New Project: Basque Groundhopping

The Basque Country in Spain (Euskadi) has a population of just over 2 million people yet since football arrived to these shores in the late 19th century thanks to British miners and sailors the folk of this region have taken the sport to their hearts.

In its current state La Liga contains four Basque teams (20% of the league): Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alavés. Each club has its own unique history and vibrant fanbase, each of which I will be exploring.

But what about the clubs below these four? In the leagues below the Segunda División, Spanish football becomes regionalised, the size of Spain and the financial limitations of the clubs deem this a necessity. This, however, does not necessarily mean that there is a lack of quality, some of the greatest footballers the Basque Country has produced have cut their teeth in these leagues. Over the next season I will be ‘attempting’ to see one home game of every Basque team from La Liga down to the regional Segunda División B and Tercera División.

In addition to watching some great football matches I am also hoping this journey will provide me some memorable moments as I travel to all parts both big and small of this incomparable land; with its great cuisine, mountains landscapes, respected people and singular culture.

I’ll endeavour to produce a regular journal of my adventures, which will include some information about the clubs themselves, their fans, the places to which they belong and, of course, a report of the match I have seen.

If you have an interest in Basque football, lower-league Spanish football or Spain and the Basque Country in general then I hope my journey will be of interest to you.

Michael Robinson: The English Voice of Spanish Football

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For more than a quarter of a century, a former striker from Lancashire has been enthralling Spanish TV audiences with his wit, knowledge and comical Spanish accent.

Full article included in Issue 17 of The Football Pink.

John Aldridge: Real Sociedad’s Unlikely Scouse Idol

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In 1989, for the first time in 40 years, Real Sociedad decided that they needed foreign blood to compete. Step forward Liverpool hero John Aldridge.

Full article featured in These Football Times.

From War to World Cup Glory: The Incredible Rise of Croatia as a Footballing Nation

By Dan Parry

Key ingredients needed for creating a cult world cup side: an eccentric manager with innovative tactics and interesting methods, tick (Miroslav Blazevic). A midfield general and symbol of national pride, tick (Zvomonir Boban). Hard as nails Centre-Back, tick (Slaven Bilic). Forty a day smoker and creative genius, tick (Robert Prosinecki). A world class striker with supreme finishing skills and Pierce Brosnan-esque floppy hair, tick (Davor Suker). A whole lot of heart and a young nation pushing them on, tick, tick, tick!

Nothing much was expected of Croatia going into the 1998 World Cup, the nation was in its debut World Cup and only its second major international tournament as an independent state.

Croatia had only become a fully independent nation state in 1991, the football federation of Croatia only became officially recognised by FIFA in 1993, and their only experience of an international tournament before the World Cup came just two years previous in Euro 96 in which they were knocked out by Germany in the quarter-finals.

It was believed that they would advance from the group stages of the World Cup but anything further than that would be a bonus. However, this charismatic Croatia side proved the entire world wrong as they fought their way through to the semi-finals, killing some giants along the way and making a couple more sweat for good measure.

For the crop of 1998, the story begins 11 years before in 1987. The gifted Croatians who formed the backbone of 1998’s heroic squad also played pivotal roles in the Yugoslavia side. In fact, players such as Suker, Jarni, Prosinecki and Boban were integral members of the famous Yugoslavian under-20 team that won the 1987 under-20 World Cup. The heralded side gained great acclaim and impressed throughout the tournament before eventually defeating West Germany on penalties in the final.

Over the next few years tensions in the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Yugoslav state began to boil. After the death of former president Josip Broz Tito in 1980 the former socialist federation state began to unravel, and nationalistic independence movements became more prominent. Ultimately, tensions in the Balkan state boiled over; Yugoslavia began to splinter, and bloody conflicts and violent wars proceeded.

At times, these tensions even manifested themselves on the football pitch. There was an infamous Yugoslav league game in Croatian capital Zagreb between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990 (historically the best teams from Croatia and Serbia) which descended into violence as ultras from both sides invaded the pitch leading to fierce clashes with the police. It was during this match that future national team captain Zvominir Boban became a symbol of Croatian independence when he kicked a policeman whilst trying to protect a Dinamo Zagreb fan.

On a wider and more devastating scale wars raged for many years and many horrendous atrocities were committed across the entire region as Yugoslavia disintegrated into smaller nation states. Croatia, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, declared itself an independent state in June 1991. In 1992 it was officially recognised by the Eurpean Union and the United Nations but the conflict with Serbia continued until 1995.

Although Croatia had declared itself independent in 1991, an unofficial Croatian national football team had begun to play exhibition games in 1990. The first of which came against the U.S.A. and resulted in a 2-1 victory. By 1993, the Croatian Football Federation gained full membership to both FIFA and UEFA but unfortunately the timing meant that Croatia would be unable to compete in the qualifying tournament for the 1994 World Cup. However, they did manage to qualify for the 1996 European Championships being held in England and got their first taste of international tournament football as an independent country.

In the lead-up to the tournament manager Miroslav ‘Ciro’ Blazevic took over full control of the squad in 1995 (he had been dividing his duties between the national team and Dinamo Zagreb since 1993).

Ciro was already Croatia’s most successful managers (they call him the coach of coaches) thanks to his exploits with Dinamo Zagreb and was certainly well-known to the players, many having come through the Dinamo youth system under his tutelage. Although most revered him, his methods, at times, lead to some friction and not everyone saw him in such a favourable light.

For example, whilst Slaven Bilic refers to him as father and sings his praises, his relationship with Prosinecki was somewhat more tumultuous. Blazevic famously claimed that he would eat boots if Prosinecki were to become a great player. Blazevic has claimed he said this not because he believed it but rather to give a lazy Prosinecki a proverbial kick up the backside. However, some others claim that he failed to properly recognize and manage the talent of Prosinecki during their time together at Dinamo.

Throughout his time as Croatia chief Blazevic stuck quite vehemently to his beloved 3-5-2 formation that he pioneered in the 80’s. Typically his line-ups would be quite consistent also, only chopping and changing when injury made it necessary.

Drazen Ladic was a regular in goal. Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic (both plying their trade in the premiership by time the world cup came around) took two of the three defensive births whilst the other one would be shared between Zvominir Zoldo or Dario Simic. The solidity of a defensive three gave Robert Jarni and Mario Stanic full license to attack from their respective left-wing-back and right-wing-back positions.

They lined up with an extremely creative midfield who all possessed an exceptional eye for a pass which helped to unlock the poaching abilities of Suker. A typical midfield three would contain Captain and AC Milan player Boban, Asanovic, and then either Mario Silvic or Prosinecki depending upon the opposition. The starting front two were normally Suker and Allen Boksic (he missed the 98 world cup due to injury), or Goran Vlaovic.

The tournament debutants were drawn into a tough Group D, which also contained fellow newcomers Turkey, Portugal, and defending champions Denmark (Yugoslavia’s replacement in 1992). Croatia were managed by Blazevic and the squad included many of the same players who would go onto to compete at France in 1998.

First up came Turkey who were defeated 1-0 at the Nottingham Forest’s City Ground thanks to a late goal from young striker Goran Vlaovic. This was followed by an outstanding victory over reigning champions Denmark, a 3-0 scoreline came courtesy of a brace from Suker and a strike from Boban.

With qualification already guaranteed Blazevic decided to rest his key players and gamble on his squad’s fringe players, but a talented Portugal side, inspired by a certain Luis Figo, proved to be a step to far as they were thrashed 3-0. Defeat meant Croatia finished the group as runners-up below Portugal.

In the quarter-final stages they would go on to face eventual tournament winners Germany. In this game, the Croatians were undone by a red card and a German side with superior tournament experience but still managed to give the 1990 World Cup winners a run for their money.

Jurgen Klinsmann opened the account with a penalty in the 20th minute that came courtesy of a handball from Nikola Jerkan. After half-time Suker evened the scores with a typically stylish finish, putting the keeper on his backside whilst coolly rolling the ball from his left foot onto his right before finishing into an empty goal.

However, barely six mintues later Croatia were delivered an almighty blow to the solar plexis when important defender Igor Stimac was sent off for a foul on Mehmet Scholl. 3 minutes after that, a poorly defended cross allowed Mathias Sammer to put Germany ahead 2-1. Subsequently, Croatia were unable to recover as Germany took charge of the tie and the Croatians were sent out of the tournament.

Although it was undoubtedly disappointing to go out of the tournament in such manner, the tournament provided the side with vital experience. The competition played a monumental role in the rise of the small nation as an important European footballing power, and was a major learning curve for all involved. Without a doubt, the experience gained from the tournament played an important role in their 1998 success.

By time the 1998 World Cup came about Croatia were no longer an unknown quantity, and many pundits predicted a respectable showing from the small nation’s side with them expected to at least qualify from their group and advance to the group stages. In the group stages, they were drawn with fellow tournament minnows Jamaica (the only side to qualify that came from a country with a smaller population than Croatia) and Japan, as well as giants Argentina.

Proceedings began with a conclusive 3-1 victory over Jamaica. Stanic, Prosinecki and Suker all scored to put the tie to bed. Six days later Suker scored the only goal of the game as Japan were defeated 1-0. The victories meant that the final group stage tie against Argentina became a group decider. Croatia suffered their first defeat of the tournament as a goal from defender Gonzalo Pineda put the South Americans ahead. Nonetheless, Croatia progressed from the group in 2nd place and faced Romania in the 2nd round.

The newly-dyed blonde bombshells of the Romania team managed to frustrate the Croatians for large parts of the match, with an inspired performance from their goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea helping to keep the scores even.

However, in first-half injury time Croatia’s star striker, and tournament revelation, Suker popped up yet again as Croatia were awarded a penalty for a foul on the forward. The Real Madrid based Suker stepped up and sent the ball past Stelea into the bottom right corner before the referee called him back for a retake seconds later. Not to be deterred the Croatian scored again in an almost identical fashion. The Romanians were incapable of mustering a reply and Croatia moved on to the quarter-finals.

In the quarters they were drawn against their Euro 96 nemesis Germany and managed to produce arguably Croatia’s finest international performance and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup. Up until this point Germany had barely been troubled as they progressed though the competition with ease. Many expected them to breeze through this Croatia side on their inevitable journey to the final.

Initially, the Germans confirmed prior predictions as the Berti Vogts managed Germans strangled the life out of their opponents, not even allowing Croatia to register a single shot on goal.

In the 40th minute everything changed when Norwegian referee Rune Pederson, dubiously, showed centre-back Christian Worns a straight red-card for an ‘open-field’ tackle on Suker.

The red provided Suker and his teammates an incredible opportunity to break through the Germans ranks and they took full advantage. Croatia absolutely overwhelmed the more illustrious Germans in a blistering performance.

Left wing back Robert Jarni scored the first goal with a fine finish to break the deadlock in the 45th minute. Germany put up a brave defensive performance against the marauding Croatians but couldn’t prevent the second goal which came in the 80th minute as Vlaovic put one past Kopke.

Five minutes later, the tournament’s favourite predator Suker killed off the game with his 5th goal of the competition. In the space of 60 minutes, and thanks to some fortuitous refereeing, Croatia had gone from being the darkest of dark horses to tournament contenders with a realistic chance of leaving France with the Jules Remee.

The eyes of the world set upon Paris for the semi-final as Croatia went into the tie hoping to cause an even larger shock by eliminating the hosts, France. Unfortunately, for the Croatians it appeared as though lady luck favoured France on this occasion.

For the first 45 minutes both sides seem to struggle under the weight of their respective pressures. Croatia gained the upper hand in the 46th minute as Suker scored yet again. But France responded in quick fashion only a minute later as their right back Lillian Thuram did something he had never done before in his international career, he scored a goal.

In the 70th minute Lillian Thuram turned up again to score the second of the game, and what would turn out to be the second goal of his France career. In the 76th minute Laurent Blanc was sent off and Croatia tried to force a breakthrough but France stuck to their guns and did not capitulate like the Germans who came before them. They held on and went through to the final which they won by defeating a distinctly out of form Brazil side.

Croatia were afforded a consolation of sorts as they defeated a Dutch side containing the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer 2-1 in the 3rd place play-off. Once again Suker lead from the front and scored the winning goal, whilst also bagging himself a very justified Golden Boot award in the process.

Due to some outstanding performances and fantastic support, Manager Miroslav Blazevic and his players led by the likes of Zvominir Boban, Davor Suker and Slaven Bilic put Croatia onto the world map. Not only in a footballing sense but also in a broader one.

The manager and his players created a footballing and national identity for the seven-year old state and it is one that continues to endure to this day, as can be witnessed by the seemingly endless supply line of technically and tactically adept footballers being churned out of Croatian academies. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Rakitic are some of the most prominent players from the current crop of Croatian footballers who claim to have been inspired by their 1998 predecessors.

Boavista’s Title Win of 2001: When Portugal’s Big Three Became Four

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Only two teams in the history of the Primeira Liga have won the title outside of Benfica, Sporting and Porto. One of those was Boavista in 2000/01.

Full article featured on These Football Times.

Leeds United 1998-2002: David O’Leary and The ‘What If’ Generation

by Dan Parry

It was 2001, Bob the Builder was fixing it, Robbie Williams was rocking DJ’s, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were ruling the cinemas, and in the football world Leeds United were on the verge of creating history. Manager David O’Leary and his ‘Babies’ (as he famously referred to them) were upsetting the domestic status quo of the time by challenging the dominant powers Manchester United and Arsenal, and due to a remarkable Champions League run it looked as though the side would go on to become a major force to reckoned with in Europe as well. The overwhelming belief was that the young squad would become a strong and constant presence in both the domestic league and in Europe. This conviction was so entrenched that Peter Ridsdale (Club Chairman) and the club’s board took out a £60 million loan leveraged against their confidence that title challenges and European qualification would become a norm.

In the 1996/97 season Leeds’ last League title winning manager Howard Wilkinson was relieved of his duties. His replacement was former Arsenal boss George Graham, back after serving a one-year ban for accepting illegal payments from agents in dodgy transfer deals. Graham installed his former Arsenal centre-back and Republic of Ireland international David O’Leary –who had just finished his playing career at the Yorkshire Club- as his assistant manager. These years at the club, both as a player and an assistant would be massively influential when it came to his time running the club. He became acquainted with the club’s famed Thorp Arch academy and its starlets. The crop of 1997 showed substantial potential when they won the FA youth cup and the side included future first team players such as Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson, Stephen McPhail and Harry Kewell. Overall, Graham’s time at the club was solid albeit unspectacular; he brought stability, defensive solidity and the return of European football to Elland Road.

Early in the 1998/99 season Graham left after accepting the newly vacated managerial position at Tottenham Hotspurs. The board’s first choice replacement had been Martin O’Neill but he rejected their proposal and chose to stay with Midlands side Leicester City instead. The board therefore decided to advance the young and untested assistant manager O’Leary. In a shift from the Graham years O’Leary began to focus on the prodigious talents being produced by the academy, he blooded players from the 97 Youth Cup winning bunch into the main squad where their development continued alongside more experienced professionals such as: South African centre-back and Captain Lucas Radebe and the recently returned, Leeds-born, central midfielder David Batty.

O’Leary utilised the youthful exuberance of his squad in order to implement an energetic and attacking style of play in which emphasis was placed on being creative and pressing high up the pitch. This allowed technically gifted players such as Lee Bowyer and Harry Kewell, who had failed to flatter under Graham, to absolutely flourish. O’Leary’s philosophy was perhaps best epitomised by the young, homegrown forward Alan Smith. Promoted from the youth team by O’Leary, his determined and enthusiastic performances captured the hearts of the Leeds United fans. At the end of O’Leary’s first season Leeds finished in 4th place and qualified for the UEFA Cup for a second consecutive season.

Several changes were made for O’Leary’s second season in charge; Dutch striker and top scorer Jimmy Floyd Hasslebank went to Atletico Madrid for £12m, and older heads like David Wetherall and Lee Sharpe made way for fresh additions. Ridsdale opened the cheque-book and O’Leary spent £30m on promising British talents like Danny Mills (£4m, Charlton), Michael Bridges (£5m, Sunderland), Darren Huckerby (£4m, Coventry City), and Oliver Dacourt was imported from France (£7.2m, RC Lens). The investments paid dividends and the young side impressed as Leeds United produced one of their best seasons in recent memory. A remarkable run in the UEFA Cup lead them to the semi-final where they were knocked out on away goals by eventual winners Galatasaray. Even greater success came domestically as the fledgling side ended up in 3rd place and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in a decade.

With a European campaign in sight Ridsdale provided O’Leary with another blank cheque for the 2000/01 season. Aussie strongman Mark Viduka came from Celtic (£6.5m), Dominic Matteo crossed the Pennines from Liverpool (£5m), and a massive statement was made as Leeds broke the British transfer record to sign promising centre-back Rio Ferdinand (£18m). In Ferdinand, O’Leary saw a leader who he could build a Europe conquering team around, and the Irishman set about creating a footballing dynasty.

In 2000/2001 the exertions of competing in the Champions League midweek proved to be too much for the players’ young legs and caused their league form to falter. They ended up finishing in 4th just outside of the Champions League spots. The stand out performances came during that season’s Champions League as the young players repeatedly bested expectations on a dreamlike journey to the semi-finals.

In the first group stage they were drawn with Barcelona, AC Milan and Beskitas. Nobody gave them much chance of surviving the group, especially after an opening fixture in which they were drubbed 4-0 at the Nou Camp by Barcelona. But they produced some magnificent home performances, including a 6-0 hammering of Beskitas, and a 1-0 defeat of AC Milan that came thanks to some good fortune in the form of poor handling by Milan keeper Dida who fumbled a long range Bowyer effort into his own goal. Leeds came 2nd in the group, below AC Milan but above Barcelona, and went through to the second group phase stage. The second group phase draw was equally as difficult as the first, and yet again not many expected Leeds to qualify. Nevertheless, the young Leeds side showed their potential and churned-out some important victories to help them progress to the quarter finals. Famous away wins over Italian champions Lazio 1-0 and a 4-1 thrashing of Belgium’s Anderlecht left indelible marks in Leeds United’s history.

