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My toughest opponents
You both know it. The presence of ultimate power. He looks at you grinning. That is the most horrible look you know. You hate it, try to fight it but canít deny it. His eyes tell you everything, the truth about superiority. You both know he had the better of you today and there is nothing you can do about it.
We all been there that somebody is simply better than you on a day. Like youíve been another day to someone else. That is just law of sports and life. Often it can also be bit of a judgement call or matter of opinions. You always have some excuses or explanations why it wasnít that bad. Those you can live with. However then there are these times when you undoubtedly know already when the day is not over that you got punkíd. And feel that your opponent knows it too. That is the ultimate power when he looks at you knowing he can do whatever he wants and you ainít stopping him. Denial is not a river in Egypt. You have reached the point where there is no story to tell yourself that would make it look like anything else that it is. That moment is the longest and most humiliating experience in professional athleteís career when you realise that someone has that power over you. Rest of the game you just donít have confidence or pride but you give whatever you have in your locker to minimize the damage. You forget the results, the games, you forget a lot - but not the times when someoneís eyes tell you are on his mercy. They say if you given your best shot on a day, you can still go home proud of your effort even if you get beaten. I say that is rubbish. You go home not as a same man. It is tormenting the deepest soles of you. You are maybe only able to swear for revenge and even convince yourself the other guy must be a horrible person. You never forget the ones who have looked at you that way Ė having the ultimate power over you.
People often ask me who is the best player I have played against, the one that I thought was ďwowĒ. I always want to clarify that best player and hardest opponent are two completely different questions. Not many people have even heard of my toughest opponent - Tommy Svindal Larsen. So I end up saying a more obvious one Zinedine Zidane who is actually only number two in my list. It isnít usually the obvious ones that you find hardest to play against. Some players just donít suit you. Here are the ones that have one day looked at me knowing they had done me on a day.
It is not the worst thing to admit that the best player in the world beat you. You sort of can live with that. Still the way he looks at you at that moment hurts. Young and hungry Zidane was not that bald those days. He was at his peak. And something I have never seen before. He is the only player that I can say that not even once during the game I got close to him. When we walked away from the pitch I thought that maybe I should slide tackle him in the tunnel so I could say at least I got one tackle in today. Instead I congratulated him for having a good game. He knew already. He had everything: technic, speed, strength, vision, balance. I have had an opportunity to play against the best in the world but I have to say this man was out of this world. There is no comparison who is best opponent I have played against. Luckily the score stayed even and I wasnít visibly humiliated, but for me it was a lesson. A month later he scored twice in the World Cup final and I felt much better.
Tommy Svindal Larsen:
Everyone have their demons. Mine is a Norwegian midget. Funnily enough it is not always the worldís best players that dominate you. From all the top playmakers in the world I never got hold of this Norwegian fairly unknown midfielder. Ballack, Figo, Matthaus, Lampard, Veron, Reyes, Del PierroÖ no problems Ė great players but I always look forward to playing against. However, some small Tommy Svindal Larsen I got always beaten by with a margin and didnít fancy playing at all. Football doesnít always make any sense. The ones you think you would struggle against can be easy. And then there is always this one Tommy Svindal Larsen who constantly beats you up. He is not that quick, outstandingly skilful, strong or nothing that you would be scared of. However he is probably the cleverest player Iíve played against and the one that normally outthought me, he always made the choices that killed me. He is my horror movie.
You know a small, quick and tricky player that always challenges you for one on one? Iím pretty sure everyone knows the type. You know who is Ognejovic? Me neither. I had to check him up afterwards, though, because he tormented me and my Finnish national team colleague at UEFA cup game against Red Star Beograd back in 1997. Nobody has probably ever heard of him but Iím still waking up with cold sweat because of him. He tribbled me, waited for me to recover just to tribble me again, he was showboating all over us and we couldnít get even near him. I had a yellow card already so couldnít even try to make the game more physical. Both me and my team mate got subbed at half time. We should have probably gone way before. We still talk about him time to time. I tried to look him up from the internet a while ago to find out what happened to his career Ė he must play for Real Madrid or something. Didnít find anything, seems like he never existed. Iíll remember him as long as I live.
What makes playing against him so hard is that you sort of see him and think you have control. Half a second later heís gone. He times his runs and moments so well that you canít lose your concentration even for a blink of an eye. I remember leaving the pitch couple of times with mixed feelings because I always thought Iíve done well against him, but just that once he got away - and did the damage. And guess what counts in the end of the day. He is effective and really frustrating to play against because you never quite know when he is making his move. You blink Ė and he has done it again.
Before every game you get ordered to mark a specific opponent on set pieces. The manager gives you the name and number of an opposing player that is about your size and calibre and from that moment he is your responsibility. Normally the advantage is on defensive side but not always. This German made on a first corner a simple, sharp move, lost me and scored. Next set piece, he did the opposite movement, lost me again and scored. Few years later both at different country and team I played against him again and secretly hoped I was not going to mark him but there I was again given the duty. I thought he wouldnít remember me but from the look at his eyes told me that he had not forgotten and he was seemingly happy for me to mark him. Time hadnít changed the powers, he still lost me twice but only thanks to luck and bad delivery didnít score. Set pieces are the hardest thing to accept because there you are so clearly man against man and it is heart breaking to come to dressing room later and raise your hand in front of your team mates and apologise. Uwe Rosler got my hand up two times too often.
It is not always the opponent that killed you. Sometimes it is the circumstances. I caught Totti on a day that he was hot and I was not. I had struggled with an injury and went to play still carrying a knock and far from my peak. I didnít move well and that is not an advantage you want to give at away game against Italy and Totti. I was very preoccupied to survive fitness wise and never really got into the game for the mere half an hour I played before I realised I was not ok enough to play. He found that out earlier. On another day and circumstances I did well against him, but on that day I didnít stand a chance. And he is not that polite to hide his superiority.
Stelios & Nolan:
Iíve been impressed by the Bolton midfielders and can assure that actually playing against them is quite a task, Iím sure not many players look forward to meeting these two. I have never seen Stelios saving his steps or Nolan his tackles. You never get a breather when you play against them. They are lively and physical, and will pest you for whole ninety minutes. Bolton is always the game you know you better pass it quickly and still be ready to get tackled at any moment. You know you are going home with lot of knocks and knackered. With Boltonís direct approach stealing headlines I have always felt that these two donít get enough credit for being good footballers too. Part of the problem playing against them, is that they are lively both offensively and defensively, most other midfielders are more one way traffic but these two put you onto your back foot both directions. They are definitely up there for hardest opponents Iíve played against.
Number 8 from local youth team:
Occasionally I play park games with mates and passers by. This one time we got almost full teams from different standards and all walks of life. I was the only professional player there so they wanted to make the teams also considering my status. I donít think afterwards none of the people there believed I get paid for playing football or that I am even actually the one they thought I was, probably just a poor lookalike. Because there was also this young kid who maybe didnít make it in football but wanted to show me that he should have. He had number eight in his shorts and somebody said he had just been released from local Non leagueís youth team. With his youthful enthusiasm he was running rings around me and in the end we had to change teams to even up the score a bit, because this young boy was running a show. When he suggested we could take couple of more players to even it up I wanted to die there and then. I barely found home and thought my professional career is almost over because I canít even survive a park game. However, few days later I played one of my best international games against world class opponent. I canít get my head around it, but what I really canít - is to go to that park again. That kid might still be there. He has that power over me in his look.