Nestled between the industrial Milan and the rolling landscapes of Florence, Parma sits peacefully in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Red and beige-hued bricks form its Romanesque buildings while breathtaking frescos adorn their interior. Beauty is evident, but on closer inspection, the city’s architecture reveals scars of Parma’s past.

The iconic Duomo di Parma only partially showcases its original design. Decimated by an earthquake in the 12th century, the cathedral was left in need of mass renovation. Almost 500 metres away, along Parma’s winding cobbled streets, lies the Palazzo della Pilotta, a palace turned museum, whose asymmetrical facade tells the sorrowing story of World War Two bombings. Parmensi resilience is a defining quality, one that is perhaps best captured through its football.

In 2002, Parma welcomed two new forwards, Adrian Mutu and Adriano. The duo, despite their youth, were seen as the men to fire Parma to glory. The club was riding on the wave of an illustrious decade; financed by food conglomerate Parmalat, the Gialloblù took home three Coppa Italia, two UEFA Cups, one Cup Winners’ Cup and a European Super Cup over 10 magical years.

The prior season, however, had seen a slump in form. Parma’s unprecedented success piqued the interest of national powerhouse Juventus, who wasted little time in recruiting two of their burgeoning stars, Gianluigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram. One lacklustre campaign and three managers later, the Bianconeri were back, this time to prize club top-scorer Marco Di Vaio away from their grasp. Parma’s misery was compounded when captain Fabio Cannavaro also decided to jump ship, signing a four-year deal with Internazionale. The decimated squad, much like Parma’s landmarks, required reconstruction.

Parma’s triumphs throughout the 1990s had been built on sublime attacking talent. First came Faustino Asprilla, plucked from the murky, Narco-governed world of Colombian football. The South American striker formed a lethal partnership with Gianfranco Zola as the pair kick-started a Gialloblù revolution. Next came the truly exceptional strikeforce of Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa. Creative and potent in equal measure, both imbued Serie A with their stunning talent.

Like most good partnerships, there was a balance to Mutu and Adriano’s respective games. The former had been a creative force for Hellas Verona, regularly cutting in from the left to carve out chances. The latter, a powerful centre-forward with a cannon of a left foot, had recently bulldozed his way through Italy’s defences in the purple strip of Fiorentina.

Parma’s attack was completed by Japan international Hidetoshi Nakata, forming a forward line that had even the most casual of football hipsters purring. The man tasked with turning talent into cohesive play was Cesare Prandelli. Admired for his work with Verona, guiding the provincial side to Serie A promotion, the Italian coach immediately got to work, implementing a 4-3-3 formation and fluid style of play to provide his new-look strikeforce with a platform upon which to express themselves.

“Their impact was immediate,” lifelong Parma fan Giovanni Dougall tells These Football Times. “Adriano scored three in his first three games. It took Mutu until game week four to open his account, but once he started, he didn’t stop.”

Mutu’s first goal came against Perugia in October. In the words of Dougall: “Mutu was being ushered towards the line down by the right of Perugia’s penalty area, then, quick as a flash, a Cruyff turn and he was free, using his pace and power to brush off challenges before tucking the ball into the bottom corner.”

Subsequently, Mutu took flight. Adriano’s hold-up play became the perfect foil, allowing the Romanian to drive inside and instantly punish his opponents. Mutu would regularly return the favour, opening up back lines with defence-splitting passes or perfectly-weighted crosses for his colleague to finish with aplomb. At times it was like watching a skilled matador and an irrepressible bull; Mutu providing the elegant yet elusive glides while Adriano, the powerful bison, devastated in the penalty area.

A 4-0 rout of Torino in early December highlighted exactly how captivating the pair could be in the iconic blue and yellow of Parma, Mutu adding to midfielder Matteo Brighi’s opener before helping to orchestrate Adriano’s contest-ending brace. An avalanche of rave reviews followed. So too, did burdening comparisons.

Mutu was billed as the next Gheorghe Hagi, his nation’s biggest star. Similarly, Adriano’s form saw him touted as the new Ronaldo, with Brazilians desperate to see a world-class striker fulfil his potential following the cruel injuries that curtailed O Fenómeno. However, for now, it appeared hype only elevated the players’ performances to greater heights.

The only question remaining was whether they could perform against calcio’s elite. Typically, Parma had blown teams away, their attacking trident too hot to handle, but defeats to Milan, Inter and arch-rivals Juventus portrayed them as more of a best of the rest than serious Scudetto challengers – a tag they shed when Milan visited the Stadio Ennio Tardini.

Red smoke from lit flares billowed across the away end as the Milanisti tried to impose themselves on the city of Parma. The Gialloblù, in true fashion, remained resilient, countering with the usual sound of horns blaring from the tannoys and banners aplenty lining the Curva Nord. Parma were not here to be walked over; they were here for the fight.

A pulsating tension radiated from the stands, but rather than the usual exhilarating play, the game became a cagier, Catenaccio-esque contest. The sides cancelled the other out and at half-time, the match remained scoreless. Only a moment of magic would be enough to separate the two and in the 77th minute, that’s exactly what happened.

Regaining possession on the halfway line, Mutu took the ball under his spell. As the space opened up ahead, the forward drove into it to reach the byline. Spotting Adriano’s surge into the penalty box, Mutu delayed his cross before rolling a delightful ball across the face of the six-yard box. A quick change of pace from the Brazilian was enough to bamboozle Rossoneri captain Paolo Maldini and, with the deftest of flicks, he caressed the ball past the outstretched leg of Dida.

Parma one, Milan nil was the final result, the club’s sixth match undefeated. Indeed, having beaten Lazio the week before, courtesy of a last-gasp Adriano winner, Parma looked on course to book their place in European competition. Ultimately, it would be a nearly season for Parma, missing out on the Champions League, finishing fifth, and seeing Inter’s Christian Vieri capture the Capocannoniere ahead of both Mutu and Adriano, who came second and third respectively. More worrying, however, was the club’s financial situation.

Parmalat’s debt stood at around £300m and they would soon file for bankruptcy. With such turmoil, Parma’s hand was inevitably forced, reluctantly selling their two brightest stars. Mutu had earned himself a big-money move to Chelsea while Adriano returned to former employers, Inter.

The story of both players’ tragic fall from grace thereafter is well-documented. Mutu, no stranger to the Romanian nightlife scene when back on international duty, tested positive for cocaine and was subsequently arrested, later released in disgrace. It was the death of Adriano’s father that derailed his prosperous career, causing the striker to spiral into deep depression, dealing with the trauma by way of alcohol.

Neither the club or players would be the same again, but, for that one season, talent truly trumped turmoil. Much like the city walls of Parma, the players’ al dente exteriors cloaked their fragile minds, yet in Parma’s hour of need, both shone through to help rebuild a crumbling city.


There is no city quite like Florence. Quintessentially Italian in culture, its history is both artistically rich and intertwined with political upheaval. The architecture is breath-taking, food and wine exquisite, and day-to-day life blissfully nonchalant. In short, the peninsula’s central metropolis has beauty in abundance.

Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to some of the most creative minds in history, imparting to the world the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. Furthermore, it is also accredited with the rise of what we know today as calcio.

Calcio Fiorentino, a sport that portrayed scenes nowadays more akin to watching gladiators engage in some form of barbaric rugby, was played in the piazzas of the city. It became a major source of national pride and was later reintroduced to mainstream society by fascist leader Benito Mussolini in a bid to nationalise the country and aid Italy’s global standing as an authoritative calcio force.

An Olympic gold medal in 1936 sandwiched between two World Cup victories would point towards his success, however, to this day, Italy remains fiercely regionalised. This is something Florence takes immense pride in; pride the locals call campanilismo – an idiom which loosely translates to ‘bell tower’. The origins of campanilismo are deep-rooted in religion and hark back to a time when regional pride revolved around the local church or cathedral. Indeed, Catholicism pervades much of Florentine life and its inhabitants have historically been intensely protective of their own gothic-come-renaissance masterpiece: the iconic Duomo.

Comedy and Conflict

La Divina Commedia – known in English as The Divine Comedy – is the preeminent work of Italian literature. In it, Florentine poet Dante Alighieri describes the three journeys one must walk after death, for purification, before entering heaven: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Whilst some complete their journey to Paradiso, others are condemned, left to wallow in the fiery pits of Lucifer’s Inferno.

One group in particular, the Ghibelline, were disparaged by Dante and sentenced to an eternal state of damnation. A political faction that supported the Holy Roman Emperor, they sought to take control of various Italian provinces throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. The city of Florence, which supported the Papacy, opposed this and fought for their autonomy at the Battle of Campaldino through a party called the Guelphs.

Medieval bloodshed aside, modern-day animosity between Florence and districts that allied with the Ghibelline remains rife. Siena, one of the Ghibelline’s most prominent backers, have since enjoyed a heated rivalry with Florence. Over the years, as Catholicism slowly eased its grip on the Florentine psyche, calcio became its natural heir.

Football is a modern manifestation of war. The control of space and territory, the continuous physical competition for supremacy, and the incessant fight for regional pride. Disputes are no longer settled by bloodshed on battlefields but rather by the snarling poetry of the pitch. That said, the past still very much fuels the present with matches between Fiorentina and Siena known as the Guelph-Ghibelline derby – a contest which stood until 2014 when Siena went bankrupt; having to reform and begin again in Serie D. Surprisingly, then, this Tuscan feud isn’t even La Viola’s most heated rivalry.

Turmoil and Turin

Turin’s Juventus represent a fitting microcosm of northern Italy. Opulent and powerful, and no stranger to corruption. Their part in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal tarnished the club’s name and brought about many vocal critics, few of which shouted louder than Florence. Though the Old Lady’s dealings were unquestionably underhand – not to mention Fiorentina’s own dealings in the scandal – Florentine criticism derived from much more than just a disdain for match-fixing.

In 1982, La Viola lost out to Juventus in their race for the Scudetto on the final match of the season, courtesy of some rather dubious refereeing. Eight years later and they were again denied a trophy by their rivals, this time the UEFA Cup as Fiorentina lost the final to their Italian adversaries in another contest shrouded in controversy.

Italian football expert Luca Hodges-Ramon recounts: “With the first-leg in Turin tied at 1-1, a blatant push by Pierluigi Casiraghi on Fiorentina’s Celeste Pin was missed by officials, allowing Alessio Angelo to fire the home side in front. The game finished 3-1 and as Juve coach Dino Zoff gave his post-match interview, Pin walked past and yelled ‘ladri’ (thieves) in earshot of Zoff and Rai Sport’s microphones. Juve’s goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi would later remind La Viola that while they might win the war of words, his side would win on the pitch. He was right, the Bianconeri lifted the UEFA cup after drawing the return leg 0-0 in Florence.”

Perhaps what hurt Florentines the most, though, was the sale of club forward Roberto Baggio to Juve for what was then a world record £8m fee. To the romantic souls of Florence, the Italian maestro wasn’t so much a player as he was a God. Similar to how Neapolitans regarded Diego Maradona, the divine ponytail was adored, blessing the city with supreme skill, unerring vision and goals aplenty. Baggio’s sale left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone on the Curva Fiesole. Their hero had departed. Just 12 years later, however, something far worse would disappear – the club itself.

In 2001 the dire state of Fiorentina’s finances came to light as La Viola stated they were unable to pay wages and held debts of around $50m. Owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori clambered to gather all the funds he could but soon came to the realisation that his insufficient resources could no longer sustain the club. Fiorentina were relegated in 2002 and filed for bankruptcy. They were denied entry to Serie B and consequently ceased to exist as a club.

Power and Pain

Florentines are nothing if not resilient. From the ashes of their fallen club they rose once again, forming a new team under the guise Associazione Calcio Fiorentina e Florentina Viola. The necessary funds were provided by Diego Della Valle, an affluent businessman whose family were the founders of Tod’s, the luxury leather and shoe-making company.

Rich and powerful families are synonymous with using calcio to push their own personal agendas. It is seen as a vehicle to govern society, manipulate political influence and drive business ventures; a trend that began in the 1960s when wealthy families ploughed heavy investment into clubs across the land.

The Moratti family sunk their oil riches into Internazionale, the Agnellis’ Fiat fortune helped drive Juventus, and the Lauros’ ships set sail south to aid Napoli. Cutting through the blurred line of good will and questionable vested interest is a difficult one, but if one family in Italian history have proved masterfully adept at using wealth to gerrymander power, it’s Florence’s very own Medicis.

A family of bankers who later formed a political dynasty, the Medicis rose to great prominence in the 15th century. In many respects, their exertion of power can be used as the blueprint of how to influence greater society and exact control. After forming allegiances with the Pope, the house of Medici gained the support of the people – similar to how a rich businessman or politician uses the emotional attachment of a city to its football club to dictate local affairs.

The Della Valles – ostensibly viewed as heroes for having guided the club back from ruin to Serie A and European football – would ultimately strike grim similarities with their Renaissance counterparts. After the club’s re-establishment in the nation’s top flight, the owners became increasingly reluctant to show any ambition of rubbing shoulders with its elite.

Matters are not helped by the fact the Della Valles often refer to their supporters as ‘vustomers’, a term that does not sit well with the average fan, let alone the Ultras Viola, their most ardent supporters group. As Chloe Beresford, a lifelong Fiorentina fan, notes: “The growing disillusion has prompted some to take drastic steps and avoid funding the Della Valle project. Many have chosen to watch their team solely away from home, and declining attendances at the Stadio Artemio Franchi are becoming a trend.”

Disenchantment and anger are two of the strongest emotions felt by those who regularly vacate their homes to travel to their footballing cathedral on matchdays. Though the noise of hostility may be rising, the recent death of club captain Davide Astori has left a stunned Florence in befallen silence. Disenchantment has been replaced by disbelief, anger by inextricable pain and sadness.

Astori was one of the people. Although born in Lombardy, he characterised the true essence of Florence through his captaincy, consistently showcasing his commitment, pride and passion. Calcio pales in comparison to the life of an individual, but it also has the amazing ability to bring people together in the face of despair. With the words Ciao Capitano draped over the gates of the Artemio Franchi, similar sentiments can be seen at stadia throughout Italy.

As Gianluigi Buffon – captain of arch-rivals Juventus – paid a touching tribute, this sentiment couldn’t be clearer. Everything else is put to one side in times of such tragedy: “You were the best expression of an old-fashioned world, one that people have left behind, with values like altruism, elegance, politeness and respect towards others.”

Florence is in mourning. Time will heal the pain, but the memory will always be there. For now, the city can fall back on its unrelenting resilience, strength of character, and the undying love for a game they originally gave to Italy. If Dante’s Divina Commedia is anything to go by, Astori will be resting peacefully in the eternal comforts of Paradiso.


In the heart of Madrid lies the iconic Plaza de Cibeles. Its opulent surroundings are furnished by a lavish fountain at the centre of which stands a statue of the Greek Goddess, Cybele. Many years ago, Real Madrid unofficially adopted the fountain, using the plaza as a vehicle to parade the fruits of their victories.

Football romanticists often blur the lines between sport and sanctity. It’s commonplace for the beautiful game to become their creed, transcending the normality of human competition to enter a realm of divinity. For those who subscribe to the church of La Roja, 16 June 2002 marked the coronation of their messiah.

Pilgrims, adorning red, gold and blue apparel, flocked east from their Iberian communes to converge upon the city of Suwon. South Korea’s World Cup Stadium, masquerading as the Spaniards’ Mecca, was the venue for a last-16 fixture which pitted Spain against the Republic of Ireland. The match seemed a formality with Spain the overwhelming favourites, and they took the lead before half-time, Fernando Morientes stealing a march on Gary Breen to flick his near-post header past the helpless Shay Given.

The break provided respite and reinvigoration in equal measure for the boys in green. Manager Mick McCarthy showcased his tactical nous, calling upon veteran forward Niall Quinn, and reshuffled the midfield in a shake-up that gave his side a new lease of life. On came the Irish onslaught, each player to a man showing the kind of determination that so often characterises the tournament’s plucky underdog. They eventually saw their will rewarded in the form of a penalty. Alas, Ian Harte stepped up only to see his effort turned away by a fresh-faced Iker Casillas.

The 21-year-old goalkeeper was having a sublime game but was eventually beaten from the spot in the dying embers by Robbie Keane. It was an equaliser that forced the contest into extra-time, followed by a subsequent penalty shoot-out. Emboldened by his earlier heroics, Casillas rose to the challenge to thwart both David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane, crushing Ireland’s dreams and sending Spain triumphantly through to the last eight.

The outpouring of emotion in the aftermath of the result saw Casillas heralded as San Iker – Saint Iker – an appropriate title given his miraculous performance. Despite all the plaudits, though, the limelight to display such aptitude was only afforded to the youngster by way of another’s misfortune.

Thanks to a freak accident which involved Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares’ poor handling of an aftershave bottle – a slip unbecoming of such a talented artisan – a shard of glass severed the Spaniard’s right foot on the eve of the tournament. “It was a terrible piece of bad luck for Cañizares and I am certainly not happy,” remarked Casillas. “But football is like that. Now Ricardo, [Pedro] Contreras and myself will have to fight it out for the [starting] place and any of us could be chosen.”

In truth, Casillas was being overly humble. Ricardo and Contreras were both decent goalkeepers, coming off the back of modest seasons with Valladolid and Málaga respectively, but neither compared to the Madrid shot-stopper. He was now well established as Los Blancos’ number one and ready to make his mark on the international stage.

Casillas was a product of La Fábrica and took the traditional route into Real’s senior side via Castilla. As a native of Madrid, his progression was met with universal approval. Every fan loves to see a local come through the ranks, and those of a certain generation had fond memories of Madrid’s 1966 European Cup-winning side – an all-Spanish line-up with numerous players birthed at AD Plus Ultra – a local Madrid team that acted as Real’s academy until 1972.

Ironically, it was another Cañizares injury, five years before Iker’s World Cup bow, that gave him his first opportunity with the seniors. Speaking to Spanish football expert Sid Lowe, Casillas reminisced about Real’s last-minute decision to call him up for a Champions League tie against Rosenborg: “Bodo Illgner was injured and Cañizares had a knock, so they needed me as a third keeper. They literally pulled me out of a technical design class. You can imagine the teacher saying: ‘Well he’s supposed to be working in my class.’

“The headmaster, who was a big Madrid fan, called me. He knew I was in the youth system and every time I saw him he’d talk about Madrid. He told me that I had to get to the team hotel near Barajas, ready to fly to Norway.”

He was only 16 at the time and, injury crisis or not, his inclusion in the matchday squad was a sign of just how highly the club rated him. Boarding the plane and sitting beside Morientes, the schoolboy felt as though he’d “won the lottery” – a feeling his father José knew all too well.

Every weekend José would attempt to predict the national football scores, entrusting a young Iker to register his betting slip at the local bookies. One fateful evening as the scores rolled in, he couldn’t believe his eyes – all 14 results were bang on the money. The only problem was his son’s red face. Iker awkwardly confessed to his dad that he’d forgotten to place his bet earlier that day, costing the Casillas family the estimated £1.2m jackpot.

Childhood misdemeanours aside, his parents were delighted at the news of their son’s call-up and had done everything in their power to help him along the way to stardom. Even they, however, couldn’t have envisaged that he’d be a two-time European champion by the age of 20.

Becoming the youngest goalkeeper ever to take the field in Champions League history – a record that stood until Benfica’s Mile Svilar broke it in 2017 – Casillas played as if he’d been between the Bernabéu’s sticks his whole life. He combined spectacular athleticism with intrinsic positional awareness, his reflexes were lightning-quick, agility cat-like and concentration impeccable.

Los Blancos finished the 2000 Champions League group stage as runners-up, meaning they faced the daunting prospect of a tie against holders and treble winners, Manchester United. After an impenetrable display from Casillas in the first leg, Madrid headed to Old Trafford with the tie still scoreless. The second leg got off to a cagey start but soon came alive as a Roy Keane own-goal and Raúl brace proved enough to send Real through.

Casillas was fast making the Bernabéu a fortress, quelling any assault on his kingdom with consummate ease. Another home clean sheet in the semi-finals against Bayern Munich helped Real navigate their way past the Bavarians to set-up an all-Spanish final against Valencia. Los Che went into the final in confident manner – they had finished above Los Blancos in LaLiga and were buoyed by their league-closing victory over Zaragoza – in stark contrast to Real Madrid’s loss to Valladolid, ending their campaign miserably in fifth.

What ensued was a one-sided battle that swiftly re-established the historic power balance. Real drew first blood, with some nifty wing play from Steve McManaman culminating in Fernando Morientes’ back post header. A sensational scissor-kick from the Englishman then doubled their lead before Raúl provided the coup de grâce, rounding the keeper and driving a dagger through Valencianista hearts.

Casillas had conquered Europe and become a master of his craft under the umbrella of football’s most successful behemoth, all before leaving adolescence. The next two years brought his first league title, a second Champions League trophy, and that memorable performance in Suwon. For all his on-field achievements, it was the admiration of his character that meant the most to Casillas. “I don’t want to be remembered as a good goalkeeper,” he said, “I want to be remembered as a great person.” His aura was infectious and washed over Madrid like water on the banks of the Río Manzanares.

San Iker’s theology had pervaded the Spanish capital, and whilst his national status was also revered, it was Casillas’ captaincy of Spain’s greatest generation that really allowed him to cross the blurred borders of football and faith to cement his demigod legacy. With Raúl excluded from the squad, Casillas was handed the armband for Euro 2008 and never looked back. Spain topped their group before meeting Italy in the quarter-finals; a nation whose footballing religion is so ingrained in society, it makes up the very fabric of their cultural identity.

The Azzurri had their own cultic figurehead in Gianluigi Buffon. The keepers are great friends, but after 120 minutes of nail-biting play, it was the church bells of La Roja that rang proudly as silence befell Italy. Casillas – just as he had done six years earlier – saved two penalties in the shoot-out, first flying to his right, tipping Daniel De Rossi’s shot round the post, then getting down to his left, thwarting Antonio Di Natale.

It wasn’t quite the Bernabéu but Vienna’s Ernst-Happel-Stadion was starting to feel a lot like home. It was the site of his man of the match performance against the Italians and, four days later, saw him keep another clean sheet as Spain dispatched Russia 3-0. Austria’s largest stadium was also the venue for the final, where Spain would do battle with Germany for the title of Europe’s best nation. Despite being without their leading scorer, David Villa, Fernando Torres stepped up in his absence to seal a historic victory. With yet another clean sheet to his name, Casillas became the first goalkeeping captain to lift the European Championship.

Two years later, Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral bells were ringing louder and prouder than ever before. Spain had beaten the Netherlands to become world champions for the first time in their history with San Iker leading La Roja to glory. His two one-on-one saves at the feet of Arjen Robben allowed Andrés Iniesta to strike deep into extra-time and etch his name into Spanish folklore. Casillas won the tournament’s golden glove and, as his holy hands caressed the trophy in Johannesburg, few could contest his status as Spain’s finest ever goalkeeper.

The image of Casillas, eyes shut and jaw agape in sheer adulation as he held the trophy aloft, was produced and sold into the public domain en masse. It became the centrepiece of shrines the length and breadth of the nation, adorning the walls of every child’s bedroom. “When you win the golden glove and it’s come on top of a team prize, it’s very special,” Casillas told FIFA. “Winning an individual award when your team hasn’t won leaves you with an empty feeling inside. But I was lucky in that we won the World Cup and I was named best goalkeeper of the tournament, so it doubled the happiness for me.”

Another European Championship followed, however it came amid the player’s toughest time in his illustrious career. A fractured relationship with Real manager José Mourinho meant Casillas was now just another spectator at the Bernabéu, watching Antonio Adán and Diego López take control of goalkeeping duties.

He was ostracised by Mourinho and even received abuse from some quarters of the club’s fans, who gave him the nickname ‘Topor’ (a portmanteau of ‘topo’ and ‘portero’ – Spanish for ‘mole’ and ‘goalkeeper’) after he allegedly leaked club information to the media. It was a troubling time for Iker, who saw his divinity questioned and had to watch painfully as arch-rivals Barcelona renovated their Cruyffarin chapel under Pep Guardiola to become Spain’s dominant force once more.

Casillas’ perceived petulance was tarnishing his legendary status and all signs pointed towards the exit door. It looked as though only a miracle could save him from a truly unworthy ending. Fortunately, miraculous saves are what San Iker dealt in almost exclusively, and redemption proved to be just around the corner.

Carlo Ancelotti was appointed as Mourinho’s successor and immediately reinstated Casillas for Copa del Rey and Champions League fixtures. The veteran repaid the favour by captaining Los Blancos to both trophies in 2014. He became the first goalkeeper not to concede a single goal until the final of the Copa – where they beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Mestalla – before creating an even greater piece of history in Europe.

Real’s 4-1 victory over city rivals Atlético meant Casillas lifted La Décima, becoming only the third man ever – after Franz Beckenbauer and Didier Deschamps – to lift the Euros, World Cup and Champions League as team captain. His accomplishments saw him firmly reinstated as the club’s number one, and once again in the hearts of Madridista’s. He had risen from the dead, a resurrection befitting of his sobriquet.

If there is a single image that defines Iker Casillas’ illustrious career, it is one taken of him in May 2014 at the Plaza de Cibeles. Celebrating La Décima, the goalkeeper stood on a platform behind the fountain of Cybele, holding the coveted trophy above his head. Thousands of onlooking fans could barely contain their jubilation – in their eyes it was an apt metaphor: Casillas was right where he belonged, standing tall amongst the gods.


How does one define what makes a truly great goalscorer? The knack of finishing an array of chances with unerring quality? The combination of sublime technique with innate, predatory movement? Or perhaps the ability to produce moments of magic in the most high-profile of situations? If any, or indeed all, of the above are used to adjudicate such a title, then Brazil’s Romário must be at the forefront of any debate.

Much like many of South America’s brightest stars, Romário de Souza Faria’s story starts in poverty. Born in 1966, he began life in Jacarezinho – Rio de Janeiro’s second-biggest favela. His father, Edevair, was desperate for his son to prosper beyond the borders of the urban municipality and was overwhelmingly enthused when the youngster began to develop an aptitude for the game he held dear.

Romário joined boyhood side Olaria aged 13 and immediately attracted attention. Despite his small stature, the budding striker used his low centre of gravity and stocky legs to his advantage, exploding past opposition players before they could get their bearings. Having mastered close control from playing 30-a-side games in the concrete jungle to honing a plethora of skills on the white sandy beaches, the Brazilian was a defender’s worst nightmare.

Surprisingly, then, rejection came two years later, when, after trials with regional giants Vasco da Gama, a dismissive coach deemed the adolescent too small to make it in the professional game. Such a knock-back could have de-railed many prospective talents, but not Romário’s.

Decades later, he would brashly retell how it only fuelled his ambitions to chase his dream. “Find a prick to slag you off and motivate yourself with this challenge.” Romário went on to net four times past Vasco in a youth game, before they duly reconsidered and signed him in 1981.

Having come from little means, it was clear Romário was enjoying his elevated social profile. His sensational talent was bound with a love for the anarchic and it was evident from an early age that both would play a significant role in shaping his career.

The striker was embroiled in controversy at the 1985 World Youth Championship when caught urinating off his hotel balcony in Moscow, and he was consequently sent home in disgrace. Three years later, the boy now nicknamed Baixinho (Shorty) due to his diminutive five foot five inch frame would shine for Brazil at the 1988 Olympics, scoring seven times en route to the final. The tournament proved that having Romário at his dizzying best was well worth tolerating his mischievous worst, and those breathtaking displays earned him a big break, securing a transatlantic move to Dutch club PSV.

De Rood-Witten, and indeed the Netherlands, were at the peak of their powers. Manager Guus Hiddink had helped to secure the Eindhoven club an illustrious treble whilst the Oranje had stormed to victory at Euro 88. Romário became a luminary, being one of the first Brazilians to make such a high-profile European move and it wasn’t long before he brought his homeland’s carnival atmosphere to the Netherlands, both figuratively and literally.

“He’s the most interesting player I’ve managed so far. If I was a bit nervous ahead of a big game, he’d say, ‘Take it easy coach, I’m going to score and we’re going to win.’ What’s incredible is that eight out of 10 times, he was right.” Even Hiddink was mesmerised by the mercurial talent. In Romário’s first campaign, he scored 19 Eredivisie goals and helped PSV retain their domestic title.

With his on-pitch party in full swing, it was only natural that the Rio native brought Eindhoven to life at night as well. His house parties were infamous and the striker embodied a wonderfully laid back, carefree lifestyle. He even had sand delivered to his house to lay in his garden, helping it feel more homely. Looking out of his window, the landscape of the low country may not have brought him the same joy as seeing the waves crash up against the Copacabana, but it was good enough for Romário to dismiss feelings of homesickness and focus on football.

And focus he did; four further seasons brought with them two more Eredivisie titles and an astounding 127 goals in 142 appearances. Baixinho’s main weapon of choice was the simple yet deadly toe-poke. Bursting clear of the defence, he exuded sub-zero composure, as if ice coursed through his veins, to finish with great aplomb time after time, prodding or dinking the ball past one helpless keeper after the next.

As Romário’s stock skyrocketed, so too did his ego. “When I was born, the man in the sky pointed to me and said, ‘That’s the guy.’” Such bold declarations of self-indulgence are rarely warmly received and often deter the game’s behemoths, but such was the virtuoso’s invaluable genius, when Barcelona came calling, it was a surprise to no one.

Johan Cruyff was building a dynasty in Spain and in Romário, modern football’s godfather had his crowning jewel. Enjoying Catalonia’s luxurious offerings was a far-cry from the austerity of Jacarezinho, yet Romário had never been defined by his surroundings. Instead, he created environments, as opposed to ever being a product of one.

Regrettably, his spell lasted little over a season due to systematic disagreements with Cruyff about how he should conduct himself and train. Not that it made any difference to his performances on the pitch during this time, though. Indeed, over the course of 18 months he scored 39 times – including a sensational hat-trick in El Clásico – and made the league title his own.

The Champions League was no different. His devastating partnership with Hristo Stoichkov was a sight to behold as the duo danced circles around their opponents, making world-class defenders look distinctively ordinary. Alas, the cherry on the cake was not to be as the Blaugrana were thwarted in the 1994 final by Fabio Capello’s regimented AC Milan. Such was the audacity and swagger of Barcelona, many accused them of simply coming to Athens expecting to collect the trophy, rather than compete for it.

Perhaps the best anecdote of all though is a moment recalled by Cruyff himself. Romário had asked his manager whether he could have some time off training to go to the Rio Carnival. “Laughing, I replied: ‘If you score two goals tomorrow.’ The next day Romário scored his second goal 20 minutes into the game and immediately gestured to me asking to leave. He told me, ‘Coach, my plane leaves in an hour!’ I had no choice but to let him go.” 

The summer of ’94 would mark Romário’s apex. Now firmly established in the national team as what Brazilians call a craque – star player – watching him maraud around the field during the World Cup was nothing short of awe-inspiring. He opened the scoring in their crucial 3-2 quarter-final victory against the Netherlands and held his nerve from the penalty spot in the final against Italy. The maestro’s artistry ostensibly knew no bounds as he helped Brazil to their fourth world title and subsequently collected FIFA’s World Player of the Year award.

His exploits had propelled him into footballing folklore. However, to Brazilians, he represented so much more than just a global superstar. Romário was one of them, a man of the people. He had lived the dream every boy went to bed thinking of in Jacarezinho and had done so with the playful gusto of the party-boy he’d always been, fusing divine and normality to cement his demigod status. 

Back in Barcelona, Cruyff’s indoctrination of his squad may have been seamless for the most part but winning over his prize asset ultimately proved futile. Such an extravagant lifestyle didn’t sit well with the disciplinarian and with that, the striker returned home. Flamengo were the grateful beneficiaries, although it would take two spells at Valencia before the Mengão would truly harness his greatness.

The years 1998 and 1999 yielded an extraordinary 81-goal haul and showcased to the world a Baixinho still every bit as potent as he was throughout his European venture. He also made up one half of the iconic Ro-Ro partnership. A fresh-faced Ronaldo was the youth to Romário’s experience, forging a lethal bond on the field as the pair led Brazil to victory in the 1997 Copa América and qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France.

A muscular injury robbed Romário of a second World Cup, although he rejected claims he was not fit enough for selection in what was, unbeknownst to the striker at the time, his last chance to shine on football’s grandest stage.

Four more years passed by, which included a much-celebrated return home to Vasco and yet more raucous partying. It was hard to tell who feared him more, the fathers of daughters in their 20s or defences across Brazil, and as his life continued swimmingly, so too did his goal tally. Ageing like a fine wine, Romário left defences dumbfounded by trickery and speed of movement in the box. Much like Picasso with painting or Hendrix on guitar, Romário had truly mastered his art.

By the time the 2002 World Cup rolled around, national interest in the Brazilian’s involvement at the tournament was at bursting point. Rather than adding fuel to the fire, though, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari provided the pin that burst the player’s hopes, stating his omission from the squad was down to “tactical and technical reasons”.

The 34-year-old was to be denied a swansong, much to the anger of his nation. A campaign started – which was even championed by Brazil’s president at the time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso – for Scolari to reconsider, but it was to no avail. The player begrudgingly accepted the coach’s decision before becoming overwhelmed with emotion at the support he had received. The love spoke to the impression he had left on Brazilians.

The denouement of Romário’s football career – he’s now a politician – saw him become somewhat of a nomadic journeyman. Highlights included winning his third Brasileirão Série A top-scorer award aged 39, helping Miami FC reach their first ever USL-1 playoffs, and, of course, scoring his 1,000th career goal for his beloved Vasco. That landmark, however, is disputed due to the striker including youth and non-competitive matches in his tally, but what is not up for debate is Romário’s eternal legacy.

Described by Cruyff as “the best player he’s ever coached” and “a genius in the penalty area”, there can be no doubt that he left behind a colossal imprint on the global game. Occasionally conceited, often outspoken, and consistently majestic, Romário remains to this day one of the game’s finest ever marksmen. He was a trailblazer for future Brazilian exports and conquered the world with a naturally infectious character – and those preternatural feet.

A journey through time: the career of Esteban Cambiasso

The next day, he headed north from his Genoa commune to present his findings at the request of Massimo Moratti, president of Internazionale. His discovery regarded the migration of a certain Francesco Cambiaso, an Argentine migrant of Genoese descent. 

In the late 19th century – as a consequence of a mass wave of European migration – Francesco made the transatlantic journey to the port of Buenos Aires, and it was here where he, his wife, and their family of 11 children settled. The peninsula’s population had been decimated after years of ongoing civil war and in the aftermath of its bitter conclusion, Italian and Spanish workers sought to rebuild the nation, whilst seeking better lives for their offspring.

Upon arrival, a transcript error meant the Cambiaso family name officially became ‘Cambiasso’ and it was here in Buenos Aires, decades later, that a young Esteban was brought into the world. The relevance of this document relates to Cambiasso’s eligibility to play for the Nerazzurri. The club had struggled to register the player back in 2004 following his transfer from Real Madrid due to a lack of space on their non-EU player quota. It was Vassallo’s seminal findings, however, that would act as the catalyst for Cambiasso’s claim to an Italian passport, thus completing his move to Inter.

Despite this historical occurrence helping to shape the career path of the youthful midfielder, it was another preceded family event that so nearly led him to forge a profession with his hands, not feet. In 1908, Esteban’s ancestor, Antonio, founded the Villa del Parque – a district of Buenos Aires where years later the GEVP basketball school would be built. Esteban’s father, Carlos, was a basketball fanatic and his mother Tita had an adoration for cestoball (an Argentine sport not too dissimilar to netball). “When I was just three-years-old, my parents noticed how much I liked basketball and they took me, along with my brother Nicolas, to the GEVP basketball school where our elder brother Frederick already played.”

Esteban spent his formative years carrying a ball wherever he went, hedonistically playing with his siblings whilst also learning tactics and plays in the garage from his mother, using stools to replicate opposition players. He was meticulous and studious from an early age and would spend hours observing and trying to replicate his childhood sporting idol, Michael Jordan.

The game of fútbol would have to wait until schooling before it snared Cambiasso’s heart away from baloncesto. By now, he had also been awarded the nickname Cuchu, after popular national television character Chchufilito on account of his skinny frame, blonde hair and warm-hearted nature. His coaches noticed Esteban’s aptitude for starting moves – acquired from playing point guard – and immediately sought to instill in him the art of the pivot role.

Six years honing his new-found craft brought with them a place at Argentinos Juniors’ prestigious academy and mounting interest from Europe. Ajax were coming off the back of a historic campaign having been crowned champions of both the Netherlands and Europe. Manager Louis van Gaal had been notified of Cuchu’s talents and made clear his interest in taking the 15-year-old to Amsterdam. Worried about the drastic cultural shift at such a tender age, his family opted to hold out for a more logistical move to materialise.

And materialise it did, in the form of the game’s great behemoth, Real Madrid. Offered the chance to adorn the iconic Los Blancos shirt without any language barriers proved too good an opportunity to dismiss. So, bags packed, a young Cambiasso travelled to the Spanish capital. “A few months before I had also looked at Ajax but the Dutch culture was so different from Argentina that my family and I were scared. I made the decision to follow a dream: Real Madrid,” Cambiasso recalled in an interview with Marca. “At the age of 15, I found myself surrounded by the biggest stars and they treated me very well, especially Sánchez, Hierro, Redondo, Alkorta and Chendo.”

Two years brought with them 41 appearances and two goals for Castilla, yet cultural barriers or not, spending his adolescent years’ miles away from loved ones took its toll. Indeed, Cambiasso was unsettled and was also lacking the level of competition his budding development craved. “I was given the chance to return to Argentina after two years in Madrid B because I needed more competition. Already in the first team, the politics of the moment meant that most of the side was made up of academy players and Galácticos, and I wasn’t either of those.”

He returned home to his native land, signing for Independiente and broke into senior football with immediate effect. Cuchu was lauded, his play inspired and he exuded confidence and composure well beyond his years. He would also regularly interact with iconic manager César Luis Menotti, always asking for advice as the midfielder passionately continued his quest for self-betterment. It became apparent that Cambiasso was far more than just another player of the beautiful game – he was a devout student.

He went on to taste his first silverware, beginning an addiction for excellence, claiming the Juventud de América twice with Argentina’s under-20 side and becoming a youth world champion in 1997. A transfer to River Plate followed as Cambiasso began to establish himself as one of his country’s brightest stars. 

There was nothing extravagant to his game, his trickery seldom, but for the purists, spending a few minutes watching him orchestrate River’s midfield was all it took to convince them of his excellence. His movement was ergonomic, passing purposeful and command of a game impeccable.

As his reputation grew, so too did Real’s re-kindled interest, and this time Cuchu would take the opportunity with both hands. The 2002/03 campaign saw Cambiasso attain major titles, first winning the Intercontinental and UEFA Super Cups, before adding the coveted La Liga crown. Sitting at the base of midfield whilst rotating seamlessly with the maestro Claude Makélélé, the duo added much-needed balance to Madrid’s attacking flair.

Unfortunately, this was not an opinion shared by club president Florentino Pérez whose acrimonious sale of Makélélé after his request of a pay rise brought about a period of decline. The obdurate Pérez did not see the benefit of the deep-lying midfielder and lambasted both Makélélé and Cambiasso for their “lack of technical ability and pace.”

Another two years in Spain had drawn to a bitter end and once again Cambiasso was on the move. It is here where Inter and Moratti made their move. The Lombardy outfit had been long-term admirers of Cambiasso and negotiated with Madrid about a possible transfer when their Brazilian jewel Ronaldo moved in the opposite direction. At the time, the deal wasn’t feasible but now thanks to the tireless research of Vassallo, the Argentine of Italian decent was officially unveiled as an Inter player.

He arrived into a side of familiar faces. Inter had a strong Argentine core and Cambiasso felt right at home, teaming up with international compatriots such as Javier Zanetti, Nicolás Burdisso, Julio Cruz, and Juan Sebastián Verón.

The club embarked on an era of unassailable dominance, powering their way to five consecutive Scudettos. Having witnessed the decline of Carlo Ancelotti’s Rossoneri and the Old Lady’s dramatic fall from grace in the face of the Calciopoli scandal, the Nerazzurri were enjoying unrivalled success, the type of which had not been seen since the days of Helenio Herrera’s reign.   

Cambiasso played at the fulcrum. A commanding warrior whose craft, guile and industry first helped Roberto Mancini break Italy’s duopoly, before elevating José Mourinho’s men to conquer Europe. “I won the treble with Cambiasso,” said a gleeful Mourinho to The Independent back in 2015, “he belongs to my golden team.” He commandeered the pitch much like a prize conductor leads his orchestra, each player dancing to Cuchu’s masterful beat. His presence was their baton, the ball their metronome, and cunning yet deadly counter-attacks their symphony. 

Despite his success largely emanating from domestic football, if one were to pinpoint the perfect microcosm of Cambiasso’s career, it would be his hand in one of the greatest goals the World Cup has ever witnessed. In a group game against Serbia at the 2006 tournament, Argentina put together an awe-inspiring 25-pass move that culminated in Cuchu finding the back of the net. “A monument of geometry” was how El Mundo chose to describe it, and Cambiasso was at the epicentre of play. The fact the game is remembered for that magical goal – as opposed to it marking Lionel Messi’s first-ever World Cup goal – spoke of its artistry.

Incredibly, four years later, after Inter’s superb treble-winning season, both Cambiasso and Zanetti were omitted from Diego Maradona’s Albiceleste squad. The team lacked solidity at right-back and a deep-lying midfield passer, which inevitably cost Maradona the chance to immortalise his Argentine legacy as a manager, and furthermore, his job. National greats such as Ossie Ardiles chastised the coach’s lack of team cohesion and top-heavy approach by stating: “It is a team game, and it is the team that always comes first, not the individuals.”

After the disappointment of not playing on football’s grandest stage, Cambiasso returned to a very different Inter. The winds of change had begun to take effect as Mourinho exited for Cuchu’s old suitors, Real. After such an unprecedented campaign, the team regrettably regressed. Spanish tactician Rafa Benítez replaced the outgoing Mourinho but didn’t even make it to Christmas.

Brazilian legend Leonardo was Benítez’s successor who, despite inspiring an instant upturn in form, again proved to be an underwhelming appointment. Three managers in the next two seasons was an indication of the unsettlement at the club. Cambiasso, though, remained a stalwart, helping teammates and managers alike, but when long-standing club president and close friend Moratti was not re-elected, he decided to bring the curtain down on an illustrious decade in Milan. 

Needless to say, global interest in the now all-encompassed veteran was rife, however, Cambiasso’s personal allure had always been for the English game. He was somewhat of an Anglophile, intrigued by the lifestyle and enamoured by the football. So, rather than enjoy the relaxing confines of Major League Soccer, he put pen to paper on a year’s deal with plucky Premier League newcomers, Leicester City.

It was a woeful start to life in the east-midlands as the club found it’s self languishing at the foot of England’s top-flight for almost the entirety of the campaign. Cambiasso, however, remained sanguine. He had forged a reputation on English shores as a leader on and off the pitch, a pass-master, and fierce competitor. “For me, winning a cup or winning the league with another team is the same now as having the possibility to save Leicester in the Premier League.” Speaking to the BBC with conviction, he truly believed they could stay up, and as a result, his teammates took notice. 

An incredible run of seven wins from their last nine fixtures was enough to cement the Foxes’ league status for another year and put together the blueprint which would eventually lead Leicester to the Premier League’s summit just 12-months later. The Blues had fallen head over heels for the man they called “magic”, his character had transcended sport and the city became infatuated by his charm. Unfortunately, this was not enough for him to renew his contract as Cambiasso packed up his box of tricks and headed for Greece.

Olympiakos is where Cuchu lived out his Indian summer, helping the Piraeus-based club win back to back Super League titles. Now 37, he has decided to call time on a glittering career and start training towards his coaching badges – a natural step for one of the game’s greatest modern-day students. He has genuine passion and admires many current managers with differing methodologies, not least Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone: “They both convey authenticity and that generates credibility, the most important characteristic to be a leader.”

An under-20 world champion, treble winner and national treasure; how divergent his story might have been if the Cambiaso family tree wasn’t so rich with Italian history. For now, it’s fair to say he can take a step back, safe in the knowledge that he has created his very own history, an heirloom of stories that will echo throughout eternity. 

Kerlon and the demise of a great that never was

Few things evoke emotion quite like observing something extraordinary on the football field. An act that defies all logic and belief. The gasps of those in attendance, the clattering of seats as spectator’s rise to their feet in unison. Witnessing something awe-inspiring is magical at the best of times, yet when such aptitude is conjured by an adolescent, it only adds to the allure that you are witnessing something truly spectacular.

Back in September 2007, the Estádio Governador Magalhães Pinto – more commonly known as the Mineirão – played host to the Clássico Mineiro. Within the boundaries of Belo Horizonte – Brazil’s sixth biggest city – Cruzeiro squared up against bitter local rivals Atlético Mineiro and tensions, alongside temperatures, were running high.

Cutting in from the right flank, Kerlon Moura Souza scooped the ball aloft and embarked on a mazy dribble, accelerating forward whilst balancing the ball atop of his head in a buccaneering style. His ingenuity ultimately proved to be short-lived as in a matter of seconds, he was unceremoniously manhandled to the ground courtesy of a rather vicious elbow. The perpetrator, Atlético’s right-back Dyego Rocha Coelho, seemed incensed at Kerlon’s audacity to attempt such grandstanding trickery.

In many ways, the incident stands alone as a microcosm of Kerlon’s career. Something that started with such promise and flamboyance, capturing the imagination of everyone present, ended by being sent crashing back down to earth before its time with a sharp reality check.

The attacking midfielder rose to prominence in 2005, representing Brazil at the Under-17 South American Championship. Kerlon brought the tournament to life, demonstrating flawless technique and composure well beyond his tender years. The team boasted budding stars such as Marcelo, Denílson and Anderson, but there was only one player who had the indigenous partisans waxing lyrical.

Notching eight goals over the span of just seven games, Kerlon led the Seleção to glory on Venezuelan soil, vanquishing Uruguay in the final. He had also developed a penchant for a truly unique trick – the aforementioned head balancing act dubbed drible da foquinha or in English, ‘the seal dribble’. He was much more than just a goalscoring show-boater, though. The youngster exuded an air of star quality and carried himself in a confident manner, irrepressibly scoring and creating a variety goals, from meandering solo runs to blistering long-range free-kicks.

Billed as the ‘next Ronaldinho’, A Foca (The Seal) continued his annus mirabilis by earning a debut appearance for Cruzeiro. With fans and the media rhapsodising his every kick of the ball by this point, interest in the precocious talent was also rife. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona were all astutely aware of Kerlon’s exploits and had been scouting him, leading to rumours of an imminent €25 million transfer across the Atlantic.


He remained loyal at first, continuing to develop and ply his trade for his boyhood club Cruzeiro. However, unbeknownst to the starlet at the time, his fortunes were about to take a turn for the worse. Struggling to adequately adjust to the rigours of senior football, the boy wonder initially stagnated, his brilliance limited to a few fleeting moments here and there. Injuries had also begun to take their toll; a dark by-product of football that has the cruel ability to thwart even the most sublime. 

A Foca played three seasons at La Bestia Negra in total before securing his eventual move to Europe. The suitors were Internazionale; however, such was the complexity of the deal, Kerlon found himself originally signing for Chievo. The Nerazzurri completed the signing via their Veronese counterparts due to a lack of space on their non-EU quota but were assured the player was worth a season’s wait by his notorious agent, Mino Raiola. The measly €1.3 million fee for 80 percent of Kerlon’s contractual rights, however, was an indication of his decline. 

Despite breathtaking online footage alongside ballyhoo from Raiola, Chievo fans were to be left disappointed as Kerlon arrived in northern Italy with more baggage than just his possessions. A knee injury sustained in March 2007 would plague his maiden European campaign, which concluded with just four outings and no goals to show for his efforts.

Unconvinced upon the Brazilian’s return that he was ready to don the iconic blue and black stripes, manager José Mourinho – renowned for his lack of faith in youth – farmed the 21-year-old out on loan again, this time to Ajax. If Kerlon’s career had hit some stumbling blocks thus far, it was about to completely derail. After being presented in Amsterdam, it was announced that the midfielder would actually spend the campaign representing Jong Ajax – the reserve team.

Joining back up with Inter in 2010, Kerlon looked a shadow of his former self. A myriad of injuries had begun to not only punctuate but actively consume the youngster’s once rathe-ripe career. Another devastating knee injury that summer carried with it embittered undertones, similar to those another certain national phenomenon had experienced a decade earlier.

He also spent a great deal of time with his teammate and known trouble-maker, Mario Balotelli. Speaking to ESPN Brasil, Kerlon remarked: “He [Balotelli] had a habit of arriving at training before anyone else and peeing on all the players’ boots … it was very funny.” Whether such practical jokes were as warmly received by Mourinho is unknown, yet one can imagine that given his fractious relationship with the Italian, Kerlon’s amusement may not have been best placed.

Ostracised and desperate to rekindle the kind of form that had seen him heralded as Brazil’s future saviour, he headed back to his native peninsula. Paraná Clube were the latest club to take a gamble on his waning ability, agreeing a loan deal a day before Kerlon’s 23rd birthday. Alas, this proved to be yet another false dawn.


A Foca was reaching his nadir. Even a move back home hadn’t borne fruit, and now the sad state of affairs – both mentally and physically – were beginning to take their toll. Succumbing to regular injuries can often do more mental damage than anything else and this, combined with the demanding pressures of elite sport, led Kerlon to flounder badly.

He signed for regional third division outfit Nacional Esporte Clube in a deal that really summed up the melancholy surrounding how far he had fallen. Injuries and sheer ignominy of his fall from grace led to one singular appearance ending his time back in Brazil. Once a national treasure, his career now seemed trapped deep in the bowels of an echo chamber, with every one of Kerlon’s efforts reverberating with the same infuriating, futile result.

A complete change of scenery was in order and so, bags and extra baggage packed, he headed to Japan. Rather than being welcomed into the J1 League, though, it was another side dwelling within their respective third tier in the form of Fujieda MYFC that marked his new home. Indeed, Kerlon’s name on the list of forgotten wunderkinds had all but been carved in stone. 

Surprisingly, then, his time in Asia acted as somewhat of a miniature renaissance. The midfielder managed to shake off his injury-plagued past to play relatively consistently for the first time in nearly four years. A return of nine goals in 22 outings may not have set the world alight, but the world is exactly what it meant to Kerlon.

Reinvigorated, he moved back across the Pacific, endeavouring to succeed stateside. After a brief spell training with the Atlanta Silverbacks, he duly signed for ASPL team Miami Dade. Despite the club again residing in the lower echelons of domestic football, the Brazilian was beaming. “I always had the dream and the intention to play in the United States, whether it’s in MLS, NASL, or the ASPL. I really like the country, I really want to be here, because I am closer to Brazil, and this opportunity came to me. I am very happy to be here.”

Miami were only founded a year prior to Kerlon’s arrival, yet its convenient location, coupled with a plethora of South American teammates, helped the midfielder feel right at home. Playing at St. Thomas’ University stadium – with a capacity of just 2,444 – it was a far cry from the Clássico Mineiro, but at this point just playing competitively was enough for the 27-year-old. Stints in both Malta and a third spell in Brazil have passed Kerlon by since. Now 29, the nomadic journeyman and once enigmatic prodigy represents Slovakia’s Spartak Trnava with a handful appearances under his belt this calendar year.

Being placed on the pedestal of unrelenting Brazilian expectation as a luminary for future success before even venturing into the professional game is no mean feat. Many have tried and failed to live up to the lofty billing set by standard-bearers such as Pelé, Ronaldinho and co. However, Kerlon really was a national – and indeed internet – sensation. He may have fallen drastically short of what his formative displays promised to provide but nevertheless, his reputation will live on for generations to come, even if it is only through the archives of YouTube. 

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How the modern full-back became football’s hottest commodity

“No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.”

Jamie Carragher’s remark in the Sky Sports studio may have appeared nothing more than a whimsical jibe directed at fellow pundit Neville, however, intentional or not, it was far more nuanced. The humorous insult corresponded with the changing times. In its formative years, the Premier League’s full-backs were generally characterised by their defensive qualities of being able to support their centre-back and occasionally overlapping their fellow wide midfielder. 

As we now know, though, this is an antiquated concept. Modern day full-backs have far more emphasis in the attacking third and build-up phases of the game, with defensive principals in some cases becoming almost an afterthought. Even centre-backs are now tasked with carrying the ball out from deep and aiding transitions and – as is often the case – these responsibilities were embedded across the continental European game long before becoming culturally accepted on English shores.

Players like Franz Beckenbauer were pioneers, giving new meaning to what it meant to be a defender. A talented midfielder in his early playing days, Beckenbauer was moulded into a sweeper due to his unique outlook on the game. Der Kaiser could bring the ball out from the back and had an uncanny knack for splitting opposition lines with pinpoint passes. Despite the Libero role essentially becoming obsolete in the modern game, the basic principles of what the German stars game encompassed still resonate today.

Regarding full-backs, the positions current fundamentals can be accredited to the influence of great Brazilian sides of yesteryear. World-renowned for playing with captivating flair, the iconic yellow strip has always been the embodiment of attacking excellence. The Seleção’s full-backs have proven to be no different, with players as early as the 1958 World Cup demonstrating their offensive panache.

The tournament winners bucked the trend of using the universal W-M formation at the time and sought to play using zonal marking. As South American football expert Tim Vickery notes, full-backs Nílton and Djalma Santos brought the tournament to life and by doing so “set the template for the position.”

Brazil’s blueprint of what the role should incorporate has provided unequivocal success in generations gone by and perhaps reached its apex in June in the Champions League final, with no fewer than three of the four starting wide defenders hailing from the South American peninsula. Indeed, the electric form of Dani Alves, Marcelo and Alex Sandro helped carry Real Madrid and Juventus to Cardiff respectively and only further accentuated the nation’s proclivity for its production of these sublime talents.

The former has been a pillar of success throughout the past decade for both club and country and is arguably one of the greatest right-backs to grace the game. Alves was methodically utilised by manager Pep Guardiola during his time in Catalonia as someone who was integral to maintaining the Blaugrana’s width. With inverted wingers Pedro and David Villa often drifting inside to create overloads in central areas, Alves’ sheer lung capacity allowed him to offer an outlet on the flank, and in turn prevented his opposite number from tucking inside to create a narrow defensive unit.

Of course, not everyone can dominate the ball like Barcelona and so this takes us to Italy. The Azzurri have long been admired for their defensive resoluteness and – according to football historian Jonathon Wilson – are the nation that originally gave the game what we know today as wing-backs. Many Serie A sides, as well as the national team itself, currently play with a back three or five, providing defences with requisite protection and thus allowing full or wing-backs ample license to roam forward and wreak havoc.

This was evident not only in Juve’s 2016/17 Champions League run but also at the 2016 European Championships. Antonio Conte had implemented a 3-5-2 system with wide defenders Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi helping to alleviate pressure. Their presence shored up the back line in times of threat and allowed the Italians to pin opposition wingers in their own half through surging forward runs. Although the tournament ended in bitter defeat after a penalty shoot-out loss to Germany, they could leave France with their heads held high.

Conte has since gone on to manage Chelsea and has taken the Blues atop of English football’s summit. He has done so via a sagacious variation of his Italian formation, opting for a 3-4-3 which has seen two relatively underwhelming players in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses blossom playing as auxiliary wing-backs. Runners-up Tottenham also chose a similar system with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker lauded for their ability to command an entire flank by themselves.

The dexterous athleticism personified by these players can often leave their opponents looking pedestrian, however to just credit their immense cardiovascular ability would be doing them a disservice. A recent trend in the last five years has seen many journalists and pundits use the term ‘inverted full-backs’. Much like the wingers, full-backs are now also being tasked with tucking inside and helping support their defensive midfielders.

This tactical switch – again championed by Guardiola – has showcased the wonderful technical aptitude some of these lateral defenders are blessed with. With football mirroring the game of chess, as so many of the game’s great thinkers elude to, the switch makes sense as it shields the centre-backs and goalkeeper with added protection – much like moving a rook or bishop in front of the king and queen.

After Philipp Lahm was deployed as a pivot, many other coaches sat up and took notice, with some then experimenting for themselves. In certain circumstances, it has proved an instant success and some cases have even seen full-backs make the permeant move to a midfield birth. This is true of both Raphaël Guerrero at Dortmund and Fabinho in Monaco. Managers Thomas Tuchel and Leonardo Jardim have often been praised for the tactical nous and progressive strategies with this being just one example.

The latter has been given further reason to move Fabinho inside, if not for his newly discovered skillset, then for the stellar breakthrough campaigns of both Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé. The duo have been the platform upon which the French club’s attacking philosophy has been built. They have transformed Monaco from a very much cautious-first side into a vibrant attacking football utopia. With the principality outfit conquering their domestic league and earning global plaudits en route to a Champions League semi-final, both players alongside numerous teammates are unsurprisingly in high demand.

With English club’s initial disdain ostensibly over, they have finally come to realise the complete use of a full-back and the impact they can have. Couple this with transfer fees only rivalled by the likes of China, and it’s little wonder this type of modern defender is now football’s most sought after asset. Perhaps budding youngsters no longer harbour ambitions of becoming a Gary Neville per se, but in today’s game, who wouldn’t want to be a full-back? 

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The glitz and the struggle of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s rise to prominence

“I apologised to him after my goal, and he told me that I should score two more. I said okay!”

As it happened, Aubameyang would go one better and score three more that day as his Borussia Dortmund side mercilessly crushed Hamburg 5-2. After serving a suspension for breaching club regulations, the forward announced his return to the side in typically explosive fashion.

The striker is used to dealing in extremities. From donning the iconic Rossoneri stripes, playing in a park in Newcastle, struggling to make the grade in France’s second tier and thriving in the upper echelons of European football, this is a player whose journey to the top has been far from linear.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was born in Laval, a quaint French town situated 300 kilometres from Paris. Raised by a Spanish mother and Gabonese father, it was the latter who originally instilled a passion for football in the youngster. Having played out a modest club career himself, his dad was an ex-Gabon international, capped 80 times and famously helped his nation to the 1996 African Cup of Nations quarter-finals.

Upon retirement, he took up the position of technical scout at AC Milan. By this point, he had also fathered three sons and was eager to help them make a smooth transition from the amateur to the professional game. The eldest, Catilina, was the first to up sticks and move to the Lombardy outfit, swiftly followed by middle child Willy and finally Pierre-Emerick himself.

Having spent time in numerous French academies, Aubameyang jumped at the prospect to follow in his elder’s footsteps by joining the seven-time European champions. Life in Italy started buoyantly and the striker quickly became an integral part of the Primavera side. His blistering pace was evident for all to see and was put to devastating effect during a tournament in Malaysia. I Rossoneri finished the 16-team competition in fourth as Aubameyang was awarded the Roberto Bettega Trophy – given to the top scorer – for his seven goals in just six games.

After discussions between Milan and his father, both decided the best course of action was to send the budding adolescent on loan to gain some invaluable first-team experience. This took Aubameyang back to his native France, representing Dijon FCO. The move seemed a good fit; Aubameyang Snr. was friends with manager Faruk Hadžibegić from their time playing together at Toulouse and his Ligue 2 side presented an ideal platform for the prospective striker to further develop.

As Aubameyang attempted to cut the mustard (sorry) at Dijon, Hadžibegić watched studiously from the sidelines. “He was only 19 when he arrived in Dijon, but already at that age his speed and sense of purpose was interesting,” he recalled when speaking to Jeune Afrique. His first professional goal came against Tours in a scrappy 2-1 win and he went on to finish the campaign with a respectable 10 in all competitions.

His impressive displays led to international call-ups by Italy’s under-19 side, then a month later, France’s under-21s. Gabon had always been the nation of Aubameyang’s heart, however. The country was in his ancestral blood as well as in ink across his back via a tattoo of Africa.Naturally, Gabon came calling and Aubameyang never looked back. In 2009, he scored on his debut versus Morocco, a promising sign of what was to come.

The next season saw the precocious international again out on loan, this time with Lille. The step-up in playing standard to Ligue 1 was challenging, however the move had again been thoroughly calibrated by his employers. Lille were a small team full of effervescent young talent. The squad orientated around its youth-centric approach, boasting the likes of Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Mathieu Debuchy. Moreover, boss Rudi García gave his players license to attack with freedom; it was the perfect environment for the striker to be nurtured.

Unfortunately, the heightened expectation of a club longing for European ventures appeared too much for him to handle. A measly two goals ended Aubameyang’s time in the French municipal and the player headed back to Italy with his confidence sufficiently knocked. Milan though – still assured of their forward’s qualities – decided to have a second crack of the whip and sent him on-loan to Ligue 1 again, this time to Monaco.

Alas, Aubameyang once more came up short, another two-goal spell bringing about a premature conclusion to life on the south coast. The club – itself in disarray – were consequently relegated that year with Aubameyang jumping ship in January to join Saint-Étienne.

At Les Verts, it seemed the Gabonese international had finally found a home. His loan move was promptly made permanent and the settled striker began to exemplify just how lethal he could be. His first senior hat-trick came in 2012 against Lorient as Aubameyang finally began to score freely, just as he had done for Milan’s Primavera.

He also started to overtly emanate his inner-extravagance, opting to warm up for a game against Olympique Lyonnais in diamond-encrusted boots, reportedly worth €3,000 – a taste for lavish lifestyle ostensibly inherited from his brief stint in Monaco’s opulent principality. Despite this, he was consistently reminded of his humble beginnings, not least when Gabon played a friendly in a park in Newcastle ahead of their international fixture at St James’ Park.

With the player’s endeavours both on and off the pitch proving prosperous, interest in the 23-year-old mounted. He had managed to replicate his father’s achievement 16 years previously by helping Gabon to a quarter-final finish at the 2012 African Cup of Nations and his fruitful period at Saint-Étienne was crowned with victory in the 2013 Coupe de la Ligue final. Strike partner Brandão’s solo effort against Stade Rennais was enough to clinch the first major silverware of Aubameyang’s career.

The summer of 2013 saw a multitude of offers flood in for the hot prospect. Interest from Russia and England was eventually bested by Germany as he duly signed for Borussia Dortmund in a deal worth €13 million. He left Les Verts a champion and with Chairman Bernard Caïazzo’s blessing, who stated: “He [Aubameyang] is a humble boy, available and very professional. He received much more lucrative offers than Dortmund, but rather than privilege the financial aspect, he opted for an intelligent career choice.”

Intelligent it was. Dortmund were amid a phenomenal era under the enigmatic stewardship of Jürgen Klopp. The club had won consecutive Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and were coming off the back of a Champions League final with domestic rivals Bayern Munich. As Aubameyang knew all too well by now, though, things don’t always work out the way they should.

After hitting a hat-trick on his league debut against Augsburg, he struggled as Klopp sought to accommodate both him and Polish international Robert Lewandowski, resulting in the striker being deployed out wide. It made sense given his electric pace but a lack of defensive discipline soon led the manager to bench him. The future looked bleak, and when Lewandowski was sold to Die Roten, Dortmund decided to sign Torino’s Ciro Immobile for €18.5 million.

The previous year’s Serie A top scorer seemed a shoo-in to succeed, yet after being handed multiple chances, the forward failed to impress. In a disastrous season where Dortmund flirted dangerously with relegation, Aubameyang opportunely took his chance and netted 11 goals in the last 15 Bundesliga matches to steer Die Schwarzgelben into a comfortable seventh-placed finish.

Klopp duly resigned and was replaced by Thomas Tuchel. For all the influential footballers, past and present, in Aubameyang’s career, it was the revolutionary laptop manager in Tuchel who elevated the player to new heights.

Immediately placed centrally – both figuratively and literally – in Tuchel’s plans, the Gabonese star picked up the 2015/16 campaign where he had left the last. His sensational return of 39 goals from 49 appearances showcased his manager’s well-founded faith. With every goal coming inside the 18-yeard-box, Aubameyang confessed he had been meticulously studying the movements of his idols Hernán Crespo and Ronaldo in the off-season to best hone his craft.

After collecting the individual awards of African and Bundesliga Player of the Year, he jubilantly stated: “It was Thomas Tuchel’s first season as coach and I was played centrally always. The whole team had a great year, one that I enjoyed a lot. Our style has changed a bit, from trying to score within five seconds to a more calm, and in some regard more educated style of play. We try to find the right moment – and then we explode.”

His goal celebrations became talking points, too. Seen sporting both Batman and Spiderman masks, as well as performing the odd front or backflip, one may assume they were just another part of the player’s exuberant persona. After all, this was a man parading haircuts that would even make Paul Pogba blush. The truth, however, is far more sentimental. The masks are for his son Curtys who idolises both superheroes, whilst the acrobatics pay homage to Real Madrid legend Hugo Sánchez, his late grandfather’s favourite player.

Last season saw Aubameyang become a true world-class entity. He recorded a staggering 40 goals in 46 games, culminating in being awarded the Torjägerkanone and Dortmund clinching the DFB-Pokal. His strikes including the opener in the Ruhr derby, two versus Real Madrid, a hat-trick against Benfica which saw BVB progress to the Champions League quarter-finals, and the aforementioned four he racked up against Hamburg.

With his formative barren loans a far cry from the player you see today, Aubameyang’s transformation from a savvy speed merchant into an incalculably clinical predator speaks volumes to the tireless diligence put in behind the scenes. Now linked with numerous multi-million euro transfers away from the Westfalenstadion, it’s little more than his aptitude merits.

Many fans the world over will no doubt marvel at the thought of celebrating his foray of goals, whilst marketing executives are left salivating at the commercial prospect of seeing Aubameyang’s diamond earrings and bleach blond patches of hair in their club’s strip. As for the man himself, he’ll continue to work hard and live an unassuming quiet life, his only marvelling coming from the comic books he reads to his son.

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How a defiant upbringing elevated Tim Cahill to Premier League stardom

Passion often brings out the rawest of human emotions. It’s what drives us, and in many senses, what defines us. In the cutthroat realms of professional sport, passion can also act as the singular factor in determining how high an individual’s ceiling is. Talent only goes so far and when you reach that limit – as cliché as it sounds – it comes down to how badly you want it.

Passion for his trade is something Timothy Filiga Cahill has always had in abundance, although, with the number of obstacles he’s had to overcome you may have been excused for thinking his obsession lay in hurdling, not football. 

Born in Sydney, Australia to an English father and Samoan mother, it was the former who originally instilled a passion for the beautiful game within the young Cahill. He was the middle of three sons and idolised his dad growing up. Tim Cahill Snr. was a football fanatic and made it his mission to bestow into his son’s hearts, an undying love for the sport that had stolen his. 

Trips to the city’s parks became a regular occurrence as heated contests ensued between the siblings over their adored family ball. It wasn’t all fun and games, though. His father wanted Tim to appreciate the arduous work and shear hours of painstaking practice it took to forge a career in sport. He’d make Tim and his brothers take off their right boots so that they only struck the ball with their left. “A great footballer has two feet,” he’d reiterate.

It wasn’t long before young Tim’s love affair manifested itself within his education, and it’s here that his formative development was first blocked. Whilst other pupils wrestled each other to the ground in an attempt to emulate their rugby idols, Tim and brothers were far too preoccupied kicking around empty coke cans – due to the school’s lack of football equipment – to take any notice. Bexley North Public School carried a strong ethos for rugby league and to say Cahill was discouraged from playing the sport he loved would be an understatement.

Despite his father’s protests, Bexley refused to succumb to his demands in making football a curricular activity. With no fewer than nine of Cahill’s relatives playing professional rugby, it’s little wonder the school wanted to explore his multinational gene pool that was ostensibly brimming with untapped potential. This wouldn’t perturb Cahill from playing football, though, as he actively sought out Sunday teams he could represent instead. 

His first trial came at local semi-professional outfit Sydney Olympic. Notwithstanding Cahill’s belief he had done enough to impress the on-looking adjudicators, his bubble was promptly burst once word was relayed that they believed him to be too small and not fast enough to make it in the professional game he so desperately craved to play. However, instead of crushing a disdained young boy’s spirits, Cahill firmly reassured his father that he’d one day prove the coach wrong. His initial disappointment acted as a harbinger of motivation as the future Socceroo trained harder than ever.

After continuing to impress for amateur sides, he unexpectedly received a phone call from the Samoan FA. Word had spread of Cahill’s aptitude and he was invited to partake in an under-20 international tournament aged only 14. The youngster had always identified himself as an Australian national but the chance to spend some rare time with relatives and play on such a grand stage proved impossible to turn down.

Cahill’s perseverance and effervescent attitude was finally rewarded with recognition and it wasn’t long before he had changed the obdurate mind of the same coach who questioned his ability just three years earlier. He signed for Sydney Olympic and immediately set about demonstrating why their new-found faith was well placed.

Yesteryear hedonistic park play appeared invaluable as he was lauded for his aptitude with either foot. He also developed an uncanny knack for arriving in the penalty area at the most opportunistic of moments. Originally deployed in a deeper position, it was the timing of his runs and remarkable leap to latch onto crosses that saw him moved further up field to supplement the side’s strikers.

The burgeoning attacking midfielder was watched by scouts across the country on multiple occasions before deciding to stay local, signing for Sydney United in 1997. Unfortunately for United, by this point, the precocious talent harboured greater ambitions than simply becoming an A-League stalwart.

Having grown up watching the Premier League on television with his father, British football had always been a pipe dream for the starlet. With an assured confidence from being associated with a professional club, he came home from school one day and boldly proclaimed his desire to venture abroad in pursuit of a Premier League career.

Despite still being diminutive in stature and not possessing an exceptionally technical repertoire, Cahill’s positive outlook was driven by an uncompromised desire and peerless work rate. No one wanted to be a professional footballer in Australia quite like Tim Cahill.

Determined not to be the reason Cahill’s career aspirations weren’t fulfilled, his parents duly obliged and even took out a loan to get the ambitious adolescent to English shores. Cahill Snr. made use of the few contacts he had back home and managed to arrange a trial with both Millwall and Nottingham Forrest.

Acclimatising to a new culture whilst simultaneously living away from home for the first time is far from easy. Moreover, his auntie refused to take him in, citing it as an imposition given the youngster’s lack of street smarts. Couple this with the magnitude of trialling at the notoriously tough Millwall and the task ahead was not one to be scoffed at.

Cahill, brazen as ever, backed his own ability and went toe-to-toe with brutish defenders almost twice his size. And just like that, before he even had the chance to leave London for Nottingham, Millwall scout Bob Pearson was on the phone to the Cahill household offering his family an official contract. 

Cahill would later jubilantly remark: “I remember cleaning boots at Millwall on £250 a week and feeling like a millionaire. I’d made it then. At the time, if I never played for another club it wouldn’t have bothered me too much because I’d have made it with a football team in England.”

It wasn’t all rosy for the gifted youngster, however. Playing in adverse weather conditions that were a far cry from the sunny parks of Sydney, Cahill would bemoan sustaining blisters from training in the snow. Times were tough and the 18-year-old would often call home in tears – although they were often met with a dose of tough-love from parents who had sacrificed so much to give him this opportunity. 

He progressed to debut for the first team in 1998 before helping the Lions to the 1999 Football League Trophy final. It was during the early noughties that Cahill really started to make a name for himself, securing promotion from the old Second Division before appearing in two playoff semi-finals. If England’s elite didn’t know who Cahill was yet, they were about to have an everlasting event etched into their memories.

Millwall, now under the stewardship of Dennis Wise, had miraculously made it to the 2004 FA Cup semi-finals, with Cahill at the fulcrum playing between the lines of midfield and attack to devastating effect. The competition’s last four pitted the Lions against Sunderland, and on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford, the youngster – affectionately known after Charles Dickens’ fictional character ‘Tiny Tim’ – truly announced himself.

Player-manager, Wise – a small and cunning midfielder himself – had created a system where the Aussie could flourish. Cahill acted as a foil for front man Neil Harris with Wise and David Livermore duly taking on the defensive responsibilities behind.

In the 26th minute, the ball ricocheted kindly into the path of the onrushing Cahill. Showing composure beyond his years, he coolly dispatched the chance into the top corner past the helpless Black Cats keeper, sending Millwall to Wembley. Amid an emotionally-charged celebration, Cahill headed straight for his father and brother Sean who had managed to fly over and catch what was the biggest moment of his career to date. He owed his family everything.

The summer of 2004 marked the start of Cahill’s Premier League dream. After initial interest from Crystal Palace faded, it was David Moyes’ Everton who stumped up the £1.5 million asking price to prize Tiny Tim away from the Den. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cahill currently resides amongst the pantheon of Australian greats. He is his nation’s top international goalscorer, netting at three World Cups alongside being a Toffees, and indeed Premier League, icon. He endears himself further to Evertonians by holding the best goalscoring record post-war against their fierce Merseyside rivals Liverpool and has gone on to play professionally across four continents.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay Cahill is the shift in mentality he has so infectiously inspired across Oceania. Football is now the most participated team sport in Australia with his personal academy, Foxtel All-Stars, aiming to help produce the next generation of national heroes.

Whilst talent inevitably opened doors, it was perseverance, determination and above all passion that saw Cahill smash through the glass ceiling and cemented his legacy as one of his nation’s greatest players.

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How Benfica became a global figurehead in player development

The concept of aggregation by marginal gains was first championed by British cycling performance director Sir David Brailsford. In an interview with the BBC during the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympics, he remarked: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

It’s a comment that may well have gone under the radar had it not been for Team GB’s unequivocal success on home soil. With 12 medals secured – eight of them being gold – Brailsford’s team had truly hegemonised the cycling world, leaving other nations in their wake. The notion of making slight but effective improvements in numerous areas has since transcended two wheels and now holds its rightful place at the epicentre of general sporting development.

Benfica have been at the forefront of player development for many years. However, since the grand opening of their award-winning academy, the Caixa Futebol Campus in 2006, they have gone a step further and successfully blended technological advancements in sports science with innovative coaching techniques to help foster a truly exceptional environment for youngsters to flourish within.

Overlooking the Rio Tejo, the Caixa Campus is a world-renowned academy of excellence. Located in the region of Seixal, just south of Lisbon, the centre is currently home to 15 youth sides, the B-team and the first team squad. The complex spans 19 hectares and consists of nine grass pitches – one of which hosts the B-teams matches with a capacity of 2,720 – two artificial surfaces and a 360-degree indoor ‘football laboratory’ where players’ individual physical fitness components are put to the test. This state of the art facility also accommodates nearly 60 academy prospects who live too far from Portugal’s capital to make the daily commute and are consequently housed in a lavish on-site hotel.

The Águias (Eagles) are renowned for their near-nonpareil scouting network, with 172 scouts currently deployed across the globe. The improvement of the academy, though, has become apparent in the past five years with the production line of homegrown talent accelerating rapidly.

At the heart of the Campus is Benfica legend turned general academy manager Nuno Gomes. The ex-striker is proud of the ongoing project that has produced players of the calibre of Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva, André Gomes and Gonçalo Guedes in recent times, however he believes this is just the start. Speaking to Wired magazine earlier this year he stated: “The programme here is working, but we want more.”

What’s unique about Benfica’s structure is its almost religious belief in cutting edge sports science. The Portuguese outfit ensures every decision taken regarding their academy starlets is based upon sound data analytics, with the subsequent results there for all to see.

Off the pitch, players’ sleep patterns are recorded, diets are logged and surveys about mental wellbeing are mandatory. On the pitch, GPS sensors and heart rate monitors are worn to track distances and speed, and upon completion of matches, scans are undertaken by each player to highlight any muscle fatigue. All of this data is then calibrated and methodically analysed in order to calculate tailor-made training regimes and diet plans for each player.

Tracking all these variables in the hope of marginal gains helps Gomes and his team meticulously study all aspects of the players’ lives, allowing the staff to liaise efficiently and purposively, from the first team manager to the sports psychologist to the in-house chef. It’s an interdependent environment where no stone is left unturned, and it’s working wonders.

When club president Luís Filipe Vieira spoke to TVI back in 2016, he confidently announced: “We are going to have a team made up 100 percent of players who came through the Seixal academy. That’s our long-term plan and I have no doubt we’ll get there.”

Although it’s hard to doubt that the academy is capable of making such lofty aims a reality, the economic circumstances that dictate this dream make it highly improbable.

With the club unable to match the vast financial clout of Europe’s elite, the Águias have adopted an approach of monetising many burgeoning homegrown stars in order to balance the books. Moreover, as noted by Portuguese football expert Tiago Estêvão, in an era evermore dominated by super agents, the likes of Jorge Mendes have been responsible for using the Caixa Campus as a springboard to reap client’s greater deals elsewhere, much to the detriment of Benfica.

The aforementioned Sanches is a prime example. Having only completed one season of senior Primeira Liga action, the academy graduate was courted by German giants Bayern Munich and, with Mendes coaxing the starlet behind the scenes, a deal of €35 million was quickly struck as Sanches joined Die Roten.

Bernardo Silva, another represented by Mendes, was plucked from the grasp of Benfica after just a single first team appearance and placed into the grateful arms of Monaco. That particular transfer was greeted with begrudged animosity by Benfiquistas who, as Portuguese football writer Marco Lopes points out, was regarded as ‘the most exquisite [academy] talent since a certain Rui Costa’.

This label of being a selling club is nothing new. Over the past seven years Benfica have parted company with no fewer than 12 crucial players for a staggering €376 million, and although the shift in mentality to nurture homegrown talent has been promising, with Benfica having made a habit of selling accomplished youth, it begs the question whether Vieira’s goal will ever be realised?

One man trying his hardest to fulfil his employer’s wishes is first team manager Rui Vitória. Demonstrating the club’s commitment to cohesion at all levels, the 47-year-old has taken time to observe copious academy and B-team sessions and has since blooded the best imported talents such as Victor Lindelöf and Ederson in the first XI.

Last year in an interview with A Bola, Vitória reaffirmed his unwavering belief in the academy: “I’m very alert to Benfica’s B-team and youth teams. Of course I can’t be sure that the players I believe will get to the first team in three years, will do so, but there’s a system in place and we have lots of alternatives. Benfica’s future is guaranteed.”

The relatively infant Caixa Campus recently marked its 10th anniversary since its construction, with worldwide recognition. After winning the prestigious title of Best Academy at the 2015 Globe Soccer Awards, general manager Gomes was beaming with adulation. “It is an award that fills us with pride, it is a sign that we are working well. There are very few academies that are better than ours in terms of their working conditions.”

On-field achievements have been prevalent, as demonstrated by two appearances in the first four UEFA Youth League finals, although Benfica lost both. Despite their only major award coming away from the field of play, the club’s continual progression to the latter stages of European youth competition only further accentuates its outstanding academy.

The conflict of interest between managing the eye-watering €300 million debt and ensuring their youth products see out their peak years in Benfica red remains a challenge, but as the first team claim a historic fourth consecutive league title with a combination of shrewd recruits and homegrown personnel, the positives are there for all to see.

Even if President Vieira’s plan of a solely homegrown first team never materialises, Benfica’s firebrand and avant-garde strategy towards progressive and innovative youth development that has won so many plaudits will surely continue to go from strength to strength – even if it is by the finest of margins. 

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