Why bother? Tottenham, embarrassment and the Conference League

ANYONE who called Portuguese side Paços de Ferreira a “pub team” from a “farmers league” must be a little red-faced after Tottenham Hotspur lost their first leg tie in the Europa Conference League. 

The British media continually underestimate foreign teams and fans constantly dismiss opposition that doesn’t appear among the elite group of clubs? It’s also a little arrogant and portrays the English game as a. bunch of over-indulged children who have an air of entitlement.

Tottenham fielded a shadow 11, which was a surprise given their coach, Nuno Espirito Santo, is Portuguese. The team that so heroically beat Manchester City 1-0 on the opening weekend was discarded in favour of a mix of squad players and young debutants. Only Giovani Lo Celso, Matt Doherty and Christian Romero of the 14 players that featured against City were used in Portugal.

It has become an accepted part of the game that certain managers today disregard some cup competitions, but why field such a weakened team for the club’s only sniff of European football in 2021-22? For a start, it is cheating the fans, not least the Spurs travelling contingent. Secondly, it is devaluing UEFA’s new folly, and thirdly, it can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect towards the opposition.

Admittedly, there should be questions about UEFA’s new consolation prize competition, but if clubs do not want to enter, or consider it beneath their profile, then perhaps they should not bother playing in the first place. The Conference League may be relatively weak, but for some clubs, it is an exciting venture into the unknown. Spurs may have reached the Champions League final in 2019, but they are in the Conference on merit in 2021. Giving the impression “we’re too good for this” only serves to motivate the opposition and waste people’s time. Football is rife with this attitude, witness the way losing finalists now take their medals off after being awarded the runners-up prize. 

Furthermore, the Conference League provides a club still seeking its first trophy since 2008 with the genuine chance of lifting some silverware. They might see it as meagre pickings, but let’s be honest, have transitional Spurs got a realistic chance of a major prize? When you consider just how few teams across the football universe can be successful in any one season, surely a bauble of any sort represents a return? 

We can live with slightly weakened teams, perhaps resting one or two, but putting out a side that was the equivalent of a pre-season friendly at a local non-league club, was going way too far.

Spurs will probably get through to the next round, realising they need to bring back their big guns to ensure progress, but they certainly got caught with their pants down in Portugal. Winning is a habit, they say, which means taking each game seriously and fielding your best possible squad. To devalue first team games is, quite literally, an insult to the people who pay good money to watch their favourites. But they won’t be the last team this season to send out a scratch XI.

@GameofthePeople

Euro 2020: As much as we like to think otherwise, it’s not always about stars

FOOTBALL is supposed to be a team game, but the media concentrates so much on the fortunes of individual players and their progress in Euro 2020. You could be mistaken for thinking Wales were a one-man team and Portugal’s side was Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 others. Admittedly, these players are talismans in their own country, but they were, by no means, on their own. In fact, in the case of CR7, he didn’t have a good game at all and Portugal have a lot of very good players. But everything is all about the man from Madeira.

The media always has an idea of who should win the major competitions. In 2018, nobody expected Croatia to get to the final and in 2016, France were the hosts and favourites, but were upset by a workmanlike Portugal. In 2014, Brazil were supposed to make amends for 1950 and win the World Cup on their own turf. They capitulated dreadfully. In 2006, Italy were surprise winners and in 2004’s Euros, Greece were shock champions. It happens and this year, the way the draw has been compiled, there is a good chance a surprise finalist will run-out at Wembley: Denmark, Czech Republic and Sweden could make it through. England, too, despite their pedestrian, uncreative style, could slalom their way through the competition. 

Portugal and Ronaldo are out, the first of the big guns to go. England versus Germany will see another one out. Spain and France should make it through, but in the case of the Spanish, they will have to tread carefully against Croatia. The two halves of the draw are very lop-sided in terms of strength and this means that in the top half, two big names will fall in the quarter-finals. 

Those that promote the sport want the most marketable names to flourish in these events. Luka Modric, at the age of 32, won the FIFA Golden Ball in 2018 as FIFA searched for a worthy successor to past winners. It has happened before – Lionel Messi, bizarrely, was given the trophy in 2014 when very few people thought he was deserving. The world of football hype desperately wanted Messi to win the World Cup, but every tournament that passes, the less likely that will happen.

The ideal competition is one that has a great team that wins the trophy, a very good runner-up and a sprinkling of star names. The star names are becoming scarce these days – there are many very good players, but the superstars are in short supply, and we are coming to the end of a golden period where Messi, Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and one or two others, are coming to the end of their time. 

While everyone likes a hard-working team of journeymen with an indomitable spirit, they like them as much as the person who looks at a friend’s quirky Fiat 500 or (in the past) Citroen 2CV and comments, “I’ve always loved wanted one of them,” as they polish their BMW or Mercedes. Endeavour-led teams of swashbucklers win plaudits for their pluck, but nobody really wants them to be world or European champions. Indeed, the “spirit” that pundits admire in Wales and Scotland would not be acceptable if it was the only quality on display with England or Spain. There’s something a little patronising about summing up a team’s efforts as merely being full of earnest effort. The reason these teams have to rely on organisation, teamwork and a plan is because they have limited resources. This takes you so far, but if a team of such qualities was to become champions – like Denmark in 1992 and Greece 2004, they are invariably overlooked when the history books are written and their success dismissed as a “blip”.

That’s why Brazil’s successes since 1970 are not talked about in the same way that glorious summer in Mexico is so richly eulogised. Rightly so, you might add, even though Brazil in 1994 and 2002 had some great players. While Brazil 1970 were a team built around form, Brazil’s subsequent sides were more functional, are we say more European, with the exception of 1982.

Today, the teams that are considered to have the most “stars” are Belgium (the world’s number one running out of time), France (talent rich) and Portugal (CR7 and friends). The narrative concerning other countries includes England (promising and stable), Germany (in mild decline), Spain (transitional) and Italy (in-form but don’t forget, they didn’t make 2018). 

No other country is seriously considered, hence many people are stunned by Denmark’s performances (a hasty assumption) and Czech Republic’s shock progress. The two now meet in the last eight.

If an unexpected winner of the competition does emerge, Euro 2020 will not be spoken of in the same glowing terms as some of UEFA’s more predictable tournaments. To some extent, it will be written off as a year in which “the big guns didn’t perform”. The fact is, the status of a big gun is not permanent, as Italy found out in 2018, England experienced between 1970 and 1982 and the Dutch frequently discover between generations. Belgium have only just become a “big club” and may return to the second tier when their current batch of stars age and fade. 

No matter how we claim to admire the team ethic, in our corporate lives, in sport and in families, everyone’s relationship with their job is generally personal. That’s why we idolise individuals and why a player can shift stock markets because he doesn’t like a certain drink. Every competition, be it World Cup, European Championship or Champions League, needs outstanding individuals to provide that little piece of gilding. Those World Cups that don’t have a big star do get devalued. Pelé, Cruyff, Kempes, Rossi, and Maradona were all head and shoulders above the rest, and they became the poster children for their respective World Cups. How FIFA must have yearned to place Messi on that list.

CR7 has gone now, maybe never to return. Where will UEFA’s great hope come from? France, Belgium, Spain? Or will it be 25 year-old Patrik Schick of Czech Republic and Bayer Leverkusen? A relatively unknown player who is now the top scorer among players still involved in Euro 2020, with four goals. He could be bought for around € 30 million before the competition, but his valuation must be going up by the day. It’s worth recalling that before 1976, not too many knew about a certain Antonín Panenka!

@GameofthePeople

José Mourinho and his next job: His most vital since 2004

JOSÉ Mourinho is out of work again, but he’s still smiling, quite philosophical and seems to be anticipating a period of normal life for a while. He may well be on “gardening leave”, hence any lack of urgency in finding a new role may have been imposed upon him. Whatever the terms of his departure from Tottenham, and Mourinho has undoubtedly left North London suitably compensated, it is reasonably safe to assume he will be back.

Whenever Mourinho does depart a club, and he’s been sacked by three Premier club in five years, journalists or pundits suddenly claim the league is poorer for his departure. That may be true, but when he’s in situ, the man has to endure no small amount of criticism, forensic analysis and wishful thinking about his demise. The hypocrisy is incredible, but Mourinho is a coach that divides opinion and really stands or falls by his ability to win trophies. His style, not to everyone’s taste, is tolerated when it is accompanied by silverware. 

Tottenham, like Manchester United an uncomfortable fit, wanted trophies but they didn’t really give it long enough – after all, this is a club that hasn’t had to stock-up on metal polish for 13 years, winning things is not part of their culture anymore. Sacking Mourinho just a few days before a major final and installing a 29 year-old inexperienced caretaker was a little disrespectful of a man who has won 20 major trophies, including two UEFA Champions Leagues. It was also a bad signal to the club’s fans, indicating that the prospect of a trophy wasn’t that important.

People have been writing Mourinho’s epitaph for some time, but he’s not finished yet. There will always be a club willing to employ a coach with such a glittering track record. His last big prizes may have been in 2016-17, but if you consider that other managerial luminaries such as Mauricio Pochettino, Marcelo Bielsa and Carlo Ancelotti have not won anything in that time, it is clear trophies alone don’t always win affection. If you compete in the Premier League, you have Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel to contend with, so competition is fierce.

General

To quote Irving Berlin’s song from White Christmas, “What do you do with a general, when he stops being a general?”. Managers like Mourinho only have so many places they can realistically go. Nobody expects to see the controversial Portuguese to run out at Derby, Birmingham or Middlesbrough, or even lower in the pyramid. Firstly, it is unlikely he needs the remuneration, and he is hardly the sort of character to wait for success. He is as impatient as the people that employ him. That’s the manager’s lot these days.

He actually said that he wanted a club with the “right culture”, which was an interesting comment. In any walk of life, the chase is often more satisfying than mere consolidation. In other words, it would be no surprise if Mourinho and his peers look back on the time when they were building something, notably their own reputations, as the most enjoyable stage of their careers. For Mourinho, this would mean his spells with Porto and Chelsea, the first time. Once a coach becomes iconic and possesses a CV with trophies all over it, expectation is so high that even a low-key trophy won’t be enough. Look across Europe and coaches have been shown the door after very successful campaigns – at PSG, at Chelsea, at Real Madrid, at Juventus. For most of these clubs, the prize they covet is the Champions League. Fail in that and you become vulnerable – fail to even qualify for the competition and you’re toast.

A club with the right look and feel is the stage Mourinho appears to be at. This may exclude nearly every front-runner in Europe. Almost all of them have replaced their coaches over the past two years – in 2020-21, Chelsea, PSG, Bayern, Dortmund and Juventus started the campaign with a new manager or changed their coach at some point, the most recent being Spurs’ dismissal of Mourinho and Hansi Flick’s resignation at Bayern. 

Mourinho, like Ancelotti, has managed a high percentage of the continent’s top clubs. Ancelotti is now at Everton, who are just outside of the elite group, Mourinho’s next move may have to look into the next category of club. This could prove a good deal more satisfying than attempting to appease a club that would fall into the proposed European Super League bracket.

Era

Mourinho’s win rate has declined since he left Real Madrid in 2013. At Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real, he won 18 trophies between 2002-03 and 2012-13 (11 seasons) and his win rate averaged over 68%. Since 2013 (eight seasons), he has won four trophies and his win rate has fallen to 56.16%. Since Porto, Mourinho has averaged 130 games per job, but at Tottenham, he managed just 86. 

Where will he go next? There are simply a number of clubs where you just couldn’t imagine Mourinho in the dugout: Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. You could probably add Manchester City to that list. It is unlikely that Chelsea would employ him again, but stranger things have happened. Wolves would be a logical destination given the number of his compatriots already playing for the club. His agent, Jorge Mendes, is also involved at Molineux. Furthermore, Wolves crave trophies, but their current boss, Nuno Espírito Santo, is still a popular figure. 

Maybe he will return to Portugal, where his old clubs, Benfica and Porto, have been usurped by Sporting this season. And what about a club like Germany’s Schalke 04, who have fallen from grace but would surely welcome a hard-nosed drive for success? It’s all guesswork, but Mourinho will not be unemployed for long.

We may be coming to the end of an era in more ways than one. We are aware that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are reluctantly moving over and new stars will emerge. On the managerial front, we are possibly at the same stage. Julian Nagelsmann, aged just 33, has just been appointed as coach of Bayern Munich. The media have been expecting this for a few years and this will be the biggest text of his career – Naglesmann, for all the plaudits, has never won a trophy. He has made his name purely on his rich potential, which will no longer be enough at his new role. His win rate is currently 48%. 

Nagelsmann has always been tomorrow’s man, but it looks as though the moment has come. Mourinho is not yet yesterday’s man, but his next appointment could be the most vital job he has taken since he moved to Chelsea in 2004. Only a fool would write him off because you do not win 20 trophies through sheer luck or a lack of ambition.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: ALAMY