Monday, July 30, 2012

By 1976 everybody was taking Holland for granted. But the Dutch soccer entered shaky transitional period – the great clubs were not so great and badly needed rebuilding. Ajax and Feyenoord lost their leading position. PSV Eindhoven somewhat stuck and halted. The problem was new talent – somewhat it was not on the level of the great stars of the first half of the 1970s. It was differently molded – not so technical, but physical kind of players, more like Germans. New talent was either too young, inexperienced and unripe, or it was not all that fabulous. Tellingly, the promising players were more of the defensive kind – imaginative playmakers and lethal strikers were absent. There was something else: the moment of changing the squad was missed. First Ajax slumped badly and building of new team was going painfully slow. Feyenoord followed, and by 1976 it was clear than Feyenoord was in a crisis, getting dangerously old, and unable yet even to begin real rebuilding. PSV Eindohoven was the brightest team in the last few years and the youngest as well. But, although they were about 25-26 old, the Phillips boys already played a lot and it was clear that they reached their prime as a team and could do no better. They finished at second place in the spring of 1977, 5 points behind Ajax.

PSV Eindhoven probably summed Dutch troubles best: it was the same squad for quite a few years. Kees Rijvers was good coach, but his sometime reckless brand of football did not bring convincing results in Europe. PSV always failed short of real success, which meant some changes were needed. But since the team was still young no big changes were done. By now they were beatable at home, largely because everybody knew them very well and the key players were rather predictable, particularly van de Kerkhoff twins. As for new talent, it was represented by two defenders: the 23-years old Huub Stevens and the 21-years old Jan Poortvliet. Both eventually became national team players, but neither was baring similarity to Hulshoff – they were more like Schwarzenbeck, strong, reliable, and dull.

And that was the case all around: aging Feyenoord was fading rapidly, depending on familiar names Eddy Treijtel (30 years old), Ger Reitsma (28 and still just a reserve of Treijtel, himself not much of a goalkeeper), Theo de Jong (29), Mladen Ramljak (31), Dick Schneider (28), Joop van Daele (29), Harry Vos (30), Wim Jansen (30). None of them was getting better; most were not called for national team duty for years. The future seemingly was defensive – Wim Rijsbergen was only 24 years of age among the established players; the new talent been the 21-years old Ben Wijnstekers and the one year younger Michel van de Korput. Both similar to the PSV Eindhoven promissing players... The biggest change was the new coach – Vujadin Boskov. The Serbian was hardly able to produce magical change with such a squad, having not a single strong striker. Feyenoord finished 4th..

Bronze medals went to AZ'67 Alkmaar. The modest club made the best of the shaky state of Dutch football – they utilized best the available talent, combining old stars no longer needed by the big clubs with unknown promissing youngsters. It was a beggar's banquet to a point – scavenging what others did not need, but also amalgamating well enough team, giving second breath to graying veterans and inspiration to the young colts. AZ'67 was yet to play its best football and become known in Europe, but the frame was already at place: Hans Kraay was the new coach. He hardly impressed an year earlier coaching Ajax, but AZ'67 was invigorated by him. Wim van Hanegem, the captain of the great years of Feyenoord, was recruited – at 32 years of age, he was no longer suitable for Feyenoord, but just right for Alkmaar. The former Yugoslavian national team goalkeeper Rizah Meskovic, 29 years old, provided stability between the goalposts. Theo Vonk (29), Hugo Hovenkamp (26), and the Danish import Kristen Nygaard (27) completed the core of experienced players. The rest were young and promising: Ronald Spelbos (22), Peter Arntz (23), John Metgod (18), and Kees Kist (24). Playing together, the old got second wing and the young were flourishing. It was winning combination, but it was also notceable who runs the show: van Hanegem was first fiddle; the young boys were anything else but playmakers. The Dutch problem was fundamental – even the most promising team at the time was limited, clearly not on the road to becoming superclub. It was just to be exciting small club, smart enough to build strong squad and keep it for awhile, but no more. It was showing a way for revival, though: make a new team from discarded veterans and young brooms. Don't keep no longer improving core of stars, was the message. A message routinely lost on big clubs not only in Holland.

Late and not radical at all makeover was perilous, and nobody knew it better than Ajax: they fell so rapidly from the very top of world football, they hardly had the time to think about it. Crisis settled down, the club agonized and the convulsions were far from over. By now only three players of the old superteam remained: Hulshoff, Suurbier, and Krol. All defenders, as if to point one more time at the Dutch crisis... true, Hulshoff moved to midfield, but he was 30 years old, constantly troubled by injuries, and fading. It was to be his last season for Ajax. The attempt to elevated the team by getting established names was not really successful: Schrijvers, Notten, and Geels were more or less good enough to keep Ajax among the top Dutch clubs, but hardly classy enough to win titles, let alone dominate in Europe. Geels was perhaps the brightest, but he was aging as well, and clearly not in the same class with Rep and Keizer, let alone Cruijff. Johnny Dusbaba was better addition, and younger too, but although he eventually played for Holland, he was not so great of a defender. Such was the core of the team in the summer of 1976, when new coach was hired – Tomislav Ivic, the maker of perhaps the greatest squad of Hajduk (Split). Up and coming coach, talented and ambitious. He was to restore the glory of Ajax, that was the idea. His debut was strong – Ajax won the championship and quite comfortably at that: 5 points above PSV Eindhoven.
After two miserable years champions again. Phoenix rising from the ashes? Fans were not duped: in Ajax's history, this is still the 'dark years'. So-so team. Hardly great. At best – promising, transitory, and surely unfinished and unpolished. Hulshoff, Suurbier, and Dusbaba were leaving. Krol was next in line. Schrijvers, Notten, van Dord were good only for domestic football, hardly inspirational players. Geels, the most exciting player at hand, was getting old and easily injured. The future depended on promising youngsters bursting with talent – two Danes, Lerby and Arnesen, complimented by domestic feet: Tahamata, La Ling, and Schoenaker. Unfortunately, they were too young yet to make real difference... the team was still transitional and shaky, not ripe for revival. Not able to dominate. This squad is not memorable, although individual players are. They are, but... great Soren Lerby is not exactly associated with this squad and this title. And that's the long and short of it. Ajax was typical Dutch club of the time.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

May be Belgium should be placed next – hardly the most entertaining championship, but at least the top clubs were sensational. Anderlecht and FC Brugge made waives in Europe and clearly were there to stay. The rest of the Belgian league was not that good, but competitive enough. High scoring was the norm – only one club finished with less than a goal per game average: the 16th placed Charleroi. Looks like attacking – total football – was the norm, but another look at the final table tells different. Only the top four clubs finished the season with less than 10 ties. On the opposite side were KV Mechelen and AS Oostende with 20 ties in 34 championship matches. Both took the bottom 17th and 18th spots and were relegated, but so many ties in the league hardly suggest total football – after all, total football was about winning, not sharing points. But it was all about winning at the top of the league – a duel between Anderlecht and FC Brugge, somewhat closely followed by recovering Standard (Liege), and stable form of RWD Molenbbek and KSC Lokeren. At the end FC Brugge grabbed the title 4 points ahead of Anderlecht. FC Brugge really established themselves as regular favourites and doing better and better. The champions had the second best attack and the most solid defense in the league. They won 23 matches out of 34 games. And it was not all this season – they made a double, winning the Cup as well.

Anderlecht got nothing. Second-placed at the championship, they hoped at least for the Cup, fought for it, but lost the final 3-4. Francois van der Elst was the best scorer of the championship with 21 goals, but it was nothing really for a club used to victories.
Second best was a disappointment for Anderlecht, having one of their best ever squads. Raymong Goethals, the great Begian coach was at the helm this year and he had excellent squad – 5 Dutch players (Ruiter, Haan, Resel, Rensenbrink, and van Poucke), one English player of good standing, Duncan McKenzie, and whole bunch of Belgian national players – Broos, van Binst, Coeck, van den Daele, Vercauteren, van der Elst. Jacques Munaron also will play for the national team, but for now he was just a reserve. It was a squad meant to win not only at home, building a momentum, and aiming to stay among the best in Europe, but the competition at home proved tough. Yet, as far as performance was concerned, only McKenzie failed expectations and departed back to England. On the other hand, Haan and Rensenbrink were still among the best players in the world.

Anderlecht was solid, but FC Brugge having the edge. They won their 4th title, repeated the success of the previous year, and bested themselves with a double: their very first ever. 1976-77 was the strongest season in the whole history of the club to date. FC Brugge firmly established themselves as the second (so far) best Belgian club, not an accident at all.

Top from left: Roger Davies, Stephane De Taeye, Raoul Lambert, Daniel De Cubber, Georges Leekens, Leen Barth, Paul Courant, Ulrik Le Fèvre, René Vandereycken, Eddie Krieger, Birger Jensen, Mathieu Bollen (assistent-coach) en Ernst Happel (coach).
Sitting: Bernard Verheecke, Gino Maes, Dirk Hinderyckx, Jos Volders, Julien Cools, Fons Bastijns, Dirk Sanders, Norbert De Naeghel.

The squad appeared to be just a notch bellow Anderlecht: one less foreigner than the rivals – 2 Danes (Le Febre and Jensen), one Austrian (Krieger), one Dutch (Barth), and the former Derby County striker Roger Davies. Somewhat weaker foreign line than Anderlecht's: Le Febre was getting old; Leendert Barth was not really first-team material, his highest moment already few years back, when he was Under-21 national team goallie for Holland. The Englishman Davies perhaps played better than his counterpart in Anderlecht, but he did not last in Belgium longer than McKenzie. The foreign bunch was complemented by Belgians of high standing: Vandereycken, Volders, Cools, Bastijns, Lambert. The top player was Raoul Lambert, but as whole FC Brugge had no world-class superstar, and looked a notch weaker than Anderlecht. May be the difference was the coach, Ernst Happel. Yes, it was a battle of the coaches – Goethals vs Happel, and seemingly the old fox was outsmarted by the Austrian. May be that was really – Goethals was already a veteran, nearing the end of his coaching days, when Happel was at his prime, already successful, but still eager for more. His bellbottoms look weird today, but Happel still had to climb higher peaks with them.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The champions are champions, but rivals were not to be discarded easily. Saint Etienne had mediocre season. Well, mediocre by their own standards – they finished 5th, unlikely place for a team almost winning the European Champions Cup in 1976. Very likely they aimed to do better in Europe in 1976-77, but it was too much – playing at three fronts was a heavy toll, and eventually the domestic championship was sacrificed. Or, it was not up to Saint Etienne to win everything... they failed in Europe as well and at the end were to save grace in the French Cup tournament. May be that, for they reached the final.

