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 →
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 →
Dennis Bergkamp became a legend playing under Arsène Wenger for Arsenal, and a statue of him outside the Emirates confirms such status had there been any doubts. Never the ravenous goal-hungry striker of Ian Wright’s ilk, instead here was a player of infinite grace; a Dutch Master who illuminated the pitch with the artistry of a painter bringing the green sward of a canvas to life with precise brushstrokes. Goals were not his prime currency, although 120 strikes in 423 games is decent fare, his foremost talent was an ability to link, to prompt and promote the strikes of others, whilst still plundering a welcome contribution of his own. Continue reading →
After suffering an early season groin injury, Johann Cruyff returned to first-team action with Ajax in an Eredivisie against PSV Eindhoven on 30 October 1970. In the 23-year-old’s absence his regular number nine shirt had gone to Gerrie Mühren. Legend has it that, on his return to the team, the shirt was offered to Cruyff. He declined however, passing it to Mühren. Cruyff then reached for the next shirt in the pile. He picked up number 14. Continue reading →
“The secret to happiness is freedom… And the secret to freedom is courage.” (Thucydides) – The philosophy of the Libero.
Ever since the early days of the game, wherever people have kicked a ball around, someone would come up with an idea that would help their team, their players, to be more successful and to be better achieve their aims; in short to win more often by making the most of the assets at their disposal. These sorts of ideas weren’t tactics; they surpass that. They provide the framework, the structure that tactics are hanged upon. They are ways of playing – much as there are ways of living – a set of ideas and principles that guide in decision making, a light that illuminates the path. Continue reading →
If you get the opportunity to see a legend in the flesh, you do it. Back in 1978, I was 21 years old, and since the early years of that decade had been an unashamed adherent to the doctrine of Dutch Totaal Voetbal. I was seduced by the poetry of the Ajax team that dominated European club football, lifting the European Cup three times in succession. The love deepened with the extravagant beauty, and ultimate fragility, of the bright flame of the Netherlands national team as they scorched the pitches of West Germany in the 1974 World Cup, before the fire became too fierce and their wings of wax melted. Football’s Prometheus. Icarus in Oranje. Continue reading →
The bride isn’t always the prettiest girl – How the World Cup taught us to adore those lovely losers.
At the World Cup, the teams that lift the biggest award the sport has to offer can go on to become the style setters for a generation. It happened after 1966 with England dispensing with genuine wingers. The Brazilians did it on a number of occasions, but especially perhaps in 1970, when they reinfused the game with an injection of Joga Bonito that made everyone want to play with such unfettered joy and in 2010, Spain raised the Roja banner for tiki-taka. For all the glory and acclaim that winners receive, and the flattering sincerity of imitation that so often follows however, love and affection doesn’t always go to the winners. In football’s four-yearly jamboree, whilst the bride is the star of the show, it’s often the bridesmaid that everyone falls for. It’s a World Cup legacy that taught us to cherish those who never make it to the alter. Continue reading →
I’ve heard it said that non-football fans are – to paraphrase Bart Simpson – the MTV Generation, knowing neither highs nor lows. Anyone not hooked up with a femme fatale of a football club – someone upon which you pour your affections, only to be scorned and disheartened at so many turns – is incapable of understanding the all-too-brief but euphoric highs of success for the object of your adoration. Sometimes though, albeit so very rarely, those highs linger and join together to offer an enticing view of a world full of joy and bereft of despair and disappointment, a sunlit upland that will be yours for ever and ever; your club becomes dominant – the paragon, a beauty inarnate, the iconoclast that kicks down the rules of normal roller-coaster emotions. Into the mid-nineties, the Barcelona team of Johann Cruyff was such a team. Continue reading →
There’s an old saying that goes something along the lines of ‘the only way to make a small fortune owning a football club is to begin with a large fortune.’ A club may be pottering along, very much as it has done for most of its existence, then someone takes control and starts investing money, the club grows in inverse relationship to the amount of money that the owner has – then comes the crunch.
The owner decides he’s spent enough and divests himself of the costs. The club plummets and ends up in a far worse state than before the money came along. For some clubs, it even leads to destruction as the bright, attractive, but ultimately destructive flare of its owner’s ambition burns out, leaving behind merely ashes, memories and regrets. Stories such as this, tinged with pathos, are common across the game, and fitting right into the model is the period covering the late eighties and early nineties for Belgian club KV Mechelen and IT business magnate John Cordier. The club lived the dream – the electric dream of its owner’s ambition – and then awoke with a hangover. Continue reading →
The Champions League can throw up some strange results and incredible performances, but for delivering on the unexpected, the tournament across the 2011-12 season would surely take some beating. Big clubs, flickered then failed. Others got off the floor and prospered. When the chips were down though, hardly anything seemed to go with expectations. Continue reading →