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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An all American hero

July 3, 2009

Clint_Dempsey_celeb_779981aHe conquered European champions Spain with two delicate touches of his right foot, then came within a whisper of masterminding the downfall of world football’s Goliath – mighty, magnificent Brazil – in the final of the Confederations Cup. So who is this footballing Adonis? Argentina’s beloved Leo Messi? Italy’s striking prodigy and former Manchester United youngster Giuseppe Rossi? No, it was a United States and Fulham midfielder as humble as American pie – Clint Dempsey.

His name might sound like something out of a spaghetti western, but Dempsey’s goal and assist against a Spanish side unbeaten in 35 games belatedly announced the 26-year-old’s arrival on the international stage. His opener against Brazil in the final then sealed his new found fame. The USA may have gone on the surrender their 2-0 lead, but Dempsey can rightly lay claim to being one of the tournament’s real discoveries. And, arguably, its best player (although officially he was pipped to the post by Brazil’s Kaká and Luís Fabiano).

If you think back to the 2002 World Cup, you’ll remember that Senegal’s incredible journey to the semi-finals prompted then Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier to pluck El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao from obscurity and inflict them upon the Premiership. Now the Confederations Cup is no World Cup. Before that 2002 World Cup, Japan surprised everyone by reaching the final of the 2001 Confederation Cup on home soil, with Hidetoshi Nakata the star. But far from being headhunted by one of Europe’s top clubs, he was ditched by AS Roma and ended up at Bolton before retiring in 2006. Actually, in that respect the ultimate conclusions of his and El Hadji Diouf’s careers have not been so different.

So what next for Dempsey? Reports today have seen him linked with Everton, and he could definitely do a job operating on the opposite flank to Mikel Arteta at Goodison Park. But having watched him play for Fulham at Cravan Cottage a couple of times last season, I actually think the American is capable of performing on a bigger stage. If nothing else, his goals against Spain and Brazil have proved he has a big game mentality – and against Spain in particular, he really inspired the American team and spearheaded their shock result.

Perhaps Liverpool can be convinced to take another post-international tournament punt to bring in Dempsey. Certainly, at £4 million, he would be a fairly economical alternative to Valencia‘s David Silva – on the bench when the American embarrassed his team mates in South Africa. Failing that, I have no doubt that Roy Hodgson would be over the moon to keep a giant killer on his books as he looks to propel Fulham through their inaugural Europa League campaign.

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Football in the recession

June 21, 2009

hammer_to_piggy_bankAny regular followers of this blog will know that updates have been few and far between since May. As the football season has reached its dramatic climax and the transfer window has reopened, the world of work has come under an enormous and ever increasing amount of pressure from the recession. My day job is looking after the marketing for a company called FreshMinds, and our recruitment arm has been at the coal face of the heavy hit job market. So there’s been plenty in the office to keep me busy.

Why then, you might ask, is the transfer market still so robust? While there are announcements of mass redundancies, record levels of unemployment and fewer opportunities for 20-something graduates, the likes Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo and even Gareth Barry can expect enormous pay rises and staggering signing on fees for their respective transfers to Real Madrid and Manchester City. “Vulgar” – that’s how England and Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton has described Ronaldo’s £80 million transfer fee. And in the context of the wider economy, that’s exactly how the summer silly season feels.

Of course, there are good reasons for this almost counter-cyclical reaction to the recession in football. Firstly, the financial clout of clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and now even Sunderland is funded through the personal wealth of just one individual. Yes, Roman Abramovich has seen his fortune hit to the tune of more than three billion pounds. But he still has an estimated £7.7 billion – or enough to buy 96 Cristiano Ronaldos or 642 Gareth Barrys. Now Real Madrid is a different kettle of fish, because the Spanish club is built around a membership model with the president (the closest equivalent to an owner) elected by the fans. So the cash for Kaká and Ronaldo has not come from Florentino Pérez‘s back pocket. Indeed, the source of their new found wealth isn’t entirely clear. However, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s derived from a mix of leveraged debt, government backing and Pérez’s promise of an epic volume of shirt sales.

We are also very lucky in this country to have fans who value the sport so highly that they are willing to sacrifice a great deal else in order to support their teams in the Premiership, Championship and league. Even in the midst of the deepest recession since the Second World War, preliminary sales of season tickets have remained pretty healthy, while the top Premier League teams can expect sell outs at the vast majority of their games. As a result, these clubs are able to generate a huge regular income to entice new players and pay the existing ones. What’s more, they are also able to attract wealthy backers (queue Abramovich, the Glazer family and Ellis Short) as going financial concerns.

Admittedly, there are signs that the good times are coming to an end. Setanta‘s failure to pay the Premier League for television rights is an indication that the appetite to watch football is no longer enough to sustain a business. Then there’s the plights of Southampton, Leeds United and notably Luton. Leeds are an interesting example, not least because they suffered their darkest days during the height of the boom – perhaps a better example of financial mismanagement than a victim of the credit crunch. Newcastle take note. But for every Man City or Real Madrid out there, it is worth bearing in mind there’s probably also a clutch of smaller football clubs on the edge. With less of their games on show after the near collapse of Setanta, and fewer opportunities for young British footballers, the true impact of the recession is likely to be felt much more in the grass roots of the game than at football’s top table.

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Ribéry steals the show

February 26, 2009

20070919elpepidep_51The Champions League last 16 has been built up as the clash of four of the game’s great managers. In Milan on Tuesday literally millions of neutrals tuned in to see José Mourinho resume hostilities with Manchester United‘s Sir Alex Ferguson, while yesterday fans at the Bridge welcomed back Claudio Ranieri and watch the Tinkerman pit his wits against new Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink. Both games ended in good results for their respective Premiership representatives. But the highlight of the first leg matches, at least, was not the elaborate play acted out by these forceful characters before and immediately after the final whistle. It was the performances on the pitch by two players from among the less well heralded teams left in the competition.

I’ve spoken on this blog before about my admiration for Bayern Munich‘s midfield maestro Franck Ribéry, and the Frenchman duly delivered yet again with two goals and two assist in the German team’s 5-0 away demolition of Sporting Lisbon. His opening goal in Lisbon was a joy to behold as Ribéry barged past two defenders before coolly slotting home. But it was clear throughout the 90 minutes that the former Marseille and Galatasary man was pulling all the strings for Bayern, linking up with big Italian front man Luca Toni with devastating effect. On the basis of this performance, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bayern Munich look like genuine contenders this year and will take some beating in the quarter finals – as long as they can keep the key attacking trio of Ribéry, Toni and Miroslav Klose fit and in form.

Another of the dark horses of the competition, Olympique Lyonnais, ran the game against Pep Guardiola‘s much fancied Barcelona side and were unlucky to have to settle for a draw. Lyon are a side 20070919elpepidep_5jam packed with talent, from powerful midfield duo Jérémy Toulalan and Jean II Makoun to coveted striker Karim Benzema. However it was an old hand who weighed in with a game changing contribution, and not for the first time. Lyon captain Juninho Pernambucano is still one of football’s best kept secrets despite nearly 100 goals in over 300 appearances for the seven times French champions. On Tuesday Barcelona fell victim once again to the Brazilian’s incredible free kicks – in 2007 he scored against the Spanish side with an effort from 45 metres out, while Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are also among his victims. Juninho has now scored 43 direct free kicks in all competitions for Lyon, and could justifiably claim to be the natural successor to David Beckham‘s dead ball specialist crown.

While most of the 72,000 people who have bought tickets for the final in Rome will be hoping to see the like of Cristiano RonaldoKaka or Lionel Messi gracing the field, after this week’s matches I would be more than content to see Ribéry and Juninho battle it out for the title of most underrated playmaker in Europe.

See one of Juninho’s trademark free-kicks


Hugo Rodallega: the next big thing?

January 29, 2009

notw1OK. Cards on the table. I’m not a big fan of Steve Bruce. I have never quite been able to forgive the way he walked out on Wigan Athletic after just eight games during his stint at the club back in 2001, before repeating his Harry Houdini impression at Crystal Palace shortly afterwards. That said, in recent seasons he has developed an extraordinary knack for finding little gems from South America’s less fashionable nations and polishing them in to refined Premiership players. Tottenham‘s new Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios netted former club Wigan an estimated £11 million profit, while Real Madrid have been sniffing around Ecuadorian star Antonio Valencia. And despite myself, as a huge fan of South American football I can’t help but feel a tingle of excitement about Bruce’s latest find.

Hugo Rodallega is a powerful Columbian striker with pedigree.  At 5 ft 11 inches, he is unlikely to make up for the loss of Emile Heskey‘s big physical presence up front for Wigan. But he does have something that Heskey never did – a superb scoring record. At club level Rodallega has an average of more than a goal every other game, including 31 goals in 32 matches for his first football club in Columbia, Deportes Quindío. However, it is his performances at international level that truly give a glimmer of the 23-year-olds promise. Rodallega burst onto the international scene by breaking the record for goals scored in South American qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. For the record, so to speak, he did so with 11 in just nine qualifying matches. Since 2005, he has made 21 appearances for the senior side and scored six goals – starring in a recent friendly demolishen job of continental rivals Venezuela with a goal and three assists.

So, the big question is why Wigan, and why for just £4.5 million? My feeling is that his strike partner from the 2005 Fifa World Youth Partnership, River Plate‘s Radamel Falcao, would cost considerably more despite an inferior goal scoring record at both club and senior international level. One possible answer is that Wigan is Rodallega’s sixth club in five years – a record that even new team mate Mido would be proud of. Another is that there is a question mark about how well the Columbian will adapt to life in a new continent.

He arrives in the Premiership after three years in Mexico with three different clubs – with spells at Monterrey and then on loan at Atlas both proving unsuccessful and relatively barren for a natural born goal scorer. He did eventually find his feet at Necaxa, but can Wigan really afford to wait two years for a return on their investment? If the accelerated progress of Palacios and Valencia are anything to go buy, they may not have to. And if Bruce can bring the best out of Rodagella, he could be Wigan‘s best South American import yet.

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In defence of Sparky

January 22, 2009

mark_hughes_498041aMark Hughes will be breathing a sigh of relief this evening. You see, the man who signs his pay cheque – Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook – believes he is nothing less than “competent”. High praise indeed for the manager who took Wales to the brink of a first major international tournament and revitalised former club Blackburn Rovers.

Just eight months ago Hughes was being chased by arguably the two richest clubs in world football, Manchester City (a formidable financial force even in the days of Shinawatra) and Chelsea. He now looks on the brink of falling victim to the curse of the equivalent of football’s “get-rich-quick-scheme”. Chelsea have been through four managers under Roman Abramovich, while nearby neighbours QPR have turned over the same number in just over a year since Flavio BriatoreBernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal become stakeholders. Would it be such a surprise if Man City were to swing the axe after the Kaka debacle and with the club hanging in Premiership mid-table limbo?

If Hughes is sacked, it has to be based on results and not his profile as a manager. After all, Hughes is not some young coach who has been picked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight. He has played at Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, winning a plethora of titles and twice being named PFA Player of the Year. Before arriving at Man City, he had turned round the fortunes of Welsh football and stamped his name and style on the game in Lancashire. He also has an unparalleled record of helping waning stars reignite that missing spark. Under Hughes, Craig Bellamy scored a goal every other game compared to a career average of just 0.34 goals per game, while Robinho‘s scoring average has doubled at Manchester City thanks to 11 goals in 16 games. Then there’s Benni McCarthy, Roque Santa Cruz and David Bentley, all of whom feature on the list of Blackburn‘s top 20 Premiership scorers of all time.

Hughes is staking his career, at least at the top eschalons of the game, on that ability to spot a bargain – and I suspect the purchases of Bellamy and Wayne Bridge will vindicate his transfer policy in time. Whether the Welshman will still be at the helm of Man City to see the fruits of his labour remains a very different question.

Hughes’ management career First 11

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