You know, I think Barca will be fine

29 April 2013

By Nicol Hay

Football fans have a curious love for certainties – knowing that this player was definitely better than that one, that one club is clearly bigger than the other – that seems to be a product of the untidy nature of the game itself. Just about every other sport divides up into discreet bursts of action, regular points where the rulebook catches its breath and says ‘this part of the game is over, now this one can begin’. Not so football.

While even something as free flowing as basketball, for example, comes with a 24-second shot clock that turns a match into a series of incredibly detailed set pieces, football lends itself to a constant state of semi-anarchy where anything could happen at any time. Has your team just spent a relentless ten minutes dominating possession and pounding the opponent’s defence? Well, don’t let yourself blink too long, because three passes and awkward deflection off a shin-pad later you might find yourself a goal down without the cruel universe having the decency to let you know the paradigm was shifting while your eyelids were touching.

We’re forever trying to throw boundaries around this sport, little pieces of territory that easier to understand the more bite-sized we can make them. There’s a reason why that hateful phrase ‘in the Premier League era’ has such currency, and it’s not just because Sky dominate the game’s coverage and desperately hope that you’ll never remember a time when paying £500 a year to watch some games on TV was something only a crazy person would do.

So when something as monumental as the undisputed Best Club Side Ever get completely outclassed in a 4-0 drubbing, it’s understandable that people start preparing a new section in their mental History of Football Wikipedia article. Throw in a similarly epochal drubbing for Real Madrid in Dortmund the following evening and the transfer of power narratives are everywhere you look, begging to be written up then carved onto the tombstones of the First Great La Masia team, of Spain’s dominance of European football, of Revista de la Liga being a ratings-grabber on UK TV.

Except the era hasn’t ended. All those Barcelona players will be back next season. In the entire first-team squad, only four outfielders are over the age of 30. Leo Messi – despite only being able to win a mere Champions League quarter final single-leggedly while the semi passes him by – remains the best player in the world, and is only 25. And with grace and good fortune, they’ll have an actual professional football manager guiding them through training for the whole season, rather than an over-promoted coach worrying about his friend’s health.

Sure, there are some fairly obvious problems with this Barcelona team – but if you spotted them, you can bet that Tito Vilanova has too. It’s no secret that Barça are vulnerable to high balls, but next year Carles Puyol may well be fit to win a few of those aerial battles, or at least shout at Gerard Piqué often enough that he pays a modicum of attention to the world-class footballers flitting around him in the penalty area. Also, Barcelona aren’t afraid of spending money, and one or two technically gifted six-footers would make all the difference. Mats Hummels, Lars Bender and Gareth Bale all spring to mind as suitable and achievable targets for Sandro Rosell’s open wallet.

The over-reliance on Messi is a slightly harder problem to solve, but again can be attributed at least in part to Vilanova’s health issues. Without a suitably qualified tactician tweaking the schemes and laying out the plans game-to-game, Barcelona were naturally forced to fall back on what they already knew to get them through matches. And when you know that giving the ball to the best player in the world will result in a goal 50-60 times a season, it’s difficult not to take that option every time. It’s hard to imagine Jordi Roura had any better ideas than ‘pass to Leo’ – partly because he’s a self-admittedly limited manager, and partly because ‘pass to Leo’ is, more often than not, a cracking idea.

The team that should be worrying about an era ending is actually Barça’s fiercest rivals. As their least replaceable part appears destined to head back to his spiritual home in West London – where the people like him and do what he says and don’t mind grinding out a 1-0 win from time to time – the lack of available options for the Real Madrid bench becomes terrifyingly significant.

The two most eligible managers in Europe over the summer will be Jupp Heynckes and Manuel Pellegirini, but they both know only too well how Madrid teaches its managers, and are unlikely to want another taste. Jürgen Klopp is scorching hot stuff right now, but it feels unlikely that Dortmund will let him go, if only because if he departs in the same summer as Hummels, Götze and Lewandowksi, BvB might as well shut down their football operation entirely and concentrate on the handball team instead.

André Villas-Boas has only been in the door five minutes at Spurs, and his experience at Chelsea has left him too financially comfortable and too wary of mega-club politicking to make abandoning his fledgling White Hart Lane project worthwhile. Jorge Jesus, David Moyes and Laurent Blanc may be possible outsiders, but none are likely to set pulses racing in the merengue boardroom.

Which leaves only one option. While Bayern embark on their adventure with Pep Guardiola and Barcelona look to move into year ten of Messi’s senior career, Real Madrid are staring down the barrel of the Rafa Benítez era – and that’s definitely worth a new page in the history book.

The many ups and numerous downs of Hyde FC

20 April 2013

By Matthew Rogerson

Life in recent years has not been dull at Hyde FC.

There are few clubs who have flirted with relegation and almost gone out of business before then, just a season later, managing to win the league and consolidate in the Blue Square Bet Premier.

However, that’s exactly what the Tigers have done and they’ve also had to deal with plenty of other difficulties as well.

The club was originally founded in 1885 before changing its name to Hyde United shortly after the war, although they didn’t simply ‘let their club die’ and start again as many teams often do – they remain the same club.

In terms of recent years, perhaps the most dramatic point for the club was being wound up in 2009, only for a bucket collection at nearby Manchester City and an often misunderstood deal with The Citizens to save them.

The collections were able to pay for the money the club owed but as the club’s fans state, there was still the matter of a “tax liability which, while it wasn’t quite old enough to be included in the Court figure, still had to be paid ASAP, together with other liabilities”.

Hence, City stepped in and helped out financially, agreeing a frontloaded deal with Hyde to pay this off in return for the use of Hyde’s Ewen Fields as their reserve team venue.

It did mean that Hyde were forced to repaint their ground so that it matched City’s blue, rather than United’s red, however.

Many people, often those keen to falsely accuse Hyde of ‘selling their soul’, say they wore blue as well for the sake of securing City’s money but the club again claim the reason was that they wore the traditional white and navy colours to mark Hyde’s anniversary.

All in all, it seems to be a win-win situation and, when the deal comes to a close at the end of this season, the ground will be repainted, the club will remain intact without any debt and Hyde fans will be able to cheer on a team that has just retained its Conference status for next year.

One would venture that, when the deal was first agreed, most Hyde fans would have settled for a few years of consolidation with little drama.

That’s certainly not been the case though. Last season the club, with what was rumoured to be one of the more limited budgets in the league, clinched the title and now sit pretty in 15th place in the Conference.

Not bad for a part-time side with the fourth lowest average attendance in the league of 789 which is sandwiched between the top two clubs in the country in City and United.

It’s also impressive when you consider that Gary Lowe and Martin Booty, the duo who got Hyde promoted to the Conference resigned their posts just a few weeks after the title win due to budget disagreements.

Few things are easy in non-league football, especially when you’re dining at its top table as a smaller club, but Hyde seem to keep on bouncing back.

It’s perhaps why their fans are so keen to put people right who doubt them about the City deal or try to knock them by claiming that they let their club die, this being evident in a topic on their forum entitled “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Hyde FC But Were Afraid To Ask”.

I suppose haters are always going to hate, especially from fans of supposedly bigger non-clubs around the Manchester area, but the accusations and hurdles don’t seem to be doing Hyde FC any harm at all.

Goal-line technology will compromise the Premier League’s legitimacy

13 April 2013

By Vincent Forrester

In spite of all its haranguing of big, bad Sepp Blatter, the English football press has turned out to be something of an ally for the impish Fifa president as far as the issue of goal-line technology is concerned.  Yes, thanks in no small part to the obstreperous support of the sports pages since Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” against Germany during the 2012 World Cup, the Premier League has become the first major league – no offence, Danish Superligaen – to announce that, from next season, it will implement goal-line technology.

Now, as I’ve said before on this very website, I’m opposed to goal-line technology, on the grounds that it’s inconsistent to utilise such witchcraft to clarify whether the ball has crossed the line when the rest of the passage of play that led to the ball being in the vicinity of the line in the first place remains the domain of the referee, and thus open to human error. Technology must be all-pervasive or non-existent.

Take the example from another England game that influenced the debate, the Euro 2012 group stage clash with Ukraine. With the score at 1-0, the TV cameras showed that, despite the best efforts of John Terry, a Marko Dević shot had crossed the line. Naturally, Ukraine were outraged. However, it turned out Artem Milevskiy, who provided the assist that never was, was actually offside when he played the ball to Dević. Goal-line technology would have incorrectly awarded a goal, thanks to its blind and wilful ignorance of the crucial seconds prior to the ball crossing the line. Officiating can’t be done in isolation – that’s why referees play advantage, and add stoppage time to the end of the game.

In the past few months, however, I’ve come to accept that my position on goal-line technology is shared only by Uefa president Michel Platini, and for different reasons. Fine: if there is such clamour for technology, let’s pick a model to adopt and implement it across all the world’s top-tier leagues. Sure, that’s not totally fair either – doesn’t football thrive as a result of its universality and simplicity? – but it’s a start, and it’s certainly more practicable than installing a camera system or a ball-chip system at every league football ground in the world.

But no. Instead, Fifa, ever the proponent of free-market Thatcherism, has decided to allow its own regional bodies – Uefa, Conmebol, Caf, et cetera – and the individual national bodies and league systems under its jurisdiction to make their own decisions on goal-line technology, and to open up the bidding to all and sundry if the give it the go-ahead. As a result, Fifa has awarded the contract for the 2013 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup to German company GoalControl, the Premier League has picked Wimbledon line-judge Hawk-Eye, and Platini’s Uefa has entertained no bids whatsoever. A third technology, Germany-based Cairos, has also been approved by Fifa, so a total of three different goal-line technologies are vying for big-money contracts across the globe. Talk about inconsistency.

You could argue that, on a practical level, it doesn’t really matter if some leagues use technology and others don’t. The rules, after all, have not changed – the Premier League is just getting a bit of “help” in enforcing them correctly. But when the world’s leagues are all connected by continental competitions, such as the Champions League, it’s really not acceptable that some teams can benefit – or lose out – as a result of technology that’s not being applied in other leagues.

Next season, the Premier League’s clubs’ final league positions will be influenced directly by goal-line technology, while those of the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue Un and the rest will not. When Real Sociedad or St-Etienne or Mainz miss out on a European place by two points thanks to a goal-line dispute while Everton or Southampton or Newcastle march into the Europa League thanks to an extra point courtesy of Hawk-Eye’s intervention, who is going to turn around and tell them nothing is amiss?

How do you stop Messi? We ask the experts

12 April 2013

By Nicol Hay

Barcelona were teetering, with only 30 minutes remaining to save their Champions League campaign after a lively Paris St Germain performance had left the Catalans looking shaky and bereft of ideas. In the end, it only took them 10 minutes to turn the tie around. 10 minutes and Lionel Messi.

Messi, as you may be aware, is a rather talented football player. So talented in fact, that despite having a hamstring as tight as James Brown’s rhythm section, he was still able to display enough pace and trickery to draw three PSG players in his jinky wake, before playing a ball that eventually found its way to an unmarked Pedro to score.

So if effectively removing one of Messi’s legs isn’t enough to stop him being a rampant footballing force – if he can single-handedly bamboozle a team put together at the cost of more than 20 contentious ex-Prime Minister’s funerals while nursing an injury that would cause most mortals to forego standing up, much less participation in elite athletic activity – then how can he ever be stopped?

That is the question we posed to a panel of the finest tactical minds in the land. These are their responses:

André Villas-Boas, Tottenham Hotspur coach

“First of all, Messi prefers to operate in the vacant territory created by the latency in recovery between the secondary and tertiary midfield stations. His lateral transference creates spatial dissonance in the personnel cycles that are such a basic part of pre-reactive defensive schemes in the high-block strategic configuration.

“Clearly then, the primary option is to have a rotational defensive responsibility assigned on a situational basis, with satellite programs designed to eliminate as many pass-selection recourses as possible. By working to channel Messi’s ludic circumstances into a pre-designated optimum alternative, you can maximise your opportunities to contextualise his influence, allowing the team’s functional side-outs to retrieve position and initiate a retro-incursive response.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to explain that to Michael Dawson in terms that he will understand.”

(Villas-Boas leaves, carrying a glove puppet, a colouring book and the air of a man resigned to failure)

Paolo di Canio, Sunderland coach

“What you don’t understand is that most tactical battles are won before the game even kicks off. If ever I face Messi, I make a few calls and he never makes it to the stadium, capisce?”

Harry Redknapp, Queens Park Rangers coach

“Well, ‘e’s a triffic lad the boy Messi, but nah, I don’t know nuffink about making an offer for ‘im – you’d ‘ave to ask the chairman about that. Obviously we’d love to ‘ave ‘im ‘ere, but we’ve already got a lot of quality lads like Taarabt, Zamora and Mackie in that position.

“Stop ‘im from playing? Oh, well… I suppose I’d sign ‘im. That normally does the trick.”

Paul Lambert, Aston Villa coach

“For me, it’s all about hiding your best weapons in plain sight. I’ve just signed a 19 year old from Macclesfield whose name and haircut are so bland you actually struggle to perceive him when he’s standing in front of you. Put him on Messi, and the Argentine will forget he’s even there. Then when he’s about to pull the trigger, our lad strikes! That’s the advantage of having players in your team like… um… I want to say David? Or maybe he’s called Ian… Anyway, he’s a top prospect, whoever he is.”

Arsène Wenger, Arsenal coach

“Why would I try to stop Messi? He is the personification of the type of beauty in football that I strive for every day – to stop him would be a crime. When we play Messi, I instruct my players to applaud – you have to have the courage of your convictions. Besides, if any of my players perform even halfway competently against Barcelona they simply buy him, and frankly I’m running out of footballers at this rate.”

Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool coach

“Just before kick off, I’d look Lucas in the eye and tell him he’s a Hoover. I’d have him visualise the attributes of Hoover, the Hoover’s courage, its spirit, its perfect suitability for its appointed task. Once he had a hold of that mental energy, I’d tell him to be a Hoover, and to go out and clean up the Mess…i. The Messi. Don’t worry, you’ll get it in a minute.”

Tony Pulis, Stoke City coach

“Oh, I dunno… give Shawcross a big stick? It’s not something I’ll ever have to worry about, to be fair.”

Western Sydney wonderland

11 April 2013

By Kieran Pender

Little over one year since they were first announced, A-League club Western Sydney Wanderers will this Friday take to the field at Parramatta Stadium in their semi finals clash with Brisbane Roar.

In a way, the game represents a battle between new and old in Australia football, as the Wanderers face a Brisbane side who can trace their history back to 1957, and have two league titles to their name.

Although a current 12 game winning streak may suggest victory for Western Sydney is likely, whatever the result the Wanderers can be proud of an incredible season. After starting slowly, and not scoring their first goal until round four, the side rocketed up the ladder to snatch the A-League Premiership from Central Coast Mariners.

But to get a real understanding of the significance of the Wanderers’ achievement, it’s important to describe their rocky road to the A-League.

From even before the league’s beginning, groups have advocated for a team in the western suburbs of Sydney. Thus Professional Footballers Australia’s farsighted report in 2002 on the establishment of a competition to replace the old National Soccer League emphasised the importance of having at least two, if not three teams in Sydney.

Almost a decade after that report was released, the New South Wales capital still only had a lone A-League representative. This failure was not for a lack of trying however, and indeed several attempts to start a second side had been made. Ultimately though, the so called home of Australian football still lacked representation in the national competition.

With the A-League struggling as newly formed clubs collapsed left, right and centre, it would take a bold bet to set the league back on a prosperous path. And on the 4th of April 2012, that bet came in the form of the yet-to-be-named Western Sydney team.

Despite being backed by Football Federation Australia and the Australian government, many were dubious that a club could go from nothing to being able to field a side in the forthcoming season only six months later.

While the signing of manager Tony Popovic a month later may have been greeted with approval, the 39-year-old’s lack of experience didn’t soothe the worries of many sceptical fans. Popovic had spent several years working as an assistant manager, but nothing would prepare him for the task of building a new club from scratch.

Eventually the players started to trickle in, but again the slowly assembled roster didn’t allay the fears of many. A combination of untried youngsters, off contract veterans and the odd foreigner was certainly a good start, yet would it stand up to the pressures of A-League football? Unsurprisingly, the Wanderers were a common tip for the wooden spoon.

With the new season looming, rumours that German star Michael Ballack was considering a switch to the Wanderers quickly caught the media’s attention, only for the team to instead choose little known Japanese midfielder Shinji Ono. Although Ono was well regarded and had some European experience, he was hardly a player of Ballack’s reputation. With their marquee signing arriving only a week before their first ever A-League game, doubt lingered in the minds of many.

Yet somehow, against all odds, the Wanderers did not fail like so many had expected. After a slow start, Popovic’s side quickly rose up the table. Ono was regularly talked about as one of the signings of the season, as were several of Western Sydney’s other new players.

An immensely passionate supporters group has flourished, and bar a few minor incidents, the Red and Black Bloc have been credited with creating possibly the best match day atmosphere in the A-League. And the Wanderers have even managed to attract international press coverage, with the New York Times website running a piece on the team recently.

All in all, it has been an incredible rise for the Wanderers, and they now find themselves just two games shy of claiming the A-League double in their first ever season. As bragging right achievements go, that is not too shabby.

And so they face perennial powerhouse Brisbane Roar on Friday night (AEST), in the first A-League semi final of the weekend. If the Popovic-led team can trump the Queenslanders, they’ll face the winner of Sunday afternoon’s game between Central Coast and Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final.

The game also takes on an emotional significance for the Wanderers after the tragic death of their media manager Rod Allen over the Easter weekend. The highly respected former-journalist had played an important role in the new side’s development, and will be sorely missed by all.

The Wanderers will therefore go into the semi final with many things on their mind. Having won all three regular season games against the Roar, the home side will be confident a place in the Championship decider is within reach.

If they can go all the way, the achievement will arguably represent one of the greatest accomplishments in world football of recent years. From being a solitary dream in the mind of many fans to a fully fledged club lifting the A-League title in just over a year would be a great footballing fairytale.

And as fairytales go, that might be hard to beat.

Soaring Robins have their wings clipped once again

8 April 2013

By Niall McVeigh

As introductions to top-flight management go, Paolo Di Canio’s has been little short of disastrous. Appointed a full seven days before his first game, Sunday’s narrow defeat to Chelsea, the Italian has endured a week of intense speculation over his political beliefs. The question hasn’t been whether Di Canio, a raw and inexperienced lower league manager, can haul Sunderland to safety, but whether a man who’s expressed fascist sympathies should be allowed to manage in the top flight.

As the spotlights slowly shifts towards the field of play, it’s worth remembering that Di Canio, seen as such a controversial appointment, isn’t a newcomer to English football management.  He has gained his chance at a higher level after guiding Swindon Town, an ailing Football League club, from League Two to within touching distance of the Championship. His availability suggests that Swindon may have more reason than his political leanings to resent his rise to prominence. Sadly for the club left in Paolo’s shadow, this isn’t the first time they’ve found themselves held down by the hands of fate.

The County Ground, home of Swindon Town, lies next to the town’s most notorious landmark – a tortuous loop of bewildering road junctions known as The Magic Roundabout. Like many of their fellow West Country clubs, Swindon have largely muddled along in comfortable anonymity. Swindon Town are unique among league clubs only because, as the classic quiz question tells us, their name contains none of the letters of the word ‘mackerel’. Much like the roads that lead to their ground however, Swindon are a seemingly average club with chaos and legend at its heart.

The jewel in Swindon’s potted history, despite better documented recent events, remains the 1969 League Cup final. Facing an imperious Arsenal side, the third division Town were deserved winners, local legend Don Rogers scoring an extra time winner, as Arsenal showed that it wasn’t just their future generations that could throw away a final. As League Cup winners, Swindon earned a place in Europe – only to be denied by their lower league status.

Their next moment in the spotlight, 21 years later, again showed the club’s taste for the big occasion - but also the habit that the fates had for ruining their big day. Swindon won the 1990 Division Two playoff final, beating Sunderland, of all teams, 1-0. Ossie Ardiles had led his charges along a winding road to Wemberley - only to have his dream snatched away. A host of financial irregularities were exposed, and the team were denied a debut season in the top flight.

Led on and off the field by unflappable player-manager Glenn Hoddle, Swindon emerged anew in 1992/93. Armed with an arsenal of dependable talents like Martin Ling, Nicky Summerbee and Paul Bodin, Hoddle manoeuvred his side to victory in one of the great playoff finals. Leading Leicester 3-0, Wiltshire shook as Leicester levelled, and looked set to deny Swindon all over again. A Paul Bodin penalty was enough to send Swindon sprawling over the line, and headfirst into the Premier League.

One of the great joys of the English football pyramid is the impact that a freshly promoted team can make in its new, rarefied surroundings. For every Newcastle United, there must, alas, be a Derby County. Swindon were the latter - a skilful team suffocated by the rigours of top flight football. Again, fate played its part. Hoddle seemed the kind of experienced, cool headed character they needed to eke out survival. On the eve of the season’s start, he departed for Stamford Bridge, leaving apprehensive assistant John Gorman in his wake.
This very website recently claimed that Gorman once insisted on a contract clause allowing him to follow Hoddle to pastures new. Swindon’s season in the sun goes a long way to explaining that decision. Swindon’s adventure in the top flight began, and continued, with a flurry of goals - unfortunately, they were all at the wrong end. Even when they were competitive, the Robins found a way to lose – a memorable late Oldham winner at the County Ground reducing Gorman to a quivering wreck on the dugout floor.

Town shipped 100 goals, a Premier League record, and won just five times all season. In early spring, a heavy home defeat to Liverpool ensured there’d be no encore to Swindon’s catastrophic debut. As the final whistle blew, the local radio commentator burst into tears. Life in the big time was bloody and brutal for this overachieving club, caught cold by their leader’s late defection. The intervening years have offered little else than downward momentum, coupled with further cruel blows.

In 2009/10, Swindon returned to Wembley for the League One play-off final, seeking a fourth straight Wembley win. At 0-0 against Millwall, Swindon’s wonder kid, Charlie Austin, had an unmissable chance - but the ball hit a bobble on the grass, and Swindon’s destiny sailed comically into the stands. Millwall prevailed, and both the Lions and Austin himself are now prospering in the Championship. Swindon, their sails tattered once more, plummeted into the fourth tier the following season.

It was then that they took what seemed a hopeless gamble - opting not to appoint a seasoned hand to work the tiller, but giving the hot tempered, ref chasing Italian tyro, Paolo Di Canio, his first job in management. The arrival of Di Canio at a listing mid-size football league club appeared an appointment bound to end in farce - like Tony Montana running a branch of Rymans. As it transpired, Di Canio turned out to be a canny lower league manager - when he wasn’t publicly berating players, fans or the club’s owners.

After a chaotic decade drifting down the leagues, Swindon found renewed purpose, and cruised to the League Two title. This season, led once more by a charismatic figure who’s much better behind the dressing room door than a microphone, the Robins soared towards a return to the Championship. Then, just a month ago, fate intervened once more. After 18 tempestuous months in charge, Di Canio walked.
Shock and disappointment turned to farce as the Italian broke back into his own office to collect a few unnamed ‘personal items’. It was another bizarre chapter in the history of the club, and had left the team rudderless once again. The board handed the reins to Kevin McDonald until the end of the season, and Swindon currently lie sixth, their sails sagging as they cling to a place in the playoff shootout. It’s befitting for a club based in a railway town that their timing is so consistently appalling.

As Paolo Di Canio begins a new life on the big stage, spare a thought for his former club, dealt another body blow in an endless search for stability. In the wake of their rollercoaster ride with di Canio, the board and fans of this unassuming club would doubtless settle for a year or two of consolidation - free of bungs, bobbles and break-ins. For this quiet club, nestled near the vortex of the Magic Roundabout, things are rarely that simple. With their controversial, charismatic leader gone, Swindon Town may find they miss the drama.

Arsenal’s broken leg era

30 March 2013

By Steven Maloney

With the news that Abou Diaby’s legs have quit on him once again, it reminds me that Arsenal football club have paid a heavy price for changing the culture of English football. Abou Diaby, Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo. All promising players with buckets of potential whose career trajectories were forever changed by horror challenges that broke legs.

To me, there is little doubt in my mind that the culture of Premier League football at the time – particularly the view that that Arsenal’s passing game meant that they were soft, that you could “kick them out of the game” – combined with the noted disparity between the tolerance for violent conduct by match officials in England as opposed to the European continent contributed mightily to this sad portion of the late 2000’s in Arsenal’s history. Obviously, none of the horror tackles in and of themselves could be directly attributed to such forces, but the fact that the same club had three such leg-breaking tackles in such a condensed period of time says to me that there was a general trend of pushing the envelope on challenges against Arsenal. These three tackles were essentially bound to happen sooner or later if clubs kept setting out the way they did against Arsenal. Match after match, tackle after tackle, over the course of several seasons, the three or four poorest decisions by opponents, even with no intent to injure whatsoever, were likely to lead to terrible injuries. And so they did. 

While the careers of Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo da Silva, and Abou Diaby have not panned out according to hopes, it is also fair to say that the club has no idea where their careers mays have gone had they stayed healthy. Would Arsenal have won the Premier League if not for the Eduardo injury? What kind of player would Diaby have been had he not taken on that first injury? There is no way of knowing, and the uncertainty of that alternate history is a far more challenging tease for those who wonder than a sense that being sure could ever be. 

Still, I take two things from the “horror tackle era” at Arsenal. The first thing I feel looking back is that these players gave their bodies to help advance the Premier League into a new era of football. The chorus of voices that believe the appropriate way to play against Arsene Wenger, Brendan Rodgers, [insert name of current Chelsea manager here], or Michael Laudrup’s slick passing play is to advocate kicking them out of existence has diminished greatly over the passing years. Someone today who looked at a player like Michu and said, “let’s see how well he plays after he’s been knocked over a few times” is more likely to be seen as cave man than just a few years ago. If you can stomach clicking on the link to the Abou Diaby challenge, you’ll see Alan Smith essentially saying that the tackle was a red card, but understandable. Compare that to the reactions to Callum McManaman’s recent challenge, and it becomes impossible to imagine that if Dan Smith’s challenge on Diaby had happened in 2013, that anyone but people from his club would come to his defence in the least. 

Further, the tactical diversity that has sprung up in the passing systems employed by Premier League managers signals a growing confidence from clubs that the culture of the league is more protective of technical sides than in years past.  It is fair to say that more and more recently promoted sides come into the Premier League with the intent of attacking and holding onto the ball as a means to stay in matches. This is in and of itself a sign that the conventional wisdom of old that physical play is the only way to survive if the other team has more technical ability has been overturned. 

Surely, physical play has not been banished from the game, nor should it be. A team with stronger players or more athletic players than their opponent has every right to press that advantage, and besides, as the old adage goes, a contrast in styles makes for good fights. But physical play is now one of a plurality of tactical options, rather than the near universal weapon of choice. 

Secondly I look back on the whole awful tackle trilogy and reflect on champions and how fragile a championship season truly can be. For some reason, many people seem to tend towards making champions post hoc obviously deserving of their title because of some greatness inside of them that made things inevitable. I look at Arsenal during the horror challenge era and see the opposite. The Chelsea and Manchester United clubs that won during that era, as well as the various League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League winners, they all had to navigate the path of uncertainty that every time they step onto the field some unfortunate fate might befall their season, and indeed, might even fell the very physical integrity of their bodies. To me, we celebrate champions not for transcending the odds, but for enduring them. We can also celebrate the so-called “also-rans” for submitting themselves to the same uncertainty of the contest, and the ways in which fortune may affect the trajectory of their own lives. They all enter the stage to write an unwritten story, not knowing if they might be a hero, a victim, or even a villain. 

Would United be worthy record breakers?

30 March 2013

By Nicol Hay

Manchester United will win the league this season.

This may be the least flashy newsflash to ever blink across your eyes, but it doesn’t make the news part any less true. A 15-point cushion and a cluster of rivals who are either lacklustre, limited or waging a cold war against their own coach mean that club captain Nemanja Vidić has been incorporating trophy-lifting and crowd-saluting routines into his own detailed pre-planned training and medical programme for some months now.

This fait is now so accompli that Alex Ferguson this week stated that his target for this season is now to break the record Premier League points total, set at 95 by the muscular vintage of José Mourinho’s 2004-05 Chelsea team. At time of writing, United require 22 points from the 27 that remain available to them – a tricky proposition, but by no means impossible when you cast an eye over their remain fixtures, and factor in a lack of European competition to stretch their resources.

But this United team? Record breakers? Really?

When you think back over the great United sides of recent history, they had at least one department of transcendent, pantheon-level quality. The 2008 team boasted a fluid front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and a pre-tantrum era Carlos Tévez that flitted and interchanged and scored and scored and scored with a joyous, purposeful abandon. The chemistry of those three players at that exact point of their respective careers was glorious, lightning-in-a-bottle stuff, and no team has been able to truly replicate it since.

The 1999 side possessed a four-man unit that will be brought up in misty-eyed pub conversations about the all-time great midfields for generations to come. If more squads today were able to blend the steel and artistry of that Giggs-Scholes-Keane-Beckham axis, reports of the death of 4-4-2 might have been slightly less exaggerated.

Comparing those past team-sheets to today’s must be a harrowing exercise for United fans. When you consider the mediocrity of a Young-Anderson-Carrick-Valencia midfield, whose only function is to play with bare minimum competence for long enough to allow Robin van Persie’s brilliance to secure a win, you have to wonder if that fabled Ferguson wine cellar didn’t start out life in the Glaswegian’s home as a collection of bottled water.

So no, Manchester United are not eyeballing a place in history thanks to the raw power of their scintillating team, but rather are fortunate to playing in a season where every top club is caught up in a transitional period, but United’s is less transitory than the others.

Spurs are transitioning up the way – a new coach, a new philosophy and new personnel have them on their way towards challenging for next year’s title, providing they can keep Gareth Bale and add some depth to the front and sides of their player pool. Some typically down-to-the-wire transfer dealings in the summer meant that their transition began too late for them to seriously worry United during this campaign though, and instead they remain focused on securing Champions League Qualification and Europa League glory without Spursing the whole thing up in the manner that they’re desperately trying to transist away from.

Arsenal meanwhile, are transitioning down. A crippling belief in a philosophy of cheap, home grown talent that’s getting the formula two-thirds right but stumbling on the last bit has forced the Gunners into title-irrelevancy this year. United’s trip to the Emirates at the end of April remains the biggest threat to their record-hunting as a one-off event, but over the course of the season Arsenal started far from the top-spot and have only drifted as time goes by.

Chelsea are transitioning up, down, side-to-side and demented circles all at once. Heavy investment in Eden Hazard and Oscar to complement Juan Mata in a dynamic attacking midfield was a step forward. Minimal investment in half a season of Demba Ba and set of patented automated finger-crossers to aim at the spectre of Fernando Torres as a replacement for Didier Drogba was a step back. Failure to reconcile the inversely powerful influence of the triple-headed ego of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole on the pitch as compared to in the dressing room was a step into sticking fingers in ears and hoping the problem would go away. Throw in a desperately uncertain coaching situation and there is no way to tell where this Chelsea team will ultimately end up.

Manchester City are transitioning inside-out. Last season an incredible work ethic allowed them to overcome the arrival of the Tévez tantrum era to snatch the title. This year, only Carlos has looked completely engaged while a Samir Nasri level of fecklessness has swept through the rest of the squad. Perhaps this was a top-down non-committal sigh of a season – the players seem tired of Roberto Mancini, and last summer was the first of Sheikh Mansour’s reign that didn’t see a true superstar join the club. You can perhaps understand why the team interpreted this as a sign that they should build a cosy nest out the laurels they earned last season and get to resting.

You can only play what’s in front of you, as they say – and looking at the quality of the obstacles between Man United and the record they suggests a very large and problematic asterisk should be pasted next their potential achievement. However, while the 2004-05 Chelsea held off an Arsenal team who had only just stopped being Invincible, the rest of their challengers were not much more impressive than the current top of the table filler.

A trophyless United came third while handing an awful lot of starts to Roy Carroll, Alan Smith and Mikaël Silvestre. Fourth spot was occupied by an Everton team that, while impressive by their standards, was still an Everton team. The fact that fifth-placed Liverpool were 37 points behind Chelsea (and only ahead of Bolton on goal difference) should only emphasise how utterly mental their Champions League victory that season actually was.

Would 2005 Chelsea beat 2013 Manchester United in a one-off match? Undoubtedly. The talent, vision and philosophy of the two squads doesn’t compare – muscular unity versus ramshackle reliance on one man’s goals will never be much of a contest. Oddly though, this United team’s inherent quality is closer to their dismal rivals than Chelsea’s was, which would somehow make any potential record point total all the more impressive.

Context is key in all sporting discussions, and this United squad look set to fuel many heated pub debates on the subject of greatness. However, it will certainly be the greatness of their achievements, and not the team itself, that will set jaws a-flapping.

From the Bundesliga with love

27 March 2013

By Joe Tyler

On our flight back from Dusseldorf to Stansted last Monday night, my friends and I, who had taken in two Bundesliga games over the weekend, wondered if any Germans fans had made the opposite journey at the same time to watch the Premier League.
The most likely trip for them, from a geographical point of view anyway, would’ve been to watch Man United vs Reading on Saturday, then Wigan vs Newcastle on Sunday. Combining the prices of match tickets, travel and food & drink, they’d have spent much more than us, and almost certainly been less entertained by the football.

Considering the two factors of cost and entertainment are what ultimately dictates a fan’s decision to go to the match, its little wonder why the German football experience is becoming increasingly popular to the British, and why it had become a pilgrimage my friends and I had to make.

In Germany, it’s all about you, the fan. The 50+1 rule, where a minimum of 51 per cent of the club must be owned by its members, is the basis of this, allowing fans to have a say in how the club is run while still allowing for major outside investment. It’s a model that might not work for all clubs, but does show respect to the fans that keep them running.

We were among 80,000 of them at the Westfalenstadion on the Saturday to see Borussia Dortmund face Freiburg, and boy, they let us know about it. At times it was difficult to know what was more impressive: the thrilling display on the pitch, where Robert Lewandowski inspired Dortmund to a 5-1 win, or Europe’s largest standing terrace opposite us. The ‘Yellow Wall’ was a relentless noise machine from an hour before kick-off until after the final whistle - breathtakingly high, fearsomely wide and undoubtedly intimidating, it’s as little as £10 to become one of the wall’s 25,000 bricks.

We had paid slightly more than this for our tickets (£25 each), but we still got plenty for our money. For starters, the train journey to the ground from our base in Dusseldorf was included in the price, which is a standard rule across the Bundesliga for games in the same region. Other matchday staples such as beer and snacks came in cheaper too. The choice of sausages and burgers washed down with local brew was an improvement on the generic offerings in England, and was obtained without the hassle of queuing for 20 minutes thanks to Dortmund’s efficient fan card system.

A couple of seasons back, Arsenal experimented with reading out the first names of players and encouraging the crowd to shout back the second names. It failed, as did the embarrassing attempt at making Elvis Presley’s The Wonder of You the club song. It’s probably got something to do with the reserved nature of the British and the shyness at expressing themselves in public. It couldn’t have been more different in Dortmund. Every supporter joined in with the anthem, a stirring if simple number, and was transfixed on the stadium announcer as the teams were announced, booming back the second names as if it was a duty.

On the pitch, the home side started slowly, but thanks to Lewandowski, who took his goals fantastically and created the fifth with a superb solo run, they ran out comfortable winners. Nuri Sahin, the returning hero for whom the biggest cheer of the day was reserved, also scored twice. We returned our fan cards and had refunded any unspent money (complimentary bags of crisps were also being dished out). From right outside the ground and with our ears still ringing, we got a tram back to Hauptbahnhof.

On the way back to Dusseldorf we got chatting to Jerome, who’d just been standing in the Yellow Wall. His confidence that Dortmund’s fans make a genuine difference to how the team performs was firm. “We have some great players,” he told us over a can of Krombacher. “But they would be nothing without us. If we’re not there then maybe we wouldn’t even be in the Champions League. We create the atmosphere and they respond, that’s how it goes.”

Jerome was with five friends who seemed typical of the type of fan we’d come across: young, happy, polite, loud and decked head-to-toe in merch. His team had won, and he knew he’d played a part. I was inclined to agree.

The following day we had tickets for Borussia Monchengladbach vs Hannover, two sides hanging on to ambitions of a Champions League spot. Dusseldorf’s Old Town, known as ‘the longest bar in the world’, had had its way with us the night before, but with sore heads vanquished by frikadellen and fresh air, we headed for Gladbach early, keen for more of the same as yesterday.

Except, we hadn’t really done our research. There isn’t a great deal to do in Gladbach, especially on a Sunday, when nothing opens in Germany. We also realised after about an hour of wandering the streets that the ground wasn’t anywhere near the city centre. So we jumped in a taxi and about 20 minutes later stopped outside what looked like a spaceship in the middle of a car park – Borussia Park.

We could’ve been wrong, but it seemed there were no pubs around the ground. There was plenty of drinking on the street, but the weather called for a warmer pre-match watering hole. In the end, the only option was to go into the ground two hours before kick-off. This worked out quite well: again, the beer and snacks were cheap and varied, and the Hanover fans to our right had congregated early to mark their territory. Also, the day’s other game between Frankfurt and Stuttgart was being shown on the big screens – a pretty good incentive for fans to get in early and begin creating the atmosphere.

When wandering between our seats, the bars and the toilets before kick-off, it was apparent that away fans were using all the same facilities. There was absolutely no segregation on the concourse, and crucially not a hint of trouble. It’s hard to imagine this being the case in England, whoever was playing, and again emphasised the trust the clubs have in their fans.

Truth be told, the game wasn’t quite the treat we’d witnessed the day before. Luuk De Jong’s first half goal, neatly finished after a gorgeous through ball from man-of-the-match Patrick Hermann, separated the two sides. Hanover’s direct tactics created little, but their fans – supplemented by a megaphone and drum – were constantly loud. Gladbach’s Nordkurv did a great job too, the hollering back and forward with our Sudkurve impressive throughout. It was another mightily comfortable and compelling way to watch football. 

After the game, it dawned how simple matchday transport can be. There was no fuss with our journey back to Dusseldorf – an endless supply of shuttle buses ferrying the throng to Hauptbahnhof, then trains ready and waiting as we arrived. No faffing with tickets, no queues, and just enough time to pick up some beers for the ride.

This simplicity is part of what makes watching football in Germany so perfect. It’s not rocket science: ask any English fan whether they’d like cheaper tickets, travel and food & drink, along with quality football and an incredible atmosphere. Then there’s the peace of mind that thanks to the club’s structures, fans are making as much difference as they can without getting on the pitch and playing themselves. They play a part, and for one weekend, so did we.

As Borussia Dortmund’s club motto goes, for us, it was Echte Liebe.

She’s an English girl in Boston

23 March 2013

By Kieran Theivam

While playing in the United States is a move many players make towards the end of their career, the same cannot be said for those playing in the women’s game.

Playing in the new National Women’s Soccer League has attracted players from all over the globe, as discussed in a previous blog, with one of those drawn by the professional league being former Arsenal and Chelsea striker, Lianne Sanderson.

The 25-year-old has been signed up to play for the Boston Breakers, one of eight teams that makes up the new league, which kicks off in just under a month.

Sanderson is one of only a few players who will play out in America from the UK, but she has plenty of experience having already represented Philadelphia Independence and DC United since moving state side.

It’s a long way from South London, where Sanderson grew up, but she is looking forward to the latest chapter of her American adventure.

She said: “I am extremely excited to be joining not only a great team but organisation. I am excited to work with Lisa Cole (Manager), all the players and coaching staff, and I look forward to hopefully bringing a championship to Boston.

“I have been like a child waiting for Santa on Christmas Day. I love playing the game and I am at my happiest on the training field with my team mates.”

Sanderson was one of four free agents picked up by the Breakers after the initial draft processes had taken place, and while she is pleased to be picked up by the Massachusetts side, she admits the process isn’t one she’s a fan of.

“I was lucky enough to be one of the players protected by a team, which meant nobody else could pick me up, so I was extremely happy about Boston protecting me.

“I don’t personally like drafts. I get you have to make it fair, but I think the players should have the choice as to where they want to play.

“As a professional female soccer player, relocating constantly to new places is very difficult, but we all love the game so much, so we do it.”

With players evenly distributed amongst the eight teams, each side will have internationals and college players, making it difficult to predict who will come out on top.

While teams such as Portland will have a forward line consisting of Canada’s Christine Sinclair and U.S golden girl Alex Morgan, Sanderson believes it isn’t necessarily the teams with the biggest names that will come out on top.

She herself will be paired up front with up and coming star Sydney Leroux, and she states chemistry will play a big part in them being successful.

“I think the interesting thing about this year is no one really knows how it’s going to go. It’s not always about which team has the best players – it’s all about the quality and team chemistry.”

Sanderson will be well known to followers of the England Women’s Team having been a part of Hope Powell’s squad in the European Championships in 2009. 

However, she hasn’t been part of the England setup for a few years, having fallen out of favour, but would she welcome a call-up, should it come her way?

“I loved playing for my country and would always be proud to play for England, but not under the circumstances I was playing under before.

“I am willing to work hard and always have been, but unfortunately when some people get pre-conceived ideas about you, there is no changing there opinion.

“I will always be proud to be from England and never forget where I am from and everyone that has helped me.”

Remembering that help she has received is potentially a big reason why Sanderson set up the JoLi Academy with partner and team mate Joanna Lohmann.

The academy is designed to knock down barriers facing young girls all over the globe who want to be successful in sport, with the pair having just returned from a camp in India where 100 girls from all over the country attended.

“We also went to Jamaica in 2012 to work with an orphanage, The SOS village, where we were part of a five day camp that saw us coach and speak with lots of children from the ages of 4-16.

“We love what we do and we want to help as many people as we can. For now, we are focusing on being the best soccer players we can be, which means JoLi Academy is put on hold when we are in season.”

The next step for Swansea? Give up

23 March 2013

By Nicol Hay

It’s been quite a journey for Swansea City. Just a decade ago, it was all crumbling terracing, a last-day reprieve from relegation to Non-League purgatory and Leon Britton at the heart of midfield for the Welsh club. Nowadays, they enjoy Michael Laudrup, Michael Laudrup’s impeccable hair, Premier League football in a shiny new stadium, a Michu to call their very own and Leon Britton at the heart of midfield.

The Swansea story has been a triumph with many parents. Forward planning and sensible financial husbandry laid the foundations for Roberto Martínez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and finally Laudrup to build a very cosy house on top. Such clear continuity of coaching philosophy has allowed Swansea to evolve naturally through divisions and personnel, arriving at their current exalted plane a well-oiled machine – and with plenty of scope to improve in years to come.

But not this season. Improvement is done for this year.

There was a general skepticism last summer that Swansea could possibly top the achievements of their debut Premier League season this time around. A comfortable mid-table finish on the back of some delightfully intricate, neutral-wooing football represented success beyond the wildest dreams of such a modest-spending club, and the Premier League had in the past bestowed a brutal sophomore slump on similarly precocious upstarts. Laudrup’s previous managerial career was also cause for arched eyebrows, with solid boom periods of triumph interspersed with harrowing busts of poor form and off-field calamity, in a karmic CV that suggests Laudrup conducts training on a desecrated pet cemetery or something.

However, despite all of history giving Swansea’s attempts to better season 2011-12 a very hard stare, they did it. With a sprinkling of bewilderingly cheap imports from Spain and some extra directness tweaked onto their passing game, the Swans have somehow become both more aesthetically pleasing and more effective. What’s more, they have a trophy – something that David Moyes and Arsène Wenger would literally* murder a sackful of puppies for at this stage of their careers – and the promise of European competition for the first time since their Welsh Cup exploits weren’t considered, to boot. *(not literally)

It’s been a wonderful season, and it is, effectively, over. Laudrup’s men have already gathered 40 points – the total that we are constantly assured means that they now morally and legally cannot possibly be relegated. Their place in the third qualifying round of the Europa League could only be bettered by the playoff round place offered by finishing fifth in the league – a position currently held by Arsenal with a healthy 10 point and game-in-hand advantage.

All that’s left for Swansea to realistically achieve this year would be to scramble a few places higher up the table, an accomplishment that would gather a relatively minor increase in prize money and, I suppose, some pride. But let’s not talk about what a devalued concept ‘pride’ is in modern football, because doing so might make Barry Davies weep, and making Barry Davies weep is a sackable offence here at the Ramble.

Rather than continue striving for victories with no merit beyond the immediate intangibles of triumph, there is actually a lot more long-term positive outcomes in play for Swansea if they just take the rest of the year off and amble their way to their summer holidays. Ever since they disposed of Chelsea and grasped one hand firmly on the League Cup, ravenous agents have bee circling Swansea ominously, looking to convert £2m goal-bargain Michu into correctly priced goal-fair-value Michu for a larger club. Michel Vorm, Ashley Williams and Laudrup himself have also been subject to transfer speculation – but not Leon Britton, never Leon Britton.

If Swansea opt to play out the season honourably fighting for every point as if the actually mattered in a practical sense, rather than a merely Corinthian one, then all they are doing is placing their prize assets in ever-more attractive poses in the shop window (perhaps Vorm rests his arm on his knee with a jumper casually thrown over his shoulders, while Williams laughs and points to a boat on the horizon), making a summer of disruptive speculation and upheaval all the more likely.

What they should actually be doing is giving these men as little opportunity to impress as possible. Every dropped point and lethargic performance will make Swansea’s valuable personnel less attractive to potential suitors, and therefore more likely to be still present in South Wales come September to hook up with whichever reinforcements the club management can find for an assault on the Europa League and upper reaches of the Premier League.

Furthermore, trying hard makes you more vulnerable to injury. If nothing is at stake – and it isn’t – Swansea’s players should be shirking tackles and avoiding sudden movements at every opportunity. No sprinting back into position should be attempted with taking several minutes to first stretch hamstrings adequately. Keeping players healthy for preseason training should be the club’s primary focus for the rest of this campaign.

The benefits of phoning in the remainder of 2012-13 are many, varied and far outweigh the benefits of competing for points that Swansea’s Cup success has rendered utterly meaningless. In order to safeguard the legacy of their greatest ever season, Swansea owe it to themselves, their future and their fans to throw the rest of this campaign right in the bin.

Football: The third great European drug

17 March 2013

By Tom Goulding

Mike Skinner, echoing Freidrich Nietzsche, once said that the two great European narcotics were alcohol and Christianity, but if his allegiance to Birmingham City was anything more than a token gesture, he might have including supporting a football team as a third addition.
For the passionately tribal, the drug of supporting a football team costs a small fortune with every hit. It can forge and ruin relationships and often writes off whole weekends. The addicts know the costs, emotional and financial, and yet every week they come back for more.
It is one of the hardest addictions to kick given there is always, always next weekend. It is even harder to go cold turkey when you know it’s going on without you. The only thing more tantalising and more unbearable than watching your team play is looking to the side as they do. Moreover it’s not a particularly enjoyable wake-up call to reality to know that it is a self-sufficient world. Investing huge amounts of time, money and energy in it ourselves means that we don’t particularly want to know it will carry on happily enough without us. Seats will be filled, songs will be sung and fists will be clenched.
I recall a conversation I had last year with one of those fortunate souls who was not brought up around football, one of those real-life ignorant muggles for whom I imagine the names Mark Pougatch and James Alexander Gordon don’t carry the same psychological angst.
“Do you want to go for lunch?” they asked one Sunday afternoon.

“I can’t, I’m in Stoke”.
“Where’s that?” they asked, having just moved to England.
“It’s a town on the Trent river in the North West, just east of Crewe, famous for its pottery industry”.
There was a long pause.
“Why on earth are you there?”

It’s a good question. I was there chasing another high – another rush of intense adrenalin and joy because someone who I’ve never met or talked to might kick a ball into a goal. In no other social setting is it acceptable to mob and flatten a stranger. But there’s an extraordinary sense of community in going wild with a large group of people you’ve never met just because you’ve gone 2-0 up at West Brom in a way stronger than any David Cameron speech about a ‘Big Society’ could muster. You’re swearing, kicking, punching the air, and generally behaving like children but you are doing it all together.
This all goes back to the Nick Hornby principle of the complete lack of last-minute-winner equivalents in real life. If at the sight of your first child’s birth you jump on the back of a nurse, shouting and screaming, they’d probably ask you to leave the building. But the only thing more enjoyable than witnessing in a football stadium an assortment of accountants, lawyers, postmen, young and old, who have little in common, embracing in a manic hysteria, is to be part of it yourself.
When Twitter boomed in popularity a few years ago, there grew a large suspicion of passionate allegiance to one team given it coincided with the worst aspects of internet discourse – stubborn dogma, intellectual bankruptcy and constant and vicious abuse of those who undermined their cause. These are of course all characteristics of a fundamentalist ideology or religion. The impassioned abuse was not only correlated with tribalism but most often, if not always, caused by it.

Journalists who dared to have an objective opinion were accused of quite the opposite – an anti-X agenda or bias. Criticising Liverpool in any serious capacity was at times social media suicide. Footballers would leave Twitter due to the constant tirades of fans of rival teams. The drug of tribalism had taken such strong hold of people’s lives that it was turning grown adults, some of whom had families and children, into swearing monsters they would be embarrassed to introduce to their parents. Such is the intoxicating hold of club allegiance.
The price of the drug goes up and up, but the seats of the non-attending protesting Manchester City fans at the Emirates in January were simply filled by fans of the other team. Supporters hold up banners that ‘Enough is Enough’ in ticket price inflation – inside a ground for a match they’ve chosen to pay to attend. Good luck kicking the habit.

AVB: From laughing stock to manager of the year?

17 March 2013

By Niall McVeigh

One year on from his humiliating Stamford Bridge exit, André Villas-Boas is moving on and making waves. His former employers aren’t doing quite so well.

Gerard Houllier, a man who knows more than most about the cruel, cut-throat world of the Premier League, once remarked that seeing his Liverpool side play for a new manager was akin to seeing another man with your wife. For André Villas-Boas, the dog days of last Spring must have been like being ditched at the altar for your best mate, then finding out the new couple had won the lottery. You can almost picture him holed up in his suburban mansion, still wearing the tracksuit, trying to find a channel that wasn’t showing the Champions League trophy winding down the King’s Road.

André Villas-Boas came to Chelsea with a hefty reputation, having steered Porto to an undefeated league campaign and Europa League triumph. The bigger they come, the harder they fall - and the sharpening of knives was audible from the moment Villas-Boas landed in West London. Constant references to his age and unfair comparisons with Chelsea’s greatest ever manager appeared to undermine the new man before he could even begin. Putting aside the weight of expectation, there was ultimately little to celebrate in the new man’s eight month tenure. A bright start gave way to chaos on the pitch and disorder in the dressing room. From the 5-3 capitulation at home to Arsenal, Villas-Boas’ departure seemed inevitable, the Portuguese floundering in a maelstrom of negative press.

As unfair as it seemed on a young, talented manager, AVB didn’t make it easy on himself. In an effort to live up to his status as Europe’s finest managerial prodigy, he tried too much, too soon - forcing a high line on a settled back four, and alienating Chelsea’s hall of famers before his new breed were ready to take their place. Once his bold new line up was torn asunder in Naples, the writing was truly on the wall. Chelsea may be mocked for their frequent lack of hindsight, but there were few commentators keen on giving the new man more time at the tiller. He began to be seen as a dishevelled gatecrasher at the party – openly mocked or simply ignored. The debate wasn’t whether he was the man to lead the Chelsea revolution, but whether he had his faculties intact. His sacking, days before Chelsea’s second leg with Napoli, took nobody by surprise.

By summer, Chelsea had been led by Villas-Boas’ former assistant, Roberto di Matteo, to an FA Cup and Roman’s most cherished prize, the Champions League. That sultry night in Munich had seemed to be Villas-Boas’ final humiliation – instead, it earned him a surprise second chance on these shores.

Didier Drogba’s winning penalty consigned a stuttering Spurs to the Europa League, and convinced chairman Daniel Levy to call time on Harry Redknapp’s tenure. Press speculation centred on old hands and wise heads, with David Moyes fancied to continue Spurs’ steady upward mobility.

To a gallery of arched eyebrows, Levy instead turned to Villas-Boas, swapping the press pack’s golden boy for one of the most widely derided managers in recent memory. It was a bold, ballsy move from a club that could have happily played it safe - yet Levy was adamant it was the right decision. It’s now becoming crystal clear which side of London had the right perspective on André Villas-Boas.

That said, to claim Chelsea were wrong to fire Villas-Boas is perhaps to oversimplify the issue. The forward thinking, abrasive young coach was always an awkward fit in a dressing room of experienced but egotistical talents. Villas-Boas has largely succeeded at Spurs because of a marriage between a manager and board that have learnt from past mistakes.

As Alan Partridge once tried to say, “evolution, not revolution” has been key for Villas-Boas. Instead of the grand plans we saw derail at Chelsea, the manager has kept a low profile, sending out a side which sticks to Spurs’ cultured principles. Villas-Boas has also bought astutely, replacing Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart with Fulham duo Dempsey and Dembele. At first, these relatively cheap additions suggested a conservative season lay ahead - as it turns out, AVB’s changes have added depth and flexibility to an already talented first XI.

Spurs under Redknapp were a breathless battering ram of a side, talked up as title contenders until they were dramatically, then repeatedly found out. Villas-Boas has quietly moulded a team that adapt to their opponents - disciplined and direct in a famous win at Old Trafford, dynamic and deadly in Sunday’s win over Arsenal, where AVB’s trademark high line suffocated the opposition. Spurs have fought a seemingly endless battle for North London supremacy, finishing below Arsenal in every Premier League season. That all changed on Sunday, as Villas-Boas’ considered approach outfoxed a veteran who claims his side don’t prepare for anyone. Not bad for a reject of the other London side Spurs now have in their rear view mirror.

While it can be argued that Villas-Boas effectively inherited a Champions League side, there have still been plenty of hurdles for the new man to overcome. The lack of a reliable striker has seen the astonishing Gareth Bale given centre stage, in a way even the freewheeling Redknapp never quite dared. At the other end of the pitch, Villas-Boas dealt with a change of first choice goalkeeper diplomatically - and the form of Hugo Lloris has vindicated this decision. It feels as though the Portuguese prodigy is determined to do things differently this time - and it’s paying off.

AVB has come a long way from the dark nights of last May - but it’s not just at the Lane that he can find signs of quiet satisfaction. His predecessor at Spurs, exactly the kind of gregarious man manager Villas-Boas was compared unfavourably to, is fighting for his reputation in W8*. Chelsea have become embroiled in a crisis so deep, even the chants of “Champions of Europe” are starting to ring a little hollow.

The time for reflection will come after a tricky run of games to close the season. Finish in the top four, ejecting either their fiercest rival or his former employer from Europe’s elite, and AVB will be very much more Bill Nicholson than Christian Gross to the people of N19. More than that, he could complete a yearlong redemption - from the Premier League’s persona non grata to its Manager of the Year. One thing’s for sure right now - André Villas-Boas is back.

Seedorf proves to be perfect fit for Botafogo

17 March 2013

By Iain Pearce

When Clarence Seedorf made his unexpected move from AC Milan to Brazil last summer eyebrows were raised, surprisedly in Europe, excitedly in South America. However, with his Botafogo team being crowned winners in the first stage of the Rio State Championships, the Dutchman’s decision making away from the pitch looks to have been every bit as accurate as it is on it.

