Heroes

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by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 22nd 2015)

AFCON 1980 Triumph

35 years ago today, I was one of sixteen young Nigerian football players that walked onto the turf of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos full of nerves, but exhilarated by the atmosphere and the expectations of my nation. Nigeria had never won the African Cup of Nations.

The tournament started in 1957. It was time for us to take our place at the summit of African football for the first time. A crowd of some 100,000 Nigerians packed in a 60,000 capacity stadium like sardines to witness our attempt to create history.

Making History

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90 minutes of football later, driven by the passion of a hundred million other Nigerians, the goal was achieved. The Green Eagles played beyond their capacities and soared high above the Desert Warriors. In doing so, we destroyed the invincibility of an Algerian team that was at its peak – an obviously more experienced and probably even better team than the Eagles.

Remember that just two years later only larceny of the most shameful kind could rob that Algerian team of World Cup glory. The eventual World Cup finalists West Germany and Austria contrived in the Disgrace of Gijón to fix a result that saw both progress to the second round at Algeriaʼs expense. It was one of the worst moments in World Cup history, but it showed how big a threat Algeria was and how good a team they really were.

On the night, Nigeria could not be stopped, having come through some really difficult early matches. We played our best match of the championship, scored the highest number of goals and won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in our country’s history.

Duty
The President of Nigeria at the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, led the sea of Nigerians that physically watched the event live at the stadium. As young men, we were over the moon. We had worked very hard and prepared well under the guidance of professional sports managers and administrators. Nigeria had well-established sports institutions, a clear sports policy, a clear strategy and vision for sports development.

We saw ourselves as ambassadors and patriots serving our country willingly in answer to our nationʼs call to duty. Our victory in 1980 was the culmination of a process that started in 1976 when the national team went to Dire Dawa and against all odds returned with bronze medals for the first time in our history. That was the impetus needed to aim higher and we did. In that spirit, we went to Ghana for AFCON 1978 and reinforced our confidence.

Cometh the Hour!

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When 1980 came and the event was held in our country we believed we had to win and were ready. The preparations were hard but meticulous, driven by our single-mindedness to be part of history. The entire country was involved on March 22, 1980. It was a day none of us that played in that match will ever forget. We soared like eagles – super-eagles.

In the end, hard work: good luck, the people’s support, our government’s commitment, all paid off. We won. And we were deservedly rewarded well without any solicitation by us. Football in Nigeria had never been the same and would never be the same for us any more.

Celebrations
This day, 35 years after that victory, I can still play back in my mind almost every minute of the final match – the blaring trumpet of the late musician Zeal Onyia marshalling Nigerians to the great battle, the vociferous singing of 100,000 Nigerians at the stadium, and the rampaging supercharged Green Eagles with humble me scoring a brace and coming closest to winning the continent’s best player award that year.

It was a day when the elements had no choice but to side with the eagles, and to provide Nigerians with the cause to truly celebrate. 35 years after that victory, the heroes of 1980 are still remembered by most Nigerians. Six of them have passed on to the beyond – Muda Babatunde Lawal, Best Ogedegbe, Okey Isima, Alloysius Atuegbu, Martin Eyo and Tunde Bamidele.

The rest are alive and kicking, not by our strength, but by the Grace of God, grateful for the opportunity of life, and of that day, March 22, 1980 when our names were written in Gold in the archives of African football.

On behalf of all 22 of us, including Emmanuel Okala, Sylvanus Okpala, Felix Owolabi, Shefiu Mohammed, John Orlando, Frank Nwachi, Christian Chukwu, Ifeanyi Onyedika, Henry Nwosu, Moses Effiong, Charles Bassey, Godwin Odiye, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, Adokie Amiesimaka and me, I use this opportunity to say thank you once again to all Africans for their support and love, which since 1980 has occasionally still been showered lavishly on us.

Segun at Wembley

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Making The World Go Round

Editorʼs Note

The final of the Europa League will take place in Warsaw a couple of months from now. We covered Polandʼs bow at hosting a major football even and look forward to returning to see how football has helped to develop Polandʼs infrastructures on and off the pitch. Here we republish an article on how politics and football collided with football playing its part in fostering political change.

Derek Miller

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 4th 2012)

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Collision Course

A recurring theme in Euro 2012 was the desire to keep politics out of football. But why? Euro 2012 took place in two countries that know better than most that football and politics, especially liberation theory politics, most definitely do mix.

It was ironic to hear one of Poland’s greatest ever players Grzegorz Lato make that plea.

Lato knows how important the history and politics were back in his heyday as a player and also now. He remembers the 1982 World Cup in Spain well, having had a good tournament. Politics and football didn’t just mix then, they collided full on. Poland and Argentina bore testimony to that on and off the pitch.

The Mix

I don’t want to mix politics and sport”, Lato said. “I had several matches, especially in 1982 during the World Cup in Spain. We were in a group with the Russians and political aspects were very important during those times also”.

That’s not only an understatement, but somewhat economic with the truth. Those were very important times for Poland. Poles living abroad brandished their Solidarność (Solidarity) banners and placards. They filled the stadiums with their protest and defiance of the Polish junta led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski for Poland’s matches.

Damned Junta

Jaruzelski replaced Edward Gierek as Communist Party leader in December 1981 and imposed martial laws, clamping down on Solidarność, putting its leader Lech Walęsa under house arrest. The junta tried to destroy a popular movement and take advantage of football, but it had underestimated both the power of football and the desire of Polish people to be free of the shackles of an oppressive and deeply unpopular regime.

It also tried to censor the political protest made during the matches, thereby underestimating the power of football. Those demanding political change in Poland made far better use of the sport as a mechanism for political change than the then government of Poland.

Failed Junta

Ultimately the junta failed, but in 1982 a good Polish team inspired by the political events in the stands secured third place. Meanwhile, the junta reacted to the impromptu demonstrations by ensuring that Poland’s World Cup matches were broadcast with a delay that allowed it to cut out the Solidarność protests.

But it was too late. Poles already knew from the first match that politics had entered the world of football to great effect in support of political and human rights for them. Both players and Polish people could not claim to be unaware of what had happened.

The junta may have hoped to profit from the success of the team in Spain, but the Solidarność protests ensured that it could not steal the glory of a remarkable achievement by the players.

The collision had occurred and did so in a country that had only recently emerged from a debilitating dictatorship and had undergone an attempted coup just a year earlier.

In 1986 Jaruzelski was told by the then leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, that he would not intervene in Polish affairs, forcing the General to negotiate with Walęsa. Four years later Walęsa succeeded Jaruzelski as President of Poland.

Added Spice

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I don’t like politics to get into this”, Lato said as 1982 had added spice – a match against the old enemy, Russia, then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But would Lato or any of those complaining about politics and sport mixing object to the political protests of 1982 at the football in support of Solidarność and Walęsa?

I’m looking at the context of the history of Polish-Russian relations from another perspective. This [Euro 2012] is just a sporting competition. I have played against the Russians three times. During the Olympics we won 2-1. We lost 4-1 in Volgagrad and we had a 0-0 draw in Spain, so we are staying away from the politics. We are not interested in all those issues created by mass media. We are not interested in politics”.

A Force for Change

But why not? Politics can change the world. Football also can change the world for the better. Why shouldn’t they combine to do that, for example by opposing and even stopping wars as Didier Drogba did in la Côte d’Ivoire and Seydou Keita tearfully tried to do for his country Mali in this year’s African Cup of Nations? If football cannot and should not do that, then shame on it!

Seydou Keita

So, coming from Lato this plea to keep politics out of football is strange. ‘Communism’ in Poland collapsed just eight years after the Solidarność matches in Spain. Lato was there in that different era and knows that politics and football collided for the greater good.

In the independent Poland that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union – a process that football played a part in – Lato became a Senator and later the President of Poland’s FA, the PZPN. Both were political positions. How can he credibly say that politics and football do not and should not mix?

Littered with Failure

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 20th 2015)

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Over-rated and Over-paid

I admit straight away that I am heading into a minefield of trouble writing today about coaches – for footballers, born ad bred in Africa, those termed managers in England for example are called coaches, so for readers in England especially, I am not talking about the men and women who work with players on technique and much much more, often for poor reward and unsociable hours.

Their work is under-rated and underpaid. I am not talking about them, I am talking about the bosses, gaffers, etc. I do not really like discussing them. I think they earn too much money for the work that they do. In short, I think that their work is over-rated and over-paid as players do most of the work that counts – on the pitch. It is they who must perform to top of their abilities every match, even when the tactics are wrong, they are used wrongly, or played out of position in an outdated and inefficient system that the boss favours despite evidence that it doesnʼt work.

Bluff and Bluster

Coaches dramatise most of the time that the players are playing to instruction when the team is winning, and not playing to instruction when they are losing. They act out their script in the full glare of television, standing by the sidelines, pretending to be taking down notes – those are the smart ones. They scream out instructions that no one on the field hears or understands, and impact little on how the players play.

They ‘pretend’ to those that pay them humongous wages and the fans that ‘hire and fire’ them that they are ‘conducting’ things on the field of play with their sideline dramatisation of moods, and play mental games with referees. From their field-level position by the sideline they have the poorest view of the game and yet they have the final say on their team.

They talk and bluff their way to millions of Dollars, hopping from one failed coaching job to another. They know how to play the media particularly after winning one or two trophies and thereafter earn those outrageously high wages.  

The world of football is full of them – failed coaches!

Extra Dimension

Do not get me wrong, I love coaches. As players we were forced to develop a ‘love’ relationship with them because they held our careers in their hands. That’s why you would hardly ever hear a player criticise or condemn his coach even when he knows the coach may be the worst in the world.

We had a great example in Nigeria. Throughout his coaching stint in the national team none of the players (including those that had trained under obviously much better coaches in Europe) was brave enough to tell the world that the particular coach was so bad he could not even coach himself to control a ball!

Let me admit again that I have never really thought coaches are as important as football makes them out to be, even if I also concede that without them the game would not be the same because of the extra drama and dimension they bring to the game. A successful coach is one who wins championships consistently. His successes are listed in the number of laurels and silverware in his chest of trophies.

A good coach is one who produces teams that often play well, always come close to winning trophies, indeed occasionally win one, but manage to leave their imprint on their teams. There are very few truly successful coaches in the world. You can almost list them on your fingertips. Two excellent examples are José Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson. Another is the recently retired German maestro Jupp Heynckes.

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The Mark of Success

I was actually looking at Mourinho’s records recently and found that since 2000 when he started his coaching career in Portugal he may only have failed to win a trophy twice in the years from then till now, for the different clubs he coached. That is consistency, the true mark of a successful coach who knows how to win trophies and championships.

Good coaches are also few. In this group would be Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger and Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal. They do not win enough trophies consistently to be listed as ‘successful’ in my humble estimation, even if the rest of the world may think otherwise.

Take Wenger. Many of his fans will swear he is one of the best coaches in Europe, if not the world. But his true worth is diminished with the epilepsy of his winning trophies. Until the FA Cup of last season Wenger has failed to win anything for Arsenal in almost a decade!

Successful coaches necessarily double as good coaches! Good coaches are not necessarily successful. Consistently winning trophies makes the difference.

Most other coaches do not fall within either of the two categories above. They are part of the larger population of ‘failed’ coaches! They are the steppingstones for successful coaches! You find them in most teams, hardly ever winning anything, and always been hired and fired during the seasons.

The Nigerian Example

Let me play a dangerous game here and look at the Nigerian experience. I looked through the history of coaches that have handled Nigeria’s team in the past and started to wonder how they ever got there in the first place.

That's Better, Siasia smiles

What made Berti Vogts, Bora Milutinović, Festus Onigbinde, Shuaibu Amodu, Samson Siasia, Lars Lagerbäck, and many others qualified to coach the team? Were they successful, good or failed coaches at the points of their engagement? Take Clemens Westerhof for example. Although he certainly played a part in Nigeriaʼs second success in the African Cup of Nations in 1994, on what basis was he hired in 1990?

He was a nobody in coaching before he got the job. He spent 5 years before he won the African Cup of Nations and led Nigeria to qualify for the country’s first World Cup. By all standards that is a great achievement that should define the man. But it did not.

It has been 20 years since he left the country. In that time he has coached other teams and won absolutely nothing. He has not even remotely come close to his Nigerian ‘achievements’.

Culprits

So who is that coach who would take on any team and transform them into winners? That’s the man African countries need – a coach with records of tangible achievements that can be counted in trophies and cups, and not one that has no records of any sort, or has Pyrrhic records!

By the way, I am just ranting about coaches after watching Mourinho lose to Laurent Blanc in the European Champions League. What a ‘bad’ match that was with the referee, Bjorn Kuipers – referee with previous form of controversies – as the worst culprit on the night.

Another African Mentality (Part One)

Editorʼs Note

We republish this article now for a number of reasons. Despite only winning the African Cup of Nations once, Claude le Roy has contributed to the development of football in several African nations. He unleashed Samuel Etoʼo on the international stage for Cameroon. He blooded André Ayew for the Black Stars. He coached the Democratic Republic of Congo twice before surprising a few naysayers with the Republic of Congo at the recent African Cup of Nations.

It is often forgotten that a young Frenchman, Hervé Renard got the opportunity to learn from le Roy as his assistant in Ghana. Renard made the most of the opportunity. He went on to make African history, becoming the first coach to win the African Cup of Nations with two different countries, Zambia in 2012 and la Côte dʼIvoire in 2015. Renard credits le Roy for bringing him to Africa.

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Derek Miller

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 30th 2009)

An African European

Unlike many of the European coaches plying their trade in Africa Claude le Roy had extensive experience of Africa and African football. He was a student of Africa and immersed himself in the culture of the country. Le Roy loved Africa and had followed Ghana’s football carefully.

