“It’s football, it’s not brain surgery. Have some fun.”
One of the proudest things about being a British sports fan is our unparalleled support no matter where in the world we are playing.
You can guarantee that Brits will travel to a sporting event en masse. We follow Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas, the European team in America for the Ryder Cup and the British Lions in the Southern Hemisphere. Whatever the weather, whatever the likely outcome, we’re there in droves. The most memorable of all was just a few months ago when the England cricket team recorded a historic Ashes win in Australia. Had it not been for the late night/early morning start and the glorious sunshine, you could have mistaken it for Lords because English fans had invaded. Patriotism has never been a characteristic I possess in any great abundance but there’s always an enormous sense of pride when I see such a large presence of British support.
So to see Wembley, the home of English football, infused with the culture of West Africa tonight was both surprising and awe-inspiring. The sheer number of Ghanaian supporters inside the stadium meant this could easily have been a home fixture for the Black Stars.
The concerns that the withdrawal of several of England’s more senior players would make this friendly even more redundant proved to be unfounded. As soon as I heard and saw the Ghanaian crowd, it was clear that this game would adopt an impetus.
It finished as an entertaining 1-1 draw and the game was played at a frenetic pace in an end-to-end environment. The passion and soul radiated down from the stands because Ghana played with the same intensity that made them so likeable in South Africa. Yes, there were times when that enthusiasm boiled over in the form of some rather choice tackles. But with a multitude of England players deeming this game expendable, it was encouraging to watch the Ghanaians play with real heart.
I have an apathetic attitude when it comes to international football, particularly mid-season friendlies. But I couldn’t help but be enthralled by this Ghana team. One player who captivated it all it was Asamoah Gyan. I’ve never seen a player treat an international friendly with such fervour. His goal at the end and the ensuing celebrations summed it all up. It could be a meaningless friendly in England or a World Cup quarter-final in South Africa; Ghana will always play with energy, passion and most of all, with a smile on their faces.
In the aftermath, the ITV cameras were greeted by a beaming Fabio Capello. The hard-nosed exterior was cast-aside as he joyfully waxed lyrical about the performance he had just witnessed. He may carry the demeanour of a deadly serious, no-fun type manager but we were reminded here that like us, he too can be an excitable fan.
We scrutinise over the game and spend countless hours debating its various nuances so it’s refreshing to reflect by just enjoying the spectacle. For once after an England game, Twitter wasn’t awash with comments on team selection and tactics. Instead we were united under an umbrella of appreciation for the game we’d just witnessed. So for that, thank you Ghana.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn
“Communication is the real work of leadership”
I don’t envy Fabio Capello some times. Picking an England captain should be a rudimentary decision. It should also be irrelevant. Yet we seem to hold the title in the highest esteem in this country and so handling it with such colossal thoughtlessness was not Don Fabio’s wisest move.
The armband and title are merely superficial. In fact, were England’s senior players not a collection of wholly uncouth morons, it would probably matter even less. It is just a title to appease the media hoards who want a figurehead to speak to and a scapegoat to hold accountable when, always inevitably in England’s case, the latest crisis rears its head.
The title of captain is one which John Terry clearly relishes. It may in part be egotistical but it’s more that possessing the armband shows that others appreciate his more endearing qualities. Terry is a leader; he is an organiser and a very good one at that. This season he’s performed magnificently at times in what has proven a difficult period for Chelsea. He also has an excellent injury and disciplinary record and is very committed to playing for his country.
Strip away the personality and the misdemeanours and you have a perfectly adequate candidate. Of course, that’s hard to ignore.
But Terry’s biggest faux pas and the reason why he shouldn’t be within a country mile of the captaincy dates back to a press conference he held back in South Africa. What he said on the record (we can only assume that what was said off it was an even more damning indictment of the Capello regime) completely undermined the Italian. He questioned his tactics, his methods, his team selection, all at a time when England needed to rally behind their manager the most.
Handing him back the captaincy is one thing but the manner in which Capello has handled it is a more worrying one which highlights his most underlying flaw. Rio Ferdinand’s continually sporadic England appearances should result in a charging of the guard if not on a permanent basis then at least a temporary one. But instead of a quiet word in Ferdinand’s ear explaining the decision we had Chinese whispers, we had a reportedly disgruntled Ferdinand who was blissfully unaware of Capello’s thoughts. Capello’s biggest drawback was highlighted once again. He is completely distant from his team. He doesn’t communicate with those in the camp frequently enough.
It is not, as some of his naysayers claim, to do with his grasp of the language. There are a growing number of problems Capello has caused himself simply by ignoring one of the most fundamental managerial qualities; communication.
Ferdinand should have heard from Capello, not the media, that he was to lose the armband. The goalkeepers should have been informed of who would start in South Africa well in advance rather than a day before. If he wanted to recruit Paul Scholes, he should, as Scholes alluded to, have called the Manchester United midfielder much earlier. Then there was the awkward Community Shield moment when Michael Carrick, who Capello had presumed unfit, strode past the bewildered Italian to collect his medal.
Communication is vital. It is important not just to gauge the opinions and thoughts of your players but also in commanding respect from all involved.
Was there any uproar and upheaval when Rio lost the captain’s armband to Nemanja Vidic? No, because Alex Ferguson communicates with his players. As a result they respect him and they respect his decisions.
The England captaincy shouldn’t have been an issue but the cloak and dagger stuff that has surrounded Terry’s reappointment has soured what should have been a positive week for England. I think that people are overly critical of Capello but he has to start communicating better with his players to ensure he doesn’t contribute to his own downfall any more.
This is a classic example. Moreover, how can Capello expect to command the respect and discipline he yearns for when he promotes the one man who so publically challenged his methods? By handing Terry the captain’s armband, Capello has handed over the keys of the asylum to the lunatics.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn
By Tom Victor
This is the first international match in our series and what a corker it is. A fary cry from the tedious tripe which was all too prevalent in South Africa, this one is a thrilling end-to-end affair. Admire the moves, the goals and some world-class saves from a match which literally had everything. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tomvictor and read more of his work at his Footy Matters column.
I have maintained for some time that the bulk of the criticism levelled at the 2010 World Cup came from the fact that we were spoiled so much by the three major tournaments which preceded it. Euro 2008 had the thrilling semi-final between Germany and Turkey, while two years earlier Jose Pekerman’s Argentina gave a footballing lesson to Serbia and Montenegro in one of the best attacking displays in recent memory. And these competitions were by no means defined by those single matches alone: in Germany and just across the border in Austria and Switzerland we saw a month-long display of top quality football, dismissing the myths that international tournaments did not represent the highest stage for a whole host of players.
2006 and 2008 were brilliant, but you have to go back a little further to find my favourite match.
A truly great game should be played out at breakneck speed, involve two well-matched teams without the rivals cancelling each other out, have controversial talking points, not to mention plenty of goalmouth action of the highest quality. Czech Republic v Holland at Euro 2004 had all of this and more.
After one match in the group of death, the Czechs had edged past outsiders Latvia while a late Ruud van Nistelrooy equaliser helped rescue a point for Dick Advocaat’s side against a Germany side for whom that 1-1 draw would prove a high-point.
Karel Bruckner’s squad took on the mantle of dark horses despite most observers beyond the mainstream media recognising them as far more than that. Jan Koller had finished the season with his best ever Bundesliga tally of 16 goals, Karel Poborsky was enjoying a renaissance at Sparta Prague, and Pavel Nedved was playing some of the best football of his career. There was also an intriguing side-plot set to develop, with Petr Cech lining up against Arjen Robben. The duo were set to join Chelsea after the competition as a parting gift from Claudio Ranieri, and their performances here would give a taste of things to come for the future English champions.
The Dutch may have lost out to Bruckner’s men in qualification, earning the Czechs a modicum of revenge for their Euro 2000 defear but a 6-1 playoff victory over Scotland demonstrated that there were goals in this side. Ruud van Nistelrooy had found the net 30 times for Manchester United in the season prior, and he was flanked by Robben and Internazionale winger Andy van der Meyde in an exciting front three.
The Czechs will have been well aware of their opponents’ firepower, but could hardly have expected the Oranje to get off to as fast and clinical a start as they did. Koller and Marek Jankulovski had already had time to miss a couple of presentable chances before Robben’s 4th-minute free-kick was headed in at the back post by an unmarked Wilfried Bouma.
And almost before their shell-shocked opponenents had time to settle, a controversial second followed. Van Nistelrooy was clearly beyond the last Czech defender when Edgar Davids found Robben with a precision through-ball, but took full advantage of the newly-implemented ‘separate phases’ element to the offside rule and ambled forward to tuck home his team-mate’s low cross as static defenders looked on dumbfounded.
Many teams might have given up when trailing the Dutch by two goals not twenty minutes into the game, opting for damage-limitation ahead of a winnable third tie against an aging German side, but the Czechs were in the mood for no such thing. Indeed the sense of injustice brought on by van Nistelrooy’s goal – whether warranted or not – may have been just what they needed to wake from their slumber.
Of course the comeback was helped by a misplaced pass from Gio van Bronckhorst a couple of minutes later. That error let in Milan Baros, the archetype of a player who saves his best performances for the big occasions, burst forward before keeping his cool with Edwin van der Sar closing in to feed Koller, and the lumbering striker slotted home to halve the deficit.
Some stunning saves from van der Sar and Cech followed, as both defences appeared to sit back and admire their respective opponents’ attacking flair, the pick of them from the former Rennes number one to tip over Johnny Heitinga’s rising 30-yard effort. There was even time for Davids to smack a low shot against the inside of Cech’s left-hand post before the half was up.
After the break Cech kept his side in it once more, denying van Nistelrooy with his feet, while at the other end Nedved and Poborsky were plugging away with plenty of skill but little reward. Not long later it was van der Sar’s turn, preventing a near-certain equaliser from Vladimir Smicer with a fingertip save. The two goalkeepers were as flamboyant as they were busy, and it would clearly take something special to add to the three goals the game had brought so far.
That special moment arrived with 20 minutes left on the clock, and epitomised everything Bruckner’s Czech Republic side were about. Nedved cut inside from the left to swing in an inch-perfect cross, Koller played a cushioned chest-pass of which Ronaldinho would be proud. It fell perfectly for the advancing Baros and the Liverpool striker rifled a shot into the top corner with such ferocity that even a parked bus could not have stopped it.
Even with the score tantalisingly poised at 2-2, tension was never going to overcome these two attacking powerhouses. A game of chicken ensued, with neither side prepared to sit back and let the opposition come on to them, which of course was an absolute treat to everyone watching.
The pace was too much for Heitinga, who picked up his second yellow for a shove on Nedved as the winger burst forward, after which the Dutch threat was restricted somewhat and the Juve man came inches away from a winner when his 35-yard shot came back off the woodwork, but it took until the 88th minute for the dramatic winner which a game of this calibre richly deserved.
Van Bronckhorst surrendered possession in the Czech half, setting up a lightning break made even more remarkable by the energy-sapping 87 minutes which had come before it. Marek Heinz’s low shot towards the bottom corner was parried out as far as Poborsky, who proceeded to demonstrate the phenomenal calmness under pressure which saw him net the goal of the tournament at Euro 96 and a £4m move to Old Trafford that same summer.
With the winger five yards from goal and with a chance of glory, it would have been easy for Poborsky to close his eyes and hope his effort snuck past the advancing van der Sar. However, with the Dutch goalkeeper rising from sleeping lion to Schmeichel-esque star-jump in a split second, the veteran looked up and calmly squared the ball for Smicer to tap into the empty net.
The final whistle was greeted by tears of joy for the Czechs, dumbfounded shakes of the head from the Dutch, and a realisation from fans and neutrals alike that they had witnessed one of the greatest games in European Championship – if not football – history.
The statistics do not lie: 36 shots, 21 on target, and 90 minutes of end-to-end football. It was not just the excitement which makes this such a memorable game, but also the consistently-high level of football which has rarely been matched before or since.
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.
By Callum O”Toole
This one will probably be the most recent game featured in the series but it’s likely that it’ll be talked about for years and Callum was fortunate enough to be there. One of if not the greatest club side of all time were taking on a Real Madrid side swamped with talent. Featuring were a dozen World Cup winners , the winners of the previous two World Player of the Year awards and the world’s most expensive player. Then there was the added factor of one Jose Mourinho. But it was Barcelona who lived up to the hype. You can follow Callum on Twitter @cotoole17 and read more of his articles on Bleacher Report.
Drama or excellence? Sport throws up many questions like this, not least in its modern form where administrators and organisers frequently refer to matches as “entertainment”. Contrary to popular belief, sport is not a part of the entertainment industry. Sportsmen should not aspire to be entertainers, but to achieve the ultimate expression of their event – to be the incarnation of greatness for their sport. If this can be done in a dramatic fashion, like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal so often achieve, then it is an added bonus. Yet, often, to achieve so highly necessitates the suspension of drama, as opponents are swept aside in a predictable, almost inevitable fashion.
I was fortunate enough to have been present in the Nou Camp on Monday, 29th November 2010, when Barcelona gave, arguably, the most complete single performance in the history of football, in El Gran Clasico against their great rivals Real Madrid. While there have been more significant performances before, notably Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Final and AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final, these are set in the context of their achievements. Both these sides played brilliantly, and the performances were greater in that they won trophies as a result. But in terms of the highest expression of their sport, they fell just short. What Barcelona provided was a near flawless display of footballing prowess in the biggest club game in the world.
Prior to the game the excitement was tangible, and it was being billed as the greatest club game in history. Twelve world cup winners were to make an appearance as were the previous two winners of the Ballon d’Or (and the winner before that, Kaka, only missed out through injury). The clash between the two dominant sides in Spain often decides the title, so there was also a significant prize to be had. A tight, unpredictable affair was expected. What we got was a sumptuous showcase of footballing prowess from Barcelona, who demolished their rivals 5-0 in front of an ecstatic Camp Nou faithful.
It was not just the margin of victory which shocked that night, but the way the Catalans set about their task. There have been big wins in El Clasico before – two seasons ago Barca scored six in the Bernabeu on their way to a 19th La Liga title, while Real had a 4-1 victory in the May 2008 fixture. What was striking was how Barcelona made their opponents submit to the inevitability of defeat by keeping possession and forcing Madrid to chase shadows.
Barcelona’s style is a subtle mix of fast-paced possession football when attacking, and a highly organised pressing game when without the ball. The two often complement each other beautifully, and they were used to devastating effect as Real were penned back in their own half for long periods. The Madrid attacking threat was virtually non-existent, with Cristiano Ronaldo starved of service and brilliantly shackled by Carles Puyol. Until his half-time substitution most in the stadium were unaware of Karim Benzema’s presence on the pitch.
Barcelona had the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. They weaved, they shimmied, they toyed. Xavi Hernandez was metronomic with his passing, Lionel Messi balletic with his runs and David Villa lethal in scoring a brace. But the game was about far more than mere individuals. Barcelona’s enchanting display was as close to perfection as team sport can be and it may influence the way the game is played in the future.
The performance, and the success of Barcelona and the Spanish national side in recent seasons, has shifted the balance of football heavily in favour of the technicians. For the last few seasons, many sides have attempted to compensate for a lack of skill and guile with physical power. But Barca’s dedication to their traditions has made other clubs take note of the benefits from youth development and attacking football.
Barcelona’s artistry and invention are means to an end. They are not the end in itself, just what the club regard as the most reliable and effective way of achieving victory. Without the success they would be dismissed as “lightweight” as their imitators at Arsenal so often are. Yet results like that against Madrid help to shape the views of a generation. No one watching could deny Barcelona’s prowess and dominance of the game, yet they also thrilled with their mesmeric patterns.
So, while it was not dramatic in the sense of being a one sided game, Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid was exciting nonetheless as it could, perhaps, have heralded a revolution in how the game is played for the next decade.
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.
By Johnny Utah
Johnny’s favourite match is more of a favourite tie as it encompasses the two fixtures between Rangers and Leeds back in Europe in 1992. Cross border affairs have always been intriguing encounters and this one lived up to the hype. The gap may have closed considerably in recent years with the quality of the SPL deteiriorating but this fixture showed just how strong Rangers were at the time. They defeated Leeds twice and the two goals they scored at Elland Road were particularly impressive. You can follow Johnny on Twitter @JohnnyUtah100.
1992 was the year of the inaugural Champions League. The ban on English sides (bar Liverpool) from European competitions had only been lifted the previous year so when the English and Scottish champions were paired in the final knockout round, the excitement was palpable.
Leeds’ passage to this game had been controversial. Having lost the first leg to German champions VfB Stuttgart 3-0, they returned to Elland Road to win the second leg 4-1.However, with away goals deciding the victors, Leeds were out. There would be no English representative in the revamped, flagship, European competition.
As it transpired, Stuttgart were found to have fielded an ineligible player (a 4th foreigner) and UEFA, rather leniently, decided a play-off would be necessary to decide who progressed. Leeds duly, and rightly, won this 2-1.
The last winners of the old First Division, Leeds Utd, were a typically swaggering side with a blend of brute strength (Chapman, Whyte, Dorigo) and cunning guile (Strachan, McAllister, Speed & Cantona).
The winner, by decree of the tabloid press, would be crowned ‘Champions of Britain’. The fervour was stoked further by the amount of English players in the Rangers side (Hateley, Spackman, Steven & Gordon) and the Scottish central midfield duo (Strachan & McAllister) for Leeds. Forget qualification for the next round, there was something much bigger at stake here – national pride.
Generally, those in the media were of the opinion that it would be a close tie but that Leeds’ superior abilities would see them through. However, they had not reckoned on a Rangers team that was playing at the peak of it’s powers and in Ally McCoist and Mark Hateley, they had a front two that was genuinely among the best in the world. Hard to believe, when you look at the dross served up in the SPL these days, but true.
Travelling fans were to be banned from the respective games in a bid to avoid the potential/inevitable hooliganism problem so when McAllister scored a raking, top-corner volley in the second minute of the 1st leg, Ibrox fell eerily silent. Those in the front row seats would probably have been able to hear the first part of McCoist’s fabled anecdote when MacAllister, allegedly, muttered “How about that for a wee strike then?” as he patted his Scotland team mate, McCoist, on the backside and trotted off to the halfway line.
To turn the game around from the initial deficit was impressive but the away goal had galvanised Leeds and the English press. Plucky, lucky Rangers, minus any support, going to Elland Road and qualifying simply was not going to happen.
As is often the case, the merits of winning regularly, regardless of the standard of opposition, were underestimated by those commentating on the game. Rangers had dominated Scottish football for 5 years now and were not used to losing. The mentality of succeeding against the odds was ingrained into them by two typically hard Scots: initially Graeme Souness and then reinforced by Walter Smith.
The partisan nature of the Elland Road crowd was also something that was over-played. On your average trip to Pittodrie, Celtic Park, Tynecastle or Easter Road, the levels of vitriol spewed at Rangers betrayed the volume of the crowds. The Rangers players were well versed in being hated – indeed, you suspect that they thrived on it.
So, to Elland Road. The odds were stacked against Rangers but the feeling north of the border was that this team was being vastly underrated potentially to Leeds peril.
The game started at a predictably frantic pace and, after a few misplaced passes, the ball was in the hands of Rangers greatest ever keeper, Andy Goram.
Taking his customary three bounces of the ball first, he launched a kick over the Leeds midfield where it was flicked on by Durrant. Still, it wasn’t a great touch and Hateley gave chase towards the corner of the Leeds penalty area. The sensible thing to do would have been to take a touch and, using his fearsome strength, hold the ball up and wait for support.
‘Attila The Hun’ as he was affectionately known, had other ideas. As the ball bounced up he launched a ferocious left foot volley into the top corner of the net. There was simply nothing that Lukic could’ve done to stop it. Just like the first leg, the crowd fell silent. Their away goal advantage had evaporated within a minute of kick off and Leeds were 3-1 down overall.
What followed was not for the purist. This was a very British affair with plenty of endeavour but only a few sparks of creativity, mostly from the precocious Cantona. Rangers sat in and doggedly defended their lead.
Riding their luck and hemmed in for a fair percentage of the game, from nothing they scored my favourite Rangers goal of all time. Favourite game, favourite strike-force and favourite goal – the perfect triumvirate!
With Leeds playing passes around the edge of the Rangers box, John Brown nicked the ball off the toes of a Leeds player. He passed the ball to Hateley who dummied it and let it run to the halfway line where Durrant picked it up. Durrant then fed Hateley who had continued his run.
Similarly to the first goal, he took the ball to the lefthand side of the Leeds box. Again, it looked like he’d taken it too wide but he preceded to whip his left foot around the ball and sling in an inviting cross to the back post for the on-rushing Ally McCoist. Hateley couldn’t have known McCoist would be there though…surely. Could he?
Although not renowned for his heading ability, ‘Coisty threw himself at the cross and guided a lovely diving header into the opposite corner of the net. As he celebrated with gusto, falling to his knees awaiting the acclaim, Leeds and their fans realised that the tie was over. The counter attack wasn’t particularly swift (by today’s standards) but the simplicity, accuracy and clinical nature of it was astonishing and crushing for Leeds. Scotland had beaten England in their own backyard.
As the conclusion of McCoist’s story goes, on his way back to the Rangers half, he ran past Gary McAllister, patted him on the backside and said “How about that for a wee header then?” Leeds scored a consolation goal later on but their spirit was broken. Rangers won the tie and ended up unbeaten in their group, finishing second to eventual winners Marseille.
I doubt I’ll ever forget this game. It still gives me goosebumps and makes me yearn for those halcyon days once again.
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more
“I love playing football but I think I am like everyone else, I hate losing and love winning. And if the time comes when I am not disappointed when things are not going right, that’s when people should worry”
The fallout from last night’s pulsating clash between Chelsea and Manchester United centred on the actions of David Luiz, Chris Smalling and Yuri Zhirkov. But it was the manner of the brash and bold performance of Wayne Rooney which really stood out.
Rooney had been the subject of considerable debate before the game after his callous elbow against Wigan went unpunished. He could consider himself very fortunate to be playing against Chelsea but his performance, particularly in the first period didn’t disappoint.
Rooney looked sharp and hungry. He drove at defenders with the ball, he brought others into play and with Javier Hernandez playing further ahead of him he dropped into some excellent positions. But it was Rooney’s attitude which was even more encouraging.
The passion and the fire were clearly evident. Remonstrating with referees, harrying defenders and becoming exasperated at colleagues, this was the Rooney of old.
If one moment summarised exactly that it was during the second half when he over-hit a crucial pass to Hernandez. Two or three months ago Rooney would have turned around, shoulders slumped and disappeared. But this time the frustration was visible, Sir Alex Ferguson himself probably afforded himself a wry smile.
It’s been a difficult year for Rooney and he has ultimately contributed to his own downfall but Ferguson’s decision to stick by his striker shows how important he remains.
Strikers can dip in and out of form more than most players due to a heavy reliance on goals. But Rooney’s always had more in his locker than just hitting the back of the net. That’s what made his slump in form all the more alarming.
Take Fernando Torres another striker suffering a difficult time. He currently plays with a demeanor which suggests the world is weighing him down. But even he’s at his electrifying best, Torres can drift in and out of games showing little in the way of emotion. He doesn’t radiate the same passion that characterises Rooney’s game.
Many thought the magnificent strike against Manchester City would mark the turning point in Rooney’s fortunes and certainly his form seems to have picked up as a result.
The goals may be slowly returning but it’s the fire inside of him which will really determine if Rooney is getting out of this lengthy rut. Amid all the disappointment and finger pointing which United will no doubt indulge in, Rooney’s performance could be a shining light. A reinvigorated Rooney will be pivotal to United’s final push this season. And next up for the fired up scouser, it’s Liverpool.