Category Archives: European Football

The money-fuelled rise of PFC Ludogorets Razgrad.

It’s probably an incontrovertible truism that, in modern football, money talks. Some may argue that rather than talk, money actually screams out in uncontrolled profanity, but whatever your viewpoint on that, there’s little doubt that within the modern game, success and money tend to go hand in hand.

In England, Roman Abramovich became the first mega-money arrival to shake up the Ancien Régime when, as David Dein put it, he “parked his Russian tanks on our lawn…firing £50 notes at us.” This was then advanced another notch or three when Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan took control of Manchester City. In France the largesse of Qatar Sports Investments has endowed PSG with the money to dominate the domestic game merely as a prelude to chasing that elusive Champions League trophy. In Spain, the income of Real Madrid and Barcelona dwarfs all other clubs in the country and in Italy, via the EXOR organisation, the Agnelli family‎ fund Juventus, whilst Berlusconi fed the Rossoneri and after Massimo Moratti passed on the baton, Zhang Jindong’s Suning Commerce Group took over control of the Nerazzurri from Eric Tohir.

There are surely many more examples. It is not however only in Western Europe that money has bulldozed its way into the ‘beautiful game.’ Across the old Soviet-controlled east, big money is making its presence felt, and the Bulgarian club, PFC Ludogorets Razgrad, more popularly known as ‘Ludogorets’ is a good example. Razgrad is a town situated in the northeast Bulgaria, in the region known as Ludogrie, which refers to the wild forests around the area and is the home where Ludogrets were formed in 2001. Continue reading →

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“And where we can’t reach with our legs, we’ll reach with our hearts.” The inspiring story of Alessandro Lucarelli.

Football produces many stories. Some are sad, some are uplifting, and just a few are writ through with an impossible tale of devotion and romance that would test the credibility of any Hollywood script writer bent on wringing a few tears from his audience. The difference of course is that in football there are no tall tales, no preordained scripts, with lines rehearsed and honed to perfection, emotions delivered with cold sterility. In football there is reality. Spontaneity and reality. Drama and reality. Romance and reality. Above all, though there is reality. It’s a reality that can at times be both cruel and mundane but, at others, truly inspiring and uplifting. Some stories, football realities, you simply could not make up. This may well be one of them. Continue reading →

Beauty and the Best – Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi.

At the heart of almost every successful team is a solid backline, usually built around the central defensive partnership. They are the bedrock of the team. They provide the foundation upon which a team is built and can grow and flourish. If the value of such partnerships is gauged by the success enjoyed by the team, then the trophies garnered by AC Milan when they dominated European football in the eighties and nineties suggest that the partnership provided by Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi was nothing but pure gold. Continue reading →

The little big man and the big little man –  Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup.

The ‘big man, little man’ combination is a common thread among successful striking partnerships. There’s the ‘big man,’ full of muscular hustle and bustle, aggression and a determination to dominate defenders. Then there’s the ‘little man’. He’s the smooth as silk, extravagantly skilled and elegant technician, whose ability bewitches opponents and fans alike. It’s a fairly apt description of Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup, Denmark’s iconic striking partnership of the mid to late 1980s when Danish Dynamite exploded into international football. Like so much about the pairing though, there’s even an iconoclastic element to the ‘big man, little man’ description. In this case, Elkjær, the ‘big man’ stood at 5’ 11”, whilst his ‘little man’ partner was 6’ 1” tall, although he hardly ever headed the ball. It’s not the only non-traditional aspect of a partnership that had so many contrasts – both on and off the field – but, particularly in the World Cup of 1986, for a brief time, took on the mantle as the most dynamic pair of strikers in world football. 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 →

“Alf Ramsey was great – he even paid my fine!” – Alan Mullery the first England player to be sent off.

The 1968 European Championships looked very different to its modern-day equivalent. Back then, rather than the bloated jamboree involving more than 20 countries, it was very much a mini-tournament. After a protracted qualifying competition, running across a couple of years with groups and then pay-offs, a mere four teams were invited to contest two semi-finals and a final in the host country.

This particular version of the event involved Italy, who despite being hosts, still had needed to earn their place via the qualification process, England, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. As reigning world champions, England were favoured to do well, but at the conclusion of the event, would merely end up taking the consolation prize of third place. In relation to England however, the tournament would be remembered for a different reason, containing as it did, the first game wherein a player representing the country was sent off. That particularly unwanted distinction fell to Spurs midfielder Alan Mullery. Continue reading →

“Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible!” – Ilario Castagner and the Perugia of Miracles.

The neat phrase coined by Einstein was surely never intended to refer to football. With apologies to the eminent physicist however, let us borrow it for a trice, as it chimes tunefully with the achievements of the small – ‘relatively’ speaking, that is – Umbrian club and their manager during the 1978-79 Serie A season.

The Grifoni, displaying the prowess of that legendary beast produced a feat never before achieved in the highest echelon of Italian football, and completed the season undefeated. With the head of a lion – king of the beasts – and the body of an eagle – king of the birds – there’s a majesty about a Gryphon and in this particular season, Perugia surely lived up to the reputation of their nickname. That they failed to secure the Scudetto, despite their invulnerability should not detract from the achievement; rather it should define it even sharper relief, shouting of it not only being laudable, but also magnificent in the truest sense of the word. Continue reading →

Alex Ferguson and Aberdeen’s uncharted journey to European glory.

Before launching on his oft-quoted mission about knocking a certain Merseyside club off their perch, Alex Ferguson – this was long before royalty bestowed a title on him – led Aberdeen to the forefront of Scottish football. Not only did he take the Pittodrie club to the top of the tree domestically, winning three league titles, four Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup in half-a-dozen years between 1980 and 1986, the later-to-be Overlord of Old Trafford also gave the Dons undreamt of European success in 1983, when they lifted the European Cup Winners Cup, defeating the might of Real Madrid in the final. Continue reading →

The golden memory of watching Johan Cruyff.

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 →

Jan Tomaszewski – The ‘Clown’ who had the last laugh.

England had won the World Cup in 1966, and offered up a more than reasonable defence of the trophy four years later, before heat, fatigue and an absent Gordon Banks did for them in Mexico. In 1974, the tournament would be back in Europe, in West Germany. Conditions would be much more akin to the climate in Britain, and England would have a chance to reassert themselves.

There was, of course, the somewhat irritating matter of a qualifying process to negotiate first, but in a group alongside Wales and Poland, to many fans it didn’t look like a problem. As it panned out, thanks to a ‘Curate’s Egg’ of a series of group matches, the final fixture would decide all. Poland were to visit Wembley on 17 October 1973. Should Sir Alf Ramsey’s charges prevail, the tickets to Germany would be booked, if the Poles could win or draw however, it would be sufficient for them to go through and England would fail to qualify for a World Cup Finals for the first time since they entered the fray in 1950. Continue reading →