Saturday, March 30, 2013

Group 7 was less predictable – quite tough, in fact. No points donor here – Czechoslovakia, Scotland, and Wales. Wales was not expected to win, but rather to decide which country will go to the finals. The fierce local derby with Scotland was thought to benefit Czechoslovakia at the end. CSSR just won the European championship, thus having the edge, but playing against two representatives of the British isles was hardly to be a walkover. Czechoslovakia had the best schedule as well – starting and finishing the campaign, so if they delivered a heavy blow in the opening home match with Scotland, possible later mistake can be corrected at the last match of the group. Czechoslovakia was in perfect shape too – well rounded team and plenty of talent ready and waiting its time. Inevitable aging and retirement was not to be feared – there were already eager replacements, and not just hopefuls, but experienced players, national team members for years. Point in case: Ivo Victor retired, but Alexander Vencel was at hand – vastly experienced and generally considered unlucky to play at the time when Victor was active. So was the case with other players, and Czechoslovakian coaches were wise enough to gradually introduce new talent in the team .

Here is the squad starting the World Cup campaign: practically, the European champions, with Vencel instead of retired Victor. The new boys are two – Biros and Kozak, if they could be called newcomers: both already played for Czechoslovakia and now were simply becoming regulars. Kozak was actually a reserve coming in the second half and thus not in the picture. Czechoslovakia was still riding high on their fresh European victory and Scotland was destroyed 2-0.
The opening goal, scored by Panenka (second from left) was a beauty – long shot cannoned from outside the penalty area, leaving Rough helpless. As the Czech journalist commented tongue in cheek bellow the photo, even the talisman teddy bear (in the left corner of Rough's net) did not help. The initial blow was delivered. Everything appeared tailored to expectations: Scotland won their home fixture with Wales 1-0 – a difficult win, spelling out trouble. As expected, Wales was the group's arbiter not to be taken lightly. In Wrexham they destroyed the European champions – 3-0 – and suddenly were first in the group by goal-difference. Everybody had 2 points. Small groups provide for big pauses between matches – the next match was almost half a year later. Many things change in football between March and September – the most obvious problem is that March and September belong to two different seasons. By September 1977 Czechoslovakia was not quite in the same form it was in 1976. Motivation and determination was there, but Scotland was also motivated and was the host – Glasgow can be quite intimidating for visiting teams. Supported by endless cheer, Scotland won 3-1. Now they were leading, but nothing was decided yet. It was decided in October and in Liverpool, where Wales hosted their match with Scotland – Liverpool, instead of Wrexham, was chosen for capacity, but in UK home advantage is relative – fans easily travel short distances. Scotland prevailed, winning 2-0 and qualified for the finals. The last match was mere protocol – Czechoslovakia, entirely disinterested by now, won 1-0 against Wales. If anything, this group was one of the most dramatic.

1.SCOTLAND 4 3 0 1 6- 3 6

2.Czechoslovakia 4 2 0 2 4- 6 4

3.Wales 4 1 0 3 3- 4 2
Victorious losers – this is the squad starting the campaign in 1976 and losing 0-2 to the European champions. Rough and Gemmil are missing – not from the team, but from list of players above. Experienced squad, with many veterans from the 1974 World Cup. Perhaps not the team of the greatest talent, but perhaps the most spirited squad in the world. Pretty much the same initial losers ended as winners. Well done in the dramatic group.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Group 6 – predictable and invisible. Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland. Two outsiders and always adorable Sweden, which nobody notices before World Cup finals. Modest team with few recognizable stars, never trend setter, but usually quick to adapt the fresh developments of the game. As a rule of thumb, Sweden is an enigma during preliminary campaigns, then surprises everyone with players, who make their names at the World Cup finals. One of the rare countries practically never suffering from inevitable change of generations. As ever, no attention was paid to the group stage – Sweden was the favourite, expected to qualify. Since Norway was in the group, it was to be the relatively tough challenge for the Swedes – Norway was clear outsider, but local derbies have their own logic. Similar styles plus pride nullify difference of class. And that was precisely the case in the group: Sweden won three matches and lost against Norway in Oslo – 1-2. It did not matter by the time of the match, for Sweden already qualified – 6 points from 3 matches, when the opposition had only 2 points. Switzerland had none. The final table was perfect:

1.SWEDEN 4 3 0 1 7- 4 6

2.Norway 4 2 0 2 3- 4 4

3.Switzerland 4 1 0 3 3- 5 2
It may have been an easy group, but Sweden normally reached the World Cup finals. As ever, the squad was almost unknown to the world, but followed the usual pattern – few very well known players: Torstensson, Hellstrom, and seemingly eternal captain Nordqvist. Edstrom is missing here, but he was part of the team too. Perhaps one young player, attracting European interest as potential big star – Linderoth. The rest – modest players stationed in various European clubs (Wendt, for instance) and bunch of domestic players either not interested of playing abroad, or not hired yet. That Sweden qualified was almost unnoticed.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Group 5 was unpredictable, fairly equal, and, therefore, tough. Bulgaria, France, and Ireland. Republic of Ireland was not really expected to qualify, but who knows – there was no overwhelming favourite and no weak donor of points. Everything was possible. The Bulgarians reacted to the draw with there traditional lunacy: a combination of fear, caution, and optimism , based on weird assumptions. Tough group, but qualification was more than possible. France? In the past, Bulgaria eliminated France. Doable. Careful with the Irish, that's the really tough part. More or less, Ireland was seen as the more dangerous opponent, contrary to the obvious fact that France was vastly improving, had Platini and a whole bunch of St. Etienne players at their peak. And despite the fact that Bulgaria was in decline, having no great new generation able to replace the aging players from 1974. Bulgaria had no stable team at all – after 1974 there were constant changes, ranging from total replacement of the old stars to re-introduction of the veterans. There was no clear concept at all and nothing good came out of it. Bulgaria lapsed again and again into 'character': if the team mobilized and showed 'spirit', opposition would be overcome. Since 'spirit' was the substitute for real tactics, less talented generation was hardly able to go far. Bulgaria lost a point in their opening match at home – a 2-2 tie, benefiting France. Luckily, France lost to Ireland in Dublin. Then Bulgaria clinched unconvincing victory against same Ireland – 2-1 in Sofia, a match mostly remembered by me for the fight on the pitch, provoked by the Bulgarian team for no reason at all. The fight Bulgarian lost – so much for winning by 'spirit' alone – but the chaotic brawl confused the referee and an innocent player was expelled. Which at the end was seen as a convenient Bulgarian excuse: the referee was blamed instead of purely Bulgarian lack of playing concept. Bulgaria extracted a goalless tie in Dublin, and thus the last group match was decisive – both France and Bulgaria had a chance. The direct clash in Paris was to decide who was going to the finals. Given the importance of the match and the attacking qualities of France, Bulgaria fielded inadequate team – leading by a point, Bulgaria needed a tie, and as many times before, the concept was entirely defensive. Not any tie, but 0-0! Prevent France from scoring – the team on the pitch suggested nothing else:

Back from left: Kiril Ivkov, Roumen Goranov, Angel Stankov, Tzonyo Vassilev, Angel Kolev.

Front row: Hristo Bonev, Boris Angelov, Vanyo Kostov, Atanas Aleksandrov, Nikolay Arabov, Georgy Bonev.

Five defenders, two of them sweepers (Ivkov and Arabov). Two players were able to play either defensive midfield or stoppers – Angelov and Kostov. Bonev was to control the game in midfield, although it is not clear what more than just killing time: weird strikers here. Undefined Stankov – who never had clear position, operating in midfield and attack, but neither midfielder, nor striker. Same with Angel Kolev, so the idea seemingly was to saturate midfield with players, largely preventing French attacks. In front – the right winger Aleksandrov. Hardly the most useful position, if using only one striker. On top of it Ivkov, Bonev, and Goranov were already dismissed a few times from the national team – the first two for getting old, Goranov – for his disastrous performance at the 1974 World Cup. All was part of the plan for 'rejuvenating' the squad, which never worked, and formerly dismissed 'for good' players were called back, then dismissed again, then called back, and so on. Misshaped team, clearing aiming at 0-0 and incapable for anything else – this squad has no capability of attacking, so if the French managed to score, Bulgaria was not in position to score back. A limited, dangerous concept, depending only on desperate defense and counting on luck. Of course, the 'concept' failed, for this was not France of the 1960s or the very early 1970s – the French teams which were overcome by Bulgaria once upon a time, but curiously taken by Bulgarian specialists for current France – and France won easily 3-1. Bulgaria was eliminated and you can guess who were blamed for missing the World Cup. Some players were 'dismissed for good' and 'rejuvenating' started anew.

France qualified for the finals – the first major tournament the country qualified for since 1966.
France in the friendly against West Germany in 1977: standing from left: Rey, Janvion, Bathenay, Rio, Bossis, Trésor, Synaeghel.

First row: Rocheteau, Platini, Pécout, Sarramagna.

May be not the best French squad of the time, but very close approximation, not to mention the amusement value – the masked Rocheteau, in the days when face masks were very rare (and really not masks, but bandages). Since Michel Hidalgo replaced Stefan Kovacs in 1976, France was steadily rising. To a point, Hidalgo was using players already introduced by Kovacs, but he made a meaningful team of them, benefiting from the great St. Etienne squad, coming to its peak, and vastly talented Platini, getting stronger every next year and already among the biggest European stars. To think, as the Bulgarians did, hat this well rounded and explosively attacking team can be neutralized by mere defensive play was suicidal. True, France was unfinished yet, still the striking line was convincing, but it was dangerous enough, very inventive, and promising. The peak was still years away, but France was steadily rising.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Group 4 – more than deja vu: it looked like Holland and Belgium were eternally together in qualification groups. By now Belgium was changing generations and in decline. The success of FC Brugge and especially Anderlecht was more due to Dutch players, so Holland, already with big clout, looked the favourite. It was – the great stars were still here. True, they were dangerously aging and Cruyff in particular was difficult to deal with as ever, but with or without him, the team was just too strong. The new coach, who replaced the disaster Knobel, had low profile, but Jan Zwartkruis seemingly got along well with the moody stars. Or at least did not appear bothered by the moody superstars. One problem seemingly was solved – since Cruiff was unpredictable and nobody would know for sure when he wanted to play for Holland and when he was to decline, a change was swiftly made: the Dutch team was increasingly conduced on the field by Rensenbrink and the van der Kerkhoff twins. The Dutch stumbled at first, failing to overcome Northern Ireland at home – 2-2 – but, they delivered heavy blow in Antwerpen, beating Belgium 2-0. No more faulty steps after that, including the last of their fixtures – a 1-0 win over Belgium in Amsterdam. Belgium still had one more match to play, but it did not matter anymore, so they lost to Northern Ireland in Belfast, perhaps distorting the final table: Belgium ended with 3 wins and 3 losses, suggesting great weakness -which was not really the case. Holland, however, reigned supreme:

1.NETHERLANDS 6 5 1 0 11- 3 11

2.Belgium 6 3 0 3 7- 6 6

3.Northern Ireland 6 2 1 3 7- 6 5

4.Iceland 6 1 0 5 2-12 2

The table perhaps mislead many: Holland had problems, hidden by the shining record. Age and mood. It still looked familiar and mighty:
The friendly with England in 1977: familiar faces, led by Cruyff. Yet...
A 1978 version, to which Holland already was coming from some time. No Cruyff, nor many others old heroes, but whole bunch of unfamiliar names. Admittedly, an experimental team, with early appearance of Arnold Muhren, but closer to the team that played at the 1978 World Cup than the team above. The old guard carried on the qualification round, though.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Group 3 looked a weakling compared to Group 2. Turkey and Malta nobody counted and the race was to be between East Germany and Austria. Italy or England surely out of the finals and either DDR or Austria in – it appeared entirely unfair, given the relative strength and tradition. Only three matches were played in 1976, and it was clear by then than the East Germans were not what they were in 1974, but once again run-of-the-mill team. Austria on the hand had talented new generation with modern stars – Prohazka, Krankl, and Pezzey. Add the very good goalkeeper Koncilia, and great skeleton was already at hand. Austria and East Germany were unable to beat each other, ending both matches between themselves 1-1 tied. Neither country lost a match in the campaign, but the East Germans stumbled heavily very early – they were unable to win the home match against Turkey. The 1-1 tie more or less informed Austrian strategy – they finished their games before DDR, so the ties with the rivals more or less decided who would go to Argentina: Austria pulled its strength at the visit in Izmir, overcoming Turkey 1-0 and was out of reach 3 points ahead of the East Germans. The last two fixtures in the group were mere protocol – DDR won its last match in the same Izmir, but it did not matter a bit.

1.AUSTRIA 6 4 2 0 14- 2 10

2.East Germany 6 3 3 0 15- 4 9

3.Turkey 6 2 1 3 9- 5 5

4.Malta 6 0 0 6 0-27 0
Austria rising after years of mediocrity. Nobody took them seriously yet, but the new great players were noticed.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Group 2 was terrible: two outsiders – Finland and Luxembourg, but the other two were Italy and England. An iron clash of 'mighty' teams, lamented from the day of the draw, for one was not to reach the finals. Italy reached the bottom about 1975 and after that was slowly improving. England – well, England was considered more unlucky than really declining. Such was the clout of tradition, that both teams were seen still as great powers and criticized only after a spectacular failure, when criticism was too late and entirely meaningless. But the clash of a rising team and one at best stuck was capable of hiding realities, but not to avoid them. Italy won 2-0 in Rome; England won with exactly the same result in London. It was the last match for England, but Italy had one more to play. All depended on the games with the outsiders and here the limitations of England really showed: they won with great difficulty the home match against Finland 2-1! Traditionally low scoring Italy had no such problems and at the end outscored England by 3 goals. In November 1977 it was over for England: they had a total of 10 points. Italy had 8 points, but still a home match with Luxembourg to play and better goal-difference. The strength of Luxembourg can be easily illustrated: Finland destroyed them 7-1. Italy needed a victory by a single goal – they scored 3 on December 3, 1977 and finished first. As for England, Don Revie was replaced by Ron Greenwood after the failure, but nothing really changed. Here is a just a glimpse of evidence:
One of the English formations from 1977. Standing, from left: Phil Neal (Liverpool), Emlyn Hughes (Liverpool), Dave Watson (Manchester City), Trevor Cherry (Leeds United), Ray Wilkins (Chelsea), Ray Clemence (Liverpool).

Front: Stuart Pearson (Manchester United), Brian Talbot (Ipswich Town), Kevin Keegan (Hamburger SV), Mike Channon (Manchester City), Brian Greenhoff (Manchester United).

Plenty of talent and experience, but... having Keegan, Hughes, Clemence, and failing? The first thing to notice is the absence of libero and/or creative and imaginative playmaker. Long term problem – Keegan cannot be utilized fully, just like Rooney today. Channon, a rather typical winger, at the end lapsed into typical crosses delivered right in front of the net, except there was no typical English centre forward. For European defenses it was familiar and easy to neutralize, thanks to inevitable predictability of Channon, not to mention that Keegan tended to play on the right side of the field as well. Watson was similar to Schwarzenbeck, more adventurous than the German, and therefore a risk – Hughes was no Beckenbauer. Ray Wilkins, a far better option than Trevor Brooking – at least in my view – was not really a great playmaker: he and Brooking, compared to European midfielders, looked like Roth and Durnberger of Bayern. Great runners, dependable, predictable – supportive players really, not conductors. The Germans mentioned were never called to the national team – the English were thought essential. Rotation was tried for a remedy – Trevor Cherry was the best example: in and out the national team for most of the decade, neither better, nor worse than those who replaced him or he replaced. And short lived players, whose virtues were young age (Talbot), momentary good form (Pearson), and unorthodox by English standards (Greenhoff). They came and went, leaving no memories, in mechanical succession of identical players, manufactured on the same production line. Like English industry, English football was permanently ill, outdated, no longer really competitive, and entirely unable to change. The English problems can be summed in five words – Dalglish and Jordan were Scots. Unfortunately, England always failed – and fails – 'honourably': the boys did their best, can't blame them for not trying. After all, did really England fail? The finished second only because of unlucky goal-difference. No wonder the model of the team above remained – only to fail again, without really failing.

Italy was quite a different story: their low point came in 1975. By 1977 Enzo Bearzot was sole coach of the team (he kind of shared the position with Fulvio Bernardini until then, technically an assistant coach) and had the good luck of steadily rising Juventus. The early experiments were abandoned, for they were mostly repetitions of old approach with second-best players. The new Italy was mostly based on Juventus, blending experienced veterans with young blood. Bearzot was not for nothing the coach of Italian Under-23 national team for years.
This is squad from June 1978, but a good example of Bearzot's Italy: the core came from Juventus (Zoff, Causio, Tardelli, Bettega, Gentile), Facchetti, on his way out of the team, but still called occasionally, current stars Graziani and Zaccarelli, and one experimental youngster – Roberto Mozzini (24, Torino). He did not last – played a total of 6 matches in 1976-77 – like others tried and discarded. But Bearzot had Antognoni, skilful, young, imaginative dynamo of a playmaker. Bearzot placed him firmly in the team and found his mover and shaker. The team was still primarily defensive, but in a new way – the way of Juventus: instead of leaving the ball to the opposition, waiting an opportunity for a counter-attack, the new Italy pressured the opposition for the ball and generally wanted to possess it and control the flow of the game. Bettega was peaking, and provided with sharp passes by Antognoni, he was very dangerous. Italy was not yet shaped into perfection, but certainly was getting stronger and stronger, and also was fun to watch, something rarely associated with Italian football. Calculating and scheming was very much present, of course, but no longer the primary weapon. Italy qualified for the finals with difficulty, but looked better team than England.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

1977 took the bulk of qualifying stage for the incoming World Cup. Two countries did not have to worry – West Germany and Argentina automatically qualified, as current world champion and host. For everybody else it was the usual struggle to reach coveted spot. The formula was the same as for 1974 – Europe had 8 spots, South America – 2, Africa, Asia, and Central-North America – one each, the odd fifth continent, Oceania – nothing. The last spot was to be contested between the winner of the 9th European group and the third placed of the final South American phase. In Europe Lady Luck played her jokes, creating certain sense of deja vu: Holland and Belgium once again were in one group. So were Spain and Yugoslavia – third time in a row! USSR ended in 8th group and had the same fate as in the qualifications for the 1974 World Cup: if winning, they were to play one more play-off against South American team, and if fate decided to repeat entirely itself, it could have been Chile again. When matches started, other repetitions happened too. In the simple days of small Europe and uncomplicated football countries were quite free to make the games schedules, which involved some negotiations and compromises, naturally begrudged by the 'victims'. Qualifying matches started in 1976, but the bulk was in 1977 – almost everybody thought it was wiser to have matches near the World Cup final, thus, preserving good form. Theoretically. The Soviets made their schedule as if playing a mini-championship – all matches in a single month, presumably, aiming to benefit from a team stable, confident, and 'warm'. As ever, there were 'easy' groups and tough ones, but more or less favourites were clear. The toughest group was the 8th – Spain, Yugoslavia, and Romania. What is 'fair' and 'unfair' in football is entirely arbitrary and depending on opinion: the rules place former finalists in one urn to make sure they are not going to end playing against each other. Past and current squads and form are two entirely different things, though and when the actual competition starts, the picture is quite different. Based on past ranking, Bulgaria was above England. Group 9 consisted only from countries which did not play at 1974 World Cup – and the winner may not play at the incoming World Cup either, if losing to the third South American candidate. Anyway, fair, unfair, to business at hand, for whining changes nothing.

Group 1: Poland, Portugal, Denmark, and Cyprus. The order they came out of the urns was dublicated in the final table, as to confirm the objectivity of mere draw. Poland and Portugal were the favourites, the rest were good only as additional arbiters: results against them may decide who ends first and who – second. Simple philosophy: get the maximum points from and score as much as possible against the outsiders, win the home fixture against the direct rival, and try for a tie at the reciprocal visit. Sometimes it even worked.

