Scoring goals is the hardest thing in football, they say. Twenty-goal-a-season strikers are “worth their weight in gold”, and believed to be the magic elixir that will turn any team of also-rans into title contenders.
Clubs have always saved up their birthday money for strikers, but lately the cost of goalscorers is through the roof and into the stratosphere. As much as a striker’s ability, it’s the ego of club owners and pots of ready cash lying around that drives up prices. Yet scarcity is also a factor. Lack of choice leads to clubs fighting over scraps, desperately trying to avoid the loss of face that always comes despite the best efforts of the mandatory “we didn’t want him anyway” PR statement.
Today, high-quality strikers are few and far between. In the late 90s, they were everywhere. This golden age was created by the perfect storm of madcap owners, massive amounts of money coming into the game, and a societal attitude to ‘good times’ that seems completely alien to the world of today – but also by an unprecedented number of genuinely high-quality forwards.
While we could argue forever about the quality of strikers in different eras, be in no doubt that depth of quality peaked in 1999.
May the good times roll
Money was undoubtedly a factor. Cash flowed freely in the 90s, and football was just one of many hogs with their snout in the trough. We wanted music made by arseholes, expensive clothes that tried very hard to look like we weren’t trying hard at all, and our football fast, flashy and fuelled by lager. We wanted more, and Blair kept telling us we could have it. We didn’t know. We didn’t know.
Neither did club owners. Huge numbers of once-successful clubs went to the wall in the early 00s – but for now it was boom time. “They let me sign cheques with a stamp, Marge. A stamp!”
In both the 70s and the 80s, the world record transfer fee was broken three times. In the 90s it was broken nine times. Johan Cruyff cost £922k in 1973, and by 1987 Milan had shelled out £6m for Ruud Gullit. In 1999, Inter paid £32m for Christian Vieri like it was pocket change, amongst a host of other expensive signings.
Yeah, times were good. But while fees inflated, you wouldn’t say money was necessarily being wasted. OK, occasionally it was, but there were simply a lot of wonderful shiny strikers to buy.
Modern strikers: Actually rubbish
If you can bear to look at it, open the transfers tab on your Fantasy Premier League team and look at the list of strikers in today’s top division. Actually look at it. Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata, Alexandre Lacazette, Jamie Vardy… who are these people? In the great history of the game, is this really the best we’ve currently got?
By the summer of 1999, Premier League managers were able to select Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Davor Suker, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli, Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright… …Paulo Di Canio, Benito Carbone, Matt Le Tissier, Kevin Phillips, Darren Huckerby, Robbie Keane…. Sir Alex alone was able to choose from pre-Andrew Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Four strikers, Sir Alex? Four?
But any self-respecting team needed four strikers back then. These days more than two in a squad seems greedy. And all today’s offerings (bar Kane, Aguero perhaps) would have been mere squad players in the Premier League of 18 years ago.
But that was just the Premier League. For it was in Serie A, the 1999-2000 season, where we would truly witness the Golden Age of the Striker. This was a world of excess and gluttony for goals, where a hatful of gunslingers was needed to defeat the sheriffs marshalling the meanest defences in town.
Let’s start with the team who would end the Serie A season as champions, Lazio. With wealthy magnate Sergio Cragnotti in charge and original life-lover Sven Goran Eriksson in the dugout, Lazio had for years been spraying cash around like a broken garden hose – if that hose was also leathered on Stella and had just received a surprise tax rebate. Still, the pursuit of a league title is a powerful drug, so they started the season with a list of strikers that included magic-toed veteran Roberto Mancini, Chilean goal-machine Marcelo Salas, Serie A winner Alen Boksic and Italy international Simone Inzaghi. Good job they had Pavel Nedved supporting from midfield or goals may have been hard to come by. Oh, and just to be sure they would get the title they so desperately wanted, they threw Fabrizio Ravanelli into the mix in January. Ridiculous.
Poor old Juventus had to make do with ‘just’ Pippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Daniel Fonseca and Darko Kovacevic, while Milan soldiered on with past and future Golden Ball winners George Weah and Andriy Shevchenko, Oliver Bierhoff and Maurizio Ganz.
You see everyone had amazing strikers, and lots of them. In Florence, despite getting rid of Edmundo in the summer after he deemed leading the line for his team – then top of the table and missing Gabriel Batistuta through injury – simply not a good enough reason to stop him going back to Brazil for some party-hardy at the Rio Carnival, Fiorentina could offer a recovered and refreshed Batigol support from Abel Balbo, Pedrag Mijatovic and Enrico Chiesa.
But it was at Inter where things got stupid. In what must be the richest pickings any manager has ever enjoyed up front, Inter set about ending their title drought with (ahem): Ronaldo, Christian Vieri, Roberto Baggio, Ivan Zamorano, Alvaro Recoba and a young Adrian Mutu.
Let’s just pause here and think about that group for a moment. You don’t need to be told about how good Ronaldo was*. Two career-defining knee injuries would be just around the corner, but at this point Ronaldo was “O Fenômeno”, the best in the world and possibly the best anyone had ever seen, a blur of power, agility and skill, like a ballerina brought back to life as Robocop.
Then there was Baggio, who hadn’t had the best of times with injuries but was still undeniably Baggio, one of the greatest forwards ever to pull on an Italy shirt with a first touch that could seemingly disrupt the very fabric of time. But what about Zamorano? Forever the bridesmaid with his own unique take on shirt numbering, the Chilean jumped higher and fought harder than any striker in the game, was peerless in the air and lethal with either foot. A shoe-in to any of today’s Premier League first-11s, yet due to his teammates’ ability, one of the most underrated strikers in recent decades.
As for Recoba, well ex-Spurs midfielder Steve Perryman once said Shunsuke Nakamura was so good he could “open a tin of beans with his left foot”; Recoba’s left foot could prepare you a three-course meal, wine you, dine you and slip into something more comfortable. Put it this way: the number of goals Recoba scored directly from corners in his career reached double figures. Only Recoba would do something like this, launching a missile with the casual nature of a man pensively skimming a stone on a lake, on his debut:
Yet to all this Inter decided to add Vieri. A series of high-profile transfers, from Juve to Atletico Madrid to Lazio and now to Inter, had earned him a reputation as something of a transient money-grubber, while his size and ability to bully defenders had him unfairly labelled as a bit of a knock-it-up target man. But make no mistake: Bobo was the business.
And that was Inter in 1999-2000 – a single squad of strikers better than any you could collate from across the whole world today.
Oh and just to complete the picture on the peninsula, Hernan Crespo and Marco Di Vaio were ridiculous at Parma with the help of Ariel Ortega, while Francesco Totti, Vincenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio were available at Roma. Even at lowly Bologna, Giuseppe Signori was still only 31, still using his one-step run-up to slap goals in for Bologna with giddy abandon, aided by Nicola Ventola and Kennet Anderson.
Gone, but not forgotten
In order to avoid creating a crippling sense of longing for the strikers of this golden age, we shouldn’t mention Fernando Morientes, Raul and Nicolas Anelka at Real Madrid, or Barca holding onto Rivaldo, Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen, or that none of these players made the top five of La Liga’s goalscorer list in 1999-2000, where Roy Makaay and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink ran amok.
It would also be plain heartless to point out that as well as Henry and Anelka, France took David Trezeguet, Christophe Dugarry, Youri Djorkaeff and Sylvain Wiltord to Euro 2000.
The turn of the millennium would bring financial ruin to many football clubs, and a gradual regression from the dual-striker system. Today, one-up-top is the norm, and pundits will tell you that the game has changed.
But has it? Would today’s manager, with the pressure to score and be entertaining to market ‘the brand’ as high as it has ever been, really be playing one striker if world-class examples were as common as they were in the 90s? How many of you Football Manager addicts have stuck with one-up-top when, drunk on glory, you’ve bloated your squad with strikers just because you could?
The Golden Age of the Striker is gone, but not forgotten.
*Oh ok. Maybe you did forget. Any excuse to host a Ronaldo video. Enjoy.