Yesteryear’s Target Men

Gunnar Nordahl
Gunnar Nordahl

Do any of you feel like things used to be magical when we were young and crazy? Yeah, all the old fellows I meet in the pub before game day talk about their college days and how they partied harder than Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Wahlberg. I have that feeling when I watch football these days as I don’t see a classic number 10. I don’t see the great strikers of the 90s. I want to convey what I feel to the newer kids just for the kick of it.

I know football has evolved greatly; pace, physique meshed into every single aspect of the game. Cristianos, Drogbas, Boatengs (debatable) will be dominating the field, physical beasts who would be able to dish out punishment at high rate in the final third. I know big strikers with no nonsense attitude existed before my time. Natural gifts were valued before parity in conditioning was achieved in football. I know I am underselling their technical and all round footballing abilities; call it being nostalgic or being old.

A striker I always wanted to watch was Gunnar Nordahl who clearly showed how dominating you can become when a great footballing brain is molded into a Greek god like frame, a mighty Swede who scored 210 goals in 257 games. His goals highlights shows what a physical, fast, menacing and professional striker he was. He was just a beast who dominated for Milan.

I already went off track on this subject, so I am planing to write a series on a couple of strikers who are special in their own way and whom I have watched while growing up. Its neither a ranking nor an exhaustive list. I could be very far from the truth on every single striker bar one and you are more than welcome to chip in with some suggestions. If any of you want to add their favorite strikers into the list you are more than welcome.

1. Tip of The Spear: Super Pippo

He is master class in movement, he is the one guy who will push the envelope to its limit, flirting with offside consistently. My commentator for my dismay utters “he was born offside” – Alex Ferguson’s comment – every single day. He was supremely intelligent and developed a knack for decisive movements. When I watch the game I only see Pippo scoring and his open mouth celebration. I couldn’t figure out what that dude was doing until I watched the replay. Stretch the defense to its limit, exploit the match ups. Every number 10s friend, every overrated long ball specialists’ dream and fans love him because he makes the stadium erupt. He is crazy effective with solid side kicks, he can score something special even on his death bed. Oh well, last time I heard his scoring exploits off the field was out of the world.

He reminds me of Baresi’s quote on himself as to how he was able to maintain his standard for a long time, “I think better than others”. Similar to that, Inzaghi’s career was built on intelligence, experience and sheer determination. He is adored by Milan fans not because he had a great career but because those moments he created from nothing will be cherished forever. The 2007 Champions League final win was needed to complete Pippo Inzaghi.

He may not be the greatest in this list but his instincts and movement made him unforgettable. He was injured for most of his Milan career and he only had one or two standout years where he smacked goals top and bottom but like I mentioned, overall stats don’t define Mister Inzaghi. I am not even a big Pippo fan, I was heavily annoyed by his injury prone career, his frustrating offsides and his productivity in later years but he was a special player.

Somehow he is compatible with every other player who is not an out and out striker like him. Pippo eats up competition; as mentioned in Ancelotti’s biography, Pippo and Del Piero had their falling out. The only time I saw Pippo take a mentoring role was in spring 2009 with Pato and one Huntelaar 5 minute cameo at the end with Catania, he moved in and out of the box and thus created an opportunity for the younger striker.

He was exquisite with kaka, seedorf and rui costa because all three of them loved the center lane creating so much space for Mr. Offside to stay onside. I want to pay a better homage than this but everybody knows about Inzaghi especially in the Milan realm. You can go also go through a couple of articles on this blog and outside of it to get a feeling for it.

To conclude, Inzaghi was a highly intelligent, cunning, compatible, selfish, passionate, persistent big game player for Milan who produced magic. I see so many quotes on Facebook but I think this one fits right here: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.” (Hilary Cooper)

Above cartoon courtesy of waiting-mockingbird.

Seedorf – A Trophy Collector Who Could Have Been A Midfield Icon

I have been very much intrigued and disappointed by one of the most respected names in European football, Sir Clareance Seedorf. Yeah, he got knighted last month for his on and off the field achievements. Seedorf has been playing for Milan for more than a decade and he rarely missed a game due to injury, a physical phenomenon that collected the highest number of caps for the Diavoli among the non Italian category.

Whenever he is shown on TV commentators scream about his 4 CLs with three different teams achievement. Fair enough, he won them but there is more than what meets the eye. He is one player who had every single characteristic of a great midfielder. When he was at his peak he had power, strength, footballing brain,  every inch of his body is filled with footballing skill, he can play joga bonito or your scrappy midfield game, he’s versatile and can instantly fit any system. If an alien recommend me a body to create/adapt/evolve a new generation football player I will surely put Seedorf at the top of the list.

