About Me

Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Old Head on Broad Shoulders. The Israel Ilunga Interview

“Keep your head down, keep your head down, keep your head down”. The simple advice Israel Ilunga offers to hopeful youngsters across the country who already look up to him as a role model and ask him for advice through social networks at the tender age of eighteen. While the words may seem basic and uninspiring they’re ones that haven’t left his head since his foster parents Desmond and Anne passed them on to him the day before he took to a GAA field for the first time at the age of eleven.

More than a Club

Available at http://d13122742.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/more-than-a-club/

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

World Cup 2014: Preview

Pelada is more than just kicking and caressing a ball. Pelada is an escape, a release, an opportunity to make a name for yourself across the globe or just around the seemingly horizonless city. Pelada is everywhere Christ the Redeemer can see; on the beaches, sandwiched between the roads that connect millions, (literally) on the slopes of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Pelada is played by the people; the children, the parents, the students, the hopeful, the breadline. Pelada has no curfew or surface; it is played throughout the calendar around the clock on mud, concrete and sand. Pelada, or pick-up football, is watched by all; including the scouts and the dubious agents, and shares it’s name with the word Brazilian men use for naked women. Every Brazilian with the ambition of representing the Selecao participates amongst men and even woman much older than them on their city’s pitches and every so often one captures the world’s attention.

Ó,  ó Neymar, Neymar tá demais, espetacular o Neymar, a tabela com Borges, ninguém para o Neymar, foi embora, limpou o lance, vem golaço Neymar; golaço. Gooooooooool. Sensacional.  Fantástico. Espetacular o gol do Neymar.

The Next Pele and the First Neymar swallows his Santos crest with composure. He knows what he’s just done, right? Everyone else in the stadium thinks they know what happened; their boy-wonder just received an inconvenient pass forty meters out on the touchline and turned it into a gift from the Gods.  He’s evaded his markers (as well as one of the games’ camera technicians) and delicately sliced the Flamengo defence apart with the beauty of Catwoman; yet he almost seems reluctant to celebrate. “Outrageous goal scored, now onto the next one”. He runs towards the stand and shares the moment with one of the brightest financial figures of the 21st Century, the man who instigated his move to Europe and the subsequent collapse of FC Barcelona’s President; his father.

Black cat black kitten. Sex still sells in Brazil, just not as much as Neymar. The Neymar party’s ability to attract lucrative sponsorships was the reason for his prolonged stay in the Brazilian domestic league, with the forward earning European wages thanks to an expanding Brazilian economy. His face adorns billboards for products ranging from cars to sportswear to grooming products; regular superstar activity. His website however allows fans to purchase goods beyond sanity. Mugs and flasks with the Neymar logo on it are available. Couch looking naked? Buy a Neymar cushion. If you move quickly you can purchase an official Neymar bobblehead at the reduced price of $13.99. Need a notebook to write up a shopping list for your next visit to the 22 year old’s site? You get the jist. You can now even score like Neymar; his name has become so popular with consumers that it now adorns a brand of condoms that rose onto the market last month.

He is the face of a World Cup clouded in despair and anger. While the World Cup remains a secondary thought on the eve of the tournament the host nation can still expect vociferous backing from their compatriots in the stands as they embark upon a month-long tour around Brazil ahead of a final in the Maracana on July 13th; a final they are expected to win. This month could be the difference between whether or not Neymar can sell 1,283 special gems created from the carbon contained in his hair in fifty years’ time. Naturally he isn’t the sole protagonist at the tournament and there is an array of teams hoping to leave their mark on the tournament.

One potential second round opponent for Brazil are the Netherlands, led by a Manchester bound Louis van Gaal who in truth will be relieved he has found a new job ahead of the tournament. While it’s almost a cliché at this stage, this Dutch team is far weaker than previous groups. Their backline, albeit a settled unit, is unfortunately comprised of not only players from the Eredivisie, but also Ron Vlaar. Their opponents in Group B include Spain and an exciting, effervescent Chile side who drew with their Latin rivals in an enthralling friendly last year. Spain are attempting to stretch the limits of their own greatness by winning a fourth consecutive major title and a second World Cup after their success in South Africa four years ago. While their success has been unparalleled by anyone aside from Brazil at the turn of the 1960’s, it’s impossible to consider them anything but underappreciated. Perhaps they didn’t attack with the vigour or the tempo or the Messi of Guardiola’s Barcelona but they were stifled by overly cautious adversaries and ultimately they were too pragmatic for the neutral. Their performances in last summer’s Confederations Cup shouldn’t be ignored, where La Roja lost out to a rabid Brazil side who benefitted from an extremely lenient referee.

