By Mario Melchiot

Looking Into The Champions League

It’s always fun times when the Champions League returns because as a fan you get to see the best competing against the best.

I remember dreaming of one day playing in the Champions League after going to watch Ajax by myself. My friends would tell me it is too cold to watch, so I would go to my teammates and ask them – but would hear the same thing. “It’s too cold, you’re crazy!”

So I would go on my own. If I told you the number of times that I sat on my own in the stadium watching Ajax, with my knees and ankles being frozen, you would tell me this guy is an iceman. But I learned so much and sometimes I got goosebumps and sat there with a big smile on my face as the team walked out with flowers to throw to the fans while the famous Champions league music played.

Not long after it was my turn to play against the best, with the likes of Zidane showing me football that was out of this world. Damn that guy was good. I can go and talk to you for days about how great it was but it think we will need a couple more pages for that because watching and playing will be never the same sensation.

Now that I’m a fan and watch the action from a birds eye view it still gives me that amazing feeling when I hear the Champions League song. That piece of music gives you the feeling a boxer gets when he hears “let’s get ready to rumble!”

Back to the guys who are active and entertaining us today, I think Madrid are looking great again. Ronaldo is always demanding the best of himself, which is what makes him so unique, and the team is so well-oiled and look like the hunger is still in the team and I love seeing that. They all want it again and will do whatever it takes to make it three in a row.

All the English teams have started strong and I expect a lot from them this season because they have invested a lot of time, money and effort to make their squads big enough to compete in two competitions. This is going to be a long season so all the players want to end it with a big trophy before going away for the summer to fight for the even bigger one, the World Cup.

Chelsea’s main focus is winning the Champions League because that’s always the next objective after you win the domestic league. You want more and there’s only one trophy out there to make your season even better. But they have Man Utd and City going after it with the same determination, that we could see in all of their first games. This season could be the time that the English teams start ruling again.

Spurs also looked impressive in their win over Dortmund. This German side have become one of the dark horses to watch out for in Europe, finishing as runners-up in 2013 and making the quarterfinals last season. But Spurs showed why they are becoming one of the top sides in England with a 3-1 win.

Liverpool could also cause some surprises with their counter attacks and speed. They’re England’s most successful club in Europe and their comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 final shows how you can never rule them out.

PSG look great but can they play the way they did in that great first half against Barcelona throughout the whole tournament? I’ll be watching them closely over the next couple of games to see if they are solid enough to win it. The surly have the players to do so.

Barcelona are impossible to leave out of the conversation as they are always in contention of winning it. Messi and co can pass their way through any defence in the world as they showed against Juventus in their opening game. It’s Buffon’s last chance to lift the trophy and if they can repeat their performances from last season and get a bit of luck along the way it could be the best sendoff possible for Gianluigi.

Bayern are the other big team that are in with a real chance of winning the competition. They have made the final three times since 2010, winning it in 2013.

Whatever happens this season it can’t be missed. Watching and playing football is still one of the happiest things in my life!


A Flicker of Joy

The fact that Syria went into their qualifying game with Iran with a chance to qualify for the World Cup was incredible in itself. Going into the game a win would guarantee a playoff place and a draw might be enough depending on the results in the game between South Korea and Uzbekistan.

On the day of the game, huge TV screens were put up in the capital, Damascus. People came together in the town squares to watch Syria open the game on the front foot and score the opening goal.

But then a goal from Sardar Azmoun just before halftime drew the sides level, before Iran’s goalscorer then got his second early in the second half to put the hosts in front. The clock was ticking and Syria were on the verge of being eliminated. With a goalless draw in South Korea, a draw for Syria would secure their place in the playoffs.

In almost the last move of the game, Al Somah received the ball on the edge of the area and drove his shot low towards the goal. The ball flew past the inside of the goalkeeper’s outstretched leg and nestled into the back of the net. The players in red jerseys with “Syria” rather than their names on the back of their shirts fell to their knees and jumped on one another. The Syrian commentator was clearly emotional and began to cry as the players and staff from the bench piled on the goalscorer.

Syria had made it to the World Cup playoffs.

The moment provided a flicker of joy in parts of a country that has been divided by six years of war. We always hear about the devastation and heartache that has affected Syria for those years. And it’s sometimes hard for us to imagine what those people must go through on a daily basis.

But last week thousands of fans spilled into the streets to celebrate their great sporting achievement. They were dancing and one fan was heard by the media saying it was the greatest day of his life. The beautiful game had made everyone forget, at least for a moment, all the conflict and sadness that has struck their country.

