Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Football must learn from Speed's death

Gary Speed

Football must learn from Speed's death.
Gary Speed

"All we've done is cried. None of this makes sense. I don't know if we'll ever know." Jonathan Ford, Chief Executive, Football Association of Wales.

For once Sepp Blatter said the right thing in calling Gary Speed, who died unexpectedly on Sunday, "a model professional and a fantastic ambassador for the game".

The Welsh national team manager seemed a flawless sportsman in so many ways, always trim and industrious, never hot-headed or lazy. Speed always made friends, had no enemies and appeared to have a settled life and loving family as he embarked on a new and successful career. His past was bright and so was his future.

He won a title with Leeds United in 1992, an M.B.E. in 2010 for services to football, enjoyed passing on his experience as a coach and was a popular teacher. His effect on a moribund Wales has been immediately extraordinary. After a remarkably long playing career he excelled in his final job, which makes his apparent suicide all the more unfathomable.The facts just do not seem to fit.

He had planned a family holiday and working trip to the Middle East at Christmas; only hours before he hanged himself, Speed appeared on BBC television, watched a match with Alan Shearer, and joked with Welsh colleague Robbie Savage on the phone before hosting a dinner party.

He spoke in his final hours of organising future friendlies for Wales, of returning to the Football Focus show before Christmas and of meeting a friend this weekend.Never has a suicide made less sense.

The testimony of TV presenter Dan Walker on Speed's final day is typical:

"He was as bubbly as I've known him," said Walker. "He was talking about his kids, how they were really coming on, and talking about playing golf next week."

Gary Speed

Welsh teammate Savage concurred, incredulous,

"I spoke to him yesterday and we were laughing and joking."

"Just cannot believe the news regarding Gary Speed, " tweeted Michael Owen. "We waved at each other two days ago dropping our kids off at school. I'm numb."

Former Leeds teammate Gordon Strachan said that Speed, unlike some players he had come across with mental health issues, had shown no signs of suffering from depression.

"This one is right out of the blue," he commented, while Welsh starlet Gareth Bale, who has shown impressive form under Speed, summed up the ubiquitous sense of dismay:

"Everyone still can't get their head around this."

FAW Chief Exec, Ford added, "He was a model professional, a lovely guy, gregarious person. Players wanted to play for him, fans lo
ved him."

Shearer, who like Speed's former Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson and others has taken the death badly, called Speed "bright" and "fun" and that he "lit up every room he walked into."

And this was the man who felt he could not go on living?

Nobody yet claims to have ever spotted any warning signs. His wife, via his agent, has insisted theirs was a happy marriage and that no row had preceded the tragedy. Speed's suicide remains a baffling mystery to one and all, a completely out-of-character decision, as far as everyone can understand. But the truth must be out there.

The police reported no suspicious circumstances to the coroner, while a full inquest will be held in January. All we know so far is that Speed's wife discovered his body hanging in the garage at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning.

This has set the theory-mongers off, but until we hear otherwise we cannot but play amateur psychologists. We need the world to make sense for our own sanity.

If Paul Gascoigne had taken his own life, no-one would have been surprised. But Gary Speed?

So are skeletons about to jump from the closet to explain his sudden death, or was the placid exterior and professional perfectionism an elaborate mask for a highly troubled soul and his apparent whim of an exit in fact long in the planning? And was this another Robert Enke, a second victim of a high-profile sport's failure to treat mental health as a serious ailment?

In his column for the Daily Telegraph, Liverpool legend Alan Hansen confirmed depression remains a taboo in the dressing-room, and that football is fundamentally a "brutal culture."

"Players know that any admission of a problem or a call for help would see them annihilated by their teammates," he wrote, "so as a result there would be a real air of silence when it came to telling people that you needed help."

Paul Farmer, head of mental health charity MIND, appeared to confirm football itself might have a case to answer."The high-pressure environment of top-level sport can cause huge levels of stress," he wrote, "and just because someone appears to be able to carry on their usual daily life, it does not mean that they are not struggling in private...Three quarters of suicides are by men. The macho culture of football means that we have seen very few professionals come forward to talk about mental health problems."

Society at large understands little about depression, and football still has not got a clue. That a man so apparently successful on the outside should feel so cornered by his inner demons that he could not face another day alive is something we all need to sit down and take stock of. We may not understand it at this moment, but we need to try.

Football must learn from Speed's death
Speed in his playing days
We think we know the symptoms of depression well when we seem them in a person on a regular basis, but they can also remain invisible to outsiders as well as to the sufferer.

