Saturday, January 29, 2011

Japan on track for fourth Asian Cup title

Japan searching for an Asian Cup titleThey've scrapped, they've scraped and they've even overcome a penalty shoot-out: it seems like nothing can stop Japan in their quest for a fourth Asian Cup title.

Japan conceded a soft equaliser just seconds away from an extra-time win over arch-rivals South Korea in their semi-final, only for goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to stand tall as he saved the Taeguk Warriors' first two penalties in a one-sided shoot-out victory.

Now Australia are all that stands between Japan and a record fourth Asian Cup crown, although the Socceroos could prove a formidable opponent after thrashing Uzbekistan 6-0 en route to a Khalifa Stadium showdown.

That's especially the case now that Japan's quarter-final hero Shinji Kagawa has been ruled out through injury, with the Samurai Blue set to miss one of their most effective attacking outlets.

Nagoya Grampus forward Jungo Fujimoto or Urawa Reds playmaker Yosuke Kashiwagi are potential replacements for coach Alberto Zaccheroni, although he could once again rely heavily on CSKA Moscow star Keisuke Honda - who has already been nominated for the tournament's Most Valuable Player award.

Honda missed a penalty in normal time during the dramatic win over South Korea - substitute Hajime Hosogai slammed home the rebound - and the highly-rated front man will be eager to improve on the big stage, with a host of European giants reputedly clamouring for his signature.

Japan will need to overcome the strength and size of an Australian side desperate to claim a first ever Asian crown in what is only their second appearance in the tournament.

Speed versus strength, skill versus size - it's shaping up to be a fascinating Asian Cup final, and one that Samurai Blue fans everywhere are hoping will confirm their status as Asia's premier side.

Copyright © Mike Tuckerman &

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

All aboard the K-Train?

Shinji Kagawa

He's one of the most in-demand players in Europe, plays as an attacking talent for Japan and proved decisive in their 3-2 quarter-final win over hosts Qatar at the Asian Cup.

And his name is not Keisuke Honda.

Japan relied heavily on Borussia Dortmund star Shinji Kagawa to see off the stubborn Qataris in a pulsating quarter-final, as the diminutive playmaker scored twice and set up the winner for Masahiko Inoha in a come-from-behind victory.

The Samurai Blue were forced to dig deep after defender Maya Yoshida was harshly dismissed in front of a partisan Qatari crowd, and Kagawa proved the difference in a virtuoso display.

But while the youngster was impressing in front of a global audience, what of Keisuke Honda, the player allegedly being chased by a host of English Premier League clubs?

Honda has had a quiet tournament to date, missing the group stage thrashing of Saudi Arabia through injury amid rumours he had fallen out with new coach Alberto Zaccheroni.

And having only scored once in the tournament so far - and that goal arrived from the penalty spot - Honda will be desperate to fire his team past arch-rivals South Korea and into the final.

Honda steps up to the penalty spot

Japan's semi-final clash with South Korea is one of the most anticipated games of the tournament, with the winner set to meet either Australia or Uzbekistan in the final.

The Samurai Blue met South Korea three times in 2010, losing twice and drawing once, and they'll be desperate to reach their first Asian Cup final since winning the tournament in Beijing in 2004.

Japan fans will no doubt hope CSKA Moscow star Honda can use some of his big-match experience to steer his side into the showpiece event, but it will be a far from simple task against a fired-up South Korea.

With Park Ji-Sung enjoying an outstanding tournament for the Taeguk Warriors, only one will be left standing as two of Asian football's biggest names go head-to-head in an Asian Cup semi-final cracker.

Copyright © Mike Tuckerman &

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Olympic stadium a fight for soccer's soul...?

Tottenham Hotspur or West Ham United

Olympic stadium a fight for soccer's soul?
Levy No
Football and the Olympics does matter after all.

By the end of this week either Tottenham Hotspur or West Ham United will be in pole position to take over London's Olympic Stadium once the flame goes out on the 12th of August 2012. The battle for Stratford has turned into a fire-fight between two capital clubs with all manner of voices wading in, from politicians to Pelé.

But whichever club wins the right to move house next year, the decision will also record for posterity just what is driving the soul of British sport at this moment. It is price versus value and by the end we will see just how much money can buy.

Olympic stadia are beautiful, but what is to be done with them once the party is over? Athletics just does not pay, however popular it will appear for a month at the games. Next year, the track events will as ever be the blue riband of the games, sports am
ateur in tradition if not in practice anymore. 

Although Baron de Coubertin's Corinthian ideals may now be a quaint memory, the fact Britain does not possess a single venue able to host a major track championship is painful proof of just how far athletics lags behind the professional team sports in money-making.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the UK team finished fourth in the medals table, beaten only by superpowers China, Russia and the United States, yet a closer inspection reveals only four of Britain's 47 medals were won inside the main arena. The velodrome by contrast yielded sixteen.
The 2012 stadium cost the British taxpayer half a billion pounds and the odd athletics meet alone will not pay for its future upkeep. Enter football, riding to the rescue.

London Stadium
Tottenham are thriving on this financial uncertainty, and are wielding the buying power of their fans - 36,000 season-ticket holders and 40,000 on a waiting list, as their battering ram on the doors of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, the body who will pick the winner.

Sold out Spurs matches and the rest of the site under the aegis of AEG, who transformed the Millennium Dome from a ridiculed white elephant into the hugely successful O2 Arena, can surely reduce the tax bill faster than West Ham can and reassure the anxious politicians in this age of austerity.

And if there were any doubt about which tenant would be the more lucrative, Spurs' Champions League adventure this season stands in sharp contrast to the Hammers' relegation fight. Both clubs are ogling a new stadium for free and the proceeds from auctioning off their own real estate, although the Hammers need the money more.

West Ham are playing what they know are less tangible but more respectable cards - those of trust, altruism and tribalism: They are hoping the promise of an athletics legacy for the nation at the time of bidding is an oath of honour, that the OPLC will feel that track and field, however unprofitable, deserves at least one big arena when football already has so many, and the fact that the locality is far more claret and blue than white and navy territory.

A club crossing town after a century in Haringey does go against the natural order of the sport, whose roots lie in brawls between medieval parishes, but the game has come a long way since those Shrovetide tussles.

In only the last ten years the Premier League has metamorphosed into an international division based in England while London, an economic hot-spot conveniently located halfway between the financial hotspots of Asia and East Coast America, has also been transformed by a globalised influx which has left its old face a folktale.

West Ham
West Ham and lady in burkha
Franchise moves are common in American sports where many areas of population lack professional sports teams but less so in England, where a wealthy investor need only pluck a struggling club and whisk it through the divisions towards the big time.

The Olympic environs are virgin territory anyway, as is much of East London's growth corridor and the monied business district of Canary Wharf, whose cityscape resembles North America, not England. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy sees relocation as part of a bigger picture for this part of the capital and doubtless salivates over the shining new transport links to Stratford while his club's fans struggle to reach White Hart Lane, a nice ground in an otherwise grotty urban neighbourhood.

And Spurs fans mostly do not come from Tottenham these days, any more than West Ham's hail from the Bangladeshi area around Upton Park, so talk of tribal land
rights can sound odd in the mobile London of 2011.

Olympic Stadium
Olympic Stadium
West Ham have the moral case if there is one, based on the promises London's bidding team used to convince the International Olympic Committee to pick them ahead of Paris in the first place. The IOC and world athletics' governing body have rushed to their aid in the final days of the campaign.

The IAAF chief Lamine Diack did not mince his words, speaking of London's "big li
e" were it to choose Spurs, adding for good measure,

"And after that it is a betrayal...You can consider yourself dead. You are finished."

Sebastian Coe, the public face of London 2012 was unambiguous: "We have a moral obligation."

Olympic Stadium
Olympic Stadium
Tottenham have brushed aside claims they are arrogantly ignoring Olympic promises by pledging instead to redevelop Crystal Palace athletics stadium to 25,000, the initial planned capacity of the Olympic stadium after the games. With the hours counting down until D-Day, Spurs wheeled out Pelé, Jimmy Greaves and their coach Harry Redknapp to stress how football and athletics do not mix happily in the same arena, a fact which is hard to deny. But West Ham landed a counter-punch from an unlikely angle.

Out of the blue last week,
Crystal Palace F.C. announced they intend to develop the nearby athletics venue into a new football stadium, returning to their ancestral home where they started in 1905. The Eagles' territorial claim on that site is pre-eminent, their financial backing as yet invisible. Palace could yet even strike a deal with Spurs and end up with views across an eight-lane running track.

Sliding stands as in the Stade de France would have solved the sight lines problem, but the Olympics were won in the heady days of New Labour's noughties boom before the spectre of financial crash appeared around construction time. The discount re-design which emerged after recalculations neatly encapsulated the new age of western austerity after Beijing's tour-de-force 'Birds N
est' of 2008.
What once seemed like a shoe-in for Leyton Orient, the closest club to the Olympics site, has now become a spat between two Premier League sides that is starting to turn ugly. A gazumping by Spurs would deal a near-fatal blow to Britain's hopes of ever hosting a major athletics tournament again, whilst confirming the great god of football rules unchallenged, making up the rules as he goes along.

But while the rising anger from the athletics world at Tottenham's interloping could swing it for West Ham, the race for gold and silver still looks too tight to call.

The Hammers have a more wholesome claim, which chimes with the Olympic spirit in which the stadium was created in the first place, but let us not be fooled. It is purely money, or the lack of it in their instance, which motivates any football club to subject its supporters to a dreaded running track.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fifa World Rankings January 2011

Fifa World Rankings January.
Fifa World Rankings January 2011

Fifa's first World Rankings of 2011 came out last Wednesday from Fifa HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. World Cup winners Spain remain in top spot for 2011 followed by The Netherlands, Germany and Brazil.

England are in 6th place.

Egypt is the highest African team in 10th. The USA stay 18th. Italy are in 14th.

1 Spain
2 Netherlands
3 Germany
4 Brazil
5 Argentina
7 Uruguay
8 Portugal
9 Croatia
10 Egypt
11 Greece
12 Norway
13 Russia
14 Italy
15 Chile
16 Ghana
17 Slovenia
18 USA
19 France
20 Slovakia

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Japan smash Saudis en route to quarter-finals

Saudia Arabia v Japan

2,022. That was the attendance figure announced when Japan faced off against Saudi Arabia at Al-Rayyan stadium, and the symbolism drew a smattering of applause from the 800 or so fans actually in attendance.

Evidently the Asian Cup is not a widespread crowd-puller. With most Saudi fans on the first bus back to Jeddah as soon as the whistle blew on their second group-stage defeat, it's clear most of the Saudi players wished they'd taken the same route.

As it was, they hung around to be pummelled by an impressively professional Japan, who unsheathed the scimitar to hand Saudi Arabia a thoroughly deserved 5-0 defeat.

Shinji Okazaki was the star for the Samurai Blue, smashing home a hat-trick and generally proving a constant menace, as the Stuttgart-bound striker almost registered his treble inside the opening fifteen minutes.

Instead he had to wait until ten minutes from time to notch his hat-trick, while lone striker Ryoichi Maeda also helped himself to two goals, and Japan impressed with what was ostensibly a second-string line-up given the absence of the suspended Eiji Kawashima and injured duo Daisuke Matsui and Keisuke Honda.

Honda may struggle to force his way back into the side at the expense of Okazaki, although the one-dimensional Maeda is the man most likely to make way when the CSKA Moscow star returns from an ankle injury.

Perhaps the only concern for coach Alberto Zaccheroni is the continually sluggish form of midfielder Yasuhito Endo. Understudy Takuya Honda turned in a spritely five-minute cameo against the battered Saudis, and the Shimizu S-Pulse man must surely be close to pulling the rug out from underneath Endo.

Alberto Zaccheroni.

So Japan march on to the Asian Cup quarter-finals: in-form and with the scent of blood in the nostrils. There'll be tougher tests to come, but if the point against Saudi Arabia was to land a knock-out blow, then it was done with emphatic certainty by Zaccheroni's team.

Copyright © Mike Tuckerman &

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Japan... favourites! Are you having a laugh?

Asian Cup 2011

An Italian walks into a bar in Tokyo and asks for a local brew, but not wishing to disappoint, the barman discreetly pours the visitor a Peroni instead.

It’s a plausible scenario in a country like Japan, where citizens are eager to please and equally desperate to avoid criticism.

Perhaps that’s why the Japanese press were quick to turn a blind eye to another poor performance from the Samurai Blue at the Asian Cup in Qatar, as Alberto Zaccheroni’s men laboured to a 2-1 win over a spirited but technically inferior Syria.

Japan... favourites! Are you having a laugh?

A heaving press box at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium had plenty to write about, but while it might have been one of the more incident-packed games of the tournament, Japan’s narrow victory was hardly an advertisement for the best East Asian football has to offer.

Perhaps the sight of hulking giants Maya Yoshida and Ryoichi Maeda in the starting eleven should have given it away – Zaccheroni may have headed east, but his is still very much an Italian mentality.

Nevermind that Japan possess two speedy wing-backs in Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo, neither man ventured forward with any real conviction.

Uchida may as well have been twiddling away on his Nintendo Wii for all his offensive input, and while the Schalke defender has clearly bulked up since arriving in Germany, he’s lost much of the attacking verve which made him such a dangerous player in the J. League.

The young defender wasn’t the only player who looked lost against the Syrians, as Yasuhito Endo turned in another ponderous performance in midfield.

“Even when we were down to 10 players we performed like we had 11,” explained Zaccheroni after the dismissal of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, but ironically Japan practically started with 10 players, so limited was Endo’s input.

Endo’s disappearing act was in stark contrast to midfield partner Makoto Hasebe, as the skipper continually drove the Samurai Blue forward, unleashing a number of bone-crunching tackles and scoring the all-important opener to break Syria’s stubborn resistance.

Hasebe and World Cup star Keisuke Honda were clearly Japan’s ‘go-to’ men, yet Honda’s constant penchant for cutting inside – under instruction from Zaccheroni – robbed Japan of much-needed width.

At times the Syrians fielded a six-man midfield, but it didn’t stop Honda or Daisuke Matsui from trying to bulldoze through it when some simple overlapping from Uchida and Nagotomo would have created space.

As it was, Japan managed to sneak home thanks to a disputed penalty; and even then, star man Honda almost botched a spot-kick which only just squeezed through Mosab Balhous’ legs.

Zaccheroni later called the match “totally one-sided,” which hardly explains why captain Hasebe celebrated his goal with such zeal.

Nor does it say much about Japan’s composure, after several players launched prolonged complaints following referee Mohsen Torky’s decision to award a contentious penalty and dismiss the unlucky Kawashima.

So Japan march on to a final-day clash with Saudi Arabia with their fate still very much in their own hands: did anyone truly expect less?

A more pertinent question is whether the Samurai Blue deserve their status as one of the tournament favourites?

On the basis of their 2-1 win over Syria, probably not.

Copyright © Mike Tuckerman &

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Asian Cup 2011: Every team, every ground, every game

Asian Cup 2011

Dr. Joel Rookwood

'January 2011 is the month which will see Australia crowned kings of Asian football in Qatar' - a bold statement to offer up at the start of a competition (and an article), and one I will stand by, at least until they get knocked out in a semi final penalty shoot out that is.

Aside from the likelihood of Australian success this assertion could offer up another series of questions, such as: why 2011 – as a quadrennial tournament shouldn't the 2004 event have been followed by competitions in 2008 and 2012? Weren't the last Championships held in July? Why is it being hosted by Qatar? Isn't Australia in Oceania? Do they even play football there? Surely the Japanese or the South Koreans are better?

Some of these issues can be explored by referring to global calendars, unforgiving climates, and financial and political resources. However, the most significant question might concern the very notion of Australian involvement in an event once reserved solely for Asian teams.

We live in a world where residency can be bought, citizenship can be shared, and nationality can be chosen; where international representation in sporting spheres can divide brothers and unite strangers. National identity is adopting increasing fluidity, shaped by market forces, international law and migration patterns.

Continental sporting competitions are no stranger to mobility, or to globalisation. Football confederation events can now see players from Vladivostok compete for a European crown, men from Guadalajara invited to take on the cream of South America, and footballers from Accra win international tournaments in European colours. 2011 could (although it won't) also see Japan crowned kings of both Asia and South America, after the Japanese accepted an invitation to partake in July's Copa America in Argentina.

Armed with that frame of reference, the defence for Australia's move into the AFC and their notable presence at Qatar's Asian Cup appears more watertight; almost as tight as a pair of Lucas Neill shorts.

Legitimacy aside, Australia are in Qatar, and judging by Monday's performance in their opening game against India at the Al Sadd stadium, they are here to win the competition. The strongest score line of the event so far might have been achieved against the weakest team in the tournament, but the manner in which Australia eased to the 4-0 victory will make the remaining pretenders to the crown sit up and take notice.

With a forward line that would once have divided Merseyside, first half strikes from Cahill and Kewell set the tone, followed by a goal from Holman, earning Australia an unassailable lead at the interval. With the foot well and truly off the pedal, the team in yellow and green barely left first gear in the second half, settling for the addition of a single goal, courtesy of Tim Cahill, the Everton goal machine (apologies for the contradiction in terms). It was clearly an honour for the Indians to share the same turf as their Australian victors, with both sets of players gracious in accepting the contest's inevitable conclusion.

Later that evening South Korea stuttered to a 2-1 victory over Bahrain at Al Gharafa. Continuing the theme of the Middle East's pitiful and the Far East's unconvincing start to the competition, a late Faouzi Asish penalty could not change the complexion of this otherwise uneventful fixture, which saw the majority of the crowd struggle with fatigue.

Bahrain should have more success against the Indians in the next round of fixtures, which will first see an intriguing contest between Australia and South Korea. Bahraini hopes are set to be dashed with finality in their concluding group game against Australia, with the Koreans undoubtedly subjecting India to a third successive defeat.

My final day in Doha began with the other Korea, in what was unquestionably the least memorable encounter of the tournament. A pitiful crowd of 3,000 attended their goalless draw with UAE. (More people attended non-league Crawley Town's FA Cup defeat of Derby County later that day in West Sussex).

There were few highlights to relay on the large screen, which are typically employed in this competition merely to display misspelt names of substitutes and massaged attendance figures. With each competing nation referred to by three letters on the adjoining scoreboard, "D" was the letter ominously omitted from DPRK.

The (Democratic) People's Republic of Korea is one of sixty nations I am yet to have the pleasure of visiting, but if the reports of those who have are accurate, 'democratic' is not a word readily associated with the current regime.

Keen to capitalise on this rare opportunity to observe infamous North Korean customs, I slipped in amongst their supporters, much to their confusion. Every spectator wore black pants and shoes with a pristine white shirt and tie, complete with a Kim Jong-il pin badge.

The participation of the 300 North Korean supporters was directed by a disciplinarian conductor. Facing the crowd for the entire game, he was fortunate enough to remain oblivious to the lifeless football match unfolding behind him.

Like a choirmaster at an underperforming Kent preparatory school, he led with ferocity, pointing and shouting at those who sang or clapped out of rhythm, with surly assistants using dated camcorders to capture perpetrators on film. No one really smiled and no one really understood what was happening. It was a melancholic albeit fascinating couple of hours; punctuated on the pitch only by a penalty, foolishly struck onto the frame of the goal by the man formerly known as Hong Yong-jo.

My presence in the midst of the Koreans was unsurprisingly noted, inspiring a series of half time questions from a "freelance journalist", (who should have done better in hiding his Kim Jong-il pin badge from view). Referring to myself by the name of a close friend, I entertained his questions, more out of curiosity than a desire to be helpful. He scribbled furiously as I revealed that the South Africa World Cup t-shirt I was sporting had been purchased at Portugal’s 7-0 demolition of North Korea in Cape Town the previous summer.

I left the Qatar Sports Club for Al Rayyan stadium with international relations rather than football dominating the mindset. Fittingly the following fixture was none other than Iran v Iraq. When the draw was made for the competition, this is the contest I wanted to attend above all others - and not simply because I was travelling with a lad of Iranian descent. Having seen every match and every team play thus far, I decided to make this my last game of the Asian Cup 2011.

As a stadium announcement was made about observing a period of silence dedicated to those who perished in a plane crash in Iran earlier in the week, the Iraq team chose to form a huddle, met with cheers from Iraqis, and jeers from Iranians. Wolfgang Sidka's team did eventually join their neighbours to the east in spreading across the centre circle for a moment of silence, after which an enthralling context commenced.

Virtually every piece of footballing literature I have read on the 2007 Asia Cup victors makes reference to 'war-torn Iraq', as if it were the name of a recently established state. The Iraqis were in no mood for self-pity in Al Rayyan however.

They were well represented by a vocal expatriate community, who clearly enjoyed the moment that saw Mahmoud fire them into a deserved lead.

Iran weathered a resultant storm before forcing their way back into the match, producing an equaliser on the stroke of half time through Rezaei. A more cautious second half looked destined to remain goalless, until a Khalatbari free kick bounced through a wall of players, giving Iran a late and ultimately decisive lead. Neither team are destined to win this year's event, yet this contest was a grudge battle that transcends football.

And so, after watching all sixteen teams play in five stadiums across as many days, I bid farewell to Doha and Qatar. I will miss waking up on the 31st floor of a hotel looking out onto a city that seems to change on a daily basis. 30 degree January afternoons, £3 match tickets and amiable if elusive taxi drivers have done their part in making this refreshingly under-commercialised event a success thus far (even if the 24-hour construction industry and regular prayer calls have been less well received).

As the Middle East gears up for a World Cup, Qatar's experience of hosting the Asian equivalent should yield meaningful lessons. FIFA's agenda, shaped by the protection and advancement of international football, is likely to see seasonality, alcohol restrictions, accommodation, architecture and sustainability dominate the dialogue and the decisions.

The scores of cranes, ominous open spaces and huge financial resources are likely to mean an entirely different Doha will play the central role in 2022. For both critics and exponents, one fact commentators agree on is that it will be a World Cup like no other. In the meantime, 'January 2011 is the month which will see Australia crowned kings of Asian football in Qatar'.

© Dr. Joel Rookwood &

Japan are 7/2 favorites, followed by South Korea and Australia at 9/2, Saudi 15/2 and Iran 8/1.

Monday, January 10, 2011

FIFA crowns the best of 2010

FIFA Ballon D'Or 2010

The inaugural FIFA Ballon D'Or awards, a merger between the FIFA World awards and the longer established France Football Ballon D'Or, has taken place in Zurich to honour football's finest in 2010. The winners are as follows:
  • World Player of the Year - Lionel Messi
  • Women's World Player of the Year - Marta (Brazil)

  • Coach of the Year - Jose Mourinho
  • Women's Coach of the Year - Silvia Neid (Germany)
  • Team of the Year - Iker Casillas, Maicon, Lucio, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Wesley Sneijder, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Villa
  • Fair Play Award - Haiti U-17 women's team
  • Presidential Award - Archbishop Desmond Tutu
  • Puskas award (goal of the year) - Hamit Altintop

Sean O'Conor

Asian Cup Win Lose and Draw

Dr. Joel Rookwood

After a disappointing opening fixture of the Asian championships, matches in Group A continued on Saturday with China taking on Kuwait.

A crowd of less than seven-thousand rattled around Doha's Al Gharafa stadium, a ground with a capacity of four times that. Thanks to an interesting architectural design the view from our 'VIP' seats offered a full 40% panoramic view of the pitch. Instead we selected seats with both goals in sight, more out of hope than anticipation.

Asian Cup.

Despite the paltry crowd, at least most people present were partisan supporters. The Kuwaitis, with their rhythmic clapping and occasional chanting, were greater in number and noise than their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese were clearly excited at the prospect of supporting their country, but collectively they seemed unsure as to how their encouragement should be expressed. The chant of 'red card, red card', bellowed out a full minute after Mesad Nada had been sent off for stamping on Yang Xu, left me a little confused, albeit amused.

As with the group's opening encounter, a Middle Eastern team lacked ability where endeavour was abundant - a brave first half stalemate shattered as two second half goals were conceded to a team from further east. Kuwait and Qatar will swap opponents in the next round of matches, contests which are likely to confirm their early exit, and the progression of China and Uzbekistan into the quarter finals. Group A's final fixtures are set to determine group winners and Middle Eastern pride.

Yesterday teams from Group B kick started their campaign, fighting for the right to face Group A's top two in the next round. Three-time champions Japan took on Jordan in Doha and Saudi Arabia faced Syria in nearby Al Rayyan. With only an hour separating the matches (and a comparable driving distance), the sensible thing to do would be to pick one game to watch. Sense however has long since departed the building, and with that tickets for both matches were purchased, a forceful and creative taxi driver ensuring we saw both contests in their entirety.

An overconfident and youthful Japanese team underestimated a determined albeit limited Jordan side, who were urged on by passionate support from the stands. Jordanian apparel was gifted to supporters entering the stadium, with European-style chanting and gestures choreographed by charismatic middle-aged ringleaders throughout the contest.

Much of the sentiment was simple enough for non-Arabic speakers to understand. Even my rudimentary grasp of the language ensured translation was not required for the most part - although vocal participation was not always recommended – there is something very strange and unpleasant about seeing five-year-olds joining older family members in singing 'Hezbollah Allah Akbar' (at an international football match against a country with whom they have relatively sound diplomatic relations since 1954).

The microcosmic experience was a reminder of the legitimacy of UEFA's decision to admit Israel into Europe's football family (Israel left AFC in 1974 but did not gain full UEFA membership until 1994). With Syria, North Korea and Iran also present in the competition, potential fixtures could have read more like a UN watch list than football contests. Bitter ethno-religious rivalries are not what the competition needs - sentiment I was keen to express before watching Iraq take on Iran on Tuesday.

On the pitch the first half looked set to remain goalless until an Abdel Fattah strike moments before the interval gave the contest a very different complexion. The Japanese side appeared destined to fail in their bid to break Jordan's resolve. However a first draw of the competition was confirmed as Maya Yoshida struck in second half stoppage time. The goal gave Japan an ill-deserved share of the spoils, leaving the Jordanians to dream of what might have been.

An hour later Syria kicked off against Saudi Arabia, in what was certainly the most volatile contest of the competition to date. Hoards of soldiers were on patrol outside the stadium, serving as a stark contrast to the three previous fixtures and an ominous statement about what the game could become.

The football proved similarly explosive, with the Syrians taking the lead in both periods of the game through strikes from Al-Hussein, the second of which earned them victory. With refreshing honesty, Syria coach Valeriu Tita admitted after the match, "Frankly I did not expect to win."

The Saudis and Jordanians, who would have been left disappointed following their respective opening contests will be pitted each other next, with Syria's group leadership to be tested by the Japanese. With Group B hanging in the balance, quarter final qualification is unlikely to be confirmed before the final round of matches.

© Dr. Joel Rookwood &

Japan are 7/2 favorites, followed by South Korea and Australia at 9/2, Saudi 15/2 and Iran 8/1.

Doha: City of Traffic

Qatar World Cup 2022

Can Qatar host a successful World Cup in 2022? That's probably a moot question in terms of the Asian Cup, since so much of the country resembles an open construction site.

Eleven years is a long time between tournaments, and no doubt the army of construction workers who clog the footpaths and car parks of this tiny desert nation will work overtime to transform Qatar from its present dusty state into a shining beacon of the Gulf.

For now, though, Asian Cup fans are left to struggle with a more pressing logistical problem - the traffic.

Doha: City of Traffic

The US government once suggested driving in Doha is akin to risking life and limb, which is why it makes more sense to employ the services of one of the city's daring band of taxi drivers.

He'll almost always hail from India - or Nepal, or Sri Lanka or a similar neighbouring state - and most crucially, he'll treat other road users and pedestrians with the contempt they deserve when time is of the essence.

And time is always of the essence in Doha - in peak hour, at any rate - when you're stranded on Al Waab Street behind miles of stationary traffic. Fortunately the problem is solved by simply driving along the dusty shoulder, as pedestrians scurry and law-abiding citizens curse the temerity of your admittedly deranged cabbie.

So, can Qatar successfully host the World Cup? We'll see. But they'll need to build some more roads first. And they'll need to increase their insurance premiums.

Oh, and one more thing. They'll need import some more cabbies; ones with bravado and courage and a complete lack of respect for the road rules.

Terrified Australian tourists need not apply.

Copyright © Mike Tuckerman &

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Kenny jumps back into the fire

FA Cup 3rd Rd: Manchester United 1:0 Liverpool

King Kenny
What a difference a minute makes.

Anfield hero Kenny Dalglish, returning as Liverpool's manager after a decade's sabbatical, was an unexpected picture of sunny composure before
kick-off against Manchester United today, relaxed and joking about his upcoming assault on Mount Everest.

Was this smiling Scot the same Dalglish whose tense and dour façade confronted the cameras the last time he was in charge at Anfield? The same manager would often slip into thick Glaswegian to deliberately confuse the pesky interviewers, until the unresolved pain of Hillsborough meant he could bottle his inner turmoil up no longer.

His resignation in 1991 following a grueling 4-4 derby draw, came as a real shock. We know top managers are under permanent pressure, particularly when relegation fears place them under what they themselves call 'deathwatch', but they do not tend to walk out citing stress when their teams are riding high.

King Kenny had unfinished business with the Reds, and mentally as well as physically had never left Liverpool, but it took 90 seconds, not minutes today in Manchester, to remind him that football folk are crazy. A controversial penalty, courtesy of a Dimitar Berbatov fall to earth, pushed Liverpool onto the back foot and
plunged Dalglish back to 1991, the stress returning for the first time in years. Then Steven Gerrard was shown red for a flying lunge and a nightmare had descended upon Kenny's second coming.

Every cut to the visitors' bench showed a man possessed by the past, the initial radiance drained from a suddenly aged and haunted face, the warmth of a long-desired homecoming replaced by the unforgiving chill of the wind of defeat. There was to be no first-game fillip for Dalglish's new Liverpool, who enjoyed some promising spells but failed to threaten the Red Devils meaningfully.

Kenny Dalglish
Kenny Dalglish
Whatever may happen between now and the season's climax in May, rest assured Dalglish will go to bed a troubled man tonight, tossing and turning in his sleep after only one day in his dream job, recoiling at the taste of the poisoned chalice he leapt onto a plane in Dubai to drink from.

Why did Dalglish do it, throw himself into a more frightening and challenging lion's den than ever, when he had no money worries and could have enjoyed a quiet life as a scout and occasional pundit? Liverpool is in his DNA is the only explanation, and his blood runs Anfield red. One man's madness is a football man's logic.

Whether it was right to sack Roy Hodgson after only half a season and replace him with a Liverpool legend who has not coached for ten years remains the unanswered question hanging over Liverpool's new owners, the Fenway Sports Group (FSG). Hodgson had spoken presciently of his fate for some time, caught in the conundrum of being unable to turn down the offer of such a glamorous job, but equally painfully aware the odds were stacked against him coming out alive from it. Liverpool still need new blood and big money, which so far FSG have failed to supply.

In selecting a former club hero, FSG look as clueless as any incoming owner desperate to assuage the fan base: Read Alan Sugar choosing Ossie Ardiles for Tottenham or Mike Ashley picking Kevin Keegan at Newcastle for a glimpse into the future of Dalglish and Liverpool.
They made the right noises about long-term planning, but in the end chose a short-term fix which has made a losing start. 

They would have done better to have noticed the top two managers in the Premier League, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, have also been there the longest because their owners kept faith in them. In their much-praised book, 'Why England Lose', Simon Kuper and Stefan Szyminski argue strongly that changing the manager makes little difference when the money a club pays its players remains the same.

Ignore the lazy talk about coaches like Hodgson losing the fans and/or the dressing room - fan popularity hinges on victories on the field, while players do not automatically warm to a coach who brings them success. Results define an employee's value more than anything else.
Maybe Kenny will go on to work wonders, but only if he is handed serious money for signings and above all time, the manager's greatest gift of all.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Qatar v Uzbekistan: A match minus the football

Qatar v Uzbekistan

Dr. Joel Rookwood

The flights to Doha were booked without complication, accommodation was effortlessly secured, and match tickets were purchased with ease. My introductory experiences of international tournaments have rarely unfolded with such simplicity.

Faz and I arrived at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha last night genuinely excited at the prospect of witnessing the opening ceremony of the Asian Cup. The deafening and visually spectacular pre-match firework display, which would have impressed even the dourest Mancunian, seemed ideal preparation. What followed however was a comedy of errors: Qatar vs Uzbekistan.

I've never seen a stadium so disinterested in a football match. Faz and I might hail from Liverpool, a city with an almost idolatrous passion for the game, but this level of indifference to the sport is something you won't find in many places - even Milton Keynes.

The performance of the hosts made me long for a cessation of their national alcohol restrictions, or that I too had come dressed from head-to-toe in a thobe/gutra, if only to allow me to sleep without incurring suspicion.

I would have shielded my face with the "Qatar" scarf I bought outside the ground, but it was covered in Arabic writing, which could mean anything. 'We hate football' would be the most suitable sentiment, but that was admittedly unlikely. I decided not to risk the facial disguise, and just en-joy/dure the game.

By contrast, the handful of travelling supporters made far more entertaining viewing. They actually watched the match, and I'm pretty sure they knew the rules. (Which probably helps explain why Uzbekistan's initial bid to host the 2022 World Cup finals got lost in the mail, somewhere over the Chatkal mountains).

Like any self-respecting European my knowledge of the Stans derives chiefly from watching Borat. I'm not certain whether Uzbekistan is one of those countries with 'inferior potassium' or if they are indeed a nation of 'assholes'. I'm quite sure however that many Qataris came to the latter conclusion tonight when the visitors had the audacity to defeat the hosts in the opening game. Not that the home supporters I spoke to were in buoyant mood before kick off - and with the game only minutes old, I was able to see why.

I saw Sudan play in the African Nations tournament in Ghana a few years back, and was almost sickened by their stark inability. As a more recent frame of reference, I'm a Liverpool season ticket holder, and we are managed (at the time of writing) by Roy Hodgson. Yet even by such lowly standards, this Qatar side are genuinely horrific.

Both teams spent the first half seemingly determined to avoid respectable pass completion rates. It was like watching two sides (both managed by Roy Hodgson) of overweight, partially sighted strangers play netball, at altitude, in the dark, on an ice rink, with a medicine ball. Occasionally a player would maintain possession by finding a team mate, but that was usually as a direct consequence of shooting, from inside his/her own half.

The visitors (who will probably win the tournament now after I have so publicly offered such disparaging remarks) clearly had the balance of ability and ideas. However, their refusal to capitalise on the gulf in capacity throughout the opening period triggered a host of conspiracy theories from yours truly.

Any suspicions that they might each have been offered a goat farm in return for a goalless draw were removed however, when the Uzbeks took the lead midway through the second half. As a second and final meaningful event of the evening, that lead was doubled thirteen minutes from time.

There's no point me telling you the goal scorer's name(s). I'd have to look up the details and I would probably not spell names correctly - and let's face it, neither of us really cares. Let's hope tonight's encounter at the Al Gharafa stadium (Scouse translation - 'Old Giraffe Ground') is an improvement, on the field at least. Oh wait, I’ve just scanned the match ticket - it says 'Bahrain v China'. Scrap the optimism - but stay with me, things can only improve.

© Dr. Joel Rookwood &

Japan are 7/2 favorites, followed by South Korea and Australia at 9/2, Saudi 15/2 and Iran 8/1.

Friday, January 7, 2011

It could only be Qatar it will only be Doha

Qatar World Cup

Dr. Joel Rookwood

I was driving through the Welsh countryside when the news broke detailing the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. Millions waited in nervous anticipation, as years of planning, investing and campaigning culminated in a single word on a piece of paper.

Before the FIFA president announced who would be staging the former event however, he offered confirmation that the word 'England' would not appear from inside the envelope. In what was a strange pre-announcement speech (even for Mr Blatter) he referred to England as the 'homeland' of football. I did not require video footage to interpret this rare show of placation, the clarity of which was in stark contrast to my car's radio reception. The World Cup was definitely not 'going home'.

The suitability as a venue and the strength of the English bid was never in question, yet ironically such pedigree would prove their undoing. Had it not been for 1966, England fans might be reflecting on 'eighty years of hurt', but the country would have also been in a stronger position to host the 2018 event. I was genuinely pleased to hear the decision to take the tournament to Russia for the first time – after all, would you rather go to Plymouth or St Petersburg?

Blatter reiterated the importance of 'growing the game', and taking it to new frontiers. Finding new hosts and spreading the competition across the continents seems a sensible way of doing this. Russia therefore appear to be the ideal candidate. Sprawling across Asia with a notable presence in Europe and one eye on the Americas, the Russian Federation is impossible to overlook.

What surprised me however was the lack of response to Qatar being named hosts of 2022. Save for the Australians, few would question the choice of continent, particularly given FIFA's expansive and rotational agenda – seven of the ten most populous countries in the world are in Asia - but as a nation of 1.6 million people, with a landmass half the size that of Wales, how exactly will the 148th biggest country in the world grow the game? Cynics may point out that in global terms, Moscow has more millionaires than any other city, and Qatar has the highest GDP per capita – yet we are led to believe these were not chiefly economic or political decisions, but 'sporting'.

In July 2007 when the Qataris were granted the opportunity to host the 2011 Asian Cup, eyebrows were raised in some quarters. Strangely there were no serious competitors that time either, after India and Iran pulled out of the running. When the event kicks off in Doha this evening, it would be an overstatement to claim that the eyes of the football world will be on the Qatari capital, principally as no one outside of this continent really cares about the Asia Cup. However, the tournament should provide some indication of what the first Middle Eastern World Cup might look like.

The AFC Asia Cup sprung to life in 1956, and its supporters will claim it has since transformed into a world-class sporting event. Seven of the twelve affiliated teams competed in the first tournament in Hong Kong, and now, more than fifty years later, the tournament has grown to showcase sixteen of the top teams from the continent. The 2011 event marks a second opportunity for Qatar to host the competition, and will include representatives from Australia, Bahrain, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, North Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, UAE and Uzbekistan.

Current holders Iraq positioned themselves on the footballing map and propelled the tournament into global consciousness, when the war-torn nation overcame Saudi Arabia to win the 2007 final in Jakarta. The finalists were two of the only teams not to be involved in hosting the tournament, staged somewhat farcically in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

As sole hosts, Qatar have promised to provide something quite different for 2011. The organisers claim that the 15th Asia Cup will be one defined by entertainment. When I landed in the capital last night, an airport advertisement for the national telecommunications company supporting the event claimed they are 'the sponsors of excitement'. As I write from the top floor of my Doha hotel, hours before the opening ceremony and encounter, two of the five stadiums set to host this centralised tournament are in view in the hazy distance. Sharpening the focus, for Qatar and for Doha, this is the time to deliver.

© Dr. Joel Rookwood &

Japan are 7/2 favorites, followed by South Korea and Australia at 9/2, Saudi 15/2 and Iran 8/1.

Asian Cup 2011 Predictions & Asian Cup Betting

Asian Cup 2011 Predictions

We asked four Soccerphile writers for their picks for the 2011 Asian Cup, which kicks off today.

First Seoul-based K-League cognoscente John Duerden: It's an open competition but I have a feeling for Saudi Arabia.

This is a team that could either do terribly or go all the way. For a change, the coach stayed after failing to qualify for the World Cup and there is an unusual sense of stability around the team, something that has been lacking for years. Also do well in West Asia and have reached six of the last seven finals. Hardly ever mentioned as favourites but they are ready to slip in under the radar.

Asian Cup.

Just like Iran, who are also dangerous, missing out on the World Cup has focused minds, given the team 18 months to prepare for this and a thirst to prove their worth.

Australian soccer expert Marc Fox: Just like four years ago I think it will be pretty open ... even predicting the winners of the groups is a tough call. But I think South Korea might prove strong enough this time if they can find enough goals.

UK-based Premiership pundit Andy Greeves: On the back of their strong performance at last summer's World Cup, I'm tipping Japan to win the 2011 Asian Cup.

Keisuke Honda was a revelation in South Africa and I can see him being a stand out performer once again at this tournament. I'm also a big fan of Yasuhito Endo in their midfield, who could do a job in any league around the world. Alberto Zaccheroni's squad has a very nice blend of youth and experience and crucially in Shinji Okazaki, they have a proven goalscorer who can fire them to victory.

Outside of Japan, I'm going to be very predicatable and say that South Korea and Australia would be my other favourites. I see Saudi Arabia as dark horses - they should get out of Group B along with Japan and could go on a decent run after that. You can never rule out the hosts at big tournaments either and for that reason, think Qatar have got half a chance on home soil too.

From a European perspective, I'm interested to see which players manage to put themselves in the shop window at the Asian Cup. Since the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, we have seen an increased influx of players from the Asian Football Confederation to the English Premier League and elsewhere in the continent. Can't wait for more talent to be uncovered at this competition.

Finally, J-League guru and Asian football-specialist Mike Tuckerman: I'm going to go out on a limb and say Iran. They're struggling for form and are in arguably the toughest group, but I just think they're due and things may click for the departing Afshin Ghotbi in Qatar.

I can't see Japan winning it with a relatively new-look squad, especially with impending club transfers hanging over a few players.

South Korea might struggle for goals without Park Chu-young, while Australia are slow at the back and susceptible to teams with pace. They'll probably run into Iran in the quarter-finals too, and I just feel like everything might fall into place for Team Melli and they'll end up with the trophy.

Japan are 7/2 favorites, followed by South Korea and Australia at 9/2, Saudi 15/2 and Iran 8/1.


Sport in Doha Qatar

Sport in Doha Qatar

Doha in the oil and natural gas rich state of Qatar takes center stage in the world of sport today as the 2011 Asian Cup kicks off this evening.

Meanwhile on the tennis courts Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are battling it out in the Qatar Open.

Sport in Doha Qatar

In a different type of court, the International Cricket Council's spot fixing inquiry into claims against three Pakistani cricketers is being held in Doha.

Ex-captain Salman Butt and pace duo Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir pleaded not guilty to charges of bowling no-balls to order in last summer's test series in England.

World Cup Posters


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brazil - the next generation

Brazil - The Next Generation

Once again Brazil failed at the World Cup despite entering the competition as favourites. Robinho looked to have sent them on their way to the last four in Port Elizabeth before a Wesley Sneijder brace put the Dutch through instead. The expected fightback never came and for a second World Cup in a row the world's most valued soccer nation trooped off into the shadows.

Brazil - The Next Generation

So once again, young starlets are emerging post-
tournament to raise the spirits of the seleçao.
And most hopes are being pinned on the Santos duo of Ganso and Neymar.

Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima, known as 'Ganso', is a 21 year-old number ten, has drawn comparisons with Zinedine Zidane and seems the obvious replacement for Kaka once he hangs up his boots. His first game in the yellow and green was in last August's 2-0 friendly win over the USA.

The name of Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, who turns 19 this week, has been in global circulation a little longer, as he exploded onto the scene as a 17 year-old striker, but only made his Brazil debut in the same friendly last summer, bagging the opening goal.

Needless to say, almost every big European club has been linked with the duo, especially with Neymar, and one hopes neither young man will risk hopping across the Atlantic too soon.

With Brazil sure to be a force in 2014 with the World Cup on home soil, this young pair from Pelé's old club could be following in the great man's footsteps and raising gold to the sky...

-Sean O'Conor

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Golazo from Yer Man!

Golazo from Yer Man!

Not every day the Northern Irish league is in the spotlight, but was there a more audacious strike in 2010 than this effort by Glentoran's Matty Burrows, which looks better on each viewing...

Burrows' strike makes it to the ten best goals of the year chosen by FIFA, along with usual suspects Messi, Neymar & Robben, plus Bafana Bafana's opening strike of the World Cup Finals.

* Here's one they missed, from Andrea Pirlo, as the Parma defence obligingly opens up.

- Sean O'Conor


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Georgie's Predictions January 1

Georgie's Predictions January 1

George got 2 results right last week and 1 perfect score.

George got 2 results right last week and 1 perfect score.

Sat 1 January 2011

WBA 1 v Man Utd 2
Liverpool 1 v Bolton 0
Manchester City 2 v Blackpool 1
Stoke City 0 v Everton 2
Sunderland 2 v Blackburn 0
Tottenham 2 v Fulham 1
West Ham Utd 0 v Wolves 0
Birmingham 1 v Arsenal 1

Sun 2 January 201

Chelsea 3 v Aston Villa 1
Wigan Athletic 2 v Newcastle 1

Previous week's George Predictions
World Cup Posters