Where were to meet a team of past fame – Reims. Stade de Reims was everybody's talk back in the 1950s, but eventually the club faded away. By 1976 only memories of Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine, Jean Vincent, Robert Jonquet, and Dominique Colonna, and Roger Piantoni gave comfort to the fans. Great past and mediocre present – Reims were mid-table club for quite a long time already. They finished 11th in 1976-77 championship, very familiar and normal place already... but clubs with glorious past try to come back. Stade de Reims was no exception – they recruited Carlos Bianchi a few years back. The Argentine was lethal – once again he was the best goalscorer of the championship with impressive 28 goals. But he was practically alone and obviously not enough for revival. Cup final was the best Reims capable of. Once reaching the final, why not going all the way?

They did, according to what they had – the team fought well against St. Etienne, but lost. It was honourable loss – 1-2 – but who cares for mere finalists?

Top, from left : Flamion (coach), Ducuing, Durand, Martinot, Masclaux, Aubour, Laraignée.
Bottom : Schaller, Santamaria, Bianchi, Simon, Bonnec, Ravier.

Not exactly the team to bring trophies – Bianchi is the only great name here. Reims were dwarfs in contrast to St. Etienne and reaching the final seemed to be superhuman effort for these squad. At the end, it was back to normal...

Second row: Herbin (coach), Curkovic, Piazza, Merchadier, Larios, Bathenay, Balducchi, Farison, Lopez, Santini, Dugalic.
First row : Fournier, Repellini, H. Revelli, P. Revelli, Larqué, Rocheteau, Vésir, Boury, Sarramagna, Brun.

No contest... 15 former, current, and future national team players of three countries versus Carlos Bianchi. Yet, it was contest and quite difficult at that. St. Etienne managed squeezing victory by measly one goal difference. It was little consolation for the boys in green – their single trophy of this season. A season, which was predicted to be entirely theirs not only in France... but they slipped to 5th place in France and were eliminated at the ¼ finals of the European Champions Cup. Barely won the French Cup, but at least they won it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Who was ready, then? Obviously, the champions. Truism...

FC Nantes won its 4th title, not bad for relatively young club. Les Canaris (The Canaries) have 1943 as their founding year, but just their often changing logo, the birthdate is a bit confusing. Five small local clubs merged in 1943 into FC Nantes. The reasons for the merger were obvious: it was realized that the city would not have strong team as long as resources are divided. If the city was to see any success, better having one big club. Hence, the merger, but nothing happened right away – the Second World War was going on. Nothing happened immediately after the end of the war as well, but eventually FC Nantes moved ahead and progressed to the First Division, where it not only stayed, but came to play major role, thanks to the stable policy of the club: between 1960 and 1976 they had one and only coach , Jose Aribas. He built the team and won three titles. It may have been his genes: Aribas was Basque, born in Bilbao, who came to France with his parents when he was 14 years old. The reason was the Spanish Civil War of course, but let's not forget the stubborn tradition – in Bilbao local loyalty is everything; to this very day Athletic uses only local Basque players. Stability brought something else as well – Nantes became famous for their collective spirit. Such attitude helped particularly after 1970: with the arrival of total football, collectivity became very important, for it was essential ingredient of the new brand of the game. By default, FC Nantes were better conditioned than most European clubs for the new game – it was not exactly total football, but workable approximation. Well balanced team, sound transfers, stability, collectivity – the Canaries immediately became the rivals of Saint Etienne and during the 1970s French football was dominated by St. Etienne and Nantes. The rivalry favoured St. Etienne, but Nantes performed solidly and evenly year after year, and were he second best French club of the decade. They won heir third title in 1973 and now, with a new coach, they won their 4th. The new coach was former star – Jean Vincent, of Stade de Reims fame. Clout he had, but also he was good coach. His debut brought immediate triumph and more was to come. He inherited already strong squad and continued improving it.

Some canaries, no? Standing, from left : Gadocha, Le Bourgocq, Van Straelen, Denoueix, Pecout, Fenillat, Tusseau, Bossis, Bertrand-Demanes, Sahnoun, Michel.
Crouching : Osman, Desrousseaux, Bargas, Baronchelli, Vendrely, Oscar Muller, Rampillon, Amisse, Merigot, Jean Vincent (coach).

Henri Michel was the star, of course – the best playmaker of the decade, regular national team player, strong captain of Nantes. Bertrand-Demanes developed into arguably the best goalkeeper of those years, and perhaps reached his peak at precisely that time, for he was the regular keeper of the national team. Add well known and experienced players, who already won the championship in 1972-73: Pecout, Rampillon, Osman, Bargas. Hugo Bargas was not called to play for his native Argentina after the 1974 World Cup, but he was the key player of the yellow-green defense. Another Argentine was added as well – Oscar Muller, but really the second foreign starter was Robert Gadocha.

The Polish winger, who came to international fame at the 1974 World Cup, was not young at all, but still lethal striker. The skeleton of fine veterans, none fading yet, was very well balance – every line had strong players. Young blood was carefully added to experience, and what new blood it was! Bossis, Tusseau, Amisse... all three played for France almost at that time. Sahnoun and Van Straelen were very promising as well and another future national team player is missing from the picture – Michel Bibard. With squad like that, FC Nantes obviously was bound to stay on top of French football in the future. The only problem was that they looked like a bit weaker than the stars of St. Etienne – second best.

Second best, if St. Etienne were at top form... the rivals were not this year, and Nantes were head and shoulders above everybody else. They won the title with more than confidence: they were supreme, finishing 9 points ahead of the silver medalists. May be their finest season ever.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

If names are everything, then why some clubs were at the top and other at the bottom would be unfathomable: by names alone, the relegated clubs did not differ from those at the top of the table. Nancy, Bastia, and Lens traditionally were akin to Angers, Lille, and Rennes, inhabiting the lower half of the table and often going down to second division. And they had just about the same number of better known players as the unfortunates at the bottom. Yet, those three ended at the top. The reason, to my mind, is younger stars spurring experienced squads, unlike the case of the relegated clubs and even most of the stronger French clubs of the recent years, who depended on veterans. Nancy finished at 4th place – just two years back they were playing second division football.

Arguably, Nancy was enjoying their best ever period, but the squad hardly suggests so. May be solid and dependable, but second stringers at best. Except the striker Rouyer. Strangely looking team, begging the question did they play with permanent numbers, as the picture suggests. Curious numbers – Rora is number 1 and he was not a goalkeeper. Novelty apart, there was Michel Platini – already the talk of whole Europe, let alone France, and bound to superstardom. On his wings Nancy flourished – experienced team, led by young star. Nancy clearly benefited from having Platini, managed to finish Saint Etienne, but still remained modest club. 4th place was seemingly the best such a squad can do – Platini was not enough for more, but it was great achievement nevertheless.

Bastia did even better – they finished at third place.

Top row, from left : Petrovic, Cazes, Modeste (non retenu par le club), Andrietti, Burkhard, Orlanducci, Graziani, Santucci, Weller.
Front row : Franceschetti, Zimako, Papi, Félix, Dzajic, Luccini, Marchioni.

Again, the squad does not suggest success. Relatively good selection, no more. But Bastia had the best attack this year, scoring 82 goals, more than anybody else. Defensively, they were not bad by French standards – allowing 53 goals in 38 championship games is rather poor record, so, if numbers are taken into account, then the foreign recruits performed very differently: the Yugoslavian superstar Dragan Dzajic obviously made Bastia's attack deadly, but his teammate of both Crvena zvezda and the national team, Ognjan Petrovic was hardly up to his form of 1976, when he was the first goalie of the Yugoslavian European Championship squad. Numbers are misleading – Dzajic, clearly over the hill, did not last in Bastia. Petrovic, however, played solid goalkeeping. The foreign players obviously helped, but there was one other player – Zimako. Young, modern player. Bastia still had to enjoy their best season, they were ripe and rising.

Top row, from left : Sowinski (entr.), Nédélec, Mujica, Monchiet, Gallou, Leclercq D., Tempet, Hopquin, Marie, Mastroianni, Lhote, Grévin.
Middle row : Bousdira, Krawczyk, Leclercq, Elie, Sab, Synakowski, Flak.
First row : Françoise, Jankovic, Llorens, Locatelli, Marx, Arghirudis, Kaiser.

Lens finished with silver, one of their best performances ever. They also differed a bit from Nancy and Bastia, who just made their good squads and were to harvest the fruits later. Lens already built their squad, it was at its peak. Cup final not long ago, and now – second place in the championship. It was unassuming squad, with distinct Polish flavor: the coach Sowinski, Synakowski, Krawczyk, Stassievitch were all of Polish descent. Add real one – Joachim Marx, the former Polish national player – and it would be that Polish was the language of the locker room. Well, Lens, along with Valenciennes, are traditionally 'Polish' clubs, but this was hardly the reason for the good run. The team had solid defense, with Daniel Leclerq, who may have been a national team player in different time, but now he faced stiff competition – and Jean Mujica, born in Paysandu, Brazil. Younger midfielders – Elie and Bousdira – provided a touch of modern football. The attack looked experienced and deadly – Marx, Jean Arghirudis, who, thanks to his Greek roots, had international experience, playing for Olympiakos (Piraeus) a few years back, and the second foreign player, hailing from Yugoslavia. Slobodan Jankovic not long ago played for the national team of Yugoslavia and was a starter for Crvena zvezda, not an easy job, considering the competition there – Dzajic and the younger brother of Ognjan Petrovic, Vladimir.

Hardly the best of squads, but Lens were at their peak, with enough young starters to provide vim.

