Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mourinho's Damoclean Days


Sanchez saved the day but when your number might be up, a week can be a long time in football.

Saturday at Old Trafford was a dose of high drama, a 90 minutes of back-and-forth narratives which makes the Beautiful Game so intoxicating.

Desperate for a win with rumours swirling of an imminent managerial casualty, Manchester United went 2-0 down to lowly Newcastle, shockingly, within only ten minutes.

Funereal bells for Jose Mourinho's job could surely be heard pealing from afar.

The theatre of dreams had turned into the last-chance saloon for the increasingly so-called Special One, who had zipped his jacket up to its high neckline in a symbolic effort to keep out the world.

At the best of times he tries to keep his public emotions in check, like his predecessor Louis Van Gaal showing an uncompromising brick wall to the world, although one feels with the Portuguese it is merely a tactic rather than his character.

There was no need for the travelling Toon army to sing "Sacked in the Morning"; by half-time every hack was penning an obit for Mourinho in Manchester. The Daily Mirror was licking its lips at having been bold in predicting his firing that weekend, in bold letters on their back page.

Then bang, the riot act was read in the changing rooms and a second-half transformation saw United claw back the deficit and take all three points from an Alexis Sanchez winner. The fat lady sang and the dead man walked again.

In the clear light of Sunday however, it still looked like Mourinho had a huge job on his hands to keep his job at Old Trafford.

That remains the common consensus following the Red Devils' stunted start to a season.

Never mind the recent stumbles - a spot-kick loss to Derby in the League Cup, a Champions League draw at home to Valencia and a dismal 3-1 defeat by West Ham in the Premier League, tenth in the table after seven games is far too low for a club of United's fame, following and resources.

This comeback victory was certainly welcome and may well have bought Mourinho breathing time, but once the international break is over a quartet of tough asks await: Chelsea and Manchester City away in the Premier League and home and away tussles with Juventus in the Champions League.

Stranger things have happened of course but it is hard to see the Red Devils grabbing four wins out of four, though Champions League progress may keep Mourinho's seat safe.

For what it is worth, and it may be precious little, he did receive a text assuring him his job was safe on Saturday morning and as recently as January signed a contract to keep him at the club until 2020.

But Van Gaal was fired with a year left on his deal of course and David Moyes was shown the door only ten months into a six-year signed commitment by the club.

The warning signs of a permanent rupture have been there for around a year. Mourinho appeared distant and mournful to journalists in the second half of last season, as if he was sending a message between the lines that all was not well.

Then a summer of moaning about the lack of signings and sullen resignation from the manager set an exceptionally negative tone to the season's start. More bitter resentment than a hopeful new beginning.

Mourinho's gloom carried over into an opening day 0-3 home loss to Tottenham, who are not even the team they were last season. Arsenal also lost at home in their first home fixture, but Unai Emery has turned the team around and they are on a winning roll.

If the axe falls, it will not be controversial. Mourinho has won only the Europa League and the League Cup in his two campaigns at Old Trafford.

Despite a squad which other managers would give their eye teeth for - who can complain of lacking resources when David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez are playing for you, Mourinho's Man U remain a sum of their parts, lacking fluency, rhythm or identity.

When a manager is "on deathwatch" so to speak, it is hard to know the truth from the outside. It is easy for the press to launch into cliches like "he has lost the dressing room" or to assert that some of his players are deliberately underperforming to "throw him under the bus."

Pogba in particular, the brightest of his heavenly bodies, is frequently dull and insipid, allegedly itching for a move in the New Year.

His flat first half against Newcastle added credence to that suspicion. But then Mourinho apparently energised him in the dressing room, empowering him to take control of the match, and he came out firing on all cylinders.

In general, the Portuguese is a man frustrated by his inability to make the team gel and constrained by the need to keep his job, so he limits himself to passing asides about his employers leaving his requests unfulfilled and to journalists he just bats away probings about his side's shortcomings, reducing press conferences to dour, unanswered monologues.

Perhaps the problem is that his neutralising style of play which worked so well with Chelsea has been overtaken by the more attack-minded Manchester City, Juventus and Real Madrid and he is unable to adapt and evolve.

The statistics show United play deeper and more defensively than most of their rivals, eschewing the 'gegenpressing' high up the field popularised by Jurgen Klopp. Better to sap their flamboyant enemy then hit them with a sucker punch against the run of play, thinks Mourinho.

While one cannot argue with his trophy haul across four countries, his footballing philosophy has the whiff of growing obsolescence.

It is hard to sack a man whose team is winning however, so Sanchez's rescue goal on Saturday may come to have as much resonance as Mark Robins' famous FA Cup goal against Nottingham Forest which saved Alex Ferguson from the sack and let him build his dream at Old Trafford.

But Mourinho must salvage the season and realistically bag some silverware with an eleven which is still disjointed and who only fitfully spark into life.

At the end of the day it is a results-based business, unless someone's personality clashes too many times with one's employers or employees. Alas for Mourinho, his previous jobs suggest his character will sooner or later, no matter the personnel.

If he is to leave, the January transfer window seems the opportune time to let a new man shape the side and it is hard to believe Ed Woodward & Co. have not already sounded out some alternatives, not least Zinedine Zidane.

Saturday was a relief for all concerned, especially for a manager who spoke of "a manhunt" after the match and being blamed for the rain and Brexit, but it will all begin again the next time United fail to win a match.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

It has always been a cruel and unforgiving game, football where you are only as good as your last result.

But that has always been the deal, even for 'The Special One'.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, September 28, 2018

FIFA falls flat in London

The Best FIFA Football Awards 2018, which took place in London this week, was a lead balloon.

We were served up a ropey show, cack-handedly hosted from the first whislte by actor Idris Elba, whose lame jokes fell jaw-droppingly flat.

A professional comedian would have at least have handled the discount gags with the right timing and a few tricks of the trade, but Elba, a serious actor, was forced to die on stage with some limp-wristed material.

After a VAR joke died a death, an early stunt where Elba wondered where Dani Alves was, only for the PSG man to stumble in to the hall late, was met by groans almost as loud as when he riffed about waistcoats with Gareth Southgate.

The audience of FIFA's football family, filling the Royal Festival Hall, looked duly uninspired by the various gongs awarded, applauding only sporadically, a watery response which made Elba urge them on more than one occasion to "Make some noise!"

The poor chap must have felt like he was a dying man struggling in vain to revive the equally perishing.

More than once television viewers must have looked at their watch or wanted to change channels. Sitting through the show in person must have been excruciating.

I am betting most attendees were blase throughout the soporific show and would have forgotten the winners the morning after. Being a football fan I could not look away for long but desperately wanted to.

It would be churlish to blame only the organisers and participants however. The venue itself deserves some blame.

The concert hall has a majestic setting on the river, is cleverly soundproofed and boasts a Grade One listing for its historic value but is a monumental failure in so many ways. I know as I worked there for the best part of a decade.

The red carpet entrance, green for the night in honour of the grass field game, was set against the ghastly backdrop of the brutalist Southbank Centre, which meant the likes of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Luka Modric and Zinedine Zidane exited their limos in front of a visual excrescence.

Unlike sensible buildings, modernist 'icons' like the Festival Hall do not have a main entrance and so the guests were faced with a long staircase up to the main floor upon arrival.

Unhelpfully, the lifts do not service each level and to walk from one side of a floor to another entails a convoluted trip up and down different levels, such is the baffling design of the building. Post-show drinks were in the fourth floor reception lounge, which can be like finding the Holy Grail.

The auditorium has deep and shallow banks of seating which make it hard to generate noise or any sense of theatre (as West Ham fans in the Olympic Stadium or Juventus supporters in the unloved Stadio Delle Alpi can confirm), so FIFA's dream of aping the Oscars was always going to be just that.

The distance between stage and upper tier is huge at the Festival Hall and the chasm between spectator and action bring the old Wembley Stadium to mind. What there is instead are odd double high sides of boxes flanking the stage.

The steep banking at the newer Sadlers Wells Theatre in London by comparison is more reminiscent of the Camp Nou's immersive sightlines. Even classical concerts, the Festival Hall's raison d'etre, suffered from notably poor acoustics from its opening in 1951 until a major renovation at the turn of the millennium.

It might claim to retain the spirit of the Festival of Britain, but the Festival Hall's lack of joviality was somewhat apposite on the night of the FIFA farce.

Nobody expected a famous actor to fluff his lines but Elba did several times, stumbling over the autocue and criminally mispronouncing famous football names, including "Fenrink" Puskas, Miroslav "Klosas",  David "Trazaguet" and PierLuigi "Collana".

Then fellow thespian Sir Patrick Stewart bizarrely appeared in one of the boxes to close the night with one enigmatic line,

"To be or not to be, we will always love football!"

which left Mohamed Salah for one staring in bemusement for a few seconds.

Elba's malapropisms were mirrored by the hapless interpreter FIFA had hired for Didier Deschamps, whose praise for fellow nominee Zlatko Dalic fell on deaf ears as his name was rendered by the pretty ball-gowned dame as, "The Croatian coach". How embarrassing.

Product knowledge should be a pre-requisite for all jobs one would have thought. I was reminded of a Premier League press officer after a match hurriedly whispering to me,

"Sean, what's the name of the Liverpool coach?" before introducing him. Ken Dodd, I felt like replying.

Modric, as if suffering from the same inability as the interpreter to remember his country's appellations, failed to mention Zvonimir Boban by name but instead referred to the Croatian captain at the 1998 World Cup as his idol and inspiration.

Gaffes aside, the very nature of the event was flawed from the off.

Football's top awards already exist in the form of familiar trophies so this was always going to seem to be mere rubber-stamping: In a World Cup year it was impossible not to give the manager of the year award to anyone other than the man who had won the biggest prize of all.

Ditto the player of the season had to be Modric. These winners' ascensions to the rostrum became mundane slogs as a result while the claps petered out.

The whole idea was to revive the FIFA World Player of the Year award, which ended its six-year link with the longer-established Ballon D'Or in 2015 and has struggled to stay relevant ever since. Like it or not FIFA, France Football's prize is still the gold standard.

Some prizes were illogical. Mo Salah won the Puskas Award for goal of the season and was one of the three nominees for Best FIFA Men's Player but failed to make the FIFA FifPro World 11.

Thibaut Courtois won the Best FIFA Goalkeeper trophy but lost out in the best XI to Davide De Gea, who was not even one of the three nominees for the individual award.

One wondered how many more goals Golden Boot winner Harry Kane needed to score last season (he got 48) to get on the Best XI. I am not sure Salah's goal was the best last season but we can all agree he deserved some accolade for such a thrilling 12 months of football.

The final nail in the London night's coffin was the absence of both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, still by far the game's biggest names, despite being named in the year's World XI.

Without these supernovae, this could never have been a true night with the stars. Where Leo and CR7  were was never explained but in retrospect you could forgive them for giving this turkey a miss.

It was not all bad.

On the plus side, Brazilian ace Marta spoke with genuine joy and passion at receiving her player of the year award, as if confirming that women's football in general is on the crest of a wave.

It was nice to see former fuoriclassi Paolo Maldini, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Marco Van Basten in town, gone from the field but never forgotten.

It was also refreshing to see Arsene Wenger in apparently chirpy spirits as well as Fabio Capello and Gerard Houllier, two other managers who enjoyed fiery careers in England.

A personal highlight was seeing Reynauld Pedros picking up an award for best women's coach of the year. I last saw the Frenchman scoring goals in the green and yellow of Nantes back in the mid-1990s alongside 'Breton tetu' Nicolas Ouedec.

I was also glad to see Peru's joyful supporters honoured with the Fan's Award. They and their team graced Russia 2018 and reminded the world how enjoyable the Beautiful Game should be.

If only FIFA could keep that in mind and spare us the agony of another night like this week's at the Festival Hall.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, September 10, 2018

Colombia's life after Pekerman


I am in Bogota for family reasons but happened to be here while a major era for Colombia's national team came to a sudden end.

One day before they played a friendly against Venezuela, Colombia announced respected coach Jose Pekerman, who had led Los Cafeteros in the last two World Cups, was leaving the job.

The news was mildly surprising but came as no shock, given two weeks earlier the federation had said U-20 manager Arturo Reyes would take the helm for the September friendlies.

Contract negotiations had apparently stalled but not died, leaving a chink of light that the Argentine might renew for another World Cup cycle.

The 69 year-old had probably taken his adopted country as far as he could, with the 2014 World Cup last eight finish and third place in the 2016 Copa America notable achievements.

Staying on longer might have yielded no improvement and damaged the excellent relationship Pekerman had built up with the Colombian players and people, a bond so strong he was awarded Colombian citizenship by a grateful government.

After the joy of Brazil, the 2018 World Cup finals were much anticipated in Colombia but ended in frustration with a penalty defeat to England in the second round.

Pekerman and Colombia had struggled to replicate their singing and dancing 2014 edition as talisman James Rodriguez had arrived in Russia carrying a calf injury which saw him play the full 90 minutes at the finals only once.

As it happened, that game saw the Bayern star set up all the goals in his team's best performance, their 3-0 dismissal of Poland.

Although shorn of James, Pekerman was not above criticism however in his cautious team selection against set-piece specialists England, playing three defensive midfielders including Carlos Sanchez, who gave away his second penalty of the tournament in theatrical fashion.

