“Forget about the money and everything else. If we go up, we’ll face 10 months of misery”

Steve Coppell, 1997


How did you ring in the Millennium? Did you have a quiet one in with your loved ones, watching the fireworks smug in the knowledge that the end of a century was indeed nothing special? Did you raise a dignified glass to the next 1000 years? Or did you go hell for leather, embarking on a path of debauchery so depraved as to make the video for Smack My Bitch Up look like a Richard Curtis production? Read the rest of this entry »

5th June 2015: it was football’s equivalent of the Saddam statue toppling, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man exploding in a flurry of crossed streams and gooey confectionary. Just a week after being re-elected for a fifth term as FIFA president, Joseph S. Blatter suddenly announced his resignation Read the rest of this entry »


Despite – or possibly because of – the absence of all four home nations for the first time since 1938, the 15th world cup finals delivered goals, shocks, controversy, tantrums, scandals and milestones in abundance. Debutants upset the applecart. Favourites tumbled early. From iconic kits, like Jorge Campos’ psychedelic fruit pastille nightmare, designed by a goalkeeper who’d clearly been huffing poison arrow frogs, to Bolivia coach Xabier Azkargorta ’s greatest managerial moustache in world cup history, the tournament was one month-long vivid, primary coloured assault on the senses. 20 years – 20 years! – on, here are 10 things from USA ’94 that left an indelible mark on football’s collective consciousness…


10)  Diana Ross’ penalty miss

Soldier Field in Chicago provided as glitzy and OTT an opening ceremony as you’d expect from a nation that doesn’t ‘do’ understatement. There were cowboys and marching bands, the president was in attendance, and we’d already seen a glorious pratfall from Oprah Winfrey, who managed to stumble and go sprawling across the stage in front of a watching television audience of around 750m. Then came the pièce de résistance. Diana Ross skipped up the pitch belting out “I’m Coming Out”, but one thing she probably didn’t want the world to know was that she was not exactly Paul Breitner from 12 yards.

Some bright spark choreographer had arranged for her to take a penalty into a ginormous set of goals midway through the song. As she faced down the goalkeeper, she took an odd, hunched run-up, bottled it a couple of times, then tiptoed forward and skewed the ball miles wide. The goalposts, which were supposed to split apart triumphantly, now seemed to do so forlornly, as if shamed by Ms Ross’ failure. This, we would learn, was a moment of foreshadowing. It was also bloody funny and a damn sight more entertaining than anything in the dreary opening game between Germany and Bolivia.


9) Yekini reaches into history

After claiming the African Cup of Nations with a performance of stylish dominance in Tunisia, Nigeria were tipped to be to USA ’94 what Cameroon had been to Italia ’90. Now the rest of the world could be introduced to the talents of Finidi, Amokachi, Amunike and the rest. The first word though, went to the man who’d top-scored at the ACON, the late Rashidi Yekini. While his goal was all but gift wrapped for him, his tap-in rounding off a brilliant eight-pass move, the celebration was one of the tournament’s most iconic. Standing in the goal, reaching through the net, closing his eyes and shaking his fists with joy, ‘the Bull of Kaduna’ showed just what it meant to score your country’s first ever goal at a world cup finals.

Despite uneasy relations between players and coach Clemens Westerhof, the Super Eagles impressed in the USA, topping their group and coming minutes from knocking out Italy in the last 16. Like the Indomitable Lions before them though, they’ve never managed to look as good since. Yekini is sadly missed.


8) Wor Jack goes ballistic

Even the most optimistic Irish fan couldn’t have anticipated the incredible start they’d make to their American adventure, as Ray Houghton’s brilliant/spawny left foot lob sailed over Gianluca Pagliuca to give the Republic a deserved but nonetheless surprising win over Italy. They were brimming with confidence as they went into their next group game with Mexico, the only misfortune to have befallen them at that stage being the humidity playing havoc with Andy Townsend’s vile blonde highlights job – the worst highlights he’d be involved with this side of the tactics truck. “The lads have been calling me Valderrama but I feel more like Val Doonican,” said Townsend of the abomination atop his head, displaying more wit and awareness than he ever would again.

In Orlando though, Ireland wilted in the 110-degree heat and a Luis Garcia double put Mexico firmly in control. Jack Charlton was already concerned about the temperatures after Tommy Coyne had been so dehydrated post-Italy that he’d taken four hours to produce a drug test sample and then collapsed on the team bus. The Ireland manager became embroiled in a running battle with jobsworth touchline officials as he desperately tried to get water to his players. Things erupted midway through the second half as he attempted to send on sub John Aldridge but was prevented from doing so courtesy of some bizarre FIFA bureaucracy on the sidelines. Gesticulating wildly and effing and most certainly jeffing, Charlton’s fury at the officials was caught in full by cameras. Aldridge got in on the tact too, audibly bellowing for the benefit of ITV’s teatime audience: ““F**K OFF YOU! T**T! YA D**KHEAD YA!”

When he finally did get on, Aldo reduced the arrears with a neat header, but it wasn’t enough to avoid defeat. Charlton was handed a touchline ban for Ireland’s crucial final game with Norway. A goalless draw was enough to see the Irish through to a second successive last 16 appearance, where they promptly came a cropper against Holland. Oh Pat Bonner


7) Al-Owairan’s wonder goal

Saudi Arabia arrived in America as 500/1 rank outsiders. Another country making their world cup bow, they were written off as fodder for the European sides in their group, Holland and Belgium. Yet there was plenty of talent in the Saudi line-up, from goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea, who would go onto become the second-most capped footballer in history, to creative midfielder Sami Al-Jaber, to enforcer Fuad Amin, bizarrely compared to Ugandan despot namesake Idi by the none-more-Partridge Clive Tyldesley, who was forced to concede: “he’d have struggled in this heat though, big Idi”.

Their star, however, was Saeed Al-Owairan, known as ‘the Maradona of the Arabs’. After giving the Dutch a huge fright by taking the lead before losing 2-1, the Saudis took on Belgium, and Al-Owairan showed how he earned his nickname. Picking the ball up in his own half around 70 yards from goal, he ran past one Belgian, then another, then another. He’d gone past four by the time he reached the opposing penalty area, and if he got a shade lucky by getting away with overruning the ball at one point and with the last defender somehow missing a ball that was there for the taking, his marvellous run got the finish it deserved when he slid into to clip the ball high over the advancing Preud’homme and into the net.

It was the only goal of the game and put Saudi Arabia – 500/1 Saudi Arabia – into the last 16. It would also take goal of the tournament honours. Al-Owairan would have a very public fall from grace in his homeland, falling foul of the country’s hard-line anti-alcohol laws and being sent to prison after being caught drinking. But his shining moment against Belgium earned him world cup immortality.


6) Hagi’s genius

From the Maradona of the Arabs to the Maradona of the Carpathians. If we’re playing ‘Whose World Cup Was It Anyway?”, compelling cases can be made for Romario, Baggio and Stoichkov, but the early rounds belonged to Gheorghe Hagi. After showing bursts of his enormous talent at Italia ’90, the Romanian number 10 had stagnated at club level. A move to Real Madrid didn’t work out, and he’d even struggled to find consistency when slumming it in Serie B with Brescia.

Tournament football was what he was made for though and he was the standout performer as Romania exploded out of the traps against Colombia on only the second day of the competition. Making the bullets for Florin Radiciou with an imperious display of grace and subtlety, he scored one of the goals of the tournament himself, an amazing curling, angled chip from all of 35 yards that sailed over Oscar Cordoba and into the far corner. This wasn’t one of those flukey, messy-sounding ‘cross-cum-shots’ that the papers never quite seem to know how to spell. Hagi meant it. He looked up, measured his shot, and delivered it to perfection.

Romania’s ruthless, rapier-like counter-attacking was years ahead of its time and it was all anchored by Hagi’s Napoleonic creativity, which did for a ragged, reeling post-Maradona Argentina in the second round. It all ended for Anghel Iordănescu’s team on penalties after a topsy-turvy struggle with fellow surprise packages Sweden, but Hagi (a qualified dentist according to his Wikipedia page, surely that can’t be right?!) left the US a superstar.


5) Maradona self-destructs

… and from the Maradona of the Carpathians to the real deal himself. In hindsight, the only thing shocking about Diego Armando Maradona’s drug test woes is that it felt shocking at the time. The game is littered with great comeback stories but by any standards, the transformation of the 33-year-old doughy, drug-addicted playboy who’d wheezed his way through the play offs against Australia into the lean machine who turned up in the States in the best shape since 1986 really stretched credibility to breaking point.

What was saddest about the whole situation was that Maradona’s brilliant performance against Greece couldn’t have just been down to the ephedrine he tested positive for. The genius was still there, the vision, the ability to pick a pass others wouldn’t even contemplate. Then came that brilliant goal, the culmination of some brilliant Argentine one-touch passing before he lashed in from just inside the box, and then that crazed celebration, tanking, hulking, wide and wild-eyed into living rooms around the world, a man out of control, raging.

When news of his failed test broke after Argentina’s next match, a 2-1 defeat of Nigeria four days later, everything suddenly made sense. True to form, the man himself blamed everybody else, friends, enemies, shadowy forces perpetrating conspiracies, and what could have been one of the great swansongs instead marked the final descent of the greatest footballer ever into parody and punchline. You really let the tortoise get away this time, Diego.



4)   Bebeto rocks the cradle

Though it has become a tiresome ode to a millionaire’s working testes, in June 1994 Bebeto’s tribute to his newborn son was an exotic treat that lit up the world cup. Bebeto spent so much time living in the shadow of his more famous, more talented, on-again off-again buddy Romario, but the Deportivo striker was a fearsome penalty box predator who scored some crucial goals en route to Brazil’s triumph at the Rose Bowl. The Seleção were already a goal up in their exciting quarter final against the Netherlands when Ed De Goey’s goal kick was headed back towards goal and the Dutch players, noticing Romario coming back from an offside position, stopped, expecting a flag. It never came, leaving Bebeto to calmly wander around De Goey to double his country’s advantage. Chuckling maniacally to himself, he set off for the touchline, frantically rocking his arms from side to side as if cradling a baby, and was joined by Romario and Mazinho, who followed suit. A craze was born.

Brazil did their best to throw that lead away, Bergkamp and Winter equalising for a Dutch team that never quite hit their stride in America. It was left to the veteran left back Branco – only playing because of Leonardo’s suspension following the hideous elbow that fractured Tab Ramos’ skull in the previous round – to do what he did best, ramming home a low 25-yard free kick to see Brazil through and prevent Bebeto’s dance from looking even sillier.

As for Bebeto, the baby boy the goal was dedicated to made his professional debut in 2012. Just last week, he and his old man recreated the celebration.


3) Letchkov shocks the world

After getting an abject hammering from Nigeria, it didn’t look good for Bulgaria. But after easing past Greece in their next game and then surprising Argentina, they made it to the last 16, led by the directness of Hristo Stoichkov and with telling support from the brilliant Krasmir Balakov. They also had a solid spine that included wig-wearing custodian Bobby Mihailov, wolfman Trifon Ivanov and target men Emil Kostadinov, whose last minute goal in Paris had famously put his nation into the finals at France’s expense.

It took penalties for Bulgaria to squeak past Mexico in a match marred by abysmal refereeing, but the hero of the hour was balding Hamburg midfielder Yordan Letchkov, who’d scored the winning spot kick. Nobody gave them a chance in the quarter finals however, where reigning world champions Germany awaited. Berti Vogts’ ageing side was yet to hit top gear, having suffered from a lack of competitive games that was the down side of automatic qualification for the holders. Still, they’d marched through the rounds without really breaking sweat, surviving the disgraced exit of key midfielder Steffen Effenberg – sent home for giving his own fans a one finger salute against South Korea in Dallas – not to mention a truly horrific world cup record

It looked like it was going to be business as usual at Giants Stadium as well. After a goalless first half, Letchkov conceded a penalty that Lothar Matthaus calmly converted. Moments later, the Germans hit the post. But with 15 minutes remaining it was Matthaus who turned villain, conceding a free kick 30 yards from goal – very much Stoichkov territory. The self-regarding Barca star duly obliged with a brilliant curling free kick that left Bodo Illgner standing. Suddenly the momentum shifted and the champions lost their belief. Just three minutes later, Yankov (no sniggering) heaved a ball into the box, and suddenly appearing into the picture from nowhere was Letchkov, dashing across his marker and flinging himself full-length to crash a header into the net. Just like that, Bulgaria were in the semi-finals in their very first world cup. And the holders were out.

It was, by some way, the shock of the tournament. German defender Martin Wagner had been knocked unconscious with the score at 1-0, and when he was told, on coming round and enquiring as to the final result, that it had finished 2-1, he asked “who scored our second?”.

The only one who wasn’t surprised was Letchkov. “I have known for several years that I am a star,” he said. “Now you all know that I am a star.” If ever a man had earned the right to blow his own trumpet…


2) Baggio’s heartbreak

Poor Roberto Baggio. He had dragged a not especially impressive-looking Italy all the way to the final. He’d rescued them against Nigeria in the 88th minute of their second round game with an equaliser and then produced an outrageous chipped pass to earn the winning penalty (which he scored himself) in extra time. He’d scored the winner against Spain in the last eight with a superb finish from a tight angle. He’d scored two stone-cold beauties to see off Bulgaria’s challenge in the semis. But he also pulled his hamstring in that game, and left the pitch in tears. Italy were in trouble. They’d won without Baggio against Mexico in the groups, but desperately needed their talisman for the final against favourites Brazil. So, like El Cid’s corpse, he was patched up and sent out into battle in the hope his very presence would inspire his own side and frighten the opposition. Baggio was clearly nowhere near fit however, shuffling through the game like a peculiarly dreamy, sun-kissed zombie, and fluffed Italy’s best chance of a disappointing final when he found himself with space in the area only to shoot over. It wouldn’t be the last time.

0-0  after 120 minutes, the world cup final, for the first time and history, would be settled by a penalty shoot out. The Azzurri had already missed two spot kicks when Baggio stepped up, needing to score to keep their hopes alive. As the camera zeroed in on the divine ponytail however, that familiar steely confidence was AWOL. The run-up was long – possibly even too long – and the man who had scored more penalties than any Italian in history lofted his shot high over the bar, giving Brazil their first world cup in 24 years.

The immediate aftermath saw all eyes focus not on the victors, but on the best player in the world, standing, hands on hips, at the scene of his failure, his own world caving in. “It affected me for years. It the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it,” he would say in his autobiography.

The miss was the moment he would unfairly be remembered for. Baggio would eventually bounce back for both club and country, but the aura he entered USA ’94 with was gone forever.


1)  The murder of Andres Escobar

Tragically, one event thousands of miles away, on a different continent altogether, would provide a reminder that the biggest competition in football was, in reality, just a few men kicking a ball about. 10 days after his own goal had contributed to fancied Colombia’s early exit, Milan-bound captain Andrés Escobar was shot dead in the car park of the El Indio club in Medellín. Knowing the dark forces that were heavily involved in Colombian football, Escobar had warned his team mates not to go out in public in the wake of their elimination, but for some reason he ignored his own advice, and after an altercation outside the club he was gunned down, his assailants punctuating each shot with cries of “own goal”.

So much has been written about the murder, yet a full picture of the events is yet to emerge. Was Escobar the victim of a planned hit, a punishment from gambling syndicates who had lost hundreds of thousands when Colombia failed to get beyond the group stage? Or was it a heat-of-the-moment argument that got dramatically out of hand?  Either way, the consequences were that Colombia lost one of its proudest sons, the game lost one of its finest defenders.. 120,000 lined the streets of Medellín to pay their respects at his funeral.



Charity Shield, Wembley, 8th August 1992


Life should have been good for the two teams who strode out at Wembley in August 1992 to bring the curtain up on the glitzy new world of the Premier League. Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds Utd were preparing to defend a title won in thrilling, improbable fashion, having only been promoted back to the top tier three seasons prior. Liverpool had endured a rocky 1991/92, finishing a disappointing sixth, but had nevertheless managed to pick up the silverware they then still took for granted in lifting the then-prestigious FA Cup.

Yet both clubs stood on the precipice of disastrous seasons. The champions would finish 17th in 1992/93, just two points off the relegation zone, their safety not confirmed until the league’s penultimate weekend.  Liverpool meanwhile, were again forced to settle for sixth – having been 15th (and just three points away from the drop zone themselves) as late as March.

The game itself was a riotous hybrid of The Matrix meets the Marx Brothers – quality, cutting-edge finishing intermingled with screwball defending. It also featured one of Eric Cantona’s last great performances in a Leeds shirt.

The Match

The first goal arrived after 25 minutes. Rod Wallace’s first touch was abysmal, but his pace – and the unfathomable amount of space he was afforded as he raced down the left-hand channel – saw him effectively latch onto his own through ball. Moving into the box, the striker unselfishly squared for Eric Cantona, who ignored the three Liverpool defenders hastily converging on him to sweep the ball powerfully and precisely into the net.

10 minutes later, parity had been restored, thanks to an Ian Rush far post header following Ronnie Rosenthal’s cross from the left byline. It was a goal more notable for Lee Chapman’s bewildered attempt at defending, the Leeds number nine looking like a man recovering from amnesia as he stood in his own six yard box, dimly aware of something he would usually do in this situation. He tracked the ball, launched himself towards the ball, just about remembered in time that he wasn’t supposed to head it in, but apparently forgot altogether that he was supposed to be marking Rush.

Leeds regained the advantage just before half time when they were awarded a free kick that can only be described as ‘generous’ after Wallace went down in the general vicinity of Mark Wright. Some training ground jiggery pokery ensued before Tony Dorigo leathered a shot into the wall that cannoned past Bruce Grobbelaar off Rosenthal’s backside. Still, it’s not like the Israeli’s season would get any worse

Shortly after the hour mark, Mark Everton Walters unleashed a powerful effort from range that was blocked but nevertheless caught John Lukic in the Leeds goal off guard, allowing Dean Saunders to nip in and slam home Liverpool’s second equaliser. 2-2 was how it stayed until the last 15 minutes, when Leeds scored perhaps the afternoon’s best goal. Dorigo floated in another free kick to Cantona in the box, who headed on to Wallace. When the ball came back to him, he showed marvellous technique in sweetly hammering the ball into the bottom corner with the outside of his boot.

The decisive goal came with four minutes remaining. Substitute Gordon Strachan’s whipped in ball from the right evaded everyone and looked to be heading into touch. But while the Liverpool defence stopped, Wallace kept going, and when the ball instead struck the corner flag and stayed in he was again left with bags of room to exploit. Now it has his turn to cross, only for Grobbelaar to spectacularly miss the ball, leaving Cantona to complete his hat trick by heading into an empty net.

There was still time for the game’s piéce de resistance. A Liverpool outswinging corner found Wright, whose shot on goal was surely heading in but for the presence on the line of good, reliable old Strachan. But the wee man got himself into a right mess. Attempting to control the ball first with his left foot, then his right, he succeeded only in effectively okey-cokeying the ball through his legs and over the line. It was a moment of purest comedy that proved so popular with Liverpool fans that Djimi Traore paid homage to it 13 years later.

So what went wrong from here for two top teams who’d put on such a show?


Conventional wisdom seems to point at the decision to sell Cantona to bitter rivals Manchester Utd in November as the catalyst for Leeds’ downfall, but it was arguably not quite the unfathomable brainfart at the time that history now paints it as. Cantona’s impact in Yorkshire was not actually as great as many remember, and in his eight months at Leeds he only started 10 games. He did not display his magnificent talent at Elland Road with anything like the consistency he would under Sir Alex Ferguson, and the no-nonsense, tactically inflexible Wilkinson was no Ferguson, incapable and at times unwilling to accommodate the Frenchman in his rigid 4-4-2. The maverick’s languid style and unhappiness at ‘Sgt Wilko’’s rigorous, fitness-based training sessions brought him into conflict with his manager and with harder working, less talented team mates.  With an unsettled Cantona causing unrest, perhaps Wilkinson’s decision to sell him to Ferguson (a conversation that famously started with Leeds enquiring about Denis Irwin) made a certain amount of sense. Although Cantona’s replacement Frank Strandli (despite a debut goal) – ultimately proved a chubby disappointment, the team hardly struggled for goals, Chapman ably assisted by perhaps the best midfield in the league – Speed, Strachan, McAllister and (don’t laugh) Batty.

What got Leeds into trouble was their away record. This was the season when the backpass rule was introduced, and The Whites’ ageing back line struggled with it more than most; not so much at home, where the team lost just once, but away, when the defence came under more pressure, there was a real problem, and only four teams conceded more.  Lukic – who made his debut in 1978 – was particularly affected, making several costly gaffes.  Leeds didn’t pick up a single win on their travels all season, although having to perform in this ceefax vomit monstrosity, perhaps it was a fate they were doomed to from the off.


Souness’ problem was that he appeared not to learn from the previous season’s mistakes, continuing to dismantle an ageing but still strong squad with indecent haste. Perhaps the cup win masked the impact of losing the likes of Peter Beardsley and Steve McMahon, as the following season saw him ship out players such as Barry Venison and, bizarrely, Ray Houghton, fresh off a season that had seen him make the PFA Player of the Year shortlist. The likes of Grobbelaar and even Rush would find themselves marginalised at various points throughout the season.

This wouldn’t have necessarily proven so damaging had Souness found suitable replacements, but his transfer business at Anfield was the stuff of infamy. That season, the considerable sum of £2.3m was spent to bring in Paul Stewart from Spurs, but the industrious, goal-scoring midfielder/forward they were expecting never materialised, in his place a chunky, injury-prone sloth who managed just one goal in 32 appearances. Much-hyped Next Big Thing David James arrived from Watford to claim the number one shirt, but this was an incredible amount of pressure to pile on a young goalkeeper, and an uncertain start saw the first ‘Calamity James’ headlines arrive. Then there was Torben Piechnik, who arrived for £500,000 from FC Copenhagen following a summer of European Championship triumph. On paper it was a savvy signing and the Dane was a tryer, but he was just two slow for the pace of the English game.

To his credit, Souness did put a lot of faith in youth, and under him Steve McManaman’s development continued, while Jamie Redknapp emerged and Robbie Fowler’s name would appear in matchday squads before the season was out. The likes of Don Hutchison, Nicky Tanner and Steve ‘rock with no eyes’ Harkness would prove less successful however.

The mess he made of his transfer dealings was perhaps embodied by Dean Saunders. Souness had broken the British transfer record to bring Saunders to Anfield the previous season. Yet the Welshman’s game was based on pace and counter-attacking; he wasn’t suited to Liverpool’s passing game and was uncomfortable having the ball played to feet. He nevertheless managed a very decent 23 goals in all competitions in his first season, only for his manager to sell him weeks into the following campaign to raise money to sign Piechnik. Saunders left complaining of being “just another cog in the Anfield machine” and went to Villa (for around half a million less than the £2.9m Liverpool had paid). He scored twice on his debut…against Liverpool. He, Houghton and Steve Staunton, another player Souness had jettisoned, formed the spine of a Villa side that engaged Man Utd in a thrilling title race. Liverpool meanwhile, got off to their worst start for 28 years.

Souness had already erased much of supporters’ goodwill in April 1992 after giving an interview to The Sun following his heart bypass surgery – published, with the paper’s customary sensitivity, on the third anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy. Bad football results are trivial in comparison, and Souness would later admit that he should have resigned immediately.

Yet defeats to Wimbledon (twice), Coventry (5-1), Arsenal, Everton, Spurs and Sheffield Utd, among others, only cranked up the pressure on him further.  The Reds had also exited the all cups by February. They survived a potential League Cup humiliation to fourth tier Chesterfield (who led 3-0 at Anfield before being pegged back to 4-4) before losing to Crystal Palace, while Bolton, one league below The Reds in the pyramid, knocked them out of the FA Cup. Spartak Moscow ended their European hopes.

The manager was ultimately forced to bring back the senior players he’d tried to phase out. Grobbelaar was recalled from the indignity of a loan at third-tier Stoke. Rush returned and hit a goal-laden run of form, firing 9 in 11 games to help drag Liverpool up the table in the final two months. It was a fine end to the season, but overall it was a campaign that marked beginning of the end for Souness.

While Liverpool and Leeds floundered, the players they’d rid themselves of (Cantona, Houghton, Saunders) battled for the Premier League without them. Liverpool wouldn’t contest another Charity Shield for nine years. Leeds haven’t since.

The year before The Queen experienced her annus horriblis, Diego Armando Maradona was in the grip of one of his own, during what would be a particularly grim decade for The Greatest Footballer of All Time. 1991 brought drugs and sex scandals, a humiliating arrest in his homeland on possession charges, and, worst of all, a 15-month FIFA ban after testing positive for cocaine.

Arrivederci Napoli

With his ban set to expire in July 1992, Maradona knew only one thing: he wanted out of Napoli. Though he still had three years remaining on his contract, his love affair with the southern club he’d dragged from relative obscurity to two Scudetti had soured dramatically. He had managed to alienate club president Corrado Ferlaino and new manager Claudio Ranieri. Then there were his alleged connections with the city’s feared Camorra. He had to get out.

There were two problems. First, there was precious little interest in a player, even one of Maradona’s divine talent, who was the wrong side of 30, hadn’t played for so long and was widely perceived to be damaged goods. Second, Ferlaino, under increasing pressure as Napoli’s debts mounted, was adamant he wouldn’t go down in history as ‘the man who lost Maradona’.

By 1992, the only clubs to show any genuine interest were Bernard Tapie’s Marseilles (who’d come close to signing him a couple of years earlier), Diego’s beloved Boca, and La Liga outfit Sevilla. The Argentine offer was an immediate non-starter – Boca simply couldn’t afford him. He was tempted by Tapie’s overtures and the chance to play in the Champions’ League, but ultimately concerns about having to learn a new language at that stage in his career deterred him. That left Sevilla. Though not a massive club, they were ambitious, had some talented young players emerging (countryman Diego Simeone, Croatian hotshot Davor Suker), and, most significantly, were managed by Carlos Bilardo, the man who’d got the very best out of Maradona in steering Argentina to world cup glory in Mexico six summers previously.

Though he later confessed to having reservations about the move (expressed in his autobiography ‘El Diego’) concerning whether or not Sevilla were ‘big enough’ for him, and he’d endured an unhappy couple of years in La Liga a decade beforehand with Barcelona, Diego decided to head for Spain.

A tug of war then ensued. It seemed that Napoli were more eager to keep hold of their number 10 than Sevilla were to purchase him, and Maradona grew increasingly frustrated as the Spaniards dragged their feet. Meanwhile, Napoli continued to send him messages demanding that he return for pre-season training. Eventually, in an unusual move that underlined the influence Maradona’s name still carried, FIFA interjected themselves to mediate the situation at their headquarters in Zurich. It was there, after a five-hour meeting between representatives from the governing body, the two clubs and Maradona’s legal team, that progress was finally made. Maradona vowed to return to Napoli only if they met a list of demands that would embarrass your average Bond villain, allegedly including double his wages, a private villa on the isle of Capri, and a helicopter to travel to training.

The ultimatum gave everyone what they wanted. Ferlaino saved face – he couldn’t meet the demands and could blame the player’s greed for his failure to bring him back. Maradona, knowing full well the conditions wouldn’t be met, would have his freedom. And Sevilla would have their man.

A strong start in Spain

Eventually, after yet more wrangling, a deal was struck. The Andalusians would pay the considerable sum of £4.68m for his services. However, what they were getting was not the famed genius capable of defeating teams single-handedly (literally so, in some cases), but an overweight, 31-year-old drug addict who hadn’t kicked a ball for the best part of two years.

That said, Maradona made a promising start to life in Seville. He made his competitive debut for the club in October 1992 away at Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés Stadium, where he’d been infamously ‘butchered’ by Andoni Goikoetxea while at Barca. Milking the home fans’ catcalls, he swerved a fantastic free kick on target that the Bilbao ‘keeper couldn’t hold on to, allowing Marcos to give Sevilla the lead. A week later, he settled a game with Zaragoza from the penalty spot. With a goal and an assist in his first two games and the club raking in an extra £2.2m in ticket and merchandising revenue since his arrival, Los Nervionenses’ deal was beginning to look inspired.

Though he was milkfloat-slow and tired easily, Maradona continued to show flashes of his brilliance. Usually operating just behind the strikers, he thundered in a glorious free kick against Celta Vigo, scored a glorious volley against Sporting Gijon and, around Christmas, masterminded a win over Real Madrid with a man of the match display. ‘The Maradona of Mexico has returned’ screamed one spanish newspaper. He was the talk of football again.

The inevitable crash

An appropriate sponsor, given he was at this point just a moustache and a plunger away from being a live-action Mario

Gradually though, those moments of quality were glimpsed ever more rarely, and inevitably things started to go downhill both on and off the pitch. His fitness further deteriorated, he began to put back on the weight he’d lost in the early months of the season, and, plagued by a catalogue of aches, pains and long-term injuries from a whole career of being scythed down by defenders, he was simply unable to dominate games in the way he once had.

An early example of his growing frustration came in January’s 3-0 humbling at the hands of Tenerife, in which the on-off feud between Maradona and Fernando Redondo (supposedly over the latter’s attitude towards international duty), led to the former furiously stalking the referee to seek retribution for a Redondo tackle, only to talk himself into a red card.

The first seeds of dissension behind the scenes manifested themselves just months into his stay and concerned his tendency to fly back to Argentina at a moment’s notice – something that happened with increasing regularity as he tried to rekindle his international career. Napoli had been prepared to indulge Maradona in this area, given his importance to the side. But this pale, chubby, only fitfully impressive version didn’t carry the same currency with Sevilla’s top brass. The idea that he might not be allowed to do precisely whatever he wants whenever he wants has always been greeted with abject horror and disbelief by the man himself, and he was soon butting heads with club president Luis Cuervas and other directors when they attempted to limit his trips home.

When Maradona was called up for Argentina friendlies against Brazil (in the AFA’s Centenary game) and Denmark (in the highly prestigious Artemio Franchi Cup) in February 1993, Sevilla gave him permission to play in only one, insisting he forego the game against the Danes to be present for a league match with Logroñés three days earlier. Instead, Maradona defied Cuervas and played in all three, jetting from Buenos Aires back to Sevilla and then to Mar del Plata. Worse, he transparently phoned in a listless display in the 2-0 defeat to Logroñés, eager to save himself for his Albiceleste travails. Such brazen prioritising of country over club appalled supporters and management alike in Andalusia.

To compound matters, it wasn’t long before El Diego’s old appetites resurfaced. Cuervas hired a team of private detectives to follow him round during his nocturnal activities – in reality, all he needed to do was pick up a newspaper. Tales of misdemeanours ranging from speeding penalties for thrashing his Porsche through residential areas at 200mph, to late-night brothel visits and nightclub brawls were commonplace throughout late 1992 and early 1993.

A friendship at breaking point

Every failed fitness test, missed training session and unscheduled excursion to the motherland ate away at the star’s previously close relationship with Bilardo. In many ways it was strange that the bond between the two should ever have been so strong – on paper they were polar opposites. As a player, Bilardo had been psychopath-in-chief of the infamous Estudiantes side of the late 1960s, a player with a penchant for violence so strong that he was rumoured to sneak a needle onto the pitch with which to jab opponents; as a manager he had a reputation as an arch-pragmatist, synonymous with anti-football. There shouldn’t have been any room for an artist like Maradona in his team.

But the man known as ‘El Narigon’ (‘big nose’) was also incredibly smart, and instead, on taking the helm of the Argentine national side, he opted to build his whole team around his number 10 from the outset. His first move was to make him captain (putting Daniel Passarella’s nose out of joint in the process). At training camps, Maradona was allowed to go anywhere, do anything, with anyone he wanted. On the pitch meanwhile, Bilardo sought to give Maradona the maximum amount of freedom, developing an innovative hard-working 3-5-2 formation with wing backs – ‘the last great tactical innovation’, as described by Jonathan Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’. The system afforded Maradona the protection he needed to completely dominate the tournament in a manner not seen before or since, as he carried the side all the way to the trophy.

At Sevilla however, Bilardo was not in a position to cater to Maradona’s every whim. His paymasters wouldn’t allow it, and besides, his performances didn’t justify it. He had been the man to push for Los Nervionenses to make the deal with El Diego, and he now felt let down by the player’s lack of effort or concern for the club’s cause.

Everything came to a head during Sevilla’s penultimate game of the season, at home to Burgos. Troubled by the resurfacing of an old knee injury, Maradona asked to come off at half-time, only for Bilardo to ask him to take a pain-killing injection and play on. According to Maradona, he took three such painful injections in his knee, yet within just 10 minutes of the restart, he could only stare in disbelief when Bilardo took him off anyway. Furious at the apparently unnecessary injections, and apparently believing that this was some sort of revenge exacted by El Narigon for his tardiness and poor performances, the number 10 stormed off the pitch, firing some choice invective in the manager’s direction, and proceeded to smash up the dressing room before leaving in a rage. A few days later, Bilardo confronted him to demand an apology. Predictably, the two instead came to blows. “We kicked the shit out of each other,” Maradona would recall.

Maradona never played for Sevilla again. Both sides wanted out – Sevilla were struggling to pay him (he was reportedly owed £625,000 in wages on departing) and pay for him. Besides, they were fed up with his antics. Vice-President José María del Nido complained that Maradona “wasn’t fit enough to play table tennis”. The player, meanwhile, hinted that the whole affair had knocked his confidence as he struggled to come to terms with his fading powers: “I’m leaving because they don’t love me”, he declared.

No winners in the aftermath

Maradona and Bilardo, this time after a (mock) pasting they didn’t inflict on each other

Though Sevilla, in spite of the Diego sideshow, actually had a decent season, finishing 7th (an improvement of five places on the season before), it was downhill for all concerned from that point on. Maradona went back to Argentina and set himself on the path to another drug disgrace at USA ‘94. Bilardo also left after just a season in Andalusia, and has only managed sporadically since. Sevilla’s outlay on Maradona meanwhile, was but one aspect of their mismanagement, and within two seasons the parlous state of their finances saw them demoted to the Segunda, only to be reinstated on appeal. By 1997, they’d managed to relegate themselves anyway, having been forced to sell their stars.

Ironically, all would bounce back around the same time as well. Having been promoted back to La Liga in 1999, the 21st Century started brilliantly for Los Nervionenses, with two UEFA Cup wins, one Copa Del Rey and an unlikely title challenge in 2007, finishing just five points behind Real Madrid and Barcelona in third. The following year, the reconciled dream team of Maradona and Bilardo took on the challenge of guiding Argentina to the world cup…before falling out again after their quarter final humiliation at the hands of Germany.

Ultimately, Maradona’s year in Seville was football’s equivalent of Elvis’ Vegas years – an all-time great reduced to a fat, shambling parody of himself, only capable of glimpses of his once-almighty talent.

Soon after his arrival, Maradona moved into a huge mansion that had once belonged to one of the most famous matadors in the city’s history. It was only a matter of time, however, before everyone in Seville was sick of his bullshit.

It’s 20 years since the headline ‘YANKS 2 PLANKS 0’ belched from the mind of one of The Sun’s ever-culturally sensitive subeditors, summing up depressingly neatly the events of the previous evening in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where England had been beaten by the USA for the first time since Belo Horizonte.

The second annual US Cup, a four-team, round robin friendly tournament, was significant in serving as a dress-rehearsal of sorts for the following summer’s world cup finals, which would also be held on American soil. It was a big chance for the hosts to try and entice a resistant nation to embrace the delights of ‘soccer’, with their boys competing against three of the game’s most famous exponents – Brazil, Germany and England. Yet the Three Lions were very much the odd team out. The US and Germany had already qualified for USA ’94, as hosts and holders respectively, and while the CONMEBOL qualifiers were yet to kick off, nobody was anticipating that Brazil – already favourites to win the whole thing – would be in any danger. England’s hopes however, were already in dire straits following a dreadful 2-0 defeat in Oslo seven days prior. There was, therefore, considerable pressure on the team and manager to restore some confidence in what would otherwise have been a fairly meaningless goodwill mission. The increasingly beleaguered Taylor himself made a rod for his own back by declaring the game against the US to be must-win, claiming:

For some reason, people had stopped taking Taylor seriously

“We would have been looking for a win here anyhow, but if we’d won last week it wouldn’t have been considered essential. Now it is. Whether we like it or not, people expect us to beat America, and there is definitely more intensity about this game because of our performance in the last one.”Yet the game was also a chance for Taylor to tinker, something he loved to do (he capped 59 Players during his three-year reign). He gave a number of fringe players chances to impress:  Nigel Clough, enduring a difficult start to life at Liverpool, was brought in to play just behind the strikers in the ‘Gascoigne’ role, the fragile maestro himself having been withdrawn by Lazio. A decidedly makeshift back four had Lee Dixon and Tony Dorigo as full backs and an incongruous centre half pairing of Gary Pallister and midfielder Carlton Palmer. Lee Sharpe, Les Ferdinand and David Batty also got opportunities, while Taylor persevered with John Barnes (in a striking role alongside Ferdinand, oddly) despite a rotten run of form for his country that had seen him booed by large sections of Wembley just four months previously.

But the occasion was particularly momentous for Paul Ince. Having only made his international debut the year before, the self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ was made captain for the tournament, becoming the first black player to wear the armband for England.

Even in the wake of the Norway debacle, it was nevertheless expected that England would defeat the USA, who despite being given the world cup had yet to definitively shed its reputation as a footballing backwater. This game, against a side that had won one of their last 16 and not scored for 346 minutes, was (certainly in the media’s eyes) mere window dressing before the real tests against Germany and Brazil.

Instead, it proved to be a complete disaster. England started slowly, allegedly unhappy with the condition of the pitch (the grass was long) and the hosts, buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd of over 37,000 in Massachusetts, seized the initiative. Driven by their European stars, such as Saarbrucken’s Eric Wynalda (who’d just been crowned Bundesliga Newcomer of the Year) and Real Betis’ Tab Ramos (the standout player in an otherwise lousy Italia ’90 campaign for the stars and stripes), they began to create chances. The mulleted Jeff Agoos found himself clean through but shot straight at Chris Woods. Coventry’s Roy Wegerle frequently bamboozled England’s one-paced midfield. England’s best chance of the half fell to Clough, who badly sliced wide from six yards out with the goal in front of him. Taylor’s side were distinctly second best, and when the US took the lead three minutes before half time it was fully deserved. Ramos collected an overhit cross on the right and smartly pulled back from the byline, where another European-based star, German-born Thomas Dooley of Kaiserslautern, was lurking to guide in a terrific diving header.

The visitors woke up a bit after the break and did start to look half-threatening, with substitute Ian Wright adding impetus to the attack. Yet US ‘keeper Tony Meola was equal to everything. Twice he made superlative stops to deny Clough, with a fine one-handed save from a free kick particularly catching the eye.

If Thor and Sarah Ferguson had a baby…

Then, with 18 minutes remaining, Ramos took a corner and ginger-goateed catweasle look-alike Alexi Lalas (who’d replaced Dooley, crocked by a pumped-up Ince) leapt to glance a header into the far corner before setting off in incredulous, marauding, screw-loose celebration. It was the first step of a journey that would see the distinctive centre half become the poster boy for US soccer for a short time in the mid-90s.

Now England looked broken. Chris Woods had been a relatively safe pair of hands since inheriting the gloves almost by default after Peter Shilton’s retirement, but had been totally at sea for the Lalas goal. Taylor dropped him for the next game. He never played for England again.

There was still time for Meola to make two brilliant one-on-one saves from Wright in injury time (much to the Arsenal striker’s chagrin), but then, it was over, and England had been humiliated. US coach and serial minor-miracle worker Bora Milutinovic had declared in the build-up that he’d have been happy with a draw. Instead his team took all the points, and were good value for them.

As friendly defeats go, this was perhaps England’s most damaging since they were shellacked by the Mighty Magyars at Wembley 40 years earlier. It was certainly a significant nail in Taylor’s coffin. He claimed, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that on another day England would have won the game. His words smacked of desperation. The Yanks/Planks headline signalled the intensification of press ridicule and the media’s portrayal of the England manager as an incompetent buffoon. There were also signs that his paymasters’ patience was running out, Brian Glanville recalling: ‘Hope of change rose when, at one of Taylor’s Boston press conferences, Bert “The Inert” Millichip, the FA Chairman, appeared at the back of the room, fixed Taylor with what looked a minatory stare, and marched out as soon as the rambling discourse was over.’

It was perhaps unfair that the upset was all anyone took away from the competition, as England actually acquitted themselves fairly well in the remaining games. Taylor made 5 changes for the 1-1 draw with Brazil and saw his side play positively. Substitute David Platt (who’d missed the previous game entirely through injury) headed one right through Taffarel’s hands to give England the lead, before they were pegged back by Marcio Santos. Debutant Tim Flowers, in for Woods, made several heroic saves, while Pallister, now partnered by Des Walker rather than Palmer, was similarly strong. England were also bright in defeat against Germany, with Ince (England’s one consistent ray of light throughout the tournament) driving them forward, Andy Sinton looking lively out wide (!) and Platt cancelling out Stefan Effenberg’s opener. A dreadful stray pass by Barnes led to Jurgen Klinsmann’s winner, and the Liverpool man too was never picked again by Taylor, so long his staunchest champion.

Elsewhere in the competition, the USA lost to both Brazil and Germany, but their victory over England gave them confidence and helped kick-start a mini golden-age for the sport, being followed by a respectable showing at the world cup and the birth of MLS. The two heavyweights meanwhile, played out a thrilling 3-3 draw, with Brazil racing into a 3-0 lead only for the world champions to fight back and spoil the ‘passing of the torch’ narrative that had all but written itself.

Taylor’s Waterloo was not far away – four months later England would lose to the Dutch in Rotterdam, all but confirming their absence from the world cup, before Davide Gualtieri put the icing on the cake in Bologna the next month by somehow making a 7-1 win feel like a defeat.

The big winner on 9th June 1993, however, was the man with the goatee. I’ll leave you with him recreating that golden moment…

18th May 1994

Champions League Final

AC Milan 4-0 Barcelona 

With England travelling to Montenegro with some trepidation on Tuesday night, what better time to revisit the finest hour of their greatest ever player, Dejan Savicevic?

Savicevic was perhaps the epitome of the 90s flair player – highly strung, often less than industrious, but capable of the seemingly impossible. Technically, there wasn’t a better footballer around that decade than the man Silvio Berlusconi named “Il Genio”. His dribbling skills were unparalleled, and his low centre of gravity, married to incredible spatial awareness, meant he was able to emerge from many a crunching tackle or seeming crowding out by defenders with the ball still glued to his feet, and get himself out of the tightest of tight spots.

The 1994 Champions League final seemed to take place in some sort of bizarro-world parallel universe, where the opposite transpired to what pretty much everyone had predicted. It was supposed to be the true crowning of Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ after they’d rather laboured to their first European Cup, two years previously, against Sampdoria. Boasting names like Romario, Stoichkov, Guardiola and Koeman, Barca had already secured another La Liga title and went into the final in rare form, winning their last five games to round off a 15-match undefeated streak. It was anticipated that they would make short work of Fabio Capello’s Milan side, who were missing key players, and who (despite holding onto the Scudetto for another season) had found goals hard to come by and stumbled over the line, failing to win their last six games.

Even Cruyff himself appeared to treat the outcome as a foregone conclusion, making disparaging comments about Milan’s defensive style in the build-up and even going as far as to be photographed with the trophy before the match. However, Capello’s under-strength side surprised the Catalans by going for the jugular from the outset, and would turn the Dream Team’s big night into a nightmare.

Milan’s path to Athens really started with Capello’s appointment almost three years prior. Going into his first managerial job with some hefty shoes to fill in replacing Arrigo Sacchi, Capello made the best possible start as his side breezed to the Scudetto without losing a single game, rattling in 74 goals. That summer, President Silvio Berlusconi decided to fix what wasn’t broken by spending around £35m on new players, breaking the world transfer record twice (£10m on Jean Pierre Papin, £13m on Gianluigi Lentini) in the process. Other new arrivals in this monumental spending spree included Savicevic (£9.4m from Red Star) as well as, among others, Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly and Stefano Eranio. Although Capello would often ignore a lot of these new toys, leaving many of the ‘flair’ players on the bench in favour of those more in tune with his mantra of “work, work, work”, Milan retained their title, and almost matched their unbeaten run of the previous campaign, extending it to an incredible 58 games in total until March 1993, when the Parma of Brolin and Asprilla finally defeated them.

However, while they were absolutely dominant domestically, not everything was perfect. Berlusconi’s impulse buying essentially forced Capello to pioneer the rotation system, which didn’t go down well with certain new players acquired at some expense only to find themselves kicking their heels on the bench, as well as other, more established stars previously considered untouchable – such as Ruud Gullit – whose playing time was suddenly reduced. Opportunities were further limited in Europe by UEFA’s short-lived three foreigner rule, and Milan could not immediately translate their Serie A success to the European Cup, being shocked by Marseilles in the first final of the Capello era in 1993.

The 1993/94 season was one of transition for the Rossoneri. The three Dutchmen who had been so pivotal to their success had all departed, Gullit heading to Sampdoria, Frank Rijkaard returning to Ajax and Marco Van Basten taking a sabbatical to (ultimately unsuccessfully) try to overcome a severe ankle injury. New signings included the Romanian striker Florin Raducioiu and Brian Laudrup. Yet while the high-profile departures gave the previous season’s arrivals more opportunities to get on the pitch, Capello’s preference for graft over creativity intensified and the free-scoring Milan of previous seasons was replaced by a much more conservative beast. They won the title again, but managed just 36 goals in 34 games.

Capello’s methods were the source of some discontent, not least among the attacking talent at his disposal. “If Capello’s system looks boring from the stands, it’s even worse to play in,” snorted Papin. Savicevic, always a fiery character, fell out with the stern Italian almost immediately. Having been a major architect of Red Star’s shock European Cup win in 1991 and finished runner-up in the Ballon D’or voting that year, big things were expected from him, and he quickly became a favourite of Berlusconi. Capello took some convincing though, largely because, as he would later describe: “he played the Yugoslavian style: he was the star and the others had to run for him.” It was a philosophy very much at odds with his own.

In his first season in Milan, 1992/93, he started just 10 league games, and took until January to score his first goal. When Milan travelled to Munich to face Marseilles in that famous final, he was not even named among the substitutes.

The following season saw tensions between Savicevic and Capello intensify as the former Red Star man again found his chances limited. This exploded into open warfare on more than one occasion, most notably when he refused to be a substitute for a Champions League group match against Anderlecht, and again when he was dropped for the World Club Cup final in Tokyo – having previously been told he was playing.  As long as Capello reigned at the San Siro, it seemed Savicevic’s days there were numbered.

Then came Athens. Injuries and suspensions had well and truly scrambled Capello’s ‘Plan A’. Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, his first choice centre back pairing, had both picked up cards in the semi-final against Monaco (Costacurta being dismissed following an embarrassing piece of simulation from Jurgen Klinsmann). Lentini was still recovering from a serious car crash that initially left him in a coma. The manager’s favourite workhorse, Demetrio Albertini, was also out through injury. So Capello’s hand was forced; he went with an inexperienced back line featuring youngsters Paolo Maldini and Stefan Panucci, and ageing reserve Daniele Massaro in attack. Most eye-catching of all though, was the midfield in Capello’s 4-1-4-1, in which the supremely skilful but decidedly lightweight duo of Savicevic and Boban were protected by Marcel Desailly, sitting in front of the back four. It shouldn’t have worked.

Yet it did – and that owed a lot to Savicevic, who had the game of his life. It was his cleverly weighted chip that created the opening goal after 22 minutes as Milan came out all guns blazing, Massaro firing into an empty net. They continued to dominate, adding a second on the stroke of half time through a brilliant 16-pass move that was again finished off by Massaro.

It was soon time for the Montenegrin’s crowning moment. Just after half time, Savicevic raced down the right to close down Miguel Angel Nadal. Dispossessing the Spanish international defender, he then noticed Andoni Zubizarreta off his line and, from just outside the box, clipped an incredibly audacious, sky-high lob that was perfectly weighted to float over Zubizaretta before dropping into the net. It was one of the great European Cup goals.

The Rossoneri weren’t finished there, Desailly storming forward to complete Barca’s humiliation with number four. In the aftermath, Capello was full of praise for both his players, each of whom he awarded a mark of ten, and particularly for Savicevic, the man of the match, describing him as the only player capable of such “an unthinkable play of brilliance…it is the way of Savicevic“.  As is his wont, however, Savicevic did himself no favours with his response, dedicating his goal to Berlusconi.

Capello talked of the game being “perfect”, but couldn’t bring himself to stick with the same set-up, soon reverting to the conservative style he’d used in the league. It would not have the same success at Milan again however. Juve took the Scudetto from them in 1994/95, and though they again reached the Champions’ League final, they looked a shadow of the previous year’s team, proving negative and toothless. Savicevic saw more action in Serie A but could still not make himself a regular. He scored the two goals in the Champions’ League semis against PSG that took Milan through, but again did not even make the bench for the final itself.

Capello left for Real Madrid in the summer of 1996 after one last Scudetto with Milan, while Savicevic stayed for another two seasons until 1998. His career winding down, he made a brief, ill-fated return to Red Star before spending a very happy couple of years at Rapid Vienna, where he was given pretty much a free role to float around and cause havoc. He retired in 2001, and later that year, despite a lack of experience, embarked on a disastrous tenure as coach of Serbia & Montenegro, failing to get a strong side to qualify for World Cup 2002 or Euro 2004, falling out with star striker Mateja Kezman, and even managing to draw at home and then lose away to lowly Azerbaijan.

Savicevic has found, by his standards, a degree of consistency and stability as head of the Montenegrin FA, a post he’s held since 2009 and was recently re-elected to serve another four years. He’s been helped in the role by his enormous popularity as both the ‘Michael Jordan’ of Montenegro and as literally a poster boy of Montenegrin independence, which was finally earned in 2006. It’s difficult to agree, however, with Henry Winter’s assertion that the upper echelons of English football administration ‘needs a Dejan Savicevic’ – the former Milan star could start an argument in (and possibly with) an empty room, managing to fall out with everyone from Serbian newspapers to his own second in command in his four years in the job to date, while also sacking a successful manager (Zlatko ‘father of Niko’ Krancjar) for no apparent reason –  amid whispers he was stealing Dejan’s limelight.

Nevertheless, Savicevic’s legacy on the pitch is that of one of the talents of 90s football, and at his best there were few more exciting players to watch. The former Yugoslavia produced many great creative talents who flourished during the decade – Boban, Prosinecki, Stoichkovic – but only one ‘genius’.

19th April 1997

Serie A

Bologna 0-1 Juventus

Juventus’ 2-0 win at Bologna’s Stadio Renato Dall’Ara on Saturday night leaves them with the champagne virtually on ice – nine points clear, they are, like most of the table toppers in Europe’s major leagues, virtually home and hosed. When they visited the Rossoblu with seven games remaining in April 1997, however, their lead at the top was far less comfortable, and with Parma breathing down their necks as they chased a first-ever scudetto, this weekend would prove a significant one in the title race.

Some made better choices than others…

In the summer of 1996, Juve, the reigning European champions, took a huge gamble in giving their squad a major overhaul as they sought to wrest back the Scudetto from Milan. Out went a number of the players who’d been pivotal in securing that second European crown, like Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Paulo Sousa and 37-year-old Pietro Vierchowod. In their place came Christian Vieri, Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Montero and, in a £5m deal from Lazio, Alen Boksic. The Bianconeri headed the table from an early stage of the season, despite some of the new arrivals taking time to adjust to coach Marcello Lippi’s 4-3-3 formation. When they clicked, they produced some absolutely scintillating football, most notably in the 6-1 destruction of the champions at the San Siro, and as Zidane’s influence grew over the course of the season, they got steadily better and better. Yet while they rarely lost, Juve were drawing too many games, and Carlo Ancelotti’s Parma put together a terrific run as they began to close in.

Lippi’s men went to Bologna just a week after Udinese had handed them their third defeat of the campaign, dishing out a shock 3-0 humbling at the Stadio delle Alpi. That weekend, Parma beat Roma in the Olimpico to cut the Old Lady’s lead to just three points.  Juventus risked losing momentum at a crucial stage of the season, and the Rossoblu would be no pushovers. Renzo Ulivieri had guided them from Serie C1A to Serie A in just two years, and had assembled a talented squad in the process. Powered by the potent strike force of Kennet Andersson and Igor Kolyvanov, the eccentric Ulivieri (a former member of the Italian Communist Party) had established them as genuine contenders for a European place.


In the event, a cagey encounter was settled by a solitary goal – this week’s featured strike – from Boksic. The original ‘big man with a great touch’, the powerful Croatian picked up the ball around 40 yards out and accelerated towards goal, easing past two defenders as he moved into the area before casually slotting into the bottom corner to round off a solo goal of the highest quality. 24 hours later, Parma were beaten 2-0 at home by Juve’s conquerers the previous week, Udinese, and the Bianconeri’s six- point cushion at the top was restored.

The game that ultimately decided the title came with just three rounds left to play, as the top two met in Turin. It was not without controversy. At half-time, Parma led through a Zidane own goal and were set to close the gap once again. Then however, came a very dodgy penalty that Nicola Amoruso converted successfully. 1-1 was the final score, ensuring Juve’s lead at the top could not be overturned and essentially handing them the title by dint of their vastly superior goal difference (they’d go on to claim the Scudetto by two points). Parma’s French midfielder Daniel Bravo claimed last year that the two sides had agreed to play out a draw – although this has been refuted by both sides.

As for Boksic, his season at the Stadio delle Alpi was not, despite the title success, a particularly happy one. He spent much of the season either injured or suspended, and found his opportunities further limited by the abundance of striking talent the Old Lady possessed in the form of Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero and Amoruso, as well as surprise package Michele Padovano.  He managed just three goals in 22 starts for Juve in the league, and though he was the team’s leading scorer in the Champions’ League as they again reached the final, there was heartbreak in store in Munich, as Paulo Sousa returned to haunt his old team, pulling the strings for Borussia Dortmund as they triumphed 3-1.

Juve would double their money on Boksic at the end of the season as the player returned to Lazio, where ‘the alien’ was a big favourite of President Sergio Cragnotti. Never as prolific in Italy as he’d been at Marseilles, where he’d effortlessly stepped into Jean Pierre-Papin’s boots, his combination of strength, technical finesse and creativity nevertheless made him the perfect foil for strike partners like Beppe Signori, and one of Serie A’s top attackers in his own right.

Cragnotti: Surfing with ‘the alien’

The Croatian star constantly battled injury throughout his second stint in Rome, even missing his country’s surprise run to the world cup semi-finals at France ’98, as well as the last-ever Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1999. He did though, manage to get his hands on another Scudetto in 2000, before making the surprise decision the next season to join Premier Leagues strugglers Middlesbrough, with a reported weekly wage of £63,000 (then a king’s ransom) surely playing a big part in his decision. Scoring twice on his debut against Coventry, Boksic made himself an instant hero on Teesside. He managed 12 goals in his first season, and was voted the club’s player of the year as Terry Venables arrived mid-season to haul the team out of the mire to safety.

Boksic’s Middlesbrough spell gave birth to some absolutely terrific rumours. Always a volatile character (James Richardson cited him as the most irksome guest he ever interviewed on Football Italia; the end of his first stint at Lazio was hastened when he substituted himself in a UEFA Cup game in Dortmund, simply walking off the pitch), he basically trained and played for Boro when he felt like it. Harry Pearson recalled in The Guardian that a friend of his who lived in the same street as the big Croatian always had the inside scoop as to whether he’d be playing that weekend or not, based purely on how early he put his bins out. If they were out more than three days early, he wouldn’t be playing – chiefly because he’d taken himself away on holiday. Then there’s the story of Boksic allegedly being so unimpressed at being stuck with Noel Whelan as a strike partner that he strode into the club’s HR department with his chequebook, demanding to pay up Whelan’s contract. Club captain Gareth Southgate was infuriated by the striker’s behaviour, describing him in his (excellent) co-autobiography with Andy Woodman as ‘tall, aloof, unconcerned’ and painting a picture of an inscrutable character who lived in a small village near Darlington, didn’t socialise with his team mates, and left the club without a word to anyone. ‘There were two sets of rules at Boro’ he claimed. ‘Rules for Alen and rules for the rest’. His lack of respect for some of his team mates was also a problem, as Southgate confirms: ‘there were lots of players he didn’t rate and when some of the lads had the ball, he wouldn’t bother making a run  because he didn’t think they’d be able to make the pass. He was no chaser of lost causes.’

£63,000 a week will buy you a f**kton of parmos

Yet he could still turn it on when he felt like it. It was as a Boro player that he finally made his world cup debut at the age of 32 in 2002. That same year, he hammered a significant nail into the coffin of Manchester United’s title challenge in a 3-1 Middlesbrough victory on Boxing Day. It would be his last goal for the club, as injuries finally caught up with him and he retired two months later in February 2003. This week’s goal of the week displays his greatest attributes – and why yacht crashing, Zeman-bashing, Southgate-annoying Alen Boksic was one of the greatest strikers of the 1990s.

If you’re going to acquire the nickname ‘Pele’, you need to have a very special footballing gift (or hopeless predictive powers and an enthusiasm for Nicky Butt and viagra, not necessarily in that order). Not only was Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew a special talent, but his moniker – picked up as a child playing football in the street – remained with him through out his professional career. And he did it justice.

He could also fit his whole fist into his mouth

Ayew was a number 10 with breathtaking skills, who remains the greatest player that Ghana – and some would argue Africa – has produced. He is his nation’s most capped footballer and all-time top scorer, and holds the record for the most appearances in Cup of Nations finals, featuring in five since winning the tournament as a 17-year-old in 1982.Abedi played for a number of European clubs after pitching up at FC Zurich in 1983, but he would he would hit his peak in the early 90s as part of Marseilles’ ‘magic triangle’ with Chris Waddle and Jean Pierre Papin. While he possessed the strength and physical attributes that have become the trademark/stereotype of African footballers over the years, Abedi was also blessed with incredible technique and dribbling skills, and was more likely to dance through defences than outmuscle them. Between 1991 and 1993, his boundless creativity and havoc-causing runs would help l’OM to two European Cup finals and his country to their first Cup of Nations final in a decade.

The only trophy Ghana would take home in ’92

Simply put, the 1992 Cup of Nations was Abedi Pele’s tournament. The Black Stars might have come up short in their quest for the trophy, but they were hauled to the final by their talisman, and there were no other contenders for the Golden Ball, so dominant were his performances from start to (almost) finish. It was he who set them on their way, getting the only goal of the game in their opening win against Zambia, while a late Tony Yeboah goal against Egypt sealed Ghana’s passage to the quarter finals.

It’s both sad and a testament to his enduring legacy that it’s far easier to find an Abedi Pele wonder goal scored by somebody on one of the FIFA games than it is to find the genuine article (which, incidentally, is why this blog isn’t a Goal of the Week). For it was in the last eight in ’92 that Abedi scored one of the great AFCON goals. With Ghana and Congo level at 1-1, Pele picked up the ball in his own half around the hour mark and beat one player. Then another. Then another. Still on the charge, he waltzed between two more defenders before causally slotting the ball past the goalkeeper. It was a dazzling solo effort reminiscent of Maradona’s best, and would end the contest in the Black Stars’ favour. It is still talked about in hushed tones today.

In the semis against Nigeria, Abedi turned in perhaps his most inspirational performance yet, scoring again to cancel out Adepoju’s opener and exhausting the Super Eagles with his bottomless bag of tricks, the winner coming from Prince Polley. Abedi would not be joining his team mates in the final against Ivory Coast however – a second yellow card of the competition meant he would miss out through suspension.His absence rocked the Black Stars, who didn’t look anywhere near as assured without him. Côte D’Ivoire had got to the final largely by virtue of a formidable defence. Three of their four games en route had been goalless after 90 minutes, with Zambia beaten by a single goal in extra time in the quarters and Cameroon defeated on penalties in the following round. In the final they again looked to frustrate their opponents. Ghana were heavy favourites, but with no Abedi to unpick that sturdy Ivorian backline they too were held to a stalemate, precipitating a frankly interminable penalty shoot-out in which every outfield player on the pitch was required to participate. With the scores at 10-10, and only one player missing their spot kick on each side, defender Anthony Baffoe (a trailblazer in Ghanaian football as the first expatriate to play for Black Stars) was called on to take his second penalty of the shoot-out. He’d scored his first, but this time he missed, handing Ivory Coast their first ever Cup of Nations.

In truth, that Ghana generation was a talented side and by no means a one-man team, but their status as African football’s nearly-men throughout the decade owed much to their inability to function as a unit. They were a collection of skilful yet fractious individuals and it seemed that dressing-room unrest prevented them from fulfilling their potential. There were long-standing rumours of a feud between Abedi and Yeboah (supposedly over the captaincy), that apparently raged long after both players had retired from international football and saw players and coaches alike take sides, with the team suffering as a result.  Ayew however, has denied this.

Anyone who can confuse Paolo Maldini into a Morcambe and Wise impression must be a force to be reckoned with

Shrugging off Ghana’s defeat, Abedi went on to enjoy perhaps the finest season of his career in 1992-93 and was a pivotal figure as Marseilles won the inaugural Champions’ League. AC Milan had no answer to his charging runs, tricks and vision, and he scooped man of the match honours in the final, providing the corner from which Basile Boli headed the game’s only goal.That would mark the pinnacle of the Ghanaian’s career and it would be mainly downhill from there. The Bernard Tapie match-fixing scandal that would tarnish Marseilles’ finest hour led to a mass exodus of the club’s crown jewels that summer as the club were demoted as punishment. Abedi reportedly had a clause inserted into his contract by l’OM preventing him from directly joining an Italian club, which might explain why he headed to Lyon – then nothing like the juggernaut that would dominate Ligue Un during the following decade. The signing was seen as a real coup for l’OL, but the move soon soured. Abedi’s performances were way below par and he managed just three goals in 29 appearances. Lyon felt he was doing little more than killing time until he could jump to Serie A. For his part, Abedi claimed that the quality of training at Lyon was the worst he had experienced.

Ayew would get his move to Italy, enjoying a fruitful couple of years at Torino that included being voted Serie A’s top foreign player in 1995-96. At the end of his second season, now heading towards the twilight of his career at 31, he sought a new challenge in the Bundesliga with 1860 Munich. There, he helped to kick-start the club’s last real golden age alongside the likes of Daniel Borimirov and a young Jens Jeremies.

Throughout that time, Abedi continued to captain Ghana, featuring in three more AFCON tournaments. He scored three goals as the Black Stars finished fourth in 1996, and retired after the 1998 competition. At club level, he enjoyed a successful, lucrative swansong in the Gulf at UAE side Al-Ain, finally retiring aged 37 in 2000.

Father, son, and a frankly terrifying-looking trophy

Between the Yeboah feud gossip, Marseilles’ downfall and the Lyon transfer imbroglio, controversy has never seemed far away from Abedi Pele, and it has followed him in retirement as well – not least when he was found guilty of match-fixing when the team he owns, Nania FC, won a second division Ghanaian league game by the rather suspicious scoreline of 31-0 in 2007. Though the resultant fine and ban was overturned on appeal, the whole affair has left a nasty taste in the mouth of Ghanaian football.Abedi remains, however, a living legend in the country and his talent appears to have been passed on to his sons, Andre and Jordan, who have followed in his footsteps to play for Marseilles. In particular, Andrè ‘Dèdè’ Ayew has inherited a number of Abedi’s dazzling trademarks – raw pace, power, deftness of touch – which have made him one of the hottest properties in world football. He also appears similarly headstrong off the pitch, as evidenced by clashes with national coach (and Abedi’s former team mate) James Kwesi Appiah that sae him omitted from Ghana’s 2013 Cup of Nations squad, despite being the team’s star performer.

21 years on from damaging defeat in Dakar, Ghana again found themselves among the favourites to claim the Cup of Nations, and once again, the absence of a talismanic Ayew and a penalty shoot out defeat to unfancied opposition have seen them leave the AFCON empty-handed. It’s 31 years since the teenage Abedi got his hands on the trophy. Are the Ayews – and the Black Stars – cursed never to lift it again?

2nd April 1994

Africa Cup of Nations Quarter Finals

Nigeria 2-0 Zaire

It was the simplest of finishes. The ball was played across the face of goal and all the centre forward had to do was knock it in. But the celebration showed what an important goal it was. After Rashidi Yekini opened the scoring for Nigeria against Bulgaria at USA ’94 – the country’s first ever goal at a world cup finals in their first ever game at a world cup finals – he carried on into the goal, reached his arms through the netting and pumped his fists, bellowing with pride. It would become one of the tournament’s most iconic images. The Super Eagles had landed.

You can often tell how revered a player is by the number of nicknames bestowed upon him, and Yekini had more than Apollo Creed in Rocky IV – ‘the Bull of Kaduna’, ‘Ye-king’, ‘King of Goals’ and ‘The Goalsfather’ were all monikers that the striker acquired over the course of a 23-year career. The Nigeria side of the mid-90s is indisputably their greatest ever, but the subtle creative talents of players like Jay Jay Okocha, Finidi George and Sunday Oliseh would have counted for little had they not had someone to stick away the chances they fashioned, and at his peak the barrel-chested Yekini was the best in the business. That was certainly Oliseh’s view, anyway, declaring him “the greatest Nigerian striker I ever played with:  He was always asking for the ball and always easy to find. All you had to do was drop the ball between the lines of defence and he didn’t pose. He just struck. And usually high quality strikes.” His scoring record for club and country backs that up – Yekini notched a staggering 110 in 122 games at Vitoria Setubal, becoming only the fourth African to top the Portuguese scoring charts, while he is the Super Eagles’ all-time record goalscorer with 37 goals.

As well remembered as that goal and celebration against Bulgaria in Dallas are, the real showcase for Yekini’s talents came earlier that year at the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. At the very height of his powers, he was Nigeria’s – and indeed Africa’s – main man in that tournament. The African Player of the Year, he hauled his country to the finals with eight goals in a very tight qualifying campaign, and didn’t stop scoring once the they got there, hitting two in the Super Eagles’ opener against Gabon and then destroying Zaire in the quarter finals with the brace featured here. His first was perhaps his best of the competition, outpacing his marker to collect a crossfield pass beautifully with one touch before casually stabbing the ball into the roof of the net. The semis saw him net a vital equaliser against the Ivory Coast and then score the winning penalty in the climactic shoot out. It was only in the final itself when his heroics finally ceased, as team mate Emmanuel Amunike scored both goals to claim Nigeria’s first ACON title with victory over Zambia, who’d shocked everyone by making it all the way to the final just months after the tragic plane crash that wiped out the vast majority of their squad. Yekini became the first reigning African Player of the Year to win the Cup of Nations and finished as the tournament’s top scorer with five goals.

At the world cup, the newly crowned African champions topped their group and were unlucky to lose to 10-man Italy in the last 16 – although, as Ian Hawkey notes in Feet of the Chameleon, his superlative history of African football, by then tensions between Yekini and other team mates and coach Clemens Westerhof had surfaced. These were magnified after cautious substitutions contributed to the Italy defeat: “This coach has never liked me,” Yekini would protest in the aftermath.

After the finals, many of that terrific Nigeria side departed for top European sides. Amunike would head first to Sporting Lisbon and then Barcelona; Daniel Amokachi helped Everton to the FA Cup in 1995 (the same year that Finidi’s Ajax won the Champions’ League). However, the move from Portugal to Greece that Yekini’s performances in the US earned would prove the beginning of the end for him, career-wise. Leaving behind Setubal, where he was adored, Yekini’s stint at Olympiakos was a nightmare almost from the very beginning. His arrival in Athens was delayed after he contracted a condition with malaria-like symptoms, and once there he soon came into conflict with team mates and coaches alike, bemoaning that “Olympiakos is not a family club”. By Christmas 1994 the Greek champions were actively looking to get rid of him. Farmed out to La Liga with Sporting Gijon, he would never again hit the heights he did in Portugal, and not even a brief return to Setubal on loan could get him back on track.

He did rediscover his scoring touch at FC Zurich, with 14 goals in 28 starts for the Swiss side, and his form earned him a last hurrah with Nigeria at France ’98, at the age of 35. There he was used mainly as an impact sub, most notably in the Super Eagles’ thrilling defeat of Spain, when his entrance with 20 minutes remaining helped turn the game in their favour. 2-1 down when he came on, Nigeria profited from Yekini’s power and the space his movement opened up, Garba Lawal equalising from a Yekini pass before Oliseh’s famous piledriver won it. Yekini retired from international football following Nigeria’s second round exit at the hands of Denmark.

It wasn’t until 2002 that Yekini returned to Nigeria, to play for Julius Berger FC, and even at the age of 39 he led the country’s scoring charts. Yet again he managed to fall out with another coach, quitting Berger just a week before their African Cup Winners’ Cup final in 2003. He retired at the end of that season, but made a comeback at the age of 41 with another Nigerian side, Gateway, at the age of 41, declaring: “football is my life”.

Unfortunately, that seems to be where Yekini’s problems started. After retiring again, this time for good, he lived a lonely existence, struggling without the game he loved, and went into a steep decline. Financial problems mounted, and the last years of his life were beset by a long battle with mental illness. His death last year, aged just 48, shocked African football, and raised serious questions about how the Nigerian Football Federation treats its heroes. His passing was mourned across the continent.

Yekini left a hell of a legacy. He was the first Nigerian to be named African Player of the Year, opening the gates for his countrymen to dominate the award during the 90s. Amunike claimed the accolade the next season. Nwankwo Kanu (twice) and Victor Ikpeba would follow suit before the end of the decade.

It’s perhaps surprising that he never got the chance to play for a ‘big’ club in a top European league. Maybe, at 30/31 when he hit his peak and really came to the football world’s attention, he was just slightly too old for a Premier League club to take a punt on him, but his swashbuckling, turbo-John Hartson act was surely tailor-made for English football.

The Super Eagles have never quite hit the heights of their ACON and Olympic Gold winning mid-90s heyday. Their 2013 campaign is off to a less than auspicious start – but there’s still time for another ‘goalsfather’ to make his mark – and do the Bull of Kaduna proud.