End of Year Special Vol. 3: Closures

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Alessandro Del Piero

“In order to stop Del Piero, you absolutely need to use a gun”. It would’ve been quite funky journalist quote, except that it was uttered by one of the best centre-backs in Italy – ex-Lazio and AC Milan stalwart, Alessandro Nesta. Alex, present at Juventus for 19 years, has seen and touched pretty much everything Zebrette were up to during the days between two centuries. It’s been an entire era since he used to take lessons from Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Vialli in 1993. Since then, Juve have managed to win the Champions League, replace eleven managers (Del Piero witnessed ten of them), dominate Serie A, get relegated from it following the Calciopoli scandal and start yet another spell of domination.

He used to be a kid, who started by knocking tennis ball against garage door (he’d later claim this exercise taught him the technique required to take the free-kicks). Later, he’d form almost magical partnership with a poaching ace, Filippo Inzaghi. Then, most of his professional career was centered around the rivalry with Francesco Totti. Deemed by the press as ‘totally incompatible to ever play together for Italy’, the two number 10s gave their national team coaches some real nightmares. For most of the time, Alex has been one step ahead in terms of Serie A success; at the same time, Roma captain ended up slightly more fulfilled as a Squadra Azzurra member. “It is going to be a little strange to play Juventus without Del Piero” – said the ASR legend following his colleagues’ departure from Italian football.

Nowadays, while Totti is still out there trying to overcome a dreadful crisis at his original club, Del Piero has been touring the world – just like an ageing football superstar would do. Two years spent in Sydney FC and the following, four-month spell at Delhi Dynamos let him show the occasional glimpses of his former self and, eventually, allowed him a symbolical re-union with a former teammate David Trezeguet, who, by the end of 2014, was making his last professional starts for the other Indian club, Pune City. Despite a rumor that Alex will join Celtic in 2015, he has called it a day; and now, he’ll most likely take the job as a youth coach in the United States – three U.S. football academies have already declared interest in his services.

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Juan Román Riquelme

I remember Riquelme scoring a rocket against my country’s champions, Legia. The Polish side has been comprehensively outplayed at Camp Nou, during Lorenzo Serra Ferrer’s spell at the Catalan club. It was a messy, transitional period for Barcelona. Following Louis van Gaal’s departure, they had to start rebuilding a team which used to be infected with too many Dutch players and notorious defensive incompetence. Riquelme, deployed behind two strikers in some kind of 4-3-1-2 hybrid, was supposed to replace Rivaldo as a main creative and attacking force. That day, it worked: after he entered the fray from the bench, Blaugrana slipped into the fifth gear and eventually got a 3-0 win, pretty much sealing the promotion to Champions League. Too bad it was only a beginning of an end.

How did it all go wrong? The classical #10 playmaker seemed destined to succeed in Spain, but in Catalonia, he was a retro footballer thrown straight into the modern times. Unwilling to run or make tackles, lazy without the ball, Riquelme demanded teammates to feed him with passes and rely on his ability to create magic from the scratch. This was not the style of play that could bring him success in Barcelona – not during Louis van Gaal’s despotic reign. Even when the Dutchman was already gone, nobody at Camp Nou had any illusions about Roman’s future. He had to go. He had to find a team where the play would revolve around his spectacular technical ability. And for that to happen, such team needed to be less reputable, less packed with stardom. Riquelme’s star wouldn’t tolerate competition.

From this point of view, a contract in Villarreal was a perfect solution. Packed with South American players and with South American manager Manuel Pellegrini in charge, The Yellow Submarine has become a long-lasting threat in La Liga and advanced to the Champions League semifinal in 2006. Riquelme, instrumental to the team, has formed a lethal partnership with Uruguayan striker Diego Forlán and got to the point when Manchester United seriously considered JRR their new playmaker…

…except that the player had no intention of going to England. He was homesick. In 2007, not even in his thirties yet, Riquelme went back to his beloved Boca Juniors and quickly earned a legendary reputation there – so much that the fans from La Bombonera voted him their most beloved player – ahead of Diego Maradona. They had their reasons, though: after rejoining Boca, the guy gave them one Copa Liberatores triumph, two Torneo Apertura wins, one Recopa Sudamericana trophy and one Argentine Cup. The last professional footballer to choose love over gold? Hopefully not.

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Raúl

In my mind, Raúl has never functioned without Morientes. They were literally sewn together; like two sides of a coin or better, like the sides in a Möbius strip. The world was simple: Real Madrid would always play them together in a 4-4-2 formation and they’d give nightmares to any opponent. Moro would win the headers and put away the crosses while Raúl kept dropping deeper and use his flair to cut the other team open by playing ball down the ground. I liked Fernando more; however, there’s no doubt in my mind that Raúl was simply the better player. And eventually, those two factors came together and caused their separation.

Raúl’s story has turned out to be more successful. He has seen it all: the ancient times of Manuel Sanchis and Clarence Seedorf; the Champions League victory in 1998 (after a 32-year long cup drought); the additional two UCL wins; the formation of so-called Galácticos; the subsequent Round of 16 curse, when his team would be eliminated early from the European competition six times in a row; the everlasting rivalry with FC Barcelona… If it wasn’t for the lack of Ballon d’Or and annoyingly dry spell in Spanish National Team, the guy would have had everything – he even played long enough to make an exemplary retirement in USA, winning the NASL Championship in his last season as a professional.

His best matches? There are plenty to choose from. A 4-2 win over Atletico Madrid, when his 17-years old self contributed a goal, an assist and won a penalty; 1999/2000 Champions League final, where he perfectly finished a one-on-one chance with Canizares to settle the result at 3-0; a brace scored against Manchester United in April 2003 after which Sir Alex Ferguson called him the best striker in the world; two backheels goals in a domestic, 7-2 riot against Real Valladoid in 2004. Even while in Schalke and 34 years old, he took part in an unexpected demolition of Inter at San Siro during 2010-11 Champions League.

But the matches alone did not earn him the legendary reputation. In times when his famous teammates would enjoy nightlife of scandals and women, Raúl was already happily married to Mamen Sanz, who gave him four sons and a daughter. He was also one of the few professional players to never see a red card – and that’s despite making over 900 appearances during his 21 years-long career. The game will sorely miss sportsmanship and elegant, quick feet of this guy – even after all of his records eventually get broken by Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Rio Ferdinand

“Who is this guy?” – I asked myself when Rio moved from West Ham to Leeds United for £18 million, suddenly becoming the most expensive defender in the world. The year was 2000; David O’Leary proceeded to build one of the most youthful and exciting English team at Elland Road; players like Harry Kewell, Ian Harte, Jonathan Woodgate or Alan Smith all looked like future football superstars. Soon afterwards, The Peacocks hit the pinnacle of their short-lived career, breaking into the Champions League semifinal. Ferdinand, 22 at the time, has been given a captain’s armband in a quarterfinal game against Deportivo La Coruna – and completed the 3-0 rout with a far-post header that went past hopeless Jose Molina. ‘Super Depor’ were eliminated – and, from then on, it was clear that Ferdinand will get far in this game.

Still, it was pretty ridiculous how much the clubs would spend on his services. In a way, those transfer fees were a combination of BPL getting richer and richer, Rio being a young, strong centre-back with a rapidly growing reputation and… having a bit of a luck. Just when Leeds’ finances started to implode, 2002 World Cup came along. Ferdinand went to Japan as England’s key player. Starting all games alongside Sol Campbell, he helped Sven-Göran Eriksson’s team to advance from the group of death – with Sweden, Argentina and Nigeria in it. Up until the quarterfinals, The Three Lions would concede only one goal in four matches and Ferdy opened the score against Denmark in the Ro16 with his trademark header. Eventually, English team has been eliminated by Brazil – but not before Manchester United management have all set their eyes on Rio.

After joining Red Devils, Ferdinand has been, in many ways, a spiritual successor of Jaap Stam. Same ridiculous transfer fee, same intimidating, physical presence, same aerial ability, same fighting spirit… With a little help from Sir Alex Ferguson and players like Rooney, Ronaldo or Tevez, he collected 17 trophies in nine years. Fifteen of those precious cups happened after he got the chance to form an excellent partnership with Serbian sweeper Nemanja Vidić. Late in Rio’s career, it was his accomplice who received most of the praises; yet, Sir Alex kept his loyal centre-back around for as long as he could – until the very end of his own, illustrious managerial career.

Once it’s all been played out, Ferdy was one of the few pros to actually continue excelling after his retirement. Pursuing other interests long before his departure from kicking the ball around, he would try his luck at music, cinema and TV journalism before eventually turning to interviewing other footballers and managers. Good for him; better for us.

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Djibril Cissé

A man of thousand haircuts and hundreds fashionable outfits has called it a day. “The body says stop, now it’s over. I can’t practice high-level football anymore” – he said in October. Cissé, now 34 and recently playing for SC Bastia, has only scored two Ligue 1 goals in 23 appearances across the last two seasons. If he ever appeared on the covers of newspapers, it was due to Karim Benzema’s sextape scandal, in which he’s been one of the suspects – at least until notoriously useless French police found out that he barely even knew Benzema’s blackmailers. But football-wise? In short, neither the skill not the results were getting any better: it was about time to quit, as the last five years of Cissé career were nothing but a disappointment.

Looking back at the lad’s record, his entire career has been a ‘what if…’ story. What if the kid who scored 6 goals during the 2001 U-20 World Cup went to some other club than Liverpool? What if manager Roger Lemerre trusted him instead of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet during the embarrassing, goalless 2002 World Cup? What if Blackburn defender Jay McEveley didn’t make a gruesome challenge to Cissé’s right leg in October 2004? What if his other leg never sustained a fracture prior to the 2006 World Cup? For a brief moment, they guy has been brilliant; in Liverpool, he had pace, he made smart runs, he feasted on over-the-top balls like no other Premier League striker. And then, all of a sudden, he was gone – recovering from one injury blow after another.

Eventually, he’s pushed out of Anfield by a ruthless tactician, Rafa Benitez. He went to OM – a perfect club for him; a club which, at the time, would accept pretty much any French footballer regardless of their eccentricities or shrinking reputation. The team with Franck Ribéry, Samir Nasri and Mathieu Valbuena in squad finished 2006/07 campaign second, but a whooping 18 points behind Lyon. Just like in the following remainder of his career, Cissé scored poorly: 28 goals in 71 matches for Marseille. Sunderland, Panathinaikos, Lazio, QPR, Al-Gharafa, Krasnodar… There really was no place in Europe where the lad would find his former self.

Off the pitch, Cissé is as flamboyant as it gets. Apart from ridiculous haircuts, he carries so many tattoos it’s already impossible to fit more in. He also has five children with three different women and owns luxurious cars like Plymouth Prowler, Shelby GT 500 and Bentley Continental GT. By googling ‘Mr.Lenoir’, anyone can find a link to the site promoting his own fashion brand. Hell, he goes as far as admitting the ambition to own a monkey as a pet. While giving interviews, he speaks nonchalantly, even when the topics are touchy – such as his injury woes or a post-breakup fallout with his ex-wife, Jude.

Without football, he’ll be fine. But football without him? Not much worse off; just a little less interesting…

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