Friday, July 28, 2006

Saviour Mascherano

It has been all busy, busy, busy these days, but in the midst of all the excitement, a colleague sent me an SMS yesterday, which simply said: “Dude, you got your wish. REUTERS just reported United’s bid for Mascherano.”

Oh boy! That was news indeed. Even the recent newsbreak on United's Michael Carrick signing doesn't top it, and all indications are that SAF believes Carrick alone may not suffice.

Make no mistake about it: midfield names do not get any bigger than Javier Mascherano these days, the pivot on which the entire Argentine team swiveled at this year’s World Cup, and whose named was making the rounds all over Europe even before he signed with Corinthians from River Plate barely a couple of seasons ago.

Maradona calls him a "monster of a player, destined for great things."

I rate JM very, very highly. Here is a defensive midfielder who seems to know his job very well, and sticks to it. He probably sleeps with a copy of The Midfielder’s Manual under his arm.

You hardly see JM away from the middle third of the field when his team is in possession. He has the solid discipline to orchestrate play from within the centre circle while his more adventurous colleagues foray upfront, but capably buckles down to defensive duties when possession is conceded. Efficiency with a capital E.

Word has it that the company that backed his signing to Corinthians for 10 million pounds simply have an agenda of maximising their return on investment. That is good news for United indeed.

Now that Ruud is out, and monies seem to be available from the potential sale of C. Ronaldo (plus the acquisition of Simao from Valencia), it is not just possible, but very probable.

With Alan Smith healing well (and I know this fler can really be fired up when he wants to be), with Scholes and Giggs back in some scintillating form, without distractions of national duties (ditto Smith), and with the potential signing of Michael Carrick on the cards, the midfield looks pretty decent and sorted.

But the point of this post – and my premature awakening from a self-induced stupor – is to celebrate the possibility of Javier Mascherano. Perhaps the emperor has nice clothes after all.

I so want this guy in the red shirt. Get me his signature, Alex!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Fresco fiasco #2

Aisay, man...

I don't know how old this is (that's beside the point)... but after Fresco Fiasco #1, now this?

And we thought this was a club above such cheap theatrics?

Koppers, pray tell what the rest of us humble masses are to make of it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

See, the emperor is naked

The truth – like it or not – is often the downfall of men.

We often try to make the truth an ally, and look for times when it reflects our sense of status and aspiration. We seek solace in the truth, as often as we try and seek shelter from it.

When it sides with us we spare no effort in ensuring our adversaries are made well aware of it. When it exposes us, we hang on to its trailing coat-tails for the slightest shade against the harsh sun.

The plain truth about Manchester United
... is that we’re in for a long season, perhaps even a very long decade of feeding on footballing scraps. A Worthington Cup here. A UEFA Cup qualification there. Perhaps one or two FA Cup semi-finals along the way. Klebersons, Djemba-Djembas and Dongs aplenty.

It’s all starting to look like 1986 to me vis-à-vis Liverpool. Curse the scouser bastards!

The truth is that - despite his best intentions - Sir Alex Ferguson, like an aging Tessio (re: The Godfather), simply doesn’t have the wit, cunning and venom he generously deployed in commanding the troops these past two decades. Time and success have eroded his enthusiasm. The loss of his authority inside the Old Trafford dressing room is inevitable.

The truth is that Carlos Queiroz simply isn’t Steve McLaren circa 1998/99, or Brian Kidd, circa whenever.

The truth is that try all he may, Gary Neville simply isn’t half the captain Roy Keane or the great Bryan Robson was. In fact, he isn’t even close to Steve Bruce.

The truth is that players like Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Park Ji-Sung and Gabriel Heinze (for all his ability and single-minded determination) simply do not have the maturity or discipline to sustain a winning campaign in any competition, much less the increasingly competitive EPL.

The truth is that while there is no substitute for class, there certainly is little that the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the venerable Ole-Gunnar Solksjaer could do to this end. Alan Smith, I won’t even mention.

The truth – as evident during the pre-season game against the Orlando Pirates - is that John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra and Keiran Richardson are at best, mid-table material.

And here’s the truth about Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Liam Miller (Oi! There's only one Keano!).

And we all know hope simply isn’t truth. Not when it comes to Patrick Vieira, nor Genarro Gatusso, and probably not for a player like Javier Mascherano.

I am a Manchester United fan, and while I won’t be dishing out the hard-earned Ringgit for the new AIGgly strip, I will still be cheering them on from the comforts of my living room and the occasional pub this season.

But the truth is, they look like they’re headed back to where they were when I first started supporting them: 1986, mid-table rubbish!


Friday, July 14, 2006

All-time greats: Remembering Enzo Francescoli

If we regard Zinedine Zidane as the guru, then I wonder what most of us must think of the guru’s guru?

That man is Enzo Francescoli. A fler so spectacular, Zizou was not just influenced by his playing style, but even named his first son after him.

Francescoli was one of the best footballers to have ever graced the planet. More importantly, he helped us understand why Uruguay could once have been a footballing powerhouse.

If the Netherlands can be regarded as “the best country to never win the World Cup”, then I think I’d call Francescoli “the best player to never actually win anything we can recall without a quick reference to the Internet”.

It’s a long title, I know... but it fits him well.

Francescoli was the complete striker. He could get past a defender with maximum ease and minimal fuss. He was also an extremely accurate passer, and like all good strikers, could hold the ball on his own in the opposition’s half as his teammates set up shop for attack.

Twice he was voted South American Player of the Year, and such was his durability that he won those titles 11 years apart (in 1984 and 1995). An immensely likeable individual, he is still known as el principé (the prince) in River Plate, a moniker that stuck when the Olympic Marseille fans christened him le prince.

It is fair to say that anyone gifted with the guile of Pelé, the ruthless efficiency of Shearer, and the timing and positional sense of van Basten must have been one helluva striker indeed.

What I really respect about him is that he was a highly graceful individual, who aspired to give his best in whichever club he played for, and took enormous pride in what many modern players would consider mediocre accomplishments. In his own words...

"The truth is that I achieved much more than I ever thought I would when I turned professional. I played at two World Cup finals, and I'm proud to say that I gave my all every time I took to the field. I know I didn't play for clubs like Juventus or FC Barcelona, but it would be wrong of me to complain about that after everything football has given me."

I scoured through YouTube, and found this clip from a River Plate game:

Those are just three reasons why Enzo Francescoli is number 10 in my list of all-time great footballers.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The eternal paradox of Zinedine Zidane

When we tuned in to watch the World Cup finals on Sunday, we expected to see the great Zinedine Zidane end his splendid career elevated to a god-like status, hovering perhaps just a step below Pelé and Maradona.

What we got instead was a crushing reminder of his red-blooded mortality. And it threw us down to a very hard earth.

For 110 minutes of scintillating football, Zidane continued to show us why we regard him so highly, even placing him in a select category above Cryuff, Beckenbauer, Best and his compatriot Platini.

But one nipple tweak and a (terrorist?) comment later, and he lets the footballing world, his fans, France, and mostly himself terribly down. It was perhaps one of the saddest images to ever be seen in a football game, that of a dejected Zizou trudging alone and desolate to the tunnel of Berlin’s Olympiastadion, walking past the polished trophy that millions expected him to hold aloft at precisely that point in the evening.

It was a devastating moment, and dealt a shockingly sick hammer-blow which many will never get over. What was worse was that nobody in the world – Zizou included – could hope to argue against the validity of that red card; on the contrary it would have been a travesty had he not been shown one.

We could expect and even foresee such a folly coming from the petulant likes of Rooney or Beckham, or even Luis Figo... but Zidane? Not in a match like this, surely?

It really wasn’t supposed to end like this.

But the red mist is like that: Sometimes when you’re caught in it, the mind calculates so many permutations of possible actions and resulting consequences, and in spite of the heightened awareness and a crippling sense of clarity, you conspire against your own will to take the worst course of action.

The red mist is not a loss of self-control. It is in spite of all self-control.

Either team could have won the final. Trezeguet’s missed penalty really wasn’t that bad, in fact it was probably better than most scored penalties in a shoot-out. The Italians were clinical in taking their spot kicks, but so were the French. Both teams had their chances to finish it off in normal and in extra time.

All the same, France could have lost even with Zidane on the pitch. Italy could have won even without Zidane on it. The speculations are endless. And might I add, pointless.

The point is that we will all perhaps never come to terms with why Zidane committed that heinous act, in full view of the world and the best cameras the Euro could buy, and on the sport’s biggest stage, in what was the last competitive match of his life.

We will never understand how a man could summon all the calm in the world to take the penalty that gave France the lead in Berlin’s smoldering cauldron – scoring with ruthless, cheeky efficiency – and within the same game bring a crushing end to his journey, with a foolishness of such epic proportions it even borders on being English.

Let nothing detract from a professional life well lived, though. Frenchmen wondering what they will tell their children of Zidane after this incident need only cast their eyes back for about 15 years to see how much he has contributed to French football. For all that and more, they should – as should all football fans – clap a collective “Merci, Zizou” at anytime he is remembered.

And it is thoroughly fitting that FIFA chose to look beyond that to offer him the 2nd best accolade of the tournament, that of being acclaimed its best player. Once again, judging on his Real Madrid form this last season, who on earth would have foreseen that?

Oh, Zizou... will we ever understand?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dear Zizou

By the time you read this, you probably would have written yourself into the annals of sporting immortality. Once again.

All because of a voice that spoke to you early one morning.

Whatever it was, we’re glad you made that decision to come back for one last voyage. We’ve all been truly blest by your second coming. In the years we’ve known you you’ve shown us that you are king at everything fundamental in the game: control and passing. That you are blessed with such sublime skill only underscores your rightful position at the top of football’s pantheon.

Our abiding memory of you will always be of that Sunday in Paris eight years ago, when you rose above a sea of green and gold to score those two magnificent goals. You were always described as a highly intelligent player, and on that day you really used your head. In more ways than one...

We remember learning of your prodigious genius while you were still at Cannes and Bordeaux, in those years when France conspired to stay in international football wilderness for so long. Those were strange days when your compatriotes seemingly preferred cooing over Alain Prost and David Ginola instead. We understand the case for Prost, but Ginola? Perhaps they like some measure of follicle strength in their idols. We never quite understood.

How ironic that your adversaries this Sunday turn out to be your hosts who first propelled you to greatness, and that Signor Lippi, your old mentor at Juventus, will be occupying the space in the opposite dugout. Surely it couldn’t have been that long ago that you both set about your business terrorizing Serie A and Europe with such élan and aplomb.

Still, these Italians are affable wallahs and we expect we’ll be seeing satellite images of either one of you giving the other a consoling cuddle when the curtains finally fall on a remarkable Germany 2006, whichever way the whistle blows.

The last occasion you faced the Italians in the World Cup resulted in a dour stalemate, and penalties, which France eventually won. How telling that it was indeed another penalty that got France into what must probably now be the biggest game of your life. We also imagine they haven’t actually forgotten the Euro 2002 episode two years on, when the carpet of victory was pulled from beneath their designer feet. It all makes for a great climax on Sunday.

And who could forget that magnificent goal at the Champions League final of 2002, perhaps the greatest memory of you in the white of Real Madrid. We all expected to see much more of the same in the weeks that followed in Japan and Korea; alas, that wasn’t to be – the seasons took its toll, and what ensued was so much less an embarrassment for France than it was an unkind blemish on your impeccable résumé.

Come Sunday, even that episode will serve as a mere turning point in your astonishing career.

Witnessing you defy the passage of time in those games against Spain, Brazil and Portugal these past two weeks reminded us once again just how great a player you are.

Seeing you put fire back in your teammates’ bellies, and lightning back in their veins, reminded us once again of how great a leader you are.

Watching you lead your country out for one last time in Berlin this Sunday will remind us once again exactly how great a man you are.

You are already immortal, Zizou... but that glint in your eye tells us that you may yet give us one more memory of your immense greatness.

God speed, and God bless you wherever you go after that.

Le seigneur, moi donnent juste un plus momente

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The four horsemen

Ronaldo is gone. So is van Nistelrooy and Robben. And Torres, Raul, Fabregas and Villa.

While we're at it we might as well acknowledge Beckham's resignation from the captaincy (a good thing for English football). Oh, and he's gone too, along with Rooney.

Ronaldinho didn't bother showing up (was he there?). Riquelme did, and will be remembered.

Who's left? And importantly, who's gonna make an impact the next few days.

*dish* *bish* thinks it'll be these four (but what the fifi do I know anyway, right?):

Miroslav Klose
5 goals and he still looks likely to score some more. I say this because he also looks the most likely to get a penalty against the man-marking Italians. Apart from scoring, he can hold the ball up while waiting for the cavalry to arrive; ask Podolski who got two goals from this.

I expect the Italian I name below to almost blot Ballack out of the game (if MB's injury doesn't do this already); with Frings out, the German midfield is going to take some sorting out.

Klose could be the best chance they have of unlocking a chetti-like Italian defence. Germany need him more than ever.

Andrea Pirlo
I expect this game too will be a tight, cagey affair. The catalyst for an Italian victory will rest on the successful shackling of Michael Ballack.

I imagine Lippi is more likely to use Pirlo instead of Gennaro "The Snarl" Gattuso for this task, simply because at this stage you can't afford losing a player through suspensions, or worse, being reduced to 10 men; with Gattuso, that risk is always present.

Pirlo is a delicate enforcer against Gattuso's rugger-bugger, "take no prisoners" approach. And he can hit a sweet spot from set-plays too. If he's on song, the Italians will be singing.

Much will be made about the return of Deco and Costinha, and of Figo and Christina Ronaldo.

But for sheer unspotted mayhem, enter Maniche. I imagine Scolari would use him to good effect simply because the French may be paying too much attention to the above players. Maniche makes dangerous runs, passes well, does the spade work in defence, and makes a menace of himself going forward.

He's got an experienced minder in Claude Makalele (who'll also have an exciting 90 minutes looking after the interests of Deco and Figo), but one slip and Maniche will be troubling the French back four.

Whichever way the game against Portugal goes, the voices were right, and Zidane did well in reversing his retirement for one last swan song with les Blues.

Against Spain and Brazil he was a monster. Against Portugal we may yet see his best performance in the blue shirt.

It is plainly obvious that everyone in this French team wants to win this World Cup for Zizou as much as they want it for France and for themselves; they all look prepared to fight till the death, just like Diego and the 10 Argentines in '86.

And nobody in the footballing planet will begrudge this gentleman of the spotlight.

Plus, I like Zidane.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Oh woe is me... Argentina is gone!

... and that doesn't even begin to explain this whole miserable weekend.

First the anxiety of seeing Riquelme and Crespo off for Cambiasso and Cruz, after the goalie injury which further compounded / limited the substitutions. Then the agony of the botched penalties. And the unfortunate melee.

Heartbreaking. I'm still reeling from the pain.

As expected, Italy came through against Ukraine. I believe I've not watched a full 90 minutes of any Ukraine game, and this was no different. 1-0 up at half-time, and I was off to bed. I was suprised to find out the Italians actually bothered scoring another two goals.

I don't really care to talk about the England game. Watched every minute of it, and strangely England played better with 10 men than they ever did with 11. Lampard couldn't have scored with 10 penalties. Rooney is getting on my nerves, and C. Ronaldo isn't that far behind him (and this coming from a MU fan, mind you).

Then came the Brazilian shocker (or French delight, depending on your p.o.v.). In all fairness, the French deserved a bigger victory against the hapless seleciao, who never looked likely to score / win.

And I couldn't be happier for Zidane, whom I rank very highly as a footballing legend. He single-handedly held siege on the Brazilian goal throughout the game; I put my money on them against Brazil in '98, and I'm doing so again this year.

Plus, Zidane makes me feel bloody good about my receding hairline.

Ouef! Don't you laugh at ze bald spot again, mon ami!

Sunday night rolls by and I can't sleep because I've gotten used to these late nights. The US Grand Prix is on, and to compound the injury further, it looks like the pariah flers at McLaren are fast becoming the Frank Lampard of Formula 1, with Montoya and Raikonnen making a mess of their season.

As if to round off my miserable weekend, this bloody fool up and wins it.

The pain. The pain...