Thursday, March 31, 2016

Amid the gloom we all stood up and cheered


Johan Cruyff.

It was a miserable day in London.

The warm-up to the England v Netherlands (1:2) friendly on Tuesday was anything but warm.

Tuesday in England's capital was rather a tale of relentless and at times heavy rain joined by chilling breezes, the sort of dark day where the corners of your jeans get cloyingly damp, the traffic shrieks as the lights flare through the mist and the motor noise bounces off the puddles.

Having ruefully given up on trying to enjoy what nature has served you up, you escape the prison by seeking solace in guilt-free ale and fish and chips.

'No wet, no cold' was the pre-war slogan for the London Underground, and how attractive the Tube seemed that grey and washed-out afternoon. Forget football, the weather was the winner.

I stepped out of the tunnels at Baker Street and pelted by rain, stared across the roaring highway of Marylebone Road, one of the capital's most fume-filled and angry, to The Globe, the traditional pre-Wembley pint stop.

Groups of England fans had packed it out as usual and the overspill were huddled outside like refugees, with their flags tied to the barriers and laddish chants wailing then dying in the wind. Many seemed to be from West Ham.

That was quite a big club for England's fan base, which usually gives a platform to the small and provincial sides whose supporters will otherwise never enjoy hosting foreign opposition or taking that thrill ride of the overseas match trip.

Their flags arrive like medieval standards brought to a royal joust - there is noble Darlington, steadfast Rotherham, proud Plymouth and resolute Crewe.

I had planned to walk to the Sherlock Holmes statue to meet my Dutch friend, a long-exiled Ajax fan who used to work at their old and sadly missed De Meer stadium in Johan Cruyff's old neighbourhood, but had married an English girl who prefered the South Downs to Zuid Holland to raise their family.

Bruno's faith in the Netherlands was so low after Oranje had stunningly failed to make it to the 24-team Euro 2016 finals and his belief in England's prowess so bolstered after that staggeringly sleek win over Germany in Berlin three days earlier, that he had confidently slapped a £2 bet on England to win 5-0 at 80-1. 160 quid hier Ik kom.

Happily I saw him heading my way as I left the station, already drenched, so I did not have to linger further amid the monsoon.

England v Netherlands.

Streaming up Bobby Moore Way, the hordes of colour and glimmering lights of Wembley Stadium ahead raised the spirits of a sea of drowned rats somewhat. What a view that is from the steps of the tube station. The arena might not have a visual focus, but it does have a lovely symmetry as you look up the avenue. They will have closed the roof we surmised, so it won't be a wash-out of skidding and splashing footballers.

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch master to beat them all, had just died of course and his name and face beamed out over the video screen outside Wembley. 14 minutes in, the interior screens projected the same, and an 83,000 crowd stood up and applauded. Some England fans even sang his name. 'He's one of a kind' - that was nice. Would that England had produced such a game-changing and influential player as him.

Coupled with an impeccably observed minute's silence for the victims of Brussels at the start, that clapping was a grand affirmation of football fans' integrity in the face of the greater issues of life. Time was I used to hate watching England at Wembley because of a poisonous atmosphere, so we have made progress there, off the field at least.

Cruyff was truly a football genius and iconoclast as player and coach. His finest hour was even in defeat. Holland's 1974 heroic failure to win the World Cup handed the winners a Phyrric victory: No-one recalls with misty eyes the dogged Germans who were hit by a hurricane from the kick-off but fought back to win the ultimate prize 2-1.

People instead remember the revolutionary losers who scored before their opponents had ven touched the ball and who brought the stagnating game a head-spinning new idea - total football, a formation that had no static shape, as well as the crowd-wowing Cruyff turn, an simple yet amazing trick imitated by kids and adults ever after.

He turned the logic of battle on its head. Winning was not as big as impressing.

The Dutch master had died only last week so the previously scheduled England v the Netherlands was also an accidentally apposite tribute to the man who played with his brain in his boots.

For it was at Wembley where Cruyff had actually won his greatest honours - the European Cup as a player with Ajax and then as a manager with Barcelona, where his legacy is still a step ahead of the football world as we speak.

He never played or coached in England - that was our loss and our fault - he was too good for us and our neanderthal game, alas. There was once a rumour he would manage Arsenal as he was available after Bruce Rioch was sacked and his son Jordi was playing in Manchester, but a rumour it remained.

Arsene Wenger, in his own way perhaps a disciple of the Dutch and Cruyff with his love of multi-functional footballers, got the job instead and cultivated his legacy in London.

At least the death of Cruyff, an event I never thought could happen to a superhero, might have explained the dark and dismal weather: You would like the sun to be gloriously shining when it is time for a funeral and a final send-off but here the sky was crying too.

England actually played more patient possession football than the Dutch at first and ended up with two-thirds of possession by the end, which seemed a curious reversal of type.

