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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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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Manchester United’s war of three fronts

March 19, 2009

Manchester United know all too well just how much can change in a Premiership week. Seven days ago Sir Alex Ferguson‘s side had an air of invincibility, able to drop players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov from the line-up against Liverpool while bookies paid out on bets that Manchester United would win the Premiership title. Two slip-ups (admittedly both chronic) from their most consistent player of the season, a red card and four Liverpool goals later and all of a sudden the picture looks very different indeed. To win the much aspired to quintuple, Manchester United will have to overcome top four Premier League opposition in at least two competitions – with either Chelsea or Arsenal coming up in the FA Cup if United can edge past Everton, and Arsenal‘s visit to Old Trafford still to come in the league. Manchester United will almost certainly have to lock horns with their domestic rivals in the Champions League to boot, with half of this year’s remaining contestants coming from the Premiership.

The problem is that against the rest of the Premiership top four, Manchester United have struggled this season – recording a solitary victory over Chelsea. The table below, looking at how the top four have performed against each other, clearly shows that Liverpool and Arsenal are laughing when it comes to seeing off similarly well-equipped opposition:

untitled-1Manchester United avoided the big four en route to their Carling Cup and (of course) Club World Cup victories. And from the look things, that was a good thing too. But they definitely won’t be so lucky in the FA Cup, and more likely than not they won’t escape this year in the Champions League either. So what are the three big factors that could turn the 2008-2009 season into a year of missed opportunities for Fergie’s men?

1. Rafa’s new contract. A good week at Liverpool by any standards – four goals a game against Real Madrid and United, followed by manager Rafa Benítez finally signing on the dotted line to commit to the club’s long-term future. A repeat of their 2005 European triumph would just put the icing on the cake.

2. Essien’s back. Chelsea have lacked bite in midfield this season without Michael Essien, and Deco has proved no replacement. The Ghanaian scored at the weekend to issue a timely reminder to Chelsea‘s rivals that the London club are a different proposition with him presiding over the centre of the pitch, and combined with Duth coach Guus Hiddink‘s nous there should be no stopping Chelsea.

3. Arsenal have discovered a bit of mental fortitude. Arsène Wenger said it himself after the Roma match, but Arsenal have lacked the strength of mind to turn 0-0 draws into more meaningful results. Queue an epic penalty shoot-out victory against canny Italain opposition and a hard fought (literally fought) win over Hull and Wenger’s boys are back in action.

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What would Liverpool look like without Benítez?

March 13, 2009

curbishley1All hail Rafa Benítez, conqueror of Europe and vanquisher of Real Madrid. Liverpool has developed a reputation as masters of the Champions League tie, punching well above their weight in cup competitions compared to their performances in the Premiership. To date Benítez has delivered an FA Cup, one Community Shield, the European Super Cup and of course that majestic Champions League triumph against AC Milan during his five years with Liverpool. Which is a fantastic achievement. But back at the start, when Gérard Houllier was shown the door, it was a lack of league success that caused fans and the club’s senior management team alike to throw their toys out of the pram. And Benítez wasn’t the only man they thought would be up to the job.

Meet Alan Curbishley, the other front runner to replace Houllier back in 2004. As a quick bio, Curbishley is currently in line at the dole queue after solid if unspectacular spells at Charlton Athletic and West Ham. Unlike Benítez, who arrived at Liverpool on the back of two La Liga successes with Valencia, he has never won a trophy in the game’s senior echelons. But he does, arguably, have one of the best track records of consistent league performances in Premiership, turning Charlton into a serial top flight club and restoring West Ham‘s Premier League credibility.

Also featured on that short-list of bygone days, Steve McLaren, the former Middlesborough and England manager. And now, it would seem, a man who is finally proving he is capable of steering a club to the top of its league with FC Twente, currently second in the Dutch Eredivisie ahead of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Of course, these days McLaren is regarded somewhat as tarnished goods after falling victim to the ultimate trap, being an Englishman at the helm of the English national team (a danger Curbishley only just avoided).

Last but not least were the Celtic past and present axis of power, Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. These are the only two names on that five year old short-list that wouldn’t invoke horror and even physical illness in Liverpool fans today. In fact, the Northern Irisham and Scot have amassed three league titles apiece with the Glasgow club, while O’Neill has restored his reputation as the Premiership‘s hottest managerial property of late with Aston Villa.

Would any of these men have restored Liverpool to their place at the Premiership‘s top table? Possibly. But without a flicker of doubt, not one of them has Rafa’s European credentials. And that means Benítez will be able to name his price to stay at Liverpool this summer, while his would-have-been competitors can only look on enviously at the resources and infrastructure at his disposal.

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Another reason to love José Mourinho

March 12, 2009

jose-mourinhoMy sense of grief at the thought of not spending more time in the company of a certain Mr. José Mourinho after his Inter Milan side crashed out against Manchester United last night has already abated. Not because I won’t miss the lovable Portuguese rogue. But because José is determined not to go down without a fight. Literally.