Portugal was practically in decline since 1966, at first slowly, but very clear during the 1970s – Portugal failed to qualify for any major championship. It was beatable team, yet, traditionally considered serious opponent. Poland depended largely on the players from the great 1974 campaign, but suffering from the limited pool of talent. Replacing a starter, getting old or moving to play abroad was a problem. But the basic squad was still at hand. Poland got a strong start: winning the away game with Portugal, their first match. 2-0 at Porto pretty much decided the final standings in October 1976. It was important win in one aspect: Portugal had 'better' schedule, playing the last three matches of the campaign, when Poland had only one – the home leg against the direct competitor. So, the strategy was not to lose a single point before the final sprint. Which both rivals managed well, and Portugal paid the price for losing the opening game of the campaign: by the end of October 1977 Poland had 5 straight victories and excellent goal difference. Portugal with 3 wins and 1 loss needed to win both last matches and with significant results too – but Poland had the edge, playing at home. In Chorzow the match was tied at 1-1, enough for Poland to stay out of reach. The last match was meaningless.

1.POLAND 6 5 1 0 17- 4 11

2.Portugal 6 4 1 1 12- 6 9

3.Denmark 6 2 0 4 14-12 4

4.Cyprus 6 0 0 6 3-24 0
At a glance, Poland won easily, but a look at this squad from 1977 shows the relative strength and limitations of 'Druzina Polska': the heroes of 1974 provided the back bone of the team, with the exception of Robert Gadocha, playing abroad by now. It was clear that the 1974 stars were everything Poland had: new players were introduced, but failed to establish themselves – who remembers Maculewicz today, let alone Sustek? The pool of talent was small enough to call for extraordinary measures – Vlodzimierz Lubanski was recalled, the very first professional Polish player included in the national team. True, he was a legend, he recovered his form, and he deserved, at least as a symbolic gesture, to go to the World Cup finals, but it was clear that there were not enough strong players in Poland. Communist countries as a firm rule did not include foreign based professionals – to change that meant desperate situation. Experienced, yet inevitably 4-years older squad and no replacements of worth. Lucky in a way to have Portugal was opponent.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Up and down. Many candidates, but Hamburger SV was clearly rising – winning the West German Cup in 1976, followed by European triumph in 1977, and immediately making the biggest transfer in Europe: getting Kevin Keegan from Liverpool. The team was not refined yet, great coach was still needed, but the club gave all indications of becoming major force.

The beginning – winning the West German Cup in 1976. The best achievements were still in the future, but the climb started.

As for going down – the prime candidates were the national teams of England and USSR. Terrible decade for both nations, experiencing constant failures. All started in 1972, when England played its last great football, but had the bad luck to face mighty West Germany at its peak in the ¼ finals of the European championship. The Soviets reached the final of the competition, only to be utterly destroyed by the same Germans. Nothing after that for each country – USSR lost two Olympic Games; missed the 1974 World Cup; was eliminated early by a 'friendly' nation in the 1976 European Championship. And failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup. England had the same implausible record, save for the Olympics, which did not count for them anyway. In my view England was in worse shape, largely because it had plenty of new talent – it was not only Keegan – which surprisingly failed and failed. Somehow England was incapable of building a winning team, and the reason was mentality. England refused to see the fundamental changes of modern football and continued to play its own game, essentially 'kick and run'. Flat line of defense in times of the libero (it is astonishing to remember when England played with libero – in 1990! When almost nobody used it anymore.) , easily penetrated by speedy strikers, playing at the edge of offside. Bypassing midfield in times when it was thought the most important part of game, still using the simple side runs, ending with a cross in the small penalty area. Sophisticated defenses had no problem with such concept. England still tended to use false wingers – a great innovation in... 1966! England was fast, spirited, fighting to end, but predictable and ineffective against serious opposition. England had no sophisticated and creative playmaker, controlling the tempo and organizing surprising attacks. The only players, considered 'European' in England were Allan Hudson and Frank Worthington, who were hardly ever used, let alone used meaningfully. True, both were boozers, their uneven performance moved them to smaller clubs, they were moody unpredictable pranksters, but still nobody in England was willing to try building a squad around them. Were they a possible remedy is hard to say – Worthington was highly praised (especially in retrospect) in England, but the little outsiders saw of him was less than unimpressive. England clearly missed modern developments of the game and inevitably declined – to the point of permanency. It was and is astonishing: the country with arguably the best club football unable to make a really strong and interesting national team. The failure to qualify to the 1974 World Cup was shocking, but soon dismissed as accidental. By 1977 it was no longer even shocking, so no attempt of conceptual, deep and fundamental change was made. There were always convenient excuses for not touching the sick roots of English football.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Retirees are known – and therefore lamented. New generation, however promising, is unknown quality. They are inevitably judged harshly, compared to former stars – 'if only we had Overath, and not this 18-years old idiot. Now, that was a player – and now? ' Rarely juniors become instant stars, capturing hearts right away. The beginning is more likely to be rough, becoming more difficult in the 1970s, when the stakes were high and coaches avoided wild innovations, preferring reliable experience. A young player had to be introduce to professional football with caution, slowly, stage by stage, so the wisdom goes to this very day. And most of the time this wisdom is right – fragile teenagers can be easily crushed by burly veterans. When winning is at stake, sentimentality of giving a chance and waiting for development hardly have place. Young players are big risk, but still have to be included. Sooner? Later? Actually, the best time for youngsters is the time of crisis.

