Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Chinese Cat Amongst the Pigeons


It seems a long way away but we will know within three to five years who will host the centenary World Cup tournament.


FIFA first have the headache of Qatar 2022, in the Middle East and in the middle of the football calendar, to overcome.

Then comes the biggest shebang yet, as three countries - Canada, Mexico and the United States will host 48 finalists in 2026.

The next tournament should be back in one of the World Cup's traditional heartlands, Europe or South America, with England the probable host from UEFA and Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile in the frame from CONMEBOL.

Uruguay can claim to be honouring the centenary of the 1930 World Cup they hosted and won, although that line did not work for the 1996 Olympics and Athens, who had to wait until 2004.

However, the prospect of a bid from China in 2030 has suddenly loomed into view. Already hosts for the 24-team Asian Cup in 2023, China is the biggest missing piece in the jigsaw of World Cup hosting history, a list missing India and Australia as well.

The Chinese first expressed an interest in World Cup hosting back in 2011 but as it stands, FIFA rules mean they cannot hold the tournament before 2034, when two World Cups will have passed since the Asian Football Confederation's hosting in 2022.

However, money talks more than anything in football and the temptation to let China host sooner rather than later will be hard to ignore. There is no doubt the Chinese are capable of building the required stadia and infrastructure and with a billion potential customers for the Beautiful Game, any bid will be hard to ignore.

Already Chinese group Wanda, whose name adorns Atletico Madrid's new stadium, the host of this year's Champions League final, is one of FIFA's seven major sponsors, alongside Visa, Adidas, Hyundai-Kia, Qatar Airways, Coca-Cola and Gazprom.

Marcello Lippi, recently reappointed Chinese national team coach, told journalists last winter that his adopted country was gunning for 2030 and FIFA President Gianni Infantino last week confirmed the governing body was open to a rule change - "The more the merrier" he told reporters.

FIFA will have to change their existing bidding rules at their Council conference in October this year - which tellingly takes place in Shanghai.

A combined North African proposal from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria for 2030 has already been announced, as well as a Balkan bid featuring Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece.

England's bid is set to be a British one, involving between two and four of the other British Isles nations and Spain & Portugal, having failed to land 2018, may try again too.

So it looks set to be an almighty global struggle to host 2030, but a very, very big fish could be about to join the race.

With Shanghai in the frame for the 2032 Olympic Games, it could be a busy few years for international sport in China but 2030 is also a symbolic date.

That year it is expected that China will become the world's most popular tourist destination and that the nation's economy will finally overtake the USA's, confirming China as the richest land on earth.

What better way to confirm you are top dog on the planet than by hosting the planet's biggest show?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Reds Bag a Sixth as Spurs Stutter


Reds Bag a Sixth as Spurs Stutter

Jurgen Klopp got his gong at last after so many final defeats and that is how history will remember last night's UEFA Champions League Final. The big question mark hanging over one of the game's top managers is no more.

The first-minute penalty was the key. After Mo Salah had converted it with lethal aplomb, Liverpool had an excuse to absorb Tottenham's possession in the hope of releasing their full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, whose barnstorming charges up the flanks have been a delight to watch this season.

Unfortunately we saw little of their exciting wing play and Liverpool had to wait until the 87th minute to apply the coup de grace.

Both managers erred in their starting elevens. Roberto Firmino was not match-sharp and lasted less than an hour for Liverpool while Spurs' Harry Kane was even rustier. Lucas Moura, hat-trick hero against Ajax, must have felt doubly aggrieved, until he finally got his chance, albeit for only 24 minutes.

As Spurs' slick passing from the first 45 gave way to long punts and diagonal lances in the second, the case for bringing on target man Fernando Llorente became louder, but the Spaniard who like Moura had been so useful against Ajax, was called upon with only nine minutes to go.

Tottenham fans trekked back to London somewhat nonplussed their stars Dele Ali and Kane both failed to fire and Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min had not found the net.

Despite having more of the ball before the break, Spurs' attack was blunter than the Reds' and supersub Divock Origi only sharpened the trident alongside Sadio Mane and Salah.

Spurs' lack of concentration for twenty seconds following kick-off cost them the trophy one could argue, as the immediate goal wrecked their game plan.

There was plenty of time to recover of course but their final balls were poor and frustration increases chasing a game. When that chase lasts an hour and a half you leave yourselves vulnerable to a sucker punch.

The entire game descended in the second half and was not up to the standard of the top half of the Premier League, let alone the Champions League, a fact not lost on anyone watching.

Why was this? The heat, the occasion, the lag from the end of the league season? Or maybe the super-early score which destabilised the players' mindsets.

It was not all bad. There was no Sergio Ramos to concuss Liverpool's goalkeeper this time and Alisson played well. Virgil Van Dijk confirmed his world-class defensive prowess and after so much talk of English football losing its soul, Spurs began with five Englishmen while Liverpool finished with four.

Klopp, a vocal pro-European, is by now as much a Scouser as Scotsman Bill Shankly was and like Manchester and elsewhere in English football, the city of Liverpool has embraced the world. The club which dominated Europe in the '80s with British players is now an international brigade.

Off-field too the tens of thousands of Englishmen seem to have left Madrid in good nick and in good spirits. The vast street parties in the Spanish capital and overflowing fan zones stood in stark contrast to the Europa League final and UEFA's insane decision to award Baku that final.

How Spanish fans must have wanted a Real Madrid v Barcelona clasico when the final venue was first announced by UEFA and how Dutch fans would have relished a first Ajax participation since the mid 1990's. How Liverpool fans deep down would have preferred to have won the league.

Alas the English Premier League served up a rather bland and undercooked dish but that meant little to the winners. As with Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final, the better team came out on top when playing badly.

A win is a win and Klopp has his cup.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Chelsea Baku to Life


Europa League Final 2019: Chelsea 4:1 Arsenal
Baku, Azerbaijan

Well done Chelsea.

No-one would have bet on a 4-1 thrashing in a Europa League final of a side led by that competition's specialist winner Unai Emery.

The manner of their victory was comprehensive in the end. Worthy winners indeed.

After bossing the first couple of minutes, the Blues surrendered most of the ball to the Gunners for the rest of the first half. As Arsenal's high press stopped Chelsea attacking in numbers, the match threatened to turn into a possession v counter-attacking narrative.

Arsenal went into the dressing room reasonably confident of qualifying for next season's Champions League, but tellingly it was Petr Cech whose gloves had been dirtied in the first 45.

When it came to Chelsea's goal blitz in the third quarter of the match, the movement and firepower of their front line Olivier Giroud, Eden Hazard and Pedro, were too much for Arsenal's pedestrian defence. After their fourth hit the net, it briefly seemed Chelsea could go on and emulate Manchester City's massacre of Watford in the FA Cup final.

At the other end Arsenal's strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were firing blanks all evening, to the immense frustration of their fans, while Mesut Ozil turned in another of his drowsy, zombie-esque offerings on a key occasion. All three of their big guns choked in their biggest game of the season.

Emery's bitter anguish on the touchline was palpable. He kept gesticulating and pacing the technical area even when all was lost but left with his hands in his pockets, alone and distraught.

No one should be judged too harshly on one season which featured a top five finish and a cup final, but then his opposite number Maurizio Sarri had gone that much further in his inaugural campaign at Stamford Bridge.

After the Kepa fiasco in the League Cup final and increasingly loud grumbles from fans, Sarri's goose looked cooked. A few months later and Sarri has bagged the Europa League, a place in next season's European Super Cup and after finishing third in the Premier League, a spot in the Champions League;  smiles all round.

There must still be doubt around his job however with Juventus knocking on the door and offering him an escape from the obvious stress and depression he has felt at times this season.

The imminent loss of Hazard to Real Madrid and next season's transfer ban will not make it easier, although the Blues have a sound squad and players on loan who could be recalled like Victor Moses, Tammy Abraham, Kenedy and Curt Zouma.

The incoming American Christian Pulisic is earmarked to step into Hazard's large shoes, but no-one expects him to be match that level immediately.

Hazard's final match for the Blues was a fine swansong, a two-girl flourish and several thrilling dribbles displaying his exceptional close control and ability to shift direction at speed. He is a big loss to English football.

Chelsea Baku to Life
Chelsea Baku to Life
At the other end, one of the world's greatest goalkeepers hung up his gloves for the last time with a loss, removing his finalist's medal unceremoniously as soon as he had donned it and shedding a tear or two.

Cech has been an outstanding professional who leaves the field having won every domestic and European club trophy, a slew of Premier League awards and 124 caps for his nation, appearing at the World Cup and four European Championships for the Czech Republic.

When he rejoins the Blues as their technical director this summer, Cech will hug his rivals from tonight and might even share a puff of Sarri's cigar.

Baku, the most controversial final venue imaginable, lived up to its billing as the wrongest of wrong choices with empty seats and an atmosphere which felt almost ghostly at times, transmitted via television to watching millions.

What should have been a tense and fiery clash between two London rivals was redolent of a pre-season friendly in another continent with only a scattering of visiting supporters who had completed the almighty and excessively costly trek from England.

The sub-par atmosphere was exacerbated by the stadium having being designed for athletics, not football, with the concomitant faraway sightlines and distance from the action an eight-lane running track always brings.

It was both clubs' final match of the season and the usual maelstrom of alternate sadness and joy filled the air, the stands and the players' boots. Only half those attending a final can leave the ground happy.

Sarri was the biggest winner. His success in repairing the open wounds in his dressing-room earlier this season has been an immense achievement, crowned by this remarkably comfortable capture of the old UEFA Cup.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Always a reckoning


Tomorrow's Championship Playoff match at Wembley is billed as the highest-stakes match in the football world.

The prize is £170 million and Premier League membership, rising to closer to £300 million if the club avoids relegation at the end of next season. That works out as between £1.88 and £3.33 million per minute.

So expect a nervous and possibly titanic clash between Aston Villa and Derby County. Villa lost last year's final to Fulham but could pass the relegated Cottagers on their way up. Derby's outstanding 4-2 away win at Leeds in the semi final means Marcelo Bielsa stays outside the Premier League again and the Frank Lampard for Chelsea rumours remain stoked.

Veteran Ashley Cole, loanees Mason Mount and Fiyako Tomori and assistant coach Jody Morris are all ex-Stamford Bridge men too, while Villa loanee Tammy Abraham and assistant coach John Terry complete a very Chelsea-flavoured final.

Villa did the double over Derby in the league this season, but so did Leeds before the Rams won the match which counted most.

* * *

Leeds could become the first English football acquisition of the state of Qatar, according to London's Financial Times.

"Qatari Sports Investments will be entering English football, " said the FT's source, "and Leeds is the club of their choice."

QSI, who already own PSG, are reportedly negotiating to buy a controlling stake from Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani, although the club says various offers are on the table.

Financial Fair Play rules mean Leeds could not go straight into a PSG-style spending spree if they receive a cash windfall but could start buying other clubs and swap players to get around the rules.

* * *


Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City are another team who acquire players from myriad sources and feeder clubs but the Blues might still fall foul of financial fair play rules.

For now their dominance of the English game looks unlikely to be toppled. The manner in which they demolished Watford in the F.A. Cup was worrying. Cup finals should be struggles, not 6-0 drubbings which resemble pre-season cricket scores between ill-matched clubs.

Yes, Liverpool did not treat the FA Cup as seriously this season because their mind was on other trophies but equally because they do not possess City's strength in depth.

Watford were no mugs and were worthy finalists, stronger than some of those clubs who have made the final this century since the UEFA Champions League diluted the FA Cup - Millwall, Cardiff, Stoke and Portsmouth.

So the manner of their demolition should ring alarm bells at FA headquarters if they hope the world's oldest football contest can retain any credibility as a competition going forward.

 * * *

While the mega-millions swirl around the Premier League, FIFA and UEFA, former Premier League side Bolton Wanderers appears on the point of collapse.

Relegated from the Championship this season, they will begin League One in August with a 12-point deduction for having gone into administration, if they are still afloat.

The club owes £1.2 million in taxes, which is chicken-feed to most EPL sides, and players have not been paid for two months. Non-playing staff received no wages in April too and a food bank was recently set up at the club, accepting donations for their employees.

Founded in 1874, the Wanderers are one of the founder members of the Football League, have won the FA Cup four times and were in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup as recently as 2008, beating Atletico Madrid and drawing away at Bayern Munich en route. Nat Lofthouse is their greatest player.

With a fine stadium barely 20 years old to boot, it would be tragic if such a historic team were to bite the dust at a time when money is overflowing in English football. The problem is of course it flows mostly into a few pockets.

* * *

As if anyone were in any doubt about how the love of money is poisoning the beautiful game, one needs only to look at the farce of this year's UEFA Europa League final.

In its wisdom UEFA chose Baku as the venue, despite the fact there are visa restrictions for tourists and no regular flights from London, Western Europe's largest city.

As if the mischief-maker of the Norse gods Loki himself had planned it, two London teams reached the final.

Faced with the Herculean task of even getting to the game, most Arsenal and Chelsea supporters will stay in London and the clubs are set to return unsold seats from their already paltry 6,000 allocations, an extraordinary situation. There are set to be barely 3,500 Gunners fans in Azerbaijan and only 2,000 from Chelsea.

It was revealed by The Guardian this week that both clubs have only sold a single pair of tickets for wheelchair-bound fans.

The icing on this despicable cake was the news that Arsenal's Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhiytaryan will not be travelling to Baku because of safety concerns as Azerbaijan does not recognise his passport.

UEFA's cack-handed choice of venue has interfered with team selections, let alone inconvenienced thousands of fans. We all know why oil-rich Baku was selected, the same reason Qatar was chosen for the 2022 World Cup, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Singapore for Formula One races.

If only Arsenal and Chelsea could come together with the FA, refuse to play in Baku and then see whether UEFA had the balls to exclude clubs from their biggest market England, from next season's competitions.

Now, more than ever, it is time to take a stand against the greed in the game. Everyone agrees Baku was an insane choice so why are we going along with it?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, May 23, 2019

32 is more than enough, Gianni


Finally some good news: FIFA has abandoned its grandiose plan to expand the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Gianni Infantino's dream of 48 finalists and additional host nations was one fantasy too far.

An idea long poo-pooed by the wider game has finally bitten the dust and one can only wonder how it managed to get this far, two weeks from being debated by FIFA at their annual congress.

The only realistic joint hosts, the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, had cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017 and relations remain sour.

32 is more than enough, Gianni

This year's ill-tempered Asian Cup semi-final between the two nations saw booing of Qatar's anthem and UAE fans hurling missiles onto the pitch: The idea of joint hosting was therefore a non-starter even if the planning and logistics could have been managed.

Neighbours Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also cut diplomatic ties. The idea of thousands of boozed-up party-loving football fans in Saudi is too surreal to even imagine, although some might say the same about Qatar. We will see.

The 2022 tournament was a brave or controversial enough concept anyway with the host being an Islamic country with negligible football heritage nor existing stadia and the tournament happening in the winter to boot, squeezed in around the Christmas period with domestic seasons duly disrupted.

Against this backdrop, the idea of compounding the risk by adding another 16 teams was borderline barmy.

48 nations will be there in the USA, Mexico and Canada in 2026 but there is plenty of time to plan for that tournament and those nations combined have more than enough capacity for such a huge event.

But what about the football? Given the standard of play across the World Cup is now inferior to the UEFA Champions League, it is impossible to see how an extra 16 qualifiers could improve it. The jewel in the crown of the sport runs the risk of becoming an overbloated jamboree satisfying nobody except the multinational sponsors.

Seven years from now there will undoubtedly be more also-rans and meaningless matches, cannon-fodder for the bigger nations.

The increase to almost 50 finalists means future World Cup hosting is almost certain to be continent-wide as well rather than having a single host nation.

I would love to see England host the World Cup again but could we really accommodate 48 finalists, fans, media et al? The accompanying cultural marker of a single host nation will be diluted and that is a shame, but football flies the flag for rampant liberal economics, where too much is never enough.

In throwing in the towel Infantino accepted the inevitable but has still sullied his initial reputation as a sane pair of hands after the myriad excesses of Sepp Blatter's regime.

This was a hair-brained scheme straight out of the Blatter or Michel Platini unicorn playbook. Dangling extra World Cup places in the faces of minor football nations in exchange for their loyalty was the trick invented by Joao Havelange and perfected by Blatter but it led the game's governing body into an Augean stables.

Barely a few days after Manchester City completed their clean sweep of England's domestic cups and devalued the F.A. Cup beyond all previous blows by massacring Watford 6-0 in what resembled a Harlem Globetrotters show, FIFA was mercifully reined in from allowing another 'greed is good' change to the game.

But let us not be fooled: The victory is only temporary and Infantino is definitely not the white knight we had hoped for.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Champagne with a bitter aftertaste


What a mind-blowingly magnificent week for the Premier League - an unprecedented clean sweep of the Champions League and Europa League finals. Four out of four.

As many have pointed out it is the financial clout of the EPL more than English footballers who triumphed. The final four lined up in their second legs with no English managers and the following tally of English players:

Arsenal: 1 (Ainsley Maitland-Niles)
Chelsea: 1 (Ruben Loftus-Cheek)
Liverpool: 3 (Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson and James Milner)
Tottenham: 3 (Dele Alli, Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier)

Eight out of 44, 18% of the total or as Britain's tabloids called it, "Full English".

The Prime Minister made a cack-handed analogy to beating European opposition with regard to her beleaguered Brexit efforts, swifly swatted down by anyone in the know about football's international realities and the benefits English clubs have derived from European freedom of movement.

Never mind the player provenances, we live in a globalised world now and ask any of the respective clubs' followers this week if they cared where their idols were born.

England was stuffed with success on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and there really was too much to take in so quickly.

Champions League Trophy

We had barely 24 hours to process Liverpool's barnstorming 4-0 demolition of Barcelona before Spurs went one better by overturning a three goal deficit away from home. Both did the impossible without their star strikers as well - Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane were sat injured on the sidelines.

Spurs did it without an Anfield roar to sweep them to victory and were also up against a young, zestful Ajax brimming with confidence at home on the brink of a historic ascension, not a complacent and lazy Barcelona apparently jaded by repeated success.

The Champions League second legs were a reminder of one of football's aces - the instant and unforeseen ecstasy, anguish and catharsis of last-gasp goals. Conversion of sadness into happiness in the blink of an eye - it is no wonder we speak of miracles. There can be magic in the mundane.

Whither the school of Cruyff in Ajax and Barcelona's capitulations? The credo of pass, pass, pass is back to square one, muscled aside by the power-play of Liverpool, inspired by Jurgen Klopp's gegenpressing and Tottenham not being afraid to use route one to the big man up front.

Both flunked their tests when three goals to the good. The English tortoises beat the continental rabbits.

Despite the lack of Englishmen in uniform, the EPL teams used old English footballing virtues of brawn, grit, implacable determination and never-say-die pluck to get over the line first.

One could accuse Ajax of naive inexperience at this level in letting slip their lead, a harsh lesson in the need to win the mental game as well as the physical one. At the end of the day no side should lose when 3-0 up at home. No excuses required.

But Barcelona's surrender is harder to explain, especially as they performed an almost identical collapse last season away at Roma, where they let a 4-1 first leg lead evaporate. Catalan fans must be livid.

Barca were so insipid and lethargic at time they looked like 1980's Anfield cannon-fodder. It should be remembered Liverpool had played very well at the Camp Nou and had only really been undone by moments of magic from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, who both had off-nights in England.

Spanish champions they might be, chuckling at eternal rivals Real Madrid's woeful season, but Blaugrana fans are frustrated not only by their side's surrender on Merseyside but also by the gnawing knowledge that they are ageing and in need of a large-scale overhaul.

Real, in acknowledging their need to rebuild before Barca, might therefore have the advantage for the next few years. Hard as it is to accept in the Camp Nou, there has to be life after Messi.

For fans from Mokum (Amsterdam), the dream of a first Champions League final since 1995 was cruelly and impossibly stolen in the 96th minute by Lucas Moura. Crestfallen, devastated, you name it. The tableau of despair at the end said it all - Ajax players were collapsed face down on the turf.

The pain for the fans was compounded by the knowledge this team will be broken up in the summer and this was a golden, if effervescent grasp at glory which slipped out of their hands

It was not cruel fate however. The statistics showed Tottenham aced their Dutch masters for shots on and off target, corners and two skills at the heart of the famous Ajax philosophy - passing and possession. The better team won.

Once again the euphoria generated by an Ajax European cup run evaporates. A fetishistic following has developed overseas for the red and white shirts and their philosophy, a creed passed down via Barcelona and disciple Pep Guardiola which in some eyes has become more puritan than purist.

Inflexibility is the Achilles Heel of any devotion and Ajax's lack of plan B cost them again, as it did when their rigid possession-obsessed game was undone in the 2017 Europa League final by Jose Mourinho's destructive yet effective tactics for Manchester United.

Will Ajax fans have to wait another 20+ years? At this rate they will lucky to get beyond the first round again. English clubs' financial power, as Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag rightly reminded us, is far, far stronger than anything the Dutch league can muster.

There are also no teams in the Eredivisie who play like Tottenham so Ajax were in unknown territory.

Being a big fish in a small pond has its limitations for Barca as well. Watching them succumb to the Anfield hurricane was a reminder there are no clubs who play like Liverpool in La Primera either.

Arsenal had little trouble navigating Valencia in the end to reach the Europa League final, but Chelsea made heavy weather of a determined Eintracht Frankfurt before finally winning on penalties.

After the champagne was drained, the hangover of UEFA's criminally unjust ticket allocation for both games, the ratcheted-up cost of flights and hotels has hit home.

The first sour taste in the mouth came when it was learnt that Liverpool and Spurs had been handed only 16,000 tickets per club for a stadium that holds 68,000.

Spurs fans particularly will be eager to be in Madrid for their first ever Champions Cup final but having seen the inflated prices might hitch-hike to the Spanish capital and spend the night in the Parque Retiro.

The club has happily promised to open up their new London stadium to show the game on big screens but there is nothing to beat the atmosphere of a foreign away trip and you can be sure thousands of North Londoners will be in Spain for that special occasion.

Liverpool are favourites of course but just the chance of being in the same city where your club first wore its continental crown is surely irresistible to many. Planes to Madrid look unaffordable but at least there are other airports in Spain and driving from England is not impossible as long as you can take most of the week off from work.

For Arsenal and Chelsea fans however, TV seems the best option. Yet even that could be problematic. Despite four English clubs in the final berths, neither the Champions League nor Europa League will be transmitted on terrestrial English television, either as highlights or live, a victim of the incessant greed choking our national game.

Everything about the finals seems designed to inconvenience English supporters.

There are no regular direct flights from London to Baku, the venue for the Europa League final 2,500 miles way, charter flights are priced at around £1,000, ten hour return trips with one change cost £1,500 and the clubs were only allocated a paltry 6,000 tickets each anyway.

Oh and to cap it all, British citizens need a visa to enter Azerbaijan.

UEFA's desire to rebrand the old midweek European Cup final into a Superbowl weekend is largely responsible for this fiasco, but the host nations' governments could also step in to stop the jacking up of flights and hotel rooms around the final.

If possible, decisions on the final venue should be made after the semi-finals to stop repeats of this absurd trek across the continent by two London clubs. It has happened before (Chelsea and Man United in Moscow, Real and Atletico in Lisbon and Milan and Juventus and Milan in Manchester) but never so painfully as this time.

Given the finalists, Wembley or Twickenham would have been perfect Champions League final venues and the Europa League could have been held at Tottenham or West Ham.

That would mean of course cancelling these jumbo events the finals have metamorphosed into and getting back to a pure final tie.

Football might mostly be watched on screens from afar these days, but the truest supporters still make the effort to be there in person and are the last people who should be abused and exploited like this.

In a week where Mother Earth was reported to be increasingly frail and at risk of demise, jetting thousands of people at huge expense to a gas-guzzling oil extractor on the farthest edge of Europe when they could be playing in their home city looked particularly grotesque.

EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL, BAKU - Weds 29th May 8 pm GMT -


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

UCL Semi-Finals 1st Legs: Ajax and Barça make early gains


So it looks like it will not be an all-English final showdown in the UEFA Champions League after all.

Tottenham's 0-1 reverse to Ajax and Liverpool's three-goal defeat at Barcelona means the Cruyff final is on the cards instead.


It has been a bad 48 hours for the world's richest division, the English Premier League.

Young Dutch masters rained on Spurs' parade in their stunning new stadium, outpassing and outplaying them on their home ground.

From Harry Kane's injury and Son Heung-Min's suspension to Dele Ali's frustration, Fernando Llorente's missed headers and Jan Vertonghen's concussion, nothing would go right for the Londoners.

Spurs were weary warriors by the end of the match, but a one-goal deficit and Son's return for the away leg mean they have not lost all hope of making the final.

Liverpool look beaten after going down 3-0 in the Camp Nou but can count themselves a tad unlucky. They had more of the ball than the hosts, matched Barcelona for shots on target and missed a couple of good ones to boot, Mo Salah striking the post in the second half being particularly galling. Football can be a cruel game and final scores are often inadequate summaries of the previous 90 minutes.

The Blaugrana looked rather mundane at times and certainly nowhere near as crisp and fluid as Ajax had been the night before. Ernesto Valverde changed their famous 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1 to combat the risk of the Reds pouring forward as they have done all season and only magic moments from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez spared their blushes.

Ousmane Dembele should have made it four and game over in the 96th minute but scuffed his shot, leaving a chink of light for the Reds at Anfield.

Ajax were the best of the four semi-finalists on the evidence of the first legs. Their team spirit is on a high and their telepathic quick passing to feet is potent enough to carry them to Madrid.

Their Champions League dream continues to gather fervour. I was on a plane from Amsterdam to London carrying Dutch fans and their expectations were giddy. For the first time in more than two decades supporters can dream of the big prize and with the knowledge their club is too poor to retain its starlets, they are making the most of their joy while it lasts.

The fact Ajax are an assembly of homegrown kids and offloaded players like Dusan Tadic from Southampton and they do not play in one of Europe's big leagues means they deserve even more credit and neutral support.

A mesmeric name in football culture renowned for schooling footballers better than anyone - Tottenham played Amsterdam old boys Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen for instance, the latest crop in red and white will nevertheless dissolve in the summer like all the others have, cherry-picked by richer clubs from bigger leagues.

It seems tragic that just as a great team has been created it will be dismantled but that is the price for a lack of financial fair play across UEFA.

Frenkie De Jong for one will be moving to Barcelona in July. The two clubs could yet meet in the final in Madrid on the first of June.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Six of the Best


Whoever comes out on top in England this season, it has been a refreshingly competitive campaign.

Instead of one side streets ahead, three clubs had been in contention for much of the season before the league became a two-horse race in the final straight, but the top six as a whole have created plenty of juicy stories.


Fans of Tottenham Hotspur, whose title challenge has fallen by the wayside again, are far from unhappy as they have a shiny new stadium and more importantly their side are in the last four in Europe for the first time in a half-century.

That Spurs are within touching distance of the Champions League final is remarkable enough, but to have done it without Harry Kane too is extraordinary. In him, Christian Eriksen, Dele Ali and Song Heung Min they have four world-class footballers who when on song can defeat anybody.

Liverpool and Manchester City could have enjoyed a Champions League final as well as a Premier League finale but Pep Guardiola's men fluffed their lines at the Etihad by losing on away goals to Tottenham.

What was interesting was the feeling City fans were apparently split on whether they would prefer the European Cup to another domestic triumph, perhaps an unprecedented treble of Championship, FA Cup and League Cup

On paper the Champions League is the greater prize and one which continues to elude Guardiola since he departed the Camp Nou, but whispers say he values the longer slog of the Premier League more highly.

In addition, City fans, despite their recent renaissance due to Abu Dhabi, still retain the stamp of years of domestic underachievement and would secretly prefer to finish above Manchester United and spike Liverpool's revival by bagging the Premier League.

It certainly seemed odd that Guardiola felt the need to exhort Citizens supporters to come out in force and make noise for their Champions League quarter-final.

If Liverpool win the title and Jurgen Klopp lifts the curse which has afflicted the Reds since 1990 the season will belong to them, but if Spurs win the Champions League the annals will be split on which achievement was the greater.

Expect an ocean of tears from both clubs' fans whatever happens in May.

Given Manchester United's sudden precipitous decline under 'saviour' Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, the upcoming Manchester derby could effectively hand city rivals City the title. While Liverpool have the swashbuckling romance in their campaign, City's relentless march keeps them a point ahead.

For Liverpool to have even maintained such a close contest by this stage is extraordinary and their German leader should win the Manager of the Year award for that alone. On the other hand, Guardiola would probably trump him to the prize by bagging the domestic treble.

After United's 4-0 capitulation to Everton, the knives, naysayers and doom-mongers are out in ubiquitous force for their manager everyone was hailing as a messiah and an inspirational choice only a few weeks ago.

How quickly things change in football, with all the experts who lauded the Old Trafford boardroom to the skies for appointing an insider, now delightedly dismantling their philosophy as fatally flawed from the outset.

Now hands up who saw the Norwegian having a flying start for ten games then collapsing like a pack of cards. Currently sat in sixth, United are set to miss out on European football altogether next season, which would be tragic for a team of their stature.

They might not be leading the league or advancing in Europe anymore, but the Red Devils are clearly still the biggest club in England.

Arsenal could end up winning the Europa League, a trophy Unai Emery knows better than most, and entering the Champions League through the back door if they fail to finish in the top four in the Premier League.

Gunners fans should be reasonably content with their first season post-Wenger as clubs usually slip under the surface just after a long-serving manager retires.

Chelsea supporters on the other hand will pack away their scarves in May with regret at another domestic campaign which failed to ignite with another beleaguered Mediterranean manager.

The jaw-dropping farce of goalkeeper Kepa refusing Maurizio Sarri's demand to leave the field at Wembley in the League Cup Final will live long in the memory.

The summer will surely see Belgian ball wizard Eden Hazard leave Stamford Bridge, despite scintillating form this campaign.

All is not lost however as the Blues could meet the Gunners in an all-London Europa League final in Baku in May.

Despite two sides from the North-West conducting an enthralling title race, the continent's two major trophies could be heading to London.

Whoever wins what in May, the permutations in April for the top six clubs remain intriguing.

As we enter the home straight, take a pause to consider what a season to savour this has been.

(s) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Cruyff's Kids Play on in Europe


Real's reign is over but who will take their place on top of European football?


Tonight Barcelona proved Manchester United's amazing comeback at PSG was only a flash in the pan by cruising past the Red Devils 4-0 on aggregate, while Ajax are in the last four for the first time in over 20 years.

Blaugrana 2019 might not be a Guardiola vintage but their fierce gegenpressing and moments of Messi magic were enough to make a top six Premier League side look also-rans. Pep has not been working in Catalonia for seven years now but his record-breaking tenure still echoes in the Camp Nou atmosphere and the team's quick passing style.

The Dutch masters' elimination of Serie A's runaway leaders Juventus after knocking out the holders must also make them contenders for the big prize, despite their inexperience.

A young and inexperienced Ajax won the cup in 1995 and since losing the 2017 Europa League final to Jose Mourinho's United side have maintained their revival.

United by comparison have spent ten times what Ajax have in the past two years but have stumbled out of the competition tonight.

Liverpool and Manchester City should join Barca and Ajax in the last four, which could result in a parallel tussle for the Champions League to match the pair's dual for the crown in England.

The romance is with Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool's quest to avenge last season's loss in the final and bring the trophy back to Anfield for the first time since 2005, but the blue machine of City will be hard to halt.

Tottenham stand in City's way for now and Spurs on a roll can bring the same power-play football as Liverpool can to the competition - a fascinating contrast to the Barcelona DNA in Ajax and City.

La Liga has won the last five editions and for my money the Blaugrana or its former coach are the most likely to bag the silverware this time, maintaining the Spanish succession.

2019 feels like an interregnum after Real's recent fall from grace but Guardiola's grand projet in Manchester could be the most likely replacement dynasty.

With Ajax, Barcelona and Pep Guardiola still in the competition, the spirit of Johann Cruyff is alive and well in European football.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Fifa World Rankings April 2019

Fifa World Rankings April 2019

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for April 2019 were published on April 4 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

There is some change in the top 20 positions. Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are still top followed by champions France who defeated them in the semis, Brazil, England Croatia and Uruguay.

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

Senegal are the top African team in 23rd place. England are up one place to 4th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 41st place; Japan are in 26th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 37th in the list. The USA are in 24th. Scotland are 44th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 29th place, Northern Ireland are 33rd.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle


I've just been on a quick trip to Northern Ireland to see relatives but I could not get away from football.

For one thing the Northern Irish are mad about the game, passionate about the Premier League and the big two from Glasgow.

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle

Walk around an Ulster town and you will see more football shirts than in a comparable English town. Travel to Liverpool or Manchester United for a home game and you cannot miss the many Irish accents around.

As it happened, all Ulster eyes were fixed on the telly on Sunday as there was an Old Firm game, a classically passionate affair won by Celtic, the team Irish Catholics gravitate to. Rangers are the Ulster Protestants' club of choice, their red white and blue colours chiming perfectly with their Union flags.

The Ulster connection with the Glasgow derby remains strong: Celtic manager Neil Lennon is Northern Irish and famously resigned from captaining its national team after Loyalist death threats (he is Roman Catholic); Celtic fans fly Irish tricolours.

The Northern Protestants, predominantly descendants of 17th century English and Scottish colonisers, support Northern Ireland as their national team while the Catholics cheer the Republic of Ireland, established in 1924 after the island's partition.

As a classic marker of the complexity of this island's politics, Northern Ireland wear green and their badge is a Celtic cross with shamrocks, all symbols of Catholics and the South eschewed by hardcore Unionists who assert their British identity. Confused? You are not the only one.

Northern Ireland has traditionally been the stronger but the Republic enjoyed a golden age under England hero Jack Charlton, reaching the last eight of the European Championship and the World Cup. At Euro 2016 both Irelands reached the last 16.

Currently the North is ranked by FIFA slightly higher, 36th versus the Republic's 39th.

There are also two leagues in Ireland, the NIFL Premiership (Irish League) in the North and the League of Ireland in the South. In 2018 the average crowd in the North was 1,090, in the South it was 2,139, the level of the fifth tier of English football.

The League of Ireland (the Republic's League) plays February to October, avoiding the worst of the notorious Irish weather. It was the Romans after all who called the place 'Hibernia' - Winter Land. It also cannily plays on Friday nights to avoid competition with English football.

The North's league, the NIFL Premiership by comparison goes head-to-head with English football by playing August to May on Saturday afternoons. Does that partly explain their lower crowds I wonder?

In Derry/Londonderry, the second city of the North, the town's team Derry City have played in the South since 1972 for security reasons, another curiosity. Local hero James McClean, now at Stoke City following spells at Sunderland, Wigan and West Bromwich, plays for the Republic despite having started in the North's U21s.

McClean, who hits the headlines every year when he refuses to wear a poppy, was in the press deriding Declan Rice, who had just made his England debut having played for the Republic, the country of his grandparents, since U-16 level up to senior team friendlies.

After an assured debut against the Czech Republic for the holding midfielder, Eire's loss is surely England's gain.

A handful of Northern-born footballers have crossed the border for international football, as anyone born in the island of Ireland can obtain an Irish passport, another curiosity.

This small FIFA nation (population 1.9 million) is a football backwater on the wider stage but has produced players like Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower, Arsenal/Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings and until recently Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill.

And the province also gave us one of the game's greatest ever players in George Best.

It was the Belfast-born ball wizard's wish that the two Irelands unite on the football field as they have on the rugby one, but unification is not on the agenda of either association, even though it would make sense for many reasons.

Friday night saw Derry City eke past Sligo Rovers at the evocatively named Brandywell Stadium, recently renovated to hold 8,000 and with a 3G pitch, the latter of which I was not too enamoured. Still the Candystripes fans sang and flew giant red and white flags, making for a fun night out.

Next door to the Brandywell stands another stadium holding 22,000, Celtic Park, used for gaelic football and hurling.

It is easy to forget the draw of traditional sports in Ireland as they do not feature in the rest of the British Isles, but the largest stadium in Ireland remains Dublin's Croke Park gaelic games stadium with a capacity of 82,000.

Another draw in certain parts of Ireland, particularly Munster and middle-class and anglophile areas, is rugby union, which draws sellout crowds to internationals in Dublin. Unlike in football, Ireland are a force in rugby, currently ranked third in the world.

Ireland in general is a second division nation in European football at international level and lower tier when it comes to the club game, a situation unlikely to change.

There is only so much you can do with a small population and the competing attractions of other sports and a football giant next door, whatever the local fervour.

A small landmark will be reached however when Dublin's Landsdowne Road (capacity 51,700) hosts a first and second round match in Euro 2020.

If the Celtic nations or British Isles can combine forces in the future then maybe even the World Cup itself could land on Irish soil.

In the meantime visitors can console themselves with talking soccer with locals well versed in the ins and outs of the Beautiful Game, whether over a whiskey, Guinness or Irish coffee.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Fancy getting a personalised signed shirt off the Ginger Prince for your wall? Pre-order your shirt now exclusively from @allstarsignings here for just £119.99.

It's on a first come, first served basis whilst stocks last so don't delay! Framed options also available.

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

All shirts will come with an Allstarsignings certificate of authenticity which will incorporate a photo of Paul Scholes signing at our upcoming signing April 13th 2019.


Friday, March 22, 2019

A hundred is too much for 90 minutes


* Manchester City are still on course for a four-trophy grand slam this season after advancing to the F.A. Cup semi-finals, where they will meet Watford. However after Sergio Aguero netted a late winner to complete a 3-2 comeback at Swansea City, TV replays showed the Argentine had clearly been offside. There were questions too surrounding City's penalty award too.

VAR was not available at the Liberty Stadium although was being employed at the other three quarter-finals. Last season when Swansea were Premier League they also used it. The jury is still out on VAR, its obvious benefits nullified in many eyes by the time it takes to reach a decision. A half-baked introduction does not help its cause either.

The F.A. should have insisted all the quarter-finals had VAR or none at all.

More Than A Profit
More Than A Profit
Barcelona v Manchester United is the most attractive of the last eight ties in the Champions League but travelling fans will have to pay £102 for the privilege of watching it live in the away ground. While Man Utd are subsidizing their followers in Catalonia by £27 to make up the difference to what they are charging Barca fans, is this the first time UCL tickets have reached three figures for this stage of the competition? As many fans protest, 'twenty is plenty' but one hundred is surely too much.

* For some reason everyone was cooing over Lionel Messi's hat-trick away to Real Betis on Sunday and it is true his third goal was so sublime the home fans applauded his magical feet. Yet since he has already netted half a century of three-goal matches for the blaugrana, most against the whipping-boys who make up La Primera, I could not get too excited.

That said we should feel blessed one of the all-time greats is still in fantastic form at 31, having scored 39 goals in 37 outings this season already.

* England's Euro 2020 campaign begins tonight with a home tie against the Czech Republic. While the media are fussing unnecessarily over an adolescent tweet from Declan Rice, set to pin himself to the Three Lions after three friendly appearances for Eire, what is surely more pertinent is that Gareth Southgate has picked his most youth-centric squad yet.

His 21-man selection includes two 18 year-olds, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Jadon Sancho, two uncapped players (Hudson-Odoi and Rice), two with one cap (James Ward-Prowse and Callum Wilson) and one with two (James Tarkowski).

As the World Cup showed, this is a new era for England where a young player can replace an established one at any moment. Southgate has forged a production line from England's youth teams and changed the formula, hopefully for good.

* England's women's football is on the up and up too. The national team won the She Believes Cup earlier this year in the USA and are one of the favourites heading into this summer's World Cup in France. The FA Women's Super League has just got a boost of £10 million in sponsorship as part of the association's plan to double growth and participation by 2021.

Nine countries are in the race to host the 2023 Women's World Cup: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and most intriguingly of all, a joint bid from the two Koreas.

On darker notes, a coach of PSG fans travelling to watch their side play Chelsea this week was stopped and drugs and weapons confiscated. Damage was done to Kingsmeadow Stadium and trains by fans who had been banned from attending PSG's men's fixtures.

Meanwhile, Sheffield United cancelled the contract of player Sophie Jones who was recorded making monkey noises to another player. Those are sides of the men's game the women's one can certainly do without as it advances.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Enter the Big Guns

The Round of 16 Second Legs this week offer some tasty morsels

The Round of 16 Second Legs this week offer some tasty morsels

Who will win this season's UEFA Champions League?

All we know for sure so far is that Real Madrid will not make it four in a row.

Los Blancos' submission before an ebullient Ajax was a death long foretold, with the exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane in the close season and the cack-handed hiring and firing of Julen Lopetegui sure signs of a listing ship about to keel over.

Four teams have already made it to the quarter-finals but none were among the pre-season favourites: Ajax, Manchester United, Porto and Tottenham Hotspur. 

This week we will know the other eight, with bigger cannons being rolled out on deck. If the second legs throw up no shocks then Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City will be in the hat as well.

Atleti have the incentive of the final this year being played at their new home ground, the Wanda Metropolitano, and looked imperious in the first leg, winning 2-0. However, it is too early to write off the runaway Serie A leaders, Ronaldo and the cauldron of the Juventus stadium hauling back two goals. Los Colchoneros are favourites but this tie is far from over.

The same night, Tuesday, Manchester City host Schalke 3-2 up from the first leg. It is hard to see Pep Guardiola's team squandering three away goals but the fact Schalke breached their defence twice in Gelsenkirchen will keep them on their toes. A strange rumour surfaced last week that the Catalan will swap the Etihad for Juve next season. But if he captures an unprecedented four cups in a season..?

Barcelona and Bayern both drew their away legs 0-0, the lack of away goals rendering their goalless draws less an advantage than they might appear. While the Camp Nou should prove too much for Lyon, the Bayern v Liverpool clash on Wednesday should be a real cracker.

Jurgen Klopp has plenty of history with the Bavarians, not least the 2013 final with Borussia Dortmund. His rejuvenated Liverpool were beaten finalists too last season and are hungry for success this season domestically as well as in Europe. Bayern however are seemingly perennial inhabitants of the last four of the Champions League and at home must start as favourites.

While Real failed to match their five straight European Cups from the 1950s, Spanish league teams have won the last five Champions Leagues. A win in 2019 for Atletico Madrid or Barcelona would equal England's six in a row streak between 1977 and 1982.

After Spurs and Man Utd's unlikely advances last week, the possibility remains of half the last eight coming from one country.

Now Real's latest golden age is over, if Atleti or Barca are not to keep La Liga's flag flying at the summit of Europe, then it could be the start of another English reign.

Tuesday 12th March

Manchester City (3) v (2) Schalke 04
Juventus (0) v (2) Atletico Madrid

Wednesday 13th March

Barcelona (0) v (0) Lyon
Bayern Munich (0) v (0) Liverpool

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, March 4, 2019

Remembering the Dynamic Duo


First published in 1980, "With Clough by Taylor" is a frank and fascinating insight into English football's most famous managerial partnership and has just been reissued by Biteback Publishing.

To recall, Brian Clough & Peter Taylor took two provincial teams from the East Midlands, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, from the English Second Division to the heights of European football in the 1970's, an unprecedented and unmatched achievement.

Remembering the Dynamic Duo
With Clough By Taylor
Both clubs became league champions under their tutelage, Derby reached the semi-finals of the European Cup and Forest won it twice.

The pair, who had played together at Middlesbrough, found their contrasting personalities formed an electrifying cocktail in management across five teams. Their partnership was possibly football's finest, a famous male bonding commemorated in the film version of David Peace's dark and wonderful novel 'The Damned United'.

While Clough stole the limelight with his mesmerising personality and need to tell the world what he thought about everyone and everything, it was Taylor's diligence in the shadows that was fuelling that famous chutzpah.

As his partner reveals, Clough had endured spells of serious self-doubt such as when his playing career was cut short by injury, or when he was sacked by Derby, Hartlepool and Leeds.

Clough was an expert at tying up transfers, often talking his way into prospective players' houses and befriending their parents, but Taylor had a hawk's eye for spotting talent  in the first place, particularly ageing or overlooked players.

Their capture of 30-something Roy McFarland was instrumental in taking Derby to the top while they managed to turn a number of apparent journeymen at Forest into European champions.

Equally astute as their hiring was their firing - dismissing players at their peak before their transfer value dipped, a policy Taylor explains was the same as trading shares on the stock market.

He is disarmingly frank in his explanation of his methods, admitting the pair would tell new signings they would be moved on as soon as their form dipped and a better player became available. And yet they also forged great team spirits, as their results show.

Taylor put much stock in a player's character and for him the most important football skill was being able to pass well under pressure.

His way of assessing players ultimately was quite similar to the Ajax TIPS system - measuring technique, intelligence, personality and speed. The Dutch giants, along with Barcelona, actually came calling for the pair, leaving us to only wonder how Cloughie would have dealt with Diego Maradona.

Forest ironically was the biggest job the most talented managerial duo ever had. Despite overwhelming public support, Clough (and presumably he would have brought his wing man) was passed over for the national team, so in the book Taylor relishes demolishing Ron Greenwood's England selections.

Some of their methods are unthinkable today - Cloughie asking a difficult player to punch him, or the pair handing out beers on the bus to a big match to calm their nerves, but their results did the talking.

They were not perfect - Taylor admits to misjudging Asa Hartford and spurning the chance to sign a young Kevin Keegan, but their formula was mostly a winning one.

"The basic element is togetherness," he explained. "We're always picking up each other's thoughts and finishing each other's sentences - we're a twosome speaking as one."

What is also fascinating from the book is how different their characters were. Taylor explains how Clough needed company while he preferred solitude and how Clough was a monk pre-match and a talking head afterwards and he was the opposite.

As it happened, the apparently inseparable pair who had flourished together at five clubs finally fell out and did not speak for the last seven years of Taylor's life.

Apparently Clough had no idea Taylor was writing this book and did not take kindly to it either. The pair parted definitively when Taylor, then Derby boss, signed a Forest player behind Clough's back in 1983, causing Clough to denounce him as a snake in the press.

Football's strongest partnership, the Achilles and Patroclus of the East Midlands in the 1970s, was suddenly no more and would never be again.

But nevertheless Taylor's long-term football partner dedicated his autobiography, which is far less interesting a read by the way, to his old pal thus:

"To Peter, still miss you badly...You were right."

Buy this book from Amazon: USA | UK | Japan

Clough Related

Nottingham honours its sheriff

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Kepa's Last Stand


It was the most unexpected spectacle.


An otherwise lethargic League Cup Final sprung unexpectedly into life when Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to leave the field while being substituted at the end of extra-time.

Nobody watching could recall from their years of watching the game, a player refuse outright to go off when substituted. Kepa's refusal to leave the field will go down in football history.
As penalty specialist Willy Caballero waited patiently on the touchline to replace the Spaniard and take on his former Manchester City teammates from 12 yards, Kepa gestured angrily towards the bench, shouting "No!" repeatedly at his manager Maurizio Sarri and assistant Gianfranco Zola.

As Kepa kept his ground and refused point-blank to budge, an exasperated Sarri almost walked out of Wembley, sensationally.

Kepa then saved one City spot-kick but teammates Jorginho and David Luiz missed theirs, handing the Cup to Pep Guardiola's side, an almost forgotten footnote in the aftermath.

So in failing to make way for Caballero, Kepa had made a rod for his own back should Chelsea have gone on to lose the shootout. In disobeying orders, he only piled more pressure onto his already beleaguered manager, whose authority was already in ubiquitous question.

Only recently Sarri had lamented his players were proving difficult to motivate and today they failed him by not rushing to urge Kepa to leave the field and back their boss in the process.

Luiz was the only colleague who spoke to his goalkeeper during his two minutes of madness; skipper Cesar Azpilicueta was nowhere to be seen.

Any manager will tell you that the loneliest and lowest feeling is when they feel they have lost the dressing room.

The referee spoke to both parties but could do little as the rules dictate a player can refuse to come off.

Post match Kepa and Sarri insisted it was all a misunderstanding of a couple of incidents of cramp in the lead-up to the substitution, but caught on camera with millions watching, the footballer's defiance of his manager, whatever was the motive behind the change, was plain to see.

It cannot be right when hierarchical control disintegrates unless that rule is particularly unfair and counterproductive, but Sarri was perfectly within his rights to substitute Kepa.

Moreover, English football uses the word manager for what most languages call a coach or trainer for a reason and so when that authority is undermined, a team cannot be directed anymore.

Since no organisation can function without a chain of command and universal acceptance of the rules. Kepa's blatant disobeying of his boss must not go unpunished.

The 24 year-old's future at Stamford Bridge looks in question all of a sudden, but Sarri will probably walk the plank first.

Despite grabbing a sack of trophies in the last decade including the Champions League and Europa League, Chelsea are a ship adrift in early 2019.

The Blues seem unable to keep a manager respected for more than a season, have seen an ambitious stadium redevelopment stalled and are set to lose their best player Eden Hazard to Real Madrid in the summer.

Days before the final, FIFA announced a two-window transfer ban to make matters worse as punishment for signing underage players.

Their current manager is stuck in a rut and gloom is enveloping his reign in only its first season but the club has ridden a merry-go-round of coaches in recent seasons.

Perhaps worst of all is their current form - four defeats in seven games has unsurprisingly seen the side slip down to sixth spot and in real danger of missing out on the Champions League next season.

For a club which a decade ago looked like dominating European club competition for some time, this is suddenly becoming a dark chapter in Chelsea's history.

Player power saw Sarri's predecessors Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte leave their jobs prematurely and it looks like claiming a third victim.

If Chelsea are looking for a cure for their latest malaise, they could start by stopping the children from running the school.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Goalkeeper With Magic


"I was ready to celebrate, but then this man Banks appeared in my sight like a kind of blue phantom."

Even Pele was stopped in his tracks by Gordon Banks, the world's best goalkeeper in his day, who has died aged 81.

A World Cup winner with England in 1966, he is perhaps best remembered for his wonder save from Pele four years later in Mexico, a stop often dubbed the greatest in football history.

Almost half a century later, Banks' diving flip to deny the world's best player is still astonishing in its athleticism, snatching victory from certain defeat, an almost extra-terrestrial action on the football field.

A Goalkeeper With Magic

His nonchalant trot back head down across his goalmouth to defend the ensuing corner shows the other side of his character - a decent, modest yeoman warrior not given to blowing his own trumpet loudly.

In both tournaments Banks was in imperious form and might have won a second Jules Rimet trophy had he not mysteriously gone down with food poisoning on the eve of England's quarter-final against West Germany.

The fact he was the only player to fall ill, from a suspected contaminated beer, and he was England's mighty guardian, was very suspicious.

"Of all the players to lose, we had to lose him," rued manager Alf Ramsey.

To this day no proof of foul play has come forth but rumours abound that the CIA wanted England out so that Brazil would win the World Cup and in its elation the country would not fall to the communists.

Banks was the unlucky hero whose beer was duly poisoned as part of a political game, so the theory goes, but other bizarre events accompanied England in that tournament, which give weight to the conspiracy theorists.

The fourth of England's 1966 side to die, following Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and Ray Wilson, Banks was along with Moore and Bobby Charlton, one of the three players in the side who was genuinely world class.

The boys of '66 have attained a sacred status in England because the Three Lions have failed to win anything before or since so the loss of another of that heavenly eleven is the shining light of a star going out for good.

So the tributes have been pouring in from the likes of fellow custodians like Peter Shilton, who followed Banks path to England and the World Cup via Leicester and Stoke.

"I'm devastated," said Shilton. "Today I've lost my hero."

"One of my inspiration, a winner and a true gentleman," opined Peter Schmeichel.

"I am one of the many who built their dreams on your perfect save!" tweeted Gianluigi Buffon.

"Definitely England's greatest goalkeeper," said Ray Clemence.

Growing up I was taught England made the best goalkeepers and that tradition surely started with Gordon Banks' tenure between the sticks.

Goalkeeping demands a range of skills -  agility, elasticity, anticipation, presence, strength, communication, handling and distribution for starters.

But Banks' letter to journalist Lee Marlow, much shared on the web today, shows the Sheffield-born shot-stopper knew his craft like an old master.

"Always know where you are in the goal," he wrote, "narrow the angles down and make it as hard as possible for the striker to score...the more you play your eyes will get better at spotting the angles. You will begin to know where the ball will go..the eyes pick up the direction of the ball, how it floats through the air and send messages to your brain and then to your games like table tennis. That will sharpen your with a smaller have to be brave to come out for crosses or dive at the feet of a centre-forward...and be brave too if you lose or make a mistake."

Shilton noted that Banks put in extra training to hone his art when it was standard practice to go home at lunchtime.

Banks played a total of 558 league matches - 23 for Chesterfield, 293 for Leicester, 194 for Stoke as well as 73 for England.

In 1972 he had a head-on collision in his Ford Consul with an Austin A60 van and lost the sight in his right eye. He never played again in England but five years later turned out for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the USA and was voted goalkeeper of the NASL season to boot.

If Lev Yashin was the world's best custodian in '66 and Dino Zoff was in 1974, for that period in between until 1972 it was the mild-mannered Yorkshireman who never played for a big club who was the best in the world at his job.

When he went back to football having lost an eye he became truly heroic.

What everyone agrees on beyond his goalkeeping prowess was how pleasant a man Banks was off-field, an immediately likeable and trustworthy chap.

"A fierce opponent and a good man. Rest in peace Gordon Banks", tweeted the German Football Association today.

The last words go to Pele, who was denied a famous goal by magic hands which instead made a famous save, the best-known in football's long history:

"He was a kind and warm man who gave so much to people," the Brazilian legend wrote on his Facebook page today.

"So I am glad he saved my header - because the act was the start of a friendship between us that I will always treasure...Yes you were a goalkeeper with magic. But you were also so much more. You were a fine human being."

Gordon Banks 1937-2019.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fifa World Rankings February 2019

Fifa World Rankings February 2019

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for February 2019 were published on February 7 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

In the first rankings for 2019 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 start the year as the top African team in 24 place. England remain in 5th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 42nd place; Japan are in 27th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 38th in the list. The USA are in 25th. Scotland are 40th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 34th place, Northern Ireland are 36th.

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, February 6, 2019



Ramon Vega will not be challenging Gianni Infantino for the FIFA Presidency this summer.

The former Celtic and Tottenham player failed to collect the minimum five nominations required from member nations by midnight last night, leaving his three-year campaign dead in the water and his Swiss compatriot free to carry on as the most powerful man in football after June's FIFA Congress.

Anti-Fifa Graffiti in Portugal
While any change had been welcome following Sepp Blatter's scandal-strewn reign, complaints are increasing about Infantino, particularly his authoritarian style of management and distribution of TV rights.

His desire to expand the already bloated World Cup to a colossal 48 teams as early as 2022 in Qatar shows he has lost little of his predecessor's megalomania.

In Switzerland, an investigation has been launched into FIFA hospitality offered by Infantino to Swiss prosecutors and other local bigwigs, confirming there has not been a completely new broom at FIFA HQ.

I wished Vega luck but could not help wondering why yet the only alternative choice for the head of world football after Blatter was another Swiss man, a monied banker to boot.

For some time I have been wishing FIFA to leave its snowy eyrie for pastures new.

Despite starting off in Paris in 1904, FIFA chose the Alpine nation for its HQ around a century ago when a number of international sporting bodies followed the lead of the League of Nations, which had set up shop in Geneva in 1920.

The International Olympic Committee and Court for Arbitration in Sport established themselves in Lausanne for instance while UEFA built a base in Basel.

Switzerland is a beautiful country which enjoys a high standard of living and quality of life of course and is perfectly sited between the three major continental nations of France, Germany and Italy.

Fifa HQ
Fifa HQ in Zurich, Switzerland
But crucially it is a neutral country which has a laissez-faire attitude to international money and no interest in flexing its political muscles on the world stage.

It asks few questions and imposes fewer laws, hence the proliferation of foreign financial institutions, which has given the phrase 'Swiss bank account' a shadowy connotation.

Bodies based within Swiss borders can effectively do what they want as there is no requirement for their accounts to be registered and scrutinized by the state for any illegality.

European Union membership it is needless to say has never been on the agenda for Switzerland.

This was perfect for FIFA as the millions accrued in sponsorship and TV rights poured in and the fat cats on the Executive Committee helped themselves to the cream.

Fifa Strasse
Fifa Strasse
The tsunami of corruption which drenched the reigns of Joao Havelange and Blatter tainted the FIFA brand, possibly forever but at least Blatter and his cronies - Grondona, Leoz and Jack 'Pirate of the Caribbean' Warner, have been turfed out.

Along with a major change of personnel, FIFA really needs a change of venue too. The Swiss location is too closely aligned with a whiff of malfeasance or at least having something to hide. With a lack of government oversight, the temptation to mishandle the money will always be there.

Fifa HQ Interior
Fifa HQ Interior

A move to a new and transparent country would send all the right messages.

So where could they move? A relocation to a big football nation like Germany might smack of bias to that country, but then again FIFA began in Paris and staying in France would not have been problematic.

Really FIFA should be based in London as that is the game's homeland but England missed its chance in the early 1900's to govern the game on a global basis, allowing the French and others to step in.

Luxembourg or Belgium, already home to multinational institutions like the EU and NATO, well connected and with a recent history of humility on the world stage, might best replicate the Swiss model.

But the chances of any truly radical change at FIFA are always remote and frankly wishful thinking.

How bizarre that such an insular and private little country indirectly wields so much power and that its citizens have been in charge of such a global concern for over twenty years now, or even longer if you count Blatter's ascendance to the role of General Secretary in 1981.

Isn't it time for FIFA to quit Switzerland?

From The Archives

Independent Ethics Committee bans Joseph S. Blatter and Michel Platini

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile