Is it possible to watch football on one’s own terms?

My unease with football has been growing since the Qatari takeover of PSG, and it came to a head this summer. First, Jonathan Wilson delivered a firm punch to the gut when he described football as being in the process of turning into “the entertainment wing of the oil industry” [1]. Monaco, having won promotion with a young squad, went out and bought a more experienced one. Finally, Gareth Bale moved to Real Madrid; when asked by my non-football-following father if €100m was the going rate for the best player in the world I had to explain that he was not even in the top 10.

I am not saying that before this summer all was sweetness and light in the football world. Since its creation, football has often been used by unpleasant people/governments/organisations to launder their reputations. More recently it has been used by some unpleasant criminals to launder their money. There is a limit to what one can put up with, however, and by the summer’s end I had conceded to myself that perhaps football no longer merited the time I devoted to it. Given that I would have a lot on my plate over the next 10 months, I decided at the start of this season that I would not watch any football until the World Cup. Time constraints aside, I was not entirely sure why I was doing this or what precisely I was hoping to get out of it, but it seemed like a good idea.

Four months into the season I finally have a bit of down time, and my determination to stay away from football has faltered. Nonetheless I think the idea of avoiding it for a while has indeed proved to be a good one. For one thing, it has helped me to realise which aspects of the sport still captivate me.

I miss internationals, and the word-wide frenzy that only the end of a World Cup qualification campaign can inspire. I am still fascinated by the development of young footballers throughout France. I want to see how players that I have spent so much time watching over the last few years are doing. I want to see how different clubs’ styles of play have progressed since last season. My desire to follow long-term developments in football, things one must track over a period of years, remains undiminished. I really want to watch Ligue 2, which in my mind is the living, breathing archetype of what a league should be, where “certainties” do not exist, where “probablies” are rare and where 10 teams have a genuine chance of winning the title.

But as much as I am reminded of the things I really miss, equally prevalent are the things that drove me away from the sport in the first place. The existence of superclubs that stockpile the most talented players to the detriment of the sport everywhere. The fact that French football, to which I have previously devoted so much of my time, now has two superclubs of its own. The fact that it will be impossible to truly enjoy the 2014 World Cup, so great is the scandal of FIFA’s insistence on creating a state-within-a-state to siphon away all of the money that Brazil generates. The way football’s powers that be have so cheerfully embraced people with dubious pasts and questionable motives for the sake of a few dollars more. These are not minor issues. They influence every aspect of the game, from the outcomes of individual games and seasons, to the long-term trends that determine the way football is played on the pitch. These issues directly affect the lives of both young footballers who risk being exploited, tossed around like pieces of meat, and impoverished workers who are held hostage so that the richest people on earth can create new temples to the world’s richest sport.

*                             *                             *

When I was growing up I watched a lot of sport. Everything except horse racing and golf. I watched these sports because I could connect to the emotional content of what I was watching. As time went on I found myself struggling to retain this connection. I was able only to see a stripped down, cynical version of what was on offer. I have, over the last fifteen years, slowly been shedding sports.

Motorsport was the first to go; it was just rich people going round and round. Rugby League was next; it was just square people standing in a line and occasionally running into each other. Cycling was next; no matter how often people went on about how they were not drugged up any more, they were still drugged up.  Rugby Union was next; it was turning into Rugby League. Athletics was next; see cycling. Tennis was next; at least in athletics and cycling people were willing to talk about how obvious the doping was. Cricket has been teetering on the edge for several years; the majesty of test matches and the wonderful writing of a series of journalists, most notably Andy Bull, have prevented me from ditching it, despite all the T20 nonsense.

Football took up the slack whenever another sport fell by the wayside. I read even more books. I watched even more matches. Despite my exasperation with certain aspects of the way football has developed, my desire to keep following the sport shows me that I still have a connection to its emotional content. I want to watch the likes of Bakambu, Cabella or Ghoulam develop as people as well as footballers. It still matters to me to watch clubs like St Etienne or Reims draw strength from a glorious past as they create a healthy future. I still want to marvel at the pure joy of players who make it to the World Cup. The events of the 19th of November show how magical football can be, both for what happens on the pitch and the way it makes us feel in the stands, in the pub or in front of the TV.

The concurrent drama of Zahir Belounis reminds us of the ways in which this is a sick sport, one that is stubbornly refusing treatment. Is it possible – is it right, even – to keep following a sport, however much I love it, when it seems so determined to inflict damage on itself and the world around it?  If I am going to start watching football again, I feel I owe it to myself to at least have that question in mind when I do so.


[1] Before the pedants attack, Wlison refined his point in his Editor’s note in Issue Ten of The Blizzard in questioning what football was becoming: “Some sort of game for the mega-rich? A propaganda tool for oligarchs and the commodities industry?”


Aristide Bancé

He’s 1m93 tall, weighs over 90 kilos and has fluorescent hair. You couldn’t ignore Aristide Bancé if you tried. But as well as being a loveable battering-ram forward for Burkina Faso’s equally loveable and rapidly improving football team, Bancé has probably the greatest website ever created for a footballer.

It was during the 2013 Cup of Nations that I became captivated by the Burkinabé forward’s particularly cute brand of perma-rage that compels him to attempt to smash the ball into a parallel universe whenever it comes near him. Bancé’s way of playing football is almost a philosophy of life. Do not overthink things, just give it everything you’ve got. If you sent the ball into the back of the net or into orbit, at least you could look back on it and know you gave it everything.

Upon discovering his website I decided to consecrate a little time to writing some additional lyrics. Why it took me seven months from finishing the song to actually posting it I’m not sure, but here you go. Enjoy, and remember: when in doubt, ask yourself, “what would Aristide do?”

T’inquiètes pas Aimé!
Oh ya, oh ya!
Son jeu est musclé!
Oh ya, oh ya!
Plus fort que Pelé…
Oh ouais ouais ouais
Aristide Bancé!
Oh ya, oh ya!

Ses cheveux sont biens faits!
Oh ya, oh ya!
Il ne rate jamais!
Oh ya, oh ya!
C’est un mec doué…
Oh ouais ouais ouais
Aristide Bancé!
Oh ya, oh ya!

L’appel bien pensé!
Oh ya, oh ya!
Le passe de Traoré!
Oh ya, oh ya!
Vers le but lancé…
Oh ouais ouais ouais
Aristide Bancé!
Oh ya, oh ya!

Le joueur préféré!
Oh ya, oh ya!
Des Burkinabés!
Oh ya, oh ya!
Je le trouve parfait…
Oh ouais ouais ouais
Aristide Bancé!
Oh ya, oh ya!


Ligue 2 End of Season Stuff

Valère Germain
He was not this season’s top scorer, nor was he the assist leader; Valère Germain was simply the best player in the best team. Germain’s consistency was impressive and his continuous improvement over the last two seasons has been startling. In the second half of the season, when Ibrahima Touré lost his shooting boots and went five months without a goal, Germain was often the one to be found opening the scoring or playing a significant role in helping a teammate do it instead. Monaco would not have finished top of the league without him – 27 of their 76 points, some 35%, were the direct result of his goals and assists – and it seems a shame that such a promising player, who at his current rate of progress could be playing for the national team in a few years, will not be permitted to lead Monaco’s attack in the top division.

Jocelyn Gourvennec
With a budget of just €10m (the tenth biggest in the league and a third of Monaco’s resources) Guingamp nonetheless played some scintillating football, especially at home where they lost just once all season, deservedly finishing as league runners-up. The small Breton club have some excellent players, but there is wide agreement among journalists and fellow coaches that the majority of the credit for this achievement should go to Jocelyn Gourvennec, who is developing a reputation as a coach of some repute. Appointed to the post upon Guingamp’s relegation to the National in 2010, Gourvennec took his side back up to Ligue 2 in his first season in charge of a professional club. After a year of consolidation, Gourvennec steered his side to promotion with an emphasis on attractive football, extracting consistently excellent performances from players who were fairly average elsewhere: Jonathan Martins-Pereira, Fatih Atik, Christophe Mandanne and Mustapha Yatabaré – all of whom are in their mid-to-late 20s – all enjoyed probably the best seasons of their respective careers. Should Guingamp keep hold of their players and above all their talented manager, they could provide some excellent entertainment in Ligue 1 next season.

Gianelli Imbula
But then you knew that already. Guingamp’s Gianelli Imbula is ridiculously composed, supremely talented and scarily powerful. There are players who are constantly available for a pass because their off-the-ball movement is so intelligent, and there are player like Imbula who are constantly available for a pass because their touch is so good and upper body so strong that being surrounded by opponents has no discernible impact on their play. Not that Imbula’s movement is bad, far from it. He also possesses a reliably positive passing game, a product of his upright stance and attacking mentality. As good for his age as a midfielder could ever want to be.

Raphaël Guerreiro
2012-13 has been a good year for young talent in Ligue 2, from Monaco’s bright young attackers to Nantes’ promising midfielders, by way of Paul-Georges Ntep, Nicolas Benezet and Zacharie Boucher. I have picked, more or less at random, another player undergoing a similar positive development: Caen left-back Raphaël Guerreiro, a near ever-present (he started 37 out of 38 games) in the tightest defence in the league. He has added some additional defensive steel to his already impressive attacking game and, having decided to represent Portugal at international level, he was rewarded for his good form with his first u20 call up earlier this year. It surely will not be too long before his undefendable crosses start flying across the penalty areas of Ligue 1.

Filip Đorđević
Filip Đorđević has been in France for over five years now, and has always mixed glimpses of talent with long periods of, to put it kindly, unspectacular play. But in the early weeks of this season he exploded into life, and by November he already had more goals than in any other season of his career. His role changed slightly after the mid-season arrival of Fernando Aristeguieta, but he still popped up with vital goals, not least an excellently taken volley away at Caen in week 36 that effectively secured Nantes’ promotion to Ligue 1.

Caen’s forward line.
No stand-out flops here, but Caen’s collective inability to put the ball in the back of the net cost them dearly, especially in the final run-in. Consecutive home draws in April against Lens and Dijon sides reduced to ten men were particularly painful examples of a wider problem. They didn’t manage to score more than twice in any game after Christmas (and managed the feat only four times all season). Last summer’s loss of Romain Hamouma and the failure to adequately replace his directness from wide positions was probably the difference between promotion and another season in the second tier.

This should go to Le Havre’s perennially pleasing Oxbridge combination, but their kit is ruined by being sponsored by SuperU. I would give it to Caen out of spite, but their stripes are too thin, so Chateauroux it is.

Durak’s preposterous volley for Niort against Dijon in week 9

Angers 1-1 Caen, week 33
Ligue 2 is almost always a close-run thing, with plenty of matches that both teams are happy enough to not lose; only occasionally will you get games that both teams are obliged to win. With Monaco, Nantes and Guingamp playing well and picking up points, Angers and Caen went into their match in week 33 knowing that a draw would not be of much use to either. Cue a fantastic, end-to-end chance-fest that got better and better as the clock ran down and only finished 1-1 thanks to two excellent goalkeeping performances from Damien Perquis and Greg Malicki. The latter was my pick for goalkeeper of the year, playing probably the strongest season of his career at the age of 39.

TEAM OF THE YEAR (4-1-2-1-2)
Malicki; Jonathan Martins-Pereira, Raggi, Cichero, Guerreiro; Mendy; Imbula, El Jadeyaoui; Gragnic; Germain, Yatabaré.

The Long Game – Mourinho

“That strikes me as normal in a society that is ill”[1]

“Not every win is a gain.”[2]

It is one of the central paradoxes of sport, and football in particular: the nature of football as a contest means that we want to win, either as participants or as supporters. Yet there is a great sense of unease when the focus on the end rather than the means becomes too strong, and the higher up in football one goes the greater that unease becomes.

The case for the importance on winning above all else is often made by stressing how people “just want their names in the record books”. But this is illogical nonsense. The pure data of the results obtained in competition, even at its most detailed, is nothing next to the tomes of articles and books written about how these results were obtained and how the football in question made people feel. Once a certain threshold of achievement has been surpassed, history does not concern itself with what you won, but how you won it.

Which brings us to José Mourinho. For the first time in his career Mourinho has failed and his career trajectory, until recently rather straight, now has a noticeable kink in it. More than anyone else in the modern game, Mourinho focused on the end rather than the means. This is not a commentary on his tactics, simply a manner of highlighting the fact that Mourinho defined himself not by the kind of football he offered to the public but by the fact that he won. But as several people found themselves asking during his third year in Madrid, what does one call a winner when he does not win? This question, combined with a view of football encapsulated by those quotes at the top of the page, provokes a certain disquiet about Mourinho’s methods, all the more so when you view the situation not from the present, but from the future. How will Mourinho be remembered? How will his achievements be assessed when his career ends and in the decades that follow? Will coaches of the future cite him as a reference the way Jurgen Klopp did Arrigo Sacchi after Borussia Dortmund’s triumph over Real Madrid, or will his legacy be that of someone who took from football in the form of trophies, but did not give in terms of a significant positive contribution, tactical or otherwise. To answer a question concerning the future, we can revisit the past.

Mourinho had historical baggage from the very start of his career. His rapid ascent to the very top of European club management meant that there was an awareness very early on that this was someone who would enter the pantheon of the most successful managers, certainly of his own time and perhaps of all time. The desire to profit from Mourinho’s media-magnetism provoked countless biographies, documentaries and opinion pieces that have given us a wide range of attempts to place the Portuguese in a historical context, often by comparing him to greats of the past.

We have had Mourinho as Arrigo Sacchi, someone who had no career as a player but whose obsession with the game and desire to control the playing area allowed him to become arguably the dominant manager of his time.

We have had Mourinho as Brian Clough, a quick-witted and brilliant talker, as effective at getting the press hanging on his every word as he was at extracting the maximum from players who came to see him as a father figure.

We have had Mourinho as Helenio Herrera, a master of psychology who felt that he was wrongly accused of playing defensively by people who did not understand his system and erroneously associated his football with lesser imitations.

Most notably, we have had Mourinho as Béla Guttmann, the restless genius whose capacity for winning trophies was only matched by his ability to fall out with club administrators.

My personal favourite is Mourinho as Alf Ramsey, a formidably confident and determined individual, but overly keen on turning football into a battle and whose methods were questioned even while he was successful. The great Hugh McIlvanney, long-time sports writer for the Observer and the Sunday Times, wrote a fascinating report in response to West Germany’s 3-1 win over England in the first leg of the quarter final of the 1972 European Championship, the beginning of the end for Ramsay’s England team. Change the names and the parallels are frighteningly prescient of Mourinho’s current position and reputation in football:

“The greatest criticism to be made of Mourinho’s teams is that their really memorable performances, the days on which they overwhelmed the opposition with brilliance rather than grinding them down with dour efficiency, could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It is that truth that is behind the wave of resentment which has risen from Mourinho’s failure with Real Madrid. Cautious joyless football was scarcely bearable even while it was bringing victories. When it brings defeat there can be only one reaction. Obviously, some of those who are offering the noisiest condemnation of Mourinho are being hypocritical, for they were happy enough to ride with him while the results were good.

Those of us who have always had serious misgivings about his approach have neither the need nor the desire to gloat. What is happening now we always felt to be inevitable, because anyone who sets out to prove that football is about sweat rather than inspiration, about winning rather than glory, is sure to be found out in the end.

It is as true as it is unrewarding to say that what Mourinho requires now is not a different team but a different philosophy. His method was, to be fair, justifiable with Porto, when he had more limited resources, but since then it has become an embarrassment.

Mourinho should stop sending his teams on to the football field as if they are going to war. They should start playing the game again.”

With the exception of Clough[3] all of the coaches put forward as historical equivalents of Mourinho have something in common with each other besides an impressive Palmarès: Within a few years of their greatest achievements as managers, they were considered obsolete. Either out of management entirely, no longer desired by major clubs or no longer capable of achieving results.

Just as great teams fall having become parodies of themselves, so do great managers. When taken beyond the elastic limits, the very characteristics that allow them to get to the top either lose their effectiveness or become serious flaws.

The attributes that make Mourinho the winner he is when he wins are also what make him the failure he is when he fails. These attributes were also to be found in the great managers of the past with whom Mourinho has been compared, but having seen what befell them it would not be a surprise if Mourinho’s career from this point is marked more by failures than wins.

But whether he wins or not is, in my opinion, irrelevant. It is the manner in which Mourinho wins or loses, and the football that his teams play in doing so, that will determine his long-term reputation. More significant than the trophies Mourinho takes from football, however many, is the legacy, however small, that he gives to football. Will he be a reference for the coaches of the future? Will he be held up as someone to emulate, or as a warning? The answer will probably be a bit of both. Perhaps they will possess the same drive and attention to detail, but without the abrasiveness that so defines Mourinho. And perhaps, as McIlvanney hoped, they will send their teams onto the field not to do battle, but to play football.


[1] The response of Juanma Lillo to Sid Lowe’s suggestion that it could be considered normal to analyse football matches by taking the result and then explaining it.

[2] Norbert Seitz’s summation of Jupp Derwall’s phenomenally successful yet widely despised West Germany side of the late 70s and early 80s, as quoted by Uli Hesse in Tor.

[3] And even Clough got nowhere near the heights of his achievements with Derby and Forest after 1981. A UEFA Cup Semi-Final, some third place League finishes and a pair of League Cups is hardly a poor return, but having set the bar so high Clough still fits the trend of (relative) decline.

The Long Game – Introduction

Football was never merely a sport to be enjoyed for its own sake, either for me or for anyone else, and I am fascinated by the minutiae of why we follow football and how we interact with it. For me, football has been first and foremost a learning tool; for geography, politics, religions, languages, human nature and above all for history.

History is an impossibly vast subject. My favourite metaphor for history is that of a building the size of a continent. This building is filled with rooms, some bigger, some smaller, most visible through the windows on the exterior, a few completely hidden deep inside. There are no doors. All you can do is look through the window or windows you think show you best what it is you want to find out about the rooms you want to look at. The size of our building means that one only has time to truly gain expertise in what is visible through two or three windows. The rooms contain the events of the past. The windows are the types of historical investigation that are open to us.

Football is my favourite of the windows through which I choose to look at history. But in the same way that one’s hobbies can provoke or aid an interest in formal study, so those studies can influence the ways in which we interact with our hobbies. My fascination with history, and the history of football in particular, has a huge influence on my attitude as a fan of the sport[1]. My desire to understand where the sport came from, and how the society in which the sport resides came to take shape, provokes a fascination on where this society and the sport within it are going. My happiness or sadness at the outcomes of matches, tournaments or seasons take up relatively little of the time I devote to thinking about football, such is my interest in the more long term developments.

These pieces are thoughts on – and hopefully in some cases answers to – some of the questions I have asked myself over the last few years. In most cases I am simply writing, from a starting point of relative ignorance, articles that I would prefer to read. Where I have strayed unknowingly into ground that has previously been explored in greater depth, further contributions and corrections are of course welcome.

The issues I will deal with in this series will be fairly specific, but the underlying questions that provoke them are much broader. What state is football in? How did it get to that state? Where is it going? Are there lessons from history generally or the history of football in particular that can help us to understand the sport today and in the future? This is the brief; to study the game as one that lasts longer than 90 minutes.


[1] Especially as someone who no longer follows a club side and who never felt particularly comfortable in the world of partisan support.

Some Nice Things that Happened this Year in French Football

PSG 1 Rennes 2

Remember when Rennes could play football? Remember when they could win matches with nine men? Rennes’ form in the last few weeks of the season has been so bad that it is easy to forget just how entertaining they were in the early parts of the campaign. With Julien Féret spraying brilliant passes around in his own inimitable style and Romain Alessandrini staging his own goal of the season competition, Rennes’ matches before Christmas were really worth watching, none more so that their astonishing win in Paris in week 13. Aside from the ridiculousness of the second half, this game makes it into my end-of-season selection for the fact that all three goals were utterly brilliant.

First Romain Alessandrini bashed a screamer in from 25 metres, then Nêne ran on to a fantastic pass from Pastore to clip a beautiful finish over Benoît Costil. Ten minutes after the Rennes goalkeeper was sent off for a lunge at Jérémy Ménez, Rennes retook the lead. PSG were so worried about the potency of Alessandrini’s left foot that when Rennes won a free kick on the edge of the area no-one thought that Julien Féret might take it. But take it he did, and he pushed an intelligent and well placed shot into the bottom corner.

Barely five minutes into the second half Jean II Makoun had one of those brain explosions he is prone to and picked up a second yellow for a pointless foul on Nenê, the first having been awarded for protesting the decision to send Costil off (the cards for Costil and Makoun were the only ones Rennes received all game). Left with 40 minutes to play with nine men, Rennes did not appear to have much of a chance, but despite PSG throwing on more and more attackers (by the game’s end they were playing a 1-0-9 formation) and creating chance after chance the goal would not come.

The statistics entered surreal territory: PSG had 24 shots, 18 corners, crossed the ball 59 times and on the hour mark hit the woodwork twice during the same attack. Substitute goalkeeper Cheick N’Diaye had the match of his life, repelling everything that PSG threw at him. At the full time whistle the Rennes bench cleared, all hurtling towards N’Diaye to celebrate him like a man who had just saved the penalty that won his side the Champions League. It was quite an afternoon.

Nice 3 Evian 2

Nice’s come back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 in week 18 was first and foremost an excellent game of football, but also a fascinating case-study in momentum, and how it can be generated or quelled. Evian opened up a two-goal lead inside fifteen minutes but Nice, who were on a hot streak of 17 points from their last seven games, hit back immediately. Dario Cvitanich received the ball just outside the area and clipped a superb chip over Bertrand Laquait and into the top corner.

Cvitanich’s goal was excellent, but it was also fascinating to see the effect the nature and timing of the goal, not just the goal itself, had on proceedings. Had Evian held on to their two goal lead for just ten minutes more, and conceded a scrappy goal from a corner they probably would not have been so obviously perturbed. But to concede straight away, and to a goal that brutally yet beautifully exposed the gulf in class between the sides, suggested that this would be Nice’s night. The home side pressed relentlessly against a clearly subdued opponent, and Cvitanich equalised early in the second half with a goal as inglorious as his first was glorious. Nice dominated the rest of the second half and finally got the winner in injury time, 16 year old Neal Maupay controlling Timothée Kolodziejczak’s hopeful cross and powering the ball in for his first goal in Ligue 1 before disappearing amongst a pile of bodies.

Anything Mathieu Valbuena did in 2013.

Already playing at a high level in the first half of the season, Mathieu Valbuena was at the forefront of a cadre of senior players at OM who in 2013 simply played at an astonishing level. André-Pierre Gignac was scoring important goals, Nicolas N’Koulou was stopping dangerous forwards and Steve Mandanda was making saves he had no right to make (his performance away at Lille was that of someone playing the lead role in their own superhero comic book). But Valbuena trumped them all. “Relentless” is rarely a word associated with creators. It is often reserved for goalscorers who cannot be contained, or defensive players who simply will not let themselves be beaten. Yet the only way I can describe Valbuena’s impact on his side is to refer to his relentless creativity. Constantly seeking out space, making himself available for passes and doing the hardest work in football – unlocking packed defences – with very little help. Qualification for the Champions League would trigger an automatic one year extension in Valbuena’s contract at Marseille, and the little man played like someone determined to stay on the south coast.

Samuel Umtiti’s goal at White Hart Lane

Occasionally a goal is scored that no words can fully describe, but that you yearn to read and write about nonetheless. Samuel Umtiti’s equaliser in Lyon’s Europa League tie away at Spurs was just such a goal. Usual attempts at describing this goal would leave me disappointed, but I found that calquéing as much as possible the description of it in l’equipe’s online report amused me, so I wrote it down.

“But the young defender of Lyon will remember for a long time his evening at White Hart Lane because in the 55th minute, he scored an extraordinary goal. Rebuffed by the head of Gallas, the cross of Malbranque bounced before Umtiti who did not ask himself any questions and dispatched a superpowered half-volley into the top corner of the powerless Friedel”

I do not know why this amused me, but it did. For what it’s worth, when I saw Umtiti’s goal live on TV my exact words were “Jesus fucking CHRIST!” Not that the son of God ever hit one this cleanly.

PSG 3 Nice 0

On the 21st of April PSG played Nice at home and recorded a regulation win in their end-of-season stroll to the Ligue 1 title. This match was memorable for two reasons. The first was Renato Civelli, who is massive, going head to head with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is also massive. Both players seemed to enjoy the physical confrontation, so much so that Civelli felt the need just before half time to give Zlatan a little kiss on the neck. It said, “see you in the second half.” Lovely.

This game was also to be remembered for Thiago Silva scoring quite possibly the best disallowed goal of all time. I am still unsure as to how Thiago did it. Joris Delle left a through ball, confident that it would roll out of play. Thiago hurdled the prone Nice keeper and, still going at full pelt, clipped the ball from behind the byline near the edge of the area into the back of the net. Like all the great goals it gets better each time you see it. The most amazing aspect for me was the fact that when the ball bounced it was already over the goal-line. The look on Thiago’s face when he saw the linesman (correctly) signalling for a goal-kick was rather endearing, like a little boy being told that his puppy died.

Also on the weekend of the 20th of April…

The oft-forgotten coda to the story of Thiago’s disallowed goal is that less than 24 hours later Nabil Dirar scored a goal (that did count; it put Monaco 2-0 up against Clermont) in near identical circumstances which was possibly more beautiful for the way the ball span and span along the goal-line until it gripped the turf and rolled in.

However my favourite thing that happened that weekend was Nancy’s 3-1 win over Evian. Nancy scored three goals. The first was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did), the second was a free shot at the far post from a corner and the third was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did) from a free shot at the far post from a corner. As I wrote at the time in a brilliant joke that was understood by precisely one person (thank you Raphael), it was a football as classical essay writing: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

The goals of Adrian Mutu

Bear with me. Adrian Mutu made some waves back in August when he claimed that he would score more goals this season than his one-time Juventus team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That he failed in this particular endeavour should not come as a great surprise. But the Romanian, who either side of his ill-fated spell in the Premier League was one of the most decisive players in Serie A, nonetheless made a huge contribution to keeping Ajaccio in Ligue 1, top-scoring with 11 goals (only one other Ajaccio other player got more than three goals: Chahir Belghazouani, who scored six). Taken in isolation, those goals (more than a quarter of his team’s total of 39) directly earned 10 of Ajaccio’s 40 point total. This is without discussing his role alongside Belghazouani and Johan Cavalli as the technical leader of the side and the attacking and defensive contribution that aspect of his game entailed. Zlatan may have got 30 goals and walked off with the title, but Mutu still deserves a mention for a productive and influential first season in Ligue 1.

Alternative team of the year.

We all knew that Zlatan would score a ton of goals, and it is no great surprise to see guys like Dimitri Payet or Mathieu Valbuena playing to such high standards. This, then, is a team of those who played well beyond a level that could reasonably have been expected (4-3-1-2)

Mandi, Lotiès, Pejčinović, Harek
Krychowiak, Camus, Cavalli
Aliadière, Modeste

Token nice things that happened elsewhere in Europe this season:

The team you manage is 0-3 up in the final minutes of the first leg of what could have been a far more complicated Champions League knockout tie. Trying to hold onto possession from a corner, your players make a bit of a hash of it and end up ceding possession. What do you do? You threaten to kill your players of course!

If last year you were told that Borussia Dortmund would get to the Champions League Final playing scintillating football and amid incredible drama, you probably would have said, “What?”

It surprised me that Loic Rémy’s goal against Wigan did not come up amid discussions of the Premier League goal of the season. All the other goals mentioned were of a type we have seen before (to take on example: Robin van Persie’s goal against Aston Villa, impressive though it was, was a pale imitation of the similar strikes against Everton and Liverpool while he played for Arsenal). Rémy’s goal against Wigan was like no other goal I have ever seen before. Having run three-quarters of the length of the pitch, he slowed up to get in line with Stéphane M’Bia’s pass and gently pushed the ball into the top corner. The speed with which the ball travelled was totally out of keeping with how Rémy approached the ball and how he struck it, rather like the Noisy Cricket gun from the first Men in Black film. Unassuming, but it packed quite a punch.

For the Love of Playing

Mathieu Valbuena is suddenly everyone’s favourite footballer. The pocket playmaker has at times single-handedly kept Marseille in this year’s Ligue 1 title race, and has been producing excellent performances for France, including spectacular goals against Italy and Georgia.

Much has been made of the fact that Bordeaux supposedly let him go for being too small but while this may have played a part, you can be certain more concrete deficiencies were taken into consideration when they decided to let him go; in the Gironde, they know a thing or two about fantastic footballers that you could fit in a suitcase – more on this later. I am more interested in what happened next: for Valbuena is one of many players in Ligue 1 (and there are many, many more in Ligue 2) to have played in France’s amateur leagues past his 20th birthday.

France’s academy systems, both those run by the clubs and the regional academies  run by the French federation (like Clairefontaine) are feted as the gifts that keep on giving, and this is only fair given how many of their graduates populate the upper echelons of European football. Yet France’s lower divisions and amateur system have produced great talents of their own, as well as rescue some of those who fell through the cracks of the bigger academies. Whatever the criticisms that are leveled at the top level of French football for the competitiveness of French teams in Europe or the faults with Ligue 1, it is undeniable that, in terms of the development of players, every part of the French league system is playing a strong role.

One of the reasons why players from France’s amateur leagues get to Ligue 1 and thrive there so regularly is because the level is not actually that much higher[1]. This can be seen every year during the cup competitions in which teams from the National (3rd division) and CFA leagues (4th and 5th divisions) beat those from higher up the food chain. These wins can take the form of the traditional FA Cup upset – the big boys from the bright lights get roughed up by the plucky amateurs, who sneak a win from a set piece. But I would say that just as frequently the lower-ranked team passes their Ligue 1 opponent off the pitch.

This compactness, arguably the defining feature of the French League system, is a consequence of the economic pragmatism that is found at both ends of the spectrum. Sides at the top (Ligue 1 teams plus those in Ligue 2 whose academies are well known abroad like Le Harve) are constantly selling their best players abroad, and sides at the bottom can only afford squads that are full of young players on smaller contracts. Sid Lowe has repeatedly made the point that the outwardly positive aspect of Spanish youngsters being given a chance at home is simply a consequence of the lack of money in the Spanish game, often in reaction to gross economic mismanagement. In France things are similar, but with the twist that clubs are forced to be financially responsible before they bankrupt themselves by the body that oversees the finances of French football clubs, the DNCG[2]. So the clubs at the bottom are packed with kids because they cannot afford much else. Meanwhile at the top, where the best players move abroad thus keeping the overall level below a certain threshold, clubs are happy to go hunting in the lower leagues to bolster their squads because they cannot afford anything fancier. And because it works; once a certain ‘transfer highway’ is established and proven to be effective the process is self-sustaining. An accelerated example of this process is the way Newcastle repeatedly returned to France to do their shopping once they realised how good and how cheap were the players they could get there.

But aside from the financial aspects, there are many footballing reasons why professional clubs can have great success by turning to players who are impressing in the lower divisions or who had previously had spells in the nether regions of the French league system.

Those who overcome early rejection – for generally players end up at these amateur teams because they failed to make the grade elsewhere, like Valbuena at Bordeaux or Julien Féret in his first stint at Rennes – find that the experience can be enormously useful in terms of mental development. There are countless examples of sportsmen and women whose successes are defined by their early failures, as well as countless examples of super-talented players who have failed to develop to their full potential precisely because they have never experienced these kinds of setbacks.[3]

In the case of the former group, there is often a sense of regret. Bordeaux are deemed to have failed in letting Valbuena go, giving away a player who has since become world class. And the player, while eventually enjoying an excellent career, could have had a longer spell at the top had he followed a smoother route to get there. But I struggle to accept that Bordeaux released him simply because of his size. If Valbuena is one of the best players in the world today, I believe it is because he was forced to acknowledge his faults as a player and subsequently proved to himself that he could conquer them. In other words, he did not succeed despite his detour via the amateur leagues, but because of it.

There is a chance Valbuena could spend his entire career in France because it is only this season that he is receiving media attention from abroad that his level of talent merits[4], and by the start of next season he will be 29 years old. The conventional thinking would suggest that Valbuena is approching the end of his peak, and that at his age there would be little or no resale value. Thus the number of teams who would try to obtain Valbuena’s services is smaller than it should be given how good he is.

This viewpoint neglects one of the main advantages of players who only started playing professional football in their early or mid twenties. They received the one thing that all young players need in their late teens and early twenties – regular competitive matches – but not so much that their bodies suffer for it in the long term. Having played less high intensity football at an early age, these players are likely to have deeper careers with later peaks. It would not surprise me if Valbuena was still playing at this level in 2016. By the same token it would not surprise me if someone like, for example, Juan Mata (who has played over 350 professional and international matches before his 25th birthday, often with little or no summer break) eventually saw the physical or mental strain of such exertions reflected in a diminished level of performance.

One other attribute which I often see in players who played in the lower or amateur leagues for much of their development is that they seem to be consummate team players. They have a great understanding of the importance of sacrificing themselves for the collective and above all else they seem to have a great enthusiasm and aptitude for improving the performances of their teammates. This is best exemplified by the performances, especially at international level, of a player who I utterly adore without reservation: the most intelligent centre-forward of the 2000s, a player who has a more beneficial impact on his teammates than any other player I have ever seen, a player who I could talk about endlessly[5], and a player who at the age of 21 was playing amateur football in the German 5th division: Miroslav Klose.

Cheap, unlikely to burn out, possessing an excellent attitude and often capable of improving the level of the players you already have. It does not take a genius to see why footballers from amateur clubs are regularly sought after by professional teams.

One of the stranger joys of contributing to Le50 is the knowledge it is barely half of the story. Right now there are players in their late teens and early twenties, guys almost no-one has heard of, playing amateur football in goodness knows where. Some might have dropped out from regional academies, or been turned away by bigger clubs. Some might be playing at a lower level because it enables them to continue their university studies. Some might simply be playing for their home town (or village) teams, their bodies or minds not yet mature enough for a higher level. In a few years these guys will be stars, playing in Ligue 1 or in top divisions abroad. Some might be playing for France, or Senegal, or Tunisia, playing decisive roles in important matches. All we can do is wait for them. The future is bright, even for those playing in obscurity.


[1] When I was at university in Aix-en-Provence five years ago, I shared a couple of classes with a guy who played in the CFA (I forget who for). He excitedly told me about the high quality on display in the lower reaches, where the emphasis remains on technique rather than physical force and where 1m94 central defenders like him were still expected to be capable of passing the ball reliably.

[2] Of course that is the theory. In reality teams are still susceptible to economic problems, the biggest instance currently being that of Auxerre.

[3] I cannot recommend highly enough Ed Smith’s book ‘What Sport Tells us about Life’. The chapter ‘The Curse of Talent’ features this statement:

“…talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement. And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self improve. Super-talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues.”

The player that, to me, sums up this paradox more than any other is Hatem Ben Arfa, who was a superstar by the time he was twelve. The player so good, so talented, that he never needed to learn any different from the beautiful but flawed way of playing he had developed when he was just a child. It is only when you take in to account this aspect of the development of young sportspeople that you realise just how staggeringly exceptional people – never mind players – like Leo Messi are: the top 0.01% of the top 0.01%.

[4] This is an odd way to think about it and one that does not engender fondness on my part. Nonetheless if we are examining the level of “exposure” that players get then there is no doubt that Valbuena has flown under the radar for a very long time.

[5] I probably will write an extended piece on Klose at some point, probably in response to this slanderous piece of nonsense Paul Hayward wrote about him in 2010, an article that irritates me to this day.