Monday, 28 November 2011

Le Carré Magique

When it comes to footballing combinations of flair and panache, it appears that three really is the magic number. Down the years there have been a host of attacking triumvirates that have excited passions and frightened defences. From Sunderland’s infernal triangle of Cuggy, Mordue and Buchan in the 1910s, Brazil’s 1950 inside-forward trio of Ademir, Jair and Zizinho, Manchester United’s “holy trinity” of Charlton, Best and Law in the 60s, to the three R’s (Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho) that dominated the 2002 World Cup, threesomes have always had something special about them.

Even attacking quintets have often appealed. River Plate’s La Maquina team of the 1940s saw a forward line of Labruna, Loustau, Moreno, Muñoz and Pedernera probe every part of opposing defences with a love of ball retention which pre-empted Michels’ Total Football and the Barcelona side of today. In 1970 Brazil set the world alight with their five “number 10s” of Gerson, Jairzinho, Pelé, Rivellino and Tostao. The incomparable beauty of their football (aided by the advent of colour television) left an indelible imprint on lovers of the game which remains to this day.

Foursomes, though, are rather more prosaic. Very few people have ever been excited by a footballing quartet. From Arsenal’s flat back four of Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn to Serbia’s “famous four” who kept nine clean sheets in ten qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, fours are known for solidity rather than brilliance. Even Manchester United’s midfield at the turn of the century which combined Beckham, Giggs, Keane and Scholes was noted more for its proficiency than its romance. Each player was a master of their role, but, Giggs aside, there was a lack of the swashbuckling genius which defined many of the great teams who went before. If anything they were too complete and well balanced to fit the mould of special combinations.

The exception that proves the rule in the case of foursomes was that of France in the early to mid-eighties. The midfield of Luis Fernández, Alain Giresse, Michel Platini and Jean Tigana which came to be known as “Le Carré Magique” (The Magic Square) demonstrated quite what can happen when an exceptional generation come together. The brilliance of the cohort was characterised by a unique combination of teamwork with creativity and invention. The French midfield managed to combine function with beauty and obtained (at least some of) the results that their labours deserved.

Undeniably the greatest individual of the quartet was Michel Platini. A prodigious talent, he strolled around the midfield with the air of a French cavalry officer, splitting defences at will with his vision and astounding range of passing. Platini was the playmaker, orchestrator and brain of the team. Arguably his finest attribute (yes, even better than those free-kicks) was an ability to find space in the most congested midfields and he used every inch he found to devastating effect.  Initial doubts about the strength of his heart as an adolescent were ironic, given the vigour with which he led France. Even in a midfield this talented, it was only natural that the rest would defer to his genius.

Alain Giresse was the perfect example of how technical accomplishments could overcome physical shortcomings. Standing at only 5 feet 4 inches, Giresse was not the archetypal sports star. The diminutive midfielder was, however, a master with the ball at his feet. The incisive passing and ball retention which Giresse possessed were an integral part of the French game, while his low centre of gravity allowed him to skip past opposing challenges with typical Gallic flair. His slight stature also belied an impressive work-rate and a tigerish desire to win possession.

Jean Tigana was the engine of the side. Every movement he made appeared to be at pace, surging forward and driving the team from the heart of midfield. In the modern game only Michael Essien (when fit and in form) comes close to matching the dynamism that Tigana embodied. Yet to focus solely on his physical attributes is to ignore the subtlety of passing and the lightness of touch that the man from Mali demonstrated. Tigana was more than just an athlete, he was a complete footballer, comfortable and confident in multiple situations.

The final piece of the puzzle for the French was Luis Fernández. His arrival in the team gave greater balance to a square that had looked decidedly lopsided beforehand. In 1982 France had deployed a midfield of Giresse, Platini and Tigana in combination with Bernard Genghini. Genghini was himself an excellent player, graceful and elegant on the ball with a fabulous left foot, but his presence meant the French were defensively lacking. Fernández brought a more combative element to the team as well as rejuvenating a side lacking in youth.

As Fernández himself said when reflecting on the name, it was “magic, because there was an understanding. Each one of us knew what we had to do. I couldn’t play like Platini, and he couldn’t play like me. Giresse couldn’t play like me, nor could I play like him. But Platini needed Fernández, Fernández needed Tigana, Giresse and Platini. And everyone knew that Le Carré Magique was France’s great strength.”

Prior to the 1980s, France had enjoyed very limited success on the field. The French were unrivalled as football administrators, producing the likes of Robert Guerin, Jules Rimet, Gabriele Hanot and Henri Delauney, but a lack of interest in the game domestically had led to an inability to challenge the major powers. The only previous generation to have achieved anything of note was the French team of the late 1950s featuring Kopa, Fontaine and Jonquet who had managed a semi-final appearance at the World Cup in Sweden and repeated the feat in the inaugural European Championships.

The 1982 World Cup changed all that. Not only did France reach the semi-finals, the manner of their defeat on penalties to West Germany (following the infamous Harald Schumacher “tackle” on Patrick Battiston) left France as the moral victors. Along with a stellar Brazil team, France were the side who most looked to be positive while the style of their approach play won them admirers. Home advantage for the 1984 European Championship was simply one more reason that many neutrals favoured Les Bleus before the beginning of the competition.

The tournament began with a game more memorable for a late contretemps between Manuel Amoros and Jesper Olsen than the quality of football. The Danes responded to the danger of Platini by using Klaus Berggren as a man marker in midfield, largely nullifying the Juventus man in the first-half with the exception of a well struck free-kick which was sharply saved by Qvist. The most notable action of the first-half was a tackle by Yvon Le Roux which broke the leg of the great Allan Simonsen and ended his participation in the tournament.

