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).
After enduring a dismal qualifying campaign for the 1984 European Championships, a crestfallen Bobby Robson spoke with Sir Bert Millichip, Chairman of The Football Association. Conceding that he had failed, Robson offered to resign from his post as England manager, and recommended that The FA should approach Brian Clough to be his successor. Millichip refused to accept the resignation, many consider because the thought of the bluff and putspoken Clough in charge of England was too much for the stuffed shirts at Lancaster Gate to stomach. Robson was told to soldier on – but do better.
Six years later, approaching the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Robson who had been eliminated from the World Cup in Mexico through Maradona’s sleight of hand, and had led England through the qualifying tournament unbeaten was still in charge. It was at that delicate moment, however, that the very same Bert Millichip decided to indulge in the sort of ‘foot in mouth’ demagoguery that would lead to the Three Lions’ most successful manager since 1966 being ousted from his post. In 2009, after Robson had passed away, Graham Kelly, Secretary to the Football league from 1978 to 1989 and Chief Executive of The FA between 1989 and 1998 detailed the events of the time in an interview with The Guardian. Kelly recalled that Millichip, “let his tongue run away with him, and said Robson either had to win the World Cup or go, and Bobby reacted by approaching PSV Eindhoven.” In Italy, Robson became only the second manager, after Sir Alf Ramsey, in the history of the World Cup to take England to a semi-final of football’s premier tournament, and the first one to do so on foreign soil. That achievement would not be matched until Gareth Southgate took the Three Lions to Russia nearly 30 years later. Strangely and with the sort of perverse logic that often defines football’s ruling bodies, after backing Robson when he failed to qualify for a European Championship, they had painted themselves into a corner that meant they were losing his services after England’s best World Cup performance for 24 years.
Intemperate decisions are often pinned on organisations like The FA, but this seemed to have been the crassest of ill-considered outbursts. Robson guided England to within a penalty shootout of reaching the World Cup Final. In any other circumstances, his tenure with the national team would have been assured, but when Millichip “let his tongue run away with him” that possibility disappeared into the ether. England’s loss however would very much be to the gain of PSV Eindhoven. To his credit, Robson kept his opinions on the matter very much to himself and merely sought the alternative employment made necessary by Millichip’s errant oratory.
When news of his appointment with the Eredivisie club broke, ahead of the World Cup’s opening game, some media outlets – either bereft of the facts, or with little apparent care for them – took to calling Robson out as a traitor, and accusing him of betraying the national team. An honourable man, Robson was very much a proud Englishman and patriot. The slurs pushed him too far, and led to a successful legal case being prosecuted against the ‘Today’ newspaper.
With the success on Italia ’90 banked, Robson’s stock as a manager was very much at its height and there was every possibility that a top club job would be available back in England for the ex-England manager. Eschewing the easy option however, he had chosen to venture into continental club football with PSV. At the time, some pundits painted a picture of a backwater club offering a semi-retirement role for a manager worn down by the trials and tribulations – not to mention the political backstabbing and intrigues – inherent in managing England. Such descriptions however only portray a lack of understanding of the level of football once the English Channel had been crossed.
In March 1987, after serving four years as assistant to Hans Kraay, Guus Hiddink was promoted to take charge of PSV Eindhoven. The move ushered in a three-year period of outstanding success, both domestically and at the highest level of continental competition. Despite trailing Ajax by three points with just ten games remaining when he was appointed, Hiddink demonstrated the club’s ability to appoint the right man at the right time by guiding the club to the Eredivisie title, coasting to the championship six points clear of the Amsterdam club. It was the opening course to a banquet of silverware.
The following season Hiddink not only delivered a domestic double of league and KNVB Cup, but also took PSV to the heights of emulating Ajax and Feyenoord, by bringing the European Cup back to the Netherlands after defeating Benfica on penalties in the final at Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion. After securing another double in the 1988-89 season, a mere KNVB triumph in 1990 seemed almost like a failure. It wasn’t, of course, But the Dutchman considered it was time to move on and began a journey across clubs the length of breadth of Europe, and beyond, by joining Fenerbahçe.
The move left PSV with a difficult problem. After such a sumptuous period of success choosing the next manager would decide probably dictate the fate of the next decade or so. Select the wrong man and a tumble from the top table of European football would be an inevitable consequence. Make the correct selection however and there was a chance that the ship, left rocking by Hiddink’s departure, could be steadied and success maintained.
