Rubén Sosa – Uruguay’s Little Prince, a Poet of the Goal

Uruguay are without Luis Suárez – their star striker – for the entire duration of Copa 2015 due to a disciplinary ban. They probably wish they had someone like El Principito to fall back upon! Debojyoti Chakraborty recalls one of the Copa heroes of Uruguay for Goalden Times. You can read the other stories of the ‘Copa America’ series here.

 
 
How do you describe the greatest moment in a professional footballer’s career? Scoring the winning goal against a European giant in one of the most elite cup competitions at the mere age of 20? Being crowned the kings of Europe almost a decade later with another European powerhouse? Winning another top European league in another two years? Or winning two Copa titles for your country? None of these probably apply to you if you are Rubén Sosa, because you would rather spend time with youngsters teaching them the tricks of your trade.

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Rubén Sosa Arzaiz was born on April 25, 1966 in Piedras Blancas, a suburb in Montevideo. He was born to play football, and was a class apart from a very tender age. So, even though he started working at a poultry to support his family—he had 10 siblings , the perfect number for organizing a football match—he went on to become a part of one of the best quarries in Uruguay and South America, the Danubio, when he was only 15. He recalls his foundation days with a great deal of gratitude: “The Danube provides everyone with an excellent training facility. It takes great care of youngsters who are raring to go. In fact, even if you’re old, you do have conditions to make you feel like a debutant.”
 
Sosa was drafted into the national side quite early in his career. It was on his national duty against Argentina that Avelino Chaves, then a technical secretary team member of Real Zaragoza, spotted the canny left footed youngster and wasted no time in signing him in 1984. In Sosa’s own words: “I was about to leave for England that week when Zaragoza approached me. I did not hesitate. I went there on a Sunday and Monday I signed. I found some great people, a leadership that protected me because they knew I was still a child. Avelino Chaves was like my dad in Zaragoza, he talked to me, soothed me, and encouraged me. I would like to thank all members of staff, especially Pedro Herrera, I was ‘adopted’ as his younger brother, and Cedrún, with whom I still have some contact. “(1)
 
The move paid off almost immediately as he clinched the Copa del Rey in 1986, scoring in the final against FC Barcelona at Vicente Calderon. It was 35 minutes when the referee awarded a free kick about 25 meters away from the goal for a foul on “The Little Prince” (Sosa was called so in Uruguay as Enzo Francéscoli was referred to as “The Prince”). As Sosa put it: “I did not think that the defender hit me to break my leg. I was lucky because the ball hit the wall, I think (it was) Pichi Alonso and misled the goalkeeper. It was great, and time to start the party. We were the Cup Champions!!!” This was truly a memorable event for the club, which had last tasted success in 1966 (when Sosa was barely a month old)!
 
His achievements did not go unnoticed as the pocket striker, nicknamed Sosita, “El Principito” or Peter (of Peter Pan fame) for his small stature (a skinny lad with a height of 1.72 m) was selected to the national side for the Copa 1987. This was no mean feat as Uruguay was a very strong side then. Being the defending champions, Uruguay entered the competition at the semifinal stage. Sosa started the match—and the subsequent final—and made his presence felt in a title winning campaign. His name started doing rounds with another legend of that era, Enzo Francéscoli.

Uruguay champion of América (1987 *again in only 1 country: Argentina) Standing: E. Pereira, Obdulio Trasante, N. Gutiérrez, José Perdomo, José Pintos, Alfonso Domínguez. Kneeling: A. Alzamendi, Gustavo Matosas, P. Bengoechea, E. Francescoli, Rubén Sosa.
Enzo Francescoli and Rubén Sosa together in the Uruguay team photo of 1987 Copa America

With his short stature, tapered legs and stocky, overstuffed torso, Sosa looked like anyone but an athlete. That, as we all know, was an illusion—especially for the defenders who dared to ignore him due to his appearance. He was, in fact, one of the swiftest sprinters with sudden outbursts of speed that left his markers dumbfounded. How such a stiff and top-heavy person could transform into such an act of balanced grace still remains a mystery. He was forever ready to skim over a cushion of air. Sosa is best remembered for his image of speeding down the left wing, with his trunk slightly forward, his head erect, like a trotter racing down the homestretch.

Sosa was more than a prolific striker—he was a true showman. He had earned nicknames like “The Poet of the Goal” and “Speedy Gonzalez” for his craftsmanship. He would never shy away from deft-flicks, a bullet header, or a 30-metre toe-poker. He is best-remembered for his spectacular efforts and thunderous free kicks. Most of his goals came from moves beginning at midfield or just inside the half-line. He scarcely has an easy goal to his name. He was not a typical no. 9 or goal poacher who would be playing on the shoulder of the last defender. Rather, he was a complete forward who could shoot or volley from a distance, dribble or provide assists for others, and move deeper and create space for others to exploit. It is no coincidence that he was one of the most sought-after strikers in Europe, much like today’s Luis Suárez.
 
On a personal front, Sosa had a very satisfying Copa 1989. He finished with four goals, and won the Silver Boot. Uruguay started the final match against Brazil—tied on points as well as on goal difference and goals scored—aiming to clinch a third consecutive Copa title. However, a certain Romário had other plans, as Brazil won the match 1-0 through his winning goal and lifted the trophy after a gap of 40 years. Sosa’s mesmerizing display, though, did not go unnoticed as the man dwarfed stalwarts like Diego Maradona, Romário, Bebeto (Golden Boot winner) and Francéscoli to be awarded the Best Player of the Tournament.
 

Sosa’s mesmerizing display, though, did not go unnoticed as the man dwarfed stalwarts like Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, Romário, Bebeto (Golden Boot winner) and Francéscoli to be awarded the Best Player of the Tournament.

 
Comparison with a certain Maradona was inevitable in that era. True, Sosa did not have the three-dimensional genius and creativity of Maradona. However, he made up for that with his eagerness to create openings with the ball at his feet. He did demonstrate two very different sets of skills en route to demolishing Argentina 2-0 in the final round. In the 38th minute, Sosa benefited from an error from an Argentine defender. He intercepted a back pass intended for the onrushing goalkeeper Nery Pumpido in the penalty area. Sosa, with the ball in his left foot, rounded Pumpido with ease and slotted the ball in an empty net with his right. But, if the first goal was all about awareness and lazy elegance, his second in the 81st minute was about raw pace, body strength, and composure. Sosa got the ball near touchline in his own half, and everyone who thought that he was too far from the goalpost was about to be proved wrong. “Speedy Gonzalez” ran with the ball hogging the touchline— effortlessly beating his marker in speed. Midway in the “La Albiceleste” half, he started coming inside and shrugged off the shoulder charge from his second marker. By this time, he was inside the penalty area and Pumpido had narrowed down the angle. However, Sosa flicked the ball with his left toe inside the far post with amazing composure while still running in full throttle. The goal went unnoticed in most part of the world due to the lack of live coverage at that time, but the Latin American media went ga ga over it. It was, indeed a great goal, as proven by the fact that it was referred to and compared with Gareth Bale’s wonder solo effort last year against Barcelona.
 
Sosa went to the World Cup 1990, his only ever World Cup, with high hopes. Unfortunately, the tournament was a disappointing one for him. He failed to score a goal, got himself booked, missed a penalty against Spain in the group stages and by the time the knock outs came, “El Principito” found himself relegated to the reserve bench. Uruguay did not fare well either and exited from the round of 16.
 
By this time Sosa had moved on to Italy, first to Lazio—where he became the top scorer for them in 1991-92 — and then to Inter. Sosa made a name for himself in Serie A amongst stars like Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, and Lothar Matthäus. He reached the pinnacle of his club career at Inter as he led the goal charts for the club in two consecutive seasons, rounding it off with a UEFA Cup in 1994. However, for some strange reason, he was overlooked for the Copa campaigns during this period. The results were as expected—Uruguay crashed out of the group stages in 1991 and barely managed to scrape through to the quarter finals in 1993.

Sosa made a name for himself in Serie A amongst stars like Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, and Lothar Matthäus. He reached the pinnacle of his club career at Inter as he led the goal charts for the club in two consecutive seasons, rounding it off with a UEFA Cup in 1994.

Naturally, Sosa was called back for the 1995 Copa. But injury and loss of form has diminished his utility by this time. He was a bits-and-pieces player and could not manage a full 90 minutes in any of the games he featured in. He had lost his regular number 11 shirt and was donning a more squad player’s number 20 jersey. In fact, he was left out entirely of the crucial semifinal and final matches. But Francéscoli’s brilliance and a golden ball-winning performance ensured Sosa got his second Copa winner’s medal.
 
Sosa never played for the national team after 1995. In Europe too his time was up after a couple of injury-laden seasons with Borussia Dortmund. The club won the Bundesliga during this time, and Sosa received another silverware in his third European country. Sosa was, however, far from done. He tied his shoelaces to fulfill his dreams and joined his boyhood favorite club, Nacional. At Nacional, Sosa won the Uruguayan League in 1998, 2000, and 2001—himself being the top scorer of the Uruguay Championship in 1998 and the Copa Libertadores in 1999—becoming a fan favourite.

phoca_thumb_l_ruben sosa - campeon clausura 1998 copa
Sosa : The favorite son of Nacional

Life was not always a hunky dory affair for the “Little Prince” as the temptation of a fat paycheck brought him to play for Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese League in 2002. Everything looked perfect as Shanghai won the Chinese Jia-A League title in 2003, but ten years later, the club was stripped of the title for match fixing.
 
Sosa did not stay long in China. He returned to Nacional in 2004 as an assistant coach, and immediately helped the team win the league title in 2005. He is still an assistant coach in the youth club, where he gives a master class in goal scoring to the young forwards. Besides, he just set up his own football school three years ago. “It’s called ‘Joy, joy’, is in Carrasco (a neighborhood in the east of Montevideo) and the name is what has always defined me. Children come from many parts of Montevideo and I teach them to play football. This is what fills my life, always linked to football.”
 
Seems like Sosa has found his peace, and it lies in spending time with kids. He does not want to graduate to a head-coaching job because, as he freely admitted, he is too impetuous for the role. He is still a popular figure and can be found in the streets of Uruguay, stopping by to sign autographs and talking to people about football. After all, he will always be remembered as their “Little Prince”.
 
(1) Interview excerpts translated from www. futbol.as.com
 
 

Best of Times… Worst of Times…

It once was the greatest football league in the world. Currently, it is struggling to remain a meaningful European league. But that doesn’t lessen the intrigues and excitement of Serie A. We, at Goalden Times, would be covering Serie A in some detail. Here, Debopam Roy presents the second part of his preview of the league starting on 31st August.

In our earlier piece on Serie A, we  had talked about how Italian football, with underperforming clubs and a lack of a federation head or a national manager, had probably reached its nadir. Things have changed—but whether they are for better or for worse is a matter of perspective. The tint of your glasses will determine how you see the present. For the old boys club, in the forefront of which are Adriano Galliani of Milan and Claudio Lotito of Lazio, it is a time to revel. This is because the 71-year-old Carlo Tavecchio has become the new president of FIGC. That Mr. Tavecchio had referred to foreign players as “banana eaters” who steal local player’s livelihood and had made sexist derogatory remarks about female footballers in 2009 seemed incidental. It was a decision made by 63.63 percent of Italian club presidents (those who ultimately voted for Tavecchio) which made a mockery of the rest of the world’s views on the man.

New Picture

It was not as smooth as it was supposed to be.  Demetrio Albertini, the sole opponent of Tavecchio, was backed by Juventus and Roma. For a while, it seemed as if more clubs would follow, as Tavecchio’s “Opti Poba” remarks had created a furore even in the FIFA headquarters. But there were key desertions as the election neared. While club Presidents of Sassuolo stayed true to their objection of Tavecchio, the Presidents of Cesena, Atalanta, Palermo, and Cagliari made about turns after pledging their support for Albertini. In the end, it all became more about objecting to Tavecchio than pushing for Albertini. Tavecchio’s opponents weren’t rallying behind Albertini. Rather, they were rallying behind the idea of opposing Tavecchio. Such a movement is never strong and, sure enough, it disintegrated soon.

The voting delegation comprised 278 representatives from Serie A, Serie B, the Lega Pro, the Amateur League, the Players’ Association, the Coaches’ Association and the Referees’ Association. The only suspense was how soon Tavecchio would be elected and it was surprising that he took three rounds of it.

Winning Requirement

Tavecchio

Albertini

Round of Voting

75% of votes

60.2%

35.46%

Round 1

66% of votes

63.18%

34.07%

Round 2

50% +1 of votes

63.63%

33.95%

Round 3

After being elected, however, Tavecchio was gracious enough to acknowledge his detractors, “I will be a president for everybody and especially for those who have legitimately expressed their dissent about me taking the job”. His first job as President was to choose the national team manager which had been vacant since Cesare Prandelli’s unexpected resignation.

When Prandelli had resigned, the only credible candidates to fill his shoes were Roberto Mancini and Massimiliano Allegri. These were the two Italian managers who had the experience of managing the two Milan clubs. Moreover. they were free at the time. Though numerous left-field picks were suggested, it was thought to be a straight fight between Mancini and Allegri, especially since Carlo Ancelotti, probably the best Italian manager of this generation, had taken himself out of reckoning. Within a week of the start of pre-season, however, the scenario changed completely. This was because Antonio Conte, the three time scudetto winning manager of Juventus, resigned suddenly, and Juventus, just to simplify the scenario, picked Allegri as their manager. Hence, Conte became the front runner for the position of National Manager quite some time before the President elections. Finally, when news of Conte’s appointment as the Azzurri manager arrived, it was almost anti-climactic, given the preceding turmoil in the FIGC elections.

Conte’s appointment was widely hailed as a step in right direction. The charisma of a young, three-time defending Serie A winner, who won it in his very first attempt in Serie A, is universal. According to fellow Bianconeri player and Azzurri manager, Dino Zoff, “He’s the right man to lift the Azzurri colours to the top. He can transform the Nazionale from a frog to a prince.” Former Roma legend, Azzurri teammate, and Fiorentina manager, Vincenzo Montella, described him as Serie A’s best. The man himself took it as a challenge, “I have never been afraid of challenges. I am convinced that we will succeed in picking ourselves up because Italy’s place is among the top teams in the world.” The deal, though, was quite costly. Conte supposedly has a basic salary of €4.1m, which could rise to €4.6m with bonuses. It is significant that more than half of that salary is to be paid by the sponsors— Puma—making Conte one of the highest-earning national team managers (behind other such illustrious Italian managers like Fabio Capello).

With two such different and diversifying appointments in the space of a week, Italian football is truly at a crossroad. On one hand, there is the promise of a young and successful manager who may lead the Azzurri from the disappointment of Brazil 2014. On the other hand, there is a 71-year-old racist and misogynist at the helm of the federation and it doesn’t bode well for the country’s star striker. More on Mario Balotelli and his transfer will be covered in our next installment.

We continue our previews of the Serie A 2014-15 season with details of five more teams.

Fiorentina

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La Viola has been one of those clubs which has played attractive football and steadily progressed in the last few seasons. Part of that has been down to manager, Vincenzo Montella. His vibrant and dynamic tactics have managed to extract the maximum out of his team. Shrewd transfer campaigns, which have yielded players like Borja Valero, Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Gomez, and Juan Cuadrado on the cheap, have made Fiorentina a continental contender. They finished fourth in the last two seasons, missing out on Champions League football, and it may require a huge amount of effort from the players and the staff to bridge the gap this year. However, if Rossi and Gomez remain fit, and if Cuadrado is not sold, then the Champions League may not be beyond La Viola’s reach.

Key Player: Giuseppe Rossi is probably the most talented Azzurri attacking player of his generation. Even though injuries made him miss Brazil 2014, 17 goals for Fiorentina in 24 matches last season was a great comeback. Viola and Azzurri fans are hoping a similar performance from him this year .

Breakout Star: Mario Gomez is an unlikely choice for a breakout star. But with his pedigree, it’s a disappointment when there are only 4 goals in 15 official matches. Injuries have also added to his woes. However, if he remains injury free, Serie A might get its new Super Mario this year.

Key Transfer In: Marko Marin is one of those under-the-radar transfers (on loan from Chelsea) that Fiorentina specialises in. Pushed out of Chelsea due to other high profile signings, this could be the ideal platform for Marko to shine.

Genoa

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Every year, Genoa generally manages to buy a clutch of players who are just below the highest level, and then tries and manages a mid table with them. However, every year, the project gets disbanded and another new batch arrives. Last season saw them struggle a lot and ultimately finishing 12 points above relegation. This year, with some shrewd moves—Diego Perotti from Sevilla, Alessandro Matri from Milan, and Iago Falque from Tottenham, they may mount a challenge for the top half. However, significant departures like Alberto Gilardino, Sime Vrsaljko, and Bosco Jankovic may also pull them back. But it is more likely that they will see an encore of last year.

Key Player: Mattia Perin was the third goalkeeper in Cesare Prandelli’s world cup squad. The player has matured quite a lot and, based on this season’s performance, could move to one of the big clubs of Serie A. His saves would be vital for Genoa to remain competitive in matches.

Breakout Star: Andrea Bertolacci has been earmarked as a great talent, and he has served notice of the same with performances. What is expected, however, is consistency. He had a great 2012–13 season but didn’t follow it up with the same brilliance in 2013–14. Season 2014–15 might be the year when he finally blossoms.

Key Transfer In: Alessandro Matri struggled badly last season at Milan. The Milan youth product returned to Milan for 11 million Euro from Juventus, but hardly bothered any opposition goalkeeper. His lone stint at Fiorentina was marginally better. Genoa will offer him a chance to show that he still has the skills for something great.

Internazionale

 

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The Nerazzurri have been in a rebuilding ever since their treble winning season of 2010—so much so that, since then, the club has had only a single domestic trophy (Coppa Italia next year). The club has been sold off to Erick Thohir.  However, the performances have not been top notch under the new management, and there has not been any heavy investment either. There have been notable acquisitions this season but no splashing. Most of the signings are under the radar, but smart players as Yann M’Vila, Gary Medel, and Nemanja Vidic can all add to the squad. However, there is no single player who could be counted amongst the world’s best. Promising players like Mauro Icardi and Mateo Kovacic will have to up their game if Inter are to get Champions League spots. The team, though, still looks short of the best, and it will be a major achievement if they finish within the top three.

Key Player: Hernanes didn’t feature much during a disappointing World Cup campaign, but remains the most creative midfield outlet for the Nerazzurri. If he recreates his Lazio form, the goals and assists should drive his team up.

Breakout Star: Mateo Kovacic remains the brightest spark in Inter’s midfield. Bought for 15 million Euro from Dinamo Zagreb, he has had moderate success in Italy. If he fulfils his wonderkid status, Inter will surely have a memorable season.

Key Transfer In: Nemanja Vidic is among the three defensive cast-offs from EPL that have joined Serie A this year. However, unlike Ashley Cole or Patrice Evra, Vidic’s deal was done in January, proving that Inter had planned this well in advance. He will provide the defensive leadership and solidity that is needed after the retirement of Javier Zanetti and the release of Walter Samuel.

Juventus

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Three-time Serie A champions were in superb form, and it all seemed poised for their fourth consecutive title. And then, Antonio Conte, the man who managed those three title-winning seasons, resigned one day into the pre-season. Max Allegri was possibly the most unlikely choice as his replacement, given his Milan history, which included him being only the second manager to be dismissed mid-season in the Berlusconi era. But The Old Lady has chosen to go with the pragmatism of Allegri over other candidates. The sale of Arturo Vidal was arguably the other soap opera plaguing Juventus fans. That the sale has not happened yet seems to indicate it not happening this season as a sale at this juncture would leave Juventus with very little time to get a replacement of a similar level. If Vidal stays, then the fabric of the last three title winning teams remains intact. With inclusions like Alvaro Morata and Romulo , Juventus may safely remain the best bet for a fourth consecutive scudetto.

Key Player: Arturo Vidal is simply the soul of this Juventus team. With the largest number of tackles and the largest number of interceptions in Serie A, Vidal brings another level of dynamism to the bianconeri midfield.

Breakout Star: Kingsley Coman arrived on a free transfer from PSG, and, at 18, is touted as the next Bianconeri midfield star after Vidal and Paul Pogba. Coman is the reason that Juventus can even think of a possible sale of one of those two players.  Making his debut at 16 in Ligue 1, the 18-year-old Coman has already represented the French U21 teams and could make his senior debut soon. He might take a bit to adjust to Serie A, but with the likes of Pogba around to help him acclimatize, he may provide instant hits.

Key Transfer In: Alvaro Morata is the big transfer that Juventus did from Real Madrid for 20 million Euro and seems to be the future of Juventus’ attack line after Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. Being 21 years old, he is expected to lead the line for years to come.

Lazio

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Lazio had an underwhelming season and finished ninth last year. This was after a couple of promising seasons when they had played regular European football. The Coppa Italia win of 2012–13, too, wasn’t repeated. Vladimir Petkovic had to pay the price, and a short stint by Edoardo Reja later, the reins are currently with Stefano Pioli. Pioli has managed multiple Serie A teams without ever being in charge of one of the top ones. He is known for a pragmatic style of play, and Lazio needs to exploit its full potential to finish in the European places. Their transfer season has been spiced up by the arrivals of Marco Parolo, Filip Djordjevic and Stefan de Vrij. The team still depends on the creative outlet of Antonio Candreva and the goalscoring feats of Miroslav Klose. The season would be considered a success if they finish in the top 6, but reality might push them further down.

Key Player: Antonio Candreva was the most valuable contributor for Lazio last season, with 12 goals and 9 assists in Seria A. He will have to continue being in such form for Lazio to get into the Champions League spots.

Breakout Star: Keita Balde Diao is a 19-year-old Lazio youth product who has scored 6 goals and provided 9 assists in his first senior season in Serie A and Europa League matches. The powerful Senegal-born Spanish forward is touted for bigger and better things, and this may be the season when he establishes himself as a first team regular.

Key Transfer In: Stefan de Vrij was one of the unheralded heroes of the Dutch team that finished third at Brazil 2014, though his performance elicited interest from the likes of Manchester United. The 22-year-old ex-Feyenoord star is another smart investment, who can be an asset for years to come. He scored 4 goals and provided an assist in his last season with Feyenoord, while getting only a single yellow card in 32 matches in Eredivisie. Lazio may have finally found a player to live up to the legend of Alessandro Nesta.

UEFA Europa League Preview

The Europa League is ready to take off for the 2012-13 season and promises to be more competitive than ever. Riddhi Ray Chaudhuri previews where the teams stand at the beginning of the tournament and how they are going to perform

The second tier tournament of European club football is ready to kick-off the 2012-13 season. Although this tournament is no match to the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League brings a much wider spectrum of clubs on display from across Europe. For the so-called less-fancied clubs, this tournament is a stepping stone towards a bigger glory while for the more popular clubs, this is a poor man’s European tournament. Interestingly, this season will see a higher number of high profile clubs, who are generally more accustomed to playing in UCL, to compete like Internazionale, Lyon, Marseille, Liverpool, etc. A total of 48 clubs will be participating in group stage that have been divided in 12 groups with top two teams from each group qualifying for the next round, they will be joined by eight more teams from UCL group stage. Let’s take a look at the groups and the corresponding teams to preview how things may shape up after six match-days.

 

GROUP A

   Liverpool            FC Anzhi Makhachkala            FC Udinese Calcio          BSC Young Boys

None of the four teams are likely to be very happy with the group they are in. Although Young Boys and Anzhi are comparatively in much better positions in their respective domestic leagues, they know that they have their task cut out against their more illustrious opponents. In recent times, Anzhi have been in the news more because of their spending spree rather than their on-field actions. Getting Guus Hiddink on board has been a major appointment by Anzhi and it goes without saying that a club under the stewardship of Hiddink can never be taken lightly. Young Boys, coached by former Swiss footballer Martin Rueda, will be a very competitive side especially at home backed by their home support. On paper they may lack the names to excite but at the same time, they have nothing to lose and can easily cause one or two surprises. Although the European pedigree of Liverpool cannot be matched by rest of the three teams, in the last few years the performance of the club has gone backwards. It has been compounded by the poor start to the new season (worst in 50 years). With Brendon Rodgers being appointed as the new manager, normally it will take time for Liverpool to hit any sort of form. So with trips away to potentially difficult oppositions, Liverpool have to ensure their home form is up to the mark to ensure smooth passage from the group. A crushing defeat by Juventus has left Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin with a lot to be desired. In last couple of years, Udinese has performed at consistent level irrespective of their limited resources with repeated appearances in Europe. With a hard pressing and counter-attack based side, they will be one of the initial favourites to progress from this group.

GROUP B

Atletico           Viktoria Plzeň             Academica           H.Tel Aviv

Last season’s Europa League champions, Atletico find them clubbed with relatively easier opponents. Atletico have been off to a flier this season, their Europa Super Cup victory over Chelsea has been no less than a stunner. Under club legend Diego Simeone, they have developed as quite a fascinating side. They are lethal in attack and very formidable in other parts of the pitch; it goes without saying that they will be the outright favourites to win Group B. It will be interesting to see who go through the group stage along with Atletico. Academica from Portugal will be participating in Europe for the first time since 1971, courtesy their Portuguese Cup victory. It remains to be seen whether they will be mere pushovers or have something exciting to offer. Hapoel from Israel’s Tel Aviv are a team that have seen a lot of changes both on and off the pitch in recent times. Under new manager Nitzan Shirazi, they are a side in transition. If Hapoel can match their 2009-10 season’s performance in Europa League when they qualified from the group, they will be content with that. Viktoria Plzeň will be the side that will have better chances to go through to the round of 32 along with Atletico. Pavel Vrba has been in charge of the team for the last four seasons and it has helped the Plzeň based club to have a settled team. In 2011-12 they finished third in the group stage of Champions League and qualified for the knock-out round of Europa League – their best performance in Europe so far. This time they will be hoping to build on that and go further in the Europa League.

GROUP C

Olympique de Marseille          Fenerbahçe           AEL Limassol         Borussia Mönchengladbach FC

Group C will be a very hard one to predict. All the four teams have a competitive squad that can give a run for their money to any other team and against each other they have to dig deep in order to proceed to the next round. Marseille and Fenerbahçe are seasoned campaigners in Europe, they generally shuttle between UCL and Europa League every season. After their debacle in domestic league last season, Marseille have just flown off the block this season winning all of their first four matches. They have been solid in those matches in every department and with a squad that is playing together for quite a long time, they will be confident of their chances in the group. Fenerbahçe too have had a good start in the Turkish Süper Lig. They must have felt hard done by their failure to qualify for UCL group stage and Europa League will be their chance to redeem. The team have strengthened over the summer with addition of experienced players. They too would be raring to go. AEL, the Cypriot club have been living a dream since last season. Under Pambos Christodoulou (nicknamed Pambourinho for his managerial resemblance to Mourinho), they won the domestic league last season after 44 years and were very close to qualifying for the group stage of UCL. It will be interesting to see whether they can replicate what APOEL did last season. Although resources are a constraint for them, they can overcome that with their exuberance. Borussia Mönchengladbach has been the underdog team who caught imaginations last season in Bundesliga. They will be hoping to continue that form and build on it. Like the rest of the teams in the group, they too were ousted in the UCL play-off round and will have to be content with Europa League. Although there have been some chop and changes in the team, the backbone remains the same. Their manager, Lucien Favre will try to prepare his team to see off challenges from the rest of the contenders and make it to the next round.

GROUP D

Bordeaux             Newcastle United               Club Brugge              Maritimo

Apparently Group D appears to be a straightforward one. Belgium club Brugge and Maritimo from Portugal haven’t been able to make their marks in European stage in spite of being regular qualifiers from their respective countries in recent years. Brugge have started their season reasonably well but at the same time, Belgian league and Europe are different ball games. Emulating last season’s performance, when they qualified from group stage, will be their primary target. After repeated attempts in qualifying and play-off stage, Maritimo has moved on to group stage this season for the first time in their history. However, achieving something spectacular seems a bit away from their reach currently. Newcastle United’s resurgence under Alan Perdew has been quite exceptional in the last season. Intelligent signings and making the team play according to its strength has led the tyneside club back to European folds. With a very balanced squad, they will be eager to get back to their glory days. However, balancing both European and domestic front will be a challenge for them. Bordeaux have fallen from grace after departure of Laurent Blanc under whom they have been quite spectacular. At the same time, they lost quite a few star players in the process, which have left them severely depleted. Under Eric Bédouet, they are trying to find their feet. A good run in Europe can be the shot in the arm for them although that will require a Herculean effort from the team. Along with Newcastle, Bordeaux seems to be the safe bet to go to next round at this moment.

GROUP E

VFB Stuttgart          FC København             Steaua București               Molde FK

Group E has Molde, Stuttgart, Steaua from Bucharest and FC København pitched against each other. Four mediocre teams will have to slog it out between themselves to decide who will go through to the next round. Former Manchester United favourite, Ole Solskjær with his Midas touch has guided Molde to their first ever domestic title in their centenary year. However, they haven’t been able to make most of their opportunities in UCL and now they will try their luck in Europa League. Whether Solskjær can script another fairy tale with his team remains to be seen. Courtesy of their sixth place finish in Bundesliga, Stuttgart qualified for Europa league this season. However, expecting anything spectacular from them would be a tough ask. A bad start in their domestic league has compounded their problems and a crushing defeat by Bayern Munich has left them in disarray. Coping with the demands of Europa League will be a big test for them. FC København have enjoyed quite a good amount of success in recent years. They would want to follow that up with another good run this season. Under new coach, they have started well in the Danish league and will be the team to watch out for in this group. Steaua are familiar with Europa league group stage, having been a regular participant for the last few seasons. So they will try to use all their experience to get over other teams. Backed by their strong start in domestic Liga I, they will be hoping to get over to the next round.

GROUP F

AIK Solna                       FC Dnipro               PSV Eindhoven             Napoli

Group F will see two clear favourites, PSV and Napoli, facing the underdog sides AIK Solna from Sweden and Ukrainian side Dnipro. Napoli have made a terrific start to the current Serie A campaign, winning all three of their opening games. Going forward, they have been one of the most exciting sides in Europe over the last year. Last season they enjoyed a remarkable phase in Europe and they would like to reach the same level this year too. PSV have been rejuvenated under the vastly experienced Dick Advocaat. The start of the season has seen them clinching the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Johan Cruijff Shield) and winning the Europa League qualifier with a record margin. With a rich array of talents in their squad, PSV faithful will be hoping for an extended run in Europe this time. The clashes between these two sides would definitely excite football fans. Dnipro and AIK would have to be at their very best if they wish to gain anything from the group. This will be AIK’s first participation in Europa League group stage. AIK are approaching the end of their domestic campaign where they have a good chance of winning the title. So they would need to balance both fronts carefully to not miss out the chances of good results. Dnipro too have a have good start to their domestic campaign. However, a good run in the group stage is difficult to perceive against such strong opponents. With limited squad strength, manager Juade Ramos will find it difficult to get going.

GROUP G

FC Basel                  Videoton           K.R.C. Genk            Sporting CP

Group G will see last season’s Europa League semi-finalist Sporting Lisbon competing against FC Basel, Videoton from Hungary and Belgium club Genk. All these teams have gone through managerial changes in recent times. So, without much experience in Europe, these managers’ credentials would be put to the testnow. Paulo Sousa has been able to overhaul Videoton to an extent and he would certainly want to continue with the good work. They have made a good start to the new season which includes winning the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) and qualifying for the Europa League group stage after three rounds of qualification. So if these are signs of things to come, the club can be hopeful of good results in this tournament. Basel stunned everyone last season after eliminating Manchester United and qualifying for the knock-out stage. However, the start to the new season hasn’t been quite according to plan for their manager Heiko Vogel in his first full season at helm. They could not repeat last season’s heroics in UCL and were eliminated in the play-offs. In Swiss League, which they have won for the last three seasons, they are yet to find their rhythm. So they must put things in perspective before the group stage starts. Genk too hasn’t had a good start to the season. They may fancy their chances in Group G but before that, they have to vastly improve their performance. A leaky defence has been their problem, which they must rectify. However, their relatively good performance in UCL last year will give their manager, Mario Been confidence ahead of their Europa League journey. Start to the new season for Sporting has been poor. After a bright start to his reign last season, things haven’t been according to plan for Ricardo Sá Pinto this season. They have been winless in their first three matches and thus must turn things around quickly to kick-start their season. However, a talented squad will give the manager confidence to qualify from the group stage.

GROUP H

Inter                       Partizan                  Neftchi               Rubin Kazan

Group H will have one of Europe’s top clubs and UCL 2010 champion Inter Milan playing against Rubin Kazan, Partizan of Serbia and European debutants Neftchi from Azerbaijan. It is really difficult to see anyone else other than Inter to top the group. With the experience they have in their squad, it would be very hard for them not to qualify for next round. Under young manager Andrea Stramaccioni, they have a sound start to the season. Inter will look to put last season’s mess behind them and get back to the level where they belong. With a few intelligent signings including that of Antonio Cassano, Inter’s squad is looking quite strong. A decent show in Europe is what their fans would be demanding this time. A major concern in the group would be to which side goes the second spot. Apparently, both Rubin Kazan and Partizan would be vying for that. After their good displays in Europe over the last three seasons, Rubin can be hopeful of making it to the next round. Their start to the new season has been average, winning four games out of eight while losing the rest four. Kurban Berdyev has been in charge of Rubin for over a decade and he will have to prepare his squad for the task. Partizan created history last season when they won the Serbian League for a record five consecutive times. However, their record in Europe has not been significant. The last time they moved to knock-out stage in Europe was in 2005. So this time they would want to better that record. Their form in domestic league has been good as usual and manager Vladimir Vermezović will want his team to perform at similar level this time in Europe. Rookies Neftchi will want to enjoy their first European experience. A few surprises by them here and there couldn’t be written off.  In their qualification campaign, Neftchi eliminated APOEL, the quarter-finalists in UCL last season. So it will be wrong to ignore them and they may well be the dark horse in the group.

GROUP I

Athletic Club              AC Sparta Praha                Lyon           H.I. Kiryat Shmona

Last year’s runners-up Athletic Club from Spain will start their campaign in Group I. They would be hoping to move one step further this time and clinch their first continental title. However, things have been difficult for them at the start of the season. There has been a rift between club hierarchy and manager Marcelo Bielsa. One of their best players, Javi Martinez has left the club while star striker Fernando Llorente too wants to leave the club. Their form has been very shaky with their defence leaking in goals. The squad too lacks depth to maintain performance in both domestic league and Europe. They have to sort out these issues as quickly as possible and make sure they can repeat their heroics of last season. Athletic will be joined by Lyon from France who are also trying to regain their form on the pitch. After the departure of Claude Puel, it would be a massive task for the new manager, Rémi Garde to put the records straight. Having lost their experienced duo of Hugo Lloris and Kim Källströmover the summer, the current squad would require to rise in the hour of need. Their form in the new season has been satisfactory and it is to be seen whether they can produce the same in Europe too. Sparta Praha and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona from Israel would be the other two clubs in the group. Sparta no longer boasts the glory of yesteryears and they are now mostly limited to participating in European competition. With the more glamorous clubs luring away their talented players, Sparta lacks the strength in their squad needed to succeed in Europe. H.K. Shmona are a club that came into existence just a decade ago. But their rise to prominence in Israel domestic league has been quite spectacular. Last season they won their first domestic title and followed that up with qualifying for Europa League group stage. They would have nothing to lose, rather staging a few upsets may be on the cards.

GROUP J

Panathinaikos                 S.S. Lazio             Tottenham                    NK Maribor

Tottenham, Lazio, Maribor and Panathinaikos will compete in Group J. Although Tottenham and Lazio appear to be the teams to qualify for the next round, it won’t be wise to ignore the other two teams, Panathinaikos or Maribor. Europa League is the perfect platform for the unsung clubs to rise above their weight. Tottenham are extremely unlucky as they have to participate in Europa League despite finishing fourth in English Premier League. The club have gone for a risky gamble this season by appointing Andres Villas-Boas in place of Harry Redknapp, who was instrumental in Tottenham’s success. After some significant changes in the squad, Villas-Boas has a talented team at his disposal that should do well. AVB would fondly remember the last time he managed Porto in Europa League and would require to produce similar results to justify his billing as one of the promising managers this season. Maribor from Slovenia would be hoping for a better campaign than last season when they finished bottom of the group. But it would be quite tough for them against experienced campaigners in Europe. Panathinaikos would need to step up this time if they really want to make a mark. Off—the-field issues have affected the club’s performance in recent times; a lot of players were sold last summer to compensate financially. With a bunch of young and unproven players, manager Jesualdo Ferreira would have to make things happen. In the new season, Lazio almost found a spring in their step; they started their Serie A campaign in a spectacular manner. Under new manager Vladimir Petković, they have settled in quickly and would be hoping for a good campaign in Europe this time.

GROUP K

Metalist Kharkiv          Bayer Leverkusen         Rosenborg BK              SK Rapid Wien

Group K consists of Bayer Leverkusen, Metalist from Ukraine, Rapid Wien and Rosenborg. Rapid and Rosenborg will be returning to Europe after one year’s absence. Rosenborg’s season is approaching its end. They would be eager to make a good show this time but how far they will be successful remains to be seen. Currently they lie third in their domestic league, just one point adrift of the leaders. Replicating the same form in Europe would be a challenge for their manager, Jan Jönsson. Rapid Wien would look to continue their good home form when they start their campaign in Europe. Last time, they failed to qualify for group stage, so would surely like to better this time. Last season, Metalist from Kharkhiv had a good run in Europa League. Inspite of their limited team strength, they reached the quarter-final where they lost narrowly to Sporting Lisbon. They would like to have a similar run this time too but challenges will be tougher. Metalist coach Myron Markevych has been in charge of the team for a long time and he would definitely like to surpass his own record. Leverkusen must have felt hard done by last season’s seven-goal drubbing against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. They would look to put the record straight by a good performance in Europa this time. However, their form at the start of the season needs to improve drastically for achieving anything remarkable. After that debacle at Nou Camp, the club parted ways with Robin Dutt and have put Sami Hyypiä in the hot seat. Hyypiä’s boys have to show character if they are to prove their worth. With talent aplenty in the squad, hopefully they will come good as the tournament progresses.

GROUP L

Twente FC               Levante UD           Hannover 96            Helsinborg

The last group of the entire lot will witness four very interesting teams battle it out among them. Levante, Helsingborg, Hannover and FC Twente will be involved in Group L and it can go to the wire to decide the top two teams. Levante have been living a dream after they returned to top division two years back. With a stringent budget and lot of constraints, their achievement has been phenomenal. After finishing sixth last year in La Liga, they got the opportunity to play in Europa League play-off and they saw off Motherwell FC comfortably to qualify for group stage for the first time in their history. Although their start to the new season hasn’t been good, but their inspirational coach, Juan Ignacio Martinez (nicknamed JIM) would definitely want to put up a competitive performance. Helsinborg had to settle for Europa League group stage after they were defeated by Celtic FC in UCL play-off. Domestic form has not been good for them and in all probability, they won’t be returning to Europe next season. So they must make big of whatever chance they have this season. Hannover have been impressive in Bundesliga for the last two seasons and this season too they have started well. Last season they lost to Atletico Madrid, the champions in an evenly contested quarter-final. Manager Mirko Slomka would try to take his team further this season but for that they’ve got to qualify from this tough group. The last team in the group, FC Twente qualified for the group stage after a gruelling qualifying schedule. They have won all five matches in their domestic league this season and are sitting at the top of the table. The club supporters would be hopeful this season with the return of their iconic manager, Steve McClaren and his effect on the team has been immediate. Twente have a young and talented side that will try to go as far as possible in this season’s Europa League.

This Month in Football History – March

We look back at the most memorable happenings in the month of March in the world of Football

1 March 1921 – Jules Rimet Becomes President of FIFA

Jules Rimet never kicked a ball, but he set the game on its way to the global phenomenon that we have on our hands today. Jules Rimet became the third President of FIFA on 1 March 1921. He was one of the founder members and visionaries when FIFA was formed to bring about a world football competition.

It was on his initiative, that the first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930. The Jules Rimet Trophy was named in his honour. Rimet kept the top post at FIFA till 1954, seeing the organisation grow from a small 12-member to a massive 85 countries, and in 1956 he was even nominated for the Nobel Prize.

6 March 1902 – Real Madrid Founded

Real’s origin goes back as early as 1897 when Football Club Sky was founded by the faculty and students of Madrid’s Institución Libre de Enseñanza. But FC Sky split in three years. One half formed Club Español de Madrid, which itself split in 1902 when club president Julian Palácios left to create Sociedad Madrid FC. King Alfonso XIII conferred royal favour on the club, changing its name to Real (Spanish for royal) Madrid Club de Fútbol in 1920.

Madrid’s win over Athletic Bilbao in the 1905 Copa del Rey final landed them with their first silverware.

It has since grown to become one of the most internationally acclaimed clubs, standing currently as the richest football club, in terms of annual revenue.

9 March 1908 – Another club is founded – Inter Milan

Some players belonging to the Milan Cricket and Football Club, or AC Milan as we know it today were not too pleased with their club’s restrictions on inducting foreign players. On 9 March 1908, they thus formed their own club which they named Internazionale Milano. Inter has since become one of Italy’s most decorated clubs, with 30 national trophies, 6 European and 3 international titles.

Known as the Nerazzurri for their black and blue striped home shirts, Inter won their first scudetto in 1910. They are the only team in Italy to remain in Serie A for their entire existence.

Disapproving Inter’s policy of recruiting foreign players, the Fascist government, in 1928, forced the club to play under the name “Ambrosiana.”

Inter’s greatest period came in the 1960s under manager Helenio Herrera, when they were nicknamed “La Grande Inter” for their successes.

11 March 1898 – AC Milan Kicks Off

English lace-maker Herbert Kilpin moved to Turin to work in the textile industry in Torino. He soon became the first Englishman to play professional football abroad. In 1897 Kilpin moved to Milan. Unlike most ideas that a group of drunk men have come up with in a pub, Kilpin and his friends actually did follow through on their plan and the Milan Cricket and Football Club was born. “We will wear red and black,” said Kilpin, “Red to recall the devil; black to invoke fear.”

On 11 March 1898, the club played its first ever football match, with six Brits in the line-up: Kilpin, Hoberlin Hoode, Kurt Lies, Samuel Richard Davies, Penvhyn Liewellyn Neville and David Allison, alongside Peter Cignaghi, Lorenzo Torretta, Guido Valerio, Antonio Dubini and Attilio Formenti. The match was played on a field to the north-east of the city where the Grand Central Station now stands.

The fledgling team won the match against local rivals Mediolanum, by either 2-0 or 3-0 (reports differ).

11 March 1951 – India Win Gold Medal at Asian Games

On 11 March 1951, hosts India won the gold medal in football at the first Asian Games in New Delhi, beating Iran 1-0 in the final. It was the national team’s first piece of major silverware and part of an overall strong performance at the Games by India, who finished with 51 medals, including 15 golds.

Although eleven countries participated in the Games, only six took part in the football tournament; including Japan, who had been barred from the 1948 Summer Olympics.

India cruised through their first two matches with ease, beating Indonesia followed by Afghanistan by the same score: 3-0. Iran started with a victory over Burma in the quarter-finals, but fought two closely-contested matches against Japan in the semi-finals. Japan beat Afghanistan in the third-place game, while India took the gold with their victory over Iran.

16 March 1938 – Bomb Strikes FC Barcelona Offices

On 16 March 1938, a bomb struck the offices of FC Barcelona during a raid by Italy’s Legionary Air Force. Catalonia had kept the Nationalist forces out for quite some time but a few months later they fell. Franco and his allies were bent on ravaging the symbols of Catalonian independence. Barça were forced to remove the Catalonian flag from their crest. Barça soon transformed into ‘More than a Club’ and a symbol of anti-Nationalist sentiment. And which club did Franco support? No points for guessing.

17 March 1991 – El Diego fails Drug Test

On 17 March 1991, El Diego tested positive for cocaine after Napoli’s match against Bari. Maradona was then slapped with a 15-month ban, which brought to an end his seven-year spell in Naples.

Maradona had led Napoli to two Serie A titles, one Italian Cup, one UEFA Cup and an Italian Super Cup. But he also enjoyed the high life and made friends with members of the Giuliano family that ran the Camorra, Naples’ branch of the mafia.

Ever since his Barcelona days, Diego had used cocaine and Napoli bosses would later admit that if Maradona had not managed to stay clean in the days before a game, they would switch samples before testing was carried out.

Maradona spouted various conspiracy theories as he claimed that he had become a national anti-hero after knocking out Italy in 1990 World Cup at home.

26 March 2008 – Beckham’s Elusive Century

When Fabio Capello announced his first England squad in February 2008, there was no room for David Beckham. In the Football Association website, Capello was crisp: “I know there has been a lot of discussion about David Beckham. The reason that David is not in the squad is because he has not had any real match practice since playing in November.”

It immediately stirred up the media and pundits, the end of his career was being discussed everywhere. But not long after, Capello decided he had had enough of stringing Beckham and the nation along, and picked him for a friendly with France. Becks duly picked up his long-awaited 100th cap on this day at the Stade de France as England lost 1-0 to a Frank Ribery penalty.

27 March 2002 – Pelé’s Shirt Deal

The jersey worn by Pelé in the 1970 World Cup final was sold at an auction for a record £157,750 on 27 March 2002. The bid was supposedly placed by an anonymous telephone bidder. It went on to smash the expected sale price that had been estimated by Christie’s auction house.

The shirt still had grass stains from the match, in which Pelé had scored the opening goal in Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy. His uniform was auctioned by Italian defender Roberto Rosato, who acquired it by exchanging shirts with Pelé at the end of the match.
The sale beat the previous auction record of £91,750, paid for the shirt worn by England’s Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup Final.

30 March 1946 – The Marathon Match

Doncaster Rovers and Stockport County met in a Division Three North Cup replay at Stockport’s Edgeley Park on 30 March 1946.

The teams had played to a draw at Doncaster which led to the replay. The hosts struck first with a penalty kick but Rovers fought back to take a 2-1 lead into the break. In the second half, the equalizer came in the 72nd minute. After 90 minutes, the teams were tied at 2-2 and neither side was able to score in another half hour of extra time.

The match continued into a ‘golden goal’ period – the first team to score would win the match. But neither team could find the back of the net. Several spectators even went home for tea, only to return and find the match still going. Stockport’s Les Crocker put the ball in the goal in the 173rd minute. Unfortunately, it was a foul and the referee disallowed the goal. Reportedly, some of the Doncaster players were upset at the call too as it meant they had to play on.

Finally, the match was called off close to 7:00 pm as it was growing dark (no floodlights at that time). The players were so tired by the end of the match that many of them dropped to the pitch at the whistle. The match lasted a total of 3 hours and 23 minutes (203 minutes), setting a world record in the process, which remains to this day.