THE BEAUTIFUL GAME 4: MESSI APPROACHES 30

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME 4: MESSI APPROACHES 30

Last Sunday, April 23, the latest “El Clasico” took place. The bare facts are that Barcelona won 3-2, keeping alive their hopes of beating arch rivals Real Madrid to the La Liga title. Messi scored two goals including a last gasp winner.

Yet the match was far more than that. Barcelona, which over the last decade has at times fielded arguably the greatest football teams ever seen, has been going through a difficult patch. The departure and decline of some of their major stars, Xavi, Pujol, Dani Alves, Iniesta, has weakened the squad, heavily dependent as it is on (the aging) Messi, who will be thirty in June. The replacements have not thus far come up to the mark, the weaknesses disguised by the separate acquisitions of Suarez and Neymar, the pair teaming up with Messi  in the past few years to form a goal scoring machine  -MSN – with at times mesmerising interaction between them.

About the defence the less said the better. A coach elsewhere a generation ago had stated, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that he didn’t mind if the opponents scored three, four or five goals as long as his team scored four, five or six in response. Fighting talk! And of course logically unanswerable. Plus, if Team A has the ball and is attacking, Team B cannot score. Guardiola’s success with Barcelona rested in no small part on the team’s attacking skills as well as its ability to retain possession, masking the limitations at the back. That plus the not inconsiderable part played by Lionel Messi, probably the finest player the world has ever seen. And post Guardiola Luis Enrique used the MSN trio to disguise further the team’s overall defensive shortcomings, even as Pujol departed. Defence was never the priority – adequate but not more than adequate.

This year, however, the squad has blown hot and cold. Time, weariness and increasingly effective opposition tactics have taken their toll. Massed defences proved their mettle most recently in Euro 2016 and even the poorest coach now knows that a tight defensive formation of two rows of four with some tall physical central defenders will stifle most attacks. There’s the additional issue of targeting of creative players – in Barcelona’s case Messi and to an extent Neymar. Football is a physical game, players are only human and some fouling is only to be expected.

Deliberate and cynical targeting of the most skilled players, however, is something else. I wrote last year before the Copa America and the 2016 Euros that it was time to protect Messi and other creative players, including an analysis which pointed up that fouls on Messi were mainly concentrated in matches where most was at stake. In the event little if anything was done by way of protection. Messi was fouled eight times in the final, which Argentina lost to Chile on penalties and six times in the quarter final against Venezuela .  (Interestingly, in the semi-final, against the host nation USA, before a packed stadium in Houston, Messi, who starred in Argentina’s four-nil win, was fouled twice. Is there a moral here somewhere?)

This season Messi has played in forty three club matches, missing several through injury. In only six of these was he not fouled. In the other thirty six he was fouled just over one hundred times, and, as before, the lion’s share of these came in games where much was at stake, with thirty eight of these occurring in just seven games and fifty in ten.  This quite apart from the tackles and lunges he rode or went inexplicably unpunished. Neymar, a more combative player, who has taken up some of the slack, was targeted even more –   one hundred and seventy fouls in forty one matches. Not surprisingly this attrition, added to everything else, and compounded by injuries, led to some indifferent team performances in La Liga, which saw Barcelona yield the dominant position to Real so that coming up to last Sunday’s meeting Real were heavily favoured to take the title.

The best and worst of Barcelona this season were manifest in the Champions League Round of Sixteen, where a supine display in Paris against PSG saw them lose four –nil. None of the Trio “turned up” and the defence was woeful. Several weeks later in the return leg, Barcelona won an extraordinary match six – one. The match has been enthused over and parsed in the media many times. But several points need to be made. Firstly PSG imploded at the very end – three goals were scored in the final hectic seven minutes, two of them in time added on. Secondly, whereas Messi had a quiet game, Neymar played perhaps his best game ever for Barcelona. Messi appeared jaded, but inevitably, being Messi, PSG had to keep one eye on him, allowing Neymar free rein. And finally, there has been some criticism of the refereeing, in particular the penalty award which evened the scores up.

In the Quarter Final, an out-of-form Barcelona were pitted against in form Juventus. The first leg in Italy was won three-nil by the home team, though the victory was not as comprehensive as the score line suggests- Barcelona had chances and were unlucky not to score. Messi, fouled seven times in a surprise home defeat to Malaga several days previously, was fouled five times in Turin. The second leg a week later was played five days before the “Classico,” with interest focussing on whether Barcelona could repeat their feat against PSG.

It was never really on. With the sole exception of AC Milan’s collapse against Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League Final, Italian teams do not throw away three goal leads – and that was in the heat of a single match. The Juventus team had come to the Camp Nou to defend their lead and had the tactics and strategy to do so. It worked, Juventus giving what commentators called a masterclass in defending, marshalled by superb displays by their two central defenders, Bonucci and Chiellini. Despite constant pressure by the home team the game finished scoreless. As an aside, Messi emerged with a black eye after an unpunished upending by Pjanic, which earned Neymar a yellow card when he sought retribution on the Juventus player.

The football obituaries were not slow in coming, for Messi, for Barcelona. And for most people there was a sense that an end of an era was at hand. One Irish pundit observed that we should be grateful and remember their great games and the pleasure they had given in recent years. Others, this writer included, were loath to concede that the team was definitely over the hill. Neymar is twenty five and Messi surely has a year or two left. So there was considerable interest in last Sunday’s El Clasico. Barcelona, three points behind and having played a game more, simply had to win. Real meanwhile were cock-a-hoop after eliminating Bayern Munich in the Champions League  thanks to a hat trick from Messi’s arch rival Ronaldo.

The game did not disappoint. The minute by minute newspaper accounts give some flavour of its excitement and quality while YouTube features the highlights. It proved a titanic struggle, hard, physical and played with a ferocious passion. There were chances and claims, misses and near misses for both sides. But most significantly Messi did not disappoint. It was as if the years had been shrugged off; the acceleration was back, the weaving runs and turns, the mesmeric dribbles, the deadly accurate shooting. This against arguably the best team in Europe and despite the best attentions of the Real defence.

It became clear at an early stage that Real’s main defensive tactic was to stop Messi. After eleven minutes Casemiro was booked for hacking him down. Within another ten minutes he was spitting blood after a flailing elbow from Marcelo caught him full in the mouth. He returned undaunted and continued running at the Real defence, cutting through it to equalise Real’s lead, control and finish perfect. Casemiro dumped him again before half time and was lucky not to be sent off. In the second half there were more runs, more lunges and fouls. Sergio Ramos was sent off with fifteen minutes left for a wild studs up attack which sent Messi flying. Five minutes later Kovacic was booked for again bringing Messi down. Then, as full time loomed, and a draw seemed inevitable, Messi appeared out of nowhere, found a gap where there was none and drove the ball into the net from the edge of the area.

The two goals against Real brought Messi’s total for Barcelona to five hundred. He added two more against Osasuna mid-week. He is highly likely to add some more before this season ends. Yet it will probably not be enough to secure the La Liga title for Barcelona. He will, however have an opportunity to win the Copa del Rey for Barcelona yet again as they face Alaves on May 27 in the Calderon. And, with luck and the proper measure of protection he could be around breaking records and delighting audiences for several years to come. But he needs that protection. The separate irony also is that, had Real played to their strengths and not sought to nobble Messi they might easily have got a result.

S.F.

28/4

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AN EPIC CONTEST – THE 2016 BRITISH OPEN AT TROON

AN EPIC CONTEST – THE 2016 BRITISH OPEN AT TROON

The 2016 British Open Golf Championship at Troon in Ayrshire, which finished on July 20, will be remembered for all the right reasons and in particular for the epic final round contest between five times Major winner Phil Mickelson and the Swede Henrik Stenson, at 40, bidding to win a first major.

Mickelson, aged 46, opened with a superb 63, 8 under, just missing a birdie on the final hole which would have given him the lowest opening score in a major championship. At the conclusion of Day One he led by three from Kaymer and Reed. In the Second Round he again broke par with a 69, to continue to lead. Ominously, however, his lead had been cut to one, with the Swede Stenson the major mover, shooting a 65 to finish 9 under. The fancied players, including McIlroy, Johnson and Garcia were well back.

Day Three saw a further stretching out of the field, with Stenson and Mickelson pulling clear. Stenson had another excellent round of 68 to move into the lead at 12 under; Mickelson was again under par with a 70, but dropped one stroke behind. Third place (Bill Haas) was five strokes back.

The final day saw what has been termed a “shootout” between the two leaders, instantly acclaimed as a classic and as one of the greatest final round duels in Majors history. Certainly it’s the best I can remember, not just because it was a tense and exciting battle with the lead changing hands and the pair tied for several holes on several occasions, but also for the quality of the golf. By the ninth hole both players had improved on their overnight totals by four , Stenson to sixteen under, Mickelson to fifteen, the field now trailing by eight strokes.

The last nine holes saw Stenson drop a shot on the eleventh and the two golfers again tied until the fourteenth. Then in a remarkable burst, Stenson pulled ahead decisively, with three successive birdies and a par on the seventeenth to lead by two strokes. He proceeded to seal a remarkable victory by birdieing the last hole, finishing three ahead of Mickelson with a staggering total of 264 strokes -twenty under par, an Open Championship record and tying the lowest total in a major. Stenson’s final round of sixty three to win a major equalled Johnny Miller’s 1973 record at Oakmont.

Third place went to J.B. Holmes, eleven shots behind Mickelson. Also rans included McIlroy and Garcia, joint fourth at four under, and Dustin Johnson, ninth at two under. World number one Jason Day finished one over, twenty one shots behind Stenson.

22/7/16

THE 2016 U.S.PGA JULY 28-31 2016.
The last Major of the year, the U.S. PGA followed hard on the British Open, the date brought forward because of the Rio Olympic Games. The venue was Baltusrol, New Jersey, on the famous lower course designed by A.W. Tillinghast.

The course for 2016 had the added interesting factor of having only two Par-Fives – the last two holes to be played, prolonging interest by making possible a last minute surge to win or tie. This very nearly proved the case with Jason Day, the defending champion, eagling the final hole, requiring the wire to wire leader and eventual winner, Jimmy Walker, to put par or better for victory. Thunderstorms on the third day severely curtailed play and required all the leading players to complete two rounds on the last day. Whether that influenced the outcome is difficult to assess. The course took a lot of water (it rained throughout most of Day Four) which slowed the pace on the greens significantly.

The leader from the outset was the eventual winner Jimmy Walker, aged 37, who recorded his first Major victory. There were several surges during the competition but though he was caught and had to share the lead he was never passed out and completed his final round with no bogeys and three birdies. Jason Day finished one shot back, the field a further three. The “near miss” story was possibly that of the Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama, who finished joint fourth at nine under but who clearly narrowly missed a number of puts. Aged 24 he appears a bright prospect. Among the notables failing to make the cut were US Open Champion Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, who is in a slump at present with serious flaws in his putting. Interesting to note also is that this year all four Majors were won by first time winners.

1/8/16

THE 2016 US OPEN

THE 2016 U.S. OPEN

I’m not a Golfer, so I’m always hesitant about pontificating about the sport. I like watching it on T.V.., in the past have followed top golfers around a championship course, and applaud the athleticism, accuracy and composure of the world’s leading golfers. The consistent ability to bounce back and re-focus after a bad or unlucky shot, the stoicism demonstrated is remarkable. In the only sport which I played at any significant level – Chess – a mistake on the board is usually followed by a lengthy period of brooding introspection, rather than getting on with the contest, and a loss tends to be explained away by excuses. Not so in Golf, where there is a refreshing frankness about admitting mistakes or bad play.

These thoughts were prompted by the concluding round of the 2016 U.S. Open Championship on June 19. The championship was won by Dustin Johnson, with four under par, his first major victory after a number of disappointments and runner-up positions including the 2015 U.S. Open. Johnson had trailed Shane Lowry by four strokes entering the final round, but drew level by the turn and eventually won by three shots over a trio including Lowry, who, without collapsing totally nevertheless shot a disappointing 76 on one of America’s most difficult courses. Only four players broke par.

Posterity will record the bald facts of Dustin Johnson’s victory. Yet there was drama on that last round. On the fifth hole Johnson’s ball moved slightly on the green as he was shaping up to putt. By the rules of golf there was the possibility of a one shot penalty should Johnson have “addressed” the ball and grounded the putter. He summoned the officials, denied he had and was told to proceed. T.V. footage seemed to bear him out. He played on, continuing the “charge” that enabled him to overtake Lowry. Then, on the Twelfth Hole, USGA officials approached him to tell him there was a problem, a possible penalty stroke and that a decision would be taken at the conclusion of his round. Johnson continued and after an apparent slight lapse of concentration (he bogeyed Hole 14) , consolidated his lead, finishing with an excellent birdie. His four stroke victory margin was then cut to three.

There was disbelief, bordering on outrage, among Johnson’s colleagues including McIlroy, Speight and Fowler, all of whom thought Johnson was in the right and, moreover, that the USGA officials had behaved farcically and wrongly in not dealing definitively with the matter, one way or another, either on Hole 5 or Hole 12, rather than stringing Johnson along, with doubt nagging away inside him and the concentration of those just behind him also affected. Amen to that – my sentiments, shared with the television commentators and, I am sure, most of those watching. Afterwards Johnson dismissed the issue as being over. Afterwards also, the USGA apologised to Johnson!

Yet what if his victory margin been one after the final hole? He would have been pitchforked into a play-off after the penalty. (It could have been a somewhat different final round had Johnson been docked the stroke, either on Hole 5 or Hole 12, but that is too much conjecture.) It is to Johnson’s credit that he soldiered on and ensured he had sufficient margin over his rivals to fireproof his victory.

For he must surely have been haunted by the memory of the 2010 U.S.PGA at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. In a thrilling finish, involving a number of players, Johnson led by one stroke on the final hole. He bogeyed, which should have left him in a play-off but was then penalised two strokes for grounding his club in a bunker. The course is uniquely, some would say bizarrely, dotted with dozens of shallow mini bunkers – designed to resemble an Irish/British links course – and Johnson’s defence was that he had not realised he was actually standing in a bunker. Video footage shows a shambolic scruffy patch of sand and scutch grass, not the type of elegant delineated and manicured bunkers normally associated with U.S. championship courses. Johnson was forced to bite the bullet then, and of course he bit the bullet on this occasion also, but this time it didn’t matter. It will be interesting to see how Johnson fares in future with the ghost of the first Major now laid to rest.

For Shane Lowry the result meant that he has now very much arrived. He made no excuses for his final round and dismissed the idea that the putter grounding controversy affected him at the time. His time will surely come.

23/6

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME 3: TIME TO PROTECT MESSI

This unpublished piece was written on June 1 2016, prior to the commencement of the two continental competitions mentioned.

TIME TO PROTECT MESSI – AND OTHERS

The coming weeks will see major tournaments in the two geographical powerhouses of world football. The Copa America begins in the United States on 3 June and the European Championships commence in France on June 10. The two events should showcase most of the world’s top players, including the best, Argentinian Lionel Messi, who will celebrate his twenty ninth birthday during the Copa. Let’s hope it will be a celebration.

It has been a good season for Spanish football generally. The all-Madrid Champions’ League final took place on 28 May, underlining the dominance of Spanish club football in Europe as Real beat Atletico in a penalty shootout. Messi, and his club Barcelona, did not feature ( they went out to Atletico) but domestically Barcelona completed the League and Cup double with a 2 – 0 victory over Sevilla in the Spanish Copa Del Rey final on 22 May, a game decided by two inspirational passes in extra time from Messi. The match demonstrated yet again the considerable gulf in standards between La Liga and the Premiership, coming as it did the day after a mediocre English Cup Final and only three days after Sevilla had accounted for Liverpool in the Europa League decider.

Yet there was another, and disturbing, aspect to the Sevilla game. Messi was fouled nine times, quite apart from the lunges and off-target near misses that he rode because of his superb ability. Several of the challenges were crude, meriting yellow cards – two were awarded – and on one occasion Messi unusually made clear his frustration by making the card gesture. In his last game in the Nou Camp, against local rivals, Espanol, where admittedly there is a history, he was fouled six times. The Sevilla game moreover was book-ended with another pairing at the beginning of the season, last August, the Super Cup final, won 5 – 4 by Barcelona in a match where Messi was fouled seven times.

His season statistics make interesting reading. All told Messi had 56 starts – he missed several weeks in late 2015 with a hamstring injury – and scored 46 goals. He was fouled 151 times with opponents picking up 22 yellow cards. While this total may appear moderate – under three per game – a closer look reveals that, in 22 games he was fouled once or never. Well over a third of fouls were committed in just ten games, with, adding to the Sevilla games, 38 fouls in eight competitive internationals (six Copa America, two World Cup qualifiers). In those eight games moreover, he was restricted to one goal. Factor in those tackles he dodged and the message is clear – you stop Messi by kicking him around the park and the more there is at stake the closer the attention from defenders will be.

It is of course natural for teams, whether club or country, to seek to neutralise the opponent’s best player, but there are legitimate ways of doing this, as Atletico demonstrated with Messi in the Champions’ League. And, with the Copa America imminent, the issue arises whether more should be or could be done by the football authorities to protect Messi. Currently he is recovering after a back injury sustained in a recent friendly against Honduras (in a 2014 pre – World Cup “friendly” England were kicked repeatedly at the same venue). Messi is expected to be fit for Argentina’s opening game against Chile on June 6 – a repeat of last year’s final which saw Messi fouled nine times including one brutal kick to his midriff (watch it on YouTube) as Argentina were held scoreless, eventually losing on penalties.

The case for introducing stricter refereeing to protect Messi and other creative players now is a strong one. Messi is not getting any younger and is arguably more vulnerable and slightly slower than before while defenders are better drilled on how to neutralise him. The Chilean coach reportedly studied many hours of video footage of Barcelona to work out how best to stop him; the nine fouls speak volumes. Yet Messi, Ronaldo, and other creative players are the lifeblood of the game, not the thugs who scythe them down. People pay to see them play, not to see them hacked down.

Whether any action will be taken – including the ultimate sanction of a red card – is unclear. There’s much nonsense talked and written about “destroying the match as a spectacle” by early ejections or even worse, that fouls are unavoidable in what is a physical contact sport. All of which leaves a bad taste. Of course there will be fouls but not as part of a strategic plan. There are still memories of how Pele – the greatest footballer of his era – was kicked savagely as Brazil were eliminated from the 1966 World Cup, or how Maradona was hounded and provoked by Italy in 1982. For whatever reason, in both follow up tournaments creativity was preserved. Pele had his crowning hour in 1970 and Maradona in 1986 (though one English writer posed the question about Maradona’s wonder goal as to why he wasn’t simply fouled going through!).

Some form of edict may well have been issued in 1986. An Uruguayan was red carded in the first minute for a crude foul on Scotland’s most creative player, Gordon Strachan, while folk legend in Belgium has it that the reason Maradona was allowed to embark on those mesmerising runs in the semi-final (scoring two and just missing another pair) was that the Belgian defenders feared a red card – thus missing the Final – if they were to tackle him. Enough said on the deterrent effect.

It’s surely time for FIFA and the regional bodies to monitor the situation and take action as necessary. The two pending tournaments should tell us a lot. Hopefully what we learn will be positive. But I wouldn’t count on it.

1/6

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME 1409 LXVII

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

The twentieth World Cup finals were played in Brazil June and July. The tournament was memorable, vying with the greatest, thoroughly entertaining throughout and topped off by an excellent final featuring undoubtedly the two best teams in the tournament. Few of the matches were dull, few were vicious and goals were abundant. The competition was marked by two extraordinary results, one in the early stages, one in the semi-finals, which will reverberate around world football for some time to come.

Ireland was not there but we followed the event enthusiastically on T.V. We can take some solace from the fact that our early elimination in the qualifying stages was from the group won by Germany, the eventual winners, and the drubbings we sustained from them look less bad after seeing what they did to Portugal and Brazil in the finals. We must now face Germany again, in the qualifying groups for the 2016 European Championships.

The tournament included all previous winners. Brazil entered as slim favourites, given their tradition and position as host nation. Their arch-rivals, Argentina, however, had the world’s greatest player, Messi, which many felt would cancel out home advantage. Third favourites were Spain, World Cup holders and European champions, though no European nation had ever won in Latin America. The only other country rated by the bookies was Germany, which actually had the shortest odds pre-tournament to reach the last four.

A number of countries had something to prove. England, perennial under achievers, had brought along a group of young guns and were optimistic. France hoped to cast off the miserable memories of four years earlier, and Holland, runners up in the 2010 final, had a disgraceful and cynical performance on that occasion to live down as well as a rapid, winless exit from the 2012 European Championships. Belgium, one of the dark horses, with a formidable squad, hoped to gel as a unit and achieve their greatest success since 1986. Italy, marshalled by the ageing Pierlo, hoped to repeat their surprise showing in Europe 2012.

The Latin American contingent was strong overall, and looked set to emulate 2010 when all had battled through to the knockout stage, with Uruguay reaching the last four. The Africans also hoped to do better than last time out; many fancied Algeria to spring a surprise with an experienced squad, chiefly French born.

The group matches produced several upsets, setting the scene for some rapid exits by several of the fancied teams. The seismic shock was the 5 – 1 defeat of Spain by a Dutch team playing flowing football in a style reminiscent of the great “total football” side of the 1970s. The rout was started by a superb looping header by striker Van Persie. Spain followed this up with another dismal display against Chile and suddenly the holders were out, their beautiful football vanquished. Xavier Alonso, who played Gaelic football in Ireland as a youth, suggested that the Spanish players were tired after an arduous season in which, in addition to the domestic scene, Spanish teams had dominated European club competitions.

England also made an early exit, the young guns failing to fire. Italy joined them, after a bad tempered match against Uruguay which generated worldwide publicity when the Uruguayan striker Suarez bit an Italian defender. Suarez, the most on-form striker in the world, had previous form for biting and was summarily ejected from the competition, carrying with him Uruguay’s hopes. Brazil limped through, crude, disjointed, a shadow of the great teams of the past and over – dependent on Neymar. Argentina were winning but looked less than impressive, relying heavily on the genius of Messi. Germany overwhelmed Portugal, even with Ronaldo, a hint of things to come. The surprise qualifiers were the USA, joining most of the Latin Americans, Algeria, France and Belgium.

The tournament pointed up certain trends and traits in the modern game, not all positive. The gap between the very best nations and the next echelon has narrowed even further, with better coaching and well drilled defences able to offset, in part or totally, superior skill. There were few easy matches and in others the superior team just squeaked a late result when skill finally triumphed; Messi’s goal against Iran, Ronaldo’s cross to frustrate the USA, both deep in injury time, just two examples.

Diving remained a problem, though most matches were played in a sporting spirit. The offence has now become chronic, with referees forced to make rapid decisions under pressure; it is surely time for FIFA to take some action. Mostly the charades were of little consequence but this time Mexico were eliminated by Holland through the award of a dubious last minute penalty. Referees overall were in an invidious position, under constant pressure of one sort or another, and it showed. There were several blatantly bad decisions.

The Round of Sixteen produced, in the end, few surprises but some exciting and exhilarating matches, none more than that which saw a gallant never-say-die USA go out to Belgium in extra time. The USA brought honesty and endeavour and their success may well ignite the game there. So also did Chile, eliminated cruelly in a penalty shootout against Brazil, after a game they deserved to win. The question marks over Brazil were mounting, while for Argentina Messi seemed jaded and had ceased to inspire. Yet when the dust settled, the quarter finalists were the eight group winners, including surprise packets Colombia and Costa Rica.

The quarter final between a floundering Brazil and Colombia saw Brazil’s crude tactics of kicking their more skilful opponents around the field pay off in victory but at great cost. As the match degenerated into an unsavoury contest, Neymar suffered a cracked vertebrae after an innocuous looking tackle. Without their diamond, Brazil were just rough. Argentina and Germany advanced efficiently, while Holland needed penalties to see off Costa Rica.

Belo Horizonte, scene of USA’s famous 1950 victory over hot favourites England, saw Brazil get their comeuppance against Germany, who scored four goals in nine minutes, led 5 – 0 at half time and ran out winners 7 – 1. The demolition was swift and clinical. Germany played like Brazil of old, like the great Brazilian teams of the past crushing a hapless opponent. The myth of Brazilian superiority was shattered – and on home soil. It’s reasonable to assume that next time around Brazil will no longer intimidate Chile, Colombia, Mexico and the others. World soccer will never be the same. Meanwhile, in Sao Paulo in the other semi-final, Argentina overcame Holland on penalties.

The Final COULD have been anticlimactic. It was, rather, an excellent game between two evenly matched teams. The question was less whether Germany could repeat their heroics, more whether Messi would rise to his greatest player tag and repeat Maradona’s feat of 1986. He couldn’t, appearing just a shadow of his best, seeming to carry heavy weights on his legs, as his father put it – perhaps another victim of Alonso’s arduous Spanish season. Germany won 1 – 0 in extra time with a fine goal by Gotze, a rising star. A final worthy of a great tournament.

On October 14 next Ireland face Germany in Gelsenkirchen. Some prospect!
5/8

ALFREDO DI STEFANO : A GREAT PLAYER PASSES

A GREAT PLAYER PASSES

The 2014 World Cup is approaching its final exciting stages. Yet spare a thought for a great player of an earlier era. Alfredo Di Stefano died yesterday at the age of eighty eight.

He never played in a World Cup yet is very clearly in the pantheon of all time football greats. Last week Maradona hailed him as an equal, together with Messi, at the summit of Argentine football. Elsewhere he was voted fourth greatest player of the Twentieth Century. He enjoyed success playing in leagues in his native Argentina and Colombia, yet it was after his move to Real Madrid in 1953 that his career took off. He spent eleven seasons with Real, scoring 216 goals in 282 appearances, as well as scoring twenty three goals in thirty one games for Spain.

It was his European Cup exploits with Real for which he will be most remembered. He was fortunate, of course, in that he was involved with the competition from the start at a time when the television age was beginning. He was the first television football super star, just as his team, Real Madrid, was the first television wunderteam. The Hungarians were pre-television, even the 1958 Brazilians only a passing phenomenon. For a number of years Real WERE football, thrilling a growing international audience on T.V. and establishing the European Cup – their cup(!) – as the premier club competition in the world.

Real dominated the early years of the competition, appearing in six of the first seven finals and winning the first five. Di Stefano was at the heart of the team, dominating a squad that contained several fine, indeed great players, Puskas, Kopa, Gento and Santamaria. In 58 European matches he scored 49 goals, including, incredibly, a goal in each of Real’s five winning finals. In 1962, when Real were beaten by Benfica, Di Stefano, by then thirty six, though failing to score in the final, was joint top scorer in the competition with seven goals.

If the 1962 final will be remembered as signalling the eclipse of Real and Di Sefano and the emergence of Eusebio, the game for which Di Sefano and Real will be most remembered took place two years earlier – the 1960 European Cup Final, regarded universally as one of the greatest football matches of all time. It was surely the greatest display by Real, who defeated the German champions , Eintracht Frankfurt, 7 – 3. Seven – Three! Puskas scored four – still a record for a final, Di Stefano scored three, including a memorable solo goal, running from the half way line. Watch it on You Tube!
Football is poorer for Di Stefano’s passing. As a tribute there follows an article I wrote for the Irish Times in May 2010, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that memorable 1960 final. Fittingly it was headlined “Real Magic.”

8/7/14

REAL MAGIC

When Christian Ronaldo was introduced by Real Madrid last July, the figure beside him, old, and on a stick, needed no introduction. Whatever Ronaldo may or may not achieve in his career, it is a reasonably safe bet he will never equal Alfredo Di Stefano’s achievement of scoring in five (5) successive European finals.

It is just 50 years, more than half a lifetime, since he and the mighty Puskas demolished the German champions, Eintracht Frankfurt in what some have called the greatest ever footballing display, the 1960 European Cup final. Real ran out winners 7-3, showing skill and style which has set a standard rarely equalled. The game, watched by 135,000 in Glasgow, and by millions more throughout Europe on television, enthralled all who viewed it and remained long in the memory.

The grainy black and white TV images of the game on U Tube could almost be a metaphor for the Britain of the time. The 1950s had been a grey decade, and even if the Tories had won the 1959 election with the slogan “You’ve never had it so good”, prosperity was hardly evident. Britain’s heavy industry was in terminal decline. In Lancashire, where I lived, men still wore clogs to work. National Service was just ending.. The first motorway, the M I had only opened in late 1959. The era of mass car ownership was just beginning. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned. One of the highlights of the cricket season was a game between the “Gentlemen”, i.e. amateurs, and the “Players”, i.e the professionals. Around the turn of the decade a radio commentator at the Isle of Man TT races poked fun at the first appearance of a Japanese motor bike with a funny name – Honda.

I was a football mad 13 year old in 1960, living just a few miles from Burnley and Blackburn, where I went to school. Every Saturday I trekked in turn to Turf Moor or Ewood Park. That season there was cause to support them both. Burnley, there or thereabouts for several seasons, won the League Championship in their last game, away to Manchester City 2-1, pipping Wolves (champions in 1958 and 1959) for the title by a point, with the much fancied Spurs a further point behind. Rovers meanwhile had battled through to Wembley, where they lost the Cup Final disappointingly 3-0 to Wolves, who were thus within a whisker of becoming the first club in the 20th century to win the league and cup double (Spurs would do so the following year).

My interest went beyond domestic. I had watched, fascinated, on T.V. ,the European Cup quarter final second leg at Molyneaux between Wolves and Barcelona, one of the first European Cup matches televised live in Britain. Wolves were down 4 – 0 from the first leg. On a rain-soaked quagmire of a pitch, they were overwhelmed 5-2 at home in an exhibition which left me awe-struck. Burnley played good football – probably the best in England at the time – but this was something else.

Barcelona included two of the great Hungarian side of the early 50s – accorded sainthood status in our household – and seemed to me invincible. Yet they were defeated by Real in the semi-final, 3-1 in both legs. I knew nothing then of the complicated political and historical rivalry between the two clubs, only that Real must have been mighty indeed to have won so comprehensively.

Real Madrid were well known. They had won the European Cup every year since its inception and had seen off the Busby Babes 5-3 on aggregate in the 1957 semi-final. Money was no object ; they could buy the best and pay the best. Real were marshalled by the Argentinian superstar, Di Stefano and also fielded another of the anointed Magyars – the most famous of all, Ferenc Puskas. Eintracht Frankfurt were virtually unknown – certainly to schoolboys like me – until their semi-final against Rangers. They won the first leg in Germany 6-1; in the second leg, at Ibrox, they again put six past Rangers for a total aggregate of 12-4.

The story of the final is well known. Real came from a goal down to score six in half an hour, winning comprehensively and unlucky not to score more. Di Stefano scored three, the third after a marvellous solo run. Puskas got the other four. The game ended as a contest early in the second half when Real were awarded a dubious penalty to go 4 -1 up. As a spectacle it endured, long after the finish.

There was more to it than just a game, of course, particularly in Britain, home of football. It was the era of the maximum wage, under which players’ wages were capped at a level roughly equivalent to the average industrial wage – £20 per week. The players, almost universally working class and with no freedom to break their contracts, put up or shut up. The decade had been dominated by Manchester United, cruelly destroyed at Munich, and Wolves, with three championships each. There was, however general acceptance that, in world terms, English soccer was second-rate, following poor World Cup performances and defeats by 6 -3 and 7 – 1 to the Hungarians, defeats which had entered the realm of legend. Real’s victory, following on the demolitions of Wolves and Rangers, emphasized just how far British football was behind the best.

Was the game a watershed? There’s always a danger that nostalgia lends a rosy hue. At school next day my history teacher declared flatly “No English team could ever play like that!” Certainly it was a wake-up call, and football, in England and elsewhere, was never quite the same. A new bar had been set. More thoughtful, skilful (and successful) football gradually became the norm. Wolves, exponents of the “powerhouse” game fell rapidly from grace and were never again a major force. Many successful coaches and pundits subsequently pointed to inspiration from Real’s display. Yet Real were gone, almost as quickly as Wolves. There was one other epic match, the 1962 final which they lost 5- 3 to Benfica. May 18 1960 was a pinnacle they never reached again. In the words of a newspaper headline next day, it was “Real Magic”.

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THE DON

THE DON

In 2006 I attended the annual conference of the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain in Leeds. Part of it took place in the new centre at Headingley Cricket Ground. I was reminded of this recently as the results came through from the Cricket World Cup. Ireland’s heroics against England took place almost ten years to the day after the funeral of the greatest cricketer of them all, Donald Bradman. Bradman would certainly have approved of the win and the manner of it.

Bradman in fact was in at the birth of one day international cricket in 1971 when he organised a match after the Melbourne Ashes Test was rained off. One day cricket at the top level has since proved to be immensely popular as witness the current Cricket World Cup. Bradman was also an early advocate of instant replays and the use of modern technology to further popularise the game.

But it is as a batsman that he will be remembered, not only as the greatest cricketer but arguably the greatest sportsman of the last century. In international Test Cricket only twenty players have ever achieved the monumental score of over 300 in a game. Bradman did it twice, one of only four to do so. But Bradman did it on the same ground – Headingley – and in a manner that will never be forgotten.

In 1930 Australia toured England, with their new star, Bradman, who was still only 21. He was slight of stature -five foot seven – and weighed just ten and a half stone. He had burst on the scene two years earlier but some of the English critics had dismissed him as a once off. They got their answer. Bradman began by hitting 1000 runs before the end of May –itself a rare feat. In the first Ashes Test he scored 131.In the second test, at Lords, he scored 254, a new Test match record score in England. On 11 July he entered cricket history at Headingley. He came into bat early on, after Australia lost a wicket. He reached 100 in 99 minutes and was 115 at lunch. Between lunch and tea he added a further century. By close of play he had reached 309 not out, made in 344 minutes, the only player ever  to score a triple century in one day.

He was eventually out for 334. He followed this innings with one of 254 at the Oval. In five test matches, one ruined by rain, he had scored 974 runs at an average of 139.

Bradman returned to England in 1934. The years between had been eventful.  He had scored 299 not out, against South Africa in 1932, being denied another triple century when he ran out of batting partners. An Ashes series in Australia had been soured by England’s tactics – designed to stop Bradman – of bowling short and at speed, hitting the batsman. The issue, known ever afterwards as “bodyline”, escalated into a diplomatic incident before cooler heads prevailed. Despite, or perhaps because of, the bodyline tactics, Bradman again topped the Australian batting averages, albeit below his customary level. These years saw him also plagued by ill health, which continued through the 1934 English tour.

Some indifferent performances – for Bradman – and recurring ill health marked his tour performances before the Fourth test at Headingley in August 1934. Bradman commenced  his innings at the beginning of the second day. The night before he had declined a dinner invitation from the great Cricket sportswriter, Neville Cardus, on the grounds that Australia needed him to score 200. Cardus pointed out that, since he had scored 334 on the same pitch last time around, he was statistically unlikely to perform well. In the event Bradman batted for over a day and scored another triple century. He followed this up with a supreme double century in the fifth test at the Oval.

Bradman scored more runs faster than any other cricketer before or since. But for the Second World War, which took a large chunk out of his playing career, his figures would have been even more impressive. In his final tour of England, in 1948, in his 40th year, he scored over 2400 runs at an average of almost 90. His career first class run total was 28,000 in 338 innings, averaging 95.10 with 117 centuries – one for every third time at bat.  In all he scored 6996 runs in 52 tests at an average of 99.94. His nearest rival to date averages sixty. And, a pub quiz answer: his batting average as a schoolboy was infinity – he was never dismissed.

How good was he, and how would he measure up to sportsmen in other fields? His comparative performances have been calculated by Charles Davis, an Australian sports statistician. Davis calculated that, to achieve levels of performance equivalent to Bradman, a basketball player would have to average over his career 43 points a game, a golfer win 25 majors and a baseball star average .392. For reference, Michael Jordan averaged 32 points, Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors and Ty Cobb (the highest baseball hitter) .366; the great Babe Ruth, much admired by Bradman, averaged .342.

Bradman – truly a different class!

March 2011