Alternative Tourism #1 – Velký strahovský stadion, Praha

One of my biggest regrets in life was not taking the opportunity to travel the world when the time was right. You know that suitable time, right? Finished your education and fancy that gap year before careering headlong into the grindstone? In hindsight, the time I spent searching for a suitable job, I could have just nipped abroad for work to see where I ended up. Preferably, I should have been slightly more austere as a student and not ploughed hundreds, if not thousands of pounds into alcohol and take-away food. I suppose at that time the world was my oyster so to say and up until recently I thought travelling was a lost cause.

Looking back, a younger, nimbler, more naïve Chris would have been easily tempted into distraction by nightlife and drinking establishments with little time to explore the beaten paths let alone find the hidden gems that make tourism totally worthwhile. Around three years ago, I decided to make up for lost opportunities and juggle travelling with my career by carving the globe up into manageable pieces to explore in two-week segments (booking more than ten days off from my company is a taboo subject). As I continue to get older, I have found that my tastes and appreciation for certain things continue to grow, sometimes to excessive and almost obsessive proportions. With this in mind, I now find myself looking for strange locations and/or landmarks which normal individuals may not find that interesting or relevant in the slightest. I have found that this condition is in fact related to my cynicism as I find that most mainstream tourist traps are not worth my attention, time or money.

Reading guidebooks can be quite a depressing experience in my opinion as no matter which one you choose, the same sights, locations and businesses crop up every time with very little to no adequate description. It begs the question about such guide books tending more towards fuelling businesses with fresh tourist meat to exploit than actually attempting to provide a useful document for exploration. With this in mind, prior to every trip I tend to make my own guide book out of a photocopied city map, various internet printouts from the internet supplemented with hours of clicking on those little blue squares on Google Earth.

This feature, which I plan to make as regular as I can, will highlight some of the alternative, ‘off the beaten track’ sights that I have visited over the years and hopefully open your eyes to the landmarks that I consider as ‘wonders’ in their own right.

TargetVelký strahovský stadion, Praha, Česká republika

Strahov Stadium, Prague

 Google Maps Link

So, a return trip to Prague with the lads may paint a different picture of ‘alternative’ tourism, usually involving copious amounts of ale and meat, topped off with a visit to a strip bar. This may be the case but previous research had drawn my eye towards some ‘off the beaten track’ landmarks that had me as excited as Mr Patrick Dennison after being promised a scenario of sex, midget and violence… all in a limousine. One of those darker landmarks seems to dominate any map of Prague, especially if you are a fan of sports and love a good session of ground-hopping. Appearing to stand alone at the top of Mala Strana is a structure that belies belief due to its sheer size. Dwarfing the adjacent neighbouring former national stadium, Stadion Evžena Rošického is a stadium that cannot be summarised in a few words on someone’s half-arsed blog.

The journey to the top of Petřín was made slightly more difficult as the funicular railway was mysteriously closed and all six individuals were nursing the previous night’s exploits. Only three hardy souls managed to scale the hill, whilst the others ‘pested’ the locals before making their way back across town. At the top of the hill we made our way to the mysterious stadium but only after a short visit to Petřín lookout tower which in hindsight made us feel regrettably worse. We all looked up from halfway to the top, the background of moving cloud giving us a short blast of vertigo, prolonging the nausea caused by excessive ale consumption. From halfway up though, the stadium was comfortably in view and drew the attention of the group due to its sheer size. Excitement was now evident as we sauntered through what appeared to be a college or university resident estate towards the unknown.

Foolish... just foolish

Strahov stadium is currently the largest stadium in the world holding an impressive 220,000 people. Built in 1934 during the inter war years of the Czechoslovak First republic it fell under the use of the occupying Nazi and Soviet forces in WWII and became an ideal showpiece of megalomania for the Communist party in the post war years up until the velvet revolution. It is a sprawl of behemoth-like concrete stands on all four sides with seating for up to 55,000 and huge swathes of terracing along the West stand. Originally built for mass gymnastic displays by the Sokol  organisation, the stadium was refurbished in 1946 where the old wooden structure was replaced with the concrete template evident today.

Under communism, the Sokol movement was disapproved due to its elitist nuances and associations in its history. Eager to replace what had become a national tradition, the regime introduced its own version of the mass gymnastic displays called Spartakiáda, fittingly named after the slave uprising led by Spartacus. Held every five years, these events were attended by millions of spectators and were utilised as a massive propaganda tool and display of power. Displays would involve thousands of gymnasts and soldiers delivering rhythmic and synchronised manoeuvers. Here is the Youtube footage from 1980’s Spartakiáda…

The popularity of the Spartakiáda began to wane post 1970 after the suppression of the Prague spring by an invasion from Warsaw Pact armies and the ‘normalisation’ of Czechoslovak politics back to hard line communism. The authorities scaled down future events due to the public unrest already swelling against them as the Eastern Bloc entered the era of economic stagnation. After a small face lift in the mid 70’s, the stadium has been left open to the elements and is now showing its age, with areas either inaccessible and/or too unsafe to explore. Only the West stand is now used, albeit for Sparta Prague reserve matches who attract attendances in the hundreds at maximum. Sparta use the whole complex as a training base, which is ideal as there is room for 8 Football pitches, an Ice Hockey training dome and administrative offices all in-between the four gigantic stands.

Ice Hockey Training Dome & Administrative Offices

After usage for pop concerts and festivals, the future of Strahov stadium is still uncertain. Options have included refurbishment, demolition, modernisation and preservation. Unfortunately I believe that this stadium will not be around in its present state for much longer as the Czech Republic becomes a strong European economy and its location being so prominent in an area to be utilised by the tourism industry. If you happen to be visiting Prague any time soon and appreciate iconic sporting venues then this will certainly be well up your street.

Exterior of North Stand

 

Concourse to North Stand

 

Strahov Stadium Panorama, by Mike Hillard
 

For a more detailed look at Czechoslovakia’s communist past, view the following BBC documentary titled The Lost World of Communism – The Kingdom of Forgetting.

 

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Sri-Lankan Chicken Curry Recipe

Cooking has been a passion of mine for the last eighteen months and not a week goes by when I don’t try something slightly different from normality. I find there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that new recipe and executing it perfectly as it makes the final eating experience well worth the preparation efforts. I try to attempt different dishes as a personal celebration and appreciation of other nationalities and cultures, often adding my own special touch which usually includes just increasing measures of certain spices or other ingredients (a whole bottle of Pilsner Urquell in my Czech Goulash).

After successfully touring India metaphorically with my cooking and happy with my knowledge of their herbs and spices, I considered myself ready to ‘take to the water’ and cross the Palk Strait to Sri Lanka, optimistic that a change in country would deliver a new depth of knowledge, technique and ingredient usage. I was not to be disappointed with my next choice of dish. The only benefit of sitting through an episode of Saturday Kitchen and tolerating that Yorkshire gobshite James Martin is the small excerpts of vintage Rick Stein. A few weeks ago the programme showed Stein visiting Sri Lanka to attempt his own Fish Curry, using a plethora of staple Sri Lankan herbs and spices. After drooling at the prospect of mixing together those ingredients, I decided that a Sri Lankan curry would be my next folly into the culinary unknown.

Sri Lanka has long been renowned for its spices. In the 15th and 16th centuries, traders from all over the world who came to Sri Lanka brought their native cuisines to the island, resulting in a rich diversity of cooking styles and techniques. – Wiki

If you prefer a curry with more taste layers and don’t mind a touch of cinnamon then why not celebrate the arrival of the Sri Lankan Cricket team by attempting the following recipe? The mixtures of spices make for a mild taste with a warm undercurrent of Chilli, whilst the Coconut Milk gives a creamy consistency similar to Caribbean or Thai curries. Do not expect anything in the region of an Indian Korma or Passanda as there is a surplus of other flavours to distract from the Coconut Milk and no addition of sugar is required. I find that the most satisfying part of the preparation is the creation of your own Sri Lankan curry powder as measures can be adjusted for your own pallet. This recipe will take you through all the preparation stages, throughout the cooking process and will include any hints and tips I believe will help you on your way. I hope you enjoy this recipe.

Sri Lankan Curry Powder

The recipe for the main dish will include a measure of Sri Lankan curry powder. Following this method will provide you with enough curry powder for 2-3 curries and will keep in an airtight container for at least two months.

Note that paying over the odds for the below spices is not necessary. A visit to an Indian or Pakistani supermarket should see you right at a reasonable price. There is no marked quality difference between well-known brands and others so don’t feel obliged to pay top dollar.

Ingredients

  • 6tbsp Coriander Seeds
  • 2tbsp Cumin Seeds
  • 1tsp Fennel Seeds
  • 1tsp Mustard Seeds
  • 1 x 5cm Cinnamon Stick (Crumbled)
  • 4 Cloves
  • 4 Cardamom Pods
  • 5-8 Dried Curry Leaves
  • 1tsp Whole Black Peppercorns

Method

Place all of the spices into a dry pan and heat until golden brown (the aroma is fantastic). Once complete, place herbs and spices into a grinder or use pestle and mortar to create a fine powder.

Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

Ingredients

  • 1kg Chicken
  • 4 tsp Minced Garlic
  • 2 tsp Minced Ginger
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • 2 tsp Sri Lankan Curry Powder
  • ¼ tsp Cayenne Chilli Powder
  • 3 tbsp Vegetable Oil
  • 8 Curry  Leaves (Crushed)
  • 2 Onions (Sliced)
  • 1 x 2.5cm Cinnamon Stick
  • 4 Cardamom Pods (Split)
  • ¼ tsp Cloves (Crushed)
  • 240ml Coconut Milk
  • 1 knob of Butter

Method

  1. Cut the Chicken into pieces.
  2. In a large bowl mix all the spices with Chicken pieces (Chicken, salt, pepper, Sri Lankan Curry Powder, Cayenne Chilli Powder, Curry Leaves, Cinnamon stick, Cardamom Pods and Cloves) make sure that chicken pieces are coated well with all of the spices.
  3. Heat the Vegetable Oil in a large saucepan on a medium to high heat, add the Ginger and Garlic and fry for 1 minute.
  4. Add Onions to saucepan and cook for 5 minutes until soft and lightly browned.
  5. Reduce the heat slightly and introduce the Chicken with knob of butter.
  6. Slowly fry the outside of the Chicken pieces until white (slowly frying will not burn the marinade and ensure succulence; slower the better.)
  7. Add 300ml of warm water, mixing well.
  8. Cover and cook on a low-medium heat for 30-40 minutes, stirring at 10 minute intervals.
  9. Add Coconut Milk, increase heat and bring to the boil, stirring continuously.
  10. Reduce heat again, leave uncovered and simmer for 15 minutes until sauce has reduced.

Hints

Make sure you put less spices in at the beginning and taste the curry before you add the Coconut Milk (step 9). Add further spices if required.

Add further salt before completing step 10 if required.

Serve with Rice and Chapattis.

Enjoy!

Posted in Cooking, Food, Recipes | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

My All Time ‘Cult’ World XI – 1. Roberto Baggio

We have finally made it through 11 weeks laden with talented ‘cult’ footballing legends from almost all corners of the world, some well-known, others slightly less so. Whether you agree with the selections or concur with the final placements I am sure you can appreciate that ‘cult’ status is completely in the eyes of the beholder and should not be mistaken for a simple makeshift list of the most talented footballers. ‘Cult’ footballers are legends in their own right who, regardless of their footballing abilities, raised a proverbial eyebrow or two along their way to unrivalled renown. I hope this list has been both enjoyable and educational to you, as I have tried to depict each player from an alternative perspective and uncover some of the less conspicuous characteristics that often get forgotten with time. This week will be no exception as I reveal my all-time ‘cult’ footballer to the world and hopefully justify successfully why I believe this particular individual deserves the very top honour. Although somehow, I’m not sure that he will turn up to the awards ceremony. This particular footballer single-handedly galvanised my passion for football as my early years were spent following my Dad around the country playing American Football. Football was never my first choice sport until I absorbed myself into World Cup Italia ’90, where this particular player’s stellar performances confirmed that my future passion would be the beautiful game. A player whose abilities saw no boundaries, he was partly responsible for an explosion in popularity of the Italian Serie A and on many occasions became the sole reason for the success and failure of his national team. In some ways he was an oddity, always choosing the road less travelled and dedicating himself fully to the game he clearly adored. Most people will remember him for a solitary blemish in his career but I would argue that is what makes him so special. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the one and only, ‘Il Divin Codino’ Roberto Baggio.

 

Roberto Baggio

 

Born in 1967 in Caldogno, Veneto, Roberto signed professional terms with local club Vicenza where he impressed incredibly quickly; becoming an integral part of the squad aged just 16. In 1985 he made the step up to Serie A football with Florence based giants Fiorentina where he scored an impressive 39 goals in 94 appearances from his initial position of attacking midfield. His performances for the ‘Viola’ ensured that he would go down in folklore with the Fiorentina fans who regarded Roberto as a ‘god-like’ figure. Their passion towards Baggio was epitomised after his transfer to Juventus for a world record $13 million, where full scale riots ensued on the streets and around the Stadio Artemio Franchi. With regret, Roberto left Florence for Turin where he enjoyed arguably his finest years in club football, winning a trio of titles including the 1993 UEFA Cup, the Ballon D’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year. Notably, Baggio displayed his passion, dignity and dedication when called upon to take a penalty against former team Fiorentina in 1990. Refusing to comply with the wishes of the Juventus manager, he was subsequently substituted. Upon leaving the field of play, Roberto proceeded to show a distinct act of compassion by kissing a Fiorentina scarf before issuing a post-match statement appeasing many of his former fans; “Deep in my heart, I will always be purple”.

After winning the ‘scudetto’ for the first time in 1995, Baggio transferred to Milanese giants AC Milan; further evidence in support of the claim ‘what Silvio Burlesconi wants he surely gets’. Another reason to dislike Mr Burlesconi I am sure you will agree as rumours were rife of a move to English shores with either Manchester United or recent champions Blackburn Rovers. He achieved the Serie A title yet again the very next year before persistent injury forced him to make a move to Bologna. Resurrection was clearly on the agenda as Baggio managed an impressive haul of 22 goals in 30 appearances and performed excellently in the 1998 World Cup. This earned him a recall to the elite in Italian football with a move to the blue half of Milan; Internazionale. In a two year period, Baggio only managed 41 appearances for coach Marcelo Lippi who singled out Baggio for not complying with a request which would be of detriment to his teammates. In another display of true professionalism, Roberto ensured Lippi’s job remained safe by scoring twice versus Parma, effectively qualifying Inter for the Champions League before leaving Milan to join Brescia. His 4 years at Brescia heralded more brilliant performances despite a horrific cruciate ligament injury. In 2004, he retired, not before a standing ovation from 80,000 fans at the San Siro and the retirement of his number 10 shirt at Brescia.

In terms of a club player, Baggio’s career is nothing short of phenomenal in what was regarded as the ‘best league in the world’ up to his retirement. However, the most significant talking point occurred whilst representing his country where his overall contributions were almost infinitely positive. Roberto remains the only Italian player to score in three consecutive World Cup’s; ’90, ’94 and ’98; the latter made even sweeter as many tipped Alessandro Del Piero to have taken his place but how wrong they all were. Returning to my very first Baggio encounter back in 1990, I recall a group match between Italy and Czechoslovakia at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome where I witnessed the greatest goal I believe he has ever scored. I feel honoured that I had watched this masterpiece live and it gave me the inspiration to get involved in football; little did I know it would become an obsession. Only when I first kicked a ball and witnessed my own deficiencies did I realise I would be incapable of running that far, let alone performing such incredible feats with a ball at my feet.

World Cup USA ’94 could not come soon enough and, what with England’s failure to qualify, I could adopt Italy as my supported team without any feelings of guilt or having to justify the reasons to anyone. Watching the master at work in Italian football was incredibly useful and I’m sure my Dad did not object to me watching such talents as Baggio tended to be the personification of my Father’s teachings. Appreciating possession was Roberto’s biggest attribute in my opinion as he rarely gave the ball to a member of the opposition unnecessarily. His ball control, vision, passing ability and anticipation were unrivalled; the ball just stuck to his feet. In addition, Baggio had quick feet, great balance, controlled aggression and the ability to use either foot in any circumstance. Who wouldn’t have him as their ultimate footballing role model? I was once the proud owner of an official 1994 Italy World Cup shirt, proudly displayed at every PE session at middle school and a pair of Diadora ‘Baggio’ special edition football boots. To this day I regret growing out of those boots as I should have embarked on a self-inflicted programme of Chinese foot binding but I suppose hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Diadora 'Baggio' Football Boots

Italy Home 1994 World Cup Shirt

*If anyone has as spare £75, click the above image… You now know what to buy me.

I appreciate that we have been here before but on the 17th July 1994 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, California, Roberto Baggio went down in history for his solitary blemish on his otherwise perfect career. After single-handedly marching an underperforming Italian team through the group phase and the knockout stage, he had the responsibility of keeping Italy in with a chance of World Cup glory by scoring his penalty. What followed his run-up was nothing short of astonishing. A player whose abilities led to him becoming the most prolific penalty taker in Italian football managed to conjure up one of the worst penalty misses of all time. To this day I am still reeling from seeing that ball fly over Claudio Taffarel’s crossbar, handing Brazil a long overdue World Cup title. Without the efforts and goals of Roberto, Italy would never have seen those later stages of the competition as his impressive tally of five goals was in spite of his acute hamstring injury he duly played with regardless. I suppose the injury may have had something to do with the penalty miss or maybe it was the heat? I suppose we will never know and to be honest I don’t think I ever want to.

Despite the setback and permanent blemish of 1994, Roberto played for a further 8 years and despite that penalty miss continued to represent his country until 1999. It is true testament to the legend that is ‘Il Divin Codino’ as regardless of suffering the biggest misfortune in world football he returned every bit as much of the player that preceded that tournament. Baggio has attributed his dedication, passion, professionalism and performance in the game of football to his religion of Buddhism. Inspired by its teachings from a young age, Roberto converted from Roman Catholicism to devote himself to his new religion. If Nichiren Buddhism has conditioned a man as unique as him then I am sure its teachings could be distributed amongst some footballers in this day and age because some surely require it. For just being Roberto Baggio, the epitome of what every footballer should aspire to, he is deservedly THE number one ‘cult’ footballer of all-time.

Keep up to date with Baggio’s latest actions as he ambassador’s for many charities and causes across the world. http://www.robertobaggio.com/en/

Here are some divine moments of Roberto’s beautiful career…

Wind this video forward to see him score with the outside of his right foot from behind the corner flag (3:28 approx)…

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My All Time ‘Cult’ World XI – 2. Eric Cantona

I know what you are thinking before I have even jotted any words in justification of my decision to award Eric Cantona the runners-up prize in my all-time ‘cult’ world footballers. Many people who I know will be somewhat flabbergasted as this particular footballer could easily romp home to a number one finish. Conversely, there are also many people who would not have Eric on their conscience but I suspect that this is mainly due to the vitriol many attribute towards the club where he made such a monumental impact. In my view, what makes Cantona a true ‘cult’ legend was his uncanny ability to polarise people’s opinions, ‘wind-up’ his detractors and successfully shaft the footballing establishment. Throughout his career he mesmerised us with his footballing abilities yet consistently displayed what a ‘flawed’ character he was by performing some of the most bewildering and shocking stunts ever to be seen in the game of football. You know all about his talents on the field, however I wish to talk mainly about his actions off the field and how this alone elevated Eric Cantona into the elite of my beloved ‘cult’ footballers. I have always wanted to get into the mind of the ‘King’, Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona and now is my chance.

Eric Cantona

One of the major arguments I have had with my own brain over the years has involved the question; what do I really think about Eric Cantona? He has successfully torn me apart trying to find an answer as to whether I admired him or actually loathed him and I am sure he has many detractors due to his legendary status amongst the United faithful (and not so faithful). MUFC have been a club that has, like Cantona, had a love-hate relationship amongst football fans across the world and in some ways I can see why. Continual success does come with a price, just ask Liverpool fans of the 70’s and 80’s just how detested they were by the majority of the footballing world. In summary, I have regularly concluded that some of Eric’s critics have actually been in the form of ‘success-haters’ who have used their hatred of all things United to form their opinion on Eric. There are however individuals who just hated his guts.

1966 was a good year for English football, Eric was born.

Born in 1966, in Marseille, Eric developed quickly and it became evident that he had the talent to succeed at the very highest level. After a two year stint with Auxerre where he signed his first professional contract, Cantona served one year’s national service before returning to football.  His disciplinary problems were beginning to become apparent after punching a team mate Bruno Martini and almost ending Michel Der Zakarin’s career with a pre-meditated challenge worthy of a prison sentence. It was after his ‘big money’ move to home town club Marseille where he rose to notoriety for kicking the ball violently into the crowd and throwing his jersey to the floor for being substituted in a European match versus Torpedo Moscow. Other misdemeanours duly followed, including lambasting the French national coach as un sac de merde, throwing his pair of boots at a teammate’s face, throwing a football at a referee and the pièce de résistance; calling each member of a disciplinary panel ‘idiots’. Upon receiving an extended ban for such an outburst, Cantona retired from football before being persuaded him to resurrect his broken career in England.*

*ten points for the first comment to inform me of the ironic identity who persuaded Eric to play in England.

I don’t feel it necessary to go into Eric’s achievements on these shores as to be honest you must have been living on Mars if you are not aware. The main goal of this post is to highlight why I think he became a ‘cult’ legend and so far I have painted a picture of a petulant, child-like footballer who ‘takes his ball in’ if he fails to get his way. After challenging my own opinions of Eric since childhood I believe that this generalised assessment could not be further from the truth.  Eric was a persistent challenger of authority and consistently confronted paradigms that he envisaged as unjust.  I believe it was the media alone that painted such an erroneous masterpiece of the man for one sole purpose; to make him into the most effective weapon in the world of modern football, a marketing machine and ‘headline creator’.

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” Eric Cantona.

On the 25th January 1995 at Selhurst Park, the game of football witnessed scenes of madness and lunacy through the actions of one single ‘supporter’. Matthew Simmons, clad head to foot in a uniform synonymous with right-wing hate groups launched a barrage of racist vitriol in the direction of Eric. Having been rightly sent off due to an outlandish kick aimed towards Richard Shaw, Simmons took his chance to descend fourteen rows of seats to deliver his bigoted and small minded tirade. We will never know the true mechanics behind Cantona’s decision to launch himself feet first over the advertising boards, burying his studs in the chest of a racist before proceeding to wade in with his right fist to finish the job, but rest assured I would have loved to have been in that situation. It has since been proven by media sources that Matthew Simmons was an active right-wing racist, seen at National Front and BNP rallies and had even been previously convicted of a violent assault on a Sri Lankan born petrol pump attendant. It comes as no surprise that he has recently been in the public eye yet again.

It is Eric’s ability to challenge authority and confront regressive and extremist thinking which puts him firmly in my all-time ‘cult’ footballer list. Regardless of his actions, allegiances and mind boggling quotes, Eric has continually shown to the world that he has a heightened social conscience and yet for all his ‘god-like’ abilities has never failed to show us that he is only human after all. In my opinion Cantona has an approach to life that should be synonymous with us all, but where the majority would shy away from taking direct action against injustice you could bet your last penny that Eric would be at the frontline having his trademark rant. Whether it be launching an attack on the recent Glazer ownership of Manchester United or galvanising support to destroy the banking monopolies in France, Eric will always be there ‘waxing lyrical’ and forever carving out new opinions and fresh ideals. Love him or hate him, I’m sure you will agree that isn’t too bad for a footballer.

“We`ll drink a drink a drink,
To Eric the King the King the King,
He`s the leader of our football team,
He`s the greatest,
Centre-forward,
That the world has ever seen.”

Some highlights of a footballing genius…

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My All Time ‘Cult’ World XI – 3. Dennis Bergkamp

This week I would like to take your minds way back to a bitterly cold night at Vale Park for an FA Cup third round replay between the mighty Port Vale and soon to be ‘double winners’ and North-London giants Arsenal. I still believe to this day that on that special evening on 14th January 1998 that I saw the most technically gifted footballer ever to grace Vale Park and judging by my current personal feelings and circumstances I doubt I will see this personal record broken. This particular individual has played for one of the best teams to have ever graced European competition, winning numerous honours and personal accolades and also enjoyed some superlative moments whilst playing for his national team. He made the ‘hole’ position his own and played at his prime alongside some of the world’s best strikers. Never a player who could physically dominate an opponent but what he lacked in power and pace was made up with supreme technical ability with an unrivalled ‘footballing brain’. This week, I present to you the ‘non flying Dutchman’, ‘the van man’, Dennis Nicolaas Bergkamp.

Dennis Bergkamp

Born in Amsterdam, Dennis was signed to home town club and Dutch giants Ajax, a club renowned for producing some unbelievable footballing talent including the likes of Overmars, Blind, the de Boer twins, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids, Kanu, Litmanen, Rijkaard… Need I continue? Playing as a substitute, he won his first major European honour in his first full senior year as Ajax cruised to the European Cup Winners Cup in 1987, beating Lokomotive Leipzig. During his tenure playing for Ajax, Dennis rose to first team prominence and aided further domestic and European successes, accruing a remarkable 103 goals in 153 appearances. Dennis was relishing playing alongside some of the world’s best talent and carried his club form onto the international stage with his native Holland. His ‘sparkling’ performances at Euro ’92 cemented Bergkamp as one of the most promising players in the Ajax ranks and as a direct consequence it wouldn’t be long before another footballing giant poached his services.  Promising that elusive European Cup, Dennis was lured to Italian club Internazionale where his career took a rather unexpected turn.

Any player who transferred to Serie A, dubbed the ‘best league in the world’ at that period would be taking a huge gamble with their footballing career. Successful imports like Gabriel Batistuta had adjusted to the Italian style with aplomb, firing in goals regularly and taking their careers to different levels. Dennis was primed and ready to achieve, possibly take the Serie A by storm. In a period that lasted just two years, Bergkamp had been reduced from a ‘world class’ talent to a nation-wide butt of abuse and mockery. What went wrong?  I have a suggestion… At that particular time, the ‘nerazzuri’ were enduring one of the leanest spells in their modern history. Regardless of their European ‘tin pot trophy’ triumphs, Inter were playing some remarkably uninspiring football under Giampiero Marini and were totally reliant on Wim Jonk, Rubén Sosa and Dennis himself. I was a firm believer that many great players failed in Italy because in essence they were not good enough but in Dennis’s case, Inter were not good enough. Playing behind a workshy Sosa and feeding off scraps from Inter’s uninspiring midfield, Bergkamp notched a lacklustre 11 goals in his 50 appearances. The Italian media made Dennis the scapegoat for Inter’s poor domestic form with the national sports paper ‘Corriere Dello Sport’ renaming their ‘Donkey of the Week’ feature to ‘Bergkamp of the Week’, an award regularly handed out to other misfortunates, Dennis soon became unwanted in Milan. After he left for Arsenal, it was sadly ironic that Inter invested in the likes of Hernan Crespo, Christain Vieri and Ronaldo to bolster their front line. I am sure that Dennis would have set the world on fire playing alongside such talents.

I just wanted to get back to playing attacking football after my time in Italy. It was a little difficult at first but the atmosphere and the fans were just fantastic. Dennis Bergkamp

Bruce Rioch brought Dennis to these shores, rescuing him from his Italian nightmare but initially looked to have carried on his form as he struggled to settle into the English league’s speed and physicality. The arrival of Arsene Wenger and the subsequent switch from ‘boring’ Arsenal to the football ‘purists’ we are all too familiar with saw Bergkamp flourish. Playing alongside Ian Wright, he helped Arsenal to a League and Cup double in the 1997-98 season, pipping Manchester United to the title having been in a lowly sixth position during January. I would like to add that the achievement of Arsenal winning anything that year was not apparent in the FA Cup third round as they took two attempts, plus extra time and penalties to defeat a team battling against relegation to the third tier. I remember celebrating at the Highbury ‘library’ as a battling Port Vale side held Arsenal to a goal-less draw. I find that people think I exaggerate when I recall the ‘boos’, jeers and ‘Wenger out’ chants emanating from the North Bank, but I know what I heard that day. When they lifted both trophies after that particular season I hope the Arsenal fans have never forgot the grief directed towards Mr Wenger after that match. This article from the Independent, prior to the replay at Vale Park, sums up the situation perfectly and highlights the significance and sheer magnitude of Arsenal’s achievement that season.

Back to that monumental game in 1998 where I looked on from the Railway Stand (my usual stand was full) as a near capacity crowd witnessed a moment in football that will always be dismissed and overlooked. As Arsenal were only playing lowly Port Vale, I feel that the world has missed out on a piece of footballing genius. Theoretically I suppose we have all been in a situation whereby everything seems to be surprisingly under control and ultimately the task is far easier than you ever expected. Your confidence hits ‘sky high’ but the inevitable arrogance kicks in. Before you know it, that arrogance turns to complacency and within a blink of an eye it all comes crashing down in a matter of seconds resulting in an ‘egg on face’ style scenario. To put this in reality terms, Port Vale goalkeeper Paul Musselwhite looked on completely helpless as Dennis turned on a sixpence, 28 yards from goal. He has not had a sniff all night, looks jaded and did not seem to like the ‘attention’ being given to him by Vale’s defenders. Time seemed to stop; Mussy knew it, I knew it, every one of the supposed 14,000 fans knew it; we were in deep, deep trouble. Without having to look up, Dennis curled a shot* into the top corner and in total unison the Port Vale fans let out a rather distinct ‘sigh’ of appreciation and whilst still open jawed and shell-shocked, took to their feet in admiration offering rapturous applause that seemed to drown out the celebrations of the Arsenal faithful. The rest as you say is history. That particular night did eventually lead to heartbreak but Bergkamp’s stupendous offering to us overshadowed any gut wrenching emotions.

*due to lack of video evidence you will have to take my word for it.

I could go into detail about his achievements for the Gunners but I suspect any self-respecting football fan is more than aware of his talents and achievements whilst on these shores. For that wonder goal alone, Dennis would slot into my all-time ‘cult’ footballer list with subsequent ease. However, for someone who managed to resurrect a career on a downward spiral to become one of the greatest imports in the history of the English game, score a seemingly unlimited supply of wonder goals and still remain ‘grounded’ with a dedicated attitude towards club and country, Dennis definitely deserves a place in my top three. Truly a dying breed in the modern game, as technical ability seems to be overshadowed by the importance of physicality. Mr Bergkamp for the amount of times you made me urinate uncontrollably at your offerings, welcome to the elite in my all-time ‘cult’ list.

Here are some moments for you to drool over…

And who could forget ‘that’ goal against Argentina in World Cup ’98 and that legendary Dutch commentator effectively ‘gooning’ in a commentary box….

“Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp!, Arrrrrgggghhhhhhh!” Jack van Gelder

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My All Time ‘Cult’ World XI – 4. Andrés Escobar

So here we are into the final four weeks of additions to my all-time ‘cult’ footballers. It’s getting rather laborious exciting, i’m sure you will admit, however this particular instalment will not be written in such a light hearted style as in previous weeks and the reason will soon become apparent. This story is one of tragedy and heartbreak as this particular player suffered extreme consequences for his misfortunes during one fateful match at World Cup USA ’94. The whole footballing world was shocked and saddened to its core as the news broke of this particular player’s plight on the evening of 2nd July 1994. This tale shows that whatever happens on a football field, it is imperative that the passion, emotion and competitiveness should all be forgotten once a player crosses that white line for the changing rooms. On this particular day, football literally became a game of ‘life and death’ as an act of ‘retribution’ cost this particular player his life. Let’s all remember Colombian defender; Andrés Escobar Saldarriaga.

Andrés Escobar

Andrés was born in the Colombian second city of Medellín in March 1967, a city notorious with gang culture and drug trafficking under the influence of the Medellín cartel, run by none other than Pablo Escobar (no relation). He was born to a wealthy family as his father was a successful Colombian businessman and subsequently received a lengthy and substantial education. After leaving education aged 21, he was signed by local club Atlético Nacional where he stayed for two years before moving to Switzerland for one season with Young Boys Bern. After the 1990 World Cup, Andrés returned home to Atlético where he became a fans favourite for his uncompromising, passionate and dedicated attitude towards his home town club. He became notorious as a player who was unbeatable in the air and was utilised in both penalty areas, creating havoc with his timed runs from deep. He was part of the Atlético Nacional team who cruised to a Copa Liberatadores win in 1989, putting him firmly on the map in Colombian football enabling him to travel with his national team to World Cup Italia ’90.

Unfortunately, Andrés will never be widely remembered for his contributions at club level as it was his misfortune at USA ’94 playing for his native Colombia that sent his tragic story hurtling around the football world. He was selected as part of a Colombian side packed with obscene amounts of talent in the form of Mendoza, Valderrama, Herrera, Lozano, Rincón and Asprilla. Many footballing experts, including Pele had tipped ‘Los Cafeteros’ to become world champions from that tournament. Given the depth of talent available, the form of the more prominent national teams and the favourable summer conditions it was a very realistic outcome and a good ‘dark horse’ bet.

Colombia, somewhat mysteriously, started the tournament hesitantly, losing 3-1 to a very strong Romanian outfit and had succumb to the genius of a former player in my ‘cult’ list. The pressure was well and truly on for the players to perform as the whole footballing nation of Colombia sat back and watched their most talented outfit in nearly forty years come under threat of elimination at the hands of nations who many felt would not compete. The stage was set for Colombia to right the wrongs of the Romania game and concentrate on beating the hosts and perennial ‘no-marks’ the USA. As you know, it did not quite go to plan…

It was quite apparent that whatever the outcome of Andrés’ attempted clearance the chances were incredibly likely that John Harkes’ pass would have found teammate Earnie Stewart for a simple finish. Although anyone who had seen Earnie play would agree that the finish would not have been so straight forward. Regardless of the outcome it was Andrés’ determination and will to win that forced him to attempt an interception of that cross and ultimately became the main attributory reason for his death ten days after the tournament. It was obvious that outside influences contributed to Colombian poor performances in ’94; many believe to be attributed to betting patterns, drug trafficking and the impact of the betting syndicates associated with the cartels. Tragically, it was because of that misfortunate ‘own goal’, Escobar received such wrathful and unwarranted retribution after returning home – a personal choice instead of remaining in the USA. He was shot ten times in his home town of Medellín, a month before his scheduled wedding to his fiancée Pamela by Humberto Castro Muñoz, a bodyguard for members of a local betting syndicate with links to the cartels. Interpret the events as you will and I encourage extra research to formulate your own opinions as I do not want to dwell on such an appalling tragedy as many of the evidence streams are contradicting and presumptuous to say the least. The fact remains that Andrés was made the definitive scapegoat for the embarrassing elimination of his team and paid the ultimate price.

