Moments (2) – Wayne Rooney scuffs me into delirium

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History maker

Media reports in the lead up to the 2011 Champions League Final told us that Manchester United had spent days working on set-pieces and corner kicks to exploit Barcelona’s lack of height. On the day, Manchester United’s corner count – 0. Shots on target? 1. Barcelona? 12 shots on target, with 6 corner kicks. What should have been crushing disappointment at the end of the game was only slightly mitigated by the fact that we had been beaten by possibly the best club-side in history. Respect. Nevertheless, during the game, in the one moment we offered a taste of what we could do, I lost my mind. Read on as I recount the moment Wayne Rooney made me lose my voice…

The Context…

Manchester United and Barcelona met in the Champions League Final for the 2nd time in 3 seasons, with the former having been to the final 3 times in 4 years – while Barcelona was widely lauded as the best team in history, Manchester United was probably on par with this team heading into the Wembley spectacle (at least in terms of consistent success).

In 2008, I watched the final in the bedroom of one of my school teacher’s (caveat – there were lots of other boys in there and it was only for the football). When Van der Sar saved Anelka’s unconvincing penalty, we all went bonkers, save for my lone Chelsea-fan friend, Nanu. In 2009, watching in Edinburgh, I marvelled as we hopped aboard Barcelona’s carousel, dizzied by the mesmeric passing combinations and dribbling of Messi and co. In my mind that night, Iniesta was the best player on the planet (even Rooney thought so).

I viewed the game from a friend’s studio flat in Aberdeen. We had some hope. After all, Arsenal had beaten Barca that season, and Barca had a quite shocking record in England at the time, although their previous appearance at Wembley had yielded a Champions League trophy in 1992). Barca also had players ‘out of position’ – Mascherano was set to continue at centre back with captain shaggy, Puyol, on the bench. Abidal, just returned from liver surgery, would resume his left back position but nobody knew how he’d hold up against an Antonio Valencia in the form of his life.

The Moment…

“It’s peak!”

Barca started the match strong and took the lead in the 27th minute, with Pedro sliding in a neat finish from Xavi’s pass. With no Barcelona fans in the room (except me, of course, and I was on leave for the day), the room was quiet. Going behind wasn’t surprising – all the British media’s proclamations of Manchester United’s greatness withered away with each 1-2 and nutmeg from the men in stripes. The game was literally over until the moment. Then was over after that anyway.

In response to Barcelona’s suffocating pressure, Sir Alex Ferguson instructed his side to push up a bit more. Barca won a throw-in about halfway into their half; seemingly there was no danger. The ball was thrown to David Villa, but with Rio Ferdinand in close attention, the ball bounced back along the line in the direction it came from. Fabio flicked a pass to Wayne Rooney in close attendance, who controlled and played a short pass to Carrick just to his right, who wall-passed it back – Sergio Busquets out of the equation. He then flicked another pass to an onrushing Giggs who returned it. Now my friend and I share this joke, and it’s been running for years, that Rooney is the “scuff-king”. He scuffs volleys, taps ins, even overhead kicks (surely a shinner counts as a scuffed attempt, right?) Well, his finish here, beautifully swept into the right corner came off his ankle.

This was me:  jose-mourinho-celebrates

Can’t hold us back

The next 2 minutes were spent jumping hysterically on a bed, yelling my head off (think it was a Latin-style pundit GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL **To be continued*) for two minutes and hugging my friend like he’d been to hell and back. Thinking back to that moment again, I can’t recall celebrating so intensely since or indeed before. Perhaps the surprise of the goal, completely out of the blue, coupled with a prior despondency provoked that exuberant release.  We lost in the end, but I’ll never forget the isolated minutes of unrestrained joy.

Today…

Wayne Rooney became Manchester United’s top scoring player on Saturday – a hell of an achievement. However, the joint England and Manchester United top scorer’s (still remarkable!) career has felt somewhat underwhelming. Some could even argue that at the 2011 Champions League Final, he was already past his peak – most would argue his final individual season was 2009/2010; once unshackled from his place as Ronaldo’s Robin, he plundered . There has been recent Chinese talk, with Mourinho stating that he wouldn’t stand in Rooney’s way if he desired a move (hard to imagine Rooney trying to say “I love Evergrande” in Mandarin) – sign of respect or sign of dispensability? Arguably both, but it does inevitably suggest that the scouser’s time at Old Trafford is coming to an end. Will he get a statue? It’s unlikely. However, he is a Manchester United legend and should be remembered as such.

RADU

 

 

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Moments (1) – Barthez Hurdles Ronaldo

 

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The Phenomenon

A few days ago, an idea came to mind – write about memorable personal football Moments. The one that follows is my first. The tournament, France ’98, crystallised my love for the beautiful game. The Moment, itself a painful one, is still seared into my mind. I recall where I was, what I felt, how I felt it. I’ll hopefully be releasing more of these in episodes over time. Football as such a big part of my upbringing is more than just watched – it is lived and breathed, felt sometimes with a depth that that can incapacitate (as later episodes will show) in unexpectedly swift and surprising ways. As you read, recall your Moments.

Ole Ole Ole!’

My first experience of tournament football was France ’98. The sound of Ricky Martin’s iconic ‘Ole Ole Ole’ continues to reverberate in the annals of my memory. For a time after the tournament, it was by far my favourite song, sound, even. Pulsing with Latin brio and energy, it wasthe perfect opening to an expanded, and ultimately classic, World Cup. Brazil, perennial favourites, scored a 2-1 victory over the plucky Scots. Brazil was my team – well, Nigeria was, but Brazil was my team. It was the team I chose, not the one I was born into. The world champions.  Even a Nigerian youngster was aware of the embodiment of surprise and flair that was the Brazilian footballer. To take on and defeat Brazil at the time still amounted to a victory worth telling posterity. In fact, till today, the Nigerian Super Eagles are serenaded to the trumpet tune of “When Nigeria beat Brazil, when Nigeria beat Brazil oh…”

They were big. And at the time, they possessed the world’s greatest footballer – Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima (I was a nerd back then – some would say still am – and was smug about knowing his full name). Ronaldo, the buck-toothed, blur of footwork, sniping, striking bull of a striker. Lithe, predatory, generous, unbelievably skilful. A two-time FIFA Player of the Year at 21, he was the Lionel Messi of his time. Nike saw all this, saw his global appeal and snapped it all up – just could and often just did it all on his own. I had started playing football then and wanted to be him. His football boots were unique, made for a likewise once-in-a-generation footballer – I wanted them (still do – I see they’ve been re-released in limited edition). He was Brazil’s hope – he was my hope for Brazil and for football. Again, he was also only 21.

 

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Hurdling O’Fenomeno

The Moment…

I don’t intend this to be a eulogy or celebration of the France ’98. It’s just about one moment, perhaps my first truly vivid football memory (besides me playing, of course). It was in the final. I can’t remember the score at the precise point but I know that France was ahead. It was 1-0 at the time of my moment – my recollection of how I felt was one of futility and defeat in the face of the circumstances. Sat on the floor in front of the TV, willing something to happen out of nothing, I watched Ronaldo chase down a long ball only to be hurdled/clattered into by a flying Fabien Barthez. The impact of the French goalkeeper knocked Ronaldo out. The ball was cleared from danger but the camera panned to a prone Ronaldo. Barely moving, he was mortal. To the extent that a child can rail, I did – “is that not a foul? It’s a penalty! It was rough! He can’t do that? Who is this keeper?!” I was hurt. No child wants to see their idol made to look less than their deified position. After some attention, he got up and zombied his way through the rest of the game. At the final whistle, France erupted in joy. In Lagos, I erupted in tears for football for the first and last time.

With the passage of time, we’ve got to learn more about that memorable night. Roberto Carlos, one of his closest friends and roommate at the time, has spoken of Ronaldo succumbing to a seizure so violent Carlos himself had to take emergency action to prevent Ronaldo swallowing his tongue. Indeed, Ronaldo was left off the initial starting line-up released to FIFA, but was later reinstated. Some have speculated that Nike pressure meant that he had to play, with Nike not able to have the most marketable footballer in the world (by far) missing out on the most-watched single event at the time. Ronaldo wandered around in a daze with his Nike R9 boots and silver medal dangling around his neck. This time he couldn’t do it – but Nike was winning.

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Idiot

Today…

Last week Michael Owen tweeted about Ronaldo “putting the pounds on.” Michael Owen is an idiot. Idiots like him intentionally or not continue to encourage the description of one of the greatest players in history as “fat Ronaldo”. I followed Ronaldo until his final days at Corinthians, knees shot, heavy but still sublimely potent. At his retirement press conference, he spoke, for the first time, about his hypothyroidism which was detected too late in his career. He tearfully recalled taking the jibes for years, the shots about his weight and apparent lack of professionalism. For the 7-year-old not wanting to see his idol defeated, I felt vindication.

RADU