Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Baleful Bye-bye


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.


"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


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.


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



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