Our European guru educates and enlightens
The short answer is: well, no.
The long answer is that though they don’t have the range of talents of the brightest stars ever to shine in Real Madrid’s firmament, they showed the kind of joy, technique and verve in their humbling of Arsenal that made the European Cup so special in the first place. Ferenc Puskas and George Best would have approved of Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance at the Emirates, while even such professionally unimpressed living legends as Alfredo di Stefano and Johan Cruyff might privately concede that United's No.7 didn’t have a bad game.
Tactics, luck, and talent all helped decide this all-England semi-final.
But the hinge factor the tie swung on was that Manchester United had four players who could make and take chances, while Arsenal had just two: Robin Van Persie, injured for the first leg and not as effective as he would have wanted in the second, and Andrei Arshavin, who was cup-tied.
Ronnie and Rooney help outgun Arsenal
The Italians, who analyse football with a scientific rigour worthy of Galileo, like to classify their creative midfielders and strikers. A director (or general) like Gianni Rivera is a regista, a visionary playmaker (or No.10) is a fantasista and a striker is a goleador.The European Cup has – from Puskas to Rivera, Cruyff to Platini and Stoitchkov to Zidane – been enriched by players who are all three. They’re probably better at two of the roles but do the other if need be.In the last five years, with lesser teams realising that tediously defensive tactics can bridge the quality gap and coaches knowing almost as much about their opponents’ formations as their own, these three-players-in-one have often defined the difference between success and failure.The last four UEFA Champions League winners have all featured a creative goalscorer at the very top of their game: Cristiano Ronaldo (2008), Kaka (2007), Ronaldinho (2006) and Steven Gerrard (2005).
Four out of the last five winners of the Golden Shoe, the award for Europe’s most prolific goalscorer, have fitted this template: CR7 (2008), Francesco Totti (2007) and Thierry Henry (2004 and 2005).
And the player most likely to succeed Ronaldo as European Footballer of the Year is a fantasista/goleador called Lionel Messi. The rise of such talents is an inexorable consequence of the game’s lucrative pact with television.
Once you’ve accepted a billion or seven from TV networks to broadcast your wares, it would be stupid and churlish to insist that football is a sport not an entertainment.
Even Jose Mourinho, the Helenio Herrera for the new millennium, has had to accept that. So Manchester City’s bid for Kaka may have been ridiculous. But it was not stupid.
Di Stefano and Puskas celebrate in 1960
At their best, these artistes have the vision to find space, a particular trademark skill (Cruyff had his turn, Cristiano Ronaldo has two: the stepover king has now developed a cannonball shot from distance that is almost worthy of Puskas) and the ability to devastatingly change tempo as if they can accelerate or decelerate time.
Di Stefano did just that in the 1960 final, which Real Madrid won 7-3. With Real 6-2 up, he called for the ball in his own half and set off on a bewildering run which, after a few rapid-fire passes, ended with a powerful shot that flew into the bottom left-hand corner. Above all, these greats are improvisers.
Remember Ronaldinho’s goal under the wall against Werder Bremen in 2006? Or that toe-poke goal against Chelsea in the first Battle of Stamford Bridge in 2005?
Petr Cech, like Eintracht’s unfortunate keeper Egon Loy, was left shell-shocked, asking, as a Hollywood executive might put it, “What just happened?”They also, and it’s a trait they are rarely appreciated for, have guts.
It takes nerve to try a trick in front of 90,000 people in the stadium – and untold millions worldwide – fail and have another go.
And to bear the kicks from outraged defenders or the slings and arrows of critics like Italian football writer Gianni Brera, who derided this kind of player as “abattino” (a young priest) because of their perceived reluctance to do the dirty stuff.The Brera view, which influenced Italy’s 1970 World Cup campaign, was that such players were luxuries. A team could only afford one of them.
So Rivera and Sandro Mazzola alternated in Mexico to no great effect. 39 years later, Ferguson has four of them in a squad and, when necessary, has played all four.
Ronaldinho bamboozles the Blues
England’s first dominance of the European Cup, with five 1-0s in six finals between 1977 and 1982, is not fondly remembered on the continent.
True, Nottingham Forest’s plucky triumphs were cherished by the kind of romantics who will always have a soft spot for St Etienne. And the majestic talent of Kenny Dalglish, another supreme maker and taker, is still spoken of in hushed tones in bars across Europe. But this was not regarded in mainland Europe as one of football’s golden ages. This time, English clubs, albeit often with the best foreign talent money can buy, may finally win in a style that would cheer Puskas. That would, in a way, be perfectly fitting. The Galloping Major’s artistry at Hampden Park in 1960 was, after all, one of the main reasons that the young Alex Ferguson fell completely and utterly in love with the European Cup.
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Excellent article, although I thought the Italians called the deep-lying forward a trequartista. I'm certain Puskas is famously one of these in Italy, as is Del Pierro.
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