Superstars

The great Ronaldinho joins the free agents list

Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, better known to me and you as Ronaldinho, has been a huge name in world football for almost all of his career. The Balon d’Or and twice FIFA World Player Of The Year winner has just this week terminated his contract with Mexican side Querétaro. Now 35-years-old, the Brazilian is a free agent.

Of course Ronaldinho’s best years have been long behind him. In fact, many would argue that after his disappointment at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he never was quite the same player again. But between 2003 and 2006, his theatrical style of exciting football, his mind-boggling goals, his tricks and skills and that famous smile made the Brazilian a household name and a true great.

Barcelona's Ronaldinho celebrates goal against Sevilla during Spanish first division match in Barcelona

When he left Barcelona in 2008 for AC Milan, he was still capable of turning on the magic. And indeed his spells with Flamengo, Atlético Mineiro and Querétaro witnessed some of the old Ronaldinho. But nothing like his Barcelona heyday.

That said, now that he is a free agent, his presence alone would affect any team. Let’s be honest, if you are a football fan, you’d love to see him in the league that the team you support plays in. He may be well past his peak, but he’s still Ronaldinho.

A move back to Europe is unlikely but not impossible. Back to his native Brazil would be Ronaldinho’s preferred destination, but the lure of the MLS can never be ruled out.

Another player who is currently a free agent is Antonio Cassano. The fiery Italian striker left Parma, following their recent fall from grace on and off the pitch. The 32-year-old played a big part in Italy’s Euro 2012 campaign and also featured during last summer’s World Cup campaign.

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Apart from a short, unsuccessful stint at Real Madrid, Cassano has played his entire career in Serie A and there wouldn’t be a shortage of clubs from his native country willing to avail of his services. It would be interesting to see him ply his trade in a league outside of Italy.

Another similar Italian striker who is currently a free agent is Giampaolo Pazzini. The 30-year-old has played his entire career in Serie A (and like Cassano, Pazzini has turned out for both Milanese clubs). He’s not a 20-goal-per-season type of striker, but he is lethal in the box and an unselfish team player (unlike another Italian we know).

Glen Johnson played a big part in the Liverpool teams between 2009 and 2015 at right-back. The 30-year-old finds himself, at the moment, a free-agent. The England international is said to prefer a move back to his native London, but a club like Premier League new boys Bournemouth should really consider getting a player like Johnson for his ability and, very importantly, his experience.

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Another player in the Premier League that is a free agent is midfielder Abou Diaby. The former Arsenal man is still only 29. Despite being somewhat injury-prone, he possesses an incredible first touch and has sublime close control. A club might consider it a gamble if thinking about signing up Diaby, but I believe that given his age and his skill, it is a gamble worth taking. The Frenchman can do a job and personally I’d like to see him silence his critics in the Premier League.

 

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Footy thoughts, Republic of Ireland

Was John Delaney right for taking FIFA’s blood money? Yes and no!

I was in the Stade de France on 18th November 2009. My own experience is that I didn’t immediately realise that Thierry Henry had handled the ball which directly led to William Gallas’ goal that prevented Ireland from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

It wasn’t until I had reached a pub in central Paris that I realised what had happened. Yes, I was gutted. Yes, it was blatant cheating. But my opinion is that far more embarrassing cheating occurs daily in grounds around the globe. Feigning injuries, diving, simulation, whatever you want to call it. That’s a bigger crime than what then-Barcelona forward Thierry Henry committed that night in Paris.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Many argue that diving is part of the game these days. Is it? I personally detest it.

We were never going to get a replay. I don’t know why so many thought we were. It normally takes an extraordinary set of circumstances for FIFA to give the go ahead to replay a match – especially a match of this importance. A handball wasn’t going to do it.

They didn’t replay the match between England and Argentina in the 1986 World Cup following Maradona’s blatant hand of god goal, did they?

So when John Delaney revealed that FIFA paid the FAI €5 million to prevent any legal action following the infamous play-off match in Paris, was it a wise decision to accept it?

Well, yes and no. I mean, let’s be honest, obviously I would loved a replay, but that was never, ever going to happen. So for him to take that money, it would have sat better with many fans if the money was put into the the domestic league.

The league of Ireland has been struggling financially – I do mean utterly struggling – for way too long now. Teams can barely pay the players’ wages. Grounds are falling apart. Clubs have volunteers to keep their heads above water and many benefits such as concerts and raffles take place regularly to generate some kind of revenue.

Do you know how much difference that €5 million would have made to Ireland’s top tier of football?

But of course, John Delaney doesn’t work like that. He does, after all, refer to the league as, and I quote, a “difficult child”. In fact it’s worth mentioning that the FAI chief earns more than the Spanish and Italian chiefs combined. €250,000 more annually. Think about that for a second.

While Delaney does have his pros, they are vastly drowned out by his cons, especially in recent years. Surely there is somebody who can do a better job than he is doing? Somebody who will act for Irish football’s best interests – both international football and league of Ireland.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Republic of Ireland

The unsung hero of Ireland v England

When the Republic of Ireland face England, it’s a always a very tasty fixture and some memorable ones stand out. When Ireland defeated England 0-2 in 1949 at Goodison Park, they became the first team to defeat the Three Lions on their own soil.

Ray Houghton’s goal in 1988 in Stuttgart has spurred a thousands stories and a Christy Moore song. Two years later, Ireland played their first ever game in the World Cup finals. The opponent? England, of course. Who can forget Kevin Sheedy?

The events during the unfriendly friendly in 1995 are well documented, but it’s worth pointing out that Ireland were leading 1-0 before riots ended the fixture. In fact, England haven’t beaten the Boys In Green in a few decades now.

But one such fixture, on 24th May 1964, is not so well-known. Yet it has a fascinating little story.

There were 45,000 people inside Dalymount Park on that Sunday afternoon as Ireland faced Alf Ramsey’s England. The game itself finished 1-3 to the English with goals from George Eastham, Johnny Byrne and Jimmy Greaves. But on the scoresheet for Ireland was Shelbourne defender Freddie Strahan.

Strahan is still to this day the only League of Ireland player to score for the Republic of Ireland against England during their 14 meetings since 1946.

But even more interesting is the fact that the Dubliner, who worked as a fireman, played in the fixture after coming off a long shift, working from from 6pm the night before until 10am on the day of the game.

In fact, when attending a chimney fire in the city, a homeowner said to Strahan “Are you not supposed to be playing England tomorrow?”

His goal is one of the less-known goals for the boys in green, but it’s worth bringing up. Especially when you realize that this was the England side that won the World Cup two years later. A fireman who played in the League of Ireland, works a long shift, togs out for Ireland and scores. Against England.

Firefighter and goalscorer against England – now there is an unsung hero if ever there was one.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

We’ll leave it there so: RIP Bill

This afternoon, the blog was very saddened to learn of the passing of former RTE broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy, who died peacefully at home aged 76. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

There are countless memories of the Corkman, who covered no less than ten World Cups, including his final one at last summer’s tournament in Brazil, as well as ten Olympic Games.

For his presentation of the 1990 World Cup he won a Jacob’s award. He also won the Irish Sports Journalist of the Year 2003, and in 2007 he was named the Television Personality of the Year at the IFTAs.

But perhaps it was his presentation style that made the nation warm to him. He didn’t mind letting the studio panel get into a bit of a row. In fact, he probably led them up that path knowing it would make excellent TV. It always did.

O’Herlihy only retired from broadcasting after last summer’s World Cup, and it is with regret that he never got to enjoy his retirement more. After all, he brought years – decades even – of joy to many of us on our TV screens.

RIP Bill. We’ll leave it there so.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Football's greatest moments, Footy thoughts

The best XI of 2014/15 (excluding Messi & Ronaldo)

Ok, before we begin, Messi and Ronaldo are absurdly good and miles ahead of anyone. I don’t even think this is my opinion anymore. It’s fact now, right?

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Anyway here is my best XI of the season.

GK: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
The best goalkeeper in the world. By far. Simple as that.

DF: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
A solid no-nonsense defender. Has been immense to watch for Madrid.

DF: Gerard Pique (FC Barcelona)
Puyol’s heir to the throne has enjoyed a superb season. And he’s not shy of scoring, too.

DF: Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
One of the best defenders in Europe, Chiellini helped Juve to another Scudetto. His presence is huge.

MF: Paul Pogba (Juventus)
Often cited as one of the most promising players in world football, the Frenchman was huge in Juve’s massive season.

MF: Andrés Iniesta (FC Barcelona)
One of the best in the world. So much skill. Not his best season, but still better than most others.

RM: Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)
One of the most consistent players in the game. Played a massive part in Bayern’s Bundesliga title.

LM: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
The best player in the Premier League last season by a country mile. The reason Chelsea were so powerful in their title victory.

CAM: Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich)
Bayern have been ruthless this season, and Muller, as one of the most versatile players in European football, played an enormous part in that.

FW: Luis Suarez (FC Barcelona)
Put it this way, his form was so good, he forced Luis Enrique to make Messi to play out wide while he was centre forward. A genius.

FW: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
A goal machine. Precise, ruthless and a born winner. He is, after all, the son-in-law of one Diego Maradona.

Honourable mentions:

David de Gea, Branislav Ivanovic, Jerome Boateng, David Alaba, Ivan Rakitic, Cesc Fabregas, Carlos Tevez, Neymar, Robert Lewandowski, Jackson Martinez.

 

What’s your opinion? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Familiar surroundings & an unfamiliar dressing room for Guardiola

The Camp Nou in the Les Corts district of Barcelona is incredibly familiar surroundings for one Josep “Pep” Guardiola. It is, after all, where the Catalan spent almost his entire youth playing career – from club member to ballboy to youth team prodigy to first teamer to club captain and finally manager.

Before 2008 he was remembered by almost all of the Camp Nou faithful as “a good Barça man”. When he became manager of Barcelona following a single season coaching the reserve side, nobody predicted the impact the former-player would have.

He wasn’t even the board’s first choice but the rest, as the cliché often goes but in this case very true, is history.

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Tonight the 44-year-old returns to the historic stadium as an opponent for the first time in his life as manager of Bayern Munich. The fixture is the semi-final of the Champions League and, naturally enough, Guardiola’s return is grabbing all the headlines.

Reminiscing aside, the ever-professional Pep Guardiola knows the difficult task ahead. He knows Bayern need to score tonight. Because if they don’t, the coach reckons it will be near impossible. The main reason? Lionel Messi – a player who Guardiola helped become from world-class to world’s best to best ever. “There is no defensive system that can stop him,” admitted the Catalan boss when asked how he was going to approach the Argentine genius’ game. “And no coach either”.

It’s not really Pep Guardiola’s style of football, but will he be forced to park the bus against a Barcelona side whose trio of attackers, Messi, Suarez and Neymar are in red-hot form? Or will the Bayern boss have a tactical plan up his sleeve to put the Catalan giants under pressure at home?

FC Barcelona v FC Bayern Munich kicks off at 7.45pm tonight.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Transfers

Transfer rumours: let the games begin!

Ah, it’s that time of year again. With the season drawing to a close, as always, many clubs will be keen to re-evaluate their squad personnel.

There’s no major international summer tournament in sight, so players will be heavily judged on their club form. Some players are surely catching the eyes of the managers in England’s top tier. Let’s look at some.

Last year, 24-year-old Antoine Griezmann was bought by Atlético Madrid from Real Sociedad for €30 million to effectively replace Diego Costa who left for Chelsea. Well, if the rumours are true, they could be team-mates as José Mourinho is eyeing up a bid for the French international, whose buy out clause is reported to be around the €55 million mark.

griezmann

There’s strong rumours doing the rounds that Liverpool’s Rickie Lambert could also be on his way to Chelsea as a replacement for Didier Drogba. It’s news that shocks many – probably even Rickie himself – but seemingly if José doesn’t get Liverpool’s number 9, then he will go for none other than Emmanuel Adebayor. But, we will wait and see.

Mephis Depay enjoyed a wonderful World Cup with the Netherlands last summer and a superb season with PSV, where he won the Dutch title a couple of weeks back. Last month PSV director Marcel Brands confirmed that Manchester United enquired about the availability of the Dutch winger. But of course there’s also the rumours that LvG is keen on Madrid’s Gareth Bale. I know which one is the cheaper option.

memphis

Liverpool are also said to be keen on Depay, but their main priority is to get an accomplished striker. With Sturridge’s injury struggles and Balotelli’s performance woes, next season Brendan Rodgers’ Steven Gerrard-less Liverpool will need lots of goals. Alexandre Lacazette could be just the man. The Lyon striker has enjoyed his best season in Ligue 1, scoring 27 goals this season in 31 games.

Another Ligue 1 striker that has been linked with a move to England is Marseille’s André Pierre Gignac, who at one point caught the attention of both Rodgers and Arsene Wenger. But the Arsenal boss is reportedly plotting a bid to bring Yohan Cabaye back to England from PSG. But Wenger is hopeful of landing the signature of World Cup winner and Barcelona star Pedro for just €25 million. The Spaniard has fallen down the pecking order behind Neymar, Suarez and, obviously, Messi.

pedro

But the season hasn’t finished yet. There’s plenty of time until the transfer window chaos to begins.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Footy thoughts

Gregory Mertens RIP

The blog was saddened to learn of the passing of former Belgian under-21 player Gregory Mertens. He was just 24.

The Sporting Lokeren defender died three days after collapsing on the pitch after playing in a reserve match. He had been in a coma since going into cardiac arrest early in a game against Genk on Monday night.

Mertens started his career with Anderlecht and had previously played for Cercle Brugge.

Rest in peace.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy travels

Footy Travels #13: Lisbon

The Portuguese capital, lying on the western Iberian peninsula, is a major hotspot for tourists who enjoy the city’s relaxed way of life with a warm climate. But they also boast some of the most famous names in the history of European football.

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How do I get in?  Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly into the city’s main airport from Dublin daily. The airport itself is just 7 km from Rossio square in the city centre. There might be long queues for taxis leaving the airport at times, but luckily it’s also connected by the city’s underground metro system.

What teams can I watch?  The city has three clubs in Portugal’s top tier. Two-time European Cup winners Benfica have 33 league titles to their name, Sporting (commonly known, albeit incorrectly, as Sporting Lisbon) have 18 league titles and a UEFA Cup under their belt, and Belenenses have a single league title in their honours list.

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How do I get to the stadiums?  Lisbon’s traffic isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen so taxis can be doable, though on matchday one might want to consider using the metro. Benfica’s Estadio La Luz is on the blue line and stops right outside the ground. As does the green or yellow line to Sporting’s José Avalade Stadium. Belenenses is in the Belem district which can be reached either by bus (nos. 714 & 728) or by commuter rail from Cais do Sodre in the city centre to Belem.

How do I get match tickets?  All three club, Sporting, Benfica and Belenenses sell their tickets from their websites and will vary in price when it comes to certain fixtures. Expect to pay a few bob for Sporting v Benfica, but you can see Belenenses for as little as €3 for some games.

What else is there to do?  It’s a city that likes to have a good time. Lisbon isn’t famed for it’s pubs like, say, Dublin or Munich, but you can only walk mere metres before stumbling across one the city’s many cafés or restaurants. That said, Hennessey’s Irish Pub near Cais do Sodre is worth a look. Music lovers should check out Music Box club which is around the corner. Also keep an eye on the world-class Rock in Rio Lisboa festival each summer. The city boasts many parks and spaces to simply relax and enjoy the Portuguese sunshine and one of course must try Lisbon’s famous funiculars.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Europe, Footy thoughts

The future is bleak for the once-mighty Parma

The 1994-95 season Parma‘s team consisted of names like Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin, Dino Baggio, Luigi Apolloni, Fernando Couto and Faustino Asprilla to name but a few. Their style of football, under manager Nevio Scala was exciting that year – arguably their greatest season in their history having finished in the top three in Serie A, finalists in the Coppa Italia and winners of the UEFA Cup, beating Juventus in the final.

But sadly their 90’s heyday are nothing more than a distant memory. The club are very much struggling both on and off the pitch. Currently planted firmly bottom of Serie A with just 16 points, the club has also been declared bankrupt with debts of €218.4 million.

In February, the club postponed their game against Udinese because they could not afford to pay players’ wages. Fans marched to the Stadio Tardini with a banner that read “Chiusi per furto” – “Closed because of a robbery”.

Last Saturday Parma beat league leaders Juventus 1-0 at the Tardini. A result that will make no difference to both teams’ outcomes this season. But it was a result that mattered to the players and staff who showed up to work everyday despite not being paid one cent since last summer. And it proved to the 15,000 heartbroken fans in attendance that the club, who are currently standing on the brink of oblivion, refuse to go out quietly.

Unless a new owner comes in between now and June, and pays the club’s football-related debts (wages and taxes etc.) of €74 million, then Parma FC will officially fold.

As Jim Morrison once sang “the future’s uncertain, the end if very near”. The future is bleak, but Roberto Donadoni’s men aren’t going without a fight. And with that there is hope for the Gialloblu.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts, Superstars

Is punishing Cristiano Ronaldo a bit OTT?

La Liga president Javier Tebas has said that Cristiano Ronaldo may face punishment for his goal celebration during last weekend’s El Clásico at the Camp Nou. The Real Madrid superstar appeared to urge the Barcelona faithful to merely calm down following his goal in the 31st minute.

Tebas has said that players must be careful when it comes to provocative gestures which could incite violence among spectators.

“It must be sanctioned,” the La Liga president said. “From a fine up to a suspension. We will look into it.”

Of all the problems that Spain’s top tier faces, this is, in my opinion, hardly a top priority. Racism, which has long been a problem in Spanish football, doesn’t seem to worry Tebas as much as this.

The decision makers in football never fail to surprise me with their unusual decisions (a winter World Cup in Qatar being another example), but suggesting that Ronaldo should face punishment for celebrating a goal like this is truly nothing short of ridiculous.

I understand that La Liga officials are cracking down on provocative actions during games since the death of a Deportivo La Coruna fan last year, but come on, is this really bad and does it warrant punishment?

Decide for yourself.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Is it time to scrap the away goals rule?

Introduced fifty years ago to encourage away teams to play a more attacking style of football, it is now more likely to cause teams to park the bus and shut up shop. Is it time the away goals rule is scrapped?

In the 2009 Champions League semi-final second leg, the images of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba screaming “it’s a fucking disgrace” down the camera lens to millions of fans following the Blues’ exit on away goals following Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta’s 93rd minute goal will live long in memory.

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While referee Tom Henning Øvrebø made some woeful decisions in the Catalans’ favour, Chelsea technically didn’t lose. Yet the dreaded away goals meant their exit.

Indeed last night, Arsene Wenger echoed the sheer frustration of the away goals rule following Arsenal’s last 16 exit from the competition. “Every defeat hurts,” said the Frenchman. “But we didn’t lose”.

There are countless other examples of those who have fallen victim to the away goals rule. And, naturally, many have benefitted from it.

The away goals was introduced in 1965 for the right reasons. Playing away in Europe was once a daunting journey pretty much into the unknown.

But times change and the football, with away goals in place, has changed too. Many, Didier Drogba and Arsene Wenger included, believe it is now time to look at it.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Is spitting the worst thing that can happen on a pitch?

Last week’s spitting incident between Manchester United’s Jonny Evans and Newcastle’s Papiss Cissé, the outrage that would follow in the media would be pretty predictable.

Cissé was handed a seven game ban by the FA, while Evans received six.

Pundits such as Robbie Savage called it the “lowest of the low” (a view Republic of Ireland player Jon Walters publicly shared), while former Celtic, Bayern Munich and Scotland striker Alan McInally spoke about how the players’ punishments were probably not lengthy enough.

As disgusting and unacceptable as it is, is spitting really the worst thing that can happen on a football pitch?

Well nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been out for six months because of spitting. Take Stephen Ireland for example. The Stoke midfielder is out of action with 15 stitches in his right calf after Hull’s Maynor Figueroa sliced his leg with a tackle that went unpunished.

Or what about Alf-Inge Haaland, who in 2001 famously felt the intentional full blow of Roy Keane’s studs and never played a full professional game again. Would the Norwegian preferred to have been spat at? Well, I don’t know. One would assume so.

I know former France international Patrick Battison probably would. His collision with Harald Schumacher in the 1982 World Cup semi-final, which left him unconscious with broken bones, damaged vertebrae and minus some teeth, ultimately caused the Les Bleus player to slip into a coma. There wasn’t even a foul given at that incident.

In comparison to Cissé and Evans’ bans, it’s worth remembering that in 2012, an independent FA panel found Chelsea’s John Terry guilty of racially abusing the QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. He got a four game ban.

Again – is spitting really the lowest of the low?

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footy thoughts

A World Cup in Qatar? No, thank you!

The 2022 World Cup is happening. It will be staged in Qatar. And, unless something utterly drastic happens, it will be a winter tournament. I am wholeheartedly against this.

Theories of the tiny Gulf state “buying” the World Cup aside, I will forever associate the competition to be staged in the summer. Because, well, there is no other time to stage it. FIFA are going to change this for 2022.

The footballing traditions aside, as many as 50 leagues and competitions worldwide will likely be affected for three seasons – 2021/22, 2022/23 and 2023/24 – because of the knock-on effects of starting the season containing the World Cup early and ending it late.

While some leagues take a small break over Christmas, England has a long tradition of having a packed schedule then. This will make that utterly impossible.

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Disrupting some seasons won’t be ideal some may think. I firmly believe it’s absolutely ridiculous.  I have never been a fan of Sepp Blatter. For many, many reasons. I am still baffled as to how he is still running football’s governing body.

In fact, did you know that several FIFA members have publicly gone on record, including Theo Zwanziger and president Sepp Blatter himself, in saying that the decision of awarding Qatar the World Cup had been a mistake?

I know for a fact that I for one will not enjoy this particular World Cup. Even if my beloved Boys In Green were to qualify, I wouldn’t be too bothered travelling to support them. Qatar doesn’t interest me in the slightest. For personal reasons primarily.

While Qatar is the world’s richest country per capita, there is a major human rights issue. In 2013 Amnesty International published reports showing that unpaid migrant workers were left to go hungry, while according to a different report by a British newspaper, dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers had died in Qatar in just a few weeks around in September 2013, with thousands more were enduring appalling labour abuses.

They were workers for the 2022 World Cup.

According to their analysis, current construction practices will have resulted in over 4,000 deaths by the time of the 2022 competition. And FIFA has investigated this but, as you can guess, took absolutely no action to force Qatar to improve worker conditions.

Then again Qatar, not renowned as a major footballing nation, is the world’s richest country per capita. Alarm bells are ringing, Mr Blatter.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Superstars

Ronaldo is back…the original one that is.

Rejoice like it’s 2002, for one-time superstar footballer Ronaldo is coming out of retirement. The 38-year-old former Brazil international is set to play for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers – four years since he last kicked a ball professionally.

It won’t be for a while though. The 1994 and 2002 World Cup winner most likely won’t feature until the play-offs in November. Just enough time to train to a semi-decent level then.

“It’s going to happen. I have already said so,” the former Real Madrid striker said. “But it’s going to be a bit later, in the play-offs. For now, we are organising it all, but I am going to have a [weight] goal”

I don’t know about you, but I welcome Il Fenomeno back to any pitch at any age.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)