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Old 27th December 2005, 17:27   #1
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Default The good, the bad and the beautiful (game)

The good, the bad and the beautiful (game)
Rob Hughes International Herald Tribune France
December 27 2005

With rare unanimity, all the world acknowledged in 2005 that Ronaldinho - the player who gives soccer artistic impression - is the finest embodiment of a game played across all continents and all denominations.

We have not yet seen enough of this Brazilian to place him among the all-time greats, but one thing is certain: His talent is so rare, his performance levels for Barcelona so proud, that barely a week passes without him summoning a gasp from those who oppose him, a smile on those who watch.

Without being a big man, without intentionally harming a soul or deliberately bruising an ego, he re-invents his moves in a club side of various nationalities. In the modern era, teams must fight for the right to put on a performance - and Barça closed out the year with 13 consecutive victories.

Winning, with heart.

If Ronaldinho commanded the accolades, Robert Hoyzer and Paolo di Canio vied for the spoilers' title.

Hoyzer is the German who, at 1.95 meters, or 6 feet 5, showed himself to be a giant of a man and a pygmy of a character. He was the referee who sold the outcome of matches for the benefit of a Croatian betting syndicate based in Berlin. The one heartening aspect of his story of corruption is that the authorities nailed him and jailed him long before the 2006 World Cup comes to Germany.

He is serving two years in prison, and if he sees the World Cup at all, it should be behind bars.

Di Canio? At the start and the end of 2005, this Italian blessed with sublime skill but blighted by outmoded notions of fascism twice brought his straight-arm salute, and his contorted facial expression, to the Roman theater of sport.

An aging prima donna, he uses his sport to make what he claims is a political but not a racist point. FIFA, the world authority of soccer, is debating what is to be done with him, but perhaps the best thing is to observe that between the "salutes" he made in January and December, Di Canio left no other mark on the game.

He is finished, out of time; let him fade without giving him the publicity he craves.

But Italians in general seem to be struggling with the Beautiful Game. Early in 2005, a Turin court convicted Riccardo Agricola, the Juventus team physician, of "sporting fraud" for administering the banned blood-bolstering agent EPO to players from 1994 to 1998.

Some of the finest players of their time, including Zinédine Zidane, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Baggio, gave evidence.

In December, the doctor was cleared on appeal.

"Juventus's prestige comes out clean," said the defense lawyer Anna Chiusano, "because it could not be proved that the performances were altered by the administration of medicines."

That charade, passed from players and chemists to the judiciary, will go into extra time with the public prosecutor seeking a retrial.

And speaking of extra time, did we ever witness such a pulsating finale to the Champions League as in Istanbul in May, when Liverpool, three goals down at halftime, recovered to beat AC Milan on penalty kicks after the full 90 minutes had ended with the score tied at 3-3?

"We lost it in six minutes of madness," complained Milan's coach, Carlo Ancelotti.

He said it as if he had no idea how this, the 50th final between Europe's champion clubs, had turned on its head. But Ancelotti is too much a soccer man not to have felt the stirring example of Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, who refused to let the contest die.

The Italians may have allowed complacency to delude them, but some of those players from Milan must have heard and felt the quite breathtaking unity between Liverpool players and their fans, who, while the teams took their halftime break in the locker rooms, had the Istanbul Olympic stadium rocking to the Liverpool anthem, "You'll Never Walk Alone."

To some of those writing Liverpool's halftime obituary, the singing appeared to come from more than the Liverpool supporters. In the fullness of time, it emerged that the Turks, supposedly neutral, were singing the hymn, aware that it was the chorus of a Liverpool team that swept off the old European Cup (now the Champions' League trophy) four times in the 1970s and 1980s.

However modern the game, history is its thread.

But some things change, and some men and traditions die. George Best, mercifully, was released from his sadly alcoholic decline, when he died in November.

Rinus Michels, the "father" of Dutch coaching, lived a rather fuller life until, at 77, he, too, died in 2005.

And in Benin, Samiou Yessoufou, a goalkeeper just 18 years old, was slain apparently for no other reason than that his team lost to Nigeria in the African Youth Championships.

From a youth denied life, to grown men attracted in their business life to the game, and to its capacity to act as a vehicle for popularity and commerce.

The three most powerful clubs in world soccer are now Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Chelsea, sometimes known as Chelski, has been transformed by the oil riches that Roman Abramovich siphoned out of Russia into a team that transcends the English Premier League but, through its clever but unsporting Portuguese manager, José Mourinho, leaves a sour stain over the sport.

It was Mourinho who used the media to state, without foundation, that Frank Rijkaard, the Barcelona coach, had entered the dressing room of the Swedish referee Anders Frisk during halftime in a Champions League match. Mourinho implied that the referee thus favored Barcelona. A consequence of that insinuation was that Frisk quit the sport after days of threatening phone calls to his wife and children.

Not only has Mourinho never apologized, he still - when it suits him - broadcasts his conspiracy theories about referees and still feels victimized by the two-match ban that UEFA, the European ruling body, gave him for the incident.

Manchester United passed from profitability to indebtedness with the new ownership by the American entrepreneur Malcolm Glazer, and awaits the implications of that.

And Real Madrid has a house full of Galacticos, but no team balance as its president, Florentino Perez, goes on blaming and changing the coaches.

"I didn't lose," insisted Vanderlei Luxemburgo, the Brazilian who came and went as Madrid coach within the year. "They didn't let me win."
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