Wednesday, December 25, 2019

La Liga USA faces Spanish Inquisition

SPANISH PLAYERS COULD WRECK THEIR LEAGUE'S AMERICAN DREAM

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

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

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

SPANISH PLAYERS COULD WRECK THEIR LEAGUE'S AMERICAN DREAM
A Strike at the Camp Nou?
David Aganzo, the 37 year-old president of the players' union the AFE, explained their unhappiness,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain has gone where England tried and failed and La Liga is serious about America. It already has a web page in place to demonstrate its intentions https://www.laliga.es/en/usa

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

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

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

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

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Best World Cup Ever?

Russia 2018: The Best World Cup Ever?


Russia World Cup 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iconic yes but quality no.

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

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

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

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

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

A good but not great World Cup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 -

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

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

Its great games still stick in the memory:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotion clouds the memory but should be given its due.

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

© Soccerphile.com

Friday, December 6, 2019

Merry-go-round Again Silva's Sacking

SILVA'S SACKING A SIGN OF THE TIMES

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

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

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

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

Merry-go-round Again Silva's Sacking


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The footballing calendar keeps rolling on affording ample second chances.

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

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

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

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

United We Fall?

SOLSKJAER THE SCAPEGOAT FOR A FAILED RECRUITMENT POLICY

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

United We Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourinho said as much when he noted,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, September 27, 2019

New Dens for the Giants

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Letter from Colombia

Letter from Colombia

I visit Colombia every year and am always happy to be in a land which loves football. I fell in love with Colombian football long before I came to love the nation in fact.

It was that crazy match at the 1990 World Cup where the red-shirted Colombians outplayed eventual winners West Germany for periods of the match with mesmeric passing but played for a draw, their mercurial skipper Carlos Valderrama even feigning injury, requesting a stretcher which carried him around the pitch before he jumped off it.

When Germany scored with an 88th minute Pierre Littbarski strike it looked like Colombia's gamble had failed. But then a slick passing move set up by Valderrama saw Freddy Rincon nutmeg Bodo Illgner to spark extraordinary celebrations.
With the 'birdman' flapping from the stands, Colombia's circus continued to the second round where more monkey business from goalkeeper Rene Higuita, he of the famous scorpion kick, saw Roger Milla and Cameroon eliminate them.

Colombia's craziness had grabbed me.

The insanity around Colombian football took a dark turn four years later with Andres Escobar's tragic murder following his own goal at USA '94 but the overall impression of a wildly talented football culture remained, through the mercurial Faustino Asprilla through to James Rodriguez's wonder goal at Brazil 2014.



To see this society mobilise in a sea of yellow to support 'La Seleccion' (the national team) in its competitive fixtures really is something to behold. Bogota's notorious traffic congestion (a city the size of London without a metro) magically evaporates every time Los Cafeteros (the coffee men) take the field.

England does not compare. You do not see Three Lions shirts everywhere on the day of a World Cup qualifier.

Colombia never play in Bogota alas, possibly because of the high altitude, which caused some friction with Brazil a few years ago, but also because the Metropolitano stadium in Caribbean Baranquilla holds 20,000 more fans.

While the Adidas store in my local shopping centre Plaza Las Americas sells the real McCoy at 'La camiseta' (the team jersey) at its RRP of £48, knock-offs can be had for around a fiver from several city centre street traders, brazenly flogging very good copies or ones which say 'Abibas' or suchlike.

As a nation, Colombia has plenty of problems - an ongoing triangular conflict between the army, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, narcotraffic, political corruption, inadequate transport infrastructure and pollution for starters.

Against this backdrop of perennial frustration, the people look to the national team and World Cups in particular as a time to forget their troubles and celebrate communally. Dance and music, two cultural totems of this nation, arguably serve the same purpose.

Equally, there are those who criticise the obsession with 'La Seleccion' as a bread and circuses political manipulation of a population who deserve much better in their daily lives.

Football like any national obsession leaves itself open to exploitation by vested interests. Yet despite all that the show must go on and true lovers of football retain a faith in the Beautiful Game.

Historically the domestic league here is not at the level of Argentina or Brazil's - Colombian clubs have only won the Copa Libertadores three times in its history compared to 25 times for Argentine teams, 18 for Brazilian clubs and eight for Uruguayan ones. However in 2018 the statistics institute the IFFHS ranked the Colombian first division ahead of Argentina's but behind Brazil's in South America.

Bogota, like many capital cities, does not have the football fever of the country's second city Medellin. Capital clubs Millionarios and Santa Fe only attracted an average of 13,924 and 8,449 fans respectively last season and the city's third team La Equidad 1,281.

While I am always keen to see new teams play the locals, even committed fans, warn you to watch out for the crowd trouble. Sure enough, this weekend a Millionarios fan launched a combat knife at the field...

In a football-mad city of seven million people, it is clear therefore that fans get their football fix elsewhere. Most people here have a cable TV package which means access via ESPN and Fox Sports to international leagues as well as the domestic one.

This weekend on TV I could watch live games from all the Big Four European leagues, MLS and Argentina in addition to the Colombian Primera A - spoilt for choice. I could also watch the MLB, the Rugby World Cup and even Argentinian polo.

