At Euro 2000 a German journalist told me that Ziege was unpopular with fans of the national team. "They sing very bad things about him" the reporter said. What sort of things? I asked. "Well, his surname means goat," the German said, "And they sing "Put the goat in the zoo!" This gave me the impression that when it came to abusing players the German fans had a lot to learn.
Over the past few weeks Middlesbrough have apparently been chasing Alain Boksic of Lazio, Dani of Barcelona and Marco Delvecchio of Roma. Yesterday they bought Noel Whelan from Coventry City.
When I heard the news I recalled that moment twenty-five years ago when the headline on the back page of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette read “Boro Sign Liverpool Striking Ace” and my young heart pounded at the thought of who it might be. Could it be Heighway, Toshack, or Callaghan?. No, it was Phil Boersma.
Mind you, on Teesside for the past fortnight fans have been less concerned with the buying of players as with the selling of one, last season’s most influential figure, Christian Ziege.
Ziege arrived at The Riverside after a two-season spell at Milan that was on the dark side of disastrous. Coach Alberto Zaccheroni played him out of position, if at all and German team boss Erich Ribbeck dropped him first from his starting line-up and then from his squad. In one of the former-Bayern Munich star’s final games at the San Siro 70,000 fans booed his every touch after his mistake had gifted a goal to visitors Bari. Asked why he had chosen Middlesbrough Ziege was disarmingly frank, “The only person who came to see me and make me an offer was Bryan Robson”.
The Berlin-born wing-back is by all accounts a sensitive man, the product no doubt of the schoolroom teasing that results from having the surname “Goat”. Freed from the nastiness of Milan he promised that he would “blossom” and so he did. He lashed in free-kicks from twenty-five yards and delivered crosses of such pinpoint accuracy that an inanimate object could have scored from them. And indeed Brian Deane frequently did so. In September Ziege was recalled to the German team and celebrated by becoming the first Boro player to score a hat trick in an international match since Wilf Mannion in 1947.
You might think that this would have been a cause of some joy on Teesside. Perhaps. But if it was, it was a joy tinged with unease. Middlesbrough fans have learned their lesson in recent years. You gather a bloke up after everyone else has dumped him, dust him down and cook him a square meal and the next thing you know he is back on his feet and running off with a Champions’ League contender. Or Aston Villa.
Judging by their rhetoric players like to think of themselves as warriors. To my mind they are actually more like fin de siecle courtesans. They keep themselves in top condition for occasional bouts of strenuous physical activity and should they catch the eye of someone more wealthy or powerful than their current keeper you can bet they’ll be off quicker than you can say, “His family couldn’t settle in the area”.
That at least is the slant that is usually put on transfers. Society is a mite hypocritical about these things, of course. Double standards prevail. Club presidents such as Sergio Cragnotti at Lazio have no sooner had their fun with one set of players than they are jettisoning them in favour of a new bunch, but no one calls them names. It’s the age old story: If a player runs around they say he’s a traitor; if a club chairman snags everything that moves they call him ambitious.
This will be small comfort to Boro fans if Ziege leaves. Because no matter how hard you try, you just can’t help believing that this time it will be different. “Coming to Middlesbrough has been a liberation for me” Ziege said twelve months ago. He sounded like he meant it. Maybe he did.
Last week, though, he was telling reporters in Germany, “I’d like to go to Liverpool. Playing in Europe is important to me”. Middlesbrough have picked him up and turned him around and he has rewarded them by listening to the sweet-talk of Gallic smoothie Gerard Houllier. This isn’t a career in football. It’s a world wide hit for The Human League.