twice lauded as the MVP of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club tournament. Such rare accolades that fall to very few once, let alone twice. Continue reading →