Sunday, February 24, 2019

Kepa's Last Stand

THE CHELSEA GOALKEEPER'S DEFIANCE WAS A SAD DAY FOR FOOTBALL

It was the most unexpected spectacle.

THE CHELSEA GOALKEEPER'S DEFIANCE WAS A SAD DAY FOR FOOTBALL


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


GORDON BANKS, ENGLAND'S No.1, HAS DIED AGED 81

"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 heroes...an 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 hands...play games like table tennis. That will sharpen your reflexes...play with a smaller ball...you 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

FIFA'S STUCK IN A SWISS ROLE

ONE SWISS MAN DEFEATS ANOTHER FOR THE TOP JOB IN FOOTBALL

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.


Fifa
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