Category Archives: Players

Jordan Rhodes – ‘Premier League player’?

by Adam Bate

Jordan Rhodes has certainly got the Premier League’s attention. As many as eight top flight clubs were represented at Huddersfield Town’s game against Wycombe Wanderers last week. And they are likely to have been impressed – the striker bagged five goals in a remarkable display. The question all of those scouts will have to answer is simple. Can Rhodes do it in the Premier League?

Such is the Scotland forward’s form at present, it almost seems churlish to ask. The numbers are phenomenal. Rhodes had scored 27 goals before the Christmas decorations were even down. And the 21-year-old striker is improving. “His finishing is up there with Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Kevin Phillips,” said Huddersfield boss Lee Clark. “And his general play is excellent.”

And yet question marks will inevitably hang over the youngster. Much will be made of the massive gulf between League One and the Premier League. It’s far safer to go for proven top flight performers, or so the theory goes. But what is a proven Premier League player? The reflected glory that comes from being a youngster in and around the squad at a big club can count for a lot – but sometimes with very little substance to back it up.

Look at Federico Macheda. The 20-year-old striker has recently been snapped up by QPR on loan from Manchester United. The west London club were seemingly unperturbed by the Italian’s goalless contribution to Sampdoria’s relegation in his previous loan spell away from Old Trafford. And that’s no surprise – because he is a Manchester United player.

And then there is Everton’s popular frontrunner Victor Anichebe. The Nigerian is in his seventh season at Goodison Park with little suggestion he is likely to drop down the leagues. But Macheda and Anichebe’s combined number of career league goals currently stands at 12. In a whopping 128 games. To put this into context, Rhodes recently matched this combined league goal tally in under three weeks.

Of course, the standard is higher. But it’s equally legitimate to turn the question around and ask whether the likes of Macheda and Anichebe are capable of scoring 12 goals in five games in the competitive world of the Football League. Perhaps we should forget a few of our preconceived ideas of what constitutes a top flight player.

Norwich’s Paul Lambert is just the latest in a long line of manager’s from promoted clubs that have challenged the notion that there is a ceiling for lower league players. Lambert realised an important lesson – it’s better to sign a player adored by League One fans than ignored by Premier League ones. The Scot invested his summer transfer kitty in hungry young talent such as Elliott Bennett, Steve Morison and Anthony Pilkington and is now reaping the rewards.

Bennett and Pilkington both featured in last season’s League One PFA team of the year and they are just the latest in a long line of players who have made the step up. England internationals Joe Hart, Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott, Michael Dawson, Ashley Young, Andy Carroll, Tom Huddlestone and Matt Jarvis all featured in lower league representative sides, while Gareth Bale is another graduate of the League One PFA team of the year.

So let’s not get too caught up with the question of whether Jordan Rhodes is capable of proving himself. After all, he’s been doing that all season.

Karl Henry – Wolves’ not-so-tough tackler?

By Oli Baker

At the time of writing, no side in Europe’s top five leagues has made as few tackles per game as Wolves (15.4) or as few interceptions (11.9).

For a team that gained a reputation as being tough and uncompromising last season, these are startling statistics.

Although Wolves do fare quite well in the possession stakes, averaging 50.8% (8th highest in the Premier League) the fact remains that while Wolves are quite successful at keeping the ball, especially for a struggling team, they are truly woeful at winning it back.

It is hard to believe that this passive defending is a deliberate tactic from Mick McCarthy. For a manager that takes immense pride in the work ethic of his teams – and a man who physically cheered a tackle by one of his players at Old Trafford last season – it is unlikely he would regularly send a team out to sit off the opposition. This lack of tackles and interceptions has inevitable consequences – only Bolton and Norwich have conceded more shots per game than Wolves in the Premier League.

It is very clear Wolves do not possess a plethora of tough tackling players. In the entire squad, only Karl Henry can be viewed as a traditional defensive midfielder, putting in tackles and breaking up play. Herein may lay Wolves’ main problem. The one player that carries much of the team’s tackling burden, doesn’t really tackle. Anyone who saw his treatment of Joey Barton last season will be surprised to learn that Karl Henry has averaged just 1.2 tackles per game this season.

This does not compare favourably with players who are supposed to be of a similar ilk. Youssouf Mulumbu (3.7), Mohamed Diame (4.0) and Lee Cattermole (4.0) all tackle significantly more than the Wolves man. Even more creative players such as Yohan Cabaye (4.3) and Alejandro Faurlin (4.5) put Henry to shame in this department.

These facts are very much at odds with the general perception of Henry as a player. The infamous MOTD montage of his tackles on Barton was followed very quickly by Bobby Zamora’s broken leg, albeit from a legitimate tackle, and an extremely rash assault on Jordi Gomez, resulting in a deserved red card. Henry was very quickly painted as a villain.

This public witch hunt does seem to have changed Henry as a player. In the immediate aftermath Henry was visibly pulling out of tackles, and while that isn’t the case now, he does seem to have lost some of his aggression – not that he was ever as aggressive as perceived, as the tally of two red cards in more than 200 appearances for Wolves would testify. Manchester United’s first two goals in their recent 4-1 victory over Wolves are perfect examples of Henry failing to make necessary tackles.

