Monday, February 29, 2016

29 February 2004 - Boro Does The Job

On 29 February 2004, two quick goals lifted Middlesbrough to their first major honor, beating Bolton in the League Cup final.

Founded in 1876, Boro had come close to a trophy a few years earlier, reaching both the FA Cup and League Cup finals in 1997, then returning to the League Cup final in 1998. In their first League Cup final, they led Leicester City 1-0 deep into extra time, but conceded a goal in the 118th minute to force a replay which Leicester won, 1-0.

Bolton, meanwhile, had won a slew of FA Cups (1923, 1926, 1929, 1958), but had reached the League Cup final only once before, losing 2-1 to Liverpool in 1995.

The teams met at Cardiff's Millenium Stadium, where many of the official 72,634 attendees missed the opening goal. In just the second minute, while they were still making their way to their seats, Boro midfielder Boudewijn Zenden fired a ball across the goal. It was met by his teammate, forward Joseph-Désiré Job (pictured, left), who turned it into the net to put Boro up 1-0.

Five minutes later, Zenden doubled the lead with a penalty kick after Bolton center back Emerson Thome fouled Job in the box. Even though Bolton pulled one back with a strike from Kevin Davies in the 21st minute, they could not get an equalizer past Middlesbrough keeper Marl Schwarzer and the match ended as a 1-2 Boro victory.

At the time, Job's goal was the quickest in League Cup history, but that record was later beaten by John Arne Riise, who netted for Liverpool in the first minute the next year.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

28 February 2010 - You Don't Mess With Mother Nature

On 28 February 2010, German amateur side TSV Wimsheim defeated Grunbach with a goal from an unlikely source--the wind.

In the 58th minute, with the match scoreless, Grunbach midfielder Oliver Wiedemann stepped up to take a goal kick in the place of keeper Alexander Sollner. As the ball rose into the air, a powerful gust of wind pushed it back toward the Grunbach goal. It came down in the box, bounced over Sollner, then past Wiedemann and into the net.

According to the German tabloid Bild, since no opponent touched the ball after the goal kick, the referee should have disallowed the goal and awarded a corner kick instead. But the referee allowed the goal to stand and it provided the margin of victory as Wimsheim went on to win 2-1.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

27 February 1999 - The Last Of The English Starting XIs

On 27 February 1999, Aston Villa fielded an all-English starting eleven--the last time that's happened in the Premier League.

At the time, Villa were in fourth place and took the pitch that day at home against Coventry City, who were sitting in the relegation zone at 18th. Coventry had not won at Villa Park in 23 attempts and Villa had won the season's earlier fixture at Highfield Road, 1-2, so would have been understandably confident if not for the fact that they had taken only a single point from their last four league matches.

The visitors struck first when their Australian striker, John Aloisi, found the back of the net after 25 minutes. The situation grew worse for the hosts when manager John Gregory had to make two substitutions before the break, replacing Ian Taylor and Steve Watson with Mark Draper and Gareth Barry (still keeping a full English side).

Dion Dublin eventually scored for Villa from the penalty spot, but another goal from Aloisi and two stunning strikes from Dutch midfielder George Boateng ended the day 1-4 to Coventry.

(Villa's starting XI that day were Michael Oakes, Alan Wright, Gareth Southgate, Steve Watson, Riccardo Scimeca, Ian Taylor, Paul Merson (pictured), Simon Grayson, Lee Hendrie, Dion Dublin, and Julian Joachim; with Gareth Barry, Stan Collymore, and Mark Draper as substitutes.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

26 February 1992 - Roberto Carlos Gets The Call-Up

On 26 February 1992, defender Roberto Carlos made his first appearance for Brazil in a 3-0 win over the United States in a friendly. He went on to play for them a total of 125 times to take second place on Brazil's list of most-capped players.

Only 18 years old at the time, he had just begun his professional career two years earlier with Brazilian Série B side União São João. They were still in Brazil's second tier when Roberto Carlos surprisingly received that first call-up to the national team. But new manager Carlos Alberto Parreira (in the second of his three spells in charge of Brazil) was looking for new blood to rejuvenate the team after a disappointing showing at the 1990 World Cup.

Playing before a home crowd in Fortaleza, the young left wingback proved his worth, helping to keep the visiting Americans scoreless. Meanwhile, his fellow defender Antônio Carlos added one goal to a brace from midfielder Raí as the hosts eased to a comfortable 3-0 victory.

Roberto Carlos missed out on Brazil's 1994 World Cup-winning campaign, but was a voted to the FIFA World Cup All-Star team in 1998 and again in 2002, when Brazil lifted the trophy. He made his last appearance in the 2006 World Cup as Brazil were eliminated by France in the quarterfinals.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

25 February 1912 - Every Tradition Starts Somewhere (Even Barcelona's)

On 25 February 1912, 15-year old Paulino Alcántara set three club records when he scored a hat-trick for Barcelona on his debut. He eventually set a fourth as Barça's all-time leading goalscorer.

In a club renowned for its youth academy, Alcántara set the standard. Born in Iloilo City in the Philippines in 1896, the striker began his youth career in Spain with FC Galeno before joining Barcelona in 1912. He was just 15 years, 14 months, and 8 days old when he made his first appearance--against Català in the Catalonian Championship--making him the youngest player to debut with the Barcelona first team. Not content to settle for that record, he also contributed three goals in the 9-0 win, making him the club's youngest goalscorer and youngest player to net a hat-trick.

Apart from a brief break from 1916 to 1918 when he returned to the Philippines, Alcántara remained with Barcelona until his retirement in 1927. During that period, he won five Copa del Rey titles and ten Catalonian Championships (he also won two league titles with Bohemian while in the Philippines). He finished his Barça career with a total of 357 goals in 357 games, a club record that stood until it was bettered by Lionel Messi.

He became a doctor after his retirement, but went on to become a coach (he briefly managed the Spanish national team), then returned to Barcelona as a member of the club's board of directors.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

24 February 1910 - Sweden's Once And Recent Kings

On 24 February 1910, a group of nineteen footballers founded Malmö FF. They have since become Sweden's most decorated club, with a silverware cabinet that includes a record 18 Swedish championships.

It took the club 34 years to win their first title, but it kick-started one of their most successful periods. For the next nine seasons, they finished in the league's top three, winning four more championships and five Swedish Cups. The '60s were relatively quiet, with only two league titles and one Swedish Cup, but they roared back to life in the '70s, winning the Swedish championship in 1970, 1971, 1974, 1975, and 1977 (as well as the Swedish Cup in 1976 and 1978). They also rose to international prominence, advancing to the 1979 European Cup Final (where they lost 1-0 to Nottingham Forest).

Over the years, Malmö have produced several outstanding players, including their appearance leader Krister Kristensson (626 matches between 1963 and 1979), their all-time leading goalscorer Hans Håkansson (341 between 1927 and 1938), two-time Swedish player of the year Bo Larsson (1965, 1973), and current Swedish national team captain Zlatan Ibrahimović, who began his professional career at Malmö from 1999 to 2001.

Their star dimmed in the 1990s, including relegation in 1999. But they have since returned to their former glory, winning the championship in 2010, 2013, and 2014.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

23 February 1930 - I Wish He Had Stuck To Football

On 23 February 1930, midfielder Alexandre Villaplane captained France for the first time. He would later lead them in the 1930 World Cup before his execution in 1944 for collaborating with the Nazis.

Born in French Algeria in 1905, Villaplane was the first player from North Africa to play for Les Bleus when he received his first cap in 1926, a 4-3 victory over Belgium. He played in eighteen more matches before captaining the national team for the first time in his twentieth appearance, a 2-0 friendly loss to Portugal. Both of Portugal's goals were scored by 22-year old José Manuel Soares, a dynamic young forward regarded by many as one of Portugal's best-ever players. Unfortunately, he died the following year from food poisoning.

Villaplane suffered a tragic end of his own. After the 1930 World Cup--he was the captain for all three of France's matches--he lasted only five more years in football as match-fixing scandals and poor training habits drove him out of the sport.

During World War II, Villaplane became an SS officer, becoming known for his opportunistic and brutal methods, including several alleged murders. After the liberation of France from Nazi occupation, Villaplane was caught, tried, and then shot on 26 December 1944.

Monday, February 22, 2016

22 February 1991 - The King Has Left The Building

On 22 February 1991, Kenny Dalglish resigned as Liverpool manager after guiding the club for five and a half seasons. During that period, they won three league titles and two FA Cups.

