As we prepare for the 14th edition of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, The Footy Pie has gone on a mission to collect snippets from some of the best profiles, reports and tidbits about the tournament. In the week preceding opening night on June 8, we will post three snippets per day from journalists, players and coaches. Despite an injury, England’s Scott Parker is eager to make his Euro debut. Anthony Lopopolo tells his story.
Scott Parker, England
He is the oldest in body and yet the youngest in heart and mind, a leader on a squad of precocious and veteran talent and a newcomer all together. The trip to Donetsk, Ukraine for a game against France on June 11 is the first for England in the final stage of the European Championships in eight years. But it is also the first journey to such a major tournament for Scott Parker, the Tottenham Hotspur skipper whose career has not followed the trajectory of your average footballer. He has bounced around, much like a pinball, until finally hitting a new high score this year.
He is not the oldest on the 23-man English squad, a year behind Steven Gerrard, who eventually, after much controversy, claimed the captaincy from Parker. Nor is Parker a recurrent member of the Three Lions. Like a debutant, he has played his way into the English setup, back when Fabio Capello still handled the coaching reins, always with something to prove.
At 31, he has been one of the longest tryouts you could imagine. He told the Guardian: “Obviously, it is clear to see there are a lot of young players, very good players, coming in. People talk about my age, but you could probably include me in that. I haven’t got a lot of experience at international level. I am one of the oldest in the squad, but I am new to this as well and have not been to a big, big tournament. But this is an evolving England team.”
The youth of England is one of its more remarkable points heading into the Euro. They are the third-youngest group in the tournament — with six players at 23 or under and only behind juggernaut Germany and precocious Poland in average age — and to a certain extent, age be damned, Parker is part of the team’s injection of youthful exuberance and naivety. Perhaps the only positive thing England have going for them, their average age of 26 is something of a representation of change from a supposed golden generation gone bronze, that came up short and never past the quarterfinals in the previous five World Cups, that failed to even qualify for the 2008 Euro. They are entering with a few limps, with three starters out indefinitely — Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill have all been ruled out of the competition — and with a manager in Roy Hodgson that snubbed Rio Ferdinand to keep the John Terry controversy, in which he allegedly racially abused Ferdinand’s brother on the pitch, at bay.
In the middle of England’s firestorm is Parker, a living paradox, “a young head on old shoulders,” Dominic Fifield of the Guardian writes last October. Emotionally and spiritually, there is no more tried, true and tested player than Parker. His long-term battle with adversity has fuelled his mission to break into England’s otherwise entitled ensemble of recent years.
Parker made his international debut in 2003, but since then he has only started for his country 10 times, the majority of his appearances coming in the late part of 2011 and end of England’s European qualifying campaign. He started playing professionally with Charlton Athletic, what some would indeed call a small club in the second division of English football, and when a big club, in this case in the form of Chelsea, came knocking on his door in 2003, Parker’s story appeared to rise like so many promising footballers.
But his stint with the Blues went unfulfilled. Claude Makelele stole Parker’s spot as a defensive midfielder. Surplus to requirements, he was shipped to Newcastle, a second Premier League destination, but all of a sudden the trajectory of his career, which looked to be exponentially increasing, defied the mathematics of early prognostications and hit a rough patch. In over four years following his time at Charlton, he collected just four caps — all while with different clubs — with the national team. Through his English adventure, he had not quite been nomadic, but simply lost. It would just take him longer than expected, like a plane delayed, to reach his destination.
Sam Allardyce, former manager of Newscastle, sold the midfielder in 2006 “before he’d really seen me play” Parker says. “He obviously didn’t fancy me.” Three successful seasons with West Ham United led to his appointment as club captain, a Football Writers’ Association player of the year award in 2011 and, yes, a return to the international scene, indeed a foreign place for him. Against Denmark in a friendly in February 2011, Parker experienced his first win with England, a 2-1 result, and got a reward for his play at Upton Park with the Hammers. Parker played 45 minutes, the equivalent of tipping his toes in international waters, and felt like he had climbed back up a ladder that had collapsed on him so many times before. But he is a man of character, a trait England severely lacked without him previously, and his return was the product of a fighting spirit that never died.
After the match, he told the Guardian: “When you are playing well for your club — and over the last few years I feel I’ve been putting in good performances — I felt it was time I was rewarded. I got into the squad for the World Cup but didn’t make the final squad, and I’ve been in and out and never really been given a chance. I’m in a position where, if I get an opportunity, I have to take it. Plain and simple.”
Plain and simple. Parker may not have always had the confidence, but he had the awareness of a hunter to take the shot when the right time came. A reject of England’s 2010 World Cup squad, Parker could have gone down with a fatal blow to his international career. But even if the door seemed locked, keys forever gone, he wouldn’t stop banging.