Fulvio Collovati debuted in the 1976-77 season. He went through AC Milan's youth system, showing plenty of talent. So far – so good: talented young stopper. Good potential, but to play him in Serie A? And for Milan? Milan is always expected to win the championship, not to experiment – and Serie A is not a league with easy opponents. May be a smaller club would risk an experiment, largely for having nothing better, but in Milan – no way. In a way, Collovati debuted quite late – he was almost 20 years old when played his first official match.

Innocent looking and all smiles – not exactly a picture of typical Italian defender. And he was not: Collovati was one of the new breed Italian players, particularly defenders, who came at that time – modern players, skillful, tough, and uncompromising, as Italian defenders always were, but more adventurous, going often in attack, organizing attacks, and scoring goals. Partly following Fascetti, partly having Beckenbauer as a model. By 1977 it was clear to the Italians that they had to change fundamentally their understanding of the football, and adapt modern concepts. Besides, the grand-masters of catenaccio were retiring one after another. The 1970s were the time of crisis for Italian football – in the second-half of the decade finally changes were made: practically the whole defense of the 1982 World champions debuted between 1976 and 1979. They established themselves quickly, yet, not instantly: Collovati played 11 games in his first season. On one hand, his debut was average: potential talent tried now and then, mostly to see is he really up to the demands of professional football in top club. Most youngsters start like that – playing now and then, coming in for a bit in the second half, playing occasional 'easy' match, substituting an injured or out of form starter. Nothing much. On the other hand, 11 games in Serie A is quite a lot for a debutant – obviously, Collovati showed plenty of talent. Caution prevailed, although Collovati was part of the squad winning the Italian Cup. So far he was just a promise, still unknown. The fortunes of Milan were not so great and the young player had to experience worse in very near future – with one particular result: he was not making international news. Hard to imagine him a world champion in 1977.

But he became world champion – and famous. Rather quickly, even surprisingly quickly, given the circumstances. The dubious 'promising player' of 1976-77 debuted for the Italian national team in 1979. Mind that he played measly 7 matches for Under-21 Italian national team and Milan was expelled from Serie A for match-fixing and Collovati had to play in the Second division. Difficult beginning, but his talent prevailed.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Ever changing football – people stepping down, new blood stepping in. 1977 had plenty of retirements, legendary players too. The biggest retirement was that of the King, of course. But so much is written about Pele – better mention somebody else. Wolfgang Overath. Born in 1943, he was one of the brightest stars of the arguably best ever German generation. But there was something more – Overath was Mr. Bundesliga: perhaps the only one of the great generation, who played from the very birth of the German fully professional football. And what a start – Overath was the first Bundesliga champion with 1. FC Koln in 1964.

Early days and early fame – Overath became an instant star and remain one of the top midfielders in the world to the end of his career. Unfortunately, he was not all that successful on club level – Koln stayed generally among the top German clubs in the 1960s and 1970s, but not a serious contender. Overath never got another title. And Koln never won anything internationally. Nevertheless, Overath stayed with the club, a loyal one-club man, who became a legend long before retirement. And a big German star in time full of stars – after all, Overath had nobody else but Netzer for a rival. On such high level it is laughable to compare players – how is it to measure giants? Perhaps Overath lacked the finesse of Beckenbauer and the astonishing precision of Netzer, but the differences are tiny – he had great technique and vision, he tireless and inspiring player, his organizational skills were great, his passes sharp and penetrating. He scored a lot as well. He was very dependable and disciplined, practically never out of form – an advantage, when compared to moody Netzer, who often clashed with coaches, especially Helmut Schon. Unlike many a supestar, Overath did not shy away from mundane gritty work on the pitch and appeared modest in contrast to the often criticized playboy Netzer, or too commercial Beckenbauer and even Muller. No scandals surrounded Overath – he was primeraly associated with performance, although never considered the greatest hero – unfortunately, there was so much talent around. The greatness of Overath can be seen only when his whole career is considered – the top man at any given moment was somebody else, but Overath was right next behind.
Mr. Bundesliga captured in what he did best – giving a refined pass. Concentrated precision. He ended with 409 Bundesliga matches in which he scored 84 goals. For Koln he played astonishing 765 games, scoring 287 goals. Starting before the Bundesliga was formed, in 1962, making his mark right away in the new league, developing and growing with it, and retiring at the peak of the league, when it was already considered the best league in the world. No doubt, his contribution was enormous, but his real success came playing for the national team. He was the preferred playmaker of Helmut Schon, at the expense of Gunter Netzer.
Great stars and arch-rivals – Overath and Netzer: a problem for any coach, for playing the same position, it was impossible to field them both at the same time. Schon went for reliable, disciplined, and not arguing Overath. Netzer recognized the special qualities of his rival – he said Overath 'was born to play for Germany.' And what a career with the national team! Overath is almost unique in the world: he played at three World Cups, getting a medal every time – silver in 1966, bronze in 1970, and in 1974 – gold.
World champion in 1974, the crowning moment of his career. In total, Overath played 81 games for West Germany, scoring 17 goals. Perhaps his greatest moment was in 1970, when he scored the winning goal, winning the bronze medals for West Germany. Foreign journalists considered him the best German player then, which is always debatable – Beckenbauer, Muller, and Libuda had impressive championship as well, for many they were the top Germans. But Overath was influential key member of the formidable West German national team during his increasingly stronger years. He missed perhaps the finest moment of the team – the 1972 European Championship victory. It was not his fault – he was injured. All things considered, excellent career. If he stayed in the game just one more year, he would have ended with another German title... but there was no way of knowing in advance, that Koln will the Bundesliga. It is a bit ironic, though – Overath retired just before Koln won. Yet, he retired as a beloved legend – naturally, in Koln he was never forgotten and in 2004 he was elected President of 1.FC Koln. Herr Bundesliga, but also eternal Herr Koln.
A whole life with one club – President Overath in 2010.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Another significant moment of 1977 – the Golden Shoe award. Already familiar name became the top goal-scorer of the continent:

Dudu Georgescu – the Romanian deadly striker scored a new record 47 goals for Dynamo (Bucharest). Astonishing number – 47 goals in 34 championship matches. There was no fuss about his gials – they appeared legit, for Georgescu constantly scored a lot and already won the Golden Shoe in 1975. Persistent doubts existed only about the nature of classification – it was clear that a championship of 12 clubs was not able to compete with championship of 20 clubs: less games – less opportunities for goals. It was also clear that deadly defenses in Italy made impossible for an Italian striker to win the Golden Shoe. Low scoring championships, like the Soviet one, were out of the race too. And highly competitive, tough championships, like the English and the Spanish were out of the race. The Golden Shoe, based on just total number of goals, seemingly benefited middle-of-the-road championships, with few dominant club in a generally weak league. Like the Romanian league – the best players were concentrated in Steaua and Dynamo, thus Georgescu had great advantage to be helped by the most talented in the country, having weak opposition in the same time. It was one thing to score, say, Arsenal (London), and entirely another and much easier to score against Bihor (Oradea). But this was the general problem of the award. Georgescu was just a great goal-scorer, a rare talent, no matter the relative strength or weakness of the local championship.

Georgescu was not very fast and probably did not excel in any particular aspect, if measured that way, by Gerd Muller was probably more 'limited', when compartmentalized and scrutinized. Georgescu excelled in the air, though. His headers were great and he scored many goals 'English fashion'. Fans love spectacular headers, of course – Georgescu is fondly remembered as a crowd pleaser. Since he scored regularly and consistently, no doubts were raised, although most certainly he was 'helped' by Romanian officials – 'help' was typical in Communist Eastern Europe. But it was not orchestrated in the last minute, like in the late 1980s – Georgescu scored all the time, and most importantly, he was prolific goal-scorer internationally – playing for the relatively weak Romanian national team of the time, he still scored quite a lot. He was natural goal-scorer, no doubt about it, and in 1977 he set new record. Significant in its own time, but even more from a distance: the record is still unbeaten, and most likely will stay unbeaten for ever. The highest number of goals scored in a single year - 47! Unimaginable in the reality of 21st century.
Dudu Georgescu in more recent time, displaying his two Golden Shoes. Truly great goalscorer by any standard. And also making 1977 the most significant year in the history of the Golden Shoe.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Changes were more obvious in Europe than in South America: the great stars from the early 1970s were getting old and no longer the shakers and makers of European football. The stars of the 1960s did not count already for some time. New stars were elbowing the old, the question was how good they were. One thing was detectable – there was no player of the caliber of Cruyff or Beckenbauer among the younger stars. The memories of the great ones were still too fresh and when youngsters were compared, they inevitably failed. It was like 1975 again – back then Oleg Blokhin was voted player of the year, mostly because Beckenbaur and Cruyff appeared to be going downhill, and Blokhin was seen as the only new star. Back then he won by astonishing difference, leaving second placed Beckenbauer almost 80 points behind. However, there was no Blokhin after 1975... entirely different players competed for the award in 1977. There was hardly any difference between the top three – Michel Platini got 70 points, Kevin Keegan – 71, and the winner – 74. Fairly equal, which speaks of the qualities of the players, but also of their shortcomings. None was so overwhelming and exciting compared to Cruyff and Beckenbauer (who were still active, let be reminded). Success – rightly or wrongly – informs voting and all three were somewhat short in this department. Platini was handicapped more than the rest – playing for modest Nancy practically nullified his chances for winning the award: Nancy had no chance winning anything and Platini had no great teammates, able to utilize his talent and amplify it. In a sense, his finest time was still in the future, he was noticed, recognized, but still was more of a promising player, not a superstar. Kevin Keegan, a star since 1972, failed short too: on one hand, he was not as creative as Platini, more of a striker than a playmaker, so a consumer instead of creator. It boils down to this when, inevitably, Keegan is compared to Cruyff, Backenbauer, and Platini. He lacked finesse, he was a bit pedestrian... just a tiny something placed him lower than the trio mentioned. But his real handicap was not even his foul: Keegan had great season, culminated with winning the European Champions Cup. Then he moved to Hamburger SV – and lost with them the European Supercup. Unfortunately, UCC was played in the spring and the Supercup – at the end the year, when voting took place. Losing 0-6 to his former teammates was very fresh in the fickle journalistic minds. So another player got more votes at the end and he was even a bit strange choice: Allan Simonsen. The diminutive Danish dynamite was already noticed, of course. Fiery, skilful, fast winger, who scored a lot, and getting better and better.

Allan Simonsen – unlikely European Player of the Year. Simonsen won more than Platini, but less than Keegan in 1977. Playing for Denmark in those years hardly helped him – his recognition was came largely from playing for Borussia Moenchengladbach. Simonsen was pleasure to watch. He benefited by strong teammates. He was great professional, steady, fearless, dependable. He was lethal striker. He was also modest. But was he really great? Objectively, others were greater even in his time – Keegan and Platini certainly. Perhaps the best Danish player of the decade, but hardly best ever – I can name easily at least five Danes before and after Simonsen, who were at least at par with him, if not better. To a point, Simonsen was voted Player of the Year by chance: there was no overwhelming star and he simply got a few more points than his competitors. Voters obviously rejected the old venerated names – and rightly so, but here was nobody yet to step in the giant shoes of Cruyff and Beckenbauer. Uncertainty brought Simonsen to the top. Yet, it was well deserved award – Simonsen gave always his best, he had excellent season, it was not his fault that his generation was just a little less gifted than the previous one – he represented the current football, which demanded a type of player like him. Doubts and skepticism are one thing, but there is also another thing: it was delightful to see a player from unfancied country to win. Small, looking fragile, but what a heart Simonsen had!

Significant year: a new generation firmly established itself in Europe. It was a bit less convincing than the previous one.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Best in South America? There was always a bit of mystery and enchantment about it, as far as Europeans were concerned. The continent was fertile and new talent came all the time, but it was not always seen. And it was hard to figure out real merit of one player compared to the rest. Local bias plus deeply embedded journalistic fears play a role – both aspects not specifically South American, but universal. Choices can be doubted easily, for changes and recognition were and are somewhat late. But change of guard was detectable in South America – top three were two well established names and a newcomer, who was not newcomer at all, yet, clearly represented new generation of players. Elias Figueroa was voted third, although playing by now for modest Palestino (Santiago, Chile). True, he elevated the club to instant success, but... possibly votes went to him by habit too, for he was already unprecedented three times Player of the Year of the continent.

It was nice to see such a great player continuing ti keep high level of performance even when playing for smaller club and getting old.

Rivelino was voted second – he played for Fluminense by now and Fluminense was not winning. And the days of Rivelino in the national team of Brazil were nearly finished. He was also getting old and no matter how good Figueroa and Rivelino were, their was a sense that they represented yesterday's football and they were voted high not because they had particularly great season, but because of their names.

Number one was entirely different player – Zico.

The White Pele finally got recognition. Finally? He was only 24 years old. But! There were actually few 'buts': outside South America Zico was unknown quality – the world really saw him for the first time at the 1978 World Cup. Since Flamengo was not very strong so far, Zico was not exactly seen in South America either. He was known largely on print, by articles. Skepticism was fueled by the very shadow of Pele: for years Brazilians searched for the 'new Pele', and almost every year there was new discovery, quickly replaced by the next. Zico was playing since 1970 and meantime there were few others labeled 'new Pele'. It was not exactly great career so far: when compared to the King, Zico did not look all that great. He was not an instant star – he played little in 1970, then he was moved back to the juniors, then came back again, but his presence did not really make Flamengo a winning team. And he debuted in the Brazilian national team only in 1976, when he was 23 years old. Now, 23 is quite young, but the King was already World champion twice at this age, playing for unbeatable Santos, and the best player in the world. Zico seemingly failed to measure up to Pele. By far. So it looked like, yet, there was something else: football changed a lot in the 1970s, becoming much more physical. Serious training, not just talent was needed. Coaches were reluctant to include juniors in the first team – fears of failure possessed them, it was too risky, and the excuse was readily at hand: the demands of the game were too much for mere boys. Zico was considered too skinny and fragile in the 1970 and was returned to the juniors to build some muscle. Which he did, but skinny and fragile Pele was a starter back in the 1950s – so profound was the change of mentality and reality of modern football. And on top of it the South Americans misunderstood total football – they emphasized defense, discipline, and physicality, at the expense of artistry and creativity. There was no place for Zico in the 1974 World Cup Brazilian squad, for the mistaken philosophy of the time needed entirely different, even unbrazilian type of players. Coming back to the roots of Brazilian game was slow – hence, the debut of Zico was late. Mind, when he finally donned the famous yellow jersey Maradona debuted – and instantly fascinated both fans and professional observers. Objectively, the obstacles for Zico were too many – including the constant failures of Flamengo. But his time finally arrived, marking a big change: the generations of the 1960s and the early 1970s were getting too old, too old fashioned to cope with modern football, they were retiring or coming close to that. By habit, coaches and journalists depended on them, yet, it was the new generation shaping the game. It was high time for the old to step down and for good reason too: Zico was different kind of player, fit for the new football. He was physically strong, yet very skilful. Great passer and great goalscorer, constantly in motion. And his work ethic was something else – he was very disciplined player, very conscious, very different of the classic South American star. He combined European professionalism with South American artistry. There was no way his qualities to be ignored – new generation stepped in. Recognition came from very high place as well – from the King himself: Pele said that Zico was the closest to his style.
Pele and the White Pele posing together in 1979 with Flamengo jerseys. The King and his heir – Zico had rough beginning, but what a player he was!