A very happy 50th birthday to Mr Romário de Souza Faria.

The Brazilian was part of perhaps the last generation of players to retain an air of mystique by virtue of their relative absence from our TV screens. Unlike contemporary stars, opportunities to watch Romario in action were few and far between. We had to subsist on  the odd Champions League tie against English opposition or patiently await the next World Cup. Having never signed for an Italian club we didn’t even get the privilege of an occasional glimpse on Channel 4 of a Sunday afternoon, as we did with so many other marquee names of the period. This scarcity only added to his lustre.

Romario didn’t have the best of luck with World Cups. Injuries denied him in 90 and 98 and a personality clash with big Phil resulted in his exclusion from the victorious 02 squad. This meant that to a generation of British football fans, Romario’s legend is founded mostly on seven performances at USA 94 and a pair of games in the same year against Manchester United. He’s probably the last South American superstar to fit into that category: universally & rightfully revered despite none us having seen much of him play.

This speaks to the impact he made during that tournament. In a transitional period shortly before the world game became ubiquitous, USA 94 marked arguably the last World Cup Brazil arrived at with an otherworldly aura. With a squad half drawn from Brazilian clubs and containing only a handful of players that anybody knew much about, it wouldn’t be a stretch to label them an unknown quantity, as ridiculous as that sounds from this vantage point. All we knew was that we were in for a hell of a ride, right? Eleven mavericks. You score three, we’ll score four. Then the tournament began…and they had Rai and Mauro Silva in central midfield.

In reality, Brazil’s approach to the game had been evolving towards a more European style for some time; since the glorious failure of 82 in fact. However, nobody had informed me of this. Having been weaned on VHS tapes of the teams of Pele, Zico et al this was all a little underwhelming.

Whilst stocked with some very good players, the 94 vintage were a largely functional, uninspiring side with one major exception; the short, squat lad up front with the great big arse. He moved differently to the others, swaggering about the pitch, with incredible acceleration over five yards, holding onto the ball for longer and committing defenders. He was the only recognisably Brazilian player as far as I could tell.

If Maradona was the stardust for Argentina in 86, Romario fulfilled the same role for Brazil eight years later. Finishing with 5 goals and (controversially) the player of the tournament award, three moments stand out. First, the trademark run and toe poke finish against Sweden, second, the run and assist for Bebeto’s winner against the USA (some excellent special effects following the goal here) and finally the balletic half volley against the Netherlands.

Although World Cup victory was the undoubted high point of Romario’s international career, he had already guaranteed himself immortality with this match winning header against Uruguay (at 2:15) in the Copa America of 1989 –  incredibly, Brazil’s first continental title in 40 years.

Finishing up as the Seleção’s third highest scorer (55 goals in 70 games), behind only Pele and Ronaldo, Romario’s goalscoring at club level was no less impressive. The second highest ever scorer in Brazilian domestic football history, his record in European football is comparable to anyone before or since. In five seasons at PSV he netted 96 goals in 107 games. Better remembered for a briefer spell at Camp Nou, he scored 34 times in 46 outings including this hat trick against Real Madrid, featuring a turn and toe poke almost as good as his effort against Sweden, and a goal home and away against Man Utd (away clip is worth watching if only for Kevin Keegan’s hapless attempts at pronouncing Stoichkov at 1:12) Steve Bruce later referred to him as “arguably the best player I ever faced.”

Never short on confidence – “The day I was born, God laid eyes on me and said: ‘He’s the man.'” – the Brazilian belongs to a proud tradition of brilliant but volatile loose cannons largely absent from the modern game. Witness this blind side cheap shot on Diego Simeone to get an idea. Fallings out first with Cruyff and then Luis Aragones at Valencia cut short his stay in Europe and precipitated a return to Brazil.

The latter stages of his career in his homeland weren’t without some notable moments. Chief amongst them was a ridiculous turn in the 2000 Mercosur Cup final (a short lived trans-continental tournament featuring South America’s top clubs) for Vasco De Gama against Palmeiras. Trailing 3-0 at half-time, Romario led a second half comeback, culminating in a hat-trick completing, injury-time winning goal. Remarkably, five years later, at the age of 39 he finished the Brazilian championship as its top scorer.

Ever quotable, following his omission from the 2002 World Cup squad, Romario answered a question on whether he’d be watching on TV thus: “The games start at six o’clock in the morning. At that time, I’m usually getting home.” Imagine an English player coming out with that. On another occasion, when pressed on rumours surrounding his private life, he responded “Only televisions should worry about projecting a good image.”


