Graça e Classe: An Appreciation of Arsenal’s Edu

Chris Weir talks about Edu, the former Brazil and Arsenal midfielder, and gives his view that the Brazilian was an essential part of Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’ side.

By Chris Weir.

After 105 minutes of the 2005 FA Cup final , an exhausted Robert Pirès trudges towards the touchline. Arsène Wenger has one eye on the penalty shoot out, and wants to shore things up against a rampant United attack by bringing on a sub. He turns to Edu.

In those fifteen minutes, Edu Gaspar does what he’s always done, playing without fuss, passing and moving in midfield, conducting the play.

By the time Vieira slammed home the winning penalty, everybody knew that Edu was on his way out. Two disappointing contract offers had convinced him to go to Spain, with rumours that Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia were considering an approach. In the end it was Los Che who got their man.

It was an ending that did the club and the player a disservice. Whilst Vieira will rightly be considered as the star of the Invincibles midfield, his right and left hands were made in  Brazil. Gilberto Silva was his usual partner, his positioning and defensive nous freeing the captain further forward. Edu would wait in the wings, a most able deputy for both, fitting seamlessly into the the role of playmaker and playbreaker when needed.

Grace is a word that comes to mind whenever Arsenal fans think of Edu, the unassuming Paulistano.

Grace in how he carried himself on the field. He had no pace to burn, nor did he need it. His balletic football brain helped him anticipate and evade most tacklers.

Grace in how he played the game. He was Brazilian, yes, but saw no utility in samba flair. The simple pass was his natural realm, his kingdom the sliderule ball to Pirès or the lofted wedge to Henry. His dance was the shuffle into space, creating a pocket to receive the ball before sending it on its way again. Pass, move, repeat.

Class is another word that comes to mind. He was never an automatic starter, but not once could he be seen sulking on the bench, or sullenly complaining of poor treatment. He accepted his place in the team, and his sometimes peripheral, yet always vital, role in the squad.

An example of the man. After winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil, Gilberto Silva arrived in North London, unable to speak much English and playing outside his country for the first time. Edu was quick to take his compatriot under his wing, despite being a direct competitor for his place in the starting eleven. Gilberto was effusive in his praise, telling Amy Lawrence in the brilliant book ‘Invincible‘;

‘Even though he’s younger than me he behaved like a big brother. He was fantastic to me, the way he helped me’.

It hasn’t always been easy for Edu. Shortly after signing from Sao Paulo for £6 million, he arrived in England only to be sent back home for having a forged passport. Not long after, his sister was tragically killed in a car accident. His life had gone from dream to disaster in a flash, and he admitted his head was ‘wrecked’.

After being granted an EU passport he brought his extended family with him to London, where they were supported and given time by his new club.

“What we all went through made me mentally much tougher. I had come to a new country with a new language and I had to make new friends” he admitted to the Evening Standard in 2001.

Edu’s class off the field was matched by his displays on it. For most Arsenal fans, the highlight was a frosty Milan evening in November 2003 against Inter. The Italians had outclassed Arsenal in the return fixture at Highbury a few months before, and the Gunners needed a win to secure passage to the next round of the Champions League.

Whilst two clinical goals saw Henry take the plaudits, Edu led a pack of non-regulars in delivering an audacious performance, helping Pascal Cygan and Ray Parlour give the Milanese a 5-1 pasting. As he whipped off his shirt in celebration after scoring the fourth goal, he slammed on the dividing glass between the fans and the pitch. This really was happening, he seemed to say. This really was real.

For all of his ability though, Edu is probably best remembered for what he represented to the club. Class, yes. Grace, indisputably.

Most of all, though, he represented quality. Having a player of his calibre on the bench was a luxury Arsenal could afford. Seeing him replace Patrick Vieira after 65 minutes never concerned the Highbury crowd. Likewise, coming on to replace Pirès in that FA Cup final, Gunners fans knew what they were getting – a reliable performer. It’s a shame the club didn’t realise what they were losing that summer, nor how long it would take them to replace it.

Edu’s time at Valencia was marred by injury, the Brazilian only managing fifty appearances in his four years at the Mestalla. His five year contract was terminated with one year to spare, and his fortunes didn’t change when he signed a short deal with Corinthians back home in Sao Paulo. Again, his contract was cancelled, this time after just four games in 2010. It was a disappointing finish to a career that had so often been frustrated by injury and bad timing.

Still – class and grace, graça e classe.

In Amy Lawrence’s aforementioned tome, Edu’s description as a man “much loved for his effortless friendliness” helps explain his appointment as Corinthians Director of Football in early 2011. At 34, he was helping manage Brazil’s richest football club, brokering Paulinho’s transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. A final gift to the Arsenal faithful, perhaps.

More recently, he helped facilitate Alexandre Pato’s January transfer to Chelsea in 2016. It seems a role well-suited to a footballer universally liked and respected, wherever he’s been.

Edu Gaspar should always be remembered for his skills on the pitch. He epitomised class and grace, and in doing so symbolised everything that made Arsenal Invincible. How they’d love to have him now.


Taeguk Odyssey: Looking Back on South Korea’s March to Football History

An in-depth view at South Korea’s mercurial journey during the 2002 World Cup they part-hosted.

By Chris Weir

“FIFA rules do not allow co-hosting of the World Cup. As long as I am FIFA President that will not change.”

Joao Havelange was not a man to be taken lightly. The Brazilian had revolutionised FIFA in his 22 years at the helm, turning it into a commercial monster with the World Cup as it’s flagship product. His word on football was almost always the last.

It was a surprise, then, when South Korea and Japan were announced as co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup in May 1996.

The bid decision didn’t sit well with the Japanese, who until the eleventh hour had been confident of securing the rights on their own terms. Kenji Mori, the J League’s managing director, put it bluntly:

“This is the worst case scenario.”

The co-hosts were far from friendly neighbours, with Koreans having lived under the colonial rule of the Japanese for nearly fifty years, only being liberated after World War Two. With this announcement, a centuries-old rivalry would now be played out in a footballing arena.

Granted automatic qualification as hosts, both were expected to perform by their associations.  Japan had Parma’s Hidetoshi Nakata, the poster boy of Asian football, whilst Jun-ichi Inamoto had become the first of his country to play for Arsenal.  Shinji Ono, meanwhile, had just won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord, and the nation were hopeful of a respectable showing on home turf.

South Korean expectations were equally high, if a little less realistic. Seol Ki-Hyeon had struggled for Anderlecht despite becoming the first player from the country to score in the Champions League, while Ahn Jung Hwan hadn’t set the world alight with Serie A’s Perugia.  Most of the squad was still based in Korea, including stalwart and captain Hong Myung-Bo, in a league that was busy finding it’s feet.

There were also questions off the pitch, some suggesting that coach Guus Hiddink wasn’t approaching the job with the gravitas it needed.

According to the New York Times’ Jeré Longman, his relationship with girlfriend Elizabeth was met with raised eyebrows in a country that favoured discretion and deference, while Hiddink’s decision to pick players based on their ability rather than background irritated rather than inspired. It was typically singleminded – part of the reason he was sacked from the Real Madrid job two years before was for stating publicly that Los Merengues lacked professionalism under president Lorenzo Sanz.

Hiddink’s lack of popularity wasn’t helped by his team losing most of its games as a guest in a CONCACAF tournament a year earlier, as well as being spanked 5-0 by the French at the Confederations Cup. His reputation was already wavering after a bitterly short spell with Betis followed the disaster in Madrid.

The future, for all parties, wasn’t clear.

Certainly, nobody expected footballing history to be made. France were heavy favourites for the tournament, with the top scorers of Serie A and the Premiership in David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry being fed by Zinedine Zidane. The latter had just scored that goal to win the Champions League for Real Madrid at Hampden,and was at the peak of his imperious powers.

Argentina were the other hot ticket. Everywhere you looked they had experience and quality, even on the bench where Marcelo Bielsa – demigod to footballing hipsters the world over – directed matters in his inimitable style.

With the draw made, the Koreans were placed in a difficult group alongside Poland, Portugal and the United States. Everybody expected the Iberians to qualify, but second spot and a ticket to the next round seemed achievable. Despite being ever present since 1990, the Americans had qualified from the group stage just once, while a weak Poland team was making its first appearance since 1986.

It was the latter who lined up against Team Korea on the 4th of June, the Europeans starting brightly with some early attacking forays.  The wall of noise greeting every Korean attack was deafening, something akin to the roar facing rockstars as they walk on stage at a concert.

Still, it was nothing compared to the hysteria unleashed in the 26th minute, when Hwang-Sun Hong swept in a cross from the left hand side. Where his marker was is a question that remains unanswered.

Hwang-Sun Hong celebrates scoring against Poland

Joy turned to euphoria in the 53rd minute, Jerzy Dudek palming Yoo Sang-Chul’s screamer into the top corner. The Koreans had arrived, with Polish coach Jerzy Engel admitting his side had been bested by an energetic and enthused display.

After one game Korea were top of the Group, with Portugal coming unstuck 3-2 against a dogged USA. The hosts found the Americans a similarly tough nut to crack, only salvaging a late draw with Ahn’s 78th minute equaliser after Clint Mathis had opened the scoring.

As reported by Andrew Salmon in the Korea Times, the game itself was dominated by the recent death of two schoolchildren in a road accident involving American troops stationed in the country. It made for a tense atmosphere, but a draw suited both teams.

Portugal’s 4-0 trouncing sent Poland packing, but in truth it was a solitary highlight in a tournament that embarrassed the Selecçao. In their final game where a draw would do, Luis Figo, Rui Costa et al. failed to turn up , with Park Ji-Sung scoring the type of skilful finish that would see him earn a subsequent move to PSV. A one-nil victory for South Korea and passage to the next round.

The Japanese had also managed to progress, two wins and a draw meaning they finished ahead of Belgium and Russia in Group H. Sadly for the Samurais, however, they were then eliminated by a potent Turkish side inspired by Hasan Şaş. Ümit Davala’s 12th minute goal meant Korea stood alone as Asia’s last hope.

By this stage, their skill and fitness was winning many plaudits. Hiddink’s ability to spend the three months prior to the tournament fine tuning his squad was paying handsome dividends. The Koreans were hungrier, fresher, imbued with the confidence the Dutchman had instilled in them.

Still, everybody expected normal order to be restored when they faced Italy in the second round. The eager Korean attack would surely fire blanks against the world’s best defence. Even if Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta were both missing for the Azzurri, Gianluigi Buffon would stop the shots that Paolo Maldini deigned to let through.

It wouldn’t be long before the celebrations turned into accusations.

Korea signalled their intent from the off, winning a penalty in the opening minutes which Buffon managed to claw away, before Christian Vieri silenced the home crowd with a typically forceful header. What followed was an archetypal Italian performance right up until the 88th minute. After Christian Panucci failed to clear a simple cross, Seol swept a left footed shot gratefully home. Extra time and the golden goal loomed.

Given the cynical nature of the Italians throughout, it was perhaps a surprise that the only red card came for Francesco Totti, with referee Byron Moreno showing him a second yellow for diving. The Italians were apoplectic, but fury turned to despair when Ahn nodded in a whipped cross from another future PSV player in Lee Young-Pyo.

Francesco Totti having been sent off against South Korea.

The fireworks crackling overhead were matched by the wild celebrations on the pitch, as the Korean bench ran to embrace their hero goalscorer. The result cost Giovanni Trappatoni his job, and a nation it’s pride.

It would be the highlight of Ahn Jung-Hwan’s career. 24 hours after that fateful goal, the  Perugia chairman cancelled his contract in perhaps the world’s worst case of sour grapes. Still, Ahn had other things to focus on, like a quarter final clash with Spain.

Before they won everything, the Spanish had an unshakeable tag of underachievers on the biggest stage. Chock full of quality yes, but too prone to failing under pressure and the hot lights of expectation. If you were to ask any Spaniard about the game in Gwangju today, you’d no doubt be greeted with a flurry of Latin profanities. Iván Helguera summed up the mood of a nation when he bemoaned “what happened here was robbery“.

Looking back on the highlight videos would make even Ashley Young wince at the lack of fair play. Spain were denied two clear goals, the first off the shoulder of Kim Tae-Young after Helguera was penalised for shirt-pulling. The second was a ruled-out header from Fernando Morientes. Despite frantic Spanish argument, The Egyptian referee agreed with his linesman that the ball had run out of play before being crossed. The highlights, which have surely been played in many a Spanish household since, showed otherwise.

The game went to a penalty shoot out and, after an ill-looking Joaquín missed, the talismanic captain Hong-Myung Bo fired Korea into the semi final. Whilst Hiddink gushed about dreams coming true, Iván Helguera admitted the torture that game had inflicted in a later interview with AS ;

“In my clenched fist, I had all the helplessness I felt inside, and I think that of the 39 million Spaniards who had watched that game.”

The debate about the apparent favouritism displayed towards the home side would continue, and still lingers today 14 years on.

Despite it though, Korea were now in a World Cup semi-final, in their home country, just 18 months after being rolled over 3-1 in the Gold Cup by Paulo Wanchope’s Costa Rica. The footage from the time speaks for itself, as a whole nation exalted in a state of unequalled, unfiltered joy. “Hidonggu” had led his youthful charges to footballing history.

Still, there’s wasn’t much time for celebration. Whilst few could argue that this was the worst German team in a generation, they had a dangerous amount of talent in their squad. Bernd Schneider and Carsten Ramelow had been part of the team that reached the Champions League Final with Bayer Leverkusen a few months previously, whilst their star player Michael Ballack was also a fixture. Oliver Kahn would go on to win the award for the tournaments best player, whilst Miroslav Klose was on the upward curve of an astonishing international career that would see him against Turkey to win the trophy 12 years later in Brazil.

It was here where the music stopped. Germany are the experts at ruining everybody’s fun, and Michael Ballack’s bittersweet strike (a booking meant he would miss the final) condemned the Koreans to a painful exit in a game that had the entire country gripped.

In the aftermath of the match against Turkey, president Kim Dae -Jung publicly thanked Hiddink and his men for their heroic display, whilst Korean Air guaranteed the coach four years of free air travel after the unprecedented events on the field. A divisive figure a month before, Hiddink was granted honorary citizenship as well as having Gwangju stadium renamed in his honour.

Nobody could have expected such success to last, but still many were left deflated when South Korea exited the 2006 World Cup at the first hurdle, edged by Switzerland and Raymond Domenech’s France.

The dream was over.

By that time, Hiddink had returned to PSV, winning three Dutch League titles and bringing them to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Only the away goals rule helped opponents AC Milan into that final in Istanbul, with Park Ji-Sung’s displays earning him a move to Manchester United in the summer.

Still, Korea’s run to the semi-final will forever be remembered, albeit with different emotions depending on whether you find yourself in downtown Seoul or at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.  But for Hiddink, Hong Myung-Bo and the vibrant Red Devils, this was a time where Eastern Promise well and truly delivered.

Why It’s Time We Put the Sleeping Giants Myth to Bed

Chris Weir provides an intriguing spin on the ‘sleeping giant’ myth that haunts the likes of Aston Villa and Newcastle United amongst others.

By Chris Weir.

On Saturday, Aston Villa’s relegation to the Championship was confirmed. In his post-match interview, Joleon Lescott drew the ire of fans and commentators alike by suggesting that relegation was almost a “relief” for the players. I understand completely where he’s coming from.

Since Martin O’Neill left under a cloud in 2010,  Aston Villa’s trajectory has only been downward. Despite their fate being sealed after a 1-0 loss to Manchester United, fans are optimistic about returning to the Premier League next year. After all, this is a club that won the European Cup in 1982, who play to almost 50,000 ardent supporters every week in the UK’s second largest city. They are a ‘sleeping giant’.

Except that no, they’re not.

It’s this kind of fallacious logic that saw fellow ‘big club’ Newcastle go down in May 2009, and which again sees them flirting with the drop this year.

Newcastle and Aston Villa are not ‘big clubs’ in anything other than a sentimental sense, and even then only to their own fans.

I don’t want to seem unkind. I think both clubs are institutions in the British game, each with glittering histories and loyal supporters. Players like Alan Shearer and Dwight Yorke left indelible imprints on the footballing landscape.

Yet I’ve watched countless games, particularly involving Newcastle, where the fans set such high standards for their mediocre players that they’ll never be happy. I invite anybody to argue that starting Jack Colback in your midfield will bring European football back to Tyneside, for instance.

I get it. Newcastle’s situation is unique. They are the sole football club in the UK’s sixth largest city. They have the Toon Army, a fantastic fanbase as fervent and loyal as any throughout the country. Wherever you go in Newcastle city centre, St.James Park looms like a watchful gargoyle over its footballing cathedral.

Still, I can’t remember the last time fans won football matches. I can’t remember the last team decibels translated into points, or shirt sales into goals.

Football, like everything in life, is worth only as much as you are willing to put into it. In Randy Lerner and Mike Ashley, Villa and Newcastle have two of the Premier League’s most recalcitrant owners. In Ashley’s case, it took fan protests for force him to shell out on transfers in the summer – a strategy that has failed woefully, as several promising signings have failed to deliver on the pitch this year.

Giorginio Wijnaldum has withered apathetically after a promising start, while Aleksandr Mitrovic is gaining a reputation more for his aggression rather than his goals. The players already there have also flattered to deceive. Moussa Sissoko scored his first goal of the season at the weekend – hardly the kind of form that would see Didier Deschamps racing to call him up to the France squad for this summer’s Euros. The less said about Papiss Cissé, meanwhile, the better.

Villa’s problems are perhaps even larger. A focus on the French market, with the signings of Jordan Veretout and Jordan Ayew, has been combined with an emphasis on diligent but inferior youth products like Ciaran Clark and past-it mercenaries like Micah Richards.

No wonder, then, that Lerner has had the club up for sale for almost two years now without finding a buyer.

In the dugout,the appointments have been nothing short of disastrous. Alex McLeish, former manager of arch-rivals Birmingham City, was a non-starter both in PR and footballing terms, whilst Tim Sherwood will always be more successful as an internet meme than a serious sporting coach.

Villa’s relegation, and Newcastle’s similarly likely fate, is a product of poor club management and strategy. There can be no denying that the clubs are where they  should rightfully be, at the foot of the Premier League table.

Still, football has and always will be about the fans. These two groups of supporters deserved better from the clubs they give their money to. They expect better from the teams they grew up with, who are supposed to represent the areas where they’re from.

In this sense, it is not the clubs who are the sleeping giants – it’s the fans. Villa and Newcastle supporters should wake up and demand that their clubs be treated with more respect than mere distractions by uncaring owners.

Only then will change sweep through the boardrooms at St.James and Villa Park. Only then will they be able to call themselves big clubs, looking to the future rather than the past.

The Berlusconi era nears an end

Christopher Weir looks into the AC Milan malaise of the past four years, and comes to the conclusion that the problem lies right at the top of the food chain.

By Chris Weir.

On Tuesday, Sinisa Mijhajlovic became the latest victim of the AC Milan madness.

A string of average results meant the Serb became the fourth Milan manager to pack his bags in two years. The Rossoneri look certain to miss out on the UEFA Champions League for a third consecutive year, as youth coach and former player Cristian Brocchi takes up the reigns of another mediocre campaign.

However, the seven-times European champions should look to the top of the food chain to find out how they got into such a rut.

When Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986, it signalled the start of a glorious trophy-laden era. Under Arrigo Sacchi, Milan won their first Scudetto in a decade before winning consecutive European Cups. Later, under Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, they went onto certify their status as the biggest club in Italy, playing some masterful football along the way.

Throughout this glittering period, Berlusconi was always the figurehead. The billionaire, who has a controlling stake in Italy’s largest media organisation Mediaset through his company Fininvest, has always used the AC Milan image as a boon for his political ambitions.

It came as no surprise that the Rossoneri winning the European Cup in May 1994 coincided with Berlusconi’s first of four spells in government as Italy Prime Minister.

Milan’s transfer policy has always fluctuated depending on whether Silvio needs a boost in the polls. For example, the signing of Mario Balotelli in 2013 bumped up his numbers in the Italian election, despite a conviction for fraud less than six months earlier.

It wasn’t the only controversy surrounding the media mogul during his tenure as club President. The former Prime Minister has certainly been busy both inside and outside of the office. Despite various alleged indiscretions, his status at Milan remained largely unaffected. It certainly helped that the club were still winning matches and trophies at that stage, and it goes to show that everything is forgiven as long as the victories keep racking up.

Yet Silvio, the saviour who rescued the club from bankruptcy 30 years ago, now seems the likeliest reason for the club’s current malaise. The sales of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2012 finalised the Rossoneri’s exit from the European elite, as the owner became distracted by his political machinations and funding for transfers subsequently dried up. In times of austerity, the spending of exorbitant fees on transfers may not have been something Italians looked on favourably.

Almost overnight the quality of football in Lombardy went from Prada to Primark. Rossoneri fans were cheering Alessandro Nesta and Rino Gattuso one year, Kevin Constant and Francesco Acerbi the next.

Four years after selling Zlatan and Silva to PSG, Milan continue to suffer from a lack of planning. The failures to replace the departing Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Nesta and co. were compounded by the decision to let Andrea Pirlo go to Juventus on a free transfer.

In 1987, Berlusconi proved he wasn’t afraid to make a managerial appointment from left-field when he called on Arrigo Sacchi, a man with no significant footballing background (as a player, anyway) before getting the job at Milanello. What was once a stroke of genius, however, turned into two acts of folly with the decisions to hire Pippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf as manager.

The latter is particularly bizarre – whilst Inzaghi had some experience with the youth squad, Seedorf was still playing for Botafogo in Brazil when he accepted the call from Milan CEO Adriano Galliani. The results spoke for themselves, as the erudite Seedorf was sacked after four meagre months.

The appointments appeared risky at the time, and shockingly naive in hindsight. Cristian Brocchi will no doubt be making note of the obvious parallels between his signing and of those who’ve already fallen on Berlusconi’s eager sword.

Still, for a while this season it looked like they were on the way up. Milan thrashed cross-town rivals Inter 3-0 in the Madonnina, whilst the emergence of Gianluigi Donnarumma between the sticks has been a real find. They are in the Italian Cup final and they seemed to have regained a semblance of fight and spirit, despite lacking in creativity.

And then the sacking came. The players are unhappy with Berlusconi’s latest hatchet job, whilst the fans have also voiced their anger at the decision. The president appears increasingly out of touch with his football club, and his irrational management continues to weaken both the team and his own position. 

What next for Milan? As of yet, rumours of investment from Thai magnate Bee Taechaubol haven’t materialised into a real offer – but even if they do, who would be willing to work with Berlusconi given his calamitous leadership of recent years?

Milan fans will always be thankful to the President for the memories. Increasingly however, it seems that this is one leader who has reached the end of his term.

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