Yet, none of the above clubs had the making of great team – as much as they were heralds of positive change, they were also taking advantage of still transitional situation, in which the 'big' clubs were either erring, trapped in old school visions of remodeling squads (Marseille, Nice, Lyon), or not ready yet (Bordeaux), or still trying to find successful formula (Paris SG).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fortune and misfortune – three going up, three going down. Angers, Lille, and Rennes finished at the bottom of First Division and were relegated. OSC Lille distinguished themselves with the worst away record in the league – 18 losses and 1 tie. One point was they whole harvest away from home – no doubt they deserved relegation, but the other two were no better – Rennes finished last with worse goal difference than Lille. With 21 points each, the bottom two were 7 points behind the 18th placed Angers. Which was hardly a fighter as well – they were 4 points bellow Valenciennes.

18th and down – Angers look prettier on picture than on the field.

OSC Lille, second to last.Standing, from left : Gianquinto, Chemier, Bisad, Gauthier, Heidkamp, Denneulin, Tirloit.
Bottom : Parizon, Besnard, Gauvin, Karasi, Desmenez, Coste, Borel.

Rennes – dead on the bottom. Standing, from left : Notheaux, Pokou, Kerjean, David, Hiard, Arribas, Marchand, Goutel (à l'essai), Dubaële (entr.).
First row : Rabier, Richard, Alain Bernard, Guermeur, Delamontagne, Willim, Rizzo.

Lucky, unlucky, these three were very weak. And normally dwelling in the lower half of the league's table, more likely to be relegated than to excite and surprise friend and fow.

If anything, one thing the relegated clubs shared – they depended on on old feet, already fading. Karasi (Lille) and Damjanovic (Angers) were members of the 1974 Yugoslavian World Cup squad, but both were over 30s, and no longer national team players. Same thing with Jerzy Willim (Rennes), once upon a time Polish international. And add Parizon (Lille), whose best years were just a memory too. None of the relegated had strong players to build future around. Seemingly, First Division got better replacements of these three clubs – another indication, however small, of improving French football.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ranking, always relative and unconvincing, at the end is subjective matter. To me, French football quietly survived its crisis and after 1975 was steadily on the rise. Talented new players emerged, but since French clubs never had the kind of money Italians and Spaniards had 'big' clubs did not develop. At least not in European sense. French football continued to be pleasant and kind of unpredictable – talent was scattered, making teams fairly equal. The championship was not any other – clubs performing well this year may be relegated the next. Unlike England, where rise and fall were gradual, in France it was sudden. Yet, instability did not prevent development and by 1976 there were clear signs of general ascent. Of course, it was not obvious in real time, but seen better from a distance. Three clubs won promotion at the end of 1976-77 season. Familiar names.

AS Monaco won Group A of the Second Division. It was fairly quick return from 'exile', but Monaco were not overwhelming champions. Rather, their return was shy – their record was hardly great, having neither the best defense, nor the best strikers in Group A. They finished 3 points ahead of second placed FC Gueugnon.

Returning to First Division after two years of misery. Delio Onnis was the best scorer of Group A with 30 goals – no matter which division the Argentine played in, he scored and scored. Chauveau was reliable between the goalposts – the experienced goalkeeper, still ranked among the best in France, may have been surprised to play second division football, but he was coming back. So was the other deadly striker – Dalger. Still second division player in the first half of 1977, Dalger was going to play at the 1978 World Cup. Add the team captain Petit – the 'skeleton' of Monaco was strong, providing for building of better team around it.

RC Strasbourg won the Group B, another familiar name, returning to its 'rightful' place. Unlike Monaco , Strasbourg really dominated their league. With 84 goals they outscored by far everybody else, but their defense was no joke as well – it was also the best: only 26 goals in 34 games. Strasbourg did not have to fret – they finished confidently, 5 points ahead of nearest pursuer.

Like Monaco, Strasbourg had strong 'skeleton' of players who hardly belonged to second division: the future famous coach Ivica Osim and the former member of the great Ajax, Schilcher, were the foreigners. Dropsy between the posts, who was to go all the way from second division to the national team. Albert Gemmrich, well known name at the time, added strength to the attack – he ended as the best scorer of the league with 24 goals. Like Monaco, Strasbourg seemingly had good chance to become a force.

Second in Group B finished another familiar name – FC Rouen. They won the play-off for the third promotional spot and also returned to first division football.

Standing: Armando Bianchi, Joannes, Lemaître, Polny, Amouret, Guillolet, Bienaimé, Vitulin, Gili, Jouanne, Pancho González.
First row: Bansaye, Carrié, ???, Weiss, Poli, Bourebbou, Horlaville, Peña, Jorge Trezeguet.

Unlike Monaco and Strasbourg, Rouen did not have cluster of stars. From the distance of time, one player catches attention: Trezeguet. Familiar name? Well, this one could be only by association – he is the father of the superstar David Trezeguet. Having the father did not make Rouen stronger team – given their record, Rouen was likely to fight only for survival in the first division. As for Monaco and Strasbourg – just wait one year. Both teams were to contribute to the general improvement of French football.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Torino ruled the championship, Milano got a bit of revenge in the Cup: Milan and Inter reached the final. With rivalry so bitter, Torino was hardly on the mind – there was archenemy at hand. Of course, it looked like the big boys were strong and around as ever, but in reality it was more of hanging to old ways. Old, tired teams suffered during the grueling championship – direct elimination in the Cup format they were able to muster and go ahead. Experience seemingly was enough only for that and no more. Old ways were still dominant, but... it was more a picture of the 1960s than from the second half of the 1970s. Rivera vs Facchetti. Mazzola was still around. The word 'boring' is not even right... although it was touching in way: at least veterans like those going down in style is always sweet. Sweet, and no more – for no matter how bitter the rivalry was, the outdated teams were no longer entertaining.

