Tuesday, October 8, 2019

United We Fall?

SOLSKJAER THE SCAPEGOAT FOR A FAILED RECRUITMENT POLICY

Manchester United's travails continue with their latest debacle a 1-0 loss to an ebullient Newcastle which left the Red Devils in the bottom half of the table. Days earlier they failed to register a shot on target in a drab 0:0 Europa League draw away to AZ Alkmaar.

United We Fall

How times change. One defeat in his first 17 games and a thrilling Champions League defeat of PSG was more than an adequate audition for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to get the manager's job at Old Trafford last Spring.

But now the Midas touch has deserted him: With only two wins in 13 matches, United look a mediocre side who have slipped below even the level of the disjointed and untelepathic team which Jose Mourinho struggled for so long to control.

Derided at the time for being surly when at the helm, the Portuguese's comments on the Man United malaise have taken on the tag of wisdom with the passage of time.

Unlike a Barcelona/Real Madrid weekly 'crisis', this is the real thing. United do not look like improving any time soon and arguably the biggest club in the world could have a relegation fight on their hands.

The reasons are not elusive. Manager honeymoons do not last. Staff always up their game to impress their new boss.

Key players are injured and their replacements are not as good; the youngsters are not performing at the level of Chelsea's young guns because they have not been loaned out enough - thrown into the fire they have burned; Paul Pogba has never been consistent; the senior players do not have the grit of Roy Keane or Peter Schmeichel, United lack a second tough centre back, a dominant midfield and goalscorers since Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were sold.

Yet the bigger picture is of a flawed buying and selling policy over the years since Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford and managers should not take the blame for that. The absence of a football-schooled director of football overseeing it all and preventing such a shambles is clear too, a point made by another former Red Devils manager Louis Van Gaal.

Restocking the dressing room with new players is essential, but they need to be the right ones and the transfer window is closed anyway until January 2020, when other teams will surely demand top dollar from United, well aware the Red Devils are desperate for new blood.

This seller's market conflicts with the club budget, leaving frustrated managers to drop hints of dejection from the dug-out or just quit when they feel powerless to right the listing ship. Solskjaer is just the fall guy this time.

Because he is a returning hero and it is obvious any manager would struggle to forge a masterpiece with such inadequate tools, the Baby-Faced Assassin has a get out of jail free card, for now.

But it is also traditional that if bad results persist, it is the gaffer who takes the flack and gets the sack, around Christmas in time for the January transfer window.

He cannot openly name and cane the men in suits above him for not giving him the transfer budget he and the team need because they are his employers and they will fire him if he does.

Mourinho said as much when he noted,

"I don't want to be the nice guy, because the nice guy, after three months, is a puppet and that doesn't end well."

So while Solskjaer will probably struggle on, fail and then play the sacrificial victim, the Norwegian will probably mount the gallows an innocent man whose hands were always somewhat bound.

Head of Corporate Development (chief transfer negotiator) Matt Judge and Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward, the men who really pull the strings, will probably carry on unscathed. Where is their accountability when the results on the pitch are poor?

The club's American owners are perhaps too distant, too ignorant of football and too pleased by the club's sound financial performance to realise there really is something rotten in the state of Old Trafford.

"To be the best football club in the world both on and off the pitch" proclaims the mother company's home page. Now who said satire was dead?

Man Utd plc's public relations are full of corporate talk of its brand's global appeal and its business strategy provides this as its opening gambit:

"We aim to increase our revenue and profitability by expanding our high growth businesses that leverage our brand, global community and marketing infrastructure."

Right, but how about winning football matches too? Increasing broadcasting and sponsorship revenues covered up declines from match days and merchandising in 2018 but overall the brand is in good financial shape.

There is just that small matter of the team on the pitch, that red-shirted eleven who are not winning games anymore and who have just slipped to within two points of the drop zone.

Shouldn't they be the top priority for everyone connected with Man United right now?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, September 27, 2019

New Dens for the Giants

San Siro, the most stunning of all Italian stadia, will be demolished.

It was announced yesterday that the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, to give it its proper name, will be rebuilt


"Che Peccato!" - What a shame, I thought at once.

I remember making a pilgrimage just to see the awesome edifice when I first went to Milan in 1989 and
was thrilled when I first caught site of it.

I know I am not the only one in the world who makes a point of visiting stadia as part of a cultural tour of a city. There does not have to be a match on, I just want to admire from a close distance and imbibe the passion of the places' ghosts.

I suggest you visit San Siro too, but hurry - Internazionale and Milan plan to replace the 80,000 seater with a 60,000 capacity venue built alongside the existing stadium, as Tottenham did, over three years to minimize disruption to both clubs.

First built in 1925, San Siro's remodelling for Italia '90 left Milan with one of the most iconic grounds in world football.

Whilst there have been problems with the grass due to a lack of adequate light, the case for rebuilding is less clear beyond a desire by the owners for a multi-million Euro new castle and concomitant windfalls for developers.

The official documentation does a good job of dissing the current ground, but surely the reconstruction plans from the late 1980s spoke of how wonderful that new arena would be too.

A need for sustainability and the provision of adjoining green space is officially at the heart of Populous' The Cathedral design, which at first glance looks like a static throwback to 1960's modernism:



The competing proposal, The Rings of Milan by Manica, seems more in keeping with recent football stadia design and retains the old San Siro pitch as a green space as well.



In the wake of Atletico Madrid ditching their 55,000-seat Vicente Calderon stadium in southern Madrid in favour of the new 68,000 Metropolitano ground in the East of the city, Real Madrid are keen to get their long-planned and much-delayed new Bernabeu up and running at last.

Earlier this year the club announced it would go ahead with a remodelling of their 81,000-seat home at the end of this season - adding a sliding roof, a new facade and eating and drinking facilities, but interestingly no extra seats.

Barcelona had planned to inaugurate Norman Foster's 2007 design for a new Camp Nou with an increase from 99,00 to 105,000 capacity at a cost of around €250 million but the following year's financial crisis kaiboshed that plan.

Seven years later a similar plan returned, at a cost of over half a billion, for a roof over the currently open-air stands and an extra tier for a similar capacity as the Foster design with completion intended for 2024.

The architects this time are Japanese firm Nikken Sekkei, designers of the existing Niigata Big Swan stadium used in the 2002 World Cup, the Tokyo Dome (baseball) and Saitama Super Arena (indoor sports like ice hockey).



Like residents get attached to houses, football supporters cleave to stadia, no matter how tatty or decrepit, as repositories of emotional memory. When the wrecking ball comes it is natural to shed a tear.

Stadia are sometimes compared to places of worship and one of Milan's prospective designs is even called 'The Cathedral' to anoint its sanctity, although when built expect a soulless corporate moniker like The Coca-Cola Cathedral (God forbid).

Yet nobody in their right mind suggests demolishing churches unless they are literally falling down, rather restoring them to their former glory.

But even the twin towers of Wembley Stadium, aka the Cathedral of Football, were turned to dust in 2003.

While stadia remain icons of this religion we adhere to, football's directors feel no qualms in swapping our hallowed grounds for new idols every 30 years or so.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Letter from Colombia

Letter from Colombia

I visit Colombia every year and am always happy to be in a land which loves football. I fell in love with Colombian football long before I came to love the nation in fact.

It was that crazy match at the 1990 World Cup where the red-shirted Colombians outplayed eventual winners West Germany for periods of the match with mesmeric passing but played for a draw, their mercurial skipper Carlos Valderrama even feigning injury, requesting a stretcher which carried him around the pitch before he jumped off it.

When Germany scored with an 88th minute Pierre Littbarski strike it looked like Colombia's gamble had failed. But then a slick passing move set up by Valderrama saw Freddy Rincon nutmeg Bodo Illgner to spark extraordinary celebrations.



With the 'birdman' flapping from the stands, Colombia's circus continued to the second round where more monkey business from goalkeeper Rene Higuita, he of the famous scorpion kick, saw Roger Milla and Cameroon eliminate them.

Colombia's craziness had grabbed me.

The insanity around Colombian football took a dark turn four years later with Andres Escobar's tragic murder following his own goal at USA '94 but the overall impression of a wildly talented football culture remained, through the mercurial Faustino Asprilla through to James Rodriguez's wonder goal at Brazil 2014.



To see this society mobilise in a sea of yellow to support 'La Seleccion' (the national team) in its competitive fixtures really is something to behold. Bogota's notorious traffic congestion (a city the size of London without a metro) magically evaporates every time Los Cafeteros (the coffee men) take the field.

England does not compare. You do not see Three Lions shirts everywhere on the day of a World Cup qualifier.

Colombia never play in Bogota alas, possibly because of the high altitude, which caused some friction with Brazil a few years ago, but also because the Metropolitano stadium in Caribbean Baranquilla holds 20,000 more fans.

While the Adidas store in my local shopping centre Plaza Las Americas sells the real McCoy at 'La camiseta' (the team jersey) at its RRP of £48, knock-offs can be had for around a fiver from several city centre street traders, brazenly flogging very good copies or ones which say 'Abibas' or suchlike.

As a nation, Colombia has plenty of problems - an ongoing triangular conflict between the army, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, narcotraffic, political corruption, inadequate transport infrastructure and pollution for starters.

Against this backdrop of perennial frustration, the people look to the national team and World Cups in particular as a time to forget their troubles and celebrate communally. Dance and music, two cultural totems of this nation, arguably serve the same purpose.

Equally, there are those who criticise the obsession with 'La Seleccion' as a bread and circuses political manipulation of a population who deserve much better in their daily lives.

Football like any national obsession leaves itself open to exploitation by vested interests. Yet despite all that the show must go on and true lovers of football retain a faith in the Beautiful Game.

Historically the domestic league here is not at the level of Argentina or Brazil's - Colombian clubs have only won the Copa Libertadores three times in its history compared to 25 times for Argentine teams, 18 for Brazilian clubs and eight for Uruguayan ones. However in 2018 the statistics institute the IFFHS ranked the Colombian first division ahead of Argentina's but behind Brazil's in South America.

Bogota, like many capital cities, does not have the football fever of the country's second city Medellin. Capital clubs Millionarios and Santa Fe only attracted an average of 13,924 and 8,449 fans respectively last season and the city's third team La Equidad 1,281.

While I am always keen to see new teams play the locals, even committed fans, warn you to watch out for the crowd trouble. Sure enough, this weekend a Millionarios fan launched a combat knife at the field...

In a football-mad city of seven million people, it is clear therefore that fans get their football fix elsewhere. Most people here have a cable TV package which means access via ESPN and Fox Sports to international leagues as well as the domestic one.

This weekend on TV I could watch live games from all the Big Four European leagues, MLS and Argentina in addition to the Colombian Primera A - spoilt for choice. I could also watch the MLB, the Rugby World Cup and even Argentinian polo.

Inevitably, Spain's big two are most popular here but the EPL also has a following of sorts, helped by the presence of national team regulars Jefferson Lerma, Jerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez. In fact the media gleefully reports any Colombians abroad who are doing well, including Rangers' striker Alfredo Morelos.

Only four of their most recent squad play in Colombia, meaning there is a global perspective on football here. How much better would it be if that were the case for England?

James Rodriguez's unlikely return to Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane has increased the already big following Los Blancos have in his native country but one suspects the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner may have peaked. Radamel 'El Tigre' Falcao is still going strong aged 33 with Galatasaray in his seventh country as a player and remains in the national team set-up too.

In charge of 'La Seleccion' is another multi-country veteran and former Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Queiroz, now working in his ninth nation. World Cup 2022 qualifers are set to start in late March of next year and qualification will be the minimum expectation after a last eight finish in 2014 and a penalty exit to England last year.

Next summer Colombia jointly host the Copa America with Argentina with Australia and Qatar the invited nations to make up the numbers.

Expect more seas of yellow and national fervour. Colombia and football remain inseparable.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Bring on the Dardanians

KOSOVO CHAOS FOR ENGLAND IN SOUTHAMPTON

I confess I missed the first half of England's bizarre 5-3 Euro 2020 win over Kosovo as I am in South America and ballsed up the kick-off time.

KOSOVO CHAOS FOR ENGLAND IN SOUTHAMPTON


When I managed to get my laptop connected to a stream thanks to a Colombian tech wizard, I blinked to see the score at the break was 5-1 to the Three Lions.

Well this is a turkey shoot I thought to myself and went away to make a sandwich.

"Was Kosovo in the Soviet Union?" my friend asked.

"Former Yugoslavia," I replied.

"What's the population of Kosovo?"

That stumped me.

"About a million," I opined. I was just under half wrong. It is 1.8 million (England's is 55.6).

When I saw the highlights of the first half I felt gutted I had missed it, but more for Kosovo's two moments of excitement - Valon Berisha's first-minute goal brought back memories of San Marino's Davide Gualtieri's opener against England after eight seconds in 1993, while Mergim Vojvoda's own goal was up there with the best.

England were slick and skillful in racking up the goals but it was the visitors' brave or cavalier approach which caught my eye.

Kosovo then went on to 'win' the second half 2-0 and goalkeeper Aro Muric, of Nottingham Forest, saved superbly from Harry Kane too.

England will qualify comfortably for Euro 2020 but let us hope the fearless, open attackers of Kosovo, full FIFA members since only 2016, will be there too.

On the evidence of the fireworks at St Mary's and a hitherto 15-match unbeaten run, they would bring some joy and verve to the finals and as debutants, win a ton of neutral fans too.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, September 2, 2019

Dead But Not Buried

BURY'S DEMISE SHOWS THE FLIP SIDE OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S SUCCESS


The expulsion of Bury FC from England's League Two leagues is particularly sad and a real wake-up call to those in charge of the domestic game.

134 years of history were snuffed out last week when the English Football League shut the book on the Shakers, who were bankrupt and insolvent with no white knight having ridden to the rescue.

Bury were formed in 1885 in a bar in the White Horse Hotel by two churches - one Wesleyan and the other Unitarian.

Like so many other English clubs they had social togetherness in their blood at their birth. While never a big club, they remained nevertheless a seemingly permanent fixture in the family of 92 professional clubs.

BURY'S DEMISE SHOWS THE FLIP SIDE OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S SUCCESS


A great irony about their demise is that Bury is part of the Manchester conurbation, connected by roads and the Metrolink tram network to bigger, more famous teams.

In Manchester proper, City and United maintain their arms war of spending tens of millions on footballers each year, while about ten miles to the north Bury F.C. was sold by one owner to another last December for the princely sum of £1 sterling.

The footballers and coaching staff did nothing wrong. The club itself fell victim to overseas speculators, who one after another mortgaged their property, at one point to eight companies registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.

With such disinterested owners, it was no surprise that the football club was discarded before long.

The Football League however are just as culpable for their lack of robust ownership rules. Stewart Day and Steve Dale, the final two chief executives, were manifestly unfit to be in charge of any football club in the first place.

In addition, slack league rules allowed external funding in the form of shares, which let the pair temporarily subsidise what was already a failing business model. What was left in the end was a complex web of multiple creditors, offshore loans, shares and mortgages and invisible money.

What a far cry from those well-meaning churchmen of 1885 in the White Horse Hotel.

Growing up, I was proud of the fact England had 'the 92', the biggest haul of full-time professional teams in the world and I still feel proud our lower-league attendances trump those of other nations.

It might be hard for younger or overseas fans to understand, but the 92 were historically one group and in theory any team could advance up the pyramid. It is all about the Premier League now but when I was a child Match of the Day on a Saturday night showed games from other divisions too.

The mega bucks of Sky and others have changed all that of course and chasms of wealth have appeared. Even the Championship, the old Division Two, seems to be struggling to hold on to the coat tails of the runaway top flight, a global league which happens to be based in England.

The excessive concentration of wealth on the top 20 is having effects lower down the pyramid of which Bury is only the latest example. Inequality hurts those beyond high table and fairer distribution of the riches of the richest is essential.

Yet all is not lost.

Shakers supporters should look to the examples of Aldershot, Newport County and Wimbledon, whose loyal fans united and refused to let their clubs die.

All three were closed down too but reborn, Phoenix-like, from their ashes and a greater sense of community engendered therein. Travel to any of those three now and the supporter spirit is greater than before, a ubiquitous feel-good factor forged by the knowledge everyone got together again.

If anything resembling society still exists in this atomised, individualistic world of 2019, then English football must resurrect one of its oldest members in Bury, even if it just the Shakers fans themselves.

Bury in 1892
Bury in 1892

(c) Soccerphile & Sean O'Conor

Saturday, August 24, 2019

El NiƱo bows out

FERNANDO TORRES CALLS IT A DAY IN JAPAN

One of my favourite players has just retired at the age of 35.

Spanish legend Fernando Torres hung up his boots on the 23rd of August when his J1 League club Sagan Tosu lost 6-1 to Vissel Kobe, who boasted former La Roja teammates Andres Iniesta and David Villa.



"It has been a wonderful journey," Torres wrote in an open farewell letter to Iniesta. "I tried to find an iconic moment to play my final game and I think that is perfect timing."

In response, Iniesta wrote,

"Football brought us together more than 20 years ago when we were children. Well, you will always be El Nino and it will never separate us."

From Spain to Japan via England, he will go down in football annals as one of Spain's golden generation, a lithe and skilful attacker and the epitome of the 'False Nine' forward which came to the fore in the late noughties.

Torres grew up in the southern Madrid suburb of Fuenlabrada so gravitated naturally to Atletico Madrid whose old and beloved Manzanares stadium was a landmark on that side of the capital.

Torres made his debut for Los Colchoneros when they were in the second tier in 2001 and ended up amassing 91 goals in 244 matches and one second division title before moving to Merseyside in 2007.
Much excitement had already built up around 'El Nino' (The Kid) from Madrid but at Liverpool he confirmed his prowess by flourishing in another country,

At Liverpool under Rafael Benitez his strike rate increased to 81 in 142 games across four seasons but trophies eluded him again.

With Spain however he became a European Champion in 2008 as his winner in the final against Germany brought La Roja their first silverware since the 1960s and heralded the start of their tiki-taka golden age.

Torres' goal was typical of him  - inch-perfect positioning, acceleration and a deft first touch to score.



Two years later he was in Spain's historic World Cup winning side as they beat the Netherlands to the biggest prize and in 2012 Torres scored again in a European Championship final as Spain thrashed Italy as he bagged the golden boot as well.

After moving to Chelsea in 2012 for £50 million, Torres seemed to decline as a striker and looked less sharp or speedy, suffering unprecedented goal droughts and a knee injury which seemed to sap his explosiveness.

He also had to play second fiddle somewhat to Didier Drogba.

However he popped up as ever to score decisive goals, including a memorable breakaway in the Camp Nou to eliminate Barcelona from the 2012 Champions League, a cup Chelsea won that season for the first time.

In the following season's Europa League final, Torres scored the first in a 2-1 win over Benfica.

He also got a F.A. Cup winner's medla with Chelsea to add to the continent's top two trophies, a pretty decent return on a career, although there remained a sense of potential somewhat unfulfilled as he was less sharp after leaving Liverpool.

Torres was fast and light with excellent feet, symbolic of the shift in English football from the old battering ram / target man striker towards more elusive and skilful forwards, but he was also strong and hard to muscle off the ball.

He was as at home in the close-passing tiki-taka of the Spanish national team as he was with the long punts and channel balls of the Premier League, as he was an expert at bringing down and controlling aerial passes.

Off-field too he was impeccable, shunning the high life and the night life for a cosy and conventional family life instead.

This modest professionalism meant he never became a football 'character' the tabloids could scribble about.

But we should not forget how effective and how talented he was as a footballer.

Gracias Fernando.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Meet Me in St Louis, for a match

MLS IS FINALLY COMING TO AMERICA'S 'SOCCER CITY'

It has been discussed for years but now it is happening.

St. Louis, the American city with the deepest soccer heritage, will have a Major League Soccer side starting in 2022.

The 28th professional club franchise in America's top league was announced this week by MLS commissioner Don Garber at a press conference in the midwest city.

MLS


"It is with great pride that we welcome St Louis to Major League Soccer." he said. "St Louis is a city with a rich soccer tradition, and it is a market we have considered since the league's inception."

Historically located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, St Louis has a population of around 300,000 with a metropolitan area of ten times that and is home to internationally recognised brands like Budweiser, Energizer and Monsanto. Until it closed in 2003, TWA was based there too.

But for the quarter century of MLS' existence, the city has been a starkly missing piece of the jigsaw because of its unique history.

For more than any other city in the US, St Louis got the soccer bug in the early 20th century, establishing the nation's first professional league, the St. Louis Soccer League, in 1907 and maintaining thriving youth and amateur leagues after that folded with the outbreak of World War Two.

The first report of football there goes back to 1875, St Louis University dominated American university football for much of the post-war period and five of the USA's 1950 World Cup side who famously beat England 1-0 in Belo Horizonte played for St Louis teams.

More recently, the city has produced US internationals Chris Klein, Steve Ralston, Mike Sorber, Taylor Twellman and current Fulham defender Tim Ream. Brian McBride, another Fulham star, who played for the US at three World Cups and scored at two of them (1998 and 2002) was a St Louis University graduate.

61 St Louis-born footballers have represented the US National Team in all and the city can fairly claim, despite having no MLS team hitherto, to be America's soccer city.

On the eve of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I had the golden opportunity to speak on the phone from London to Harry Keough, one of the few surviving veterans of 1950 and US captain that day they beat England.

I treasure that couple of hours with a gentle-sounding old man who clearly had a ream of football memories and whose warmth just radiated from so far away. We really could have talked all day but Keough's wife had to remind him he had a children's match to referee so we eventually ended the call.

I asked him why St Louis, alone of American cities, had got the football bug and he told me it was because of the Roman Catholic church organising the children's football leagues. The local RC churches was staffed by many Irishmen, Britons and Germans who had brought their love of football with them from the Old World as St Louis' population mushroomed in the second half of the 19th century.

Visit today and like Boston and Philadelphia, the place still feels very European, with visible cultural legacies of many European food and drink establishments. Although only 64th on the list of most populated American cities, it still has a downtown more vibrant than many of those higher up on the list, another sign of its European ancestry.

So after the Catholic Church sowed the soccer seeds, the children grew up and took on the mantle of establishing association football as the premier sport in higher education in the city, as well as creating a professional league for adults.

What delayed an MLS team in St Louis were the familiar problems of getting a stadium deal in place. Bizarrely from a European perspective, US stadia are usually publicly funded and depend on local voter referenda to be built.

Finally a privately-financed stadium plan for a 22,500-seat arena in central St Louis accessible by light rail was presented and passed the necessary criteria to be accepted by MLS.

For its first decade since its birth in 1996, MLS struggled for credibility with teams attracting paltry crowds in vast NFL bowls. When its two Florida teams folded in 2002 it even looked like the league itself was going to fail like the NASL did in the 1980s.

But a steady move towards soccer-specific stadia of around 20,000 seats improved the match atmosphere and league's credibility, while the arrival of David Beckham in 2007, even he was probably too good for MLS, brought a wow factor to the sport in the USA.

When the Seattle Sounders finished their first season in MLS with an average crowd of over 30,000 in 2009, it was clear things were changing.

Atlanta United, who began in 2017, have blown attendance records to smithereens, averaging over 50,000 per match and regularly topping 70,000 supporters.

In 2019, professional football in America is here to stay. The sport appeals to younger, more globalized generations.

MLS will soon have 30 teams and St Louis at long last will be one of them.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile