The Late Show

Editorʼs Note

We have covered many sports that do not receive the recognition that they should. Among them is womenʼs handball. The speed and agility and active time in the sport compares well to other sports, notably football. The Magazine will be relaunched shortly. WE will resume our coverage of a sport that tests the legacy of Londonʼs Olympic Games. For that reason we republish some of our articles on the sport.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (March 1st 2011)

Plan

It has made me a better player,” says Spanish left-winger Eli Pinedo. She came to Denmark to improve her game, but she is only here for one season. She returns home to be with her family later this month. Her club HC Odense was eliminated from the play-offs on Friday, barring a mathematical miracle by table-topping Randers.

Nevertheless, Odense was determined to put on a show and Pinedo in particular excelled with nine of the teamʼs twenty-one goals. Nevertheless, it was a cagey affair against Roskilde. The historic city that boasts the Viking Ship Museum and a Cathedral which is the final resting place of many of Denmarkʼs monarchs fought hard to spoil Odenseʼs party, but ultimately came up just short.

Topsy-Turvy

The left-back Pernille Larsen scored the first goal. Mette Iversen performed heroics in Odenseʼs goal and her opposite number Anne Munk was no slouch either. It looked set to be a low-scoring affair as Roskilde took seven minutes to equalise after Kathrine Heindahl was shown the yellow card for lying on the ball. Amalie Grav punished the indiscretion shortly afterwards – the first of her five first-half goals. Mia Rej bagged a brace, but Odenseʼs defence held firm.

Larsen, Heindahl and Nikolene Nielsen had a first half brace apiece, while Pinedo led the line with three, including subtle lobs over Munk and deadly accuracy from the penalty line. The woodwork was tested a few times as were the goal-minders as the lead was exchanged regularly. Roskildeʼs Emilie Frølich had to sit out the end of the first half and watch Pinedo restore the lead from the line. With seconds left of the first half Heindahl gave the hosts an 11-9 lead.

The Difference

Pinedo started the second half with a flourish, scoring a delightful goal within thirty seconds of the restart. Larsen extended the lead before Rej tried to take one for her team, but her efforts to prevent Kamilla Kristensen scoring by foul means failed. She was sent off for two minutes anyway. Odenseʼs five goal lead was soon whittled away.

Grav found Iversen in inspired form and lost her scoring touch too, but Louise Olsen came off the bench to great effect scoring five goals, all in the second half. Pinedo went one better in a dominant second half performance. Kristensen grabbed three more and Larsen one. After twenty minutes of the second half Pinedo scored her eighth goal to give Odense a four goal cushion. If Odense thought victory was in sight Roskilde had other ideas. Olsen pulled one back. Maria Hansen cut the deficit to just two. Camilla Sølling scored Roskildeʼs nineteenth with six minutes remaining. It was still anybodyʼs match, but the equaliser proved elusive until the last minute. Sølling grabbed it. With just a minute left all three results were possible.

With just twenty-five seconds left to play Pinedo scored. Roskilde threw caution to the wind seeking the equaliser, but turned the ball over and Odense held on for the win. “Iʼm very happy,” Pinedo told us, “for myself and the team.” Meanwhile her club is in a rebuilding phase. They have to look to youth as Randers and Viborg dominate. She is looking forward to the Olympics. “Itʼs very important for handball,” she says, hoping that Spain can pull a surprise, but before that there is the World Championships in Brasil and their Olympics are important too for her, Spain and her sport.

Respect

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 21st 2015)

Reputations

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Carlos Velasco Carballo rapidly established himself as Spainʼs top referee since deciding to concentrate on officiating in 2010. He had built up a reputation as a firm but fair referee – one who managed to combine a disciplinarian streak with letting the game flow. This was quite an achievement. It was not unusual for there to be several yellow cards and the odd red card too.

Armed with the appropriate FIFA badge, Velasco Carballo refereed his first international in 2008. His first season refereeing past qualifiers for the Championʼs League coincided with a meteoric rise. In that season he was awarded the 2011 Europa League Final in Dublin. Radamel Falcao García Zárate – then playing for Porto – set a Europa League (UEFA Cup) record for goals scored in the competition.

It was a niggly match settled by a solitary goal scored by Falcao and liberally peppered by fouls and cards. 42 fouls resulted in eight yellow cards. This was a typical Velasco Carballo performance. The following season, he continued where he left off. Velasco Carballo refereed 19 Primera División matches and brandished 16 red cards.

He was Spainʼs representative at Euro2012 ahead of the more experienced Alberto Undiano Mallenco. He refereed the opening match in Poland against Greece. Sokratis Papasthapoulos was controversially sent off, having received two unfortunate yellow cards.

Stock

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Velasco Carballoʼs stock plummeted at the World Cup in the wretched quarter-final between Brasil and Colombia. Some say the occasion got to him, but that does not explain his performance. It wasnʼt just the record tally of fouls – 54 – some of which were appalling. Flagrant encroachment at a free-kick was not only unpunished, but rewarded. It was a performance that defied explanation.

He permitted over 40 offences before brandishing a yellow card in that match in Fortaleza and the first was for a comparatively trivial offence compared to what had gone before and later. FIFA insists that there was no directive to referees to show leniency when it came to showing cards and refused to criticise Velasco Carballoʼs performance in Fortaleza.

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Diego Maradona and Falcao were scathing in their criticism, but they werenʼt to know that Velasco Carballo had officiated against type. It remained to be seen how the Spaniard would perform post Fortaleza. If FIFA was correct and there was no directive then Velasco Carballo must have chosen to abandon his previous style and referee in an alien fashion, which he would no doubt stick to.

The Renaissance

His reputation had taken a mauling during the World Cup. But the signs were there after the World Cup that Velasco Carballo had refereed that match in an alien manner. Last December he refereed Eibar versus Valencia. There were 21 fouls, but 10 yellow cards, four in the last ten minutes. His first match of the new year took place on January 3rd between Sevilla and Celta de Vigo. There were 45 fouls. Velasco Carballo showed nine yellow cards and one red.

It was nowhere near as dirty a match as that infamous quarter-final. A league match between Real Sociedad and Villarreal last month had 24 fouls. He brandished ten yellow cards and a red card too. Just over a month ago he refereed a local encounter Levante versus Elche. Velasco Carballo showed a red card to David Navarro after just 6 minutes. He also showed six yellow cards. There were 26 fouls in the match. Clearly, this was not a referee who would not use his cards if the offence warranted it in Spain. What about in European competition?

He officiated the match between Schalke04 and Maribor in September. There were 24 fouls and five yellow cards were shown, all in the second half. He refereed FCK versus Bayer Leverkusen last August. Each side committed 12 fouls. He showed six yellow cards. Anderlechtʼs home defeat by Arsenal resulted in just three yellow cards with 27 fouls. Ajax beat the Cypriots APOEL comfortably at home in December. The 4-0 drubbing had 16 fouls, 8 each. Two Cypriot players were the only ones booked. It was hardly a dirty match deserving a flurry of cards.

His latest international after the World Cup was a Euro2016 qualifier between Iceland and the Netherlands. Iceland won 2-0. There were 23 fouls and only one booking – Nigel de Jong in the last ten minutes. But all of these statistics donʼt necessarily tell the whole story – not all fouls deserve cards. I have seen only two of his matches since the World Cup – Sevilla versus Celta de Vigo and last Thursdayʼs Europa League tie at White Hart Lane. His performances were true to form. Fortaleza was an aberration.

The Return

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Fans of los Cafeteros present at White Hart Lane would be forgiven a double take or two at his performance on Thursday night. It was the same referee who lost control of the quarter-final between Brasil and Colombia. There was never any danger of a repeat dose tonight as long as there were no ludicrous directives. It soon became clear that there were not.

Just three minutes into the match those familiar with the style and performances of Madrid-based referee Carlos Velasco Carballo – remember him – saw a familiar sight. The real Velasco Carballo jogging over to Spursʼ right wing with intent. Gonzalo Rodríguez brought down Andros Townsend. It was a bad foul that deserved a booking and got one.

Velasco Carballo had made it clear where his line was and the match quickly settled down. There was no danger that this would degenerate into foul fare. The referee was in control. The whole match had 24 fouls and just three yellow cards. The refereeʼs authority was never in doubt and it flowed. There was no need for more cards. This is the real Carlos Velasco Carballo.

Life After Cuadrado

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 18th 2015)

Won’t be Missed

Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino told a press conference that Fiorentina won’t miss Juan Guillermo Cuadrado Bello. The Colombian winger – one of the stars of los Cafeteros’ best ever World Cup – went to Chelsea in the January transfer window. Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah went in the opposite direction on loan for the rest of the season.

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Salah has already said that he wants to stay in the renaissance city. He scored at the weekend and will be keen to impress. Salah’s rapid return to English soil with a point to prove will grab the headlines, but a forgotten Englishman returns too for the first time since his departure for sunnier climes in the summer – former Manchester City and England defender Micah Richards

But most column inches will be about the Cuadrado-sized hole in the Viola’s plans, plugged by among others Salah. “Juan [Cuadrado] is an unbelievable player, but it is true Fiorentina have a strong squad”, Pochettino said. “We have seen a lot of their games and they have a very good team. They have a lot of players and I’m sure they will do fine without him”.

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Impact of the Loss of Cuadrado

Vincenzo Montella the young coach of the Viola would rather talk about the players he still has or brought in than the versatile Colombian winger, but talk he must. “Well I think we pulled of a bit of a coup ourselves to be honest with you in signing Salah, but joking aside of course, itʼs almost a source of professional pride that someone wanted to pay so much for Cuadrado and that he developed so much as a player, because he certainly wasnʼt at that level when he first arrived to play for us, so I think us, the management and the players are very proud of how far heʼs been able to go with our help, but we havenʼt just replaced him with one player”, Montella said. “Weʼve replaced him with several players”.

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Cuadrado wanted to leave Florence last year even before the World Cup. His erstwhile Viola team-mates must get used to his absence and to his replacement. “Salah is a very good player”, Montella said. “Heʼs used to playing at this level and although heʼs only been with us for a short while, heʼs already shown very quickly thatʼs heʼs up to playing very well in Italy and playing very well for us”.

Veteran defender Manuel Pasqual agrees. “Cuadradoʼs a great player, the kind of guy who could make a difference on the pitch, but I think that Salahʼs got off to a flying start”, he said. “Heʼs being doing really well and I hope that he just continues playing the way he is at the moment”.

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The Shop Window

Fiorentina did not want to sell him, but money talks and Cuadrado had put himself in the shop window by having an exceptional World Cup. It was going to be a tough job to keep him. The Viola did well to stave off interest in the summer transfer window.

James Rodríguez Rubio had starred in the absence of the injured Radamel Falcao García Zárate and got the move both coveted to European champions Real Madrid. Falcao moved to Manchester United on deadline day on loan – a move that hasn’t worked for either party yet.

But while those stars got their moves Cuadrado stayed put in Florence, but his heart was already wandering. Cuadrado wanted to capitalise on his successful World Cup, but the hoped for move to Barçelona failed to materialise – he was the one major Colombian star not to get a big money move.

For a while at least it looked as if the Fiorentina might just keep their star. “He’s very important”, Fiorentina’s Administrative Delegate Sandro Mencucci told us exclusively at the Europa League Draw. “He’s one of the best players in the world in my opinion and it’s important that Cuadrado is with our team. We are a strong team – very tough”.

Going, Going, Gone

Cuadrado was not happy, but the Camp Nou faded into the distance as the transfer ban on the Catalan giants ended any hopes of a transfer there this season or in the summer. “Yes, he’s very important,” Mencucci.

Fiorentina had made him a better player than when he joined them from Udinese in 2012.Montella was quick to point that out. So how much was he worth? Mencucci laughs. “It’s difficult to talk about a sum”, he says determined to avoid tipping off potential suitors to the likely price. “I think that’s great valuable”. The message from Mencucci was clear. “No, no”, he said. “I don’t want to sell”.

But money talks and Cuadrado wanted to leave Florence. Chelsea knew his buy-out clause and got permission to talk to him. Before long their bid was accepted. Cuadrado – a boy who grew up in poverty without his father, because he was murdered during the appalling drug-related violence that tortured that nation in the 1990s – had joined the Premier League’s millionaires row.

He’d come a long way from his origins when the boy with a passion for football would go to extraordinary lengths to play the sport he loved, despite his mother’s and then grand-mother’s disapproval. He made his Champion’s League bow for his new club from the bench on Tuesday against Paris Saint Germain.

Familiar Faces

If he’s watching his old team tonight he will see plenty of familiar faces, including an unexpected one. “As far as officiating, then, no [he has no concerns] as far weʼre concerned”, Montella said. “The referees do their job. We respect their decisions; thatʼs it”. Cuadrado will beg to differ when he sees who the referee is. Carlos Velasco Carballo was the official who lost or never had control of the quarter-final between Brasil and Colombia (see Pockmarked at https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/pockmarked/).

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If the Spaniard referees as he normally does (see Tatters at https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/2007/), Cuadrado’s incredulity will turn to bemusement and then incredulity and anger. Velasco Carballo was a very different type of referee before the World Cup and returned to form afterwards. Colombians still await a satisfactory answer of why he refereed against form in Fortaleza.

Tatters

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (January 10th 2015)

Reputation

Carlos Velasco Carballoʼs reputation may never recover. Having refereed against type at Fortalezaʼs Estádio Castelão in the controversial hackfest of Brasil v Colombia, Velasco Carballo was savaged by Diego Maradona and given FIFAʼs equivalent of a vote of confidence. FIFA refused to give Juan Camilo Zuñiga Mosquera a retrospective red card or rescind Thiago Silvaʼs yellow card.

Zuñiga should have been sent off, but so should several others. It was baffling that a referee with a reputation as a disciplinarian had refereed this match as if he had forgotten his cards in the dressing room. It is also a great pity as Velasco Carballo, contrary to Maradonaʼs opinion is actually a very good referee – one who had steadily earned the top matches with stellar performances. That reputation is all but undone by one match.

He officiated his first top flight match a decade ago – Barçelona v Sevilla. Velasco Carballo decided to concentrate exclusively on refereeing in 2010. He had quietly built up a reputation as a firm but fair referee – one who managed to combine a disciplinarian streak with letting the game flow. This was quite an achievement.

Careful

He was a studious referee too – one who knew the foibles of those he was refereeing. Nobody pulled the wool over his eyes, so what happened to him on July 4th 2014? Did the occasion get to him? The refereeing of that match took some explaining then – it still does. There is no evidence that he was fazed by big occasions.

Velasco Carballo refereed his first international match in 2008 after earning the appropriate FIFA badge. The 2010-11 season was his first refereeing past the qualifiers for the Championʼs League. He ended that season with a high profile match – the Europa League Final in Dublin. Radamel Falcao – then playing for Porto – set a Europa League (UEFA Cup) record for goals scored in the competition.

Falcao, who would strongly criticise Velasco Carballo over the match in Fortaleza, scored the only goal of that match. It was a match punctuated by fouls and cards. 42 fouls resulted in eight yellow cards. This was typical Velasco Carballo. The native of Madrid is not allowed to referee any match involving Madrid teams, but his performance in that season marked him as one to watch.

Against His DNA

His performance in Fortaleza was incredible. There were 54 fouls in that match – well penalised ones. He brandished four yellow cards and no red cards. It required more than 40 offences bbefore he showed his first card and that was not for a violent challenge. There were also offences that were not penalised despite being under his nose (see Pockmarked at https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/pockmarked/).

The failure to enforce the rules also contributed to a serious injury suffered by Neymar. Zuñiga ploughed into Neymarʼs back. Whether he intended serious injury or not is immaterial. It was a ludicrous challenge – one that would never have been tolerated, or most likely even tried, if Velasco Carballo had been allowed to referee as he normally would have.

Zuñiga quickly apologised. The players have no problem with each other, but anxious to reach the ball or not these are the challenges that must not be allowed or encouraged even tacitly, as lack of consequences does. When Brasil played Colombia in a friendly in the USA, they embraced each other, but that match was scarred by the quarter-final in Fortaleza – a dirty business. Juan Guilermo Cuadrado Bello was sent off.

Form

The Europa League Final was far from the only match that Velasco Carballo refereed in his strict manner. He has a habit of showing cards, including sending players off. During the 2011-12 season in Spain he issued 16 red cards in 19 matches that he refereed. He was Spainʼs representative at Euro2012, refereeing the opening match between co-hosts Poland and Greece.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos received a second yellow card for fouling Polandʼs Rafal Murawski just before half time. Even that card was harsh, but the previous one beggared belief. Just before being sent off he received his first yellow card for allegedly fouling Robert Lewandowski, but the replays showed that Papastathopoulos had actually won the ball cleanly and fairly.

It was no foul and therefore it could not have been a yellow card. If he did not receive a yellow card then, he would not have been sent off for fouling Murawski and Greece would still have had eleven players on the pitch.

To paraphrase the great author Oscar Wilde: “To give one yellow card wrongly or harshly may be considered a misfortune. To give two is carelessness”! He also sent off Polandʼs goal-keeper Wojciech Szczesny in the same match.

So what happened in Fortaleza? Why had he abandoned the habits of a lifetime and done so on an even bigger stage? We are yet to get a satisfactory answer. Tolerating over forty offences before brandishing a single yellow card resulted in a display that was alien to the Spaniardʼs DNA.

And what of Velasco Carballo himself? FIFA say that there was no directive to referees to spare the rod and spoil the spectacle. But why would a stern referee officiate so against type? They also failed to take any sanction against the Spaniard for his bizarre performance that surely would have followed if it was all his fault. Would he return to form free from the ʻdirectiveʼ or was Fortaleza a taste of things to come?

Pockmarked

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (January 9th 2015)

Licence Revoked

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Colombiaʼs Golden Boot winner James Rodríguez Rubio – a joy to watch during Brasilʼs World Cup – was denied the right to play when Brasil and Colombia met in the quarter-final. Rodríguez was targeted as was Juan Guillermo Cuadrado and also Neymar in retaliation later. A match that should have been a mouthwatering tie was pockmarked by a tournament record 54 fouls.

Arguably the challenge that ended Neymar’s tournament would not have happened if control had been taken by the officials and maintained. This was a match that illustrated the need for the rules of the game to be respected and enforced. Without it matches like this descend into chaos.

Rodríguez and los Cafeteros lit up the World Cup previously with their delightful attacking play and infectious joy they were experiencing while playing. They were up to that point the only team to have won all their matches in that tournament in regulation time. They and football fans were robbed as their licence to entertain was revoked and cynical fouling and other cheating rewarded instead.

Responsibility

But Colombia bears responsibility too. In the first 20 minutes they outfouled Brasil, but the nature of those fouls was interesting. They were nowhere near as cynical or brutal as what followed. Brasil deserved their lead in that period, but their fouling even then was cynical and it was no coincidence that the main target throughout was Colombiaʼs star Rodriguez with the entertaining Cuadrado not far behind.

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When asked about their World Cup experience Sevilla striker Carlos Bacca said “I am happy”. Despite their best performance ever in the World Cup Finals, this team was capable of more. They were genuine contenders. They did very well, but they were robbed of the chance to do even better. And football was the ultimate loser – cheated of a good example leading to success, just four years after the disgraceful exhibition in the World Cup Final of Africaʼs World Cup.

Blatant

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James Rodríguez was denied protection from referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, normally a strict no-nonsense official. Brasil flouted many rules, including distance on free kicks without consequence or sanction. Colombia naïvely largely observed them until they cottoned on to the fact that Rodríguez in particular had been targeted by a cynical Selecão, lacking Rodríguezʼ ability with few exceptions.

The ultimate insult was Rodríguez being booked for a tackle that bore no comparison to the hacks he had endured. David Luiz scored a fantastic goal from the resulting free-kick. Interestingly, Colombia had observed the rules on that free-kick. Their wall stood behind Velasco Carballoʼs white line and did not encroach.

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Compare that to Brasilʼs conduct at a free-kick taken by Rodríguez in the first half. The free-kick – admittedly controversially given against Fernandinho over a 50-50 challenge with Victor Ibarbo Guerrero with both players potentially at fault. That decision went Colombiaʼs way, but once given the rules seemed to be discarded.

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Note the position of officials as Rodríguez strikes the ball and those of the two defenders who had plainly rushed out of the wall long before it was taken. Even the line drawn by the referee was invisible as the wall had encroached anyway. Some payers never stood on the line, let alone behind it. The encroaching began as soon as the referee turned his back on Brasilʼs wall.

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Nevertheless, it was obvious that there had been massive encroachment when it was taken. Both Velasco Carballo and his assistant referee cannot have failed to see it. So what were the consequences for this blatant cheating? Nothing. Not a yellow card – not even the free-kick being re-taken. Not even talking to. Play continued as if nothing had happened.

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The Shameful Precedent

And it wasnʼt Brasilʼs first offence of that nature. Fernadinho had brought Rodríguez down near the half-way line previously. Rodríguez wanted to take the free-kick quickly, but was prevented from getting up by Fernadinho and more so Paulinho, who had to be pushed out from in front of Rodríguez.

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The much-maligned Fred – less than a yard away – tried and failed to intercept it when it was taken. Ibarbo received it, but seeing the referee running towards him thought that Velasco Carballo had called play back. The result of such unsporting play? Brasil got possession and counter-attacked from it. All of this unsporting conduct took place under Velasco Carballoʼs nose. He did nothing. No card, no talking to, no warning – nothing. Small wonder it was repeated.

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And then there was Thiago Silvaʼs shameful shove on Cuadrado with the ball yards away – unsporting conduct to put it mildly. The Brasilian captain should have been booked then with less than 40 minutes played. He was far from the only player to deserve a card by then. Worse was to follow – far worse.

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Setting the Scene

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (January 8th 2015)

Beautiful?

In what should have been a festival of Samba football celebrating the Beautiful Game, the second World Cup that Brasil hosted will be remembered partly for the wrong reasons. Germany deserved to win and tempting as it is to take some satisfaction from the drubbing that Luiz Felipe Scolariʼs anti-football received in the semi-final, it proved cold comfort.

ʼJosé Pékerman Krimenʼs Colombian side, missing their predatory striker Radamel Falcao, were a joy to watch, playing attacking flowing football. Their joyous football was infectious. But they fell victim to cynical anti-football in the quarter-final (see https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/the-beautiful-game/). The inheritors of Samba Footbball went home to soon and so too did Chile.

Content?

But Colombia must bear some responsibility too. Sevillaʼs striker Carlos Bacca summed up the mood regarding Colombiaʼs World Cup and performance. “I am happy,” Bacca told Empower-Sport. He speaks for his nation, but should los Cafeteros and their supporters be content?

They were robbed by a display of cynical fouling by Brasil and ineffective refereeing by Spainʼs Carlos Velasco Carballo – an experienced referee who had handled big matches previously and had a reputation as a disciplinarian never shy to brandish a card or seven or eight. But the signs of a far too lenient approach were there earlier and that all it could ever achieve was lead to a licence to hack.

Precedents

Some referees are thought to be too lenient. Howard Webb was awarded the World Cup Final in 2010. He tried to let it flow, famously allowing Nigel de Jong to remain on the pitch after a kung-fu style kick on Xabi Alonso. The final soon degenerated into a spectacle of anti-football. It should have provided a stark lesson, but didnʼt.

Four years on Webb took charge of Brasilʼs first match in the knock-out phase (see https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/brasil-beat-chile-just/). Chile, inspired by Alexis Sánchez Sánchez, now carrying Arsenalʼs challenge in England, stood in their way. Less than a minute into that match Brasilʼs captain Thiago Silva went into Arturo Vidal Pardoʼs back. It was soft but there was no attempt to play the ball.

No card was shown – it deserved a talking to, but that is not Webbʼs style – he at least was consistent. Less than two-and-an-half minutes into the match Fernandinho clattered into Charles Aránguiz Sandoval, sending the Chilean midfielder, who plays for Brasilian club Internacional flying.

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Dirty

Webb had a perfect view of a dirty challenge that deserved a yellow card. Instead Manchester Cityʼs enforcer got no more than a talking to. The match had barely started, but Chile had already suffered more fouls than minutes had been played. Aránguiz caught Neymar within a minute. It was already threatening to become a hack-fest. The fouling continued with penalty shouts turned down.

Despite an awful foul by Vidal on Neymar and Fernadinho racking up the offences – two in less than a minute – half an hour went by without a card emerging from Webbʼs pocket for Manchester Cityʼs defensive midfielder.

Typical

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The second half wasnʼt as entertaining, card were shown. Hulk scored, but was penalised for handball and booked by Webb. Later substitute Jô was shown the yellow card for dangerous play, catching goalkeeper Claudio Bravo Muñoz high – Xabi Alonso could be forgiven an incredulous double-take or even two.

The match went into extra time. Webb brandished yellow seven times before Brasil scraped through on penalties, as for the second time in the match the woodwork saved Brasil. Five were shown in normal time. Brasil got four and Chile three in a match that set the record for fouls in a World Cup match – 51 – but somehow Fernandino escaped sanction and continued where he left off against Colombia in the next round. It was typical Webb. Worse would follow – far worse.

A Villainʼs Charter?

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 8th 2014)

A Clean Slate

This week the Championʼs League and Europa League will reach the business stage of deciding which teams will continue in the knock-out phase, drop down to the Europa League, or finish their participation in either competition. Soon the consequences of a rule change on carried over yellow cards will bite.

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Prior to the start of this seasonʼs tournaments UEFAʼs General Secretary Gianni Infantino explained the reasoning behind European Footballʼs governing body taking the decision to follow FIFAʼs lead to give players a clean slate for the final stages of the Championʼs League and Europa League for the current season. Like the World Cup yellow cards will be wiped clean at the quarter-final stage.

UEFA says it wanted to avoid the risk of top players being suspended for the latter stages of the competition. But does it? The World Cup-winning French midfielder and current Strategic Advisor of Greek champions Olympiacos, Christian Karembeu told Empower-Sport that he supported the changes.

Of course”, Karembeu said. “This is normal. I think that … every player deserve to play final, for example, and I think itʼs logical to give the chance to everyone when you dream about the finals – you dream about it”! But will it?

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Villainsʼ Charter

But the flair players – the ones spectators pay to see – are the victims of the persistent fouling, the ʻenforcer tacklesʼ designed to discourage them from playing and much more besides. This leads to them getting frustrated on occasion and reacting.

Remember David Ginola trudging off the pitch unhappily after being sent off for elbowing Lee Dixon when Arsenal played Newcastle United in the Coca Cup as it then was in January 1996. “They wonʼt let me play football”, he said. And they hadnʼt. Dixon had been fouling Ginola throughout the match, ensuring that Ginola could not function and the officials had allowed it. Finally a very frustrated Ginola retaliated by elbowing Dixon. He was sent off. The referee had no choice, but as Kevin Keegan then manager of Newcastle observed, flair players were not being protected.

And then there are cards picked up for deliberate blocks or non-violent cheating. The deliberate hand-balls, the shirt-tugging to prevent an attack developing and of course the simulation all deserve cards and the full consequences, donʼt they? Wonʼt this change in the rules encourage players to offend more as the consequences for doing so diminish?

The recent World Cup was ruined by a combination of excessively lenient refereeing and this rule. The quarter-final between Brasil – the most persistent offenders – and Colombia was destroyed as a spectacle by the failure to enforce the rules of the game. This happened under the auspices of Luiz Felipe Scolari – a manager who once declared the ʻBeautiful Game Deadʼ and the man that also said he wanted his team to foul more. What did they expect to happen other than the anti-football inflicted on the world that night?

Foul and Fouler

Far from guaranteeing the participation of the top players, these changes rewarded persistent offenders whose job it was to prevent the most talented from playing football – the exact opposite of what these changes are supposed to be delivering. What did they expect?

Letʼs hope that the amnesty on suspensions will not be accompanied by a repetition of the ludicrously lenient refereeing that rewarded the cynical and dirty play that Scolari inflicted on a world hoping for Samba football. Was it coincidence that Brasil played dirty?

It was their game plan after all – one that was cynically adopted to stop flair players by foul means or fouler – and utterly predictable that this would happen to ensure that a mediocre team undeservedly reached at least the final stages of the World Cup. Ironically, this happened at the expense of a team that had inherited the mantle of Samba football.

FIFA could not have failed to realise that Brasil would play this way. A talented Chile side and an even better Colombia paid the price. It also put a target on Neymarʼs back that put him out of the World Cup. Letʼs hope it doesnʼt happen again in the Championʼs League or Europa League.

Roller-Coaster

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (September 17th 2014)

The Prodigal

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Suspended indefinitely by the Ghanaian Football Federation after an altercation with the Black Starsʼ coach James Kwesi Appiah that saw him sent home from the World Cup, Schalke04ʼs German-born international Kevin-Prince Boateng must wonder whether it was worth reversing his decision to retire from international football and whether he made the right decision pledging his allegiance to the Stars rather than Germany.

Boateng was a former German youth international left Brasil early. Meanwhile his half-brother Jérôme was part of Germanyʼs World Cup winning team. The brothers have faced each other in World Cup matches twice. Four years ago Kevin was a hate figure in Germany when a mistimed tackle on Michael Ballack put the then German captain out of the World Cup. Boateng apologised to Ballack, but criticised both the German FA and national team manager Joachim Lõw. Ballackʼs international career ended controversially.

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Uncompromising

Boatengʼs disciplinary record has been troublesome, but the box to box midfielder deserves credit too. He moved to AC Milan in 2010 and made headlines for all the right reasons. Within 14 minutes of coming on as a substitute against Lecce, he had bagged a hat-trick, only the second by a substitute in Serie A

He also led the five main leagues in sendings off in 2012-2013 averaging one every six games. before deciding to leave Italy for Germany and Schalke 04. Boateng decided to change his international allegiance from Germany to Ghana. It was approved in May 2010, causing him to miss the Black Starsʼ run to the final of the African Cup of Nations in Angola.

In November 2011 he retired from international football, citing the effect of long distance travel. He was just 24 and once again missed the African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and also South Africa in 2012 and 2013. He played in two World Cu campaigns, but his indefinite suspension suggests that he will never grace Africaʼs top competition – the next edition takes place in Morocco next year.

Uncompromising on the pitch Boateng proved himself an implacable opponent of racism too. During Italyʼs mid season break in January 2013, Pro-Patria, then in Italyʼs fourth tier played against AC Milan. Their fans racially abused Boateng who booted the ball into the stands and walked off the pitch in protest, followed by his team-mates. While some criticised him for walking off the pitch other praised his stand. Clarence Seedorf, then playing for Botafogo in Brasil thought Boatengʼs reaction played into the hands of racists.

They should just be identified and kicked out of the stadium,” Seedorf said. “Leave the 90% that were enjoying the match and finish the game. If Boateng was able to identify the whole corner, you just kick the whole corner out, That is how I think it should be handled Walking away? Yes, you send a signal. But this has happened more than once and I donʼt think it really changes all that much. We are just empowering that little group with their behaviour to make this mess”.

Among those who took to Twitter to support Boateng were Rio Ferdinand, Vincent Kompany and Patrick Vieira. “If the stories about KPB walking off the pitch with teammateʼs (sic) after being racially abused are true, fair play to him..well done #UefaStandUp”, Ferdinand said at the time.

Manchester City captain Kompany fully supported both Boateng and his then club. “Act of racism against Boateng during Milanʼs friendly” Kompany tweeted. “How about becoming extremely intolerant towards racist idiots”? UEFA has adopted penalties for racist conduct as did FIFA, but the problem persists despite close calls to a walk off previously – notably Samuel Etoʼo and Marc Zoro.

They need to be told I can only salute Milanʼs decision to leave the pitch”, Kompany tweeted. “Also noted that the majority of the fans were completely supportive of the players”.

Vieira, working with Manchester Cityʼs youth structure at the time, which he retains despite his subsequent promotion to reserve team manager, was vociferous in his support of Boateng. “It was brave of Kevin Prince Boateng to do what he did today, and it was the right thing”, Vieira said on Twitter. “We need to stand up and stand together. Well done”.

Boateng was appointed to FIFAʼs Anti-Discrimination Task Force under the CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb. He presented his proposals earlier this year. Boateng also became an ambassador for the United Nations against racism in March 2013. He told FIFA President Sepp Blatter that he recognised that he was wrong to walk off the pitch, but that strong action needed to be taken.

Welcome

Last season Boateng completed the most dribbles in the top five European leagues. He is now an integral part of Schalkeʼs plans. Ghanaʼs decision to dispense with his services is the German clubʼs gain. Tonight he returns to England for his clubʼs opening fixture in the Championʼs League against Chelsea, weeks after playing a friendly against his former club Tottenham Hotspur.

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He was given a warm reception by Spurs fans. “Obviously itʼs a mark of respect and I think Kevin obviously did a very good job here”, Tottenham Hotspurʼs German international Lewis Holtby said. “Otherwise the reception wouldnʼt have been that good. I think itʼs good for him and itʼs good to see Tottenham fans being so positive”.

In the absence of Schalkeʼs captain the World Cup-winning German defender Benedikt Hõwedes, the responsibility on Boateng is even higher. “Heʼs a great player, a great personality, so heʼs very important for us and we are very happy that heʼs in our team”, Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta told us.

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The Falcons set to fulfil Pelé’s prophecy!

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (August 28th 2014)

Were you Watching?

Segun at Wembley

Did you watch the finals of the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup last Sunday night (August 24th)? If you did, I welcome you to the future. I believe that what happened in Montreal, Canada, between Germany and Nigeria was a preview of the future – the emergence of an African team good enough to become world champions in the beautiful game of football.

Sir Walter Winterbottom, England’s youngest and longest-serving national team manager, and, later, the legendary Brazilian striker, Pelé, had predicted that an African country would win the World Cup before the end of the last century.

That forecast did not come to pass at the highest level of the game. African countries became global champions only at junior levels, with the credibility of some of the victories in doubt because of issues about the true ages of the supposedly ‘junior’ players. At age-group levels older players have a physical and mental advantage that can make the difference between winning and losing matches.

A Hard Struggle

Whereas the age-group competitions were established for the purpose of building a more solid foundation for football at grass-roots level, and specifically to narrow the huge gulf between developed and developing football cultures, African countries saw it as an end to achieve at a junior level what they could not at the senior level.

Africa’s football was considered of such low standard that, for a long time, only one spot was allotted to the continent in the World Cups, both male and female. The African teams were admitted only to make up the numbers and serve the purpose of political correctness.

For the first forty years of the World Cup, Africa was not deemed of even one automatic place at the World Cup. They had to compete in the World Group. They got their automatic place in 1970 after boycotting the 1966 edition. Morocco, hosts of the next African Cup of Nations, were the first team to qualify for the World Cup from Africaʼs group

Improvements

The situation has improved significantly in recent years. With increasingly better performances Africa now has more slots in global competitions, but even that has stagnated. Africaʼs World Cup (2010) was a disappointment and Algeria and Nigeria apart, so was the latest edition. The Quarter-final barrier remains in tact.

Generally, however, one area that had suffered ‘neglect’ and, definitely, inadequate attention has been the women’s game. Africa, in particular, for years, did not put up high performances in female football. The sport suffered adversely from the consequences of cultural, religious and traditional restrictions and taboos. As a result the level and growth of female football at domestic levels in most African countries has been low and limited.

At grass-roots level, particularly in schools, there is hardly any female football played. The pool of exceptionally gifted ones is also very shallow. The few countries that have been participating in international championships have done so against the backdrop of very poor funding, neglect and little public attention.

Progress

That’s why any little achievement by the teams must be celebrated and well acknowledged. Africaʼs men have failed to break the quarter-final hoodoo in the World Cup, but Under-20s football is a different story with Ghana leading the way. In 1993 Brazil beat them in the final 2-1. Four years later they placed fourth. In 1999 Nigeria hosted the tournament and Mali came 3rd – the best of the African effort. Two years later, in Argentina, Ghana placed 2nd again and Egypt came third.

In 2005 Nigeria lost to Argentina in the final. Morocco were beaten by Brasil for third place – the second time two African teams reached the semi-finals. No African team, let alone two has achieved this in the main event. In 2009 an African country, Egypt, hosted the Under-20 World Cup – the second African nation to do so and an African nation won a World Cup for the first time – Ghana. They placed third four years later.

At Under-17 level Nigeria’s boys are the most successful in the world, with four titles, including the inaugural event at Under-16s in 1985. They won again in 1993, sandwiched between Ghana’s triumphs. They won again in 2007, losing the next edition in the final to Brasil two years later before winning again last year.

Breaking the Barrier

Africa’s men and boys have won World Cups at youth level, but never before have our women been the best in the world at any level. That’s why we must celebrate the most recent African achievement – Nigeria’s Falconets. Nigeria’s female teams, since their first appearance in 1991, have been the most successful in the continent and have represented Africa more times than any other country. Close observers have seen a slow but steady progress of the Nigerian female teams.

The major tipping point appears to be the FIFA Women’s Under-20 championship of 2010 in Germany. The Nigerian girls played against the host nation in the finals of that competition. Although they lost by 2-0 the occasion marked Africa’s best performance in all categories of female football until that time.

Two years later in Japan, Nigeria repeated their remarkable ascension of the ladder of global football by getting to the semi-finals of the same championship and losing narrowly to the USA, a country with the best record in female football at all levels. In the last two championships, therefore, Nigeria has been up there amongst the best in the world. Last Sunday, Nigeria sounded notice of fresh ambitions, when the country met Germany again in the 2014 finals.

To play against the world’s current best footballing nation in the final, and match them ball for ball, tackle for tackle, and only narrowly lose by one goal scored by 20 year-old Lena Petermann after extra time, is confirmation that Nigeria has truly arrived at the apex of female football in the world. Petermann impressed me too. She has the knack of scoring important goals – match-winning ones. She also scored the winner in Germany’s opening match against the USA and a stunning goal which beat France in the semi-final.

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The Best Player

Nigeria produced in the 2014 championship the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot award winner, the highest honour for the best player and the highest goal scorer in the championship. Both awards were won by one person, a Nigerian, Asat Oshoala, an authentic new female footballing genius!

In a match that Nigeria could have won in regulation time but lost in extra time, the world was privileged to glimpse the real possibility of an African team winning the World Cup at the highest level! What I saw that night is the clearest indication yet that an African team is about to fulfil one of football’s most anticipated predictions.

The Future Beckons

The next FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place in 2015 in Canada. I can already picture the Nigerian national team, the Falcons, a mixture of some of the girls from the present Under-20 team and remnants of the best of the old Falcons, who are now, like the finest wine, much better with age. That combination will be ‘lethal’.

The Nigerian girls in Montreal were spectacular. They displayed all the typical characteristics of Nigerian male players and more – physical strength, mental toughness, athleticism, great skills and (their greatest asset) uncommon fighting spirit. This team can play with such power and pace that most opposition will find it hard to deal with. They will play as if possessed with some spirit, fighting and contesting for every ball as if their lives depended on it.

With a little bit of improvement in the technical area, the girls will be ready to take on the world and do what the men have failed to do – win the World Cup for the first time. That way, Walter Winterbottom’s prediction half a century ago, and Pelé’s, a little bit later, would finally be fulfilled.

Well done magnificent Falconets!

The New Dynasty

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 13th 2014)

The Tactician

With the spectre of penalties looming Bayern München’s Mario Götze’s spectacular goal ended Germany’s 18 year wait for a trophy at the Estádio Maracanã tonight. Joachim Löw’s strategy and patience had finally been rewarded with the ultimate triumph. With eight minutes of the second period of extra time remaining a quick throw-in down the left flank released Chelsea’s André Schürrle.

His cross was chested down and volleyed across the Monaco’s second choice keeper Sergio Romero for the goal that won the World Cup. It was a strike worthy of ending almost two decades of pain and a decade for the clinical tactician Löw. There was a typically German meticulous attention to detail to Löw’s planning that required unusual patience to bear fruit and deliver the foundations for continued success – domination even.

The Next Generation

Eight years ago Löw took over the Mannschaft from Jürgen Klinsmann, who had blooded the youngsters who now provided the experience to blend with the undoubted promise of the next generation, which hammered England’s youth five years ago. Captained by 30-year-old Philipp Lahm the Mannschaft has integrated exceptionally talented youngsters – the Under-20 European Cup winning team of 2009 – and delivered their first senior title.

Germany’s team of World beaters is young and achieved the top prize in half the time it took Spain’s tiki-taki generation to translate youthful promise into senior prowess. Five years ago Germany’s Under-20 team destroyed England 4-0 in Malmo to claim an important trophy. Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira played a huge part in German success as youngsters and now in the senior team too.

But for Khedira’s injury during warming up more than half of that Cup-winning team would have started the World Cup Final. Löw’s plans for German domination for years to come appear to be built on solid foundations. Few deny that Germany were worthy winners and the team of the tournament.

Small Margins

Despite the odd flash of genius Barçelona’s Lionel Messi failed to provide the moment of genius capable of settling Argentina’s nerves, or even testing the Goalkeeper of the Tournament, Germany’s sweeper/keeper Manuel Neuer. But Germany didn’t have everything their own way.

Argentina had the best of the first half and even had the ball in the net, but Argentina should have taken the lead earlier. Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín will have nightmares for the rest of his career over the glaring miss that prolongs an even longer wait for silverware than Germany’s for his country. The Albiceleste last lifted a major trophy in 1993 – the Copa América.

A defensive header out by Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels was inexplicably headed back into Higuaín’s path by Toni Kroos. The Real Madrid bound midfielder’s error should have been punished by Higuaín, but Neuer was quick off his line, making himself a bigger obstacle. Higuaín lobbed him, but his effort went wide. Credit to Neuer, but Higuaín had to score that.

Redemption Lost

Ten minutes later Higuaín thought that redemption had come. A glorious pass by Messi released Ezequiel Lavezzi on the right wing. Lavezzi’s cross was converted by Higuaín – a more difficult chance, but eagle-eyed assistant referee Andrea Steffani had spotted an offside and the goal was disallowed.

Germany had chances too. With half-time approaching Kroos’ corner was met by a virtually unmarked Benedikt Höwedes. His header hit the post, but the assistant referee’s flag was quickly raised as Thomas Müller was offside.

Shortly after the break Lucas Biglia put Messi through on the left of the area, but Messi pulled his shot wide of Neuer’s left hand post. A player of Messi’s class should have scored. It was far from a dirty match, but once again the directive struck. Javier Mascherano has arguably been Argentina’s most important player – allowing Messi to shin – but while no quarter was asked or given the desire to avoid cards being shown turned into a foulers’ charter.

No Quarter Asked or Given

Mascherano was booked for a lunge on Miroslav Klose after losing possession, but escaped further sanction for further fouling later, including a double-team lunge with Lucas Biglia on Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern München midfielder was the victim of some harsh treatment.

Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, plagued by injuries, replaced Lavezzi at half time and soon made a nuisance of himself. Within twenty minutes of coming on he was deservedly booked for an atrocious foul on Schweinsteiger. Agüero can have no complaints. He could have been sent off, but another offence early in the second period of extra time left Schweinsteiger bloodied as Agüero’s hand connected with the German’s head. Sami Khedira was incensed.

Khedira’s last minute replacement Christoph Kramer suffered a head injury after a collision with Marcos Rojo. Eventually, Kramer had to be replaced by Schürrle. His injury reignited the debate on whether concussed or dazed players should be allowed to play on whether they want to or not. There was no question of intent or malice in the challenge. Others were fortunate to remain on the pitch.

Exploitation

Neuer was fortunate to escape a card. Just over ten minutes into the second half he leapt high and caught Higuaín in the head with his knee. Higuaín was distinctly unimpressed, but there was no card for Neuer. Incredibly the officials penalised Higuaín. It made a mockery of the tournament as thuggery on the pitch was rewarded with a licence to foul – one that Brasilian legend Zico said had been exploited.

Far from protecting skilful players from unwanted cards and suspensions, it put a mark on their backs that was cynically exploited by the least skilful and thuggish teams – Brasil was just the highest profile example of this. This wretched approach invaded the final too. But the football was entertaining too.

Icons

Both sides tried to win. No sooner had extra time started that both sides attacked. Höwedes passed to Schürrle who went to ground after prodding it to Götze. Schürrle got up and received Götze’s pass before shooting, but Romero parried. Five minutes later Marcos Rojo delivered an excellent cross, but substitute Rodrigo Palacio’s first touch cost him dear. Neuer got off his line quickly and Palacio’s lob went wide. He should have scored.

Well into injury time Argentina had a free-kick. Messi took it and blasted it well over. The curtain fell on Argentina’s dreams of Maracanazo II and on Messi’s hopes to match national icon Diego Maradona’s place in his country’s affections.