Wednesday, August 31, 2011

La Liga: Week 2 Review

After the LFP (club association) and AFE (players' union) found a solution for the strike, everyone was waiting for the beginning of La Liga. The summer is leaving us, but it seems nothing really changed. Barcelona and Real Madrid show their superiority defeating their rivals easily, which is not unusual anymore, and the rest of clubs will have to fight for "the other Liga", since the superiority of the two giants is too evident.

There is a title race between two majestic teams and a different race to win "La Liga of the humans". In the race for the title, Real Madrid suffocated Zaragoza with an impressive and suffocating defensive pressure. Zaragoza were able to connect three passes in a row and the ball was always in the feet of the merengues. Once the always starving Ronaldo opened the scoreboard, a storm of goals and chances fell on Zaragoza, who never showed to be a serious opponent. Real Madrid gave a lesson of dinamic and direct football, driven by a sublime Özil and a perfect Ronaldo in the execution. The madridistas start the new season as they finished last year, crushing rivals and a hat-trick for the Portuguese.

Ronaldo and Marcelo scored vs Zaragoza

But Barcelona responded just one day later. The Catalans suffered the injuries of lots of players of their backline (Alves, Adriano, Piqué, Puyol and Maxwell) and Guardiola reinvented the system, honoring his teacher Johan Cruyff with a brave 3-4-3. The theorically risky plan worked with total perfection. Villarreal resisted for half an hour, only running behind a ball that was Barcelona's property. Once Thiago scored, Villarreal collapsed and they never seemed to be able to surprise the barcelonistas. The goals of Cesc, in the last moment of the first half, and Alexis Sánchez, when the game was retaken, ended up finishing with the shy hopes of the "Yellow Sumbarine". Messi also joined the party with two goals, which completed the score. Remarkable the Messi-Cesc partnership, flowing in attack in free roles, exchanging positions. Villarreal never found them and they paid the bill, showing the same worrying image of the Champions League games against Odense.

In "the other Liga", the eyes were on Sevilla and the new Málaga. It was a hot regional derby between eternal enemies. Sevilla had just been eliminated by Hannover from the Europa League and the visit of the new rich Málaga was a test for them. Marcelino's team responded and the first goal of Negredo, in the first minute of the game, calmed the fans, who were still disappointed by the continental failure. In the first half, Malaga was unable to stop the constant threat of Perotti and, especially, Negredo, who showed his best image. Probably, Negredo finally feels important and the confidence shown by the striker was remarkable. Málaga still tried it after the nice goal scored by Santi Cazorla, but they failed to impressed in their debut. For now, Málaga only seemed to be a collection of individualities, but never shown to be a team. They will need to improve in the collective work in order to be the alternative they are supposed to be.

Negredo makes the difference

In Mestalla, Valencia struggled to win the 3 points, but the support of the home crowd and the self-confidence of the team was enough to overcome a 1-3. The early goal scored by Soldado was soon balanced  by two goals of Racing. Valencia showed the same strengths and weaknesses of last season: attacking power and defensive errors. The Racing of Cúper, who returned to Mestalla, had the game in their hands, but the naive youth team of Santander failed to control the game. Valencia were able to lay siege on Racing's goal in the last half an hour of the game to achieve an epic victory. Soldado made his debut as captain, replacing Mata, and presented himself as volunteer to be the new idol of Valencia with an impressive and decisive hat-trick.

As it is usual in recent times, Atlético Madrid failed to win a game in their debut at home. The new hour (the game was played at 12 AM on Sunday) was unhealthy for the atléticos, who were unable to score a single goal in 90 minutes. Without Falcao and Turan, the signings for the new season, and with Forlán packing to join Inter, the home team was toothless in attack. Atlético did not play a bad game and had lots of chances, but the bad luck and Adrián Fernández, the young goalkeeper of Osasuna, avoided the home victory for a team who missed a reference in attack. Osasuna succeeded in taking a point from the Calderón.

Arrivederci Uruguayo

Another disappointing debut was the one of Bielsa's Athletic. A confused Athletic had lots of problems to create chances against a Rayo Vallecano, who left a good impression in their return to Primera. The goal scored by Iturraspe was supposed to give Athletic calm to win the game, but Rayo responded with a goal by the veteran Movilla, which allow the madrileños to scratch a point from La Catedral.

In Granada, the home team and Betis met in their return to Primera División. Granada seemed too nervous in their first Liga game after 35 years and Betis was the best team on the pitch during all the game. The ambition and bravness of the Betis' coach, Pepe Mel, was awarded by a late goal scored by Rubén Castro when the game was about to die. In Gijón, Sporting was surprised at home by the serious Real Sociedad of Montaniere. The Basques were led by Agirretxe and achieved an important away victory. Sporting failed to show a good image despite they played 20 minutes with one more player.

Betis celebrates the return to Primera with a victory

Mallorca made their fans happy with a victory against Espanyol in a game to forget. The goal scored by De Guzmán made the difference in a game where the mallorquinistas were slightly better. Espanyol, dismantled in the last 6 months, missed the reference of Osvaldo in attack and the pericos will have to improve much more, if they want to repeat the good image shown last year. In Getafe, Levante scratched a draw in the last minutes of a game of very low level. The defenses always defeated the attacking lines and the ball was always too far from the box.

La Liga started and we are back with the "bipolar" league. Del Nido and Roig, presidents of Sevilla and Villarreal respectively, made powerful complaints about the situation. They are probably right. At this point, only an accident make possible the defeat of any of the two giants, which clearly harms the competitiveness of the competition. The new TV deal discussion is on the table, but this debate requires a more deep analysis. We will do it soon.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The day Arsène Wenger's project collapsed

The 8-2 defeat of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal in Old Trafford is one of these historical results which have consequences and, probably, the most evident is the death of a football project.  Arsène Wenger has taken Arsenal to glorious moments during the past 16 years and the Gunners got prestige and admiration, but the decisions taken in the last years started to act like a slow death poison. Until August 28th 2011, a date that will not be easy to forget for the football fans. The day Old Trafford was The Theater of Nightmares for Arsenal, the day of no return.

When Arsène Wenger got Arsenal's head coach position back in September 1996, he was an unknown coach in England and Europe in general. He did not have an easy task in front of him, since he had to put some order in a club that was living in instability after the George Graham years and the interregnum of Bruce Rioch. After a very good debut season (1996-1997), taking Arsenal to the third position, only missing the UEFA Champions League spots for goal difference, Wenger added players like the French Nicolas Anelka and Emmanuel Petit, as well as the Dutch winger Marc Overmars, who joined the also young midfielder Patrick Vieira, who had signed the previous summer, and the "old guard" of Arsenal formed by players like Ian Wright, Adams, Dixon, Winterburn, Keown and Bould.

In this 2nd season (1997-1998), Arsenal overcame a 12 point gap to win the Premier League 2 weeks before the end. The Gunners also won the FA Cup this season defeating Newscastle in Wembley. In his second year, Wenger became the first foreign coach to win the English league and gave Arsenal their second double in history.

Despite the signings of Ljunberg in 1998, Thierry Henry in 1999 and Robert Pires and Wiltord a year later, Arsenal could not repeat these successful moments during a 3 year period, despite they were close several times. In the 1998-1999 season, Arsenal topped the league during certain moments of the season, but ended up losing it by a single point against Manchester United, who completed their historical Treble. The following 2 Premier League seasons only had an owner, Manchester United, but Arsenal still were their main rival in the competition. During this period, Arsenal's main failures happened in the UEFA Champions League, where the Gunners failed to perform. But these failures were balanced by an UEFA Cup final in the year 2000, lost against Galatasaray in the penalties, and a FA Cup final in 2001, lost against Liverpool. Arsenal failed to win titles, but the project was growing and the future looked brilliant.

The 2001-2002 season was historical. Arsène Wenger's project reached its peak. Despite the departure of important players like Anelka, Petit or Overmars, who had been essential in the Double of 1998, the squad found the solidness Wenger had been working on for years. Thierry Henry finally adapted to become a striker that was going to mark an era and players like Pires or Ljunberg reached their best moments of their careers. Sol Campbell also joined Arsenal in a very polemic signing, since he was a symbol of their eternal rivals, Tottenham Hotspurs. Arsenal broke a tight run for the title with a 13 game winning-streak to open a definitive 7 point gap on the runner-ups Liverpool. But it was not enough, Arsenal also won their 8th FA Cup, defeating  Chelsea to win another Double.

The following year (2002-2003), Arsenal seemed to be able to retain the Premiership crown, but the team ended up losing an 8 point gap to give Manchester United the title. Despite this disappointing defeat, the triumph in the FA Cup against Southampton, winning this title for 2nd time in a row, something that had not happened in 20 years.

The 2003-2004 season will always be recalled as the year of "The Invincibles". Arsenal won the Premier League without a single loss in the entire season, something that only Preston North End had achieved in the 1888-1889... in a very different era of football. In the summer of 2002, Arsène Wenger had announced that his team was able to do it. He just missed his prediction one year.

In the 2004-2005 season, Arsenal was unable to retain the title, which was won by a record-breaking Chelsea, managed by Jose Mourinho, but they could extend their unbeaten run up to 49 games, an all time English league record, which will be there to be beaten for decades. Consolation again happened in the FA Cup final, where Arsenal defeated Manchester United in the penalties. At this point, no one would have thought this title would be the last crown for Wenger in Arsenal.

Probably symbolic, but a turning point was the transfer of Patrick Vieira to Juventus in the summer 2005. Wenger had succeed at retaining the stars of the team until this point. Offers from big clubs of England and Europe were a constant every summer, attracted by the great talent of the Gunners. Wenger finally opened the door to Vieira, knowing that the promising Cesc was ready to fill the space left by the French icon. The domestic season was poor though, since Arsenal failed to challenge for any title, putting all the efforts in the UEFA Champions League. Definitely, Europe was an obsession for this team, since the Gunners had failed to show in Europe what they had done in England. Arsenal did a great campaign in the Champions League, but was defeated by Ronaldinho's Barcelona in Paris. With players like Henry, Pires or Ljunberg reaching their veteran years, the missed chance was painful for a team that had made history for Arsenal.

The 2006-2007 season was transitional, the first one at the Emirates. Very important players like Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Lauren and Ljunberg left the club. Wenger was able to convince Thierry Henry to stay, but the injuries and the start of his decline did not allow the idol and captain to shine as he had done until then. Henry moved to Barcelona in 2007 and the season was poor.

Wenger had put all the faith in a new generation of players to return to the good old days. Wenger refused to compete in the market and focused all the efforts in bringing young talents and promote players from Arsenal's youth teams. The idea was to emulate the success of his arrival, when he was able to raise young talents to form a historical team. But Wenger failed to emulate the results. Why?

It is always difficult to find a particular reason. During the last years, Arsenal has been a brilliant team, with a very attacking minded and entertaining philosophy. The team always managed to start the season showing a good level of football, but failed to compete in the key moments of the season. These young squads collapsed in the last part of the season, when the titles are decided. During this period, the Gunners have been waiting for this young team to peak, but it has been impossible.

It was impossible because Arsenal has been unable to retain their talent. Players like Flamini, Hleb, Adebayor or Touré left the club when they were reaching the peak moment of their careers, the age of a player to become important. Wenger has been unable to replace these players properly. Unlike the first part of the last decade, when Wenger was able to keep the core of the team, the important players were leaving the club. Sometimes these players left the club looking for better contracts and faster success. In other cases, Arsenal agreed the transfers. Arsenal has not reinvested in established players, aside the cases of Arshavin or Rosicky, who had failed to meet with the expectations raised on them.

In one way or another, Arsenal fell in a vicious circle. The Gunners have been waiting for the team to grow up, but the transfers made it impossible. The team always was too young and unexperienced to compete for higher goals. The very few additions in the market were also very young talents, like Nasri, or players of a certain level, like the mentioned Arshavin or Rosicky, who still are too far to make people forget the glorious team of the early 2000s. This "eternal" young and promising team have been able to perform good seasons, but has never been considered mature enough to fight for big titles. Probably, these good seasons despite the departures have made the club fall in self-complacency, because the "near future" was always promising. The "next season" was always the goal to reach, but the seasons pass and Arsenal was where they were in the year 2007... only 4 years later.

This feeling ended up entering in the locker room. The stars of the team, the players who were supposed to lead Arsenal in the years to follow feel that they can not wait for the whole squad to grow, especially if the talent keeps leaving the club. This summer Cesc Fàbregas and Nasri could not wait anymore and did not listen to Wenger anymore, leaving Arsenal to join present projects like Barcelona's or Manchester City's. Cesc and Nasri just did what Touré, Adebayor, Flamini or Hleb had done before.

The 8-2 does not explain the difference between Manchester United and Arsenal. The young Arsenal is not such a bad team, but this result shows that it is a team that has totally lost their confidence in Wenger. At this point, no one in the team believes in his manager to build a team. The so-wished "near future" looks too far... or out of reach. When the players of Arsenal stepped on the grass of Old Trafford, they felt clearly inferior, since the very first moment. The few veterans did not have the personality to carry with the youth on their shoulders and the young players were terrified, feeling like toys in the hands of an adult team like Manchester United. The 8-2 can only be explained in one way: the players of Arsenal do not trust Wenger anymore.

At this point, I do not know if Wenger will be sacked soon or if he will finish the season. I do not even know if this project can go further. But, in my opinion, Arsenal is closed in a vicious circle of an eternal unreachable promise, where no one sees an escape. Wenger has probably been too stubborn in his methods, which were successful while he was able to mix his great eye for young talent with the required experience. But the current team seems a caricature of the initial idea of Wenger when he joined Arsenal. In his favor, his good taste for football, his will to entertain the fans beyond the pure results. But the project is dead and Arsenal needs a shake. Arsenal's history is big before Wenger and will be big after him, just as it was with him. Wenger is a zombie and his team are walking dead players. It may happen tomorrow or in one year, but the game is over for the French coach. August 28th 2011 is the day Arsène Wenger's project collapsed.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Premier League 2011/2012 season by the fans

There is no need to say that the English Premier League is the most important, prestigious and popular league of the World in this moment. The Premier League enjoys some of the richest clubs of the World and, as a consequence, the level of competitiveness is huge. If there is an unpredictable league at this point, it has to be the Premier League.

Manchester United defends the title. Sir Alex Ferguson extended his already huge collection of titles with another title last year. It was the last year of legendary players like Edwin Van der Sar, Phil Neville and, especially, Paul Scholes, being all of them part of the history of the Red Devils. Now they added important players like Phil Jones, David De Gea or Ashley Young to an already poweful team. Chelsea FC has been and will probably be the main rival of the Mancunians. The club of London starts a new project based on the signing of the young but prestigious Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas. The core of the team is practically the same of the veteran team that ended up being the runner-up in the previous season, along with young players like the star signings Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku, among other young additions that set the base of the future Chelsea. The rising power can only be Manchester City, who will definitely present a super-team to fight for every single title they are in. Another summer and Manchester City did not hesitate to keep spending their infinite budget and signed Kun Agüero in one of the most important transfers of the season. There are no excuses for the team of Roberto Mancini.

Aside the 3 main favorites on paper, it is impossible to forget Arsene Wenger's Arsenal. The departure of their leader and captain Cesc Fàbregas and the possible exit of Samir Nasri makes the challenge more difficult than ever. Aside the usual arrival of young players to reinforce the squad, Arsenal can still make their last movements before the end of August. The collection of important favorites is closed by Liverpool FC. The club of Anfield want to finish the transition from the Rafa Benítez era to become a power again. Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, José Enrique and Stewart Downing join Luis Suárez and Andy Carroll in this new project led by the legend Kenny Daglish.

In order to help us analyze the new season, we count on the help of several members of the prestigious forum who will give us their opinion:

What do you expect from your club for the Premier League season that started a few weeks ago?

Gabriel "Vidic15" (Manchester United FC) - Judging by the first 3 games I can expect youth, pace, one touch football of the highest order and some. The transition to the last Fergie team is in its final stages and it really is exciting to watch. He is a remarkable man. There will be tough times, no doubt. Especially for the new goalkeeper De Gea, impossible to expect a 20 year old lad who is still developing to fit in seamlessly into a club like United and English football. Doesn't even speak English yet but he should be ok long term. Think it was positive for him to make a mistake or two in games the team still ended up winning.

Think the 0-2 to 3-2 turnaround vs Man City will sum up our season. We've got great depth in every position other than central midfield and the best manager in the business. It says it all that these young players have already been part of a trophy success by coming back from a difficult position. A new generation of last minute winning games, winning games you don't deserve to win etc

It's extraordinary really, Ferguson is into his 25th year of doing this. Best manager ever.

CityBlue (Manchester City FC) - With the talent we have brought to our club, I expect us to win the title, there are no excuses.

Alec Cobas (Chelsea FC) -  Enter the Champions League. Nothing more.

Zhuge Liang (Arsenal FC) - Actually I don’t really have high expectation of how far Arsenal can go this season. After the departure of our two most important players, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Wenger have two big tasks in front of him : First, to qualify for CL group stage, which is successful. Second, to reorganize and reinforce his team to add depth and quality that lost. The later one looks easy, but in reality Arsenal always keep their transfer expense low no matter what. Right now, the area that urgently needs strengthening is our defensive area, especially the left flank since both our main LB and his back-up are still young players and one is currently injured. So far we have filled Nasri’s usual role with Gervinho, who is natural wing attacker and it turns out good. For Cesc, I think for time being , it’ll be rotated between Ramsey and Rosicky, while Wilshere still plays his usual 'Iniesta' role in current formation.

So I think the best Arsenal can achieve for this new season is 4th position. It’s the most realistic target considering our team state and our injury records.If we lucky maybe we can try to get a shot at Carling Cup or FA Cup again, we got quite promising youngsters to play there.

Ryfa (Liverpool FC) - As a Liverpool fan, my minimum expectations for this season is finishing within the top 4. It will be difficult as we'll be challenging Arsenal and Spurs for that position but we've spent a decent amount of money in the transfer window, buying the likes of Enrique, Downing Henderson and Adam. Not world class players but they all fill a hole in the squad. Liverpool have needed a reliable leftback and decent winger for years and finally we've got them. I expect them all (except Henderson) to make a mark this season. With Dalglish as our manager, who has shown some excellent tactical nous, his great man management skills and the excellent Luis Suarez, Liverpool should have enough to consolidate 4th spot.

Would also like/expect Liverpool to win a domestic cup. It will be 6 years without a trophy for Liverpool if we don't and i believe that will be the longest we've gone without winning one for over 40 years. Liverpool have no European football which will be an advantage over the other top 5 clubs, and we also have pretty big squad to utilise so can't see why winning a trophy isn't possible.

Who do you consider is the main favorite to win the title?

Gabriel "Vidic15" (Manchester United FC) - United for the league. Flawless home record for many years now which has been the bedrock of all their title challenges, as proven by last season when we were horrific away from home but were saved by 18 wins at home out of 19. We surely won't be that bad again away and I expect us to keep up a similar home record so that is pushing the 90 point barrier which will be enough to win the league this season.

Chelsea and City to follow behind United, in no particular order. Have to admit Chelsea will go serioulsy close if they do land Modric, the best central midfielder in Europe outside of the Barca bunch. Fantastic talent.

Alec Cobas (Chelsea FC) -Manchester United

CityBlue (Manchester City FC) - The main favorites for the title I think are Man City and Chelsea (if they buy Modric, if not than Man Utd.).

Zhuge Liang (Arsenal FC) - Manchester United. It’s simply because they have the biggest mentality to win things. The morale is sky high and their players have very good link and understanding to each others which is important.

Ryfa (Liverpool FC) - Manchester City, are my outright favourites. Great squad with no obvious weaknesses and they've finally got a winning mentality which is the most important thing. Mancini is often accused of being negative but City have played some great attacking football in the two games played so far. Remains to be seen if this is just fluke.

Manchester United will also be up there who you can never right them off, especially with Ferguson as manager.

Among the favorites, who do you consider is going to struggle or fail?

Gabriel "Vidic15" (Manchester United FC) - Arsenal aren't really favourites anymore but my god what a mess they are. And it's all Wenger's fault.

He has known for months that both Cesc and Nasri were adamant they would leave, yet he kept ignoring the situation until the start of the season leaving Arsenal in serious disarray as they get more and more injuries.... If he had just sold the players when they made it clear they wanted to leave they would have had plenty of time to sign new players and no doubt be more prepared for this injury crisis they are suffering.

The Cesc and Nasri stubborness also led to them missing out on a cut price Mata who would have been a excellent Nasri replacement. He now will ply his trade just a short train ride away over in West London instead. Classic Wenger.

He should be sacked. Crazy that it's come to that, but that is how much he has regressed.

Alec Cobas (Chelsea FC) - Chelsea and Arsenal. I don't consider Liverpool as favorites.

CityBlue (Manchester City FC) - I think United is going to fail because they still haven't bought a proper playmaker, the luck from last year is going to run out.

Zhuge Liang (Arsenal FC) - I think all top clubs in Premiership try their best to improve themselves. For Arsenal, I don’t think we are title contender this season. We don’t have enough depth or quality to go all the way going through all the competitions. I think the title race will be between Man Utd and Chelsea again with Man City comes close.

Ryfa (Liverpool FC) - Chelsea over the past few years have been constant challengers for the title. Provided that their current squad remains as it is and Fernando Torres continues to struggle, i feel they willll struggle to match City and Utd's quality. Lampard is aging and if he's not chipping in with the goals from midfield, there is no one that can fill in for him. They are however linked to Modric and Mata and if they pull of those two transfers, it will be a three way battle for the title.

I'd normally mention Arsenal amongst the title favourites but i think currently they're in a hole so deep that even with a few new buys, they won't be capable of challenging for the title. Their lack of a winning mentality plus the need for the squad to gel in Cesc's departure means that they will need time to get back to the highest level.

About the European competitions, who is your favorite to win the UEFA Champions League?

Gabriel "Vidic15" (Manchester United FC) - Barcelona. Not much else to say really. Just to confirm further they are an era defining team by being the first team to retain the CL since that amazing AC Milan team of 20 odd years ago.

Alec Cobas (Chelsea FC) - Barcelona

CityBlue (Manchester City FC) - Barcelona will be big favorite for CL, but i can see City maybe challenging them?

Zhuge Liang (Arsenal FC) - Other than Barcelona, I see no other club has good chance winning it. It will be either Man Utd or Real Madrid as Barcelona’s opponent in this season CL final.

Ryfa (Liverpool FC) - Three favourites in my opinion, Barca, Real Madrid and City with Barca having the edge.

No team since the CL began has retained the CL so history doesn't favour Barca here but then again this is a legendary Barca team, and if any team can retain the CL it will be Barca.

Real Madrid with Mourinho at the helm will always be a massive threat. He's the man that can get under the skin of Barca (the ultimate favourites for the competition) and has done so in the past. He has a quality team under him, one that will have another year to gel, improve, become even more Mourinho-nised. Ultimately though, the only team capable of stopping Real Madrid is Barca. Somehow avoid Barca during the CL and they can win the CL.

Manchester City are the wildcard. They've never played in the CL, they've got Mancini as a manager who got sacked by Inter for not succeeding in the CL so really not much should be expected of them. But it also can't be ignored they've got a pretty brilliant squad. Quality GK, solid defence (not world class though), strong midfield and a harem of world class strikers. On paper, they're strong enough to challenge for the CL. In reality though, they have too much going against them.

And your favorites for La Liga and the Serie A?

Gabriel "Vidic15" (Manchester United FC) - Barcelona are clear favourites for the Primera, the best team in the world have added Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, both are hard working, explosive youngsters who will add much quality to your first XI and squad. Madrid seriously missed out on Aguero and also failed to strengthen what I consider a seriously average defense (Pepe, Ramos).

Oh and Mourinho is a complete arsehole by the way.

Don't watch Serie A as much as I used to but Inter's decline since winning the CL is something I couldn't avoid. Eto'o gone, Sneijder likely to go, Maicon, Lucio and Samuel all declining/legs going.

All the top teams look poor there at the moment, says a lot when the serie a winners Ac Milan get beaten with such comfort by the 5th placed team in England Spurs in the cl last season.

Gonna tip Roma off purely for their new project with Luis Enrique. They've bought well this summer(Lamela, Osvaldo, Stekelenburg, Bojan etc) No reason why they can't win the scudetto, even for a casual watcher like me it's pretty clear there is no stand out team at the moment and the league is only now gonna really the pain of the Calciopoli. Though if other clubs get foreign investment like Roma, that'll change quickly.

Alec Cobas (Chelsea FC) - Barcelona and Milan

CityBlue (Manchester City FC) - In La Liga, Barça is going to be champions, and in Seria A, I would say AC Milan.

Zhuge Liang (Arsenal FC) - I think Barcelona still has too much quality to continue their domination in La Liga. However, Mourinho will try his best to fix his record in La Liga for sure. As much as I hate him, I have to admit Mourinho is borned a winner. He will try his best to find a way to defeat Barcelona. Real Madrid didn’t sign any well-known big star player this season. But I see he has made some positive adjustments like making Benzema his primary striker. The only concerns for Barcelona is their backline in case there’s injury. Mascherano seems to be more active as defensive back-up rather than his natural position.

For Serie A, I think Milan still has biggest chance to win the title followed closely by Inter.

Ryfa (Liverpool FC) - There are only ever two favourites for La Liga, Barca and Real Madrid.

Barca will naturally be favourites although it must be said Real Madrid are now closing the gap. I expect Real Madrid to actually put a challenge in and make the title race last until May. Barca will ultimately win though.

Malaga have spent a quite a bit this summer, but they're still a while off from challenging. Atletico, are Atletico. Valencia, no chance now they've sold Mata.

Serie A, I admit to not really watching much of or even keeping up with the latest news from that league. Milan won it last season, Inter for the last half a decade have been challenging and winning the league, so i'll just sit on the fence and say it will be between the two of them.

All these interviews were done during last week (before the games of this weekend). I would like to thank them for their contribution and I hope to see them here more times in the future.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Rayo Vallecano: Working-class pride

Says the legend that near Magerit (the name of Madrid in old Spanish referring to the Arabic name of the old citadel, Medina Magrit), there was a valley owned by an Arab rich man called Kas. When the Christians conquered the village, the Christians forced him to run away and called the place Valle del Kas (Valley of Kas). With the time, the evolution of the name made people call the village Vallekas and, later on, Vallecas, to adequate the name to the Spanish good forms... this is a legend and has zero scientific support, but do not let the reality spoil a good story.

Vallecas was an independent village until the 1950s, when the government decided to merge the village with Madrid. Since the 50s, Vallecas started to host people from different cities of Spain, who were escaping from the poverty of their towns, to work in the capital of Spain. Vallecas was a kind of independent village inside Madrid, with humble low houses and disordered streets. In the 80s, drugs and degradation hit the village, but from the 90s to nowadays, the social work in the area recovered the place. In these days, despite the old village of Vallecas is divided in two districts Villa de Vallecas and Puente de Vallecas of nearly 240,000 inhabitants, Vallecas still keep a very particular personality. A village proud of their working-class origins and their independence from Madrid. Their inhabitants are not madrileños, but vallecanos.

Old Vallecas unde the snow

In order to find the origins of football in Madrid, you have to go back to the end of the 19th century, when groups of youngsters started to create football teams, from their student residencies. Lots of clubs appeared (and disappeared) in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, not only in Madrid, but also in the suburbs. In 1914, the first club of Vallecas, the Numantino was founded. In 1924, from the ashes of Numantino, a new club in Vallecas appeared: the Agrupación Deportiva El Rayo. The uniform of the club was white shirt and pants and black socks.

In the 30s, in the years of the II República, Rayo joined the Football Worker Federation, along with other clubs of Vallecas, which was out of the professional leagues. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1939, Rayo finally joined the Spanish FA through the Center Federation. In those years, the president Miguel Rodríguez Alzola started to build their first real stadium, El Rodival. Year by year, the club only grew, from regional divisions to higher cathegories. In 1947, they changed their name to the current one: Agrupación Deportiva Rayo Vallecano. Only one year later, the club reached Tercera División and reached an agreement with Atlético de Madrid to be their feeder team, due to the good relationship among the managers of both clubs.

As an anecdote, we have to mention the 1949/1950 season, when Rayo changed their white shirt for the current uniform with a red diagonal strip crossing their chest. River Plate visited the city to play a friendly against Real Madrid. The managers of Rayo visited the Argentinians, legends back then, to honor them and the humble club let them their stadium to train, where both clubs played an informal game. Some days later, a box from Argentina was received in Vallecas. The box was full of River shirts. Even though, the shirts had the kid size, the club adopted the River shirt as own. Despite Atlético Madrid wanted them to wear their shirt, Rayo kept their new shirt and never changed it, since the agreement with the colchoneros only lasted one year.

River Plate's shirt in the 1950s

During the 50s and the 60s, the club enjoyed a phenomenal growth. Rayo built a new stadium and promoted to Segunda División, where they were during a short period. But in the 1970s, Rayo Vallecano finally found a stable place in the division, the club grew with the village and the promotion to Primera División was not a dream. They did it in 1977 and the 1977/1978 season was the first one of the club in Primera, where they were during 3 years. It was the times of Fernando Morena, Uceda, Felines, Tanco, Rial or Landáburu.

During the 80s, Rayo Vallecano suffered the bad times of the village and the team lived in Segunda B and Segunda for some years until 1989, when the legend Felines, now as coach, took the team to Primera División again. It was a shorter stage, only one year, and the crisis defeated them. The newly created sport corporations allowed the businessman Ruiz-Mateos to buy the club. Ironically, the club of the working-class was owned by a rich businessman and member of the radical and elitist Opus Dei, who had been prosecuted for corrupt actions in the 80s. Ruiz Mateos used the club as platform, for his own personal interest, but he also signed some important players in the early 90s, like the Austrian striker Polster or the Mexican legend Hugo Sánchez, who enjoyed there some of their last years in football. The club went back to Primera División in those years for another short period.

The golden era was with the change of century. Rayo Vallecano was able to stay 4 years in Primera División and they got a fair play licence by UEFA to play their UEFA Cup competition in the 1999/2000 season. Surprisingly, Rayo Vallecano reached the quarter finals and they defeated teams like Lokomotiv or Girondins Bordeux in their way. Only Alaves, who played the final against Liverpool later, were able to stop them.

In the year 2001, the Estadio Nuevo Vallecas (built in the 70s) changed its name for Estadio Teresa Rivero (the name of Ruiz Mateos' wife), which shows the ego of the family. In 2003, the club returned to Segunda División. The rest of the decade were dark years for the club. Rayo Vallecano had relegations and promotions in low cathegories. If it was not enough, the club was just another victim of the economic crisis, which also hit the owner's family businesses, including Rayo.

But Rayo and Vallecas are a unique case. The club stopped playing the players' salaries, but the fans and the players, most of them very humble, joined in a heroic fight. While the owner of the club was gone, as a coward, not paying anybody's wages, the fans supported the players and the players backed the fans. The crisis was everywhere, unemployment and unpaid salaries were suffocating the whole village, fans and players, but they were able to perform a fantastic season that has bringing them back to Primera División again in an epic campaign.

But the heroism of Rayo Vallecano goes beyond. The women squad have won the last 3 Ligas and 1 Copa de la Reina in the last 4 years. If the men struggled to get paid, the women team were not less, but still are able to make history and definitely are the best women football team of Madrid ever.

This is where the circle closes: Vallecas is Vallekas again. Vallekas, as the alternative and leftist movements like to spell the name of the village. Next year, in the same league of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, there will be a club of a district of Madrid that was once a village of workers, a club whose players are workers of football, who still suffer from the excess of this kind of greedy and egocentric businessmen who have destroyed our economy. Probably, they will return to Segunda División soon but, until then, the flag of the working-class will travel all around Spain, showing the pride of the humble people. Viva el Rayo Vallekano, joder!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Seville owed it to football

Seville is a wonderful city located in the South of Spain, in Andalusia, with a metropolitan area of 1,500,000 inhabitants. Seville is well known for their cultural patrimony and, when I refer to patrimony, I go beyond the monuments, which are gorgeous, like the Giralda or the Torre del Oro, which show the Arabic heritage of Spain, or the Cathedral, one of the most important examples of Gothic art in the whole World. When you refer about Seville, you also smell the intangible patrimony, in the music, being one of the main centers of Flamenco music, or the particular personality of their neighborhoods or the soul of their Semana Santa or Feria de Abril. Seville is one of these unique cities in the World. At the same time, Seville also give the World one of the most beautiful and hot football derbies: Sevilla Fútbol Club vs Real Betis Balompié. This derby divides the city in two. Not just the city, but also groups of friends or even entire families.

As it happened in most of the cities of Spain, football was introduced in Seville by the important British colony. The first real football club of the city was Sevilla FC, founded in the year 1905. In a famous speech, José Luis Gallegos, one of the founders of the club, said: "Every man of any social level, religious or political ideas will find their home here". Just a couple of years later, in 1907 (although they were not registered until 1909), a new club was formed in the city, Sevilla Balompié, founded by students of the Universidad Politécnica de Sevilla. The name of Balompié (football in Spanish) was intentional in order to avoid the English term. This club wore blue and white colors. This club won the first Copa of Sevilla (it is important to know that, during that time, La Liga did not exist and most of the tournaments were local or regional) in 1910 and they kept the champion condition until 1913.

But if there was an important event to understand the beginning of the rivalry, we have to go back to the year 1909. During that year, an internal social crisis in Sevilla FC had as a principal consequence that some of the managers of the club decided to leave in order to create a new club: Betis Football Club, who got the Real (royal) title by the King Alfonso XIII in 1914, when they also merged with Sevilla Balompié to found Real Betis Balompié.

Betis in their early years
The cause of the rupture that led to the creation of Betis FC was that a part of the managers of Sevilla FC wanted to sign a "worker". Since the club did not accept that "simple workers" joined the club, the part of the board who did not accept the decision left to found Betis FC. In order to understand this situation, it is important to know that, in Spain, football was a game of elites and university students, since the working-class did not have much time nor economic resources to create clubs or play that often. The social fracture of the Spain of the beginning of the 20th century was very important.

This anecdote is important to understand some of the cliches that still exist nowadays: Sevilla FC is a club of the elites (señoritos) and Betis is the club of the workers. In order to keep the cliche alive, it was also important to know that Sevilla had their social headquarters in the Sierpes street, one of the most rich of the city, and most of their initial fans belonged to this zone of the city, while Betis raised their fan base in the suburbs and working-class areas. Nowadays, this simplistic limits does not exist anymore and the growth of the middle-class in the city, the fans belong to any social class or economic level. Ironically, the large ultra groups of these clubs have opposite political tendencies... Sevilla FC having left radicals (Biris) and Betis having pro-fascist supporters (Supporters Gol Sur).

1915 was the first year Sevilla and Betis faced each other in a local cup. Sevilla won 4-3, but the game was extremely tense, with aggressive attitudes from both sides, in the pitch and in the stands, and the referee was forced to stop the game before the 90 minutes. In the same 1915, the new Federacion Sur created the Copa de Andalucia, which gathered the most important clubs of Andalucia, including clubs like Recreativo de Huelva, Español de Cadiz, Cordoba, Malaga or Real Jaen. This competition was important to have access to play the only national tournament of that era, the Copa del Rey, against the champions of other regional tournaments. Sevilla won 16 out the 23 editions played until the tournament disappeared.

First Sevilla FC badge
In 1928, La Liga was created, but none of the two clubs of Seville were in the Primera División, since it was closed for the all the Copa champions until then. The first derby in La Liga was in Segunda División in Nervión and Betis won away, although Sevilla ended up winning the title. The promotion to Primera División was not automatic and Sevilla lost the promotion game against Racing Santander.

The great development of these two clubs happened in the 1930s. Betis was the first team of Andalusia to reach a Copa final (1931), even being in Segunda División, although they lost against Athletic Club (3-1). Betis also was the first team of Andalusia to win the promotion, after they won the Segunda División in 1932. Sevilla did it in 1934. The lawyer Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán had become the president of Sevilla FC in 1932 and is an icon, since his presidency was the most golden era of Sevilla until recent times. His administration was marked by the trust in the local youth and the healthy economy of the club, aside the triumphs.

But if there is a historical moment for Betis, it can only be the Liga of 1935. Patrick O'Connell, an Irish man who had been Manchester United captain and with a long career as coach in Spain, drove the club to their biggest achievement ever. It was April, during the famous Feria of the city, after their victory in Santader (0-5). Obviously, without TVs back then, the result was announced in blackboards in the Feria, the city festival, and half of the city was a party.

Real Betis after winning their Liga

The economic problems of Betis forced the club to sell several players to richer clubs and the coach O'Connell also decided to leave the club to join FC Barcelona. The club could not repeat the title. Meanwhile, in the other side of the city, Sevilla was struggling and visited the Segunda División again. But if there was a heartbreaking moment, it had to be the Spanish Civil War, a human tragedy that was the rehearsal of the World War 2 that was about to start too.

The Civil War had tragic consequences for Betis. In the first Liga after the war, the economic problems of the club took the team to Segunda División and, later on, in 1947, to Tercera. On the other hand, Sevilla FC were able to survive to the war in a much healthier way and lived their best era. In 1940, the club of Sánchez-Pizjuán won their first important title, the Copa, and ended up as runner-ups in La Liga won by Atlético Madrid. During this decade, Sevilla was one of the most important teams in the league and, after another 2nd position in 1943, the team of Nervión won La Liga in 1946. The team of Ramón Encinas joined historical players like Araujo, Campanal, López, Herrera and, especially, Juan Arza. This magnificent striker played for Sevilla during 15 years, scoring 182 goals in 349 games, still being their top scorer in history and the second player with more games in the first team.

The 50s was a decade of lights or darkness, depending on which part of the city you were in. Sevilla still kept their position as power of La Liga, being the best moments under the direction of Helenio Herrera from 1953 to 1957. The Argentinian coach had started to build his reputation with the 2 Ligas he gave Atlético Madrid at the beginning of the decade and took the Sevilla to the high zone of the standings year by year. In 1957, Sevilla ended up as runner-ups, only behind the mythical Real Madrid of the late 50s, which allowed them to play the recently created European Cup. In this competition, they fell in the quarter finals against the same Real Madrid.

Juan Arza

In this decade, Real Betis was surviving to the lower divisions of the Spanish football, but these years were very important of the club to create a sense of pride. It is in these times when the famous slogan "Viva er Beti manque pierda!" ("Viva Betis, despite they lost" in a very closed Andalusian accent). And it was for real, it was a dark time for Betis in terms of achievements, but the fans packed the stadium in every game and the "green wave" was famous in all Spain. Being a bético was a matter of pride in the sevillista city.

The 60s until the mid 70s were times of up and downs for both clubs. Sevilla, who had been a power in Spain during 2 decades, paid the consequence of the construction of their new stadium (the current one), designed by the same architect of the Santiago Bernabéu coliseum, Manuel Muñoz. The club was forced to sell their stars to the big clubs of Spain. The club ended up in Segunda División and the lack of stability was evident in these decades. Betis were able to return to Primera División in the year 1958, defeating Sevilla in their come back, and enjoyed good moments in the early 60s, even reaching the 3rd position in 1963, which gave them the right to play the Fairs' Cup. These were the years of Benito Villamarín, the man who was able to take the club from Tercera to Primera. But, the departure of the president Villamarín in 1965 led to an institutional crisis and a new relegation.

In the late 70s, with the arrival of democracy of Spain, also a new time was opened for both clubs. Real Betis were able to win their first important title since 1935, the Copa del Rey of the democracy (before it was called Copa del Generalisimo, to honor the dictator Francisco Franco) in 1977 against Athletic Club in the Vicente Calderón. 21 penalties had to be kicked to decide the final (see video attached). This is one of the most relevant moments in the history of Betis and some of their most legendary players belong to this team: Esnaola, Cardeñosa or Biosca. Despite they got relegated to Segunda División in 1978, the same year they played the Cup Winners' Cup, they returned soon based on players like Rafael Gordillo or Poli Rincón, who are icons of the club nowadays. The club made some fantastic campaigns, playing the UEFA Cup twice (1982 and 1984) and being the runner-ups of the fail tournament Copa de la Liga in 1986. But these years were not worse for Sevilla FC, who also played in Europe several times during the 80s, enjoying important players like Paco Buyo, Francisco, Toni Polster, Dasayev or Bengoechea. For the first time in a very long time, both clubs of the city could face each other in a similar situation and the consequence was that the derbies were hotter than ever, like the Copa clash of 1983 that ended up with punches.

Betis' Copa del Rey 1977

In the 1990s, both clubs became corporations because of the new sports law. Manuel Ruiz de Lopera bought the majority of the shares of Betis, taking the club from Segunda, where they had fell in 1991, in the year 1994. Lopera did very important investments in the club, who were able to sign stars like Denilson, Finidi or Alfonso. These team played a Copa final in 1997 against Bobby Robson's Barcelona, losing 3-2 in the extra time. In the same period, Sevilla had the opposite direction. The signing of Bilardo was important to return to Europe and they shocked the whole World with the signing of Diego Armando Maradona for the 1992/1993 season, right after the ban the legendary player suffered due to his problems with drugs. But aside the anecdote, since Maradona did absolutely nothing in Sevilla, it is important to highlight that players like Simeone, Zamorano or Suker started to build their prestige there and homegrown idols like Reyes and Jose Mari gave their first steps in the first team. But the club paid the excessive signings and ended up in Segunda División at the end of the decade, along with Betis, who were also unable to keep the cathegory.

The new century brought both clubs back to Primera División. Lopera was able to build an important Real Betis once more. In 2004, the club earned their place in the UEFA Cup very near the Champions League spots. The following year was a historical one: the club won the Copa del Rey in 2005, in the Calderón, defeating Osasuna in the final (2-1), and ended up 4th in La Liga, which gave them the right to play the Champions League, being the first club of Andalusia to play under the new format.

Sevilla's path was more slow, but also more solid. The first years of the decade were not very good, but the good work in the youth academy, the solid economic management of José Maria del Nido and the eye of Monchi in the market allowed them to build a team that had a constant growth. In the years 2004 and 2005, Sevilla played the UEFA Cup after several years without visiting Europe, but also had solid seasons in La Liga. In 2006, Sevilla reached the top. Juande Ramos replaced Joaquin Caparrós and took the club to win their first European title. It was the historical UEFA Cup triumph against Middlesbrough by winning 4-0 in Eindhoven (see video attached). But, if this was not enough, they repeated the following year, winning their 2nd UEFA Cup against Espanyol in Glasgow in the penalties. Sevilla had kept a healthy economy after the problems of the 90s and the transfer of players like Jose A. Reyes, Julio Baptista or Sergio Ramos allowed them to fund the construction of a super-team, with players like Daniel Alves, Luis Fabiano, Frederic Kanoute, Enzo Maresca or Andrés Palop, always well escorted by the home talents, Jesus Navas or Antonio Puerta. This team also defeated Ronaldinho's Barcelona in 2006 in the European Supercup to add another continental title and won a Copa in 2007 to achieve a historical Doblete (victory over Getafe, 1-0) in the Bernabéu.

Sevilla's UEFA Cup 2007
These decade will also be recall for some sad episodes in the derbies, which crossed the line from hot to violent, especially in the stands. As a consequence, both clubs have seen their stadiums closed and more than one fan or employee has ended up in the hospital in very sad events.

In the last part of the last decade, Betis has been involved in lots of problems, due to the poor (if not corrupt) management of the owner Lopera, which took the club to be under administration and meeting of creditors. The club got relegated and spent two seasons in Segunda División until their return last year. On the other hand, Sevilla has remained on top, winning the Copa in 2009 again.

This season we will enjoy the Sevillian derbies again, probably one of the most beautiful games you can watch in the whole World. Seville owed it to football.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The rise and rise of Villarreal CF

Not so long ago, Villarreal CF was just one more club of a small town of Spain, which used to fight for humble goals in non-professional divisions. Today, this club is in the doors of the new edition of the UEFA Champions League and will fight to overcome the 1-0 defeat against Odense to be among the best clubs of Europe again. How is it possible to grow so much in such a short time?

Vila-real is a town of the province of Castelló, in the North of the Valencian region, 8 Km. far from the capital of the province, Castelló, and 64 Km. far from València, the capital of the region. Vila-real has always been an agricultural town, famous for their oranges and other citric fruits. In the last part of the 20th century, the glaze ceramic industry and other complementary activities developed and, nowadays, the town, with nearly 50,000 inhabitants, is the most important center of this industry in Spain and one of the most powerful in Europe.

The club, which was officially founded in the year 1923, has historically been in humble regional non-professional divisions, except for a short period of 2 years in the early 70s, when they earned a place in Segunda Divisón. Villarreal was just a town club for the inhabitants of the city, with a space suffocated by much more classic and traditional teams of their zone of influence, like Castellón, Valencia or Levante. In the 1990s, Villarreal CF, who had been playing in regional divisions during 2 more decades, returned to the Silver cathegory, until the club was bought by a prominent businessman called Fernando Roig.

Fernando Roig
Fernando Roig is one of the most important businessman of the glaze ceramic industry and he had been also having a sport adventure with the Valencian basketball team, Pamesa Valencia, whose sponsor was the company he owned. In the year 1997-1998, Roig took the club from Segunda División to Primera División for the first time ever in the history of the club. The first visit to the most important division was short and they got relegated in their first season, which was normal, given the lack of tradition and economic power of the club. Still, the come back did not wait too long and they only needed one more year to go back to Primera División in the 2000/2001 season. No one would have thought that the Primera División had just found one of the powers of the decade. A man had a dream and made it real.

Their first years in the division had up and downs. The main goal of the club was to grow on solid grounds, going step by step in the growth, improving year by year, but keeping the economy healthy, unlike other clubs, who started a race of signings and big expenses that nowadays are paid. During the first years in Primera División, the humble club was managed by Victor Muñoz and Benito Floro, managers with experience in the cathegory, which achieved their goal: the permanence in the division.

The turning point was the 2003/2004 season. During the last couple of years, Fernando Roig had been building his squad slowly. Some players were rejections from other clubs, like Pepe Reina, signed from Barcelona; or José Mari, signed from AC Milan. Some others showed that the club had started to build a good net of scouting in South America, and players like Belletti, Battaglia or Palermo (very unlucky with a terrible injury) had joined the club. In the summer of 2003, Villarreal added the last important pieces with the signings of a veteran but efficient Sonny Anderson, the AC Milan rejection Fabricio Coloccini and, especially, the main player of the project that was about to start, Juan Román Riquelme, for only 5M from Barcelona.

Juan Román Riquelme
The season was not brilliant. The team had earned their place in the UEFA Cup, thanks to the victory in the already dead Intertoto Cup, but Benito Floro decided to resign in February due to the lack of commitment of the players. At that point, Paquito, a man of the club, took the team and raised the spirit of the team to place them in the 8th position of La Liga, near the European spots. But the main achievement was in the UEFA Cup. The team had eliminated clubs like the Russian Torpedo Moscow or the Turkish Galatasaray, but in Spring, they surprised everyone by kicking out of the competition one of the most important clubs of Europe, AS Roma, and later doing the same with another classic, Celtic FC, who had eliminated FC Barcelona in the previous round.

In the first time Villarreal CF played the European competition, they reached the semifinals, where they meet the future Liga champion, Benitez's Valencia CF. Sadly for the Yellow Submarine, their historical season ended up there and the Valencian derby in Europe was decided by a goal of Mista in Mestalla, in a very tight game. Valencia CF ended up winning the UEFA Cup that season.

With the arrival of Manuel Pellegrini in the following season, the project got more solid. The Chilean coach had a prestigious career in South America, mainly in Chile and Argentina, but was very unknown in Europe. Along with Pellegrini, and following the same policy in the market, the club signed a Manchester United rejection, Diego Forlán. On paper an irrelevant signing, given the bad statistics (and even reputation) of the Uruguayan player, but the striker was the Pichichi (top scorer) of the competition and his duo with Riquelme was legendary, taking the club to the 3rd position of La Liga, an unbelievable achievement for this club, reaching the quarter finals in the UEFA Cup again.

Diego Forlán
But the club did not stop there, the (cheap again) additions of Sorín, Barbosa and Senna, covered the exit of important players like Reina and Belletti. The Liga season was not as great as the previous one (they ended up 7th and out of Europe), but the effort and good football of Villarreal got the admiral of all Europe, reaching the semifinals of the competition playing against rivals like Benfica, Lille or Manchester United in the group stage and Rangers or Internazionale FC in their way to this round. Villarreal was very near the semis and only a penalty missed by Juan Román Riquelme in the last minute of the second leg prevented Villarreal to play an extra time that could have given them the ticket to an UEFA Champions League final, which would have been historical, for the club and for the competition.

The next season (2006/2007) was marked by the problems with Juan Román Riquelme, who was forcing his transfer to Boca Juniors. The club had a really bad first half of the season, flirting with relegation spots, but Fernando Roig gave all the support to the coach Pellegrini. The exit of Riquelme in Winter and the adaption of good players like Gonzalo Rodriguez, Nihat and Pires, and the usual goals of Forlán allowed the team to finish in the 5th position, getting an UEFA Cup spot.

Another historical season was the 2007/2008. Good team players like Joan Capdevila and Cani were signed and a veteran John Dahl Tomasson and a young Giuseppe Rossi were signed for a low price to replace Forlán, who had been sold to Atlético Madrid. The team made a fantastic season, being the runner-up in La Liga over FC Barcelona, being the main threat for the champion Real Madrid during a long part of the season. In the UEFA Cup, the initially surprising elimination against Zenit was not that surprising when the Russians ended up winning the competition.

Manuel Pellegrini
The following season kept Villarreal in European positions, Joseba Llorente signed to replace Tomasson, although the core of the team was pretty much the same. The club paid the efforts of playing in two exigent competitions like Liga and Champions League. The club ended up 5th in La Liga and was eliminated by Arsenal in the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions League. Manuel Pellegrini announced his departure in the summer of 2009, when he joined the new project Florentino Pérez in Real Madrid. During the last 2 seasons, Villarreal has been showing consistency, doing decent performances in Europe and better domestic tournaments. Last year, they qualified for the previous round of the UEFA Champions League once more.

All these achievements have its roots in two main blocks: the intelligent investment made in the market by Fernando Roig and the scouting work in South America. Fernando Roig's obsession has always been the economic and financial health of the club. He always knew it was useless to overspend, since the price to pay some time later is even worse. In that sense, Villarreal always had a good eye to catch talent at a very low price, either signing veteran but commited players or rejections from big clubs who still wanted to prove their value. Aside some exceptional cases, the results are there and players like Anderson, Riquelme, Forlan, Sorin, Tomasson, Pires or Reina had a great influence in the achievements of this club. At the same time, the scouting work of the club in South America, which allowed them to bring players like Belletti, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Cáceres, Arruabarrena, Guille Franco or Valencia, has also been a key of the success of the club. In both cases, most of these players triumphed in the club and most who left have allowed the club to recover their investment multiplied by higher amounts. In this sense, Villarreal CF has been one of the most intelligent clubs in Europe in recent years.

Ciudad Deportiva del Villarreal CF
But Fernando Roig knows that the future of the club can not depend only in the good eye in the market. Fernando Roig's dream is to build a project that is there to stay. In 2002, Villarreal CF opened a huge Ciudad Deportiva of 70,000 square meters, where the club owns 5 football pitches, 3 of them with natural grass, and several camps for football-7 or other kind of facilities for the youngest generations. At the same time, learning from and following the example of the most important youth academies, the Ciudad Deportiva has facilities that host 90 young players of different ages (14 to 18 years old) to give them the appropriate environment to grow, with a residence; a library and study room with teachers; a gym; hydro-massage room and all the required equipment. The results are evident, Villarreal "B" passed from Regional (5th cathegory in Spain) to Segunda División in less than 10 years. The academy assures the future of Villarreal, either giving home talent to the team or assuring transfers to other clubs that keep funding the whole structure. An academy that, probably, only FC Barcelona surpass in Spain and not many in Europe.

Villarreal's building have an extremely solid base. Fernando Roig and his right hand Llaneza assure calm and good management, offering the public one of the most attractive and powerful teams of the continent.  Villarreal CF is an example of business, an example of how things must be done. Seriousness, hard work, solid investments, long-term strategy and short-term good decisions, calm to deal with problems. Most of the players who have played in Villarreal admit that the club does not have the pressure of the big teams, but they also highlight how beautiful is to work in this kind of club. What once was the small team of a small town nowadays fight face to face with the most important and legendary Valencian team, Valencia CF, and definitely is one of the references in the World of football among the humble clubs. This week they face Odense in the second leg of the previous round of the UEFA Champions League and they have to overcome the painful 1-0 of the first leg. But, at this point, nothing would be a miracle in that small town of Castelló: Vila-real. I can only wish them the best, because this club definitely deserves more beautiful nights of football.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The ashes of the Valencian "Fallas"

The exit of Juan Mata close an era in Valencia CF. Not so long ago, this club played 2 Champions League finals, won 2 Ligas and a UEFA Cup, but this golden era had a painful end due to the terrible decisions in the sport and patrimonial departments.

It is necessary to go back in the 1990s to know the origin of the current situation. Valencia CF was one of the Spanish clubs that had to become a corporation in 1992. With the new decade, a member of one of the most powerful families of the high-class of Valencia, Francisco Roig, bought a big percentage of the ownership of the club, which allowed him to control the club. Francisco Roig had big ambitions and his dream was to have a "Valencia campeó". But despite the arrival of big names like Romario or Salenko and the signing of prestigious coaches like Luis Aragonés or Jorge Valdano, the results were poor and he resigned from the presidency in 1997, which ended up in one of the most important shareholders, Pedro Cortés, although Roig remained in power from the shadows, given his majority in the ownership of the club.

Francisco Roig

A turning point was a sentence in the year 1998 that declared illegal the increase of capital made by Roig, which had allowed him to control the club. The club was in the hands of Pedro Cortés, who betrayed his old partner and joined his shares to the ones of Arturo Tuzón, to keep Roig out of control. The change in the presidency put Valencia CF in the right direction and the club won a Copa and its following Supercopa in 1999. During this period, the club set the base of the future victories. Without big expenses in the market, the club signed players like Claudio López, Fabián Ayala, Amadeo Carboni, Kily González, Jocelyn Algoma, Adrián Illie or Gerard, who joined the local talents Gaizka Mendieta, David Albelda or Farinós. In those years, Valencia reached two consecutive UEFA Champions League finals, in 2000 and 2001, which increased the value of their players and coach, Héctor Cúper.

In the summer of the year 2001, many big clubs of Europe started the chase of Valencia players. Héctor Cúper signed for Internazionale FC and Gaizka Mendieta broke the market with his record signing for SS Lazio for 45M euros, which was clearly superior to the 19M paid for Javier Farinós by Inter or the 35M paid by FC Barcelona for Gerard García the previous year. The pressure of the fans on Pedro Cortés for these transfers made him resign for personal reasons, which gave the presidency to Jaime Ortí in the summer of 2001, who had been one of the men of Francisco Roig.

With Jaime Ortí and the arrival of Rafael Benítez to Mestalla came the best years of Valencia CF. The club won 2 Ligas (2001 and 2003) and 1 UEFA Cup (2003). But the victories did not bring peace to the club. Francisco Roig was making his movements to recover the ownership and presidency of the club, but at the same time, the Soler family, well-known in Valencia and successful businessmen of the real estate sector, also had their power ambitions. Jaime Ortí, despite he had been a man of Francisco Roig during the 90s, favored the movements of the Soler family in order to keep the presidency despite his irrelevant percentage in the ownership. Finally, in the year 2003, Francisco Roig surrendered and sold his shares for a 31.6M euros.

This corporate operation is important to understand why Valencia is struggling nowadays. The battle to obtain the power in Valencia CF was not based on the value of the club, but in an important fight of 2 important Valencian families to get the control of the club that is the symbol of the city and a big part of the region. The price paid by the Soler family was 600 euros per share, when the face value of this share was 40 euros when it was issued less than 10 years ago. It is important to highlight that the club had a historical debt of 120M euros, which was not irrelevant for a club of the size of Valencia. In one way or another, the Soler family took the control of the club, getting the fame and the political influence they were aiming since long ago.

Only the Liga and UEFA Cup titles avoided the change in the presidency. Juan Soler stayed in the shadows for a year given the popularity of the winning president Jaime Ortí, but in October 2004, Juan Soler made his dream reality and sacked Ortí to get the so wished position. At that moment, no one could even imagine that Juan Soler would destroy the economy of the club in only 4 years.

The presidency of Juan Soler can be definied by one word: disaster. Disaster in every single aspect. If we refer just to football, Valencia passed from being one of the top clubs of the continent to lose prestige due to poor domestic and continental campaigns. The club splashed 180M of euros in players like Di Vaio, Fiore, Caneira, Corradi, David Villa, Miguel, Regueiro, Joaquín, Morientes, Del Horno, Tavano, Hugo Viana, Arizmendi,  Zigic, Fernandes, Maduro, Banega or Alexis and only very few of them were worth the price paid for them. There were constant changes in the position of coach: Claudio Ranieri, Quique Flores and Ronald Koeman had short periods on the bench. At the same time, given the bad results, the club had 2 general managers in this period: Amadeo Carboni, who had an evident bad relationship with Quique Flores, and Miguel Ángel Ruiz. In this aspect, the club was a total mess and the team was a victim of it.

Juan Soler

If it was not enough, the patrimonial management was as bad as the sport one. The most shocking case was the change of sponsor in 2008 signed by Juan Soler, when the club broke its contract with Toyota, who were paying 3M per year, to sign a deal with a ghost company called Valencia Experience, which was supposed to be a company that promoted events in Valencia. No one knew what this company had ever done and, of course, they never paid a single cent of the promised 6M per season. During all the season, Valencia wore the shirt with the name of this ghost company for absolutely nothing and, given the contract they had with Nike, a change of sponsorship would have even had worse effects.

But, without a doubt, the most harmful patrimonial operation was the construction of the Nou Mestalla, the new stadium of the club. Since the year 2004, Juan Soler started to negotiate a land swap with the government of the region and the city hall. In this agreement, the government change the qualification of the lands in Benicalp in order to allow the club to build the new stadium. In 2006, the Nou Mestalla was announced, a futuristic 5-star stadium with a huge capacity of 75,000 seats. Along with the stadium, Valencia was going to build a commercial zone. The overall cost of the new stadium was going to be 344M euros and the team would start the 2010-2011 season in their new home. In the summer of 2007, the building work started, but in the 2008-2009 season, they had to be stopped, since the club could not meet the payments. Nowadays, the club did not start with the building works again, since they were not able to sell the lands of the old Mestalla at the required price.

At the end of the 2007-2008 season, Juan Soler resigned from the presidency due to the huge social and political pressure. Juan Soler decided to sell the shares to Juan Villalonga, former Telefonica president. Villalonga wanted to increase the capital of the club in order to reduce the huge debt of the club, but Juan Soler blocked the whole operation retaining his shares. Only a few days later, Soler sold his shares to Vicente Soriano, who stayed in the presidency for one season. But Vicente Soriano never paid for the shares and the ownership returned to Juan Soler.

The summer of 2009 was the summer of shame, but also the summer of the new low profile era that had to come. Vicente Soriano, who had been a president on loan during all the season, had to resign. Juan Soler was tired of this situation and did not block any decision of the Assembly of shareholders, who gave the presidency to Manuel Llorente, who had been managing the finances of the club from 1995 to 2004, working with Francisco Roig, Pedro Cortés and Jaime Ortí. Manuel Llorente had a good reputation among the valencianistas since he was the main executive during the golden years until the arrival of Juan Soler.

Manuel Llorente was given the job in order to put order in the finances of the club or to find a buyer for the club. Ironically, Vicente Soriano, who had been promising to find the investors during the previous season, appeared with a company of Uruguay called Inversiones Dalport, who were supposed to bring 500M for the club, but they never presented the required guarantees, despite asking for 15 days extensions during all the summer. Manuel Llorente was not as a naive as Juan Soler had been in the past and refused to listen to the former president Soriano.

Manuel Llorente
Llorente asked Deloitte to due a due diligence to know the real economic and financial situation of the club and the report could have not been more scary. Valencia CF owed 547M euros and spent 112M per season only in the salaries of the players, while the overall incomes were 92M. The solution proposed by Llorente was an increase of capital of 92.5M euros. In this operation, Bancaja (now Bankia), a Valencian savings bank, would give a 72M loan to Fundación Valencia Club de Fútbol to buy the shares from Juan Soler without losses for him, despite the base prospectus of the operation had a clear disclaimer made by Deloitte and the Spanish stock markets public supervisor: the value of Valencia CF is zero.

The new owner was this foundation, which was the organization found by Bancaja (Bankia) and the Valencian  government to save the club from disappear. In fact, Bankia have the control of the club in the shadows forcing the club to accomplish with a tough program to recover the club and pay back the 240M loan they have with them. The exit of David Villa (42M euros). David Silva (33M euros) and Marchena (2M, but an important salary) were part of this program and so is the transfer of Juan Mata, probably the last high profile player Valencia CF had in their squad, which was replaced (given the results, with intelligence) with mid profile players with lower transfer costs and salaries.

At this point, the valencianismo is aware of their situation. The good old times of victories and finals has changed for a time of restrictions and low profile objectives. For now, Llorente and his coach Emery have been able to keep Valencia in the top-3, playing the UEFA Champions League, which is very important for the economy of the club. The exit of Juan Mata is one more step to save the club, hoping that the replacements allow the team to keep the position in the top continental competition one more year. Even though the club wanted to keep Mata one more year, a clause of his contract allowed him to leave for 22M euros. Valencia CF collect 30M with this operation now and Juan Mata may accomplish his dream to grow in a winning team, something that Valencia CF can not offer to him now.

Manuel Llorente is a man who likes to go step by step. Perhaps the transfer of the main assets of the club is the easy way to recover the economy of the club, but given the real estate and financial crisis, which blocks the selling of the lands of the old Mestalla, and the pressure of the creditors of the club, it looks like it is the only possible solution. Manuel Llorente considers that the new stadium is a priority in order to grow the operating income of the club and the massive restriction of expenses, which leads to cut the financial expenses too during his 2 years of presidency. If everything goes according to the program, Valencia may continue with the construction of the Nou Mestalla in the year 2012, hoping that a new era begin with the new fancy home of the valencianismo from the ashes of the "fallas" left by the years of the mad bubble.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who changed United's history

I can not imagine Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson. The United's Scottish coach is the only one I know in that club and the reality is that the Mancunians have been a reference of success during all my life. I have seen several English clubs having their peak moments during the last couple of decades, but Manchester United has always been there and the only common factor during all these years has a name: Sir Alex Ferguson.

His biography and achievements are well-known. It is impossible to find an active coach who has won as much as he did. He has been the coach of Manchester United since 1986, which means that several generations of football fans do not know any other coach in Manchester United and, given the size and importance of this club, it is impossible to understand it, if he was not the most competitive coach I know.

Taking a look to Manchester United's history, you realize that the Red Devils have a great historical coaches and teams in the past. The most relevant, known and successful was the one of Sir Matt Busby, who was their coach from 1945 to 1969. He was the architect of the first glorious era of Manchester United, the father of the Busby Babes, the legendary team whose career was dramatically cut in an airplan crash in Munich after an European Cup game, back in in 1958. Busby did not surrender and, with the survivors of the ashes of Munich, being one himself, he built the team that ended up winning the European Cup 10 years later.

But with the retirement of the light which had been leading the way of the club for 24 years, Manchester United started a dark era in their history, without a league title in decades. When Alex Ferguson was given the job after his successful stage in Aberdeen, the fans probably were missing the good old days. His early years in United were not easy and it took several years to see the team winning a title and it was this way until the FA Cup of 1990, which gave them the right to play and win the Cup Winners' Cup in 1991 against Johan Cryuff's Barcelona. Manchester United started to win again and they did not stop until now. 12 Premiership titles, 2 Champions League, 5 FA Cups, a Cup Winners' Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup.

The key of the success is based in the method. Sir Alex Ferguson is a competitive animal. He has been able to put the institution over the individualities, the team over any star. In his teams, there is something you can not negotiate: his idea of football. His discipline does not admit exceptions, which caused the exit of very important players, even legendary players, but set a clear message: the most important is the team and the idea, not any individuality. And he represents the idea.

In the last two decades, we can remember memorable teams. The beginning of the 90s had Eric Cantona as symbol, surrounded by the legendary Bryan Robson, the forward Mark Hughes or Steve Bruce among other players, and the early appearances of Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane.

The failure in 1995 after the two titles of 1993 and 1994 gave Ferguson the excuse to make his revolution. While important players of the first part of the 90s, like Hughes or Paul Ince, left the team, Ferguson did not hesitate to create a team whose base were young members of the team like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville or Nicky Butt and the already mentioned Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs. What seemed to be an attack of madness was the beginning of a brilliant era, winning 5 leagues in the following 6 years. This team peak moment was the victory in the dramatic Champions League final of 1999 in the Camp Nou against Bayern Munich, which closed the circle of their historical Treble that season.

In the mid 2000s, Alex Ferguson started the slow revolution (evolution) that set the base of the future winning team. As we already said, the winning formula always grew from solid grounds. Alex Ferguson did not hesitate to sell players, despite their importance in and out of the pitch. His personal friction with David Beckham, a pop-star icon already; Roy Keane, a captain loved by Old Trafford; or Ruud Van Nistelrooy, a reference during the first part of this decade, have never been a problem for Manchester United to keep winning titles.

In the last part of the 2000s, he built a new team around young players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney, symbols like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, and team player signings like Nemanja Vidic, Edwin Van der Sar or  Rio Ferdinand. Players come and go, but the titles are there: 4 Premier League out of the last 5, 1 Champions League title and 2 more finals. It does not matter that Cristiano Ronaldo leaves, the idea remains, which always was the most important, and the team keeps winning, which is the most relevant.

Sir Alex Ferguson is discipline in the idea, but capacity of reinvention. Sir Alex Ferguson is the coach that represents the word competitiveness. Alex Ferguson has seen how football changed, from the importance of  individual talent of classic football to the systematic philosophy of modern football. Despite his age, his methods are modern, he believes in his ideas over any individual supernova (and Manchester United had lots of them in the last decades). Owners come and go, players come and go, but the idea remains and his legacy is going to be nearly impossible to match. Sir Alex Ferguson is a reference, a living legend and a way to see football. Probably, the best I have ever seen.