Inevitably, Spain's big two are most popular here but the EPL also has a following of sorts, helped by the presence of national team regulars Jefferson Lerma, Jerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez. In fact the media gleefully reports any Colombians abroad who are doing well, including Rangers' striker Alfredo Morelos.

Only four of their most recent squad play in Colombia, meaning there is a global perspective on football here. How much better would it be if that were the case for England?

James Rodriguez's unlikely return to Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane has increased the already big following Los Blancos have in his native country but one suspects the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner may have peaked. Radamel 'El Tigre' Falcao is still going strong aged 33 with Galatasaray in his seventh country as a player and remains in the national team set-up too.

In charge of 'La Seleccion' is another multi-country veteran and former Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Queiroz, now working in his ninth nation. World Cup 2022 qualifers are set to start in late March of next year and qualification will be the minimum expectation after a last eight finish in 2014 and a penalty exit to England last year.

Next summer Colombia jointly host the Copa America with Argentina with Australia and Qatar the invited nations to make up the numbers.

Expect more seas of yellow and national fervour. Colombia and football remain inseparable.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Bring on the Dardanians

KOSOVO CHAOS FOR ENGLAND IN SOUTHAMPTON

I confess I missed the first half of England's bizarre 5-3 Euro 2020 win over Kosovo as I am in South America and ballsed up the kick-off time.

KOSOVO CHAOS FOR ENGLAND IN SOUTHAMPTON


When I managed to get my laptop connected to a stream thanks to a Colombian tech wizard, I blinked to see the score at the break was 5-1 to the Three Lions.

Well this is a turkey shoot I thought to myself and went away to make a sandwich.

"Was Kosovo in the Soviet Union?" my friend asked.

"Former Yugoslavia," I replied.

"What's the population of Kosovo?"

That stumped me.

"About a million," I opined. I was just under half wrong. It is 1.8 million (England's is 55.6).

When I saw the highlights of the first half I felt gutted I had missed it, but more for Kosovo's two moments of excitement - Valon Berisha's first-minute goal brought back memories of San Marino's Davide Gualtieri's opener against England after eight seconds in 1993, while Mergim Vojvoda's own goal was up there with the best.

England were slick and skillful in racking up the goals but it was the visitors' brave or cavalier approach which caught my eye.

Kosovo then went on to 'win' the second half 2-0 and goalkeeper Aro Muric, of Nottingham Forest, saved superbly from Harry Kane too.

England will qualify comfortably for Euro 2020 but let us hope the fearless, open attackers of Kosovo, full FIFA members since only 2016, will be there too.

On the evidence of the fireworks at St Mary's and a hitherto 15-match unbeaten run, they would bring some joy and verve to the finals and as debutants, win a ton of neutral fans too.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, September 2, 2019

Dead But Not Buried

BURY'S DEMISE SHOWS THE FLIP SIDE OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S SUCCESS


The expulsion of Bury FC from England's League Two leagues is particularly sad and a real wake-up call to those in charge of the domestic game.

134 years of history were snuffed out last week when the English Football League shut the book on the Shakers, who were bankrupt and insolvent with no white knight having ridden to the rescue.

Bury were formed in 1885 in a bar in the White Horse Hotel by two churches - one Wesleyan and the other Unitarian.

Like so many other English clubs they had social togetherness in their blood at their birth. While never a big club, they remained nevertheless a seemingly permanent fixture in the family of 92 professional clubs.

BURY'S DEMISE SHOWS THE FLIP SIDE OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S SUCCESS


A great irony about their demise is that Bury is part of the Manchester conurbation, connected by roads and the Metrolink tram network to bigger, more famous teams.

In Manchester proper, City and United maintain their arms war of spending tens of millions on footballers each year, while about ten miles to the north Bury F.C. was sold by one owner to another last December for the princely sum of £1 sterling.

The footballers and coaching staff did nothing wrong. The club itself fell victim to overseas speculators, who one after another mortgaged their property, at one point to eight companies registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.

With such disinterested owners, it was no surprise that the football club was discarded before long.

The Football League however are just as culpable for their lack of robust ownership rules. Stewart Day and Steve Dale, the final two chief executives, were manifestly unfit to be in charge of any football club in the first place.

In addition, slack league rules allowed external funding in the form of shares, which let the pair temporarily subsidise what was already a failing business model. What was left in the end was a complex web of multiple creditors, offshore loans, shares and mortgages and invisible money.

What a far cry from those well-meaning churchmen of 1885 in the White Horse Hotel.

Growing up, I was proud of the fact England had 'the 92', the biggest haul of full-time professional teams in the world and I still feel proud our lower-league attendances trump those of other nations.

It might be hard for younger or overseas fans to understand, but the 92 were historically one group and in theory any team could advance up the pyramid. It is all about the Premier League now but when I was a child Match of the Day on a Saturday night showed games from other divisions too.

The mega bucks of Sky and others have changed all that of course and chasms of wealth have appeared. Even the Championship, the old Division Two, seems to be struggling to hold on to the coat tails of the runaway top flight, a global league which happens to be based in England.

