Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Scottish Premier League News April 2014

Scottish Premier League News
SPL News

by Lisa Dillon

Celtic

Inevitably, Celtic cantered their way to a third successive SPFL tile win, with the ribbons on the trophy before March was out. A midweek win at Firhill formally secured what has been expected all season, although despite the expected nature of the success, Neil Lennon remains adamant that there are still ambitions to fulfil at Parkhead.

The dilemma for the club, who have at least another season in the top flight without Rangers, is whether to spend or not this summer. Lennon, majority shareholder Dermot Desmond and chief executive Peter Lawwell have met to define the outline of the club's five-year plan. The budgets and strategies they come up with could take them to eight championships in a row - but it is European success that Lennon has his eye on.

"Basically the board work that way, a five-year strategy," said Lennon. "We're getting round to that again. We have frank and open discussions and it's always pretty healthy. Dermot's satisfied with the way things are going and has his finger on the pulse of the club. "I think we're on the same lines. Don't get me wrong, it's not about my elevation - it's about me elevating Celtic. They're the same. It's not about Dermot's elevation, Peter's reputation or anything like that, it's about the security and the future of the club. They have all the information in front of them and that's the way they lead the club."

For Lennon, the aims are more immediate. Having had a fairly paltry return in the cup competitions to date, he craves a treble and a return to the last 16 of the Champions League next term, and would even go so far to suggest that Celtic could burst into the quarter-finals at some stage.

"I've done the last 16 now, the next step is 'can we go last 16, can we go last eight?'," Lennon said. "And certainly the treble is a viable incentive for [the players] as well. So there's a substantial amount to go for. You always have to present challenges for yourself. My worry is, at the back of my mind, if we just have domestic football next year -will I improve myself? That's just my concern, not the club's." With the likes of Stefan Johansen and Leigh Griffiths adjusting well to their new surroundings, the squad is undoubtedly further advanced in its rebuilding than 12 months previously, with Van Dijk the template for new signings who can be persuaded to join in June.

"I would take this squad into the qualifiers but as we progress I would like to add to it," Lennon said. "We want, if we can, to get business done before the World Cup because some of the players we're after, if they have a good World Cup their price will elevate."

To consider how seemingly outlandish goals can suddenly become a reality, Lennon needs look no further than his countryman Brendan Rodgers. Long before he was chasing the Premier League title at Liverpool, Lennon visited him at Reading, and the two men have kept in touch since an early season friendly meeting between the two clubs in Dublin this season.

"I must say I'm surprised by how well they have done because I always felt Chelsea and Man City would be dominating, but Brendan's done brilliantly," Lennon said. "Not just the fact they are winning games but the style of football too. "When I went to see him he had a file, a really thick file, and it was his methodology on the game. Early on in the season we were in contact, largely through text message. But I think at this stage of the season he doesn't need too many distractions."

Rangers

The on-going stresses and tribulations that continue to engulf Rangers off the park may dissuade many from joining the club. But manager Ally McCoist has insisted that he considers himself 'the luckiest guy alive' to be in charge of his boyhood team, although he did qualify that statement by admitting that he would like to have assumed control in less turbulent times.

Asked if he was feeling the strain of being Ibrox manager in the period since administration, he replied: "It's the dream job without doubt, perhaps not at the right time but, that said, I am the luckiest guy alive. "To play for the club you supported and then be assistant to Walter Smith and then get the job - I still believe I am the luckiest man alive in managing the club you supported since you were a wee boy.

"At best it has been a turbulent two and a half years since even prior to the club going into administration.The problems were there and you could see it coming. The signs were not good around the place and the staff and players could sniff it out."

Having led the Ibrox side to their second successive title as they edge their way back to the top flight in Scottish football, McCoist believes that Celtic, perhaps not publicly, are keen to have a strong Rangers snapping at their heels.

"Celtic thoroughly deserved their league title this year and won it very comfortably,' he said. "They have some very good players but they also lost some, Joe Ledley to Palace, Gary Hooper to Norwich and Victor Wanyama, who was a terrific player for them.

"So I think from Neil Lennon's point of view he will want to keep hold of the squad he's got and to build because, and this is only my opinion, it's maybe not as difficult for Celtic - but it's certainly very difficult without real competition in the league.

"History will tell you Rangers and Celtic have always given each other strong competition so Neil has to maintain the standards he has set while also looking to improve." McCoist admitted he was in the dark as much as anyone when it came to forward planning and budgets.

Rangers will play in a Championship next season including the likes of Hearts and possibly Dundee, Dunfermline and Falkirk.

He admitted he will be under intense pressure to take Rangers back into the top flight to challenge a Celtic side whose bank balance will have been swelled by continued involvement in the Champions League.

"We are planning already," said the Ibrox boss. "We have a couple of plans because we don't know if will we get any money to spend. In an ideal world we would like to plan long term. That would be the perfect scenario where we can bring players in. That would hopefully get us through the league next year and stay with us to challenge in the top flight the year after. That is the ideal scenario and I would love the opportunity to do that but as yet we don't know if we can.

"If we got told the budget is X amount and you can only plan for next season then we will just have to adapt to it.

"It's difficult. We have a list of free transfers all over Europe but if you get money to spend there is another market you can look at. The problem we have at the moment is we don't know if we can shop and where we can shop."

Scotland

The Scottish national team have found that the improvements they have enjoyed since Gordon Strachan took charge last year have been reflected in the FIFA rankings. The Scots have moved into 22nd place - making them the world's most improved country. The jump means the Scots have risen an astonishing 47 places since Strachan was appointed in January last year.

Strachan's Scots continued their excellent recent run of form with a 1-0 win in Poland last month.

That was enough for Scotland to be the biggest risers in the world in April's ranking where they have jumped up 15 places to 22nd. When the former Celtic manager took over last year, Scotland were languishing in 69th place and even dropped as low as 78th spot four months later.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

David Moyes Sacked

It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to suggest that David Moyes was never likely to be capable of filling Sir Alex Ferguson's shoes at Manchester United.

David Moyes Sacked at Manchester United


When Moyes was appointed as Ferguson's successor last summer, the unprecedented six-year contract handed to him by the club's restructured hierarchy gave the strongest indication of all - even more then the ringing endorsement of Ferguson - that he would be given football's most precious commodity, time.

However, that time has been called on Moyes only 10 months into his tenure, quick even by recent Premier League standards, which was unflattering compared with the Italian league of 20 years ago by former United defender Gary Neville this week. In a statement, the club said it "would like to place on record its thanks for the hard work, honesty and integrity he brought to the role".

Manchester United - and Moyes in particular - have made a series of miscalculations this season that has left their title defence in tatters. Indeed, according his detractors at Old Trafford, miscalculations would be too soft a description.

Reports suggest that Moyes has alienated senior players such as Rio Ferdinand, Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs, which has in turn allowed some of United's younger squad members to push the boundaries of the Scot's control further than they would have ever dared under Ferguson

But even if you doubt the authenticity of such reports, the decision-making of Moyes has been questionable from the beginning, especially when you consider that the primary reason behind his appointment was to provide a consistent transition from Ferguson's generation-long reign. One of his first decisions was to dispense with the backroom staff that had served his predecessor well in recent seasons and bring in his own team of trusty lieutenants from Everton despite the lack of silverware among them.

Moyes has also - staggering - not yet named the same starting XI for consecutive matches, while he has been tactically out-thought by not only the experienced managers of Manchester City and Chelsea but also the relative novices at Liverpool and Everton. But Moyes' greatest shortcoming was perhaps his own judgement that he was capable of bridging the enormous gap left by Ferguson's sudden retirement.

Ferguson's own verdict might be called into question on this point, too. That the pair were friends and fellow Scots would have certainly clouded the decision-making process, as would have the feeling that, given time, Moyes would gently, gradually mould the club into his own, just as Ferguson had been allowed to do in the late 1980s before the raft of success enjoyed during the 1990s and 2000s.

The benefit of hindsight allows us all to see that managing Manchester United has been a step too far for Moyes at this stage in his career. He has been seriously let down by a number of his senior players - Wayne Rooney excluded it must be mentioned - as well as by the club's hierarchy during last summer's disastrous transfer dealings.

David Moyes Sacked at Manchester United


But Moyes must still carry the can for a woeful defence of the Premier League crown that the club won by 11 points last season as well as failure in the cup competitions, which has been all the more difficult for supporters to accept because of the numerous insipid displays from their side throughout the campaign.

The thinness of United's attacking threat compared with that on offer by champions-elect Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton - Moyes' former employers of course - must have left a seriously bad taste in the mouth of the United owners.

Indeed, Everton's transformation under Roberto Martinez might not have helped Moyes' plight, with Sunday's 2-0 win for the Toffees confirming that United would miss out on Champions League football next season and thus allowing the club to fire Moyes with only a one-year payoff under the terms of his contract.

© Marc Fox & Soccerphile

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

George's Premiership Predictions April 19 2014

bet365Of the three teams with a realistic chance of winning the Premier League, Manchester City play an in-form Southampton at home, Liverpool travel to east London to face West Ham, Chelsea play Stoke at Stamford Bridge hoping to put their poor display away to PSG in the Champions League.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Tottenham 1 v Fulham 1
Cardiff City 1 v Stoke City 0
West Ham 2 v Crystal Palace 1
Newcastle 0 v Swansea City 0
Aston Villa 1 v Southampton 3

Sunday 20 April 2014

Chelsea 3 v Sunderland 1
Norwich City 1 v Liverpool 1
Hull City 2 v Arsenal 2

Monday April 21 2014

Everton 1 v Man Utd 2

Tuesday April 22 2014

Man City 2 v West Brom 0

Man City 11/8 For A Trophy-Less 2014/15

One point from two games means that Manchester City will do well to add to their Capital One Cup success this season with bet365 now betting on their trophy haul for 2014/15.

bet365 spokesman Steve Freeth "It wasn’t so long ago that we were quoting 40/1 about Manchester City landing an unprecedented quadruple, but League Cup win aside, Pellegrini's first season has petered out over the last couple of months.”

"The owners may be looking for an upgrade on the Capital One Cup next season."

Total 2014/15 Man City Major Trophies

None 11/8 One 11/10 Two 5/1 Three 25/1 Four 300/1

Soccer - Ronaldo ready to greet Bayern Munich

Cristiano Ronaldo could give Real Madrid a timely boost by returning for Wednesday's Champions League semi-final first-leg showdown against Bayern Munich. The 29-year-old has not played for the capital club since first picking up a knee injury and then a thigh complaint in the Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund on 2nd April. The Portugal talisman had to watch from the stands on Wednesday as his team-mates secured coach Carlo Ancelotti his first trophy in charge of Los Blancos in a 2-1 win against fierce rivals Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey at Valencia's Mestalla. The former Manchester United favourite said he was hoping to be back for the crunch visit of Pep Guardiola's Bundesliga giants to the Santiago Bernabeu. "I'm really happy. I wanted to play and help the team but my team-mates did a great job. I'm getting better, now I don't feel any pain," Ronaldo told the club's official website. He added: "I might be back in time for next Wednesday or perhaps the second leg of our Champions League tie. "Bit by bit I'm feeling better and what I want more than anything is to be able to help the team out as soon as possible." Real Madrid are three points behind leaders and city rivals Atletico Madrid in La Liga and are quoted 7/5 by bet365 in the outright betting. Ancelotti's Treble-chasers can also be backed at 11/4 to win this season's Champions League.

Soccer - Wenger hints at Ozil return

Club-record signing Mesut Ozil is expected to make his Arsenal return in Sunday's FA Cup final dress rehearsal against Hull City, manager Arsene Wenger has suggested. The £42.5million deadline-day capture from Real Madrid has not played since 11th March after picking up a hamstring injury against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Wenger revealed the Germany international "should be available" for the trip to East Yorkshire to take on Steve Bruce's men at the KC Stadium. The Frenchman also revealed long-term injury-victim Abou Diaby is expected to make his long-awaited return to first-team training on Thursday. The luckless 27-year-old has not played for an entire year because of a serious injury but Wenger played down suggestions he could make his comeback between now and the end of the season. "Abou is back in full training on Thursday," Wenger added. "It's very difficult to say [if he will play this season] because he has not played for over a year now, and it's very difficult for me [to decide]. He looks physically fine, but he has to play one or two games before I consider bringing him back." Hull have only lost six of 17 home games so far this season in the Premier League and are quoted 7/2 by bet365 in the 90 minutes market, while the draw is available to back at 11/4. Arsenal are currently priced at 3/4 for the away win.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

What is wrong with Barça?

Bale's wonder strike capped a miserable season for the Blaugrana

Marc Bartra heading an equalizer and Neymar hitting the post in the final of the Copa del Rey encapsulated Barcelona's hit and miss season, while Real Madrid march on.

Barça might be third in La Liga but more worryingly failed to make the last four of the 2014 Champions League. Meanwhile, memories of being thrashed 7-0 on aggregate last season by the young pretender Bayern Munich are still raw. Times are tough down the Camp Nou.

The most recent clasico saw a crazy league clash at the Bernabeu end 4-3 to the Catalans, so in last night's Spanish Cup final in Valencia, both sides began more defensively.

The blaugrana entered the changing rooms at half-time a goal down to their arch rivals, yet made an energetic fight-back and deserved to draw level. Barça then had the upper hand for a while at 1-1 before some Gareth Bale magic and a Neymar miss settled the tie.

This was more fading Catalan grandeur under the microscope. The mesmerising tiki-taka through the middle had largely gone, replaced by a few short exchanges before the ball was spread to the flanks for a lob into the box from Andres Iniesta or Daniel Alves, neither of whom are natural wingers.

Iniesta, Xavi and especially Lionel Messi were often invisible and many a cross found a white shirt. It was as if they were mourning former totem Pep Guardiola so much they had tried to ape Bayern's style, yet without the requisite type of player.

Alves wasted many touches and looked angry and frustrated. Messi saw one shot saved but dropped deep and influenced little. Neymar was elusive for both Real's defence and his attacking teammates.
Fabregas pulled a few useful strings in midfield but the ensemble did not convince in any meaningful way. The ferocious pressing of a few years back was nowhere to be seen. This was a Barça, if not firing blanks, then revolving at 33rpm instead of 45.

Real employed their familiar anti-Barça plan of counter-attacking at speed, with flat blanks of four behind them. Cristiano Ronaldo was out injured yet Angel Di Maria and Bale had plenty of velocity to make up for him and both scored. Indeed, it has been said that Bale plays better when Ronaldo is not there stealing his space, while similar things are whispered about Messi and Neymar.

Di Maria was particularly dangerous in the first half while Bale, far from energetic throughout, bided his time until a golden chance sprung up twenty minutes from the end and he was able to switch on his deadly afterburners.The Welshman's 50-yard run and strike was a wonder goal, but Barcelona had left their back door open for him to steal in.

They had a total of six in the opposition box when Daniel Carvajal headed Messi's cross out to begin the move. Barcelona were not alive to the risk of a swift counter so when Fabio Coentrao played the ball quickly upfield, Bale had already ghosted clear of Sergio Busquets, who jogged back exhausted and unable to give chase.

The fleet-footed Cardiffian had spied yards of open grass ahead and as the ball was played to him close to the halfway line, a scoring chance was already on the cards. Bartra's attempted obstruction was no obstacle as the Welshman just sprinted around him, invading Barça's technical area momentarily before bearing down remorselessly on goal. Kick and rush still works.

Barcelona are four points off the top with five games to go, third behind two teams who unlike them are still in the Champions League. Having lost the Copa del Rey, it looks like a trophy-less season for the team dubbed the best of all time when they won the last of their European Cups, three years ago in London.

So what has gone awry?

For a start there is the age question. Is the backbone of the side getting long in the tooth? And if so why was young starlet Thiago sold to Bayern and two promising youngsters loaned out - Gerard Deulofeu to Everton and Bojan Krkic to Ajax? At 36, Carles Puyol is in his final season, Xavi is 34, Alves 30 and Iniesta and Mascherano 29. Yet Pique is 27, Fabregas, Messi  and Pedro 26 and Busquets 25, while Neymar is only 22.

Neymar's nine goals in 25 outings is a moderate return so far on his £46.8 million transfer, but time is on his side and his stock should surely rise after this summer’s World Cup Finals.

The Brazilian of course was at the heart of a transfer scandal involving tax evasion which ended up with Barcelona’s President Sandro Rosell resigning over tax evasion in February. Further investigations into the club's recruitment of under-18 boys ended with FIFA banning the club from buying any players until the summer of 2015.

What was strange was that the club was warned a year before and did nothing to change its practices, as if it felt it was untouchable. Whispers have long circulated that UEFA has a soft spot for Barça, yet blaugrana aficionados have countered with the theory that Real Vice-President Pedro Lopez Jimenez was the driving force behind the ban, abusing his position on FIFA’s Player Status Committee.

Yet unless an appeal succeeds, Barça will have to go through all of next season without reinforcement from outside the club at a time when the youth system is not producing superstars. On and off the pitch, this season has been one of anguish.

While in theory boardroom activities should not leak onto on-field actions, the bad headlines and press attention for the wrong reasons cannot have helped the squad’s morale as they registered disappointing results.

Surely a side boasting the world’s greatest player should not be moaning one might think, but Messi has not been sensational this season. He was injured for a total of almost three months and found the changing system means he has less influence in attack than before.

There are murmurs that he is keeping something in reserve for the World Cup Finals in June, a suspicion not helped by the permanent presence at the Camp Nou of an Argentine F.A. physiotherapist. The FIFA World Cup would of course be the jewel in Messi’s crown and put him on an even footing in the annals with his nation’s hero Diego Maradona.

Perhaps the malaise is largely a prolonged hangover from the wondrous era of Guardiola which ended two seasons ago. It was almost impossible for that golden age to be replicated or topped, and a radical transformation of the club is required instead of producing perennially pale imitations.

Tito Vilanova was unlucky to be diagnosed with cancer barely a season into his job, meaning Gerardo Martino was handed the poisoned chalice of a great side having peaked and needing overhaul, while bearing the psychological imprint of its former leader, an unenviable task much like David Moyes' at Manchester United.

What Guardiola honed of course was a system everyone understood, a playing style based on short diagonal passing triangles creating an attacking force which advanced up the middle until it crashed like a wave on the edge of the opposition's penalty box.

Understanding the system came from having being schooled in La Masia and having played together for so many years that it became telepathic. Yet Martino & Neymar are newly arrived from another continent and other clubs. Martino has tried to install a more direct approach than before, but without the time to procure the players necessary for a new system, a muddle has ensued.

The Argentine's appointment looks decidedly like a stop-gap until the club land their intended fish, in much the same way it callously used Bobby Robson for a season until Louis Van Gaal became available. Yet who that special one is we will have to see.

The club probably should have reinforced the defence given Puyol's recurrent knee problems and found a quality partner for Piqué instead of making midfielder Javier Mascherano play at centre-back. It could also have invested in genuine wide men if that was the system to be used, but instead went for the marquee signing of Neymar.

Scoring more goals than the opposition is one way to win games, but a club neglects its defence at its peril and it appears Barcelona are less interested in backline recruitment. If Bayern are the leaders in world soccer right now it seems sensible to learn from them.

The Bavarians press like the Barça of old, have recognizable strikers and in Frank Ribéry and Arjen Robben two world-class widemen. But they are also physically impressive and perhaps Barcelona should improve their speed and strength to compete with the likes of Bale, Ronaldo and Guardiola's new boys.

At the end of the day however, Barcelona, as its motto reminds us, remains 'more than a club' and its star will rise again. Soccer success comes in waves and there is no guarantee of sustaining it. Golden generations never occur on a regular basis and when a crop of several top players arrives at once but is not replicated for years, the reasons are never clear.

The competition across Europe is also fierce with millions being invested by arriviste oligarchs and sheikhs in new powers like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain to add to the existing powers in England, Germany and Italy. With the rise of Atletico Madrid, Spain itself is now hosting a three-horse dynasty for the first time in years.

The blaugrana will rise again, there is no doubt. With a vast sold-out stadium about to be expanded to 105,000 seats, a long history of being run by its members and its greater symbolism in Catalan folklore, there is no prospect of F.C. Barcelona continuing to decline as a football power.

But this is one season they will want to airbrush out of the official history.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A-League Finals 2014

A-League
Finals time in the A-League can only mean one thing - the annual debate about the merits of a finals system.

While the debate has been more muted this year, it's one that bubbles beneath the surface as five clubs vie to stop Brisbane Roar claiming what would be just reward for their season - a third A-League championship in four years.

Almost all football purists in Australia prefer the first-past-the-post system, rewarding the most consistent team across the 27-round season. This year there can be no argument that Brisbane Roar has been that team.

This is where the debate regarding the merit of a finals system becomes interesting.

With a first-past-the-post system, and with no relegation in the A-League, such was Brisbane's dominance this season the season as a contest would have ended weeks ago, with the final few rounds reduced to being, effectively, dead rubbers, except for the battle for the remaining ACL spots.

However, given the way some clubs seem to treat participation in the ACL that might be something some would be happy to avoid.

Yet with a finals system in place, the final few rounds generated excitement as teams swapped and changed positions all the way up to the final minute of the final game as Sydney’s last minute winner saw them climb above Adelaide into fifth, and set up an Elimination Final against arguably their biggest rival, Melbourne Victory.

In the process, however, the Premiership gets undervalued, particularly by FFA who seem intent on playing down its significance so as to not take away from the finals series. One just has to look at the low-key trophy presentations since the A-League’s inception to get an idea of where the Premiership sits in the pecking order according to the FFA. Finals are king, and by some margin, with the Grand Final winner (the 'Champion') the team recognised as the best of the season.

And rightly so, in my opinion.

Finals are an Australian tradition, across all sports, and whilst football shouldn’t always borrow from other sports on this occasion it is something that works. Just look at attendances, television ratings, media interest. Finals matter in Australia. And for the most part, the deserving Champion has emerged at the end of each season.

Let's hope that continues this season as Brisbane is the only club that truly deserve the title of Champion this season. The inconsistency, and at times, terrible form of other sides means there is only one deserving Champion this season. It would be an injustice should any other club hold aloft the toilet seat on May 4.

While following the other codes with a finals system is fine, one area the FFA and the A-League should be a leader is with simultaneous kick offs in the final round. Damien de Bohun's rationale for not having simultaneous kick offs, which is standard in almost all leagues across the world, was, quite frankly, a joke.

Television, time zones, stadium availability he cried.

Has he not heard of the red button on his FOXTEL remote? Fox Sports utilise it every weekend with their EPL coverage and did likewise with their Saturday night NRL coverage. It is entirely possible to screen five games at one time. Imagine the drama on the final day, especially one like this year when every game mattered and every goal altered the outcome of the top six.

With the fixture already manipulated to within an inch of its life, time zones aren't an excuse with any credibility. There was a round earlier this season when all five games were played in New South Wales. It's tough for Wellington and Perth, but scheduling the final round entirely on the East Coast isn't, or shouldn't, be an issue.

Even Adelaide, with only a 30-minute time difference, could comfortably host a game.

Stadium availability is the only excuse that has some merit given the difficulties in obtaining access to multi-use stadia when the three other football codes are also in-season. However, it is not insurmountable. With careful planning it can be overcome.

The one thing lacking is the will to actually make it happen. It's no longer good enough for the FFA to dismiss it out of hand.

Given the same debate has been had in the other football codes, who also steadfastly refuse to consider the option, it's time for the FFA to stop being a follower and be a leader.

Paul Williams

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Meaning of Hillsborough 25 Years On

25 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, asphyxiated following a crush in a spectator pen at the Leppings Lane end of the ground. 766 fans in total were injured, 300 of whom required hospitalisation.

The Meaning of Hillsborough 25 Years On

The Liverpool v Nottingham Forest F.A. Cup semi-final was abandoned barely six minutes into the match as a tragedy of horrific proportions was unfolding across England's airwaves.

The aftermath was extraordinary, with an entire nation momentarily convulsed by the senseless carnage. English football came to a standstill, and Liverpool's manager and players said it felt impossible to continue playing the season after such a tragedy.

Although the whole country was touched in sympathy, the playing-out of the disaster was particularly Northern, involving three cities born of the 19th century industrial revolution: Liverpool, Nottingham and Sheffield. The blood spilt was largely working-class and in the resulting tableau football still flew the flag of the people's religion, a remnant of close-knit solidarity in a post-industrial age.

In an age of increasing individualism and dying collectivism, those Liverpool supporters wore the same colours, sang the same songs, surged into the ground together and were crushed and died as one. And Merseyside's very public reaction to the deaths - a tapestry of flags and scarves, packed cathedrals and wailing families, was decidedly Victorian in its sensibility.

Had the tragedy occurred in London or the South of England the mourning would have been more private and curtailed. Yet this cultural nuance was lost on some right-wing Southerners, such as conservative commentator Simon Heffer, who was angry at the victims' relatives and boldly claimed that "Liverpool fans were killed by the thuggishness and ignorance of other Liverpool fans."

Sunday Times writer Edward Pearce opined, "The shrine in the Anfield goalmouth, the cursing of the police, all the theatricals, come sweetly to a city which is already the world capital of self-pity."

Britain's best selling tabloid The Sun, prompted by Conservative M.P. Irvine Patnick, went further and claimed that dying Liverpool fans had been stolen from, sexually assaulted and urinated upon by their comrades, in a notorious front-page splash entitled "The Truth."

The then government was hardly football-friendly, considering its rowdy supporters a nuisance at best and a national disgrace at worst. Until the Taylor Report into Hillsborough destroyed its credibility, a scheme to force all fans to carry special I.D. cards was being planned.

The sports minister hastily despatched to Sheffield was the diminutive and shrill former rowing cox Colin Moynihan, whose clipped accent and private school background could scarcely have made him less qualified to understand northern football culture.

Although government ministers hurried to be photographed in Sheffield, the Thatcher administration's cultural distancing was laid bare, confirming many a suspicion it did not really care about the Northern cities, whose allegiances it had assumed to belong to the opposition.

Liverpool was a decidedly left-wing place, but with a special history that set it apart from the rest of the country. With quick access to the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, its deep-water harbour meant that since the 1800s it had become a working city of docks, cranes, ships and ocean liners. It had long been used to African and Irish immigration, lived off transatlantic trade including slavery and managed a religious divide unique for an English city.

While the Beatles made the Scouse accent famous across the world, the docks were starting to close and by 1989 Liverpool was reeling in the social wreckage left by industrial collapse. Nottingham and Sheffield had also witnessed decline but still profited from the labour of coal-miners, whom the Prime Minister had dubbed "The Enemy Within" during their bitter conflict a few years earlier.

The people of Liverpool had no option but to take control of the situation: Anfield became a sea of scarves and flowers of condolence, a charity single topped the charts and an appeal raised £12 million. Whatever the divisions, the nation appeared to come together in grief and consolation in a fleeting return to the spirit of the Blitz. There is thus some nostalgia for what was a famous cultural moment of the 1980s, a decade when politics and identity really mattered.

Football fans felt a particular brotherhood, and I well remember collections at grounds for the appeal.

When the semi-final itself was eventually replayed in Manchester, a surreal atmosphere enveloped the occasion, with Nottingham Forest coach Brian Clough admitting before kick-off his team was in "a no-win situation". Forest manfully respected the nobility of the sport by trying to win, but Kenny Dalglish's side was in a rabid mood, exorcising their demons as they tore into Clough's team, eventually winning 3-1 before lifting the cup itself in May.

Wembley dismantled its hated fences for that game, and across the nation, the cages which had imprisoned supporters like animals since the 1970s were taken down, never to return. Such was the feeling of catharsis after Hillsborough that English soccer hooliganism lost its appeal and would never dictate the direction of the national sport again. It was undoubtedly a watershed.

Justice Taylor's report analysed the tragedy precisely, yet drew the controversial conclusion, having been egged on by the Football Association, that installing all-seater stadia was the way forward, when standing can be perfectly safe, as German football proves today. The conversion of the nation's grounds to all-seated arenas began in earnest, initially aided by F.A. grants and later by the windfall of TV money from Rupert Murdoch's Sky.

Fans argued against the death of the terraces on phone-ins and in print, yet were powerless to prevent the transformation. English stadia certainly became safer as a result of Hillsborough and would never be again the "medieval fortresses" which had horrified Taylor, yet the sport lost an extraordinary atmosphere to be mourned ever after by the 'terrace generation'.

It is a mistake, as is often claimed, to argue that the Taylor Report and by extension Hillsborough helped midwife the Premier League. Technology had made satellite TV possible and a number of companies spotted there was a gap in the market for regular live football. As England's No.1 sport, football was always going to be snapped up by the highest bidder, all-seat stadia or no.

25 years later, the fulsome tributes to the 96 victims are a measure of the emotional strength of Liverpool as a city and football's undimmed power to unite, while the new inquest is a pertinent reminder of the immense and unresolved pain the tragedy caused.

The new age of the Premier League since 1993, along with its 'year zero' statistics erasing what came before means some may look on Hillsborough as an embarrassing detail of the past, or a merely local issue. Yet Liverpool fans' refusal to forget while the team returns as a force heading for this year's title, and perhaps the personal connection of skipper Steven Gerrard, who lost a cousin that day, has meant Hillsborough remains a hot topic in English football in 2014.

What remains frustratingly unresolved a quarter of a century on is the blame for it all. While some tried and failed to smear the supporters, the police's handling of the event, the design and maintenance of the stadium and the actions of the emergency services have never come under proper scrutiny.

The persistent campaign of 'Justice for the 96' never died down, and finally bore fruit a couple of years ago. In September 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which had been formed the year before, exonerated the fans of any blame and reported that an astonishing 116 witness statements had been doctored by the police. It also concluded up to 41 of the 96 lives could have been saved had the emergency services been properly prepared.

At the end of 2012, the initial verdicts of accidental death were quashed by the Lord Chief Justice and a fresh inquest was launched, which is hearing testimony as we speak. Amid the commemoration of an unspeakable loss, the fusion of football and religion which filled Anfield today reminds us of the healing powers of community and friendship, and at the heart of that memory burns a defiant flame of justice undimmed by time.

Trevor Hicks, the highest-profile campaigner, who lost two daughters at Hillsborough,  had told the inquest earlier this week,

"To lose both your children is devastating, It's not that it's twice as bad, it's that you lose everything, the present, the future, any purpose."

Today he reminded the thousands gathered in the stadium today how strong they had all been:

 "We stuck together," he said. "We pulled, we pushed, and we refused to lie down. We refused to go away."

Following the failure of a number of private prosecutions against the South Yorkshire Police, the release of a number of previously withheld documents could finally see those negligent that fateful afternoon face justice.

Only then will the families and friends of the dead feel public vindication, although their personal losses will remain, tied to an unforgettable date:

The 15th of April 1989.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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Monday, April 14, 2014

History Tells Us That Brazil May Not Actually Be Favorites for 2014 World Cup

World Cup 2014, Brazil
With the 2014 World Cup taking place in the warm confines of Brazil this summer, many experts and fans alike have basically come to the consensus that this the Brazilian World Cup to lose.

The host nation has an incredibly talented squad, a pure striker in Neymar who is ready to burst on the international scene, and a pride that is simply unmatched by any other soccer nation on the planet. In front of their vibrant home fans, the Brazilians should stroll to glory!

But one thing that might actually crush this blind hope is a little trip down memory lane. 2014 will actually be the second time that Brazil has hosted a World Cup, with the first edition coming in 1950. That year was also supposed to be a resounding victory for the host country of Brazil, but instead, it became a great soccer tragedy widely known as the "Maracanazo".

The 1950 World Cup was a strange one in many ways. Because of World War II, the event had not been held since 1938, and by 1950 there were many famous soccer teams that took no part in the tournament, including France, Germany, Argentina, Belgium, the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Turkey. Nevertheless the tournament would go on, and still did contain some famous contenders like Italy, Spain, Uruguay, England, the United States, Mexico, and Yugoslavia.

Another strange quality to the 1950 World Cup was the organization. Because of teams dropping out, only 14 teams participated, and one of the 4 groups contained just Uruguay and Bolivia. But Brazil had a group they could dominate, featuring Mexico, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia.Brazil certainly liked their chances, but with the event having not occurred in over a decade, it was hard to place a finger on any favorites.

That all changed in the first game between Brazil and Mexico. Brazil won 4-0 thanks in large part to a brace by the fantastic striker at that time Ademir. Although a draw with Switzerland was not ideal, Brazil pushed on to the final round with a win over Yugoslavia, Ademir again scoring a goal! The final round would be a round robin affair with the 4 group winners taking part.Spain and Sweden both won their groups, while Uruguay turned a few heads with an 8-0 rout of Bolivia, but were still seen as outsiders.

In the final round, Brazil again opened strongly. They routed Sweden 7-1 (Ademir with a hat trick) and trounced Spain 6-1. Other potent Brazilians from this team included Cico and Zizinho, and they played beautiful soccer that wowed the spectators. Meanwhile, Uruguay struggled. They could only draw 2-2 against Spain and barely beat Sweden 3-2 with a late goal by Miguez. Heading into the last match, Brazil was a team on fire and needed just a draw to be crowned champions. Uruguay looked shaky at best and needed to win.

The days leading up to the match were a party for Brazilian fans who had already declared themselves as champions. The worldwide press agreed with these sentiments. A special song was being composed for the soccer team of Brazil, FIFA president Jules Rimet had a speech written in Portuguese for the impending "winners", and victorious medals had already been assembled for the Brazilian players. Everyone seemed to forget the simple fact that there was still a soccer match to be played.

On the morning of the final game, Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela collected a batch of newspapers (all declaring Brazil to be the World Cup champions) and brought them forth to his teammates, instructing them to pee on them!  In the dressing room, he brought forth a rousing speech, urging his players to not be intimidated by their opponents and go forth with an offensive strategy.

This famously contradicted with the views of the Uruguayan coach Juan Lopez, who had wished for his players to defend. But the players then had to march into a stadium filled with nearly 200,000 roaring fans, nearly all of which supported Brazil. It was the largest crowd for a soccer match in history!

Something tells me that such a monstrous crowd may have actually played to the favor of Uruguay. Due to all the pre-match hype and declarations of glory, Brazil was under immense pressure.  For such a proud soccer country, they had yet to actually attain the World Cup, and in front of their fans this was supposed to be their coronation. Even the mightiest of contenders can falter under such circumstances!


The match began tensely as this weight was firmly upon their Brazilian shoulders. At half time the score was still tied 0-0 and Uruguay was gaining hope that they could snatch victory. But Brazil scored early in the second half and the party was full on!  Friaca had broken through and beat the keeper, sending the crowds into frenzied celebrations.
Varela played a typical soccer stall tactic and began arguing a nonexistent offside call.  Eventually the crowd had settled from their cheers due to the delay and the game continued.  This move may have been the vital act that prevented an all-out trouncing from occurring.
Uruguay then took command of the game and played with an immense spirit beyond what people thought was capable. Schiaffino and Ghiggia both scored goals as the half winded down, and by the time of the final whistle, Uruguay had become the champions!
An eerie silence descended upon the stadium. There was no presentation for Uruguay simply because no one had thought they would win. The trophy was merely placed in Varela’s hands as the stadium began to empty.  Despair was widespread throughout Brazil as people failed to believe their eyes.  There were even reports of fans committing suicide!  The horror became known as the "Maracanazo" and Brazilian football would never again be the same. Players were booted from the team permanently. They even discarded their white uniforms forever, taking on the current yellow home jerseys. In essence, it was a national tragedy! So can something of the same sort actually happen now, 64 years removed from this infamous occasion?
You better believe it can! The latest odds makers only mark Brazil as 3/1 favorites to lift the cup. While those odds are the best among the contenders, it would still be less than a 50% certainty that Brazil should take home the title!
Additionally, with so many close competitors like Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and even Uruguay all vying for glory, Brazil will have an even tougher task at winning the World Cup than they did in 1950.
In some way, I could even see Uruguay completing the feat once again.  They have top class strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and I am sure that they are being reminded regularly about that famous triumph in 1950.
However, this 2014 World Cup progress, we can be certain of one thing.  This will be no cake walk for Brazil!

© Nicholas Spiller & Soccerphile.com

Nicholas Spiller is the editor of the soccer site Sport Spiller

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