Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Morten Olsen Interview

Morten Olsen Denmark Coach Interview
The Danish Special One!

After San Marino's Giampaolo Mazza, Denmark's Morten Olsen is the longest serving international manager in Europe in charge of the national team since July 2000. Andy Greeves speaks to the former star midfielder about his playing days, managerial ambitions and an upcoming friendly with England.

When the 20th FIFA World Cup kicks off in Brazil this summer, spare a thought for Denmark and Morten Olsen. In qualification, the Dane's had all but booked their place in the play-offs as a best runner-up, leading Group B rivals Italy 2-1 in Copenhagen on October 13, 2013 at the end of 90 minutes.
Alberto Aquilani sneaked a stoppage time equaliser for the visitors though and despite a 6-0 win over Malta in the final group match, Olsen's men had missed out on a play-off place by one point.

"We were very unlucky in qualification," sighs Olsen. "Had it not been for (Alberto) Aquilani's stoppage time goal, we would have made it into the play-offs for qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and then who knows. It wasn't our time in 2014, but we've qualified four times for big tournaments under my management and now I'm after a fifth with qualification for UEFA Euro 2016."

Not only has Olsen been a manager of Danish teams at the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championships, but as a player he also wore the famous red shirt at these competitions. He captained the side which qualified for Euro '84 - Denmark's first major tournament since the Olympic Games of 1972 - and they subsequently went on the reach the semi-final, losing to Spain on penalties. Two years later, the Dane's reached their first ever World Cup, the same year as Olsen was voted Danish Player of the Year.

"1986 was the first FIFA World Cup tournament that Denmark had ever qualified for, so it was a massive thing for the whole country, not just the players involved," recalls Olsen. "We performed very well in our group, winning all three games against Scotland (1-0 on June 4, 1986), Uruguay (6-1 on June 8, 1986) and West Germany (2-0 on June 13, 1986) before a heavy defeat to Spain (1-5 on June 18, 1986) in the knockout phase."

In that 2-0 win over West Germany, Olsen was responsible for one of the most iconic moments in Danish football history as he dribbled the ball from his own penalty area to the Germany's area to win a penalty, which Jesper Olsen subsequently converted.

"Yes, it's fair to say that moment gets brought up a lot by people I speak to," he laughs. "It was great to beat the West Germans, who went on to be the runners-up in that competition."

Olsen also played for Denmark at Euro '88, which would see his side eliminated at the group stage. He subsequently retired from international football, having won a total of 102 caps for his country, scoring four goals. A year later, he hung up his boots entirely, having exceled as a club player with the likes of B 1901, Cercle Brugge, Racing White, Anderlecht and 1.FC Koln.

A career in management beckoned and he took his first post at Brondby IF in 1990, where he twice won the Danish Superliga in his two year spell, with a young Peter Schmeichel in goal for the club. He then took up the hot seat at former club 1.FC Koln in 1992 and thereafter Ajax in 1997, where he won the Eredivisie title in his only season in Holland. In 2000, his country came calling and offered him the top job in Danish football, which he has maintained ever since.

"I have been very happy in the job and I'm flattered at the continued faith that is shown in me," says Olsen, who admits he has been tempted with jobs in club management in the past, but remains committed to Denmark.

Two qualifications a piece have been achieved for the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championships respectively during Olsen's reign. Olsen has recently signed a new contract to keep in the job until June 2016, by which time he hopes to have marked qualification number five as an international manager for Denmark.

"Obviously, qualifying for tournaments must always be the objective for Denmark," he says. "We are a relatively small country in terms of a lot of others that play at World Cups, European Championships etc and it is getting harder and harder to qualify with so many good nations now. But UEFA Euro 2016 is a big objective for everyone involved in Danish football now."

Olsen can select from a talented bunch of players, which include Barclays Premier League stars Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur, Nicklas Bendtner of Arsenal and Daniel Agger of Liverpool. The manager describes Eriksen, just 21, as having a "massive future" ahead and is also full of praise for his other English based stars.

"Daniel (Agger) is my captain of course," smiles Olsen. "He is a magnificent professional and a real leader. He is a modern defender that's good at defending but comfortable carrying the ball forward as well. I can't over emphasise his importance to Denmark.

"Nicklas (Bendtner) has been out of the team for a while at Arsenal, not helped by some bad injuries. The last few months though, he has been involved again and this is very positive for us. We need top strikers, playing regularly and hopefully he can get the chance to do this."

On the subject of England, Denmark's next international match will be against the Three Lions when they travel to Wembley Stadium on March 5. With Roy Hodgson's team bound for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this summer, memories of the globe's biggest tournament come flooding back for Olsen, who is proud of his team's showings at the 2002 and 2010 competitions.
"2002, bar the defeat to England, was very good," he says. "We topped our group which contained three other talented nations in Senegal, Uruguay and France. Beating France 2-0 (in Incheon on June 11, 2002) as reigning World Cup holders was a big moment. "We had a lot of injuries going into the FIFA World Cup in 2010. It was quite bizarre because the weather was fairly mild in South Africa compared with the heat you usually expect at the tournament. We had a good chance of qualifying for the knock-out phases going into the last game against Japan, but that 3-1 defeat (in Rustenburg on June 24, 2010) was very disappointing."


Monday, February 24, 2014

However you measure it Ronaldo is amazing

However you measure it Ronaldo is amazing.

Cristiano Ronaldo's capture of the FIFA Ballon D'Or completed a remarkable return to the top five years after he last won the award.

The Portuguese wing wonder beat Lionel Messi by 1,365 votes to 1,205.

Football history will look back on this as the Spanish golden age, but the brightest stars in this Iberian heaven have been an Argentinian and a Portuguese.

These two superstars have monopolised awards for the past few seasons, which made Franck Ribéry’s third place finish with 1,127 votes all the more impressive.

Ribéry's role in helping Bayern Munich to a clean sweep of domestic and international trophies in 2013 was perhaps the greatest all-round contribution by a footballer last year.

He took defeat badly, citing his faultless trophy haul versus Ronaldo's empty cabinet as proof of an injustice, a cry echoed by UEFA President and fellow countryman Michel Platini, who decried the increasing American style reliance on statistics instead of success for measuring the game.

As proud Frenchmen, the pair felt some ownership, because the Ballon D'Or was once run solely by France Football magazine. Since merging with FIFA's World Player of the Year four years ago, it has got more personality dominated.

Cristiano Ronaldo.
The key difference is that the new award counts votes from national team coaches and captains. Had journalists alone decided the vote as before, Ribéry would have been crowned the world player of the year - perhaps proof that those outside the game view things on the field with cooler heads and more critical eyes.

Unlike FIFA's World Cup hosting selections, whose inner workings are shrouded in secrecy, the Ballon D'Or, because of its origins in journalism as opposed to management, is fully open to inspection. This provides some curious insights into the global soccer family.

Not everyone is entranced by the Barcelona-Real Madrid hegemony. Bahrain coach Anthony Hudson for instance was one of many who ignored the top three: He chose Ribéry’s teammate Bastian Schweinsteiger as the world player of the season, Andrea Pirlo as next best and Mesut Özil in third.

Belgium boss Marc Wilmots by contrast plumped for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski and Eden Hazard. China coach Bo Fu went for PSG's Thiago Silva while Ivorian journalist Adam Khalil picked fellow countryman Yaya Touré as the winner.

Many votes stayed in-house: Colombia coach Jose Pekerman and skipper Mario Yepes both picked cafetero striker Falcao as the player of the season, Welsh manager Chris Coleman and captain Ashley Williams both voted for Gareth Bale, while Italian CT Cesare Prandelli and capitano Gianluigi Buffon gave Pirlo the nod.

Incidentally neither Messi nor Ronaldo voted for each other, which seemed rather unchivalrous. The Argentinian played his cards close to the Camp Nou, selecting colleagues Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Neymar as the world's top three; Ronaldo picked Falcao followed by Real pals Bale and Özil.

Once again, attackers trumped defenders and goalkeepers in the voting.

In fact, since the award was inaugurated in 1956 only two defenders have bagged the prize - Franz Beckenbauer in 1972 and '76 and Fabio Cannavaro in Italy's World Cup wining year of 2006.

For all his years of sterling service, Paolo Maldini never got a look-in, and nor did exceptional defenders like Franco Baresi, Frank De Boer, Philipp Lahm, Matthias Sammer or Lilian Thuram.

Russian custodian Lev Yashin remains the only goalkeeper to have won the award, in 1963. Dino Zoff came second ten years later and Oliver Kahn third in 2001 and 2002, yet the likes of Gordon Banks, Sepp Maier, Gianluigi Buffon, Peter Schmeichel & Petr Cech, genuine masters of the art of stopping goals, have played second fiddle in prizegiving to those who create and score them.

FIFA's only criteria for the Ballon D’Or were performances on the field of play and behaviour on and off the pitch - nothing more specific.

So what does make a great footballer? And is it right to value attackers over defenders when winning sides must always be built on solid defences?

Ask anyone to name the game's greatest players and they will invariably lean towards midfielders and strikers and select a best eleven stuffed with individual brilliance yet short on defensive destroyers. The men at the back have never been as valued as attackers but their repertoire has extended massively in recent years. Great defenders are no longer mere neutralisers but must also bring the ball out, spray accurate passes and join or launch attacks.

Modern full-backs spend so much time up the wing they are often better at going forward than tracking back. Chelsea's David Luiz and Ashley Cole for example are a world away from their equivalents half a century ago.

Yet childhood, the factory of football fervour, favours attacking. Creative midfielders who can dazzle with a trick or two garner more plaudits and win far more fans than a player who stifles others' imaginations. In this context, Ronaldo is surely a deserving winner for 2013, in which he averaged 1.17 goals per game.

Platini and Ribéry have a valid gripe, but equally the artist known as CR7 has been extra-terrestrial for club and country this past season. Off-field he is often perceived as arrogant, a playboy or just plain gruff, but we should concentrate on his football.

He netted 55 goals for Real in 2012-'13, a humungous haul that has continued into this season (he is the top scorer in La Liga thus far with 22 goals by the end of January), while his heroic rescuing of Portugal from World Cup 2014 elimination with an swashbuckling hat-trick in Stockholm was the stuff of greatness. Whilst he has toiled somewhat in the shade of the Messi-Barça bandwagon for the past few seasons, it is worth remembering he has bagged 400 goals, scored 40 in consecutive seasons and netted against every other La Liga team in a single campaign, all while not playing as a pure striker.

Fifth in Real's pantheon of goleadores, he is one goal short of becoming Portugal's all-time leading scorer, although in goals per game he still lags behind the great Eusebio.

Ronaldo does have all the commonly-held attributes of a great player in spades. He always aims to be a protagonist and never hides. As well as being as fast as lightning with Brazilian-esque feet, he is physically tough and fires his engines for 90 minutes. His pace, whether over five or fifty yards, is probably the key to his greatness, but as many a winger has proved, pace alone is not enough.

His gift of electrifying speed and exquisite technique make him the perfect counter-attacker. Whether it was dispatching Barcelona in the Copa del Rey or dumping Sweden on the quayside in the World Cup qualifying playoff, it is on the break where Ronaldo truly shines.

Give him an inch and a yard of grass as the old English saying goes, and he will run riot and decimate the best defence. His pace alone means he is usually first to a far-post cross for a tap-in.

Using him on the counter has been Real's key to breaking the Barcelona domination of recent years and even the mighty blaugrana have no answer to his threat. He is predominantly right-footed, but plays on the left where he can cut inside onto his favoured foot and unbalance the right-back.

His 29 year-old physique is incredibly honed, a lean machine maintained in optimum condition. When he pulls off his jersey, even the most red-blooded heterosexuals must doff their cap at the sight of a real-life Action Man beneath it.

Watching him in play, one is struck by how upright his torso remains, a rigid spectator to the fireworks display from his legs and feet below. Sprinting never seems to be an effort for him and he possesses a fuel injection which entrances markers for that crucial split-second.

For markers, Ronaldo's body is hard to read, since his arms and upper body hardly change pace while his legs accelerate. Without any swerving or lurching, he whistles past defenders thanks to quick feet and rapid changes of pace. No shimmies, just a mesmerising shuffle of his calves and Cristiano Roadrunner is off and away.

On the deck he plays with his toes more than most dribblers, flicks and chips with little backlift, nutmegs many a hapless full back and is fond of a back heel or two. Marking him is the stuff of nightmares for mortals. Do you drop off and let him beat you in a foot race or stay tight and find yourself on the floor as he skips past you in a heartbeat?

Unlike Messi, Ronaldo is a force in the air, using his speed and height of 6"1" / 1m 86cm to meet many a cross with a diagonal header on target.

The final weapon in his arsenal is his shooting; he happily lets rip from outside the box and has perfected the folha seca, the dipping free-kick hit with the laces. When he takes penalties he invariably roofs them, bagging 23 out of 24 over the past two years.

His brain has the impulsive flashes required for tricky wingers, whose flitting feints and jerks leave slow-witted defenders trailing in their wake. He has the will to win at all costs, which sometimes spills over into yellow and red cards.

When he famously winked after his club colleague Wayne Rooney was sent off at the 2006 World Cup, he showed he is not averse to the on-field craftiness usually associated with Diego Maradona or Italian footballers.

Perhaps above all, despite matching Messi in assists and using the majority of his touches to pass to his teammates, Ronaldo is in his element attacking as an individual, which brings his play closest to the fan's inner child.

Not for him the Borg collective of the blaugrana when he can do it by himself and in an era where defence mostly dominates, how refreshing it is to have a player whose bread and butter is taking on defenders and beating them.

Given that all players, supporters and writers are kids at heart when it comes to football, there could be no worthier winner.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Euro 2016 Draw

UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying Draw
Nice, 23rd Feb 2014

Group A

Czech Republic

Group B

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Group C

FYR Macedonia

Group D


Group E

San Marino

Group F

Northern Ireland
Faroe Islands

Group G


Group H


Group I

  • France qualify automatically as hosts.
  • Qualifiers begin in September 2014.
  • Finals draw in December 2015.
  • FINALS - 10th June to 10th July 2016 in Bordeaux, Lens, Lille, Lyon, Marseilles, Nice, Paris, St Etienne and Toulouse.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Who can predict the A-League?

Australian A-League

Who can predict the A-League? Just when it looked like the die had been cast for the season, a few results have turned everything on its head.

Brisbane Roar still retain their seven point lead at the top of the table, but they just cannot seem to beat their nemesis, the Newcastle Jets. The Jets unlikely 1-0 win at Suncorp Stadium on the weekend reminded everyone that, as good as they have been, Brisbane are beatable.

A seven-point lead with eight games remaining should be enough to see them claim the Premiership, but suddenly this week's game against the rampaging Melbourne Heart (who would've thought we’d be saying that a month ago!) takes on more importance.

It’s top vs bottom, yet Heart come into this game having won four of their last five, including a 5-0 demolition of Wellington Phoenix in Wellington on Sunday, and chock full of confidence. The arrival of John van't Schip and the sale of the club to Manchester City has given the red and whites new found belief and, as crazy as it sounds, they’re an outside chance for the top six.

It's a long shot, but with eight games left to play they are sitting seven points behind sixth placed Sydney FC who probably best epitomise the inconsistent nature of the A-League this season.

The Sky Blues lost three of their first four games, then went on to win five of their next six before slumping again to win only two of their last nine. Yet in that horror run was arguably one of the best moments in the club’s short history - the 5-0 demolition of fierce rivals Melbourne Victory. In Melbourne, no less.

After enduring the week from hell Frank Farina's side did what they had to do on Saturday and claimed all three points to put them back inside the top six. Reports suggest Farina needs a top four finish to guarantee his position for next season. And while they are only two points behind fourth, it would be a brave man who would suggest Sydney will achieve that.

The three teams with the toughest run home are Australia's three participants in the AFC Champions League - Western Sydney Wanderers, Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne Victory.

After Melbourne overcame Thai side Muangthong United on Saturday night in Geelong to earn a place in the group stage, all three must now navigate their way through the group stages while also trying to maintain their Premiership and Championship hopes in the A-League.

Tony Popovic has been well aware of the looming congested schedule and has been preparing accordingly, rotating his squad regularly in the first four months of the season to ensure his players are fit and firing for the rigours of competing in two competitions.

All three clubs will play 13 games in 53-55 days, which equates to a game every four days. Add in the lengthy travel times to Japan, China and South Korea and all three clubs will need to be meticulous in their planning to ensure they can compete favourably in both competitions.

We’ve heard about the tough travel for A-League clubs in the past. It was always a pre-planned excuse for A-League teams who didn’t take the ACL as seriously as they should have. And while there is no doubt it is a factor, it will not change now or into the future. So rather than complain, clubs have to learn to adapt and plan their season accordingly.

While Popovic was criticised in some quarters for his constant tinkering, if the Wanderers can maintain their A-League title challenge and perform well in the ACL he will be proven correct, and may well create the template for other coaches to follow in the coming years.

The only A-League club to have any success in Asia is Adelaide United, and after a less than positive start to the season, things seem to have turned around for Josep Gombau's side.

Lambasted at the start of the season for his decision to implement an entirely new philosophy and game style, and focusing on performance over results, it has started to pay off for Adelaide who have climbed to third on the table and are playing some of the best football in the league, led by their Argentine play maker Marcelo Carrusca who has just re-signed with the club for a further season, a massive boost to the club in the run in to the finals.

While there have been some obvious little tweaks to his plan from the start of the season, not much has changed at Adelaide other than the players are executing the game plan better than they were at the start of the season, which was always going to be the case as they grew more accustomed to the style.

This was clear to see in their second goal on the weekend when, as they have done all season, they opted to play out from the back through Eugene Galekovic. And whilst it almost came unstuck (it would have earlier in the season), the fact they were able to play their way out of trouble and in the space of a matter of passes find their way down the other end of the field to score the winning goal shows how far Adelaide has progressed.