Stan Collymore remains the only player to have publicly railed against his treatment when suffering depression as a player, making the unarguable case that missing a match with a bout of poor mental health should be as acceptable as missing a game with a pulled hamstring.

Speed's was a death in the football family and perhaps this will be a catalyst for it to wake up to its dereliction of duty to its members. Sue Baker of the 'Time to Change' campaign for acceptance of mental health issues certainly hopes so.

"We want to encourage anyone experiencing similar levels of despair to try and speak to someone, whether friend, family or their doctor," she said. " We hope that everyone feels able to follow Collymore's advice to seek help if they feel like this."
Encouragingly, Tony Adams' Sporting Chance clinic reports that more than ten players have rung since Sunday revealing serious fears about their states of mind.

Away from match-days, I saw Speed in person once, in a Cardiff nightclub with fellow Welsh internationals about 15 years ago. He was smart, clean-cut, relaxed and had a calm aura about him. In a fascinating moment, he, Ryan Giggs and Dean Saunders stood on a balcony together, the entire dance floor below cheering in worship of the three Welsh demi-gods looking down on them. Speed looked on contentedly, though maybe a little blasé as well.

He was undemonstrative compared to most players and was always in peak physical condition, which suggests he led a life of discipline, perhaps too much so - is this the clue to the mystery? If no-one spotted the signs, then obviously no-one really knew the real Gary Speed. The fame and money probably made it harder for him to come clean about his feelings and certainly distanced us, the public, from the man inside. Better to lose it on and off the pitch like Gazza then, so life-saving help can be forthcoming.

The loss to Welsh football remains immense, yet to his loved ones incalculable. 840 club appearances and 134 goals is a fantastic tally, plus 85 national team caps and six strikes for Cymru completes a remarkable innings.

Football must learn from Speed's death

Whilst he probably considered himself a failure when he took his own life, Speed's final accomplishment in catapulting his little country from 117th to 45th in the FIFA World Rankings with four wins out of five proves he died a shining success.

My abiding memory is of a crowd at Cardiff Arms Park chanting for a substitution to be made during a Wales home game, and a fan turned to ask his friend what was being sung:

"We want Gary Speed, say we want Gary Speed!"When the tears have dried, our best tribute to Speed will not just be a continuation of the winning Welsh team he forged, but a sea-change in football's attitude to the disease which took his life, so tragically at the age of only 42.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

- Coincidentally, Ronald Reng's book on Robert Enke's suicide, "A Life Too Short," has just won the William Hill Sports book of the year award.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

International night, Euro 2012 finalists set

Euro 2012

Euro 2012
Euro 2012
Euro 2012
The final lineup for next summer's European Championship in Poland & Ukraine is now set after tonight's playoff second legs, with a strong field of sixteen heading for Eastern Europe.

There were no winning fightbacks following the first legs and Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Ireland and Croatia all advanced to Euro 2012, eliminating respectively Bosnia & Herzogovina, Montenegro, Estonia and Turkey.

The sixteen qualifiers are thus:

Poland, Ukraine
, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, France, England, Portugal, Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, Eire, Czech Republic, Greece and Russia.

All the big guns are there, and Croatia, Sweden, Russia and Ireland make the boat having missed out on the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

The Netherlands' Klaas-Jan Huntelaar finished as top scorer in Europe with twelve goals, followed by Germany's Miroslav Klose with nine.
England were the best supported team with an average home crowd of 77,000, followed by France with 65,000.
The draw for the finals takes place in Kiev on the 2nd of December and the tournament itself is from the 8th of June until the 1st of July.


* World Champions Spain's lukewarm friendly form continued when they scraped a 2-2 draw in Costa Rica. Trailing 2-0 at the interval, David Silva pulled one back in the 83rd minute and David Villa spared their blushes with a leveller three minutes into injury time. As with Saturday's defeat to England, Spain fielded a full-strength team for the clash in San Jose, Costa Rica.

In other European friendlies, Germany blanked the Netherlands 3-0 in Hamburg, Italy lost 0-1 to Uruguay in Rome, England beat Sweden for the first time since 1968, 1-0 in London, while France drew 0-0 at home to Belgium. The USA won 3-2 in Slovenia while there were home wins for both Euro 2012 hosts: Poland beat Hungary and Ukraine Austria, both by 2-1 scorelines.

* Argentina overturned a half-time deficit to beat Colombia 2-1 in their 2014 World Cup qualifier in Barranquilla, Colombia. Lionel Messi equalised Dorlan Pabon's opener on the hour mark and Sergio Aguero bagged the winner with five minutes to play. In another CONMEBOL qualifier, Ecuador beat Peru 2-0 in Quito.

* Asian giants Japan and South Korea both lost in 2014 qualifying tonight - Nippon lost 1-0 away to North Korea, while the Korean Republic lost 2-1 away to Lebanon. Australia won 1-0 in Thailand, China won 4-0 in Singapore and Iran won 4-1 in Indonesia. There were also qualifiers among the lesser nations of Africa and the CONCACAF region.

* In the pick of tonight's African friendlies, Nigeria beat Zambia 2-0, Ghana beat Gabon 2-1 and Zimbabwe beat neighbours South Africa 2-1.

(c) Sean O'Conor and Soccerphile

Sunday, November 13, 2011

When the Kings came to town

England v Spain Friendly, 2011

Spain Fans
Spain Fans
England v Spain
England v Spain
England 1:0 Spain Wembley Stadium, London

Wembley was full, sold on the dream of the king's touch, as the world's No.1 soccer nation Spain dropped by for an evening.

A strange pre-match atmosphere, as the usual patriotic fantasy rang increasingly hollow: No-one expected England to win and most were hoping for a defeat short of embarrassing.

A 90,000 defending army expected its fortress to be breached, and that it would only be a matter of when, not if the Spanish Armada would get revenge for 1588.

They had their full team out: Xavi, Iniesta and David Villa were facing Phil Jones, Joleon Lescott and Danny Welbeck - ouch!

In the first five minutes the red sea washed over Wembley as expected, Spain marinating possession and donning the mantle of the home side as they took their game confid
ently to their raw hosts. England were second best, pinned back in their own half, unable to string multiple passes together or create moments of danger. This was no ordinary home game.
Spain enjoyed the (three) lions' share of of the ball and out-shot England 21 to 3 overall, but never showed real 'animo' until they chased an equalizer in the final quarter, instead stroking the ball around as gently as crown green bowls. It was a lesson for the land of macho power-play from a visiting maestro. Simple yet brilliant: Play it to feet and flick it quickly when danger nears but never lose possession.

Yet Fabio Capello's team still merited their win for holding firm having stolen the lead against the run of play. Scott Parker's astute anchoring and his last-ditch lunges saved the day more than once, while the lone strike was a goal made in England. James Milner muscled away on the left and won a free-kick. He looped his set piece into the melée and Darren Bent soared highest to nod the ball
against the post.

Enter the wily old head of Frank Lampard, increasingly tipped to lose his place as he drew level with Bryan Robson on 90 caps, as the only one following up as an open goal gaped. England wanted it more and were hungry for the scalp of FIFA's No.1-ranked nation. Their defence held firm and withstood the Spanish onslaught; job done.

Yet Spain were clearly a class apart and England fans left buoyant but slightly subdued, knowing a narrow win had probably flattered the hosts. Even the loudest loudmouths at Wembley began hollering at England to pass and keep the ball down after a few minutes of watching la furia roja hold sway with effortless élan.

The fruits of tiki-taka are still ripe, a playing system streets ahead of any other in 2011.

England v Spain
England v Spain
England and other nations play in a linear fashion, hitting front men with crosses or runners in channels or working the ball upfield with diagonal passes or dribbles. Spain eschew the 'droit au but' approach and prefer to keep possession, spinning a spider's web of flicks and passing triangles which send ball-watchers' heads spinning as the play changes direction with every pass.

Only late in the game with the introduction of Fernando Torres to supplement Ces
c Fabregas did Spain attack in a more 'vertical' way.
Tiki-taka is maddeningly predictable yet unplayable at the same time, a winning formula that has bagged the European Championship and World Cup in an unprecedented golden age for a hitherto jinxed giant.
England v Spain
England v Spain
Wembley Welcome
Wembley Welcome
Spain are not all-conquering however and have already been beaten five times since 2008 as it happens, twice competitively - the USA beat them 2-0 at 2009's Confederations Cup and Switzerland edged them 1-0 at last year's World Cup. Make that six losses for the champions now. Friendly defeats have come in Italy (2-1) this summer, and in Portugal (4-0) and Argentina (4-1) last year.

It is as if in away friendlies the Spaniards take their feet off the gas and use them for practice and make sure they do not lose when it really matters, while the home teams are eager to beat the World Champions.

The US beat Spain in 2009 through conceding the wings and forming two solid banks of four to frustrate their close-passing through the middle, leaving American speedsters Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies to chase balls over midfield and stop the Spanish full-backs overlapping. Like England at Wembley, Switzerland grabbed a goal and kept a tight ship to frustrate the more talented Spaniards and hold out for a close win. Spain are beatable.

Being reigning European and World champions can become a millstone - everyone wants to say they beat you so they raise their game accordingly. As Spain manager Vicente del Bosque confirms,

"Anything except winning will be seen as a disaster and that doesn't help us at all."

For England, there was little to get excited about, but some green shoots showing promise: Danny Welbeck and Jack Rodwell impressed, Phil Jones fought manfully out of position, while man of the match Scott Parker proved why he should have gone to South Africa.

England remain an underachiever on the competitive stage but had beaten three World Cup holders at Wembley before Saturday: West Germany were dispatched 3-1 in 1954 and 2-0 in 1974, while Argentina with a teenage Diego Maradona succumbed 3-1 under the twin towers in 1978.

Beating the mighty Spain in 2011 in a friendly will not count for much in the long run, though a win is a win is a win.

Euro 2012 will be a whole different ball game.

ENG: Hart, G.Johnson, Lescott, Jagielka, Cole, Walcott (Downing 46'), Jones (Rodwell 56'), Parker (Walker 85'), Milner (A.Johnson 76'), Lampard (Barry 56'), Bent (Wellbeck) 63'.

SPA: Casillas (Reina 46'), Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos (Puyol 74'), Alba, Busquets (Torres 64'), Alonso, Xavi (Fabregas 46'), Iniesta (Cazorla 74'), Silva (Mata 46'), Villa.

Goal: Lampard 49'.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, November 10, 2011

FIFA back down in poppy row

Poppy Pains

FIFA back down in poppy row.
FIFA back down in poppy row
England will be allowed to wear poppies on their shirts against Spain on Saturday after all, albeit as an armband.

An extraordinary row had been stirred up after the Football Association announced the England team would sport the Remembrance Day flower for their friendly against the World Champions. Scotland and Wales plan to do the same for their games against Cyprus and Norway. 
FIFA reacted monolithically by refusing to countenance it, citing their regulations against "political, religious or commercial" symbols on national team shirts.

Political leaders and royalty reacted with rage, the London media went into frenzy and two members of the English Defence League, a protest group which draws a number of soccer thugs, scaled the roof of FIFA House in Zurich to protest.

Ignoring the fact that several nations' shirts have Christian crosses or Islamic crescents on them, or that Adidas, FIFA's favourite manufacturer, Nike, Umbro and other brands already have their logos emblazoned on shirts, the accusation that the poppy was a political symbol was well wide of the mark.

Poppies are ubiquitous in England in the week leading up to the 11th of September commemoration of those who served and/or died in conflicts. Military veterans man the entrances and exits to every major railway station, adults and children alike wear them and no TV presenter would be seen dead without the little red flower in their lapel.

Indeed, the pressure to be seen honouring the fallen has led to some complaining of 'poppy fascism'.

But it is definitely not "political". All parties unite to lay wreaths at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, Britain's national war memorial. The poppy, which comes from Canadian John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields' poem and American campaigner Moina Michael, succeeds in uniting the nation in quiet reflection, pacifists and non-pacifists alike.

On that basis, FIFA should never have interfered with something so close to a nation's heart which was a one-off because it just so happened England had a friendly at home a day after Armistice Day. The interventions of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and future king Prince William were probably due to their unpleasant experiences at the World Cup vote a year ago, where both left fuming at having been lied to by FIFA Ex.Co. members.

At the same time, did England need to wear a poppy? Their alternative plans of having a giant red flower on the pitch and having poppies on England training shirts and tracksuits and a minute's silence before kick-off surely would have made the point that football remembers too.

1,000 servicemen and women are due to attend to as part of the FA's 'Tickets for Troops' giveaway. Indeed, there has been a creeping military feel to England home games in the last few years. Now it is customary for uniformed soldiers to carry the flags around the field, to sometimes line up to be honoured and for the P.A. system to encourage the crowd to applaud, as 'Help for Heroes' collectors raise money for the families of those serving in Afghanistan.

The connection between the national team and the national army is becoming a little blurred in England, and FIFA were right to assume all national shirts should be left alone, but equally the strength of feeling in Britain on the issue was something they should have been aware of before clumsily putting their foot down.

In terms of football politics, England and FIFA look as far apart as ever, with the motherland of the game having given up the dream of ever hosting the World Cup again. Until regime change happens in Zurich, the FA can content themselves with mini-victories like this one.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

England To Base In Krakow For Euro 2012

Euro 2012

The English FA have announced that the England team at Euro 2012 will be based in the historic city of Krakow in Poland. The team will stay at the city centre Hotel Stary close to Rynek Square in the Old Town district and train at the rather dilapidated Hutnik Municipality Stadium on the city's outskirts.

Krakow is Poland's second largest city after Warsaw, the capital, and is Poland's major cultural and artistic centre. Krakow is not one of Poland's Euro 2012 venue cities and is a five hour train journey (with no beer on sale) to Wroclaw.

© Soccerphile.com

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Al Sadd Defy Odds To Take Asian Crown

Al Sadd Defy Odds To Take Asian Crown

Jeonju World Cup Stadium before kick-off

“I think I am not in the best condition to analyse it. At this moment, my feeling is stronger than my reason.”

Those were the words of Jorge Fossati, the coach of newly-crowned Asian Champions Al Sadd, deep in the bowels of Jeonju World Cup Stadium on Saturday evening. The Uruguayan had just watched a fantastic final in which his team overcame favourites and host Jeonbuk Motors thanks to a penalty shootout.

120 minutes ended 2-2 in a game that the Koreans had the chances to win but the Qataris held out and took the shootout 4-2 thanks to two saves from man of the match Mohamed Saqr.

“I am happy for everyone but especially for Saqr,” said Fossati. “When I came back to the club in January, many people told me that he couldn’t play anymore and that he was too old. Today, he was fantastic but that was not the only game in this competition in which he was fantastic. Jeonbuk players did not miss the penalties, he saved them. In the game also, he made two or three very important saves. One in the last minute was extraordinary.”

Al Sadd weren’t even supposed to be in the competition at all and were only placed in the qualifying round to replace a Vietnamese team that had failed to submit the correct documentation. Fossati steered the team to the knockout stage where they managed to make the last four despite losing both legs of the quarter-final to Sepahan. The Iranians had fielded an ineligible player and were punished accordingly.

The teams warm up

Onwards went the men from Doha to a tricky semi-final against two-time continental champs Suwon Bluewings. In Korea in the first leg, Al Sadd were surprisingly leading 1-0 when Senegalese striker Mamadou Niang scored his second of the evening. It almost caused a riot. Suwon had allowed the ball to go out of play to give injured players time for treatment and expected to get it ball.

Kader Keita didn’t see it that way. Suwon had attacked for a while before the ball was out for a throw-in and the Ivory Coast international decided that cancelled any rights to sportsmanship and with the entire Suwon team in the Qatari half, he passed the ball forward for an unmarked and almost unseen Niang to score.

A huge fight followed. Fans were on the pitch, noses were broken, kicks came flying in and coaching staff got involved. Eventually the dust settled and although Al Sadd lost the second leg 1-0 in one of the most defensive home displays you will see, the team booked their place in the final.

Jeonbuk should have won. The 2006 champions took an 18th minute lead with an Eninho free-kick but soon after Sim Woo-yeon headed into his own net from a Keita cross. The African produced a moment of real quality on the hour to volley home past Kim Min-sik to put the Qataris ahead.

Jeonbuk had already had chances and put on tournament top scorer Lee Dong-gook who had been struggling to recover from a thigh injury. Eventually the pressure paid off and Lee Hyun-sung headed home a last-minute equaliser.

Another corner for Jeonbuk

As the game went into extra-time, again, all expected Jeonbuk to triumph. Al Sadd looked tired and had taken off their two most creative players, Keita and Ibrahim Khalfan. The Koreans had their tails up and 41,805 fans were in full voice. But three times the home team hit the woodwork and just as in normal time, when they were on target, Saqr was on hand to palm the ball away. Whatever Jeonbuk did, they could just not get the all important goal.

“Tonight's defeat came from so many chances from which we failed to score,” said coach Choi Kang-hee. “Conceding the first goal was decisive. Some of our players got too excited during the game...I told the players we would have chances to score in extra-time but we were not able to take them. It is very frustrating to lose in this way but the players did all they could."

They did but it was just not to be and even before the shootout, there was a sense that Sadd would finish triumphant. That was before Kim Dong-chan and Lee Hyun-sung saw Saqr save their spot kicks. In between, Al Sadd’s Korean defender Lee Jung-soo hit the bar to give fans some hope but his team-mates soon extinguished that faint flame to signal the start of a parth thousands of miles to the west.

© Soccerphile.com