Monday, January 13, 2020

Valverde sacked Setién appointed


A day after Xavi spurned the job, Barcelona have sensationally sacked manager Ernesto Valverde and appointed the relative unknown Quique Setién in his place.

Valverde took training this morning for the last time although he was not informed of his fate until the afternoon board meeting with president Jose Bartomeu. Setién was announced this evening as his replacement.

Camp Nou

The 61-year old played over 300 times for his hometown club Racing Santander and was in the Spain squad for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. He has managed seven clubs, most recently Real Betis the season before last.

The club statement made a point of showing the somewhat leftfield choice fitted the bill for his long-confessed admiration for the Barça way of playing:

"Throughout his career he has been a proponent of possession-based attacking football that has been attractive to fans," it said.

Valverde leaves the Catalan giants with two league titles, a Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup on his CV and a 66% win ratio.

Setién enters the madhouse on Tuesday with a public presentation at 1pm GMT, the sixth head coach at the Camp Nou in seven years.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Xavi says no to the Camp Nou, for now


Barcelona are in another 'crisis' after a disastrous trip to the Middle East.

In another desperate attempt to challenge English football's global appeal, La Liga had organised this year's Spanish Super Cup as a mini-tournament in Saudi Arabia, but the desired clasico showdown between Spain's big two failed to materialise as Barca were knocked out by Atletico Madrid in the semi-final.

Camp Nou
Camp Nou

The Blaugrana then made a cack-handed attempt to swiftly replace manager Ernesto Valverde with former club favourite Xavi, a change which was reported as a fait accompli by many media outlets this morning, before the news filtered through that Xavi, currently coaching Al Sadd in Qatar, had said no.

Were the club seriously planning to fly back to Spain with a different manager?

Xavi will probably be coach at the Camp Nou in time for next season. Could not the Catalans have waited until then and kept their dignity? Maybe they did and in planning for the future could not have missed the chance to speak to their former midfielder in person since they were in the Middle East for a few days, while checking on the recuperation of striker Ousmane Dembele as well.

According to club sources, Sunday's meeting between Xavi, Barca's CEO Oscar Grau and sporting director Eric Abidal was merely, "de cortesia" - a courtesy call, while Xavi reiterated his respect for Valverde and his current employers while saying they had talked about "many things". But this was clearly an attempt to sound him out for the job at the very least.

Camp Nou
Camp Nou

Until recently another old boy Ronald Koeman, currently manager of the Netherlands, was supposed to be a shoe-in for the hot seat, while rumours are growing that the currently unemployed Mauricio Pocchettino could pip both him and Xavi to the job.

Poor old Valverde. His contract expires in the summer anyway so was it too much to expect some respect until then for a man who has won the league the past two campaigns, is top of the league this campaign and is still in the Champions League? Bravo ex-Barca managers Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola for leaping to his defence tonight.

At any other club, with the exception perhaps of Real Madrid, that record would mean the manager would be in no danger of an imminent sacking, but as ex-blaugrana striker Gary Lineker said of the club to Bobby Robson, who himself was hired under false pretences at the Camp Nou before being ceremoniously sacked, "That place is a madhouse".

As if the gods had got wind of this latest hubris, they not only made Barca throw away a 2-1 lead in the semi-final to go home and let their arch rivals lift the trophy, but also sent an injury to Luis Suarez, which will keep him out of action for the next four months.

Barcelona is a mess de un club tonight.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Fifa World Rankings December 2019

Fifa World Rankings December 2019

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for December 2019 were published on December 19 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

There is little change in the top 20 positions. Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are still top followed by champions France who defeated them in the semis, Brazil, England Croatia and Uruguay.

The full top ten is Belgium, France, Brazil, England, Croatia, Uruguay, Portugal, Spain, Argentina and Colombia.

Senegal are the top African team in 20th place. England remain in 4th. Wales are 22nd tied with the USA. Australia are in 42nd place; Japan are in 28th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 40th in the list. Scotland are 50th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 34th place, Northern Ireland are 36th.

1 Belgium
2 France
3 Brazil
4 England
5 Croatia
6 Uruguay
7 Portugal
8 Spain
9 Argentina
10 Colombia
11 Mexico
12 Switzerland
13 Italy
14 The Netherlands
15 Germany
16 Denmark
17 Sweden
18 Chile
19 Poland
20 Senegal

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Bielsa's Boys Shine in Arsenal Outing


FA Cup Arsenal v Leeds

The F.A. Cup might have lost its sheen some time ago but at least it gives us a chance to see teams from different divisions crossing swords.

Fans of clubs who draw an opponent from a different division still get excited, even if the big boys show up with nine changes or the U-21 team.

Last night's Arsenal v Leeds tie was a treat for terrestrial viewers, a first chance for many to see Marcelo Bielsa's Championship-leading outfit rattle the doors of the top flight before it flies too far out of reach.

And fascinating it indeed was to see how the away side from the lower league outplayed their Premier hosts for 45 minutes, before succumbing by a goal in the second period, perhaps inevitably because they had failed to translate their swarming and swirling around the Arsenal box early on into net contacts.

Outstanding Championship performers often impress on their Premier League debuts, particularly when their playing system is well-honed. Once the element of surprise has gone though, second season syndrome frequently kills off their blooming.

On the evidence of last night at Ashburton Grove, Leeds will be a rich addition to England's top division, bringing a distinctive running style from a storied manager.

Like the Liverpool v Everton clash a day earlier, Gunners v Whites was a real game of two halves, with the stats confirming a complete turnaround after the break.

Leeds outmoved, outpassed, outran, outshot and outthought Arsenal in the first half and despite being outwitted in the end by Mikel Arteta's interval team-talk, which should go down as one of the most effective halftime hairdryers ever, they certainly won the neutrals over.

We are eager to see one of England's most famous sides and one of world soccer's most renowned coaches in the Premier League next season.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Who's in Who's Out?

Swansea - From The Archives

How will Swansea react to the loss of their talisman Ferrie Bodde who has been ruled out for the rest of the season after suffering his second cruciate ligament injury in the space of twelve months?

Their inspirational player had only just come back into action after being out for ten months with exactly the same injury. The Dutchman has made only ten appearances since being sidelined last season. Tragically the midfielder only lasted 9 minutes before being stretchered off the field of play.


After his highly anticipated come back game, against Sheffield United that Swansea won 2-1, Bodde reassured fans on the club website that this was not an occurrence of the old injury.

"The knee is ok; it's not inside the knee like it was last time."

Unfortunately subsequent scans revealed that the despite the midfielder's optimism his worse nightmare had come true and he will be forced to sit out for the rest of this season.

Swansea now face the rest of the season without one of the toughest tackling midfielders in the Championship who was at the heart of many of their wins last season. The Dutch under 23 international had only signed a new contract with Swansea City in 2008, following rumours of a move to Championship rivals Derby County for around 2 million pounds.

Former Swansea boss Roberto Martinez even turned down a reported 3.5 million pound bid down from Bolton this summer. The sense of dismay in the Swansea camp was echoed in the comments of club physiotherapist who stated how unlucky Bodde had been to suffer a repeat injury:

"It's very rare for this to happen, as the graft is normally stronger than the original ligament."

Swansea Chairman Huw Jenkins reflected the thoughts of many fans and club officials when he conceded:

"It's a big blow, not just for the football club but more importantly for Ferrie himself. He is devastated at the moment, but as a club we have told him we will look after him and stand by him every step of the way - as we did last time. He will remain a very important member of this football club. We all feel for him and I'm sure every Swansea fan will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery."

Meanwhile messages have been flooding in from the fans wishing Ferrie the best of luck as he returns to his homeland to await yet another operation. Last night Swansea drew 0-0 away at Doncaster, finding themselves 16th in the league with only 11 points, and wondering how they will cope with the loss of an integral part of their team.

Tom Haw


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

La Liga USA faces Spanish Inquisition


Half a millennium since the conquistadors landed on American shores, the Spanish are back in search of more gold.

La Liga's unexpected announcement that it had signed a deal to host a Primera match each season in the USA for the next fifteen years has been met with hostility by Spain's players' union.

At a meeting in Madrid of the 20 captains of the top flight clubs, there was ubiquitous opposition to the league's agreement with a company. An intriguing battle between Spain's administrators and players awaits therefore, which could even entail strike action.

A Strike at the Camp Nou?
David Aganzo, the 37 year-old president of the players' union the AFE, explained their unhappiness,

"Taking a match out of Spain makes no sense beyond making money and doing business", he told El Pais.

"As a footballer you want to share a goal with your loyal supporters and play in stadia which are emblematic of Spain."

Taken at face value, this looks like an outbreak of traditional footballing values among the moneyed elite of La Primera, which is cheerful.

True supporters everywhere possess a reflex which rejects taking games overseas, renaming old home grounds with commercial monikers or changing the traditional club colours. We could call it fan fundamentalism.

However, the forces of globalism are so strong they are hard to resist utterly, which entails in practice some form of accommodation with them. We might not like capitalism, but we find a way to work within it.

The Victorian founders of association football would have been aghast at their Corinthian ideal being sullied by professional players, shirt sponsorship and kick-offs being altered for television, but the modern die-hard supporter has learnt to live with these and numerous other changes to the original formula; evolve or die is a basic rule of nature.

The Spanish league's desire not to be left in the shade of England's Premier League must be acknowledged at the same time as decrying any move to replicate its '39th game' plan of a few years back, subsequently aborted.

Jealous of the English top flight's global reach and established popularity in English-speaking North America, La Liga acted boldly in penning a deal with US company Relevent, who already organise the pre-season International Champions Cup, in which Barcelona and Real Madrid have become regulars.

The flaw with summer friendly tournaments is that despite the marketing men doing their utmost to bill them as competitive, it does not take long for fans to twig that the stars they paid to see will be absent, especially in World Cup years or those involving Copa Americas or European Championships.

A competitive game demands the best players show up however, and we can be fairly sure that the one Primera game per season planned for America means at least one of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona or Real will be involved.

American soccer fans are more knowledgeable than popularly supposed but will not turn out in their thousands for Alaves and Eibar.

Indeed, a rumour has claimed the first American-based match will be a Catalan derby between Barça and Girona as early as January 2019.

But the market for Spain's big two or three to perform in the U.S. is certainly there, so moving competitive matches across the pond seems a logical step from a purely commercial perspective.

Despite ever-increasing paydays from selling TV and internet rights, there is an acknowledgment of the importance of bums on seats and not just for the cameras: More fans overseas equals more merchandise sales, more website hits and live TV viewers which translates into fatter contracts and sponsorship deals.

Real and Barça enjoy global recognition on a par with the planet's most popular consumer brands and as globalisation itself has accelerated in parallel with the rise in internet connectivity and high-speed broadband, the idea that a brand should stand still and not want to grow bigger is just not capitalism.

Yet in purely footballing terms, La Liga has a right to feel aggrieved that the world won't listen.

Spanish clubs have won the last five Champions League finals and four of the last five Europa League finals. On paper they are clearly the best right now yet inferior English sides remain more popular around the world.

The English language's dominance in North America and Asia, football's last two unconquered kingdoms, is the short explanation for this anomaly.

American fans are more likely to cleave to the big English sides than the big Spanish ones because of smoother cultural translations.

Just as Spanish sides usually have first dibs on landing South American talent because of old colonial connections, Americans tend to follow Premier League teams rather than one from La Liga.

Englishmen have spread the sport at school and college level across the USA, Irish pubs have played a big role in promoting the game via television, David Beckham moved to the States and so far many more Americans have played professionally in England than in Spain.

Although MLS supporters take some inspiration from Latino fans, their predominant inspiration, as well as for the so-called Eurosnobs (American soccer fans who ignore MLS), remains English.

For a couple of centuries the Caribbean and southern United States were battlegrounds between English and Spanish explorers and their descendants; now the two language groups are battling it out for the new world of football, and once again the English are coming out on top.

Against this backdrop, La Liga's audacious foray into the heart of the American market is understandable. One game a season played overseas would not ruin the domestic league but constitute an important challenge towards the EPL's global dominance, which sounds healthy.

On the other hand, there are so many things about this move which seem wrong and ineptly handled.

The first black mark is that the whole deal was done and dusted so secretively, leaving the players and supporters to hear the news via the media.

There apparently has been no consultation with UEFA or CONCACAF either, which looks shoddy.

It may sound quaint in the age of mega-salaried stars to ask why fans' views were not canvassed first but it is important that sport keeps its soul.

Bypassing the folk who built the clubs up through their weekly devotion and undying faith is football biting the hand which has fed it for so long.

As for the players, it may seem hard to feel sympathy for millionaires like Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique or Diego Costa being remunerated handsomely and flown first class to New York to be put up in five star hotels.

But extra money means little to multi-millionaire footballers, who would most likely be reluctant employees shipped across the Atlantic by their bosses.

Unlike the summer tours, when they stay a couple of weeks in America and acclimatise, this one-off game would entail jet lag from a shorter trip.

Madrid to New York entails a seven-hour flight crossing six time zones while Barcelona to Los Angeles means thirteen hours in the air and nine changes of the clock.

With the internet accelerating the global village and the US finally getting soccer fever - MLS gets bigger each year and the World Cup will return stateside in 2026, making a physical footprint of top-drawer football in America remains tempting.

La Liga's leap across the pond should also be compared with America's big sports going in the other direction.

An annual NFL friendly in London (the English language connection working once more) has evolved into four annual competitive games involving six different clubs, with the end game a permanent NFL franchise based in England's capital.

It might have been an anathema a few years ago, but earlier this year England's Football Association admitted they were negotiating to sell Wembley, hallowed turf and all, to the Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.

Tottenham Hotspur have also penned a deal to host two NFL games at their new 62,000-seat stadium but any permanent London team will surely move to the more affable surroundings of Wembley before long.

Perhaps this is all inevitable and only the beginning. In the future when supersonic airliners return and may even be hypersonic, the arguments about jet lag and journey times will be redundant.

Spain has gone where England tried and failed and La Liga is serious about America. It already has a web page in place to demonstrate its intentions

But the Spanish League faces a fight with its players. Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets said they are not about to take this one lying down:

"We are all united," he confirmed this week.

The coming battle will illuminate soccer's soul or light the way to the sport's near future.

Spanish soccer's audacious venture into American waters will strike gold or be holed before it even sets sail.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Best World Cup Ever?

Russia 2018: The Best World Cup Ever?

Russia World Cup 2018

So the big show is over once more and we are missing the shared rollercoaster rides and sweet fizz of the month-long football fiesta once more.

It was good wasn't it, but was it the best yet?

Russia 2018 was certainly a very good World Cup with a goal-filled final, plenty of shocks and thanks to goal-line cameras and VAR, fewer points of controversy or goals from open play.

Technology was the winner as the yeas outnumbered the nays, although its imperfections kept the bickering kindling, not least with regard to the final's game-changing penalty award.

VAR's use meant records of goals from penalties (22) and from set pieces (43% of the total) were smashed, a somewhat unforeseen consequence whose benefits to the game remain debatable.

The final was more like an open group stage match when two sides with nothing to lose threw caution to the wind.

It might have seemed a big ragged but thank the Lord we did not see a repeat of Argentina's negativity v Germany in 1990, the snorefest of Brazil v Italy in 1994 or the Dutch thuggery against Spain in 2010.

If football is entertainment first then the final was a show-stopper.

For all the Croatian fury surrounding Ivan Perisic's handball in the final, if it was an error it was certainly nowhere as egregious as that which chalked off Frank Lampard's goal against Germany in 2010. That is progress.

In football you have to accept you may be unlucky and concede a debatable goal, even in the age of technology. It is just that the chances of being a victim have diminished. Referee Néstor Pitana needed more than one look to decide if there had been intention and unnatural movement of the hand towards the ball but it is hard to see how we can be sure those criteria for awarding a penalty were met.

Reasonable doubt was perhaps not applied then, but referees are human. Pitana probably will not be holidaying on the Dalmatian coast any time soon though.

This World Cup had nine goals scored in the final minute or in injury-time, more than double that of the next-highest one -  Brazil 2014. Think of Belgium's counter-attack against Japan or South Korea's killer blow against Germany; there was more last-gasp drama than usual, which added to the excitement.

Russia 2018 seemed to be an open tournament, although some group stage matches were dull and FIFA should have refunded the supporters who travelled to watch the non-aggression pacts of France v Denmark and Belgium v England.

There were two unexpected semi-finalists in Croatia and England but then it was thus in 2002 with South Korea and Turkey reaching the last four. As with that World Cup however, for all the shocks along the way, 2018 ended with a traditional power claiming the prize.

Like 2018, the Japan-Korea tournament was a World Cup of shocks: Argentina, France and Portugal went out in the group stage and Italy left in the round of 16.

This time three blows were landed before the tournament had begun: The failures of Italy, the Netherlands and South American champions Chile to qualify left the lineup looking weaker. It missed something without those big names present, as USA '94 did without England and France.

When Germany went out in the first round in Russia and they were joined in the departure lounge by Argentina, Colombia, Portugal and Spain in the Round of 16 it suddenly felt novel, probably more than ever before.

The winners were the best team in the competition as usual, but France did not dominate in the way Germany did in 2014 or 1990, or Brazil did in 2002. They were mediocre in the first round, perhaps the flattest opening by an eventual winner since Italy in 1982.

Kylian Mbappé scored in the final to just about satisfy the wonderkid hype but this was not Pele 1958 all over again - the player of the tournament was 32 year-old veteran Luka Modric.

Calling a World Cup the best ever is at the end of the day a common reaction to returning to the mundane churn of daily life and the football-free desert that is pre-season after the tournament.

The better football might be played in the UEFA Champions League these days but this period just after the World Cup finishes confirms club competition cannot hold a candle to the big show in terms of global excitement.

World Cups mobilise entire nations because unlike club football everyone has a dog in the hunt. Club competition also cannot muster the binge of three or four games per day.

I heard the 'Best World Cup' refrain many times four years ago in Brazil. And I also heard it in Germany in 2006, South Korea in 2002, at France '98 and so on.

Ask someone just after a great party or wedding and in the glow of emotion they will probably tell you it was the a one-off. Rational reflection after the heady event will translate a different tale however.

If we are going to compare World Cups then we can only really start in 1982 when the tournament expanded to 24 teams for the first time.

Previous editions of 16 or less had far fewer matches and the cup as a global attraction only really began in 1966 with the mass diffusion of colour television.

1982 was also the first one I remember well and I know more than one person who swears blind it was the best of the lot so far.

It had that fabulous Italy v Brazil clash in Barcelona (the Rossi hat-trick), Algeria beating West Germany (what a shock) and then the Germans' Anschluss with Austria, the Zico free kick versus Scotland and Bryan Robson's 27-second goal versus France.

Add to that Kuwait's protests against a French goal, Hungary's 10-1 win over El Salvador, Poland's politically-charged game with the USSR, Northern Ireland beating the hosts, Harald Schumacher's flying kick on Patrick Battiston in a great France v West Germany semi-final and Marco Tardelli's timeless goal celebration in the final.

This World Cup looks hard to beat. Its only black mark was the soporific second group stage, which FIFA thankfully ditched in time for the following World Cup.

In other words, Espana '82 was strong on iconography, which is why we remember it well.

1986 was good too - It had the Hand of God and Diego Maradona's slalom through England of course but there was also Germany pulling back two goals in the final, Gary Lineker's hat-trick against Poland, Danish dynamite and the birth of the Mexican wave.

There was also Uruguay's thuggish performance against Scotland, Spain hammering Denmark 5-1 and Belgium sharing seven goals with the Soviet Union.

The France v Brazil quarter final was a great contest too and the penalty shootout became a big feature of the World Cup. Although it was Maradona's cup, the most single-handed victory in World Cup history, Mexico '86 was probably a little below 1982 in the pecking order.

1990 - More style than substance, Italia '90 cannot be considered the best because there was a lot of defensive and negative play, penalty shootours and the final was dire.

I remember thinking at the time however it was the best World Cup because of the romantic theatre of it all: World in Motion, Toto Schilacci, Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma, Gazza's tears etc, but looking back I realise that was just delirium at England getting within shouting distance of the ultimate prize.

Italia '90 was actually spoilt by dour football, fouling e.g. Cameroon on Claudio Caniggia and an appalling climax where Argentina tried to disrupt rather than win.

Even West Germany, the deserving and impressive winners, were guilty of infantile simulations to get other players in trouble - think Thomas Berthold on Paul Gascoigne in the semi final or Jurgen Klinsmann's salmon leap in the final. Then there was their ill-tempered clash with the Dutch in Milan, notable for Frank Rijkaard's flying saliva and red cards for him and Rudi Voller.

Cameroon were the neutrals' favourites in Italy because African teams had never advanced so far before and in 38 year-old Roger Milla they had an exceptional old hand. Their elimination of the talented but crazy Colombians was unforgettable as Milla dispossessed goalkeeper René Higuita upfield and scored.

Watching Eire at a first World Cup was fun too although Jack Charlton's neolithic brand of long balls and back passes was one which cannot have charmed many purists.

Iconic yes but quality no.

1994 - A breath of attacking fresh air after defensive Italia '90 despite the oppressive midday heat.

Bulgaria's eliminating of the World Champions was memorable, as were Italy's two comebacks to defeat Nigeria and Spain. Italy began with a loss to Eire but Roberto Baggio was devastating against Bulgaria in the semi-final.

Romania played some skilful stuff and Sweden made the semis. The final was disappointingly boring.

1998 - The best two sides made the final but the Ronaldo scare had spooked Brazil so France cruised to the cup.

England and Argentina fought out a great Round of 16 clash and Dennis Bergkamp scored one of the goals of all time in the quarter final but there was not a lot to write home about. Croatia made a gallant run to the semis and the USA and Iran played a tense match in Lyon.

A good but not great World Cup.

2002 - A World Cup of big shocks ended with Brazil and Germany, the tournament's historically biggest teams in the final.

En route Guus Hiddink's South Korea had set a nation on fire to make the final four, the USA reached the last eight and even Japan won its group.

While the atmosphere in Korea was gimchi-hot, the knockout stages were unmemorable but for South Korea's wins over Italy and Spain, where the referees seemed to be favouring the hosts.

2006 - Germany was a perfect host in terms of organisation but the football was a lot of hard-fought, gruelling contests as no team outshone the rest.

Italy finally turned on the power to beat the hosts in the semi-final while only penalties separated them from France in the final. Another good but not great World Cup.

2010 - The South African World Cup, to the drone of vuvuzelas in the winter, was no vintage either and witnessed an appalling final where the Netherlands went out to kick Spain away.

Ghana's run to the last eight briefly fanned the flames of an African win on home soil but Luis Suarez's hand got in the way of that. Diego Forlan at 31 was a worthy Golden Ball winner.

2014 -

Four years ago there were plenty of newspaper columns wondering why Brazil 2014 was so full of open and attacking football. That World Cup is still pretty fresh so it is hard to see how Russia, although it was undoubtedly good, topped that.

Location is important to give flavour to a World Cup and Brazil as the tropical land of Pele and beaches did have the edge over sombre history embodied by the Kremlin and other monumental architecture. We associate Russia more with austere winter and Brazil with endless summer.

Its great games still stick in the memory:

Netherlands 5:1 Spain - Ripe revenge for the 2010 final saw the Dutch flatten the holders and Robin Van Persie flying to score an athletic diving header the likes of which we had not seen before.

USA 2:2 Portugal - The Americans give Portugal a real fright until Cristiano Ronaldo's cross was turned in by Silvestre Varela in the 95th minute.

Australia 2:3 Netherlands - A Tim Cahill screamer and the Aussies take the lead but lose in the end.

Mexico 1:2 Netherlands - More Dutch drama as they are heading out until a late leveller and an Arjen Robben dive grant them passage.

Colombia 2:0 Uruguay - James Rodriguez scored the goal of the tournament on his way to the Golden Boot with an exquisite chest, swivel and missile combination which drew gasps around the world.

Germany 7:1 Brazil - A semi-final so unexpected it still astounds four years later. Who on earth could have predicted the Germans would be 5-0 up at half-time against a suddenly hopeless host?

Then there was the Costa Rican ride to the quarters and Luis Suarez's bite on Giorgio Chiellini

2018 -

Portugal 3:3 Spain - The oft-criticised group stage served up some haute cuisine in the form of an Iberian derby of top-drawer football which drew worldwide plaudits and announced the 2018 World Cup as a premier competition.

Mexico 1:0 Germany - The first big shock of the cup saw the holders lose to the passionate El Tri

South Korea 2:0 Germany - The coup de grace for Jogi Low's men saw them lose their crown in comical fashion as Manuel Neuer performed an inch-perfect impression of Rene Higuita, right down to losing the ball upfield so the opposition could score and knock his side out.

Uruguay 2:0 Portugal - Cristiano Ronaldo took second billing to a stunning brace from Edinson Cavani, who alas went off injured and missed his country's quarter final.

France 4:3 Argentina - Seven goals was great entertainment. Lionel Messi maybe played his last World Cup match, Kylian Mbappe arrived on the biggest stage and Angel Di Maria scored a screamer.

Belgium 3:2 Japan - A rip-roaring Round of 16 clash between two distinct styles of football saw the Belgians pull back a two-goal deficit to win with a last-gasp counter-attack. Terrific stuff.

Any clearer? I am edging towards Brazil 2014 as a superior World Cup, with 2018 having the better final.

Those calling Russia the greatest ever are like those opinion polls for greatest record ever which are stuffed with recent chart hits from ephemeral artists.

Emotion clouds the memory but should be given its due.

2018 should go down as one of the best World Cups. Now let us see what winter 2022 in Qatar can do.


Friday, December 6, 2019

Merry-go-round Again Silva's Sacking


And so Marco Silva clears his desk at Everton after 18 months.

While no-one can say they are that surprised given the Toffees' rocky run, handing the Portuguese his P45 after losing to Liverpool at Anfield seems a little harsh.

The Reds are running away with the Premier League and are the reigning European Champions after all.

Scoring twice at their patch deserves some credit, even if at the other end Everton let five goals in to a side clearly on fire right now.

Merry-go-round Again Silva's Sacking

It is always interesting to ponder when exactly disenchanted owners decide to give up on their chosen one, sound out alternatives, set the sitting manager an ultimatum, whether they inform him of it or not, and then wait for a chance to open the trapdoor.

The media's speculative formula is now a finely-distilled recipe: A club slips into the bottom half and whispers of collective discontent appear, whether real or not; the team keeps losing or drawing, especially at home and fans start to boo or bring in written signs for the cameras to capture; the team goes on losing so players hint at dissatisfaction and the media claims the gaffer 'has lost the dressing room'.

Recently unemployed managers are said to have been contacted and as the team keeps on losing the manager goes on death watch or is said to be a dead man walking; the club finally sack him citing results and thank him for his contribution.

Silva was trapped in this no man's land for some time as Everton stalled. As months passed, the only question really was when, not if. Brian Clough was wrong - the directors hold the cards.

It does not always go to plan however. After secretly condemning the chap they have just given a public vote of confidence, the directors can shrivel with conflicted feelings once the fall guy bucks the trend and wins games, denying them their golden excuse to pull the trigger.

It is usual to lose your job after a defeat concentrates media pressure on the hot seat, but not always. Alan Sugar dismissed Christian Gross after a victory for Tottenham.

Silva's sacking comes amid Premiership musical chairs with four coaches getting their marching orders within the space of three weeks.

Watford have managed to sack two before Christmas, making it 14 managers in a decade, but that club at least has the backbone to admit short-term head coaches is their policy.

26 of the 92 managers who began the 2019 season are now pursuing other interests with surely more to come across Christmas & New Year, the traditional time of year for desperate reshuffles.

With so much money at stake, the endless carousel continues.

It is not all gloom. Not long ago Silva was being touted as one of the next big things and he is young enough, like Brendan Rodgers, to bounce back better with another club.

The footballing calendar keeps rolling on affording ample second chances.

Although it began in the Western hemisphere, football's concept of time has more in common with Buddhism, Hinduism or Native American beliefs in cyclical and non-linear movement.

You get fired at one club and your reputation gets trashed, you start again and bring success to another team and your value is renewed. After tasting success you relax and start slipping until the whole process repeats itself again.

Clubs and individuals languishing right now should look on this apparent age of darkness as merely the winter before the spring.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

United We Fall?


Manchester United's travails continue with their latest debacle a 1-0 loss to an ebullient Newcastle which left the Red Devils in the bottom half of the table. Days earlier they failed to register a shot on target in a drab 0:0 Europa League draw away to AZ Alkmaar.

United We Fall

How times change. One defeat in his first 17 games and a thrilling Champions League defeat of PSG was more than an adequate audition for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to get the manager's job at Old Trafford last Spring.

But now the Midas touch has deserted him: With only two wins in 13 matches, United look a mediocre side who have slipped below even the level of the disjointed and untelepathic team which Jose Mourinho struggled for so long to control.

Derided at the time for being surly when at the helm, the Portuguese's comments on the Man United malaise have taken on the tag of wisdom with the passage of time.

Unlike a Barcelona/Real Madrid weekly 'crisis', this is the real thing. United do not look like improving any time soon and arguably the biggest club in the world could have a relegation fight on their hands.

The reasons are not elusive. Manager honeymoons do not last. Staff always up their game to impress their new boss.

Key players are injured and their replacements are not as good; the youngsters are not performing at the level of Chelsea's young guns because they have not been loaned out enough - thrown into the fire they have burned; Paul Pogba has never been consistent; the senior players do not have the grit of Roy Keane or Peter Schmeichel, United lack a second tough centre back, a dominant midfield and goalscorers since Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were sold.

Yet the bigger picture is of a flawed buying and selling policy over the years since Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford and managers should not take the blame for that. The absence of a football-schooled director of football overseeing it all and preventing such a shambles is clear too, a point made by another former Red Devils manager Louis Van Gaal.

Restocking the dressing room with new players is essential, but they need to be the right ones and the transfer window is closed anyway until January 2020, when other teams will surely demand top dollar from United, well aware the Red Devils are desperate for new blood.

This seller's market conflicts with the club budget, leaving frustrated managers to drop hints of dejection from the dug-out or just quit when they feel powerless to right the listing ship. Solskjaer is just the fall guy this time.

Because he is a returning hero and it is obvious any manager would struggle to forge a masterpiece with such inadequate tools, the Baby-Faced Assassin has a get out of jail free card, for now.

But it is also traditional that if bad results persist, it is the gaffer who takes the flack and gets the sack, around Christmas in time for the January transfer window.

He cannot openly name and cane the men in suits above him for not giving him the transfer budget he and the team need because they are his employers and they will fire him if he does.

Mourinho said as much when he noted,

"I don't want to be the nice guy, because the nice guy, after three months, is a puppet and that doesn't end well."

So while Solskjaer will probably struggle on, fail and then play the sacrificial victim, the Norwegian will probably mount the gallows an innocent man whose hands were always somewhat bound.

Head of Corporate Development (chief transfer negotiator) Matt Judge and Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward, the men who really pull the strings, will probably carry on unscathed. Where is their accountability when the results on the pitch are poor?

The club's American owners are perhaps too distant, too ignorant of football and too pleased by the club's sound financial performance to realise there really is something rotten in the state of Old Trafford.

"To be the best football club in the world both on and off the pitch" proclaims the mother company's home page. Now who said satire was dead?

Man Utd plc's public relations are full of corporate talk of its brand's global appeal and its business strategy provides this as its opening gambit:

"We aim to increase our revenue and profitability by expanding our high growth businesses that leverage our brand, global community and marketing infrastructure."

Right, but how about winning football matches too? Increasing broadcasting and sponsorship revenues covered up declines from match days and merchandising in 2018 but overall the brand is in good financial shape.

There is just that small matter of the team on the pitch, that red-shirted eleven who are not winning games anymore and who have just slipped to within two points of the drop zone.

Shouldn't they be the top priority for everyone connected with Man United right now?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, September 27, 2019

New Dens for the Giants

San Siro, the most stunning of all Italian stadia, will be demolished.

It was announced yesterday that the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, to give it its proper name, will be rebuilt

"Che Peccato!" - What a shame, I thought at once.

I remember making a pilgrimage just to see the awesome edifice when I first went to Milan in 1989 and
was thrilled when I first caught site of it.

I know I am not the only one in the world who makes a point of visiting stadia as part of a cultural tour of a city. There does not have to be a match on, I just want to admire from a close distance and imbibe the passion of the places' ghosts.

I suggest you visit San Siro too, but hurry - Internazionale and Milan plan to replace the 80,000 seater with a 60,000 capacity venue built alongside the existing stadium, as Tottenham did, over three years to minimize disruption to both clubs.

First built in 1925, San Siro's remodelling for Italia '90 left Milan with one of the most iconic grounds in world football.

Whilst there have been problems with the grass due to a lack of adequate light, the case for rebuilding is less clear beyond a desire by the owners for a multi-million Euro new castle and concomitant windfalls for developers.

The official documentation does a good job of dissing the current ground, but surely the reconstruction plans from the late 1980s spoke of how wonderful that new arena would be too.

A need for sustainability and the provision of adjoining green space is officially at the heart of Populous' The Cathedral design, which at first glance looks like a static throwback to 1960's modernism:

The competing proposal, The Rings of Milan by Manica, seems more in keeping with recent football stadia design and retains the old San Siro pitch as a green space as well.

In the wake of Atletico Madrid ditching their 55,000-seat Vicente Calderon stadium in southern Madrid in favour of the new 68,000 Metropolitano ground in the East of the city, Real Madrid are keen to get their long-planned and much-delayed new Bernabeu up and running at last.

Earlier this year the club announced it would go ahead with a remodelling of their 81,000-seat home at the end of this season - adding a sliding roof, a new facade and eating and drinking facilities, but interestingly no extra seats.

Barcelona had planned to inaugurate Norman Foster's 2007 design for a new Camp Nou with an increase from 99,00 to 105,000 capacity at a cost of around €250 million but the following year's financial crisis kaiboshed that plan.

Seven years later a similar plan returned, at a cost of over half a billion, for a roof over the currently open-air stands and an extra tier for a similar capacity as the Foster design with completion intended for 2024.

The architects this time are Japanese firm Nikken Sekkei, designers of the existing Niigata Big Swan stadium used in the 2002 World Cup, the Tokyo Dome (baseball) and Saitama Super Arena (indoor sports like ice hockey).

Like residents get attached to houses, football supporters cleave to stadia, no matter how tatty or decrepit, as repositories of emotional memory. When the wrecking ball comes it is natural to shed a tear.

Stadia are sometimes compared to places of worship and one of Milan's prospective designs is even called 'The Cathedral' to anoint its sanctity, although when built expect a soulless corporate moniker like The Coca-Cola Cathedral (God forbid).

Yet nobody in their right mind suggests demolishing churches unless they are literally falling down, rather restoring them to their former glory.

But even the twin towers of Wembley Stadium, aka the Cathedral of Football, were turned to dust in 2003.

While stadia remain icons of this religion we adhere to, football's directors feel no qualms in swapping our hallowed grounds for new idols every 30 years or so.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile