The Missing Ones: Promising generation of Brazilians miss out on World Cup

Photos: Richard Avis, Ronnie Macdonald, EMPICS Sport & Sérgio Savarese

Pato, Damiao, Lucas & Ganso: none will be featuring this summer for Brazil, despite so much promise Photos: Richard Avis, Ronnie Macdonald, EMPICS Sport & Sérgio Savarese

 

As Brazil bowed out of the World Cup four years ago, the clamour for rejuvenation in the squad was unanimous. A cycle was over – a group of players had aged together and their time had run its course. It was clear that a new, fresh generation of players needed to be introduced into the national team.

Mano Menezes was brought in to replace Dunga as the national side’s coach and oversee the influx of youth into the squad, slowly blending in veterans to balance out the team.

Neymar, Alexandre Pato, Paulo Henrique Ganso all headlined the ‘New Brazil’ and thoroughly impressed in the first friendly, a 2-0 win against the USA, one month after the tournament in South Africa.

The hype had been justified. Many were certain the base of the team for 2014 was sorted. Along the way, others were called into the squad only fuelling the optimism.

Promising centre-back Dedé, Manchester United right-back Rafael, Tottenham’s defensive midfielder Sandro, target man Leandro Damião and attacking midfielders Lucas Moura and Oscar all were given chances.

They symbolised the new generation of Brazilian football.

But for every Neymar there are two Diegos and three Kerlons – players that are touted as youngsters, but for whatever reason fail to materialise into world-class talent on a global stage.

What was interesting to note in the case of this particular generation, was that their form seemed to dip at around the same time, both for club and country for myriad reasons – transfer speculation, chronic injuries etc.

This dip in form also coincided with Scolari taking over from Menezes in late 2012 with a new philosophy and mentality in mind for the national team. A new phase began for many of these players. They were now scrambling to reclaim their places (apart from Neymar and Oscar).

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Photo: Dean Jones

Coutinho: great season; no call-up Photo: Dean Jones

Last week, Scolari read out his final squad list of 23. These players failed to make the cut. So much promise had withered down to no hope of being called up.

Funnily enough, a player who was never given that chance in the last four years is arguably the one that deserves, more than any of the aforementioned, to be representing Brazil on home soil in next month’s World Cup.

Having had a fantastic first 18 months at Liverpool, Philippe Coutinho certainly deserved a call-up from Scolari. It is a testament to the sheer volume of players that Brazil produces that a player with his proven ability at an elite level has been left out of the 23.

For Coutinho and the rest it is not yet time for desperation, however. They are still relatively young and should be in the prime of their careers to challenge for a place in the national team come 2018.

Nevertheless, the pressure to perform and evolve at a higher level is certainly on for this batch of Brazilians and it will be fascinating to watch their progress over the next four years…until the next generation of talent creeps up on them.

(Re)Making the Case for Pelé’s Greatness

Courtesy: CBF Futebol/Twitter

Courtesy: CBF Futebol/Twitter

 

BBC Sport has been doing a countdown of 100 days to the World Cup, by showing a memorable moment from past editions of the tournament every day. Today’s clip was titled ‘Magnificent Pelé’ and it encapsulates the magic of this sporting legend.

Recently, I have come across many who have outright dismissed Pelé and called him the most overrated player of all-time. In informal chats with friends, he is often snubbed or even forgotten when naming those who belong in the pantheon of football.

This was alarming to me. Conventional wisdom and the media narrative have always ruled Pelé as the all-time great, so why were people dismissing it now?

Perhaps it could be a case of generational bias – both due to not having seen him play (live or through highlights/reruns) and/or utter disregard for the competitiveness of football in the past.

Today’s youth and 20 or 30-somethings are quick to hail Maradona, Zidane, both Ronaldos or Messi, but Pelé remains a mythical figure whose greatness is seemingly only vouched for by the forgotten pages of the history books.

So what was the true verdict on Pelé then? Were the new-age ‘hipsters’ correct in ignoring the old conventional wisdom? Was he not the greatest but most overrated of all-time?

Short answer: no.

People seem to have forgotten why he was rated so highly in the first place. Because of the difficulty of comparing distinct eras, there are many resorting to lazy arguments such as:

‘Pelé was nothing special.’

