The collective sucking of teeth could have knocked the World Cup trophy from its pedestal in Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. Making the draw for the following summer’s World Cup Finals, Sepp Blatter (presumably relieved not to be bantered off the stage by Robin Williams like last time) plucked the United States from the bowl and deposited them in Group F. Waiting for them there were European Champions Germany; a Yugoslavia side comprised of players from Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo; and, most significantly, the nation that considered them ‘the Great Satan’ – Iran.

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Have you dreamed of scoring a late European Cup winner at the Nou Camp? Were you wearing the colours of the Blaugrana, a packed-to-the-rafters cauldron chanting your name? Perhaps it was a Clasico and you were breaking their hearts in pristine white. Maybe you were simply turning out for your hometown club, your goal all but tying their ribbons to the trophy?

Presumably, your reverie didn’t play out in front of a crowd smaller than the average gate at Sincil Bank, only coming about as the result of a basic admin error. That was how the hero of our story’s big moment came, but it was no less glorious. Less than a decade earlier, Carl Shutt had been playing up front for Spalding United in the Northern Counties East League. After 9th October 1992, however – the day before his 31st birthday – Shutt would be forever associated with one word. Barcelona…

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The late 80s and early 90s were the heyday of the dressing room joker. Almost every club seemed to have at least one in various assorted flavours: from the John Moncur-alike journeyman prankster, always name-dropped in interviews in the pages of Shoot! or Match for his antics with a can of fart spray in the physio’s room; to the next level ‘clown prince’ maverick, who sprinkled his anarchic mischief on and off the pitch. Paul Gascoigne was, of course, the market leader, whether it was bringing an ostrich to training or digging up London with a pneumatic drill. The rise of ‘professionalism’ as a concept in British football, with its super athletes and and-it’s-live portentousness, seems to have squeezed out the game’s harlequins.

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On being sent the script for notorious flop Jaws: The Revenge, the story goes that Michael Caine opened it, saw the words ‘Ext: The Bahamas’ and signed up for the film on the spot. It’s not difficult to imagine Terry Venables’ thinking being similar when he answered a call from Soccer Australia in 1996.

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It was the gulp heard around Europe. As Patrick Kluivert calmly dinked the ball over the onrushing Pat Bonner, 15 other nations shuffled nervously to their drinks globes and poured themselves a stiff one. The Dutch would be at Euro ’96.

It had been a scintillating performance in the Anfield play-off against the Republic of Ireland, a 2-0 win that brought to an end Jack Charlton’s golden reign as Ireland manager while immediately establishing the Netherlands as one of the heavy favourites for the Euros. It mattered not that they’d only made it via play-off, having contrived to lose to Belarus in qualifying; nor that they’d only avoided finishing third in their group on goal difference. The European Championships were earmarked as the next step towards world domination for the Godenzonen of Ajax, the most exciting club side in Europe.

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On 18th May 1991, Terry Venables and Brian Clough strode out hand in hand on the Wembley turf, leading out two clubs who would play out perhaps the last truly iconic FA Cup final. If Italia ’90 had made English football box office again, Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Nottingham Forest was the Empire Strikes Back to that World Cup’s A New Hope – a dark sequel where misfortune befell the heroes. The manic energy that had fuelled Paul Gascoigne’s rise to poster boy status was instead channeled into two wild challenges and the wrecked knee that changed everything; Gary Lineker, who’d become only the second Englishman ever to score in a World Cup semi final, now became only the second to have a penalty saved in an FA Cup final. Stuart Pearce, penalty miss and broken heart behind him, opened the scoring with an emphatic free kick, but nevertheless ended up on the losing side again, while teammate Des Walker, so unflappable in Italy, scored the own goal that gave the cup to Spurs. Few finals in the thirty years since have captured that same operatic quality, and the subsequent bursting of the trophy’s aura probably means none ever will.

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As he sat in Massimo Moratti’s office in the summer of 1997, Paul Ince’s stock had never been higher. Viewed by Alex Ferguson purely as a neat and tidy holding midfielder, his desire for a more expansive midfield role dismissed as the delusions of a “f**king Big Time Charlie”, he’d spent two seasons in Serie A proving his former manager wrong. His committed, driving box-to-box displays for Internazionale had established him as a firm favourite with the Nerazzurri, and he’d shone too for England at Euro ’96. Now, Moratti painted him a picture of a glittering future for Inter, having just broken the world transfer record to sign Ronaldo. Ince, however, had a bombshell for the President. He wanted to go home.

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On 9th November 1989, the players of the East German national team were tucked away in a Viennese training camp, focused on one of the biggest games in the country’s history, just six days away. A point in Austria would take the GDR to Italia ’90, only their second ever appearance at a World Cup finals. It was a squad talented enough to make an impression too, with a midfield featuring the cultured likes of Thomas Doll and captain Matthias Sammer, and a potent strike force of Ulf Kirsten and future Celtic star Andreas Thom. As the players sought to relax after a hard afternoon’s training, someone turned the TV on. And suddenly, the World Cup didn’t seem quite so important…

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Maciel

1991 was a vintage year for cup finals. On the same day in May, Spurs overcame Paul Gascoigne’s career-altering meltdown to deny Brian Clough the one domestic trophy that had evaded him, while the dugouts at Hampden contained more McLeans than a toothpaste factory as Motherwell pipped Dundee United 4-3 in the enthralling ‘Brothers’ Final’. The European Cup Final was a notorious, unexpected dud, but it did at least see the overdue crowning of a worthy Red Star side, just as their country was torn apart by civil war. Manchester United marked the return of English clubs to Europe by claiming the Cup Winners’ Cup with a fine victory over Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, more than making up for their shock Rumbelows Cup defeat to second-tier Sheffield Wednesday – a triumph so prestigious that Yorkshire TV binned off the trophy presentation to screen War of the Monster Trucks instead… Read the rest of this entry »

ciNzOFM

Within the grand holy temple of South American football, the Bolivian game barely gets its own pew. Read the rest of this entry »