The second-half saw France finally make the breakthrough that the home crowd demanded as the magic square combined to devastating effect. Tigana started the move, close to the centre-circle with a composed pass to Giresse rushing forward, he attempted to feed Lacombe but the Danes’ attempt to scramble the ball away only served to present it to Platini on the edge of the area. Platini’s right-footed drive was deflected away from the diving Qvist by Berggren and into the net. Late on Olsen, a substitute for Frank Arnesen, brought down Amoros and having thrown the ball at his assailant from a yard away (and missed) the Frenchman proceeded to head butt the Dane in full view of referee Roth. Amoros’s dismissal came too late to change the course of the game and France made the perfect start to their campaign.

France’s second game came against a Belgium team who had been excellent in their opener, a 2-0 victory over Yugoslavia. However, it proved a far easier victory for the French than their first game as they thrashed their neighbours 5-0, the midfield quartet responsible for all the goals. Platini opened the scoring in the 3rd minute of the game with a superbly struck low curling shot that left Pfaff helpless after Battiston had seen a thunderous free-kick come back off the bar. Belgium could easily have levelled the game when Michel De Wolf hit the post and Vandenbergh headed wide from close range. France though stormed back with Tigana setting Giresse through to chip Pfaff and extend the French lead. Fernández headed in a third before half-time from Giresse’s cross after neat footwork from Didier Six.

Belgian changes were needed. 18 year old Enzo Scifo was withdrawn early in the second-half as their midfield, not unexpectedly, was overrun by Platini, Giresse and Tigana. That did not stem the tide. The French went four up when Platini calmly converted a penalty after Pfaff had upended Six, before Platini’s angled header from Giresse’s delightful cross completed the rout. In scoring against Belgium, Platini had surpassed Just Fontaine’s longstanding record of 27 international goals for France, an incredible achievement for a midfielder.

Having already qualified for the semi-finals, some managers might have chosen to rest players for the final match against Yugoslavia. Not Michel Hidalgo. France instead sent out a full strength line-up, though Jean-Marc Ferreri joined the regular midfield foursome to make an unusual quintet across the middle. The Yugoslavs, already eliminated having lost to Belgium and Denmark, took a surprise lead in the 31st minute via Sestic, before Giresse crashed a volley off the bar to remind them of the calibre of their opposition.

After the interval Platini put on a masterclass which demonstrated that even in an era of Maradona, Schuster and Zico, he was the midfield general par excellence. His first goal saw him steer a low Ferreri cross beneath the body of Simovic, the second was a magnificent diving header, before the coup de grace, a trademark free-kick which dipped late and left the Yugoslav keeper helpless. The perfect hat-trick.

France’s semi-final with Portugal was the game which defined the team and, indeed, the era. The Portuguese, in the doldrums since the era of Eusebio and Coluna, had qualified second from a tough group which included defending champions West Germany. At a feverish Stade Velodrome in Marseille the two teams played out one of the classic matches in European Championship history.

The French went ahead from a fabulously taken free-kick. For once though it wasn’t Platini that took it, instead Jean-Francois Domergue stepped up and hit a swerving effort which flew into the net. The natural anticipation from ‘keeper Bento when lining up his wall was that Platini would attempt a curling right-footed effort, the left-footed blast from Domergue catching him completely unawares. Portugal offered little going forward in their attempts to get back into the match, bar a long-range effort from Jordao which sailed over.

When the teams came back from the half-time break it was again France who went on the offensive. Bento denied first Fernández and then Giresse (twice) as the Portuguese fought to stay in the game. Undoubtedly the busier of the keepers, Bento then made two good saves from Platini, the first a shot tipped over the bar, the second a low diving save to deny the French. Just when France appeared to be in full control Portugal sprang into life. A minute after denying Fernando Gomes, French keeper Bats was beaten. Chalana provided an accurate cross, Jordao leapt high above the aghast French defence and powered an excellent header into corner of the goal. France’s apparent procession to the final was on hold.

In extra-time the game ebbed and flowed with the sides taking turns to go on the offensive. Portugal needed luck if they were to overcome a superior French team and in the 97th minute they got it. A deep cross from Chalana again searched out Jordao who volleyed his shot into the ground and over the despairing Bats. The Auxerre goalkeeper had his angles well worked, but was left paralysed by the unfortunate bounce. As France roared forward desperately in search of an equaliser they were almost caught out and required a sharp save from Bats to deny Nene.

The second period of added time saw France push forward once more. Domergue, now playing more as a winger than a full-back, played the ball into the box and continued his run. The penalty area was a sea of bodies, the Portuguese desperately attempting to repel the attacks of the host, yet somehow Le Roux and Platini managed to scramble the ball back to Domergue who fired past Bento and French hopes were alive once more. The game though was far from over. With just a minute remaining Jean Tigana picked the ball up roughly 40 yards from goal. With his characteristic brio he powered to the Portuguese byline, evading the lunges of multiple defenders before pulling the ball back to Platini in the six-yard box. Most players would have thrashed at first time in the heat of the moment, at the risk of blazing their shot over the bar. However, with the calmness and special awareness that defined his career, Platini took a touch, swivelled and fired the ball into the roof of the net.

France’s reward for that incredible victory was a clash with neighbours Spain who had defeated Denmark in the other semi-final. Understandably given the tremendous influence he had exerted during the finals, Spain chose to use Jose Antonio Camacho as a man-marker on Platini in the hope of stifling his contribution. In focusing so much on one player (however good) there was always the suspicion that Spain might end up leaving more room for the likes of Giresse and Tigana to control the midfield.

After the pulsating climax against Portugal, the first half of the final was slightly underwhelming. Giresse had an early shot comfortably saved by Arconada, Bellone steered a dangerous ball across goal, while Victor headed narrowly wide for Spain. For all the pre-match expectations, France were unable to establish the fluency of passing which had been an integral part of their previous success. Towards the end of the half Santillana twice went close, first seeing his header cleared off the line by Battiston, then dragging a shot inches wide of the post.

The second-half also began cagily. Bellone drew a save from Arcanada as the French slowly began to press. Ten minutes in, France were gifted a non-existent free-kick for a supposed foul on Lacombe just outside the penalty area. Platini stepped up and curled a right-footed free-kick around the wall and into the arms of the diving Arconada. With the ball easily within his grasp Arconada inexplicably allowed the shot to squirm under his body and trickle into the net. Platini scored a multitude of magnificent free-kicks that had bemused and bamboozled goalkeepers, yet for this one the Spanish ‘keeper merely gifted him the goal in the biggest game of his career.

Having finally got the goal they had pressed for, France grew in strength. First Lacombe’s shot was well saved by Arconada, then Giresse went close but fired just wide. On a rare foray forward the Spanish saw Santillana’s header from Francisco’s cross whistle narrowly over the bar. With around six minutes remaining Spain were thrown a lifeline. Le Roux, already booked for a foul on Santillana, was sent off after bringing down Sarabia. Still though they could not penetrate a packed French defence and the hosts looked to wind down the clock by any means possible. With most of the Spanish team camped in the French half, Jean Tigana burst through the Spanish midfield and played a superb through-ball for Bruno Balone to advance on goal and chip the onrushing Arconada. France’s victory was assured.

France’s triumph was one founded on the collective, a well organised and well rounded team which had a wonderful understanding of how their style of play fitted together.  As Alain Giresse reflected on quite what made the quartet so special: “It was a complementary midfield, with players who knew how to work, build, distribute, finish. And we liked having the ball.” Few will ever forget how Le Carré Magique set the summer of 1984 alight.

Yet even among a midfield (and the team as a whole) which was full of excellent players, one man stood out; Platini. When we remember the great individuals at great tournaments, thoughts so often centre on the World Cups of Garrincha in 1962, Pelé in 1970 and Maradona in 1986, but Platini’s 1984 stands comparison with any of them. 9 goals in 5 games tells part of the story, but even that astonishing statistic (the next highest scorers in the tournament managed just 2) sells him short. Dominique Rochetau perhaps summed it up best, “Michel could play with his eyes shut. I’ve never seen a player with such vision, a panoramic vision of the pitch”.

This article originally appeared on The Equaliser.

Armando Picchi - First of the Liberos

Everyone with a modicum of football knowledge has heard of Catenaccio – the system synonymous with generations of Italian defenders. Yet very few remember its finest practitioner Armando Picchi, the man around whom the system of La Grande Inter was built. The first of the famous Liberos made an indelible mark on the game’s tactical history.

The memory of Picchi presents football historians with an obvious contradiction. Italian teams since the 1960s have been associated with a pragmatic, safety first approach to the game which was founded on the beauty of the 1-0 victory. Meanwhile individual Italians have long been seen as stylish exponents of the Beautiful Game. From Gaetano Scirea in the 1980s to Franco Baresi in the 1990s and Alessandro Nesta in the 2000s, the best Italian defenders have always personified the idea of La Bella Figura that dominates popular perceptions of Italy with their composure on the ball and trademark swagger.

Picchi though was different. He defined the Libero role in the team which created the legend of Catenaccio, and yet this was no ordinary team, no ordinary Italian defence. He was an atypical Libero in an atypical team. For while Inter are forever remembered as a primarily defensive side, the truth was that their defensive brilliance was a platform for a host of attacking stars to shine. Picchi meanwhile was far from fitting the image of the classical Libero in his style of play.

The ideas of Catenaccio started in Switzerland. With the rest of Europe making clear tactical progress the Swiss designed a system to get the very best out of more limited players. The man that came up with the plan, Karl Rappan, was not actually Swiss himself but Austrian and the system he created became known as the Verrou (or “the bolt” in English).

Both the pyramid formation (2-3-5) and the WM (3-2-2-3) which had been dominant through the footballing world since the 1880s had obvious defensive frailties. Rappan’s bolt aimed to combine the best of both formations and provide greater defensive strength which would suit his more limited players. The bolt retained the use of an attacking centre-half which had been the cornerstone of the pyramid, but withdrew the wing-halves into the defensive line. This allowed the centre-half (who had been forced into a defensive role in the WM) to remain as the playmaker and organiser of the team.

Rather than playing a flat-back four as in the modern game, Rappan asked his central defenders to line up behind each other, so that as one went to challenge for the ball the other would be in place to act as a spare man (or Libero in Italian). This “sweeper” would then be well placed to deal with any second balls or to act as a second line of defence if his partner failed to win his challenge.

Helenio Herrera was not the first manager to use a system derived from the Verrou, but his Inter Milan team were certainly its most famous exponents. While both Gipo Viani of Salernitana and Nereo Rocco, first at Triestina and then with AC Milan, could lay claim to being the godfathers of Catenaccio in Serie A, it is the Argentine born Herrera that remains inextricably linked with the system.

The side that Herrera developed in Milan was special in a number of respects. The link between midfield and attack in particular stood out, with the combination play between Luisito Suarez and Sandro Mazzola the key to so many goals. Mario Corso and Jair were a sublime pair of wingers, who despite suggestions of inconsistency were capable of turning the tightest game. Giacinto Facchetti could lay claim to being the first attacking fullback in the modern sense as he rampaged down the left touchline.

Yet the foundation of the team’s greatness was unquestionably the defence.  When Herrera won his first Scudetto in 1962-3 both Bologna and Roma scored more goals than Inter, but they finished fourth and fifth respectively due to leaky defences. Inter’s was watertight. That in turn provided the security for the team to include the likes of Corso, Mazzola and Suarez whose genius necessitated a protective shield in the backline.
The man that this defensive solidity was founded upon was Picchi. While he might have lacked much of the grace which defined later Italian defenders he made up for it with positional discipline and a sense of anticipation that allowed him to pick off opposition attacks before they could trouble keeper Giuliano Sarti. Whereas most teams required the goalkeeper to act as the last line of defence, Inter had Picchi in position to mop up any potential threats.