‘Pelé never played in Europe.’

‘Pelé always had an amazing team around him for both club and country.’

Instead, I would contend that Pelé has become so overrated due to his mystique that he is now underrated and underappreciated.

 

Setting the criteria

It is important to establish, first and foremost, that the comparison of generations cannot be classified as an objective study.

Sport has evolved. There have been great advances made in sports medicine/science; the emergence of the sports analytics movement; training techniques have become more sophisticated. Inevitably, football has become faster, more intense and both the tactical and physical sides have gained a larger focus within the game.

So if subjectivity is all we have to go by, let the fun and arguments begin.

I maintain that if a player was considered the best of his generation or his time, it is because he showed it against the highest level of competition at said time.

Until the dawn of the Champions League and the globalisation of football in the early to mid 1990’s, the World Cup was the pinnacle of world football. Every four years, the best the world had to offer would gather and showcase their abilities on a global scale.

However, the mass exodus of players from South America and to a lesser degree, Africa and Asia are now concentrated in Europe’s top leagues. The advent of the Champions League marked the beginning of a new era. The world no longer needed to wait around for four years to watch the cream of football talent gather; they could watch it every season as the competition became available to a global audience.

In Pelé’s era, the World Cup was therefore the measuring stick for the highest standard and world-class talent, so it seems like a decent place to start.

 

Pelé at the World Cup

Pelé played in four World Cups from 1958 to 1970. He was 100% fit for the first and last of those and was injured during the 1962 and 1966 editions.

1962: He was arguably at his best form for his club at the age of 21. He started promisingly, scoring a great goal, the second in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Mexico.In the second game against eventual runners-up Czechoslovakia, he limped off during the 0-0 draw and would sit out the rest of the tournament. He watched from the bench as his teammate Garrincha led the Seleçãoto their second straight world title.

1966: He was nursing a knee injury coming into the tournament and was far from 100% fit. During that era, it is worth noting that yellow cards did not exist, so consequently the most talented players did not dispose of the protection they enjoy today from referees. Violent tackles, more often than not went unnoticed and unpunished.

Brazil played its first game against a violent Bulgaria side, winning 2-0, with Pelé grabbing the first off a free kick. Having aggravated his injury, he was unable to play in the second match against Hungary and Brazil fell to a 3-1 defeat. Still not 100% recovered, Pelé was forced into action in Brazil’s crucial final group encounter versus Eusébio’s Portugal.

It was a win or go home situation for Brazil and the Portuguese defenders targeted Pelé from the first minute, literally kicking him off the park. He had to be carried off the pitch and finished the match limping on one leg, as in those days no substitutions were allowed. Brazil lost 3-1 and went home early.

So these were the two World Cups he technically didn’t contribute to. Now let’s consider what he did or achieved in the ones he did play in.

1958: Pelé was a 17-year old who was called up as the backup to Flamengo’s great striker Dida. He had only made his debut for his club Santos the previous year and not much was expected of him. After a 3-0 victory against Austria in the first game, Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw by England in the second match. Coach Vicente Feola instated wholesale changes throughout the team, introducing Pelé, Garrincha and a few others for the final group fixture against the Soviet Union and their great goalkeeper Lev Yashin.

The changes worked and Brazil won 2-0 to qualify, with some mesmerising moments from Garrincha especially. In the quarter-final, a tight, dogged affair against John Charles’ Wales, Pelé scored the game’s only goal, edging Brazil into the semis with a superb bit of individual brilliance.

In the semi final, he stole the limelight from France’s duo of Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa, by netting a second half hat-trick (in the space of 23 minutes) and leading Brazil to a 5-2 demolition and into the final (goals at 3:00, 3:50 and 4:48).

In the final, Brazil defeated hosts Sweden by the same scoreline and Pelé added a brace for good measure, including one of the most iconic goals in football history – controlling a cross from the left on his chest whilst absorbing contact from and shrugging off a defender, flipping it over the head of the another on-rushing defender and hitting it first time on the volley.

So to recap: As a 17-year old, in what was then more than ever a game for men not boys, he came into the team midway through the tournament, scoring 6 goals in 4 matches, and helps Brazil to its first ever world title. What’s more, they won it on European soil. To put into perspective what an achievement that is – they are still to this day the only non-European team to win the World Cup in Europe.

Furthermore, in that World Cup he faced some of the world’s best at the time. Lev Yashin (USSR) – arguably the best goalie that ever lived; John Charles (Wales) – an icon with Juventus of Italy; France’s aforementioned duo of Kopa – part of the legendary Real Madrid frontline alongside Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento that won the first five European Cups from 1956-60 – and Fontaine – that tournament’s top scorer with 13 goals, which is still a record for the most ever scored in a single World Cup; and Sweden’s Gre-No-Li (Gren, Nordahl and Liedholm) trio of AC Milan. In short, some of the world’s best at the time.

All as a 17-year old, in a time where it was uncommon to field anyone below the age of 25! Today, it’s very common to see teenagers at the World Cup, yet no one has ever shone at quite like Pelé at such a young age. A testament to how special a player he was.

1970: Coming off the disappointment of the 1966 tournament, Pelé decided to prepare himself like never before for a World Cup. At 29 years of age, he was aware this would perhaps be his last and wanted to show the world he still had it on the biggest stage.

He proceeded to orchestrate what many view as the best national side in history. Words cannot do Pelé’s play in this World Cup justice, so I will try to be brief and let the videos of his great moments do the talking.

Brazil started off with a 4-1 drubbing of Czechoslovakia. Pelé scored one (5:18), set up another (7:21) and almost pulled off the unthinkable – an audacious attempt from inside his own half that narrowly missed the target with the goalkeeper haplessly beaten (3:47).

Next up were defending world champions England. This became an instant World Cup classic with great chances for both sides and with Brazil ultimately prevailing 1-0. Pelé was denied a certain goal by Gordon Banks in what is known as one of the greatest saves of all-time (1:20). He later made the winning goal in style for Jairzinho following up fantastic work from Tostão (3:35).

In the last group match, having already qualified, Brazil faced Romania winning 3-2. Pelé scored twice – the first a swerving free kick (0:40) and the second a close range finish after Tostão’s beautiful flick from a corner (2:45).

In the quarter-final against Peru, a 4-2 trouncing with Pelé, twice hitting the post and assisting on the third goal for Tostão (7:00).

The semi-final against Uruguay was alongside the England match, Brazil’s toughest test in the tournament. They fell behind to an early goal and looked nervous in the first half, managing to pull back an equaliser right before halftime. Pelé rose to the occasion in the second half providing arguably his best performance in the tournament.

He was involved in everything – he produced a magnificent mazy run from midfield before being brought down just outside the box (4:00), a clever first-time volley straight from a poor goal kick that the keeper managed to recover and save (5:07), a deft touch to release a Brazil counter-attack, which resulted in the go-ahead goal scored by Jairzinho (6:20), and making the third goal for Rivelino (8:45). All that was missing to crown his display was a goal and he nearly got in spectacular fashion, rounding the keeper with a brilliant dummy before dragging a shot just wide (9:37).

In the final, against a weary Italian side, Brazil went ahead through Pelé’s header, were pegged back before the interval, and then ran rampant in the second half, running out 4-1 winners and three-time World Cup champions. As well as his goal (0:24), Pelé made the third – a brilliant cushioned header into the path of Jairzinho (3:12) – and the fourth and final goal – a majestic pass for Carlos Alberto to slam home, following a magnificent team move (3:57).

So, 4 goals and 6 assists in 6 matches in his World Cup swansong, including two of the most beautiful and jaw-dropping ‘near-misses’ of all-time – the shot from inside his own half and the dummy round the keeper, which to this day I’ve never seen anyone try and replicate.

 

Pelé at club level

Pelé was the star of the great 1960’s Santos sides, which dominated Brazilian and South American football for the decade and are considered to be one of the greatest club sides of all-time. They won the national title 6 times during the decade, also winning countless state championships, which at the time counted for a lot.

They also conquered the continent and the world, winning consecutive Libertadores (South America’s equivalent to the European Cup/Champions League) and Intercontinental Cups. At the time, the European sides took the cup seriously, as South America still held on to its best players, thus making for fiercely competitive duels. Adding to this, was the fact it was played over two legs (home and away – one in South America and one in Europe), so it was showcased directly to a European audience.

In 1962, Santos won their first Libertadores with Pelé scoring twice in the final against Peñarol of Uruguay. They then faced Eusébio’s Benfica and won both legs by an aggregate score of 8-4. Pelé scored 5 goals over both matches and the second leg in Lisbon (won 5-2 by the Brazilians) is considered, by Pelé himself to be the best performance in his career. He scored a hat-trick, and superbly laid off a goal for his striking partner Coutinho.

The following year, he was limited by injuries, but scored two goals anyway in the first leg at the San Siro against the great Milan of Cesare Maldini, Trapattoni, Rivera and his national teammates Altafini and Amarildo. He did not play in the second or third games in Brazil (there was a 6-6 aggregate tie, so a replay decided the winner), but had played a huge role in leading Santos there in the first place – scoring 4 goals over both Libertadores semi-final legs and the winning goal in the final against Boca Juniors in Argentina.

 

Concluding Arguments

Pelé is not the most overrated player ever. Recent memory has given us the tendency to ignore the greatness of past generations and we are quick to forget why Pelé was considered so great in the first place.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Pelé was the first ever player to score 1000 official goals in his career, totalling 1283 between club and country. It’s irrelevant that he played in another era, or whom he played against, it’s downright impressive.

If you want to compare it to today, who has dominated the World Cup or even the Champions League for that matter at the age of 17? Has anyone even scored close to 1000 goals in their career?

Now, is he the greatest ever?

Maybe. Maybe not. To each his own opinion, but to flat out disregard him as I have observed many doing lately is outright absurd.

Why David Moyes needed to go and the uncertainty surrounding Manchester United’s future

Reprodução/Twitter/TEAMtalk

Reprodução/Twitter/TEAMtalk

Originally published in Portuguese for Premier League Brasil

Moyes never got out from under Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow and United stopped trusting him, deciding to cut ties with The Chosen One after 10 months.

Manchester United officially sacked David Moyes Tuesday morning after ten turbulent months in charge. This officially bookended the club’s first attempt at replacing Sir Alex Ferguson as a failure and brings a mix of optimism and uncertain times for the club’s future.

From the start, it was never going to be easy replacing Ferguson who remained at the helm for 26 years. Moyes had massive shoes to fill, especially given that he had been hand picked by the legend himself and had inherited a squad that had just ran away with the Premier League title by an 11-point margin. The pressure to keep honouring such a winning tradition was tangible.

The 10 months that followed brought only rare moments of happiness and relief for the manager.

Some argue that Moyes needed more time – to familiarise himself with the club and its philosophy, to implement his training methods and his tactical system and approach. Others were quick to point to the numbers – in 52 matches in charge of Manchester United, Moyes had a better record and winning percentage than Fergie in the same number of games.

However, the fact is that the results alone are not enough to explain the whole story of such an unstable season. Various components led to the eventual fall of David Moyes. Below, are a few of which I consider the main ones.

 

1. It is not 1986 anymore.

When Ferguson took charge in November of ’86, United were in the midst of a title drought. Furthermore, they were living in the shadow of their biggest rivals, Liverpool who dominated English and European football from the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s.

Ferguson’s credentials included a brilliant stint at Aberdeen in Scotland, during which he led them to domestic titles over giants Celtic and Rangers, as well as leading them to a Cup Winners’ Cup win over Barcelona.

At that time, United could afford to be patient with Ferguson, allowing him the time and the autonomy to tinker with everything from the club’s youth policy and academy to the first-team squad and its tactics.

Today, times are different and expectations are (much) higher, since the Manchester United brand has grown. Money dictates the course of action in the ever-globalised footballing world. Being out of the Champions League means missing out on a huge sum of money and for a club that has played in the competition in every season since 1995, this is unacceptable. In short, the hierarchy could have had more patience with Moyes and the results achieved if the team had shown some development throughout the season on the pitch, but…

 

2. The team regressed woefully under Moyes and he didn’t help himself

Maybe it was a case of Ferguson feeling the decline of certain players and a certain degree of stagnation within the ranks, as the perfect time to jump ship, leaving Moyes with a real plateful on his hands. Maybe some of the previous year’s wins masked the lack of quality and potential ceiling for the squad.

But, even if the squad Ferguson left was no better than average, the fact remains that they won the title with the same players by a landslide the last season and it was not anything beyond ridiculous to expect a top 4 finish the this year. Yes, it was an abnormal offseason with all top 3 teams changing managers, but the players remained the same and have dropped from 1st to 7th in the table, losing 6 matches at home – some to mid-table sides and even relegation battlers.

Moyes never demonstrated the untapped potential to turn it around and improve the team. During matches, he didn’t show the desire to change it up, seeming resigned and content to accept the result as it was, as if Manchester United were a mid-table side.

Moyes didn’t have the least bit of self-criticism and never displayed a thirst to improve himself as a manager. He had a dearth ambition and an unwillingness to adapt to the big club mentality of winning at all costs, something that was a staple of his predecessor. Moyes also lacked charisma, such an essential element of managing a big club, and seemed daunted by the increased media attention and pressure.

The board ruled eventually that the chances of improving under him next season were unlikely. His training methods were internally criticised by many leading players in the squad and led to apathetic performances on the pitch. He maintained archaic methods, stuck to his system and seemed reluctant or incapable of change.

No match epitomised the antiquated tactical side more than the 2-2 draw against Fulham at Old Trafford when United managed almost a cross a minute to very little effect and showed an extremely limited repertoire of alternatives in the form of a short passing game in the final third – a real aberration for a club of its stature.

 

3. The board lost confidence in Moyes’ ability

The passing of the torch process certainly had its flaws. To begin with, the fact that Chief Executive David Gill was stepping down at the same time as Ferguson merited a more comprehensive approach to the naming of Ferguson’s successor. Giving Sir Alex ‘carte blanche’ was a mistake in hindsight.

Secondly, Ferguson misfired on his choice. Perhaps he let his friendship and affinity with Moyes cloud his judgement. Moyes lacked the true credentials and personality to be able to deflect the inevitable shadow that would loom large over him at Old Trafford.

Lastly, in the eagerness of emulating the Ferguson model of longevity, they handed a 6-year contract to a manager that had never won a single trophy. As Miguel Delaney succinctly put it: longevity should not just be granted, it should be earned. Ferguson’s tenure was the rare exception to the rule, especially in modern football where immediate results trump all else.

The board decided to cut the Moyes era short, since they saw the need to bring someone in with more big club experience. After all, Manchester United is one of the biggest clubs in the world. With the money available to spend this summer, the club’s hierarchy did not trust Moyes’ abilities in the transfer market or his capacity to attract the highest calibre of players especially without the lure of Champions League football.

The fact is that Moyes is a very good manager for a team that operates under financial restrictions and limitations, but was incapable of getting the best out of higher-quality players and handling higher expectations.

 

Uncertain future with room for optimism

Will either of these two be the next Man United manager? Reprodução/Twitter/TEAMtalk

Will either of these two be the next Man United manager?
Reprodução/Twitter/TEAMtalk

United’s future consequently is full of uncertainty. It may however provide the fans with some optimism in the form of a new manager with more imagination and creative ideas. Someone with a lengthier CV, the energy to reenergise the morale of the squad and a thorough knowledge of the transfer market to upgrade the team. The key factor will be to find the perfect candidate, because this time, they cannot afford to misfire on their target.

Louis van Gaal has experience at various big European clubs, has won titles wherever he has coached and has the resiliency to deal with the pressure of the fans at a big club and the English press. The Dutchman would certainly re-establish a winning mentality at Manchester United and would have the club back to winning ways.

He also has a proven track record of finding and developing youth players, especially during transitional periods, such as the one United are currently passing through. When he was at Bayern, he promoted many academy players to the first team, such as Thomas Mueller, David Alaba and Toni Kroos, who are all still prominent members of the team today.

With a probable lack of continental football on the schedule for next season, he would have sufficient time to work on the team and instil his principles. However, the experienced manager also has a difficult personality. He has had rows with star players at his previous clubs and would probably not offer more than a short-term solution, yet he remains the most viable option at this moment.

Juergen Klopp and Diego Simeone also have emerged as possible candidates for the job.

The German, in my opinion, would be the best solution for a long-term plan, but the problem is that Kloppo, as he is affectionately known has already been on public record stating his desire to remain at Dortmund until 2018. He has an abundance of charisma and is considered a real ‘player’s coach’, who strives for modern and attack-minded football. He also works well with young players and would bring a smile back to the glum faces all around Old Trafford, on and off the pitch. Klopp is also said to be the favourite of new Chief Executive Ed Woodward and I believe United should pursue him aggressively in order to convince him to leave his current club.

The Argentinean Simeone has been the breakthrough managerial talent of the season in European football, leading Atlético to the top of La Liga and the semi-finals of the Champions League. He is being called ‘the New Mourinho’ by some. His dedication to his group of players is unwavering and in return he gets maximum work rate from all in his squad. This spirit of togetherness in the dressing room plus the recent results obtained on the pitch have impressed many within the United ranks.

The future is uncertain, and will belong to one of the above (or someone else), but what is certain is that the present no longer belongs to David Moyes. This has brought relief to the vast majority of Manchester United fans and a hope that the suffering and adversity endured this season will not repeat itself for a long time.

The Decline and Future of Barcelona

Messi and Neymar have yet to link up consistently Courtesy: FC Barcelona/Twitter

Messi and Neymar have yet to link up consistently
Courtesy: FC Barcelona/Twitter

Barcelona have lost that aura of invincibility. Change is needed, but the future remains uncertain.

When opposing teams face the Catalans nowadays, there is no longer the same intimidation factor from the Guardiola era (2008-12) to contend with.

The preview was seen last spring in Bayern’s semi-final demolition of the Blaugrana (7-0 on aggregate). The confirmation of this sobering reality has come to the fore in the last week.

They were thoroughly outplayed and eliminated from the Champions League by Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid – this season’s surprise upstarts. They then lost to Granada at the weekend – a defeat, which now sees them 4 points off top spot in 3rd with 5 matches to play in the league. And finally they were comprehensively beaten by a Ronaldo-less Real Madrid last night in the Copa Del Rey final.

With only La Liga left to play for, the season seems lost and the future bleak, especially when one considers that the problems lie much deeper than just the complexion of the team. The club is facing an all-round institutional crisis.

But before getting to that, let us examine the questions, problems and dilemmas plaguing the team on the field.

 

End of the great Barcelona era?

Yes. That era actually ended at the hands of Bayern last season. This season’s version under Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino has just confirmed it.

Although the core of the team is still present, the dominant, possession-based football is only seen in sporadic flashes and it has lost its allure and efficiency.

A few reasons may help explain this:

  1. Lionel Messi looks a shell of his former self at times and has not looked 100% fit since his injuries last season. Not only that, but he doesn’t seem happy – his body language says it all. Whether it’s dissatisfaction with Tata Martino or anything else, the Argentina captain seems distant and disconnected. In order for the team to succeed, the star player must be comfortable and enjoying his football and this is currently not the case.
  2. Neymar’s integration into the team was always going to be easier on paper than in practice. The Brazilian starlet has always been used to being the main man for Santos and Brazil, but he has not looked the part on many occasions for his new club. From the outside, it does not seem like he is fully comfortable in the set-up. Adapting to European football and having to defer to Messi, playing a more team-first oriented role appears to have taken its toll on him. He and Messi have yet to link up with any consistency and It should come as no surprise that some of his best appearances at Barca were during Messi’s absence through injury, when he filled in as the protagonist.
  3. The team’s defensive frailties have been exacerbated. Barcelona were never renowned for their prowess at the back even during the Guardiola years, but these deficiencies were more hidden and masked then due to their utter domination of possession and opponents. This meant mistakes at the back were less consequential than they have been this season, where their short passing game has been largely unproductive and the once-relentless intensity of their pressing without the ball has decreased. Atlético and Real Madrid demonstrated that the recipe for beating Barcelona is not as complex and outwardly insurmountable a task as it once seemed. Both Madrid teams showed more desire, outworking, pressuring and attacking them. By not letting them settle into their rhythm their defence can easily be exposed. A world class centre-back is desperately needed.
  4. Tata Martino has seemingly lost the command and respect of the players. If it didn’t already appear that way before the Champions League exit and the defeat in the Cup final, his fate at the end of this season definitely seems sealed now.

Barca need to reinvent themselves again, just like they did post-Rijkaard with Guardiola, which brings us to the off-field conundrums.

 

The institutional crisis

Tata Martino appears to have lost the respect of the players Courtesy: FC Barcelona/Twitter

Tata Martino appears to have lost the respect of the players
Courtesy: FC Barcelona/Twitter

First it was the tax crime court hearing involving Messi and his father. Next, came the entire Neymar transfer scandal, which forced the resignation of president Sandro Rosell. The latest blotch on the club’s reputation is the potential two-year transfer embargo, which may be imposed due to irregularities in the signing of youth players.

If the ban is indeed set, it will be fascinating to see how they react this summer and beyond. There will be huge question marks, especially regarding the future manager.

Who will be hired? Simeone? Jürgen Klopp? These two seem to be the most prepared for the challenge and are favoured by the bookies. They would each represent a clear shift in a new direction – an attempt at a fresh era of excellence, with a different approach. Although plenty of arguments can be made in their favour – namely that they are both seen as player coaches, who engage and motivate the players bringing a positive dressing room spirit – questions remain. Could they win over this tight-knit, often stubborn core of Barca players? Would it sit well with Messi and the team’s leaders in particular?

Alternatively, the board may opt for familiarity and pursue someone acquainted with the Barca way. Given the possibility of the transfer ban, the new manager, without the ability to sign anyone for two years, would need to reinvigorate the current squad of players and refocus the team. Someone with experience at the club might be best suited in that case and an ideal candidate will be available this summer.

Frank de Boer has expressed his interest of managing at a higher level. He is young, but has experience at a traditional European power in Ajax. He has played and proven that he can compete against the best in the Champions League, despite Ajax’s largely inferior budget. Most importantly, de Boer is a former player at the club and therefore knows its structure and its philosophy. He knows the style of play instilled through the La Masia youth academy –influenced by his compatriot Johan Cruyff.

Doubts would surface regarding his readiness, but surely he is no less prepared than Tata Martino was when he took over last summer or than Guardiola was when he assumed control back in 2008, having had no previous first team experience. Dutch managers have a proven track record at the club dating back from Cruyff and van Gaal through to Rijkaard. Going back to their roots would give Barcelona a semblance of identity once again.

The German Giant

With Mario Goetze’s imminent transfer to Bayern Munich, the Bavarians now hold four of the five biggest transfer fees ever paid by German clubs – the top four belong to them. 

This defines the difference between the German and Spanish leagues as of now. There are two Spanish giants to Germany’s lone powerhouse.

The hope is that the Bundesliga doesn’t go down the same path as La Liga, lacking competitive balance and oozing predictability. But a quick look at the summer of 2000 in Spain provides a strong warning for what may lie in store for the future of the German top flight.

That year, Barcelona’s best player at the time, alongside Rivaldo was Luis Figo. Real Madrid paid the Portuguese star’s release clause of €57 million that summer, and Barcelona who was coming off of two Spanish titles would only be champions again in 2005.

It marked the beginning of the supremacy enjoyed by Florentino Perez’s Galacticos.

Dortmund is at risk of losing its best players to its rival (It is has been strongly hinted that Robert Lewandowski may also be on his way to the Allianz Arena) and the project of transforming the Bundesliga into the top league from an entertainment standpoint is in major danger of suffering as a result.

The Bundesliga has the largest average attendance of any league in the world and other notable qualities, making it one of the best and most enjoyable to watch.

But that old assumption that there is more balance and competitiveness between the teams, because the clubs are well run does not stand.

Bayern generates much more revenue and is filthy rich compared to the others who cannot compete with them economically.

The German champions ‘help out’ clubs in financial need by buying their best players, simultaneously strengthening themselves and weakening their opponents in the process.

They are happy to remain at the top of the proverbial German football food chain – the ‘predators’ of the Bundesliga. Even if it casts the Bundesliga into monotony.

Airballs – NBA Playoffs Preview

Airballs is back! The breakdown for this hour-long edition is below:

– Kobe Bryant’s season-ending injury and how it impacts his personal legacy and the Lakers’ franchise moving forward. (0:00)

– Eastern Conference playoffs preview: First Round match-up predictions (from 9:57)

– Western Conference playoffs preview: First Round match-up predictions (from 22:21)

– NBA Finals Picks (from 41:11)

– Regular Season Awards Picks (44:57)

Enjoy the Playoffs!!

Have Brazil’s preparations for the 2014 World Cup ruined the chance of a long-lasting legacy?

When Brazil were handed the ‘honour’ of hosting the 2014 World Cup by FIFA in October 2008, there were scenes of jubilation all across the country. ‘The World Cup Is Ours’ was the cry from the vast majority. The world’s biggest sporting event was returning after 64 years.

A massive opportunity was born.

Optimism soared and the legacy for the tournament was clear: attracting investments, improving stadiums, creating sustainable urban transport and expanding hotel and airport infrastructure.

Wishful thinking.

Just a few years on, Brazilians have discovered a completely different, but all-too-familiar reality. Stadiums are lagging behind construction deadlines and have increased their projected budgets significantly by dipping into public funds.

Urban mobility and airport infrastructure projects have either fallen short or been abandoned. Authorities have openly admitted these will be obstacles come 2014.

The usual suspects: preparation (or lack thereof) and political corruption are to blame.

Brazil had known unofficially that it would host the 2014 World Cup since 2003, as there were no rival bids from the other South American nations.  The CBF (Brazilian FA) then decided to play to the gallery – and more importantly to government authorities.

CBF President Ricardo Teixeira transferred the responsibility of selecting the cities to FIFA, in order to keep all the parties appeased. This process was drawn-out over a two-year period, in which valuable construction time was lost.

Manaus and Cuiabá were selected as hosts, with not so much as a national third division club from these cities. What purpose would these stadiums serve beyond 2014? The prospect of white elephants, paid for by the public purse looms.

Cities that made a lot more sense for footballing and legacy reasons were ignored. Goiânia and Belém were handed ‘pity’ friendly matches by the CBF as a consolation prize for missing out on the main event – all the more indicative of the governing body’s true intentions and its strategy of using political favours.

The local taxpayer, in need of far more vital everyday necessities, like dependable transport is instead footing the bill for over-the-budget stadiums, which for the most part will be used sparingly.

In the bigger footballing centres like Rio and Sao Paulo there are also links to political meddling.

Sao Paulo FC presented a viable, affordable plan for renovating their Morumbi stadium, which was most importantly to be privately funded. This was scrapped by the CBF, in favour of building an entirely new, publicly-financed stadium for city rivals Corinthians.

It is no coincidence that Sao Paulo president Juvenal Juvencio has long been a political adversary of Teixeira and the CBF, while Corinthians’ president at the time, Andres Sanchez was very closely tied to the organisation, even briefly occupying a supervisor role in the past two years.

In Rio meanwhile, the Maracana – Brazil’s footballing temple – has already been renovated twice in the last 15 years. Its latest revamp has now reached a budget around £370.5m, tripling its initial projected amount.

Another lump that is hard to swallow for the average citizen.

Even more calamitous are the airport and urban mobility situations in and between the country’s two biggest cities. The terminals are crammed, and there is non-existent public transport from the airports to the city centres.

Additionally, the severe lack of alternative transport to unclog the air traffic in a country of continental proportions is a massive sore spot. The fast train linking Rio and Sao Paulo has become a ‘blueprint relic’ and it doesn’t appear that the expansion of the cities’ metro services will be ready in time.

All of these problems could have been avoided with decent preparation. Rio hosted the Pan-American Games in 2007 and was given the 2016 Olympics as well; so sufficient notice had been given.

Yet politicians are now resorting to stop-gap solutions to salvage the event. These ‘last minute jobs’ raise the costs and the taxpayer is the one that ultimately suffers.

The tragedy in all of this is that the spectacle is almost sure to be a resounding success with tourists and the local population.

The lack of a lasting legacy, reflected best through an improved standard of living for its population is the biggest shame. An event that held so much potential and promise having been sapped of this because of political nit picking.

Some things never change in Brazil, and if this continues to go unnoticed, the 2016 Games in Rio are following a similar path…the path to a massively squandered opportunity.