Oh yeah, Australia are there too.

Ivory Coast’s ‘Golden Generation’ have one last chance to endear themselves to Diego Simeone by actually achieving something and not meekly surrender like a kitten in the Safari the minute the pressure is on, while their group rivals Colombia, or the new Belgium, will be expected to impress on their first showing in the tournament in sixteen years.

In Group D you can’t help but feel the perverse pleasure Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez will derive from tormenting the English defence will be dwarfed only by Roy Hodgson’s pride at predicting his own side’s downfall. To be fair aside from Hodgson and the uninspiring Wayne Rooney of post-2009 this is for the most part a ‘new’, modern England. Youngsters like Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley have the potential to play on the international scene over the next decade. However regardless of the turf specialists or the personalized energy drinks catering for each players’ electrolyte need or Steve Peters (Brazil first brought a sports psychiatrist to the World Cup in 1958) this tournament has arrived a tad too early and we should expect to see 50 years of hurt manifest in a more ambitious campaign in France 2016.

Didier Deschamps’ unusually youthful side are still on the slow road to recovery after Raymond Domenech’s tumultuous reign at the helm (apologies to the word tumultuous). The squad includes Lucas Digne and the exceptional Paul Pogba from last year’s victorious Under 20 World Cup campaign, while Raphael Varane and the previously banished Antoine Griezmann have also travelled to South America. While the exclusion of Samir Nasri has been dissected already (“Fuck France and fuck Deschamps” is a brief synopsis), Les Bleus’ hopes have been boosted by a relatively easy passageway to the quarter-finals and should they make it that far they are unlikely to surrender in the most French fashion as they did against Spain in Euro 2012 when a petrified Laurent Blanc’s squad selection essentially guaranteed his side would finish goalless.

Argentina’s fate rests in the feet of Lionel Messi whose performances have dipped over the past year partly due to his determination to enter the World Cup unscathed. His manager Alejandro Sabella has finally discovered a system that optimises his number ten’s influence on the game; with both Gonzalo Higuian and Messi’s best friend in the squad Sergio Aguero playing in front of La Pulga and allowing him more space between the lines. Everything has been put in place to ensure Messi can lead the team; with “el jugador del pueblo”, or player of the people Carlos Tevez omitted from the international squad due to his disruptive influence and ability to create tension between the fans and his rival forward, as displayed during the 2011 Copa America. 

While his rival Cristiano Ronaldo is often portrayed as the ultra-competitive warrior, the Argentine’s relentless need to succeed appears to go under the radar. He barks orders around the Camp Nou every match like a Napoleon syndrome sufferer, belittling teammates like Alexis Sanchez and formerly David Villa to the extent that the indifference between them is obvious to the naked eye. When he spends time playing FIFA with his friends he is always Barcelona, and always makes the virtual Lionel captain (even Zlatan resists this temptation). Brazil 2014 is arguably his last chance to mend the bridges between himself and the Argentine people. Regardless of how many pounds of red meat he ships from Argentina to Catalunya or the fact his family still own the house he spent his childhood in; it’s impossible for many to consider the introvert a compatriot due to the fact he left for Barcelona at such a young age. In truth this perception couldn’t be further from the truth, but the only way the feeling will be reciprocated is if he grabs his side, ailing with an average midfield and a weak defence, by the collar to victory like El Diego in 1986.