As KennethWolstenholme wrote in The Pros, “If a player got beyond the line of four backs, either by dribbling his way there or by creating space with one-two passing movement with a colleague, he would be confronted by Picchi. Any player who ran through to pick up a long pass would be confronted by … Picchi. Any high lob or centre which was floated into the Inter Milan goalmouth would be picked off by … Picchi.” Indeed it seemed at times, such as in 1963 when Inter held Everton to a goalless draw at Goodison Park, that Picchi was everywhere in the defence and that the Inter fortifications were impenetrable.

Real Madrid were in something of a transitional phase by the time that they faced Inter in the European Cup final of 1963-4. Although Di Stefano and Puskas remained, they were both 37 and the Ye-yé team that would win the 1966 edition was yet to emerge. They did though know how to score goals, having hit 83 of them in winning the 1962-3 La Liga title, while Puskas and Di Stefano had 12 between them in the European Cup prior to the 1964 final. In that game in Vienna, Inter strangled the Madrid attacks at source but when threats did arise Picchi was there to snuff them out. By the time that Felo netted for Madrid to make the score 3-1 there was never any hope of a Madrid fightback. The team that had put seven past Eintracht Frankfurt four years earlier was nullified.

The following season Inter triumphed again in a match that perhaps epitomised Herrera’s approach while in Milan. Played against Benfica, the European Champions of 1961 and 1962, Inter took the lead through Brazilian winger Jair after 42 minutes and then proceeded to shut the Portuguese side out with ruthless efficiency. A team that had been rampant against Real Madrid in the 1962 final (arguably the finest club match ever played) were forced to live on scraps and Picchi did not allow them any chances.

While Inter’s 1967 European Cup final defeat against Celtic has been hailed in Britain as a triumph for attacking football (Bill Shankly whose Liverpool team  had suffered some rough justice at the hands of Inter in the 1965 semi-finals famously told Jock Stein “John, you’re immortal now” in recognition of the achievement), it also underlined the fallibility of the Inter system under pressure from numerous attackers. Celtic’s fullbacks, Craig and Gemmell, both attacked with the brio of Facchetti in his prime and while it seemed for a time that Inter might hold out, the sustained ferocity of Celtic’s forays forward left an unbearable burden on the Libero. Picchi dealt with wave after wave of attacks but he could not sweep up after so many attackers.

That match marked the beginning of the end for Inter, Herrera and Picchi. Following that defeat Inter began to disintegrate and Picchi moved to Varese in late 1967. The following summer after finishing fifth in the league Herrera left for Roma. La Grande Inter was no more.

Picchi though had marked himself out as the defining Libero for the combination of attributes that he brought to the role. Criminally underused by Italy, he won only 12 caps for the national side and was sorely missed in the catastrophic 1966 World Cup campaign, Picchi did enough in his club career to leave an enduring legacy. While the 1970s saw central defenders effectively split into elegant sweepers such as Franz Beckenbauer and hardened stoppers such as Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Picchi was an amalgam of the two, the first and effectively the only stopper-sweeper.

What made him such a fine player of his type was his love of defending coupled with the patience to stay in position throughout a match. Many players in a team as dominating as Inter might have been tempted to venture forward in order to get more involved. Picchi was aware of where his strengths lay and was content to serve the team by providing the platform from which they could launch their attacks. Brian Glanville in Champions of Europe recalled Picchi’s unstinting will to win and how, when playing in a casual game in Battersea Park, he had berated a friend for his constant errors on the wing. This desire to be the best, coupled with a love of clean sheets, made Picchi the ideal man to be Herrera’s voice on the pitch.

This article originally appeared on IBWM.

Monday, 21 November 2011

NOPA Nomination - Vote for Ademir to Zizinho

Ademir to Zizinho has amazingly been shortlisted in the Best New Blog category at the NOPA awards. Sincere thanks to anyone who nominated the blog and if you would like to vote for us in the People's Choice Award you can do so here. Thanks again!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Dejan Savicevic and the Definition of Genius


1. Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
2. A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect: “musical genius“.

Genius is an overused word in football. Nowadays “geniuses” appear to be ten-a-penny, along with “legends” and “great” players. In reality the very essence of genius is its rarity, the creative spark which separates the best from the rest.

Some would scoff at the idea that footballers can be geniuses. In English football the word “genius” is most typically applied to players like Paul Gascoigne or Wayne Rooney, men who do not match the conventional intellectual profile of an Einstein or Newton. Yet few of the doubters would question the credentials of men such as Mozart or Picasso who excelled in non-academic spheres to be lauded with such a term.

Both music and art can draw clear links with the scientific fields that are more commonly associated with the idea of genius. The tempo of musical scores, the rhythm and the pitch all rely on physics and mathematics to create the ideal composition. In art the angles and lines, the sense of perfect proportion, depend on applied of mathematics and make clear why so many figures of the Renaissance were accomplished in scientific disciplines.

The very best footballers do the same which is why the ridicule often given to their intellectual capacities is so misplaced. The metronomic qualities of Xavi dictate the tempo of matches with the quality of the greatest composers. Michael Laudrup demonstrated a level of vision to rival the greatest artists, while the spatial awareness of Michel Platini was illustrative of great intelligence.

Dejan Savicevic was just such a player. His nimble footwork and ability to change direction at pace marked him out as one of the most graceful footballers of his generation. Where many of the best players see passes that do not appear to exist, Savicevic’s dribbling  allowed him to find a way through defences which seemed impregnable. His balance, low centre of gravity and sheer doggedness allowed him to ride tackles, evade defenders and retain possession where lesser players would have tumbled.

Naturally dribbling was not the only string to Savicevic’s bow. His control was instant, while his left foot was like a wand in the spell it cast over a football. What set him apart from his rivals was the feeling that he was always one move ahead of his opponents. On countless occasions Savicevic appeared cornered only to somehow anticipate the challenges of defenders, to wriggle out of trouble and create mayhem in the opposing penalty area.

In addition his passing married vision with technique in a manner that only the best could do. In an era where playmakers still reigned supreme, Savicevic could rival the best of them for the range and variety of his passing. If ever something special was required to unlock the most stubborn defence the imagination of Savicevic in his prime was as likely to find the key as any of his competitors. No wonder then that many consider the Montenegrin one of football’s great geniuses.

