By Mario Melchiot

Welsh Exports

Gareth Bale’s time in Spain has had its ups and downs. Now in his sixth season with the Galacticos, the Welshman has been struck with injury problems and has found himself sidelined for much of his time at the club, while Marcelo recently explained that he still doesn’t speak any Spanish and communicates in English and with gestures.

The fans in Madrid have never fully accepted him either, despite him helping them win four Champions League titles. Nearly every year there seems to be speculation about him leaving the Spanish capital, and this year he has more competition for a place at Madrid than ever, with Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez fighting for a place, and Asensio returning from injury.

But despite the sometimes turbulent times, Bale has shown that he always shows up when it matters, and when he is on his game he is one of the world’s best.

He did it again at the weekend when he scored in the Madrid derby to help Real beat Atletico 3-1 and move into second place in La Liga. That was his 100th goal for Real Madrid, and he has scored many other important ones.
Two have helped Real win the Champions League, including possibly the best goal ever scored in a European Cup final against Liverpool last season. He also scored one of the best goals scored in a Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona in 2014.

Just when his place in the team looks at risk, he sends out a reminder of his talents. Now the latest Welshman to make the move from the Premier League to a European giant is Aaron Ramsey. He has been a key man for Arsenal in recent times but he has left on a free to join the likes of Ronaldo and Dybala at Juve.

When you arrive in a new country as a player you should always try and speak the language as soon as possible so you can adapt even faster. It also help you become more involved with the group of players. Having said that the most important things is always doing the job on the pitch and that should always be the first objective. 

But I think this is a great move for Ramsey. He is a smart and skillful player and these are the kind of players I love to watch. Italy will be a new challenge and I think this will help him develop even more as a player and as a person. And I think Arsenal will miss him.

Solskjaer’s Salvage Mission

The fairytale start that Solskjaer has made as Man Utd manager has finally put the club back on track to reaching their glory identity.

United is a big team but even they need a few years to adjust, reset and get back to being the best again. The timing is good and Solskjaer looks like the right guy to bring the happiness back to the United fans. He is bringing in the result the club wants, so it would be crazy for the board to bring in a new permanent manager and give him all the financial backing.

They had a lot of options after Mourinho’s departure but they needed one of their own. One that understands the culture and one that would get instant respect from the big guns like Pogba. He brought the belief and when players are young and a little lost in why things don’t go well, you need to instill that belief again. That is exactly what he has done and you can see Rashford is back to the level he was when he first came on the scene, fearless and with a mind that doesn’t overthink things too much.

At the back they are all fighting to be the first pick in the team as there is healthy competition. When a team is winning everyone want to play and make sure they make their contribution. That is why you see every player busting his balls to make sure they are part of the starting eleven.

I really enjoy watching Man Utd and it’s hard for teams to go there again and think they will get a result out of the game. They were eight points behind Arsenal when Jose got fired and now, partly thanks to a bad run by the Gunners, as well as the great influence of Solskjaer, they are now level on points. They are the in-form team and are just 6 points behind Chelsea, who they will now be trying to catch.

A top-four finish is what United need to make sure next season they are doing what a team of their stature should –  competing for the domestic league and Champions League. Other than the FA Cup game vs Arsenal which will be tough, they should be beating every team until the big one in the Champions league against PSG in February, when they also face Liverpool.

It’s an Important month for Solskjaer so the best thing for him is to keep the momentum and belief going so they go into their big games with the feeling that they can win every game. #mmlove

Taking On The Brazilian Legends

It was a special moment. I got invited by my old team, Ajax to play in a charity match of legends against the Brazilian Legends.

When they asked me I thought it was going to be a game of 90 minutes, with plenty of running, but I soon found out it was just 5v5 on a small pitch, so I was quickly sold on the idea. I was excited because it’s still intense and competitive, but also a lot of fun because you aren’t ever too far away from the goal and the game is all based on technique.

One of my best friends Dimitry came along for the ride. He’s a huge football fan that knows more about football than some that call themselves a real lover of the beautiful game.

As we arrived in Orlando we went over to the training ground to reconnect with old teammates and colleagues, including the great players Edwin v/d Sar, Richard Witsche, Aron Winter and John O’Brien. When they saw me at the training ground they walked over to me to welcome me while the first team of Ajax was training. We set down and talked about some of the great moments we had shared together, and then I got introduced to the head coach who said it was great having us there with the team.

The next day it was game day for us. In the morning I went to another training session of the first team and watched the session from close up again. It was great to see how well the young talents are doing, and just the fact guys like Ziyech, Blind, De Jong and Huntelaar came over to talk to me was a small touch of class that made me feel really welcome.

As we got close to the pitch we saw the team we were facing, and they had Falcao who is arguably one of the greatest players to play 5v5. The skills he has are out of this world. The next one was Mr stepover, Denilson who did things in his career that made you think as a young player, how could you stop someone that is that quick and tricky.

Rai was another legend that had also put his stamp on the game, who I watched doing great things in France and of course for Brazil. As I finished looking at these guys we are all cracking saying ‘boys we have to really be on our best’ and ‘Mario, you defend’. You know how that went, I never came off while all the others were rotating, and Van De Sar was on an autocue of saying “come back” or “stay back” all game.

As the game was finished I saw something that was making me feel like a kid again, like I had just watched one of my childhood stars. It was the real legend of legends called Zico. If you don’t know who Zico is. Google him, because this man was a genius and what he did for football was a gift for all lovers of the game.

When I was a kid I would play on the streets and call my self by names of the stars of that time. Zico was one of the ones, along with Maradona, that I used regularly. I ran over to him and asked him for a picture. He hugged me and said of course.

Let me tell you guys, this trip was really fun and all down to the Ajax crew for inviting me to relive my childhood memories and allow my brother Dimitry to be part of it, as he said it was “life-changing” for him. #mmlove

The Frustrated One

It has been a difficult few years for Manchester United. Since Sir Alex retired in 2013, three managers with amazing CV’s have taken the job, but not met the expectations of fans or the board.

It was never going to be easy after Fergie had built his legacy, building a club that expected nothing less than success. The pressure was on from day one for Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho, and Jose is the latest manager to leave the club before his contract ended.

It’s a familiar story for Mourinho. Last season was by all accounts a good one, it was just that their Manchester rivals reached new levels to cast a shadow over the Red Devils. But now the three season curse has struck again. Only once has Mourinho made it into a fourth campaign with one club, during his first spell at Chelsea, where he ended up leaving at Christmas.

It might be a case that Mourinho’s style is built for short-term success. The hardest thing for Mourinho is balance. When you see how great he was at Porto, Chelsea and Inter – he had the right players to fit his style. He had a great goalscoring striker, an attacking midfielder like a number 10 and two wingers with pace and the ability to finish well. He could sit back and play on the counter-attack, but as soon as one wing stops being effective his team is so much easier to stop. That’s when the problems start.

If you look at his second spell at Chelsea and now at Man Utd, did he have those fast wingers on both sides who would regularly make the scoresheet, like Robben and Duff at Chelsea, or a great number 10 who would make all the difference when the team needed it?

When you don’t get the results problems start to emerge in the group. Mourinho is a coach that sees everything and when he calls his players up on it when they are winning, they listen, but when you are losing and things are going against you, it can be difficult to change things quickly and Mourinho ends up being a coach of a team he can no longer get the best out of.

The players stop doing the extra things you expect when things are going bad, and then you can fall into a frustrating cycle of not being able to motivate them like you would love to. I would’ve liked to have seen Mourinho do well, but whoever takes the long-term job needs to be ready to weather the storm because United is built on success, and the Great Sir Alex is the person who they will be measured against. #mmlove

Football United

The power of the voice of the people is incredible.

Sometimes I ask myself why do people still see colour. Why do they treat people differently just because of the way nature created them. We’ve been hurt. We have cried. We have tried whatever it takes to change people’s mindset, and how they perceive and treat people that have a different skin tone. 

I am a Chelsea fan and that will never change, but the comments made towards Sterling at the weekend by those fans are never acceptable. I understand that as a fan you are passionate and want your team to win, and the heat of the moment can be intense, but isn’t the person you’re shouting abuse at the same player that scores for your country, and makes you jump up and down in celebration as you feel unified with your nation.

Will you be the guy that will say “I cannot be racist, I have a black neighbour.”

Come on now, this has to stop. 

I have come across racism many times in Holland and I think it can be easy to relate to wherever you are in the world. I remember when I would be playing well and read in the paper ‘Dutch Player Mario Melchiot…’ and then when I played bad they would say ‘the Dutch player with a Suriname background…’

After a while the journalists would get upset because we would not want to give them the time of day, and snub them for interviews. Then they would retaliate by purposely writing more bad things about you. The only sad thing was when I was playing in Holland it could hurt me because the readers would believe the stories, but when I moved to the UK the story changed because the club would not force us to talk with the press like they did in Holland. 

At Ajax and in the national team we had to talk to even the ones that would write bad things, just to get a headline for the people in the streets to talk about. There is a similar thing happening now with the likes of Raheem Sterling and other black players in the UK press.

A child’s skin colour is natural, but racism is not a natural part of anyone’s DNA. It’s constructed by the media and the voice of the people. The press have to take responsibility for how they treat players, making sure it is equal regardless of race, gender or anything else. If they don’t change it might be time for clubs to take a stand together, and stop giving access to the offending journalists. #mmlove

Taking The Crown

After a 10 year dominance at the Ballon d’Or awards, Messi and Ronaldo both missed out on the most coveted player award in football. Luka Modric is the man to take the crown after a stunning year that saw him win the Champions League for a third consecutive time, and take Croatia to the World Cup final.

“Maybe in the past there are some players who could have won the Ballon d’Or like Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Sneijder but people finally now are looking at someone else. This award is for all the players who probably deserved to win it and didn’t. It was a really special year for me,” he said.

It is a great achievement for a player that was said to be one the biggest flops of the season when he first signed for Real Madrid. He said Zidane told him that he could win the Ballon d’Or when he took over at Madrid, and he’s gone and done it.

The biggest shock from the night was Messi finishing in 5th place. This year was Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup, and Argentina struggled in Russia, while Barcelona also crashed out of the Champions League to Roma in the Quarter Finals. Those two facts definitely played against Messi, but perhaps the real reason he came 5th was because he is a victim of his own success.

His year wasn’t quite as good as previous seasons, where had broken all the records, won every competition and scored a crazy number of goals. In 2012 he scored 91 goals for club and country, which is a record that’s not likely to be beaten for a very long time, if ever. That year he became the first player to win the Ballon d’Or four times, and this year he managed just over half those goals with 45.

In comparison Messi’s season was nowhere near his best, but he still scored the more goals than any other player in Europe, as well as bagging more assists and man of the match awards than any other player. If you go deeper you will see that Messi dominates most of the attacking stats in the game.

That said it is refreshing to see someone else win. The award has been very focused on attacking players and whoever scored the most goals so I’m happy that Modric has won after an amazing few seasons at Real Madrid.

At the same time we need to make sure we don’t take Messi and Ronaldo for granted, especially as they wind down towards the end of their careers. The last decade has been one of the most special times to be a football fan, having two players that play like they’re from another planet dominate the World Stage. Now that we are used to their brilliance, it looks like they will have to do something really special to be in with a chance of winning a sixth Ballon d’Or.

The Final To End All Finals

It’s the most anticipated fixtures in South American football. The Copa Libertadores final is always the biggets game of the season, with clubs putting victory in the competition ahead of their domestic success. In 2011 after Santos had won the Brazilian League, many players decided to stay at the club so they could play in the Copa Libertadores the following season, despite multi-million euro offers from clubs in Europe.

This time it became the final to end all finals. Boca Juniors and River Plate are Argentina’s two biggest and most successful clubs, and their rivalry is regarded by may as the most fierce in the world. The clubs have met 25 times in the Copa Libertadores, but never in the final, so this was set up to be the biggest club match in Argentina’s history.

In Argentina, 70% of football fans support one of these two clubs and the Observer newspaper once said “Derby day in Buenos Aires makes the Old Firm game look like a primary school kick-about.”

It the game that’s been on my bucket list for years. I have been wanting to go to this game and was fortunate one of my dear friends Orlando at Fox invited me to go to the game with him. The plan was set and we were supposed to fly out on the Friday before the game.

After the 2-2 draw in the first leg of the final we were set up the second leg with everything perfectly balanced. The World was watching and the competition had been getting more recognition from Europe than ever before. As we approached the second leg many fans in Argentina complained of sleepless nights as they were anxious about the result.

Late on Thursday Orlando said he might not make it because of work and concerns about safety. In the end we had to cancel the trip, and look what happened. We were lucky we didn’t fly into Argentina and experience the biggest derby in the world.

On matchday the fans’ anxiety turned into excitement, and eventually it overflowed into violence as River Plate fans attacked Boca’s team bus. The players were shaken and some were vomiting after riot police had sprayed tear gas, so the game had to be rescheduled for the following day. Then Boca Juniors requested that CONMEBOL needed to make sure the second leg was played under fair and equal circumstances, and that it should be suspended to give their players time to recover.

One of my first ever derbies was Feyenoord v Ajax, and our bus got attacked with one of the windows getting trashed. We were all told to get on the floor until we got out off the bus at the stadium. We won the game and a new bus had to come and pick us up after the game. The next two meetings were played without any away fans. That’s the most boring atmosphere to play in, because you want to feel the rivalry when you’re on the field.

It’s a huge shame that the anticipation for the event had bubbled over, and now we have to wait to see what happens. As it stands the final second leg is set to be played on 8 or 9 December, at a venue outside of Argentina. But Boca are insistent that they do not want the return leg to go ahead, and have formally requested that River be disqualified.

I will be seeing this game one day but this time I will be watching from home.

All want is for everyone to be safe and just enjoy so the best team of the day can win. #mmlove

When I Didn’t Want To Be A Footballer

When I was young I didn’t want to be a footballer. I had one of those small plastic cars that I could climb in and race off in. It inspired me to be the guy who would chase people, like something out of a Badboys movie. That’s how I thought life would be as a cop, so I wanted to be a policeman.

But that changed because of my brother. He never wanted to be in the police and in life you have to dream and hope to become someone that is almost unreachable. For me it was my older brother. He had what it took to be the most successful man on the planet. He had the drive of wanting to achieve big things and the energy to do whatever it took.

That’s why he always challenged me growing up, he made me build my mental strength. I remember playing football and at halftime he would stand on his own away from all the parents so I had to walk over to him. He would never shout or make any noise like you see most parents do. If you go to watch junior football now you will see most parents turn into coaches. I hated it because they would also try to tell me what to do.

But my brother would tell when no one could hear us and tell me stop being bullied and that he didn’t get out of bed to watch someone play like he doesn’t want to win.

This would pump me up and motivate me because I felt I was disappointing him, so the next half it was on. All I wanted when I came off the pitch was for my brother to grab my head against his chest and say “well done brother.” That feeling was magic.

Looking back at my school years I was enjoying it but it wasn’t my favorite thing to do. It was the breaktime that I really enjoyed, where me and my friends could get together and play football. The only thing that motivated me to do well at school was all about winning, and getting a good score in tests was winning for me. I would come home and show my mother and that allowed me to play football longer on the streets.

If I hadn’t made it as a footballer I probably would’ve become a store owner because that was the other thing I liked. Fashion always inspired me and I enjoy it when man and woman dress well or super comfortable.

That’s why I never had one look. I enjoyed changing it because when my sister used to teach me how to dress it was all about trying to change things up. But I’m grateful I made it in football and doing so has moved me into entertainment, and boy o boy I love it.

#mmlove

Keeping Pace

I have to give Sarri credit because if you asked me at the beginning of the season if he would get Chelsea to the position they are right now, and playing that quality of football this quickly, I would have said no chance.

It’s always hard for a manager to adjust to their new team, and often you will see them try to bring in many new players that fit their style, but Sarri has proven that you don’t have to do that. All you have to do to make a big impact is lift the spirit of the team. You can see that he has successfully done that because everyone is motivated and happy to be part of the team, regardless of the system they are playing in.

I watched the game against Everton this weekend and it was one of the first times I have seen Chelsea struggle this season. Everton were so well organised and looked like if they were going to hurt Chelsea, it was going to be on the counter-attack. In the end I do think the 0-0 draw felt like a loss, because to stay in the title race you need to win.

Everton have always been a hard team for Chelsea to beat, but still, in the form the Blues are in they should have won that game at Stamford Bridge. A consolation for Sarri is that he broke the record for longest unbeaten start in the Premier League as a new manager at 12 games, beating Frank Clark’s record with Nottingham Forest 24 years ago.

With City leading the race and knowing that they can beat any team you just have to keep doing your job and getting maximum points on the board, just hoping that Pep’s side will slip up and you can take advantage. In this game you never know when that is going to happen – they dropped points against Burnley, Huddersfield and Crystal Palace last season. But City are so focused and looks like they have the drive to win the title again this year.

There is still a long way to go, and Chelsea just need to focus on themselves and take each game as it comes. The big clash is just a few weeks away when City visit Stamford Bridge in early December, and that could be a turning point so we need all the momentum we can get going into that game.

#mmlove

23 Proud Years

Wigan fans marked the end of an era with a standing ovation in the 23rd minute against Leeds at the weekend – in celebration of the 23 years the Whelan family have owned the club. Sunday’s game was the last under their reign, and although it wasn’t the result everyone at the club wanted, it was a time to reflect on the beautiful moments Wigan have experienced as a club.

“It is a massive disappointment not to be able to send them off with a win, especially considering everything they’ve done for the club, the town and the community over 23 years. But they’ve had plenty of highs and lows, and they’ll know each are part of the journey you go through in this game,” said Paul Cook after the game.

It all started in 1995 when Dave Whelan bought the club while they were in League Two (then called Division Three) for around £400,000. He always had big ambitions for the club, stating early on that the Latics would be a Premier League side. In his second season they earned promotion to League One, and it was a short few years later when they earned 100 points to win League One and earn promotion to the Championship.

In 2005 Dave Whelan’s dream was realised when the Tics reached the Premier League. By November, Wigan were second in the league and most fans were pinching themselves. Over the following eight years the Tics defied the odds and the critics to remain in the top flight.

I could see his great drive and determination when I was about to sign for Wigan in 2007. While at the ground I turned around and there he was walking down the tunnel towards me. He had this big smile on his face, and as he shook my hand he rested his left on my shoulder and asked what I thought of the new stadium.

I said it looks great, and he agreed and said “I think you should play here.” I asked him to reconfirm, “do you really want me to?” and he said, “yes and I would like to be my Captain so that you can keep us in the Premier League.”

He looked me in the eyes just like a businessman would do to see if you made a shift and see if his offer was good enough to be accepted. I said “let’s go inside and sign.” The terms had already been agreed the previous week when I was away on international duty, so all I’d needed to do was fly in to see if I liked the club.

We walked in and as I signed the deal the objectives were clear, which is how he had built the club. He would set targets and would do whatever it took to achieve them. And that’s exactly what his grandson David Sharpe did, too, when he took over in 2015.

I first met David in Los Angeles when he walked up to me and introduced himself in a restaurant. Soon after that we went for a hike with his brother and his wife. The young chairman’s determination and intelligence was spot on. He knew what he wanted and worked hard like his Granddad to achieve it.

That determination is the reason why I signed for this great club and I am honored that I was accepted by the fans from day one. Thank you my Wigan people! #mmlove