There’s a constant theme of Dutch club success over the years. It seems to require a squad of strong-willed players, often pulling in different directions, but guided by a coach with the skills and man-management ability to both control the players and harness their emotional requirements to produce a united front. Hiddink had demonstrated his ability to do so and, in Bobby Robson, the PSV hierarchy had again demonstrated their ability to pick the right man for the job.
It would however be wrong to suggest that the move into Dutch football was smooth and success accomplished with some comfort. Both as a player and coach, Robson had been brought to appreciate the English ethics of the game and how a club should be structured with the manager exerting a measure of control over the players, and an acceptance of that from the squad. What he found initially in Eindhoven was therefore very much of a ‘culture shock’. As well as the Dutch players living up to the reputation of being both forthright in opinion and convinced of the validity of their views on most things, Robson also had to contend with the particularly individual approach of Brazilian star striker Romário.
The South American had been acquired by the club in 1988 and been a key element in the success of Hiddink’s team – much as he would continue to be so for Robson’s. The relationship was however, challenging at best and borderline impossible at worst. It required not only the steely determination to insist on matters when required, but also the empathy to understand the amount of latitude that should be given to a player who delivered scintillating performances on the pitch. At one stage Robson even called the Brazilian to a crisis meeting supported by his assistant Frank Arnesen to convince Romário of the need to change his attitude to training and his work ethic in general. It had little effect but, for Robson, there was the compensation of glut of goals delivered by his errant star on the pitch.
In Robson’s two years at the club, the Brazilian delivered 30 goals in 30 games across all competitions in 1990-91 and, despite suffering injuries the following term, still kept his strike rate up, finding the back of the net 19 times in 18 games. Experienced and astute enough to know the difference between the times when authority and empathy are required, Robson accepted the man and his goals as a package that could not be picked apart. The manager’s ability to bend like grass in the wind, rather than remain taut, straightlaced and risk being broken, reaped handsome dividends on the pitch.
There’s one particular story about Robson’s time at PSV that, if true, offers both an insight into his approach to people regardless of their perceived standing, the humility of the man and total lack of arrogance. One day, whilst walking along the corridors of the Philips Stadion, Robson happened upon a fairly low-level worker as they passed. After exchanging the normal greetings, the worker commented on how nice Robson’s shoes were. Without a moment’s hesitation, the story goes, Robson took off the shoes and handed them the worker as a gift. It’s difficult to know if there’s at least a semblance of truth in the tale but, if there is, it offers a glimpse of how Robson not only understood the value of the job he had, but also of those around him too. It’s not quite a ‘give you the shirt off his back’ situation, but it’s certainly heading in that direction.
In his first season, Robson took PSV back to the top of the tree of Netherlands football, delivering the Eredivisie title on goal difference from Ajax, with Romário the league’s joint top scorer netting 25 times in 25 games. The victory took PSV back into the European Cup, but it would be a short journey. The first round paired them with Turkish club, Beşiktaş, and a 1-1 draw in the feverish atmosphere of Istanbul’s İnönü Stadyumu, in front of around 32,000 partisan home fans was a creditable result. A couple of weeks later though, things were looking decidedly unsteady when Metin Tekin put the visitors ahead in the return leg. It took until midway through the first period for Gerald Vanenburg to level the aggregate scores, before Kalusha Bwalya secured progress for PSV in the second half.
It had been anything but an encouraging start to the campaign and set the tone for what was a disappointingly short European excursion. A goalless draw at home to Anderlecht in the next round always looked like presenting a difficult task in the return leg away in Brussels, and so it was. An early goal by Marc Degryse and a last-minute confirmation by Danny Boffin closed the door on any hopes of a run towards the later stages of the tournament. The elimination was clearly a disappointment for Robson. For the club however, with memories of Hiddink’s success a siren’s call for more of the same, it flagged up what was perceived to be a weakness in Robson’s management abilities, and a doubt about his future with the club.
The following season, despite losing Romário due to injury, Robson guided PSV to another Eredivisie title, and a further shot at European club football’s ultimate prize. Robson, however wouldn’t have the chance to take the club on another European Cup campaign. Despite the Englishman delivering two league titles in his couple of seasons with the club, there was a hunger – as things transpired, a perhaps unreasonable hunger – to regain the continental success achieved under Hiddink. The perception was that Robson wouldn’t deliver on that, and he was advised that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season.
With typical dignity, Robson accepted the decision and continued his European Odyssey, moving on to another club – and another period of success in a different country. He was replaced by Hans Westerhof, who won the Dutch Super Cup the following season but, compared to Robson’s achievements, it was a paltry triumph. Westerhof only lasted a single season before being moved on, as Ada de Mos and then Kees Rijvers occupied the manager’s chair briefly, and without success. The PSV board had sought to replace Robson with someone who would bring continental success back to the club. Sadly, their ability to choose the right man for the task had deserted them. Even the domestic honours that had become staple fare under Hiddink and then Robson eluded the club. It would take four years and four different managers before the Eredivisie title came back to the Philips Stadion under Dick Advocaat. As with England, who suffered a fallow period under Graham Taylor after Robson was pointed to the exit door, PSV learnt the same harsh lesson that removing Bobby Robson was not the smartest of moves.
It was a decision that the club clearly came to regret and, in July 1998, after success in Portugal and Spain, Robson was invited back on a short-term contract to replace Advocaat who had moved to Scotland and Glasgow Rangers. A single season was hardly sufficient time for Robson to re-establish the success he had achieved but he still delivered silverware with the Dutch Super Cup, now rebranded as the Johann Cruyff Shield, and also ensured qualification for the Champions League. Would he have stayed in Eindhoven had the invitation been offered? It’s difficult to say, but with the opportunity to take over at his home town club, Newcastle united, the lure of going ‘home’ was always likely to have been irresistible.
(This article was originally produced for the Footy Analyst website).
In 1994, the Brazil squad that travelled to the USA to compete for the World Cup included a skinny 17-year-old striker named Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. The teenager had only played a single season with Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte but had scored a dozen goals in just 14 league appearances for the club. That record and, more importantly, the promise it held for the future, were sufficient for Seleção coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to include the precocious youngster in his squad.
Although being with the squad was an experience the young striker would rapidly become accustomed to, it was another giddying step along a career path that would mark him out as one of the greatest players of all time. Even at this early age, he had already impressed legendary Seleção defender Cafu, with his goalscoring feats for Cruzeiro. The World Cup winner once watched him score five times in a single game for El Raposa against Bahia on 7 November 1993. “From that point on,” Cafu recalled. “He showed that he was truly a phenomenon.” It was a sound assessment. That young player would grow up to claim that name for himself, becoming known throughout the footballing world as “El Fenomeno” – or simply Ronaldo.
Born in September 1976, like so many celebrated Brazil internationals, Ronaldo was a child of the streets of Rio, learning his game in the compact backstreets and alleyways of the city, where an ability to control a ball on an irregularly cobbled surface was a prerequisite to even compete, let alone excel. Even amongst the crop of talent that thronged those streets, a nascent ability shone out and he was spotted by another former Brazil star, Jairzinho then working with minor club São Cristóvão, and at 16, he recommended the teenager to his old club Cruzeiro. When the move happened, Roberto Gaglianone, the coach at Sao Cristovao remarked sagely that, “In December 1992 I said I’ve sent a boy to Cruzeiro who is going to be Brazil’s next striker. He will play in the 1998 World Cup. They asked the name and I said ‘Ronaldo’.” The move opened a pathway that would lead to a World Cup adventure and then a move across the Atlantic to join PSV and build a legendary status
For the stars of Brazilian football, the route from South America to Europe’s top clubs was well established, and there was an ever increasing drive for scouting networks to identify potential stars at younger ages to both ensure that their club had the pick of the emerging talent and, just as importantly, to ensure value for money by buying potential, rather than established stars. This meant that word of the young Brazilian striker was already hot news among European clubs, with many keen to sign the gleaming but, as yet unpolished, diamond.
Juventus and Milan had both scouted the player but, at 17, such a move would be a huge gamble for both club and player. A more sensible approach would be to move to a less high-profile club initially, as a kind of stepping-stone, before launching into the rarefied atmosphere of top tier European football. Then under the control of Louis van Gaal and on their way to a Champions League triumph, and despite already having the burgeoning talent of Patrick Kluivert in their ranks, Ajax was considered to be a favoured destination. The 1994 World Cup though would change all of that. Although the young Ronaldo wouldn’t kick a ball in the World Cup, a conversation with a fellow squad member was key in the decision that, instead, took Ronaldo to PSV Eindhoven.
In 1988, then aged 19, Romário had been in a similar situation, and had chosen PSV ahead of other potential suitors, enjoying five successful seasons with the Dutch club, winning three Eredivisie titles and two KNVB Cups, and scoring 128 goals in 148 games before moving to Barcelona in a £2million deal in the summer of 1993. After enduring a trophy-less season following Romário’s departure, PSV were now looking for the next Brazilian star to ignite the new term. As Ronaldo explained, “Romário told me that PSV is one of the most professional and best organised clubs in Europe. He said it would be best to acclimatise in Europe and the learn about European football. I think he is right.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, not only would Ronaldo follow his Seleção team-mate to Eindhoven, he would also later retrace his steps to Catalunya as well. It had been sage advice. Van Gaal publicly consoled himself to the loss saying, “We have Kluivert.” It was true of course, and the Dutchman would become a top European striker. Few however would have chosen him over Ronaldo had they been given the choice – not even Van Gaal.
Despite the encouragement of Romário and the fact that Dutch domestic football was far less a feverish environment than the goldfish bowl existence of players in Serie A or La Liga, moving to a different continent and an unknown language was still a challenge for a teenager and, despite a commitment to learn Dutch, the social transition was not easy even living with both his mother and girlfriend. On the pitch though, things were very different. The ball was still round, the goals were still square, and Ronaldo’s ability to insert the former into the latter was undiminished.
Initially paired with Belgian striker Luc Nilis, Ronaldo’s career with PSV remained goalless for a mere ten minutes. On 28 August 1994, a few weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, Ronaldo made his debut in an Eredivisie match against Vitesse Arnhem. Entering the tenth minute, a pass was played behind the Vitesse backline. With cool confidence and practised ease, the Brazilian brought the ball under control with his first touch, before firing home right-footed into the far corner of the net. Many more goals would follow. In Romário’s debut season with PSV, he notched a highly impressive 26 goals in 34 appearances across all competitions. Ronaldo would eclipse that total with plenty to spare. In his first season with the club, he played in 36 games, scoring a staggering 35 goals. As part of that haul, 30 goals in 33 league appearances him the Eredivisie’s top goalscorer. The club totalled 85 league goals that term. That skinny teenager contributed almost 40% of them. There was little doubt that PSV Eindhoven had a burgeoning global star in their hands. It wasn’t however, merely the goals he scored that led to such conclusions, it was also the manner of his performances.
Writing in The Guardian, Nick Miller described the impact that the teenager had in his debut season. “What’s striking about Ronaldo in that first year at PSV is how complete he looks, even as a skinny teenager. Everything that would come to define him – the lightning pace, the blurry stepovers, the implausible impression that he was faster with the ball than without it, even the exceptional upper-body strength – was all there.” The phrase “those blurry stepovers” were a reference to the move that Ronaldo perfected and continued to deploy throughout his career. In modern parlance it’s often described as a ‘Flip Flap’ but to all of those at the Philips Stadion, who watched in awe as the Brazilian tyro bewildered and befuddled his opponents. The move will always be known as Ronaldo’s “Elastico”.
Faced with an opponent Ronaldo would pause for a moment over the ball, swaying slightly like a cobra hypnotising its prey. Then, with the defender’s concentration awaiting the first move, he would slightly nudge the ball in one direction, hypnotically inducing the defender to shift his balance and counter the anticipated move, and in that moment Ronaldo had his opponent beaten. A quick snap of the ankle would then flick the ball in the opposite direction allowing the Mercurial striker to scamper past the beaten defender, leaving him floundering like some dupe, a victim of a conjurer’s sleight of hand. Guardian columnist Rob Smyth would concur with the magician metaphor. “In many ways Ronaldo was the first PlayStation footballer. His stepover was a form of hypnosis, and his signature trick, the elastico, could certainly have come from a computer screen.”
It wasn’t however only the scribes who were impressed by his play. On 13 September, PSV visited Bayer Leverkusen, for the first leg of the UEFA Cup’s opening round. Still five days short of his eighteenth birthday, and only a month or so into his season with a new club, in a new country, on a different continent, Ronaldo would notch a hat-trick and produce a performance that even had the opposition’s players purring with astonishment.
A goal down after five minutes following a strike from Ulf Kirsten, Ronaldo seemed inspired. The first warning came early when a pass allowed the striker to accelerate into a gap and flick the ball past an advancing Vollborn in the Bundesliga club’s goal, but the slightest of deflections from the goalkeeper saw the ball narrowly evade the post. Leverkusen should have heeded the earning. Soon after another chance was created. A neat control and turn deceived a defender, around 25 yards from goal, but the shot flew over the bar, again following intervention of the overworked Vollborn.
Ronaldo would simply not be denied though and, on 11 minutes another scything run saw him latch onto a pass and drive into the penalty area. Playing the ball past Vollburn, the goalkeeper was beaten and resorted to the only recourse open to him to prevent a goal, tripping the teenager as he flew past him. It was the clearest of penalties, and the conversion was the clearest of goals, the ball flying powerfully beyond the reach of Vollburn.
The problem for PSV though was that while Ronaldo was a constant threat at one end of the pitch, they were conceding goals with alarming regularity at the other end. As half-time approached, PSV were 4-1 down. New hope was given though when the Brazilian rifled in his second goal. Instant control, a shimmy to create a small space and a shot that hit the net before Vollburn had completed his forlorn drive were the hallmarks of a master marksman, and PSV had a foothold in the game again. Climbing to his feet, as the PSV players mobbed the teenager, the goalkeeper merely stood there and shook his head in sad acceptance of the fact that sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do.
The second period began in the same way as the first had ended. The game was simply a battle of who could score the most goals. Would it be the entire Leverkusen team, or Ronaldo. Eleven against one. With that one being Ronaldo, it was just about a fair contest. On the hour mark the Brazilian closed the gap even further, coolly converting a cross from the left. From a position of comfort, the Leverkusen game plan had been torn asunder by the teenager. In the end the Germans would score once more, before an exhausted Ronaldo was withdrawn. Nilis added a late goal for PSV, but there was only one star of the game. In a post-match press conference, Germany World Cup winner Rudi Völler spoke for so many who had watched the virtuoso performance. “Never in my life have I seen an 18-year-old play in this way.” How good was Ronaldo? Nick Miller reckoned that he “was a force of nature, a blast of hellfire with a velcro touch and jealous refusal to give up the ball.” It was the birth of a legend. Strangely, in a weird juxtaposition of events, the return leg ended goalless and PSV were eliminated.
PSV would end the Eredivisie season in third place, some 14 points adrift of champions Ajax, but the promise of Ronaldo developing even further, with a full season of European football behind him, was enough to whet the appetite of any PSV fan. It had been a glorious season. On the opening day, PSV fans had welcomed that skinny kid from South America with the long name as a young hopeful, someone who would have done amazingly well if he could even come close to emulating what Romário had brought to the club in terms of goals, excitement and exhilaration. By the end of the season, everyone knew the name of Ronaldo, his compatriot’s achievements had been cantered past and erased from the record books. The greatest prospect in world football was wearing a PSV shirt.
That Ronaldo was exceptional in his first term at PSG is beyond debate but, indulging briefly in that endlessly pointless debate of comparing across eras, just how outstanding was he? At the same age, the two players now regarded as being possibly the best players of all time, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, were still battling to establish themselves. At approximately the same age, the former had played a mere nine first team games for the Blaugrana, scoring just once; still some way from establishing himself as a first-team player, let alone as the most important element in the team. Meanwhile Ronaldo had just moved to Old Trafford and was still regarded as something of a show pony with fancy tricks and step-overs that beat defenders, but with lots still to learn.
In comparison, Ronaldo at 18 was widely regarded as the hottest striking prospect in Europe, if not the world. Surely the future would be even brighter. Fate however had a cruel twist in store for one who it seemed had been favoured so abundantly with the smile of the Gods. Whilst Messi and CR7 would go on to great heights with careers benevolently blessed by an absence of serious injury, Ronaldo would be compelled to endure the things they avoided.
Sadly, although he still managed to notch 19 goals in 21 games across all competitions and a dozen in 13 league appearances, maintaining a spectacular goalscoring ratio, Ronaldo’s 1995-96 season was marred by injury. His knee had been causing him increasing amounts of discomfort from Autumn, and moving towards Christmas, it was clear that the issue simply wouldn’t just heal on its own. A case of Osgood-Schlatter Disease was diagnosed. Despite the name, the condition isn’t a disease, but a problem often brought on by an excess of high-level physical activity in adolescents undergoing a growth spurt, leading to overuse injury. The opportunities offered by Ronaldo’s precocious talent had also been complicit in his injury.
Still in his teenage years, the decision was made to undergo an operation to relieve the condition, followed by a period of rehabilitation. For a young man with the world apparently at his hugely talented feet, the shock of realisation cut like a surgeon’s knife. “Football is my life,” he lamented. “If I am not able to play, I am broken.” Fortunately, he was able to return, but the issue of knee problems would persist throughout his career. Although the injury absence meant that his second season was less spectacular than the first, it saw him win his only title with PSV, as they lifted the KNVB Cup.
