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As the eleventh player in this series, the best number 11 (though he played with 7 as well) seems only appropriate. Apart from that, his name is appropriate. So is the moment.

"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars - the rest I just squandered." His most famous quote. Not coincidentally Best does not talk about football. Best was a great football player, but even more famous because of the way he chose to live his life.

Some people call George Best the best player in the world. This is off course not correct. Perhaps he could have been, as he was certainly one of the most gifted players that ever played the game. Best – subconsciously? – decided that there is more to life. He only played football at a high level for hardly more than 6 years. Which is 6 more than most of us get, but not enough to rate him as high as Pele, Cruijff and Maradona.

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Watching Best play the game was like watching art. A great dribbler, he was the best winger of his days. People went to the stadium, just to see him. The ball seemed glued to his shoe. On the British Isles he was something different. He was an attraction. This last feat seemed to have been the start of his downfall as well. He acquired the nickname ‘The fifth Beatle”, his long hair and his succession of groupies confirmed his new status.

The booze and women took over his life. He missed trainings, even matches. In 1974 Manchester United sacked him. A decade of playing for smaller clubs followed. Best was above any law, did whatever he felt he wanted to do and played football in between that. Best who loved football so much (as a child he slept with a football for years running), now saw football only as a means of staying famous. The man who won the European Cup for Manchester United in 1968 now scored more often off the pitch. Again he managed to be unique. Four Miss Worlds and several other beauty contest winners ended up in a bed with the star.

After he retired the alcohol seemed to be the most consistent factor in his life. A jail sentence for drunk driving, a succession of problems with women, even a new liver, nothing could stop him from drinking. Obviously nobody, not even godly George Best can cope with a life like that for long. Yesterday he passed away at age 59.

The typical George Best story I remember best is about a world cup qualifying match in Rotterdam. The Dutch needed a win to qualify for the Argentina World Cup. The week before the match they had a scout in the UK to watch the only possible threat from their next opponents. The scout saw an overweight has been, who hardly moved and seemed more concerned with the after match night out on the town with the lads. He told the Dutch not to worry about Best. The Wednesday after that, George Best was man of the match. He single-handedly gave the Dutch such a hard time that a team with Cruijff, Van Hanegem and Neeskens were happy with a 2-2 draw at home against minnows Northern Ireland.
gerbie: (Footy)
My football heroes (10), Franco Baresi

I wasn’t really aware of him until the Dutch stars moved to Milan. Obviously I knew his name. Knew he played for Milan and Italy, but as a young boy Spanish and English football are much more exciting than Italian football. Spanish teams attack, English teams fight, Italian teams defend. The world is simple at age 12, especially when the brilliant Brazilian team gets knocked out of the World Cup by Italy.

5 years later I am getting older, see more nuances and got to see the art of the game. Apart from that I moved from winger via central midfield to sweeper in those 5 years myself. This means that I was playing the same position as Baresi. There were more similarities: I wore the same shirt as him, as my club played in red and black since 90 years as well and I also liked to be the start of the attack, not just another defender who stopped the opposition.

When Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard started at Milan, the team suddenly got fashionable. This meant that every week Dutch television showed their matches in a time when foreign football was still exotic and European matches were still a highlight once every few Wednesdays. The Milan team played a great attacking game, something very un-Italian, the influence of the Dutch players was immediately visible. Yet however important the Dutch threesome were, the true leader of the team was their number six. The playmaker coming from his own defence. The character with his old face, yet such a young spirit.

Everything was right about him. His rushes from behind were great to watch and always a threat for the opposition. His defence was up to scratch. Italian efficiency, yet never the hateful violence like Vierchowod and Bergomi. He looked like a forty year old veteran, yet he was still in his twenties. He was the leader of the team, yet never aspired the media attention and stardom several of his team mates (Gullit, Donadoni, Evani) loved. His durability at Milan, in a time when 4 years at the same club could get you a memorial and 10 years meant you had the stands named after you.

I tried to play like Baresi at my level. By the time I entered the senior ranks several managers didn’t dare play me at sweeper though. Why play a 19 year old there, even if he should play there, if you can put a 30 year old veteran at that position. I was back up front or in midfield. At 21 I played several matches at sweeper again, played them well even. We beat some well paid amateurs from Germany in a friendly; we avoided relegation with me leading the defence. Yet it lasted until age 24 before I had a regular spot there. I played my best season. We barely missed promotion, I was the only one to play every single match that season and I felt at ease in a team that appreciated my style of play.

