The prestige of a Benito Mussolini inspired Italian national team in the 1930s

For Football Chronicle

The beautiful game as we know it today was not always so pleasant. While the Italian team of the 1930s played some beautiful football, they were the butt of a desire for collectivism. From monarchy to democracy, to the rule of church and despotism, every European political ideology was ripped up and rewrote in the ‘30s.

Whether it was fascism or Nazism, many ideas shared the same core. Throughout Europe, many nations had a desire for collectivism and the population was seen as ‘the mass’ – everyone would dance to the tune of the state, each person as a tiny screw in the huge machinery of the nation.

For the most part of the 20th century up until this point, sport was just a hobby, and the state were disinterested. In Italy, football was seen as a game of the dreaded inglesi – the English – so although many played it, the government were not bothered about trying to popularise it for national gains, such as health or fitness. It was around 1926, though, that this changed. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, thought that he could use sport and football in particular to better his objectives.

The totalitarian regime had to stake out a moral dominion over every citizen’s life, and in the 1920s, powerful European leaders started to realize sport and recreation could be a key part of this.

In Paddy Agnew’s brilliant account of Italian football, Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football, he wrote about Mussolini’s realization that sport could help better his desires. Agnew noted that Mussolini wanted to make football ‘more consonant with the new life of the nation’. It was not an importation from the ‘football’ game of the English, but a different logical development of Italian football.

In fact, if you translate the term ‘football’ in many European languages, they will all be similar: football, fussball, futbol, le football, so on and so forth. Italians, however, refer to it as ‘calcio’, a differing arm of the game originating from Florence.

Il Duce, as Mussolini was known, played a huge part in setting up the Italian football system – Serie A, B, C etc as we know it today. The FIGC, Italy’s governing body, was overhauled in these years and the 1929/30 season was the first round-robin format of Serie A. Ambrosiana – Internazionale in their original form – won the title that season, with Giuseppe Meazza scoring 31 goals.

These early changes in the late ‘20s set in motion a glory decade for the Azzurri, who won two of the first three World Cups. In the history of looking at football through a political lens, it is hard to find one state regime that has directly affected a national team in such a way.

Mussolini wrote at the time: “Sporting achievement enhances the nation’s prestige and they also prepare men for combat in the open field and in that way they testify both to the physical well being and moral vigour of the people.”

He saw football as a way to ready men for war, but more importantly, he saw it as a PR tool, to promote his regime and give him opportunities to put himself at the forefront of international media. 20 years after Italy’s first ever football match – a 6-2 hauling over France in Milan – football in Italy had grown to be a force, and Mussolini had his eyes set on one thing: the 1934 World Cup on home soil.

Before that though was the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Five countries – Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay – put themselves forward to host the tournament. This list was shortened to just three, with Netherlands and Sweden pledging their allegiance to support the Italians. Jules Rimet, the father of the tournament, opted for Uruguay.

The reason he gave was to globalise the competition. Every game was to take place in the capital of Montevideo, at the home of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic gold winners (which they sometimes use as a claim for being one of the best football nations in history).

GIUSEPPE MEAZZA WAS ARGUABLY THE BEST FOOTBALLER IN THE WORLD AT THE TIME

Italy were dismayed at the decision to take the tournament to South America and withdrew from the tournament in anger. La Celeste went on to be winners, with Pedro Cea the star man in their final victory over fellow South Americans, Argentina.

Uruguay returned the favour four years later, withdrawing from the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Under the tutelage of Vittorio Pozzo, Italy would go on to be winners on home soil, just like Uruguay four years prior. Strangely though, this didn’t stop Uruguayan nationals playing in the Italian World Cup. One of the stars of the show in Montevideo was Luisito Monti, who ended up playing for Italy in 1934.

This was thanks to the Oriundi policy, which allowed Italy to steal Monti, as well as Raimundo Orsi and Enrico Guaita. The politics of the rule is extremely complicated, but in basic form there were three rules that qualified who was available to switch allegiances and play as a ‘oriundo’: they had to play in the league of their country; they had to be able to determine their family history for their new country for three generations; they couldn’t possibly play against their former nation.

This, as you can imagine, was widely criticized and debated, but boss Vittorio Pozzo summed it up with a counter-argument that is hard to debate: “if they can die for Italy, they can play for Italy.”

As a side note, it is interesting to note that the Oriundi policy is not ancient and had an impact on Italy’s 2006 World Cup win. Mauro Camoranesi, a Juventus icon of that decade, won the World Cup with Italy despite being born in Argentina. The instantly recognizable winger did not sing the Italian national anthem and did make a nod to his blood origin upon winning the trophy in Germany. He said to a camera: “Para los pibes del barrio”, which loosely translates as ‘for the boys from the neighbourhood’.

VITTORIO POZZO LED THE ITALIAN NATIONAL SIDE TO GREAT SUCCESS IN THIS ERA

The likes of Monti, Orsi, and Guaita had a key part in the 1934 World Cup. Italy kicked off their campaign with a staggering 7-1 victory over the USA, followed up by a 1-0 win against Spain after a replay. In the game against the USA, even the goalscorer on the losing side had an Italian feel – Aldo Donelli was the son of Italian immigrants.

It was the semi-final that the world started to stand up and take notice of the Italians, though. Against Austria’s Wunderteam, managed by the great Hugo Meisl, whose brother Willy wrote the revolutionary book Soccer Revolution. On paper, Austria should have walked past Italy, but this was Italy’s World Cup, and Mussolini had written what felt like a script for how the tournament should pan out.

It is strongly believed, though never confirmed, that Mussolini himself had dinner with the referee of that semi-final, the Swede Ivan Eklind. No one made any notes over what happened, but the presumption could be made that they weren’t talking tactics.

Seven days later, Italy triumphed in the final over Czechoslovakia, with goals from Raimundo Orsi and Angelo Schiavio. Both teams lined up in their interesting – yet standard in those days – 2-3-5 formation, more commonly known as the W-M formation.

The tactics were far from revolutionary, but the trailblazing style of one man set in motion the history of Italian football: Giuseppe Meazza – so good, they named the San Siro after him. Rumour has it that Meazza slept at a brothel the night before, and the star also punched a Czech player in the liver during the final.

In short, he was the first incarnation of the mold of striker who could pick up the ball from deep and run at his opponents, but still, have a deep locker of finishes. Vittorio Pozzo, the manager, said: “Having him [Meazza] on the team was like starting the game 1-0 up.”

ITALY SCORE IN THE FINAL OF THE 1934 WORLD CUP

Italy were champions. In the age of economic depression, Il Duce had used sport as a way to advance his relentless propaganda machine. He used football as a symbol of Italy’s superiority, and other leaders started to take notice – Hitler and Franco included. Mussolini had shown – in his opinion – that fascism was the way forward in the future. In front of the whole world, he had shown how happy Italy as a nation once.

Fascism may not have played a huge part on the pitch, but the four years between 1934 and the next World Cup saw Mussolini build many foundations of Italian football’s glory era in the ’90s and early ’00s. Stadia and mass transport links were built in this era, planting the seeds for a golden generation for calcio.

Four years after the successes on home soil, Italy were ready to do it all again, where fascism was even larger than it was in 1934. Held in France, Italy’s route to the final was fairly uneventful on the pitch. With wins over Norway, hosts France and Brazil, the Azzurri had booked a place in the final over another team of the mid 1900s – Hungary – although not as good as their Magic Magyars of the 1950s. Austria were not at the tournament, due to political tensions with Nazi Germany, and Spain also stayed at home due to their civil war, meaning Italy’s biggest contenders were likely to be hosts – France.

One of the more strange moments, though, was when the Italians wore black shirts. In the quarter-final against the hosts, the Italians sported this politically motivated all-black jersey and performed the fascist right-arm salute before kick off. Simon Martin, the author of Sport Italia, wrote: “The desire to forget saw Mussolini swept under the carpet, and the 1938 black shirt and Roman salute were consigned to one of the World Cup’s and FIFA’s least edifying but overtly political moments.”

The final was won in ease, with Gino Colaussi and Silvio Piola both netting a double in a 4-2 victory. Vittorio Pozzo’s influence was felt more here, with his W-M being slightly tweaked to more of a 2-3-2-3, known simply as ‘the method’ or better known as il metodo.

1938 SAW ITALY SUCCESSFULLY DEFEND THEIR WORLD CUP HONOUR

Before the match, though, a telegram was sent to all players reading ‘vincere o morire!’ or ‘win or die!’ literally. After the match, Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szabó famously said, “I may have let in four goals, but at least I saved their lives.”

Italy completed back-to-back triumphs and went on to hold the trophy for 12 years due to a break because of the war. Benito Mussolini had used football for political gain, as a propaganda tool. While the two World Cup wins may be barred due to the coercion and corruption at the hands of Il Duce, it would be unfair to question a golden generation littered with talents such as Meazza, Monti, and Piola, who are all seen as legendary figures in Italian football history.

Brendan Rodgers, the underrated disciple of possession football who came five years too late

For 5WFootball 

“When you look at the stats of the modern game, I am big on controlling domination of the ball. But against Everton we were able to dominate without the ball.” – Brendan Rodgers.

Igor Akinfeev parried the ball to his side and without breaking stride, he jetted off in euphoric celebration. Hosts Russia had defeated the great Spain in the Luzhniki Stadium, and Akinfeev became the first man to have the whole of a country singing his name since the great Black Spider Lev Yashin. Up in the press box at the extraordinary coliseum formerly named after Vladimir Lenin, match reports were being filed, the postmortem already underway. All around the world, journalists not lucky enough to be in Russia were busy writing headlines and getting them ready for the press deadline: THE DEATH OF TIKI-TAKA. The headline had a nice ring to it, but it was a mass over-exaggeration and ignorance of the facts: tiki-taka was long deceased.

Brendan Rodgers, the all-conquering Celtic boss, brought a possession-based style to the Premier League in the age of the counter attack. Tiki-taka – which I must state, as per my fascination with Pep Guardiola, is boring passing for the sake of it – had died when multiple attacking sides were embarrassed in the Champions League to stubborn defensive outlets. Brendan Rodgers, though, had an exciting philosophy that made Swansea everyones second team in the Premier League.

Sadly for Rodgers, his Premier League legacy is nearly winning the league with Liverpool. As he embarks on potentially joining Leicester City, I’d argue: don’t remember Rodgers for what he did (wrong) at Anfield, remember him for his trailblazing style at Swansea, his desire to play possession based attractive football, and his comeback in Glasgow, where he has more than set himself up for a healthy return to English football.

It will take time for Rodgers to implement his philosophy to a dressing room that is struggling for morale and confidence, but the Leicester board will give him time.

In an interview on Match of the Day 3 in 2012, Rodgers said: “We kicked the ball long [chasing a game] and it would come straight back again into our box. We ended up drawing the game two each. The next week in training I said to the players that we have to retain our composure and relaxation with the ball. Low and behold if it came again, we could manage the game with the ball. The following week, we were playing Bolton at home, and they get a goal to bring it to 2-1. To be fair the players then, for ten minutes, Bolton never got a kick of the ball. We eventually got the third and won the game 3-1.”

In a microcosm, that interview outlined Rodgers’ philosophy: keep the ball. In a way, he is up there with the likes of Guardiola in the way he has redefined ‘seeing out a game’ in the Premier League. He is no innovator, but the typical English way of seeing out a tender lead is to drop a few yards and limit the spaces for the opposition. Rodgers is the opposite, and will defend with the ball.

On the whole, English football pundits and fans seem blind to tactics, judge players and managers too quickly, and change their minds without a second of thought. A good example of this is Eden Hazard: one weekend, he is heralded as the best in the league, whereas the next he could be labelled a ‘fraud’. It was a similar story with Rodgers in England, who was heralded as a tactical genius for leading Liverpool to the cusp of the Premier League title, but then criticised as a flop in the months after, when the whole squad was bereft of confidence.

His time at Liverpool was strange, as despite the heavy metal football that Liverpool played with the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling, Rodgers’ style failed. His possession based game was not the way Liverpool got so far, it was a more direct style that meant that his side could not control games in the way he wanted. That was demonstrated with that fateful night at Selhurst Park, where Liverpool threw away a three goal lead against Crystal Palace that virtually cost them the league title.

It is not the stint at Liverpool he should be solely assessed on, though.

Rodgers is clearly a tactician, but aside from that, he is a man motivator. If you look at the list of players he has improved in his career, you will quickly sit up and take notice of this mans talents. I won’t name them, because there are so many.

He turned Swansea into an established Premier League club, playing a progressive, vertical style in an era of counter-attacking football that lasted until the likes of Guardiola and Klopp arrived on English shores. He slightly adjusted Roberto Martinez’s system and laid the foundations for ex-Barcelona man Michael Laudrup to restore it. He built the team around Joe Allen and got the best out of multiple young players, which could be crucial for The Foxes, who have a plethora of young midfielders who could thrive, such as James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Hamza Choudhury.

The general argument at the end of his stint at Liverpool was that Rodgers was too reliant on Luis Suarez, which is probably a fair assumption. He was, but that is because he built the system around him and allowed the Uruguayan to thrive. There will always be an asterix over his time in Merseyside, but part of the blame has to be attributed with the scouting department and ownership. All in all, though, he got the best out of many, including Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. His signings were well off, and his last half-season a disaster, but he deserves more respect than what some give him for his time at the club.

The Rodgers revival came at Celtic, which yes, is an easy job. Just like Bayern’s decline when Guardiola left the so-called easy job, I wouldn’t be too surprised if Rodgers’ ex-captain, Steven Gerrard, seizes the moment to close the gap on Celtic without Rodgers at the helm.

With a young and talented squad, and a few months to get used to them with the pressure off, Brendan Rodgers has a chance of really making his name again in English football. He has a positive style that could thrive at the King Power Stadium, and while he won’t repeat the successes of Claudio Ranieri, Rodgers could really bring the good times back to Leicester City Football Club.

Let’s leave on a quote from Rodgers himself: “If you are better than your opponent with the ball, you have a 79% chance of winning the game.

Endcliffe Park flypast shows togetherness of Sheffield in a time of polarisation

Tony Foulds was just 8-years-old when he witnessed the USA B-17 Flying Fortress, nicknamed “Mi Amigo”, of the 305th Bomb Group, swerve away from a group of children in the park and crash into the nearby woods.

Foulds has maintained a memorial in memory of the ten who lost their lives that day and said that he feels “guilty” for causing the aircraft to swerve away from the field they were planning to make a crash landing in.

Few in Sheffield were even aware of the memorial until recently. The park is a popular destination for runners, dog walkers and families to enjoy a day in the sun, but the fact the memorial is tucked away in the woods means it is it out of sight and many were unaware of it.

Despite this, the whole story came to the forefront of media attention not just in Sheffield, but the world, when BBC Breakfast frontman Dan Walker started spreading knowledge of Tony Foulds’ story. Within weeks, Walker had arranged a flypast from various fighter jets to commemorate the fateful crash on that day in February 1944.

Foulds told Dan Walker of The BBC: “I actually love them like I do my own son and my own daughter, and I will never ever let them down.

“My son has promised that when I go, he will come.

“This means so much to me, so much to me.”

The flyover itself was exceptional, and the scenes of Tony Foulds on the giant screen that was erected on the park to livestream BBC Breakfast brought a tear to the eye of more than one person in the gathering crowd, which grew by the minute.

Foulds said on the tannoy system: “That crowd has doubled since ten minutes ago. It is a good job I am charging you a fiver each on your way out!”

The 82-year-old was in a cheery mood, and he had every reason to do so, as this is something he has been yearning for during the last seven decades he has spent maintaining the memorial.

Foulds was not the only one in a cheery mood. The crowd, with a range of ages, from locations all over the country and even some from America, was full of cheer and enthusiasm as they were waiting in the early-morning Sheffield sun.

Samuel Matthews, 8, enjoyed the final day of his half-term holiday at the flypast.

He said: “It was really cool to see the planes do lots of patterns and shapes.”

On a more serious note, the flypast educated him of the real reasons for the aesthetic plane patterns.

He added: “I think that the people in the jet trying to save all those children and risking their lives instead of trying to save theirs and ending the child’s.”

The flypast had a real family vibe to it

Richard Bancroft, 79, said: “I have never seen so many people in this park before.

“I’m ecstatic, it has put Sheffield on the map like never before.”

Now, there are calls for Foulds to receive an honour such as an MBE for his services, which JUSnews reported earlier today.

The MBE is only at the petition stage, but Foulds has been awarded with his name of the ‘Heart of Steel’ monument at Meadowhall in Sheffield.

At a time where the country seems in disagreement over most things, the flypast brought the community of Sheffield together for the better, and completed the lifelong dream of one very special individual, Tony Foulds.

Stop comparing Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden, they are both the future of England

For 5WFootball

Video Assistant Referee. Messi and Ronaldo. Who will win the title race? Three debates that are unavoidable on a daily basis that, if you’re like me, will make your ears (or eyes, in the age of social media) metaphorically bleed. Three torturously annoying debates that have no real answer, but are still discussed on the daily. Another argument that seemingly pops up in conversation nearly as frequent as Brexit does is whether or not young Englishmen making the move to the German Bundesliga – or other foreign top leagues for that matter – is better than sitting on the bench back here.

The best example of this is Jadon Sancho, who was the trend of conversation around the country this week due to his return to Wembley in a Borussia Dortmund shirt. The teenager made the audacious and trendsetting move to Germany in the summer 2017 after failing to see a route to the Manchester City first team and ever since, he has been the example for many pub arguments, as midweek debaters look to backup their point that every English youngster should follow suit.

Yes, he is doing brilliant at Dortmund, who are leading the way in Germany, and Phil Foden may not be pulling up trees for Manchester City, but he is doing it his way, and that is fine too. Like VAR, there is no definite answer over what path is best: stop comparing the two. One size does not fit all, and while Sancho is clearly ahead of Foden (and the likes of Hudson-Odoi etc.) at the moment, it does not mean that all youngsters should quit the club they have grown up with, in search of regular football.

If the rows over VAR and the like weren’t enough of an eyesore for you, the pathetic, shameless clickbait journalism of many clickbait organisations this morning is enough to ruin a weekend.

While it was only Newport County, Phil Foden stood out in a midfield populated with a World Cup winner David Silva, and created more than the likes of Leroy Sané and Riyad Mahrez. Therefore, the ‘it is only Newport’ counter-argument for this will not suffice. Foden possesses a turn of space to leave any defender in their wake, and the ball stuck to him with elasticity on a pitch unfit for a Sunday League game.

This was not the first time Foden has stood out in the FA Cup this season, with the youngster excelling against Rotherham in January.

While Rabbi Matondo became the latest to leave City for Germany in the transfer window just gone, Phil Foden is patient in waiting for his chances, but they are coming. Admittedly, his chances are coming less frequently than others, but the experience of being coached by Pep Guardiola must count for something here.

Jadon Sancho, on the other hand, is thriving at German league leaders Dortmund, with manager Lucien Favre happy to build a team around Sancho as one of the focal points of the attack. Would he walk straight back into Manchester City’s team? No. Sterling and Sané are still ahead of Sancho at this current moment, just like De Bruyne and Silva (either of them) are ahead of Foden.

He may find earlier success than Foden does, but does that mean Sancho will have the better career overall? There is no definite answer to this, so stop comparing them.

The Bundesliga route is audacious, and I admire it all the same, but it doesn’t mean that staying at England means that the player will not ‘make it’. If Foden doesn’t play a single minute for four years, he will still be younger than the likes of many of City’s first-choice eleven including Sterling, Bernardo Silva, etc. If he doesn’t play a minute for four years, obviously then he will move, but in the hypothetical situation, getting regular game time in this star-studded City side will do for 18 months more yet.

By the time Foden is 21, David Silva will have retired or at least moved on from City, while Ilkay Gundogan will likely be of an age where he may leave. Therefore, the path to the first team is clear. He may not be a guaranteed starter, but with City competing on four fronts, that is irrelevant.

Just like the Messi and Ronaldo debate, stop comparing the two and just realise that we are witnessing two era-defining talents. Even though you may have your clear favourite, if you cannot appreciate the greatness of both of them, this sport is not for you. The same argument stands for Foden and Sancho: yes, Sancho may be better, and he may have made the right choice in joining Dortmund, but that does not mean Foden will not ‘make it’ at City. These are two of England’s best youngsters for well over a decade, so we should stop comparing them and get behind them both, as England look to end their half-century of hurt.

In a decade, England may finally win the World Cup again, with a squad full of Bundesliga-bred talent. If that is the case, fair enough. For now though, stop comparing the two different routes to first team action. Just watch Phil Foden for one game, you will see he is more than ready to step up into Manchester City’s team and excel for years to come.

Alexander Hleb, BATE Borisov’s Belarusian bustling creator

“Arsenal was the best time in my career. I was absolutely, 100% happy. I had an unbelievable coach, fantastic friends and amazing team-mates. It was a dream come true”.

Speaking to FourFourTwo magazine in 2017, Alexander Hleb recalled his time at the North London club as the best of his lengthy career that has taken him from Belarus to London and back again, via Birmingham, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Samara and Ankara.

Now in his fifth spell at BATE Borisov of the industrial city of Barysaw in Belarus, the 37-year-old has had a career like few others, and can probably stake a huge claim to the tag of the greatest footballer from Belarus, of all time.

As the winger prepares to face his old club Arsenal in the Europa League round of 32, we take a look back on Hleb’s career, and reach a decision on how highly he will be remembered in the game…

If any signing could sum up Arsène Wenger in a microcosm, it would be Alexander Hleb. Relatively unknown in England, young, technically exceptional, a tidy sense of tactical awareness, a pathological preference for a pass rather than a shot. Like so many before him and many after him, Hleb arrived at Arsenal without a huge reputation, and not looking like the sort of player who could slot straight into the first team.

Yet, that is exactly what he did. He arrived from Stuttgart in 2005 and many questioned Wenger’s decision to recruit the scrawny and languid winger. His legs looked more like sticks than the sort to conduct the role of a master craftsman in Arsène Wenger’s free-flowing football factory. The old dismissal of a player not looking fit to cut it in the tough brutality of the Premier League was recycled, but Hleb disproved any theories.

He slotted into the team with ease on the right wing of a 4-4-2, a rather different role to that of the modern Premier League winger. The ball stuck to his feet like a magnet, he had the ability to always drive the Gunners forward, but he also had the eye for an acute pass that few wingers do.

Although 2005/06 was a pleasing season, with Hleb starting in Arsenal’s Champions League final loss, it was the following season he would really prove himself as a star of ‘Wengerball’.

Arsene Wenger

Different to other wingers in the league, Hleb was a dictator who used his tactical knowledge to expose space for the likes of Robin Van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas – all of whom found this space with a clinical nature. Hleb also had a wizardry locker dribbling and passing abilities that simply tortured defences.

Just as he was becoming the heartbeat of Wenger’s side in the post-Henry and Vieira era, Hleb made a decision that he still regrets to this day – he moved to Barcelona. In Catalonia, the Belarusian struggled for regular game time, with injuries and form of teammates keeping him on the sidelines.

Comparable in nature to many others who have moved to Barcelona in search of the ultimate high life, it just did not work out. While he was sat watching from his sofa in Barcelona – recovering from injuries – Pep Guardiola found a winning formula with a devastating front line including the likes of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Pedro.

You couldn’t really blame him for wanting the move: Barcelona was his dream club from a young age, where he used to often have a free house due to his hardworking parents – his mother was a builder and his father drove petrol tankers.

After Barcelona, Hleb tried to reestablish his career with multiple loan moves. The first of which was back to the club he made his name and caught the eyes of Wenger, Stuttgart. At 29, Hleb joined Birmingham City. Alex McLeish’s style was far from the fast paced football of Wenger and Guardiola, where the emphasis was simply to kick it as far as you can.

Hleb recalled to RIA Nostovi: “The day before a game he would come onto the pitch and show us what to do: ‘You stand here, the goalkeeper will give you the ball here, kick it as far as you can and don’t pass to anyone nearby. And we all run.”

Image result for hleb birmingham

After leaving Barcelona with just 36 appearances to his name, Hleb became a journeyman of Eastern Europe, but finally settled at his beloved BATE Borisov, where he seems happy. He told the press after BATE’s 3-1 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League that he thought a big European club may try and sign him, but it never materialised. He has won multiple league titles in Belarus, but he will know deep down his career should have been so much more.

One can only wonder how Hleb’s career may have shaped up if he had stayed with Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. It will be an emotional experience for Hleb when he returns to the Emirates, he will be surely greeted with vast warmth from all corners of the ground. Sadly, however, Alexander Hleb’s career has to be filed away in the category of ‘what could have been?’

Four battles, one war: remembering the four Clásico’s in 18 days of 2011

Take out your diary and grab a pen, then jot down this note: Barcelona versus Real Madrid, the great eternal rivalry of Spain, the most watched derby in football, three times in the next 25 days. 6th February at the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey, the return leg on the 27th at the Bernabéu, a blockbuster league tie on 2nd March at the Bernabéu. Good watching for the neutral, right? Certainly so, but nothing on 2011. Pep v José, Barça v Madrid, four times in 18 days…

It was the height of modern footballs answer to Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier, the ‘fight of the century’ between Pep Guardiola and his antithesis José Mourinho. There were no rhyming phrases like ‘Thrilla in Manila’ for the finale, but it was still a heavyweight scrap between the two biggest clubs in world football: the greatest club side in the history of the game to many, against the negative, aggressive, yet hugely effective Real Madrid side of the man who once sat in the Camp Nou dugout as translator and de-facto assistant to Bobby Robson. 

Mr Robson was the unfortunate man to have the first job in the post-Cruyff era, he had the fans on his back from day one, but this man – Pep Guardiola, ex-Barca player icon – was the Blaugrana hero who led Barcelona back into the thinking of Total Football. José Mourinho, Robson’s former right hand man, was the man tasked with ending Barcelona’s monopoly over La Liga (and the world) – after all, he was the man who got the better of Guardiola in the Champions League with his Inter Milan side.

This catalogue of games was enough for a Hollywood movie, four games with a billing worthy of Oscar nomination. It was sports psychology at its highest. Matchday 3 and 4 in the Champions League group stage is often dubbed the chance for tacticians to shine (as teams play each other back to back, two weeks apart), this was a mixture of how to balance tactical know-how, mental fatigue, physical detriment, all put together with the biggest managerial rivalry for decades. 

Revolutionary ex-AC Milan boss Ariggo Sacchi described the duo as ‘two Pablo Picasso’s in one period’. That, like a lot of things Sacchi has said or done in the game, was spot on.

The rivalry started over a decade prior, or at least the friendship that led to the feud did. Barcelona had just won the Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam against PSG, against the declining French side Paris Saint Germain. As players often do when they win a big game in sport, Guardiola – sporting a thin haircut and short shorts with the number 4 – fell to the ground in celebrating. It was the first season without the great Johan Cruyff at the helm, so this trophy felt like a big one for Barça. As Guardiola got to his feet, he clocked a member of the club’s staff, who he ran to with inviting open arms. That man, of course, was Mr José Mourinho.

They were not best of friends, but they were good friends, which Pep later reminded José of in  a press conference: “I only want to remind him that we were together for four years. He knows me and I know him. I keep that in my mind.”

Over the coming years, José’s character blossomed into what we know him as today. They met on opposing benches for the first time in 2009, when they played out a 0-0 in Italy, before Barcelona won 2-0 at the Camp Nou. These two matches were only in the group stages, and Mourinho’s demeanour perhaps foreshadowed what was to come. Mourinho had worked out Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and when they met in the semi-finals later that season, he put that plan into action. Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan defeated Barcelona over two legs. The great Barcelona side, with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta – the list goes on – were humbled.

Over in Spain, the Madrid hierarchy were standing up and taking notice of Mourinho, the man who had now conquered Europe with two teams – Inter and Porto – as well as his record breaking Chelsea side. Not long after, Florentino Perez sanctioned the deal – Mourinho was the man they tasked to end the Barcelona rule under Guardiola, and this set in motion a few seasons of politics, power, scrutiny, and in short, football entertainment of the highest order, for the neutral anyway.

The first Clásico between the two ended in humiliation for Mourinho, as Barcelona triumphed with a 5-0 victory thanks to a remarkable display from Lionel Messi, who by now was widely considered the worlds greatest player. The scoreline did not flatter Barcelona, who were excellent, but it didn’t by any means dictate that the four Clásico’s were to be one sided…

1. 16 April 2011, La Liga, Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid

Real Madrid's Pepe, left, gestures at Barcelona goalscorer Lionel Messi during Saturday's tense Clasico clash at the Bernabeu.

By this point, Guardiola had stopped going the gym. He used to spend up to two hours a day working out, a keen believer of the ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ theory.

The first showdown was tame, almost as if the teams were nervous – which was certainly the case. Like a sparring match, or the first 20 minutes of a big match anywhere in the world, both teams were content with a draw. For Barça, the draw meant that the title was all but sealed. For Madrid… well, they were just happy to not lose.

The only real talking point that was memorable was the tight marking of Lionel Messi by the hardman Pepe. The Argentinian wizard rarely gets agitated, but when he does, you know. This was one of those occasions, with some of his team mates having to calm him down from frustration. It wasn’t the first and certainly wasn’t the last time that Messi was almost unfairly marked out of the game with aggression and strength, but Messi got particularly wound up this time.

Messi calmed down despite Pepe being a protagonist in the tunnel trying to spark fights, and a bigger task was just four days away: the Copa del Rey final in Valencia…

2. 20 April 2011, Copa del Rey final, Mestalla, Valencia

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Four weeks is a short time to prepare to play the same team again, never mind four days. Yet just four days after the mundane one all draw in Madrid, José Mourinho’s men had a huge advantage, both psychologically and tactically (unless you class those as interlinking).

Although it took an extra time strike from Cristiano Ronaldo to win the game and trophy, Real Madrid were deserved winners, and Mourinho had got one over on his arch enemy.

The final may best be remembered for what happened off the pitch, with two contrasting events. The first was in the direct aftermath when Lionel Messi stormed into the dressing room and sat on the floor crying, uncontrollably. He is a born winner, and the thought of losing escapes Messi. On the other hand, Sergio Ramos got so caught up in the celebrations that he dropped the trophy off an open top bus parade.

Who did this affect more psychologically? The Barcelona team who spent the whole journey home in pretty much silence on the coach? Or was it Madrid, who celebrated not just the win, but the fact they knew, or thought, they had the upper hand going into the Champions League ties in the coming week.

The problem went beyond Pep’s mental endurance, writes Guillem Balague in his book ‘Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning’. “The constant friction made it difficult to take the right decisions, his juggling of so many roles – figurehead, coach, beacon of the club’s values – was becoming too much to bear”, continued Ballague.

Reportedly, one of Pep’s closest friends heard him threatening to leave Barcelona due to this mental fatigue. For him, every trophy – the entire campaign – was being contested against the eternal rival in the period of eighteen days. It is sports psychology at the highest order.

Mourinho had got to him, Guardiola was rattled, you could say. He was feeling the pressures of management like never before, and despite the fact his team was widely tipped the best in the world, he wasn’t enjoying a minute of it. He had to somehow sell each Clásico different. He couldn’t brief the team the same four times, nor he couldn’t praise them too highly for any good things as they may slack. Guardiola had to balance more than he felt he could. He needed some sort of uplift psychologically.

3. 27 April 2011, Champions League semi-final first leg, Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid

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That psychological lift came from the most… likely source. Guardiola often used weird techniques to lift his team ahead of big games. In one of his Champions League finals, he showed them a highlight video of their highlights to get them in the mood. In another, he simply said ‘Do it for Abi’, referring to Eric Abidal, who had recovered from cancer to make the final. This time, it was a speech in a press conference aimed in response to a personal attack from Mr Mourinho, who accused Guardiola of unfair play for moaning about refereeing decisions.

Despite being advised not to refer to Mourinho, Guardiola – a usually calm man – stormed into the press conference and delivered a speech aimed at his rival. Pep glanced around the room with a half smile, almost sinister like in nature, making sure he had the attention of the gathered journalists, before delivering 2 minutes 27 seconds of anger and aggression:

“Because Mr Mourinho permitted himself the luxury of calling me Pep, I will call him Jose. Tomorrow at 8.45 we are going to face on the pitch. He has already won the battle off the pitch. He has been winning all season. If he wants his own personal Champions League I’ll let him have his own off-field trophy. I hope he takes it home and enjoys it as much as the other trophies. He can say or do whatever he wants. In this room Mourinho is the fucking chief, the fucking boss.”

The Champions League two legged semi final had just started. Guardiola returned back to the dressing room to a standing applause from the team, led by the midfield diamond Xavi Hernandez.

Mourinho’s off the pitch strategy had not worked, it had done the opposite – motivated his opponents.

On the pitch, Barcelona were by far the better team, and two late Lionel Messi goals secured a 0-2 victory for Guardiola’s team. Mourinho continued, though. The turning point in the match was the sending off for Madrid’s key defender – Pepe. The Portuguese international was the one tasked with marking Messi out of the game, which he did well for sixty minutes, before his red card. Following this, Mourinho remarked that Barcelona had the referees on their side and that Guardiola should be ashamed, saying that he would not want to win the Champions League that way. Via saying Guardiola was going to win the Champions League, Mourinho was playing his old trick of telling the press he thinks his side are out of the competition.

Guardiola disagreed, knowing there was still work to be done: “A team that has won nine European Cups can never be written off”, he said.

4. 3 May 2011, Champions League semi-final second leg, Camp Nou, Barcelona

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The fourth and final Clásico wasn’t as eventful as the others, the calm after the storm like an action movie with a happy ending, for Barcelona at least. The game finished one goal apiece and Barcelona qualified for the Champions League final.

Pep Guardiola, and his players, were shattered, as were the fans I imagine. Four Clásico’s in 18 days is ludicrous and a huge test of mentality. Barcelona came out victorious, and went on to win the Champions League that season with a victory over the great Manchester United, led by Sir Alec Ferguson, a hero of Pep’s when he was first getting into management.

The biggest test of sports psychology that either manager will face, and one that has shaped their careers. With three in 25 days now, as well as Guardiola’s City side going for a gruelling four trophies, these experiences may come in handy.