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Real Madrid, Gareth Bale and why it’s not just about the football

At the Santiago Bernabeu, the stage is literally set for what could be the unveiling of the world’s most-expensive footballer. Gareth Bale’s proposed move from Tottenham to Real Madrid has understandably monopolised recent back pages as fans await the conclusion of a transfer saga that has left many questioning the financial implications of the reported £85 million deal.

Aside from the moral qualms many have about such an astronomical figure, most fans have been left querying whether Bale is worth the record-breaking fee. The Welshman is a phenomenal footballer on a par with other Premier League heavyweights; Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. Yet these players aren’t nearly attracting the astronomical figures to their names as Bale. Robin van Persie, last season’s top goalscorer, was bought for a measly £22.5 million last year. One of the finest all-round English players of the last decade, Wayne Rooney, was only recently valued at a mere £25 million by Chelsea. Luis Suarez, scorer of 30 goals last season, has attracted massive offers from Arsenal but that famous 40 million and a one pound pales in comparison to the reported Bale fee.

The residing question then is this: what exactly are Madrid up to? Gareth Bale is undoubtedly a superb footballer. Not even the most ardent of Arsenal fans would question that. For club and country, the midfielder scored 31 goals last term. He single-handedly won games for his team in sublime fashion on more than a handful of occasions. These are facts that nobody can deny. They are also facts that fans of Manchester United (Rooney and van Persie) and Liverpool can boast of their stars yet no record transfer fee hangs over the heads of these players. Real Madrid president Florentine Perez obviously sees value in the Welshman and is willing to part with £85 million to prove it.

Real Madrid are no strangers to blockbuster signings. In 2001 it was Zinedine Zidane (a then world record £45.6 million). In 2009, it was Kaka (another world record of around £56m) and then Cristiano Ronaldo (yet another world record fee of £80 million). At a cheaper, but no less significant, level they signed David Beckham from Manchester United in 2003 for £24.5 million.

Real Madrid is unashamedly a brand and each of the players mentioned slotted perfectly into the on-going mission to solidify the Galácticos as the largest global brand in football. Through sponsorships and worldwide touring Madrid have become the most recognised football club on the planet.

Gareth Bale

With Beckham they acquired Europe’s most valuable sporting personality. From the very beginning of his Spanish adventure David Beckham was helping his new club recoup the money they had dished out on him – even his medical was sponsored by a health-care firm. Add this to multi-million pound Adidas deal to match Madrid’s and a merchandising agreement that reportedly had Beckham handing 50% of his personal sponsorship earnings to Madrid then it is safe to say that the Spanish giants have an idea of how to spend money to make money.

‘Brand Madrid’ seek players that are able to enhance not just their on-field success but also that off it. Jose Mourinho’s managerial credentials need no clarification yet he was considered surplus to requirements at Madrid as his controversial antics were just not in keeping with the angelic sheen of the nine-time European Cup winners. When Mourinho was seen to poke then Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye the Spanish press called it ‘deplorable’. Not an image football’s biggest commercial club wished to convey.

Madrid were often linked to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez this summer, a player with statistics that at times outshine Bale’s, yet this interest never gathered any momentum and it can only be assumed that this is down to the tainted image of the Uruguayan. Like Mourinho, Suarez is capable of too much brand-damaging controversy to justify spending such amounts of money regardless of his talent.

Just a quick glance at Real Madrid’s history of signings provides a clearer picture of why they are willing to spend such an enormous amount on a clean-cut, fresh faced, superstar in the making. In Bale, Madrid have a young star in the making that they will be able to mould and shape to fit their own needs. In Madrid, Bale has a platform to expand his own brand. It was not so long that it was revealed Bale was attempting to trademark his heart-shaped goal celebration – he is clearly aware of the benefits of building his own brand beyond the game and the benefits of a Madrid move will not be lost on the 24-year-old.

Even on a brand-building level, Bale at such a price will still be seen as a gamble for Madrid. Unlike, Zidane, Kaka, Ronaldo or Beckham, he is not a pre-packaged global star just waiting to become a shirt-selling machine. He doesn’t yet transcend sport like, say, Beckham did. The more cynical of supporters will assume the long drawn-out pursuit of Bale by Madrid is merely a clever marketing ploy to allow the world time to catch up and get to know the world’s most expensive footballer-elect before the eventual finalities are complete.

Simply by being attached to such lucrative and high-profile transfers in recent history, Real Madrid have ensured their names in both the history books and newspapers all around the world; the Gareth Bale situation is no different. Madrid are being talked about by football fans and non-fans alike the world over, and that is just the way the like it as the brand continues to flourish with the latest star commodity preparing his keepy-up skills for the big Bernabeu reveal.

by Jack Poland

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Early wins provide Liverpool with an air of hope

With just two games gone, Liverpool find themselves in relatively unchartered territory – the top four. A position that will be resoundingly welcome to fans that have grown all too used to being mere onlookers to those around them enjoying the thrill of the Champions League.

Cynics will understandably be quick to roll out the old adage of ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ and that it is still early days. This is, indeed, worthy of note. Even with this impressive start, many – including the majority of Liverpool fans – won’t be too surprised to see the Reds miss out on that elusive fourth spot again come May. Those around them have quality that Liverpool can, on their day, certainly match – especially with the return of a certain number 7 – yet the depth of the Liverpool squad is criminally lacking in comparison to Champions League-spot rivals Spurs.

Early days, then, it certainly is, though most Liverpool fans by this point in recent seasons would have already lost any of the hope that pre-season perennially provides. The six points Liverpool have amassed in the last two games took two months last season, with their first win coming on September 29th.

Daniel Sturridge

Many will argue that Liverpool’s form is fairly irrelevant at such an early stage yet it is the fact that this early success has come at this stage that has left fans relieved and hopeful. Too many times have Liverpool looked back at games they could and should have won and rued the difference it made to the end-of-season standings. Too many recent domestic seasons have ended before they’ve even had a chance to start; that the Anfield club haven’t allowed that to happen this term is vital and will be welcomed with open arms by fans. If success isn’t on the bill then at least keep the fans thrilled and engaged until closing time. A season ending in March is far worse than one ending unsuccessfully in May.

Two 1-0 wins are perhaps not going to grab the headlines but they are games that Liverpool would have perhaps drawn or even lost last season, and it would take even the most stubborn of opposing fans to not see the signs of improvement. Liverpool fans checking the scores at Scores.co.uk will be pleasantly surprised by their positive start to the season as they are notorious slow starters.

Reds manager Brendan Rodgers must ensure that these improvements continue, as more are needed – be they filling gaps in the squad with new signings or ruthlessly finishing off teams when the chance arises. Losing out on the likes of Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will hurt a club like Liverpool. History, stature and a global fanbase isn’t enough for players when Champions League football isn’t part of the package and at Liverpool, Champions League football should and must be included if they are to continue improving and maintain these elements that do, at times, attract the biggest names.

Two wins in two to begin the season has been greeted with justifiable joy around Anfield, though fans know it must continue and they will be hoping that, come this time next season, a flurry of similar wins will come with an air of expectation rather than a pleasant surprise.

As Chelsea hunt Cavani – is Torres’ time finally up?

“There’s no better place to be than at Chelsea with Mourinho”. These were the unequivocal words of Fernando Torres recently when questioned on his future with Chelsea. Words that exude nothing else but an unmistakable desire to ply his trade at Stamford Bridge this coming season. Compare these words with the “so-so” that Jose Mourinho mumbled recently to describe Torres’s time at Chelsea and you would be forgiven for thinking that things don’t quite add up for Spain’s number 9.

“So-so” – not a direct denunciation of Torres but certainly not a declaration of faith from Chelsea’s new manager either. Mix this with Mourinho’s not-so-secret desire to bring in Napoli’s Edinson Cavani and the signs do not look good for Torres.

The Chelsea faithful are unlikely to shed many tears if Torres’s departure means Cavani is brought in with the two strikers’ goal-scoring records last season contrasting starkly. 26-year-old Cavani scored a staggering 38 goals in 43 games, 29 of which were in Serie A. Torres, now 29, managed 22 in 64 for Chelsea in a season that many considered his best in blue – just eight of those 22 goals however were Premier League goals. To put it bluntly, Cavani is the player Chelsea thought they were signing in Torres from Liverpool – and more. Any fans doubting Cavani’s ability to make the notoriously difficult transition from Serie A to the Premier League should take solace in the success of strikingly similar players Carlos Tevez and Luis Suarez on these shores.

Fernando Torres

One element that Torres has in his favour however is the competition Chelsea may find in landing the understandably much sought-after Uruguayan. PSG are widely reported to have made Cavani prime target number one this summer and are more than capable of outspending even Chelsea yet Cavani, who was relatively quiet in the Confederations Cup, is believed to be eager to ultimately prove himself in the Premier League.

If Chelsea are unable to nab the Salto man it still remains difficult to imagine Mourinho’s Chelsea lining up against Hull in August with Torres or Demba Ba, who managed just the two league goals last term, leading it. Mourinho is likely to line his side up with just the one striker more times than not and he understandably won’t want to hand that responsibility to a player whose light has significantly faded since his Liverpool days.  Stephan El Shaararwy is another signing that Chelsea have strongly been linked with and one that Torres, like with Cavani, is supposedly being used in as a bargaining tool. Chelsea are unlikely to want their most expensive acquisition festering on the bench and are perhaps wise to use him as makeweight for the future development of that forward line.

Chelsea and Torres are believed to be holding talks this week over his future at the club with the Spaniard hoping to persuade his new manager that he still has a role to play at the club, be that with a new strike partner or not. He’ll certainly not want his roll to be as a deal-maker in the negotiations for his eventual replacement.

Torres is still likely to demand a costly fee and, at his best, remains formidable in every department in front of goal. Enquiries for his services will certainly not be shy in coming forward yet the problem for Torres would be convincing potential suitors that he is able to recapture the scintillating form he has shown slivers of at Chelsea and that he is worth a gamble with what would surely be a pricey fee.

If this is indeed the end of Torres’s spell at Chelsea then the question that remains is where next for ‘El Niño’. Perhaps the most likely destination is wherever Chelsea want him, whether that is in Naples or Milan. Barcelona are rumoured to be interested in Torres as a possible replacement for David Villa whose form has, for him, waned since his injury. Torres though has talked down this link, instead deciding to focus on Chelsea and his wish to benefit from the tutelage of Mourinho. After two-and-a-half underwhelming seasons at Chelsea and with Mourinho mercilessly tracking Europe’s elite however, that wish may well be left unfulfilled.

West Ham’s purchase of Liverpool’s Andy Carroll – inspired or mad?

Andy Carroll’s much-expected move to West Ham was finalised on Wednesday and is widely believed to end up costing the East Londoners £46m in total – a transfer fee of around £15m and a relatively staggering six-year, £100,000-a-week contract. The question on everybody’s lips is whether Carroll, who scored seven goals in 25 appearances during an injury-plagued loan spell at Upton Park last season, is worth this club-record fee. Just why are West Ham willing to spend so much on a player that Liverpool are prepared to lose £20m on?

The fee the Hammers have paid for the England forward pales in comparison to the £35m price tag Liverpool paid in 2011, yet will still be seen as a hefty fee and neutrals will question just what Carroll has to offer.

Since his move to Liverpool, the former Newcastle man has been much maligned by many, with that fee hanging around his neck like a millstone. Carroll will feel that such a consensus is unwarranted after an impressive run of form towards the end of last season, in which he netted the winner in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton and a consolation goal in the final. Just as Carroll was beginning to settle on Merseyside however, out went the man who had shown so much faith in him – Kenny Dalglish – and in came Brendan Rodgers, a man whose preferred style of play was never going to make provisions for a six-foot-three striker. Those hoping Carroll would be utilised as a Plan B were left disappointed – a regular place as a mere squad player was never going to be an option for someone who cost, and was continuing to cost, so much.

Andy Carroll

The predicament at Anfield was a typical one when the player in question is of Carroll’s ilk. At his best, Carroll terrorises even the most astute of defenders in the air and has a projectile left foot that is always a threat to opposing goalkeepers. At his worst; the pony-tailed Gateshead man is conspicuously left cantering around the final third leaping into defenders just to feel involved when games aren’t catering to his strengths.

At Newcastle, Carroll was at times unplayable – as Arsenal and indeed Liverpool will testify – and when the Anfield club came in for the striker it was to nobody’s surprise – after all, Tottenham and Chelsea were also known to be keeping a close eye on him. It was of course the astronomical fee that Liverpool paid that shocked the football world and, more than likely, the player himself.  As the disbelief began to fade however, there was a genuine belief that this was the step that this rising star needed in order to completely fulfil the potential he had shown. Of course, this wasn’t the case and those who have watched the striker closely from his impressive Championship days have been left with a residual sense of frustration and disappointment.

Carroll is certainly capable of reaching double figures next season under Sam Allardyce, who is sure to give his new striker the run of games, fitness permitting, he so desperately needs. A strike partner is yet to be shipped in at Upton Park after Allardyce’s failed attempt to audaciously land Alvaro Negredo from Sevilla, but whoever is brought in must play to and off Carroll’s strengths. The aerial strength of Carroll is such that he is more than capable of assisting as many goals as he can score – something he hinted at several times last season alongside Kevin Nolan. There are few defenders who can handle Carroll at his best and if Allardyce has the tools to tap into this rich source of goals then Upton Park may well have a new hero. The player himself must also play his part, as the coming season will be vital with the pressure very much eased on his still young shoulders. He will no longer have pound signs floating over his head whenever he fails to meet a cross or squanders a chance, and hopefully Carroll will eye this as an opportunity to remind us all of the player he is capable of being.

Ask any Liverpool, or even Newcastle, supporter about Andy Carroll and the majority will, perhaps reluctantly, speak fondly of the lummox that was their number 9. While others will scoff at the amount that has been spent on Carroll – his two transfers combined far outweighs the money that has ever been spent on Robin van Persie for instance – West Ham fans should be comforted by the lack of ill-feeling towards their new man from those around Anfield. One thing that Carroll is certain to provide fans is a mixed bag of frustration at his unfulfilled but palpable talent and resounding elation when the smiling Geordie wheels away after scoring. The Upton Park faithful will hope for more of the latter and you would suspect that so will those at Anfield and St James’ Park, where a frustrated soft spot for the big man well and truly remains.

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