Football’s unlikeliest transfers


Following Ramires’ surprising move to China, here are a few other outlandish transfers from over the years…

Julien Faubert  – West Ham to Real Madrid

You know something is unexpected when reportage of it is prefaced with the sentence: “This isn’t an April Fools”. To anyone who watched Julien Faubert haplessly blunder up and down West Ham’s right side, his loan move to Real Madrid in January 2009 was an unexpected development to say the least. Faubert had endured a terrible time at Upton Park. A serious achilles injury in pre-season delayed his debut by seven months. Hammers fans awaited his return with great anticipation. This was after all a French international; the first man to don the number 10 jersey since Zizou’s retirement no less. But in a claret and blue shirt, he couldn’t do anything right; running when he should have passed, passing when he should have run and ballooning crosses into the stands. Predictably enough, his spell at Madrid was disastrous and brief. His most notable achievement was being pictured asleep on the bench during a game against Villarreal. To get a sense of just how surprising this transfer was, you need only watch Phil Thompson’s face and Paul Merson’s reaction upon hearing the news.


Ronnie O’Brien – unattached to Juventus 1999

Teeside to Turin isn’t the exactly the most well trodden path in football, but it’s the one that Irishman Ronnie O’Brien took when signing with the Old Lady in 1999. Recently released by Middlesbrough, O’Brien was pondering his next career move when the call from Italy came. If stories are to be believed, it all came about via a recommendation from that man again Paul Merson. Merson’s agent worked with Juve and on the strength of a video of a Boro reserve match, the deal was made. At what must have been quite a daunting time for the young man, his former manager Bryan Robson had some encouraging words to send him off on his adventure “Ronnie O’Brien is not good enough. People jump to the ceiling because he has gone to Juventus but he hasn’t done anything yet”. Although Robson’s managerial judgement wasn’t always the soundest, he called this one right. O’Brien departed Juventus having made only a few appearances in the Intertoto Cup and went on to eke out a decent career in the MLS. In a strange postscript to the story, O’Brien’s move prompted a campaign in Ireland to have him voted Time Magazine’s person of the century. Before a late rule change banned ‘whimsical candidates’ he was briefly polling alongside Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. Still, by naming his son Zinedean (sic) he’ll always have something to remember his stint in Turin by.

Faustino Asprilla – unattached to Darlington (almost)

Although this transfer never actually came to fruition it certainly warrants inclusion. George Reynolds, Darlington’s colourful chairman, thought he had pulled off a masterstroke when he somehow convinced former Newcastle striker Tino Asprilla to sign for the third division side in 2002. Ignoring the fact that Asprilla’s career was in freefall, Darlington offered him 17k a week plus 20% of gate receipts as well as a car and a rent-free flat as a sweetener, a questionable business decision that would no doubt have done wonders for team morale. So confident was Reynolds’ of sealing the deal that Asprilla was paraded in front of the Darlington faithful before a home game against Carlisle. They had even gone to the trouble of securing a work permit for him on appeal. Little did he know the Colombian playboy was getting cold feet. Expected at the club for his medical, Asprilla had other ideas, choosing to take a taxi to Newcastle airport in the middle of the night for a flight to the Middle East. Reynolds didn’t take the news well, “We’re friends, myself and Faustino. I wined and dined him…I’ll never ever talk to him again”. Asprilla was last heard of launching his own ‘Tino’ line of flavoured condoms in Colombia – “I’ll recommend the guava flavour”. As for Reynolds, after running Darlington into the ground, he was imprisoned for 3 years for tax evasion in 2005.

Denilson – Sao Paolo to Real Betis

In the days before he’d been rumbled as a one trick showpony, Denilson was briefly the hottest property in world football – ‘look how many stepovers he can do!’ Following the 98 World Cup he had his pick of Europe’s premier clubs: Madrid, Milan, Barcelona, Man Utd, Betis. Sorry, what was that last one? Real Betis, Seville’s second club, pulled off a coup and broke the world transfer fee record, paying £21.5 million to secure his services from Sao Paolo in 1999. A lack of ambition on the part of the Brazilian or an admirable commitment to a club that was willing to invest so much in him? Perhaps he just knew his station. Eight years and 186 inconsistent games later, Denilson departed Betis, ending his playing days as a nomad with spells in Saudi Arabia, the US, Vietnam and Greece. At just 31 he was rejected by Gary Megson after a week’s trial with Bolton Wanderers.

Re-setting the clocks, why UK Athletics is on the right track

The tragicomedy of athletics staggers onwards. Round the bend, the sight of part two of WADAs report into IAAF corruption and Russian state sponsored doping looms into view. Former WADA chief Dick Pound, a stern sort not given to hyperbole, has already provided a little teaser. Apparently the sequel has a “wow factor” and is “even more explosive” than part one. Given the contents of the material released at the end of last year, that’s some going. I’ll certainly be watching. Thursday promises to be a long day for Sebastian Coe’s PR team.


Former WADA chief Dick Pound

In a bold, pre-emptive move UK athletics has released a 14 point manifesto to clean up the sport. Most eye-catching of all is their proposal to nullify all existing world records. A complete re-boot. It’s a divisive proposition that has predictably come in for a barrage of criticism. Whilst the idea is a flawed one – more on which later – and unlikely to ever be adopted, UK athletics (UKA) deserves credit. In publishing the manifesto UKA has at last started a meaningful conversation about the legitimacy crisis that faces athletics. Finally, a recognition that the mess the sport finds itself in is so dreadful that it can only be addressed by year zero, radical thinking

Yet, the proposal and accompanying statement from UKA exec Ed Warner illustrate one of the more curious aspects of this sorriest of sagas. In presenting the document, Warner said “the integrity of athletics was challenged as never before in 2015” and that it was at its “lowest point for decades”. However, the world records idea is itself a tacit admission that the sport has really had no integrity for the past 30 or so years. It might just be plumbing new depths.

This contradiction fits a more general pattern throughout the current crisis. The strange narrative that there is somehow something new or different here. That athletics is in crisis all of a sudden. That the public is only now slowly waking up to the scale of drug use. True, the complicity of the sport’s governing body in the whole sordid business is a novel feature. But, the fact of drug abuse being endemic in athletics has been well established for a very long time.

Athletics has lurched from one drug crisis to the next over the past quarter of a decade. The end of the cold war brought to light the scale of state sponsored doping in the Eastern bloc. Dr Wade Exum told us all about the extent of drug use in US athletics throughout the 1980s and the subsequent cover-ups. In the BALCO scandal we learned about designer pharmacists and commercial labs. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay, Kelli White, Rashid Ramzi, Trevor Graham. This could go on and on. Russian state sponsored doping and IAAF corruption is merely the latest chapter in a long running saga and by no means the seediest.

It’s this longer term perspective that explains the slow receding of athletics from the public consciousness. Just as drugs in the sport did not start and end with East Germans or Ben Johnson, athletics’ fate has not and will not be decided by recent events alone. The public’s faith in what they watch has been steadily eroded by scandal after scandal. Athletics has been in a state of near permanent crisis for over two decades.

This is the point that I think has been missed, perhaps wilfully, by many involved in the sport. They underestimate the extent to which athletics has already been discredited by much of the watching public. There is a degree of denial about the scale and nature of the problem. It was evident in the relentless focus on Justin Gatlin at last year’s World Championships and the embarrassing celebrations of the BBC team at his defeat. It was maddening to watch them reduce the issue to such a simplistic and personal level (with the honourable exception of Michael Johnson) It was also there in Sebastian Coe’s bizarrely defensive reaction to the Sunday Times’ allegations as a “declaration of war on my sport”. Athletics has a huge task on its hands to win people back over.


Coe’s position looks increasingly untenable

It’s in this context that UKAs efforts should be applauded.

At the very least it seeks to address one of the great absurdities in all of sport, let alone athletics. A cursory glance down the list of current world records and half a dozen immediately jump out. Everybody knows they are tainted. Nobody to this day has come remotely close to them, let alone bettered them. Yet there they are, etched in time and serving as a reminder in the bottom right hand corner of the TV screen that athletics is dirty. Regardless of anything else it’s one of the single biggest factors holding back women’s athletics.

There are some obvious practical problems with the idea. Chief amongst them is that athletics is presently in no position from a testing point of view to declare that any results achieved after a re-set should be considered any more valid than those achieved before. This is enough on its own to sink the proposal as a viable option.

The best suggestion I’ve encountered is the idea of making any records provisional, with a set window for re-testing before they are ratified as official world records. A drawback to this is what an acceptable arbitrary time limit would be. A flashing ‘NEW PROVISIONAL WORLD RECORD’ on screen doesn’t send out the best message or hold quite the same dramatic appeal either.

Much hard thinking remains and easy answers don’t exist. Still, UKA has been brave in taking a lead. Though its ideas are imperfect it’s heartening to finally see someone in athletics give an indication they understand the existential threat the sport faces and the type of thinking it will take to turn things round.