Of course, there is more to defensive midfield play than solely tackling. Closing down players and space are both vital and much harder to analyse and report. Perhaps it is for these reasons why Henry is seen as indispensable by McCarthy. Yet, if you were to look at Wolves’ recent record with and without Henry it suggests McCarthy’s faith is misplaced.

Since the summer of 2010

With Henry on the pitch    (w-d-l)                      11         9          25

Without Henry on the pitch (w-d-l)                     8          1           6

In McCarthy’s defence, Wolves have been heavily linked with numerous midfielders in the past few weeks. However, the failure to provide competition for Henry – culminating in the bizarre claim that his team selection would be Karl “and 10 others” – has long been a puzzling aspect of McCarthy’s reign. Henry has certainly played his part in
Wolves’ recent success, and as a local lad who is clearly giving his all, he still has a lot of support amongst the Molineux faithful. But, the harsh reality is that Henry can no longer fulfil the role Wolves so desperately need.

*All stats are from WhoScored

Enzo Bearzot – a Tribute

by Adam Bate

*A version of this article appeared as an obituary in the February 2011 issue of Calcio Italia magazine

Some people choose to remember the 1982 World Cup for the famous Brazil team of Zico, Socrates and Falcao. Their silky skills and attacking football certainly captured the imagination. But they were to leave the tournament empty handed. Instead, Italy became champions of the world for the third time. The manager behind that triumph was Enzo Bearzot.

As the Italian manager later said: “Brazil was the most spectacular side. But the Italian team was the most intelligent at the World Cup.” His side actually struggled in the early stages. The man known as Il Vecio – the old guy – was under fire after a series of lacklustre displays but remained faithful to his vision. Bearzot was determined to build on the attacking principles he had put in place since taking sole control of the Azzurri in 1977. He explained: “For me, football should be played with two wingers, a centre-forward and a playmaker. That’s the way I see the game.”

Imposing this philosophy had been a challenging process. The legendary writer Brian Glanville summed it up: “Bearzot worked hard to wean the Italy team away from catenaccio. It wasn’t easy but, bit by bit, he succeeded.”

The turning point came in the second group stage. Bearzot had shown faith in Paolo Rossi, the Juventus forward who had only just returned from a two year ban following a match-rigging scandal. After defeating the defending champions Argentina, his faith in Rossi was rewarded when the striker hit a hat-trick to eliminate Brazil. The 3-2 victory remains one of the most famous games in World Cup history and from that moment Bearzot’s side only grew in confidence.

It was a confidence that came from the top down. Bearzot was calmness personified. Journalist Gabriele Marcotti put a personal slant on it that must surely resonate with an entire generation: “I felt an instant connection with Enzo Bearzot, as if it were my grandad on the sidelines, watching in that fiendishly reassuring, pretending-not-to-care way, but obviously as emotionally involved as if he were on the pitch.”

With a Rossi brace in the semi-final, there was an air of inevitability long before the West Germans were vanquished 3-1 at the Bernabeu. Marco Tardelli’s celebration will be replayed down the ages but the mastermind behind the victory was the quietly determined Bearzot. The coach underlined his relaxed approach when he played cards with the Italian President on the plane back from Spain. Il Vecio had just secured Italy’s first World Cup win in 44 years.

Little in Bearzot’s early career hinted he would go on to lift the World Cup. Born in 1927 in the Friuli region of north-east Italy, he was, in modern parlance, a defensive midfielder and enjoyed a solid if unspectacular playing career. After spending some time as a bit-part player with Inter, he headed south and enjoyed a happy few years in Sicily with Catania. At 26 he moved back north to Torino, a club still rebuilding after the Superga tragedy. It was while there he earned his solitary international cap against the great Hungary side in 1955.

Although there was a brief and unhappy return to Inter, Bearzot saw out the last seven years of his playing career with Torino and, upon retirement in 1964, he joined the coaching set-up at the Granata. It was a journey that would lead to the top job in Italian football.

Bearzot’s route to the Azzurri role was not the conventional one through club management. After a brief spell as coach of lowly Prato, he threw himself into a life working within the Italian Football Federation. A lengthy spell in charge of the Italy U23 side gave Bearzot the grounding he needed and he was later an assistant manager in Italy’s disappointing 1974 World Cup campaign. There was some resistance to his appointment as joint manager with Fulvio Bernardini in 1975 but two years later Bearzot found himself in sole charge of the Azzurri – and began to impose his own philosophy.

In hindsight, the creditable fourth place finishes at both the 1978 World Cup and 1980 European Championships hinted at the success that was to follow in 1982. Naturally, that was to prove the peak of Bearzot’s career. In a period that foreshadowed the later problems of fellow World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi, Bearzot’s faith in his champions saw them produce stale performances in failing to qualify for Euro 84 before disappointing in Mexico in 1986. Nothing could erase the achievements of 1982 but the inevitable resignation followed and – a brief stint as president of the IFF’s technical sector apart – his career was over.

