Entering yet another act into the various, yet seldom turbulent, chapters of a distinguished, generation-defining, career, Andrés Iniesta would have further asserted his position as the standout player of an era – had it not been an untouchable existing stature – on a familiarly hostile February evening in West London.
In the Champions League particularly, this is now little other than common ritual for each individual entrusted with the captaincy of the modern Barcelona dynasty. With the incisive counter-attacking move that confirmed an encouraging 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, prior to a return tie at the eternally imposing Camp Nou, however, those placed to survey such events may have been tempted to hail proceedings as the confirmation, and indeed the extension, of a lineage gilded with the greatest prizes in world football, just for one more match.
Steadfast where others have faltered, forever the consummate professional on occasions when compatriots have belied the cause and an ever-ready source of galvanising ability in even the most ominous of situations, the diminutive Spaniard has regardless rarely proved burdened by the praise so pontifically lavished on his figure throughout what now amounts to a glittering near 16-year senior career. His is a career, considering its trophy-spinning excellence, relatively untouched by the laurels of superficial praise, and, perhaps inherent of reciprocal loyalty that has defined his entire professional employment, rarely spoken of in notable disjunction from fellow recent Catalonian patriarchs Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Gerard Piqué, Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol et al., offering intangible insight into the conditioning of modern media apparatus and the perception of success in the footballing industry.
Although much averse to the primarily Daily Mail-ite, internet-age-fostered proclamation culture, with right-wing corporations intent on employing individual focus in the subversion of news into gross ethnographic misrepresentation – a matter greater than simple populism or sensationalism – personally I can respect the value of contorting this approach only slightly, and empowering perspective change through the messages conveyed by particular careers. Had this slight distinction found broader influence than merely independent media on the mass consumption platform, one could certainly observe that heightened summations of the defensive midfielder’s value, for example, would not have proven necessary; the N’Golo Kante cult, and that comparisons with the romanticised countryman and club-sharing figure of Claude Makélélé were given any credence by the consuming public, emergent only due to the alignment of title victories in consecutively prolific outfits and the eventual recognition of outstanding statistical acquittal, in order for the wee Frenchman to gain such prominent value in the modern game.
While we must accept that Madrid duo Marca and Diario AS, the self-styled “Sempre amb el Barça” – “Always with Barça” – Sport and the more culturally autonomous Barcelona-based Mundo Deportivo continue to extend significant, and nationally uncompromised, appraisal over the proceedings of clubs in both weekly La Liga and fortune-spinning continental combat, and that regularly embroiled within this is the divisive, but entirely admirable, FC Barcelona dynasty, Iniesta, and all others, are subject to regular and turbulent public reckoning. Such, I dearly hope, will forever be the intrinsic and foremost intent of the sport itself. The irrefutability of the cultural pretence of Spain’s periódicos deportivos, although not to the perpetually invasive extent of the English media, maintains, especially alongside the status of La Liga as the second most profitable commercial division in the world and surely the principal current competitive collection of clubs, the influence of a theory generally heightened in more developed footballing nations.
Culturally, we must soon reinforce, there is a subtle, yet profound, diversion between the reception of the sport, and its respective employees, in both Britain and Spain – nations tied so irrevocably by a migration exchange that benefits either economy, yet only to the intellectual benefit of the former. There certainly exists a greater decorum and gravitas reciprocated between fans and players in the Mediterranean state, and replicated across mainland Europe, in comparison with the callous condemnation shared as rhetoric amongst such a wide audience in the U.K., and from the youngest age professional players can be rendered victims of the self-righteous jurisdiction of unsympathetic semantics. Thus, it proves increasingly challenging to quantify the contexts and parameters of achievement in modern football, given such considerable social divides.
Perhaps an education at La Masia, exalted in the monikers that preceded, further removed this impending affliction for the young Iniesta. Though far from an ethnic, nor indigenous, Catalonian by birth, the playmaker – recruited aged 12, considered old perhaps for a youth ranks addition, after impressing at home county side Albacete – has certainly been embraced as a repatriated local in the furiously patriotic Barça lineage. Arriving, naturally, as somewhat of an outsider to the Catalonia-focused establishment, the Fuentealbilla-raised teen had grown up in semi-rural, arid Castilla-La Mancha; though the nation’s third largest geographical province, not a respected centre for sporting exploits and rather poetically notable Don Quixote country. This factor aside, a childhood based just under 200km closer to the Santiago Bernabéu than the Camp Nou would alone not have immediately distinguished himself for Catalonian endearment.
At the time, however, there was a stark disconnect from the Los Blancos sides of today, and of the 1970s; big spending, but underperforming, Real were suffering their longest league title drought since the early ‘80s. This was Barca’s era, under the guidance of the ever-exalted Johan Cruyff, during which they had capitalised, quite aptly, with the employment of an evolutionary approach that continues to feature heavily today. The emergence of the first generation of La Masia de can Planes graduates, a decade on from club president Josep Lluís Núñez’s purchase of the early 18th century farmhouse as a residence for the teens enrolled on the boarding programme, in a certain Josep Guardiola, Albert Ferrer and Guillermo Amor, alongside the recruitment of international luminaries Hristo Stoichkov, Ronaldo Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Romário, struck a healthy institutional balance that moulds the sport today. For a typically introverted rural 12-year-old, who by his own admission “cried rivers” upon leaving home to pursue what he, nor his parents, could have scarcely conceived as a professional career that continues to burn 20 years hence, arriving from Albacete partly by the favour instilled by his parents’ friendship with former journeyman manager and Barça youth coach Enrique Orizaola, there is certainly well-founded reason for Iniesta to have kowtowed to pressure.
Fortunate, also, to have entered a generation unburdened of the expectation of Guardiola’s, and schooled in the global demands of competition that would unfold amongst his future, Iniesta and the likes would only assert the formative pedigree of the Barça establishment. Touring the continent’s diversifying range of youth tournaments from Scandinavia – where such summits began in the 1970s with the Norway Cup and Gothia Cup – to the likes of Northern Ireland’s Milk Cup and the annually-reverted base of the Nike Premier Cup (now the Manchester United Premier Cup, and by all accounts disbanded after 2015’s edition), Iniesta and the likes, in the fulfilment of Lluís Núñez’s vision for a world-leading academy, extended the fate of a dynasty over many future rivals.
It is certainly rare that both team and player can render the sport so mathematically brutal, yet flourish with artistic subtlety within the constraints of elite-level tactics on such a consistent basis. At the earliest age as a Blaugrana, and only further refined as an innate feature of his actuality as a balding 33-year-old, was the internalisation of what were later popularised as ‘tiki-taka’ values; what he himself recounted as the “receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer” philosophy. Immersed in this institution, it is surely evident that each graduate, and enrolee at that, is as much a product of the infrastructure that stands around them as they are a player of their own innovation, and that this has been the foremost influence of academies formed in the La Masia mould.
This distinction, and interlaced development, presents the motive for those positioned externally to condemn the subsequent senior careers as suffering from an irreversible false footballing conditioning. Arrogant, perhaps, to believe they can alone forge great players, and amorally pre-empted in the tendency of directors to prioritise commercial value above human self-actualisation, clubs aiming to rival the Catalan behemoth have conceded all sense of reality in order to achieve even partial competitive supremacy. Whether this, as a prominent feature of the financial intensification of the sport, has invited a more acute character of slander from the accompanying media is arguable, but it has at the very least widened the debate of the sport’s ethics in the exploitation of youth engagement for commercial means. Perhaps, while not at first anticipated, it is what those immersed in the process gradually embrace, or at least undertake, from their career and life; permanently fixated under the invasive scope of a turbulent and demanding consumer market, while only performing to the extent of their physical and mental ability. This is an imposition that few at the Camp Nou have belied – marking a great testament to their development.
When recruited by Barça, regardless of one’s metaphorical status as a Catalan remnant or recruit from any external region of the Spanish expanse – other than the similarly culturally autonomous Basque (Athletic Bilbao) or Madrilenian (Real, Atléti) provinces – there is an inevitable heritage that precedes any achievement reached. A lineage that is perhaps unrivalled in the entire footballing stratosphere; certainly, for its consistency in the 21st century, where others in Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus have wavered in a commodity of subtexts. In the romanticised distortion that the sport now exists as, this itself presents enough concerns for the average Barça inductee. Strength in unity, as an adage, aside, the near-100,000-strong Camp Nou population, and even broader ownership collective that defines all of those bred into the Catalan capital’s lineage, to an extent relieves this burden, but one equally must fear the ramifications of scorning this entrenched audience; Més que un club, they avow, after all.
Although able, to an extent, to dictate the direction of this relationship under the guidance of renowned youth-inclined helmsman Louis van Gaal, Real Madrid convert captain Luis Enrique and the ilk of gilded Dutchmen Patrick Kluivert, Frank de Boer and Philipp Cocu, Iniesta graduated from the frying pan, so to speak, only to enter the fire of the 2002-03 season. Preceded by an entire five seasons by Xavi Hernández and four by Carles Puyol, and promoted alongside Víctor Valdés – at the time only a third-choice goalkeeper, following Pepe Reina’s conspicuous jettison – the midfielder was ushered in stage left amidst the melodrama of Joan Gaspart’s presidency; Rivaldo exiting, after both Jari Litmanen and Pep Guardiola had contracts terminated through administrative discord the previous season. Compounding the multitude of errors, however, of a figure previously respected within the club while Lluís Núñez’s vice-president (once reported to have been instrumental in Ronaldo’s signature for the club, while disguised as a waiter in entering the tightly-sealed vault of the Brazilian’s hotel room in a protracted move from the reluctant PSV), was the unflinching distaste settled during Luis Figo’s €60 million departure to Real in the very first act of Gaspart’s chagrin-inducing premiership. Replacing the mercurial Portuguese with Arsenal duo Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, Real Betis and former Real Madrid forward Alfonso and the re-purchase of former youth product Gerard, for a cumulative €92.5 million, the tempestuous fumigations amounted by the loss of a generation-defining talisman proved insurmountable, and undisputedly dampened the careers of the aforementioned recruits; effectively rendering each incapacitated to future employers as Overmars ground to eventual retirement with 19 goals from 141 matches in all competitions, World Cup winner Petit fizzled out in just one torrid season, Alfonso would return a shadow of his former self to Betis after producing two league goals in the 2000-01 season and Gerard, though present during the formative stages of Iniesta’s senior career, rendered an excluded figure by injuries and departing for dislocated spells at Monaco, Recreativo and Girona in 2005.
Fortunately, Gaspart was swiftly outvoted in February 2003, while van Gaal ousted just a fortnight prior following consecutive defeats to Valencia and Celta Vigo – both of whom, alongside Deportivo la Coruna and Real Sociedad, would separate champions Real from their eternal rivals in eventual league standings. A season for Iniesta, albeit one in which only nine appearances were made, that may have derailed any prodigious career while an entire squad’s reputation was besmirched was ultimately navigated without what may have proved to be the exodus of a gifted generation for the Camp Nou hierarchy. The recovery would be by no means immediate, however.
Frank Rijkaard, in close partnership with newly-elected, smooth-talking and unapologetically revolutionary president Joan Laporta, would be supported, and perhaps relieved of many egotistical demands befitting of such a vast presence on the global club landscape, by those above throughout a trying formative few months, especially while placed mid-table at the turn of 2004. While Laporta – an unlikely candidate in the June 2003 elections, yet ultimately successful in rousing sufficient support on the promise to deliver David Beckham to the raving Barcelonistas – invited an irreparable schism within administrative frameworks when *only* persuading Ronaldinho to arrive as his prestigious creative centrepiece, but also when admitting the early stutters suffered by the side, when rocked by allegations of tyranny in subverting the club to promote a personal pro-Catalan independence political stance and when suffering the ignominy of brother-in-law Alejandro Echevarría’s enforced resignation from a position as a security director after revelations of Francisco Franco Federation membership, the modest and composed Rijkaard established the foundations of an outstanding, yet only seminal, outfit.
Carved from Ronaldinho’s charismatic opulence, the prompt seniority of the band of La Masia alumni, a sage transfer policy that cleansed the dun of expired titles for the natural progression of those impressing with mid-ranking continental clubs including Deco and Samuel Eto’o, and the small matter of a certain 16-year-old Argentine forward’s senior evolution in the 2004-05 season, consecutive league titles were soon sealed under Rijkaard’s positive and fluid 4-3-3 ideology. A crowning achievement, regardless, was found in their unbeaten run in the 2005-06 Champions League; only conceding five goals on their contrasting route to the historically poignant trophy, while emphasising their position after disposing of a low-quality group to narrowly oust Chelsea, Benfica, AC Milan and finally Arsenal. For Iniesta, however, this could have been partly dampened by his benching in the Stade de France-hosted final alongside Xavi; Edmílson preferred, alongside Mark van Bommel and Deco, in a deep-lying and disruptive midfield bloc intended to hinder the offensive talents of Messrs Pires, Hleb, Fàbregas and Ljungberg. Had it not been for his pivotal influence, of course, in replacing the Brazilian defensive midfielder at half-time, when positioned unfavourably 1-0 down to the ten-man Gunners, who had lost Jens Lehmann and sacrificed Pires for Manuel Almunia only 18 minutes in. Sol Campbell’s 37th minute headed finish forced Rijkaard’s hand, and although Barca – in their first final since 1994 – were restricted by the entrenchment of Arsène Wenger’s side, the swift double salvo of Eto’o – later argued to be offside as Iniesta effortlessly drove a ball forward for fellow substitute Henrik Larsson’s poked assist – and Brazilian defender Juliano Belletti, from another Larsson set-up, sealed the Catalans’ completion of a truly “happy return”.
In future final appearances – 2009, 2011 and 2015 – Iniesta yet again proved instrumental. Joined by Sergio Busquets, who at the age of 20 had been promoted to first-team action at the start of the 2008-09 season, the newly re-signed Gerard Piqué and the likes of Pedro, Bojan and 17-year-old Marc Muniesa in the former example, Thiago in the second and both Rafinha and Marc Bartra in the latter, although the halcyon days of La Masia production had retreated over this half-decade, and a policy to refrain from shirt sponsorship eroded, the sentiment of an expanding global club brand remained.
While, as aptly encapsulated by those mentioned in this calibre – Piqué and Busquets aside – the majority of modern players are expected to reinvent themselves at varying stages of their careers, particularly for managers for whom self-preservation is the increasing qualm, Iniesta has proven the emphatic anomaly to this rule; steadfast over various regimes, an erudite weapon in the armoury of each manager even since his younger days, and nigh-on indistinguishable in his innate mastery of various roles. His irrepressible force knows no bounds, and even in comparison with the otherwise infallible Puyol, Xavi and Valdés – retiring at the age of 36, pursuing Barca’s sponsorship at the time from the Qatar Foundation to exploit Qatari funds in a career twilight and besmirching his name in torrid tenures at Manchester United and quizzically Middlesbrough – is so evidently ageless and irreplaceable.
This said, under Luis Aragonés and Vicente del Bosque – discernibly pragmatic helmsmen and only minor international figures in their playing days, in contrast with Rijkaard and Guardiola – the diminutive Castilian was encouraged to expand his skillset to truly reign an unparalleled champion. Much akin to the Raumdeuter Thomas Müller’s role four years hence, and potentially Neymar’s talismanic aspirations this summer, it is arguably Iniesta’s presence that underlined any Spanish success in the 2010 World Cup, while rivals fell by the wayside. That was, after all, a tournament in which he was only matched in playmaking ability by the once-mercurial Dutchman Wesley Sneijder, and yet, in a final if not for them utterly unglamorous, their qualities drew a stalemate prior only to a wondrous 116th minute effort of incisive composure. While perhaps not as indicative of La Rioja’s triumph at Euro 2012 or indeed 2008, where Cesc Fàbregas and the in-form trio of Xavi, David Villa and Fernando Torres, respectively, starred, and his task differed in either final – maintaining Phillip Lahm’s burden in 2008, before placement on the left of an attacking trio against the defensively culpable Ignazio Abate and Claudio Marchisio in Kyiv freed him – he still took the credit of the 2012 Player of the Tournament Award, not to mention winner’s medals at both events.
While questioned through his nation’s failures – beginning in earnest with the calamitous 3-0 defeat at the 2013 Confederations Cup Final – at consecutive tournaments in Brazil and France, the archetypal Catholic maintained his faith. A period aligned with the dissolution of a Barça institution – Guardiola resigning, Tito Vilanova, just nine months on from being forced to resign from the managerial role, tragically passing away from a cancer relapse in April 2014 and new president Josep Maria Bartomeu ushering in an ethos reliant on the turnover of managerial staff, from director of football Andoni Zubizarreta to the perhaps unfortunate Gerardo Martino – it was a severe test to Iniesta’s, and fellow alien La Masia inductee Messi’s, solidarity. Undaunted by reform, Bartomeu enacted the arguably anti-Més que MSN era and the revamp of a side to confront Real’s modern Galácticos, while fixating still around his celestial homegrown assets. With Bartomeu set to serve until 2021, be it not for what now seems an unlikely prosecution for involvement in the unlawful transactions over Neymar in 2013, the midfielder’s remaining years may prove merciful to the political panderings necessitated by an elective presidency.
The entirety of this foreseeable future may not be served under an orchestrator of unlikely rekindling in Ernesto Valverde, granted, yet the reinvention posed amidst the Extremadura native’s first season – while firing Barça to an all-but assured La Liga title and potential Champions League victory – has surely demonstrated that further reform, upsetting the status quo, is welcome under the present regime. For all of the conservative support that Bartomeu retains, this requirement is at least respected in the demands of the ever-changing modern sporting environment. As a burden, however, it is certainly eased by the eternal tactical versatility of the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper’s youth graduates – those, rather than at La Masia, now reared at the main training complex – who will continue to flourish under the increasingly senior presence of Iniesta and Messi.
Nostalgia at this juncture, however, need not be apparent. Indeed, may we long herald the wondrous omnipotence of these few remnants of Cruyff’s youth policy, and witness their talents consume the decorum of silverware in coming seasons. On the occasion of a tradesman’s retirement, whether enforced or elective, with honours or in relative destitution, plaudits must not be refined to the individual itself involved, and particularly in an industry as ideologically dictated as sport. As much a product of the evolving Barcelona apparatus and the intentions of gilded minds Cruyff, Rijkaard, Guardiola, Enrique and now Valverde, Iniesta can never truly be respected as the lone individual many attempt to render him. The cyclical nature of the environment dictates individuals in his ilk will again rise, and equally as responsible for this will be the facilities invested, preceding visions of relevant figures and demands of coaches entrusted with such influential financial hosts.
We may never see an Iniesta again by name, but by nature the repetition is, due to this amplified culture of socialisation, inevitable. Whether that benefits the sport itself is a fine debate for another time, but for a midfielder decorated with global, continental and domestic titles, and more pivotally fulfilled in a stable private life, the doubts are few. Nobody, however, has quite the philosophical approach to the sport of Iniesta. His adaptation to the evolving demands of the sport, primarily psychological, has been assured, yet for others it will be truly unlikely. Such, perhaps, will be the lasting legacy of a unique career; one to admire, certainly, but one to also take heed from in a world in which industry can obscure reality. Never must we take its message in vain.
올라간 것은 반드시 내려와야 한다 – “What goes up must come down”
Hoisted to the peak of international prominence with a politically inflammatory approach to co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, the South Korean national football team removed some of the most blatant prejudices towards Asian football with their highly commendable performances. Much akin to their northern neighbours in this respect, given how a largely unfancied Kim Il-Sung-era side acquitted themselves to become the first non-European or American side to reach the knockout stages in 1966, the establishment on the overachieving peninsula bathed in somewhat of an uncharacteristic fame, and entered the peripheries of momentous global sporting influence. Yet, replicating the missteps of their contemporaries, their momentum stalled; the unforgiving necessity of competitive tournament football ushering in the ambitious regimes of rivals both local and distant, in geographical and cultural respects. A victim of the inevitability of time, but more to the expectations set by an unprecedented semi-final benchmark – a burden they shoulder for all Asian nations, given their unprecedented feat what now amounts to 16 years ago – the Taeguk Warriors now lead into a 2018 campaign, hosted poignantly across the Peninsula, facing a considerable uphill task against defending champions Germany, a Mexico outfit currently ranked by FIFA as 17th in the world and an aspirational Swedish squad both tactically liberated and egotistically incapacitated by the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimović. While remaining relatively dominant in their East Asian sub-continental association, however, will their retained pragmatism, and respectable commercial growth, extend to a desire to challenge the global elite once again?
In the midst of the nation’s present accommodation of the Winter Olympic institution, their ability to helm the qualities of immensely popular competition is evident – albeit with an inevitably alternative approach to preceding, and more traditional, host cities of either the summer or winter tournament, more reliant on uniformity than natural flair. PyeongChang 2018’s presentation of the 17-day event, though running over budget like any major tournament, has exploited all of the commercial opportunities available in a professional and slick organisation. Economically, perhaps, this very factor has aligned with an acutely industrialised culture continuing to profit, alongside Chinese and Japanese counterparts, from the European and American stock market crash of 2007-08; filtering inevitably through to their representation through various sporting forms. Such an intrinsic relationship between the two societal subsects, which are portrayed – in an encapsulation of cultural conceit – as so far divided across, similarly, the European and North American continents, has guided Korean principles, particularly in the past decade. With Hyundai Development Company chairman Chung Mong-gyu the Korean Football Association’s (KFA) president and a member of the FIFA Council since 2013 and 2017 respectively, and the chairman of Busan IPark – without a trophy while under Hyundai ownership – since 2000, their ties to the nation’s second business dynasty are unavoidable, and only encapsulate the national team’s primacy as a societal structure.
Also currently listed as Vice President of the East Asian Football Federation, Asian Football Confederation and Korean Sport & Olympic Committee, following previous roles as Chef de Mission of South Korea’s modest Olympic performance in 2016 and K-League President, Mong-gyu has carved a reputation as the go-to man of Korean sport, and though presumably overburdened at times, he has instilled the values of his business career at each institution where his influence has laid. The control he has exerted over his nation’s most eminent global representatives, given the unrivalled viewing figures that continue to grow with each World Cup tournament, however, has enacted few of the developments some may expect at this stage of the formative nation’s heritage. Where professional football has only been hosted since 1983’s introduction of the K-League Classic, and independence from four decades of Imperial Japanese rule was only granted officially in 1948, and realistically – given the bitter losses of the Korean War – in 1953, the formal practice of football, commercially, if not culturally, superior to baseball, taekwondo and speed skating, is not prolonged, but certainly prolific.
개천에서 용 난다 – “From the steam a dragon rises” (From rags to riches)
The affection drawn to the sport is not a modern phenomenon, nonetheless. Derived from an ancient past in which children’s leisure time could be spent occupied by jegichagi, a keepie-uppie style sport in which players attempt to prevent the jegi from falling to the ground before the opponent, Korean football in its own right is recorded as expanding from the interaction with late Victorian era British colonialist officers, and being fostered to an extent under Japanese rule; the KFA first formed in 1928, though not recognised by FIFA until post-war independence. Regardless of national interest, no competitive international side could be formed until, much akin to the earlier trends of their Japanese neighbours, and now the Chinese establishment, the K-League was formed, and in the 1990s high-profile sponsorship and the import of European, South American and African talent were realised as highly lucrative trades.
Within this same capacity, however, the extremities of commercialisation have not been truly tested. No truly relevant international figure has been recruited to any outfit immersed in K-League competition (Niall McGinn, Dalian Atkinson and the token spattering of former Yugoslav and Brazilian also-rans not registering on my account), while for the KFA, their player development policy appears as decisive as a cartoon character stood over a earthquake-stricken land’s gaping precipice, with one foot planted on the land favouring K-League fulfilment, and the other directed towards the mastering of foreign lands. Such an indistinct approach is perfectly evident in their selection options ahead of Russia; only unfortunate injuries to Tottenham’s Heung Son-Min and Swansea’s Ki Sung-yueng away from the possibility of having just four representatives currently employed in a top-level European league available, while the aforementioned duo has won six of the previous seven KFA male Footballer of the Year awards.
The objective of the KFA system, and any national institution at that, must be to provide a coherent, but lenient, vision for all who are at its potential mercy. If so willing to offer congratulatory, and very relevant, prizes to these figureheads of overseas ambition in Heung and Ki, one would certainly presume their intention to encourage self-motivation and self-sustenance in European environs, and with the only other Footballer of the Year gong going to Kim Young-gwon after the centre-back’s Chinese Super League-AFC Champions League double with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015, any non-Korean shelter. Yet the array of K-League representatives set not only to land in Russia this summer, but also to go toe-to-toe with the prestigious athletes of Germany, Sweden and Mexico in the actual conditions of a World Cup match, defy this rhetoric.
Granted, only two European-based entities were accredited with 2002 World Cup squad places – Seol Ki-hyeon, who only months earlier with Anderlecht had become the first Korean to score in the Champions League, and Perugia’s Ahn Jung-hwan – under Guus Hiddink, but two pivotal features defined that tournament; hosting aside. Firstly, it is notable that, alongside Croatia’s rue of defeat, in their first World Cup appearance, at such an advanced stage by the hosts at France ‘98, and Turkey’s fellow run to the semis in 2002, the Taeguk Warriors – who had not won a World Cup match in five earlier finals appearances, alongside just four wins, three of those in 1996 and 2002, in 17 earlier Olympic Games matches – represented a lesser international power who rose to sporting prominence; success owed more to the fervour of fans, nous of learned coaches and tactical alignment than the youth development programmes only available to senior socio-economic nations. Secondly, it is surely undisputed that without the very presence of enigmatic Dutchman Hiddink – complete with a pedigree that saw the Netherlands led to fourth place in 1998, and PSV Eindhoven hoisting aloft the European Cup a decade earlier – none of the combative, divisive achievement of the geographically minute nation would have been made possible.
Undoubtedly, in a modern climate where wealth disparities with elite domestic competitions in Europe and even China intensify, we have to respect the abilities that the K-League does continue to produce. In the past decade, a steady stream featuring former Monaco and Arsenal striker Park Chu-yong, ex-Sunderland and (albeit briefly) Borussia Dortmund forward Ji Dong-won, Bundesliga-based midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, Red Bull Salzburg midfield prodigy Hwang Hee-chan and Dijon’s in-form attacking midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon have deferred from the likes of Pohang Steelers, Jeju United and FC Seoul, asserting the position of South Korean academies in European prestige and widely bolstering the finances of these same establishments back on the Peninsula in the process. Reinvestment, as evident by the replication of these exports a decade apart, has been efficiently placed also, ensuring the sustainability of the model.
Of all nations to challenge the global elite with an export culture fundamental to their league system, only Portugal and Iceland truly stand out. The former, in the Primeira Liga, obviously possesses a vastly stronger national division in comparison to Korean affairs – yet the latter presents an intriguing status. As an isolated geographical outpost, their focus naturally had to be placed on overcoming the inclement environment and reinforce the original mid-to-late 1990s exports of Eiður Guðjohnsen and the likes. Generally, their stance, on the peripheries of both geographical and financial Europe replicates much of the issues that pose the South Korean system in Asia. Yet the long-affirmed continental (Asian Football Confederation, or AFC) club competition eminence of the Koreans does differ from the terrain that the Icelanders have so far proven powerless to overcome. Amongst UEFA’s inclines, of course, it is widely accepted that an Icelandic club stands little chance of fulfilling group stage Champions League aspirations. It is exactly this disparity, however, that inspired, and indeed continues to motivate, Knattspyrnusamband Íslands (KSI – or Football Association of Iceland) chiefs and councils in a system that similarly relied upon the patronage of high-ranking national business figures. As a resilient, isolated nation, their perseverance and quietly astute pursuit of a shared vision proved fruitful – not solely with the now-famed construction of a vast number of publicly owned, multi-purpose and vitally indoor “football houses”, but also with the subsidy of UEFA-grade coaching courses for citizens across the island – and has transformed the sporting, and more widely cultural, appearance of the state. Much akin to the revolutions imposed in New Zealand with rugby union and cricket, wherein the bi-island nation can impossibly defy its meagre population and land mass to produce world-leading quality, and the trends covered in the high-profile media of recent months at Italian outfit Atalanta, Iceland reversed an entire society’s perspective towards sport. South Korea, one would logically extrapolate, must achieve the same unlikely feat.
It is just that, however – unlikely. Especially given the socio-economic development of the Republic of Korea in comparison to the likes of Iceland or New Zealand; a duo whom the Koreans can boast to dwarf the combined population of by almost ten times. Technologically developed – and fixated, culturally – like few other nations on earth, extremely prosperous for the vast majority of citizens in its thriving employment and salary figures, politically advanced and culturally central to an intrinsically globalised modern spectrum, few reasons exist for a revolution of any kind, and even fewer to which the average Korean would be sympathetic. Theirs is not a society, or even societal subculture, liable to the ideological shapeshifting of states otherwise irrelevant on the global sporting stage. As is reliably proven, they can continue to qualify for events such as the World Cup, and profit in the top ten performing nations of either Olympics, without undue concern. Why, in that case, change tack?
Indeed, one would conclude either cynically or pragmatically, an alternative approach must be considered. The crux of the matter, I suppose, is an ultimatum that questions the parameters that the KFA employs in order to define success. Do they seriously intend on rivalling historically distinguished nations such as Germany, and overpowering the likes of Mexico and Sweden, on a regular basis? Given each socio-economic factor of the state, this could be a very genuine experience, after all. For a short while, in all of the hubbub of 2002, they may well have been overexposed to the very thrill. Nonetheless, now is the era in which they must break from the past and opt to assume stability over the adrenaline of arrogant, entitled eventing. These are only the words of a Westerner, himself entitled, though.
Perhaps the sacrificing of results is too great a burden for the Koreans to bear in order to breed future progression. Until recently, one could observe, the very same issue afflicted the entire godforsaken England system. Flexibility, in realisation from a long and anguished education from their German, Spanish and Italian overseers, was an attribute they dearly lacked as an association; amongst many others, I grant you that. Their round of 16 exit in 2010’s South African World Cup notwithstanding, of course, they have regressed from 2002, as the English have in major tournament results from the mid-2000s. Albeit in a vastly different cultural circumstance, whilst the Three Lions encountered a media prone to exploitative hyperbole given the club achievements of a number of players and scandals in the personal lives of both management and playing staff, the fate of the Taeguk Warriors has proven a victim to the ever-improving desire of their competitors, both near and far. The synchronicity of fortunes with their English counterparts is certainly no coincidence, either. A shared sporting disquiet is an apt ode to stagnation, in the British case from complacency and the Koreans’ chiefly due to slight administrative naivety, and the culpability of senior figures in what ultimately is cheaply targeted as the misstep of players and management in major tournament failure.
말을 냇가에 끌고 갈 수는 있어도 억지로 물을 먹일 수는 없다 – “You can lead a horse and go to a stream but you can’t make it drink by its own will” (You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink)
For all of the comparisons – some flattering, others patronising – with nations of varying recent acclaim, however, we can easily forgo the true reality of South Korean football, if not referred to in a commercially viable Anglicised style otherwise known locally as chuggu (축구). Equipped with admirable infrastructure across each of the climactically diverse provinces, they however lack much of the enthusiasm in which the KFA basked in the months following victories over the much-fancied Italians and Spaniards; average K-League 1 match attendances sitting at 6,505 in the 2017 season, while in the same period in the K-League 2 the total season attendance amounted to just 418,388, and the average per match just 2,324. Within this, the tale of two clubs, and one city, defines the extremity of public engagement; regular K-League 1 title challengers FC Seoul and four-year-old second division side Seoul E-Land FC by far the most popular and least attended sides in 2017, respectively, with 16,316 and 1,611 fans on average present at each home match. While these figures may be partly acceptable in the domestic division of a nation ranked 58th in the world by FIFA, these must be considered in the very image of the facilities bestowed upon them, given their status as clubs in South Korea’s capital, and one of Asia’s key cities; the Seoul World Cup Stadium and Olympic Stadium, of 66,704 and 69,950 capacities respectively, and as a result the nation’s largest sporting constructs. These are rendered desolate, understaffed and largely unprofitable venues when hosting weekly league football, entirely capturing the core fault of Korean football, and perhaps an irreversible circumstance.
Clubs, no matter their performance, will continue to survive off these paltry incomes thanks to the patronage of local government or internationally prominent business dynasties. This is the criticism that will persist throughout their participation in the sport until ruthless capitalism is fully embraced at top-level competition, and also burdens the efforts of many lesser European nations at this stage. Their reliance on half-hearted, philanthropic and. to an extent, forlorn is obtrusive to any attempts to make domestic competition truly competitive, rather than a mere showpiece for a tired commercial product that lacks the funds to revitalise. It is unlikely the introduction of clubs such as Seoul E-Land, an institution owned by the retail conglomerate E-Land – who derive their name and brand from the apparent Oriental fascination with English regalia and royalty – will resolve this alone, also. They may well contribute to a more sustainable and ambitious future perspective, nonetheless.
콩 심은 데 콩 나고 팥 심은 데 팥 난다 – “A bean grows where you plant a bean, and a red bean grows where you plant a red bean” (You reap what you sow)
It will take individuals and lesser groups to alter the face of Korean football, undoubtedly. Posed with the overwhelming environment a nation whose politics are not exactly the most lenient or embracing of such status quo-defying entrepreneurship, immense vision and bravery would have to define these few effective revolutionaries. They are not unprecedented in number, but few and far between at least, and not without their detractors; beware the ramifications of your actions, the public cries. Unless successful in the opportunity they do have, again they may be deterred for a decade, or longer, of stagnation to reaffirm status and only intensify national despondence. In such a hostile environment, their risk far outweighs the likelihood of reward, also. For conservatism to rule, however, no institution can be operating effectively, and for South Korean football to prosper, this reputation must be shed. Engaging again with the public upon which they, as any sporting institution, are so reliant, is a pressing necessity, and one that will not be eased by hoping repeatedly that results merely carve themselves out in an expired system. They have all the equipment required, both naturally and materially, but to truly harness it, further experience as a footballing nation will do them no harm at all. Once any naivety is eroded, and I have absolute faith that in coming years it will be, once again, the blossom of youth may rise again. No such sentiment could be displayed more aptly, inadvertently, than in the untidy translation of the nation’s very motto, after all; ‘benefit broadly in the human world’. We could all, indeed, share this hope.
Doused with the decorum of Côte d'Azur serenity, France’s second city has emitted a staunchly entitled attitude throughout its chartered sporting history. Long had they been an institution – in Olympique de Marseille – that appeared blessed with fortune, yet their past has not been without its many tribulations, particularly so heavily burdened on its fans. The most recent of these inflicted by persistent and unbending owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus (née Bogdanova), who inherited ownership as the second wife of the Franco-Swiss businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus – 16 years her senior – after the former Adidas CEO’s 2009 death, a remarkable recovery has since been staged under the buyout of the Los Angeles-based American real estate magnate, philanthropist and sports enthusiast Frank McCourt, bringing them again to 3rd in the present 2017-18 Ligue 1 table and primed for a long-overdue Champions League return. No stranger to the fallibilities of a high-profile franchise, given his prior involvement in the L.A Dodgers baseball team, his current ownership of the commercial property of the L.A Marathon and a failed 2002 bid to purchase the Boston Red Sox – ousted by current Liverpool owners John W. Henry and Tom Werner, alongside then-Red Sox President Larry Lucchino – Boston-born McCourt, certainly as the first overseas, and more poignantly non-European, majority shareholder, assumed a mantle that few would have envied at the time. Nonetheless, instilling reforms that have led, at least partially and for the consistent period of this season, to a reassertion of regional prominence, an American regime has aided the recovery of an empire previously festering in all of the revolutionary distaste commonly associated with the local populace.
Sustainability, the true fulfilment of potential and ethics inevitably arise as the inquiries at this decisive stage. Yet for all of these questions, we must also appreciate the extremely unlikely factors that have aligned to reach even this phase of development, so relatively early in any ownership project. Aligning poetically, and with certain political distinctions, with the 2014 selection of the French Riviera city as 2017 European Capital of Sport – only the 17th edition of the European Union-derived title, following in the footsteps of former victors Madrid, Milan and Istanbul – l’OM’s charge, after all, has been driven by what, upon the naïve gaze of a cynical Englishman, are a band of misfits and rejects. Head coach Rudi García, McCourt’s first appointment in October 2016 after the disentangling of contract ties with AS Roma, had been dismissed disharmoniously eight months earlier from bright beginnings in the Italian capital, and was followed by the signings of Champions League veterans Kostas Mitroglou, Luis Gustavo and Adil Rami, the shrewd recruitment of AS Monaco striker Valère Germain and the recapture of failed Premier League imports Steve Mandanda and Florent Thauvin, who were originally victims of a wage budget cull enacted by Louis-Dreyfus alongside Michy Batshuayi and Nicolas N’Koulou. Add to this the outlay on Dimitri Payet’s acrimonious return as the flagship move of the ‘OM Champions’ project, Clinton N’Jie’s permanent signature, the relative coup of young midfielder Morgan Sanson and what has recently amounted to a fruitless recruitment of former national team captain Patrice Evra, and the recipe for either an egotistic swarm of García’s dressing room or a romantic alignment has forged to see the latter, presently, to realisation.
García is no shrinking violet himself, of course. To defy the status quo of Ligue 1 and Serie A in an offensively-fixated approach has separated the Frenchman, of Spanish descent, as a coach not afraid of breaking with tradition and forging an individual stance, regardless of the local environs. While at Lille, this reputation first gained recognition, yet long before his 2008 appointment in North East France he had steered Paris’ non-league L’AS Corbeil-Essonnes from relegation certainty to promotion candidacy in the mid-1990s before moving into physiotherapy and scouting roles, plying his trade at the turn of the millennium for Saint-Étienne. One of many continental coaches to flourish as assistant manager to John Toshack, the main managerial role was thrust upon him midway through the 2000-01 season alongside player-co-manager Jean-Guy Wallemme, but the pair were unable to halt the club’s slide to Ligue 2 and left in the summer. At that stage, such was the unexpected but cash-strapped nature of the appointment that García was in fact without his French Football Federation (FFF) professional coaching badges, yet when claiming his licences a year later positions at Dijon, from 2002 until 2007, and later Le Mans – 2007-08 – followed; expectations to stave off Ligue 1 relegation, after promotion with the former in 2003-04, transformed into a stable, and highly respectable, mid-table reality and cup semi-final appearances with the former in the Coupe de France and for the latter in the Coupe de la Ligue. Replicating the five seasons in Dijon occupation with a landmark aforementioned Lille role, in which he built on the groundwork of predecessor Claude Puel – who made the natural progression after six admirable seasons to depart to Lyon – and owner Michel Seydoux’s investment in a new training complex, a promising career was taken to new heights; 56 years after the club’s last trophy, lifting both the 2010-11 Ligue 1 and Coupe de France with the prodigious Eden Hazard, prolific pairing of Moussa Sow and Gervinho and creative force of Yohan Cabaye brought to the fore.
Qualification for the Champions League earned him his time in Rome, and consecutive runners-up finishes in Serie A, although on both occasions trailing Juventus by 17 points, only cemented his pedigree as someone who was able and willing to progress any side within his remit beyond the restrictions faced by predecessors, and has since been proven, successors. Had it not been for the manner of his dismissal from the Stadio Olimpico – parting ways with I Giallorossi under the cloud of a Coppa Italia defeat to Serie B side Spezia, and with designs on a third-season title falling to the wayside from early-season dominance in 2015-16 – one may have considered his time to have arrived for a grapple with one of the truly eminent positions in the global game. Not, necessarily, a Marseille side who had languished down in 13th position the previous season, suffocated by Louis-Dreyfus’ financial stranglehold and without any serious glimmers of hope. Then again, it speaks volumes for his character – bravado, possibly – that García would be so inspired to take the revolutionary burden upon his proud shoulders.
To be brutally honest, however, this is not a club that such a bleak situation, and reformist task, should have afflicted. Champions League victors in 1993, in the first season in which such a title was adopted by UEFA, and a formative edition also in respects of the final being hosted in a truly unified Germany and the introduction of many post-Yugoslav and Soviet dissolution states to a tinkered competition, the perennially Adidas-tied institution had lost the European Cup final two years earlier in an equally iconic kit to a generation-defining Red Star Belgrade outfit. Over this short period, the recruitment of Rudi Völler, Didier Deschamps, Fabien Barthez, Frank Sauzée and Alen Bokšić in place of Ballon d’Or winner Jean-Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle, Pascal Olmeta, Jean Tigana and Eric Cantona, as ushered in by enigmatic Belgian manager Raymond Goethals, had forged an environment sufficiently cleansed to support the first successful French continental competition campaign. Amidst the elation of the day, however, utter despondence, both within the club and the wider French footballing establishment, soon festered with allegations towards chairman Bernard Tapie of bribes directed towards relegation-threatened Valenciennes players in a Ligue 1 match the week prior to the Olympiastadion final against AC Milan, in which the league title could be sealed with a victory and thus reduce concerns of a tight championship battle with Paris Saint-Germain persisting throughout action in the biggest match in the club’s history. With the jurisdiction of the FFF, who it must be said were under mass commercial pressure, the decision was eventually taken – after the entirety of the 1993-94 Ligue 1 season, when, fortunately, PSG rose to deny Les Olympiens a consecutive title, but the side Goethals opted to quickly disassociate himself with was prevented from returning to European Cup action – to relegate the club into Ligue 2 for the 1994-95 season.
It was at that point that Robert Louis-Dreyfus first descended upon the club, and replaced the commendable old guard that had reinstated first division action, including the prolific cult hero Tony Cascarino, with a superpowered vanguard led by Robert Pirès, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Christian Dugarry, Laurent Blanc and Andreas Köpke. Sustaining regular continental appearances without ever setting Ligue 1 alight, their challenge did amount to a 1999 UEFA Cup Final defeat to an even more star-studded Parma side – littered with the lauded monikers of Buffon, Cannavaro, Thuram, Verón, Crespo and Asprilla – and yet another runners-up finish, of a newly emergent generation prising Didier Drogba, Mathieu Flamini and Habib Beye (oh what could have been) in the 2003-04 edition to the hands of Valencia as various regimes entered and passed through the port city. Louis-Dreyfus, exasperated after a decade’s chairmanship, may have sold the club to Canadian prospector Jack Kachkar in 2007, yet remained to bankroll the club’s first major titles – an insignificant 2005 Intertoto Cup honour, as one of three winners, aside – in 2010, with a March Coupe de la League triumph swiftly followed by a Ligue 1 title, and consecutive titles in the 2011 Coupe de la League and both 2010 and 2011 Trophée des Champions. Former captain Deschamps was the key instigator of this reinvigorated haul in a tenure that would ultimately earn him his promotion to French national team manager, yet it was tempered at the time in consideration of the lacking quality behind Parisian and Monacan efforts. This was a time when Montpellier could lift Ligue 1 with a storming season of glorious unpredictability, after all.
The “shot in the arm of French football” proclaimed by Montpellier boss René Girard after his side’s defensively commanding, but Olivier Giroud-galvanised, 2011-12 season mastery, however, would soon by answered by a now-infamous economic, and geopolitically conspicuous, revolution at their closest challengers that term; PSG. Girard’s sentiment that “money isn’t the be-all and end-all” of Ligue 1 success, ultimately, proved a naïve rhetoric; Louis-Dreyfus’ declining health, and wife Margarita’s expanding influence, restricting capabilities on the Mediterranean coast, while L.A-based real estate firm Colony Capital, when acquiring a majority stake in the French capital, reduced the transfer ambition and expenditures of the then-two-time French champions and seven-time Coupe de France victors. With Qatari sponsorship overwhelming PSG, and the uninspiring recruitment chiefly consisting of expired talents Claude Makélélé and Grégory Coupet, tepid Ligue 1-based entities Mathieu Bodmer, Siaka Tiéné and Nenê, despite the Brazilian’s future goalscoring exploits, and the main outlay, embarrassingly in retrospect, on Stéphane Sessègnon, soon the Saint-Denis-based outfit would usurp all competition as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edison Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Maxwell, Alex, Thiago Motta, Javier Pastore, Gregory van der Wiel, Lucas Moura and of course David Beckham – an entire starting XI of intensely commercially viable assets – were drafted in during an emphatic charge to national supremacy. For only the third time since PSG’s 1970 formation, and following in the ilk of 1960’s/’70s Saint-Étienne and 2000s Lyon dominance, a consistency and status quo would be introduced to French competition with cynically-motivated Oryx Qatar Sports Investment expense; for better or for worse.
This is where McCourt, though unable to compete obviously with the funds effectively of an entire oil-rich state’s sporting ministry, and Monaco tycoon Dmitri Rybolovleva, daughter Ekaterina and 33.33% shareholders of Italian-Monacan aristocratic House of Grimaldi heritage – headed by Albert II Prince of Monaco – intervene. While spearheaded by the investment of one of the richest Russians and wealthiest global monarchs, the Stade Louis II-based side defied Parisian rule in rather ironic 2016-17 season circumstances, given the wealth once accumulated in the French capital by the monarchy long since dismissed. There is no doubt, consequently, that Ligue 1 is, indeed, dictated by economics; there will never be another Montpellier rising again, not at least until drastic FFF reforms are implemented into the commercial equity of exposure, and a significantly firmer, and potentially irreparably divisive, line taken with Financial Fair Play by UEFA. It was at least partly attributable to Monacan prowess, in emerging as key contenders to PSG’s dominance, after all, that a social, or in other perspectives antisocial, Marseille revolution was sparked to depose of Louis-Dreyfus, who had soon come to be portrayed as an unsympathetic despot grasping heedlessly onto power and fortune, while condemning the club to the absolute opposite.
No longer, in an acutely competitive modern marketplace, can the club afford to operate under thumb of an investor more inclined to accumulate wealth from the comfort of their yacht deck when cast away on the resplendent, shimmering Med than to pursue the reinvigoration of trophy-spinning achievements. This has been made abundantly evident in recent seasons, and fortunately has now been recognised by the club’s internal hierarchy. While in McCourt they may not possess the most ethically admirable of stakeholders – real estate fortunes only demonstrating the capitalist ruthlessness typified with all self-respecting American businessman, while amidst his 2010-11 divorce proceedings with wife Jamie (poignantly, as a high-profile Republican-voting businesswoman, the newly-appointed U.S Ambassador to France and Monaco under Donald Trump) the fate of his L.A Dodgers team was under serious threat of bankruptcy – there is certainly no comparison between the distinction of the amoral construction of a slave labour-forged Qatari utopia, and the numerous ecological controversies of Rybolovleva’s potash empire, nor his involvement in the 2016 Panama Papers exposé or late 1990s 11-month prison sentence, and later acquittal, for the McMafia-esque contract killing of a post-Soviet dissolution era business rival. What Les Phocéens do indeed occupy as a club, now, is a position from which to capitalise on the potential scandals, and subsequent conceivable withdrawals or forced ownership evacuations, of either administration set to qualify for Champions League football alongside them.
McCourt, his locally-placed ally and club President Jacques-Henri Eyraud – certainly an interesting character of his own, given a career that began with Harvard education, soon followed with press officer work for the French military service during the Gulf War and Euro Disney, and has aged with various CEO work with national sporting publications – and the wider Marseille institution, however, will have to be wary of the consolidation of PSG-Monaco, and potentially Lyon, financial pre-eminence regardless of ownership group in future, with framework and infrastructures unquestionable in their solidity. Thus, what this present administration must ensure is the instillation of a legacy, and a sustainable product that unifies local fervour and internal talent development to forge a profitable future. The first step in such an aspirational, and requisite, programme has been evident with the appointment of Andoni “Zubi” Zubizarreta; still the fourth-ranked all-time appearance maker in the history of the Spanish national team, a six-time La Liga victor in the span of 11 seasons between 1982-83 and 1993-94 with Atlético Madrid and later Barcelona, where in a manner of poeticism he lifted the final incarnation of the European Cup, twelve months prior to his current employers’ 1993 Champions League triumph. As a former Director of Football at Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, naturally, and the engineer of both the ambitious Atlético foundations that predated Diego Simeone and moves that delivered Alexis Sánchez, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitić, Neymar and Luis Suarez to Barça, he is presumably perfectly suited to assume the same role just 500km’s drive through Catalonia and across to the maritime heart of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, and is no stranger to the expectation of the position having succeeded his lauded former club and country teammate Txiki Begiristain at the Camp Nou.
Competing – given the absence of any distinguishable technical authority aside from Leonardo Jardim’s management team at Monaco – only with the inexperienced Maxwell, post-retirement, in what appears to be within the Brazilian’s remit as PSG Sporting Coordinator, and sexagenarians Bernard Lacombe and Marino Faccioli as ‘Special Adviser’ and Sporting Director, respectively, at Olympique Lyonnais, Zubizarreta was a canny appointment by McCourt et al., and a relative coup at that. Alongside García, and the Frenchman’s long-term assistant loyalists Frédéric Bompard and Claude Fichaux, Zubi surely completes the most widely-envied managerial unit in the entire Ligue 1, and possibly, outside of England, Spain, Germany and Italy, in the entire footballing universe.
Inevitably, though, one has to query how long such fortune will last. When their patience, as elite figures, will elapse is entirely dependent on the reciprocal application of both ownership and playing staff, who it is easy to conclude would surely remain languishing in mid-table were it not for the Spanish-derived duo’s composed and studious influence. It is not fortune, nor a profit from the mere circumstances laid in front of them, that has delivered such commendable performances for each side they have graced, either; these are the figures that define an adapting generation, potentially blazing a trail in France for the administration of club football that can both challenge the continental elite and sustain the French national side for years to come. For all of the renowned independent streak of García, he certainly personifies the sentiment of a new age, and has laid foundations that vastly benefit each environment in which he operates; if anything, more outstanding than any of the accomplishments at a club so lavished with unparalleled resources as Unai Emery’s PSG.
Though both exerting somewhat of a Spanish influence over Ligue 1 in recent seasons, there is no doubt Emery and Garcia act as one another’s philosophical and practical antithesis at the height of national competition. With one engrossed by results – the inevitability of such a high-stakes environment – and the other by resilience and gradual, sustainable progress, few comparisons can be reliably touted surrounding their adversarial framing. This season alone encapsulates their contrast in riches and attainment, with the former – bolstered immeasurably by the record-shattering captures of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé – storming to titles, while the latter encountered, and recovered from, a league opening unbefitting of such an ambitious outfit; two defeats, including an ill-disciplined 6-1 away thrashing at the hands of Monaco, and two draws suffered before their GW10 meeting with Emery’s contingent. Since the duo’s 2-2 tie in late October – in which Cavani grabbed an added-time equaliser for the visitors to the Stade Vélodrome just minutes after Neymar’s second booking – however, it has been Garcia’s side that profited most eminently; only stuttering from their winning slalom with a single defeat at Lyon and draws away at hostile contenders Bordeaux, Montpellier and Saint-Étienne, and at home against the defending champions.
The project that aligns McCourt, García, Zubizarreta and every other vital individual in the wider cognate kin, however, is not centred on individualism, egotism and rivalry. Their efforts are undoubtedly focused on the reinstallation of a pride long since visible, but harboured deep within club confines. While of course each recognises their time on the Mediterranean coast will not be eternal, and that the opportunity for personal fortune or superior future employment is prevalent, such is the inherent nature of acutely commercialised competition; their intentions do appear genuine and reliably-placed. Providing they do maintain their employment, for lack of outrageous blunder or scandal, for a significant period in the club’s history, the ability to overcome the feared establishment and economic elite in PSG and Monaco, not only in cup action but most pivotally in Ligue 1, could conceivably emerge. The practices of this season must be studied and not only consolidated, but also broadened, in the very ideology – be it the ‘OM Champions’ transfer scheme or otherwise – of a new Marseille professing ancient values. They will not financially overpower their Parisian or Monacan adversaries, and possess full knowledge and pragmatism in respect of this fact. Their spirit, however, may go a great deal further than any mere turn of a gilded hand can, and while the infrastructures and skills possessed by Unai Emery and Leonardo Jardim’s outfits are by no means to be underappreciated, it has not been a historic rarity to witness the internal schism and implosion of any great financial monopoly.
For any side to break a concerted domestic dominance, a revolution may not be so necessary, but certainly an evolution of ambition, pragmatism, financial sensibility and general psychological cohesion. Of any side in the primary bracket of historic French challengers to return silverware to the hands of the people – the real people – why not Marseille? As the first of the ilk of Saint-Étienne, Lyon, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille and Nice to produce a genuinely sustained title challenge – the latter, also close neighbours, having fallen away after last season’s inspiration, while Lyon have chuntered along without every truly threatening the new establishment – theirs is an enviable current position. Never far from disaster in their preceding heritage, however, a cultural change may be challenging to impose. One can never shirk heritage, and in the city of Marseille they have within their roots a system built on chauvinism, elitism and cosmopolitanism; though adapting every so slightly in the modern age. These are qualities that they may be able to harness, but equally can hinder their cause on the national stage if retreated overzealously to. Temper this with the experience and philosophy of learned external imports, and they may produce soon a perfect chemistry. If uncertainty consumed the club as the current regime entered, though, there remains much to prove in coming years. Any Olympique response, regardless, may be based on the stereotyped adage; c’est la vie, mes amis. C’est. la. vie.
Vive la Marseille!
Encapsulated within two particularly peculiar employments in the past two weeks is the crux of a nation’s World Cup ambitions. As radical as that very notion may appear, the Football Federation Australia’s (FFA) decision to appoint Bert van Marwijk – a veteran of these blogs, given his aforementioned involvement in recent Dutch and Saudi Arabian exploits – and the upheaval that brought Tim Cahill back full circle to former East London employers Millwall have grand short-term ramifications for the Socceroos as they attempt to reconstruct their image from one of torrid international treatment and disorganised mediocrity, an analysis particularly touted during their renowned qualification struggles for this summer’s tournament alone. It was a chapter that pushed former manager Ange Postecoglou to eventual resignation, tempering the national mood in the midst of an intercontinental play-off victory against tempestuous Honduras, and only further asserting the need for institutional reform. Equipped with a one-time World Cup finalist at the tactical helm, and a nigh-on mythical captain and talisman who has potentially recaptured stability at a highly competitive level, they certainly possess the ability to mount a serious challenge in Russia, and be taken just as seriously by the international media. Yet these transformations do not come overnight, and, in a contrasting perception, their pre-existing flaws may only be exacerbated by a manager who has encountered immeasurable recent chagrin, and an overburdened, expended striker. Either way, what faces a systemically complacent establishment in the FFA is a tournament that could justifiably enact revolution; such is its poignance over the ideals currently professed, and the historic intentions of the nation’s idiosyncratic sporting approach.
Nobody is naïve enough to suggest that the appointment of any single individual can transform the fortunes of a failed and evidently stubborn establishment. Yet it can certainly aid reform – if that is as the institution in question desires, at least. Bert van Marwijk does not strike any prospective audience as an ideological reformist, and possesses no tangible radical streak within his eminent and chartered past. Not anywhere close to the extent of the rivals tipped for the Aussie job a few weeks ago, at least; Marcelo Bielsa, Louis van Gaal, Slaven Bilic and Jurgen Klinsmann, or even local favourite Graham Arnold, an expert of the A-League who is now favoured to take over after the expiration of van Marwijk’s practicality. Nevertheless, the 2010 World Cup silver medallist has been a left-field candidate. Silver-haired, sharply dressed and borderline emotionless, not to say Dutch, he appears every inch the modern European metrosexual. In an environment as hostile to these character traits as Australia, his intentions – stating ‘I like creative football… but I also like to win’ in his first official press conference – may come into conflict with the stereotypical Socceroos fan, but after succeeding – insofar as going 24 months without the sack can quantify – as Saudi Arabian manager, given the extensive geopolitical and socio-economic controversies posed across the exploits of the Middle Eastern behemoth, little further administrative trial can surely exist. Not just in terms of social liberalism, either; even the Saudi state can be argued to have a more coherent footballing vision than van Marwijk’s new employers.
Joined, in circumstances by no means connoting nepotism, by son-in-law and former Dutch captain Mark van Bommel as assistant manager, the six-month contract granted to the duo displays the exact extent of the FFA’s recent certainty. In a manner perhaps more alarming, albeit less chaotic, than the Scottish Football Association’s recent calamity in the search for a replacement in Gordon Strachan’s wake, a little over two months were consumed in the presumably intense interviewing phase; a time period in which Postecoglou even found himself a new role at J1 League side Yokohama F. Marinos. For this to have been anything but another inconsolable demonstration of FFA disarray, the tournament – of course a winter one for those in the Southern Hemisphere, of which Australia are only alongside each of the five CONMEBOL nations in representing – much provide at least some discernible reason for the return of hope, and a sustainable groundwork for Arnold, or others, to bring to any degree of fruition at a later date. At this despondent present juncture, however, it appears improbable that such salvation will be cultivated by the managerial profiteer of a partly fortunate, partly KNVB-fostered generation of diverse Dutch talents in 2010. Never exactly a prolific helmsman, van Marwijk has in each chapter of his career appeared content enough to dine off former glories, and to never exactly realise aspirations; never assertive enough to reinforce his club pedigree after lifting the 2001-02 UEFA Cup with Feyenoord, and failing blatantly to sustain the bittersweet pride of a World Cup Final loss, with jobs in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg, respectively, twinned less than a decade apart by more than a shared nuance of disappointment.
Implanted in an FFA establishment under the firm grip of billionaire real estate and shopping centre magnate Steven Lowy, as well as former semi-professional cricketer and Rugby League administrator David Gallop, in Chairman and CEO roles, respectively, van Marwijk and van Bommel hold no realistic hope of evolving a programme drastically lacking direction. The perennially bespectacled Lowy and Gallop double act – the former wispy haired and sternly faced, ever the image of any city businessman, and the latter a rangy figure with greyed locks swayed back to accentuate clean-cut facial features – have invited comedic jibes ever since the 2015 appointment of Lowy as a near-unanimous candidate from existing FFA and A-League dignitaries. Yet for all of the apparent business nous of the former, and sporting insight of the latter, the relationship has yet to prove profitable, nor overtly cohesive. Amidst their egotism over national influence, the 2013-appointed ‘Head of National Performance’ Luke Casserly has pandered to their edict and in return been shrouded from widespread contempt. Casserly, a centre back with suburban Sydney’s Marconi and North Sydney’s Northern Spirit in the mid-to-late 1990s National Soccer League (NSL) before a career-defining two-year spell at AIK Stockholm when signed by Stuart Baxter – another journeyman manager that we’ve touched on here before during his current tenure as South Africa manager – in the Swedish capital, worked subsequently for almost a decade as a semi-professional footballer and ‘National Retail Sales General Manager’ for Moraitis Pty Ltd, a food distribution company; the latter experience presumably appearing more compelling evidence of his suitability than his eight international caps accumulated between 1997 and 2001. When assessing his credentials, it is almost preposterous that he was handed the position. It can, after all, be for one of only two rational reasons. Firstly, his insight into the pain inflicted by the Socceroos’ last-gasp surrendering of a place at the 1998 World Cup in a 2-2 second leg play-off draw against Iran under Terry Venables’ post-England management may count in his favour. Secondly, the hierarchy installed by Lowy and Gallop may care very little about the fate of the nation’s exploits, and be exploiting Casserly’s incompatibility simply for the protection of their own positions.
Jaundiced insights such as these aren’t rare in Australian football. Cynicism has infiltrated the system at all levels, and especially on the international stage, where, I would certainly argue, after four prior World Cup finals appearances, tangible improvements should be experienced across the establishment, for the benefit of all. Over its history, after all, the FFA has been well-respected for its plight in the face of adversity, and its ability to overcome these circumstances to achieve rapid developments in cultural benchmarks. In 1974 – its first World Cup finals appearance – they entered with a squad vastly consisting of amateurs, and exited with a point from encounters against Chile, East Germany and hosts/eventual victors West Germany, yet were dissatisfied with the haul. After agonising eliminations at play-off stages in 1966, 1970, 1986, 1994, 1998 and 2002, they recouped to feature at the last three tournaments (2006-) and return for another instalment of their ongoing melodrama this time around. Theirs is only a relatively brief heritage, given the formative status of the nation on a global scale, the predominance of other Commonwealth-promoted sports such as Rugby Union and League, Cricket, Tennis and Athletics, as well as the notorious self-formed ‘Aussie Rules’, and from their first Trans-Tasman international in 1922, they have come a long way. Yet nearly a century on, their progress has stalled with an administration that demonstrates few reliable attributes other than ineptitude.
Given the repeated disappointments at an intercontinental play-off stage for the length of the preceding 40 years, I certainly recognise the FFA’s decision – tangled in all forms of controversy and mired in legal bureaucracy – to switch regional association to the AFC from the OFC in 2006 as a marriage of convenience. They could no longer afford to be posed with opposition from the likes of the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and American Samoa, and though this appears a move of callous elitism, it has forged a new path for the likes of New Zealand and Tahiti back in their true home, and enabled the FFA to assume a role more befitting of their prominent nation; ever since, placed on a global pedestal with this their fourth successive competition. Aside from the remnants of the infamous 31-0 defeat of American Samoa back in 2001, and others who competed in an OFC-affiliated age, few major talents have however emerged for the Socceroos. Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill and Brett Emerton still led the national cause by 2010, while Cahill has been left to stand ahead both in 2014 and to this day.
Perhaps inadequacy and mediocrity only inevitably succeed this calibre of once Premier League, even Champions League-quality player. Rarely do we today witness Australians consistently defying the global establishments; at present times, only Aaron Mooy, Mathew Ryan and Matthew Leckie are playing in any of the unofficial ‘big five’ European divisions, and though modestly successful within the constraints of Huddersfield Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Hertha Berlin, have not demanded global attention. There is, of course, the counterargument which states the lack of star power in the squads of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Panama, Peru and Iceland in preparation for this summer, but each of these nations possesses something Australia currently, and perhaps perpetually, lacks. A decorum that is inevitable with any nation for whom qualification is a true privilege, and for whom the opportunity is unparalleled. Throughout their stuttering qualifying campaign, and peaking with draws against Thailand and Syria, was a damaged pride for the Socceroos that sept the blood of entitlement. They appeared almost paralyzed by the occasion, and fearful of the ramifications of belying the national character. Generally, their approach smacked of indecency and misguided value.
Throughout this period, the FFA, and its playing representatives, have evidently retreated back to home comforts in an attempt to pander to A-League chiefs and encourage an apparent revolution from the base up. In earlier decades, this would have been an admirable move, but in an increasingly globalised world economy, and a financial structure only more acute in the footballing industry, their decision is little other than a desperate attempt to satisfy the businessmen to which they are inevitably accountable. Its Trumponomics without the irreverent presidency, and has achieved nothing other than further Socceroos senior misery.
Or perhaps its credit where credit is due. Graham Arnold would not be in line for the Aussie job, after all, had it not been for many of his home-grown Sydney FC players; although yet to gain a senior cap as of yet, 23-year-old Brandon O’Neill and the currently long-term injury afflicted 26-year-old Rhyan Grant driving the club’s ambitions alongside 24-year-old Josh Brillante, who gained the last of his five caps in 2014, and an extensive guard of Socceroo elders including Alex Brosque, Alex Wilkinson, Luke Wilkshire and David Carney. Josh Risden, a right-back for Western Sydney Wanderers of 25 years of age, had plied the entirety of his trade in Perth prior to his 2017 move, and has earned five caps throughout, while appearances at the 2017 Confederations Cup for James Maclaren and Dylan McGeown elevated them from employment at Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United, respectively, to SV Darmstadt and Paços de Ferreira, although currently on loan at Hibernians and South Korean outfit Gangwon. Even this trend replicated the events of three years earlier, as WSW’s Matty Spiranovic soon switched to Hangzhou Greentown, Newcastle Jets’ Adam Taggart immediately enacted two sullen seasons with Fulham and Dundee United (to the extent of nine appearances and no goals) and Brisbane’s Ivan Franjic sealed a single-season switch to Torpedo Moscow only weeks after 2014 World Cup involvement. Needless to say, none succeeded after making the trip abroad.
Fundamentally, this is a cultural flaw within the FFA’s ranks. A subservience to A-League brokers has only fragmented the vision and continuity of any coherent player, and more importantly squad, progression model in a desperate case of flawed constitutional practice. These domestic demands, after all, were only the response to the events of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the exodus led by Schwarzer and Cahill, and further fulfilled by Kewell, Neill, Emerton, Scott Chipperfield, Mark Viduka, Archie Thompson and, albeit in a less distinguished role, Casserly. This was a burden that proved too arduous for A-League, or then NSL, chiefs following the original exports ushered in amidst the ‘Golden Generation’ of 1991 World Youth Championships fourth-place finish fame; Mark Bosnich, Paul Okon, Tony Popovic and future “most hated man in football” Kevin Muscat amongst the vast majority of the 18-man squad who would play at least one season in Europe before the turn of the century. Attempting to alter the national perception of footballing success, and in so doing promote their own product, in the midst of 2002 World Cup qualification malaise, FFA – or then Soccer Australia – officials, led by then-chairman and Lowy dynasty patriarch Frank, initiated the now-renowned Crawford Report with the aid of an Australian Federal Government antagonised by public opinion suspecting of systemic institutional corruption. The independent investigation, conducted primarily by highly influential former statesman and businessman David Crawford and former national team captain, 1974 World Cup veteran and all-round Australian icon Johnny Warren, provided the blueprint, and unaccountable edict, for a reformed institution renamed the FFA to establish a domestic division and attraction at the time desperately required, but today outdated and obtrusive.
The financial concerns of that era were relevant, having lost major sponsors and assuming an illogical broadcasting stance with the Seven Network. Given all that has happened since, and the unbroken influence of the Lowy dynasty over FFA fortunes, the events of 2003 surely had commercial undertones that cannot be escaped while Steven Lowy is still in occupation of national chairmanship. Such fixations are, evidently, impossible to shirk with the monopoly established by a hierarchy that appears entirely in favour of current insubordination.
Perhaps this is a deeply-entrenched psychological status. To reaffirm national ambitions after the reform that initiated with the Crawford Report and culminated with continental reaffiliation in 2006, resulting in four consecutive World Cup finals appearances, is a task only worthy of an eternal optimist, some may argue. To present as fact the statement that the FFA is currently an aspirational and enviable working environment, however, is pure fallacy, and it is their self-satisfaction that has besmirched the once-good name of Australian ‘soccer’. It requires only pragmatism to realise that the nation’s full capacity – currently recorded as the most popular participation sport, despite only resonating as the fourth most popular televisual and infrastructurally advanced product – has not been yet reached, especially given the near-25 million people that populate the godforsaken island. Generally, however, all Australian sport has fallen from its proud pedestal in respects of international performance in recent times – an epidemic of regression. Few such associations have consolidated on the prowess of the late 1990s to early ‘00s cricket side, the swimming squad of the past two decades or the Rugby Union team at the turn of the millennium, and yet the Olympic cycling team achieved its greatest historic medal haul at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Only in the most technologically advanced sporting event has there been significant improvements, speaking volumes about the approach of other institutions to the demands of a changing environment.
Sited far from the ongoing developments and expansive sporting culture of Western Europe, inevitably Australia may be left to its own cultural devices with few genuine regular rivals other than New Zealand. The entire intention of the move to join the AFC was focused on this geopolitical status, yet as a Western-modelled economy and society dominating an entire corner of the globe, the FFA have afforded leniency to seep in to perspectives while competing with Asian adversaries as geographically diverse as Uzbekistan and Indonesia, and North Korea to Saudi Arabia. In many respects, their entire programme is counterintuitive in the paradoxical respect of their domestic division – the A-League – being intended to discourage European emigration, and their regular international outlook against impoverished and ideological Arabian, Korean, Ural, Persian and Oriental associations. They cannot afford to operate with conflicting purposes, and certainly not at this advanced stage of their global involvement. In many forms, their ineptitude is on par with pre-Greg Dyke and Dan Ashworth FA proceedings, and while the English establishment is by no means resolved today, its concerns have eased. The capacity for self-scrutiny must exist, and be progressive in its presence.
What has given the FFA establishment further credence for consolidation is the senior side’s relatively peerless transition to Asian competition, at both domestic and international level. Returning victories in the AFC Champions League and Asian Cup in 2014, with the Western Sydney Wanderers, and 2015 respectively, their alignment with accepted Iranian, Japanese, South Korean, Saudi Arabian and Chinese dominance followed efficient practices given the preceding final defeats of Adelaide United in 2008 and a relatively inexperienced Australian outfit in 2011, to Japan’s Gamba Osaka and the Japanese national team itself. WSW’s attendance at their native Parramatta Stadium for the first leg of the annual double-headed final, however, paled by 44,000 to that of Saudi opponents Al-Hilal, and was the lowest recorded attendance in Asian Cup history since Adelaide’s paltry 17,000-strong support at the Hindmarsh Stadium in 2008 – only since beaten by the notorious fan base of the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Ahli in 2015, as some 9,480 turned out for a 0-0 stalemate.
It was, then, no social revolution that sparked the revival of national fortunes. Yet the overhaul that did emerge in the mid-‘00s found its momentum to dissipate rapidly after the final of their constitutional reforms, much in the same respect of almost all political revolutions throughout the ages, and have regressed to an extent to the inadequacies that preceded them in the face of a stern social resilience and status quo. And so, upon entrance to a tournament that pits them against the potentially vulnerable, or possibly imperious, French, Peruvians and Danes, expectations have few justifiable reasons for an optimist tinge. As we may well cover each or any of the remaining Group C outfits in the run-up to the tournament, we will at this juncture refrain from commenting on their abilities and dangers, but for the Socceroos, personal armaments appear either lacking in ammunition or totally misfiring. An over-reliance on their largely Championship-fostered midfield, the lack of a truly consistent striking foil for Cahill and a creaking defence do little to ease van Marwijk’s thinking with five months of planning elapsing rapidly. Despite these concerns with an existing generation, what remains as an ever more foreboding element is the disparity between the various Joeys (youth group) sides and their global opponents.
Littered with missteps and a few glimpses of promise, under-20 action for Australian quarters in the past decade has only served to compound national cynicism. Aside from successive third, runner-up and fourth-placed finishes in the Asian under-19 championship between 2008 and 2012, their failures have been widespread, with consecutive group stage exits hence at the same tournament, and only two draws collected from three of a possible six appearances at the FIFA under-20 World Cup since 2006, encapsulating the misery of a nation once eminent at this stage; only stagnating where others performed vast improvements after hosting the event in 1993 with a fourth-placed result, with quarter-final and round of 16 appearances soon reduced to regular group stage incredulity. These are the groups that lay the foundation for national achievements, and their well-documented struggles have only portrayed the FFA as disconsolate and unwavering in their ambivalence. If expecting any relevant talents to progress to senior level and replenish the ranks soon to be diminished by passing age or waning ability – Cahill, possibly Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan, and perhaps less relevantly Adam Federici and Matt McKay, all of reasonable retirement maturity, while the wider current squad has an average age of 27.8 years – their perception must be radically altered.
Borne out of narcissism, FFA policy has operated on the sentiment of wishing to themselves take credit for the export of native talent, rather than lose gifted generations at a much earlier age before they reach requisite levels of fame. This trait, though unenviable in any other environment, has blinded and bound the establishment entirely by its own measures, and thus afflicted all national hope. This is, in many respects, the deepest travesty of events; that the FFA is so reliant on long-disproven rhetoric for the sole reason that it aligns with regional favour. Interred within their culture is also a fear of the adoption of overseas practices, and foreign-derived players, only losing ground on the progression long since enacted across the vast majority of eminent FIFA nations resultantly. An ethnic imposition, perhaps, and certainly one that will prevent achievement in Russia, but not impervious and unaccountable. As has been made repeatedly evident, the existing establishment cannot act, and for any opportunity for national progression, it is upon the Aussie support to take action.
What serves as perhaps the most despondent and damning indictment throughout all of this, however, is the very fact that it required Postecoglou – a man of strong convictions – to self-assess his proficiency within the role, and take it upon his own head to resign. Either demonstrating the extremity of the FFA’s incompetence and apathy, or the encapsulation of their loyalty to any establishment-pandering regime, in neither respect could it be interpreted as favourable for those in charge, but it was exactly what they required. No mere statement was to wake them from their slumber, and we can but hope the slap around the face provided by Postecoglou’s Greek-derived brawn can reinvigorate life into a nigh-on archaic institution. I sincerely doubt this, however. As will any rational Australian fan. While the Socceroos fall to embarrassment in Russia, we must distinguish between those representing the FFA and those who mark its reality. Judge upon these lines, and rationality may soon prevail. May.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!