Greatest passers of the game: David Beckham

Many criticized David Beckham for his media image speaking louder than his skills on the pitch. While one could argue with his close control and technique, his passing ability was one of the great natural talents of the last generation. I found a great compilation that concentrates on his secondary assists and shows how much he will be missed on the pitch.


Why the Brazilian national team are criminally underrated

Better days for Kaka, but a number Brazil want to forget. Image by Roberto Vicario via Wikipedia.

With Brazil languishing in an unprecedented 22nd place in the FIFA rankings a year before they host the 2014 World Cup, the biggest headlines about Felipe Scolari’s Confederations Cup call-up were indeed the omissions of Kaká and Ronaldinho. There was no Brazilian in the top 10 scorers of any major European League last season. The country’s recent performances in friendlies, the Copa America, the Olympics, and a recent managerial change have left many scratching their heads. What has happened to Brazil?

Firstly, there is no denying Brazil are where they are because of their results, or lack thereof. And nowhere are they more criticized than in Brazil itself, but Brazilians know they should be doing much better than they are. To the average Euro-centric football fan however, the conspicuous lack of talent in the top European leagues can be just as easily explained.

The repatriation and retention of stars

The rise of Brazil as an economic power in the last decade has positively impacted their national tournament. We may react with alarm when we see a callup with only three players from the Premier League and La Liga respectively, and only 12 total from clubs outside of Brazil (compared to 20 in 2010). And while it is true that they have failed to follow up their golden generation with international superstars, it must be noted that much of their major talent now plays in Brazil.

Brazilian clubs have been able to use their monetary power to buy back players like Alexandre Pato and to set high recision clauses into contracts of young stars like Neymar, who would likely have gone to Europe much sooner and for much cheaper only a few years ago. Fred and, until recently, Neymar are perfect examples of two almost certain starters on Saturday, with the former having made a respectable European showing before returning to Brazil, and the latter having fended off European football for years due to his clubs ability to pay him well enough to at least stall a move.

The general feeling in Brazil is that talent is somewhat stunted in European football, particularly when teenage players make big money moves only to sit on the bench during their formative seasons. Many of the young prospects on this team lack European experience, but not professional experience. With so much talent in Brazil, there is reason to expect the raw flashy football many love to translate to the national team next year.

Scolari wants to maintain low profile

When Luis Felipe ‘Felipao’ Scolari took on the challenge of coaching Brazil in 2001, the side were on the verge of missing the World Cup. But what most people choose not to remember is that there were no FIFA international dates back then. Just a decade ago most elite European club sides did not allow stars like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Roberto Carlos to make the trip during competitive league and Champions League campaigns.

The tables have now turned, with international breaks allowing for the strongest callups and many star players back in Brazil. But the curse of every host is that they do not need to qualify. With the absence of fierce competition in the CONMEBOL qualification group, Brazil have had little opportunity to build a strong, consistent, and well-worked side for the World Cup. While the Confederations Cup presents them a golden opportunity, Felipao has stated that he wishes to use this alternative squad to test players.

It’s a shrewd move by a World Cup winner to not show his final hand, because if they bow out early as most expect them to, an underdog side with considerable talent and the home advantage may stun the world next year. If they win the Confederations Cup, they may find new talent worthy of the final squad. But more importantly it will be a lesson to the world that the home advantage is all they need, and that Brazil remain the only country able to win the tournament with an otherwise below average side. Scolari put in one of the great tournament-manager performances in World Cup history in 2002, and he’s been hired with the singular purpose of doing it again.

We are looking for stars in the wrong positions

Finally, when we think of Brazil we naturally think offense. We think of Zico, Socrates, Pelé, Rivelino, Ronaldinho, and Garrincha etc. But what if we’re looking for stars in the wrong places?

We have seen a shift in the Brazilian national team’s mentality and identity from the star-studded Jogo Bonito side that fell short of expectations in 2006, to the brutally defensive and pragmatic Jogo Efectivo side that probably exceeded expectations in 2010. Dunga failed in creating a defensive Brazil because he simply did not have good defensive players and because his personality and management style pushed away key big-name players.

Ironically, Scolari has the ability to create a solid defensive Brazilian national team with all the big-name players in tow. Thiago Silva and David Luiz rose to prominence in the years leading up to next year’s tournament, and the team is now clearly based on them. Scolari, while remembered for Brazil’s defensive performances in 2002, is an excellent man manager and is less likely than Dunga to eschew offensive talent and present the world with an imbalanced side. If they can reach a harmony between world class defenders and talented attacking players, the world will see why Brazil are a criminally underrated side in 2014.


Greatest passers of the game: Willem Van Hanegem

The best passer you probably have never heard of. Van Hanegem was the creative center of the famed Dutch midfield in 1974. A slow player with no right foot and an unlikely genius technically, Feyenoor great Van Hanegem lit up the 1974 World Cup as shown in this great compilation by Zouzinho. Fans of the current passing central midfielders like Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, and Xavi Hernandez will appreciate the exquisite skill shown here.

On Florentino Perez and @Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract negotiation

Photo: Lars Aronsson via Wikipedia

While the Spanish season may have ended with Barcelona winning the league, el Clasico with Real Madrid remains front page news. For all the criticism leveled at Florentino Perez and his penchant for expensive Galactico sides that don’t win much and chew through the world’s best coaches, the man remains without equal in the back room.

El Clasico in the back room

His late season bid for Neymar was never really about getting the player, who Perez arguably could not get and certainly did not need. It was all about making Barcelona pay much more than they wanted to for him and forcing them to sell stars and possibly forgo a big name defensive signing. Barcelona have indeed spent Galactico money thus far mostly unsuccessfully in their quest for the perfect partner for Messi, leaving them exposed in other areas of the pitch, which is exactly what Florentino wants.

But Perez may have opened up a new and very costly problem for himself with this victory. The recent publication of Real Madrid’s offer to attempt to lure Neymar away from signing with Barcelona showed they were offering the Brazilian talent an unprecedented 70% ownership of his image rights. Cristiano only gets 60% and he wants a significant raise. What’s more, Barcelona gave Neymar 100%, and that’s what Cristiano wants, along with a net salary between €18-20M before bonuses.

The recent Forbes report showed that Cristiano made €33.5M last season, €17.5 from salary and bonus, €16 from endorsements of which he contractually takes home 60%, or €9.6M (and the team gets 40%, or €6.4M.). So Cristiano takes home €27.1M.
Messi made €29.45M, €15.1 from salary and bonus, and €14.35 from endorsements of which he contractually takes home 100%. So Messi takes home €29.45M.

The fact that Cristiano’s demands are a problem for Real Madrid is seen in their offer to him. €14M net salary and negotiation of image rights. Because of the expiration of the Beckham rule, increasing Cristiano Ronaldo’s net salary to €14M will represent a 58% increase for the club before bonuses. This is because his current €10M salary is taxed at 24% while his €14M salary would be taxed at 52%. He costs Madrid €12.4 in salary now, but would cost €21.28 in salary with their current offer. If they choose to offer him the 70% they offered Neymar they would lose another €1.6M, to say nothing of 100%.

While Real Madrid famously have a lot of money, all of this goes a long way towards explaining their caution in agreeing a contract termination with Mourinho (as firing him would have cost them millions), their desperation to sell Kaká to finance Cristiano’s raise, and gives a balanced perspective on their search for a new trainer while also seeking to include players in deals in exchange for smaller transfer fees. Florentino’s job is not easy, but in this situation in particular he’s certainly the best man for the job.


Reflecting on Mourinho’s Real Madrid

Mourinho as coach of Real Madrid – image via wikipedia

Three seasons, three trophies: the Copa del Rey, the League, and the Spanish Supercup. Then nothing. This was Mourinho’s worst season by his own admission. Where did he go wrong?

Failure of the Mourinho ‘brand’

The Mourinho brand has been one of the most successful and powerful in the last decade of sport. One associates the word Mourinho with only one thing: winning. Many legitimately complain about the football, the hype, and indeed the hyperbole, but at the end of the day he is as associated with winning as Apple is with innovation, Facebook is with social networking, Ferrari is with speed.

There are generally two kinds of coaches: tacticians and motivators. I have always compared Jose Mourinho to a rather unlikely coach: Alfio ‘Coco’ Basile. During Jose Mourinho’s extraordinary ascension in the mid 2000’s, Basile was winning almost everything he competed for with Boca Juniors in Argentina while charming the press with his gruff straight-shooting manner.

When he took over the Argentine national team for the second time, it was because of Basile’s brand of letting them play; of putting in all of the stars and getting them to play together and win. Basile’s failure to win the Copa America final against a Brazilian B-side exposed his weakness as a tactician, and continued difficulty in qualifiers with a squad boasting some of the biggest names in world football destroyed his winning brand. He lost the squad and his job.

No one can argue with the strength of Mourinho’s brand in his second season with Real Madrid. 100 points, 120 goals, and the end of the hegemony of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. But early this season, the brand started to show cracks. Mourinho began to distance himself from the squad in post-match comments after limp performances as the side lost pace to a Barcelona who never had a competitor for first place. And despite a rebound in the second half of the season, the public fallout between the manager and Iker Casillas (among other stars) and a trophy-less end ruined his image as a winner with the club.

He may have left anyway, but this season exposed his tactical limitations as well as the liability associated with his larger than life persona. The assault on the Mourinho brand came from all sides, with members of both the home and away dressing rooms lining up against the coach and ultimately defeating him.

Mismanagement of stars

With the locker room fallout with much of Madrid’s backline (Iker, Ramos, Marcelo, Pepe) taking center stage this season, the problems in midfield and up-front were overshadowed.

This season exposed Madrid’s Galactico policy as poor team-building. Despite having a 300 million euro squad they still were weak in every area of the pitch as evidenced by the following:

  • GK – They had to replace their goalkeeper (and captain) midway through the season because of injury and poor man management.
  • Defense – No replacements for injured wing-backs. Poor replacements for center-backs.
  • Midfield – For most of the season, Kaká and Modric were marginalized and wasted two positions on the bench because they didn’t fit into Mourinho’s formation.
  •  Attack – With ambiguity in the center-forward role, the side depended too much on Ronaldo for goals.

The purchase of Luka Modric from Spurs was unfortunately mistimed because of a rocky start which saw Madrid win only one of their first four matches. Mourinho defaulted to his previous championship winning midfield and failed to properly integrate the Croat, a player uniquely suited to help Madrid in situations where the opposition parked the bus defensively. This essentially cost Modric most of the season, to say nothing of Kaká whose integration as a playmaker was not even attempted in the three seasons under Mourinho.

Up front, the ambiguity over the starting role in Mourinho’s three seasons was equally as unforgivable. Mourinho has often successfully used competition between players as a way of getting the best from his entire squad. But the center-forward position presents a different challenge in that a scorer needs form to score regularly, and form needs consistent minutes.

It’s safe to say that Benzema was Mourinho’s first choice, which goes against his normally sound logic when considering that Higuaín has consistently outscored the Frenchman in the League even when playing far fewer minutes. Partly to blame was the big money transfer of Benzema despite having a world class striker in Higuain who was born only 9 days before him. There has always been pressure to start Benzema as a Florentino Perez Galactico, but if any coach had to choose and could make his voice heard, it should have been Jose Mourinho.


Despite fracturing the squad and damaging the image of Real Madrid along with his own, some positives can be taken from Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid. He was hired after proving himself in the Champions League by winning his second with Inter Milan. Before Mourinho took over, Madrid were losing competitiveness in the League, while struggling to compete in Europe and Cup play.

Florentino Perez saw Mourinho as a winner who could compete on three fronts, and while his dreams of ending the Barcelona dynasty and achieving a treble were not to be, Real Madrid at least can say they were in each of the last three Champions League semifinals, two of the last three Copa del Rey finals, and that they have returned to competitiveness against a Barcelona who have dominated world football for most of the last decade. He will be a tough act to follow, but his dismissal was definitely for the best after this season.