His predecessor Ratomir Dujković overplayed his hand and importance after Ghana became the only African country to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup in 2006. Dujković thought himself a Ghanaian national hero, but Africans didnʼt – Ghanaians especially did not share his opinion of himself. The Ghanaian Football Association turned to le Roy.

My father fought for independence of Algeria and was close to Patrice Lumumba in Congo in the first war of independence there”, le Roy told us exclusively. “That means that I was lucky to be brought up in a family so rich in culture. I had writers and journalists around me since my youth”. It is important to le Roy that readers understand the influences that gave him his beliefs in life and also football.

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It is not because I have more culture than others”, he explains “It’s because I was born in a family who was completely open to the world and that gave me a big chance in my life. I think it is not by chance that I work in Africa: in Asia, all around the world, because I wanted to discover different cultures, to respect them, to know them”.

A Special Place

Africa will always have a special place in le Roy’s heart. “I love this continent and I love the people of this continent”, he said. “I come here since I was a kid and I was concerned by the different wars for independence in Africa – first in Algeria, then elsewhere. I have a lot of friends who came from Africa and that nurtured my interest. I was playing with them and I became more interested”.

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The love affair with the continent had begun. “It became more important when I was the head coach of the national team of Cameroon”, le Roy says. “The relationship with my players was fantastic and it came naturally after that”.

He doesnʼt like to compare the African teams that he has coached or their cultures. “There are so many African countries – it’s like Europe, you can’t compare a strange land, a German to a Scandinavian”, he said. “The same thing in Africa”.

And football is no different. “Cameroon – they are very strong in mentality as well”, he said. “You can call them the Germany of Africa. They always, always, always have strong willpower. In Ghana there is the skill of the West African people and Congo has the power of Central Africa in this part of Africa and in Senegal they are very tall. They have huge potential and physical strength and it depends also on the culture in some countries”.

The Pull of the Black Stars

So what attracted him to Ghana and the Black Stars? “In Ghana there are so many cultures”, he said. “There are so many questions, because we bring them so many new religions. They have religions – African religions in Ghana. We cannot change that. Many came. The Ketabi came, Arabs came, but the ways of the African culture is fantastic”.

So what about football? What was the lure of coaching the Black Stars? “It’s easier to be the national coach of Ghana than it is to be of a little country that doesn’t have a lot of professional leagues, because sometimes even the professional players don’t want to come for friendly games”, le Roy explained. “They have all sorts of pressure from their clubs, especially when playing for your national team because you can lose your place. Michael Essien is not afraid to come with Ghana, because he is important to Chelsea, when according to the club he should be there”.

Samuel Eto'o

Le Roy likes to give youth a chance. As Cameroun coach in 1998 he took a chance on a young striker, ensuring that he at least gained some experience at the highest level. “Samuel Eto’o was at the World Cup in France in 1998”, said le Roy. “He was nineteen. I took him. It’s now exactly what we need for the African Cup of Nations, World Cup and for the future”.

Eto’o went on to become the most prolific goal-scorer in the history of the African Cup of Nations.

Le Roy continued his policy of giving youth a chance by giving a début to the teenage son of Ghanaian great Abédi (Pelé) Ayew.

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André Ayew and all the players – they are the leaders of the new generation”, said le Roy. “Stephen Appiah is the skipper on the field. He’s a tactician. He’s really another coach, but Michael’s a little bit shy but he was perfect in his role and it was very good for him to be the captain”.

Le Roy is impressed with his captain and emerging team. “I was surprised with his speaking to the players about technical quality”, le Roy said. “They are very important – all of them. I have not two or three star players. All the players of this team are playing properly, because they are intelligent players. They like to talk about tactical problems of the team. They are fantastic and have great artistry and I enjoy a lot with this team. I’m very proud of them”.

Football – In Tact as Ever (Part Two)

By Traolach Kaye © Traolach Kaye (March 19th 2015)

Shenanigans

The BBCʼs Dan Roan alludes to how offended the Premier League will be by all these shenanigans to host the World Cup in the winter in Qatar to avoid the searing heat of an Arabic summer. That is most odd. English football is all about the Premier League. Clubs are either in the Premier League or aspire to be in it.

Those seeking to give the lie to this will claim that the Championship play-off final is the ʻrichest game in footballʼ … by dint, oddly enough, of the winner being ushered into the Premier League. Should football fans, globally, take umbrage at how the machinations of the Premier League, itself – something of a tyrantsʼ charter – have been upset and knocked marginally out of kilter by the decision to host the 2022 World Cup during the Winter months?

Roanʼs assertion that the FA might be upset as it may interrupt some ceremonially flavoured FA Cup programme – 2022 is the centenary of the Final at Wembley Stadium – is laughable. This presentation of the FA Cup as some Holy of Holies sits uncomfortably with how the event has been policed and how its attendees have been treated – Hillsborough, for example.

