If anyone had suggested in May 2013, when Ricardo Quaresma was released by Al Ahli just four months into his hugely disappointing spell in the UAE, that less than two years later he would star in the Champions League quarter-finals, they would have been laughed at. Quaresma’s career seemed to be in ruins. No club would sign an ageing player whose physical fitness and mental stability were very much uncertain.
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Indeed, he spent half a season without a team, and was totally forgotten when Porto suddenly decided to give him a chance – the very last chance to salvage at least a tiny part of his divine potential. That was a huge gamble, and it has paid off handsomely. At the age of 31, Quaresma is enjoying a superb spell, which was highlighted by the brace he scored just ten minutes into Porto’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Bayern Munich, inspiring the Dragons to a 3-1 win. On Tuesday he arrives to Allianz Arena, hoping to finish off the job.
Quaresma will always be remembered as a classic case of “what could have been”. When promoted from the famous Alcochete academy to Sporting Lisbon’s first team at the tender age of 17, he was touted as the next big thing in European football, the natural heir to Luis Figo. Blessed with incredible ball control and lightning speed, he was unstoppable on the wing, and played a significant role as the Lions won the league title in 2002, the club’s last triumph.
At the time, Cristiano Ronaldo, 16 months younger than Ricardo, was also taking his first steps – though Quaresma was considered by most of the pundits to be the more talented of the duo. In the summer of 2003, Barcelona and Manchester United considered signing both, and at one stage, Quaresma was quite close to moving to Old Trafford. He would likely have developed very differently had that happened, but in the end he headed for Camp Nou, with Sir Alex Ferguson opting for Cristiano.
While Ronaldo was ready for the big move mentally, proving himself step by step and gradually developing into superstar, Quaresma assumed that his raw natural talent will be enough to make him a world beater. Frank Rijkaard thought differently, and by the end of his first season Quaresma, disappointed with the amount of playing time, issued an incredible ultimatum, saying that he would never play under the Dutchman again. Naturally, Barca immediately offloaded him to Porto as part of the deal that sent Deco to Catalonia.
That attitude proved to be Quaresma’s downfall everywhere he went outside of his homeland. Jose Mourinho was certain that he would be able to tame his compatriot and convinced Inter to pay more than Dhs70 million (€18m) for his services upon arriving to San Siro in the summer of 2008. The Special One failed miserably, and Quaresma barely played for him.
In retrospect, the winger claimed that moving to Italy was his biggest mistake. “My happiness and self confidence were taken away from me. I felt on the margins of the squad and woke up crying when I had to attend training sessions,” Ricardo told Publico newspaper in 2010, upon leaving Inter for Besiktas, but he had only himself to blame. His loan spell at Chelsea was so forgettable that few at Stamford Bridge are able to even recall him staying there.
The years at Besiktas were not a total disaster, but Quaresma angered many a team-mate with his arrogance and selfishness. Eventually, he attacked the club’s Portuguese coach Carlos Carvalhal for substituting him. “I brought you here,” he shouted at his compatriot. That wasn’t entirely wrong, by the way, because the club desperately wanted to make Quaresma feel comfortable, but the incident proved to be costly. When the relationship between the winger and the club deteriorated, there were claims by Besiktas executives regarding allegedly extreme behaviour by the Portuguese, which included urinating on training ground staff.
He was released from his contract in late 2012, and in such circumstances an opportunity at Al Ahli was a blessing for him. Unfortunately, even that didn’t work out, and that was expected to be the final straw. Then, seven long months later, Porto entered the scene in January 2014.
The fans didn’t really know what to think. On one hand, Quaresma was brilliant during his four years at Estadio do Dragao, between 2004 and 2008. Nicknamed Harry Potter for his magic, he won three league titles and was voted Player of the Year in 2006, even though that wasn’t enough for Luiz Felipe Scolari to include him in Portugal’s World Cup squad. On the other hand, his potential contribution was extremely questionable, while his influence on the dressing room could potentially be disastrous.
Former Porto star Jaime Magalhaes was highly critical of the move, claiming that Quaresma was finished. However, Laszlo Boloni, the coach who gave the winger his debut at Sporting, was much more positive. “At Dragao, Quaresma will recover again,” he said. Boloni was right.
Crucially, the player himself realised how lucky he was to be given the chance. “I am proud to wear this jersey again, and I'd like to thank the chairman Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa and the coach Paulo Fonseca for believing in me and in my value,” he said ahead of the first training session. Fonseca was impressed: “I am pleased to see Ricardo’s motivation and enthusiasm”. The coach didn’t last in the job himself and was fired in March 2014, but his protégé stayed and produced one great performance after another.
It was Quaresma at his best again – quick, full of imaginative tricks, but most importantly very dedicated to the team. He scored 10 goals in just 24 games, and the level of his play was such that many pundits called for him to be included in the World Cup squad. Paulo Bento decided differently, and paid the price when Portugal were sent packing after the group stage.
"For years, Quaresma believed his magic was fundamental to the teams he represented. Everything had to be done his way. We see a different Quaresma now – a complete player and a team player."
That was a very bright start, but there was room for even more remarkable progress this term. Julen Lopetegui, the new coach who was free to overhaul the squad after the disappointing season, could have discarded Quaresma but decided to give him more responsibilities instead. The Spaniard made it clear that he expectsed the winger to perform in defence as well, and succeeded where Mourinho failed.
In a recent interview with Porto’s official TV channel, Lopetegui claimed that Quaresma it the team’s most improved player, both tactically and mentally, adding: “I feel proud for him”.
Victor Hugo Alvarenga of Maisfutbol wrote: “For years and years, Quaresma believed that his magic was fundamental to the teams he represented. Everything had to be done his way. We see a different Quaresma now – a complete player and a team player. Lopetegui had an important role in this development”.
“Football changes, ideas change, and I had to change,” Quaresma himself said. But who could possibly have believed that this change would happen? How high could he have climbed had it occurred a decade earlier? Could he have been even better than Ronaldo? Now that is impossible, but he is more than happy with what he has.
In 2008, when Porto met Schalke in the last 16 of the Champions League, Quaresma missed a superb chance against Manuel Neuer, and his team eventually lost on penalties. Seven years later, Neuer is a much more established star, but Quaresma beat him this time to double Porto’s lead last week, after stealing the ball from Dante. The winger didn’t lose his head after such a successful start. His new attitude was evident as he covered the whole right wing, equally active offensively and defensively throughout the victory over Bayern.
He is certain to do his utmost for the team on Tuesday as well. Gone are the years of inconsistency. These days, Porto fans know exactly what to expect of him. Given his history, that is a major miracle.
As Yaya Toure reiterated his desire to stay at Manchester City, team-mate Fernando believes the Ivorian and the club’s other much-maligned players will prove their worth.
Toure’s future has been the subject of much conjecture after a season where he and the team have performed below expectations and his agent accused boss Manuel Pellegrini of being “weak”.
With Internazionale interested and Paris Saint-Germain long-term admirers, Toure’s five-year spell at City could end this summer. But the 31-year-old said:
“There have been a lot of things said and a lot of rumours about me, but everyone who knows me – the people who work for the club and the supporters – know that I will continue to fight to the end for this football club.
“It hurts a lot sometimes when your work-rate is questioned, but I will work hard for the team and for the respect of the fans who have always been behind me and I will continue to show my commitment to the team – and I love playing for City.”
And Fernando, who lined up alongside Toure in Sunday’s 2-0 win over West Ham that took the defending champions to within a point of third-placed Manchester United, has hailed his fellow midfielder’s quality. “Yaya, for me, is one of the best players in his position in the world,” he said.
“We see it every day and even though he is a little older now, he still has a lot to offer to this team. I am sure he will continue to do that for us. It makes me happy to play with him.”
Fernando has struggled himself since his summer move from Porto. But he is not concerned – and backed former Porto team-mate Eliaquim Mangala to win over the doubters too after he looked solid against the Hammers.
“It’s always hard when you change teams to adapt to a new style of football,” added Fernando. “But we are now seeing the real Mangala – and you will see his performances get better and better, and he will help the team more and more. My focus is to play football, so anything off the pitch doesn’t enter my head.
“The objective is to get into the best position we can, whether that is first, second or third.”
Meanwhile, David Silva has not suffered a fractured cheekbone after being caught with an elbow by West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate, but will be doubtful for Saturday’s game against Aston Villa.
On October 7, 2001, two months after Stefan Schwarz had called time on his international career with Sweden, a skinny 20-year-old striker claimed an unspectacular first goal for his country – smashing the ball home from all of a yard out against Azerbaijan. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had arrived.
The unspectacular nature of his maiden strike was certainly no indication of the career to come, with back-heels, scissor kicks and panenkas punctuating the 13 seasons that followed as Ibrahimovic’s crowd-pleasing combination of skill and swagger turned him into a true football superstar.
Now one of the most recognisable faces in the game, it could well have developed differently had Ibrahimovic not been nurtured properly by Malmo, his hometown club.
The less showy sibling of Sweden’s capital city Stockholm, what Malmo lacks in glamour it makes up for in grinding out quality footballers. Stefan Schwarz honed his cultured left foot there, winning a league title in 1988 before forging a distinguished career with some of Europe’s biggest clubs including Benfica, Arsenal and Valencia.
The connection to Malmo was always retained and when a teenage forward named Ibrahimovic started making waves at his former club, Schwarz was not alone in taking a keen interest.
“I can remember how everyone was talking about him at Malmo – it was like everyone knew he was unbelievable and something special,” Schwarz recalls to Sport360.
“He was a very talented player, very strong and very aggressive. When you are young you want to show your capacity and make a name for yourself – he certainly did that. He had this reputation, not as a trouble maker but as a very stubborn young kid with lots of testosterone – like many of us were as teenagers.”
Many coaches would have favoured a strong-arm approach to deal with such a self-assured youngster, but Malmo focused instead on fostering Ibrahimovic’s individuality.
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“Sometimes coaches don’t properly understand players, their personalities and characteristics,” Schwarz explains. “If you are presented with a confident young man, many coaches would have an overwhelming desire to discipline. But at Malmo, there were people willing to guide him and show him the way.
“The special players are a little bit different from the others and though many coaches and managers want to treat everyone equal, it doesn’t work all of the time. You have to understand players on a personal level – they are not computers.”
Malmo’s decision not to stifle their sometimes selfish starlet soon began to reap rewards as, in his first full season in 2000, Ibrahimovic fired the club to promotion to the Swedish top-flight with 12 goals in 26 games. It wasn’t long before Europe’s bigger names began to take an interest and a year later, he moved to Ajax. There began Ibrahimovic’s ascent to the very top and, despite missing out on domestic honours with Malmo, he went on to claim 11 league titles in 13 years – taking in spells with Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and, latterly, with PSG.
“Zlatan’s individuality is like he is signature. Every game he expresses his physical ability, his technical ability. He is a great example of how to play without fear.”
Through all the trophies, wonder goals and individual accolades, however, it is Ibrahimovic’s unwillingness to dim his enigmatic personality to the homogeny of modern football that has made him such a popular figure the world over.
“Zlatan has always had plenty of character,” says Schwarz. “It’s a very tough world when you want to be a footballer and if you don’t show attitude and character, even from an early age, then someone will eat you up and take your chance and opportunity. Zlatan was never going to let that happen.
“His individuality is like he is signature. I remember when I played the game, feeling comfortable in that place where you know you can produce and do things on the pitch. We love to be there, we love to show what we can do and express our ability. Every game he expresses his physical ability, his technical ability to the maximum. He is a great example to younger players, how to play without fear.”
Innovation and impetuosity have been Ibrahimovic’s yin and yang, with many comparing the Swede to Eric Cantona due to both his enduring quality and the way he has, to an extent, quelled his temperament over the years. The recent three-match Ligue 1 ban he received for admonishing a referee and the red card against Chelsea in the Champions League show that the fire still burns, but there is no question in Schwarz’s mind that he he is now a cooler character.
“He has had to learn that there is more to football. While we want to do things individually, you can see that when you win titles it’s because you play for the team. Now Zlatan is a real leader on the pitch, too – it’s not just about flair but about helping his team-mates.
“It’s not just scoring goals but harnessing his fantastic vision to create them. He has matured so much from when he started playing. Opponents still try to upset him and provoke him but he has become so much better at handling that situation. He has a very strong, competitive mind.”
That mind is regularly probed by media, searching for the latest soundbite from one of football’s most quotable figures, but what Is Ibrahimovic like away from the camera’s glare.
“On the pitch he is a machine, a winner but off the pitch he is a great guy with a great heart,” Schwarz says. “There are some fantastic stories. Sometimes with the Swedish national team, he will not take the bus after training with his team-mates to go to the hotel. Instead, he will go and speak to local boys watching training, and walk back to the hotel with them.
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“He has two sides, he is very warm-hearted guy who wants to give back to the kids but of course is incredibly competitive too.”
Despite boasting an imperious club football CV, the omission of a Champions League medal from his list of honours remains a glaring one. Cantona lost his motivation after one continental disappointment too many with Manchester United in 1997 – will continued European failure push Zlatan into early retirement? Schwarz can’t see it happening.
“I think he can play a few more years at the highest level. It amazes me the athleticism of someone of his stature. At 1.95m tall and around 100kg, to move that body and be explosive around the pitch for 90 minutes and for many games during the season, and important games, is incredible.
“I think the physical part of the game is not a problem to play a few more years, it’s about the motivation. It would be interesting to see him in the Premier League. It’s more physically demanding, more intense but Zlatan could definitely help some good sides in the Premier League to get even better.
“It seems that the motivation is still there – it has to be with these top, top players – they need the pressure, they need the adrenaline and I think he loves it. Zlatan loves to score goals, he loves to help his team, he loves to win titles; I think we all want to see him play as long as possible.”