Savicevic began his career at his hometown club, FK Buducnost of Titograd, and he stood out from an early age. At 17 the young Savicevic had established himself in the team, for despite his tender years his technique was that of a master of the game. Savicevic impressed in Titograd enough to win a call up to the Yugoslav national team and he scored on his debut against Turkey during a Euro ‘88 qualifier. His arrival in the national team found the side caught in between generations, with the bulk of the team who had qualified for Euro ‘84 nearing the end of their career, while the youngsters who would win the World Youth Championship of 1987 were yet to step up to the full team.

Buducnost were perennial strugglers in the Yugoslav top flight and the impressive form that Savicevic showed for both club and country meant it was only a matter of time before a bigger club would come calling for his services. After a three way tussle between the giants of Belgrade, Red Star and Partizan, as well as Hadjuk Split, Savicevic opted for Red Star to provide a better platform for his skills.

In his first season at Red Star, Savicevic was called to national service which saw him miss all the domestic games for the club, though he was permitted to play for the team in the European Cup and for the Yugoslav national team. Red Star overcame Dundalk in the first round of the European Cup 8-0 on aggregate, with Savicevic scoring the final goal in a 3-0 second-leg victory, to set up a clash with Italian champions AC Milan. Having added Frank Rijkaard to the Dutch contingent of Gullit and Van Basten in the summer of 1988, Milan were predictably viewed as among the strongest sides in Europe. Red Star, though, were a match for them, drawing 1-1 in the San Siro as Dragan Stoijkovic’s goal was immediately cancelled out by Pietro Paolo Virdis. In the second-leg Savicevic gave Red Star the lead early in the second half with a stunning strike, only for the game to be called off as the pitch was enveloped by fog. The replay took place the next day but was not so kind to Savicevic. Van Basten had given the Italians a one goal lead only for Stoijkovic to hit back. When the match went to penalties both Savicevic and Mitar Mrkela saw their penalties saved, while Milan made no mistakes as they progressed in a season which ultimately saw them lift the trophy.

The following season Red Star regained the Yugoslav title they had lost the previous season and the beginnings of a special side were starting to emerge. Savicevic occupied a role somewhere in between the midfield and attack, with the freedom to move across the line. Behind him sat Stoijkovic, the classical playmaker, who dictated the tempo for the team alongside the young Robert Prosinecki. With the predatory Pancev up front, Red Star had a man well placed to finish the multitude of chances fashioned by this creative trio.

The summer of 1990 saw Yugoslavia’s last hurrah on the international stage. Savicevic began the match against West Germany which saw the Yugoslavs steamrollered by a team at the peak of their powers, with Lothar Matthaus in particular giving a masterclass from midfield. From then on his role in the tournament was as a substitute (no disgrace given the options that Yugoslavia enjoyed in clubmates Pancev, Prosinecki and Stoijkovic as well as Safet Susic, Alen Boksic, Davor Suker and Zlatko Vujovic). In the quarter-final against defending champions Argentina, Savicevic emerged on the hour-mark and converted his spot-kick in the shootout, only for Stoijkovic, normally so deadly from set pieces, to crash his penalty against the bar.

Stoijkovic’s heroics at Italia ‘90 made it inevitable that a host of suitors would beat a path to Red Star’s door. Bernard Tapie’s Marseille were the team that managed to tempt him, but the gaping hole in the midfield would not be easy to fill. Sensibly Red Star did not attempt to replace Stoijkovic, rather to build a midfield around what talents they already had. The return of Vladimir Jugovic from a loan-spell with FK Rad, gave Red Star a tenacious central midfielder who could reduce the burden on Prosinecki and supply the ball to the mercurial Savicevic with greater speed.

For Red Star the ‘90/91 domestic season was wrapped up with little difficulty, winning the Yugoslav title by eight points from Dinamo Zagreb, yet it was in Europe that the real excitement came. An incredible run in the European Cup saw the club overcome Grasshoppers, Rangers and Dynamo Dresden to set up a semi-final encounter with Bayern Munich. The first leg saw Red Star pull off an improbable victory in Munich with Savicevic scoring the second of their goals. In the return leg in Marakana the game looked set for extra-time with Bayern leading 2-1, only for Klaus Augentahler to put through his own net in the ninetieth minute to hand Red Star a place in the final.

The game in Bari against Marseille proved to be a drab affair. Despite the host of attacking players on both teams (Marseille’s team contained the likes of Chris Waddle, Abedi Pele and Jean-Pierre Papin, with Stoijkovic on the bench) neither was adventurous enough to go for the victory. Red Star in particular showed the limit of their ambition as they withdrew Savicevic in the closing minutes of normal time to put on a far more defensive midfielder in Vlada Stosic in search of penalties. The strategy paid off as Manuel Amoros’s missed spot-kick handed Red Star the European crown. Savicevic finished joint second in the voting for the Ballon D’Or in recognition of his contribution to the success.

In 1991 Yugoslavia fell apart as civil war gripped the nation. Red Star won the Yugoslav championship ahead of Partizan, yet the Croatian clubs had already withdrawn. While insignificant in the context of the conflict raging in Yugoslavia, the war had a dramatic impact on football in the country. The Yugoslav national team had qualified in style for the European Championships of 1992 to be held in Sweden and were regarded by many as among the favourites for the competition. International sanctions though forced their withdrawal from the tournament allowing Denmark (runners up in their qualifying group) to take their place. The Danes’ shock victory at Euro ‘92 only served to raise further questions on just how well Yugoslavia might have done had they been allowed to compete.

With his country in tatters, Savicevic joined the exodus of Yugoslav players in the summer of 1992 and joined AC Milan in a big money move. However, Savicevic’s transfer was put rather in the shade by the world record transfer fees paid first for Jean-Pierre Papin and then Gianluigi Lentini, as Fabio Capello strengthened a side which had not lost a single game in the previous season.

The twentieth century saw tycoons such as Edoardo Agnelli and Angelo Moratti patronise football clubs in the way that the Medici had treated the likes of Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance. Silvio Berlusconi was no different. His rescue of AC Milan prompted a recruitment drive which brought in players of the calibre of Van Basten, Gullit and Roberto Baggio. Yet even he considered Savicevic special. His description of Savicevic as Il Genio (the Genius) summed up the priceless flashes of brilliance that marked the Montenegrin out as a rare artist.

Unfortunately for Savicevic and Berlusconi, the restrictions on foreigners in Italy at the time made the opportunities afforded to him far less he might have hoped. Just three non-Italians were allowed in the team and with Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard the foundation of a Milan side which had swept all rivals in the previous years it was a giant task just to get in the team. Even Papin who had been brought at such cost was often left out of a Milan team in imperious form. His first season at the San Siro saw Savicevic make only ten league appearances as Milan again swept to the league title. They were also losing finalists in the Champions League though Savicevic did not feature in the final against Marseille.

The ‘93/94 season saw Milan win Lo Scudetto again, but Savicevic was far more involved in their success. The career ending injury suffered by Marco Van Basten in the 1993 Champions League final and Ruud Gullit’s move to Sampdoria meant that there were far more opportunities for Savicevic to start. Milan’s title was secured primarily off the back of their astonishing defence as they scored just thirty-six goals in thirty-four league games, but conceded a miserly fifteen. Savicevic featured in twenty league games but did not score a single goal demonstrating that his talents lay more in the making than the taking of chances.

It was in Europe though that Savicevic’s impact would be most keenly felt. Milan progressed smoothly to the Champions League final with the defence again the basis of their success. Conceding just two goals in eleven games en route to a clash with Barcelona, Milan would have to make do in the final without both Baresi and Costacurta who were suspended. Facing Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” few gave Milan much hope prior to kick-off yet the Rossoneri stunned the Catalans in a 4-0 drubbing in Athens. Savicevic was inevitably to the fore, scoring with a fabulously weighted lob over the head of Andoni Zubizarreta after robbing Nadal.

The remainder of Savicevic’s time at Milan would be frustrating both for the player and for fans. A combination of injuries, competition from other foreigners (as well as Roberto Baggio, who was signed in1995) plus the on-going mistrust of the mercurial Montenegrin led to Savicevic getting only limited opportunities in the team. The largely defensive nature of the team under Capello meant that the unpredictable Savicevic was viewed as luxury that the team could not always afford. Even the admiration of Berlusconi could not ensure a place for Il Genio.

Capello’s departure to Real Madrid in 1996 might have led to more opportunities for Savicevic, but Milan entered a chaotic period which saw a host of managers (including Arrigo Sacchi) come and go as well as a raft of players brought in only to be subsequently jettisoned. Milan could only manage mid-table finishes in the ‘96/97 and ‘97/98 seasons and with the arrival of Alberto Zaccheroni as manager in 1998, Savicevic chose to return to Red Star. His time there was brief and he rounded off his career with two seasons at Rapid Vienna where he shone, despite injuries restricting his playing time.

Savicevic’s list of honours (a hat-trick of both Yugoslav and Italian league titles to go with his two European Cups) compares favourably with the very best players of his era. Yet there will always be a sense of what might have been when discussing such a gifted footballer. The political instability in Yugoslavia, the injuries suffered, as well as the restrictions imposed within Italy while he was at Milan meant that he never had the opportunity to do full justice to such remarkable talents.

Despite that, Savicevic remains one of the most fondly remembered players of the early 1990s. His slaloming dribbles, deft touches and clinically taken goals made him a fan favourite in a league which possessed almost all the world’s greatest players. Because, for all the difficulties Savicevic faced he was, on his day, as graceful and spectacular as any player in the world. He possessed the innate ability to produce the incredible at any moment, to conjure something from nothing and send fans away talking of nothing else. That’s why to his admirers he will always be Il Genio.

This article originally appeared on the Equaliser

Horst Szymaniak - Forgotten Great

When romantics look back at the great teams of the early post-war era, very few pick West Germany among their most memorable sides. In the historical narrative of football the West Germans of the period were most commonly cast as the villains of the piece. The 1954 World Cup is popularly remembered for the valiant loss of the Magical Magyars, Werner Liebrich’s tackle on Puskas in the group stage which took such a toll on the “Galloping Major” and the Battle of Berne which saw Brazil and Hungary slug out one of the most violent encounters of all time. Nobody recalls the victorious West Germany side of Helmut Rahn, Fritz Walter or Hans Schafer.  

Equally, the team of the 1966 World Cup are defined merely as England’s defeated adversaries in the final, as also-rans, a necessary evil in the inevitable path to glory of Bobby Moore et al. The performances of Franz Beckenbauer, who scored four goals from midfield as a 20 year old, or Helmut Haller, whose six goals (including one in the final) was only bettered by Eusebio, have fallen by the wayside. Instead the memories are restricted solely to those of the Three Lions, the Black Panther, and an expelled Argentine captain.

If details of 1954 and 1966 are a little hazy, then the teams of 1958 and 1962 have been lost in the mists of time. Yet for any other nation these tournaments would have been vintage displays to be reminisced over for years to come (note the mythology which has built up around England’s only other participation in a World Cup semi-final in 1990). For the West Germans a semi-final and quarter-final were merely the bare minimum to be expected at an international competition.

Of all the great players in these teams (names such as Uwe Seeler, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and “World Cup” Willi Schulz live on in the popular imagination) the player whose legacy least recognises his tremendous talent was Horst Szymaniak. On the face of it Szymaniak was eminently forgettable. A left-half from the Ruhr, Germany’s traditional mining and industrial region, Szymaniak was not blessed with the Hollywood looks or the maverick tendencies of a George Best. He did not win countless trophies for a host of rich and decorated clubs. Yet he made himself a reputation within Germany and beyond as one of the finest midfielders of his age.