Seedorf Lotto Ad

But the irony is that if my young nephew asked me about the greatest midfielder I ever saw or loved, without any hesitation I would say Zidane or scream Rui Manuel César Costa again and again because he made me cry. With all his qualities Seedorf doesn’t make me sit on the edge every single moment when he is on the field even though he is very much capable of doing that. Ah football of the 90s I miss you.

Seedorf was a young prodigy at the great school of Ajax FC where he won a CL title in 1995 against us and got transferred to Real Madrid via Sampdoria where he feasted on a couple of league titles and another Champions League. I don’t have much thoughts on his days as a Blanco and I wouldn’t comment on it except that he won a lot yet he is not considered anything there. Then he transferred to Inter Milan, endured a not so good time at blue side of Milan and finally in 2002 he became a Milanista. Under Carlo Ancelotti he was a part of that great squad, one of the most versatile and greatest teams of the last decade, a formidable defense boasting some of the greatest names in football history, with Dida, an attacking force of Sheva, Pippo and Crespo. But the real strength was that beastly, godly, aesthetic midfield because it was adorned with two supreme number 10s: Rui Costa (at his twilight) and Seedorf, Kaka, class A destroyer Gattuso, solid Ambrosini, lightning wingback Serginho and a technically gifted Pirlo who was castled in deep midfield and could distribute the ball in his heyday as well as anybody (I am not a fan of Pirlo because he hasn’t done anything worthwhile after opponents started chasing him out of his comfort zone). That team was built to fight on any terrain against any opponent, anytime.

Sadly, we underachieved a lot and I still hold some grudge towards our former coach big Carlo; such a nice man but he lacked that killer instinct to unleash reign of fire on anything and everything in Europe. I don’t want to be ungrateful for 2 Champions Leagues and one Scudetto at a time when it was infested by the Juve – Inter court referee duel, but a dropped CL in 2005, the Deportivo debacle and Europa League doesn’t make make me too happy. I digressed from the original subject, but you can’t blame me because I was always enchanted by that team.

So here is Seedorf, who seems to play decent football when we are in the semis or finals of a major championship. Some call him a Big Game player; others, like me think ‘it’s about time Clarence, it’s about time’. If you follow him day in and day out like me or the Curva Sud you know how bad, frustrating and infuriating he can be all year long, lacking mobility, dedication or intention to stamp his authority on the game. I was never angrier than when he was the laziest player in that infamous Maldini farewell game against Roma. For a player who wears number 10 and starts every single game for one of the greatest clubs, he has been mediocre to hapless week in and week out for many campaigns.

But there is this aspect of him which is known only to us Milanista’s and which is so unique in this guy. Push him to the limit and he will deliver, as soon as he sniffs a title he goes for the jugular. In the 2007 CL semifinal against Bayern Munich he combined well with Kaka to bring us closer to our 7th Champions League. When Ronaldinho was brought to Milan, Seedorf wasn’t the indispensable partner of Kaka anymore so what does he do? Play a screamer of game against Inter in the derby in Pirlo’s role, where he adapted and excelled like a true star. When asked about his completion with Ronaldinho, he claimed he is much more of a central midfielder. After he fought back for his starting position when Dinho was out nursing a knee injury we started to see the usual Slowdorf back in games.

Seedorf Schooling Cambiasso
Seedorf Schooling Cambiasso

He is one player who has kept his place even with so much transition in the coaching position. Ancelotti loved him, Pirlo and him were his boys. Carlo overlooked their mistakes and burned Gourcuff for them, after all the coach won titles with them. Then came our caretaker coach, Leonardo, who had a rough time with Zambrotta and Gattuso but Seedorf the charmer was still unquestioned. Then the field marshal (ahahha) Allegri was given command to bring trophies, who is the coach with the lowest bias, who favors consistency and hard work over anything. Seedorf had a tough time regaining his starting position, but he managed it well. Being his last year of contract, he stepped up big time in the final half of the season and made up for the disastrous first leg against Spurs with a resounding second leg. But it was not good enough for another CL run. That was the day we saw the rise of the majestic Dorf. He started to be one of the influential players in midfield, he surprised me with his dogged performance and ability of holding the ball even under heavy pressure, a few effective tricks here and there, wily through balls and free kicks. He became one of the creative outlets of this solid Milan midfield. With every passing week he started gaining respect and love from Milanistas. Milan fans are so fickle at adoring their heroes; one good game and everything is forgiven, even the skeptic like me is thrilled and pumped up after his strong showing although I know a contract form him means more of that inconsistent Seedorf. But I hope he leaves Milan as a hero or we resign him at a lower wage and keep him on the very edge. He recently poked Milan for not assuring him another two year contract. Aah Seedorf, you are such an interesting player.