Summer 1996 I worked in Italy. I saw Milan play bad against Verona in their first league match of the season. It was the match everyone remembered for the goal Weah scored picking up the ball in his own box and crossing the whole field. I was happy to see my first ever Italian match, even happier that it had been such a memorable one, but sad my hero wasn’t on the pitch. I bought an illegal replica shirt outside the stadium for 20.000 lire. Up until then everyone at my club recognised me for wearing old T-shirts and ugly sweaters. I was surrounded with Feyenoord, Ajax and several English shirts twice every week. I didn’t do adoration. Yet I bought this Baresi shirt and wore it several times as well. He retired a year later and the club gave him a goodbye that will not easily be forgotten. The first football player to have his shirt retired, nobody at Milan will ever wear his number 6 anymore.

The only player I really admired and tried to emulate retired in 1997, after 18 years of top football for his club and his country. Many will remember him for the missed penalty kick against Brazil in the world cup final; I will remember him for being the greatest sweeper of my time.
gerbie: (Footy)
My football heroes (9), Diego Armando Maradona

My first memory is the World Cup 1982 in Spain. I must have seen him before that, as I lived football in those days, in a rematch of the 1978 World Cup final, sometime in 1979. Some Dutch player, I believe Johnny Rep, still has the number 10 jersey at home, knowing in advance that he had played against a truly great player. During that 1982 world cup Maradona was due to help the team to another title, in the same time proving that Menotti made a mistake to leave the 17 year old youngster out of the squad that did win the title at home, glorified by the military junta at the time.

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gerbie: (Footy)
My Football Heroes: Felix Magath (8)

Growing up near the German border in the days before cable television meant watching German Bundesliga every Saturday at 6 o’clock. This is how I learned to speak German. Football players from Germany are usually not the ones that do attract large crowds. For every Netzer and Beckenbauer there are dozens of Briegels, Matthaeuses and Kahns. And I was too young to enjoy those two. In his final playing days though, Beckenbauer ended up at Hamburg, where the local HSV was a major European force guided by Ernst Happel.

Playmaker of that team was an old fashioned number 10. Pass the ball to him and you’d know in advance that he’d do something good with it. Nowadays players like this hardly exist anymore, as their walking ratio was usually way below average. Yet they decided how the team played, they directed the game, they were the heart of the team as opposed the lungs like many midfield player in these days.

The number 10 of HSV was at his best in the early eighties. With Kaltz as wing defender who attacked as well, Beckenbauer as central defender, Stein in goal and Horst Hrubesh as a typical German centre forward who couldn’t play, but did score. Felix Magath was the brain of that team tough. His passes were magnificent, his ability to read the game unequalled in those days. In 1983 he scored the only goal in the European Cup Final in Athens, thus leading his team to a 1-0 victory over Juventus.

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In the German team he was never as big as he was with HSV. Off course he managed to win a lot of caps, yet stars from other clubs didn’t accept him, like everyone up north seemed to do. In the World Cup final of 1986 he was on the pitch, when the German coach decided to change things around. When he saw the sign with number 10, he knew it was time to go. Afterwards in an interview he won me over for ever: “I saw the sign with number 10 so I looked at Maradona. When he didn’t move, I knew it had to me who had to leave the pitch.” Excuse me German friends, but you are not known for your sense of humour. Magath does have one though, which is even more admirable when you think of the moment: just after losing a world cup final.

Magath retired and became a football manager. Again he managed to become very good. He turned things around at every club he managed. This week he signed to become the next manager at Bayern Munchen. Every hero has the right to one mistake…
gerbie: (beach bum)
He arrived in 1958 at Dynamo Kiev. As a player he won 1 title of the Soviet Union. He played on the left wing. A position that always produces players that people come to stadiums for. His fame came as a coach though. Give or take a few years away at other clubs in the Soviet Union and some spells grabbing dollars in some Arabic countries, Dynamo Kiev was his club for nearly 5 decades.

The first limelight for the club was in the mid-seventies. Oleg Blochin a big star, the first team from Eastern Europe to win the European cup. Lobanovski was the coach. He sat on the bench like most Russian coaches did: quietly, no emotions visible, cigarette always there. His work was during the week. Using computer programmes before most people even knew what a computer was, he knew that when a team makes between 15 and 18% mistakes, they cannot lose. He made the players train all standard situations, when at most teams elsewhere in the world a special training meant a heavy drinking session for the players.

The second great team he created was in the mid eighties. I remember watching that team. Demjanenko, Michaelitsjenko, Zavarov and Belanov were stars in a team that seemed computer programmed, but also left room for individual creativity. The old Blochin still played sometimes. According to a lot of experts their win against Atletico Madrid (3-0) in the European Cup final in 1986 was one of the best performances ever from a team.

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As a second job Lobanovski coached the national team. I was stunned when I read the Soviet selection for the WC 1986 in Mexico. He took 12 players from Dynamo Kiev. As a boy I couldn’t grasp the idea of someone not good enough to play for Kiev, yet still better than almost all other players in that huge country. The Soviets surprised the world during the first round of that world cup. Somehow they managed to lose against Belgium in the next round though. They would have been worthy opponents to Argentina with Maradona in the final. That same team made the final of the Euro88 tournament, but lost to the Dutch, a team they had beaten in the group stage earlier that month. They lost.

After that year, most players left for Europe, for the top teams, for the money. Lobanovski was disappointed and also left the Soviet Union. Only a couple of years later he returned to Kiev. Richer, but not happier, he couldn’t live anywhere but his hometown. Now the capital of an independent Ukraine, he started building for a third great team. Again he managed. I was in Spain in 1996 when I saw Barcelona being trashed by a team of no-names. The then very young Shevtsjenko was another product of the school of Lobanovski. Again he had managed to build a team that was feared throughout Europe. The semi finals in the Champions league were the endpoint for this team. His double function was back as well, but the national team of the Ukraine never became great.

Lobanovski by then was an old man. The smoking and probably a reasonable amount of vodka weren’t really good for his health. An operation to his brain turned out to be too much. On the 13th of May 2002 he became a coach in a different world.
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My football Heroes (6), Stanley Menzo

It was Cruijff who told him to go out and make mistakes. He had played a handful of games for Ajax before, sat on the bench for a while, was on loan at Haarlem and back on the bench. Then Cruijff took over at Ajax and decided that Menzo was his man in goal from then on. The big master needed a goalie that could play like a sweeper, apart from stopping the occasional ball with his hands. The rules changed, a pass back at the goalie couldn't be picked up anymore. A goalie needed to be a good football player as well. Ajax plays the game on the opposition's half, there is a big gap between defenders and the keeper.

Menzo made mistakes in his early days in goal, but Cruijff was satisfied with his new goalie. The whole country made fun of him, but he stayed in goal and became better. He was the first black keeper at top level. The Netherlands always have had their share of black players. Small and fast strikers like Roy and Vanenburg, strong and big athletes who could have excelled in any sport like Rijkaard and Gullit. But Menzo was the first goalie who made it. After his initial problems he soon turned out to be a star in goal. Next to that he did play as an extra sweeper and showed his skill. His team mates said that he could have been a pro as a player as well, second division at least.

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If you're good and a regular at Ajax, you automatically end up in the national team. The thing is, with goalkeepers, a change doesn't happen very soon. So even though then national goalie Van Breukelen had a bad spell, he remained in goal. Menzo was the third goalie on big tournaments but didn't get a break until Van Breukelen retired from international play.

Menzo was not a big success in the national team. At Ajax he sometimes made huge mistakes, but the strikers usually made up for that. In the national team he was the insecure youngster from a few years ago again, even though he had already won a European cup. It was Advocaat who slashed him and brought Ed de Goey. Not as brilliant, but also not as accident prone. Soon afterwards he made some terrible mistakes at Ajax as well; especially Auxerre will be forever on his mind. The new coach Van Gaal decided a young tall goalkeeper was better than him and the career of Van der Sar started.

Menzo was transferred to PSV, rivals in the Netherlands, but on the look for an experienced international man in goal. Again he was confronted with Advocaat. Again the little bold coach put him on the bench. His career seemed filled with bad luck. Wherever he played, supporters considered it funny to throw banana's on the pitch. He lost a friend, the second goalie of Ajax, in the air crash disaster of Paramaribo. He decided to become a pilot. Face the facts. He left PSV for Belgium and became a star there, gaining a transfer to Bordeaux. At the end of his career he went back to Ajax, to become the experienced bencher. An injury stopped him from playing again at his favourite club. We would never again see the goalie with the bright coloured shirts. Wrong, he started at amateur level and gained the national Amateur championship with AGOVV. There he took over as a coach. From a young inexperienced boy under Cruijff, who ran towards any ball between the defence and the midfield circle, to a quiet and experienced pro who leads a team of semi-pro wannabes. Life can be strange sometimes.
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I’m proud to have witnessed his debut for Ajax. It was a shocker. Up until then Ajax had brought in several Danish youngster, always the same type: Small and quick. My dad took me and some others to Amsterdam at the beginning of the season, the Amsterdam tournament, we are talking 1982 here. 4 teams, so 2 matches for the price of one. First we made fun of FC Köln, who parked their bus near gate SS (will those Germans never learn?) and saw them play a boring match against AZ’67, then a European top team. Luckily during that match the Spurs came sitting exactly next to us on the stands, great opportunity for me to do some signature hunting. My pen broke after two of the reserves; I never got Hoddle and Clemence to sign.

A bit later Ajax had to play Tottenham. In midfield a big man, 18 years old only, but playing like a midfield star with an international career behind him. Molby became another product of the famous Ajax academy. Plenty of skill, brilliant passing and always on the right spot. He was still young and it was difficult to find his position. Should he be the attacking sweeper, typical for the Ajax system, or is he an outright midfield player? Next to that are his problems with the coach Aad de Mos. At one point the coach finds his towel in the bath. He takes revenge and throws all Molby’s clothes in the bath as well, thinking it was the big Dane who did it. After that he had to run, starkers, through the corridors to avoid being attacked by the midfield star. At Amsterdam he learned the trade of betting. Sweet revenge was the 1000 guilders he won of aforementioned De Mos, after his suitcase arrived first on the luggage conveyer belt after an European match. De Mos was sure he would win; he hadn’t told Molby that he had four suitcases.

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Already capped by Denmark at age 20 he was transferred to Liverpool. Within a few years he became more Liverpudlian than most of his team-mates. He never learned proper English, he only speaks Scouse. Worse was that in the UK he learned that betting is a way of life. He and Ian Rush would go to the races, with the Welsh striker providing the knowledge of horses, while Molby was always willing to gamble. He completely adapts to British football culture, i.e. learns how to drink for hours. This doesn’t help him keeping his figure. His breasts were the most lovely to be seen in red, until Pamela Anderson appeared in Baywatch.

On the pitch he made an impression. He was in the Liverpool squad that won the double in the Eighties. He was part of the team during the Heysel disaster, but also played at Hillsborough, after the tragedy there. Personal tragedy came when he tried to drive away when the police tried to stop him. The dozen pints he had had that afternoon didn’t do too well in court. He ended in jail.

Through all that misery he was a regular at Anfield for a decade or so. He was the playmaker in a team that was way ahead of their time, certainly in England. I once read a column about him, about him knowing how to ‘read’ a match. Imagine a goal mound scramble. Instead of joining he walked to a quiet place on the pitch, with several people on the stands wandering where the Dane went to. Suddenly the ball is cleared, exactly to where he was standing. From there he opens the play and starts another attack. No luck, he proved it time and time again. Pure intelligence. Molby was the midfield director. Sure, he was big, therefore not very fast. His weight problems didn’t help; the opposition’s fans always knew where the pies had gone. But his lack of speed was easily compensated by his skill. He is a fast thinker and handles the ball fast as well. Let the others do the running.

Then in the mid nineties his career is over. He becomes a player-manager at Swansea, later just the manager. In his first full season the team improves significantly, which is not surprising, even as a player Molby was someone who always coached his team. After just missing promotion, the season after that was less successful. No money, players leaving and he got sacked halfway through the season.

Nowadays I think he is coaching somewhere in the conference. The strange no-man’s-land in between professional and amateur football. I miss players like him, who combine skill with a great sense of humour. Who live on, but also off the pitch.
gerbie: (Default)
Football heroes (4) - Rob de Wit

I remember the exact moment I predicted him a great future. We were on our way to the football training, just past the lemonade factory, a bit more to go, three of us on a bike. We were discussing the Dutch national team. Because of an injury they called Rob de Wit, left winger of the under 21 team who were still trying to qualify for some major tournament themselves. I remember my exact words: Should he come up as a substitute, the under-21 will never see him again.

Only a year before he was transferred from his hometown Utrecht to Ajax, where he had to become the next Jesper Olsen. His first season wasn't brilliant, but once in a while he showed that he had all skill to become a big star. At Ajax he was one of three young players from Utrecht, together with Van Basten and Vanenburg.

Rob de Wit did come up as a substitute that evening. Hungary away, they had already qualified for Mexico '86, the Dutch needed a win desperately, though in the first half did not create one single opportunity. A creative winger was urgently needed. De Wit came up, tried a few things and halfway in the second half made the goal that to me is still the best goal I have ever seen anybody make in an Orange shirt. Remember, I have seen Van Basten score against the Soviet Union in the euro '88 final. De Wit got the ball on the left wing, starts a dribble coming in from wide. With one great movement he crossed through the whole defence, in between two defenders, entering the box with the ball glued to his left foot. Alone before the goalie he threatens to shoot, fooling the goalie, waiting for the goalie to fall and then chips the ball over him into the net. 0-1 and the Dutch won the game.

They qualified for a play off against Belgium. Playing with ten men they lost 1-0 in Brussels and needed a win at home. Still our national coach, the famous Beenhakker, is too chicken to play De Wit from the start. At half time he comes up, has an assist and scores himself, the Dutch are 2-0 up. Single handedly he makes the Dutch team go to the World Cup in Mexico. Remember this is a team that already has Koeman, Rijkaard, Van 't Schip, Vanenburg, Gullit, Kieft and even Van Basten on it. They needed the brutal little winger from Utrecht to make it back to the world cup, where the real greats belong. Another coaching mistake gave the Belgians an away goal a few minutes before time. They qualify on the away goals rule and play their best tournament ever, 4th. The Dutch sit and watch at home.

Not Rob de Wit though. Summer 1986 during a game of tennis on his holiday in Spain he felt not well. He sits down and someone gets him a doctor. He had had a brain hemorrhage. Somehow he manages to remain optimistic. After recovering he wants to come back on the pitch. He gets as far as training with the group for a short while. Something goes wrong in the after treatment and he worsens again. Another year later he gets a farewell in the Meer, a full crowd is in tears as he staggers to the midfield circle.

In 1988 the Dutch win their biggest title. In the Euro 1988 tournament they beat the hosts in the semi final and then beat the Soviet union, 14 years after they lost their first final in the same stadium. They played without a left winger. They didn't have a real winger available. Started with Van 't Schip, a right winger on left, then played Koeman, a left midfield player out of position. Van Basten became a world star during that tournament, Rijkaard was the big star, Gullit was already a major hero. Rob de Wit should have been in that team.

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A decade later he lives in a small apartment in Utrecht, owns a sandwich shop. He plays football once a week with a group of friends indoors. He can't walk properly, so he is the goalie. On the other side the goalie is one of the very few survivors of the Suriname air crash a few years before. If you hear him talk, you really need to concentrate to understand what he is saying, his face looks different, time has not helped him in anyway. His son is at an age now that he starts asking questions. Apparently he does have some video material. For me that one goal would be enough. Just sit in front of the television for a whole day play that goal, rewind it and replay it. Rewind and replay it. See the defence being stunned over and over again. See him chip the ball and run away, his look as amazed as most of us at home. Watch that one goal over and over. Dream of what could have been.
gerbie: (Default)
My football heroes (3) - Ernst Happel

I never saw him play myself. In my country, his biggest victory was when he coached Feyenoord to win the European cup. They were the first Dutch team to ever win that cup, it was may 1970, and I was a mere five months old. By the time I was eight, he was asked to become the manager of the Dutch national team at the world championships in Argentina. At that age, I had picked Ajax as my favourite team, so a former Feyenoord manager was certainly not my choice. Although they missed both Cruijff and Van Hanegem, somehow the Dutch managed to get into the final, after scraping through the first round on goal difference. Argentina was awaiting them, the home team had had to bribe the Peruvians to reach the final, but were destined to win. Dictator Vidal wanted it that way. Dutch winger Van der Kerkhof was playing with a small plaster on his arm. He had done so for several matches already. Suddenly the referee told them he couldn't play. Everybody panicked, the cold war that world cup finals are had reached an extreme. The only one to stay calm was Happel. He told the referee he needed half an hour, replacing his winger would mean a change of tactics as well. He couldn't have cared less if that meant that the whole world had to wait for the final to start. Obviously then Van der Kerkhof was entitled to play. It didn't help. Again the Dutch struggled at the final hurdle.