Szymaniak began his career at local club SpVgg Erkenschwick. West Germany at the time still operated a regional league system (the national Bundesliga was not born until 1963), but even in that structure the team were not at the top of the ladder. Szymaniak broke into the first team at the age of 18 and quickly established himself as a regular. When nearby Wuppertal SV were promoted to the Oberliga West (the highest league in Western Germany under the regional system) in 1955 they naturally came calling for the bright young prospect to bolster their chances in the top flight.

Wuppertal were though far from dominant in the Oberliga. Their primary concern was to avoid relegation, but in a team like this Szymaniak stood out. As a teenager at Erkenschwick, Szymaniak had lacked the physical strength to accompany his composure on the ball, but as he matured he filled out into a force of nature in the Wuppertal midfield. It was in his early years at his new club that he first caught the attention of national team manager Sepp Herberger.

Szymaniak’s first involvement with Die Mannschaft was for the B team in a game against Spain in May 1956 which saw him play in an unfamiliar right-wing role. He impressed enough though to win a call up later that year for the full team (the reigning world champions at the time) in a match against Switzerland. Szymaniak suffered an injury in that game and had to be replaced at left-half by Karl Mai, but he returned a month later against Belgium and soon established himself as a vital part of the German side.

On his arrival on the international stage comparisons were naturally made with Germany’s last great half-back, Andreas Kupfer. Kupfer was an integral part of the German side of the 1930s, the team that came to be known as the “Breslau Elf” on account of their 8-0 thrashing of Denmark in that city in 1937. For Szymaniak then the expectations were significant if he was to equal the achievements of his exceptional predecessor, yet he managed to, if anything, exceed the performances of Kupfer in his domination of Germany’s midfield.

Although Wuppertal SV were relegated from the Oberliga in 1958, Szymaniak’s disappointment was tempered by the opportunity to play in his first World Cup. The Germans reached the semi-finals before defeat to the hosts, Sweden. Szymaniak was the team’s brightest spark and was named among numerous “all-star” tournament selections at left-half in recognition of his fine all-round contribution as well as finishing 8th in the Ballon D’Or. Most players who had enjoyed a tournament of this calibre would have baulked at the thought have returning to play in the second division of a regional league. Szymaniak though was determined to do everything he could to take Wuppertal back to the top flight.

Despite his best efforts Wuppertal were unable to clinch promotion in the 1958-9 season, and so Szymaniak realised he needed to move on if he was to retain his place in the national team. Rumours were widespread of a move to Spanish giants Barcelona or Real Madrid, but Schimmi, as he was popularly known, decided to stay in West Germany with Karlsruher SC. For the first time in his career, Szymaniak had a club which could afford him an appropriate platform for his skills and he did not disappoint. In his first season at Karslruher SC, the team won the Oberliga South and were beaten finalists in the German Cup, losing 3-2 to Borussia Moenchengladbach.

In 1961 Szymaniak was again on the move, this time to Italy. CC Catania of Sicily were desperate to acquire his services, and in making the switch Szymaniak became only the third German, after Ludwig Janda and Horst Buhtz, to play in Serie A. The move in clubs also prompted a change in positions for Szymaniak who was used almost exclusively by Catania as an inside-forward. The team felt that Szymaniak’s creativity and intelligence was of greater value closer to goal and so considered him wasted at half-back. However, Catania were generally a struggling team in Serie A and as such Szymaniak’s defensive qualities were still put to the test.

Szymaniak’s performances at Catania were enough to persuade Helenio Herrera that he could be used to improve an Internazionale team who were already Italian champions. The move to Inter came at a time when Szymaniak might be thought to have been entering his peak, at 28 he still had much to offer to any team. Yet his time at Inter was a frustrating one. Italian regulations at the time limited teams to  just two foreigners, and Herrera was totally set on a formation which included Luis Suarez as his playmaker and Jair on the right-wing. Szymaniak was bought therefore almost exclusively to be used in the European Cup, where no such limit existed.

Schimmi was an integral part therefore of the team for midweek games, but found himself left out of the side for the league matches. This might have worked for Szymaniak had his contributions been properly recognised. Instead, after playing a key role in Inter’s route to the final he was promptly dropped for the victory over Real Madrid in Vienna. Szymaniak would not play for Inter again.

Instead he made the move to modest FC Varese in Serie A in search of regular football, but remained there for just one season before returning to Germany. There he joined Tasmania Berlin who were promoted to the Bundesliga in rather bizarre circumstances after Hertha Berlin had their Bundesliga license revoked due to a dispute over salaries. Tasmania Berlin were only allowed into the league due to a desire within divided Germany at the time to have a team from the former capital included. Unfortunately for Szymaniak the rest of his colleagues were in no way close to his level. Tasmania finished bottom of the league with the worst record of any team in Bundesliga history. Even Szymaniak couldn’t help them.

After the disappointing spell in Berlin, Szymaniak moved again, this time to Switzerland with FC Biel before taking the bold decision to go to America. Long before Pele, Cruyff and Beckenbauer arrived Szymaniak opted to join the Chicago Spurs of the National Professional Soccer League. Again, the rest of the team were mediocre in comparison to the talent of Szymaniak and he chose to retire after a mid-placed finish for the club. A career marked with dazzling performances was not matched by the medals it deserved.

What set Szymaniak apart from his rivals was his alliance of his physical gifts with exceptional technique. There were few players in his era who were able to play so comfortably as a defensive half-back and as a creative inside-forward and in both roles he was able to demonstrate the full range of his talents. As a left-half Szymaniak was tall and strong, with a fantastic ability to anticipate the movements of his opponents. For Catania, Szymaniak was  noted in a rare appearance at half-back for the marking role he performed on Jimmy Greaves, at the time playing for AC Milan. Greaves’ spell in Milan was unhappy but prolific, yet for once he did not find the back of the net thanks to the attentions of the German. At inside-forward Szymaniak demonstrated a delicate touch, a love of surging forward from deep and the vision to pick out his teammates in dangerous positions. Had he chosen to play further forward he might well have rivalled Netzer, Overath and Fritz Walter among Germany’s finest creative cogs.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of Szymaniak’s true worth was the judgement of his contemporaries. German magazine Kicker, known for their notoriously harsh semi-annual assessments of the nation’s players, considered him “World Class” every year from 1957-61. Only Franz Beckenbauer achieved more consecutive “World Class” ratings than Schimmi. Meanwhile his five nominations for the Ballon D’Or (in the same years) showed that he was appreciated well beyond his home nation. More than enough reason to start remembering this forgotten great.

This article originally appeared on IBWM and World Soccer

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 23

River Plate 6-2 Chacarita Juniors (12 June 1942) Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires

From the birth of football to the present day, Argentina has few rivals as a production line of footballing talent. Albert Ohaco, Rinaldo Martino and Manuel Seoane were just a few of the early heroes that are fondly remembered today. Yet, in a country where footballing folklore is passed from father to son, one team remains the stuff of legend.

River Plate are considered today to be a rich man’s club. Founded in 1901, they enjoyed little early success until in 1932 they broke the world transfer record by signing the prolific goalscorer Bernabe Ferreyra for £23,000. Nobody could doubt the value of the deal, Ferreyra scored an astonishing 187 goals in 185 league games for River, but it unsurprisingly won them the nicknames of Los Millonarios. It also heralded an era of unrivalled dominance.

River might have needed to pay big money to sign Ferreyra, but they were also capable of producing great players of their own. Within a few years of the arrival of Ferreyra two youngsters would come through the ranks at River Plate who could rival anything produced in Argentine history. For all the greats that had been seen in Argentina to that point, none measured up to Jose Manuel Moreno and Adolfo Pedernera.

Jose Manuel Moreno

The two were a perfect combination. Moreno was flashy, outrageously skilful he played to the galleries and delighted in putting on a display for the spectators. He could not abide doing the simple things, he’d rather beat a handful of players than one and saw goals as almost a waste of possession, because by scoring the opposition got to control it for a time. According to Eduardo Galeano, Moreno regarded the tango to be the ideal training for football: “you maintain a rhythm, then change it when you stride forward, you learn the profiles, you work on your waist and your legs”.

Pedernera was more restrained. His love of the ball saw him drop deep to collect from his defenders, spray passes across the field and control the game with an iron grip. In that respect, Pedernera was taking the foraging centre-forward role of Matthias Sindelar and further freeing it from the shackles of tactical discipline. Between Moreno, Pedernera and Ferreyra they enjoyed an understanding that brought the 1936 and 1937 Argentine titles to River.

Adolfo Pedernera

The best though was still to come. By the end of the 1930s Ferreyra had retired and in his place stood Angel Labruna. Labruna did not score at such a rate as Ferreyra (despite which he ended his career as the joint highest Argentine league scorer with Arsenio Erico), but he suited the forward line with Moreno and Pedernera even more. For Labruna was an artist in the mould of Moreno. He loved the intricate build up play that River employed at the time. Passing and moving, all the time exhausting their opponents as the probed for openings.

By 1942 the trio were beginning to gel perfectly, having already won the Argentine title. For the national side Moreno and Pedernera were mainstays of a team that won the Copa America in 1941 and 1942, though Labruna despite his form found it impossible to get into the team. Argentina at the time had perhaps the greatest depth of inside forwards the game has ever known. Fighting for the remaining spot for the Albiceleste were Antonio Sastre, Juan Marvezzi and Herminio Masantonio, all exceptional players in their own right.

1942 was also notable as the year marking the arrival of Felix Loustau, a dazzling left-winger, who, along with his counterpart on the right, Juan Carlos Munoz, terrified opposing fullbacks at will. The two completed the most famous attacking quintet in the history of football. For despite only playing together as a unit on 18 occasions they made such an impression on the watching public that Argentina’s footballing history will always regard them with reverence.

(L to R) Munoz, Moreno, Pedernera, Labruna and Loustau

When, in June 1942, they faced Chacarita Juniors at the Monumental in Buenos Aires, River Plate put on a display which showed the artistic qualities of the game. Indeed so well oiled was the performance put on by Los Millonarios, that El Grafico’s watching journalist was moved to describe them as “La Maquina” (“the machine”). In the English sense of the word they were anything but mechanical. For no machine can emulate the spontaneity or improvisation that the likes of Pedernera and Moreno displayed. Machines are not capable of stirring the passions or pulling the heart strings of spectators. Moreover, machines are designed to be efficient and are built for a purpose. River played the game for pure enjoyment.

Yet while La Maquina in its strictest sense refers to the team with those five magical attackers, it was just the beginning of an era of both incredible success and magical stars for River Plate. For the individuals, while important, were really just parts of a collective that operated so well thanks to the ethos of their play.“Some go in, others come out, everyone rises, everyone falls” said Carlos Peucelle, himself a phenomenal winger and inside-forward of the 1930s, about the River side.

When in 1944 Moreno moved to Mexico the team didn’t fall apart, nor when Pedernera switched to Huracan and then joined the Colombian exodus to El Dorado. River were fortunate of course to have such a rich seam of young stars to mine in their own ranks. The likes of Amadeo Carrizo and Nestor Rossi, arguably the finest goalkeeper and centre-half to ever emerge from Argentina respectively, were young starlets at River. Alfredo Di Stefano was a mainstay in the late 1940s, before Uruguayan genius Walter Gomez and Omar Sivori carried on the flame in the early 1950s.

The teams that followed may have emulated the success of their predecessors but they never won such widespread admiration from journalists, fans and even rivals players. Ernesto Lazatti, of Boca Juniors once conceded, "I play against La Maquina with the full intention of beating them, but as a fan of football, I would prefer to sit on the stands and watch them play." With such glowing comments from their rivals, it’s no wonder that River Plate’s La Maquina side is still widely remembered as the greatest club team to ever grace an Argentine pitch.