First, Mourinho does the gallant thing. Blame Italy, the country he will be returning to, and not Inter Milan or even Manchester United. Next, heap praise on his victorious rivals, claim they’re on for a clean sweep of trophies and all the time make sure that he – and not Manchester United – are the centre of attention. And then, as if that wasn’t quite enough, he punches a United fan in the face outside Old Trafford. I know I should be shocked, appalled even, but the truth is that this most recent act of incomprehensible insanity is precisely Mourinho’s crowning glory in my eyes. Just like watching Phil Brown sitting Hull down in the middle of the pitch to give them a half-time team talk dressing down, or Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi, it is precisely Mourinho’s violent unpredictability that makes him so enigmatic – enticing even.

The reality is that management at the top of the Premiership has become dull, sterilised even. Arsène Wenger‘s idea of losing his cool is signing a player who, shock horror, isn’t from France (queue Andrei Arshavin). While Rafa Benítez enjoys publically crumbling into pieces, he still does so in a quiet kind of way, while Chelsea have ditched Luiz Felipe Scolari for a more sanitised alternative. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, once famed for his outbursts and for kicking a boot at David Beckham, has mellowed. Now when he gets really angry, he simply buys a cheaper bottle of red wine from Oddbins to share with the opposition’s manager.

Mourinho once questioned if Barcelona‘s Lionel Messi was prone to over egging challenges in matches: “‘Can Messi be suspended for acting? Barcelona is a very cultural city. You know all about theatre. You have theatres of high quality.” At the time it was a controversial comment. Looking back at it now, it feels like a poignant reminder of precisely the kind of theatre the Premiership has lacked in Mourinho’s absence. Come home soon, José.

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Premiership cuts its nose off to spite its face

March 9, 2009

 
The days of the great British colonial empire may have faded into sepia, along with the fortunes of our national football, rugby and cricket teams. But there is still one realm where we continue to rule the waves – European club football. After last season’s Champions League final (effectively a showcase for the top two teams in the Premiership), this year’s last 16 once again features four English clubs in excellent positions to progress after their first round ties. But is the Premiership about to become the victim of its own success? As well as becoming the sport’s biggest importers of talent, the Premiership veraciously exports players and coaches to clubs in Europe at a breakneck pace. Of the four opponents waiting for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal later this week, three are managed by former Premier League managers (Claudio Ranieri at Juventus, Juande Ramos at Real Madrid, and, of course, José Mourinho at Inter Milan). And all four of this week’s Champions League opponents are similarly studded with players who have plied their trade in the Premiership, know all about its top clubs and – most importantly of all – understand how to stop them. Here are my pick of the ex-Premiership stars who stand between our British boys and a prolonged jaunt on the continent.

Patrick Vieira, Inter Milan, formerly Arsenal
patrick-vieiraPatrick Vieira won three Premiership titles at Arsenal and captained the club to an unbeaten season in 2004, so he knows better than most how to shut Man United out of a game. Sir Alex Ferguson is a noted admirer of the Frenchman and tried to secure his services after Juventus’ relegation in 2006. Vieira has been in and out of the Inter team this season thanks to injury and his fractious relationship with Mourinho, but if he is thrown into action against Man United he still has the legs, lungs and drive to change the shape of a match.

Arjen Robben, Real Madrid, formerly Chelsea
arjen-robben1As a Chelsea fan, Arjen Robben represents all the hopes and dreams that came with the Roman Abramovich revolution. His pace, creativity and eye for goal led to a string of matches in Mourinho’s first season with club that were – to my mind – the epitome of everything I always wanted Chelsea to be. I even remember describing him as Gianfrano Zola‘s natural successor – that’s how good Robben was. Years of long-term injury have somewhat curtailed his development, but at the peak of his form I still believe he is the only player capable of challenging Cristiano Ronaldo‘s claim to be the best wide man in the game. Liverpool will doubtless be a little envious of his turn of pace and ability to create something out of nothing.

john-arne-riiseJohn Arne Riise, Roma, formerly Liverpool
You could ask any Premiership club fan about their memories of John Arne Riise, and virtually every one would have a story about one of his trademark left-footed, long-ranged and unstoppable goals. In all, he scored one in every nine starts for Liverpool – an extraordinary ratio for a left back. I always believed he was treated harshly at Liverpool, who rarely made the most of his precocious talents. Fortunately, fate has been a little kinder on the Norwegian at Roma, where he has marked his arrival on Serie A this season with a first goal for the club against league leaders Internazionale.

Olof Mellberg, Juventus, formerly Aston Villa
olof-mellbergUp until last weekend, ex-Liverpool hard man Mohamed Sissoko would have been a good shout as Juventus’ player to watch on Tuesday. But injury has put the Malian midfielder’s season on ice, so up steps Aston Villa‘s very own former iceman. The Swede has added some much needed bite to Juventus’ back line this season, which will come as no surprise to Villa fans who still lament the affable defender’s departure last season. Last season, under Mellberg’s stewardship, Aston Villa gained a credible home win against Chelsea and draw their away match 4-4. That’s last 16 cup-tie winning form.

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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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