What to expect from Ralf Rangnick?

When Emmanuel Dennis scored the 4th Watford goal, even the most optimistic of United fans knew that there will be a new manager to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, it came true. The 4-1 defeat at Vicarage road was the final nail in the coffin for the Norwegian, who lost 4 of his last 7 games in charge including humiliating losses at the hands of Leicester City, Watford, and long time club rivals – Liverpool and Manchester City. 

As expected (and probably a little too late), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left his position as the head coach of Manchester United and Michael Carrick was appointed to be the caretaker manager while the board search for a new interim manager. What followed was a host of names being linked to be the successor of the 47 year old including Ernesto Valverde, Rudi Garcia and Lucien Favre. Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag have been rumoured to be the favourites to take over next summer and while there were rumours that Pochettino would be willing to swap Paris for Manchester, the deal never materialised. 

On Wednesday, David Ornstein and Laurie Whitwell broke the news of Ralf Rangnick being appointed as the interim boss at Manchester United till the end of the season, with a 2 year consultancy role after the season ends in May. According to club sources, Manchester United hierarchy have maintained that the German was their primary target for the interim role and after an initial breakdown in talks last Monday, John Murtough, Darren Fletcher and Ed Woodward got the deal over the line 2 days later. 

Regarded as a smart appointment by many, today we’ll have a look at what Ralf Rangnick can offer the Red Devils as a manager and indeed, as a consultant later on. 

Ralf Rangnick, the manager 

First, we will talk about Ralf Rangnick, the manager. Rangnick first became a manager in the late 1980s starting as a player coach for his local side Viktoria Backnang. His first job as a manager came for SSV Reutlingen 05. Afterwards, he managed a number of clubs in Germany, including VFB Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Schalke and most recently, RB Leipzig. Throughout his career, he has a track record of improving the teams he managed. 

Ralf Rangnick has also earned a lot of plaudits for his tactical acumen. Widely regarded as the godfather of the counter pressing or ‘gegenpressing’ style of play, Rangnick has shown immense tactical nous during his time as a manager. After his Hoffenheim side decimated Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund with a scoreline of 4-1 In 2008, the current Liverpool boss said “That’s the kind of football we want to play one day”. He is regarded as “The professor” in Germany for his methodical and detail oriented approach to training and coaching his teams.

So, how will Manchester United line up under the German?

Rangnick has used many formations in his tenure, such as a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond and even a 3-5-2 but his most preferred formation is the 4-2-2-2. This is the formation which would suit United the most but he can even opt for a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. 

Despite his formation, his principles remain the same. He likes a high pressing team and focuses a lot on winning the transitions. He likes to set up pressing traps by using 2 players to press and blindside pressing for the man on the ball with a 3rd player, thus creating a numerical advantage while pressing the ball. He also uses various different pressing triggers, such as a loose touch or a ball shifted in wide areas, to initiate the press. His focus on high pressing football would suit Fred and Scott McTominay, who are good pressers of the ball but not that polished positionally. 

To understand the extent of his focus on transitions, we need to look at his training sessions with RB Leipzig where he introduced a 10-second clock rule with a custom clock made for this. The clock would tick loudly and all the players playing could hear it. The 10-second rule indicates that once the team wins the ball back, they must create a goalscoring opportunity within 10 seconds, thus completing the attacking transition. His RB Leipzig side ranked 1st in Europe in terms of defensive actions leading to shots and defensive actions leading to goal for the 2018/19 season. In terms of defensive transitions, the time limit was 8 seconds instead of 10, meaning that the team must win the ball back in 8 seconds after they have lost it, thus proving his detail to dominate the transitions, attacking or defending. 

In terms of build up play, the German is not a fan of wide players and wants his wide players to tuck inside and act like a ‘inside forward’ almost creating a hexagonal shape with the 2 defensive midfielders behind and the two attackers in front of the two inside forwards. This would suit Manchester United’s wide players very nicely as all of them like drifting into the central areas and making things happen. Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and even Donny van de Beek are players who are best suited to play in the half spaces and that is what Rangnick will allow them to do. Sancho, who is known for his creativity in the final third by occasionally stepping in central areas would benefit from the 63 year old’s system. 

Rangnick allows his fullbacks to push forward, creating a 2-4-4 shape while attacking. He likes to create overloads in wide areas and use numerical advantages to make things happen with the help of his narrow attacking structure. The German has been on record saying he doesn’t like square passes much and focuses a lot on being direct and exploiting the spaces by having runners in behind and constant positional rotation. This ideology would suit mainly 3 players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. The Portuguese superstars are known for their ‘high risk, high reward’ approach and Paul Pogba always likes to make things happen and use the runners in his team to spread passes and flex his creative muscles. 

All in all, it is fair to say that Manchester United’s squad would suit Ralf Rangnick’s ideologies very well. There are question marks being raised on how Cristiano Ronaldo would play as he’s not suited to a gegenpress style of play but considering Rangnick’s history and his tactical acumen, it wouldn’t be a stupid thing to assume that the 63 year old would have a plan to integrate Manchester United’s #7. 

Assuming everyone is fit and available for selection, we can see David de Gea continuing in goal with a back 4 for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. Scott McTominay and Fred would act as the 2 defensive midfielders, but it is possible we can see van de Beek and Paul Pogba being used there with McTominay or Fred against weaker oppositions. Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes would be the obvious choices to play in the flanks as the inside right and inside left creative midfielders/wingers. Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek are capable replacements on the flanks respectively, similar to how Marcel Sabitzer was deployed on the right despite him being a midfielder. At Leipzig, Yusuf Poulsen played as the target man or the deep lying forward while Timo Werner was a menace with his lines behind the line of defence and his pressing. We could see Marcus Rashford playing the Werner role while Cristiano Ronaldo plays the Poulsen role. Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani being more than capable replacements for the roles respectively. 

“Tactics, fitness and rules are all hugely important, but they’re only a means to an end. My job – the job – is to improve players.

Players follow you as a manager if they feel that you make them better. That’s the greatest, most sincere motivation there is.”

-Ralf Rangnick, The Coaches’ Voice

 

This is how the Red Devils will line up under Ralf Rangnick:

In conclusion, Manchester United have enough depth and enough quality in the side to cater to Ralf Rangnick’s plans. His high-pressing, counter-pressing, direct style of play would suit most of the players Manchester United have at their disposal and if he is able to get his ideas across quickly, Manchester United can flourish during the time he is at the helm as manager. 

Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director

Now that we have seen what Ralf Rangnick brings to the table as a manager, let’s dive into what he could bring to the table as a consultant/sporting director. 

Ralf Rangnick took his post as the sporting director of the clubs under the RedBull group in 2012, namely RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg and New York Red Bulls. He left his post as the manager of Salzburg to focus solely on as the sporting director of both the clubs. He made a return to management with RB Leipzig twice, first in 2015 when he guided them to a promotion in 15/16 and then in 18/19 where he managed to finish 3rd in the Bundesliga, proving that he can do both roles very well. 

Ralf Rangnick oversaw the huge footballing success of the RedBull group of football clubs with both Leipzig and Salzburg coming from nowhere and then being regular outfits in European football in a very short period of time. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, Rangnick said, “Can I be somebody who can influence areas of development across the whole club?’ Otherwise you are only getting half of what I am capable of.” He got that freedom at RedBull clubs and they have flourished under him. He got the same freedom at Hoffenheim, where he converted them from a third-tier Bundesliga team to a regular top flight team and laid the foundations for Julian Nagelsmann, who took Hoffenheim as far as the Champions League. “Ralf has a special way of looking at football,” Nagelsmann told ESPN in 2020. “I used Ralf’s philosophy at Hoffenheim; counter-pressing is a very important topic.” 

Even though Rangnick’s first role as a sporting director came in 2012, at Hoffenheim he was already a manager + sporting director. He took the job when Hoffenheim were in the third division, even after having achieved great success with Schalke in the Bundesliga where he achieved a 2nd placed finish. It was later reported that the 63 year old wanted more control over the club’s decisions which led to a crossroads with the board. Dietmar Hopp, the chairman of Hoffenheim and the co-founder of tech giants SAP was keen to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga as soon as possible and he chose Ralf Rangnick to be the person to help Hoffenheim achieve that. 

Rangnick likes to have a hands-on approach on how the clubs he is managing should function. He likes to control many aspects, the scouting, the recruitment, the way the club travels. At Schalke, he wasn’t given that freedom but at Hoffenheim he was given a clean slate to leave his mark. The German brought in Bernhard Peters, a former hockey coach, as the head of performance. His input on player performances, fitness levels and his analysis on the team tactics was very crucial for Hoffenheim’s first season under Rangnick’s leadership in 2006-07, when they achieved promotion to the 2.Bundesliga. Rangnick also brought in Hans-Dieter Hermann, a sports psychologist from Jürgen Klinsmann’s 2006 World Cup team, having his request for a psychologist previously rebuffed by the Schalke board. 

In the 2.Bundesliga, Rangnick established his transfer policy. Establishing a worldwide scouting network and recruiting players with age on their side. Most of the signings were under the age of 23, mainly foreigners and many of them being from Brazil. Brazilians like Luiz Gustavo and Carlos Edouard were signed while Demba Ba came from the Belgian league and Chinedu Obasi, from Norway showing the vast scouting network put in place by the 63 year old. The same philosophy and structure TSG Hoffenheim still uses after being established as a top-flight club in Germany.

“Did we get Ribéry? Never! For us, it is ideal that we don’t sign players who are already playing at a higher level than us, but rather want to go there [the higher level] with us. I want players for whom a move to us is not a step backwards. We are convinced that all the guys we brought in last year – Vorsah, Eduardo, Gustavo, Ba, Obasi, Nilsson – were not only good for promotion, but also for the first division.”

In fact, this is a philosophy Rangnick would follow during his tenure with the RedBull clubs. Instead of splashing millions on star players, the German focused on signing players who are young and who will develop along with the club. His recruitment at the club proves his eye for talent and his wide scouting network, something Manchester United could benefit largely from. His shrewd recruitments include players such as Tyler Adams, Matheus Cunha, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara, Naby Keita, Willi Orban, Yussuf Poulsen, Timo Werner, some of the most exciting youngsters in the world. Rangnick believes in developing the players and making them improve so that the club improves along with them. 

How would this be beneficial for Manchester United? Well, for years, Manchester United are a club which has lacked an identity, a direction. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have followed their manager’s lead in terms of recruitment and signings and changes to the club in the background. That would have been fine if all the managers they have hired were of the same mould but that was not the case at Old Trafford. Quite the opposite. Manchester United went from David Moyes, to Louis van Gaal, to Jose Mourinho. 3 managers with completely different ideologies on football, which led to the club constantly ‘rebuilding’ whenever a manager was sacked. 

If we look at all the top clubs in Europe, all have a certain identity, a certain philosophy that they follow in order to be successful. Ajax being the best example for this. The dutch club have a certain way of playing football and their use of academy and being able to churn out the best talents in world football known to everyone. The managers and squad may change but their philosophy and identity remain the same. They hire managers who believe in the same philosophy as the club. Anything can happen in this world, but Diego Simeone becoming the manager of Ajax in future has a very low probability of happening due to the said philosophy of possession-oriented style of play being in place at the club. 

Not just Ajax, all the top clubs in Europe have an identity. Bayern’s identity of playing fast paced attacking football, Liverpool’s brand of heavy-metal, heavy pressing brand of football since Klopp came in or even the identity Pep Guardiola has installed at Manchester City. Every decision these clubs take are in accordance with a pre-defined philosophy at the club, something which has eluded Manchester United for some time. Now, following a philosophy or an identity is not necessary at all, but for a club who have been as wayward as Manchester United in recent times, this is something which would benefit the Red Devils a lot. 

Since Solskjaer came in, he tried to do the same. Install an identity at the club which the club can follow long after his departure. Appointments of John Murtough as the football director and Darren Fletcher as the technical director were one of the first few steps the Norwegian took to implement his vision at taking the club to the next level. It didn’t work out for Solksjaer towards the end, but he built the building blocks for the next chapter in this club’s history and Ralf Rangnick is the one who can complete writing it. 

Even though his title is as a ‘consultant’, it is widely reported that the German will have a lot of influence on many decisions the club makes such as choosing his own successor and other off the pitch decisions regarding recruitment policy, potential future signings and even changes to the training ground. Rangnick’s influence, with the input of Murtough and Fletcher, could help Manchester United oversee a change towards building a long term footballing philosophy.

Ralf Rangnick’s appointment feels like a first great step Manchester United have taken towards building a long-term philosophy at the club, something they have lacked since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Judging by the German’s track record of improving and building clubs from scratch, it seems like a very wise choice. 

Hoffenheim gave him the keys, and he built a fortress. Leipzig gave him the keys, and he built a kingdom. Now he has the keys to Manchester United, time will tell if he can build a dynasty. 

The Goddess has blessed Bergamo: rise of Atalanta BC

It is said that La Dea– the Goddess Atalanta herself lives in the mountains of Bergamo, looking after the town and providing her blessings to the town folks. Situated in the heart of Lombardy, Bergamo has a deep connection to the old Celtic tribes who first moved into the region. The Bergamo faithful still to this date carry that Celtic blood in them. An industrial town, Bergamo is the heart of the construction and infrastructure industry of Italy. The town derives it’s spirit from the Greek Goddess-Atalanta (which translates to ‘equality’ from Latin) who grew out to be an able hunter and runner- known through her tales of Calydonian boar hunt, Argonauts and their hunt for the Golden Fleece. 

The spirit of the Goddess resonated in the town. It is channelled perfectly by the football team situated at the heart of the city and every citizen. Named after the Goddess herself- Atalanta BC is at the lips of every football fanatic in recent times. Their playing style depicts the character of the Goddess herself- an able runner (given how Atalanta plays a high tempo football and cover every blade of grass on the pitch) out in the wild to hunt the mighty boars by the use of her will and wits (given how strategically the club is run in modern day and competes at top level with a lesser wage budget than many clubs in English Championship- the SECOND tier of English football pyramid). 

Rise of the Goddess to the top 

Atalanta BC was founded by high school students of the town in 1907. The ethos on which the football club was founded was to inculcate the importance of physical exercise in the youth- the ethos which club has followed throughout its existence. The club is known as the ‘factory’ among the followers of Calcio due to their work done in developing youth players through their famed youth system. Historically, the club struggled in the 2nd division of the Italian football pyramid throughout the 1920s and 1930s but they achieved a historic promotion to Serie A in 1937. They came crashing down to newly structured Serie B after just one season. But they built a core of players which came from the youth ranks and again achieved the promotion in 1940- this time winning Serie B. 1940s proved to be a great decade for an underdog team which even drew comparisons to Grande Torino– the famed Torino side which won laurels in 1940s.

By this time, Atalanta had become a regular in first division- achieving a club high position of 5th in Serie A during the 1947-48 season. The 1950s also saw the same upward rise but a false match fixing allegation saw the club get demoted to Serie B and a points deduction. But against all the odds, the team won the Serie B title- resonating the undying spirit of the Goddess and the town folks itself. This promotion was the start of yet another journey for this budding club. The highest point in this journey was winning the Coppa Italia title in 1963- defeating Torino with a score line of 3-1. This victory ensured the first and only title in the club’s history. The victors of 1963 again consisted of a core made up of players who came up from the youth ranks. From here, the club could not sustain this rise and it went in a downward spiral throughout the 1970s- becoming a yo-yo club, shuttling between Serie A and Serie B. Even in this period, the club didn’t stop investing and putting it’s trust on the youth. The lowest point in club’s history came at the start of 1980s when the club suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie B- dropping to Serie C1 in 1981. Despite playing in lower divisions- the club churned out players who eventually became the core of the Azzuri– Italian National team which enjoyed the spoils of victory in 1982 FIFA World Cup.

his trust in youth did pay off when the club dug its way out from the depths of lower division and looming bankruptcy and reached back to the promise land- Serie A in 1984 where they again stayed for 3 seasons before suffering a relegation in 1987. A series of dismal performances in 2nd phase of 1986-87 season saw the club crashing down but a fairy tale run in Coppa Italia saw the club 180 minutes away from glory. Only one team stood in their way- Napoli led by the God himself, Diego Maradona. It was the battle of 2 Gods in Coppa Italia but the rejuvenated Napoli side spearheaded by D10S himself saw the club win a historic double- Serie A and Coppa Italia. With Napoli winning the Serie A and ensuring a place in European Cup (precursor to UEFA Champions League), a relegated Atalanta side became eligible to play in European Cup Winners Cup. This young team again made history, reaching the semi finals of the competition while playing in 2nd division, the highest position a team playing outside of top division has achieved in the history of all UEFA Competitions. Atalanta suffered a 4-2 defeat to Belgian side KV Mechelen who would go on to win the competition. The club immediately won the promotion to Serie A and a 6th place finish in the 1989-90 season saw the club reach UEFA Cup for first time in club’s history. Another fairy tale run in European competition followed in 1990-91 UEFA Cup where they reached Quarter Finals of the competition. They were eliminated by the eventual winners and their local rivals- Inter Milan.

The rise in fame of Italian football during 1990s saw Atalanta shift from their policy of inculcating youth players in senior team and they tried to go towards the path of glory- buying expensive stars which eventually backfired and saw the club suffer from various relegations and promotions during the 1990s and 2000s. The best moment during this tumultuous period was a local Filippo Inzhagi winning capocannoniere (Serie A’s top scorer award) during 1996-97 season and another cup final appearance in which they lost to Fiorentina, led by the mercurial Gabriel Batistuta. 

2000s also saw the same trend of yo-yoing between first and second division. Changing players and coaches without giving them ample chances saw the club incur a massive financial strain which eventually led to local entrepreneur and ex- Atalanta player Antonio Percassi take over the reigns of the club in 2010. 

Percassi hit a reset button- bringing the old ethos on which club was built upon and tried to mend the wrongs of the past. He believed in long-term stability and glory over short term gains. After winning the promotion to Serie A in 2011, the club worked towards building a stable foundation to work upon in the near future without compromising on the principles on which the club was carved out. Being a local, boyhood fan and ex-player, Peracassi understood what the club means for the people of Bergamo and what Bergamo as a town means for its people and the club. Peracassi started many welfare programs with the club, helping to mend the past bruises and re-building the relationship with the community and the Ultras- who are known throughout Italy for their notoriety.

It is known that whenever a new child takes birth in Bergamo, the club personally delivers a jersey for the newborn- taking ‘Teach them young, teach them right’ motto to another level. Like a phoenix, the club was rising from the ashes- reborn with a new ambition and purpose. This was just the beginning of another fairy tale. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the fans, the president and the coach- Mister Gasperini. 

Gian Piero Gasperini: Manager Profile 

The 63-year old enjoyed a fairly successful playing career, coming from the youth ranks of his boyhood club-Juventus and playing with the likes of Paolo Rossi and Sergio Brio in the Primavera squad. He never made an appearance for Juventus but he played for Serie B sides- Reggiana and Palermo, with whom he reached the Coppa Italia final in 1979. A fairly successful career with Palermo saw him move to Pescara and play in Serie A from 1985 to 1990. After retiring in 1993 at the age of 35, Gian Piero pushed to become a coach.

One year later, he was at Juventus again, this time starting his career as a coach with the Bianconeri. He managed all possible age groups in the youth system of Juventus, right from U14 to the Primavera (U-20) squad. In 2003, he left Juventus to start his career as a manager- taking over a young Crotone squad which was playing in Serie C1. In his first season, Gasperini won the promotion to Serie B via play-offs. He stayed for 2 more years with the Crotone side- pushing above their weight in 2nd division.

In 2006, he joined Genoa who were also struggling in 2nd division, pushing hard to win a promotion. In his first season with the Rossoblu, Gasperini won the promotion with Genoa, thus foraying into Serie A as a manager. In 2008-09 season, Genoa combined shrewd signings with Gasperini’s penchant of pushing his players to perform above their capabilities which resulted in the club finishing 5th in the table, missing out on a potential Champions League qualification due to an inferior goal difference (Fiorentina hence qualified after finishing 4th). This was the club’s best ever finish in 19 years. Gasperini re-launched the careers of a certain Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, both of whom were then snapped up by Inter Milan and became core members of a treble winning squad. Gasperini’s achievement earned him rave reviews from even the elite managers and comparisons with the Great Zdenek Zeman were also there because of some similarities in their management styles, building tactical systems according to the best output of players present and playing a rather expansive, high tempo football focusing on overloads from wide areas. 

There were even murmurs that the Great Scot- Sir Alex Ferguson also looked at Gasperini as his replacement at Manchester United. His glorious time with Genoa eventually came to an end and Gasperini embarked on a new adventure- joining Inter Milan. But with lofty ambitions of the club and Gasperini’s rather patient and long-term stability thinking didn’t align After a series of bad results, he was relieved from his duties. 

Gasperini then took the reins of a struggling Palermo where he helped them provide some stability. Highlight of his short stint at the Sicilian side (this time as a manager) has to be consistent performances of their captain and legend- Fabrizio Miccoli giving great goal scoring returns which also earned him a callup to the National team, 9 years after his last call up and cap for the Azzuri

In 2013, Genoa again sought Gasperini’s services. His second stint at the club wasn’t as successful as the first stint but he brought a much-needed stability to the side which was struggling both on and off the pitch, providing them with an identity on the pitch. 

With Atalanta looking for a manager who can take them one step further after building a stable foundation in the last 5 years, they turned their eyes to Mister Gasperini in what was the beginning of a romantic story- full of ups and downs. 

Gasperini’s personnel was not merely turned into gold in an instance. Instead, the manager’s biggest feat was to create a consistent and successful game model imprinted upon the virgin goddess Atalanta’s virtues, the same virtues on which the football club was existing- the same virtues on which the entire town has survived. 

Fearlessness, a by-product of the wilderness the goddess was bred in. 

Speed, an essential quality of every one of her quests, such as when she challenged her suitors to a foot race, confident in being able to outrun each and every one of them.  

Survival instinct, manifested in the knack for hunting that Atalanta inherited from the bear that suckled her from birth, and that she later perfected after being found and nurtured by hunters. 

Atalanta: Tactical Analysis

“I posted a picture of a wolf pack in the changing room. There are wolves at the front, some in the middle and one at the back. The ones up front can set the pace in the beginning. The next wolves are the strongest, they are the ones who must protect everyone if they are attacked. The ones in the centre are always protected.

“Then there are another five strong ones further back to protect an attack from there. The last one is the boss and he ensures no one is left behind. He keeps everyone united and is always prepared to run everywhere; to protect the whole group. The message is that a leader doesn’t just stay up front; he takes care of the team and this is what I want from my players.” This is how Gasperini has managed this Atalanta side, not just tactical drills but also instilling that mentality in the players. “Defending makes you invincible, but if you want to win, you must attack.’- Gasperini once quoted the Art of War proverb to his team in one of the training sessions, which are said to be so intense that match days eventually just feel like a holiday. Gasperini doesn’t like players who don’t work hard, in his words- he is scared of those players; for the players need to struggle; from those struggles the victors are born. 

Tactically, Gasperini is known for using a fluid 3–4–3 formation and a spectacular high-risk hyper-offensive-minded possession-based system, which relies on the versatility of his midfielders and front line. His team’s playing style places more focus on scoring goals, off-the-ball movement and quick, short passes on the ground, and less focus on long balls and the defensive aspect of the game. As such, at times his trademark 3–4–3 system resembles a 3–4–1–2, 3–2–4–1, 3–5–2, or 3–4–2–1 formation, with energetic overlapping attacking wing-backs in lieu of wide midfielders, that provide width along the flanks and push up the pitch when going forward. They make a 3-2-3-2 shape during the build-up phase, building passing triangles and creating overloads in the required area of the pitch where numerical advantage is needed. He has also been known to use a 4–3–3 or 4–2–3–1 on occasion.

The 3-2-3-2 shape makes it easy for Atalanta to create space through rotational play. The players are close to one another, and know that their rotations are based on the shape of the diamond. Therefore, it gives structure to their rotations. Where Atalanta truly excel with these diamonds is when they are anchored by one of their three centre-backs, and it allows their attacking midfielder with an option to drift in the middle of the pitch and rotate into the diamonds to create a 5 v 4 in these areas. From this position as an attacking-midfielder, the player should always be available to sustain a forward phase of play by dropping into the diamond where needed.

When defending off the ball, his teams are also known for the use of heavy pressing, but also apply elements of fluid man-marking across the entire pitch and often switch to a 5–4–1 or 5-3-2 formation defensively. They try to outnumber their opponents at all times and win the ball as quickly as possible.

Gasperini favours using hard-working and highly physical two-way players in midfield rather than a deep-lying playmaker, but also quick, talented, technical, diminutive, slender, elusive, and creative players upfront, in order to implement his system effectively; he has also been known to use a larger and more physical centre-forward upfront on occasion, who is good in the air. 

While this kind of playing style has been successful for Gasperini at Genoa and now Atalanta, Gasperini has also attracted the criticisms of pundits if he can actually manage an established footballing giant with his current set-up (which he can but due patience is needed from the top authorities). 

Since the players always try to follow the ball, the defensive shape often gets disoriented and gaps are formed. These gaps are exploited by creative and intelligent players. They play a high block, with balls over the top of their relatively slow defenders causing them problems. Players need to stay at their concentration peak and the highest levels of mental and physical state throughout the whole match as one lapse can collapse their system. 

And that is where the club comes. Atalanta have roughly relied on the principles of ‘Moneyball’- finding undervalued players who statistically were at par with many established players but went under the radar and honing them under Gasperini’s management. Other than this smart recruitment where they scouted the central European countries and Scandinavia where teams usually followed the principles on which Gasperini set up his tactics, Atalanta and Gasperini also relied on the youth academy and a highly structured loaning system where they closely monitored the activity of players to either sell for a profit or integrate in first team. 

Despite selling many of their key players over the years, Atalanta have made a hefty profit and have spent in a sensible manner in which their running cost also hasn’t impacted their financial security and has kept them equally competitive.

Rise of the Goddess to the top (continued)

A poor start to his Atalanta reign almost saw him get relieved from duties but a series of crucial victories against AS Roma and SSC Napoli bought Gasperini some added time. But this added time was enough for his players to get accumulated to a change in system which eventually saw Atalanta finish 4th in the table, their highest ever finish since the 1947-48 season and qualification for UEFA Europa League, 26 years after they last played in Europe. The 2017-18 season saw Atalanta wreak havoc in Europe- getting 6/6 wins in Europe in the group stage which consisted of Lyon, Everton and Apollon Limassol. They took the fight to Borussia Dortmund in Round of 32 who were among the favourites to reach the final of the competition. A 7th place and semi final appearance in Coppa Italia capped off a successful season for the ambitious Atalanta side. 2018-19 also started very well and Gasperini took them to 3rd place in the table with a final appearance in Coppa Italia- losing to Lazio in the end. This was the best finish in the club’s history, making the club eligible to play in UEFA Champions League for the first time in club’s history. 

Despite losing some key players and utilising the newly revamped loan system to raise money- Gasperini’s side made many shrewd signings along the way who didn’t take a lot of time to get settled- raising money, keeping the investment and wage budget in check and not losing their competitive edge. The 2019-20 season also started in the same fashion- a juggernaut Atalanta side stomped the yard in Italy, scoring a lot (conceding a lot also)- very different from the stereotype of football in Italy being ‘defensive’. In Champions League, Atalanta was making their debut against Manchester City, Shaktar Donestk and a rejuvenated Dinamo Zagreb- then spearheaded by present day RB Leipzig talisman Dani Olmo, who really gave the Bergamo based side a lot of trouble in Atalanta’s debut match- which they lost 4-0. Not the start the Italian side expected. Next up was the trip to Manchester, another 4-0 drubbing and the dream of progressing from group stage was at the stage of shattering. 

But did I tell you that this team was blessed by the Goddess and possessed the wrath of the same? When everything looked against them, they fought back and did they conquer? Yes. They somehow qualified from the group stage by securing 2nd place with a massive victory against Dinamo Zagreb. San Siro was roaring (since Atalanta’s Gewiss Stadium didn’t meet UEFA’s expectations). Right at the stadium of their arch rivals, this young side was celebrating a massive victory in the Champions League. Next up was Valencia- then led by Marcelino.

Boy, did this Atalanta side dismantled the slight favourites in this tie at San Siro! A 4-0 drubbing saw a packed San Sir erupt in joy. The eruption in Bergamo was even more massive than the one witnessed in Milan. But it was February 2020. The Atalanta-Valencia match proved to be the ground zero for the spread of Covid-19 in Lombardy. The tears of joy soon turned into the tears of sorrow as Bergamo was badly hit by the virus.

The army was deployed on the streets of Bergamo, which a few days back were resonating with the sound of the club’s anthem, were now full of the sound of ambulance sirens- to help carry the ones who could not survive the scare and provide them a dignified burial. In this time of sorrow, the football club kept everyone together and stepped up when it mattered the most. A resounding 4-3 victory in Valencia in an empty Estadio Mestalla saw the debutants reach the quarter final before football was halted worldwide (just like various other activities). The club was at the pinnacle in it’s 113-year old history at the worst possible time, where they could not celebrate this achievement with the fans who stuck by them through thick and thin. 

For the hunters Gasperini trained and never ran away from a challenge. In soulless empty stadiums, they kept on playing amidst the scare of contracting the virus and the fatigue due to bio-bubble, away from their families. The 2020-21 season also started in similar fashion but this time every victory carried even more weight, for now they were truly playing to ease the pain of thousands in the town. Another 3rd place finish in a very tight competition ensured that the team embraced its divine inheritance to establish itself in Serie A’s Mount Olympus, guided by its very own King Midas, Giampiero Gasperini, able to turn every player passing through Bergamo into gold. From the youth to veterans from Europe’s deepest trenches. 

All thanks to the advancements in modern day science that viruses can be countered and defeated. Now, the faithfuls of Atalanta BC can see their beloved team play in Bergamo, under the shiny lights against the biggest teams. On Wednesday, the ‘wolfpack’ as Gasperini calls his squad will again go on a hunting trip- this time in the fabled land of Manchester, a decade after the first rumours about ‘Gasperson’ taking over the reins at Manchester United arose. For the Goddess and her cult of Ultras will be on the hunt of not a boar but a Devil. 

Atalanta BC is a model club for not only the ambitious underdogs but fallen giants, behemoths of the clubs who have lost their identity, who want to achieve the things in their fashion and opposite to that of the direction which modern football has gone. For Atalanta is one of the best examples of “Another football is possible”

“Siamo sempre insieme a te. Non ti lasceremo mai. Devi sempre solo vincere. Devi sempre solo vincere .Dai Dea. Non Mollare per gli ultra. Per gli ultra. Dai vinci per noi”.

“We are always with you. We will never leave. You simply always have to win. Come on Goddess. Don’t give up on Ultras. For the Ultras. Come on, win for US.”

The Champions. But at what cost?

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state and so we will become eternal. Only accidents, crimes, wars, will still kill us but unfortunately, crimes, wars, will multiply. I love football. Thank you.”These were the words spoken by Eric Cantona when he came to accept the UEFA’s president award at UEFA’s award ceremony in 2019 -cladded in a simple working-class attire at a strict ‘Bow Tie’ kind of event. These words seemed like a rambling from a senile old man at that time- a man who was ready to give away his entire footballing career over ‘kungfu kicking’ a racist in the stand and standing true to his intentions, who retired from football in what you call the peak years of a player- just to find the true meaning of Life by visiting and living in the places from where his ancestors came to France- Barcelona and Sardinia. Eric carries the blood of his rebel grandparents who fought against the Francoist Army of Spain just before the onset of the ‘2nd Great War’- the war which was supposed to end all wars.


Eric Cantona receiving the UEFA President’s award at the 2019 ceremony in Nyon, Switzerland

These words which came from the mouth of a ‘mad man’ did depict the meaning in which this sport (and in turn the world in general) was going towards. Eric quoted the words from the play of King Lear, written by the Great William Shakespeare- depicting the treachery the Duke of Gloucester faced because of the kindness he showed to King Lear. This treachery came in the form of King’s own blood- his daughter Regan and her husband who blinded the Duke. The son who Duke thought was the real traitor- then proved to be the innocent one and this innocence came at the price of Duke driving this son away. The ‘supporters’ are the flies– who are subjected to ‘sportful’ cruelty by the ‘God’ who are likened to immature, uncaring and unjust children i.e the people in power, may it be in football or in other places.


National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Amidst all the drama that has ensued because of the ‘greed’ of the elites governing the game, we have reached a stage where there is no saint on either side- there is no Heaven or Hell on this Earth– as Shakespeare depicted in King Lear. Same meaning was also depicted by Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath on their album by the name of ‘Heaven and Hell’. Everyone is somehow in the game to earn their own gains.

All of this exploitation in football is happening at the expense of that one entity because of which this ‘beautiful game’ is null and void- the 12th man of the game: the fans. The past 18 months without fans in the stands coupled with the ravenousness of people at upper echelons have shown one thing- this game is becoming soulless day by day. With such a hostile environment revolving around the world of football in these troubling times, the spirit of the game is still living in the hearts of the people who look up to the game as a means of escape from similar problems which have now engulfed the game too. Even in such troubling times, football has helped people to liberate them from their personal troubles. The rich want to keep the riches from the game among themselves only. But the sheer unpredictability in the game of football still cannot be substituted with these riches. You will always have the underdogs providing an upset or two- ALWAYS.  

One such upset has been in the form of a small club from the country of Moldova (or Transnistria from where this club actually is). Sheriff Tiraspol recently qualified for the Group Stage of UEFA Champions League by defeating Dinamo Zagreb in the final qualifying round of the competition. While very few people know about Moldova (which sadly is one of the most insecure places for women to live on this Earth- a hub of a billion-dollar illegal trafficking empire), even few people know about Transnistria.


Backdrop of Presidential Palace in Transnistria

Sheriff comes from a town called Tiraspol which is near to the Ukrainian border and home to more than 500,000 people. While everyone from around the world was celebrating the success of Sheriff Tiraspol reaching UCL proper, there was no such celebration in Moldova. Tiraspol is the capital of a self-declared country called Transnistria- created amidst the break away of Soviet Russia. While rest of Moldova wanted to align with Romania, Transnistria became a break away from rest of Moldova- opting to keep the Russian speakers and making all possible bodies to run a fully functional government under the supervision of KGB and Russian Army- who still to this date provide free gas and electricity to the disputed land despite not officially recognizing them as an independent country. 

Despite this disconnect, the Moldovan national team play their national fixtures at the home ground of FC Sheriff Tiraspol- which lies in an entirely different world, which is kind of ironic. The club itself is owned by a company called Sheriff LLC, controlled indirectly by the same KGB agents who made the entity of Transnistria, a company which has earned a big chunk of it’s wealth through the same illegal smuggling and trafficking. This much wealth has also broken any competition which exists in the domestic league- with Sheriff winning 17 out of last 19 league campaigns- boasting a squad of international players from South America and Africa without following any player registration rules while the rest of the league has to make way with players coming from a 175th ranked country on FIFA rankings in Moldova. The sporting complex made by Sheriff is among the few modern structures present in the city while the rest of the city still lives in age old Soviet era architectural structures- making it look like a Dystopian world. 


FC Sheriff Sporting Complex with the city of Tiraspol in backdrop

While a small team like Sheriff making it to the UEFA Champions League has been heralded by many but people do not know about the truth of their actual existence. And they have been pitted in Group D against the likes of Real Madrid (controlled by the person who was the brainchild of European Super League), Inter Milan (owned by the Chinese business family of Sunings who are indirectly controlled by the state of China- known for it’s oppression of Uighur Muslims), Shakhtar Donetsk (owned by an Oligarch who himself has had ties with organized crime families in Europe). It isn’t the Group D of UCL which is full of chaos, the Group A of the same competition is filled with teams like Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig and Club Brugge- owned by again questionable people (and in turn states). Not only UCL is full of such chaos but UEL Group Stage is also full with same chaos- Group A involving Rangers, Sparta Prague and further comprising of Lyon, Brondby; Group C including Legia Warsaw, Leicester City, Napoli, Spartak Moscow and Group D containing of Royal Antwerp, Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahce, Olympiakos. But what tops all of this is the real troublesome group in the competition- Group E which encompasses Galatasaray, Lazio, Lokomotiv Moscow and Marseille. All the aforementioned clubs either are known for their notorious fan groups who have indirect ties to some questionable authorities or have ownerships who are directly or indirectly associated with wrong doing happening around the world. With the return of fans, tensions will be high in the stands and these unwanted tensions could have been easily avoided if proper structure which didn’t involve any inequality was present and followed.

This chaos on a humanitarian level is disguised by the slogan of ‘Football for All’ by the governing bodies who will pledge that there is ‘no need for unwanted politics in the sport’ yet shake hands with those people who WANT to use the sport to remove the stains of their unwanted politics. The players representing the fans and clubs, taking part in such elite competitions are hailed as ‘People’s Champion’. But this tag of ‘Champion’ is coming at what cost? And how will they be the ‘Champion’ if the ‘people’ aren’t there at all? These accidents, these wars, these crimes have been killing the people (both in physical and mental aspect) but they ARE multiplying. What more must we do to put an end to all of this?

Sport is meant for entertainment and has always been seen as an escape from day-to-day life. ‘Calcio’ was made by the partisans of Florence during the Renaissance Era who wanted to pass their leisure time by bonding through sport. From this ‘Calcio’ did football evolve which was taken to different countries by the Englishman- workers, elites alike. Football became a way to break boundaries. Whether you are sitting on your sofa or standing in Stretford End or Curva Sud or Nordkurve, these 90 mins are an escape from those obligations which swallow you entirely through your life. If we actually want to make “Football for All” become true- we HAVE to initiate these difficult conversations. We just cannot hide behind the ‘keep football and politics separate’ banner and ignore the wrongdoings despite knowing deep down that these wrongdoings are affecting people around the world and they are happening under the pretext of Football.

When we talk about our Heroes– we should discuss about them in entirety- their strengths, their flaws, their good deeds, their wrong deeds. Only then we can actually push towards equality that everyone craves for, not only in football but in life as well. Someone close to me once said that what makes us ‘Human’ is that we commit mistakes, but we also learn from them and try to perfect ourselves through those experiences. For we have the power of thinking beyond boundaries but we also have the will and guts to know what is right and wrong and a voice to raise our thoughts but one thing which is dear to us is freedom.  

“Emancipate youselves for mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” uttered Bob Marley on ‘Redemption Song’. Another one of his quotes says “Football is freedom, a whole new universe”. Football was one way through which Bob Marley found his freedom in his life and one of the ways to keep himself close to ‘Jah’ (the God).

Who would have thought that 40 years after his premature death, his words will resonate on another level with the atmosphere around the world. Same way, the words sung by Black Sabbath also resonate on another level and the words spoken by Eric Cantona in 2019 are also finding it’s true essence with the socio-economic impact this pandemic has brought on the world and has accelerated the same impact which was there in pre-Covid world as well but we, the people somehow ignored it.

In Norse Mythology, Ragnarok is said to be the end of all means- to purge the Nine Realms present on Yggdrasil (the sacred Tree of life) of all impurities. Ragnarok translates to the ‘Doom of the Gods’ from Old Norse. Ragnarok is preceded by the cruelty of nature on man amidst moral chaos, the same nature on which man showed cruelty. The stars will dim, the sun will darken and realms will go under the sea but they will rise again, free of all impurities and the people will live together in a hall- roofed with gold.

Football can be said to suffer from an inevitable Ragnarok also. It is at that stage of moral chaos at this time. As depicted in Richard Wagner’s opera named Goetterdaemmerung, Ragnarok is said to be the ‘Twilight of the Gods’. These are the same ‘gods’ Eric Cantona equated to modern day ownership in football through Shakespeare’s writings. Tupac Shakur once said that Death is not the greatest loss in life. The Greatest Loss is what dies inside while being alive. Never surrender.

Otro futbol es posible


Photo Credits: VINCENT WEST- REUTERS

Underdog Stories: Greece

2004 was THE year of the underdogs. May it be FC Porto defeating AS Monaco in the Champions League final, held in Gelsenkirchen- putting Jose Mourinho at the top of the world or minnows like Latvia qualifying for their first ever international tournament or 2 Nordic countries fighting for a place in the semi final of Euro. But the biggest of the upsets came in the same tournament- in the form of the undying spirit of their ancestors, the Greeks ‘spartan kicking’ the hosts Portugal in the finals of Euro 2004, right in front of Portuguese fans. From Nelly Furtado performing for a 55,000 strong audience in Porto to a 18 year old Wayne Rooney carrying the mighty English on his own, Euro 2004 was one of the most memorable tournaments of all time.

 

(Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty images)

This Euro campaign defied all odds. The juggernaut of Germans, the technical suave of Spain and the tactical jargon of Italy had to pack their bags right after Group Stage. The defending champions- France were humbled by the Greeks, blessed by the Gods of Olympus. Sweden and Denmark fought for a place in the semi-finals. No one even had Greece as their pick for even ‘dark horses’ and yet they went on to shock the entire continent and in turn the world with what was their just 3rd ever appearance at an international tournament. Even the hosts, Portugal were ranked outsiders but their all-round display and backing from the ‘12th man’ saw them overcome the mighty English and the firm believers of Totaal Voetbal- Netherlands to book a place in the final, right in their own backyard. Their opponents? Their Group A opponents Greece, who defeated them in the opener of the tournament.

Before this nerve-wracking final kick offs, we will take a look at how this odd defying tournament even came to fruition. Portugal won the bid to host The Euro in 1999, seeing off the competition from Spain and a joint bid from Austria and Hungary. This was the best possible opportunity for the Portuguese to showcase their talent on a big stage, the result of a massive investment made at Grassroot level in late 1980s and 1990s, not only on up and coming players but on up and coming coaches as well. Luis Figo was at the heart of this Portuguese team and also at the top of the world. This tournament also became the unveiling of a lanky teenager from Madeira who was tipped to even replicate the success of Luis Figo and even Eusebio. 

 

(Photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)

The qualification path saw 50 teams fight to get one of those 16 places in the finals of the tournament. Greece shared the qualification group with Spain. This is the first time they shocked the footballing world when they topped their qualification group and sealed an automatic qualification spot, sending Spain to a playoff spot. In the other group, Czechia secured an automatic spot in the tournament with a near perfect qualification record and sent Netherlands into the playoffs. Iceland won plaudits when they held Germany to two 0-0 draws and were 1 point away from making history (which they eventually made 12 years later). Group 8 saw the closest fight in terms of qualification. Bulgaria against all odds topped their group and sealed a spot in Group stage, their 2nd ever qualification for Euro. Croatia and Belgium were tied on points but a superior goal difference saw the Croats advance to the play off stage and send Belgium home.

Perhaps, the biggest upset of the qualification stage and playoffs was Latvia exceeding expectations, overcoming the challenge of Poland to finish 2nd in their qualification group and then defeating Turkey 3-2 on aggregate in playoff rounds. Turkey went from a career high WC 2002 campaign to missing out on a Euro berth in just 2 years. Maris Verpakovskis’ 6 strikes in the qualification campaign sealed his place in the country’s football hall of fame which resulted in Latvia’s qualification for an international tournament. 

With the fate of 16 teams locked in, the real excitement of the main tournament was about to begin. More upsets were lined up. May it be Czechia’s perfect group stage record which sent Germany back home and Milan Baros exploding on the main stage, who was just whiskers away from missing the tournament due to a serious ankle injury suffered while playing for Liverpool FC. Or the ‘match-fixing’ allegations the Italians put on the Swedes and Danes which resulted in their elimination (quite ironic for Italian federation to lodge an official complaint of match fixing when the groundwork of the Calciopoli scandal was being laid at the same time back home- right behind their backs in their own organization). The last match of this group saw Sweden and Denmark face off each other and the fate of Italian qualification also laid on this result. A 2-2 draw between the Nordic countries could send the Italians back home and any other result meant that Italy will continue their journey. The odds of this result happening were the least. And what happened? A dramatic 2-2 draw which sent Sweden and Denmark into quarter finals and Italy was eliminated. But Greece was the shining light of this group stage even though their game play wasn’t as shiny as their results. Humbling Portugal and Spain in a space of 1 week isn’t just luck.

“Nobody thought before the tournament that we would win the trophy, the only thought we had was to be competitive in our games and make our people proud of our country,” explains Dimitris Papadopoulos, another member of the Euro 2004 squad and a former Burnley striker. This was a very good squad, full of very talented, gifted footballers. It was the best mix of players and a great manager in Otto Rehhagel who was renowned for his risk-free, winning approach and had already claimed three Bundesliga titles (one with Kaiserslautern which itself is considered one of the biggest upsets in German football history) before taking the Greece job. It was the Greek spirit married with German discipline. 

 

(Photo by Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The Greeks then faced a mighty encounter in the quarterfinals when they met the defending champions France. It was an all-time squad of sorts that needed no introduction- boasting the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zindane. Les Bleus weren’t at their best in the Group stage. They had to grasp their quarter final berth by scoring some late goals against England and Croatia. Also, there was some fragility in their armour. Marcel Desailly was past his peak. At 35, his performances weren’t up to the mark and their backups in Mikael Silvestre and William Gallas struggled without Desailly’s experience on the pitch.  

Despite the starpower and previous success in the group stage, France was held scoreless and fell 1-0 to the underdogs – who had a squad made up of players playing in Greece only with few players plying trade outside of Greece at club level. Greeks made a record of beating the hosts and defending champions for the first time in the history of Euro.  Greek football was not used to experiencing such success, either with its clubs or its national team. It was a big surprise, even to the Greek people that they reached the finals of Euro and now humbled some big footballing powerhouses and are now 90 minutes away from a historic final. Their opposition? The actual dark horse of every critic – Czechia. A brace from Milan Baros was more than enough to seal a place in semi finals and another historic final was beckoning for the Golden Generation of Czechia. 

 

(Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, on the other side, Portugal reached the semi-finals after eliminating the English on penalties and Netherlands also won against Sweden on penalties – their first ever victory on penalties in International Tournaments. 

The first semi-final was between the 2 superpowers – Portugal looking to win it’s first ever international trophy and it was at the best possible time- at their home, in their own backyard. That lanky teenager from Madeira who was tipped to be the best ever? He opened the scoring and a wonderful strike from the prince of stepovers – Maniche sent Portugal to a historic final and the dreams of conquering Euros was just 90 minutes away- that too in your own backyard. In the 2nd semi-final, the favourites to reach the final – Czechia had to lock horns with the Greeks. A barrage of attacks from the Czechs couldn’t breach the Greek defense, blessed by Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. They carried the wrath of Poseidon, the calm and intelligence of Athena, the will of Hercules, the lightning strike of Zeus and mean demeanor of Ares. And just like Zeus’ lightning, they struck a Silver Goal to seal a place in the final. Traianos Dellas’ strike was the first and last ever Silver Goal in football’s history. 

 

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

This finale was even more sweet for Portugal who could make history and even exact their revenge on the Greeks for their opening day defeat. But fate had other plans. A fully loaded Portuguese arsenal came all guns blazing on Greek defense but they kept their cool and relied on counter attacks and set pieces to trouble their opposition. Right at the hour mark, a corner kick was awarded to Greece and what happened 30 seconds later will be forever etched in the history of Greek football.  Angelos Charisteas struck a header, right through the Portuguese defence and gave a 1-0 lead to the minnows. Angelos’ header was like the arrow which took the life of Darius the Great at the Battle of Marathon, a strike which took down a strong Armada and resulted in the victory of unified Greece, not just Athens or Sparta or Thebes or Korinthia. 

 

(Photo by Olivier Prevosto / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)

This was the same unified Greece, fighting a battle against the superpowers of football and with the blessing of its people and Gods, this war finally won on 4th July 2004. After 2 millenia, Greece was once again the center of the world. When the team came to collect the medals, it was as if the victors of the war had come to take what was left of the sweet victory at the Pantheon. Meanwhile at home, streets were filled with joy and emotion. The nation was again roaring, the Aegean was roaring. This roar was so loud that even the Hydra must have been afraid to come out. Such was the impact of this Greek team on the country who is home to one of the most passionate supporters in the world. Greece had the odds of 80 to 1 of reaching the final at the start of the tournament. Not only they defied these substantial odds, they defied every known statistic and probability known to mankind and conquered Europe- something their ancestorrs will always be proud of.

Had Herodotus been alive in this generation, this victory must have been his favourite among all of known Greek History. Who knows if he really is alive and narrating this piece of history to someone on this Earth?

 

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Underdog Stories: Denmark

While Euros 2020 (or 2021) may be hailed as a revolutionary step in the tournament’s history but it isn’t the first time such a ‘revolution’ has happened in Euros. A throwback to 1992 will put more light on some ‘revolutionary’ steps in Tournament’s history- from becoming the first ever international tournament to allow player names on the back of team jersey to introducing the back-pass rule in the game. The tournament was also the last Euros to award 2 points for a win and have 2 groups of 4 from which 4 teams advanced to semi-finals. And of course, who can forget Denmark’s victory in that Euros, a team which wasn’t even supposed to take part in the finals.

Denmark’s victory in Euros 1992 had all the ingredients of a unforgetful footballing fairytale. It is the story of a team who didn’t qualify for the finals- who went onto win the thing, beating the World Champions- West Germany (now unified Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall and Eastern Bloc), the French and European Champions- the Dutch; surely this would be a story that was woven into the tapestry of footballing folklore?

The Danish team had somewhat earned a reputation of playing ‘Beautiful football’ loosely based on the principles of ‘Totaal Voetbal’ or ‘Total Football’ but also using some hard core principles of English football- especially in defensive phase of the game. The Danes had a glorious 1980s- exceeding expectations by participating in World Cup, Euros and even Olympics- the highlight being a 3rd placed finish in 1984 Euros, held in France. The architect behind the resurgence of Danes was the German Sepp Piontek who led the team from 1979 to 1990. While Sepp looked at the attacking phase of the game, his assistant- Richard Moller Nielsen looked after the defensive aspect of their game. Both of them were different in terms of their coaching ideologies yet complemented each other very well. The cocksure team, including the likes of Michael Laudrup, Morten Olsen and Preben Elkjaer swaggered and scythed their way through the opposition. It was this attack first, defend second mentality that proved to be their downfall though at what would be the peak of this squad’s cycle. The ageing squad finished bottom of the group in the Euros 1988 then failed to qualify for World Cup Italia 90. It felt like the end of an era.

When Sepp Piontek decided to step down from his duties, the Danish FA wanted to appoint another foreign coach who could continue the way the Nordic nation played the game. First choice Horst Wohler was unable to free himself from a club contract. Eventually, Richard Moller got the nod of national team manager, a decision which wasn’t respected by the squad, the national media and the fans- because of his inexperience at a big stage, ability to manage the ego of big names and most important- his pragmatic approach to the game which was exactly opposite to what everyone wanted.


(Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

The latter was the biggest hurdle to win over the players, media and fans. But Richard stuck to his approach of coaching- emphasizing on team cohesion and more defense-oriented game rather than a free-flowing game of football. Richard had his reasons to emphasize on the team cohesion based game- majority of the regulars for senior team played together for a long time, right from youth levels at international stage to playing together at club level. The core of the team played together for the Copenhagen giants- Brondby IF. One more reason for Richard to adopt this approach was also the influence of ‘English game’ on their neighbours Sweden- Bob Houghton and Roy Hodgson’s work in Sweden completely revolutionized the Swedish game. Nielsen took inspiration from this hence went forward with this tactical approach. 


(The compact defensive structure of Danish National Team under Richard Moller Nielsen)

Their start to Euros 1992 qualification group was good- a 4-1 victory against another Nordic side- Faroe Islands but a lackadaisical display of football despite the score-line. This display started a war of words between Nielsen and the Laudrup brothers. A goalless draw against Northern Ireland and a home defeat to footballing powerhouse at that time- Yugoslavia resulted in a nationwide eruption. The Laudrup brothers decided to quit national football because of the entire change in tactical system which rendered their natural game useless. Calls for Nielsen’s sacking were ever increasing but with time, the remaining team eventually settled down and adapted to Nielsen’s setup- a good run of 5 consecutive victories in their qualification group including a historic win on the road against Yugoslavia but it was not enough. Yugolslavia finished first in the qualification group while Denmark missed out on finals of Euros 1992, finishing behind Yugolsavia at 2nd place. A summer break for the Danes was awaiting, a most probable sacking for Nielsen was on the cards. But then, an UN order changed the course of their footballing history. The war struck Balkans entered into a very ugly phase of the war and sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia by the UN- which resulted in the Balkan country’s participation in upcoming Euros null and void just 12 days before the start of Euros. Their place was given to the Danes. Nielsen had a Herculian task of preparing the squad for Euros in comparison to the other participating nations who had a head start of months when it came to training. After trying his best to reconcile with Laudrup brothers- only Brian decided to return back from this hiatus- becoming the last person to be named in the 20-man squad for Euros. Even after getting a last-minute lifeline, there was still another problem for Nielsen. Regular football season wasn’t finished in Denmark because of which many clubs didn’t release the players who were to take part in the Euros. Initially, only 7 players reported for training camp. Only after all club football was concluded in Denmark, did the remaining players join the training camp. Kim Vilfort, the 29-year old midfielder and captain of Brondby IF, joined the training camp after the others joined on a later date because of personal reasons.His 7-year old daughter- Line Vilfort was getting treatment for Leukemia and a last-minute respite came in the form of her improving health and his daughter’s insistence to take part in the Euros which prompted Kim to join the training camp.

The team travelled to Sweden with almost zero expectations, everyone including the players weren’t expecting to even get out of the group stage which consisted of host nation-Sweden, France led by Eric Cantona and Jean Pierre-Papin and Gary Lineker’s England. Only one man believed in absolute victory- Nielsen himself. And he eventually was able to instill this mentality in his tightly knit squad also. A hard-fought goalless draw against England provided a good start to the Danes. The Danes went into the next match against Host nation with some confidence but a narrow 1-0 loss to the Swedes put Denmark on the verge of elimination. Their last match? Against one of competition’s favourite-France. Everyone counted Denmark out. Danes didn’t just need a victory against the star-studded French team but they also needed the other match’s result to go their way.  But against all odds, Denmark did the unthinkable. Not only they defeated France 2-1 but the result of other match also went their way which meant that 2 of tournament’s favourite- France and England were eliminated. Denmark achieved this victory without their midfield cog- Kim Vilfort who had to leave the national team to go back to Copenhagen in order to stay close to his daughter, whose health was again deteriorating. His replacement- Henrik Larsen pulled the strings from midfield against France- also ending up on the scoresheet and the winner came through Lars Elstrup- who came on for Brian Laudrup, late into the ending stages of the match. This particular substitution changed the outlook of Richard in front of the squad who now bought the picture potrayed by Nielsen, especially Brian Laudrup who despite being substituted in the crunch moments of the match for Elstrup, held no qualms about it. Finally, buying in the team ethic-based approach of his manager.  The Danes despite being out of shape still achieved the unthinkable, that too without any rigourous training. The manager rather treated his squad to regular leisure activities of Mini Golf and eating out at McDonalds. The Nordic countries took their place in the semi finals. Their counter parts? The defending Euro champions- the mighty Dutch and the World Champions- Germany, who knocked out the Scots and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)- comprised of the countries who were once part of now defunct Soviet Nation.

With Kim Nilfort again joining his team mates, the Danes took to the field in Gothenburg against the Netherlands- spearheaded by Marco Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. The Duo’s performances in last Euros brought the crown home for the first time in Oranje’s history. This time, they were out with the mission to defend their crown. But, they didn’t expect that Denmark will come all guns blazing on them, right from first minute. Henrik Larsen gave an early lead to the Danes. Their ultra-attacking approach in this fixture resulted in defensive vulnerability at the back but they had Peter Schmeichel to thank. He somehow kept the Dutch attack at bay but Dennis Bergkamp eventually struck gold at 23rd minute, equalizing the score. The Danish team then changed back to their more compact and defensive shape, welcoming a barrage of attacks from the Dutch. But, they counter-attacked whenever they got the opportunity. Just 8 minutes later, Denmark took the lead- again Henrik Larsen scored who then became the joint top scorer of the tournament. Denmark then used their pragmatic approach to see out the match. Peter Schmeichel, Kim Vilfort, Kim Christofte were having the game of their lives. But a fumble inside their own defensive half saw Frank Rijkaard to equalize the score. After dull extra time- given the fatigue got the better of both teams, the match went to penalties. The veteran Dutch keeper- Hans Van Breukelen tried his best to unsettle the underdogs but it all went in vain. The star striker- Marco Van Basten saw his penalty being saved by the ice giant- Peter Schmeichel. Peter mimicked the stance of their 1960 Olympic Silver medal winning Danish keeper- by sticking a chewing gum on the outer periphery of the goal post every time the opposition player came up to take the spot kick- trying to unsettle them. Van Basten eventually crumbled under this unsettling trick and his poor spot kick was saved by Schmeichel. Kim Christofte was charged with the final spot kick. A conversion meant that Denmark will go into the finals. Unfazed by Van Breukelen’s antics, he kept his cool and slotted home the winner. Denmark advanced to a historic final.

In other semi-final, Sweden gave the world champions a fight for their money but the Germans were able to defeat the hosts in a narrow 2-3 victory. The Danes faced the undaunting task of fighting the world champions. But what happened on 26th June, 1992 in Ullevi Stadion, Gothenburg will remain in the memories of not only the Danes but in the memories of every football romantic. Danes, who were the last to arrive to the party to which they were uninvited, were the ones to celebrate first.


Line ups for final of Euro 1992

Early waves of German attacks were repelled, Schmeichel turning shots away from Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Klinsmann. Temporary stands were being erected in Frankfurt ready for the victorious Die Mannschaft’s return to home soil. John Jensen though, had other ideas. Not known for his goal-scoring prowess, having previously struck the post earlier in the competition. Faxe as he was known to team mates arrived at the edge of the penalty area as Povlsen cut the ball back. He struck it first time and sent a bolt past Bodo Illgner to give Denmark the unlikeliest of leads after 18 minutes.

The Germans were shell shocked. Their confidence shattered. Meanwhile, Danes played with all their might in order to keep the Germans at bay who started to go all guns blazing in 2nd half. But at 78th minute, Kim Vilfort received the ball in German’s defensive end from a long goal kick of Peter Schmeichel. What he did after that will always be remembered by the Danes. A brilliant solo effort, which included wrong footing 2 German defenders and taking a shot from his weaker left foot- which ended up into the goal via the goal post. It was 2-0. A final nail in the coffin of German defense was delivered by the man who had decided to not go to Euros and stay back with his family, only for his little daughter’s insistence to play in the tournament. Denmark- European champions for the first time in their history and arguably the biggest underdog victory in history of the sport.

Half of the team was recalled from it’s vacation, half of the team had to cancel it and ended up pulling the biggest upset. And it wasn’t just luck. It was a team effort, not the effort of manager or certain individual players. It was a proper team performance. To many observers, they were essentially coming in to make up the numbers. Nobody expected Denmark to be able to compete. The tournament was won, one that the victorious team were not even part of 26 days earlier. The tournaments slogan was ‘Small is beautiful’, perhaps then aptly won by a nation of a mere 5 million people.


(Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

And this victory changed the course of Danish Football. Peter Schmeichel went on to win even more laurels with Manchester United, Henrik Larsen secured a big move to Arsenal. Brian Laudrup and Flemming Povlsen won domestic titles with AC Milan, Rangers and Borussia Dortmund respectively. While Michael Laudrup was not the part of this squad but his achievements at club level elevated the level of Danish football to new heights. Kim Vilfort’s performances at Euros attracted interest from major English, Italian and Spanish teams but he decided to stay with his beloved Brondby, whom he took to semi finals of UEFA Cup a year before and regular participation at European stage followed- thereby becoming a club legend and club’s record goal scorer in his 12 year stint with the Copenhagen club. He had to sadly see his daughter succumb to Leukemia just 6 weeks after his Man of the Match worthy performances in the final. As described by his former coach Morten Olsen, Kim had “an indomitable winning mentality” and he “always believed it could be done, no matter how bleak things looked.”  This attitude was surely never more apparent than in the midst of the triumph and trauma of his summer of 1992. This prompted him to become a vocal participant, raising awareness about Leukemia and Cancer and also taking ambassadorial for many organizations- raising awareness about Mental Health- which itself was a societal stigma at that time. Richard Moller Nielsen was finally able to woo the public and media who were against him. In 2014, Richard Moller Nielsen was posthumously entered into the Danish football hall of fame, after succumbing to a brain tumour earlier that year.

For Denmark, this wasn’t the last international tournament victory. The Danes went on to win the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995 with majority of the core’e nucleus being the players who played together at Brondby IF-led by Kim Vilfort.  Kim retired from international football after the 1995 Confederations Cup victory and eventually hung his boots in 1998. Even after retirement, he stuck down to work for his childhood club, working with the youth teams as the head of scouting and recruitment, hoping to find the ‘next generation’ which can take the mantle from his generation and even do better than them. In the present day, his beloved team finally won the League after a 16 year wait and at the heart of this team was a 20 year old midfielder Jesper Lindstrom who was himself scouted by Kim many years ago.

When asked about the Euros victory, he always pointed out to the team spirit of that Danish side- “We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.” 


(Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The generation of Richard Moller Nielsen has inspired the future generation of footballers in Denmark, who always look upto the cult heroes of 1992. What happened in Copenhagen a few days back was a testament to the spirit of Danish people, together no matter what the situation is and yesterday’s victory against Russsia against all odds put them into Knockout rounds of yet another Euros. And it was possible because of the team spirit and the backing of ‘the 12th man’, the fans. Telia Parken saw another chapter unfold. Even if Denmark doesn’t win their next match, their deeds in this Euros will be remembered forever.

god bedring, Christian


(Photo by Pool via REUTERS)

Underdog Stories: Czechia

 

Czech Republic (or Czechia). The moment you hear these 2 words, you get the images of Prague and it’s clamouring medieval era streets and of course Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer, Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros and who can forget the man, the myth, the legend: Antonin Panenka. 

Once the mighty yet underdog nation of Czechoslovakia boasted some of the most technically astute players ever known to man and their dark horse performances at various international tournaments, highlight being the 1976 Euros where they triumphed against all odds. This was the result of widespread change at grassroot level, also involving the use of Sports Science in the game. The country started churning out very good prospects which made the core of this team.

The West Germany of 1976 was a war-machine, ready to crumble any opposition in their way. Reigning world and European champions, they were still led on the touchline by the brilliant mind of Helmut Schön and directed on the pitch by the legendary Franz Beckenbauer. While West Germany did their part in dispatching the host nation, Yugoslavia in the second semi-final in Belgrade, 24-hours earlier in Zagreb, the Netherlands had been caught off-guard, losing their semi-final in extra-time against the largely unconsidered Czechoslovakia. 

 Czechoslovakia had twice been beaten World Cup finalists, in 1934 and 1962, and had reached the semi-finals of the very first European Championship in 1960. 16 years between those latter two peaks in achievement, this new appearance at the business end of a major international tournament was most unexpected. Failure to qualify for all major tournaments beyond the 1962 World Cup, apart from 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where Czechoslovakia played in group stage and lost all three matches, had left them looking ineffectual as a football-playing nation. In fact, after becoming European champions in 1976, they would revert to recent type and fail to qualify for the 1978 World Cup. It all made their success of 1976 seem like a mirage.

 

(Photo by Andrew Teebay/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

A 3-0 defeat to England at the Old Wembley had provided Czechoslovakia with a shaky start to their qualifying campaign. It was a game that put the Don Revie led England into a false sense of security. They would win only two further games, both against the group minnows, Cyprus. When the two nations faced one another in Bratislava, exactly one year after England’s victory, there was a complete change of fortunes. Czechoslovakia came from a goal down to win 2-1 and the advantage was now theirs. England finished with just 1 defeat in their qualifying campaign but the group was won on other competitive results against Portugal- heart break for the Englishmen, a party like mood in Czechoslovakia. 

During the quarter finals, Czechoslovakia was pitted against USSR. It was the classic Eastern Bloc face-off. The more day-to-day life in Bratislava and Prague was directed from offices in Moscow, the more Czechoslovakia wanted to bloody the noses of those pulling the long communist strings. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was still very fresh in the mind.  It was a symbolic 2-0 victory that Czechoslovakia obtained in Bratislava during the first leg and a defiant 2-2 draw in Kyiv during the second that took them to the finals in Yugoslavia. Jozef Móder was the hero of the piece, scoring the opening goal in the first game and both of Czechoslovakia’s efforts in the return.  

The team waiting for them in the semi-finals was the Netherlands. Johann Cryuff waiting for the fatigued Czechoslovakia team alongside Johan Neskeens, Rob Rensenbrick and Co. Another shocking victory, this time with a score line of 3-1 saw the minnows progress to the final. Was it a case of Dutch becoming complacent, or Czechoslovak organisation and determination definitively winning the day? On a rainy evening in Zagreb, it was quite probably a helping of both as, while Czechoslovakia were an increasingly potent force, Oranje were within the grips of one of their finest ever tournament meltdowns. Getting on the end of Antonin Panenka free-kick, Anton Ondruš, the Czechoslovak sweeper, opened the scoring with a beautifully directed first-half header. However, he then levelled the game for the Netherlands in the second half with a disastrously graceful side-footed volley, which found the top corner of his own goal. The game progressed into extra-time. With a penalty shoot-out looming over, František Veselý worked his way down the right flank, before arcing over a cross to the back post, where it was met by the head of the long-striding Zdeněk Nehoda. Netherlands were then caught in the open for a third time with less than two minutes remaining when, with an almost Cruyfian flourish, Veselý rounded Piet Schrijvers to make it 3-1. In what was an eventful game, Jaroslav Pollák was sent off on the hour mark for Czechoslovakia after mistiming a sliding tackle on the saturated turf. Things even turned sour when Johan Neskeens was sent back to dressing room for a mistimed tackle, culminating the meltdown of the Dutch during the course of 120 minutes. It had been a game played with a great sense of skill and style in torrential conditions. This was confirmed when both sets of players embraced one another upon the final whistle. The respect was there for all to see.

The following day, with a little over 25 minutes of their semi-final against Yugoslavia remaining, Die Teammannschaft were trailing 2-0. But the West Germans dramatically turned the game around for a 4-2 victory after extra-time. Another historic final for Czechoslovakia. The West Germans stood between them and absolute glory. Amidst all of this, the legend of Antonin Panenka was there in the making. A 2-0 advantage was cut down in the very last minute by the Germans with a Bernd Hölzenbein equalizer from a Rainer Bonhof corner. The match went down to penalties and then Antonin Panenka got the opportunity to win an international trophy for his home country, which he did- via a chipped penalty which became to be known as the ‘Panenka’. Francesco Totti vs Netherlands in Euros 2000 semis, Zinedine Zidane vs Italy in World Cup 2006 final. There are countless examples of the Panenka penalty over the years with many such moments coming in most crucial of matches.

 

(Photo by Karl Schnörrer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

What a way to write history on a grand stage and this victory along with various changes made at grassroot level resulted in the rise of a potential golden generation in the late 1980s, early 1990s with clubs like Sparta Prague, Slavia Prague, Bohemians 1905, FK Viktoria Plzen, FK Jablonec, FK Mlada Boleslav seeing an increase in the talent coming through the youth ranks. But the “Velvet Revolution” and the collapse of political order in 1989 brought an end to the various sporting schemes which helped the game thrive in the country. A funding gap was created due to this with influx of money decreasing over the years, which saw the outflux of talent from the country. By 2005, only 5 members of National Team were plying their trade in the country’s top tier league competition and rest of the members were making a name for themselves abroad. 

Playing under the new nation of Czech Republic (called Czechia in present day), the so-called exciting prospects took the world by storm in 1996. With the Bosman ruling and its potential game changing impact, a new market opened up for the Czech players to make a mark at club level and Euros 1996 became a stage to show their talent to the world. The underdogs defied the odds and reached to the finals of the competition and were moments away from getting hands on the coveted trophy but an Oliver Bierhoff double (including a golden goal winner) shattered the dreams of this tiny new nation, losing the match by the score line of 2-1. A revenge complete for now unified Germany.

 

(Left-Right) Back row: Jiri Nemec, Jan Suchoparek, Michal Hornak, Pavel Nedved, Lubos Kubic and Petr Kouba. Front row: Radoslav Latal, Pavel Kuka, Karel Poborsky, Radek Bejbl and Patrik Berger.(Photo by Professional Sport/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

But this tournament opened up the gates to European club football for many of it’s international players with the change in ruling of Non-European players allowed in squad in many countries after the Bosman ruling. Pavel Nedved joined Lazio, spearheading the Czech football revolution for many years and making his mark at Lazio and then at Juventus. Karel Poborsky (and his famous “Poborsky Lob”) joined Manchester United, winning a Premier League medal in his 18-month stay at the club, then moving to Benfica, Lazio and finishing his career in Czech Republic. After losing Poborsky to their arch-rivals Manchester United, Liverpool turned their attention to Patrik Berger, who spent 7 glorious years at the Merseyside club, then moving further south and joining The Pompeys, Portsmouth and then Aston Villa before calling it quit on his career in England, moving back to his native country to see out his last few years of the career. 

 

(Photo by Andrew Teebay/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

While the current crop of players made a name for themselves with their performances and winning their dream moves to the Elites, the next batch of youth was brimming on the chance to send shockwaves, in which they succeeded. The U21s of Czech Republic performed very well at U21 Euros, finishing runners up at 2000 edition which was held in Slovakia and winning the competition in 2002, hosted by Switzerland and brought the talent of iconic Petr Cech to the mainstream. Both the editions of competition saw the involvement of many players, who then went to have a good career including the likes of Petr Cech, Milan Baros, Zdenek Grygera, Marek Jankulovski, Jaroslav Drobny, David Rozehnal, Tomas Hubschman, Radoslav Kovac. (Tomas Rosicky was supposed to take part in 2000 edition but he had become a mainstay in senior team by the time qualification rounds for the tournament were over).

Carrying this momentum forward, Czech Republic again gave the European powerhouses a tough fight, reaching the semi-finals of 2004 Euros, setting up a clash with another underdog team in Greece. Milan Baros’ performances almost took them to another European final but an silver goal winner again destroyed the dreams of this tiny nation. An appearance at 2006 World Cup was another highlight for the country but by the turn of the decade, the Golden Generation was in its twilight years and the outflux of talent to neighbouring countries of Germany and Austria curtailed the development of many prospects. 

 

(Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

But with ex-players getting into administration level jobs in the Czech Republic FA, things are turning around. Karel Poborsky himself is the Technical Director, looking after the development of players representing the country at youth levels and creating a good path for them to take the chance to represent Czech Republic at senior level when they are ready; by trying to emulate the same sporting schemes and atmosphere from which their Golden Generation benefitted. 

A country which influenced German and Belgian Football Renaissance is itself going through the same phase and the signs are looking good till now. Exciting prospects like Alex Kral, Adam Hlozek, Adam Karabec, Alex Kral, Michal Sadilek, Ondrej Lingr, Ondrej Sasinka, Christian Frydek, Filip Soucek, Dominik Plechaty, Zdenek Hucek, Vojtech Patrak, Matej Polidar have stepped up and made a mark for their hometown teams and for country at Youth Levels too, again attracting the attention of scouts from other parts of Europe.

And Monday’s match against Scotland was an example of this Czech Football Renaissance. A brace by Patrick Schick which included a lobbed goal from 50 yards out is just the start of this generation’s rise to the top. The journey is long but the Czechs are ready for it, no matter what hurdles lie in front of them. 

 

(Photo by Craig Williamson- SNS Group via Getty Images/Getty Images)