Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sala is lost but never gone


Gofundme page for Emiliano Sala
Gofundme page for Emiliano Sala © gofundme.com

"Like looking for a needle in a haystack, when you don't even know where the haystack is."

The words of the former harbour master of Guernsey regarding the task of finding Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala were stark.

"I've been in football management now for 40 years and it's by far the most difficult week in my career by an absolute mile," stuttered the wizened and normally pugnacious Neil Warnock, the Bluebirds' manager.

The vanishing of the Argentine striker en route from Nantes to Cardiff a week ago, somewhere near the Channel Island of Guernsey, has transcended a mundane tale of a crashed light aircraft and turned into something of huge spiritual importance to the global football family.

For despite the manifest hopelessness, hope is refusing to quit. Against all logic, the search for Sala goes on, buoyed by a social media campaign which has yielded €300,000 in donations, including some from famous players like Kylian Mbappe, enough to procure the use of a submarine and surface vessels.

The quest for the missing footballer has become an affirmation of shared faith from a sport sometimes dismissed by outsiders as lacking profundity. Maybe it usually does, but the reaction to Sala's disappearance makes perfect sense to those in the know.

"Deep down in the bottom of my heart I know that Emiliano - who is a fighter - is still alive," said his sister Romina at a press conference four days ago, having jetted hastily and tearfully to Britain.

As long as we believe Sala is out there somewhere in the Channel we will keep looking for him because he was one of us and we look after each other in times like these. Ask anyone who has been in the military - you leave no man behind.

As children we all dreamed of being goalscorers like him, players with the privilege of pressing the ecstasy button of hitting the ball into the net. This tragedy has tapped into something from our childhoods, put simply the love of football.

His family has faith in finding him and faith matters to fans. As long as we have faith we will keep on going to watch losing teams, which most are. What unites us is not a belief in the cold and rational truth but a deeper human instinct:

To belong together.

The need to feel tribal is innate and intrinsic to this sport's following.  Win or lose we all take the same journey. Take that drug away and football folk will seek it elsewhere; it is a fire which cannot be dowsed.

Romina's determination to keep the flame burning therefore makes perfect sense.

Sala's unexpected vanishing struck a sudden chord across the soccer world. Radamel Falcao, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and the Argentine President Mauricio Macri amongst others tweeted pleas for divine intervention or a renewed search of the English Channel.

In a supposedly secular age, Twitter resembled a book of prayer intentions with the hashtag #NoDejenDeBuscar  - Don't stop searching.

In Nantes, the city Sala had departed after four happy years, Place Royale became a shrine overnight to the lost hero of Les Canaris, full of candlelit vigils.

Outside the Cardiff City stadium too, fans who had never seen Sala play and never will draped votive offerings of scarves, flags and daffodils to their eternal Bluebird. Football as religion? It sure looked like it.

The French and Welsh cities are twinned anyway through a shared Celtic heritage. It is hoped that Sala will bring their football teams closer together in future, perhaps through a regular charity match and fan association, the human symbol of their fraternity.

And as for the man at the centre of this devotion, will he ever know his fame, the cult his mysterious disappearance has engendered? One minute he was a footnote in the January transfer window en route to a relegation-threatened struggler, the next he was of the world's best-known players.

No black armbands were worn at the weekend despite the probability to the contrary so in challenging the laws of physics, the missing plane has assumed a Bermuda Triangles-esque character, open to magical interpretation.

Tonight at Arsenal, Cardiff City's team sheet included Sala's name at the bottom of its list of substitutes, a spirit player no plane crash could stop.

Gunners skipper Laurent Koscielny duly kept the faith in his programme notes:

"I am very happy that the searches are now continuing," he wrote.

It is still a deeply sad story, but tragedies bring out the best of humanity in those who react with love and solidarity.

What a strange and infathomable thing fate is and what an emotional and sacred thing football can be.

No Dejen de Buscar.

Emiliano Sala forever.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, January 21, 2019



'Spygate' has for my money been the biggest story so far this season in England and it has not been in the Premier League.

Marcelo Bielsa has been one of the most renowned coaches in the world for some years so there was some excitement last summer when it was announced that the Argentine was coming to England, albeit to the second flight, his seventh national workplace if you include his two crazy days at Lazio.

Leeds FC

So far so good as Leeds United are top of the league, but if the media throng around the Premier League had only glimpsed Bielsa out of the corner of their eye, the news that one of his staff had been stopped by police with a pair of binoculars watching rivals Derby County's training session from an adjacent hill certainly woke everyone in English football up.

As the mist has cleared, more people are realising there is a canny cat out there amongst the staid old pigeons. With a little research it would have been clear Bielsa is probably the most meticulous manager in the game, a fanatic football man who at 63 is not about to slow down.

In Argentina he drove around 9,000Km in his car to scout signings for Newell's Old Boys and embraces player analysis like an eager addict, spending hours and hours analysing, categorising and classifying his opponents down to each player. No wonder he has built a bedroom extension to his office.

Former players of his such as Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone as well as coaches like Jorge Sampaoli sing his praises while Pep Guardiola no less has called him the best in the world.

Gabriel Batistuta's testimony is priceless, saying it was Bielsa "who taught me how to train on rainy days." He is certainly one of the first names on our lips when we talk about influential coaches. His alumni have become disciples.

But has Bielsa erred in not studying England's football culture and traditions? Some feathers were ruffled by the revelation of covert surveillance of Derby training. According to Bielsa, when Derby manager Frank Lampard spoke to him about the event, "He told me I didn't respect the fair play rules."

Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown has called for a points deduction from Leeds for instance.

"It's the wrong thing to do. Poking around and skulking around a training ground is not part of the game," he told the BBC.

While apparently unsportsmanlike, there is unlikely to be any sanction as no rule appears to have been broken.

The idea that Leeds, who won the resulting match between the sides, would have gained some killer advantage by watching the Rams in training beforehand, is also hard to believe given the treasury of information available to all clubs in 2019 through advanced computer programs like Opta, Prozone and Wyscout.

These performance analysis apps tell you everything you need to know about a side's behaviour and style of play and their players' abilities, leaving no surprises when it comes to match day.

You can easily focus on a particular player and bring up videos of all the headers he has made that season for instance. Statistics will inform you what phases of the 90 minutes teams tend to score, attack and defend etc so it is hard to see what having spies in situ can do.

As the furore died down, Bielsa to his credit defended his actions, inviting journalists into Elland Road last week for a Powerpoint presentation on his analytical methods, which are common practice in the professional game, albeit largely invisible to the watching public.

"We observed all the rivals we played against and watched all the training sessions of the opponents before we played against them," he confirmed, revealing the spying was routine. "I've been using this kind of practice since the World Cup qualifiers with Argentina."

He went on that he watched opponents because "it is not illegal" and "even if it is not useful it gives me peace of mind."

He then said they watched every game their forthcoming opponent played the previous season (using aforementioned software programs) and that each match analysis took four hours. For Derby last season that entailed Leeds doing 204 hours of study, covering 51 different games.

What a far cry from Brian Clough's "Let them worry about us" mantra.

It worked in the sense that Leeds beat Derby and top the Championship. If all clubs are using the same computer analysis it makes sense to keep up with the Jones but was watching training necessary? Surely all the hours of matchday evidence is enough to form one's plan of attack.

On the other hand, Leeds have lost four of their last five games, three in the league and one F.A. Cup tie, so how useful has the spying and statistics really been?

After 200 hours' work of video analysis, watching your side then lose to a lesser opponent must be galling.

Leeds might have observed Derby practising a particular set piece routine for which they could have prepared countermeasures, but the possible advantage was surely a slim one. Maybe they were rather trying to spot which players were not training i.e. who was resting or carrying injuries.

Clubs can often give out false information about the fitness status of players in the run up to big games to throw their opponents onto a false trail so there is an argument that advantages, however slim, can be gained by surveillance. Whether it is cricket or not is another question, one harder to answer.

It seems Bielsa was genuine when he says he never expected this furore. Pep Guardiola concurred.

"In other countries everyone does it," the Manchester City manager said. "In other countries they (training grounds) are open. In Munich there were people with cameras watching what we do."

Pochettino also backed his old boss:

"Here maybe it is a little bit weird," he said, "but...that happened 30 years ago in Argentina...it is not a big issue or a big deal."

Some years ago I was living in Italy and would watch one of the best sides in Europe at the time, Parma - Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin, Faustino Asprilla et al, training openly in the city's Cittadella park once a week before signing autographs for fans.

That season Arsenal went on to beat them in the European Cup-Winners Cup Final in Copenhagen. Master tactician George Graham probably did not need my insider knowledge anyway.

Liverpool's Melwood training ground is famously so open that Colombian university student Juan Carlos Osorio rented a room in an adjoining house to observe their methods. The same man went on to coach Mexico at last summer's World Cup where they beat holders Germany and is now manager of Paraguay.

Jurgen Klopp however said the last two training sessions before a match should be kept private.

"You change a lot of things, you train on the set-pieces, you use the players available for the weekend, it's not for anybody else" he said, sentiments echoed by Crystal Palace's Roy Hodgson.

Swansea coach Graham Potter on the other hand disagreed. "I have no problem with it," he admitted "It's not something I am too bothered about."

"Watching teams on the sly is nothing new in football," agreed Alan Shearer, who said he deliberately placed penalties in the wrong places while training before overseas away fixtures in the host stadium because he was sure someone was watching him.

The Newcastle legend however drew a distinction between accessible training sessions and deliberately breaching or looking over erected privacy barriers, as happened at Derby.

Yet the revelation of Bielsa's practices does shine a little torchlight upon the hidden face of the sport, one of many practices which go on in the shadows and are not discussed in public. For that reason the reaction from those inside the game, ex-players and managers, has not been one of hysterical condemnation or demands for punishment.

The general consensus is that a man with binoculars on a hill was not quite within the spirit of the game and that someone should have a quiet word with Bielsa. At at the same time we ruefully acknowledge as Hull manager Nigel Adkins said, that "You can't keep secrets in football anymore."

From the tapping up of players to top stars sitting out cup games or mysteriously withdrawing from international duty, agents enticing managers to field their men, clubs tipping off loyal journalists in order to fulfil their ghastly media strategies or worst of all players accepting money from betting syndicates to influence outcomes, there are many things which happen in the shadows that the public simply does not witness.

For that reason alone, Spygate is the story of the season, a reminder that the game we think we know inside and out is not all that it appears to be.

Bielsa must be believed when he admits he is shocked by the reaction to his methods.

He should be commended for his honesty, although perhaps not his cultural sensitivity. Since the Derby revelation, 11 sides in the Championship have complained about spying by Leeds.

If we are all to accept this as part of the English game, there remains some convincing to be done, even if as universally accepted, no law has been transgressed.

If Leeds are playing Premier League football next season, the precious clubs of England's top division will doubtless be on the lookout for Bielsa's men and already heightening their walls, creating no-fly zones and planning to spike the Argentinian's covert operations with their own special forces.

Breaching the defences surrounding Manchester United's Carrington training complex will be like an attack on the Death Star, but be sure that Bielsa, like the young Luke Skywalker, will be up for the challenge.

In this age of cellphones, drones and the internet it is hard to believe there are any big secrets clubs can conceal in closed training sessions anyway. As Guardiola confirmed,

"Everyone is spying on everyone, on the personal lives of this man or woman. Everywhere is like this."

I actually do not live too far from Chelsea's training ground, and know the environs as I once did a junior coaching course there while it still belonged to the Surrey F.A.

If the weather is nice maybe I will pop down tomorrow with my bird-watching binoculars and see if I can figure out why Maurizio Sarri is playing Eden Hazard out of position and cannot motivate his team.

Bielsa has led the way again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Five Leagues and a World Apart


Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

My home town team Woking were the smallest club left in the F.A. Cup but we could not manage to beat the odds and make it to the fourth round, losing 2-0 at home to Watford yesterday.

Woking and Watford are similar towns in size and distance from the capital and their football clubs are of similar age, but today they play five divisions apart.

This salient fact makes the scoreline complement the Cardinals of the sixth-tier National League South, who pluckily took on a crack Premier League outfit. In reality we never threatened an upset, forcing Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes into only one save and missing one half-chance to score in the second half.

Watford meanwhile forged a string of occasions to score in the first half, only thwarted by last-ditch lunges and Woking goalie Craig Ross.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Their goals came in cruise control.

Will Hughes, slippery as an eel, had the luxury of no markers so could meet a corner kick first time to whip his shot into the far corner in the 13th minute.

Troy Deeney, who was playing with a smile on his face as if in a charity match, had an easy tap-in from close range an hour later after Woking's defence let a cross shockingly slip past them. "Sloppy mistakes", the Cards boss Alan Dowson rued later.

Watford boss Javi Gracia might have made 11 changes from their previous match but could still field ten nationalities including current or ex-internationals of Brazil, England, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Venezuela and former players of Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Woking's players were all English with the exception of Jamar Loza, who has made three friendly appearances for Jamaica, and none earned more than £400 per week as the club is only semi-professional.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Against these odds, Jake Hyde's determined forward runs and substitute Armani Little's dogged attacking were worthy of medals for bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

Woking's manager had spoken of an imminent cricket score beforehand, deliberately dowsing any euphoria or inebriated optimism.

The Cards motored away, thrusting at a superior foe who always seemed to have two or three players to close down our runners. We tried yet never came close to the prize, a universal truth recognised by the sustained applause at the final whistle, which was more like that of a classical concert, the managers' embrace and the relaxed player handshakes.

An annual narrative is how the F.A. Cup is not what it was, but for clubs like Woking it is still our only sip of ambrosia, a fleeting and infrequent moment in the limelight and a chance to slay Goliaths.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Giant-slaying is getting harder despite the fielding of B-teams by the big boys. Fitness levels and tactical preparation have advanced in the professional game and without the money, the Davids cannot keep up.

Gaps between divisions have widened so how on earth could anyone expect a club five divisions beneath the Premier League to have won through?

Our previous exploits against Everton, Coventry, Millwall, Brighton and Swindon are jewels in our crown, peaks we conquered or almost reached. The Koh-I-Noor for us will always be our 4-2 win at West Bromwich Albion in the 3rd Round in 1991, a day so blissful for our little team and town.

We will always have the Hawthorns. We just hope it was not our last moment in the sun.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Real Crisis


With almost half the season gone in La Liga, it is fair to say Real Madrid are in crisis.

That word is routinely abused by the Spanish press who band it about every week, normally on a Monday in the aftermath of a defeat or draw for Los Merengues, yet this time they might have a point.

A Real Crisis
Change is needed at the Bernabeu

Today the World Club Cup holders lost 0-2 at home to lowly Real Sociedad, despite fielding nine of those who won the Champions League against Liverpool in Kiev last May.

Europe's top side for the last three seasons now sit a woeful fifth after 18 matches, a full ten points behind eternal rivals Barcelona and even trailing Deportivo Alaves, one point outside the qualification spots for the Champions League, the competition they have won four out of the last five seasons.

On Wednesday Real host Leganes in the first leg of their last 16 Copa del Rey tie. Even though the competition is minor, only a win will do for a beleaguered club and its unexpected manager Santiago Solari, who was handed the reins on a temporary basis in the wake of the Julen Lopetegui mess.

Real's brazen capture of Lopetegui from the Spanish Football Federation saw the national team sack their coach on the eve of the World Cup in Russia amid a climate of insanity. Lopetegui was fired himself by Real three and a half months later and the club have still to find stability this season.

Second spot in La Primera is never enough for the insatiable Real directors, supporters and Real-obsessed Spanish football dailies AS and Marca, but European success makes up for a lot. The fact Real have won the last three Champions League in a row has handed the club precious bragging rights over the more stable Barca.

Florentino Perez, the man behind the badge, is holding out for a new leader in the summer. After raiding White Hart Lane for Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, he is keen to haul Mauricio Pocchetino and Christian Eriksen to Madrid as well.

If Solari is fired in the summer as is probable in favour of a big-name coach, he can at least point to his capture of the FIFA World Club Cup in December.

The Argentine was a logical choice given he had been coaching behind the scenes at youth and reserve level at the Bernabeu since 2013.

His insider connection should keep him in place until the end of the season, but if a resurgent Ajax should humiliate his side in next month's Champions League and qualification for next season be thrown into doubt by domestic stumbling, expect Perez to appoint his third coach since Zinedine Zidane called it a day in May last year.

Zidane had cited a "need for change" at the club when he surprisingly resigned, interpreted as foreseeing with foreboding the rocky road of rebuilding the spine of the side beyond the BBC attack and thirty-somethings Marcelo, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos.

The Cristiano Ronaldo era ended soon afterwards too, bookending nine amazing years in Madrid but leaving a hole in an eleven devoted to maximising his forward thrusts and a void in the club's identity.

Youth team talents hailed as future stars have not filtered into the first team while recent signings such as Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior (both €45 million), Alvaro Odriozola (€30 million) and Mariano Diaz (€21 million) have not won starting spots.

The long-mooted plan to redevelop the Bernabeu has also been put on the back burner again given the on-field chaos.

After half a year of chaos, the Frenchman's swift exit looks increasingly to have been a stroke of genius as change at the Bernabeu stays beyond the horizon.

Necessary reconstruction of the world's biggest club is no small-scale engineering project but nobody is ready to push the painful start button.

In the meantime, Real fans are thinking of 2020 already.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile