While a contingency of Dutch football fans did predict that Ajax would pull off a massive upset at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night, only your neighborhood’s deluded Barca fan would have foreseen Real Madrid being humbled by a shock scoreline of 4-1 last week in the Champions League Round of 16.
It may be the last thing that Madridistas want to hear right now, but my cousin, a die-hard Real Madrid fan, said it best: “Tuesday’s drubbing at the hands of Ajax is the best thing that’s happened to Los Merengues since becoming the first side in history to win the Champions League in three consecutive seasons.”
This season started off in Real ugly fashion for a number of reasons (see what I did there?), culminating at the Camp Nou stomping by Barcelona in October by a score of 5-1. That thrashing cost Julen Lopetegui his job, as he got the ax the following day after just three months in charge.
In came Santiago Solari.
Solari was a different story from Lopetegui. A former Madridista himself, the Argentine was a decent footballer in his playing days, notably sending Roberto Carlos down the line in the buildup to Zidane’s masterful volley in the 2002 Champions League Final. Fast forward some years, and Lopetegui began working as an academy coach at Real in 2013.
With such strong family ties, Solari was always going to be well-received by the Real Madrid faithful. A former Real player like Zidane, he had a higher set of expectations for the future of the club. Plus, having previously worked with the youth teams (also like Zidane), he immediately injected young blood into the first team, most notably through his inclusion of teenage Brasilian phenom Vinicius Jr.
Results were mixed: a 3-0 away defeat in the league to Eibar and a 3-0 home Champions League defeat to CSKA Moscow were contrasted by a successful Club World Cup. Four months in, Solari got an impressive away 1-1 draw at Barcelona and an even more impressive 3-1 away win against Atletico Madrid. Results aside, Los Blancos seemed to be rediscovering an identity that had gone missing during Lopetegui’s short tenure in charge.
That February form didn’t last too long though. In a matter of seven days from February 27th to March 5th, that “rediscovered identity” went out the window.
Three consecutive home defeats proved to be too much for the Real Madrid hierarchy to bear. Real lost 3-0 to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, and then again to their arch nemesis 1-0 in the league. Their horrific week then culminated with Real’s shock loss to Ajax, effectively ending their chances of winning an incredible fourth straight Champions League.
Six days later, Solari was shown the door.
Welcome back, Zinedine Zidane.
The man needs no introduction. For those unfamiliar with the history of football, Zidane is the bald guy who headbutted an opponent in the biggest sports event in the world. To the football community, Zidane is one of the most talented and successful players in the history of the sport.
As of May 2018, Zidane is also the most successful coach in Champions League history, after winning three Champions League titles in less than three years as manager of Real Madrid. His re-hiring after only nine months away from the club came as a slight surprise, but nonetheless, it makes sense. Real Madrid needs silverware, and of the current coaches either in between teams or looking to start a new journey, Zidane is the most successful of the lot in the last five seasons.
World class players know that silverware goes a long way in cementing their legacy. Zidane knew what it took to win as a player, and he quickly demonstrated that same ability as a manager. The opportunity to play under someone with such a thoroughly-documented winning mentality is a difficult one to pass up, no matter the team that they’re currently a part of.
While Zidane would probably be capable of overperforming with this current squad, he knows that his roster is in need of new life.
Eden Hazard, who is entering the last year in his contract at Chelsea, seems like the most sensible major signing to make this summer. Hazard has made clear his interest in playing for Zidane at Real Madrid, and his success in England has made him worthy of running the show for Real. This would allow Gareth Bale, who has looked unhappy at various points throughout his time in Madrid, to finally leave.
Beyond Hazard, players like Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Mauro Icardi, Milan Škriniar, and N’Golo Kanté are just a few names who Zidane could potentially sign. There is enough money in the bank for Florentino Perez to sign at least two players of the highest caliber. No matter who Real Madrid signs, they’ll be happy to have a winner at the helm.
At the end of the day, Real Madrid fans have Ajax to thank for Zinedine Zidane’s return to the Bernabeu.
Only time will tell what magic Zizou conjures up this time around.
With yet another season of domestic European football set to start less than two weeks from now, we have witnessed yet another exciting summer transfer window across Europe. Leonardo Bonucci shocked the world by joining the Rossoneri, James Rodriguez joined Bayern on a two-year loan (what?), and Kylian Mbappé seems to be set on staying with Monaco for at least one more season despite receiving heavy interest from every top club in the world.
And as per usual, the Premier League has seen the most productive activity in the transfer window, largely amongst the teams who finished in the top six last season (Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United). All but one side has made numerous additions to their respective sides in hopes of strengthening their squad to cope with the ever-compiling competitive nature of the best league in the world.
But who among last season’s top six has maneuvered the 2017 summer transfer window the best?
Coming off of a dominant debut season in the Premier League, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is not playing around in preparing a defense worthy of yet another league title. Conte has parted ways with 27 players this summer, with 15 of them going out on loan for the season and 12 of them leaving on a permanent transfer. Notable departures include two promising young players in powerful striker Dominic Solanke (who we will come back to later) and composed center back Nathan Ake, as well as the experienced Nemanja Matić (who we will also come back to later).
While Conte has been busy cleaning up shop, he has also made sure to revamp the backbone of his Chelsea side with a new center back, defensive midfielder and striker. At CB, 24-year-old Antonio Rüdiger spent the last two seasons at Roma and won the Confederations Cup this summer with Germany, meaning his defensive IQ and high level of experience are exactly what Conte needs in the back line. At DM, 22-year-old Frenchman Tiemoué Bakayoko helped Monaco win Ligue 1 and reach the semi-finals of the Champions League last year.
Finally, at ST, Álvaro Morata has joined the Blues from Real Madrid in hopes of seeing the starting XI on a more consistent basis. At 24 years of age, Morata has already played in three Champions League finals, and won two of them, although he appeared as a substitute in both victories. He is a technically gifted striker with an eye for goal, but only time will tell whether he has the physical tenacity to handle the pace and power of the Premier League.
Overall Grade: B+
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham side has arguably been the best side in the Premier League for the past two seasons, despite finishing in third place and second place, respectively. With the youngest average aged team in the league, Pochettino has fostered an exciting style of play that has seen English striker Harry Kane win the league’s Golden Boot for the past two seasons running, and the emergence of Dele Alli as one of the best young footballers in the world.
This summer, Tottenham has let go of ten players. Shockingly, on the other side of business, Pochettino has not purchased a single player during the summer 2017 transfer window. While Tottenham hosts the most well-rounded starting XI in the league, they can certainly improve their squad’s depth. Kane & Alli may be carrying the team in terms of goal-scoring, along with the help of Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min; but Vincent Janssen, Tottenham’s only true out and out backup striker, has not carried his weight since making the move to London last summer. Kane will need rest from time to time, and based on what he has shown so far, Janssen is light years away from filling those shoes.
Overall Grade: B
Pep Guardiola had a disappointing first season with his new club by his own standards, seeing his side finish in 3rd place after beginning the season in blistering form. Throughout the year, his City side showed flashes of the beautiful football that Pep is known for producing, but inconsistency kept them from reaching the heights they were expected to reach.
This summer was always going to be an extremely active one for Manchester City, considering the reputation of both Guardiola and City’s owners for blowing the bank. In preparation, City parted ways with 20 players, only five of which left on loan, including Joe Hart to West Ham. Remarkably, on the other hand, City have spent almost $200 million this summer exclusively on their defense, including three full backs in Kyle Walker from Tottenham, Benjamin Mendy from Monaco and Danilo from Real Madrid. Leading the defense will be goalkeeper Ederson, who has looked impressive this summer since his arrival from Benfica, and Guardiola is praying that he will be the solid keeper who City has been missing for a few years now. Lastly, Monaco’s now former playmaker Bernardo Silva looks as though he will take City’s offense to new frightening heights.
Guardiola has spoken on the fact that City does not have enough remaining funds to purchase a new center back, and he probably should have thought about that before buying two right backs for over $100 million. There is no questioning the potency of this City side’s offensive ability, but their defense does not quite tell the same story. Not yet, at least.
Overall Grade: B-
Having qualified for the Champions League for the first time since the 2014-2015 season, Jürgen Klopp’s first full season in the Premier League was ultimately a success. Like Manchester City, Liverpool put out some inspired performances against the bigger teams, but somehow managed to lose critical games including home fixtures against Swansea and Crystal Palace, both of whom had abysmal seasons.
Certainly, Liverpool’s defense was to be restructured this summer.
So far, Liverpool has let go of nine players, five of which were released from the club. Surprisingly, Klopp has been rather conservative with his checkbook, which is further affirmation of the faith that the German coach has always shown in his teams. Still, it goes to beg the question of how far that faith will take him this year. Despite already featuring a creative offense that was unstoppable at times last season, two of Klopp’s three purchases have been offensive ones. Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah recently made the move to Merseyside from Roma, and with his direct style of play driven by his pace, he will likely flourish under Klopp. The second signing, Dominic Solanke, a 19 year old who was let go by Chelsea, will only end up costing Klopp around $3.5 million. He may already have Chelsea regretting their decision to let him go, showcasing his strength and his eye for goal in his first two appearances for Liverpool.
Their third signing, oddly, is former Hull City left back Andrew Robertson, whom they do not truly need at the moment. In modern football, a side must have a world class goalkeeper in order to be considered amongst the best teams in the world, and this is the one position in which Liverpool is seriously suffering. Neither Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius were all that convincing last season, and until they find a proper fit between the posts, Liverpool will likely struggle when the season gets gritty.
Another center back might help as well…
Overall Grade: C
Last season told the typical tale of an Arsenal season: start shakily, clean things up during the fall, fall off in wintertime, and wake up in the closing stretch of the season. The only difference is that in past years, it ended up being enough to get us in the Champions League, whereas this year, we fell just short of fourth place. Yes, for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s 20 years as Arsenal manager, the Gunners have failed to qualify for the prestigious Champions League. These are strange times for us Arsenal fans, as many of us have never felt this feeling before.
Arsene did a little bit of cleaning up this summer as well, releasing five players, loaning out two and selling two more. There have been just two additions this summer, including left midfielder Sead Kolašinac from Schalke on a free transfer, and the long overdue, club record transfer of striker Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon. Following Wenger’s surprise change to a 3-4-3 formation in the final stretch of last season, Kolašinac will fit smoothly into this newly arranged Arsenal side with his ability to perform both as a powerful defender and as a deceivingly quick and technical outside midfielder. Lacazette, on the other hand, felt like a Godsend for us Gunners after years of being linked with just about every top-shelf striker in the game, only to come out empty handed time and again. He was borderline prolific last year in Ligue 1, and he finally has his chance to shine at the top level. I want to believe that Lacazette will adapt to the Premier League well, but only time will tell.
While multiple midfielders in Arsenal’s current roster have the potential to take on leadership roles at the club, the Gunners have not had a world class defensive midfielder since Patrick Vieira over a decade ago. Santi Cazorla is world class, but he only plays in the defensive role occasionally, and his absence through consecutive long-term injuries in the last two years has hurt Arsenal deeply. Two seasons ago, Coquelin seemed to be growing into the leadership role at DM, but that faded after a while. This is the only hole in Arsenal’s lineup that is keeping them from being serious title contenders again.
On a side note, the prolonged contract extension drama with Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil has not helped out the morale of the team.
Overall Grade: B
José Mourinho and Manchester United had a strange season by multiple standards. They finished in sixth place in the Premier League, which by both the club’s standards and Mourinho’s standards, is awful. Yet in the same time, they also won the Community Shield, the Football League Cup and the Europa League (for the first time). This led Mourinho and some United fans to (jokingly?) claim that they had won a treble. This is certainly not the case, but alas, a subtly impressive season for the Red Devils.
This summer saw the departure of nine players, including the release of Zlatan Ibrahimović and the selling of Wayne Rooney back to his boyhood club, Everton. There was not much improving to do for Manchester United, other than to replace Zlatan, as well as to find a proper center back to pair with the commanding Eric Bailly, and they did just that. After being on United’s radar for quite some time, they finally acquired the services of Victor Lindelöf, the Swedish center back, from Benfica.
Of course, Manchester United also purchased Romelu Lukaku after an impressive season at Everton, where he proved once and for all his ability to handle the demands of the Premier League. Other than his occasional poor first touch, in contrast to Zlatan’s revered godly first touch, Lukaku has the full package. With a young and speedy offense to his left and right, and the backing of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, Lukaku will flourish at Manchester United just as he did at Everton.
Additionally, just as he did in his return to Chelsea, Mourinho has lured the sturdy Nemanja Matić back into his side to further strengthen this impressive Manchester United midfield.
Overall Grade: A
Summer 2017 Transfer Window Grading Amongst Last Season’s Top Six:
Chelsea: B+ Tottenham: B Manchester City: B- Liverpool: C Arsenal: B Manchester United: A
West Ham: B+: Chicharito, Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta Everton: A-: Wayne Rooney, Jordan Pickford, Davy Klaassen, Sandro Ramírez
Like a lot of people around my age, I fell in love with soccer in 2008 when Cristiano Ronaldo emerged as the best player in the world as a 23-year-old winger for Manchester United. The way he took players on in one on one situations, his explosive speed and his ability to score just about every kind of goal you can think of drew me into the sport immediately. There was an air of unwavering confidence with which he carried himself that helped me to instill a greater sense of confidence in myself in my footballing endeavors. For a number of years, I had two massive posters of Cristiano Ronaldo in my room, in addition to countless miscellaneous photos of him from various soccer magazines.
Needless to say, I adored CR7.
That adoration slowly shrank after Ronaldo’s transfer to Real Madrid in the Summer of 2009, where that unwavering confidence began to cross the line of arrogance on countless occasions, both on and off the pitch. Regardless, my respect for Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the most professional soccer players of all time, one of the most prolific scorers of all time, and ultimately as a caring, good personality will never leave me.
“While Cristiano Ronaldo is still performing relatively well, he is now 32 years old, and his form this season has not been quite as prolific by his sublime standards. He has looked slightly less sharp at times, and unless Real Madrid win the Champions League again this year as well as the Spanish domestic league, he is unlikely to ever win the Ballon d’Or again.”
You don’t always find yourself happy after being proven wrong about something, but this is one of those occasions where I couldn’t be more elated about it.
Overall, Cristiano’s form in this past season did indeed fall off slightly, and for much of the season, he did look slightly less sharp.
He finished the season in La Liga with 25 goals in comparison to his total of 35 last year and 48 the year before. In the Champions League, he was slightly underwhelming but more consistent with previous years than he had been in La Liga, scoring 12 goals, compared to his tally of 16 last year and 10 the year before.
The difference between this season and those of previous years, however, is in the end result. Cristiano Ronaldo is the most prolific scorer in Real Madrid’s illustrious history, and one of the best goalscorers of all time, yet he has been subject to much criticism over the years for his inability to show up in games that matter the most
This season has proved otherwise for once and for all.
Real Madrid won La Liga this season for the first time since the 2011-2012 season, and while Ronaldo’s form was slightly off the mark for much of the season, he helped set the tone for victory with big goals in the tail end of the season. Ronaldo was widely criticized for his inability to stamp his team’s dominance in La Liga in addition to his own personal dominance, and fairly so, as one league title in seven seasons is certainly a poor record for a team as talented as Real Madrid. While two titles in eight seasons is not all that much different, his significance in both title-winning seasons five years apart is indeed impressive.
It was his performances in the Champions League, however, that will likely go down as the most defining stretch of his career thus far. Ronaldo scored just two goals in the Group Stage, which is poor even by his standards, only to go on to score an astounding 10 goals in the seven Knockout Round games. The first two goals came in the first leg of the Quarterfinals at Bayern Munich, then a hat-trick in the second leg, a hat-trick in the first leg of the Semifinals against Atletico Madrid, and finally a brace in the final against Juventus. His performance against Juventus made him the first player in Champions League history to have scored in three Champions League finals, which is an amazing feat in itself.
Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus are all without a doubt some of the best teams in the world, and Ronaldo’s ability to lead his side to victory over such powerhouses at the age of 32 must lay to rest all claims that Cristiano Ronaldo is not a big time player. Of course, it helps that he plays alongside some of the best players in the world, including arguably the two best central midfielders in Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, but it was Cristiano who made things happen when they needed to get things done.
The fact alone that this Real Madrid side is the first team to win back to back Champions League titles since the conception of the tournament is enough to guarantee Ronaldo his fifth Ballon d’Or, which would equal Lionel Messi’s collection, an achievement which seemed unimaginable only a few years ago.
Despite seeing his Portugal side fall short in the Confederations Cup this Summer, Cristiano Ronaldo has proven me wrong by turning up the heat when it mattered most.
Based on how he ended the 2016-2017 season, I should know better than to doubt greatness.
The countless rivalries that exist within sports makes them that much more exciting. Whether they exist between individuals, teams, regions, or even different ethnic or religious groups, rivalries add a unique sense of excitement to any competition.
For the past nine years, the international football community has been fortunate enough to watch the greatest individual rivalry in the history of sports. While rivalries such as Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer, Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson and Sidney Crosby vs Alex Ovechkin all present incredible drama, none compare to the nine-year reign of dominance currently being displayed by Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid & Portugal and Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona & Argentina.
In American sports, the awards for Most Valuable Player are handed out at the end of the regular season and before the beginning of the playoffs. In sports like golf or tennis, there is a ranking system that varies regularly based on the performances of athletes in their respective sports. These are two places in which football awards are unique compared to other sports. To start, there is technically no such thing as playoffs (outside of the Americanized MLS), meaning that footballers are judged based on their performances for an entire calendar year. Second, there is no ranking system in place for individual players, only for national teams.
The official award for the best footballer in the world is the Ballon d’Or (ball of gold in French). There are 30 players nominated for the prestigious award, which accepts votes from professional football players, coaches from across the world and high-ranking journalists. With all of the individuals most centrally involved in the sport having a say in the selection process, the player elected winner of the Ballon d’Or is typically accepted without much fuss.
Incredibly enough, for the last nine years, either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d’Or. Ronaldo has won four Ballon d’Or trophies (2008, 2013, 2014, 2016), while Lionel Messi has won five (in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015). Between them, they have won 12 domestic league titles and seven Champions League titles, having broken a never-ending list of records on both the domestic and international level. Lionel Messi is widely considered the best player in the history of the sport, and some make their argument for Cristiano Ronaldo. Regardless of who one may consider the best, both of these players have undoubtedly cemented his place amongst the greats. It is important to note that one could easily argue Cristiano Ronaldo to have the more successful career between the two, but when it comes down to ability, Lionel Messi usually comes out on top.
In no other sport have two players remained in or immediately near the number one position in the world for so long, or so intermittently. After winning his first Ballon d’Or as a player on Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo watched Messi win the award for four straight years, before he came back and won it twice in a row as a player for Real Madrid. Messi then stole the crown again in 2015 before Ronaldo was again awarded the Ballon d’Or for the fourth time this past January. The rivalry between these two players is unprecedented considering the decade of consistency shown by both players, and we must remember to appreciate them both for the legends that they are despite all of the inevitable comparisons being made between the two players.
With that being said, we continue to compare.
While Cristiano Ronaldo is still performing relatively well, he is now 32 years old, and his form this season has not been quite as prolific by his sublime standards. He has looked slightly less sharp at times, and unless Real Madrid win the Champions League again this year as well as the Spanish domestic league, he is unlikely to ever win the Ballon d’Or again. Lionel Messi, on the other hand, is only 29 years old and is currently in mesmerizing form. Considering that Messi relies more on his technical ability, whereas Cristiano Ronaldo utilizes his physical dominance, Messi can likely win the Ballon d’Or at least twice more before somebody else finally takes the crown from the two superstars.
But who will it be?
Currently only 25 years old, Neymar is perfectly poised to win the next Ballon d’Or after teammate and mentor Lionel Messi decides to let him lead the frontline. FC Barcelona purchased the Brasilian in 2013 from Santos, his native club, where Neymar was considered a prodigious talent from the age of 16. He stayed in Brasil for a year longer than stardom-hungry European clubs wished he would, giving him another year to develop as a player, until finally moving to Barcelona at the ripe age of 21.
After a solid debut season with the club, Barcelona then bought Uruguay-native Luis Suarez from Liverpool, who is arguably best striker in the world. This trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez quickly gelled in the 2014-2015 season, becoming what is now considered the best attacking line in the history of the sport. This goal machine trio produced 122 goals that season between them, leading the club to their second treble in club history, with Neymar making an immediate impact, scoring in the Champions League final against Juventus. On April 2nd 2017, Neymar scored his 100th goal for Barcelona in less than four seasons, indicating his comfort at the club.
Neymar has grown as a player in every season that he has been with Barcelona. With the mentorship of Messi and Suarez, along with veterans like Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and coach Luis Enrique, Neymar will continue developing into the very superstar that people saw in him from day one. In fact, if he continues improving at this rate, he may even exceed those expectations. His ability to accelerate past players with innovative skill moves, use both feet to great effect, and his nose for both goals and assists make him the perfect winger. Most importantly though, you can tell in his style of play that Neymar lives for the joga bonito (the beautiful game in Portuguese).
Neymar has also proven his world-class abilities on the international stage, currently averaging well over half a goal a game for Brasil (a stellar statistic for a national team), which at this rate will see him easily passing the legendary Pele to become Brasil’s all time leading scorer. Neymar won Player of the Tournament honors at the 2013 Confederations Cup, had an impressive 2014 World Cup campaign before getting injured, and led Brasil to Olympic Gold for the first time in the country’s history last Summer. Neymar is the game-changing player that Brasil has been missing since Ronaldo (not to be confused with Cristiano Ronaldo) single-handedly won the 2002 World Cup with a brace in the final against Germany.
If Neymar would like to end the nine-year reign of Ronaldo & Messi more quickly than some may anticipate, he will need to perform just as the Brasilian Ronaldo once did for the national team. The World Cup is next summer, and with Neymar growing in confidence with every game, there is no reason that he cannot lead Brasil to their first World Cup since they won in South Korea in 2002. Such heroics would almost certainly guarantee him the 2018 Ballon d’Or, assuming that Messi wins the 2017 Ballon d’Or.
Realistically though, Neymar doesn’t need a World Cup to win the Ballon d’Or. As long as he continues to win trophies with Barcelona and performs at a high level for Brasil like has done for his entire career, it is only a matter of a time before Neymar is crowned king. He is simply that good. Surely, players like Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba are capable of beating Neymar to the throne, but none of them have hit the ground running in the way that Neymar has.
At this point, we are privileged enough to sit back, relax, and enjoy as Lionel Messi ever so slowly hands the torch to Neymar. Or, depending on what Neymar wants to do, maybe it won’t be so slow at all.
In the 2014-2015 Premier League season, Leicester City was a mess. Going into 2015, Leicester looked set for relegation into the EFL Championship, the second division of England, as they sat at the bottom of the league standings. Yet somehow, the Foxes managed to finish in 14th place, escaping the treacherous pit of regulation by a nervy six points. Ugly football riddled the club at times, but all they needed was survival. After such a treacherous season, Leicester City fired Nigel Pearson, their coach who led Leicester to promotion from the third division into the Premier League.
The man chosen to fill his place was none other than signore Ranieri.
Nobody could have predicted what happened starting three months after their survival of their first run at the Prem, and only one month after Ranieri’s hiring. In what is widely considered to be the greatest sporting achievement of all time, Leicester City won the 2015-2016 Barclays Premier League for the first time in the club’s history, overcoming odds of 5000/1 in doing so. Ranieri took what had seemed like a team of average and below-average players and turned them into a disciplined, efficient and exciting team that poured every ounce of passion into their play. Players likes Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’golo Kante had breakout seasons, and based on their lackluster performances in the season before, Ranieri deserves all of the praise in the world for what Leicester’s players achieved. To top things off, Mahrez was named Player of the Year in England, and Ranieri was named Manager of the Year.
So yes, you could say that the Italian manager is a deity at Leicester City.
Sadly, though, this season has not painted a picture anywhere close to that of last season’s fairytale league championship. Leicester struggled through the entire first half of the season, largely walking along a tense tightrope of two or three positions that dangled above the relegation zone. They seemed to have reverted back to the ways of two seasons before, when they struggled to merely escape relegation to the Championship. The team seemed to be lacking the fiery desire to succeed which brought them the league title just months prior, and relegation looked to be a serious threat.
After performing miracles in his first season with the club, Ranieri was now subject to serious criticisms about his team’s poor form. Critics of Ranieri pointed to the fact that Leicester was more or less fielding the same team that won the Premier League the season before, but they clearly missed the presence of Kante after the summer transfer window saw him making a move to current table leaders Chelsea. Kante is the kind of player that every team needs: he seems to be everywhere on the pitch at all times, intercepting or tackling the ball in key areas, starting and finishing counter attacks, and controlling the tempo of the game. During their championship season, the 5’7” Frenchman led Europe’s top five leagues in tackles. Without N’Golo Kante, Leicester City would never have won the Premier League.
Leicester failed to adequately replace Kante, once he departed, which is another potential area of criticism for Ranieri, but here is the problem with such criticism: you cannot easily replace a player like N’Golo Kante. So, with such a huge hole now existing in the Leicester City starting XI going into a new season, many expected Leicester to return to their form of the 2014-2015 season, and they did. While Ranieri was in part to blame for such a drastic drop in form, surely his job was safe. His heroics in the season before were nothing short of magical sorcery, to say the least, and he was revered not only by Leicester City, but by the entire international football community for his tremendous achievement. If he could lead his team to the Premier League title in his first season in charge of the side, then he could surely save them from relegation in his second.
The hierarchy at Leicester City disagreed, and only nine months after creating history in winning the Premier League, Claudio Ranieri was fired in February of this year.
Leicester City’s decision to sack Ranieri came largely as a shock for the football community. It was simply unfathomable as to how a manager who beat the odds of 5000/1 in his first season as coach to win the most competitive league in the world could be fired less than a year after doing so. Although Leicester’s form was indeed awful in the first half of the 2016-2017 season, many felt that Ranieri should have been given the courtesy of at least completing his second season with the club before being given the boot. Ranieri was adorned for his genuine personality, which was central to Leicester’s 2015-2016 success, and despite his short tenure, he almost seemed to take on the persona of the grandfather of the club. How could you fire your grandfather?
Sadly, Leicester City’s choice to sack Claudio Ranieri is reflective of a much wider trend that has plagued football across Europe’s top five leagues for quite some time now. Arsene Wenger is currently the longest serving manager in Europe’s top five leagues, having coached Arsenal for 20 years. The next longest serving manager, Christophe Galtier for Saint-Etienne, has only been the coach there for seven years. With such a large gap between first and second longest serving coaches in mind, it is clearly rare nowadays for any manager to remain in charge of a club for more than a couple of seasons. Football clubs are hungry for immediate success, expecting their managers to make significant improvement in their team’s ability to perform and achieve positive results, seemingly overnight. Such an unhealthy mentality ultimately leads to the premature sacking of managers before they are even given the time to cement their philosophies within the training ground.
What makes the case of Ranieri so confusing, so infuriating, and so heartbreaking, is that he was the definition of immediate success. In fact, he was the most dramatic case of immediate success in the history of the sport. Leicester City went from being the worst team in the Premier League to being the best team in the Premier League in just one calendar year, thanks to Ranieri. Certainly he did not deserve to be on the end of such strong criticisms that he received during the first half of the 2016-2017 season so soon after working wonders. Would firing grandpa really improve the quality of performances for Leicester City?
Sadly, three weeks into the new Leicester Era, the answer is yes.
Since Ranieri’s dismissal, Leicester City has created significantly more goals, and are conceding far less at the same time. The club has played four games under current coach Craig Shakespeare since Ranieri was dropped in late February, and they have won all four of these games, scoring 11 goals and conceding only four. These include a 3-1 win against top side Liverpool, and a massive 2-0 win against Sevilla, which sent them through to the Quarterfinal of the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
In the short term, things have looked brighter for Leicester City, and one could certainly argue that this impressive run of form is directly correlated with Ranieri’s dismissal. It is important to keep in mind, though, that three weeks is not enough time to assess whether this success can be accredited to the sacking of Claudio Ranieri or not. We will have to wait and see where Leicester City end up both in the Premier League and in the Champions League in order to make such a statement.
Regardless of whether sacking Ranieri goes on to help Leicester City avoid relegation like they did in the 2014-2015 season, I cannot help but hold a grudge against the club for the way that they treated the Italian genius. Although this sounds selfish of me, a large part of me actually wishes that Leicester City is relegated again, strictly so that the club front office rues their decision to let Ranieri go. The lack of faith that they showed to a man who gave them more than they could ever even dream of having in just nine months is astounding. It is disrespectful to the man himself, to Leicester city fans (excluding the small contingent who supported his sacking), and it is disrespectful to football culture as a whole.
So, to repeat the sentiments of so many football fans around the world, I have two words for Claudio Ranieri:
It has just been announced that Isaiah Thomas, the point guard for the Boston Celtics currently in the best form of his career, is leaving the National Basketball League (NBA) to play professional basketball in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) on a three-year, 80-million-dollar contract. Suddenly, a number of other great players in the NBA are following suit to play in the PBA for similar fees.
You’re probably scratching your head, thinking, “…the Philippines?”
Trust your instinct, my friend, because you were right: this would never happen in a million years. The NBA is undisputedly home to the highest standard of basketball in the world, and attracts the best basketball players from around the world who are looking to maximize their potential. For a top-quality player like Isaiah Thomas to go to such a minuscule league would be considered the utmost lucrative transfer in the history of the NBA.
Alas, at the end of the day, money talks. A lot.
In fact, it seems to be talking more and more in soccer than in any other sport in the world at this moment in time. Sadly, this hypothetical Isaiah Thomas transfer to the PBA is precisely what is happening in the sport of soccer. Except, instead of the Philippines, soccer fans find themselves scratching their heads, thinking, “…China?”
Believe it or not, in just the last few months, there has been a wave of highly regarded soccer players moving from various European leagues to the Chinese Super League (CSL).
This wave of European-based talents to China is cancerous to the sport of soccer.
It is important to note that Europe is to soccer as the United States is to basketball in the sense that Europe is home to the highest standard of soccer in the world. In order for the young talents around the world to be taken seriously as top-quality players, they must be able to take their performances in their home countries and perform at the same level in Europe, especially in the five biggest European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France). So if you’re playing in Europe, why would you want to leave?
Well, just ask Alex Witsel, Oscar or Carlos Tevez, just to name three of the many culprits who made the move to China.
What you won’t hear in any of their answers is a rave review of the Chinese soccer scene.
The first professional soccer league in China was founded in 1994, but it quickly became clear that it was riddled with match-fixing, gambling and corruption. Professional soccer in China then underwent a major reformation, which resulted in the creation of the CSL in 2004. Although the CSL consists of 16 teams, Guangzhou Evergrande has won the last six league titles, highlighting the non-existence of competition in China. On the international level, China has never been able to compete with the rest of the world. Since FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, created the world ranking system for international teams back in 1992, China has averaged a ranking of 72nd. Furthermore, China has only qualified for one World Cup in its history back in 2002, where they tumbled out of the group stage, losing all three of their games and conceding nine goals in the process.
So no, these players are not leaving to improve their game, because the standard of soccer in China is minuscule in comparison to Europe. What you will hear in (at least) one of their answers, though, is money.
Up until January of this year, 28-year old Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, had spent his professional career playing in Belgium, Portugal and Russia. Witsel had not yet breached the realm of the top five leagues, but he had long been good enough to cope with the highest level of competition. Then, following a solid Euro 2016 performance last summer, it seemed as though he would finally get to prove his worth when Italian powerhouse Juventus showed a massive interest in signing the Belgian. Everything was lined up perfectly for Witsel to make that final step up in his career.
That is, until Tianjin Quanjian F.C. of the CSL reached out to him offering a four-and-a-half-year contract with an annual salary of 19.4 million dollars.
Witsel was quickly on his way to China. When asked about his decision, Witsel did not beat around the bush. He explained that, “It was a very difficult decision because on the one hand there was a huge, top club in Juventus, but on the other hand there was an irresistible offer for the future of my family.”
I personally cannot decide whether to admire or despise his honesty, but regardless of how you feel about his response, the reasoning remains the same.
Money talks. A lot.
Another player who listened to the money was 25-year old Brasilian former Chelsea midfielder Oscar who had far more potential than Axel Witsel. This is the same Oscar who, at 21 years old in the Champions League, made a fool out of Italian legend Andrea Pirlo with a world-class cruyff turn and then proceeded to do the same to Pirlo’s fellow Italian legend and teammate Gianluigi Buffon with a world-class finish into the top right corner.
Now, fast forward four years to the arrival of Antonio Conte as Chelsea’s new manager last summer. Oscar had seen a drop in form even before Conte’s arrival, and he fell even farther down the pecking order with Conte’s revolutionary 3-4-3 formation after starting the first five games of the season. Despite his unfortunate form at Chelsea, Oscar could have left and been a starting player for countless teams across Europe.
But alas, money talks. A lot.
Instead of spending the best years of his career playing for a top-level European side, Oscar decided to play for Shanghai International Port Group F.C, where he will be making roughly $500,000 a week. That breaks down to about $71,000 a day, $3,000 an hour, and $50 a minute. Those numbers speak for themselves. I know, I’m furious too. A massive waste of talent and money.
Last but not least, we have 32-year-old Argentine striker Carlos Tevez. Tevez is a different case than that of Axel Witsel and Oscar because he did not actually go from Europe to China. Also unlike Witsel and Oscar, Tevez had already thoroughly proven himself at the top level. He was a key starting player for Manchester United, the biggest soccer team in the world, as well as their rivals Manchester City, along with Juventus. Instead of going to China and much to the adornment of the global soccer community, Tevez left Juventus to play for his boyhood club Boca Juniors in Argentina where it all started. His return looked like utter pandemonium, and Tevez was set to retire as a Boca Juniors player like a true legend.
But alas, money talks. A lot.
Shanghai Shenhua from the CSL offered Tevez a two-year, $91-million-dollar contract that would officially make him the highest paid soccer player in the world, despite his being well past his prime. That breaks down to about $760,000 a week, $108,500 a day, or $4,500 an hour. After some time of publicly-professed deliberation, Tevez too was on his way to play for Shenhua. This was the same man who, back in 2010 said, “Football is only about money, and I don’t like it.” Funny how times change, huh?
Well, actually, it’s quite the tragedy.
Again, the Chinese Super League is cancerous towards the sport of soccer. It is hanging crisp dollar bills on a string above the heads of these world-class footballers and baiting them right over the edge of the cliff and into the abyss of irrelevance where they will happily rot in their riches. It is showing fans that, ultimately, players care more about the money than the people who pay to support them. It is teaching young, aspiring soccer players around the world that monetary success is ultimately more important than playing at the highest level. We as a culture seem to be forgetting what makes the game so beautiful. We play with our feet, but we move with our souls. We live for this game because we love it. Realistically, like back in the day, money should be the last thing we play for.
Thankfully, in the end, we as a soccer community don’t need these players, nor do we want these players. They represent a minuscule portion of the immense pool of talent that exists both in the world and in Europe specifically, and their selfish attitude is not something that the young soccer community needs. There is no way of stopping the offers coming in from the CSL, so all we can really do as fans is to entrust in these soccer players that they remember what the game is played for.
Ten years ago as of last Wednesday, the Los Angeles Galaxy purchased David Beckham, an English soccer player from Real Madrid on a five-year contract worth 250 million dollars. Many considered his hefty transfer to be the precursor of a significant breakthrough in the standard and the popularity of soccer in the United States, both within Major League Soccer (MLS) and for the Men’s National Team. After all, Beckham was at the time one of the most marketable athletes in all of sports since the turn of the century, and more importantly the first world-class soccer player in the MLS era. But looking back now, is there a definitive ‘before’ and ‘after’ with David Beckham’s move to the MLS?
Well, right now, the standard of soccer in the United States is reminiscent of an awkward dancer: they more or less have the steps (the system) down, but the rhythm (culture) still lags far behind.
The United States is undoubtedly still learning the “steps” of soccer. While there have been multiple professional soccer leagues in the United States in the past, none of them were able to remain afloat for even two decades, ultimately due to a lack of popularity. Considering that the MLS was founded 24 years ago in 1993 and is still growing, it is all but safe to say that the MLS is here to stay. After another decade of development that has seen the addition of nine new professional teams to the league, with four more teams being added by 2018, the MLS is quickly expanding its presence across the country. This, combined with the increasing number of American player development academies clearly signifies the United States’ ambition to breed world-class players of their own both within the MLS and for the national team.
One must remember, however, that learning the steps is futile if you have no rhythm.
For over a century, the United States has had a thriving culture in several sports, but that list has never included soccer. Although 24 years is a long lifetime for a professional soccer league in the States, it is minuscule in comparison to that of America’s mainstream sports. The American professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey (Canadian-American) leagues have existed for 114, 71, 96, and 99 years respectively, meaning that Americans have been watching and playing these longstanding sports since long before soccer meant anything to the general public on a domestic level. In doing so, the “steps” have long been ingrained into the minds of many of these kids, some of whom then utilize them in pursuing a competitive sports career. More importantly, these experiences as both observers and participants has helped to develop a culture within each of these sports that has collectively become a part of the identity of the United States. The entertainment is there, the prestige is there, and the experience is there.
There is rhythm flowing through the veins of these American sports fans.
The rhythm of soccer, on the other hand, has always felt foreign to the United States, because, well, it is. Players almost exclusively use their feet to play, while feet are rarely used as the primary means of operation in mainstream American sports. Regular season games can end in a 0-0 tie, as opposed to the extra innings or overtime period(s) that guarantees victory to one specific team. Professional teams can compete in up to five different competitions within the same season, whereas in the States, there is always a regular season followed by playoffs, all for one trophy. On a global scale, despite the incredible success of the women’s national team, the more followed men’s national team has never gotten past the quarter-final of the FIFA World Cup, the most coveted trophy in the world of soccer.
Furthermore, even though soccer is the most popular sport in the world, it is also the one sport in which the United States does not own bragging rights. While the American professional leagues of the aforementioned sports are each considered the best professional leagues in the world, this is not the case in soccer. The best soccer players in the world aim to play in Europe, which is widely considered the highest level of competition in the world. Unlike American kids who pursue a multitude of sports at their own will, so many children from around the world grow up watching only soccer, establishing an innate sense of dedication towards learning the “steps” and adopting the “rhythm” of the beautiful game.
With that being said, the MLS is decades away from coming even the slightest bit close to the standard of soccer that exists across the top leagues in Europe. David Beckham’s move to the LA Galaxy in 2007 acted as an invitation to long-established world-class talents to play in the MLS towards the ends of their career, after already being past their respective primes. Household players including Didier Drogba, Tim Cahill, Ashley Cole, Jermaine Defoe, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Kaka, Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo have all played in the MLS since Beckham’s move in 2007. While the addition of such famous soccer players has helped increased the appeal of the MLS to Americans, it does not reflect positively on the standard of the league nor does it help to increase it.
On the other side of his career, now 18-year old Christian Pulisic from Hershey, Pennsylvania, signed a professional contract at the age of 16 with German club Borussia Dortmund, where he has already received regular playing time, scoring multiple goals for his team. Moving to Germany was an easy decision for Pulisic, who is now considered to be one of the brightest young talents to come out of the United States, for he knew that playing in the United States would only be detrimental towards reaching his untapped and arguably world-class potential.
So what can we as Americans do to develop the rhythm of soccer?
This is the only time that you will ever see me saying this: Watch more television. In 2013 and 2014, NBC Sports Cable Network aired two seasons of the Premier League, the professional soccer league in England, which is widely considered to be the best professional soccer league in the world. Viewership of the Premier League increased considerably between those two seasons, inspiring NBCSN to sign a $1 billion contract with the Premier League for exclusive broadcasting rights. Signing such a large contract serves as a statement by major American television networks, considering the fact that they recognized the development of a long-term increase in the popularity of European soccer in the United States.
It has been stated time and time again that watching top-level soccer does indeed help aspiring players to increase their “soccer IQ”, or their knowledge of the mechanics of the game. As more and more Americans tune in to watch the fast-paced excitement of the Premier League, I believe that their continued interest will gradually help Americans in developing that rhythm that has been lacking in American soccer for so many years. Specifically, as more children watch the highest standard of soccer, they will be more in touch with the game on a global scale, and those kids will be increasingly motivated to become a great talent themselves.
The only thing we can do other than study up is to keep young talents like Christian Pulisic at home, so that we can build a powerful professional league upon a foundation of homegrown talent, rather than upon the temporary stints of past-prime foreign soccer players.
Bye, Bye, Beckham
With the thin culture of soccer that had existed in the United States as well as the young age of the MLS at the time, David Beckham’s transfer to the LA Galaxy in 2007 was never going to make a significant short-term impact on soccer in the States. His move did not have any evident influence the expansion of the MLS, or on the increasing number of player development academies across the country. While I do not necessarily believe it myself, one could argue that he did have a long-term impact on soccer in the United States simply by signing a contract. His move to the MLS was one of the biggest sports publicity stunts of the century, and one that may have helped catalyze in some small way a mainstream American interest in the sport of soccer,
With or without the help of David Beckham, here we stand in 2017 as an awkward dancer in the world of soccer.