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)

Cult Heroes: Ji-Sung Park

From being rejected by clubs in Seoul in his early days due to his lack of physical prowess, to becoming the most successful Asian footballer to ever play in Europe, Park Ji-Sung has had a remarkable career. We take a look at Manchester United’s cult hero, Park Ji-Sung, and the impact he has had at the Theatre of Dreams.

EARLY DAYS (1998-2000)

Park’s ambition of becoming a professional footballer emerged early. In 1998, he led his high school team to a victory in the Korean National Sports Festival. This success prompted him to apply for several professional clubs and universities. Due to his small physical stature, he was rejected several times before finally getting into Myonji University. However, in January 1999, his university team was given a chance to train with the South Korean Olympic team. His performance during these training sessions attracted the attention of the South Korean Olympic team and national team manager Huh Jung-moo. Thereafter, he became a formal member of the Olympic team. His continuingly impressive performances earned him a spot in the national team and he made his debut on 5th April 2000, in an AFC Asian Cup qualification game against Laos. In his early days, Park operated predominantly as an attacking midfielder but could also play on the left-hand side, as well as the right-hand side of midfield. He was known for his tenacity and tremendous work rate which eventually earned him the nickname ‘Three-lunged Park’.

Kyoto Purple Sanga and PSV Eindhoven (2000-2005)

The first professional club that Park signed for was the Kyoto-based J1 league side, Kyoto Purple Sanga. He joined the club in June 2000 and in his first season itself, Sanga was demoted to the J2 league. However, in 2001, Sanga won the J2 league and instantly earned back promotion. Park’s stellar performance in the 2002/03 season led Sanga to their first-ever Emperor’s Cup victory. He ended up scoring the equalizer in the final which they went on to win 2-1. This was Park’s last game for Sanga and he left the club as one of its greats.

After South Korea failed in the 2000 Olympics, Gus Hiddink was appointed as the manager by the Korean national team. During his time with the Korean national team, he made Park a more versatile player by playing him on the wings in a 4-4-2 formation, as well as often playing him as a wide forward in a 4-3-3 system. This led to an increase in Park’s goal tally for the national team and his performances against England and France leading up to the 2002 world cup grabbed international attention. After managing the national team for two years, Hiddink invited Park to play for him at PSV Eindhoven. In January 2003, Park joined PSV. However, the South Korean struggled during his initial days in the Netherlands due to injuries. He underwent an operation to remove his meniscus and this affected his first season at PSV. But the departure of Arjen Robben to Chelsea in 2004 led to increased opportunities at the club for the Korean. He instantly proved his worth to the team by producing stellar performances in a campaign that saw PSV reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. He was a pivotal part of that PSV midfield due to his tremendous burst of pace while breaking on the counter and his crisp and accurate passing. He was the top contributor of goals and assists for PSV that season and even scored against AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final. These world-class performances at the highest level are what grabbed the attention of Manchester United in 2005.
Manchester United (2005-2012)
Impressed by his performances at PSV, Sir Alex Ferguson signed Park in July 2005 for 4 million pounds. In a team full of superstars the Korean’s role was hardly ever well-defined. He was neither a prolific goal-scorer who started regularly nor a physically dominant midfielder. In his early days at United, many were skeptical about Ferguson’s decision; especially in an era when stats like distance covered, progressive carries, etc. weren’t a part of the ‘meta’. But over the years, Ferguson truly utilized Park’s full potential by playing him all across the midfield as well as a wide forward in a front three. While playing in the midfield, he was more of a box-to-box midfielder. Ferguson often turned to Park in big games because of the defensive solidity the Korean brought to the side. 
Park’s first goal for the Red Devils came against Birmingham City in a league cup game in which United won 3-1. In his first season at the club, Park was a regular fixture off the bench in both domestic as well as European competitions, but started sparingly. However, the trust Ferguson had in him was evident, as Park took the armband off Ryan Giggs in a Champions League home game against Lille on 18th October 2005. He thus became the first Asian to captain Manchester United. Park netted his first Premier League goal against Arsenal in a 2-0 home victory on 9th April 2006. This was the first of five goals he scored against Arsenal, making him an arch-nemesis for the gunners over the years.

However, the Korean’s progress was halted in his second season when he injured his ankle in a game against Tottenham Hotspur in September. He recovered from that ankle injury in three months, but was sent to America for surgery in April due to a recurring knee problem. This was a chronic knee problem that would eventually accelerate his retirement. Side-lined with injuries for most of the season, Park said that he wasn’t happy with the Premier League medal he won in 2006/07 and assured the fans that he had much more to offer in the years to come.
Walking the talk, Park ensured he was a pivotal member of the United squad from 2007 to 2011 as United went on to win three league titles and played three Champions League finals while winning one of them. Park was hailed for his performances in the big games, where he always delivered. Multiple goals against big clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and AC Milan during this time soon made him a favorite amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Ferguson mostly deployed him on the left side of the midfield three where his workman-like attitude and intense pressing gave the likes of Paul Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez the creative freedom which brought the best out of them. However when played in a front three as a wide forward Park came up with crucial goals and assists as he broke with immense pace on the counter. The goal and assist he got against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final or his goal in AC Milan’s 4-0 thumping at Old Trafford in 2010 are a few examples. When it came to dubious Champions League fixtures, Park was a go-to player for Ferguson. He was pivotal in both legs while defending a 1-0 lead against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final. His relentless work rate, off-the-ball movement and a knack for intercepting Barcelona’s quick passing earned him tremendous plaudits in that game. Ferguson later admitted in an interview that leaving Park out of the 2008 Champions League final squad was one of the toughest managerial decisions he has ever had to make. 
Perhaps his best performance in a United shirt came against AC Milan on the 10th of March 2010 at Old Trafford. Ferguson had deployed him in a midfield three with a very specific role. He was assigned to man-mark the Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo to curb the creative flow of that flamboyant AC Milan team. Park executed this role so well in United’s 4-0 thumping of Milan that the Italian later wrote in his autobiography, “The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron.” Such praise from one of the best midfielders in the world just goes to show how pivotal Park was in that United team from 2007 to 2011.

Park made his 200th appearance for United on 5th February 2012 against Chelsea. During the 2011/12 season, Park had some memorable moments like scoring in the 8-2 victory against Arsenal, but his playing time had drastically reduced due to injuries and a dip in form. This led him to find a move away from Manchester to regain some game time.

Park ended up scoring 27 times for the Red Devils while making 205 appearances for the club. His relentless work ethic, energy and ability to adapt to several positions in a team filled with superstars is what made him special. In May 2020, Rooney said in an interview, “It’s crazy but if you mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo to a 12-year-old, they would immediately say, ‘Yeah, he was a brilliant player for Manchester United.’ But if you said ‘Ji-sung Park’ they may not know who he was. Yet all of us who played with Park know he was almost as important to our success”. This just goes to show how highly valued he was by his team-mates at United and continues to have great relationships with them.

QPR and the return to PSV (2012-14)

Due to the lack of regular playing time at United, Park moved to Queens Park Rangers on 9 July 2012. Park was made captain of the club, but due to his recurring knee problems combined with a lack of form, his time at QPR was quite unpleasant. The Hoops got relegated that season with Park only managing 20 league appearances and no goals.

With QPR playing in the second division of English football, Park returned to PSV during the 2013/14 season on loan. Perhaps the highlight of his return was when he captained PSV in a 4-0 win against Ajax while assisting twice and scoring once. In May 2014, Park announced his retirement due to the persistent knee problems he was facing. Reflecting on his career, he said, “I’m leaving with no regrets, I enjoyed playing football. I have achieved more than I thought I would. I’m truly grateful for all the support I have received and I will live the rest of my life thinking how I can pay it back.”

Legacy and post-retirement work

To this day Park continues to represent Manchester United as a global club ambassador for the club. Park is the founder of the charitable foundation, JS Foundation, set up in 2011, which develop and launch charity programs that will support football infrastructure and also the necessities of life. Park is remembered very fondly by the Old Trafford Faithful due to his contributions to a side that started from scratch and ended up winning everything. The Korean played a pivotal role in the rebuild that was brought about by Ferguson from 2005 to 2010. He was a perfect fit in a squad full of superstars who were raring to reach their prime and galvanized the squad by his hardworking and selfless attitude.

If we were to draw a parallel between Ji-Sung Park and a current member of the squad, the person whose name is most likely to come up in that particular conversation is Daniel James. A reliable, selfless player who would run his heart out for the team and can be used as a great tactical pawn to disrupt opposition, especially in the bigger games as mentioned previously. While James may still not be the final product, he has proven to be very useful in disrupting the opposition play with the help of his intelligent pressing and running. James, currently, may not be as good a player as Park was but their roles in the squad seem to be pretty similar.

Players like Ji-Sung Park don’t come around very often, but when they do, they leave a long lasting legacy behind them. 

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The Path To The Perch, Part 3 : 2000-2013

 

“And Solskjaer has won it”

On 26th May 1999, these words echoed around the world and were forever etched in Manchester United’s rich history. Rightly so, United had just become the first English team to do the treble and they did it with some style. Ryan Giggs’ last gasp winner in the FA cup semi final, a brilliant comeback victory against Juventus in the Champions League semifinal and of course, the two late, late goals against Bayern Munich in the final. 

“Football, bloody hell”, remarked Sir Alex Ferguson, as he would later find out that ‘Sir’ was a permanent prefix added to his name. Alex Ferguson was awarded the Knighthood after his Treble triumph in 1999. A remarkable turnaround from what was shaky start to his life as a Manchester United manager.

After winning the treble, the glory days kept rolling at Old Trafford as Manchester United would go on to win back to back titles in 1999-00 and 2000-01 with most of the treble winning team still donning the Manchester United red. However, the team that won the treble was soon dismantled. 

Peter Schmeichel had already left following the 1999 season and replacing him proved to be difficult. Mark Bosnich, later Fabian Barthez and Tim Howard, all failed to impress at Old Trafford. Following the 2001 title victory, Teddy Sheringham left to join Tottenham Hotspur on a free transfer. Ferguson broke the transfer record to sign Ruud van Nistelrooy from PSV. Later, that record was again broken to sign Juan Sebastian Veron who is still regarded as one of Ferguson’s biggest failed transfers. Jaap Stam left in that summer and Andy Cole also joined Blackburn in December 2001. 

Sir Alex Ferguson announced his intentions to retire at the start of the season. A decision which we all know he reversed and promised to stay on for a minimum of another 3 years. Van Nistelrooy scored an impressive total of 36 goals in his debut season but United failed to win any silverware as that was the year of emergence for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and a rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal that would continue for years and years. 

Fergie again broke the transfer record to sign Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United for 29 million pounds which proved to be a fantastic signing. United won the league title again in the 2002-03 season and reached the Champions League semi final. David Beckham was sold to Real Madrid following the title win after a rather public row with Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson signed replacements in Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Cristiano Ronaldo. No prizes for guessing which of them was a successful signing. But the 2003-04 season belonged to the Invincibles of Arsenal. In the CL, United lost in the first knockout round to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. 
At the start of the 2004-05 season,United signed a promising teenager from Everton by the name of Wayne Rooney. Rooney scored a hattrick on his CL debut and went on to have a fairly decent career at United but United were devoid of silverware yet again. You see, Mourinho was named the Chelsea manager at the start of the 2004-05 season and he and his Chelsea team went on to dominate the league in that, and the subsequent season. The Red Devils finished 3rd in that season behind Chelsea and Arsenal. At the start of the 2005-06 season, the Glazer family completed the takeover and bought the majority stake in Manchester United leaving the clubs in almost 600m of debt. The financial situation at United was bleak and there are a lot of articles written about this. Although, in the 2005-06 season the red devils did manage to win a piece of silverware in the form of the Carling Cup, or most recently known as the Carabao Cup. 
In 2006-07, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney developed into more mature players and became superstars. Their on field Chemistry and partnership was a joy to watch. United had also finally managed to replace Kasper Schmeichel in the form of Edwin van der Sar and the rebuild was complete. Manchester United won the title and reached the semi finals of the Champions League where they lost to the eventual winners –  AC Milan. The club remained successful on the pitch in spite of the takeover from the Glazer family, a true testament to Ferguson’s managerial abilities. 
The 2007-08 season proved to be one of Ferguson’s best seasons in his outstanding career. United signed Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson. Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra settled in at Manchester after a difficult start to their Manchester United careers after coming in January of 2006. Manchester United did the double that season, winning the Champions League and the Premier League. The famous night in Moscow, The match went to a penalty shootout after Cristiano Ronaldo’s opening goal was cancelled out by Frank Lampard’s equaliser.Ronaldo missed his penalty in the shootout but a slip from John Terry and a fantastic save by van der Sar off Nicholas Anelka’s attempt meant United would win the Champions League, Ferguson’s 2nd and United’s 3rd in their history.
The following season, there were strong rumours that Real Madrid wanted to buy Ronaldo after he had won the Balon D’or, but the Portugese stayed for another year in Manchester and helped United win another league title and reach another Champions League final only to lose to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona led by a superb Lionel Messi. 
Following the 2008-09 season, Ronaldo left in the summer to join giants Real Madrid. That season, United recovered from a slow start to win the Premier League title. That title victory made Sir Alex Ferguson the first manager in Premier League history to win the Premier League 3 years in a row, on two separate occasions. This Premier League title victory was Ferguson’s 11th and Manchester United’s 18th, putting them level with Liverpool.
In the 2009-10 season, Manchester United won the League cup after defeating Aston Villa 2-1 in the final. That was the first time United were able to mount a successful knockout cup defence. However, the Red Devils lost the league to Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea on the final day and narrowly bowed out of the Champions League in the quarter finals owing to an away goals defeat to Bayern Munich.
The 2010-11 season marked an end of an era for that Manchester United squad. Gary Neville, Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes all retired at the end of that season. Manchester United did manage to win that season meaning they would go ahead of Liverpool as the English team with the most League titles.They also reached the Champions League final, their 3rd in 4 years, where they would again meet Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. United lost the final 3-1 to a brilliant FC Barcelona team and Sir Alex Ferguson’s elusive 3rd Champions League win remained a dream. 
Owing to retirements of key players, Ferguson again spent big in the transfer market. Signing Ashley Young from Aston Villa, Phil Jones from Blackburn and David de Gea from Atletico Madrid. Overall, the 2011-12 campaign was a fairly unsuccessful one for Manchester United. They were relegated to the Europa League after finishing 3rd in the Champions League, where they would meet Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao who would go on to knock the Manchester club out. And of course, who can forget the famous “Agueroooo” moment? Manchester City clinched their first Premier League title in over 44 years after pimping United for the first spot on goal difference. 

That season sparked a reaction in Sir Alex Ferguson and he spent big to bring in Dutch striker Robin van Persie in order to bring the title back to Old Trafford. And he did. Manchester United won their 20th Premier League title, Sir Alex Ferguson’s 13th, with van Persie finishing the season as the golden boot winner. Towards the end of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, pulling down the curtains on a glorious and illustrious career with Manchester United. 

 “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that.”

-Sir Alex Ferguson.

And he did.