On 21 December 2010, Bearzot died at the age of 83. Paolo Rossi, the man who shared in the glory of that magical World Cup summer, perhaps said it best: “Enzo Bearzot was one of the greatest figures in 20th century Italy. He was like a father to me and I owe him everything.”

Il Vecio – elder statesman of Italian football… and national hero.

Time for Ronaldo to light up El Clasico

by Adam Bate

Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t look like an underdog. He doesn’t feel like one and he most certainly doesn’t act like one. But this weekend he is the player more than any other who will be tasked with the role of challenging Barcelona’s footballing oligarchy.
And yet, don’t expect people to thank him for it. Because for many Barcelona
are benevolent dictators. They are the guardians of that risible notion of ‘playing the game the right way’.

Unusually, it is the European champions themselves who are perceived to have right on their side. In particular, this is true of the world’s greatest player Lionel Messi. In contrast, as Brian Phillips – in a brilliant explanation of the dichotomy that isn’t – wrote: “Ronaldo is, at the moment, pretty seriously underappreciated by soccer fans. Everyone agrees that he’s a great player, but he’s a great player whom it’s weirdly cool to disparage.”

And it’s not just the fans doing it. Johan Cruyff, writing in El Periodico, has discussed how Ronaldo needs to learn to find his best position on the field and not be so rushed in
his actions. While it may be a valid criticism from a legend of the game, it still seems an unworthy accusation to level at a Champions League winning player with a Ballon d’Or to his name. Phillips adds: “Not exactly a loser’s résumé but people still talk about him as though he’s an embarrassing case of squandered talent.”

With the odds stacked against him like this, Ronaldo needs all the help he can get if he is to showcase his talents in a Clasico. In a recent World Soccer interview with Sid Lowe, he explained: “I have been on the right wing, on the left wing and as a centre-forward. I’m not going to lie, though. I am happiest on the left.” But such has been Barcelona’s dominance in this fixture of late, this is a luxury that Jose Mourinho has often felt unable to afford.

Ahead of the two teams’ first La Liga contest last season, Mourinho sacrificed the optimum positioning of his greatest weapon in the hope of outflanking Pep Guardiola’s
champions. It was a move that catastrophically backfired as Real Madrid were dismantled in a lopsided 5-0 encounter. It is worth quoting Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking summary of Real Madrid’s tactical set-up for that game in detail:

“Mourinho started the game with his wingers on the opposite flanks to usual – Ronaldo out on the right and Angel di Maria on the left, presumably to work around the problem of Real defending against Dani Alves, as Di Maria is the better defensive player. Whilst Mourinho is generally a reactionary manager anyway, in a sense Guardiola had won the first battle of the match without a ball being kicked, since Mourinho felt the need to play his most dangerous player somewhere other than the position where he had been turning in incredible performances so far this campaign.”

Although Mourinho is a coach famed for his ability to learn from mistakes, it would appear he did not regard Ronaldo’s inclusion on the right to be one of them because it was here that he lined up for the return match in April. Indeed, Ronaldo only moved to the left flank after his side were a goal and a man down. It didn’t do ten-men Real Madrid too much harm though – they equalised to secure a respectable draw with Ronaldo himself firing home the spot-kick.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the folly of Mourinho’s reactionary thinking. Ronaldo, by his own admission happiest on the left, is also fundamental to Real Madrid’s style of play when stationed there. The table below details the sides of the pitch down which La Liga sides attack their opponents:

The La Liga positional statistics show how much more important the left flank is to Real Madrid

The contrast between Real Madrid’s left-side dominance and Barcelona’s more evenly
balanced approach is stark. Barcelona actually launch fewer attacks down their left flank than any other team in the league. As a result, in Real Madrid’s biggest games their best player and one whose presence on the left is key to how they play, has often found himself stationed in the position where he is least likely to see the ball.

However, there are signs this season that things are changing – both for Ronaldo and Real Madrid. The league table tells its own story regards Real’s improvement but there are also indications that Mourinho’s side is gaining ground in terms of general style of play too. The possession statistics indicate that Real Madrid are now better placed to control the game and get the ball to Ronaldo wherever he can do the most damage:

The possession statistics year-on-year clearly show Real Madrid closing the gap

While Barcelona remain consistent in their dominance of possession, Real Madrid are
evidently closing the gap in more ways than just points. The key is to be able to do this not just against the other teams in the league but also head-to-head in the Clasico itself. And here too there is reason for optimism.

In each of the five Clasico encounters last season, Real Madrid’s overall possession never rose above 37.2% – and even that was in a 5-0 defeat. In this season’s 2-2 result in the Super Cup, Real’s possession was 48% – in other words more than 10% higher than in any of last season’s contests.

And Ronaldo even played on the left.

So perhaps, with Real Madrid now flying, the time has come for Cristiano Ronaldo to take centre-stage. After all, Ronaldo doesn’t look like an underdog. And for the first time in a Real Madrid shirt, he could be set to walk out for the Clasico alongside a team determined not to play like underdogs.

 

*All data tables taken from the excellent WhoScored website

They Retired The Shirt: Franco Baresi

by Adam Bate

In 1999 the No.6 shirt of AC Milan’s Franco Baresi was retired. That same
year, he was named Milan’s best player of the twentieth century. More recently,
he was officially named as Italy’s player of the century too. These are
extraordinary accolades to be given to a defender. But then, Baresi was no
ordinary defender.

At a fraction over 5’9” tall and slender of build, Baresi wasn’t your typical defensive
colossus. But he used every inch of his wiry frame to compete physically;
excelling thanks to those rarer defensive qualities of skill and grace. Perhaps
Baresi’s most notable attribute, however, was his incomparable positional
sense. He was able to use his footballing intelligence to snuff out threats
before they occurred and provide the base for the next attack. Contrary to
appearances, Franco Baresi was a defensive giant after all.

The route to becoming a Milan legend was not a straightforward one for the
young Franco. Indeed, the first opportunity for the boy from Brescia may well
have come with Milan’s great rivals Inter. Incredibly, Baresi was rejected and
denied the chance to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother Giuseppe with
the Nerazzurri. No matter. Franco tried his luck with the Rossoneri instead and
never looked back.

Baresi’s career really took off when he established himself as a first-team
regular in the 1978-79 season. It says a lot for his quality that he was able
to break into the Milan side at the age of just 18. That his first full season
also coincided with the club becoming champions of Italy for the first time in
over a decade says much more. It was also fitting that retiring legend Gianni
Rivera was able to bow out as a champion – and do so playing alongside the man
who would go on to take his Milan appearance record.

Although the post-Rivera era was a period of relative obscurity for Milan,
it saw Baresi’s career go from strength to strength. Enzo Bearzot, the Italian
manager, recognised the young defender’s talent despite Milan’s relegation in
1980 and called him up for that summer’s European Championships on home soil.
Baresi did not feature in the tournament, serving instead as understudy to the
Juventus sweeper Gaetano Scirea.

It turned out to be a lengthy apprenticeship with the Azzurri because Baresi
was given a similar watching brief for the 1982 World Cup. It was, of course, a
successful one for Italy as they ousted the holders Argentina, champions-elect
Brazil and eventually West Germany in the final. While Paolo Rossi earned the
plaudits, Baresi cheered him on from the sidelines. Incongruously, he was yet
to win his first cap but was now part of a World Cup winning squad.

If that experience was a positive one for Baresi, the years that followed
were ones of frustration. The man known as Piscinin – the Little One – was gaining
a burgeoning reputation as a skilful sweeper with an exceptional talent. But
Milan’s second relegation in three years meant the 1982-83 season was spent in
Serie B as the club remained in desperate need of investment. Meanwhile,
Bearzot’s refusal to introduce new players gave Baresi limited opportunities
with the national team. His strained relationship with the coach even saw him
miss the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Despite being champions, Italy struggled that summer. It was perhaps a
blessing for Baresi as the subsequent resignation of Bearzot, coupled with the
retirement of Scirea, brought new opportunities for him. But the main reason
why 1986 was a turning point in his career was the change in ownership at Milan
– and the arrival of one Silvio Berlusconi.

That Berlusconi transformed Milan is a matter of fact. And yet, he was able
to do so thanks largely to the raw materials already in place at the time. As
well as Baresi, there was the reliable right-back Mauro Tassotti and a young
left-back by the name of Paolo Maldini. When Alessandro Costacurta broke
through the ranks soon after, one of the most famous defensive units in the
history of the game was in place.

Berlusconi did play a key role in bringing players such as Marco Van Basten
and Ruud Gullit to Milan. But his most visionary piece of business was in
identifying the young Parma coach, Arrigo Sacchi, as the man to take Milan
forward. Sacchi’s was a unique take on the Dutch Total Football model – with an
emphasis on intense pressing and the importance of controlling space. He had a fascinating way of demonstrating this to his superstar players:

“I convinced Gullit and Van Basten by telling them that five organised
players would beat ten disorganised ones. And I proved it to them. I took five
players: Giovanni Galli in goal, Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta and Baresi. They
had ten players: Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Virdis, Evani, Ancelotti,
Colombo, Donadoni, Lantignotti and Mannari. They had 15 minutes to score
against my five players. I did this all the time and they never scored. Not
once.”

Sacchi may well have seen himself as the scriptwriter and the players as
mere actors but central to this success was Baresi – his leading man. The
captain of the side, he marshalled the defence using his supreme reading of the
game, and led Milan throughout a period of unprecedented success. The 1987-88
Scudetto was Baresi’s second and a defensive triumph – Milan conceded a miserly
14 goals as they lost just two games all season. Crucially, the title opened
the door for the Rossoneri to take their domination onto the European
stage.

The 1989 European Cup victory marked Milan’s ascent to the next level, but
it was not without luck. Down to ten men and losing away to an exceptional Red
Star Belgrade side, the fog descended and play was abandoned. The match went
ahead again the following day and Milan triumphed on penalties with Baresi
converting from the spot. It was a controversial escape but one Milan made
count as they memorably destroyed Real Madrid 5-0 in the San Siro before
annihilating Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final. It was an explosive climax that
saw Baresi lift the European Cup in the Camp Nou.

Twelve months later, Milan sealed their legacy as they became the first team
in ten years to retain the European Cup. No team has repeated the feat since.
There were fewer fireworks this time around. The key was that Milan conceded
just three goals in their successful defence of the trophy – with Baresi
imperious throughout.

Of course, while Baresi’s Milan career was largely one of glory, his efforts
for the Azzurri will always be tinged with sadness. He was 30 before he even
got the chance to play in a World Cup. It was on home soil in 1990 and so
nearly saw Baresi complete the perfect season. Things began brilliantly as
Italy hit seven goals without reply in their first five games. Unfortunately,
despite being the better side, they could not edge past Argentina in the semi-final
in Naples. Penalties ensued and, while Baresi demonstrated his leadership skills
by putting away the opening penalty, teammates Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena
could not replicate his efforts and the dream died.

Four years later it would be the turn of Baresi himself to feel penalty
heartbreak. By that point, Sacchi had left Milan to take the national job but
the trophies had continued to roll in. Baresi helped the Rossoneri to three
consecutive Scudetti. The last of which, under Fabio Capello in 1994, was
another reminder that great sides are built from the back. Milan scored a bewilderingly
unimpressive 34 goals in topping the league, but thanks to their defensive
capabilities they conceded just 15 at the other end. Sadly for Baresi, he
missed out on the sensational European Cup final win over Barcelona – but there
was an even bigger game ahead that summer.

It is always a shame that a World Cup Final be remembered for penalty
shoot-out misses. For a player of Franco Baresi’s calibre to have to remember
the biggest game of his career in such a way is tragic. But for him to have to
remember this game in such a way is just plain wrong. Baresi had heroically returned from a knee cartilage problem in the group stages and promptly delivered a colossal defensive performance. Brazilian forward Romario, the player of the tournament, was emphatic in his comments after the game, saying: “His performance today was the most ruthless monitoring of my entire career.” Sadly, Franco Baresi walked away from the
Pasadena Rose Bowl that day with only a runners-up medal.

There was still time for the old master to play an active role in another
Serie A triumph in 1996 but the curtain finally came down on an astonishing
career the following year. It would be an understatement to say his legacy was
already guaranteed. The countless memories of Baresi with his shirt untucked,
socks round his ankles, gliding round the San Siro had long since ensured that.
After all, he is Italy’s player of the twentieth century. He is Milan’s eternal
number six. He is Franco Baresi.

*A version of this article appeared in the now sadly defunct Calcio Italia magazine in March 2011 

 

DEFINING MOMENTS

In a stellar career there are so many big matches to choose from. Here are
just five famous encounters that define the career of Franco Baresi …

19 April 1989
Milan Topple Madrid
AC Milan 5-0 Real Madrid – European Cup Semi-Final – San Siro, Milan

Although Real Madrid had not lifted the trophy in over twenty years, they were
still perceived as European footballing royalty. So when they were ruthlessly
dismantled in the San Siro it was perceived as underlining the power shift:
Baresi’s Milan were now top dogs.

24 May 1989
Champion of Europe
AC Milan 4-0 Steaua Bucharest – European Cup Final – Camp Nou, Barcelona

The scoreline says it all. Only twice before had a side won the European Cup
by a four goal margin. Steaua had good pedigree, having won the title three
years earlier. But they were no match for Milan. Gullit and Van Basten scored
two each – and Baresi ensured a clean sheet.

23 May 1990
Retaining The Crown
AC Milan 1-0 Benfica – European Cup Final – Praterstadion, Vienna

To this day, Franco Baresi is the last man to captain his team to back-to-back
European Cup wins. The skipper had a brilliant season culminating in this
efficient display in Vienna. No surprise Sacchi’s machine was working like
clockwork – only Donadoni was missing from the previous year’s starting line-up.

3 July 1990
Heartbreak in Naples
Italy 1-1 Argentina – World Cup Semi-Final – Stadio San Paolo, Naples

The day the dream died for the host nation is not one Baresi would like to
dwell on. However, there was little wrong with the Italian defending that evening
in Naples, or indeed in that World Cup. In fact, Caniggia’s second half goal
was the first the Azzurri had conceded in the entire tournament. Baresi
hammered home the opening goal in the shoot-out but, when Aldo Serena’s effort
was saved, Italy’s hopes were dashed.

17 July 1994
Master Class in Vain
Italy 0-0 Brazil –World Cup Final – Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

The match is sometimes remembered as a bore draw. It was the game that
failed to seduce America. It also happened to include a Franco Baresi defensive
master class as he snuffed out the threat of Romario for two long hours in the
California sun. Of course, it ended – quite literally – in tears, as the
captain blasted his tired penalty over the bar.

On This Day.. Gigi Riva was born in 1944

by Adam Bate

There are many over-used and misleading phrases in football and “one-man team” is surely right up there. In 1969-70, Cagliari had a quality side. Players such as Ricky Albertosi, Pierluigi Cera, Comunardo Niccolai and Angelo Domenghini all played for the Azzurri. And yet, the simple and remarkable fact remains – Gigi Riva won the Scudetto for Cagliari. It was just one of the many stunning achievements in the extraordinary career of Cagliari and Italy’s highest ever goalscorer. A legend and a hero for both club and country.

Luigi Riva was born in Leggiuno, near Varese in northern Italy, in November 1944. His footballing talent became apparent as he broke into the first team at lowly Serie C outfit Legnano as a mere 17-year old. Within a year he moved south to Sardinia – the island that was to become his spiritual home – when he signed for Cagliari. Even at such a young age, Riva’s impact on the club was virtually instantaneous. And so the fairytale began.

Cagliari were in Serie B when Riva arrived and the club had never played in the top flight of Italian football. The Sardinians had long dreamt of boasting a Serie A side and in Riva’s debut season that dream was realised.  Cagliari were promoted in second place behind Varese with Riva contributing eight goals from an outside left position.  Given their lack of pedigree at the highest level, one may have expected the club to struggle among the elite. The reality was very different as only five teams gathered more points than Cagliari in that historic 1964-65 campaign. It was a personal triumph for Riva as he gained international recognition in the summer of ’65.

Riva’s debut against Hungary that year began a nine year record-breaking career with the Azzurri. Initially, there was disappointment – a broken leg sustained against Portugal caused Riva to miss the 1966 World Cup in England. But two years later at the European Championships on home soil, the strapping forward was to make amends. 

By 1968, Riva was firmly established as the premier goal machine in Italian football. He had earned the title of Capocannoniere the previous year by scoring 18 goals in just 23 games and continued to bang in the goals for club and country. Indeed, his hat-trick against Cyprus followed by a brace in Switzerland had helped Italy top their qualifying group. In the finals themselves, it took a coin toss to edge past the Soviet Union in a goalless semi-final before Riva’s Cagliari team-mate Domenghini grabbed a late equaliser in the drawn final against Yugoslavia. Here Riva came to the party, scoring the opening goal of the replayed final to help win the trophy for Italy. Cagliari’s hero was now a national hero.

No shrinking violet, Riva embraced his new status and the confidence he gained helped him to become an even better player. Despite the celebrity attention, he always remembered the key virtues needed to succeed: “I am not an actor, writer, salesman, singer or anything else. I live only for football.” It was perhaps this stubborn and single-minded dedication that saw Riva frustrate Juventus in their attempts to sign him. In 1967, the deal was done between the Bianconeri and Cagliari to take Riva to Turin. But Riva was adamant:

“I would have earned triple. But Sardinia had made me a man. It was my land. In those days, they called us shepherds and bandits around Italy. I was 23 and the great Juve wanted to cover me in money. I wanted the Scudetto for my land. We did it, the bandits and shepherds.”

With this attitude, Riva kicked on with Cagliari and he became Capocannoniere for the second time in 1969. He was now a truly formidable striker.

It is no wonder the Bianconeri were desperate to sign Riva. His playing style set him apart from his contemporaries. His strength and aerial ability were outstanding. The key to his success, however, was the power and technical ability of that famous left boot. There are stories of spectators being injured by his shots – such was the ferocity of his strikes. Fortunately, he didn’t miss the goal too often.

His most famous skill, of course, was his renowned ability to volley the ball. Often this would include the rovesciata – overhead kicks hit with such devastating power as to be unstoppable. Cagliari fans got to see these efforts on a regular basis but the most famous was a goal still replayed to this day. Against Vicenza in 1970, a cross from the left was headed back across goal. The ball came over Riva’s left shoulder. He swivelled to fire the ball into the net before the keeper could even move. An iconic moment from an iconic player.

The 1969-70 season was the stuff of magic for Cagliari – and most of it came courtesy of Riva. In addition to the Vicenza goal, there were the two against Napoli after battling a fever, another brace to earn a point against Juventus, and more goals against Milan, Lazio and Sampdoria. It was a miracle season in which Cagliari lost just two matches. On 12th April 1970 Riva scored the opener as the title was clinched at home to Bari with two games to spare. The Scudetto belonged to Cagliari. To many it felt as though Riva and the team had managed to unify the notoriously disparate farming communities of Sardinia through the joy of football. As the writer Stefano Boldrini put it: “Riva forced shepherds to buy transistor radios so that they could follow Cagliari”.

The historic victory led to parties and celebrations that are still romanticised to this day. The players remain heroes and the side is the first and last team from Italy’s islands to win the championship. The summer of 1970 was certainly a triumphant one for Cagliari. But Gigi Riva’s work was not done yet – he had the small matter of a World Cup ahead of him.

The 1970 World Cup will forever be remembered for the wonderful Brazil side that so entranced viewers around the world. What few recall is that the final against Italy was finely balanced at 1-1 after an hour, only for the Azzurri to fade as they felt the effects of an epic semi-final encounter just four days earlier. Riva scored the pick of the goals that day in a memorable 4-3 victory over West Germany – a beautiful couple of touches before firing the ball into the far corner. It was Riva’s third of the tournament but he fell just short in his quest to add the World Cup to his Serie A and European crowns.

In the October of 1970, Riva experienced the highs and lows of football in dramatic fashion. In the fourth game of the season the champions travelled to the San Siro to take on rivals Inter. The famous Italian journalist Gianni Brera summed events up that day by saying: “Cagliari have humiliated Inter at the San Siro. More than 70,000 saw that Riva deserved it and I nickname him Rombo di Tuono.” And so, after grabbing two goals in a 3-1 win at the San Siro, the Roar of Thunder aka Thunderclap was born. His position as a national treasure was secure but, tragically, Riva broke his leg playing for Italy against Austria later that week, putting paid to Cagliari’s title defence.

Remarkably, Riva showed his tremendous battling qualities by bouncing back from this second leg break of his career to score 21 goals in 30 games in the 1971-72 season. He even managed to play in another World Cup – the disappointing 1974 campaign. It was to mark the end of his international career. Riva finished with 35 goals from 42 games for Italy – an incredible strike rate that means he is still the country’s record goalscorer.

Both Riva and Cagliari remained a force in the upper echelons of Serie A for some time to come. But as the great player’s body began to give out and his powers started to wane, so the fortunes of Cagliari dipped with him. Their fortunes seemingly inextricably linked, Cagliari were relegated in last place in 1976 with Riva out injured for much of it. This was to prove one injury too many and after a lengthy but unsuccessful attempt to regain fitness, Riva retired from football. He left his beloved club where he had found them – in Serie B. Cagliari have not finished in the top five of Serie A since.

Gigi Riva continues to endure as a Sardinian idol and the darling of Cagliari Calcio. After scoring more than 200 goals for the club, his No.11 shirt has predictably been retired – the only number ever retired by the Rossoblu. The playwright and journalist Vito Biolchini probably said it best: “Riva is eternal for Sardinia, he is a mythical . . . almost a religious figure.” Amen to that.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the now sadly defunct Calcio Italia magazine in February 2011.

DEFINING MOMENTS

Riva was the inspiration behind his club’s success and a goalscoring phenomenon for his country. Here is our pick of his greatest games…

10 June 1968
Champions of Europe
Italy 2-0 Yugoslavia – European Championship final – Stadio Olimpico, Rome

Riva was part of the Italian team that won the European Championship on home soil. Riva opened the scoring in the replay of the final – Italy’s first major prize since the 1930s.

18 January 1970
That Man Riva
Vicenza 1-2 Cagliari – Serie A – Stadio Romeo Menti

Riva bagged two goals in this away victory but the second of them has become the stuff of legend. As the ball came over his left shoulder, the master of the overhead kick fired home a bullet of a strike to capture the imagination of a generation.

12 April 1970
Cagliari Champions
Cagliari 2-0 Bari – Serie A – Stadio Sant’Elia

Cagliari won their one and only Scudetto with two games to spare – and naturally Riva was on the scoresheet, sending Sardinia into delirium.

17 June 1970
World Cup Classic
Italy 4-3 W.Germany – World Cup semi-final – Azteca Stadium, Mexico City

This legendary encounter see-sawed back and forth with Riva scoring in the second half of extra-time to help Italy into the World Cup final. Only the genius of Brazil was to stop Riva becoming Serie A, European and World champion simultaneously.

25 October 1970
Rombo Di Tuono
Inter 1-3 Cagliari –Serie A – Giuseppe Meazza

Inter were the main challengers for Cagliari’s title but Riva stunned the San Siro with two early goals. Famed writer Gianni Brera claimed Riva had ‘humiliated’ Inter and nicknamed the forward the ‘Rombo di Tuono’. Sadly, Riva broke his leg playing for Italy less than a week later.

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Some great goals here. The famous one against Vicenza is from 1:02.

On This Day.. Gerd Muller was born in 1945

November 3, 1945 – Gerd Muller was born.

Of all the football careers you could dream of having as a kid, they don’t come much more complete than Gerd Muller’s.

He won the World Cup and European Championships with Germany – scoring in the final of both tournaments - as well as lifting the European Cup on three consecutive occasions with Bayern Munich.

And despite retiring from international football at the age of 28, Muller still managed to score a ridiculous 68 goals for Germany in just 62 matches.

Happy birthday to Der Bomber.

Bloody lethal…

Rooney – Should he stay or should he go?

This piece appears in full on TEAMtalk.

The last week has surely confirmed what we all knew already – Wayne Rooney is the most divisive figure in English football.

Wading through the views of journalists, ex-pros and – of course – the TEAMtalk Your Say boards, there appears to be no real consensus of opinion.

While Harry Redknapp and Alan Shearer have been quick to rubbish suggestions that England’s star man should stay at home for Euro 2012, others are calling for Fabio Capello to write him off as a talented liability.

Motormouth Stan Collymore and World Cup winner George Cohen believe Rooney should be dumped from the squad and seem to have the public on their side.

At the time of writing, a Sky Sports poll suggests 68% do not want Rooney selected for England.

CLICK HERE TO READ THIS PIECE IN FULL AT TEAMtalk.

Like Father, Like Son

You may have noticed this week that Juan Pablo Angel’s son, Tomy, has been making a name for himself by showcasing some impressive skills in front of the cameras. Eight-year-old Tomy not only had the twists and turns but also a sweet left foot suggesting a career in the pro game may beckon. But Tomy isn’t the only youngster with a talented dad that’s caught the eye in recent years.

Enzo Zidane, of course, is somewhat further down the road towards superstardom. The 16-year-old brought back memories of his father’s sublime skills in some magical performances for Real Madrid.. such as this display against Barcelona:

And how about this for a textbook tackle. Clarence Seedorf looked to be having it easy against a group of youngsters until a perfectly timed slide tackle cut him down to size. The identity of the tackler? Daniel Maldini.

Tomislav Ivic – An Obituary

by Adam Bate

In football there are two types of great coaches. There are those, such as Sir Alex Ferguson or Guy Roux, who construct a club in their image and remain there for a decade or four. Then there are those like Bela Guttmann who opt for the short sharp shock approach – instilling their beliefs, ensuring an upturn in fortunes and then moving on. The remarkable Tomislav Ivic, who died last week aged 77, was predominantly in the latter camp. He was also one of the most successful football managers in the history of the game.

Born in Split in 1933, Ivic – like so many of the best coaches – enjoyed a moderate playing career. His time at RNK Split did, however, result in him being handed a coaching role at the age of 34 and embark upon a career that would see him manage clubs in 14 different countries as well as four national teams. Along the way he enjoyed phenomenal success. In fact, he remains the only coach to win league titles in six different countries. It is a testament to his abilities as a strategist and is indicative of an enthusiasm for the game that transcended national boundaries.

The first of those many league trophies came with another of his former clubs, Hajduk Split, in 1974. His success there paved the way for that first big move beyond the confines of the former Yugoslavia. And what a move. Tasked with replacing the legendary Rinus Michels at Ajax, Ivic rose to the challenge. He was inheriting a side past its best, but was still able to guide Ajax to the Eredivisie title after finishing third in the previous campaign. Sadly, Ivic’s more pragmatic approach was not enough for the high-minded aficionados of Total Football and a return to Split followed.

Ivic’s time at Ajax was significant in many respects. Far from deterring him from coaching abroad, it instead heralded the beginning of one of football’s great globetrotting stories. It also marked the start of a happy knack that would follow Ivic through much of his career – he possessed an uncanny ability to win the league in his first season at a new club.

Whether this was down to the wily Croat’s shrewd choice of employer or his impressive motivational skills is a matter of opinion, but it seems likely that his intense training methods had a significant impact in the short-term. Joao Pinto, the gifted Portuguese forward, had the dubious pleasure of working under Ivic at Benfica. Pinto said: “He was the only coach who ordered me to train three times a day. Once before breakfast, another after and a third one on the afternoon. Despite that, I enjoyed working with him.”

His methods clearly worked. Ivic claimed the Yugoslav title immediately upon his return to Hajduk Split and then won the Belgian league with Anderlecht at the first time of asking in 1981. A spell at Galatasaray followed before the much-travelled Croat had a stint in the Italian top flight with lowly Avellino. While winning Serie A may have proven a bridge too far, Ivic still managed to added Greek and Portuguese titles to his collection – with Panathinaikos and Porto respectively – before the decade was out.

Ivic also won the European Super Cup and the Portuguese Cup in that 1987-88 season with Porto. He later enjoyed a second period in charge of the Dragoes but was replaced by Sir Bobby Robson and his assistant Jose Mourinho. The Real Madrid coach now seems keen to adhere to the Ivic approach with short stays at successful clubs and the old man was certainly impressed with his young Portuguese replacement. Speaking in 2010, Ivic said: “Mourinho is a genius. Neither Ferguson nor [Fabio] Capello can work with so much success in different countries.”

Ivic’s assessment of Mourinho perhaps reveals what he regarded as his own greatest achievement – that ability to go anywhere in the world and be successful. The 1990s brought a Copa del Ray with Atletico Madrid and a Ligue 1 title with Marseille. It also saw a series of forays into international management. A brief stint as co-manager of Croatia was followed by a time in charge of the United Arab Emirates. There was disappointment in charge of Iran, however, when Ivic was sacked on the eve of the 1998 World Cup.

It would have been a fitting swansong to a wonderful career. Instead, that career drew to a close with a consulting role at Standard Liege. But his legacy had been assured more than twenty years earlier. Tomislav Ivic blazed a trail for the coach without borders and he did it picking up 16 trophies along the way. It is perhaps appropriate that the final word goes to Slaven Bilic, the current Croatia coach, who summed up this legacy in glowing terms:

“Not only Croatia, but the world has lost one of the greatest ever football experts. Creator, coach, leader, and a football revolutionary. One of the few chosen, who will forever be written in record books among the true geniuses who have literally changed the concept of football games.”

Tomislav Ivic passed away in his hometown of Split on Friday 24 June aged 77 years old.