He recounts his trials to the Guardian: “I thought my chance had gone when I didn’t get to South Africa [in 2010]. I went to the pre-World Cup get-together and thought I’d done pretty well, but having not been involved in the qualifiers I knew the manager had his team. After that I thought it would be difficult breaking back in under Capello. I just had to get my head down, keep working, and thankfully it has turned around. I got my chance.”
Did things just begin to click inside of Parker? A little bit of stability at home made way for more balanced play on the field, he tells Henry Winter of The Telegraph.
As if his equilibrium before had been off-kilter, Parker found harmony in his life: “I’m happy and settled outside football. My family is settled and the kids are at school. I don’t have to worry about anything. So in the last two years my football has come on massively. I’ve taken a lot more in terms of stature and confidence in the way I’m playing. Six months ago I was struggling to get into the England squad. It’s brilliant now.”
Briefly, under the temporary tenure of Stuart Pearce after the resignation of Capello, Parker seemed destined to wear the captain’s armband for the foreseeable future. Many found Pearce’s decision to hand Parker, a fringe player for most of his life, such a responsibility a disgrace in the face of Gerrard, whose two World Cup and European Championships showings had to count for something, fans and players alike, like Joey Barton, screamed in outrage. But after Pearce made Parker captain for a friendly against Holland in February, roughly 63% of readers of the Guardian approved of his appointment. He no longer holds the armband, but his play is finally valued at a high level after years at clubs where it had not been.
Dominic Fifield of the Guardian explains Parker’s role in England: “It is a side in which he increasingly appears integral. After a stop-start existence, with eight caps accrued over eight years, Parker is starting to feel as if he belongs. Successive England managers had deemed the midfielder to lack the zip, and sense of discipline in his defending, to influence international contests. His failure to make the cut for the World Cup squad in 2010 had felt like the final rejection. Yet the fact that he had made the provisional training camp having not featured previously under Capello actually represented a sign of progress. These days, the current footballer of the year is unrecognisable from the £10m midfielder whose impact was so negligible during a brief spell at Chelsea.”
In many ways, Parker is an amalgamation of what is right with England’s squad at the moment. Unlike previous players, he doesn’t bear the burden of baggage, of unfulfilled promises, of a generation gone badly.
Once a flaky player, Parker’s now the rock on which England builds their midfield. He holds everything together, typically in tandem with Gerrard. But he had one more fight to partake in: one against time and fitness. A groin problem kept him out of Tottenham’s last four games of the season and in serious doubt of making the biggest trip of his life. Regaining full match fitness by England’s first match against France is Parker’s first challenge — as if he hadn’t had any before.
Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Holland
Klaas Jan Huntelaar had grass in his mouth. Dazed, he remained frozen on the ground, eyes nearly shut, mouth agape, hands outstretched. He had scored, but this was no celebration. After Dirk Kuyt supplied a cross from the right wing of an onrushing Dutch attack against England in a friendly in March, Huntelaar leaped and met the ball, which soared above the head of goalkeeper Joe Hart and into the net. But the Dutchman also clashed heads with defender Chris Smalling, who also went down.
Huntelaar recounted his experienced to reporters the day after: “I was so eager, I ate the grass. When I cough I feel my brain is still shaking. I have a headache, swollen and blue nose and a concussion. It was quite a blow. I did not know that I had gone off the field. And certainly not that I quarreled with the doctor about whether or not to play. That was irresponsible.”
But he fought. On the touchline, holding a sponge to his bloodied nose, he argued and flung his arms in disgust at coach Bert van Marwijk and team doctors. In a friendly, an apparently meaningless game in the heart of his most prolific season of his career, no less.
For most of his career, Huntelaar had fallen through the cracks. The 28-year-old was a misfit at Real Madrid and AC Milan, pushed into unfavourable roles on the wings and cast as dispensable. But at German Bundesliga club FC Schalke 04, he has exploded onto the European scene in every competition in which he has played. He scored 47 goals for club and country in the 2011-12 season. He was the leading scorer in Euro qualifying with 12 goals. In the Europa League, he averaged a goal every 79 minutes. Behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Huntelaar was the third-best poacher on the European continent.
But what separates him from Europe’s troupe of scoring leaders are not statistics. He is the reincarnation of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Marco van Basten, unlike compatriot Robin Van Persie, ruthless and fearless in the face of goal, and perhaps the most dangerous man in the penalty box anywhere at any moment. Van Persie may be a player of finesse and play-making ability, he may be slotted as a striker, but Huntelaar is Holland’s Miroslav Klose, a player who thrives in the jersey of his country. With 31 goals after his initial 50 games with Holland, he is closing in on Patrick Kluivert’s record of 40 goals for the Oranje.
He has competed with van Persie for the centre forward position, in which Huntelaar flourishes. Just like the majority of his club career at Madrid and Milan, it has not been gifted to him so easily. Holland is very much loaded with attacking options this year, and the competition up front between the two Dutchman, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart is an example of van Marwijk’s obligation to depart from his much-maligned conservatism and rugged, antagonistic play at the 2010 World Cup, in which “the Dutch treated a billion spectators to a horror show of aggression and misanthropy,” writes David Winter in FourFourTwo magazine, and emphasize the “traditional exhibition of intelligence and geometric beauty” about earlier Dutch sides.
Huntelaar is that intelligent footballer who may lack technical ability, writes ESPN commentator Robbie Mustoe, but has the predatory instincts to find the “best place to position himself in order to score goals.” Still, an 11/4 shot to lead Holland in goal scoring — inferior to van Persie’s projected 2/1 chance — Huntelaar has not received the respect and acclaim such a hot player should. He is one of the biggest aerial threats in the game. And after suffering two concussions, he has shown his willingness — even if unadvised by doctors — to sacrifice himself for the Dutch cause.
Roman Shirokov, Russia
Compliments never did Roman Shirokov any good. “One day,” Russian coach Dick Advocaat told media as coach of Zenit St. Petersburg in 2008, “Shirokov could become the best defender in the country.” That wasn’t good enough for the 30-year-old. “I don’t want to be a defender,” Shirokov said in response. “I hope to become the best Russian midfielder.” As Russia heads into the European Championships, he is. But it’s taken him a while to get there.
Shirokov never liked to obey authority. Ivan Kalashnikov, deputy editor at sports.ru, writes in The Guardian about the Russian’s volatility and how, despite his continued carelessness toward the well-being of his career, he survived crises after crises: “Shirokov was born in Dedovsk, about 40 kilometres west of Moscow, and was part of the CSKA Moscow youth academy when the first incident of his action-packed career happened. He had been loaned out to Torpedo-ZIL but one day he went to a barbecue with his friends — and did not return for two months. Later, in an attempt to cover his ill-discipline he made up the story about breaking a leg. When the truth was discovered, Shirokov was sent back to the army club — to actually serve in the army rather than play football. He was still training with the reserves but his main duties included digging trenches and painting walls in red and blue, CSKA’s club colours.
“The experience did not change him. When he was playing for non-league Istra, a team from a small town outside Moscow, not far from his native Dedovsk, he stayed out late drinking and gambling.”
After toiling in the lower divisions of Russian football, Shirokov made his way back to the Premier League after Advocaat, coaching Zenit, took a chance on the troublemaker and handed him a regular role in central defence. With the Shirokov, a natural midfielder, starring in his newly adapted position, Zenit went on to win the 2008 UEFA Cup. His play secured himself a spot in the Russian squad for Euro 2008, but a subsequently poor opening performance against Spain in a 4-1 group-stage loss, in which Shirokov was responsible for the majority of Russia’s errors in defence, led to his benching, public condemnation back home and expulsion from the international squad.
This season, though, he rediscovered the position for which he strove to be the best: as a midfielder. Still playing for Zenit, he led the team in scoring in the Champions League with five goals and helped usher them to a Round of 16 appearance for the first time in club history against Benfica. He scored seven goals, too, in the Premier League, which Zenit, now under coach Luciano Spaletti, won. Like the year before the previous Euro, he is earning plaudits for his play once again. “He will turn 31 four days after the final,” Jonathan Wilson writes for Sports Illustrated, “but this has arguably been his best season for Zenit.” Proving he can contribute at the highest level, to boot, Shirokov scored two goals against Italy last week in a 3-0 friendly win in Switzerland.
In Poland and Ukraine, Shirokov reunites with his former coach in Advocaat. He returns to the tournament that sidetracked his career an umpteenth time. He not only has a chance to make up for a disappointing Euro 2008, but assert himself as Russia’s best midfielder for certain — and, perhaps, one of the best in Europe.
Anthony Lopopolo is an Italian-Canadian freelance sportswriter and an unabashed apologist for all things Serie A. He has written for such publications as The National newspaper and the National Post, and has also appeared on Canadian national radio to talk footy. You can follow him on Twitter or send him an email.
|Part 1: Trapattoni, Schweinsteiger, Xavi|Part 2: Ronaldo, Ribéry Pirlo|Part 3: Parker, Huntelaar, Shirokov|Part 4: Ibrahimović, Modrić, Čech|Part 5: Shevchenko, Szczęsny, Eriksen, Papadopoulos, Predictions|