Tuesday, 22 December 2009

David Beckham has paid the price for leaving Manchester United in search of global fame

The memories will come surging back for David Beckham when he steps down from the AC Milan team coach outside Old Trafford at 6.15pm on March 10 and waves to the hundreds of Manchester United supporters who gather early to see the stars.Beckham will nod to familiar faces, those stewards and club staff who have inhabited this famous stadium for decades. Like him, they are lifelong United fans. Unlike him, they could never imagine not being here. At 7.35pm, Beckham will return to the tunnel, encountering fellow-alumni from United's starlet-filled 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning team. The cameras will linger on the handshakes and words of greeting between Beckham and Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. Friends reunited.

As he marches towards the pitch, stepping out into this grand arena to a tumultuous welcome, Beckham may be tempted to glance across and note the still sinewy figure lost in concentration about the task ahead, oblivious to all the pomp and ceremony. It will be Ryan Giggs, the captain of that remarkable 1992 side, the player Beckham bought his first car off (a £6,000 Ford Escort). Giggs will be staring intently ahead, preparing himself for the challenge as he has for the past 19 years.

Beckham will notice that age has not withered Giggs, barring a distinguished dash of grey around the temples, rather befitting his statesman's position in the game. The physique remains whippet-lean and, when the game springs into life, Giggs' desire for the ball, for attacking and for victory will be as strong as Beckham remembered it.

It is in this moment, as the Stretford End sings "Giggs, Giggs will tear you apart again'' that Beckham may fully realise the magnitude of the decision he took in 2003, swapping the red of United for the white of Real Madrid. Perhaps he had to go. A tension gripped the dressing-room. Sir Alex Ferguson had grown concerned over the player's celebrity lifestyle in the wake of his marriage to Victoria Adams, aka Posh Spice.

In truth, Beckham's dedication to his vocation was never in question.

Assigned to shadow the couple as they went out for a meal, one reporter checked with a restaurant what they had consumed. Their choices were fish (no sauce) and mineral water (still). Not much of a scoop. Not even of ice cream.

Beckham kept himself incredibly fit and never complained about being dropped. When called upon by Ferguson in the Champions League against, of all people, Madrid, he responded with a bravura cameo display, almost nicking the tie for United. But the parting of the ways was imminent.

Madrid's siren call was irresistible. The glamour of the Bernabeu is undeniable and Beckham has always been drawn to glamour. Financially, the transfer lifted him to another level. Brand Beckham would be enhanced globally.

And yet. As play gets under way at Old Trafford on March 10, United's old No 7 may look at the ageless No 11 and think of what he's missed out on.

Since Beckham took up his globe-trotting, first with Madrid and now with this strange time-share arrangement between Milan and LA Galaxy, Giggs has collected another Champions League trophy, three more Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, three Community Shields and a Fifa Club World Cup. The Welsh winger is the current PFA Player of the Year and BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Beckham has also been honoured by Auntie's viewers, back in 2001 following that unforgettable goal against Greece at Old Trafford, but his haul post-United is singularly modest. After four years with Madrid, he eventually won La Liga. His recall by Fabio Capello against Real Sociedad on Feb 10 2007 undoubtedly gave Real impetus, pushing them closer to Barcelona.

Yet the trophy was secured only in the final game against Mallorca when Beckham was removed and Jose Antonio Reyes sent on to rescue Real.

Only the churlish would forget the 2003 Spanish Super Cup and the 2009 MLS Western Conference title, hardly heavyweight but baubles nonetheless.

Otherwise the trophy trail has gone cold for Beckham since turning his back on United. He has gained millions more in wealth, not to mention eight more tattoos, but nothing compared to the sporting riches Giggs has amassed.

So for all the joy that Beckham understandably feels at the thought of running out on Old Trafford's famous pitch again, Giggs stands as a reminder that the grass is not always greener. This is no style-versus-substance debate. Beckham has enough talent and commitment. He simply chose a different path to Giggs, the wrong one if his ambition was more glory.

Giggs also endured tricky times at Old Trafford but never had Beckham's wander-lust. He fought for his place, won over the terrace critics, remodelled his game intelligently and is now a national treasure.

In an era when television can make anyone famous for 15 minutes, Giggs' constancy is even more special. So whither Beckham? Is the man from Hollywood simply disappearing down sunset boulevard? He will be a bit-part player for England in the summer.

Having shown a capacity for writing his own headlines, particularly in the early years, Beckham will desperately want to script an Indian summer to his club career.

First, he must force his way into the Milan team. If Andrea Pirlo is untouchable as the deep-lying tempo-setter in Leonardo's three-man midfield, then the loan-star from LA must compete with Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini. Each will respond vigorously to the Englishman's challenge.

With Ronaldinho or Clarence Seedorf providing the central attacking thrust towards Alexandre Pato and Marco Borriello, there seems no room for Beckham further forward either. Now that would be embarrassing: Beckham emerging from the tunnel, waving to the United supporters and then heading for the bench as Giggs continues on to the field, continues rolling back the years.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Liverpool a club divided under Rafael Benitez

Rafael Benítez's reign at Liverpool has seen the Anfield club split into those who support the Spanish manager, and those who have lost faith in him.

Their faith tested, their belief exposed and their dogma unravelled, Liverpool’s owners, directors, staff, players and fans find themselves for the first time in more than two years united as one, driven on to their knees in prayer.

“It is going to be a grind between now and May,” said Jamie Carragher, epitome of the concrete certainty imbued in the club over five years by manager Rafael Benítez and shattered in less than five weeks, “but we have got to stick together, get through it and, as I’m doing, pray to God that at the end of the season there will be something worthwhile for what we’ve gone through.”

Even the almighty, though, might shy away from trying to unify the fractured, battered and bruised morass at Anfield. From boardroom to stands, from dressing room to directors’ box, few managers in football divide opinion as completely as Benítez.

There are those who would back the mastermind behind the miracle of Istanbul to the hilt, the Rafaelites, and those who see the studious, perfectionist, wilful enigma as myth, a man who has never truly adapted his style to the peculiar demands of the English game in pursuit of the holiest of grails which has eluded Liverpool for 20 long years.

It is a schism which has paralysed the club. Anfield is consumed by inertia, condemned to six months with nothing to play for, nothing to pray for, but an end to its purgatory, and the solitude of summer.


The fracture at Liverpool stems from the rift between the club’s owners. Tom Hicks and George Gillett agree on little or nothing, and so dysfunctional is their relationship that one’s actions guarantee an equal and opposite reaction from the other.

Despite teething problems in their relationship — it was comments from Hicks that triggered Benítez’s famous repetition of his job being to “focus on coaching and training my team” — it is the Texan who remains firmly entrenched behind the Spaniard.

Hicks, once viewed as the greater of two evils by Liverpool’s fans, has earned some leeway with a succession of statements backing the manager and his position is not likely to change.

The stalemate between Hicks and Gillett spreads to the boardroom, which is where any decision on Benítez’s long-term future would be made. Liverpool’s board is comprised of Hicks, his son Tom Jnr, Gillett and his son Foster, Christian Purslow, the managing director, and Ian Ayre, the club’s commercial director.

It is a balance which all but guarantees no majority decision is possible, unless Liverpool’s form and league position should nosedive so spectacularly that no other option were available. Benítez has played off both the Hicks and Gillett factions with the consummate ease of the skilled politician, knowing he can always count on the support of one side.

Only two of Liverpool’s senior squad were not brought to Anfield by Benítez — even Jay Spearing, the young midfielder, was promoted to the senior team under his supervision — and it is not surprising that the vast majority of the players remain loyal.

Even among those ranks, though, Benítez faces problems. Javier Mascherano remains unsettled in England for personal reasons, while Ryan Babel and Andrea Dossena have both made public their dissatisfaction with bit-part roles in a World Cup year.

Even those fans who had begun to question Benítez’s abilities had fallen silent after Liverpool’s stunning recovery to run Manchester United to the wire in last season’s title race.

Much of that patience, though, has ebbed away, despite a significant proportion of Liverpool’s support believing Benítez cannot be judged by the standards which are set for him.

He has spent only what he has brought in through sales since the summer of 2007, Liverpool boast just the fifth highest wage bill in the league, and yet he is expected to keep pace with some of the world’s richest clubs.

The Spaniard, it is suggested, is doing as well as any of the handful of managers designated his superiors would in the same circumstances.


Owners Benítez insists publicly that his relations with both of his American overlords remain cordial, but it is believed the saga over Jürgen Klinsmann – who was touted as a possible replacement – led to the irretrievable breakdown of his relationship with Gillett.

It was Gillett who, most recently, spoke out in support of the manager, but a conversation the Colorado-based businessman held with a representative of Spirit of Shankly, the fans’ group, and heard by The Daily Telegraph, in which Gillett laid the blame for all footballing failures squarely at Benítez’s door, offers a more realistic assessment of the situation.

While the board’s paralysis provides Benítez’s greatest strength, it could also be said to be his greatest weakness. The Spaniard can never enjoy the full support of the club while one half of the body which controls his future remains aligned against him.

His only refuge, then, may be in the stark financial reality of his dismissal. He would be due at least £5 million if Liverpool did decide to sack him, but that would most likely be trebled should he pursue a lawsuit, as he did at Valencia, or decide not to work in the foreseeable future. The fact that succeeding him, at a club laden with debt even if Purslow can secure a £100 million cash injection for a 25 per cent stake, is the sharpest of double-edged swords.

Benítez’s remarks after the defeat to Aston Villa at Anfield earlier this season - that his senior players needed to accept more responsibility - were not welcomed in some quarters, while the decision to allow Xabi Alonso to leave created a rift within the camp.

It is often cited that Benítez is a poor man-manager, incapable of putting an arm around the shoulder of his players, and he is described in some quarters as “cold”. That may be unfair, but his treatment of players like Andriy Voronin — tasked with leading the line in a crucial Champions League tie with Lyon but cast aside since — indicate how ruthless Benítez can be.

Benítez has faced more vocal criticism this season than at any other point during his Anfield tenure, with an increasing number of fans seemingly convinced that he is not the man to return the club to the pinnacle of English football.

His substitutions, on more than one occasion, have been jeered — most noticeably when removing Yossi Benayoun — while the team have been booed from the pitch after disappointing results at home to Aston Villa and Birmingham.

His results, this season, provide the most damning assessment, though: this is a squad he constructed, bolstered by expensive players seen as little more than detritus by many, and he must therefore take responsibility for its failings.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Lionel Messi: A rare talent

When Pep Guardiola took over from Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona 18 months ago, Lionel Messi's favourite local steakhouse in the city's affluent Sarria-Sant Gervasi neighbourhood was right at the top of his 'to do' list.

The rookie coach was under no illusions about the size of the task in front of him and the numerous issues he needed to sort out, with Messi's fitness being at the top of his agenda.

Since then, Barca have won a sublime clean sweep of trophies and the diminutive Argentinian has developed from a highly-skilled one-trick pony into the world's finest and most influential player, culminating in his receipt of the coveted Ballon d'Or prize awarded to the European player of the year.

Under the increasingly laid-back Rijkaard there had grown an element of player power that Guardiola knew was cancerous.

The lack of professionalism and indiscipline of talented talismen Ronaldinho and Deco had spread dangerously, ultimately ripping apart Rijkaard's much-revered Camp Nou dynasty and threatening to do more lasting damage to their Argentinian superstar.

The shy, homely Messi had naturally sought comfort in the bosom of his two team-mates and sub-consciously drifted into the clique and away from the rest of the squad.

Guardiola, in his first senior managerial position, got rid of the ringleaders almost immediately. Both Ronaldinho and Deco were offloaded to AC Milan and Chelsea respectively for cut-price fees.

The Catalan coach, schooled under former Barca boss Johan Cruyff, was quick to make his mark as a strict disciplinarian, imposing fines and punishments for even the slightest infringement of a new code of conduct designed to right the wrongs so regularly committed under Rijkaard.

With his old mates out of the picture, Messi was 'rebuilt' under Guardiola, who forced him to interact more with all of his team-mates, to think like a leader on and off the field and to improve himself physically.

Because while the humble boy from Rosario did not share Ronaldinho and Deco's reported penchant for nightclubbing until the early hours, he did share the questionable physique which had become the trio's trademark.

Incredibly fussy about his food since childhood, Messi had somehow spent his career under Rijkaard - a period during which he emerged from the youth system to the pinnacle of the game - dining almost exclusively on steak and cola at his local Argentinian restaurant.

Unfortunately for the modest little 'Las Cuartetas' steakhouse - a favourite with South American players from both Barca and city rivals Espanyol - Guardiola's ascension to first-team coach put a serious dent in their profits.

Some of those impressed with Guardiola's magnificent first year in charge joked that weaning Messi off his unhealthy diet has been his biggest achievement.

Indeed, the change in coach coincided with Messi's improved physical condition and best season to date as the Catalans won an unprecedented treble of league, cup and Champions League.

Messi was already the finest dribbler in the game when Guardiola arrived, capable of awe-inspiring runs not seen since the days of his hero Diego Maradona. But as the cracks emerged in Rijkaard's once-mighty side, question marks arose about the little Argentinian's all-round game.

While the twinkle toes took the plaudits and the amazing solo efforts proved as crucial as they were brilliant, observant commentators were left to question his abilities beyond that.

Too often his passing was wayward, his vision seemingly extending only as far as the ball in front of him. His crosses were too infrequent and too inaccurate. His shooting was poor, with the vast majority of his goals scored from close range in one-on-one situations. His right foot was non-existent.

Harsh criticism, perhaps. After all, he was close to being the best player in the world despite these supposed inadequacies.

But Guardiola's arrival and obsessive attention to detail has helped Messi overtake Cristiano Ronaldo as the world's finest.

His improved condition has led to his first largely injury-free season last year. His new-found tactical awareness has enabled him to flourish in the playmaker role, roaming wherever necessary to combine incredible dribbling technique with a more tangible creative spark.

In the 2007-08 UEFA Champions League semi-final against Manchester United, Messi's performance perfectly encapsulated the problems under Rijkaard. While Barca dominated possession and he wowed Old Trafford with his effervescence on the ball, the Catalans were ultimately toothless and limped out feebly with a 1-0 aggregate defeat.

The sides met again in May, this time in the Champions League final, this time with the 'new' Messi. And the little marvel duly capped a fine season with the second goal as Guardiola's team outclassed United on the night to complete their historic treble.

Now, in winning the prestigious Ballon d'Or, Messi has been given the accolade his talent so clearly deserves. And there's little doubt where he will go to celebrate when he gets home.