The unfulfilled promise of Julen Lopetegui at Real Madrid and the ugly aftermath

Ever had that feeling in life when something is doomed from the start such as a business initiative or a relationship? Just ask Julen Lopetegui, Real Madrid’s recently sacked manager. How do you go from being the man tasked with heralding a new era of Spanish dominance to being fired from two of the most coveted coaching positions in world football in a span of 4 months? Once again, the answer to the question lies with Mr. Julen Lopetegui.

As cliched as it sounds, life has its ups and downs. If anything, the only constant is the transient nature of life. However, it surely takes some doing and some truly unique circumstances to have such a rapid downfall.

With the dust having settled at Real Madrid and interim manager Santiago Solari being given a permanent contract till 2021, it may finally be time to shed light on a coaching stint that had the makings of greatness and yet may have been doomed even before it began. What appears to be adding even more fuel to the fire is Solari’s uninspired and controversial stint thus far.

So, what happened earlier this season and what is really going on at Los Galacticos?

Julen Lopetegui’s Moment of Weakness

While being a gifted individual and having loads of ability is one thing, being able to sense the tide is another thing entirely. When Lopetegui was contacted by Florentino Perez about taking over the managerial reins at Real Madrid, following Zidane’s shock resignation; he should have thought twice. He should have guessed that something was amiss and that there may have been some thing deeper that caused Zidane to resign. After all Zidane had just come through a very difficult league campaign and somehow managed to pull off another miracle in the form of a third consecutive champions league.

Lopetegui on the other hand had just led Spain to the World Cup on the back of an unbeaten qualification campaign. More importantly, Spain had looked completely revitalised and emerged as possible contenders for the World Cup. So, what could cause a man potentially on the cusp of the greatest moment in his fledgling coaching career to throw it all away; even for one of the greatest football clubs in world history?

They say that one has to grab the opportunities thrown one’s way in life. While this is true, one should at times exercise caution in doing so. Perhaps Lopetegui took the saying too literally. When a coach who was considered as only the 5th or 6th choice in the pecking order was contacted; it should stand to reason that there must have been strong motivations behind other illustrious names not accepting the offer of head honcho at Real. Perhaps the glitz and glamour of coaching a club as big as Real clouded his decision making.

Decision making on the other hand is something that Zidane shares few equals with in the footballing world.

Real’s Inherent Problems

Real might have created history last season by winning an unprecedented third consecutive champions league title. Yet the plain truth is that the champions league victory merely papered over the cracks within the squad and the club. The 2017-18 season was supposed to be the season where Real finally did the treble and conquered all. While the season did start off with two extremely convincing super cup victories, the rest of the season was extremely disappointing.

It is highly possible that the success of previous seasons had resulted in some complacency within the squad. Hence, they were unable to sustain that level of performance throughout. Although Real limped over the finish line in the champions league, the entire campaign had taken its toll on Zidane. Zidane clearly realised that the squad was in need of some kind of shake-up and a new direction was needed in order to ensure continued success.

Owing to the low-profile nature of Zidane’s managerial style, it still isn’t really clear what kind of changes Zidane had in mind. After having seen the current season unfold, however, one begins to get an idea behind Zidane’s shock resignation.

Many of Real’s stars and veterans have put in largely underwhelming performances this season. Among these under-performers, the one whose name stands out the most is Luka Modric. His performances for the most part have looked very uninspiring and tired after a terrific performance last season and in the World Cup. To be fair, he has been looking like his old self in recent games. At the same time, it should be noted that he has been a regular starter throughout the entirety of the first half and that has had its effects.

Another of Real’s issues has been its goal production. When Ronaldo left, the board assumed that the trio of Bale, Benzema and Asensio would share goal scoring responsibilities. Hence, the board decided not to sign a high-profile striker or forward. The only notable summer signing was ex Castilla player Mariano Diaz from Lyon after a great last season. That said, Mariano Diaz was not expected to start and was primarily signed as a back-up to Benzema.

For all of Real’s talent up-front, the goals just haven’t been coming with the forward line being extremely profligate in front of goal. To make matters more interesting, there are some rumours that Zidane wanted Bale out of the club and planned to extend Ronaldo’s stay at the club. Club president Florentino Perez reportedly disagreed with Zidane as he wanted his prize asset to stay at the club; thus, causing Zidane to resign.

The Bright Start

Despite the controversial circumstances surrounding Lopetegui’s appointment as manager, it seemed like the perfect appointment on paper. A prominent feature of Zidane’s managerial stint was a clear lack of team identity or playing style. There were phases when it appeared as though the team was playing in a certain way, employing a certain formation or playing with certain personnel. Just when one thought he knew what to expect with Real, Zidane would entirely re-shuffle the team dynamic. During the first phase of his tenure, this kept things fresh by keeping the players on their toes and constantly taking the opposition by surprise. Later on, though, this seemed to confuse his own players.

Lopetegui seemed like just the man to take the team forward. His more updated take on tiki-taka with heavy emphasis on counter-pressing, a more fluid & direct style and heavy off-the-ball movement had all the ingredients for success. To set things up even better, the team had signed a lot of young Spanish talent in recent years and quite a few of them were familiar with his methods. Last but certainly not the least, the team had Isco Alarcon, his pet student from the Spanish youth and senior national teams. Of all the managers that have headed Real since Mourinho, no one understood Isco quite like Lopetegui. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a significant part of Spain’s successes at the youth and senior levels under Lopetegui were due to the brilliant technical abilities of Isco. So, it only seemed like the logical choice to build the new Real Madrid around the talented playmaker.

In spite of an early super cup loss to Atletico, the 2018-19 season started off in great style. Real rose to the top of the table after some very convincing performances in the league. The front three truly impressed with their off the ball movement and link up play. Benzema appeared to have broken the shackles and shades of his fearless old Lyon self were on display. Most notably, Real’s chance creation rate was on a far superior level than what had been seen in the previous season. Then came the game against Roma in the Champions League and the Merengue faithful bore witness to an absolute masterclass. A mediocre Roma side could get absolutely nowhere near Real’s dynamic movement and were decimated. At the heart of it all was Isco Alarcon; pulling the strings and dictating the tempo of the game. Lopetegui’s emphasis on the collective was paying dividends.

The Rapid Descent

Following the initial success, Lopetegui’s toughest month yet, awaited him. In a packed schedule, Real were due to face the likes of Sevilla, Atletico, Barcelona etc. Unfortunately for Lopetegui, his biggest master stroke would also prove to be his biggest mistake. Building the team around the talents of Isco was a terrific decision as he understood Lopetegui’s fluid possession and inter changing of positions like no other. At the same time, this would also prove to be the Achilles heel for Real. In his most difficult moment, Isco would be ruled out for a month due to Appendicitis. In the absence of Isco, Real appeared a confused side with no movement between the lines. As a result, there was a lot of stale possession but with no clear idea as to how to execute Lopetegui’s lofty footballing plans. It was very similar to Spain’s games in the world cup following Lopetegui’s sacking.

In the games where Real did create quality chances, the forwards started stuttering in front of goal. A string of losses and draws followed, creating a lot of pressure on Lopetegui. Additionally, despite solving Real’s chance creation problems from the previous season, he couldn’t effectively fix Real’s problems with defending in transition.

With his job on the line, Real were set to face Barcelona in the El Classico. In a desperate move, Lopetegui hurried Isco’s recovery following his surgery and he was immediately thrust into the starting line-up against Barcelona. Needless to say, all the negative momentum culminated in a disastrous 5-1 loss and Lopetegui was promptly fired.

The final verdict on Lopetegui appears to be a little harsh and unfair even if warranted. Under Lopetegui, Real’s chance creation rate was second only to Barcelona in the league. Also, in a situation rarely seen in super clubs today, many of the players felt bad that Lopetegui was sacked and openly expressed their gratitude towards him. There is a good possibility that Lopetegui might have been able to turn the situation around given more time especially considering that the players vocally supported him. However, in modern day football, especially at Real, results matter and that meant Lopetegui was out.

Enter Solari

Following the disastrous El Classico, Real appointed Castilla coach Santiago Solari as its interim coach. This appointment seemed strange to say the least. Santiago Solari, while a great player in his day, didn’t exactly have a stellar record with Real Madrid Castilla. More curiously, he hadn’t managed to extract the best out of young talents such as the promising Paraguayan forward Sergio Diaz who was constantly played out of position.

All this notwithstanding, Santiago Solari managed to get some very positive results in his first few games with the club and hence was rewarded with a long-term contract till 2021. While his initial results were positive, the way the team played appeared to be disjointed. If Real’s play last season appeared stale, then it started appearing to be even more disjointed under Solari. While Lopetegui and Zidane emphasised on a more fluid playing structure, Solari appeared to be extremely rigid with his team structure. The emphasis on pressing under Lopetegui also seemed to have disappeared with the team sitting back a little.

