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Football in the 2016 Garden of Good and Evil

Saturday 7th January 2017
Reviewing how six big-name arrivals and departures in 2016 English European football meant the opposite for others.

There's an interesting scene early in Luc Besson's cheeky little science fiction satire, The Fifth Element. You may have skipped over it with the remote as Milla Jovovich doesn't feature. It's a lecture regarding chaos and destruction's virtue, explained to benevolent Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) by sadistic Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldham).

Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from destruction, disorder, and chaos. Now, take this empty glass. Here it is. 




But if it is destroyed... [Zorg pushes the glass off the table. It shatters on impact with his luxurious office's marble floor, inducing several small robots to appear to attend to the mess.] 

Look at all these little things! So busy now! Notice how each one is useful. A lovely ballet ensues, so full of form and color. Now, think about all those people that created them. Technicians, engineers, hundreds of people, who will be able to feed their children tonight, so those children can grow up big and strong and have little teeny children of their own, and so on and so forth. Thus, adding to the great chain of life.

You see, Father, by causing a little destruction, I am in fact encouraging life. In reality, you and I are in the same business.
We live in an increasingly polarized world, where every person seems to camp either on the populist right or the liberal-socialist left. Whichever side you choose, by default, is indisputably virtuous in your mind. The other is irredeemably evil. The middle is a demilitarized zone with enemies on both sides, where every step finds a landmine waiting to be set off and every expression of moderacy invites an assassin's bullet. I call it home.

I'm torn by the truth in the inarguably evil Zorg's observations. I want to feel okay with occasionally going over to the dark side. I just don't want anyone to be hurt. Striking a balance in life, as in nature, is critically essential. Yet, it is becoming increasingly impossible. People refuse to compromise or forgive. Living the most honorable, charitable, benevolent life possible while understanding a rationed amount of fear, anger, desire, and greed are also required, and, in fact, serve a healthy purpose sounds completely wrong, even though I know it's true.

There is such a thing as necessary evil. We ignore this truth so we can live with ourselves. Old life must die to make way for new. Whether you eat meat or are vegan, for instance, other lives must be taken to sustain your own. All life being precious, one choice is no less evil than the other. The only differences are the ones the righteous won't, in their shame, admit. We can't hear plants scream and it's easier to catch them.

How does this angst transfer to football? That's easy. Money and the Bosman rule provide me inspiration in spades but continually make me wish more players would stay with one club for their entire career. I rage at Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi always winning the Ballon d'Or even though no one else honestly comes close to their talent. To switch films for just a moment, seeing Leicester City supporters react to winning the Premier League makes me feel like Bilbo Baggins when he climbs to the treetops in dark, dingy Mirkwood forest, feeling the sun touch his face for the first time in days and seeing butterflies. But, as a Manchester United fan, I also resent Leicester revelers basking in my sun, enjoying my butterflies. I'm all for exciting changes but desperately want things to remain the same.

The old saying goes one door closes, another opens. In essence, this is what Zorg was trying to tell Cornelius. Of course, in the next moment, Zorg chokes on a cherry pit and nothing in his ordered, purposeful chaos can help him, not even his hairless, mindless, miniature pachydermish pet. Life can round on you in an instant. Everything you believe is turned upside down, its weakness exposed. When one door opens, another closes. To mix metaphors, the other shoe drops.

Many football doors opened and closed in 2016, with numerous other shoes falling on their thresholds. Here are six examples I find memorable.

N'Golo Kanté -- Two seasons ago Kanté was twenty-three, unknown to the wider world, plying his trade with Ligue 2 outfit Caen. His Xavi-esque stats for ground-covered and passes-made crossed Steve Walsh's desk at Leicester City. Walsh also lives in a contradictory world, valuing data's influx into the game but still believing a player must be seen to be believed. Walsh went to France to see Kanté and Riyad Mahrez. He believed. By the time spring rolled around this year, so did the rest of the football world.

Over the summer, Arsenal tried to sign both Mahrez and Jamie Vardy while Chelsea courted Kanté. Only the Blues succeeded. Yet, of the three, N'Golo was probably the one player Leicester could not replace. During his short time with the Foxes, they defied all expectations, running away from the field to claim the Premier League title. He opened doors for them.

Now, it's déjà vu all over again at Stamford Bridge, but the open door at the King Power Stadium has slammed shut. Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri's renaissance has been exposed for what it was: the good fortune to have a special player at the heart of your lineup. Without that player, his club languishes just outside the relegation zone, exactly where his more belligerent predecessor, Nigel Pearson, left them. Worse, if the Italian was hoping Walsh might unearth another diamond in the rough, those hopes were dashed when Ronald Koeman came calling to lure the eagle-eyed scout over to Everton. After successive raids launched from Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, should Ranieri take another job after leaving Leicester, he may want to ascertain his new side has no competitors which sport the same colors.

Should Chelsea go on to win the title, I can't think of a better candidate to interrupt the annual Messi/Ronaldo coin flip for the Ballon d'Or, given Kanté's impact at two different clubs. It's unlikely, but doors keep opening for him. Unfortunately, after just a breath of fresh air, they're closing for Leicester City.

Zlatan Ibrahimović -- In two year's time, the Zlatan will be thirty-seven years old and very possibly still scoring goals on demand for Manchester United. It took him a bit of time to get going at Old Trafford but the anti-Swede is now scoring almost at will.

Ibra has always been a bundle of contradictions. His self-confidence isn't just counter-intuitive to the stereotypical Scandinavian. Nor does it merely border on arrogance. It goes way beyond that, like an illegal Mexican immigrant starting a new life in Alaska. He's been labeled a poor teammate and clubhouse cancer, yet has won the league title in all but two seasons during his career. More to the point, he was a key figure in every championship save the one with Barcelona.

Such an egotist is one the world expects to end his career with one last mega-deal in a place like the Chinese Super League. Instead, with his skills diminishing, he accepted the greatest challenge of his career. If his detractors thought he'd bitten off more than he could chew, that the Premier League was shut and barred to him, he ignored their doubts. A few well-placed karate kicks later, he has broken through, leaving the barricade in shards behind him.

He is football's answer to Steven Seagal, only he isn't interested in milking his career with a parade of straight-to-video releases. Rather, he intends to release one last blockbuster. Following that script, he is dragging Manchester United inexorably up the Premier League table. Chelsea may prove beyond his reach, as they are ten points ahead and have a Jean-Claude van Damme in Diego Costa to match him blow for blow, yet it's beginning to look like Ibra will never finish worse than second as a professional.

Meanwhile, Paris St Germain are dealing with the reality of having let Zlatan and coach Laurent Blanc go. After four consecutive Ligue 1 titles with the top-knotted Swede leading the line and the impassive Frenchman backing his play, les Parisiens are languishing in third behind Nice and Monaco. The more reserved Edinson Cavani isn't having the impact on the club his former rival did. The flair and audacity now sits in the dugout in the form of new boss Unai Emery. Only, there doesn't appear to be the substance, the sheer will, behind his showmanship to dominate in the fashion the club did when the respective personalities of their top striker and coach were reversed. PSG's Qatari owners believed they could take the next step in the Champions League by ringing the changes, that the key to the domestic league could be safely left under the mat. Now, it's gone, and both doors may be closed to them.

Zinedine Zidane-- Although Marco Materazzi will happily confirm Zizou can apply blunt force in the same manner as Ibrahimović, the Frenchman opted to take his time and pick the lock to the Real Madrid dugout rather than smash through. He bided his time, and prepared himself. He studied. Sitting next to José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, then taking an office next to club president, Florentino Perez before taking charge of Real Madrid Castilla, the Spanish giant's B side.

Finally, the door closed on Rafael Benitez's time at the Bernabeu, the Spaniard stubbornly refusing to accept any club at which Mourinho has previously managed, Inter, Chelsea, or Los Blancos, is not for him. I'm very worried what the future holds for Manchester United in that regard, but, like Bilbo and the Dwarves, discussing it means I'm not staying on the path. The point here is Rafa's exit opened the door for Zidane to take charge. He immediately guided them to La Undécima, the club's eleventh European championship and, more recently, the Club World Cup in Japan. When Los Merengues return from the Primera Liga winter break, they will enjoy a three-point lead with a game in hand over rivals Barcelona.

Should he maintain that lead, bringing Madrid its thirty-third league title, the first in five years, you would think the door to the Bernabeu would remain open to him for as long as he wished. This is Real Madrid we're talking about, however. Even Zidane knows his time in charge could end abruptly. With that in mind, he has refused to close the door on James Rodriguez's tenure at the club, even if he has shut out all possibility the Colombian will regain his first-choice position in the midfield. James has made his wish to be elsewhere known, but he will likely have to wait until summer to escape Zizou's clutches.

Sam Allardyce-- There were many doors opening and closing in Big Sam's 2016. After stepping in to rescue Sunderland from the drop, he stepped away again to proudly accept an invitation to manage England. What he didn't realize was he should have been less pleased with himself and more wary. Instead, he skipped through the front door the FA held open for him and straight down a trap door set by undercover journalists at the Telegraph.

This is another source of personal conflict for me. My inner journalist understands deception is a tool often required to expose corruption. My inner fan believes this was more expoitation than exposé. Despite claiming to have evidence on eight other Premier League bosses, the best the Telegraph could do after "exposing" Allardyce was corral one assistant manager from a second division side, then falsely accuse the same club's manager and owner. It would seem my inner fan was right.

That did little for Big Sam, who stayed out of the public eye until Crystal Palace came calling. Now, another door has opened for him after first closing on club legend Alan Pardew. Again, though, there was a trap door on the other side. Only, this time it was his side's poor performance against relegation rivals Swansea City, who beat them for the second time in a month, this time by a 2-1 count. Although it's only half his fault, the six points are forty percent of the Swans' meager haul for the season. A win would have put the Eagles four points clear, reinforcing Allardyce's reputation, and making him an instant hero at the club. Now, he'll have to do it the hard way.

Meanwhile, the door which had hit his arse on the way out of the England job stayed open for ages. Much to Martin Glenn and Greg Clarke's consternation, no managers of any stature were willing to step through. Perhaps this was because the trapdoor on the other side remained. The FA's reluctance to stand behind their previous choice, using the unfortunate term "whiter than white" to describe their expectations for any future England boss, was noted. In the end, Glenn and Clarke were left with no choice but to offer the job to Gareth Southgate, who, admittedly is "white" in several ways. His character certainly holds up to any scrutiny. Like everyone on the FA Board save its lone female member, Dame Heather Rabbats, his skin is the color of driven snow. Unfortunately, the portion of his CV which lists significant achievements as a manager is just as vanilla. That isn't to say Southgate can't improve England's standing, as other managers have come from nowhere before. It's just there's no compelling evidence he will.

José Mourinho-- Speaking of managers who came from nowhere, that is the place on the map to which most football fans would have pointed when asked to find Porto before the Special One knocked off Manchester United, then went on to win the Champions League for the first time. In the interim, the Portuguese has seen many doors open and close for him, some more than once. Perhaps most astonishing is the regularity with which José's openings and closings occur. It's eerily reminiscent of the method assignments are delivered in the Mission Impossible franchise. "As always, Sr Mourinho, you will self destruct in three years." That timetable for disaster led me to write I don't know how many articles (and stories) advocating against the Special One's hiring before and after it was a fait accompli. So much for my aspirations to be an influential writer.

We're two-and-a-half years away from the inevitable in José's latest mission. The first few months of Mourinho's Manchester United reign implied he (and we) might have less time than expected, but I have to admit, an uninterrupted run of six league victories is not a bad way to spend your last days if you're a United supporter. On the other hand, if you're a player on the fringe of Mourinho's squad or a certain Welshman whose surname rhymes with figs, then not so much.

Ryan Giggs most notable accomplishment in four games in charge at Old Trafford was becoming the most recent and probably final player-manager to fulfill both halves of the job title in the Premier League. It would have been cool if, as the fourth official held up the board announcing the substitution, Giggs, still standing in the technical area, ripped off his suit revealing his kit underneath. Sadly, football isn't the WWE. At any rate, Giggsy spent the next two years learning how to hold a clipboard as Louis van Gaal's assistant. The promise he would become the club's permanent manager was then dashed by Mourinho's arrival. In the interim, he has twice found Welsh club Swansea's door closed to him, as well.

Yet, he was not the only one who felt the Old Trafford door slam in his face. Bastian Schweinsteiger, for once healthy, was informed he was not in the Portuguese's plans, then told to train with the youth squad. Unlike Victor Valdes, whose opposition to LvG led to him completing a reverse Jeffersons, if you will, movin' on down from the deluxe appointments of the Camp Nou and Old Trafford to the more pedestrian accommodations at Boro's Riverside Stadium, Basti held his tongue, put his head down, and kept working. When injuries and suspensions limited Mourinho's midfield options ahead of a November league match against West Ham, Schweini was welcomed back into the squad. When José's number two, Rui Faria (seeing as the Special One also happened to be one of the Suspended Ones on the day), threw the German into the fray, he responded by driving the final nail into the Hammers' coffin, making the crucial run which led to another Zlatan finish. He hasn't seen action since, but the boss has changed his tune, claiming the ex-Bayern great will play a role for United this season.

Two no longer in the United cast appears to be Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay. Finding themselves well down the pecking order, both have asked to leave. The boss has confirmed they will be allowed to do so should an acceptable offer be tabled. The young Dutchman's exile is understandable given his woeful defending under Van Gaal, that atrocious back header against Stoke the most glaring example. Schneiderlin's banishment is more mysterious. He hasn't made any serious mistakes, while the Belgian Chia Pet favored over him has committed several yet been given second, third, and fourth chances. It appears most likely Schneiderlin will suit up for his former boss at Southampton, only this time in Everton blue.

While deciding who to welcome through the Old Trafford door and to whom it should be shown kept Mourinho busy as 2016 drew to a close, it was the door which closed on him at Stamford Bridge just before the year began at that has been the most critical. When it reopened, Antonio Conte walked through, almost immediately getting Chelsea back on the inside track to the Premier League title. The Italian's belief in the players and personnel Mourinho had castigated went so far as to see him reopen the door for David Luiz's return to the club, though, sadly, not Eva Carneiro.

Gianni Infantino-- While Mourinho's reputation is for closing doors, the new top man at FIFA is trying to build one for opening them. Gianni Infantino ran on a platform of transparency, shutting the door on corruption in the FIFA executive ranks, and opening one to the World Cup for more nations. It all sounds wonderful until you remember it's much the same platform on which his predecessors, João Havelange and Sepp Blatter, campaigned. Yes, populism was the default election-winner in football politics long before Nigel Farage and Donald Trump exploited it in the real thing.

The first battle Johnny Baby fought, however, was over his salary. To be fair, FIFA's bean counters were trying to lowball him, offering roughly a third less than Blatter had been legitimately making. They tried to paint Infantino as the villain for demanding more, too. As though earning a comparative pittance would somehow keep his fingers out of the cookie jar. Eventually, though, Infantino decided his wage packet wasn't the hill he on which he was willing to die, accepted an even lower offer, muttered "C'è sempre il barattolo dei biscotti," and moved forward.

His focus now is on expanding the World Cup to include as many as forty-eight countries. Unsurprisingly, the have-nots in football, which translates into every confederation not named UEFA, are all for the move. Germany and the ECA, a cabal of the biggest clubs in the game, are less willing to spread the wealth. Given every nation, no matter its size, footballing prowess, or influence, receives an equal vote in every FIFA election, Infantino will have likely opened the door to his reelection if he can push his expansion plans through.

However, that is a matter for the future, a door which opens in its own good time. Enjoy everything 2017 brings your way.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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