Flashback: Van Nistelrooy, Henry, Okocha… and ‘O Fenômeno’; my British football adventure

The following article, written by Lasana Liburd, was first published in the Trinidad Express Sport Magazine on Sunday 28 December 2003—just five months into the writer’s eventual two-year spell as a sport journalist in Britain:

No one can forget being within touching distance of Brazilian football star, Ronaldo.

Mind you, I have never been mesmerised by the samba beat—as a product of the Diego Maradona generation—while I was slightly dismayed at the Brazilian’s defection to Real Madrid, which left thousands of broken-hearted Internazionale fans in his wake.

Photo: Brazilian superstar Ronaldo is mobbed by hundreds of children before making his debut for Inter Milan in 1997.
Ronaldo was already a Real Madrid player when I first saw him in the flesh.

Yet, there can be no denying the power of his presence.

On a cool autumn day in Leicester, Brazil National Senior Team captain Cafu was graciously signing autographs by the armful after their final training session in the Walkers Stadium before an international friendly against Jamaica.

Then Ronaldo emerged from the tunnel. It was like 9.59pm at the bar during a ‘free drinks before 10 pm’ special at your favourite nightclub; or opening day for the ‘Matrix 2’.

Cafu sprinted for the cover of Brazil’s colossal team bus while it took every drop of energy from the security staff at hand to avert a riot.

A nervous smile and a wave were all Ronaldo offered before he was ushered out of sight for the safety of everyone present.

Photo: Legendary Brazil footballer Ronaldo (centre, yellow jersey) walks on to the Walkers Stadium field to face Jamaica in a friendly international on 12 October 2003.
(Copyright LCFC)

Not that the fans were the only unruly presence. There were also over a dozen television cameras and microphones stuck in the iconic Brazilian’s face as his bodyguards wrestled for control.

But Ronaldo never seemed overawed or helpless.

A goofy grin on his face, he inched his muscular frame forward—for all his subtle skill, Ronaldo has the physique of imposing Trinidad and Tobago defender Marvin Andrews—slowly forcing his way through the crowd while feigning ignorance of the desperate attempts to catch his attention.

It did not matter which language was used to shoot a question at him; Ronaldo glazed his eyes and pretended not to understand, as he moved purposefully towards the exit. And, in the end, it was the Brazilian who won that battle.

Of all the lords I have seen in ‘the beautiful game’, Ronaldo reigns supreme.

Photo: Brazilian star Ronaldo (right) dribbles past Lazio goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani en route to Inter Milan’s third goal in the 1998 UEFA Cup final.
Inter won 3-0.

His unflappable temperament, remarkable combination of strength, skill and savvy and, above all, his ability to assess and master the most daunting of situations place him in a different stratosphere.

He was as crafty and irrepressible against the ‘Reggae Boyz’. Thirty-two thousand six hundred fans held their breath whenever the ball ventured in his direction.

‘Ronaldo… Ronaldo…’

There were excited whispers all around Walkers Stadium, as if a shout out of turn might break the striker’s concentration and deprive the world of a moment of genius. His marker, Jamaican defender Frank Sinclair, must have been able to hear his own heartbeat.

In my spell in Britain thus far, the scenes at Leicester remain the most unforgettable.

We should not forget the supporting cast either who helped make the event. There was the enigmatic Brazilian full-back Roberto Carlos whose fantastic swerving strike decided the contest and had Fox Sports TV searching for a physicist to explain the phenomenon of his booming left boot.

The eventual explanation offered for the stupendous curl he imparts was that he hits the ball with such venom, its initial reaction is simply to escape—something like the infamous local ‘bull-pistle’ stories. Five yards away from Carlos’ boot, the sphere remembers that it was struck with the outside of the foot and, to the dismay of the opposing goalkeeper, feels obliged to belatedly adjust its flight plan.

Jamaican custodian Donovan Ricketts was the victim on the day although his performance throughout the game impressed many, as did those of team captain Theodore Whitmore, striker Ricardo Fuller and flanker Ricardo Gardner.

The medley of car horns, drums and whole-hearted singing from the patrons completed the package. A fantastic football ground deserves such quality and the Walkers Stadium is among the top three that I have visited so far in Britain.

Photo: Football fans turn out to cheer on Brazil at the Walkers Stadium on 12 October 2003.
(Copyright LCFC)

An impressive sight to the passerby while spacious and clean on the inside; I rank Leicester’s home ground below only Old Trafford—I am yet to visit Liverpool’s Anfield or Wales’ Millennium Stadium.

There are not many clubs with a special train service for their home games. Streets are closed off and there are major traffic diversions whenever Manchester United entertain. Old Trafford seats near 70,000 spectators while thousands more head to nearby pubs. There are enough security personnel about to stave off a full-scale enemy invasion!

Newcastle United boast England’s second largest ground but their building does not seem as intimate. St James’ Park is lopsided—two stands higher than the others due to an inflexible city council—while the seats appear to be further from the action than Old Trafford, where the substitutes’ bench is a part of the seating area.

The giant pictures of past greats from Matt Busby to Bobby Charlton and Eric Cantona also enhance the feeling that one has somehow become a part of a rich legacy for the admission price of TT$250 to TT$550—excluding the corporate boxes, of course.

Photo: Manchester United fans cheer on their football team at Old Trafford.

Bolton Wanderers’ tidy Reebok Stadium comes in third. The Lancashire ground holds roughly 30,000 but its appealing, new-age style complete with curving roof and huge movie screen oozes class.

The screen bombards visitors with more advertisements than action but it comes in handy for match replays, particularly when their Nigerian captain, Augustine ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha, offers his regular dose of outrageous skill.

Okocha might not have the same aura of invincibility or the ability to turn a game on its head as Ronaldo; but, make no mistake, the African does not come up short in terms of entertainment value. And the British know how to show appreciation.

Southern upstarts, Portsmouth, have experienced a lean spell of late but it was hard not to feel emotionally invested when, earlier in the season, their fans sang praises to the heroes who ended—at least temporarily—their sojourn in the lower divisions.

Photo: Bolton Wanderers star Augustine ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha (right) tries to get away from Birmingham City midfielder Robbie Savage during England Premier League action.
(Copyright Reuters)

“Ha-rry’s Blue Army!”

The chorus rang out from Fratton Park as they opened their Premiership account with a 2-0 win over Aston Villa under the guidance of ex-West Ham coach Harry Redknapp with Trinidad and Tobago goalie Shaka Hislop between the uprights.

The ‘Pompey’ faithful are possibly the most melodious choir in the top flight—Ipswich might win that honour in Division One—and, as Manchester United discovered, they are not easily silenced.

“Shhhhh!” United fans hissed mischievously at their noisy guests when Diego Forlan put the hosts ahead early in their November meeting.

The Portsmouth fans retorted quickly in verse: “one-nil/ and still we sing!/ one-nil…”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s Shaka Hislop was a key figure at Portsmouth during their emergence in the Premier League in 2003.

The United fans run a close second in full voice, if only for their expansive song book which contains more compositions than a Bunji Garlin CD. On my last visit, the ‘Red Devils’ were singing a new rendition to the tune of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’.

The combative Birmingham fans are third, although their specialty lies in unsettling opponents.

“Boooooo!” The Birmingham fans scream, on every occasion that the St Andrews Stadium announcer mentions the name of an opposing player.

“Who are they?! Who are they?!” they chanted provocatively at every opportunity, especially when their opponents sent a substitute into the fray.

Because of his illustrious past with bitter rivals, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers striker Dwight Yorke received regular abuse on his trip to St Andrews.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago star Dwight Yorke made a name for himself at Aston Villa before going on to become an England Premier League and European Champions League winner at Manchester United.

The nastiness paled in comparison to what was meted out to Blackburn substitute and ex-Villa goalie, Peter Enckleman, who entered Midland history last season for conceding from a throw-in during an infamous derby on the same ground.

Ironically, the Birmingham fans were forced to slink out of their own ground that afternoon, after a fearsome hammering by the Rovers. Turkish star Kerimoglu Tugay’s cracking first-time effort in the 82nd minute was the most memorable goal in a 4-0 trouncing that ranks second to the Brazil-Jamaica contest but ahead of the Portsmouth-United clash.

The Portsmouth-Manchester meeting also ended with a lopsided scoreline, with the defending champions managing a healthy 3-0 win. It was not a fair reflection of the game.

There was little to choose between the teams until roughly 30 minutes from time when United manager Sir Alex Ferguson sent on skipper Roy Keane and Portugal tap dancer Cristiano Ronaldo. It was not the first time that Ferguson dipped into his reserves with startling effect and probably will not be the last.

Keane galvanised the United rearguard with some solid, uncomplicated play and choice words to their sometimes unfocused central defender, Rio Ferdinand, while Ronaldo stripped the Portsmouth full-backs of their dignity with an assortment of flicks and tricks.

Ronaldo got his first United goal and the club’s second of the night from an angled free kick that beat Hislop at his far post, while Keane capped the afternoon with a brilliant left-footer on the turn from the edge of the area.

Still, United’s best player was the Dutch hitman Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Of the players I was privileged to see in the flesh, I place Van Nistelrooy below only Ronaldo—the Brazilian version—and Arsenal attacker Thierry Henry  although the Dutchman may be the most potent centre-forward of the lot.

His single-minded approach to the opposing goal and his built-in radar that lets him know the exact location of ball and goalposts at all times is remarkable.

Photo: Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy was considered one of the best strikers of his generation.
He scored 150 goals in 219 appearances for Manchester United.

There was one moment when Van Nistelrooy and Pompey stopper Arjun De Zeeuw collided while chasing a loose ball. De Zeeuw was still trying to catch his bearings when Van Nistelrooy deftly regained balance and struck a blistering volley on the turn from 30 yards, which just cleared the crossbar.

Henry is more subtle. If Van Nistelrooy relishes the kill, the athletic French forward is equally appreciative of the hunt.

Henry strides arrogantly with the ball down the flanks, followed by a defender or two anxiously trying to bar his path. The eyes of the Arsenal frontman seem to look straight past them, as if there is no one else on the pitch.

A simple five-yard pass is a dramatic masterpiece for Henry. He straightens himself up to his full height—near six feet—and rolls the ball to a teammate like a public servant dropping a file on his junior’s desk. He simply could not be bothered to embarrass his markers on this occasion.

Photo: Go ahead; try and take it…
Frenchman Thierry Henry starred with Arsenal FC’s ‘Invincibles’–so named because they won the 2003-04 season without losing a game.

He wants everyone at Highbury to know that it is only a stay of execution. It usually is.

Still, Henry, even with his frightening turn of pace, does not have the intricate ball-carrying skills or power of the original Ronaldo. Two career-threatening knee operations may have robbed him of some athleticism but the goals keep coming and there are still many tricks.

At Walkers Stadium, I noticed that Ronaldo never did the same thing consecutively. If he makes a wall pass now, he might dummy the ball the next time, or shift his body weight and ‘roll’ his defender, or… God knows.

At one point, the Brazilian collected the ball in the Jamaican penalty box, looked over his shoulder at a teammate, and straightened up—as if preparing to tee up his compatriot. Then, he suddenly pulled the ball in the opposite direction, rolled it forward in one swift moment and then he was gone.

Photo: O Fenômeno. Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.

Sinclair (and everyone else at the ground) had been misdirected. It seemed to all the world as though there was only one option available to the Brazilian. But he found another.

The Jamaican ‘hard-man’ looked dazed, so comprehensively outfoxed by ‘O Fenômeno’ that the striker might as well be in another zip code.

The trick itself was not novel. But you never saw it coming; and, better yet, he did it to carve open his opponents for the kill—not just to humiliate them. That is one key difference between the dribbler in the park and the one who sells out stadia around the world.

As a football fan, you see hundreds of young men and women play the game over the years. Some play it quite well. But then you meet someone who recreates the game in real time.

There were no words…

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About Lasana Liburd

Lasana Liburd is the managing director and chief editor at Wired868.com and a journalist with over 20 years experience at several Trinidad and Tobago and international publications including Play the Game, World Soccer, UK Guardian and the Trinidad Express.

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