After the initial run of positive results, the team’s results have been mixed ever since. More than the team’s results however, what appears to be a cause for concern is the team’s lack of ideas going forward. Although Solari can be credited with making the team defensively more solid, there appears to be no cutting edge in attack. Real’s match against Betis is a case in point where one could be forgiven for thinking that Real was a relegation threatened team playing Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side at its peak. It appears as though Solari favours a rigid team structure, defensive solidity and quick attacks with less possession. As a result, real’s most creative and fluid attackers, Isco and Marcelo, have found minutes hard to come by.

Even more bizarre is Solari’s on going cold war with Isco. It isn’t really clear what caused the tension between the two but its obvious that something is broken in their relationship. The constant transfer rumours and media questions surrounding Isco’s lack of starts haven’t helped team morale either. Under the present circumstances, it seems odd that the likes of Fede Valverde regularly start ahead of Isco given that Real is in dire need of creativity in the final third. Isco and Marcelo are the team’s most press resistant players and Real’s difficulty in getting out of a press under Solari has been exacerbated by their lack of minutes.

It must also be noted that ever since taking over, Solari has placed an emphasis on Castilla and former Castilla players. Allowing home-grown talent to blossom is not only a huge source of pride for clubs but can also enhance their brand value and reduce their spending on big name players. At the same time, his decision to give certain former Castilla players minutes over players who could make a difference is puzzling. A notable exception to this is Marcos Llorente, who has been nothing short of brilliant in his limited minutes as Casemiro’s replacement.

On the flip side to all of this strange decision making is the emergence of Vinicius Junior. It must be said that for all of Lopetegui’s great ideas, he didn’t seem to have enough trust in Vinicius at the time. Solari, on the other hand has given Vinicius complete freedom to fearlessly run at the opposition at every opportunity. Solari’s faith in Vinicius has been vindicated with the Brazilian youngster reciprocating in kind with some terrific performances. Although Vinicius is raw, his tireless running, dribbling, defensive tracking and runs off-the-ball have really caught the eye. At a time when Real Madrid appears completely out of ideas in attack, Vinicius often seems to be the lone bright spark making things happen and creating chances.

An Uncertain Future

Real’s form and results of late appear to be picking up. The midfield metronome Luka Modric is also starting to perform like his old self. With the business end of the season in sight, things are far from straightforward for Real. Even if Los Blancos do manage to win some silverware at the end of the season, greater questions lie.

Is Solari really the right person to take this club forward? What happens to the likes of Isco and Marcelo? Will Real finally sign some big-name players such as Eden Hazard and revert to their old Galactico ways?

Nothing is set in stone and the way things are presently heading, the road ahead for Los Blancos is a tricky one. Whatever happens, football fans can expect one hell of a rocky roller coaster ride!!


Japanese Football Comes of Age

Following a fine run at Russia 2018, Rohan Kaushik looks at the future prospects for Japanese football.

By Rohan Kaushik

It is the 92nd minute in Rostov as Keisuke Honda lines up to take a free kick. The ball is a comfortable 40 yards or so from goal and very few would dare to shoot at goal from that distance. Unknown to the Belgium & Chelsea shot-stopper in goal, Thibaut Courtois, those few individuals include… Keisuke Honda. With a short run-up, Honda strikes at goal. His knuckle-ball free-kick dips wickedly and Courtois scrambles away the ball in the last moment to prevent an embarrassment for Belgium.

Courtois then collects the ball from the ensuing Japanese corner and launches a deadly counter. The counter proves fatal for Japan as most of the blue samurai are caught high up the pitch. After a terrific run and incisive pass by De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier hits a low ball across the goal from the right flank. Romelu Lukaku then cleverly lets the ball run through his legs to super-sub Nacer Chadli in front of a wide-open net. Despite a valiant dive from the Japanese goalkeeper Kawashima, Chadli makes no mistake to put Belgium ahead 3-2 on the night. A few moments later, the referee blows his whistle to call time on arguably the best match of World Cup 2018 and what will surely go down as an all-time world cup classic. None of this matters to the Japanese team who appear shocked and in despair.

Yet, strangely enough, there is a feeling of joy among the fans of the beautiful game, world over. They had just witnessed 90 minutes of end to end attacking football in a world cup knock-out game. This game was a representation of football at its finest; a match played in the true spirit of the game with none of the dull, defensive, bad-blood filled cynical gameplay that has engulfed the game in modern times. Japan for one, may look back at this game as a missed opportunity. At the same time, they can be proud of the fact that they went toe to toe with Belgium’s golden generation; a team that has world class stars in literally every position on the pitch and then some more.

The implications of this match and Japan’s performances in Russia could have far reaching effects on the future of Japanese football…

Japan’s Run in to The World Cup

Not much was expected of Japan going in to this world cup. Japan had gone through a fairly turbulent world cup qualifying campaign with coach Halilhodzic never really sure of his starting eleven. To make matters worse, many of the established Europe-based stars were often dropped, especially the ‘Big 3 of Japanese Football’ (Kagawa, Okazaki and Honda). While it is true that these stars are ageing and not what they used to be, it is safe to assume that they are still a cut above much of the young talent coming through. Halilhodzic certainly had the right intentions with using fresh talent but his approach was far too chaotic and rubbed many the wrong way, not least the Japan Football Association (JFA). Unsurprisingly, Halilhodzic was fired 2 months before the World Cup.

While this certainly created a problem for Japan and might have rendered their world cup preparations moot, it appeared to be the right call. Many of the team’s players had felt alienated and there certainly seemed to be more to the issue then a string of bad results. So, the JFA made a very bold call by appointing Akira Nishino.


With less than two months to go before the World Cup, Nishino’s task appeared a herculean one. However, that said, Nishino is a coach with vast experience in the J-league. The first move he made was to recall all the Europe based stars. His final 23-man squad for the World Cup included very few players from the J-League. His reasoning was that Japan needs players who can perform in the big moments and not freeze up.

Nishino just had three games to get his team ready and firing for the world cup with friendlies lined up against Switzerland, Ghana and Paraguay. Japan’s games against Switzerland and Ghana ended in defeat but their play appeared to be strong and attack-minded. They did eventually manage to beat Paraguay 4-2 in their most encouraging performance in some time.

So, the stage was set for a very interesting world cup that no one had given Japan any chance so far. Japan were in for a stern test against Colombia in their first game.

Japan Surprises All

Jose Pekerman’s Colombia entered this World Cup looking to better their quarter final finish in Brazil 4 years ago. With Radamel Falcao finally back to spearhead the attack, it looked like Colombia were ready to announce their arrival on the big stage in style. Add to that, a star-studded team with the likes of James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca, Yerry Mina and Juan Fernando Quintero, it looked like Colombia might even be a ready for a tilt at the World Cup. In life though, things rarely go according to plan.

Five minutes into their opener against Japan, Yuya Osako raced away on a counter and his shot on goal was blocked by David Ospina. Shinji Kagawa followed up on the rebound and his goal bound shot was blocked by Carlos Sanchez’s outstretched hand. The referee didn’t hesitate to point to the spot and send Sanchez off. Kagawa calmly tucked away the following penalty to give Japan the lead. While Colombia did equalise through Quintero, their man disadvantage rendered their attack toothless. Colombia had shifted into a defensive mindset and it started to tell on their stamina as the game wore on. Japan would eventually get the winner after super-sub Keisuke Honda’s corner was headed in by Osako. It was a lead Japan would never relinquish and claim their (and Asia’s) first ever victory over South American opposition at the World Cup.

Japan’s second game against Senegal would turn out to be another see-saw game with each side periodically trading blows over 90 minutes. The match would finish 2-2 with substitute Honda once again doing the damage with a second half equaliser. With Japan needing just a draw in their final group game against Poland, Japan fielded an experimental line up. Coach Nishino made 6 changes to the team that had played against Senegal. The move however backfired and Japan lost 1-0 to the already eliminated Poland. Yet as fate would have it, Japan would still progress to the round of 16 despite being tied on the same points, goals scored and goal difference with Senegal. In another first, Japan would become the first team to progress to the knock out rounds on the basis of a better disciplinary record.

The dream knock out fixture with Belgium was set as history beckoned for the men from the land of the rising sun.

Japan vs Belgium – A Match for The Ages

Japan vs Belgium

Belgium were widely expected to win this game comfortably after their stellar group stage performances and the fact they were tipped as World Cup contenders. What panned out though had Belgium in shock for a good portion of the game and turned into an absolute roller coaster of a game.

Although Belgium generally looked dominant in the first half, Japan were organized defensively and looked to attack on every opportunity they could get, throwing numbers forward in attack. Additionally, Japan looked very composed in possession when they had the ball. When the whistle blew for half time, it appeared as though it would be a matter of time before Belgium took total control over proceedings. Japan clearly had other ideas.

The blue samurai raced into a two-goal lead within the first ten minutes of the restart through Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui (who was having a stellar World Cup). All of a sudden, it seemed as though Belgium were staring at a shock exit. Credit must however go to Belgium’s gaffer Roberto Martinez for recognising Japan’s age-old issue with physical play. Off went the speed and silky dribbling skills of Carrasco and Mertens and on came the physically imposing Fellaini and Chadli. In an all too familiar turn of events, Belgium started bombarding the penalty area with dangerous crosses. The pressure soon told and Belgium were soon level through a freak header from Vertonghen and a powerful point-blank header from Fellaini. It was here that perhaps Akira Nishino made his only mistake as Japan’s coach in the world cup. There appeared to be a hesitation on his part to bring on fresh legs and perhaps he waited a little too long to bring on Keisuke Honda.

The roller coaster nature of this game still served up enough chances for Japan as well as Belgium to win it. The fatal blow for Japan eventually arrived in the most cruel fashion in the 93rd minute and Chadli made no mistake to put Belgium through to the quarter finals. Many, including Fabio Capello felt that Japan were perhaps a bit too naive after taking a two-goal lead and should have been more cynical. While there is certainly an element of truth to that, the game could so easily have ended differently. Such are the fine margins of sport at this level.

The Positives & The Japanese Way

Russia 2018 was the third time in history that Japan had made it to the Round of 16 at the World Cup and got knocked out, just the same. Something definitely felt markedly different this time around though. When Japan’s golden generation made the cut in 2002, their performances were solid and it was on home soil. Granted, Japan won two games in the group stage but Troussier’s approach to the game was more conservative. The very fact that he dropped future national team legend Shunsuke Nakamura and regularly deployed the defensive minded Myojin and Toda serve to highlight this.

When Japan repeated the feat in 2010 in South Africa, the brand of football was once again defensive. Although Japanese football had progressed significantly enough since 2002, Takeshi Okada’s inability to coax the best out of the team’s talents, led to him reverting to his trademark defensive style. Even though Japan performed well in South Africa, a huge portion of the credit must go to arguably their best ever central defensive pairing of Yuji ‘Bomberhead’ Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Japan’s version of Beckenbauer). This was probably the only time in their history that Japan didn’t look susceptible to crosses.

Fast-forward to 2018 and it appears as though Japan have finally embraced their true identity. For the first time in all their world cups, Japan played with the fast-passing, team work and flair that has come to characterise their play over the years. All too often, Japan have fallen apart on the big stage. Coach Nishino clearly recognised Japan’s short comings from previous World Cups and picked a team that knew how to handle the pressure on the big stage. At no point did Japan appear fazed or mentally rattled. This was particularly highlighted in the game against Senegal when Japan twice came back from behind to level the scores. Throughout Nishino’s coaching career, he has always chosen to go all out when the odds were stacked against him. Gamba Osaka’s 3-5 loss to Manchester United in the FIFA Club World Cup several years is a case in point. So, what then of individual performances?

Individuals Matter

Unsurprisingly, a good chunk of Japan’s best play came from its top-class midfielders. Veteran super stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda showed they still had something left in the tank and were decisive in Japan’s most crucial moments. Captain Makoto Hasebe had a fine world cup in central midfield and kept the team’s shape and balance. However, it is fair to say that he was outshone by his central mid-field partner Gaku Shibasaki. Shibasaki has quietly become one of Japan’s best players in the last few years. He first came under the spotlight when his 2-goal performance for Kashima Antlers against Real Madrid nearly pushed the Galacticos to the brink in the FIFA Club World Cup final. He then moved to Tenerife in the Spanish Segunda where his great performances earned him a move to Getafe. Shibasaki had a terrific world cup with his energetic all round displays and ability to dictate the game from deep.

Above all these performances though, the biggest surprise came from wide midfielder cum winger Takashi Inui. He was arguably Japan’s star performer and his pace & ability to cut in from the left flank caused opposition defences no end of problems. He was justly rewarded with 2 terrific goals for his efforts. The most surprising part is that at 30 years of old, Inui is no spring chicken or the latest find. Strangely, in this last decade of ‘Kagawa-Honda-Okazaki’ dominance, Inui has largely been ignored for national team duties. He has quietly made a name for himself in Europe with strong performances in Germany and then with La Liga surprise package Eibar. It is only fitting that high flying Real Betis have signed the tricky winger.

Other noteworthy performances also came from the likes of Fortuna Dusseldorf winger Genki Haraguchi with his tireless running; and from the evergreen Yuto Nagatomo. The long-time Inter Milan and current Galatasaray left wing back provides such a 2-way presence on the flanks that he can never be ignored. It is hard to imagine Japan getting this far without his lung bursting forays into the attacking third. Hiroki Sakai also ran himself into the ground on the right side of defense.

So where does Japan go from here?

The Future Looks Bright

With Honda, Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai all announcing their retirement after the World Cup, it looks as though Japan is set for an exciting new era. It is expected that the likes of Kagawa, Maya Yoshida and Okazaki will be eased out over the coming years. The time has come for the likes of Shibasaki and the highly promising Gen Shoji to don the mantle and take Japan forward. Players like Takashi Usami, Takuma Asano and Shoya Nakajima could have very important roles to play over the next few years.

Hajime Moriyasu

The announcement of former Sanfrecce Hiroshima and current Japanese Olympic team manager Hajime Moriyasu as the new national team coach is a step in the right direction. It is an indication that Japan has well and truly started embracing their true identity; perhaps a sign that all answers lie within and not externally.

Could the sun finally be rising over the land of cherry blossoms? Exciting times lie ahead…

Japan’s Road to Footballing Glory

With the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia only weeks away, Rohan Kaushik takes an in-depth look at Japan. Might the Samurai Blue push further than the last 16 this time around?

By Rohan Kaushik

Japan is a country known for its aesthetic, disciplined, organised and methodical approach towards most things in life. In short, order and beauty are at the core of its culture. To be sure, football in Japan is no different and is symbolic of the Japanese way. Six consecutive FIFA World Cup appearances is a testament to this. Their short passing game has sometimes been dubbed in the media as ‘Oriental Style Tiki-Taka’. Over the years, this style of play within a well-structured team set-up has made them a dominant force in Asia. They have also shown on quite a few occasions that they can go toe to toe with the world’s best.

Yet for all of the technical mastery and organisation, there is still a very strong sense that Japan are a cut below football’s truly elite. The evidence is there for everyone to see with their best World Cup finish being the round of 16, which they achieved on home soil in 2002 and again in South Africa 2010. So what is holding Japan back?

Blast from the Past

Japan’s rise to the top in Asia in the 90s was nothing short of meteoric. Prior to the 90s the national team’s only major achievement in world football was a bronze medal finish in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. A large portion of the credit for this finish must be attributed to the legendary German coach Dettmar Cramer who laid the foundation for a strong national team in the early 60s. Post the 60s, Japanese football once again faded from the world football scene until the formation of the J-League in the 90s.

It didn’t take long for the league’s formation to have a strong effect on the national team. Japan only narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup in ’94 due to conceding a last minute equaliser against Iraq. The benefits of the league’s commercialisation, professional approach and grassroots programs would go on to inspire a whole generation of footballers in Japan. The first indication of this came about in the Olympics in 1996.

Clubbed in a strong group with Nigeria, Brazil and Hungary, Japan’s route to the knockout rounds looked near-impossible. However, they would go on to cause quite a stir by defeating Brazil and only narrowly missing out on a knockout berth due to an inferior goal difference. Nigeria would then go on to win the tournament and Brazil would finish with a Bronze Medal. The man responsible for this impressive showing was Akira Nishino, a former national team player himself (more on this man later).

More success would follow for the national team with highly impressive showings in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999, where they would only lose out to Spain in the finals. Japan would also make its first World Cup appearance in France ’98 and despite losing all 3 games, they would put up a respectable showing and even score their first goal in the competition. Four years later on home soil, Japan would go one better with a round of 16 finish only losing out to eventual semi-finalists Turkey.

All of Japan’s impressive showings in the late 90s and early 2000s came courtesy their ‘Golden Generation’. The likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura among others were all by products of the J-League and in many ways paved the way for Japanese footballers’ success on the world stage.

The Post-Golden Generation Era

Japan’s golden generation would have one final crack at footballing glory at the 2006 World Cup, but would come spectacularly undone at the showpiece tournament. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Australia, largely underwhelming performances against Croatia and Brazil would see them eliminated at the group stage. Interestingly enough, their performances prior to the tournament had people tipping them to do great things at the World Cup.

However, things would turn out differently for the Samurai Blue in South Africa 2010. Despite many being sceptical of their chances in South Africa, Japan would once again go on to make the knockout rounds only losing out to Paraguay on penalties. Following this impressive finish, Japan would then go on to its best era since its golden generation. Several of its national team members would go on to ply their trade in Europe with great success. Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda would become mainstays of the national team (and in many ways, still are). That said, in similar fashion to 2006, the national team would once again implode on the big stage in Brazil 2014. This would come in stark contrast to Keisuke Honda’s belief that Japan could reach the semi-finals.

Japan’s Issues

Despite Japan’s generally strong technical performances, their final results on the world stage tell a different story. Japan’s issues on this front are multi-fold. A criticism that has often been levelled at Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side over the last decade is their inability to finish off chances in spite of dominating possession. The same can often be said of Japan; well known for its top class midfielders and wingbacks, but at the end of the day, goals win matches and the island nation has still to produce a truly world class striker or centre forward.

Another problem which is often associated with the national team is its inability to break down tight defences (yes, the park-the-bus kind). This is a trend that is often witnessed even when Japan faces technically inferior teams in Asia. The lack of a player who can produce that X-factor in a game by getting past 2 or 3 players has often hurt their chances. To compound this problem, Japan’s players aren’t always the most imposing physically. While this is a problem that can be masked with the presence of some lighting quick, terrific dribblers, this is rarely the case with Japan.

On the world stage especially, Japan has come unstuck against superior opposition when their physicality or the lack of it has been put to the test. A classic example of this came against the Ivory Coast in Brazil 2014. When leading 1-0, Japan’s coach Alberto Zaccheroni brought on the ageing Yasuhito Endo in a bizarre substitution. With Endo being unable to close down the Ivory Coast wingers quick enough, the Japanese defence started getting bombarded with crosses and the pressure eventually told. Japan conceded 2 goals in as many minutes and then went on to lose the game.

The Mental Block

In a team sport like football, the emphasis on the collective takes precedence over the individual. Yet, perhaps in Japan, this mindset has been taken a bit more seriously than in other places. Strong team ethics and discipline are a part of most things in the Japanese way of life and they have transferred many of these characteristics to football.

Early accounts from the initial days of the J-League tell stories of how superstar foreign players and coaches had more than one role. While adding a sprinkling of star dust to the league, they also had to often get the Japanese players to come out of their shell and express themselves more openly. Brazilian legend Zico played a huge role in this regard during his first stint as a player in Kashima Antlers and later on as the coach of national team. Dunga also became notorious for teaching his colleagues at Jubilo Iwata how to dive and con referees.

Also, Japan’s French coach during the 2002 World Cup, Philippe Troussier once remarked that Japanese people follow rules so strictly that they wouldn’t even jump a traffic light in the wee hours of the morning when there was no traffic. Troussier, aka The White Witch Doctor, also became well known for instilling an aggressive approach into the Japanese national team and infamously left Shunsuke Nakamura out of the World Cup squad in 2002 citing his slight build and lack of aggression.

The general lack of powerful personalities within the squad has time and again resulted in Japan falling short at important moments. Whenever the team has needed that something extra special, the lack of players with the ability to drive through the defence or come with up a moment of magic or show that extra fire has really hurt Japan’s chances.

This was also highlighted by the recently sacked Vahid Halilhodzic, their coach throughout the 2018 World Cup Qualification Campaign. Halilu as he is known in the Japanese press constantly reiterated the need for Japanese players to be very strong in one on one duels. Halilhodzic’s tenure in the Japan hot seat was generally controversial throughout. His decision to drop established stars such as Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki often didn’t sit well with the footballing hierarchy in Japan. While his ruffle-the-feathers direct approach may have been a step in the right direction for Japan, he may have possibly been too extreme in his methods. Hence, the decision to sack him at the eleventh hour may have come as a relief to many players and fans alike; especially with the mixed results and the constantly changing first eleven.

So who do Japan turn to in their hour of need ?

Enter Akira Nishino

At 63 years old, Nishino is no spring chicken in the world of coaching. If anything, the JFA (Japanese Football Federation) couldn’t have gone with a better choice. Nishino started his coaching career in fine fashion when he led the Japanese Olympic Team to a victory over a much fancied Brazil side in the 96’ Olympics. He then went on to further cement his reputation as a rising star by coaching Kashiwa Reysol to its first piece of silverware in Japan. In fact, his tenure at the club, is considered to be one of the club’s finest in its history.

Following his stint at Kashiwa, Nishino became the manager of Gamba Osaka and this is where his name will forever be etched in Japanese domestic football history. He led Gamba to several domestic titles over the course of 9 years. During this time, Gamba Osaka developed a reputation for being one of the J-League’s most lethal attacking sides. While they did have some great defenders in the side as well, Gamba Osaka had one of the leakiest defences for a top team in the league. They would often win by outscoring the opposition. Also, a trait that became synonymous with Nishino during his Gamba years was his all or nothing approach, when the team was trailing the opponent in crunch games. Hence, he would often make bold attacking substitutions when needed. To top it all, his crowning moment as a Gamba manager arrived when he led them to a maiden AFC Champions League title in 2008 in emphatic fashion.

An interesting caveat to his management career at Gamba Osaka is the fact that he led them to just one J-League title in a decade long stint. His high octane attacking style often couldn’t be sustained through a gruelling league season and was far more suited to shorter cup competitions.  In many ways his approach and stint at the club is reminiscent of Carlo Ancelotti’s time at AC Milan which was around the same time. Interestingly enough, for all of Carlo Ancelotti’s success in the UEFA Champions League, he too has had limited success with league titles.

The pertinent question, however is, can Nishino lead Japan to their footballing El Dorado or at the very least avoid a footballing disaster at the World Cup? For starters, time certainly isn’t on Nishino’s side with roughly a month to go before the footballing extravaganza kicks off in Russia. Also, has such an assignment come a little too late in his career? His recent domestic spells at Vissel Kobe and Nagoya Grampus have been very underwhelming to say the least. There is a sense that his enthusiasm, drive and passion as a coach have diminished over the years.

Nishino though, sounds very optimistic and is completely up for the challenge. He has publicly stated his desire to take Japan to the knockout rounds and beyond. In addition, he has also acknowledged the importance of Halilhodzic’s emphasis on strong individual play while also stressing the need for Japan to stick close to its roots and play good collective attacking football.

Japan have been placed in a tough group with Senegal, Colombia and Poland and many see Japan as rank outsiders to even make it out of this group. That said, this is a cup competition which has often been Nishino’s greatest strength. If his track record is anything to go by, then Japan is going to need every bit of that high octane, all or nothing approach.

The Strange Duality of Isco

“A certain bandy-legged bearded beauty who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for this lofty ideal; and at the same time looks out of place at Real Madrid.”

By Rohan Kaushik

If there is one thing that has come to characterise the Spanish National Team’s play over the last decade or so, it is ‘Style’. Winning may be important but doing it with panache and a style that’s easy on the eyes can elevate sport to a different level altogether. At Real Madrid, winning in an emphatic manner or with style so to speak is of prime importance. Over the years, legendary players and coaches who couldn’t fit into this spectacular brand of football at Real have been shown the door (Fabio Capello and Claude Makelele are prime examples). Yet for all the emphasis placed on style, there is a certain bandy-legged bearded beauty (Yes, Isco) who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for this lofty ideal; and at the same time looks out of place at Real Madrid.

Isco’s performances and fortunes at Real throughout his time at the club have been stop-start. There always seems to be an aura about him that suggests he could go on to become one of the legends of the game. Creative attacking midfielders however, require a certain freedom, continuity and a well-defined role in order to express themselves fully. For some reason though, this role seems to constantly elude Isco, at least on a consistent basis.

During the second half of the 2016-17 season, Isco played a starring role in helping Real retain the UEFA Champions League and win the league as well. He further asserted his rising star status at the club with stellar performances against Barcelona and Manchester United to help Real win the Spanish and UEFA Super Cups. The stage finally seemed set for the midfield maestro to stake his place among the world’s elite in club football. And yet…

To put all of this into further perspective, his fortunes with the national team couldn’t be more contrasting to those of his club. Under Julen Lopetegui, Isco has been nothing short of spectacular and has been one of the prime catalysts in the national team’s renaissance. So what’s up with him?

The Season So Far

Unfortunately for Real and more so for Isco, the first half of the season turned out to be one of Real’s worst in quite some time. It is quite interesting to note that this terrible run had come on the back of the team’s best season in the Champions League era. Whatever the reason for Real’s lacklustre showing in the first half be it the poor finishing of the forwards, a poor transition defence, an over reliance on crosses or general complacency; Isco’s stock certainly took a hit. While he may have been one of the team’s standout performers in the first 3 to 4 months along with Varane and Nacho, Real’s general gameplay looked stagnant and devoid of inspiration. In spite of the team’s poor form, the general consensus was that Isco was playing well on an individual level and his performances for Spain in the world cup qualifiers were terrific. Then came the match against Sevilla…

Zidane decided to rest Isco for this game and out of the blue, Los Blancos put in an imperious performance against the Andalusians and shipped 5 goals past them. Sevilla might have been in poor form at the time but the speed, incisiveness and direct nature of Real’s attack stood out. In particular, Asensio and Lucas Vazquez had a great game. It was around this time that a strong case started building up against Isco that he slows down play and doesn’t release the ball quick enough. Although such things have been pointed out about his style of play before, the evidence in favour of these aspects of his play suddenly seemed very strong.

To be fair to Isco, it wasn’t as if he was directly responsible for Real’s poor play. Even though Isco may not be lightning quick and his decision making in the final third can sometimes be sub-optimal; his general qualities are extremely favourable to the flow of the game. That said, his performances started fading and soon enough, he found himself on the bench. Despite this, it came as quite a surprise to many when he was benched for the El Clasico against Barcelona. Even though Real played well in the first half, they were convincingly beaten 3-0. It must be noted here that his absence here made no difference to the team’s gameplay. Soon after the turn of the year though, Real’s performances gradually picked up and they even managed to convincingly beat PSG in the Champions League against all odds.

As strange as Real’s disastrous first half was, their uptake in form in 2018 has been even stranger. Among the hall marks of this resurgence have been the dominant play of Asensio and Vazquez, Gareth Bale’s return from injury and Benzema & Ronaldo’s stunning return to form. Their play has been very clinical and direct. Put this in contrast to Isco and everything seems stacked against the midfielder.

In order to present a complete picture, however, his role within Zidane’s system must be examined more carefully.

Isco in Zidane’s Scheme

What Zidane has done for the team in his tenure so far has been nothing short of brilliant. No one expected him to be anything more than a short term interim appointment. It is then safe to say that he has blown everyone’s expectations away. In particular, his exemplary man management skills and ability to motivate players for the big occasion in the Champions League have stood out.

In the midst of all this, there is the curious case of Isco. Initially not a regular under Zidane, he won his place in the side on the back of some superb showings in La Liga. Many have often said that Isco possesses qualities similar to that of Zizou. In fact, Zidane has himself admitted this on a number of occasions. He has even gone on to state his admiration for the Spanish midfielder several times in the media. This mutual trust and relationship between the two has largely held true and it is quite likely that Zidane’s belief in Isco eventually translated to his great performances on the pitch. So what’s gone wrong or ‘appeared’ to have gone wrong for him?

Real Madrid diamond Formation

During Real Madrid’s unprecedented defence of their Champions League title, Zidane had innovated his own version of the ‘Diamond’ formation. This would involve Isco at the tip of the diamond just behind Ronaldo and Benzema while Modric, Kroos and Casemiro would form the remaining part of the diamond. In essence, Isco would roam all over the pitch creating positional overloads in different parts of the pitch, thus outnumbering the opposition at all times. At times, he would drop deep to act as a passing outlet when the defence was under pressure. Most importantly though, in the attacking third, his extra presence in midfield and in the forward line made him impossible to pick up. Therefore, the opposition never had a reference point and had a hard time marking Real’s attacking players. What made this system work so well though, was the fact that the defensive coverage for Isco’s roaming role was extremely good. As a result, whenever the opposition counter attacked Real Madrid, his presence in different parts of the pitch didn’t confuse the other players.

This season however has been a totally different story. Many teams in La Liga and even Tottenham Hotspurs in the Champions League seem to have done their homework on Zidane and his use of the diamond. A strategy that has often been employed by La Liga teams this season has been to sit back deep in their own half and absorb all the attacks from Real’s more possession based play with Isco. Due to this, Real Madrid often resorted to hitting in crosses (often of poor quality) to try and break down the opposition defence. Following this, the opposition would then slice open Real with a few vertical passes due to the lack of defensive and positional coverage for Isco’s unpredictable movements.

Zidane finally seems to have understood this and has switched to a more conventional 4-4-2 with the use of 2 wide midfielders that often seem to be either Asensio and Vazquez. This move has largely proved to be successful and Isco seems to have been relegated to the bench once again.

Julen Lopetegui and Isco

Spain plays a different style from that of Real Madrid. It has often been stated that Isco’s playing style is more compatible to that of FC Barcelona’s due to his more possession oriented game. Although Spain’s playing style has evolved and become a bit more direct under Lopetegui, it has largely remained true to its World Cup winning roots. Under Lopetegui, Isco often plays upfront as a part of a 3-man forward line. Most notably though, Spain doesn’t currently play with true forwards. Although the likes of Iago Aspas, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa are regularly part of the national set-up, only one of them is usually employed in a game. On other occasions though, none of them starts for La Furia Roja.

Strangely enough, Lopetegui uses Isco in a very similar role to his diamond at Real Madrid. He roams all over the pitch, creates positional overloads and helps Spain dominate possession. In a stark contrast to his general performances with Real this season, his play with Spain is always full of confidence and swagger. His goal creation rate of one in every 327 minutes with Real doesn’t make for great reading when compared to a goal every 75 minutes with Spain.

It might seem puzzling to the unacquainted but the difference between these two versions of Isco is not hard to understand on closer analysis. Lopetegui’s emphasis on using several supremely talented passers in midfield along with another 2 midfielders in the front-line makes it very hard for the opposition to mark these players. All these players keep roaming in midfield and are extremely good at interchanging positions. This style of play has been imbibed in these players through all the age group national teams in Spain. Hence, it is not difficult to see how Isco could confidently nutmeg Marco Veratti or score a hat-trick against Argentina.

The Low-Down and the Future

Upon completely viewing the whole picture, it is hard to fault either Zidane or Isco for this situation. As Zidane rightly points out, he greatly admires the midfielder’s abilities but at the same time he can only pick 11 players out of a 25-man squad. Also, despite a stop start 2018, Isco did have a fantastic game against PSG where he helped Real dominate possession against the deadly front-line of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe. At the same time, it might be time for Zidane to come up with another in-genius way of bringing out Isco’s best qualities to help Real win games. His other use of Isco as a pressing machine clearly isn’t helping his confidence.zidane-isco

Isco currently has many suitors including the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Coincidentally, 2018 also happens to be a World Cup year and Lopetegui sees Isco as integral to Spain’s chances of winning the title. While Isco and Zidane have both hinted that they would remain at Real Madrid, rumours have been circling around of a squad overhaul at Real. Whatever happens, it sure promises to be an interesting summer for Isco and company.

The Story Of African Football

With Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Nigeria and Tunisia representing Africa at the upcoming World Cup in Russia, Rohan Kaushik takes an in-depth look into the game’s roots in the continent.

By Rohan Kaushik

Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor, Yaya Toure… these are but a handful of names synonymous with the best footballers on the planet over the last decade. For quite some time now, Africa has been producing a number of world-class footballers and several others who have gone on to ply their trade in different parts of the world. Yet, strangely enough, an African team has never won a World Cup or even come close. Even stranger is the fact that no one really knows much about African football, its national teams and club football. This is however as much a sociological debate as it is a footballing one; perhaps deeper.

It would be a grave injustice to describe the entirety of African football in one article. However, it is high time that Africa started getting its dues and takes its rightful place as one of football’s elite. The journey of Africa deserves to be known.

The Beginning

In a story that is not too different from imperialist sporting origins around the world, African football has its roots in colonial beginnings. There is no definitive moment that recorded when and where African football truly began but most narratives and accounts from the early 20th century tell similar stories. As was the case in many imperialist colonies at the time, Africans were often recruited into European armies to give them greater man power. Additionally, the soldiers had to stay fit and they often introduced fairly popular European sports into their daily routines to do so. It was here that Africa got its first taste of a sport that they would relish and make their own in the due course of time.

While the recruitment of African soldiers was on in full flow, several top statesmen of the erstwhile colonial powers in Europe were drawing borders on a map of Africa. These borders (which would demarcate their territories) were often drawn randomly without any real knowledge of the local geography or culture. Hence, one by one, a lot of the African countries that are well known today started popping up.

The main colonial powers that were in Africa at the time included the likes of France, Portugal, Netherlands and the British Empire. Of all these powers, the one that probably showed the greatest interest in integrating Africans into their sport was France. It was around this time that Baron Pierre De Coubertin had been championing the Olympic movement. So, in order to make a greater mark at international tournaments, France started introducing African players into their sporting teams. The African players stood out for their fitness. Portugal followed suite and it is also said that they were less strict on the natives than their counterparts; so much so that many of them even had off-springs with the local demographic. All this would have a significant bearing on football in the years to come.

Football had also started growing in popularity in Africa with the locals. Varying accounts talk of the natural flair with which the natives approached the game and their unique body and foot movements. It had also become so popular that specific terms describing various footballing actions had become a part of the local lingo. There are accounts of this from the regions in and around Mozambique and even as far south as South Africa. Various football clubs and leagues were also being formed as a result of this new found popularity.

The Birth of the Superstar

With football surging in popularity across the continent, it was only natural that a super star would emerge sooner rather than later. Unsurprisingly, Africa’s first superstar emerged from the French colony of Morocco. Larbi Ben Barek or La Perla Negra (The Black Pearl) was born in Casablanca around World War I and was immediately noticed for his terrific skill on the ball at USM Maroucaine. He was so good that word of his unbelievable talent spread to France and he even turned down the mighty Olympique Marseille the first time around. He was aware that a lot of people were interested in him and waited for his price to go up. When Marseille came calling the second time around, he needed no further invitation. Ben Barek would go on to have a fantastic career with the likes of Marseille and Stade Francais FC. However, it was at Atletico Madrid that he would go on to become a bona fide European superstar and get the nickname Black Pearl. Most notably though, he played for the France national team and not for Morocco.

Larbi Ben Barek.

Another one of Africa’s early superstars, emerged from the French colony of Mali. Salif Keita was born in Bamako in 1946 and it didn’t take long for his finishing skills to be noticed. After making a name for himself in Mali, he was receiving offers from clubs in France. Knowing that the authorities in his country wouldn’t be alright with him playing in France, he escaped undercover. Keita would then go on to become a legendary striker with Saint Etienne banging in goal after goal. He would also go on to play for Marseille, Valencia and Sporting CP.

Salif Keita.

Moving eastward and much further south from Mali, another star was in the making in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Eusebio da Silva Ferreira (more well known to fans around the world as the legendary Eusebio) was born in 1942 in the Mozambican capital of Lourenco Marques (known today as Maputo).  He was born to a white Angolan railroad worker and a local Mozambican mother. Eusebio or Black Panther soon made a name for himself at his local club Sporting Lourenco Marques and was courting interest from a lot of quarters. The old lady of Italian football aka Juventus was one of his first suitors. There would be no looking back though for the nimble and fleet-footed forward when Portuguese giants Benfica came calling.


It is said that his signature was hotly contested by the top clubs in Portugal at the time. Eusebio went on to become Benfica’s greatest ever forward and one of Portugal’s greatest (he never played for Mozambique). He even scored 4 goals against North Korea in the 1966 World Cup Quarter Final (when Portugal was down 0-3) in what is now considered as one of the World Cup’s greatest ever comebacks.

The Different Shades of Africa

While Africa was starting to produce some players with outstanding individual ability, their national teams began to make progress. Egypt became the first African country to qualify for the World Cup in 1934. Africa would have to wait for another 36 years before another of its representatives, Morocco, qualified for the World Cup in 1970. In the years that preceded Morocco’s qualification, some important developments were taking place on the political front across the continent.

During the 50s, many of the European colonies in the continent were becoming independent nations, one by one. Quite notably there was a period in which almost all of the French colonies such as Niger and Cameroon gained their independence. This new found spirit of independence led to a clamour for Africa’s very own continental showpiece tournament. Hence, the CAF (Confederation of African Football) was formed in 1957. In the very same year, the first ever ‘African Cup of Nations’ took place in Sudan and Egypt emerged as the inaugural champion.  They would again go on to win this tournament the following year. Egypt has since become one of the most dominant sides in African competition and have also qualified for World Cups.

Another interesting development that was taking place in the 50s was the use of football as a vehicle to unite nations. Although most of Africa’s nations had been drawn up without giving much thought to the local culture, Africa’s new indigenous heads of state saw football as a golden opportunity to stir national pride. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria actively encouraged their countries’ national teams. In time, Ghana and Nigeria would develop a strong rivalry that still exists today. Both West African nations have shared a number of African Cup of Nations between them and have made a strong impact in FIFA tournaments. Nigeria won the Olympics in 1996 beating a strongly favoured Brazilian side. They also put in a stellar showing at the 94’ World Cup. Ghana on the other hand won the FIFA U-20 Youth Championship in 2009; Brazil once again finishing as a runner up to an African side. Ghana’s senior national team or the Black Stars also put in fantastic performances at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups beating much fancied opponents.

Nigeria, 1996 Olympics winners.

Staying in West Africa, another nation that would put Africa on the world map was Cameroon. Cameroon’s clubs were already starting to win competitions at the continental level but it would take a while before their national team would arrive on the international stage. Cameroon qualified for their first world cup in 1982 but it would be at Italy 90’ that they would make their mark. A wily old forward named Roger Milla would take Cameroon to within 8 minutes of a first semi-final appearance for an African National Team. Cameroon’s golden generation would subsequently go on to win an Olympic Gold in 2000 and also make a mark at the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Roger Milla.

Of course, no talk about African football would ever be complete without a mention of the exploits of the powerful North African sides. Algeria’s 1982 adventure in Spain will never be forgotten with a famous win over a strong West German side. Morocco is another team that consistently produces some of the finest talent in the continent. In fact, two of its coastal cities, Ceuta and Melilla share a strong rivalry that ironically plays out in the Segunda Division of Spain. Morocco have consistently produced strong national sides and have reached the knock-out round of the World Cup on a couple of occasions. Another team that has been very strong on the continental front and qualified for World Cups is Tunisia. They are always a force to reckon with in any African Tournament.

Moving south, a nation that has also had its time under the sun is South Africa. During the 90s when the rainbow nation had broken free of Apartheid, sport in the country had truly started taking off. While their Springboks or the Rugby team had won the World Cup in 95’, the country’s football team Bafana Bafana would also make its mark. They would mark their first continental triumph by beating Tunisia (no less) a year later in the final. South Africa would also go on to qualify for World Cups thereafter and even host Africa’s first ever World Cup in 2010!!

South Africa, 1996 Africa Cup of Nations.

Yet sadly, for every success story there is also a story of what might have been. Zaire (Now known as DR Congo) was one of Africa’s dominant sides in the early 70s. They even became the first all-black African side to qualify for a World Cup in 74’. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons they put in a disastrous showing at the World Cup. Their president Mobutu Sese Seko even demanded an explanation from each member for their bad performance. Zaire would never again qualify for the World Cup.

Not far from Zaire, another great tragedy would take place years later that would shock the entire footballing world. In the late 80s, the Zambian national team aka Chippolopolo created waves by thrashing Italy 4-0 in the Olympics.

Fallen Zambia heroes, 1993.

The chief architect of that win was Kalusha Bwalya, one of Africa’s greatest modern day players. A few years later in 1993, the entire Zambian team would be killed in an air crash on the way to a World Cup Qualifier. Kalusha would survive the crash as he didn’t board that unfortunate flight. However, Zambia lost some of its most illustrious names such as Alex Chola and their coach Godfrey Chitalu who is widely regarded as Zambia’s greatest player.

The Club Football Scene

Africa’s premier club competition, the African Champions League was started as the African Champions Cup in 1964. Cameroon’s Oryx Douala were the inaugural winners. Other clubs from Cameroon that have featured prominently on the continental stage include the likes of Canon Yaounde, Tonerre Yaounde and Cottonsport.

Ghana’s Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak have also made their mark in Africa’s premier club competition. Cote D’Ivoire’s ASEC Mimosas also have history with the competition with some of their members, such as Yaya Toure, forming the core of Ivory Coast’s golden generation.

Hearts of Oak, Ghana.

DR Congo’s Tout Puissant Mazembe have also been strong throughout the history of the competition. Most notably, they even reached the finals of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010, before losing to Italian giants, Inter Milan. Moving north, Egypt’s duo of Zamalek and Al Ahly have a strong record in the competition, whilst Tunisia’s Esperance are one of Africa’s most reputed clubs.

Al Ahly of Egypt.

When it comes to organized club football and top salaries however, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) takes the cake. Clubs such as Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns are among the league’s most supported and finest. The Soweto derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates is considered to be one of the most explosive derbies in world football.

Surprisingly though, for all of the league’s glitz and glam, they have just 1 Champions League to show; which was won by Orlando Pirates in 1995. Other than South Africa, the north African clubs of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are considered to be the best pay masters.

Of Superstars and Sub-Culture

With the explosion of European football and football in general on global television and the internet; people are fairly well aware of Africa’s global superstars and their national teams’ exploits at the World Cup. Yet, before this, there would be one man who would single-handedly carry his nation forward. George Weah was born in the small nation of Liberia that was strangely never a colony. In a nation that veered more towards basketball (owing to its American connections), Weah would make the world sit up and take notice.

George Weah.

He would embark on a remarkable journey from Monrovia to Cameroon to France and eventually to Milan and London before finishing his career in the Emirates. At Milan, he would be bestowed with the ultimate honour of FIFA World Player Of The Year; the only African ever to win this prestigious award. Weah was the complete modern day forward and he even used his European money to sponsor his national team’s travel, training camps and World Cup qualification campaigns. Post-retirement, he would contest in the elections of his country on two occasions and eventually become its president – a post he holds today.

Superstars like Weah may be the corner stone of their teams but their play also gave rise to nicknames for teams and players alike. Most African national teams have nicknames that are based on the names of animals. Nigeria are known as the Super Eagles, Lesotho as the Crocodiles, Cameroon as the Indomitable Lions etc. In the same vein, many African players have been nicknamed ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’.

Such is Africa’s popularity in football that it has even filtered down to comic books and animation. The Pan-African comic book Supa Strikas is popular all across the continent and has even spawned off a successful animated series that is telecast globally and been translated into other languages.

This Time For Africa

With the World Cup around the corner, it will be fascinating to see what the competition holds for the future of Africa. African football has come a long way and is now equipped to go toe to toe with the world’s best.

In the recent superhero movie Black Panther, a fictitious East African city of Wakanda is used as a metaphor to describe Africa’s true potential. Until now, Africa has never won a World Cup. Still might Russia ’18 turn out to be Africa’s real life Wakanda?

The answers will be revealed come June.

The Return of La Furia Roja

A decade ago, Spain embarked on the journey of a lifetime that culminated in them fulfilling their international potential. But with the World Cup 2018 in Russia looming, what awaits La Furia Roja this time around?

By Rohan Kaushik

It is often said that getting to the top is hard but remaining at the top is harder. There have been several great generational teams in world football that have made their mark in history. These teams are often remembered for the way in which they revolutionised football. Spain’s national team did the same with their famed tiki-taka style of football from 2008-2012. However, it is hard to remain at such a god-like level forever with the same players. Great teams have an expiry date too and Spain’s disastrous performance at World Cup ’14 sounded the death knell for Spain’s golden generation.

Things had grown stale and there were several outcries for a new sense of vigour, passion and inspiration within the Spanish national team. Vicente del Bosque, who was still the coach at the time, rung the changes in response to these calls. However, despite many new faces, it never felt like the transition to a new era had truly been made. A sense of stagnation was the general vibe around La Furia Roja. The famed tiki-taka of old still persisted but without any of its original inspiration. The result was another under-whelming performance at Euro ’16 and Del Bosque stepped down as the coach.

However, the winds of change have been at work. Last year, the Santiago Bernabéu bore witness to an absolute footballing exhibition as Spain tore apart Italy 3-0 during the World Cup Qualifiers. Interestingly, Spain played without any strikers in this game with coach Julen Lopetegui opting for a 4-6-0 formation. It’s not as if Spain hasn’t done this before. Under Vicente Del Bosque, this idea was used to great effect; especially during Euro 2012 where Fabregas played as a false striker. That Spain though was different.

Ramos (left) and Isco (right) celebrate together

The vibe around the present team is something new. While there appears to be strong elements of the old tiki-taka, there is a feeling of freshness and reinvigoration. Also, Spain’s general performances since the Italy game have been terrific and there is an air of swagger about this team. So what’s changed since Euro ’16?

Enter Julen Lopetegui

Lopetegui’s announcement as coach of the senior national team was a brilliant decision by the Spanish FA. They couldn’t have chosen a better candidate to lead Spain into the future. He may not have been a well-known name in global footballing circles prior to his appointment. However, fans in Spain will be familiar with his exploits as the coach of the Spain U-21 and U-23 teams that were victorious in Europe. More importantly, a good chunk of the players he worked with in those teams are currently part of the senior national team.

Lopetegui knows most of these players very well and I believe that this will be a key ingredient to Spain’s immediate and long-term success. His approach to the game also appears to be modern and open-minded. Many of the game’s illustrious coaches from yesteryear all had unique approaches to the game. Yet, despite all their innovation, they stuck to some tried and tested methods of their own. While this initially brought success, it almost always hit a gradual or even rapid decline following their peak.

Nothing is ever permanent in football; more so in the modern game. At present we are witnessing a new breed of coaches in people like Zidane and Lopetegui. They seem to be friendlier towards players and do not rule with an iron hand. They also build the team’s identity around the players rather than have a rigid philosophy in which players are forced to modify their natural game. Hence, the players are able to fully express themselves on the pitch in unique tactical schemes that are designed to bring out their best. This makes their teams deadly as the opposition doesn’t know what to expect, with a new playing scheme employed in different games.

The Dawn of Isco & Asensio

Around two years ago, the future of Isco at Real Madrid was unclear and his national team future, even less so. Suffice to say, things have really turned in the bandy-legged midfielder’s favour. Despite his undeniable talent, Isco has had to work really hard to earn the trust of the top brass at Real Madrid. As is often the case at Real Madrid, the price tags associated with players tend to influence starting line ups more often than not. Hence, Isco had always found himself in and out of the team until the arrival of Zidane. The Frenchman, and latterly Lopetegui, however, really believed in his abilities and their faith has been vindicated. His virtuoso performance against Italy had even the opposition players and coach applauding. Such is the sheer gravitas about his play.

Marco Asensio in action for Spain

Over to Asensio. If there was ever a steal deal of the decade, then Real Madrid’s capture of Asensio would have to be it. Bought from Mallorca for roughly 5 million Euros, Asensio has gone from strength to strength. What’s striking about his meteoric rise from relative obscurity is that he isn’t considered as a youngster for the future. He is already knocking on the doors of the first teams of both Real Madrid and Spain’s senior team. Blessed with great dribbling ability and shooting, he could well become Spain’s first true contender for the World’s Best Player award in quite some time. The best part is he is only 21.

Isco and Asensio may face some challenges in becoming undisputed starters at Real Madrid. Yet, it is clear that they will in all likelihood be running the show in the National team for years to come. What about the playing style of the team ?

La Furia’s New Identity

A key question on most Spain fans’ minds since Lopetegui’s appointment as head coach has been the team’s playing style. Many were concerned that a departure from the tiki-taka style that brought Spain so much glory in the recent past would not be in the team’s best interests. Going by what we’ve witnessed over the past 1 year, it’s clear that Lopetegui has addressed this question very well.

Spain’s greatest strength continues to remain its midfield generals. So, a total departure from tiki-taka was never going to be the solution. Even so, Lopetegui has understood that dominating possession in a game must lead to goals. This is where Lopetegui has really addressed Spain’s problem over the last couple of years by introducing some direct, dynamic outlets for Spain’s midfield possession. While this is still in the experimental stages, he is definitely taking steps in the right direction. Players like Asensio and Vitolo are already playing crucial roles by adding that extra speed and X-Factor to the attack.

Another key question on the fan’s minds has been the role of the striker. As mentioned earlier, the use of a false forward produced devastating effects against Italy as they seemed unable to pick up Asensio nor Isco. However, Spain still has several true strikers to call upon if a different approach is needed. The likes of Morata, Diego Costa, Alcacer etc. will all probably play crucial roles in this regard.

Spain’s Recipe for Long Term Success

Julen Lopetegui’s slick management skills and his prior experience of having worked with the current crop of players, have played a huge role in Spain’s renaissance. However, Spain’s success at youth level football through the different age groups has formed the true core of its success at the national level over the last decade or so.

Success at the youth level is no guarantee for similar glory at the senior level. However, it is telling that many of Spain’s youth players are making the step up to the senior national team.

There was a time in world football when the Netherlands was well known for its great youth set-ups at club and country levels. France had also gained a great reputation for the Clarefontaine Academy.

Yet, like life itself, football evolves and changes with time. The fact that Spain and Germany have been consistently vying for top honours at the senior level is down to the level of planning put in by their respective federations. It must also be noted that both these countries place a lot of emphasis on their Under-23 teams.

The Under-23 team is technically not a ‘Youth Football Team’. Currently, an Under-23 FIFA World Championship does not exist and Olympic football is probably the closest to such a tournament. It is then interesting to note that quite a few of Spain’s senior players played at the youth level and the Under-23 level. Football at this level can be thought of as more tactical and physical. Most importantly, the overall gameplay is far closer in nature to senior level club and country football. At the junior levels, it is quite common to observe individuals trying to tear through the defense when a simpler option is available. Consistently pulling off such feats at the senior level requires a good team structure.

Hence, Spain’s success at the senior levels is down to this possession based style that has come to define its teams over the years. For all of the individual talent out there, football at the end of the day is a team sport. It is this team concept that has been so thoroughly imbibed in the likes of Spain’s and Germany’s best players from a tender age.

Also, international football’s most successful teams usually consist of a golden generation of players from one club. Bayern Munich and West Germany in the 70s, Ajax and Netherlands in the 70s and more recently Barcelona and Spain; all these teams are classic examples of this trait. Spain’s current generation may stem from different clubs but they all thoroughly embody the nation’s footballing identity.

Return to Winning Ways?

With a new generation of talented players coming through and a strong sense of national footballing identity; can Spain once again herald another glorious era? The swagger with which the national team has played in recent times would have any Spanish fan watering in their mouths. However, it may be a little too early to say.

During the 2000s, Brazil wowed football fans world over with their other wordly footballing skills. The way Brazil dismantled Argentina 4-1 in the Confederations Cup final in 2005 had everyone believing that the World Cup in Germany was theirs to lose. Brazil however flattered to deceive at the showpiece tournament despite starting as clear favourites.

With key members of the old guard like Pique, Ramos, Alba and Iniesta to guide the new generation, a new era of brilliance might be on the way. Saul, Carvajal, Thiago, Odriozola and several others have what it takes to get Spain to the top again.

Yet, the current Spanish team still has some way to go before hitting their peak. Tougher tests also await this team. None more so than this coming summer at Russia.

The J-League Revolution

The success of Japan’s revolutionary J-League is an embodiment of time and effort. Yet, how Japan got to that point is quite something in itself. It is a story that every true football aficionado must know.

By Rohan Kaushik

It is truly amazing to witness the heights that humanity can scale when several people are united by a common vision. The success of Japan’s revolutionary J-League is an embodiment of this and is a sporting model that so many can follow. Yet, how Japan got to that point is quite something in itself. Far from being Japan’s most popular sport, football’s meteoric rise in Japan is a story that every true football aficionado must know.

Japanese football in the 80s was a semi-professional affair. The pre-cursor to the J-League was the JSL (Japan Soccer League) and it only had company based teams. So football players were essentially company-employees first and only played football now and then. Japan’s only real tryst with professional football came courtesy Yasuhiko Okudera who plied his trade with FC Köln in the 1980s. His German experiences and desire to see a professional league in Japan would eventually lead to the formation of the J-League.

The Japan Professional Football League (As it was known then) was eventually formed in November 1991 with Saburo Kawabuchi as the founding chairman of the league. He played as a forward for the national team and Furukawa Electric in the JSL in the 60s. However, it would be as a footballing administrator that Kawabuchi would have a lasting impact on Japanese football. While on a national team training camp in Germany in the 60s, he was surprised to see the extensive sporting infrastructure through which people could enjoy sport. He longed to establish a similar sporting environment in Japan where people could easily take part in sport and have fun. Three decades later, he would serve as the chairman of the J-League from 1993 to 2002 and then as the president of the league from 2002 to 2008. He would eventually be honoured for his efforts in steering the J-League when the Japanese Football Association (JFA) inducted him into the Japan Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

The Planning Phase

The planning process involved in the formation of a successful professional league was a huge task at that time, given that football did not enjoy anywhere near as high a fan support as baseball and sumo wrestling did. Moreover, the company based nature of football meant that people would not be able to relate to the teams.

Despite this huge transitional challenge, the people tasked with the planning process were an ambitious lot. They decided that a key factor in the success of the league would be investing huge sums of money on former World Cup stars. This would draw crowd support, as the only footballing exposure the common Japanese public had at the time was during the FIFA’s prestigious competition.

Another crucial aspect in sustaining and building a solid fan base for football relied on two things. One was making all the teams in the league community and region oriented. All the league teams would have unique logos and be given names based on its location and not have the company name. Although a team could have significant financial backing from a corporate giant (which effectively meant that the company would have a major say in all decisions), it could not completely own the team and also would not be advertised that way. Teams would also be involved in friendly community based activities such as holding a football camp for kids.

The second thing was merchandizing & marketing. The JFA cut deals with dozens of companies just to ensure that the J-League insignia would be slapped across many products. ‘Sony Creative Products’, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment was given the license to manufacture & market logos for all J-League teams.

J-League teams (L) & their team mascots (R)

As important as capturing the public’s imagination was, the core concept of the league was professionalism. For a club to be a part of the league, it would have to meet some essential criteria in every aspect. Some of these included having a reserve team (Satellite team), under-18, under-15 and under-12 teams, transparency in declaring a club’s profits for a fiscal year and having a minimum stadium capacity of 15,000.

Verdy Kawasaki & Yokohama Marinos battle it out in the first ever J-League match on May 15, 1993

To set the tone for the start of the new league, Japan won the right to host the AFC Asian Cup in 1992 in Hiroshima. Japan won the tournament for the first time in history beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final. Football was now in the public conscience and going to remain in memory for a while at least. After all the planning, money, European-inspired professional ideas and American style marketing, the stage was set for the J-League explosion.

Twenty teams from the JSL had applied to become members of the new professional league. Of these, only the ten that met the criteria set by the JFA (as mentioned earlier) were accepted.

J-League Name JSL Name
Gamba Osaka Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd
JEF United Ichihara Furukawa Electric Soccer Club
Nagoya Grampus Eight Toyota Motor S.C.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima Mazda SC
Urawa Red Diamonds Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Verdy Kawasaki Yomiuri FC
Yokohama Flugels Yokohama Tristar SC / All Nippon Airways
Yokohama Marinos Nissan Motors FC
Kashima Antlers Sumitomo Metal Industries
Shimizu S-Pulse N/A

Prior to the start of the J-League, the Yamazaki Nabisco J-League cup was held in September 1992 and Verdy Kawasaki emerged victors. The tournament was quite successful as a pre-league tournament and had relatively large crowds as recounted by former Verdy player Tetsuji Hashiratani.

The Fiesta Begins

The J-League eventually kicked off on May 15th, 1993 in front of a packed Tokyo National Stadium crowd of 59,626. A glitzy opening ceremony with colorful flags, lasers, an airship beaming pictures from above and a guitarist strutting around in a bandana made the whole extravaganza resemble a rock concert, rather than a football match. Shortly after, Verdy Kawasaki kicked off the J-League against the Yokohama Marinos, with the Marinos coming from a goal down to win 2-1. In the end though, the result mattered little.

This was best summed up by Marinos player and longtime Japan International, Masami Ihara: “At the moment I came out onto the pitch and saw the full stadium, I thought to myself, this is what I had been waiting for, that this is what playing in a pro league is like. When I went out onto the pitch, it was the happiest feeling in the world.”

Never before had a Japanese football match been associated with such a dreamy and surreal atmosphere.

Verdy Kawasaki emerged as the champions of the inaugural season as the J-League turned out to be a runaway hit. The attendances at the end of the season totaled 3.2 million with an average attendance of 18,000 spectators a game over 180 games. The first season sales of tickets, TV rights and merchandise totaled a whopping $1 billion with TV broadcasting rights alone at 10 million yen. Also, the sales of J-League goods marketed to 100 official J-League shops amounted to $291 million (30 billion yen). This was a figure not expected to be reached for many years. From J-League burgers to J-League watches; J-League was written over pretty much everything. The brand had been marketed so aggressively that it had literally been blasted into public consciousness.

The J-League was played in a two stage format with a fall stage and a summer stage. The winner of each stage would play each other in home and away games to determine the ultimate winner. A peculiar feature of the J-League at the time was the absence of points for victories. Only the number of victories counted.

Clockwise: Tetsuji Hashiratani, Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, Nobuhiro Takeda, Kazuyoshi Miura

The introduction of several overseas players and former World Cup stars kept attracting huge crowds to the stands in the league’s early years. The plethora of stars included Gary Lineker, Patrick Mboma, Dragan ‘Pixy’ Stojkovic, Oswaldo Ardiles, Dunga, Zico, Pierre Littbarski, Ramon Diaz and many others.

In 1995, the league reached its then peak attendance of 6.5 million at the end of the season. Some of the stars were more than just crowd pullers. They built the identity of clubs by mentoring players and instilling a winning mentality in the club. A classic example of this was Zico and Kashima Antlers.

Clockwise: Gary Lineker, Patrick M’Boma, Dragan Stojkovic, Dunga, Ruy Ramos, Ramon Diez, Pierre Littbarski, Oswaldo Ardiles; Center: Zico

End of the Honeymoon Phase

Just as the J-League hit fever pitch in 1995, the economic downturn in Japan caught up with the league as well. The league attendance in 1997 dropped to less than 3.5 million. A key event that took place in this period was the change to a single stage format in 1996 and it was a flop. The average attendance for that season was 13,350 per game. The decision to revert to the original 2 stage format in 1997 didn’t arrest the downfall either. It wasn’t just the league that suffered as a brand and hit the clubs as well. Verdy was the worst affected as their inability to pay huge salaries to aging players hit them hard. This sent the club on a downward spiral that they still have not truly recovered from.

Reforms & Rebuilding

After the highs of 1995, interest in the J-League started to sag. This led to some important changes by the JFA. The league had expanded to 18 clubs in 1998. The expanding nature of the league made the JFA introduce a second division in 1999 with promotion/relegation. The second division consisted of 10 clubs taken from the semi-professional JFL. Another important structural change in the league was the introduction of the points system 2 years earlier.

Breaking into the World Stage & Return to Glory

The league’s positive effects were starting to tell on the national team. Japan qualified for the World Cup for the first time at France ‘98. Despite losing all its group stage games, Japan put up a respectable performance even scoring its first World Cup goal.

Then in 2002, Japan co-hosted the World Cup. This had a salutary effect. The national team reached the knock out rounds for the first time and only narrowly missed out on a quarter final berth after a 0-1 loss to Turkey. By now, the league had also started exporting talent to Europe with Shinji Ono (Urawa to Feyenoord), Junichi Inamoto (Gamba Osaka to Arsenal) and Shunsuke Nakamura (Yokohama F Marinos to Reggina) showing just how far the league had come since its inception. Attendances steadily started improving and once again reached the highs of 1995.

(L) Junichi Inamoto, (Top R) Shunsuke Nakamura, (Bottom R) Shinji Ono

Expanding its Reach

The league has gone from strength to strength ever since. They signed a deal with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in 2012 to broadcast J-League games and increase its reach in Asia. In the same vein, the league has also inked deals with the aforementioned countries and a few other South East Asian nations to promote football development through exchange programs. The league’s ties to South East Asia is not limited to exchange programs alone with Albirex Niigata’s satellite team (reserve team) players plying its trade in the S-League to gain experience.

More recently, the league has started a digital streaming platform in partnership with DAZN to broadcast the league in select countries and is expected to grow over the coming years. Former J-Leaguers are also starting to play in other Asian countries including the likes of India, further increasing its reach across Asia.

Future Perfect

The league now has 3 divisions and is steadily moving towards its 100 year vision of having 100 professional clubs by 2092. It has proved to be a fantastic model for professional, sporting and community development. Not many leagues in the world can boast of having a centre and service to help players prepare for a life after football. It has produced many fantastic adventures and also become a scouting hot spot for the German league; the national team’s fortunes in the 2010 World Cup playing a huge role.

So where next for Japan? The obvious answer is world domination and becoming a global brand. However, there is a bigger question that Japanese football has to answer. The J-League was founded on some core values and they have managed to introduce commercialism while staying true to its roots for the most part. They have managed to develop in a way that has made it a sustainable brand. Yet the likes of China and Qatar are now pumping in huge amounts of money in order to become globally relevant.

Japan has also stated its intention to be world champions by 2092. Will they sacrifice their core values to achieve that? Time will surely tell.

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