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Uncomfortable

It sits uncomfortably with how managers and players treat it. It sits uncomfortably with the stark reality of attendances at FA Cup games with certain clubs, at even advanced stages of the Cup. If it is important, why is it being treated as an after-thought, especially by the big clubs and the prize of qualification for the Europa League being seen as a unwanted burden, even though for some clubs, it is the only possibility of Champions League football.

Take Hull City for example. A lacklustre approach to it saw them dumped out without even reaching the League stage. This in the year that the winner of the Europa League gets into the Championsʼ League. Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool dropped out in the last 32. Only Everton still fly the flag.

Disproportionate Effects?

If Roan is so concerned that the effect of hosting WC 2022 in the Winter Months will have a disproportionately negative effect on the ʻSmaller Clubsʼ, he would do well to look at how the same ʻSmaller Clubsʼ themselves treat the FA Cup, and how the FA Cup treats them. Name the last non-top flight Club to win the FA Cup?

Southampton, 1976. The last 10 winners are Arsenal, Wigan, Chelsea, Manchester City, Chelsea, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal. Who owns those clubs? Portsmouth at the time of their winning the FA Cup in 2008 were owned by Alexander Gaydamak. He had bought the club from Milan Mandarić who was subsequently charged with tax-evasion.

Gaydamak then sold the club to Sulaiman al-Fahim who had acted as spokesperson for Mansour al-Nahyan and smoothed al-Nahyanʼs takeover of Manchester City. Al-Fahim in turn sold the club six weeks later to Ali al-Faraj, a supposed Saudi oil tycoon. Portsmouth went to rack and ruin and who paid the price? The loyal supporters who were the backbone of the club and who ultimately saved the historic club.

By 2013, Portsmouth FC had finally returned to the ownership of the fans themselves, with the club having been bankrupted, relegated three times and almost forced out of existence in the intervening period. But we must keep an eye out for FIFA, it seems.

Fit and Proper

Anybody can own an English football club. They are for sale every day of the week on whatever index you choose to consult. They are open to bids from everyone, irrespective of their morals, their achievements, their politics, their ethics, or the pedigree of their finances. They are not even the Harrods of their time, for which a purchase price AND favour had to be first agreed. Who buys these clubs?

The best known example is everyoneʼs favourite ʻBillionaire from Nowhereʼ, Roman Abramovich – a long-time associate of Vladimir Putin. Abramovich rose from nothing to dominate the Russian aluminium and gas sector, after being the understudy of Boris Beresovsky who was subsequently found dead at home in March 2013 soon after a protracted legal battle with Abramovich ended badly for Beresovsky.

Other noted humanists such as Thaksin Shinawatra, Tom Hicks, George Gillette, Mike Ashley, Vincent Tan, Venkatesh Rao, the al-Mubaraks, Alisher Usmanov and the aforementioned al-Fahims, Gaydamaks, al-Farajs, Mandarićs, etc. either own outright, have owned outright, possess, or have had strong financial interests in various English clubs.

Chicken factories. Bangladeshi sweatshops. Human rights abusers. Leveraged buyout merchants. Corporate raiders. Oligarchs. Oil tycoons. Silicon valley entrepreneurs. Eastern-Bloc businessmen. But look out for FIFA.

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Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United has used his position to try take advantage of the collapse of Glasgow Rangers such that Rangers was in danger of becoming a satellite club of Newcastle United. But look out for FIFA.

Universal Problem

This is not alone an English problem. Perspective is loaned to the matter when one considers that Real Madrid have agreed a £350m deal with a construction company owned by a member of the family that owns Manchester City. These clubs are supposedly in competition. They are instead each otherʼs keepers. This is supposedly the football that we should be worried will be ʻtorn apartʼ by a tournament being hosted in the Winter months – a tournament 7 years now.

No self-respecting journalist capable of even the slightest abstract thought could possibly find themselves offended uniquely by FIFAʼs alleged corruption juxtaposed as it is against the backdrop painted above. A brief examination of those invited to do business in England, and fêted for doing same, says a lot about this. 

England held its nose and took its reluctant place at the trough in the run up to the decision to award the World Cups for 2018 and 2022 respectively. Had England walked away early-doors and refused to have anything to do with the selection process, then we might have avoided the entire saga. Instead, the tit-for-tat will continue, presumably up and until such a stage as England is awarded a World Cup to host.

And letʼs remember that three-times beaten finalists the Netherlands have never hosted the World Cup, let alone suffered a long delay waiting for it to return. Isnʼt it their turn first?

FC Barçelona On My Mind

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 2nd 2015)

Fan

I guess every reader of this column knows by now that I am a fan of FC Barçelona. I love the team because, like me, they are football purists, always winning by playing the better football, cleanly, clearly, and on the field – never in the boardroom. In the past decade, it is hard to find many lovers of football that have not been captivated by the club’s achievements, its football brand and philosophy, its youth academy and its very exceptionally gifted players.

Without question, FC Barçelona have been the team of the 21st Century, winning the world’s most coveted club trophy three times since 2000, getting to the semi-finals six times, and the quarter finals twice. Compare this to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which have won it twice each in that period, although, under José Mourinho, Real Madrid had a semi-final hoodoo, broken by Carlo Ancelotti winning the historic ʻLa Décimaʼ last season against cross-town rivals Atlético de Madrid.

Nevertheless, to the chagrin of Realʼs supporters, there is no question of who has played the better football and been more successful this century. It is clearly the Camp Nouʼs finest. This century the world has been treated to a brand of football that had never been seen previously in the history of the game.

The Blueprint

Tiki-Taka was a deliberate style of football conceived in Barçelona’s youth academy, complimented by acquiring some of the best players in the world – but many of Barçelona’s young players, not only held their own in élite company, they went on to play for Spain and made them World Champions for the first time in their history and the only nation to win and retain the European Championship.

Tiki-Taka became an art exhibition on display every week and everywhere FC Barçelona played. The team taught the rest of the world the ultimate art of ball possession, the quick one-two passing and movements, the short interchange of passes, back and forth and sideways, the players running and pressing when they lose possession, and maintaining a fluid but intricate organised pattern of movements all the time like a well-oiled machine.

With this style of play the team simply ran rings around most opposing teams. They were a delight to watch, even though critics of their style began to describe them as boring and rather monotonous. In the past decade, particularly, the ultimate challenge for European club managers was how to decode the team’s play. In the past three years a few have succeeded.

Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany discovered the antidote and reduced Barçaʼs impact and dominance. FC Barçelona needed to do something different to compete to win the UEFA Championsʼ League again.

The New Era

As great players aged – not even Barçelona have discovered the elixir of perpetual youth – a new style was needed too. Barçelonaʼs captain supreme Xavi Hernández i Creus doesnʼt play so much now, but Andrés Iniesta Lujáremains an integral part of the new machine.

I have just watched Barçelona FC take Manchester City FC to the cleaners in the first leg of the round of 16. It was a very emphatic and comprehensive performance that captured the essence of a ‘new’ FC Barçelona.

What is clear is that Tiki-Taka has been dismantled and is metamorphosing into something new, something less dramatic but, potentially more exciting and more deadly when the ‘concoction’ fully matures!

The old Barça played with 7 or more midfield players without a permanent striker upfront. Now, from outside the influence of the Barçelona youth academy, the team has been experimenting with new players for two seasons. FC Barçelona may have returned to the conventional style of European club football but they have created a new headache for European club managers.

The price that Barça have had to pay for this new formation is a midfield and defence that now look less compact with more open spaces for opposing teams to play. FC Barçelona are no less exciting than they once were, are less patient in attack than they once were, are less dominant in ball possession than they were previously, and less imposing on opposing teams than they once were. But for everything that they now are in deficit over, they make up for it with a striking partnership of three of the best goal scorers on the planet in their team!

In Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (Neymar), Luis Suárez Díaz and Lionel Messi Cuccittini, FC Barçelona now have a dream attacking formation almost unmatched by any other team with the exception of Real Madrid.

Questions

Having said all of that the question now arises: can the new FC Barçelona win the 2014/2015 UEFA Champions League? I run a betting shop so I know a good wager when I see one. This one is not. I will not put my money on FC Barçelona winning the Champions League this season.

Do not get me wrong. With a little bit of luck they can win it but the chances of that happening, in my humble estimation, are slim. Looking at how they have been playing this season, with Tiki-Taka dismantled, and a new style still developing, it may require the experience of one more season for the emerging philosophy to take a firm hold and make them champions once again.

Lionel Messi – Back and Better

Lionel Messi’s lethargic performance at the World Cup cost him a great deal. All he needed to do was alter his mindset and commit one hundred percent to the cause and lead Argentina to win the World Cup. That feat would have earned him the highest honour in the history of football – the best footballer that ever lived.

But something happened to him during the World Cup that I still cannot fathom. He did not play with the spirit of one that wanted to win very badly. He ‘strolled’ through the matches, and even got to the final playing without conviction and fire in the eyes. When Argentina lost Messi lost even more.

As a result, no one raised an eyebrow or complained when a few months later the hard-working, but obviously less talented Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show again and took away the crown of World’s best player from him again. Ronaldo thoroughly deserved it and it appeared as if the spirit to win had left Messi.

Now here comes a new season and suddenly, for the first time in a long while, Barçelona FC and Messi are back. Lionel Messi is playing spiritedly again. It is quite apparent in the way he plays these days, chasing and running around, joining in defending when his team loses possession, getting involved more than ever before during play, and playing his team from the front through physical effort.

It reminds me of the Messi of the early days of his career. He anchored Barçelona FC’s unique brand of football that dominated world football in the past decade. At that time there was no disputing the fact that in Barçelona and Messi the world had the best team and the best player respectively.

For Lionel Messi there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest to have ever played football. He may not have the complete range of skills like Pelé, or almost singled-handedly led his country to win the World Cup like Maradona, but in terms of sheer natural ability and affinity with the ball at his feet, there has never been a better player.

There is a magnetic relationship between his left foot and the ball that makes him do almost anything with it at will, almost effortlessly. It is hard to put into words his ease and comfort on the ball, his dribbling ability even in the tightest of corners, how he wriggles between defenders, how he rides tackles, how he glides and races past defenders, how he makes difficult shots look so easy, how he makes goal scoring a habit.

From what I have seen of Messi this current season, if all goes well and he remains injury free, he is set to extend his grip on world football. He will likely win the World’s best player award again for an unassailable 5th time. And probably the world will now accept, as I have claimed over and over again, that there has been no player like Lionel Messi in the history of football!

Football – In Tact as Ever (Part One)

by Traolach Kaye © Traolach Kaye (March 4th 2015)

Hmmm!

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Qatar 2022: World Cup fall-out could tear football apart …” – Dan Roan BBC Sports-editor

If they donʼt believe it, why are they saying it, if they do believe it, they shouldnʼt be soccer analysts, so one way or another, they are wrong. Sometimes when you see these clowns…..well, then, you would have to wonder not about my sanity, but the BBCʼs sanity …”

The latter quote was made by the Former Manchester United and Milwall player, Eamon Dunphy, reflecting on BBC Match-of-The-Day Pundits during the 2006/2007 Premier League Season. So where does this leave us?

Weʼve been here before. Either the BBC donʼt believe what they are broadcasting or publishing, or they have gone mad. If they do believe it, they arenʼt fit for purpose, that purpose being to follow their mission, ʻTo enrich peopleʼs lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertainʼ.

So, what is the BBC saying? In perfect keeping with the tone of their attack which commenced with gusto on December 2nd 2010, the BBC continue to react to every utterance by and announcement of FIFA with a contrary response which both finds fault with whatever pronouncement FIFA has offered whilst seeking to always remind the viewer/reader that FIFA is corrupt, is upsetting football, is racist, is out of touch, hates women, and is just generally no good.

The New Mission

The BBC is no opinion-piece merchant. Funded by the taxpayer, and with an explicit mission to ʻenrich, entertain and educateʼ, they appear capable only of one of above trifecta, namely entertainment. 

Entertaining their own opinion, entertaining the opinion of conventional wisdom, entertaining the opinion of whatever agenda must be pushed, foisted and promoted until the target audience is left in no two minds about how things are and how things must be. Regarding FIFA, they operate a one-size-fits-all policy, employing key words in their riposte, irrespective of what it is that FIFA may have said.

Roan doesnʼt run the BBC, and is merely an agent of same. He is however the sports-editor of the BBC News. Fresh from goading, rather than entertaining, informing or educating Liverpool fans during the protracted takeover of the club by Fenway Sports Group (then a Sports Correspondent) Roan now today finds himself charged with spearheading BBCʼs latest thrust against that perennial threat to Global Peace and Harmony – FIFA.

Knock, Knock, Knocking

The door of FIFA has been kicked, yet the rest of the rotten structure seems not at all close to crashing down. FIFA, the masters of largesse, have pushed out the boat in many quarters, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, South Africa and now Russia and Qatar. This largesse has made them very popular, especially in Asia and Africa.

It is no surprise that these are confederations that have many votes, which comes in handy at election time. Carry Asia and Africa and simple arithmetic tells the result – a lesson some have not grasped. Sepp Blatter certainly understood it.

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FIFAʼs major product – the World Cup – is something nations compete with each other to host. Football is increasingly popular and is the dominant global sport. England wanted to host the 2018 World Cup and failed to get enough votes. The results were a national embarrassment. It was not a bad bid, but it was out of step with FIFAʼs intentions and also those of individual federations.

Ever since, we have been treated to a monologue on the ills of FIFA. We are now expected to believe that Football itself is on the very verge of destruction because FIFA has decided to host the 2022 World Cup during the ʻWinterʼ of that year.

What is Football?

Football? Torn Apart? What is football? What does somebody mean when they say ʻFootballʼ. Do they mean the ball itself? Football, the game or sport? Football, the TV slot? Football, the Industry? 

When Roan and the BBC opine that ʻFootball could be torn apartʼ, they think, or more accurately want us to think, that they are talking about football in the Global, organized grass-roots sense of the word.

Football associations, football clubs, jumpers-for-goalposts, Football tournaments, the very fabric of football itself, the very essence of the game, is at risk. Uncle Sepp is going to get us all. In fact, the BBC are are referring, perhaps blithely, to their own narrow, oblique view of what football is and what football is about. Football the business, football….our businessOur gameThe game we gave the WorldThis thing of ours. 

Outraged?

It is no great leap to suggest that their contrived outrage stems from a sense of loss, a sense of exclusion, that they are no longer running the show and are merely instead a bit part of an organization that pays them no heed.

Third-party private organizations are entitled to organize their events as they see fit. It is up to other parties how they respond to this. Jérôme Valcke, FIFAʼs General Secretary, has told people to “Get on with it”. BBC pundits Danny Mills and Phil Neville agree with Valcke, but Roan has responded by kicking and screaming. He could do worse than consider the sentiments of the aforementioned home-grown pundits and others who have asked candidly, “Whatʼs the problem”?

The problem is that certain people have a bee in their bonnet about FIFA and rather than express it, they prefer to engage in tangential oblique nonsense. Mr Roan wants the reader to consider how the Winter World Cup imposes on the ʻCherished Festive Fixture Programmeʼ. It is lovely alliteration. It is also terrible reason. This ʻFestive Fixture Programmeʼ is not in fact a programme as much as it is semi-organized chaos, itself the subject of no small perennial, year-round criticism by domestic parties, It is bemoaned and criticized by players and managers alike, all year, every year. It is not liked. It is due for reform.

Hedged Bets

The author has hedged his bets. Perhaps aware that the ʻfestive disruptionʼ claim was as tenuous as it was false, Roan claims that More international friendlies are almost certain to be sacrificed.”  But International Friendlies are themselves the bane of the very Premier League whose best interests Mr Roan says are being interfered with.

However, we know how important some of these international friendlies can be. Consider one in particular. England tried to do business with Jack Warner by travelling to Trinidad & Tobago for a nothing friendly in 2008 in order to court Warner into providing support in CONCACAF to vote for England to host the World Cup of 2018. It was a fiasco as extracts of Michael Garciaʼs report on corruption in FIFA show. FIFA gleefully released those extracts, which suggested that Warner et al received a quid pro quo from that ill-advised friendly.

After this match Warner was exposed as corrupt and quit FIFA, exposing some of his dealings with the very dubious former head of the USAʼs federation, Chuck Blazer. Warner has a history – he was caught selling his complimentary tickets for the 2006 World Cup. He paid it back and it was business as usual until Blazer, once Warnerʼs protégé, decided that his apprenticeship had lasted long enough and tried to oust Warner.

It is conveniently forgotten that the fall of Qatari football executive and once cheer-leader of Blatterʼs 1998 bid for the Presidency of FIFA, Mohamed bin Hammam, was originally expelled from FIFA due to his attempt to ʻbuyʼ Warnerʼs influence for his own Presidential bid – exposed by Blazer. The American is no whistle-blowing anti-corruption pioneer. Blazer was neck-high in Warnerʼs shenanigans. But Warner was targeted by England to help their World Cup bid. Does this not question their anti-corruption credentials?

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England now wants to talk about corruption, but what was the football reason for the 2008 fixture in the Caribbean? What did then England manager Fabio Capello gain or learn from it? Did Capello request that particular opponent and if so why? For FIFA, attack became the best form of defence – given an open goal by the FA.

Perhaps England would do well to hold her tongue. but they try to berate FIFAʼs corruption. The BBC was at least consistent. Andrew Jennings has highlighted FIFAʼs corruption issues long before it became fashionable to do so. The FA complained that the BBCʼs Panorama programmeʼs exposé of corruption in FIFA on the eve of the vote impacted negatively on Englandʼs doomed bid.

A cursory examination of recent events lends no small credence to the opinion that England should keep its counsel. England had hoped to host the 2018 World Cup which instead went to Russia – worse still the Russia of Putins, Abramovichs, Usmanovs and Berezovsksy, etc.

England was shocked – outraged even. They had after all run a ʻgreat campaignʼ, part of which had been courting the influence of Jack Warner. Their bid had been officially presented by Prince William, nephew of Prince Andrew, the former trade envoy who told the Serious Fraud Office to keep out of the British Aerospace deal with Saudi Arabia. Glass houses?