Sunday, December 30, 2018

Liverpool's to Lose

OUT OF NOWHERE, THE REDS ARE SEVEN POINTS CLEAR AT THE TOP

"Football is an unpredictable game" is one of those mind-numbing cliches trotted out whenever there is an upset of sorts.

The thing is the yearly cycle of hopes and dreams alternately built up, fulfilled or smashed that is the football season lends itself so readily to repeated quips of interpretation. It's a marathon not a sprint, trip up in the home straight etc are perfectly adequate ways to describe what we know by hand now.

Of course it is a fairly predictable sport or else the betting industry would not survive, basing its business model on the laws of probability.

Liverpool FC


Leicester City's capture of the Premier League in 2016 is the frustrating spanner in the works of any accusations that money has captured the game and given birth to an unassailable hegemony of the top clubs.

Likewise the many Christmas twists in this season's Premier League race have drawn some into thinking it really is an open competition where David can kill Goliath on any given Saturday.

This is nonsense of course.

Liverpool might have found themselves in an unexpected seven-point lead at the top of the tree as we enter 2019 and Manchester City have just as surprisingly lost two on the trot but the top six are still the usual suspects at this halfway stage.

That said, it would be healthy if a club which has not won the title since the end of the 1980's could capture it in 2018, even if they have the spending power to be there or thereabouts (sorry for the cliche) every season.

The gap between the top five and the rest is substantial. Wolves, despite a rejuvenating and most unexpected 3-1 win at Wembley yesterday over the hitherto lauded Tottenham Hotspur, are still 25 points behind the leaders.

Was Spurs' recent cavalcade a false dawn? And what about Arsenal, who despite all the talk of a rebirth under Unai Emery, have still only won one point more than they had this time last season.

The Gunners were a country mile behind a rampant and ravenous Liverpool at Anfield in their 5-1 demolition so they can put their Champions League plans on hold.

Oh and then there is Manchester United who have won three on the bounce since Jose Mourinho was handed his P45. Undoubtedly the timing of the Special One's firing was timed to coincide with a run of manageable fixtures: Cardiff, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Newcastle, plus Reading in the FA Cup.

Spurs away on the 13th of January should bring the Baby-Faced Assassin's explosive arrival to an end, but that is followed by home matches with Brighton and Burnley, further smoothing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's path.

So far so good, but honeymoons always end. At this stage it still seems hard to see United making the Champions League with an eight-point deficit to fourth place to conquer plus the staying power of Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City to counter.

Solskjaer should probably remain boss given his popularity with fans and players, but missing out on the Champions League could see United on the managerial merry-go-round yet again.

As for Liverpool, the elephantine 27-year wait for the title for England's traditionally strongest club could be set to end in 2019, but there is a long way to go and some stiff competition to see off first.

I can hear another cliche coming on.

Many of us would like to see Liverpool win as a tonic to Man City's recent dominance, a reward for Jurgen Klopp's enthusiasm and a fond reminder of the Red Machine of our childhoods.

It might also help gnarled old curmudgeons like me accept there is still a sense of competition left in England's top flight.

Klopp himself of course is doing his best to dowse the fires of expectation but he cannot alone stop the media, fans, players and himself starting to get goosepimples as we pass the halfway mark.

Pep Guardiola has clearly been studying Alex Ferguson's mind games, calling Liverpool "the best team in Europe" this week as the glint of the title trophy starts to tantalise.

So no pressure there then. May the best team win.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Fifa World Rankings December 2018

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for December 2018 were published on December 20 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

In the final rankings for 2018 there is no change in the top 20 positions. Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are followed by champions France who defeated them in the semis, Brazil, runners-up Croatia, beaten semi-finalists England and Portugal.

The full top ten is Belgium, France, Brazil, Croatia, England, Portugal, Uruguay, Switzerland, Spain and Denmark.

Senegal finish the year as the top African team in 23rd place. England remain in 5th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 42nd place; Japan are in 50th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 53rd in the list. The USA are in 25th. Scotland are 38th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 33rd place, Northern Ireland are 35th.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Still Nothing Special

UNITED MUST SHARE THE BLAME FOR THE LACK OF PROGRESS AT OLD TRAFFORD

Shocked but not surprised was my and most people's reaction to Jose Mourinho being fired by Manchester United.

The Special One has been in a sulk since the summer when he complained about his transfer targets not being met, proof that he and the board were not seeing eye to eye.

Once that crucial relationship breaks down, the manager's job will always be under threat when the wins dry up.

Old Trafford
Old Trafford for the first post-Mourinho home game
Mourinho probably had a point when he blamed the club for not giving him the team he wanted to create. Watching millionaire misfits Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez run around to only moderate effect while their team relentlessly failed to gel or play the attacking football Old Trafford expects has been painful for Red Devils supporters.

The world's richest club by turnover had its worst start to a season in 29 years and sat nineteen points off the top and eleven points behind the Champions League places, leaving the Liverpool match last weekend as a last-chance saloon for Mourinho.

Derbies or high-profile cup games often cock the firearm ready for the discharge of a manager.

Yet sometimes the coach does not expect to lose his job.

I remember watching Chris Coleman in his final press conference for Fulham insistent that the chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed had no problem with him when he had already issued the directive to sack him.

On the other hand it is hard to forget the otherwise calm Ronald Koeman's anguished face in his final home match for Everton, feeling betrayed by the board and fully aware that nothing would stop the axe being wielded as Arsenal won 5-2 at Goodison Park.

We surely have not seen the last of Mourinho but as of now it is hard to see where he goes from here in club football.

His defend-first, cancel out the opposition second tactics seemed resolutely obsolete in England this season as the attacking flair of Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham motored past Man U's turgid playing style.

Yes he won the Europa League at Old Trafford but it was hard to see his side advancing past PSG, Mbappe, Neymar et al in the next round of this season's Champions League, the only competition which matters to a club the size of United.

Perhaps Mourinho will return to Portugal, be lured by a Serie A side or a national team will come calling. Yet it is unlikely he will manage a big English or Spanish club again.

As for Manchester United, they are still stuck in a post-Ferguson hangover. Their third replacement for their truly special one has failed and they have admitted they will not appoint a permanent replacement until the summer of 2019 at the earliest.

Mourinho had to go as it is a results-based business and there was no sign of improvement on the horizon, but he alone cannot be blamed for all United's woes.

Ed Woodward, the club's executive vice-chairman, will doubtless maintain his public silence but he has serious questions to answer.

United are in once sense still the biggest club in the world but for far too long have been performing like one of the also-rans.

With the resources available to them they really have no good excuses.

Their legions of fans across the glove deserve much better but five years on from the end of Fergie, an extraordinary gloom persists over Old Trafford.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Shape of Things to Come

THE BOCA V RIVER CLASH IN MADRID SHOWED OVERSEAS MATCHES CAN WORK

River Plate's extra-time win over city rivals Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores final was a great day out for the Bonaerense fans who had made the trip to Madrid, as well as the Argentine expats living in Spain.

My River-supporting friends from Ponferrada, four and a half hours' drive to the north-west of the capital, could not believe their luck when CONMEBOL announced the premier competition of South American club football would be coming to Spain.

81,000-capacity Bernabeu
The 81,000-capacity Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid

But the atmosphere in the 81,000-capacity Bernabeu, although warm, was not as fiery as the first leg was at Boca's 49,000-seat La Bombonera or as passionate as it would have been at River's 61,688 seat Monumental arena in Buenos Aires.

Only 4,000 fans of each club had crossed the ocean but nevertheless the occasion felt auspicious, in the home of the reigning UEFA and FIFA champion club and also with a historic connection to Argentina as the field where the great Argentine ball wizard Alfredo Di Stefano dazzled for Real Madrid and pioneered international team competition.

The game itself was a lively affair with plenty of goalscoring chances but the cauldron of the Superclasico between Buenos Aires' great rivals was not conjured up.

While River had lost home advantage thanks to some of their violent aficionados, they still won the cup in the end thanks to their Colombian midfield orchestrator Juan Quintero, whose exquisite strike was a tribute to the technical heritage of South American soccer.



The irony of the trophy named after the continent's rebels against Spanish rule returning to the home of its colonial masters was somewhat lost although as CONMEBOL's boss Alejandro Dominguez correctly confirmed, it was "an exceptional decision in exceptional circumstances."

Equally ironic was that the the Spanish Football Federation and Players' Union have been fighting La Liga's plan to stage league matches in the United States, beginning with the Barcelona v Girona clash in January, yet moved hell and high water to bring the Boca v River game to Spain.

As it stands, that particular game looks dead in the water as Barcelona have withdrawn, scared by UEFA threats to ban them from the Champions League for up to two seasons and FIFA threats to ban its players from their respective national teams. Yet you can bet your last Euro we have not heard the last of such ideas. Javier Tebas, the chairman of La Liga, is ploughing on having taken the bold or rash step of penning a 15 year deal with Charlie Stillitano and Relevent Sports.

While it was sold as helping out the South American confederation in its hour of need as they searched for a safe venue for their showpiece, the successful staging of the show in Madrid will inevitably sow the seed of future big South American matches crossing the Atlantic or heading north to Mexico or the USA, all countries which would fill stadia the size of the Bernabeu.

As a football fan who grew up with terrace culture, playing matches overseas remains anathematic to me, but as a European I have to admit the sight of two big South American sides thrashing it out in Spain was a rare treat.

Another region of the world desperate for big-name soccer is the Middle East of course and victorious River Plate are now in the United Arab Emirates for the FIFA Club World Cup, where a final with Real Madrid no less looms on the 22nd of December in Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps the genie of matches being played overseas is now out of the bottle.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, December 6, 2018

On the way to Wembley with Woking

NON-LEAGUE DREAMS FACE THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN THE F.A. CUP

Clubs five leagues apart facing off? The F.A. Cup must still retain some magic.

Last Sunday I watched my home town team, Woking, a team from the sixth level of English football, beat Swindon Town, a team from the fourth, 1-0 away to reach the third round of the F.A. Cup.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

Swindon had made four changes and their fans were far from excited at the prospect of playing a non-league team, even if it meant a plum tie in the next round.

Out of the 3,654 in attendance around 1,000 were from Woking. The tickets were a steal at only £10, around half of what Woking charge as a matter of fact, but the locals were still not up for it.

A true supporter always feels empathy with fans of other teams and there was something melancholic about visiting a stadium barely a fifth full, when at the start of the nineties there had been a lot of excitement about the place as stylish passing football flourished under Ossie Ardiles and then Glenn Hoddle.

With such paltry crowds and takings, one could only wonder how Swindon could hope to thrive again.

Playing two divisions below in the semi-professional National League South, Woking's win was an act of (modest) giant-killing. For little teams a cup run is only a temporary fillip; in the case of the Cardinals the main battle remains getting out of the division into which they were relegated last season.

Despite a drizzly, gloomy day in the West Country, the Cards' 54th minute goal from Jake Hyde, a former trainee at the County Ground as it happened, sparked an explosion of bliss in one corner of the County Ground. The final whistle was the cue for more delirium.

So the reward for our 15 minutes of fame is a home tie with Watford in the 4th Round in January. The Hornets are not the Gunners or the Red Devils it is true but nobody in Woking is moaning about bagging a Premier League side.

If Ruud Gullit or Paul Ince had drawn Arsenal or Manchester United out of the urn instead then the  little tiled roof of Woking's Kingfield Stadium would surely have been taken off.

Memories of our greatest day resound. In January 1991 Woking were also playing in the sixth tier of English football but defeated West Bromwich Albion, then in the second, 4-2 away in the third round of the F.A. Cup.

Talk about delirium, that day for Woking fans was an ecstatic trip to heaven and beyond.

That chilly day in the West Midlands remains probably the happiest day of my life, when my dismal, concrete home town suddenly and fleetingly became, mirabile dictu, the toast of the nation.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

In a dusty drawer, I still have the yellowing sports pages of every Sunday newspaper from that weekend as Woking led the headlines and I continue to believe that the council should erect a statue of our Gibraltarian hat-trick hero that day at the Hawthorns, Tim Buzaglo.

When I met the real Mr Buzaglo in the flesh a year or so later I was truly star-struck.

For those who grew up with professional teams for their local clubs it is hard to grasp the non-league fan mindset.

Our clubs are not on the telly and our supporting lives consist of treks to rackety little stadia in peripheral settings and hunting around for news and results. Sometimes we used to travel on the same coach as the players to games, so small was our away following.

My formative football years as a teenager were spent watching the Surrey Senior Cup, F.A. Trophy et al and I felt inside at the time that all those freezing Tuesday nights on terraces with my acrylic red and white scarf for comfort were something special, although I could not quite articulate why.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

As a teenager, football appealed to my burgeoning masculinity and sense of tribe and at lower levels of the pyramid, supporters feel more deeply connected to their team. I felt pride and belonging chalking up as many Woking games as I could. Football was my favourite thing so the 1991 win at the Hawthorns was the apex of my life hitherto.

Surrey itself is a football backwater, despite its proximity to London. It has no professional sides so the F.A. Cup affords us our only moments in the sun.

Sutton United's 2-1 win over top-flight Coventry City in 1989 is generally considered the pinnacle of Surrey football history and the go-to example of non-league giant killing but in Woking we would argue our win at West Brom was the greater.

Four divisions separated the teams in both those games but while Sutton won 2-1 at home, Woking won 4-2 away. In the next round we both played top-level teams on the road: Woking lost 0-1 to Everton and Sutton lost 0-8 to Norwich City. In beating a top-flight side however, Sutton retain their claim to fame.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

Non-league football has not changed as much as the professional game since. The terrace culture of standing and surging when you score is still alive, as is running up and down steps to berate or celebrate, while the ability to move away easily from idiots is a great advantage over all-seat stadia.

Even the luxury of switching ends at half time remains common. You feel closer to the players because you physically are.

There is still something very endearing about the simply-produced programmes, parochial sponsors, cheap food and drink stalls, damp and rotting wooden stands, hospitality suites in otherwise condemned buildings and perhaps above all the loyal, decrepit old timers who still hobble to every match come rain or shine.

The English football season is largely a winter one, played in the worst weather of a country with a notoriously bad climate anyway. To subject yourself to 90 minutes of crap football in that environment so regularly says something about the powerful draw of the sport.

In 1991 after our miracle in the Midlands we were drawn at home to Everton but switched the tie for financial reasons. Our towering £1 million stand remains as the legacy of that controversial but in the end probably wise move.

We lost 1-0 away at Goodison Park to a Kevin Sheedy shot in the fourth round, unable to repeat the magic of the Hawthorns but with fond memories of an unlikely trip to Merseyside one January Sunday for a tenth of our population.

There will be five divisions' difference again for Woking in the next round of 2019's F.A. Cup.

Impossible again? Nah, we are only four wins from Wembley.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Fifa World Rankings November 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for November 2018 were published on November 29 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are followed by champions France, Brazil, runners-up Croatia, beaten semi-finalists England and Portugal.

The full top ten is Belgium, France, Brazil, Croatia, England, Portugal, Uruguay, Switzerland, Spain and Denmark.

Senegal are now the top African team in 23rd place. England remain in 5th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 42nd place; Japan are in 50th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 53rd in the list. The USA are in 25th. Scotland are 38th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 33rd place, Northern Ireland are 35th.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Monday, November 26, 2018

England Expects Once More

ENGLAND HAVE ADVANCED BUT TALK OF A NEW ERA IS PREMATURE

Euphoria is high in the home of football after Gareth Southgate's side completed a calendar year in which they reached the World Cup semi-finals with passage to the last four of the UEFA Nations League.

Ranked fifth in the world by FIFA last month, the Three Lions' win over fourth-ranked Croatia in the UEFA Nations League can only help when November's rankings are announced shortly.

England


The atmosphere at the national stadium was a memorable one, the most exciting in fact since a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Poland five years ago.

Following England's FIFA U-17 World Cup and UEFA U-19 wins in 2017, a strong narrative has now emerged of a fertile talent pool flowing swiftly upstream into an energized national team run by the former U-21 coach, who is just the man to give youth a chance.

The meaning of Jadon Sancho running around for the England first team in a competitive fixture a year after playing for the U-17s was impossible to ignore. Perhaps as with Owen Hargreaves a decade before, the fact he has not played professionally in England had helped him reach the national team faster.

Hopes are high then for a successful Euro 2020, whose final is at Wembley, followed by the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, when England's field of dreams should be in full flower.

But so much can change so quickly in football and encouraging though the 2-1 win over Croatia was, one swallow does not make a summer.

So much for the dawn of a new England in Russia: Half of them were missing at Wembley and the three-man defence had reverted to a traditional back four, albeit garnished by the elegant Ben Chilwell at left back with his elegant crosses.

It has also been conveniently forgotten that England registered three straight competitive defeats in 2018 as well.

Only one goal separated them in Russia from Croatia, but the final whistle was a particularly sobering one, met with a unanimous consensus that Southgate's young bucks had been out-gunned, out-muscled and out-thought by a more battle-hardened group of warriors.

That was followed by a resounding 2-0 loss to clearly superior Belgium in the Third Place Playoff and then a 2-1 defeat at Wembley in September to a rejuvenated Spain.

Southgate's stable was a work in progress that night in London compared to Luis Enrique's reborn La Roja thoroughbreds and as we waxed lyrical over our cultured visitors there was certainly no euphoria or giddy talk of us winning the next World Cup as there is now.

While there was still broad support for Southgate's youth revolution, there were also tough questions asked as to why he was still ignoring playmakers like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jonjo Shelvey and penetrative wingers like Andros Townsend and Theo Walcott.

Two months later the wind has changed direction again. England are through to the last four of the Nations League and Spain have been relegated after losing at home to England and away to Croatia, whom they hammered 6-0 as recently as September.

Southgate's England are still clearly on the right track, lighting the clearest career path hitherto from the national youth sides, integrating the St George's Park national training centre and maintaining a modern playing style of building from the back.

But the road to international success is a long and rocky one full of troughs and peaks, advances and setbacks. Talk of a new England is understandable but still premature.

At Wembley against Croatia, Andrej Kramaric was given an age in the box to lead Eric Dier and Ben Stones a merry dance before scoring, while Jordan Pickford almost conceded with an error in the first half and Jesse Lingard cleared off the line in the second.

England grabbed two scrappy goals after the break but had missed a hatful in the first. Harry Kane might have scored the clincher but had otherwise looked under par, as he has for Tottenham this season.

Such details are lost in the champagne of victory but the margins between winning and losing narratives remain as fine as ever.

On that basis, any optimism about the future should be cautious.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The World is Never Enough

THE NEVERENDING THREAT OF A EUROPEAN SUPERLEAGUE

In an effort to stop Vikings pillaging its monasteries and ravishing its coastal towns, ninth century England came up with a solution: Buy them off.

For a while it worked. The rowdy Scandies sailed back across the North Sea with their long ships chokka with gold and the Anglo-Saxons breathed a sigh of relief.

Football Leaks

The only problem was, the Vikings still loved loot so they came back for more and the English paid them off, again and again and again, with what became known as Danish money, or Danegeld.

The latest plan for a breakaway Super League, revealed by Football Leaks via Der Spiegel, confirms the concept of Danegeld is alive and kicking in European soccer in 2018.

Super league plans have been in the ether for about twenty years now and by any stretch of the imagination fans do not want to go down that road, but the executives of the continent's top clubs  keep pushing at what is for now a locked door, deaf to any criticism or appeals to morality or a sense of history.

The 2016 email from Bayern Munich legal chief Michael Gerlinger which was leaked worryingly asked another lawyer whether his club would still have to supply players to national teams in the future if they broke away.

Make no mistake, international football faces an existential threat from a small cabal of greedy men, no matter how globally popular the World Cup is.

American soccer bigwig Charlie Stillitano was another conspirator named by the expose.

His company Relevant Media are behind the recent crazy project to bring La Liga games to the USA. But he has been personally hawking the idea of a European breakaway around UEFA's top sides as well.

The plan Der Spiegel highlighted was for 16 teams to go it alone - the entry requirement being merely those with the largest TV audiences and therefore marketability.

The list of the clubs already collaborating to bring this about comes as little surprise: Barcelona and Real Madrid, Arsenal and Manchester United, Juventus and Milan and Bayern were mentioned.

Other clubs mentioned were Chelsea, Manchester City, PSG and Liverpool and all would have guaranteed participation for at least 20 years, completing the transformation of the football pyramid into the eternal hegemony of the NFL.

UEFA headed off the 2016 mutiny with restructured payments from the Champions League to the big clubs and this effectively allows them to play in a super league every season anyway, where the top stars earn astronomical, many might say obscene, salaries.

The fact the top four from each of Europe's Big Four leagues enjoy guaranteed qualification and almost a third of all takings go to clubs who have been high achievers for the previous decade in itself almost constitutes a closed shop.

The idea that a Nottingham Forest, Porto, PSV or Steaua Bucharest could win the continent's premier trophy now is laughable. The big clubs have the future sown up and should be content.

But their dream of leaving UEFA for yet more fathomless riches never goes away.

The Champions League was born not a plan to improve football but of the desire of European football's governing body to stop breakaway plans in their tracks.

As a result, domestic cups and even the once great UEFA Cup have been denuded of their previous appeal while the Cup Winners Cup was drowned in its wake.

The top players in Europe earn tens of millions of pounds every year and even some benchwarmers rake in six-figure weekly pay packets.

These salaries mean players are now astronomically separated from the supporters, yet only a generation ago footballers took the bus to the stadium and nobody seemed to mind.

Despite the ever-increasing torrent of revenues from broadcast rights acquisitions, the world is not enough for the greed-obsessed big clubs.

The executives of Bayern, Juve, Real et al are constantly employing commercial lawyers with non-disclosure clauses, sending encrypted emails and meeting secretly in plush hotels across Europe to plan their grand getaway.

When it learns of their latest plot, UEFA buys them off but cannot keep sating their insatiable hunger forever.

As soon as 2021 we could see the start of football's Brave New World, where the gates to advancement for clubs are firmly and forever locked.

God Bless the people at Football Leaks for telling the world what the rich and powerful in football are up to while we sleep.

Perhaps if we are all aware what is going on there might just be a chance to save the game before it is too late.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Please Keep Off the Grass!

WEMBLEY'S PITCH IS A DISGRACE TO THE HOME OF FOOTBALL

In England we used to speak of Wembley's "hallowed turf" in the build up to the F.A. Cup Final.

Everyone knew the phrase, though it is not said much anymore. 

Wembley

Tottenham Hotspur's game against Manchester City on the 29th of October saw the playing surface of our national stadium appear more like a chewed up third division ground from the 1970's.

Hallowed ground? A desecrated temple, more like.

Wembley's green lawn that night was a badly scuffed and muddy disgrace in its middle section, with the ersatz lines of gridiron and the faded red and blue inks of a big NFL logo staining the centre-circle. 

The narrower dimensions of the gridiron field were clear from the long scarring on either flank where the army of NFL players and assistants stand for most of their games (picture from Evening Standard).

Only a day earlier the mastodons of the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars had fought out a competitive American Football match over three gruelling hours on the same pitch. There was no way in heaven it could have been ready for Premier League football 24 hours later.

Of course, Spurs were only playing at Wembley because their new arena in Haringey had not been finished in time, but three NFL games and an Anthony Joshua boxing match have damaged the playing surface quite seriously.

Barely two weeks earlier the Football Association had declined Jaguars team owner Shahid Khan's bid to buy the stadium for £600 million, following a lack of unanimity on the FA's council and the support of only a third of the consulted public.

Khan wanted to move the Jaguars from sunny Florida to drizzly Brent and make them a permanent London 'franchise'. 

With sell-out crowds at Wembley the expectation of a London NFL side has now reached fever pitch, but it is surely time to cool this fervour. 

After witnessing the appalling state of the grass at the Spurs v Man City match, it felt like the rejection of Khan's plan was an almighty deliverance from the prospect of having around ten NFL games at Wembley instead of the current three.

Spurs ironically have signed up to host two NFL games at their new ground next year but will not be the new base for a team. Unlike at Wembley, there is precious little space for tailgating at White Hart Lane and the neighbourhood is not London's most attractive.

The NFL is welcome here but it must aim at building its own arenas, just like MLS teams have done in the USA having moved on from unhappy ground-sharing with NFL clubs. 

But Khan's plan was different as it involved buying and taking over Wembley, our national stadium, for the primary purpose of hosting American Football. 

If the game's homeland still has anything approaching a soul, that must be a non-starter.

But is that rose-tinted romanticism? The twin towers have been demolished, the field where Bobby Moore raised the Jules Rimet aloft has been turned 90 degrees, Wembley Way is not a majestic avenue but a mundanely tiled walkway flanked by concrete warehouses and malodorous fast food stands.

But if football means more than just an entertainment option, it must have icons and sacred spaces. 

Football need not be the only game to be played at Wembley but it must come first and foremost. American football and other sports must gracefully know their place there.

In short, it is time to bring back the hallowed turf.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

LaLiga brings 'El Clásico' closer to its fans in Hong Kong and Macau

Christopher KL Lau

The passion and power of the greatest football rivalry in the world has been exploding across the Asia Pacific especially in Hong Kong and Macau. LaLiga, the top football league in Spain has been actively promoting El Clásico and recently, there were several 'El Clásico' viewings held at six different locations across Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Football fans were treated to a famous 5-1 Barcelona victory over arch rivals Real Madrid which resulted in the sacking of Real Madrid's manager, Julen Lopetegui.

LaLiga brings El Clásico closer to its fans in Hong Kong
Ross Harvey - President of the Barcelona Fan Club
"We are really satisfied with this opportunity and being able to bring one of the most awaited matches of the seasons closer to the fans in Hong Kong", said Eduard Castell, LaLiga delegate in Hong Kong. "We are committed to bringing fans here LaLiga experience and strengthen our presence in the region". More than 275 fans went to the different locations to enjoy Barcelona’s victory over Real Madrid. The popularity of La Liga has exploded recently and in the 2017/2018 season, LaLiga had over 3 billion viewers worldwide in 182 countries carried by 85 broadcasters. The league is reaching out to all corners of the world as a entertainment brand that sets the standard for football globally.

LaLiga brings 'El Clásico' closer to its fans in Hong Kong


In recent years, LaLiga has continued to bolster technological innovation and immerse itself fully in the digital sector to connect with its fans. It has embraced diversified social platforms to reach and engage with the new generation of fans in Hong Kong. Moreover, LaLiga has embarked on a new eSports adventure with EA Sports and debuted the LaLiga eSports team for the first time outside of Spain. In collaboration with the China eSports Football League (CEFL) and Tencent, three players were picked by LaLiga to participate in a two-legged tie knockout on FIFA Online 4 against CEFL All-stars in Chongqing, China. Through the eSports projects, LaLiga is able to bring itself closer to young fans on a global scale.

LaLiga brings El Clásico closer to its fans in Hong Kong

LaLiga brings El Clásico closer to its fans in Hong Kong
Barca Hong Kong Fan Club

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Fifa World Rankings October 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for October 2018 were published on October 25 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

World Cup 2018 champions France have been replaced at the top by Belgium (who finished third), followed by Brazil, Croatia (runners-up), England and Uruguay.

The full top ten is Belgium, France, Brazil, Croatia, England, Uruguay, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain and Denmark.

Tunisia are the top African team in 22nd place. England are up to 5th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 42nd place; Japan are in 50th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 53rd in the list. The USA are in 23rd. Scotland are 40th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 30th place, Northern Ireland are 34th.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mourinho's Damoclean Days

HOW MUCH LONGER CAN THE SPECIAL ONE STAY AT MANCHESTER UNITED?



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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Fifa World Rankings September 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for September 2018 were published on September 20 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

New world champions from the World Cup 2018 in Russia, France are joined at the top by Belgium, followed by Brazil, Croatia and Uruguay.

The full top ten is France, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Uruguay, England, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain and Denmark.

Tunisia are the top African team in 23rd place. Australia are in 43rd place; Japan are in 54th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 55th place. The USA are in 22nd. Scotland are in 39th position. The Republic of Ireland are in 30th place, Northern Ireland are in 28th position.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Monday, September 10, 2018

Colombia's life after Pekerman

THE COFFEE MAKERS SEEK THE SAME RECIPE AS THEIR COACH DEPARTS

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.

Colombia


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

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Fifa World Rankings August 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for August 2018 were published on August 16 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. There were no rankings published in July during World Cup 2018 in Russia.

This is the first rankings following that tournament.

New world champions France top the list followed by Belgium, Brazil, Croatia and Uruguay.

The full top ten is France, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Uruguay, England, Portugal, Switzerland, Denmark and Spain.

Tunisia are the top African team in 24th place. Australia are in 43rd place; Japan are in 55th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 57th place. The USA are in 25th. Scotland are in 38th position. The Republic of Ireland are in 33rd place, Northern Ireland are in 35th position.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Southgate under the lens

AS THE TEARS DRY AND THE ELATION COOLS, QUESTIONS ARISE OVER ENGLAND'S EXIT IN RUSSIA

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 RETURN TO THE WORLD CUP SEMI FINAL

ENGLAND RETURN TO THE WORLD CUP SEMI FINAL


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.

Pele

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