He got his start at Anfield in 1977 when then-manager Bob Paisley spent a British record £440,000 to bring him from Celtic as a replacement for recently-departed striker Kevin Keegan. He soon became a fan favorite and a key contributor, winning five league titles, four League Cups, and three European Cups under Paisley and Paisley's replacement, Joe Fagan and earning the nickname "King Kenny."

When Fagan retired in May 1985, Dalglish took over as player-manager only hours before the Heysel stadium disaster. But despite that tragedy marking his debut, he led Liverpool to the Double the following season. More success followed, including the 1988 and 1990 league titles and the 1989 FA Cup. But more tragedy followed, as well, in the form of the Hillsborough disaster which claimed the lives of 96 people, all of whom were Liverpool supporters.

Less than two years later, Dalglish resigned as manager, clearly suffering from the effects of both Heysel and Hillsborough in addition to the pressures of management. But he returned to the touchline eight months later for Blackburn and led them from the Second Division to the 1995 Premier League title--their first league title since 1914.

After further spells with Newcastle United (1997-98) and Celtic (1999-2000), he returned to Anfield in 2009 as club ambassador. He was a popular candidate to replace Rafa Benitez in June 2010, but the job went instead to Roy Hodgson. Hodgson lasted barely half a season, though, and Dalglish returned as manager in January 2011, but was sacked the following year.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

21 February 2009 - Boys Among Men (With Predictable Results)

On 21 February 2009, Weymouth FC fielded a youth team in a match against Rushden & Diamonds, losing 0-9. It remains the heaviest league defeat in the club's history.

Founded in 1890, Weymouth--nicknamed "the Terras"--have spent the majority of their existence in the lower tiers of English football, primarily in the Football Conference and the Southern League. In 2006, they were promoted to the Conference National league, the fifth level of the English pyramid, which is where they were for the 2008-09 season.

They struggled financially that season, so much so that their first team had not been paid since the new year and had, the week before the match against R&D, submitted their two-week's notice that would allow them to void their contracts and seek new clubs. Although the two weeks had not expired before the match, Weymouth reportedly failed to pay for players' insurance, forcing them to field their U18 side.

The results were unsurprising as the sparse crowd of 967 watched visiting Rushden & Diamonds go three goals up in the first 18 minutes. The score was 0-4 by the break and only got worse in the second half, with he beleaguered hosts conceding five more goals. It was the second loss in a string of 15 defeats in their last 16 matches of the season, ending in relegation.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

20 February 1940 - Nothing Funny About That Scoring Record

On 20 February 1940, Jimmy Greaves was born in the London's East Ham district. He would go on to become the greatest goalscorer in the history of the English top flight.

He got off to a great start, scoring on his professional debut with Chelsea in 1957. In four seasons at Stamford Bridge, he scored a total of 132 goals in all competitions, making 169 appearances. While there, he twice finished as the First Division's top scorer, including a 41-goal league tally in 1960-61 that remains a club record (as does his all-competition total of 43 the same season).

After a brief unhappy period with AC Milan, he returned to England with Tottenham Hotspur, where he stayed for nine seasons. It was one of Spurs' most successful periods, as they won the 1963 European Cup Winner's Cup and two FA Cups (1962, 1967). During his time with Spurs, Greaves was a member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning side, but was injured in their last group stage match. Because he missed the remainder of the tournament, including the Final, he did not receive a winner's medal at the time. But after an FA campaign, he received his medal in 2009.

After leaving Tottenham, Greaves played briefly for West Ham, making 40 appearances between 1969 and 1971, when he retired. In all, he scored a record 366 goals in 528 English top flight appearances. Afterward, he became a television pundit famous for his catch-phrase, "it's a funny old game."

Friday, February 19, 2016

19 February 2008 - Who You Gonna Call?

On 19 February 2008, the Daily Mail reported that Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia believed his house was haunted.

Almunia, who joined the Gunners in 2004 from Celta Vigo, purchased a house in the Hertsfordshire village of Abbots Langley, close to Arsenal's Shenley Training Center. According to the Daily Mail, the house may have been built on the site of Leavesden Hospital, a mental hospital that closed sometime during the 1990s.

The goalkeeper claimed that his wife, Ana, had seen "a monk-like figure with a candle in his hand at the end of the bed." Almunia himself had not seen the ghost, but heard chains rattling, saw stereos turn on at full volume, and was, in his own words "shit-scared." The situation had gotten so bad that Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger granted permission for Almunia to go home for lunch so that his wife would not be there alone.

He left Arsenal in 2012 and played two seasons for Watford before retiring in 2014.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

18 February 1998 - The Death Of Robbie James

On 18 February 1998, Llanelli player-manager Robbie James collapsed and died during a match against Porthcawl Town. He was 40 years old.

Born in Swansea in 1957, James spent the first nine seasons of his career with his hometown club, Swansea City, joining them in 1973. At the time, the Swans were in the Welsh Third Division and quickly slipped down to the Fourth Division. But the arrival of new manager John Toshack in March 1978 heralded a reversal of fortune and James, described by The Independent as "an indefatigably competitive attacking midfielder," proved instrumental in taking them all the way to the top flight for the 1981-82 season.

After making 394 league appearances (and scoring 99 goals) for Swansea, James left in 1983 for Stoke City (1983-84), then QPR (1984-87) and Leicester (1987-88) before returning to Swansea in 1988. They were back in the Fourth Division, but James once again lifted them to the Third Division. But he moved again in 1990, spending time with Bradford City and Cardiff City before moving to non-league side Merthyr Tydfill, then landing at Llanelli as player-manager.

He was playing for Llanelli against Porthcawl Town when he collapsed and died from a heart attack. The Independent reported that "To the very last he played the game the only way he knew how, with every ounce of his being."

Over the course of his career, he made 782 league appearances, scoring 133 goals and winning five Welsh Cups.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

17 February 1894 - The First Old Firm Final

On 17 February 1894, Rangers won their first Scottish Cup, beating Old Firm rivals Celtic 3-1. They currently have 33, while Celtic have 36.

Rangers and Celtic had already played once that season in the league, with Rangers winning by the comfortable margin of 5-0 thanks in part to a hat-trick from midfielder John Barker. Barker struck again in the Cup Final, played at Glasgow's Cathkin Park (then known as the second Hampden Park).

The first goal, however, came from defender Hugh McCreadie, who played in Rangers' central defense alongside his brother, Andrew. Barker doubled the lead, then midfielder John McPherson added a third. Celtic, who had won the Cup two years earlier and were the reigning league title-holders, finally got a late consolation goal from half-back Willie Maley.

Although they lost the Cup, Celtic exacted their revenge one week later, beating Rangers 3-2 in the league en route to winning that season's title.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

16 February 1957 - Egypt Walks Over Ethiopia

On 16 February 1957, Egypt won the inaugural African Cup of Nations, beating Ethiopia 4-0.

Only three teams--Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan--participated in the tournament. A fourth, South Africa, received an invitation, but were subsequently disqualified for political reasons related to their policy of apartheid. Their disqualification meant that Ethiopia received a bye and advanced directly to the Final against Egypt, who had beaten Sudan 1-0.

But although Ethiopia were the more rested side, they were no match for Egypt. Forward Mohammed Diab El-Attar, who had scored Egypt's winning goal against Sudan, was again the hero, scoring all four goals against Ethiopia.

It was the first of Egypt's record seven ACN titles, making them the most successful nation in the tournament's history.

Monday, February 15, 2016

15 February 1998 - El Tri's Trifecta

On 15 February 1998, Mexico won their third consecutive CONCACAF Gold Cup, beating the United States 1-0.

After going undefeated through their respective groups, the United States advanced to the final with a 1-0 victory over Brazil to set a record streak of six consecutive wins. Mexico, meanwhile, required an extra-time golden goal from forward Luis Hernández to get past Jamaica. That set up a final that was a rematch of the 1993 Final. That year, Mexico rolled to an easy 4-0 win over the US. They repeated as champions in the next tournament, played in 1996, with a 2-0 win over Brazil.

For the 1998 Final, the teams met at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Although the US were the ostensible home team, the 91,000-plus crowd predominantly favored Mexico. In a scrappy first half, Hernández powered a 43rd-minute header home from point-blank range past American keeper Kasey Keller for the game's only score.

Since then, Mexico and the US have met in three additional Finals, with the Americans winning in 2007 and Mexico taking the honors in 2009 and 2011.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

14 February 2009 - James Breaks The Speed Record

On 14 February 2009, Portsmouth goalkeeper David James made his then-record 536th Premier League appearance in a 2-0 win over Manchester City.

James started his career in 1989 with Watford, who were then in the Second Division. After three seasons there, he moved to the Premier League in 1992, signing with Liverpool for £1.25 million. He had a rough start at Anfield and was dropped from the starting line-up in his second season after the Reds conceded 20 goals in their first 11 matches. But he regained the starting job the following season and stayed there through the 1998-99 season, making 194 league appearances.

He then moved to Aston Villa (1999-2001) and West Ham (2001-04). West Ham were relegated for the 2003-04 season, breaking James's streak of top-flight appearances at 325. But he moved back to the Premiership in January 2004, transferring to Manchester City.

In August 2006, after three seasons with City, James moved again, this time to Portsmouth. In his first year there, he kept a record 142nd Premier League clean sheet, beating the earlier record set by David Seaman. Then, after winning the 2008 FA Cup with Pompey, he made his record appearance, beating the former record held by Welsh midfielder Gary Speed.

James left Portsmouth in July 2010 for Bristol City, who play in England's second tier, the Championship. That ended his run of Premier League appearances, which currently stands at 572. Since then, that number has been bettered by Ryan Giggs (632), Frank Lampard (609), and Gareth Barry (585), leaving James in fourth on the Premier League appearances list. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

13 February 1314 - I Wouldn't Worry About It, Though, It's Not A Big Football Town

On 13 February 1314, England's King Edward II issued a royal order banning football in London.

Evidence suggests that a type of football has been played in England since at least 1175. According to author David Goldblatt in his book The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, one witness described an early version of the game as one in which "young men, in country sport, propel a huge ball not by throwing it into the air, but by striking and rolling it along the ground, and that not with their hands but with their feet." The same observer concluded that the game was "abominable enough, and in my judgement at least, more common, undignified, and worthless than any other kind of game, rarely ending but with some loss, accident, or disadvantage to the players themselves."

By the 1300s, the sport's popularity in London had grown to such an extent that merchants were concerned that it was disrupting the public order and having deleterious effects on trade. A quote reportedly from the Lord Mayor of London laments "a great uproar in the city, through certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public, from which many evils may arise." Edward II responded to the complaints with a royal order "to forbid playing this godless game within the town walls under penalty of imprisonment."

Despite similar efforts from Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, and James III to ban the sport, it continued to thrive. Today, there are 14 professional teams in London alone, with another 80 amateur leagues regulated by the London Football Association.

Friday, February 12, 2016

12 February 2003 - Raúl Takes Two To Become Number One

On 12 February 2003, Raúl González scored two goals in a 3-1 win over Germany to become Spain's all-time top scorer.

Raúl, who played 16 seasons at Real Madrid before moving to Schalke in 2010, made his first full international appearance in 1996. He scored only five times in his first three years, but hit his stride in 1999 with ten goals--the most ever scored for Spain by one player in a single year. He never replicated that performance, but continued to be a reliable striker and took over as captain in 2002.

The friendly with Germany came in the midst of Spain's qualification campaign for Euro 2004. Played in Mallorca, Raúl scored the opening goal in the 30th minute. It was the 30th of his career, beating the former record of 29 held jointly with his Real Madrid teammate Fernando Hierro. Germany's Fredi Bobic equalized for the visitors eight minutes later, but Raúl restored the lead in with a 77th-minute penalty kick. Guti added a third for the hosts to end the day at 3-1.

Raúl scored a total of 44 goals for Spain before his retirement from international play in 2006. A record at the time, it has since been surpassed by David Villa, who scored 59 goals between 2005 and 2014.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

11 February 2003 - The Leader Of The Pack

On 11 February 2003, striker Didier Drogba scored his first goal for Côte d'Ivoire in a 3-0 rout of Cameroon. He is currently their top scorer with a total of 65 goals in 104 appearances.

He earned his first cap the previous September when, at 24 years old, he appeared in the opening match of the Elephants' qualifying campaign for the 2004 African Cup of Nations, a scoreless draw against South Africa. The friendly against Cameroon followed.

Playing in front of a crowd of 3,000 at Cameroon's Stade Gaston-Petit, the visitors went up 0-1 with a goal from midfielder Tchiressoua Guel in the 37th minute. Drogba claimed his first goal eight minutes later, doubling the lead right before the break. He was subbed out in the 63rd minute. Bonaventure Kalou then converted an 83rd-minute penalty to end the scoring at 0-3.

Drogba contributed three more goals that year, but Côte d'Ivoire failed to qualify for the ACN. Drogba went on to captain the national team and was named the African Footballer of the Year in 2006 and 2009.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

10 February 2002 - The Gunners Launch Their Title Assault

On 10 February 2002, Arsenal won away at Everton, 0-1, in Arsène Wenger's 300th match in charge. The match kick-started an English record 14 straight league wins that lifted the Gunners to that season's title and carried over into the following season.

Arsenal began the day in fourth, behind Liverpool, Newcastle, and Manchester United, but with games in hand on all of them. The Toffees, meanwhile, were 20 points back in 15th. But the match, played before a crowd of almost 31,000 at Goodison Park, was much closer than the table would have suggested.

It was a scrappy affair that would end with five yellow cards, all to Arsenal players. The visitors could not find their form in the first half, appearing sluggish and heavy-footed. It finally took a lucky break for them to take the lead, with striker Sylvain Wiltord (pictured) somehow volleying a Patrick Vieira cross off his shin and into the goal in the 62nd minute.

To the irritation of Everton manager Walter Smith, the referee denied two late penalty shouts from the Toffees and the match ended 0-1. Arsenal proceeded to win all of their remaining 12 league matches en route to the title and did not drop another point until their second match of the 2002-03 season, when they were held to 2-2 at West Ham.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

9 February 2010 - Gray And Keys Just Hadn't Been Paying Attention

On 9 February 2010, Amy Fearn became the first woman to referee an English Football League match when she took charge of the last 20 minutes of Coventry City's contest against Nottingham Forest.

Despite the recent controversy that saw Sky Sports analysts Andy Gray and Richard Keys lose their jobs after making sexist remarks against Premier League assistant referee Sian Massey, England's Football League has used female officials since 1991, when Wendy Toms served as a reserve official for a Third Division match. Toms later worked as an assistant referee in both the Football League and the Premier League, and also refereed matches in the non-League Football Conference starting in 1996.

But no woman had ever been the primary official in England's top four divisions until Fearn. A financial analyst for Rolls Royce who has worked as an official since she was 14, Fearn had worked League matches as a referee's assistant since 2006. And she was again filling that role for the Coventry-Forest match when, with 20 minutes left, the match's originally-assigned referee, Tony Bates, left the pitch with a leg injury. Fearn then took the whistle and her place in history.

The match ended as a 1-0 win for Coventry. Although Fearn heard a few taunts, she shrugged them off, saying afterward "I just laugh and take it with a pinch of salt." Coventry striker Clinton Morrison praised Fearn, saying "There was no dissent when she was in charge and no bad language. It would have been interesting if there had been any controversy but there wasn’t because she did a very good job. There is only one thing that matters about the person in charge and that is how good a referee they are."

Monday, February 8, 2016

8 February 1966 - He Should've Limited The Striking To The Ball

On 8 February 1966, European Footballer of the Year and World Cup Golden Boot winner Hristo Stoichkov was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

A winger/forward, he first rose to international prominence with CSKA Sofia, where his 38 goals in the 1989-90 season made him Europe's highest goalscorer. But he also created a reputation as a loose cannon, receiving a brief suspension from football for his involvement in a fight during the 1985 Bulgarian Cup.

In 1990, he moved to Barcelona. He soon became a fan favorite as Barça enjoyed one of their most successful periods, winning five La Liga titles (including four straight from 1991-94) and the 1992 European Cup. Guiding Bulgaria to the third-place playoff match at the 1994 World Cup, he contributed six goals to finish as the tournament's joint top scorer. He won the Ballon d'Or that year as Europe's greatest player.

But his hot temper followed him to Barcelona and, in his first season there, he received another brief suspension for stamping on a referee's foot. He eventually left Barça in 1995 and started a wandering journey that included stays with Parma (1995-96), Barcelona again (1996-98), CSKA Sofia again (1998), Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr (1998), and J-League side Kashiwa Reysol (1998-99).

In 2000, he moved to the United States to play two season with the Chicago Fire and one, his last, with DC United. During that last season, he again stirred up controversy by breaking the leg of a player from American University during a scrimmage with DC United, receiving a suspension and $2,000 fine.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

7 February 1891 - The Wins Were Few And Far Between

On 7 February 1891, Ireland beat Wales 7-2 to record only their second-ever victory--almost four years after the first one.

The Irish FA was founded in 1880 and fielded their first side in 1882, making them the fourth country to produce a national team (after England, Scotland, and Wales). That first match did not augur good things, however, as Ireland were on the wrong end of a 13-0 pounding by England. They finally got their very first victory in March 1887, beating Wales 4-1.

By 1891, Ireland had returned to form, losing 11 consecutive matches (including a crushing 11-0 defeat to Wales in 1888). The last two defeats in that run of futility came in the 1891 British Home Championship, where the Irish lost a close 2-1 decision to Scotland, then fell to England 6-1. So there was little reason for optimism other than the fact that Wales had performed almost as poorly, suffering their own losses to Scotland (4-3) and England (6-1).

On the day, however, Ireland overwhelmed the visiting Welsh team with a four goals from forward Olphie Stanfield en route to a dominant 7-2 victory. The Irish team that day included Ulster half-back Jack Reynolds (pictured), whose play attracted the attention of West Brom. After moving to the Hawthorns later that year, Reynolds revealed that he had been born in England. He subsequently switched to the English national team and remains the only person to play for both nations.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

6 February 1965 - He Brought A Lot Of Experience To The Team

On 6 February 1965, Sir Stanley Matthews made the last of his 704 English league appearances. He was 50 years old.

A talented outside right forward known equally for his sportsmanship and dedication to fitness, Matthews played in England for an incredible 30 seasons. He spent the first 11 of them with Stoke City, joining the Potters in 1931 when they were in the Second Division and helping lead them to promotion in 1933. In 1947, at the age of 32, he moved to Blackpool for a fee of £11,500.

There, partnered with center forward Stan Mortensen, he advanced to the 1948 FA Cup Final, but lost. After finishing as runners-up again in 1951, they finally claimed the Cup in 1953 with a dramatic 4-3 win over Bolton in a match that has been dubbed "the Matthews Final" (even though Mortensen scored three of Blackpool's goals).

In 1961, the then-46 year old Matthews returned to Stoke, who had fallen back into the Second Division in his absence. He again helped them earn promotion in 1963, making 31 appearances that year. But age began to take its toll at last and he was reduced to 9 appearances in 1963-64 and had not played at all in the 1964-65 season until called upon for the match against Fulham on 6 February.

He took the field at 50 years old--the oldest player to appear in the English top flight--and lifted Stoke to a 3-1 victory. It was his only appearance of the season, after which he became the manager of Maltese side Hibernians.

Friday, February 5, 2016

5 February 1985 - Silver Polish Makes A Good Present

On 5 February 1985, three-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was born in Funchal, Portugal. 

A right winger, Ronaldo started his professional career in 2002 with Lisbon's Sporting CP. Only 16, he broke into the first team that year, making a total of 31 appearances and scoring 5 goals. In a friendly against Manchester United in the summer of 2003, he so impressed the opposing player that they urged manager Alex Ferguson to sign him. Ferguson complied, bringing Ronaldo to Manchester for £12.24 million.

Although frequently criticized by opposing fans and the media for simulation, Ronaldo blossomed at United, making 40 appearances in his first season as United lifted the FA Cup. More silverware followed, including three straight league titles (2007, 2008, 2009) and the UEFA Champions League trophy (2008). In the double-winning 2007-08 season, he scored a career-best 41 goals in all competitions and won both the Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year Award.

In the summer of 2009, he consummated a year-long courtship with Spanish giants Real Madrid, who paid a world-record £80 million to pull him away from United. Since then, he's made 328 appearances for them and scored 343 goals, while winning La Liga in 2012 and the Champions League in 2014. He also won the FIFA Ballon d'Or in 2013 and 2014.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

4 February 1917 - Torralba Reaps An Early Reward

On 4 February 1917, Barcelona hosted their first-ever testimonial match in honor of midfielder Ramón Torralba.

Torralba, nicknamed "la Vella" (the Old One), joined the club in 1913 and became a regular starter by his second season. A holding midfielder, he was partnered with Agustín Sancho and Josep Samitier in what many consider to be Barça's best-ever midfield. Together, they the Copa del Rey five times (1920, 1922, 1925, 1926, 1928), with Torralba retiring after the last one.

Testimonial matches are ways for clubs to raise money to reward highly-regarded players. Torralba was still an active player for his 1917 testimonial match, played against fellow Barcelona side Terrassa. Barça won, 6-2.

Torralba received a second testimonial upon his retirement in 1928, having played 475 matches for the team.