Flashback

Roberto Carlos Retires (there are videos…)

Legend

Wow. So ol’ thunder thighs has officially hung up his boots. For my thoughts on that, pretty much see my thoughts on Ronaldo retiring last year.

Meanwhile, without further ado, here is that goal:

(The second replay behind the ball is the one, unbelievable scenes!)

 

125 caps for Brazil (11 goals)
1x FIFA World Cup: 2002 (runner-up 1998)
2x Copa América: 1997, 1999
1x FIFA Confederations Cup: 1997

Real Madrid (over 400 appearances, 50 goals 1996–2007)
3x UEFA Champions League: 1998, 2000, 2002
4x La Liga titles: 1997, 2001, 2003, 2007
3x Spanish Supercopa: 1997, 2001, 2003
2x Intercontinental Cup: 1998, 2002
1x UEFA Super Cup: 2002

(…and that’s just the highlights!)

More vids? Go on then…

 

Bobby Carlos: bloody hero.

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May The 4th Be With You!

More deadly than Campbell and Brolin

May 4th is not only Star Wars day but also the anniversary the 1993/94 European Cup Winners’ Cup final.

In what has inadvertently turned into George Graham season on Mountain’s Short Thoughts & Bits, it’s time to look back at the final that pitted Arsenal against defending champions Parma who could boast the attacking talents of Brolin, Zola and Asprilla in their starting eleven!

May the 4th be with you!

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It’s Up For Grabs Now! – The Title Decider

[Including: Merlin’s Premier League Stickers of the Week: Arsenal Legends… 1988/89]

With Premier League leaders Man United set to face second place Man City on Monday night in a match that could decide the fate of the title this season it seems like a good time to look back at another title deciding bout from the season I was born. In 1988/89 however, due to the Hillsborough disaster the meeting between the top two clubs was postponed until the very end of the season.

POS Club Pld W D L F A GD PTS
 1 Liverpool 37 22 10 5 65 26 +39 76
 2 Arsenal 37 21 10 6 71 36 +35 73

Anything other than an Arsenal win by at least two clear goals would see Liverpool clinch the title, the problem for the Gunners was that Liverpool had not lost by two or more goals at Anfield in three years, Arsenal hadn’t beaten them there since 1974/75 and Liverpool had never lost a match with both John Aldridge and Ian Rush up front!

“Now I’ve heard of Liverpool. They’re famous for being good, aren’t they? Gary Lineker, Peter Shilton, all that lot.”

– Jo in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch

Despite Lineker and Shilton never having played for Liverpool, Jo had it about right.

Over to Mr George Graham…

 

“Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield… it’s up for grabs now… Thomas, right at the end!!!”

– Brian Moore

Level on points, level on Goal Difference, Arsenal had won the league on goals scored:

Pos Club Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
 1 Arsenal 38 22 10 6 73 36 +37 76
 2 Liverpool 38 22 10 6 65 28 +37 76

Which brings us to the Premier League Stickers of the Week: the Arsenal team that started that day and brought the Division One trophy back to Highbury (although O’Leary features as an 80’s Panini because I somehow failed to collect him as either a player or a manager!)

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From 1993/94: John Lukic (Leeds United), Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, David Rocastle (Leeds United), Kevin Richardson (Aston Villa), Alan Smith (repeat)

From 1994/95: Steve Bould

From 1995/96: Michael Thomas (Liverpool!!!)

From 1996/97: Paul Merson

[Panini 1987/88: David O’Leary]

[All these (and more…) can be found in the Sticker Archive]

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HAPPY Juninho Paul-EASTER!!!

It takes one hell of a player to be capped for Brazil whilst playing week in week out with Phil Stamp, not to mention winning the World Cup whilst playing your club football alongside Dean Windass but that is exactly what Juninho (Paulista) achieved.

It is at this time of year that we remember what this player did, returning seemingly from the dead to pull on a Middlesbrough shirt not just once but three times! (If you count the 2011 farewell match.)

So kick back and enjoy eating some chocolates to mark the occasion as first established by Juninho’s former team mate Ugo Egg-iogu (apologies).

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Peter Crouch, Wonder Goals & Trevor Sinclair‽

There can be no doubt that Peter Crouch’s goal against Man City on Saturday was something special. Goal of the season? Almost definitely, it was sublime. The best he’ll ever score in his career? Quite possibly but it is certainly not the first ‘wonder goal’ he’s ever scored.

*Click on the pic for a gif of the goal

This is mostly due to the fact that Crouch is something of a specialist when it comes to the holy grail of finishes: the overhead kick, memorably producing this piece of magic (or it’s close relation the scissor kick) for Liverpool in the Champions League against Galatasaray as well as against Bolton and even against current club Stoke City during his time at Portsmouth. (Just don’t mention the air shot against Egypt… Although on the topic of Crouch for England you should really read this piece: The Peter Crouch Myth by Liam Ferry.)

Limbs everywhere! (and Rigobert Song!!!)

Overhead kicks are simply excellent, they exist in a world parallel to all other types of goal requiring perfect technique, concentration and athleticism as well as confidence and audacity. (Not to mention the fact that they’re almost impossible to recreate on concrete playgrounds!)

The video linked to below (because they won’t let me embed it) contains not only Crouch but a selection of the very best overhead kicks ever scored such as a ludicrous goal from Mauro Bressan against Barcelona. Unsurprisingly many are the work of some of the greatest goalscorers the world has ever known such as a top corner finish from Van Basten or some unbelievable improvisation from Ronaldinho (less so from Zlatan…). I am a purest however: the ‘overhead’ kick is not in fact the pinnacle at all, what is even better is a true bicycle kick.

For this there are only a couple of contenders. Firstly Rivaldo’s flawless goal against Valencia, the work of a true Brazilian great but by setting himself up, however brilliantly, he detracts from the technique required for the bicycle kick itself.

This leaves the greatest overhead kick of all time…

Possibly the greatest goal ever…

as the work of one Trevor Sinclair of Queens Park Rangers (1996-1997 season)

Textbook execution. Outside the box. Take a bow son:

YouTube: Overhead Kicks – Some of the greatest and the best in the world of Football

(apologies in advance for the OC soundtrack)

1995/96 (QPR were relegated to Division 1 for 1996/97)

(For just the Sinclair goal, with a much more amusing Babylon Zoo soundtrack, click here)

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You just couldn’t write it: PSV vs Ajax 2006/07

It is 18th March 2007 (five years ago this Sunday) and as half time approaches Edgar Davids catches a volley so sweetly that it nearly knocks out Heurelho Gomes after rebounding off of the post. From the resulting corner Wesley Sneijder is able to cut inside from the wing and blast it past a probably still dazed Gomes to make it 0-2 to the away side in the derby.

Final score that day? PSV 1-5 Ajax!

It was drama topped spectacularly by the title race itself however between these two giants of Dutch football and Louis van Gaal’s AZ.

This was an Ajax squad featuring Stekelenburg, Stam, Vermaelen, Grygera, Heitinga, Emanuelson, Davids, Gabri, Sneijder, Babel and Huntelaar and even some fledgling performances from Gregory van der Wiel.

Ronald Koeman’s PSV meanwhile included the likes of Gomes, Alex, Reiziger, Salcido, Cocu, Afellay, Méndez, Farfán, Koné and Kluivert.

With one match to go, unbelievably, AZ, Ajax and PSV were all on 72 points. AZ had a Goal Difference of +53, Ajax +47 and PSV +46… (if you don’t know what happened you may want to watch the video below without reading any further down):

The final day would see AZ blow it by losing to relegation threatened Excelsior, Ajax poetically win 0-2 against Willem II meaning that PSV would have to have won their match against Vitesse Arnhem by 4 clear goals to have clinched the title. The score in that game? You guessed it: 5-1.

Phillip Cocu had scored the goal that won PSV the league whilst Edgar Davids would score the penalty that would win Ajax the Dutch Cup (against AZ). It was a fitting end for a generation of Dutch stars with Stam, Reiziger and Cocu retiring at the end of the season and Kluivert and Davids following suit shortly afterwards (if you ignore the Crystal Palace cameo) having amassed 393 caps between them for the Netherlands.

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Football Italia: The all-time XI British & Irish footballers to play in Italy

Originally posted on Mountain’s Blog

After sitting my finals, graduating and then going off on a hard earned holiday without a working laptop or blackberry, I have finally finished my new and long overdue blog post…

As mentioned in my earlier post on Ronaldo’s retirement, I was born in 1988 (’88/89 in football years) following football as a kid by collecting the Merlin Premier League Sticker albums (which were always better than the Panini ones in the 90s) and watching Match of the Day (which I had to record on VHS) but also by sitting down on a Sunday afternoon to watch Football Italia on Channel 4. As we never had Sky back then this meant that the majority of matches (i.e. not just the highlights) I initially watched as a kid were undoubtedly Serie A fixtures, which in turn led to my fondness of AC Milan with Baresi, Maldini and Costacurta although I also used to like Juventus, especially during the ’97/98 season when the combination of Del Piero, Inzaghi and Zidane was irresistible.

Football Italia, which began in 1992/93, worked not just because the new Premier League coverage was on Sky Sports and not everybody had a dish, or just because people wanted to know how England stars Paul Gascoigne, Des Walker and David Platt were getting on (although Gazza’s move had been the catalyst); Football Italia was also an excellent show right from the memorable opening sequence.

Following the English teams having been banned from European competitions, and before the new Premier League money had dramatically changed the face of England’s top tier, Italian football was also where the wealth and some of the world’s greatest talent was – from Baggio to Batistuta, all available on terrestrial and even delivered without what Martin Kelner describes as the “Partridge-esque” presenters UK audiences were used to. Kelner explains that:

Before Football Italia hit our screens in 1992, the small espresso was not Britain’s most popular beverage choice. But once James Richardson was seen sipping one on Channel 4 on a Saturday morning in Rome’s Piazza Della Rotunda, while translating chunks of La Gazzetta Dello Sport for us, strong Italian coffee in tiny cups became cool.

Football Italia turned a generation of English football fans onto Calcio (Italian football) who previously perhaps had little interest in or knowledge of foreign football, although for me it came part and parcel with learning about football as a kid – when I was booting my size 4 Puma King football at a wall pretending to score there was always a fairly good chance that I was pretending to be Fiorentina’s Rui Costa for example.

My interest was always therefore in English and Italian football as opposed to say Spanish. Many of the stars of Serie A subsequently came over to England such as Gullit, Vialli, Ravanelli, Di Canio, Zola and Desailly (even Dennis Bergkamp was signed from Inter) but it is also true that many players have left the British Isles to ply their trade in Italy long before Gascoigne as well as a handful since.

Most people have attempted to label our footballing exports to Italy as either hits or misses, ignoring the huge grey area in between. Even supposed textbook ‘misses’ such as Ian “It was like living in another country” Rush or Luther “You can’t seem to get Rice Krispies” Blissett are exaggerated; Rush didn’t do as horrendously as many believe and suggestions that Milan thought they were buying John Barnes instead of Blissett are unfair on the 1982/83 First Division top scorer. Instead, I have formed a team: a Gran Bretagna e Irlanda XI. Competition for some positions was fierce, others less so but here is the result…

Richardson Spensley

GK – James Richardson Spensley

Not to be confused with Football Italia’s legendary presenter James Richardson, Richardson Spensley was one of the fathers of Calcio. Able to play in defence or in goal, he helped form the footballing section of the Genoa Cricket & Athletic Club in 1897 making them one of the first football clubs in Italy alongside those from Turin. Crucially he also allowed Italians to join the expatriate club for the first time and was a key figure in the early organisation of the sport. In 1898 the first ever Italian Championship was held and Genoa, under the guidance of player-manager Richardson Spensley, were victorious. Genoa and Richardson Spensley would go on to win six of the first seven Italian Championships between 1898 and 1904, finishing runners up to Herbert Kilpin’s Milan in 1901.

 

Dorigo

LB – Tony Dorigo

Despite being born in Australia to an Italian father, Tony Dorigo has 15 caps for England and is best known for his time at Aston Villa, Chelsea and Leeds United where he was voted player of the year by fans at each club including the season when Leeds won the First Division Championship (the last one before the birth of the Premier League). Less well known by many is that he was also voted player of the year by fans of Torino FC during the 1997/98 season after he was signed by then manager Graeme Souness. Although in Serie B, Dorigo impressed in Italy at 31/32 years old and was one penalty shoot-out away from taking them into Serie A. Unfortunately he missed his penalty, Perugia were promoted and Torino remained in the second tier with Dorigo having to be let go for financial reasons. Interestingly, he had been linked with Bari at the same time as David Platt, which would have given him the opportunity to play top flight Italian football in what was perhaps his prime but the move never happened and we will never know what could have been.

 

Elliott

CB – Paul Elliott

Following spells in the First Division with Luton Town and Aston Villa, Elliott’s time in Italy is often regarded as something of a failure as he struggled with injuries over two seasons for Pisa making just 23 league appearances. He was, however, a hit with the fans and whilst they may not have seen the best of him his contributions were appreciated with Pisa successfully staying up in the 1987/88 season with a team that also featured Dunga. In 2010 whilst working as an ambassador for the ‘Hoof It!’ drink awareness campaign, Elliott named his first match for Pisa as one of his career highlights as he was marking Ruud Gullit only to get a dreadlock in the eye! (Milan won 1-3 with Gullit scoring in the 73rd min, Elliott was left with a bloodshot eye for a fortnight). He would go on to show his ability at Celtic and Chelsea before working as a pundit on Football Italia and receiving an MBE in 2003 for services to youth football and anti-racism initiatives.

 

Kilpin

CB – Herbert Kilpin

After playing as a defender and midfielder for Notts Olympic Kilpin’s work in the textile industry took him to Italy where he worked for Edoardo Bosio in 1891; the same year that Bosio founded Internazionale Torino, which is thought to be the first ever Italian football club. By playing for them Kilpin became the first ever Englishman to play abroad and went on to play in the first two Italian Championships finishing runners up to James Richardson Spensley’s Genoa both times. This was only the start of the Kilpin legend however as he had moved to Milan in 1897 and went on to found the Milan Foot-Ball & Cricket Club (later AC Milan) in 1899. It was he who designed the famous red and black striped kit stating that: “We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire and black to invoke fear in our opponents”. Over the following nine years Kilpin played in every position, was player-manager, captain and star player as he led Milan to the Italian Championship in 1901, 1906 and 1907. Although John Foot suggests that Kilpin would not have been one of England’s top players at the time, he is still revered as a hero in Italy and a father of Calcio: ‘the first true Milanista champion’.
(BBC Inside Out short documentary: Herbert Kilpin, Butcher’s boy to Italian legend – half way down page)

 

Marchi

RB – Tony Marchi

A wing-half by trade known for his versatility in defence and midfield, Marchi’s inclusion at right-back means I now have two full backs called Tony who are of Italian descent in what is in danger of sounding more like an episode of the Sopranos than a British and Irish XI. Best known as a member of Tottenham Hotspur’s double winning squad of 1960/61 and European Cup Winners’ Cup winning team in 1963 under Bill Nicholson, he actually had two spells with Spurs that were separated by two seasons in Italy. In 1957/58 Marchi appeared 30 times in Serie A for Vicenza, scoring 7 goals and helping them to a joint 7th place finish with Torino for whom he played in 1958/59 appearing 29 times and scoring 4 goals. Unfortunately Torino were to finish bottom that season but this spell in Italy along with his versatility are enough to secure his inclusion in this team.

 

Brady

LM – Liam Brady

Blessed with unbelievable craft and creativity, a sweet left foot (and a right foot most would have settled for!) as well as deceptive strength Brady is rightly remembered as an (if not the) Arsenal legend producing moments of pure magic such as his goal against Tottenham during a 5-0 drubbing just before Christmas in 1978 (I had to include that after mentioning the early sixties success enjoyed by Marchi at Spurs!). Perhaps impressed during Arsenal’s 2-1 aggregate victory over them in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Semi-Final in 1980, Juventus signed Brady for over £500,000 that summer. Having not won the Scudetto (Italian title) since the 1966/67 season, Juve won two in a row during Brady’s time at the Old Lady with the Irishman clinching the second in 1981/82 by calmly slotting a penalty against Catanzaro despite already knowing that his days at the club were numbered. Unfortunately for Brady the imminent purchase of Platini and Boniek with Italian clubs only being allowed to field two non-Italians meant that he had to move on having scored 15 goals in 76 appearances for Juve (they finished the following season 2nd, 4 points behind Roma). Two seasons at Sampdoria alongside Trevor Francis were followed by another two at Inter Milan, making over 50 appearances for each and scoring 11 Serie A goals. His time in Italy ended with a final season being spent with Ascoli. Although left out by Jack Charlton for Italia ’90, Brady had already had a successful Italian adventure of his own having spent as much time in Serie A as he had in the Arsenal first team.

 

Wilkins

CM – Ray Wilkins

The slightly deeper role in my central midfield pair was the most difficult to choose due to some close competition but in the end I opted for Ray Wilkins. His spell at AC Milan from 1984 to 1987 was described as “a period that coincided with a dip in the Italian giants’ fortunes” by Mark Lawford in his Daily Mail piece on the best and worst British footballers who’ve played in Italy, not implying that it was all his fault but highlighting that it was not one of the greatest periods of Milan’s glorious history and that Wilkins won nothing in three years at one of the biggest clubs in Italy. This view, held by many must however be placed into context. In 1980 the Totonero match fixing scandal saw Milan relegated to Serie B and although they were promoted, they lasted just one season in the top tier before returning to Serie B for 1982/83. Once again they were successfully gained promotion at the first time of asking with help from goals by Joe Jordan but it is this period of instability and yo-yo-ing that must be contrasted with Wilkins’ time at Milan, not the period of huge success that followed after Berlusconi had bought the club and opened the cheque book for his new manager the great Arrigo Sacchi.

Wilkins as a player deserves a re-evaluation also. Mocked as ‘the Crab’ for passing sideways by many throughout his career we now value patient build up play and intelligent retention of position. Indeed we value these so much that Xavi has built a reputation as one of the best players in the world on these basic principles receiving levels of praise usually reserved for flair attacking players such as his Barcelona team mate Lionel Messi. I am not saying that Ray Wilkins was the Xavi of the ’80s of course but as Ian Holloway says, he had “fantastic awareness”, “hardly ever wasted a pass” and kept “the ball ticking along all day”. It was this ability that allowed Wilkins to captain Chelsea at 18 years old as well as continue to play until he was 40 and it is easy to see why he took to Italian football, which he describes below (on Football Italia) as “more like a game of chess” in comparison to the English game. He made 73 appearances in Serie A for the Rossoneri, with Paolo Maldini making his debut the same year as Wilkins, incredibly Maldini would still be there when the next English midfielder, David Beckham, joined Milan 24 years later!

 

Platt

CM – David Platt

Platt gained his place on the plane to Italia ’90 on the back of being named PFA Player of the Year in an Aston Villa team that finished runners up in the First Division having made his England debut appropriately against Italy in November 1989. The World Cup saw him cement his already solid reputation at home on the biggest stage of all producing some fine displays including his memorable last gasp extra time volley against Belgium. Less well remembered is that he also scored in the third place playoff against Italy or that he also scored for Villa against Inter Milan in the second round of the UEFA Cup the following season. It is hardly surprising then that clubs such as Juventus became extremely interested in the England star but it was Bari who eventually secured his signature for £5.5m. Platt scored 11 goals from midfield in 1991/92 (the same as Vialli and Signori), a tremendous effort especially in a team that would be relegated. Having worked a clause into his contract that allowed him to move to another Italian club at the end of the season, Juventus finally got their man for £6.5m but due to injury ‘Il Tardelli di Chatterton‘ made only 16 appearances, picking up a UEFA Cup medal in the process. Moving again, this time for £5.2m to Sampdoria, Platt won the Italian Cup alongside the likes of Gullit, Mancini, Lombardo and Pagliuca and under the management of Sven Goran Eriksson in 1993/94. After a second season that began with Italian Super Cup victory, Platt left Italy to join Arsenal having made 55 appearances for Sampdoria scoring 17 goals. He would later return to Sampdoria for a short lived spell as manager and recently reunited with former team mate Roberto Mancini to become first-team coach of Man City.

 

Beckham

RM – David Beckham

Having already lost his England place under Steve McLaren in 2006, Beckham won it back under Fabio Capello, the man who had previously agreed to sell him from Real Madrid in January 2007 only to realise too late the quality that Beckham still had to offer as he contributed to Madrid being crowned champions. At the end of 2008 Beckham faced losing his England place again unless he was able to secure a loan move, preferably back to Europe, to play competitive football after his MLS season ended. He was already 33 years old and AC Milan’s decision to take him on a short term loan was a cynic’s dream, written off as a “a commercial thing” by John Foot before Beckham had even arrived in Italy. Encouraged by the geniuses at Milan Lab that he could play at least until the age of 38 if he looks after himself (the same geniuses who had Maldini and Costacurta playing until they were 41) Beckham became a regular fixture in the first team leading Milan to make enquiries about signing him permanently. Whilst this never happened, the mutually beneficial arrangement was repeated in 2010 only for Beckham to tear his Achilles tendon, ironically missing out on the World Cup that his loan move was supposed to make him available for. During his two spells at Milan Beckham made a total of 33 appearances in various competitions scoring twice and providing many assists.

 

Hitchens

ST – Gerry Hitchens

By 1961 Hitchens was a proven all-round First Division forward in his mid-twenties with Aston Villa who had earned himself an England call up. In his second cap he scored a brace in a 2-3 friendly win against Italy. Italian clubs at the time were extremely interested in investing in British talent after the huge impact John Charles had made at Juventus and so, impressed by his performance, Inter Milan signed Hitchens for £85,000 during the same summer that Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law and Joe Baker moved to Serie A as well. Unlike his fellow Brits however, none of whom lasted longer than a year, Hitchens carved out a career for himself abroad, scoring 17 goals in 39 appearances during his first year under legendary manager and disciplinarian Helenio Herrera. Despite likening leaving Herrrera’s regime to “coming out of the bloody army“, he remained in Italy moving to Torino where he would score a further 28 goals in 89 appearances and although he featured in the Mexico ’62 World Cup, his decision to remain abroad meant Alf Ramsey excluded him from his plans. Hitchens would therefore finish his career with 7 England caps and 5 goals. In 1965, at the age of 30 he moved to Atalanta and held his own for a further four years in Serie A, the final two being played at Cagliari. Tragically he died at just 48 whilst playing in a charity football match but his nine seasons in Serie A remain unsurpassed by any British or Irish player before or since.

 

Charles

ST – John Charles

The best has almost certainly been saved until last as the level to which John Charles is revered in Italy, especially by fans of Juventus, is hard to do justice in a couple of short paragraphs. In 1997 Charles was voted the greatest foreign player to ever play for Juve ahead of the likes of Platini, Hansen, Laudrup, Deschamps and Boniek, a quite extraordinary achievement for the modest Welshman. It was in 1957 that they landed their man from Leeds United for a world record transfer fee of £65,000 after previous interest from Real Madrid and Lazio had come to nothing. Whilst conducting a thorough medical the Juventus doctor stated that “Charles is the fittest man I know playing football, I have never seen a better human machine in a lifetime in medicine“. Former team mate Jack Charlton says that if you were picking the best team in world the first name would either be “John Charles centre-half or John Charles centre-forward, take your pick” but it was as a centre-forward that he would make his impact in Italy.

In 1956/57 Juventus finished joint 9th in Serie A just 4 points above the relegation places; in 1957/58 Charles scored 28 goals in 34 appearances in the league to see Juve crowned champions 8 points clear of second place. The King had arrived. Charles was prolific in Serie A despite the tough defensive football played there at the time winning the Scudetto on three occasions, and the Italian Cup twice over the course of five seasons where he scored a total of 93 goals in 155 appearances. After returning to Leeds United for just 91 days Charles moved to Roma for £70,000 during the 1962/63 season scoring a further 4 Serie A goals in 10 appearances. The man known as ‘Il Gigante Buono’ (the gentle/good giant) is rightly remembered as one of the greatest players and most devastating forwards of all time as well as a model example of professionalism and fair play famously having never received a card in his entire career.

 

Gran Bretagna e Irlanda XI

Certainly Hitchens, who is strong in the air and Charles, one of the greatest headers of the ball there has ever been would thrive on the world class deliveries available from either flank with Hitchens also on hand for any knock downs or loose balls as he was for his goal against Brazil at Mexico ’62. This team would not of course have to rely on crosses alone as the creative and technically gifted midfield should carve out plenty of chances and is full of goals but is also hard working and wouldn’t ignore their defensive responsibilities either. The defence itself is clearly less strong although Dorigo and Marchi will both offer an added attacking threat and Elliott is a solid marshall for my back four as long as he’s fit! Quite how Kilpin and Richardson Spensley would get on against the kind of quality of some of the other players is hard to say but that’s all part of the fun when making an all-time great team that spans nearly 120 years!

Subs: Des Walker, Paul Ince, Graeme Souness, Paul Gascoigne, Paddy Sloan, Trevor Francis, Mark Hateley.

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Il Fenomeno and Me (and perhaps you too)

Originally posted on Mountain’s Blog

I’ve been waiting for an excuse to start a blog for a little while now and whilst the debate about Wilshere’s role for England nearly stirred me out of inactivity and Arsenal’s dramatic victory against Barcelona could have had me writing, in the end it took something more poignant to inspire me. Something that takes me right back to my childhood: the recent retirement of a true footballing legend.

I was born in November 1988, and I don’t think it was until the 1994/95 season of the still young Premier League that I fully grasped professional football and made sure that I recorded Match of the Day onto my VHS tape to follow my beloved Arsenal to a 12th place finish with my favourite player Paul Merson going into rehab (the kind of introduction to football that could have come straight from the pages of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch). The world cup in the USA in 1994 came along just too early for me, my clearest memory of the tournament being that I owned a football that had “USA ’94” written on it as opposed to any of the competition itself.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, USA 1994 came along just too early for a 17 year old wonder-kid who had scored 12 goals in 14 appearances during his first season for Brazilian side Cruzeiro. Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, not yet known as simply ‘Ronaldo’, was named in Brazil’s squad for the tournament but unlike Pele who had starred in the 1958 world cup at the age of 17, Ronaldo did not play a single minute. Despite this, there was a huge amount of excitement about the youngster making a name for himself and after the World Cup he moved to Europe with PSV Eindhoven.

What this means of course is that Ronaldo’s career took off at the exact time that I become obsessed with football as a kid. For me there was no ‘before Ronaldo’. In his first season in Europe he scored 30 goals and in the 1996/97 season he was at Barcelona, scoring 47 goals in 49 games for them (one goal every other game is often used as the benchmark for a good return in the modern game), won the UEFA cup and had been named the Fifa World Player of the Year. He was 20 years old.

By the world cup in France in 1998 Ronaldo was widely regarded as the the best player in the world as well as being a household name. Now playing for Inter Milan, he had proved how deadly he could be in yet another top league receiving the nickname Il Fenomeno from the Italian press and had been a star for the Brazil national team for a couple of years. By the end of his career he would have 97 caps for his country, scoring 62 times.

The aura of the Brazil national team should not be overlooked as a factor in what made Ronaldo such an icon, especially to someone my age who was too young to remember the more pragmatic tactics employed by the side Dunga captained to victory at USA ’94. As Hugh McIlvanny said in his match report from the 1970 world cup final “Other teams thrill us and make us respect them. The Brazilians at their finest gave us pleasure so natural and deep as to be a vivid physical experience” (taken from Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid) This is the view popular culture still holds for them and at 9 years old I was either oblivious that this was not necessarily gospel or simply had no interest anything but that idealised view of futebol arte. Brazil was were Garrincha, Pele, Jairzinho, Zico and Socrates had come from and now (more importantly perhaps) they had Ronaldo as well as the likes of Romario and Roberto Carlos. They played in yellow shirts and blue shorts and they were magnificent.

The Ro-Ro strikeforce of Ronaldo and Romario, the star of the previous generation, had destroyed Australia in the final of the Confederations Cup of 1997, both men scoring hat-tricks in a 6-0 victory for example. This moment in the history of Ronaldo’s career and in my life will forever be immortalised in Nike’s France ’98 advert where they flaunt their samba skills in an airport, the first of the great Nike football adverts.

 

As it turned out, France ’98 would be a low point in Ronaldo’s career. After reaching the final, he apparently suffered some kind of fit before the game and was off the pace for the entire match; team mate Roberto Carlos claiming afterwards that he was far more worried about his friend’s health than the outcome of the final. France won 3-0. I lost no sleep about the result, France were the underdogs and Arsenal’s Emmanuel Petit who had helped us to win the Premier League and FA Cup double that year had scored the third.

The following season Ronaldo ruptured a tendon in his knee and was out for almost five months only to injure it again just seven minutes into his comeback game. After this, he was never the same player again, which when you consider what he achieved later seems ridiculous but that is just testament to how good he was to start with. In Japan/South Korea in 2002, sporting one of the strangest hairstyles ever seen, Ronaldo finally led Brazil to victory in the world cup, scoring 8 goals in the process. He scored against every team they played against except for England who were cruelly knocked out by a freakish free-kick by the new emerging star Ronaldinho (literally meaning ‘little Ronaldo’) which sailed over the head of Arsenal keeper David Seaman. I could have cried. (Debates about whether it was deliberate roll on to this day – given how good he turned out to be… it probably was.)

Ronaldo’s club career now took him to Real Madrid who were going out of their way to sign the best players in the world for their ‘Los Galacticos’ project including his Brazil team mate Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane (the only person to equal Ronaldo’s record of 3 Fifa Player of the Year awards) and eventually David Beckham.