The excessive concentration of wealth on the top 20 is having effects lower down the pyramid of which Bury is only the latest example. Inequality hurts those beyond high table and fairer distribution of the riches of the richest is essential.

Yet all is not lost.

Shakers supporters should look to the examples of Aldershot, Newport County and Wimbledon, whose loyal fans united and refused to let their clubs die.

All three were closed down too but reborn, Phoenix-like, from their ashes and a greater sense of community engendered therein. Travel to any of those three now and the supporter spirit is greater than before, a ubiquitous feel-good factor forged by the knowledge everyone got together again.

If anything resembling society still exists in this atomised, individualistic world of 2019, then English football must resurrect one of its oldest members in Bury, even if it just the Shakers fans themselves.

Bury in 1892
Bury in 1892

(c) Soccerphile & Sean O'Conor

Saturday, August 24, 2019

El Niño bows out

FERNANDO TORRES CALLS IT A DAY IN JAPAN

One of my favourite players has just retired at the age of 35.

Spanish legend Fernando Torres hung up his boots on the 23rd of August when his J1 League club Sagan Tosu lost 6-1 to Vissel Kobe, who boasted former La Roja teammates Andres Iniesta and David Villa.



"It has been a wonderful journey," Torres wrote in an open farewell letter to Iniesta. "I tried to find an iconic moment to play my final game and I think that is perfect timing."

In response, Iniesta wrote,

"Football brought us together more than 20 years ago when we were children. Well, you will always be El Nino and it will never separate us."

From Spain to Japan via England, he will go down in football annals as one of Spain's golden generation, a lithe and skilful attacker and the epitome of the 'False Nine' forward which came to the fore in the late noughties.

Torres grew up in the southern Madrid suburb of Fuenlabrada so gravitated naturally to Atletico Madrid whose old and beloved Manzanares stadium was a landmark on that side of the capital.

Torres made his debut for Los Colchoneros when they were in the second tier in 2001 and ended up amassing 91 goals in 244 matches and one second division title before moving to Merseyside in 2007.
Much excitement had already built up around 'El Nino' (The Kid) from Madrid but at Liverpool he confirmed his prowess by flourishing in another country,

At Liverpool under Rafael Benitez his strike rate increased to 81 in 142 games across four seasons but trophies eluded him again.

With Spain however he became a European Champion in 2008 as his winner in the final against Germany brought La Roja their first silverware since the 1960s and heralded the start of their tiki-taka golden age.

Torres' goal was typical of him  - inch-perfect positioning, acceleration and a deft first touch to score.



Two years later he was in Spain's historic World Cup winning side as they beat the Netherlands to the biggest prize and in 2012 Torres scored again in a European Championship final as Spain thrashed Italy as he bagged the golden boot as well.

After moving to Chelsea in 2012 for £50 million, Torres seemed to decline as a striker and looked less sharp or speedy, suffering unprecedented goal droughts and a knee injury which seemed to sap his explosiveness.

He also had to play second fiddle somewhat to Didier Drogba.

However he popped up as ever to score decisive goals, including a memorable breakaway in the Camp Nou to eliminate Barcelona from the 2012 Champions League, a cup Chelsea won that season for the first time.

In the following season's Europa League final, Torres scored the first in a 2-1 win over Benfica.

He also got a F.A. Cup winner's medla with Chelsea to add to the continent's top two trophies, a pretty decent return on a career, although there remained a sense of potential somewhat unfulfilled as he was less sharp after leaving Liverpool.

Torres was fast and light with excellent feet, symbolic of the shift in English football from the old battering ram / target man striker towards more elusive and skilful forwards, but he was also strong and hard to muscle off the ball.

He was as at home in the close-passing tiki-taka of the Spanish national team as he was with the long punts and channel balls of the Premier League, as he was an expert at bringing down and controlling aerial passes.

Off-field too he was impeccable, shunning the high life and the night life for a cosy and conventional family life instead.

This modest professionalism meant he never became a football 'character' the tabloids could scribble about.

But we should not forget how effective and how talented he was as a footballer.

Gracias Fernando.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Meet Me in St Louis, for a match

MLS IS FINALLY COMING TO AMERICA'S 'SOCCER CITY'

It has been discussed for years but now it is happening.

St. Louis, the American city with the deepest soccer heritage, will have a Major League Soccer side starting in 2022.

The 28th professional club franchise in America's top league was announced this week by MLS commissioner Don Garber at a press conference in the midwest city.

MLS


"It is with great pride that we welcome St Louis to Major League Soccer." he said. "St Louis is a city with a rich soccer tradition, and it is a market we have considered since the league's inception."

Historically located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, St Louis has a population of around 300,000 with a metropolitan area of ten times that and is home to internationally recognised brands like Budweiser, Energizer and Monsanto. Until it closed in 2003, TWA was based there too.

But for the quarter century of MLS' existence, the city has been a starkly missing piece of the jigsaw because of its unique history.

For more than any other city in the US, St Louis got the soccer bug in the early 20th century, establishing the nation's first professional league, the St. Louis Soccer League, in 1907 and maintaining thriving youth and amateur leagues after that folded with the outbreak of World War Two.

The first report of football there goes back to 1875, St Louis University dominated American university football for much of the post-war period and five of the USA's 1950 World Cup side who famously beat England 1-0 in Belo Horizonte played for St Louis teams.

More recently, the city has produced US internationals Chris Klein, Steve Ralston, Mike Sorber, Taylor Twellman and current Fulham defender Tim Ream. Brian McBride, another Fulham star, who played for the US at three World Cups and scored at two of them (1998 and 2002) was a St Louis University graduate.

61 St Louis-born footballers have represented the US National Team in all and the city can fairly claim, despite having no MLS team hitherto, to be America's soccer city.

On the eve of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I had the golden opportunity to speak on the phone from London to Harry Keough, one of the few surviving veterans of 1950 and US captain that day they beat England.

I treasure that couple of hours with a gentle-sounding old man who clearly had a ream of football memories and whose warmth just radiated from so far away. We really could have talked all day but Keough's wife had to remind him he had a children's match to referee so we eventually ended the call.

I asked him why St Louis, alone of American cities, had got the football bug and he told me it was because of the Roman Catholic church organising the children's football leagues. The local RC churches was staffed by many Irishmen, Britons and Germans who had brought their love of football with them from the Old World as St Louis' population mushroomed in the second half of the 19th century.

Visit today and like Boston and Philadelphia, the place still feels very European, with visible cultural legacies of many European food and drink establishments. Although only 64th on the list of most populated American cities, it still has a downtown more vibrant than many of those higher up on the list, another sign of its European ancestry.

So after the Catholic Church sowed the soccer seeds, the children grew up and took on the mantle of establishing association football as the premier sport in higher education in the city, as well as creating a professional league for adults.

What delayed an MLS team in St Louis were the familiar problems of getting a stadium deal in place. Bizarrely from a European perspective, US stadia are usually publicly funded and depend on local voter referenda to be built.

Finally a privately-financed stadium plan for a 22,500-seat arena in central St Louis accessible by light rail was presented and passed the necessary criteria to be accepted by MLS.

For its first decade since its birth in 1996, MLS struggled for credibility with teams attracting paltry crowds in vast NFL bowls. When its two Florida teams folded in 2002 it even looked like the league itself was going to fail like the NASL did in the 1980s.

But a steady move towards soccer-specific stadia of around 20,000 seats improved the match atmosphere and league's credibility, while the arrival of David Beckham in 2007, even he was probably too good for MLS, brought a wow factor to the sport in the USA.

When the Seattle Sounders finished their first season in MLS with an average crowd of over 30,000 in 2009, it was clear things were changing.

Atlanta United, who began in 2017, have blown attendance records to smithereens, averaging over 50,000 per match and regularly topping 70,000 supporters.

In 2019, professional football in America is here to stay. The sport appeals to younger, more globalized generations.

MLS will soon have 30 teams and St Louis at long last will be one of them.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile










Monday, August 12, 2019

When The Stats Don't Work

CHELSEA BEAT UNITED AT EVERYTHING EXCEPT GOALS

Well what a fireworks display that was at Old Trafford today.

Manchester United fans had approached the new season warily after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's honeymoon ended with a bump and the club missed out on the Champions League again last Spring, while Chelsea fans felt the wave of optimism generated by returning hero Frank Lampard would make up for the transfer ban clipping their wings this summer.

Oh how wrong can you be. 4-0 to United it finished and despite Chelsea dominating the first half and hitting the woodwork, that scoreline is still a thrashing in anyone's language.

When The Stats Don't Work.


Except that is the statisticians, who had convinced us that data can explain everything. A look at the basic figures from today's clash tells us something rather different:

POSSESSION - Chelsea 54% v 46% Man Utd
SHOTS ON TARGET - Chelsea 7 v 5 Man Utd
TOTAL SHOTS - Chelsea 18 v 11 Man Utd
FOULS - Chelsea 13 v 15 Man Utd
CORNERS - Chelsea 5 v 3 Man Utd

Using these blunt parameters, Chelsea win hands down, but they lost 4-0. So what really counts is the number of good chances a side creates.

On this criterion United beat Chelsea, having forged two thirds of the goalscoring chances, while less than half of the 35% of the remainder which fell to Chelsea were clear opportunities to find the net, according to sharper analytical tools.

Stats are everywhere in football as in life these days thanks to the growth of computer algorithms but today's clash in Manchester was a salient reminder that the basic ones the media feed us are often spectacularly irrelevant.

Or, as Alan Hansen put it,

"It's goals which win games."

* Arsenal duo Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac missed their 1-0 win at Newcastle on police advice because of threats to their families following the failed carjacking of the pair in London last week.

This shocking state of affairs however was far from "unprededented" as some Fleet Street hacks claimed.

Arsenal's David O'Leary missed a match in 1992 following an IRA threat after he had expressed support for Britain's Conservative Party while family kidnapping threats famously caused Johan Cruyff to miss the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

Nigeria's Jon Obi Mikel has had to deal with this father being kidnapped twice while the brother of fellow countryman and ex-Everton defender Joseph Yobo and the mother of current Nigeria winger were also taken illegally for money.

Latin American stars Jorge Campos, Diego Milito, Juan Riquelme, Romario and Carlos Tevez have all had parents or siblings kidnapped for ransom while the great Alfredo Di Stefano was taken hostage for three days in Venezuela in 1963.

In 1994 Colombian defender Andres Escobar was famously assassinated by disgruntled gangsters.

So threats to footballers are depressingly common.

* While the two Manchester teams sit pretty atop the Premier League and Chelsea are in the relegation zone for the first time in almost two decades, the most impressive weekend performance was from lowly Brighton who won 3-0 at Watford.

Gone was the negative safety first road tactics of Chris Hughton, replaced by a joyously positive attacking game which blew Javi Gracia's Hornets away.

Seagulls boss Graham Potter opened many eyes for his unconventional holistic approach to coaching with Ostersunds in Sweden. Unusually for football managers, Potter possesses a degree in social sciences and a masters in emotional intelligence and leadership.

Is he about to weave his magic in the biggest league of them all now? On this evidence, yes he is.

* As for VAR, following its Premier League debut there is still clearly work to do before the jury can approve it unanimously.

Its use at the London Stadium in the West Ham v Manchester City match seemed particularly intrusive and irritating, however accurate it was. The lag between on-field action and final refereeing decision is still too long and is damaging match atmosphere.

Its puritanical insistence on literal interpretations of offside and penalty rules is also problematic, a fact highlighted by Sergio Aguero's twice-taken spot kick.

Celebrating goals is now tinged with doubt with every strike now going to the video screen for final approval. How football accommodates this technology is an ongoing challenge.

Many of us would long for a 'grey area' to be part of the final implementation of VAR e.g. allowing a player offside by a few centimetres but without any clear advantage to play on, but how we define this in an age of binary computer analysis is still a conundrum.

We do need some video replays. We cannot regress to the 27th of June 2010 when at the World Cup in South Africa, England had a crystal clear goal disallowed and went out and later that evening Mexico were also eliminated thanks to an offside goal from Argentina.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Guyana's Golden Summer

THE GOLDEN JAGUARS WROTE ONE OF THE SUMMER'S GREAT STORIES WITH NON-LEAGUE FOOTBALLERS

In England this summer the main tournament of interest was the FIFA Women's World Cup, which stoked home interest as the Lionesses reached the last four again.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup was low on the horizon of interest, which was a shame because the final, the ideal Mexico v USA match-up, was an entertaining one:



The British media should also have made more of the fact that first-time finalists Guyana had players from the following clubs in their 23-man squad:

Bury - 3rd tier
Dagenham & Redbridge - 5th tier
Dover Athletic - 5th tier
Maldon & Tiptree - 7th tier
Newport County - 4th tier
Peterborough Sports - 7th tier
Reading - 2nd tier
Stevenage - 6th tier
Wealdstone - 6th tier

This certainly puts third tier Steve Bull at the 1990 World Cup for England in the shade.

In their opening 4-0 loss to the hosts, the USA fielded Chelsea's £58 million signing Christian Pulisic and were skippered by ex Roma, Aston Villa and Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder Michael Bradley.

Guyana meanwhile fielded at left-back Matthew Briggs from England's seventh tier Maldon & Tiptree, at centre-back Terence Vancooten from sixth tier Stevenage as well as a pair from fifth tier Dagenham and Redbridge - Elliot Bonds and Liam Gordon.

Other starters played their trade in the USA's fourth tier and for the Guyana Defence Forces. Talk about plucky underdogs.

In their second match they started with Sam Cox from sixth-tier Wealdstone and on the bench had 34 year-old Ronayne Marsh-Brown of seventh tier Peterborough Sports.



Amazingly, Guyana did not disgrace themselves and finished above 2006 World Cup qualifiers Trinidad & Tobago, with whom they drew 1-1 in Kansas City.

In their second group game they lost 4-2 to Russia 2018 qualifiers Panama where second-tier Bury's Neil Danns grabbed a brace of spot-kicks and Vancooten scored an own goal.

Danns, who plays for League One Bury, confirmed his status as Guyana's star of the tournament by scoring a spectacular in their final match against Trinidad & Tobago.



Coached by Jamaican Michael Johnson, Guyana play at the 3,000 capacity Leonora National Track and Field Centre and like fellow South Americans Venezuela, football has to play second fiddle to a bat and ball sport - in this case cricket as opposed to baseball.

We are unlikely to see the Golden Jaguars in the World Cup finals any time soon but we should all at least salute a heroic soccer summer for the little nation of only 787,000 people.

In an age where ugly money pollutes the Beautiful Game, there is nothing as uplifting as a flourish from a little underdog now and again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Messy Messi Money Madness & Mourinho on hold

Messy Messi Money Madness & Mourinho on hold

* Pre-season, that no-man's land between the fireworks of last season and the clean slate of the new one.

I never know how to cope with it. September to May I am glued to the footy news every day, refuelling my mind's adventures, but in the close-season there is not any worth worrying about.

Yes there is transfer gossip as usual but none involve my club and none seem to be earth-shattering anymore, until the big one comes along and disproves my theory. If Philippe Coutinho comes to Arsenal that would be exciting I have to admit, though I cannot say I am that bothered where the increasingly disappointing Neymar is playing in September.

Kylian Mbappe markedly pushed him away from his PSG teammates today as they celebrated a pre-season victory.

Then there are the new kit releases, invariably depressingly hideous and making one long for their two-year lifespan to expire at once. And finally the pre-season friendlies, on unusually sunny and warm days.

For fans of the big European clubs living in Asia and North America, these pre-season clashes are their only chance to get to see their idols, but despite the self-aggrandising names like 'International Champions Trophy' the stars often do not even turn up and the games themselves are meaningless and forgettable.

Lionel Messi has been banned from playing for Argentina for three months and fined $50,000 for calling CONMEBOL corrupt after this summer's Copa America.


* Lionel Messi has been banned from playing for Argentina for three months and fined $50,000 for calling CONMEBOL corrupt after this summer's Copa America.

He will miss the blancoceleste's autumn friendlies with Chile, Mexico, Germany and Portugal but can return for the start of World Cup qualifying in March 2020.

Messi's rant after being sent off against Chile following a handbags clash with Gary Medel, who was also red-carded, seemed an expulsion of frustration after another near-miss at an international trophy.

For years a quiet man on and off the field, the Barcelona legend is now increasingly outspoken, growing old disgracefully as it were. It should be remembered Messi is still only 32 and has another World Cup in him but he seems destined to go down as a world-class club performer but a struggler at international level, much like George Best.

He seems to be letting go of all that frustration he must feel playing for his country, without his Barcelona teammates to help him reach the same heights. Whether it will help him grab a big trophy for Argentina before he hangs up his boots is open to debate. Tennis legend Bjorn Borg kept a golden silence for years before becoming candid and vocal as his talent waned.

Messi has another chance to win the Copa America next summer when Argentina co-host with Colombia.

* Some of Britain's top football writers like Daniel Taylor of The Guardian and Oliver Kay from The Times have upped sticks for US website The Athletic, who lured them away with doubled salaries.

While their bank balances will rise, in direct proportion will their importance as writers fall. Like it or not, exposure via one of Fleet Street's paper goliaths or terrestrial television channels cannot be beaten.

It is the equivalent of English cricket selling its TV rights to Sky, which saw its revenues rise but its viewing figures and participation rates plummet, or if you like, Gareth Bale swapping Real Madrid for the fatter pay-packet and relative obscurity of the Chinese Super League.

Failing to distinguish between price and value is perennial. As Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician from 'House of Cards', opined in the series' first episode of a former staffer who had left him for more money,

"Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn't see the difference."

* Speaking of Bale, will Zinedine Zidane even play him this season if as it appears, the Chinese move falls through?

One imagines he will only be employed now and again in times of injury crisis or suspension, which is a terrific waste of the Welshman's talent. Of course this has happened recently at Real Madrid with Sami Khedira and James Rodriguez.

There is nothing new about outstanding talents being kept on the bench for most of a season because they do not see eye to eye with the manager or there are simply too many galacticos. This happened to Jean-Pierre Papin, who despite being European Footballer of the Year and the world's most expensive signing at the time, failed to become a first-team regular at Milan in the early 1990s and was sold on to Bayern Munich.

* Zidane is already "en crisis" according to the insatiable Spanish football press as Real Madrid have stumbled in pre-season.

Seemingly leading La Liga's sack race, the manager's position is already being questioned and the latest and somewhat earth-shattering rumour is that Jose Mourinho no less is being kept on notice should Real dispense with the Frenchman...

The story of the Special One still has a few more chapters to be written...

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Baleful Bye-bye

GARETH BALE'S LONG FAREWELL TO REAL & THE BERNABEU

Even the best love affairs can end in tears, messily and full of recriminations.

So it is that Gareth Bale, who was the hottest property in the transfer market when Real Madrid gleefully snaffled him from Tottenham six years ago and has scaled the heights with his storied club, is now mired in the midst of an ugly and protracted divorce from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

"If it is tomorrow, even better," manager Zinedine Zidane tartly told reporters at the weekend, when asked if Bale was leaving.

GARETH BALE'S LONG FAREWELL TO REAL


"Zidane is a disgrace", Bale's agent Jonathan Barnett retorted. It seems their bridges are truly burned.

So since he is persona non grata with Zidane, the gilded moments of Bale's adventures in a white shirt may as well count for nothing now:

*A spectacular winner in the 2014 Copa del Rey final when he ran out of touch to avoid Barcelona's Marc Bartra but regained the ball and charged up the left flank to score.

*His extra-time close-range header against city rivals Atletico to bag Real's decima (tenth) European Champions Cup the same year.

*A double in the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool, his first a spectacular bicycle kick.

*A hat-trick in the 2018 FIFA World Club Cup semi-final against Kashima Antlers

Bale's overall stats for Real tell a stellar story and one which should put him into the annals as British football's premier export. 

Since moving from North London to Madrid, Bale has won four UEFA Champions League trophies, three FIFA Club World Cups, one La Liga championship and one Copa del Rey and scored 102 goals in 231 games, more than double what Zidane netted for Real in a similar amount of matches.

By any measure then he has made a good return on the £85 million they paid Tottenham in September 2013 but he has suffered his fair share of boos at the Bernabeu (who hasn't?) and is now about to depart in acrimony as his manager does not value him.

Zinedine Zidane has wanted the Welsh wizard out for at least a couple of seasons but has been thwarted by Bale's excessive salary of £600,000 per week, which puts off potential buyers, the soft spot team owner Florentino Perez has for the Cardiffian and finally Bale's habit of popping up to score important goals.

Bale's bicycle kick winner in the 2018 Champions League final made Zizou's plan to offload him that close season more difficult, and when he learnt the club would not fork out for big names in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo's exit, he decided to exit stage left himself rather than become the fall guy for the side's expected decline.

In a quirk of fate Zidane has climbed back upon the Real rollercoaster less than a year after stepping off it but maintains a lack of faith in Bale, who to be fair has been increasingly absent with injuries. This salient fact does give Zidane some leverage in his impending departure, but it is still a pity we will not see the Welshman develop a relationship with new star Eden Hazard alongside familiar teammate Karim Benzema - the GBH?

Having been reading the last rites for the past few days, Zidane brought on Bale for the second half of their friendly with Arsenal in Maryland yesterday only for Bale to score and furrow his manager's brow in the process. 

To add injury to insult, so to speak, midfielder Marco Asensio went off injured with an ACL tear in his left knee which will require months on the sidelines, but the Spaniard's absence might just, maybe, make Zidane think again about Bale, or even recall another discarded star, James Rodriguez to the Bernabeu.

Bale's contract expires in 2022 in Spain and he is paid a hefty wage but the idea of him playing in the reserves until then is preposterous.

With potential suitors Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United apparently coy about his salary requirements or out of the running full stop, perhaps the megabucks deal offered by Chinese Super League club Jiansu Suning looks to have legs.

With Wales unlikely to dispense with their talisman even if he is based in Asia, the move would be an extraordinary boost to Chinese football's credibility.

At 30 years of age, Bale is not about to leave the football stage either, whatever Zidane thinks of him.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Brazil Capture the Copa

THE SELECAO END THEIR WAIT FOR SILVERWARE  BUT IS SOUTH AMERICAN FOOTBALL LOSING ITS SHEEN?

This year's Copa America saw Brazil retain their trophy on home soil and Peru continue their promise from Russia 2018 by reaching the final but in truth there was little to get excited about from any team.

Gabriel Jesus got excited in the final to be fair, scoring a goal, earning a red card and then punching the VAR monitor on his way out. As with the Women's World Cup, the use of VAR was beset with controversy, as its application seemed illogical and secretive.

This year's Copa America saw Brazil retain their trophy on home soil.


With only 24 cameras as opposed to the 32 used in Russia, it was less than convincing at times and provided more headaches for FIFA as the technology is rolled out across the soccer world.

Peru confirmed their return to the South American elite after their impressive if premature first round World Cup exit and veteran warrior Paulo Guerrero lived to fight another day too.

17 years since their last World Cup win, Brazil had something to smile about with their first Copa America since 2007. Their 3-1 victory over Peru should have given them the chance to compete again in the Confederations Cup, a competition they won a hat-trick of times between 2005 and 2013.

But Qatar's infernal summer temperatures and the desire to expand the World Club Cup in 2021 means there will be no Confederations Cup that year and probably ever again.

Neymar was absent but his homeland is still churning out plenty of good footballers, albeit the strong and efficient runners rather than the Ronaldinho ball wizards.

Barcelona midfielder Arthur impressed throughout the tournament and Gremio winger Everton, scorer of the final's opening goal, could be the next big money move to Europe.

Flair is what South American football is famous for but there were slim pickings in Brazil. Three out of the four quarter-finals went to penalties after defensive-heavy goalless draws. Perhaps this impression is down to the decline of Brazil's traditional rivals.

After a haphazard and disjointed World Cup, Argentina are still floundering in Leo Messi's twilight years with the Barcelona genius' modus operandi conflicting with manager Lionel Scaloni's desire for fast transitions via the flanks after a series of Albiceleste coaches basing their sides around him.

Messi himself got a red card for only the second time in his career, a very harsh decision as he was only standing up to shoving from Chile's Gary Medel. Post match Messi was in no mood for letting bygones be bygones, berating CONMEBOL.

"There is no doubt," he said. "The whole thing is set up for Brazil. I did not want to be part of this corruption." 

The sight of Brazil's populist president Jair Bolosnaro milking the celebrations at the end of the final with his hands on the trophy while coach Tite kept a low profile made Messi's words not so easy to dismiss out of hand.

Chile made a brave defence of their title but could not complete a hat-trick of wins as they fell 3-0 to Peru in the semi-final.

Colombia under Carlos Queiroz exited their group with ease beating Argentina 2-0 but were clearly second best in their quarter-final loss to Chile on penalties.

Venezuela made the last eight, confirming the promise of their U-20 World Cup finalists in 2017. The Vinotinto are the only CONMEBOL nation never to have made it to the World Cup finals but have genuine hopes for Qatar 2022. Uniquely in the continent, baseball tops football for popularity in their country.

So not a vintage Copa but at least Brazil, the most legendary football nation, are back to winning major trophies after so long without one.

For the ten nations of South America, the next chance to win the almighty cup is as soon as next summer, when Argentina and Colombia co-host and Australia and Qatar join the party.

The subsequent tournaments will be every four years, starting in Ecuador in 2024.

For Brazil and the rest of South America, top European sides remain their obstacle to winning the World Cup again.

It has now been five World Cups since a South American side won (Brazil in 2002) and it is beginning to feel like the greater wealth and superior organisation of the European clubs are filtering through to their national teams more than ever.

It would be tragic to think of the Copa America as a second level tournament compared to the European Championship but there might well be a gap opening up between the two traditional powerhouses of the sport.

To really assess where CONMEBOL nations sit relative to UEFA ones we will have to wait more than three years however, until the 2022 World Cup kicks off in the Qatari winter.

TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT:

Alisson (BRA), Alves (BRA), Gimenez (URU), Silva (BRA), Trauco (PER), Arthur (BRA), Paredes (ARG), Vidal (CHI), Rodriguez (COL), Guerrero (PER), Everton (BRA).

(c) Soccerphile & Sean O'Conor

Monday, July 1, 2019

Coming of Age

THE FIFA WOMEN'S WORLD CUP HAS HINTED AT BIG THINGS FOR THE FUTURE

FIFA WOMEN'S WORLD CUP


2019 has been a success for women's football, there should be no doubt.

Never has the women's game been so high profile as it has been during this tournament, which is down to the last four teams.

This is partly down to it being held in Europe where football in general draws more onlookers than in North America, in the home of the men's world champions France and in the 'off year' between the UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup.

There are other football tales this summer - Chile and Peru reaching the semi-finals of the Copa America, Spain's recapture of the UEFA U21 crown, Haiti making the last four of the Gold Cup and little Madagascar shocking Nigeria in the African Cup of Nations.

But the Women's World Cup has trumped them all for media profile, at least here in England.

The BBC have been making the most of their broadcasting rights, promoting women's soccer stories to the top of their football news, benefiting from the Lionesses' run to the last four.

It all started unimpressively with a couple of serious mismatches - not least the USA's 13-0 mauling of Thailand and a deluge of VAR which threatened to derail the cup's credibility with its endless stoppages.

The rush to VAR has been absent in the knock-out stages, as FIFA has clearly woken up to the dangers of overusing technology. The puritanical use of it in the England v Cameroon quarter final to deny the Indomitable Lionesses a goal which appeared perfectly legitimate to the naked eye made the Africans furious.

That game descended into disgrace as we witnessed studs-up tackles, spitting at the opposition, haranguing injured players and even pushing the referee from Cameroon players who were seriously lacking in basic discipline.

But all the furor got people talking and the audience for England's next match peaked at 7.6 million viewers on BBC1.

The France v USA match took the sport to another level as the best team in the tournament took on the hosts in the football shrine of Parc des Princes in the capital.

It was the third match of the tournament to attract more than 45,000 fans but the raucous atmosphere of  Paris felt no different to if the men's world champions had been playing.

Watching that match and listening to the 'Allez Les Bleus' chants it seemed like women's football had come of age.

There have been gripes about ticketing - FIFA claims versus reality, the bizarre prohibition of on-the-day stadium ticket sales and the lack of local promotion in France, but the last four matches should see full houses. The previous two Women's World Cups (in Germany and Canada) have averaged 26,000.

Tuesday will see the crunch semi-final of England and the USA, a stronger match-up than the Netherlands v Sweden clash on Wednesday.

England's Lionesses have become brief stars at home, with a former England men's international in Phil Neville helping bridge the gap to the male public who have taken little interest hitherto.

Their cup run will probably come to an end when they face the favourites, who in Megan Rapinoe and her cavalier attitude have a real sporting personality, taking over from Brazil's Marta as the face of the sport, but if it does it will have been a great run. England might never host the men's World Cup again but they really should host the women's edition.

That would inject serious impetus into the game's growth here.

Women's football still has its shortcomings with too many lapses of technique, poor final balls and shoddy goalkeeping but all that can be attributed to funding and historical ignoring by potential sponsors, sporting authorities and national governments.

The exception is in America where women's soccer has been a big attraction since Mia Hamm and co. became world beaters in the late 1990s.

The rest of the planet is playing catch-up with the US but the ubiquitous direction of travel is on the up. Certain nations where the men's game is big - Spain, Italy and Argentina, need to improve massively in women's football. Canada, Norway, Sweden and the US have the opposite problem.

The revenue from respective leagues means the women's game is still far behind the men's but the gap is narrowing. The Olympic Games also provide the women's full national teams with a chance to shine.

One day the Women's World Cup may be truly up there with the men's just as women's tennis competes in prestige with its male counterpart.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile