In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call the president of FC Barcelona. Ostensibly it was to discuss a potential transfer target from the Portuguese club, but the conversation moved on to another target that the Catalans had focused on.
At the time, the Blaugrana were a club in turmoil. A messy divorce from Johan Cruyff had left the club rudderless. The board had decided on Louis van Gaal as the man they wanted to put all the pieces back together again. At the time however, the coach was contracted to Ajax, and wouldn’t be available for another twelve months. Barcelona, a ship perilously holed and taking in water needed an experienced hand at the tiller to guide the club into safer and calmer waters before handing over to Van Gaal. They had settled on Robson as the ideal candidate. As things transpired though, the Englishman would deliver a season that bordered on being the very best in the club’s history, and convinced them to maintain his services, even after Van Gaal’s appointment, as a lifebelt that the club could use if the Dutch coach came up short.
Robson was content at Porto and, with the club’s future looking bright, there were very few jobs that could tempt him away. One would be a return to his beloved north-east and Newcastle United. That chance would arrive later. The other was to take charge of one of the continent’s iconic clubs, FC Barcelona. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities that he simply could not ignore. He would also take José Mourinho with him.
Many coaches, even the most experienced, would have blanched had been offered such a poisoned chalice to quench their ambitious thirst. Cruyff had achieved legendary status at the Camp Nou and was worshipped by the Cules, delivering four La Liga titles, three Supercopa de España successes, and a Copa del Rey, domestically. In Europe, he had added a Cup Winners Cup and led the club to achieve their Holy Grail of a European Cup win as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup. It was the hardest of acts to follow.
Robson had no doubts however and, in his first press conference was in no mood to apologise for sitting in the seat previously occupied by the Dutchman. In firm tones, he insisted that there would be no shadow of Cruyff haunting his time as coach. ‘I am not afraid to follow him,’ he confirmed. ‘When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.’ It was typical Robson, calm, honest and reassuring, but sustained by the confident belief that he would deliver.
Cruyff’s final season had been a disappointment, and one that convinced the Dutchman that the time to leave had arrived. Rows with the club’s hierarchy may have been the trigger causing the split, but the deterioration of the teams’ performances were a strong underlying cause. Third place in the league, seven points adrift of champions Atlético Madrid was hugely disappointing, although it did offer a place in the upcoming season’s Cup Winners Cup competition, an opening that Robson would seize upon. It had followed a season where second place to Real Madrid had felt so much worse. Barcelona had also fared poorly in cup competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey to Radomir Antić’s Atléti as Los Colchoneros completed the domestic double, and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The club’s squad was packed with talented players but needed a renaissance. Robson would deliver that, and bring in a player who would achieve a God-like adoration at the club.
Despite only being seen as a stop-gap appointment, Robson was not shy in venturing his opinion when the president asked about how the squad could be improved. ‘The President said to me “we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ He was, but it was a risk worth taking. Barcelona sent $19.5million to PSV Eindhoven and, in return, received the services of the player who earned the nickname of “El Fenomeno” – Ronaldo. Eight months, and 47 goals in 49 games later, when Van Gaal took over from Robson, the Brazilian would also move on, joining Inter Milan. The fee of $27million also delivered a handsome profit on the club’s investment.
With the services of the Brazilian prodigy added to the Blaugrana squad, Robson got to work rebuilding the belief in the squad he inherited that had fallen short across the previous two seasons. Early evidence of the transformative effect of Robson was illustrated in August of the same year when his team hammered the previous season’s double winners 5-2 in the first leg of the Supercopa de España with the goals coming from Giovani, Pizzi, plus El Pequeño Buda, Iván de la Peña and, inevitably setting the tone for the coming season, a brace from Ronaldo. Atléti would fightback in the home leg, but their 3-1 victory was short of hauling back the deficit and Robson had his first trophy.
Cruyff had bequeathed Robson a European qualification and, in September, Barcelona set off in pursuit of the Cup Winners Cup. A hesitant opening encounter with AEK Larnaca was safely, if less than wildly convincingly, passed thanks to another two goals from Ronaldo. It took the Catalans into a meeting with Red Stat Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 4-2 home win followed by a goalless draw in Belgrade was encouraging, sending the club into the last eight and a tie with Swedish club AIK.
The home leg came first and, when the visitors took an early lead inside two minutes, a test was looming for Robson’s charges. With assured serenity however, they struck back through Popescu to equalise and further strikes by Ronaldo and Pizzi meant that the goalless draw achieved in Stockholm was more than enough for a place in the semi-finals.
Alongside Barcelona, Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain made up the final four. Robson’s team were paired with the Italians, the first leg again being played at the Camp Nou. This was a much sterner test, and despite Nadal giving the Blaugrana the lead, a goal from Batistuta squared things up and gave I Viola the advantage heading to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the return leg. To turn matters in Barcelona’s favour, facing such an uphill struggle, would require a coaching and tactical masterclass. Robson delivered one.
On 24 April, the Blaugrana produced the perfect disciplined performance to return with a 0-2 victory and progress to the final in in Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadion against PSG who had defeated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate. As so often is the case in showpiece finals, the game itself failed to live up to the billing, but a penalty from Ronaldo was sufficient to take the trophy to Catalunya. Robson had two trophies out of two. After the fallow period of the last days of Cruyff’s tenure, Robson had turned Barcelona back into a strutting powerhouse of a team hungry for trophies.
At the same time, as well as improving their league performances, things were developing nicely in the Copa del Rey. A round of Sixteen encounter had brought the club an extra El Clásico meeting with Real Madrid. The ties are played over two legs and the first game, at the Camp Nou promised success when Ronaldo gave the Blaugrana the lead. Goals by Šuker and Hierro though put a different complexion on the game before Nadal and Giovanni gave Robson’s team a fig leaf of cover to take to the Spanish capital for the return leg. It demanded another ‘Fiorentina’ performance and Robson’s team delivered with a 1-1 draw.
The next round saw a titanic battle with cup holders and reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. A 2-2 draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderón appeared to give the Barcelona the edge, but the return game would go down in history as a goal glut decided the tie. With 30 minutes on the clock, the Camp Nou was subdued into stunned silence as a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić had Atléti three goals clear and apparently coasting to victory, but Robson had drilled his team well and given them an almost unshakeable belief in themselves. At the break he delivered his words of wisdom and the team responded with vigour. Five minutes before half-time, Robson had made his intentions clear. Laurent Blanc and Popescu were taken off with forwards Pizzi and Stoickov replacing them. The response was immediate.
Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored and then repeated the feat three minutes later. Inside the opening five minutes of the second period, a declaration of intent had been made. Atléti were hardly happy to roll over though and, a minute after the Brazilin had cut the gap to a single goal, Pantić hit his fourth of the night to double it again. Figo struck back on 67 minutes, and the Catalan cauldron of a stadium was at fever pitch with 20 minutes to play, as Ronaldo squared things on the night. In a basketball -like game inside the final ten minutes it was Pizzi who notched the winner. As well as his team being able to deliver disciplined away performances, Robson had shown that they could also indulge in a slug-fest with the best that Spain had to offer and still prevail.
Having defeated the previous two seasons’ champions, the Copa del Rey was now surely there for the taking, and so it proved. Las Palmas were buried under a seven-goal aggregate thumping and, in the final, 83,000 fans would see the Blaugrana twice fight back from falling behind against Real Betis with Figo hitting the winner in extra-time. It was a third trophy garnered by Robson. Strangely however, it would have been somewhat of cold comfort for the Cules. Weeks earlier, their dream of a complete whitewash of all available trophies had disappeared with a freak league defeat against a club who were already relegated at the time.
With three games left to play, Barcelona had been in pole position to become league champions and put the club in position for a clean sweep of titles. A visit to the Costa Blanca and Alicante-based club Hércules looked a fairly straightforward task. There was however a measure of discontent in the club with rumours of Ronaldo moving on to Inter becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and, the Brazilian was unavailable to Robson for the game, along with Pizzi and Giovanni. Even then though, with depleted forces, there seemed little danger – or was there?
Despite their troubled season, Hércules had already upset the Bluagrana, being the only club to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a victory. Robson was also reading the runes as despite his tremendous success the possibility of him being retained instead of Van Gaal was seemingly a lost cause. The dark clouds were gathering, although few people outside of the club recognised it.
The game itself was a bewildering occasion. After just three minutes, it seemed that form was playing out as Guardiola put Barcelona ahead and, although they couldn’t add to the lead, there seemed little danger from a team with nothing to play for. Perhaps that freedom from the weight of relegation, now a mathematical certainty however, released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito Escudero equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic sliding in to divert the ball past Vítor Baía.
Robson’s team now needed two goals to maintain their advantage in the league over Real Madrid. In the following 40 minutes they laid siege to the home goal but, despite dominating the game and firing shots in from all angles and distances, the goals that had come so easily to them throughout the season – they would score 102 times in 42 league games, by far the best in the division – were now beyond their reach. At the end of the game, the club that would finish one spot from the foot of the table had completed a league double over Barcelona, and destroyed their hopes of league glory.
Real Madrid overcame Extremadura by five goals in their corresponding fixture. Barcelona’s doom was set, as Robson recognised. ‘Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.,’ he lamented. It was. Los Blancos efficiently wrapped up the required points and a season that offered a clean sweep of trophies had been scuppered by a relegated club whose wins over Barcelona had denied them the best season in their history.
At the end of the season, Van Gaal arrived and, in gratitude – with a thought as to whether his services may be needed again – Robson was offered an emeritus post as ‘Technical Director’. Van Gaal did well in the early years of his tenure at the Camp Nou, delivering successive league titles, but was it any better than Robson would have done? Statistics can be made to support any argument, but by the time Van Gaal left the Camp Nou, his win percentage was 55%. Robson’s had been 65%.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).
When two brothers play their home games in the same stadium, it’s probably safe to assume that any sibling rivalry is sacrificed for the greater common good of the team they represent. For Franco and Giuseppe Baresi however, such niceties are hardly applicable. The more celebrated sibling, Franco, was the iconic defender and long-time captain of AC Milan, the Rossoneri. Meanwhile, older brother Giuseppe wore the blue and black stripes of Internazionale, as a midfielder and captain for the Nerazzurri.
Born in Travagliato, near Brescia around 80 kilometres from Milan, in February 1958, the elder brother always had a head start on Franco, who entered the world two years later. It meant that, in their footballing career, by the time that the younger brother turned up at the San Siro to trial for Inter, Giuseppe was already settled in the club’s Primavera system. Having a brother already established at the club may have made it easier for Franco to obtain a chance to impress the club, but when the Inter coaching staff decided that he was too small and not sufficiently physically developed to join the club, any advantage was irrelevant. They sent him away with advice to build himself up, come back next year and try again. At that moment, any hopes of the two siblings being brothers in stripes of the same shade were dismissed.
At such moments in a nascent career it’s always tempting to speculate how the history of the player and clubs may have turned out differently had Inter decided to take a punt on the skinny kid looking to emulate his brother, but there is no doubt at all that it was fellow occupiers of the San Siro, AC Milan who profited from the decision. Following a further rebuttal after a trial, this time by Atalanta, Franco Baresi eventually convinced Rossoneri coach Guido Settembrino that he was worth taking a chance on and he joined the AC Milan, guaranteeing that, after another five years or so, the brothers would be facing each other each time the Milan derby, the Derby della Madonnina, was played, and as captains of their respective clubs, to boot.
Although split between blue and red, one thing the brothers did share, was an early tragedy in their lives. Whilst still in their teenage years, both their parents died, but the event fired the dedication and commitment of the brothers to succeed. Giuseppe would make his first team debut in 1977, once again heading his brother, but this time, Franco had closed the gap, as he followed along into the top tier of Italian football just a season later. Both would enjoy successful careers, and whilst the masterful Franco would achieve the greater honours, it would be naive to ignore those of Giuseppe, who would play almost 500 league games for Inter across a 16-year career and represent Italy 18 times.
Most of Giuseppe’s triumphs came in the early years of the eighties. The first silverware arrived in the 1977-78 Coppa Italia. By now he had been elevated to captain of the team and developed a versatility that allowed the coach to deploy him either as a central defender or a defensive midfielder, and it was in the former role that he led his team to victory over Napoli at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Two years later, the Scudetto was landed by Inter and Giuseppe, finishing three points clear of Juventus. This time, Giuseppe was following Franco, as Milan had secured the domestic title the years before, only then to suffer s precipitous fall of fortunes. The same season that Inter were champions, would see a low for his younger brother as AC Milan were relegated for the first time in the club’s history following a match-fixing scandal. Contrary emotions for the brothers.
The Rossoneri would bounce straight back up to the top tier, but endure another relegation in 1981-82, before again returning at the first time of asking. Whilst Franco was struggling with Milan’s yo-yo fortune however, Giuseppe was prospering. Another Coppa Italia victory in 1981-82, this time beating Torino over two legs, brought another winners medal and a trophy lift for the elder brother. Half-a-dozen fallow years then passed before a second Serie A title in 1988-89 and a UEFA Cup success three years later.
If Giuseppe’s mot prosperous yeas were the early 1980s, Franco would enjoy the latter part of that decade and the early years of the following one. After the miseries of relegation, Milan forged forward to build a dynasty of success with Franco Baresi as captain of the team that came to conquer and dominate European football. Serie A titles in 1987–88, 1991–92, 1992–93, 1993–94 and 1995–96 were enough to illustrate the club’s premier position in Italy, but it was the European Cup successes in 1988–89, 1989–90 and 1993–94, plus triumphs in the Intercontinental Cup in 1989 and 1990, that meant Franco’s achievements would offer him the fraternal bragging rights, were he ever in the mood to use them. Add in his 81 appearances for the Azzurri and the case is unanswerable
Together, the brothers achieved eight Scudetti in a period of 16 years at the height of Serie A football, and no less than 23 major honours in total. They also accumulated 99 caps between them, and yet strangely were only ever selected in a squad for a major international tournament on one occasion, during the 1980 European Championships played on home soil. Even then, the brothers were kept apart as only Giuseppe enjoyed any playing time as Italy finished in fourth place after losing out to Czechoslovakia for the bronze medal in a penalty shootout that went to no less than 17 attempts before the unfortunate Fulvio Collovati became the only failing to find the back of the net.
There’s a certain symmetry to appreciate when considering the equity of the Baresi brothers sharing their skills across both clubs who shared the San Siro, not quite equals perhaps, but certainly more than merely significant elements in their individual clubs’ successes. That lingering thought remains though. How would the fates have played out differently had Franco not been refused the chance to join his brother at Inter. How much more successful would they have been as Brothers in Arms?
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Brothers in arms’ series for These Football Times).
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).
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 →
The modern-day professional footballer can very much be a citizen of the world, seeking fame, and more often than not, fortune in all around the globe. Very few however could match the globetrotting exploits and success of Obafemi Martins. The Nigerian forward has plied his trade on four different continents, in different eight countries, and for ten different clubs. He’s taken ‘goals to Newcastle’, been sound in Seattle and blunted any feeling of Birmingham City fans being too blue by taking a top line trophy to the club. He’s also accumulated silverware and awards around the world and scored 18 goals in 42 games for his country. Continue reading →
If you’re the sort of player who travels the world kicking around various leagues having a decent, but hardly world-shattering career, with a hairstyle that marks you out as ‘individual’ to say the least, having another claim to fame can be invaluable. For all gamers who adopted the persona of a manager in a simulated world around the turn of the century, signing Taribo West for your club was a pretty astute move. Bargain basement signings that kick on to become stars in that electronic environment are the very essence of carving out a successful managerial career, and Taribo West slotted right into that category. When games were played on grass rather than keyboards though, things were a bit different. Continue reading →
Whilst the names of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani would, in all probability, be the initial responses to any request to name the top Uruguayan strikers, surely close behind would come Diego Forlán – and if he doesn’t, he certainly should. Appearing for La Celeste, Suarez scored 55 goals, with Cavani netting 46. Not far behind though is Forlán with 36. As with the other two strikers, as well as succeeding in South America, Forlán made his name in a number of Europe’s top leagues where competition is fierce, and goals are at a premium. From there trips to Japan, back to South America and then India and Hong Kong with an accompanying chorus of goals showed that regardless of location, league and language, putting the ball into the back of the net is of universal value.
Diego Forlán was born in May 1979 in Montevideo and, after beginning his professional career in Argentina, he would play in the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, scoring goals as he went. He would also be awarded the FIFA Golden Ball as the best player in the 2010 World Cup, and become his country’s most capped player. Any discussion of Uruguay’s top strikers must surely include Diego Forlán, and a closer examination of his career merely underscores that assertion.
A four-season spell with Independiente set the ball rolling. Although he only played a couple of games in his first season there, without troubling the scorers, across the following three seasons, Forlán built a reputation as a regular goalscorer, with a rate of finding the net that improved as he went along. Seven goals from 24 games was decent if hardly spectacular in 1999-2000, but this improved to 20 in 42 games and then 13 in just 23. It was enough to persuade Sir Alex Ferguson to take him to Manchester United.
The transfer may not have done the striker any favours. Dropping into the rough and tumble of Premier League football can be an unsettling time for any player and as this was Forlán’s first playing experience outside of South America, it’s perhaps not surprising that he didn’t flourish. Despite that and a return of just 17 goals in a shade less than a century of appearances, he still collected a Premier League winner’s medal in 2002-03 season and an FA Cup winner’s medal the following year. If the English game may not have suited the talents of the Uruguayan, his next move was certainly more to his taste.
Moving to La Liga, and returning to a more familiar culture with a language he was comfortable with, produced probably the best and certainly most productive period of Forlán’s career. Joining Villareal in 2004, he struck top form immediately, scoring an outstanding 25 goals in 39 games across all competitions. As well as the goals lifting the club into third place and a debut season in the Champions League, it took the Intertoto Cup to Villareal. Forlán won the Pichichi award for the league’s top scorer, and shared the UEFA Golden Shoe as the top scorer across the continent. He was also awarded the Trofeo given to the top Latin player in La Liga for the season. If Old Trafford had been a downturn, the Yellow Submarine was certainly no dive for Diego Forlán. Villareal were hardly one of the premier clubs in Spain, and to be the country’s leading marksman when playing for them was remarkable.
Unsurprisingly, as his reputation grew, defences were paying more attention to the Uruguayan striker and in the following season his strike rate dipped a little, netting 13 goals from 47 games. His situation wasn’t helped by disruption at the cub. The next season would be a real test, but form and goals returned as he secured a highly respectable 21 strikes at a rate of a goal every other game. It was enough to see him catapulted into an almost impossible position.
In June 2007, no longer able to resist the money offered by the Premier League, Atlético Madrid sold Fernando Torres to Liverpool, and decided that Diego Forlán was the man to replace him at the Vicente Calderón. A fee of €21 million was agreed and the Uruguayan had the mammoth task of making the loss of El Niño appear insignificant. No pressure then!
Although adjusting to a different club and a new way of playing under the individualistic promptings of Diego Simeone, 23 goals in his first season was entirely satisfactory, but in 2008-09, he would improve greatly on that as he and the team became more accustomed to each other. No less than 35 strikes in just 45 appearances took him to another Pichichi award and, this time, sole ownership of the European Golden Shoe. A further 28 goals the following season saw Atleti win the Europa League, with Forlán’s brace being the deciding factor in the win over Fulham. Understandably, he was named as UEFA Europa League Final Man of The Match.
In the summer, along with his Uruguayan colleagues, Forlán travelled to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. It would be one of the country’s most successful runs in the tournament of recent years, and a personal triumph for the striker. Uruguay would finish fourth, and as well as sharing the title of top scorer in the tournament, Forlán would be awarded the Golden Ballas the outstanding player, be selected for the FIFA Dream Team and his right-footed volley from the edge of the penalty area against Germany was judged the Goal of the Tournament.
Later, returning to club football, he would help Atlético win the UEFA Super Cup, defeating Inter Milan in the final. The new season however would see his worst goalscoring return in his time with the club. Ten goals in more than 40 games suggested a downturn. Now 32 years old, when Inter approached the Spanish club with a view to taking Forlán to Lombardy to replace the departing Samuel Eto’o, Simeone took the deal and Diego Forlán moved to his fourth different league, joining Serie A on a two-year deal. Unsurprisingly, given his age, he wouldn’t recapture the form and strike he enjoyed in Spain.
In that summer’s Copa América, held in Argentina, Forlán demonstrated that his abilities on the international stage hadn’t been dulled by the advancing years. He played in every game for Uruguay as La Celeste went through the tournament undefeated. Indeed, Forlán would net two of the three goals in the final that ensured the trophy would go to Montevideo.
After the summer of success, things started brightly enough in Serie A. On his debut for the Nerazzurri, Forlán scored in a 4-3 victory over Palermo. It would, however, be the high point of an otherwise disappointing and frustrating time for the striker. He would only score one more goal, and at the end of the season, Inter would release him from his second year. The player would lament his time with the club, explaining his lack of goals to being played out of position, and the expectations to be able to replace Eto’o as he had successfully done with Torres.
At 33, it was time to quit Europe, and release from the Nerazzurri contract led to a move from Internazionale in Italy’s Serie A to Internacional in Brazil’s Série A. A first season return of five goals in 19 games improved to 17 in 36 in the second year, but even in the less physically demanding Brazilian league, 35 year-old legs were finding it difficult, and an opportunity to travel to Japan offered a prospect of greater longevity with a move to Cerezo Osaka. It was hardly a successful experience. Despite scoring 17 times in his 18 months with the club, Osaka were relegated at the end of his first term there and then failed to regain their status. An emotional return to Peñarol, his boyhood club, offered a sentimental journey back home and an 18 month contract not only brought eight goals, it also led to the club lifting the championship trophy.
Despite the triumph, it had only been a brief agreement to play there, and in an emotional press conference afterwards, Forlán announced he would be leaving the club. Brief sojourns in India with Mumbai City and then Hong Kong with Kitchee followed – with five goals at each club – before he played his final professional game in May 2018, less than a week before his 39th birthday.
There’s little doubt that, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani are more celebrated as strikers in the modern game, but neither has ever won the FIFA World Cup Golden Boot. Diego Forlán has. It’s true that Suárez has won the UEFA Golden Shoe, as has Forlán, but Cavani has yet to achieve the accolade. Suárez has also won the Pichichi title once. Forlán did so on two occasions, and whilst Suárez achieved the title playing for a star-studded Barcelona team, Forlán won his whilst at Villareal and then when featuring for an Atlético Madrid side struggling to recover from the loss of Fernando Torres. So, perhaps if someone asks about the top Uruguayan striker, remember the career and achievements of Diego Forlán, the much travelled and most underrated of Uruguayan goal scorers
(This article was originally produced for the punditfeed.com website – https://punditfeed.com/nostalgia/diego-forlan-uruguay/)
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 →
The sad tale of Marco Branca, Boro’s all-too-brief striking hero and the legal battles that followed.
In 1998-9 season, Middlesbrough were a second-tier club. Relegation had cost them the services of such international luminaries as Ravenelli and Juninho, but the efforts of manager Bryan Robson, aided and abetted by the financial backing of Steve Gibson, would mean their absence from the Premier League was only brief. The season saw the arrival of the likes of Paul Gascoigne from Rangers, and Paul Merson moved to the North-East from North London. Also, among the arrivals, was an Italian striker whose early games with the club promised so much, before the relationship fell into discord and recrimination. Continue reading →