Charting recent investigations in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the Netherlands and Brazil, it seems appropriate to return to terra firma – or as close as can be accustomed without deferring to absolute monotony. Fixation on Welsh football is certainly a rare form of British-based sporting enthusiasm, yet with a structure unique in the circumstance of devolved identity – evidently, in the instances of Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Town, far from the largely self-reliant, if economically faltering, devolved extent of Scottish or Northern Irish contemporaries – and due to its socio-economic internal inferiority, three million-strong Wales inherits a daunting national sporting prospect. Is their deep-rooted marriage of convenience with English overseers – also replicated in the framework of the England and Wales Cricket Board, for whom the often disparaged territory has produced a mere 15 players, of the institution’s historic accumulation of 680 – detrimental to the exploits of a drastically unheralded Welsh Premier League amidst the unprecedented exponential swelling particularly of English modern football economics, or, in fact, the underlying factor from which Chris Coleman’s national team has most notably prospered from, as the zenith of a heroically overachieving establishment’s performance? Is their constitutional domestic inability to compete on the same platform as a vast majority of European competitors, devolved or otherwise, and symbiotic relationship with their noisy neighbours, paradoxically the geographically rugged nation’s differentiating blessing, enabling the belying of socio-economic circumstance to not only qualify for major tournaments, but compete in their latter stages?
Evidently, in a nation of 20,779 km2, yet less populated, by around 600,000 citizens, than the 1,761 km2 of the Birmingham metropolitan area, the task of assembling competitive sporting squads of any form is particularly challenging, especially when considering the national, largely southern-focused, fervour for rugby union. Outsourcing their assets, in a significant example, from the inner-city academies of what appears to be an advert for England’s tourist board; the veritable smörgåsbord of London (three current national squad members), Birmingham (two), Bristol, Exeter, Shrewsbury, Leicester, Bournemouth, Southampton, Reading, Sheffield, and, most prominently, the proximate Manchester (five) and Liverpool (two), while also registering ten current members – captain Ashley Williams, Andy King, Dave Edwards, Ethan Ampadu, Jonny Williams, Sam Vokes, Hal Robson-Kanu, Ben Woodburn, Marley Watkins and David Brooks – who were born and, Watkins aside, bred in England, Welsh football is far from disloyal to a proven formula. Quite the extent to which they will apparently invade the heritage and naïve allegiance of teenagers perhaps offended by English FA advances, or the lack thereof, however, is largely unprecedented even in the modern form of the sport; with Woodburn and Ampadu – both 17 years old – approached at under-15 and under-17 levels respectively, solely intent on fast-tracking their evident, and thus uncompromised, talents to the senior squad prior to English retort. Opportunistic, as aforementioned, and a characteristic factor of the demands of survival in the international scene; where a gilded talent or two could define the accomplishment of an entire generation, with unfathomable potential commercial rewards.
Devoid, however, of national team representation for Welsh Premier League players in the entire reciprocal history of the two institutions – yet, admittedly, with Barry Town record appearance holder, WPL Hall of Famer and former left-back Gary Lloyd having once been promoted to the senior squad, without appearance, against Belgium in 1997 – it strikes onlookers that prestige is valued far higher within the FAW than the loyalty that Lloyd encapsulated, or any encouragement to, what remain, largely, WPL semi-professionals. Even as the most decorated individual in the post-1992 history of the Welsh Premier League, the eight-time league victor, quadruple-crowned Welsh Cup champion and six-time Welsh League Cup recipient Lloyd couldn’t breach the threshold of the national team; an opportunity that will never realistically arise ever again, with only one current WPL club registered as a professional entity – The New Saints – based in Oswestry, five miles over the English border, and unparalleled in their capabilities.
Having also represented Barry in European competition against Aberdeen, Boavista and an Andriy Shevchenko-inspired Dinamo Kiev, and exercised his lethal left foot in dispatching a victory-clenching penalty in the locally renowned 3-1 home defeat of a Porto side including the prodigious youth of Ricardo Carvalho and Hélder Postiga, while chasing an eight-goal 2001-02 Champions League first leg deficit, Lloyd – representative of his unglorified teammates on that day, yet not of fellow semi-professionals throughout the WPL’s concise history, having been fully employed by Barry – certainly had an extensive pedigree for an unglamorously robust prospective national team representative. Token though his inclusion may have been, in retrospect, by calamitous national team boss Bobby Gould amongst a squad that contained Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Dean Saunders, Robbie Savage, John Hartson and Gary Speed – and only lost 3-2 in the aforementioned visit to Brussels, in the final stage of a futile 1998 World Cup Qualifying campaign – what Lloyd encapsulated was the unremitting humility and fortitude of localised sides upholding the image of previously non-existent Welsh national divisional football.
Even from formative stages, the League of Wales – as it was then referred – as an institution transpiring from the mire of seemingly chaotic annual Welsh Cup arrangement, which decided – other than in the 21 instances of an invited English outfit’s victory – the nation’s representative in continental competition, regardless of their role in the English league pyramid, had proven a controversial innovation. Dubbed the ‘Irate Eight’, Bangor City, Barry Town, Caernarfon, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Newtown and Rhyl proved themselves stubbornly defiant objectors to the concept, which would have witnessed them sacrifice their roles in English non-league for the purposes of the FAW’s evidence of internal structure and international relevance to an unconvinced FIFA and resentful global contemporaries at the time. Bangor, Newtown and Rhyl led the reluctant embrace in 1992-93, followed in successive seasons by Barry and Caernarfon, as, eventually, the clubs of unfavoured suburbs, resourceful borders and antiquated coastal resorts – who had previously been members either of the northern and centrally-based Cymru Alliance or the southern Welsh Football League – received the comparatively high-profile adversaries required for the institution to prove financially viable.
As the increasingly self-reliant clubs of the division, and subordinate leagues, have since realised, however, the economic prospects of the establishment rather petered out as globalisation has elevated alternative European regions to authoritative positions in UEFA coefficients; if not a self-evident conclusion in the results of Champions and Europa League competitions, then certainly in the financial irrelevance of the division in comparison to similarly-populated Slovenia’s PrvaLiga, the considerably smaller Cyprus’ First Division or Iceland’s nature-defying Úrvalsdeild karla. Valued a lowly 50th of 55 nations in current UEFA algorithms dictated by continental performance in the previous five seasons, the disproportionate and desolate circumstance of Welsh domestic policy fares worse than Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro and Liechtenstein; the latter by a significant 19 positions. Only superior to the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Andorra, San Marino and the formative establishment of Kosovo, fundamental flaws could be rendered no harsher.
Yet when Llanelli and Barry have attempted the professionalism recently implemented by The New Saints’ opportunistic bi-nation base, you cannot accuse member clubs of lacking the requisite aspiration of a continentally competitive outfit. Instead, the FAW’s detrimental accountability has been criminally understated for too long, or at the very least blatantly ignored by a preoccupied Welsh public and oblivious British media. The former Irate Eight, nor any current league constituents, have no legal obligation to remain under the jurisdiction of the WPL; it is, rather, the opposite, as decreed by a 1995 High Court defeat for the Association, which ruled Welsh-based clubs were perfectly within their own rights to opt out of any national division. When such vulnerable framework upholds a division presumably intended as the immediate public interaction within the FAW’s admittedly constrained armoury, and such negligible incentive exists for sides in the ilk of director of football Lucas Cazorla Luque’s short-lived, bankrupting 2005 insurgence of professionalism in Llanelli, or the eight seasons of eventually administration-beckoning fully-paid Barry exploits – which, at their height of obscurity, witnessed John Fashanu recruited as Chairman, the aborted attraction of Chinese and African TV deals and a ruinous influx of Nigerian internationals that could only be replaced by local amateurs in the midst of 2003 liquidation – to pursue palpably fracturing dominance, the only seat of blame can lie with the organisers; the reprehensibly distant FAW.
The ultimate insult, particularly for the beleaguered Barry fans involved in the decade-long deterrence of closure so desired by chairman and financial dictator Stuart Lovering amidst two relegations, a 16-month relocation, a botched takeover and their assumption of all administrative and funding responsibilities, was the Association Council’s absolute malice at hearings in the summer of 2013, following the now-costless Lovering’s totalitarian withdrawal from Welsh Football League competition with two 2012-13 season matches remaining. Declaring, primarily, that the Barry institution – Welsh football’s historic authority – would have to play “recreational football” prior to any hopes of semi-professional reinstatement, and reconvening a month later only to demonstrate total insensitivity and vote against even discussing the future of the South Coast side within five minutes, against the advice of their domestic committee and legal advisers, the FAW’s era-defining opportunity to reclaim credibility in salvaging the fortunes of a fundamental establishment piece in the once well-intended WPL was tellingly spurned. Landing them their second High Court defeat in what had then been the mere 21 years of the division, such actions were derided as unlawful, “flawed” and “irrational”, thus causing a partial reconciliation in the admittance of the reformed guise of Barry Town United into the Welsh Football League Division Three – or fourth tier – where, under a pivotal managerial figure during Lovering’s reign in Gavin Chesterfield, they would achieve immediate promotion followed by subsequent Division Two promotion.
As a 2015-16 season of consolidation – mainly notable for the implementation of a 3G playing surface at the hallowed Jenner Park, for which Chris Coleman was present – witnessed enhancement in a remarkably defensively resolute (18 goals conceded in 30 matches) 2016-17 campaign, a title-winning margin of just five points assured the Linnets of long-overdue Premier League reinstatement; the pinnacle of achievements for the fan-owned, community-orientated reformation. And yet, how it could have all been prevented by administrative self-interest. But for legal intervention, there would be no Barry Town United FC in the 2017-18 Welsh Premier League, battling former adversaries, revisiting old haunts and, hopefully, imposing a degree of preceding prestige upon usurping contemporary pretenders.
Ultimately, however, the undermining fallacy of the Welsh Premier League, the wider domestic structure of the devolved entity, and of ambitions of professionalism, is that the facilities simply don’t exist to enable progression. Economic stagnation, migration to English cities, the growth in popularity of commercialised broadcast outlets and the degradation of national sporting amenities all contrive to isolate Wales as a footballing nation amongst the broadening horizons of globally interconnected markets and mutually beneficial investment. Cardiff and Swansea aside, that is.
Encapsulating 18.74%, according to 2011 census figures, of the entire Welsh population – contrasting only marginally with the 18.09% share of the 54 million-strong English population housed in London and Birmingham – and usurping a monopoly of the population in employment or education, the capacity for the retailing and sustainable expansion of football in the Glamorgan-based cities, especially in the context of an elite Premier League standard that has graced both the Liberty Ground and Cardiff City Stadium in the past five seasons, constitutes an economic lightyear from the remaining Welsh expanse. Yet it has only arrived after abandoning the home-emphasised principles of yesteryear; only three Welshmen constituting Neil Warnock’s present Championship-topping Cardiff ranks, while not a single patriot has survived Swansea’s Premier League consolidation, currently with Paul Clement at the helm. Financially empowered, presently, by Malaysian and American wealth respectively, since the inception of the WPL, they have employed just four Welsh managers – interim terms aside – in national team icon Terry Yorath, Swindon-born Paul Trollope, Brian Flynn and Watford-derived Kenny Jackett, thus defining the futile exertions for the progression of overall national significance, or even self-sufficiency. Delivering a heavily saturated Welsh presence to English footballing structure, regardless of the attraction for audiences otherwise loyal to rugby in South Wales, is detrimental, if anything, to both the FAW, and factually scandalous in the midst of the plights of WPL clubs, and those in divisions below; with Barry and Llanelli prominent examples.
Critical in their presence, however, as feeders between grassroots and an apparent elite – five current Welsh senior squad members having graduated from Cardiff academies, while another three have pedigrees in the Swans’ youth ranks – with their hereditary ability to harness the fervour of urban administrations into honing a trio of Champions League-quality talents in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, pragmatically the arrangement of the conurbations within apparent FAW constructs does appear rational. Systematically, however, it seems imprudent to expect a squad of 23 individual characters to merge into a cohesive unit when, effectively, only isolated duos will have spawned from overlapping youth squads; Ramsey and Chris Gunter, despite a two-year age gap, and Joe Allen and Marley Watkins, the sole present examples. Thus, the degradation of domestic club football strikes the audience as a significant, shameful sacrifice to make for inner-city, English-orientated rule and academy production that, evidently, only amounts to anything between two and five players of substantial quality every generation.
This diaspora of south-eastern cities has undoubtedly denied the economic opportunity of semi-professional local outfits in the shared region; ensuring that in the 2017-18 WPL, the only sides within a 74-mile radius of either the Premier League or Championship outfits are the aforementioned phoenix side Barry, Cardiff Metropolitan University – who remain an exclusively student-founded outfit, and as such source half of their players from England – and Carmarthen. Port Talbot, Llanelli, Bridgend, Cwmbrân, Neath and Caerphilly – despite reputations as some of the most culturally influential and heavily populated towns in Wales – have no Premier League sides amongst them, with familiar tales of mismanaged ambition defining many; the former having been relegated in 2015-16 on financial grounds, the second liquidated in April 2013 following seven consecutive seasons of European football, Pen-y-Bont having been formed in a 2013 merger for Bridgenders at the exact mid-point between the titanic cities, and finishing runners-up to Barry in 2016-17’s Division One, inaugural WPL champions Cwmbrân Town unable to pay staff by the 2006-07 season, and having fallen to the Gwent County League, or fifth tier, since, Neath Athletic handed their winding up orders in 2012 after a single season of Europa League action, and Caerphilly registering no significant recorded senior history of the sport since the 1920’s. Despite national heritage dating back to Victorian times, then, and the status of the Welsh Cup as the world’s third oldest – founded in 1877, after English and Scottish precedents – national cup competition, the gleeful pursuit of superficially untold riches is jeopardising the survival of omnipresent member entities. Fundamentally, that is founded from the failure to attract sufficient attendances to the local sport; 2016-17 attendances averaging only 308.5 spectators per match, halving to 157 in the Cymru Alliance. For WPL sides last season, they had experienced a considerable slump from preceding seasonal averages – 325.58 in 2013-14, 328.75 in 2014-15 and 327.5 in ’15-16 – yet one that appears to be remedied immediately by Barry’s reintroduction this term; rising to 386.92 after seven rounds of matches following seismic home clashes with Aberystwyth and TNS to date.
Equalling attendances around the seventh or eighth tiers of English football, however, is not where the ambition of WPL clubs should refrain itself. Their product is unique, and should welcome the support of fans with footballing spirits awakened or reprised by the 2016 European Championship semi-final run. Yet that campaign was founded in the long-term ‘Together Stronger’ FAW marketing ploy, representing an organisation whose ill-attention has compromised the entire survival of the clubs of towns central to Welsh culture. Rather than publicly divulge personal financial and promotional support to what is, legally, their creation and property, nor aid the cause of sides aiming to advance league standards and capitalising their economic situation in the midst, it has appeared their preoccupation as an establishment has laid solely with Coleman’s fortunes. The 2013 opening of Dragon Park in Newport only exemplifies this; £5 million worth of funding, a significant fee for such a minor European state, invested in a complex for the development of various age groups and female sides under national prerogative, as opposed to funding from the very grassroots, and not feeding the elite another exclusive form of opportunity. 3G pitches, in addition to those in Barry, Bala, Newtown, Oswestry and Bridgend, I’m certain would prove beneficial to sides at all stages of the FAW’s domestic control – especially in the face of notoriously atmospheric Gaelic weather conditions – as would a programme through which a nationally-tailored form of Financial Fair Play was introduced. The FAW wield sufficient power to do so, yet refrain for apparent disinterest, or disdain for their aspirational creation.
It speaks volumes, then, that there is even a single current national team representative who has played a WPL match in his career; uncapped third-choice goalkeeper Chris Maxwell having spent the 2008-09 season on loan at Connah’s Quay Nomads while serving Wrexham, also in his native Clwyd. If Welsh football is to maintain any form of stability, it is this region that will be heavily relied upon; as historically, with the metropoles of Manchester and Liverpool under 25 miles distant, existing as poignant bases of resources and regions for the education of prodigious talent. A career path well worn, it has formed part of the framework of a Welsh football tapestry artfully majestic at best, yet slanderously disloyal at its nadir. Such an approach will continue to divide opinion, reaching both extremes of the spectrum in portrayal.
Focusing on this route of player development, though, typifies the oblivion of the FAW presently; at no point is the WPL, or any form of Welsh football, actually discussed or held in similar regard. Yet they can ill-afford to fade further into obscurity, especially with the passing of each spurned generation, and cannot be argued to deserve the ill-fitting negligence of their overseers. The instance of mismanagement cannot be derided solely as a club’s responsibility, and is not an excuse for institutionalising cynicism. Providing more constituent embassies studied Barry’s, or Llanelli’s, faults and implemented due corrections, rather than enforce such torrent upon themselves, then the future of the division could be secured as unfanciful, community-centric and sustainably entertaining, with professionalism an ambition only for the naïve or well-endowed.
Regret – in this context for the formation of internal structure – may be a tolerable sentiment to disclose in private, yet to publicly shun the citizens mired in your errors; surely the most blatant and reprehensible dictatorial crime, as evident in the derision of Llanelli Town in an official FAW article as the victims of “financial problems” who personally “insist that lessons have been learnt from that experience”, appears entirely indefensible. Certainly, it shouldn’t be the entire responsibility of FAW Councils and chiefs to bailout institutions whose ambition has blinded their financial reasoning, but to lead them astray with membership of a division that realistically has little current capability to provide effective continental competition, and fail to demonstrate any culpability or sympathy in the extinction of valued sides amidst such transient aspirations, can be adjudged as utter, unmodified incompetence. Exhibiting an incredulous disregard for the survival of national minnows, they have aimlessly subscribed to a global trend – despite their unique circumstance – to pursue both financial gain and the patronage of a gilded elite, as opposed to ethically sustainable domestic qualities. In its present guise, the WPL appears objectiveless, and devoid of any hope for change. Thus, the FAW could very easily be the subject of a quote from American entrepreneur and philanthropist Warren Buffett; “the plan itself is opportunism. There is no plan before that.” When such preposterous states exist, and amongst a climate of self-congratulatory international exploits, it is challenging to maintain focus on the menial exploits of loyal, downtrodden locals. Despite their plight, they continue to forge the poignant survival of proceedings dutiful to the spirited populations of unheralded towns and villages. Humility, perhaps, that their overseers could take heed from.
Recognised as a fundamental factor to international achievement by reformist national team coach Tite – as evident in the trio of Série A-based present selections, and fifteen recent debuts or Dunga-defied recalls for internally-based individuals to the illustrious Brazilian international scene – the foundation blocks of the well-oiled South American footballing machine, namely domestic divisions such as the Brasileirão, had previously been erroneously neglected as a void of inopportunity, to the extent that exploiting the preying eyes of European suitors appeared an begrudging necessity. Without entirely shedding this semblance of economic ensnaring, the pervading culture of inevitable exporting obligation that defined the reigns of pragmatically Brasileirão-averse Dunga, Mano Menezes and Luiz Felipe Scolari has certainly experienced a dissolution under Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, or Tite. Perhaps the longest-serving and most prosperous helmsman in the regional sporting legacies of both Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo states, with 25 non-consecutive years, seven league titles at a range of alternating levels, a Copa do Brasil, three continental cups and two intercontinental trophies – including the FIFA Club World Cup – to his name, and renowned for his eloquence, humility and studious approach, the 56-year-old has injected an immediate remedy to the malaise that festered amongst Dunga’s unconvincing conservative tactics; reinvigorating international fortunes with a run of nine consecutive World Cup qualifying victories, while also proving considerate to his domestic heritage.
Aside from Tite’s poignant appointment however, what evolutions in cultural policy do widely-respected, yet profoundly underachieving clubs in Santos, Grêmio, Corinthians and Flamengo – amongst others – have to attribute tentative recent transitions into continental authority, and are they such that they could survive the loss of Tite’s national stewardship? Realistically, will politically unstable Brazil, as a footballing nation desperately shy of the financial capabilities of European competitors, be eternally and ubiquitously ruled by economic obligations, thus rendering any continental resurgence effectively internationally irrelevant, if at all possible? Irrespective of unparalleled World Cup accomplishment – the foundations of which, in all occurrences other than the transient zenith of 1970, were plotted in now-unimaginable generations of youthfully expressive home-based talent – does the Brazilian footballing establishment demand a drastic self-examination amidst its shortcomings on the domestic platform, considering the Série A represents the sixth-largest population, and ninth strongest economy, on earth? These are the queries posing Brazil’s very psyche, with football as its celebratory sole, and the ability to harness such fervour for more than mere economic gain in the transition of a new era with an increasing value on continuity and balance above high-flying stars.
Certainly, possessing a far more diverse reserve of domestic skills – both in tactical and technical respects – has appeared to be, if anything, detrimental to Brazil’s continental exploits, namely in the Copa Libertadores, throughout their history. Geographically blessed with as vast an expanse of riches as an entire continent could boast, the interspersing cities of São Paulo – the Southern Hemisphere’s most populated –, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Salvador, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre define the sheer audience and mobility the sport inherits; enabling global audiences to realise the obsession in prominent Twitter trends, in particular, proclaiming the latest club saviours and condemning the martyrs of defeat.
Encapsulating such infamously competitive inner-city rivalries as the affectionately abbreviated Fla-Flu of Flamengo vs Fluminense, the Paulista Derby, pitting Corinthians against Palmeiras, the Clássico Majestoso of São Paulo vs Corinthians and Choque-Rei involving Palmeiras and São Paulo, Brazil’s perpetual jousting match for temporary authority undoubtedly saturates their threat on the continental stage; boasting ten different Copa Libertadores victors, yet half with a single win, and only two with a trio of titles – Santos and São Paulo, in comparison with Argentina’s Independiente and Boca Juniors, with seven unbeaten finals appearances and six titles respectively. Between 2010 and 2013, notably, Brazil had four consecutive triumphs in the competition; yet each from a different club in Internacional, Santos, Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro, signifying, in explicit circumstances, the lack of national guidance, potentially also interpreted as an admirable potency of multiplicity many could contrast with Scottish, Greek, Egyptian and Serbian football, for example.
This cannot be solely condemned as the consistently undermining factor to the Brazilian pursuit of pre-eminence in FIFA’s second continent, however. Embroiled, objectively, in an ominous 53% final appearance win percentage – compared to the Argentinian Primera División’s 73% - and trailing their neighbours by seven victories, wider statistics elaborate the truth of general inferiority; Brazil returning only one fewer final appearance, with 32 to Argentina’s 33, but winning only 30.8%, or four, of their 13 final ties with Argentinian sides, and claiming 64.7% of their titles against perceived weaker nations – three times against Uruguayan outfits, twice against sides from Chile and Colombia and once against Paraguayan, Ecuadorian, Mexican and Peruvian representatives.
Obliged to partake in 38 Brasileirão matches in the space of just 204 days – compared to the 282 days the Premier League elapses – almost immediately after completing what, for top sides, would be an eighteen-match, thirteen-week state championship campaign, and while fulfilling anything between Santos’ one and Cruzeiro’s fourteen Copa do Brasil ties and regional cup (the Copa de Nordeste, Copa Verde or Primeira Liga) fixtures, which saw Copa Sudamericana qualifiers Cruzeiro, notably, line up another five times, the demands of the mystifying Brazilian seasonal structure drain fitness levels drastically, certainly in comparison with Argentinian exploits. A mere 27 Primera División matches in a serene 261 days, when coupled with, at most, six Copa Argentina matches from the round of 64 to the final, represent the entirety of expectations southwest of the Rio Grande do Sul state, surely asserting the evidence to support José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s recent claims that the League Cup should effectively be abolished by the FA to enable continentally qualified English sides to stand a greater chance of breaching Spanish, German, Italian and French Champions League ascendancy.
Facing, at the very least, a competitive match exactly every five days – or in the most radically conflicting case of Belo Horizonte’s multi-faceted Cruzeiro, every 3.99 days – compared to a minimum of 7.68 days per match confronting Argentine counterparts, or a 5.44 extreme for Copa Argentina finalists, Supercopa Argentina representatives and Copa Libertadores finalists, the situation for Brazil’s Libertadores or Sudamericana travellers evidently manifests as desperate. Admittedly, Argentina’s late August-to-mid May schedule has the constitutional hindrance of conflicting a summer break with the final two game weeks of both the otherwise domestically interspersing Libertadores group stages and round of sixteen, yet being condemned to four continental matches – only two of which, realistically, will involve long-haul flights – in the entirety of just over three months hardly appears an arduous inconvenience in perspective with Brazilian bondage to routine. Victims of the unquenchable national thirst for footballing totality, Brasileirão managers and players are submitted to unenviable psychological and physiological demands for a fraction of the financial reward of European overlords.
It is little wonder then, that, at the mercy of an insensitive association – the CBF, or Confederação Brasileira de Futebol – presently embroiled in corruption investigations, the coveted talents of Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Barbosa, Walace, William and Thiago Maia, simply as those selected in the poignantly victorious 2016 Rio Olympics campaign, have fled to European abodes in Manchester, Milan, Hamburg, Wolfsburg and Lille respectively. Rather than have themselves besmirched amongst scenes of 76-year-old CBF President Marco Polo Del Nero’s self-imposed exile from foreign functions – at fear of being indicted for money laundering and electronic fraud claims lodged by U.S prosecutors in territories with extradition agreements – another unarguable sentiment supporting the case for exploiting elitist interest manifests in the sheer instability of Brazilian sport. Chasms exposed by the 2015 FBI investigation, which also revealed the bribes received by Del Noro’s predecessors and fellow former FIFA Executive Committee members, Ricardo Teixeira and José Maria Marin, during broadcasting right processes for both the Copa Libertadores and Copa do Brasil, truly confound the farcical discrepancies within history’s most dominant footballing nation between the idealistic depictions of bursting, atmospheric stadium landscapes worshipping technically majestic playing performances from the brightest prospects of the national game under functional, ethical governance, and the unfortunate reality of gradually declining Série A matchday attendances – from 51.74% averages in 2015, to 44.34% 2016 figures – and visibly stagnating tactical and technical capabilities that submissively enable the dissent of Jesus’, Barbosa’s and Maia’s ilk.
Evidently, this isn’t an issue Brazil faces alone within CONMEBOL’s ten constituent nations; the lack of nationally-based representatives in the most recent international squads of Argentina and Uruguay alone speaks volumes about the institutionalised siphoning off of premature prodigies throughout South America. Furthering demands for appearances on such a stage, let alone the pursuit of inconceivable financial gains, the political manoeuvre of engineering a departure to Europe’s prosperous shores may be unenviable when considering the reputational ramifications amongst teammates, fellow former academy graduates and national loyalists, but when admiring the coaching that enabled Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala, José Giménez, Luiz Suarez, Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez to exponentially hone generation-defining talents from the foundation of just a cumulative 164 senior league appearances, any apparent loyalty to the development of domestic division standards erodes, with the futility of a task romantically reliant on perhaps a handful of individuals evident.
If ineffective continental administrators – who, let it not be left unstated, have produced half of FIFA’s current top ten ranked nations, nine of the 20 historic World Cup wins and five of ten Confederations Cup victors – continue in their economically-imposed subservience to European brethren, then, there is little alternative, if pursuing greater global relevance, than for the CBF to take the reins and lead a continental procession towards such a promised land. Pragmatically, however, any such ambitious horizons are decidedly limited by the fundamental socio-economic subordination that defines the poverty-stricken Favelas, isolated agricultural regions and systematically corrupt, ineffective politics of Brazil – and largely representative of South America’s striking flaws. When young Brazilian footballers are hailed as the products of the streets – as opposed to those descended from Spanish, German or French fast-tracking systems, highly reliant on the employment of data and technology – there is an undoubted degree of sensationalised romanticism to the depiction, but only to the extent of the role of ‘samba’ talents in their scouting and elevation to eventual senior duties; signalling the blatant divergence such individuals will inevitably prove. South American footballers are of a completely different breed, and as a factor in the modern game that should be embraced and supported at its roots, as opposed to exploited for the will of Catalans, Madrilenians, Mancunians, Londoners or Parisians; who, despite the apparent goodwill they may state in counter-argument, fund not the reinvestment in local clubs, but the preservation of a corrupt association and the social security of agents, a national elite, with their exorbitant transfer fees.
Protecting the profitability of the Brasileirão, amongst other Latin-American divisions, and re-establishing audiences not only through televisual means but primarily by improving attendance figures, appears the crux of the matter then. Yet it can never come to fruition without the trust of academy graduates, who otherwise will inevitably exploit European interest. Unless a radical overhaul of administrative processes is implemented by clubs over their regional and national governors – as is presently impossible, thanks to the CBF General Assembly’s March decision to grant the 27 State Federations absolute power in a sly tampering of internal voting boundaries that saw the Federations granted three votes each, the 20 Brasileirão clubs two apiece and one to each in Série B, thus delivering the Federations a 81-60 voting advantage on any constitutional decision – the disillusion of coaches, young players and a potentially paying audience will drive the CBF eventually into complete disarray.
This is where the Brasileirão must be currently thankful for Tite; a humble, semi-professional playing product epitomising the innovative, honest and ambitious values of true Brazilian football. The only manager to plot the success of a South American, or even non-European, side in the FIFA World Club Cup in the previous decade with his 2012 victory with Corinthians – ousting an unstable, injury-hit Chelsea side in the final with overtly defensive tactics – many Brazilian-based journalists and local fans have supported his claims to the vaulted chalice, particularly after his jour de gloire with São Paulo’s Corinthians; where, in spells either side of a sabbatical year to closer observe the trends and demands of modern global football, he achieved his first duo of Brasileirão titles, his first Copa Libertadores, Recopa Sudamericana – effectively the equivalent of the UEFA Super Cup – and, of course, FIFA Club World Cup, arguably the pinnacle of club football achievement.
Rather than shun his Série A heritage, the recognition of its mutually beneficial relationship with the national team – not least in diverting from the unrestrained egos of Neymar, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva and David Luiz – has proven immediately productive in the balance of a squad largely constructed on tactical worth, as opposed to club pedigree; so often the detriment of the English national side. Unorthodox selections in 32-year-old striker Diego Tardelli and former Corinthians operatives 30-year-old centre-back Gil and 29-year-old midfielder Renato Augusto – all now plying their trade in the Chinese Super League – complement the preference of Flamengo’s former Wolfsburg and Werder Bremen attacking midfielder Diego and Shakhtar Donetsk’s fellow playmaker Fred ahead of Oscar, seemingly forgotten since his Chelsea stint, and Monaco’s centre-back Jemerson over Luiz, only elaborating this unapologetically independently-minded policy. Commendable, certainly, in both its intentions and execution – not yet reneged with distraught revolt, and succumbing to only a single defeat in a 1-0 Melbourne ‘Superclásico de las Américas’ affair with Argentina this June – the ideology strikes as unprecedently un-Brazilian; historically the source of Pelé, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Zico, Sócrates, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Romário, Ronaldinho and Neymar, each genuine pioneers of their art.
Yet each of these architects required diligent, if similarly cultured, workforces in their pursuit of international football’s zenith. Amongst a modern landscape of economic dominance, with cohesive team structure a rarely-focused construct, where better, then, to pursue the foil to Neymar than in the humility of the Brasileirão faithful; thus harnessing the frustration that pervades the subjects of corrupt, self-interested associational rule from within. Vitally, what Tite comprehends, and is able to steer himself clear of, are the political burdens of any international role, especially as the public face of an organisation that lacks even the distinguished legality to send its President to Zurich-based FIFA Assemblies or CONMEBOL’s Luque Headquarters, in Paraguay. Thus, the cynic’s assertion would be that the continued selection of Série A individuals strikes the exact balance for Tite of appearing to believe in the national production line – particularly of later developers – while favouring Spanish, English, French and Italian-based stars, with Chinese defectors as the anomaly to such an apparent conspiracy.
Realistically, there would appear to be truthful sentiment to the manager’s inclusion, currently of Cássio, Diego and Arthur – Corinthians’ uncapped goalkeeper, the aforementioned Flamengo 32-year-old and Grêmio’s diminutive 21-year-old central midfielder –, but more characteristically of in-form Série A assets capable of the transition to international demands. Elevation to the gilded Granja Comary company at the site that has greeted all array of superstars since its 1987 inauguration may prove fundamental to the advancement of Brasileirão standards, and the tangible motivation for a reinvigorated generation of Brazilian-based talents with faith in a pathway not unequivocally laced with the pre-requisite of a relocation to Europe’s largest cities. Liberate such players further with the expulsion of archaic, economically futile State Championship fixtures, and their continental progress may improve; five of the eight Série A representatives ending Copa Libertadores Group Stage victors this season, yet only one – Grêmio – reaching the Semi-Final in a combination of misfortune (five Brazilian sides all in the same half of the draw) and inadequacies in squad management (Palmeiras and Santos both eliminated after failing to win at the Ecuadorian Barcelona’s Guayaquil port base, while tasked with at least 10-hour flights either way), explicitly defining the pre-existing detriments of their present schedules.
Clearly, Tite cannot solve this issue. Traditionalists – in the most lenient of portrayals – possess control of the CBF, and thus traditional values reign. The fact blatant and systematic corruption defines almost every individual involved in this regime counts, evidently, for very little, and after many decades of gradual dissolution of a once-supreme division and clique of authoritative clubs, all hope appears to have been extradited with it. Brazil, inherently, is not an apathetic, nor vulnerable, territory for footballing misdemeanours and misuses of the cause, yet the submission of only capturing ephemeral glimpses of successive generations of exported luxuries too valuable for the distortion of an arduous and nonsensical homeland task has proven a defaming too much for supporters not priced out of the game, but shamed from its terraces. Even in the great Maracanã, vast sections seemingly exclusively reserved for national team matches lay unpopulated each Fluminense match day. Yet this spectre is representative of events from Rio to São Paulo, Belo Horizonte to Recife, and Porto Alegre to Salvador; audiences are swayed towards televisual viewership, or, yet worse, led astray by the European game. Grêmio’s Luan, Arthur and Everton, São Paulo’s Rodrigo Caio and Fluminense’s Wendel may be amongst a talented contingent retained by patriotic charms, but without a captive audience, fallacies of the objectivity of national selection appear unobtainable. Such issues will, fundamentally, persist unsolved unless there is improbable administrative compromise. In a case of the once irresistible force against an immovable object, the conflict of the former has proven victim to the exhausting political carousel of Brazilian daily life. The ultimate injustice and hindrance of modern Brazilian football – when it should be transitioning, with a progressive national coach, into the foundation for international exploits – is that a blasphemous few will prove detrimental to an entire population, that, in the words of Pelé, “eats, sleeps and drinks football. It lives football!”
Registering Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert and Edwin van der Sar; arguably a dozen of the most influential figures in Dutch footballing history, amongst their prodigious contemporaries, Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax have long been respected as the Netherlands’ preeminent academic sporting entity. Perhaps even resonating national cultural influence equal to that of the hallowed Dutch School – beginning with the Flemish Primitives, whose 15th and 16th Century gothic Renaissance works through the forms of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan van Eyck subsequently incited the Dutch Renaissance of Pieter Breughel – the Elder and Younger – and Jan Provoost, in addition to the Golden Age of Baroque-style masters Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals –, though a significant claim, the works of Amsterdam’s perennially youth-focused programme are, in themselves, remnants of globally-recognised former glories.
Institutionally devoid, however, of even an Eredivisie title since the 2013-14 season, and of the Champions League achievements that last greeted the notoriously nonconformist capital city in 1994-95, the 33-time national victors, 18-time KNVB Cup winners and quadruple European Cup/Champions League claimants have recently fallen to depths unbeknownst to the present generation of fans and, undoubtedly, players; failing to qualify for the group stage, let alone knockout stages of either UEFA-regulated competition for only the second time since the 1965-66 season. Granted, the previous occurrence was only a decade ago, as Henk ten Cate abandoned managerial responsibilities to become Avram Grant’s assistant manager at Chelsea, thus plunging youth academy kingpin Adrie Koster into a season-long interim role, yet successive defeats at the hands of Nice and Rosenborg, for whom Mario Balotelli and Nicklas Bendtner, respectively, netted, in the Champions and Europa League qualifying stages this summer truly define the decline of one of only 22 sides to lift the iconic former of these trophies.
As Rotterdam’s Feyenoord adjust themselves to the mantle of Eredivisie defence – their first in this millennium –, and PSV Eindhoven – the historically-esteemed jostling candidates and North Brabant rivals to de Godenzonen’s supremacy – recalibrate expectations after two preceding seasons of title success, then, Ajax’s system, in addition to Dutch domestic and international football, has lost its once-unimaginably opposed authority and identity. Were signals to such a dramatic demise, and surrender to the economic prosperity of continental elites, evident even at a primitive stage? Far from a statutory prize solely rewarding of the presence of Amsterdam’s showpieces, can the Eredivisie ever reform its reputation without the dominance and continental achievement of its only multiple European champions? Finally, how tangible has the impact been on the crippling insecurity and tactical naivety of an eruditely-helmed, yet systematically regressive, national team? Just as with our exploration of the role of the – eventually – retained Philippe Coutinho in a long-dormant Liverpool establishment’s resurgence, comprehending the societal ramifications of Ajax’s stagnation, even regression, into domestic subservience will unveil the circumstances behind Dutch football’s universal present stage of discredit and humiliation.
Formed, as a second incarnation of the original 1894 Football Club Ajax, by friends Floris Stempel, Han Dade and Carel Reeser at the turn of the 20th century, and dedicated eponymously to the mythical Greek hero and, according to Homer’s Iliad, cousin of Achilles, who fought in the Trojan War – yet never succumbed to death in the battlefield, instead committing suicide –, they followed Royal Haarlemsche Football Club, Sparta Rotterdam and Amsterdamsche Football Club; the first Dutch football establishment, oldest currently professional outfit and primary Amsterdam foundation respectively, with histories dating back to 1879, 1888 and 1895. Pim Mulier, a particularly extraordinary gentleman, led the expansion of Dutch football from its very introduction; his 14-year-old self forming Haarlem’s aforementioned outfit, primarily as a rugby club (demonstrating the influence of British sporting culture on the Lower Countries at the time, as Sparta were also originally a cricket organisation), yet resorting to football in 1883 for financial reasons, opening the Netherlands’ first tennis club a year later, organising athletics events and introducing hockey and cricket, all before establishing the Dutch Football and Athletics Association in 1889 to bring directive to his construction.
Amongst an entirely amateur scene that would persist, under the KBVB’s instruction, until 1954, Ajax first reached the premier tier in 1911, under Irishman John Henry Kirwan – a prominent figure in Tottenham’s early 20th century rise from non-league and 1901 FA Cup victory – but succumbed to relegation in 1914, as Kirwan returned to Britain amidst the outbreak of war; replaced by Mancunian Jack Reynolds. Prevented from accepting his post as German national team coach by the war, Reynolds’ move to Amsterdam may have been fortuitous, but represented anything other than a temporary solution; the Englishman recording an eventual 27-year association in three separate tenures, punctuated between 1925 and 1928 by a spell at Stadsderby rivals Blauw-Wit, and between 1940 and 1945 by German WW2 occupation made particularly difficult for Ajax, as a club long associated with the city’s Jewish community, and resultantly nicknamed de Joden. Achieving promotion by 1917, the subsequent era of peaceful Reynolds rule – with the exception of the mid-1920’s – delivered regional dominance further asserted by national titles rewarded for ousting geographically distant opponents; 1917-18, 1918-19, and a quintet of further accomplishments in the 1930’s in the midst of a 1934 move to the De Meer Stadion, an obligatory expansion to accommodate the rising crowds drawn to the lauded ‘golden age’ of club record goalscorer Piet van Reenen, fellow striker Wim Volkers and midfielder Wim Anderiesen. In a liberated celebration and culmination to Reynolds’ reign, the 1946-47 title was emphatically sealed, thus dawning a subsequent period of reformation.
Without remarkable immediate achievement, however, such a restructure defined the largely barren campaigns of a trio of British managers – Englishmen Robert Smith and Walter Crook, and Scot Robert Thomson – until the mid-1950’s, when Austrian boss Karl Humenberger reinstated a winning philosophy with the 1956-57 title. The first of a series of rewards for their heavily populated, and therefore financially lucrative, Amsterdam base amidst the introduction of professionalism, this achievement was followed by a 1960 title and 1961 KNVB Cup under Englishman Vic Buckingham – another former Spurs constant in his playing days, who uncovered and influenced a young working-class former street footballer by the name of Johan Cruyff with a Total Football and youth-proponent dogma that would attract renowned Catalan suitors in 1969.
Professionalism, however, otherwise appeared to arrive in an era of internal instability, thus breeding dire international insignificance for the Dutch – introducing demands that many clubs struggled to manage, with the big three (Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV) deposing 21 managers in the space of eleven seasons, at an average of 1.57 seasons per tenure. In 1958, after defeat to reigning bronze medallists Austria, the national team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time of qualifying participation, while a subsequent qualifying loss to a Flórián Albert-inspired Hungary prevented representation at Chile ’62; though deepest embarrassment came in 1964, as during European Nation’s Cup qualification, when handed an easier draw than fellow First Round elimination victims Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia, they contrived to lose 3-2 on aggregate to Luxembourg, for whom Camille Dimmer – an engineer by trade – consigned Dutch defeat with a second leg brace at Rotterdam’s De Kuip Stadion, the alternative host, considering no suitable facility existed in the minnow state. Eredivisie representatives in the European Cup rarely fared better, either, with only three representatives – Ajax in a 1957-58 campaign more famous for the Munich Air Disaster, Feyenoord in 1963-64 and Olympic Stadium-based AFC DWS (Amsterdamsche Football Club Door Wilskracht Sterk) in 1964-65 – progressing beyond the Second Round, with Quarter-Final appearances in each occasion.
Thus, it was for the tenure of Rinus Michels, with Cruyff as a fully-fledged icon and playing accomplice, to evolve the characteristics, perspective and tenacity of Dutch football upon appointment in 1965, yet from humble, relegation-averting foundations. Alongside the duo that, historically, will be the most endeared of Ajax’s representatives amongst the football community as managers besotted with silverware in periods similarly defined as revolutionary for the global landscape of the sport, originally was the promise of Cruyff-rivalling winger Piet Keizer, full-back Wim Suurbier and centre-back Barry Hulshoff; all Amsterdammers who would play pivotal roles amidst development into tactically versatile and technically adept Michels-character players in the advanced Total Football approach that decidedly redressed domestic balances. Securing six of eight Eredivisie titles between 1965-66 and 1972-73 – while only opposed by the respective prodigious goalscoring exploits and erudite tactical rivalry of Feyenoord’s Ove Kindvall and Ernst Happel, another professor of Total Football – de Godenzonen broadened horizons to Europe, where, as British football relinquished its late-1960’s stranglehold, the honour of three consecutive (1971-73) European Cup titles demeaned Happel’s laid gauntlet of the 1970 edition. A feat only equalled by Santiago Bernabéu’s late 1950’s Real Madrid collective, and Bayern Munich, as Ajax’s immediate successors to arguably global football’s greatest throne, the true statement of tactical and systemic authority Michels – a thick-set, uncompromising academic often referred to as ‘the General’, and whose approach was prosaically intimidating; "Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost." – and contingency-professing replacement Ștefan Kovács delivered in an era of trenchcoated, cigarette-brandishing kinship led both to the meteoric decade-long elevation of Dutch football and formation of an Ajax inimitability.
As Michels’ Barça and Oranje tenures, with Cruyff as talisman, returned customary success, albeit deprived of absolute stardom – a single La Liga title and run to the 1974 World Cup final, in just the nation’s third finals appearance – and the departure of Cruyff spelled further abandonment of unassailable heights, Total Football had seen its day. Further domestic titles followed in the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, though more as the repercussion of former glories and precursor to a new tactical generation’s outbreak; as answered by Cruyff’s managerial rebirth, when, familiarly, youth products Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, John van 't Schip and Gerald Vanenburg led the furiously attacking 1985 league title and victorious Cup Winner’s Cup pursuits of 1987, only to be led astray by the bright lights of Milan, Lisbon, and even Eindhoven. Once again, restructuring was required.
Louis van Gaal would be the next to define a period of considerable tactical alteration and tactful youth economy, with the hallowed monikers of Kluivert, Bergkamp, Davids, van der Sar, Overmars, Seedorf and both de Boers stabilised by elder statesmen Danny Blind and the returning Rijkaard, in addition to the signatures of increasingly global talents Jari Litmanen, Finidi George and Kanu. The 1992 UEFA Cup, three further Eredivisie titles, another KNVB Cup and a fourth Champions League triumph alongside 1995 Intercontinental and UEFA Super Cup trophies – with the highlight of all achievements being the 1994-95 unbeaten season of both domestic and European football – rarely receive the recognition of Michels’, or Cruyff’s, hauls despite the notable tactical advancements the future Barcelona manager would instil; a 3-1-2-3-1 reliant on Blind, in form of a sweeper, as the free man in an otherwise devastatingly offensive side which had its final peak in a penalty-consigned 1996 Champions League final defeat to Juventus.
Victim to the revelation of player, but more importantly agent, power in the midst of the 1995 Bosman ruling, van Gaal’s generation fled to resurgent, financially superior continental forces for relatively inexpensive outlays, thus weakening the resolve of a side that pinned hopes of a glorious protraction amidst a stock market floatation on the de Boer’s, before disputes with Morten Olsen and the club hierarchy for failing to replace foregone talents caused their departures.
Ever since – witnessing the arrivals and departures of an inexhaustible array of former players in managerial roles, the condemnations of a transfer policy which has enabled leading performers to remorselessly depart, and the inevitable accomplishments of a side that retains its ability as a top-three outfit –, a pervading, contradictory conviction of apathy has appeared to control proceedings at the 1996-inhabited Amsterdam ArenA. Maintaining a national credibility that attracts talent to the calibre of Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Nigel de Jong, Jan Vertonghen, Ryan Babel and Zlatan Ibrahimović, the challenge of boasting such assets, inherently, is the incessant paranoia of jeopardising either performance standards or economic security for the purpose of the individual.
There is, of course, a significant distinction in the role Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant derided as a “trading partner” between the sustainable efforts of Southampton, say, and Ajax. While they may be perceived to be at fairly equal playing standards currently, the Hampshire side have no history, and presumably no serious intention to alter that fact, at the elite standard of the English game; whereas, with de Godenzonen, expectations of national dominance are seldom isolated. There comes a hereditary responsibility, far beyond any frenzied obsession, for excellence within those based at the cultural centre of any nation, and for the representatives of AFC Ajax, there should lie no confusion between the derision of their qualities and the degradation of the national team.
Undoubtedly, the trends towards a liberalisation of the global footballing economy has disadvantaged nations around or below the Netherlands’ incompatible geographical and social stature in favour of the monopolised fees dictated primarily by English and Spanish aristocracies, followed by German, French and Italian dynasties, yet officials involved in the framework of such transfers have few qualms for the unfortunate clubs stripped of their assets in a situation where they have little other choice in their constant fight for survival. In Scotland, Celtic are tainted by a similar stagnation, while Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade – 1986 and 1991 European victors respectively –, were raided of their prized starlets Gheorghe Hagi, Dan Petrescu, Robert Prosinečki, Siniša Mihajlović, Dejan Savićević and Darko Pančev as their nations fell into socio-economic disrepair while Western Europe prospered in the early 1990’s, and while the Netherlands hardly represent a concaved economic husk, the fundamental circumstance of their historic overachievement does appear to be returning to haunt their present situation. Presently only the 11th largest European nation by population, and the 32nd by area – at least if measuring each nation purely by its European mass – their status as the 17th UN-recognised nation in respects of population density addresses the disparity in productivity they may have with their closest neighbours.
Though akin, for example, in the picturesque nature of their waterways and architecture, Paris and Amsterdam, notably, also face drastic inequalities in capability; the former, despite hailing from a nation with only one prior Champions League victor – Marseille, in 1993 – with the reprehensibly-sourced resources of the Qatari state at their disposal, while the latter, from a nation of six-time winning pedigree, rely on the AFC Ajax Association, or Vereniging AFC Ajax; owners of a 73% stake hold, and the city’s stock market, for their finances. Devoid, then, of the infrastructure to ascertain regular continental presence as a rebuilding task is required in each transfer window, they are even being usurped by the representatives of nations previously well below their standard; Russia, Turkey, Austria, Ukraine, Romania and Norway, all in just the past five years. This is while combating internal conflicts with Feyenoord and PSV, tactically unremarkable but sustainably industrial and opportune sides who, led by former Barcelona players Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Phillip Cocu respectively, have seized on the vacuum of misspent Amsterdammer funds in the foundation of competent outfits defining of their era; champions, without attributable majesty.
As all three clubs have had any previous fallacies of resolve eroded by the departures of Memphis Depay, Georginio Wijnaldum, Davy Klaassen, Jasper Cillessen, Jairo Reidewald, Daley Blind, Jordy Clasie, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Kevin Strootman and Davy Pröpper – solely the Dutch representatives of the exodus – in recent seasons, there becomes a readily apparent excuse for the humiliating demise of national fortunes. Lacking a distinct tactical ideology – from which the greatest Dutch sides of 1974, 1988, 1998 and 2010 found their inspiration – or the conviction to impose definitive restrictions on the internationally-diverse squad at Dick Advocaat’s current disposal in the ilk of Yugoslav clauses post-Red Star pre-eminence, the once-heralded continuity and ingenuity of de Oranje has betrayed their present guise. Mutually unfamiliar individuals, few of whom developed in similar age groups, lay confined in the systemic inadequacy of a side without presence, nor resolve. Translation between club and country has become impossible, with only six Eredivisie players – and 41 caps between them – currently fixtures in the national squad; fewer even than those of Premier League clubs, thus rendering the opportunity for tactical assurance and fluency underminingly unfeasible.
Resorting to resigning Huntelaar as talisman, in addition to Siem de Jong as foil, then, Ajax have invited accusations of an identification struggle to manifest in the media this season; one that follows a Europa League campaign defined by slim margins and shredded nerves – victorious in bi-legged ties or group stage matches by a single goal on six occasions, before reaching a Stockholm final against Manchester United – and an Eredivisie term that, in a third consecutive occurrence, ended in marginal inferiority. Peter Bosz, an opportunistic appointment at the beginning of the previous season for his youth-friendly pedigree at Heracles Almelo and Vitesse Arnhem, was quickly poached by a similarly transitioning Borussia Dortmund, while, obviously, Davinson Sanchez, Klaassen, Reidewald and Kenny Tete departed for a total of £72 million – yet the reinvestment of such pivotal fees is questionable, at best. Austrian defender Maximilian Wöber, Norwegian striker Dennis Johnson and Colombian full-back Luis Manuel Orejuela represent additions purely judged on promise, and when contrasted with the investments in 25-year-old backup goalkeeper Benjamin van Leer, a crocked de Jong and ageing Huntelaar, there appears a considerable generational imbalance, with few individuals likely to remain at the club when, eventually, they do hit their stride. Granted, Kasper Dolberg, Matthijs de Ligt and Justin Kluivert represent prodigious, unbounded talents, but within years they will outgrow the Eredivisie and repeated continental failure; as will be the case with virtually every ambitious product of Jong Ajax’s ranks. As, for example, would have been the opportunity for potentially instrumental midfielder Abdelhak Nouri – unfortunately afflicted with the unforeseeable tragedy of cardiac arrhythmia, yet illustrative of the vulnerabilities of the profession, and the short timeframe players have to earn their fortunes before retirement.
Entirely admirable, yet impractical in present context, Ajax’s approach is, then, little more than an unrealistic tribute to bygone eras; especially at depths when their loyalty to coaches trained in the Ajax mould persists to the appointment of Marcel Keizer, a four-time playing representative in the late 1980’s, Eerste Division-standard player and manager without prior Eredivisie managerial experience, but a Jong Ajax helmsman the season prior. Tainted, in the infancy of his reign, with the discredit of becoming the first boss since Buckingham, 51 years ago, to fail to secure continental football, it is challenging to imagine a perseverance, this term, of the form that saw them collect 81 Eredivisie points in 2016-17, and to perceive any form of short-term resurgence to national supremacy. Youth infrastructure that famously includes affiliate clubs in South Africa, Brazil, China, Slovakia and the Netherlands itself, provides little comfort when the primary ambitions of the system – to produce individuals worthy firstly of a title-challenging, and continentally competitive Ajax side, and subsequently of prominent roles in a progressive Dutch national team – face unprecedented crisis. If such failures aren’t readily apparent to the club’s hierarchy, and they believe themselves to be on an upward trajectory, therein lies little hope for the resolve of a timeless institution of European, and global football. Even the mythical Ajax perished without the dishonour of defeat; the current masochistic behaviour of Amsterdam’s key figures is a total discredit to the memories of Kirwan, Reynolds, Michels and Cruyff – masters of constructive evolution. If the current club was to heed their lessons in any form, it should be to adapt and survive, not to inflict further damage through ambivalent allegiance to an archaic system.
Dethroned and publicly chastened, Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez – the victims of a gradually searing Presidential impatience from notorious iron-willed operator Florentino Pérez, in the midst of recurrent injury layoffs – stand perhaps fortunate to remain the property of a side that has evolved in their absence. Not content solely with regaining La Liga omnipotence not witnessed since José Mourinho’s temporary 2011-12 season 100-point tutelage, Real Madrid have been guided astutely, and perhaps fortunately, by reluctantly glorified servant Zinedine Zidane to a quintet of dominance-affirming trophies – the UEFA Super Cup, Spanish Super Copa, La Liga, Champions League and FIFA World Club Cup – in a 2016-17 season where the underlying productivity of the Welshman was significantly dampened, yet the statistics of Colombia’s golden boy surged, prior to this summer’s signature to a two-year Bayern Munich loan deal. Surpassed by a resurgent Isco, emergent Marco Asensio and, to a lesser extent, belatedly blossoming Lucas Vázquez, in the eternally star-studded attacking hierarchy of a club unique in its internal political reasoning – Pérez looming as the mildly disgruntled spectre to Zidane’s modest aversion to both character management and prestigious transfer policies – are Bale, only a present starter courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hotly disputed five-match ban, and Rodríguez, exiled to the Bavarian capital, yet still in competition with Thiago Alcantara and Corentin Tolisso, victims of their own fortune-spinning success? What precedent does Zidane’s independent, alternative policy set for the opposing footballing elite, what benefits for both the club and the sport could, from it, stem, and does it, as a microcosm of events in the sensationalised history of the sport, truly prove the frivolity of praise and fickleness of modern supporters?
Fully mindful, even visibly hesitant, of the inherent obligations and restraints at the helm of the world’s foremost present club, and balancing his vision against that of his employer, the Frenchman – widely probed for the void of coaching reputation personally offered in the event of Rafael Benítez’s mid-term sacking in January 2016 – strikes his inevitable global audience as unequivocal, possibly struggling with the separation from his natural environment, the dressing room, and external duties. Truthfully, little has changed in the unflappable, gradually balding figure whose unparalleled power and genius, in a manner seldom witnessed, transcended all clubs and nations, amidst the transition into management. A kindred spirit to modern Los Blancos representatives, even arguably the living embodiment of the aspirational, driven and entitled spirit Santiago Bernabéu instilled within the structural entity that would later bear his name, the honorary Madrilenian is proven in his ability to secure results – a 76.09% win percentage from 92 matches (as of 8 September 2017) superior to all historical predecessors, while second only to the ignorantly derided Luis Enrique (76.24%, from 181 matches) in Barcelona folklore – thus maintaining Perez’s trust.
Having achieved this record, with a trophy cabinet only bettered at Madrid by Miguel Muñoz, a mainstay of the revolutionary 1950’s side including Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás who served, in his second managerial spell, for fifteen seasons between 1960 and 1974 – claiming nine separate La Liga belts – and Luis Molowny, a four-time ship-steadier in the ‘70’s and 80’s with eight trophies to his name, in a period defined by injuries to Bale and Rodríguez (at the time of respective signatures the first and fourth most expensive assets in history) is only further credit to Zidane’s ability. Statistically, proof for the issues presented to the 45-year-old in his drastic divergence from expectation lies in the explicit factor of Zidane in Bale’s record-breaking minutes per goal, per assist and per goal involvement ratios of 2015-16 (91.5, 158 and 57.9 respectively in La Liga), with a more defined goal-hungry role for the Welshman in the second half of the season delivering a vastly improved minutes per goal ratio, 69.6, to 115.8 under Benitez, while sacrificing minutes per assist records – 232 to 130.2. Markedly unsettled by the formational changes employed by the Spaniard – regularly having been reverted between shadow striker, left and right-wing positions –, Zidane’s appointment signalled an expressive rebirth on the right (other than one occasion, vs Las Palmas, with Karim Benzema side-lined by injury), whilst both Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema prospered from the adoption of a fluid 4-3-3 formation. Naturally harnessing the multitude of chances created, the former enhanced minutes by both goal and assist averages from 115.7 and 324 to 74.5 and 260.5 respectively, while the latter reaped the rewards of an overhaul of the often-isolating preceding 4-4-2, grabbing an assist every 142.4 minutes, compared to a previous rate of 993, while only allowing goal focus to slip marginally, from a net-bulger every 77.7 to 83.1 for Zidane.
Never exactly fulfilling the French World Cup winner’s pragmatic tactical demands, however, was Rodríguez. Only playing 28 minutes in total in the Champions League quarter-final, semi-final and final stages of 2015-16, although fully fit, the Colombian playmaker lasted an entire 90 minutes only four times after Benitez’ departure – against no side higher than ninth in La Liga at the time – and, resultantly, scored only four times, complemented with a similar quartet of assists. Against no side higher than sixth in the table did he make any goalscoring impact over nine months, even rendering him disposable, and eliminated from the matchday squad, in the aforementioned Canary Islands excursion. Certainly, in comparison to his contemporaries, depressions from 191.3, 143.5 and 82 minutes per goal, assist and goal involvement, to 235.7, 235.7 again, and 117.9, don’t make for easy reading when attempting to defend his role in such an exorbitantly-assembled, and easily profitable, squad. Incompatible, bluntly, with the tactical perspective of this new dawn, the baby-faced South American started all but one of his first half dozen matches under Zidane on the right wing, with Bale hampered by a calf injury in February, and while compromises were made by the manager in the accommodation of a 4-2-3-1, eventually the sacrifice proved too costly; realised even as ineffective centrally in a 4-3-3, in which Toni Kroos and Casemiro would’ve been required to offset his defensive negligence, and subsequently ushered out of favour.
With the innovative deployment of unaesthetic workhorse Casemiro, as a defensive shield unparalleled in physical exploitation at Real since Claude Makélélé, drawing rightful plaudits as the crux of Zidane’s 4-3-3 triumph, the reasoned creative freedom granted to the previously burdened Kroos and Luka Modrić, thus accommodating Isco on the right of an attacking trifecta, or behind Ronaldo and Benzema in a midfield diamond, appear equally pivotal repercussions of detaching a dampened Rodríguez from regular pre-eminence. Despite returning figures resonating largely as records in his Merengues career – 147.6 minutes per every league goal, 196.8 minutes per league assist and 84.4 minutes per goal involvement – such statistics have significant caveats, in that while they reflect improved efficiency (eight goals and six assists from 22 league appearances, only six of which spanned 90 minutes), the expectation of universally elevated standards is inevitable of a side progressing from league runners-up to champions. Used less sparingly in the early stages of rotation-demanding cup competitions, it is noteworthy that, when deployed as a midfielder with attacking license for more than 45 minutes of a 90-minute match, Los Blancos were conspicuous in their vulnerability as a side; winning ten of 13 such occasions in all competitions, but conceding 14 times, drawing 2-2 twice against Borussia Dortmund and faced with only Legia Warsaw, Cultural Leonesa, Espanyol, Sporting Gijón (twice), Eibar, Leganés, Deportivo La Coruña, and a Tony Adams-led Granada, in their victories.
Assuming the 2014 World Cup starlet’s deposed position – strictly, in this case, in central midfield – was Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, or Isco; once regarded as having "a temporary problem" with adapting to Carlo Ancelotti’s similar 4-3-3 style, upon a €30 million arrival at the Bernabéu. The former Malaga asset, of course, had been seemingly overwhelmed by the widely-lauded promise of his first Real season, in 2013-14, as it took him two subsequent seasons to match the cumulative goal tally primarily achieved – 11 goals from 96 appearances in 2014-15 and 2015-16 – while also biding the frustration of 30 continental matches in anticipation of another Champions League goal, which he would finally achieve, memorably, to secure this June’s Cardiff final against Juventus, and prevent their inner-city rivals steal the prize, in a 2-1 defeat at the Vicente Calderón. Making his fewest league appearances – 30 – of any La Liga season since 2010-11, the bearded maestro nonetheless produced his most efficient body of work in a side wary of the importance, for shared purposes of fitness and harmony, of rotation; producing ten goals and nine assists, while featuring more often, and more productively, in midfield than Kroos (29 apps, three goals, 12 assists), Modric (25 apps, one goal, two assists), the Croatian’s November injury replacement, countryman Mateo Kovačić (27 apps, one goal, three assists), Casemiro (25 apps, four goals, no assists) and Rodriguez (22 apps, eight goals, six assists). Respecting these fundamental statistics, the most commonly referred to of any fan, in addition to those that cement him as third only to Kroos and Kovačić in pass completion (89.4%), second to Kovačić in successful dribbles (1.8 per game) and fourth in successful tackles (1.6 per match), we must surely commend Isco, as the foremost midfield option in the world’s best side, for his extraordinary, Zidane-facilitated, resurgence to a rightful stature perhaps in the second bracket of talent within the entire profession currently.
If the 25-year-old Andalusian isn’t the toast of Madrid at present, however, there can only be one man who is; Palma de Mallorca-born and raised prodigy Marco Asensio. The scorer of 15 goals from 30 cumulative Spanish under-19 and under-21 appearances (including a Euro Under-21 2017 hat-trick against Macedonia, and late semi-final brace against France in the 2015 Under-19 Euros), the Balearic baby drew the notoriously inescapable attention of Real from the point of a late 2013 debut for his hometown, Segunda División side, rapidly earning a transfer coup in a €3.9 million December 2014 move, before being loaned back firstly to Mallorca, and to Espanyol for the 2015-16 season’s duration. Thriving on acclaim in a manner perhaps entirely deviating from Isco, the recipience of a Golden Player Award at the aforementioned nationally victorious 2015 Under-19 European Championships, in addition to a 2015-16 La Liga Breakthrough Player Award and momentous recognition of being selected as member of the 2017 Under-21 European Championship Team of the Tournament, has only appeared to signify a menial rung in the advancement of evidently ever-burgeoning aptitude for both tactical consciousness and headline-grabbing influence.
Entirely disturbing as a representative entity to Pérez’s infamous, yet long-since abandoned Galáctico approach, the rapid adjustment from third-tier to both Segunda División and La Liga demands has been nothing short of meteoric for Asensio, while the relative bargain status that will forever define his signatory fee could, potentially, blemish both Pérez’s pride and long-term authority. Blissfully ignorant of the stipulation to the misconception of Pérez, however, this argument greatly undervalues the President’s role in the production of a number of home-grown and modestly-purchased fledgling assets, who, regardless of their first-team success, have graduated with global distinction. Dani Carvajal – albeit only returning after proving first-team credentials at Bayer Leverkusen –, Nacho, Kiko Casilla – again after re-purchase, from Espanyol – Lucas Vázquez, Achraf Hakimi, Borja Mayoral and Luca Zidane are all present remnants of successive Castilla sides, while the sales of Álvaro Morata, Jesé, Diego Llorente, José Callejón, Esteban Granero, Javi García, Juan Mata, Marcos Alonso, Juanmi, Roberto Soldado and Diego Lopez as fellow C team and Castilla products raised net profits of £93.69 million over the past decade or so; considerable, as a sustainable resource, when valuing market fees prior to recent distortion. Zidanes y Pavones was the more pragmatic ideology ushered in by Vicente del Bosque under Pérez’s compromise to fans amidst the 2001 €75 million capture of Zidane; promising to balance his superstars with local interests, of whom centre-back Paco Pavón was the encapsulation of at the time, and there exists little foundation to counterargue Pérez’s enduring dedication to the sustainable cause.
Ironically, nevertheless, is the present situation wherein, Zidane, having witnessed Perez’s programme at all levels – arriving, alongside Luis Figo, as a catalyst for the policy, thus witnessing the fluctuations in dressing room dynamic and internal politics, particularly between manager and president, before assuming post-retirement roles as presidential adviser, special managerial adviser, sporting director, first team assistant manager and Castilla manager – is destructing it, piece by piece, from within. Devoid of a truly inspirational, Galáctico-style, signing since Kroos and Rodríguez in the post-World Cup fervour of 2014, and considering the tumult surrounding Rodriguez and Bale, without success at astronomic financial heights since Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2009 switch, a definite psychological change of tact has been enforced. It speaks volumes for the coaching ability of Zidane, that in their first La Liga-winning season since 2011-12, when Mourinho uncharacteristically restricted his purchases to that of two 23-year-olds, an 18-year-old, a returning 24-year-old and insurance policy 29-year-old to the tune of £49.5 million in Nuri Şahin, Fábio Coentrão, Raphaël Varane, Callejón and Hamit Altıntop respectively, Álvaro Morata was the only senior signing, at the cost of £27 million.
Evidently placing faith in the youth that, while not definitively earning him the position, bolstered his credibility, and navigating the inevitable power politics of Galáctico ideology by investing in gradually developing, largely Spanish, individuals, Zidane has proven himself not only a gifted man manager and tactician, but a canny political operator and business-minded architect of a brighter Real future. Recouping significant previous losses, arranging the first two seasons of net transfer profits since 1998-99 – largely by offloading eventually failed youth prospects Jesé and Denis Cheryshev and identifying the futility of retaining exorbitant rotation options Morata, Danilo and Rodríguez – has truly now established the Frenchman as a radical reformist in the history of Spanish football.
In the lower tiers of English football particularly, I certainly believe that settled squads – those that head into the season with clear objective, retaining their identity if previously successful and advancing standards with the signing of progressive, respected individuals – regardless of financial situation, are those, naturally, with a considerably heightened scope for continued achievement. While the effect of this modern phenomenon becomes upwardly saturated into the Premier League, where it isn’t unusual to witness, even expect, half a dozen new first-team arrivals every summer – 6.35, on average, for each club this past window, from which between three and four will likely be regular starters – and contingency is respected with the derision that others, in such a high-powered elite, will capitalise if you, as over-achievers, fail to adapt, Zidane has opted against such frivolous methods, also attributed to Barcelona in recent times. Investing €30M in French 19-year-old left back Theo Hernández on the basis of a season at the heart of Mauricio Pellegrino’s defensive watertight Alavés outfit, with fourteen clean sheets, four assists and two goals – including one against Barça in the Copa del Rey final – whilst on loan from Atletico Madrid, in addition to the €16.5M spent on 21-year-old Real Betis midfielder Dani Ceballos, another member of the victorious 2015 Under-19 Euros squad, and the recipient of the Player of the Tournament award in Poland this summer, Real exude the assured quality of their existing squad for these two prodigies to be key priorities.
For both Hernández and Ceballos, their transitional phase will take much the same form of Asensio’s, or Isco’s, or even Varane’s, as players vulnerable in their state of dissenting inexperience. Presently, Real is the most challenging obstacle an individual of their calibre can wish to approach, but psychology would have been immediately identified as a pivotal catalyst for signature – especially with Zidane, seemingly the least perturbed Real employee, or manager at such a rank of club, measurable currently. Quietly assembling a squad capable of defending the quintet of prizes currently in Real mitts for the coming five seasons, his approach entirely differs from previous sides to have reached such stature – Barça, for example, after winning the 2015-16 La Liga, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup and Copa del Rey, who splashed £110 million on six current rotational failures, and Inter Milan, after a 2009-10 triple, consigning themselves to the misidentified Andrea Ranocchia, Giampaolo Pazzini and Jonathan Biabiany. Rather than be governed, either, by the traps of confirmation bias in the situations of Bale and Rodríguez – overruling injury, media verse and presidential decree when considering form and squad role – when others, notably Mourinho, would’ve undoubtedly accentuated issues with egocentric public approaches, few appear to have been harmed by the scrutiny previously fixated upon the club. Mino Raiola and the rest of his merry band of super-agents may not be best pleased with the alternative approach Zidane has instilled, and what predictably is to come, and has come in this transfer window, is a dramatic inflation particularly of fees for under-21’s. Ousmane Dembélé, Kylian Mbappé, even Madrid’s own pending purchase Vinícius Júnior (less than a year older than I) – all have had prices unfathomably inflated not just by the presence of Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain, but by their status as either the long-bequeathed challengers or guardians to the chalice currently situated within the Spanish capital. As Zidane builds for the future, others follow.
Attacking players, however, remain the disproportionate focus of these funds, largely as from Real’s present defensive line-up, only Keylor Navas has spent fewer than five seasons in his position. While in Catalonia, the most significant misjudgements of their restructure are widely respected as André Gomes, Lucas Digne, Aleix Vidal, Arda Turan and, prior to any real exploits, Paulinho; accused of being detrimental in their very presence to the prestige of the shirt, little such focus has been paid to Paco Alcácer for justifying his fee, perhaps inevitable in the shadow of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Securing a talent worthy of assuming Sergio Ramos’ centre-back role upon the captain’s retirement, with Nacho unlikely to ever fulfil the season-long demand and unless Achraf receives tutelage this season onwards, is a prominent task on Zidane’s desk for upcoming transfer windows, and an unforgiving one at that, considering how other officials will react to Real’s advances.
Upon promotion to first-team duties, and after even two or three commanding performances, though, Achraf, and his like, could become the flavour of the month, with social media pressure snowballing into a public demand towards respect and trust in ability. Asensio and Isco only prove the tribulations of awaiting scrutiny upon every mere movement; they are idolised and lauded, despite registering as Segunda División and struggling Bernabéu representatives only two-and-a-half years ago, while deposed counterparts Bale and Rodriguez retain vast groups of online support, yet still outweighed by seething criticism. Reminders of the ready-made, immediately vulnerable Galácticos, and the failings of such an elite class of apparent saviours, the junctions in their careers arrive with prodigious, inscrutable youths and resurgent, opportune former starlets motoring past, without visible or conceivable hindrance; their enigmatic chief is powering them, after all. Praise is an indiscernible fuel, however, that can soon prove rapidly dissipating at such speeds. Everyone will fall victim to its perils at some stage; even the invincible.
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!