England v Netherlands, Wembley Stadium.

By the end they had fallen flat right after a magnificent result just as they had done in 1996 when their amazing 4-1 mauling of the Netherlands was followed by a dismal 0-0 slugfest with Spain, the three lions only advancing to the Euro '96 semi-final on penalties after a Spanish goal was wrongly disallowed.

Bruno was sure the Oranje would be squashed, so breathed a sigh of relief when Jamie Vardy netted for England four minutes before half-time. I kept telling him we only have one good result every ten years, but he would not listen.

By the time Holland went 2-1 up and England's attack seemed stunted, we both concurred he should revert to type and cheer his homeland. The Dutch needed the support that night.

There was only a small gathering of away fans high in the north-west corner when usually there is a sea of orange.

The only brass band you could hear was England's. Morale has never been lower after the Euro 2016 failure, Bruno assured me.

Like England, the Netherlands' support is drawn largely from their provinces and as such are traditionally nicknamed 'farmers' by fans of urban Ajax.

The game itself was a damp squib, almost literally. The roof had been left open so the field was wet and slippy, not least when John Stones, the first English centre half in memory with mellifluous feet, lost said footing and thereby teed up the opposition for their first goal.

Both Dutch strikes left bitter tastes in English mouths - the first because Danny Rose probably had no intent to handle the ball in the penalty area, and the second because Phil Jagielka was certainly pushed over by the raiding Janssen.

England's defence at Euro 2016 is anyone's guess. At least the attack has options but its failure to reproduce at length the wonderful, complex moves which worked so well against Germany, is confounding.

Who Roy Hodgson will pick up front is unclear as well. Jamie Vardy is clearly the striker most in form but is he a natural impact sub instead of a starter? Will Daniel Sturridge ever catch fire or will Wayne Rooney play at all with Harry Kane so sharp? National teams change quickly.

Only two years ago it seemed fast flanking raids was Hodgson's choice but now Andros Townsend, the most outstanding player in Brazil 2014 qualifying, is out of the picture, Aaron Lennon's superb shows for Everton are going unrecognised while wing men Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, previous certs, are also only touch and go for selection.

What is clear is that league leaders Leicester and Tottenham are populating the national side. Spurs had five on the field by the final whistle. Delle Alli has shown flashes of greatness already while Eric Dier and Danny Drinkwater are suddenly England starters.

Hodgson has lost goalkeeper Jack Butland to injury so has another worry if Joe Hart or Fraser Forster succumb again from now until June. So despite beating the world champions, you are only as good as your last game and England look rather confused.

England v Netherlands, Wembley Stadium.

The Netherlands had a chink of light however and, having won despite little expectation, went home happy. Danny Blind is still two World Cup qualifying games from the sack, Bruno assured me. He will have slept soundly at least, but before he knows it the road to Russia 2018 will have started and the (cheese?) knives will be sharpened again.

It was a drab game best forgotten which silenced a hitherto expectant audience for most of the night. The pitch was too wet, the night too cold and the hosts unable to get wind in their sails to get the crowd going. I was glad for it all to be over and to be able to get back to a warm home in Surrey.

If Holland's victory gave the Dutch and Johan up above a reason to smile, I think we English can all accept the loss with grace.

Bruno texted to say he was the only content person on his train home to Kent, despite the loss of £2. The last game we watched together was another Dutch victory over England at Wembley as well.

See you next time mate, England and Holland.

Tot ziens Johan.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

FIFA Investigation Over 2006 World Cup

Fifa Watch

Investigatory chamber of the independent Ethics Committee opens formal proceedings regarding the awarding of the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ to Germany.

Independent Ethics Committee bans Joseph S. Blatter and Michel Platini.

After examining the Freshfields report commissioned by the German Football Association (DFB), the investigatory chamber of the independent Ethics Committee has decided to open formal proceedings against the following individuals in the context of the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ host selection and its associated funding:

• Wolfgang Niersbach, former president of the DFB, vice-president of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Local Organising Committee (LOC) and current member of the FIFA and UEFA Executive Committees
• Helmut Sandrock, former secretary general of the DFB and tournament director of the LOC
• Franz Beckenbauer, former vice-president of the DFB, president of the LOC and former member of the FIFA Executive Committee
• Theo Zwanziger, former president of the DFB, vice-president of the LOC and former member of the FIFA and UEFA Executive Committees
• Horst R. Schmidt, former secretary general of the DFB and vice-president of the LOC
• Stefan Hans, former chief financial officer of the DFB and chief financial officer of the LOC

The chairman of the investigatory chamber, Dr Cornel Borbély, will lead the investigation proceedings as the chief of the investigation. He will examine all relevant evidence and hand over the case reports at the appropriate time, along with recommendations, to the adjudicatory chamber of the Ethics Committee. Under the FIFA Code of Ethics, pursuant to the presumption of innocence, the investigatory chamber shall examine all circumstances of the cases equally. In this sense, all parties are presumed innocent until a decision has been passed by the adjudicatory chamber.

In the cases of Messrs Niersbach and Sandrock, the investigatory chamber will investigate a possible failure to report a breach of the FIFA Code of Ethics, which could constitute a breach of art. 13 (General rules of conduct), art. 15 (Loyalty), art. 18 (Duty of disclosure, cooperating and reporting) and art. 19 (Conflicts of interest) of the FCE.

In the cases of Mr Beckenbauer, Dr Zwanziger, Mr Schmidt and Mr Hans, the investigatory chamber will investigate possible undue payments and contracts to gain an advantage in the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ host selection and the associated funding, which could constitute a breach of arts 13, 15, 18 and 19 as well as art. 20 (Offering and accepting gifts and other benefits) and art. 21 (Bribery and corruption) of the FIFA Code of Ethics.

The list of possible violations may be supplemented as additional information becomes available.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

George's Premiership Predictions March 19 2016

George's Premiership Predictions March 19 2016

Leicester City still lead the Premier League in what is looking more and more like a two-horse race with them and Tottenham.

Leicester have a tricky away game at Crystal Palace while Spurs are at home to another premiership surprise package, Bournemouth.

Fourth place Manchester City will be hoping to hold off the challenge of sixth placed Manchester United at the Etihad.

Third placed Arsenal have a tough game away to Everton at Goodison Park.

Liverpool, who beat Manchester United in the Europa League in midweek, face in form Southampton at St. Mary's.

George's Premiership Predictions March 19 2016

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Everton 2 v Arsenal 1
Chelsea 1 v West Ham 1
Crystal Palace 1 v Leicester 1
Watford 2 v Stoke 0
West Brom 1 v Norwich 1
Swansea 2 v Aston Villa 0

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Newcastle 1 v Sunderland 0
Southampton 2 v Liverpool 1
Man City 2 v Man Utd 2
Tottenham 2 v Bournemouth 0

Soccer - Wenger wary of Everton upset

‎Arsene Wenger has suggested another setback for Arsenal on Saturday against Everton at Goodison Park could spell the end for his side's Premier League title hopes. The capital club have only won one of their last eight matches in all competitions and make the trip to Merseyside having been knocked out of the FA Cup and Champions League in the space of three days. The Gunners have gone three games without a win in the Premier League and Wenger accepts his players are running out of fixtures to try and reel in surprise leaders Leicester City. The north Londoners trail Claudio Ranieri's table-toppers by 11 points and long-serving manager Wenger knows time is against his side in the race to win a first Premier League title since 2004. "We know the huge importance this game has to us," he said at his news conference. "We do not have to over think what we have to do. We just know the big significance the game has. "Recently we have lost at home to Swansea and we want to make up the points. "A negative result would be very bad for us. Now is the time for us to produce the result we need." Arsenal are currently priced 13/2 in the Premier League outright winner betting.

George's Premiership Predictions March 19 2016

Soccer - Allardyce calls for clear heads

‎Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce says he believes key to victory in Sunday's huge Tyne-Wear derby against his old club Newcastle United at St James' Park will be keeping his players' emotions in check. Allardyce says his players fully understand the significance of the Premier League basement battle but hopes they can keep a lid on their emotions because the points mean more than any individual agenda.

"We're playing well, we're playing consistently well and we need to make sure we continue that," he said at his pre-match news conference. "To control the players' emotions is one of the most important things I need to do." New manager Rafael Benitez will take charge of Newcastle United in his first game at St James' Park but Allardyce wants his players to take the gloss off the Spaniard's home bow by securing local bragging rights. The Black Cats have only lost one of their last five games in the Premier League and are out of the relegation places - one point ahead of Newcastle - on goal difference.

"All players, wherever they come from, are well aware of derbies. This one is as big as any in the country," said Allardyce. "We need to make sure out of possession we are resilient to stop Newcastle scoring. "The only way you can enjoy a derby is if you win it." Newcastle United are quoted 4/7 to be relegated at the end of the season and Sunderland are priced 8/15.

Last time's predictions


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

This is truly a season to savour


Whenever I try to distill what makes football so intriguing, I always come back to the personal involvement in the dramas I am watching.

This is truly a season to savour.

Those split-seconds when as a watcher you are invited onto the stage to share the emotions of those taking part are what makes fandom so addictive.

Their wins are your wins, their losses you feel too.

This is known as apparatus theory in film theory, that the spectacle is constructed specifically to involve the spectator as a conscious participant in his own mind.

Having played the game even at school level you allows you to place  yourself in the shoes of that winger trying to skin the full back, the goalkeeper hastily getting his bearings for a one-on-one showdown or a midfielder desperately skipping leg-breaker tackles as the opposition try to swamp him.

Then there is the drama of the managers on 'death watch', who apparently are one defeat away from the P45. You watch them intensively as they are on the bench and automatically try to feel an ounce of their pain from a comfortable distance.

Just look at Newcastle United's or Real Madrid's travails this season. It is voyeuristic being a gallow bird, naughty indulging in Schadenfreude or perhaps over sensitive to feel the pain of a sacked coach, but part of the deal for a high-profile entertainment industry.

Only by tapping into supporters' emotional needs can you expect them to shell out for tickets, replica shirts, TV contracts etc and the volatility of  results means they will experience a gamut of emotions, a rollercoaster ride.

And if you don't want your body analysed, then don't go into showbusiness and do not court publicity in the first place. If you don't want to be branded a clown, lame duck or a dead man walking because your team has been losing football matches, or a hero, star or legend when you win, then do not become a Premier League manager.

To be honest I went off the Premier League years ago as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United seemed to have set up a boring hegemony.

Now Manchester City have joined the club. It was clearly too dependent on the wealth of one's owner for surprises to occur and the flood of foreign players diluted the cultural connection of the English fan. There are many sound reasons to despise the 'EPL' and all it stands for.

But hey presto this season has been a surprisng joy and certainly the most remarkable since the old First Division became a Pay-TV-fed league in 1992.

The association with the players is not what it was, the on-field quality of football is better like the stadia but at least we can connect at some level.

It is not just Leicester City's extraordinary title challenge which would create the biggest shock in the league's history and probably the greatest in the top flight since newly promoted Nottingham Forest won Division One under Brian Clough in 1978.

Running the Foxes awfully close are Tottenham Hotspur, which means the probable top two finishers and will be first time medallists in the Premier League.

Of course much of this season's terra incognita must be attributed to Chelsea's precipitous fall from title-winning joy last season to rancorous infighting this season, as well as Manchester United's prolonged hangover from the Alex Ferguson era.

But it would equally be churlish to diminish in any way the remarkable turnaround Claudio Ranieri has engineered at Leicester and their simple yet devastatingly effective counter-attacking style.

14th place last season has turned into first this time around and team spirit has gone from strength to strength as every pundit (including former Foxes idol Gary Lineker) has seen his or her so-called expert opinions evaporate before our eyes.

Leicester have still got the two North London giants and Manchester City to contend with in their last eight games yet have managed to stay five points clear of their closest pursuers, winning away at Spurs, and, most impressively, 3-1 at Manchester City, although Arsenal beat the league leaders home and away.

Not since Blackburn Rovers were crowned champions in 1995 has a club outside the big five wealthy ones bagged the title, but Rovers were benefitting from steel magnate Jack Walker's largesse as much as Alan Shearer's purple patch. Leicester's eleven has been assembled for comparatively a fraction of their's.

The neutrals must surely want to urge Leicester over the line and complete the fairy tale, but two stumbles and Mauricio Pochettino's steely Spurs will surely pounce: It is far too early to celebrate.

Spurs winning would also be a minnows' victory of sorts as they have not won the league since 1961, while Leicester have never been champions.

Yet win or lose, what a tale Leicester has been this season. When fans connect to a match so intimately that they feel they are participating in the show themselves, the drama created edges into a meaningful reality and Leicester have facilitated this process for us.

At the other end Aston Villa's cursed campaign lets us indulge in a grotesque voyeurism as their strikers fluff chance after chance, their defence springs leak after leak and their able manager Remi Garde sits traumatised in his seat as another yet another debacle unfolds before him.

Promotion and above all relegation are wonderful inventions American sport and money men may never understand because they upset the balance and allow the status quo to change.

The prolonged agony or ecstasy of trying to avoid the drop is something you cannot bottle and no serious football fan would swap it for mid-table boredom.

The other emotionally-involving story in England's top flight this season, assuming another hopeless season for Newcastle is nothing to write home about, is of course Louis Van Gaal's painful struggle at Old Trafford.

The spotlight on suffering here makes for more ripe emotional attachment as one of Europe's great modern managers stumbles to mediocrity and failure in the final chapter of his career.

The clips of his apparently cowed face as he masks his grimaces to Ryan Giggs are microcosms of rich internalised turmoil. Van Gaal's stern and combative attitude to the press is something we have not seen in England for ages.

Despite the Dutchman's gruff and robotic rebuffs being a tried and tested defence mechanism to keep the hackery far from his work, it has also been commendable to see a manager not try to ingratiate himself with the disloyal and self-serving fourth estate.

What a season it has been before even Easter. Enjoy it while it lasts as the laws of probability mean next season will probably see a return of money talking and big clubs dominating the title race again.

It has been a wonderful tale of the unexpected and we should all rejoice in it until May.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile