Archives for posts with tag: AC Milan

by Suhail Seedat

It was the night which saw Liverpool born again. The 25th of May 2005 is now synonymous with the European Cup’s most marvellous and fairy tale. Despite the great lustre and rich history surrounding Liverpool, the side were a distant second best to Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan boasting some of the best world’s greatest talents. Indeed, the route to Istanbul for Liverpool contained enough twists and turns for the Kopites to perhaps feel it was their team’s destiny to march on and claim their fifth European Cup. Read the rest of this entry »

by Brent Atema

There have been better players than Marco van Basten, Diego Maradona and Pelé to name but two. There are even Dutchmen that could be considered better than van Basten, such as Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit, and better goal scorers such as Ronaldo and Gerd Müller. However, no one made scoring goals look as effortless and smooth as San Marco. He was “The Big Easy” long before Ernie Els earned that title with his fluid golf swing. Read the rest of this entry »

by Martin Palazzotto

Note: I’ve generally tried to avoid duplicates in this series, but I thought that this was such a magnificent piece of work and a wonderful compliment to Andy Brassell’s portrait of the great Ronaldo that it simply had to be published. Enjoy.

I’m middle-aged.  I’m overweight.  I haven’t kicked a ball around in at least six months.  So, it’s really no wonder that the footballer I would happily plunk down 50 quid to see, at this point in my life, is Ronaldo.  Not the plastic one with the surrogate son, who can’t decide if he wants to play football or be a male model.  The real one.  The fat, slow, out of shape one who can still go out there with the twenty-somethings in the Brazilian Campeonato and show them how it’s done.

I’ll freely admit that throughout most of his career I really didn’t think that much of him.  After playing just one year (‘92-93) in the Brazilian top flight, with up and coming Cruzeiro, he was snapped up by PSV Eindhoven and promptly lit up the Eredivisie for 30 goals.  The first of many knee injuries found him the following season and he was limited to just 13 matches, although he managed an impressive 12 goals in his limited appearances.

A move to Barcelona ensued, under Sir Bobby Robson, and again he was at the top of his game with nearly 50 goals in his first campaign for the Blaugrana.  You’re probably wondering how anyone cannot rate a player who puts up those types of numbers?  The thing is that, after a great year, he quickly enmeshed himself in some nasty contract re-negotiations and subsequently found himself sold off to Inter, in the Serie A.

In the mid-nineties, American sports were going through a vicious cycle of labour disputes, with a work stoppage threatening one league or another on a seemingly daily basis.  If it wasn’t baseball, it was grid-iron football.  Then it was baseball again and the NBA and the NHL players’ unions were soon looking to get in on the fun.  Free agency was at its peak, with journeyman players being awarded astronomical annual salaries upon which the average Joe could comfortably retire.

There was a backlash among fans towards athletes that is still prevalent today, a jealousy of grown boys who played games all day, partied at night and then had the temerity to claim they were being ill treated.  So, caught up in the tide, I held a grudge against any player who moved from club to club and tended to be in the papers, as Ronaldo was, for his exploits off the pitch as much as on.

Following European football from the States, in that era, was mostly done on pay-per-view.  For me, the satisfaction of the experience was tempered enough by the expense without wasting good money on a pampered superstar who didn’t appreciate what he had.  As a result I overlooked the heyday of the Brazilian’s career, during the late 90’s, when he was literally unstoppable.

Just as I was starting to think I might be missing something special, he crocked his knee once more.  His mercurial stint with Real Madrid, where the Galacticos, like a collection of super villains, were possessed of amazing powers but could never seem to win, caused me to look away again.

Besides, the player who had captured my imagination, at the time, was the equally spectacular but far more grounded Brazilian, Roberto Carlos.  Away from sport, I was at the height of my Sci-Fi/FanFic phase and a player who could strike fear in the heart of an opposing keeper, from such distances, was the equal of Darth Vader, Sauron, Magneto or any other villain you care to name.

The final straw in my on again/off again fascination with Ronaldo was his return to Milan in 2007, this time with the Rossoneri, where his injuries mounted and his malfunctioning gaydar proved embarrassing.  Worse, his antics were leading astray a talented new generation of Brazilians, most notably Ronaldhino, Adriano, and Vagner Love, who cared less about the game than their status as celebrities.

For those who were paying attention, however, and that was not me, his three goals at the 2006 World Cup were the baby steps in a change of attitude for the aging star.  With the twilight of his career obviously upon him, the episode in Milan was a case of old habit dying hard than just more of the same.

In 2009, he returned to Corinthians, with, he announced, the intent to rehabilitate his balky knees and make his case to appear in one last World Cup.

Yeah, right.  That and a hearty chuckle was my reaction to a seemingly vain boast.  Still, I’m old enough now to understand the transition from the indestructibility of youth to the more pragmatic mortality of middle age and the sense of urgency which accompanies it.

As the year progressed, the news coming from Sao Paolo was continually positive.  There was talk that, while he was still a long shot to make the national team, under Dunga, he was definitely in the frame.  So, on the first weekend in April, with Corinthians  hosting sea-side rivals Santos, on Gol TV, I sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

What I saw was amazing.  Here was a man in his mid thirties, definitely a little thicker around the waist than you’d expect from an attack minded player, out on the pitch and trotting about while younger men whizzed by in every direction.  It seemed obvious that he was out of his element.  No matter, though.  Corinthians were up 1-0, courtesy of a nicely struck free kick from Chicao, on ten minutes and, although visiting Santos was starting to carry the play, I was becoming increasingly impressed by the young Corinthians keeper, Felipe, who, with amazing athleticism, was keeping certain goals from finding the back of the net far too often for the average mortal.

As the clock approached the 25 minute mark, a rare Corinthians attack was quickly snuffed out and cleared to the center circle.  It was mishandled by the waiting Santos man and a Corinthians midfielder gathered the ball in and quickly opted for route 1, looping a long pass towards the enemy goal.  Ronaldo, lounging about until that moment, was suddenly on his horse and running under the ball, collecting it with a sublime first touch of the right foot and then thundering a volley past the keeper with his left.

2-0 Corinthians.  Picking your spots, indeed.

Ten minutes later, Ronaldo, once again biding his time, watched his young winger, on the left, dribble and nutmeg his way down the flank and square the ball across the top of the box.  The old man, who a second before seemed to have hands in pockets as he enjoyed a nice stroll in the sun,  stepped into the pass, slashing a one-timer just over the bar.

At the opposite end, Santos were desperately looking to get back into a match in which they, beyond the occasional interruption from a certain senior citizen, were looking by far the more dangerous side.   Felipe, though, was on another planet, scrambling to disrupt a two man break, diving to save a ball at the post, deflecting a hard drive and then tipping the ball to himself, away from the half-volley of a frustrated Santos striker.

After every incredible save there came the inevitable and uncontained exuberance of youth, the chest thumping and fist pumping celebration of the self, which has replaced respect for your opponent in today’s sporting world.  Notable, however, was the frequency with which he sought out the greybeard for a high five, finger point or some other form of acknowledgment, with the danger having been thwarted.

The unrelenting pressure of Santos was finally rewarded, though, as Felipe’s athleticism ultimately betrayed him.  With an attacker carrying the ball to the touchline off to the right of goal, the youthful netminder anticipated a high pass back into the box and moved off his line.  The pass was low and behind him.  Sticking out his trailing foot instinctively, he deflected the ball into his own goal.

Santos were back in the game.

They continued to pour on the pressure but Felipe displayed enough self-confidence to brush aside his gaffe.  Again, it would be a misplayed ball in the center circle that would betray the seasiders’ cause.  This time, the Corinthians midfielder ran onto a heavy first Santos’ touch and charged, pell mell in the opposite direction.

On the right flank and several metres ahead, a pair of 33 year old legs accelerated in a vain attempt to match the speed of the counter-attack.  The ball was sent through mercifully early and perfectly timed for Ronaldo to run onto but, even as he did, his lack of pace betrayed him and he was cut off by a pair of defenders.  Since he couldn’t outrun the duo, the cagey veteran did the opposite.  He shut down entirely, cut to the inside, transferred the ball to his left foot, and, as he stepped in front of a gap between them, cheekily launched a lazy 20m chip which the helpless Santos goaltender could only watch sail into the twine.

Game over.

As the season wore on, Ronaldo would contribute significantly to Corinthians’ drive to win the Paulista but, though he was game, he ultimately was not fit enough to be included in the final 23 bound for South Africa.

This season, he has not played as often, as his weight and the creaky knees which must support it have proved resistant.  Yet, after another stint of rehab, he was again on the pitch last weekend, announcing his return in a hilarious and appropriately ironic press conference.

When asked, as he always is of late, whether he thought it wasn’t past time for him to call it a career, he laughed it off and produced some smoke bombs given to him by a comedian friend.  He would set one off, he declared tongue firmly in cheek, to cover his escape should his play on the weekend prove to be an embarrassment.  When he tried to demonstrate, though, the first bomb was a dud, as was the second.  The third produced a weak tendril of smoke through which, with much merriment, he made his exit.

On the pitch, no duck and cover was required.  Although the match ended a scoreless draw, Ronaldo played the entire 90 and provided his club with its best opportunity to take all 3 points.

Some of you, a generation younger than me I suspect, may wonder why I would consider a player in the eleventh hour of his career and surviving on his guile alone, to be the best draw for my money.  Part of the reason is that refusal to give in to time, to fight on despite being outmatched athletically and able only to rely upon one’s cunning.  Age gives you an appreciation of that.  The better reason, however, is that now, after all that has gone before, Ronaldo has discovered that it is the game he truly loves and for which he’d give his dying breath.

Such passion is a joy to behold.

Martin is the editor of the quite brilliant World Football Columns and you can follow him on Twitter @martin_whitehat.

“A jockey doesn’t have to have been born a horse.” (Arrigo Sacchi)

His time coaching at the very highest level may have been, in comparison with a number of the other managers in this series, relatively short, but Arrigo Sacchi’s impact on the modern European game was absolutely phenomenal.

A man with virtually no formal experience as a player, Sacchi broke down barriers of snobbery and crashed through countless glass ceilings in the late eighties and early nineties to become arguably the most influential coach of his generation.

Never a professional footballer, Sacchi famously held a job as a shoe salesman before embarking on his managerial career. Frustrated at his inability with the ball at his feet, Sacchi became fixated with the notion of becoming a coach and, in 1972, took charge of Baracco Luco, his local club, at the age of just twenty-six.

Despite encountering initial problems of acceptance amongst players that were both older and far more skilled than himself, Sacchi eventually won his charges over and, even at that formative stage, was clear about the attractive, attacking passing game he wished to impress on his team.

Like the great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Sacchi viewed the game as a dynamic system rather than a collection of individuals, seeing every member of the team unit – whether with or without the ball – as equally significant at any given moment.

After leaving his home town club, Sacchi spent some time as a youth coach at Serie B outfit Cesena before taking on his first professional job as a first team manager at Serie C1′s Rimini in 1982.

After guiding his new club to a respectable fourth-place finish in his first season in charge, Sacchi attracted to attentions of top-flight Fiorentina who offered him a role as the head of their academy. This was to prove an invaluable springboard on his journey to the very top of the European game.

His exemplary work at the Florentine Primavera between 1983 and 1985 led to the former shoe salesman being offered his second job as a head coach, this time at Parma, which, at that time, was languishing in Serie C1.

Sacchi’s first major managerial triumph came during the 1985/86 season, his first at Il Tardini, when he inspired i Ducali to the third tier title, pipping Modena to top spot on goal difference and gaining promotion to the dizzying heights of Serie B.

With Parma playing a stylish brand of football to finish seventh in their first season back in the second tier, Sacchi had built himself a growing reputation as one of the most talented young coaches in Italy.

His meteoric rise was confirmed in the 1986/87 Coppa Italia as Parma overcame the mighty AC Milan in the group phase of the competition, winning 1-0 at San Siro before knocking the Rossoneri out in the Second Round with a goal from Mario Bortolazzi.

Parma’s achievements were enough to attract interest from Silvio Berlusconi, the Milan President, who, seeing his club gradually slide into decline, offered Sacchi the San Siro hot-seat after Fabio Capello had stepped aside in a desperate attempt to revive his club’s fading fortunes. Sacchi accepted, and it was in Milan that he would make his name as one of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen.

***

“Great clubs have had one thing in common throughout history, regardless of era or tactics. They owned the pitch and they owned the ball. That means when you have the ball, you dictate play and when you are defending, you control the space.” (Arrigo Sacchi)

After facing a barrage of media criticism regarding his lack of pedigree upon his arrival at Milan, Sacchi let his coaching do the talking and quickly constructed one of the best club sides to have ever graced Italian football, his personal pursuit of perfection driving his team on to exceptional levels of performance.

Sacchi’s Milan were built around the trio of Dutch players – Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard – that he brought in between the summer of 1987 and the conclusion of the 87/88 campaign.

That season had seen the San Siro outfit march to their first Scudetto since 1979, beating Diego Maradona’s Napoli to the title by three points and deploying a 4-4-2 system which combined pace and dynamism with a rare grace and intelligence.

According to Sacchi himself, the key to Milan’s success was the abandonment of man-marking and its replacement with a focus on pressing and a refined system of zonal marking. In the manager’s own words, “My zone was different. Marking was passed from player to player as the attacking player moved through different zones”. Both defensive and attacking movement of the precision Milan achieved under Sacchi had never been seen before – that generation of Rossoneri were tactical revolutionaries.

As Jonathan Wilson has pointed out, despite many of the innovations that Sacchi’s team have come to be associated with being of a defensive nature (staunch pressing and an aggressive offside trap to name just two), the team itself were far from being negative. “I always demanded, when we had possession, five ahead of the ball and that there would always be a man wide right and wide left”, Sacchi has said about his methods.

