Football is a team sport. 11 play on each side and everyone needs to pitch in for the team to win. That much we know for a fact. If we were to extend that logically, we could state that one man cannot possibly decide the fate of a football club on his own. Logic, though, oftentimes falls flat in the face of pure footballing genius.Here we celebrate 7 instances in the modern era (’90s onwards), where footballing genius triumphed over logic – the amazing stories of lone men changing the fortunes of the football club they have joined with their footballing skill, tactical intelligence and oftentimes, sheer force of personality.N.B. This list does not purport to be definitive
#1 Eric Cantona - Manchester United (1992-93)
As November 1992 dawned, Alex Ferguson was in a spot of bother. His Manchester United team, 10th in the league and slipping fast, were – and there is really no way to sugar coat this – utter tripe. After a meager return of 14 goals in the 15 games that had lead to just 5 wins, no one knew where the goals, and consequently the wins, would come from.
It really did look like it would be “Ta Ra Fergie” this time.
Then, along came that phone call - Leeds United called up to enquire about Denis Irwin; Manchester United ended up signing Eric Cantona. The Frenchman swaggered into Old Trafford and brought with him an aura that would change everything.
It’s funny how he meant so many different things for so many different people; for the manager, he was the perfect professional, a man who demonstrated to him the overarching importance of training; for the older, more experienced players, he was the catalyst that removed the invisible fetters and allowed their innate creativity to express itself; for the younger players he was the best role model-cum-mentor they could have asked for; for the fan, he was one of their own.
Perhaps even more importantly, he would also attend to the little matter of digging Manchester United FC out of their morbid existential crisis and bringing back the sense of identity and self-belief that it had been craving for since the days of Law, Best and Charlton.
It was, Ooo aaa Cantona, indeed!
#2 Dennis Bergkamp - Arsenal (1995-96)
The Arsenal of the early-mid ‘90s were a team that played a style of football that would be unrecognizable to the millions of new-generation ‘gooners’ (and neutrals) out there today. After the high of winning the First Division in ’90 (for the second time in three years), the Gunners, under George Graham, would become a team that averaged just 48 goals a season from ’92-’93 to ’94-’95. They really, really didn’t like going forward. As the terrace anthem went, their perfect game was essentially a “One-Nil to the Arsenal.”
In ’95-’96, Bruce Rioch was appointed manager after Graham’s controversy-surrounded exit and he was determined to change the tune of that anthem. So what was the first thing he did as Arsenal manager? He smashed the club’s transfer fee record to shell out £7.5 million for the brilliant, yet (back-then) mercurial young Dutch trequartista named Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman struggled initially, but gradually found his feet and grew in confidence as he adjusted to the rough and tumble of the English league.
It was the following season, though, that changed everything for the London club. Out went Rioch, in came the aptly named, and not-all-that-well-known Frenchman Arsène Wenger.
Bergkamp and Wenger; it was a match made in heaven. The player loved his manager for his professionalism, emphasis on discipline in training, attack-mindedness on the pitch and thirst for aesthetic perfection. The manager loved his player for pretty much the same reasons.
With the Dutch No. 10 as the attacking fulcrum of the side, Wenger would go on to build a team whose beautiful passing game would change the way football was played – and perceived - in England, and would utterly shake up the existing elite (read: Alex Ferguson).
With that silken touch of his, and a footballing brain that had few parallels, the non-flying Dutchman led Arsenal through three league titles, four FA Cups and arguably the single most dominant season in the history of the English football.
They don’t sing “One Nil to the Arsenal” anymore, do they?
#3 Claude Maklel - Chelsea (2003-04)
“We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average; he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten”
Thing is, most of what Señor Florentino Perez said was correct. Stay with me here. Claude Makélelé didn’t have the flashy technique of a Zidane or a Figo, he hardly ever ventured into the attacking half of the pitch, or took players on, and a large majority of his passes were short, backwards or sideways passes. All that’s true; where Señor Perez went utterly, balls-up, wrong (showing just how much he knew about his football, in the process) is in stating that Real Madrid wouldn’t miss him.
They did. (Arguably, they still do)
At Chelsea, he became the foundation upon which an oligarch-fuelled revolution was built, nurtured and brought to fruition. His short passes were what started off (almost) every Chelsea attack – as Chris Coleman once said (and did) “Stop Makélelé, Stop Chelsea”. His dependable presence freed up the likes of Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard to wreak havoc further up the pitch. And; his positional awareness and game-reading ability perfectly translated the special one’s on-board theory to on-field dominance.
Paraphrasing the always to-the-point Fernando Hierro, the signing of Makélelé was a new dawn for Chelsea.
To top it all off, the Frenchman scored his first goal for the Blues in the last home game of Chelsea’s first league winning season in 55 years by scraping in what must surely be the most endearing penalty of all time.
#4 Edgar Davids Barcelona (2003-04)
For those accustomed to seeing Barcelona win every single trophy they set their eyes on year in and year out, this may come as a bit of a shock, but as recently as 12 years ago such dominance was but a pipe dream. Sure Ronaldinho had arrived in the summer of 2003 and was doing what only Ronaldinho could do - the world’s favourite footballer-cum-funster had successfully made the Camp Nou remember that football was in fact a sport that brought smiles to people’s faces, but Barça were no closer to winning the long elusive title (last won in ’99). In fact, as January dawned on 2004, Barcelona found themselves mired in the bottom half of the table, at a lowly 12th.
Just then, Frank Rijkaard had a masterstroke and brought in fellow Dutchman Edgar Davids on a six-month loan spell.
They called him ‘Pit-bull’, but that nickname only had the effect of under-selling him. A growling, snarling hellhound of a defensive midfielder, Davids instilled in Barcelona something they had been missing for quite some time - Spirit.
With him playing his pedal-on-the-metal-for-the-full-90 brand of all-action football and providing the much-needed steel to Barça’s brittle spine, Ronaldinho was pushed further up the pitch (where he could do some actual damage) and a certain Xavi Hernandez was freed of his onerous defensive duties to weave his passing patterns and control football matches like only he could.
Barcelona went on a stupendous run that saw them throw the form book out of the window and embark on a 17-match unbeaten run (with just 3 draws in that). They ended the season at the 2nd position.
Significantly, though, Barça finished on a high that would see them lift their first trophy in six years the following season - a triumph that would lay the foundation for a decade of unmatched, still-to-be-ended footballing dominance. And it all started with the spirit instilled in them by a bespectacled, long-haired Pitbull from the Netherlands.
No short-term, trophy-less loan signing in the history of all football has ever had quite such a dramatic effect.
#5 Juninho Pernambucano - Lyon (2001-02)
Before 2001-02, in the one hundred and two years of Olympique Lyon’s existence, they had never been crowned the Champions of France. When they won it that season, few would have expected what was to follow – six more championships in the next six years - 14 trophies in total over 7 unparalleled years.
Four managers oversaw the team and umpteen numbers of players came in and went out during this mother of all purple patches. The sides changed – naturally – and with it changed playing styles and attitudes. One thing remained constant though - the teams were always built around the majestic genius of Juninho Pernambucano.
The sprite-like Brazilian was the creative hub of the club for all seven of their league triumphs (the first coming in his debut season), his passing skills and supreme control enabling him to work games like a master puppeteer.
There was also the small matter of him being arguably the greatest free kick taker of all time . The sheer range and consistency of his free-kick taking is utterly mind-boggling. Curlers from 18 yards, viciously whipped-in balls from tight angles, wobbling knuckle-balls from thirty yards out, angry smashes from miles away – he could do them all. An incredible 44 of his 100 goals for Lyon were from free-kicks. A cursory glance at the sheer quantum of goals he created from dead-balls could cause David Beckham to go green with envy.
He was respected for his play-making abilities, but he was feared for his dead-ball expertise. In a way, it helped Lyon develop a unique style of play – opponents were simply too scared to press tightly in their own third of the pitch as any mistake could be fatal. His mere presence on the pitch often created space for Lyon’s forwards.
His ever-lasting legacy?
With the team built around him, Juni - as they lovingly call him in the Stade de Gerland - lifted the little-known team from Lyon from the backwaters of France to the ranks of the European elite. That’s quite something.
#6 Andrea Pirlo - Juventus (2011-12)
Time has a way of making a lot of ‘what-seemed-like-the-best-thing-to-do’ decisions look the stupidest things ever. For Massimiliano Allegri, it seemed like the best thing to do – let Andrea Pirlo go. He was slow, old, defensively weak, and didn’t really fit into Allegri’s grand scheme of things.
So the Milan manager let the graceful little man who had been Milan’s heartbeat for nearly ten years leave as the 2010-11 season ended.
To Juventus FC.
Some things don’t need time to be called stupid.
When he arrived at the Juventus stadium, La Vecchia Signora (the Old Lady) was struggling, thrashing about trying to dig itself out of the hole it had gotten into. Six years previous, they had been stripped of two titles (’05 and ’06) and demoted to Serie B as the Calicopoli. Sure, they had been promoted straight back up as winners of the top division after the ’06-’07 season, but much of the damage had already been done.
Now playing with an assortment of youth graduates and old loyalists, they appeared headed nowhere, stuck in the middle of the league table. In 2011 then, the arrival of Pirlo coincided with the return of club legend Antonio Conte as manager. The wily Conte realised Pirlo’s value immediately and proceeded to build his team around him, surrounding the wise old playmaker with fast, skillful box-to-box midfielders in the formidable forms of Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal.
It worked wonders. Pirlo rediscovered his magic touch and began to conduct the Bianconeri like they were the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale Della RAI di Torino, and he, its master conductor. That first year Juventus won their first title since the ugly Calciopoli scandal broke, pipping AC Milan to the post by a mere four points
In his next three years, they would win three more, and become – by a distance – the most dominant club in Italy.
#7 Gabriel Batistuta - Roma (2000-01)
Eighteen years had been too long a time. They had last won the Scudetto in ‘82-‘83. They hadn’t even finished in the top 3 since ‘87-’88. The previous season, the last of the 20th Century, they had finished sixth. AS Roma’s fans thirsted for silverware.
277 km up north along the A1/E35, in the picturesque city of Florence, a long-haired Argentinian striker was also yearning for silverware. For nearly ten years he had come out decked in the beautiful violet of Fiorentina; ten years of his prime gone and his trophy cabinet lay bare. He wanted to move on, to win trophies and La Viola’s fans didn’t resent that; no matter what he did, he would always be their demi-god. After all, he had given them everything.
Fabio Capello, desperate to regain glory after his ignominious sacking from Real Madrid, was on the brink too, and he knew what he wanted. But surely, a 30-year-old striker almost past his prime was not the answer. Certainly not for a ludicrous £23.5m; not in the eyes of the Roma President anyway!
In the end, though, Capello and the fans got their way, Batistuta made his way down south to Rome and an immediate chemistry was forged between the great striker and Roma’s twin attacking spearheads - the supernaturally talented Francesco Totti and the wonderful little poacher Vincenzo Montella.
Carrying on where he had left off at Fiorentina, the Argentinian finisher-supreme poached, headed in, curled in, and, with traditional blood-curdling violence, smashed in 20 goals in his debut season (including one in that last-day must-win match against Parma). His goals powered the Roman club to its first Scudetto in 18 arduous years.
Sure, he may not have had the long-lasting effect that the others on this list had on their teams, but try telling that to a Roma fan.