Evaluating the condensed format of the NBI

For the start of the 2015/2016 season MLSZ (the Hungarian Football Association) had decided to implement the drastic measure of reducing the number of clubs in the top flight from 16 to 12 teams. The process had attracted a lot of controversy since teams were relegated that were not in the relegation zone due to licensing and financial issues. Many would argue that a degree of politics and corruption was involved as some of the clubs going down were not in debt.

However, I want to focus on the impact the changes have had on the Hungarian top flight. As well as reducing the number of teams in NBI (1st divison), the football association also decided to abolish the unsuccessful league cup, and similarly to the German league system, they introduced a rule by which B teams cannot progress beyond NB III (3rd division). The top flight saw an increase of 3 games per season as each of the clubs in the new 12 team league would play every other team 3 times (3*11=33).

Better Quality, Better Entertainment?
From the 2015 summer transfer window onwards the early impacts of the reduced number of teams in the top flight could be seen. The best players from the relegated teams were soon caught up in a tug-of-war between NBI clubs as they raced to get their signatures. For example the likes of Marek Strestik, Máté Pátkai and other Győri ETO players signed for NBI teams following their relegation to NB3 due to bankruptcy. This improved the squads of other clubs in the top flight. The lower number of teams in the league allowed talent to be more concentrated within it, which corresponds to the agenda of MLSZ to improve Hungarian football.

Over the last two years the league has undeniably gained in entertainment. The gap between the teams has been reduced and the outcome of games has become less predictable. The new format could mean that teams fighting against relegation could also potentially be involved in a struggle for the European places. For example, going into the winter break Paks were dangerously close to the drop zone. Thanks to 3 wins in a row during the spring restart helped propel the club up the table and now they find themselves 5 points off 4th, which could potentially be a route to the Europa League qualifiers depending on the outcome of the Hungarian cup. This acts as a testimony to the fact that the league has had an increased level of drama added to it and the potential of teams being ‘lost’ in the middle of the table – such as Kecskemét used to – has been eradicated.

The gulf in quality between the teams was also reduced in the new format. In the past there was a clear difference in standard between the top and bottom halves of the league. This was evident in the standard of football poorer teams offered due to their limited funding. Their poor financial position could be seen from the quality of the facilities they offered to both fans and players. The new system has allowed improved football matches to take place in better venues which are more likely to attract fans and investors alike. Questions may be raised on the holistic effect this will have on the Hungarian league system. In the long term a stronger top flight will make it more difficult for lower division teams to adapt and thus struggle to survive relegation, thus increasing the gulf in quality between the top 10 to 12 teams and the rest of the football clubs in the country. For example, while Gyirmót may have a renovated stadium, it’s clear that they’re unable to adapt to NBI which is shown by the fact they are sitting bottom of the league 9 points from safety. On the contrary in NBII recently relegated Puskás Akadémia are top of their division. While their position is certainly not assured, they have demonstrated their financial superiority over the rest of the league through the transfers they made which included Dániel Prosser, Péter Szakály and Gábor Gyömbér who were all solid NBI players with plenty of experience. It is also very likely that the team relegated from NBI this season along with Gyirmót will come straight back up again. Even though this scenario is far from certain, the development of a ‘super league’ top flight is possible and appears to be in the making.

National Team Effect
The new system provides financial benefits for clubs that play a certain number of Hungarian players and Hungarian youth players, which has resulted in the inflation of their value as they are in high demand. It could have a detrimental effect on the national team as clubs will be less willing to sell players abroad due to the monetary benefits MLSZ provides for them. For example, Vasas rejected a transfer offer from FC Midtjylland for Zsolt Korcsmár due to his importance to the team and the fact that he is Hungarian. Foreign teams may not be prepared to pay higher transfer fees, thus preventing Hungarian players from taking the next steps in their career.

Capital Centric
The new format also means that the top flight has become very Budapest centred. All the teams relegated in 2015 were from outside Budapest and today 5 out of the 12 teams are from the capital. This means that football is not as accessible as it used to be. The whole of the South East – more than a quarter of the country – has no football team at all in NB1. A top flight team in the region would allow more people to be engaged with the league and help promote it. A team in Szeged – the country’s 3rd largest city – could potentially support the league in becoming more nationwide. This would coincide with MLSZ’s aim of attracting more fans to the sport.

Overall
The new format of the league has made NB1 much more exciting than it used to be, both in terms of the football matches and the league table. The teams have also improved as talent has become more concentrated in one league. However it cannot be denied that the formation of the 12 team NB1 has resulted in the exclusion of lots of clubs outside of Budapest and increased bonuses and financial aid have made it more difficult to enter into group of elite teams.

This article was also published on http://www.hungarianfootball.com

@bootdeball @tomicserep

A free agent: Philippe Mexès

 

For many, Philippe Mexès is the epitome of an impetuous player, one who has lost the plot on many occasions throughout his career. Nevertheless, he spent over a decade in Serie A and has undoubtedly made his mark on the league with stellar performances, though accompanied by numerous mistakes, red cards and suspensions.

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Mexès’ career was blighted with controversy early on when he earned a move to AS Roma. He was brought through by Guy Roux, a manager also known for developing notable players such as Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc over the course of his 40 years at Auxerre. Having established himself as a solid centre back at Auxerre – where he even won the Coupe de France in 2003 – Mexès was looking to move on to a club of a higher calibre.  He transferred to the Italian giants without the consent of his domestic club, and, having violated his contract, Mexès was about to face a 6 week ban.  His suspension was lifted whilst Roma were appealing, thus allowing him to make his debut in September 2004. However, the appeal was then rejected and the ban came into effect in February 2005. The transfer saga resulted in Roma being banned from buying players in the whole of 2005. While it may have come as a huge blow for the club, it was a huge blessing for Mexès to kick-start his career at the club. It allowed him to establish himself as a key player for the team over the upcoming years.

He would really begin to make his mark in the Roma shirt in the 2006-2007season. Forming the backbone of the team’s defense with Cristian Chivu, Roma were able to reach the quarter finals of the Champions league and would also go onto win the Coppa Italia. Mexès played a key part in making sure that the team only conceded 34 goals in that season’s edition of Serie A. When Chivu left the following year to Inter Milan, Mexès successfully stepped up to the challenge of being the defensive general in the team. He scored a goal in the 2008 Coppa Italia final, helping Roma to defend their title. Fans had high hopes for upcoming seasons, but Mexès would never reach the same wuthering heights. He did remain a key player for the team, but he faced tough competition for his position, something he hadn’t experienced in previous seasons. He eventually left the club in the summer of 2011 on a free transfer having chosen not to extend his contract as he wasn’t sure if the club was heading in the right direction.

After the era of Maldini and Nesta perhaps it is easy to understand why AC Milan fans were a bit disappointed with the signing of Mexès. In an interview after joining the club he said “Milan offered me a 4 year contract despite my injury, which shows that they rated me”. During his first season he was third choice in his position, but after Nesta retired and Thiago Silva left, he formed a defensive partnership with Zapata. While he tended to be a solid player for his club, mistakes started to creep in while playing for the national side, which would start his demise. A poor display at Euro 2012 with future club teammate Adil Rami forced him into international retirement.  His hot headed nature started to get the better of him in his club career, collecting a total of 17 game suspensions for red cards and misconduct in his Milan career alone. While Mexès has averaged 20 games a season for Milan in his first 4 years, the club were always lookout to replace him. In the 2013-14 and 2014-15 season the club conceded 99 goals, proving that Mexès was not a reliable option anymore due to mistakes and the ugly side of his game becoming all too frequent. Last year Milan chose –much to the disappointment of the fans – to sell Rami and extend the contract of Mexès for one more year. While this could have been the opportunity for Mexès to prove himself worthy of wearing the Milan shirt, he failed to do so, only making 5 appearances in the league. He was released at the end of the season in 2016.

 

 

What next?

Mexès is a free agent, but any club signing him would be taking a risk. His feverish temper could hinder his chances of being successful once again. While he has a tempestuous character, he has proved in the past that he can be a top class player and leader on quite a few occasions. Although this does not happen all the time, it might be worth the risk to give a final opportunity for this hot headed French warrior.  At the age of 34 it is almost certain that he will never reach the heights of his Roma career, but he could still play a key role for a less prolific team, for example a mid-table Ligue 1 club.

@bootdeball    @tomicserep

 

In defence of Pierre Mankowski, France’s U21s coach

Also published on Get French Football News

When Pierre Mankowski was promoted to the France under-21 (‘espoirs’) side in 2014, much was expected of the coach that had won the country’s first under-20 World Cup the previous year. His team – featuring the likes of Paul Pogba, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Samuel Umtiti and Alphonse Aréola – had seen off a stern Uruguay side on penalties and confirmed themselves as one of France’s most promising generations yet. In letting him follow the players he had worked with up to the next level and succeed the Bordeaux-bound Willy Sagnol, the French federation saw the opportunity to solidify this group of players, many of whom were destined for big things.

By October 2014, several months following his appointment, Mankowski was a playoff against Sweden away from taking his side to the 2015 European Championships. France, boasting some of the most promising players on the continent such as Nabil Fekir and Giannelli Imbula, were logically favourites. Having won the first leg 2-0, Les Bleuets had disastrously conceded three to the Swedes in the return leg before scoring in the dying moments of the game, securing themselves, as they had thought, a place in the Euros. What followed, though, was a 90th minute winner from Sweden’s Oscar Lewicki, condemning French youth football to a new state of crisis. The lasting image from the game would inevitably be fullback Layvin Kurzawa’s premature gloating celebration in front of the opposition, which was then reciprocated by striker John Guidetti after Sweden’s 4th and again by the whole team several months later, on winning the tournament. It would have been difficult to imagine a worse start for Pierre Mankowski as manager of the under-21 side.

Given the recent explosion of French youth players and their propagation throughout Europe, though, it could easily be argued that Mankowski had already made a sizeable impact on French football over the last few years by bringing to the fore a host of players – if the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Kurt Zouma or Anthony Martial are now plying their trade abroad, it’s not solely thanks to their club form. It’s under his tutelage that they progressed at international level.

Nowadays, however, his tenure as under-21 boss – the final step before the senior side, of which he had been assistant manager between 2002 and 2010 – is continuing the way it had started. After two defeats in qualifying for the 2017 European Championships, Les Bleuets are no longer in control of their own destiny, trailing Macedonia in the sole qualifying spot by a point before the final round of games in early October. The latest of those defeats was dealt by a last minute winner from Ukrainian midfielder Yurii Vakulko, at the end of a match which had largely been dominated by Mankowski’s side, but with an end product that was sorely lacking. In the following days the French Football Federation President Noel Le Graet would comment that ‘We have the players, but not the team’, a considerable reversal in his attitude just 12 months beforehand, following the first defeat in qualifying – ‘I expect them to qualify. The first match was an accident’. Has his trust in Mankowski eroded over the past year? There’s some truth to Le Graet’s latest statement, though: surely, given the staggering wealth of talent running throughout the French youth ranks, he should be able to provide more convincing results?

On the other hand, is the task of a youth team manager necessarily to win games at all cost? It’s far more prudent to use youth teams for their actual purpose – to give young players a taste of international football, give them the tools necessary to succeed at the highest level, and to move them along the conveyor belt up to the senior side. This is especially true of Pierre Mankowski, who, after seeing many from his 2013 World Cup winning side make the step up a few years before, has had to contend with recently losing Ousmane Dembele and Kingsley Coman, arguably France’s biggest hopes in that age category, to Didier Deschamps. This is the nature of a youth team – players come and go and there will never be a stable squad, making lasting success unviable whatever the quality of the players or the coach.

The results are often inconsistent, but it’s undisputable that Pierre Mankowski has provided a base for the players he has coached to build on – whatever the age group -, as evidenced by the number of young debutants for the French national team over the last 24 months. He may not help France win the under 21 European Championships next summer, a tournament they last won in 1988, but on the basis that his primary task in running the team is to prepare his players for an international career, he is indisputably succeeding.

How Monaco’s focus on youth could be undoing PSG’s dominance

Two summers ago, embroiled in a legal battle with his wife following his divorce and faced with the prospect of losing half of his fortune, Monaco owner Dimitri Rybolovlev oversaw a shift in Monaco’s behaviour in the transfer market. This change in policy – also said to have been caused by sudden threat of FFP sanctions which had already come down on PSG, and the downturn in the Russian potash market from which Rybolovlev derives much of his wealth – marked a sudden halt to an ambitious project that could have promised French football another giant.

