Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fifa World Rankings November 2016

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for November 2016 were published today at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

The full top ten is Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, Colombia, beaten Euro 2016 finalists, France, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Uruguay and Spain.

England are 13th, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales in 12th.

Senegal are the top African team in 33rd place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 47th place; Japan are in 45th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 37th place.

The USA are in 28th. Wales are 12th. Scotland are in 67th position. The Republic of Ireland are up ten places in 23rd place, Northern Ireland are in 32nd position.

1 Argentina
2 Brazil
3 Germany
4 Chile
5 Belgium
6 Colombia
7 France
8 Portugal
9 Uruguay
10 Spain
11 Switzerland
12 Wales
13 England
14 Croatia
15 Poland
16 Italy
17 Costa Rica
18 Mexico
19 Peru
20 Ecuador

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Os Belenenses

Clube de Futebol Os Belenenses are very much Lisbon's third team after the big two of Benfica and Sporting.

Os Belenenses, Restelo, Lisbon.

Founded in 1919, Os Belenenses play their home games at the 19,000 capacity Estádio do Restelo in Belem in the west of the Portuguese capital, where crowds average a lowly 1,500 unless one of the big three Portuguese clubs, Benfica, Sporting or Porto, are in town.

Os Belenenses, Restelo, Lisbon.

Belenenses have had their moments, however, and have played in Europe, competing in the UEFA Cup, Cup Winners Cup and Europa League, even beating the mighty Barcelona in the 1987-88 UEFA Cup 1-0 at the Restelo. Belenses were last in the Europa League last season, finishing bottom of a group containing Basel, Fiorentina and Lech Poznań.

Os Belenenses, Restelo, Lisbon.

Belenenses, along with Boavista, is one of the only clubs outside the big three to have won the Portuguese League (Primeira Liga), when they triumphed in the 1945-46 season. They have also won the Portuguese cup, the Taça de Portugal, three times.

Belenenses play in blue and white and are nicknamed Os Azuis do Restelo (The Blues from Restelo) or Pastéis (Pastries) after the famous sweets made in Belem.

Os Belenenses, Restelo, Lisbon, Portugal.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fifa World Rankings October 2016

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for October 2016 were published today at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

The full top ten is Argentina, Germany, Brazil, Belgium, Colombia, Chile, beaten Euro 2016 finalists, France, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Uruguay and Spain.

England are 12th, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales in 11th.

Côte d'Ivoire are the top African team in 31st place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 40th place; Japan are in 51st spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 44th place.

The USA are in 24th. Wales are 11th. Scotland are in 57th position. The Republic of Ireland are in 33rd place, Northern Ireland are in 36th position.

1 Argentina
2 Germany
3 Brazil
4 Belgium
5 Colombia
6 Chile
7 France
8 Portugal
9 Uruguay
10 Spain
11 Wales
12 England
13 Italy
14 Switzerland
15 Poland
16 Croatia
17 Mexico
18 Costa Rica
19 Ecuador
20 The Netherlands

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Another fine mess at the F.A.

Another fine mess at the F.A.
Well, that did not last long.

Sam Allardyce may retire with a 100% record as English manager but his reputation is so sullied it is hard to see him going back into club management.

The egg is on the F.A.'s face of course for signing up a man already well-known as a bit of a wheeler-dealer. They had not learn from appointing Terry Venables or their passing over Harry Redknapp.

At Bolton, Big Sam had assembled a United Nations of players much like Redknapp had at West Ham, ringing the alarm bells that the boss was more active than normal in the transfer market.

Redknapp for all his talents, carried too much suspicion that a financial misdemeanor would blow up for the F.A. to pick him above Roy Hodgson, which makes their decision to opt for a similar character bizarre.

The lack of English options following Euro 2016 and the desire to pick a strong personality who knew the domestic game inside out mitigates somewhat their error, but in hindsight the risk of a scandal with Allardyce was large.

Ten years ago a BBC expose had already fingered his agent son as being involved with bungs attached to his father's club dealings some years back. Big Sam's fall cannot have come as a shock to anyone. Did the F.A. insist in their job interview that Allardyce sever all friendly connections with agents who might try to insert themselves in his inner circle?

