About Me

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

Monday, 31 December 2012

The Uruguayan Malandro

The ball is sent flying towards the Anfield sky as a result of Jose Enrique’s direct, almost primitive pass, arcing through the air with the resemblance of a clay pigeon in both its flight and its inevitable fate as an obsolete object. Luis Suarez is relentlessly fixated on this lost cause, he knows more than most what can come from these hopeless beings. Bisecting Newcastle’s central defensive pairing Liverpool’s number seven charges towards the precise blade of grass his target will drop onto at full speed. Frankly however, to collect the ball in this manner would be too easy, too predictable, unspectacular, everything Luis Suarez is not. Neck distorted, a gaze glued to the ball above him and the harrying Argentine defender Fabio Coloccini jostling alongside him for field position, the odds are stacked against him, yet Suarez succeeds, cushioning the ball onto his toe as if he had a pillow from the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton spreading out from his sternum to his shoulders. If ever a moment that highlighted how technically gifted one of the most controversial players in the game is this was it. If ever a moment that highlighted just how mentally gifted Luis Suarez is, this was also it.

Luis Suarez is a genius football fans must cherish. As he watched over the left shoulder he has carried half of his Liverpool teammates on for the past twelve months at the ball twenty foot in the air his mind was completely aware of what he was going to do next, unlike the rest of the 45,000 in the iconic stadium that evening. The passionate former Ajax captain has the mental capacity to rapidly decipher these seemingly impossible sporting puzzles with ease, a talent which separates him from all but a handful of footballers worldwide and which, over the past twelve months, has seen him begin to etch his name into the upper echelons of footballers the spectators of the Premier League have been lucky enough to watch. Without looking, the Pibe from across the River Plate knew (precisely to the inch) that by the time the ball had been magically transferred to his right foot Tim Krul would be waiting to tragically ruin his masterpiece. While capturing a millisecond’s glance of the Dutchman a message had been sent to El Pistolero's brain that Krul was shaping his body to spread out in order to maximise the area of his net he could protect. No sooner had the message been sent than the response was instinctively sent back to his foot. Innovatively, and ironically, the striker who some said couldn’t hit the target did not need too. When you possess the unique guile Suarez has in abundance you can walk the ball in at times.

All Luis has ever known was football, which partly explains his be all and end all attitude which infuriates opposition fans game after game but has cemented his status as a figure of reverence for those on The Kop.  At the age of four the future Uruguayan star was as comfortable and quick running with the ball as he was without it, testament to his father Rodolfo who himself had been a professional winger in Uruguay and Brazil. Suarez struggled to cope with both the separation of his parents and the poverty which was a result of it, with his mother Sandra left as the house’s sole earner and bearing the responsibility of supporting her seven children in the town of Salto on the Argentine border. Wilson Piriz, a Nacional scout who spotted Luis's blatant talent understood the boy lacked the maturity of others even at his age. "Life was difficult for him, he wasn't quite mentally ready. But his tough childhood made him hungry to succeed". 

A list of the virtuoso’s past misdemeanours flow effortlessly right throughout his career, beginning in his homeland where at the age of fifteen after a red card he head-butted a referee, while there was also a spell where he was more likely to be found enjoying the city nightlife than developing his talents on the training field. Two instrumental figures in Suarez’s life have kept him (somewhat) in check. His brother Paulo has placed more importance on his younger brother’s career than his own, firstly when Luis was spiralling out of control at Nacional as a youth (even physically beating him up on one occasion) and then when he moved to Holland despite being under contract at Isidro Metapan in El Salvador because the younger Suarez was struggling mentally as a result of living away from home despite starring in Amsterdam. "I gave up five months of football, but I felt he needed me". Sofia Suarez meanwhile is the reason her husband moved to Groningen from the Montevideo giants Nacional at the tender age of nineteen after earning his first domestic title in Uruguay, scoring ten goals in the process. “The only thing I thought about was being by her side again". Luis’ infatuation with his best friend ensured that as soon as a move closer to her in Europe (where she had been living for a year) was first mentioned he was 100% committed towards challenging himself abroad.   "That’s how my European adventure started. When I got the call to play in Europe I didn't think twice".

