Real Madrid sign an unproven 16-year-old Brazilian for €46 million.

Spanish giants Real Madrid have made headlines this week for forking out a staggering €46 million for 16-year-old promising player Vinícius Júnior. The Brazilian has just one senior appearance for Flamengo, making his professional debut a mere 11 days ago.

“The player will remain at his current club until July 2019,” the La Liga champions said in a statement. “Although he will be able to play for Real Madrid before then if both clubs agree to it.”

It raises eyebrows, I must say. It seems clubs like Real Madrid are keen to find the next teenage superstar or a phenomenon like Leo Messi, and they are willing to part with massive sums of money on promising players.

That said, it could go either way. He could go on to be a giant of the game, or he could go on to be a flop. But there will be considerable pressure on Vinicius. Vasts amount of money on a 16-year-old kid won’t go unnoticed by the fans, media and even team-mates. And when the time comes, and he pulls on the Madrid jersey, he will be expected to deliver the goods.

Other Brazilian players arrived in Europe amid huge hype and ultimately failed to live up to expectation. Alexandre Pato and Robinho are just two players in recent years who, after moving to Europe, were under pressure to deliver constant performances that a Balon d’Or winning player would. Ultimately neither came close.

But football is a funny game. Anything can happen and this kid could be a superstar.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Chelsea win the Premier League.

Following Michy Batshuayi’s 82nd minute winner against West Brom, the 1-0 win on Friday was enough for Chelsea to secure themselves as winners of the Premier League.

Antonio Conte adds to his list of managerial honours alongside three Scudetti and one Serie B winner’s medal.

The Italian will look to add to it and maintain momentum as they head into the tough FA Cup final at Wembley against Arsenal on Saturday week.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Totti’s 24 year career draws to a close.

Quite simply one of the greatest Italian players of all time, Francesco Totti is set to play his last game of football when Roma face Genoa at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on Sunday 28th May.

As his stunning 24-year career draws to a close, the 40-year old had spent his entire career with the Giallorossi, where he won a Serie A title, two Coppa Italia titles, and two Supercoppa Italiana titles. With his national team, he won a little-known trophy called the World Cup in 2006.

He won a plethora of individual awards throughout his career including a record eleven Oscar del calcio awards from the Italian Footballers’ Association, which consists of five Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year awards, two Serie A Footballer of the Year awards, two Serie A Goal of the Year awards, one Serie A Goalscorer of the Year award and one Serie A Young Footballer of the Year award.

He was nominated for the Ballon d’Or five times between 2000 and 2007. In November 2014, he extended his record as the oldest goalscorer in UEFA Champions League history, aged 38 years and 59 days.

The word legend is thrown about football all too often and, in some cases, is definitely warranted. With Francesco Totti’s departure from the pitch, it’s more than warranted.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Tony Adams isn’t the first bizarre managerial appointment.

With the recent appointment of former Arsenal defender Tony Adams as the new manager of La Liga side Granada, it raised many an eyebrow. His previous managerial position was with Azerbaijani outfit Gabala, which ended in 2011. Before them he was the Portsmouth manager for a tenure which lasted 16 games and collected a total of 10 points.

But he isn’t the first managerial appointment which has made the entire planet go “huh?” in shock.

Real Sociedad have a track record in recent times for bringing some British managers to La Liga. Chris Coleman spent half a season with the Basque side before resigning after a falling out with the club’s president (he lost only one of his previous eleven games before quitting). And most recently David Moyes spent a brief period with Sociedad. It wasn’t all bad for the Scot’s stint in La Liga. He did manage to beat Barcelona 1-0 and shared a packet of crisps with a fan after being sent to the stands during a game.

Edgar Davids was one of the finest midfielders of his generation, having played for Ajax, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Inter. But it was a bit bizarre when in 2012 he became manager of Barnet. Especially as he has joined as the much-missed role of player-manager. He lasted two years. Discipline was a major problem for Davids in the 2013–14 season. He was booked in each of the first eight league games he played, and he was sent off three times in those first eight games.

Chelsea have gone through roughly one million managers since Roman Abramovich took ownership of the London club. Some were, on paper, fantastic but simply didn’t work out (Villas-Boas, Benitez, Scolari). But one stood out for being a bizarre appointment. And that was Avram Grant who took over in September 2007 after the ever-popular pantomime villain José Mourinho. His only season for the blues witnessed him finish second second in the Premier League, League Cup and Champions League.

I have to mention Gary Neville. He was appointed manager of Valencia in December 2015. Peter Lim, who owns a controlling stake in the La Liga side, also owns 50% of Salford – the club who Neville owns alongside Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and brother Phil. He lasted just four months in Spain, and left Valencia 14th in the league, only six points clear of the relegation zone. Theyt had won only three of their 16 league games under Neville, also failing to keep a single clean sheet.

Good players don’t always make good managers

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Is Isco set to swap Madrid for Barcelona?

Twenty-four-old attacking midfielder Isco could be set to join a very select list of players by transferring from his current team Real Madrid to bitter rivals Barcelona.

The last player from the Los Merengues to join the Catalan giants directly was coincidentally current Barcelona boss Luis Enrique, back in 1996. There have been more players leaving the Camp Nou for the Bernebeu directly over the years such as Michael Laudrup, Javier Saviola and famously Luis Figo.

But it would be to Real Madrid’s loss I feel. Isco has struggled to break into Zinedine Zidane’s starting eleven, with Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema the preferred attacking choices in the 4-3-3 system.

One of the most popular players with Madridistas, the Spanish international may find more minutes with rivals Barcelona. While he wouldn’t be a starter ahead of Neymar, Suarez or Messi, he would fit into the Blaugrana’s middle three. Ahead of Iniesta, Busquets or Rakitic? Hard to say. Though almost 33, time isn’t on the gifted Iniesta’s side.

Some of the Spanish media have noted that there are better options for Barcelona. Marco Verratti of PSG is a name that has come up more than once. But Barcelona seem keen having reportedly offered €20 million to run down his contract in the capital and move to the Catalan capital on a free transfer.

If so, keep an eye out for pig’s heads being sold around Bernebeu on his return as a Barcelona player.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Xabi Alonso calls time on a remarkable career.

Bayern Munich midfielder Xabi Alonso announced this week that he would retiring from playing at the end of the current season.

In a tweet, the Spaniard simply wrote “Lived it. Loved it. Farewell beautiful game” and received subsequent praise from the his peers and fans around the world for his 17 years playing top flight football with such class.

Alonso was captain of the John Toshack-coached Real Sociedad where the Welshman built the team around the young midfielder. During the 2002-03 season, Alonso was instrumental in helping Sociedad to a club record for their highest ever points total, and qualifying for the UEFA Champions League for the first time.

He joined Liverpool in 2004 under a new era at Anfield under the tutelage of Rafa Benitez as well as a number of his compatriots. He played a massive part in the famous Champions League victory for the Reds in Istanbul in 2005.

He completed a €40 million move to Spanish giants Real Madrid in 2009, where he was ever-present in the midfield role for Los Merengues. He won La Liga once during his tenure in the Spanish capital and the Copa del Rey twice, and this was topped off with a Champions League medal.

Approaching 33 years of age, Alonso was still in high demand with clubs and it was Pep Guardiola who took him to German giants Bayern Munich where he was deployed as both a midfielder and a centre-half. He won the Bundesliga twice during his stint in Bavaria.

A naturally gifted midfielder, a player of Xabi Alonso’s class comes along not too often.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Leicester part company with Ranieri.

Nine months after lifting the Premier League trophy in what was a fairytale season, a season that would inspire underdogs across all sports at all levels, Leicester have sacked manager Claudio Ranieri.

“This has been the most difficult decision we have had to make in nearly seven years since King Power took ownership of Leicester City,” a statement read. “But we are duty-bound to put the Club’s long-term interests above all sense of personal sentiment, no matter how strong that might be.”

Something has without a doubt changed since their triumphant season. But what? Unprecedented pressure to recapture the magic like the previous season? Players lost their hunger? The absence of N’Golo Kanté to Chelsea? Who knows. But the only person who felt the bullet was ultimately Ranieri.

He was sacked at an interesting time. It was only six weeks since Ranieri was named as Fifa’s coach of the year. But Leicester’s decline which currently sees them only one place above the relegation zone. It is interesting to note that in his last game, the 2-1 loss to Porto in the Champions League, Foxes fans were chanting the Italian’s name at the full time whistle. It is incredibly sad that Leicester owners did not afford Ranieri the time to fight for the club’s safety.

Football is a results business, yes. But it is also a ruthless business at times. Modern football can be extremely ruthless and owners and chairmen are only interested in what the manager is doing now, regardless of his accomplishments in the past. I believe that we will never, ever see another manager in top flight football with the longevity of the likes of Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

What’s happening with Barça lately?

The 4-0 massacre by Paris St. Germain on Valentine’s Day was not only a serious blow to Barcelona’s chances of progressing to the Champions League’s next round, it was also a serious blow to their reputation and the person who will feel it most ultimately will be Luis Enrique.

Aside from the result, the style of football was damaging in itself. Lacklustre performances across the field from Messi & co. that night in Paris caused local football newspaper Sport to declare on it’s front page “This is not Barça”.

Some would argue that the Catalans felt a similar dent before (against Bayern Munich when they lost 3-0 and 4-0 home and away respectively), but it cannot disguise the fact that there are a number of flaws from the boardroom upstairs to the coaches and players.

Further questions were asked today following Barça’s lucky escape after narrowly beating CD Leganés at home. Leganés, who are currently sitting in 17th in their debut season in La Liga, were playing in Spain’s third tier three years ago, and their home ground holds approximately the same amount of tourists that turn up for a match in the Camp Nou each week. There was a time when scraping three points off them was unthinkable.

During the Guardiola era, Barcelona were almost untouchable. They would run through teams by a considerable scoreline, but they often recruited great players and used them intelligently. Plus Barça’s world-famous La Masia academy was used during that era to phenomenal effect, kick starting the careers of players such as Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Bojan and Sergi Roberto.

Barça aren’t quite at those levels right now. Ex-players are criticizing the board members, players are being played out of position at times (Sergi Roberto has been deployed as a right-back – a position they never filled after Dani Alves left for Juventus), new signing are being used incorrectly or simply not much at all. Their style of football and some of the decisions Luis Enrique has been making has been questionable – by their own standards of course. And make no mistake, Barça have enormously high standards.

Barcelona usually turn to Messi in times of crisis on the field and, to his credit, does more-often-than-not deliver. But not even the great Argentine (in the final year of his contract, a new deal still unsigned) can save them everytime.

Luis Enrique needs to turn things around to keep the ship afloat. She’s heading towards rocky waters.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Five players in South America to watch out for.

There are a number of players plying their trade south of Donald Trump’s United States that have been catching the eye of many European scouts in, fans and this writer. Let’s have a look at some of the best players in Latin America today.

Marcos Acuña (Racing Club)
Acuña may not be too well known with fans outside of Argentina, but the 25-year-old’s style of play and recent form makes him a hot prospect for many clubs. Having been compared to compatriot Angel di Maria, Acuña made his debut for Argentina recently against Colombia. Keep an eye on this guy. He won’t be at Racing forever.

Javier Aquino (Tigres)
This 26-year-old did have a short spell in Europe with Villareal and Rayo Vallecano – albeit luckless. The pacy winger’s performances for Mexican side Tigres (where he plays alongside French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac) has been making scouts have a second look. He was at one point mentioned with Dutch giants Ajax. Keep an eye on this one.

Zeca (Santos)
Players like Neymar and Pele are often associated with Brazilian side Santos. Something tells me that 22-year-old Zeca could be another. Held in high regard in his native Brazil, Zeca is a brilliant left-back. And with an Olympic gold medal now in his trophy cabinet alongside his domestic honours with Santos, he is surely one player destined to go right to the very top.

Rodrigo Bentancur (Boca Juniors)
The Uruguyan midfielder has long been regarded by the blue and yellow side of Buenos Aires as a phenomenon. The added blessing of course being Boca legend Juan Roman Riquelme hailing the 19-year-old as his personal favourite from the team. Real Madrid were rumoured to be close to signing him at one point, but Juventus now look likely to get the Uruguayan playmaker’s signature.

Romel Quiñónez (Bolivar)
It is my personal opinion that only for the fact that the Bolivian Liga gets little or no airtime in Europe, Quiñónez would already be playing on this continent. Only 24, Quiñónez is in his seventh season with Bolivia’s most succesful club Bolivar. At the last Copa America, he introduced himself to the world by providing numerous incredible saves and was a stand out player for a limited Bolivia side by some considerable distance. If one of Latin America’s biggest teams don’t sign him, a European club will.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Fan protesting works as Rayo force out player following ideology controversy.

Rayo Vallecano made headlines this week by signing Ukrainian Roman Zozulya from Real Betis. Signing a player on loan is not usually newsworthy, but Rayo’s fans are notoriously left-wing and were outraged with the signing of the former Dnipro striker due to his ties with the far-right in his native Ukraine.

His arrival at parent club Betis also caused a stir as Zozulya has made no secret of his support for his national army and has been photographed several times in paramilitary clothing. He denied any links to far-right ideologies in an open letter to Rayo’s fans, but their supporters’ group ADRV claimed that the club’s decision to sign Zozulya was “ridiculous” and an “affront to our history and values.”

ADRV had staged various protests against the signing of the Ukrainian international before, during and after his first training session with the club. Fans brandished banners alluding to the player’s alleged neo-Nazi ideology and confronted him and his agent at the club’s offices.

And with that, fan power has won the day.

Real Betis sporting director Miguel Torrecilla has confirmed that Zozulya has returned to the club following the backlash.

“He will come back to Seville for now,” Torrecilla said following the collapse of the loan deal. “We were informed that he was having problems with radical groups. We have spoken to Rayo and we agreed that for the benefit of our player, who is an asset, he should return to Seville.”

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

The Great Haul to China

So by now you are probably aware of many players jumping ship and heading off to China. The reason, as you can guess, is obviously for financial rather than sporting reasons.

This has me torn.

On one hand, I question the ambition of players in their prime like 25-year-old Brazilian international Oscar, who left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG for a reported fee of €70 million, where he will earn almost €24 million annually.

Does he really want to win the Chinese Super League? A league that has only been in existence since 2004. I doubt it was his dream growing up in the streets of Americana in Sao Paulo. But for €24 million each year, he can play like it was.

That’s where I am torn. I would do the exact same. Any sane person would I guess. Football is a short career and you are much longer retired than you are playing (unless your name is Francesco Totti). And the only real loyalty in football is fan loyalty. There are exceptions of course – such as true one-club-men for example (see Francesco Totti).

In the last couple of years, a plethora of talent has flocked to the far east. Players such as Robinho, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka have all been and gone. But even more recently, the massive sums of money are luring even more prominent players and managers.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas Boas, Gus Poyet, Felix Magath, Manuel Pellegrini and Fabio Cannavaro are among the name who made China their home. And probably not for the scenery.

But it’s the players who are earning ridiculous money. Aside from Oscar, here’s a list of the annual salaries of some of the league’s most prominent players:

  • Hulk, 30, (Brazil) Shanghai SIPG. €20 million.
  • Ezequiel Lavezzi, 30, (Argentina) Hebei China Fortune. €20 million.
  • Graziano Pelle, 31, (Italy) Shandong Luneng. €16 million.
  • Ramires, 28, (Brazil) Jiangsu Suning. €14 million.
  • Jackson Martinez, 29, (Colombia) Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. €13.4 million.
  • Alex Teixeira, 26, (Brazil) Jiangsu Suning. €11 million.
  • Gervinho (Ivory Coast), 29 Hebei China Fortune. €9.27 million.
  • Fredy Guarin, 29, (Colombia) Shanghai Shenhua. €7.65 million.
  • Demba Ba, 30, (Senegal) Shanghai Shenhua. €6.4 million.
  • Paulinho, 27, (Brazil) Guangzhou Evergrande. €6 million.

But the biggest earner will be Carlos Tevez, who turns 33 next week, will be earning a reported €38 million annually with Shanghai Shenua. An obscene amount. What would they have to pay to get Messi or Ronaldo to play in China?

While Super League clubs are restricted to four foreign players per team, and only four can be on the field at one time, including one from a different Asian Football Confederation (AFC) country. That said, the massive wave of talent to China shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Graham Taylor R.I.P.

The blog is very saddened to learn of the passing of former England manager Graham Taylor, following a suspected heart attack. He was 72.

“With the greatest sadness, we have to announce that Graham passed away at his home early this morning of a suspected heart attack,” read a family statement. “The family are devastated by this sudden and totally unexpected loss.”

Taylor’s playing career took him to Grimsby Town and Lincoln City, managed England during a difficult time as they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. He also had two spells in charge at Aston Villa, Watford as well as Wolves (where he signed a 14-year-old Dubliner called Robbie Keane).

Elton John, Paul McGrath and various clubs and sportsmen led the tributes to Taylor, a true footballing man.

 

January transfer window opens: let the action begin!

On Sunday morning, as party revellers were celebrating the new year, many agents were preparing to get busy as the January transfer window opens. Love it or loathe it, the system has actually been used in many European leagues before being made compulsory by FIFA during the 2002–03 season. For the past fourteen years, it has been a source of great entertainment with some memorable and forgettable buys.

This transfer window is already full of rumours. There has already been reports of Liverpool being linked with Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk. Benfica owe Swedish minnows Vasteras €250,000 from purchasing Victor Lindelof back in 2012 but the Lisbon could be cashing in to the tune of more than 200 times that figure next month as Manchester United are eyeing up the Swede.

JAMESrodriguezMadrid

James Rodriguez was one of the stars of the 2014 World Cup. His tenure at Real Madrid has been somewhat inconsistent because of a combination of injuries and lack of form. That said, the 25-year-old is still a huge player. Inter Milan have had their eyes firmly on the Colombian international. As has Antonio Conte who is reportedly keen on bringing James to Stamford Bridge.

Because of the increasing strength of Barcelona over the past 10 years, the club always seem to buy decent players who will rarely get a look in (see Ibrahim Affelay,  Martín Cáceres, Alex Hleb, Alex Song). Right-back Aleix Vidal has become one such player, with currently-in-crisis Swansea looking to see if they can snap up the Spaniard.

There’s countless other players linked with countless other clubs. On 1st February, just stay peeled to drama in the Sky Sports News studio.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Football around the world mourns with Chapecoense.

When the news broke on Tuesday morning of the plane crash that carried the Brazilian side Chapecoense to Colombia to play what was arguably their biggest game in their history – the final of the Copa Sudamericana (the South American equivalent of the Europa League) – I, like everyone else, was in utter shock.

The Santa Catarina-based side were enjoying their biggest season in their history. In 2009, they were playing in Serie D, before being promoted to Serie C, where they played for three years. They were promoted to Serie B in 2012 and, after only one season, the club who only formed in 1973 as a result of a merger of two amateur clubs, were playing in Brazil’s top tier of football.

But this season was arguably the club’s biggest. They drew inspiration and similarities from the current Premier League champions.

“Our team really reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title,” the late manager Caio Júnior said after a league win over giants Fluminense. “I want to make a mark this season with this club, this group of players.”

Indeed it was on the continental scale where Chape really made headlines. In the Copa Sudamericana, they surpassed even their own fans’ expectations and made it to the final, beating teams like Argentine giants Independiente and San Lorenzo on the way.

But then unimaginable tragedy struck.

Seventy one people died on that flight as it approached Medellin, including 21 journalists and almost the entire first team and managerial staff. The surviving players were defenders Alan Ruschel and Neto. Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann also survived but had to have one of his legs amputated, according to reports.  Goalkeeper Danilo initially survived the crash, but later died in hospital from his injuries.

It’s an enormous loss. But I’m sure friends, families and supporters can take some comfort with the support the club has been receiving from the footballing community around the globe.

Força Chapecoense!

https://twitter.com/neymarjr/status/803538371222138880

https://twitter.com/AGuardado18/status/803614078899867648

https://twitter.com/DavidMeyler7/status/803744957903159296

 

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Things turn ugly for Swedish hero Larsson.

Henrik Larsson is regarded by many in his native Sweden as a footballing hero. And rightly so. But the former Celtic striker was at the centre of some unsavoury scenes at the end of Helsingborgs’ 2-1 defeat to Halmstad last week.

Helsingborgs’ defeat meant that the club would be relegated for the first time in 23 years. Naturally this was catastrophic for fans of The Reds. But it turned ugly after the final whistle when supporters ran on to the pitch, most of whom had their faces covered by scarves and balaclavas, attempted to pull the jersey off Larsson’s son and HIF striker Jordan Larsson.

The 45-year-old Helsingborg manager then proceeded towards the supporters, appearing to be ready to defend himself if things turned a bit violent, which looked like something of an inevitability.

“I didn’t see that they attacked Jordan but if I had, I would have gone in there towards him,” the former Barcelona and Swedish international said afterwards. “I was not going to run from there. If they turn on me, they turn on me.”

Larsson left his position as manager a few days ago. His son is still with the club, but it rumoured to be moving to another Allsvenskan club.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)