Saturday, August 24, 2019

El Niño bows out

FERNANDO TORRES CALLS IT A DAY IN JAPAN

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

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



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

In response, Iniesta wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gracias Fernando.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Meet Me in St Louis, for a match

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

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

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

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

MLS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile










Monday, August 12, 2019

When The Stats Don't Work

CHELSEA BEAT UNITED AT EVERYTHING EXCEPT GOALS

Well what a fireworks display that was at Old Trafford today.

Manchester United fans had approached the new season warily after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's honeymoon ended with a bump and the club missed out on the Champions League again last Spring, while Chelsea fans felt the wave of optimism generated by returning hero Frank Lampard would make up for the transfer ban clipping their wings this summer.

Oh how wrong can you be. 4-0 to United it finished and despite Chelsea dominating the first half and hitting the woodwork, that scoreline is still a thrashing in anyone's language.

When The Stats Don't Work.


Except that is the statisticians, who had convinced us that data can explain everything. A look at the basic figures from today's clash tells us something rather different:

POSSESSION - Chelsea 54% v 46% Man Utd
SHOTS ON TARGET - Chelsea 7 v 5 Man Utd
TOTAL SHOTS - Chelsea 18 v 11 Man Utd
FOULS - Chelsea 13 v 15 Man Utd
CORNERS - Chelsea 5 v 3 Man Utd

Using these blunt parameters, Chelsea win hands down, but they lost 4-0. So what really counts is the number of good chances a side creates.

On this criterion United beat Chelsea, having forged two thirds of the goalscoring chances, while less than half of the 35% of the remainder which fell to Chelsea were clear opportunities to find the net, according to sharper analytical tools.

Stats are everywhere in football as in life these days thanks to the growth of computer algorithms but today's clash in Manchester was a salient reminder that the basic ones the media feed us are often spectacularly irrelevant.

Or, as Alan Hansen put it,

"It's goals which win games."

* Arsenal duo Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac missed their 1-0 win at Newcastle on police advice because of threats to their families following the failed carjacking of the pair in London last week.

This shocking state of affairs however was far from "unprededented" as some Fleet Street hacks claimed.

Arsenal's David O'Leary missed a match in 1992 following an IRA threat after he had expressed support for Britain's Conservative Party while family kidnapping threats famously caused Johan Cruyff to miss the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

Nigeria's Jon Obi Mikel has had to deal with this father being kidnapped twice while the brother of fellow countryman and ex-Everton defender Joseph Yobo and the mother of current Nigeria winger were also taken illegally for money.

Latin American stars Jorge Campos, Diego Milito, Juan Riquelme, Romario and Carlos Tevez have all had parents or siblings kidnapped for ransom while the great Alfredo Di Stefano was taken hostage for three days in Venezuela in 1963.

In 1994 Colombian defender Andres Escobar was famously assassinated by disgruntled gangsters.

So threats to footballers are depressingly common.

* While the two Manchester teams sit pretty atop the Premier League and Chelsea are in the relegation zone for the first time in almost two decades, the most impressive weekend performance was from lowly Brighton who won 3-0 at Watford.

Gone was the negative safety first road tactics of Chris Hughton, replaced by a joyously positive attacking game which blew Javi Gracia's Hornets away.

Seagulls boss Graham Potter opened many eyes for his unconventional holistic approach to coaching with Ostersunds in Sweden. Unusually for football managers, Potter possesses a degree in social sciences and a masters in emotional intelligence and leadership.

Is he about to weave his magic in the biggest league of them all now? On this evidence, yes he is.

* As for VAR, following its Premier League debut there is still clearly work to do before the jury can approve it unanimously.

Its use at the London Stadium in the West Ham v Manchester City match seemed particularly intrusive and irritating, however accurate it was. The lag between on-field action and final refereeing decision is still too long and is damaging match atmosphere.

Its puritanical insistence on literal interpretations of offside and penalty rules is also problematic, a fact highlighted by Sergio Aguero's twice-taken spot kick.

Celebrating goals is now tinged with doubt with every strike now going to the video screen for final approval. How football accommodates this technology is an ongoing challenge.

Many of us would long for a 'grey area' to be part of the final implementation of VAR e.g. allowing a player offside by a few centimetres but without any clear advantage to play on, but how we define this in an age of binary computer analysis is still a conundrum.

