Our European guru educates and enlightens
If Sid Lowe can do it, why can’t I? The esteemed interpreter of Spanish football gives out the Sids at the end of every season, so I’m going to dish out the Simmos as I review a year in which football spectacularly lost the plot.
Some of the decision making – and I don’t just mean by referees – displayed a kind of crazed incompetence seldom seen since Caligula promoted his favourite horse Incitatus to the Roman senate. It was a year in which England contrived to lose two World Cups, Rafa Benitez lost two jobs and a Spanish newspaper declared that the sermon on the mount was “in fact a prophecy of Leo Messi”.
The mismatch of the yearNo not Zilina v Marseille, or even Rooney v Ferguson, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad v Paul the Octopus. The Iranian president accused the now late, lamented psychic octopus who correctly called the outcome of eight World Cup matches, of spreading “Western propaganda and superstition”.
The funniest example of English football’s insular closed shop mentalityAll and sundry – from Sir Alex Ferguson to Lou Macari and Mark Lawrenson – have lined up to condemn the Indian chicken farmers who own Blackburn and had the unmitigated gall to sack ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce. Graham Taylor has even threatened to boycott turkey and chicken in protest.
The sub-text here is what makes a couple of “Indian chicken farmers” – and you have to say those three words with just the right amount of indignant disgust in your voice – think they know more about football than Sam, Sir Alex or Graham?
I’m not sure if the objection is to the fact that they’re Indian (surely not) or chicken farmers or whether the fact that they are Indian and chicken farmers somehow compounds the insult to Allardyce, Blackburn Rovers and English football.
But Allardyce’s departure doesn’t seem that odd or appalling to me. Playing Big Sam’s way, Blackburn were never going to be more than a middle of the road Premier League team. Every so often they would flirt with relegation while, with a bit of luck, they might qualify for the UEFA Europa League (where, with their style of football, they would win few converts and probably not progress very far). That’s not the kind of business plan which would persuade anyone to part with £23million of their hard earned cash is it?
The timing may have been stupid but I’m not sure the decision was.The most compelling parallel between the works of Michelangelo and the career of Frank LampardIn Alan Bennett’s diary in the London Review Of Books, his entry for 7 April 2010 reads: “The open mouth of Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, having scored a goal, is also the howl of the face of the damned man in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement.” If you don’t believe him, see for yourself.
The most underrated trendBelgian defenders. Vincent Kompany is now finally proving his quality at Manchester City (where his compatriot Dedryck Boyata is showing much promise). Marouane Fellaini has become a hero at Everton. Thomas Vermaelen settled brilliantly at Arsenal. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are first choice at the heart of Ajax’s back four. Nicolas Lombaerts has won the Russian title with Zenit St Petersburg. For a country that languishes at 57 in the Fifa rankings and has a population of just 10.4m that is some conveyor belt.
The most crushing disappointmentThe World Cup bidding process. Transparent, understandable and free from any hint of corruption – the battle to host 2018 and 2022 should have been all of these and wasn’t. In public, Sepp Blatter may pillory the English as bad losers – even though the US, Australia, Spain and Portugal were just as disgruntled – but you would hope that privately, with such stalwarts as Franz Beckenbauer expressing doubts about the process, even he can see the need for change. Only one winner emerged from this flawed process: the construction industry which stands to gain £41bn in revenue from these two tournaments.
The most inspirational momentEran Zahavi’s bicycle kick for Hapoel Tel Aviv against Lyon. A breathtaking piece of swivelling, improvised, genius. The 23-year-old attacking midfielder has improved over the last five years with Hapoel and is enjoying the most prolific season of his career. Zahavi has already been linked with clubs in Belgium and may move on for a decent fee this summer.
The most transformational coachNot the Special One. Not even Joachim Low who coached the most entertaining team in South Africa and reinvented, through brilliant improvisation, the two man screen in midfield. For me, the man who over-achieved most spectacularly in the dugout was Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, who helped Chile qualify for their first World Cup (they were hosts in 1962), beat Argentina for the first time ever in a competitive match and changed the national team’s culture, encouraging his young, gifted side to be more attacking away from home. It seems sadly typical that Bielsa quit in November because he felt he couldn’t work with the new president of the Chilean FA.
The most intriguing remark about the state of footballIt’s hard to beat Blatter’s observation that “Football has become a monster, but a positive monster.” The longer you think about the remark the more baffling it becomes. “Monster!” was, of course, the catchphrase of uber agent Eric Hall who is now, so his Wikipedia page says, hosting a golden oldies Sunday afternoon show on BBC Radio Essex.
The least memorable punditHas to be Alan Shearer. I cannot remember a single observation he made in 2010. Actually that’s a lie: my respect for him soared when the shambles of England v Germany in Bloemfontein moved him to angry eloquence. Sadly, he doesn’t get that angry very often.
The most annoying clichéThat Dimitar Berbatov doesn’t run enough. The Bulgarian’s real flaw is that he doesn’t impose his very obvious genius on games often enough. Despite what many people in English football seem to think, running is not an end in itself.
The player of the yearAntonio Cassano, the maverick genius of calcio who has just strolled into the last chance saloon at Milan. The player who confided in his memoirs that at best he’d given not 110%, or even 100% but around 50% on the pitch has impressed and appalled in almost equal measure. But in an age where many football teams feature the bland leading the bland, Cassano is never dull. It would be great if Milan could find a way to make constructive use of a player who once ran away from Fabio Capello on the training ground prompting the coach to shout: “Don’t run, only cowards run”.
The team of the yearMourinho’s Inter. They didn’t play attractive, expansive football but they knew precisely what they were doing, performed heroically at Camp Nou and clinically at Stamford Bridge and the Bernabeu. They were a proper team and the intelligence with which they played was fascinating to watch.
The Incitatus award for someone promoted above his or her level of competenceThere are so many contenders but the clear winner must be Gigi Becali, the Romanian MEP who owns Steaua Bucharest, has a painting based on da Vinci’s Last Supper with himself as Jesus (and the players and coaches depicted as his disciples) upon his wall and sacks coaches faster than you can say ‘Indian chicken farmers’. In 2010, the Romanian giants have been managed by Ille Dumitrescu, Marius Lacatus, Victor Piturca and Mihai Stoichita. Piturca has had five spells as coach while Lacatus is now in his third stint in the hottest seat in European football. Becali is, as Tommy Docherty used to say, “a legend in his own mind”.
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