Syria will play Australia over two legs, and if they win they will be just one step away from the World Cup, taking on North and Central America’s fourth-best team in a final playoff.

The dream is alive.


Who Has The Power?

This summer we saw some crazy sums of money being exchanged for players around Europe. But many clubs, especially in the Premier league, have managed to keep hold of their top stars despite their intent to leave.

So has the balance of power moved away from the players, back to the clubs?

I don’t think so, because I don’t think it has ever been any different. When a team sells or buys a player there is always some talk about it, but never as much as when a player wants to leave, or the club wants him out.

As a player you only have your fans to stand up for you but the club has a much bigger following. It’s also better for the press to support the club rather than the player, so they write more negative comments about players than they ever would a club. The fans can then turn against a player and criticise them.

I’m talking from experience here because I’ve been in a similar situation. When I informed Ajax that I wanted to extend my contract, the press made it seem like they didn’t want me, and the next thing you know I signed for Chelsea.

I do feel that sometimes the players have to understand they will never be bigger than a club. Sometimes there are situations where the target club is willing to pay the asking price for you – like the way Neymar did it. He wanted to leave to stand on his own feet in order to become the ultimate star, like Messi or Ronaldo are at their clubs.

Costa tried to force his way out by doing things that would never come in his favour. For example, do you think the club would bend or even flinch for the way he’s behaving after not showing up for 3 months? They don’t even worry about his pay cheque because that isn’t a problem for them to keep paying.

Sometimes I think players have to study clubs and their methods because if you see how they treat one of your colleagues you should know that they will treat you the same way if you start acting up. Plan wisely and don’t become the guy they use as an example. They will make you suffer so no player would ever consider acting up that way.

Sanchez has been another talking point and wanted to leave Arsenal desperately, but he approached the situation better because he showed up, did his job and kept his mouth shut. But you can see in his face that he is suffering. When the cameras focus on his face while he sits on the bench watching Arsenal, you can see the player that used to be happy and hungry has changed into one that is now only focused on what’s next.

I never like to see any player in this situation – especially the ones that I like to watch delivering the goods every weekend. I hope that the great moments these stars produce on the pitch will not turn into difficulty and that the players and team find a solution to keep entertaining us, not hurting on the sideline with their own thoughts.


Return of the Natural Born Animal

Ibrahimovic announced his return to Manchester United in typical Zlatan style, with an image of himself depicted as Jesus arm wrestling a red devil. But as he says, he never really left:

“Lukaku called me and said: ‘Bro, can I get the No. 9 shirt? I said ‘I’m not on that level that I will make it difficult for you, I just want you to feel happy and feel welcome, so I give you the No. 9 but I will take the No. 10.’ That’s the way we do it. So I never left, I just upgraded my number.”

His season was cut short in April after ligament damage but the ‘natural born animal’ has been working hard to regain his fitness and looks like he could be returning to the pitch in January. Last term he netted 28 goals for United in the face of all the doubters who said he was too old to perform at that level in the Premier League. He proved the naysayers wrong and could be a vital addition to United’s already strengthened side this season.

Zlatan won’t have the same impact as he did last season and will more likely be viewed as an extra man. Lukaku was the big summer signing for United and has already scored 3 goals and taken an early lead in the race for the golden boot along with Mané, and Mourinho has insisted that Ibrahimovic will have to prove himself in Man Utd’s ‘made team’.

Rashford and Martial are also likely to be amongst the goals this season which makes United one of the most dangerous sides in the Premier League going forward. Each player offers different qualities and style of play, and that depth could be vital when fixtures stack up later in the season.

As well as bringing extra class to Old Trafford, Zlatan also brings character. He’s one of the most entertaining players both on and off the field and, at least for neutrals and Man Utd fans, it’s great to have him back.

United are the team to beat this season because they look great going forward and well-balanced defensively. They have strengthened in the key areas after Mourinho assessed what he was missing last season. Now that he has this great attacking force, life at Manchester is different.

That said, people still need to adjust to his playing style because it is different to the attacking play United were known for under Fergie. Mourinho is the master of sitting back and defending when his side has just enough to win.

Chelsea and City are the teams that can stop them – all three sides have a lot of similarities tactically and are all deadly in attack.

It has been a great start to the new Premier league campaign and there is nothing better than watching teams that play to win.


The Money Fight

The sporting spectacle of the year is on the horizon! Connor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather will enter the ring on Saturday night and millions of people around the world will be tuning in with Popcorn in hand.

Some people have said that it’s a circus and ‘the money fight’ is just about that one thing: Money. But you know the people that say that will be tuning in to watch the fight.