With another eight matches to fine-tune their game plan in the run home they are a side every team will want to avoid come finals time.

And this weekend they have a great chance to cement their spot in the top three when they travel to Melbourne to take on their biggest rivals at AAMI Park. Adelaide fans still talk about the day they broke their hoodoo against Melbourne Victory with a 4-0 win at AAMI Park.

They would love nothing more than to repeat that feat this weekend.

But with just under a third of the season remaining there are no doubt a few more twists and turns left in this A-League season. Absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.

Paul Williams

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Weekly Football News 18 February 2014

Weekly Football News 3 February 2014
Mourinho branded an embarrassment for Chelsea

Even Chelsea's own fans have begun to turn on manager Jose Mourinho after the Portuguese's latest outburst at a rival manager in the English Premier League.

Mourinho - well known for raising the ire of other managers from his first spell at Chelsea - has continued in the same vein this season, with confrontations with Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers and Manchester City counterpart Manuel Pellegrini.

However, his latest victim, Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, has this weekend accused Mourinho of embarrassing Chelsea after he branded the long-time Gunners manager "a specialist in failure".

Wenger, whose last trophy at Arsenal came in 2005, said that Mourinho's words were "disrespectful" after watching his side advance to the last eight of the FA Cup with a battling 2-1 win over Liverpool.

"I do not want to go into that silly, disrespectful remark," Wenger said afterwards. "I never spoke about him in my press conference and I will not start.

"The only thing I know is it's more embarrassing for Chelsea than for me. I'm embarrassed for him, honestly. I'm not interested in the subject at all."

All change at Hamburg, again

Struggling Hamburg have put their proud Bundesliga record in the hands of experienced coach Mirko Slomka in the wake of Bert van Marwijk's dismissal.

Slomka, Hamburg's third coach of the season following Thorsten Fink and ex-Netherlands boss van Marwijk, has been tasked with ensuring the club avoid relegation from the German top flight for the first time in their history.

The 46-year-old German was himself sacked by Hannover in late December after a series of away defeats.

Now his challenge is to reverse the trend of recent results at Hamburg, who lost 4-2 at bottom side Eintracht Braunschweig, their seventh straight loss.

Slomka is best known for his work at Schalke, who he steered into the UEFA Europa League in both 2011/12 and 2012/13.

Toronto add Julio Cesar

MLS side Toronto FC have added another marquee signing to their squad in the shape of goalkeeper Julio Cesar.

The 34-year-old Brazilian shot-stopper, named in Luiz Felipe Scolari's extended Brazil squad for the friendly against South Africa on 5 March, has been keen to leave Championship side QPR to garner greater playing time in the run-up to this year's World Cup. Toronto have already added to their squad by recruiting Michael Bradley from Roma and Tottenham and England striker Jermain Defoe.

"Adding a player of Julio Cesar's experience and ability only strengthens our club both in the short and long term," Toronto general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said. "We are committed to creating a culture of winning at TFC, and there are few people in the world of soccer with a proven track record of consistently getting results that Julio has. We are very excited to bring him to Toronto FC."

Juve maintain 100% home record

Juventus have maintained their nine-point margin at the top of the Serie A table - and their 100% home record - with a 3-1 win over Chievo.

Kwadwo Asamoah, Claudio Marchisio and Fernando Llorente scored the goals for the league's frontrunners.

However, Roma kept alive their faint hopes of catching the runway Italian leaders with a straightforward 2-0 win over Sampdoria. They also have a game in hand over Juve, who still have to travel to the capital to face Roma on 11 May.

Marc Fox

Monday, February 17, 2014

2013 That Was The Year That Was

2013 That Was The Year That Was

2013 was one of those years between big tournaments with neither a World Cup, Copa America nor European Championship to savour.

That said we had the FIFA Confederations Cup which possibly saw the reign of Spain come to a crashing end as the World and European champions were thumped 3-0 by Brazil in the final in Rio.

Too much could be read into that match as the seleçao were always going to reap the advantage of the Maracana and the Confederations Cup anyway has nothing like the prestige of the longer-established trophies.

Maracana Stadium
Maracana Stadium
As a guide to the World Cup next summer, the tournament was also of limited utility. In the previous edition in South Africa in 2009, Spain were dumped out 2-0 by the USA in the semi-finals before lifting the World Cup a year later, while Brazil won the last Confederations Cup thrillingly, only to exit without a bang in the quarter-finals in South Africa.

Before we write the obituaries for La Roja, it should be noted Spain's Under 21 team cruised to victory in the UEFA 2013 championship, a sign the domestic skills factory is still turning out the talent. The core of Vicente del Bosque's senior side is not getting any younger but they still ended 2013 atop the FIFA World Rankings, with Germany in second, Argentina third and Brazil in tenth.

Reports of Spain's demise have thus been exaggerated, but it will be a challenge for anyone to beat the host nation next summer, as history favours a South American triumph.

Tiki-taka, the magical playing formula which has reigned supreme for the last five years, also took a battering in 2013. Not only did Brazil's pace and power dispatch Spain in the Confederations Cup but Barcelona's golden age was cut short in dramatic fashion.

Barça had already lost Champions League ties to Celtic and Milan before they came up against Bayern Munich in May's semi-final. A shocking 4-0 defeat in Germany was followed by a devastating 3-0 loss at the Camp Nou, conclusive proof it seemed that there were new kids on the block with better and sharper ideas.

Bayern used elements of tiki-taka in their style, and were second to Barcelona across Europe for the number of passes played, but the addition of two world-class wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben forged a faster and more powerful game.

4-2-3-1 remained the most popular formation in world football, but 4-4-2 started to make a comeback in England later in the year as managers experimented with a more attacking style and banked on defenders who had forgotten how to play against twin strikers. Elsewhere, Nigeria won the African Nations Cup and the USA the Gold Cup, while Costa Rica, Japan and the United Arab Emirates came out winners in regional competitions.

Bayern Munich was undoubtedly the club of the year, bagging the Bundesliga while breaking a number of domestic records, winning the domestic cup, Champions League and World Club Cup. Quite a farewell season for Jupp Heynckes, and an awesome ask for the incoming Pep Guardiola. Germany as a whole was flavour of the month with two Bundesliga sides reaching the Champions League Final and many an envious eye cast towards the nation's remarkable fan culture, with safe standing, affordable tickets and the highest attendances of any world league.

2014 though, will be the year of Brazil and 2013 saw its clubs capture a fourth consecutive Copa Libertadores title, with a new name on the trophy: Atletico Mineiro. Inspired by an effervescent Ronaldinho, the Belo Horizonte club ended their long wait for the continental crown defeating Paraguay's Olimpia over two legs in July.

In December's World Club Cup however, the South American champions surprisingly tripped up in the semi-finals against Morocco's Raja Casablanca.

Guangzhou Evergrande might not be a name on the lips of many fans worldwide, but their capture of the 2013 AFC Champions League title, under the tutelage of World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi, was the first time a Chinese club has won their continental title since 1990 and a sign that the soccer world's biggest sleeping giant could be starting to awake.

The usual suspects Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were shortlisted for FIFA's Ballon D'Or, whose winner will be announced shortly, along with Bayern's French musketeer Frank Ribery. After three consecutive wins, Messi is expected to step aside for Ronaldo to regain the crown, following a blistering season for Real Madrid.

In football politics, a handful of new faces joined the much-maligned FIFA Executive Committee, but at its helm Sepp Blatter remained untouched, even hinting he may stand again for President in 2015, age 78. Heir apparent Michel Platini continued to undo the goodwill heaped upon him as a sane alternative to Blatter by issuing a bizarre plea for a 40-nation World Cup Finals and rugby-style sin-bins instead of yellow cards. His expansion of Euro 2016 to 24 teams and his plans for 13 host nations for Euro 2020 do not bode well either.

Brazil missed its end-of-year deadline to have its stadia ready for the World Cup finals, much to the fury of Blatter who slammed the hosts as the least prepared in his 38 years at FIFA. A summer of stress beckons for the sport's governing body with unreliable transport arrangements, probable civic disturbances and sweltering temperatures, quite apart from what happens on the field.

Qatar 2022 remains a long-burning headache, with the almost certain switch to winter 2021 all but confirmed by FIFA's General Secretary Jerome Valcke.

The rescheduling makes sense from a playing and watching perspective and should avoid clashing with the Winter Olympics, but the disruption to European domestic leagues could bring long-term repercussions in terms of big-club breakaways and damage to the Cup's prestige.

The Guardian newspaper's revelations of the use of slave labour in building the stadia came as no surprise to many, but further impugned the name of FIFA and its controversial hosting decision. A formal switch to winter could yet invoke a legal challenge from the USA, because the initial bidding documents explicitly stated the finals would take place in June and July of 2022.

But first there is Brazil 2014 to hurdle. The World Cup draw in December passed smoothly, although questions were asked when the organisers replaced two darker-skinned hosts with European-looking ones at late notice.

FIFA's World Rankings were also much slated when Colombia, Uruguay, Switzerland and Belgium were seeded for the draw, while Italy, the Netherlands, England and Portugal missed out. Group B duly became a veritable Group of Death with Spain, Chile, the Netherlands and Australia, as was Group D with England, Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Group G's Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the USA was another top-heavy one, but France, the land of Platini and Valcke, which scraped through the playoffs to qualify, ended up with the relative luxury of Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.

Finally, in 2013, football lost two Brazilian World Cup winners Gilmar and Djalma Santos, Munich air disaster survivor Bill Foulkes, Bruno Metsu, the Frenchman who took Senegal to the last eight of the 2002 World Cup, 1954 German World Cup winner Ottmar Walter and P.O.W. turned F.A. Cup hero Bert Trautmann.

Here's hoping for a stellar 2014 and a wonderful World Cup Finals.

Sean O'Conor

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Is the MLS Ready to Become a Serious Soccer League Amidst Big Name Acquisitions?


American soccer is surely an effort on the rise! As attendance figures continue to increase and new expansion teams get discussed, it seems as though the MLS is generally on a strong course of improvement each and every year!

But yet there is still that nagging feeling of doubt that it will never truly be able to compete against the likes of the English Premier League or La Liga in Spain. These European leagues generally house all of the best players in the world and have the most popular teams on the planet. But in the last few months, the MLS has continued to take strides forward and may soon become one of the serious soccer leagues around! Is it ready to take this step ahead?

Ever since David Beckham arrived to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, the league has put an emphasis on recruiting the top talent from abroad. For players seeking new opportunities and an exciting project in the later years of their careers, the MLS has become quite the attractive destination. Famous past players have included Freddie Ljundberg, Torsten Frings, and Rafael Marquez. Currently, the likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill, and Obafemi Martins all spend their days in this league. Having such superstars grace the MLS has been integral to its overall improvement and allure in drawing in new fans.

Now the MLS has brought in English striker Jermaine Defoe to the MLS. Having played over 50 caps for the England national team and with over 200 goals scored in the English Premier League, Defoe will be joining Toronto FC and should greatly help the team improve after being one of the worst teams in the league last year. Defoe is a natural goal poacher who is quick and crafty with the ball at his feet. Expect him to do quite well!

But in the past 12 months, Major League Soccer has taken a new step in boosting the league; it is now recruiting the top American players from abroad to returning home and competing in the USA. The first major player to arrive was Clint Dempsey, who joined the Seattle Sounders last August.

Clint Dempsey leaves Spurs
Dempsey & Defoe Reunited in the MLS
The move was a complete shocker as Dempsey had recently expressed a desire to play in the UEFA Champions League and had only joined Tottenham one year prior. But that move did not really pan out (nor did Tottenham qualify for the Champions League) and Dempsey sought out the move back to the USA.

While he arrived in the middle of the season and failed to make much of an impact immediately, I would expect this talented player to become one of the major MLS stars in 2014. Helping to establish a big time West Coast rivalry between his Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy (featuring American international Landon Donovan), any encounter between the pair will be highly anticipated.

But the league has not stopped there! This January, the MLS brought in two more experienced American internationals. One such player is Maurice Edu, who joined the Philadelphia Union on loan from Stoke City. The mighty defensive midfielder had over 100 appearances for the Scottish giants Rangers before he moved to Stoke, where he has found limited chances.

While still technically under the ownership of that team, I foresee the move to MLS becoming permanent at the end of the season. With Philadelphia, Edu will have the chance to help support young American striker Jack McInerney in his development that watches him improve each year. Additionally, the team recruited Argentinean winger Christian Maidana, making them a potentially strong team gearing up for a turnaround in 2014.

The talent boosting continued with American midfield enforcer Michael Bradley joining Defoe in Toronto. Bradley has become one of the key players for the USA National Team and most recently played for AS Roma in the Italian Serie A League.

He is a strong physical force in the center of the field and he has a knack for scoring goals in big games, like he did against Slovenia at the 2010 World Cup. And while both Dempsey and Defoe are on the wrong side of 30, Bradley is just 26 and entering his prime years as a soccer player. For the MLS to recruit one of the best American stars who could surely be playing at a top European club is a massive statement of intent. The league is now drawing great players who have their best years ahead of them.

While we already mentioned the ill fortunes of Toronto FC in recent seasons, the future is suddenly quite bright for this club. With Canadian star Dwayne De Rosario in the twilight of his career, but still fully capable, throwing Defoe and Bradley into the mix should elevate this team to the MLS playoffs as soon as this year.

And with clubs like the New York Red Bulls, 2013 MLS Cup Champions Sporting Kansas City, the revitalized Philadelphia Union, and the persistent Houston Dynamo, the Eastern Conference will be as competitive as ever in 2014!

And that is precisely what I expect to happen with the influx of new stars to the MLS: increased competition! Not only will this be great for the league, but it will be especially so for its fans. With so many teams housing international and American soccer stars, the MLS is finally coming to the point where it must be taken seriously.

The talent alone will help make the games more exciting and should enhance the development of young American players like McInerney, Omar Gonzalez, and Graham Zusi. In 2014, there could be as many as 10 teams with a legitimate chance at taking the MLS Cup and that will surely make for a summer of thrilling soccer in this country!

Additionally, the prospect of watching the top American players compete on home soil will draw scores of fans to games. Landon Donovan is not alone anymore as the face of American soccer. With Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Maurice Edu rejoining the league, the MLS is on the cusp of becoming a prominent soccer league in the world and will now showcase the top talent of American soccer and worldwide soccer with the continued arrival of international veterans!

© Nicholas Spiller &

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fifa World Rankings February 2014

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa World Rankings February 2014

Fifa's World Rankings for February 2014 were published on February 13 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

Euro 2012 winners Spain are still on top of the FIFA rankings for yet another month and there were only slight changes in the top 20 positions. Spain are followed by Germany, Argentina, Portugal, Colombia, Switzerland, Uruguay, Italy, World Cup 2014 hosts Brazil and the Netherlands.

England are 15th down two places with their last two games successive home friendly losses to Chile and Germany at Wembley. England face Denmark in a friendly in March.

Scotland are in 34th position, up 3 places. The Republic of Ireland are still in 67th place for another month, an all-time low, Wales are in 51st, up 4 places with Northern Ireland down in 85th place, up five spots from last month.

Ranking Team
1 Spain
2 Germany
3 Argentina
4 Portugal
5 Colombia
6 Switzerland
7 Uruguay
8 Italy
9 Brazil
10 Netherlands
11 Belgium
12 Greece
13 USA
14 Chile
15 England
16 Croatia
17 Bosnia and Herzegovina
18 Ukraine
18 France
20 Denmark

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings


Scottish Premier League News February 2014

Scottish Premier League News
SPL News

by Lisa Dillon


Neil Lennon added Leigh Griffiths to his squad on the final day of the January transfer window and the Hoops boss has no fears over whether or not the forward has the required maturity to cope with life in the Glasgow goldfish bowl. When at Hibs, Griffiths repeatedly hit the headlines for off-field issues and Lennon revealed that he was frank about the requirement and responsibility that goes with being a high profile Celtic player.

And the Parkhead boss expects Griffiths to rise to the challenge of getting in among the goals while keeping his head down. "I like gallus players and he's certainly got that nature on the pitch, although I don't think he's ill-disciplined or anything like that when he plays," said the Irishman.

"Having spoken to him you get a different perception of people sometimes. He actually seems quite a quiet boy away from the pitch. Leigh knows the responsibilities involved in coming here. He's just got to mind himself away from the park and we'll do all we can to help him with that as well.

"I spoke to him about his responsibilities as a Celtic player and to be wary of things away from the park. He's got to get used to the intensity of playing for Celtic and the public perception of him but I don't think people should judge him on his past. Just judge him on his football ability.

"He's not a bad boy, he just needs to change people's views and he can do that through his football."

Griffiths himself believes that he is capable of making his mark in Glasgow - for all the right reasons. "It was a good chat I had with the manager and he told me what is expected of me as a Celtic player, saying I can't do anything wrong or people will pick up on it. "For me it's just about keeping my head down and working hard to try to prove wrong the people who say I'm not good enough.

"Everybody has a past. I just want people to concentrate on what I do playing for Celtic and forget about everything else. I want to be judged on what I do on the pitch. "If you speak to any of the people who have played with me or been around me they will tell you I am not a bad lad.

"Yes I have been daft in the past but when I come to training I do my work, get on with things then go home.

"It's a massive deal but I have no doubt I can handle that and take the pressure that comes with it.

"There was a lot of pressure in my last year at Hibs to fill the boots of Garry O'Connor and I managed to take that in my stride. So, hopefully, I can do the same here."

Griffiths has signed a four-and-a-half year contract at Parkhead to put an end to a frustrating period. The Scotland international first heard of Celtic's interest six weeks ago but as Wolves and Celtic hammered out a fee there were doubts about the deal.

"My agent phoned me in December and said Celtic could be interested in January," explained the Scotland internationalist. "I was counting down the days. "Until the first bid goes in you are never sure if it is going to happen. It was all talk until then. But as soon as Celtic made the first bid I wanted it to go through.

"Two bids were rejected but my heart was set on it because you want to play at the highest level you can. I have watched the Champions League nights on the TV and there is no better place to play. That is where I want to be.

"I wasn't playing at Wolves so I wasn't happy. But I'm leaving a good club to join an even bigger club in Celtic."

Griffiths netted 28 goals for Hibs last term as he grabbed the Player of the Year Award but this is another step up. "I know what it takes to become a Celtic player. I had a great season last year at Hibs then I went down back the road and started scoring goals as well. "I did it last season for Hibs and have done it for Wolves so I am just thankful to get my chance here and hopefully I can prove I am a good signing and start scoring goals for fun. "I was confident last season when I was creating most of the chances on my own but at Celtic they are always going to create chances. I want to get on the end of them and put them in the net."

Celtic also added Stefan Johansen from Stromsgodset in a £2m deal as well as Holmbert Fridjonsson from Reykjavik for £150k. Joe Ledley, meanwhile, left the club to head to Crystal Palace,  struggling near the foot of the Premier League.


Lee Wallace has insisted that he will remain with Rangers until they are back in the top flight.

The Rangers defender was the subject of two bids by Nottingham Forrest during the January transfer window, but both were kicked out by the Ibrox club, and the 26-year-old is adamant that he is staying with Ally McCoist's side.

He said: "I'm over the moon to still be here. We have a championship to wrap up, the Ramsdens Cup final to look forward to and a Scottish Cup game coming up that we want to do well in. And we're nearing the second stage of our recovery as a club.

"I'm more than happy to be part of that and I see myself being here for a long time. It was easy to ignore all the speculation. That's just the type of guy I am. It's just Rangers for me and always has been. You obviously hear about the speculation, but I was just solely focused on Rangers.

"If a bid had been accepted I would have dealt with it, but now I'm just delighted I can play my part in helping the club move up the leagues and getting us back to where we belong." Meanwhile, McCoist believes it could take another five years before the Scottish League One side are able to mount a genuine challenge to Celtic.

Speaking to delegates from three Rangers supporters groups, the club's chief executive Graham Wallace said there was no quick fix for the current Division Two champions.

Wallace revealed he intends to draw up a five-year plan for Rangers with the ultimate aim of giving their Glasgow rivals a run for their money in the race for the Premiership title, as well as targeting a place in Europe.

And McCoist, whose side boast a 23-point advantage at the top of the table and are cantering to their second successive league title, has thrown his weight behind Wallace's vision. "I would have thought that was about fair, yeah. I would agree with Graham there," he said.

"He has been completely honest with everybody and if he said a five-year plan has been put in operation then I think we should respect that." Asked if his side could repeat this year's title stroll in the Championship next season, McCoist said: "I don't have us down as any guarantees to be back in the Premiership next year, assuming we win promotion this year.

"Hearts are a good side and if we look at the top of the Championship now, there are Dundee, Falkirk and Hamilton doing very well. "So if we are lucky enough to go up this year, there are absolutely no guarantees that we will do the same next season. We will just have to take it one step at a time."


Scotland coach Gordon Strachan admits he is delighted with the national team's improvement in 2013 but insists they must continue to up their game to have any chance of qualifying for Euro 2016.

Since June, Scotland have won four matches - three away from home - including a World Cup double header against Croatia, but Strachan is adamant a further step up will be required to mix it with the continent's elite in France in two years' time.

The draw for the group stages will take place in Nice on February 23 and the Scots' chances of qualification has been boosted with the number of teams taking part in the finals increased from 16 to 24.

But a cautious Strachan, whose side's first match of 2014 is a friendly against Poland in Warsaw on March 5, said: "We have been better recently but we will have to get better again to qualify.

"I know that. We can't just say we are winning games now and we're feeling OK about ourselves.

"We gave England and Belgium a right good game but we lost both games and we need to get better than that."

On dealing with the expectation of a nation, a year on from his appointment Strachan admits he is still surprised by the effect positive results have on the country's followers.

"One thing that surprised me is how happy you can make a nation with a result," he said.

"That surprised me. I thought I had an idea of what it was like but I have got to grips with it now. It's amazing. The first couple of games I thought, 'Do I really want to be doing this again?' because life's good at the moment.

"But once you get a couple of results you think, 'This is right'."


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Perfect Match Football Gifts For Valentine's Day

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, Andy Greeves takes a look at the best gifts you can treat your football-loving partner to this February 14th.

Build a Home Together

There is nowhere football supporters are happier than at the home ground of their beloved club, so why not make a special place for their 'special place' in your house.

The Etihad Stadium

Paul Lamond Games has launched a range of official 'Nanostad' 3D jigsaw models of the stadiums of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. Coming in kits of around 150 pieces, your partner will be 'at home’ constructing a small, but beautiful version of The Emirates, Stamford Bridge, Anfield, The Etihad or Old Trafford.

Old Trafford Manchester United

You could even go the extra mile and include tickets for a tour of the ‘real’ stadium inside the box for the perfect date! The puzzles retail from £19.95 and are available from John Lewis Online, Club Stores, and independent retailers. For more details visit

Put a Ring on Her (or his!) Finger

Spurs sterling silver crest earrings

What girl, or guy, for that matter doesn't like to receive jewellery for Valentine's Day? And what could provide football supporters with greater happiness than their own piece of silverware (or gold ware!) baring the crest of their team.

F.Hinds has a vast array of football club jewellery in both sterling silver and 9ct gold, with teams represented including Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Glasgow Rangers, Glasgow Celtic, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United.

Arsenal cufflinks

My wife's personal favourites were a dainty pair of Spurs sterling silver crest earrings while Arsenal fans can wear their heart on their sleeves with a pair of Gunners cuff links.

Official football club jewellery is available from £17.50 and items can be viewed by searching for your partner's team at

Display Your Love… For The Beautiful Game

Paine Proffitt is an artist who will be familiar with supporters of Aberdeen, Aston Villa, Derby County, Grimsby Town, Port Vale, West Bromwich Albion and others having produced distinctive illustrations for their match day programmes.

Paine Proffitt Liverpool

Tugging on the heart strings, with a real feel of British football's yesteryear, Paine's works are available via the Barewall Gallery (, with originals - paintings and sometimes collages on canvas - priced between £250-£500 depending on the size. Prints of a few of the artworks meanwhile are £95 framed, signed and mounted (£65 unframed) and usually only limited to a series of 25.

Paine Proffitt Newcastle Print

For supporters, one of these prints will be the ultimate thing of beauty on their wall this Valentine's Day. For more information visit

An Accompaniment for the Perfect Night on the Sofa

Sky+HD remotes bearing the crests of Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur
Show your football-loving partner you care by handing them over the remote and letting them indulge in a night of sporting action on February 14. Not any remote either, but one in their favourite team colours!

Sky have launched a series of limited addition Sky+HD remotes bearing the crests of Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur.

Sky+HD remotes bearing the crests of Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur
Fans with a Sky+HD box can record matches, highlights and pause live action, meaning they will never miss a kick when their favourite team is playing.

To purchase one of these remotes, priced at £29.99 plus £2 for delivery, visit

Make Your Partner Warm and Snuggly

Share a warmth of feeling on Valentine's Day with a luxurious scarf, beautifully knitted in the colours of your partner’s favourite team.

Savile Rogue and Appleberry are two different British companies that have moved away from the old fashioned, ill-fitting, nylon football scarves that frankly are fit for the relegation zone to offer a products that will occupy the Champions League positions instead.

Savile Row scarves are made from 100% cashmere wool, with prices starting from £58.95 for a scarf that is 159cm long and 18cm wide – plenty big enough to wrap around you. For a further step up in quality, there are deluxe (158cm x 20cm – also £58.95) and king sized scarves (180cm x 20cm - £74.95), the latter which is ideal for tying a 'European loop'. All scarves are gift boxed and there is even a youth range, ideal for under-13s, with 124cm x 16cm efforts priced at £18.71.

Appleberry scarves meanwhile are made from 100% Saxony wool and are manufactured in the UK. With a distinctive college look about them, these scarves are as English as the Queen, red telephone boxes and afternoon tea! Scarves are priced at £39.99, with a full range of English and Scottish clubs, international teams and those from leagues in France, Holland, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Your partner will never feel so comfortable displaying their love (for their team!) For more information visit and

Huddersfield Town print by Paine Proffitt

Andy Greeves


Monday, February 3, 2014

Weekly Football News 3 February 2014

City would be 'lucky' champions: Mourinho

Weekly Football News 3 February 2014
Manchester City have underachieved since the club was taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008 and would even make 'lucky' Premier League champions this season, according to Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.

City won the FA Cup in 2011 and the Premier League title in 2012, but they were unconvincing in their title defence last season and also lost the FA Cup final to Wigan.

In Europe, the team have only progressed beyond the Champions League group stage once in three attempts, failure which cost former boss Roberto Mancini his job at the end of last season and leading Mourinho to refute their recent tab as the best team in the world on current form.

"They are lucky," Mourinho said. "The referees, they try to do their best and sometimes they make mistakes and normally during the season the mistakes are split between teams. "In their case, they have everything in their favour."

He added: "The reality is they have many crucial decisions in their favour.” City and Chelsea meet in the Premier League on Monday evening.

Cristiano Ronaldo.
Atletico celebrate in style

On an emotional evening at the Vicente Calderon, Atletico Madrid beat Real Sociedad 4-0 to become the outright Spanish league leaders for the first time this season.

Atletico took full advantage of Barcelona's slip up at home to Valencia and Real’s 1-1 draw away to Athletic Bilbao, a game in which Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off in the second-half, to move three points clear of Spain’s traditional heavyweights.

The performance had special meaning for the club, as ex-players and fans paid tribute to former Spain and Atletico player and coach Luis Aragones, who died on Saturday. Current boss Diego Simone was delighted with the manner in which Atletico handled the tense environment.

Simone said: "When someone like Luis leaves us there is pain and sadness, but today the fans, the game and that silence for the first eight minutes before they sang his name moved me. From above he would be wearing red and white and happy with the bravery we showed.

"Real Sociedad made it difficult without creating great chances. Defending didn't worry me, but the problem was when you don't attack and it was difficult for us to get out in the second-half.

"The changes gave us some freshness. We had the ball more and we managed to get going again. It is a win against a very difficult opponent."

Arsenal midfield receives welcome boost

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain marked his first Arsenal start since the opening match of the season with two goals, prompting Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to announce that the 20-year-old's long-term future for club and country is as a central midfielder.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, who picked up a knee injury in Arsenal's 3-1 opening day defeat to Aston Villa, scored both the club's goals to beat Crystal Palace 2-0 and return to the top of the table ahead of Manchester City's match with Chelsea on Monday night.

Better still, his return has helped soften the blow of the injuries to Jack Wilshire and Aaron Ramsey, as well as new loan signing Kim Kallstrom, and the suspension of Mathieu Flamini.

"I've always believed that he can play wide and central," said Wenger of Oxlade-Chamberlain. "I've said many times that his future will be central and he has proven me right today by scoring the goals and through the quality of his performance. "It took him a quite a while to get back because he was injured against Aston Villa on that famous day. Overall, I'm pleased that he's back to full fitness. You could see that, at some time near the end, that he's still a bit short."

Bayern break more records; look to break even more

Bayern Munich could retain their Bundesliga title in record-breaking time after inflicting a crushing 5-0 thumping on Eintracht Frankfurt to extend their lead at the top of the table to 13 points.

The victory extended Bayern’s record unbeaten league run to 44 matches, while when Mario Gotze volleyed them ahead, they also set a top-flight European record of scoring in 56 consecutive league matches, beating Arsenal's 55 in 2001.

It is now simply a question of whether the Bavarians can secure their 24th German league title before April 5th, the date on which they seized the Bundesliga championship in record quick time last season.

Elsewhere in Germany, second-placed Bayer Leverkusen broke their three-match losing streak with a 2-1 win at home to Stuttgart.