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Happel was telling a lie as well. He was known for his silences, his speeches were famously short. A famous quote of him is "Kein geloel, fussballen", which means something like 'forget the crap, just play'. He was a big hit at most clubs he worked on. Won European cups with several teams from different countries. Although he hardly communicated, he had the respect of all stars he ever worked with. I love the story about the training ground where some players challenged him. He had an easy solution to prove his skill. Someone had to put a little soda bottle on top of the goal. Then he'd take a ball, put it at 20 meters away and hit the bottle, first attempt. Without saying one single word he would turn around and walk off the pitch. Point taken.

I started appreciating him in his last years as a coach. It had taken me a while to realise how great he was. I found out that he was one of the best players of the famous Austrian generation of so called wonder boys. In the late eighties he moved back to his country and coached the national team. He had cancer, but refused to retire. He even continued his abundant lifestyle, nobody ever saw him without a cigarette. Wine and whiskey were his best friends. But thanks to the deadly disease for the first time in his life, he looked vulnerable. Today it is exactly 10 years ago that he died. 14th of November 1992 Ernst Happel, one of the greatest coached in the history of football lost his battle with cancer. A Dutch poet wrote a poem about him that described him at his best. I can't say it any better, hence the translation:


nichts los
hij verloor in een casino
twintigduizend dollar
maar zei dat hij ze gewonnen had

hij werd ontslagen in spanje
maar zei dat hij ontslag had genomen

hij was ongeneeslijk ziek
maar zei dat het een virusje was

hij ging dood
we zullen hem binnenkort
dus wel weer ergens tegenkomen

no problem

he lost in a casino
twenty thousand dollar
though said he had won them

he got fired in spain
though said he had resigned

he had an incurable disease
though said it was just a little virus

he died
so soon we will
bump into him somewhere
gerbie: (Default)
De Kuip Rotterdam, 1983. A small fragile left winger receives the ball in midfield and starts a dribble. Even then, wingers were getting rare, so the crowd sits up straight to see what will happen. Not in delighted anticipation, as the winger plays in blue, against their home team, Feyenoord. He chooses the path in between two players, of which one tries to tackle him. Him, not the ball, but he had anticipated this move and easily slides past that first tackle. A defender awaits him. Big, wide defender. Fearless. He'll show the little boy what real men do with boys. At least that's what he thinks. He is not fast enough, still tries to kick the cheeky little sod. He misses.

It is a rainy afternoon, the pitch resembles a recently ploughed field as much as a football field. The midfielder is still chasing the winger and decides that brutal force is necessary. Though he feels the hit, he manages to stand up, straight is not possible. The last defender thinks he can take advantage of the sudden imbalance of the striker, but is also too late. The red card rule for fouling someone with a clear path to the goal hadn't been introduced yet, so he becomes the fourth Feyenoord player to try to foul my hero. None of them had a chance of even reaching the ball, none of them manage to get him down either. Still, the last move made it complicated for him to get to the ball before Joop Hiele, Dutch national goalie is there. Hiele is nearing the ball at full pace, but surprisingly is beaten as well. Jesper Olsen is past him, a bit too far to the left, heading for the corner and makes the difficult turn. He scores for Ajax.

The game ends in 2-2, the goal will forever be in my memory. I was 13, sat in front of the television that night and wanted to be a winger, just like Olsen. Ajax had a talent for spotting young Danish players in those days, they all had skill, they all had the flair that Ajax players need and adapted soon to the Dutch life, speaking the language within a few months, soon even better than most local players who never learned to speak anything but the local Amsterdam dialect. A year later Olsen leads Ajax to one of the best victories over their arch rivals Feyenoord. A young Van Basten scored three times against the Rotterdam team, with Johan Cruyff, trying to take revenge on the Amsterdam club that didn't want him anymore. However, the leader of the team that beat Feyenoord 8-2 was Jesper Olsen.

Soon after he left for Manchester united, a childhood dream come true. He played there for a few seasons, though never left the impression he did in Amsterdam. Manchester had to be my favourite English team for a while. Until Olsen retired that was.

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The world will always remember Olsen as the man who brought the downfall to the golden generation of Danish players on their first world championship participation, Mexico 1986. He passed back to their goalie, but hadn't seen Butragueno, who scored the first of his four goals en route to a 6-1 trashing in the eighth finals. My memory of that tournament is a different one. In the first two matches of the group stage, both Germany and Denmark had won, against Uruguay and some other team I can't remember. The last match was not important, as both of them had qualified for the knock out phase anyway. Still the Danes were in great shape and wanted the world to know. They got a penalty kick and Olsen, who I can't remember taking any penalties at Ajax nor Manchester, picked up the ball. The German goalie Harald "Toni" Schumacher was waiting for him. One of the best goalies in the world. Olsen sends him to the right corner and puts the ball terribly slow into the open left corner. In my mind the ball went so slow, it never even reached the net. Had Schumacher realised this he could have stood up from his corner and still stop the ball. He didn't obviously, Jesper knew this would happen. One of the best penalties I have seen in my life.
gerbie: (uluru)
An interview I saw on television tonight helped me to start writing a new series, I had in mind anyway. My football heroes. Some great players, some lesser known. Players that are forgotten or are still in the limelight. One thing that they all have in common. At some point in their careers, they managed to convince me that they are different from the rest. Therefore, this will not be odes to Ronaldo, Zidane or Pele, but anecdotes, stories or memories about the players that gave or still give football colour.

Football Heroes (1): Kirsten Nygaard

In the end of the seventies AZ'67 (nowadays just AZ) started building on a team that became a national top team. They won a cup in 1978, guided by Wim van Hanegem, the best Dutch player ever, if it wasn't for that one other. Next to him on the midfield was a Danish number 10, a classical playmaker. He took over when Van Hanegem left. AZ'67 played 4-4-2, something that Dutch teams never seemed to do. They had three great strikers, but only two of them could play, they stuck to their system.

In the season 1980-1981 they won the title, only losing once in the process. Six games before the end of the season they were already unreachable for the rest. Since the mid-sixties, no team from outside the big three had managed to win the Dutch league. Since then, none has. So AZ'67 has done something unique, the only team to beat the big three in the last 35 years. Next to that, they reached the UEFA-cup final, in which they lost to Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town. Another small provincial team to be big, is it a coincidence?

The playmaker in the championship team was Kirsten Nygaard. Great left foot, good long distance shot, wonderful passes to the two strikers, he was an old fashioned number 10. Which was also the age I had in those days. I used to play complete matches with playmobil and a marble, having labelled the players with names of well-known stars. Although AZ'67 certainly wasn't my favourite team, already at that age I recognised a great star.

The following season was the big sell out. The owners of the club were disappointed by low attendances and sold several key players. Nygaard left to Nimes, perhaps not a top team, but certainly a lovely climate. He played for a few seasons before retiring. He became a golf-pro and made a nice living, staying in the south of France. In the mid-nineties disaster struck. Driving from Denmark all the way to France, he had a car accident in which a big iron stick not only went straight through his front window, but also through his skull. He was in coma for 2 months.

Somehow, he recovered, though obviously he has some visible damage from the whole story. Tonight I saw him being interviewed. Although he speaks like somebody who has (had) brain damage, he still is fluent in Dutch, a language he probably hasn't spoken much for over 20 years. I was well impressed. He told a good story. Four years ago, the world cup was in France. Nygaard has plenty of time, basically doesn't do much but watch football. The WC in the country you live in, is a major event. But it takes a lot of energy, which is not good for his health, he still has epileptic fits sometimes. The day after the final, his wife finds him lying on the bathroom floor. "Did you watch some football games?" the doctor asked him. He admitted to having watched a few. "You shouldn't, it is bad for you", is the medical advice he gets. He laughs when he tells the story. "It is all I do nowadays", he says, "I watch every game I can".
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