Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


OUT OF AFRICA, THE NEW YEAR’S FEEL-GOOD STORY

Zambia defeated Ivory Coast on penalty kicks, 8-7, following a scoreless draw in Libreville, Gabon, to capture the 2012 African Cup of Nations. 

The emotional final came down to two misses from the spot by Cote d’Ivoire.  In the tiebreaker, after 14 consecutive conversions, a Zambian save and Zambian miss, Arsenal’s Gervinho, a standout during the three-week tournament, misfired for the Elephants and Stophira Sunzu bured his try to give Zambia its first African crown.  Back in the second half, Ivory Coast had a chance to settle matters when Gervinho was brought down in the right side of the box, but Chelsea star Didier Drogba botched his PK attempt.

On the Zambian bench was the country’s soccer chief, Kalusha Bwalya, who had hired current coach Herve Renard.  In 1993, Bwalya, then a member of PSV Eindhoven, was due to fly from Holland to Africa to play for Zambia in a World Cup qualifier when all of his teammates were killed in a plane crash off the coast of  Libreville.   Three days before the 2012 final, Bwalya and Renard led the current Zambian squad to a Libreville beach, where they said prayers and scattered flowers.  “There was a special spirit with us,” said Renard, a Frenchman, later.  “It was written in the sky.”  

Zambia came into the tournament as 40-1 longshots while the heavily favored Ivorians, who won the 55-year-old competition back in 1992, went home having gone six games without a loss and without conceding a goal.  [February 12]

Comment:  Over the din of the silly turmoil in England concerning its captain and coach, over the din of the very real turmoil in Egypt (winners of the previous three African titles) that threatens that country’s ability to field a national team, 2012 has produced a feel-good story, and we haven’t even reached mid-February.  For more, scroll down to “Zambia’s Chance for a Bit of Closure,” January 21.

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TO DIVE, OR NOT TO DIVE
September 3, 2011, 8:01 pm
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Still making the rounds on the Internet was a clip of a stunning goal scored August 25 by Jeremain Lens during a match between host PSV Eindhoven and Austrian upstart SV Ried in the second leg of the Europa League’s third qualifying round.

With PSV on its way to a 5-0 rout, Lens ran onto a ball sent down the right wing, and Ried goalkeeper Thomas Gebauer raced some 35 yards off his line in an attempt to snuff out the breakaway.  Gebauer’s tackle managed to knock Lens to the turf, but the Dutch international bounced to his feet, chased the ball into the corner and lofted a long shot with the outside of his right foot that curved off  the far post and into the net off the right hand of the retreating Ried ‘keeper.

For a look, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dyHMsCxPFs   [September 1]

Comment:  Granted, Lens had every reason to do his best to get an advantage call and continue his run for a chance at an open net because PSV couldn’t have done much with a distant free kick from inside the touchline.  But it was just a spectacular reminder that what’s maddening for fans when an attacking player dives to draw a penalty kick or short-range direct free kick isn’t just that it’s cynical and, at times, embarrassing for the player and the sport itself.  It’s that we all miss the chance to see something special, like a player riding or eluding that challenge and then perhaps going on to score a wonderful goal.



THE ORIGINAL RONALDO, AND WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, citing the toll the game has taken on his 34-year-old body, announced his retirement from soccer.

Once known as The Phenomenon, the striker leaves as the all-time World Cup scorer with 15 goals over three tournaments (he was part of the 1994 World Cup squad as a 17-year-old but did not play).  Winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1996 and 1997, Ronaldo received that honor a third time for leading Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title.

Ronaldo scored more than 400 goals in a stellar career that began in 1993 with Cruzeiro and followed with stops at PSV Eindhoven, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan and, finally, back in Brazil with Corinthians.  His contract with Corinthians was due to expire at the end of the year, and he had been routinely hooted by fans for his obvious lack of match fitness.

“With this announcement, it feels like my first death,” Ronaldo said. 

He added:  “My career was beautiful, was wonderful.  I’ve had many defeats but infinite victories.”  [February 14]

Comment:  Ronaldo’s career was doomed four years ago, when he learned he had hypothyroidism, a condition that makes it difficult to lose weight.   But it should be remembered that the man whose irresistable, explosive runs into the enemy penalty area often ended with a goal and a trademark gap-toothed grin was among the most star-crossed stars in modern soccer.

Best known of his physical setbacks, of course, is Ronaldo’s mysterious performance at the 1998 World Cup final against host France.  Ronaldo had scored a team-leading four goals to that point, but the afternoon of the game, in the team’s hotel in Paris, he suffered convulsions, possibly the result of the combination of medications that had been administered to him for injuries to an ankle, a calf, a knee.  Scratched from the starting lineup an hour before the game, he was reinstated (it was rumored under pressure from the team’s mega-sponsor, Nike), played a lackluster 90 minutes and managed two shots, one a sitter from five yards that he sent directly at the chest of France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.  Shaken by the pre-game drama, the swaggerless Brazilians bowed to the French, 3-0.

Not as well remembered is the period, starting four months after Paris, that typified the career of Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima.  That November, he scored for Inter in an Italian Cup game against derby rival AC Milan, but he soon limped off the field with a ruptured kneecap tendon.  Upon his return the following January he sustained another injury that shelved him for two months.  But the most serious threat to Ronaldo’s career came in November 1999 when he tore up his knee in an Italian league match against Lecce.  After surgery and rehabilitation, he returned to action in April 2000 in an Italian Cup game and lasted all of eight minutes before rupturing ligaments in the same knee.  Ronaldo wouldn’t be back until the following season, and in September 2001 he sustained a thigh strain in a UEFA Cup match gainst FC Brasov of Romania.  After eight weeks on  the sidelines, he touched the ball three times in a league match against Lecce and limped off with another thigh strain.  In all, the six injuries over four seasons forced him to miss 14 months of games.

The triumph over Germany at Korea/Japan ’02 proved that Ronaldo wasn’t entirely snake bit, and Real Madrid, apparently convinced that he was indestructable,  bought the then-25-year-old for $58 million.  Five years and 99 goals in 164 appearances later, a falling out with Real coach Fabio Capello prompted Ronaldo to move to AC Milan, and naturally another career-threating knee injury–the rupture of left kneecap ligament–followed.  During his rehabilitation his reputation took a hit when he was caught in an encounter with cross-dressing prostitutes.

Things were never the same, of course.  And now, one can only wonder where Ronaldo’s place in soccer history would be if he hadn’t lost what were four years from the prime of his career.  One thing is certain:  For the past few years, when one mentions “Ronaldo,”  it’s understood that the player in question is the Portuguese–not Brazilian–version.