West Ham and Europe: a cyclical tale of repeated failure

West Ham and Europe: a cyclical tale of repeated failure

West Ham and European competition are about as well-matched as Norwich City and Premier League consolidation.

David Moyes’s surprisingly successful campaign last season ensured the Hammers qualified for automatic European football for the first time since the dawn of the Premier League era, a timespan that has seen their ever-fluctuating fortunes mirror their sporadic and largely pitiful attempts to deliver regular European football to East London.

The following three exits since have seen the club disastrously fail at the final qualifying spot, each in equally frustrating contexts for their supporters, implying the club’s dreams repeatedly “fading and dying” emblem may not be such a myth. 

1999/2000: Intertoto Glory

Even a record-high fifth-place finish was not enough to guarantee automatic European football for Harry Redknapp’s side the previous season.

Due to only one viable automatic qualification spot, West Ham were facing three two-legged ties in the less-glamorous, now-defunct Intertoto Cup to earn a place in the UEFA Cup first round.

Four of the games were played before the new Premier League season started and after beating Finnish side FC Jokerit and SC Heerenveen, West Ham narrowly lost the home-leg of the final 1-0 to FC Metz.

They managed to win the return leg convincingly 3-1 at the Saint-Symphorien Stadium, a night that Harry Redknapp has since described as “his greatest night as West Ham’s manager”.

Whether the Intertoto trophy sits proudly aloft in West Ham’s roomy trophy cabinet, is unconfirmed.

For long-term club servant Steve Lomas, the trophy presentation did not extend to even a winner’s medal.

The Trophy was so small. It’s the only trophy I won in my career – that little egg sized cup…I think John Moncur might have kicked it across the changing room, so in West Ham’s trophy cabinet there might be a dent in it” said Steve Lomas in recent years.

Having qualified for the UEFA Cup First Round, light work was made of NK Osijek, overcoming the Croatian side 6-1 on aggregate.

However, their bubble was to be burst by a side from a country that would return to haunt the Hammers in years to come.

A disappointing 2-0 defeat in Romania to Steaua Bucharest – courtesy of two shocking examples from the East London School of Defending – was followed by a freakish 0-0 draw back at Upton Park that somehow remained goalless despite both sides peppering each other’s goals with long-range efforts in a remarkable display of agile goalkeeping that ended their European dreams.

Harry Redknapp left the club at the end of the following season and, in true West Ham-style, the club were relegated two years later.

2006/07: A Sicilian nightmare

Alan Pardew’s West Ham side had managed to exceed expectations upon their return to the Premier League, achieving UEFA Cup first-round qualification after their run to the 2006 FA Cup Final to Liverpool, and were drawn with then-Serie A side Palermo.

Anglo-Italian relations did not get off to the most agreeable of starts as several West Ham fans snapped up several ill-advised custom-design T-shirts bearing the slogan “The Hammers vs The Mafia” outside Upton Park before the first leg.

Expectation had been high after the club had only weeks before stunned the football world by announcing the signing of Argentinian internationals Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.

Both players were given their first starts as West Ham lost the first leg to a clinical Andrea Caracciolo penalty-box finish on the stroke of half-time. 

The second leg was simply a disaster of seismic proportions for both team and club.

Before the game, large groups of West Ham fans engaged in running battles with local fans and police, resulting in the city’s Teatro Massimo district resembling a scene from Danny Dyer’s International Football Factories.

The West Ham supporters who had managed to avoid being arrested before the game occupied a large corner of the Stadio Renzo Barbero and, accustomed to their team’s customary cup competition ineptitude, would not have been shocked by the display that unfolded in front of their eyes.

Pardew went for a bold team selection with an attacking trio that included Marlon Harewood, Carlton Cole and Tevez, all of whom spurned chances in a first half dominated by West Ham, the pick of which was an acrobatic overhead kick from Harewood brilliantly saved by the 39-year-old Palermo keeper Alberto Fontana who inexplicably showed the reflexes of a stopper half his age.

Before half-time, West Ham were made to pay for their profligacy when they conceded from a shortly-taken free-kick and their misery was compounded by shipping two second half goals on the counter-attack while chasing the tie.

Their European dream had again been dashed before it had even started and Alan Pardew was sacked ten weeks later.

2015/16: Fair Play “Champions”

By the end of Sam Allardyce’s tenure at the club, West Ham boasted the enviable honour of topping the Fair Play League.

Entering the first qualifying round on July 2, West Ham made it smoothly past Andorran side Lusitanos, despite an early red card for Diafra Sakho.

The second round was less plain sailing for a side transitioning to a change in management style under Slaven Bilic, requiring a penalty shootout to progress past plucky Maltese side Birkirkara FC after again going down to ten men following a James Tomkins dismissal for an innocuous shove to record West Ham’s second red card in as many rounds.

Romanian side Astra Giurgiu, conquerors of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, were their third-round opponents.

They looked in cruise control for the first hour of the game until, almost fatalistically, they self-destructed when James Collins saw red for a second yellow.

West Ham’s “fair play” tag had gone from being an amusing joke to be an entirely farcical notion.

Predictably, they conceded twice in the final twenty minutes – the second a desperate clearance from Angelo Ogbonna that looped over his own goalkeeper – to hand control of the tie back to the Romanians who won the second leg 2-1 over a youthful Hammers side.

2016/17: “Oh not them again?”

A memorable farewell to the Boleyn Stadium had delivered a seventh-place finish, earning a Europa League third round qualifying spot thanks to Man Utd’s FA Cup Final victory, their fans still delirious from the scintillating football played by their Dimitri Payet-inspired team.

Making their debuts at their new London Stadium home, expectation was higher than ever welcoming NK Domžale of Slovenia, who were dispatched with a comfortable 3-0 win, a week after a less-convincing performance in the 2-1 away defeat.  

All eyes were eagerly tuned in to see who would stand between them and the seemingly elusive Europa Group Stages.

Enter a familiar name that still occupied the headspace of many a Hammers fan: Astra Giurgiu, last season’s third-round opponents.

This time Bilic’s men faced the trip to Southern Romania first, and came away with a 1-1 draw in a largely uneventful game.

The return leg was arguably the toughest exit for Hammers fans to stomach; eliminated by a side that had only won one of their five domestic games, despite dominating proceedings from the first minute and missing a hatful of chances.  

They fell behind on the stroke of half-time during a rare opposition counter-attack and despite seventeen unsuccessful attempts on goal – including two unaccountable point-blank stops from the Romanian stopper – they trudged off at full-time, eliminated at the same stage and to the same team, to the full chagrin of the crowd.  

Euro 2021: Which nation may prove the surprise team

Euro 2021: Which nation may prove the surprise team

Friday evening will mark the launch of the 16th UEFA European Championship and experts are already debating their favourites to lift the trophy on 11 July. But there is something about this tournament that historically suggests an outsider, a dark horse of the likes of Greece in 2004 or, in more recent memory, Portugal’s shock triumph over France in the 2016 Final after their three consecutive Group Stage draws. Will there be such a shock on this occasion? The following four teams are more than equipped to pose the European big boys a problem and their progress this summer will be worth tracking.


If there is one nation who look to be at their strongest in recent memory, it must surely be Senol Gunes’ side. The Crescent Stars have arguably their best side since the 2002 World Cup, where they finished third under Gunes in a previous spell in charge.

Recent tournament history suggests their style has inclined toward passion, a degree of flair and a somewhat negligible attitude towards defending, but they appear a far more balanced outfit this time around.

Their defensive options should be the envy of their competitors going into the tournament; Leicester City’s Caglar Soyuncu and Juventus’s 6 ft 2 in Merih Demiral are their most experienced and feared centre-backs, while Ozan Kabak had made an impression on the national scene before his injury on loan at Liverpool.

Ozan Tufan and Okay Yokuslu – who played in the Premier League on loan at West Brom last season – will offer both defensive stability and a box-to-box presence respectively in midfield, while the Lille trio of right-back Mehmet Zeki Celik, Yusuf Yazici and the 35-year-old in-form Burak Yilmaz are on a high after their glorious title win in Ligue 1. 

Competition in attacking midfield will be provided by Hakan Calhanoglu, Cengiz Under and Kenan Karaman.

Expectation is that they will at least qualify from a group made up of Italy, Wales and Switzerland.


The co-hosts of Euro 2012 came through their qualification games relatively comfortably by topping their group six points clear of Austria. However, they did so despite an unconvincing playing style and at the start of 2021 the Polish FA chose to replace Jerzy Brzeczek with the more continental name in Paulo Sousa.

While Sousa’s early results obtained from World Cup qualifiers have remained mixed, the Portuguese is instilling a more tactically flexible side that can shift from three defenders with the ball to four or five when they lose possession.

The majority of attention will be focused on Robert Lewandowski – arguably the most talented centre-forward in the tournament – who will most likely be partnered with Krzysztof Piatek of Hertha Berlin to make a physically dominant forward pairing, and will be supplemented by the creative impetus of Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski.

Drawn in Group E alongside Spain, Sweden and Slovakia, Sousa’s realistic aim will be second place in the group ahead of the latter two countries.


It may seem outlandish to refer to the five-times World Champions as dark horses for the Euros, but this is an Italy side coming into the tournament with a new, unproven generation of younger talent.

The country were at their lowest footballing ebb at the time of their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, viewed as a disgrace back home that unsurprisingly saw then-manager Gian Piero Ventura replaced by Roberto Mancini.

The former Man City manager has overseen 21 wins out of 30 in his time in charge hitherto, a record that included a perfect 10 out of 10 victories from Euro qualifiers.  

The upcoming tournament will be the ultimate platform that Mancini is judged on, with many understandably reserving praise until the summer after Italy breezed through a qualification group that included Finland, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia and Liechtenstein.

Marco Verratti and Jorginho will dictate the tempo in the centre of their 4-3-3 formation that will in turn give the platform for Nicola Barella to maraud forward. In attack, they are likely to morph into a 3-2-5 that will make full use of their wing-backs in Emerson Palmieri (left) and Federico Chiesa (right) to provide width in offensive situations.  

The Azzurri are due to play their home games in Rome and are naturally the favourites the progress from their group containing Wales, Switzerland and Turkey. It will be during the knockout stages that many of their younger players’ lack of senior tournament experience that may prove their biggest hurdle.


This is the first time that Ukraine arrive at the European Championships with any tangible sense of expectation, having set the tone by winning their qualification group above reigning tournament champions Portugal.

Their history in the tournament is remarkably modest.  Only twice before have they participated at the Euros and in 2012 it was by virtue of being co-hosts.

Head coach – and former player with over 100 caps – Andriy Shevchenko has impressed with his the general success of his 4-3-3 tactical setup, despite criticism back home for his inability to speak Ukrainian (the former Dynamo Kyiv and AC Milan forward lives in London, is married to an American and speaks fluent Russian, Italian and English): “The minimum aim is to get out of the group…We have a good, young team and if the players are well-prepared and injury-free we can do it”.

Ukraine’s creative impetus very much relies on Oleksandr Zinchenko – who is usually played by Pep Guardiola at Man City at left-back and is very much the national team’s shining light – and Atalanta’s set-piece specialist Ruslan Malinovskyi, a reported Chelsea target who arrives at the tournament on the back of a fine run of 10 games in which he either registered a goal or assist, or both.

There is doubt around Shevchenko’s future post-tournament, but drawn in a group with the Netherlands, Austria and Euro debutants North Macedonia, there is a feeling that this is their chance to make history.

Gerrard’s Gers the beacon of light in time of darkness

Gerrard’s Gers the beacon of light in time of darkness

Steven Gerrard came out to publicly voice his disappointment in his team’s drop in playing intensity following their 1-1 draw at bottom-side Hamilton Academical on Sunday, a game in which his Rangers side relinquished the victory by conceding a stoppage-time Ross Callachan equaliser following an earlier Brian Easton own goal.  

It was, ultimately, a game that Rangers had not deserved to win, Gerrard admitted, and although an immense 56 points separates the two sides in the league, the champions-elect had, in reality, been second-best for the entire game.

The performance is one that will have surprised many, and Gerrard has been attentive to curb any hint of falling standards this season to assail such an insurmountable lead ahead of their bitter rivals Celtic coming into the final third of the campaign.

The big-picture reality is they have been so irrepressible that this is only the fourth fixture of the season that they have dropped points and still remain domestically unbeaten.

Indeed, there has been such a gritty resolve about this side since the first lockdown that has been unearthed by Gerrard through the pain of collapse from last year that has still not healed.

This time last year Rangers were in the desperate process of relenting all credibility in the respective title race: following their 2-1 win at Celtic Park on the 29 December 2019, they subsequently lost away to Hearts and Kilmarnock, and were defeated by Hamilton Academical for the first time in nearly a century.

By the time the Scottish Premiership was curtailed, rivals Celtic were crowned with 13 points daylight ahead of Gerrard’s men.

Regardless of the exceptional circumstances around time being called on last season, a reset was needed for the squad, and it has resulted in a quite emphatic turnaround around Ibrox.

Gerrard’s 150th game milestone was marked with a sweeping statement: a 5-0 thrashing of Ross County which at the time coincided with Celtic winless run extending to four games to virtually extinguish any hope they may have harboured of a late title challenge.

Their season stats to date have been undeniably impressive. They have scored 11 more goals than Celtic – comfortably the highest scorers in the league – and even more significantly have conceded only eight goals in 28 league games, typifying the organisation and discipline that has permeated across the squad since their reset.

