Football to the Rescue

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by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (April 4th 2015)

President Turns Defeat to Victory

If you are not an African this may not interest you, but it should. Nigeria has just had its presidential elections. Nothing and no one in the African continent is immune from its import and effect. So permit this excursion into the political sphere for once.

Thanks to football Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) performed the greatest miracle of his life last Monday night. He must have recited a prayer verse I picked up from reading Neale Donald Walsch many years ago: ‘May the moment of our greatest challenge become the moment of our greatest triumph’.

From the brink of the worst moment of his life, one simple single act catapulted GEJ, the outgoing President of Nigeria, from the first incumbent President to lose power in Nigeriaʼs history to the pinnacle of glory and greatness. His action in conceding defeat so graciously last Monday night was like pouring water upon a raging inferno.

Legacy Secured

The moment President Jonathan called up General Muhammadu Buhari, his political opponent in Nigeria’s presidential election, and congratulated him for winning it and thereby wresting power from him, the unprecedented tension that had gripped the entire continent for several months up until that moment, was completely doused. Jonathan had become a respected statesman on the international stage.

All the talk about a possible break up of the country with catastrophic effect to the continent through the massive violence expected to take place in several parts of the country no matter the outcome of the election, evaporated into thin air. The fight went out of all Nigerians.

Everyone had been apprehensive about the election and its aftermath where the only visible option was a promised fight-to-the-finish by the side that loses. So acrimonious and bitter were the campaigns that the entire country was under the siege of fear.

Footballʼs Example

In recent write ups I had been advocating that both sides drew lessons from football where life is an endless series of contests producing both a winner and a loser almost every time, and both sides accept the verdicts graciously in order for another match to be played another day. That is the definition of sportsmanship.

I had appealed to the political contestants to allow the same kind of spirit that had given football the power to produce winners and losers without recourse to violence, irrespective of the differences that may exist between them, to permeate the elections. The contestants may not have even read my articles, but looking back at what has now panned out, it is as if President Jonathan feasted on my message.

In a most shocking but pleasant development, however, even before the last votes were collated and announced, GEJ went ahead to demonstrate uncommon sportsmanship. He phoned his main challenger and congratulated him on his victory. This is new political territory in Africa. It is uncommon practice – almost heard of.

A Change had to Come

True, Nigerians were fed up with a system that had impoverished them for 16 years and were yearning for a change and a new leadership. How to achieve this change became the most intractable challenge in our political history. The apparent credibility of the election, despite the avalanche of flawed processes and malfunctioning equipment, was the major factor that helped to unlock the chains of its integrity.

The umpire of the election also displayed courage, transparency, incorrigibility and neutrality, despite his being the appointee of the president and the leading contestant. Sport won at the end of the day. The ‘handshake’ conceding defeat by the president doused all the national and international tension.

Statesmanlike Exit

With that single act President Goodluck Jonathan rewrote the closing chapter of his place in Nigeria’s political history. From the brink of going down as the worst president in the history of Nigeria, his act of Sportsmanship has raised him to the pinnacle of greatness as a true patriot and statesman.

When the subject on how to be a winner is to be taught in political classes, Jonathan’s concession phone call and speech would find adequate space for mention. Those of us in sport have always known that, ultimately, you do not have to come first to be a winner.

The founder of the Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, put it slightly differently in the Olympic charter at the inception of the modern Olympic Games that there is greater glory in participation than in winning. Ben Johnson as well as many other athletes in his academy of cheats can testify to that, having learned the consequences the hard way.

Meanwhile, President Goodluck Jonathan wrote a new chapter in African history – one that Laurent Gbagbo could and should have written. Gbagbo has destroyed the legacy he should have had, but Jonathan has won plaudits and cemented his own legacy. He reminded the world that in politics, as in sports, winning is not really about coming first.

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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.

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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 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?

Trending Analysis

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 30th 2015)

Geographic Trends

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Central Africa is represented by three countries – DR Congo, Congo and the hosts Equatorial Guinea. West Africa still has three countries as well – Ghana, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. North African countries have Tunisia and Algeria still in the race. On history and rankings Guinea and Equatorial Guinea stand little chance of bucking the trend.

The distribution of the teams speaks volumes. Central African countries, led by the two Congos are rising powers in African football. Even their performances at club level is indicative of this new momentum. On the other hand there is a decline in Southern and East Africa. West and North Africa are still maintaining their lead in Africa.

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Hosting Trends

But there is another trend to consider hosting being the twelfth man. Of the 29 editions so far the host has won the tournament eleven times, been beaten in the final twice – thrice if you include when Nigeria co-hosted in 2000. The host has failed to reached at least the semi-final 7.5 times out of 29 editions, although in the first three editions that was inevitable due to the number of participants. Traditionally the hosts progress.

Ethiopia was the first host to fail to reach the last four. That happened in the tenth edition in 1976. It happened again to Côte d’Ivoire in 1984. Eight years later Senegal went out in the quarter-finals. In 1994 Tunisia failed to get past the first phase of matches. Co-hosts Ghana went out in the quarter-finals in 2000 while their co-hosts Nigeria won the tournament. In 2010 Angola were eliminated in the quarter-final, which happened to both co-hosts, Angola and Equatorial Guinea too in 2012 and most recently to South Africa in the last edition.

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Equatorial Guinea only qualified as replacement hosts. They have never qualified on merit and they have a very low FIFA ranking. On paper and form they should have no chance, but barring Tunisiaʼs host and fail – there were no quarter-finals when Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire also failed in 1976 and 84 respectively – the hosts can be expected to reach the quarter-final at least and Equatorial Guinea has achieved that.

They have already met the hosting norm of progressing to the knock-out phase, but of 26 of 29 hosts achieved that. 21.5 of the hosts have reached at least the last four, so history is on the side of Equatorial Guinea and then there is Tunisiaʼs recent trend. The last three occasions they have reached the finals they exited at the quarter-final stage.

Home-field advantage may just be enough for Equatorial Guinea to make history while at the same time maintain tradition.

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No Challengers?

by Nathan Adams ©Nathan Adams (November 15th 2014)

Nathan Adams at Wembley

Centurions

Manchester Unitedʼs Wayne Rooney marked his 100th appearance with a real captainʼs performance, which anchored the Three Lions to a 3-1 win against Srečko Katanecʼs Slovenian side. Nearly 300 male players have reached that milestone – the most recent being the Republic of Irelandʼs John OʼShea yesterday. Two more are due to join the club tomorrow in the same match Italy v Croatia – Romaʼs one club defensive midfielder Daniele de Rossi and VfL Wolfsburgʼs Ivica Olić. But this evening was about Rooney.

They have a long way to go if they intend to catch the man with the most caps, Egyptian great Ahmed Hassan on 184. They certainly wonʼt match the most capped international footballer of all time, the USAʼs Kristine Lilly, who is a full 51 caps ahead of her nearest competitor. Lilly boasts an incredible 352 caps!

Captainʼs Performance

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After a goalless and rather drab first half, the match sprang to life when Slovenia took the lead through a Jordan Henderson own-goal from Milivoje Novakovićʼs cross. Almost straight from the kick-off England attacked. Sloveniaʼs captain Boštjan Cesar inexplicably upended Rooney in the box, earning a booking and conceding a penalty which Rooney dispatched to settle Englandʼs nerves and keep the over 80,000 crowd onside.

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Mariborʼs goalkeeper Samir Hanadanović got a hand to it, but could not deny Rooney his goal, which brought him level on Englandʼs all time list with the great Jimmy Greaves. Only Gary Lineker and Sir Bobby Charlton ahead of him – he could claim third place in his own right against Scotland on Tuesday night in Glasgow. With nerves settled the stage was set for Arsenalʼs Danny Welbeck to grab some headlines of his own, netting a brace.

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Handanović denied Liverpoolʼs Adam Lallana with his legs, but it was headed out carelessly by Mišo Brečko to Welbeck who scuffed his shot past the crestfallen keeper. A neat interchange of passes with Liverpoolʼs Raheem Sterling got the finish it deserved from Welbeck to give England their third and the former Manchester United Striker his second.

False Dawn?

Slovenia made their presence felt by throwing in some very physical challenges early on. Luckily no England players were hurt as a result of the crunching tactics begun by Aleš Mertelj in the first 5 minutes. Lallana was left in a crumpled heap. Portuguese referee Olegário Benquerença had a firm word with the Mariborʼs midfielder after another rustic challenge on Rooney after 12 minutes.

Ales Mertelj

But that was to be expected. Slovenia came to spoil and smash and grab. England had to outwit these tactics and in the first half they didnʼt have an answer. Throughout the first half England seemed to have no sense of direction in relation to their play and unaware of the movement of their own team players around them.

What seems to be definitely missing from the team is a strong play-maker in the centre of midfield. Having Rooney up front is all well and good, but a player with the same influence and respect from both team-mates and opposition is a must for midfield. Through out the first half I donʼt believe there was any direct play from the England team. Over 90 percent of the crosses were very poor quality and incomplete.

Positives

There was a marked improvement in the second half, which saw an injection of pace with Sterling playing in multiple positions sometimes in front of midfield and others deep in midfield and being the centre of movement within the team. Slovenia took a shock lead after 57 minutes due to Henderson’s header. Joe Hart had no chance.

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Thankfully, due to the new Captain Marvel, we didnʼt need to wait very long for a reply, as he won the penalty and converted it. After 58 minutes game on! England seemed to grow in confidence with direct passing and fluent movement. Sterling continued his runs from a forward position and then deep in midfield.

Despite being named Man of the Match it seemed as though Wilshere is not putting in as much work as Sterling in midfield. I thought that Sterling, rather than Wilshere should have had the award. Another positive was the performance of Southamptonʼs Nathaniel Clyne who had a decent game and grew from strength to strength as the match progressed. Overall a well deserved 3-1 win for England, which established a substantive six point lead at the top of the group after four matches.

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Upset

During the press conference I had the pleasure of asking England manager Roy Hodgson about my personal view of the teamʼs performance. “Do you feel that the lack of awareness and link up play was an issue as players are unaware of team-mateʼs movement”. Hodgson was neither impressed nor amused. “No”, he replied tersely before rapidly moving on to the next question.

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The Slovenian team were also upset with the FA as they were advised that the team were not allowed to walk from the nearby Hilton Hotel to Wembley Stadium. They had wanted to savour every moment of the Wembley experience, although it later emerged that they didnʼt really think that they could or would get a result at Wembley. They came looking for a point. Perhaps the occasion finally got to them as both Mertelj and Chievoʼs winger Valter Birsa implied afterwards.

Valter Birsa

Wales Believes Again

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (October 12th 2014)

Marvellous Support

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Over 30,000 supporters found their belief once more at the Cardiff City Stadium on Friday night. Having lost their way after the tragic suicide of popular Welsh manager Gary Speed, Chris Colemanʼs team are playing with confidence and belief once more. Only the Netherlands have beaten them in 2014.

“They [the fans] got us over the line Friday night”, Coleman said. “They were brilliant. Please, please come back and support us. Iʼve never seen a team applauded off like they were Friday night when they havenʼt won”.

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Wales tops the group – Belgium the group favourites have only played once. They trounced Andorra as did Wales. Thereʼs talk of returning to the far larger Millennium Stadium thanks to the support.

Counting

Despite boasting some exceptionally talented players: Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, and of course, Gary Speed, among others in recent years, the Welsh are well aware that Mark Hughes, Ian Rush, Neville Southall graced their clubs before that and John Toshack was a member of the great Liverpool side on the 1970s, but they never matched those feats for Wales.

Coleman is well aware of the blot as are his players. Wales have not played in a major finals since 1958. They are determined to put that right. If they qualify this time 58 will be a significant number again as it will be 58 years since they achieved that feat in 1958.

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Goal-keeper Wayne Hennessey says that the Welsh believe the time has come to deliver on their promise. “Well, weʼre hoping so”, Hennessey said. “Weʼre putting everything together. Weʼve got a great bunch of lads, staff and everything. Everythingʼs there for us to go straight forward, so hopefully we can. Like I say, weʼve got a great squad here now, great set-up all the staff, so hopefully we can go forward”.

Delivering the Promise

Readingʼs Hal Robson-Kanu has no doubt that it is time that Wales delivered on their promise and that they are going to. “Well obviously itʼs a campaign, but as a group of players, weʼre fully focussed on what we have to do”, he told us.

The core of the squad developed under Speed and seemed poised to deliver then before tragedy struck. Coleman had a rocky start, but now the belief has returned and the football is blossoming. Robson-Kanu is convinced the long wait is about to end.

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“I think with the group weʼve got now, weʼve been together for four, five – some of us six – years, weʼve always had that belief. We knew there was core players. Weʼre all at the right age. Weʼre at a young age and weʼve progressed together and obviously with world class players in the squad and in the team I think that weʼve always had that optimism, but now itʼs about time to deliver and thatʼs what weʼre doing”.

Double-edged

Both Hennessey and Robson-Kanu are not regulars for their clubs – Crystal Palace and Reading, but are contributing for Wales. Bosnia-Herzegovinaʼs manager Safet Sušić is one of his countryʼs greatest ever players. He thought Hennessey and his keeper Asmir Begović were the best players on Friday night.

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Where some players previously looked for an excuse not to play for their country, Coleman has seen the opposite – commitment of the highest order exemplified by Chris Gunterʼs attitude. The defender had a groin problem and heard that Coleman was considering resting him. He told his manager that he would be fit for the match against the Netherlands and was.

But some Welsh players are not playing for their clubs. For Coleman there are both positives and negatives in this. “[itʼs a] Double-edged sword”, he said. “[Theyʼre] hungry to play, but havenʼt got match practice”.

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Wales face Cyprus on Monday night at the Cardiff City Stadium, knowing that a win will keep them top of the group, whatever group favourites Belgium achieve in Bosnia-Herzegovina.