Category Archives: Spain

Ronaldo “The Slave” keeping busy in L.A.

Cristiano Ronaldo conducts business at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Los Angeles, CA.

LOS ANGELES — When Cristiano Ronaldo publicly referred to himself as a “slave” last week, it was no surprise the remark made the headlines. The man could take a bite from a tuna salad sandwich and it would no doubt appear on Sky Sports as “Breaking News”. As I write, the young Portuguese star is caught in a battle for his footballing services, a tug-of-war match between his current club, Manchester United, and their European rivals Real Madrid. The Spanish champions have reportedly offered Ronaldo a contract worth up to £10 million a season, but United’s chief executive David Gill remains adamant the player will not be heading to the Bernabeu anytime soon. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson travelled to Portugal last week to convince the unsettled winger to see out his contract at Old Trafford, and this week suggested moving to Madrid would be “the worst thing for Ronaldo’s career.”

Asked this week to comment, Ronaldo coyly suggested money would not be a factor in his decision, casually stating, “I’ve always been hounded.” But he has made no secret of his ambitions to play for Real next season, causing some United fans to turn against him. They’re right to question his loyalties, judging his record with women. This guy changes girlfriends like most men change underwear.

Ronaldo and Nerieda canoodle in Sardinia following Portugal’s early exit from Euro 2008.

Following Portugal’s quarter-final defeat to Germany at Euro 2008, Ronaldo escaped to the Italian island of Sardinia with Mallorcan girlfriend Nereida Gallardo. The two were photographed frolicking on the beach, and Nereida even hinted to her friends that marriage was just around the corner, but sadly found herself promptly dumped at the end of the trip.

Two weeks ago in Holland, Ronaldo underwent surgery on his right ankle which will keep him out of action until October — plenty of time for him to mull things over and weigh up his tricky career options. Ronaldo has been recovering from his operation in California, where after a week in Los Angeles the 23 year-old’s romantic conquests already total four. Three of these were girls he picked up at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a fourth is Letizia Filippi, a 30 year-old serial footballer-dater who finished third in the Miss Italia contest in 1994. The two met on Fabio Cannavaro’s yacht in Capri, where Ronaldo also vacationed with Nereida. Since their break-up Ronaldo has apparently ignored all Nereida’s pleas for his return, refusing to answer phone calls from his heartbroken ex.

The predator Ronaldo — here in his natural poolside habitat, eyes up his next victims.

This kind of behaviour is nothing new amongst the spoilt, the immature, the overpaid or the unintelligent. Sadly for Ronaldo, he happens to fall into all four of these categories, as his “slave” remark confirms. His thoughtless stupidity and selfish arrogance have several times very nearly cost his side on the pitch (he missed consecutive penalties in the Champions League semi-final and final which luckily for him did not prove fatal). The same unenviable traits are bound to cause turbulence off the pitch as well. “I don’t know about the future, only God knows it,” Ronaldo claimed this week, perhaps attempting to elicit a tinge of Diego Maradona’s uncanny knack for pompous statements. But when Maradona spouted such comments you kind of half went along with it, such was his talent for audacity. With Ronaldo it comes off as pure arrogance, and the only thing he currently shares with Diego is a guarantee that it will all end in tears.

Ronaldo hobbles on crutches outside popular celebrity
lounge Coco de Ville, West Hollywood, CA.

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Nike disappoints purist fans of Arsenal and Barça, but the players seem happy

William Gallas, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott model
the new Arsenal home shirt in an online Nike ad.

It’s that time of year again. The season is over, players are on the beach, transfer sagas are drawn out, and the sports newspapers are filled with pages of talk, speculation, rumour and very little football. It’s the one moment in the calendar where people like me (and if you’re reading this probably you also) can devote a little time to something other than football. But any true fan knows there is always something to keep his interest alive during the close season. In my case, it’s the excitement and anticipation which can only be caused by the unveiling of the big clubs’ new kits. There is always that hope that every shirt will revert to a classic design, but sadly in reality only rarely do kits adhere closely to those that grace the hallowed turfs of my football fantasies.

Arsenal recently unveiled their new 2008-09 home strip, sparking a fresh controversy amongst some of the North London club’s most purist supporters. In an unexpected break with tradition, manufacturers Nike have ditched Arsenal’s famous white sleeves — which the Gunners have worn since former manager Herbert Chapman introduced the design in the 1930s — instead opting for a somewhat nondescript red shirt with a white sleeve stripe. Ardent Gunner fans say the new look removes all of Arsenal’s visual individuality, making them look like half the other teams in the world. Arsenal will wear the shirt for home games until 2010.

Thierry Henry celebrates a goal during Arsenal’s last ever game at Highbury against Wigan Athletic. The Gunners wore a “redcurrant” home strip for the entire 2005-06 season.

The only previous drastic modification to Arsenal’s home strip came in the 2005-06 season, when a shirt based on a 1913 design was worn to commemorate the Gunners’ last season at Highbury. The club officially described the kit’s colour as “redcurrant”, with reference to the darker strip Arsenal wore in its early years. I actually liked this shirt — even if it had nothing to do with any Arsenal team I’d seen before or since.

For the 2006-07 season, the first at their new stadium, Arsenal reverted to a classic traditional strip, as worn here by Dutch forward Dennis Bergkamp.

One player who is not concerned about these alterations is Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who has admitted turning down offers from Real Madrid and Barcelona to stay at the Emirates Stadium. “I get excited about a new kit and really like trying on new shirts,” says the newly-crowned European champion. “It makes you start looking forward to the new season.” It may be worth mentioning that Nike is one of Fabregas’ personal sponsors. Arsenal teammate Theo Walcott is also unconcerned: “It’s a great design,” says the 19 year-old. “It feels good on, it’s really comfortable, and I’m looking forward to wearing it next season.”

Nike posters feature Bojan Krkic and Carles Puyol in the latest
Barça home and away styles for 2008-09.

I wonder what the Catalan Fabregas would make of Barcelona’s new strip. The La Liga giants are also kitted out by Nike, and this year’s home shirts have also upset their fiercely traditionalist contingent. After almost a century of stripes, for the 2008-09 season Barça’s famous blaugrana will be worn as halves. This is not the club’s first recent alteration to their classic look: Barcelona memorably reverted to red-and-blue halves with navy sleeves and shorts for their centenary season in 1999 — a shirt that proved extremely popular with fans around the world. Sadly, this season’s new shirts have none of the centenary kit’s unique details, instead they look like a quickly knocked off alternative to last season’s strip, and make the mighty Barça look a lot like Genoa or Cagliari.

Rivaldo and Luis Figo during the 1999 centenary season, the last time Barcelona wore halves; Ronaldinho sports Barça’s Champions League-winning strip: note the narrower stripes and red shorts.

Barcelona have worn their usual wide stripes in the last two seasons — a welcome return following the narrow stripes and red shorts combination of 2005-06. For anyone with a sense of the club’s kit tradition this strip was quite a departure, although it didn’t affect the side: Barcelona won the Champions League that year, beating Arsenal in the final. In 2007 Barcelona — the last major team in Europe never to wear a sponsor — secured a deal with the charity organization Unicef, whose logo now appears on the front of their shirts. At least Barcelona will look the part away from the Nou Camp: recent dalliances with orange and turquoise have given way to a new second strip based on the classic yellow shirts of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Diego Maradona leads out Barcelona in yellow at Old Trafford, March 1984; Barça coach Terry “El Tel” Venables (far right) presents new signing Steve Archibald (in classic blaugrana strip) to the Nou Camp, August 1984.

Royal return for kings of Europe

The Spanish players pose with the Euro 2008 trophy at Madrid’s Barajas Airport.

MADRID — The victorious Spanish national side arrived home from Euro 2008 to a heroes’ welcome last night, as around 100,000 jubilant Spaniards crammed into Madrid’s Plaza de Colon to greet them. The team’s private plane — decorated with the word “Campeones” — left Innsbruck at 5pm local time and landed at Madrid’s Barajas Airport at around 7:40pm. Coach Luis Aragonés and captain Iker Casillas were the first to appear with the Henri Delaunay trophy.

Many fans were at the airport, and thousands more lined the streets, as the team made their way through the capital aboard an open-top bus, the sides of which were emblazoned with a roja shirt and the words ¡España Siempre!” Spain’s players were dressed in their red shirts, with the exception of Sergio Ramos, who chose this moment to remember Antonio Puerta, the young Sevilla defender who collapsed and died during a game last summer. As the bus arrived in Plaza de Colon, squeezing between people deliriously waving Spanish flags, fans began to sing (to the tune of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) “Fer-nan-do Tor-res, la-la-la la-laa-laaa!” On a specially constructed stage, outgoing coach Aragonés took the microphone: “I have the best team in the world!” he declared. Iker Casillas then led the usual rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions”.

Fans in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon greet their heroes.

The following day, the more formally attired European Champions enjoyed a reception at the royal Zarzuela gardens. King Juan Carlos saved most praise for outgoing coach Aragonés, apologizing for not having a cape for him to wear. Queen Sofia, Prince Felipe, Princess Letizia and Infanta Elena were also excited to greet Spain’s winning team, as they posed for photos together with the trophy. The players later met with Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Spain coach Luis Aragonés presents the trophy to the royal family.

Since Spain’s European success on Sunday, there has been some talk about this triumph unifying the the country by uniting its various political regions, putting an end to the division which dominates Spanish society and football. I doubt this will happen. My friends in Barcelona — Catalans and Barça fans — were hoping for a German victory on Sunday night. I’m sure they agree that it will take more than a simple football team to make people forget years of cultural oppression, and give up a fight for political and economic independence which has been going on for decades.

An official photograph of the European Champions and the Spanish royal family in the Zarzuela gardens.

¡Campeones de Europa!

Spain captain Iker Casillas raises aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy (top) before his team-mates join in the fun under a shower of ticker-tape (above).

VIENNA — A goal by Fernando Torres ensured Spain became European Champions for the second time in their history tonight, defeating Germany 1-0 in the final of Euro 2008 at Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium. It’s Spain’s first title since they won the European Championship back in 1964 in Madrid; as goalkeeper captain Iker Casillas raised aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy into the Austrian evening, he must have hoped this victory will perhaps lay to rest Spain’s unwanted tag of perennial underachievers which has plagued its national side ever since. It is certainly a greater achievement than Greece’s entirely unexpected win four years ago, in that the pressure on the Spaniards to go far in becomes is greater with each passing tournament. The title of Spain’s official Euro 2008 song roughly translates as, “Let’s Get Beyond The Quarter-Finals”, revealing an element of self-deprecating humour not always evident in much of Spain’s sporting media.

A nervous royal couple King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia (suitably dressed in all-red) stand for the national anthem.

History was definitely against Spain before the match, as they faced Germany, a nation which knows better than any other what it takes to get to a tournament final and win it. Germany’s captain, Michael Ballack, instrumental in his side’s run to the final, had partly recovered from a calf strain and was passed fit to at least start the match. Spain were without their top scorer, David Villa, who had been injured in the semi-final. Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas — who as a substitute had transformed the game with Russia — came in to the side. Although they would inevitably miss Villa’s trickery, I sensed his misfortune might prove a blessing in disguise. Fabregas’ inclusion meant Spain would play with a lone striker — the powerful Fernando Torres — with Fabregas sitting behind in a playmaking role. I felt this move could work to their advantage in a tight final against the robust Germans.

Spain’s starting eleven (without David Villa) line-up before the final.

Spain appeared nervous in the opening moments, and Sergio Ramos was nearly punished after gifting possession to Miroslav Klose in his own half. But once the game settled Spain began to assert themselves. Lehmann pulled off a fine one-handed save from his own defender, as Xavi Hernandez’ cross pinged off Christoph Metzelder. The German goalkeeper was nowhere to be seen minutes later as Torres climbed high to reach Fabregas’ cross and direct his header onto the foot of the post. Germany’s defence was struggling to cope with Torres, whose strength and pace led to the opening goal. The Liverpool striker latched onto a through-ball from Xavi, and somehow muscled his way around Philip Lahm to lift the ball over the onrushing Lehmann and into the net.

Fernando Torres puts Spain in front

Fernando Torres leaps over Lehmann as the ball sails into the German net for the opening goal.

A Spanish lead would inevitably make the Germans come out and play, and my feeling was almost that the goal had arrived too early for Spain, allowing Germany a whole hour to get back into the match. It was imperative for Spain to arrive at half-time ahead: an equalizing goal before the break would have shattered Spanish exuberance and restored Germany’s infinite self-belief. But barring a Ballack volley which Sergio Ramos skillfully blocked, Germany had offered little threat as the sides walked back to the dressing rooms. On the basis of enterprise and chances, Spain were deservedly in front, although Germany felt unfortunate when Roberto Rosetti failed to award them a penalty after Marchena had controlled the ball with his hand in the area. The Italian referee instead showed a yellow card to an agitated Ballack, who at one point had to leave the field to receive stitches for a cut above the eye.

Germany captain Michael Ballack approaches a linesman to protest a decision.

The second half began as expected. Spain relented allowing Germany to apply increasing pressure to their defence, and though Ballack miscued a shot into the side netting, it seemed a German goal was not far in coming. The longer the game remained at 1-0, the more likely I imagined the Germans to claw their way back, as they have in so many matches of this kind. Between 1966 and 1996 the German national team reached ten international finals, winning half of them. Only in the last ten years has its machine-like dominance of international competition grinded to a halt, and even in that period they reached another World Cup Final. But somehow Spain were determined to defy history and stereotype, and came closer themselves to adding a second goal. An unmarked Sergio Ramos saw his diving header saved by Lehmann, and then the industrious Brazilian-born Marcos Senna — one of the tournament’s revelations in Spain’s midfield — started a move which very nearly ended in his own personal triumph.

Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas punches clear from a rare German attack.

In the remaining minutes, Spain’s aging coach Luis Aragonés removed Fabregas and the plucky David Silva, plugging the midfield with the more workman-like styles of Güiza and Xabi Alonso. Germany’s Joachim Löw threw on his reserve forwards, the ineffective Mario Gomez and another nationalized Brazilian, Kevin Kuranyi, in an attempt to cause Spain problems at the back. But together they combined nothing, and Casillas was left with little to do for much of the second half. Oddly, the final five minutes were Spain’s most comfortable of the match, and Los Rojos seemed the more likely to score in the dying stages.

A dejected Bastian Schweinsteiger lies exhausted after the final whistle.

After so many years of never quite living up to expectations, I think few people would begrudge Spain their moment of glory. They have proved to be the most consistent side at Euro 2008, winning all six matches and outlasting early favourites Holland and Portugal. Much like Italy’s World Cup victory in Germany two years ago, Spain’s success is certainly a triumph of collective team spirit and tactical maturity. And like Marcello Lippi’s Italy in 2006, Aragonés’ Spain did not have the luxury of a Maradona or even a Zidane in their squad, that one player they look to to pull the side through the tournament. Even UEFA president Michel Platini — the last player whose class and goals dominated a European Championship in 1984 — must have recognized that these days no tournament can be won single-handedly. But to win a final it sometimes only takes one individual to produce a very special moment: tonight it belonged to El Niño.

Fernando Torres celebrates Spain’s remarkable triumph: the 24 year-old saved his only goal of the tournament for the final.

Thuram remains philosophical despite heart shock

Thuram’s move to PSG has been suspended after medical tests revealed an enlarged heart.

PARIS — Lilian Thuram’s proposed transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain was halted this week, after routine medical tests revealed that the veteran French defender has an enlarged heart. Thuram’s brother died from a cardiac condition on the basketball court, and his mother has also suffered from heart problems. The former Parma and Juventus player was warned as a youngster at Monaco about the risk of potential heart trouble later in his career, but the news was still unexpected. “I thought it was a joke,” he said at a PSG press conference at Parc des Princes. “I took the tests and I was OK. It’s a complete surprise to me. One which I didn’t see coming.” Following the announcement, PSG claim they still plan to sign the 36 year-old, who should learn in the next month whether it will be safe to resume his playing career. The Guadeloupe-born defender is remaining cautious yet philosophical. “If I do have to quit football,” he said, “I’d have to say I’ve been lucky that we’ve discovered this problem now.”

The Guadeloupe-born defender made a record 142 appearances for France.

A rare intellectual in football, Thuram is also well-known for his political views. In November 2005, Thuram sided with French rioters and opposed the then-Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of the term “scum” against young people, saying that, “Sarkozy has never lived in a Parisian suburban estate.” Thuram made headlines again in September 2006, after he invited eighty homeless people to France’s home World Cup qualifying match with Italy. The illegal immigrants had been ejected from a Paris apartment by Sarkozy. Since at Barcelona, he has also engaged in campaigns to promote Catalan traditions and language, and supporting the independence of Roussillon (Catalonia Nord) from France.

Thuram is admired for his political and social awareness off the pitch.

Thuram called time on his international career after Euro 2008, after making a record 142 appearances for his country, during which time he scored just two goals. Remarkably, both came in France’s tense 1998 World Cup semi-final victory over Croatia at the Stade de France. By extraordinary coincidence, in 1984 (the only other time France has won a major tournament at home), defender Jean-François Domergue scored his only two international goals in France’s epic semi-final against Portugal — and on his 27th birthday no less. Brought into the side only after Manuel Amoros was sent off in the opening match against Denmark, Euro 84 proved something of a flash-in-the-pan for Domergue, who played only three more times for France, eventually collecting a total of just nine caps for his country.

Thuram celebrates after his two goals ensured France’s passage to the World Cup final at the expense of Croatia, Paris, 1998.