Rejected Stones

This season’s highly successful Bayern Munich team has two foreign players, late developers, carrying all before them in attack. The big prolific centre forward Luca Tony spent years in obscurity before at last breaking through with a profusion of goals, many of them powerfully headed, writes Brian Glanville.

Stones that the builder rejected, you might call the likes in major football of Didier Drogba, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Franck Ribery, Marco Borriello. Alluding to Biblical quotation, “The stone that the builder rejected has become the head of the corner.” At a time when, Heaven help us, Europe’s leading clubs are deploying under 9 years old teams, with all the concomitant pressures and aching disappointments these and their like can bring, it is surely bo th salutary and encouraging to find players who may initially have failed to make the grade, but persisted with minor clubs, till they at last broke through to fame, fortune and success.

Just now, it seems strange to think that Didier Drogba is very much one of them. A mighty figure in the Chelsea team — though he seems determined to leave Stamford Bridge in the near future — star turn in the Ivory Coast’s impressive team, a veritable power house of a striker who has pace, courage and control to add to his physical advantages, formidable alike in the air and with his fierce right foot, on the ground, Drogba’s ascent to the top was anything but easy.

Born in the Ivory Coast, he moved to France with his family at the age of 5, and 10 years later actually gave up football for a time before changing his mind and returning to the game after an inactive year. Turning professional with the modest Le Mans club, he scored no more than a dozen goals in 64 games in four seasons. Next came Guingamp, hardly one of the French football aristocracy, but Drogba dramatically improved there, went to Marseille, where for a second consecutive season he was third among top division goal scorers; and so to Stamford Bridge and his present prestige.

His team-mate, that mobile and elegant Portuguese international centre back, Ricardo Carvalho, was another who overcame a difficult start in the game. He was a member of the Porto youth school, but it seemed that he would not progress to the first team. Indeed, he drifted to Victoria FC Setubal, then to Alverca Futebol, till he returned to Porto, where Jose Mourinho coached him into being the commanding player he became. A major force in their winning of the European Cup in season 2003-04, when he never missed a game, an automotic choice for Portugal.

Which brings us by natural progression to the career of Deco, another crucial member of that Porto European Cup winning team, as what might be known as a classical inside forward, constructive, quick witted, a scorer of some significant goals. Not least the one he got for Portugal, his adopted country, against his native Brazil in his first international match, in March 2003.

And yet, when Anderson Luis de Souza, to give him his proper name, arrived in Portugal as an unknown 20-year-old in 1997, it was to play, as once did Carvalho, for humble Alverca’s reserves in mere regional football. Thence to another hardly fashionable club in Salgueros, but transformation was in hand. In 1999 he joined Jose Mourinho’s Porto and in no time was a star. Indeed, a star of stars in Porto’s victorious European Cup Final against Monaco, when he dictated much of the game and was voted man of the match. Earlier, in 2004, he’d already been voted Europe’s most valuable player. Then on to Barcelona and both fame and wealth. Not bad for a footballer who arrived from Brazil as a mere nonentity.

This season’s highly successful Bayern Munich team has two foreign players, late developers, carrying all before them in attack. The big prolific centre forward Luca Tony spent years in obscurity before at last breaking through with a profusion of goals, many of them powerfully headed. Born near Modena and discarded by the local club after two unproductive seasons in division C1, he got just three games and a single goal for Empoli in Serie B. Then it was back to C1 for a couple of seasons before at last making his mark in Serie B with Trevico.

At last, in 2000, he reached Serie A with Vicenza, moving on to a couple of seasons in A with Brescia. The second brought him just two goals in 16 games. But the floodgates opened when he moved South to Sicily and Palermo. His avalanche of goals took them into Serie A and, since then, he has flourished with Fiorentina, won a World Cup medal in 2006 and is now at Bayern.

So is the electrically effective right winger Franck Ribery, who played so well for France in that World Cup. Joining Bayern from Marseille this season, he has become far and away the club’s most popular player.

Yet he had his early struggles. Born in Boulognesurmer, he joined Lille as a boy, but found himself back playing for his little local club. On from there to Ales, of modest fame, Brest and Vetz, before in 2005 spending six months in Istanbul, successfully, with Galatasaray. Thence to Marseille, international caps; and Bayern.

Yet it is surely Italy which hearteningly produces the most, if one may call them such, “second time around” players. Not long ago, Chelsea fans voted Gianfranco Zola their best player of all time. Yet for years he was mired in the obscurity of lesser football in his native Sardinia. He was all of 23 when the general manager of C1’s Torres persuaded Napoli to give him a chance: when in the words of one newspaper, he was not just a mysterious object but “a very mysterious object.” But Diego Maradona took him under his wing and he blossomed into a major star, later joining Parma; and Chelsea. Often capped by Italy.

Now there is an actual Neapolitan, the striker, Marco Borriello.

On loan this season from Milan to unfashionable Genoa, by April he’d scored a remarkable 18 goals. How Milan, who have so often struggled to score this season, must regret letting him slip away.

Yet how much scope has he had at San Siro? In 2002, they gave him only three games in A before lending him, goalless, to Empoli. Four games and still no Serie A goals in season 2003/04. And when he had his third Milan spell in 2006/7, he did get one goal; in just nine games. So this season to Genoa, and opportunist triumphs with foot and head, plus caps for Italy.

He began with Treviso who gave him no Serie B games in his first two seasons there. After C2 obscurity at Triestina, Treviso now in C1, gave him 27 games which brought 10 goals. He even caught up with them again in January 2006, by which time they were in A; five goals in 20 games. He also had Serie A spells with Empoli (4 games!) Reggina, 2 goals in 30 games, and Sampdoria. All of whom now must fervently wish that they had kept him.

In March, 2007, when briefly back with Milan, he was suspended for four months after it was found he had been given cortisone.

All a bit strange, since for so many years team doctors, especially in England, were forever pumping cortisone into injured players, for the short term advantage of getting them back on the field, regardless of the fearful damage it could do them in the future, wrecking their physical lives.