Iceland: A Saga of the World Cup Underdog

From football anonymity to World Cup debutantes in a little over a decade.

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When you fly into Keflavík International Airport and peer down through the clearing fog, a vast, sparse tundra awaits you, where roads run through the rock and snow like discarded ribbons of tarmac, and the emptiness seems staggering.

How then has this charming yet frigid rock in the northernmost regions of the Atlantic managed to become nearly as synonymous with the upcoming World Cup as the likes of Argentina, Germany and Brazil?

For the World Cup conjures images of glittering stadia drenched in summer sun beneath azure skies. Yet here, nestled between brooding mountains and iron-grey seas, the burgeoning Icelandic passion for football has captured the hearts of millions.

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For many years, though, most people’s perception of Iceland was little more than an icy, barren wilderness whose chief exports were ethereal-voiced songstresses and enormous men who threw ovens over hedges.

What happened to a country with almost no professional footballing pedigree for the public perception to shift so vastly?

In order to understand the secret of Iceland’s fortunes, we have to go back to January 2004. It may seem like a small event in the grand scheme of football, but the turn of that particular year saw Iceland gain its first ever UEFA-accredited coach. For a nation of 330,000 people, or to paraphrase Partridge, roughly the population of Coventry, this was monumental.

Before then, Icelandic football was firmly routed in the amateur game. Plucky Nordic footballers, some of whom would traverse the lower leagues to emerge into the Premier League; veritable giants of men, not known for their technique or prowess on the ball, but for their physicality and refusal to concede defeat.

Think: Hermann Hreiðarsson.  And even then, he was relegated with every Premier League side he played for. The Icelandic Roger Johnson, in essence.

However, as of 2015, that number of trained coaches in Iceland has risen from one to 669, including 17 coaches who possess a UEFA Pro Licence. Over the same period, Iceland rose from 93rd in the FIFA rankings to an all-time high of 21st following Euro 2016. As they approach the World Cup, they currently sit in twenty-second place – ahead of the likes of Sweden, the USA, Serbia and every Home Nation besides England.

Training coaches properly may seem a simple strategy – and in essence, it is – but its a strategy that has worked for others. Take Germany and Spain, for example, the two foremost footballing nations in Europe over the past decade.

As of 2014, both nations possessed by far the highest number of professional coaches – Germany: 6,934, Spain: 15,423 – and it’s no small surprise that the two nations have won four of the last five international trophies available to them.

Not for a second is anyone suggesting Iceland could be the next World Cup winners (well, maybe the folks over at the Reykjavík Grapevine) but their insistence on properly coaching football from a young age has reaped similar dividends to Spain and Germany, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Yet for Icelanders, the transformation of the sport from the amateur realm to professional has been gradual, and one which has still not permeated the way they approach the game.

Vidar Halldórsson, a prominent sociologist from the University of Iceland, explained,

“[Icelanders] still build on valuable elements from amateurism, where the players somewhat approach playing for the national team as play rather than work. The Icelandic teams are in this sense built on: intrinsic motivation, friendships and strong teamwork – which are elements that have been fading from commercialised sports.”

In essence, Iceland treat football for what it is – a game. And while the British media piles the pressure on the next 23 hapless players who have been picked to face the firing squad, the Iceland team will be approaching their first ever World Cup utterly buoyant.

But this progression hasn’t come from just putting the time and money in place to train a generation of coaches alone. Instead, a rather simple factor has helped catapult Iceland from perennial flirters with the top 100 to fanciful dark horses: playable pitches.

In case it escaped your attention, Iceland is, well, to put it mildly, pretty cold. And we’re not talking the sort of cold that would prompt most Britons to dig out their ‘big coat’. Oh, no. During winter, temperatures plummet, snow is abound and the country lives up to its moniker. If we had this weather in the UK we’d to abandon any pretence of running around and go down the pub instead.

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Heimaey youth football tournament © James Brooks

For many years, this has been a contributing factor to why Icelandic football has struggled domestically and on the international level. Only since the turn of the century has the Icelandic FA put effort into renovating the existing facilities and introduce purpose-built, all-weather pitches. Many were built next to schools to allow children to participate in the sport, as the KSI put it, “purely for fun.”

While children up and down the UK are being shoved onto full-sized pitches when they could still be mistaken for an inhabitant of Hobbiton, and are then duly screamed at by over-expectant parents every Saturday morning, Icelandic kids are kicking a ball about all year round for the pure hell of it. Precisely as youth football should be.

With this marriage of facilities and coaching, interest in football has soared, and with it so have the results of the national team. More players than ever ply their trade overseas in Europe’s top leagues, and while it may have taken a generation to achieve it, the wait has been well worth it.

For a country that hadn’t once qualified for a major tournament to qualify for two in the space of four years is testament to the extraordinary progress that can be made if you give football the patience it needs to develop.

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Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson has been Iceland captain since 2012. ©  Jon Candy

Usually, when a country qualifies for its first ever World Cup appearance, they’re summarily written off. The likes of Zaire in 1982, Iraq in 1986, Jamaica in 1998 and Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, all arrived on the grandest stage and were dumped from the competition at the nearest opportunity.

“Lacking in experience” was a reproach levelled at most of them; basically a polite way of saying when your goalkeeper is a postman, your striker is 46 and your captain plays in the Ukrainian fourth division.

Yet Iceland come into this World Cup with the attention of many an outsider. This plucky little country of bearded Vikings are the smallest ever country to be represented at a World Cup finals, and it helps that they’ve already proved they’re not akin to a spot of pillaging after they dispatched Portugal and England en route to a quarter final finish in Euro 2016.

While very few observers genuinely believe Iceland can win the whole thing (short of Thor manifesting on the pitch and smiting every opposition player in sight) the fact they’re even there is an achievement in itself.

Who’d have thought fifteen years ago that Iceland would be heading to the World Cup, let alone whether they’re 250/1 to win it!

And despite being drawn into a group with Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Icelanders can feel tentatively optimistic of escaping into the knockout rounds. Since their third place finish in 1998, Croatia have failed to progress past the group stages since, while Nigeria have never progressed past the round of 16 in their entire history.

With the watchful gaze of Odin looking over them, don’t be surprised to see Iceland steal a march into the last sixteen.

Put that microphone down, Björk, step away from the squat rack, Hafþór Björnsson, and set your TV channels to Smite – Iceland’s latest saga is only just beginning.

Can we call Manchester United genuine title contenders?

Or will it be another barren year?

In the 21 years Alex Ferguson was manager of Manchester United in the Premier League, the club never once finished outside the top three. In the four seasons since his retirement, they’ve yet to finish inside it.

It’s a stark reminder that, for all their sustained success throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Manchester United owed an awful lot to a certain wily Scotsman who just knew how to foster a winning mentality.

However, following a strong summer recruitment drive, that included the captures of Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, and an opening-day demolition of West Ham United, have Manchester United finally become legitimate title contenders under Jose Mourinho?

With the international break looming, United sit atop the Premier League table with a 100% record: nine points, ten goals scored and three clean sheets.

Mourinho utilised the transfer window exceptionally well

When Ferguson departed the club at the end of the 2012-13 season, he left in his wake possibly the most under-equipped Manchester United squad in decades. Ageing, slow and lacking in depth, the consensus was that major investment would be needed in order for his successor David Moyes to succeed.

And although he brought in Marouane Fellaini for £27.5 million, followed by Juan Mata in January for £37.1 million, Moyes and Ed Woodward were notorious for their failures in acquiring top targets, and the club slipped to a lowly 7th-placed finish. This lack of precision in the summer months would be a trend that continued throughout Louis van Gaal’s two-year tenure, as United adopted somewhat of a scatter-gun approach to the transfer market.

Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria, Falcao, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian, Anthony Martial have all joined for a combined fee of  £400 million, with drastically varying results.

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Conversely, this season, the club have been shrewd in the market. Deals for Lindelof, Lukaku and Matic were done before the season kicked off and, although Mourinho was left lamenting the failure to acquire a fourth target, the squad looks stronger and more balanced as a result.

Nemanja Matic, bizarrely deemed surplus to requirements by Chelsea, has been something of a revelation in centre-midfield, with his tenacious displays in the centre of the park allowing Paul Pogba greater freedom to roam up the pitch. In his opening three Premier League matches, the enormous Serb has averaged three tackles a game, maintained a passing accuracy of 88% and even dazzled the Old Trafford faithful with a series of deft turns and touches.

Similarly, Lukaku has also slotted seamlessly into Mourinho’s plans, and brings a different dimension to the game than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His willingness to stretch defences with runs in behind has reaped three goals (and he would have had another if he was even a semi-competent penalty-taker) and though his link-up play is decidedly weaker than the Swede’s, his considerable bulk means United still have a formidable target to aim for when launching counter-attacks.

Everybody is pulling their weight

Last season, Manchester United were extraordinarily reliant on the goal-scoring exploits of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His 17 league goals constituted almost 35% of the club’s final goal tally in the league, with Paul Pogba a distant second in the scoring ranks with six.

Yet this campaign, the story couldn’t be more different for Mourinho’s men. While Lukaku has began his career at the club magnificently with three goals in three games, he’s been far from the only reliable outlet for goals. Pogba (2), Martial (2), Fellaini (1), Bailly (1) and Rashford (1) have ensured United have began the season in the best possible form.

Furthermore, 40% of the goals scored have come from the subs’ bench, meaning that Mourinho can finally boast an enviable depth in his squad – a hallmark from United’s championship-winning sides of years gone by, where Ferguson made ample use of the enormous firepower on his bench, perhaps most notably in the fabled Champions League final of 1999.

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And it isn’t just the new recruits that have helped United progress in terms of their performances on the pitch. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose precocious talent was never in doubt, struck an inconsistent figure in the league last season: his scintillating scorpion-kick goal against Sunderland offset by the fact the Armenian playmaker only registered a single assist.

Following a strong pre-season, the former Dortmund man finally seems to be approaching the lofty heights his massive potential suggests. Five assists in his first three games appears to have cemented his status as the side’s pivotal creative threat.

Similarly, Phil Jones, a figure oft-maligned by Manchester United and football fans alike, has staked a strong case for becoming one of the club’s first-choice centre-halves. After years of inconsistency and troublesome injury problems, the 25-year-old has looked an assured fixture in Mourinho’s back four, with the manager going so far to confess this week that Jones has made a huge impression on him:

“He’s potentially a very good player. He’s still young. He’s still in a learning age but for years and years and years he was injury-prone.

If we manage to have him safe and protected from injuries, I think potentially he’s everything I like in a central defender.”

And all this is without forgetting that the club have some considerable talent still sidelined through injury. Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all working towards returning to first-team action.

Turning draws into wins

Throughout the 2016-17 campaign, Manchester United were dogged by their inability to kill off teams when commanding a winning position. A record 15 draws essentially destroyed any hopes of finishing in the Top Four, and although the Europa League offered a way back into Europe, Mourinho couldn’t afford to fall back on ‘Plan B’ for a second season running.

A large proportion of these draws came against lower-placed sides – teams United were expected to beat. Both Swansea and West Ham took points off the Red Devils last season, and on both occasions, United failed to protect a one-nil lead. In fact, they dropped 10 points from winning positions; only Liverpool and Arsenal in the top six dropped more.

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But this season, the problems that haunted a beleaguered United and threatened to derail their entire campaign, appear to have been rectified. This time around, Swansea and West Ham were defeated in emphatic fashion, 4-0 apiece. Mourinho, long renowned for being a defensive mastermind, has embraced the so-called ‘United way’ by urging his team forward in the latter stages of a game: two of the goals against West Ham arrived in the last ten minutes; three of the goals against Swansea came in the final 11 minutes; while both of the goals against Leicester were registered after the 70th minute.

Titles aren’t won and lost in August, but United are already laying down a clear marker for the chasing clubs to follow. Once the international break is over and the domestic season resumes, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace await Mourinho and his side. Tellingly, they failed to beat Everton in the league, dropped two points against Southampton and were held on both occasions by Stoke last season — all of which were games you’d be expecting Manchester United to win.

If this season’s exploits are anything to go by, the form United are in could see them face their first genuine test against Liverpool on the 14th of October with 21 points to their name. A more formidable position, Mourinho could not even dream of.

Of course, that being said, between now and the end of the season, a lot can happen. Phil Jones might well put himself out for six months getting out of the bath; Paul Pogba could still end up with more haircuts than goals; and Mourinho may well decide Jesse Lingard needs a run in the team.

But, if the signs are anything to go by, it seems Manchester United are finally back in a position to challenge for the Premier League title.

 

Farewell Antonio Cassano: Italy’s Flawed Genius

After 19 years, one of the game’s most eventful characters has finally called time. Again.

This year saw Italian football wave goodbye to one of its greatest sons. The illustrious Francesco Totti, revered in Rome, called time on a career that had spanned 24 years with a single club. A Serie A Champion, a World Cup winner and a recipient of the Golden Shoe, despite the limitations of playing for boyhood club Roma, Totti enjoyed a glittering career.

Conversely, fast forward a mere two months and one of the Italy’s more colourful characters has also decided – albeit not without controversy – that the time has come to hang his boots up.

When you compare Antonio Cassano’s career with that of compatriot Totti, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Whereas Rome’s finest star rode off into the Mediterranean sunset with a chorus of 55,000 ringing in his ears, Cassano – once dubbed the “bad boy” of Italian football – leaves the game behind in a manner most befitting of his eclectic career.

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Only eight days after having signed for Hellas Verona at the ripe age of 35 – and having not played a single league minute since May 2016 – Cassano duly announced he was retiring; only to then reverse the decision the very same afternoon.

A week later, following claims by his wife he was now cancelling his contract with the club, the farce reached its epic conclusion when Cassano once again confirmed he was retiring from the sport altogether, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

So, what happened to the man AS Roma once signed for €30 million at the tender age of 19? Ostensibly, as with so many footballers, a talent that promises so much is hard to sustain in the gruelling realm of the modern player.

When he arrived in Rome having become one of world football’s most expensive teenagers, Cassano had already acquired somewhat of a mythical status at his home club, Bari. Dubbed “the jewel of old Bari” after a series of scintillating performances, his effortless ball control coupled with a deft technique and low centre of gravity drew comparisons with Napoli hero Diego Maradona.

So when Roma shelled out more than they had on previous club record signing Gabriel Batistuta in 2000, it seemed like Cassano was on an upward trajectory to the summit of the game.

Playing at Roma gave Cassano the perfect opportunity to learn from one of Italy’s best. By this stage in his career, Francesco Totti was established firmly as a Roman legend, having lifted only their third ever Scudetto in 2001, and was already a permanent fixture in a lethal Italian national side.

Yet, Cassano, rather than capitalise on the opportunity, cut somewhat of a troubled fixture in the country’s capital, publicly falling out with Fabio Capello, before causing Luigi Delneri so much grief as to completely omit him from the league squad.

His on-field antics did little to endear him to the Giallorossi faithful. Rather than handle himself with the magnanimous nature of Francesco Totti, his on-field spats, tantrums and bust-ups became a spectacle of ridicule.

The first signs of the attitude that was to plague Cassano’s career began to surface, but in spite of his off-field issues, he was still voted Serie A Young Player of the Year twice while at Roma, in 2001 and 2003.

But after four seasons in Rome, including a spell as captain, Cassano’s time at the club came to an unsavoury end. After clashing with club officials over a new contract, he drew the ire of Totti himself and his fate was sealed. A hasty €5 million transfer to Real Madrid followed and his career took a nose dive.

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In a season-and-half, Cassano went from dangerously-talented wonderkid to overweight bench-warmer who was fined for every gram he remained over his playing weight. It was here that the demons that had simmered during his time at Roma began to surface with alarming alacrity.

His laid-back manner on the pitch came under due scrutiny, and his lacklustre approach to training earned him few friends in the Spanish capital.

Moreover, tensions with old foe Fabio Capello resurfaced, the Spanish press nicknamed him “Gordito” and he managed just seven league appearances in his only full season with the club.

President Ramon Calderon described Cassano’s attitude as unsustainable, and when you consider this extract from the Italian’s autobiography concerning his time in Madrid, you can see why:

“In Madrid I had a friend who was a hotel waiter. His job was to bring me three or four pastries after I had sex. He would bring the pastries up the stairs, I would escort the woman to him and we would make an exchange: he would take the girl and I would take the pastries. Sex and then food, a perfect night.”

Despite the abject failure of his move to Spain, Cassano managed to resurrect the smoking husk of his career at Sampdoria. The mid-table Genoan club were in dire need of a spark of genius, and Cassano duly obliged.

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Showcasing his talent of old, he established himself as the club’s main man with 37 goals in 106 appearances. Yet, the re-emergence of his dormant talents did not quench his volatile on-pitch nature. He continued to be regarded in footballing circles as a man more infamous for his tantrums and refusal to accept any of his team-mates as equal to himself than a man famous for his talents with a ball.

However, soon enough, after three-and-a-half seasons, the diminutive forward was on the move to a top club once again as he was snapped up by AC Milan. It was here that he formed an enviable partnership with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and collected his one and only Scudetto medal.

Yet his time at the Rossoneri was marred, although this time the misfortune that befell him was not of his own making. Diagnosed with a heart defect in his second season, Cassano missed the majority of the campaign following surgery. His stay in Milan was to be short; with the departure of Ibrahimovic and Silva to PSG, Cassano requested a transfer and jumped ship to cross-city rivals Inter.

From there, Cassano embarked on the well-trodden road of so many Italian mavericks before him, and became somewhat of a journeyman, turning out for Inter, Parma and Sampdoria in the final throes of his career.

It’s an all-too-familiar shame that, for a footballer so innately talented, Cassano never truly reached, or even came close to, the heights his early potential hinted at. When in full flow, there were precious few in the game that could match his guile and trickery; his deft technique and uncanny ability to split an entire back-line with one impudent ball. The almost churlish manner in which he enjoyed inflicting upon others the most acute embarrassment.

There was an unbridled joy that bordered on temerity about the way Antonio Cassano played the game of football. The game was about him, and him only.

Thus, it is probably the most fitting testament to Cassano’s tumultuous career that the wizened old Fabio Capello once coined the term “Cassanata” after his one-time prodigy: to describe a player entirely incompatible with team spirit in football.

Never change, Antonio. Never change.

 

 

 

 

 

The Best XI Never to Win the Champions League

Building the perfect XI from the unlucky geniuses who never won Europe’s greatest prize.

The Champions League final for 2017 is approaching, and with it comes a possible fourth crown in the offing for one Cristiano Ronaldo. If Real Madrid were to clinch their twelfth European trophy, and become the first team of the modern era to retain it, they’d make not only Ronaldo but a raft of their players multiple-time winners.

The Portuguese winger-turned-poacher already has three winners’ medals to his name, while the likes of Ramos, Kroos, Benzema and Modric all have two apiece.

But of their Italian opponents, there’s one man in particular who must be dying to get his hands on the one trophy that has eluded him for over two decades. In a career spanning 22 seasons, Gianluigi Buffon has tasted success in Serie A, Serie B, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa Italiana, the UEFA Cup and the World Cup — but it is the greatest club competition of them all that remains so tantalisingly out of reach.

Should he fail for the third time in his endeavours to become a European champion, he would join a supremely illustrious list of footballers never to have got their hands on club football’s most famous trophy.

You can forget Ronaldo, Messi, et al; these are the very best of the rest*.

*For the sake of argument, players eligible for the list must have played in the competition since its re-invention in 1992 as the Champions League.

GK — Gianluigi Buffon

With the likes of Schmeichel, Kahn, Casillas and Neuer already in possession of a coveted Champions League winners’ medal, there’s really only one man whose name could fit snugly amongst this pantheon of giants.

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A more reliable custodian of the goal you’ll be hard pressed to find throughout the history of world football, the 39-year-old Buffon has still yet to claim Europe’s biggest prize despite appearing 109 times in the competition.

DF — Lilian Thuram

In a career that saw him turn out in Europe for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, the powerful French full-back – who counts Serie A, Coupe de France, Coppa Espana and Coppa Italia medals amongst his collection – and never once got his hands on a Champions League winner’s medal.

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Like Buffon, he fell short at the final hurdle in 2003, when Juventus were defeated by Milan at Old Trafford, but for a man who was part of the dominant French national side of the ’90s and ’00s, it seems incredulous he never reached the illustrious summit of club football.

DF — Fabio Cannavaro

There are few footballers who win the Ballon d’Or, and there are fewer still who win it in spite of being defenders. Yet the elegant Italian, the leader of Italy’s victorious World Cup side in 2006, managed just that, becoming the fist centre-half to scoop the accolade since Franz Beckenbauer in 1976.

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However, although Cannavaro played for giants like Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid, the classy centre-back finished his career without a winner’s medal in the Champions League; one which would’ve completed an extremely enviable personal collection.

DF — Sol Campbell

Whereas Cannavaro embodied the elegant, graceful side of defending, Sol Campbell was all about sheer power. The hulking centre-back, who acrimoniously leapt across the North London divide from Spurs to Arsenal, was the man at the heart of a defence which became the first in Premier League history to go unbeaten in 2003/04.

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However, it was the 2005/06 season where Campbell came so close to tasting European glory. In the final against Barcelona, the centre-back had opened the scoring for the North London side, only to see the Catalans register two late goals and take the trophy back to the Camp Nou.

MF — Michael Ballack

The legendary German midfielder, who was an integral part to the successes of Bayern Munich and Chelsea in the mid-’00s, ended a tremendously profitable career in 2012 without ever tasting glory in a European competition.

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The heartbeat of every midfield he performed in, Ballack drove both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen onward to European finals, only to suffer defeat in both. Frustratingly, the story for Ballack was familiar on an international level: he was a runner-up in the 2002 World Cup with Germany.

MF — Daniele De Rossi

The highest-scoring midfielder in Italian post-War history, the Roman icon has had fewer chances for European glory than most on this list because of his utter devotion to boyhood club Roma.

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Despite being on the end of a 7-1 thrashing to Manchester United in 2008, De Rossi ranks as one of the finest ball-winning midfielders of his generation, and looks finally set to assume club captaincy of Roma at the sprightly age of 34. So there’s still time to get himself off this list.

MF — Lothar Matthaus

Perhaps the man on this list who, both figurative and literally, came closest to lifting the famous trophy, Lothar Matthaus was substituted off in the ’99 final at the age of 38 with his Bayern Munich side leading an under-performing Manchester United 1-0.

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Yet, in the final 90 seconds, the legendary playmaker’s dreams of a first – and at his age, possibly last – European crown went up in smoke. For a man who remains Germany’s solitary Ballon d’Or recipient, football can seem a cruel sport.

MF — Pavel Nedved

When the Italians were dominating the football landscape in the ’90s and ’00s, playmaker Pavel Nedved was at the peak of his powers in a Juventus side gleaming with stars. Gliding across the grass with unmatched grace and poise, he’s recognised as easily the finest player the Czech Republic produced.

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The 2003 Ballon d’Or winner came closest in 2003 when Juventus lost on penalties to Milan. Somehow, the UEFA Cup, Coppa Italia and Serie A medals aren’t going to make up for missing out on the big one.

FW — Ruud van Nistelrooy

For a man that claimed the Champions League golden boot in three out of four seasons during his time at Manchester United, it’s a staggering injustice Ruud van Nistelrooy never even reached a final, let alone had the chance to win the competition proper.

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One of the most lethal penalty-box strikers in the world, the hulking Dutch forward made goal-scoring look the simplest thing in the world. But, despite illustrious tenures with Manchester United, PSV and Real Madrid, he never did get his hands on the elusive big-eared trophy.

FW — Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Of course, for the mercurial Swede, there is technically still time for him to scrub his name from this list, but with the clock ticking on, it might just be one step too far. Incredibly, the supremely-talented Ibrahimovic has actually never reached a Champions League final.

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Instead, he’s fought off accusations of mediocrity to hammer in 49 goals in the continent’s top club competition, which were it not for a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, would’ve won him a golden boot or two during his time with PSG.

FW — Gabriel Batistuta

Like De Rossi, Batistuta never really came within a sniff of lifting the Champions League trophy, but nonetheless made his mark in the competition with Fiorentina, where he proved he wasn’t just all about smashing goals past Italians only. Are you reading, Mark Bosnich?

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The most feared striker of his – and probably any other – generation, Batistuta was the complete forward: lightning quick, supremely athletic, strong in the air and a powerful finisher with both feet. In his prime, he was untouchable — and his talent warranted at least an appearance in a Champions League final.

The 9 greatest albums of the ’90s

It was the decade dominated by the boyband, but the ’90s had more than a few gems to offer.

It’s the decade that saw the rise of the boy band, the beginning of Britney Spears and the unstoppable tide of girl power, but sift amid the detritus left behind by the decade’s most famous pop juggernauts, and you’ll find genuinely some of the best records ever produced.

While many pine for the golden days of the Beatles and the swinging sixties, the prog rock heyday of the seventies, or the new romantic movement of the eighties, it was the nineties where the journey of musical evolution reached its zenith.

So, take a trip back in time to see why the nineties really was the best decade for music. (For the purposes of some kind of fairness, there’s only one album from each artist included.)

9. Metallica — Metallica (1992)

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More commonly referred to as The Black Album, Metallica’s eponymous record thrust the LA metalheads firmly into the mainstream, having spent the best part of ten years and four albums pioneering the thrash metal genre along with the likes of Megadeth and Anthrax.

With hits like ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ proving that Hetfield and co. could produce music without smashing the living shite out of their instruments at a tremendous tempo, the album rushed to the top of the UK Album Chart and peaked at number 7 on the US Billboard 200.

25 years later, it’s still regarded as their finest piece of work to date, as they proved when they headlined Glastonbury in 2014 and tore the place down to the booming bellows of tens of thousands of revellers singing, “Enter night, exit light!”

8. Nirvana — Nevermind (1991)

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When grunge exploded onto the music scene in the early nineties, it was largely down to Nirvana’s seminal record Nevermind. Sure, The Pixies had set the tone at the end of the eighties, but it was Kurt Cobain, with his oversized jumper, tatty jeans and raw and unapologetic vocals that thrust alternative rock into the spotlight.

Initially expected to be a commercial failure by the band’s label, the album took off — eventually topping the Billboard 200 — thanks in no small part to the phenomenal success of the lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Ably succeeded by ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Lithium’, Nevermind solidified itself as one of the greatest albums of the decade.

In ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ an anthem was born, and Cobain was elevated to the pantheon of rock greats — a position that became all the more poignant following his tragic suicide in 1994.

7. Rage Against the Machine — Rage Against the Machine (1991)

ratm.jpgThe album that inspired an entire generation to voice its defiance with the oft-uttered line “F*ck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”, rap metal outfit Rage Against the Machine found international fame with their debut album — a fame that was rekindled 20 years later when the lead single ‘Killing in the Name’ became the Christmas number one in the UK following a protracted Facebook campaign against Simon Cowell’s X Factor.

Long before Linkin Park were incorporating elements of rap into their music, Rage were bridging genres and breaking boundaries with their defiant brand of politically-charged rap metal, that was unabashedly devoid of pretension or perceived grandeur.

Instead, their fledgling musical career burgeoned off the back of a truly stupendous album that pretty much set the template for how to bend the rules of convention when it came to music.

6. James — Laid (1993)

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While plenty of critics will the cite coma-inducing work of Radiohead as the pinnacle of British music in the nineties, it was the efforts of Manchester band James that really flew the flag for Britain at the beginning of the decade.

Most recognisable for their quintessential anthem ‘Sit Down’, the six-piece found near critical and musical perfection with 1993’s Laid. Recorded with Brian Eno, the album revels in beauty and melancholy in equal measure, producing the tender hits ‘All Out to Get You’, ‘Say Something’ and perhaps the most poignant of all, ‘Sometimes’.

Yet, despite the sentimental nature of much of the record, it was the risque title track ‘Laid’ that became the album’s most famous export. So much so that it appeared in the American Pie films and made the band a staple on US college radio.

5. Iron Maiden — Fear of the Dark (1991)

fotd.jpgThough undoubtedly Iron Maiden enjoyed their heyday in the 1980s with a string of practically flawless metal masterpieces, the British rock legends did manage one album in the nineties that nearly replicated the success of their golden era.

It came in the form of 1991’s Fear of the Dark, which happened to feature the last appearance of vocalist Bruce Dickinson until 2000’s Brave New World, and which was fronted by the epic 7-minute masterpiece that bore the same name as the album.

In fact, the album could simply contain the track ‘Fear of the Dark’ alone and it would stake a strong claim for album of the decade, so momentous and utterly enthralling a musical tale as it is. But, supported by the likes of ‘Judas Be My Guide’ and ‘Chains of Misery’, Fear of the Dark served as Iron Maiden’s last great record before their renaissance in the new millennium.

4. Pulp — Different Class (1995)

pulpIn an era when Blur and Oasis were battling it out for chart supremacy, it was Pulp, fronted by the maverick Jarvis Cocker, who stole a march on everyone when they released this seminal masterpiece that would help define the Britpop wave that swept the UK in mid-nineties.

Helped by the chart successes of ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Common People’ (the latter of which is a staple at practically every SU indie night up and down the country), the album rocketed to number one and scooped the 1996 Mercury Music prize. In Britain alone, it’s gone 4x platinum as of 2016.

A wondrous cross-section of synth-pop, Different Class serves as a grandly theatrical record full of bitingly clever witticisms and catchy pop melodies.

3. Blur — Parklife (1995)

parklife.jpgWhen it comes to the age-old choice of Blur or Oasis, there was only ever going to be one winner. For all their swagger, the Mancunian rockers could never quite match the simple brilliance that became a hallmark of their greatest rivals.

Blur perhaps reached the summit of their endeavours in 1995 when they released Parklife, an album that defined Britain at the time. Often irreverent and effervescent in its commentary of contemporary culture, the album spawned hits like ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘End of a Century’ and ‘Parklife’, as well as the criminally-underrated ‘Tracy Jacks’.

Not only did it sell 5 million copies worldwide and top the UK album charts, it cemented itself as an integral part of pop culture in the nineties and created a legacy that has lasted until this day.

2. R.E.M — Out of Time (1991)

rem.jpgWhile it’s been argued that R.E.M’s following album, Automatic for the People, represents their greatest achievement across a long and successful career, it was their earlier record, Out of Time, which propelled them from their modest surroundings into international stardom.

Fronted by the iconic single, ‘Losing My Religion’, Out of Time is an eclectic plethora of songs that cover the length and breadth of human emotion; from the almost painfully joyous ‘Shiny Happy People’ through the wistful ‘Near Wild Heaven’ to the lugubrious ‘Country Feedback’.

It may have set them on the road to Automatic for the People, but Out of Time in its own right is a fundamentally superb album, and one that goes down not only as one of the greatest albums of the nineties but of any decade.

1. Red Hot Chili Peppers — Californication (1999)

caliFor a band that were seemingly at the end of the line following years of torment and turmoil, with their lead singer plagued by serious drug addiction and their greatest guitarist languishing in his burnt-out LA home battling his own narcotics-induced demons, it’s astonishing the Red Hot Chili Peppers managed to make any sort of comeback, let alone record quite possibly the greatest album ever made.

With their classic lineup restored once more, a reinvigorated Chilis created a far more ephipanic album completely swollen with magnificent songwriting. From the lyrical masterpiece ‘Scar Tissue’ with its mellow guitar tones, to the masterfully sombre ‘Otherside’; through the rambunctious ‘Around the World’ and the bone-rattling ‘Easily’; to the eponymous title track with its evocative examination of  the intricacies of life in their famous home state.

Fittingly bringing the nineties to a close, Californication bridged the decades and signalled a vibrant new era in the career of the Chili Peppers. It simply is the greatest album to have graced the nineties.

The Greatest Wrestlers of All Time

From the golden age of the ’80s to the sheer carnage of the Attitude Era, here are the true greats of wrestling.

Throughout 2016, nostalgia has been high on the agenda for WWE.  And reached its peak this month with the resurrection of wrestling legend, Goldberg, who faced off against another WWE stalwart, Brock Lesnar, in a titanic clash at Survivor Series.

So, with everyone’s gazes firmly set firmly on the past as the WWE tried to remind us what made Goldberg such an unstoppable wrecking machine in the first place, albeit largely in WCW, it seems the perfect time to roll out the often-divisive “Greatest of All Time” list.

Seeing as the current crop of WWE superstars are hardly living up to the “super” or the “star” in their job titles, I’m delving into the annals of wrestling history to pick out the ten greatest performers.

To minimalise the arguments, this top ten is compiled using a number of factors: actual wrestling ability; sheer popularity; ability to connect with the fans; capability to cut promos; and proficiency at telling a compelling story.

So, without further ado, here we go!

10. Randy Orton

Although by far the youngest wrestler on this list, Orton deserves his place due to the incredible longevity he’s enjoyed in his career despite his relatively young age.

Still only 36, he’s held the WWE Championship/World Heavyweight Championship a staggering 12 times, winning it for the first time at 24 to become the youngest champion in the company’s history.

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But it’s not just his title reigns that earn him a spot in this list. As a heel, he’s one of the most authentic WWE characters in a hell of a long time. Whether during his Legend Killer run, or as the sly and slippery Viper, Orton knows how to get a crowd to loath him.

Add to all that the fact he has one of the most effective finishing manoeuvres in the business, and you have a genuine contender for the Hall of Fame.

9. Triple H

He might have drawn ire from some quarters for his supposed marrying into the ruling hierarchy, but putting this aside, Triple H has enjoyed a fantastically successful career.

The Cerebral Assassin was not just a terrific singles competitor – winning the WWE/World Heavyweight Championship no fewer than 14 times – he was also behind two of the biggest stables in wrestling history: D-Generation X and Evolution.

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On top of that, Triple H has competed with many of the WWE’s biggest stars over the years, and has headlined Wrestlemania a record seven times, bringing him equal with Hulk Hogan.

There was absolutely no way he was going to ever miss being on the list.

8. Chris Jericho

In terms of sheer charisma, there are very few performers who can match Chris Jericho. Through tenures in WCW and WWF/E, he’s forged a star-studded career on the back of electric promos and compelling matches.

Not just an excellent performer, Jericho is also a near-flawless wrestler, combining mat skills with impeccable aerial ability. And every kid in the ’90s and ’00s was trying out the Walls of Jericho on his mates.

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It was testament to his dedication to the art of wrestling that he was chosen to be the first Undisputed Champion back in 2002, beating both The Rock and Steve Austin in the same night.

Whether face or heel (and he was one hell of a heel!), Jericho is a hero, and a perplexingly unsung one at that. A true legend.

7. Sting

Loyalty is the word that springs to mind whenever Sting is mentioned. Even when WCW was being driven into the ground in the final years of the Monday Night Wars, their longest-serving star refused to abandon ship.

An exemplary wrestler, Sting coupled a mysterious presence, akin to that of The Undertaker, with superb technical ability. He could take part in a match with absolutely anyone and make them look fantastic.

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A six-time WCW Heavyweight Champion, Sting was the face of the company throughout the 1990s, surviving the waves of high-profile superstars that came from rivals WWF to ensure he was still Ted Turner’s most important asset.

Following a stint in TNA later in his career, he finally made his WWE debut and was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame. Whether he made the right call to avoid the calls of Vince McMahon for so long is up for debate, but no matter what, he still goes down as one of the very best.

6. Hulk Hogan

Urging kids to “take their vitamins and say their prayers”, the Hulkster drove the then-WWF to enormous heights of popularity in the ’80s and was the first wrestler to genuinely crossover into the mainstream public eye.

Hulk Hogan is practically synonymous with the wrestling industry, thanks to his tenures in WWE and later in WCW as Hollywood Hogan. From national icon and boyhood idol, to arrogant villainous heel, he was a guaranteed box office hit.

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For many, he was the reason they got into wrestling, especially back in the glory days in the 1980s. However, for all his appeal, Hogan wasn’t the most gifted of wrestlers. “Hulk Up”, big boot, leg drop, pin. For the most part, that was literally all he could manage.

Still, despite the notable in-ring limitations, missing his name of the list off all-time greats is about as close to treason as you can get in the wrestling business.

5. Ric Flair

For wrestling fans of a certain generation, it might come as something of a surprise not to see the 16-time world champion higher up this list. Where Hulk Hogan was the face of the WWF in the 1980s, Ric Flair was the face of just about everywhere else.

Travelling the territories, the record World Heavyweight Champion turned regional competitors into wrestling stars, such was he guaranteed to give a scintillating performance every time he stepped inside a wrestling ring.

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Following his performances in the NWA in the ’80s, Flair continued to establish himself as one of the industry’s top performers throughout the ’90s in WCW and finally in the ’00s in WWE.

Whether he was bellowing “Woo!”, handing out knife-edge chops to everyone in sight or cutting one of his rampant promos, Flair was in a league of his own when it came to having the audience in the palm of his hand.

4. The Rock

When it comes to wrestling stars who have successfully transitioned into pop culture icons, there are none as recognisable as The Rock. Even eschewing his famous moniker for his actual name these days still doesn’t detract from his phenomenal wrestling career.

In terms of charisma, The Rock had no equal. He cut some of the finest promos in the business and holds the record for Raw’s highest ever rating when he and Mick Foley took to the screen to celebrate the Great One’s birthday.

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Inside the ring, The Rock was an athletically-gifted performer, even if he did sell the many Stone Cold stunners he received to within an inch of his life… He knew how to get a crowd to react and he did it with aplomb.

It’s a testimony to his career that he was welcomed so vociferously back into the WWE fold when he returned in 2011 and regained the WWE Championship in front of a new set of fans.

3. The Undertaker

One of WWE’s longest-serving stars, The Undertaker is practically synonymous with longevity. In a captivating career that has thus far spanned three decades, The Deadman is routinely regarded as one of the greatest the business has ever seen.

This is down in no small part to his ability to adapt and re-invent. Over the years, his character has encompassed a mute western mortician, a supernatural dark lord, a badass biker and an amalgamation of all three. No matter what incarnation, The Undertaker has engrossed audiences.

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Renowned for being an excellent wrestler in spite of his enormous stature, The Undertaker has been involved in his fair share of compelling matches, with his bouts against Shawn Michaels going down as two of the most exciting spectacles in wrestling history.

While he may not have reaped the title gold that the likes of John Cena, The Rock and Randy Orton have accumulated, his legacy has been cemented. There are few superstars with as much presence in the wrestling world as The Undertaker.

2. Shawn Michaels

If you ask many professional wrestlers who their choice is for the greatest of all time, there is one name that pops up with deserved frequency. The Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels, established himself as a heroic performer in the 1990s – and his legacy lives on to this day.

He pretty much carried the then-WWF throughout the mid-’90s when most of the company’s high-profile names were jumping ship, and if it wasn’t for a horrific back injury suffered during a match with The Undertaker, HBK’s career wouldn’t have been put on indefinite hiatus.

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He returned in 2002 following a four-year absence and it was like he’d never been away. His story-telling skills weren’t dulled, his in-ring ability undiminished and his sheer charisma as wild as ever.

Few wrestlers can make you feel like Shawn Michaels can: he made viewers privy to his pain and share in his triumphs. When it comes to connecting with an audience, no one can top Shawn Michaels.

1. Stone Cold Steve Austin

In terms of sheer popularity, there was absolutely no one bigger than the Texas Rattlesnake. He led the WWE resurgence at the end of the ’90s, eventually turning the tide in the infamous Monday Night Wars.

His brash, beer-swilling, finger-flipping redneck anti-hero persona resonated with millions of fans and propelled him to the very top of the pile. He spawned the 3:16 movement, popularised the “What?” chant, ended every promo with “‘Cause Stone Cold said so” and had tens of thousands on their feet screaming “Hell yeah!” at the top of their lungs each and every night.

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It’s somewhat of a tragedy that his phenomenal career was cruelly cut short by a recurrence of a neck injury he suffered at the hands of Owen Hart in 1997, but for the six or so years he was active in WWE, he was untouchable.

His feuds with Mr McMahon, The Rock, Triple H and The Undertaker were legendary; his Stone Cold Stunner finishing move is about as iconic a manoeuvre as has ever been invented; and he made the company more money than anyone else in its history.

There is simply only one Steve Austin. And that’s the bottom line…

Review: The Grand Tour’s great, but can a bit more go wrong, please?

The Grand Tour is off to a great start but there’s something missing — a healthy heap of calamity.

If there’s one thing The Grand Tour had going for it on its release, it was that it was always going to be compared with the new incarnation of Top Gear, and seeing how that was utter shite, Jeremy Clarkson’s newest venture was always going to come out favourably.

However, now the dust has settled and the image of Chris Evans’ ginger bonce nodding up and down excitedly as he bellows to camera about what you could expect in the next VT has faded, we can appreciate The Grand Tour for what it really is — faults and all.

While it may have been labelled “Top Gear on steroids” there seems to be a slight departure from the type of programming that made the trio of Clarkson, Hammond and May so unique and so likable. Sure, there’s lots of cars going very fast. Granted, there’s plenty of banter between the three. Yes, there’s a new track and a (semi) tamed racing driver.

But there’s one thing it’s been strangely lacking thus far. A colossal dosage of calamity. That was where the three really came to life: when they were attempting to build amphibious cars and drive them across the Channel; or when they chauffeured celebrities to the BAFTAs in self-made limousines; or that time they raced across Florida and annoyed just about everybody.

Yes, larking about in extremely fast cars is all well and good, but there’s only so many times you can watch three middle-aged men hurtle through pristine scenery in a car worth more than your house.

Perhaps it is something to do with the enormous budget gifted to them by Amazon. But sometimes it’s just terrific viewing to watch them tanking around some unremarkable part of the world in three crap cars, while everything goes wrong, Jeremy shouts, James gets annoyed and Richard crashes into things.

Thus far, and admittedly the series has only just begun, there’s not been enough of that utter stupidity and the impending feeling that everything is about to go absolutely tits up. That’s where the real funniness manifests.

The show is hardly a failure: the Celebrity Brain Crash section of the show is great, the camaraderie between the three is as strong as it ever was and visually the whole thing looks impeccable, but it’d be great to see the presenters in a less artificial setting, where there are no scripts to work off and the humour develops naturally, with as little cajoling as possible.

But there are signs it’s coming. The show touched upon this with the Jordan section – albeit that segment  was appalling and suffered from far too many planned events – and the montage from the first episode did show James May traversing a river in some godforsaken contraption that was rapidly falling apart.

A lot of people want the Top Gear of old back; and others want something bigger, more explosive and more expensive than that. Really, all it needs is a few more things going wrong.