Anyhow, Milan won 2-0.

At the losing end this year: Inter finished outside the top three at the championship, and lost the Cup. And looking at the squad, it was clear that the future would be trouble – Facchetti, Mazzola, Anastasi were yesterday at best. Merlo, Muraro, Libera, Fedele... that's the future?

Milan mirrored Inter: Rivera, Albertosi, Capello at their last legs and tomorrow's team based on Calloni, Vincenzi, Silva? Well, at least Milan had Collovati for tomorrow... was he the whole difference between Inter and Milan? Milan had disastrous season, finishing at the unseemly 10th place. At least they gathered some strength and ambition to win the Cup.

It was almost surprising Milan were able to run around the stadium with the trophy – but never mind. They won and was great to rub Inter's noses once again. It was great for the club and its supporters, for it was quite clear trophies were getting scarce. It was great for Rivera, getting upper hand over Mazzola and Facchetti. It was great for Capello – at least he won something with his new team, unlike his former Juventus teammate Anastasi. And it was bitter end for Mazzola, who retired this year empty handed, on the losing side.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The bulk of the Italian league continued to follow tradition: try to win at home and may be get a point away. Roma, right at the middle of the table (8th place) got 23 points at home, better than the bronze medalist. However, they did not win a single away match, losing 10 and tying 5. That is, Roma got the same points away as the last placed Cesena. No wonder stagnation reigned, gradually leading to hopeless decline – Cagliari was already in 2nd Division, Sampdoria joined them, Milan finished at 10th place. Inter did not look better either – they finished 4th, but their total points made them closer to the midtable rabble than to the top clubs: 33 points. Foggia ended with 7 points less than Inter at the 13th place. However, Torino finished with 17 points more than Inter. Of course, one may say it was the competitive nature of Italian football, it was so tough to win. Well, it was tough to win indeed, if you only think how to tie a match and get a point.

Fiorentina finished with bronze medals. The top of the bulk – total of 33 points were good enough for third place. Two points more than Inter. 12 wins (2 more than Foggia), 11 ties (like Lazio, Peruggia, Napoli, Genoa, and Bologna). Fiorentina scored 38 goals in 30 games; received 31. Only three clubs scored more Fiorentina. Five clubs had stronger defense. But... a team scoring practically one goal on average finished at third place.

Yet, it was good season for Fiorentina – bronze medals are hard to get in Italy. The squad dies not look like revelation, but there was a new breed of star, already captaining the team – Antognioni. Seemingly alone in this squad, but already making big difference – the difference between 3rd and 4th place. A tiny ray of light.

Above Fiorentina finished Torino. They were concerned with competition from behind, their only concern was ahead: Torino finished 15 points above Fiorentina. They ended with the best attack, scoring 51 goals; best defense, allowing only 14 goals; and best goal difference. Alas, one point deprived them from repeating the success of 1975-76. This time – vice-champions.

Torino had pretty much the same squad as the year before. A well balanced squad in its prime, but not precisely superteam, going to conquer the world. Yet, Torino grasped better the changes in European football and the Italian stagnation: they built a team of relative unknowns, younger players, who made their names playing for Torino, and eventually winning. The club did not try to 'fortify' the squad with famous veterans – and their previously unknown boys paid back with strong performance. Unfortunately, it was not a team to last, even less building a dynasty: it was more of a transitional team, fit for the time of stagnation, carrying a bit of new ideas through troubled times, and generally making a road for others.

Juventus did not have to make path for others: they already went ahead for themselves. They were quicker to realize that adjustment to the new tendencies in European football was a must; did that, rebuilt the team, changed the coach with young guy, without old habits and suffering from traditional ways. Juventus was the only improving Italian team, and to a point they came to maturity in 1976-77. Their title was won after difficult race against Torino and was clinched by only a point, but in terms of squad and play, it was clear Juventus were the team of the future.

Familiar names surely. Well balanced squad. Nothing sentimental about the club's policy: a mixture of high profile stars, experienced players at their prime, and rapidly improving youngsters. By this season Scirea, Gentile, Cuccureddu were already firm starters, even more – they were stars. The future was really Cabrini, pushing for a place among the first eleven. It was not easy to get a spot among the first eleven in a squad bursting with talent: apart from Dino Zoff, nobody else was sure of his place. But, being an Italian team, Juventus depended on firm starting team, which was, with the number of games played during the season in brackets: Zoff (30); Cuccureddu (29), Gentile (29); Furino (26),

Morini F. (26), Scirea (30); Causio (30), Tardelli (28),Boninsegna (29), Benetti (30), Bettega (30). Five players did not miss a single game; another three missed only one match during the whole grueling season – talk about stability. Talk about sentimentality too – rather, the lack of it. Spinosi and Gori were starters only a year or two back. Anastasi and Capello were gone – replaced by people from the camps of archenemies: Boninsegna from Inter and Benetti from Milan. Damiani, the 'revelation' just a year back, was out unceremoniously. Juventus was building team to last on top, not paying any sentimental dues to stars no longer fitting into the concept, no matter how big and venerated the names. The new god was Bettega, reaching his prime. Causio and Furino were more or less the drivers, shakers and makers, of the team's game, and the bunch of youngsters was almost ready to take the reigns at any minute – it was obvious that Gentile, Scirea, and Tardelli are to lead the team in a year or two, the future was ensured. But he biggest guarantee of bright future was the new coach: Giovanni Trapattoni. It was his first title as a coach. He was 37 years old and Juventus was his first professional team coaching. Juventus obviously was looking for the future and risked with young and inexperienced, but because of that – a coach unburdened and free from stagnating tradition. The risk was more than worthy – Trapattoni won the title in his very first year. Just a taste, just a beginning. Oh, yeah... it was only the 17th title for Juventus. Business as usual... Inter had 11 and Milan – measly 9. Time to conquer Europe.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Italy at crossroad: this season was practically Torino fight. Rarely, if at all, there was only2-team race in Italy, leaving everybody else far, far behind. The unusual situation suggested that the crisis was deepening. On the other hand the national team showed signs of life and new stars were popping in here and there. Italian football appeared to be sharply divided, but optimism laid solely with Juventus. The rest was able to show only a handful of new breed players scattered among the league. Old habits were slow to die. The second division was tightly contested with 5 clubs furiously competing for three promotions – Cagliari were the losers: they finished 4th because of worse goal difference. Behind them ended Monza, only 3 points less than the champions. Atalanta finished 3rd and Pescara 2nd – with equal points, 49 each. First place went to L.R. Vicenza, finishing with 51 points. Not really great addition to 1st Division – the newcomers were familiar names, normally moving between first and second division, and hardly clubs to create sensations. But there was a player ready to burst and already getting attention: Paolo Rossi, the young striker of L.R. Vicenza.

The bottom of 1st Division was occupied by Cesena, Catanzaro, and Sampdoria. Sampdoria was a bit of a surprise – at least by name, hardly the club to be relegated, but they were, joining Cagliari in the lower division. Well, when clubs like Sampdoria were good only for going down, the crisis of Italian football was acute and may be permanent. The other two clubs were no surprise, especially Cesena, who won only 3 matches during the season and collected measly 14 points, seven less than the 15th placed Catanzaro.

Cesena – the lowest of the low. Dead last.

Just above relegation zone finished Foggia - lucky 13th place, 2 points better than Sampdoria and securing one more season of struggle in 1st Division. To a point, Foggia were the typical Italian team of the time: if there was anybody more or less famous player, he was likely to be aging. Bergamaschi, in the case of Foggia.

But Foggia deserves mentioning for another reason: they survived thanks to winning games, 10 in total. Only 5 other teams finished with 2-digit number of wins – the top five. Inter and Lazio won the same number as Foggia. Winning was survival, winning was the future. Yeah, right... try telling that to 11 of the 1st Division clubs, who professed the old Italian wisdom: not winning, but ties spell out survival. 11 clubs ended with more than 10 ties, the record belonged to Milan with 17 tied games out of 30 seasonal matches. Only the very top and the very bottom of the league had less than 10 ties – playing for more than a point was risky affair, something like Russian roulette: you may win big. Or die.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The real disturbing news of the season was Real Madrid – contrary to expectations, they had terrible season and finished at 9th place. Hard to tell why: the same team with the same coach won the two previous seasons. It was not aging squad – it was just in its prime. May be the absence of Netzer? Hardly – he was getting old and going downhill. Whatever it was, Real was a disaster, and the remedy was familiar all over the world: the coach was sacked. Two titles in two years? So what? Did he win THIS year? Good bye Miljanic. Good bye Breitner too.

Good fortune came to other clubs: Athletic Bilbao finished third. The Basques looked like they were coming back to the very top of Spanish football, may be beginning a new and long waited strong spell.

Athletic reached the final of the UEFA Cup, reached the final of Copa del Rey, and finished with bronze medals the championship. They were not ripe for success yet, for they ended 7 points behind the 2nd placed team, not contenders for the title at all, but improving. May be next year?

The race for the title was between two teams and was tough: a single point divided champions from vice-champions. The silver boys finished with better goal difference and were the points equal, the champions were to be different. But point is a point and Barcelona lacked that point.

Rinus Michels evidently sparked the Catalans, but still came a little short. May be there was no more to be extracted from this squad. Cruyff and Neeskens were the grand masters, but both were a bit bellow their performance from few years back. Rebuilding of the team already started and was painful – somehow no great new player emerged, and veterans were still essential. One big problem was goalkeeping, where the crisis was acute. Michels managed to extract one last spurt, one last run, but it was clearly ailing team. At the end, it was in the mouth of Cruyff – he seemingly was immune to firing, so revolution was possible only if he decided to leave.

The unexpected fall of Real Madrid and the well known handicaps of Barcelona opened opportunity for Atletico Madrid. And they did not miss it – Atletico fought and managed to edge Barcelona and win the title.

Here they are before the start of the season in 1976.