The only man with a big enough ego to match Messi sits in Group G. Fresh off upstaging Gareth Bale’s Decima winning goal in the Champions League Final with his own uncomfortable, almost embarrassing display of pretension, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal enter the tournament with a solid team but again lacking a centre forward, as they have since Paule… well, Eusebio. Ronaldo should relish the opportunity and welcome the fact he has no equals in the team, nobody else can steal his limelight. While Xabi Alonso and even Zinedine Zidane sprinted to the corner of Estadio da Luz after Gareth Bale’s winner last month Cristiano stood in the centre circle looking as desolate and inconsolable as the Atletico players. In Brazil if he fails to turn in a match-winning performance, a scenario which could be partly excused by the niggles he’s carried over the last two months, no other hero will stand up and be counted; his team will be out.

Pre-pre-tournament favourites Germany are first round opponents for the Iberians, although they appear less formidable than six months ago due to a series of injuries to key players. Marco Reus is out completely, while the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Sami Khedira are far from 100%. No German manager has ever survived three tournaments without reaching the pinnacle never mind four, meaning Jogi Low’s recent two year extension could be rendered redundant if his team don’t over-achieve and reach the Maracana next month. He appears to have settled on creating a pastiche of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern side, with Lahm likely to begin the tournament in midfield despite Cristiano lurking out wide in the opening game. The noise coming from the camp is that relations between the Bayern and Dortmund camps are smoother than Poland and Ukraine two years ago where Toni Kroos in particular was a disruptive influence; although this may change once the tournament begins and players are picking splinters out of their arse on the bench.

Low however is not even the German with the most difficult job in the tournament. Jurgen Klinsmann is charged with the responsibility of shaping US soccer. He must create a culture, a mentality, a style, a calendar and a development path while transmitting his “you play for Fulham you haven’t made shit” attitude to the USA. He has put his neck on the line by banishing the US leader Landon Donovan, a man he could never quite understand after the captain took a much needed mental break from football to travel Cambodia amongst other things. Not only is he out to alter the minds of the country’s footballers, but also the men who make their bread or scan their groceries.

“By no means do we have the social environment where a professional player loses a game and the next day he gets bothered by the fans when he goes to the butcher, the baker, the supermarket. We don’t have that kind of accountability and this is what we would love to have one day. But it will still take a few years.”

Frankly, all the teams mentioned so far may as well not travel though, because Belgium are going to win the World Cup (they won’t). Somehow they’ve jumped up to the fifth favourites ahead of Italy and Portugal. All cynicism aside the squad has depth and oozes quality in a number of positions, while they are considered to have one of the friendlier schedules of all the teams in Brazil, playing in three of the cooler stadiums in the group stage. They do face the prospect of a second round tie with Germany or Portugal however and like England, this tournament may have come a couple of years too soon.

Brazil however are here and now. The nation is still haunted by the last time they hosted the tournament where their premature celebrations inspired Uruguay in the final match. At the back David Luiz and Thiago Silva are as enjoyable as a centre-half partnership can be, while there will be a huge onus on an out of form and jaded Oscar to link the defence to the attack. Felipe Scolari will be confident fatigue should not be an issue; Brazil have always considered themselves ahead of the rest of the world with regards to physical preparation. Paulo Paixao, responsible for a fresh Brazil side in 2002, is again in charge of each players’ individual fitness programme.

It all comes back to one man though, Neymar. His first season in Europe has been mixed. While he has scored important goals against Atletico Madrid and improved certain aspects of his game (for example his penetrative runs. His sprint in behind the Real Madrid defence to earn a penalty at the Bernabeu this season was exceptional), his form dropped off after the forced resignation of Sandro Rosell. Injuries limited his time on the pitch, and when he did it became clear he was placing too much of an emphasis on issues away from the ball. Any player who is forced to expose his underwear five times on camera during a Champions League quarter final needs to reassess where his priorities lie.

Saudade. A word without direct translations Brazilians use to explain the state of tragically longing for an absent person or thing; unaware whether it will return or not. At times this season it has appeared apt to describe Neymar’s stuttering club form.

With Brazil however he has continued to shine, making a mockery of such an idea; playing from the left and taking advantage of the space inside that Fred creates. In the yellow jersey of the Selecao he is consciously determined to win. Another Sao Paulo state native Ayrton Senna once wondered about his own capabilities. "There are moments that seem to be the natural instinct that is in me. Whether I have been born with it, or whether this feeling has grown in me more than other people, I don't know, but it is inside me and it takes over with a great amount of space and intensity." When you watch Neymar for Brazil you are in awe of how naturally gifted he is, how the innovation flows from his toes effortlessly. If he plays well, Brazil will win. He is that good.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

B'ode to a Grecian Urn.

In Ireland we accept brave defeats. We tolerate constant underachievement. We never ask the difficult questions that need to be asked; why can we never take the next step?

Two men bucked this trend, one more successfully than the other. Roy Keane and Brian O’Driscoll’s public image couldn’t be further apart. Brian O’Driscoll is Blackrock, blonde locks, Adidas; Roy Keane Mayfield, psychopathic skinhead, Diadora.

Both men however shared a complete aversion toward defeat; both men possessed a forceful will, a need even, to avoid defeat, to lead the weak to the pinnacle.

The arguments over which of the two titanic personalities is Ireland’s greatest sportsperson is undoubtedly moot; the only thing more difficult than comparing athletes across eras is comparing them across sports.

Keane played the far more competitive, global game of football compared to rugby, a plantation sport. In terms of difficulty rugby is streets behind. For a start you can hold the ball in your two hands, the most human of traits. Australia’s Chris Latham, a World Cup winner and one of the finest full-backs of the last fifteen years, only took up the sport while in college at 18.

That is part of the reason for the Irish thirteen’s greatness though. Keane made a complicated game easy, but the boy from Clontarf slot into the most feral of sports and sprinkled magic every time he stood on the pitch. He was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus scribbled onto the back of a cubicle door in a seedy pub.

He regularly dropped our jaws with moments of inspiration (tragically, often in defeat). In Perth during the 2003 World Cup he fit perfectly into the corner like a postage stamp after evading the quarter man, three-quarters cyborg winger Wendell Sailor. He twinkled his way through the world champion (Qantas) Wallabies in Brisbane with the Lions in 2001. He constantly sidestepped French full-backs before touching down under the posts, released new, unimaginable offloads from his sleeve with such regularity it rendered them normal. He could find a straight line down a packed Grafton Street. The RDS never saw Maradona, but it did see O’Driscoll juggling the ball over the line against Wasps while he was turning Leinster into the most formidable dynasty of European rugby (essentially a toddler, but still). He even passed the ball to himself once.

His talent was only half the story though. When Ireland needed him he duly obliged. Shane Horgan says when Ireland toured the southern hemisphere they became “O'Driscoll and 14 other muppets”. The All Black’s (probably correctly) saw the touring Lions of 2005 as 66 muppets and O’Driscoll, so Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu removed him with the ruthlessness of Stalin and Beria. The Dubliner once cut short medical treatment to haul the 6’1’’, 235 pounds frame of Marcus Horan to the ground. Not only is BOD or Drico Irish rugby’s greatest ever 13, he’s the best 7 the country has produced too.

Cowardice wasn’t the motive behind clutching back the natty dreadlocks of George Smith, the pragmatism his teammates often lacked but O'Driscoll had in abundance was. “You came to the pitch as a second-class rate Newton Faulkner so this is fair game”. The captain was the catalyst of the golden generation’s sole career Grand Slam. He crossed the line in four of the five games; was the jump leads needed after half time in Cardiff, drop-goaled against England before scoring a priceless try two minutes after it looked like he would be substituted following a late Delon Armitage hit.

But frankly, for a player of his calibre, with a more than capable side cast, one championship is a negligible return. World Cups brought disappointment; you could argue the landscape of Irish rugby is exactly the same as it was before he exploded onto the international scene fourteen years ago. A second championship is required for the O’Driscoll era to stick out to a scanning eye looking through the Six Nations roll of honour. A second championship is essential to shake off the nearly-men tag the country's rugby team wear without the disdain they should.