Had Suarez been born to the north in Brazil he would have been the chief Malandro, a figure of Brazilian folklore. The Malandro is completely free to roam around the pitch as he pleases adhering to nothing except his own intuition. He is a master of manipulation, capable of making the defender anticipate one action only to outrageously invent a new method of belittling him. Eventually you trap the deceitful master of fraud into a corner yet just as you begin to congratulate yourself for capturing him he has disappeared; carefully caressing the ball between your legs and swerving his body beyond you. The panna (nutmeg) is this Malandro’s favourite trick, as it highlights the effervescent peasant’s dominance over his contemporaries and plants a fertile seed of doubt into the defender’s mind rendering him utterly useless.

Luis Suarez entered 2012 as the most vilified player in Britain. However it’s integral to the game that people separate Luis Suarez the individual from Luis Suarez the artist. Suarez will continue to exaggerate contact, lecture the man in black on how to control the game and punch the ground in disdain when a less-gifted teammate fails to follow his unorthodox script, but to drain him of these features would be extracting the entertainment he brings to the Premiership. He struggles to understand why others are less intelligent than him on the pitch; the game comes easy to Suarez. One of the sport’s pioneering professors Anatoly Zelentsov, who worked alongside the great Valeriy Lobanovski during his stints at Dynamo Kiev, regularly ran players through various tests with the help of computers, like navigating mazes through memory in order to gauge attributes including coordination, reactions and of course memory. While these tests are extraordinarily difficult to the average human being sportsmen prospered due to their incredible mental capabilities. The Uruguayan would top the Ukrainian madmen’s class.

When spectators require entertainment there is no player in England capable of matching Suarez. He is compulsive viewing, possessing the cerebral brilliance to light up stadiums in ways we failed to even imagine on a pitch so frequently that it fails to surprise us nowadays as we turn to a new year. He has fearlessly carried Liverpool over the past twelve months with various acts of raw, pure beauty ranging from flawlessly lifting the ball fifty yards over a goalkeeper to embarrassing a defender with an inconceivable nutmeg before bending a shot with the outside of his foot past the helpless keeper with precision. Suarez, the footballer, is the type of player who inspires children to pick up a ball and dare whether it be out the back garden, on the street or in their sitting room. There is no more watchable player in England at the moment, no player single-handedly clawing his team to a respectable league position like the man people love to hate. Luis Suarez transforms the ordinary to the sublime so often that he has transformed the sublime to the ordinary over the past year and yet some still don’t regard him as a figure of reverence. They are the lost causes Luis will inevitably convert this year.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Ozil Contrast: Working Hard, Playing Harder.

After hearing yet another characteristic professional response from his son Mesut, Mustafa Ozil interrupts one of Real Madrid’s several playmakers to bless us with his own important opinion. “Boy, you’re too modest”, the son of an immigrant miner declares, before Mesut again resorts to merely announcing how even being a part of this great Los Blancos side fills him with joy. For a player as effortlessly impressive as Ozil can often appear on the pitch he is under no illusion that he is a team-player within a footballing institution famed for its stunning alumni of breath-taking individuals. Mustafa, an immensely proud father, can appear a larger than life character who undoubtedly enjoys his son’s success as much as Mesut himself does and has no problem allowing himself to indulge in the finer things in life. “50 percent work, 50 percent leisure” is his philosophy.

Ozil’s grandfather was one of the many thousands of migrant workers to arrive in the Ruhr Valley in the 1960’s, hoping to earn a living for themselves and their families in the coalmines of Western Germany. As a result of such a large scale influx of people Mesut spent his childhood in a culturally diverse Gelsenkirchen, sharing what is now called “Mesut’s ape-cage” (a fenced, uncompromising gravel pitch) with children of Lebanese and Polish descent, as well as Turkish and German youths. Ozil immediately stood out amongst his peers, impressing coaches at his first club DJK Westphalia 04 with his ability to translate his street soccer talents onto the green stage without losing an ounce of his flawless flair. Mustafa, fully aware of the attention his son was attracting from rival coaches and scouts, began hiring multiple agents for his son, certain his genes had created a truly special player.

As Ozil began shining in the Bundesliga, the Turkish Football Federation began attempting to lure the Schalke 04 starlet to play for the country of his ancestors rather than Germany, the nation who moulded Ozil into the potentially world class footballer and who he had represented in underage football throughout his short career. Then Turkey manager Fatih Terim began attempting to publicly charm the player who is arguably the most talented athlete either country has produced over the last twenty years, while the Altintop’s, who like Ozil were raised in Gelsenkirchen, were deployed by the TFF to woo the coveted asset to play for The Crescent Stars. Ultimately Ozil declared for Die Mannschaft, who have in Mesut’s eyes benefitted from the playmaker’s hybrid multicultural makeup which has shaped him as a player, with the man himself stating “My technique and feel for the ball is the Turkish side of my game; the discipline and attitude all come from Germany." Mustafa meanwhile claimed he had no preference for which nation his son would eventually turn up for and left the younger Ozil to decide for himself, although it is likely he was happy at the result due to the publicity a German international receives globally in comparison to that of a Turkish footballer.

During contract negotiations with Schalke Mustafa confidently prophesied that his son would be playing for Real Madrid within three years, just like his (also ethnically diverse) idol Zinedine Zidane. The Royal Blues on the other hand possessed their own doubts, which led to the Ozil’s migrating to the north of Germany to Werder Bremen for the Spring in 2008. The midfielder excelled in Thomas Schaaf’s kamikaze offensive system, consistently producing awe-inspiring performances at the Weserstadion, firstly alongside fellow playmaker Diego where the pair dragged Werder to a UEFA Cup Final as well the DFB Pokal Final (where Mesut scored the winner against Bayer Leverkusen) and then on his own once the Brazilian had departed for Juventus. Internationally Ozil was the star in a German under-21 side who were far superior to any of their rivals in the European Championship in 2009, with the number ten being named man of the match as the German’s swept aside their technically inefficient English counterparts 4-0 in the final.

Arsenal amongst others were interested although after the World Cup in South Africa they were merely a number in a congregation of the world’s biggest clubs eager to acquire one of the standout players of the tournament. Ozil’s movement went undetected by his opponents throughout the competition to devastating effect, with the allegedly inexperienced German roaming in between the lines before accepting the ball and releasing it at the perfect time. As a result of his stunning campaign Ozil fittingly joined one of Europe’s best sides as well as one of the greatest in the game in Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. Mustafa’s prediction had come true, however despite a personally successful first year in the Spanish capital, where Mesut assisted 25 goals andcontributed to the first trophy of Mourinho’s reign (The Copa Del Rey), his father remained unhappy about his role in the side. “At Barcelona,” Mustafa begins to rave, “there are ten men who work to one purpose: for their playmaker Lionel Messi. Mesut at Real Madrid is a number ten, but the others do not work with him as their focus. Mesut runs between 12 and 14 kilometres a game, collects balls from deep and then distributes them forward. That costs a lot of energy”. In Mustafa’s eyes Mesut is an artist like Van Gogh. Dropping deep to aid the team’s defence is an unnecessary burden to place on his gem, who, if the modern game continues to evolve, will be asked to “wash clothes” next.

The reason why the former nightclub owner dreams of the youngest of his four children being granted the freedom of the Bernabeu is that he has not only invested his emotions into it, but also his money. Ozil Marketing is run by Mustafa with the sole purpose of maximising the earning potential of his famous child. If the term Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil could be transformed into Mesut Ozil’s Real Madrid the forty-four year old entrepreneur would be set for a windfall of cash. The company itself hires seven people, including two cleaners, a chauffeur and most importantly a media consultant. Despite the fact Mustafa clearly enjoys his luxurious lifestyle he fails to ever stop short of working to add to his wealth. Interviews are often set up where a number of separate journalists are invited to share Mustafa’s (and occasionally his son’s) time in order to give one of Real Madrid’s key players even more public exposure. Mesut’s Dad is in charge of sponsorship issues, often declining offers others would agree to in an instinct in order to push for more. You can’t help but feel that it kills the Turkish born ‘executive’ to hand over fifty percent of his son’s sponsorship income to the club who employ Mesut due to Real Madrid’s policy on individual sponsorship. Whenever the company’s chief isn’t sipping on champagne while attempting to charm swarms of journalists or scoffing contract offers over the phone he is lobbying for Spanish football to be shown on German television so his primed asset can receive maximum exposure in the country which could perhaps contain the biggest proportion of his potential profit.

Regardless of how often Ozil appears on German screens he will remain a role-model to many Germans of ethnically diverse backgrounds. The Bismark born sportsman was awarded a Bambi award to highlight his successful integration into a German society which is constantly in a state of flux. This summer Real Madrid’s biggest transfer signing was the wonderfully talented Croatian Luka Modric, a player four years older than Ozil, but who mirrors many aspects of the German’s game. Modric is a diminutive, mobile footballer who like Ozil has no problem exploring the pitch in search of space he can then use to torture defences. What is less certain however is whether Mourinho plans on using Modric in a deeper role in midfield or further up-field, a position he has proven he can excel in against premium opposition, for example the second half against Italy in Poland and Ukraine during the summer. Introduced at half time at the expense of Ozil against Sevilla last Sunday, Modric now offers genuine competition to the German superstar who has been considered a fixture in this Los Merengues side he arrived from his homeland two seasons ago. While it’s unsure which of the two will start in the battle of the old and new Galacticos at Chamartin this Tuesday it would be the perfect stage for Ozil to stake his claim to a place in the Spanish champions midfield. One Ozil is certain as to who the superior player is. Whether Mesut also believes this however remains to be seen.

A couple of insightful pieces merit a mention on the subject of the wonderful German:
  • Kate Connolly's Guardian article on the issues surrounding multiculturalism in modern day Germany. http://bit.ly/cRuTV0
  • A translated interview from Welt Am Sonntag with both Ozil's courtesy of Jenny Jenkins. http://bit.ly/nPRpjf

Turin's New Hero, Il Principino Marchisio

“It’s difficult to compare players from the past and the present,” declares Marco Tardelli, his black and white heart beating faster as he excitingly passes judgement on Juventus’ energetic Torino-born number eight. Tardelli stands as undoubtedly one of The Bianconeri’s most iconic warriors. Tenaciously hounding down helpless opponents when his side lacked possession, as well as bearing a knack for integral goals, the five-time Serie A winner was a selfless soldier who relentlessly charged around Stadio Olimpico di Torino to the delight of the passionate tifosi under Giovanni Trappatoni. He also speaks as one of the most decorated footballers in the history of the sport with a clean sweep of European club honours, only lacking a European Championship medal at international level. All this just gives more credibility to the praise he directs towards the twenty-six year old who is expected to line up at Stamford Bridge this Wednesday night. “I see myself in Marchisio”, Tardelli cries. “In my view he is stronger than I was”.

Claudio Marchisio was a Juventino from his first breath. Born the youngest child to Stefano and Anna, the Marchisio family were passionate, season ticket holding supporters at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Their talented son was present at the stadium as a ballboy on the crisp winter’s day of December 4th 1994 when a sublime Alessandro DelPiero finish completed a glorious comeback victory against Juventus’ Tuscan enemies Fiorentina. It was never any surprise that Claudio’s calling in life was to represent the family’s beloved Old Lady. Prior to his first audition for a place in the Turin side’s academy a young Claudio, even at the tender age of seven, was aware that he was in partaking in “a very special examination”. The youngster was aided by the fact that his father, as important a figure in his career as anyone else, taught him to play two-footed at the age of four. Mini-Marchisio’s ambition to join his beloved club was the catalyst to developing a ruthless determination within him, concentrating on the final match of the trial where, after placing himself up front, he tried to score as many goals as possible.

While progressing through the youth ranks Marchisio adapted his style of play, regressing from an advanced trequartista to become a capable, all-round central midfielder. At the age of sixteen World Cup winning manager Marcello Lippi, who would later hand Claudio his international debut, began recruiting the boy who was allegedly playing second fiddle to Sebastian Giovinco in the Juventus youth system to train with the first team. Once Lippi had left Fabio Capello backed his predecessor’s judgement and followed suit, giving the youngster a chance to train with his idol Del Piero, Pavel Nedved and his current manager Antonio Conte amongst others. Working alongside, as well as learning from players of that calibre only reinforced Claudio’s ambition to become a professional footballer for the club he loved, and with him on the cusp of achieving that he (with the support of Stefano) dropped off the education ladder, willing to throw the abundance of commitment in his passionate soul towards becoming an icon for his fellow Juventino.

Juventus’ demotion to Serie B as a result of the Calciopoli scandal was a blessing in disguise for their blossoming midfielder, with Didier Deschamps handing him the games he required to gain accustomed to representing a club of the stature of the Turin giants. After gaining 26 appearances Marchisio had proven he could slot into a side bubbling over with seasoned internationals who decided to stay at the club despite an enforced relegation. However despite impressing both he and best-friend Giovinco were loaned out to Empoli the following season in order to improve the likelihood of acquiring ninety minutes week in week out. On their return to the full Juventus side the elder outshone the miniature Giovinco, earning his place in Claudio Ranieri’s first eleven. Starring in the side around the turn of the new year Marchiso consistently produced impressive displays alongside a number of different midfield companions (even Christian Poulson), winning the club’s Player of the Month competition for December, while also receiving the first comparisons between his style of play and Tardelli’s.

The road to the top however wasn’t always smooth. Politicians as well as fans of some sets of supporters demanded Marchisio be dropped from the Italian National team prior to the World Cup in 2010 after being filmed allegedly manipulating the lyrics to the national anthem. By claiming the words Ché schiava di Roma were injected into the pulsating song, people were accusing the midfielder of slurring Rome or indeed Italian politics (perhaps justifiably). Marchisio claimed he had tripped up over his words as the backing track being played was slower than what the Italians were usually used to hearing while his more experienced team-mates such as Gianluigi Buffon, captain Fabio Cannavaro and his manager Lippi all publicly defended the then 24 year old. Clearly unperturbed, on the field the following season Marchisio was one of the few bright lights in a miserable campaign in Turin, signing his second five year deal in just over two years at the end of the season. Claudio charged his father with the responsibility of negotiating that contract, relieving his agent of his duties in the process, stating “I have the certainty that people from my own family will really serve my interests.” While entrusting a family member to act as an agent is not unusual in the world of football, one gets the feeling that with Stefano not only does he have his son’s best interest at heart, but also what is best for his beloved Juventus. The Marchisio family would rather be rich in happiness than rich in the bank.

Buoyed by his new long-term commitment to the club and transformed under former Juventus legend and former teammate, Antonio Conte, Marchiso enjoyed his most successful season at the European giants last year, thriving under Conte’s dynamic system which paired himself and Arturo Vidal as midfield shuttlers and charged them with the responsibility of allowing Andrea Pirlo the luxury of a pocket of space to dictate play from deep in the middle of the park. The influence of Stefano remained, with the father constantly offering his son advice, praise and criticism despite his elevation on the global stage. “After each game I call my father on the phone, his judgement is fundamental to me”, claims a clearly humble Claudio. Prior to the campaign Marchisio senior set his son the target of ten goals spread out over the entire season. After twelve games the in-form talisman had racked up six goals from play before reaching the set target, finishing the season as the squad’s second highest scorer as they remained unbeaten during a successful Serie A season. The diamond of the Juventus midfield Pirlo knows “if I give Claudio the ball, he knows what to do”, but he’s also aware that he can’t shine without the Italian father-of-two willingly emptying his lungs on a weekly basis for him.

One factor which has contributed to Juventus’s promising beginning to the current season is the fact that Conte has enhanced Il Principino’s role as a leader, exemplified when the player maturely attempted to defuse the potentially damaging situation during Euro 2012 where Antonio Cassano made a homophobic slur in response to a misplaced question considering the team were taking part in the second most important international football tournament in the world. “One almost has the impression that he does not really want to become an adult”, Marchisio bemoaned, highlighting the superior maturity the Juventus man has in comparison to his teammate four years his senior. However along with this added maturity has come an innate desire to create history, and make the name Marchisio resonate around Europe. That means no more Tardelli comparisons. “I’ve always been honoured by the comparison with one of the greats of the world game, but I think the time has arrived that we only talk about Marchisio," the tifosi member announced during the summer. “I am old enough and mature enough to perhaps be seen as a reference point for younger players”. However one feels that the only way to banish the two constantly being mentioned alongside each other is to begin to emulate the unprecedented level of success Marco Tardelli enjoyed during his own career thirty years ago. With Champions League football on his plate this season he now has the chance to appease his appetite, beginning with the clash with the defending Champions of Europe this week. However even should that happen it is unlikely the post-game phone-calls with Stefano will cease.