I never mentioned that Clarence is too old (around 35) and we never had enough cover to provide him some rest and it’s not his fault that he starts 30 odd games every year and he is bound to have many bad games at this time of his career. These are valid points but the fact of the matter is that he rarely plays with conviction. He is a mix of a champion and a culprit and he has complete control on whom to summon and when. Champion summoning usually happens when he is near some personal (contract / starting line-up) or team (Champions League / final half of the season only if you are top of the table) glory. He is a man who doesn’t settle for mediocrity (according to the Clareance standard), like CL qualification, farewell games, cutting down the lead of the opponent. He is capable of playing great games unlike many other yesteryear heroes such as Andrea Pirlo who works 10x more than Seedorf yet italian is not capable of putting up a show against tough opponents, able to stamp his authority on a game or entitled to the world master or controller or a hard game. Pirlo has digressed into a sniper who is able to deliver few lethal shots once in a while and the team should make them count. Seedorf can take the game by the scruff of the neck to unleash a masterful show whenever he wants. I think he has figured out everything; he wants trophies and to keep playing and anyone or anything that comes in his way will be shown who he is (like the lioness when somebody attacks the cubs). He will even take a pounding to prove that point. A great player who could have been the greatest, but I am delighted to have him at least this year because he has been so good.

Maybe I am writing this post to reduce the guilt I have for ridiculing him day in and day out for all those sub par performances but when great memories are revisited he will always be remembered for the part he played and that evergreen blissful smile.

Seedorf Smiling
Seedorf Smiling - Courtesy UEFA

One thing I have to admire is his statesman like demeanor (except for kicking water bottles when he was subbed for Pato in 2008 – see what I did there). He always calms agitated players: Gattuso screaming at Poulsen, Gattuso having a go at Pato. Always there to talk with officials, mediating or soothing a highly volatile situation.

The man commands respect for his character. I see him as a Milan director in the future if he doesn’t run for UEFA, FIFA or the US presidential role. Thanks Seedorf for all those bittersweet memories. I will not forget you. Have a great future, I will not miss you as a player but I will surely miss your smile.

Mark Van Bommel – A Dutch Tank With An Italian Philosophy

Mark van Bommel
Mark van Bommel

Mark van Bommel brings extreme reactions from every single football fan. His critics have mostly been those on the receiving end of things, while his supporters have close ties with the teams he has played for – PSV, Barcelona, Bayern, the Dutch national team, and now Milan. For the rest of the world he is a thug or a disgrace for the sport which might have stemmed from the analysis of Sky pundits having a direct impact on the fan base in south East Asia and India. So this is a post dedicated to all the fans that enjoy continental football and its diverse style. I hope you folks stop for a minute and read this without any bias.

Milan has been struggling for a long time in midfield, even though we have a battalion of defensive midfielders who pack a lot of aggression but with little tenacity. With the shrewd business of gold tie Mr. Galliani, we brought a world class anchor in place of technically gifted but physically frail Pirlo. I am not a big fan of Andrea and Ancelotti’s deep lying midfield position covered by aggressive midfielders, but I will leave that topic for some other day. Milan’s policy of bringing in old washed up champions may look very cheap and pathetic from outside but I am all for hard working, dedicated professionals – regardless of age – who add some value to the starting line-up. Over the years this has given me the opportunity to admire, watch and like some world class players whom otherwise would have gone unnoticed in my book. For example Stam and Beckham who hail from Manchester United, a club that brings the absolute worst in me in footballing philosophy. Then there was the ever smiling Cafu who joined us at the ripe age of 34 and played for some good years. So I was very much excited for MvB’s transfer especially when our most consistent player of the past couple of years, captain Ambrosini, was sidelined for rest of the season, leaving Flamini, Gattuso and Strasser for the job.

Flamini was not ready to give up his EPL style and as large as Gattuso’s heart might be he can’t compensate for his small stature, which plays a huge role in the aerial game as an anchor. He is an aggressive ground soldier and excels in that role, there is no point in retraining an old pitbull. So we were looking for an Ambrosini type of player and from out nowhere on the last day of the winter mercato our vice president brings in the captain of Bavaria, who in the past year has captained his teams to both a Champion League and World Cup final and without a shadow of a doubt was the most important player of those teams. So what conclusion should I draw? A Dutch team dragged to final by an anti-footballer; he achieved something similar to the great Cryuff. I am not naive to compare an absolute football master to MvB but you cannot ignore his effectiveness for your prejudice.

When he came and played a few games I realized how good he was. He is a leader of men, who tries to impose his will on the game and like a true traffic police man directs the flow with so much authority. His best act is the legendary stop sign – when he puts that up no opponent moves. If they have the testicular fortitude for violating that rule they end up paying some hefty fine in the form of a clean tackle, bruised ankle, a shoulder push or maybe a red card for Milan. With two godlike but mild CB’s, there wasn’t enough aggression towards the opposite number 10 trying to breach our defense, but with the coming of MvB, I can sleep peacefully knowing that we won’t concede unless the Boss personally thinks otherwise (see games against Palermo and Bari).

People following him since his Barcelona or Eindhoven days say he doesn’t do anything special these days and that he is simply the van Bommel of yesteryear, but I decided to watch his performances with zero animosity. So I am enjoying this phase of the Scudetto race, a solid defense protected by an insane destroyer, the Boss, and the entire thing masterminded by a prudent Italian tactician. Like every championship team we are building from the back and we sure have a hell of a war head with Cassano, Ibrahimovic, Pato, and Robinho. So we only need a set of technical CMF’s (Pirlo and Seedorf have served Milan well over the years, but it’s time for some fresh blood) to finish the entire product and we are ready to rumble again.

Van Bommel is a very likable man within his teams’ fans. You should see the affection crowds showed him when he danced with the German title in Munich. He never talks or does anything detrimental in training or off the pitch; all his tactics or dark art revolve around winning another inch for the team, by any means necessary to defend the flag, or in the voice of English commentators he is a lionhearted player who is willing to fight ’till death. He is a master in reading the game, having won 7 titles in the Netherlands, Spain and Germany and being now on the verge of conquering another one in the peninsula. He has some coaching badges and his prowess is on display in a live game while he is instructing/guiding inexperienced players. His ability to pick Antonini or Abate from way deep shows he is not just a physical player, he is ready to move forward and control the tempo of the game according to the situation (and he has a bomb of a right foot, which can be unleashed against any team but we Milan for some unknown reason never ever rely on a long ranger). The media is the one who created this image which is costing Milan a lot of cards because he is getting booked for normal fouls. His reputation precedes him in Serie A, not as a champion but as a bulldozer.

For a tough man he does have a true heart. He is loyal to the teams he’s played for and he is so instinctive with his passion. As an example, he showed his Barcelona heart when Madrid was dumped by him in the 2006 CL campaign. He cried like a baby when Bayern sold him to Milan and he feels like home in Milanello thanks to his promptness to learn and adjust along with the family atmosphere in our dressing room, which is under no imminent turmoil even though we pack some of the most volatile elements in the game.

I think it’s time to test the limits by bringing Balotelli. People often compare MvB to Materazzi because they experience the beautiful game through commentary. You should watch the games once in a while without bombastic and over the top biased reviewers. Materazzi is a butcher whose aim is to hurt an opponent regardless of footballing advantage. The Dutch master brings in every single trick in the book to gain advantage which only coincides with the state of play. He is a true professional and plays for his employer. For example, his tough tackling game against Messi and Wesley Sniejder (his ex team mates) show he might be friends with them but that friendship ends when you cross that white line and you don our jersey, an admirable quality.

Every single player who played with him or against him applauds his importance. Ibrahimovic (who you might remember had an altercation with the Dutch skipper) said he is a player I would hate to play against and welcomed him to Milan. Sneijder who was man handled in the derby begged him to join the blue part of Milan. This is a kind of signing Milan needed to help us in the Champions League and gives an opportunity to further groom young Strasser in that role. An experienced leader on the field and a gentleman off the field, with absolute knowledge of the game is a perfect fit in the cynical and tactical world of Calcio. He is not going to hang here as deadwood, he will perform at his best until he can and most probably play as a mentor in the future or leave us to his native place.

With that said, there are a few limitations. His mobility is not world class but far better in his age bracket and when compared to the existing champion senators in Milan. He has to get more adjusted to this team as he has conceded a few goals with Milan showing some communication breakdown while defending in the box.

In conclusion, if you look at him closely without any premonition about his game or style you might witness a master at his very best, reading the game, breaking the opponents’ play, passing the ball to players pushing forward and guiding the troops under extreme pressure. Immovable object with a fair sense of attacking game, I’m in love with him. A true great who oozes Italian style of play (substance over style). I am a self proclaimed samba fan boy but when you witness complete players you can’t stop yourself from admiring them. Complete players with the least of limitations is a dying breed in today’s era. I might think so because I personally rate the football of the last decade any day ahead of the physical play of today.

Thanks to: The Red & Black Forums – for admiring the Boss over their personal hate for the love of Milan, to Cristina who proof read the article and restructured it to something nice (which originated as an incoherent rambling) and to a bunch of DM lovers from Brazil and Scotland. Finally to all the fanboys and fangirls of Boss like fara/sage/wild/fiero/congo.

Video by Cristina.