The sporting gods have a tendency to give the legends empty, cruel endings. The final international appearances of figures like Zinedine Zidane and Don Bradman was arguably their nadir. Roy Keane didn’t even get the chance (the SPL counts only as oblivion). Looking through the statistics, the most fitting end for one of the finest rugby players ever would be a two point defeat in the Stade de France. We might be used to the pain of defeat, its regularity might soften the potential blow to us, but that’s just another Irish trait alien to the gargantuan Brian O’Driscoll.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Kimmage's Endless Pursuit for Justice

Paul Kimmage looks toward his mantelpiece, home to six consecutive British Sports Interviewer of the Year awards, wondering how many more would have saved his job. No other industry in the world would consider such success obsolete, yet the world of journalism is different. When The Sunday Times relieved one of their prized assets of his duties in 2011 the former cyclist initially accepted the decision but as time progressed he considers himself an employee sacrificed due to his determined reporting.

Coolock reared Kimmage, a crusader against doping in sport, is particularly passionate about the sport that gave him such a journalistic platform. He believes the relationship between his former employers and the sport’s leading team Sky (both fall under Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. umbrella) stands as an impermeable barrier to the reporting at the paper which has exposed a number of cheats in the past.

At the beginning of the year Kimmage told Frankfurter Allgemeine “you look at how dominant their teams were: Postal for Armstrong, Sky for Wiggins. They had a core of four, five riders, who rode strongly for three weeks without one single weak day. Is that logical”?

The absence of the critical journalism surrounding Sky from The Sunday Times that helped dethrone Lance Armstrong over the past decade has resulted in the fracture of the Dubliners friendship with fellow reporter David Walsh, who still works at The Times. While the duo used holiday together with their families in the past and speak five times in a quiet week, there has been no communication in almost five months.

“There is a little bit more to it, the fact that I was shafted and he might have done more, but ultimately it’s about the stuff he’s written about Sky in the last few months”.

The two time winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year feels the fundamental difference between himself and Walsh is that the matter has always been more than writing for him, coming from a family with a strong cycling background. Walsh’s role in his life cannot be overstated. Kimmage owes his second career to his fellow Irishman; he first met him the day he first met his own wife, Anne. “He’s been an incredible mentor, anything I ever learned about the business I’ve learned from David”.

The regret is obvious in his voice, as to be expected for a man with enough close friends to count on one hand. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, whether I’m going to pick up the phone or he’s going to or whether the phone will ever be picked up”.

This isn’t an isolated instance in the 51 year old’s career however; his personal and professional lives have dove-tailed since he was a young road cyclist. He was born the same year his father, Christy, became the Irish national champion, and was destined to work within the sport. However after publishing Rough Ride, his account of life in the drug-fuelled peloton, his family who were deeply immersed within the cycling community found themselves ostracised.

His anger at the recently disposed president of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Pat McQuaid is amplified by the close relationship the two once shared. Last year McQuaid filed a defamation case against his fellow Dubliner in response to allegations that the organisation aided a cover-up surrounding a failed drugs test from Lance Armstrong. “Hate is a strong word”, declares Kimmage, attempting to force himself to rise above such an emotion, “but I’ve known this guy since I was five years of age, my father managed him, I’ve known his family way back and when I see the efforts he made to destroy me knowing I was telling the truth, there’s no other way to describe it”.

In the last month, to the Rough Rider author’s reflief, new UCI President Brian Cookson informed him that all UCI legal action against him has been dropped as he attempts to cleanse the sport from corruption. While initially skeptical as a result of Cookson’s previous role in the UCI, the writer has been encouraged by his early work at the helm.

“Since he has taken over he’s been making changes, he got rid of (Philippe) Verbiest (UCI legal council), he brought in a security firm to secure laptops so that when an investigation takes place medical information on riders will be available and he’s talking with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency)… he’s going to need time but he’s made a positive start”

Time is necessary as the culture within the sport is as bad as ever, as is the prevailing attitude of the majority of professional cyclists. Kimmage, currently ghost writing Brian O’Driscoll’s autobiography, is extremely critical of Ireland’s own Nicolas Roche for joining a team under the leadership of Bjarne Riis and Alberto Contador, two previous Tour de France winners with asterisks next to their name.

In an extract from his upcoming autobiography At Speed Mark Cavendish’s argues “we’re asked to comment on Armstrong and have our morals judged on the strength of what we say when a lot of us are too preoccupied to have an opinion”. Kimmage’s interprets these quotes as further proof that the attitude of current cyclists translates to “I care about cycling, but mostly I care about what I can earn from it, what it can do for me… and that’s not good enough”.

His suggestions for Brian Cookson are undoubtedly ambitious but he considers them necessary. He feels it’s essential to show the riders that talking about doping is positive. Putting himself in Cookson’s shoes, he begins assertively tapping the plate his coffee has been presented on. “For every media gathering in my first term I would insist each team stands up and declares ‘firstly we’re going to talk about doping. Is there anything you’re not happy with? Any member of staff you’re not happy with? Anything about our performances that are raising your suspicions?’ The message that this would send out is that it is good that this is so high on the agenda”.

After speaking for over sixty minutes about his admiration of the sport and how it can finally turn the corner under new leadership Paul speaks conclusively on the future of cycling. “I’m not convinced at all (cycling can be cured), it’s so deep-rooted now”. Potentially he regards the Tour de France as the most fantastic sporting event in the world, but his battle scars prevent him from seeing any hope upon the horizon.

The conflict that has shaped Paul Kimmage’s life the most is the one within him. The pain the sport has inflicted on him over the past 30 years has damaged his professional and personal life, yet he just can’t ignore it. “I don’t know why I keep fighting, when I went back in July I felt maybe it would come full-circle for me, (I could) move on with my life. But if I walked away, I’d have given up.”

“I’m not sure I’ll go back next year” he ponders as I reach to switch off my recorder. Eight seconds later he hopes his new employers at the Irish Independent ask him, because he’ll definitely go.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Special One V2

Jose Mourinho is either lying or he has been fooled by the milkman, because neither the man-child bear-hugging the Chelsea manager during his exuberant celebration after defeating Manchester City nor the red-haired youngster next to him share much of a resemblance to the Portuguese protagonist. Maybe one of these is Mourinho Jr., who’s to say Jose’s son isn’t a supporter of Leitrim GAA like the beaming young fan pictured behind the City bench on Sunday afternoon? However if we take the past into consideration we can cut through the superfluous excuse spewed out of Mourinho’s mouth with Occam’s Razor. The self-anointed Special One had zero interest in celebrating with his son after Fernando Torres capitalised on City’s defensive combustion at Stamford Bridge, his actions were provocative, premeditated and unprofessional; his intent was vintage Mourinho.

For a manager who merges football with the extravagancy of showbiz like no other Sunday was a nadir. Jose ran out of new ideas to shock the audience and reignite the feud with his predecessor at Real Madrid Manuel Pellegrini so he reverted to a stale trick, previously performed at the Bernabeu two seasons ago after a Kaka goal sealed a victory late on over Villareal. Mourinho danced in front of the Yellow Submarines’ bench, emphatically raising his arms at his son who was (supposedly) conveniently located behind their dugout. Repeating his once original antics yesterday was proof that Mourinho just doesn’t do effortless irritation as gloriously as he used to.

Mourinho’s managerial career began with a lie in Portugal. During a meeting with the Porto board in January 2002 the then 38 year old dazzled his future employers by narrating a detailed slide-show he had created highlighting the vision and philosophy he promised to bring to the provincial powerhouse were he given the keys at the club.

Under Mourinho the club would aspire to win the largest number of titles possible playing an attractive brand of football with a team containing as many home-grown players as possible. As time progressed it became clear the 28 slides were blatant plagiarism, cut from a longer presentation Louis VanGaal gave to the Barcelona board at the beginning of his time in Catalonia, yet the Porto board were unaware of this at the time and fortunately hired Mourinho on the spot.

Once he had got his leg up however, he was never going to stop. Love him or loathe him, the fifty year old is an insanely great manager, pairing exceptional tactical nous with an extraordinary ability to inspire his charges to bring him success.

Samuel Eto’o thanks God for delivering him to Mourinho at Inter Milan, while the Portuguese carefully caressed Zlatan Ibrahimovic with silk gloves, creating a symbiotic relationship between the pair where Zlatan would get the goals and “be prepared to die” for his boss, while Jose would get the glory. Mourinho is obsessed with two things; success and his image, how he is perceived. At Real Madrid he insisted on sitting in seat D10 on away journeys in the Champions League as Real attempted to finally win La Decima (10th European Cup). 

Rationally, any fan of any team would cherish Mourinho at their club as he comes with inevitable success. However sport isn’t the most rational sphere of human activity. Greece succeeding in Euro 2004, Liverpool fans thinking “I don’t speak to blacks” is a term of endearment, that Newcastle fan punching a horse; none of those things should happen (actually, maybe the last one should).

Ethically you could make a case for never wanting to see the man at the helm of your club. As Mourinho announced at his unveiling as Real Madrid manager he comes on his terms: “I arrive with all my qualities and my defects." His qualities have been mentioned already, his defects? Well, there’s a strong case to be made that the sole display of class during his career has been when he wished Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova well in his recovery from cancer. While a noble act, it’s not too idealistic to have taken this as a given.

Events like the previous eye-gouging incident with Vilanova and his contribution to the death-threats which led to Anders Frisk’s retirement have not only sabotaged Mourinho’s reputation but also his cv. Football-wise he tends to leave a trail of scorched earth behind him following his definite three-year stay at clubs, a trait unlikely to go unnoticed by clubs searching for a stable and successful marriage. After years of public courting Jose was ignored this summer when the one job he felt destined for became available.

Jose Mourinho’s first clash with Alex Ferguson at Chelsea in August 2004 resulted in a 1-0 victory but also a rather forced admission of inferiority: "I told Mr. Ferguson that United didn't deserve to leave Stamford Bridge with nothing." Jose Mourinho’s last clash with Alex Ferguson resulted in a 2-1 victory but also another rather forced admission of inferiority: “The best team lost”.

Bobby Charton and the powers that be at United didn’t take the bait. “He pontificates too much for my liking” claimed Charlton, as well as suggesting ‘Mr. Ferguson’ wasn’t as fond of his peer as had been suggested and stating a United manager would never act like the man publicly whoring himself to the red half of Manchester.

Wounded, he has returned to the Premier League under the guise of ‘The Happy One’ but make no mistake, this is Special One v2, inspired by rejection and fuelled with the bitterness of a teenage girl whose best friend pulled the county centre-back behind her back. There will be even more arrogance, every word will be loaded with political meaning and aimed at a particular target; every action will want to have been seen.

The Prodigal Son has returned having seemingly seen the light, his new aversion to diving and cynical fouls reinforced by his love for the Red Rose of England. "Some foreign players when they come to England still keep their culture and it's a disgrace you do that to a person”. Even time-wasting is treated with contempt: ”you pay your ticket and every time the game stops you have to wait about half a minute? That is a waste of money. That’s not funny. Not in England”.

Jose Mourinho can survive on lies, if anything lies are essential to his being. However the first sign of terminal decline is telling the same lie twice, and this red flag has been raised after just nine games of the season.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Spirits of the Invincible

Regardless of how well we cope with an unthinkable new dawn the spirits of our loved ones will continue to sneak into our perspective. Arsenal fans found it impossible to relate to almost a decade of footballing inadequacy, constantly buckling under any degree of pressure, annually forced into a dangerous state of repair with the sale of their most coveted gem. With every disastrous set-piece the famous back five of the George Graham Era sat to feast like Banquo’s ghost, every unimaginative attacking performance only heightened the desire to reminisce over The Invincibles. But now the circle appears to be rounding, with the ghosts of Arsene Wenger’s earlier teams having returned, channeled through the Frenchman himself.

For nine years and counting Arsenal’s seasons have resembled the Russian folk song Kalinika, fluctuating on an almost weekly basis from scintillating performances threatening to over-whelm every challenger to tepid, resoundingly vulnerable displays. However this season, following the club’s most recent nadir of a home defeat to Aston Villa, The Gunners have found the consistency they’ve lacked in recent years. Following eight games they sit top of the league and while it’s probably premature to consider them concrete title contenders, this side does appear to possess the variety needed in attack to sustain a challenge over the course of a demanding season.

The primary reason for Arsenal’s improvement has been the recent addition of the apparition of the Non Flying Dutchman. In Mesut Ozil Wenger’s side have acquired a genuinely world class talent and arguably the best player in England. Ozil is incapable of errors, every choice he has to make on the pitch echoes perfection. The direction of his running, the weight of passing; his vision, enthusiasm and ability to find a pocket of space in the final third of the pitch is unmatched in Europe. A premier ten like Ozil is, regardless of the lazy moniker, a vintage Arsenal player. Having watched Robin van Persie soar and inspire Manchester United to the Premiership title last season Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidas knew that when a player of the German’s seemingly effortless calibre becomes available you act first and think about where he will fit later. As Brian Phillips noted, the signing was Wenger waving his middle finger to the pragmatism that suggested he could only restore his legacy in North London by shifting his emphasis to those who pick the fruits rather than those who group them into an appetising bowl.

Ozil doesn’t act alone however. Wenger has gathered a collection of attacking playmakers, allowing him to vary his tactical options going forward. The Alsatian selected a team comprised purely of intelligent ball-players against Napoli in the absence of the threat brought by the frantic and frenzied Theo Walcott. For a manager often bizarrely criticized for his lack of tactical intuition Wenger deserves full credit for handing his players the offensive liberty they have started the campaign with. On Saturday against Norwich the alchemy of the attacking trident of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Ozil (sprinkled with a pinch of the unrecognizable Aaron Ramsey of this year) was brewed in Wenger’s raunchiest dreams.

Naturally this results in a lack of clean sheets. However that just makes this team even more compelling. You score two and we’ll score three football is what we aspire to see when we sit down to watch sports.

Wenger has persevered with much over the past decade. Financially the club was handcuffed to the goalposts, forced to watch cherished friends frolic towards pastures new. Cesc Fabregas, van Persie, even ginger stepsons like Alex Song and Emmanuel Adebayor were lured away from The Emirates’ pristine surface by artificially greener grass elsewhere. If Samir Nasri is to be believed (I know, like handing Bernie Madoff a suitcase with forty thousand pounds in it and asking him to drive to the nearest Audi dealership to pick you up a sparkling A6, just hear me out) Wenger has been forced to sell assets at the orders of Stan Kroenke. "Wenger told me that, if Cesc left, I would stay, but Kroenke wanted the money”, Nasri claimed while looking idle in Manchester.

In the midst of his most challenging seasons yet fans wanted the stubborn Frenchman to open up, admit his errors and change his ways. Ramsey was a mid-table write-off, Olivier Giroud proof of the deficiencies in the club's once admired scouting system. Both players have been integral in the opening months of the current campaign. Giroud has enjoyed torturing opposition centre-halves on a weekly basis, holding the ball up with distinction and redirecting passes to teammates when he’s been bored. It is Ramsey however who is rewarding Wenger the most. After years of average displays and shifts out wide his form has been sensational, as well as boasting a goal-return similar to Cesc Fabregas's break-out campaign in 2007/08. The Welshman protects and passes the ball similarly to Arteta, however he also provides composure in front of goal nowadays and a thrust from the centre of the pitch.

Naturally at this early stage it’s too early to claim Arsenal are the finished article, particularly having been gifted the easiest opening fixtures the league has to offer (it can’t last forever, but maybe it can last until next week’s clash with Crystal Palace). However in a league where no team at the top appears to be considerably better than another, Arsenal can claim to have as good a chance as any of their competitors. Aside from the litter of creative midfielders the squad is light on bodies , with a huge onus on Giroud as the club’s single proven striker, while Mathieu Flamini’s absence restored the uncertainty in Arsenal’s defence after his enforced substitution at the weekend. However compared to recent seasons Arsenal are enjoying a Caribbean cruise rather than a Himalayan hike.

Arsene Wenger has made mistakes in the last few years and like any romantic he will continue to do so. He knows each one and how he could have rectified them too, he’s just too stubborn to admit it. However the best thing Arsenal fans can do is to persevere with Wenger for as long as he pleases, because the longer his epoch goes on and on, the odds on his ghost looming over North London in the future get smaller and smaller. You don't know what you've got until it's gone.