Encomium of a Football Legend
He is neither Cristiano Ronald nor Leonel Messi; and his greatness is not measured by the number of Ballon d’Or he has won. Nor could it be gauged by the number of trophies to his name for his country. Indeed, he has won none of these. Yet his greatness is undisputable, and understandably so.
Few people would have bid on him that could ever make to professional footballing, and fewer still would have thought that he could make a name and leave his marks in the world of football. He was destined to be an accountant; and until the age of 21, he never made an international debut in the crazily competitive and cruelly exclusive world of football. Yet he was to become one of Africa’s greatest footballers and one of the most feared and most venerated strikers the world has ever seen. Ask the erstwhile Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger, if you may. His story is that of making the impossible become real, palpable, and concrete.
Didier Drogba is his name. Some people like to call him the “Legend”; others refer to him as the “King”.
He is Blue, the color of a boundless sea that keeps flying high and high in Northern London. It was his move to Chelsea, where he belongs ever since, that helped make him a Legendary, a King in the world of football. There, he has won everything the club has competed for. It is often believed that a player needs to be a winner of Ballon d’Or to reach greatness. If so, Drogba is an exception. He has reached greatness without succumbing to its weight. He once remarked: “I’m the proof that hard work beats talent. You have talent? Great, keep it. Keep your talent. I don’t care. Because I’m going to work until I surpass you. I’m never going to give up.” That says all about him. Little wonder he has always been there whenever he was needed the most: producing his best on the biggest occasions.
On 22 October 2003, José Mourinho is said to have whispered in his ears, after Olympic de Marseille’s defeat to Mourinho’s Port FC, “it is a striker like yourself that I’ll need one day”. Indeed, history will forever remember that the two made history in Chelsea the following year and a many more afterwards.
To many Chelsea’s fans (myself included), Drogba is amongst the players (if not entirely the player) who made them believe that the club is worthwhile supporting. Beyond any doubt, he has been a source of inspiration to the African youth and to young people around the globe.
Now that he has retired, now that he has proven everything and has nothing more to prove, one can only wish all the best to the Legend, the King—Didier Drogba.
Mourinho-Pogba Conundrum and the Looming Manchester Nightmare
Once again, Jose Mourihno is failing to sail through the stormy sea Manchester United find themselves. The “Mourihno-third-season syndrome”—the syndrome of breaking into total chaos and failing to succeed in his third season in charge—is looming dimly on the manager.
Frustrated by the lack of sufficient transfer at the “Theater of Dreams”, Mourihno may have been right in predicting a difficult season ahead; but one would doubt that he was expecting it to be as worse and as hectic as it is turning out to be: three defeats out the opening seven matches, a defeat to Derby County, which saw them kicked out of the Carabao Cup from the very first round, the growing uncertainties in the dressing room, etc. In fact, even the most optimistic Man. U. fans would hardly expect things to go any better in the near future. And there are many reasons to reasonably believe so.
First, the obvious “Mourihno-third-season syndrome” seems to have taken firm old on him once again. Like a delirious captain who loses all sense of direction in a boundless yet restless sea, Mourihno seems to never find himself at fault, but keeps blaming his crews. Yet that strategy of condemning others when things go wrong has not been working, and only sheer wishful thinking would induce one to hope that it might work now.
Second, the “Mourihno-Pogba Conundrum” is an equally troubling issue. By now, it has become clear that there is little to no chance for the two to work together, which in no way helps matters at Man U. thus the club finds itself in a very difficult situation, the dilemma of choosing to throw it support on either the player or the manager. Ideally, however, Manchester United could simply get rid of both. Yet that would be practically nigh-impossible and financially disastrous. So what to do?
In the short-term, Mourihno seems to have an upper hand in the sense that he could do without Pogba. Should the team get better results without him, he may be sold in the January window. Should such an attempt fail, however, that would ultimately mark the end of Mourihno’s reign at the (used to be) “European capital of trophies”.
For now though, Manchester United may have to deal with a looming nightmare in the weeks to come.