Colombia's foul-ridden and referee-baiting first half was followed by a determined and positive second period, a ying and yang summary of their tournament and perhaps of Pekerman's reign:

An excellent 2014 World Cup, a dismal 2015 Copa America, a very good 2016 Copa America and a somewhat disappointing 2018 World Cup.

Pekerman used the latest data-led management, employed specialist coaches and developed strong personal relationships with his players.

He certainly instilled a winning mentality in his charges and won over the public. To the press he seemed unfailingly gentlemanly and noble although was careful not to speak too much about his philosophy or tactics.

Before the England clash in Russia for example he gave out the false news that James was fit and expected to start when the opposite was the case.

On Friday night in Miami, Colombia took the field without James, still nursing his calf and the injured Yerry Mina, their emerging star from Russia.

Florida seemed an odd choice of venue for two nations which share a border but the city's famous Hispanic expats made sure of a 34,000 turn-out.

The clash had heavy political overtones as Venezuelan migrants are pouring over the border seeking respite from the hyper-inflation of Nicolas Maduro's regime, but creating dismay and resentment in many Colombian communities in so doing.

Venezuela's team on paper however were an easy pill to swallow as the baseball-loving country is traditionally South America's weakest.

But Los Vinotintos started the brighter and had already missed a goalscoring chance before a looping cross totally fooled Colombia's back line and allowed Darwin Machis to fire past David Ospina.

Colombia completely dominated the rest of the game however and showed fiery attacking intent, deservedly equalising through Radamel Falcao ten minutes after half time and gaining a deserved winner in the 90th minute when pint-sized Yimmy Chara netted after some penalty box chaos.

Without James, it was incumbent on Juan Quintero to orchestrate and once again the 25 year-old River Plate midfielder showed he can pull the strings when required.

Juventus winger Juan Cuadrado also showed how incisive and useful he can be when supplied enough.

Yellow shirts on children and adults were everywhere to be seen in Bogota, the Colombian capital on Friday even though it was only a no-stakes friendly with a lesser opponent.

The fervour this country has for its national team never ceases to impress and inspire me.

'La Camiseta' (the team shirt) has become a national totem of pride but also of criticism for masking the very real problems of the nation, though supporters argue they don it precisely to unite and feel happy albeit for 90 minutes in the face of so much gloom.

With 2019's Copa America in Brazil their next competition, all soccer talk was about the vacant hot seat now Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio, who managed Mexico at Russia 2018, has chosen Paraguay instead.

The other names in the frame seem unlikely - assistant Nestor Lorenzo, Croatia's coach Zlatko Dalic, Carlos Queiroz and even Guus Hiddink, but what connects them is their foreignness:

There is a train of thought that Colombian coaches can be too easy manipulated by certain agents or regional factions; memories linger of the bitter 1994 campaign when the country's narco-war spilled into the World Cup and defender Andres Escobar was shot dead.

The last six years have been a happy rebirth on the field for one of South America's most passionate football nations thanks largely to Pekerman and for that reason everyone made a point of saluting him as a national hero.

The country really wants the new belief and confidence of his reign to continue.

Whoever his successor will be, the baton he passes on is a heavy one to carry.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Southgate under the lens


It has been a summer of love in England for England.

The football team that is.

Gareth Southgate playing for England
Image copyright © Offside

Gareth Southgate's comments about his side truly representing and uniting the country struck a resonant chord, a zeitgeist moment the history books will recall in the future.

His words were a gently veiled criticism of the homogenous look of the ruling party and its Brexit fiasco which has riven the nation in two, a schism which remains painfully unresolved.

In a week in which a brittle and embattled Prime Minister of a party without a majority saw two of her top team quit, the England manager by contrast came across as an intelligent, measured and sensitive man whose team had cruised into a World Cup semi final proving the virtues of loyalty and unity.

Unlike the government, the national team made the nation happy, if only for a short while.

For the month of June, the contrast could not have been starker and the calls for Southgate to become Prime Minister were neither unexpected nor wholly in jest. His national leadership outshone Teresa May's.

No man and no waistcoat are more popular in England right now. The Football Association has said it has no plans for an open top bus parade but they are painfully out of touch with the nation, once more.

Yet honeymoons never last forever and now, three days after England were eliminated by Croatia, the feeling of national togetherness and shared ecstasy which only the World Cup can generate has started to seep out of the building.

After a couple of days of emotional come-down, a time for tears to dry, beer to lose its taste and tension to dissipate, more focused analysis has been brought to bear on Southgate the football coach.

Perhaps inevitably, the aura surrounding England's best-dressed and most-liked man has begun to wane a little.

Talk of pride and gratitude is fading and some accusations are now being levelled at Saint Southgate regarding his side's surrendering of a lead in Moscow and their spurning of probably England's best chance of winning a second World Cup.

The charge sheet is accumulating thus:

  • While a back three remains part of his creed, should he have picked the experienced and natural centre back Gary Cahill over converted full back Kyle Walker, who was beaten to the ball for Croatia's equaliser, or John Stones, who let Mario Mandzukic ghost in behind him for Croatia's winner?
  • In addition, why did Southgate not introduce Eric Dier as an additional reducer alongside Jordan Henderson when it was clear our featherweight midfield of Delle Ali and Jesse Lingard were being overrun? 
  • Was skipper Harry Kane too big a name to withdraw when he was clearly having an off night, missing a key chance to put England 2-0 up and chugging around on his own up front?
  • Why were England thumping long balls forward in the second half instead of keeping to their principles of playing out from the back? Why did they lose mental discipline in that way?
  • Could Southgate have brought on Ruben Loftus-Cheek to combat the lack of midfield creativity? Croatia benefited from a golden playmaker which England did not have. Should the manager have picked a man with innovative boots - Adam Lallana, Jonjo Shelvey or Jack Wilshere in other words? Or should Ross Barkley be hauled back into the set-up? England are not exactly overflowing with inventive midfield generals.
  • Were England so wedded to 3-5-2 they could not reshape themselves once it was clear Croatia had learnt how to find space on the flanks in front of the wing backs? 
  • Could England seriously have hoped to have won the World Cup through set pieces alone? 75% of their goals came from corners, free kicks and penalties. 
  • Southgate's team was halfway down the table of 32 finalists for shots on target and 27th for shots on target from open play. Their other stats do not imply World Cup winners either: 11th for completed passes, 16th for dribbles, 17th for successful passes into the last third and 24th for crosses.
Et cetera. Hindsight is 20-20 and the fact one team must lose a knockout game engenders a library of reactions and theories.

All of the above might be factors in England's loss, but the biggest was probably that experience was the key factor in the Luzhniki. 

Zlatko Dalic's men came to Moscow with more than double the caps of Southgate's - 660 versus 294 and more than twice the Champions League experience too.

The gap in game management experience was clear by the end.

Croatia changed their tack and turned the screw at just the right times to unsettle their greener foes. The way their two goalscorers Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic darted in behind sleeping England defenders to strike epitomised their superior nous and game-savviness.

Those men, skilled in piercing the notoriously tough defences of Serie A with Juventus and Inter respectively, were two ruthless winners the likes of which England did not possess and we certainly had no-one in the class of Luka Modric, probably the player of the tournament so far.

The Croats, who kept us out of Euro 2008 a decade ago, were wise, battle-hardened warriors who took an hour to recover from Kieran Trippier's early strike but then found their stride, took the game by the scruff of the neck and bossed it. 

England's early optimism had evaporated by the time of Croatia's second and playing from the back had turned into hopeful punts forward to Marcus Rashford.

There are no complaints. Nobody in England is blaming the referee, outrageous fortune or dirty tricks. We all know the better team won that night.

Happily, off-field there were no riots or widespread violence like there was when England lost semi finals in 1990 and '96. Everyone felt pride that for once the Three Lions had done better than anyone had thought.

Those facts alone speak of a significant change in English football. The gap between expectation and performance has been shortened. A new England has been born, a team without egos or over-burdened by unrealistic expectation, without a shirt which weighs too heavily on young shoulders and most notably, without fear of losing matches on spot-kicks.

The nine yard jinx has been lifted at long last. English players now approach penalty shootouts confident of winning them.

The national training centre St George's Park and the England DNA project is blooming across the board: U17 & U20 World Champions, U19 European Champions and men's and women's senior teams reaching World Cup semi-finals.

The bigger picture is therefore that an evolution is in progress in football's homeland. A truly golden generation could be on its way. This appearance was the first in the World Cup for this new England.

If the crops are to fruit in the next decade, the young stars from the already successful youth sides must get domestic playing time and European experience.

With barely a third of Premier League players English, and the domestic league commercial and international in its focus, the F.A. has its work cut out if it wants to lift the trophy in Qatar or the USA.

2026 would be sixty years of hurt and nobody English wants that.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Purging the Ghosts of Italia '90



England are in the World Cup semi-final again, a joyfully new experience for those too young to remember the last time.

For my generation though, it brings back memories of the greatest and saddest day in England's football history.

Italia '90. Turin. Penalties.

Those words are burned into my heart and soul.

I was a boy becoming a man at the time and my emotions were at their height. Football had been my boyhood - scarves, shirts, shorts and socks, Panini stickers, Match of the Day and Radio 2's Saturday afternoon. Brian Clough and Trevor Francis. Come on you reds.

My love for Nottingham Forest had become obsessional, buying membership and travelling to games in the East Midlands from down in the South of England.

When Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Neil Webb became integral parts of the England team en route to the final I was doubly behind England in Italy. Never mind the expense or inconvenience, I was getting on a plane to Rome.

That World Cup was the culmination of my childhood fandom, the players I had grown up with reaching their pinnacle at the highest level.

So when Pearce, Forest's buccaneering captain missed England's fateful penalty in the semi-final with Germany, my world fell in. I cried, my friends cried and my father, who never shows his emotions, was clearly upset.

I think I was holding my mother's hand by the fourth penalty.

I did not understand it at the time but football always gives you another bite at the cherry, Germany were a better team and all but one set of fans leaves the World Cup in tears or regret at missed chances.

For days and weeks and probably months and years I reran that match in my head, frustrated there was no way of making England win.

The injustice of Gazza's booking, of Chris Waddle's shot off the post and the annoyance at what were two poor England spot-kicks reverberated.

It was for Englishmen of my generation, a trauma of sorts, but one we look back with pride. As C.S. Lewis said explaining the purpose of pain, when a stone is broken and chipped away at by the stonemason it becomes perfect.

Is it time for purging that injustice now, righting that ancient wrong? The cycle of football affords endless opportunities for redemption.

Italia '90 was a purging for English football, although we did not know it at the time. After a decade of Bradford, Heysel, Hillsborough and hooliganism, a new football culture was born. English society accepted its greatest sport again.

With time, the pain of that night in Turin has seeped away, replaced by a conundrum that England seem incapable of reaching the final of the European Championship or the World Cup.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, England can again.

Russia 2018 has been an exceptionally commodious passage for England to the last four than was Italia '90.

There the Three Lions began with a lower-league clash with Eire (1-1), a creditable 0-0 draw with a troubled Netherlands and a smooth 1-0 win over Egypt.

The knockout stages were pure attrition for Bobby Robson's side however. A fraught game with Belgium, who hit the post twice and trouble goalie Peter Shilton many times, ended with a last-gasp David Platt winner, seconds before the end of extra-time.

Then England were 2-1 down and heading for the exit against Cameroon in the quarters before a brace of Gary Lineker penalties saved the day.

Colombia minus their star and Sweden have been much easier navigations. Croatia in 2018, with the greatest of respect, are also not in the same class as West Germany's World Cup winning side of 28 years ago.

Back home, talk of 1990 has just given way to that of 1966, with the nine survivors of England's greatest 11 ready to fly out for the final on Sunday.

This euphoria risks becoming hysteria. First there is the wily midfield of Croatia to overcome and then the awesome firepower of either Belgium or France.

Still, every generation must carve its own football memories.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Brazil head for the airport again

The day Brazil are knocked out a World Cup always feels like a big event.

Despite the fact the Seleção have not won it since 2002 and were utterly humiliated by Germany four years ago, one still feels the green and gold belong at the core of this competition.

Growing up Brazil were still the wonder team we all aspired to be like. To be Brazilian meant to be endowed with innately divine feet in control of the sphere, to be born into a rich tradition of highly-skilled football.

Never mind that for more than 20 years of my youth Brazil were not world champions, there were always 'the best'.

In this wide-open World Cup of falling favourites, Tite's team are only the latest casualty but that means another 20 year gap between Brazilian World Cup wins will have opened up by 2022. What will it take for the world to stop considering Brazilians the best at football?

The iconography of Pele, Zico, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, that goal by Carlos Alberto and the production line of talented ball-players is just so vivid that the legend of Brazil goes on.

Recent history has facts to counter this mythology. They ran aground in the quarter-final in 2006 (beaten by France) and in 2010 (by the Netherlands) before their 7-1 humiliation in 2014.

This year's elimination was far more honourable but since it came at an earlier stage of the competition should go down as a regression.

Finishing top of the CONMEBOL qualifiers and entering the 2018 World Cup as one of the favourites (FIFA ranked 2nd behind Germany) showed an encouraging recovery from the nightmare of Belo Horizonte four years ago, but once more Brazil's dreams are in ruins.

To be fair, last night in Kazan they enjoyed no luck.

They had 27 shots to Belgium's nine yet Fernandinho scored an own goal. Thiago Silva hit the post, Gabriel Jesus had a strong penalty call dismissed and the rebounds just did not fall for them.

Philippe Coutinho missed two chances and Neymar had two shots saved by Belgium's elongated and  in-form goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

Brazil dominated the second half and in substitute Douglas Costa had a rip-roaring right-winger: It could well have been a different outcome.

Yet Belgium were a formidable opponent, finally confirming their squad of stars can cut it against the best opposition. Roberto Martinez had plenty of domestic criticism going into this tournament but is shutting up his naysayers in Russia.

His switch to a 4-4-2 last night paid off as did his team's compact shape with Marouane Fellaini the apex of the resistance. There was no way they were going to let Brazil's ball wizards play in their box.

In attack, their trident of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, surely the finest in the tournament, were red hot. Lukaku switched from the wing to the middle and charged like a Pamplona bull all night, almost impossible to stop.

Marcelo might be guilty of having stood off De Bruyne as he shaped to unleash his 31st minute rocket, when any Premier League defender would have known the Manchester City star's habits.

Brazil also let Belgium exploit their right side, concentrating their plays on the left-sided triangle of Marcelo, Neymar and Coutinho. Would defensive midfield rock Casemiro have made the difference?

Like England they lacked a playmaker. Only when Coutinho chipped over the back four for Renato Augusto to score as Lionel Messi does for Luis Suarez at Barcelona, did we see true creativity. But otherwise Coutinho was awry with his shots and jaded by his box to box tasks.

Oh for a Luka Modric or Christian Eriksen in midfield.

Belgium steam on and gain revenge for being eliminated by Brazil in 2002 in a game they might have won.

The top two sides left in the cup now meet in the semi-final: France play Belgium on Tuesday evening in St Petersburg. The Red Devils could be writing one of international football's greatest stories.

But when will we see Brazil win the World Cup again?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Things I miss about Russia

First impressions upon arriving back.

1. You think that is underground!
2. Since when did they do mini escalators.
3. Fast food just sped up again.
4. High fives are out of fashion.
5. Where are the rest of the train carriages/ the free trains/ the four day journeys.
6. Fan ID doesn’t work.
7. Why is no one checking my bag when I go into the station?
8. I can go out the station and come straight back in.
9. No one is collecting plastic cups anymore.

Things I miss about Russia

10. People here speak different languages but don’t use google translate.
11. Can’t find caviar on the menu anymore.
12. Reading signs phonetically no longer works.
13. People have stopped chanting my name... Ross... i...ya.

Ross Clegg

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Pickford spikes the coffee


In the end it came down to penalties and for once England had done their homework.

In winning their first World Cup shootout, the Three Lions proved the edge that analytical and intelligent preparation gives.

Gareth Southgate had spoken a week earlier about getting his squad to study the psychology of shootouts, analysing why England kept tripping up at that particular hurdle.

Individual kickers were assigned with taking their time, entering a calm mental space and delivering with aplomb what had been planned, in contrast to the hurried and nervous kicks which have knocked England out so many times, including one missed by Southgate himself at Euro '96.

His players looked calm on the approach and at the moment of delivery last night, with the exception of Jordan Henderson, who was bouncing the ball with his head down as he stepped up to the kick, which was saved by David Ospina, diving quickly to his left.

The Arsenal goalkeeper read Eric Dier's winning kick correctly too but was less rapid in leaping down to his right, only managing to get fingertips on the ball.

Colombia missed two penalties by contrast, which let Henderson off the hook. Mateus Uribe's showed the danger of going high and hard as his effort cannoned off the crossbar, while Carlos Bacca's fateful kick was too close to the middle.

Hit low, hard and into the corner remains the best recipe for success from nine yards, although cleverer players will fire down the middle when they are sure the keeper will dive, or even do a Panenka.

Jordan Pickford, England's green but agile custodian, confirmed afterwards he had studied each kicker's modus operandi and only Falcao had failed to revert to type. Preparation paid off.

1-1 was a fair finish to a match with few real chances. Colombia began handicapped by James Rodriguez's calf strain. Their three goals against Poland were all down to him and to have taken England through 120 minutes unbeaten without his arsenal of talents to deploy must rate as some achievement.

Indeed, given England's lack of dominance, with the Bayern playmaker fit, one suspects the result would have gone the other way.

Probably to keep England on their toes, the Colombian camp had given out the message that James' injury was nothing serious, but insiders revealed he had not trained since their win over Senegal and there was no way he was going to start in Moscow.

For 2014's Golden Boot winner and the golden boy of Colombian football, it was another cruel way to exit the World Cup, exiled to the stands, where he slumped alone in tears following the shootout.

Los Cafeteros had periods of domination and the pace of Juan Cuadrado and physicality of Falcao were constant threats in the last third. When full backs Santiago Arias and Johan Mohica flew up the wings, for a while it looked like England might wilt.

But not quite. Juan Quintero had been billed as exploding onto the world stage with big clubs holding their attention, much like what happened to James in 2014, but for all his flashes of neat control and clever positioning, too often ruined the moment with an overhit final ball.

Like Marouane Fellaini the night before, Yerry Mina proved the value of a tall and awkward customer at crosses and set pieces and ended up his nation's unlikely top scorer in the tournament with three.

Yet Carlos Sanchez, sent off in one minute versus Japan, again let his side down by hugging and then rugby-tackling Harry Kane smack in front of the referee to give away a penalty. Some Colombians, and Diego Maradona, insisted Kane had fouled him first but the abundance of physical contact was too much for the referee to realistically ignore.

Post-match, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman urged for clarification on contact in the box, adding to comments from Falcao and others that some English players went to ground too easily, and that the American referee Mark Geiger had been less than even-handed, showing six yellow cards to Colombia but only two to England.

Pekerman must have been rattled as four years ago following rotation Brazilian fouling on James in the quarter final and slack refereeing, he refused to blame either Brazil or the officials in his post-match conference.

Yet since his team briefly looked like losing their heads and earning red cards, the manager must shoulder some blame for not calming them down immediately. It was hard to believe this same team won FIFA's Fair Play Award at Brazil 2014.

With the score at 0-0, the game briefly threatened to descend into another Battle of Santiago, the infamous Chile v Italy clash from the 1962 finals. Geiger might have followed the rules but lacked the presence to reduce the tension while it was boiling over.

Colombia are not known as a dirty team, which made their behaviour curious. Perhaps it was an inferiority complex appearing, as if they felt bending the rules was the only way to derail a more talented opponent. They need not have gone down that route as they still had the talent without James to take England on.

Both sets of supporters had gripes about Geiger: Many English fans were angry that he only showed a yellow card to Wilmar Barrios for headbutting Jordan Henderson and ignored the scuffing of the penalty spot, while their Colombian counterparts have been piling into the American on social media for apparent bias towards the Three Lions.

Things thankfully cooled down after the break, not least because Colombia's substitutions refocused their team and they had the better of extra-time, though failed to make Pickford work much, Uribe's speculative rocket in the 93rd minute notwithstanding.

Colombia leave the World Cup sad at their failure to repeat their last eight achievement of 2014, cursing their bad luck in losing their best player but proud their side went down fighting, although England would say quite literally.

England were second best towards the end of normal time and for the first period of extra time, which could bode ill for future matches in the tournament.

Southgate's team has a solid shape but all teams need to morph according to game events and for the first time last night, against quality opposition, they were forced to rethink.

In Pickford they have a young custodian brimming with confidence who leaps like a salmon and flies like a bird.

The real stars are both defenders who before the tournament were virtually fringe players. Harry McGuire still has only nine caps but plays like an old hand, commanding in the air, dominant in the box and assured on the ground.

Kieran Trippier meanwhile is a natural wing back who is fast, has good positional play and supplies more dangerous crosses than any other player.

Up front, Harry Kane is netting reliably whether from penalties or open play but his lieutenants Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling still have question marks hanging over them after yet another next to invisible pair of performances.

The team is so reliant on Kane that if a canny defence can shut him down, one wonders where England's goals will come from. The lack of a playmaker in the squad could yet come back to haunt Southgate.

England did not score in open play in Moscow and have now gone over four hours without finding the net without winning a penalty, a salient point which should temper the growing euphoria back home.

But having flown in under the radar, English enthusiasm and self-confidence are now on the march, conscious of how on paper the Three Lions have their best chance of returning to the final since their annus mirabilis of 1966.

Colombia at least won the noise battle at the Spartak Stadium. They heavily outnumbered English supporters, leading Southgate to label it "almost an away match" for his side.

The 40,000-strong Cafetero fan base in Russia brought some exotic colour to unaccustomed surroundings. Now they are packing up and making the long journey home with melancholy but also memories to treasure.

There is no match trip like experiencing a World Cup in person. England are still there.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile