Friday, 28 September 2012

Kwadwo Asamoah: In pursuit of simultaneous consistency


Kwadwo Asamoah is one of the most admired and respected players in the Italy these days.  Not only is his cool personality admirable, his performances on the pitch has had fans singing his name from the stands.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Rewind : How it all started for Del Bosque



Today, Vicente Del Bosque Gonz├ílez  is the man; the epitome of success in football coaching.  The legend. The man whose cv is coveted by all other managers, with two UEFA Champions League titles, A World Cup, and a European Championship. He has them all, all three of the most prestigious competitions in football, an unprecedented achievement.

It has not always been this rosy. Throughout his career, he has been more often than not doubted, ridiculed, villified and undermined, often based more on his personality rather than his concrete achievements . At Real Madrid for instance, he was undermined and accused of being inept, and having the galacticos doing his work for them. He was also accused of being too soft spoken,‘safe’and diplomatic, always shying away from confrontations with his charges as well as media polemics. With Spain, people have suggested that he inherited Luis Aragones’s dimunitive tiki taka wizards (as well as enjoying a beneficial continuity of Barca’s philosophy at the national level), therefore having very little to do.

There has always been an auror of pessimism anywhere he's been, despite always delivering. Maybe it is because he does not have the profile of 'the media's favourite' - because he never attracts controversy or looks like the monolithic figure his that the high profile positions he has occupied is used to. Maybe his efforts - like keeping a winning team in winning mode, or achieving with a star studded side - have not been the sort of efforts that is on the surface, easily seen and praised. Maybe his hardwork has always been eclipsed by certain circumstances through no fault of his.

Due to all this perhaps, despite his stunning achievements, the calm, unassuming Salamanca born manager of the Spanish National team - a team already heralded as the greatest ever -  hardly ever receives the kind of media spotlight that, say, Guardiola or Mourinho receive today.

But that is not, and has never been, a problem for the famously moustachioed 61 year old - in fact, he refers it that way, he loves the quiet away from the media lens. And he could not care less about being criminally downplayed and underrated. His immense success speaks for itself.

But how did it all begin for him? Well, his journey towards the pinnacle of success began in 1999, with an unusual first season.  A first season that captured his familiarity with the concept of the underdog, and of achieving against the odds. A first season I'm sure, he'll always look back on with nostalgia.

Humble Beginnings
During his playing days, he was a midfielder. His most notable period was with the club dear to his heart - Real Madrid. He played in Madrid for 14 years, between 1970 and 1984, winning 5 La Ligas and 4 Copa Del Reys. After that spell he worked diligently behind the scenes for almost 16 years, during which he coached the Real Madrid B side, and at times handled the first team on an interim bases during times that there were no substantive managers(11 matches in 1994 and 1 match in 1996)

The man, once described in a 2003 BBC article as being ''as cool as a cryogenically frozen cocumber'',  never rushed. He was patient, working hard and taking all his chances as and when they came. He knew he would one day eventually end up in the manager's seat at the Bernabeu on a full-time bases. Managers came and left, and humble Del Bosque was remained behind the scenes, learning, waiting.

Breakthrough
And then it came. His time. His opportunity. On the 17th day of November 1999. The board at Real led by Lorenzo Sanz - after having problems with manager John Toshack and his non performance - felt it was time to shake things up on the technical bench, and finally time to give Del Bosque his chance. Real Madrid had been managed by a staggering 7 managers in three years. The club sought some sort of stability. There was a need to secure the services of an astute trainer for the long term. Debts were also piling up. There was the need for success. The board turned to modest Del Bosque , and he did not turn them down. He officially assumed the most popular hot seat in football on the 18th day of November, 1999.

It wasn't exactly a high profile appointment. He wasn't the most popular of candidates. But the board felt they had to try something new. It was more like how Barcelona recruited Guardiola or Inter did Strammacioni - Fresh men with fresh ideas, with no past, only a future to build. He had not been a manager at the top level for a full season before. Experience did not favour him. It was basically a gamble. But Del Bosque had been working with the club for almost all of his life. He knew the club well, he loved it. Above all, he was hardworking.

Tough Task
He had a tough job to do. John Toshack had drawn and lost most of the league games at to that point, and the team was sitting 8th on the table. There was also the Champions league, and qualification to the next round from the second group stage (Toshack had already qualified the team from the first group stage). And there was the Copa Del Rey too. The task was ginormous, and the then 48 year old Del Bosque had been thrown in at the deep end. Even though he was a faithful Madridista through and through, there was no way he was going to evade the sack if he messed up. Politics at Real meant Lorenzo Sans was virtually betting his presidential future on Del Bosque. It was more or less make or break.

He got to work in earnest, trying to juggle the demands of all three competitions and their accompanying expectations. But he held his own, remained focused, and sought to deliver.

The Rookie's Success
Del Bosque finished the 1999/00 La Liga season in fifth place - a position which would have been normally disastrous for a club like Real Madrid - but it was not.

Why? They achieved a points tally of 62, only 7 points behind champions Deportivo La Coruna, impressive, considering how bad they started the season. Also, 5th position then, meant Champions League qualification - which in fact they found out they wouldn't need, because.....
……they went on to win the Champions League itself, beating fellow Spanish club convincingly in the final, with a 3-0 win. This was after qualifying narrowly from the second group phase(above third placed Dynamo Kyiv via head to head), and subsequently flooring their quarter and semi final opponents.

It became their second triumph in four seasons. Interestingly, Del Bosque also reached the semi final of the Copa Del Rey, only losing to eventual winners Espanyol. The man who took over in medes res, amidst poor performances and instability, united the club, raised their game, and went on to secure the biggest trophy in club football. And this was all done in his first full season in his top level management career. This was, also done at the biggest, most successful club in the history of football, where the pressure is unimaginable.

A fairytale first chapter of a remarkable success story had been written.

Don Vicente went on to win 6 more trophies in his next three seasons at the helm, including another European Cup in 2002 as well as two La Liga titles, in what became the club’s second most successful era.

*This piece first appeared on backpagefootball.com on the 14th of September, 2012*
 

Friday, 14 September 2012

Ajax: A European Great fading into obscurity


24th May, 1995. Austria. In the stadium named after Austrian football legend, Ernst Happel. An absurdly youthful Ajax side were up against a big gun in Europe, a side that had won the European cup 3 times in 6 years. They faced Fabio Capello's Invincibles. They faced AC Milan.


The outcome according to many, even before the game, was a no brainer. AC would brush Ajax aside. Ajax were no match. This Milan side had Franco Baresi, Marcel Desailly, Daniele Massaro, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Donadoni, et al. The same team that had brought Barcelona's dream team to it's knees with a devastating 4-0 victory in Athens at the previous year's final. Ajax were overwhelming underdogs, despite having been UEFA Cup Champions in 1992. Milan had all the quality, the experience and pundit's endorsement.

But there was some giant killing activity that night. 19 year old substitute Patrick Kluivert came on and delivered the decisive blow. Ajax successfully floored Milan. The young boys had beaten the big boys. Ajax secured it's fourth European title, their first since the Cruyff years of the early 70s. The victory, poetic as it was, was supposed to be the beginning of Ajax's awakening from their two decade slumber to reclaim their place at the high altar of European football super powers.

They had a young team, most of whom had come through their famous youth academy. It was Johann Cruyff's 1987 Cup Winners Cup winning side, that had undergone a smooth transition.This team had won three Eredivises on the trot, a UEFA Cup and a KNVB Cup.

The squad had Edwin Van der Sar, Edgar Davids, Kluivert himself, Nigerians Finidi George and Nwanoko Kanu, the De Boer brothers amongst others. Van Gaal, known to be highly conscientious in his approach, was at the helm. They had all the ingredients to go on to become a force to reckon with in Europe once again. The key was going to be keeping the consistency and momentum going while holding the squad together.

The team went on to annex both the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. The next season, they showed highly impressive signs of sustaining their success, reaching the European Cup final for a second year running. Their opponents, like that of the previous year, were from Italy - but from another part. Right from Turin, the old lady, Juve, under the tutelage of Marcelo Lippi. This time, Ajax were the favourites, and they had earned it.

After a 1-1 draw, Ajax went on to suffer a penalty shootout heart break. Juventus claimed only their second European Cup. Van Gaal and his young army had to settle for silver medals, and watched on as the like of Del Piero, Deschamps, Conte(yes, thee Antonio Conte), Ferrara and captain Vialli bask in the joy of celebrating with the giant trophy. On their way to the final, Ajax had won almost all of their group games, drawing just one, and scoring 15 goals. They glided past Hajduk Split and Bayern Munich in the Quarter final and Semi Final respectively. The signs were good, they were once again a force, and the final loss may have just dealt their conquest a serious blow.

Unfortunately, that final was to be the beginning of a steady decline; a decline similar to one they had after the hatrick of  European Cup wins in 1973. Gaffer Van Gaal left for Barca, followed by a massive exodus of the core of the squad between then and 1999. Seedorf was the first to leave(for Madrid), and that move left the exit door ajar, with the likes of Davids, George, Kanu, Kluivert , Overmars, Van der sar, Litmanen and the  De Boer brothers all following suit. Their resurgence became a false dawn; a nine-day wonder. An inevitable retrogression unfolded - lasting to this day.

Years on, Ajax, despite being occasionally dominant in the Eredivise, are still impotent in Europe. The practice of feeding clubs - their European rivals for that matter - has still not died out. Over the years, the club has become used to being a club that just competes in the European Cup(a tournament they have won 4 times) just to add up to the numbers. Their academy, one of the best in the world, produces players, who come through, shine in the first team, and are subsequently sold, as part of a cycle that undermines their status as a European football super club.

Whilst their peers, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and co have been regular challengers/winners in the competition over the past decade, Ajax has become worryingly content with being a player producing machine, and local league challengers. They have never really launched a genuine challenge in Europe since 1996. Interestingly, players they have nurtured, and sold, have gone on to win the competition with other clubs - Van Der Sar for Man United, Sneijder with Inter Milan, Seedorf with AC Milan and Real Madrid etc. This weirdly means Ajax, The Netherlands' biggest club, has become a producer of 'tools' for their European rivals to use to get ahead of them, instead of actually using these 'tools' to revive an already existing reputation - a reputation that comprises 31 league titles, 18 Cups, and 10 International Titles.

Frank de Boer, a member of Van Gaal's side, now manages the side. He won the Eredivise title last season, with an exciting side that only lost 4 times, scored 93 goals and clinched the shield with a comfortable 6 point lead over fierce klassieker rivals Feyernoord. They enter Europe this season as Dutch champions, in a champions league group that has Real Madrid, Dortmund and Manchester City, all champions in their domestic leagues. The natural order, one would expect, would have been to keep the squad together, buy quality, and compete seriously both in Europe and at home. But typically, Ajax says No thank you!

As has become an entrenched tradition over the last decade- case in point: Huntelaar, Suarez, Babel, Emmanuelson, Van Der Vart, Vermaelen, Ibrahimovic, Heitinger, Nigel De Jong, Pienaar, Rommedahl, to mention a few- they sold. Not even selling fringe players, but core players as well. Jan Vertonghen, Gregory Van Der Wiel, Vurnon Anita, as well as Nicholas Lodeiro, all left. The situation of having to rebuild virtually a whole new squad all over again. Familiar disadvantage, season after season.

But Ajax are used to it by now. Yes, they are perhaps - used to mediocrity, used to being the under performing one amongst Europe's super clubs. Journalists have already written them off in their group. And with a squad that can hardly front a single superstar, rightfully so. Skipper Siem De Jong and Christian Eriksen are probably the only players close to a super star tag, but one can't help but think they will become the next subjects of the 'exodus curse' at the club.

The sort of club de Godenzonen has evolved into is a genuine cause for concern. With the degree of rich history it possesses, it makes the situation even harder to comprehend. Something needs to be done. Ajax needs a revival. The first step at least, would be to make an effort to keep their key players, and break that jinx that has seen them lose their best players all the time; from Cruyff  and Neeskens, to Van Basten , Rijkaard and Bosman down to Dennis Bergkamp.

Whilst there might be complex economic reasons behind their retrogression, there is no doubt that that fundamental desire to compete has dwindled.

The mythological Ajax, after whom the club was named, was described as vicious, fearless, strong and powerful. But the club is anything but these attributes in Europe these days. The name does not strike fear into any team in Europe anymore. And this is a club that has won almost all the prestigious competitions in club football. A club that served as the home of the most influential football tactical system to date: Total football. A club that has produced some of the best players and managers in football history.

Rinus Michels, who turned Ajax into world beaters, would not be too proud wherever he is. Ajax is now tagged not only as an 'ordinary' club in in European competitions, but as a feeder club as well.

*This piece first appeared on backpagefootball.com on the 7th of September, 2012*


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Essien: Madrid now, where after?


It's not very often that you hear a player of Essien's stature is surplus to any managers requirements. Essien, throughout his illustrious career, has always been an entrenched fixture in any manager's agenda. He has been injured countless times, but he has always slotted back in with ease after recovery, each and every time. Even with the numerous managerial changes he has been through with  both club and country, he still has always been favored. That has been Essien's story. That is the degree of his rich quality. The Bison has almost always been an A-list, first-on-the-team-sheet baller.


But all that changed in recent months. Infact, it started changing a while back - after his latest spell on the sidelines due to a recurring knee injury. Essien, the fighter that he is, strived for months to get fit, and get welcomed back to Chelsea's starting XI with open arms. When he did recover, he found out that new manager Andre Villas Boas wasn't exactly as welcoming as his former gaffers. Essien was  not only made to fight harder to regain his spot, he was also not given encouraging signals as well; he was not getting enough opportunities to 'reprove' himself and regain full fitness and form. Steadily, Essien unconciously became a usual face on the Chelsea bench, waiting for opportunities that never came, even when he was clearly needed.

The trend remained continuous after Villas Boas was sacked - rather worringly, as everyone else thought new manager Roberto Di Matteo would genuinely give him a chance to get back into the team. Many observed that Villas Boas had tried to strategically ease out Chelsea's 'old guard' (Michael Essien being one), and so him leaving would leave things to return back to normal.

Wrong.

RDM followed suit. He also stuck to utilizing the hitherto out of favour John Mikel Obi. Mikel, who had been virtually non-existent in recent years kept on starting ahead of the bison. Game after game, Mikel grew in confidence and strength, as Essien was left to rust on the bench. Before he knew it , he, as a friend joked on twitter, ''had a seatbelt on the Chelsea bench''. It was all becoming clear. He was no longer Essien, the strong character with immense presence that marshalled the Chelsea midfield with drive and tenacity for years. He was now a bench warmer, a mere squad player.

Like Drogba, Essien had won all there is to win at club level, and lacked the motivation substancial enough to keep on playing at the Bridge. He had given his all for the club. His business there was more or less finished. Any more contribution was just going to be a bonus. He had completed a era at Chelsea. A trophy laden, super stardom era. An era spanning 7 years, amidst a host of personal accolades. An era where he proved to be one of the best players in Africa, and the world at large. n era that made Michael Essien thee Michael Essien.

But his ordeal should not be mistaken for that of  the usual decline that footballers of his calibre undergo at some stage. He has not lost his strength, his presence and his power. He is still impressively versatile. He has not been a player who plays, but messes up. He has been the player who does not even get the opportunity to play. The player who's hunger to reinvent himself is being suppressed by his manager's refusal to play him. He still has a lot to give. The kind of pure quality he possesses does not diminish that easily.

Many suggested that he move on from Chelsea. Well, at the very last minute of transfer deadline day, he did. He moved to Real Madrid, reuniting with Mourinho.

He moves to the Bernabeu with high hopes, of regaining top form and being part of an already star studded side. Essien will not, realistically, be a starter at Real. But he will be a relevant component of a side that will be competing fiercely on all fronts, and will need all the help they can get. Essien will probably win a trophy or two with Madrid. He might have a decent season.

But it's a loan deal. It will end, and when it does, he'll be 30, years older than Madrid's already established midfielders, and probably not in the position to challenge for a place. And returning to Chelsea will clearly not be advisable. He will face an important decision point.

The prominent suggestion has been that he join the increasing army of African players in the middle east, who are there to play out the last years of their career for some insane weekly paychecks. That is a highly tempting suggestion.

In, say, China, he'll get all the playing time he wishes, and all the money he wants. It's a win-win situation out there.

Post Real Madrid for Essien will surely be at a pivotal point in his career. He will face the unbearable dilemma of choosing a wise next career move. He can decide to stay on at Real, and fight for a place that might never be his, or move across to another European club. But would he? or, better still, should he? Seeing as he has all the medals there is to have at club level. Ideally, it will be time for him to cash in on a middle east switch and preserve his financial future.

Tax laws there too are favourable, not as harsh as in the UK. The propensity to save would be higher. He is yet to marry, to have a family. For someone like him, in his type if situation, it would be natural for him to make a decision motivated by financial reasons. It, in all fairness, seems like a wise thing to do. And he still has the value and reputation to command a lucrative contract.

Also very important to note that it would have it's merits in a footballing sense. Whilst at it, he could use his playing time to get him constantly sharp for the Black Stars, where he is needed, and revered. There is not much to lose that way

Essien still very much has unfinished business there. He missed the last World Cup, and Afcon too. After taking an indefinite break from the team to 'concentrate on playing for his club ' following successive career threatening injuries whilst playing for Ghana, he has been sorely missed by most Ghanaian football fans. He, according to the Ghana FA, is the vice captain of the nation, and with substantive skipper John Mensah almost always out with injuries, he is virtually the leader now.

He is held in high esteem in Ghana. Maybe it will be time to come back, and reverse the situation, by concentrating more on his country than his club. Maybe it will be time for Essien to direct his efforts at winning something with Ghana, after seeing and conquering all in club football. Essien has always given more than a 100% for Ghana. Despite his controversial break, deep down, Ghanaians love him. And he loves his country too. There's a chance for him to write a new chapter. Not too late.
 
Who knows, he might probably end up winning a major trophy with Ghana. Ghana has been famously trophyless for three decades now. Opportunity beckons in South Africa 2013, should they qualify. Essien could be part of a historic moment for Ghana. There's a chance to achieve something big and exciting.The possibilities are as they say in Ghana these days, ''tasty''.

No one knows what Essien is thinking. He is generally very reserved. He gives very little away. He is unpredictable. There's just one thing too. Essien might choose to stay at Real, because for a known fighter like him, leaving the club with an ''out of favour'' tag is something that he will not be comfortable with. Essien is competitive, he likes winning. He wouldn't want to leave, and send inevitable signals of 'quitting'. He would want to fight on.

Whatever he does, whatever decision he takes, wherever he decides to go; we all hope Essien's next move will be beneficial for him, his family, and his country.

Fiifi Anaman.
@fiifianaman 

*This article first appeared on backpagefootball.com on the 3rd of September, 2012*