We do need some video replays. We cannot regress to the 27th of June 2010 when at the World Cup in South Africa, England had a crystal clear goal disallowed and went out and later that evening Mexico were also eliminated thanks to an offside goal from Argentina.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Guyana's Golden Summer

THE GOLDEN JAGUARS WROTE ONE OF THE SUMMER'S GREAT STORIES WITH NON-LEAGUE FOOTBALLERS

In England this summer the main tournament of interest was the FIFA Women's World Cup, which stoked home interest as the Lionesses reached the last four again.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup was low on the horizon of interest, which was a shame because the final, the ideal Mexico v USA match-up, was an entertaining one:



The British media should also have made more of the fact that first-time finalists Guyana had players from the following clubs in their 23-man squad:

Bury - 3rd tier
Dagenham & Redbridge - 5th tier
Dover Athletic - 5th tier
Maldon & Tiptree - 7th tier
Newport County - 4th tier
Peterborough Sports - 7th tier
Reading - 2nd tier
Stevenage - 6th tier
Wealdstone - 6th tier

This certainly puts third tier Steve Bull at the 1990 World Cup for England in the shade.

In their opening 4-0 loss to the hosts, the USA fielded Chelsea's £58 million signing Christian Pulisic and were skippered by ex Roma, Aston Villa and Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder Michael Bradley.

Guyana meanwhile fielded at left-back Matthew Briggs from England's seventh tier Maldon & Tiptree, at centre-back Terence Vancooten from sixth tier Stevenage as well as a pair from fifth tier Dagenham and Redbridge - Elliot Bonds and Liam Gordon.

Other starters played their trade in the USA's fourth tier and for the Guyana Defence Forces. Talk about plucky underdogs.

In their second match they started with Sam Cox from sixth-tier Wealdstone and on the bench had 34 year-old Ronayne Marsh-Brown of seventh tier Peterborough Sports.



Amazingly, Guyana did not disgrace themselves and finished above 2006 World Cup qualifiers Trinidad & Tobago, with whom they drew 1-1 in Kansas City.

In their second group game they lost 4-2 to Russia 2018 qualifiers Panama where second-tier Bury's Neil Danns grabbed a brace of spot-kicks and Vancooten scored an own goal.

Danns, who plays for League One Bury, confirmed his status as Guyana's star of the tournament by scoring a spectacular in their final match against Trinidad & Tobago.



Coached by Jamaican Michael Johnson, Guyana play at the 3,000 capacity Leonora National Track and Field Centre and like fellow South Americans Venezuela, football has to play second fiddle to a bat and ball sport - in this case cricket as opposed to baseball.

We are unlikely to see the Golden Jaguars in the World Cup finals any time soon but we should all at least salute a heroic soccer summer for the little nation of only 787,000 people.

In an age where ugly money pollutes the Beautiful Game, there is nothing as uplifting as a flourish from a little underdog now and again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Messy Messi, Money Madness & Mourinho on hold

* Pre-season, that no-man's land between the fireworks of last season and the clean slate of the new one.

I never know how to cope with it. September to May I am glued to the footy news every day, refuelling my mind's adventures, but in the close-season there is not any worth worrying about.

Yes there is transfer gossip as usual but none involve my club and none seem to be earth-shattering anymore, until the big one comes along and disproves my theory. If Philippe Coutinho comes to Arsenal that would be exciting I have to admit, though I cannot say I am that bothered where the increasingly disappointing Neymar is playing in September.

Kylian Mbappe markedly pushed him away from his PSG teammates today as they celebrated a pre-season victory.

Then there are the new kit releases, invariably depressingly hideous and making one long for their two-year lifespan to expire at once. And finally the pre-season friendlies, on unusually sunny and warm days.

For fans of the big European clubs living in Asia and North America, these pre-season clashes are their only chance to get to see their idols, but despite the self-aggrandising names like 'International Champions Trophy' the stars often do not even turn up and the games themselves are meaningless and forgettable.

Lionel Messi has been banned from playing for Argentina for three months and fined $50,000 for calling CONMEBOL corrupt after this summer's Copa America.


* Lionel Messi has been banned from playing for Argentina for three months and fined $50,000 for calling CONMEBOL corrupt after this summer's Copa America.

He will miss the blancoceleste's autumn friendlies with Chile, Mexico, Germany and Portugal but can return for the start of World Cup qualifying in March 2020.

Messi's rant after being sent off against Chile following a handbags clash with Gary Medel, who was also red-carded, seemed an expulsion of frustration after another near-miss at an international trophy.

For years a quiet man on and off the field, the Barcelona legend is now increasingly outspoken, growing old disgracefully as it were. It should be remembered Messi is still only 32 and has another World Cup in him but he seems destined to go down as a world-class club performer but a struggler at international level, much like George Best.

He seems to be letting go of all that frustration he must feel playing for his country, without his Barcelona teammates to help him reach the same heights. Whether it will help him grab a big trophy for Argentina before he hangs up his boots is open to debate. Tennis legend Bjorn Borg kept a golden silence for years before becoming candid and vocal as his talent waned.

Messi has another chance to win the Copa America next summer when Argentina co-host with Colombia.

* Some of Britain's top football writers like Daniel Taylor of The Guardian and Oliver Kay from The Times have upped sticks for US website The Athletic, who lured them away with doubled salaries.

While their bank balances will rise, in direct proportion will their importance as writers fall. Like it or not, exposure via one of Fleet Street's paper goliaths or terrestrial television channels cannot be beaten.

It is the equivalent of English cricket selling its TV rights to Sky, which saw its revenues rise but its viewing figures and participation rates plummet, or if you like, Gareth Bale swapping Real Madrid for the fatter pay-packet and relative obscurity of the Chinese Super League.

Failing to distinguish between price and value is perennial. As Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician from 'House of Cards', opined in the series' first episode of a former staffer who had left him for more money,

"Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn't see the difference."

* Speaking of Bale, will Zinedine Zidane even play him this season if as it appears, the Chinese move falls through?

One imagines he will only be employed now and again in times of injury crisis or suspension, which is a terrific waste of the Welshman's talent. Of course this has happened recently at Real Madrid with Sami Khedira and James Rodriguez.

There is nothing new about outstanding talents being kept on the bench for most of a season because they do not see eye to eye with the manager or there are simply too many galacticos. This happened to Jean-Pierre Papin, who despite being European Footballer of the Year and the world's most expensive signing at the time, failed to become a first-team regular at Milan in the early 1990s and was sold on to Bayern Munich.

* Zidane is already "en crisis" according to the insatiable Spanish football press as Real Madrid have stumbled in pre-season.

Seemingly leading La Liga's sack race, the manager's position is already being questioned and the latest and somewhat earth-shattering rumour is that Jose Mourinho no less is being kept on notice should Real dispense with the Frenchman...

The story of the Special One still has a few more chapters to be written...

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Baleful Bye-bye

GARETH BALE'S LONG FAREWELL TO REAL & THE BERNABEU

Even the best love affairs can end in tears, messily and full of recriminations.

So it is that Gareth Bale, who was the hottest property in the transfer market when Real Madrid gleefully snaffled him from Tottenham six years ago and has scaled the heights with his storied club, is now mired in the midst of an ugly and protracted divorce from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

"If it is tomorrow, even better," manager Zinedine Zidane tartly told reporters at the weekend, when asked if Bale was leaving.

GARETH BALE'S LONG FAREWELL TO REAL


"Zidane is a disgrace", Bale's agent Jonathan Barnett retorted. It seems their bridges are truly burned.

So since he is persona non grata with Zidane, the gilded moments of Bale's adventures in a white shirt may as well count for nothing now:

*A spectacular winner in the 2014 Copa del Rey final when he ran out of touch to avoid Barcelona's Marc Bartra but regained the ball and charged up the left flank to score.

*His extra-time close-range header against city rivals Atletico to bag Real's decima (tenth) European Champions Cup the same year.

*A double in the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool, his first a spectacular bicycle kick.

*A hat-trick in the 2018 FIFA World Club Cup semi-final against Kashima Antlers

Bale's overall stats for Real tell a stellar story and one which should put him into the annals as British football's premier export. 

Since moving from North London to Madrid, Bale has won four UEFA Champions League trophies, three FIFA Club World Cups, one La Liga championship and one Copa del Rey and scored 102 goals in 231 games, more than double what Zidane netted for Real in a similar amount of matches.

By any measure then he has made a good return on the £85 million they paid Tottenham in September 2013 but he has suffered his fair share of boos at the Bernabeu (who hasn't?) and is now about to depart in acrimony as his manager does not value him.

Zinedine Zidane has wanted the Welsh wizard out for at least a couple of seasons but has been thwarted by Bale's excessive salary of £600,000 per week, which puts off potential buyers, the soft spot team owner Florentino Perez has for the Cardiffian and finally Bale's habit of popping up to score important goals.

Bale's bicycle kick winner in the 2018 Champions League final made Zizou's plan to offload him that close season more difficult, and when he learnt the club would not fork out for big names in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo's exit, he decided to exit stage left himself rather than become the fall guy for the side's expected decline.

In a quirk of fate Zidane has climbed back upon the Real rollercoaster less than a year after stepping off it but maintains a lack of faith in Bale, who to be fair has been increasingly absent with injuries. This salient fact does give Zidane some leverage in his impending departure, but it is still a pity we will not see the Welshman develop a relationship with new star Eden Hazard alongside familiar teammate Karim Benzema - the GBH?

Having been reading the last rites for the past few days, Zidane brought on Bale for the second half of their friendly with Arsenal in Maryland yesterday only for Bale to score and furrow his manager's brow in the process. 

To add injury to insult, so to speak, midfielder Marco Asensio went off injured with an ACL tear in his left knee which will require months on the sidelines, but the Spaniard's absence might just, maybe, make Zidane think again about Bale, or even recall another discarded star, James Rodriguez to the Bernabeu.

Bale's contract expires in 2022 in Spain and he is paid a hefty wage but the idea of him playing in the reserves until then is preposterous.

With potential suitors Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United apparently coy about his salary requirements or out of the running full stop, perhaps the megabucks deal offered by Chinese Super League club Jiansu Suning looks to have legs.

With Wales unlikely to dispense with their talisman even if he is based in Asia, the move would be an extraordinary boost to Chinese football's credibility.

At 30 years of age, Bale is not about to leave the football stage either, whatever Zidane thinks of him.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Brazil Capture the Copa

THE SELECAO END THEIR WAIT FOR SILVERWARE  BUT IS SOUTH AMERICAN FOOTBALL LOSING ITS SHEEN?

This year's Copa America saw Brazil retain their trophy on home soil and Peru continue their promise from Russia 2018 by reaching the final but in truth there was little to get excited about from any team.

Gabriel Jesus got excited in the final to be fair, scoring a goal, earning a red card and then punching the VAR monitor on his way out. As with the Women's World Cup, the use of VAR was beset with controversy, as its application seemed illogical and secretive.

This year's Copa America saw Brazil retain their trophy on home soil.


With only 24 cameras as opposed to the 32 used in Russia, it was less than convincing at times and provided more headaches for FIFA as the technology is rolled out across the soccer world.

Peru confirmed their return to the South American elite after their impressive if premature first round World Cup exit and veteran warrior Paulo Guerrero lived to fight another day too.

17 years since their last World Cup win, Brazil had something to smile about with their first Copa America since 2007. Their 3-1 victory over Peru should have given them the chance to compete again in the Confederations Cup, a competition they won a hat-trick of times between 2005 and 2013.

But Qatar's infernal summer temperatures and the desire to expand the World Club Cup in 2021 means there will be no Confederations Cup that year and probably ever again.

Neymar was absent but his homeland is still churning out plenty of good footballers, albeit the strong and efficient runners rather than the Ronaldinho ball wizards.

Barcelona midfielder Arthur impressed throughout the tournament and Gremio winger Everton, scorer of the final's opening goal, could be the next big money move to Europe.

Flair is what South American football is famous for but there were slim pickings in Brazil. Three out of the four quarter-finals went to penalties after defensive-heavy goalless draws. Perhaps this impression is down to the decline of Brazil's traditional rivals.

After a haphazard and disjointed World Cup, Argentina are still floundering in Leo Messi's twilight years with the Barcelona genius' modus operandi conflicting with manager Lionel Scaloni's desire for fast transitions via the flanks after a series of Albiceleste coaches basing their sides around him.

Messi himself got a red card for only the second time in his career, a very harsh decision as he was only standing up to shoving from Chile's Gary Medel. Post match Messi was in no mood for letting bygones be bygones, berating CONMEBOL.

"There is no doubt," he said. "The whole thing is set up for Brazil. I did not want to be part of this corruption." 

The sight of Brazil's populist president Jair Bolosnaro milking the celebrations at the end of the final with his hands on the trophy while coach Tite kept a low profile made Messi's words not so easy to dismiss out of hand.

Chile made a brave defence of their title but could not complete a hat-trick of wins as they fell 3-0 to Peru in the semi-final.

Colombia under Carlos Queiroz exited their group with ease beating Argentina 2-0 but were clearly second best in their quarter-final loss to Chile on penalties.

Venezuela made the last eight, confirming the promise of their U-20 World Cup finalists in 2017. The Vinotinto are the only CONMEBOL nation never to have made it to the World Cup finals but have genuine hopes for Qatar 2022. Uniquely in the continent, baseball tops football for popularity in their country.

So not a vintage Copa but at least Brazil, the most legendary football nation, are back to winning major trophies after so long without one.

For the ten nations of South America, the next chance to win the almighty cup is as soon as next summer, when Argentina and Colombia co-host and Australia and Qatar join the party.

The subsequent tournaments will be every four years, starting in Ecuador in 2024.

For Brazil and the rest of South America, top European sides remain their obstacle to winning the World Cup again.

It has now been five World Cups since a South American side won (Brazil in 2002) and it is beginning to feel like the greater wealth and superior organisation of the European clubs are filtering through to their national teams more than ever.

It would be tragic to think of the Copa America as a second level tournament compared to the European Championship but there might well be a gap opening up between the two traditional powerhouses of the sport.

To really assess where CONMEBOL nations sit relative to UEFA ones we will have to wait more than three years however, until the 2022 World Cup kicks off in the Qatari winter.

TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT:

Alisson (BRA), Alves (BRA), Gimenez (URU), Silva (BRA), Trauco (PER), Arthur (BRA), Paredes (ARG), Vidal (CHI), Rodriguez (COL), Guerrero (PER), Everton (BRA).

(c) Soccerphile & Sean O'Conor

Monday, July 1, 2019

Coming of Age

THE FIFA WOMEN'S WORLD CUP HAS HINTED AT BIG THINGS FOR THE FUTURE

2019 has been a success for women's football, there should be no doubt.

Never has the women's game been so high profile as it has been during this tournament, which is down to the last four teams.

This is partly down to it being held in Europe where football in general draws more onlookers than in North America, in the home of the men's world champions France and in the 'off year' between the UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup.

There are other football tales this summer - Chile and Peru reaching the semi-finals of the Copa America, Spain's recapture of the UEFA U21 crown, Haiti making the last four of the Gold Cup and little Madagascar shocking Nigeria in the African Cup of Nations.

But the Women's World Cup has trumped them all for media profile, at least here in England.

The BBC have been making the most of their broadcasting rights, promoting women's soccer stories to the top of their football news, benefiting from the Lionesses' run to the last four.

It all started unimpressively with a couple of serious mismatches - not least the USA's 13-0 mauling of Thailand and a deluge of VAR which threatened to derail the cup's credibility with its endless stoppages.

The rush to VAR has been absent in the knock-out stages, as FIFA has clearly woken up to the dangers of overusing technology. The puritanical use of it in the England v Cameroon quarter final to deny the Indomitable Lionesses a goal which appeared perfectly legitimate to the naked eye made the Africans furious.

That game descended into disgrace as we witnessed studs-up tackles, spitting at the opposition, haranguing injured players and even pushing the referee from Cameroon players who were seriously lacking in basic discipline.



But all the furor got people talking and the audience for England's next match peaked at 7.6 million viewers on BBC1.

The France v USA match took the sport to another level as the best team in the tournament took on the hosts in the football shrine of Parc des Princes in the capital.

It was the third match of the tournament to attract more than 45,000 fans but the raucous atmosphere of  Paris felt no different to if the men's world champions had been playing.

Watching that match and listening to the 'Allez Les Bleus' chants it seemed like women's football had come of age.



There have been gripes about ticketing - FIFA claims versus reality, the bizarre prohibition of on-the-day stadium ticket sales and the lack of local promotion in France, but the last four matches should see full houses. The previous two Women's World Cups (in Germany and Canada) have averaged 26,000.

Tuesday will see the crunch semi-final of England and the USA, a stronger match-up than the Netherlands v Sweden clash on Wednesday.

England's Lionesses have become brief stars at home, with a former England men's international in Phil Neville helping bridge the gap to the male public who have taken little interest hitherto.

Their cup run will probably come to an end when they face the favourites, who in Megan Rapinoe and her cavalier attitude have a real sporting personality, taking over from Brazil's Marta as the face of the sport, but if it does it will have been a great run. England might never host the men's World Cup again but they really should host the women's edition.

That would inject serious impetus into the game's growth here.

Women's football still has its shortcomings with too many lapses of technique, poor final balls and shoddy goalkeeping but all that can be attributed to funding and historical ignoring by potential sponsors, sporting authorities and national governments.

The exception is in America where women's soccer has been a big attraction since Mia Hamm and co. became world beaters in the late 1990s.

The rest of the planet is playing catch-up with the US but the ubiquitous direction of travel is on the up. Certain nations where the men's game is big - Spain, Italy and Argentina, need to improve massively in women's football. Canada, Norway, Sweden and the US have the opposite problem.

The revenue from respective leagues means the women's game is still far behind the men's but the gap is narrowing. The Olympic Games also provide the women's full national teams with a chance to shine.

One day the Women's World Cup may be truly up there with the men's just as women's tennis competes in prestige with its male counterpart.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, June 21, 2019

Uruguay 2-2 Japan

Copa America 2019 Uruguay v Japan, Porto Alegre, Brazil


Copa America 2019 Uruguay v Japan
Japan v Uruguay
Uruguay and Japan played out an exciting 2-2 draw in Porto Alegre. Japan twice took the lead through Koji Miyoshi but were pegged back by a controversial penalty awarded after a VAR review and a Jose Gimenez header.

Japan fans
Japan fans

The teams
The teams

The huddle
The huddle



Nippon, Nippon!
Nippon, Nippon!
Japan fan
Japan fan with happi coat, Hinomaru flag, hachimaki headband and rubbish bag
Japan v Uruguay
Japan v Uruguay

Japan celebrates
Japan celebrates
Free kick
Free kick
© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Have England lost their mojo?

THE EUPHORIA OVER THE THREE LIONS' YOUTH RENAISSANCE HAS EVAPORATED

It was all looking so rosy not that long ago.

In 2017 England were U17 and U20 World and U19 European champions, before the national team reached the FIFA World Cup semi final in Russia 2018.

Some even dared to breath the words 'golden generation' once again.

Now the crop has matured into a U21 side, the magic seems to have petered out.



Last night's England U21 team debuted in the UEFA finals in comical style, conceding two penalties (which France contrived to miss) before two of their most vaunted players screwed up.

Leicester's Hamza Choudhury was shown a straight red for a rash tackle in the box while Crystal Palace's Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Old Trafford-bound, scored an athletic own goal in the 95th minute to hand France a last-gasp victory.

The French U21s outpassed and outshot Aidy Boothroyd's side to boot.

The one bright spot was Manchester City protege Phil Foden dancing through the French defence to score and confirm his young talent.

England's U17 and U20 sides both failed to qualify for their respective World Cups this year. The U19s were eliminated in the first round of last year's UEFA tournament and missed the cut for this year's tournament by losing at home to Greece.

And what of the national team? England were beaten in the UEFA Nations League semi final by the Netherlands, who had failed to reach Russia 2018. A rusty side succumbed 3-1 after defensive howlers from John Stones and Ross Barkley.



Yes Gareth Southgate and the England coaching staff have St George's Park training centre as a base for future tournaments but if there was a golden generation two years ago it seems to have burnt out already.

After all the euphoria, England have fallen back down to earth again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Chinese Cat Amongst the Pigeons

THE RACE TO HOST THE 2030 WORLD CUP HAS BEGUN

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

THE RACE TO HOST THE 2030 WORLD CUP HAS BEGUN


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

LUKEWARM LIVERPOOL WIN IN BAKING MADRID


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

SARRI HEALS THE BLUES' WOUNDS AS ARSENAL SUCCUMB

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

ENGLAND'S DOMESTIC SEASON ENDS WITH MONEY'S MALIGN INFLUENCE TO THE FORE

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.

* * *

Etihad


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

INFANTINO CAVES IN ON QATAR EXPANSION 


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

MIRACLES ABOUND FOR THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN EUROPE BUT FINALS FANS WILL HAVE IT TOUGH 

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.

MIRACLES ABOUND FOR THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN EUROPE BUT FINALS FANS WILL HAVE IT TOUGH
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 -
ARSENAL V CHELSEA

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL, MADRID - Sat 1st June 8 pm GMT
LIVERPOOL V TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

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

THE EREDIVISIE AND LA LIGA TEAMS BEAT THE PREMIER LEAGUE


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.

THE EREDIVISIE AND LA LIGA TEAMS BEAT THE PREMIER LEAGUE


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

THE TOP ENGLISH CLUBS HAVE MADE 2018-'19 A RIVETING RIDE

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.

THE TOP ENGLISH CLUBS HAVE MADE 2018-'19 A RIVETING RIDE


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