Brazil 2014: the last minute revision guide

Much like students across the country, football fans are beginning to feel the strain. The pressure of everything falling to pieces when it matters most is almost too much to bear thinking about. The wall chart’s blu tac’d  above the telly, the Panini Album is bursting at the staples with shineys and swapsies and the request book at work has been meticulously filled in so as to avoid the indignity of missing a minute of  Bosnia vs Iran or Algeria vs South Korea.

But, as is the case with exams, a last minute cram session never hurt anyone. So POAHT enrolled the help of Matt Oldfield, commander in chief at Of Pitch and Page, to recommend the books you need to be reading in order to be fully prepared for the month long smorgasbord of pig skin thumping that will explode into our lives a week today . . .

 

By Matt Oldfield

 

Brazil

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As hosts and favourites, Brazil has to be the starting point for any World Cup homework. For a fuller history of the nation and its dramatic relationship with the beautiful game, try Futebol by Alex Bellos or Futebol Nation by David Goldblatt. However, considering Brazil’s underwhelming performances in Germany and South Africa, as well as the solid but unspectacular look of Scolari’s squad, Shocking Brazil seems the most useful one-stop shop. Regular Guardian Football Weekly guest Fernando Duarte looks at six of the Seleçao’s worst moments, from the infamous Maracanazo defeat to Uruguay in 1950 through to Ronaldo’s convulsions in 1998 and the more recent disappointments of Ronaldinho, Robinho and Kaká. ‘A third consecutive failure in the World Cup could have serious consequences for Brazil’, Duarte concludes ominously.

 

Argentina

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While we wait impatiently for Jonathan Wilson’s mammoth history of Argentinian football, why not try Guillem Balague’s biography of Messi, or alternatively kill nine birds with one stone by reading ¡Golazo!, Andreas Campomar’s excellent history of Latin American Football. Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Brazil – each of these nations receives decent stage time, but Argentina and Uruguay are undoubtedly the headline acts. The stories of the Río de la Plata rivals make for fascinating reading; the former’s arrogance masking ‘the fear of being perceived as uncivilized’ and the latter’s individualism resulting in ‘winning when it mattered least and losing when it mattered most’. Throw in some of Eduardo Galeano’s flair (Soccer in Sun and Shadow) and you’ve got the perfect Latin education this summer.

 

Germany

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For a nation boasting three World Cup victories, Europe’s trendiest league and some of the best players ever, Germany and its footballing history have got lost in translation for us English speakers. Luckily amongst the slim pickings, a jewel shines bright. Updated to cover the 2013 Champions League final, Uli Hesse’s Tor! is comprehensive and entertaining, and yet still small enough to get through before June 12th.

 

Spain

image La Roja’s recent treble – Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 – was the culmination of a large-scale footballing initiative, started by the late Luis Aragonés and continued with phenomenal success by Vicente Del Bosque. At its core, their project has focused on ‘skill, vision, technique, planning, youth development and loving both the ball and winning’. Those are the words of Graham Hunter, whose book Spain brilliantly charts the meteoric rise of a team that had never bettered a fourth-placed World Cup finish in 1950. Many are writing off Spain’s chances in Brazil but as Hunter points out, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas and Ramos, we’re dealing with ‘some of the most remarkable men I’ve met and am ever likely to meet: hungry, dedicated winners.’

 

 

 

France

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The successes of the French have never exactly topped the English reader’s wish-list. As a result, studies of their footballing history are few and far between. Fortunately, Lonely at the Top, Philippe Auclair’s biography of legendary frontman Thierry Henry, is brilliant on the highs and lows of Les Bleus in recent years, from the ‘black-blanc-beur utopia’ of 1998 to the humiliation of 2002, from Zidane’s grand farewell in 2006 to 2010’s strike of shame. If you learn one thing, it’s to predict France’s fate at your peril. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, the ‘Shattered Mirror of Knysna’ chapter is essential reading.

 

England

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For the sake of the nation, every England fan should be prescribed a copy of One Night in Turin by Pete Davies. It may be nearly a quarter of a century since Italia 90, but ‘Ghastly press, oafish fans, and 4-4-2’ is a summary that still rings true enough. This year, a Gazza-esque hero will rise and a Psycho-esque villain will fall. The FA is still run by octogenarians ‘bereft of common sense or ideas’, our newspapers still prefer to vilify than to praise, our national side is still dominated by brave but unspectacular grafters, and disappointment, penalties and heartbreak are all still guaranteed. One of the best football books you’ll ever read.

 

Italy

imageIf it’s the murky history of fascism and corruption you’re after, John Foot and Paddy Agnew are your men. But if it’s a more contemporary, positive spin you’d like, you can’t go wrong with L’architetto himself, Andrea Pirlo. In I Think Therefore I Play, the Bearded One emerges as ‘an Italy ultra’ with a ‘pathological devotion’ to the Azzurri. If you’re pushed for time, head for Chapter 5 on his penalty in the 2010 World Cup Final shoot-out, or savour these lines on Antonio Cassano: ‘He says he’s slept with 700 women in his time, but he doesn’t get picked for Italy any more. Deep down, can he really be happy? I certainly wouldn’t be.’ This is Pirlo’s last international tournament; don’t rule out a swansong to remember.

 

Portugal

imageRemarkably, this is only Portugal’s sixth World Cup but their fourth in a row thanks to the golden generations of Figo, Deco and Ronaldo. Very little is available in terms of Portuguese football history, so visit portugoal.net for the latest news, or read Luca Caioli’s biography of the man on whom all hopes rest, Cristiano Ronaldo: The Obsession for Perfection.

 

 

 

 

 

Holland

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Whether you’re looking to brush up on Dutch football past or present, make David Winner your guide. Go with Brilliant Orange for the whole history, but his excellent Dennis Bergkamp biography, Stillness and Speed, for the spectacular near-misses of the nineties. Player Power and Power Player are the key chapters, the first about the personnel problems at Euro 96, the second about World Cup 98, ‘that’ volley versus Argentina followed by the heart-breaking semi-final defeat to Brazil. Van Gaal‘s team look unlikely to buck that ‘nearly men’ trend this time around, but it’s never for a want of skill.

 

* You can follow Matt on Twitter @ofpitchandpage and can also discover more about the finest in football literature on his blog at http://www.ofpitchandpage.blogspot.co.uk

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The Artists: Rui Costa – The Maestro

 

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By Jimmy Areabi

The number 10 shirt of Benfica and Fiorentina weigh heavy on those gifted enough to be chosen as its inhabitant. It is an indication of just how talented Manuel Rui Costa was then, that he would find both shirts not only a perfect fit, but wear them with such style, grace and an honour now so rarely seen in the superstars of this generation.

For the Portuguese side, where national treasure Eusebio was, and still is, the ultimate legend, the number was his shirt. Poetic then, that it was he who spotted the five year old’s potential after just 10 minutes of a youth training session, securing his future for Lisbon’s Eagles.

In Florence, city of the Renaissance, legendary long-haired artists in the forms of Antognoni and Baggio had adorned the viola 10 shirt, using the Artemio Franchi pitch as their creative canvas, whilst ensuring the symbolic meaning of the number held true in its purest form.

Breaking through the youth ranks at Benfica, continuing to prove the ultimate endorsement from Eusebio correct, the young playmaker impressed during his tentative senior years. After an impressive season long loan with AD Fafe culminated in Portugal’s youth coach at the time, a certain Carlos Queiroz (of future Manchester United and Real Madrid fame), call him up to the World Youth Cup squad alongside names such as Luis Figo and Joao Pinto, to compete at the FIFA Youth World Championships. It was the team which went on to be christened the ‘Golden Generation’. 

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In a strong tournament which featured many future household names such as Juan Esnaider, Mauricio Pocchettino (the current Southampton manager), Mark Bosnich, Giovane Elber, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Alfonso, and Paolo Montero, it was Portugal who secured victory, with Rui Costa scoring the winning penalty in the final versus Brazil in front of 127,000 delirious home supporters.

Now a hero in his country, the playmaker with the golden touch went on to establish himself in the Benfica first team. His presence was inspiring as the club went on to win two trophies; first the Portuguese Cup in 1993, followed by the league title itself in 1994. It would be Benfica’s last for 11 years.

Just as the good times had arrived, so did the club’s financial difficulties. A bid of €6 million was enough for Fiorentina to capture one of Europe’s brightest prospects as Benfica where forced to sell their prize asset.

Whilst there was evident sadness from the departing player, who vowed to return to his beloved club ‘one day’, he was about to enjoy the best years of his career, forming one of the most deadly attacking partnerships around, which became feared in Italy, and the envy of all Europe’s super clubs.

La Viola already had a truly lethal hitman in the form of Gabriel Batistuta on their books – complete with machine gun celebration. They now had someone to supply him with an endless amount of bullets.

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To merely label Rui Costa as the Bat-man’s ‘Robin’ is perhaps a little demeaning to the influence the Portuguese had on the side, however there is no doubting he was Batistuta’s perfect foil. And when both were in tandem, devastation ensued for opposition defences. 

At the time Fiorentina had a fairly average squad, but they boasted arguably the best number 9-number 10 combination in the game, and it took just two seasons before the double-act yielded success for the team, winning the Coppa Italia in 1996. 

Just three years later the partnership was at its most potent, when this perfect mix of Portuguese panache and Argentine accuracy looked destined to secure the Scudetto for the first time in almost 30 years. However losing Batistuta to injury at a vital point of the season saw the tides turn, Fiorentina eventually succumbing to the might of the cash-rich opposition in Serie A at the time, AC Milan and Lazio – despite Rui Costa reaching double figures for goals in the league for the first (and only) time in his career. For this was a team that couldn’t afford to lose either one of their two genuine superstars for a period of time and still hope to compete for the title.

During his time in Florence Rui Costa became a perfect example of a fantasista, however his influence spread further than just the final third of the pitch. He was trusted to drift wherever he deemed necessary to help build an attack, such was his footballing brain and vision. His passing range ensured he could split the tightest of defences with a trademark through-ball, or switch the emphasis of an  assault with pinpoint cross-field passes. 

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A true midfield conductor, his style led to the nickname “il Maestro di Fiorenze” – the Maestro of Florence, however, despite a lack of genuine pace – although he seemed to glide around the pitch – his close control and dribbling abilities made sure he operated mostly as a trequartista rather than a functioning metronome in the deeper laying regista role. Plus, the closer he was to ‘Bati-gol’, the more devastating the outcome.

When the Argentine eventually left, the mantle of captain and city emblem deservedly passed to their number 10 who remained a class act  both on and off the Artemio Franchi turf. Indeed, during his second Coppa Italia victory with the club after five barren years, rather than celebrate with his team-mates, he freed a fan who was being beaten by riot police after jumping onto the pitch in jubilation, and guided him back to the safety of the stands. 

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During his career, Rui Costa proved to be another astonishing contradiction in the world of playmakers, whereby the player never sought the limelight or any headlines, but by sheer virtue of his outrageous talents and match-winning ability, the spotlight inevitably fell on him. A fantasista’s skill-set marks them out to be individualistic, but the Portuguese playmaker always applied himself for the benefit of his team.

With new guns for hire in Florence, Rui Costa continued to supply the bullets until looming bankruptcy once again forced a move from a club he adored. Throughout his time in Italy Fiorentina had fought off intense speculation that their prized playmaker would be sold at the end of every season. The player too, loyal to the end, bucked what is now a common trend and never sought a move for either monetary gain, or the likelihood of amassing the silverware his talents deserved. But a club record £28m bid from long-time admirers AC Milan in the summer of 2001 was eventually agreed in the wake of the club’s perilous financial situation.

Whilst wearing the red and black of Milan, Rui Costa did indeed amass the silverware his career was lacking – finally winning the Scudetto, another Coppa Italia, and the Champions League. But just as Batistuta had found after moving on with Roma and winning the Scudetto – it just wasn’t Florence.

Besides, his influence and playing time at the Rossoneri began to dwindle virtually from the time he arrived at the club due to injuries, and lessened even more once a certain young fantasista named Kaka rose to prominence in 2003.

After five year with Milan and in the twilight of his career, the honourable playmaker chose to forgo one last chance at a big payday and keep a promise made to his boyhood club many years ago. Terminating his contract and relinquishing a €4.6m per year salary, he became a free-agent and returned to his beloved Benfica in 2006.

A dream start which saw him score in only his second appearance back – his first at home – soon turned sour as he suffered a serious injury which kept him out for three months. On his return, Benfica finished third in the league at which point he announced his second season would be his last as a professional.

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Alas, Rui Costa failed to add any silverware during his final spell with Benfica, but left a legacy, proving that outrageously talented players can be honourable and loyal role models as well as inspiring, and a reminder that there is more to the game for some players, than simply chasing fame and fortune.

Like many subsequent so-called ‘Golden Generations’, the fantastically gifted senior squad Portugal could call upon failed to deliver on the big stages, despite coming agonisingly close on a few occasions; most notably in 2004 when they lost on home soil in the European Championships final to Greece, with Rui Costa weeping uncontrollably after the final whistle, having enjoyed a fine tournament.

The lack of silverware aside, Portugal’s finest midfield number 10 inspired his country to their most consistent form during his career, and although he was the creator-in-chief for the side, he finished his international career scoring an impressive 26 goals, having amassed 94 caps.


For more on the wonderful world of playmakers and number 10s visit http://www.fantasista10.com or follow @fantasistaTEN.

You can also follow Jimmy Areabi @fantasista1077