The Dutch club’s most famous son has come back, but will his famously huge ego get in the way of success?
Johan Cruyff’s name is synonymous with Ajax. After all, the Dutch club’s two most successful periods began with Cruyff at the centre - as a player between 1964 and 1973 and then as manager between 1985 and 1987.
After a 23-year hiatus, the Dutch genius has finally taken up a formal role at Ajax by joining the club’s new supervisory board. Cruyff will oversee the restructuring of the club’s famous youth system and he will be integral to any policymaking. The new board also includes former Ajax and Juventus pitbull, Edgar Davids.
The return of El Salvador, as Cruyff was nicknamed when he played for Barcelona, has got the fans excited, but it has also caused tensions. During the initial talks earlier this year, Cruyff employed a new agent, after which the tone of his long-running attacks on the Ajax board worsened. The situation reached a climax in March when the Ajax board resigned, furious at Cruyff’s confrontational and brusque manner when trying to push through his desired changes. These included sacking several youth coaches, including academy director Jan Olde Riekerink, and replacing them with former players, something that would have cost over a million pounds in compensation.
The outgoing chairman, Uri Coronel, claimed to have saved every rude voicemail message he had received from Cruyff and to have recorded the proceedings of all their meetings. But it was impossible for Coronel and the rest of the supervisory board to remain when it emerged that they had conducted a smear campaign against Dennis Bergkamp, the Ajax legend whom Cruyff envisioned as academy director. Stories insinuating that Bergkamp, a Cruyff protégé, was mentally unfit for the role had been leaked to the press.
Coronel and his fellow board members were predominantly from the business world. They hardly stood a chance in winning a PR war against Dutch football’s most famous legend. Yet last month, Coronel couldn’t resist one last dig at Cruyff: ‘I’ve not seen him here since March. But it’s perhaps wise that I have nothing to add.’ Cruyff was conspicuously absent at the announcement of the new supervisory board at the Special Shareholders General Meeting. Coronel also warned that ‘the club is greater than the individual’ - an obvious reference to the massive Cruyffian shadow that hangs over the philosophy of Holland’s most successful club.
Cruyff is no stranger to controversy. In David Winner’s fantastic portrait of Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, Johnny Rep reflects on Cruyff’s influence during Ajax’s most successful period (1966-73), when they won six league titles and three European Cups in just seven years. Rep, who broke into the team in 1972, reflected on Cruyff’s famously big ego, which saw him lose the captaincy in 1973 to Piet Keizer: ‘It was not easy, not all the time. He said you must do this in a game, or you must do that. It was not easy for me to shut my mouth. He was always saying: more to the right, or to the left, or the centre. Always! If he gave a bad ball, it was not his fault. And he is always right! He is the best and all the time he is right. That was the problem with him for me.’
It’s become a tradition in England to sneer at clubs that have taken on foreign investment, such as Manchester City and Chelsea. City have won the FA Cup since being taken over by Abu Dhabi in 2008, while Chelsea have picked up three titles and several other domestic cups since the Russian Roman Abramovich assumed control in 2003. With both owners pumping close to a billion pounds each into their respective sides, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has dismissed such investment as ‘financial doping’.
It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that pumping cash into such clubs has a greater effect in the English Premier League, where the wealth distribution from television deals is more evenly spread than elsewhere in Europe. With the UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules starting to kick in, however, perhaps this financial doping won’t be as effective in the future. Although this does look unlikely given Manchester City’s attempts to circumvent the financial restrictions.
While major monetary investment is more likely to reap rewards in the Premier League (when attempted sensibly, that is – see Portsmouth, West Ham and others are examples of how it can go badly wrong), it seems that in Spain’s La Liga, it could be the only way to break the eternal duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The exception was Rafael Benitez’s fantastic Valencia side, which won the title in 2002 and 2004.
Now, however, it seems almost unthinkable for a side other than the aforementioned duo to win the Spanish title. A large part of the Real-Barca dominance is due to the fact that 49 per cent of the television money is split between the two. The other 18 sides have to divvy up the remaining 51 per cent among them. In the modern game, it would be foolish to think sporting dominance isn’t supported by financial strength.
That is why the goings on at Malaga are intriguing. Bought last summer by Qatari sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani for €36million (a price including the club’s debt), Malaga are laying the early foundations for a sustained challenge to the dominant duo.
First, the UAE footballer Awana Diab, who scored with a back-heeled penalty against Lebanon, was threatened with punishment for his creativity. Then, Manchester City’s Italian wild-child Mario Balotelli was hauled off by his manager Roberto Mancini for attempting a back-heeled finish when one-on-one against the goalkeeper. Diab was also substituted soon after his apparent crime.
This begs the question: is footballing innovation in danger of being classed as disrespect? Diab’s penalty was taken when the UAE were ahead by several goals. If anything, serious questions should be asked of the goalkeeper, who failed to react to a pretty poorly executed backheel, which lacked any pace or power. In fact, Roma legend Francesco Totti, attempted a much better one, albeit in training.
As for Balotelli’s finish, it’s clear that he would be lauded if he had pulled it off. Failure to execute the trick properly is his only crime, in my opinion. The context in which this back-heel was attempted is important to consider before we decide to berate the Italian and label him ‘troubled’. There are suggestions that the young striker felt he was offside, hence the nonchalant, unorthodox finish. It happened in a pre-season friendly against LA Galaxy, where the optimization of fitness is the most important thing, the result is completely irrelevant.
Amateur psychologists among us could even argue that Mancini felt pressure to act strongly in a public sphere against any critics, much like Phil Brown’s infamous half-time team-talk at Hull. For, it was he who brought Balotelli from Inter Milan last summer. It was under his management when Balotelli accumulated more cards than goals last season.
So by hauling off the youngster, and bringing on James Milner, a player devoid of any flair but always a hard worker, Mancini moved dangerously close to becoming the Italian catenaccio-worshipping managerial stereotype, rather than the brilliant striker who used to scored goals with the very flair and innovation he punished his own player for exhibiting.
Cutting down the late Ayrton Senna’s achievements at the pinnacle of motor racing into a 90-minute film was never going to be easy. There were around 15,000 hours worth of archive footage of the legendary Brazilian driver to use. Kapadia notes in a recent interview that ‘it took us four years’ to find the right combination of footage to represent Senna’s 10-year career in Formula One.
The extensive footage of F1, a sport saturated with television coverage, spliced with home-movie images of Senna with his family, provides a touching portrayal of the various aspects of Senna: driver, national hero, winner, philanthropist, family man.
The film begins at the scene of one of Senna’s finest drives, for the unheralded Toleman team at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. This performance, in only his sixth Grand Prix, typified his general brilliance in rainy conditions; he was only denied victory because the race was stopped due to torrential rain.
Kapadia swiftly passes over Senna’s development as a youthful kart driver back in his native Brazil, along with his exploits in Formula Three. Instead, the central narrative of Kapadia’s work is the rivalry between Senna and the four-time F1 winner, Frenchman Alain Prost.
There are touching moments between the two, who were team-mates at McLaren for two years during the 1988 and 1989 seasons. An early exchange between the two would fall under that much-despised term ‘banter’, though there is an underlying competitive tension in their words. Prost asks his team-mate, ‘Is it possible to be equal?’ to which Senna replies ‘No’. Prost amusingly concludes: ‘Shit.’
Yet, after spending so much time creating this piece, there is bound to be a partisanship from Kapadia towards Senna, with the dramatic arc seeming to cast Prost, almost unfairly, as the villain to Senna’s heroic protagonist in a simplistic representation of both drivers. Furthermore, the accusation that Prost was in bed with Jean-Marie Balestre - the French president of FIA, Formula One’s governing body - is disappointingly repeated by Kapadia. Whatever the relationship between the two may have been, Senna’s disdain for the politics that have engulfed F1 is made clear.
LiberoFootball’s Greg Cross with another hilarious extract from his imagining of Phil Brown’s diary:
(20/05/2011) The Year of Our Lord, 2011.
I await the endless, consuming blackness which is explicitly twinned in glorious juxtaposition of ecstacy that comes with autoerotic asphyxiation. I am strung up, bound, helpless, awaiting my end, my North End, in Big Sam’s ‘Kloomph’ Ikea wardrobe. In tasteful ‘birch’. Preston are down. My reputation, so highly thought of, shot to shit. Shot to the very same faecal matter that lines this festering wardrobe, where I have been since my boys, my Preston boys, dropped me in the brown stuff.
The belt, the belt that was to end it all, slipped off my neck two Saturdays ago. It lies on the wardrobe floor, coated in my own filth, my fetid, squalid filth.
The ‘Thirst Aid’ cap that Mrs Brown bought me back from her travels to Bangkok last year has long been drained of its life-sustaining ‘Um Bongo’.
The ‘Trio’ bars that I found lodged in the back of this wardrobe (sell-by-date, June 1992) long since eaten.
My ‘Bluetooth’ earpiece is dangling from my ear. I can hear Big Sam, downstairs, on his, ordering a pineapple and ham pizza. The sick bastard. The sick, naked, watching ‘Air Wolf’ handsome bastard. I’m upstairs, awaiting release. Release from relegation. Release from unannounced cameo appearences on ‘MOTD2′ and release from the cheap sodding market bought crap red braces that are hanging me like a naked, orange tinged Marionette puppet from Big Sam’s hanger bar.
I don’t want the blackness now. I want promotion. I want to taste the glory again. I want my Preston North End. I want to sign ageing veteran players and take credit for their skill, I want to see Big Sam, doing the ‘Snoopy Dance’ when his latest Amazon purchase slides through the letter box, I want to leer like ‘Hannibal Lecter’ at Kelly Cates next time I am on ‘Talk of the Terrace’, I want to wear a pink cashmere sweater around my neck like a young James Van Der Beek, and I want to sing ‘The Beach Boys’ to my adoring public just one more time.
Cut me down Sam. Cut me down and allow me to be your wingman; you be ‘Maverick’ and I’ll be ‘Goose’. Or ‘Merlin’, depending on my moustache status.’
Which team can score a goal in the 97th minute, only for there to remain doubts in the supporters’ minds of the certainty of victory – doubts which are confirmed as a 100th minute equaliser is conceded through a moment of pure stupidity? Of course, it can only be Arsenal, the team, who are dangerously close to becoming a caricature of themselves, through the frequency of their collapses. They have now lost leads in 39 games since they last won a trophy – which amounts to an entire season and one other game of dropping points.
This latest Arsenal collapse in the dramatic 1-1 home draw with Liverpool can only serve to popularize the use of amateur psychology in trying to understand why this Arsenal team are fast gaining a reputation for being the most famous nearly-men in the modern era. Psychological blocks that cannot be overcome, a plethora of injuries hitting key members of the team at vital points during the season, and unfathomable football errors are recurring images when one analyses any Arsenal season for the past few years. It can only lead to media ‘pundits’ proclaiming Groundhog Day.
One would think it would be unthinkable for a title-chasing team to be playing at walking pace when chasing a win with only ten minutes to go till full time. There was no intensity, or movement off the ball to provide options to the player in possession of the ball. Liverpool defended and counter-attacked efficiently but the onus was on Arsenal, and they typically failed to make it count when the pressure was on them to cut Manchester United’s lead to four points.
One must credit Liverpool, but teams like Sunderland and Blackburn have also performed a similar tactical task without too many problems either. When one sees the most technically gifted team in football in Barcelona not hesitating to making several off-the-ball runs to try to make small gaps within the defending team, you wonder why so many Arsenal players remain static. The best team in history doesn’t shirk the hard work and graft required to implement their footballing style, so why should its imitators?
Barcelona had just scored eight goals without reply at Almeria the previous week, which prompted Cristiano Ronaldo to dismissively say: “I’d like to see them get eight on Monday”. They got five in the end, but it was a performance so complete, it probably felt like an eight-goal thrashing. The result was an era-defining one. They had destroyed their arch-rivals, who had fielded the most expensive side in history, costing €292m. They had rendered the tactics of Real Madrid manager Mourinho, so often the scourge of Barcelona with his exploits with Chelsea and Inter Milan, impotent.
The statistics were also damning. Barcelona had completed 636 passes to Real’s 279. They scored with their first four shots on target, the second being a twenty-pass move accompanied by a chorus of olés. Strangely, Lionel Messi (who has scored a record number of goals this calendar year with an insane total of 58 goals in 54 games) didn’t get on the score-sheet but did assist twice. Surely this game finally ends the pointless debate concerning who is the better player – Messi or Ronaldo?
There were fewer dribbles and less fantasy in Messi’s game, as he adopted the team ethos in precision passing, which humiliated Real Madrid. Xavi, now generally recognized as the best midfielder in Spanish history, hit a 100+ passes for the sixth time this season, completing 114 of his 117 passes. He also scored the opener, before Pedro, Villa (2) and Jeffren Suarez completed the rout. Real were reduced to kicking Barcelona off the pitch and bemused looks at one another, wondering how to cope with such genius.
Barcelona 1-0 Inter Milan (28/04/2010)
Mourinho called this result “the most beautiful defeat of my life”. Inter lead this Champions League semi-final 3-1 from the first leg in the San Siro. This was a clash of vastly different philosophies – tiki-taka and catenaccio. The clash in styles of further emphasised as Mourinho altered his starting line-up minutes before kick-off, replacing the “injured” Goran Pandev for the more defensive Christian Chivu.
In the opening leg, the Catalans had complained that the pitch had been altered to suit Inter’s tactics. This time, the grass had been cut short and watered to Guardiola’s specifications. Barcelona, as expected, monopolised possession, as Inter defended admirably. It was a much harder task as Motta was sent off for a second yellow, catching Sergio Bursquets lightly in the face. The Spaniard went down in a comically inept fashion, holding his face, before sneaking a look to make sure his opponent would be sent off. Inter battled manfully, with Barcelona’s eventual breakthrough coming in the 84th minute through a smart turn and finish from defender Gerard Pique.
Then Bojan fired the all-important goal in the 91st minute as the Nou Camp erupted, only for the goal to be disallowed because of a harsh handball call on Yaya Toure in the build-up. Perhaps it was karmic retribution for Busquet’s douchebaggery earlier in the game, but for Mourinho, it was vindication for the transcendental negativity of his tactics as he took Inter to their first European Cup win since 1965. It wasn’t a great game but the tension alone made it one of the defining games of the year.
It is a well known fact that some of the greatest amounts of natural resources on the planet lie within the geographical boundaries of Russia and Qatar. It is also common knowledge that neither of these nations has ever hosted a World Cup. They present FIFA and its sponsors a clear opportunity to exploit new markets and continue the world football governing body’s rampant commercialism in the Blatter era. When you combine financial possibilities with bikini-clad models (as Russia did in their final presentation at the FIFA ExCo hotel in Zurich), it is no surprise that Russia were chosen as the hosts of the 2018 World Cup and Qatar as the 2022 hosts.
England’s bid team are left in a problematic place. The Chief Executive Andy Anson criticised the timing of the BBC Panorama investigation, while the bid team essentially denounced any accusations of corruption directed towards FIFA as false. Any moral or ethical high ground was lost when the notion of a free press was lambasted. Despite, being one of the strongest bids in terms of the independent technical report, England accrued only two votes from the twenty-two Executive committee members.
After the disappointing outcome and first round bidding exit, Anson called for FIFA to reform the bidding process. Sadly, his opinion lacks any credibility and smacks of rank hypocrisy, given the uncomfortable amount of sycophancy directed to FIFA President Sepp Blatter and his followers prior to the final announcement. Where the English bid failed was that it failed to wholly relinquish its morals and buy completely into Blatters’ agenda that FIFA is essentially a force of good for humanity.
The sixth annual Battle of Ideas festival was held at the Royal College of Art last weekend, as hundreds of intellectuals gathered to debate various issues concerning world society from the ownership of Greek artefacts to that of football clubs. One that caught the eye was the question of cheating in sport as several personalities, including The Times’ Matthew Syed, tackled this notion from a plethora of perspectives – social, historical, cultural etc.
Cheating seems to be embedded in human culture. One of the first mentions of cheating was in Homer’s Iliad as Menelaus accused Antilochus of cheating in a chariot race at the funeral games of Patroklos. It seems to have been around for the entirety of recorded history. The sports that dominate the back pages of newspapers these days were nearly all created during the height of the British Empire. The term ‘sportsmanship’, a Victorian term, is a gendered notion that seems to suggest strong patriarchal values of having a ‘stiff upper lip’ and playing fairly.
But the classical notion of sport as a civilising act has been long dead according to Amol Rajan, deputy comment editor for the Independent. He reflected on what he calls the traditional ‘Shearer defence’ with reference to the now infamous Luis Suarez handball that prevented a winning goal in the final minutes of extra-time of the World Cup quarter-final versus Ghana. The BBC’s banal ‘pundit’ Alan Shearer said at the time that anyone would have done it at the time – a piece of ‘analysis’ that rung intellectually and ethically hollow, according to Rajan. Is hyper-competitiveness so natural to us that we will attempt to win by any means necessary?Can Suarez’s actions be defended because it was an instinctive act of cheating and not a premeditated action?
Other than Arsene Wenger, no other manager has a greater influence on the philosophy and identity of his team’s style of play – this is Zdenek Zeman. He is the coach with a strong attacking philosophy, yet he works in a country where catenaccio was founded. He has an honours degree in physical education and is the son of a doctor but has chain-smoked for most of his life. Such contrasts have defined Zeman’s career. His style is Italian football’s version of Wengerball – but they call it Zemanlandia.
Zeman’s unlikely start in Italy came about because of political upheaval in his native Czechoslovakia. In the dead of the night of the 20th August 1968, the Warsaw Pact sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the Czechoslovakian border to halt the liberalization reforms attempted by Alexander Dubček’s government. The USSR foreign policy of halting any move towards capitalism by a socialist neighbouring country was in full flow as 500 Czechoslovaks were wounded and a 108 more killed.
At the time, the young Zeman was in Italy, visiting his uncle Cestmír Vycapálek in Sicily. It was eventually decided that prospects were bleak for Zeman in Czechslovakia so he went back to live with his uncle. Zeman had studied physical education in Prague, while playing volleyball and handball as a youth international. But sport in Italy meant only one thing – football.
At the time, Italian football did not permit sides to play foreigners. So Zeman coached various amateur sides while studying to complete his degree at the University of Palermo, despite speaking extremely limited Italian. It was enough to land him a coaching role with Palermo’s youth academy. The potential was starting to emerge despite the limitations of his new job:
“We had nothing. No pitch, no balls, no kit…we bought those cheap rubber balls that always got holes in them. Nevertheless, we worked hard. In nine years at Palermo, 60 players went on to become professionals. Sixty…”
Zeman graduated from University in 1975, and obtained his coaching license from Coverciano in 1979, where his classmates included one Arrigo Saachi. Saachi wrote a thesis on aggressive zones, high defensive lines and pressing – the blueprints of his great AC Milan side. Zeman, on the other hand, focussed on the short, triangular passing game that became his trademark at Foggia.