And in May 1977 – champions! Not a single fan of Atletico would say that this team was no good and I prefer Atletico than Real, but this is not a champion squad. Not a team going to build a dynasty. It was more similar to Barcelona of that season, not like Real. Like Barcelona, it was experienced, stable, but dangerously aging squad. The movers and shakers were almost the same, who won the Spanish title in 1973. Replacing them was a problem, for somehow no new great player was emerging. Like Barcelona, Atletico depended heavily on their foreigners – Ayala, Leivinha, and Luis Pereira. By now everybody in Spain knew them well and countermeasures were well in place. The three were stars indeed, but it was amply telling that none was invited to play for their national teams anymore. For this squad it was the last hurray, and may be they were just lucky this year – the slip of real Madrid left only Barcelona, a fight of pretty much equal veterans. As good as a victory was, it was quite clear success was not going to be continued.

Spain appeared stilled, but there was at least somebody suggesting brighter future: Mario Kempes, playing for Valencia, was the best goalscorer of the season with 24 goals.
Already a star, he was going up – superstardom was to come in 1978. Kempes, unlike the rest of venerated foreigners in Spain, was younger, just approaching his best years.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Real Betis had strong season – not only winning Copa del Rey, but also finishing 5th in the championship. Sevilla FC ended way down, at 10th place, but it was nothing like the misery at the bottom of the table: Real Zaragoza, RC Celta, and CD Malaga finished at the last three spots and were relegated.

Misery in Vigo – Celta going down. No wonder even he picture is ugly.

The unfortunates were to be replaced by happy winners, promoted from the 2nd Division:

Sporting (Gijon), the winners of Segunda Division, returning to Primera. They had a star, a real one: Quini – a natural goalscorer, tough, big, fearless. Here he is in the middle with the ball, but he was destined for bigger clubs and bigger success than promotions from 2nd Division.

Cadiz CF finished at second place in Segunda and went up – like Gijon, returning to Primera, but Cadiz were likely just to stay near the bottom of the table, fighting to survive.

The same was the case of third promoted club: Rayo Vallecano. They are the third club from Madrid, dwarfed by Real and Atletico, and generally a novelty – rarely playing top level football, Rayo Vallecano were not expected even to survive in Primera, let alone challenging the big neighbours.

And that was the bottom, where movements happened, but hardly the relegated were to be missed and the newcomers were not exactly clubs to disturb the status quo.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Spain had perhaps the third strongest championship in 1976-77 – lagging behind West Germany and England for sure, but in my opinion a bit better than the Italians. May be just a bit stronger. By now transfers to Spanish clubs were not he biggest news in Europe – more or less, the biggest clubs depended on foreign stars already settled in Spain. Barcelona kept Cruyff and Neeskens, but rehired Rinus Michels to coach them again. Cruyff was clearly saying who should be the coach, which was fine, but the aging team had to be rebuild and the process was not exactly smooth. Real Madrid kept Milan Miljanic, for he was so far successful, but Gunter Netzer moved out in the summer of 1976. He joined Grasshopper (Zurich). Real Madrid replaced him with another Borussia (Moenchengladbach) player – Henning Jensen, the Danish centerforward, who already became a star in Germany. He and Paul Breitner were thought to be enough for another title. The rest of the Spanish clubs seemingly did not make big changes, if any. Judging by the lack of impressive transfers, the season was kind of predictable – the usual Real-Barcelona duel, in which Madrid appeared to have the edge. The major change was the name of the national cup – with Franco dead, it was no longer to be named after him. The original name was restored – the King's Cup. But... that is the shortcut in English: the trouble of tournaments named after a royalty is the reigning monarch: with the restoration of Spanish monarchy, mere sports tournament had to take the name of the actual King. Thus, the name was practically brand new: Copa del Rey is really named Copa de S. M. Rey Don Carlos I. It was simultaneously the old traditional tournament and brand new. No matter, national cup it was and there was a crack: neither Real Madrid, nor Barcelona reached the final. Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis (Sevilla) were the contenders for the cup with new name.

Athletic Bilbao were in good shape this season, and so were Real Betis, but the Basques looked stronger, at least traditionally stronger club.

Top row, from left: Iribar, Astrain, Goicoechea, Escalza, Villar, Lasa.

Kneeling: Churruca, Irureta, Dani, Garay, Rojo I.

No foreigners, no Spaniards, the usual tough bunch of Basques. Iribar, Irureta, may be Villar provided class. Normally a gritty team, Athletic had new villain – Goicoechea. The world did not know of him yet, but it would and soon. Anyhow, Bilbao had strong season and the Cup was likely to go to them.

But the final ended 2-2 after overtime and had to be decided by penalty shoot-out. The contestants went goal for goal until finally Athletic missed, and Real Betis won by 8-7. Nothing for the Basques, Cup for the Andalusians. A final leading to heart attacks, but to a point it was good – the underdogs won, I like that.

Here they are – Cup winners without a single star. Burly guys... or determined? Or plain tired? Smiles are not their forte, but smiles alone do not win trophies. It was their first ever Cup and only second title so far. Coming after overtime and grueling 21 penalties! And how good to be back home, displaying the Cup in the faces of arch-rivals Sevilla FC!