Missing Medals: Just Fontaine in the 1958 World Cup

A World Cup has never seen the same explosive firepower from one man since Just Fontaine went to Sweden in 1958. The France striker had one of the greatest tournaments any individual has ever had at the international tournament. Fontaine rattled the net a record 13 times in the only six games he ever played at a World Cup, but ultimately this wasn’t enough to bring the Jules Rimet trophy back to Paris, as Fontaine and his side were knocked out at the semifinal stage by eventual winners Brazil. This meant that one of the greatest ever World Cup performances, Just Fontaine in 1958, went without the medal he perhaps deserved.

As odd as it may seem looking back at history, this performance may not have ever happened, as Fontaine made only five international appearances before the tournament in Sweden and scored only one goal for his national team in four years prior to it. One may think that scoring a hat trick on your international debut would put you in the spotlight, but Fontaine achieved this in a dead rubber 1954 World Cup qualifier against the lowly Luxembourg, where France ran out 8-0 winners.

Nonetheless, Fontaine was in spectacular form for his club. 39 goals for Stade de Reims helped the French club win a league and cup double. In Sweden, he formed a great partnership with Raymond Kopa, one of the best creative midfielders of the time and was an integral part of three of Real Madrid’s five consecutive European Cup victories.

France’s campaign got off to a shaky start. Paraguay took a 3-2 lead against them early in the second half of their Group 2 opener, but France recovered well and made a statement to the rest of their competitors by storming to a 7-3 victory with Fontaine scoring three. The French were then narrowly defeated by Yugoslavia in their next match, but Fontaine still put himself on the scoresheet twice, including an 85th minute equaliser to make it 2-2 before France were sucker-punched with a winning goal from Veselinovic three minutes later. Fontaine assured his team of progression to the knockout stages with his crucial headed goal against Scotland in a game that finished 2-1.

France played Northern Ireland in the quarter final, and they were probably the easiest opponents the French could have drawn, as the Irish had to win an extra group round play-off match with Czechoslovakia which went to extra time to qualify. Although they were exhausted from playing three games in five days, Northern Ireland did boast a talented squad that, under normal circumstances, may not have fallen to the 4-0 defeat to Fontaine’s side that they did. Nevertheless, Fontaine scored another two goals that took France to a semifinal date with Brazil, including one following a fabulous turn that Johan Cruyff would be proud of, leaving the defence for dead.

The Brazilians impressed massively in Sweden, with Didi, Vavá, Garrincha, and a 17-year-old Pelé in their ranks. Aside from their attacking threat, Brazil had a resilient defence which hadn’t been breached before their game with France. After making a brilliant run behind the defence that only the best finishers in the game could make, Fontaine collected a sublime through pass from Kopa, as though he knew the pass was coming before Kopa had even turned away from the first defender he fooled.

In the end, the Brazilian skill proved too much for Fontaine’s team, storming to a 5-2 victory, putting France into the third place playoff with West Germany. Four years earlier, Sandor Kocsis scored 11 goals in Hungary’s runner-up campaign, setting the record for most goals scored in a single World Cup. For Fontaine to achieve the record he needed to score three against the winners of the 1954 edition of the tournament. Fontaine did this and more, scoring four in a 6-3 win that guaranteed France their third place finish, and Just Fontaine’s place in history.

Since then, Gerd Muller came close in 1970 with only 10 goals, and Ronaldo scored 8 in Japan/Korea 2002, but it will take an incredible solo performance to better the record set by Just Fontaine.

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From German clichés to world champions

Germany are the champions of the world after defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to Mario Gotze’s sweet strike in extra time. The game was even throughout with two opposing styles of play clashing for football’s biggest prize making for a fascinating contest.

Argentina came at Germany with a forward line that managers can only dream of; Gonzalo Higuaín, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Leo Messi. They were fast, precise, and finding space. Germany on the other hand were resilient and builded their play in the middle of the park with everyone so comfortable on the ball.

Germany won it with almost every German cliché you can imagine – they were industrious, energetic, efficient, a real team. Anybody could have scored the goal for them; Muller, Klose, Ozil, even any of the defenders. Mario Gotze was the finisher of the only goal of the game so he grabs the headlines and the glory, but in truth it was the entire team that won it for them. Germany were spectacular in every department, setting an example of how all teams should play.

While Argentina weren’t exactly bad – Mascherano capped off an excellent tournament with a decent performance in the middle of the park in the final – they just had too few options for this Germany midfield and back line that were fully capable of limiting the best player in the world to minimal opportunities. Their high defensive line allowed space between the defenders and Neuer in goal for Messi to charge into at times, but they were compact between the middle line and the defence, leaving Argentina with difficulty getting the ball into the positions to create very many dangerous chances.

Even poor Christoph Kramer, whose dream came true being included in the starting XI only minutes before kick off before being taken away from him having to come off injured in the first half, had his important role to play, along with every other German player both on the night and through the tournament. Many of these players came to prominence at a very young age at the 2010 World Cup, and their growth together has been showcased beautifully with this World Cup victory.

To talk about the Germany team of 2014 is to talk about clichés, particularly for the way they ended their tournament (i.e. against Brazil and Argentina.) Industrious and efficient, built around a foundation of a great team balance, and in the end, more deserving winners out of anyone else who went to Brazil.


Missing Medals: The 1974 Netherlands Story

Were they footballers or were they artists? Were Cruyff, Rensenbrink, and Rep athletes competing in just another competition, or architects of physical poetry that the world had never before seen? Football was played differently before the Dutch approached the game in a new way. Rinus Michels disregarded all pre-established ways of playing the sport, and invented his own: Total football. This would become the driving force that made the Netherlands side of 1974 one of the best there ever was and one of the most remembered teams forty years later.

The Dutch manager for the World Cup, Rinus Michels, had managed Ajax for six years between the 60s and early 70s. Here, he developed his philosophy and with an incredibly talented and creative group of players that bought into Michels’ style of play completely. The team and manager worked extremely well together, culminating in a 1971 European Cup victory for Michels and Ajax, in what would be Michels’ last season in Amsterdam before the legendary coach would print his stamp on Barcelona. Ajax retained the beautiful approach to the game that Michels gave them and went on to win the next two European Cups as well as back-to-back league titles in ’72 and ’73.

Much of the ’74 Netherlands squad was also built up of Feyenoord players. The Rotterdam club had won the European Cup in 1970, right before Ajax’s three in a row, as well as a UEFA Cup in ‘74 and league successes in ’69, ’71, and ’74. When the national side travelled the short distance to West Germany to compete, they could not have been more confident. They knew they were the group of players who changed the way football was played, and picked up title after title in doing so.

Captain Cruyff was a ‘striker’, but by name only. It wasn’t only common to see him change and play other positions but the nature of the team’s style of play meant that he, along with the other ten outfield players, tactically moved around the pitch at all times and played in whatever position the situation at the time deemed them to play. Cruyff came back into midfield and ignited attacking moves for his team, occasionally he’d push out to the wing to skip past the fullback and whip a cross into the box to the onrushing ‘winger’ looking to poach the goal. Cruyff even often played in defence if that’s where the team movement brought him.

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For Valencia, A Sorry Show Of What Could Have Been

Valencia must have greeted this weekend’s guests to Mestalla with a frustrated sigh of ‘that could have been us.’ Atletico Madrid visited the sunny south-east and came away with three points that put them top of the table for the first time since January thanks to goals from the French pairing of Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro.

Sunday’s encounter showed us clearly how starkly contrasting both sides’ last five years have been.

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As recently as 2011/12, Valencia were somewhat secure in their position as Spain’s third best team. Led by now PSG boss Unai Emery, Los Che finished 3rd three seasons running, with Atleti just another team struggling to consistently qualify for the European spots along with Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, and Villarreal in La Liga’s “second tier.”

Just two years on from Valencia being top dogs of the “second tier,” Atletico were top dogs of the first, realising the astonishing achievements that Los Che so dearly wanted – breaking the Barca-Madrid duopoly and stunning the world by winning La Liga.

The home side weren’t without their chances. On Sunday, Diego Alves did what he does best and saved not one, but two penalties, keeping his team in the game. Five years ago, they had the chance to solidify their stance as Champions League regulars, but instead blew it with impatience and board-level turbulence.

Unai Emery’s fantastic achievement of managing Valencia to 3rd place between 2009/10, 2010/11, and 2011/12 was just not deemed good enough for the fans who wanted to compete with the 100-point chasing Barcelona and Real Madrid. Valencia fans are known for being a difficult bunch to please, and some of the quickest fans in Spain at releasing the infamous white handkerchiefs of disgust that somehow now seem as common as the white jersey at Mestalla.

Valencia earned 71, 71, and 61 points in those 3rd place seasons, falling a significant way behind the title-chasers but during a period when Barca and Madrid pushed each other to almost unbelievable record-setting new heights. Both teams, and perhaps Spanish football as a whole, were playing to peak levels and dominating football both domestically and in Europe. Emery surely cannot be blamed for being unable to shake that duopoly up.

However, the feeling on the coast was that Valencia had become stagnant, showing no signs of progression in an environment where the team should have been flourishing. In his final season at Mestalla, Emery’s Valencia did finish with 10 points fewer than the previous campaigns. So he left, eventually for Sevilla and three consecutive Europa Leagues, and Valencia chose Mauricio Pellegrino to be the man to take the project forward.

He was sacked by December, and impatience with managers has come to define Valencia’s last five years. Cesare Prandelli has just been named as their 10th manager since Emery’s departure.

They had another chance to reestablish themselves among Europe’s elite in 2015, after Nuno Espiritu Santo guided them back into the Champions League. In Nuno’s first and only full season at the club Mestalla was restored as a fortress, with Barcelona the only visiting team to claim victory there all season (thanks to a 94th minute goal).

That season’s heroics came largely thanks to the brilliant defensive partnership of Shkodran Mustafi and Nicolas Otamendi. But like so many other brilliant players before him, Otamendi left the club the following summer, leaving a noticeable gap behind him. That gap would ultimately play a huge in role costing Nuno his job, like so many other managers before him.

Meanwhile in the away dugout on Sunday, it was Diego Simeone who was celebrating – the man who has come to define Atletico Madrid.

Since Cholo took over the helm at the Calderón, Atleti have gone from strength to strength, and have proven themselves as the example to all other clubs looking to break into world football’s elite. Before Simeone, los Colchoneros struggled to qualify for Europe on a regular basis, and languished in 10th place when the Argentine was appointed. In his first half season, he brought them from mediocrity to two points away from the Champions League.

Simeone has given the team stability, something Valencia severely lack. His influence has been clear over the last half decade and on Sunday it was on show again, bringing on Yannick Carrasco and Fernando Torres early in the second half for both of them to play important roles in the opening goal of the game within minutes/seconds of their introductions.

With success built on the back of a water-tight defence and prolific warriors leading the line of attack down the years, Atleti are now established as one of Europe’s top teams. They’ve broken Spain’s duopoly, and replaced it with an exhilarating three horse race.

Atletico won the league in 2013/14 with Diego Costa up front doing the job of two men. He battled for every aerial ball sent his direction, and finished the moves off that started with him laying off those passes to the awaiting wide men. This year, the Madrid outfit may perhaps be best suited to win the title again since that famous season, with Kevin Gameiro emerging as one of the most important players in los Colchoneros’ arsenal.

The speedy striker has featured in all of Atleti’s league games this season, with Griezmann occupying a slightly more withdrawn role in the spaces between opposition lines of defence and midfield. With Griezmann’s abilities to attack open space and unlock defences with his phenomenal passing range, having a partner like Gameiro to distract other defenders and race for balls played into empty channels is the perfect way to get the best out of him. Griezmann is currently La Liga’s top goalscorer with 6 goals in only 7 games.

The fortunes of Valencia and Atletico Madrid in the last five years could barely have been any more opposing. Atleti are in the position to keep that trend up on their end of the bargain, while Valencia’s problems seem bigger that what just a manager can fix.


VIDEO: Dani Alves Ignores Reporters Before Singing To Them

This article was first published on 30th March 2015

Speculation is rife of Barcelona’s right sided defender moving to PSG this summer, but Alves couldn’t be phased when asked about the matter in an airport this week. At first, he only ignored the questioning reporters, before deciding to change his tune.

And we do indeed mean “change his tune” quite literally – grabbing the microphone out of one reporter’s hand and singing what he was presumably listening to on his headphones to them.

Does dodging the question in this manner suggest a summer transfer is on the cards? He made no effort to deny the rumours, instead just entertaining the fans.


UNSEEN: Zlatan Ibrahimovic Acts As Bellboy In 2002 TV Skit

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the best strikers in the world, winning league title after league title for the past fifteen or so years all across Europe. Back in 2002, the 20-year-old wonderkid, then of Ajax, was also a regular for the Swedish national team, who starred in this amusing little skit at the Swedish Football Awards.

The video shows Ibra scoring a headed goal against Hungary, and getting knocked unconscious by the onrushing goalkeeper. Zlatan then wakes up from his dream in his ‘real-world’ life as a bellboy in a fancy hotel convinced he is a football star.

“Are you okay, Zlatan? You fell down the stairs,” the hotel manager asks him.

“I’m a professional footballer. I play for Ajax and the Swedish national team. Look, I’m number 9!” the striker responds, pointing to the team photo on the wall.

“Number 9 is Peppe Eng,” the manager tells him.

“What?!”


Steven Defour Really Hates Playing Standard Liege (Again)

This article was first published on 13th April 2015

Steven Defour was once the darling of Liege, their young talismanic captain who led them to glory – two league titles, one Belgian cup, and two Belgian supercups in a five year spell at the club. A stint at Porto followed this, prior to a move back home – but this time to Liege’s bitter rivals Anderlecht.

Naturally, Standard fans didn’t appreciate this turncoat move. Back in January, Defour went back to Liege for the first time in an Anderlecht jersey. The home fans welcomed him in fantastic fashion, erecting a gigantic tifo of Defour decapitated with a massive sword, with the words “Red or Dead” scribbled across it.

Defour was so rattled by the gesture that at one point during play, he received a pass only to run towards the Liege fans and shoot the ball at them, reacting ferociously to the abuse he was receiving. The Belgian international was sent off and Liege won the match 2-0.

The teams met again this week, and Liege rolled Anderlecht over, eventually storming out to a 3-1 win. Nearing full time, Defour tried to have the last laugh by making a show of his former team, attempting a roulette spin. The move did not work out, and instead Steven Defour came off having another horrible memory to live with against his former team.