In an interview with Iain MacIntosh, venerable ex-commentator Clive Punnington-Berkshire recalls the great Sports Illustrated Cup and the men and women who lost their dignity competing for it.
Ha ha! Yes, I remember it well. The Sports Illustrated Cup! The greatest players the world has ever seen deployed into the greatest teams ever seen and managed by the grea- ... well, some very good ... erm ... well, they were managed by some journalists. It was as exciting a time as I can recall in all my years of commentating. The teams, as you'll doubtless know, were selected over a period of many months in a great superdraft then brought to the arena for an 18-game season and an answer to that eternal question; just how easy is it for a journalist to screw up the unscrewupable?
The answer was, very easy. Especially for poor Iain MacIntosh. I don't think he ever entirely understood the idea of a superdraft, to be terribly honest with you. Welded to his British ideals of building from the back, he snatched up Lev Yashin and Paolo Maldini while everybody else was fighting over Pele and Diego Maradona. It didn't help that poor Yashin seemed inconsolably anxious during every game, a problem that was certainly a factor in MacIntosh's 0-8 opening day defeat to Steve Davis' runaway juggernaut of Galaticos. Oh, now there was a team. Zinedine Zidane, Stanley Matthews and Marco van Basten with fully functioning ankles. They were the early leaders, the magicians with the enchanting football. But when it came to the run-in, my word, they would be found wanting.
MacIntosh was not alone in his despair. Raphael Honigstein seemed to lose the will to live in those opening sorties as his team, led by Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, flattered to deceive. Accompanied by a tournament official who painstakingly taught him which button did what, the young German suffered three consecutive defeats and was heard to emit a very gentle sob during an awkward postmatch news conference. I feared for him, I feared for his sanity. But my goodness me, wasn't I wrong to doubt him?
"I took Cristiano aside after those early games," Honigstein told me some time afterward. "and I aggressively told him that I was very disappointed with him, just like the tournament official showed me. He looked at me with those big bovine eyes and something caught light inside him. You know, you can try all the fancy methods you like, but there really is no substitute for repeatedly slapping someone on the end of the nose with a rolled-up magazine while shouting at them at the top of your voice. From that moment on, we were reborn."
Early challenges for the title came from Ben Lyttleton, who made Diego Maradona the shiniest bauble on his Christmas tree formation and Rob Smyth, for whom Gerd Muller would finish joint top goal scorer. Grant Wahl's side boasted the actual Pele, as opposed to MacIntosh's wild-card acquisition of Abedi Pele, but in the end they were saved by a series of phenomenal performances from Peter Schmeichel. Without that Great Dane, the American would surely have perished at the bottom of the table. The goals of Just Fontaine helped Georgina Turner to mid-table respectability.
There had been great fear and trepidation at the arrival of Jonathan Wilson, and indeed at the arrival of three lorry-loads of chalkboards, magnetic counters and yellow notepads. We breakfasted together on the first morning and I could only stand in awe as he told me over croissants of his bold plans for a 'false 6', an asymmetric back line and an inverted goalkeeper. Unfortunately, his players were rather less enamored with his ideas.
"I just couldn't stop Cruyff from smoking," Wilson told me after one typically unsuccessful encounter. "I don't mind if he has a puff after the game, or even at halftime, but he was pushing his luck by lighting up while he prepared to take a free-kick."
"And all that after those captaincy issues!" he raged, "I lost the support of the squad for that man! I told Cruyff that he was the skipper without realizing that one of the tournament officials had already given the armband to Bryan Robson. When I arrived, he was showing it off to all of his friends. I insisted that Cruyff was my man and that he'd have to hand the armband back and that was it. Robson never spoke to me again."
Wilson would win the first game, brushing aside Jen Chang's George Best/Franco Baresi/Gabriel Batistuta axis, but he himself would never be victorious again. Even MacIntosh beat him.
Few fared better, however, than the gregarious Gabrielle Marcotti whose catchphrase, "This is bulls**t!" would be the soundtrack to the tournament. Alfredo di Stefano and Francisco Gento, reunited once again, worked to great effect while Eusebio hit the back of the net at the rate of almost a goal every game. While Marcotti prowled the technical area berating tournament officials, opposition players, his own players, passing children and, on one occasion, a small cloud, his team offered up the most impressive displays of the opening exchanges.
Of course, one thing that was not impressive was the time-keeping. With the hapless tournament officials forced to deal with a stream of complaints from managers, time began to run away and the decision was taken to install assistants for the bulk of the games in the middle and toward the end of the season.
"Now, you promise you'll be careful with my team, won't you?" implored MacIntosh as he handed his clipboard to Roberto Mancini. "I know that they're not as good as the other teams, and that's my fault, but we've beaten Chang, we've beaten Wilson and there's no reason we can't cling on to midtable like a limpet. Yes, we've just been walloped by a resurgent Rafa Honigstein, but I'm sure that's just a blip. You'll keep them safe, yes?"
"Ha ha ha!" said Mancini.
"Is that a 'yes'?" asked MacIntosh.
Mancini smiled, shrugged and walked away whistling. Looking back, MacIntosh should probably have taken that as a warning.
Wilson was replaced by Louis van Gaal, Marcotti by Marcelo Lippi, Honigstein by Arsene Wenger. One by one, the legends stepped into the dugout, charged with the responsibility of guiding these legenda- ... top quali- ... er ... these journalists' teams to glory. Some with more success than others.
For Honigstein, this was the beginning of an unstoppable run to the title. Wenger evoked memories of Arsenal's 1998 title win as the victories piled up and the early leaders were reeled in. One by one, their rivals came to fight, and one by one they left battered, bruised and beaten. Putting Messi and Ronaldo on the same team was a masterstroke from Honigstein. They created a problem that no opposing manager could solve. Having lost four of the first five games, Honigstein's team would lose just once in the remainder of the season. But the harmony shared between the young German and his French assistant would not last. Wenger's insistence that Honigstein should recruit two 14 year-old wingers from Lapland and a 12 year-old Madagascan goalkeeper caused a rift that could not be repaired and they went their separate ways after the tournament.
Smyth and Davis's side kept up their good form, holding their positions in the top four with Honigstein and Marcotti, and the rest of the field was left behind. Chang was not so fortunate. The arrival of Rafa Benitez in his dugout was followed by a terrifying slump in form that left the team reliant on the incompetence of others for respectability. Benitez acknowledged the poor form but pointed to the fact that his team, when you looked at the facts, had actually broken even in their transfer dealings. And that was a fact. Chang, rather kindly, decided not to remind him that transfers weren't actually allowed in this tournament.
It could have been worse. When MacIntosh returned to his office with two games to go, the poor man found it empty, save for a frantically scribbled note that read simply, "Oops. RM x"
He called me, of course. They always did. "What's happened?" MacIntosh asked.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, young man," I replied. "Roberto lost every single one of your games and you've been sacked."
MacIntosh took the news well, if by 'well' you mean starting a fire in the clubhouse, tearing off all of his clothes and writing angry messages upon the wall in his own blood.
Wilson was not, it has to be said, in much happier a frame of mind. Though Van Gaal had secured him enough points to make sure of ninth, by the time the penultimate game rolled round, Wilson's only role was that of obstacle, the final barrier preventing Honigstein from lifting the trophy. It was a role he took with immense seriousness. We shared a drink the night before the game, as I often did with the managers of the time. I sat silently on his Chesterfield as he bent over his desk, tongue jutting out of the corner of his mouth, feverishly scribbling away on his notepad. Sometimes he would stop and growl with displeasure, tearing his work up and hurling it into the air. At 3 a.m., he turned to me with a tired smile.
"I've got it!" he said. "The problem, you see, is Shevchenko. He's too central. By recalibrating his runs, enabling him to apply pressure on the gap between the fullback and the center-back, or even directly at the fullback, he can force his way through the point of least resistance, opening up an entirely new front! This is how we're going to defeat Honigstein!"
Honigstein went on to win 5-0. As his players celebrated around him, the victorious manager simply smiled in quiet satisfaction.
"Ronaldo, Rooney, Messi. Football is no country for old men."
And he was right. Youth won out over experience, pace over prestige and the stars of the modern era ran rampant through this tournament.
Elsewhere on that final day, Smyth's side did enough to finish second while Marcotti's defeat handed third place to Davis. The Italian took the result in his stride saying only, "what the f**k? Seriously? What the f**k?!" and, "this is bulls**t!" before walking out of the news conference and turning over a police van.
But the day belonged to Honigstein and how grateful he was for his success. "I thought the job was beyond me at first," he grinned. "I wondered how I would control so many big name players. I wondered how I would deal with their egos. It turned out that I could just bellow at them in the dressing room and that seemed to do the trick."
And thus, the tournament drew to a close and we, as followers of this chaos, as fans of this farce, were forced to reflect one more time upon that old Lineker adage that, "football is a simple game where 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end of the day, the Germans win."
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