Based in the state of Espirito Santo, which borders Rio de Janeiro state’s north-eastern corner, the unofficial uniform for local men, most of whom are coffee farmers, is knock off football shirts- and ordinarily they are Flamengo ones. But as last week stretched on the red and black hoops were gradually replaced by the white and black trims of Botafogo and Vasco de Gama, the teams facing off in the weekend’s Guanabara Trophy final.

At 36, Seedorf’s contract is said to be the most lucrative ever signed by a foreigner in Brazil, and at the end of his first six months the jury remained out as to the success of his arrival. Fogão finished the Brazilian Championship in seventh position, outside of the qualification spots for the Copa Libertadores.

Knee-jerk winter media reports suggested that the four-time Champions League winner was unhappy in Brazil, with even a shock return to Milan rumoured. Seedorf, for his part, refuted the speculation and this year he has made a start to silence even the fiercest of doubters.

Put simply, you can now see that Seedorf is a fit for Brazil. His wife Luviana is from the country, he speaks fluent Portuguese (the man must have a Babel fish, he’s never even lived in England yet his English put Alan Shearer’s to shame on the pundit sofa) and a hat trick against Macaé in his first start of the new year showed clearly that he still wants to be around.

And there’s no doubting the opinion of the Botafogo supporters. In the home end at the club’s Engenhão stadium only Garrincha’s image can rival that of their current hero, company even a player as decorated as Clarance Seedorf must feel honoured to keep.

Brazilians are notoriously flexible with their time keeping, kick offs tend to be gotten around to five or ten minutes later than billed and my town’s public square had plenty of empty chairs facing the big screen as the big match eventually got underway.

Perhaps only the hardcore fans can actually make it out for a first half, but having been five minutes late for the semi final with Flamengo the previous weekend- I had been waiting for some Brazilian friends- I missed the opening goal of Botafogo’s 2-0 victory and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again for the final.

Oswaldo de Oliveira, Fogão’s coach, commented before the game that he believes Seedorf to be still adapting to the Brazilian game and is improving with each appearance. The first period was largely lifeless, but as the second half wore on all manner of things were finally starting to look up. Botafogo were well on top, Seedorf was becoming ever more influential and even the once-empty chairs in my square were now all filled.

However, with ten minutes to go the game was still without goals. Thankfully that was soon to change and there was no doubting that Botafogo’s talisman would play a part in it. His days as a box-to-box midfielder are in the past, but what impresses is that his shortfall in pace is now made up for in nous and guile. Receiving the ball wide left a step over and cut inside moves the defenders out of position. His back heel back down the wing he has recently vacated allows for a cross to be swung in that is eventually swept in by Lucas, making a Cafu-esque charge into the box to join the attack.

Now in front, Fogão have their goalkeeper Jefferson and a Vasco goal generously disallowed for offside to thank for maintaining their lead to the end, but their triumph, though slender, is fully deserved and Botafogo will now play the winners of the Rio Trophy to determine this year’s Rio State Champion.

Within moments of the final whistle the town square is buzzing, vibrating to the sound of boot-opened cars circling and pumping out their Botafogo anthems, still to be heard hours later despite an evening thunderstorm. Flags flap from car windows and larger ones are draped from surrounding balconies. The town has succumbed to a wave of black and white stripes, the Vasco white sashes having faded back indoors as quickly as the stripes emerged.

The year has started well, but time will ultimately be the judge of how successful Clarence Seedorf’s time in Brazil was. However, regardless of what comes to pass it’s easy to see why he made the decision to come here, and how fortunate Brazil has been that he made it.

An open letter from Chelsea FC to you, the fans

15 March 2013

By Nicol Hay

The Ramble has come into the possession of this draft document from the highest levels of the Chelsea executive, leaked by a disgruntled employee. We’re not a liberty to divulge our sources, but we must acknowledge our gratitude to the circle of honour that exists between fellow bloggers.


Dear Loyal Chelsea FC Fan,

We’ve listened.

How could we not? The pride and the passion of the true Chelsea FC supporter is difficult to ignore at any time, but when 41,000 voices sing as one during a fantastic Stamford Bridge matchday, no one could be deaf to their desires.

You want your Chelsea FC back. We want you to have it.

Chelsea FC are therefore delighted to announce that the next permanent First Team Manager will be you, the fans.

Who else could measure up to the high standards of our Club? What traditional manager working in the game today would not be found wanting, or indeed has not had the job for three to five months at some point in the recent past and already been found wanting? We’ve had it with managers, Roman’s had it with managers, and we believe that you’ve had it with managers too.

Managers will always let you down, in the end. They might win a trophy or two, but then they’ll do something unforgivable like oversee an inadequate number of goals scored at home to Everton, or refuse to field a marquee superstar just because he’s failed to find the back of the net in three months – then complain that these are mutually exclusive job requirements and throw an undignified tantrum in Roman’s office, utterly heedless of the damage they’re doing to Chelsea FC’s Brand-Aspiration Proliferation Ratio in emerging markets. Then they just up and leave by completely mutual consent.

Managers are fickle, inefficient and an anachronism in the modern game. Fans though, fans are here forever. That’s why you will make the ideal boss.

How will this exciting innovation work? New media gives us a wealth of opportunities to connect with our hive-mind coaching staff – and our communications partners at Samsung™, Digicel™ Myspace™, and UrbanCarrierPigeonzz™ will enable us to get decisions from your brain to the pitch in a paradigm of real-time synergy unlike anything ever attempted before.

For example, our first order of business is Frank Lampard’s expiring contract. If you, the manager, think that Frank has earned a new deal, text LAMPSYES and the value of the contract you think he deserves in £s p/week to 80085. If however it’s time for the loyal Club servant to move on and enjoy a fresh challenge elsewhere, text LAMPSDOONE instead. We’ll tabulate the results, calculate the average of the proposed contract offer, and if our Handsomeness Profitability Analyst agrees that the numbers look good against the potential shirt sales in Laos – then congratulations! The fans have made their first managerial decision!

New signing targets will be identified by aggregating the comments left beneath articles on caughtoffside.com. Transfer rumours that inspire the most passionate responses from our managers will be pursued most vigorously – so if you want to see, say, Radamel Falcao pulling on the famous blue shirt, get typing. And remember: BLOCK CAPITALS MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD!!!!!!!!!1!!!11!!!!1!

Of course, management isn’t just buying and selling – there’s the games themselves to consider, with tactical details requiring constant refinement by the fine footballing brain of our gestalt coach. We realise you’ll be too enthralled enjoying the fine displays of John, Ashley and the boys to be glancing at your phone, so obviously tweeting your instructions is right out. Instead, we’ve come up with an alternative communication tool that we think you’ll love. It’s something that goes right to the core of what being a Chelsea FC fan is all about, something that is dear to the heart of every one of us with blue blood in our veins.

Flags.

Every seat at the Bridge will come with a highly visible plastic flag (sponsored by JKS Investments and Holdings™, ‘the most visible securities traders in today’s competitive marketplace’®) for each Chelsea FC manager to make their wishes known to the players. Not only will communication be clear, simple and precise; the Stamford Bridge Semaphore Displays will also become a famous sight, intimidating for our opponents and highly marketable for our partner companies. And what’s more, it puts you, the manager, right in charge of the action.

Off the pitch, how will training be handled? It won’t. Training is boring, as evidenced by the fact that no one pays to watch it – therefore we won’t waste your or the players’ precious time with it. This should allow us to spend time during the week focusing on making the Chelsea FC Matchday Experience as thrilling, immersive and passionate as possible!

We’re excited that Chelsea FC is on the forefront of this new venture, and we’re confident that no other Club in the world would even attempt it.

So what do you say gaffer(s)? Are you ready to get to work?

Yours,

Chelsea Football Club.

Tottenham Hotspur - The likeable lads

9 March 2013

By Nicol Hay

Football teams rarely strive to be likeable, partly because there’s only so much striving a body can stand in the course of full season. Instead, they tend to focus their precious strive resources towards scoring goals and being able to locate the nearest spicy chicken restaurant to an accuracy of 1.84 nanometres – being pleasant company for neutrals doesn’t do anything to bring success on the pitch, so there’s no need for those on the championship trail to pursue it.

Indeed, many players at the highest end of the game would actively reject being liked by anyone other than their own supporters as some form of inexcusable weakness. If anyone had told Roy Keane in his pomp that they thought he was nice, he’d probably have beaten them with the shattered remains of Alf-Inge Håland’s kneecap for suggesting he was anything other than an unwavering flinty warrior, hell-bent on the pursuit of victory at all costs.

It’s become such an ingrained convention that those battling with genuine designs on the title generally do so with the antipathy of the general public that it’s hard to figure which comes first in most cases. Does success breed contempt, or is that unlovable aura a symptom of the determination required to haul yourself across the line?

Either way, it’s a nice change of pace this season to be able to welcome a team into the English elite who don’t have a spine compromised of men who’d happily sit texting in the quiet carriage of the train with their keypad tones turned up full, because they’re oblivious to the suffering of others. You have to go back a long way to find a team that’s surfed its way into the top of the table on a wave of public approval as affably as the current Tottenham Hotspur squad has.

How have they managed it? People generally like fast, attacking football because when they don’t have a direct emotional investment in the events on the pitch, they want to see exciting things happening as often as possible. The André Villas-Boas vintage at White Hart Lane – thanks to its Bale/Lennon/Defoe axis of alacrity – is speedier than a caffeinated cheetah and absolutely dedicated to slipping balls in behind sluggish offside traps for that frontline to perform a polished sprint-and-spank into the goal as often as possible.

Furthermore, their personnel have managed to more or less avoid any of the vulgar public displays of wealth and/or Propah Ladz Bantz that can inspire such despair in the neutral’s heart. Put it this way: their midfield destroyer – the man who on another team would be a snarling brute with enough skin scraped from opponents’ shins gathered in his studs to open a serviceable burns unit – is everyone’s favourite stoic Dambusteralike, Scott Parker. Spurs are, largely speaking, gentlemen lead by a gentleman – so much so that they’re actually running a slight risk of falling through the other side of likeability into blandness. Fortunately, any club that fields William Gallas in 17 games this season clearly has a pretty irreverent sense of humour, saving Spurs from suffering the public apathy towards dull personalities.

Most importantly, Spurs aren’t the richest club in the league. Money has always been a powerful magnet for the ire of neutral supporters, feeling as it does like the unfairest of all advantages. Manchester United still have to shoulder the animosity born of two decades of almost constant, suffocating dominance – but the hatred towards that club is nowhere what it was at its late-90s peak, when United were also by some distance the biggest spenders in England. Which should do something to illustrate just distasteful Chelsea’s petro-prosperity is to football fandom at large, as the depressing weight of massive transfer fees and John Terry’s happiness converted the Evil Empire of Mancunia into scrappy rebels.

Though Spurs certainly haven’t built their team by saving up their glass bottles and exchanging them for a slightly used Emmanuel Adebayor, neither have they done so by recklessly adding zero after zero to the bottom line of their contracts until they could field the dazzling strength of Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott. This team has been put together with relative prudence, and with none of the protracted transfer sagas that leave the selling clubs bitter, empty husks.

Tottenham aren’t without their flaws though. There’s the aforementioned Adebayor, currently slumbering his way through his Spurs career, subdued by the lullaby of a recently signed contract. Little infuriates a football fan more than a player who refuses to even pretend to be working for his large salary, and an Adebayor with the cushion of a couple of years of guaranteed money is the poster child for this frustration.

Gareth Bale may be a thrilling player, working his way through the type of hot streak normally found in the underpants of a habitual Tabasco sauce drinker, but that shadow-puppet love heart celebration is too affected to leave his appeal completely unmarred. Then there’s the fact any mild waft of air from a defender blinking forcefully will turn the Welshman’s legs to tapioca. Other nations may laud the cunning of forward/con-man, but in our footballing culture diving makes Bale worse than 20 Mega-Hitlers. Until he wangs in another dipping 30-yarder, and we’re all on Team Bale again. Football fans may be fickle, but at least we’re consistently fickle.

Some might pick fault with Villas-Boas, the cleverest of all clogs, flaunting his youth and his beard and his intelligence and his success that the likes of you or I could never hope to emulate. There are definite elements that would prefer to see Harry Redknapp back in the dugout of a Champions League club, with his cheeky yet humble ways. Personally, I’ve always found Redknapp’s I’m-just-a-simple-cockerney-sparrah personality to be too disingenuous to be truly likeable – a smokescreen to deflect serious questions about some of his more questionable transfer dealings, the way certain players get bought in and frozen out, or his simplistic tactical schemes. I can see why some warm to that more than Villas-Boas’ handsome technocracy, but I for one am on board for his honesty and efficacy.

The problem with likeability is that it implies the flipside of that unlovable/dominance dynamic we discussed earlier. There’s a difficult to shake belief that a team we feel genuine bonhomie towards must implicitly be a plucky underdog, enjoying its brief moment on the big stage before fate casts it back down to the cuddly toy status of mid-table non-achievement where it belongs. Spurs have left their emergence into top-quality a little too late to worry the title this season, but second is a real target, and if they can keep Bale on board and add a striker of genuine class for next term, there’s every chance that the nice guys could win it all before we inevitably change our minds and decide that they’re pricks instead.

Why always him?

8 March 2013

By Steven Maloney

Mario Balotelli has commissioned a statue of… wait for it… himself. Just in case the situation arises where Mario forgets what he looks like, or gets nostalgic for his younger days, or wonders what he looks like in marble form; all he has to do is look out his window and there you go, problem solved. 

Wait, what do you mean the story’s not true?

The legend of Mario Balotelli’s statue inspires me to make two points.

First, I think that it is an awful shame that the story is not true. If I were Mario Balotelli, I would totally build a statue of myself. I would especially build a statue of myself if it were the rumored Euro 2012 post-Germany “flex-goal celebration” statue. Hello! That was an awesome goal, and Mario looks terrific in his celebratory pose all muscular and shirtless. The pose says what the goal itself said, “I’m the man.” And there is Italian precedent for doing things of this nature. Cosimo de Medici, for example, got his face superimposed on the Fountain of Neptune.  Sure, the statue only recreates his face and not his body, but Cosmio’s physique more resembled Super Mario Brothers than Super Mario Balotelli. If you’re Balotelli, why not go the distance? After all, when people make statues of gods, the physique of the Gods looks like Mario Baltoelli’s body in real life. If you happened to have one of these bodies, are you telling me this would somehow not be cause for celebration?

Second, it still says a lot about Mario Balotelli’s life that for two whole days before the denials came out, absolutely no one seemed to believe that the story was false. Mario Balotelli has entered what American sports writer Bill Simmons refers to as “The Tyson Zone.” For the uninitiated (and the too lazy to click on the hyperlink), the “Tyson Zone” is when an athlete and/or other famous person has behaved so erratically that there is literally no story that could be told about them in which you could be immediately certain that the story is false. Balotelli’s brief life and times have reached the point (zenith or nadir, you decide) where the statue story is not only immediately easy to believe as true, but it would actually be one of the more boring stories you know about the man! This is, after all, a man’s who deeds have—in his most excessive moments—included:   

- Returning a bullied child to his classroom and telling off the bullies in the middle of the class.
- Throwing darts at the Manchester City Youth team from a first floor window.
- Setting his house on fire because he lit fireworks inside of his own house.
- Getting into a horrific car accident after his girlfriend learned he’d had been cheating on her… with the same former call girl who had allegedly had an affair with Wayne Rooney. 

Does, “commissioned statue of himself” really seem so out of place on this list? I’m going to vote “no.” 

I suppose I should predicate what I am about to say now by making explicit that I do not condone affairs, high speed car accidents, lighting fireworks indoors, or throwing gravity-assisted darts at young people’s heads. With those warnings aside, how great is this guy for football?

One can find other footballers with huge egos that seem to altogether live in their own universe, but how many of the people on your mental list are older players? This is a statistic that not enough people are paying attention to in world football. The average age of eccentric footballers living insanely outsized lives is rising dramatically. Forget pension crises, the bigger generational concern should be that it is only so long before the older generation of football greats heads off into the sunset forever and then we are left with a deficit of outrageously weird footballers.

The current paradigms of youth development, like Barcelona’s La Masia and the German youth national system, churn out early to bed, early to rise disciplined kids who love their country, their moms and believe that it’s bad form to speak out of turn. That’s all well and good if you want to live a healthy and successful life by using the established rules of hard work, discipline, and respect. But every generation needs their daredevils as well. Those few brave souls who are not content to take the road well travelled, but dare to be excellent while also constantly doing things that should be destroying both body and mind. Cristiano Ronaldo is possibly the world’s best player because he is probably one of the fittest human beings to have ever lived. Brazilian Ronaldo was possibly the world’s best player in his day while practically eating a ham sandwich while playing. While Cristiano Ronaldo went the extra mile in physical conditioning, Brazilian Ronaldo went the extra mile in creating impediments that should have prevented his success and not caring about them. That requires greatness to overcome.

In today’s media obsessed, corporate world of top-flight football, boring is the new interesting. To truly appreciate Mario, you need to understand that we are witnessing the catanaccio era of footballers having a personality. In this era, Mario Balotelli is the Marcelo Bielsa of the back page. Some say his tactics are naïve and foolish, but I for one want to believe that a more open and interesting era can follow behind his daring lead. 

To rant or not to rant

8 March 2013

By Jake Farrell

It is only a matter of time before some enterprising production company ropes in a two bit celebrity and releases a festive DVD anthologising “The best manager rants of all time!” I can see it now, complete with a gaudy front cover and accompanied by excruciating TV adverts. Just wait; “Rory McGrath’s Mouthy Managers!” will be in stockings come December.

There would be a wealth of content from recent years to prop up such a spurious concept as managerial “tirades” now seem to turn up with crushing regularity. Realistically they aren’t half as sensational as they seem and only appear to glitter with lurid detail when compared relatively to the banal horse shit that usually spews from manager’s mouths. Fans and pundits greedily accept them regardless, like a war time evacuee coveting Spam due of the paucity of other options.

That these “outbursts” occur is not at all surprising. The average Premier League manager spends more time in front of a microphone, listening to Ed Chamberlain through an earpiece or sitting on a well lit sofa with Dan Walker than with their wife and kids. Given the pressure they are under surely we can just shrug when they inevitably say slightly mental stuff? Apart from Harry Redknapp, who employs a full time team of writers to craft homely witticisms about his wife Sandra, these men are independent content generators fashioning completely sterile cliches for the baying media hounds. Let’s treat them in the kindly coaxing way that you would a dog found abandoned on a building site or a Kings of Leon fan – they need our love, not our Twitter jokes.

Rafa Benitez did not get empathetic treatment when he apparently went berserk last week. Whilst there was an element of drama in his honesty what dear Rafa did was not in fact “rant” but state objective fact. Admittedly #Rafastatesobjectivefact doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but that was no excuse for Twitter to react as though the Spaniard had launched into an a cappella version of “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child live on air.

I’ll admit; I got caught up in it. I was frantically tweeting and scribbling in my Moleskine diary, desperately remembering every thought and feeling for posterity, freezing my generation’s “Where was I moment?” in time. Then I remembered that everything I had just heard Benitez say was blatantly obvious to the world before he said it and got on with my life.

We need to learn to assign rant status to genuinely off the wall statements. Rafa has form in this department. When he accused Roy Hodgson of being “a priest on a mountain of sugar” that was really quite demented and fully deserving of some kind of hashtag. When Hodgson memorably responded the following week by entering the Liverpool press room stripped to the waist, covered in Sammy Lee’s blood and chanting “Let’s have it Rafa!” in Swedish – now that was a rant. Bat shit craziness of a similar level to these two examples should be a pre-requisite if an interview with a football manager is going to trend on social media.

Managers saying odd things is a by-product of the stress that their job puts them under (in Benitez’s case a very particular kind of stress that he was reacting to) and the relentless media attention that they are subjected to. Arsene Wenger will remain obstinate and tetchy in the face of all evidence, Fergie will sneeringly call Newcastle “a wee club in the North East” to score cheap points and Mick McCarthy will continue to swear like a “The Thick of It” cast member in interview . This petty point scoring and acrimonious discourse is part of the rolling news circus and the insatiable, monotonous demand for quotation; it’s so constant that they invariably snap and say something weird seemingly once a month. Let’s keep this in mind and only use the word rant the next time Rafa gets on the LSD and starts talking about Gary Megson being in a syrup canyon or something. All the rest is just noise.

Gareth Bale sparks superlative shortage

5 March 2013

By Al Horner

It’s the storm that has rocked journalism to its already-rickety foundations. Further hacking revelations? Worse. Writers the country over have this week been scrambling with increasing desperation for words to describe Spurs winger Gareth Bale, who has sparked the worst superlative drought in British sports writing history.

“There were so many in the beginning. Brilliant. Beguiling. Barnstorming,” whimpered a bedraggled Henry Winter, cradling himself in a deserted Telegraph sports desk where cabinets have been bundled over and set aflame. “But he just kept playing better and better till… they just… ran out. We used them all. Why didn’t we listen?”

A twitching Oliver Holt at this point limps over from the shadows, barely recognisable beneath the sea-captains’ beard that has sprung up over his face in the wake of the crisis, to add: “You’ve more chance of Tony Pulis winning GQ Man of the Year than of finding an original adjective for the lad, it’s that bad. Honestly. It’s like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road out there. But with words, like.”

The Sun - who were fortunate enough to happen across the word ‘un-Bale-ievable’ under a sheet of moss in a wooded area near Stevenage to put on their back page after the Welshman’s match winning performance at West Ham - are understood to be launching a last-ditch campaign aimed at urging Bale to stop being so bloody great all the time, the bastard.

“The fear is if he continues to blast through defences, scoring from the sort of distance you’d normally associate with a Chris Brown restraining order, we might just run out of words altogether,” remarked a source at the tabloid. “We worried at half time against Arsenal the 23-year-old might get another, or even a hat trick. We could have feasibly ended up on Monday morning with the first completely blank newspaper back page in publishing history. Which, mind you, would be about the closest thing to a clean sheet Arsenal are likely to get these days. But that’s another matter.”

In seriousness, and in fairness to the nation’s press, Bale’s form of late is the sort that demands hyperbole. 10 goals in 2013 so far make him the Premier League’s most prolific scorer – quite the feat for a player who, unlike the players he’s surpassed – Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez for instance – isn’t deployed as a striker but as a marauding midfielder, ghosting in from wide positions.

Even without the Welshman at his scintillating best in Sunday’s North London derby, it was his contributions that turned a previously fiercely fought contest at White Hart Lane in Spurs’ favour: a run that split the Arsenal defence and tidy finish that Arsene Wenger’s side never recovered from.

“We’re running out of things to say about Gareth Bale,” began Sky Sports’ coverage of yesterday’s North London derby. On this form, no wonder.

Five of the non-league’s hottest properties

2 March 2013

By Matthew Rogerson

The Premier League and Football League are full of players who learned their trade in non-league or even Sunday and pub football. The likes of Bradford’s James Hanson and West Brom’s Craig Dawson both know what it’s like to start at the bottom, playing in conditions that would make a ‘wet and windy Tuesday night in Stoke’ seem veritably tropical.

Hanson, having been released by Huddersfield as a schoolboy, worked up from Sunday football through the non-leagues before eventually securing a move from Blue Square Bet North side Guiseley to Bradford City. Similarly Dawson was working at, and playing for, a Manchester pub when he got offered the chance to join Radcliffe Borough and the rest, as they say, is history.

Not all non-league starlets go through that route, with others not getting sufficient chances at high-level clubs and then being snapped up by shrewd non-league managers when they are released.

So, who are the ones to watch in non-league at the minute and how likely are they to be on the move in the near future?

Andre Gray

Luton forward Andre Gray is arguably the Blue Square Bet Premier’s hottest property. After starting life at Shrewsbury Town he trickled down the leagues before hitting form at Hinckley United.

He then got his big move to Luton and hasn’t looked back. A quick, pacy forward with an eye for goal, he notched at Wembley in last year’s play-off final and is also a regular fixture in the England C squad.

Millwall were rumoured to be interested in him but he still has around two years on his contract so any bid to land him would need to be a big one.

Antoni Sarcevic

One of the driving forces of Chester FC’s Blue Square Bet North season, midfielder Sarcevic has a goal tally of 11, which most strikers would be pretty pleased with, let alone someone who operates in the centre of the park.

He started off at Crewe before dropping down to Woodley Sports and promptly moving to the Exacta Stadium, with Chester quickly tying him down on a permanent deal after an initial loan spell.

At just 20 years old he is only going to get better and if the Blues do self destruct and miss out on promotion, there could be a few Conference sides in for him.

Have a look at this special goal to see what all the fuss is about.

Ross Allen

Guernsey striker Ross Allen has a goal record that could almost see him mixing it in the Dean Windass Hall of Fame, so brace yourself goal fiends. The 2010 Channel Islands Sports Personality of the Year nominee has bagged 113 goals in 73 games for the club, making quite a name for himself as a result.

Boss Tony Vance believes he is well capable of going professional while assistant Colin Fallaize is intent on keeping him at the club.

“Scoring goals is what Ross loves doing and that’s what he does. Sometimes it’s sublime, sometimes it’s orthodox and sometimes it’s unorthodox but whatever it is, he’ll score,” he enthused to the BBC recently.

Duncan Watmore

Altrincham’s winger-cum-forward Duncan Watmore is easily one of the Blue Square Bet North’s best players. What sets him apart from the rest? He’s only just turned 18.

Described as an “exception” by gaffer Lee Sinnott, Watmore has electric pace, as can be witnessed with this fine solo effort, and he also has an eye for goal and excellent ball control.

Currently a student, he prefers to spend his time tormenting defences across the country rather than larging it in the union, and is likely to remain at Moss Lane until he’s finished his studies.

However, that’s not stopped clubs such as Peterborough expressing an interest, with Darren Ferguson confirming to the Peterborough Telegraph that, in a non-sinister way, he would “carry on looking at him”.

“We have been made aware of Watmore and we’ve been monitoring him for a while,” he confirmed.

Jamie White

As the Blue Square Bet South’s leading scorer, Salisbury’s Jamie White will no doubt have alerted clubs of a higher stature to his ability as he looks to climb his way back up the leagues.

He started at Southampton, playing three games for the first team, before dropping down to play for a number of clubs in the south of England, with his most successful stint being a 51-goal period at Winchester City.

Salisbury snapped him up and he’s helped power them to joint-top position in the league and, at just 23, if they don’t gain promotion, they could have a fight on their hands to keep him.

These are just a handful of the best talents available and, if clubs have their scouting networks doing their job, they could pick up a real bargain who is hungry to work up the leagues, as opposed to signing someone coming the other way and on the hunt for a last pay cheque.

Seen a player at your local non-league club that could do it at a higher level? Who? Drop it in the comments section below.

Prodigal problems, hometown solutions

2 March 2013

By Nicol Hay

It says as much about the state of the Scottish game as it does about his actual ability, but the fact remains that a mere whisper of James McFadden’s name still excites pangs in hearts of the Tartan Army.

Three and half years on from his last Scotland goal – two and half on from the last time he even played a full 90 minutes – and there’s still the forlorn hope that McFadden could one day again pull on a dark blue jersey and inject some fantasy into Scotland’s latest doomed adventure in tournament qualification.

So it was on a torrent of goodwill the McFadden surfed back in to the SPL this week, signing a short-term deal at Motherwell in an effort to reclaim fitness, match sharpness and a smidgen of youthful glory. The thought of McFadden in claret and amber instantly evokes memories of an irrepressible teenager with truly atrocious hair, waltzing through stodgy defences, scoring for fun, and being labelled Scotland’s ‘cheeky boy’ by Bertie Vogts in a cultural reference that dates the winger’s golden era with leaden finality in a way that only a novelty chart-topper can.

There’s been a minor rash of these prodigal players in recent years, returning to the clubs that made them stars after spending a few seasons in the harsh undertow of journeyman reality in larger footballing ponds. Hibernian welcomed back their talented-but-difficult strike pairing of Garry O’Connor and Derek Riordan from their failed excursions to the remote outposts of Moscow and Glasgow. Aberdeen has seen former club captain Russell Anderson re-establish himself as a solid if unspectacular SPL player at a solid if unspectacular SPL club after failing to make much impact on the peoples of Sunderland, Plymouth or Derby.

Andy Webster – a vital part of the Hearts team that won the 2006 Scottish Cup – returned to Tynecastle after a bizarre four and half year stretch of futility and injury that saw him play just 14 games for Wigan, Rangers and Bistol City – though that was interrupted by a season-long loan at Dundee United where he managed 31 games while captaining the team to the 2010 Scottish Cup. Since returning to Edinburgh, Webster has been largely injury-free and managed yet another Scottish Cup triumph – rather suggesting that he can only maintain health and well being if he can smell the North Sea from his back garden.

Then just last week – a few days after McFadden held a Motherwell scarf above his head and said cheese for the local press – the SPL’s all-time leading goalscorer (and Middlesbrough’s joint 1846th all-time leading goalscorer) Kris Boyd announced his return to Kilmarnock.

Though Boyd does not carry the same romantic cachet as McFadden – and as his place as a lower-level volume scorer with unproven national team credentials is currently being filled by Jordan Rhodes, there’s no great clamour for him to find form and force his way into Gordon Strachan’s thinking – the sheer statistical urgency of those 164 goals in 296 league games have a bewildering effect on Scottish minds, coming as they did from the boots of a man who never seemed all that interested in tactical nuance or hard running or even moving more than strictly necessary. Boyd’s return is – in tandem with McFadden’s – intriguing mainly as first step in a referendum on whether SPL quality can ever translate to a more elevated stage.

The relative successes of the returns of Riordan, O’Connor, Anderson and Webster are all well and good, but all they have managed to achieve by returning to the bosom of the fans that nurtured their on-pitch adolescence is to confirm that they are merely good players up to a certain level. McFadden’s skill and Boyd’s penalty-box instincts carried greater expectations when they set off on their ill-fated tours beyond these parochial shores. If these two can rediscover some of the old magic on their old patches, and use it spring back out into the world, perhaps we can write off their failures as being victims of circumstance. If this injury or that incommodious team set-up hadn’t got in the way, perhaps we might have seen their SPL successes transfer into the wider world, rather than having to watch our heroes flounder on the sidelines as younger, sexier, foreign-ier players took their rightful spots.

The depressing alternative is that McFadden and Boyd become mired back in the SPL grind, and like their prodigal cousins before them accept their destiny as local lads, chained forever to their locale. At that point – if our best and most prolific prospects accept they cannot flourish anywhere else – we may have to pack up the rest of our exports as a job lot, smuggling Charlie Adam out of Stoke under the cover of midnight, back to his true calling as the hub of St Mirren’s midfield.

The early signs aren’t great for McFadden, it has to be said. Across the highlights of the two matches he’s played during his Motherwell comeback so far, his name is mentioned only twice – once when he comes on for his second debut against Dundee United, and once as he fails to touch the ball during an attack, seconds before Ross County score a match-killing second goal on the break. Is it fair to judge a player whose combined minutes on the pitch over the last three years would barely last as long as disc one of a Mad Men boxset? Absolutely not, so let’s keep hoping that the magic still lives on in the Cheeky Boy, despite his weathered face and male pattern baldness brought on by three and half seasons playing for Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City.

The good news for McFadden is that his next game is against a Hearts defence that seems to be locked in an ongoing performance art piece titled ‘What Is Marking?’ Perhaps a quick hat trick or two at Tynecastle will give him the confidence he needs to make another push into the world outside the SPL and become the player that Scotland fans still hope he can be.

Embrace your inner hipster

23 February 2013

By Nicol Hay

Many of you will have assumed, given my status as a regular contributor to The Football Ramble, that I am an incredibly cool individual. You are of course 100% correct.

As a football blogger, my livelihood depends on me being ahead of the edge, on the cutting pulse, my finger on the curve. If I’m not full to the brim with the sort of vital new information about the worldwide development of the game that you, as a mere plodding Premier League watcher, have no conception of, I am nothing. While you wonder if Lamps doesn’t have another year in him after all, I’m pondering how Colombia are going to be a World Cup dark horse if they can find a reliable centre-half; how Gōtoku Sakai will be one of the best right backs in the world within the next five years; and how Viktoria Plzeň’s precision counter-attacking in their 3-0 victory over Napoli should come as no surprise to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of recent Gambrinus Liga history.

I am, in short, such a football hipster I could be used as a point of articulation between Rinus Michels’ thigh and pelvis.

So I know Borussia Dortmund and Shakhtar Donetsk, believe me, I know. I have a Top Five Favourite Darijo Srna free-kicks. I have strong opinions on whether Kevin Großkreutz should be developed as a winger, full-back or support stirker. I can spell ‘Shakhtar’ without checking. A Champions League tie between the two quick-passing, space pressing, forward-interchanging beacons of haute tactiques is so right up my alley it’s scaring the foxes away from my bins.

Why did I watch Real Madrid v Manchester United instead then?

On paper, it should have been a simple choice for the connoisseur seeking turf-bound elegance. Do you watch the collection of surly superstars, burned out by extended exposure to unstable Mourinhium radiation, versus a midfield mirage and a strike-partnership so mismatched that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau will be playing them in the movie adaptation? Or do you rather opt for the finest blend of flair and industry since Liberace opened an ore smelting plant?

And yet… I couldn’t get the sheer weight of Real vs United out of my head. Not just the game-specific storylines of Cristiano playing against his alma mater, or the potential baton-pass between the generations of victory-fixated managerial paradigms. Nor just the season defining potential of the tie for a old-stager looking for the last big score to round out his unprecedentedly glittering career, or the club that defines itself by success attempting to obliterate a mediocre campaign by stamping its ownership all over the biggest trophy in the game. It was the big clubs, big players, big money – the big everything – that caught my attention.

I want to be someone who chooses the matches he watches entirely on the merits of the product on the pitch, but that’s just not how anyone engages with football. The celebrities, the soap opera, the dizzying personality cults are all such an obviously vital part of the game’s appeal that it actually bears stating to make sure we’re aware it’s happening. We’ve all oohed and ahhed over a YouTube clip of a sixty-yard overhead net burster rocketing from the foot of an amateur Bahraini goalkeeper - but it’s the context, the knowledge and the appertaining prestige that lodge a goal of similar technical élan from Messi so much more thoroughly in the memory.

Oddly, it is exactly this appeal of personality that leads fans to choose to follow lower league sides over more storied names. Whether its because of the connection felt to a local institution, or the preference for a more ‘honest’ footballing environment, the urge to stand in a terraced shed cheering on a moderately talented bricklayer in a pair of Predators is every bit as much a decision based on personality over content as the boy from Arbroath who cheers on Chelsea because he thinks Juan Mata’s eyebrows are cool.

But then, aren’t hipsters – in the cultural sense of the term – the ones who are meant to be seeking out objects, art and identity based on their edgy context or quirky personality regardless of their actual quality? That’s the reason why they wear jeans so skinny they threaten their fertility instead of just kicking back and admitting that the Saturdays have got some great tunes, actually? By constantly turning up to watch our local clubs instead of the objectively highest quality match on at that time, aren’t we all football hipsters?

All I know is that the Real/United game was soundly entertaining, and by the looks of the highlights and the forlorn tweets of the truly committed Mircea Lucescu-philes, so was Shakhtar/Dortmund. Any time you have a choice of matches, listen to your heart and go with the one that interests you most at that time – it’s all football, it’s all good.

That said, there’s no way I’m watching Arsenal vs Bayern Munich when there’s a Porto/Málaga match to be had at the same time. I’ll be sitting on a Fairtrade beanbag, wearing a hemp cardigan, getting my Isco on. Because it’ll be cool.

Mile’s Magic

23 February 2013

By Kieran Pender

If one thing can be said about the playing career of Mile Jedinak, it’s that he does not do anything in half measures. In the space of two years, the dominant midfielder went from state league football to the Australian national team. And now, several seasons on, Jedinak has burst into the Crystal Palace starting side to become a key player.

After starting his career with Sydney United, the defensive midfielder made a brief switch to Croatia, before returning home to a short term contract with A-League side Central Coast Mariners. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, and a rocky start saw Jedinak complement his football with study and some part-time work in a family member’s office. Eventually the appearances began to flow, and Jedinak helped his team capture the Premier’s Plate in 2008 before accepting a permanent move to Turkey.

Despite regular game time during his stints at Gençlerbirliği and Antalyaspor, Jedinak decided to seek new challenges in the middle of 2011 and secured the release of his contract. An offer from Crystal Palace was eventually forthcoming, and the midfielder followed the footsteps of many Australian footballers in heading to the British Isles.

Having missed the pre-season, and perhaps a little over eager to impress, Jedinak initially struggled to adapt to the Championship, showing his international quality but also making silly mistakes and losing possession easily. Although he eventually settled, an injury in March cut short the Sydneysider’s season just as he was showing real talent.

Nonetheless, with the lure of a promotion campaign on offer, Jedinak rejected a lucrative deal from the Middle East prior to the start of the current campaign, a decision that could prove shrewd if the Eagles can propel themselves into Premier League football.

From Palace’s 33 games played at the time of writing, Jedinak has notched up 30 appearances. Having missed two recent games due to injury, and being forced to sit out one game due to suspension, the robust midfielder has therefore started in every game he was available to play. Not a bad improvement on last season, where he was named in the starting XI a respectable but not outstanding 29 times throughout the season.

Along with cementing his position in the Palace midfield, Jedinak was also promoted from vice-captain to skipper, due to a groin injury suffered by usual captain Paddy McCarthy. After an initially rocky start to life at Selhurst Park, the Australian has not only become one of the first names on the team sheet, but also a key leadership figure – in just over a year and a half.

Speaking to the Croydon Advertiser in October, the 28-year-old was quick to express delight at being given the armband.

“Being captain is something I’m thriving on and it’s a great responsibility that has been instilled in me…to lead the current bunch of boys is a great privilege.”

Jedinak’s impressive performances for the Eagles – which led some to claim he was the most important player in a team containing the likes of Wilfried Zaha – did not stay secret for long however. Rumours surfaced during the transfer window’s tail end of interest from Stoke City, although nothing eventuated and the midfielder remained at Selhurst Park – to the undoubted relief of manager Ian Holloway.

That relief quickly turned to disappointment though, as Jedinak suffered a broken eye socket after receiving an elbow in the face during Palace’s clash with Huddersfield. Despite initial fears for his eyesight, the Sydney United youth product recovered well and returned two weeks later against Middlesbrough. The quick turnaround wasn’t enough to placate a furious Holloway, with the outspoken boss launching a passionate attack in his Mirror Football column.

“He looked like he had gone 15 rounds with a young Mike Tyson. I was incensed – and so were my players. In fact, I can’t remember ever feeling as angry in my life before.”

Another manager disappointed by the injury was Australian number one Holger Osieck, who was forced to drop the no-nonsense mid from his Socceroos squad to take on Romania. After playing a bit part role with the national team for several years, Jedinak has recently muscled his way into the team, in part due to several impressive performances at the 2011 Asian Cup.

As the ‘Roos fought to the competition final, ultimately finishing runners-up to Japan, Jedinak scored two important goals and hasn’t looked back since. Alongside Carl Valeri, the midfield pairing have added dynamism and work rate to the national team, and could both play vital roles in a tricky set of forthcoming World Cup qualifiers.

With Premier League promotion on the cards and an increasingly assured position in the Socceroos starting line-up, Jedinak would have every reason to smile and look forward to good things ahead. But if his on field attitude is some indication, the midfielder won’t be taking anything for granted.

At what point does a good goalkeeper go bad?

12 February 2013

By Nicol Hay

How many mistakes did you make today?

(and let’s get the ‘clicking on this article’ reply out into the public domain as quickly as possible, before commenting wags snap their knuckles trying to be the first to slip that gem below the line…)

Chances are, even if you’re really good at your job – a colossus of asset investment management, or a software solutions analyst of unparalleled renown – you’ll have two to three moments every week where you inhale sharply and hope that no one looks too closely at the calculations you did before lunch when your mind was full of the promise of impending sandwiches. The further chances are you’ll get away with it, because you’re fortunate enough to be someone that the world is paying very little attention to. Embrace your anonymity, and count your lucky stars that you’re not a goalkeeper.

Even the great goalies have a few high-profile moments where their grip deserted them, or they leapt confidently into a patch of air where a dangerous cross empathically wasn’t. As football fans, we accept this though, knowing that the occasional howler is part of the keeper’s trade, and that Banks, Yashin, Zoff, Schmeichel, Kahn, Buffon, Casillas and their fellows in the gloved pantheon would return to tip a fizzer over the bar another day.

But how many mistakes are they allowed before they stop being great keepers? Where’s the tipping point? And has Joe Hart stumbled over that line, ball in hand, conceding a soft equaliser in the process?

From a very young age, Joe Hart was marked out as a Good Goalkeeper. His reputation at Shrewsbury preceded him – knowledge of his sharp reflexes and authoritative yet easy-going presence had all the wise heads that monitor such things nodding in mild astonishment at the shrewd move by Manchester City (who at that point were still the league’s cuddly toy, associated more with haphazard vaudeville than canny footballing decisions) in signing the lad.

Hart’s reputation was partly built on his undoubted talents, and partly on the rabid hunger within the English game for someone, anyone, capable of catching a cross while Lampard and Gerrard stood nearby, pointedly failing to discuss which of them should be sitting while the other bombed on. England hadn’t enjoyed competence between the sticks since a pre-ponytail David Seaman bounced around the goalmouth sporting a haircut that nobody at the time would have believed would be one day looked back on with fondness. The nineties were, in many ways, a more innocent era.

As Seaman’s deterioration into looking like a horse cosplaying as a village postman pushed him into ever-more lobbable positions, he eventually gave way to England’s Era of Uncertainty – an eight-year long period of flaps, fumbles and divots as David James, Paul Robinson, Scott Carson and Rob Green all took turns to drop more bollocks than a clumsy gender-reassignment surgeon.

Hart managed to ascend to the first-choice keeper at Man City during the Thai millions/Swedish managerial lothario era that served as a chrysalis stage between the club’s slapstick and petrodollar juggernaut identities. Even though he had to spend a season of harsh apprenticeship at Birmingham while Mark Hughes allowed Shay Given to frolic in the number one jersey, the sheer tsunami of public spirit, willing the English lad to play, willing him to be good, willing him to solve all the national team’s problems for a decade to come ousted the Irishman and ushered Hart and his newly laden yoke of expectant pressure into the limelight.

And he was good! Consistent, focused and mature beyond his years – unfazed by the sudden influx of serious money, which made the previous influx seem like a crumpled fiver found in a forgotten jeans pocket – Hart was one of the rocks that Roberto Mancini’s first full season was built upon.

But this term, errors have started to creep into his game. Failures to collect, misjudgements in positioning and the latest gaffe, a calamitous spacing of his elbows for Southampton’s second goal that must have sorely tested the Match of the Day editor’s resolve to not add a sad trombone sting to the replays. Roy Keane labelled Hart ‘cocky’ when his mistimed punch led to a Polish equaliser in October’s World Cup qualifier, and it may well be that the young man is starting to believe his own hype.

The counter-argument would be that as Hart plays more games, his number of career errors will rise as a statistical inevitability. The counter-counter-argument would ask why Hart gets the benefit of the doubt while the equally precocious David de Gea gets slated over a similar blunder rate in the Manchester United goal. Could it be that overwhelming public hunger for Hart to be a great English keeper is shielding him from much of the criticism that De Gea – as a foreigner who looks like a beatnik giraffe with no such incipient goodwill – is having to weather?

What is the exact ratio of saves to slip-ups that divides an occasionally flawed genius like Cláudio Taffarel from an occasionally brilliant clown like Fabien Barthez? Is all down to perception? If David James, for instance, had risen to prominence in any team other than a Liverpool squad who epitomised style over substance, would he have carried that ‘Calamity’ tag quite so harshly throughout his career?

For now, England expects Joe Hart to match his youthful promise and capability, and march on into the custodian’s pantheon with his intermittent ricks failing to blemish his magnificence. However, if there are many more flubs like that on display at St Mary’s, then Jack Butland may soon find himself the focus of that ravenous public desire instead.

Last chance saloon for US womens’ football

10 February 2013

By Kieran Theivam

In just a couple of months the United States will be hoping it’s third time lucky for women’s football as the new National Women’s Soccer League kicks off - with hope, hype and apprehension attached to it.

The eight team competition was given the go-ahead in November last year and aims to be every bit as entertaining as previously run women’s professional soccer leagues in America, with the likes of Kelly Smith and Marta having graced the US shores in the past.

However, despite the unquestionable quality and the continuing rise in popularity of women’s soccer in America, there have been issues in previous years with finances and sustainability. Two leagues have struggled and eventually collapsed in the last ten years.

Despite being one of only a few leagues to be professional (the English WSL is semi-professional) and being able to entice some of the world’s best players, women’s professional soccer in America has struggled to match the attendances and TV viewing figures that the national team attracts.

On the back of the United States’ World Cup win in 1999, the Women’s United Soccer Association league was formed in 2001, which looked to build on American soccer’s greatest ever achievement.

Unfortunately, the league struggled after initial promise, eventually falling apart and collapsing in 2003.

U.S Soccer authorities tried again in 2009 with the launch of the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) League, but again, this lasted only three seasons, with players forced to join international training camps or seek other clubs.

There is much hope that the NWSL will be more sustainable and financially viable, while maintaining the entertainment of women’s football and its marketing value.

The U.S national team players will have their salaries paid by U.S Soccer, while some players from Canada and Mexico will also see their federations pay their wages.

Clubs are likely to play in smaller stadiums to reduce costs, while the number of elite international players from abroad seems to have significantly dropped, if early signs are anything to go by.

While almost every member of the U.S Women’s National Team will be involved in the league, teams appear to have shunned big international names that have played in America in the past.

With the exception of the players from Canada and Mexico, only a few internationals have been hand-picked from abroad, including Wales’ Jess Fishlock, who has joined former Arsenal boss Laura Harvey in Seattle, and Australia’s Anna De Vanna, who has joined Sky Blue.

That said, this may not be entirely down to the league in America, but could be down to other nations bridging the gap.

We all know about the English WSL and how it is taking the steps to raise its profile and attendances, and this has seen the league maintain almost all of its big players - with the exception of Fishlock, who was named the WSL Player of the Season in 2012.

Add to this the quality in France, Germany and Sweden, players now appear to have the view that while America is still a huge attraction, they don’t need to go stateside to fulfil their footballing ambitions.

The pull of Europe seems to be ever increasing in women’s football, which was emphasised when US internationals Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath joined Olympique Lyonnais and Paris St Germain respectively.

While Heath’s move to Paris will not have made the headlines David Beckham’s did, this was still a significant coup for the ambitious French side; as a result of their moves, Heath and Rapinoe will miss the first two months of the league season.

The U.S, Canada and Mexico internationals have been evenly distributed amongst the eight teams, while the top players from colleges across the country have been allocated through a draft system - similar to that used in the NFL and NBA.

A supplementary draft took place this week, containing free agents and college players, with the eight squads now almost complete.

While the league is lacking the international talent of previous years, there is still enough quality there to ensure it will pull fans through the turnstiles.

Much will rest on the U.S international players’ popularity to keep people engaged, but to make the league successful, the key factor will be the authorities learning from previous mistakes.

Two failed attempts at launching a sustainable league make this latest challenge all the more significant, and you have to wonder if it fails again, will this be the final nail in the coffin for professional soccer in America?

Let’s certainly hope not, and let’s hope those running the league learn from previous mistakes, and build on the success of the national team, who continue to excel and produce some of the world’s finest players.

Tempting fate with Tottenham Hotspur

6 February 2013

By Nicol Hay

Hang on to your hats sports fans, for I am about to unleash an Opinion of devastating insight and boldness. Tremble as I inform you that the team who finished fourth last season – then went on to significantly upgrade their personnel in goals, defence, midfield and the dugout – are pretty good this year too.
Take a moment to process that bombshell.

It shouldn’t be so difficult to throw lusty praise at André Villas-Boas’ smoothly evolving Spurs sensation, but there’s something about this season that’s making even bigger fools than usual of those who try to make concrete observations on the Premier League’s turbulent undulations.

Already this term, the football writing hive-mind has lauded West Brom’s exemplary and completely sustainable assault on the Champions League positions, while writing off Reading as woefully unprepared for the rigours of performing under the microscope of Jamie Redknapp’s scintillating analysis. We’ve hailed Newcastle for maintaining the blueprint that brought them to the brink of the elite, lambasted them as relegation-certainties, then installed them as favourites for a European spot, depending on the fluctuating levels of healthy Frenchmen the changing-room.

We even decided for a hot minute that Aston Villa had clicked into place and were the dynamic face of England’s young future, before 15 unanswered goals over the Christmas period altered that narrative as quickly as a sub-editor trying to make entertaining copy out of the first draft of Michael Owen’s memoirs.

But even with those cautionary tales from the recent past lurking over my shoulder – whispering snidely about how convinced I was that Stewart Downing would spend the rest of his Liverpool career on the bench, plotting his inevitable transfer to the Queens Park Rangers 2004 Appreciation Society – I should be filled with unqualified optimism for Tottenham’s immediate future, right? Spurs have settled into a formation that takes full advantage of their range of technically able, dynamic central midfielders and blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em speedy wingers – becoming the type of team that inspires Villas-Boas to craft a fawning 50-slide PowerPoint lecture. They’re as direct as a Jeremy Paxman question, yet as fluid as a Cabinet Minister’s response.

It’s been two months since they last lost a Premier League match. Gareth Bale has kicked up yet another gear in his apparently ceiling-less career progression, already having scored more goals this season that last in just over half as many games. Even Aaron Lennon has been moulded into a consistently useful, tactically vital part of the Tottenham machine, rather than his previous incarnation as Theo Walcott without the searing football nous.

So what could go wrong? The squad’s depth at striker is an ongoing concern, after some classic Daniel Levy prolonging-the-magic transfer negotiation left Leandro Damião cooling his heels in Porto Alegre and idly leafing through a Rough Guide to the Russian Premier League at the end of the winter transfer window. In the short term, Spurs fans will be hoping that Jermaine Defoe’s latest ankle knock is the sort of injury that is cleared up rapidly by watching an England friendly on TV; and in the long term that the engaged-and-eager-to-prove-himself Emmanuel Adebayor comes back from South Africa, rather than the taking-a-nap-under-my-nice-fat-contract version.

Either way, any injuries to these two not exactly famously robust players will make it difficult to maintain a cutting edge for Spurs. There is some hope that Clint Dempsey can settle into regular goal-scoring form sooner rather than later, as his past performances as the main point of attack for Fulham and USMNT (as the acronym-hungry Americans call their national team) suggest that he could provide at least a glimmer of depth in that department. Nonetheless, there will be a strong desire to see Defoe spend his weekdays swaddled in cotton wool inside a safety-deposit box guarded by the finest dual-discipline ninja/physiotherapists in the land.

Moreover, Tottenham’s league run-in contains some difficult fixtures, including an early-March double-header with everyone’s favourite schizophrenic oddballs Arsenal and Liverpool, followed by a three game stand in April against the blue tide of Everton, Chelsea and Manchester City. If just three of those five teams play to their full potential, rather than rolling around in an erratic frenzy as they each have to greater or lesser extents this season, Spurs could find themselves locked out of the top four place that they took such care to cement.

Hopefully, these worst case scenarios are just a case of me covering my back so that any vague prediction about Spurs’ potential success doesn’t add to the litany of witless things I have typed and am yet to type in this space. Villas-Boas’ team are arguably the only member of the current top seven sides to combine a clear, well-executed vision with the sheer quality of player required to command one of the Champions League slots this season. All I’m saying is, let’s not be too surprised if the squad decides to defect en masse to a London and District Croquet league and leave their European place to a resurgent, Gary Caldwell inspired Wigan. It’s just been that type of season.

Remembering Eddy Hamel

5 February 2013

By Steven Maloney

Almost everything the wider world knows about the life of Eddy Hamel is owed to Simon Kuper’s Ajax, The Dutch, The War. Kuper’s brief introductory description of Hamel reveals how precious little we have in terms of biographical detail:

“We know that Eddy Hamel was born in New York in 1902 and that he later moved to the Netherlands. He was Jewish, probably of Dutch descent.”(Page 47 of the US paperback edition)

We also know two other important facts from Simon Kuper’s telling. First, Eddy Hamel played outside right for Ajax for most of the 1920’s and was regarded particularly for his sporting play. Second, however long Eddy Hamel had lived in Holland, he possessed a United States passport, which he could not produce when Nazi Germany invaded. In April of 1943, Eddy Hamel died at Auschwitz as one more singular, once-in-a-universe human existence, joining the multitude of millions in the 20th Century whose life story was ended by racially motivated mass murder. 

As the United States Soccer Federation celebrates their centennial year of existence, the year 2013 also marks the 70th anniversary of Eddy Hamel’s murder. What is truly remarkable about the concurrence of these two anniversaries is that the life of Eddy Hamel screams out for remembrance and the United States is desperate to create a sense of identity and history around the nation’s role in the game. Yet, the death of Eddy Hamel does not rate in significance in the “History of U.S. Soccer” timeline, not when important things were happening two years later like the “US Football Association” changing its name to the “US Soccer Football Association.” True, Eddy Hamel was not capped by the United States and he never played for a US Soccer sanctioned league in any form. But then again, neither did the Pilgrims in 1620 that somehow make the timeline for allegedly playing a soccer-like game.

Eddy Hamel needs to be embraced as part of American soccer history. It does not matter how much time Hamel spent in America, or how little we know of his life. Hamel’s deserves embrace by those formally and informally responsible for building the identity and cultural memory soccer in the USA. Hamel was many things: he made his living in Holland and was of Jewish decent and was (as Megan Rapinoe so proudly sang at the 2011 Women’s World Cup) born in the USA. Rather than Hamel’s diverse identity running counter to some qualification for the American sporting pantheon, he fits in perfectly with the best parts of the pluralistic identity of which the country prides itself. The permitting of overlapping identities and allegiances within the group represents not only the better part of American political culture, but is a part of American culture the rest of the footballing world should see as the antidote to the worst of tribalism in the sport. Eddy Hamel was born in New York City with strong ties to a different homeland and as a member of a particular cultural/ethnic/religious community— in short he was a rather typical New Yorker.

How can USA soccer remember someone for whom we know so little about? First, let us notice that this question has not bothered American soccer enthusiasts with regard to the legendary status of Joe Gaetjaens, the goalscorer in the miracle 1-0 win over England in the 1950 World Cup. Gaetjens, according to Leander Shaerlaeckens signed papers declaring intent to become a citizen of the United States, which was enough to make him eligible to play for country in terms of FIFA rules. I do not know if Gaetjens ever followed up on his path to citizenship and I frankly do not care.

Gaetjens resonates with us for the same reason that Eddy Hamel should: we can recognize something about our human experience in his story. Millions of Americans can recognize something of themselves in the story of a man who worked at a restaurant in order to pay for school and to give him time to pursue his dream. In fact, Gaetjens’ story of leaving the Caribbean for New York to study at Columbia University also happens to be the early life story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, whose intellectual influence on American politics is rivaled perhaps only by James Madison.  Like Eddy Hamel, it is believed that Gaetjens may have died at the hands of authoritarianism. In Gaetjens case, it was the brutal reign of Francoise “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti that may have taken his life.

If the life of Joe Gaetjens is emblematic of one kind of American migration story deeply embedded in American culture, the life of Eddy Hamel symbolizes another. The relationship the United States has with the Holocaust runs deep and is far too complex to mention in detail here. But suffice to say the commitment in the United States to remembering the Holocaust has been a national project that extends beyond the national identity of Jewish-Americans alone. Perhaps nothing exemplifies the commitment to a collective American remembrance of the Holocaust than the fact that when an Anti-Semitic gunman opened fire on the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the man he killed was an African-American Security Guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns who gave his life to protect visitors and staff in the museum that day.

Seventy years after the Holocaust, our commitment to treating it with the requisite moral seriousness it deserves often seems to wobble. The Holocaust-denying regime in Iran was permitted to participate in the FIFA 2006 World Cup in Germany had they qualified because, according to FIFA, they “strictly separate sport from politics.” (ha!) The issues of racism in football are too numerous to catalog at this point – and that simply refers to incidents from the past two years. With racist chanting recently directed toward American striker Jozy Altidore in Holland, now is as good a time as there has ever been to remember why stopping racism is bigger than the game. Eddy Hamel reminds us that racial hatred has taken, and continues to take, the lives of decent people, and we should embrace our connections to these victims and hold them close to us. Eddy Hamel was murdered by a political regime intent on denying the human dignity to millions of people who had a right to it.

We cannot erase the enormity of the crime perpetrated against Eddy Hamel, and it appears likely that there are no easy solutions to the problems with race and football in today’s game either. But the American football community can send out some glimmer of hope that people still believe in justice and decency into the darkness by remembering all that we do know about Eddy Hamel. We can remember and celebrate that Eddy Hamel, like all targets of racial violence, was a person with dignity… and we can reaffirm this by honouring that dignity today.

All square at the Engenhão

5 February 2013

By Iain Pearce

If you’re like me then by the time June rolls around on a World Cup or Euros-less summer you’re starting to feel a bit rudderless. The fresh hope of the new fixture list still isn’t out and even the tennis at Wimbledon has started to sound appealing. The Brazilian football season concluded in December, but around here they’ve come up with the perfect solution to the football-lessness: the State Championships.

Having accepted a six month contract to teach English in rural Brazil, I did my darndest to sync my weekend Rio de Janeiro arrival with some futebol, the result being a Guanabara Trophy match between the Carioca giants of Botafogo and Fluminense.

The Rio State Championships is a ludicrously drawn out affair featuring the city’s big four teams with twelve other clubs from around the state. The year starts with the Guanabara Trophy, where two groups of eight teams play home and away to determine group winners and runners ups, who then battle it out for the silverware.

Not enough? With a Guanabara Trophy champion laboriously decided they then do the same thing all over again in the Rio Trophy, the two separate cup winners then face off to become the undisputed and no doubt fatigued champions of Rio de Janeiro.

Well, it certainly fills a hole before the national championship starts up again in May.

The third game of the group stage heralded the first derby between any of the big guns. Across town Flamengo were also in action with some minnows, meaning the botecos were awash with the teams’ reds, blacks, whites and greens, swilling beer from morning time onwards.

Hosts Botafogo are the team of Garrincha and now Clarence Seedorf, while Fluminense are the current Brazilian champions and boast the likes of Fred and Deco, though this early in the competition none of them were starters.

And they aren’t the only ones having the night off. Despite the match’s on paper importance the Estádio Engenhão only ever fills to a quarter of its capacity.

And the five year-old venue hardly lives up to its more famous city brother, the Maracanã. It’s large, has nice curves and when enlarged it will amply serve the 2016 Olympic athletic competitions, but it’s just another grand yet soulless paint by numbers stadium.

The occasion is certainly enjoyable, but League Cup enjoyable, with the start of the competition yet to have captured local imaginations. The numerous gigantic flags being flown in synchronicity by both sets of colourful supporters only hint at the might of the matches that are likely to follow as the trophy narrows towards its conclusion.

What’s more, a sizable chunk of the home Botafogo fans are made up of not maracas-shaking Brazilians but camera-weilding tourists. It seems that going to watch a football match in Brazil is as essential a city tour as the ones that go into the favelas or up to the famed mountaintop Christ the Redeemer statue.

Fortunately, the photo clicking of the tourists is easily drowned out by the horns and drumming of the Botafogo support. It’s by no means deafening, but the tempo sweeps you along and the rustiest of hips could be forgiven for moving along with the pulse of the rhythm. Forget Sloop John B and inane shouted insults, here the drum is in time with the flow of the game and there is a connection between the men performing on and off the grass.

Most leading nations have their typecast styles of play, but the joga bonito of the Brazilians is untouched in both its fame and enduring appeal, I wasn’t going to be satisfied with balls lumped up to a journeyman striker in Rio, and thankfully it wasn’t offered.

The close control of even the central defenders would put England international Shaun Wright-Phillips to shame, and the amount and ease of the one touch passing was joyous to behold. What frustrated, however, was the attackers’ constant desire to take one touch too many and pass up clear shooting opportunities in search of the spectacular. On such occasions my natural national impulse to bellow an inane shouted insult bubbled up after all.

Botafogo where in charge but approaching half time Fluminense’s backfoot kneejerked spectacularly forwards to give the visitors a half time lead. Brazilian international Washington Nem picked the ball up in his own half and set off on a direct path to goal. Reaching the edge of the Botafogo box he wisely accepted help in laying the ball out wide, continuing his forward charge to meet and precisely drill home the low centre.

The home side were more purposeful after the break, but were sorely in need of inspiration, a near scripted cue for the introduction of Clarence Seedorf. The dutch master’s arrival lifted the stadium and everyone in it, breath drawn as he received each possession.

And he didn’t disappoint. His first touch was a raking crossfield ball on a sixpence for the far flanking winger and that was just the start of a repertoire that included dummies, rapid one twos and lollipops.

But Seedorf’s show stopping moment came fifteen minutes from time when in traffic he deftly chipped a half cleared corner to the backpost where an unmarked Bolivar headed home to equalise.

All square it ended, and despite the unpromising starts most will have come away wanting more: the Botafogo fans for their latest hero and me for further Brazilian football.

Luis Suarez and the prelusory goal

5 February 2013

By Charlie Robinson

Poor old Luis Suarez. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Months after taking a dive against Stoke City in a 0-0 draw at Anfield, an incident for which the Uruguayan attracted as much mockery as condemnation, Suarez admitted his misdemeanour, and was immediately censured by his manager, Brendan Rodgers, who described his behaviour as ‘unacceptable’, and hinting that the player would be disciplined by the club for his honesty/stupidity.

Suarez is, of course, not the first, and he sure as hell won’t be the last. The moral arbiters of the game will wring their hands and decry his, and others’, behaviour as immoral, reprehensible, and so on, exciting the bile of football supporters around the country. Very common is it nowadays to hear home supporters booing and jeering poor old Luis when Liverpool come to town. I hear my friends, Liverpool supporters, exclaim almost in agony when another Suarez-related controversy occurs, “But he’s so talented, he doesn’t need to do it!”

This is obviously true. Suarez is wonderfully gifted, and opponents frequently have no idea what to do with him as he wriggles though another tightly knit defence. Furthermore, Suarez’s talent comes combined with a spiky and purposeful determinism that singles him out from most of his Liverpool colleagues. The problem is this: does Suarez’s predilection for taking a fall mean that his determinism to wrangle an advantage for himself and for his team goes too far?

The arguments both for and against diving are well rehearsed. Here are some examples of arguments that seek in some way to excuse or justify diving. Firstly, the game involves such high stakes on a regular basis that players are entitled to eke out any advantage they can, whether by fair means or foul. Secondly, diving is an art in itself, and if you are capable of fooling the referee and gaining an advantage, then all the better for you. Thirdly, and on a slightly different point, if a surreptitious foul has occurred (for example, a defender subtly pulling an attacker’s shirt), then the wronged player is, as they say, “entitled to go down”. These three arguments, and there are others, are rather practical in nature, and make no reference to moral principles relating to fairness and sportsmanship. Diving can thus be excused on instrumental grounds, and the rational footballer will take advantage as and when he can. If he’s caught, he knows that the punishment will be a yellow card.

Arguments against diving, on the other hand, are more likely to make reference to moral criteria. Diving, it might be said, is not only against the laws of the game, but also the very spirit. What ever happened to those Corinthian values? Sport, on some readings, is supposed to be a test of some quality, or qualities, and virtues. The 100m sprint is primarily a test of speed, while the marathon is a test of endurance and stamina. Golf is a test of who can plonk a tiny ball into a tiny hole hundreds of yards away, and darts, until recently, was a test of who could stay sober long enough to continue hitting the dartboard with spiky projectiles.

Each game, or sport (please, let’s not get bogged down in the distinction between a game and a sport) has its aim, but it also has a set of rules that determine how that aim can, or, more commonly, cannot, be achieved. In golf, for example, one must use a set of clubs. One cannot achieve the goal of getting the ball in the hole using the most efficient means possible – this means that I cannot simply pick up the ball, stroll over to the hole, and drop the ball in. In short, then, games force players to use inefficient means to achieve some goal, and the means that can and cannot be used are set by the rules.

This way of thinking about games and sports might help us to clarify how we approach the thorny issue of cheating in sport – in this case, diving in football. The key to the argument might be that there’s more to a game than the aim and the rules, as we’ll see. Let’s pursue the argument and see where it leads us.

In his wonderful book, The Grasshopper, the philosopher Bernard Suits provides a definition of a game (again, don’t worry about the difference between games and sports), and that definition can be explained and further elaborated with three aspects of what a game is. The book is a playful dialogue between the grasshopper, from Aesop’s fable, and his followers. In Aesop’s original story, while the ant busies himself storing food for the harsh winter ahead, the grasshopper bums around playing games, and subsequently (in some versions) dies. Moral of the story: work hard and plan for an uncertain future. But Suits’ book is a defence of the grasshopper, who defends himself by arguing that playing games is an essential part of the good life. In any case, the grasshopper begins by providing the following definition: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Let’s start with the part regarding “unnecessary obstacles”. Take boxing as an example. The aim, more or less, is to lay your opponent out on the canvas for ten seconds. What’s the most efficient way of achieving this? One way might be to produce a baseball bat from the side of the ring and bash one’s opponent over the head with it. The problem here is obvious: doing so is not in the rules of the game. In fact, the rules impose unnecessary obstacles (for example, you can only use your fists, you must wear a certain type of glove, and so on) on those playing it, meaning that the means you have at your disposal to achieve the aim of the game are relatively inefficient.

And thus we have the first two aspects of a game: firstly, we have what Suits refers to as the “prelusory goal” (the word lusory comes from the Latin ludus for game). Each game has an aim that the players try to achieve. But some means are ruled out, and what is (and is not) permissible in the game is stipulated by the second aspect of a game, the constitutive rules. So the rules of the game are said to place unnecessary obstacles in front of the player or players.

So far, so good. But let’s bring this back to football and Luis Suarez to see how it applies to diving, before mentioning the final aspect of games. In football, the primary prelusory goals are to get the ball into the back of the net, so to speak, to do so more than one’s opponent, and to prevent one’s opponent from scoring. (Of course, on many occasions the actual prelusory goal would be simply to prevent one’s opponent scoring, for example if one led a two-legged tie 1-0 going into the second and deciding game. But you get the point.)

The rules obviously specify what can’t be done within the game: fouling or threatening to harm an opponent, deliberately touching the ball with one’s hand or arm, and so on. This means that more efficient ways of winning are ruled out. As Thomas Hurka (who wrote the introduction to a recent edition of The Grasshopper) observes, the rules of the game make achieving the goal difficult and complex, but this is what gives the activity its value. Scoring a goal has no real value outside of the game – if football didn’t exist, we wouldn’t go around kicking balls into goals.

The next move here is obvious – since diving is prohibited within the game of football, anyone guilty of diving is breaking the rules. Suits, in fact, goes further than this banal observation. He says that anyone breaking the rules isn’t really playing the game at all. Imagine a marathon runner who starts a race along with hundreds of other runners. The prelusory goal is to cross the line before anyone else. Now suppose the runner in question furtively jumps into a car, drives to close to the finishing line, and, at the right moment, sneaks out of the car and crosses the line before the other racers. The question is this: has she actually participated in a marathon at all? Intuitively most of us will answer in the negative – the runner has achieved the prelusory goal by breaking the constitutive rules. Even if she is not revealed as a cheat, she has still not technically participated in the marathon. At least, this is Suits’s conclusion: “cheats recognize goals but not rules, [while] players recognise both rules and goals.” And since the rules are what make the game possible in the first place, cheats are not playing the game.

This brings us to the third and final aspect of games: the lusory attitude. Remember that the definition of a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. By playing the game, one agrees to abide by the rules, and this makes the playing the game possible – one agrees to overcome unnecessary obstacles by playing within the rules. And this is what games simply are: “The attitude of the game player must be an element in game playing because there has to be an explanation of that curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end.” Thus we can see why cheats are not playing the game at all – by ignoring and breaking the rules, players are not taking up the correct lusory attitude. And if the voluntary agreement to play by the rules (i.e. the lusory attitude) is constitutive of the game itself, then cheats are not playing the game. Q.E.D.

Sorry, Luis. It seems that what Suits is saying is that when you dive, you’re playing a game that looks very much like football, but which actually isn’t football. Your “excess of zeal to achieve the prelusory goal” means that you’re not really playing football at all.

But is this actually the case? It seems that a counter-argument can be made. At one point in The Grasshopper, Suits mentions in passing a different kind of rule, the kind of rule “whose violation results in a fixed penalty, so that violating the rule is neither to fail to play the game nor [necessarily] to fail to play the game well, since it is sometimes tactically correct to incur such a penalty… for the sake of the advantage gained.”

Perhaps this better reflects what diving really is – there is a rule that stipulates that diving is prohibited, but also a rule that clearly states the penalty for offending. The same might be true of deliberate handball to prevent a goal. For example, in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final, Ghana were… ah, you again, eh, Luis? 

Pablo Zabaleta – Corazón de City

3 February 2013

By Niall McVeigh

The Etihad Stadium’s paying customers earn themselves a seat before one of football’s most expensively assembled, talented teams. Yet on a match day, when flags and banners are unfurled over the ground’s sweeping seated tiers, one of the largest is directed towards a £6 million right back. The banner in question, a sky blue tricolor, features the battle hewn visage of one Pablo Zabaleta, alongside the words “Corazon de León” - heart of a lion. Even such a portentous sentiment may not do Zabaleta justice - the unassuming Argentinian isn’t far from becoming the soul of this football club.

As Manchester City have collectively turned their backs on the once indulged Mario Balotelli, Zabaleta’s iron grip on a first team spot, and recent grasp of the captain’s armband, demonstrates the values of application and determination over petulance and precociousness. The well of good feeling towards Zabaleta runs so deep at City, he’s become a kind of anti Balotelli, leading a lifestyle so modest it borders on the mystical. Zabaleta, they say, lives with his girlfriend in the Manchester suburbs, frequents his local pub and drives a Mini Cooper. Among club staff, he’s hugely admired for his relentless community work. It’s a far cry from a camouflaged Bentley and a £14k a month rented pad.

In City’s new era of superstardom, the faithful love Pablo perhaps above all others because they feel that he’s one of them. Beneath the banners, he plays with the spirit of a fan thrown a shirt by a desperate manager. During last season’s run to the title, when filling in for the injured Micah Richards, the bustling full back gained a reputation for leaving it all out on the field. Throwing himself at bullet headers and flying boots, Zabaleta began to resemble a veteran bare knuckle boxer. His oft-bandaged bonce came to represent the club motto – ‘pride in battle’ – in physical form.

So far, so classic club legend. Grizzled determination, charity work and a fondness for a pint may be what fans are looking for in their heroes, but at such an outrageously ambitious club, it seemed there would be no place for a player like Zabaleta. Signed from Espanyol just days before Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, the Argentinean stood for a dying age of earnest yet limited City players. In the summer of 2011, reduced to bit part roles across defence and midfield, rumours swirled that Zabaleta was set to return to Spain. The outcry, and Zabaleta’s refusal to even contemplate departure, cemented his hero status at City - yet the versatile defender was in danger of becoming little more than a team mascot; a cheery face on a crowded bench.

Eighteen months on, the fact that Zabaleta is not only a guaranteed starter for City, but also a dark horse for PFA Player of the Year, tells us of the twist in Pablo’s story. Pablo Zabaleta may be a good man – but he’s an even better footballer. On the two occasions I’ve seen Zabaleta playing in the flesh, he has operated in his favoured right back position. He’s also been the best player on the park on both occasions. Watching a City attack build from behind Joe Hart’s goal, you can’t fail to notice his constant desire to get forward, laying the ball into midfield and setting off on a wide, arcing run beyond the opposing full back. The movement is akin to a freight train accelerating out of a station - not especially quick, still very dangerous.

City’s worrying lack of width has been addressed this season not by a fleet footed new arrival, but by pairing the buzzing physical powerhouses of Zabaleta and James Milner on the right flank. Zabaleta is making the lung-bursting run from the right touchline to the penalty spot his own – most recently in City’s FA Cup win at Stoke. After a tentative forward display, it was Zabaleta who showed the greatest poacher’s instinct in the dying moments. Pre-empting a loose ball and goal scoring chance by 80 yards and 30 seconds, Zabaleta prodded the ball inside the near post with the composure of a world-class striker. This vital breakthrough was capped by Clive Tyldesley warbling about Zabaleta’s “big heart”. Perhaps the magic of the Cup had got to Clive - his description was better suited to a part-time welder than arguably the best right back in the country.

I can count on one hand the times that Pablo Zabaleta has been caught out defensively in a sky blue shirt. His defensive tenacity has driven the likes of Paul Scholes, Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott to distraction. A key cog in one of the Premier League’s most imperious defences, the Argentinean is also a master of the more agricultural side of the game. In Zabaleta, Mancini has at his disposal a highly disciplined international full back and a vital pivot in his team’s attacking engine. In short, two multi-million pound footballers in one. This impressive versatility is a big part of the reason why there’s a groundswell of support for the no nonsense Argentinean to scoop a shock PFA Player of the Year award. It also partially explains why Balotelli has been summarily shipped off to Milan while Zabaleta becomes a club legend.

It isn’t, of course, the whole story. Zabaleta’s extraordinary impact on the field and in the stands depends on the sum of his many parts. What makes Zabaleta so remarkable, so loved and so important to any club, but particularly a much derided, nouveau riche club like Manchester City, is the marriage of an upstanding character and exceptional athletic ability. Alongside the equally affable Vincent Kompany, Zabaleta forms the moral heartbeat of a team bent on gaudy, glorious world domination. And he loves nothing more than a pint of bitter and a kickabout with local kids. He seems too good to be true. Thankfully for everyone at City, from the banner bearers in the South Stand to the power brokers in Abu Dhabi, he isn’t.

Step into the fume cupboard, Professor…

31 January 2013

By Adam Duckett

Blimey! Talk about national solidarity. Just days after a French chemicals plant ceased the release of its own toxic pall across Europe, Arsene Wenger took up the slack and began emitting his own formula of noxious nonsense.

It’s a story of two windows: while his compatriots have thrown open theirs and are gulping down fresh air for the first time in days, Arsene has been stalking the laboratory in his football lair (dressed in his favourite quilted lab coat) making sure each and every window is tight shut lest a variable rush in and ruin the validity of his football experiment.

I mean, how is it possible to truly prove which is the best team if they’re allowed to swap players half way through the competition? The bare-faced balls of it!

“It is unfair [that] some teams have played, for example, Newcastle already and then some still have to face a side with six or eight new players,” Arsene told the press, in reference to the Magpie’s purchase of Massadio Haidara, Yoan Gouffran, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Mathieu Debuchy. More players are expected to follow shortly, adding to the unfairness.

But its odd to argue that something in the world of football should be changed on the basis that it’s unfair.

It’s unfair that the petrodollars of Abu Dhabi afford Mancini and colleagues the means to tempt any player willing to play in Manchester (he’s nice - do you have him in blue?) while an impoverished David Moyes is left lurking around opposition training grounds with a Child Catcher’s net looking to land himself a careless talent and drag it back to Merseyside. The net is past its best but Bill Kenwright has told Moyes he must sell it on to fund the purchase of a new one.

Arsene, look at the precision engineered, predatory talent that is Robin van Persie. It was unfair that you had him before he flew north for the winter - and its unfair that United have him now - while the likes of Stoke City make do with the malformed Peter Crouch, who, thinking about it, may have actually escaped from a laboratory.

Football is unfair (what i just said about Crouch is unfair) but its that lack of balance (not Crouch’s but in regard to the inequity of money and talent) that makes it all the more enjoyable when the likes of Bradford turn up at Villa Park and kick over the apple cart.

How far would Arsene go to make the game truly fair? how about taking a page out of the Boys from Brazil. Let each team have a cloned set of the 1970 World Cup winning squad and each manager can play them how they like. Arsene’s with finesse; Pulis’ going long; and ‘Arry’s f*cking running around a bit. That’d be a truly level playing field. Talking about cloned Brazilian players, I’m yet to be convinced that Alex Ferguson hasn’t himself perfected the technology. There’s legs in the conspiracy that he always replaces Rafael with a fresh specimen at half time. Fabio is supposedly Rafael’s twin, but I wouldn’t be surprised if United have simply loaned QPR the prototype.

The truth is, I love football being unfair. I don’t want video technology. I want the complaints that come with the mistakes that officials make and the narrative it adds to the life of being a supporter. How less sweet would Spurs’ victory over Man United have been earlier this season, had it not been for the injustice that led to it. Think of Pedro Mendes shooting from his own half, of Roy Carroll fumbling the ball over the line and then pawing it back and to the left.

Back and to the left.
Back and to the left.

Spurs fans can finally box up that Zapruder film and start to forget but I’d argue their lives are richer now than if Martin Jol been able to challenge Mark Clattenburg’s decision, if Hawkeye had been consulted and if the goal had been given. If the game was fair.

I suspect the truth is that Arsene’s plea has nothing to do with fairness but instead the fact that his ability to take advantage of the transfer window no longer surpasses that of his rivals. Their scouting networks have caught up, and Arsenal’s relative spending power has shrunk.

No, the window must be allowed to stay open. Professor, the variables must be allowed to seep through. Just recount for a moment the greatness that the opening of the January transfer window has delivered unto English football.

Imagine a Premier League in which Thierry Henry didn’t arrive from Juventus in January 2000 (by my account that one worked out pretty unfairly for everyone but Arsenal for years to come, and I’m thankful for it). Or if Torres hadn’t switched from Liverpool to Chelsea or Luis Suarez hadn’t come from Ajax. Consider the dramas we would have missed! It just doesn’t bear thinking about.

The argument from a club perspective is pretty compelling too. The window gives teams the opportunity to add talent in areas where new arrivals have failed to live up to expectation or injuries have left them short, and (borrowing a b*llshit corporate phrase) it allows teams to realise greater value for their assets - meaning they can hike up the price of their players in the face of desperate buyers.

Even setting a cap for how many players a team can bring in would be folly. Imagine a January where Sky Sports will only twice video Harry Redknapp leaning through his car window expounding the talents of his shiny new purchase. Not so ‘triffic.

Plus Wenger’s comments have since been echoed by Michel Platini. So they can’t be right.

Shiftless Celtic stumble towards success

31 January 2013

By Nicol Hay

If there’s one skill in Georgios Samaras’ possession that can be said to be definitively world-class, it is his incredible range of bewildered expressions. There’s something about the combination of his large brown eyes, pouting lips and general air of boyish innocence that forms a face seemingly permanently unaware of what is happening in the general vicinity of Georgios, and why.

The Greek striker was able to put the full gamut of his nonplussed features to use in Celtic’s lethargic 3-2 loss to St Mirren in the semi-final of the Scottish Communities League Cup on Sunday. As the Glasgow side piled futility on top of futility – as through-balls clattered out of play off of unheeding shins, as routine passes became wild explorations into the remotest parts of the Hampden turf, as Celtic as a whole became a vivid illustration of Dr Ian Malcolm’s theories of inherent chaos in unregulated systems – Samaras looked more and more like a child struggling to comprehend why the Mini Eggs he planted in the garden have not grown into a chocolate tree.

While it is tempting to suggest that Celtic’s poor performance on Sunday was due to a understandable fear that winning through to Hampden Park fixture against Heart of Midlothian would simply result in a replay of the scenes witnessed last year, it would be unprofessional for me to speculate at the mental scars that Craig Beattie’s chiselled torso left on the Parkhead side. What isn’t in doubt is that this capitulation against St Mirren was simply the latest in a series of games that Celtic have conspicuously taken off this season.
We’re 23 games into the current league campaign, and already Celtic have lost four and drawn four matches, frittering away 20 points on afternoons of stifled yawns and absent effort. This would represent a fairly poor record for the leaders of any league at this stage of the season, but when you consider that Celtic dropped only 21 points in the entirety of their 2011-12 title-winning performance (the same record as Rangers in 2010-11, incidentally), this year’s vintage starts to look like a team on an intractable skid towards the doldrums.

Except they’re not. Celtic are, in fact, 12 points clear of second placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and are cruising to another Premier League title like Dennis Hopper on a triple-upholstered Harley. Without Rangers around to provide a credible challenge for top spot, Celtic go into every game with an unshakable belief that they are going to win. However, instead of channeling this belief into the raw grit required to strive every sinew until the winning goal is secured in the 99th minute, as the great Ferguson Manchester United sides have done, Celtic channel this belief into milling around the pitch until home time, expecting that enough goals will just somehow turn up.

What’s irritating for someone who actually tries to watch the SPL for pleasure (yes, I know – but football fandom is an incurable disease, as every Ramble reader is all too aware) is that even though the feckless Celts are often wrong in individual games, their overall record proves that their rheumy stumble through the fixture list requires no great re-think. While I’m certain that Celtic fans would prefer to win trophies than throw them away, I don’t think they’ll be overly concerned about missing the opportunity to add another League Cup to the pile as long as the larger goals of the title and Champions League respectability remain attainable.

During the Old Firm’s strongest years, Scottish fans would be told repeatedly that the lack of serious domestic challenge was fatally undermining the Glasgow teams’ continental efforts, as the mental conditioning required to leap from trampling frail Motherwell and Kilmarnock into trying to appear vaguely competent against Milan and Bayern Munich was more than anyone could be expected to handle. This year however, the highly focused discipline of European Celtic has been so distantly removed from the stifled yawns of Scottish Celtic that you have to wonder if eleven cunningly disguised ball boys aren’t giving Wanyama, Forster et al the weekends off.

If Celtic really have discovered a way to flick their concentration on and off between Champions League engagements, they’ll have to trust that the switch hasn’t rusted over during the long winter of bare-minimuming their way through their SPL obligations. Juventus are looming on the horizon, and Celtic had better hope that their approach to their domestic fixtures lies more on the ‘clever conservation of energies’ than the ‘woeful complacency’ end of the preparedness scale.

The irony is that between the shiftless and the diligent versions of Celtic 2012-13, only one of the teams is guaranteed to lift a trophy in May. Anything else would result in entire nation practising their Georgios Samaras Facial Theatre.

Steven Gerrard: A beautiful contradiction

25 January 2013

By Jake Farrell

I’ve always been fascinated by the contradiction of Steven Gerrard; a man who combines the assured technical purity of a thoroughbred race horse with a hair cut usually reserved for the kind of 15 year olds that like wearing astro-turfs with jeans.

His barnet may still be the same but Gerrard seems to be experiencing a process of nuanced footballing refinement under Brendan Rodgers. It’s a process that is making his indomitable playing style, if not his sense of style, a little more modern.

The manner in which he is adapting his game to suit the new regime is encouraging for both Liverpool and England. There were some whispered fears that it might not even be possible to find room for his brand of urgent, turbo-charged physicality within a more cerebral system. Despite this he and his manager have seemingly managed to find a compromise between the two, successfully tempering his snarling, relentless influence with a more thoughtful streak.

There’s more of a duality to his game now and that is key; an attempt to totally subdue Gerrard’s natural impulse towards the visceral would have been heavy handed and counter-productive, like forcing Oliver Reed to work in a shoe shop or stuffing an angry marmoset into a cardboard box. The result of a finding a happy medium is that Gerrard continues to hunt and win the ball with feral desire, play Hollywood cross-fields of scarcely believable accuracy and generally be a balls-out force of nature, whilst simultaneously using his talents in a quieter way; to keep Liverpool’s possession football ticking over nicely.

Both sides of the coin were on show as Liverpool overcame Norwich 5-0. The more natural parts of Gerrard’s game, the parts that would be soundtracked to Ace of Spades by Motorhead in a “Best Bits” montage, are still thrilling to watch. Each time he prods the ball out his feet and arrows an outrageous pass, Anfield’s pulse quickens. In the second half he found Andre Wisdom with a ludicrous ball that travelled all of 70 yards, directly onto the impressive youngsters chest. Had the right back not followed an excellent shimmy with a skewed shot into the hoardings it would have been an improbable goal made possible thanks to a pass few others could have executed. He followed it up with a Gerrard hallmark – a shot belted low into the corner from 25 yards. It took his season’s tally to six Premier League goals and he also leads the division with eight assists, along with Juan Mata.

For all those ball striking pyrotechnics it was the way in which he controlled the game that was more impressive. He moved the ball with fluid ease, picking out Luis Suarez and Danny Sturridge in between the lines and retaining possession astutely. On a few occasions it was even noticeable that he was restraining himself, loping toward the ball with the clear intention of twatting it toward the opposite flank before thinking better of it and rolling a pass to a less distant colleague. Those moments didn’t have the air of a man being forced sulkily into compliance - instead Gerrard seemed to be making a mature and concerted effort to vary his distribution for the team, rather than seeming intent on amassing more passing yardage than the average NFL quarterback.

Admittedly Norwich did not put up the sternest resistance; Grant Holt was so lacking in service that he may as well have gone for a look around the Beatles museum – it would have definitely been a more productive way to spend an afternoon on Merseyside. Gerrard exploited the away side’s listlessness to the fullest, often finding himself in so much space it appeared he was in a different post code. There may be a way to go before Liverpool can think about the Champions League (beating a team from the top half of the table would be a start) but, by subtly shifting the emphasis of their captain’s game and freeing the sublime Luis Suarez, there is reason for cautious optimism.

There is also reason for England to think that Gerrard, perhaps the most talented English player of his generation, can readjust to better suit the modern footballing climate whilst keeping the best parts of his old school vigour at the same time. He’ll never possess the languid grace of Andrea Pirlo or scheme in small spaces like Xavi Hernadez – and nor would we want him to. Gerrard represents what is both deeply unfashionable and loveable about the English game; the rampant, blind exuberance that flies in the face of logic and statistics. Given an injection of pragmatism, as he gets older and his body slows, his considerable gifts could allow him to compete on a level with his more modish counterparts whilst retaining his own identity.

Gerrard still has a number of productive years left in his career and will, in all likelihood, still be an England starter should they make it to the World Cup in Brazil. Let’s hope that if he arrives in South America his game is comprised of the all-action deeds for which he is known and an increased appreciation of the more stately art of possession. It could be a chance for the Huyton native to stake his claim as the suave, adaptable elder statesman of English football who has kept up with the times and mellowed, becoming an even finer vintage with age.

He’d gain the kudos and cultural currency that Johnny Cash did when he became relevant again in the 21st century - but I bet you Stevie G will still use more Shockwaves wet look gel than most secondary school kids. And therein lies the beautiful contradiction of Steven George Gerrard (MBE) – supremely gifted and heroically uncool.

Non-league scouting: The key to success

25 January 2013

By Matthew Rogerson

There are various issues that managers in the non-league game have to contend with from week to week.

They may not have to endure the constant shine of the media spotlight but they do have to deal with tight budgets, losing players to rivals for an extra £30 a week and squads who are perhaps less tactically astute than their gaffer may wish.

A big issue that non-league chiefs have to cope with is sourcing the best talent around, without the luxury of a scouting team and usually while having to keep a full-time job in tow.

Many managers may be able to watch potential targets on TV or jet out to the continent and watch players, but how exactly do managers in the Conference and lower assess potential signings and get the very best players out there?

By and large it’s a mixture of three things. Good contacts, a lengthy amount of time on the road and, perhaps most importantly, having an eye for a player’s potential, sometimes based solely on 90 minutes of football.

Different managers may place more of an emphasis on one of these over the others but they all play a part in how well a manager can cope in non-league football.

Contacts are one major issue that many managers have had problems with, more often than not when it comes to big names dropping into non-league from upper echelons.

You may have had a lengthy career in the higher leagues but, without someone to call on for a favour or to ask about a particular prospect, you can quickly find yourself swimming against the tide.

Similarly, if managers lack the time or effort to go watch games in their area, then they too can struggle. It’s widely believed that Neil Young, manager of Chester FC, for example asked for his side’s games to regularly take place on Wednesday nights rather than the usual Tuesdays, so he can check out the competition and look at potential players.

He’s not alone either. Gary Lowe, the man who got Hyde FC promoted to the Blue Square Bet Premier last season, says it’s vital to get out and about to games when you have chance.

“When you’re in work you obviously can’t make Saturday games so you try get to one midweek and I have a decent network of contacts who will flag things up for me, players that they’ve seen,” he said.

“In terms of higher clubs in the Football League a lot of them don’t have reserve leagues anymore so they arrange friendlies for their younger lads and I go along to those and see 18, 19 and 20-year old lads who you could have on loan.

“You throw that all together and that’s basically how you find players. I think some managers will have more contacts than others and that largely decides how much success you have.”

Finally, and this is true for whatever level you manage at, there is the innate ability to spot that flash of talent or piece of trickery that makes a player stand out.

This becomes even more important at non-league level however, as one diamond in the rough could end up securing a club’s future for decades if they turn out to be among the lucrative non-league buys such as Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, Huddersfield’s Jermaine Beckford or West Brom’s Craig Dawson.

Lowe continues: “In non-league you don’t always have as much time. You don’t get the opportunity to watch players as often and there’s always clubs around that have got more money than you and they’ll act fast. You’ve got to take a little bit of a gamble sometimes and only see a player maybe once or twice.

“You can get caught cold because you’d like to go watch someone three or four times but you don’t always get that chance in non-league football.”

So, while for other managers it’s all about distributing scouts here, there and everywhere, or in Harry Redknapp’s case, waiting for the chairman to fire up his Xbox, for non-league managers it’s about getting in their cars after work and heading to midweek games across the country.

As inconvenient as this can be, it’s more often than not the difference between success and failure.


Image courtesy of Paul Prole.

Rogic’s rise

25 January 2013

By Kieran Pender

Just over 12 months ago, Tom Rogic made his debut for A-League side Central Coast Mariners. In a modest start, the young playmaker struggled to get involved and was subbed after 67 minutes, despite showing some touches of potential. Although starting in his first professional game was a huge achievement, no one watching the Mariners’ clash with Adelaide that day would possibly have predicted the trajectory Rogic was about to take.

Like so many football careers, it all began back in school. While still completing his studies in Canberra, Rogic starred in the 2010 Asian Football Confederation Futsal Championship, where he earned plaudits for his skill on the ball and finished fourth highest goalscorer.

Following his impressive performances in Tashkent for the Futsalroos, Rogic entered and ultimately won the Nike Chance competition, beating over 75,000 hopefuls and 100 finalists to secure a contract at the sportswear giant’s academy. The prize – a spot at the Nike program based at Loughborough University – would be a great learning opportunity for the Australian.

However at the completion of his time in England, unable to gain a British work permit, Rogic returned home to the Mariners, whom he’d trained with prior to the competition. Quickly snapped up on a professional contract, the young star finally had the opportunity to live up to his hype.

Success at the Central Coast side quickly followed, with a series of appearances allowing Rogic to showcase his impressive technical abilities. A regular first team place was swiftly cemented, while the goals and mazy runs through opposition defences increased in regularity.

A national team call up was next, with appearances for the U23 side and Socceroos in quick succession, as the attacking midfielder impressed honchos Aurelio Vidmar and Holger Osieck. From playing school yard football at Radford College only two years earlier, Rogic’s Australian debut capped off a truly remarkable rise.

A notable success story of the A-League, Rogic’s former club Central Coast has invested heavily in their youth development centre, despite well publicised financial troubles. Speaking after the transfer, club chairman Peter Turnbull highlighted the fact, bullishly claiming that this emphasis would see the Mariners continue to prosper, despite losing several of their key players to overseas clubs.

“The systems we have in place from youth development through to the first team under the astute guidance of Graham Arnold – who did a tremendous job with Tommy – provide the best opportunity in Australia for young players to take the next step in their careers. Fundamentally, this is why we are the club of choice for many of Australia’s best young players, and we are confident our production line, and subsequently our first team, will continue to prosper.”

The initial interest came from Reading, who had attempted to sign Rogic after his time with Nike, before several other clubs joined the chase. The playmaker had been unable to sign for the Royals previously after failing to secure a work permit, but this time decided joining the club mid-relegation battle might not be the best start to a Premier League career.

Other clubs soon followed, and Rogic quickly became the most sought after player in the A-League. Queens Park Rangers and Fulham were both reportedly interested, and when the 20-year-old jetted to Spain for a training camp with Celtic, Rayo Vallecano and Celta Vigo jumped aboard the bandwagon.

Finally though, after a week training with the Hoops and as other clubs lurked, the Scottish giants sealed the deal in a move believed to be worth 400,000 pounds. The dynamic footballer will link up with Celtic almost immediately after a final farewell match with the Mariners.

Regardless of whether Rogic immediately stars for their first team or instead spends some time on the substitute’s bench, his transfer has already made several things clear. He has demonstrated the importance of futsal in the technical development of young players, a fact acknowledged in many other countries yet still undervalued in Australia. Furthermore, the incredible story provides hope for young footballers around the world – that a relatively unknown player can go from zero to hero in such a short space of time.

And if he can impress on the world stage with Celtic, Rogic may just become the creative lynchpin so desired by the Australian national team at Brazil 2014 and beyond.

QPR should spend like there’s no tomorrow

22 January 2013

By Nicol Hay

I’ve been squinting furiously at Queens Park Rangers since the Redknapp Revolution stormed the Bastille Loftus Road, demanding an epoch of equality and reason and the guillotine for José Bosingwa, but I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

Clearly, Harry has managed to gee up the boys somehow, as results have improved massively from ‘pitiful’ to merely ‘distressing’ since Mark Hughes was instructed to sit in a dark cupboard and just remember the good old days – but a lot of the upswing in performance has to be chalked up to the fact that players no longer have to worry about forgetting any part of Sparky’s Nineteen Point Guide to Handshake Etiquette. It is difficult to concentrate on through-balls when the merest salutatory faux-pas could cause so much offence that you find yourself banished on loan to Doncaster before your damp palm has been released.

I’d have thought though, as results picked up, it would have been easier to tell exactly what it is Redknapp’s doing differently on the pitch. There’s little sign yet of him settling on a formation or system, as he frantically sifts through the options in a vain attempt to make sense of a squad that seems to have been constructed with a dart, a blindfold and a 2007 Premier League Panini album. You’d have thought that Redknapp would have had a more obvious plan in motion by now, but Loftus Road does appear to become a particularly plan-resistant place in recent times. QPR may have touted their Four Year Plan in their BBC documentary, but I have to assume that was titled with the same dramatic irony that led Todd Solondz to name his 1998 film about isolation and pederasty ‘Happiness’.

It’s also slightly disappointing to be two-thirds through a transfer window with Redknapp only wheeling and/or dealing two new players into the dressing room. Even then, the capture of Loïc Remy seems a little strange, as you assume that any moneybags club that’s been on a two-year spending spree should have strikers coming out of its ears, and that resources would logically have been better spent shoring a defence whose first-choice centre-halves are a 34 year-old with less than 18 months Premier League experience and the manager-elect of Toronto FC. However, on closer inspection, QPR’s strikers actually consist of Andy Johnson (injured), Bobby Zamora (injured) and Jamie Mackie (technically Scottish) – so maybe getting some goals into the team wasn’t such a terrible idea. Besides, Harry shone the Tal Ben Haim signal into the London sky and his hero came a calling, so that’s the defence sorted anyway.

This skimpiness at the front and back of the QPR is due to them throwing their nought-heavy contracts at the finest collection of individually decent, but collectively disjointed central midfielders in the land. There’s some quality in there, but I’m not certain they’ve taken the time to learn each other’s playing styles or names. Furthermore, all the squad has in wide areas is Junior Hoilett and a fuzzy YouTube video of Shaun Wright-Phillips’ 2004-05 highlights with a Kasabian b-side playing in the background.

In short, Redknapp needs at least two centre-halves, a winger and another forward before he can build anything like a side capable keeping QPR out of the relegation dungeon – and that’s going to take some serious cash. Fortunately, the one thing QPR have got in their favour is an owner with a money-to-sense ratio as unbalanced as a trampolinist with shins made out of Slinkys. Fighting fire with fire is a terrible idea, but fighting cash with cash is roadmap to success in Tony Fernandes’ world. Just don’t set the cash on fire and everything will be fine.

Of course, the sensible thing for QPR to do would be to cut their losses, accept relegation and use it as a time to rebuild on a more even footing. Sensible things are, however, rarely on the agenda in football as whole – much less at the club who considered Djibril Cissé to be a prudent step towards a brighter future – so the only option for QPR is to fight tooth and nail to stay in the division that is ruining them. If that means funnelling a fiscal cliff into the pockets of a half-decent forward who’d be in Newcastle now if not for videogames and laziness, so be it. That’s just where QPR are now.

Lorient express chugging along nicely under Gourcuff

22 January 2013

By Theo Benneworth

At the halfway stage of the 2012-13 season, a quick glance at the top of the Ligue 1 table revealed few surprises. Championship favourites PSG took the honorary title of ‘Champion d’automne’ (Autumn Champion) on goal difference, pipping two other giants of the French game- Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique de Marseille.

But just below this powerful triumvirate, nestled in fifth position behind Brittany neighbours Stade Rennais, were one of the surprise packages of the season so far, FC Lorient. And while the lofty league position of Les Merlus (the Hake) may have surprised many, there is nothing fishy about the club’s recent accomplishments.

Lorient is a small, coastal town situated in the French département of Morbihan in Brittany, north-western France. While the town itself only just scrapes into France’s top 50 most populous towns and cities however, Lorient’s football club is intent on mixing it with the nation’s big city boys.

FC Lorient turned professional in 1967 and have experienced numerous ups and downs. The club played in the French third tier as recently as 1995 before yo-yoing between Ligues 1 and 2 for over a decade. Since gaining promotion back into France’s top flight in 2006, though, FCL has been ever-present in Ligue 1. After enjoying five seasons of highly-respectable mid-table finishes (even achieving 7th place in 2009-10), the team struggled last season and avoided relegation by a single point and position after failing to win any of their final four fixtures.

That blip aside though, few would argue that FCL’s current spell among the elite of French football has been overwhelmingly positive. This season has so far brought even greater success, with a string of outstanding results having shot the club back into the headlines for the right reasons.
The first half of the season included draws versus PSG and Lyon, as well as impressive wins at home to Lille and away to Rennes, Marseille and Saint Etienne.

Thirteen points from a possible 15 in December left Lorient sitting pretty in fifth place at the winter break and, following their home win over Troyes on Saturday night, the Orange and Blacks even rose to fourth place - if only for 24 hours. So what factors have contributed to Lorient’s recent ascent?

On the Stade du Moustoir pitch (one of two artificial surfaces in Ligue 1), the club can boast a number of players at the top of their form. From goalkeeper Fabien Audard, described by manager Christian Gourcuff as ‘the best ‘keeper in Ligue 1’, through to forward Jérémie Aliadière who has already scored seven goals this term, the spine of the side looks strong. Other key players include powerful young centre back Lamine Koné, midfielder/Ben Stiller doppelganger Benjamin Corgnet, and Burkina Faso international Alain Traoré, whose strikes are usually showstoppers.

Off the pitch, the clubs future looks to be in safe hands. Club President Loïc Féry, the London-based French businessman who took the reins at FCL in 2009 aged just 35, has set about building the club around three principle themes: ensuring Lorient’s sporting stability by making them a permanent fixture in Ligue 1; improving the club’s infrastructure (including a brand new €11 million training ground, due to open this summer); and to develop the reputation of the club.

And then, there’s the manager. Brittany-born Gourcuff, father of Lyon and France midfielder Yoann, has been associated with the club since 1982 when he became player-manager. Gourcuff has left and rejoined FC Lorient numerous times in the intervening years, having spent parts of his footballing career elsewhere in France, as well as in Canada and Qatar.

His most recent return came in 2003 and he has been in charge ever since, overseeing their promotion in 2006 and becoming one of the most established bosses in the French game. Under his guidance, Lorient have gained a reputation for promoting youth and playing attractive, attacking, passing football.

It is this brand of football, coupled with Lorient’s ability to be profitable financially, that has drawn frequent comparisons with Arsenal. Furthermore, an informal link between the clubs has resulted in loan deals and transfers of players including Aliadière, Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin and Joel Campbell. Much like the Gunners, Lorient are also known for developing relatively unknown talent- with current internationals including Koscielny, Kevin Gameiro and André-Pierre Gignac having spent time in south Brittany before moving on to bigger clubs.

Gourcuff himself, once a maths teacher, has also drawn comparisons with Arsène ‘The Professor’ Wenger thanks to their shared football philosophy and their apparent willingness to prioritise style over results. Indeed, the FCL boss once said “the pursuit of results at all costs is the death of football”. One negative impact of this idea, of course, is that his team can occasionally ‘leave the back door open’. This was most evident back in the autumn, when Lorient conceded 16 goals during a disastrous four-match spell.

Whereas Wenger is burdened by the weight of expectation on the red side of north London, though, Gourcuff remains highly revered at Lorient. Supporters appreciate the stability that he and Féry bring to their club and, if the price to pay for seductive football and financial strength is the occasional hammering, so be it.

Over the years, Christian Gourcuff has been linked with moves to other French clubs, including PSG. But his strong character, alleged aversion to working with players with big egos and his strict adherence to his preferred 4-4-2 formation have led observers to question whether he could ever manage at a so-called big club.

With Les Merlus continuing to make waves in Ligue 1 (sitting in sixth place after 21 rounds), President Féry and the Lorient supporters are very happy for Gourcuff to stay put in his native region. And with the club’s future looking so bright, it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else.

The master returns

17 January 2013

By Jake Farrell

Wouldn’t it be heartening if the world was still big enough for Pep Guardiola to have enjoyed his New York sabbatical in seclusion? After four years in the glare that accompanies management, a glare that clearly took a toll if his drained valedictory press conference is anything to go by, it seemed he needed some peace.

It would be strange to think that for the last seven months the most successful manager in Barcelona’s history could buy his daily soya machiatto and only receive appreciative glances for his spectacular choice in cashmere sweaters, rather than a hail of requests for Instagrammed self shots with awe struck baristas.

Now though, Pep’s clearly bored with buying Pavement vinyls in Williamsburg and discussing pantheism over a Red Stripe with Thierry Henry. After some illusory hints that he would end up in the Premier League the announcement came yesterday that confirmed the bookies’ suspicions – he’s Bayern bound.

His decision to plump for German aristocracy over the Premier League nouveau-riche who had been pursuing him with crack-fiend desperation, is an interesting one. Perhaps it’s too generous to suggest, as some commentators have, that it’s a choice informed by the more idealistically appealing nature of the German league and a negative comment on the crass wealth on display in Manchester and west London. Sure, it would be great to think that Guardiola went to Bayern because they’re 82% owned by their supporters and because their ticket prices would give most Premier League chairmen a heart attack. By that logic though he should have ended up at Swansea or even AFC Wimbledon in what would have been one of the most surprising but heart warming moves in football history, akin to Leon Britton captaining England or Cristiano Ronaldo moving to Hibs because he thought Edinburgh was an architecture fans’ paradise.

It is likely that it was more a choice based on the fact that Bayern Munich are a superbly run club with the infrastructure and fan base to dominate European football for the duration of Guardiola’s three year contract. Also, despite their air of old school gentility, history has proved that Bayern aren’t averse to dropping unseemly sums of money on emerging and established talent. It’s unreasonable to think that Pep won’t be given access to similar funds – saying that, he may have already spent some of his pocket money as it is now hard not to to see his influence in the desperate summer chase for Javi Martinez’s signature, a move that cost the club an eye-watering €40 million.

The playing staff that they currently have in place isn’t too bad either, even for a manager used to calling on the talents of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. Premier League fans wondering why he would ‘stoop’ to Bayern’s level with City or Chelsea on offer might even remember a few of the Bayern first team – they formed the backbone of the side that battered our brave boys 4-1 in Bloemfontein three years ago. Admittedly none of them possess the singular talent of Messi (that’s kind of the point about him though – no one does) but it’s ludicrous to even suggest that Pep will somehow struggle now he doesn’t have the team assembled at Barcelona, as though Bayern are a team of plucky misfits he needs to whip into shape rather than a squad of supremely talented Übermensch. The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos are special talents and will thrive under the Guardiola ethos. Worryingly, and annoyingly, it probably won’t do the German national team any harm either.

There’s another important factor in this decision as well, a shadowy figure lurking in the background, a demon when it comes to press conferences and more skilled in psychological warfare than the average Mossad chief – Jose Mourinho. Guillem Balague, in his sublime biography “Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning”, details the debilitating effect that the poisonous relationship between the pair had on Pep’s Barcelona tenure. It’s not unreasonable to assume that a small part of his choice to head to Germany was made on the basis he wouldn’t have to deal with the Special One for a while. Given that Mourinho seemingly has an insatiable Nietzschen death wish at Madrid (leaving a legendary club and national captain to warm the bench seems unwise at best, totally mental at worst) it’s not inconceivable that taking a job in England could have led to more close quarter battles with his nemesis, battles which he will now avoid. Instead he will most likely have to deal with the comparatively genial Jurgen Klopp, an avuncular figure whose baseball cap habits make him the tactically astute version of Tony Pulis and whose surname sounds like a particularly delicious brand of yogurt aimed at German children.

It’s going to be incredible to watch whatever Guardiola conjures at the Allianz Arena and both partisans and neutrals have reason to be excited. With the talent at his disposal and the prospect of recruitment in the summer he could well build a team that disrupts the Barca/Madrid hegemony in pub arguments about the best club side in the world. And who knows, he may even manage to squeeze a player from outside the Spanish top flight into the FIFA Team of the Year.

Whatever happens – it’s good to have him back.

It’s ok, you’re allowed to not like Stoke

14 January 2013

By Nicol Hay

Jonathan Walters was sure what would happen next.

A lifetime of comics and movies where the tribulated hero makes it all okay by full time through the sheer force of will had trained him for this moment. Two own goals are a poor day at the office by any standard, but Walters could feel the mythic coaching powers of Roy Race, Michael Caine and Al Pacino being channelled to him through the determined crags of Tony Pulis’ face.

This is the time Jonathan, score this, spark the comeback that the grandfathers of Stoke yet to come will whisper to their infant charges. Those two own goals will cease to be calamity, and become instead the platform for your greatest triumph. Four goals in injury time? Against the European Champions? Easy. And it all starts here.

Just stick away the penalty.

This would be Stoke City in the microcosm – ignore your past, your disadvantages, the howling cries of the outsiders telling you success cannot be achieved and certainly never be deserved. Gird all girdable body parts, pull courage from those determined crags, and blooter that ball between the sticks.

Just stick away the penalty.

This would be Jonathan Walters in microcosm – the indefatigable forward of limited skill but boundless heart, the boy who wavered erratically like a Shawcross through-ball between ten clubs in the first seven years of his career, before finally finding his niche working the channels of Portman Road. The man whose sheer resolve propelled a lower-league archetype into a bastion of top-flight consistency – the man who is about to Stoke this penalty like a penalty has never been Stoked before. Player and club, fates entwined, each a perfect reflection of the other. Get knocked down, get back up again, and-

Just stick away the penalty.

…oh.

Well, sometimes you’re the brave embodiment of everything that your club stands for, and sometimes you’re just having a shocker of Woodgatian proportions.

The sheer brazenness of those own goals though, it has to be admired. The desire and alertness Walters displays in making those powerful headed clearances that are textbook in every respect apart from being aimed the diametrically wrong direction is breathtaking. The first goal in particular, where Walters makes a beautifully timed late run to the back post, stealing a march on his marker and catching the ball right on the most diabetes-inducing part of the sweet spot was glorious in its infelicity. Fernando Torres may well have gazed upon it and felt a twinge for the days when he might have made such a movement into an opposition penalty area, rather than strolling around the periphery like a sack of damp marshmallows as is his current wont – but its more likely that the Spaniard preferred to bask in the glow of being only the second most hapless forward on display.

At this point, I should say that I feel for Jonathan Walters, how terrible it is for an honest, hard-working player to be the victim of such cruel misfortune. I’m not going to though, because I viewed Walters’ hilarious performance as a much-needed shaft of entertainment in the otherwise slate-grey horror of a Stoke City season.

It is the done thing, whenever someone points out that watching Stoke is joy-rending ordeal of muscular monotony, to quickly add that all forms of play are as valid as each other, and that Stoke are well within their rights to perform in whatever manner brings them success. This is of course true – and indeed basing your team on clean-sheets and set-pieces is a pretty sensible course of action in a league where only four or five defences can be described as even vaguely competent without choking back cruel laughter as – say – Gaël Clichy stands in a pocket of obliviousness, trying to decide if he prefers butterscotch or chocolate Angel Delight as opposing forwards race goalward.

I’m certain that the vast majority of Stoke fans are overjoyed at the work that Tony Pulis’ gristle and violence production line is carrying out – but I am not a Stoke fan, and I get plenty of skill-averse distress at my own club thank you very much. I look to the wider world of football for entertainment from the game I love, and when my eye falls on the Potteries all I see is despair and grinding routine and Glenn Whelan.

Stoke are allowed to play however they please, and that’s okay. I’m allowed to dislike their play intensely, and that’s okay too. I know it’s not there for me, that my opinion matters not a jot. That I should just ignore Stoke City if I don’t like it – but Stoke City is there, every week, taking up 5% of Match of the Day. So thank you Jonathan Walters for being so futile and interesting, if only for one game. Though I do hope it happens to you again and again forever for the purposes of my own selfish amusement.

Sorry.

Football fans - Where’s the love?

13 January 2013

By Tom Goulding

Of all the aspects of British football that people have reason to lament in comparison to foreign football cultures, and there are undoubtedly many, a particularly powerful one is the anger which seems to currently permeate through the game. Players angrily berate referees. Managers gesticulate angrily on the touchline. Thirty thousand fans angrily huff and puff in their seats, yet they are watching some of the most expensive and exciting talent in the world play for their clubs. Where did the joy go?

The commodification of fans has been written about and debated extensively, with the price of tickets, the lack of all-standing areas on the terraces, and the confiscation of fairly harmless banners in grounds across the country all disappointing realities. This is one of the causes of poisonous and rather depressing atmospheres at matches, where the only noise that emanates from the stands is angry noise.

Never is this more relevant when English sides come up against foreign ones, such as Schalke and Dortmund this year, who come from a league where many clubs are owned by the fans, matches are affordable and there is real potential for an authentic atmosphere at every game. For them, expectations are low and success feels high. They watch waiting to celebrate, not waiting to groan.

There are various predictable factors for why there is so much angst on English terraces. It costs a small fortune to watch football these days. People regularly pay £50 per ticket to watch a group of millionaires play, and if you paid that money at a substitute leisure activity, such as the theatre or cinema, you could reasonably expect guaranteed satisfaction - but not at football. There is so much money being paid to players who, being human, do not perform to their best every week, but fans still attach their happiness levels onto these inherently unreliable performances.

Continued disappointment with the national team contributes to the doom and gloom too, as England are the typical example of inflated expectations and underwhelming performances. The ‘golden generation’ can not only be characterised by competitive disappointment but also fundamental character flaws - it would be easier to overlook the urinating in public, cheating on spouses or hitting nightclub bouncers if the team were winning in major tournaments.

The media put the national team players up on a pedestal and then rush to pull them down into ignominy when a big ‘exclusive’ requires it. As a result the atmosphere around following the national team is toxic – a cycle of misplaced hope and dislikeable behaviour.

This permeates into club football and nowhere has the angst and toxicity seemed more relevant than in North London. The anguish at the Emirates is in the public eye nearly every week as Arsenal contrive to underwhelm their fans, who yearn for the Highbury years, but to say that the Emirates Stadium is the only stadium with a subdued, almost despairing atmosphere would of course be false.

Several miles north at White Hart Lane, Spurs fans are coming to terms with new expectations. Since Martin Jol and Harry Redknapp led them out of the era of perennial mid-table mediocrity, where the best they could hope for was a Worthington Cup run and perhaps a draw at home to rivals Arsenal, Spurs fans now assume they will challenge Arsenal and Chelsea competitively every year, something unthinkable pre-2005.

Talking to many Tottenham fans, you get the sense that after qualification for the Champions League in 2010 and finding themselves 10 points above Arsenal in the league table in March 2012, many thought the tides had finally turned and a new era had begun where, as the song goes, ‘North London is ours’.

The reality however is that their progress has been checked by a combination of youthful inexperience, spring collapses and some big players still choosing to transfer to warmer climes. The North London pendulum has not so much swung their way but edged closer towards the middle, though with Arsenal continuing to prevail in the final league table each year. Tottenham fans have been frustrated in their attempts to finally celebrate superiority over their rival, however fleeting, which many have prematurely anticipated since the final day of 2006 and Lasagne-gate.

As a result, inflated expectations strike again – Spurs fans are paying upwards of £50 every week to still somewhat live in their neighbour’s shadow, a matter of unnaturally high importance for the modern fan, who lives in an atmosphere of angry tribalism, where every set of supporters seem to have ever more sophisticated reasons to ‘hate’ a different club every year.

Surveying a cross-section of the customers in the stands, all you see on fans’ faces is variation on a common theme of permanent frowning; half in bemused disgust at the continued failure of the players and officials to reach their desired standard; and half in fearful anguish at the sight of an opposition player threatening their goal and thus undermining their dogmatic, blind belief that their own team are ‘by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen’.

Women shriek at the linesman. Children scream at the right-back for failing to control a ball whizzing through the air impossibly. In front of his children, a father of two hurls profanities at Gylfi Sigurdsson for not being Rafael van der Vaart.

It is likely that in no other sphere of their lives do these people express such anger, such angst, such puerile, emotional violence than on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm. Jean Paul-Sartre argued in a famous speech in Paris in 1945 that the fundamental human condition was one of anguish, despair and abandonment, all because there is no God, but you could just as easily argue it is because Martin Atkinson has failed to give you a ‘blatant penalty’.

Is this perhaps not a new phenomenon, maybe there has always been this level of anger supporting a team? Perhaps so, but through forums and Twitter it is easier to wind-up and bait opposition fans, something that seems to be the modus operandi of a football fan these days. 

It could also reasonably be argued that after 20 years of Sky’s money being pumped into every Premier League club, we have perhaps reached a saturation point with our lust for continuing 24-hour focus on the egos and controversies. Sky Sports News is continually in a state of shock and awe with its Requiem For A Dream title music, and you are always a week or two away from a ‘Super Sunday’ which you are compelled not to miss.

The constant analysis and scrutiny puts the gamesmanship which has undoubtedly always existed under a constant spotlight, and the inevitable diving, time-wasting and dangerous tackles perhaps foster the hostile atmosphere in the stand and in the pub as fans feel somewhat cheated out of the money they’ve spent.

They then use forums to vent their anger, blaming the officials, or the diving, or the off-pitch antics, or the lack of goal-line technology, when in truth they have forgotten that on the pitch there was not only their team but also another group of 11 talented individuals directly attempting to thwart what they want to see happen. After all, if you go to the theatre, you don’t have another cast on stage trying to put off the original cast and ruin their performance.

It is easy to forget that people pay a sizeable fortune for this to be their pastime of leisure. There is too much joy to be enjoyed in admiring the talent and following the stories in the game, is it too much to ask for football fans to not let tribal angst get in the way?

Greenwood optimistic Blues still the team to beat

9 January 2013

By Kieran Theivam

If you’re a fan of Everton Ladies FC, or simply follow the women’s game as a neutral, you’ll have no doubt seen a fair bit of activity at the Crosby based club that has seen a number of faces come and go during the close season.

What’s worse for Blues fans, is that three of those faces have gone onto join the red side of Merseyside, with rivals Liverpool making a number of high profile signings that they hope will see them improve on a Women’s Super League record of two wins in 28 matches.

Add to this the departure of long serving manager Mo Marley, who has decided to focus on her duties within the England setup, and you could forgive Blues fans for feeling a little pessimistic.

However, the Blues recently saw 12 first team squad members commit themselves to the club for the 2013 WSL season, with the likes of England internationals Rachel Brown and Jill Scott undeniably the highest profile of the dozen.

Another one of the 12 to show her loyalty to the Blues is young defender Alex Greenwood, who had her breakout season at the club in 2012 and fully established herself as a key member of the Toffees first eleven.

When England international Rachel Unitt decided to move back to the West Midlands and join Birmingham City Ladies, 19-year-old left-back Greenwood grabbed the opportunity with both hands, and hasn’t looked back since.

“When Rachel left, I thought this was my time and an opportunity to impress,” she said.

“I’m left-footed and can play that position, so I really wanted to make that position my own.”

Not only did Greenwood beat off competition from within the squad to become first choice in her position, but she would impress so much that she would be voted the FA Young Player of the Year at the FA Women’s Football Awards in November.

“In my first full season I really didn’t expect to win an award,” she modestly confesses.

“I thought to myself ‘what have I done to win this’, but the manager said I deserved it, so I was obviously really pleased.”

A promising start then for the talented youngster, but since kicking her last ball of the 2012 season, Greenwood has had to watch the club’s rivals bolster their ranks with internationals from here and abroad, and come to terms with her own team losing some of their most experienced players.

Tash Dowie, Lucy Bronze and fans favourite, Fara Williams, all packed their belongings and joined Liverpool Ladies as Reds manager Matt Beard looks to elevate his side up the table following two seasons that saw them finish bottom of the pile.

“It was a big surprise to lose the girls, especially Tash and Lucy, as I thought they had a few years left in them here.

“I know Fara was looking for a new challenge as she’s achieved everything and more - its disappointing to lose them all to Liverpool, but I guess it gave them the chance to stay local.”

Despite the loss of the popular trio, the defender is unfazed, and with a youth system that has produced the likes of Toni Duggan, Michelle Hinnigan and Greenwood herself, she believes there is a bright future ahead for Everton.

“Everyone is massively excited for the future and with a young squad and new manager (Andy Spence), there is plenty to look forward to.

“Andy is underestimated and while I was gutted to see Mo leave, I am made up that he got the job – he and Mo are the reasons why I am here now.”

The Liverpool born left-back admits that Everton had a below par season in 2012 and stated that the side need to install “the fear factor” back into teams visiting The Arriva Stadium, and she is hopeful that this can commence in 2013, especially against her old teammates at Liverpool.

“Consistency was a problem for us last season and teams would play against us thinking they could get something from the game.

“We need to get that fear factor back as the quality in the WSL is improving, but its good for the league and I cant wait to play against the likes of Liverpool - it’s going to be really exciting.”

The curse of winning

7 January 2013

By Nicol Hay

What is it about Real Madrid that causes successful millionaires to suffer such heavy hearts? Los merengues scrapped their way to a 4-3 win against Real Sociedad on Sunday, overcoming the adversity of losing their first second-choice keeper after ten minutes, and battling the rest of the way with only nine superstars in front of the second first-choice custodian. And yet José Mourinho spent the entire game sulking on the sidelines, like the Queen being treated to a director’s cut of the Olympic opening ceremony whilst sitting a very hard maths test.

This would be unusual enough if it had been the first public display of petted-lippedness at the Bernabéu this season, but José’s pity-party was just the latest in a series of strops for the King’s team. Cristiano Ronaldo got the ball rolling by declaring his vague, non-specific sadness to the world just a few months after Madrid finally managed to wrestle the Liga Primera trophy back from the clutch of Barça players who were intricately passing it to each other across a five-yard square of turf.

Some thought Cristiano wanted money, some thought he just craved more affection. Some suggested that he wanted Real Madrid as a club to somehow put more effort into getting him named as UEFA Best Player in Europe instead of Andrés Iniesta. This was the most bizarre theory of all – presumably the easiest way to get the Best Player in Europe Award is to be the best player in Europe, which would largely be down to Cristiano himself. And anyway, who exactly cares about the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award? If you asked the average man on the street about it, the first thing they’d ask would be, ‘Do you mean the Ballon d’Or?’ And the Ballon d’Or itself is so ridiculously devalued that Michael Owen won it once. So just let it go Cristiano, let it go.

In the end, there was no grand announcement about Cristiano’s new contract, or how shuttle-runs had been replaced in training by shuttle-giving-Cristiano-extra-strong-hugs, and Iniesta got to take the award home and hide it in the back of cupboard behind all his proper medals – so we have to assume that Cristiano is still sad, and that his melancholy is catching.

José Mourinho hasn’t exactly enjoyed a non-stop chuckle fest in his time at the Bernabéu, but since he brought that title home, things have been ever more onerous. He fell out with the coach of Real Madrid Castilla for not doing enough to prepare youth players for the first team. He fell out with the youth players for not being old enough for a Mourinho team, continually picking the slightly broken but highly-experienced midfielder Michael Essien at full back ahead of any of the younger specialists in the position. He fell out with the media because they didn’t find him as inscrutably witty and sexy as the fawning press pack of England did. He fell out with the fans because, hey, they were next on the list.

Part of that falling out with the fans let to José standing on the pitch before the game against Atlético Madrid expressly so they could boo and whistle him. It was a bit of a damp squib as organised public seethe-ins go, and José later claimed he had mostly been watching Iker Casillas warm up. And in doing so, presumably eyeing up his next falling out.

Madrid’s club captain hadn’t been dropped for ten years until José decided to bench Casillas for the trip to Málaga – José telling the press that, in his opinion, Antonion Adán was the better keeper at the moment. Adán was shaky and culpable in a 3-2 loss for Madrid, which gave Mourinho the confidence he needed to keep him in goal for Sunday’s game. Adán was sent off after ten minutes and Casillas spent the next eighty looking uncertain and, well, sad.

As sad as Cristiano. As sad as Karim Benzema when José publically made him out to be the predatory equivalent of a fluffy kitten. As sad as Mesut Özil, once a free-scampering pixie of delight in the Werder Bremen midfield, now a haunted shadow, going through the motions and being labelled as more focused on his nightlife than his day job by his supportive and bonhomie-spreading manager. There’s sadness spilling all around the Bernabéu these days, and it’s a sadness born of winning.

You might say it’s the lack of winning that’s the problem, but that’s only part of the story. The vast majority of football clubs across the globe spend the vast majority of their time winning absolutely nothing, and they manage to bumble along without a face like a Russian novel. No, it’s because Madrid, José, Cristiano – they’re all used to winning, and have done so much of it that winning became normal, and not winning logically became an aberrance, an enemy of basic contentedness.

The pressure to win in Madrid is so huge that any signs of not winning are pounced on and examined within an inch of their lives by the club, the fans and the media until everyone connected with the enterprise is reduced to a gibbering wreck, terrified to do anything in case it engenders a dreaded lack of win. Throw in a coach who has generated a vast media personality and subsequent career on being the man who wins at all costs, and you might as well re-lay the Bernabéu pitch with eggshells rather than grass, for all the nervous tip-toeing you see around the place. Clearly, too much winning is terribly bad for you – which is one of the reasons why I’m so grateful to have been born Scottish.

Fortunately, José appears to have figured out a way to break the cycle. Setting himself so publicly against the Bernabéu’s favourite son, scowling on the touchline, open warfare with the club hierarchy, ratcheting up his media prickliness from 93.8% to a dizzying 97.3% GPR (Grumps Per Response) – José clearly wants to lose so spectacularly that Madrid have no choice but to fire him. Then in a year’s time – with a domestic treble and Champions League respectability safely secured for Paris St Germain – Mourinho can safely turn around and say ‘No one could succeed in Madrid, they’re too crazy! They even sacked the greatest coach in history, moi!’

That’s the lesson for all of us whose addiction to winning is just making us sad – all the furious fans screaming down the talkSport phone lines or hammering ALL CAPS screeds into Twitter because our precious teams just won’t bloody prevail. The way to break out of the sadness of winning is to embrace losing. Just ask José.

And so this is Klinsmas

7 January 2013

By Steven Maloney

Raymond Domenech, providing fodder for critics everywhere, recently added fuel to the fire, having a go at CONCACAF. Saint Raymond opined that Jurgen Klinsmann has an “easy job,” because guiding the USA to the World Cup is guaranteed. According to Monsieur Raymond, the USA has only two meaningful games in qualifying, some trips to Canada, and some vacation time in the Caribbean.

One assumes that when Saint Raymond said, “this is a job I would like to have,” he was being facetious since, in making these comments, there’s zero chance that he will ever be offered the job. Not that there was much chance that the United States would be in the market for a manager with a terrible record in international tournaments, a suspicious record of avoiding immigrant players, and a past team that literally quit during a training during at the World Cup final, and got pasted by Mexico on neutral ground. 

Despite these easy complaints, Domenech is only the latest voice to express the view that things come easy for the United States. Qualification is so simple in the eyes of many, that we value the United States, not for qualification, but by the comfort level with which they qualify. American punditry has largely adopted this standard and has used it to shine a somewhat negative light on Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as manager. The United States domestic audience has been treated to voices like Alexi Lalas spending half time on ESPN demanding Klinsmann realise he’s wrong about his entire approach to football. 

The narrative of easy CONCACAF qualification generates the narrative in the media for Klinsi-skepticism.  Klinsmann has been disappointing, according to this narrative, because the USA is supposed to win in CONCACAF (with the exception of Mexico) while looking like they’re playing FIFA 13 on Beginner. Before qualifying started, there was every reason to believe that this expectation was a preposterously simple way of thinking about how football tournaments work in real life. That Raymond Domenech seems to give credence to this expectation (having actually been a manager) does more to explain France’s performance in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 than it supports the anti-Klinsmann narrative. 

The USA has had, by my count, two losses during the Klinsmann era to opposition they should have defeated. First, a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica in a friendly. Second, a 2-1 loss in qualifying at Jamaica. While neither country is a giant of the game, both nations have won matches in the World Cup Finals before. In brief, Klinsi-skepticism is not based on results. Klinsi-skpetics hold Klinsmann responsible for trying to improve the nuts and bolts at the cost of their precious little narrative that the United States can make it out of CONCACAF strolling backwards on its head while chewing gum. 

A defence of Klinsmann must recognise that the side is improving dramatically at playing out from the back and cycling possession in the midfield and attacking third. Two facts are worth noting: (1) to this point, this cycling of possession has not led to more goals and (2) the United States does not have the ability to sustain its newfound powers for more than 15-20 minutes at a time as of yet. While these two facts explain the somewhat lacklustre displays on the field, neither fact indicates a lack of progress.

If the goal is to be a side that can effectively fight for control of the match by the way that they control the possession and dictate the positional layout of both their own side and their opponents’ through their ball movement, the “next level” from having almost no ability to do this is to have some ability to do this. 

There are two matches in the pre-Klinsmann era that highlight the importance of investing in future play. The first match was the Confederations Cup Final (my heart just hurt hyperlinking to this news story) against Brazil in 2009. The United States, having stormed to a 2-0 lead on some fantastic counter-attacking play proceeded to get bombarded for the entire second half before losing the lead and the match. Match number two was the 2011 Gold Cup Final, where the United States inexplicably jumped out to a 2-0 lead against a superior Mexican side before getting absolutely torn to shreds for the rest of the match. In both matches, the ability to hold the ball and cycle possession, even if it had led to no more appreciable scoring chances could have made the difference between two international trophies in three years as opposed to zero.

This is, incidentally, how the United States managed to beat Italy and Mexico in their historic victories under Klinsmann. When you snatch a goal against the run of play, it makes a big difference if you have to fight off the opponents attack for only 60 minutes instead of 90 minutes because you were able to genuinely possess the ball in the opponent’s half for 30 minutes (even if that possession largely goes nowhere).

Some might call this evidence of progressing towards “the next level.” But those people would have to know what to look for before they were talking. 

Changle - The Match

4 January 2013

By Jake Farrell

The festive period is a notoriously difficult one for managers and players alike, a period where fixture congestion as heavy as a latter day Garth Crooks can usher in the new year with renewed optimism or send a season spiralling out of control.

A clogged up fixture list has been the least of our worries here in Shandong Province, where along with Henry Cowen and Chris Dodd, I manage the Changle Foreign Language School Grade Five squad. Despite continued, and increasingly less polite, demands for a competitive match our diary was as empty and desolate as Phil Brown’s since he made that ‘homophobic’ gaffe.

With a bit of perseverance though, as well as liberal attitude towards the interpretation of British customs, we finally got the chance to see our team in action. Although it wasn’t possible to get one of the other local schools over to Fortress Changle a different, but still intriguing, proposition was on offer – the chance to play the squad from Grade 6.

It was a chance to compare British and Chinese coaching methods and to see which would fare better. Unfortunately our ideas for elaborate corner kick routines, daily yoga sessions for a week before the game and nightly screenings of “Escape to Victory” were scuppered by the school – they gave us twenty four hours to prepare, springing the fixture on us with classic bureaucratic lack of appreciation for the art of football management.

Despite this setback we were confident. Our midfield lynchpin, known as Xavi, had been in sparkling form in training and Gazza was even behaving moderately better in Henry’s class. At one point he even contributed to a class discussion of hobbies, constructing the sentence “I like to play football because I am good at it” with the forthrightness befitting of an undiscovered genius.

On the Wednesday morning of the game there were nerves in the staffroom but more worryingly there was ice on the pitch. Winter here can best be described with the meteorological term “fucking freezing” and it seemed for a couple of hours that the cold would ruin our carefully laid plans. Luckily by the time our lunchtime kickoff rolled around (the game was scheduled then so it kicked off before the pubs opened and Gazza had a chance to ‘centre’ himself) the all weather pitch had thawed nicely to reveal a playing surface made slick by the frost and perfect for our high tempo passing style.

I took the first refereeing shift and largely resisted the temptation to give outrageously biased decisions in favour of Grade 5. Our opponents were well organised and were causing a few problems when we gave the ball away in advanced positions. It’s difficult to communicate the nuanced concept of pushing up when we are in possession and dropping back when we lose the ball with hand signals and as a result we were a touch lop sided. At times, when our back line got a bit excited, we would have no one in our own half and at other more cautious moments there would be a gaping chasm between our four main attackers and the defence cowering on the edge of our penalty area. Luckily there was not a Totti-esque schemer in the opposing lineup to exploit the more than ample space between the lines. Clearly being a little bit more compact was something to work on.

When we had the ball though we looked dangerous and, as I passed the whistle duties over to Henry, I was hopeful we could nick a goal before half time. As it was one of our lads did put the ball in the net – unfortunately it was our net.

The Grade 6 team had looked relatively toothless, so when a routine ball over the top was chased down by our hardy centre half, known to us as John Terry, it looked like it should be routine. Encouragingly he looked to bring the keeper into play, as we have asked repeatedly, and I was already shouting compliments at him for his correct decision to use the spare man, keep the ball and start again when he planted the ball into the far corner of his own net with scarcely believable accuracy. It was a horror moment. The poor kid genuinely looked distraught, despite trying to do the right thing and despite Chris, Henry and I assuring him it was fine and he had just got unlucky. His teammates were a touch less forgiving. Recriminations and accusations were made, Gazza went mental and Xavi sunk to his haunches in weary anger. We needed a big half time team talk.

We tried to not make any sweeping changes, altering a few small things (the keeper had been kicking the ball out from his hands – not the tiki taka way) and generally encouraging the lads to keep going. Suddenly, after all the training and messing around, something was on the line and the team were bang up for it. There was a intangible serenity on Xavi’s face, Pedro was grimly determined and Gazza had the look of a man who had just ingested a sizeable dose of steroids. I knew we were going to be alright.

The lads came out from the first whistle with a renewed sense of purpose and moved the ball brilliantly. We had nicknamed our left winger Laurent Robert for his tendency to oscillate between moments of genius and frustrating ineffectiveness. In that second half he was a new man, working hard, passing simply and dragging the team along with him.

For our first goal he broke down the left before astutely cutting the ball back down the line to Gazza when his route to goal was blocked. Gazza nonchalantly skipped over one challenge, composed himself and looked up. He then proceeded to play a defence splitting pass that I will never be able to do justice to with words. I’ve thought about it since and I’m still not sure how he managed it, this miniature man with no history of coaching but a seemingly natural ability that makes the game look pretty easy. It was a beauty and it found an on rushing Pedro making an angled run into the penalty area, who clipped it first time over an advancing keeper. 1-1. Ten minutes to play. And the best was yet to come.

We were pushing for the win now, taking the game to a beleaguered outfit who had run out of ideas. Someone needed to take responsibility and make a decisive contribution – there was only going to be one man to do that, and how.

As the clock ticked down Pedro found himself in space on the unfamiliar left flank, in what could generously referred to as testament to our positional fluency but more accurately explained by the fact that he was knackered and out of position. This tiredness didn’t show in his delivery though as he took a touch to get the ball out of his feet and curled a delightful ball to the back post. Gazza was waiting. With his first touch the ball bounced in front of him and for a second it looked as though the keeper had done enough, staying big and stopping him from slotting home. It was in the split second that, with the space closing around him and defenders flinging themselves in his path, Gazza delicately lobbed the ball with the side of his foot and it looped up, over the goalie and rolled into the net. It was glorious goal, recalling the gallic nonchalance with which Robert Pires had performed a very similar skill in the days of the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ away at Aston Villa. Gazza took the plaudits from his teammates and strolled back to restart the game. A 2-1 victory was secure.

It was a brilliant ending to our tenure as managers of the Grade 5 squad. Now, as a new year starts, and there’s almost constant snow on the ground, chances to get on the training pitch in the gathering dark with our enthusiastic charges is limited. It’s been a superb ride though and the improvement has been a joy to watch, showing how football actually acts as an equaliser across cultures and gives even the most limited player with no previous formal coaching the chance to express themselves and have fun.

I once had a drunken argument in a pub with a mate about why football was the greatest form of human expression. Although my point was pretty facetious and fuelled by cheap gin I did and still do hold the romantic and pretentious notion that the thing we call “The Beautiful Game” is just that – something genuinely profound and affecting to both watch and play. The lads from Changle Grade 5 have given me even more reasons not to change my mind.

South American football in 2012: A retrospective

2 January 2013

By Rupert Fryer

2012 has been another wonderful year for South American football. Here’s a quick look at the best, worst, weirdest and wackiest of the year.

Best Fights

Once again, there’s been a few. 36 players saw red in Paraguay; 16 were dismissed in Uruguay. All fun and games, but Cerro Porteno vs Colon and Sao Paulo vs Tigre took things too far.

Worst Fight

Caruso Lombardi has never taken criticism well. So when things weren’t quite working out for him at San Lorenzo, Fabian Garcia - assistant to Lombardi’s predecessor Leonardo Madelon – voicing doubts over his ability to steer the club away from the drop zone was the tipping point. Lombardi raced out of a radio station to confront his aggressor on the streets of Buenos Aires, and what followed was perhaps the worst street fight of all time.

Worst Injury

2012 was squeaky bum time for everyone at River Plate as the club battled to regain their place in Argentina’s first division. Leo Ponzio was one of the few that showed his commitment to the cause by taking a significant pay cut to return home and help out. The extent of that commitment was made clear one June afternoon against Boca Unidos: “I had been fine but after a move that threw me to the ground, I opened myself more than usual and I started to feel the blood. I felt that something had broken.” It had indeed. His hemorrhoids had burst.

Best Climax

Flamengo were staring group stage elimination from the Copa Libertadores in the face. All they could do was beat Lanus and hope. They were leading at half time when Ronaldinho strolled off the field (promptly telling a waiting journalist he didn’t want to know what was happening elsewhere; “It’s 1-0 to Olimpia,” came the reply, as a visibly miffed and perplexed Ronnie headed for the changing rooms). With fifteen minutes to go, Fla two up but heading out. Then a roar broke out around the stadium. Emelec had scored. Fla were going through. It was party time. Said fiesta lasted all of 21 minutes as Emelec promptly went 2-1 up. Fla were out. At the final whistle they stood alone on an empty pitch, heads bowed. But just as they turned to leave, another cheer rang around the stands – Pablo Zeballos had stabbed home a corner in Asuncion. Olimpia had equalised. 2-2! Vagner Love set off on an impromptu lap of honour. Others joined him. 12,000 Fla fans went wild. They’d done it. Then they stopped. Then everyone stopped. Vagner Love’s look of joy was replaced by one of tear-streaming anguish as news filtered through that Emelec had only gone and raced up the other end and scored again. The fate of three teams had changed three times in five minutes.

Best Skills

Young Bernard truly announced his arrival on the scene with this. Riquelme proved he’s still got it against Flu. Neymar continued to invent a new trick every week, and bring out the old ones, though some appreciated the show more than others.

Best Name

What’s in a name? Not much as far as Botafogo’s John Lennon is concerned – he doesn’t even like the Beatles. Honourable mentions go to Atletico Goianiense’s Mahatma Gandhi and The Strongest’s Pablo Escobar, who banged in six goals in a single match last month.

Best Theft

Ronaldinho’s brother and agent was pretty pissed off that the former World Player of the Year’s wages hadn’t been paid by Flamengo, so he did what most of us would do under the circumstances: grabbed a bunch of merchandise from the club shop and told the cashier to send the bill to the club. As he waddled out of the door with as much kit as he could carry, however, he suddenly remembered he needed a couple of bath towels, for which, bizarrely, he popped back in and paid for.

Best Barra Bravas defence

Cross your average football hooligan with the cast of Goodfellas and you’re somewhere towards understanding Argentina’s barra bravas. They’ve been with us for a long time, but few of us were aware just how long until Boca Juniors vice-president Juan Carlos Crespi took us all to school in November. “That story about barras comes from way back,” he said. “I tell you what: I think Jesus Christ had barras around him. The apostles were his barras, and they would preach to people to believe in Christianity.” It was quite a revelation. But then he had to ruin it by something stupid: “We don’t have barra bravas at Boca.”

Worst Team Performance: Bolivar

Good God they were awful.

Best dressing room bust-up: Teo’s getting his gun.

In my mind, this played out like this (go to 30:55)

Worst transfer: Hulk to Zenit.

Fair to say that one hasn’t gone according to plan.

Best transfer: Ronaldinho to Atletico MG.

Fair to say this one has, however.

Biggest overreaction

Universidad San Martin weren’t too pleased with the idea of a player strike in Peru, so they sacked their entire playing staff and withdrew their league membership. They were later reinstated.

Biggest balls: Raul Ruidiaz

The young Peruvian clearly wasn’t fazed by the prospect of stepping up to the spot in what was the biggest game of his life.

Best Comeback

Salvador Cabanas.

Best Penalty

Fair to say former Manchester City striker Felipe Caicedo wasn’t too pleased about being forced to take his penalty from a hole in the ground. Even scoring the rebound didn’t cheer him up.

Goals of the year

Elkeson’s volley; Juan Carlos Mariño’s screamer; Martinez’s thunderbolt; Rafael Robayo’s wonder strike; Osvaldo goes solo; Chiqui Meza’s caño; Marco Antonio’s volley; Gastón Mealla’s scorpion kick; Neymar’s top 5.

Best Team

Corinthians finally shed their tag of the 100 year-old virgins with July’s Copa Libertadores victory over Boca Juniors, and promptly followed it up by doing away with Chelsea in Japan.

Best coach

Tite – hard to argue with a Copa Libertadores and a World championship.

Most tragic exit

Former Bayern Munich defender Breno is clearly a troubled young man, and it’s hard to find his punishment following what was a surely a call for help anything but draconian. Thankfully, it looks like he may be back sooner than expected.

Confusion is Lamps

2 January 2013

By Nicol Hay

Not for the first time, Jamie Redknapp couldn’t understand it.

‘Why?’ he exclaimed, begging for an explanation that would never, could never come. ‘Frank Lampard will always get in those positions to score goals, always. Why would you let him go?’ Jamie continued, delivering an honest and realistic assessment of his cousin Frank Lampard’s ability to defy time and age.

Why? Why would Chelsea not offer a new contract to a man who will be 35 years old by the start of the next season, and who currently earns around £140,000 a week? Why? Why?!?

The mind boggles Jamie.

Of course, Lampard’s brace against Everton on Sunday was a useful cameo, and certainly an important factor in maintaining the momentum that Chelsea have started to gather since they managed to get the Club World Distraction out of the way. Would Chelsea have lost that game without him? Perhaps – they certainly required a cutting edge in a match where Fernando Torres reverted to doing his impression of a sleepwalking hedgehog in an Enid Blyton story – but the main reason Chelsea took anything from this fixture was because of the continued workrate and excellence of Juan Mata. At this stage, it is apparent that Mata would have to be stricken by a weaponised cocktail of swine flu, gangrene and lobotomization before he turned in anything less than a 6/10 performance – and if Lampard has any decency he’ll have handed the Spaniard his man of the match champagne and a sincere apology.

That, really, is the key to Chelsea’s reluctance to give Lampard another year in their midfield. Not too long ago, it was Lampard himself putting in those Mata-like displays of consistent dominance – by 2014, they would be paying for cameos at best. And in 2014, with its 25-man senior squads for League and European competitions, and its Financial Fair Play restrictions on wage expenditure (yes, FFP is coming. Let’s put our cynicism to the side for a moment and imagine that European football’s governing body might actually be able to govern European football, shall we?), clubs cannot afford to allocate so many resources to a player in the grip of decline.

And Lampard is certainly being gripped tightly by decline. You could look at the raw numbers, as his goals and assists per game over the last two and half years have dwindled from the ludicrously consistent highs of his peak years between 2004 and 2010. Or you could just look at Lampard on the pitch, as those exquisitely timed, goalscoring runs into the box that were the trademark of his pomp grow as isolated and slight as the tuft on Steve McClaren’s forehead. Or, you could look at Lampard not on the pitch, as his aging muscles inevitably take longer to shake off the stresses and sprains of top-level sport.

There have been midfielders who managed to prolong their stay in the upper echelons of the game by steadily reinventing themselves. Scholes, Seedorf, Matthäus, McAllister and others all kept their careers alive by moving further back in the formation as the years passed, using their range of passing to make the movements their legs were no longer capable of. Lampard has shown no signs of making any such transition, as he has never developed the required range of passing to pull it off. Instead, Lampard’s game has always been based almost entirely on running – lots and lots of running. Wonderfully precise and judicious running – but running nonetheless, and plenty of it. A volume of running that would make Mo Farah seriously consider competing for a gold medal in Sitting Down and Having a Nice Cup of Tea, rather than tackle that immensity of running.
The sort of running that 35-year-old legs simply can’t process 60 times a season.

Chelsea have been making abortive and half-hearted attempts to reduce the average age of their squad for several years now, and each time have floundered as the new-broom wielding manager has collided against the cult of personality surrounding the English core of the Stamford Bridge Old Team. This cycle has repeated so many times that even a thrillingly unlikely Champions League triumph, fuelled entirely by the gallons of willpower coursing through that Stamford Bridge Old Team cannot blind the oddly sentimental Roman Abramovich to the urgent need for transition in his squad.

Personally, I think this is why Abramovich took the decision to appoint the Chelsea support’s favourite vitriol-magnet Rafa Benítez to a short term coaching contract. As there is literally nothing he could do make himself less popular with the Stamford Bridge faithful, Benítez can dully nudge the team towards a top four spot at the end of the season, then pile Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Terry into the back of his Range Rover, take them deep into the country and then drive off at speed while they blithely frolic in a meadow. Benítez then moves on to Real Madrid to complete his march through José Mourinho’s greatest hits with the wrath of the Blues ringing in his ears – leaving Chelsea free to start a new era with Pep Guardiola or Luciano Spalletti or Joachim Löw’s blissfully unbloodied hands on the reins of a dressing room now led by the comedy stylings of David Luiz.

I think we could all get behind this brave new world, but to get there, Chelsea have to let go of the past. Sorry Frank.

Chaos in the City of Joy - the Kolkata derby

27 December 2012

By Pete Josse

In the Guardian last week, Barney Ronay delightfully described football as “descending into a state of toxically vomiting incontinence”. After the recent Manchester derby in which the United captain Rio Ferdinand was hit on the head by a coin thrown from the opposition stands, the faux outrage and brouhaha that followed suggested football in England is so feral that fans should now be caged behind nets to protect the players.

As unpleasant as the Manchester incident no doubt was, on the same day here in Kolkata, India, the mother of all football derbies - East Bengal v Mohun Bagan - lasted no longer than 45 minutes; the game being abandoned at half-time due to a catalogue of incidents that made events at Eastlands seem like a game of tiddlywinks.

Witnessing the Test Match at the glorious Eden Gardens in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), we were grateful to England who were gracious enough to wrap up the cricket early on Sunday. This allowed us to venture across town to the enormous 120,000 capacity Salt Lake Stadium and witness the Indian I-League’s marquee fixture: the vociferous Kolkata derby.

Cricket, of course, is huge in India and it’s true that it transcends all other sports, but Bengal is the spiritual home of football in this country. My only previous experience of Indian football was an international friendly between India and Namibia in Delhi in front of a paltry 3,000 semi-interested spectators, so I wasn’t expecting much in Kolkata. How wrong I was.

We get an idea of what to expect at the game as the roads towards the stadium are gridlocked. Trucks overflowing with drunken supporters from both teams, screaming, gesticulating, waving flags, honking horns, taunting each other with empty bottles of Signature whiskey, and what can only be described as fans waving their penises at their rivals – a peculiar gesture I have been reliably informed is known as “windmilling”.

Finally we reach the stadium, and are engulfed by ticket touts offering us VIP tickets, and young flag sellers and face painters insisting we daub our cheeks in red and gold; the colours of today’s home team East Bengal and the team we choose to follow. Any other deviation of colours worn by spectators we are told is an insult. Glad I’m wearing my black and amber Hull City shirt then. There are men everywhere, not a female fan in sight. One huge rolling crowd of Indian men seemingly heading for the ground but much like the rest of India, a seething mass of humanity.

Finally inside the ground, we squeeze into the lower tier terrace for a side view of the match. It is now apparent how important this derby is. It is not full to capacity but there must be 100,000 spectators crammed into the three-tiered cauldron; red and gold at one end and maroon and green – the colours of Mohun Bagan, the other giants of Kolkata football – at the other. A cacophony of noise hits us and we are instantly mauled by hundreds of East Bengal boys desperate for a handshake and a photo with the English. We are offered some sort of snuff, a random white powder and by the looks of their wild eyes that’s not all these boys are on. It is hot, dusty, overcrowded and there is a stench of sweat and whiskey in the air. It’s an electric atmosphere, one I have never experienced at a football match before, and it is clear the opposing supporters hate each other. A drunken old man, his teeth stained red from all the betel nut (a stimulant) he has been nailing today, gives us some backstory to the fixture. The ruling British split Bengal in 1905 into a predominantly Hindu West Bengal and mainly Muslim East Bengal. Mohun Bagan FC, known as the Mariners, represents the traditionally elitist Hindu Bengalis, and East Bengal FC the lower-caste migrants from what is now Bangladesh. The 85-year-old rivalry is not so much football but a bitterly intense socio-cultural one. 

The tension in the air indicates trouble is on the horizon; any incident in the game and this could all go pear shaped. And so it proves. Just before half-time in a match so far devoid of any modicum of skill, East Bengal take the lead; Harmanjot Khabra rises first to nod home a Mehtab Hossein free kick. Bedlam. The noise is incredible. Firecrackers boom, huge flags unfurl, smoke rises. It’s a sea of red and gold. Moments later, Mohun Bagan’s star man, Odafa Okolie viciously remonstrates with the referee and as the Nigerian manhandles the official, he is sent off for his insolence. These two incidents combine and the Mohun Bagan fans decide they have been cheated. Sticks, stones and slabs of concrete rain down on the running track and some reach the pitch. Mariners’ defender Syed Rahim Nabi is hit by a slab thrown by his own supporters and collapses in a bloody heap. East Bengal players rush to help drag his limp body from the pitch. He is hospitalised. Hundreds of police baton-charge two tiers of the away end and the scene is descending into chaos. It is intense and frightening and I wish someone would take me back to the comparatively sedate atmosphere of Eden Gardens, where I can sit and sing along with the Barmy Army aka “the Top Gear audience in sun block”. 

We inch our way further toward the relative safety of the home end as more missiles are thrown in our general direction, now from all sides of the ground. More firecrackers, smoke, and baton-charging in the crowd. Carnage. East Bengal fans are taunting the opposition by setting alight to newspapers and holding them aloft in a tribute to their burning torch emblem. Play finally resumes after twelve minutes of injury time for only a few seconds before the referee has had enough and blows for half-time. Mohun Bagan refuse to come out for the second half citing security concerns and the match is abandoned. Our new friend, the old man, confirms they have “surrendered”. Mohun Bagan now face a two-year suspension from the I-League, a punishment that will do no favours to a league striving hard to rival cricket in the hearts and minds of Indians.

We get the hell out of Salt Lake. Sharpish. Later on the news we hear rioting engulfs the area. Over 40 people are injured in fighting and scuffles with police. We also learn it is just one in a long line of bonkers derby days in Kolkata. In 1980, 16 people were killed at the same match in similar scenes and it is by pure chance that something similarly tragic did not happen today. Later that night we watch the Manchester derby in the pub, sink a few Kingfishers and shake our heads at the toxically vomiting incontinence of it all.

The Northern League: Football’s groundhog day?

21 December 2012

By Matthew Rogerson

Imagine last season if Manchester City, upon winning the Premier League, had decided to refuse their entry into the Champions League because they didn’t want to travel the extra distance midweek.

This, in many ways, is similar to the situation in the Northern League currently, with teams paying an abundance of money in wages to players to win games and take leagues by storm only to refuse promotion to the Evo-Stik Division One.

Clearly there is a difference between City missing out a trip to the Bernabeu and Whitley Bay, for instance, giving a trip to Skelmersdale a miss, but there is a common theme.

Most, if not all, sports fans and players would relish the chance to pit their wits against higher quality opponents and the idea of refusing the chance would raise eyebrows but it seems to be the case in the Northern League that promotion is simply an inconvenience.

Clubs themselves argue that the extra cost of travelling from the north-east to places such as Warrington, Prescot and Burscough just isn’t sustainable on their crowd levels.

However, that said, many clubs in the league are hardly short of a bob or two.

A recent investigation by Sky Tyne and Wear found that one club in the league is spending £180,000 a year, with the vast majority of this going on player wages.

If this figure was for Darlington 1883 then it may be understandable as they can rely on big crowds and sponsorship but it’s not and this mystery club aren’t the only one spending big, with one player earning as much as £600 a week.

As expensive as the travelling would be, surely if a section of player wages were diverted towards paying these costs, then clubs could grow and you would have a fairer playing field.

Not only is the excess money in the league affecting its own quality, you also have to wonder about clubs like Blyth Spartans and Workington who would struggle to compete with wages on offer in the region from Northern League clubs.

Not one winner of the Northern League has accepted promotion since 2006 and unless there are dramatic changes, things don’t look set to be any different over the coming seasons with only Darlington, and their sizable infrastructure and big name, likely to make the step up this season if they achieve promotion.

League chairman Mike Amos said: “Money talks and we all know that. Any level of semi-professional sport it is going to talk and players will go where there is money, it is not a secret.”

It may not be a secret but the Football Association said they are “concerned” at the situation and, more than anything else, it all seems a little bit pointless.

If you were going to pump money into a club, whatever the rights and wrongs of that may be, surely it’s utterly pointless to stay in the same league, year after year.

Not only does it seem absurd from a financial point of view, it’s also baffling from a sporting perspective too.

Why lose blood, sweat and tears over a campaign just to do the same thing all over again next season?

Steel & Sons Cup Final

20 December 2012

By Keith Bailie

Football penetrates every waking hour of our lives, with live televised matches nearly every night and a constant stream of media covering the game in minutiae.

The coverage reaches saturation point over the festive period with scores of live games broadcast over the Christmas fortnight.

Amongst all this one day remains untouched. Christmas Day itself is a rare sanctuary from football – with no live games on television and little in the way of fresh news, football fans can spend a day with their families without the temptation to check their phones for scores or transfer news.

But not in Belfast. When the rest of Europe is busy opening their presents on Christmas morning, the football fans of Belfast flock to Seaview, in the north of the city, to watch the Steel & Sons Cup Final.

The tradition dates back to the 1890s, when football on Christmas Day wasn’t so unusual. Indeed, the Football League played 25 December games until the 50s, while the tradition didn’t die out until the mid-70s in Scotland.

But while all else around them has changed, the County Antrim FA have held firm and the Christmas morning Steel & Sons Cup Final remains, kicking off at 10.45am, often in front of crowd of 3,000 spectators – an impressive figure for the Irish domestic game.

The knock-out tournament starts in August and consists of around 80 teams, all dreaming of walking out at Seaview on Christmas morning. The Steel & Sons is open to sides from County Antrim and the surrounding areas, who play their football outside the top division in Northern Ireland.

Top division sides are allowed to enter their reserve sides, and Glentoran Seconds and Linfield Swifts are two of the competitions most successful clubs. Indeed, Linfied Swifts defeated Cliftonville Olympic in the first ever final back in 1895.

Memorable finals in the modern era include the RUC’s (the police) beating old B Division rivals Dundela 5-1 in the 1993 final and Ards beating Carrick Rangers with a last minute Ricky Billing winner in 2008, highlights of which were broadcast on Sky Sports News.

Other winners include Chimney Corner, Albert Foundry, Harland & Wolff Welders, Shorts Brothers and the Black Diamonds.

Last year Bangor beat Larne 2-1 in front off a sold-out Seaview. The Seasiders joined Larne and Crusaders as the three teams who have won the trophy with both their first and second teams. Glentoran Seconds are the most successful side in the competition’s rich history, lifting the famous old cup 13 times. This year they return to the final to face hot favourites Ards in the Christmas morning final.

For the majority of their existence Ards have been a top-flight club, but relegation from the Irish Premiership in 2006 meant it was now their firsts, rather than their reserves, that play in the Steel & Sons. Ards will be hoping that Christmas morning’s final is their first-team’s last game in the competition, as they currently lead the Premiership promotion chase by seven points.

The competition isn’t without controversy, however. In the second round Ards were beating their local amateur rivals Ards Rangers 3-2 when referee Keith Kennedy sprained his ankle, after he slipped brandishing a red-card at Rangers’ defender Jamie Patterson. As the competition doesn’t have referee’s assistants until the semi-final stage the game was abandoned. Ards won the derby re-match 2-1, with Patterson receiving his second red card of the tie.

With a bumper-crowd expected, this year’s game is the first all-ticket final. Amusingly, the host association have erroneously called themselves the Country Antrim and District FA on the tickets.

While their friends are out paryting the experienced campaigners of Ards and the young hot-shots of Glentoran Seconds are preparing for the big day. So while you’re ignoring football in favour of board games and terrible films, spare a thought for the losing side at Seaview. Their turkey might taste a little bitter.

Waiting for The Click

19 December 2012

By Nicol Hay

Some managers get to hit the ground running, their new charges understanding their instructions, believing in their systems, executing their wishes with vigour and efficient success. The lucky few start meeting expectations from the very moment they first direct their players to go left, then right, then left again around the training cones – whether they’re chasing a title, consolidating in mid-table or simply desperately clinging to the driftwood of 17th place, it all goes right immediately.

For other managers, those early days aren’t so smooth. Maybe he has to completely renovate a side that his predecessor thoroughly condemned. Maybe his grizzled club captain doesn’t understand his accent or weird insistence on salads and passing. Maybe his strikers are just that irredeemably stupid. In any case, when the results aren’t flowing as torrentially as required, that manager is waiting for one of two things – the sack, or the Click.

The sack is a fate all too familiar for most coaches, with twitchy chairmen ever mindful that if cutting your losses, even the most club-footed midfield chancer can be sold on for some semblance of restitution, while no one pays a transfer fee for a manager.

(Well, except Roman Abramovich, but you can only rely on him to come a-buying once or twice a year at most.)

Sometimes though, if the gaffer can keep his chairman calm for long enough, he can be saved by the satisfying sound of the Click – that wonderful moment where all those hours of grinding practise turn into effortless cohesion. Previously confused players start running instinctively onto previously aimless passes, miscommunication becomes unspoken synchronicity. The system falls into place and some unsuspecting opponent turns up expected to face a rabble, and instead gets turned over by a team.

Just ask Chris Hughton about the Click, who two months ago must have thought his Norwich City team would never hear its comforting tone. It was seven games into the league campaign, and only three points gathered for the side that Paul Lambert had somehow cruised into the top division and kept there comfortably. The Glaswegian constructed his team from a mosaic of hard-working journeymen held together by the thick mortar of will and very hard stares, and it seemed that in Lambert’s absence, those disparate tiles had become very shoogly and Championship-bound.

Then one day in October, all of sudden, everything comes together and they beat Arsenal. Convincingly too – not just 90 minutes of battened hatches and praying for miracles, but a controlled display of counter-attacking and level-headedness. At some point since their previous match – a 4-1 defeat at Chelsea so comprehensive that Fernando Torres grabbed a goal on that canary-yellow flat-track – Norwich suddenly got it, and transformed from a transitional outfit into eleven men and a cunning plan. Then they set about executing that plan with gusto – reeling off ten games without defeat, sprinting up the table and generally reminding everybody that Hughton has managed to create organisation within far more shambolic groups of players at Newcastle and Birmingham, so maybe the Click was always inevitable.

Fans love the Click, because it rewards their investments of time, money and faith in a side as they watch the men they stood by through thin become conquering heroes when the thick starts rolling in. That shared struggle makes the team somehow more authentically theirs, a trench camaraderie that makes it all the sweeter to think back to the days when the young left back was rubbish, but we all knew that he’d make it. The Click is an earned success, and one that resonates all the more deeply for the mental cost of the pre-Click days.

Pundits also love the Click, because they can reach back through the archives and point out the trends that made it happen, then chuckle in agreement about the value of team-spirit and hard graft and sticking by a manager, hoping it’ll make them harder to fire when they finally get a job back on some exalted bench. And coaches themselves definitely love the Click – it confirms them as adroit visionaries, and beats the hell out of the alternative.

So pity the manager who is stranded on the touchline, straining for the Click’s arrival. Slowly – so slowly – Brendan Rodgers is dropping elements of competence into the Liverpool morass, but they stubbornly remain broken islands of functionality. Sterling and Suárez may forge a nascent understanding here, but remain marooned from the infinite supply of arcing Gerrard through-balls there. Two solid centre-halves maintain a seamless partnership in front of a fractured keeper, while Joe Allen delivers perfect pass after perfect pass to Stuart Downing, who takes the ball and runs constantly into remote oblivion.

The Click looks like a distant friend to Rodgers right now, but that’s exactly how the Click arrives. Just when you least suspect it: boom! Competency! And everyone concerned can nod and say they saw it coming all along. Meanwhile – for possibly the only time in the history of those two teams – Liverpool are looking jealously eastwards, wishing they had some of what Norwich is enjoying.

Beenhakker on Zlatan

18 December 2012

By The Ramble

The following is an excerpt from Issue Seven of The Blizzard, the football quarterly. Available in both hard copy and digital formats on a pay-what-you-like basis, the Blizzard exists to allow the best football writers in the world to tell the football stories that matter to them, without editorial line or agenda.

Joachim Barbier spoke at length to former Ajax, Real Madrid, Ajax, Real Madrid, Trinidad and Tobago and Poland manager Leo Beenhakker, including asking him about how he first brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Ajax.

For more details, visit our website www.theblizzard.co.uk

He coached the Real Madrid of Butragueño and Hugo Sánchez. Managed the Netherlands at the time of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. Brought Zlatan Ibrahimović to Ajax. Qualified Trinidad and Tobago for a World Cup. And his travelling instincts carried him to a thousand more dugouts. Leo Beenhakker — until recently the sporting director of Újpest FC – has seen a lot in life, and in football, during his 40-year career.

Bow-legged, with a crooked smile and a passing resemblance to Nick Nolte, Leo Beenhakker reaches out for a handshake. “What on earth is so interesting about meeting a Dutch arsehole like me?” he asks. A lot, if truth be told. Before holing up in the summer of 2011 at Újpest — traditional giants who won their last Hungarian title an eternity ago — Don Leo dragged his old, battle-worn body to every corner of the globe. Successor to Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff’s contemporary and Guus Hiddink’s predecessor, Beenhakker coached the biggest teams of the eighties and nineties and some of the biggest players. The Dutch adventurer then set sail. Mexico first of all, before Trinidad and Tobago, then Poland at Euro 2008 before he returned to the Netherlands with Feyenoord.

Joachim Barbier: You were responsible for bringing Zlatan Ibrahimović to Ajax…

Leo Beenhakker: Yes. We paid Malmö €9m to buy him. That was a record for Ajax. I spent hours trying to convince our finance director. And yet I’d never actually seen Ibrahimović play in a match. Only at training. I’d received a phone call from a contact of mine who said, “Hurry up, come us see this youngster at Malmö.” The team was on a winter training camp in Spain, near Alicante. I watched him and thought, “Jesus Christ, I’ve got to have him!” So we splashed the money after an almighty battle with Malmö. The first week was a disaster. Then after three weeks, the 50,000 supporters at the Arena started whistling him. The coach, the rest of staff, the directors… everyone started avoiding eye contact with me. In the end, there were only two people left who believed in Ibrahimović: Zlatan and me. Then he exploded in to life. But my word it was tough. Everyone wanted to kill me.

Joachim Barbier: Did he already have a big ego?

Leo Beenhakker: Yes, and that’s why I adored him. I loved him, I still love him — I love his personality. I always told my bosses, “Give me 11 arseholes like him and we’ll be champions.” Great players are always strong characters. Do you think it’s easy to manage Hugo Sánchez or a guy like Bernd Schuster? Of course they’re arseholes! But they’ll never let you down on the pitch. They’re capable of changing the course of a game. From the start, Zlatan was a silly sod. In the dressing room, on the pitch, at training, I used to think, “Fucking hell, who is this guy?” That’s why I loved him, because of his nature.

Joachim Barbier: Weren’t Arsenal and Wenger also keen to sign him before Ajax came in?

Leo Beenhakker: I don’t know about Wenger, but Capello, oh yes, he was more than interested. He was coaching Roma at the time. Three or four days after I had signed Zlatan, we bumped in to each other at a game. He came over to me. “Hey you, son of a bitch!” he said. “What’s wrong Fabio?” He screamed, “I almost got the green light from my president for Zlatan.” I replied, “Hard luck, you poor bastard. These things happen.”

The hairless dogs and the Mexican moment

18 December 2012

By Steven Maloney

On December 2, 2012, Los Angeles were celebrating their second consecutive domestic league championship in MLS and saying goodbye to some as yet unknown portion of the Beckham/Donovan/Keane troika for the last time. 135 miles south from Carson, California, through San Diego and into another California, a champion of far more continental significance was crowned on the same day. Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente of Baja California, Mexico defeated Toluca in the home and away final to win the Apertura in Liga MX.

The Xolos bear the nickname of the Mexican hairless dog – believed to have been indigenous to Mexico for 3,000 years – but the club has only been in existence since 2006. The Xolos’ rise from non-existence to league champions makes TSG Hoffenheim look as if they are dallying. In a league where four clubs from Southern Mexico – Cruz Azul, America, Pumas UNAM, and Chivas Guadalajara – can claim almost the entirety of club support from the entire nation, Tijuana’s upstart club on the northern border of the country in one of the most notorious cities in North America have somehow waltzed away with the first ever league title in the newly christened Liga MX.

Tijuana serves as a decent surrogate for the hopes and fears of the recent restructuring and repackaging of Mexican football.  Mexican football, after years of having a largely isolationist global football policy, have performed a complete reversal.  The creation of Liga MX this year was designed to create a more fan friendly, corporate friendly Mexican top fight that would make people want to come to matches, spend money, and see many of their favourite stars who had been coaxed back form Europe to participate in the first season. Liga MX was so clearly intended to be a Mexican football version of the film franchise “reboot” that one half expected Christian Bale and/or Daniel Craig to appear. 

Liga MX represents awareness of an opportunity to bring in more fans to the game, increase revenues for clubs, and raise the global profile of Mexican football. The Mexican moment has been evident on the field. Club teams have become more serious about international club competition success in both North and South America (after years of largely sleepwalking through both competitions on both continents). The National team has seen renewed investment as well, with a demolition job of the United States in the last CONCACAF Gold Cup and Olympic Gold in London.

The meteoric rise of Tijuana fits the pattern of this larger sea change in Mexican football. The Xolos’ success promises not only the potential for expansion of the game in the Northwest region of Mexico, but Tijuana is also quite famously (notoriously, some may say) a stones’ throw from the United States. The USA’s rapidly awakening soccer market and large émigré community opens up a whole new set of economic possibilities for Mexican football. These possibilities appear to be real enough that Univision simulcast the Liga MX Apertura final in English for American audiences. What’s more, USA international Edgardo Castillo and US Olympic qualifying star Joe Corona happen to play professionally for Tijuana. Club America of Mexico City is one of Mexico’s most popular teams, but Club Tijuana plans to sustain its growth by becoming America’s Mexican club team.

The problem with this vision, as with all of the promise one can find across Mexico’s economic, political, and social life, is that “ifs” always remains so tantalisingly elusive south of the border. The richness of Mexico’s culture and people always offer so much promise, but the stilting social and economic problems of the country are such that Mexico can never seem to shake them off. Here too, Club Tijuana represents Mexican football in miniature.

While the Xolos’ story has been a chance for citizens of Tijuana to highlight the artistic and cultural elements of the city, Tijuana remains a place largely under the firm grip of Pacific Coast drug cartels, with violence receding only when everyone knows which organised criminals are truly the ones in charge. Human and drug trafficking remain major sources of income in the city. Even while Mexico tries to move into the future as a modern, model 21st century global citizen in the community of nations, Mexican households still pay in excess of two billion dollars in bribes in order to receive basic government services. 

Tijuana’s story serves as a reminder that Mexico has a singular history, and that the power of the modernisation of Mexico lies in the potential combination of what is uniquely Mexican with what is comfortably modern. The Xolos’ Apertura campaign represents this image that Mexico can be better-organised, foster civic pride, compete, and display Mexican style to the biggest stages.  But Tijuana is still Tijuana – good and bad – as Mexico is still Mexico. The seasons of Mexico’s economic and cultural future, like the seasons for Tijuana in Liga MX, promise never to be a completely finished story, for the next season might always bring new possibilities…or new disappointments. 

All together now

17 December 2012

By Jake Farrell

As the festive period draws closer in here in China anticipation is growing. Whilst the Yuletide may not hold the promise of presents, turkey and drunken familial angst for the kids at the Changle Foreign Language School they will at least experience one great British tradition – the Annual World War One Memorial Football match.

Have you not heard of the famous yearly football match played between schools of the same town to commemorate the 1914 Christmas truce between German and English soldiers? Did your school never partake in the quintessential British tradition of memorialising that homage to peace and understanding through an exhibition match of their own? That will probably be because I made the whole thing up a week ago.

As previously discussed in my dispatches from the forefront of Chinese youth football, organisation is an issue. Repeated requests for organised matches for the Grade 5 squad that we manage had fallen on deaf ears or more accurately ears that heard and understood exactly what we had been saying but couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.

In light of this fact I took some small liberties with the truth to induce a reaction. The school administration here in Changle love the idea of the foreign teachers imparting a sense of their cultural traditions through big, staged, spectacles. Football simply being an integral part of the British national identity wasn’t going to be enough of a statement to warrant an event in the mould of the Halloween and Thanksgiving celebrations we had to sit through (both were total shit by the way).

Thus, The 1914 Truce Memorial Match was born. As stipulated in the information dossier I presented Mr Shu with last week (and just to fill you in on a “long running example of proud English heritage”) the 1914 TMM “must take place between the 10th and 21st of December” and “must be used to promote an understanding of good football and friendship between local towns”. I was also tempted to include the caveat that “All Together Now” by The Farm had to be played from a tannoy system throughout the entirety of the 1914 TMM but pragmatism got the better of me.

It looks like the big dogs upstairs have gone for the ruse although, predictably, the specific date is yet to be finalised. The signs are good though - good enough for the managerial team of myself Chris Dodd and Henry Cowen to have nailed down our starting seven for when kick off rolls around. So, here’s the line-up carrying the hopes and expectations of a city level prefecture county of Shandong Province on its shoulders. (Imagine, if you will, the line-up being read by an over enthusiastic on-pitch announcer to be greeted by steadily diminishing cheers from the home support):

Goalkeeper – Charlie Watts

I made reference to Charlie Watts and his elegant, unflappable playing style in an earlier piece. I’m pleased to report that since then his training performances have continued to impress, especially his quick distribution into the midfield which is vital to our free flowing football. Plus, he’s managed to find some goalie gloves from somewhere in the last couple of weeks which is always a bonus.

Left Back – Terry Butcher

The key to our back two is so named because of his cartoonish level of bravery. Although not the most technically gifted or the most extrovert off the field, to say that he gets stuck in on it is an understatement. We knew that he would be the grit that allowed our more expressive team members to flourish when he took a half volley from the traction engine right boot of Gazza directly to the bonce and just got up, shook his head groggily and kept playing. Rock hard.

Right Back – John Terry

Although we consider ourselves haughty footballing purists we realise as a management team that there has to be some allowances made for the darker side of the game. That’s why our back two is completed by another total nutjob. We’ve taken to calling this little fella JT because he has a nasty side to his game which he usually exhibits by kicking Xavi in the shins as his Captain sashays past him. Never good to see of course but every team needs a Craig Bellamy, Lee Bowyer or Robbie Savage – they may be bastards but when they pull on the shirt they’re YOUR bastard.

Right Midfield – Pedro

Pedro has been a diamond in the rough for the majority of this term and has only come to prominence playing in a right midfield berth over the last month. It seemed one training session that someone had flicked a switch and suddenly we had been gifted a pacy, combative winger. A true believer in the tiki-taka doctrine Pedro is so named because of telepathic way he links up with our main man Xavi. The two are seemingly best mates off the pitch and it shows in their sumptuous understanding on it.

Central Midfield – Xavi (Captain)

Never had the phrase “Captain, Leader, Legend” been more apt. Xavi is unerringly consistent and a joy to manage – every week he listens hard and plays harder. Watching him flit into space and demand the ball, and invariably receive it from an awed squad member, makes standing in the freezing cold shouting “Pass!” worth it. If we are going to get a win his contribution will be essential.

Left Midfield – Laurent Robert

Our left midfielder is an undoubtedly talented and often produces moments of magic but has a frustrating tendency to over complicate things – hence his nickname. On school playgrounds back in Blighty he would definitely be tarred with the tag of “Ball Hogger” and his team mates anger would only be assuaged by the odd occasions when he produces a goal from nothing. He’s a risky inclusion – he could win us the game but he could interrupt the smooth passing aesthetic appropriated so neatly by the rest of the front four.

Striker – Gazza

What more is there to be said about the riddle wrapped up in an enigma that is Gazza? I sometimes think that it’s wrong to think of Gazza as a man and prefer to view him as a conduit that allows the beauty of the universe to permeate the mundanity of our everyday lives. The balletic grace with which he skips away from his assailants is only bettered by the razor sharp peripheral vision he employs to slip the ball delicately into the path of onrushing team mates. He can really twat a ball as well, which will be handy on free kicks if their keeper is dodgy.

So, the line-up’s decided, the players are prepared and The Farm are flying out to Changle as we speak. We have one game to try and vindicate our footballing vision. Win and we can sleep easy – lose and we are consigned to the footnotes of footballing history. If I can borrow the language of the Twitterverse for one moment I would just ask you to do one thing to help us on our way – Pray for Changle.

We need to talk about Mario

17 December 2012

By Niall McVeigh

He’s the enigma that’s bewitched the Premier League. The mercurial manchild who burned his own house down, then went out and won the Derby. Mario Balotelli is drawn to the spotlight like a moth to a flame – yet as the headlines have dried up, so have the goals. Now, his explosive City career is in danger of fizzling out for good.

Now in his third season in England, Mario is one of a rare breed recognised immediately by his first name, and widely appreciated outside of footballing circles. His mushrooming media persona is at odds with his often patchy on-field performances. As we all know, Mario’s on-field exploits are barely half the story.

A little over a year ago, Roberto Mancini appeared in two minds over whether to call on Balotelli for Man City’s titanic trip to Old Trafford. On the eve of the game, the news broke that the striker had been rendered homeless, a friend’s errant firework igniting his bathroom. Mancini’s pet project, for which he had risked disdain from all quarters, was spending pre-game embroiled in a firework fiasco. The manager’s mind was made up. He was definitely starting.

Twenty minutes into the game, in a moment of clarity only his manager and mentor could foresee, Balotelli surgically sliced the ball inside David de Gea’s far post. Mario turned, pouted, and revealed his now infamous “Why Always Me?” t-shirt. An aggressive statement against press intrusion, but one he had answered himself in five seconds of petulance and precision.

The indelible association between the combustible striker and the comparatively humble firework was a journalist’s dream - and as the months rolled by from Mario’s defining moment, sparks continued to fly on and off the pitch. To dismiss Mario as an irresponsible hot head on the field, while tempting, is to ignore that somewhere in that tumultuous cranium there is an icy pocket of crystal clear composure.

It was Balotelli who tucked away a last second winning penalty against Spurs, exhibiting the psychological steel that sees him still yet to fail from the spot. It was Balotelli who played that vital, inch perfect through ball to Sergio Aguero, from a seated position. The Argentinean, everything Mario is not in terms of persona and performance levels, took a touch and finished off City’s title winning play.

Of course, it was also Balotelli who delivered a masterclass in self destruction at the Emirates, as City had seemed to throw the title away. Deserving of two red cards during the game, he hampered his side to the degree that it felt as if they were playing with nine men. Afterwards, Mancini intimated that his career at City was over. Several times in his Premier League career however, when placed in the shadows, Mario has found a way to catch fire once more.

An adopted child raised in the industrial city of Brescia, Balotelli has become a pass master at overcoming adversity. During his City career, he has risen from the bench innumerable times to salvage his reputation. Last season, an instinctive finish against Everton rekindled a stuttering title charge, and forced Carlos Tevez out to fourth choice striker. Three days later, City travelled to Munich, and Balotelli’s shortcomings were placed in a more sympathetic perspective. Six months prior, he had defied an exasperated fanbase with an outstanding, disciplined display in the FA Cup final. This summer, he proved the undoing of a thoroughbred German side, as he swept Italy into the Euro 2012 final. As his second goal rippled Manuel Neuer’s net, Mario once again removed his shirt for that flexed non-celebration. The world appeared to lie sprawling at his feet.

Away from the field, the young striker’s status borders on the mythical. Balotelli’s extra-curricular antics have become the stuff of legend – culminating in a bizarre Football Focus interview, where a clearly smitten Noel Gallagher coquettishly checked their veracity with the man himself. Mario offered brisk retorts in broken English to tales of a toilet stop in a sixth form, a mass petrol giveaway, and dressing up as Santa to hand out fifties – followed by an acceptance that a couple of the yarns were true.

It says much for the safe, stodgy characters that inhabit the domestic game that Mario has already become something of a folk hero. The Italian has featured on the cover of Time magazine, wandered into Italian chat shows and broken into women’s prisons. He has his own fan chant detailing his exploits which will soon rival Bohemian Rhapsody in scale. Or so we all thought.

In the latest twist, it seems Mario could be about to prematurely depart our shores. The great riddle that lies at the heart of Mario is that he marries astonishing natural talent with an alarmingly bad attitude. It was Mancini’s task to harness the brilliance and diminish the belligerence. Nobody imagined that the two would prove quite so inextricable.

Mario Balotelli has been quiet this season - one week, he wasn’t even discussed on Match of the Day. Relative off field calm has combined with a more workaday approach on the pitch, as ineffective as it is uninspiring. Mario has adopted a disciplined, yet distant approach on the field, and has scored just once this season – goals have become so scarce, he’s even started celebrating them. The Italian has been ransformed from an unmanageable maverick to the new Dirk Kuyt.

We all assumed that Mario could be incredible, if his temperament could only be tempered. What nobody has suggested, publicly at least, is that his is a brilliance that can’t be bottled - a diamond that can’t sparkle without the rough edges. Mario is keeping his head down, staying out of trouble, playing the percentages. He quickly tumbled from go-to guy to fourth choice striker. As of right now, he’s not even that highly favoured.

After a surprise selection for this season’s first Derby, and a listless 45 minute shift, he was left marooned in Manchester as City travelled to the North East. Never shy of publicly admonishing his charges, Mancini has nevertheless been remarkably blunt in his assessment of Balotelli’s form. Quotes in the last seven days have suggested that the newly becalmed Balotelli is barely fit for purpose. Mancini’s pet project suddenly appears to be terminally out of favour.

New strikers could be on the way in January - and the Italian seems the obvious choice to depart. Mancini may still hold out hope that Mario’s impending fatherhood will bring forth that much needed maturity. Yet his insistence that Mario must grow up to succeed seems at odds with his frequent, and fruitful, indulgence of the striker’s dark side. Perhaps privately, Mancini knows what nobody wants to admit - that once you strip away the bullshit, bravado and bad behaviour, there’s not much left behind. That maybe Mario needs to misbehave, on and off the pitch, like a bird needs to fly.

With barely two weeks until the transfer window creaks open, Mancini and his protégée appear at a crossroads. There is still time for Mario to rescue his City career – whether he does it his way or Mancini’s. It’s scarcely conceivable that the teenager who exploded onto these shores could leave in such subdued circumstances. With Mario, of course, nothing is ever predictable.

Liverpool Ladies making strides to dominate Merseyside

14 December 2012

By Kieran Theivam

Since the FA Women’s Super League formed in 2011, two things have occurred in the opening campaigns - Arsenal Ladies have won the league, and Liverpool Ladies have won the wooden spoon.

It’s been a nightmare couple of seasons for the Merseysiders, who have won two of their 28 fixtures over the two WSL seasons, with a goal difference of -36.

It was always going to be tough for the Reds, who jumped from the Premier League North division (Third tier of English football) into the Super League, when applications were being taken for the newly formed semi-professional competition.

Liverpool, unlike rivals Everton Ladies, were very much a yo-yo club in the years leading up to the WSL, shifting between the Premier League North and National division.

But following a torrid couple of years and a change of manager midway through the second Super League campaign, there appears to be a sense of optimism within the red half of Merseyside that would suggest they will be anything but basement battlers next year.

New manager Matt Beard, who joined the club in August after leaving Chelsea a month earlier, made his intentions clear at the start of the off-season after releasing ten first team players from the club.

This included twins Vicky and Kelly Jones, who have subsequently joined neighbours Everton, and internationals Aroon Clancey (New Zealand) and Emily Gielnik (Australia).

What will be encouraging for Reds fans and neutrals, of which there are plenty, is the players Beard has worked hard to bring to the club.

US international Whitney Engen will become the first American to grace the English league after Liverpool acquired her services in October, bringing experience and qualities to a defence that has leaked more goals than anyone else in the league.

Engen began her Reds career alongside a new centre back partner in the shape of former Chelsea defender, Gemma Bonner. The 21-year-old England international was a key piece of the Blues’ puzzle last year, which saw them reach a dramatic FA Cup final – which they eventually lost on penalties to Birmingham Ladies.

Bonner is one of the most promising defenders in the country and, alongside Engen, will give solid protection in front of impressive young keeper, Sarah Quantrill, another Beard signing from Chelsea.

Undoubtedly Liverpool’s biggest transfer coup is one that even Brendan Rodgers would be envious of, and will also put a dent into a major rival’s plans. Last month, the Reds were able to raid their Merseyside neighbours in blue to swoop for trio Lucy Bronze, Tash Dowie and England star Fara Williams. Bronze, an England Under-23 international, and Dowie, niece of Ian Dowie and another with England caps, will both add much needed quality to what is at the moment a paper thin squad.

But it is the signing of Williams, one of England’s most coveted players, which had those in the women’s game taking notice of Liverpool’s ambitions.

Williams has over 100 caps for her country and has played in two World Cups – she was also Everton’s top scorer last season. The former Fulham midfielder admitted recently that her performances had “dipped” of late, and that she needed a new challenge. There is no doubt she is the signing that makes the biggest statement from Liverpool, but the fascinating thing is, there’s likely to be plenty more to come.

Just this week the Reds announced they had captured Sweden International Louise Fors, with the signing coming hot on the heels of Germany Under-20 international, Nicole Rolser, who was part of the recent German team that finished runners-up in this year’s Under-20 World Cup.

Liverpool are clearly fed up of propping up the league, and the signings they’ve made so far should ensure they aren’t down there again. With the investment injected into the Ladies squad, the club will no doubt be looking for a return that justifies the support shown to manager Beard, and with this, will come an expectation and some pressure.

However, don’t be surprised if we see Liverpool fighting at the right end of the table, and, maybe even challenge their blue rivals for bragging rights on Merseyside.

Poetry, motion and Ryan Shotton

14 December 2012

By Nicol Hay

“I was excited as soon as I saw the fixture list – I knew there’d be no trace of a debate in the office over who’d get the assignment. Villa vs Stoke? That’s a game for Roderigo, all day long.”

Roderigo Mellencamp, the man they call ‘Mr Nil-Nil’, has been working as highlights package editor on Match of the Day for thirty years. In that time, his reputation as the master of creating silk purses from what others may consider to be pig’s ears has grown to the extent where his name is now synonymous with shanked chances, rattled crossbars and narrow midfield battles. We caught up with the great man the morning after one of his signature works – Saturday 8th December, Aston Villa 0-0 Stoke City (Running order position: last).

The Football Ramble: So, Roderigo – how do you making entertainment out of a game like this?

Roderigo Mellencamp: My word, how do you not? I’ve always been interested in the role of the highlights package as a form of portable memories. If I asked you to describe your recollection of the last game you watched, you’d go through goals, major flashpoints and any moments that reinforce your overall impression of how both teams play, correct? Well, in a 0-0 you don’t have those first two aspects to get in the way of the third. Your memories of a 0-0 are as pure a distillation of those teams’ identities as could possibly exist. To me, that is unspeakably beautiful.

But in this game, Stoke had one attempt on goal, and that was off-target. What are you distilling at this stage?

Frustration, rage, obduracy… Stoke City! This match was the expression of an entire philosophy – Stoke were travelling to the team who have scored the fewest goals in the league, and yet they didn’t shake from their core identity of doing everything they can to ensure they don’t concede. That shot off target, by the way, ended with Jon Walters embroiled in anger because he thought he should have had a corner rather than the goal kick that was awarded. That’s a gorgeous moment of Stoke, that incandescent pursuit of a restart – I’m delighted we were able to capture it.

And Aston Villa? Is their essence on display in this package?

Certainly. They want to score, they want to be a ‘proper’ football team, but they are bound by who they are, and who they were. Alex McLeish has always been a great friend to my work, and Villa are still caught in his inertia. You can see that they try to coerce themselves into a cogent attack, but it always ends feebly, an easy collection for Begović. It will take them years to become a different Aston Villa – and again, with every image of a ball trickling from Benteke’s foot to the keeper’s arms, I think this video installation expresses that struggle perfectly.

Surely though it’s difficult to find five minutes of material from this match?

Oh, no, not at all! There is so much more I would include – let me demonstrate. In the 32nd minute of this game, Eric Lichaj attempted a long, diagonal ball forward to Brett Holman on the left. Of course, he misjudged the pass and it went over his teammate and arrived at Geoff Cameron instead. The Stoke player then saw Walters in space, so attempted his own diagonal ball back across the pitch, which spun off the wet turf and out of play. You can see it already, can’t you? Right back to right back, intent and failure, then you restart. Such symmetry, such repetition, such visual poetry.

I suppose that would sum up a game between Villa and Stoke…

More than that, it would sum up the whole sport of football! Everything in this game is symmetry and repetition! All those rituals of being a fan: going to the pub before the match, kick off at 3pm, sing your songs, half time pie, cheer, despair, back to the pub, then home to relive the experience on Match of the Day. Then do it again and again, game after game, season after season – right back to right back, then you restart. If I could, I would have looped that passage of play 38 times and expressed the match as succinctly as anyone possibly could.

But you didn’t?

No, the producer would never allow it. Aimless passes aren’t a ‘highlight’ as the public are trained to think of the term. Besides, if we did anything so radical, it would confuse Alan Shearer.

And no one wants that.

Of course.

UEFA to host Euro 2020 across the continent

7 December 2012

By Chris Nee

European football’s governing body, UEFA, has put the seal on the reported change in the way it approaches hosting for its flagship international football tournament. UEFA Euro 2020 will not be held in a single host nation or even a pair of joint hosts, but across the continent in a selection of otherwise unconnected host cities. They’re calling it a EURO for Europe – I’m calling it a Euro for UEFA, because I’m cynical like that.

The arrangement is – for now at least – ostensibly a one-off to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the European Championships. Given my naturally negative view of powerful organisations made up of old white men in grey suits it’s difficult to shake off the nagging prospect of UEFA edging towards a Champions League for international football.

Still, who doesn’t love a Wembley final? The Champions League has another this season, and the Football Association has wasted no time in bidding for the final of Euro 2020.

There are many in favour and there are also those who don’t really think this is a big deal – as ever, Richard Whittall has put his version into words better than most, and within his article he points out that there are ways in which some of the problems with this new approach can be mitigated. In truth, it can probably be made workable. Broadly speaking, my issue is that I don’t think they should even be trying.

Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of a pan-European European Championships is that the continent’s economy is – to put it delicately – b*llocksed. Spreading the cost of hosting or not enforcing the high cost on one single nation would be a noble motivation if only there were any evidence that it had anything to do with UEFA’s decision.

There’s not much proof or even suggestion that the struggling economies of Europe were the genesis of this idea, nor has it been used by UEFA particularly prominently in its justification of this move.

Could it be that nobody wanted to host the competition? Turkey’s bid might have been scuppered by Istanbul’s status as the favourite to host the 2020 Olympic Games, and theirs is thought to be the only concrete bid.

However, I find it impossible to believe that no country would have competed with Turkey to host the competition in eight years’ time. There was supposedly a joint bid in the pipeline from some of our nearest neighbours, for one thing, and it won’t have been out of the question that England made a bid of our own. Again, the lack of bids is not UEFA’s public reasoning.

In any case, we have to ask ourselves why so few countries are unwilling or incapable of hosting the European Championships, knackered economies or not. The next competition will take place in France and the finals will be played between 24 teams for the first time. And, bluntly, whose fault is that?

Whether we like it or not we now have a 24-team tournament and a small group of potential solo hosts, meaning that Euro 2020 can be seen as an opportunity for UEFA to take the competition and its matches to otherwise ineligible smaller nations and cities without the need to build infrastructure or fork out for stadium improvements or new builds. But let’s wait and see where the host cities really are. I have little faith that anything other than commercial factors will decide the cities involved.

Debating imminent change often comes down to ‘why’ or ‘why not’, but in my opinion the latter is a lazy stance that allows some people in life too much unchecked influence. Either way, it’s hardly a strong justification for altering an established and most importantly popular existing state.
We need to consider what motivates a decision like this. I don’t like saying “if it ain’t broke…” because that’s an uninspiring, staid and frankly boring state of mind.

But when the likes of Michel Platini start fixing things that ain’t broke, we should at least ask why. The journalist Henry Winter has posited today that there will be plenty of happy Football Associations around Europe, and it’s worth noting that Platini is thought to fancy the job of one Sepp Blatter at FIFA.

My opposition to a pan-European Euro 2020 is mostly down to my being a miserable traditionalist who believes that the game is being taken away from the real supporters that made it what it is. Nevertheless, there are genuine reasons to complain, and they’re just as valid as the arguments in favour.

Is there not value in the buzz of a tournament? The sense of occasion is unrivalled when it comes to a World Cup or European Championships, and there’s a feeling of football coming together. But it goes further. By coincidence I happen to be reading Mark Perryman’s book ‘Ingerland’ at the moment, and one theme that comes through very clearly is that travelling to a tournament – to a competition located in a specific place – is of enormous cultural value for travelling fans.

The expense of the competition and the logistics of getting from one host city to another are not my concern here. I fear that much of the inherent fun, uniqueness and curiosity of a concentrated tournament will be lost, and I’m certain that it will be missed when it’s gone even if you’re watching it all on television.

This is a plan with plenty of potential to be a logistical nightmare for organisers even if it might not be for the fans, who will be herded onto budget airlines. I don’t know exactly where it might go wrong but whatever we think of this concept one has to admit it’s ambitious. The margin for error is incalculable.

For all that, my biggest fear and the possible outcome that makes me more angry than the others, is that supporters will be priced out of an increasingly gentrified tournament. ‘Ingerland’ proves that the most determined and resourceful fans will find a way to follow their team, but there’s little doubt that they’ll have to pay obscene money to do so.

That’s because the commercial possibilities for a tournament of this kind are extremely impressive. In addition to the potential decentralisation of some elements of sponsorship, UEFA will have on their hands a competition in which the corporate ticket allocations could be bigger than ever before. That won’t have escaped the attention of UEFA’s Executive Committee, and it won’t have a positive effect on ticket prices for the travelling supporters.

But the real problem, the nub of the whole matter in my bitter mind, has nothing to do with how – or whether – Euro 2020 will work.
It’s that this is yet another example of a largely faceless governing body fiddling about with the game without ever asking the supporters what they think. We have it with the Premier League, with UEFA and with FIFA, and it should be a source of great embarrassment that we sit back and just let happen whatever Platini, or Blatter, or Richard Scudamore want to happen.

This article first appeared on The Stiles Council.

Which European league is most competitive?

7 December 2012

By Andrew Brocker

The quality of the major leagues of Europe is undoubted. But as much as we may marvel at the weekly exploits of football’s elite, as fans we hope for something more. As fans we hope for competition.

As much as we may enjoy speculating as to who will win this coming weekend, what makes such speculation enjoyable is that at the end of the day, we don’t know. It’s the unpredictable nature of football that entices us week in, week out.

So which leagues offer the greatest intensity of competition, the greatest degree of unpredictability? There are any number of ways to assess this. We could look at the frequency of margins of victory from match to match, we could look at the upward mobility of clubs in each particular league.

Whatever your opinion of betting, match odds are perhaps one of the best means of assessing our expectations for individual sporting events. Within a small sample size, like even the most astute pundit, bookmakers can get it wrong. Just look at the last two weeks of football. We’ve seen Swansea upset Arsenal at the Emirates at odds of 7.50, meanwhile in Spain we saw Betis get the best of Real Madrid at the healthy odds of 11.00.

However despite the capacity for such week to week turbulence, over a larger sample size, bookmaker odds are as good an indication of what we can expect to see in a football match as any. A team that starts a match at odds of 1.50 is regarded as a 67% chance of winning that match. You will find that over a large enough sample size, teams starting at this price will win at roughly the expected rate.

So with this in mind, as means of assessing league by league competitive intensity, we will now take a look at the occurrence rates of matches that featured a team starting at odds of even money of shorter over the last five seasons. In particular, we will be looking at the following leagues:

⁃ English Premier League
⁃ English Championship
⁃ La Liga
⁃ Ligue Un
⁃ Bundesliga
⁃ Serie A
⁃ Eredivisie
⁃ Scottish Premier League

Even Money Or Shorter

The chart below displays the occurrence rates of matches featuring a team starting at odds of 2.00 or less for each of our seven leagues over the past five seasons. What we are looking at here are the number of matches in each league where a team was considered at least a 50% chance of winning.

The combined league occurrence rate has been just over 48% the last five seasons and we can see that four of our seven leagues, the Scottish Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga have shown occurrence rates within close proximity of the that average rate.

The two leagues that have shown significant variance from this average were the Eredivisie and the English Championship. The Eredivisie saw over 63% of their matches the last five seasons feature a team with an expected winning probability of 50% or greater, while the Championship saw just over 36% of its matches feature such teams.

Odds of 1.50 Or Shorter

So let’s then take a look at the occurrence rates of matches featuring a team starting at odds of 1.50 or less. Here we are looking at matches where a team was expected to win 67% of the time or greater. In other words, firm favourites.

The chart above shows the occurrence rates for matches featuring such teams over the last five seasons. The combined occurrence rate across our seven leagues during that time was just short of 15%. Unlike odds of even money or shorter, we start to see some significant variation between the leagues.

Again we see the Eredivisie lead with the highest occurrence rate, in this case, just short of 27% of its matches the last five seasons. We also see the English and Scottish Premier League not far behind, both seeing almost 22% of their matches over the last fives seasons feature a club with an expected winning probability of 67% or greater.

On the other end of the scale we find both Ligue Un which saw just short of 9% of its matches feature teams starting at odds of 1.50 or less and again the English Champiopnship, which saw almost 2% of its matches with teams in this odds range.

Odds of 1.30 or shorter

So let’s finally take a look at the occurrence rates in each league of matches that featured a club starting at odds of 1.30 or less. At these odds, the particular team is expected to win 77% of the time. In other words, we’re talking very short priced favourites, which would include matchups such as Manchester United hosting the likes of QPR.

The chart above shows such occurrence rates. The combined seven league occurrence rate of these lopsided matches over the last five seasons has been just over 5%, essentially 1 of every 20 matches played.

We can see four leagues significantly exceeding this rate, with the Eredivisie seeing almost 11% of its matches with such a forgone expectation, while the English Premier League, Scottish Premier League and La Liga, all seeing roughly 9% of their matches featuring a team with an expected winning probability of 77% or greater. Such occurrence rates would seem to corroborate the popular opinion that these leagues are amongst the most uneven in Europe.

On the other hand, we can see that the English Championship did not see one match over the last five seasons the featured a club with such an expectation of victory, while Ligue Un saw this disparity in just over 1% of its matches.

Final Thoughts

Given these numbers it’s easy to see that of the leagues we considered, the English Championship is by far the most competitive. Not once over the past five seasons did this league see a match where a team was considered a 77% or greater chance of victory, whereas the English Premier League, Scottish Premier League, La Liga and Eredivisie saw matches with such a lopsided expectation almost once in every ten matches played.

What the Championship may lack in terms of quality, it certainly makes up for in competition. This unpredictable nature of the league may go a long way to explain its popularity despite its inferior and often jeered standard of play. And while we may enjoy the craft of Europe’s elite performers in leagues such as the Premier League and La Liga, such displays of skill take place in matches where the result is typically a forgone conclusion.

As the gulf between football’s rich and poor continues to emerge, we can only expect to see an increase in the number of matches featuring clubs starting at odds of 1.30 or less. The impact of this on the popularity of leagues which see a high occurrence of such matches, will be intriguing. For bookmakers, enticing punters into betting on these matches will be an interesting exercise.

The inevitability of boring Europe

4 December 2012

By Nicol Hay

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – the last round of the Champions League group stages!

Thrill! As Europe’s top clubs travel vast distances to doggedly satisfy their contractually obligated fixtures!

Gasp! As the biggest names in world sport sit in the stands, swaddled in padded jackets all the colours of the sponsored rainbow, using their dazzling skills to look halfway-interested in the outcome of the match whilst surreptitiously sexting that girl they met in the club that time!

Quiver with frenzied delight! As doomed youth teamers whose destinies lie in the long, petulant careers of unfilled potential – shuttling around the lower divisions as itinerant reminders that it takes more than raw talent to make it at the top of the game, waiting for the day that a random FA Cup fourth round tie pairs them up with their prodigal past, and Garth Crooks’ chummy interview asks them what their superstar contemporaries were like as lads, and they never make eye contact long enough to see the regret welling up in journeyman’s heart who knows deep down that it should have been different, it should have been him – try their hardest to impress on pointless foreign soil, but not get injured because there’s a chance they might make the bench against Wigan on Saturday!

Thank you UEFA! Thank you football! Thank you for making this spectacle possible!

The last round of the Champions League group stages is monument cast in vulcanised dead rubber, towering over the football landscape, reminding us that if something in the game was instituted to make money, it has inevitably made the game worse.

Quite apart from the format of the Champions League – which guarantees revenue with one hand as it guarantees soul-crushing exercises in calendar-stuffing sporting antithety with the other – the concept of the competition itself, which funnels money into the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Elite Clubs via a sealed fiscal pipeline, has made the structure of football across Europe so top-heavy that in every country across the continent all but a maximum of four teams know for cold, hard fact that they will never win their local championship ever again. And that’s being generous, because in most nations that number of potential title-winners is actually two.

Then there’s the Europa League, designed to maximise the earning potential for those clubs who live closest to the impregnable fortress walls of the Champions League elite. I’m not sure how bringing all the excitement of the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds into six weekly televised instalments of bloated infinity was going to spin any kind of money – but if you could see the clothes I’m wearing as I type this you’d realise that I’ve never maximised the earning potential of anything in my life.

It seems the only way the phrase ‘guaranteed revenue’ can be carried out in football is to engineer competition systems that increase fixture load and make it is inevitable as possible that the same teams will be slogging it out at the prize-giving stage – money doesn’t like uncertainty. This is why UEFA has recently given tacit approval to the reinstatement of the Balkan league for the former Yugoslav states, and the bigger clubs in Russia and Ukraine are eying regular clashes with a mooted CIS league. While these two particular examples can be waved through as a nostalgic return to the glory days of Eastern European football – they are really being welcomed in the corridors of power as test-cases for pan-European leagues.

If you were to sit in a meeting of the G14 and whisper ‘closed elite league system’ between agenda items, the collective wistful sighing from the gathered dignitaries would both be louder than a jet-engine, and so nakedly-self-gratifying as to put you off the very concept of pleasure forevermore. The vision of stratified European competitions, as nations abandon nations and reach for Atlantic and Scandinavian and Alpine leagues in the quest for artificially larger TV audiences is so blatantly dystopian and anti-fan, that it becomes as guaranteed to happen as that Matchday Six run-out for Manchester United’s reserve squad.

Say goodbye to local rivalries, farewell to the culture of the regular travelling support, adieu to the idea of a kick-off time mandated by the lifestyle of the crowds rather than the most convenient gap in the TV schedule, because continental competition is the future, and it values the money in your wallet far more than the joy in your heart.

Ramble para todos: Lamela and ex-Premier League stars

30 November 2012

By Joel RichardsRupert Fryer

Who are the best ex-Premier League players playing still in the South American leagues? - Tim Bevan

We have a fair few. I’ll leave the Argentinians to Mr Richards, but one that has certainly rediscovered some form this season has been former Manchester City and Everton striker, Jo. He joined a bunch of misfits including Ronaldinho at Atletico MG this season after receiving his marching orders from Internacional for calling in “sick” after deciding he’d much rather have a big birthday bash.

With the economic boom meaning the league can pay bigger wages than ever before, Brazil has its fair share of ex-Premier League stars. Elano has been in good form for Gremio since moving south from Santos, but got himself in a bit of trouble earlier this month. He’s joined at Gremio by former Arsenal midfielder Gilberto Silva, who is playing out the final stages of his career back in the centre of defence, and former Wigan hitman Marcelo Moreno, who is finally getting back to the sort of form he showed prior to an ill-fated move to Ukraine four years ago. Fabio Aurelio is enduring a much less productive time with the club – who are now second with one game remaining – with injury preventing him from having made a single appearance since leaving Liverpool. Speaking of Liverpool, Diego Cavalieri has been outstanding for Fluminense as they won the league with a couple of games to spare, while Deco has been integral in the few appearances his physical condition has allowed him. Former Manchester United man Kleberson is in and out of the Bahia team and on-loan Arsenal midfielder Denilson has just played his 100th game for Sao Paulo. Diego Forlan has just joined former Pompey playmaker Andrés D’Alessandro at Internaconal – the little Argentinian has led Inter to a Copa Sudamericana and a Copa Libertadores since arriving four years ago.

Elsewhere on the continent, ex Birmingham City striker Luciano Figueroa is enjoying life in Ecuador with Emelec, achieving his best goal return since first leaving Argentina nearly 10 years ago. Jhon Viafara is waltzing round pitches in Colombia with Independiente Medellin, ex Aston Villa right-back and Ulises de la Cruz is still battling away at the age of 38 with Liga de Quito back in his homeland, and Nobby Solano is doing a fine job as coach of Universitario in Peru. RF.

Down in Argentina there are two clubs enjoying the services of former Premier League players. Newell’s welcomed back both former Liverpool midfielder Maxi Rodriguez and ex-Manchester United defender Gabriel Heinze. Newell’s were in a very compromising situation in the relegation table so those two players, who started out at the club, returning to lend a hand has been vital for the club’s great form this year. It looks like the Rosario side will fall short of the title, especially with both Maxi and Heinze picking up injuries that put them out of the final stretch of the season, but their return was an enormous boost for the club.

At San Lorenzo, it took a while for him to get going but former Everton striker Dennis Stracqualursi is enjoying a purple patch with five goals in the last four games, putting him near the top of the goalscoring table. Last year we lost one of the local legends to retirement - former Derby striker Esteban Bichi Fuertes finally called it a day, as did of course Juan Sebastián Verón. In the dugout, the former mask-wearing Fulham striker Facundo Sava lasted only five games into the season with San Martin de San Juan, though in his defence he did keep the side up last season which was no mean feat. JR.

I’ve always been a bit hazy on the Brazilian league structure, how many different domestic competitions do they have? It seems like one per club! - Christian Cole

Ah, that old chestnut. Essentially, the clubs play two leagues per year: the regional championship and the national championship. The local state leagues run for the first few months of the year, with the level of play differing wildly between states depending on how many of the nation’s big clubs happen to be located in that area; the national league, now a standard 20 team competition where everyone plays everyone else home and away, begins in May and runs until the end of the year. The Brazilian calendar is out of sync with that of FIFA, and is a topic of hot debate as the domestic game – all things considered – is arguably the strongest it’s ever been.

Due to the vast size of the country, a national league format was logistically impossible in the early years of the Brazilian game. The national league was introduced in 1971, but by then the regional tournaments had developed a pedigree. The current format now appears awfully archaic, but still holds a certain resonance for many of the country’s fans. RF.

Is it time for Erik Lamela to be called up to the national squad? - Scot Munroe

Based on his recent form the answer has to be yes, particularly as you ask about the squad and not the team. Sabella is - rightly - very happy with the first choice starting eleven with the front three of Higuain, Aguero and Messi. Di Maria is also one of the players only left out because of suspension or injury, so it’s difficult for Lamela to break into the side. But the Roma forward has long been viewed as one of the best talents to emerge from Argentina and this season he is justifying the hype. Sabella doesn’t bow to pressure easily - he hasn’t called up Tevez or Pastore just because of pressure from fans - but as an ex-River Plate man himself perhaps he’ll give Lamela a well-deserved opportunity. JR.

Will Palmeiras be able to bounce back quickly from their relegation? - Tom Robinson

Palmeiras aren’t the first to suffer the perils of sealing Libertadores qualification so early. Their Copa do Brasil victory under Big Phil was great cause for celebration, but like so many others, they took their eye off the domestic ball and by the time they returned their collective gaze to the Brasileirao, it was too late. 11 million Brazilian football fans mourned their relegation, before becoming pretty bloody angry about the whole affair.

Scolari has since departed, and has of course just been handed Brazil job. So bad did Palmeiras’ form become, that free-kick master Marcos Assuncao said he was ashamed to leave the house. One of – well, the only – positive from to draw from the season was the form of Argentinian striker Hernan Barcos. The club have already rejected an approach from a Russian club for the former LDU man, and keeping hold of him will be vital to their chances of an instant return to the top flight.

The Verdao have been in a bit of a mess for some time now, and a coach by any other name would surely have been given the boot long before patience was lost with Felipao. Their form this season was all their own doing, despite the conspiracy theorists desperately looking to blame the authorities following the bizarre circumstances surrounding Barcos’ disallowed goal against Internacional earlier this month – a goal that would only have increased their measly total this season to 39 in their 37 games thus far. Relegation can be turned into a positive, however, as illustrated by Corinthians and Vasco in recent years. The club need to take stock, and will likely move on a number of their top earners, including the wonderful – if alarmingly inconsistent – Jorge Valdivia, who once again performed only intermittently at a time when his club needed him most. If you want to keep up with their fortunes next year, I’d recommend keeping an eye on Kristian Bengtson’s wonderful blog, http://anythingpalmeiras.com/. RF.

Who is the best prospect coming out of Argentine football? - Christopher C. Stevenson

Right now Leandro Paredes is grabbing the headlines, having revamped a spluttering Boca Juniors side since making it into the first team. He’s a creative midfielder and has scored important goals for the side recently too. He is most effective in the middle but can also play wider. If playing at Boca wasn’t enough pressure, Riquelme named him as the player to watch out for and indeed a number of European clubs already have…watch this space.

At Colón, Lucas Mugni has also been impressing, in the similar position to Paredes, perhaps by virtue of playing for a club with less media coverage he hasn’t been so hyped up but has been just as impressive, won over fans by scoring in the clásico and has also been called up by Sabella for the locally-based Argentina side.

At Racing they have also had enquiries for Ricky Centurion, very much in the Di Maria mould, and the skilful striker Luciano Vietto who have both looked very comfortable in the first team. Napoli, Benfica, Real Madrid have all been mentioned as being interested in the pair. JR.

I’ve been highly impressed with Claudio Yacob this season down at The Hawthorns. He has 3 caps for Argentina - but is he in Sabella’s thoughts or close to the squad? Probably best for us that he isn’t, so he avoids travelling commitments… - Andy Cumella

Yacob’s form for West Brom hasn’t gone unnoticed in Argentina, though despite the club’s excellent campaign so far he is still very much eclipsed by news of Aguero and Tevez. He didn’t exactly leave the country on a high note, being kicked out of Racing having swapped shirts with an Independiente player after losing the clásico - unforgivable in the eyes of fans - and having been a long-term contract rebel. But he has played for the Argentina U20s and was also part of the national team set up with players from the national league, and Sabella watches the English league closely so no doubt his form will have impressed him. The main problem for Yacob is that Sabella’s priority is strengthening the defence rather than looking for more midfield options. JR.

Got a question for Joel or Rupert? Pop it in the comments section below and the best ones will be answered next time.

Can Pardew Toon it around?

30 November 2012

By Alex Hess

Two months ago, when, on the same September afternoon that John Terry was handed a four-match ban for racial abuse, Newcastle United’s manager and coaching staff were handed a lengthy new contracts, opinions were immediately polarised over the wisdom or otherwise of Mike Ashley’s latest high-profile decision.

A manager putting ink to a new deal after an exceptional season would normally spark minimal fuss, but in the microclimate of hysteria that is the football world, an eight-year contract, regardless of who you are, is almost unheard of. Was Ashley’s move a shrewd one which finally injected an air of stability into a too-often tumultuous club while maximising the market value of an innovative manager on the rise, or a wildly rash gesture of overcommitment in response to a single satisfactory season?

The debate is an intriguing one, but essentially rests on the perception of Mr Pardew himself - which in turn largely rests on how his side are performing. If Newcastle are flying high, as they were for much of last campaign, then you have continuity, a long-term plan (or at least the appearance of one), and have made it as difficult as possible for your patriarch to fall victim to big-club poaching. If the team’s form is in the doldrums, though, then you are stuck with the clown who has taken you there – and who is unlikely to feel under any pressure to fight for his job, as he’s rather difficult (read: expensive) to sack.

It’s a discussion that has since died down, but, with the Magpies sitting in 14th at this not-quite-insignificant stage of the season, is in serious danger of rearing its head again.

The Tynesiders have now tasted defeat in four consecutive league games – a run that, when it last occurred, precipitated the appointment of Joe Kinnear – and such form is illustrative of their on-pitch problems, if not yet any off-field ones. The Senegalese pair of Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, who initially promised a fine strike partnership, now appear incapable of escaping a pattern of one-in-form, one-painfully-out-of-form – an equation that that has now gone on too long and contains too much talent to be mere bad luck. Their brightest spark, Hatem Ben Arfa, is yet to graduate from a gifted technician to a consistently game-changing playmaker – and at 25, it’s not a title beyond his talents. Whether the problem is a motivational or tactical one, it’s one that needs to be addressed.

Yohan Cabaye, meanwhile, is yet to demonstrate last season’s elegant probing in this campaign (and his once-definite title of the division’s best-looking Frenchman is now under threat from Olivier Giroud), while the likes of Sylvain Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan now seem destined never to shed their labels of mediocre bit-parters. At the back, Fabricio Coloccini is the lone difference between a very good defence and a very average one.

It is no shame for a side to rely on its best players – name me one that doesn’t – but the dependence on the peak form and fitness of at least three quarters of the Krul-Coloccini-Cabaye-Ba/Cisse spine is not the healthiest state of affairs for a club with genuine top-six ambitions, and recent pedigree.

Last week, Newcastle could only manage a 1-1 draw against Portuguese side Maritimo, despite largely dominating proceedings and their opposition presenting almost zero goalscoring threat. If the sign of a good side is winning when playing well, then surely the sign of a less good one is an inability to turn superiority into a result.

Pardew, having taken his side to a quite incredible fifth-place finish last term, has hit an inevitable rocky spell, and now faces perhaps his biggest challenge so far at St James’s Park. Reversing the fortunes of an underperforming side around, many would argue, is a far greater task than maintaining a team’s good form.

All of this is not to say that Newcastle’s recent dip suddenly renders September’s contract-generosity a terrible decision – just as last season’s excellence did not necessarily deem it a brilliant one. What is certain, though, is that Pardew will be expected to earn his keep, with his almost unprecedented level of job security providing an easy vehicle for accusations of complacency or loss of interest in the wake of disappointing results.

Designed to alleviate pressure on the manager at a club’s whose bosses have too often been subjected to an excess of it, Mike Ashley’s contract ploy could just as easily end up having the opposite effect.

As usual (at most clubs, at least) on-pitch matters will dictate the overriding mood in the stands. This week, Pardew took his side to the Britannia, and they turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat. A question for Mr Ashley: At what point does a blip in form become a worrying loss of it?

Saint-Etienne, allez allez allez!

29 November 2012

By Jonathan Fadugba

When Montpellier’s gruff, outspoken president Louis Nicollin was questioned last year about the possibility of his team winning Ligue 1, months before what seemed impossible became a magical, improbable reality, he scoffed. “There’s no chance we’ll be champions!” Nicollin sniffed. “If I were PSG, Lille, or Lyon and beaten by Montpellier, I’d stab myself in the arse with a sausage!”

That Montpellier have since returned to a lower mid-table position that is more or less their historical norm says as much to support Loulou’s original comments as it does about the club’s once-in-a-lifetime achievements last season.

Montpellier charmed a nation and climbed to heights never before seen at La Paillade, but they are old news now. The glue that united the squad into a force stronger than the sum of its parts has since melted as MHSC stumble from scandal to scandal, while their star player from that historic campaign just helped knock Montpellier out of the Champions League with his new club in north London’s red half.

Paris Saint-Germain, it was thought, would replace Montpellier and march on to assume the position as rulers of French football, thanks largely to the significant financial backing of Qatari owners and the acquisition of a giant, brilliant Swede.

But instead, are we about to witness the emergence of another unlikely lad, ready to not only watch the throne but pounce on it like the prowling panther that is their emblem?

With a narrow 1-0 win over Valenciennes, Saint-Etienne went top of Ligue 1 this past weekend, albeit for only 20 hours. They are playing the most exciting football in France, created by some of the best young players in France, under one of France’s most talented young managers.

Historically France’s most decorated team with ten league titles to their name, Saint-Etienne are currently in superb form. Under Christophe Galtier les Verts are now unbeaten in twelve games in all competitions. Not only did they beat the mighty PSG in their own backyard this month, they also knocked them out of the Coupe de la Ligue (league cup) in the quarter finals on penalties.

Playing with a verve and panache that has lit up Ligue 1, Saint-Etienne have the best defensive record in the league, are the third highest goalscorers and – in a league that is once again showing its competitive side with the top eight teams separated by just six points – are fourth, only one point behind Carlo Ancelotti’s posse of pampered Parisians and three behind leaders Lyon. Put simply, Saint-Etienne mean business.

For so long a sleeping giant it has been a turbulent two decades for Saint-Etienne; spanning relegations and promotions through to the dark Damien Comolli days and the brief, unsuccessful Alain Perrin era. Their loyal supporters however  - some of the country’s most fervent and dedicated fans – remember the glory days of the 1960s and 70s and long for a return to French football’s top table.

When Perrin left Saint-Etienne in 2009 to be replaced by his assistant Galtier (they also worked together during Perrin’s time at Portsmouth) few would have believed the 43-year-old, in his first full-time role, could transform Sainté as he has in three years.

Ask Christophe Galtier if his team can be this season’s Montpellier however and you will not receive so crude an answer as Nicollin’s. Not from Galtier. Galtier is suave, Galtier is slick. The gallic good looks, the sultry stare – that jacket. Galtier, I dare say, is the talk of Ligue 1 manager’s wives everywhere.

Survival in 2010, finishing 17th, was followed by 10th and 7th place finishes in the last two years. After twice knocking PSG off their perch Saint-Etienne now have the look of potential title contenders.

On very little money, Galtier has completely rebuilt the team inside two seasons. Jeremy Clement, Jean-Pascal Mignot, Fabien Lemoine, Jonathan Brison, Max-Alain Gradel and the beast of a keeper that is Stephane Ruffier all came in last season, to be joined by Renaut Cohade, Francois Clerc, Romain Hamouma and former Marseille man Brandao this. All bar livewire wingers Gradel and Hamouma are experienced campaigners who know Ligue 1 inside out and have added steel and depth.

Add to these extremely smart signings the integration of academy graduates like Kurt Zouma – courted already by several leading English clubs – Joshua Guilavogui, Faouzi Ghoulam and of course captain Loic Perrin, and you have the framework of an excellent side.

The cherry on the icing of the cake though is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The charismatic Gabon international adds pizzazz to the team, the catalyst that drives Sainté on with his boundless energy, boyish charm and infectious enthusiasm.

Aubameyang is no shrinking violet. He appears on TV dressed like Michael Jackson, shaves the Superman symbol into his Neymar-esque hairstyle, celebrates goals with a Spiderman mask and recently had his Aston Martin painted apple-green as a declaration of love for the green of Saint-Etienne. But his charisma has without question helped create a dressing room camaraderie and joy that is so often the hallmark of successful teams.

“He definitely has a bling-bling side” Guilavogui commented in a recent interview. “I encourage it, because every attacker has to cultivate his own image. But in person he is extremely generous – he really has his hand on heart. That is the beauty of him.”

Aubameyang – or SpiderBam – as he calls himself these days, can play a bit too. Voted Ligue 1 Player of the Month in October, his 8 goals and 4 assists in 14 games this season, to go with a 16-goal tally last year, mark him out as one of the division’s best forwards and a player who many tip for great things.

If Aubameyang gives the team star quality and glamour on the pitch however, off it Galtier is the spiritual leader. An intelligent man-manager, the coach is an iron rod of support for his players and always seems to say the right thing in his press conferences.

When Aubameyang scored the winner at PSG, his first tweet post-match was to thank Galtier – ‘a coach who knows how to handle things and who understands me better than anyone.’ The warmth and respect is clear.

Tactically astute and always evolving, Galtier is unquestionably one of France’s most gifted young coaches. And that jacket, honestly. Magnificent.

Last season Les Verts’ inability to handle big games cost them repeatedly, which is why the league and cup double over PSG this month are such big results psychologically.

French football may well have found its next underdog challenger to PSG’s designs on supremacy. And this time not a sausage in sight. 

End it like Beckham

29 November 2012

By Steven Maloney

It all started so badly.

David Beckham’s arrival in the United States was an immediate collision of the best and worst of the Beckham-verse. Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature arrived in the United States in 2007, in the type of rollout one normally associates with a blockbuster film. The problem was that Beckham-the-footballer was not ready to actually play football on arrival. An ankle injury hobbled the latter version of Beckham at the expense of the formers’ publicity and goodwill tour. Beckham picked up his injury being Beckham-the-footballer at his absolute best, giving his all for club and country. Beckham-the-footballer had a storied final season at Real Madrid, escaping from manager-imposed exile to lead the side to a La Liga comeback clinched on the last day of the season. Even though this admirable David Beckham was the one carrying the knock into his debut season with LA Galaxy, Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature had taken over and decided that he could drag his alter ego through that first season. Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature spent the first two seasons of his MLS career as Beckham-the-footballer’s internal Fabio Capello, banishing the footballer Beckham to the sidelines while trying to prove he was no longer driving the ship. But the real Beckham, the one that people love enough to sustain his media icon alter ego in the first place, could only be kept on the sidelines for so long. Not even the excesses of Beckham’s own personality could keep his strengths down forever.

By the time that both Frank Yallop and Ruud Gullit had come and gone from the manager’s seat in Los Angeles, the “Beckham Experiment”, as Grant Wahl famously tabbed it, seemed adrift. Bruce Arena’s arrival meant that the team had turned the keys to the franchise over to probably the single most competent person you could choose to run an MLS club. But LA Galaxy’s choice meant Team Beckham was frozen out of its attempts to make the entire Galaxy franchise a top-to-bottom extension of his brand. When Beckham went off to AC Milan on loan, it looked like the entire Beckham in America story might be over and pronounced by all as a flop. Albeit a very profitable one.

Then, over time, America got to see why so many people love David Beckham.

David Beckham came to America as a man who had everything. Eventually, he seems to have realised that to succeed in America he was going to have to make hard choices as to what he was really about. How many star athletes over the years would never make hard choices, or even let the necessity of those choices enter their consciousness? Beckham recognised he had to make choices and he made them. By and large, he made them correctly, too (there were a couple of moments where he couldn’t help himself, but we’ve all reached for more good times in life than we probably should have occasionally. If you haven’t, I highly recommend doing so). Beckham has been far less a brand and far more a footballer the last two to three seasons, and, in the buildup to his second consecutive MLS Cup Final (and third in four years), Beckham-the-footballer’s legacy in the league’s history is now positively secured. 

When Beckham came to America, he said he wanted to compete for and win trophies. He also said he wanted to be part of the ownership structure of the league when he retires. Two years into his time Stateside, no one believed him on either count. As of right now it looks like he is right on target for everything he set out to do. MLS Cup? Check. Higher profile for the league? Check. Ownership in MLS? He seems pretty firm in saying its what he wants. Let us, based on his previous track record on fulfilling his promises, give him a preemptive check on that one too. Why not? If you are David Beckham, your family loves living in America, you need to do something with your time, and all you really know is football, so why wouldn’t you buy an MLS club?

The man who no one was sure was interested when he arrived on our shores has turned us around completely. Even though he has announced he is leaving LA, there is speculation that it is not for China, Australia or PSG, but maybe New York Red Bulls. With Victoria’s fashion career taking off, a team being rebuilt by Gerard Houllier, and a chance to hang with Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill in NYC, it seems as plausible a rumour as any other. Just the idea that people think it’s a good fake rumour reveals how far back from the depths Beckham’s relationship with the league and the American public has come. 

Beckham has given the league a lot over these years. He shone a spotlight on the more amateurish elements of MLS (player accommodations, plastic pitches, officiating) and hastened reforms that otherwise would have likely taken much longer. He has given the league negotiating experience with Real Madrid, the FA, and AC Milan, and those iterative experiences have been valuable bargaining experience for a growing league that owns all of its clubs’ players. Beckham’s determination to come at the age that he did has made it more fashionable for other players to finish their careers in MLS before they were well and truly washed up. Perhaps there was no greater example of this then when Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and Thierry Henry all played in the Premier League during the offseason window last year.  Beckham also brought in money… lots and lots of money. For a league that considered folding at the beginning of the century, the money, while boring, is pretty huge. 

But Beckham’s effect on the league is not the same thing as the story of David Beckham’s time at LA Galaxy. Beckham’s story will be remembered mostly for being a quintessentially American narrative, similar to his famous friend Tom Cruise’s film Far and Away. The Beckhams came to America seeking a new challenge, found it more difficult to pull off than they initially thought, and then doubled-down and fought hard until they worked their way to redemption and success. Sure, they were always wealthy and famous the whole time, but so what? What counts in the hearts and minds of most Americans is that the Beckhams had ambitions that required risk and hard work, they ran those risks and they got their rewards. Despite the underwear ads, Pepsi commercials and what-not, the guy that Sir Alex Ferguson thought had left the spirit of David Beckham long ago is still in there. Ferguson, Capello, America: all three had long ago believed that Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature had long ago killed Beckham-the-footballer. All of them were wrong. What Beckham-the-footballer had to learn about being successful over here was that the more he showed America how wrong we were about who he is the more we wanted to root for him. Forget the money, forget the profile for the league, forget the trophies and forget the future of soccer in America because of the Beckham years. What a great story, and what a great time we had watching it unfold. 

Thanks Becks, and many happy returns, wherever you may land next. 

A night at the San Siro

29 November 2012

By Iain Pearce

To my English mind the archetypal football city is large, working class and has that certain level of grimness needed to stir up the passions. A fashion capital with omnipresent designer boutiques, November sunglasses and cafes that charge you up to ten euros just to sit down in them is tough to fit into my mould, but whichever way you look at it Milan is a cult footballing metropolis.

Strolling the city’s cobbled streets you see that the dueling striped colour schemes of red and black or blue and black take on a stylishness near unimaginable in Bristol or Birmingham. The club shops fit in naturally with neighbouring Gucci stores and are stocked with price tags of similarly wince-inducing levels.

Needless to say such glamour fitted perfectly with the jeans and t-shirt combo (covered now with a jumper, it’s getting chilly) that I will need to be peel off when this bout of travelling concludes and I arrive back in England later this week.

Then there’s the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza (the San Siro to its friends), truly a style icon in its own right.

Our first date was two days before AC Milan’s Serie A match with champions Juventus on Sunday and first impressions of the stadium didn’t match up with its online profile. The San Siro is horizon dominatingly huge, but surrounded by lifeless tarmac its concrete turrets made it look like a giant turtle beached in a car park.

Sunday afternoon soon rolled around and the scene was unrecognisable. Five hours before kick off the asphalt had become covered with burger vans that could more accurately be called prosciutto vans, dozens of stalls decked out in Rossoneri scarves and already hundreds of milling punters sporting the same dress code.

Milan’s falling attendances this season have been well commented on, but Juventus, Italy’s most supported club, were always going to draw a healthier crowd. This, however, was going to make getting a ticket of my own that much harder, and explained my exceptionally early arrival.

At the Curva Nord box office the sold out signs were up. Though not quite a hands-in-the-air personal disaster it did mean I’d need to turn to the touts again. The best I could negotiate (despite all the practice my ability has remained fairly shoddy) was eighty euros, making this one ticket well over double the price of my second most expensive entry. I suppose that’s the cost of being part of a full San Siro.

My overspending self-criticism evaporated on the long and winding wander up the swirling cylinders, and by the time I’d reached the top and taken in my first panoramic view of the place it was clear it had been worth every euro.

The San Siro was a sizable football stadium anyway, and then they stuck another tier on top of three of the sides for Italia ‘90, along with the turrets and the mighty roof. The upper tiers are steep and so high that they were engulfed in unfloodlit shadow and for this night match the touchline hugging stands stretched back as though never ending. As the ground has been regularly expanded and updated in its ninety year history it has developed a rough-edged but captivating genuineness missing from most newly built stadiums.

As the ground gradually filled to its whopping capacity I was surprised at how many among the home areas were proudly decked out in Juve colours- and that the Milanese contingent didn’t seem to mind. But regardless of the demographic makeup, there’s something about being in a crowd of nearly 80,000 that can’t really be beaten.

A look at the points accrued in this season’s Serie A table suggested that the evening’s visitors were twice as good as Milan, but put together a three-pronged attack of the sometimes brilliant but mainly infuriating Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng as well as this year’s chief wunderkind Stephan El Shaawary and there was always the chance that a Rossoneri triumph was possible, if not one you’d bet too much on.

First half you’d have been forgiven for thinking Milan are still the world beaters of old. The old lady’s old maestro Andrea Pirlo was being hassled out of his usual metronomic rhythm and his all-conquering side was backfooted. Worse followed, a debatable Bianconeri handball gave Robinho a spot kick he narrowly squeezed past Buffon and the hosts had an interval lead that was fully warranted.

The in-stadium mix meant that whatever occurred on field there was the morphed sound of mass cheers and mass sneers, but the Rossineri finally got the chance to scream the loudest with their goal and even Milan’s PR people were getting carried away, not just tempting but goading fate by flashing up a live Serie A table for the rest of the match, showing their charges with the three-point haul they had far from secured.

After the break Juve moved up a gear, but only into about third, and though substitute Giovinco moved hearts towards mouthes in skewing a bicycle kick wide Milan were good value for the points, with genuine emotion spilling out from players and supporters during the post final whistle celebrations.

Not a bad way for me to bow out as sadly my eastern European trawl has now come to its conclusion. I can’t pretend to be happy about that, but I have one small matter of consolation. From St. Petersburg to the San Siro there’s nowhere quite like Fratton Park (stop sniggering at the back).

Where should Guardiola go?

27 November 2012

By Nicol Hay

For some reason, Pep didn’t feel like taking over Chelsea right now.

Comfortably ensconced in his TriBeCa hideaway, the allure of stitching together the two halves of Roberto di Matteo’s hopelessly broken team, while trying to coax co-operation out of a bunch of surly teenagers masquerading as the club’s senior players – most of whom will hate him on sight simply for not being their best mate José – and finding some alchemy that will convert a base £50m paperweight into golden goals somehow escaped Guardiola, and he politely declined the opportunity.

Stamford Bridge may well be a more welcoming place in the summer though, once Rafael Benítez has slogged his way through seven months of thankless tasking to keep Chelsea in solid but unspectacular contention at the top of the league. Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard will have been ushered out the door, making the dressing room infinitely more hospitable to new ideas. Funds will certainly be made available to replace Fernando Torres, and to find a deep-lying midfielder capable of picking out a progressive pass and take best advantage of the clever movement of the Mata-Oscar-Hazard perma-flitting attacking axis, rather than Obi Mikel and Ramires’ current strategy of running blindly forward, losing the dribble off their own ankles and hoping the ball caroms at a forwards’ feet somehow.

John Terry will still be around though, having been canonised by the Chelsea support after he supplied each one of them a plastic flag emblazoned with RAFA OUT to wave as they boo and boo and boo and then cheer when he bravely scissor-tackles a referee for giving a throw-in the wrong way. To ludicrously exaggerate the current situation for cheap comedic effect.

More pertinently, the club will still be ruled by the transitory caprice of Roman Abramovich – an environment that is the enemy of the stability and unified philosophy that the modern Barcelona exemplifies. It would be a challenging project – that much is certain – but one where Guardiola would have to begin at absolute first principles. Chelsea as a team currently have no set identity, wavering between move-the-ball-quickly, defend-in-numbers and lump-it-up-to-Didier, what-do-you-mean-he’s-not-here-anymore at random, often within the same game. There is almost no youth system to speak of, and certainly nothing to suggest that apprentices that are there are being weaned on a tactical formula that will allow them to slot into the first team on a moment’s notice. This, in short, could not be further from Guardiola’s habitual set-up if you moved the whole club 133 miles up the road to a permanent residence on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke.

Chelsea then is a five-year project for Guardiola, but one that is likely to be cut short after nine months if Abramovich doesn’t feel like he’s getting the millions of bang that his millions of bucks deserve. If nothing about this is screaming ‘dream job’ to the Catalan maestro, then where should he be heading?

Anyone who takes over Manchester United after Alex Ferguson will be the biggest rebound-romance in the history of the game. Best to let some other poor sap find out just how many secret plates the Govanite’s kept spinning at Old Trafford over the years before stepping in to sweep up the broken crockery.

Arsenal are modelled after Barcelona in a lot of ways, so they may seem like a natural fit for Guardiola, but that move would be like quitting the Beatles so you can play rhythm guitar in Oasis. A pale imitation of past glories is not progress.

Despite what every instinct tells you about a nouveau riche club, Manchester City have a surprisingly well-planned infrastructure. The youth system at Eastlands was already quite productive, but the moves made by the club’s Abu Dhabi ownership to improve training facilities and scouting suggest a clear plan to take City in a positively Guardiola-y direction. However, there remains the lingering suspicion that no matter how wise or thorough the investment strategy, any City manager will be no more than two injuries away from having to field James Milner. And that’s no way to live.

What should be Pep’s plan then? Well, given that he is the epitome of the modern manager, his career should mirror the way most in the modern world understand that role. Guardiola should aim for a Football Manager career.

We all begin Football Manager by taking charge of the club we support – we know the players inside-out and are best placed to make the right decisions about which moves to make to lead our favourites to European glory. Guardiola has emphatically executed that stage of the game with his Barça trophy haul.

The next step is to up the challenge by taking one of the lesser clubs to unprecedented heights. I’m not suggesting that Pep try to lead East Fife to the Champions League, but if he really wanted to take on a task, then he’d have a bash at a club with a good foundation but unfulfilled potential. He’d be making a pot of tea, taking the laptop to bed with him and loading up Everton, Udinese or Athletic Club with the aim of title contention within four seasons. I’m sure that Guardiola wants to go to a club that will be able to supply him the wages and the world-class players to which he has become accustomed – but everybody knows that only boring folk play as a Champions League club in Football Manager. If Pep really wants to build a legacy as one of the finest managers of the modern era, he’ll do it by playing his career in hard mode.

Passing the buck and teaching the minority

26 November 2012

By Luke Moore

I can remember one day at my senior school, an average comprehensive in the bleak town of Gosport, a load of kids in the year above me (apparently notorious for being one of the worst years the school had ever had) playing for the basketball team, upon being defeated quite narrowly by a rival school, decided against going back into the changing rooms and while the other team were getting changed headed straight out into the tree-lined car park and smashed every window in their minibus before letting the tyres down and running off.

When my friends and I heard about this, we initially thought it was pretty funny; tribalism between schools in my area was alive and well in 1995 and we didn’t expect much reproach. After all, it’s not as though we’d done anything. My year’s football team (which I continually struggled to get into) had been playing an away game and were literally miles away from the incident.

It was received with great shock when our head teacher announced the next day in an assembly that all sports teams of all ages would no longer be allowed to participate in competitive sports with other schools for the rest of the year in light of the incident and that all individuals directly involved had been suspended from school entirely. We were outraged. How could this be possible? We’d not done anything, and most of us didn’t even know the chaps that had. We were being punished because of the actions of less than ten individuals. A few bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pupils even tried to reason with the head teacher in his office (they were 15 years old, so they still thought that adults and teachers actually cared what children thought).

Although at the time I was mortified that I wouldn’t be able to play football for the school for the foreseeable future, looking back on it, it taught me a lesson. This lesson was brought front and centre of my mind when I arrived back from out of town late last night and heard reports and later saw footage of West Ham fans throwing up Nazi salutes, hissing to simulate the gas chambers and singing ‘Viva Lazio!’ and ‘Can we stab you every week?’ to fans of Tottenham Hotspur during Sunday’s game.

The response by right-thinking West Ham fans, supporters’ groups, the internet and the club itself was what really interested me though. At every feasible juncture, the statements, comments and responses were falling all over themselves like Queens Park Rangers trying to defend a set piece to use one word. And that word was ‘minority’.

It’s always a minority, isn’t it? Or a ‘vocal minority’, sometimes. An empty vessel surely rattles the loudest.

Let’s be clear. These actions, whether they be football-related violence, racism, anti-semitic or inappropriate chanting, reflect on all of us. If you’ve ever, even in a passing conversation, referred to yourself to another human being as a ‘fan’ of a football team these actions are a reflection on you. You are part of the floating, confusing, occasionally bombastic, but more importantly HUGE organism that is the football industry. You share a pastime and a passion with some of the most disgusting, closed-minded, bigoted people on the planet. How does that make you feel?

There has to come a time when dismissing poor behaviour and in some cases criminal activity as a ‘minority’ or a ‘vocal minority’ has to stop. ‘Oh they’re not REAL fans…’ you’ll occasionally remark, whether you’re a season ticket holder, a radio presenter, a writer or a pundit, ‘...they’re not interested in the football, just causing trouble.’ They’re not. They’re really interested in football. They travel all over to watch their team, they think about it as much as you do and they look forward to their weekend game every inch as passionately. They cannot be dismissed. They are you.

The point is that we all have a responsibility to monitor the behaviour and raise the consciousness of our fellow football fan. Fandom should not preclude us from questioning and criticising supporters of the same club. If we want to take the credit when a group of fans raise a load of money for charity, unveil a witty banner, come up with a funny chant or travel in their tens of thousands to an away game to show just how dedicated they are, then in return we must take the responsibility when a group in our number behave appallingly. And authorities should start punishing everyone associated with the club until it stops. Not because it’s fair but because IT WILL WORK. Dismissing it as the ‘minority’ is an easy way out and the short journey to saying ‘we’re not going to do anything about it because most of our fans are fine’. The only way to stop this behaviour is clear. And it starts with you and me.

Meting out blanket punishments across the board to clubs in their entirety, whatever form that takes, will motivate people to start making an effort to raise the consciousness of the average football fan and teach offenders that it is not acceptable to behave in this way. Fancy shouting a monkey chant at a black player? Fine, but your team will be playing to an empty stadium for the next three weeks. See how popular you are down the pub then.

The reason I mentioned the anecdote about my school’s basketball team at the top of this is because the long-term outcome of this punishment meted out actually raised the consciousness of our school’s attendees. People who usually wouldn’t have said anything back to an older kid in the year above, when faced with the prospect of not being able to play football/basketball/rugby anymore, were suddenly very pissed off and spoke to older brothers and sisters and arranged for their boys culpable to write a letter of apology and offer to try and pay somehow for the damage done. There were no further incidents of this type at the school for the rest of my time there.

And, more importantly, after a short while I was free to sit on the bench for my school team again. Lucky me.

Preempting the Big Four Storyline

26 November 2012

By Steven Maloney

Allow me to make two boring, seemingly contradictory predictions. Prediction one is that Arsenal, now six points behind West Bromwich Albion, will end up securing the fourth Champions League spot in the Premier League this season.  Prediction two is that once Arsenal slide into fourth, the commentary world will be set ablaze with people saying that the same old clubs are in the top four.  Blech.

Rather than debating the “Big Four” problem once again for one more season, I’d like to ask a different question: must we really have this conversation?  Look, we are stuck with what we have. You know how long we are stuck with the situation in the Premier League? We’re stuck with it until we are not.

But let’s be honest, most of our discussions about the Big Four over-analyse the problem. Are the Big Four going to be a Big Six this year? (Nope.) Are the Big Four really subdivided into title contenders and Champions League contenders? The Manchester teams are contenders for the league. Maybe Chelsea are a contender and Arsenal are definitely not. Great, let’s all spend time debating whether or not the Big Four is really more like a “big Euler’s number.”

The Premier League has four teams that you pretty much know are going to be in the top four every year, a couple of those teams seem more likely to win the title than the others in that group, and then there’s a difficult league behind them with few firm favourites for finishing reliably in any other particular portion of the table.  If we grant that Man City and Liverpool have essentially changed club situations, I have described all of the last 15 seasons of the Premier League more or less accurately.  The clubs that make the Champions League make enough money to stay in the Champions League. The teams outside the Champions League need insane levels of investment in order to break up the cabal at the top. Any team that breaks up this cabal relegates someone out of the cabal who is not likely to re-enter the cabal unless someone so rich that they simply do not care how much they are spending to get back purchases them. So, even when there is some drama surrounding Liverpool or Spurs trying to nip at the heels of Arsenal, if and when they do break the cabal one day, it more likely means the end of Arsenal as a contender for the Champions League rather than the beginning of hotly contested races for the top four. 

The big four is a self-reinforcing structure due to the Champions League payouts being what they are. Breaking up the big four can only happen, as far as I can tell, by adopting one of the following remedies:

1. Create a European super league so that the big four English teams no longer play in the Premier League.

2. Eliminate all European competition so that there’s no money from European competition.

3. Populate the Premier League with more than four insanely rich people who will be willing to spend at all costs to get into the Champions League no matter where their club finished last season such that losing Champions League money in any given season means nothing to them. 

4. Impose salary and transfer restrictions that level the playing field between clubs in the League but presumably chase many of the League’s best players into higher paying leagues elsewhere. 

You tell me if any of these scenarios seem particularly likely. The only one I see possibly happening is 3, but one assumes if the League could have more than two ownership situations with that much amount of insane wealth to throw around, they would have them already. 

So if you find the current situation at the top of the league a bit stale already, then I suggest you put away any hopes that some sort of progressive movement in football will make everything wonderful.

Instead, the best thing to do is wait and sees what happens. Sir Alex Ferguson’s strength seems to be masking a lot of institutional dysfunction at Manchester United. Arsene Wenger’s strength seems to be doing the same at Arsenal, though less successfully (whether this is because Wenger is less strong or Arsenal are more dysfunctional, it’s hard to say). Both men are not young so something might happen there. What happens to Chelsea or City if their owners get bored with their toys? What if Warren Buffett bought Everton? 

Whatever the hypothetical story, there will be some event that we cannot predict now that changes things, things will get interesting, and then a new, boring equilibrium will form (another Big Four, just with different clubs who seem immovable) that people will moan about being unfair and predictable and will cook up ideas about how to break it up. Because none of the reforms make any sense, nothing will change until some other future event changes it. This is how things work. Not just in football, but also just, well, with things generally.  While this might seem like a somewhat obvious insight, I guarantee that is equally obvious that people, in their impatience for something new to happen, will spill a lot of ink and fill a lot of talk radio trying to collectively forget the basic, obvious truth that history usually moves slowly and according to the buildup of large, long-term forces. Now needs to feel unique and exciting to many of us, because, well, it’s happening now.

If you want to enjoy the now, go watch a good side put in a good shift, and appreciate how they are using the narrow window of time to put their exceptional abilities on display during that shift. Shane Long is now. Anthony Pilkington is now. The existence and persistence of a Big Four is carved in stone, let it be as it is and look for your joys in the League as such. 

How best to honour heroes?

24 November 2012

By Joe Tyler

Manchester United have unveiled a statue of Sir Alex Ferguson this week, and while there’s no doubting the great man’s achievements, are there more fitting tributes to be made? Honouring club legends is a tricky business to get right, and should depend on the accomplishments and careers of each individual in order to have maximum effect.

Statue

Always made of banal bronze and notoriously difficult to perfect, a statue is the en vogue way to commemorate a legend. In Britain, 43 have been erected in honour of football folk this century, with every one of them nit-picked at immediately: nose too big, eyes too small, or in the case of former Southampton manager Ted Bates, legs laughably short. But even if the architect captures every wrinkle in his kit and bead of sweat on his brow, they only have an effect posthumously. Then, and only then, do statues capture the mystical eeriness of a once-great player or manager still amongst the crowds that used to sing his name. Who needs a statue of Fergie when the real thing is waiting inside the ground?

Ideal for: The most successful manager in a club’s history who is sadly no longer with us.


Shirt number

In many cases, retired shirt numbers have been reissued due to governing body rulings, or the fact they were only retired for a set period, and this puts pressure on the new incumbent. So the rule is – if a shirt is to be retired, retire it properly. Otherwise, a ‘you’re not fit to wear his shirt’ situation occurs, or in the case of the Argentinean FA in the lead up to the 2002 World Cup, is created intentionally: feeling that no player was worthy of El Diego, they didn’t issue a player with the number 10 shirt but ended up having to give it to Ariel Ortega when Fifa stepped in. The fallout? Ortega missed a penalty as Argentina went out in the first round. At Milan, Paolo Maldini has only given consent for his sons to take it up his number three shirt. That’s pressure, although Maldini offspring are bound to be pretty handy.

Ideal for: Players whose lives were tragically cut short. See Puerta, Stansfield, Foe.


Naming of a stand

If it’s a choice between, for example, Bournemouth’s Steve Fletcher Stand, or hypothetically, The Ginsters Pasty Terrace, then for a fan there’s no competition. Even if any old business is willing to throw millions in sponsorship at a club to tag their mark on all over the signage, they’re rarely popular. Towering stands named after giants of the club’s past packed with buoyant home faithful, is an intimidating site for away teams, and inspires home players to boot. The Bobby Moore stand, looking over the turf its namesake graced with such dignity at West Ham is a prime example. Clubs must be careful to make sure that named stands are full up with home supporters and not half empty with a smattering of sad looking away fans though, otherwise The Domestos End might be more appropriate.

Ideal for: A towering centre half who defended the very same end with grit and poise for decades.


Stadium

A club only has one stadium, so they have to get this one right. There can’t be any dispute over who it’s named after. It must be, at the time of the naming, a club’s all time great – ideally a one-club-man who had more of an influence than simply what he did on the pitch. Examples include Santiago Bernabeu and Giuseppe Meazza (though he played for both Milan clubs), but not, though he’d disagree, Dave Whelan. There are two exceptions to this rule, the first being players who started out at small clubs who went on to flourish on the world stage, such as The Didier Drogba stadium at his first team Levallois. The second is for national stadiums named after a country’s footballing hero, like the Ference Puskas Stadium in Budapest or the Kazimierz Gorski Stadium in Warsaw. As long as it prevents the Jacamo Arena, most would be in favour.

Ideal for: A record goalscorer who’s gone on to bankroll his club’s climb through the league pyramid to the top level.


Bridge

There’s a moment in the Bobby Moore documentary Hero, when Bobby’s wife Stephanie describes her disappointment at seeing England fans littering and urinating under the newly unveiled bridge at Wembley named in her husband’s honour. Incidental as their behaviour may have been, it illustrates how naming a bridge after someone can be ignored. Maybe they’re better reserved for those in the background, like at Arsenal, where bridges named after long-term directors Danny Fiszman and Ken Friar, who were behind the move to the Emirates, provide a grand yet modest throughway to the stadium.

Ideal for: Those whose achievements have been felt throughout the club, even if they’ve gone unnoticed to outsiders.


Suite/bar/restaurant

They’re essentially rooms where wags, journalists and hangers-on congregate to take advantage of free food and drink, but they can make fitting tributes to a particular player, or group of players. If a club feels only a statue/stand/stadium will do their all-time great justice, suites can be named after a famous back four, a cup winning team or a pair of tricky wingers. However, loyal supporters will rarely come into contact with them, and will probably refer to those that frequent them as the prawn sandwich brigade, so it doesn’t give them much fan accreditation.

Ideal for: A cup winning team, top five appearance-makers or cult-heroes.

How would you like to see your club honour your favourite players or manager? Pop it in the comments section below.

The Italian job

24 November 2012

By Iain Pearce

With time winding down on my travels I’ve inched back westwards, arriving in Italy, possibly the most anticipated of my footballing destinations.

My first stop was Naples, a rugged, intense but memorable city. Diego Maradona remains the town’s honorary headmaster and Napoli’s magnificent San Paolo Stadium is decidedly old school. El Diego’s iconic image gazes down from walls around town whilst after dark the stadium leers over ahead of you on the long approach.

The scene and scale suck you in. Abrupt scarf salesmen and alcohol offerers stand guard with tens of thousands of supporters swirling in past the turnstiles behind them. Once through, dozens of youths scramble over the twelve-foot wire fencing from the inferiore (lower) section to the superiore (upper) tier where the most vocal tifosi have taken root.

Through the concourses that serve just water or Coca Cola and provide only portaloos as facilities and you’re up into the arena. First you gulp as you try to take it all in. The San Paolo is almost all overhanging superiore and, even with a running track, in their steeped enormity they feel to be peering over and orchestrating events, creating a you, me and sixty-thousand others intimacy.

Three quarters of an hour before kick off the place is close to full and each passing Europop smash blasted from the loudspeakers gradually work up the frenzy. My shivers aren’t from the rain, they’re from the realisation that this is most of the way to my idea of what football should be (Europop aside, of course).

Soon the visiting Milan fans make their surely choreographed grand entrance. They have not only their own section but an all-covering netting to save themselves from easily-imagined home projectiles.

From the start Napoli were everything Milan were unable to be. The visitors held the majority of possession but only plodded along with it, and when it was regained the Azzurri were bearing down on goal before eyes could be blinked. Four minutes in and an innocuous looking long ranger from Gökhan İnler swerved keeper Abbiati into knots and gave the hosts the lead. It wasn’t long before the latest hometown hero Lorenzo Insigne doubled the advantage, prompting flares to be thrown down onto the running track. Nothing amazing in itself, that the San Paulo had its own dedicated team of four fire fighters to extinguish them was far more impressive.

On half time another prodigy, Stephen El Shaarawy, scored for the visitors with a fine right-footed sweep. In hindsight that was the turning point, but at the time it felt no more than a bump on the road to a Napoli victory.

However, the fifteen minute midway break gave the Napoli players ample time to realise the strength of their position and come the second half the Rossoneri had acquired their opponent’s boldness. Though the score remained unchanged until close to the conclusion, Robinho’s late introduction lead to his sublime through ball to El Shaarawy who slid the ball home first time with the confidence to suggest the game comes pretty easy to him.

The home disappointment stemmed less from conceding an equaliser and more from its lack of surprise. Neither side found a later-still winner and the Neapolitans streamed out chewing over the remains of a much-needed win they couldn’t but should have secured.

By Monday evening I had made the train journey up to the Italian capital and with my Serie A appetite whetted the might of AS Roma on Monday night was all the more enticing.

Though ultimately successful, buying a ticket proved taxing. On matchday only the expensive tickets are sold (and not at the stadium) in hope of weeding out the hooligans, and a passport or ID is required as each individual is issued a named ticket that gets thoroughly checked on the way in.

The Stadio Olimpico, inside and out, was far more modern than I had expected, and my view way back in row seventy-four of the Curva Nord was distant but reasonable. One perception that did prove correct however was the stadium’s cavernous nature. The soaring chants from the packed Curva Sud were reduced by the distance to low moans by the time they reached our end, and the abysmal acoustics near removed the motivation for trying to sing. It’s a shame because you feel the atmosphere could have been incredible.

To their death-wish credit the visitors from Torino came to play, the fly in that particular ointment being that Zeman’s Roma can play better. And the hosts were playing better, but it was never quite bothering the scoreboard. All the same, the high lines and high pressing were proving entertaining.

The Roman annoyance was steadily growing up until the seventieth minute when they finally broke the deadlock, and for all their attempted slick build up play, it was a stumbling Torino challenge and a cute Osvaldo penalty that did the trick. A deflected second followed towards the end as the stubborn and sometimes inventive Torino side were eventually put to rest.

Italian football famously owes its origins to the English (ask any Notts County supporter), and the people here still hold a reverence to some sort of mythical English way, but from what I’ve seen Serie A may lag well behind in terms of facilities and commercial rights, as well as retaining its sinister ultras, but it took my experience in Italy to realise how sanitised and often humourless the fan experience in the all-conquering Premier League has meandered into becoming.

Chinese organisation

22 November 2012

By Jake Farrell

During our piecemeal training for life, and teaching, in China our suspect online course made reference to the idea of “culture shock”. In broken English the “culture shock” we could expect in the East was defined in clinical terms, like a drug being advertised on American TV – side effects,  included everything from “mild anxiety” to the slightly more troubling “uncontrollable bouts of weeping”. Not many things have brought the three of us within range of a dreaded “UBOW” during the months we have spent here- but at times our experiences managing the Changle Foreign Language School Grade 5 squad have brought us perilously close.

See, organisation here at Changle Foreign Language closely resembles a trademark Ben Thatcher elbow to the head – it’s blunt and a real pain to deal with. Chris, for example, received his teaching timetable roughly ten minutes before his first class. At the weekend two workmen turned up unannounced at our apartment, messed around with our heating, made stagnant water leak all over the floor and then cheerily left. Logistics are not our hosts’ strong suit.

Whilst these problems obviously throw into sharp relief grave issues, such as the warped relationship between Chinese individuals and institutions and the relevance of pre-conceived notions of authority in an oppressive political system, for us it largely means one thing; it’s a real shit to get training organised.

The last two weeks of our management regime have been dogged by organisational problems. Our main point of contact to try and arrange time with the team is “The Director of Foreign Experts Affairs”, otherwise known as Mr Shu – mainly known to us by the not-really-affectionate nicknames of Shu-box, Shu-bacca and Total Mentalist.

It seemed that we had turned the corner with Mr Shu when he sat us down for a chat about our “long term plans” for the team. We set out our goals of continued training and maybe some competitive games so they could test themselves against outside opposition before Christmas and Shuey, strangely, responded quite well. This was a welcome change on his part as usually, despite specifically asking us to get involved in managing a football team, he greets our our requests for anything involving the squad with the kind of mild surprise that would suggest this was the first he had heard of the whole thing.

Unsurprisingly there have been testing times and recently has been the worst of our tenure. It started when we arrived for training to find some of the older kids being organised into teams by a PE teacher with a stash of bibs. Since we have started with the team we have had to employ a ragged “Most Prevalent T-shirt Colour of the Day Against Everyone Else” selection policy for practice matches. That the school didn’t think to tell us that they had a shit tonne of equipment lying around pretty much summed their organisational skills up. They couldn’t start a fire in Mario Balotelli’s bathroom.

The very next day, after a run of much improved training sessions, we arrived at the usual time to be greeted by an empty field. The pitch is usually occupied a scrum of kids playing various sports in their free period but on that day it looked like a set from 28 Days Later.

Without notifying us it appeared that the students’ ‘yard time’ (for want of a non-prison related term) had been sacrificed in favour of a few last minute cramming sessions for the exams scheduled at the end of the week. It’s not a problem that Jose Mourinho (or even Mick McCarthy for that matter) normally has to contend with.

I couldn’t believe that the lads would let it stand. They continue to labour under the impression that we know what we are doing with regard to coaching and, as a result, tend to get pretty excited about the prospect of football training when Wednesday and Thursday roll around. They get so excited in fact that I almost had a ‘dressing room bust up’ with our left back, who is in my Grade 5 class immediately before training and insists on doing shit-all work whilst shouting “Teacher! Play Football!” for the entire forty-five minute lesson.

I imagined Gazza, a pudgy middle finger raised at the CCTV cameras in protest, storming out of the classroom with a ball tucked under his arm. Xavi too wouldn’t accept this miscarriage of justice and would lace up his boots like any other week before walking slowly out into the cold winter evening with his team mates at his back.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

It was the classic example of the ‘football people’ being scuppered by the suits in the boardroom; Cloughy had felt the pain of their ignorance for his whole career and now so had we. There was talk of resignation, there was anger and there was a look that said “Who are you again?” in Mr Shu’s eyes when we questioned him – but ultimately pragmatism prevailed.

Learning to work with him is part of our managerial education; clearly being astute enough to politically manoeuvre the best outcome from a board or a chairman is an integral part of being the boss in the modern game – it’s just unfortunate for us that Mr Shu makes George Reynolds look like a benevolent philanthropist.

We’ve got to get on with it because out on the stubbly 3G nonsense otherwise known as their home pitch Changle FC are taking care of business. Every week they listen, improve and have fun. We’ve even found a ‘keeper – a lanky converted centre back who randomly volunteered to go in nets one week and hasn’t left. I’ve taken to calling him Charlie Watts because, just like the Rolling Stones drummer, he plays in an upright, classical way when all around him there’s chaos, and is clearly older facially and mentally than his peers.

As Christmas approaches our time with Changle FC will be curtailed by the brutality of the winter in Shandong Province. Hopefully in the few remaining weeks of our season we can steer clear of Shu-bacca and the feckless bureaucrats and stay true to our romantic footballing notions.

We just have to accept the fact that, as that sage old philosopher Ian Rush once said of living in Milan: “It’s like living in a foreign country”.

And that was only fucking Italy.

Picking up after the speculators

21 November 2012

By Luke MooreNicol Hay

Nicol: An era is ending at Heart of Midlothian Football Club, as after eight years of ups, downs, Cup victories and enough on-a-whim changes of coach to create a localised but extremely powerful managerial waltzer in the Tynecastle car-park, majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov has decided that he no longer wishes to bankroll the club. Since Romanov took control of the Hearts in 2004 he – through his holding company UBIG – has funnelled cash into high wages in an effort to chase the glory that has traditionally eluded the non-Old Firm clubs in Scotland.

However, his plan to restructure Hearts into a self-sufficient entity, living sensibly within its means seems to involve the fiscal planning equivalent of giving up cold turkey, and the UBIG cash stream has been removed while expenditure is still much higher than the income that even a successful team could expect to gather in the tightly-belted landscape of the modern SPL. There have been several instances of wages being paid late to staff, and numerous winding-up orders presented by HMRC as Hearts continually wait until the last minute to clear their bills.

The latest such order was presented just two weeks ago, tied to an eye-watering demand for £450,000 in unpaid PAYE and National Insurance contributions. Rather than play down the seriousness of the order, as Hearts had done on previous occasions, the board made an appeal to fans, making clear that this could well be the end of club if they were unable to pay the bill - and they pleaded with the supporters to help raise funds by contributing to a recently-launched share offer and making every effort to sell out all forthcoming home matches.

Financial worry and doom-mongering have never been far from the Hearts narrative since Romanov began throwing money around at levels that anyone could see were unsustainable for a club of Hearts’ size in a league like the SPL – but this admission and entreaty from the club’s management was a harsh and incredibly unwelcome dose of reality. As a Portsmouth fan, you’ve had to live through a similar situation Lukey – so did you have a moment where you thought ‘Hang on, this really might not be okay?’

Luke: Yeah, I think I did. The record will show that I was deeply concerned about Peter Storrie’s handling of the club from quite an early stage, around when it was discovered that Sacha Gaydamak was using his ownership of the club to secure loans against it rather than simply putting his own money in. There were also question marks around whether the money he did actually have was his or his father’s (who was and is subject to arrest warrants for a number of different things), and aside from having to do any digging, there’s the small matter of why big-name players were choosing us over other clubs. The answer to that is for the astronomical wages that were being thrown at them. And when you’ve got a stadium that seats less than 21,000, it’s obviously not sustainable.

The Hearts debacle really hit home for me again the ludicrous disregard that football has for its fans. Time and again they are treated with disdain through punitive price hikes for tickets, crazy scheduling of kick-off times, extortionate prices for food and drink within stadiums and astronomical prices for replica shirts that are replaced almost every season. Then, no sooner has the conductor signalled the end of the song for this dance with the Devil, it’s all ‘YOUR club is going to go out of business and YOU will have no football club to support if YOU don’t put your hand in your pocket to save YOUR club.’

The language used is always so cynically emotive, designed to cause the most guilt possible until hardworking fans who are struggling financially anyway for the most part end up either footing the bill or spearheading fundraising efforts to pay the bills that a irresponsible owner, who in some cases shouldn’t have ever been allowed to own the club by the authorities in the first place, couldn’t be bothered or couldn’t afford to pay.

To cap it all off you then have fans of rival clubs either laughing or saying that it ‘serves the club’s fans right’ for not doing something about it which is the worst sort of self-flagellation because they don’t realise that it could so easily be them but for a quirk of geography or affiliation. These sort of things affect every football fan sooner or later and debase the value of the game as a whole.

One thing I would say to you is that if it’s anything like Pompey, it’ll get worse before it gets better. It becomes the worst kind of tiring; my instinctive thought when it comes to Pompey these days is about the ownership or some crisis off the pitch and not the game itself, which is actually immensely depressing.

Nicol: The one thing that the Hearts situation has over Pompey’s is that we seem to be skipping the bizarre sequence of ever-more-obscure and blatantly criminal owners, and moving straight to the point where fan ownership looks to be the only long-term future for the club. You can pretty safely accuse Vladimir Romanov of being delusional, incompetent, morally questionable and dangerously egomaniacal - but at least his dealings with club haven’t strayed into outright illegality (*crosses fingers, hopes he hasn’t jinxed any future lurid headlines*).

The weird thing about the way football is just now is that, despite the urgent and – as you rightly say – cynically emotive language used by Hearts in the last few weeks, is that I never really believed that the club was in any immediate danger. I remember a Motherwell-supporting friend of mine talking about the first time that his club went into administration, and him going to Fir Park utterly convinced that he was attending their last ever game. The sheer number of clubs that have since flirted with oblivion (and outright wooed, married and set up a comfortable retirement with oblivion, hiya Rangers!) and still survived – and even thrived – have completely numbed me to the idea that football clubs can ever disappear.

This is obviously a dangerously blasé attitude to take, but it ties in with what you were saying about the ludicrousness of rival fans saying that it ‘serves the club’s fans right’ for not doing something about it. While football clubs are owned by individuals who are determined to throw money they don’t have at the pursuit of success, how can supporters make any demands for sense? How could I, individually or collectively with my fellow fans, stop Romanov handing Mauricio Pinilla a massive contract? And if I had that power, would I have been able to be clear-headed enough to do it in the moment?

To put it another way, you say that it was clear at the time that Pompey’s model was unsustainable - but in all honesty, would you have put a stop to it when you had the sheer visceral joy of Kanu and Sully Muntari and the Cup and home games against AC Milan and David Nugent? How caught up were you?

Luke: That’s such a difficult question to answer, because you’re talking about the most successful season that Portsmouth have had for over 50 years. The majority of fans that were inside Wembley stadium when Sol Campbell lifted the FA Cup for Portsmouth weren’t born when the club last won anything of note. To then realise afterwards (or perhaps more accurately being forced to stop denying) that what was happening was essentially a sustained period of financial doping is heartbreaking for everyone.

So, did I support the team and revel in the glory of the Premier League years and the FA Cup win? Yes I did. Was I aware that all was not as it seemed, yes I was. I talked about it a bit on the show and was mistrusting of the regime pretty much from the outset. It’s a curious balance to strike though because you want to support your team but at the same time be clear that you don’t agree with the management structure and behaviour. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Ultimately, your question boils down to: An FA Cup win or a club to support, and I think you know, as a fellow football fan, what the answer is to that.

Pompey are/were in a bit more of a bind than the previous high-profile financial casualties of the sport in this country as well, by the way, because Leeds United and Rangers (to take two examples) are both hugely supported institutions and Portsmouth really are not. Not in the grand scheme of things. We’ve seen smaller clubs go to the wall and go out of existence purely because they’ve not had the fanbase to sustain them when it all went wrong. It was touch and go for a while as to which side of the fence Portsmouth were going to fall on.

Now we have the real prospect (with some hurdles still to overcome, admittedly) of being the largest fan-owned club in the country and that fills me with huge excitement.

As for Hearts, they’re a well-supported club in a capital city so realistically you’d have to be confident of them continuing in some form whatever happens. And, to the outsider, I realise it can appear that football clubs can just sidestep paying their tax/bills and if the club folds another club can be started and everything is ok again. But what they don’t realise is that it’s always the fans starting up another club because they have no team to support, and the fans weren’t to blame in the first place, so what do people expect them to do?

Nicol: And that, ultimately, is why Hearts’ current situation makes me sad, but not despair. Obviously I would prefer to support a Heart of Midlothian who play at Tynecastle in the top flight of Scottish football, but if it has to a Junior side playing on a public park, I’ll be right behind whoever’s wearing that maroon shirt. It may be hopelessly naïve and idealistic to say that – but supporting Hearts stopped being about watching sporting excellence quite some time ago, and is now almost 100% about those feelings of community, communal purpose, shared history and nostalgia that no amount of financial mismanagement can destroy.

It is interesting – given that context – that my first thought on potential fan ownership was to be wary that a supporters’ consortium would be able to finance Hearts sufficiently to keep them in the strata of football to which we are accustomed. But then, logically, if every club were fan-owned, there would be no such thing as a club operating beyond its natural level. Barcelona can spend millions because they have millions of fans; a fan-owned Hearts would be able to spend thousands by the transitive property.

Would that be the end of football though, denying the Davids the chance to splash some speculative cash on the stilts required to square up to the Goliaths? Perhaps, but given the stresses that our and other clubs have been put under trying to keep up the payments on the borrowed silverware, surely it has to be better than the alternative?

Luke: I’d argue that just about anything is better than the alternative. You can’t speculate to the extent that some clubs do and not expect there to be consequences. The only way that a David should slay a Goliath is through good infrastructure, good coaching and good players. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

The myth of non-league affordability

19 November 2012

By Matthew Rogerson

Recently, as I’m sure most people are aware, the BBC carried out their Price of Football study which confirmed what most football fans (and their wallets) were already fully aware of - it’s bloody expensive.

This then led President of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron to suggest that people should, rather than line the pockets of their favourite Premier League stars, attend their local non-league clubs from time to time and invest a little in the grass roots.

Personally, as a non-league football fan who sits somewhere between the die-hard oddball sorts you find at all lower tier grounds and the come-out-of-the-woodwork-for-a-big-game-when-local-club-is-on-the-telly type, I feel there are a few things that Mr Farron may not be considering.

Firstly, it does all seem a little bit patronising.

If you were a regular fan of a non-league club and had followed them all your life, would you really want a load of EPL-obsessed armchair supporters descending for every big game talking about how their ‘real club’ is faring and how twee and low-key everything is?

Non-league isn’t how a lot of people think.

The ‘one man and his dog at the side of a park pitch’ image is gone for many clubs. Indeed, many enjoy large attendances and good all-round facilities.

Clubs across the divisions regularly enjoy 1000+ attendances. Chester FC, for example, played in front of a 5000 strong crowd when they clinched the Evo-Stik Premier Division last season at the Exacta Stadium.

Secondly, and my main problem with Mr Farron’s comments, is that I feel the whole ‘non-league is really cheap’ aspect is a little bit of a myth.

Yes, you can go to grounds and get entry, a pie and a pint for a tenner. However, they are few and far between, as well as being extremely low down the pyramid.

For Blue Square Bet Premier, North and South games, you’re looking at admission of between £9 and £18 before you get to the parking,  programme, food and beer, and as far as I can see, it’s systematic of money being spent at the top trickling down and pushing wages and fees up.

In recent years the likes of Crawley, Fleetwood Town and AFC Wimbledon have all been able to hold their own after moving up from non-league. What’s more, with other teams going in the opposite direction, it’s evident that the gap really isn’t that big between the Blue Square Premier and League 2.

Most players in the conference are full-time professionals who play at clubs with excellent facilities and, without the luxury of TV money that teams from higher up the leagues enjoy, supporters have to fund a large part of the club’s expenditure. That is, unless there is a sugar daddy ready to soak it up.

Alfreton Town, of the Blue Square Bet Premier, this season upped their tickets to £18 for an adult ticket on the turnstiles and their chairman, Wayne Bradley, said at the time that the club has “to move in line with other Premier Division clubs”.

This sums up the problems that Premier League finances can cause and, tragically, there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by where another non-league club doesn’t face extinction with the likes of Truro, Kettering Town and Darlington all having featured in the headlines.

There needs to be a much more sustainable and reasonable approach to non-league football which, I feel, would mean a small reduction in player wages, club costs and, in turn, admission prices.

Unfortunately, as it stands, it seems that the inflated wage packets and exorbitant transfer fees being dished out at the top, where clubs can rely on generous TV packages, are filtering down to the bottom.

Just who are the real Bohemians of Prague?

16 November 2012

By Charlie Robinson

Anyone turning up at Bohemians 1905’s Ďolíček stadium on a whim to see the opening game of the season would understandably have been confused. On paying their 90Kč (£3) for their ticket on the gate, they would have seen that Bohemians were playing “Hosté”, or guests. And the electronic scoreboard above the terrace wouldn’t have helped: it too advertised today’s opponents as Hosté. As the teams trotted out, Bohemians in their famous green and white stripes, we could see the opposition in their away kit of yellow shirts and black shorts, which just happens to also be the away colours of Bohemians. Strange? Not really, until one considers that the guests also play their home games in green and white stripes. And are also called Bohemians. And have the same kangaroo club badge…

A dull 0-0 draw wasn’t the start that Bohemians 1905 wanted as they hope for immediate promotion back to the Czech Gambrinus Liga, the game enlivened only by a baffling sending off for the guests. Still, at least this time the other Bohemians, from the Prague district of Střížkov (let’s call them that from now on), actually turned up for the game. The last time the two clubs played each other, on a beautiful April afternoon in 2010 in the Prague district of Vršovice, the sun came out but, unfortunately, Střížkov didn’t. The team refused to take to the pitch and an announcement over the Tannoy revealed that the visiting players feared for their safety, and even questioned the very legitimacy of the existence of Bohemians 1905, an infuriating and frustrating piece of brinkmanship that, in the end, merely served to confirm the already-inevitable relegation of Střížkov – the club was later deducted twenty (later reduced to fifteen) points, and thereby finished bottom of the table with one solitary point to their name (a position in which they would have finished anyway, even with the extra points).

So why the no-show, the controversy, and the confusion? In this tale of corruption, greed, and incompetence, only one thing is clear – that nothing is really clear. The two Bohemians (well, actually there are three, but more of that later) continue to pursue their right to the name and identity of Bohemians through the media and the courts, a situation that has been allowed to drag on since 2005. Unfortunately, though, an end to this unedifying spectacle still seems far off.

For the people of Vršovice, Bohemians 1905 will always be the real Bohemians. This respected old club is fiercely supported, and those of us who keep an eye out for the results of German club St. Pauli for political reasons might do well to look up Bohemians if hoping to see a game whilst on a stag weekend in Prague. Aside from attracting some of the most vociferous and loyal fans in the country, Bohemians supporters also tend to hold anti-fascist and anti-establishment views, and whilst smoking a cigarette and supping on a Gambrinus beer on the terraces, you’re unlikely to be troubled by a steward if you also want to, ahem, smoke something a little less legal.

The club’s most successful period came in the 1980s, reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and claiming their only league title in 1983, shortly after the departure of their most famous former player, Antonín Panenka, now the club’s president. Since then, the Kangaroos (Klokani) have divided their time between the top two divisions, occasionally daring to venture into the top half of the first division, even finishing a heady fourth in 1990 and 2002.

However, the club’s history has also been marked by the occasional financial crisis, essentially self-inflicted, severely hampering the club’s ability to build on any success achieved. For example, towards the end of the communist regime and after the departure of league-winning manager Tomáš Pospíchal in 1987, the club was singled out by the authorities and found guilty of financial mismanagement, despite other clubs being guilty of similar offences. It’s not clear why Bohemians were singled out for punishment. Perhaps their success simply annoyed the establishment, and they had to be dealt with. And dealt with they were.

Fast forward to a new millennium, but a familiar story. Existing and accumulating debts were compounded by rumours of money disappearing into the pockets of then-owner Michal Vejsada, and the club went bankrupt, leaving Bohemians’ loyal fans in limbo. To further complicate matters, Karel Kapr, owner of the aforementioned F. C. Střížkov, leased the name “Bohemians” from TJ Bohemians Praha, a sports and athletics club based in the city. Predictably, fans of the original Bohemians baulked at the idea of supporting a displanted club. After setting up a new club, Bohemians 1905, with the help of fans of St. Pauli in Germany and Dublin’s Bohemians, the new club secured the old Ďolíček stadium for home games. 1905, it must be pointed out, retain the original club licence, and is considered by supporters, officials, and players of other clubs to be the moral successors of the original Bohemians. Crucially, the Czech FA has also supported its claim.

With me so far? Good. Unfortunately, there’s more. Did I mention that there are actually three Bohemians laying claim to the name and achievements of the original club? Former owner Vejsada soon established Bohemians Praha a.s., a club that still technically exists but which has recently been excluded from the Czech league structure. Furthermore, after the 2009 transfer of Jan Morávek (now at Augsburg) from 1905 to Schalke 04 for almost £3m, both Bohemians Praha and Bohemians Praha a.s. demanded the transfer fee.

However, it recently appeared that the conflict and confusion suffered by the long-suffering fans of Bohemians 1905 might be about to come to an end. Miroslav Pelta, head of the Czech FA, and the Czech courts have ruled that Bohemians Praha (Střížkov) must stop using the Bohemians name as of February 2013. It is to Pelta’s credit that someone at the top of Czech football has made any significant progress in ending the dispute. Despite this decision, nobody really comes out of the rigmarole with much, if any, credit. But it also means that – fingers crossed – by the time the two main protagonists meet again in the league, in June, the game will be contested between Bohemians 1905 and plain old Střížkov. Furthermore, at the time of writing, 1905 sit top of the second division and look good value to secure promotion back to the top flight, despite indifferent recent form, so maybe things are finally looking up. Unfortunately, though, the case is likely to continue to drag through the courts, as claim and counter-claim are made by the protagonists. Given the recent convoluted history of one of Prague’s most famous and respected old clubs, nobody should bet on anything just yet.

Belgrade, not a place for the faint of heart

14 November 2012

By Iain Pearce

The last twenty-five years of football in what is now Serbia makes for some pretty daunting reading. The truths stand out almost as far as the legends and include war-starting riots, paramilitary bands, firework manslaughter and only a sprinkling of the game itself.

But through all of the region’s troubles and separations two roots have remained dug deep into the core of football here. That is, the Eternal rivalry of Red Star and Partizan.

In terms of geography the great divide is only a few hundred metres. After buying a ticket at the Partizan Stadium for that night’s Europa League clash between Partizan and Inter, I made the five-minute walk along the road to take in the surrounds of Red Star’s Marakana, named, due to its enormity, in homage to Rio’s own footballing mecca.

The stadium, whilst clearly past its pomp is a pretty spellbinding place, and is somewhere you can easily imagine fostering the cult that it has come to represent. The club’s infamous Delije ultras are welcomed in a way I’ve not seen elsewhere. Their name is spelled out amongst the seats of the home end, and within the concourses the Delije, meaning ‘heroes’, have their own merchandise shop next to the official club outlet.

Back for the Partizan-Inter game later that evening I received a more formal introduction to Serbian football. In the home end we were crushed together, two people standing on each seat, others hanging from anywhere providing a decent view. However the rest of the stadium was far from filled. As a Serbian fan you are either all in or not in at all.

Plenty had smuggled flares in with them and the songs often necessitated joining arms with your neighbours. We had declared ourselves partisan so we had all become Partizan, it also created a kinship amongst us that you can easily imagine becoming drug-like as well as capable of provoking further furore.

Squeezed in, it was clear that a home goal would see the place explode. Partizan made it to the break unscathed and, into the second half, came within a whisker of scoring- goalkeeper Handanovič inadvertently using his face to save Inter blushes from what would have been a comic own goal. The Partizan players smothered the rebound a couple of inches wide and within a minute the Italians took the lead, showing the ruthlessness that saw them go on to win ten straight matches. There was little looking back from then on and the Serbians were picked off on the break. Happily, they did grab a goal in injury time to have the final say in a well-fought 3-1 defeat.

Those Partizan fans would be loathed to admit it, but Belgrade’s finest hour came in 1991 when Red Star were crowned European champions. It’s a triumph unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future and the state of the game here feels as though it has hardly developed in the following two decades. This was shown starkly on Sunday lunchtime as I strolled over to the Omladinski Stadium to see Red Star away but not far from home at OFK Belgrade, a team with a respectable European history of their own.

The stadium is half faded plastic seats, half concrete terracing and it felt like going back in time into the prehistoric pictures you find of places like Kenilworth Road and the Manor Ground in the 1970s. As away fans we were squeezed in to one of the latter areas yet the masses in our quarter of the ground easily outnumbered the home support, as did the inescapable ranks of riot police around us.

In likelihood it was the hugely varying profile of the two matches, or maybe that Red Star already lag way behind their enemies in the league table, but while the Red Star fans were constantly loud and had much of the brotherhood spirit that the Partizan fans had also shown, there was also a palpable aggression barely hidden beneath the surface. Even before OFK scored the game’s only goal after an hour it was there, but afterwards it really intensified. Bangers and projectiles were thrown from the terrace and as the defeated team approached us after the final whistle the man next to me had a decent-sized rock in his hand. Mercifully that’s where it stayed.

My experience here has taught me that Serbian football appears to have a perceptible edge to it. If you stay on the right side it is beyond captivating but you would dread to be caught up elsewhere. That is why the famed Eternal Derby is so fervently fought, and it is sure to be no different when it takes place again at the Marakana next weekend.

But my Belgrade case study was to present an unusual final act. On Sunday evening I made my way back to the Partizan Stadium for their home league game with Radnički 1923. The floodlights were on, so was the big screen, but there wasn’t a fan to be seen. Putting on my best puzzled foreigner expression I asked a TV crew outside the ground what was going on.

I should have guessed. Recent Partizan crowd trouble has seen the club forced to play their next two games behind closed doors. Fortunately for me, my naivety had done the trick and I was ushered in to watch the 2-0 Partizan win in the press box of an otherwise abandoned stadium. An ironically quiet end to a particularly passionate long weekend of football.

Knowing your role in the shattered United

13 November 2012

By Nicol Hay

He scurries, that’s what he does. When the other, more direct, more finessed, more expensive options are exhausted, the boss pulls him off the bench and starts him on those shuttling runs across the opponents back line. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth he goes pulling and probing and waiting for the heartbeat of a moment where his marker is looking right when he should be looking left. The pass comes in, and suddenly the Scurrier is in a sliver of space. The ball is under his feet, a weird composition that more upright players would be unable to detangle – and then it happens. Somehow – with the laws of physics and biology and plain common sense otherwise occupied – the ball meanders away from the Scurrier at an impossible trajectory, implying that he must possess an invisible third leg that he uses for secret kicking. Everyone is flummoxed, but not the Scurrier – he is already wheeling away in celebration. The goal has already been scored, crossing the line is a mere formality.

Javier Hernández knows his exactly what his role in the Manchester United team is. He is perhaps the only member of that squad who does.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been described on many occasions as a team builder – someone whose greatest strength lies in his ability to recognise the shifting state of football and construct new squads designed to thrive in the prevailing environment. The current team however looks on first glance to be a baffling gumbo of an eleven, the disparate odds and ends of whatever was left after the Glazers raided the kitchen and left Ferguson to throw whatever he could into the pot and hope that with enough time and hot sauce, something palatable would result.

This is certainly the oddest squad that Ferguson has had seriously challenging for the title during his varied reign. If Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale side was described by the tactocracy as a broken team – two discrete units assigned to defence and attack with no overlap, linked only by Esteban Cambiasso occasionally (and often accidentally) nudging the ball forward – then Ferguson is currently presiding over a shattered team. The lack of cohesion and communication in United’s play is breathtaking – Ashley Young would appear to have no consistent link between his feet and brain, never mind his covering fullback. Every United game this season sees a new, seemingly random decision on personnel and formation, because no one other than Chicharito knows who he is anymore. Is Wayne Rooney a forward or a midfielder? Is Rafael a winger or a fullback? Is Paul Scholes a defensive screen or creative link? What in all the hells is Nani? Not even the goalkeepers know their place, as the De Gea/Lindegaard starter/substitute relationship gavottes on into the uncertain infinity.

And yet this team, this team, may well prove to be the best in the land.

How did this happen? Ferguson’s genius this year was to recognise that he did not have the resources to even begin plugging all the leaks springing up throughout the middle and back of his rickety squad, so rather than apportion small amounts of cash here and there on lesser players that might rise to the challenge of being a United player over time, he put all his eggs in one Dutch basket and dared the wicker to split. In one fell swoop, he gained a talismanic player that lifted the team and supporters’ spirits, completely disabled a potential title rival by neutering Arsenal entirely, and guaranteed at least an additional 20 goals to his side, no matter what formless chaos takes place behind him on the pitch.

You might suggest that Robin van Persie is a United player who certainly knows his role, and that’s he’s fulfilling it with every game-and-face-saving strike he lashes into the net to rescue another anodyne team performance, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, because Van Persie has no set on-field role beyond those goals. Is he there to be Rooney’s strike partner? No, because that would mean relying on a 4-4-2 and a central midfield pairing that, no matter which two players Ferguson plucks from his available pool, will be lacking in at least one vital central midfield quality. Is he then a lone striker? No, because that means farming Rooney out to the wing – where he’s less effective – or pushing him back into the number ten role, which makes Shinji Kagawa redundant or displaced.

Any attempt to accommodate Van Persie has the knock-on effect of destabilising the rest of United’s shoogly foundation, so his role is therefore to plug into the gaps of today’s randomly-generated formation wherever he can and simply be Robin van Persie. But to declare this would be tear down the pretence of United’s team, to destroy the fragile magic that has them fighting at the top of the table in a startling triumph of self-determination over ability. Ferguson recognised that the prevailing environment of the current Premier League is full of exciting, expensive teams who couldn’t keep a clean sheet in a vacuum-sealed laundrette. You don’t need a team in this league, you just need a star – but you also need everyone to believe that you still need a team, otherwise it descends into the egomania and unbalance of the worst Brazilian league sides. Getting his squad and his opponents to buy this illusion is a remarkable act of misdirection by Ferguson, and may be his ultimate mind-game.

As long as Ferguson can keep his plates spinning and his own players fooled, United may well be destined for the title. And on those rare, horrible occasions when the star isn’t firing? That’s when you reach for the man who knows exactly who he is – that’s when you send for the Scurrier. Everyone else is just guessing.

Cloud seeding and cage fights: the Man United conspiracy

9 November 2012

By Max Grieve

Sometimes, there is nothing to talk about. There just isn’t. It’s not always our fault that there isn’t anything to talk about, but if there isn’t, it’s on us to make something up. In sport, this seems to happen more often than in other arenas of life. There are always thieves, murderers and zoos to keep us occupied in the wider world, but for those who are more inclined to thrust their heads into the sand and look for a football match than wonder where Syria is, the week can seem like a great void interrupted sporadically by goals and racism.

So when we had concluded discussions on the gloriousness of Juan Mata’s ultimately pointless free kick a few Saturdays ago; after we had said all that we can possibly say about Mark Clattenburg to this point without resorting to outright libel; after United were awarded their billionth penalty at Old Trafford since records began last week, we turned to something else. Manchester United had won a football match, so some decided that there is a pro-United conspiracy that goes right to the top of the FA.

It wouldn’t have been entirely fair to have gathered sharpened pitchforks and come to an immediate conclusion, so I decided to give it a few weeks after United visited Stamford Bridge in the Premier League – a realistic length of time when categorically determining whether or not a sport is corrupt – to be absolutely certain. I’ve stepped away from the fire now, and am prepared to make a reasoned declaration.

Manchester United are at the centre of the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful match-fixing programme in the history of football. There is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the club has engaged in serial cheating by a number of methods.

For a time, we were prepared to look away. They were so good, and probably gave money to charity – why would they be prepared to throw it all away by cheating? We were fools. In the light of revelations that unconditionally verify the pro-United conspiracy – that is, two red cards a few weeks ago – the years that had gone dark are illuminated.

FA officials took to the skies in 2008; seeding the clouds above Moscow. It rained, and John Terry slipped and missed what should have been the final penalty in the shootout. Referees are threatened with an hour in a cage against an empurpled Alex Ferguson if they don’t somehow give United an advantage during a match. Two African Cup of Nations tournaments were scheduled in consecutive years, and Yaya Toure becomes conveniently unavailable. So all-encompassing is the conspiracy that it’s a wonder Manchester United haven’t ended up with a decent central midfielder after Roy Keane left in 2005.

Donald Trump made some interesting points in a full-scale meltdown following Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election, which I think become relevant to the pro-United conspiracy when slightly reworked. Trump, a level-headed, respected businessman, was left unhappy at the result of a clearly rigged election – Obama has a suspicious 100% record when it comes to presidential elections – and voiced his concerns accordingly. Trump’s edited tweets follow – imagine them being shouted by a shirtless, bearded man holding a ‘Manchester United: The Truth’ sign.

Simply, we can’t let this happen. We should march on Wembley and stop this travesty. Our sport is totally divided. Let’s fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice. The whole world is laughing at us. The Referee’s Association made a laughing stock out of the league. We should have a revolution in this sport! If you experience any harassment or heckling at stadiums from United supporters, make sure you report it immediately. Reports of referees giving Arsenal / Chelsea / Liverpool / City / Liverpool / Liverpool’s victory to United. Pay close attention to the referees; don’t let your victory be stolen.

See? See how seamlessly Trump’s perfect sanity translates to the dire situation football finds itself in? It’s clear: Donald Trump is every pro-United conspiracy theorist.

That’s one way of looking at Manchester United. The other way is to be rational. Rationality is a strange concept that some football fans choose before blind support of their club and, while less wildly entertaining, it’s certainly more sensible.

One argument that the Donald Trumps of the Premier League and beyond like to flog into a pink mist is that Manchester United win an awful lot of penalties. It’s true. United win an awful lot of penalties because they spend an awful lot of time in the box. They spend an awful lot of time in the box because they’re better than an awful lot of teams. They’re better than an awful lot of teams because they have an awfully good manager, and have had a lot of awfully good players because they have an awfully good scouting network, and have, at various points in their history, had an awful lot of money at their disposal.

They have all this because they have won football matches become very popular for doing so, and attracted interest from businessmen who have the money they need to buy good players to be better than other teams to spend time near the goal to win penalties. Convoluted – and simultaneously simplistic – as it might seem, it makes marginally more sense than the alternative.

Manchester United win because they’re good. They win penalties because they’re good. Referees make mistakes because they’re human. It rains because of a combination of pressure, temperature and science. Alex Ferguson and his empire lost the Premier League in the last few seconds of the season because there isn’t a conspiracy.

There’s delusion, and there’s reality. You can decide for yourself.

MLS, the USA and the development of CONCACAF

9 November 2012

By Steven Maloney

In a global labour market like the one in professional football, the slightest change in workforce composition can have big implications for how organisations compete with one another for resources. This weekend, the conclusion of the Western Conference semi-final first leg between Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes proved an outstanding example of Major League Soccer’s changing labour supply. With David Beckham sitting on the bench and American hero Landon Donovan mulling his interest in the sport, San Jose’s Honduran international Victor Bernárdez lashed a 30 yard free kick under the legs of a jumping Omar Gonzalez and past a desperately flapping Josh Saunders to give San Jose a stoppage time victory. The percentage of players from Honduras, Jamaica, and Canada has been increasing in the MLS player pool.  And, the league initially intended to be a development vehicle for the United States is supplying a professional environment for key players for the Caribbean and Central American members of the CONCACAF region.

Honduras’ increasingly impressive national team (by CONCACAF standards, anyway) has 5 national team players based in MLS. All 5 Honduran internationals have more than 20 caps, with 23 international goals between them. Panama’s group stage upset of the USA in the 2011 Gold Cup was won on a penalty taken by Philadelphia Union’s Gabriel Gomez. Costa Rica has 3 internationals playing in MLS, including national team top scorer Alvaro Saborío. Of the eight members of the Jamaican national team playing professionally in MLS, only four of the eight play on MLS clubs actually based in the United States, while the other four ply their trade for the league’s three Canadian clubs. 

As Major League Soccer continues to develop, the surrounding CONCACAF nations are taking advantage of the league’s need for decent players at comparably low wages on the global market. MLS uses this cheap labour force to get better play for its dollar, and in return national teams have players who get the experience of the long MLS season plus a diminished “wow factor” when they play matches against the United States. In turn, as the national set-ups in CONCACAF improve, the player market for Major League soccer diversifies, allowing the league to acquire better players the next year at the prices they paid for wages this year. In short, the available labour supply of MLS football jobs is driving the growth of CONCACAF’s international player pool, and the better supply of football labour in CONCACAF is fueling the growth of Major League Soccer as a competitive league. 

The trend raises questions as to whether the United States is doing itself any favours by having Major League Soccer serve as a developmental league for all of CONCACAF. Given recent qualifying difficulties against Jamaica and the aforementioned upset at the hands of Panama in the 2011 Gold Cup, concerns grow that MLS helps the regional competition more than the United States itself. 

True, the United States national team has as many current Major League Soccer professionals on its squad as does Honduras. But Major League soccer tends to be the weakest league represented in the national team setup, whereas MLS is one of the strongest leagues on the roster for most, if not all, of the other non-Mexican CONCACAF nations. In this regard, the lack of MLS players on the US national team roster is not an indication of the League’s failure to develop talent, but its success. The number of Americans playing in Europe and also in the Mexican first division demonstrates both the strides made by top tier American professional talent, but also the job that USA Soccer and MLS have done in raising the credibility level that success in their competitions translates to value in the European labour market. 

If we think back to the time before the 2002 World Cup, Major League Soccer was loaded with American-based talent. In retrospect, Europe had undervalued many of these players’ abilities, due to the lack of success of American players in Europe historically and because Major League Soccer had no track record in producing players. After the United States’ quarterfinal run in 2002, a large percentage of the MLS contingent on that squad found their way into European clubs interested in bargain hunting. Enough of those bargains worked out and changed the general impression of the American footballer. In one decade, the list of Americans playing professionally abroad on the weekend went from numbers you could count on your hand to a list of over 50 Americans playing weekly and for the most part getting regular playing time at that.

The talent deficit created by European and Mexican purchasing of the United States’ top domestic players has been filled by shrewd buys from Latin America. While clubs in trendy American (and Canadian if we count Montreal Impact’s signing of Alessandro Nesta) cities have spent enormous sums to recruit big name talent from abroad, the League is equally populated by clubs who have succeeded by offering veteran players from Latin America a stable professional life in the United States and younger Latin American players the possibility of using MLS to springboard into European football.

The question of whether Major League Soccer should be developing region-wide talent is practically irrelevant. Major League Soccer’s profits are surging from the construction of soccer stadiums, increased ticket revenues, genuine domestic competition between television networks for broadcast rights, and even the emergence of a market for overseas television rights. As such, MLS will never seriously entertain any idea that constitutes the watering down of the product it places on the field. The talent MLS develops from rival CONCACAF nations keeps the player pool as robust as it can be for the price point the league offers for player wages.

Going forward, Major League Soccer should not worry that it is making Panama too competitive in world cup qualifying. Instead, the League should think about a future decline in its product quality if and when Honduran, Panamanian, Costa Rican and Canadian players start getting their transfer requests to Europe. How will MLS cope with that trend when Europe finds this potential value in non-American MLS players?

Perhaps the League can generate enough revenues to offer more competitive wages to keep its regional contingent in the States and maybe even buy back Americans playing in some of the lower paying leagues in Europe. But as it stands right now, Major League Soccer is sitting on a cheap, bountiful resource, and the League needs to make enough money before its gone to be able to afford whatever comes next.  This leaves little room for error for the League’s finances, but it also means that there’s no way that they are going to shut down the CONCACAF pipeline just because the national team is finding it harder to win football matches. 

What better place for a marathon?

8 November 2012

By Iain Pearce

In my last piece I wrote that life in Greece, despite the country’s ongoing financial crisis, was largely carrying on as normal. I’d like to retract that, Greece has since gone mental.

When I arrived last week there were audible grumbles, but now they have morphed into loud, embittered snarls and the country has plunged back into the mire. The government’s vote on austerity measures that will reduce wages while increasing prices is due to take place this week and the general public has gone on general strike in an attempt to change the likely political decision.

The result of the two-day strike is that the schools are shut, the newspapers haven’t been printed and there is absolutely no public transport, even the taxi drivers are in on the action.

There are clearly some pretty serious questions to be asked, and I too had an albeit relatively unimportant one of my own: how on earth was I going to get to the Olympiacos-Montpellier Champions League match?

The Greek champions are based in the working-class suburb of Piraeus, near the ferry port and about ten kilometres from the city centre. After some chats and thinking cap twitching I sided on finding a bike, but was rapidly shouted down on the idea by those suggesting that, due to Athens’ notorious drivers, it would quickly end with a squashed blogger on tarmac. Besides, I wasn’t the first person to think of it and seemingly every saddle had long since been perched on as a transport alternative.

Salvation came on match morning from a local tour agent who offered me a lift later in the day, his house being near the stadium. Salvation then left upon my evening return when I found that my saviour had already gone having knocked off early.

The albatross of self-propulsion was back, I was going to have to walk it. Being positive, the road was straight and direct and in just over the length of time it takes to play a game of football I was on the final approach in to the Karaiskakis Stadium.

To an outsider Group B may have had an air of being stitched up at the halfway point. The expected front-runners Schalke and Arsenal had already opened up a sizeable gap, but a last-minute Olympiacos win away at Montpellier on, to use UEFA speak, Matchday 3 gave the Greeks their first points in the group and the opportunity to mount a knock out spot challenge if they could repeat the feat and do a French double.

What’s more, Olympiacos have form, bags full of it. They’ve so far made an unbeaten start to their Super League championship defence and boast a record of eight wins from their nine games. Even Shakhtar Donetsk might turn a head to that.

I had been to Olympiacos’ domestic encounter on Saturday, an uninspiring 2-0 victory against Crete mid-table side OFI that would have to be labelled as routine. The fans saving themselves for Tuesday as much as the team, the stadium had only been half full, but the flares and flags from the home end had been more than captivating enough to make the trip worthwhile.

The arrival of Montpellier brought with it almost twice the number of fans, but big cup regulations meant the fireworks were banned, leading to a subdued feel in an otherwise pretty packed stadium.

The home fans instantly had something to shout about however, as Olympiacos picked up right where they had left off a fortnight ago in France. A fourth minute shot ricocheted off the post and the lead was taken when Paulo Machado tapped home the rebound. There was delirium, but it was a fairly restrained delirium.

The visitors knew nothing but a win was of much use and played some entertaining stuff but failed to restore parity before the break. Things were different in the second half though, twice they warned their hosts with good chances straight at Roy Carroll (yes, him), but the third opportunity was better still and when the referee pointed to the spot after too much defensive arm wrestling Younès Balhanda neatly equalised.

For us in the stands it felt like a real punch in the stomach. Having been ahead for over an hour we had the pleasantly refreshed group table already etched in our minds. What followed was fifteen minutes of pin drop breath intake. Suddenly we needed to win it again, nothing seemed so sure anymore. What’s more, Montpellier had enjoyed scoring and seemed keen on another.

Fortunately, for all their attacking flair (and even with John Utaka out injured) the French side always looked capable of a rick. A poor Olympiacos corner was criminally not headed away at the near post and was instead swept home in the middle, and two minutes later Konstantinos Mitroglou half-volleyed home a cultured third and the smiles and the noise were back. This Champions League lark’s not so hard after all and Olympiacos have a genuine chance again, just one point behind crisis-in-waiting Arsenal.

Now, to get home again. I tried to swap my heels for my thumb and hitchhike back into the city, but it’s not a skill I’ve ever excelled in and finding little joy I ended up reverting to blister-making. Still, if you’re intent on undertaking some sort of marathon Athens really should be the place to do it.

Balkans United – The return of a European superpower?

7 November 2012

By Niall McVeigh

Two decades after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, a unified Balkan football league may be about to emerge from hibernation, into an unrecognisable footballing landscape. In the stands, it could reignite rivalries which lay at the heart of civil war. On and off the field, a unified league represents a huge gamble – but this once famous footballing region seems prepared to take the risk.

***

A shade over twenty years ago, Red Star Belgrade’s golden generation enjoyed a final springtime in the sun. They were comfortable champions of the 1991-92 Yugoslav First League, the unified country’s final league season. The fans rejoiced, the players celebrated - but by then, the YFL was a shell of a united league in a bitterly divided nation. The previous summer, Croatia and Slovenia had taken flight and set up independent leagues. Bosnia and Macedonia were soon to follow suit, with Sarajevo’s sides already withdrawn as civil war loomed.

While the YFL was forced apart by much more momentous off field issues, the spring of 1992 saw seismic change elsewhere in football. It marked the last hurrah for England’s faded Division One - and the final European Cup. Red Star, perhaps the greatest exponents of the nerveless fluidity beloved of Eastern Bloc sides, entered that season as defending champions of the last true knockout European Cup. They lost their crown in a 3-1 group defeat to Sampdoria - played in Sofia due to the tempestuous conditions at home. That summer, Yugoslavia were thrown out of Euro 1992, and Red Star’s finest were denied a final chance to thrill the international stage.

Skip forward twenty years, and the footballing landscape in Yugoslavia is forlorn. National leagues, largely dominated by the divided giants of the YFL - Red Star, Partizan, Dinamo Zagreb - play out predictable fare to diminishing audiences. The decline of Balkan sides in Europe is a tangible scent of that relentless decline. Since Red Star bowed out in Bulgaria, Balkan interest in Europe’s premier competition has collapsed almost entirely.

Dinamo Zagreb’s weak muddling at the base of this year’s Group A marks the seventh Balkan appearance in the twenty seasons of Champions League groups. Dinamo were responsible for the region’s last win at that level, romping home 3-0 against Sturm Graz - in 1999. Red Star, the cold-eyed counter attacking machine that destroyed Europe in 1991, have never returned to the last 32. Given the region’s dire need for renewed vigour, both at home and abroad, a shock solution has been proposed.

Recent reports indicate that plans are in place to reunite the fractured region in a unified Balkan league, comprising clubs from all former Yugoslavian nations, and potentially Hungary and Bulgaria too. What’s most remarkable this plan is not that it comes barely twenty years since the outbreak of a brutal civil war, but that the idea has been mooted by the region’s footballing hierarchies for many years. The difference this time is that, if reports are to be believed, UEFA appear set to allow the unification to go ahead.

Michel Platini, when asked in 2009, displayed classic bigwig decisiveness by declaring he was neither for nor against the concept. It now appears that, with his efforts to dilute the Champions League hegemony of western Europe largely unsuccessful, he is prepared to give the green light. Rumours abound that the league could be up and running by 2015. Crucially, UEFA approval would lead to European qualification for its most successful sides – a privilege not extended to other unified competitions, like Scandinavia’s Royal League.

With the return of a Balkan league allegedly less than three seasons away, there’s already speculation as to how it could work. Croatian newspaper Globus has reported that the league will include sixteen teams from eight nations – Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Hungary and Bulgaria. This equates to two spots per nation, which in turn poses the question of how each participating nation should be represented.

Should a Serbian side such as Vojvodina, competitive in the old YFL but clearly not one of their nation’s two strongest sides, earn a place over say, Maribor of Slovenia, who had virtually no impact pre-1992, but are now regular national champions with a burgeoning European reputation? And how would either side feel about ending up in a second-tier national league – in many ways, the best case scenario for those excluded?

If the league is constructed as Globus have suggested, eight Champions League places would be reduced to a maximum of two. Several years of outrageous success would be required to raise the number of places to half of what is available now. It seems strange that there is little vocal opposition from clubs or nations to this proposal – perhaps that’s the clearest sign of the disillusionment with the fruitless, divided system currently in operation.

The region’s strongest sides have arguably declined due to a lack of battles against familiar foes. A unified league could throw up fixtures like Red Star v Dinamo Zagreb, or Partizan v CSKA Sofia, on a weekly basis. Pitting their wits against the region’s finest teams, these sides may feel as if they would be constructing a viable alternative to the Champions League. It’s hard to determine whether a Balkan league is designed to thrust the region’s heavyweights into European contention, or to enshrine them within a more agreeable alternative.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage, with an eerie ambiguity hanging over the competition’s structure, that on-field issues are but a fleeting concern for those hoping to restore the YFL. Football fan allegiances had a place at the dark heart of the region’s civil war, with ultras from many clubs targeted by generals to serve on the front line. As civil war descended, the YFL continued, populated solely by Serbian and Montenegrin teams. In 1997-98, unheralded Belgrade club Obilic won a shock debut title – though it’s less surprising when you discover the team was owned and managed by Arkan, who packed the stadium with pistol toting, chanting military personnel. As an away trip, it was beyond intimidating.

The bitter, often violent rivalries between Balkan club sides will require stringent monitoring, if any new league is not to be dominated by off-field issues. Partizan Belgrade were thrown out of the UEFA Cup in 2007, when a rare away trip into Bosnia ended in a full blown riot. Twenty years since the collapse of the last great Balkan league, ethnic and social tensions still run high – with the frontline often found at football grounds. Whilst Radovan Karadzic is still facing trial in The Hague, and games across borders end in chaos, it seems an astonishing gamble to restart a regional league that was so central to civil war. The fact that clubs and nations, both large and small, storied and resurgent, seem willing to take that risk, shows just how much a competitive and respected league still matters in the former Yugoslavia.

Communication is the key

6 November 2012

By Jake Farrell

There’s an old joke about the first training session of the 1993 preseason at Newcastle and it goes something like this: Goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek was in his fresh club kit, hoping to impress new manager Kevin Keegan after a long period out in the cold under Ossie Ardiles. By way of introduction, King Kev gathered his troops and gave them an introductory pep talk. “Now lads”, he said midway through his speech, “there are some members of our squad that really struggle with the English language so let’s go out of our way to make sure that we speak simply so that they can understand us.” Srnicek noted this and was keen to assure the boss that his English was up to scratch – he’d been practising all summer. He told Keegan as much after training, who laughed and said: “Don’t worry Pavel son, I was talking about Brian Kilcline”.

Now, while referencing this beautiful myth mainly functions as an excuse for me to write about Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline, it also serves to highlight an important fact – in the modern age of football communication is key, especially when your squad encompasses various nationalities and languages. As managers of the Changle Foreign Language School Grade 5 squad the linguistic divide is even more stark for Chris, Henry and I. We don’t speak Mandarin Chinese. Our players barely speak English. All in all, meaningful communication is as about as rock hard as the average Brian Kilcline two footed tackle.

We have been training for a few weeks now and have so far been able to survive on a rudimentary “one, two” instruction system – denoting a first touch and pass and accompanied by suitably nonsensical manager-like gestures. We shout it at every possible opportunity and it handily functions in two ways; firstly by being ludicrously simple to understand and also by reinforcing our purist pretensions towards total football. Clearly though this could only get us so far and to communicate more sophisticated ideas to the kids we would need to introduce them to the full range of footballing jargon.

This week rather than continuing to run around the field shouting “one, two” like give and go fixated mentalists we opted to head into the classroom. The team briefing and the idea of the footballer as an athlete-scholar is ubiquitous amongst cutting edge coaches nowadays, as anyone who has watched Brendan Rodgers excruciating pre-match powerpoints on Being Liverpool will testify. This would be our version, just simplified.

We were superbly aided by Pei-Pei, a friend from school whose fierce intelligence has led to her being ear-marked as a candidate for transition, Mourinho style, from translator to gaffer when we move on to pastures new. In preparation we have been teaching her some English idioms like “When it rains it pours”. By the end of the year she’ll be au fait with the idea of the ‘come-and-get-me plea’, will be able to confidently say she is ‘flattered by speculation’ and will have no trouble ‘launching a stinging verbal tirade’ against referees.

At first the team were shocked to see us in our smart casual gear (we’re tracksuit managers through and through, although we stop short of the Pulis baseball cap) but thanks to Pei-Pei we were able to get them all inside without too much difficulty. There had been worries that Gazza, our precocious star player and all round showman, would kick off but he serenely accepted the change in training schedule. This was probably due to the fact that the tuck shop was out of cans of Coke and he wasn’t as off his tits on caffeine as he usually is but may also have been a sign that he is tempering his rebellious streak.

With the aid of stick figure diagrams and Pei-Pei’s Mother Theresa-like patience we proceeded to go through the basics of positions, on-pitch vocabulary and a few key ideas that we wanted them to understand – namely that they had to use space better rather than bunching together and that they had to move up and down the pitch as a unit rather that individuals. Their attentiveness and keenness to learn was amazing and served as another reminder of the startling innocence and earnestness of the Chinese kids we have taught in general. Had we tried a similar tactic in the school I went to in England I suspect we have may have been less than politely invited to go fuck ourselves.

During the “briefing” we had also intended to introduce one other key word – Captain. There was clearly only one candidate for this role, the brilliant and scholarly Xavi, a twenty-eight year old Barcelona player trapped in a ten year old Chinese kid’s body. The plan was to translate the word, explain its importance to a football team and then give Xavi the just reward of being anointed as skipper in front of his adoring peers. However, no sooner than the Chinese word was out of Pei-Pei’s mouth, every one of the team had clearly understood its resonance and turned to point at Xavi, with even Gazza giving an appreciative nod, indicating he was their leader on the pitch.  We didn’t need to bestow the title on him to earn him the respect of his team mates – somehow he had already been given it. It was a brilliant moment.

We’ve instituted twice weekly training for the last month so the day after the translation session the lads had a chance to out their new found knowledge into practice. It was fantastic to watch as they came bounding over to start, shouting “Pass!” at one another to show they had taken it on board. It became even more enjoyable as they continued their progress by passing neatly and confidently in a small sided game. Gazza scored two, the first a scarcely believable first time effort from twenty yards out that was in the bottom corner before the keeper had even moved. Xavi is now so confident that he often drops deep, demands the ball from Chris, Henry or I in goal and then prompts his team into coherent attacks from there. Slowly and steadily we are getting somewhere and it becomes more fun and fulfilling with every passing week. There is only one direction we can go in now. Hala Changle!

Athenian anarchy

5 November 2012

By Iain Pearce

Think of Greece in 2012 and the word ‘crisis’ and scenes of rioting Athenians loom large. In the capital and away from the sensationalist international headlines, the increased number of wandering beggars and homelessness mean it’s not hard to see that the societal edges are frayed, but the people remain friendly and life largely rolls on, as does the football season.

The country itself may have mixed feelings on its continuing European relationship, but having made a mediocre start to the Greek Super League season Panathinaikos are using the Europa League as a welcome break from their own domestic crises.

Due to financial problems that seem finally to have been sorted with the club now having become supporter-owned, the recent heady heydays of fielding the likes of Gilberto Silva and Djibril Cissé (okay, I’ll admit my tongue is in my cheek just a little for that second one) already seem long gone, and having made an unspectacular start in the group the Trifylli needed the points in a tantalising-looking clash with another footballing giant, Rome’s Lazio.

As well as their off-field issues Panathinaikos are another club in stadium limbo. They have outgrown their treasured former home ground but are not able to get close to filling a much larger place nearby. Their Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium had become increasingly outdated as repeated modernising of the limited space available brought the capacity down to well below 20,000. A new stadium is mooted but barely at the planning stage, seeing a shift to the 2004 Olympic Stadium as the only viable current solution.

Sublime as it looks brightly lit-up on the walk in, the stadium provides an awful setting for football with universally atrocious views. Contrary to the ideals it is said to represent, the Olympic venue makes the game seem slower, the volume lower and the atmosphere far weaker. The soaring roof is for show not showers and does little to retain any sound created by the home fans.

From the off in this Greco-Roman wrestle it’s the Italians who try to pinfall their opponents. They quickly gather a fine collection of corners and test the handling of home goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis. However they needn’t break into too much of a sweat as the hosts are more than willing to do the hard work for them. An optimistic ball over everyone sees Karnezis scamper to clear from the edge of his box, finding his team mate Giorgios Seitaridis. The defender then plays a measured backpass directly towards goal, but where the keeper no longer awaits. It creates a good ten seconds of open-mouthed astonishment around the stadium and it’s a further five seconds before the Lazio players come to understand that they are now ahead in the contest.

Going behind prompts the home side into mulling over the idea of pushing for a leveller, but they think better of it. Maybe they’re aware that the real fireworks will be saved for half time.

The players troop off for the interval, as do many of the supporters, nothing unusual yet. The stadium is one where the toilets and kiosks are communally provided in a ring outside the arena itself, making for free passage to walk around outside of the tribunes.

In the thirty-six hours prior to the game there had been several reports on Greek television of the Lazio fans provoking violent skirmishes with local police and fans, and the notorious Gate 13 Panathinaikos ultras clearly felt that it was their duty to respond. Minutes after the players are gone a sharp bang rang out, swiftly followed by the haze of green flares behind the stands at the away end. Soon fireworks also shot up. There’s no question of it being the travelling two hundred Lazio fans who are hemmed in by two rows of riot police high in the upper tier. Us among the seats scrambled to the back to see what was up. Most of us were unable to see much beyond the flares heading skywards to know exactly why the spartan cries were being shouted so loudly.

The ultras soon filtered back in and it began to feel like a football match again. The home side were still only half trying to regain parity, and it looked as if they were going to comfortably continue their winless Europa League start. However, with ten seconds of normal time left, the ball dropped to Toché in the area from a swung in free kick and the Spaniard poked home an aesthetically displeasing equaliser.

The cheers didn’t last nearly long enough though and the metro journey home saw a resumption of Panathinaikos hostilities. The vast majority of the supporters riding back into central Athens were entirely peaceful and the ultras were generally merely vocal, but on one occasion an Olympiacos fan on the adjacent platform foolishly taunted his rivals, which prompted a small group to rush down from our side, under the tracks, and up to violently quieten the man who had affronted them, only stopping when some security guards intervened.

It was another occasion that promised to display much of what’s great about the game yet, not for the first time, the match itself took something of a backseat to the events going on around it. When chatting over the night’s happenings with a Panathinaikos fan the next day he put it simply: “Some fans just want to make trouble”. Regardless of the team, the shirt colour or the country it’s amazing just how often that phrase needs to be used.

My trip to Manchester, by André Clarindo dos Santos

5 November 2012

By Nicol Hay

I like planes, they’re like magic because even though you’re sitting still the whole world moves and you stand up and you’re in a new place where all sorts of wonderful things might happen. Like the other week, when I sat down on the plane and I barely had enough time to eat my Starmix after picking out all the fried eggs because I don’t really like eggs and suddenly we were in a lovely place where everyone wore yellow shirts and seemed really happy to see us. The yellow shirts were nice because it was like being back home in Brazil. Mr Wenger was a bit quiet and frowny on the flight back from Yellow Shirt Land, so I offered him my fried eggs but he said no.

Maybe Mr Wenger doesn’t like eggs either.

This weekend was nice because we had a really long go in the plane because we were going to Manchester, which is where the Shouty Purple Man lives. I think Shouty Purple Man is funny because he turns purple when he shouts, but Thomas says I need to be careful around him, because if I don’t watch he might grab me and make me live with him in Manchester while throwing lots of big numbers at me every week. All the other boys laughed at this but I was quite scared because I’m not very good with numbers I’m better at drawing, but Mikel said don’t worry, Shouty Purple Man will definitely, definitely never grab me so I said thanks and went back to drawing my picture of bird wearing a hat.

So we got to Manchester and I was happy because I was one of the boys Mr Wenger asked to run around on the grass. I thought Carl might be upset that he wasn’t asked to run around, but he was busy rocking back and forth in the corner of dressing room and breathing funny. I asked what he was doing and he said remembering so I said okay and walked away.

So we went out onto the grass and I did some really good running. It was strange because almost as soon as we got on the grass Rafael who looks like Fabio who I sometimes see when we’re both wearing yellow shirts tried to do his running right at me, but I managed to get out of the way and do my running on my own. I heard Thomas shout a bit and then all the sitting-down people stood up and said YAAAAAYYYYY so I think I must have done my best running of all.

Then the Whistle Man said we should stop for a bit and I saw my friend Robin who I haven’t seen for really ages actually. I said that to Robin and he said back that I definitely didn’t see him forty-five minutes ago but I didn’t understand that so I smiled and hoped he’d say something else. Robin asked how I was and I said I was a bit cold so Robin gave me his shirt. I asked him if he’d get in trouble and would they make him pay for a new shirt and he said he’d be all right for money and he giggled. I didn’t see Robin again after that, but it’s nice that he’s happy, wherever he is.
In the dressing room, Mr Wenger looked really super frowny a lot. Thomas tried to shout at us but Per gave him a look and we all just sat around having a think. I thought up a song about my shoes but I can’t remember how it goes now.

Soon it was time to run around again and I tried to put Robin’s shirt on because I really was quite cold but Jack took it off me and said some bad words. I said I was cold so Jack said try running around a bit more and I said okay because I like running around and I think I’m good at it. Later on, when the Whistle Man made his Stop Running whistle I was quite tired so I tried to find Jack and get my shirt back but I couldn’t find him. I asked Theo if he’d seen Jack but he was busy trying to get the Shouty Purple Man to look at him and making his hand look like a phone. Shouty Purple Man must have been thinking Silly Theo! Your hand isn’t a phone! because he just laughed and laughed and Theo looked sad.

Then we got on another plane and I had a nap and when I woke up we were back in Arsenal Town, which is also called London. It used to be that I’d drive to my house in my car but now I’m not allowed because I was naughty, so a nice man drives me instead. Before I could get in the nice man’s car, Mr Wenger looked at me and I said Please André, please. Kieran isn’t going to be ready for Germany, we need you to be better. Please, please be better. I could tell he was upset so I looked him in the eye and said: ‘I know Mr Wenger, and I’m sorry. You paid a lot of money to bring me here and I haven’t shown why you made that choice when it really matters. I can only apologise, and reassure you that I will double my efforts in the future. From now on you’ll see a different André Santos – a more concentrated, more aware, more active André Santos. I won’t let you down Mr Wenger, this I promise.’

And I meant it. Next time, I’m going to try as hard as I can and draw a bird with two hats.

Oviedo SOS: Last-chance for Asturias’ sleeping giant

3 November 2012

By Vincent Forrester

Today, 3 November 2012, I became a shareholder in one of Spain’s most respected and historic clubs. This is not because I am a stupendously wealthy sheikh with an ego to match, though the club might wish that were the case. It is because Real Oviedo are desperate to stay in business and I am trying to help.

The club – which plies its trade in the Spanish third division, Segunda B – needs to raise £1.9 million to avoid being liquidated. As such, it has made the decision to offer its shares to the public for a period of two weeks, 3 November to 17 November, for just €10.75 each. After various financial and managerial disasters, it’s the last roll of the dice.

Oviedo have tumbled down the divisions with astonishing speed. After 13 consecutive seasons in La Liga, they were relegated by a single point in 2001. Despite managing to hold on to star performers like Russian international defender Viktor Onopko, the club failed to bounce back immediately, finishing seventh in Segunda in 2001-02.

Unable to sustain a top-flight wage bill for a second season, the club was forced to sell its key assets, including Onopko. Even so, it struggled to make ends meet and was unable to pay the remaining players, who ended up suing the club. Unsurprisingly, the results on the pitch mirrored the mess off it. Oviedo finished in 21st place and were relegated again, to Segunda B. However, in light of the cock-up over wages, the FA decided to demote the club one tier further. For the first time in their history, Real Oviedo were relegated to Tercera, the fourth tier of Spanish football.

It was not, however, the first time Oviedo’s fans had seen their beloved club razed to the ground. In the early 1930s, the free-scoring team featuring the attacking talents of the Delanteras Eléctricas (Electric Forwards) – Emilín, Galé, Isidro Lángara, Ricardo Gallart and Eduardo “Herrerita” Bueno – had taken the league by storm, scoring 174 goals in just 62 league games. Employing a high-tempo, one-touch passing game instilled by former manager Fred Pentland – arguably England’s greatest gift to Spanish football – they finished third in the league in 1935 and 1936 and began to establish themselves as a major player in Spanish football.

But the Civil War changed everything. The swashbuckling side was broken up by the conflict, which forced the postponement of the league for three years. When it resumed in 1939-40, Oviedo were refused entry for one year, ostensibly because the war had left the pitch at Estadio de Buenavista in a terrible state. That Langara and other Oviedo players had toured Europe to raise funds for the Republican war effort cannot have helped endear the club to General Franco. In any case, it didn’t make much difference: Oviedo had already been robbed of their golden generation.

Thankfully, the club has proved adept at bouncing back from disaster in the past. Since regaining their top-flight status in 1940-41, Oviedo have spent most of the subsequent seasons in La Liga, save for a troublesome stretch in Segunda between the ‘60s and ‘80s (during which time they won the now-defunct Spanish League Cup). They even qualified for the 1992 Uefa Cup.

So when the club was ignominiously dumped in Tercera in 2003, the fans were ready for a fight. In the face of council plans to dissolve the club and merge it with local side Astur CF, over 10,000 took up club membership for the 2003-04 season. Buoyed by the support, Oviedo won the league convincingly, only to lose the promotion play-off with Atlético Arteixo. The following year they went one better and returned to Segunda B.

Just two years later, Oviedo were back in Tercera, this time for mismanagement on the pitch rather than in the boardroom. But again they proved too strong for the fourth tier. In 2008-09, they defeated Real Mallorca B in the promotion play-off and returned to Segunda B.

Alas, that is where the story ends for now – and possibly for ever. There has been no great redemption or glorious recovery. In fact, the economic crisis in Spain has exacerbated what was already a difficult situation. In its present state, and division, the club simply cannot support itself. 

Of course, plenty of teams have risen and fallen over the years. But Real Oviedo have given so much to Spanish football, from legends like Isidro Lángara and Herrerita to current Premier League stars Michu, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla. Even the celebrated playing style of the national team has its roots in Fred Pentland’s Oviedo tactics.

Then, lest we forget, there are the fans, who have consistently backed their club in its times of need. Oviedo still has more than 10,000 season ticket holders. No team in Segunda B attracts bigger crowds. Over 27,000 turned up for the fourth-tier play-off against Real Mallorca in 2009. Their stadium, the 30,500-capacity Nuevo Carlos Tartiere, is the biggest in Asturias, the football-obsessed region of north-west Spain where the club is based. It is bigger than eight of the grounds in La Liga.

Real Oviedo are not a club that will go quietly. Nor should they. But they need your help all the same. If you can afford to buy some shares, please do. You won’t make any money, but you might save a great football club.

If you’re interested in purchasing shares in Real Oviedo, visit http://www.realoviedo.es/yosoyelrealoviedo/ingles/index.html

Ramble para todos: Seedorf, Newell’s and derbies

3 November 2012

By Joel RichardsRupert Fryer

What’s Ronaldinho doing these days? - Ross Ferguson

Playing very well for Atletico MG, who are unlikely title contenders as the Brazilian season races towards its climax. He rocked up in Belo Horizonte after cancelling his contract with Flamengo, signing a deal until the end of the year, and has been fantastic operating more centrally in a role akin to that of a traditional 10. With ex-Manchester City and Everton striker Jo having rediscovered his form after a disappointing few years providing an outlet, and probably the league’s player of the season in fleet-footed trickster Bernard buzzing around him, Ronaldinho can justifiably claim to have contributed as much as anyone else this season. I think Atletico MG will eventually fall short of a first national title in over 40 years, but a second-placed finish and Copa Libertadores qualification will have been a hugely successful campaign for the Rooster. RF.

Will Newell’s go the season unbeaten and clinch the Inicial? Will this be the year we lose another ‘big gun’ as San Lorenzo and/or Independiente go down to the dreaded B? - Mark Moorhead

It would be a hell of an achievement if Newell’s were to go unbeaten this season, not least because there have been very few undefeated champions in Argentina. Boca Juniors did so for the Apertura 2011 but were the first side to do so since they themselves won the title in 1998. It would also be an achievement as Newell’s priorities this season were to avoid relegation, but have found themselves top of the table playing great football. Right now there is no reason to see them slipping up. As for the possible relegation of another grande, there is every possibility it will happen. Not only are two of the country’s biggest clubs in the dogfight, but other teams around them have fewer seasons in top flight meaning any win for them boosts their points average more than it does for San Lorenzo or Independiente. Survival for at least one of them will no doubt go down to the wire. JR.

Would you like the spray they use on the grass when there is a free-kick in South America to be brought to European football? - Cathal Breathnach

I would. And FIFA are all for it, too. They were very impressed with the product during the Copa America and, in May of this year, agreed ‘that the use of such spray should be allowed and it should be up to each member association to decide whether to implement the use of the spray.’ Among the positives highlighted in their findings were that it ‘avoids confrontations between players and officials at set-pieces’ and that due to its low market price, it may be acquired at all levels of the professional and amateur game. So if it annoys you as much as it does me on a Sunday morning, then get on to your local Sunday League committee. RF.

Will there be a mass exit of players post Brazil World Cup? Or will the new money keep them there? - George Woodiwiss

The success of the Brazilian league in keeping top names in Brazil, or attracting them to the country, is already down to the sponsors and is something which ought to be built on by the World Cup. While Neymar may leave before, the talk has always been to keep him at Santos until the tournament. Yet to do so, the club pays just 10% of his wages. Several players in the league have similar deals, and the enormous market in Brazil should be consolidated by hosting the World Cup so it’s unlikely the sponsors will suddenly pull out, inevitably forcing an exodus. Whether there is the same buzz about the country after the competition will be a different matter of course. JR.

Clarence Seedorf’s goal scoring record is pretty good for Botafogo. What’s contributed to that? - Matt Fitchett

Playing a little further forward. There’s much more space to be found on Brazilian pitches than those of Serie A and so, while he’s still an absolute specimen, his ageing legs have been put to more use a little higher up the pitch. The move hasn’t been a complete success, with Botafogo likely to miss out on a Copa Libertadores place and an initial spike in attendances having significantly dropped, but he’s certainly added to the profile of the league and his teammates have spoken extensively about how valuable his experience has been. RF.

Is the Sudamericana looked down upon like the Europa League is in Europe? - Paul Hazell

The Sudamericana is certainly viewed as the secondary competition on the continent after the Libertadores, in much the same way the Europa League is after the Champions League. It hasn’t been helped by various changes in format since its creation in the early 1990s and by inviting big teams from across the continent to compete to boost interest and television figures. But at the same time it is not played side by side with the Libertadores, so takes centre stage and is taken seriously by those competing. Qualification is similiar to the Libertadores so has the top clubs from each participating country. And in the same way that Athletic Bilbao or Falcao’s Atletico Madrid grabbed the headlines last season in the Europa League, so too has the competition been important springboard for several clubs in South America, the reigning champions Universidad de Chile a good example of that. JR.

In the summer MUFC supposedly bid for Neymar, another rumour is Barcelona have already paid a % of a fee for him. Truth? - Niall

There were reports that Manchester United had tabled a bid, but Santos quickly moved to dismiss the rumours, stating that they had not contacted by the club. Chelsea have come closest to tempting him away from Brazil, with Abarmovich and co. so sure the deal would go through that they even purchased him a ticket to London. However, he instead signed a new deal with Santos. He has said this week that he doesn’t intend to leave before World Cup 2014, but the Spanish press have reported that Barcelona’s accounts show €40 million set aside for an unnamed asset, of which €10 million has already been spent as a down payment. Again, Santos have denied the existence of a pre-agreement with Barca, but Catalonia appears his most likely destination at present. RF.

Which is a better derby in your opinion, Nacional vs Peñarol or River vs Boca? - Eoin McCall

The Argentine superclasico is more famous around the world, but both guarantee a fantastic, if not tense, atmosphere.They are similar in that both clasicos are so important because of social and class supporter base that made the clubs dominate the national football landscape. Nacional and Peñarol dominate Uruguay the same way that River and Boca dominate Argentina in terms of sheer number of supporters and titles.

Both matches occupy the media for weeks ahead of the game and both are fiercely competitive both on and off the pitch, and even the songs the hinchadas sing are the same so the two superclasicos sound similar. And the stages for the matches are seeped in history, but also point to the issue of personal preference. In Argentina they argue about which superclasico is better - the one at the Monumental or the one at the Bombonera. Both are amazing for the neutral. The football in both countries, however, has suffered enormously as players leave at an increasingly early age. JR.


Got a question about the Beautiful Game in South America? Pop it in the comments section below, or tweet using #Rambleparatodos.

Institutions and norms

31 October 2012

By Steven Maloney

Jason Roberts looked at wearing a “Kick Racism Out of Football” shirt and saw a moral dilemma. By every indication of how he has carried himself, he thought carefully about this moral choice, spoke carefully and forcefully about his decision, and decided to refuse to wear the shirt lest he be complicit in putting a happy face on unhappy times. Jason Roberts’ protest not only affords us the chance to reflect on his, and the choices of many of his colleagues who followed his decision, but also a question that may come home to ourselves. Should we as supporters wear Kick It Out shirts? Let me suggest that Jason Roberts not wearing the shirt and you wearing it, despite being opposite decisions about the same article of clothing, actually puts you on the same side as Jason Roberts.

One of the landmark pieces of twentieth century political economy is the great Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Here’s the gist of Hirschman’s argument: when the quality of organizations falter, people have two responses in communicating to leadership of faltering groups.  First, they can exit.  People can go somewhere or do something else. Second, people can choose voice. They can communicate their concerns while not resorting to abandoning the relevant faltering institutions altogether. The decision as to whether or not to communicate a message of reform through voice or to send a message of protest or to make an outright escape from faltering institutions through exit is complicated by the costs of exit and the hopes that firms will improve through exercising voice, what Hirschman calls loyalty.

When Jason Roberts, Rio Ferdinand, and other notable players across professional football in England declined to wear the t-shirt of the Kick It Out campaign this weekend, we saw players who sending a message to the institutions of football are not doing enough to combat racism. Their refusal to wear Kick it Out shirts during warm-ups represents a particular mix of exit, voice and loyalty that makes sense if you are a player who feels that the institutions you work for lack quality control in enforcing racial equality. The players who did not wear the shirt opted out of shirt day, so there actions constitute an exit of sorts. More so, the boycotting players used not wearing the shirts to voice opposition against the institutions that they work for who told them to wear the shirts more than they constitute an exit from Kick It Out as a campaign. Jason Roberts has not exited the football profession, but has used voice to hope that the institutions of football will take notice and do better.

When I read of Jason Roberts decision, my first reaction to his choice was, “man, I was just about to buy one of those t-shirts to wear to the pub for football matches.” I have been momentarily halted by the fact that I was moved by the arguments of Jason Roberts. But, having paused in the aftermath of the weekend of shirt protest, I think I’m still going to buy a Kick It Out shirt. I have decided that the fact that Mr. Roberts and Mr. Ferdinand have different institutional memberships in the game than I do is a morally relevant fact.  Whereas Jason Roberts wearing the shirt might communicate endorsement of the notion that UEFA or the FA cares about racism when they clearly do not, this is not true for my wearing the Kick It Out shirt. As a football writer and a football supporter, my voice directs not towards football management, but towards supporters and supporter culture.

Supporter culture is another key piece of the racism puzzle in football, and only a combination of grass-roots change in supporter culture and institutional change at the top in terms of rules and punishments will make the footballing world of tomorrow less racist.  Whereas institutions need communication about their performance through exit, voice, and loyalty signals, social group behaviour runs on normative scripts.

A normative script, according to Cristina Bicchieri’s The Grammar of Society is a series of instructions our brain runs thoughtlessly once we are in an environment in which we understand what types of behaviour are expected. You don’t think twice about how you behave with your closest friends but think awfully hard about how to behave amongst strangers. Why? You have normative scripts for being with your friends that you can activate and you have none for people you have just met.  Why do people not litter in some public parks but readily litter in airport bathrooms? Norms. For Bicchieri, a social norm is defined by two separate elements. A norm is a norm if and only if there is certain mode of behaviour that has value for everyone if everybody also behaves the same way (like not littering) and there is an expectation that if you activate that behaviour almost everyone else will too in the same situation.  Without the expectation that others will reciprocate, norms deteriorate because our expectations of reciprocity diminish. Bicchieri demonstrates that diminishing expectation of reciprocity explains the erosion of norms of littering in places that are already dirty, why some blocks have nicer front yards than other blocks in similar housing developments and even explains why masses of people might move out of a community at the same time. 

What our latest studies on human behaviour teach us is that a swift clean up of an area can break the spell of our diminished expectations of reciprocity. Which means then when the norm is invoked not to litter, we are once again likely to follow the norm.  According to an Italian study on the issue, even posting a sign by a garbage can reminding people to recycle made more people use a nearby garbage can rather than litter because it activated people’s normative expectations that they should throw their garbage away properly. 

The Kick It Out shirt in the stands, at the pub, on the bus, etc. can be used as part of a global fight back against the notion that the social norms of football supporters are not able to help combat racism. Rebuilding norms of racial civility alone will not do a lot by itself without authorities punishing the most egregious offenders. But authorities, also, will be able to accomplish little with stricter punishments if it is not accompanied by the development of a robust, vigorous set of norms built and defended by football’s supporter citizens.

The SPL is the enemy of learning

31 October 2012

By Nicol Hay

There’s a memetic infection spreading across football reporting, where column inches and click-through quotas are being filled with An Arbitrary Number of Things We Learned From One Game. This rather presumes that any one match is a macrocosm of the larger development of club or a season or a sport, rather than just a 90 minute slice of potentiality, where you could as easily see Denis Irwin be quietly brilliant for the 700th game in a row as witness Cristiano Ronaldo miss an open goal and conclude that he’s finished as a forward.

If we had always taken things learned from one game in isolation, we might have concluded that England will always win a World Cup Final; that Claude Makélélé can bang in 25-yard half-volleys whenever he takes a notion to; that Ronnie Rosenthal was incapable of tapping into an empty net; that David Seaman was completely incapable of stopping a long-range lob (Oh, wait… Uh, he was solid on those every other time, trust me).

The point is that trying to discern a larger pattern from a sample size as tiny as one game is folly – but the significant moments that change single football matches are so small that is next to impossible not to try anyway. The universally accepted truth of 2012’s All New, Defensively Competent Arsenal looked a solid observation for a couple of months until two leading European strikers in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Grant Holt poured cold water and hot goals all over it. Is the concrete battlement or the elderly sieve the real Arsenal? Is Steve Bould a genius? Is André Santos emphatically not a genius? We need a lot more time and evidence before we can do anything other than guess. Though I do think I’ve got a reasonably strong idea of the answer to the André Santos question.

One league that’s doing everything in its power to banish learning forever is the SPL – which, with more than a quarter of the league programme gone, is settling into an observable routine of utterly random happenstance. Motherwell can go from playing Champions League Qualifiers to losing 4-0 at home to Hibernian – who themselves looked in the first few weeks of the season to be set for another year of misplaced passes and employing apathetic ghosts instead of defenders. Instead, Hibs have managed to get their best player Leigh Griffiths to concentrate on leading from the front rather than whinging from offside and they’ve stormed up the table. Except when losing in Dingwall last week to newly promoted Ross County. Don’t worry though, other teams are making even less sense.

Dundee United for example, have also embraced the difference that one man can make by becoming a disorganised defensive shambles in the absence of Gary Mackay-Steven. Which would be understandable, except that Mackay-Steven is their pacey winger and creative font, rather than the strapping marshal of their backline. Inverness Caley Thistle seem to have their hearts set on ending the season with a goal difference of zero, but for and against totals in the triple digits. Kilmarnock have spent an afternoon sobbing and holding themselves as raw attacking fury of a classic Craigy Broon Aberdeen side helped themselves to a 3-1 victory in Ayrshire, but then welcomed Celtic home from their terrific-if-doomed performance in Barcelona with an utterly dominant 2-0 win at Parkhead.

In other words, don’t try and make sense of the SPL from watching any single game. Or, apparently, any 64 games and counting.

The upshot of all this is a league table that could be comfortably covered by a sheet of paper listing all of Mike Clattenburg’s friends in West London. Second-top and second-bottom are, at the time of writing, separated by only six points (by illustration, every other top-flight division in Europe sees a game of 11-18 points between those positions. Except Turkey, who are rocking a 8 point gap and decades-old appreciation of football insanity). Clubs who are seemingly locked in the doldrums and destined for a bottom-six amble towards the end of the season can find themselves in contention for Europe by putting together literally two decent results in a row. And if you want to try and predict who is going to get those decent results and from where, be my guest. Because the only thing I’ve learned from this season’s SPL is that you’ll be wrong.

The Wanyama dilemma

30 October 2012

By Vincent Forrester

Football managers like to remind journalists that they’re not in charge of ‘selling clubs’. A quick Google search for that term shows the like of Juventus, Athletic Bilbao, Spurs, Everton, Wolves, Bolton and, erm, Peterborough insisting as much. They do this because running a football club these days is as much a dick-swinging contest as it is a sporting endeavour. Of course, it’s bollocks (if you’ll pardon the pun). Every club – with the exceptions of Barcelona and Real Madrid, perhaps – is a selling club. There are different levels to the sales pyramid, but big clubs stay big because they attract the best players. Managers know this, chairmen knows this and fans know this.

That’s why I know Victor Wanyama will not be staying at my beloved Celtic much longer. The twinkle-toed, baby-faced bruiser at the heart of Celtic’s midfield is a class act destined for greater things. Powerful, composed and intelligent on and off the ball, he’s already been the subject of a failed £8 million bid from QPR and – having turned down the offer of an extended contract after yet another fine performance against Barcelona in the Champions League – has caught the eye of Man United, Arsenal and Spurs.

Unfortunately, the inevitability of his departure doesn’t make it more palatable. In fact, it’s turned me into a treacherous little bastard. While watching Celtic’s excellent, but ultimately fruitless, performance against Barca at Camp Nou last week, I caught myself thinking, “Victor, please! Stop shielding the ball from Xavi so effectively!” Sure, my main concern was getting a good result, but if we could do that and avoid flaunting our best players, that’d be swell.

But it doesn’t work like that. You need your best players to play well against superior opponents if you want to avoid getting pumped. Celtic nearly earned a point in Barcelona thanks in part to Wanyama’s impressive shift, which makes my attitude rather perverse. Still, it’s a position lots of fans will appreciate. When your club puts time, money and effort into scouting, signing and developing a player, it’s galling to see the finished article disappear into the sunset. A fat transfer fee goes some way towards offering compensation, but making money is a means to an end. You don’t need the cash if you’ve already got the players.

This isn’t a problem unique to Celtic fans, but it certainly indicates the club’s diminished significance in the global game. We’re used to being a big fish in a small pond, but the pond has all but dried up. As a child of the ‘90s – the decade which saw the creation of the SPL and the country’s first £10m-plus transfer – I was brought up on players like Henrik Larsson (praise be upon him), John Hartson and Chris Sutton, all of whom commanded wages similar to those they enjoyed, or would have enjoyed, in the Premier League. That, plus Champions League football and superstar status, ensured they weren’t picked off by fancy-pants clubs.

Those days are long gone. In the last 10 years, the Premier League has gone stratospheric, and no league has lost out more than the SPL. Celtic are by far the wealthiest club in the league, but the best wages they can offer – those of captain and talisman Scott Brown – are about £30,000 a week. A veritable fortune, certainly, but not much more than the average weekly Premier League salary, which stands at £22,500.

Resistance, then, is futile. At least Neil Lennon, unlike a lot of managers, is under no illusions. He knows where his club stands. “Every player has his price,” he said in August, when interest in Wanyama was made public. “Every club sells players if they get the right offer.” With that in mind, I hope the barrel-chested Kenyan continues to play his socks off. But it’s not about the money. It’s a question of pride. Celtic have accepted their position as a selling club because nothing can be done to change it (unless a gagillionaire oligarch buys the club and Alex Salmond secedes the East End of Glasgow to England). If the club can’t hold on to its best players forever, at least it can make other teams jealous they wore the jersey at all.


Which players have you been most devastated to leave your club? Join in the conversation in the comments section below.

Hero to M’Villain

26 October 2012

By Theo Benneworth

Yann M’Vila became known to Premier League fans this summer, as the Stade Rennais holding midfielder was targeted by various top-flight clubs. His supposed destination changed on an almost-daily basis: Arsenal, Everton, Spurs, Manchester City. Even Zenit Saint Petersburg wanted the Amiens-born youngster.

Just a few short months later, however, managers could be forgiven for avoiding the now-22 year-old like the plague. Yet while his decline may seem sudden, M’Vila’s fall from grace has not happened overnight.

After joining Rennes’ Academy in 2004, M’Vila was soon labelled as one to watch. He began promisingly, playing a key role in the team that won the French Under-18s league in 2007 and the prestigious French ‘FA Youth Cup’, the Coupe Gambardella, in 2008.

M’Vila then signed his first professional contract and, after spending a season in the reserves, manager Frédéric Antonetti handed him his first team debut in August 2009. Following an impressive rookie season, then-France manager Raymond Domenech selected him in his preliminary 30-man squad for the 2010 World Cup. Although omitted from the final group for France’s ill-fated South African adventure, M’Vila seemed to have the footballing world at his feet.

This positive trajectory continued into the 2010-11 season. In addition to helping Rennes to a sixth-place league finish (and eventual qualification for the Europa League), M’Vila made his senior international debut and immediately became a regular starter under new coach Laurent Blanc. Ominously for Rennes, some of Europe’s biggest clubs began sending scouts to Brittany to run the rule over the club’s star attraction. Crucially, the youngster seemed to have his impulsive behaviour- seen as his major weak point in his early years at Rennes- under control.

In summer 2011, however, the real trouble began. In August, following the France-Chile friendly in Montpellier, M’Vila and a friend suffered the ignominy of being robbed by a pair of ladies whom they’d met in a nightclub and spent the night with in a hotel. The following month he captained Rennes for the first time, but his on-field form began to dip noticeably.

Then, in April of this year, the player blotted his copybook once again. Following Rennes’ humiliating Coupe de France semi-final defeat against minnows Quevilly, he was involved in an altercation with angry supporters. Just weeks later, he was detained for 24 hours by police after having been accused of hitting a 17 year-old man.

A pattern was emerging. Until this point, though, M’Vila’s misdemeanours had taken place off the pitch, with his only on-field issue being a disconcerting slump in form. And so Laurent Blanc kept faith in him and off to Euro 2012 he went.

French fans hoping for a professional, pride-restoring showing from their side, following the humiliation of World Cup 2010, would once again be disappointed. And although Samir Nasri took the prize for the most unruly squad member in Poland and Ukraine, M’Vila (among others) gave the ‘Little Prince of Marseille’ a run for his money. Upon being substituted in the quarter final defeat to Spain, he bypassed his replacement (Olivier Giroud) and, worse, Blanc himself, before sitting down in a huff on the bench.

This indiscretion earned M’Vila a date with the French Football Association (FFF)’s disciplinary commission and, although he was let off with a warning about his future conduct, he was forced to apologise publicly having contributed to the already-grim relationship between the country and its national team.

The fact that M’Vila did not move to a bigger club in summer 2012 is due largely to his frequent and highly-publicised behavioural problems. And his personal annus horribilis has only worsened since the beginning of this season.

Having been dropped from the Rennes First XI by coach Antonetti, M’Vila is yet to feature for France since the arrival of Didier Deschamps at the helm of Les Bleus. Then, earlier this month, he hit a new low.

Under-21s coach Erick Mombaerts selected M’Vila for the crucial Euro 2013 qualifying play-off against Norway. This was the ideal occasion for the midfielder to use his big game experience and to prove his maturity and leadership. Everything seemed to be going well, as the young Frenchmen won the home game 1-0, thanks to a goal from Real Madrid defender Raphaël Varane. Mombaerts even praised the Rennes star for his attitude and performance.

Not for the first time, however, M’Vila got himself in trouble for his nocturnal activity between legs.

Twenty-four hours after the first leg, he and four U21 colleagues decided to take a taxi from the training camp in Le Havre to Paris (a round-trip of 250-odd miles) to attend a nightclub. Upon their return the next morning, the famous five were spoken to (but not punished) by the coaching staff. Some of the other squad members were unimpressed, especially as photos of the night’s events began appearing on Facebook.

The second leg was an unmitigated disaster. France collapsed to a 5-3 away loss (5-4 on aggregate), missing out on next summer’s tournament, and Mombaerts resigned in the aftermath. The trip to Paris was certainly not the sole reason for the defeat (which occurred three days afterwards), but it did not help.

For Yann M’Vila, this incident may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Having spurned a glorious chance for redemption, he has been criticised heavily from all directions including the media, the FFF and his club. Last Saturday, along with club mate and fellow party-goer Chris Mavinga, he was dropped from the first-team squad and forced to play for the reserves. Both have also been left out of the Rennes squad for this Friday night’s trip to Saint Etienne.

M’Vila was, until recently, a hot transfer market property. His on- and off-field antics leave him with a mountain to climb if he wants to get a dream move, however. All is not lost- he is only 22, and rumours still link him with a January move to Tottenham- but he’ll have to start by getting back in the Rennes first team.

Even that won’t be easy. Last weekend, in his absence, the Bretons put in arguably their best performance of the season in defeating Montpellier 2-1.

M’Vila had all the tools at his disposal to become a world-class midfield player, and he still has. But it seems something fundamental has to change with his attitude before he achieves what he is capable of.

Bon courage, Yann. You’re going to need it.

The ten ultras of Tirana

25 October 2012

By Iain Pearce

It happens every week. I’d made the effort to scour the fixture lists, get myself across or into another country and then read up and research on my teams of the week, how to get to the stadium and if I’m really lucky someone to go with. All this action on my part forever fools me into thinking that the rest of the planet, or at least the city I’ve ended up in, must have pitched their fever as high as I have.

This weekend I moved on to Albania. Seeing the big teams with their big time players is amazing, but there’s a heck of a lot to be said for going to the more outward posts too. Albania would fit into that category, but this weekend was also set to host the last ever match at the historic Qemal Strafa Stadium, the national stadium for over sixty-five years.

I arrived in Tirana and quickly came to understand that even the Albanians themselves don’t know anything about their football. Just finding out the kick off time had required me to wake up early on Saturday and buy a newspaper, even the few Albanian sport websites hadn’t been conclusive on the matter.

But there it was in black ink, KF Tirana versus FC Kastrioti, 14:00. I was there by half eleven because, like I say, I expected the whole world and I to be clamouring for entry.

They weren’t. The Qemal Strafa is one of those ancient yet charming grounds where there is a mechanic, two bars, a restaurant and even an oddly bustling chess club facing out from underneath the curved stands. The tiny ticket booth had been empty and things were just too quiet, something was up. A coffee later there was no change (though the mechanic had received a rather smart new Mercedes to service) and I searched out a poster for the match. Seems fine, two o’clock…on Sunday. Albania’s most prestigious daily newspaper also has no idea about its country’s football then.

Fortunately for me a short walk away is the Selman Stërmasi Stadium, where Tirana’s other teams play and better still Partizani Tirana were hosting an Albanian First Division clash with KS Kamza that afternoon. Partizani are KF Tirana’s sworn enemy- but with a typically idiosyncratic president and without two pennies to rub together the team are currently fighting away in the second tier.

The match alone was an enthralling spectacle, a sublime last-minute Kamza free kick ensuring a well deserved 2-2 draw in a seesaw encounter, but aside from the blokes kicking around a pig skin the occasion was chock-full of the elements that make the lower league stuff so endearing.

The ball boys had a kick about with the teams in the otherwise serious warm up, the grandfatherly physios came directly from a northern working men’s club and were unable to break into a jog, whilst the overweight Partizani president ran on and attempted to pull his players off the pitch after conceding an offside opener. Five minutes later a combination of fourth official and his own captain managed to calm him down, which succeeded only until the home side equalized and he again looked set to combust, this time from the glory of it all.

A bonus match then, but only a couple of hundred shared this thriller with me. The reason for the non-attendance became clear back in the city. It is very tempting to say that the main ends to which Albanians love football is the ability to gamble on it. The streets are lined with betting shops and betting bars, easily outnumbering restaurants or pubs, and they only having electronic casinos to compete for street space with.

Inside one I had the surreal experience of watching not just West Brom-Man City, but all on the same wall different TVs streaming live action from La Liga, the Bundesliga, an Albanian Superliga clash plus a live odds screen. That was all a little too much for my overworked brain.

Come Sunday lunchtime and I was repeating my pilgrimage to the Qemal Strafa and hoping for a game this time. The whole world still hadn’t shown up and when buying a ticket the brick-sized wad of them offered to me suggested I’d not be fighting for a seat, and with one purchased I headed back to my coffee shop.

Thirty minutes before kick off things finally awoke and a booming drum started to resound on the street outside the ground. The away Kastrioti ultras were here, all ten of them.

Some grounds just take a while to fill up, however this wasn’t one of them. The KF Tirana ultras barely outnumbered their visiting rivals and not too many others had bothered to pull themselves from the betting shops either. Sadly, the match itself did very little to show the stay-away punters the error of their ways, producing a turgid goal less draw to end the Qemal Strafa generation with barely a whimper.

Tirana is quickly modernising and without question needs its new national stadium (which, remarkably enough, will take on the outline of Albania from above) to continue this upward developmental trend, but they’re also going to need to find some enthusiasm from somewhere to have any chance of filling it. As for me, there were multiple games to be seen on Sunday afternoon, and I knew just the place to watch them all, simultaneously.

Three can be a crowd

24 October 2012

By Jake Farrell

Comparing talent from different eras is a perennial footballing problem. Pub debates rage time and again over whether the stately elegance of Bobby Charlton would survive amidst the break-neck speed of the modern game or if Cristiano Ronaldo would have been able to deal with the borderline assault permitted on artists like George Best in the years where refereeing “protection” for players was a far off dream. Perhaps though the scope of these arguments should be widened to include the people off the pitch as well as on it;  after all the nature of management has been fundamentally altered in an arguably similar way to that of playing.

Tactical and motivational geniuses they may have been, but how would Bill Nicholson or Sir Matt Busby have coped with social media codes of conduct, interminable questioning about whether their players would shake hands with one another or even just a Nietzsche copy-and-paste nutbag like Joey Barton? Unfortunately these are the kinds of trivial and taxing issues that managers face in the modern era, making it more of a democratic team game than a dictatorial fiefdom. Luckily for Changle Foreign Language School FC they have recognised this sea-change and responded accordingly; appointing not just one inept ‘keeno’ to manage the Grade 5 squad but three in the shape of Chris Dodd, Henry Cowen and myself.

Thankfully the prospect of any kind of Twitter mutiny has been dampened by the long standing code of conduct put in place by the Chinese government regarding social media - otherwise known as oppressive state censorship and a blanket ban. We’ve faced other issues though and being part of a managerial trio has spread the burden to our benefit. The three of us realise that we are battling against historical precedent – one of the only management teams of three people to inspire us crumbled recently as Richard Shaw, Lee Carsley and Steve Ogrizovich were relieved of their temporary responsibilities at Coventry City in favour of Mark Robins. This disheartening occurrence just served to show that, without focal point of authority around which a team can orbit, mob-management can be hard – and also that Richard Shaw is still persevering with an outrageous hair cut well into middle age.

It is a delicate balance managing together and your role can often shift – one day you might be Jose Mourinho and the next it might be best if you are Pat Rice for a bit. Helpfully, each of us bring different qualities to the table. Mine are mainly a love of Andres Iniesta and, like The Richard Shaw-Shank redemption as his friends probably don’t call him, a ludicrous hair cut that I should have grown out of.

My conspirators also have specific skill sets. As a defender in the York University six-a-side league Henry was feared both for his deceptively deft touch, which left numerous meat-heads red faced with embarrassment as he rounded them with a nonchalant drag back for the fifth time that game, and for his crafty use of the shirt pull, a skill he executed with a subtlety that would make Marco Matterazzi weep with joy. As an Ipswich Town fan he was also privileged enough to see a generation of legends play live on more than one occasion, meaning that like Moses bringing the Commandments down from the Mountain he can bring our team the Gospel of Defensive Solidity according to John McGreal and Mark Venus.

As for Chris, his upbringing on the mean streets of Hertfordshire instills our management style with a dash of much needed grit. In his youth, when he wasn’t collecting PiL vinyls, reading Burroughs or comparing the strength of high street hair spray brands, Chris claims to have boxed at a local gym – the monastic discipline and sporting dedication he learned there is much needed by our tearaways. On top of that he is capable of moments of maverick brilliance that will be a great example for our young charges -  at our Beijing training camp, during a ‘friendly’ match, he back-heel nutmegged a Geordie lad before slotting home from a tight angle, a feat which earned him widespread applause from the assembled players and a tackle that erred on the side of GBH from the Tyneside native ten minutes later.

Regardless of our respective talents we have all become the unwitting custodians to two genuinely surprising talents. As mentioned in my last post, two of our players have earned the nicknames Gazza and Xavi thanks to a natural ability that is unable to be tamed in the former and a studious level of technical skill in the latter.

In our recent training sessions they continued to highlight the chasm between themselves and their peers. Gazza, naturally, arrived late to the session babbling furiously and miming actions that suggested he had been kept late in music, but knowing him also could have meant that his free-form jazz quartet were having rehearsal difficulties. He took out his fury on his mate who had volunteered to go in goal for a shooting exercise, blasting the ball past him into the roof and corners of the net with a near photo-shop perfect body position for the next twenty minutes.

Xavi let his guarded persona slip a little as well, which was good to see. During a bit of keep ball practice he was revelling and in watching his team mates chase the groups neat passes, in contrast to previous weeks where he would breezily whip the ball away from the defenders before passing it on with the air of a man not fully present and instead pondering what would be in the canteen for dinner.

It’s clear that working together to make these two central to our team will be essential. Gazza will clearly benefit from Chris’ experience of life in a Home Counties boxing ring, Xavi from Henry’s innate understanding that the rules of football are there to be bent rather than followed every now and again and the rest of the lads – well, if they learn never to get a hair cut like mine then at least we will have achieved something.

This is Jens Lehmann’s tweet

23 October 2012

By Max Grieve

Somebody was pretending to be Jens Lehmann, and Jens Lehmann didn’t like it. After all, he was Jens Lehmann, and not some impostor! In a German rage rendered ever more chilling by the seeming calmness of its delivery, he stood upon the mountain, and sent out a warning to whoever happened to be passing by. ‘This is Jens Lehmann’s tweet,’ he announced. ‘Every other person who is pretending to act as Jens Lehmann has to stop doing so.’

Soon enough, he had found one of his imitators. ‘Every other person who is pretending to act as Jens Lehmann, the former professional football player, has to stop misleading his supporters,’ he whispered directly into the soul of those faceless men wearing masks of the retired goalkeeper. ‘These persons will be prosecuted unless they do not stop acting in the name of Jens Lehmann.’

Everything is still for a week or so. The Earth grinds slowly on its axis, and the occasional bird makes a sound. Out of respect, fear for his life and as a result of not being selected, Manuel Almunia does not play. The absolute silence is terrifying. Then, very suddenly, someone snaps a twig and Lehmann emerges from the woodland.

‘This is Jens Lehmann again,’ he declares, his goalkeeping gloves drenched in blood and splintered with fingernails. ‘The person who acts as being me will be prosecuted now.’ The next tweet comes a few months later, with the German proclaiming the weather in Berlin to be fine, and then there is no more.

Jens Lehmann is renowned for his allegedly questionable psychological constitution. He confused and delighted the masses with his bizarre in-game campaign against the hybridisation of football and dramatic theatre, and has long been an advocate of the ‘Make Ludicrous Red Cards Not War’ movement. He’s relieved himself behind advertising hoardings, thrown an opposing player’s boot on the roof of the net, and picked fights with every respected goalkeeper in the known universe, and Manuel Almunia. I wouldn’t want to stray into the murky seas of libel, but Jens Lehmann owns a helicopter, has two children, and may well be mental. But you knew that, of course.

It would be easy to believe that the player is only a fractured reflection of the man, and Lehmann’s decision to open up a Twitter account has served to dispel any notion that he has one side of himself reserved for the field, and the other for playing with his children and being a normal father. The relatively unthreatening profile picture that accompanies his tweets barely conceals the murderous glint in his eye. He doesn’t interact with his near 30,000 followers, and that’s almost exactly as you’d expect. He is a rogue; tweeting for the hell of it. One day Twitter will burn to retweets of ‘This is Jens Lehmann’s tweet. Say goodbye to your families.’

Unlike Michael Owen, whose semi-regular reports on racing steed and rivers in his garden are enough to turn the world grey, Lehmann’s sporadic updates on Bavarian weather leave the door open for a follow-up tweet that booms ‘And it will rain blood and fire tomorrow, for I control the elements.’ It’s not just what he writes, it’s the fact that he’s the one writing it.

Only the other day, as he was crushing the skull of a local goalkeeper, his wild strikes found the keyboard of his computer, and in a series of revealing tweets he wrote ’ ÖO@j jjtj’, ’ D&Fgedw’ and then a single ‘I’. It’s entirely feasible that one of his children was careless palming the keyboard, or his account was hacked and the resulting tweets were not the upshot of a head being slammed against a desk, but I like the first story better, and I suspect that most others would, too.

He’s German too, which helps us to create an entirely glorious image of who Jens Lehmann is, and what he means when he says things. His nationality makes his first foray into the Twitterverse all the more sinister. When he writes ‘I had to get that @lehmann_official guy out as he pretended being me. Regards, Jens’, he’s dictating the message to his manservant as smoke drips out of the end of his rifle, having just shot and killed the poor @lehmann_official, because he’s German, and we have already formed our opinions of him. A sentence like that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it had come from the mouth – well, the fingers – of an Englishman.

Lehmann has mastered Twitter, simply by virtue of being Jens Lehmann. If we can abandon the possibility that he’s misunderstood, and is actually a normal, upstanding member of society, then we can state without any doubt that we know exactly who Jens Lehmann is – that is to say, a veritable madman. When he writes ‘Competition makes the strong players better and lets the weak ones struggle’, he is simply making an observation as the Germans stormed towards defeat to Italy in the semifinals of Euro 2012, but his words are laced with a menacing undertone.

A statement made on a Euro 2012 show is criticised as being ‘an unworthy comment’, the 4-4 draw against Sweden is a lesson of ‘German miscommunication’. He describes offensive football as ‘wonderful’, but he’d probably use the same word when detailing a death by bludgeoning. His English lexicon isn’t expansive, but he is brutally efficient in getting his point across, true to the conventional image.

Two planets collide to create one of the best Twitter accounts there is: Jens Lehmann’s image, and Jens Lehmann’s mind. @jenslehmann probably doesn’t tell us a great deal more about the man than what we had already thought we knew, but when it comes down to it, that’s just what we want.

Bayesian officiating: A chance for improvement

23 October 2012

By Steven Maloney

Thomas Bayes’ biography is a strange one for a man who may have contributed more to the problem of precise knowledge than anyone before or since. No one is exactly sure when Bayes was born and there have been conflicting reports as to when he died. The theorem that bears his name was not even discovered until three years after his death. For all the mystery around Bayes’ life, perhaps no one has provided more to the logic of certainty. Bayes‘ Theorem radically alters how we come to think about the probability that something is true, and that general theory could be set to the task of making better football decisions.

According to Thomas Bayes’ Theorem,

p(A|X) =         p(X|A)*p(A)     
          p(X|A)*p(A) + p(X|~A)*p(~A)


If you can figure out what this means, and you can teach it to match officials all over the world, I submit to you, you will get better officiated football matches. Not only that, but the sum total cost of these revolutionary reforms would only include:

The cost of data collection on important match incidents
The cost of training referees in Bayesian thinking
The cost of (minimal) time in extra match preparation for officials

Cheaper than replay systems, and it requires no extra time out of football matches. It’s practically magic, but instead it’s just maths. 

Let’s say you want to know whether a collision in the box is a dive, a penalty, or just incidental contact. Thomas Bayes’ Theorem teaches us to understand the priors, the general population of dives, fouls, and nothings in the normal course of a football season. If you have an accurate accounting of how often these things happen prior to judging the incident you are witnessing, you can then weigh the evidence you have just seen (called posteriors) compared to these priors and make an informed decision as to whether the call you are inclined to make is correct or not.

Football leagues could make stats and video packages for officials similar to the packages teams make for upcoming opponents, but have the stats and video focus on giving officials better data regarding the priors. Those hands that get struck in the box on free kicks? How often are they foul hand balls? When Paul Scholes goes in on a tackle, how many times does he show his studs? How many times does Luis Suarez actually dive compared to embellishing actual fouls? I suggest that there exists a precise range of answers to these questions, and a concerted effort to lodge those answers in officials’ brains could dramatically improve officiating results. 

But how do past incidents effect what actually happen in any one particular moment? Shouldn’t the official call each incident as they see it on the field? These are logical objections, but the objections highlight a myth surrounding how calls get decided and not the reality. There is no such thing as “objective” decision-making. When officials look at a foul, they are calling on comparisons to memory and learned patterns to make their way through the decisions in a match. They do not objectively “see what happens,” but instead take in an image (often a partially vague image at that), store the image (because every relevant bit of data has changed in an instant), filter out irrelevant data (crowd noise, the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson called you fat last week, etc.), compare the data with previous decisions that they have been trained to distinguish, and deliver a judgment swiftly and effectively. This takes a lot of processing power, and we know that this process requires shortcuts to available information that affects our judgement about difficult interpretations. 

Not only do we know that referees already use references to the past to decide the now, we do the same. What else is a “stone cold penalty” but a penalty in which the incident has a near zero likelihood of being either incidental contact or a dive? When there are difficult calls, the co-commentator’s refrain is unfailingly “I’ve seen those given.” 

In other words, match officials, fans in the stands, players protesting on the field, and viewers at home all use priors in judging an officiating decision, they just use them loosely. We know that Luis Suarez dives a lot and Lionel Messi almost never dives. But these reputations, I would guess, lead to over-sampling for each. I bet that Lionel Messi gets a lot more close calls on fouls than Suarez, and I bet that you could literally step on Luis Suarez’s chest and not get a whistle for him. The question here is not whether Messi is “an honest player” and Suarez is a “known diver,” but instead a question of measuring the probability of each statement with more precise probability. What percentage of times does Luis Suarez dive? I don’t know; I haven’t counted. I’m guessing that the officials haven’t either. But I bet match officials carry the prior of getting conned in the box by Suarez in their memory much more vividly then that time he got his foot clipped on the touchline and play innocuously continued. 

One last point: We recognise the difference that an experienced official can make in an important game. This is because we recognize that they have a wider array of memories and experiences that they can draw upon when weighing priors against posteriors to make generally better decisions. Being a match official requires a lot of skills and abilities, but one of them is sorting out tough calls and getting them right with a high degree of accuracy and speed. In proposing that match officials drill on the priors relevant to their next match, I am not suggesting that they carry one more burden in their heads, but instead suggest replacing one of the mental processes that is done already in an approximate, experiential manner with one in which the experiences of all referees can be at least somewhat transmitted to any one given match official, and a non-standardised process can slowly become more routine, more precise, and even more automatic. Thus eliminating the creep of bias in the minds of officials that comes from the imprecise weights and measures of their limited experience and the reputations of he people on the pitch. 

If nothing else, Thomas Bayes’ Theorem teaches us that we needn’t be so holistic in assigning character traits to footballers based upon a few outstanding incidents. A Luis Suarez flop isn’t the only thing that Suarez does anymore than a Robert Huth chest-stamp is defining of his career as a defender. They both have performed millions of physical movements on the football pitch over their careers, and while not condoning either stepping on people’s chests or cheating in order to win penalties, we, as good Bayesian football supporters, can at least judge these acts in proportion to their frequency. While we might have to wait for the rationality revolution to reach the man with the whistle, we can all at least bring a little bit more into the stands and into the pub while we wait.

The great lost goals

22 October 2012

By Nicol Hay

As you, dear Rambler, are a well aware, Tuesday night’s game between Germany and Sweden was a brammer. The home team were four to the good and cruising before Zlatan Ibrahimović and chums performed a comeback so special they should have been wearing black leather and playing in front of the word SVERIGE in giant glowing letters.

The major story lines of the game have been picked apart continuously over the last week – the implication of a lack of character and leadership in Die Nationalelf; the tactical naivety of the once unquestionable Jogi Löw; the first time Germany have conceded four goals at home since England proved beyond a shadow of a doubt which team were going to have the better World Cup in 2002 (ahem) – as well as the remarkable emergence of Zlatan as an inspiring motivational speaker. Whereas the normal Ibra MO in the face of sporting adversity is to pout like a brittle Southern belle in a Tennesse Williams play, score a wonder-goal in a futile losing effort and storm off the pitch blaming everyone he sees for not being worthy of Zlatan, it would appear that Ibrahimović actually put in a real captain’s shift, rousing his troops at half-time, then leading by example on the field – adding so many strings to his bow in the process that the PSG striker now appears to be wielding a weaponised harp.

These are, of course, the important narratives to take from the game – the emotional and practical headlines that give the match its proper place in both contemporary and historical context. This unlikely comeback will be long remembered, but even now the quality of Germany’s strikes are a minor part of the discussion – if any part at all. The individual goals are far less important than the order, timing and sheer number of them scored.

This is a crying shame, as those goals are a quartet of patient, technical excellence, with the second of the four being one of the most devastating and cohesive team goals I’ve ever seen. I mean, just look at this thing. The way the Germans carefully work their way into position around the Sweden penalty box – the Nordic defenders seemingly well spaced and alert for any danger – then bang! A vicious change of tempo and Reus hurtles into the area, no discernible break in his stride as he executes successive one-twos with Kroos then Müller – with a deadly precision not seen since the Pythagorean geometry ninjas roamed Ancient Greece – before a deliciously weighted cutback allows Miroslav Klose to display, in order, the positional sense, tenacity and calmness that make him one of the great strikers of the modern age.

It is a goal that demands 3D holography be developed this instant, so that those 12 seconds of play might be put on permanent display in art galleries around the world. Instead, hardly anyone has mentioned it because an unmarked Rasmus Elm pounced on a poor defensive header in injury time. Context is everything, and when 4-0 becomes 4-4 in dramatic circumstances, even the greatest goals are reduced to window-dressing.

But it did get me thinking about all those other great goals that have been pushed out of history’s gaze by the wider events of the games that hosted them. Here is a laughably incomplete list of those forgotten gems, which you should definitely take time to add to in the comments section.

Hernan Crespo (AC Milan 3-3 Liverpool – Champions League Final 2005)
If we’re talking comebacks, we have to pay tribute to the most famous of all time (no, seriously, we have to. Otherwise Liverpool fans will write us letters). Memories of this game, particularly in the UK, tend to revolve around Steven Gerrard’s heroic running around, Jerzy Dudek’s unprecedented run of five consecutive minutes of competence during the penalty shootout, and the untimely demise of Harry Kewell’s chances of ever being taken seriously again. As with the Germany/Sweden match, it is enough to merely mention the total domination of Milan in the first 45 minutes to properly set the scene for Liverpool’s resurgence, without the need to go into the specifics of their display.

Take a moment though, to appreciate Milan’s third goal as an example of why so many people are desperate for Kaká to reclaim his injury-ravaged mojo. The speed of the turn, the vision to see Crespo peeling away from his marker, and the ability to play a 35-yard pass that dismisses Liverpool’s entire defence with a haughty wave of its metaphorical hand and lands perfectly in Crespo’s stride for him to execute a dinked finish as delicate as Donald Trump’s ego. Exquisite.

Zinedine Zidane (Italy 1-1 France – World Cup Final 2006)
While heroic, epochal comebacks are all well and good for shaping the historical significance of a match, you can’t beat a good instance of violent controversy. The disgraceful end to one of the most glorious careers in the history of the game is such an iconic moment that it takes some concentration to remember that Italy actually won a World Cup shortly after Zizou gave Materazzi that emphatic nuzzling. What’s more important to remember though, is that around 133 minutes before Zidane’s walk of shame, he nonchalantly Panenka’d home a penalty. On his last ever game of football. In a World Cup Final. Against a goalkeeper almost as legendary as Zidane himself. I think it’s safe to say that Zizou knew exactly how talented he was, and it’s that talent we should celebrate, far more than his equally prodigious temper.

Diego Maradona (Argentina 2-1 England – World Cup Quarter Final 1986)
Without clicking that link, you’re probably confident which goal I’m going to talk about here. Maradona’s second of that match in the Mexican heat is probably the most remembered forgotten goal of all time, as its wonder is an inevitable post-script to any mention of the divine extremity which knocked the first past an apoplectic Peter Shilton. But no, that marvellous run and that shameless fraud are symbiotically joined, capsuled forever as the perfect microcosm of el Diego – so goal number two is never really neglected.

What I want to celebrate here – what rarely rates a mention when the subject is brought up – is the otherworldly dribble that immediately precedes Maradona’s naughtiness. It is perfect Diego – the subtle shifts of weight that leave every England midfielder in the general vicinity lunging desperately at the space he occupied exactly one second earlier. The real magic though is the chipped pass to Jorge Valdano – it happens so quickly, so unexpectedly, that three England defenders turn their backs on Diego Maradona as they gawp at the flight of the ball.

Diego then drifts unfettered towards Shilton as the hapless Steve Hodge hooks the ball into the danger area, and the rest is well-trodden history.

That moment though, where Maradona manages to get three professional footballers to completely ignore the most dangerous player on the planet – that is the unrepeatable work of a transcendent genius. We may not be able to put Reus, Kaká, or even Zidane in exactly that category yet, but they definitely deserve to be talked about, and not lost to the bigger picture.

What are your favourite forgotten goals of all time? Pop them in the comments section below.

Macedonia the pragmatic

21 October 2012

By Iain Pearce

The World Cup qualifiers always serve as a wonderful reminder of those lesser footballing lights that you just don’t hear about in everyday life. San Marino had their place in the Wembley sun, and only eventually wilted away. I’ve not slumped to San Marino levels of uselessness, but I have come is to Skopje to see Macedonia take on their neighbours from Serbia.

The country is often still referred to as being a former Yugoslav republic, so a game with Serbia simply has to be massive, I mean that’s half the reason I came here. “Ah, the Serbians are okay, we are friends” shrugs the young woman selling me my ticket, “but I don’t want to talk about Greece”. Fair enough, though less good for my narrative.

As an unfancied team, most matches offer up the tantalizing prospect of a potential giant killing. The biggest scalp the Macedonians have claimed since they made their qualification bow prior to Euro 96 was another Balkans neighbour, Croatia in 2007. Other heralded triumphs have been mere draws, notably two of them away in England.

With this air of fabled optimism, around the recently redeveloped Philip II Arena (regular readers must be picking up on a theme by now) the mood is part jubilee street party, part vital World Cup qualifier. That it’s tipping down can only help the English analogy. Most fans are draped in large flags and plenty more besides are wearing red and yellow jesters hats or have face paint that doesn’t stand a chance given the conditions. For my part I’ve stumped up sixty pence for a twenty centimetre flag that I wave with all the pride I can muster.

Macedonia may be approaching its twentieth birthday, but Skopje retains a sense of a place breaking free from previous constraints. There are statues around the city to anybody who’s done so much as rescue a cat from a tree and there’s hardly a home supporter to be seen not showing off the fledgling nation’s vivid colours.

The Serbians are grayer, gruffer and stand out just by apparently not having received an invite to this particular event.

In the stadium and finally out of the rain, I’m able to take stock. The place never does quite fill up to its 33,460 capacity, but about 31,000 plucky folks do weather the storm to shake off inside. If England attracted a crowd of the same proportions, they’d need a stadium able to hold 800,000 people, and the view from the back would be horrendous.

The game gets underway and without the all important context you’d be hard pushed to know who the minnows are supposed to be. The home players consistently show off terrific close control, and on a handful of occasions get three-quarters of the way to opening up the Serbian defence. The visitors look more assured with their passing but with the glistening surface proving slippery for both teams they aren’t able to test the suspect looking handling of the keeper between the host’s posts.

The crowd is more like you’d expect a lower level international team to be. Disjointed, we are unable to find a song we all know the words to and resort instead to ole ole-ing and a few less than bombastic rounds of ‘Ma-kae-do-nea’. Twenty minutes in and the dreaded Mexican wave is already out. The Macedonians are not living up to the gritty underdog billing I had mentally given them.

The Serbians kick off the second half with seven men on the half way line ready to make the forward push. From the changing rooms they bring with them the highest of defensive lines, it looks every inch a win or bust strategy. At first it hints towards the positive as a couple of near chances are fashioned, but then appears the match’s crucial turning point.

The high line means that whenever the hosts retrieve the ball a break is on. One speculative ball over the top drifts past the defender and to the chest of Ferhan Hosani who is now in on goal. Not for long though as Nenad Tomović recovers, but only enough to tug back the striker, good enough for the referee to award a penalty and hand out a straight red. Agim Ibraimi cooly slots home from the spot and is mobbed by his team mates.

In the stands we are bouncing, but once the goal inertia settles we are soon back in our seats. There’s still half an hour to try to see out, but the atmosphere is not one of the grim worry and bottled up hysteria I’ve felt on the rare occasions my team’s been on the verge of something like this. With ten minutes to go the home side is still ahead but the home fans are beginning to head towards the exits. Maybe they’re so new to such success that it’s just not registering.

The final whistle sounds and the unimaginable triumph can be stamped into the record books, but the crowd remains oddly subdued. Outside the ground the usual scenes of celebratory honking and nutters hanging from speeding car windows are nowhere to be seen.

Upon asking a supporter about the lull he replies “We lost to Croatia last week, today we won but still we can’t qualify for the World Cup.” I can’t help but think that if we were all this pragmatic with our football fervour then the game would fade away into some sort of misery.

Macedonia may not be planning for their trip to Brazil, but the group table now suggests that they are at least better than Scotland and Wales.

The future’s bright, the future’s Fishlock

19 October 2012

By Kieran Theivam

At a ceremony held in Cardiff last week, Bristol Academy’s Jess Fishlock was named the The Wales FA Women’s Player of the Year.

This award capped a solid year for the 25-year-old midfield player, who has been instrumental for both club and country since her return to England following a stint with AZ in Holland.

Fishlock, who some might say was unfortunate to miss out on a spot in Hope Powell’s Olympic squad, didn’t let the disappointment overshadow her performances for Bristol Academy or Wales, with her club finishing a very respectable fourth in the Women’s Super League, and Wales narrowly missing out on a play-off spot for next year’s European Championships.

You could say that Fishlock is the female equivalent of Gareth Bale in terms of her influence on her side, her ability and her knack of chipping in with her fair share of goals (you won’t see her caught up in a diving row, though).

Speak to the Welsh wizard however, and what you are presented with is a modest, humble and driven individual who is quick to praise those around her.

“We are a real close group in the Wales setup,” she says.

“We are very honest and have a lot of respect for each-other as individuals and footballers. I love camp because of the girls.

“Obviously it’s great to hear people say good things about the way you play, that goes without saying. I wouldn’t say it motivates me as such; I’m a big kid at heart. I just love playing football.”

That honesty that the Bristol midfielder talks of can sometimes be misconstrued as her being controversial, but there is a passion in Fishlock that most clubs would pay huge fees to have.

It’s also this honesty that allowed Fishlock to open up about her Olympic omission, something she remained tight lipped over at the time.

“The Team GB situation was tough, there is no denying that,” she admits

“It is still tough for me even now - I don’t think that will ever change. Not just for me personally, but for my Welsh teammates also. With two games being played in the Millennium Stadium, it was an added blow.

“But it wasn’t meant to be, and that was accepted, we got on with it and supported Team GB.”
Don’t for one minute think that this has affected her performances.

She currently captains a young and hungry Welsh team, has a huge influence on her club, and has also taken on a role on the other side of the touch line with Premier League side, Cardiff City Ladies.

“I’m really enjoying coaching and its what I want to do after I finish playing. Working with manager Jamie Sherwood is great, it’s a lot of fun and I’m learning loads. Working with the girls is the best bit though; they really are a good bunch and make me really enjoy it. They’re all so eager to learn and play. I thought I’d struggle at first with the commitment, due to still playing but, that’s never an issue.”

Many could learn from Fishlock’s dedication to her game, and as she approaches the best years of her career, expect big things from the Welsh wonder.

AFC face criticism over racist comment

19 October 2012

By Martyn Thomas

As the eyes of the footballing world were trained on the appalling scenes that followed England’s Under-21 victory over Serbia last Tuesday, the UAE national team were making their own defiant stand against racism some 5,000km further east in Dubai.

Ahead of their friendly against Gulf rivals Bahrain, the UAE players paused for the pre-game anthems holding up a banner which read: “To those who called us Sand Monkeys, we are Zayed’s Lions.”

The message was directed at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), who four days previously had mistranslated the team’s nickname – Al Abyad or The Whites – as “Sand Monkeys” in an article published on its website.

The incident had briefly threatened relations between Asian football’s governing body and the UAE Football Association (UAE FA) and the 11 men in white were not alone in their indignation.

Dotted around the Zabeel Stadium were similar posters, one asserting “AFC remember that UAE has been insulted,” while the strongest read simply: “AFC shame on you.”

The chain of events was started last Friday afternoon when an article on the UAE’s chances in the upcoming 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers was published on the AFC website.

In it the Whites were referred to wrongly and quite hurtfully using the derogatory term after a member of the AFC’s website’s editorial staff consulted the UAE national team’s Wikipedia page, which had been sabotaged.

By Saturday night the article and the error it contained had begun to circulate on Twitter, and as temperatures began to rise, on Sunday morning, the UAE FA released a statement demanding an apology.

The plea, issued by secretary general HE Yousuf Abdulla, accused the AFC of “disrespect” while hinting at the tensions and divisions which exist within Asian football as it described an “unfortunate affair which reveals the racist acts of some of the AFC officials from the eastern part of the continent towards the countries from the western region.”

Abdulla also revealed the UAE FA were seeking legal advice, suggesting that could lead to a withdrawal from future AFC competitions.

The incident had clearly caused grave offence to Emirati football figures who had every right to question why a term used to insult Arabs around the world had not only appeared in an official article, but remained unchanged for nearly two days.

Remarkably though in the face of such criticism, the AFC chose to say nothing.

The piece had been amended by the time the UAE FA’s plea had been made public – nearly 48 hours since the publication of the original article, and a day after the Wikipedia page had also been updated – but that was it.

As if they were hoping the whole thing would just blow over, Asia’s governing body seemed to think that rectifying their mistake would suffice.
However, while the original misdemeanour was simple – if insensitive – human error their response, or lack of it, only served to fan the flames of the furore.

Indeed when I contacted the AFC’s media department in order to get a comment on the UAE FA’s statement, I was told it “didn’t sound like something” that would be printed by the AFC.

Having told the spokesman that I had seen the offending article with my own eyes, I was hastily told the confederation were still “verifying facts”. He then stopped answering my calls.

By the next morning, though, the AFC had deemed the incident worthy of comment and confirming the mistranslation had appeared due to an employee blindly copying from Wikipedia, apologised profusely for any hurt caused, while describing the UAE FA as “one of the AFC’s valued Member Associations”.

Whether the AFC’s apology had anything to do with the fact the incident had been picked up by several international news agencies is unclear, but the damage had been done.

What is most worrying is not that the original mistake was made – although you would hope most people would at least question the use of a racist term as a nickname – but the sluggish response of the AFC.

Not only did it take them longer than Wikipedia to even notice the mistranslation, once it was pointed out to them they appeared reticent to the whole debate.

For their part the UAE FA appear happy to accept the apology and move on from the incident. That is something they were able to do emphatically on Tuesday night as they hammered Peter Taylor’s Bahrain 6-2.

Speaking afterwards, coach Mahdi Ali revealed he hoped a line could be drawn under the incident.

“We don’t want to exaggerate what happened,” said Mahdi. “There was a mistake, the AFC apologised, we wanted to show we weren’t happy about it.

“The AFC have rectified this and announced an apology, we have to close this chapter.”

It was a predictably sensible response from a man who is helping to put a smile back on the face of UAE football. Just a shame it took so long for others to get a similar sense of perspective.

In real life, they actually kick the ball

17 October 2012

By Steven Maloney

As football video games become more realistic, and increasingly popular, it only stands to reason that the interaction between the football fan with video games affects the art of football appreciation. Football Manager teaches us a deeper appreciation of the trade-offs managers confront in real-life situations. FIFA 13 helps us see passing lanes, appreciate the ability of a player to hold up a breaking player so that his teammates can reform their shape, and learn the subtle art of passing around the box. But the world of football video games is an imaginary world, and this imaginary world provides distortions as well as its lessons. In video games, easily discoverable wonderkids are everywhere. And our real life teams don’t seem to realise that the difference between a good low cross and a good lofted high ball is simply a matter of tapping a button two extra times. In brief, virtual football can affect our perception of real football. And, taking this analysis one step further, what we envision when someone talks about “real football” is actually our own virtualisation of real football that we keep stored away inside our minds. 

Broadly, football appreciation is an art predicated on perception, and human perception itself is a complicated series of information filters and memory storage.  For example, our understanding of colour derives from a complex interaction of light waves reaching the eye and the translation of those signals into color value by the brain. Our experience of moments, even real life football moments, are generated as much by what our mental systems of attention are processing and storing in memory as the event itself.  When someone says something like, “I’ll never forget the Liverpool comeback against AC Milan in the Champions League Final,” they mean they’ll never forget the parts that they (a) noticed and (b) bothered to remember in the first place. They obviously don’t remember everything. How many seconds total did Jerzey Dudek hold the ball the entire match? What colour shirts were the people sitting behind the goal during penalties wearing? How far was the air hole from the logo on the official match ball? You saw all of these things with your eyes. But you don’t remember them. And you don’t remember them because you deemed such facts, for lack of a simpler term, uninteresting. In other words, you have not remembered the match itself in some objective way, but a virtual representation of the match that you keep with you. 

In real football, when the stadium announcer calls out, “todays match will be officiated by [Insert Name]” and groans chorus throughout the park, this is not because the fans can predict the future, but because they have a virtual version of that official based upon their memories, and biased ones at that. Rather than filing away memories of all the volumes of prudent advantage calls, reasonable yellow cards, and calm words that smoothed over tensions, our virtual version of the match official is comprised almost solely of all of his or her absolute worst moments and nothing else.

Even actual football players rely on virtual-ness to succeed in a real game. David Beckham once said “For me, it’s about creative visualisation,” and got torn to shreds as being some sort of gullible LA new age hippie weirdo. But Wayne Rooney has said something similar about the phenomenon of visualisation in terms of being able to see a few passes ahead in a move. Neuroscientists have uncovered mirror neurons that allow our brains to store patterns of muscle memory by visualizing a behaviour even if we have not performed the act ourselves. Our imagination interacts with the real world, and they have a complicated relationship.

The above examples teach us that our interaction with real football depends heavily on what we pay attention to, what we decide is important enough to remember, and that the very reality of what witness on the pitch is actually in part the mental projections of players and managers – a cacophony of “creative visualisations” of which most fail to come to be but some actually do. There appears to be a tangible way in which the magnificent Rooney bicycle kick is, by virtue of him “seeing it” in his mind before he does it, a dream come true. 

For the football appreciator, the experience of video football games can change your appreciation of patterns, values and expectations that you may have previously undervalued or even failed to notice. In complementing the art of real football appreciation, the experience of video football games can call your attention to things you might not have noticed before. For example, one of my all time favourite FM players is Tobias Weis of Hoffenheim. On my computer’s hard disk, FMTobiasWeis is diligent and consistent. He stays wide, crosses well, and gives a consistent performance. I have no idea if actual Tobias Weis really plays like FMTobiasWeis. But when I hear fans in the real game clamour for a youngster to replace the consistent old guard guy because the youngster shows flashes of brilliance, I think of FMTobiasWeis. In FM-land, I appreciate what a consistently above average, non-spectacular rock he is.  Consequently, I see the real world value of that type of player in a way I would not have contemplated pre-FM.

Here’s where it gets complicated. I don’t have any answers for what to do with the fact that when you say “Andreas Beck” I think of him as a right back for TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, a right back for my FM team and a platoon right back on my FIFA career mode. I have no idea how well I square the differences of these three Andreas Becks in my mind. How much distinction there is between the one and the other, whether the separation between the three is total based on my intellectual understanding of their obvious differences or is leaky in ways I cannot begin to understand. I have no idea if FMAndreasBeck might not, in fact, be a better way for me to know what type of a footballer Andreas Beck is in real life than watching him, because it seems to me entirely possible that the people who make FM have a far better understanding of what to look for in understanding Andreas Beck than I do. 

Video games add a layer of ambiguity to our perception of football in the real world. But some of that ambiguity was already there. The ambiguity of perception already exists and it is the intelligent playing with this ambiguity that makes reading, writing, talking, about football the mentally interesting activity that it is for so many. The art of football appreciation is an art because of the inherently illusory nature of perceiving things—even things that are real.

Savouring the taste of minnows

16 October 2012

By Nicol Hay

Brace yourself for this, but something upset some football fans last week. The source of the gnashed teeth and bitter wails and accidental calls to the Sharwood’s Noodles customer advice line as angry fans mashed their telephones trying to get through to Talksport to vent their impotent fury was the fact that England had to play a team that aren’t as good as they are. Some of these righteously furious supporters were so annoyed at being forced to sit through a pleasant evening watching their heroes cruise to a 5-0 victory in front of a capacity crowd that they began to bellow the familiar refrain that surfaces every couple of years during the qualifying cycles – ‘We shouldn’t have to waste our time with these games against the minnows’.

The arguments are as well rehearsed as a Chelsea player’s witness statement, and only slightly less contrived: the games are a farce, the results a foregone conclusion; the top footballers play too many games; there’s nothing to be gained for the higher ranked team. Some might put forth about Theo Walcott being injured in a challenge that was amateurish in every respect – as if there is any moral dimension or import that can be laid in the situations that can lead to a footballer getting hurt, when he could just as easily mischief himself with a mishandled jar of mayonnaise or poor choice of boiled egg preparation as by a postman in goalie gloves.

To all these complaints I say tish. Tish and fipsy. If you think any of these arguments are valid, then you’ve been fooled into buying the myth that international football is about elite sporting competition, when it plainly is not.

If international play were about putting out the best possible teams, then there would be a more effective way for grouping talent than relying on accidents of birth or mining family trees for a grandparent who once visited a country long enough to breath in half a lungful of the local air while thinking ‘Maybe one day my progeny will be mediocre enough at sport to have to consider representing this place on the national stage.’* Those teams might, in fact, be built by paying fees for the players’ registrations, then offering competitive salaries to tempt the best ones to join together under whichever banner could afford them. That might be crazy enough to work.

No, international football is about something more than watching the best players competing against each other – if there wasn’t, the glitzier club competitions would have destroyed the World Cup years ago. Instead, we embrace international competition as a way of expressing pride and a sense of belonging amongst our cultural peers. It brings disparate peoples together; it educates and informs, it makes us a larger global community while simultaneously reaffirming our confidence in ourselves and our own identities. It does all these things that may well sound like hollow brochure copy written by one of FIFA’s hologrammatic marketeers, but are nonetheless true.

If you are from San Marino or Andorra, what else can propel you into international headlines more effectively than your football team? What else can provide you with a sense of legitimacy as a nation like hearing your anthem and seeing your men line up as equals alongside the great countries of Europe? You know that brief frisson of joy and excitement you get when imagine what it would be like if England could win the World Cup? That’s how a Sanmarinese feels when they think about winning a game. Any game. Against anyone. To deny the minnows these moments of national validation because you feel they’re not important enough is not only arrogant and insulting, it is contrary to the spirit that made football the global game in the first place.

*By which I mean Scotland, I’m talking about Scotland, all right? The wounds are still fresh – two Fletchers to the good and we still lost to tiny nation with half our population. I may or may not be arguing to keep San Marino in the qualifying pools in a desperate attempt to draw attention away from any potential and justified campaign to have Scotland thrown out. Gah.

Poland look to upset England after post-Euro malaise

16 October 2012

By Michał Zachodny

Jan Tomaszewski and his remarkable performance at Wembley in 1973 has been recalled once again. Gary Lineker and his hat-trick from 1986 World Cup match has made it to the press as well. Inevitable sign that Poland are once again playing England, a rival that happens to be complex for hosts of tonight’s encounter.

One win in seventeen, just over 39 years ago, and one draw in the last seven games – no wonder the memories of that dramatic performance at Wembley is on the lips again, the only real upset Poland have ever inflicted upon England. Not even a few hours had passed since the group stage draw was made for this campaign before Wojciech Szczęsny had to answer questions about whether he can resemble Tomaszewski’s heroics when the chance will come. “Maybe I will even grow my hair like he had back in 1973” – was the answer of Arsenal’s cheeky keeper.

He will not have a chance for now, injury cutting him short of it. Szczęsny is also not the only one to be made watching as Poles take on Rooney, Gerrard and Hart – Jakub Błaszczykowski has been the main topic of latest discussions following his unlucky, awkward step that put him on the sidelines for the next six weeks.

“(…) you know it will be a big game in a new stadium and with the belief they have got in Polish football at the moment, it will be exciting” – said Joe Hart ahead of England’s trip to Warsaw. It shows that City’s stopper hasn’t got a clue about football in his rival’s country. Belief and trust is not something that Poland can expect – top sides have crashed out of Europe, the national team has lost to Estonia, while fans are disappointed at the treatment received at the hands of authorities, both in the federation and clubs. Euro 2012 was expected to be a kick-start for Poland on the road up, but mistakes and shortcomings were too much for fans’ raw faith.

The captain is gone – should all the hope? Hard to disagree with the statement, especially when stats rear their head – it was Borussia Dortmund’s popular “Kuba” who scored eight goals in his last sixteen games on the international stage. The last two were penalties against Montenegro and Moldova, before that it was that great strike against Russia.

But Błaszczykowski suffered something of a fall out with part of the fans. Coming straight out of the showers following the Euro 2012 exit, he went on a rant directed at PZPN which one of main points was the lack of free tickets for his and others families. “I was unable to rest properly before the game, I was negotiating with authorities [about] the numbers [of tickets] we will get” – he moaned.

Mistimed and unpopular – such was the reception of his claims, and none of the goals has helped to repair the once exemplary image of the national team captain. Whether he should retain the armband was a part of the post-Euro debate, the answer was expected to be one of Waldemar Fornalik’s first decisions in the Poland job. He decided to stick with the man who is also the brightest and most gifted in the team – though the difference in their meaning of responsibility is quite easily seen.

Fornalik – a man not afraid to hand out an unexpected chance to an unproven debutant from domestic league – will rather relish the chance this injury is giving him. Paweł Wszołek from Polonia Warsaw, after just forty games and six of those in the Ekstraklasa, will be put on the right wing following a promising 45-minute-long run out against South Africa last Friday. The 20-year-old midfielder showed good skills, creating several chances and putting a statement of a difference between himself and Błaszczykowski – the one in eagerness of playing for his teammates, not for himself.

The lack of Kuba may be crucial for others’ confidence too. Ludovic Obraniak was criticized by his captain following a reckless red card in Podgorica, but – again – Błaszczykowski was the only one having a go at one of his teammates. Even the manager remained a bit distant to the case as the Polish media took the riff as a sign of distress and problems in the squad.

Łukasz Piszczek, Kuba’s partner on Borussia Dortmund’s right side, is another expected to flourish and prove that the barrier between club and country level is non-existent. So rarely the energetic full-back was given the space by his colleague that Piszczek was unable to move into right channels and do what he does best – create chances for Robert Lewandowski.

And it all comes down to Borussia’s striker. His second face-to-face encounter with Joe Hart in just two weeks, his rumored transfer to Manchester United last or next summer, his recent top form at club level. He had the chance to win it for Dortmund at Eithad, he must not make the same mistake when the opportunity comes on Tuesday – it may be the only one.

The only belief, however, does not rest on Lewandowski’s shoulders alone. As much as Waldemar Fornalik’s coaching credentials were criticised upon his appointment, now his managerial past of constant challenges means his experience of playing short of full-strength may come in useful.

Putting men behind the ball, a well organised defence and central midfielders – Eugen Polanski, who may be back in time following a break for solving personal problems and Grzegorz Krychowiak, remember the name, one of leading footballers in this season’s Ligue 1 – closing spaces and frustrating opponents with hard but fair tackling. Despite of what is said and written about Poland’s ability in going forward and quality individuals Fornalik has at his disposal, the most crucial performances will go to those at the back, not up front.

Przemysław Tytoń is expected to start, while Fornalik will choose from Perquis and Glik as to who will partner Wasilewski at the centre of the back four with Legia’s Jakub Wawrzyniak on the left side. Some of the players were quite buoyant, saying that beating England is not out of their reach, probably after seeing how unimpressive they were at Euro 2012 and against San Marino.

A draw, however, will be still an achievement that will warm fans’ hearts and give hope for the rest of the campaign, a reality – with a hint of optimism even – that may give much needed faith to a fragile squad an image of which has too many cracks upon closer look. Referring to Wembley 1973 will be even more popular in the hours before the game but Waldemar Fornalik will be determined not to leave all the chances to his goalkeeper’s gloves. Responsibility must be shared, each man must play his role – it kind of shows the issues in Poland’s domestic game that they may need an injury to their captain for such unification to happen.

The Gazza and Xavi of China

14 October 2012

By Jake Farrell

For managers the world over getting the best out of your top players can make or break a reputation, and at a professional level in China that challenge is even more pronounced as the relatively low level of native talent means that a large emphasis is placed on the form of the five foreign imports allowed in each squad by league regulations.

Coaxing out the considerable gifts of foreign mercenaries can be the difference between a good season and the sack. The disparity in talent and experience between players like Didier Drogba and the majority of his opponents should theoretically spell success for Shanghai Shenua, but the formula works in reverse as well – when the gap in skill between teammates is just as distinct the cohesion vital to any good team can be elusive.

After three weeks as a management team in charge of Changle Foreign Language schools Grade Five squad it seems that Chris, Henry and I could face the same problems that dog Shenua coach Sergio Batista. Our squad is largely comprised of those who toil admirably but lack that natural technique to elevate their performance beyond the everyday – the Ricardo Scimecas of this world, if you will.

Luckily for us there is also some real promise in the ranks, largely in the shape of two players. The differential is troubling though, and melding our Didier Drogbas with our Ricky Scimecas could define the team.

Our first standout prospect has affectionately been nicknamed Gazza, due to his mercurial talents and the fact that his actual name is made up of a succession of tonal sounds not easily shouted by white boys from Hertfordshire. Gazza clearly sleeps and eats football, but he also eats an unnerving amount of the non-descript-meat burgers served in the school canteen, at least one of which is invariably clutched in his fist immediately before or after training.

This devil-may-care attitude toward conditioning is certainly reminiscent of the Geordie Clown Prince but so is his on the pitch prowess. Whilst his less gifted team mates struggle and rush around in crowds our Gazza flits into spaces, nonchalantly runs into channels and displays twice the level of technique present in his peers with seemingly half the effort. During a simple shooting drill last week, as his cohorts were toe poking the ball onto the running track, PG took great delight in burying the ball past me time and again as I stood helplessly in goal.

We suspect that Changle’s Paul Gascoigne may come from footballing, or at least wealthy, stock too, because while many of the other kids play in flimsy, studded plimsolls Gazza rocked up to our second session in ice-white Nike Mercurial Vapors with a gaudy lime green flash down the side. Luckily for him he has the talent to back these questionable boots up. As a man who has previously worn red adidas Predators and, rightly, received pelters when the opposition realised that the quality of footwear and player didn’t correlate, I can report that it takes a brave man to wear such gear. Gazza is such a man. Well, he’s a boy, but you get the idea.

One standout talent is not enough though and if the course of footballing history has proven one thing it is that when brilliance dovetails with other brilliance it produces results to savour: Shearer and Sutton, Petit and Viera and Ricardo Fuller and Mama Sidibe are just a few notable examples of that beautiful phenomenon. And luckily for Gazza he is not alone.

The second, and perhaps equally as vital, rough diamond in our squad is the perfect complimenting force to Gazza’s dizzy hedonism. He might not be quite as giddily blessed with regards to technique but he makes up for any comparative small deficiencies with genuinely heartening astuteness and eagerness to learn. He is the crouching tiger to Gazza’s nutjob dragon - and he has been christened Xavi.

Sometimes during short interludes in training designed to show the lads a basic technique Gazza can be found sipping from a can of Coke that he has craftily stashed on the sidelines. Not Xavi. He listens, quietly and intently even though of all the players present he is probably in least need of the coaching.

Like the Barcelona and Spain legend after which he is named he is also an ideological extremist. He’s one of the only boys to truly take the doctrine of pass and move to heart, neatly playing the way in which he is facing at all times and remonstrating with any team mates that don’t do the same, an oasis of calm amidst the chaos. He’s quick too and can spot a pass - as was comprehensively shown during an end of session game when I passed the ball into him and totally failed to anticipate a simple one-two. Xavi casually flicked the ball round the corner to exactly where I should have been and went for the return. I apologised as the ball rolled out of play. He didn’t look too impressed.

Whether we can keep our two best players interested and alert despite their teammates playing at a lower level remains to be seen. Hopefully whatever set of circumstances that have caused them to be far more blessed than their solid but unspectacular counterparts will start to rub off on the rest of the team. If not we could have a Pierre van Hooijdonk situation on our hands and I would bet my last Yuan that Gazza will kick off first.

And trust me, if the way he gets stuck into those burgers is anything to go by, no-one wants to see that.

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The Football Ramble’s first book, available to pre-order now!

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Wayne Rooney: B List At Best

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The Football Ramble Meets… Mark Chapman

28 June 2017

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