All eyes on Thursday.


Pep Guardiola and the cult of the manager


It’s a near certainty that Pep Guardiola will manage in the Premier League next season, with Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea forming a not so orderly queue for his services. With the recent downturn in the fortunes of his old rival Jose Mourinho, Guardiola would probably now be most observers’ pick as the world’s premier manager. But, is everybody completely missing the point about his success and what lies behind it? Do managers matter that much.

The mythology that surrounds Guardiola is illustrative of the over emphasis on individuals that persists in football. A powerful idea grips clubs and supporters that if only the right manger can be recruited, success will surely follow. This idea was perfectly demonstrated in the delirious reaction that greeted the recent appointment of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. There remains a strange lack of attention to the environmental and systemic factors that breed success on the pitch.

Now let me be clear, this isn’t contrarianism for its own sake. I’m not saying that Guardiola doesn’t know a thing or two about organising a football team. That would just be silly. But, there is a lazy narrative and an absolute consensus on him that warrants some scrutiny. At Barcelona,* his record is really very similar to that of his immediate predecessor and successors. The club have done well whoever has been in charge and, importantly, regardless of their managerial credentials.

Prior to being appointed Barcelona boss, Luis Enrique boasted a relatively modest managerial CV. Time at Barcelona B was followed by an unsuccessful year at Roma and a creditable season with Celta Vigo. In his first year at Camp Nou, Enrique matched Guardiola’s treble winning debut and looks well on course for another hugely successful year.

In his only campaign in charge, the late Tito Vilanova managed to amass 100 pts in La Liga, more than Guardiola ever managed. What is more, this was achieved with Vilanova taking an extended leave of absence midway through the season for cancer treatment. Vilanova’s only previous experience as a number one consisted of a year in Spain’s fourth tier that ended in relegation.

The much maligned, trophyless Tata Martino would appear to be the exception. An odd choice, having never managed in Europe before, even he ended up with the exact same points total that Guardiola achieved in his first season. The difference being that Martino’s efforts were good enough only for second place.

There are two charges that can be levelled against the above. Firstly, Guardiola is exceptional because this was the house that he built and secondly, I’ve neglected his Champions League triumphs.

On the first point, Guardiola was building on already very solid foundations laid by Frank Rijkaard (whose only previous club management job incidentally was a year at Sparta Rotterdam who were relegated) The Dutchman revived Barcelona, established a similar playing style, brought through Iniesta and Messi and generally left things in a far better state than he found them. A disappointing end to his tenure was mainly due to a period of squad transition and his star player losing interest in training. The dead wood had all been removed by the start of Guardiola’s first season. Strangely Rijkaard never seems to be linked with any jobs these days.

As for the Champions League, Rijkaard and Enrique won it as well and Guardiola had four attempts to Vilanova and Martino’s one. There’s also the much understated element of luck in cup competitions (anyone that scoffs at this this should remember that Avram Grant and Roberto Di Matteo have both been to one more CL Final with Chelsea than Mourinho) and few could argue that in his first campaign, Guardiola wasn’t fortunate in the extreme in the semi-final against Chelsea.

The point here is not some feeble attempt to discredit Guardiola or to detract from his achievements. It’s rather to say that the lessons of Barcelona’s incredible success over the past decade seem to have been misunderstood by many. The Catalan club have hit upon a winning formula that rejects the idea of big name manager recruitment – ironic given Guardiola’s current status in the game. In Guardiola himself they hired a managerial novice. A succession of unheralded managers have done enormously well. The easy narrative is the one about great men but really it’s a story of systemic rather than individual triumph.

The common thread that runs from Guardiola to Vilanova to Enrique is that they are all products of the Barcelona system. All three represented the club on the pitch at one level or other. They earned their managerial stripes with Barcelona’s B team. They were/are steeped in the club’s traditions, practices and playing style. They represent continuity. It’s instructive that Tata Martino, by far the most experienced yet least successful of the last four managers, was the only outsider.

Rather than fixate on a marquee name, Guardiola’s suitors in England would perhaps do better by attempting to implement their own versions of Barcelona’s in-house recruitment system.

* It’s more difficult to assess Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich. Firstly, because he’s still there. Secondly, Jupp Heynckes’ last season in charge was so dominant that Guardiola was always on something of a hiding to nothing. Domestically he has carried on where Heynckes left off but in the CL he has, relatively speaking, disappointed. There are parallels with Vilanova’s succession of Guardiola at Barca.