In marked contrast, their old foes Celtic have suffered continued negative press extending far beyond their on-pitch regression, amid a total PR sham surrounding their annual New Year warm-weather training trip to Dubai, which inconveniently for Neil Lennon and the club hierarchy came immediately after the 1-0 defeat to Rangers on 2 January.

While the Hoops woefully crashed out of Europe in November with a 4-1 defeat to Sparta Prague, Rangers’ form in the Europa League has been nothing short of formidable.

Topping Group D two points clear of runners up Benfica and extending their unbeaten run in the competition – continued from the previous campaign – was a defining statement that Gerrard’s men can mix it with the bigger sides in Europe and have every reason to dream continental glory is within their capacity.

The impending notion of trophy glory is somewhat more layered than it should – particularly in such unprecedented circumstances given the wider context – for the most emotionally-invested party in Gerrard’s project: the Ibrox faithful.

Supporters of a superstitious disposition may even feel it is imperative to suppress all forms of emotion until their first title in a decade is mathematically secured, for fears of jinxing their beloved club reclaim glory – and bragging rights – over their bitter rivals.

There are those that will feel their right to eventually bask in full delirium has been overshadowed by the fact that it will be from the comfort of their sofa’s, due to the important the wider and more sobering reality of more than 80,000 lost lives in the UK.

And then there will be those that will simply wish to laud it over the rivals, to live out the full catharsis following the decade of pain since their last title: a period of time that has seen that them suffer financial insolvency and liquidation that led to enforced relegation, consolidation in the top flight, prolonged inferiority to Celtic, before and during this Gerrard era, right up until the lockdown reset. 

Joao Felix finally showing true worth to inspire Atletico Madrid

Joao Felix finally showing true worth to inspire Atletico Madrid

When Joao Felix showed the composure and skill to take the ball on his chest from Angel Correa’s hooked assist to beat past the onrushing Cadiz goalkeeper in the final moments of Atletico Madrid’s 4-0 win over their new La Liga opponents, it was not only his second of the game to seal an emphatic victory that briefly sent Atletico to the top of La Liga, it signalled something more profound.

It was the latest confirmation that their record signing is now coming of age, playing with the type of inhibition and electricity that is justifying their €120 million outlay for Felix from Benfica in the summer of 2019.

In his first season in Madrid, under Diego Simeone’s management – notorious for instilling defensive compactness and counter-pressing diligence high up the pitch – Felix was visibly burdened by being pigeonholed into a strict tactical system. Rather than allowing the 21-year-old the freedom to shine in the imposing way we are seeing now.

Nine goals and three assists across 2019/20 represented a respectable return for their investment in Felix’s first campaign, but the sky-high expectations and the stuttering influence on games indicated he was not reaching the levels he was projected to achieve, and his potential was being hampered by continual tactical tinkering.

In his first half a season at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, it was clear that Felix was being subject to repeated chopping and changing of his position, disrupting any hope of a smooth integration in Simeone’s setup.

Adapting to the Argentine’s coaching demands has proved challenging for creative offensive players like Thomas Lemar in recent seasons, with a rigid setup and requisite defensive responsibilities proving too alien for some.

However, with Felix, it was clear it was about catering to his needs for the benefit of the team as a collective unit.

By utilising Felix in the second-striker role behind the world-class driving force that is Luis Suarez – where he benefits from the creative freedom to drop deeper to act as a playmaker – he is playing as a traditional number 10 in the familiar role he operated during his Benfica days.

The relief of defensive responsibility means that he can use his positional nous to best effect around the opposition penalty area, playing a potent role in every final third action for Atletico.

Such a concession by Simeone is telling, not just for his reputation as a “system over individuals” management style, but it underlines the esteem Felix is held in, being their indispensable figure. 

A footballer to build the team around in the hope that he can inspire them to challenge for honours in an increasingly unpredictable La Liga season.

Three points shy of surprise La Liga leaders Real Sociedad – with two games in hand – Atletico’s unbeaten run now extends to 23 domestic games and their recent 4-0 victory marked their fourth win by three clear goals since Spanish football returned from lockdown in June. 

To put that into context, previously, Simeone’s side had gone 48 games in all competitions without recording a victory by that margin.

All that dovetails when their stubborn defence shows no sign of yielding with Jan Oblak being reliable as ever in goal. Atletico have in fact only conceded two goals in their seven La Liga games.

The ongoing malaise at Barcelona and Real Madrid has no doubt opened the door to a sparkling outsider like Real Sociedad or Villarreal, but it is Simeone’s Atletico that arguably feel the most balanced and equipped for a title tilt, and it is being spearheaded by their Portuguese wonderkid.

Estudiantes: The team of Bullies

Estudiantes: The team of Bullies

Football as we know in its contemporary form is a game of tactical trends and impressionable attitudes that affect a contagious state as spun by television – managers and pundits chiefly – and fan media alike. Styles of play can be widely heralded or publicly maligned.

But what tends to be regarded as negative or “dirty” tactics is now synonymous with typically defensive styles as adopted by high profile managers such as Jose Mourinho or Diego Simeone. Unique terms such as “parking the bus” or “hoofball” are given pejorative meanings to degrade a team’s definable style.

A key period in football’s global evolution was the very different context “dirty” carried in the pre-modern era of the 1960’s. The term would describe opposition intimidation, crunching tackles, flying kicks and on-pitch brawls that became so prevalent of South American football in this period. No team would manifest this style more so than the successful Argentinian side Estudiantes.

Formed in 1905 by a group of university students, Estudiantes are a modest-sized club based in the beach resort of La Plata, located in the province of Buenos Aries.

Comparatively small and traditionally in the shadow of capital giants Boca Juniors and River Plate, they came to the fore in the late 1960’s with an uncompromising brand of over-zealous football that on numerous occasions boiled over to the point of plain physical warfare.

Having won the 1967 Metropolitano – the Argentine first division – they subsequently went on to claim the Copa Libertadores trophy for three consecutive seasons. Despite their success, they became identifiable for overt cynicism, and in a country that was experiencing a fast-changing national identity, they came to epitomise the tag of “anti-futbol”.

The label had already gained significant national notoriety following Argentina’s ignominious 1966 World Cup quarter-final exit at Wembley against England.

The 1-0 defeat though was not what the encountered would be remembered for – instead captain Antonio Rattin’s dismissal for persistent protests in a bad-tempered display was to leave its mark indelibly on the course of Argentine football.

England’s manager Alf Ramsey would have been forgiven for showing public elation at guiding his country to their first ever World Cup Semi Final. Instead, his comments were unmistakably scathing of the opposition post-match: “Our best football will come against the right type of opposition – a team who come to play football, and not act as animals”.

Further international exhibitions involving Argentine sides were further proof of the increasingly ultra-aggressive and brutal approach that was becoming endemic back home.

In the 1967 Intercontinental Club Cup Final between Racing Club of Buenos Aries and Glasgow Celtic two bruising encounters were played out in both cities to record equally narrow home wins.

The deciding occasion, played in Montevideo, was only played once Celtic received security guarantees and, after suffering a host of unpleasant episodes from the second leg – that included the Celtic goalkeeper being struck by a stone in the crowd, conceding a clearly offside goal that the Uruguayan referee showed no interest in disallowing and having their dressing-room water turned off at half-time – an assurance of new officials for the third game.

What followed was another example of unsavoury chaos as, yet again the referee having lost all control, Celtic lost their heads in the face of incessant provocation and were defeated 1-0 after having three players sent off.

The very same year, the team with the sharpest rise were Estudiantes, the small club who won the 1967 championship with an effective pragmatic style that served as the most potent example of the primitive and muscular mentality.

They were a team without stars who, under coach Osvaldo Zubeldia, were lauded by sports publication El Gráfico as being “young, strong, disciplined and vigorous”.

But nowhere was the darker, belligerent approach now common in Argentina starker than in this unrelenting team of aggressors.

An emphasis on set-pieces – from where they scored over half of their goals from – were rehearsed obsessively through secret signs and their disciplined man-marking approach when holding on to a lead was entirely overshadowed by the lesser tactical ploys.

Midfielder Juan Ramón Verón – father of former Lazio and Man Utd midfielderdescribed their method: “We tried to find out everything possible about our rivals individually, their habits, their characters, their weaknesses, and even about their private lives, so that we could goad them on the field, get them to react and risk being sent off”.

When the balance of the game was shifting in the favour of the opposition, Estudiantes were the masters of nullification. They knew how to play a subtle foul at the right time but prevent a dismissal, they could take the sting out of a match by slowing it down, or even simply time-wasting.

They won their first Copa Liberatores in 1968 following a plainly violent Semi-Final encounter with Racing to then overcome Brazilian side Palmeiras in the final, but it was the two-legged Intercontinental Cup Final against Manchester United that would serve as the biggest shock to the world.

Initial tensions were apparent before a ball was even kicked when a pre-arranged official welcome ceremony for the Manchester United squad that had the intention of reaffirming friendly relations following the international occasion of 1966 was scuppered when Estudiantes pulled out of the meeting at the last moment.

The Argentinian’s intent to unsettle their visitors had the desired effect as Estudiantes edged out the English side in an encounter that at times resembled a street fight and featured midfielder Nobby Stiles – a former member of the victorious 1966 side – being dismissed for dissent.

Further frustration was to follow for United in the return leg at Old Trafford. Estudiantes were evidently content to play to protect their lead and following a 1-1 draw that saw both George Best and Jose Medina sent off for fighting, the provincial Argentine side were declared world champions.

The reaction to the following year’s narrow victory in the 1970 Libertadores Final over Peñarol suggested the tolerance to Estudiantes’ cruel cynicism was waning – what would follow in the impending Intercontinental Club Cup would go on to showcase the nadir of the anti-futbol-violence coalescence.

Facing AC Milan, the Italian giants – masters of the “Catenaccio” style – they met their nemesis in the first leg, losing the tie 3-0 to a Gianni Rivera-inspired Milan.

Any notions the Italians might have had of going through the motions in the return leg in Argentina were dashed even before kick-off, in a truly febrile atmosphere.

Before Milan players decided to abandon their on-pitch warm-up due to the levels of abuse they were receiving, their entire team had been greeted by the fanatical home support by having hot coffee poured onto them from above as they made their way to the ground.

Once the game began, Milan’s riposte to a series of nasty early tackles was to increase their aggregate lead through their captain Rivera.

But the on-pitch encounter was becoming totally engulfed by a tirade of wilful and abhorrent violence by Estudiantes.

Milan forward Pierino Prati was knocked unconscious by two Estudiantes players. Nestor Combin left the pitch in the second-half covered in blood from an elbow from Aguirre Suarez. Goalkeeper Alberto Poletti had earlier taken out frustration on Combin with a kick to the face. Rivera also took a punch from Poletti.

The Argentine’s pulled back two goals before half-time through Marcos Conigliaro and Suarez to further inflame the Bombonera atmosphere.

The Italians though, held their nerve to win their first world title in the face of deplorably brutal opposition.

The collective reaction to Estudiantes’ conduct was one of widespread denunciation.

Punishments were subsequently handed out to multiple parties: Suarez, Eduardo Manera and Poletti were arrested by the police – the latter even receiving a life ban.

Post-1970, Estudiantes’ fortunes began to decline, and by the time Carlos Bilardo stepped out of playing retirement to move into the managerial hotseat, it was clear that the squad had peaked. They lost the following year’s Copa Libertadores Final to Nacional and did not come close to another domestic title for another five years.

But their mark had been left on football – the definitive episode in the “anti-futbol” chapter of Argentine footballing history, offering real embodiment to the idea of unsophisticated, “negative” and “dirty” football.

My Favourite Game: Germany 0-2 Italy (2006)

My Favourite Game: Germany 0-2 Italy (2006)

Watching a football game free of emotional attachment can be a rewarding experience. It unburdens you to study a game’s unique tactical nuances, sub-plots and refereeing decisions without any hint of conscious bias.

For someone who watches a high volume of football throughout the year, the World Cup is the pinnacle of global sporting stakes; national pride is on the line, virtually the entirety of your home country is counting on not only your talent but your collective strength of character and will to deliver.

4 July 2006, the venue: Borussia Dortmund’s feared Westfalenstadion, where host nation Germany boasted an impeccable record of thirteen wins and a solitary draw from their 14 appearances at the home of one of Europe’s most revered clubs.

In contrast, while Italy had been quietly negotiating the earlier tournament stages, a sizeable portion of the squad were being dogged by controversy surrounding the “Calciopoli” scandal, not least Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero and captain Fabio Cannavaro whose heavily implicated Juventus side were facing demotion to the third tier.

Normal time proved elusive as far as goalscoring, or even clear-cut chances, went. The game was being played on an absolute knife-edge, both teams seemingly prioritising nullifying the opposition’s attack over utilising their own weaponry, but the encounter was growing to be no less absorbing nonetheless – there was a tangible feeling that one goal for either side would earn a World Cup Final spot.

Extra-time came by, and soon enough a cathartic sense of liberation was manifesting, as both sides began to take more risks. Italy were gradually gaining a foothold in midfield and appeared to be intent on scoring before a shootout, conscious of the Germans’ favourable record at penalties.

Substitute Alberto Gilardino and full-back Gianluca Zambrotta both saw efforts strike the woodwork, while Buffon was also called into action at the other end, making a brilliant one-handed save from the standout German attacker Lukas Podolski.

The moment then came, two minutes shy of the shootout, when the genius flickered.

An Italian corner was cleared to the edge of the area when Andrea Pirlo slipped a deceiving forward pass, oozing with exquisite precision, through for Fabio Grosso, who made no mistake in curling past Jens Lehmann.

Grosso wheeled away in celebration, shaking his head in sheer disbelief at the enormity of the moment, before being bundled by his jubilant teammates.

Simultaneously, the deafening silence that enveloped Signul Iduna Park, at that numbing moment in time, could not have been more representative of the entire expectant German nation.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s side poured forward in predictable desperation, but the colossal captain Fabio Cannavaro stole the ball and set Gilardino away who, in acres of space, fed the overlapping Del Piero to finish beyond the advancing Lehmann to confirm Italy’s first World Cup Final in twelve years – a chance to avenge the haunting Roberto Baggio penalty miss and seal a fourth star onto their badge – cueing scenes of Italian ecstasy in the process.

The Azzurri would indeed go onto become World Champions in Berlin courtesy of a shootout victory over France, in a game largely remembered for a notorious Zinedine Zidane headbutt, but it was this resplendent, tactical display that was so pivotal on their path to glory.

A Love Letter to Bubbles

A Love Letter to Bubbles

Football club songs can be a strange concept.

Frequently they are overlooked, particularly in their significance to their respective clubs’ identity. As fans witness the recurring cycle of managers – and owners too – come and go, over time they tend to develop opinions and preconceptions over their fellow clubs, often based on recent media activity, style of football, or managerial appointments that embody regime.

It can change in a short space of time too. The Manchester United we all knew – loved, feared, detested or respected, whatever it may be – from nearly a decade ago, is simply not the same model now. It is quite a while since we have heard “Glory Glory Man Utd” reverberated around Old Trafford with the same gusto since their last title win, in 2013, as they resoundingly bid farewell to their own – and the Premier League’s greatest manager – Sir Alex Ferguson.

For a club’s football anthem, it is the underlying emblem, from a fan’s perspective, to verbatim assert their undying support to their team.

In respect to some clubs, however, a song not only reflects their ethos and values, but shapes and somewhat bizarrely, fates it. To no English club does this fittingly apply to than of West Ham United.

Anyone who is accustomed to the viewing delights of the claret and blue, self-professed 1966 World Cup-winning, long-afflicted outfit from East London will be well-versed to “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” ringing out at the London Stadium – or the much beloved Upton Park previously – routinely three minutes before every kick off, but it is easy to overlook the lyrical significance of this grand old melody.

I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding,
I’ve looked everywhere,
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air

Originating back to New York’s Tin Pan Alley era, Bubbles was first debuted in the Broadway revue production “The Passing Show of 1918” and subsequently became popular in British music halls of the 1920’s.

West Ham United’s official account of how the tune became adopted by the Upton Park crowd is just as endearing as the anthem itself.

The story goes that a 1920s schoolboy footballer Will Murray was nicknamed ‘Bubbles’ due to his resemblance to a character in a well-known painting used to advertise Pears’ Soap. Accordingly, during a schools match at West Ham’s Boleyn Ground, Murray’s headmaster serenaded his pupil with I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, prompting other spectators joined in.

Thereafter, The Upton Park faithful adopted it as their own, and although the first recorded instance of West Ham fans singing Bubbles isn’t until the 1940 Football League War League Cup Final at Wembley, it soon became a renowned melody defining the East London spirit. Indeed, the song was often sung in air raid and underground shelters during the Blitz, cementing itself as a proclamation of positivity in times of adversity.

Various recordings were made of the tune throughout the second half of the 20th century; from notable names too, including Doris Day, Vera Lynn, The Kaye Sisters, and not forgetting that distinct punk-sounding version by East London’s very own Cockney Rejects – whose timing of release fittingly coincided in May 1980 with their last FA Cup triumph.

To merely listen to Bubbles semi-consciously renders the anthem somewhat inane and simple, albeit admirably optimistic.

But to the understand the deeper significance Bubbles, not least given the context of the club’s prolonged starvation of honours – West Ham’s last major trophy was that 1980 FA Cup win over Arsenal, which was followed by promotion from the second division a year later, in which time since the club have been relegated and promoted on four different occasions – and you cannot help but feel a palpable tinge of sadness and regret from the lyrics given the unrelenting suffering and lack of glory.

While other football anthems like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” have that emotionally uplifting, romanticised and collective narrative that looks to the future, Bubbles is virtually the antithesis. “Then like my dreams they fade and die. Fortunes Always Hiding, I’ve looked everywhere”. It oozes melancholia and transmits a kind of wistful feeling that almost celebrates the notion that, in life, you don’t always win, and you will have those days when it feels that you just aren’t nearing your goal at the end of the road.

Curiously, one angle that illustrates the implied essence of Bubbles is how the song is described in affectionate terms by figures outside the football world. In a 2014 Late Night with Seth Meyers interview, British film star Keira Knightley was quizzed about her unlikely allegiance to the club: “I just have to say about West Ham- they are not a team that win very oftenyou have this song that all the fans sing but the problem with it is that the song is actually really sad. The song is about not winning. The song is in fact about your dreams fading and dying the whole time, so it’s sort of not really a surprise that we lose all the time when we have this song”.

The female Hollywood star is plainly suggesting that maybe this has been West Ham United’s problem all along. Beyond all the historical narratives about them being a selling club before the Sullivan-Gold-Brady triumvirate walked in the door – or even irrelevant to their turbulent, self-parodying reign that, since their move from the Boleyn Ground to the former Olympic Stadium, has manifested the club into a toxic, polarised entity. Is it at all possible to contemplate that underneath all the complex, plot-thickening soap operas over time they have essentially been cursed by their own song?

It is certainly worth considering. Nevertheless, they are a proud club, and with good reason. Many West Ham supporters will tell you it was not the footballing prestige that enticed them into being a fan of the club. It was rather the heritage, passion and soul- something Upton Park was, and Bubbles still is, a huge part of – and entails the tormenting beauty of supporting West Ham United football club.

Lazio overcome Inter resistance to intensify title dream

Lazio overcome Inter resistance to intensify title dream

This felt like the turning point.

This felt like the moment that Lazio would transform from title outsiders to genuine title contenders.

The moment of the final whistle served as an instant cue for Lazio’s players to react with discernible emotion – many immediately raising their arms in the air in expression of sheer elation while others dropped to their knees simultaneously.

Simone Inzaghi’s side sealed their eleventh straight league victory, a record that dated back to October that, in turn, overcame their previously held Serie A best of nine consecutive wins under Sven-Göran Eriksson. Lazio finished second that season and followed that success by recording their last ever Scudetto Championship in 1999-2000 under the tutelage of the to-be England manager.

It was more than just the record, though. It was the fact that they had, yet again, overcome one of their revered title rivals: this time Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, who they overtook in second place. They now sit a solitary point behind current Serie A holders Juventus, who, right now, appear anything but their normal imperious selves.

The fact that Lazio went in at the interval a goal down, having suffered the setback of conceding to an Ashley Young volley a minute before the break, felt even more significant.
A less assured side may well have buckled, but this Lazio side are made of sterner stuff this season, showing a consistent capacity to turn come from behind.

Back in October, during a home encounter to Atlanta, Inzaghi’s men recovered to score three goals in the final twenty minutes to rescue a 3-3 draw, not least to mention their stirring 3-1 home victory over Juventus that came after trailing to a first-half Cristiano Ronaldo strike.

Five minutes into the second period, Lazio found a way back into the game courtesy of a familiar face, former defender Stefan de Vrij – who memorably was responsible for conceding a penalty in his last game for the Roman club, ironically against Inter, who he had already agreed a pre-contract with the following season, and cost Lazio a Champions League qualification spot – by making enough contact with the back of Ciro Immobile – albeit a soft foul to concede – who duly made no mistake to convert the subsequent penalty for his 26th goal of the season.

Fortune was to play no part for the second goal, though. Immobile controlled neatly from a corner and his goal-bound effort was superbly cleared off the line by Marcelo Brozovic, only for the ball to land at the feet of the player who had looked the most potent all evening, Sergej Milinković-Savić.

The Serb, who had arguably looked the most threatening player on the field all evening and had seen an earlier long-range effort crash the woodwork in the first period, showed exquisite close control to manoeuvre space away from the onrushing defensive endeavours of Romelu Lukaku to fire into the bottom corner and send the majority of the Stadio Olimpico into raptures.

The 6 ft 5 in midfielder’s return to peak form this season has been integral to the Biancocelesti’s surge in this campaign under Inzaghi, for a side that appear to be wholly benefitting from the palpable squad togetherness and continuity under their young manager, who, at the very least, appears well on course to earn Lazio their first Champions League qualification in over a decade.

As for their title chances, they may be the most inexperienced of the title-challenging trio but they are the most in-form outfit, riding the crest of an indomitable wave.

If they achieve what many would have deemed unthinkable, it would, without doubt, surpass their previous Scudetto triumph twenty years ago.