x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Suarez’s rise and fall, Ferguson’s final bow – there was never a dull moment in 2013

Cosmin Olaroiu's six-month ban, Andre Villas-Boas's dismissal at Tottenham, a World Cup without Zlatan! Paul Radley reflects on those that made headlines.

Luis Suarez, left, has plumbed the depths and risen to great peaks in a single calendar year. Dylan Martinez / Reuters
Luis Suarez, left, has plumbed the depths and risen to great peaks in a single calendar year. Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Best team: Nigeria’s Under 17s

On the surface, the Under 17 World Cup held limited appeal before it arrived on these shores in October.

The players were, by dint of their youth, little-known, some of the nations were offbeat in football terms and how good could the football really be, anyway?

In Nigeria’s case, it was brilliant. Factoring in their legion of supporters, who came bearing trumpets, drums and replica World Cups, they were spellbinding. Watching the Golden Eaglets playing in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi was life-affirming stuff.

Anyone who had the privilege of seeing Kelechi Iheanacho, Taiwo Awoniyi and the rest of the troupe will have been reminded why they fell in love with sport in the first place. There was a degree of melancholy when the tournament finished, because we are unlikely to see these boys play in this fashion, with such a spirit of joy, ever again.

But it was perfect while it lasted.

Worst fall 1: Villas-Boas

No, it turns out that he really was that bad after all.

Andre Villas-Boas arrived in English football with a gargantuan reputation and the ego to match.

He did not last five minutes at his first posting, though, as he was consumed by his own diabolical smugness at Chelsea. Yet Daniel Levy and Tottenham Hotspur still opted to take a risk and grant him the chance to prove he was not as bad as he seemed at Stamford Bridge.

And all was going so well, too – at least while Gareth Bale was in tow.

Then Spurs sold Elvis and bought what they thought were the Beatles. With AVB managing their roadshow, though, they were more like a poor parody of the Bootleg Beatles.

The Portuguese manager was soon lampooned by hubris again. He might find the blemishes incurred in two failed jobs, plus 6-0 and 5-0 losses to Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively, may be difficult to wipe clean.

Best curtain call: Ferguson

Putting a full-stop on the most storied managerial career in the history of British football was never going to be easy, much less staging a fitting tribute.

Sir Alex Ferguson had been there, done that, and got the box-stitched, fibreball Nike parka in more than a quarter of a century in charge of Manchester United.

He never had a 5-5 draw, though. Not until his 1,500th and last match in office, that is.

As the clock finally ticked down on Fergie Time, his attackers did what they do best, while his defence did their worst, as United shared 10 goals equally with West Bromwich Albion.

It was United’s first draw by that score since 1895.

Worst fall 2: Young

Ferguson did his best to make Old Trafford a simulation-free venue during his reign. It is not the Manchester United way, he would often say of diving.

Shame for him, then, that the plague survived his attempts at vaccination.

Ashley Young has been the worst culprit, with a string of tumbles of that Nadia Comaneci would have been proud, but a professional footballer should not.

David Moyes, on assuming control from Ferguson, said he would attempt to resolve Young’s bad habits, only to proceed to turn a blind eye the next time he did it.

Then Adnan Januzaj executed a pair of triple toe-loops with a full-twist against West Ham United at Old Trafford, and it seemed as though the problem had bled.

Best second home: Bahrain

Few teams anywhere have enjoyed quite such a successful 12 months as the UAE.

The national team are on the sort of streak that suggests the oft-cited “Golden Generation” may actually be of the 24-carat variety, rather than simply plated lead.

The fact they have been able to maintain that form throughout 2013 has been all the more laudable given the finest moment of their annus mirabilis arrived right at the start of it. Plane loads of supporters decamped from the Emirates to Bahrain for January’s Gulf Cup of Nations finale against Iraq.

East Riffa became a suburb of Dubai and Abu Dhabi for a day, and Omar Abdulrahman and Ismail Al Hammadi sent the travelling masses into raptures by scoring the goals which won the title.

Worst job swap: Olaroiu

One club exemplifies the idea that being a football manager in the UAE is an occupation only gluttons for punishment should take on: Al Ahli.

Even when managers win at the Dubai club, they often lose, too. Ivan Hasek won the league and cup double with them, and set off into the sunset as a hero. He made the mistake of coming back for a second go, though, and a couple of weeks later he was out of a job.

The latest to suffer is Cosmin Olaroiu. The Romanian has been so successful in his time managing in the UAE, he was even the resounding winner in a spat with Diego Maradona. Maybe he thought he was fireproof. Yet even this managerial superman has fallen foul of the Ahli kryptonite.

He made a brilliant start to his tenure after controversially ditching Al Ain for their Arabian Gulf League rivals this season – only to be hit with a mammoth six-month ban for a contract breach.

Best volte face: Suarez

Not since David Beckham went from national pariah, with effigies of him hanging from lampposts, to potential knight of the realm has a footballer in England enjoyed quite the transformation that Luiz Suarez has managed this year.

The Uruguayan striker plumbed the depths when he bit the arm of his marker, Branislav Ivanovic, when Liverpool played Chelsea in April.

So add cannibal to racist, which many had branded him previously, as well as a whopping ban for being a repeat offender.

But now? Unstoppable in the Premier League, so much so that Steven Gerrard, his captain, reckons he is the best player in the world. He even lays on chances for his teammates when he is clean through himself.

And he apologised for going in too hard for a 50-50 challenge on Manchester City’s goalkeeper Joe Hart. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

Even Jose Mourinho noticed. “No doubt he has changed,” the Chelsea manager said of the “very nice boy”.

Worst absentee: Ibrahimovic

Not that it has happened yet, but the world is already mourning the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the 2014 World Cup – according to the man himself.

“One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch, so it is not worthwhile to wait for the World Cup,” is one Ibrahimovic utterance the Brazil tourist board will not be quoting in their promotional material.

And of course, he does not need the Ballon d’Or to tell him what he already knows, and what everyone else should – that he is the world’s best player.

He has a point, of course. Few goals anywhere in the world were better than his long-range overhead volley in Sweden’s friendly against England, and he had a catalogue of others to go with it, too.

Best return to form: Mourinho

He left it late. On returning to Stamford Bridge from Real Madrid during the summer, Mourinho had seemed a shadow of his spiky former self. He was no longer the “Special One”, but the “Happy One” instead, and he was looking forward to a long and contented second spell at the Chelsea helm.

Boring.

Then a mini-classic against Liverpool on Sunday, the final matchday of 2013, roused him and provoked the return of the Ghost of Jose Past.

During the game, he charged down the touchline to confront Luis Suarez, then manically gestured to rouse the home faithful in the East Stand.

Then he dominated the Mourinho Domain – the post-match briefing. First he ambushed David Luiz’s TV interview to give his defender a hug and accuse him lovingly of deliberately getting booked.

He salivated over the “monsters” of English football for the way they compete over the festive period.

Then he went on the assault, accusing Suarez of an “acrobatic swimming-pool jump,” and the media of having a Liverpool bias, before saying he will become a pundit when he retires – at age 75.

Welcome back, Special One. Do not leave it so long next time.

Best demise: The duopoly

Football’s two most-watched leagues have rarely had the breadth of competition to match the hype.

The top divisions in Spain and England have essentially thrived in the modern age because of duopolies: Real Madrid versus Barcelona in Spain, and Manchester United versus Chelsea, Manchester City or Arsenal – but never all at once – in England.

Perhaps that should be “in spite of,” rather than “because of.” In the latter half of 2013, however, there has been more to talk about than just the same old, same old.

The rise of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, and the post-Ferguson reality check for United, means there are now some realistic alternatives.

Having a genuine peloton rather than loners on a breakaway can only be a good thing.

pradley@thenational.ae

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