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