Friday, December 23, 2016

Fifa World Rankings December 2016

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for December 2016 were published yesterday at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. These are the last rankings of the year.

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

The full top ten is the same as last month: 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, no change from last month.

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 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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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Club World Cup Final 2016

I acknowledged earlier that the current set up does not produce the greatest games. The final people want to see is Europe v South America. Now wasn't this the previous competition. So here we have the team that finished 11th in the second half of the J League one match away from being named the best club side on the world.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has talked about moving the competition from December to June and increasing the number of teams to 32. Currently the teams from Europe and South America play two games, the renewed format could possibly mean three more games for them.

He has also hinted that domestic leagues should feature just 18 teams. That is all well and good for the teams that qualify for the FIFA tournament but the majority will lose income.

The fact that Kashima Antlers will earn US$4m for reaching the final is the holy grail clubs look for, and the reason it may happen .

I have no doubt the format will change, with FIFA looking to increase their income at the expense of national associations.

I met Ángel (pronounced Anhel) with a Spanish accent as I checked in my hotel in Tokyo. He said I could call him Angel, but I declined.

He was here to support America, but had to be back at work on Monday so couldn't stay for the Final on Sunday. He had somewhat overdone the shopping and showed me his bags asking for advice on how to check it in. My best suggestion (for this time of year) was a Santa sack.

Anhel had decided he was going to visit Mount Fuji. I was interested, but confused as I knew he only had one day left. My idea of going to Mount Fuji is climbing the mountain and planting a flag.

He had found that he could get take a three hour trip by train and a bus and get to a spot where he could take a photo of the mountain. I mentioned that it had been visible on the train from Osaka to Tokyo, but he hadn't seen it.

After a late night I woke up and found that Anhel had gone. The time 10.15 Oh dear, I have a meeting with an old friend in one hour across town!

Don't run on the Tokyo Metro.


I got up and went straight to the subway and contemplated the route that would get me to my destination on time. Despite wanting to run, I am aware of the Japanese etiquette and calmness they personify, even when in a rush. Also there are plenty of signs around the subway stations saying "Don't run."

Remember I told you I had mastered the Tokyo subway. I have. I arrived with 5 minutes to spare.

At exactly 11.15 I could see a figure in the distance I could see a figure running in my direction now, even though you couldn't make out who it was. I knew it was Yoichi. He was also the only Japanese salaryman I saw without a tie on.

Tokyo restaurant - looks closed but isn't.


Yoichi took me for an early lunch as he had a meeting at 1. We approached a building that looked distinctly closed. When he announced, look it says it is open. Of course it does!

Here there were no plastic meals and no photos. But Yoichi ordered - Sukiyaki and Sashimi. I have since learnt that it was served in the nabemono style, with a flame burning under the meat pot, and the meat and vegetables dipped in a beaten egg.



I used to play football with Yoichi a few years ago and he showed me the pitch where he now plays right in the middle of this urban jungle, near Osaki station. The rate - US$ 200 an hour.

After this I headed to the Samurai Museum. Now normally I am not keen on Japanese museums as they have in the past neglected foreigners.

This was different. It started with a samurai giving a demonstration of sword moves. When he moved to attack he let out a scream, which made a young child jump. At the end he apologised most gracefully and acknowledged that the samurai could be frightening.

Samurai Museum, Tokyo.


Then with two others I was given a guided tour of the two floors. A detailed explanation was given of the items on display and what was happening in the country at the time.

I learnt that the Japanese were only saved by Kami-no-kaze (a divine wind) in the 13th century from invasion by the Mongols. That disposable blades were used by the samurai, as the iron they originally used for swords gave them three strikes, after that the blade was no longer sharp.

Samurai Museum, Tokyo.


Upon enquiring about the various different pieces of head gear I learnt that as well as the man on the moon there is also a rabbit!

Also one of the masks with Antlers was based on shishigama, the ancient spirit of the forest that looks like something straight out of today's Manga comics (or phone download).

It was noticeable that some of the outfits were bigger than the others. This was explained by the fact that this family were allowed to eat meat. Those practising Buddhism or Shinto were not allowed meat according to their religion. A definite disadvantage especially if you can only use your sword three times.

Mt. Fuji on the phone.


Anhel returned.

And we went out for something to eat. Despite trying to be adventurous we ended up with the picture menu, but still didn't know what we had eaten. It is no wonder Japan is so clean , as cleaners' machines play childlike tunes which could have been made for the child catcher. They must grow up thinking I want to do that. Everywhere I went was spotless as cleaners clean what is already clean.

On the afternoon of the Final, I arranged to meet Yoichi at Shibuya Station. It is vitally important when arranging to meet that you know the exact spot. Shibuya has 16 exits and is spread over 3 floors. It is like a maze with shops just outside the platform. I believed I had the right spot. Miyanasuzuka Central Gate near Exit 9. Sure enough, a voice appeared out of the crowd, sorry I am late.

Real Madrid and Atletico Nacional half and half scarves.


This time there was a large crowd gathering, as the Japanese turned out in force. The half and half scarves still bore the names of Real Madrid and Atletico Nacional, testament to the fact that this was the fixture they expected.

During the break the crowd got excited as a song was played, Yoichi asked if I knew it? Of course I didn't but if you are ever in Japan rest assured that they all know the English words Pen, Pineapple, Apple, Pen and if they have forgotten you can always do the hand moves to remind them.


After Kashima's heroic efforts, in the Final taking Real Madrid to extra time, where they were only thwarted by Ronaldo's samurai moves. It was time to dash back to Shibuya, for something to eat.

Yoichi worked out the route and I suggested we could get off at Naka-Meguro. We did. As I looked around and saw nothing, He pointed and said shall we go over there? Sure enough on the 2nd Floor was a restaurant. I left the choice of food to him. Cabbage for starters, Chicken for main course, more cabbage because it was so good with the dip that came with it and then peas for desert. So I finished my trip to Japan poppin' peas with the sound of the Kashima supporters Big Echo in my ears.....Life goes on.

Club World Cup Final 2016.


P.S. In case you were wondering. Yes I came back to London via the same route I came. I had been issued my ticket for the Beijing to London flight at Tokyo, with a boarding time of 12.00, we arrived at 11.30.

Knowing the procedure I confidently marched forward without looking and being confused by the transfer signs. I headed straight for the stairs where I remembered there was a small queue waiting for their security inspection. This time I couldn't see the entrance to the stairs due to the throng of people. I then realised that the last 50 metres of people I had marched past were in the queue! Looking around, for once I could see no sign of officialdom. I caught someone, coming out of an office and explained my dilemma, showing them the time now and the time on my boarding pass. She pointed to the back of the queue. Knowing that the security was strict I couldn't see me making the plane if I did. I briefly wondered if there was any football in Beijing that night, before finding someone else to ask. This time I got an agreeing nod, and a red sticker slapped on my arm. She pointed to the front of the queue and said "Go, go".

I passed the first passport check. At the top of the stairs there was a sign 'Boarding 12.00' it was closed. I then made my way down said stairs. There a young man was directing the flow, once again I explained and he sent me to the back of the queue. Which still looked as though I would miss the plane if I waited. I explained to passengers and to those that didn't speak English showed them my boarding card. Everyone understood. (Obviously they were not Chinese). I made the gate and the stern stewardess did not break a smile or offer a greeting as I gave in my boarding card, just as we walked the final few yards there was time for a gentleman(!) to pull a bin out from under an alcove and spit in it.

Ross Clegg

Friday, December 16, 2016

Club World Cup 2016 Semi Finals

A rare occurrence for me - two days off! As I hadn't been to Osaka before I thought I would stay locally. The weather wasn't great, cloudy about 8 degrees with a cold wind. So I set off by foot for Osaka Castle.

Osaka Castle, Osaka, Japan.


As I wandered through the streets I noted the shape of the vehicles on the roads, they are increasingly becoming box like. Which when you begin to think about it is much more practical. OK, not elegant.

But for all those adverts that boast about the space inside, how much of that can you actually use? The use of space was becoming a theme. As I noted a bike rack suspended in mid air above those parked on the ground. Then a building no more than three metres wide, but five stories high. The petrol pump suspended in mid air, giving more room on the forecourt. The next observation was of the intricate network of roads, pedestrian walkways and train tracks above the ground. I reckon somewhere here there must be a noodle junction!

Osaka flyover.


Osaka Castle was originally built on this site in 1583 but has been destroyed twice - the latest reconstruction was built in 1931 and survived the war intact.

In the grounds of the castle I saw a jumper approach me, it was a mixture of colours, obviously hand made and one which you might expect to see a student with long hair in the 70's wearing. This jumper belonged to Kenji, now retired but had been an artist. He used to make and design the curtains that would hang outside shops, with the bright colours and calligraphy.

Glico Man, Osaka.


He travelled to Europe back in the mid 70s (I didn't ask if that was when he got the jumper) at a time when the exchange rate was good for the Japanese yen. At that time he didn't speak English, but right now he was keen to practice.

He had always lived in Osaka, his family had a house in the centre of Osaka, that was destroyed, along with much of the rest of the city in the Second World War.

His parting shot was that he realised that Japan was changing and that customs were dying out.

Umeda Sky Building, Osaka, Japan.


I walked back and headed to the Umeda Sky Building, two 40 storey towers connected by bridges. Underneath the German Market was in full swing.

Later in the evening I headed for Dotonbori, an area full of restaurants.

Dotombori eatery.


The great thing (for me) about Japanese restaurants is that they will also have either photos or a plastic replica of the food they offer. Despite this I still couldn't always tell you what I had eaten.

Plastic replicas in Osaka.


The weather forecast was getting worse and with little to do in Osaka, I decided to head to Nara, capital of Japan in the 8th century.

I wandered round the sights in the rain for a few hours before taking the 50 minute journey back to Osaka. By now the rain was much heavier and didn't look like it was going to stop anytime soon. This reminded me of Rabat, Morocco two years ago when the rain was so bad they moved the venue for Real Madrid's semi-final.

Japanese Shinto Shrine.


Seeking refuge I noticed a sign saying Japanese Buddhist food. Who could resist? I was greeted with a smile and after taking my shoes off shown the seating area and kitchen. I would say 4 would be the maximum seating capacity and definitely room for only one chef.

My host explained, with the help of a photo that there was a set vegetarian menu. There was no other photo.

This time I could tell you one course was Mushroom and Cabbage, oh and Rice of course.

Buddhist food, Nara.


The next day was the day of the first semi final. Surprisingly the visitors from Colombia brought more supporters to the game than Kashima Antlers, from Japan. During the first half I saw an incident in the penalty area in front of me where an attacker appeared to be impeded. He appealed to the linesman and play carried on. It seemed like 30 seconds later, with the ball now down the other end that the game stopped for no apparent reason. VAR (Video Assistant Referee apparently) replay was flashed on the electronic scoreboard.

Nacional supporters, Club World Cup.


The referee was now back down this end and appeared to have pointed to the spot, at the same time as playing charades, showing whatever it was we were meant to guess it was on TV.

Now having studied the replay myself, I believe that the attacker was tripped, but he was coming back from an offside position. Therefore the decision should be for offside, and if the referee thought the player was tripped deliberately then he should book the defender.

Of course these days the offside rule wouldn't apply because he wasn't near the ball, but as Brian Clough would have said if you are not interfering with play what are you doing on the pitch.

In the 58th minute Nacional equalised. Except the referee disallowed it for offside. I didn't think it was. Can we have a replay please?!

Kashima Antlers fans.


This time despite the 9pm curfew the drums kept beating as Kashima booked their place in the final. I left the stadium with the tune of Ob la di ob la da ringing out from jubilant Japanese supporters. The next day I took the Nozomi Super Express to Tokyo for the second semifinal in Yokohama.

I could have caught the overnight bus which took 9 hours but I couldn't resist the bullet train.

I remembered to sit on the left to catch a glimpse of snow capped Mount Fuji, on the way into Tokyo.

As soon as the train set off the bento boxes were out... when in Japan!

Two hours and 25 minutes later and I had covered the 500km journey and I was in the heart of Tokyo.

The cheapest way to get to the stadium from Tokyo was to take local trains, and so I left the football fans in Tokyo who would be in Yokohama in eighteen minutes and made my own way. During the course of my hour long journey I saw the white gloves being used to cram people into packed trains. I also passed through about 30 stations and mastered the Tokyo subway, still struggling a little with the tickets but I did save £30 though.

Arriving in Yokohama I found it amusing to see vendors selling half and half scarves. The funny thing was they were for Real Madrid and Atlético Nacional. I enquired of the person with the Liverpool accent if they had them ready for this coming Sunday's 3rd place play off.

My seat in the ground just happened to be in amongst the Club America supporters, so if you've ever wondered what the view is like standing amongst the people waving banners, the answer is not a lot. Thankfully the crowd was only 50,117 so I was able to find another seat.

The game finished with the VAR doing what lots of people would like to do as he wiped the smile off Ronaldo's face by informing the referee that he thought Ronaldo was offside. I knew from where I was behind the goal that he was onside. The situation was a farce as Ronaldo celebrated, the ref gave the goal and then stopped.

How can you have a VAR that makes wrong decisions? FIFA need to look at this, as well as involving the crowd, by at least showing the incident.

Oh but that would contravene the rule that says they are not allowed to show controversial decisions. Catch -22 I am rereading it at the moment.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Club World Cup

Off to Japan for my 5th Club World Cup and 4th visit to Japan, this time via China - must have been the cheapest flights on the dates I wanted.

Suita City Stadium, Osaka, Japan.


So how did the teams get here. Well they won their respective Continental Premier Cup competition and the hosts provided their Championship winner. I was a little worried when I noted that the Japanese were to be represented by Kashima Antlers who had finished 11th (out of 18) in the second half of their domestic Championship. In Japan they have a split season. Kashima won the first half and beat Urawa Red Diamonds (winners of the second half) on away goals in a play off to win the League (despite being 15 points overall behind them) and qualify for this competition.

How did I get here?

Arriving at the check-in desk you would have thought you were in China already as there was only a handful of other Westerners on the flight, whom it transpired were all on transit to other international destinations. This feeling was confirmed as we bordered the plane as all the chatter was in Chinese and no one moved out of their way to ease the congestion as people tried to make their way to their seats. At this stage I thought to myself of the similarities between the Polish and Romanians in the UK and the Japanese and the Chinese (am I allowed to think that?).

Suita City Stadium, Osaka, Japan.


My young companion was grateful to me for pointing out his errors in his Sudoku puzzle, not once, but twice. I noticed he was struggling so had to have a look....didn't I. But not a word was said.

I noticed the initials PEK on my boarding card and am also sure I heard the pilot describe our destination as Peking. I remember that was the name of the Chinese capital I knew. So I did a bit of research and found that in 1979 the Chinese came up with a new system for interpreting the pronunciation of Mandarin, known as Pinyin. So the local name hasn't changed at all, but it has in English.

Suita City Stadium, Club World Cup, Japan.


The nine hour flight was overnight, so I tried to rest while keeping an eye on our route and the local time. I learnt that whilst China covers five time zones it only has one. Do you remember the day when people would dash to a certain pub across town as they had later licensing laws for maybe 30 more minutes drinking time, well in China they could get an extra five hours by nipping over the border.

When it came to breakfast time the stewardess kindly enquired whether I would like a Western or Chinese breakfast. She handed out omelette and bacon to those around me and I replied "Chinese". She shouted it back at me clearly indicating that she thought I had made a mistake. She delivered congee a Chinese rice porridge with fish!

America team photo.


Arriving in Beijing's impressive airport, designed by Foster & Partners for the 2008 Olympics, the signage was a little confusing and the foreigners gathered together as we worked out exactly where to go. Once we did we presented ourselves for a security check. I spotted the usual notices for liquids, but noticed they wanted cameras removing from bags. I didn't notice on the other side of a wall that they also wanted any battery chargers. Which, of course were spotted and I had to remove them while they had a good look. Paranoid?

In the airport there were posters announcing that wifi was available to all but that they would need to capture the user's details in order that you could use it.

I did try to log on, but they didn't seem to like me.

I noticed a number of people with masks on their face, this didn't strike me as unusual as I have seen this in Japan before. What did strike me was the need for them to remove the mask so they could go and spit in a bin!

The next leg of my journey was to Kansai Airport Osaka. On board the plane the safety demonstration was given and then an announcement was made by a voice saying they were the security officer for the plane. It then said there were punishments for those that did not cooperate with staff. No misbehaving on this flight then.

Romero, the match winner.


I remember seeing a programme about the airport a few years ago, as it is a man made island in Osaka Bay, which was sinking. I am pleased to report that it is still afloat. By now I was rather tired, I had hoped to be impressed by the Renzo Piano architecture, but I was more interested in making my way to my lodgings for the next few days.

Arriving at immigration it looked like a scene from a hospital as there were a number of people (with face masks again) over machines beckoning the new arrivals. There we had our photos taken and fingerprints recorded. Then I was stopped as I departed. I opened my bag, but as soon as I said I was going to the football the security guard just wanted to know who was playing. He was no longer interested in my bag.

There was a ticket machine with instructions in English and within minutes I was on the train bound for Osaka.

An elderly gentleman sat opposite me and immediately got out his mobile phone, the phone looked dated from what I could see but still had a camera.

Once I left Osaka Station I followed my directions and found I was surrounded by locals all looking at their phones as they walked. I was delighted to see a vending machine selling soft drinks as it had Pocari Sweat, on sale, on of my favourites, the other being Calpis. Neither are as bad as they sound.

So I arrived at my capsule hotel where I would be based for the next five days.

Mamelodi Sundowns fans, Club World Cup.


I was delighted to hear, before I left that Kashima Antlers had knocked out Auckland City. The first game on Sunday 11th will be the 101st in the competition, I have managed to see about a quarter of those games and Auckland City have probably featured in a quarter of the ones I have seen, so I think you will understand that for a Premier Club competition it could be more attractive.

Japan has certain home comforts, driving on the left, even walking on the left, a neatness and tidiness that you will not find elsewhere and of course heated toilet seats.

By now I had observed that as well as playing games, and using them for directions, manga comics have now switched to online publications and are being viewed on people's phones.

Today's game was played at Suita Stadium, home of Gamba Osaka, this newly built stadium was reached by a train journey, the monorail and a walk through Expoland. There you could visit a Pokemon gym and an English Village - it apparently takes you around America, but the purpose of it is for the Japanese to learn English.

Mamelodi Sundowns fans, Club World Cup.


The first half of Jeonbuk Hyundai v Club America was littered with more misplaced passes than numbers I can count to in Japanese. Ichi, nee, san, yawn, go, roku, nana, hatch - that will be eight then. But Jeonbuk took the lead through Kim. You wouldn't have got good odds on that as there were three of them in their starting line up.

America made changes at the start of the second half, and looked much livelier. They were rewarded with two goals from their number nine Romero, who had also hit the post from 35 yards on the first half. In the process they set up meeting with Real Madrid this Thursday in Yokohama.

Secretly I was hoping there would be extra time as the next match was not scheduled to start for another 90 minutes.

Instead I was entertained by the Mamelodi Sundowns fans who had started to announce their presence in the last ten minutes of the America match. Not sure if they heard the announcement in the first game but the use of loud instruments is prohibited by law after 9pm. The second game kicks off at 7.30. So it should be a quiet last 15 minutes!

The first half was dominated by Peter Ndlovu's Mamelodi Sundowns as they registered 11 shots with five on target to Kashima Antlers' zero.

Mamelodi Sundowns fans, Club World Cup.


Surprise, the second half was the opposite as Kashima took control, dominating the second period, scoring two goals.

The instruments were abandoned on cue at 9pm. I suspect someone had to tell the South Africans, as they seemed to continue for a minute or so. Kashima supporters turned to karaoke and sang a tune acapello. I could swear I know the song, just can't remember the title. It will come back to me ......one day.

At the end of the game the people queued to hand in their rubbish, and then just outside the entrance gate I read a sign in English "Stroller Park". Yes they have a place for pushchairs.

Exiting the park the crowd still moved on the left, despite the fact that everyone was leaving the stadium and no one was now going to it. Stewards beckoned the crowd over to one side as I made my way home.

Ross Clegg

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

Full world rankings

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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.
THIS SUMMER PROVED AGAIN HOW USELESS THE 'EXPERTS' ARE

"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.
THERE WERE FEW MOURNERS AS THE KING OF CORRUPTION DIED 100 NOT OUT

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.
RIO'S SHINE SHADES OVER THE START OF THE FOOTBALL SEASON

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fifa World Rankings July 2016

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

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

In the first World Fifa Rankings after Euro 2016 there have been quite a few changes

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

England are 13th, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales in 11th.

Algeria are the top African team in 32nd place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 59th place; Japan are in 57th. Near neighbors South Korea are in 48th place.

The USA are in 25th. Wales are 11th. Scotland are in 50th position. The Republic of Ireland are in 25th place, Northern Ireland are in 28th position.

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

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Les Miserablues

Les Miserablues, Euro 2016.
I wasn't intending to come to the Final, but since I returned home two weeks ago I had kept an eye on the UEFA ticketing website and had been able to get tickets for every game played in the knockout stage whilst I was back at work.

I mentioned this at work, and explained that if I got a ticket I would be late for work on Monday.

I checked all the details and figured I could stay at the same place in Paris and catch the first Eurostar at 6.30am on the Monday morning.

So on Friday 8th I saw that match tickets would be available from 1pm. I arranged to have my lunch at two ish as I know from experience that the first hour will just be waiting to get onto the website. Sure enough I managed to secure a ticket, a last check with colleagues at work who kindly agreed to cover for me and I secured the ticket.

The House of European Photography, Paris.


Returning home that evening I set about sorting out my journey.

Slight problem.

The first Eurostar available on their website would arrive in London at 2pm, meaning I would not be able to get back to Nottingham for work before my colleagues finished.

Portugal win Euro 2016.


I looked at other options. Available flights were in the evening and the overnight bus back to London left Paris at 10.15pm. Too early.

I remembered Ivan telling me about Captain Train, a French website that he used to book European trains. They had an option. I could get the TGV to Lille from Paris at 7.40am, and then join the Eurostar, arriving London 10.29am which should mean I get back to work for 1pm so my colleagues can have some lunch.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


Not surprisingly this option was more expensive than I hoped, so to offset the cost I looked at cheap ways to get to Paris, the best I could find was Ouigo, the SNCF low cost bus at €29 and nine hours.

I had already checked what's on in Paris and found I had already been to the top five so I decided I was in no rush and so completed a sequence of visits to Paris, by Plane, Train and boat (as the bus uses a ferry between Dover and Calais).

Portugal win Euro 2016.


After testing the three different routes the winner for me is definitely the Eurostar.

It goes from the heart of the city, and delivers you to the heart of Paris. You can arrive 45 minutes before departure, no lengthy queues to get on ferries (as Welsh fans will testify).

My first task Sunday morning was to collect my final ticket, and so I headed to Parc des Princes for the fourth time this tournament where my ticket was waiting.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


It felt strange on Sunday morning, travelling towards the ground without the football crowds, it was on my last journey here that I learnt the words to most of the Welsh songs... "5 at the back, With Bale in attack", couldn't quite manage the Welsh national anthem though.

During the afternoon I visited The House of European Photography, where they just happened to have an exhibition with French photographers covering the work of Oscar Niemeyer (remember him?). It reminded me I have unfinished business and intend to be back in Brazil in 2019. After that I visited Victor Hugo's house, of course I left it wondering who were going to be Les Miserables this evening.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


I arranged to meet a few friends for a pre-match meal. The majority of whom had been here for the whole tournament. They agreed that it had been great travelling round France, but that the football was nothing special.

The match itself saw Ronaldo, manage the Portugese team to victory. After he was forced off on 20 minutes. I saw him reappear at the end of 90 minutes, then gather the team for a huddle for the start of the second period, before wandering up and down the touchline barging his manager out of the way as he gave his commands.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


Later it emerged that there had been tear gas used at the fan zone by the Eiffel Tower as police struggled with the crowd, also a proposed victory parade on Monday, had been cancelled before the match.

Would winning have caused more problems for France?

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


It was a shame that France didn't win to try to heal the scars from 2015, and show how far the team had come since their debacle in South Africa 2010, but the Portuguese Resistance had been evident throughout the tournament and in the reign of their current manager who is undefeated in 14 games. I guess it sums up the state of the modern game where winning is more important than entertainment.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

French revenge could light up the Euros

French revenge could light up the Euros.
Let us be honest, the Euros have been a bit of a damp squib this time around.

Northern Europe has had a wet and cloudy June and this seems to have been reflected on the field of France 2016.

The free-flowing football of Brazil 2014 is a bit of a memory, perhaps a telling comment on the tactics-heavy European teams.

With the possible exception of Portugal's 3-3 draw with Hungary, there have been no standout games which ebbed and flowed to keep the neutrals enthralled. There have been a couple of thrashings – France racing to a 4-0 half-time lead over Iceland or Belgium thumping Hungary 4-0 for instance, and some very clinical, high-quality football – Italy in the group stage most notably, but not a lot to write home about.

The multi-team format, three times the size of the eight country Euro '92 in Sweden, has led to some teams deliberately playing for draws (Slovakia against England), fielding weakened elevens (Italy v Eire) or even happily losing 1-0 (Northern Ireland against Germany).

The knock-out stage was supposed to add some spice to the mix and has done to a small extent – Wales' surprising 3-1 dismissal of Belgium woke the continent up even more than Iceland's 2-1 win over a soporific and mesmerised England.

Then Germany and Italy provided some welcome comedy in their penalty shoot-out after an exhausting 120 minutes.

Finally France remembered their lines as host nation to the relief of most football followers and put in a bravura performance to eliminate the Viking upstarts. The lack of an on-fire host nation, in sharp contrast to their outstanding team when they hosted the World Cup in 1998, has probably hurt the tournament.

The Champs-Elysees may yet become a sea of red, white and blue on Sunday night, an echo of 1984, 1998 and 2000, but Les Bleus have only two games left in which to impress.

Euro 2000 lingers in the mind as a colourful tournament decided by a rollercoaster final, Euro 2004 had the fairytale of a minnow, Greece, cheekily stealing the crown with unashamedly entertainment-free tactics.

Euro 2008 was nourished by the exciting emergence of the Spanish tiki-taka dynasty and in 2012 La Roja's 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the final was the stuff of wonder.

On paper a 24-team field in 2016 should have provided a fertile patch for great stories and indeed the tales of Wales and Iceland will live long in the memory.

Just ask the citizens of those formerly minnow nations and they will tell you. I have an Icelandic friend who said despite many experiences, a wife and children, his country's run to the quarter-finals was the happiest time of his life.

And Welsh football has had nothing to sing about since 1958 for goodness' sake.

How disappointing therefore that the dragons lost their fire-breathing lungs last night in Lyon when they needed it most. Portugal had been there for the taking having stumbled into the semis after finishing third in their group and not winning a single game in 90 minutes.

The shallow Welsh squad was sadly exposed last night with the yellow-card absences of defensive rock Ben Davies and their midfield schemer Aaron Ramsey.

How wrong is this rule every tournament? Yet again the authorities' po-faced insistence on an imaginary ideal of fair play has deprived the big matches of some of their key actors.

Play in the league and you only miss a game after five yellows, so why after only two in tournaments? Ramsey's second caution, earned for a handball against Belgium, was a harsh call at the time whose consequences cruelly blunted his nation's big shot at glory.

The French have it in their hands to rescue Euro 2016 and make it a championship to remember. Didier Deschamps' men certainly should have the motivation to turn on the power against the Germans in Marseille tonight.

Les Bleus were knocked out the World Cup semi-finals by the Mannschaft in 1982 and '86 and most recently were knocked out by their old nemesis in Brazil 2014.

The '82 semi is the one which is referred to most readily in the press for good reason. That was one of the most emotional football matches in history.

France threw away a 3-1 lead in extra-time to lose on penalties in a match most recalled for Harald 'Toni' Schumacher's flying and unpunished kick on French striker Patrick Battiston.

The trauma was immense for the French players, who gained some comfort back however by winning Euro 1984 at home.

Yet the '82 semi-final loss remains a thorn in French football consciousness, a pain invoked every time France play Germany in knock-out football.

The Dutch felt the same trauma when they lost the 1974 World Cup final in Munich to West Germany, and only exorcised their demons in the semi-final of Euro 1988 in Hamburg.

If France want to similarly slay the ghost of Seville 1982, then tonight in Marseille is their chance.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, June 27, 2016

Euro 2016 Fin?

Who would have thought it? Two weeks have passed since we set out on our own "Tour de France" and I heard in the last few days that all the Home Nations have qualified for the next round. Brilliant, who are Scotland playing?

Napoleon's Tomb, Paris, France.


I have struggled to keep up to date, (wifi in France isn't great) with things whilst we have been on the road, so maybe I missed something. Did UEFA finally actually act against Russia? Did they reinstate Scotland? Are the chances of those two things happening the same?

OK, so now you know that the final game I watched at this tournament was Wales against Northern Ireland. With the break between the group stage and the Round of 16, I was lucky enough to have time and good weather to explore Paris.

Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris.


The Louvre, Petit Palais, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Napoleon's Tomb, Pere Lachaisse, Centre Pompidou were all visited where exhibitions of art by Rousseau, Paul Klee, Albert Marquet were viewed. But my favourites were The Beat Generation, with as well an exposition at the Philharmonie de Paris featuring The Velvet Underground (yes the ones that wrote I'm waiting for my man. Never early, always late, - you know who you are!).

Pere Lachaise - Oscar Wilde's tomb, Paris.


Looking for positives in the football I have witnessed is proving difficult. The real positives lie in having visited nine French cities, and sampling the food. Everyone knows about Paris, and I have just listed a few of the things you can see there.

We were lucky enough to have good weather in Nice which helped to make it my favourite city. If you've seen the photos you may notice the difference, and understand why I choose it as my favourite on this trip.

Stade de Bordeaux, France.


Then there was Bordeaux where it’s historic old town is on the UNESCO World heritage list and described as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble of the 18th century". Toulouse, the Pink City.

Lyon with the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Marseille, a huge city which unfortunately saw bad weather to stop us fully exploring it on the two occasions we were there. Lille, with its Flemish architecture where we could see the beauty of this city, but didn't feel comfortable due to the situation I mentioned on our first night.

Sacre Coeur, Paris.


Lens & St Etienne are football hotbeds unlike the rest of France where you would have struggled to find out there was a tournament going on. The size of the towns and the size of the stadiums bear witness to this fact. Lens population 32,663 - Capacity of Stade Bollaert-Delelis 38,223. St Etienne 178,530 - Capacity of Stade Geoffroy-Guichard 42,000.

Petit Palais, Paris, France.


Special mention to the best Croque Monsieur, which was found at Fric Frac by Canal St Martin. But the French have other things to worry about. I visited the lively 11th arrondisment, scene of atrocities eighteen months ago when the Charlie Hedbo offices were attacked, and The Bataclan as recently as last November. It remains closed but is due to reopen on November 16th with Pete Doherty. The lively backstreets are vibrant, with bars full of students away from the tourist crowd.

Philharmonie de Paris, France.


We witnessed strikers marching at the Bastille against Hollande's labor legislation. There were more police than we had seem at any football match. Two thousand sealed of the area around the Bastille to ensure there were was no repeat of the incident the previous week when cars were set alight in protests at République.

If you remember before I set out there was problems with the level of water on the Seine, the rain seen in the first ten days couldn't have helped this.

Nice, France.


There was also the small matter of strikes, which I quickly realised was an occupation in themselves. Thankfully we were only affected once, and were not inconvenienced by them. Others would not have been so fortunate as planes were cancelled and if you didn't know about the strikes missing your train could have meant you were unable to get to your chosen destination on time.

So back to the football, the highlights, the fact that there was interest in all the group games, as quite often there can be meaningless games at the end of this stage. The fact that third place could qualify gave every team hope (OK maybe with Ukraine being the exception).

Northern Irish fans.


The supporters, seeing every country backed by well behaved supporters was a joy. The Northern Irish win my award for being the best supporters, the highlight - them out singing their German counterparts. Special mention to the Icelandic supporters with their clapping.

Also the passionate Hungarians who clearly were not going to be defeated by Iceland, it felt as though the ref had to play on until they scored such was the atmosphere in the Velodrome.

Hungary fans at Euro 2016.


Unfortunately now I have to go against what the supporters of many countries, yes not only the English speaking ones, have adopted as their anthem.

"Please don't send me home,
I just don't want to go to work,
I wanna stay here,
Drink all your beer."

Personally I would be happy just to stay and eat all their food, and take in the sights I didn't have time for, of which there are still plenty, oh and maybe attend one or two more football matches.

Iceland fans at Euro 2016.


Ross Clegg
footballtravelswithross.wordpress.com