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