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Phil Ball Thread

Lance Knight2010-05-08 05:13:05 +0000 #1
i really like this guy's work he is a great writer and seems to love the game just as much as me, so i deicate this thread to him, GO PHIL
Lance Knight2010-05-08 05:28:27 +0000 #2
Smallest book in the world

Phil Ball

There used to be a rather daft series of jokes hanging around when I was a youth, entitled 'The Smallest Book in the World'.

There remain a few standard classics to the series, like 'The Book of Interesting Tories', 'The Book of Grimsby's Renaissance Buildings' or 'The Book of Long-Lasting Bolivian Presidents' and some rather more offensive ones that can no longer see the light of day in the post-modern world of political correction.

However, a new one was added to the football-related list yesterday, namely the 'The Book of Claude Makelele penalties'. This new addition swells the list of classics which also contains such tomes as 'The Mourinho Book of Modesty' and the 'The Craig Bellamy Book of Self-Awareness', but let's not get carried away here.

It was interesting, nay downright surreal to see the tiny French midfielder scoring from the spot against Charlton, and equally touching to see him mobbed by his team-mates once he'd sliced in the rebound with his left foot. Makelele doesn't do goals. They're not his thing. He hadn't actually scored one since 1999, when he was playing in Spain for Celta Vigo.

He once got carried away in the 1996-97 season when playing for Nantes, scoring five goals, but he has since seen the error of his ways.

Of course, there are plenty of folks around who date Real Madrid's decline from the departure of young Claude, and this column would not disagree.

Florentino Pérez once seemed a man of sense and equanimity, until faced with the issue of the midfielder at the beginning of his third year in office.

Makka, feeling a little light of wallet compared to several of his team-mates, went on strike during the Beckham summer in an attempt to bring his wages into more of a galactic line, and was shipped off to London for his pains. Pérez, in a subsequent press-conference, came out from behind his specs for the first time in his presidency, and revealed himself to be rather less sagacious than he looked.

'Isn't it a bit of a risk, transferring Makelele?' asked one journalist. 'Not at all' replied the master tactician-president. 'We've just transferred a player who can only pass the ball four yards and bought another [Beckham] who can pass it forty'. It was at that precise moment that you knew Pérez had lost the plot.

But it also makes one reflect on the way that the media views football, and even the players themselves. It was fantastic to see Chelsea's players mobbing Makelele, but the truth is that players like him will never win the seasonal awards.

No disrespect to John Terry, who is indeed a fine centre-back - but it is interesting to note that he has only really been considered as such since the arrival of Makelele. The same has happened in reverse at Madrid.

Where once the pairing of Ivan Helguera and Fernando Hierro was seen as the match made in defensive heaven, it was clear that once the Makelele protective shield was taken away, Helguera would be exposed for the rather leaden-footed ordinary guy that he is.

Hierro decided not to hang around, and wandered off to the rather less demanding environments of Qatar and Bolton to ply his trade, whilst poor young Pavón was shoved up out of the trenches to be mercilessly exposed to the enemy fire.

Makelele is the black Nobby Stiles, the best player in the world in his position. Terry is ok, but he would never have won the award without the ball-winner in front of him. Frank Lampard's emergence has also suspiciously coincided with the freedom that the ex-Madrid player has afforded him.

I think it would have been great for a destroyer to have finally won the recognition he deserves, which would have shown an appreciation of the wider aspects of football. It's rare enough for a centre-half to get the PFA Player of the Year, but a defensive midfielder? One day maybe, in a more enlightened age.

Makelele is a brilliant example of self-discipline, of private sacrifice to the cause. Not only that, but he's the supreme example of how less can be more - of how the four-yard pass can be more effective than the forty-yard version, for example.

Real Madrid have realised too late, and bought Gravesen - I was going to say a pale imitation of Makelele but perhaps I'd better rephrase that. Actually Gravesen's pretty good, and the team have definitely improved since his arrival - but too late was the cry.

The man at the other end of the scale, the man who would argue that 'more is more', was up to his tricks again this weekend, virtually ending the league programme for this season.

Ronaldinho hit another stunner, this time into the left-hand top corner of Valencia's net to open the scoring for Barça on Sunday, in a game they had been widely predicted to lose.

But there was something in their strut and poise in the Mestalla that suggested that if they can keep the nucleus of this side together, they could go on to dominate La Liga for several seasons.

At one point in the second half, after a series of feints, flicks and fireworks from the Brazilian, all of them pulled out of his hat of seemingly endless tricks, Barça won a corner over on the right.

As the ball fell fast from the sky to the edge of the area, Ronaldinho leaned back and brought his right leg over and across the ball with amazing grace, connecting with a volley of outrageous difficulty and sending the ball whooshing past Valencia's right-hand post.

The home supporters, normally a voluble and aggressive lot to visiting teams, simply remained silent. It was a telling moment, a collective acceptance of the fact that they were witnessing greatness. You don't jeer at greatness, because it doesn't come along very often.

He hushed the Mestalla - no easy feat in possibly the noisiest stadium (and city) in Spain. Next week Barça return to the city, to take on struggling Levante - on the surface a much easier game.

Levante need to win to prevent an improving Mallorca from catching them up, but if Barça win they will take the title. Even if they lose, it's difficult to see them blowing it now.

Poor old Madrid. Just as they were beginning to get their act together, it all comes to nought. Even Raúl played well on Saturday, at home to Santander. Things are looking up.

'Derbi' day in Seville it was too, and Betis deservedly took the points in the bi-annual civil war that goes by the name of a football match. Next week, Sevilla, who are still very much on for a Champions League spot, entertain Real Madrid in a clash of the season's secondary titans.

It's difficult to see the boys from the Bernabéu emerging from that one with all three points, which means that it's probably all over bar the shouting. By this time next week, the Catalans will surely have won their first league title since the previous century - 1999 to be precise.

The Van Gaal ghost would finally seem to have been lain to rest, and it couldn't have been done by a nicer bloke than Frank Rijkaard. All power to the good guys. It certainly makes a pleasant change.
Lance Knight2010-05-08 05:19:53 +0000 #3
A homage to Catalonia

Phil Ball

Last Saturday night saw the inevitable happen, Barcelona winning their seventeenth league title since 1929 and putting paid to six years in the relative wilderness - or eleven years, if you prefer to ignore the two consecutive titles of the Van Gaal years and return more nostalgically to the Dream Team era, whose final title was won in 1994.

There was a paranoia that reigned in Barcelona during the final years of the 20th century, despite the two titles - a paranoia unworthy of one of the world's great clubs.

With a president, Joan Gaspart, who would have been the perfect subject for a study of how power corrupts, or sends you over the brink, depending on your perspective on things.

But you get the leader you deserve, as they say, and Barcelona's massive fan base voted Gaspart in, after the Nuñez years. Realising their mistake, they also voted in Joan Laporta eight purgative years later, a decision that would seem to have finally paid off.

Not that Barça's title is free of irony. There are various layers of it in fact. We might as well start with the man whose equalising goal at Levante finally clinched the title, two hours after Sevilla's bullish striker, Julio Baptista, had headed his side level against Real Madrid and virtually sealed the season's fate.

Samuel Eto'o, playing for Mallorca this time last year, but still technically belonging to Real Madrid, nodded in his 24th of a triumphal season with his new club and raced off towards the 10,000 or so Barça fans who had made the short trip to Valencia.

Kissing the club badge as oft he has done this season, one could not help but reflect on the gossamer-thin destiny that finally saw him move to the Camp Nou. Time and time again last season, Eto'o let it be known that he wanted to return to the Bernabéu, whose turf he had last trod in a white shirt in the year 2000.

He even mouthed a petition to be re-signed to the Madrid faithful after he'd virtually put paid to their title hopes last year with a wonderful solo goal. But Valdano wasn't sure, and neither was Camacho, once the old hero had agreed to return as manager.

Neither of them was sure that Eto'o's ego would fit into the complex galactic mix that was already reigning at the Bernabéu - where Ronaldo's presence up front and the imminent arrival of the interesting Michael Owen seemed to indicate that the Cameroon's presence would constitute an unnecessary luxury. They were probably right, but it seems almost surreal now that they let him go so easily.

He has hammered the nails into the lid of his old club's coffin on various occasions this season, and Madrid will just be happy for the season to end so that they can forget about his face for a couple of blissful months. It's been Eto'o's season really. He's been the main character in the script, and he knew he'd been handed the part at the very beginning.

Larsson, good player though he is, was always going to play second fiddle, whether he'd been injured or not. Saviola, Kluivert and Overmars were all offloaded, in the confident knowledge that Sam would do the business. And he certainly has.

So has Ronaldinho, to say the least. Fitful last season, until its second half when he really began to show what he was made of, this season he has been more consistently brilliant, aided and abetted, as he has been, by a more accomplished midfield cast.

But it remains a curious fact that he was only really signed as an afterthought, after David Beckham had refused to even speak to Laporta's representatives after the young lawyer won the club elections, partly on the basis that he had supposedly secured the Englishman's signature in a deal that echoed Pérez' famous capture of Figo.

No-one has ever dug up the truth about this affair, but it seems almost impossible to cast one's mind back now to that summer, when Real Madrid were the sexiest act on Earth, Barcelona were the castrated bull and Valencia were confirmed as the true rivals to the Bernabéu's dominance.

Recognising this, Valdano entered into a final and desperate attempt to lure Roberto Ayala away from the Mestalla, but Rafa Benitez was having none of it. Beckham kept it fairly discreet on the topic of Barcelona, but did let it slip on one occasion that he had been convinced by Madrid's approach because he knew that it would give him the chance 'to win more trophies'.

Well - he managed the Spanish Super Cup within a couple of months of arriving, but since then it's been a case of zilch. He's done well, and from time to time has shown qualities that many of his team-mates have been lacking, but one wonders what he thinks in private, especially this season as he has watched 'Art' Deco, Ronaldinho, Giuly, Xavi and company run riot through the midfields of Spain.

No regrets? Possibly not. But it's interesting how things have turned out, especially given the fact that the first thing that Alex Ferguson tried to do with the income his transfer generated was to buy Ronaldinho.

According to many, he almost got him too, and that the only reason the Brazilian failed to show at Old Trafford for a chat with his employers-to-be was that his agent misunderstood a phrase as he was talking on the phone to the Old Trafford go-between. The 'phrase', of course, referred to a sum of money - but there you go - the cock-up theory of history. Manchester United are thus in decline, and Barcelona have risen from their own ashes like a phoenix on amphetamines.

They've been wonderful and lucky in equal measure this season, although great sides make their own luck, as Bill Shankly once said. During the second half at Levante, a goal down and struggling to put their game together, goalkeeper Valdes threw the ball out carelessly. Levante's Rivera picked up the ball about 35 yards out and hit a first-time steamer towards the goal of the champions elect. Valdes didn't even bother, watching it sail past seemingly into the net.

But the ball cannoned off the right-hand post and back into play. Any other season, and it would have gone in. Levante needed it too. The following day, Mallorca beat Athletic Bilbao in a 4-3 cracker and pulled up to one point behind the other team from Valencia.

That ricochet from the post ensured that the struggle for the league title would go no further, and that Mallorca might survive at Levante's expense.

We shall see. Rather odd, in this light, to see Levante standing off Barça during ther last few minutes of the game, allowing them to play short passes around the back amongst themselves, to play out the draw. It was an unedifying spectacle, and one that made little sense, given what was at stake for the home team. Maybe they'd just surrendered to destiny. Tell that to Mallorca, who still trail them by that one point, with two games to go.

But let's not get churlish. One could just as easily claim that Barça have had some wretched luck this season - specifically in that wonderful tussle with Chelsea and generally with a horrendous run of injuries to seemingly key players - Larsson, Motta, Gabri and Edmilson all fell by the wayside, and Maxi López completed the list during the final run-in. No matter. They kept it going, and the statistics cannot lie.

Only Atlético Madrid, in the 1996 double season, have won more away games - and that was when the league had 22 teams. One more victory will see them take the highest points haul of all time in La Liga, and to conclude, they've done it as a team.

Players like Marquez, Belleti, Gio and Oleguer have quietly gone about their business, whilst the more spectacular signings have gone about theirs. They've set out to entertain, basing their success on possession of the ball, not contention. The best side in Europe? I'm not sure - but they've sure been the best to watch.

The only negative note on the day when the league was finally decided, was that annoying Spanish phrase 'no se juega nada' (there's nothing to play for).

Teams in the middle zone of the table, supposedly thinking about their summer holidays, could not be trusted to turn out and play seriously against those with something still at stake. It remains the cancer at the heart of this wonderful yet at times dysfunctional league.

A glance at the English Premiership's last day, where Fulham relegated Norwich 6-0 on a day when no se juega nada for the former side, says everything about the selfless professionalism of the English scene.

The Spanish could as yet take a leaf out of that particular book.

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