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Still Super

By Joel Richards (@Joel_Richards), author of Superclasico: Inside the Ultimate Derby

The extent of the rivalry behind the superclásico was laid out very clearly last weekend. River Plate had to prioritise between a semi-final with Boca Juniors in the Sudamericana, South America’s secondary continental trophy, or the league title run-in.

It was the superclásico that came first.

Sandwiched in between the home and away ties with Boca, River faced Racing on Sunday. For such an important game, which would all but decide the league title between the two, River lined up with just two first-team players. The rest were under orders to rest ahead of the return leg against Boca.

The gamble backfired. Racing won and with two matches remaining went top of a league that River have dominated playing stylish football in recent months. Success this season could well rest on the clash with Boca, placing yet more pressure on the fixture.

When we published Superclasico last year, River Plate and Boca Juniors had both recently turned to the most successful coaches in the club’s history, Ramón Díaz at River and Carlos Bianchi at Boca, in the hope of turning around their fortunes.

Both have since gone.

Bianchi left Boca near the bottom of the table, with three points from four games earlier this season. His Boca side was a shadow of the legendary teams he built in the 2000s. Díaz has also gone, though he improved his stock at River, leading the team to the league title and much-needed silverware after a miserable previous few years at the club.

Having both turned to former champions, they then both called on young coaches who grew up in their youth systems, Marcelo Gallardo at River and Rodolfo Arruabarrena at Boca.

Under Gallardo, River have played some of the most attractive football in the domestic league perhaps since the Huracán side of Ángel Cappa, which featured a young Javier Pastore. Over at Boca, Arruabarrena has brought order to the side and the dismal start to the season is long forgotten, as they are one match away from a continental final.

The week since the first leg has been particularly tense at River. Losing to Racing piled on pressure to beat Boca. Coach Marcelo Gallardo’s mother passed away, and scandalously, there were stabbings inside the club restaurant as over 100 of the barra bravas clashed.

At the Bombonera last week, the football was rough, and of poor quality. Maybe this was to be expected in the first continental clash between the two in 10 years. With tension guaranteed, neutrals will hope for more of a show as this famous and enthralling derby is settled at the Monumental.

Superclasico for dummies

As Argentina prepares for a Superclasico double header in the Copa Sudamericana, we thought we'd throw out a few pointers from Joel Richards on Boca Juniors v River Plate, one of world football's bucket list fixtures.

As part of our 90 Minutes series, we asked Joel to write about the backstory of this fascinating rivalry - its origins in Buenos Aires, the development of the two clubs, the players the derby has produced and the current state of play.

You can find Super Clasico on Amazon - 90 Minutes was a Kindle-exclusive series - but here's a taster, on the legacy of Diego Maradona on the derby, and that of his rival in the Boca pantheon, Juan Roman Riquelme.

Finally, here's a great video Joel shot in Buenos Aires, where you can see the two grounds and learn a lot more about the origins of the superclasico.



When Ancelotti met Liverpool: Istanbul 2005

Tonight Carlo Ancelotti takes his star-filled Real Madrid team to Liverpool in the Champions League.

The opposition is important for the Italian. In 2005, he was manager of the Milan team who were 3-0 up in the final of the same competition, before Liverpool mounted one of the most famous comebacks in football.

One of his players that night in Istanbul was Andrea Pirlo. Here, from his autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, is how that defeat affected him.

I thought about quitting because, after Istanbul, nothing made sense any more.

The 2005 Champions League final simply suffocated me. To most people’s minds, the reason we lost on penalties was Jerzy Dudek – that jackass of a dancer who took the mickey out of us by swaying about on his line and then rubbed salt into the wound by saving our spot kicks. But in time the truly painful sentence was realising that we were entirely to blame.