The double-edged sword of having such a talent at the club was now being felt by PSV. The continent’s richest clubs were circling, casting envious towards the young striker. Soon newspaper reports were dropping heavy hints, doubtless fed by agents or covetous clubs, that a move in the summer was inevitable. It’s not difficult to understand how such coquettish whispers can turn the head of a teenager far from home and fired with ambition. The injury dissuaded some, but down in Spain, Bobby Robson, a former PSV manager now ensconced in the Camp Nou hot seat was firmly recommending the young striker as the man to fire Barcelona back to glory.
The fates were set. PSV would only cherish the exquisite joys of Ronaldo for two seasons before he followed in the footsteps of Romário once more. The Catalans would be forced to pay a reported £12.5million fee to secure Ronaldo’s services as PSV extracted full value for losing their prize asset. Despite the injury, in two seasons he had scored 54 goals in just 58 games.
Two years later, aged just 21, Ronaldo would become the youngest ever player to win the Ballon d’Or. In a landside of votes, 38 ballots were cast in his favour. No one else received any more than two. Robson clearly knew what he was getting. When asked to state the best signing he had made in his long career, there was no hesitation. “Ronaldo was marvellous. He had one year with me at Barcelona, I bought him from PSV, and he was out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete, a nice character, respected me and it was sad he only played eight months for us there. […] The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.”
In the remainder of his career, before returning briefly to Brazil to play out his career with Corinthians, Ronaldo would not only play for Barcelona, but also Real Madrid, and both Inter and Milan as he completed a tour of the continents most celebrated clubs. Across his time in league football for the various clubs he played for, 343 appearances would bring almost 250 goals. Given that so many of these were delivered at the highest levels of competition, it’s a hugely impressive record. He would also play 98 times for the Seleção, scoring 62 goals.
On so many occasions, it’s often only the wealthiest clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Inter, Juventus, perhaps Manchester United, or latterly PSG – that can claim to have numbered the world’s greatest stars amongst their players, and counted their ‘golden days’ in their colours. Sometimes though, just sometimes, a new star is not only revealed at a different club but achieves legendary status there. Such an occasion was when that skinny 17-year-old Brazilian kid landed in the Netherlands and joined PSV Eindhoven. In two seasons he became a legend. It’s a legacy few clubs outside the elite half dozen or so can claim, but at the Philips Stadion, the memory of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima wearing the red and white striped shirt is treasured for all time.
(This article was originally prioduced for the These Football Times ‘PSV Eindhoven’ magazine).
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 →
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 fortunes of FC Barcelona and St Mirren Football Club may seem a million miles apart. Well, geographically, the distance between Paisley and the Catalan capital is a tad more than 1,300 miles actually, but in footballing metaphorical terms, the gap is much wider. Strange as it may seem to some however, there are more than a few links tying the two clubs together. It’s one of those ‘strange but true’ scenarios that only football seems capable of throwing up, involving bidding for a Brazilian, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and an invitation to a new home. Continue reading →
In May 1996, Barcelona were a club in turmoil. Having experienced the delirious heights of success with Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ delivering no less than eleven trophies in eight seasons, including the Holy Grail of the European Cup, the relationship between Catalan club and revered Dutchman had been torn asunder. Any divorce between an employer and the emotional, impulsive, and often combustive Cruyff would always be messy, but this split would make ‘Kramer versus Kramer’ look tame in comparison. Continue reading →
It’s 24 April 1996 and Iceland are playing Estonia in Tallinn. Starring for the visitors is 34-year-old Arnór Guðjohnsen, one of the country’s top strikers who would net 17 times for his country in his career. Sitting on the substitute’s bench is Arnór’s 17-year-old son, Eiður. Rumour had it that, assuming the score line allowed such courtesies, the youngster would be brought on towards the end of the game and play alongside his father. Fate took a cruel hand though and an injury to the father was in fact the gateway to the teenager entering play. The sentimental gesture was abandoned, postponed for another time. Continue reading →
When Olympique de Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956 however, the history of European football’s premier club competition could have been so very different. Instead of Los Blancos of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force of continental football, their place in history may well have been taken by Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018-19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European competition, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been. Continue reading →
Considered by many pundits not only to be the best player in the world, Lionel Messi is also widely touted as the greatest of all time, but as success seems to follow success in an unending flow of glory and acclaim, it’s worth remembering that things weren’t always like that. In fact, as an 18-year-old Messi entered the international playing arena for La Albiceleste on 17 August 2005, the game would be far from the triumph every young footballer dreamt of and prayed for, when pulling on the shirt of his country for the first time. In fact, it would be difficult to suggest how the fates could have conspired to be any more perverse. Continue reading →