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