Galatasaray’s “sporting project”

July 15, 2009

Frank_RijkaardWhile Florentino Pérez has been busy attempting to revenge his fantasy football frustrations (“why won’t The Sun let me have Cristiano RonaldoKaká and Karim Benzema!?”) on Real Madrid, another of Europe’s less glamorous elite clubs has been undoing a “sporting project” of their own.

Galatasaray, the most successful club in the history of Turkish football, recently appointed one of the world’s most successful coaches in Frank Rijkaard – one of the few people in footballing history to have won European and national titles in Holland, Italy and Spain as a player and as a manager. Alongside him, assistant coach John Neeskens, who helped mastermind Guus Hiddink‘s 2006 World Cup heroics with Australia and has worked on and off with Rijkaard for the last 11 years. The pair have been charged with rebuilding a club that beat Arsenal and then Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup and subsequent European Super Cup in 2000, but has since lost their stars like Hakan Şükür, Cláudio Taffarel, Gheorghe Popescu and Gheorghe Hagi.

So what have the dynamic Dutch duo then to arrest the decline that saw Istanbul rivals Beşiktaş pinch the Turkish Süper Lig last year as Galatasaray stumbled to fifth? Well, the team they have inherited is made up mostly of talented domestic players. Aside from some familiar faces to fans of the Premiership – namely Harry Kewell, Milan Baroš and Tobias Linderoth – Brazilian playmaker Lincoln had been their only international player of note. But Rijkaard has been quick to lure a couple of experienced internationals to beef up the Turkish club.

After 11 years playing in Spain’s top flight with Real Mallorca and Atlético Madrid, Argentinean goalkeeper Leo Franco has been recruited to fill the long empty boots of his fellow South American Taffarel. A veteran of the 2006 World Cup, Franco has 21 caps for his country and played more than 300 La Liga games during his reign in Spain. He also representd a great bit of business, having moved on a free after his contract with Atlético expired at the end of June. Yet there is no doubting that Rijkaard is willing to splash the cash, having forked out over £10 million to land former Lyon wide man Kader Keïta. A powerful attacking presence on the right wing, the Ivory Coast international spent two years with the French club – helping them to a record seventh consecutive title in 2008 – and should provide the perfect counterfoil to Kewell’s guile on the opposite wing.

Don’t expect Galatasaray’s activity in the transfer market to stop there, either. In the last few weeks they have been linked to Dutch internationals Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and John Heitinga, West Ham‘s Lucas Neill, and two more Lyon players, Ghana skipper John Mensah and French star Sidney Govou. Whether or not any of these players join Rijkaard’s crusade to Istanbul, expect Galatasaray to join Manchester City in the hunt for a seat at football’s top table next season.

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Farewell Pavel

February 27, 2009

NedvedAt the end of the season we will bid goodbye to one of football’s greatest ever exponents.  I would always argue that Zinedine Zidane‘s legacy deserves a place alongside Pele and Diego Maradona in the roll call of the game’s best ever players. But I would also say that Pavel Nedvěd is a better player than Zidane. Not a better footballer – Zidane could do things with a ball that would make Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo look like a chump. But in my opinion Nedvěd could exert his control over a match and lift his team almost physically in a way that Zidane never could.

A perfect example of the great Frenchman’s limitations was the 2006 World Cup final. Zidane poured so much of his heart and soul into that pitch that I half suspect even the Italian team wanted him to win. Every spectator knew they were watching the best and the most tragic moment of Zidane’s career – the natural born winner struggling to drag his team across the finish line. And, in the end, failing. The sorcerer turned thug and in the blink of an eye Zidane had simultaneously brought about his demise and cemented his legendary status in the game. France lost in a penalty shoot out, with Zidane both hero and villain.

Which is all very poetic. And I am not saying that had Nedvěd put on a blue shirt and run out for France that day he could have changed the result. However, while Zidane had a habit of making all the other players around him look inferior, Nedvěd has the canny knack of raising his entire team’s game. His great tragedy is that he has never won the major trophy he deserved – or even had the same chance Zidane was afforded to blow that major trophy (although to be fair Zidane won plenty).

Zidane played for Juventus in two Champions League finals, losing both. When the Frenchman defected to Real Madrid (where he finally claimed the trophy in his first season), his €41 million replacement from Lazio was instrumental in helping Juventus reach another dramatic European showdown against AC Milan in 2003. But unlike his predecessor, Nedvěd never got the chance to shine on one of the game’s biggest stages. The midfielder was suspended after picking up a decisive yellow card in the semi-finals, where Zidane’s new club Real Madrid were the victims.

Admittedly, the Czech does have one more chance – overturn Chelsea striker Didier Drogba‘s goal in Turin in the next fortnight and the dream is still alive. Yet I expect that won’t happen. Great players, much more than simply good ones, have a habit of being – at the last – undone.

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Mexico’s Golden Generation

February 4, 2009

10_24409tSven-Göran Eriksson‘s decision to become head coach of the Mexican football team last year after successfully rebuilding his reputation as a club manager at Manchester City may have seemed a little eccentric. But for all his failings, as both England manager and Premiership boss Sven has been nothing if not cooly analytical. Even his infamous selection of Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup was a carefully calculated gamble (albeit one that didn’t pay off).

Mexico is a country that is on the verge of a major break through on the international football scene. The Under-17s helped the country to win it’s first major global competition at the 2005 FIFA World Championship. They beat a much fancied Brazil side including Manchester United‘s Anderson and Arsenal midfielder Denílson in the final after thrashing a similarly talented Dutch side 4-0 in the last four. This week Sven announced the senior squad for Mexico’s international derby against the United States, and four of the World Championship juniors of 2005 have made the step up (with two more unavailable through suspention). So how are Mexico’s “Golden Generation” progressing under the Swede’s tutelage?

Guillermo Ochoa

The 23-year-old goalkeeper and one of the elder statesmen of the World Championship side, Ochoa was also in Mexixo’s 2006 World Cup squad as a back-up goalkeeper. Despite making over 150 appearances for his club side Club América, has struggled to fill the boots of goalkeeping legend Oswaldo Sánchez (who at 35 is still kicking around) and establish a regular spot in the senior international side.

 Omar Esparza

A talented right back who scored the second goal in the Under 17s 3-0 defeat of Brazil in the 2005 finals, two years after that game Esparza helped Mexico’s Under-20 side to a World Cup quarter final. Made his first senior appearance in August, and could well be the next player from that World Championship team to move to Europe, although he’ll need to bulk up before then.

Giovanni Dos Santos

Even before Dos Santos walked on to the pitch wearing the red, white and green of Mexico he had footballing pedigree. The son of Brazilian footballer and soccer school founder Zizinho, both Giovanni and brother Jonathan came from Barcelona stock. Set up half of all the goals scored by Mexico in the World Championship, he was named the tournament’s second best player. Has failed to make his mark at Tottenham since a summer move and has been linked to Chelsea and Portsmouth – but whoever lands him has an awfully big talent on their hands.

Carlos Vela

Top scorer in the World Championship with five goals, Vela earned himself a move to Arsenal after the tournament. Although we haven’t seen a great deal of him in the Premiership as yet, defenders in La Liga will be all too familiar with his attacking trickery after 64 appearances in Spanish football with Salamanca and OsasunaArsène Wenger brought Vela on in the game against West Ham last weekend, and if used a little less sparingly the Mexican has the talent to keep Arsenal‘s new signing Andrei Arshavin on the bench.

Certainly, if Sven can blend the new generation of players with more established stars like Barcelona‘s Rafael Márquez and former VfB Stuttgart midfielder Pável Pardo, the journey from England manager to Scandinavia’s man in Mexico could look more like a promotion than a career red herring.

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