Sunday, 12 July 2015

Dimitri Payet: Terreur d'Elite

"Those who think they know me are simply lacking in information..."
Lying tranquilly some 120 miles off the east coast of Madagascar, bobbing alone in the Indian Ocean, the tropical island of Réunion boasts a diminutive population of only 800,000 inhabitants. Other than world-record breaking daily rainfall levels in 1952 and the occasional epidemic of the mosquito-borne disease chikungunya, it seems to the casual observer that it could almost be the land that time forgot. Indeed, in footballing terms, other than Jean-Pierre Papin's brief end-of-career cameo at JS Saint-Pierroise, the overseas département of France could be described as an anonymous spectator in world football. Until two weeks ago that is. When Réunionnais native Dimitri Payet made the 'eight-figure' move from Marseille to West Ham United it sparked such virulent reaction on both side of the channels- French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet called it a national embarrassment- that for a brief moment sugar and Michel Houellebecq was no longer the island's most famous exports...

"I was born in Saint-Pierre but I grew up in Saint-Philippe, south of Réunion," says Payet when discussing his first tentative steps on the journey from to Île Bourbon to London's East End. "This is where I made my first passes and scored my first goals. I was five and at first I was playing striker because [like everyone else] I was a fan of Papin. My father introduced me to football and just like that I immediately wanted to become a professional footballer." Even as a young boy he dreamed of the idolized life of the football player? "To be adored! No, it was not even that," he says. "It was my dream to just be able to play forever." If you ask any of the Saint-Philippe locals now they will tell you there was never any doubt the young Dimitri would achieve his ambition. "At that time, he was already clearly separate from his play-mates," recalls Payet's Uncle Andre, who still lives a few steps from the stadium. "For his small size he was already fast and skillful and in front of goal he had a calmness of mind above the rest of the group."
"Unhappiness isn't at its most acute point until a realistic chance of happiness, sufficiently close, has been envisioned..."
After three years Payet joined Jeunesse Sportive Saint-Pierroise – the largest club on the island – but was not there long before he found himself parceled off to mainland France. "At 12 years old I was at the best youth club in Reunion," he states. "As there was a partnership between the club and Le Havre, I was sent there." The club from Upper Normandy had previously exploited the profitable relationship with the likes of Florent Sinama Pongolle and Guillaume Hoarau but for Payet his four year spell with Les Ciel et Marine was rocky at best. Accused of having a difficult character and a 'lack of motivation', in 2003 at the age 15 he eventually made the decision to return to the Réunion Premier League in the sixth tier of French football. "I missed my family," he explains with genuine sadness. "Apart from an uncle who was in Paris, my whole family lives on the island. On my return, I signed with AS Excelsior, where my little brother also plays now." Payet, the eldest of three siblings, would spend a further eighteen months with the Saint-Joseph club before finally returning to metropolitan France in January 2005. "I had thought it was over and I did not want to return," he admits, sincere in his belief that his career would never progress beyond Excelsior. Now, having slowly rebuilt his confidence, he was 'retrying his luck' by signing a trainee contract with Ligue 1 side Nantes; his choice of destination again dictated by a formal agreement between the two clubs. In reality, so wary of his reputation were they, Nantes insisted on a clause in the small print stipulating that the arrangement could be cancelled after six months before they would agree to take him back to the mainland.

After hinting at what he could muster in the reserves over the course of the remaining 22 matches of 2004-05, Payet was given his full debut aged 18 in December of the following season. "I started against Bordeaux," he recalls, although little else about the goalless draw sticks in his mind. "For my second match in Metz, I scored. It is a moment that remains one of my fondest memories." After that came further sporadic opportunities in the first team, with Payet displaying what Le Parisien termed a 'class action anthology of attractive potential and erratic performance'; the youngster frequently criticized for a lack of involvement and, conversely, some dilettantish excesses. In what would become a familiar pattern throughout his career to date, Payet only truly started to deliver in his second season; like the plant which produces a low-growing rosette of leaves in its first year only to be resplendent in flower and seed the next. "I do not know why it happens," admits Payet. "There is always an adjustment period whether it's longer or shorter. It's also true that it can be more complicated in the first year and many things can affect how well you adjust to your surroundings." It is a fact, he says, that he has not always be used in his preferred position and thus been shown to his best advantage. The 2006-07 season would witness the first full blooming of Payet's latent potential; a campaign of personal triumph amid the collective fiasco that would ultimately lead to Les Canaris’ relegation. Now a first team regular he scored on four occasions and assisted three times in 27 appearances before signing his first professional contract. By season's end that tally had risen to five goals in 33 games. It was all the more impressive because of the instability of two coaching changes, one of which hit particularly hard. "I was deeply affected by the departure of Serge Le Dizet," admits Payet. "It was he who threw me into the deep end and I can never thank him enough. Early in that season he told me that he was counting on me and I worked so hard to not disappoint him. Of course, when things go wrong it's the coach who toasts while the players remain unscathed and for this you feel at fault."
"It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it's that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable..."
Predictably, for a player once described by his former reserves coach Stéphane Moreau as 'immensely talented despite his nonchalant attitude', not everything that season was unreservedly positive for Payet. "It is through difficulty that one forges character," he states, "and I experienced extraordinary things with the team and intense games." Firstly there was a red card against Valenciennes for a violent lunge on Mody Traore that earned him a three game suspension. Then a few weeks later away at Saint-Étienne, just twenty minutes after he had entered the field of play, his coach Michel Der Zakarian gave him the hook. The latter incident, he says, was digested and forgotten about within a day. "It was not a humiliation, even if it was very difficult to live with at the time," he insists. "I was supported by the fans and my team-mates and the experience was just another valuable part of my training." Finally, in April, he was involved in the notorious 'Barthez Incident'. That day, in training, a robust tackle from behind by the veteran goalkeeper on the young Réunionnais caused Payet to angrily storm off the pitch. The footage was widely disseminated through every conceivable media platform and used as a tool of castigation; empirical evidence, it was said, of the ill-discipline that permeated the club embodied by two players whose reputations were already less than pristine. Caught in the 'eye of a cyclone', as Payet describes it, Barthez attempted to de-escalate the frenzy by calling the skirmish 'good fun', before adding that his young team-mate 'better change jobs if he is going to be startled by every slight touch'. "It doesn't matter whether you are the perpetrator or the victim," reasons Payet as he reflects on the incident now. "The club was in deep relegation trouble and I just thought we needed everyone and it would be stupid to get hurt in training; it really could have ended badly." He says that he has since 'turned the page' and holds no resentment towards Barthez, who actually walked out of the club shortly afterwards.

In truth, he notes, the combustible moment came at the end of a long fuse sparked months before when the keeper openly criticized Payet's lack of involvement in the defensive side of the game. "These events have hardened me and every footballer goes through such moments," he states. "For my part, I continued to work. I had always recognized that I could be blamed for my lack of defensive investment at certain times in a game, even if not an entire game. I knew I had to physically improve and intensify my work rate. So mentally, it enriched me." Everything that happened with Barthez, Payet declares, was just part of life when working within a group. "Despite the difficulties that the club knew, it was an extraordinary experience to live through," he explains. "That season I feel I progressed in several areas. For example, I learnt how to approach matches with a lot less pressure, and in game my shooting and positioning naturally improved as a product of being immersed in the environment." It is, thinks Payet, how any young player develops; technique and understanding becomes so ingrained on an instinctual level through the experience of playing, that the game fundamentally becomes almost a 'process of automation'. When you are able to expend minimal conscious energy on the basics it provides greater scope for self-expression and creativity. So while many viewed Payet's emergence as a sudden blooming, the player himself views his progression as something entirely more serene. "It was the reward for the endeavour that I had put in," he says. For even if there is necessarily an element of fortune somewhere, he ponders: "Is it better to simply say 'I have been lucky' or am I wiser to think that I have reaped the fruit of my work? I do not know the answer, so at the very least I should work hard! Besides, I've never been one to rest on my achievements and there are always things you can improve."
"When we think about the present, we veer wildly between the belief in chance and the evidence in favour of determinism. When we think about the past, however, it seems obvious that everything happened in the way that it was intended..."
It is the reason he was so determined to stay in Ligue 1; Payet handing in a transfer request shortly after his club's relegation was confirmed. "I was always fully focused on maintaining Nantes in Ligue 1," he says. "Although I will not hide the fact that I had other clubs interested at that time; you have to be smart and let competent people take care of this area. I expressed to my representatives that all doors be closed until the end of the season. Yet for a player like me, who was on his first full year in the first team, relegation would not have been the best. We must admit that for footballers early in their career Ligue 2 can put a brake on personal ambitions." Saint-Etienne was the first club to come forward, reveals Payet, and although he had other offers (including both Lille and Sochaux), he was hooked right away. The horse, as they say on the island, was already bound with rope. "ASSE is a very popular club in Réunion," he explains. "This was a team that has always attracted me. Whenever I saw a match of Les Verts on TV, I loved the atmosphere of the Geoffroy-Guichard stadium. It really spoke to me. By signing there, I made the choice of the heart." Putting pen to paper on a four year contract ahead of the 2007–08 season, Payet says above all the club offered him the guarantee that he would be on the field, which was his main priority. "As long as I had the opportunity to play, I never asked myself the question as to where I would be in six months," states Payet, when considering those early seasons in Ligue 1. "I just wanted to do more and be better, move forward without worrying about the rest. I have evolved in this context, always with the idea of doing better."

Unfortunate then that in his first season at Saint-Étienne, Payet could hardly have done much worse. Having made his debut by early August in a 1-1 draw with Monaco, Payet would be a starter for the majority of the campaign but fail to contribute a single goal or solitary assist. Struggling to assert himself on the pitch while the likes of Bafétimbi Gomis, Loïc Perrin and Blaise Matuidi shone around him, personal criticism was only slightly mitigated by the fact the club secured it's best finish (5th) during its current stint in the top flight, thereby qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1982. "Just as the last year in Excelsior had given me a springboard to bounce," says Payet, "so the previous sojourn in Nantes had allowed me to feel ready to face this life I have chosen." If, in the words of Huxley, experience is not what happens to a man but what a man does with what happens to him, Payet had by now developed a 'hardened shell' to deflect the bellicose glare of the media spotlight. "Honestly, it's part of the game," he muses. "When you're good, you're very good. When you're bad, you're bad. Thus, I try to be the most natural I can be. If my actions are interpreted variously, then I can not help it." It is why when his former Nantes teammate Jean-Jacques Pierre would later speak out that some members of the group had cheated the club with their behavior during their relegation season, Payet insists he was unmoved. "He spoke of cheaters but did not mention names," he points out. "Besides, it's not the kind of statement that will make me worry one way or the other. I disregard what these people say about me. Some also think that I 'took the big head' but no I'm still the same."

As predictable as the Biennale Internationale Design exhibition rolling through the Massif Central, it was again Payet's second season that would witness the first unveiling of the player's true innovation and style. Prior to the start of the 2008-09 campaign, he took the armband in a friendly match against the Réunion national team in an emotional return to the island, before subsequently appearing in 30 league matches scoring four times and supplying six assists. His European bow came in September in the first leg of the team's first round tie against Israeli club Hapoel Tel Aviv, plundering the opening goal in a 2–1 win. A first league goal for the club arrived just weeks later in a 1–1 draw with Bordeaux, and in December Payet scored the game-winning goal against his former club Le Havre. Then came a strike in a 3–1 win over Danish club Copenhagen and in the UEFA Cup knockout rounds an instrumental display in Saint-Étienne's 5–2 aggregate victory over Olympiakos. In the first leg, Payet assisted on a goal in a 3–1 win, while in the second leg he netted the opener in a 2–1 win. Saint-Étienne would be eliminated from the competition in the next round by Werder Bremen; losing 3–2 on aggregate with Payet appearing from the substitute's bench in both ties. Although the club's European exertions had seen its league form plummet to just one place above the relegation zone, Payet's own contribution had been enough to earn the player a two-year extension to his contract despite a sometimes acrimonious relationship with manager Alain Perrin. "You didn't need to be a visionary to know there would be trouble between the two," wrote Planet Football's Mathieu Delattre. "You could smell divorce even from the drinking of the wine of honour on the wedding day."

If the Les Verts faithful were still waiting for Payet to fully ignite the Geoffroy-Guichard, noted Delattre, then it was all the more frustrating because the slumbering potential was becoming so clear. Just as then France Under-21 coach Rene Girard was proclaiming the player to be 'a very clever boy with both feet and able to make ​​the difference on both wings', so there was a growing suspicion at club level that Perrin was 'binding the branches of the young sapling'. December of the following 2008-09 season saw the under-fire manager finally relieved of his duties but not without a final parting shot at his enigmatic playmaker. "He is a player who has technical qualities, above average speed and is able to make the difference by his dribbles and ball striking," noted Perrin when discussing Payet. "Yet his application does not always follow. He does not have a big enough engine to last 90 minutes, or the ability to replicate the aforementioned talents in tight matches. It is complicated for him and mentally he still needs to make improvements in his consistency and aggression. This is an aesthete who loves the ball and the beautiful game, but this is not a fighting player." For Perrin, the heart of the problem was 'carburetor awareness', as he likened Payet to a 'nervous little Japanese car' rather than a 'robust German sedan' before questioning whether he could ever deliver the level of performance required on a bigger stage. "When you are at a big club, facing adversity, you are obliged to raise your game to compete against the competition," he added. "At a medium club, it is merely hoped you can surprise the opponent. That heightened expectation, the demand for energy and athleticism he may not ever have the ability to consistently deliver. Does he have the energy? Is this not too hard? You have to be able to play 120% every three days, and for Payet this is not possible."
"I think that if I am notorious, it is because other people have decided that this is how I should be..."
As if to underline the point Payet's form continued to be sporadic; too often sputtering in the league over the course of 35 appearances in which he scored just twice and provided six assists, but resounding to a throaty roar during a succession of impressive Coupe de France performances. In late January 2010, under the guidance of new coach Christophe Galtier, he scored a double in a 4–1 victory over Lorient and two weeks later claimed the winner against Vannes on route to an eventual quarter-final defeat to Lens. Then in May, with Saint-Étienne again flirting with the relegation trap-door, an otherwise forgettable season for Payet suddenly erupted in a physical altercation with his captain Blaise Matuidi during a 1–0 home defeat to Toulouse. Midway through the first half of a tense match Payet found himself berated by team-mate Yohan Benalouane for a perceived lack of aggression. Then confronted by an agitated Matuidi, echoing Benalouane's sentiments, the pair found themselves face-to-face before Payet delivered a headbutt; the two finally separated by the combined effort of referee and teammates. Payet was immediately substituted after 31 minutes and sanctioned by club president Roland Romeyer before apologizing for the incident shortly after. At the time Payet described the incident as 'an argument that had no place on a football pitch' while Matuidi blamed a 'lack of maturity' on the part of both players. "Against Toulouse, it was a chaotic end of season game," explains Payet now. "There was pressure, a strained relationship between the team and the supporters. The tension was palpable and it was an unfortunate rush of blood. It's ancient history and I accepted the punishment because it's true that I did things that I did not have to do in this particular instance. When I see the images, I am not proud. Yet there are a few people who knew me well enough to know I could change and my wife, my family, my cousin and my agent all helped me make the point."

Payet says the turning point happened that summer in 2010 while on a restorative vacation in Réunion and it involved 'starting from scratch'. "We had to change a lot of things," he admits. "I weighed the pros and cons, saw what was wrong and most importantly, I thought about what to do to put myself in the best possible condition. The result was unequivocal and there were many things to change in my lifestyle and behaviour. For example, I took the decision to work with a dietitian. As a person from the island, I liked to eat the same meals as everybody else at family gatherings but it is simply not suitable." He also married, for real this time, and discovered fatherhood for the first time. "It was a daily grind," admits the player's close adviser, Nicolas Onissé. "We made the observation that things had stagnated and from this realization came the challenge. We knew that by simply repeating the same things he was going to make the same mistakes. Since that moment, Dimitri turned over a new leaf: regular sleep patterns, proper hydration and menus composed by a nutritionist. In these moments he become a man." Payet says it always used to be difficult for him to return to France after a stay in Réunion and the thought would leave him with a 'heavy heart'. Now, he insists, he could not wait to reconnect with the game. His team-mates certainly noticed a change. "Basically, Dimitri was always shy and a little crazy," stated his Malian international friend Bakary Sako. "But when he came back he was also focused and determined."

A metamorphosis had taken place and the effect was now irrevocable observed Delattre. "A new player illuminated the stadium," he wrote. "In his bullet passes, his acceleration, the quality of his strikes and sense of purpose, the potential exploded. As soon as he touched the ball, he illuminated the stadium." Payet scored in the team's opening 3–1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain and at the end of August netted his first professional hat-trick in a 3–1 victory over Lens; his visibly overwhelmed mother Michelle watching from the stands. "I was crying and I could not breathe," she recalls. "The way the crowd was cheering, it was beautiful to hear his name fill the stadium." With six goals in six games her son was catapulted to the top of the scorers chart. After the international break, Payet added a double against Montpellier and in late September delivered a 'superb and untouchable' free-kick goal in the team's Derby du Rhône victory against Lyon. The win sent Saint-Étienne to the top of the league and secured for Payet the Player of the Month award. In October Laurent Blanc bowed to the inevitable and called him into the France team for the first time. At the Stade de France, Payet came off the bench with a few minutes remaining against Romania to deliver a decisive pass to Yoann Gourcuff with his first touch. In the follow-up Euro 2012 qualifier against Luxembourg he would repeat the trick with the exact same result. A return to domestic affairs brought with it extra exposure but also seemed to signal the end of Payet’s goal scoring exploits; a single strike away at Nice was his only other goal in 2010. "He’ll always be setting up goals because he loves it," bemoaned Galtier at the time. "But for where he plays on the pitch, he should score goals. He talked with a lot of people who all told him the same thing: 'You have buckets of talent, but now you have to show it! Consistently.'"
"Without points of reference, a man melts away..."
Saint-Etienne only managed a couple more wins during the last two months of the year and in January faced frenzied transfer speculation. With notable English vultures such as Manchester City and Liverpool rumoured to be circulating around Payet, it was Paris Saint-Germain who officially declared their interest as they sought a replacement for the recently departed Stéphane Sessègnon. Payet agitated for the move behind the scenes but Saint-Étienne demurred, choosing instead to put a seemingly unrealistic €8 million bounty on their prized asset's head. Ahead of the closure of the transfer window, a frustrated Payet failed to show up to training in a final effort to engineer a move. When he was later spotted in Paris he insisted that he was only there as a tourist to visit the Eiffel Tower. On his return a few days later- oeuf sur son visage- he found himself demoted to the Saint-Étienne reserve team and forced to miss the league match against Montpellier in early February. It would take until April for Payet to rediscover his earlier form with four strikes that month taking his final tally for the season to 3 assists and 13 goals; two more than he had previously managed over the course of his entire career. One reason for the upsurge, noted French Football Weekly, was the transition from left wing to right overseen by Galthier and embraced by the player. "I've never been pissed off with my left foot," confirms Payet. "It has always been able to talk a little." Where most players will say 'my left foot, it's just for getting on the bus' observes Delattre, it is rare for a French forward to 'martyr defenders with the same brilliance and the same ease in both feet'. "The sunshine is not just in the laces" he concludes in his description of Payet. "His finishing is about viscous striking but with a watchful feline grace to be applied where and when it is needed. The distance and his position relative to the goal is never a problem. He is able to to hit the heights from outside the area, on both sides, and that changes everything."

His relationship with Sainté ASSE now irredeemably compromised, Payet finally secured his move away that summer when he joined LOSC Lille for a fee (€9 million) in excess of the sum thought unattainable just months earlier. Decamping to a club that had just landed the domestic double (56 years after the its previous trophy), and linking up with former Irons favourite Joe Cole, Payet says the lure of Champions League football ultimately led him to ignore renewed overtures from Paris Saint-Germain. "I was attracted by Lille's ambition," he states. "A new stadium in a year and a competitive team meant that there was everything needed to succeed." For his part, Les Dogues manager Rudi Garcia justified the outlay by declaring Payet a player who 'breathes football and should therefore adapt well to our team'. His plan was to deploy his new charge on the right of a fluid 4-3-3 in the position vacated by Arsenal-bound Gervinho. Also given the opportunity to drift to the left and cut inside onto his deadly right-foot it seemed the ideal fit for both player and club had it not been for the dreaded 'first season syndrome' that had dogged Payet for his entire career. Life in northern France, at least initially, did not run smoothly; a string of niggling injuries and the over-bearing presence of Eden Hazard as the team's creative force combined to leave Payet firmly in the shade. Despite managing just six goals, 8 assists and making his Champions League debut any criticism for a failure to meet expectations in the 2011-12 season could not, at least, be aimed at attitude or application. "Dimitri laughs a lot and is always joyful," Garcia assured the press. "This is his way of being in the group and it is pleasant to be around him every day. Sometimes he can be upset, which I like, because it proves that he has character. This is a player who 'pees his pants' to help defensively and he must keep this desire as long as possible."

Within twelve months that desire would see Payet voted into the Ligue 1 Team of the Year, back in contention for Didier Deschamp's national team and become the only player in the French league in the 2012-13 season to achieve the statistical 'double-double'; that is to say reach double figures in both goals and assists. For the latter he took his place among such esteemed company as Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller. "No Lille player benefited more from Eden Hazard’s move to Chelsea that summer than Payet," notes BS Sports' Jimmy Coverdale. The winger had a spectacular explosion emerging from the Belgium's shadow, he notes, bouncing back from a lacklustre first season to record some astonishing stats. Now operating predominantly from the left, only ten players scored more in Ligue 1 than Payet that season and those goals came from 138 attempts at goal- the second highest total behind PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Crucially, Payet was equally impressive as a creative influence, his 12 goals combined with his league leading 13 assists meant the player directly contributed to 42.4% of Lille’s goals; his key pass total bettered only by Mathieu Valbuena. Naming Payet his 'terreur d’élite', Deschamps recalled the player back into the international fray telling the assembled press: "He still has that technical quality, the ease and ability to be decisive, but now he proposes some continuity in his game. I like his aggressiveness, in a good sense, his behavior on the field and his determination to create and score goals. I am extremely sensitive to attitudes and that of Dimitri currently meets the requirements to operate at this level. His decisive actions on both wings gives the opportunity to play both right and left. Technically, he's a boy capable of achieving some really interesting things."

If Payet had enjoyed a fabulous season for Lille on a personal level, it was a disappointing campaign for the team in general as 'The Great Danes' missed out on Europe all together. While Garcia was talking in glowing terms about his playmaker- "In our way of working, almost all the time with a front three without a No. 10, Dimitri has a great offensive attitude. He feels good in this system because he is free"- Lille deputy director general Frederic Pacquet was publicly stating the club were now 'open to offers' for their talented star. "We are listening and if there is an offer which corresponds to his market value, we will think about it," he told Radio Monte Carlo that summer. "In the end LOSC must benefit." Predictable then, that before the end of June Payet would be packing his bags once more; this time headed for Marseille in a deal believed to be worth around €11 million. The French international insists it was purely a "sporting choice" as to why he joined L’OM despite supposed interest from both Arsenal and Newcastle United. "The prospect of the 2014 World Cup was a key element in my thinking, but not the only one," he explains. "I wanted to stay in France, but with OM it was also about playing in the Champions League, the chance to evolve in a quality group of players and to achieve high goals in the league. Marseille’s history speaks for itself, it is full of titles and emotions. The club is a monument in French sport." For Les Phocéens coach Élie Baup, who had guided Marseille to a surprise second place finish in his first year in charge, Payet's signature- before those of Florian Thauvin and Giannelli Imbula- was his main transfer target. "Payet is a high quality player, who had ​​a good season playing left, but can also occupy the right side as he did in St Etienne," he stated. "Compared to everyone else, it must be said that he was a priority. It is important to have a player of such talent, a very good passer, good finisher, someone who takes the set pieces and someone who can occupy multiple attacking positions."
"It was like pissing in a urinal full of cigarette butts: nothing gets flushed, and everything starts to stink..."
With the Mediterranean sun on his back Payet's Marseille career got off to a flying start with a brace fifteen minutes into his debut against Guingamp, followed up with another goal in a 2-0 win over Evian. By the end of August Les Olympiens were sitting atop the table and the player himself seemed to be adjusting well to his new role in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Then came the unmitigated disaster of an historically bad Champions League campaign- Marseille suffered the ignominy of becoming the first French team, and the biggest European team to date, to record zero points in the group stage- and a once promising season quickly disintegrated. Payet made his delayed European appearance away to Dortmund in October before picking up a red card for simulation in the reverse fixture in late December. It came just a few weeks after the highly regarded Baup had been sacked following a 1-0 loss to Nantes at the Stade Velodrome, a defeat which had left the club languishing in 5th position and some 13 points behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain. Then came a significant injury to Mathieu Valbuena ahead of the winter break and any remaining hope for the season was lost. By the following March the club sat sixth in the table having already lost a third of their games, including six at home, and the atmosphere inside and around the club was by now venomous. "First of all, there was friction reported between the younger and older players in the squad," noted Julien Laurens. "The older players didn't understand the mentality of the newcomers and there was seemingly a massive gap between the two factions, and the dressing room utterly divided. Then there was also tensions with the supporters; some of them had written an open letter to the players in January asking other fans to make the players' lives 'hell everywhere they go, even at the bakery.'" Although Payet had returned a respectable 8 goals and 6 assists amid the turmoil, he had also found himself substituted over twenty times. For an 'adopted' Frenchman now unable to even buy his croissants in peace it must have been hard to shake the feeling he was no longer wanted.

By last summer the possibility of a premature exit from the club after just one season seemed more than a possibility. Facing a looming tax bill and squeezed by the financial imperative of losing Champions League revenue, Marseille's need to raise emergency funds (£4.8million before June 30) dictated at least one of its star would be sacrificially disposed. For Payet, already carrying the 'stink of the previous Baup Anigo regime' and now the subject of a very real €8 million interest from Swansea, the writing seemed on the wall. Then there was the impending arrival of new manager Marcelo Bielsa, who had already reportedly expressed a desire that the services of Steve Mandanda, Mathieu Valbuena, Andre Ayew and Nicolas N'Koulou be retained. What happened next, says RMC's Jeremy Bilinski, was the story of a resurrection. "You see, Dimitri Payet is kind of stubborn," he wrote. "The 28-year-old fervently believed he could win over the Velodrome as well as the new coach and therefore decided to stay on the Canebière. Arriving without a clear idea of ​​the potential of the player, Bielsa quickly fell in love. The selfless mindset and his performances in the pre-season friendlies enough to persuade the Argentine coach to entrust the player with the responsibility of being his new No. 10." As if to emphasize the point, the talismanic Valbuena was allowed to depart for Dynamo Moscow in early August and his shirt number symbolically retired. Just as at Saint-Etienne and Lille, noted Bilinski, the phoenix responded by taking flight in his second season. "More comfortable than when on the wings," he states, "Payet started to control the game and serve Gignac and company brilliantly." Much to the obvious delight of Bielsa: "He's a very complete player, very serious in training," he enthused at the time. "He has the advantage of using the left and right foot. He has a peripheral vision to see everything around him in attack and an innate talent to put the ball where the opponent will really struggle to recover. He is brilliant at spotting all available players and manages to put them in favorable situations." For his part, Payet says he felt 'good' from the very start of season. "I managed to be a regular in the team by finding some consistency," he says. "I was able to be effective and efficient in the 'ten' role and felt that it allowed me to get on the ball and affect things. Obviously it was important that the coach gave me confidence that I could make it work and it then became increasingly easy and quick to adapt. From there, with the trust of the coach and my own growing belief it allowed me to have the successful season I had."

Now playing at the height of his powers, last November saw Payet create two goals against Bordeaux in a 3-1 win and then another in a 2-0 victory over Nantes. Shooting to the top of the Ligue 1 assists chart, it was an honour he would not relinquish for the rest of the season. "In my position, you have no choice but to create and to score," he says. "At that moment I could see my team-mates with great clarity and I was enjoying it immensely. It was good for my confidence to become effective once again." A perennial bridesmaid among the league’s best players, and with the national side as well, the ever-itinerant Payet was also racking up career-high numbers in successful dribbles, key passes and passes completed per match. Shortly after Metro News published an article simply titled: 'Dimitri Payet, the best player in Ligue 1'. The departure of Valbuena is obviously the cause, it surmised, and the fate of the Reunion player would surely have been different if 'Small Bike' had not left for Russia thus illuminating the 'true meaning of his understudy's game'. "We will never know if Payet would have become so important to Marseille if his former partner had stayed in the Old Port," wrote Jean Canesse. "And that's good because what we have been allowed to see over the last several months, is that this Payet is also an outstanding playmaker. This is a great discovery which we must not overlook when assessing his career." Adding his voice to the chorus of approval, former Marseille and Rennes midfielder Jocelyn Gourvennec stated: "Finally, it shows the fullness of his talent in a position for which he is made. It is all the more remarkable that Payet is able to do this by taking over from Valbuena, who is exceptional in my opinion." While Carlo Ancelotti was also happy to go on record to profess his 'admiration for Dimitri'. "I love Payet," he admitted in a post match press conference. "I think he's the best in France at his position."
"I admit that invective is one of my pleasures. This only brings me problems in life, but that's it. I attack, I insult. I have a gift for that, for insults, for provocation. So I am tempted to use it..."
Imagine the 'thunderclap' then when in mid December Payet suddenly found himself dropped for a match against Lille because Bielsa perceived a lack of motivation in training. Sent for an early shower before the end of a practice session, Payet was 'invited' to take a leave of absence until the resumption of the season after the winter break. "It was actually pretty good for me," concedes Payet. "It allowed me to have the time to question myself and get back to one hundred percent." On his return Payet's form miraculously continued on its ascendant course. He added a further nine assists in 2015, including a four match spell in April and May where he provided a goal a game for his grateful teammates. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so Michy Bastshuayi had been turned into a instant star while both Andre-Pierre Gignac and Andre Ayew were being spurred on to career-best numbers. Not that everybody appreciated Payet's promptings. In a fraught 1-1 draw away to Rennes in February there was a much publicized altercation with Florian Thauvin. Following several 'encouraging remarks' aimed in his direction, the young Orléan finally snapped in the last fifteen minutes; the moment he screamed 'son of a bitch' at Payet captured in full glory by the television cameras and then aired repeatedly. "These things are a fact of the game, nothing special," shrugs Payet, before acknowledging he is not always the easiest of characters. "I'm very complicated although I have mellowed a bit. I can not give an example, it will not help me now, but I'm not tender and I can do things that can upset." The following month he was banned for angrily remonstrating with the match officials in the tunnel of the Vélodrome after Marseille had a late goal ruled out against Lyon. "That was not justice," he says, irrespective of the vociferous and very creative nature of the insults that would have made Malcolm Tucker quail. "As I said before I was not aiming my words at anyone specifically, it was mostly frustration. It is just when these things concern Paris or Marseille, we know that there is immediately an extra buzz." Offering up a conspiracy theory for the tin hat brigade, Payet insists he was more accurately the victim of 'scandalous and unfounded' machinations. "I saw very real evil," he adds. "Those manoeuvers to weaken us were harsher than my words. The real question is who benefitted from the media lynching?" So in a similar situation he would manage the situation differently, next time? "Sure, this serves as a lesson," he admits. "If this should happen again, I will wait to be in the locker room to express my anger (he smiles)."

Back on the pitch and Payet was still delivering even as the club itself started to fall away. "Against top opposition, against strong defences, on the road, at home, in the first half, in the second, in 2014, in 2015, Payet continually chipped in assists and the occasional goal, no matter the binary," observed FFN's Eric Devin. "By his performances against the best opposition in the league- PSG, Monaco, Lyon and Saint-Etienne- the OM player proved himself to be much more than a flat track bully." His final tally of 17 assists- earning him the 'Meilleur Passeur' award- equalled the mark of Sochaux's Marvin Martin as the best in the last ten years of football in Ligue 1; the number of successful through balls only bettered in the top five European leagues by Lional Messi. He also led the French league for key passes at a rate of 3.25 per game- 40 more than any other player- and did so with an 80 percent accuracy rate. The 134 total chances created saw Payet set up a teammate every 23 minutes and was unmatched in any of the continent's best leagues. "So how has Dimitri Payet been able to take such a step?" asks Canesse. "Well firstly he has been extraordinarily consistent. This information is not trivial when you know that the native of Saint-Pierre has often struggled to string together good performances. But it is obviously not enough to explain the new dimension taken by the player. Technically skillful and adroit with both feet, there is a inestimable purity to the way he connects with the ball." It is, in the description of Liberation Sports Grégory Schneider, as if he could strike an egg with the exact same force and it would not break. Then, states Canesse, there is the 'rare clairvoyance of his passing'. "To play No. 10, what is fundamental is to see even before you receive the ball," agrees Gourvennec. "When he (Payet) receives the ball, he already knows what he will do. In addition, he has exceptional passing skills and the speed with which he is able to release the ball is a noticeable change in his approach to the game. It is precisely this ability to manage time that is the preserve of big players."
"Life sometimes offers you a chance but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it, life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things..."
It is also one of the reasons Payet has now been capped 15 times by France. A regular member of the squad, his first goal came in a friendly international against Belgium in Paris as recently as last month. "It is certainly true my inconsistency was something you could reproach me for," admits Payet. "But I think I have managed to show that I am able to do a full season. In terms of stats it was pretty decent and it also means people will expect more of me. My motivation is to prove I can do it again. If I am given the means, I think the second part of my career can be even more enjoyable that the first." To the consternation of Noel Le Graet that meant 'one of France's best kept secrets' swapping the 'sunshine of the Côte d'Azur for London fog'. With Marseille's eventual failure to qualify for the Champions League and Payet's salary about to drop by £12,000 this summer, it is no secret, noted Eurosport's Lucile Alard, that the player was attracted by West Ham United's 'pot of gold'. Although Bielsa had publicly called for his playmaker's contract to be urgently renegotiated the chance to play in the Premier League ultimately proved too strong. "Everyone is free to make choices in their career," says Payet. "At a certain age you have to ensure your future. The reality is that OM could not even give me what I earned for the last two seasons so it's understandable that I made ​​a decision based on what's best for myself and my family."

Yet resisting attempts in France to paint him as 'simply a mercenary', Payet is adamant that monetary concerns were not his only consideration. "At Marseille there have been many departures and the situation became a blur," states the 28-year-old. "There were certainly no guarantees of replacing the players who left [Gignac, Ayew, Morel]. West Ham really showed me that they wanted me to come, both the joint-chairmen and the manager. That's very important for me. I was also keen to sign up to a clear project. West Ham’s is very interesting and matches perfectly with my ambitions. Firstly I spoke with the manager, who really wished for me to come here and had been watching me a lot. He made it clear that he wanted me to sign and that too was important in my choice. I'm an attacking footballer so for sure I like attacking football and that they're counting on me to help achieve that gives me a sense of responsibility. The fact that I'm here is also down to that." Then there is the impending switch to the 55,000 capacity Olympic Stadium. "In coming here I took into account the new stadium and that's obviously part of the project. You move to a new stadium with ambitions and it can lead to progression for the team and the club. I've been involved in my fair share of history, so to speak, what with St Etienne, Nantes and Marseille. So I'm looking forward to playing a part in this history, because it has a magnificent feel about it." "It is," concludes Alard, "just the latest example of the fascination for the Premier League that many French players have." Or, to paraphrase Houellebecq- Réunion's other favourite son- if you can read in the words and deeds of a club such an energy and passion, then you can not help but find it attractive.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Obiang The Dancing Bear

It was on a derelict scrub of land in the middle of a housing estate that the young Pedro Mba Obiang Avomo first caught the eye. "He was fourteen years of age and playing in the Alcalá de Henares youth team, his local amateur side in a town about 30 kilometers from Madrid," remembers noted Fifa agent Giovanni Fiore. Scouting for Sampdoria at the time, Fiore sent word back to his Genovese paymasters that he had witnessed a 'dancing bear'; that rare combination of imposing physicality and mesmeric technical skill. "Even at that age he was head and shoulders above all his companions," says Fiore. "He had a great ease of movement and it seemed that he could do the more complicated things without much effort. Then there was his personality. He was already the undisputed reference point of the entire team; a leader his team-mates would always seek out in open play, at free kicks and with corners." As yet blissfully unaware of the burgeoning interest being shown, Obiang- known more familiarly by his nickname Perico (a type of parrot)- has a slightly different recollection of those formative years. "I have strong memories of my early days," he says. "From about the age of twelve I was continually overlooked by the big teams; there were a lot of doors slammed on me." It would be a further two years after Fiore's initial report before the Serie A club with a fast growing reputation as the benchmark for clubs plundering La Liga youth academies would make their move. In that time Obiang had finally attracted the interest of Atletico Madrid, enrolling with the Cadetes despite some initial family reservations. "My father only agreed," admits Obiang, "because he knew it was always my ambition to play for Real Madrid." A tentative step closer to what was still a distant dream but still struggling to make an impression, the young Perico was about to get a break. "When I arrived at Atletico I started as a striker," he explains. "But one of the midfielders got injured and the coach tried me there. Since that day, it became my position. I hated it, and I'm still hating (laughs) but they say I can't change."

August 4, 2008 was the date Obiang insists changed his life. Sampdoria Sporting Director Beppe Marotta and trusted lieutenant Fabio Paratici, responsible for a scouting network that is the envy of Europe, came calling. The pair have worked together for a number of years and although now deploying their collective magic at Juventus, had recently been responsible for, among others, snatching a young Roberto Soriano away from Bayern Munich and Mauro Icardi out of Barcelona. Not that Obiang would use the word 'snatch' in his case. "I would say I was almost discarded," he corrects when he considering the desultory transfer fee of €130,000 the Blucerchiati were asked to pay. "Sampdoria offered me a professional contract," says Obiang, "but also a detailed football project specifically for me." It was, he says, far more than just vague promises and was enough to convince both him and his parents that his style of play was better suited to Italian football than it ever would be in La Liga. Still, at just sixteen- the minimum age that an international transfer within the European Union is allowed- the decision by a young footballer to seek his fortune in another country is a momentous one. "It is actually quite widespread, maybe not in Spain, but in the world," says Obiang. "We tend to think that a home-grown player will have more patience to try and break through, but it is very frustrating when someone from outside will take your chance. It is also true that the player who is bought in has a different value to the club. Besides, in Spain there is far more competition at the younger level than there is in Italy, even if in Italy there is maybe a greater fear of throwing youngsters into the first team."

Life in Genoa was initially hard and the city, in Obiang's own words, was not 'an easy fit'. By his estimation it is a place to be admired rather than enjoyed and the first impression is one of remoteness. "It is created and designed more for its citizens than for tourists," thinks the Spaniard, who lists architectural study as one of his keen interests. In fact, he adds pointedly, it has one of the oldest populations in Europe. "The first trip I made was with my manager, Jose Miguel Gonzalez, and my father to see the facilities and to find out about the sports project," he recalls. "The second trip I did alone. I started living in the residence of Vila Flora with the other youth players and it was quite difficult as it would be for any child who leaves their home and changes country. At first I despaired at not understanding the language. Within two months I said to Jose, 'I want to come back, the Italians speak very fast, and the training runs are long here' (laughs). Then I began to better assimilate the tactical concepts and make friends in the locker room and I began to relax."

Although he arrived as an intended member of the 'Allievi Nazionali' youth squad, in the August of 2008 Obiang was immediately thrown in with the first team for pre-season training. By late January of the following year coach Walter Mazzarri had included him as an unused sub in games against both Lazio and Chievo. The next season, with Mazarri now departed, brought promotion to the Primavera, or reserve squad. Obiang says he was learning quickly but there were some aspects that he initially found difficult. "It was physically and especially tactical," he admits. "At first I tended to 'exaggerate' everything with elaborate flourishes, as is encouraged in Spanish football. In Italy there is very little room for such things. I also suffered a lot of blows and endured much contact. I thought 'you can not give me so many kicks'. Tactically, coaches like you to hold your position, to keep things simple, no heels or tunnels. They removed these things very quickly from my game and when I adapted, I started playing more." While still technically a youth player Obiang would go on to make 7 preseason appearances in the summer of the 2010-11 season, scoring 2 goals. His full debut would follow that September after an injury crisis ripped through the Sampdoria first team. Called off the bench to replace Vladimir Koman by new coach Domenico Di Carlo, and with his side trailing Juventus 2-1, Obiang helped his team to a credible 3-3 draw in the Stadio Olimpico di Torino. On the morning of the game he had put pen to paper on a new 5-year deal. A few months later Obiang made his European bow in a 0-2 Europa League defeat to Hungarian side Debreceni. Although disappointing on the night, it would be the start of what has become an enduring fascination for the travel-loving Spaniard. "I love doing it [European competition] because I consider myself a citizen of the world," enthuses Obiang. "To know and to discover irresistible temptations." It is also the reason he has become a self-confessed 'slave' to the Internet. "It opens the mind and satisfies my curiosity," he says, before revealing that for a recent birthday his friends gave him a computer. Surprisingly for someone known as 'Perico' to his friends he says he is not that inclined to tweet; preferring as he does to communicate with people face-to-face.

Although never establishing himself as a regular in a season that would ultimately end in the pain of relegation for Sampdoria, Obiang's education on and off the pitch was continuing apace. "The Italian practice sessions for the first team are done through repetitions," reveals Obiang. "There are sessions where we would work the same concept for an hour; sometimes it can be an hour video study." It is an idea referred to as 'Omni Particulare Cure' and is centred on preparation through obsessive attention to detail. "When you face a technically superior team," he says, "you have to be superior on a tactical and physical level." Obiang also describes with wonderment the 'thrill' of finding himself lining up next to Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini for the precious few months before they would depart. "I already knew about Antonio from his time at Madrid when I was living there," he states. "When I trained with him, I felt nervous but I also had the desire to want to prove myself." Cassano could be a little 'fussy' always wanting the ball played to his feet, Obiang explains with a smile, but insists all the veterans gave him confidence. "Even though he was very serious during training, at the end Cassano always had a joke and time to talk with me."

That April Obiang, who also holds Equatoguinean passport, earned a Spanish Under 20 call-up for Porto International Tournament. Despite the fact he never made it onto the field it only served to intensify a tug of war between the two countries that has yet to be definitively settled. After all, if Obiang has always identified himself as Spanish (having also represented the country at Under 17, Under 19 and Under 21) things can still get a little complicated when your uncle- Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo- is an African dictator. Once described as 'worse than Mugabe', the man who routinely refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss) is now the world's third longest-ruling non-royal head of state since he ousted his own uncle (Francisco Macias) in a military coup in 1979. Accused of unlawful killings, government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture, corruption, embezzlement and cannibalism, Obiang is understandably cautious when discussing the subject. "I spoke to him only once, when I first said no to the national team," he says. "I know of his life, but I do not judge. In Guinea, when we speak of family we really mean tribe; it is very different from in Italy or Spain. I have two uncles from my mother's side, and on my father's side they are in double figures." He says that he once asked his father to make a list of all his family members and it was 'so long' that most of the names on it he has never met. Obiang also has a cousin, Ruslan, who is 'Secretary of State and Sport' in the African country with direct influence on national team selection. He says he was last approached by the the Guinean Football Federation prior to their hosting of the 2012 edition of the African Cup of Nations, but declined their entreaties on the grounds he could never agree to play for a country on whose land he has never set foot. "Once my parents migrated, they made the decision to never return there before my coming of age," he states. "They still would never leave me alone, even when I was in Italy. Only now, after 25 years, have they returned to visit the country."

Young Pedro remains the only one of his siblings yet to take the trip to Akam-Esandom, the region where his father was born. "Before they would put more pressure on me," he smiles, "but since they see that things are going well for me in football they understand things differently. They know that I travel a lot and need to focus." Part of his ambivalence can be explained thus: "There are things that scare me a little. I see it in pictures, but I only know the things that I have been told. I want to live my own experience, because not everything is always as advertised. Right now, I could go and not know if I would enjoy it. I'm waiting for the right moment, when I have a longer vacation. I wanted to go last summer, but had to cut short my break because of fitness issues." All of which is to suggest Obiang has not fully turned his back on 'his roots'. Recently, he reveals, he got a call from current Equatorial Guinea coach Andoni Goikoetxea, the legendary 'Butcher of Bilbao'. "He spoke to me again about the project," says Obiang, "but I told him we should talk later because my club were in a negative run at the time and I needed to stay focused. To address such an issue requires a lot of quiet thought but I guess I will need to decide soon." There is, of course, a third option available to Obiang. "Never, even if in theory I could play for the Italian national team," he laughs. "I like to defend the causes I believe in. If I chose the blue shirt, it would be like a betrayal."

Obiang would get a chance to fight for Sampdoria's promotion cause in the 2011-12 season following the club's ignominious fall from grace. With several of the big names- including Cassano and Pazzini- jumping ship, new manager Gianluca Atzori was forced to put his faith in young recruits and academy players. The team struggled initially but following yet another change of coach late in the year finally scraped into the playoffs with a sixth place finish. Obiang made a total of 33 league appearances during the campaign, mostly in a purely defensive midfield capacity, and then shone as the team went on an unexpected run through the promotion deciders that saw them upset both Sassuolo and Varese to return to the top flight after just a year. "I had always believed that sooner or later I would play a leading role for a club at the highest level," states Obiang. The following season he was at the heart of Sampdoria's first survival season back in Serie A; his consistently solid performances in the centre of midfield allowing the more creative players such as Andrea Poli and Icardi the freedom to work their magic. Now established as a key player in the side, his form over 34 league appearances would attract the attentions of some of Europe’s top clubs; Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City reportedly among those showing interest. "Sampdoria was the ideal club for me to mature and develop my skills," says Obiang when he thinks about the teams rumoured to be looking at him at that time. "But then I also think that dreaming about joining a top club in the future is natural and inevitable." Further evidence of his growing profile was a poll conducted at the end of that 2012-13 season by Inside Spanish Football naming Obiang among their top 15 Spanish youngsters.

As befits a player who started out as a striker, Obiang says that before he came to Italy he was a far more offensive player. Now he had developed into the player he was always meant to be. "I have become a mixture because I had learned a lot of defensive work," he says. "Clearly, I like to get into the penalty area, but now my role is more defensive." Where once he would regularly cite the 'innate elegance' of Zidane as is role-model, now his points of reference are Marcos Senna and Sergio Busquets; to Obiang's eyes the quintessential modern midfielders because they make everything easier through good positioning. "I also love Pirlo because he doesn't just play in front of the defense," he says. "In Italy that player can also control the whole game." For similar reasons he names Xabi Alonso as the player he most admires at the moment. Along with Cruyff and Guti he is the inspiration for why he likes to wear the number 14 on his back. That said, Sam Fribbins, writing for Transfer News Central, thinks there is perhaps an even more apposite comparison to be made with Manchester City's Yaya Touré. "Obiang possesses great stamina and energy enabling him to get around the pitch with ease, especially as a box-to-box midfielder," notes Fribbins. "At the height of 6”2, Obiang can be easily compared to a player such as Touré, since their roles are also fairly similar and both have strong builds, therefore making it hard for any player to push them off the ball." Though larger players, neither are necessarily slow, he observes, and this enables them to make meaningful runs from their own half and well into the opposition’s half. Another similar trait is a great passing ability, ranging from little 'one-two’s' to the more optimistic medium to long-range passes. This is one reason why the Spanish youth setup regularly employed Obiang as a deep-lying playmaker during his time with the team, since he possesses a good passing ability, as well as being able to closely dribble with the ball. "As well as all this," concludes Fribbins, "Obiang has good tackling ability, again making him a dependable option as a box-to-box player. He is known for his terrific work rate, which is a key attribute for any central midfielder to have. Moreover, his natural fitness is of the highest quality, without sustaining any major injuries throughout his professional career to date."

That latter point would be called into question during the following 2013-14 season when a lingering hernia injury meant Obiang would only feature 27 times. During a stuttering campaign which saw Sampdoria struggling to keep their heads above the relegation places, the Spaniard's meteoric rise temporarily faltered. That November, however, would see the arrival of new manager Siniša Mihajlović; the man credited with putting both the club and player back on track. "Mihajlović kept us under strict control, but it depended on how you reacted to him," reveals Obiang. "In some periods he was serious, and at other times very open." If the midfielder has one criticism of a man he credits as a great influence on his career then maybe, he says, "he takes things too much to heart" before acknowledging "but with him we got great results." The list of people who have played an important part in Obiang's journey is a long one. "The first was my discoverer, Antonio Lozano," he states. "Along with my agent, Jose Miguel, he never let me give up on football. Then I went to Atletico. Felice Tufano also, my first coach in Italy with the youth team. They are the ones who have given me a harder psychological mentality. They were very insistent that you had practiced fully and was always learning. After this the physical training troubled me far less. Now I realize that this is a requirement if you are going to be able to handle the pressure of modern football. Nor do I forget Domenico Di Carlo, who gave me my debut." Aside from Mandela and Obama, who Obiang calls his idols, the rest are what he calls his 'family'. "I need to thank the strength of my mother who convinced me to leave Madrid; the courage of my father the traveler and immigrant; the joy of my sister, who occasionally comes to visit and brings a breath of fresh Spanish air. There is also Samuel Eto'o, symbol of Africa, and then [Alfred] Duncan, [Afriyie] Acquah and [Stefano] Okaka. We feel and treat each other as brothers."

Obiang and his brothers would all play their part in what was to be a momentous return to form for the Blucerchiati in 2014-15. Far from the best set of individuals in the league, their industrious, combative style of play turned them into one of the best teams as they finished an impressive seventh. "It's Samp's level of self-sacrifice and defensive organisation that has been the most impressive aspect of their game," noted Sports Blog Nation's Jack Sargeant. "Unsurprisingly, Mihajlović emphasised rapid counter-attacks, and urged his team to get the ball forward as soon as they won it back. It was not always pretty, and it lead to them giving the ball away more often than more patient sides, but its success was undeniable." Then there was the fastidious level of training involved. Taking 'Omni Particulare Cure' to extremes, one report from a training session last season tells how the reserves were called upon to replicate Roma's 4-3-3 formation, and for almost an hour the first team practiced winning it back and instantly triggering a counter attack. "There's no doubting that Mihajlović is an excellent tactician," observed Sargeant. "However, it's not just on the field that the Serb impressed - his press calls continuously provided entertainment. In his introductory press conference, he borrowed heavily from speeches by John F. Kennedy, describing him as "a man whose ideas and words continue to make us dream." He said he'd ask his players "not what Sampdoria can do for them, but what they can do for Sampdoria." A few months later, ahead of a game against Atalanta, he began quoting Dante's epic poem Divine Comedy, urging his players to "push past the Pillars of Hercules." He added that when he arrived at the club, "we were in hell, now we are in purgatory and I want to reach paradise." However, he saved his best literary reference for Samp's trip to Verona, when, in true Shakespearean style, he threatened to "knock Juliet down from the balcony."

The idiosyncratic approach clearly worked for Obiang, whose game over 34 impressive appearances visibly improved again. "He remains neat in possession and loves to get forward, making runs from deep with or without the ball," wrote Unibet's Adam Digby, but now he has added an increased goal threat. According to statistics from, Obiang averaged 3.1 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game, the former mark (153) bettered by only four players in Serie A. That compares favourably to the likes of Song (2.6), Mark Noble (1.9) and Cheikhou Kouyate (1.8) last season, while Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, for example, only averaged 2.8 successful tackles per 90 minutes. He also had an impressive 82.2 per cent pass completion rate. "Obiang was often deployed to man-mark a visiting playmaker, sticking to the task diligently and showing a good awareness of the game going on around him," notes Digby. "Long shots at both ends have become something of a trademark, the Alcalá native unafraid to either throw himself in the path of an opposition attempt or unleash a powerful effort of his own." At a point when Spain is still in the grip of the tiki-taka generation of shorter and more agile midfielders, Obiang thinks it is an advantage that he clearly provides another option. "Since I've been away from Spain I feel that I can bring something different," he says. "I have a special mark. My brand is the tactical and physical aspect. In Italy the ball goes faster, so tactically the players are better positioned and apply more pressure so I had to work hard to master that facet." Yet if Obiang had learned to add that physical approach to the neat passing he had learned in the Spanish capital then it is clear that he had not forgotten those lessons, as his delightful through ball to Mauro Icardi for a winning goal against Juventus showed. Then there was the composure and man marking skills displayed against AC Milan, specifically the way he effectively neutralized the threat of Boateng and Montolivo; or the long range effort against Inter Milan that Samir Handanovic somehow parried away from the goal.

Although he clearly blossomed under the guidance of Mihajlović, notes Digby, there was still a hint of a spat between the two men last season; Obiang gaining notoriety for kicking over a water cooler on the touchline after being substituted during a loss to Lazio. "I’m happy because he was angry with the team’s performance and not the substitution," the Serbian said at the time. "It’s pointless being angry afterwards, as you need to use that fire on the field." In fact, so great is the respect between the two that Obiang became the first black player to ever be named vice captain at the Genoa club. "My responsibilities remained the same," states the Spaniard. "Us younger players must always show that we are ready to take the next step." It was, nonetheless, an important symbolic gesture in a country where acts of discrimination remain an everyday occurrence. Take for example the recent comments by former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi that there are 'too many black players' at youth level in Italy and that it is evidence that the nation is now 'without dignity or pride'. "I challenge racism," insists Obiang, "but I can also agree with what he said if the criticism is not about skin color, but vocational training. I grew up in football in Italy, did years of school there, enrolled at the University of Genoa to study Political Science. I feel so at home there, that it seems like I am more a foreigner these days when I visit my father and my mother in Madrid." It helps, of course, to have a thick skin. If being likened to a 'dancing bear' is questionable enough, then regularly being referred to as the 'Coconut Hierro' in the written press is problematic in the extreme. He was fortunate, Obiang says, to live in a city that quickly learned to accept him. "I was, at first, wondering why there were so few blacks there," he admits. "Yet the Genoese people are strange. At the beginning they are suspicious but then if you make the effort they will take you in their hearts and there is no more difficulty." It is the reason, he says, the recent horrific footage of the drowning illegal immigrants 60 miles off the Libyan coast hit so hard. "I hated the way those images were portrayed on TV," he sighs. "It creates an unwarranted fear in people. Intolerance is not always racism, it can be ignorance and selfishness. The world has changed and some people are afraid of losing their status quo, their well-being, because someone else is in trouble economically."

Never one to hold back, when Genoa was hit by catastrophic floods last October for the second time in three years, Obiang could be found rolling up his sleeves to help the so-called 'mud angels' in the massive rescue and clean-up operation. Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest daily newspaper, attacked the government by announcing in its front page headline: 'The mud of Genoa, shame of a country', while the Archbishop of Genoa called for a 'timely and massive' action by the government to resolve the crisis and prevent similar disasters in future. "When your city has been rocked, it is normal to give something back," says Obiang. At times like these his mind casts back to all those who helped him when he first arrived as that bewildered sixteen year old; from the lowly employees in the club office who would give him the money for a taxi back to his digs, to his 'second mother', Mrs. Cristina, who would make him dinner and speak patiently and incessantly to him in Italian long before he was able to respond in kind. By now it is clear that Pedro Obiang is not your average footballer. A self confessed cinephile (I usually go to the movies two or three times a week) and fluent in several languages including English, his nickname in the Sampdoria dressing-room was 'The Intellectual'. "That started with Mihajlović," he laughs. It was, he says, on account of his glasses and intellectual pursuits. "I study more as a hobby these days because I never have the time to take exams" admits Obiang. "I studied architecture because of my father, although I was always attracted more to psychology. I think I'm good at talking and I am very interested in the personalities of people." So does he believe in the application of psychology to football? "Yes, it has helped," he insists. "When Sampdoria won promotion to Serie A we had a mental coach who though not specifically a psychologist, worked more on the motivation side. It helped me to relax." After all, he says, it is not always easy to carry out a normal life on the one hand and on the other a football life; to juggle two competing and often conflicting set of expectations. Not even for a dancing bear.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

From Chaos to Insanity: A Conversation With Slaven Bilic

In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analysed it. So wrote Jonathan Wilson in his excellent book 'Inverting the Pyramid'. In his detailed study of football tactics he notes it wasn't until the late 1920s in Europe that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to be recognised or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgement that players on the pitch made a significant difference to the way the game was played. In it's earliest form, though, football knew nothing of such sophistication. In South America, in the old days before they shrugged off the colonial order to add their finesse, there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed. He died without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional football required a technocracy to keep people in line. The manager, wrote Eduardo Galeano, was born. His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom and maximise the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes. The trainer used to say: 'Let's play.' The manager says: 'Let's go to work.' Today they talk in numbers. The history of football in the twentieth century, a journey from daring to fear, is a trip from the 2-3-5 to the 5-4-1 by way of the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2. Any ignoramus could translate that much with a little help, notes Galeano, but the rest is impossible. The manager dreams up formulas as mysterious as the Immaculate Conception, and he uses them to develop tactical schemes more indecipherable than the Holy Trinity.

So, what makes a coach a good coach? His tactical genius? "Tactics? Pah, then every teenager could be a super coach," smiles a bearded Slaven Bilic, part charismatic rock star, part professor of philosophy and letters. "Tactics are important, but everyone can learn tactics. Make it a school subject in primary school and after ten years we would have a whole generation that knows all about tactics. But that does not make for a good coach. It is the combination of knowledge, experience, character, passion and happiness." It is he suggests, sparking up the first of what will be numerous cigarettes, one of the most complex occupations in the world. "Basically, my job does not differ much from that of a bank manager. We both have a goal that we want to achieve. He wants to multiply money, I want to win trophies. We have a bunch of young, motivated, highly trained people available to us with whom we have to work. We need to make them happy, keep them motivated. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions when they make mistakes, occasionally we need to separate one of them from the rest of the group in order to achieve our goal. But the difference is this: The bank manager can work in peace. I have millions of people watching me at my work. Fans praise me to the sky, then want to bring a plague down upon my head. Then there is the media who need a new story every day." And everyone knows better? "Of course," laughs Bilic, quickly warming to the subject. "An old friend of mine is a luminary in the field of brain surgery. He will often ask me: 'Why did you do that? Why did the team play this way?' I always reply: 'Professor, I value your opinion but imagine a time when each of your operations would be broadcast live on television. Where every incision you make is being commented on!' Then he mostly leaves me alone."

The ability to handle pressure as a coach is something Bilic credits to his years of playing in England. "There was one thing that impressed me the most, and that was a fantastic balance between pressure and freedom," he states. "Pressure is important for every job – a journalist will generally write a better article if he's under pressure or if he writes for a better newspaper. But the key is to channel that pressure into positive energy: you want it to be a drive, not a burden. And that's what the English do best. Sometimes huge investments depend on the result of a single Premier League match. The pressure is huge, but you don't feel burdened by it in a negative way regardless of the press which can be really cruel – after all, the English invented that kind of journalism. In the Premier League you learn how to overcome fear and negative emotions, how not to dread what might happen but stay motivated and fight the best you can for your team. And that can often be a decisive factor when two even teams meet." That said, for years, argues Wilson, the prime deficiency of the English game was that it thought solely in terms of the players. Yet football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment. Wilson makes clear that when he says 'tactics' he means a combination of formation and style: one 4-4-2 can be as different from another as Kevin Nolan to Robert Prosinecki. For as much as heart, soul, effort, desire, strength, power, speed, passion and skill all play their parts, there is also a theoretical dimension, and, as in other disciplines, the English have, on the whole, proved themselves unwilling to grapple with the abstract.

In contrast, Bilic has always proved flexible when it comes to such matters. The new West Ham manager has switched seamlessly from 4‑1‑3‑2 to 4‑2‑3‑1, 4‑3‑3 or 4‑4‑2 throughout his managerial career – but usually in some sort of modified, unorthodox fashion. As a strategist, there has often been an emphasis on individual instructions rather than specific formations. "My opinion is that formations are slowly dying out and a large number of experts will confirm that," nods Bilic. "It has become increasingly difficult to mark the movement of the players, with regards to the ball, just by assigning numbers to each line." Whisper it quietly but the Croatian is in the vanguard of modern football thinkers who believe the notion of formation is a fraud perpetuated by those with a desire to justify coaches' salaries and make TV commentators sound smart. "Like 4-5-1, what does it mean?" he asks. "It’s only for journalists or at the beginning of each half. When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now." In a sport which has few stoppages and is often decided by individual acts of spontaneity, formations are one of the only ways coaches can endeavor to shape the action on the field. Yet, argues Bilic, we are now at a point where every responsible way of deploying 11 players has been exhausted. The game, he believes, is still largely an exercise in chaos once the whistle blows; at some point most teams look like they are playing with nine defenders and one striker. The formation is thus only ever the first snapshot. After that, the players are always on the move because the ball is on the move, so the formation no longer exists. In any case, a team's style of play is related to an idea, not to a geographic positioning on the pitch. "Fluidity is much more important – you want your team to stay compact, and your lines to remain close to one another, so they can flow over," explains Bilic. "You need to make sure that no gaps emerge, and that tends to happen often to teams who play with strict lines. A quality opponent will always find your weak spot and massacre you. But that doesn't mean the system is any less important. Organisation and automatism are the foundations for everything – only if you have that, will the individual quality of your players show in a positive way. I will never underestimate the value of individualism and inspiration – but without a solid system, improvisation is just anarchy. And anarchy can also sometimes bring you a result, sometimes even better than your established schemes, but it cannot be a long-term solution."

The use of space always used to be the unique defining element of Dutch football. Other nations and football cultures may have produced greater goalscorers, more dazzling individual ball artists and more dependable and efficient tournament-winning teams but no one, wrote David Winner, has ever imaged or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch. In his master work 'Brilliant Orange', Winner states that the Total Football of the 70s was, among other things, a conceptual revolution built on a new theory of flexible space; that the size of any football field could be altered by a team playing on it. In possession you could aim to make the pitch as large as possible by spreading play to the wings and seeing every run, movement and constant positional rotation as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When you lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of your opponents. You pressed deep in the other side's half, hunted for the ball, defended a line ten yards inside their own half and used the offside trap to aggressively squeeze space further. When he first saw Cruyff play, David Miller marvelled at a 'Pythagoras in boots', yet an acute sense of the fluid structure and dimensions of the pitch was shared by everyone in the Ajax and Dutch national team. This was not abstract, playful exploration of perspective in the style of M.C. Escher. Partly it was instinctive but partly it was based on mathematical calculations and designed pragmatically to maximise athletic capacity. It did not matter what 'position' a player was given: the immediate position of play itself determined when and where the players moved within the game. Quick and precise calculations were made by each player in order that every manoeuvre made the most effective use of pitch-space and player energy. The genesis of this spacial awareness was the spoken word. Football was always unconsciously about space, just as the good players were always the ones who instinctively found positions to receive the ball. The big change happened when these ideas became words because no one had ever looked at things in that way before. By drawing attention to it, notes Winner, something came into existence which had always been there but no one had ever noticed before and thus opened up a whole vista of seeing football differently. If this teaches us anything insists Bilic it is that we should never be afraid to discuss any aspect of football. "What I learned from Wenger and Lippi," he says, "is that the only authority you need is the authority of knowledge."

There is a theory that winning the World Cup in 1966- just a few years before the true 'neurotic genius' of the Dutch flowered- was actually the worst thing that could have happened to English football. Rob Steen, in The Mavericks, posits that success set the country back because it established deep in the national footballing consciousness the notion that the functionality of Alf Ramsey's side was the only way to achieve success; that in the minds of generations of fans and coaches in England, it laid out a 'right' way of playing. Just because something was correct in a particular circumstance, with particular players and at a particular stage of football's development, does not mean it will always be effective. If there is one thing that distinguishes the coaches who have had success over a prolonged period- Sir Alex Ferguson, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Bill Shankley, Boris Arkadiev- it is that they have always been able to evolve. Their teams played in very different ways, but what they all shared was the clarity of vision to successfully recognise when the time was right to abandon a winning formula and the courage to implement a new one. When you ask Bilic to articulate what has changed the most in his opinion it is the perfect cue for another Marlboro Light. "It used to be quite a different game tactically – think those Chelsea v Liverpool clashes in the Champions League, those were chess games between Mourinho and Benítez," he observes through a cloud of smoke. "The goal justified the means. But then Pep Guardiola was crucial in changing that with his Barcelona team, so I have nothing but respect for him. He initiated a revolution in the way coaches look at football. It's true that Barcelona played attractive, attacking football before, and that tiki-taka comes from Cruyff and Rexach, but never before did they play the way they did under Guardiola. And that has had a profound influence on other coaches, because everyone wants to emulate the best: most teams today try to play football, they strive to creation, not destruction. Even the Italians took part in that – both the national team and their clubs, with the exception of Inter and a few minor clubs in Serie A. That was unheard of before Guardiola. Now almost everyone realises that apart from getting a result, it's very important how you play. The fans will accept almost anything as long as there's success, but in the long run, people want to be entertained, they want to enjoy themselves at matches and this is why football needs to be attractive and fun. With Croatia we always tried to play and we always looked better when our opponents played positive football. Because of the way we played, it's much easier for us when the game was a two-way street. It is right though that football has changed so much in the last few years and it's extremely important to keep pace with that development."

It helps, of course, that Croatia always had strong individuals. One only has to think of Miroslav Blazevic, a cross between Sir Bobby Robson's prestige and Peter Cooke's eccentricity, the godfather of Croatian football and the coach of the golden generation. "I wanted gentlemen in my team!" he once proclaimed, proceeding to run through the line-up with escalating fervour. "Bilic? Gentleman. Stimac? Gentleman. Jarni? Gentleman. Prosinecki? Super gentleman. Boban? King gentleman. Suker? Ambassador gentleman. Everyone knows about Croatia because of them." When Bilic took over the national team, promoted after two years in charge of the U21s, he completely revolutionised the way Croatia played: the stodgy, predictable and decadent 3-4-1-2 system of his predecessor Zlatko Kranjcar was replaced by highly-dynamic football with a defensive four and one holding midfielder, with all the other players attack-minded, but with defensive responsibilities. So how much of Bilic's own tactical outlook is influenced by the fact that he was part of the team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup, and played with three consummate play-makers – Boban, Prosinecki and Asanovic? "A lot, because that's when I realised what kind of football is best suited for the Croatian character," he admits before adding that the team he managed for six years had strong individuals too. "My intention wasn't to build a system around them, but I didn't want to fit them into a system either. I simply tried to give each of them a mandatory frame in which their lucidity would hopefully flourish." Bilic would become known for being one of few managers, especially in international football, who would regularly use five, sometimes even six offensive-minded players in the team at the same time. Not that it was necessarily a reflection of a desire to play attacking football. "It was pure pragmatism," agrees Bilic when thinking about his time in charge of the Vatreni. "Of course I prefer a passing, possession-based attacking game more than destructive, defensive play, but you have to look at what's best for the team with regards to the players at your disposition. When I took that job, my assistants and I analysed our pool of players and realised we were much better covered in attacking positions. We concluded that our chances against the stronger teams would be better if we tried to build our play with more offensive players. If we had decided to go the other way, we just wouldn't have been as good and the players would have become unhappy. But even though we used many offensive-minded players, solid defence was the foundation of our play. You can never score as many goals as you can concede if your defence is porous. You know, for a long time the people have been saying that strikers are the first line of defence, but that was just a phrase intended to motivate the team. However, today the strikers have the obligation to fulfill their defensive assignments, and that especially applied to my boys. We were more dangerous when we played with two strikers, but then those two really had to work hard defensively."

Working hard defensively is an ethos that would also resonate through his Beşiktaş side. Creative midfielder Oğuzhan Özyakup averaged 0.3 tackles per game in his first season under Bilic but that figure increased to 1.2 per match the following year. Bilic demands that his players defend collectively, press the opposition and force mistakes, notes Emre Sarigul. No other Süper Lig side would regularly attempt as many tackles per game – 25.1 – as Beşiktaş. Holding midfielders Atiba Hutchinson and Veli Kavlak were usually accompanied by the likes of Özyakup as well as wingers Olcay Şahan and Gökhan Töre trying to win back the ball after losing possession. Compact and well organised, the Kara Kartallar conceded less than a goal a game and regularly finished among the Super Lig leaders in blocks, interceptions and clearances made. If they had any weaknesses, it is said, then Bilic’s side could be caught out by opposition teams playing on the counter-attack, where their offensive attitude and high defensive line sometimes made them susceptible to attackers breaking their offside trap. One other issue might be discipline – Beşiktaş players were shown ten red cards in the league last season. To the latter point Bilic reaches for pen and paper to illustrate why this heightened aggressive approach combined with the Turkish mentality proved so combustible. "The Turk is very similar in nature to the Croatian," he says while sketching three lines on a pad. "This is the normal state of mind (baseline) and the maximum emotional high and low for central and northern Europeans." Now adding a further couple of lines to the extremes of the page he continues: "And here are our highs and lows. We are either shouting for joy or dying of sorrow. I would never say this mentality is a disadvantage though because what are emotions if not the fuel of life?"

Whether shouting for joy or dying of sorrow the image of Bilic the rebel has always been slightly misleading. As a player he was committed and intelligent. As a manager, he has a serious and ambitious core. "It was never my plan to become a coach," he sighs as if ultimately he never had a choice. "But then my club Hajduk Split called and I had to answer so I caught the coaching virus." One day he simply woke up and was suddenly a coach? "Nonsense," he says nonplussed at the suggestion. "It was a new job and I worked myself into. As a player and as a person I am conditioned to always a give 100 percent when I do something. So I just trained, studied, learned and worked the licenses. Suddenly it occurred to me that the processes I was now adopting in my professional life were running parallel to my experiences as a student when I graduated in law." Replacing his legal texts with American psychology books Bilic sought to understand his players and the job at a deeper level. "Balkan culture is too macho for psychology to be part of everyday life," he says. "When you say 'shrink' in Croatia they think about players lying on a couch. It is a sensitive thing." A voracious consumer of information with a particular predilection for sporting biographies, assistant coach Edin Terzic confides that his boss "absorbs their teachings and then weaves them into his work." Bilic names 'Sacred Hoops' by legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson as one of his major sources of coaching inspiration. The Chicago Bulls icon became famous for several pioneering techniques, among them the use of visualization as a successful training method. Jackson describes in his book how he implemented it with his players; chiefly BJ Armstrong, who mostly came off the bench to contribute at very important moments. "Before he came on," Bilic explains as he stands up to mimic the action, "Armstrong had already played through the available plays in his head... Pippen to Jordan, Armstrong runs to his right to create space on the left, Jordan exploits it and scores- Bam!" Having this kind of vision, he states, where everybody can visualise moves and positions drilled during training before they even happen is a dream in football right now. During his playing years, Michael Jordan would take an hour or two before games to meditate. He'd visualize himself making shots with a hand in his face. He could see himself stealing a pass that would be the turning point of the game. He would visualize setting up his defender for the game winning shot. Why would one of the greatest athlete of our time make time to do this? Well, Jordan recognized the power of the mind and that in every game, no matter the sport, success is 90% mental and 10% physical. "Very few players have this sort of vision to be able to know where everyone is and what is going around them with their eyes closed," believes Bilic. "I can only think of Rooney who has this sort of vision, he is able to draw a mental picture of what the opponent is thinking. It is a really powerful tool. Before away games the Manchester United striker will ask the kit man: 'In what shirts will we play tomorrow?' Then he places a towel over his head and puts himself in the stadium, sees himself in the jersey. He calculates in his mind the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent then he sees himself exploit it to score a goal. The whole thing is absolutely fascinating."

'The Score Takes Care of Itself' a lecture on leadership by one of the NFL's greatest football coaches, Bill Walsh, is another book on the Bilic bookshelf. "Legend. Incredible! Read it!" he enthuses, before adding that he recently finished the biography of Alex Ferguson, which he says also helped him. "Ferguson describes in it a dispute with Roy Keane which almost came to blows. When I read that section, I was extremely grateful. I thought to myself: If this can happen to one of the best coaches of all time, then it may happen to you also." For anyone who has witnessed a Bilic training session such an altercation would be hard to envisage; before it even starts he has probably embraced more than a dozen of his coaching staff as you would a long lost friend. "That's just my way of working," he smiles. "This is my team and my club. I think it is a matter of course to know my people by name, to communicate with them and convey the feeling that they are an important part of the club." He has made it a tradition that on his birthday he takes all club employees out for a meal. "In my opinion there is no other option," he shrugs. "You must treat your staff well if you require them to follow an idea." The atmosphere of inclusiveness extends to an open exchange of ideas with his coaches and senior players. It derives from Bilic's own formative experience as a player under Winfried Schäfer at Karlsruher SC. "Before each game, he would take me and four other players into his office and ask for our opinions on the tactic against the upcoming opponent. Of course, Winnie had the final decision, but he was just like a fox killing two birds with one stone. He made his lead players feel that their opinion was important to him, and at the same time, he benefited from our collective insider knowledge. There is a Croatian proverb: 'A man and a donkey together know more than one man alone' that pretty well sums it up." There are many rules for dealing with players, says Bilic, but only two are crucial. "First, never lie," he states. "Second, never make promises. In this matter footballers are like women. They only hear what they want to believe is possible and ignore the fact that there is also the possibility of not getting it. Therefore, I will never say: 'You're in good shape, in two months you'll get your chance'. If the player is then not used in two months, he feels betrayed and my promise is broken. As a result he does not trust me anymore and I've lost him."

So it follows that an integral part of the manager's mandate is to be ductile; to intuitively understand that just as each individual, nationality and country has a distinct identity with specific character and personality traits, so each club has a certain philosophy hewn from the rocks of tradition and history. By the time Bilic departed Beşiktaş he was one of the longer-serving coaches in Turkish football even though he admits the entire job had been one long struggle. "In the current football climate, a coach can never be sure of his future employment," he says; all you can do is research, prepare and then, embracing the fatalism, accept what comes. As Galeano observed, the manager is as disposable as any other product of consumer society. Today the crowd screams, 'Never die!' and next weekend they invite him to kill himself. "I am a football maniac, so no one had to explain to me who and what Besiktas is," he says. "I'd looked at videos, let everything run through my mind during the contract talks and then just decided to take the leap" albeit initially with a knot in his stomach because he could not speak Turkish. He had started work directly after leaving Croatia in the Euro 2012 as coach of Lokomotiv Moscow, he explains, but despite preparing thoroughly had never anticipated or had no way of knowing just what a barrier not speaking the language could be. "I did not speak Russian and that was a problem," he states. "Because as a coach, you need to communicate 24 hours a day with your staff and players. You have to be able to understand the people around you, if you want to have success. Crucially, in Istanbul he quickly realized that he had arrived at a multi-national team and multilingual organization. "We were talking English, German, Spanish; my assistant Nikola Jurcevic is Croat, my second assistant coach Edin Terzic is German with Croatian roots."

There were other challenges as well. Did he, for example, fully understand about the Çarşı Grubu; the notorious anarchist faction of Beşiktaş support? Although officially disbanded before Bilic's arrival, the left-leaning organisation- anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist, pluralist and ecologist- became heavily involved in the fighting during the 2013 protests in Taksim Square, resisting police attacks and even famously chasing a water cannon away with an excavator. "Of course, I am a political person and was coach of Beşiktaş," says the staunch socialist who names Che Guevara among his personal heroes. He did not, however, become overtly involved in the issue. "I admire how intensively active those fans were politically. But if I had started to concern myself with it then I would not have had time to do my job. Because then I would have needed to know everything, wanted to talk to all the key people involved. For this reason I forced myself to be very restrained." Some observers claimed that because the Çarşı members fought on the front line against Prime Minister Erdogan, Beşiktaş would be regularly punished in the form of strange refereeing decisions and overly harsh sanctions. "These are conjectures and therefore it did not matter for my work," insists Bilic. "What should I do? Launch into general whining after a controversial defeat and tell my players: 'Go home, training doesn't matter, we will lose anyway?' No, of course not! It didn't prevent me from speaking to the media about the referee though, if in my opinion he did a poor job."

For the entirety of Bilic's tenure at Beşiktaş the club was also effectively homeless. Due to the unique location and its legal status as a historic monument the conversion of the famous Inonu stadium had been delayed massively and its opening postponed numerous times. "That was a very big disadvantage," concedes Bilic. "Beşiktaş fans set a volume record years ago (141 decibel), and it would have been a fantastic asset to have. Due to the renovations we mostly played our home games in the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. This is a 80,000 capacity boiler at the city limits, and is very difficult to reach because the transport conditions are miserable there. In addition, the majority of the fans boycotted games because they had been heavily and repeatedly punished in the recent past by the football authorities. As a result we had an average attendance of about 3,000 in some home games. 3000 spectators in a 80,000-man stadium! If you ask me, this is a tragedy." Not least because Bilic places more importance than most on the significance of the fans. "Their impact is enormous," he insists. "I describe it like this: In order to win a Formula 1 race, the driver must sometimes push his car to the extremities of its capability so that he drives in the red zone. In football a team can only reach this red area solely on the back of the fans because you as a coach during a game cannot affect it. This red area we lacked last season. A few years ago Galatasaray had a whole season playing at home in the Olympic Stadium. With a team that should have become champions they finished seventh." Ultimately Bilic decided the only approach was to ignore circumstances as best he could. "I did not even acknowledge the situation at the time because if I stood there after poorer games and complained about the lack of fans, my players would also have done that too," he says. "And that would have a negative impact in the long term on their performance. So I said: Fuck it, we still want to win titles!"

It would seem to suggest that the ability to be adaptable is a key weapon in the manager's armoury? "The foundation [for any coach] is self-confidence and the desire to compete," believes Bilic. "That which you need as a player, you also need as a coach. When I started in Istanbul it was clear to me that this would be a new task with new challenges and of course I had to respect the philosophy of the club. I could not be coach of Beşiktaş and offer boring results based football. Even if I were to win the championship in that manner, they would still fire me. It had to be football with plenty of room for creative freedom, wilder and more detached from the norms but all without drifting into chaos. If you could understand this philosophy and see it as a weapon rather than a handicap, then it would therefore be possible to succeed but also satisfy everyone."

For his latest job Bilic succeeds a manager who hardly went out of his way to win over the home crowd and ultimately paid the price. When asked how he perceived the 'West Ham way' of playing, a belligerent Sam Allardyce would routinely respond by denying its existence. "It sounds like not winning," he would answer. "No one can tell me what it is because it's a delusion." The problem with such a nebulous concept, of course, is that if you need to ask then you'll never understand. "At its heart it has little to do with football but much to do with Cockney values," wrote Peter Thorne. "Anybody outside criticising the family - or the football team - does so at their own risk. The folk at Upton Park don't expect to see their team winning regularly but they do expect some entertainment, some local talent to cheer through the ranks and to be able to employ a little gallows humour occasionally. It's the reason why Allardyce so antagonised the fans. When the Hammers were booed off the pitch after a vital but dire 2-1 win against Hull in the 2013-14 season, an incredulous Allardyce cupped his ear. Many outside the club understood this, those inside seethed with anger." On the day Bilic arrived to take up the hot-seat he immediately adopted the rhetoric that would carry the fans with him. "I remember West Ham as a special club," he said. "It's not about the size although West Ham is a big club. It is a great place to play and I feel like I am at home. It is a big privilege and a big responsibility because this club is a cult." By instinct or design Bilic had issued a tacit signal to the fans that he 'got it'.

For while they may never have won the championship, the Hammers have acquired a reputation for doing things in a certain style while producing a constant supply of dazzling young players over the years. According to Ron Greenwood's philosophy: "The crowds at West Ham have never been rewarded by results but they keep turning up because of the good football they see. Other clubs will suffer from the old bugbear that results count more than anything. This has been the ruination of English soccer." None of which is to suggest that there actually is a correct way to play, notes Wilson. You can, for example from an emotional and aesthetic point of view, warm to the passing of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal more than to the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, but that is a personal preference; it is not to say one is right and one is wrong. It is obvious, he argues, that compromises have to be made between theory and practice. On a theoretical level West Ham fans respond to the Greenwood ethos but amid the beer-soaked celebrations that followed the very Allardycian mugging of Blackpool in the 2012 Championship play-off final, I'm not sure anybody was too bothered.

It is not even so simple, though, as to say that the 'correct' way of playing is the one that wins most often, for only the dourest of Gradgrinds would claim that success is measured merely in points and trophies; there must be room for romance. As Wilson notes, that tension between beauty and cynicism, between what the Brazilians call futebol d'arte and futebol de resultados- is a constant, perhaps because it is so fundamental, not merely to sport, but also to life: to win, or to play the game well? For Bilic, now inhaling languidly, it is hard to think of any significant actions that are not in some way a negotiation between the two extremes of pragmatism and idealism. His natural inclination is always towards the Dutch vision of total football with 'magicians' as he calls his playmakers, but he recognises that if you want to achieve positive results in whatever form you can’t have just one way of playing. "To be successful you have to be good enough in every aspect of the team, you have to defend with numbers, you have to be very compact, very organised but also you have to attack with numbers and be good on the ball," he says. "A solid defensive approach gives you the privilege to play with expression. Everything comes from good configuration." The sides that he has managed so far, whether that be Croatia, Lokomotiv Moscow, Besiktas or Hadjuk Split, were all teams with very lofty aims. "With Besiktas, in 90 per cent of our games we had more possession, you are the better side, you are the one that is attacking and the opponent is on the counter," he notes. "But in the games where we had to be compact like against Arsenal, we weren't dominant. So you have to be both. But I like my team to play football, to play good football." His ambition for West Ham is to try to be top ten and then improve on that. "First season, if we can finish eighth, ninth or tenth," he says. "Then, in the space of a few seasons, with the Stadium and everything, with hype, with probably a little bit more budget, with good planning and good play, nobody can stop us dreaming of European places or if we have a brilliant season to try to break into the Champions League places." His ultimate aim is to win a trophy. Taking a leaf from one of his well-thumbed psychology books, he adds: "You have to believe in that to achieve it. It doesn't have to be an obsession in a negative way but if you don't believe it, who will believe it? Where it's going to take us, I don't know, but logically if you play well and you improve your squad, if your players are playing more compact and more fluid with the ball, it should get you up the league."

Bilic says he ultimately decided to try the immersive nature of club management because when working at international level you can only ever look for temporary solutions and improvisations. What he wanted was to have enough time and scope to wrestle with the intractable – "maybe if we can't ever completely eradicate problems, we can still do everything in our power to minimise their impact on our play, as well as maximise our strengths." The problem is that takes times and patience and in a sport where the machinery of spectacle grinds up everything in its path, nothing lasts for long. The manager believes football is a science and the field a laboratory, wrote Galeano, but the genius of Einstein and the subtlety of Freud isn't enough for the owners and the fans. They want a miracle worker like the Virgin of Lourdes, with the stamina of Gandhi. Even acknowledging that football is ultimately about more than simply winning, it would be ludicrous to deny the importance of victory. Wenger can be frustratingly quixotic at times, but, as his negative tactics in the 2005 FA Cup final showed, even he at times acknowledges the need to win. To condemn Ramsey, when he brought the only international success England has known is a luxury English fans cannot afford; to accuse him of ruining English football rather than saluting his tactical acuity seems willfully perverse. Ultimately, argues Wilson, the history of tactics is the history of two interlinked tensions: aesthetics verses results on the one side and technique verses physique on the other. What confuses the issue is that those who grow up in a technical culture tend to see a more robust approach as a way of getting results, while those from a physical culture see pragmatism in technique; and beauty- or at least what fans want to watch- remains very much in the eye of the beholder. In those circumstances then how can you still enjoy this job? "By being myself aware and accepting of these conditions," Bilic says. "If I were to cry myself to sleep every night because of the uncertain future, this job would hold nothing for me. But I know the risk and it does not bother me. I just start to work." Picking up his earlier drawing it seems the right time to ask what makes Slaven shout for joy? "It can only ever be if my team is playing the football that I want to see," he answers, "because results are not always dependent on whether a team plays well or not. In basketball or handball the better team will nearly always win, but in football refereeing decisions, good and bad luck can all play a much greater role." Doesn't that drive a football coach insane? "Of course you can reduce with good work the percentage chance for unhappiness. This is what everyone seeks. But it will still always be the case that a goal is enough to decide in football whether you win or lose. You are right, it is insane," laughs Bilic as he stubs out his final cigarette. "But that's why I love it so."

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