Yet Another Clash Ahead
The clash tomorrow, between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspurs, will offer another story to tell, add a few lines to the positively dazzling chapters of the Premier League record books, and, above all, elucidate more on the ever-intensifying managerial battle between two of the league’s most revered coaches: José Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino.
One is Portuguese, the other Argentinian; one is loquacious and often abrasive, the other is untalkative and reserved; one cunningly understands that attacks offer best defense, the other seldom respond to even direct attacks towards him; one is effective at using war of words and playing with the psychology of his opponents and mostly revivals to defeat them, the other seems to rely more on on-pitch and on-touchlines ingenuity to reap the victory he wants; one seems to care less about establishing a long and stable relationship with any club he manages, the other puts faith in long-term development with a strong and stable relationship with his clubs; finally, one manages Man United, the other Spurs, two clubs with a long history of rivalry—if not enmity.
Yet, they both share the common denominator of craving for victories, victories, and victories! They are friendly rivals or, more exactly, rival friends: they mutually acknowledge each other’s place in the exclusive managerial world and generally share kind words.
As if history keeps repeating itself in his world, Mourinho is, yet again, under fire and growing pressure on his third year at Man United. And tomorrow’s derby will either provide him with air to breathe or suffocate him even more. A victory is needed, and he knows it, and he wants it. But he cannot guarantee anyone, himself included, that he will get it, though he has a long and consistent history of winning big games. That’s exactly why he is so reviled and respected.
That is, one may hate him for whom is—arrogant, self-import, bravado, brash, uncompromising, and whatnot—but one has to bow before his monstrous success or, simply, be envious…
A Note from a Chelsea Fan
Whether the Premier League is the best league in the world can be debatable, but that it is the most competitive there is little to no doubt about that. If anything, it has more derbies than any other league, with at least six leading clubs (though, while discussing the possible contenders for the title race this season, in my previous post, I’ve deliberately overlooked Tottenham Spurs for reasons I hope to explain some time to come) fiercely competing for just four spots to qualify for the Champions League. Its leading competitiveness also lies in the fact that teams at the very bottom of the table, desperately struggling against relegation and for a mere survival, can defeat those at the very top, on any given day and at any given place. Each game, therefore, is a challenge, a physical battle till the last whistle; that is, nothing is definite, nothing is decided until the last second; no early score guarantees victory and no early defeat induces complete and unconditional surrender.
In general, football games are quite unpredictable; they conspicuously defy mathematical rules. And this is even more so with the Premier League.
As a Chelsea fan, I can only hope to see the Blues win the title race. But this is obviously an ambitious HOPE, for this time round the race would probably be unbelievably tough and more challenging. A modest and more reasonable hope, then, would be to see Chelsea secure a spot in top four to guarantee their place in world’s elite clubs for the European Champions League.
To that end, however, there is a dire need of one and only one thing: consistency. While inconsistency dearly cost Chelsea the Champions League this season, it is how Manchester City wrote a new chapter in the history of the Premier League last season: they ran rampant because they were consistent.
With the sullen and morose Antonio Conte gone and Maurizio Sarri in charge, one can only hope that Chelsea (re)discover themselves for better and consistent results. As a banker turned-coach, Sarri surely understands the importance of staying alter, always; and never flagging or losing focus on aggressiveness and the hunger to win.
In the coming hours, Arsenal will certainly offer Chelsea and Sarri a testing ground, and the coming months will bear witness the consistency or inconsistency they will display, which is sure to define where they end up when the season closes.
On the Premier League
As it’s only a matter of hours before what is believed to be the world’s most competitive league, the Premier League, starts for a yearlong season, it may be interesting to take a tour d’horizon of what might be expected of it. To be clear, this isn’t an attempt to soothsaying; nor does it has anything to do with a kind of tempted clairvoyant trying to foretell the unforeseen.
That being said, with the clock ticking, and doing so quickly, many questions animate interested minds of which many will have to wait until the end of the season to be answered; but many of these questions will certainly find answers as the league goes by.
For instance, will Manchester City reclaim the title to join the selectively privileged clubs to have done so; that is, will they be able to keep up their prowess of a dominant force, if only domestically? With their impressive run last season, they have made history, written a new chapter in the League’s history, and made even their most fierce rivals bow to their historically unprecedented achievement throughout the campaign. I’ve never been an admirer of neither the club nor the coach. Indeed, as a person, I have no liking in Pep Guardiola—for his constant mistreatments of players, who, once upon a time, have nearly all been among my favorites. Yet, as a coach, one has to be acknowledged that he is amongst the select few with a serial winning mentality; and for that I respect him.
By finishing strongly along with their impressive signing this summer, Man City may have the necessary confidence and refreshment to indeed maintain the title, of course, with the caveat that this is the Premier League, not some other leagues where a single club could singlehandedly manage to claim the throne for years, consecutively.
Liverpool, the vice-champions of the Champions League, may be the team needed to break down Man City’s dynastical buildup, just as they did last season in both the Premier League and Champions League. In addition to the raised expectations with the new no-less-impressive signings, one would hope that the trio of Mo Salah, Mane, and Firmino maintain their magical brutality and pace that irrevocably efface, with helplessness, their opposing defenders. Moreover, Klopp will certainly have to work on how to concede fewer goals while scoring more and more. To put it bluntly, if Liverpool is to be a serious contender for the English title (and they do have everything to do so), and if they are to end their title drought, Klopp will need some bits of Mourinho's coaching philosophy: to get away with crucial point(s) where they are crucially needed!
Now, speaking of Mourihno, what about Man United, the theater of dreams, and the European capital of trophies? Well, all these might be true, except that, of the past years, the club has conspicuously been less than a “Man” it once used to be, and still less than “United” it once was. The brutal matter of fact remains that Man United has been less than convincing lately. I’m a big fan and a longtime admirer of Mourinho for both his winning mentality and his approach to life. But I think he is in dire need of a new (re)discovery, lest he is doomed to become a funny joke, a past glory, a spent force, and a soon will be forgotten threat. Worse yet, the club, by keeping quiet in the transfer market, is no more helpful than he is himself will to try something different, something new to his footballistic approach. This season is a crucial one for both the Man United and Mourinho: for the club, a poor run this season would mean that they have obviously failed to be where they ought to be, and for Mourinho and his future at Man United as well as for his future career as a manager. Thankfully, he is a serial winner, except that he has been growing irritable and frustrated nearly with everything, which is no good sign for the season ahead. After all, it is his third year at Man United, and Mourihno’s history is quite infamous in his third year at a club. He is, therefore, an interesting case to monitor from today on.
Chelsea and Arsenal? What about them? Though I am an unfailing fan of Chelsea, I’d not bet on either for something greater than they currently are, for the simple reason that they are in their remaking, on their way to future greatness, and there is absolutely no reasonable reason to rush about it. They need time, that is, and they should have. But you never know and cannot never be sure. It is football after all, and the Premier League above all!
Therefore, everything is possible, and nothing impossible.
I thought hard, but I could not find a suitable title for this piece. I thought of “Fallen Leaves”, for instance; yet that was not satisfactory, since to “fall” implies that one must have stood at some point. Certainly, that cannot be said of the African teams in the FWC tournament. One cannot dare say, “They have once stood and now falling.” Many people may disagree with this assertion and might—wrongly?—point to Senegal to argue that the Lion of Teranga are an exception to this sweeping generalization. But that would certainly be a sloppy point to make. In fact, the glaring truth, the undeniable truth remains that the Senegalese team has shown that they neither a “lion” nor of “teranga”. And most certainly, if they were a lion, it must have been an herbivorous lion, a spineless lion. But how? I shall come to that shortly. Suffice to say, for now, that Senegal has not been an exception any more than Nigeria has proven unreliable.
Out of five (05) in total, zero African team has managed to pass the group stage: Egypt was a terrible joke—and Mo Salah a pitying soul—as were Tunisia and Morocco. In all fairness, however, Tunisia could not have been expected to do any better in a group where one finds England’s Three Lions and the seemingly unbeatable Belgium squad; nor would one entirely blame Morocco had they not thrown three winnable points out of window against Iran. Indeed, while Tunisia has, by beating Panama, striven to make up for the disastrous run, Morocco’s tying up with Spain has defied their invincibility and may have offered a strategy to the hosting team, Russia, in their preparations for the ultimate knockout 16 round against the Spaniards.
As for Nigeria, a good friend of mine sums it up so neatly that I cannot but quote him in full. “What's up with Nigeria's Super Eagles?” He asks longer before Nigeria’s opening game. Definitely, he argues, Nigeria might have been affected by what he calls Wakanda Syndrome to remind us of Black Panther’s euphoria and its unabashed cultural commodification. After all, “After winning the swag contest for "best kits," they're now nailing it with their "most stunning outfits off the pitch." Unfortunately, his cri de Coeur only felt into deaf hears, for none could tell Nigeria that “the stakes are much higher than impressive dress code, and that Africa is this time desperate for a semi-final spot.” Outfits and stunning World Cup jersey, Nigeria has shown the world; but paly, they chose not to. After their chaotic performance against Croatia, they abated they the general outrage in defeating Iceland. Now, with three points pocketed, the task was clear: beat or tie up with Argentina in their last group-stage game. Apparently, the squad did not share this sense of mission. Instead, they played, to say the least, with no sense of purpose. Indeed, after winning the best kits and outfitting contests, they no longer had any business to do in the tournament and peacefully and complacently chose to go home. A disaster!
Senegal, the continent’s last hope? They are all même pipe, même tabac! Self-deceived must have been anyone who expected otherwise. For a team like that of Senegal, any early exit must be painful enough. But to be out of this FWC in the way they did, is just unspeakably horrible. For the sake of objectivity, it’s often said that an observer must detach him/herself from personal emotions. But, for any concerned analysist and observer, however little, who has seen Senegal exiting the way they did, must have found this golden rule impossible to follow.
Ah, the tournament started just a week ago, but it’s already over for the five African teams. And always, some people would keep telling us to hope for the best next time the FWC comes around (in 2022!). I say, as long the African teams continue to play spinelessly, as long they fail to understand that marketing is not footballing and that footballing is, in fact, marketing PLUS, and thus the former must be the priority over the latter, there will not be any “best” to hope for. Rather than blame referees for mistakes that never made, it’s high time to admit the truth, the truth that, in order to do better, African teams need a better sense of mission, of purpose, and determination. Until then, any hope for better results would be an allusion, a purely dangerous self-deceit.
Football Is Cruel—Sometimes
Indeed, football can often reach the height of bestial cruelty. Just think about for a moment…
Mo Salah, the rightly crown “Egyptian King”, was hoping to bring his impressive fairy tale to a stage where the like of Ronaldo(s), Messi, Zidane, etc. have been navigating; a stage where players like Ronaldinho could beat their arch-rivals, yet get unprecedented standing ovations from the beaten fans. Mo Salah was looking forward to his last game of the season to make it more than perfect; he was looking forward to doing what he always does best: play, score & lead to ultimate victory. Then came the Champions League final. And we all know what happened. And we also know what a nightmarish night it was in Kiev and the hefty clouds it has since then put over his on-time recovery for the World Cup. Yes, football is nasty, cruel, vile and vulgar—sometimes.
But, for Liverpool and their fans, losing Mo Salah was not the end of the nightmare, rather it marked the beginning of a very long and agonizing night. And no one might have felt its gloomy weight more than Karius, the unfortunate and utterly miserable goalkeeper: others could feel miserable for being beaten and for having their dreams of ascending to glory squashed; Karius could not but feel miserable and destitute for the same reasons. But more than what his mates could feel, Karius also felt that he was responsible, in fact, the only one to blame for the loss—what made it even worse is that the watching world agrees. Some people mocked him, some laughed at him, and, of course, some others cried with and for him. Ah, blame Sergio Ramos for what happened that night if you wish, but the matter of fact remains that football is nasty, cruel, vile and vulgar—sometimes.
I could go on and on with many instances where the game has proven again and again its nastiness and cruelty. Yet, one can’t but submit to the fact that “cruelty and nastiness” are exactly part of it, without which football could neither be exciting nor worth discussing: like in war, here too one side has to lose for the other to win; like in war, one side must be disappointed and heartbroken for the other to celebrate. Indeed, as George Orwell tells us, the only difference between the two is that football is war minus gunshots.
The 2018 World Cup is around the corner. But, if you were to ask me, what to expect? My answer would be simple: the same things football has to offer: victories and defeats; exciting celebrations and agonizing cries; joyful laughter and gloomy despairs and disappointments, etc. After all, football is just nasty, cruel, vile and vulgar—sometimes.
All the best to all teams and all fans involved in the tournament!
He did it yet again! Even more so, he has done it with a style. Mourinho can now utterly claim to have shaken the impenetrable shadows, the cloud of impotence that stroke him and his team following the “Sevilla-fiasco”, which saw them kicked out of the Champions league some weeks ago. The defeat marked a turning point, a watershed yet again in his undoubtedly not unsuccessful managerial career. It raised those uncomfortable questions, those questions no one likes asking, and no one likes them being asked about oneself: the questions of whether it was the beginning of the end of his reign in Man U; of whether he now has forgotten the winning styles, those winning styles that are unique to him and him alone, of whether he is now drained of the hunger, the propelling desire, the inextinguishable thirst for winning, etc. True, against Sevilla, Man U played with no or, if any, very little ambition, as though they were street playing-boys; indeed, they played with no purposes, which is very uncharacteristic of the man known for his determination and eagerness to be victorious. After all, he is the self-proclaimed Special One.
These shadows seemed to have been haunting them since then. In sharp contrast, however, the aim for yesterday’s day game against City was clear enough: a victory to prevent the host, the Champions elect from celebrating that soon. A victory to spoil the effervescence, the euphoria of their admittedly impressive campaign. A victory to hinder their would-be record-breaking successful seasons. Now, if victory was impossible if the host team turned out to be unbeatable—as they have been so far, then a mere draw, however it turns out to be, would do. A defeat was to be avoided at all costs.
Yet, the first half was more than a disaster. It was the very opposite of the self-appointed objectives. Man U did just the very opposite of what they were supposed to do in order to spoil City’s well-disserved crowning. And the results are well-known: two goals with no reply. In fact, the first half was an almost a “one-man-show” game, whereby City determined the pace of the game to prove that they are the master of the Premier League—at least so far—and their guests had no choice but to play according to their rhythms: they were the rule-makers, the game-deciders, and Man U the abiders; they acted for Man U to react.
Then came half-time. It was needed for Mourinho and his players. Before the game he has stated his eagerness to postpone the crowing of his arch-rival at this early stage of the season—it was a personal, a managerial rivalry as it was a club-to-club rivalry. A victory against City would not, by any measure, have been as dramatic as that against Liverpool in 2014, which left the latter helpless and speechless, as the title slipped away from their very eyes, but it would be important enough to defy City’s sense of invulnerability. And thus Mourinho message to his players was crystal clear: our aim for the game is to postpone their crowning with a victory or, at least, with a draw. A defeat is not an option. You do not want to be those clowns, at the end of the game, standing there while they are being crowned, he said.
The reaction, as Smalling puts, was to play “for our pride”. The second half was a turnabout, a making of history, and—for City and their fans—a feast-spoiler! And now they have to wait for that moment to be crowned champions. City will be champion—that is certain enough—but Mourinho’s United will keep them waiting for some weeks to come. A delayed festivity is surely a spoiled celebration; once again Mourinho has been the pooper!
Hate him if you like, detest him if you wish, but you cannot ignore him, for he is a winner, a decider, indeed, a game changer from the touchlines.
Spurs seemed to have done the must convoluted task, with their comeback from two goals down, in Italy. The young Spurs successfully penetrated Juventus’s defensive wall, which was able to keep its virgin land till the final of the European Champions League last season, only to be demolished by the unforgiving Real Madrid, to score their two away goals. More fascinating, by scoring the first goal before half-time at Wembley Stadium, Spurs strengthened their enthralling demonstration. With such a run, only a handful of people (Juventus’s fans included) could believe that the Old lady would turn the tide topsy-turvy.
In fact, there was no doubting that Spurs played with a genuinely great sense of maturity and excellence, at least, during the major parts of both legs. Yet, as they usually demonstrate, there would almost always be something missing. And the price they had to pay for whatever went missing last night was too heavy and equally heartbreaking, for the Italian giant, the Old lady, embodies the foot-ballistic principle that “until the final whistle is blown, the game is not yet over”.
How maturely Tottenham would handle the blow and fight for their only remaining chance, the FA cup if they are to console themselves with a silverware? And whether they would successfully absorb the quizzically heartbreaking shock to finish in the top four of the Premier League would only be seen in the coming days.
What is certain about Spurs and their fans, however, is that it was a devastating night and, like any loser, they will only have the future—next year?—to hope for!
Antonio Conte & Chelsea FC: The Coming End!
When he took charge of the club in 2016, after a dismaying season that saw José Mourinho, Mourinho the Special One, and by far the best manager of the club’s history, sacked from his (erstwhile?) favorite club, Antonio Conte was to revitalize the spirit of the Blues at Stamford Bridge and across England; he was, that is, to energize the seemingly exhausted, fatigued, and drained Chelsea’s squad.
He succeeded, but only for a season.
It is often said that the most difficult thing in the world is for a quality player to move to a different club and successfully play in a different environment and meet the highly anticipated expectations: Radamel Falcao, amongst numerous others, would unhesitatingly agree! Yet, from my standpoint, however, the most challenging, if not onerous, task in the footballistic world is, for managers in the Premier League, to win the title and maintain, not the trophy, but their jobs: their success is also their failure…
But let's go back to Conte, as it’s of him we are talking here. And for that reason, I’ll not mince my words; I must, therefore, put it bluntly: Conte’s ultimate failure this season is of own making. I repeat: when (for it is now just a matter of time) Antonio Conte is sacked, after a seemingly remarkable run last season, he will have no one to blame but himself. Even if the odd sees him survive the worse in the coming days, he must blame himself for his fading reputation, for his accumulating failures to deliver, and for his players’ turning against him.
From his unprofessional message to Diego Costa to his deep mistrust of players like Nemanja Matić, Michy Batshuayi and the latest axing of the Brazilian professional, David Luiz, any informed observer would have known that it would ultimately backfire.
As a Chelsea fan, I myself find it extremely difficult to entirely dismiss people who like to attribute his success, last season, to circumstantial “luck”. For one, it was largely the transitional squad that won the title. Only this season did he take the chance to stamp his brand on the Chelsea’s squad, and the results are too glaring to warrant further statement: Conte, the passionate, the affectionate, and the gaily celebrating Conte, has metamorphosed into a bottomless morose, a deep melancholy, and a gloomily sullen and mournful manager on the touchline, as though there no longer is anything to celebrate about in this unloving and often uncaring world, as though the manager himself is tired out of winning, and as though victory, too, has become meaningless, all the sudden.
The world is falling apart around Antonio Conte; and, along with him, the club is certainly stumbling, as Chelsea find themselves, slowly but surely, sliding down the table with a growing chance of missing the Champions League next season.
Maintaining the title is a long-lost dream; the league’s various cups are all unattained dreams, for they have all slipped away; and playing Barcelona in the coming days will not even make things any easier to hope for a “next” round in the European competition.
Should I, therefore, sympathize with Conte? Certainly not, for he should have learned from Chelsea’s history (many managers, before him, have attempted, but have all failed!), and those of other clubs, to know that no manager has ever saved his job by declaring an unnecessary war against his players. Indeed, nothing is worse for a managerial career than the manager losing the confidence of his players. Were it not of his own making, one could sympathize with him; but Conte is exactly reaping what he sowed with only two wins in ten games. How much time does he need to set things right?
Better sooner than later!