Dani Alves: I Made One Final Promise to the Barcelona Board – ‘You’ll Miss Me’


London – Dani Alves came close to tears when Juventus defeated his former club Barcelona in the quarter-final of this season’s Champions League but says he felt disrespected by the Catalan club when he left Camp Nou for the Serie A champions a year ago.

The right-back is expected to start against Real Madrid in the final on Saturday and has been in exceptional form during Juventus’s European run, creating three of their four goals in the semi-final against Monaco and scoring the other. But, writing exclusively for the Players’ Tribune website, he explained his affection for Barça led to some mixed emotions after the 3-0 aggregate win in April. “When we beat Barcelona in the Champions League I walked up to my brother Neymar and gave him a hug,” he said. “He was crying and a part of me felt like crying too.”

Alves, who spent eight years at Barcelona before departing on a free transfer with a year left on his contract, says they are “still in my blood” and he remains frustrated by the manner of his exit.

“Was I disrespected by the board of directors before I left the club last summer? Absolutely,” he said. “That is simply how I feel and you can never tell me any different. But you cannot play for a club for eight years and achieve everything that we did and not have that club in your heart for ever. Managers, players and board members come and go but Barça will never go away.

“ Before I went to Juventus, I made a final promise to the board at Barcelona. I said: ‘You’re going to miss me.’ I didn’t mean as a player. Barça have plenty of incredible players. What I meant was they were going to miss my spirit. They were going to miss the care I had for the dressing room. They were going to miss the blood I spilled every time I put on the shirt.”

Alves won 23 trophies there – with three European Cups and six La Liga titles. He was one of Pep Guardiola’s first signings, arriving from Sevilla in 2008, and describes his former manager as a “genius”.

“Pep would tell you exactly how everything was going to happen in a match before it even happened,” he said. “The sensation when we left every one of his pre-match talks was like we were already up 3-0. We were so empowered, so prepared, it felt like we were already winning.”

Guardiola, who is under pressure to begin replicating that success at Manchester City, reshaped Alves’s understanding of football. “Pep was the first coach in my life who showed me how to play without the ball,” he said. “And he wouldn’t just demand that his players change their game, he would sit us down and show us why we wanted us to change with statistics and video. Those Barça teams were pretty much unbeatable. We played by memory. We already knew what we were going to do. We didn’t have to think.”

Alves played alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona but believes Juventus have a comparable talent in the Argentina forward Paulo Dybala, who should start behind Gonzalo Higuaín in Cardiff. Dybala scored twice in the quarter-final against Barça. “In training one day, I saw something in Dybala I had seen before in Messi,” he said. “It was not just the gift of pure talent. I have seen that many times in my life. It was the gift of pure talent combined with the will to conquer the world.”

Juventus seek their first European Cup since 1996 and Alves believes his team go about things in a different manner to the free-flowing Barcelona of which he was an integral part. Victory against Real would feel sweet but the motivation has nothing to do with his feelings towards his old club.

“At Barça, we played by memory,” he said. “At Juve, it’s different. It’s our collective mentality that has carried us to the final. When the whistle blows, we simply find a way to win no matter what. Winning is not just a goal at Juve, it’s like an obsession. There are no excuses.

“This Saturday, I have a chance to win my 35th trophy in 34 years on earth. It is a special opportunity for me, and it has nothing to do with proving to the Barcelona board that they made a mistake in letting me go.”

The Guardian Sport

‘Disappointed’ Alexis Sánchez at the Heart of Arsenal’s Pivotal Summer


London – As usual the vast majority of the punters in the Club Level seats that ring all the way round the prime view at the Emirates Stadium took their time to re-emerge into the sunshine after half-time of Arsenal’s game with Manchester United on Sunday. It is a particularly expensive area of the stadium, with plush concourses and refreshments to enjoy at leisure. These are season-ticket holders who are especially important to Arsenal because they generate handsome income, with an outlay roughly between £2,500 and £4,000 per seat, per season.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these executive seats went out for renewal early, giving the marketing team more time for the sales pitch if needed. The pack to sign up for the 2017-18 campaign landed a few weeks ago. Many – both ordinary supporters with a few bob and corporate customers – have thought long and hard about justifying their renewals and have let the deadline lapse. Why? Primarily because they do not know exactly what they are paying for. Will Arsène Wenger still be the manager next season? Will Mesut Özil be there? Will Alexis Sánchez? Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Might they still be able to experience Champions League nights or will it be Europa Thursdays?

As a club Arsenal are operating on two quite different levels at the moment. The visible part is there for all to see and judged on each match day. The less visible part, like the duck’s feet whirring away under the water, is trying to operate the business side. But the trouble is the duck’s legs are tied together. They are struggling to generate momentum because so much is up in the air.

In three weeks the season will be over – possibly with an FA Cup after the final against Chelsea and a snatched top-four Premier League place but very possibly not. It is hard to avoid the feeling that the summer ahead will be a stressful one, with so many influential players coming into the final year of their contracts.

One of them is Sánchez, indisputably Arsenal’s most valuable asset. In a rare interview with Sky Sports over the weekend the Chilean attacker gave an insight into how his frustrations are in part because of his personality but also because he aims higher than the team is capable of reaching at the moment. He talks like a man obsessed with winning.

“I don’t think it has been a very good season for me because I came here to win trophies, to be competing in the Champions League semi-finals and to win the Premier League, and I feel disappointed that we aren’t in a position to win the Premier League or the Champions League,” he said. “We do have the FA Cup final coming up and we’ll give it our all to try to win it.

“When I got here, I thought: ‘I’ll win the title with this squad.’ I feel that we should win more games 3-0 or 4-0. That does sometimes happen when we play very well. I think Arsenal play the best brand of football in England. There have been games when we’ve been in a position to kick on and win, but we’ve made a small mistake and found ourselves 2-0 down. Sometimes that gets to me because winning those points is so important if you want to win the Premier League. I think that, if a player wants to be at the very top, he needs to win the Champions League and league titles. That’s what makes the great players truly great.”

There have been times this season when Sánchez’s body language has tangibly revealed his disillusionment. “As I always say, life is short and a footballer’s career is even shorter,” he said. “I want to win in every training session, I want to win every game I play in. That’s why I sometimes feel powerless when I go home after a bad result.

“It’s very tough, if I’m honest. Every player is very different. There are players who don’t mind. They go out and feel fine about it but the ones that want to win and be champions are the ones that put in the biggest effort, go home and get angry [if it has not gone well]. They lock themselves in and can’t sleep, which is what sometimes happens to me if we’ve lost a key game.”

The risk of losing Sánchez for Arsenal is a double blow in that not only would they be stripped of one of their most talented players, they would also undermine the way they have improved their status in the transfer market in recent seasons. Not so long ago Arsenal were regarded as a selling club whose most important assets could be prised away fairly easily. The summers ruined by the sale of Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie were painful. Putting an end to that, first holding what they have, then stepping forwards boldly enough to recruit elite quality in the shape of Özil and Sánchez, symbolised an enhanced sense of ambition. To lose Sánchez after three years at the club, when he is aged 28 and still very much in his prime, would send a damaging signal.

Will talks on his future hinge on whether Arsenal can get back into the Champions League positions? “It depends,” he said. “What I want to do now is to finish the season well, try to qualify for the Champions League, win the FA Cup and then I’ll sit down with the club to decide what I’m going to do. We’ve said that the two of us [with Wenger] will sit down together to discuss the topic in terms of what will happen, what’s best for the club, what’s best for me, what’s best for him. We’ll speak once the season is over.”

The Guardian Sport

Ronaldo has Done so Much for Real Madrid – So Why Do some Fans Whistle him?


Madrid – There are supposed to be about 1,300 words in this article. It is tempting to just spend 1,287 of them listing the things that Cristiano Ronaldo has done at Real Madrid – and there are more than enough of them to take up all that space, that is for sure, from the two Champions League titles to the 395 goals – and then leave just enough room at the bottom to add: “On Tuesday night at the Santiago Bernabéu some Real Madrid fans whistled him. Dicks.” On one level at least that would probably sum it up quite nicely and we could all get on with life but while it can look that simple, it’s not always.

Cristiano Ronaldo was whistled on Tuesday. You might not have heard it on television and you might not have heard it if you were in the stadium either but he did and at one point he lifted his finger to his lips. “I don’t tell them to be quiet, never, I only ask them not to whistle because I always give my best in every game. Even if I don’t score goals, I try to work hard to help Real Madrid,” he said after a Champions League quarter-final in which he scored a hat-trick. Real Madrid knocked out Bayern Munich 6-3 on aggregate and Ronaldo scored five.

His statistics might look like they broker little argument and they certainly do not invite whistles but there is an argument: stupid though it sounds, he wasn’t playing well on Tuesday. When the whistles came, Madrid were struggling and it seemed likely they would get knocked out. Ronaldo had slipped over a couple of times and rarely looked a threat. When he was sent running through, his shot was saved at the near post by Manuel Neuer when some supporters thought he should have played in Karim Benzema. It wasn’t until the 76th minute that he had a decisive impact but by the end he had scored a hat-trick, his 41st for the club. He has 100 Champions League goals.

Daft though it may appear when he has 31 goals this season, for the first half of the campaign he wasn’t playing well, although he has been impressive since Christmas. He didn’t always play that well last season either and yet it ended up being the best of his career: a double European champion and the winner of the Ballón d’Or for the fourth time. He is evolving: more a No9, less a player who dominates games. It just so happens he is about the best No9 you could imagine. “I don’t know who doubts Cristiano Ronaldo,” Cristiano Ronaldo said after the victory over Bayern Munich.

He also noted the people “who love me” don’t doubt him. The whistling wasn’t loud and it wasn’t done by that many. The majority of Madrid fans cheered him on Tuesday night and every night. They didn’t whistle but he heard the ones that did and it stung. Maybe that is human nature and even if it is a few, you may wonder why it is any at all: Ronaldo certainly does.

Madrid’s fans have cheered Ronaldo and they chant his name. They have celebrated his successes as their own. In the summer, they wanted Portugal to win the European Championship. When he won the Ballon d’Or, a gold mosaic engulfed the Bernabéu. They fight his cause in the endless debate against Lionel Messi as if it was another title for Madrid and a succession of managers and team-mates have said he is the best player in the world. Thousands of supporters wear his shirt – more than wear anyone else’s – but still some have whistled him and the Bayern game was not a one-off.

His frustrations are played out on the field, externalised and ostentatious, and when he reacts to the fans’ frustrations it doesn’t help. If he mutters something under his breath, it makes the news, lip readers reveal his words. The way he plays contributes to it, as does his body language, that hint he is an individual in a team sport; the way it can sometimes appear to be about him. There is something about the way players and managers talk about him being the best that could feel forced, too: Rafael Benítez’s baffling reluctance to do so contributed to the manager’s downfall at Madrid.

While Ronaldo’s triumphs have been celebrated some fans think the team should have won more; this is Madrid, after all. He is the holder of the Ballon d’Or, a player who, with Messi, has dominated European football for a decade. The demands at the Bernabéu are gigantic; you have to be perfect, especially if you are the best in the world. Besides, everyone gets whistled at Madrid; whenever the issue is raised you are remind of that. Gareth Bale has been whistled , Zinedine Zidane tells people it has happened to him, even Alfredo Di Stéfano got it at times.

The Guardian Sport

Can other Teams Copy José Mourinho’s Template for Nullifying Chelsea?


London – José Mourinho’s Manchester United are not the first side to defeat Antonio Conte’s Chelsea or even the first side to defeat Conte’s Chelsea since their season-changing switch to 3-4-3 back in October but no other side has nullified Chelsea’s attacking threats so effectively. This was the first time for a decade that Chelsea did not have a shot on target in a Premier League match. Suddenly, with Tottenham only four points behind, the title race is back on and Chelsea’s remaining opponents have a tactical template to follow.

Mourinho’s primary strategy was simple: man-marking Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s dangerman and the player he fell out with so spectacularly last season. This should not have come as a surprise, considering Mourinho used this approach in the recent 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Stamford Bridge, when Phil Jones was deployed in that role but Ander Herrera was dismissed for fouling Hazard when the Belgian drifted into his zone. Herrera was given that responsibility on Sunday and played the role to perfection. Only one player in the Premier League, Middlesbrough’s speedy winger Adama Traoré, has dribbled past opponents more frequently than Hazard this season, yet at Old Trafford he did not attempt a single dribble. He was starved of possession, starved of space and Herrera deserves great credit for his diligence.

It was peculiar, however, that Hazard and Chelsea did not have an obvious plan for combating this man-marking approach, considering Mourinho had showcased these tactics in that FA Cup meeting. Indeed, while Mourinho complained that Herrera’s dismissal was the turning point in that match, with some justification, Chelsea had grown into the contest before his red card, precisely because Hazard and Willian drifted around, swapped positions, and confused United’s man-marking.

At Old Trafford Hazard did not show enough tactical intelligence to drag Herrera into uncomfortable positions and Chelsea’s attacking play suffered badly. Conte’s decision to switch wing-backs César Azpilicueta and Victor Moses after half an hour, putting the latter to the left, was seemingly to provide more attacking intent down that flank and to let Hazard drift around.

Herrera’s man-marking role meant he played little part in Manchester United’s attacking play, so it was unfitting that he played the crucial pass for their opener. He intercepted a pass intended for Hazard – with an outstretched arm – before curling a wonderful ball in behind the Chelsea defence for Marcus Rashford to sprint on to and beat the advancing Asmir Begovic.

This justified Mourinho’s decision to start Rashford ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – in the FA Cup game, with the Swede suspended, Rashford worked the channels effectively and outwitted David Luiz but missed his one key chance. This time he played similarly, had more support with Jesse Lingard pushed forward into a second striker role and underlined his potential to become an exceptional all-round striker. At the start of the second half Herrera’s deflected shot extended United’s lead.

After the second goal Conte changed things, introducing Cesc Fàbregas for Moses and asking the Spaniard to play at the top of midfield. This briefly caused United confusion, as Fàbregas was playing in Herrera’s natural zone, and he suddenly looked worried about the threat of stopping both Hazard and Fàbregas. Five minutes later, however, Mourinho introduced Michael Carrick for Lingard, moving from 4-4-1-1 to 4-1-4-1, and Carrick focused on nullifying Fàbregas.

At times this was a total man-marking exhibition, with Mourinho seen frantically shouting at the left-back, Matteo Darmian, to stick tightly to Willian, another substitute, in the closing stages. Such strict man-marking is relatively rare in the modern game but Sir Alex Ferguson used Jones in that role against key dangermen – Gareth Bale, Marouane Fellaini, Cristiano Ronaldo – in his final season and Louis van Gaal’s midfield pressing strategy often involved nothing more than three man-marking jobs. United, more than most sides, are accustomed to that approach, although it is doubtful whether it is a viable long-term strategy.

The more pressing question is how Chelsea respond to the defeat. The game underlined their reliance on Hazard for attacking inspiration, with Diego Costa seemingly focusing on his squabble with Marcos Rojo, Pedro also subject to tight marking and little creativity from midfield before the introduction of Fàbregas. Conte can point to the absence of Thibaut Courtois in goal and the left wing-back Marcos Alonso to explain his side’s sluggishness but title winners should be capable of coping without two first-choice players. Their run-in looks relatively simple but Hazard can expect more problems with man-marking after the success of Mourinho’s approach here. Conte, so revered for his tactical intelligence this season, must find a solution.

The Guardian Sport

Referees are Damned by their Errors, Ignorance of the Laws is No Defence


The fact that the referee Martin Atkinson sounds even more like the comedian Bob Mortimer than he looks was not the most interesting revelation to emerge from Sky’s recent effort to show the human side of match officials on The Referees – Onside with Carragher and Neville.

Criticism from fans goes with the territory of whistle blowing but, asked how he feels about his staff being criticised by former peers-turned‑pundits such as Howard Webb, Mike Riley, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited managing director and former referee, explained to embedded reporters Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville that it is in fact the brickbats of players-turned-pundits that tend to disappoint as they are often hurled from a position of blissful ignorance.

“If you’re a former player, you’re not expected to know the rules of the game,” said Riley, whose blithe assertion went weirdly unchallenged by the two specimens of the breed seated before him, both of whom are renowned for their fastidious approach to punditry.

The same cannot be said for all sportsmen. The comical sight of Dylan Hartley and James Haskell, England internationals who had amassed 151 caps between them at that point, pleading with the French referee Romain Poite to explain the rules of the sport during a Six Nations match earlier this year will live long in the memory of all who saw it but it can reasonably be argued that even for those who play the game, rugby is a form of organised chaos governed by laws so byzantine only the most devoted anorak could be excused for not being familiar with them all. On the World Rugby Laws website, the complexities of that particular sport’s offside rule is explained in 23 often long‑winded and barely coherent clauses spread across 11 different subsections. By contrast, most young footballers are taught the finer points of their sport’s equivalent at the kitchen table in a 60-second tutorial involving assorted condiments.

Compared with those of rugby, golf or cricket, the laws of football are fairly straightforward and, while former players who are paid handsomely to analyse games could be forgiven for not being familiar with some of them, it is hardly unfair to suggest they should at least be on nodding terms with most of them. Match officials, on the other hand, have no excuse for not having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the justice they hand down, a state of affairs that rendered the performance of Keith Stroud in the Championship match between Newcastle United and Burton Albion last Wednesday all the more extraordinary.

In case you missed it: having awarded Newcastle a penalty, which was dispatched by Matt Ritchie, Stroud incurred the vengeful and raucous wrath of the home team’s players, backroom staff and most of the 48,814 crowd by disallowing the goal for encroachment. Instead of ordering the penalty be retaken, he further incensed most present by making the bizarre and completely incorrect decision to award Burton an indirect free-kick, prompting a lengthy break in play during which he consulted two of his fellow match officials.

For reasons best known to themselves, they appeared to do little or nothing to convince the referee he was about to make an embarrassing and potentially career-defining blunder. And make no mistake, with one or two notable exceptions, it is by their errors that football referees tend to be defined no matter how competent they are.

As the camera cut or panned from one referee or referee’s assistant to another on Carragher’s and Neville’s documentary, it was each individual’s errors that leapt immediately to mind, rather than the decent performances – the ones that tend to go unnoticed – for which they would rather to be remembered. Anthony Taylor? That Sam Vokes handball in Burnley’s match against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. Stuart Attwell? Reading’s “ghost” goal at Watford all those years ago. Mike Dean? Five rescinded red cards this season. Indeed, the notable exception among all those featured seemed to be the female referee’s assistant Sian Massey-Ellis. The 31-year-old will have to mess up spectacularly before her career is defined by anything other than the sexist jibes of a pair of former employees of the TV network on whose documentary she was appearing.

But back to Stroud. Just as the notion that the official from Dorset could have become a member of English football’s refereeing elite without actually knowing something so basic as what to do after penalising a player for encroachment at a spot-kick is too weird to even contemplate, we are also left to assume he suffered some sort of brain-freeze which quickly spread to those tasked with helping him to avoid such meltdowns.

In Carragher’s and Neville’s film we got to read the merciless self-criticism penned by Taylor in his report on that Liberty Stadium horror show, but one feels Stroud’s explanation for his tomfoolery in the white heat of the St James’ Park cauldron would make far more riveting reading.

While entertaining, one suspects Carragher’s and Neville’s occasionally banter-rific documentary about referees is unlikely to alter the views of any one-eyed, tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who think each and every match official is biased against their team. Stroud’s inexplicable gaffe was even more entertaining and even less likely to change closed minds.

The Guardian Sport

Race for Neymar: the Inside Story of How Barcelona Sealed the Controversial Deal


On a July evening in 2011 the football world’s focus was on the Vila Belmiro Stadium in Santos, which appears little changed from the days when a teenage Pelé lived in a dormitory under one of the stands. National-team coaches had arrived in Brazil before the World Cup qualifying draw, as a 19‑year‑old footballer called Neymar went toe-to-toe with Ronaldinho, the two-time world player of the year famous for his hip-swivelling trickery with the ball and toothy grin.

Sporting a blond mohawk hairstyle that teenagers all over Brazil were copying, Neymar was a blur of energy and movement. He danced past six players before slipping the ball into the net. One of the moves was so rapid that it required slow-motion replays to understand just how he had done it.

Neymar had become a commodity that the biggest clubs in the world wanted. His agent Wagner Ribeiro had moved Santos’s previous star, Robinho, to Real Madrid at age 21 for $30m. The next year Ribeiro took the 14-year-old Neymar to see the world’s richest club.

When Santos found out, it became worried that Neymar, who it didn’t yet have tied to professional terms, would sign for the Spanish club. Santos executives contacted football lawyer Marcos Motta and asked him to warn off Real Madrid and alert the football authorities. “We said: listen he’s a minor,” Motta said. “We called Fifa, we called the Brazilian football federation – we called everybody.” Real Madrid said Neymar was just visiting. Soon after, Neymar signed his first contract with Santos.

Santos could not match the wages top European teams were offering. So, when Neymar renewed his contract soon after, his agent managed to convince Santos to give Neymar 40% of his future transfer fee. It was not unheard of for South American footballers to be promised a cut of their next transfer fee. It was a way for clubs to retain talent a season or two longer. Fifa allowed club executives to award players up to 15% of their own fees (in 2015, in an internal directive, Fifa effectively capped the amount at €1 million) – what was more unusual was for a player to bank a cut of his transfer rights before he was even traded.

Santos sweetened the deal by telling Neymar’s father they had arranged an immediate buyer for the stake: supermarket chain owner Delcir Sonda.

Neymar’s father valued the stake in his son’s transfer rights at 5 million reais, about €1.8m. Sonda even came up with an extra $500,000 for Ribeiro. Neymar therefore became a millionaire before his 18th birthday.

The next day Neymar made his professional debut for Santos, coming on for the last 30 minutes. He wore a jersey several sizes too big that hung loosely off his child’s frame. Fans were chanting his name before he came on to the pitch. His earliest touches had the crowd on its feet. “The boy set fire to the game,” said one report.

Neymar went on to score 10 goals in his first league season and 17 in the next, and there were more wealthy investors lining up for a piece of his future transfer rights. A group of rich Santos fans bought 5% of those rights from the club. Their 3.5 million reais outlay meant Neymar’s perceived transfer value had soared more than fivefold in a year.

For Sonda and his investment advisers, the focus was on continuing to cultivate a relationship with Neymar’s father and trying, with his consent, to secure a big profit by promoting the idea of transferring Neymar. Trips to Europe became commonplace. Carlezzo says a Sonda executive told him of a meeting between Neymar Sr and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich in London.

In August 2010 Neymar made his debut for Brazil in a friendly against the USA. On the same day, Chelsea made an offer to sign him. “We had a meeting in the Hilton Hotel on Lexington Avenue” in New York, Motta said. Seated in the lobby were Neymar’s father, Ribeiro, Pini Zahavi, the Israeli dealmaker who knew Abramovich, a delegation from Chelsea and Luis Álvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro, the newly elected Santos president. Luis Álvaro ended the conversation quickly. He rejected the €35m being offered by the Premier League team. While he tried to appear calm, he was spooked by Chelsea’s push to sign Neymar immediately. He phoned officials back in Brazil to prepare a special career-plan programme designed to keep Neymar at the club for as long as possible. The plan included giving him English and Spanish lessons, specialist physical preparation and hiring him a wealth-management team.

Neymar led Santos to South America’s top club competition, the Copa Libertadores, for the first time since 1963 when Pelé was in the team. Neymar had scored throughout the run to a two-legged final against Uruguay’s Peñarol. He opened the scoring in the decisive second game, where a 2-1 victory clinched the championship, and was named man of the match.

His bargaining position stronger than ever, Neymar’s father persuaded the Santos president to sign what some saw as a naive agreement by the club allowing its star player to negotiate a future transfer with four years left on his contract and leave one year earlier than planned. The licence to negotiate with other teams, set out in a brief one-page letter, meant the father could go to the market early to drum up interest: he subsequently listened to offers from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

The end goal for the Neymar entourage was for Neymar to remain at Santos until the 2014 World Cup, when he and his sponsors – such as Nike, Red Bull and Panasonic – would capitalise on his profile before he moved to Europe. Real Madrid was well aware of the array of sponsors that Neymar was attracting. The Spanish club had a policy of taking 50% of endorsement deals players signed, and for years had pursued high-profile players such as David Beckham to increase its income.

José Ángel Sanchez, the club’s general director, had a meeting with Sonda lawyer Eduardo Carlezzo in Madrid in late 2011. At about the same time, Real Madrid made a €45 million bid for Neymar but it was rejected. Real tried another front. President Florentino Pérez called his Santos counterpart while the Brazilian was taking the two youngest of his six children on a trip to France. Pérez offered to fly Luis Álvaro to Madrid for lunch. “I imagine you want to have lunch with me to talk about Neymar’s rights?” Luis Álvaro said, recalling the conversation. “I said ‘don’t waste your time and fuel on the plane because we have no interest in selling.’ What did he do? He got on his jet, flew to Paris and had lunch with me.” At Guy Savoy, one of the most exclusive restaurants in Paris, Álvaro told Pérez what he had told Chelsea: no sale.

Still, Real Madrid felt they were making progress with Neymar’s father. Motta even drew up a contract between the club and Neymar. Abramovich had not given up wooing Neymar either. Michael Emenalo, Chelsea’s director of football, flew to Santos to try again. He met Neymar and proceeded to deliver one of the best sales pitches Motta had ever heard. “It was the very first time that I saw Neymar’s father listen to someone for more than 30 minutes without looking at his mobile,” Motta said.

Emenalo told the story of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. How Chicago was not a big team, but together they evolved into international icons. Neymar could become Chelsea’s Michael Jordan, Emenalo said. José Mourinho was about to return to the club as manager and he wants to sign you, the Nigerian added. “You are going to lead Chelsea to the top.”

The more Neymar’s father met his son’s powerful suitors, the more money he realised he could extract from them. He decided that whichever team wanted to sign his son would have to pay an upfront fee of €10m. And then, upon completion of the deal, his son would be due a further €30m.

Under the plan, if either side reneged, it would be liable to pay a €40m penalty. Neymar’s father took out an insurance policy to protect his son against paying €40m in case he was seriously injured before his transfer to Europe.

According to his inner circle, there was only one team Neymar had his heart set on playing for: Barcelona. Neymar was 19 and had only recently moved out of the one-bedroom family home when he secretly agreed to join the Catalan club. On 15 November 2011 he signed a deal pledging to join Barcelona in 2014, and in return the club would pay him an initial €10m and a further €30m when he moved. Three days later Neymar’s parents formed a company called N&N Consultoria Esportiva e Empresarial to receive the first payment. Ten million euros were wired into its bank account in São Paulo.

The pact wasn’t made public and not even Santos knew about it. Eight months later Barcelona buried the terms of the deal on page 178 of their financial accounts, saying it had made a down payment on a future purchase without giving any more details or mentioning Neymar’s name. Neymar’s father continued to exert pressure over Santos by requesting they shorten his son’s contract by one year to 2013. Barcelona wanted to bring forward the deal, because Real Madrid were still pushing aggressively to sign Neymar.

Real were offering him a higher salary and offered to pay the €40m he would be liable to pay Barcelona. Barcelona reminded Neymar that he would have to share half of his pay from new sponsorship contracts with Real Madrid. Barcelona won the tussle and negotiated what appeared to be a very modest €17m transfer fee with Santos.

It was a personal victory for Sandro Rosell. But the taste of success would not last long for the president. At about the same time, Rosell was making an enemy among the fans. Jordi Cases, a pharmacist in his 40s, had a season seat in the cheap third tier at the Camp Nou.

Cases had become incensed by a decision by Rosell to sign a €30m-a-year sponsorship deal with Qatar. He felt that Rosell and his board were betraying the motto of being “més que un club” (Catalan for “more than a club”).

Presented by Rosell as a way for Barcelona to stay competitive in the Champions League, the Qatar sponsorship was approved by just 697 Barcelona members with voting rights at the previous annual general meeting. Cases said the sponsorship was such a significant development that all of the members should be consulted. He and some friends set up a pressure group to try to force a new ballot of all 170,000 members. The motion failed to get enough signatures. Barcelona is in theory controlled by its members: it’s they who elect the president and the board every year. But Cases was irked by the lack of say the members had once the election was over. After failing to make headway with the decision to put Qatar’s name on the team shirts, he turned his attention to page 178 of the club’s financial report that mentioned a €10m down payment on a €40m accord. Was this to Neymar? He wrote to Rosell and the board seeking more details. They ignored him.

In December Cases faxed a complaint to Spain’s National Court in Madrid asking it to investigate whether Rosell had misapplied funds to make the payment. He said he wasn’t accusing the president of a crime, he just wanted to know how the club was spending money on behalf of members. The board responded to Cases this time. Rosell called the complaint “reckless” and his general secretary, Tony Freixa, wrote a letter in Catalan on Christmas Eve to the family pharmacy saying the club could seek damages from him if confidential details about Neymar’s contract were made public. “As you can imagine, the size of the damages would be very high,” Freixa wrote.

Cases was unbowed. When, after the Christmas break, judge Pablo Ruz agreed to investigate, Cases realised he had triggered a scandal. Rosell immediately quit, although he continued to deny wrongdoing. He said he was stepping down to stop the fallout affecting the club.

After receiving permission from Neymar’s family to speak in public, Barcelona called a press conference. Interim president Josep Bartomeu said the transfer was costing the club €57.1m – the €17.1m Santos transfer fee plus Neymar’s €40m – although there were a series of bonus payments worth millions more to the player and his family. Neymar would receive €500,000 per year to be a so-called ambassador for Barcelona in Brazil and his father would receive €400,000 per year to scout three young Santos players. All the payments were on top of Neymar’s annual salary of more than €10m. “We can’t be any more transparent,” Bartomeu told reporters.

Public prosecutor Jose Perals accused Barcelona of financial engineering by drawing up as many as nine separate agreements to avoid the club paying €12m in tax. Barcelona should have withheld 25% of all payments to Neymar as income tax on non-residents, he said. Five days later, Barcelona paid €14m to the tax authorities to cover a possible shortfall plus interest.

At the same time they maintained their innocence, saying they had acted on the advice of tax experts. That wasn’t enough to get off the hook: the judge ruled there was enough evidence for Rosell to stand trial for “crimes against the public treasury” and for “dishonest” management. Cases had not intended to make such an impact and he withdrew his complaint from the Madrid court. It was too late. The court case was going ahead and Rosell faced up to seven years in prison if convicted [a judge at Spain’s National Court subsequently dropped charges against Rosell]. Neymar’s father said he had done nothing wrong. He wasn’t charged with any crime and said he had paid all taxes due in Brazil.

The Guardian Sport

La Liga’s Foreign Players are Easy Targets until They Master the Spanish Language


n Spain, football is played in Spanish. There is a necessity to find both your feet and tongue in La Liga. In December, sports newspaper AS posted a video of Gareth Bale speaking about his recovery from injury under the tag: “Progress with Spanish, watch how he pronounces ‘Hala’ Madrid.” The Welshman’s crime? He accented the first letter in ‘Hala’ when it isn’t necessary.

This was just one of many thinly veiled criticisms of Bale from the media about his linguistic abilities, despite his increasing command of the language. Headlines such as “Bale reveals the motives behind his lack of fluency” seek to offer an explanation to fans for an issue that causes them no shortage of worry. They think his lack of ability with his tongue might spread down to his boots, limiting his capability on the park.

In November 2015, Bale gave an interview that offered an insight into his adaptation. He said he felt completely settled in the side and conversed freely in English with Luca Modric, Toni Kroos, Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Arbeloa, as well as all of the medical team and his manager at the time, Rafa Benítez. His main stumbling block to making real strides with Spanish was the fact that most of his fellow players wanted to practice their English with him.

To give an idea of the criticism levelled at Bale, here’s an extract from an article published in the football paper Sport last year, under the headline “Bale: suspense about his integration and ability in Spanish.”

Harsh words for a player who has scored 67 goals in 144 games for Real Madrid. But this treatment is common in Spain and the cry of “hurry up and learn our language” isn’t unique to the pen of journalists.

Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba was caught by TV cameras shouting “learn to speak Spanish, idiot!” at Real Madrid’s Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic during the clásico in December. What Alba hadn’t realised was that Kovacic speaks Spanish with relative ease, alongside German, English, Italian and his native Croatian. Not to mention a little Catalan, which, unfortunately for him, he let slip during his Real Madrid presentation – much to the annoyance of Madrid fans.

These incidents help to illustrate a culture of patriotism that exists within Spanish football. It’s not enough to do your talking on the pitch. You have to speak the language too or make the utmost effort to do so, otherwise, you face ridicule. A lot of media and fans will only be at complete ease with foreign players when they demonstrate that they have mastered Spanish. Until then, their lack of fluency will be used against them if they put in any poor performances on the pitch.

Toni Kroos cited match preparation, house-hunting and family issues for his “problems with the language” not long after his arrival at Madrid. The media were uncomfortable when he spoke in German. Kroos also said that Carlo Ancelotti, his manager at the time, explained specific instructions to him in English. Some fans also look back at David Beckham’s farewell press conference with Real Madrid with disdain, due to his lack of fluency in the language after his four seasons in Madrid.

The truth is, his Spanish wasn’t as terrible as people think. He clearly had a grasp of the language and cited his own shyness for the lack of depth in his choice of words when announcing his farewell. Beckham’s supposed “lack of fluency” didn’t seem to inhibit his ability as a Madrid player. He scored 20 goals in 155 appearances and helped the club win La Liga in his final season in Madrid.

Zinedine Zidane admitted that the language barrier held them back from establishing a close friendship, but they were in tandem while playing. “My relationship with David is little,” said Zidane. “On the pitch, we understand each other perfectly, but as I don’t speak English and he doesn’t speak Spanish we are a little bit lost.”

Does it really matter? Or should it? If a player can get by in a foreign language, make life comfortable for themselves and their families, that should be enough. As Zidane said, they understood each other perfectly. What Beckham lacked was the need to master the language to get by on a day-to-day level. He undoubtedly lived a comfortable existence, which was reflected in his performances.

But this isn’t enough for the Spanish media. Foreign footballers are making a living in their country and the press think they should speak the language. But why? The beauty in football surely lies in its capacity to allow for 11 people, perhaps from entirely different backgrounds and countries, to understand each other in pursuit of a common goal: victory.

The Sevilla team that beat Liverpool in the Europa League final last May, for example, featured players from Brazil, France, Portugal, Poland, Argentina, Uruguay and Ukraine – as well as a few Spaniards. As Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to transform the world, to inspire and to bring people together like few other things.” A portion of the Spanish media don’t seem to agree. The same media who have ingested various anglicisms into their footballing dialect over the past few years – words such as “top”, “box-to-box” and “show” to name just a few.

Even people working within the Spanish media aren’t free from criticism. Northern Irishman Michael Robinson has lived in Spain for 27 years and has worked as a pundit for Canal+ for 20 years but he still retains a strong accent when speaking Spanish. Apparently, this isn’t good enough for some fans, who criticise his way of speaking and ask if he will ever lose his accent every time he appears on TV.

Robinson has hit back, saying his accent is what sets him apart – his own “brand” as it were. He even revealed that he was told to maintain his accent when he first signed up as a commentator, with producers even asking him to spend his holidays in England as opposed to Marbella.

Serbian defender Dusko Tosic found his lack of understanding of Spanish a barrier to his chances while on loan at Real Betis from Red Star Belgrade in 2011, when he appeared only once. Even in the face of defensive injuries, manager Pepe Mel did not pick Tosic, citing the defender’s inability to understand what was going on during training sessions as the reason behind his lack of action.

Tosic was bemused, pointing out that he had never had similar problems while playing in England, France or Germany, where his ability with the language was minimal. To add to his predicament, the club neglected to employ a Spanish teacher to help him.

When Sami Khedira arrived at Madrid in 2010, the press criticism he received after his first game served as a wake-up call. The reason for his slow start – and Mesut Özil’s – was put down to the fact that neither spoke Spanish, which apparently complicated their integration with their team-mates. In truth, their lack of English was as important, as José Mourinho wasn’t able to fully to transmit his instructions to them. To quell the unrest among the Madrid press, Khedira reminded them that he’d only been in the country for three weeks and that he was taking Spanish lessons to help him improve.

One thing the press in Barcelona and Madrid have agreed upon in recent seasons was Pep Guardiola’s seemingly “impossible” near fluency in German when he arrived at Bayern Munich. Both sections of the Spanish media called him a “superhero” – and no doubt someone foreign players in Spain should look up to as an example. AS went as far as explaining how few errors he made during his presentation in Madrid, while El Mundo called him “a lover of impossible challenges” as if he was some sort of quasi-footballing Genghis Khan. They didn’t point out that Guardiola had spent a full year on sabbatical in New York, where he had German classes every day with a personal tutor.

The question remains, what excuses will the media use if Bale and Kroos put in poor performances once they demonstrate full fluency in Spanish? Time will tell.

The Guardian Sport

Neymar Won’t leave Barcelona while He is Hovering Close to the Throne


Mourinho was surely right when he described the week’s most exciting transfer rumour, the notion Neymar might be lured to Manchester United, as “absurd”, “impossible” and “like trying to break into a safe”. Sadly for the Premier League, this must surely be the case. It seems almost inconceivable Neymar – who loves Barcelona – would leave Barcelona now. It also seems deeply unlikely the world’s next-best best player, still hopeful of making that generational leap up as soon as Those Other Two have shuffled off, would leave Barça for a team that for all their grandeur, have spent this season outside the Champions League.

All of which is in itself a bit of a shame. Not just for English football, which would eat Neymar up, in the best possible sense. But also arguably for Neymar himself, who is at a genuinely interesting point in his own career, smoking and juddering on the launchpad before his own planned ascent into the clouds. He perhaps needs just a little headroom now, something other than the role of Lionel Messi’s high-end support act, if he really is to explore and push back the far limits of his own talent.

Two things seem clear. First, Neymar is at his best when he simply grasps the game in front of him and plays like he’s the only superstar on the pitch, as he has for Brazil and in some of his best moments for Barcelona. And secondly, that he is only going to find his own jumping-off point, his fiefdom, a football world to bend to his own shape, if he does. For that to happen at some stage he must stop being nice and deferential, a wonderful “waiter” as they say in Brazil – with a class-leading eight assists so far in the Champions League this season – and escape from Lionel Messi’s shadow.

There is, of course, no shame in playing second fiddle to history’s own first fiddle, a player who must – even if you hate hyperbole and remember Diego Maradona fondly – be acknowledged as the most consistently brilliant club footballer ever. The problem for Neymar is that Messi is going to be brilliant for a few years yet, and most likely in the same place. His game is too good, too firmly based on touch and skill rather than physicality to fade obligingly to the wings.

Does any of this really matter? There is an element of artificially heightened expectation here. We have been a little spoilt in the last decade, able to gawp over at least two all-time attacking talents simultaneously. If this kind of endlessly prolific scoring and assisting really is the pattern now at the global super clubs, not everyone is convinced Neymar really is an heir, the world’s greatest sub-genius in waiting.

Brazilians aren’t fashionable generally these days. That terribly brittle and needy home World Cup didn’t help. The tearful press conferences, the news-helicopter shots of the crocked Neymar being airlifted on his gurney, shrouded in baseball cap and shades: it was all oddly hysterical. In many ways Neymar is similar to Virat Kohli in cricket, a beautifully engaging talent under vast pressure from a huge, nationalistic population to be not just very good but the best in the world and hurry up with it.

But that World Cup also made quite a few converts. In the flesh Neymar is simply beautiful to watch, a wonderfully seductive mover who seems to skate across the turf without leaving an imprint, a Disney prince made out of blossom and icing sugar and dandelion spurs.

His superpower is to move the ball with wonderful precision and blurring speed, that swerving dribbling style a function of endlessly spooling calculations, an ability to writhe through the tiniest gap, all fine-point craft and perfection in miniature.

Against Paraguay this week he scored a goal that involved running from his own half, hurdling two opponents, swerving inside and tickling a deflected shot past the keeper, a 60-yard sprint that seemed to take nothing out of him at all, barely touching the grass, the ball, the players around him.

The goal was Neymar’s 52nd in 77 internationals and 25th in his last 31, a career ratio beaten only by Romario and Gabriel Batistuta among the 50-goal heavy-hitters of the modern age. Neymar needs a new story of his own. Who knows, maybe it could come here, asleader of the No1 ranked team in the world, first nation to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.

The Hexa, a sixth World Cup title, is the national obsession. Under the current coach, Tite, Brazil have looked a balanced, mobile, less-brittle team, not to mention a group of players outranked only by Russia itself when it comes to experience playing in that part of the world. In Neymar they also have the best international footballer in the world right now, a year out from an open-looking tournament. So much for predictions.

Mourinho is at least right on one score. Neymar surely won’t leave Barcelona while he’s hovering so close to the throne. Succession is rarely as simple as it looks. The tides shift constantly. But it will be fascinating to see how this compelling little sprite of a footballer finds room to grow and assert his will, a mere superstar in the presence of greatness. But a player who also perhaps needs a little more space in his prime, who shows his best qualities in those moments when he simply loses himself and leads.

The Guardian Sport

Who are the Most In-Demand Players for the Summer?


Kasper Dolberg (Ajax)

Ajax’s production line of Danish talent shows no sign of abating, with Dolberg looking like being the latest to follow in the footsteps of such luminaries as Jesper Olsen, Jan Molby and Christian Eriksen. Manchester City have been monitoring the 19-year-old’s progress for some time and have seen him blossom into a brilliant finisher who is capable of leading the line or playing in a deeper role. Dolberg has also been linked with several other English clubs, including Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton but City look like favourites, especially if Sergio Agüero departs.

Possibility of moving to Manchester City: 5/10

Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)

Mauricio Pochettino has made no secret he covets attacking reinforcements this summer and Zaha – the standout performer in Palace’s relegation battle with five goals and six assists – is a primary target. Talks over improving his contract at Selhurst Park stalled last year amid Tottenham’s interest but the Palace chairman, Steve Parish, will not allow his prized asset to leave on the cheap. A fee of £30m may be enough to secure the Ivory Coast international given his current deal expires in 2020, although Daniel Levy is unlikely to offer that up front.

Possibility of moving to Tottenham Hotspur: 7/10

Naby Keïta (RB Leipzig)

The all-action Guinea midfielder – outstanding in RB Leipzig’s surge to the brink of Champions League qualification – has been scouted by Arsenal extensively this season, although the same can be said of most big clubs in Europe, including Leipzig’s Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munich. Player of the season in Austria last year, Keïta’s current club is understandably keen to tie him down to a new contract and the prospect of playing in Europe’s premier club competition could persuade him to stay. But if Arsenal are serious about finding someone to take on the dominant N’Golo Kanté, Keïta may be their man.

Possibility of moving to Arsenal: 3/10

Romelu Lukaku (Everton)

Three years after he was allowed to move to Goodison Park for £28m, Chelsea may have to pay double that to bring back Lukaku despite his decision to reject a new contract. It was always going to be tough for Ronald Koeman to persuade the Belgium international to commit his future on Merseyside but another season that has seen the 23-year compete at the top of the Premier League’s goalscoring charts will have convinced suitors he will be worth the investment. Manchester United’s close relationship with agent Mino Raiola may give them a chance, although José Mourinho will find it hard to compete if they cannot offer Champions League football. Barcelona, too, could be an option.

Possibility of moving to Chelsea: 6/10

Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

For the best part of a year, the France international’s brother has been dropping cryptic hints on social media that his next destination could be Old Trafford and, with Atlético keen to bring back Diego Costa, this could be the summer it happens. United have made inquiries over the price for a player who has scored 57 goals in La Liga in the last three seasons, with reports in Spain that his release clause is worth £94m. Whether United are willing to fork out that kind of fee once again after Paul Pogba’s struggles remains to be seen but Griezmann looks like he could be worth taking the risk for.

Possibility of moving to Manchester United: 6/10

Moussa Dembélé (Celtic)

With Lukaku now expected to leave Everton this summer, Koeman will be desperate to bring in a suitable replacement and has made the 20-year-old his priority. A fee somewhere north of £40m may be required, however, with Celtic having rejected approaches from Chelsea during the January transfer window and keen to make as big a profit as possible on the France international who joined from Fulham last year. Real Madrid are among the other clubs to have been linked with him, however, so it will be far from straightforward.

Possibility of moving to Everton: 3/10

Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Mönchengladbach)

The Germany midfielder’s representatives have been inundated with offers over the past few months after Dahoud rejected a new contract offer at the end of last year, with Borussia Dortmund the favourites to land him as they continue to assemble some of Europe’s best young players at the Westfalenstadion. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have also registered their interest, while Juventus consider themselves in the frame when the decision is finally made. If he moves to Dortmund, Dahoud could form a formidable partnership with Julian Weigl for club and country.

Possibility of moving to Borussia Dortmund: 8/10

Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen)

The versatile attacking midfielder has long been earmarked as a future star of German football and it’s therefore no surprise that Jürgen Klopp is keen to bring him to Anfield next season. The only problem is that, just like during his days at Borussia Dortmund, there is a rather large rival to contend with in the form of Bayern Munich. Carlo Ancelotti’s side are already understood to have opened talks with the 20-year-old’s representatives so Klopp will have to act quickly if he wants to get his man.

Possibility of moving to Bayern Munich: 8/10

Kylian Mbappé (Monaco)

The 18-year-old has turned heads all over Europe with his scintillating displays in the Champions League, with Monaco braced for some sizeable bids this summer for the forward with a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother. Real Madrid appear frontrunners at this stage having watched Mbappé several times in recent weeks, but José Mourinho has made an inquiry too. But would United be able to sign both him and Griezmann? Unlikely. Either way, a pricetag in excess of £50m will be needed to make Monaco even think about it.

Possibility of moving to Real Madrid: 3/10

Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon)

After the thunderbolt shot that helped Lyon beat Roma 4-2 in the first leg of their Europa League tie, Lacazette admitted his time in France’s second city may be coming to an end. Barcelona appears to be his preferred choice and there is every chance the France international will end up in Catalonia given his prolific statistics since returning from a hamstring injury in October. Much will depend on who replaces Luis Enrique in the dugout, with Arsenal potentially waiting in the wings as well should Alexis Sánchez depart.

Possibility of moving to Arsenal: 3/10

Franck Kessié (Atalanta)

Chelsea appeared to be hot favourites to sign the Ivorian midfielder until Kessié surprisingly admitted last month that he “dreams” of joining Manchester United. Now the race is on to secure a player who has also attracted attention from Juventus this season thanks to his starring role for Atalanta. Antonio Conte and several other Premier League managers remain keen on the 20-year-old who only moved to Italy in 2015.

Possibility of moving to Chelsea: 5/10

Faouzi Ghoulam (Napoli)

Disappointing for Algeria in the Africa Cup of Nations, Ghoulam still appears to have done enough to convince Pep Guardiola he can help fill the problem left-back role at Manchester City with talks with Napoli understood to be at an advanced stage over a potential £11m move. Chelsea are also in the market for a left-back despite spending more than £20m on Baba Rahman and then Marcos Alonso in the two previous summers, with Alex Sandro and David Alaba possible targets, but Guardiola and City are confident they can secure the 26-year-old early in what could be a busy summer at the Etihad.

Possibility of moving to Manchester City: 7/10

The Guardian Sport

Jermain Defoe Rolls Back the Years to Show England What They Have Missed


There was something very familiar about all this. The sight of a winger bustling to the byline and, even as he pulled the ball back across goal, being absolutely convinced the net would be billowing by the time his momentum had carried him on to the artificial turf ringing the pitch. Jermain Defoe tends to offer that calibre of reassurance, forever loitering as he does in enemy territory spanning the width of the posts, the six-yard box only ever a dart away, defenders constantly on edge. Cue that trademark celebration, arms stretched wide, as the striker trotted towards the crowd. It was as if he had never been away.

Except, of course, he had – and, plenty would argue, for far too long. The scenario which yielded England’s lead midway through the first half on Sunday might have been plucked from the last occasion when Defoe had scored for his country at Wembley, so identikit a goal did it feel from a player who has been prospering like this for years.

Retreat back to September 2010 and his first goal of a hat-trick in a European qualifier against Bulgaria had also been thumped into the roof of the net from Ashley Cole’s hooked centre from the left, albeit at the other end of the ground. The striker’s last goals for his country, a brace pilfered with precision against San Marino in Serravalle on his most recent start, had come a distant 1,465 days ago.

Yet here he was at 34 demonstrating that all the instinctive bite and canny positioning remain as sharp as ever, even after years in the wilderness at this level. The ease with which he found space from a panicked Linas Klimavicius, holding back while the defender felt compelled to snuff out the ball at source, has sustained his prolific Premier League career at four top-flight clubs. The finish flew beyond Ernestas Setkus, establishing the striker as England’s sixth oldest scorer and rendering the goalkeeper’s smart save down at his near-post from the same player moments earlier rather less meaningful.

“It’s good to be back,” said the forward as he conducted his round of man-of-the-match interviews. “As for what happens next, I’ll go back to my club, keep my head down and see what happens.” Gareth Southgate will have learned nothing new from the flash of brilliance which eased the home side ahead. This was not a rookie seeking to establish a reputation, and even the manager said he would have “put my house on him scoring at some stage today”.

“Defoe did what Defoe does,” said the captain, Joe Hart. Yet the veteran’s potential involvement against Scotland hardly feels outlandish and the manager was even coy about his chances of making the World Cup in Russia, when the forward will be months away from his 36th birthday. The likes of Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and even, possibly, Wayne Rooney will hope to have thrust themselves back ahead of the older man in the pecking order by then.

But this manager retains a pragmatic streak and has already demonstrated a willingness to pick, or omit, players on form alone. The veteran had merited inclusion for those 14 Premier League goals for the division’s bottom club, Sunderland, and, in truth, he had always represented England’s likeliest route to reward.

England had been braced for Lithuania to clog up the play, all stodgy defence and only occasional forays upfield on the counterattack. Defoe, of all Southgate’s current options, with Kane and Sturridge crocked, was the striker who might best exploit a yard of space or snaffle up a half-chance. The logic went that Southgate could throw on the blistering pace of Vardy and Rashford to charge at tiring opponents late on. Low key as much of this felt, the plan essentially worked a treat.

Defoe is a luxury to whom Southgate will be delighted to turn. It is easy to measure his longevity in terms of the personnel who have come and gone over the span of his 13-year England career. He had replaced Darius Vassell on his debut in a friendly against Sweden in Gothenburg under Sven-Goran Eriksson, a game in which the current national manager earned the last of his 57 caps as a second-half substitute. But his display here, ripping a shot just wide of a post and revelling in a contest against the side ranked 107 in the world, justified his inclusion among the current crop. It was almost a release from the toils he so regularly endures, a refreshing change from a relegation scrap.

Lithuania, of course, are hardly the most obdurate of opponents but England, and their strikers, did what was expected of them. Arguably Defoe’s biggest challenge of the evening was to keep his own emotions in check as he led out Bradley Lowery, the five-year-old suffering from neuroblastoma who now counts the forward as his “best mate”, before kick-off. Hart had ushered the pair to the front of the line, Defoe offering the young Sunderland fan words of reassurance as they entered the arena. “You can imagine how I felt doing that, having done it with my club as well,” he said.

Lowery had joined the majority in applause on the striker’s substitution just before the hour-mark. His hero had stuck to the prescribed script.

The Guardian Sport