Everything Milan did was as a unit, movement was a collective exercise. On the training ground Sacchi was famed for putting the players into position without the ball and drilling them endlessly in the science of exactly where they should be on the field in any given situation. The team moved as one, and they did it better than everybody else.

Milan's 4-4-2 in their 1989 semi-final against Real Madrid

Despite not winning the title again during his time at San Siro, Sacchi enjoyed his greatest successes in Europe. Milan brushed aside all who stood in their way during their march to the 1989 European Cup, Real Madrid being annihilated 6-1 on aggregate in the last four before Steaua Bucharest were demolished 4-0 in the Final with a brace each from van Basten and Gullit.

According to Sacchi, it was the closest he ever got to perfection and, along with Barcelona’s triumph in 2008/09, Sacchi’s Milan stand as one of the most inexorable continental forces there have ever been.

The following season, 1989/90, saw Milan retain their title in impressive fashion; Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Benfica being overcome on the way to a second domination of Europe. It was to be Sacchi’s last title with Milan, the man from Fusignano leaving the club in 1991 to take charge of the Italian national side.

***

Sacchi never quite attained the heights he had with Milan again in his career, but his time with Italy was fruitful enough. Failure to qualify for Euro 1992 was, seeing as he came in half-way through the campaign, not entirely Sacchi’s fault, and the way in which he resurrected the country’s fortunes was spectacular.

Two years later, having qualified for the tournament with relative ease, the Azzurri reached the 1994 World Cup Final having kicked into gear in the quarter-finals after a sluggish start to the competition. Indeed, had it not been for some erratic penalty taking against Brazil in the Pasadena Rose Bowl, Sacchi could have added the greatest title of them all to his collection but, as it was, Italy were consigned to a painful defeat at the hands of Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side.

Having quit his post after a disappointing group stage exit from Euro ’96, Sacchi returned to Milan for a single season in 1996/97 but, shorn of the majority of the players who he had worked with previously, was unable to recreate the success he had enjoyed during the late eighties.

Brief spells at Atletico Madrid and Parma followed, Los Colchoneros claiming the 1999 Copa del Rey under his stewardship, but, by the end of the century, Sacchi’s time in management had reached a natural conclusion.

The latter part of his career may have been marked by a failure to return to the near-impossibly high standards he had set for himself at San Siro, but Arrigo Sacchi will be remembered, quite rightly, as one of the finest tacticians of the age and the man who re-invented pressing and zonal marking for the modern game.

by Jamie Lindsay

It’s easy to look beyond David Beckham as a footballer and associate him solely with glamour, advertising or just being a pretty face. There’s a reason that Beckham was – and perhaps still is – the most recognisable footballer in the world; his ability with a football.

Playground rules dictate that kids pretend to be a footballer when participating in a kick-around and Beckham was always the player I imitated. Not because of his diverse hairstyles or the elaborate tattoos, merely the fact he is a fantastic player.

Will we ever see a player like Beckham again? In the modern game wingers are generally pacey. Just look at the England squad and the players contesting for the right midfield spot are: Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott. They all have one identical attribute; pace. Beckham has not had to alter his game since entering his thirties because he has never had the luxury of speed.

He is something of a rare breed, a technical player who differentiates from the norm of wingers because he has an end product. What would have been intriguing is how he would have turned out if he had played in his favoured position in the centre of midfield.

For years the Old Trafford faithful saw the number seven consistently produce inch perfect crosses to forwards such as Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ruud van Nistelrooy, score stupendous free-kicks, lob the keeper from inside his own half or assist from corners.

These vast array of talents are not natural, Beckham has spent years practising hard and staying after training to make sure he would improve. As his mentor Sir Alex Ferguson says of him, “David Beckham is Britain’s finest striker of a football not because of God-given talent but because he practises with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn’t contemplate.”

His International reputation may have taken a dent from the criticism he has got from some sections of the media – one Henry Winter labelling him the “cameo king” after his substitute appearances late in matches, yet 115 matches in 14 years shows how dedicated he is to his country.

While some players may opt for operations when friendly’s are approaching, Beckham worked hard in America and showed dedication in undertaking long-distance travelling to still be a part of the three lions camp. His persistence has rewarded him with the honour of being England’s highest capped outfield player.

Since leaving Manchester success has been sparse, but he will always be remembered for being part of that amazing treble-winning squad of 1999, that being symbolised by the incredible reception he received when he returned in March for a Champions League tie with AC Milan.

International success aside, Beckham has achieved all of his career ambitions and, perhaps when he retires, he may come to be regarded as highly as his boyhood idol; Bryan Robson.

With his career coming to an end I hope people will remember that, first and foremost, David Beckham is a footballer, and a very good one at that.

Read more from Jamie on Jamie7mu’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @Jamie_Lindsay.

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