“People would tell me, you can’t control what happens off the field. Of course you understand that, but it becomes such an issue dealing with personal lives. For years and years, you don’t know what it was attributed to. It’s years and years that have gone by since, but you always think about it. I do.” John Harkes

Why a ‘cult’ footballer? In my opinion he gave 100% commitment and dedication to both club and country and lost his life through factors that should have no association with the beautiful game. The act of retribution that tragically befell Andres was received with enormous grief by fans of Atlético Nacional and the entire Colombian populace as an estimated 120,000 people attended his funeral as a mark of respect. He will be forever remembered as “El Caballero del Futbol”; the gentleman of football. He is an embodiment of the tragic consequences resulting from misguided retribution and sends a shocking reminder to football fans that players are themselves totally human and are rarely deserving of the abuse or punishment they sometimes receive. Stop and reflect the next time you witness one of your footballers throw away an important game through error and attempt to suppress those angry thoughts and violent urges. Rest assured, one fine day they could very well make it back up to you. Welcome to my ‘cult’ XI Andrés, may you rest in peace.

Follow the youtube links from the video below for the remaining five parts of an in-depth documentary.

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My All Time ‘Cult’ World XI – 5. Franco Baresi

This week’s selection in my all-time ‘cult’ world XI footballers needs no fancy introduction, persuasive justifications or over inflated superlatives because he is without doubt the best defender I have ever seen play the beautiful game. Over a career which seemed to last forever two generations he amassed six league titles, three European cups (missed one final but played a huge part), made 719 appearances in the most formidable back line to grace a football field and played in three World Cup’s for Italy. He was loyal to his one club, AC Milan, playing in the ‘sweeping’ role alongside Tassotti, Costacurta and Paolo Maldini; a quartet that became a legacy for the fans of the ‘Rossoneri’. Milan have even retired his number 6 jersey as a mark of respect. It is none other than the mighty ‘Piscinin’, Franco Baresi.

Franco Baresi

Franco initially had youth trials for Milan’s city rivals, Internazionale where his elder sibling, Giuseppe was already employed. After being rejected and told he would not make the cut, Baresi had trials for AC where he was ultimately accepted. In hindsight, I hope that someone at Inter’s scouting and youth development was given the necessary ‘kick up the backside’ for letting someone of that standard fall through the sieve to your biggest local rivals. Franco became the perennial thorn in the side of the ‘Nerazzuri’ as the city of Milan became dominated by the team in Red and Black for the remainder of the 1990’s.

Loyalty was Baresi’s middle name, having amassed 719 appearances for his only club before retiring in 1997 at the age of 37. Winning three European Cup’s an six ‘scudetti’ under his influence, Franco is one of the most decorated players ever to play the game in Italy. In addition he has also achieved gold, silver and bronze World Cup finals medals for his exploits with the national side in the ‘82, ‘90 and ‘94 tournaments. I suppose he will be remembered only for his penalty miss in USA 94 World Cup final… yes I know another Italian did miss a penalty that day who received a greater notoriety but most football fans of my generation weren’t supporting Italy in ’94 and had not been watching Italian football on a regular basis like myself. Franco was truly a ‘superstar’ in his sweeper role and was one of the fundamental reasons behind Milan and Italy being almost impossible to score against, let alone beat.

Back to that day in 1994 in Pasadena, California where the temperatures reached a sweltering 40+ Celsius, Franco had just returned from emergency surgery on an injury received in the group stages. With little to no match practice, Franco was given the assignment of marking the lethal Romario out of the game. When given the task of shadowing undoubtedly the world’s best and most prolific striker at that time, a lot of defenders needed to be at their best and hope that Romario had his mind on other matters as he regularly did throughout his career. Romario was fully focused however, as his goal tally suggested and was playing the best football of his career to date. He must have relished the prospect of playing against an aging, half fit, miniscule defender who was starting to show a distinct lack of pace…

“That was the most ruthless monitoring of my entire career.” Romario (After the 1994 World Cup Final win)

I was very lucky to be into football at a time when I can remember the best parts of Franco’s career and feel privileged that he graced our TV screens for best part of a decade before finally retiring and mentoring Paolo Maldini; need I say more? It was one of my biggest bug-bears at that time, when English football fans would criticise Italian football for its defensive nature and low goal ratio. My response to all critics is to appreciate that football is a multi-faceted game where you play to your strengths and Italian football teams were the perennial masters. What made the Serie A the best league in the world at that time was that the Italian’s made defending an ‘art form’ and it took sheer attacking brilliance and wizardry to unlock such astute defences. This made watching Italian football an absolute pleasure during the 1990’s and I felt sorry for the football fans who missed out on such talents because of false perceptions and stereotypes. Let’s face facts, our Premiership will never reach the heights of that league for as long as it exists.

Franco continually challenged perceptions and stereotypes of Italian footballers by being totally committed, level-headed and honourable to the end. Always known to lend a helping hand to the opposition after placing them on their backsides, Baresi often played through the pain barrier putting the needs of the team before any personal gains. Franco, for your passion and contribution to football I welcome you to my all-time ‘cult’ world XI.

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