How it happened I don’t know, but the fact remains that when the impossible becomes reality, somebody’s fucked up – in this case, the entire team. A mass suicide where we all joined hands and jumped off the Bosphorus Bridge. The famous strait proved narrow in the extreme. So narrow, in fact, that if the whole Istanbul experience was a suppository, it could find no escape once inside us. Every now and then, I feel it move, letting me know it’s still there, asserting its presence. It calls me by name and it’s a pain in the arse in the truest sense of the term.

When that torture of a game was finished, we sat like a bunch of half-wits in the dressing room there at the Atatürk Stadium. We were bloodthirsty zombies faced with an unforeseen problem – the blood was ours and they’d drunk every last drop. We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t move.

They’d mentally destroyed us. The damage was already evident even in those early moments, and it only got more stark and serious as the hours went on. Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: Istanbul syndrome.

I no longer felt like a player, and that was devastating enough. But even worse, I no longer felt like a man. All of a sudden, football had become the least important thing, precisely because it was the most important: a very painful contradiction.

I didn’t dare look in the mirror in case my reflection spat back at me. The only possible solution I could think of was to retire. And what a dishonourable retirement it would have been.

I glimpsed the end of the line: the journey was over. The story was finished and so was I.

It was a brief, intense, shitty period. You couldn’t escape or pull the plug on a world that had turned upside down, and you were forever surrounded by the other guilty parties in this theft of our own dignity. We always ended up talking about it. We asked each other questions, but nobody had any answers. This was a collective psychoanalysis session with one fairly sizeable flaw: there wasn’t any doctor, just a bunch of madmen. One thought he was Shevchenko, another Crespo, another Gattuso, Seedorf, Nesta, Kaká… I thought I was Pirlo. A gathering of impostors, too many to get away with it.

I could hardly sleep and even when I did drop off, I awoke to a grim thought: I’m disgusting. I can’t play any more. I went to bed with Dudek and all his Liverpool teammates.

Even now if I mess up a pass, that malign force could be to blame. For that reason, I steer well clear of the DVD from the Liverpool game. It’s an enemy that I can’t allow to wound me a second time. It’s already done enough damage: most of it hidden far from the surface.

I’ll never watch that match again. I’ve already played it once in person and many other times in my head, searching for an explanation that perhaps doesn’t even exist. Praying for a different ending, like with those films you watch a second time hoping that you misunderstood the final scene. Surely the good guy can’t die like that?

There are always lessons to be found in the darkest moments. It’s a moral obligation to dig deep and find that little glimmer of hope or pearl of wisdom. You might hit upon an elegant phrase that stays with you and makes the journey that little less bitter. I’ve tried with Istanbul and haven’t managed to get beyond these words: for fuck’s sake.

Like this? Read this.

Remembering Glenn Gibbons: Scotland versus the press

Glenn Gibbons, an esteemed Scottish sports journalist, died earlier this week at the age of 69. Two years ago, he kindly contributed to a collection of sports writing - Henrik, Hairdryers and the Hand of God - to raise money for the Sands charity. Here is his typically eloquent piece.


TALLEYRAND once observed that only those who had lived before 1789 could have a proper appreciation of what the good life had to offer.

Had the most famous and influential diplomat of post-Revolu­tion France been discussing Scotland’s football writers, he would have noted that the watershed year was 1974.

To present-day scribblers, ‘travelling with the team’ on a foreign assignment is a concept that begins – and virtually ends – with a largely disarrayed huddle around some hapless player in an airport departure lounge, the ‘interview’ regularly interrupted by loud and unintelligible PA announcements.

Apart from the official media preview conference on the eve of the match, at which the manager and team captain will blandly field banal questions in a free-for-all (newspaper, radio and television interests all served by the same scrum), the next contact between ‘accompanying’ journalists will be another rushed collision in the sweaty aftermath of the match. This in itself is the prelude to a hairy stampede to the airport, the primary objective of the entire exercise to get the team airborne and heading home as soon as possible.

These fleeting ‘contacts’ are the consequence of the desire by foot­ball’s executives, be they representing a club or the Scottish FA, to keep a metaphorical firewall between themselves and the possibly leprous members of the hack pack. The arrangement includes con­fining the official party and the chroniclers in separate hotels.

In an ideal world, the football people would really prefer the press to book and pay (exorbitantly) for seats on the team’s aircraft without their actually occupying them on either the outbound or the return journey. The origins of this segregation (‘back of the bus’ is entirely appropriate to the status of the football writing corps on these expeditions) may be traced to the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
Or, more precisely, the pre-engagement visits to Belgium and Norway during the most eventful week of this veteran reporter’s 45-year career.

Led by the gloriously good-natured manager Willie Ormond, Scotland’s heroes were heading for the great jamboree for the first time in 16 years. Commercialism was in its infancy, but there was enough savvy around for the players to appoint an agent, Bob Bain, who would look after their interests. Within minutes of our arrival at our hotel before the match against Belgium, rumours that the SFA intended to dip its toes in the players’ pool were addressed by the team manager.

Willie, flushed with the conviviality that sprang from the free bar aboard the British Airways charter, assured the press that there was no way the SFA would be allowed to interfere. He seemed oblivious to the notion that he was making a headline-grabbing declaration of war on his own employers.

That was the first of a series of gifts to the papers. The next came as early as the following day, when we learned that Bain, judged to be a potentially bad influence, had been banned from the training ground.

Following an abysmal performance (ending in a 2-1 defeat) against Belgium, the players were allowed out for what might po­litely be called a relaxing evening. Because of a coach trip to our 9am flight from Brussels to Oslo next day, breakfast was called for 6.30.

Looking at the casualties of the ‘unwinding’ session, betrayed by pasty complexions behind dark glasses, it was clear that several beds had passed the night undisturbed. By the time we reached Oslo, the flying champagne bottle in which we were travelling had anaesthe­tised much of the collective pain.
Having checked into what were university halls of residences vacated for the summer, a colleague, Brian Scott, and I repaired to the wine and beer bar in the basement, there to encounter the two leprechauns, Jimmy Johnstone and Billy Bremner.

As we sat at a pine table with bench seats, Billy at my side and Jimmy and Brian opposite, Willie Ormond, clearly disturbed, en­tered, walked the length of the room and, leaning between the other two, said sarcastically to Bremner, the squad captain, “Thanks very much!” and left.

It transpired that Johnstone and Bremner had flouted an order to remain in their rooms, out of the public – and the media – gaze. I heard from the team doctor that night that a full-scale meeting was taking place “upstairs,” although nothing emerged until the follow­ing day.

Then, the SFA secretary, Willie Allan, informed us that two play­ers (whose identities, of course, we already knew) had been severely reprimanded and had come within an ace of being sent home in disgrace. This sensation was so forcefully condemned by John Mac­kenzie of the Daily Express that he was banned from the flight to the World Cup itself after the match against Norway. John’s great friend and rival, Hugh Taylor of the Daily Record, received a phone call from his editor, outraged that Hughie had not managed to achieve the distinction (and heaven-sent publicity) of getting him­self banned.

On the night before the match, the Scottish press were not al­lowed into their own national team’s training session, apparently “on the orders of Mr Ormond.” That led to more fever and another con­frontation the following morning. It was clear that the manager, far too friendly ever to have taken a unilateral decision to ban the press, had been acting under orders.

Predictably – this was, after all, a country notorious for a bloody minded dedication to producing optimum work under the least conducive circumstances – the Scots would beat Norway that night. Furthermore, they would return from the World Cup as the only unbeaten team in the tournament, eliminated on goal difference and celebrated to this day by an adoring public.

For those nosey little ink merchants, however, it would be the end of sharing digs as well as flights with the ‘precious’ ones. Not that anything that occurred in that bizarre week could be ascribed to our efforts. It’s just that our proximity to the action allowed us to see what the authorities would have preferred to hide.

Pep Confidential: 10 questions for the author

MARTI PERARNAU was given total access to Bayern Munich during Pep Guardiola's first season, 2013-14. The result is an astonishing behind-the-scenes book, Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich, which we have co-published with Arena Sport.

We asked Marti - pictured below with Pep - 10 questions on the book...

1) Why did Pep decide to give a writer such access at this point in his career?

Several factors converged simultaneously: David Trueba, a very good Spanish film director is a close friend of Pep. He said it was a shame not to have recorded the great moments lived inside the Barcelona dressing room. At that time I came along with my project about Bayern and the endorsement of Manel Estiarte, with whom I had been an Olympic colleague.

Pep thought there was a chance to make an exception to the rules and allow entry to someone who was an ex-sportsman and who, perhaps, could explain how his football team worked. So we made the deal and then I had to earn the trust of Guardiola and be honest with him.

2) Tell us one thing about Pep Guardiola that most people won’t know?

The biggest surprise is that most clichés that exist about Pep are not true. He’s not a romantic manager, not poetic or aesthetic. He’s a very competitive coach who wants to win and will change his usual playing style if it would improve the team. Lorenzo Buenaventura, Bayern's physical trainer, defines him with a very exact phrase: "Pep is not a fan of himself." He has an open mind to all kinds of knowledge.

3) Other than Pep, who was the most interesting character you came across in the book?

Probably the agent of Philipp Lahm. He is called Roman Grill and was a player for Bayern reserves many years ago. He also coached when Lahm started playing. Grill is a very intelligent person with a great knowledge of football. He saw Guardiola's tactical movements before anyone else and is also a character who speaks very clear and does not hide behind diplomatic phrases.

4) Having your access would be a dream for every fan or journalist – what was your favourite moment during the season?

The most exciting moments were always the post-game time when Guardiola expresses all thoughts of what happened in the games.

5) Which Bayern player impressed / surprised you most in terms of attitude and personality?

Philipp Lahm and Arjen Robben. The captain is a very quiet and serious player, who used to remain quite unnoticed until the team needed him to talk or act. In these cases Lahm demonstrates a very big personality. Robben is always playing with his three children and behaves like a great parent. He is very polite and friendly and also he’s very ambitious as a player.

6. In the book, arguably the greatest coach in the world lays out his coaching manual – do you expect this book to have a big impact on other coaches / managers?

All reactions I've received from managers and coaches have been very positive. Spanish, Argentine and German coaches have contacted me to discuss details of the working methods of Guardiola.

7. Pep has lots of friends from outside of football – filmmakers, fashion designers, chess players, academics which of these areas and individuals have been the biggest influence on Pep?

Pep is a man with much curiosity for all things. Sometimes I was surprised when he was interested in issues far removed from football. But he always just used what he learned to apply it to football. Finally, what most influences Pep is the football itself.

8. The theme of chess and Pep’s talks with Garry Kasparov are very important at the start and the end of the book. Can you explain the significance of the chess theme in the book?

Conversations with Kasparov are related to the difficulties in always being focused and the resulting competition fatigue. Pep is very interested in learning how to save mental energy because he burnt out in Barcelona. He wants to prevent the same thing happening at Bayern. Moreover, he’s interested in chess from the standpoint of movement strategy.

9. You travelled all over Germany with the team – what was the most interesting place you visited?

Munich is a formidable city. I had a great time living in Munich this year. Of the other cities I visited, Freiburg was the most special. It is small and charming.

10. Where do you expect Pep to be in 10 years’ time?

I do not think Pep is like Sir Alex Ferguson, who spent 27 years at his club. Rather, I think he prefers to have a shorter career as a coach, but very intense. It seems inevitable that one day Pep will be the coach of an English club.

* Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich, out now in paperback and ebook, published by BackPage Press / Arena Sport.

** Read an exclusive extract from Pep Confidential here




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