In the quarter finals they faced the reigning Spanish champions, Deportivo La Coruña. Certain players from Deportivo had stated that they were happy to have drawn Leeds United, describing them as the weakest side left in the tournament. The Leeds players used this criticism as motivation and it resulted in one of Leeds’ most memorable European nights. The inexperienced yet brave underdogs were completely unfazed by the situation and ran out unlikely 3-0 victors thanks to goals from Ian Harte, Leeds native Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand. A 2-0 defeat in the away leg at El Riazor Stadium in La Coruña meant that Leeds United had done enough and they progressed to the semi-final where they faced the previous season’s Champions league runner-up, Hector Cuper’s Valencia. A dogged home-tie finished 0-0 with Bowyer picking up a suspension in the process, thus leaving him unavailable for the return leg. Many felt that it his presence that was most dearly missed in the midfield on that night in the Mestalla as Leeds were over run by an unstoppable Valencia side. The size of the moment got to the inexperienced Leeds players and an early, controversial goal from Juan Sanchez meant that they were always chasing the game thereafter. Valencia swept them aside in a crushing 3-0 victory and the European dream was over.

Although disappointing, Leeds fans had a lot to look forward to. The squad was still in its formative years and it had demonstrated that it had more than enough potential to succeed and compete at the highest level in the coming years. They had failed to re-qualify for the Champions League but further investment would lead to a renewed assault on the league title, and hopefully more Champions League football.

The 2001/02 season would be O’Leary’s last and it was the beginning of a dramatic and well-documented decline in fortunes for the Yorkshire club. A fantastic run of form saw them topping the league by the turn of the year but off-field issues derailed the campaign. An incident involving Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and the assault of a student in Leeds city centre two years previous had finally come to court. Unexpectedly, the case served as a morale booster and brought the dressing room closer together. It was in fact David O’Leary’s decision to publish a book about the trial that plunged the club’s season into chaos. The board, staff and fans alike felt somewhat let down by O’Leary, it was felt that his decision to publish was wholly inappropriate and consequently he lost the dressing room. A dreadful period for the side commenced after a 3rd round FA Cup defeat to Cardiff at Ninian Park and Leeds did not taste victory for two months. Although seven wins from the final ten games of the season saw Leeds drag themselves into 5th place and the UEFA Cup, it was not enough to stop O’Leary from facing the axe. He had alienated himself among the fans, the players, and most importantly the board. In the eyes of the board, failing to qualify for the Champions league was insufficient after the level of investment made in the transfer market (by time he left £100m had been spent on transfers).

What followed was the darkest period in the club’s history. It soon became apparent that chasing success had come at a massive cost for Leeds United. Ridsdale had acquired a £60 million loan from the bank based on the belief that Leeds would be a constant presence in the Champions League, the business model meant that the debt would be payed for by elevated gate receipts and extra income from TV money. Essentially the hierarchy gambled the club’s future and lost. With the debt spiralling out of control selling the club’s talent became a necessity. The squad that O’Leary had expensively assembled was dismantled over the next couple of years and the players were sold to rival clubs for, at times, bargain prices: Ferdinand was sold to Manchester Utd for a British record fee and became the bedrock upon which Sir Alex Ferguson built his Champions League winning side; Kewell was sold to Liverpool for £5m where he also won a Champions League; Bowyer and Woodgate went to Newcastle, Paul Robinson to Tottenham, Dacourt went to Italy and so on, but the most painful transfer was that of Alan Smith to Manchester United. Alan Smith was the fans’ darling player from this generation and he had once famously stated he would never play for their bitter rivals.

Leeds United fans and football fans in general were never to know that 2001 would be the peak of success for David O’Leary and his Babies. Leeds United were so badly damaged that even Bob the Builder would not have been able to fix them. The following years would see Leeds United drop out of the Premiership in 2004 and three years later after further relegation they found themselves in the English game’s third tier. O’Leary’s future followed a similar trajectory, he spent three years without great acclaim at Aston Villa before being replaced, ironically, by Martin O’Neill, and his latest managerial feat was a fruitless period in the Middle East with Dubai based Al Ahli.

What if O’Leary had stayed? What if he had never written that book? What if they qualified for the Champions League in 2002? What if they had beat Valencia? What if the players had stayed together? What if Ridsdale had said no to some of the transfers? Terrible financial management from a reckless board, inflated transfer fees and misinformed decisions consigned this potentially world conquering Leeds side to the most sober page in the great big book of football history, the page of ‘what ifs’.