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

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

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

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

Lack of Winter Break or Not Good Enough: Why are English Clubs Failing in Europe?


English football may be about to plunge into one of its regular periods of introspection now that Leicester City are left as the only standard-bearers for the Premier League in the Champions League quarter-finals, though the rest of Europe will not find anything too surprising in this week’s developments.

Leicester are the English champions, after all. Why should they not be the team to progress furthest? And though Manchester City might have hoped Pep Guardiola would bring a touch of Barcelona flair to his new project in England, there is clearly a difference in what the two sides perceive as all-out attack. In Barcelona’s case it means the ability to overhaul a 4-0 first-leg deficit, in City’s it means not having a shot on target for more than an hour. Anyone who saw the first leg at the Etihad would know Monaco are a sprightly side capable of causing City problems; all the second leg proved is that the same is true even without Radamel Falcao. The first leg is what came back to haunt Guardiola’s team at the Stade Louis II, for no side conceding six goals in two games can have a reasonable expectation of progress.

That Monaco could pull off the trick was largely due to conceding only one at home, set next to City’s three. Entertaining as both legs were, the bottom line is that City went further in Europe last season under Manuel Pellegrini, and although they never looked capable of displacing Real Madrid in the semi-final at least they kept things tight enough to go out to only a single goal. It is glaringly obvious at the moment that Guardiola needs a major defensive overhaul to have any chance of improving on this season’s results.

Leicester beginning the fightback against Spanish sides in Europe apart, the story here is a familiar one. The Premier League’s influence in Europe is declining, and has been for some time. There is no immediate need to worry about being overtaken in the coefficient ranking by Italy or France, a Uefa rule change guarantees four qualification places to each of the four biggest leagues from 2018 and England is presently third, though a survey of Champions League quarter-finalists over the past five years makes depressing reading.

From 40 places, Spain has had 15 representatives, Germany nine and England just four. Even France, with six, has done better. Can it really be less than a decade since two English teams were fighting it out in the final and Uefa was becoming uneasy about Premier League domination of their competition?

Those teams were Manchester United and Chelsea, of course, and it is not without significance that neither made it to this season’s event. Take out your two most successful and experienced Champions League campaigners – and Chelsea certainly deserve that billing for their achievements this century – and your overall performance is bound to suffer. Tottenham and City could both pin the blame for early exits on inexperience, or at least that is what their managers kept saying. Arsenal’s inability to progress beyond a certain stage is harder to explain. They do not lack experience or quality, and while continually being drawn against Bayern Munich does not help, the 10-2 aggregate scoreline this season would suggest the gulf is growing.

Yet Arsenal, though their record of Champions League qualification is exemplary, are often worried about finishing in the top four in a way that Bayern are not. They are usually champions and missing out on the Champions League altogether is unthinkable, because that is the way German football is structured. A few other leagues are the same, whereas in England we have a situation where teams of the pedigree of Chelsea and United can miss out. Even though there are only a couple of months of this season left, it is currently impossible to predict which two sides from an ultra-competitive group of five below Chelsea will finish outside the top four.

While the idea that English performances in Europe are suffering because the Premier League is becoming more demanding may be an oversimplification, overseas observers would point out straight away that we make life more difficult for ourselves by not having a winter break.

English football seems to take pride in making its festive fixture list as gruelling as possible, which is probably not the best preparation for the resumption of the Champions League in February. Then again, it is fair to mention that Spurs went out before Christmas this season, and the Premier League cannot be all that competitive if erstwhile relegation candidates Leicester were able to win it last year.

Against all expectations, the fairytale headlines made a reappearance this week, with everybody’s favourite underdog putting in a spirited performance and a little underhand skulduggery to see off Sevilla. Claudio Ranieri might be history, but the impossible dream goes on. Leicester will probably be disappointed that Manchester City are no longer around, because based on Premier League form that might have been a quarter-final draw they could have won.

There are no easy sides left now, although naturally all the other seven quarter-finalists will be hoping to be paired with Leicester. One would have to say further progress appears unlikely, yet just about everything Leicester have done over the past three years has been unlikely. While they might not be able to beat Barcelona, it would be fun to watch them try, if only to see Jamie Vardy on the same pitch as Luis Suárez. As Sir Alex Ferguson always used to say in advance of such situations, “You’ll need a strong referee for that one.”

The Guardian Sport

Barcelona Open-Mouthed, Not Broken-Hearted, at Luis Enrique’s Imminent Exit


At the press conference before Barcelona’s match with Sporting Gijón on Wednesday Luis Enrique was asked if he felt tired, worn out by the demands of being manager at the Camp Nou. He had been a little edgy of late, after all – even for him. “No,” he said, a little pointedly, which is how he says a lot of things, “I’m pletórico.” Plethoric, full of energy.

At the press conference after Barcelona’s match with Sporting Gijón on Wednesday night, they had finished asking Luis Enrique questions when he announced that he was leaving at the end of the season. “I need to rest,” he said.

Barcelona won a treble in his first season in charge and a double in his second. In his third and final season, they are on the verge of Champions League elimination but they have reached the final of the Copa del Rey against Alavés and the night that Luis Enrique announced his departure they moved to the top of the table for the first time since week nine, the league back in their own hands.

The president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, described him as a “legend”. But success does not provide immunity, nor is it an elixir of eternal life. Not here, especially.

“In England, I’d be a bloody hero,” the then Barcelona manager Bobby Robson once said; instead, he stood alone and under pressure, victim of a battle, an environment, he did not truly understand. Pep Guardiola said four years was as long as a coach could be at Barcelona. When José Mourinho said he should stay for 50 years, Guardiola joked: “I thought José loved me more than that.”

Johan Cruyff had a heart attack. Víctor Valdés talks about the emotional exhaustion, defending a goal that is bigger than 8ft high. “A year at Barcelona is like two anywhere else,” he said.

Luis Enrique, now 46, has taken charge of 164 games. That is 328 times he has been before the press, for matches alone. And media relations, the public perception, is just a part of it – albeit at a club that is so eminently political, where the coach is so exposed, it is a larger part than it probably should be. If at first he seemed to almost enjoy challenging them and refusing to play the game, instead playing one of his own in which he occasionally pricked their pomposity and prejudice, that feeling was fleeting and is gone now.

He was “surprisingly” sensitive to what the press said, for a man who claimed not to even look at the press. In Barcelona, it is hard not to be; it invades everything and it can be insidious.

Then there is the work itself, the relentlessness of it. The relentless of Luis Enrique, too. This is a man who competed in the New York Marathon; the Quebrantahuesos, or “bone crusher” race, cycling 205km through the Pyrenees; the Frankfurt Ironman, a 10-hour triathlon; and the Sables marathon, 255km through the Moroccan desert with a 10kg rucksack on his back. That obsessiveness and competitive nature is taken to his work. “The reason I’m leaving is the way I live this profession,” he said. “I get very few hours to rest, to disconnect; at the end of this season I need to rest.”


Guardiola once said that what he most enjoyed was that Eureka moment when, after hours of being locked in a dark, windowless room, he suddenly saw how his team would win. Luis Enrique described his job as one of “constantly seeking solutions”, “an incessant search to improve the team”. And while that is in his nature, it becomes tiresome for anyone. Especially when it is ignored or, worse still, thrown back at you. He sees himself seeking solutions, but the debate, every bit as relentless as he is, has become dominated by accusations that he is trampling on a tradition.

Although Guardiola described him as the “perfect manager for Barcelona” and while much of the criticism aimed at him for not being sufficiently “Barcelona” is exaggerated, there is something in that, some substance to the debate. That Barcelona have shifted, that there has been a sense of them losing their religion, is a reality. Luis Enrique sees himself as a man seeking solutions; for others he stands accused of being the problem.

Yet problems are more profound than the man on the bench and he knows that. Meanwhile, even those who enjoy the search for a perfection that is unattainable, Cruyff and Guardiola hanging over them, can be exhausted by the thanklessness of the task. They also know that however much they control they cannot control everything. Failures are yours more than successes will ever be.

The manager who has won eight trophies from 10 said he was leaving and no tears were shed. From New York to Frankfurt, from the mountains to the desert, those challenges say something about him: solitary, determined, single-minded.

He has never been close to his players, nor concerned about politics or public perception; it is just not his way. Six months into his first season, he was on the edge, the intervention of Xavi Hernández easing tensions and by the end of it they were celebrating in Berlin. That night, though, he still had not renewed his contract, nor confirmed that he would stay.

In Gerard Piqué’s words, Luis Enrique had taken over when the team were “completely in the shit” and won it all. And yet on Wednesday night, no one was sad. Some were surprised, it is true. Well sort of. They were not surprised by the fact that Luis Enrique is leaving but by the timing: when and how it was announced. This was a departure foretold but an announcement that was unforeseen.

He did it his way, as he always has. Whether it was the right way is open to debate, but an early announcement may help to ease the tension over the final months – maybe gratitude will appear now they know he is going – although it brings the succession to the surface. Or it would, if it was not already there, Ernesto Valverde, Mauricio Pochettino, Jorge Sampaoli, the most credible of the many names cited going back weeks now. This was coming, everyone knew. When a fortnight ago the club’s president said that there was no plan B for next season, that the only plan was Luis Enrique, few believed him.

Luis Enrique had told Barcelona’s sporting director in the summer that there was a chance that this would be his last season. Three years is a long time at the Camp Nou, he knew. They had agreed then that they would speak in April. Two or three days ago, still in February, he told them that his mind was made up: he was going.

A couple of days later, he told everyone else – in a routine press conference after a routine win. He did so once the questions had been asked and without fanfare. There was no official statement and no one there with him, not the president, the sporting director, his staff or the players.

They had found out a few minutes before, when he had walked into the dressing room and informed the squad. “We were left open-mouthed,” Ivan Rakitic said. Open-mouthed but not, in truth, broken-hearted.

The Guardian Sport