Our European guru educates and enlightens
Roll up, roll up, it’s that time of the year when columnists everywhere stare at a blank Word document until their forehead bleeds as they try vainly to remember the bon mots, players and trends that, only a few days ago, seemed to perfectly sum up the madness that was 2009 in football.
It’s traditional, at this point, to invoke Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) so I won’t.
As 2009 ends I am no further forward with my quest to decide whether a disproportionate number of left-backs really do have ginger hair.
My memories of Jimmy Bloomfield’s great Leicester City side – and Keith Weller’s tights – are slightly dimmer.
And I can’t quite believe that Fabio Capello, England’s favourite stick in the mud, has ruled out a World Cup single. Surely we need a theme this time, more than any other time, etc etc?
What a great theme that was: “We’re on our way, we’re the wrong 22” – er, sorry, that should read “Ron’s 22.”
Putting all that to one side, here are my thoughts on the year that is almost over.
Least surprising statistic of the year
The news that Pippo Inzaghi was given offside 14 times in five UEFA Champions League games only sounds slightly more remarkable when you realise he was flagged every 18 minutes he was on the pitch.
Press statement of the year
This announcement, from the League Managers Association on behalf of Martin Allen, is a masterful example of the press statement that raises far, far more questions than it answers.
“Mr Allen was interviewed by the police about an incident that occurred on 19th September 2009 in Cheltenham. He has now been informed by the police that they are not taking the matter any further and Mr Allen will not make any additional comments on this matter.”
The most overlooked trend
The rise of the former Yugoslavia. Two countries from within the old borders – Serbia and Slovenia – will play in South Africa.
Bosnia-Herzegovina reached the play-offs after scoring more goals than any other other UEFA entrants bar Spain and England.
And forget Barcelona’s academy, the former Yugoslavia is the greatest source of football talent in Europe, having given us Edin Dzeko, Eduardo, Vedad Ibisevic, Niko Kranjcar, Milos Krasic, Luka Modric, Zvjezdan Misimovic (who had the most assists in the Bundesliga in 2008/09), Ivica Olic, Miralem Pjanic, Darijo Srna (Shakhtar’s UEFA Cup-winning captain) and Nemanja Vidic.
Then there are those with roots in Tito’s old stamping ground, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Bojan Krkic.
If Sir Alex Ferguson snaps up CSKA Moscow’s Serbian central defender Uros Cosic in January, United will have three Serbs in their squad.
And the conveyor belt shows no sign of stopping.
Coach of the year
In his record-breaking first season it seems churlish not to select Pep Guardiola but hey, let’s be churlish. Besides, if he gets any more pats on the back his skin will be raw.
Meanwhile, Roy Hodgson’s miraculous transformation of Fulham may be the greatest living proof that coaches are not overpaid irrelevancies.
But being horribly unoriginal, and swayed by Gabriele Marcotti’s piece in The Times, I’m going to pick Jupp Heynckes, a German legend who ended Real Madrid’s 32-year wait for the European Cup in 1998 and was rewarded with the sack.
Spurning the cosy comfort of the pundits’ sofa, Heynckes has defied those who saw him as strictly old-school and led Bayer Leverkusen to the top of the Bundesliga.
Not bad for a coach of whom Christoph Daum one said: “The weather map is more interesting than a talk with Heynckes.”
Interview of the year
Uli Hesse – author of Tor!, a seminal, wry history of German football, and contributor to both FourFourTwo and Champions – on Bundesliga Talk.
I especially love his response to a question about Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp:
“I’m aware he could be a complete charlatan who uses his brains, charisma and looks to con people into thinking he’s a good coach when he might be totally useless.
"But I’ve come to suspect that this is the perfect job description for a football coach, anyway.”
Team of the year
Barcelona won everything they entered in 2009 but the relative ease with which Denmark topped a World Cup qualifying group that contained Portugal and Sweden was remarkable – especially when you consider that most pundits said this was the worst national team in 30 years.
The squad’s team spirit was so strong even Nicklas Bendtner couldn’t dent it.
A great libero in the underrated Danish Dynamite team of the 1980s, Denmark manager Morten Olsen hasn’t had tons of luck as a coach. He has been fired by every club who hired him.
The de Boer brothers effectively engineered his removal from Ajax in 1998. But FC Solidarity, as Denmark have become known, could win Olsen a job at one of Europe’s big clubs – if he wants it.
Landon Donovan pointing at his chest and shouting “Me! Me! Me!” after scoring against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.
Crude, bombastic, arrogant – yes, it was all of those, but it was honest. And not choreographed.
Given that most Premier League footballers only train a few mornings a week, do they really have the time to waste perfecting elaborate homages to Aga Do Do Do Push Pineapples Up A Tree?
Best 0-0 draw
FC Twente v Steaua Bucharest in the UEFA Europa League – scoreless despite the 34 shots on goal.
Least original pub conversation of the year
As overheard in a pub in Teddington: “I mean, you’ve gotta take Crouch haven’t you? And if you take Crouch you got to take Beckham because he’s the only one who can put the ball on his head.
"And I’d take Michael Owen too, just for his finishing. Look at that hat-trick the other week!”
The sooner Capello names his squad the better.
Goal of the year
It has to be Dejan Stankovic’s wonder strike against Genoa.
It was like the Peter Kay “have it” advert remade by a genius.
Player of the year
Not wanting Lionel Messi to order an even bigger trophy cabinet, I've plumped for a man who describes his occupation simply and without hesitation as “goalscorer.”
For many South American coaches, the star of the continent’s World Cup qualifiers wasn’t Messi or Kaka but Chile and Monterrey striker Humberto Suazo.
The 28-year-old scored 10 goals in qualifying, one more than Luis Fabiano, bagged a brace against Brazil and played a vital role as Monterrey won the Mexican title.
If he does well in South Africa, some big European clubs may be prepared to overlook his reputation for getting into rows with fans, players, coaches, neighbours and postmen.
Most irritating phenomenon
The re-emergence of Jack Warner, friend and scourge of England’s 2018 World Cup bid.
Watching him perform at the Leaders In Football conference reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck’s definition of an egotist: “Usually a case of mistaken nonentity.”
The aspect of football I enjoyed most
The bit in Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff, the fantastic anthology of interviews with Johan Cruyff, where he says that when you’re 4-0 up and have a chance to score, sometimes it’s nicer – and more pleasing – to hit the post.
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