Marquee Messi, Wembley woes for Presidents & 1978's best manager

Champions editor Paul Simpson unleashes some random thoughts ahead of the Wembley finalA century before certain notable events happened in England, 1866 was a great year for Argentinian football: Angelo Messi was born. Seventeen years on, Lionel Messi’s great-great-great-grandfather set sail from Italy to Rosario, a journey that transformed football more than a century later. The glorious talent that so conspicuously lights up Argentina could have inspired the Azzurri.

Indeed, Barcelona’s essential No.10 could have starred for Inter, Juventus or Milan. Enrico Preziosi, who now owns Genoa, revealed a while back that little Leo could have joined Calcio Como: “He came to us for a trial. He was 15 and we rejected him. He cost $50,000. Every now and then one makes a mistake. Certainly when you see him now you can say we could have balanced the accounts for 30 years…

"We had someone following him, we spoke with his family, he was very keen to come to Italy, but nothing happened. We decided not to take him on also because of the approach we have [in Italy], the lack of interest in following young players. Almost no one takes on young players like that, with the idea of going through the whole process of turning them into an important player and then giving them a professional contract.”

Little Leo, 8: That's never in the quadrant, ref

Two years ago, Erik Bielderman, the great French football journalist, analysed Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and his thoughts are worth quoting at length: “Ronaldo, you love him or you hate him. Messi you can only love. Ronaldo’s talent is condensed and overshadowed by his behaviour, which puts him in the same category as Maradona: absolute talents who cheat and whom we find bad-mannered, but who have this indispensible dimension of being at the top of the bill.

"Messi doesn’t have this dimension. He’s the young, middle class man who succeeds with discretion. Only his game is fantastic… I love Messi, but Ronaldo excites me. Messi has such a low centre of gravity he can pull off moves that are not possible for 99% of people. He surfs on a physiological quasi-handicap. Ronaldo, physically, has nothing to make him a player of genius. What he’s accomplished in being a great is for me more complicated than what Messi does.”


Whoever wins at Wembley, Messi’s eminence could change the balance of power in world football. Argentina just seem to be producing more “marquee names”, to use an odious marketing term, than Brazil right now. With a proper manager, they could even win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The Selecao desperately need to unearth a new Pele, Ronaldo or Romario.


While much of mainland Europe will cheer on Barcelona, many Italians have adopted Manchester United. In part, this is sheer resentment at the supremacy of such a heavily eulogised Mediterranean rival but it also reflects calcio’s deep, enduring concern for the art of defence. By becoming the first team not to concede away from home in an entire UEFA Champions League campaign, United have done something that resonates in Italy, with Gazzetta Dello Sport praising their “ironclad defence”.

"Italy loves us! Yay!"


Barack Obama has enough to worry about but I’m going to add to his stress anyway. As a keen student of American history (and apparent fan of football), he may be intrigued to know that no US President in office at the time of a Wembley European Cup final has left the White House of his own volition.

JFK, in power when Milan beat Benfica 2-1 in 1963, was shot six months later. By the time Manchester United beat Benfica in 1968, JFK’s successor LBJ had already announced he would not seek re-election on the very reasonable grounds that nobody wanted to re-elect him. Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office in 1971, when Ajax beat Panathinaikos, but he quit in 1974 to spare himself the indignity of impeachment.

Jimmy Carter (in office when Liverpool beat Bruges in 1978) and George Bush Snr (riding high when Barcelona beat Sampdoria in 1992) both lost their subsequent bids for re-election. Can Obama beat the Wembley European Cup final curse?


Until we started researching previous Wembley European Cup finals for the new issue of Champions (out now folks, with rare insight into The Flea by Graham Hunter, a fantastic look at Nereo Rocco and an intriguing analysis of the forgotten men of Total Football), I hadn’t realised how remarkable 1978 was for the great Austrian coach Ernst Happel.

On 10 May, he led Bruges out at Wembley in the European Cup final against Liverpool, having disposed of Juventus in the semi-final. Deprived of influential centre-forward Raoul Lambert and midfielder Paul Courant, Happel told Bruges to keep it cagey and lost 1-0 due to the combined genius of Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish.

Happel in the '70s: He's earned that drink

Six weeks later, he reached the World Cup final as coach of the Netherlands, and again found himself facing the host country. Preparing to face Argentina in the manic surroundings of the Estadio Monumental, Happel gave one of the most memorably succinct pre-match team talks – “Gentlemen, two points” – but the Dutch lost 3-1. Once again, absentees hurt Happel – Johan Cruyff didn’t travel to Argentina because he was still unnerved by a kidnap attempt in 1977 – yet he almost managed to achieve the highly improbable.

Happel is a vastly underrated coach. He was the first manager to win the European Cup with two clubs, Feyenoord and Hamburg, and in both finals he overcame the favourites (Celtic in 1970 and Juventus in 1983). As a free-scoring defender (he once smashed a hat-trick against Real Madrid in the European Cup), he had the sheer audacity to trap the ball with his backside in the quarter-final of the 1954 World Cup, when Austria beat Switzerland 7-5. They don’t make 'em like him anymore.

Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League, is out now. Buy it here