Mayweather is one of the greatest boxers of all time, perhaps the best technically. Nobody has been able to touch him, not even Pacquiao, and his record stands at 49-0-0. With that in mind it can sound like an insult to say that this guy can come from a different sport and has a chance of beating Floyd. 49 have tried and failed, so how can someone who has never had a professional boxing match come and beat the five division world champion?

MMA and boxing are different sports that require different skills, so on paper Floyd Mayweather is the clear winner. But as we all know the fight is not fought on paper and upsets do happen. (Just ask Claudio Ranieri.)

McGregor is going into the fight as a 4-1 underdog but that will suit him down to the ground. Conor seems to thrive on being the underdog, but in his own head, he never is. His unwavering confidence and belief in himself has proved to be justified with his previous fights, overcoming the odds to knock out his UFC opponents. He’s the king of getting inside his opponents head and plays the psychological game better than anyone. Just look at the media tour a few weeks ago.

In Conor’s mind, he does have what it takes to beat Floyd. And he’s deadly serious about his dreams. That’s not enough by itself, but Conor has also shown a crazy ability to predict the outcomes of his fights, which shows that his visualisation techniques do work.

His unorthodox style and movement could be a problem for Mayweather, and it does only take one perfect punch to end a fight. The only problem for McGregor is that it’s almost impossible to hit Floyd – just ask one of his 49 opponents.

Of course on paper it looks as though McGregor hasn’t got a chance, but when you put two trained athletes inside a contained environment, anything can happen. But whatever happens in the ring, perhaps Conor has already achieved his biggest success when he talked the greatest boxer of a generation into the ring with him for a $200m fight despite having a 0-0-0 boxing record.

McGregor has the power and timing, Mayweather has the speed and precision, and I’ll be watching it for sure.


Back with a Bang

It was the most anticipated weekend of the summer for football fans everywhere, and the excitement was answered with plenty of goals and entertainment.

Arsenal and Leicester kicked things off with a seven goal thriller. Lacazette headed the Gunners ahead 94 seconds into his Premier League debut, only for Okazaki to equalise just two minutes later. We were off to a flyer and that intensity continued over the 90 minutes with Leicester taking a 3-2 before Ramsey and Giroud swung the balance in Arsenal’s favor in the last 10 minutes.

Arsenal are always one of the teams that play the brand of football that, on its day, can be out of this world. Going forward they are always deadly but they are still missing something. If Wenger can find the balance and keep more clean sheets but continue to score plenty of goals, this season could see them push for the title again.

Watford and Liverpool were next up and the goals continued. Miguel Britos scored a controversial 93rd-minute equaliser for Watford to give them a share of the spoils at Vicarage road. As good as Liverpool were in attack, their defense was showing the same problems of last season.

If you want to be a title contender you have to win games like this. I know it’s tough playing away at Watford but you are still Liverpool – a club that should be aiming to win the league. You can’t be that easy to cut open. To be in with any chance of contending the title, they need to be more solid, especially away from home.

Chelsea were involved in the shock result of the weekend, falling three goals behind Burnley at Stamford Bridge. The team looks too light. I already said it weeks ago – I don’t see Chelsea winning this one because the big focus is the Champions League. Your squad needs to have the depth to handle both compeitions, and at the moment it is too thin. If you want give the youngsters a chance it will take time and patience is needed, but I’m not sure the blues want to wait for glory and if that’s the case they need to strengthen if they want a great season again.

Huddersfield also looked like a surprise package, defeating Palace 3-0 in their own back yard. Most people have predicted Huddersfield to finish rock bottom this season and on paper they are the smallest club in the league, but if they can stay positive and take each game as it comes they could cause some surprises. As we all know football isn’t played on paper, and they can look at the likes of Bournemouth and Swansea for inspiration.

Man Utd looked the best they have for some time during their 4-0 win over West Ham. It was Lukaku who grabbed the headlines with his brace, but Matic was key in midfield and looked like the piece that had been missing from Jose’s puzzle. He’s not Roy Keane, but his presence in the midfield was reminiscent of the former skipper and could turn out to be an important player for United this season.

I never understood Chelsea for letting Matic go to their rivals. I’m sure Chelsea thought they are paying over the price, but still, you know how much Mourinho needed him after last season. Pogba was doing both jobs and with Matic in the team now he has the security behind him so he can start producing more of the stuff that should make him one of the best midfielders in the world.

Away from the Premier League, Neymar made his PSG debut with a goal. There was so much expectation on the Brazilian and he delivered the goods saying that he feels more alive than ever. Barcelona played the El Classico without him, and Real Madrid got the better of them with goals from Asensio and, of course, Ronaldo. Ronaldo was sent off and will miss 5 games for pushing the referee. He can play in the Champions League but will not return to domestic action until 20 September against Real Betis, giving Messi a 5 game head start in the season’s battle for top scorer.

Barca looked like they were out of balance without Neymar and I’m sure they knew they were about to miss magic when he left to PSG. But in the Clasico they got the confirmation. Madrid was too strong and the quality that came off the bench was no different to what was starting.

It maybe will take some time to fix the Neymar shaped whole, but I’m sure Barca are working hard behind the sense to find an answer.


The €222m Man

After weeks of speculation and media gossip, PSG, Barca and Neymar have blown the transfer records out of the water with one of the most dramatic moves in football history. When the story first emerged many people discarded it as a wild and silly rumour, but now we find the MSN trio one man short and Paris a superstar heavier.

Messi, Suarez and Neymar were the perfect attacking trio, maybe the greatest front three of all-time, and Neymar’s creativity, pace and finishing was a lethal and vital part of that set-up. Seeing these three play together was special and they scored a crazy 253 goals between them in 113 matches. It only lasted 3 seasons, but it truly is the end of an era.

When Barcelona officially dropped Qatar Airways as a sponsor, that meant Qatar no longer had access to two of the most marketable footballers in the world in Messi and Neymar. With the World Cup heading to Qatar in 2022, Qatar wants to grow its global brand, and having Neymar as an ambassador will help them achieve that. Perhaps the Neymar saga was payback time after Barca dropped their sponsorship.

Barca and Real Madrid are historically the giants of football that every player would love to play for. When a player leaves it is normally because they are no longer wanted, not because they want to leave. Barca have been stung on two other occasions by Figo and Ronaldo who both went to their rivals, and this will go down as a third time a star player has left Barcelona against the will of the club.

Why did Neymar agree to leave? He wants to win the Ballon d’Or and the only way he has a chance of doing that is by stepping out of Messi’s shadow. Neymar Senior has said in the past that his son needs to come out of the shadow of Messi to be the best, and that will be the goal now.

He’s the best player below the age of 30 and that makes him the most marketable football player for the next few years. He’s already the main man in the national team and now he’ll be playing with a few of his fellow Brazilians at PSG, which means he is likely to fit in and feel like a star instantly.

People will always talk about greed and question the motivations behind big money transfers – and this one is astronomical sums of money – but if Neymar helps PSG win the Champions League and becomes the best player in the world people might change their minds. Even when Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Madrid people said it was a lot to do with money, but the money for Ronaldo was well spent if you look at what they have achieved with him in the team.


One of the Most Interesting People I’ve Ever Met

Exactly 2 years ago I met one of the most interesting people of my life. I was doing a Q&A for the Chelsea supporters in Los Angeles when I came across a guy called Chris.

He invited me to the Mount Wilson Observatory and he would check in with me every now and then telling me it would be a pleasure to show me around. I would text him back and say I will let you know when I can come over.

Years went by, but this weekend I decided to go to Pasadena for a hike. I texted him on Saturday evening and I got a reply within 5 minutes. I was super excited and took Rose with me knowing that she is a big fan of Astrology. We both went on this adventure not knowing what we would encounter. When we arrived we found out that during the 20th Century Mount Wilson was the most famous observatory in the world. The biggest telescopes were here and their new designs were changing the way astronomy was done.

We arrived and from a distance I could see this big smile and knew that it was the great Chris. He had just finished two night shifts over the last two days – he has learned to live at night while most of us are snoring away. He was determined to show us around and share the knowledge he’s accumulated over the last 11 years working at the observatory.

One of the first things Chris told me was that where I was standing on the bridge was the same place Albert Einstein had stood. I was like dude if I stay here I might get 2% of his intelligence. Chris said: “If it wasn’t 30 degrees I would stay here with you, but the sun is killing and we need to go into the telescope.”

As we entered the magical rooms we saw the telescopes called the 60-inch Hale and the big one – the 100-inch Hooker. This was where they personally produce the lenses and mirrors, and where they read the light and the shape of the stars.

This is where the child in me came out and I started to ask a lot of questions. One of the best answer he gave me was when I asked: “Do you think people will start traveling to space eventually?”

He said: “Look Mario, back in the day only countries could afford to pay for this expensive journey, but now the individuals are so wealthy and intelligent that they will try to make it more accessible to the public. But that will take some time”.

Then the explanation followed regarding Mr Edwin Hubble.

In 1919, American astronomer Edwin Hubble tackled the big question at the time – where the misty, spiral objects in the sky clouds of gas in the milky way or clusters of stars far outside our galaxy. He combined his astronomical knowledge with the powerful Hooker telescope on top of Mount Wilson. He used the telescope’s to take photographs of the great nebula in Andromeda, and for the first time, the images revealed faint stars in the nebula.

After all of this amazing knowledge and history, the topic of our conversation turned to football the story about Matic going to Manchester. We both agreed that Mourinho is the master in making his competitors weak by pinching their top players so we were shocked that Chelsea allowed such a great player to go to their direct competitors.

It might turn out to be a bad move later in the season. Let’s hope the ups and downs of preseason are nothing to expect, but with the main man Hazard out I’m not sure if the team is out of balance and needs to readjust. If that’s the case I hope they do so on time, or it will be catch up time from the first league match.

One thing for sure is that Chris and I are buddies now and I’ve already apologized in advance because I’m not done picking his brain. He’s a great soul and a living book of great knowledge.


A Class Of His Own

Roger Federer has cemented his place as the greatest male Tennis player of all time. His record 19th grand slam title puts him 4 ahead of Nadal in 2nd, but his record only tells half of the story.

When Federer had gone 5 years without a grand slam everyone thought he was finished. At the age of 35, which is old by Tennis standards, many said his career was winding down before retirement. After losing the final at Wimbledon, he left the All England Club 12 months ago and chose to miss the rest of 2016 to fully recover from a knee injury.

But in 2017 he came back to win his 18th major title in Melbourne, sparking a run of form that has seen him lose only two matches all year. After the Australian Open he won titles at Indian Wells, Miami Masters, Halle and now Wimbledon. After his triumph he said “I knew I could do great again maybe one day, but not at this level. I guess you would have laughed, too, if I told you I was going to win two Slams this year. People wouldn’t believe me if I said that.”

Most athletes fade out of the spotlight with age, but Federer has shown that he is in a class of his own. He doesn’t have the fastest serve and he can’t move around the court as well as some of the younger, more powerful players, but his technique, precision and anticipation more than makes up for it.

Off the court, Federer shows just as much class donating millions to help disadvantaged people in Africa and victims of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami.

Luckily for us viewers, he has announced that he could keep playing until he is 40. He might need a few more breaks through the year, but if Federer keeps fit there’s nothing stopping him winning Wimbledon again.


Stay Strong Appie

In life there are great things that we like to do as a child. We grow up idolizing someone that is special in our eyes. We look at our parents and think damn, these are the coolest. We ask them for their blessings, to believe in us and support the dreams we try to achieve.

For most kids in Amsterdam, that dream is playing for the great team called Ajax. The club that you naturally fall in love with. Ajax becomes our first girlfriend because before that the only time we feel love is for our families. When you are young you think girls are silly, but when you’re older you fall in love with one and you think what was I thinking?

But that isn’t the case with Ajax. When you love them you stay with them. You’re crazy about them. You go to school and play on the streets and you call yourself one of the star players of the first team. You work every day trying to get closer to your dream and when you think you’re almost there someone disappoints you in your journey, but instead of giving up you learn how to use it as a motivation. You go home and think about how you can change their mind in thinking you are a great player.

Every year at Ajax they tell you in December and in May if you meet the standard and will stay or leave the academy. Yes you are a child that has to deal with the emotional situation of a grown man because that’s how you get treated. When you go over all the tough hurdles and make it to the first team you feel you finally made it. Your family and friends are happy but a lot of people will say you’re lucky. But how much of it is luck when you work on your dream every day rain or shine. When it pays off it’s not luck but pure focus and determination to win every fight.

You make your debut and become part of the first team of Ajax so your happy. Then you get told that staying there is even harder than getting there.

Nouri made it and went on training camp with Ajax. He had the feeling that, “Finally I was going to play for a coach that understands me. He knows me because he was my coach in the reserves and will give me a fair chance to shine.” Don’t we all play better when we get a chance of someone that believes in us at our jobs?

It all started great – new coach, new goals and he was feeling stronger in every training session, and got two setbacks because of his ankle injuries but still kept thinking he will be fine. The game starts and he’s running around comfortably without any worries. Then around the 72nd minute, he managed to lie down himself knowing something was up. This super talented young player had to do the fight that he won before in the Ajax youth all over again, but this time it has a different ending.

Kid, if there was anything in the world I could wish for right now for you and your family, it would be for me coming to the Johan Cruyff arena to see you play. Damn, how cool would that have been? But now I won’t have that opportunity, so I send you and your loved ones all the strength and togetherness your family needs in this difficult time.