Remember when Shunsuke Nakamura was nominated for the Ballon d’Or?

By Ross Ringsell

“We have a lot of quality players, but I turned to my assistant and said ‘I think we are witnessing a genius at work’. If you are talking a pure, pure footballer, he is as good as there is.” – Gordon Strachan

On 25th July 2005, Shunsuke Nakamura arrived at Glasgow Celtic for a fee of £2.5m, after his successful spell in Italy playing for Reggina. It was a huge possibility that the move would never go through, with Gordon Strachan having to fight off competition from Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in order to gain the signature of the Japanese star. With clubs across Europe after Nakamura, the choice was left up to him – and he chose Celtic.

Fans had heard about his talent, and with excitement in their hearts, they welcomed their new hero with open arms. After a period of crisis for The Hoops, in which they had crashed out of European competition after a 0-5 home defeat to Slovak side Artmedia Bratislava, Nakamura represented a totem figure not seen by supporters since Henrik Larsson.

This was a dream for Nakamura, and he realised that all his hard work was finally paying off. From being let go from his first team for being too skinny, to making his Celtic debut – this was the beginning of something special.

Even though he wasn’t totally match fit, Gordon Strachan decided to give him his debut against Dundee United in the second league game of the season. Nakamura had been given his opportunity to go and entertain his new fans and he did just that.

His brilliant improvisation on the ball as well as his dangerous left-foot was thrilling for those in the crowd. This new fresh style of skill and confidence shocked the Dundee United players. With a fantastic debut under his belt, he was named Man of the Match. More importantly, he was given a standing ovation from the Celtic fans. They knew, as did the players, that Nakamura was a true talent.

Alongside adapting to the style of Scottish football, Nakamura was very open with his new teammates and coaches about how difficult he found acclimatising to life in Scotland. Not speaking the language, as well as the new aspects of living in a different city, proved to be very challenging for him.

With his teammates knowing how vital he could be to the team, they encouraged and helped him in any way that they could. This, combined with the success Celtic achieved in Nakamura’s first season – winning the SPL by a 17-point margin – gave him the belief that he could be a serious influencer in the Celtic side.

During the 2006 World Cup, Shunsuke Nakamura was able to experience first-hand how his transfer to Celtic had affected the fans of his own country. Celtic strips covered about a quarter of the Japanese support, as fans travelled just to see him perform. After seeing how much of an impact just one year in Scotland had, Nakamura returned from Germany more mature and ready to take the new season by storm.

In the first half of Nakamura’s second season at Celtic, he had become a fan favourite. His improved consistency was noticeable, but even more noteworthy was his ability from a dead ball. The technique he used from a free-kick to smash the ball into the top corner with such spin was mind-boggling.

With Celtic’s title defence off to a great start, it was time to take to the European stage. A tough draw in the Champions League group stages saw Celtic needing to face Copenhagen, Benfica and Manchester United.

Of course, it was the fixtures against Manchester United that got everyone excited. With great results against English sides in recent years, Celtic were optimistic as they entered the Theatre of Dreams. It was an entertaining and intense battle that provided five goals, as United narrowly clinched all the points on offer in a 3-2 victory. Equalising to make it 2-2 in the 43rd minute, Nakamura became the first Japanese player to score in the Champions League, with a characteristically stunning free kick leaving Van Der Sar motionless.

After such a close fixture at Old Trafford, pundits and fans believed that Celtic had the ability to grab the victory at home. And with such a performance by Nakamura the first-time round, many started to believe that he really did have magic in his feet.

Celtic Park has produced some magical European nights and they don’t come much bigger than 21st November 2006. With Manchester United eager to keep their outstanding form on track, they came to Glasgow to win. They certainly gave it their all, with  Ronaldo, Saha and Rooney causing chaos in defence for Celtic.

But the Glasgow giants held their ground and with 10 minutes left on the clock, they had their chance. A foul by Vidic over 30 yards out may not present a legitimate opportunity for most…but for Nakamura it certainly did. 

He struck the ball astonishingly hard. It wasn’t a matter of seeing it go past Van der Sar that indicated to the crowd that he’d scored, as much as the sound it made as it rippled in the top right corner of the net. It had to be a thing of beauty that managed to get Gordon Strachan screaming and jumping with joy.

When Celtic needed ‘Naka’, he delivered. And with a great team effort and an individual piece of brilliance, Celtic were through to knockout stage of the Champions League.

Celtic-goal-scorer-Shunske-Nakamura-L-1554893201

The knockout stages saw Celtic face AC Milan. Nakamura was extremely pleased with the draw as it was his first return to Italy since joining Celtic. With the first 90 minutes in both legs ending goalless, it took extra time to break the deadlock.

The Italian giants had the edge in the San Siro as a 1-0 defeat saw Celtic eliminated from the Champions League. And although Nakamura’s European journey had come to an end, he still had one magical moment that the Celtic fans may regard as his greatest ever.

by 22nd April 2007, Celtic had the chance to win the Scottish Premier League. A victory against Kilmarock at Rugby Park would see Celtic crowned champions. A fierce competition had the score level at 1-1, late into the game. In the last minute of the game, Nakamura won a free-kick just a few yards outside the box.

Another big moment, another free kick. With one perfect strike, Naka won the league at Rugby Park. This will remain one of the greatest individual moments in any title success that Celtic have enjoyed.

His individual achievements in the 2006/2007 season cemented him in the hearts of all Celtic fans. His success was acknowledged by everyone in Scotland, and further afield. Shunsuke Nakamura was named Scottish Player of the Year and SFWA Footballer of the Year. He made such an impact on the European stage that Nakamura was nominated for the 2007 Ballon d’Or. He was the first Celtic player to be nominated for the prestigious award since Henrik Larsson. He lost out to Kaká, who was the last player to win the prestigious award outside of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo until Luka Modrić in 2018. 

Manchester United are staring down the barrel of transfer window tragedy

By George Storr

The race to finish fourth isn’t the only cause for nerves at Old Trafford at the moment. After a tumultuous season defined by personnel changes, rumours are already circulating that up to six of United’s senior players could be headed away from Manchester come summer. Having shown his capability to get Man Utd back to winning ways, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now has to prove that he has the influence and know-how to replace potential departures. Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward is putting his faith in OGS, so expect to see some eye-widening signings and transfer fees. 

Ander Herrera

Leicester-City-v-Manchester-United-Premier-League-1554745981

Ander Herrera has agreed terms with PSG, according to Sky Sports News, though an official confirmation of this is not forthcoming.

The 29-year-old has been a fantastic midfield workhorse for United and has made himself a real fan favourite as a result. For the United faithful, Herrera could cause the biggest heartbreak of those heading for the door.

However, according to Le Parisien, PSG may be turning their attentions to United alumnus and Ajax defender Daly Blind. This gives the Old Trafford faithful some hope that they may hang onto their beloved Basque midfielder.

Energy and commitment are the essence of Herrera’s game, so any potential move for a replacement should be made with those qualities in mind. He contributes to United’s ability to win the ball back but he’s also important in an attacking sense, even chipping in with an occasional goal.

As regards a possible replacement, a case could be made for signing Leicester’s Nigerian midfielder, Wilfred Ndidi. The 22-year-old was brought in at Leicester in an attempt to replace Ngolo Kante. Statistically, he’s made more tackles than any other Premier League player (122) and he’s been nominated for the PFA’s player of the month award for March, alongside Sadio Mane and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Ndidi is showing huge potential and hasn’t yet attracted the sort of media attention that could bump up his price tag. He could be an interesting addition to United’s midfield.

To look to a bigger name, who would have a bigger price tag, Declan Rice is another young midfielder showing immense potential. He’s got a long term contract at West Ham though so United would have to be willing to pay over the odds, as they have far too often in recent seasons.

Another, slightly more old-fashioned route would be to poach one of Wolves’ star midfielders. Two beatings in close succession might have inspired Man Utd to flex their financial muscle and buy one of the players capable of meting out that punishment.

Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota have both shown their ability to shape games. Both are only 22 and have been regulars for Wolves. Jota is the most impressive when it comes to crunching the numbers though – in 26 appearances he’s scored seven goals and contributed four assists.

PICKS: Wilfred Ndidi, Diogo Jota

Alexis Sanchez

Sanchez

Alexis Sanchez was cause for excitement for many United fans when he signed from Arsenal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way. As it turned out though, United, it seems, would have done just as well to keep the inconsistent Armenian.

Instead, United got an even more inconsistent Sanchez. Signing him decimated the Manchester United wage structure and he’s contributed very little on the pitch. He’s also failed to win the hearts of the United faithful, or indeed of the new manager. 

If Sanchez does leave, a lot of wage money will be freed up to guarantee the re-signing of David DeGea. By that token, the sooner Sanchez signs elsewhere, the better.

In terms of a replacement, United needed Sanchez to contribute goals, so that should be at the heart of the hunt to replace him.

Everton’s Richarlison has netted 12 this season and can play in a variety of attacking roles. He’s gained enough plaudits to bump up his fee too, though.

Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu, an ex-Barcelona and Milan player, has shown his star-quality this season, scoring two goals in Watford’s dramatic FA comeback against Wolves on Sunday. He’s netted seven in 24 appearances. The fact that the European giants didn’t see fit to hang onto him might ring some warning bells, but consider too the success Liverpool are having with a similar figure in Xherdan Shaqiri.

The Evening Standard have claimed that United are confident in signing England starlet, Jadon Sancho. He would be a worthy but costly addition to the side. Dortmund have also denied any suggestions that Sancho will be leaving the Bundesliga, with their CEO last week saying “we will not sell him, that is fact. It is clearly discussed with every person who is involved that Jadon plays in the next season for BVB.”

The Manchester Evening News have suggested that if Sancho doesn’t come to Manchester, United fans could see the return of Memphis Depay. His time at United first time round was underwhelming to say the least, but a purple patch at Lyon has caught the eyes of scouts the other side of the channel.

PICKS: Gerard Deulofeu, Jadon Sancho

Valencia, Rojo and Darmian

The loss of three defenders in Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and club stalwart Antonio Valencia will mean the United back line needs some summer additions. The Sun have also reported that Real Madrid are preparing a £35m bid for Eric Bailly, with Zinedine Zidane impressed by the Ivorian’s stints at La Liga sides Espanyol and Villareal before he signed for Man Utd. Whilst none of the four have had stellar seasons, such a mass exodus could leave United in the red.

Rojo has been given permission to train with Argentine club Estudiantes, while Valencia’s contract extension was not triggered by the club and Darmian has featured so little a move seems unavoidable.

James Tarkowski has been a prolific tackler at Burnley and could be an interesting replacement for Rojo. Equally, the continuation of the Harry Maguire rumours suggest he may be added to the backline as a much needed leader. It’s been an oft-levelled accusation that United have lots of centre-backs who should be the second, supporting player in a partnership, and not the leading man. Maguire could be the man to take the lead, likely paired with Chris Smalling. He will likely come at a hefty price though.

Serie A also has a couple of players that have caught United’s eye. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly has been persistently linked with a move to United, but as one of the best players in his position in the world, it’s unlikely that he’ll leave South Italy for less than £100m, as well as a hefty wage. Italian journalist Ciro Venerato has suggested that the Red Devils will instead make a move for Roma CB Kostas Manolas, who has a €36m release clause.

Cross-town rivals Manchester City have shown the importance of great full-backs in a Premier League campaign this year. They’re set to bolster that too as they prepare a record breaking bid for Leicester left-back, Ben Chillwell. United will have to think long and hard about how to remedy their situation at right-back, with Darmian and Valencia leaving and Ashley Young getting on in years.

If shopping within the Premier League, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and DeAndre Yedlin are tempting propositions. Yedlin’s pace is noteworthy but Wan-Bissaka is man of the moment in the prem and reports suggest United may be going head-to-head with Spurs in an attempt to win his signature.

Raphael Varane has also been discussed as a target for Solskjaer. However it seems likely Zinedine Zidane will do everything he can to keep hold of the star centre back, with Los Blancos reportedly in talks to offer the Frenchman a new long-term contract. 

PICKS: Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Pogba and Mata

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Paul Pogba is seemingly quite unlikely to depart Old Trafford this summer. However, contingency planning for the potential departure of such a big-name player is important. If Pogba was lured away by Real Madrid, as some comments from the midfielder have suggested, who could replace him?

A marquee signing might be considered necessary to fill the hole and keep pace with Manchester City and Liverpool. Any fee for Pogba would doubtless be a huge one and give Ole a war chest for such a marquee signing.

Rumours have circulated that Barcelona may target Juan Mata as a discount buy to bolster their squad. The Oviedo native may be tempted to return to Spain and add the European giants to his footballing resume. This prompts further contingency planning in central midfield, considering too the seemingly imminent departure of Ander Herrera.

According to the Daily Star, United have abandoned pursuit of Gareth Bale to target the oft-talked about crop of England youth talent. This includes the aforementioned Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho, as well as Chelsea wünderkind Callum Hudson-Odoi. Hudson-Odoi might be persuaded to leave Chelsea for a club that is willing to give him regular game time, after a frustrating season mostly spent on the bench – Maurizio Sarri didn’t give the 18 year old his first premier league start until last Wednesday, despite him making his international debut in England’s game against Montenegro back in March. However, Chelsea may be reluctant to let Hudson-Odoi leave Stamford Bridge, with a two-season long transfer ban looming over them. 

This tactic would represent a significant investment in youth but all three players are showing immense potential. It also gives Solskjaer the opportunity to usher in a new era of long-term United legends. 

Saul Niguez, of Atletico Madrid, has been mooted as a potential addition to the Manchester United midfield. The suggestion is though that he would cost around £70m. Competition could come from the blue side of Manchester, however, with Man City also reportedly lining up a bid for the 24 year-old.

PICKS: Saul Niguez, Declan Rice

De Gea

De Gea

The absolute worst case scenario for Manchester United this summer would be the departure of David De Gea. The Spaniard wants wage parity with Alexis Sanchez and it seems there have been complications in contract talks. Hope remains for United fans but, if the worst were to happen, who would replace De Gea?

It’s worth remembering that United’s back-up keeper, Sergio Romero, is an underrated talent. The Argentina international has shown himself to be more than capable when he has been called into action and, should De Gea leave, he deserves at least a place in the conversation about his replacement.

According to Spanish news outlet Marca, Thibaut Courtois will be Real’s number one next season, despite spending time out of the starting line up under Zinedine Zidane recently. If this is the case, United may consider a move for Keylor Navas who it is expected will be told that he can leave. However, the Costa Rican is 32 and hence doesn’t work as a long term solution.

An alternative could be a big money swoop for Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak, one of the only men able to rival De Gea’s goalkeeping quality. The 26-year-old claimed his 100th clean sheet in his 178th appearance for Atletico and was rated by FourFourTwo Magazine as the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment. His price-tag would likely reflect that rating though.

PICKS: Jan Oblak, Sergio Romero

Manchester United have suffered following poor transfer dealings over the last few seasons. The United faithful will hope, with Ole at the wheel, that the reds can adopt a more sensible transfer policy.

More patience is needed in bringing players to Old Trafford. Instead of seeking another expensive “finished article” like Pogba or Sanchez, United have to swallow their pride and learn from the transfer policies of rivals. Salah, for example, was no big name before he signed for Liverpool. Equally Fernandino only cost Manchester City £30m and has been a stand-out at Pep’s City.

Trying to buy the finished article, or players making headlines, isn’t what’s needed at United. Instead, some shrewd transfers are necessary to bolster a United side still in stuttering form.

Plucking a player from ‘under the radar’ might be more advisable at this point. Wilfred Ndidi, Diogo Jota and Gerard Deulofeu are all exciting players who are used to the league and wouldn’t set the reds back in a big way financially.

Kit of the Week #2: The Gunners’ Golden Generation

In a brand new weekly series, Kieran Ahuja takes a look at a weird, wonderful, wonky or just damn nice football kit.

Mikäel Silvestre has just given away the ball to Ray Parlour on the left wing, under very little pressure. Parlour to Sylvian Wiltord. Wiltord is now running at the Manchester United defence. Wiltord to Ljungberg, noticeable mostly because of a shit red stripe that he’s sporting in his hair – 2002 is a weird time.

Ljungberg taps it through the legs of a 35 year-old Laurent Blanc. A fortunate bounce brings him one on one with Fabien Barthez. He aims low to Barthez’s right. Barthez gets down quickly and palms it away, but only into the path of Wiltord, who slots it down the middle before Barthez can recover. Wiltord stands, one arm in the air. Kanu jumps over his head, obviously.

Sir Alex Ferguson sends on a weary Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who can do nothing to knock Arsenal’s calm performance off-kilter. Yet, as a tense second half draws to a close, Arsenal fans are hesitant to celebrate, in the full knowledge of Man Utd’s reputation for late goals. In the 92nd minute, Fabian Barthez and Lee Dixon get into a bit of a scuffle. Arsenal fans are beginning to embrace each other and chant. The Theatre of Dreams is Arsenal’s for the day.

Two minutes and 57 seconds into injury time, the whistle blows. No Fergie time here. Wenger embraces his coaching staff, and the team is awash in relief. They won’t lift the trophy until the week after, but the double is secured, and they’ve secured it against their biggest rivals away from home, with both Henry and Bergkamp injured. They also won the FA cup just five days ago. Not a bad week.

It seems somewhat serendipitous that Arsenal’s breath-taking away record was garnered in a gold shirt. It may seem an ostentatious or even a little cocky to wear gold. But it seemed fitting for this Arsenal team. They didn’t lose an away game all season; scored in every game; Wenger got manager of the year; Robert Pires won player of the year, with all the players bowing to him as he lifted the trophy.

Why don’t more teams wear gold? Bayern Munich, who wore a gold away kit in the 2004-2005 season, won the double, winning the Bundesliga by an astonishing 14 points. It seems that Gold was in vogue in the first half-decade of the noughties; Man Utd had a gold third kit in the same season, but had a less remarkable year, with the surprise departure of Jaap Stam to Lazio and his frantic replacement with Laurent Blanc.

Perhaps the only reason that this Arsenal team aren’t better remembered is simply that the magnitude of the 2003-04 season eclipsed them. Because there’s something spectacular about watching a team with Arsenal’s panache and artistry play in gold. Watching a typically elegant Henry, a seasoned Bergkamp at his most precise, an explosive Ljungberg and an ethereal Pires gallop round the pitch is aesthetic enough, but then add gold.

Arsenal would play in gold again, on the road in the 2015-16 season, but they could not conjure the Midas touch of 2001-02. Often remembered as their nicest kit, this gilded shirt was one that befitted Arsenal’s level of artistry.

Kieran Ahuja is co-founder, writer and creative director for 5WFootball. Follow him on Twitter here

 

 

Representing Rohingya

Words by George Storr & Kieran Ahuja. Featured image from Rohingyafc.com

According to UN special investigator Yanghee Lee, Genocide was still being committed in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims as recently as October. More than 900,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar as a result of a 2017 military crackdown and now they’re attempting to enter the world of international football.

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Kit of the Week #1: Atlético Madrid’s Hollywood season

In a brand new weekly series, Kieran Ahuja takes a look at a weird, wonderful, wonky or just damn nice football kit.

Photo: Marca/Unidad Editorial

There’s a couple of things to talk about in the picture above. The most noticeable thing is that the Atlético Madrid goalkeeper appears to be the love child of Axl Rose and Kid Rock, in perhaps the most questionable match outfit ever seen. Even more remarkable is that this is in fact Argentine goalkeeper Germán Burgos, who actually beat kidney cancer in the 2003-04 season whilst remaining Atlético’s first-choice goalkeeper. Slightly less remarkable but still firmly noteworthy is that someone, somewhere, in the upper echelons of Atlético’s management, decided that a man who chose to wear both a headband and a cap at the same time was suitable to become the assistant manager of the club later in his career, second to fellow Argentine and Atletico player Diego Simeone.

As tempting as it is, however, we’re not here to discuss Germán Burgos (he saved a Luis Figo penalty with his face). We’re here to discuss the ostensibly mundane kit that Atlético are wearing. It may not seem like a classic kit, I grant you. It looks somewhat like they’re wearing the shirt and socks of their home kit, but something akin to the 2006 Spurs lasagne incident has occurred, and the team has been subsequently forced to wear the shorts from their away kit. In this sense, the Atlético kit has always looked a bit mismatched, a bit passé, a bit gauche.

Usually, therefore, Atletico Madrid wouldn’t enter the periphery of covetable football kits. The shirt alone is unremarkable; especially as an English football fan, it’s only minutely different to the kits of Southampton, Sunderland or Stoke; then with the shorts it seems like two halves of different kits.

The 2003-04 iteration of the kit is only covetable for the wrong reasons; thanks to a sponsorship deal with Colombia Pictures, every few weeks the team would be forced to become walking advertisements for the latest Colombia blockbuster.  The season’s pictures provide a comprehensive exploration of early noughties film history. In what was his breakout season for the club, many photos of Atletico’s 2003-04 season feature a bambino Fernando Torres. El Niño smoulders whilst advertising Will Smith romantic comedy Hitch; embarks on a spritely dribble with Peter Pan emblazoned upon his chest; readjusts his curtains whilst imploring the viewer to watch Bad Boys II (it was a busy year for Will Smith); and silences the crowd whilst wearing a shirt with the Hellboy logo. Most entertaining is a photo of him posing with Ronaldinho whilst marketing the Adam Sandler comedy romp Spanglish.

Torres spanglish

Aside from the entertaining kit, however, it was a fairly uneventful season for Atletico. They finished in 7th, reaffirming themselves as La Liga mainstays after being relegated in the 1999 season and remaining in the Segunda División for two seasons – a hard vision to comprehend considering Atletico’s domestic and European successes under Simeone. Their shirt advertising would again come under scrutiny in 2013, when the country of Azerbaijan sponsored the team as part of their push to become more of a global cultural power. Some found the collaboration mildly eccentric, whilst some found it unadvisable, considering the country’s poor human rights record.

However, the club are now sponsored by the Plus500, a financial services company – continuing a proud tradition of inoffensive but mildly ugly football kits.

 

Tragedy, oppression and violence: the story of footballer turned political prisoner Hakeem Al-Araibi

By Kieran Ahuja

You may or may not have heard of Hakeem Al-Araibi. His story has been told by myriad publications, football or otherwise, over the last few weeks in an effort to raise awareness of his story, which is one of tragedy, oppression and violence.

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The Kolkata Derby, Asia’s Old Firm rivalry

By Kieran Ahuja

The nearly century-old Boro Match, Bengali for ‘Big Match’, regularly attracts attendances of nearly 100,000.

On December 29th, 49,863 people, mostly comprised of enthusiastic Glaswegians, turned out at Ibrox to watch the Old Firm Derby, a rivalry between Celtic and Rangers that is deeply ingrained in Scottish culture. It’s an incendiary match marked by passionate sectarianism, fierce rivalries and a delicate sense of pride; it’s the sound of tens of thousands of Scottish fans roaring until their voices crack as 22 players (often less by the end) push, shove and barge each other whilst vaguely adhering to the rules of football.

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Events at the San Siro on Boxing day are symptomatic of the deep-seated issues in Italian ultra culture

On the 27th December, an Inter Milan fan died in hospital after being hit by a van whilst fans clashed before a game between Inter Milan and Napoli at the San Siro the day before. The incident occurred at the end of a fight that involved around 60 people. It was also reported that three Napoli fans were stabbed and subsequently hospitalised.

Continue reading “Events at the San Siro on Boxing day are symptomatic of the deep-seated issues in Italian ultra culture”