Wednesday, 1 July 2015

England Women, A Joy To Watch

In the aftermath of England's 2-1 victory in the Women's World Cup Quarter-Final, goalscoring hero Jodie Taylor could scarcely control her emotions. “To start a game, score a goal and help make history with England has been my goal for four or five years,” she said, tears of joy and relief rolling down her face. “It's just amazing.”
Jodie Taylor shows what it means to represent England.

Indeed, it was amazing. It was the greatest accomplishment in the annals of English women's football. By beating Canada, the superb host nation, before 54,027 in Vancouver, the Lionesses became the first England team at any level to reach a major Semi-Final since 1990, when Bobby Robson's men lost to West Germany on penalties. Accordingly, when watching this fresh and vibrant women's team, so likeable and entertaining, one can sense history in the making. Positive history. The kind of history that has an entire nation talking in fervent tones of optimism.

Taylor's raw passion is characteristic of an entire squad determined to earn a place in the exclusive pantheon of English footballing glory. Merely donning that white shirt and playing for England means the world to these girls. It's the pinnacle of their sporting lives; a dream played out in unbelievable reality. Each player has an unquenchable thirst to represent their nation, unsullied by money or celebrity, which is an absolute pleasure to watch. Together, they play with so much fight, so much passion and so much heart, that its impossible not to be deeply excited.

The key word there is together, because this team has more togetherness than any I've seen in a very long time, including the men's game. When watching their matches, one can see the cast-iron belief, the absolute conviction, pouring forth. Every player is united behind a common goal, a shared objective, which they wholeheartedly feel is achievable. England Women don't just want to win the World Cup, they truly believe they can, hence a remarkable spirit and infectious morale permeating the group.

In the end, they may fall short of that target, but, along the way, they've already achieved something arguably more difficult: a thorough restoration of pride to the national game, and an effective quelling of the scepticism native to England fandom. For so long, the men's national team has failed to meet expectations, falling out of major competitions early and generally deigning to show any hunger for the game. The Lionesses, however, are easily the most likeable England team in a generation. They're undoubtedly the most enthralling and relatable, to the point where it's a joy to watch, not a chore. For once, England have mustered a team, so successful and humble, that makes your heart swell with pride, rather than break in perpetual embarrassment. And that's a welcome change.

Also a welcome change is the man heading this revival, manager Mark Sampson. An energetic Welshman, Sampson has fostered an incredible camaraderie and atmosphere within his England squad, which was noticeably missing in the final throes of Hope Powell's premiership. While undoubtedly a legend of the female game on our shores, Powell struggled in later years with selection and philosophy, and her reign became increasingly stale and strained. Sampson, on the other hand, has been a breath of fresh air, giving his players the freedom to express themselves and fulfil their collective destiny. He's given a new lease of life to women's football in our country.

Of course, the Women's Super League, bringing greater professionalism, has helped enrich the sport immensely in recent years, but wealthy clubs such as Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City placing more emphasis on the ladies game has also helped. Later this year, select Women's teams will feature in the popular FIFA video game for the first time, a tremendous testament to the improving quality and stature of the female game. Hopefully, this recognition, at long last, will encourage even more people to get involved and grow the sport across boundaries of gender.

But inequality does still percolate, unfortunately. The very best female players earn approximately £35,000 per year playing domestically in England, or roughly what Wayne Rooney makes every 20 hours. Obviously, the men's game is a commercial juggernaut, with obscene television revenue fuelling a ludicrous economy, but still, these women have been more entertaining, played with more passion, and done more to instil pride in our national game in the past three weeks than Rooney & Co have done in the past decade. Surely they should receive a fairer financial reward.

Surely Steph Houghton, the peerless Captain who reads the game with incredible acuity, should be paid more. Likewise with Jodie Taylor, the star striker who works incessantly for the team, and Lucy Bronze, the industrious right back who has scored two crucial World Cup goals. Perhaps the FA will finally get serious about financial equality in football as a result of the Lionesses historic run. We can only hope.

Yet, ultimately, the lack of pretension and egotism so often derived from excessive salaries is what makes this England Women's team so special, so unique. They're normal people who love playing football, just as we love watching it. They're heroes of humility, rather than stars of self-interest.

As Taylor says, the Lionesses “just want to make England proud of us.” And no amount of money could ever replace that fiery passion, that ceaseless yearning.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Eindhoven Joy

I initially wrote this article as an entry to the writing competition of a well-known football magazine. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful. However, as a result, I'm now able to share it with everybody, hence the rather strange timing. The article focuses on my long-distance relationship with PSV, and aims to provide an insight into how I watch games and follow the team from afar. The club's thumping 4-0 victory over rivals Ajax in September 2013 provides the backdrop to an emotional story which I hope you'll enjoy. 

Park Ji-Sung, a returning hero, raced through on goal. All around, gleeful hordes of PSV fans leapt to their feet in expectation. I did the same, clad in pyjama bottoms and crammed into the box room of a Merseyside council house. In a frenzy, I managed to tilt the lid of my laptop, clarifying the image beamed from Eindhoven. Park jinked, shimmied, wriggled onward to a tense confrontation with the opposing 'keeper. He threw in one more fade, just as my eyes were about to bulge, before rolling home a fourth goal. A killer goal. A crowning memento to a virtuoso performance.

It was the moment we awaited all week, all month, all year. The moment when all nerves evaporated, all doubt seeped away, all fear was submerged in a sea of empowering relief. True exaltation is rarely derived from beating a near enemy, but the sense of catharsis is highly-addictive. Park's goal, the fourth unanswered by a flailing Ajax side, afforded release after hours of anxiety. When that ball nestled in the sagging net, we were safe at long last. Safe to exhale without the world caving in; safe to close eyes, drop shoulders, pump fists; safe to smile in the glow of derby day success.  

But why should it all matter to a teenage lad from Wirral? How does a Brit become entangled in the world of Dutch football? Well, it's a rather quaint story; my affection for the sport, nurtured on the terraces of Prenton Park, morphing into fascination with the different football cultures dotting our globe. Whilst watching my beloved Tranmere from the Kop, I learnt to appreciate this fine game; learnt of its players and managers and rivalries; learnt an extensive vocabulary of four-letter obscenities. But I always wanted more. There was a missing X Factor to my sporting allegiance; an elusive intangible needed to ensure contentment. I began searching for it overseas.

After midnight on a warm spring day in 2004, I found the missing link whilst channel-surfing on my small bedroom TV. The usual assortment of late-night dross awaited; the lurid quiz shows and sign zone repeats of Murder, She Wrote. But my attention was eventually held by the gloriously-named Dutch Game of the Week on Channel 5. Although I was initially oblivious, this was a weekly re-run, in entire ninety-minute form, of a top Eredivisie fixture!

I cherish that first episode. It was a night match at the Philips Stadion. PSV Eindhoven versus FC Twente Enschede. Saturday 14th February, 2004. Saint Valentine's Day. The whole occasion was so evocative. I was enthralled by a capacity crowd which looked so cold, dressed in dark coats with hats and scarves aplenty. The commentary was classic, describing insatiable football and introducing hallowed names like Bouma and Afellay; Van Bommel and Vogel; Robben and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.

After ninety-plus minutes of absorbing fixation, the game remained goalless. In a blurry haste, PSV whooshed the ball about the pitch one last time. It fell precariously in the Twente penalty area where, with a desperate-yet-shrewd flick, my first PSV hero gobbled it up. Mateja Kežman won the game, sparking sheer delirium in wintry Eindhoven. As he wheeled away in timeless celebration, unleashing a detailed portrayal of Jesus Christ on his undershirt, I was won-over for life. I was up, celebrating with all the might a ten-year-old can muster at 3am. It was a dream-like moment which still makes the hairs stand on-end.

Since, my interest in PSV has grown exponentially. I've watched hundreds of matches, celebrated four league titles, bought a wide array of largely useless merchandise, and consumed the rich history in films and books.

One of my earliest challenges was understanding the hostile rivalry with Ajax, a fundamental part of the PSV experience. I researched for hours, gaining an appreciation for both teams and the cities they so distinctively represent. Ajax and PSV are the two biggest clubs in football's most artistic nation. They've won the most, with just 13 of 58 Eredivisie seasons producing a champion located outside Amsterdam or Eindhoven. Indeed, the enmity between Ajax and PSV is an extension of the social differences which polarise those contrasting conurbations. Amsterdam basks in the glow of public attention, with tourists flocking to sample its unashamed liberalism and rustic culture. Eindhoven, meanwhile, works hard in the background, providing the means for Dutch sustainability with thriving academia and relentless innovation.

In the international consciousness, Amsterdam is lauded. Eindhoven is rarely acknowledged.

Naturally, this dichotomy extends to sport; the wider world assuming that Dutch football is monopolised by Ajax and their sophisticated Totaalvoetbal. This is largely inaccurate, but giddy Amsterdammers like to tease their enemies by feeding such mythology. A sense of injustice percolates amongst PSV fans, who respond by identifying firmly with their North Brabantian heritage and backing their team with greater gusto. We call ourselves Boeren - or farmers - in prideful, knowing rebellion against outside perceptions.

The all-conquering PSV is a vehicle for civic pride, and fans yearn for the team to be shaped in their own image.

In Eindhoven, it's not enough for PSV to merely beat Ajax. They must do so by honouring the clubs unique values; by staying true to its moral fabric; by upholding as superior the resolve of Eindhoven against Amsterdam ebullience.

When PSV and Ajax meet, it's the focal point of a season otherwise played-out at sparse stadiums in Breda and Nijmegen and Leeuwarden. It's the ultimate test for a squad of players accustomed to winning with relative ease. It's the biggest show in town.

The featured encounter was particularly gargantuan. Phillip Cocu and Frank de Boer, the best of friends who served together with such distinction for Barcelona and Oranje, were to coach against one another in the kind of sexy match-up which makes football hipsters drool. Ajax, three-time defending Dutch champions, traveled to Eindhoven amid an indifferent start. PSV, early pace-setters in Holland, hoped to regain traction following a poor spell. The loss of Georginio Wijnaldum and Karim Rekik to injury didn't help nerves amongst PSV fans, who struggled to sleep on the eve of a definitive game.

I awoke with a cloudy head and frail stomach on derby day. After splashing my face with water and plucking an old PSV shirt from the wardrobe, I fired-up my laptop and quickly requested Firefox, the only web browser which doesn't freeze in a stew of its own inertia when presented with a football stream. Indeed, that's how I watch PSV games: by navigating the darkened back-alleys of Cyberspace in search of any website furnished with a decent link.

A prolonged joust with extreme pop-ups preceded my settling in to watch the match. By the time I regained composure, Ajax had an early measure of control, initiating play and relying on the wriggling dynamism of Siem De Jong and Bojan Krkić. Conversely, PSV looked dangerous on the counter, with Ola Toivonen and Tim Matavž spurning great chances, and hot-shot winger Memphis Depay also going close.

In a manner habitually descriptive of big games, neither team could find a cutting edge, leaving this pulsating clash goalless at the break.

I wasn't sure my stomach would hold-up.

But then came the barrage.

A flurry of four goals in fifteen minutes left me delirious, left PSV top of the league, left Ajax in ruins. The blitzkrieg began when Ajax keeper Kenneth Vermeer slapped weakly at a Depay cross, affording Matavž an opportunity to bundle home in typical fashion.

Then, a fast breakaway, initiated by the sagacious Park, liberated Jetro Willems, who dipped inside before bending a lovely shot over and around a flailing Vermeer for an immediate second.

The Philips Stadion erupted in joyous disbelief. I sunk to my knees, almost showering in the glory.

PSV weren't finished! Just seven minutes later, Park retrieved a long pass near the touchline and, in timeless mastery of touch and tempo, cut the ball back for an on-rushing Oscar Hiljemark, who whipped a scything shot into the roof of Vermeer's net.

Ajax were broken, bewildered, beaten out of shape like a cheap suit from Matalan.

From amid a caldron of Dutch delight, Park emerged free on goal soon after, scampering after a Matavž flick-on. Ever willing, Park surged on. The frenzied atmosphere enveloped him. He roamed in the lush green acreage, teasing Vermeer before steering home the clinching goal of this epochal destruction.

We leapt and bounced and cheered, celebrating long into the night a most satisfying victory.

Relief followed, allowing fans to smile of their own accord. Then, of course, the dust settles. The warming events of a passing weekend become just memories, mere pictures in a scrapbook. This vibrant world spins onward to another week, another game, another derby.

Again, we'll be nervous, fearful, expectant. But maybe, just maybe, we might win another one.  

Such hope is the essence of football fandom. It's what brightens our lives, colours our reminiscence, supports our progress.

It's what we live for.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Causes and Art of Time-Wasting in Football

We've all felt the agony of time-wasting in football. Our team is down, chasing an equaliser in the dying embers of a vital league game, only to have any semblance of momentum thwarted by the delay tactics of infuriating gamesmanship. The opposing full-backs practically crawl to take throw-ins; their manger deploys a defender in place of a centre-forward; and valuable time seeps away, dragging residual hope with it. We scream and plead and thrash about, livid at the injustice of it all. Is this really what our game has become? 

Apparently so. According to official FIFA statistics, the average match at the current World Cup contains just 55.1 minutes of actual live play. The remaining 34.9 minutes are seemingly reserved for a bouts of biting, cynical substitutions, and an ungodly amount of injuries. Here, we see, more than ever, the importance placed upon winning in this modern football age. We now have a sport swilling in money; a sport which provides a pedestal from which an array of nefarious elements can expound their ideology. Thus, the motivating factors which drive a team to succeed are changing. Now, few want to win for the natural, human jubilation it creates. Rather, they want to win just so a self-congratulatory tweet can be drafted; just so a few more shirts can be sold; just so the incongruous sponsors will stay onside. 

In this hyper-charged football era, which exist in a rather contrived bubble of fantasy finance and pathetic pomposity, it's barely acceptable to lose. The commercial and economic consequences are deemed too dire; the ramifications on team reputation too embarrassing. Now, the world of football resembles a beauty pageant where, through intricate "social media strategies" and aggressive "marketing campaigns," every club proclaims perfection. Therefore, any event which may sully this artificial pretence - such as (shock horror!) a defeat - is feared with rare intensity.

Accordingly, whenever a team is presented with the merest opportunity to win, they use every tool in the arsenal to get over the line. 

In this regard, the most prominent weapon, indeed the Route 1 of Footballing Gamesmanship, is the late substitution, which has become a defining symbol of this World Cup. Now, we're seeing a rise in mangers actively saving a substitution with the expressed aim of wasting time should his team hold a late lead, almost akin to an NFL timeout! Typically, he will elect to replace the player stationed furthest away from the touchline who, invariably, will proceed to shake the hand of every man, woman and child within a two-mile radius (including the referee, for whom nobody cares except in such situations of boundless tension) before limping and hobbling off the pitch.

In a novel twist, Costa Rica have even taken to replacing captain Bryan Ruiz in recent games, just so he can pass the armband onto his goalkeeper and drain an extra minute from the clock.

The time-honoured method of containing the ball near the corner flag is still a prominent feature of football, but it has been joined and perhaps eclipsed in popularity by goalkeepers taking an absolute eternity to take goal-kicks and collapsing to the floor to punctuate even the merest touch of the ball; ball boys feigning insouciance when visiting teams require assistance; and teams, especially Greece, playing the most mind-numbingly banal brand of conservation football imaginable. 

Moreover, we're seeing an exponential increase in players suffering from "convenient cramp," which, again, allows vital seconds to dwindle in the gruesome pursuit of victory. Similarly, many players are fine with completely fabricating an injury in order to leave the field on a stretcher which, of course, takes at least five minutes to be assembled, transported and loaded with said individual.

Quite incredibly, all of this is now totally acceptable in football. How? I have no idea.

What I do know, however, is that things must change. We can't go on watching this septic, petulant charade of strategy. We can't go on paying for 90 minutes of entertainment, only to get 55.1. We can't go on ignoring the problems which are so visible.

Of course, I'd love to eliminate the corporate structures which so influence the football environment and, by extension, this accompanying cynicism, but instinct tells me it's too late for that. In most parts, the soul of this game has long been lost, drowned in an ocean of big business and forced beautification. 

In the mainstream, we have little option but to adapt the current model, no matter how unrecognisable it has become. Accordingly, I believe that two rules must be brought into effect to redress the balance and improve the honour and spirit of football. 

Firstly, we should reduce the number of permissible substitutions per game to two, in order to cut down on managers deploying them strategically to waste time. Nowadays, we're routinely told that modern footballers are fitter than at any stage in human history. So, why do we need three substitutions per game? 

Finally, football should seriously consider introducing an independent time-keeper. To an outside viewer, the way football legislates time during a match must look decidedly comical. No matter what transpires, the clock never stops! Even if a player is injured, a referee falls over, or a streaker leaps from the grandstand to interrupt play, time marches on unabated. Sure, the fourth official supposedly adds the collective time for stoppages and displays it on his large neon board but, as has been demonstrated on numerous occasions during this tournament, that is at best an informed estimation. We expect one guy to keep abreast of how long a game has spent dormant, all whilst deflecting abuse from each dugout, singing into his weird headset microphone, and generally trying not to be killed? Please, be serious. 

We need an independent time-keeper who stops the clock every time the ball goes out of play. We need to limit the number of substitutions so managers cannot abuse the system. We need to get real. Perhaps, if we tackle these problems rather than burying our heads in the sand, these multi-million pound players will actually do a full days work, rather than half. 

Just a suggestion.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Classy Oscar Transforms Brazil

Many millions of words and tweets and column inches will extol the virtues of Neymar following his virtuoso display which sparked a pulsating World Cup into life, and rightly so. The poster boy rose to the occasion with a sensual performance of electric imagination, scoring two goals which elevated his yearning homeland from a worrisome start to dramatic conclusion. But, without the joyful optimism and steely determination of Oscar, his midfield fulcrum, Neymar and Brazil would be weeping tonight. The Chelsea maestro was unfazed by the searing pressure, and set about altering the mood of an entire nation with breathless elegance. Without the gentle probing and relentless stoicism of Oscar, this tournament would have begun in agony for Brazil. If Neymar was the saviour, Oscar was his dutiful enabler.

At the best of times, it can be difficult for a player to replicate club form when playing for the national team, and that pressure is intensified immeasurably for a Brazilian playing in the sacrosanct yellow on Opening Night of a home World Cup. However, Oscar, perhaps more than any player on the field against Croatia, appeared to thrive in the hottest of conditions; his an effective performance of such ease as to be descriptive of any other game, at any other time, in any other nation. To Oscar, it's just football. Don't worry about external pressure or conjecture or hype; just give him the ball and let the game be transformed from one of incoherent meanderings to one of childlike spontaneity.

When Brazil most needed bold characters and clear minds, Oscar stepped forward, playing a varied and pivotal role in two goals before scoring one all of his own. It was truly inspirational.

In the coming days, you'll read plenty of prose on how the rampaging dynamism of Neymar hauled Brazil back from a rather jolting start and, to a certain extent, such eulogies will be correct. After all, the guy fashioned an equaliser seemingly from fresh air after twenty-eight minutes, with emotions turning decidedly sour in the face of Croatian iconoclasm. But, again, it's important to comprehend the sequence of events which led to Neymar being unleashed into that quadrant of space and opportunity behind the Croats' midfield. The genesis of that attack, indeed goal, can be found in the recurring fortitude of Oscar.

For a player of just 179 centimetres and 66 kilograms, Oscar is remarkably strong and has a commanding physical presence; two domineering attributes which were evidenced in the lead-up to Brazil's crucial equaliser. Where many contemporaries would have stopped dead amid pressure, Oscar burrowed through an admittedly-weak Croatian midfield, rebutting any attempt at escape from Rakitić and Modrić, until his will became reality. After emerging victorious from a complex jumble of tackles and charges and blocks, Oscar demonstrated his other charming skill: intellect. Quickly, he had the presence of mind to shift play to Neymar, who strutted forward before bobbling a shot beyond the reach of Stipe Pletikosa and into the net.

Marvelous. Uplifting. Parity.

From there, Oscar got better and better. In a first half long on exasperation and short on quality, he produced some wonderful vignettes, with intricate dribbles and daring displays of individualism yielding opportunities for his more ponderous teammates. He jinked and stroked the ball about with a calmness, a grace, an artistry, and it was all very impressive to watch. Finally, we were seeing all of the component parts of his game come together in one performance: the poise of a playmaker matching the robust mentality and work rate of a box-to-box general. To the particular joy of British folk who delight in such things, Oscar also showcased his crossing ability, which is typically deadly.

We were left with the impression that this guy could become a complete, total, wondrous midfielder, in the truest sense of the word. That, let me tell you, is fine praise indeed.

Yet, in the second half, Oscar managed to take his performance, and that of his team, to a different level. Mastering a wide right berth seemingly created to showcase his boundless versatility, Oscar was an ever-present danger, a thorn in the Croatian's side. Even when his more flamboyant skills and more risky passages of play were unsuccessful, the simmering starlet came back for more, with a bubbly energy football fans so admire. He kept probing, scheming, asking the question.

Inevitably, Croatia buckled. On sixty-nine minutes, Oscar received the ball in a rather benign position on the right flank, marshalled by two or three red-and-white shirts. But, in his rather magical and inimitable manner, he managed to navigate a route through. The reward for his brazen incision? A Brazil penalty, once Fred, the recipient of his imaginative pass, was tugged to the floor by Dejan Lovren. Neymar did the rest, rather unconvincingly.

Now, Oscar felt comfortable. Now, Oscar felt free. Now, Oscar turned on the style. On seventy-five minutes, he made Ivica Olić look thoroughly stupid, with a sway of the hips and a succulent flick which thrilled the watching masses. Indeed, in this often attritional opening salvo, it was the most Brazilian sequence of play we witnessed all night; a small taste of the rhythmic samba style so lauded in tournament previews. It was simply gorgeous.

In certain matches, your discussion with friends and family will include the line “he deserves a goal,” and that was undoubtedly true of Oscar on this most poetic of occasions. The little guy ran the show, providing ammunition for Neymar, his more regal master, and providing the means for Brazilian survival. Therefore, it was immensely satisfying, even for the neutral viewer, to see him pounce on a loose ball some forty yards from goal in the dying embers of stoppage time, and just run for the hills. Within ten seconds, he turned a dangerous Croatian attack into blind Brazilian jubilation, with a sauntering display of cut-throat, counter-attacking magnificence.

The crowning goal, a toe-poked effort which Pletikosa should perhaps have stopped, was fittingly emblematic of the wee magician; his relentless optimism, incessant forward-thinking and rapid improvisation all on show for a watching world to see.

Tonight, Neymar will shower in the praise of a billion tongues, but let's not forget the wizard patrolling behind him. In this prized victory for Brazil, Oscar was much more than influential. He carried the fight with a fine blend of bravery and a skill which was fascinating to watch. He dug deep to help his team and his nation in an hour of need. He shone on the brightest stage.

Now, as fans, we can only hope his blistering start is a harbinger of things to come in this most intriguing tournament.   

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Day I Saw Neymar & Brazil Play Live

Brazil-mania is ubiquitous at present. Everywhere you turn, there are posters and magazines and essays and television documentaries dedicated to lauding, in fervent terms, this most unique nation in it's hour of greatest attention. Similarly, Neymar, the icon leading Brazil into a home World Cup, has become a magnet of interest. The eyes of a watching world are upon him, upon his country. I want to add my voice to the excited chorus and, accordingly, will regale you with stories from the day I saw Neymar and Brazil play live. Enjoy.

Neymar, a player I've thankfully seen live.
Every little kid dreams of one day watching the famed Brazilian football team. Every respectable adult yearns to one day witness The Olympic Games in their own nation. Every giddy teenager invests time and love in a host of role models, and wishes to one day set eyes upon them in real life. On Sunday 29th July, 2012, I achieved all three by watching the phenomenal Neymar, in the sacrosanct yellow shirt, play in the football tournament of our home Olympics. It was a sensational experience.

The idea to watch some Olympic football at Old Trafford was hatched by a group of family, friends and myself months in advance; the prospect of watching a full-strength Brazil side practically on one's doorstep too much to ignore. When the day finally arrived, we made an early start, waking at 7.15 am and departing for the train an hour later. Our ride aboard the 08.33 from Bromborough to Liverpool Lime Street was filled with discussion about the day ahead; of particular interest, our fascination with watching two games in one day!

But watch we would, the comparative exploits and tribulations of Egypt and New Zealand, Brazil and Belarus.

The excitement grew quickly.

Our arrival at Lime Street made clear the power and pull of sport and spectacle. A lot of people were out early, eager to grasp this unique opportunity. In the modern realm, Brazil have morphed into something of a Harlem Globetrotter-esque model of attention, playing lucrative friendlies throughout the world in front of adoring fans and excitable admirers. Finally, they came to our neck of the woods, bringing out fans bedecked in the yellow, blue and green of class.

Much had been made about Britain's ability to deal with the additional burden on public transport throughout the Games, but despite a packed train devoid of air, our journey was brisk and timely. Once finally arrived, we walked the wet and dank streets of Manchester, taking in the susurrus of exhilaration, the blend of different cultures, the teasing glimpses of Old Trafford protruding between houses. Along the route, stalls attempting to sell all manner of memorabilia reigned supreme. I was eager for a fitting souvenir by which to remember the occasion, but nonetheless balked at the £8 asking price for a Brazil scarf!

After stopping to purchase an official programme, we rejoined the surging splodge of humanity cascading down towards the stadium. There was a buzz of conversation, an excited anticipation, a pervading sense that we were part of something special. I made sure to take it all in, knowing that an occasion as rare wasn't likely to resurface any time soon.

Nearer to the ground, we experienced our first encounter with poor Olympic organisation. In an attempt to nullify the threat of bombs or guns or knives surfacing, the organisers insisted that each and every attendee empty all personal possessions into clear plastic bags. Such a requirement was annoying, time-consuming and, ultimately, pointless, for said bag was subsequently left unchecked! We were, however, frisked and watched and questioned, before finally being granted permission to scan tickets and climb the steps towards the green pasture of our attention.

We emerged into the daylight, into the Olympics, into the famous Stretford End. Ours was a sensational view, unimpeded and tinged with dramatic potential. It was a thrill to be situated in a stand of such profound stature in the pantheon of sport. We were part of the Stretford End. We were part of the building crowd. We were part of a Brazil match.

As the players of New Zealand and Egypt warmed-up below us on the immaculate green carpet, my feeling of satisfaction built. People from all manner of nations, all walks of life and all levels of dedication flocked into Old Trafford, plastic bags in hand.

The sense of occasion built.

For starter in this gourmet, two-course meal, we were treated to the technicality of Egypt against the athleticism of New Zealand. I was intrigued to see what influence Bob Bradley had managed to impose on the Egyptian approach and mentality. I was similarly intrigued to see what New Zealand had to offer on this massive stage. I was completely intrigued.

In truth, the game meandered a little, with tit-for-tat football daring us to fall asleep in public. The highlight was probably seeing Mohamed Salah perform with typical energy for Egypt, who scored late to force a 1-1 draw. It was a clean-spirited game, but one could sense an urging of the “real footballers” to arrive for our entertainment. We yearned for Brazil.

Rather than collect our belongings to leave after the full-time whistle, we instead stretched-out ready for a few more hours of football. Rather than worrying about negotiating the horrendous MetroLink, we instead put it on the back burner for later on. Rather than heading home, we instead prepared to witness Neymar and Brazil.

This alien concept of two games on one day, in one place, proved incredibly satisfying.

The groundstaff reset the stadium as if this was an entirely different match on an entirely different day. The fans came flocking in for Brazil, perhaps putting an additional 4,500 onto the attendance figure. There was a fair number of native Brazilians amongst the influx, adding colour, verve, noise and energy to the day. Everyone was out for a fun time. It was exceedingly pleasant.

Then, we saw him. At twenty years of age and playing his football for Santos in Brazil, Neymar, at that time, took on an almost mythical quality to British fans. Rather like the Lock Ness Monster, we heard of his exploits from sagacious others, but weren't entirely sure if something so magical could actually exist in reality! We had played with Neymar in video games, watched him via dodgy Internet streams, and read endlessly about his assumption of Pele's mantle, but never really got close to him.

On this fine day, all that would change. We were consumed by Neymarmania.

However, the exuberantly-haired bastion of magnificence was but the icing on the Brazilian cake. They brought with them a star-encrusted squad yielding giddy excitement: vivacious Marcelo, sagacious Juan, imperious Thiago Silva, energetic Fabio, operative Sandro, sizzling Oscar, probing Ganso, explosive Hulk, cosmopolitan Alexandre Pato, and Neymar. He needs no superlative.

It was a delightful vignette of Brazilian football. It was a fascinating display of modern sporting excellence. It was truly special.

The distant strains of both national anthems relented into the whooshing vocal appreciation of their fans. The ground roared and swayed to the thunderous imploring of “Bra-sil! Bra-sil! Bra-sil!”

It was loud. It was eclectic. It was a taste of South America.

Amid such a rare atmosphere, we also received a taste of the footballing style so synonymous and, indeed analogous, with the Samba culture, as Brazil stroked the ball around with ease and imagination. The nimble, probing athleticism of Oscar and Ganso and Neymar was matched only by the graceful ticking of Sandro and Pato and Hulk. Even in this relatively meaningless Olympic tournament, Brazil rose to the occasion, making this game of intricate complexity look so simple. I can pay no greater compliment.

However, maybe they were too relaxed, too confident, too laid back because, ignoring the meticulously-written script, Belarus had the brazen temerity to take the lead! That very concept may shock readers, but not as much as the actual manner in which their opening goal was scored. It was a smooth and beautiful goal, with it's genesis as an exquisite ball over-the-top controlled poignantly on the chest of a Belarussian winger. A side-foot out wide and a neat exchange of passes lead to a wicked cross near the far post, attacked, as it was, with a phenomenal header into the side-netting of Neto's net. A reward for their bravery, a token of their skill, a moment of their lives, this goal paved the way for thoughts of a major Belarussian giant-killing.

But said Giant did not panic. Brazil, in control of thought and context, recognised that they've before experienced such adversity; that, as the grandest scalp in world football, they've received opposition and challenge unlike most nations. Thus did Neymar begin to incrementally increase the tempo, making his side at once more tantalizing.

At such a renewed tempo, it didn't take much intensive probing to pick the amateur lock of Belarus. In actuality, it took one inspired moment of instinctive movement, and one compatible cross from wide, to restore order to the world; the former from Pato conducive with the latter from Neymar. The resulting downward header slithered under the goal-keeper for an immediate equaliser. Such is the simplicity of it all when you have skill and talent.

With that talent flowing and spewing out more readily, Belarus found themselves in a thankless position. From this point on, they needed to give absolutely all they had, needed to strain every sinew, needed to chase with all determination, just to keep it close. Faced with a far mightier Goliath, David was forced to conserve and attempt to avoid embarrassment.

Neymar didn't help that cause. Midway through the half, this majestic magician exploded from a leisurely pace to produce two amazing pieces of skill. A composed and dazzling overhead flick and control was eclipsed only by a stupendous Maradona Turn moments later, as Neymar, evading the capture of three bamboozled Belarusians, illuminated Britain.

Somehow, the men of the former Soviet Union held out, and went in at half-time as equals to Brazil; at least in terms of scoreline, if not footballing ability.

The second half of the second game was an exercise in force of conviction. Essentially, Brazil had dominion and autonomy over the entire outcome of this game; it was there for them to power emphatically to a finish, or coast smoothly to a win. Streaming forwards towards the goal beneath us, they decided upon a pragmatically-sound amalgamation of both, causing Belarus all manner of problems whilst conserving and recycling energy for greater tasks ahead.

Watching Neymar dictate and probe at close quarters was a true joy. A legitimate superstar, he has a measured mystique to all that he does, a honed aura of class about his being, and a defined wizardry to his behaviour. Like a showcase act, he ran and coaxed and teased towards the Stretford End of Manchester. With each run of complex and intricate technique, and with every wave of imagination, one felt that we were a step closer to witnessing something huge.

What Neymar did next had a once-in-a-lifetime feel. It was a moment that one can invoke in future pub debates and family discussions; a certifiable “I was there when...” kind of scenario. It was predicated on an initial tumbling foul from a Belarussian on Hulk, resulting in a free-kick twenty yards from goal, in a central position. A whooosh sound of excitement echoed around the stadium; the noise of the footballing fraternity anticipating a Neymar moment. Our Neymar moment.

He placed the ball down. He stepped back, drew breath, steadied himself with trademark hair flickering gently in the breeze of hope. Lunging steps of suave sophistication formed Neymar's run-up, before he whipped the ball with utter relaxation. As if imparted with the force of legend, the ball adhered to His plan, soaring and swerving with ferocious glee into the dying embers of the top corner.

Sixty-six thousand fans shot from their seats, howling in complete disbelief, and in genuine appreciation of a prodigious talent. We were left gobsmacked by Neymar. Just how we dreamed it the night before.

He had delivered exactly what we came to see.

Remarkably, he was not finished there! Rather, this first taste of adoration from football's founding land served only to fuel his passion, whet his appetite, increase his sharpness. All were evident in what the exquisite playmaker produced for Brazil's third goal. Inducing bemused reactions of great excitement, Neymar imaginatively controlled a soaring diagonal ball from Fabio with a pre-conceived, immaculate header through the legs of the Belarus right-back. Meeting the ball on the other side, he threw in a couple of burning step-overs and a Samba shimmy, splitting the remaining defensive residue in half. A further body swerve was compounded by a deft, unbelievable heeled pass into the path of an intelligent run from Oscar. In awe, we watched as the Chelsea man swooshed inside and powered home high into the roof of the net for a sublime goal. I was left utterly astonished by the skill and execution of these little Brazilians.

In the realm of history, and in my mind, this will be maintained as a special day. The day when I watched the mercurial Neymar play live. The day when I enjoyed firsthand the football of Brazil. The day when I went to the Olympics in my home country.

It was pure magic.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sergio Ramos, The Entertaining Matador

Sergio Ramos celebrates his crucial equaliser.

When Sergio Ramos sets his mind on a particular goal, he becomes an unstoppable force. The indomitable defender blocks everything else from his mind, as if transported into an almost traumatic state of single-minded determination. He abandons all care for opponents, reputations or looming suspensions. He unleashes a rare competitive instinct. He lets it all hang out, and leaves it all on the field. One can almost see the desire bubbling underneath his skin; the ferocious will to win making him a study in emotive yearning. In an age where footballers become fixated with cars and cash and watches and women, Sergio Ramos cares only for winning. He's a welcome throwback.

Fortunately for Iker Casillas, Carlo Ancelotti and Madridistas around the globe, Sergio focused on the most fabled grail this year: La Décima. A pantheon of greats have tried and failed to satisfy Real's thirst for that ultimate crown, but few possessed the drive of Ramos. The all-important equaliser, propelled goalward by his sweat-soaked brow in the waning minutes of a most attritional final, was a fitting microcosm: Sergio eyeing an opportunity and committing every resource within his power to making it count. Nothing on Planet Earth was stopping him from scoring that goal. He bustled and barged and hurtled through the air, intent on plundering home when Real needed him most. Arguably, his greatest skill is in making those grim, gruesome, grueling moments of sporting accomplishment look so easy, so routine, so cool.

I'm yet to see a more elegant warhorse.

That momentous goal will be preserved in the annals of Real history, but Ramos' overall performance will live longer in the memory. It's often said that true legends rise to the occasion, make a difference on the big stage, perform when the chips are down. In Lisbon, Sergio Ramos didn't so much acknowledge these statements as re-define them. Like a courageous Braveheart, he rolled-up those white sleeves and thoroughly dominated  club football's defining showcase. He won every header, made interceptions which defied belief, and patrolled the Real backline with regal supremacy. The guy was immense.

Rarely have I encountered a player endowed with such sensitive perception of how a game is developing; with such clear understanding of what his team needs and exactly when; with such ability to alter the unfurling narratives of football.

For all intents and purposes, Real were down and out. Diego Simeone's trademark brand of abrasive football, coupled with a rare moment of fatal indecision from Iker Casillas, hauled Atlético to within seconds of victory. The burden of history, of expectation, of twelve fruitless years on the grandest stage, added weight to the Real jersey. They churned away, hoping for one last opportunity. Bale went close after a typical mazy run. Di Maria was lively. Marcelo provided impetus. All the while, Ramos sensed his moment, sensed the dawning hour of need. He began to initiate play, injecting a relentless tempo with raking passes and entertaining forays forward. He broke lines, daring to join play as an auxiliary midfielder. He remained optimistic.

With such gestures, such joviality, such ambition does a fighting matador lead by example. By streaking forward, Ramos conveys to teammates the urgency of a moment. By quickening play, Ramos reminds what is expected from any Real Madrid player. By instructing in demonstrative, heart-on-the-sleeve style, Ramos cajoles a desired outcome.In this instance, he was required to walk across every suspension tightrope, negotiate every hostile on-field flare-up, and screech home a 90th minute header, but he succeeded at every turn.

Sure, Ronaldo and Bale will win a majority of plaudits for adding goals to a dazzling victory but, without Sergio, the game would have ended in dull melancholy thirty minutes prior to those belated contributions. Indeed, Ramos, this spirited warrior for club and country, deserves far more recognition than he is presently accorded. Here, we have a gutsy, swashbuckling centre-half who has won 3 Liga titles, 2 Copa del Rey, 2 European Championships, 1 World Cup and 1 self-published Décima, all whilst playing his own brand of enigmatic circus football.

Surely a Ballon d'Or can't be far away?

Ramos' fingerprints decorate this latest jewel in the illustrious Real dynasty. Aside from the heroic Lisbon equaliser, he powered Madrid's progress with two sublime goals against Bayern Munich in the Semi-Final. Indeed, this season's Champions League has provided a fitting stage for such a virtuoso player to reach his peak. Sergio Ramos plays football like we think it and, accordingly, he's not short of fans. The entire world has watched in awe at his ubiquitous, life-and-death defending; his effervescent penchant for last-ditch blocks and adventurous clearances. We appreciate his enthusiasm and admire his skill. We commend his bravery and applaud his genius. We just can't get enough.

A lot of writers have showered Sergio Ramos with platitudes. Thus, a great many words accurately describe him: leader, hero, combatant.

But I can think of only one singular word which encompasses his attitude of raw passion, unbridled commitment and steely resolve.

One word.


Monday, 14 April 2014

Leo Messi and the Greatest Goal of All-Time

Leo Messi drops deeper than ever to receive the ball. Just inside the gentle arc of a congested centre-circle, he caresses a delicate five-yard pass from the metronomic Busquets. Messi turns, torments, teases. Real look laboured, weary of body and mind after eighty-six minutes of grueling frustration. Jose Mourinho, exiled to the stand after a typical outburst, can only watch in angst. Even he is powerless now.

Messi, engaged by Lassana Diarra, suddenly explodes into another realm; a realm inhabited by special people with special abilities, like dancers and poets and artists. Leo saw a masterpiece unfurl in his searing imagination, then dared to make it reality on the sacrosanct Bernabéu turf. A darting pass was knocked into Busquets, whose perpetual motion provided an outlet, a fulcrum, a catalyst for Messi's beautiful plan. In turn, the slight Argentinian, razor sharp at the peak of physical conditioning, scampered through a Madrid blockade to secure an intricate lay-off. Sergio was timelessly laconic, stroking an innocent pass which Messi made marvelous.

Now, Real were exposed. Now, panic reigned. Now, Messi burst anew past the drowsy challenges of Diarra and Alonso. He traveled with such death-defying pace as to be transformed into a hazy blur of claret-and-blue, carrying the football with subtle touches of inimitable control. For a split second, Sergio Ramos, amongst the greatest but most enigmatic of central defenders, struggled to grasp the epochal magnitude of this moment; his rushed decision to confront Messi failing to consider the sense of historical awakening slowly bathing this hallowed ground. At awe-inspiring speed, Messi delivers an abiding provocation, opening his body like any old player before darting at a sublime tangent past the helpless defender.

At this point, the Madrid institution was quacking in its boots. Here was the definitive icon of a sworn enemy painting the most riveting of portraits in their house, on their turf, against their warriors. The sense of desperation was palpable. Raul Albiol prepared himself for martyrdom with an opportunistic swipe, but Leo was hellbent on iconoclasm. In somehow fashioning an angle to bypass the flailing Albiol, stave-off the resurgent Ramos and beat a retreating Marcelo, Messi authored his own laws of motion. It's a wonder of modern science how he maintained control of that football amid such frantic attention.

As Leo burrowed into the only tranche of grass available, a worldwide audience of millions watched on in stunned disbelief, in rapturous fascination, in hope. We wanted him to complete this most stupendous of attacking moves. The startling demonstration of spell-binding ability left many stricken. I didn't so much rise to my feet as squirm endlessly on the couch. I couldn't so much scream coherent encouragement as moan achingly at the beauty of it all. My eyes bulged as Leo scythed across the penalty area. The moment was nigh.

After conceiving an idea forty yards from goal; after detonating the shackles of Diarra and reaching a gear which Alonso plainly does not possess; after skipping joyfully like a child over the hot Madridian soil; after daring Ramos and taking him to the cleaners; after surviving Albiol's jihad with supernatural ingenuity; after holding them all at bay in that gory moment before glory, Lionel Messi was faced by the greatest goalkeeper of a modern football age. Ultimately, Casillas was similarly helpless, lurching in despair as little Leo brushed nonchalantly past him at an angle unreachable by mere mortals.

The English language contains no word to accurately describe how Messi finished his magnum opus. It wasn't a flick or a kick or even a shot. Leo almost kissed the ball with his dainty right foot, whispering as it trickled home. With nine touches of the football, Messi traveled forty yards, beat five defenders, gave birth to innumerable dimensions of sporting excellence, and steered past the world's best goalkeeper his fifty-second goal of a remarkable season. That his virtuoso performance occurred during the first leg of a tense Champions League Semi-Final hardly seemed to matter. The Bernabéu was stunned, watching in muted astonishment the gleeful celebrations of a blessed maverick. All around the penalty area, Real bodies were strewn like fallen soldiers on a battlefield. One-by-one, they had been engaged, exposed and exterminated by the marauding Messi. One-by-one, they met their maker.

In the annals of football history, has a more magnificent goal ever been scored? I doubt it. Messi's magic on that fateful spring night was a mesmeric entanglement of football's most iconic moments. It was Maradona running with enchantment past Beardsley and Reid and Butcher. It was Bergkamp spinning and firing against Newcastle. It was Pelé founding a new echelon with his famous dummy against a hapless Uruguayan goalkeeper.

It was the greatest piece of athletic amphitheater I've ever witnessed.

This article was written by Ryan Ferguson especially for the Blog to Lisbon competition. Details can be found here.