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Review – The Wenger Revolution (Twenty Years Of Arsenal)

November 28, 2016 in Opinion

In September 1996 a Frenchman, so little known in English football that fans asked ‘Arsene Who?’, walked into Arsenal.

In his subsequent 20 years as manager, he transformed the club from ‘Boring Arsenal’ to a worldwide phenomenon.

A total renovation of the training, stadium, style, economics, diet and the attraction of a global audience has taken place under Wenger’s stewardship.

This fascinating era is chronicled in ‘The Wenger Revolution’ with distinctive photographs taken from inside the inner sanctum of the club by official Arsenal photographer Stuart MacFarlane while award-winning journalist and long-time supporter Amy Lawrence introduces each section to set the scene.

‘Arsene Who?’

When Wenger arrived from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, the vast majority of the football public, Arsenal supporters and many of the players were sceptical. Could a foreign manager succeed in England?

Although he was new to almost everyone in the English game, Wenger, 46 at the time, didn’t see himself as a novice. His intellectual rigour, workaholic determination and human touch gave him the value of using his own ideas with an open mind.

“I could understand my acceptance would depend upon that mix,” he says in the book. “I didn’t want to compromise what I thought was important in order to push through the elements needed for the success. I wanted to adapt to the local culture.”

That manifested itself in the way the team evolved. By using English players with a never-say-die attitude like Tony Adams and Steve Bould, as well as the technical refinement that arrived with the likes of Patrick Vieira and Marc Overmars, Wenger’s mix came to fruition.

The most surprising thing for many people when they look back at Wenger’s first full campaign in England, was how quickly the team’s style came together.

Wenger’s ability to identify and recruit outstanding talent was paramount in them winning the double in the 1997-98 season. That general air of scepticism about the manager soon evaporated.

Unbeatable 

“You work in a job where you never really know how good you are, but I didn’t think you can do more than go a whole season undefeated. To realise that life dream is a bit frightening, but it didn’t kill my hunger.”

To complete an unbeaten season at the highest level was an ambition Wenger had harboured for many years.

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

During the 2002-03 season, Arsenal were the dominant force in the early stages. However, with his team going strong in autumn, Wenger told journalists in a pre-match press conference that his team could go a season unbeaten. “It is not impossible,” he said.

However, Arsenal lurched suddenly into a first defeat of the campaign, and the critics who thought Wenger was arrogant and disrespectful relished that loss.

After missing out on the Premier League title that season, Arsenal rallied the following year and dominated the league. Their 2-2 draw at arch-rivals Tottenham ensured they won the league and with four games to go, Wenger’s dream was near reality.

Here was the chance to make history. “Make yourself immortal,” Wenger told his players. The players didn’t miss their chance.

Trailing at half-time to already relegated Leicester City in the last game of the season, the pressure was on. The team’s outstanding will-to-win, and the class of some of its most talented components – Thierry Henry who scored the equaliser and Vieira and Bergkamp who combined for the winner – made the difference.

Wenger does not think anyone will be able to emulate the class of 03-04 as the competition is much harder, but Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ seized their moment. His controversial prediction that it was possible, mocked at the time, became a beautiful truth.

Regrets 

Wenger is one of a handful of managers who can be said to have made a truly lasting impression on the Premier League.

Throughout his time at Arsenal, Wenger has revolutionised the club. With the Frenchman at the helm, they have moved from Highbury to the Emirates, built a new training ground at London Colney whilst also winning numerous of trophies, including three Premier League titles and six FA Cups.

(Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

But despite the many highs Wenger has experienced, he has also suffered much heartbreak. According to the Frenchman, the Champions League final defeat in Paris against Barcelona in 2006 will forever hurt him.

“It is my biggest regret,” he says. “I feel there was not much in it. The regret on the night is that we could not get the second goal.

“Thierry Henry, who has been magic for our club, had the opportunity to do that. We were 13 minutes away from winning the biggest trophy. Maybe I will have to die with that but it will still hurt.”

Ambitions 

Wenger typifies longevity and loyalty. Despite getting offers from the biggest clubs in the world such as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, he has stayed put.

When trophies were hard to come by after the stadium move and competition was harder due to the influx of money put into the Premier League, Wenger remained loyal and consistently got Arsenal into the Champions League each year.

Mesut Ozil reading The Wenger Revolution book

Yet he was not delivering the trophies that Arsenal fans craved, and as the voices of dissent grew louder, the FA Cup win against Hull City at Wembley in 2014, was a huge moment in the club’s history.

“Winning this FA Cup was an important moment in the life of this team. When it comes after a long time it sometimes comes with suffering. We had such a feeling of relief and happiness,” Wenger said.

After back-to-back FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015, Wenger’s hunger for winning trophies hasn’t diminished.

He now has a team capable of challenging the big guns and he insists his commitment to the club is still the same as when he first started.

“The club has grown a lot. I am still completely committed to it every day. I am today more nervous, more keen, to win the league than when I arrived here.”

Must-buy

The book achieves what it sets out to do. With the words of Lawrence and the images of MacFarlane, ‘The Wenger Revolution’ is a must-buy for Arsenal fans – but even non-Gooners will find it fascinating.

The book’s 11 chapters each focus on a different theme or period at Arsenal under Wenger. From his arrival to the stadium move to his opinions of current and former players, the book recounts every minor detail of Wenger’s reign.

His vision for Arsenal was in place when he first arrived, and since then the club has gone on a remarkable journey and achieved great feats. Much of this would not have been possible without the determination and ambition of one man: Arsene Wenger.

The Wenger Revolution (Twenty Years Of Arsenal) is available via Amazon for £20.00. Featured image by Stuart MacFarlane 

Q&A With Di Stéfano author Ian Hawkey

November 23, 2016 in Interviews

Ian Hawkey has recently published his second book, Di Stéfano, following the critical success of his debut outing Feet of the Chameleon. 

Elephant Sport caught up with the esteemed author and journalist to talk about the book.

First of all, congratulations on writing one of the best sports books of the year. How different was the writing process of this in comparison to your debut book, Feet of the Chameleon?

The subjects were very different. Feet of the Chameleon was very wide-ranging, covering a continent, Africa, and well over a century of football there, so in some ways I had to be more selective from the start in that.

A biography is a different beast, although Alfredo Di Stéfano led such a full, varied and fascinating life that I also ended up with more material than there was space for.

That’s a good position to be in, in many ways, of course, but it means one of the challenges is to decide what’s most relevant to the way the man was, his circumstances, his influences, his habits, while giving the right weight to his achievements, which were phenomenal.

You are the first person to publish a book on Alfredo di Stéfano in English. Does that come with a lot of pressure? To get his story right; to enlighten a bigger audience?

I certainly thought there was a gap, in that a book on Alfredo Di Stéfano didn’t exist in English.

He is arguably the greatest individual in the world’s most popular sport, and the other candidates for that status have all been written about extensively in books in English (Pele, Johann Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi).

As for pressure, any biographer – and every journalist, I hope – feels a duty to represent their subject fairly, so that’s a pressure in a way, but the process of discovery is very rewarding.

If you could pinpoint one exact moment where you thought “I need to write about Di Stéfano,” what was it?

I suppose it was when I first met him. I was working in Spain, covering Real Madrid a lot and, although he was in his 70s, he still had a huge influence on the club because he had lifted it to greatness, and set standards that every generation since of Madrid players, coaches and fans measure the club by.

He was the honorary president in those years, and though he wasn’t always that approachable, he was fascinating to talk to, and very in touch with modern football.

He had done so much to shape it, I soon realised, which drove me towards the idea of an in-depth book about him. Happily, Ebury, my publisher, shared that idea.

In the book, we learn about Di Stéfano almost as a celebrity – one of football’s first. The parties he held at his house were one of the many indicators. How do you feel he would have settled into this age of modern football?

bookThat is a very good question. In many ways he was the first global superstar of the sport, I would say, in that he had this instant recognition – we can call it celebrity – outside the pitch and well beyond the borders of wherever he was playing.

Much of what he did on and off the field broke the mould of how football worked in his era.

On the playing side, he did things tactically that were very innovative and he had all the physical and technical assets to shine in any era. I think he’d have been a star in the 21st century on par with a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Messi.

He could be confrontational off the field, standing up to his bosses, and certainly having a clear idea of his value.

Footballers in his era were certainly not the multi-millionaires that so many are today, but his challenges to what he perceived as an unfair balance of work-and-reward in favour of those who ran the game and not those who played it had a long-term effect in terms of making the player more free to choose his employer and to earn more.

He also did things in terms of advertising and marketing that hadn’t been done before. Put it this way, if Di Stéfano was around now, you’d see his image on all sorts of things, from Playstation to the latest boots, to various fashion accessories.

What is it about Di Stéfano that makes him such an interesting character to write about? Is it the success? The goals? His family life?

I think with all very successful individuals, there’s always a curiosity about what drives or drove them. Sometimes with sports people, it’s hard to specify beyond their exceptional physical gifts.

With Di Stéfano, he had a fierce competitive impulse, and when I say fierce, it could be quite alarming, even for seasoned professionals who played alongside him.

He also had that creative imagination that captures public interest, the ability to improvise on the pitch, and thrill a crowd.

“Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Messi influenced the way football is played as much as Di Stéfano. He was as brilliant as any of them, so, with his legacy taken into consideration, he’s number one.”

That takes a certain non-conformist attitude to achieve, I think, and that’s fascinating to understand. He was charismatic, too, even if he could be a bit grumpy sometimes.

In his life he faced a number of setbacks and seeing how he responded to those was one of the main points of interest.

His professional training didn’t prepare him for many of them – for events like being kidnapped by guerrillas in South America for example.

It may be blasphemous to some, but do you think we will ever see a player of Di Stéfano’s ilk again? Someone with a rebel-streak who is also outrageously gifted and successful?

hawk

Ian Hawkey

That’s a very good question. There is a tendency these days to believe there is something a bit robotic about very successful modern footballers, or maybe all elite athletes in team sports, and maybe because of that to romanticise the flawed geniuses of the past, like Maradona or George Best.

I suppose you might characterise a footballer like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, because he is outspoken and sometimes anti-authoritarian, in that ilk, although Di Stéfano was a better, more influential player than Ibrahimovic, I would confidently say.

You travelled around South America when working on the book. Did you at any point get any ideas for a different book? Perhaps a different player, maybe?

It’s hard to be around South American football and not recognise hundreds of great stories that would make a book!

Certainly, in the period that Alfredo Di Stéfano was playing there – in Argentina in the late 1940s and in Colombia until the early 1950s – it was turbulent, often brilliant and gloriously unpredictable.

The whole episode of the rebel Colombian league, which, out of nowhere, brought in some of the best players in the world, including from Europe, in the late 1940s, would make a great book.

Pele said Di Stefano was the “greatest” player of all-time. What does Ian Hawkey himself think? Is he the “greatest”?

This will sound like a fence-sitting cop-out … but, it is genuinely hard to compare across eras.

Watch the footage of Di Stéfano’s Real Madrid of the 1950s and 1960s now and you can appreciate why they were setting new standards, but you also note how slow the pace of their games are compared with modern elite football.

Now, I believe Di Stéfano would have had no difficulty living with that speed, assuming he trained like a modern player, well into his 30s. More than that, he’d have thrived in it, because he was so quick-minded and for most of his career, exceptionally quick on his feet and as strong as an ox.

dipe

Di Stéfano and Pele

The other issue is that we don’t see that footage very often, whereas we still get exposed regularly to colour television images of Pele, Cruyff, Maradona exhibiting their brilliance.

It’s that above all that maybe makes them more appreciated than Di Stéfano, who had the other disadvantage, usually for reasons of bad timing, to have not played in a World Cup.

And, in my view, none of Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Messi influenced the way football is played as much as Di Stéfano. He was as brilliant as any of them, so, with his legacy taken into consideration, he’s number one.

Elephant Sport would like to thank Ian Hawkey for his time. Di Stéfano is published by Ebury Press, hardback £16.59. For more details, click here.

Five loan players who returned to haunt their clubs

November 3, 2016 in News & Features

On-loan goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski recently put in the performance of his life for Empoli to thwart his parent club Roma in Serie A.

The Pole stood firm against the likes of Mo Salah and Edin Dzeko as strugglers Empoli held high-flying Roma to a goalless draw, leaving them four points behind leaders Juventus.

Loan players often have clauses in their temporary deals to prevent them from playing in competitive matches against their clubs – in England this is pretty much standard practice.

But there have been enough instances of it happening across continental Europe to warrant us selecting a top five of players whose clubs were left to rue the day they let them go on loan.

5. Lukasz Skorupski (Empoli vs. Roma)

Skorupski was in commanding form (Credit: Gabriele Maltini)

The most recent of the bunch, Skorupski played for Empoli last weekend and had one of the games of his career. Saving multiple shots and keeping out Stephen El Shaarawy in the 93rd minute of the game.

It opens up the age-old debate: is the player putting in a super-human effort because he’s playing against his parent team to prove a point? Only Lukasz knows the answer to that.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that Roma boss Luciano Spalletti will be pleased with his performance…

4: Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich vs. Juventus)

Kingsley Coman is the world’s new young footballing superstar, having played for Paris Saint Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich, all before he turned 20 years old.

Bayern signed him on a two-year loan deal with an option to buy in the summer of 2015.

In March, he returned to Juve and gave them cause for regret about the conditions of his loan by scoring the final goal against in Bayern’s 4-2-comeback win at the Allianz Arena in the Champions League.

I think it’s fair to say he might not be too welcome back in Turin anytime soon….

You can watch Coman’s goal here.

3. Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea)

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Courtois denies Gary Cahill (Credit: Javier Soriano)

Before the build-up to this game there was a lot of controversy surrounding the decision to allow Thibaut Courtois to play against Chelsea.

This was due to Courtois having a clause in his loan contract not allowing him to play against his parent club; however, Fifa reversed this ruling, allowing him to play.

Atletico thanked their lucky stars that Fifa got involved because the Belgian pulled an amazing performance out of the bag, thwarting multiple Chelsea attacks and helping Atletico advance to the next round in the Champions League.

His performance evidently underlined his qualities for the Blues, and he became their first-choice goalkeeper as of the next season.

2. Anderson Talisca (Besiktas vs. Benfica)

Anderson Talisca is one for the Football Manager heads reading this article. He’s an incredibly talented Brazilian youngster who is on the books with Benfica.

The 22-year-old attacker is somewhat reminiscent of Ronaldinho or Juninho when he’s standing over a dead-ball situation.

It was surprising to see him go on loan to Besiktas at the beginning of the season; however it was even more surprising to see him come on at half-time with Besiktas trailing 1-0 to Benfica in the Champions League.

What happened next isn’t something you see everyday. Talisca hit the ball sweetly from a direct free kick and the ball whistled into the top corner. He did this in the 92nd minute to earn Besiktas a draw against his parent team.

You can watch Talisca’s wonder goal here.

1. Fernando Morientes (Monaco vs. Real Madrid)

Back in 2004, Fernando Morientes, a player unwanted by Real Madrid and loaned to Monaco, scored a goal in each leg which helped condemn his parent club to the unthinkable.

The striker had a point to prove against his parent club, who had decided he was ‘not needed’.

What better way to prove yourself than scoring two goals and knocking your team out of the Champions League in the semi-finals?

Seeing as he was on his way to Liverpool the next season anyway, it was the perfect parting shot for Morientes.

Fans vs Players – five footballing feuds

October 24, 2016 in Features, News & Features

Football is a passionate sport but there are some supporters who will go the extra mile to show how they really feel. 

There are always times when fans are disappointed in their players due to a bad performance or poor run of form.

Or they can take issue with something a player has said. Inter Milan captain Mauro Icardi is currently feeling the wrath of his club’s ultras over his autobiography – more on that particular spat later…

Some fans may simply go onto social media to vent their frustration. However, there are others who will go to extremes.

Here, we will look at five fiery feuds between players and their own fans.

5. Bale and Jese speed off as irate fans attack their cars – 2015

Real Madrid have many great memories in beating Barcelona in the El Clásico. Some notable wins include the 5-0 mauling at the Santiago Bernabéu in January 1995, with the Madrid line-up including such big-name players as Raúl, Michael Laudrup and Luis Enrique, who of course went on to even greater success at Barcelona.

Bale (right) and Jese celebrate a goal. Pic by Mutsu Kawamori©, flickr creative commons

Fast forward to March 2015, and Real Madrid came up against the old enemy at the Nou Camp. Real Madrid went on to lose 2-1, with goals from Luis Suarez and Jeremy Mathieu sealing the win for Barcelona.

Later on that night, the Real Madrid players returned home only to face the wrath of some unhappy fans.

These fans were so furious at the players because it was the year that Barcelona won the famous treble and this match ended Real Madrid’s hopes of winning the league that year.

Gareth Bale and Jese were the unlucky ones as they were caught in the thick of things. As they were driving off, there were a group of Real Madrid fans waiting to pounce and attack. The fans punched the players’ windows and kicked their cars. A few insults were hurled too.

Real suspended one club member who was involved as well as identifying two other suspects. Bale remains an integral part of Madrid’s team, and this summer Jese moved to Paris St Germain.

The incident was captured on video… YouTube Preview Image

4. Fabrício sent off for gesturing at his own fans – 2015

There are many insults that can offend people in all sorts of ways. Some would counter with an insult of their own or even offer someone out for a fight.

But when it’s a crowd of thousands giving you stick, the latter is not really a feasible option, so you express your feelings in the way you can.

During a match in Brazil’s state championship against Yipranga in 2015, Internacional player Fabrício decided to confront a jeering crowd with some offensive gestures. This led to the referee sending off the left-back.

Fabrício was furious, and threw his shirt on the ground. Several of his team-mates tried to calm him down but he would take it even further by shouting towards his own fans “I’m leaving, I’m leaving!” as he walked off. Well at least he got to say how he was feeling at the time…

After the game, his team-mates were not allowed to give post-match interviews and the defender was suspended by the club. Despite all of this Internacional went on to win 1-0.

Fabrício is still at Internacional despite having two loan spells at fellow Brazilian clubs Cruzeiro and now at Palmeiras.

3. São Paulo fan invasion

Pitch invasions are a fairly common occurrence. A notable example would be YouTube sensation Vitaly Zdorovetskiy – also as known as Vitalyzdtv – invading the 2014 World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina.

These invaders only have one purpose, which is to have their 30 seconds of fame by running around on the pitch and doing their best to avoid capture by stewards.

In Brazil, however, São Paulo fans had other ideas – they were not just showing off, they were angry and wanted to make a point to their club.

They decided to invade a training session and attack their own players. These fans from the Barra Brava protest group staged a demo aimed at the club owners they said were corrupt and the team, who they claimed stained the club’s history.

Fireworks were set off, abuse shouted, and a near riot ensued. Michel Bastos, who plays for São Paulo, was injured during the attack as he and his team-mates were forced to flee.

The video below shows the full-on carnage. YouTube Preview Image

 2. The Carabobo flying kick-2015

Players and managers are expected give post-match interviews; these can happen on the pitch or near the tunnel.

Carabobo squared off against Aragua in the Venezuelan League in a 2015 match which ended in a 1-1 draw.

Aquiles Ocanto who plays for Carabobo, was being interviewed pitchside as a rival supporter decided to sneak up behind him and give him a vicious flying kick.

Imagine that happening to a Premier League star. Twitter would go into meltdown…

There is a video below: YouTube Preview Image

1. Icardi vs. Inter Milan Ultras 

Finally, we reach our most high-profile and recent example of when things go very wrong between players and fans.

This is the on-going battle between Inter Milan captain Mauro Icardi and the club’s most hardcore ultras.

The bitter row was kicked off by a chapter in Icardi’s autobiography where he told a story about himself and team-mate Fredy Guarín facing off against the ultras when Inter lost 3-1 away to Sassuolo in February 2015.

Icardi recently signed a new deal with Inter until 2021. Pic courtesy of Football DirectNews©, flickr creative commons.

After that game, Icardi threw his shirt to a kid into the away crowd but it was thrown back by one of the ultras. The incident was forgotten at the time until it featured in the autobiography.

“In the changing room, I was applauded like an idol,” he wrote.

The club’s directors warned him he might have upset some of the fans, but he was not backing down, going on to write: “I was clear, I’m ready to face them one by one.

“Maybe they don’t know that I grew up in one of the South American neighbourhoods with the highest rates of crime and people killed in the street.

“How many of them are there? Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred? OK, record my message and let them hear it. I will bring 100 criminals from Argentina who will kill them on the spot.”

Unsurprisingly, the ultras did not take this lying down. Earlier this season, in a match against Cagliari, Icardi missed a penalty – cue huge banners being unfurled by sections of the San Siro crowd.

The most blunt of the lot said : “You are not a man… You are not a captain… You are just a vile piece of s***”.

If Icardi updates his autobiography at any point, it will be interesting to see if he changes the offending chapter – or adds fuel to the fire by winding them up the ultras even more…

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