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 →
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 →
Almost by definition, the story of any fan-owned club is going to be one of faded memories best viewed through sepia lenses, with an added touch of financial misdemeanours thrown in, often by past itinerant owners who rejoiced more in the money they could make from the club, more concerned with 20 pieces of silver than silverware or relative success on the pitch. There’s hardly ever a ‘good’ reason for fans to feel committed to taking over a club. It’s an action driven by necessity and the undimmed devotion to an institution that has seared its way into the souls of the people who gather to watch its trials and tribulations out there on the green sward. The story of Czech football club Bohemians is no different, except perhaps that on top of mismanagement there’s an unhealthy dollop of confusion and a less than clear legal position just to add a little extra spice to the plot. Continue reading →
Long before the Uruguayan version landed at the Camp Nou following his truncated and less than totally harmonious departure from Liverpool, a different Luis Suárez was wowing the Catalans in the famous Blaugrana colours of Barcelona. Rather than being part of a trident for the club, this Luis Suárez, became an integral part of a quartet, achieved hero status in Catalunya and then nationally, before being recognised as Spain’s first and, so far, only Ballon d’Or winner. He then took Serie A by storm and became a legendary figure for the Nerazzuri in Lombardy. His namesake, currently strutting his stuff alongside Lionel Messi in the Barcelona front line has a bit of work to do if he is to become recognised as the best Luis Suárez of all time. Continue reading →
A century is a long time when counted against the essentially ephemeral nature of a lifetime. Many sentient beings would both arrive on, and then take their leave of, this earth in the scope of those years. Those same years though, counted against institutionalised memory of tragic events of mind-numbing intensity, the sort of trauma that leaves indelible marks not on an individual person, but on a whole people, may be but a drop of water in the infinite swell of the world’s oceans. At such times a rapprochement between two peoples may seem an insurmountable task. With each passing year, attitudes harden and viewpoints become ever more deeply entrenched. But even the most firmly bolted door can be unlocked when the correct key is found. And at such times, that key may lie in the most unexpected of places. Continue reading →
No mother likes to see their son move away, and those that choose to stay at home, looking after their nearest and dearest are very much the favoured offspring; the ones most cherished. For Roberto Bettega therefore, child of Piedmont, born in Turin just after Christmas in 1950, there will always be a special place in the heart of Turin’s La Vecchia Signora.
The young Bettega was not yet a teenager when he first fell into the Old Lady’s embrace, joining the Juventus Primavera squad in 1961. Despite brief journeys away, he would remain faithful to the club, always giving of his best across a half century of years of dutiful service as player and then administrator. If any player of the recent era had white and black blood in his veins, it was Roberto Bettega. 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 →
On the first day of September 2017, as the autumnal chills were beginning to wrap their cold fingers around football fans watching their teams progress – or otherwise – through the qualifying programme, chasing a place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Michael O’Neill took his Northern Ireland team to the Stadio Olimpico di Serravalle in San Marino. They returned with a comfortable 0-3 victory. On the face of it, the result was probably one of the easiest to predict of the evening’s international fixtures across the globe.
San Marino are, after all, one of the weakest of the Fifa family members, being placed at 204 in the August 2017 rankings with only the British Virgin Islands, of the teams with any ranking at all, beneath them. Until Gibraltar were admitted into Uefa in 2013, they were also European football’s smallest competing country, as defined by population numbers. All that said though, there’s just the slightest of chances that perhaps the result may have been different had the home team been able to call on the services of their most capped player and top scorer. Unfortunately, the man in question was injured and unavailable. When you’re the only player in the history of your country’s footballing exploits to ever have scored a winning goal whilst wearing the national colours, you’re going to carry a little prestige with you, even if you are at the ripe old age of 41. Continue reading →
According to the old saying, ‘there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip’ and simply transferring liquid from a vessel to your mouth can be more prone to errors than we may think. Those sorts of potential complications are like nought though, when comparing it to the perils inherent in converting an outstanding young footballer into a mature professional who delivers on the talent promised. 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 →