A project that began all guns blazing in 2013, following the club’s return to  Ligue 1, with the arrivals of then-rising star James Rodriguez from Porto and Falcao – arguably the best finisher in the world at the time – from Atletico Madrid cooled down considerably a year on. Instead of bolstering a strong – albeit ageing for the most part – squad that narrowly lost the league to fellow New Money PSG, Monaco took advantage of James Rodriguez’s rise in  stock from World Cup performances by letting him become Real Madrid’s summer marquee signing to rival Barcelona’s signing of Luis Suarez. The extent at which his injury sustained in a Coupe de France match would affect his overall level still unknown, Falcao would also leave the club on deadline day to begin his descent into mediocrity.A strong link with super agent Jorge Mendes was put to good use as Monaco brought in  young players from Portugal to go with the newly-arrived Leonardo Jardim – first Bernardo Silva and Wallace, then Cavaleiro and Helder Costa the following year –  as well as focusing on domestic talent – Bakayoko, Nardi. Overall, the summer marked a sharp turn in the club’s policy, and although this presented its clear benefits Ligue 1 fans were all too aware that this would signal the end – or at least a temporary halt – of Ligue 1’s main selling point, its blockbuster rivalry.

The next two years would see PSG comfortably consolidate themselves as French football’s behemoth whilst Monaco would duly qualify for the Champions League, though posing no real threat to the Parisians in doing so. Nevertheless, a reputation for being a strong defensive side grew under Jardim’s reign, and paid early dividends as Monaco qualified for the quarter finals of the Champions League in 2015 – making it 2 French clubs in the last 8 that year, while no English teams were present – and narrowly missed out on a semi final berth. While he was limited in terms of selection, Jardim effectively built up a squad that blended this influx of youth with the club’s more seasoned players – Ricardo Carvalho, Jérémy Toulalan and Andrea Raggi for instance – but domestically, PSG’s rampant spending proved too much to compete with. A rivalry that French football had welcomed with open arms, one that would propel it to the international stage, had evaporated before really beginning.

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Come this summer, though, it was PSG’s turn to undergo a revamp with the departures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – undisputably the face of the QSI (Qatar Sports Investment) era and one of the main reasons for the club’s crushing success – and Laurent Blanc, often unfairly criticised for his supposedly ‘easy’ building of a team that has won the domestic treble twice in a row. Once Blanc received his 22 million euro settlement on leaving, in came Unai Emery, followed through the door by Grzegorz Krychowiak and Hatem Ben Arfa in a fairly tame summer window by PSG’s -admittedly astronomical – standards.

While his European exploits with Sevilla were the main motivation for Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s decision, Emery’s average recent league record with Sevilla had seemed like a major sticking point in his appointment, not least exacerbated by his catastrophic away form : not a single away win in the league last season. It’s obviously far too early and unfair to make any sort of definitive judgement on the Spaniard after a handful of games at this stage in his first season, but there is an overwhelming sense that PSG have regressed this summer.

Of course, the likelihood is that Cavani will duly reach the 20 goal mark by the end of the season, and Emery will have put PSG back on the winning trail, dismissing this early season period as an acclimatisation to his new club. Business as usual, but is there any progression? By contrast, Monaco seem to be striding forward relentlessly, having already claimed a convincing victory over the champions and clawed out a win at Wembley against Spurs.

Monaco has always been an attractive destination for any cash-injection style takeover: the principality’s status as a tax-free haven made it ideal for attracting top players, especially when contrasted with France’s harsh tax laws on the rich – in this regard, Monaco have had the economic upper hand over the rest of the league (since June 2015, though, the club has had to comply with French laws after their agreement with the federation was deemed illicit). Whatever the motivation was for switching the club’s focus to youth, though, – and it probably wasn’t borne out of any noble sense to bring through football’s hopes for the future – it’s paid dividends for Dmitri Rybolovlev and has ensured that Monaco have a sustainable base from which they will be able to build on long after he pulls the plug on his investment, far more solid than any injection of big money signings could ever do. Monaco has always been  a breeding ground for France’s elite, make no mistake – the likes of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit came through the Monegasque ranks (in fact, most Ligue 1 academies tend to do very well – Lyon and Lens for instance)- but this big a youth project is unprecedented on the Cote d’Azur.

Over the last 2 years Leonardo Jardim will have been able to compensate for the losses of Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Layvin Kurzawa – who both emerged from the club’s youth ranks – and a handful of disastrous signings – arguably the price to pay for such a strong link to Jorge Mendes – by being given the tools to mould together a team orientated primarily towards youth, but with a host of seasoned players to effectively steer the team – the returning Falcao, for instance. The team’s roaring success so early on in the year is proof of his success in doing so. The likes of diminutive playmaker Bernardo Silva, defensive midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko, and versatile fullback Djibril Sidibé and the outrageously talented Thomas Lemar have already emerged as the main protagonists of Monaco’s season to come, and will no doubt be crucial if any title comes their way this season. Slowly but surely, Monaco are progressing and returning to the level they were reaching in 2013/14.

Monaco aren’t the only French team building for the future, though –  Lucien Favre’s Nice have progressed from a solid 2015/16 with a team built around prospects such as Vincent Koziello, Alassane Pléa, Jean Seri and Yoan Cardinale who are already carrying over their good form form last season, and with the arrivals of Mario Balotelli and Dante the Aiglons are destined for a strong season. Along with Lyon’s promising start to life in their new stadium, it’s hard to see PSG dominate as emphatically as they did last season. If anything, it’s Monaco look to be the early favourites for the Ligue 1 title.

 

Lorient supporters to be graded on their support

Concerned with the lack of atmosphere at the club’s Stade du Moustoir, Lorient are set to put into place a system whereby their fans’ future season ticket prices will be determined by their support on matchdays.

The Merlus, currently  bottom of Ligue 1 5 games into the new season, have set out a number of  requirements to be fulfilled , which will include standing up for the entirety of the game and being as loud as possible (this will be measured using a sonometer) as well as  ‘carrying the colours and objects of FC Lorient’. The overall camaraderie of the supporters, though, will be determined through a series of pictures taken at various moments through any given home game. All of this will contribute towards the club’s ranking in the league’s very own supporter’s championship – through which the club with the best support is determined.

This fairly desperate attempt to bring some life into the stadium’s passive crowds comes after many supporter’s groups saw their numbers dwindle since the club’s new ticketing system came into play, through which children now paid the same prices as adults. Many, though, were furious towards club president Loic Féry over the lack of summer signings, especially after the sale of Didier Ndong to Sunderland for £20 million. Their anger has been exacerbated by their team’s poor start to the campaign, expecting much-needed reinforcements before the end of the transfer window to try undoing this. Instead, they sold a key player (for an admittedly astronomical sum considering the stature of Lorient – this was twice what they sold Raphael Guerreiro for, one of the most highly rated prospects to come out of Ligue 1 for years). Overall, the club’s sales over the last 3 years have totaled 50 million euros, with very little of it being reinvested into the squad.

You’d doubt that the prospect of cheaper season tickets would be very enticing to locals when there’s not much to get excited about on the pitch, though, and even less so for those who have altogether abandoned the club. The initiative is all the more baffling considering a season ticket at the Stade du Moustoir is the cheapest in Ligue 1, at only 99 euro. You can’t force support, though. Once there’s no passion amongst supporters then the only way to change that is by giving them something on the pitch to be passionate about, not offer them discounts.

(Of course, as I finish writing this they win their first game of the season at home…)

Andrea Belotti: Il Gallo revisited

Last year’s post about Belotti, written not long before his transfer to Torino.


 One year on from his move to Torino, Andrea Belotti has firmly established himself as one of Italy’s great hopes in a position which has been sorely lacking of late. This was exacerbated by Antonio Conte’s underwhelming forward options at the Euros this summer – mocking comparisons were quickly made between his admittedly underwhelming selection – Graziano Pellè, Eder and Simone Zaza – and the great strikers that past Italian managers would have been able to take with them – the likes of Francesco Totti, Roberto Baggio or Alessandro Del Piero. Although they didn’t do injustice to themselves by any means –in spite of Zaza and Pellè’s awful penalties against Germany – there is a prevailing sense that Italian football is yet to definitively find its main marksman, the rightful heir to the forward role.

The season of their return to Serie A, Palermo’s 11th place finish would largely be attributed to Franco Vázquez and Paulo Dybala’s effective partnership, wherein Dybala’s finishing provided the ideal outlet for advanced playmaker Vázquez’s creative nous . When Dybala eventually moved to Juventus over the summer, there was a sense that Belotti could have been able to take on Dybala’s goalscoring duties and benefit from the creative force of Vázquez behind him. The season beforehand, spent in Serie B, was a far different affair: Belotti had scored 10 goals, double that of Dybala, who had spent two underwhelming first seasons in Sicily. It was the faith that Maurizio Zamparini – Palermo’s owner and holder of several manager-sacking records – placed in the young Argentine that sparked his ‘revival’ the following season. Last summer, with Dybala already gone, Belotti was clear on his ambitions in an interview with Sky: he wanted to start every game, prove his worth. Nevertheless, Zamparini, always one for fresh faces, would find more appealing the prospect of bringing in a striker from the outside to replace Palermo’s star man.

So, shortly after that interview with Sky, he transferred to Torino, who were in the process of a rejuvenation project that also featured the signing of Daniele Baselli to complement the imminent breakthrough of their own young hopes – featuring the likes of Vittorio Parigini. At first, Belotti found it hard to make his ambition come true – for the majority of the first 12 matches of the season he found himself confined to the bench. Nevertheless, once Ventura handed him a chance at the starting eleven – with Fabio Quagliarella and Maxi Lopez both falling out of favour – he would seize it with both hands: From game day 12, he would always be in the starting line-up until the end of the season. He went on to net 12 league goals over the campaign – 11 in 2016 alone, making him the top Italian scorer of Serie A for the calendar year and making all the more baffling his non selection. His highlights of the season would include breaking Gianluigi Buffon’s clean sheet streak – who had set a new Serie A record –, scoring the winning penalty against Inter and a spectacular solo effort to seal a 4-1 win against Udinese. A strong finisher with effective hold-up play, he would also strike up an effective partnership with Ciro Immobile – who had returned to the club on loan in the second half of the season – in the second half of the season in order to safely guide the club to midtable.

This year, having enjoyed a solid preseason in terms of goalscoring, Belotti looks set to build the successes of last season and begin to gain firm hold on a place in the Italian national team. ‘Il Gallo’ (‘The cockerel’) – a nickname he claims to have stolen from a friend, which found its way into the 22-year old’s goal celebrations – will look to be a key part of Sinisa Mihajlovic’s first season at Torino, a team strengthened by the arrivals of wingers Adem Ljajic and Iago Falque, both of which will be able to facilitate Belotti’s task as the team’s main provider of goals. Nevertheless, Belotti maintains that competition for the striker’s spot was always welcome: speaking from the club’s pre-season camp in Austria, he highlighted the burgeoning entente between the Torino’s strikers, speaking particularly highly of young Argentinian striker Lucas Boyé, the latest of the club’s gambles on youth.

No appointment could have been more beneficial to Belotti’s chances at the national team than former Granata coach Giampiero Ventura to replace Chelsea-bound Antonio Conte. The manager who had placed his faith in him, who insisted on his signing last summer, will undoubtedly by less hard to please and Il Gallo will surely find himself with an opportunity to break into the Azzurri squad. The rooster may be France’s national symbol, but Italy’s attack looks set to be spearheaded by ‘Il Gallo’ for the years to come.

Zoltán Gera’s atonement

Very few Football League fans will ever see their club stumble into the limelight in their lifetime. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there’s a footballing experience you get in the lower leagues that seems lost in the Premier League – any fan will tell you that one year of glory is worth a decade toiling away the 46-game season. They may now be confined to trudging through the Championship, crawling across the finish line to safety at the end of largely forgettable campaigns, but Fulham fans will always have those European nights 6 years ago.

This was 2010, when Roy Hodgson was still a widely respected manager and Bobby Zamora was a renowned goalscorer. Fulham’s league form may have been fairly uninspiring – 12th a season after their 7th place finish – but it was a run of 18 European games that defined their season, even though it culminated in a soul-crushing Diego Forlán winner in extra time. Before that, though, came a host of legendary nights, nights that would have doubtlessly drifted into many a Fulham fan’s mind while on away trips to Rotherham or Barnsley, and from them emerged cult heroes. Clint Dempsey and his chip to seal a 4-goal comeback against Juventus, for example, or Bobby Zamora’s goals to see off then-German champions Wolfsburg – but most of all, Zoltán Gera’s winner in the semi-final against Hamburg – heavy favourites to reach a final hosted in their own stadium – sticks in the memory of the Craven Cottage faithful.

Gera was subsequently named the club’s player of the year, and while he was eventually phased out by Mark Hughes the following season, Fulham fans remain fond of their Hungarian midfielder to this day.  A stylish yet industrious midfielder that acted as both the heart and the engine of the team, he would contribute another 5 goals to their Europa League campaign in his most memorable season in club football.

By the time he returned to Ferencváros in 2014, Gera had a decade of English football behind him – chiefly spent at West Brom and interrupted by his spell at Fulham. It’s alleged that he was originally set for a move to Crystal Palace in 2004, who had also signed compatriot and sweatpants model Gabor Kiraly, until West Brom hijacked the deal and sent him to the Hawthorns. He would play a crucial role in the club’s ‘great escape’ the following season and go on to make nearly 200 appearances for the club, scoring 29 goals. There were iconic goals – his screamer against Liverpool on the opening day of the 2012/13 season, or the overhead kick against Manchester United for Fulham – typically followed by his trademark celebration, a cartwheel into somersault. There were also, however, injuries and a relegation in 2006, followed by a season in the Championship. Nevertheless, but for divine intervention in his youth, Gera’s fate could have been dramatically different.

In the days leading up to that Europa League final, Gera had opened up about his past in several interviews. Speaking to the Evening Standard he remarked that ‘I am so lucky not to be in jail for doing bad things. Or even worse, dead’. Gera had detailed his teenage years, marred with alcohol, drug abuse and gambling, a period in which he was betraying himself and his dreams of playing football at the highest level by destroying himself physically and mentally.

Yet it wasn’t obvious that he would fall into the abyss. Born into a middle-class family in Pécs – his father was a postman and his mother worked in a brewery – and with respectable school grades, it wasn’t until he saw the ‘older boys’ in the school hallways that he began his years of drink and drugs, which would then lead to his dropping out of school and skipping training sessions. Soon enough, in his early teens, he formed a ‘gang’ with his friends, going around smashing windows for the sake of it, with the end goal of becoming a ‘feared and respected’ gangster in Hungary. The young Gera was often to be found at the casino – a back door helped him bypass the age restriction. By the time he was 16, he’d altogether given up on school and football.

It was around this time that his father first brought him to a church, but the effect wasn’t immediate – he would go back to the casino the following week, skipping church services, although the feeling wasn’t really there anymore. Eventually he went back, drawn to it by his own desire to break away from a life that he felt wasn’t leading to anything. It’s through this epiphany that Gera decided to go back to football, but the transition back into regular physical work wasn’t seamless.

In another interview, given around the same time, he recalls that, on his return to football, he was unable to play for more than 20 minutes without having to stop and put cold water on his legs, such was the damage done to his body in the preceding years. He recounts that doctors had told him he would never be able to play football professionally: years of abuse had rendered his body frail and weak, while his chest was unable to cope with the physical demands of the game. Nevertheless, Gera, fresh from his new-found faith, pushed on and rose through the ranks. He was signed by Pecs MFC in 1997, in 2000 began the first of his 4 years in his first Ferencváros spell, and in 2002 was handed his first Hungary cap.

14 years later, as he chested the ball down and set himself up on the edge of the box – just as he did against Liverpool 4 years beforehand – for Hungary’s opener against Portugal – later named the goal of the tournament – Zoltan Gera had the bulk of his career behind him. He was playing his first international tournament at 37 as Hungarian football finally woke from its 30 year coma, and while Gabor Kiraly stole the show with his age, sweatpants and carefree antics, there’s a sense that Gera had played a role in Hungary’s revival.

The two seasons beforehand were spent helping to make Ferencváros into the behemoth of Hungarian football. Acting as a deep lying playmaker, he’s been crucial in the development of Adam Nagy – one of Hungary’s standout players who earned himself a move to Bologna – and more recently, his namesake and fellow central midfielder Dominik Nagy. They won the title last year – with a 21 point margin over Videoton in 2nd – for the first time since Gera’s last season in his first spell at the club. During his ten-year exile to England, Ferencváros would suffer relegation due to financial reasons, 3 seasons in NB2 – the second tier of Hungarian football –  and go back up again, but it seemed fitting that they would only regain the title one he came back. He also scored the winning goal against Újpest in the Hungarian cup final, completing FTC’s double last season.

Gera, still religious to this day, has often said that he doesn’t see his past as something shameful, but more as a source of pride, that he managed to climb out of the abyss, insisting that his faith was the deciding factor in reviving his a career that seemed dead before it had begun. Now, with his window-smashing days well behind him, he starts the new season as a vital part of a Ferencváros team hoping to recreate the successes of last year.