Were they satisfied one of the highest-profile wheeler-dealers in the domestic game was squeaky clean, or did the lack of obvious alternatives force their hand and make them hope for the best?

The Allardyce video was merely the side of the game the fans do not see and the press often ignore - the big boys' rules which have always gone on behind the scenes.

Across the board, managers had respect that 'Big Sam' was one of their own. Journalists seemed to warm to him too, though tabloid hacks really adored Redknapp above all, blithely ignoring all his financial chicanery.

All that has changed are the inflated sums of money changing hands now. Alan Sugar claimed Brian Clough liked an envelope stuffed with cash while Allardyce was hoping to pick up £400,000 from this fatal deal.

The Daily Telegraph has form, having sent two reporters disguised as constituents to bring down the otherwise impressive Vince Cable M.P. from making a bid to be chancellor in the coalition government.

Then as now the sting seemed to be a show of arrogance from the newspaper rather than a noble act for a greater purpose.

Handling the press is indeed as tricky for England managers as handling overseas opposition. Bobby Robson was hounded relentlessly by the tabloid media, as were Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren.

Robson and Sven-Goran Eriksson had their private life splayed over the newspapers while Fabio Capello was lost in translation. Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables enjoyed relatively good relations with Fleet Street but their own careless off-field errors cost them their jobs.

What we see is a continuous comedy of errors with England managers. Only Roy Hodgson did the decent thing and quit his job for having lost a must-win match.

But given Big Sam's ungracious comments about Hodgson, Gary Neville and the Duke of Cambridge, his criticism of his employers splashing £870 million on Wembley, plus the promise of more revelations, the F.A. had no option but to call time today on their new man, even after only 90 minutes of football.

Reputations matter.

-Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, September 22, 2016

In hindsight, the Euros were easy to call...

In hindsight, the Euros were easy to call.

"We are not going there on an excursion," insisted Portugal coach Fernando Santos.

"We are going there to win!"

Cue the smirks from the assembled press at the pre-Euro 2016 conference.

Looking back at this summer's big European tournament, we can all we so maddeningly wise after the event, convinced now having read the statistics at leisure that the best team all along won it in the end.

The elements for Portuguese victory were thus:

Three appearances in the semi-finals out of their last four European Championships, seven consecutive one-goal wins, a tight defence, a focused and unified group of players, the young star of the tournament, oh and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Speaking to 442 magazine before the tournament, Portugal centre-back Jose Fonte's resonating words should have alerted us to his team's potential:

"We have the best player in the world," he reminded us. "We have a strong team, a fantastic manager and the full support of a nation."

Well that sounds like a recipe for success.

He went on:

"I think we're very well organised, we're a close-knit squad and we have players who are extremely dangerous offensively."

Yup, can't argue with that.

"I think Portugal have a very good chance, " ex-goalkeeper Ricardo told World Soccer. "I know there is an excellent spirit within the squad and the team has a very good coach. I think everything is in place for Portugal to have a good tournament."

Ah, the 20/20 vision...

"I think we're going to have a great Euro," added Paulo Futre. "Portugal can beat anybody if we're at the top of our game...Portugal are a great team when they are in good shape."

Tom Kundert in World Soccer talked up their chances as well:

"Portugal have an impressive European Championship record," he began. "They also have the outstanding player in the tournament, a core of experienced, solid performers and an exciting crop of young players."

Looking at the Euros with the benefit of hindsight, Portugal were clearly always in with a chance of winning the thing but nobody tipped them as far as I can recall, despite this abundance of evidence.

Why was this? Don't hundreds of men and now expensive computers spend hours analyzing football?

Yes, but the best so-called experts, paid analysts and algorithms clearly cannot pick the rabbit out a 24-team hat.

If they were able to, the football betting industry would die a death (no great loss perhaps) but football fandom would too, as everyone would know who was going to win.

It is reassuring therefore that football retains this unpredictability in the face of smug punditry and advanced technology, a chaos factor that makes it relentlessly watchable. But getting back to Portugal, the ingredients for success were clearly there but pre-match odds placed them joint-sixth favourites with Italy at best, behind France, Germany, Spain, England and Belgium...?!?

Most betting companies placed them seventh in fact!

How could so many highly-paid observers get it so spectacularly wrong and fire so amazingly wide of the mark?

I think the answer lies in gut instincts more than anything.

Despite its team's pedigree, Portugal is a small country with only 62% of the population of the Netherlands, the other obvious small nation which punches above its weight, albeit not since the last World Cup.

Portugal just did not have the F Factor of big names like Germany, Italy, France, Spain and England, national teams from the countries with the biggest domestic leagues coincidentally.

Ronaldo's gargantuan profile continued to cast the rest of the team in the shade as far as casual spectator recognition went.

His ongoing failure to win trophies in a Seleçao shirt having passed the landmark of 30 years of age also probably contributed to Portugal's under-valuation pre-tournament.

They were defensively rather than attacking-minded too, a boring yet winning approach not unlike Greece's surprise win in 2004.

A tight defence was clearly a big reason for their ultimate victory, grinding out wins in a functional fashion, a stark contrast to the flamboyant Portugal of Eusebio in 1966, or of the Geração de Ouro (Golden Generation) of the late 1990s and early noughties.

It is useful to remember Portugal drew their three group games against Iceland, Austria and Hungary, before an extra-time 1-0 win over Croatia and a penalty-win over Poland after a 1-1 draw.

So not only did they reach the last four having finished third in their group, in five games at the finals they failed to win within 90 minutes and only once within 120 minutes.

Such tactics never catch the eye of the fans or appeal to hacks, who would rather see such sides eliminated than tip them to go all the way and have to suffer more turgid defensive clashes settled by a late winner or penalties.

Quite clearly the heart still rules the head of the football fan or journalist.

Despite the evidence of Euro 2016, nobody really wants to advocate out loud a safety-first, keep-it-tight and squeeze all creativity out of the game approach.

As in their qualifiers, Portugal edged past all their finals opponents, until their stand-out 2-0 victory over Gareth Bale and friends.

But most people still thought the hosts would use their home advantage to beat Fernando Santos' men in the final.

Even when Ronaldo finally hobbled off the pélouse of the Stade de France for good, most watchers expected Portugal to lose, not win. Nine out of Santos' ten wins in charge of Portugal before the tournament began were by a single goal so the writing was on the wall.

If only we had analysed their narrow wins more, we might have seen they were cannily avoiding defeat in every game and only needed to wait until they found the opposition net, as they did after 109 minutes in the final through Eder.

If only we had listened to Fernando Santos and his single-minded vision:

"I believe we can win Euro 2016," he insisted beforehand. "If this team keeps its concentration, with the quality it has, it will be difficult to beat us."

We should also have noticed how strong their esprit du corps was before the tournament, so watertight in fact that the loss of their talisman in the final was no obstacle to victory but rather a fillip. If anything, they played better without Ronaldo, as if his teammates felt liberated without his ego around and his short tempered reactions to not being given the ball, like a spoilt child.

In retrospect we get it all now, as we always do, but Portugal's victory confirmed how the army of football ‘experts’ were once more anything but. Did anyone tip either South Korea or Turkey to make the World Cup semi-finals of 2002? No.

Enjoy the army of incompetents get their predictions for Russia 2018 hilariously wrong too.

As for the Euro 2016 champions, the manner of their win has been swiftly forgotten, with the plague of moths and Ronaldo’s agony the final’s abiding images.

But the glory is Portugal's, the nation’s first international trophy.

As Santos said of Eder's winner,

"The ugly duckling went and scored. Now he's a beautiful swan."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Havelange was the Greatest Dictator

Havelange was the Greatest Dictator.

It almost passed unnoticed during the Rio Olympics that Joao Havelange, the Brazilian former FIFA President, had died, aged 100.

The major figure in post-war football governance is no more, and on immediate inspection, what a dark legacy he leaves.

Havelange, who effectively ruled world soccer from 1974-1998, oversaw the transformation of a sport with global appeal into a money-making behemoth replete with corruption, tarnishing the reputation of the game's governing body.

It was a Brazilian, Pele, who woke the world up to dazzling football and thanks to the proliferation of television, popularised the World Cup.

But it was another Brazilian who also realised television had also made football into a fat cow ripe for milking.

Substituting value with price, Havelange made selling the Beautiful Game FIFA's prime motivation and the resulting harvest of TV rights and corporate sponsorship dollars he only too happily spread among his coterie of parasites.

Under his tenure, the FIFA Executive Committee turned into a Stygian den of thieves populated by jobs-for-life do-nothings like Ricardo Texeira, Nicolas Leoz, Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner, unbelievably corrupt men who would in any normal organisation have been fired years earlier.

The musical chairs in FIFA's ExCo and the current chaos in football governance is a natural result of the Brazilian's revolution.

His culture of embezzlement and bribes was carried on by his protege Sepp Blatter and after the fiasco of the 2018 & 2022 World Cup hosting vote, tournaments widely believed to have been bought, the Augean stables of FIFA have been under an unprecedented spotlight.

Havelange even showed up in Zurich like a thousand-year-old vampire to nod approvingly at the travesties of awarding tournaments to Russia and Qatar, a fitting testament to the dishonesty he engendered at the highest levels.

Over the years he had courted anyone with power, including several dictators, and effectively ran FIFA as one too.

In bed with Adidas' Horst Dassler, Havelange made the selling of rights his priority and the pocketing of as much of the revenue as possible his favourite pastime.

The overkill of international sponsors at World Cups is thanks to him more than anyone else, sponsors whose tawdry products demean the prowess of the tournament and often work against the health benefits football brings.

Havelange it should be remembered had never been a football man in the first place - he had swum for Brazil at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and played water-polo at the 1952 games.

His early administrative experience was in swimming, cycling and as president of the Brazilian Sports Confederation before he realised football had the biggest potential for political and financial exploitation.

Havelange's defeat of Stanley Rous for the 1974 FIFA Presidency remains a key turning-point in football history.

His capture of the presidency from the decent, if stuffy Englishman, brought bribery and other dark political tactics into soccer and almost half a century later the game's governing body still reeks of the hand of Havelange.

Rous had played a straight hand and sat down confident that his supporters would keep their word, while Havelange kept working the room until the end and managed to steal the victory through buying enough voters.

In Havelange's defence, Rous had shown an unwise acquiesence with apartheid South Africa and limited the number of finalists at the World Cup to 16, ignoring the growth of the global game.

At the 1974 finals, there were only three berths for nations outside the traditional strongholds of Europe and South America - places taken up by Australia, Haiti and Zaire. By 1998, 12 berths at the finals were for Africa, Asia and North and Central America.

Havelange's promise of more places for the developing world allowed him to harvest African votes in particular, a tactic continued to great effect by his favoured successor Sepp Blatter.

He also initiated World Cups at youth levels, paving the way for the host of tournaments FIFA organise today, but also spent FIFA money on facilities in developing nations, countries Rous had largely ignored.

Today African F.A.s receive half a million dollars each annually from FIFA and in 2006 the impossible happened when an African nation hosted the World Cup, another fruit of Havelange's personal interest in what had been hitherto dismissed as 'the dark continent'.

South Africa was a far from perfect host however, as anyone who remembers the traffic jams and poor transport options will attest, while no other African country can seriously consider hosting the competition in the foreseeable future.

The game had to globalise sooner or later but Havelange managed the changes with so much larceny that whatever good he achieved will be stained forever.

He had defeated Rous having raided the accounts of the Brazilian Sports Confederation he headed to fund his election.

Havelange worked hand-in-glove with Brazil's military dictatorship but for all his patriotism banned its greatest, indeed football's greatest hero Pele, from involvement in the 1994 World Cup in the USA, despite being the one soccer star all Americans could recognise.

This was because Pele had accused his son-in-law and FIFA vice-president Texeira of pocketing TV rights money in Brazil.

In 2012, Swiss prosecutors found he and 'Tyranosaurus Tex' had pilfered $41 million from FIFA's failure of a marketing company, International Sports & Leisure.

As an IOC member he was also accused of asking for gifts and inducements from Olympic bidding nations and probably helped Rio win the hosting for 2016.

Another legacy of Havelange is the lifeless spectacle of corporate sponsors filling the seats at World Cup matches, having paid over the odds to deprive genuine supporters of the experience.

The 1998 World Cup final was particularly moribund due to a majority of the seats in the Stade de France being sold to the highest bidder.

Anyone who has sat close to Brazil fans at away World Cups will have also been shocked how
unrepresentative they are of the people's game in their home country.

Despite the pervading stench of corruption, Havelange's iron grip on football meant he was greeted as a head of state, perhaps the world's premier, wherever he travelled. Jetting across the globe to be treated as royalty, perhaps only the Pope could come as close to the FIFA President.

As football grew bigger, true heads of state would fall over themselves in the hope of FIFA awarding them a World Cup finals, a situation Havelange only too easily took advantage of.

His death is no loss to our sport because the dishonesty and greed he fostered at the highest level of football continues to shame the Beautiful Game.

It will be some time football can cure itself from Havelange's poison, if it can be cured at all.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Olympic Lessons

Olympic Lessons.

The Rio Olympic Games have just finished and that two-week fiesta every four years has rightly had the lion's share of our hearts and minds again, despite the opening of the European football calendar.

The Olympics is a useful aide-memoire that other sports are out there, rather like the Roman who was employed to whisper "Remember thou art mortal" in the ear of generals returning to the seven hills in triumph.

Rio also served, like London 2012 did, to show the public how elite sportsmen can be good role-models and do not have to cut such greedy, ill-educated figures as so many top footballers do.

The clean and honest endeavour of so many gold medallists always cast footballers' modest achievements in a poor light again, and the abundance of aggression-free joy from Olympic spectators also served to shine a light on the darker sides of the Beautiful Game.

Only two months before, Europe's top international sides had gathered in France for Euro 2016 and several city centres were left full of broken glass and blood stains. Rio has its social problems of course but they were not caused by visiting sports fans in August.

The corrupting influence of too much money is of course the salient difference between football and Olympic sports, but it is hard to see that problem improving anytime soon.

Such was the unbridled joy Rio unleashed, the start of the football season suddenly seemed distinctly unattractive.

Brazil seemed to be unaware that sports other than football existed during the games, given that swathes of empty seats was the norm at most events, with the notable exceptions of ones in which they had a shout of winning - boxing, judo and beach volleyball.

The full Maracana got its golden moment when Neymar scored the fifth and clinching spot-kick in the men's football final, but Marta & Co. missed out on a home double by losing their semi-final to Sweden. In losing the men's final, Germany missed their own football clean sweep too.

Women's football makes more sense at the Olympics than male football given the full national teams take part, but the absence of England, World Cup semi-finalists, but not an Olympic nation, jarred once more.

There should be no problem having Team GB for women, any more than there is having the British Lions play rugby now and again. Having a men's team still looks a no-go however, because qualification depends on UEFA U-21 competition, where there is no Great Britain.

Brazil's win in the men's tournament went a little way to soothing the horror of the 7-1 Maracanazo at the World Cup two years ago, and the host nation had at last a reason to get out in the streets and party, so all's well that ends well.

The golden boy's successful seizing of his big chance on the big stage closed that chapter in Brazilian football history with aplomb, but no-one should be under any illusions that Olympic success will translate into victories at the subsequent World Cup in Russia in 2018.

The seleçao's next big short at glory is realistically the Copa America at home in 2019.

In the swirl of victory it is easy to forget that Brazil drew their first two games 0:0 with South Africa and Iraq. Only when they switched from a malfunctioning 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 did they start scoring goals.

Brazil also had two Barcelona regulars - Neymar and Rafinha - in their final team, which contrasted with the unknown German U23s lining up against them.

The tournament rules of eight U-23 players and three overage players is perhaps the best compromise they organisers can come up with but football, try as it might, still does not seem a good fit with the Olympics, even in such a soccer-mad nation as Brazil.

And so here we are with another long season beckoning. By the law of averages, the big teams will dominate once more and it is unlikely we will see another Leicester City.

The Champions League will only become interesting in next Spring's knock-out stages and there is no big tournament to look forward to in the summer of 2017.

I will need a little time to fall back in love with football.

Bring it on.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile