Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Gerrard Final

For Liverpool fans, excitement and expectation are at their highest in the middle of a decade. For followers of West Ham, the peaks and troughs of hope and despair are far more frequent. 

Currently, the red half of Merseyside, and many a neutral, in the midst of 'Kloppmania', all swept up in the positivity of genuine hope. In the nineties, it was the collected flair and fervour of the 'Spice Boys' who heralded a genuine title challenge or two, and a cup final appearance. Ten years later, the half-way point of the 'noughties' bought the appointment of Rafa Benitez, that night in Istanbul, and another cup final appearance. This time, it was an ultimately successful one.

In the same thirty year span, West Ham have narrowly missed out on a Premier League top four finish, suffered two relegations, enjoyed two promotions, adventured into Europe three times, and been led by eleven different managers.

On 13th May 2006, the two clubs came together for the one hundred and twenty-fifth FA Cup Final, and it was a belter.

Gerrard and Reo-Coker, the days' captains tussle. Image from here.

Having achieved an impressive top ten finish in their first season back in the top-flight, West Ham were also a club on an upward trajectory in the early summer of 2006. Alan Pardew had assembled a fruitful balance of experience and youth, combining the know-how of Shaka Hislop, Teddy Sherringham, and Lionel Scaloni, with the likes of Anton Ferdinand, Dean Ashton, and Paul Konchesky.

The 2006 FA Cup Final is widely remembered as the 'Gerrard final', and with good reason. At twenty-six years of age Gerrard was in his swashbuckling prime. The final represented Liverpool's sixty-second match of the season, and in bagging an impressive brace, Gerrard virtually dragged his weary teammates to victory single-handedly. A noteworthy feat considering the Liverpool team that day included; Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher, Dietmar Hamann, and an energetic front pairing of Peter Crouch and Djibril Cisse.

Despite West Ham's ferocious start to the match, the last cup final played in Cardiff, Liverpool were masters of their own first half downfall. After twenty-one minutes, Jamie Carragher turned a Lionel Scaloni cross into his own net to break the deadlock. Less than ten minutes later, the Hammers doubled their advantage courtesy of a Pepe Reina fumble, and a the quick reactions of Dean Ashton.

The unfortunate Jamie Carragher. Image from here.

After a Peter Crouch goal was ruled offside, Liverpool fans would have been forgiven for thinking it wasn't meant to be. Yet their next attack heralded a goal from the controversial Djibril Cisse, and another comeback was on the cards.

Ten minutes after the interval, the comeback was complete. John Arne-Riise embarked upon a typically driving run from left-full back, and was bought down by West Ham captain, Nigel Reo-Coker. The resulting free-kick, played short before being clipped into the box by X, was nodded down by Peter Crouch, and volleyed high into the net by Steve Gerrard.

Running against the 'Gerrard final' script, yet following the pattern of an outrageously open game, Paul Konchesky was the unlikely man who put West Ham into an unlikely 3-2 lead ten minutes later. After some neat footwork by Matthew Etherington, Konchesky marched down the left flank, and clipped a high, looping ball towards Reina's goal. Delivered with pace, the ball caught Reina exposed as it sailed over the Spaniard and into the top corner.

With Marlon Harewood taking the ball to the corner flags as early as the seventy eighth minute, West Ham were holding on without being severely troubled. Steve Gerrard, and a number of other players, were cramping up. With three minutes remaining, and West Ham heading for a glorious 3-2 victory, Gerrard blasted a promising looking free-kick high and wide. Liverpool heads dropped. West Ham elated.

In the first minute of injury time, Cisse was the latest player to drop with cramp. West Ham obliged to put the ball out of play, and Cisse left the field. Dietmar Hamann returned the ball to Lionel Scaloni but the Argentinian's hoof up field, indicative of energy levels, went only as far as John-Arne Risse. A speculative looped cross was cleared by Anton Ferdinand, and fully thirty-five yards from goal, Gerrard summoned the collective strength of Merseyside, and swung a right foot. The unstoppable half-volley was nestling in the expanse of Shaka Hislop's net in an instant.
Steve Gerrard makes it 3-3 in the 91st minute. Image from here.

Even after Liverpool's equaliser, a beautiful game of football was free-flowing and end to end for another four minutes. Paul Konchesky fired a free-kick straight at Reina, Jan Kronkamp ran the length of the pitch to cross for Fernando Morientes, and Teddy Sherringham was half a yard from a clear volley at goal.

Extra-time produced more cramp than clear-cut chances, and a penalty shoot-out ensued.

Pepe Reina, signed by Benitez in July 2005, had quickly displaced Jerzey Dudek, the hero of Istanbul, as Liverpool's number one. Reina had broken Premier League records for consecutive clean sheets, and won his first Spanish cap in the 2005/06 campaign, and though he was arguably at fault for two of West Ham's goals, Reina excelled himself in the penalty shoot-out, saving two and guessing right on all four West Ham spot-kicks. Only Sherringham scored for the Hammers, while Hamann, Gerrard, and Risse all converted to give Liverpool their seventh FA Cup final win.

Having finalised his first full season with that miraculous night in Istanbul, Rafa Benitez and Liverpool had genuine momentum. The 2006 FA Cup win closed the curtain on Benitez's second season. A campaign in which the Reds finished just a point behind Premier League runners-up, Manchester United, and claim third spot for a second successive year. Chelsea claimed top-spot, and the second league title of Mourinho's first stint at Stamford Bridge.
Thumbs up! Gerrard and Rafa Benitez, who was two years into a promising Liverpool career. Image from here.

As Liverpool had already qualified for the Champions League via their league position, the UEFA Cup spot usually afforded to the FA Cup winners went to West Ham. While Liverpool maintained their positive momentum, the same couldn't be said of West Ham. 2006/07 saw the Hammers knocked out of the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle by Palermo. Domestically, Alan Pardew took the club on their worst run of defeats in seventy years, and was inevitably sacked in December 2006. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Curious Tale of the Thomas Lipton Cup

Upon entering West Auckland, a modest village in County Durham, a sign proclaims 'home of the first world cup'. While not entirely factual, the audacious claim isn't too far from the truth.

Nestled between the mountains and paradisiacal coastline of Sri Lanka, some seven thousand miles from West Auckland, is a small town by the name of Kandy. It came to prominence, through western eyes at least, as a meeting and resting post for pioneering British businessmen of colonial British Ceylon. The kind of men, mostly in the tea plantation business, who insisted upon a three-piece suit and thick, bushy, and carefully groomed moustaches, despite the tropical climate. Colonial times saw many an over dressed British man making himself at home in a tropical and far flung hotel lobby, and Sir Thomas Lipton was no different. 

Having been granted stewardship of his parents grocery store as a young man in Glasgow, Lipton quickly expanded, and soon had a small empire of three hundred stores throughout Britain. At the time, tea drinking was taking off as the 'in thing' of the middle classes. As an enthusiastic traveller and a pioneer, Thomas Lipton was fast to see an opportunity.
Thomas Lipton. Image from here.

As most tea was bought via pricey and competitive markets in London, Lipton proverbially cut out the middle man, and in 1890, used a sizeable chunk of his profits to buy a Sri Lankan tea plantation. Afforded by obtaining the direct source, his low prices made tea available to the working class masses, and his, "fresh from plant to the cup", slogan did more than enough to capture the imagination. It's with some degree of certainty that we can say that only thanks to Sir Thomas Lipton, did Britain become avid tea drinkers.

Lipton, by the early 1900's an internationally-known business man. He was, all at once a millionaire, philanthropist, pioneer, traveler, sportsman, and adventure junkie, had participated in yachting's Americas Cup before he turned his attention to association football. He was awarded the 'Grand Order of the Crown of Italy', and as a thank-you, Lipton sponsored and donated a trophy to a fledgling football tournament.

Many sources list the 'Thomas Lipton Trophy' as a ground-breaking forerunner to the first World Cup in 1930. However, Lipton's competition wasn't open to international teams. Instead, the FA's of England, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy were invited to send representation from their best clubs. Enthusiasm was high. FC Winterthur represented Switzerland, Stuttgarter Sportfreunde came from Germany, and as host city, the Torino XI featured the best of Torino and Juventus. England's FA sadly declined the invitation, but Lipton wasn't having the tournament without English representation. For reasons unknown, as Lipton was born in London and based in Glasgow, he personally chose West Auckland. An amateur club from County Durham, made mostly of local miners.

West Auckland 'celebrate' in 1909. Image from here.

The tournament was played in April 1909, over the Easter weekend. Saturday 11th saw the two semi-finals, with the third place match and showcase final played the following day. Stuttgaarter Sportfreunde, who now ply their trade in the regional ninth tier of German amateur football, provided semi-final opposition to the unknown West Auckland team. The boys from County Durham remarkably won 2-0 to book their place in the final. The second semi-final saw FC Winterthur upset the hosts, beating the Torino XI 2-1. Winterthur, national league champions in 1906, 1908, and 1917, currently compete in the second tier of Swiss football.

West Auckland stunned the Swiss team in the final, recording a 2-0 victory with two goals in the first eight minutes. The third place play-off saw some credibility salvaged by the hosts, as they overcame Stuttgarter Sportfreunde 2-1.

It wasn't quite the 'first world cup', but it was a prominent occasion which was widely reported in international news. Technically speaking, it wasn't even the first international club tournament. Just a year prior in 1908. and again in the city of Torino, the Torneo Internazionale Stampa Sportiva was organised by Italian sports paper, La Stampa Sportiva. An Italian-only pre-qualifying round saw Juventus, Torino, FC Ausonia Milano, and Piamonte Calcio face off, with Torino qualifying for the tournament proper. They were joined by Swiss Servette FC, Freiburger FC of Germany, and US Parisienne of France. Juventus oddly returned for the third place play-off. Servette FC won in the final, 2-1 against Torino. A year later, however, none of this bothered West Auckland too much, and they took home the giant Thomas Lipton Trophy, and secured their place in the following 1911 edition of the tournament. 

Two years later, again in Torino, West Auckland overcame FC Zurich 2-0 in the semi-final, and then recorded what perhaps should be the most famous result in European football in the final. Juventus 1-6 West Auckland. If there were vidiprinters in 1911, the bracketed text (six) would surely have been required. The third place play-off was contested by FC Zurich and Torino, with the Italians winning 2-1. 

West Auckland's prize for a second successive success was to keep the trophy for good. Perhaps a good will gesture, or perhaps an early admission that international football tournaments are expensive to run, as the Thomas Lipton Trophy was never played again. Speaking of expense, two trips to Europe had left the club in rather serious debt, and the most valuable item in West Auckland's possession was indeed the Thomas Lipton Trophy. Said trophy was quickly used as security for a £40 loan. Though the tournament didn't live on, the silver trophy certainly did. In 1964, Mrs Lancaster, a former hotel owner who had provided history's £40 loan, kindly let the club take the trophy back, for the cost of £100. For the best part of three decades, the trophy took pride of place in the West Auckland Working Mens Club trophy cabinet. Misfortune arrived in 1994 when the trophy was stolen, and it hasn't been seen since. Fortunately, Unilever (of whom Lipton's Tea remain a subsidiary) were kind enough to sponsor a replica, which remains safely in the possession of West Auckland FC.

Obtaining a replica trophy wouldn't be the only time Unilever stepped in the support the legacy of the Thomas Lipton Trophy.

In the name of romantic nostalgia, pomp and ceremony, and as an excuse for a jolly boys outing, a centenary re-match was arranged in the August of 2009. Sponsored to the tune of £10,000 by the English FA, and £5,000 by Unilever , Juventus of Serie A would face West Auckland of the Northern Premier Division in a commemorative pre-season friendly. 

Complete with a rather fetching re-make of the 1909 strip, a party of forty players and club officials left West Auckland by coach, and made the twenty-eight hour drive to Piemonte in northern Italy.

Though what should have been something of a jovial footballing celebration regrettably became a rather hopeless non-event. The boys from County Durham arrived in Turin to discover no-one at Juventus knew anything of the arranged fixture. To their credit, Juventus hastily arranged a friendly with their under 19 side, at a amateur stadium half an hour outside of Turin. To make matters worse, the West Auckland entourage had to pay to enter the stadium, beg for a souvenir pennant, and after the match, while the Juventus youths were enjoying fresh salmon, the British boys were commiserated with cola and crisps outside a local bar. For the record, Juventus won 7-1, and Keith Hutchinson scored Auckland's consolation. The somewhat tragic episode is accounted for in the local Northern Echo.
West Auckland's class of 2009. Image from here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Southampton, Tottenham, and the 'Hebrew Hitman'

Written as part of 'Classic Matches of the Week' series for 'The Football Pink'.

Rosenthal sweeps in Tottenham's first goal of the night. Image from here.

Season 1994/95. Blackburn Rovers were crowned Premiership champions, Everton won the FA Cup, and Eric Cantona went kung-fu crazy. However, slipping quietly away from the mainstream headlines, a certain one hundred and twenty minutes of football between two mid-table sides, encapsulated all the wonderful and rose-tinted quirks of nineties football.

The Dell, Southampton’s tight and atmospheric ground provided the location. An FA Cup fifth round replay the occasion, and the date was Wednesday March 1st 1995. The match had everything. For starters, eight goals were shared. It additionally featured; Francis Benali’s ‘tash, a goalscoring Matt Le Tissier, Spurs’ bold and beautiful yellow Holsten kit, the unique atmosphere of an older ground, Bruce Grobbelaar’s intriguing decline, and various ‘johnny foreigners’ in the form of their life. Curiously, one of them was Ronny Rosenthal. 

Rosenthal arrived in England to much fanfare. Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalgleish hijacked his trial at Luton Town to bring him to Anfield. Having initially signed on loan, Kenny made Ronny England’s first foreign £1million player in March 1990. The Israeli international, who earned the dubious nickname of the ‘Hebrew Hitman’, moved from Standard Leige to Liverpool, and scored seven in the last eight games of the season on the way to what remains Liverpool’s most recent league championship. 

To say Ronny Rosenthal single-handedly won Liverpool the 1990 league title wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

Ossie Ardilles bought Rosenthal to White Hart Lane in January 1994, but much like his successor, Gerry Francis, didn’t often feature Ronny in the starting eleven. A year later, Ronny had further competition as Spurs fans were enjoying the fruits of homegrown talent and a sprinkling of 1994 World Cup stars. Jurgen Klinsmann, George Popescu, and Ilie Dumitrescu, were combining well with Teddy Sherringham, a curiously injury-free Darren Anderton, and the effervescence of Nick Barmby. Behind them lay a curious marriage of promising youth and patchy experience. Spurs regularly started a young Sol Campbell alongside an ageing Gary Mabbutt in central defence, and relied upon names such as Micky Hazard and David Howells in midfield.

Darren Anderton: Not injured, and in combative mood. Image from here.

1994/95 saw Southampton do the double over Spurs. However, an almost equally high-scoring 4-3 victory at The Dell, and a 2-1 win at White Hart Lane didn’t place them as favourites to progress. With a spine of Bruce Grobbelaar, Ken Monkou, Jim Magilton, and Matt Le Tissier, Southampton could flicker between deserving labels of ‘world beaters’ and ‘pub team’ within minutes. Having held Tottenham to a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane, there were more than faint hopes of a cup upset.

Live on Sky Sports, the replay became one to miss bedtime for. Southampton, playing true to the weight and influence of an expectant Dell, took their chances in an open first half. Goals from Neil Shipperley and, inevitably, Matt Le Tissier, provided a comfortable two-goal cushion at the break. However, during the break, Gerry Francis hauled off Stuart Nethercott and flung on Ronny Rosenthal. The decision proved decisive.

After little over ten minutes of the second half, Rosenthal hit two in two minutes to level the match. His first, a sweeping finish at the near post, and his second an opportunistic twenty-five yard strike which beat Grobbelaar at his near post. The joyful smile, which burst on to even his own face, couldn’t hide the mix of joy and surprise that Rosenthal of all people had bagged a brace. As the remaining half an hour played out, Le Tissier had a screamer or two athletically spurned by Ian Walker, and Sherringham and Anderton missed chances for the away side. Rosenthal completed his hat-trick in blistering fashion in extra-time. From thirty yards plus, he let fly with his left foot and gave Grobbelaar no chance. Defeated and deflated, Southampton caved in and conceded a fourth, fifth and sixth to a Sherringham, Barmby, and Anderton. 

Rosenthal celebrates his hat-trick, and his most famous moment in a Spurs shirt. Image from here.

Tottenham went on to dispatch of Liverpool in the quarter-finals, but lost out to Everton in the semis. Daniel Amokachi providing a couple of killer blows in a 4-1 reverse.

As for the ‘Hebrew Hitman’, he eventually left Tottenham in the summer of 1997. Watford and Divison Two his destination, where he stood out as a true class act, scored the goal of the season in a promotion winning campaign, and retired aged thirty-five.

Southampton and Tottenham went on to extremely different definitions of mid-table security. Following a few late-nineties near misses, Southampton were relegated in 2005, four years after moving into a purpose-built stadium. 2009 would see them in the third tier of English football. Southampton eventually returned to the top-flight in 2012. By contrast, since the late-nineties, Tottenham Hotspur have never been outside the top flight, breached the fabled top four, and dazzled in the Champions League. Since Southampton’s top-flight return, they’ve rightfully gained a reputation as a smart and well-managed club who play good football, and have a knack of appointing very good managers.

The two go head-to-head again on Saturday, and thanks to a recent flow of managers (and players) from the south coast to North London; namely Glenn Hoddle, Harry Redknapp, Mauricio Pochettino, both rivalry and footballing standards are sure to be high.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Hasselbaink: Heir to the Dutch Coaching Throne?

Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink is a managerial rarity. He is, all at once, a young Dutch football manager (aged just forty-three), currently employed, and in the midst of a coaching career on an upward trajectory. 
Young, gifted, and Dutch. Image from here.

As loveable Jimmy rocked up at Burton Albion in just over a year ago, he added his name to a diverse, and only sometimes illustrious list of names. From the collected wisdom, trophy cabinet and philosophies of Louis Van Gaal, to the plucky sojourners such as Marinius Dijkhuizen at Brentford, all of whom carry something seductively attractive to club owners and directors the world over; the DNA of a Dutch football coach.

Dutch football coaches are known and appreciated the world over, but if the global tradition of classy, thoughtful, and largely successful leadership is to continue, further pretenders to the thrones of Louis Van Gaal, Guus Hiddink, and Dick Advocaat et al should surely be more prominent. 

Two years senior to Hasselbaink, and with four Eredivisie championships in the past five years behind him, current Ajax manager Frank de Boer is surely leading the way for a new generation of Dutch managers. Treading a different path in a different country, Hasselbaink, isn't far behind in terms of drive, thought, and motivation. 

Catching up to, and following footsteps trodden by the likes of Van Gaal, Hiddink and Advocaat may well be a sizeable task, let alone eventually filling their boots. Yet in terms of silverware, they're the Dutch standard bearers. Between them they've won a combined thirty-nine major trophies, both european and domestic, in five different countries. With Hiddink and Advocaat currently out of work and slipping towards retirement, only Van Gaal can add to that impressive haul of silverware. Though at sixty-four years of age Louis van Gaal himself is no spring chicken, and heirs to the throne are surprisingly hard to come by.

Having started his managerial career with second-tier Belgian club, Royal Antwerp, and then taken Burton Albion to their first ever league championship and promotion, and seeing them to the top of League One this week, Hasselbaink's career has started solidly. His move to West London, confirmed today, follows suit. QPR are a bigger club in a higher league, which means Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and his coaching career are on the up.

Enjoying a coaching career on an upward trajectory cannot be said of another Dutch trio who've all relatively recently called time on their playing days. All comfortably under forty-five years of age, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, and Patrick Kluivert have all cut their managerial teeth, only to see their early careers somewhat stalled.

Both Davids and Seedorf are currently unemployed, both after a their first jobs in the dug out. In October 2012, Barnet pulled a coup by installing Edgar Davids as player/manager. Already living in north London, and managing Sunday League side Brixton United, Davids was initially hesitant to resume playing again, but went on to manage Barnet in League Two and the Conference Premier. Davids resigned in January 2014, and hasn't managed since. At the other end of quite a few footballing spectrums, January 2014 also saw Clarence Seedorf appointed as head coach of AC Milan. Known and respected as, il profesore, in Milano, Seedorf arrived to an expected wave of hype and positivity, which faded fast. Seedorf was replaced by Flippo Inzaghi just six months later. Like Davids, Seedorf hasn't managed since.

Bucking the trend and enjoying more than one job, Patrick Kluivert has learnt from some of the best, enjoying assistant roles to Louis van Gaal, Dick Advocaat, and Ronald Koeman with AZ Alkmaar, Wiljian Vloet at NEC Nijmegen, and Bart van Marwijk and Louis van Gaal with the Dutch national team. March 2015 saw Kluivert's first solo, leading role, as head coach of the Curacao national team. Despite leading the side to their best World Cup Qualifying campaign to date, Kluivert resigned in September this year. Like Davids and Seedorf, he is currently unemployed.
The Generation gap. Van Gaal and Patrick Kluivert. Image from here.

Widening the parameters to include Dutch managers hovering around the mid-fifties age bracket, one would expect the search for a successor to success to simplify. Yet still no-one comes close to the trophy collection and stature of the three wise men. 

Marco van Basten, aged fifty-one, showed early promise after being installed as a novice national team manager, leading Oranje at the 2006 World Cup, and 2008 European Championships. However, trophy-less stints at Ajax and Heerenveen bookended a three-year job-less streak, and after cutting short his role as AZ Alkmaar head coach due to health reasons, van Basten is back in the national team set-up as assistant coach.

Going one better than early promise, and notching up early trophies and accolades, Frank Rijkaard is widely regarded as the man responsible for providing Barcelona with the foundation to their current domination. Rijkaard was just forty-one when he was appointed head coach at the Camp Nou, and after early jitters, Barcelona were nearing the relegation zone before Christmas, the club finished 2003/04 as La Liga runners-up, and have claimed major trophies ever since. Rijkaard departed a hero in 2008, and embarked on a sabbatical. Spells at Galatasaray, and the Saudi Arabia national team followed, but without the same intensity and success of his days in Catalan. Rijkaard has been out of employment since 2013.
Frank Rijkaard has a word in the shell of a young Lionel Messi. Image from here.

Not unlike Frank Rijkaard, Hasselbaink is displaying that delightfully Dutch trait of finding success abroad. Also in England, not too far from West London, two Dutch brothers are winning praise, if not trophies, on the south coast. Ronald Koeman, aged fifty-two, has been assisted by his older brother, Erwin, at premier league Southampton. Despite having forced hands sell their best players on an all too regular basis, the Koeman's have earned plaudits for attractive football, and making the most of a good scouting system. With heightened stability, and a bigger club with a bigger budget, the natural conclusion to draw is that trophies will come.

Sitting in a similar boat to Koeman, in calm and stable seas, yet a boat which sells its best players each year, current PSV head coach, Philip Cocu, is richly deserving of a mention, too. At the time of writing, his PSV team are still have the possibility of securing their presence in the Champions knock-out phase, an achievement which has eluded Dutch clubs since PSV themselves did it in 2006/07.

Perhaps another one to watch for the not-too-distant future is another Premier League star of the late nineties. Jaap Stam has been Ajax's defensive coach since 2013, and completed his UEFA coaching badges as recently as last month. He is widely believed to be hungry for a first managerial role of his own.

Though its admittedly hard to imagine five years into the future of football, lets try twenty-odd. The 2038/39 season will see Hasselbaink, de Boer, Cocu, Kluivert, Davids, Seedorf and Dijkhuizen all lingering around retirement age, will any combination of three be able to match the trophy haul of Van Gaal, Hiddink, and Advocaat? Or will the majority slip comfortably into punditry while following other interests? QPR fans will hope at least one man continues his early rise.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Curious Existence of AP Campionese

L'Associazione Polisportiva Campionese. Image from here.

"And this is Campione d'Italia', she's the Italian comune in Switzerland, you know, she's an Italian enclave and exclave surrounded by Switzerland but still in the Province of Como, Lombardia, in the Swiss canton of Ticino". Introducing the small town of Campione d'Italia, is much like describing a distant relative at a very large family celebration. She's both vaguely recognisable, and completely unfamiliar. She has the same plump and contented face as aunty Giulia, yet she's definitely got the nose of grandpa MΓΌller.

Though it shares a similar latitude to the Matterhorn, and the ski haven of Chamonix, it is very much an Italian town. Located on the shore of Lago di Lugano, and just twenty-eight kilometres from Como (seventy from Milano), yet its political and geographical borders render it completely surrounded by Switzerland.

Founded as recently as 1978, the local football team, AP Campionese, are the only Italian team (professional or amateur) to play in the Swiss football league system.

The area of Campione and its surroundings were always Italian. First the Romans, then Toto of Campione, then the Arch Bishop of Milan, the abbey of Sant'Ambrogio, and finally the Bishop of Como all claimed ownership up till the sixteenth century. Then, as a thank-you for support in the 'War of the Holy Leagues', Pope Julius II transferred possession to Switzerland. One condition of the transfer was that the running of the small town remain under the stewardship of the local abbey, thus placing the area in Switzerland and maintaining Italian rule. This existence was supported by a public vote in 1798, further referendums in the late 1800's, and later intervention by Mussolini. Italian unification in 1861 distanced Campione further, as all land west of the lake was designated as Swiss. In the 1930's, Mussolini added 'd'Italia' to the official name, and built some inevitably imposing and ornate city gates. Thus decided Campione's rather unique fate and borders, and they've remained unchanged and unchallenged ever since. Not that the 2300 residents have any need to change or challenge, they enjoy a unique set of benefits thanks to their situation. The enviable best of Switzerland and Italy. For example, the postal system is Swiss, and though its slightly more expensive than the Italian counterpart, stereotypes run true to make it more efficient and reliable. The police are Italian, yet fire services and medical care is Swiss. Swiss Francs are the official currency, yet the Euro is widely accepted. Since Ticino is an Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, linguistic borders become blurred lines. Furthermore, its residents are exempt from tax thanks to the curious existence of Europe's biggest casino.

The Casino di Campione was originally opened in 1917, and quickly became something of a safe haven in the First World War. Evoking scenes reminiscent of early Bond movies, the casino became a meeting point for foreign diplomats, government officials, and military leaders. Most likely to the backdrop of clinking Martini glasses, sensitive information would change hands, and officials would turn a blind eye no matter whoever or whatever. If walls could talk, there'd surely be a historically provocative tale or two to tell. However, with those walls no demolished, and the new super casino now erected, those stories are lost forever. Now under ownership of the Italian government, the new casino opened in 2007. A local postcard-dominating art-deco structure designed by Swiss architect, Mario Bossa, it now boasts over fifty-five thousand square metres of gambling space spread over nine floors. A further three floors are underground parking. Despite this dominating presence, the people of Campione d'Italia remain sympathetic, mostly because the casino's income see's them free from that troublesome task of paying tax. Campione d'Italia is Europe's smallest tax haven.

Switzerland, Italy, a casino with a murky history, and Bond is nowhere to be seen. Image from here.

Unlike another European tax haven four hundred kilometres to the south west, the local football team are decidedly low-key and low budget. Their home ground, Centro Sportivo Sciree, can be seen at the top of the above image. Its recently renovated main grandstand houses all three hundred and sixty of the stadium's seats. 3G training pitches occupy space behind one goal, and changing rooms and offices occupy space behind the opposite goal. Evergreens and conifers complete the quaint frame. However, as another slight anomaly, its what exists outside the frame which makes the Sciree such a stunning football venue. Carved into the foothills of the Swiss Alps, and with panoramic views of Lago di Lugano, there can't be many European football grounds more picturesque.

Postcard football. Image from the official club website, here.

However, while AP Campionese might be high rollers in the postcard selling stakes, achievement on the pitch is more subdued. Currently, the team play their matches in the ninth and final tier of the Swiss Football system, namely the '5th Division of the Ticinese Football Federation'. To begin to appreciate their modest place in the pyramid, there are sixty-seven leagues hosting nearly seven hundred clubs of a similar standard across Switzerland. Essentially, its a meagre step up from pub football.

As can be expected, the majority of the team are young and hopeful, predominantly Italian and Swiss semi-professionals. The squads average age is twenty-four. As a reflection of increasingly modern and diverse Italy, the squad includes players from Ecuador, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey. A significant number of the squad are employed by the casino. 

Historically, the team peaked in the 2006/07 season, when they nearly claimed a second successive promotion into the FTC second division. To put into context, even if they had won promotion, there were a further seven promotions between them and the  top flight Swiss Superliga. The current campaign is frozen, literally at the altitude of nearly three hundred metres, for a three month winter break. They signed off for the holidays on November 15th with a resounding three-nil victory against AS Arogno, which secured a relatively comfortable mid-table position, sixth in a twelve-team league. 

Realistically, the team aren't going anywhere fast, but with views like that, there really is no need.
Kicking off the 2015/16 campaign. Image from here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

It's High Time For Champions League Reform

Great football, great cuisine, but it's getting a little too predictable. Image from here.

Every May, there's a special occasion held in our humble abode, and it tries to combine the best of european food and football. It usually falls on a warm, late spring evening, which sees windows open, and a cool breeze wafting the smells of a busy kitchen around the whole apartment. An annual, four course dinner themed around two particular countries, complete with paired wines, is served over the course of a few hours. Last year we bounced between Italy and Spain for an aperitif, a starter, the main, and a sweet. 

We cook, we eat, we get merrily drunk, and we watch the UEFA Champions League final. While the football and the sub-plots thrown up each year are, for the most part, genuinely seductive, it's all getting a little predictable. 

It's been over ten years since our theme country wasn't Spain, Italy, Germany or England. And while, admittedly, those countries offer a delicious and varied menu, wouldn't it be great if everyone got a chance to sample the delights of a final appearance by Astana of Kazakhstan, of Malmo FF of Sweden, or Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia? 

Before levelling any criticism and submersing ourselves in romantic nostalgia, it should be said that Platini, UEFA, and all their special corporate partners, do what they do very well. An appealing product has been created, and its ferociously consumed the world over. The problem is, to explain the Champions league in footballing terms, that its all starting to feel a bit Ronaldo, where football should feel more Messi. The Champions League has become robotic, primed, pristine, and therefore edging towards dull and predictable because it's too good at what it does. It should be more spontaneous, bring more smiles and joy, be partial to floppy hair, and even an infrequent off-day, or week on the sidelines. Europe's premier club competition should surely provide more David v Goliath moments, more upsets, and more than just seven nations able to offer winning clubs.

Thing is, it never used to be like this.

It was the 2003/04 final in which FC Porto and Monaco represented the sixth and seventh nations at a UEFA Champions League final. Porto propelled their manager into global stardom, and I spent the most i've ever spent on a single bottle of wine, €35. It feels like a long time ago. Before that, you have to go back another decade to find any other country outside the 'big four' represented. Ajax of the Netherlands were a great team in the mid-nineties, but at that time I could neither cook or drink. Since the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992/93, the seven nations represented at the finals have yielded a total of nineteen different clubs. Compare these numbers with the last twenty-five years of the European Cup's existence, and the difference is vast. From 1966/67 to 1991/92, there were thirteen different countries appearing in the finals, represented by a wonderfully diverse thirty-one clubs. 

If variety is indeed the spice of life, which it is, then its time for a Champions League re-think.

Football, much like most things, is a representation of various trends and fashions coming full circle. Kit for example. Long baggy shorts were in, they evolved to be tight and pornographically short in the eighties, and now they're getting large and loose again. Even in the relatively short history of the Premier League, these cyclic tendencies can be found. First is was cool to have a foreign manager, then young British managers were the in thing, and now it's heading back towards the allure of an accent and fresh approach.

There are many reasons for these changes, but basically, it's evolution, or revolution

Far from being a desperate plea for nostalgia, Champions League reform surely represents a logical next stage in the cycle of European club football. How marvellous would it be to return to un-seeded knock-out rounds from the off? No mini leagues, no boring group matches where teams cautiously play for a point with five first-team players left at home, no easy predicting of the qualifying pair from each group, and no more being able to guess the last sixteen two years in advance. Instead, an otherwise mundane Tuesday night in September could host a match like Barcelona v Bayern Munich. It would look and feel like a final as that's what 'winner takes all' knock-out cup competitions do. Who knows, the Wednesday night games could even pair Real Madrid and Juventus. KAA Gent might sneak all the way to the semi-finals. Inter Milan could be humbled by plucky St Etienne. Our cosy early summer feast of football could feature a traditional borst, or even a goulash.

Of course, it shouldn't be forgotten that the current knock-out stages have produced many wonderful, dramatic, romantic, and brilliant matches. But the crux of the point is that showtime is confined to an all too tiny handful of spring evenings, and their major players and directors are already known.

Pure and simple knock-out rounds are what make England's FA Cup magical. There is a competition which hasn't changed format since it's inception in 1872, and has remained a football attraction the world over. Much like the European Cup used to, the FA Cup still has the capacity to surprise, create wonder & marvel, unconsciously mollycoddle smaller clubs all the way to a semi-final, and simultaneously, ruthlessly throw a bigger, richer club out at the first hurdle. Admittedly, there is the increased possibility of an unfashionable or even boring final, but isn't embracing all these moments, feelings, and possibilities the most beautiful thing about football? 

UEFA could do much worse than base a re-design upon the world oldest cup competition. Preliminary qualifying rounds for the smaller clubs and fourth placed teams, and having the domestic champions join at a later round. The group format need not be totally lost. Switching its purpose to preliminary qualifying, thus providing smaller clubs with a guaranteed three or four fixtures, would be a nice touch. Group winners could then qualify for the knock-out rounds, and be joined by the bigger boys.

The current format of the Champions League was dreamt up in the late eighties and early nineties, at a time where domestic leagues across the continent were raw. Violence on the terraces was rife, and the vast majority of clubs shared similar financial constraints. Adventures into Europe really were adventures, and mostly not for positive reasons. The whole continent was crying out for a blanket, uniformed experience of European football. At the time, the security of the league format - which guaranteed at least a few months in the competition for qualifying clubs - were of huge appeal. As were the organisational standards, the financial rewards, the TV deals, and the sponsorship. The expanded and rebranded Champions League of 1992 was much needed, at the time. Now in 2015, with football leadership primed for something fresh but fair, we have to ask; haven't we made the European elite rich enough? Haven't we excluded Europe's less glamorous clubs for long enough? Aren't we even a little bit sick of watching advertisements from the monopoly of Heineken, Gazprom, and MasterCard? Are we not a little weary of such pompous commitment to that anthem? 

Personally, I answer a wholehearted 'yes' to the above. 

Glitz, glamour, and carpet-like surfaces, but where's the joy, romance, and surprise? Image from here.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Barry Hughes: Cabaret Football King

Barry Hughes belongs to a very rare British footballing fraternity. Having made a name, and a sound, for himself overseas, he remains an almost unknown entity on home soil. He scouted and signed one of European football's most famous sons, managed at seven different Dutch clubs, and enjoyed a recording career spanning two decades.

'Football is King', Barry Hughes' first single in 1978. Image from here.

It could be said that the Netherlands has something of a troubled relationship with music. Beyond the musical excuses offered by manufactured pop, which are the same the world over, the Dutch mainstream haven't really got beyond sing-a-long cabaret. Even this very weekend, songs like the one below are bellowed out of the gezellig bruin cafes and bars all over the country. For non-Dutch ears, patience wears thin after the first chorus. However, armed with an open mind, a little patience, and a loose understanding of the lyrics, a joyful light-heartedness may occur upon listening. Like most things in life, this intensifies after the tenth biertje, and you can't help but sing along. Even if you recognise mild self-loathing for doing so.  British residents of the Netherlands had particular interest in singing along in the eighties, as they were being belted and crooned out in fluent Dutch by one of their own.

Born in Caernarfon, Wales, Barry Hughes played at youth level and signed full professional terms for West Bromwich Albion. However, aged just twenty-one, he broke his leg in a fixture against Manchester United, and was subsequently released by the Baggies.

Upon cutting his losses and ending his playing days in England, Hughes jumped at the chance to sail across the North Sea and start again in the Netherlands. Initially, he played for the semi-professional FC Blauw-Wit Amsterdam, and signed for Alkmaar '54 soon after. Alkmaar '54, who would later become AZ Alkmaar, made Hughes team captain, and the Welshman's leadership saw an Erstedivisie (the Dutch second tier) title, and promotion, in 1963. 

Just a year shy of his thirtieth birthday, Hughes was appointed player/manager of Alkmaar '54 for the 1966/67 campaign, but moved to HFC Haarlem a year later. Playing true to the life and style of a footballing journeyman, Hughes was on the move again in 1970, this time to manage Go Ahead. Hughes' first impact on Dutch football came at the Deventer based club, where he re-branded them as Go Ahead Eagles, which they're still known as today. 

Hughes had another major impact on Dutch football when in 1970 he returned for a second spell at HFC Haarlem. The Welshman enjoyed his longest stint at one club, seven years, and assembled a squad of, in his own words, 'unwanted crooks and veterans'. Hughes and Haarlem defied the odds to achieve and maintain mid table Eredivisie status. The seven years did include two relations, but the team bounced back quickly on both occasions, winning two immediate promotions. Towards the end of his second stint, Hughes was largely responsible for one of Dutch football's greatest gift to European football. Ruud Gullit received his first professional contract at Haarlem, and became the Eredivisie's youngest player. Gullit shone in an average side, and made nearly one hundred appearances for Hughes and Haarlem before Feyenoord came calling. Gullit left in 1982, with Hughes having departed two years previous.
Hughes' discovery in 1977. Image from here.

Throughout his time in the Netherlands, Hughes endeared himself to many as a memorable character. He was known and loved nationwide. However, with his trademark sense of humour, flat-cap, and affable demeanor, he often teetered on the edge of becoming a caricature of a football coach. A famous raspberry blowing episode offers an example, and a somewhat friendly rivalry with George Kessler, is nicely told by the man himself, here. Furthermore, a blossoming Dutch pop/cabaret music career did little to give credibility to Hughes the football trainer. 

Far from fussed by any dent to his footballing reputation, Hughes threw himself into a recording career as his days in the dugout faded away. Shortly after signing Ruud Gullit in 1978, Hughes released his first single, 'Voetbal is Koning' (Football is King). It remained in the Dutch charts for a credible eight weeks, peaking at number seven. By the time Hughes took the hot-seat at Rotterdam's second club, Sparta Rotterdam, in 1980, he'd teamed up with 'de Kwaffeurs' for a second single. Dutch for 'I want on my head a wall-to-wall carpet', 'ik wil op m'n kop een kamerbreed tapijt', a lyrically fun and self-depreciating celebration of Hughes balding head.

Hughes stayed in Rotterdam for three years, and recorded two more LP's; 'het is om te brullen' (it is to roar!) and 'we doen de hoela, hoela' (we do the hula-hula). Short spells at FC Utrecht, MVV Maastricht, and FC Volendam passed, as did three more released singles. In 1987/88, Hughes returned to the Sparta Rotterdam dugout for what proved a final swan song of his football coaching career. Upon formally announcing his football retirement, Hughes released a selection of albums throughout the late eighties and early nineties. Made up mostly of cover songs, highlights included the 1988, 'Barry's Summer Songs', 'Barry Goes Back to the 40's', and an early-Americana tribute, 'With Barry in Texas'.
Hughes' back catalogue. Images via here.

Barry Hughes is still resident of the Netherlands, and will celebrate his eightieth birthday in two years time. The bruin cafes, bars, and people of the Netherlands are braced for an epic sing-a-long, a lekker party of smiles and checkered flat caps.

A number of Dutch speaking British ex-pats will remain confused.

Barry Hughes, complete with trademark smile and cap. Image from here.