It was in 2003 however, that something happened which blew me away. Manchester United, who were on course to catch Arsenal at the top of the Premier League that season (they succeeded), a team that much to my annoyance I was used to watching win week in week out had drawn Real Madrid in the Champions League, a competition United had won in 1999. It was a huge clash with Real Madrid winning the first leg 3-1 at the Bernabeu. The second leg at Old Trafford was one of the matches that I remember most vividly; United won 4-3 with two late David Beckham goals (still a United player at this point) but Ronaldo scored an exceptional hat-trick to single handedly knock United out (6-5 on aggregate). It was one of the greatest performances I had ever seen. “He’s unreal isn’t he?” exclaimed Ron Atkinson as Ronaldo’s third goal sailed in from distance whilst his commentary partner Clive Tyldesley observed that “He’s just the best player in the world, that’s what he is” as Ronaldo was substituted to a standing ovation from both sets of supporters late on in the game. Truly unbelievable.

In the 2003/04 season Ronaldo and Real Madrid were on course for a treble before injury ruled him out for the end of the campaign. Madrid ended up winning nothing despite all their other star players. Fitness concerns and weight issues meant that by 2006 his time at Madrid was coming to an end and perhaps so was his career at the very top. None of this however stopped Carlos Alberto Parreira, the manager who led Brazil to victory at USA 1994, from playing Ronaldo at the 2006 world cup in Germany, where he scored 3 times to beat the prolific German ’60s/70s striker Gerd Muller’s record of 14 world cup goals. Despite this, after the tournament Madrid signed Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo found himself surplus to requirements.

AC Milan would go on to sign him the following January, another huge club and incidentally my favourite Italian team. Whilst his time at AC Milan is not usually considered a huge success, he still managed to score 9 goals in 20 games and became the first person to score for both clubs in the Milan derby having scored for Inter against their city rivals 8 seasons earlier. Milan did not renew his contract however after he suffered yet another knee injury.

By 2008 Ronaldo was no longer world class, unfit and unwanted his career could have ended there. Even Ronaldinho, the young Brazilian player who burst on to the scene with the nickname ‘little Ronaldo’ before going on to become one of the world’s best players had seen his star fade by this point (ironically also moving to Milan as a result) and was being eclipsed by the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Fortunately, at the end of the year Ronaldo signed a contract with the Brazilian side Corinthians.

Making his debut in 2009 he won league and cup trophies in his first two seasons and appeared once again in continental competition, this time the Copa Libertadores. From 2010 he was joined by Roberto Carlos and to me it did not matter that Ronaldo looked more overweight than ever and had grown a bizarre light brown afro at one point or that Carlos was the wrong side of 35 years old; there they were, competing in the South American equivalent of the Champions League. Occasionally a youtube clip would find its way through to me of one of them scoring, for example Roberto Carlos scoring direct with the outside of his foot from a corner and Ronaldo running over to congratulate him.

All was right with the world. Everything made sense. That is until just over a week ago. Corinthians were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores and amid threats from angry fans Roberto Carlos left to play for Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia and Ronaldo announced in an emotional press conference that the injuries and fitness issues had finally caught up with him and that he was hanging up his boots for good. How was this possible? In the words of another great striker Gabriel Batistuta: “For me, Ronaldo is football“. Alessandro Del Piero meanwhile wrote on his official website that “His announcement struck me even if it didn’t surprise me” and I think that is the point that I am trying to make. He could not go on forever but to lose such an icon of the sport, a true great who achieved so much over so any years should give any fan of football pause for thought. This was a player who scored 247 league goals in 343 league appearances over 18 years, scoring near as makes no difference a goal a game at the highest level in his pomp. He gained almost a hundred caps for Brazil whilst playing for arguably the greatest teams in Europe: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and AC Milan. World cup record goalscorer and world cup winner. In many ways his record is untouchable and the scary thing is that were it not for the injuries he may have achieved much more!

If, like me, Ronaldo has also been there with you every step of the way as a football fan from USA ’94 to February 2011 then the news of his retirement should strike you all the more. Perhaps there are a group of people born around 1979 who felt the same way when Maldini retired but if you are around my age no player has defined the sport you love as much as Ronaldo.

Del Piero goes on to say:

Ronaldo was one of the players who I respected the most. What Ronaldo did will forever remain in the history of football and in the eyes of the people who love this sport, independently of the colour of their shirt, of their support, of the flags. Players like Ronaldo belong to everybody. It was touching to hear Ronaldo say, amid the tears, in his goodbye press conference the phrase ‘it’s like I am dying’ because the footballer Ronaldo won’t be there anymore. But luckily for him a new life starts now. Thanks for what you did on the pitch and for being a great opponent, Fenomeno.

Enjoy:

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