Football – In Tact as Ever (Part Two)

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

Shenanigans

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

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

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

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Uncomfortable

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

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

Disproportionate Effects?

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

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

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

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

Fit and Proper

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Problem

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

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

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

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

Eyes on the Prize

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 29th 2014)

Pared Down

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Hull City paid the price for taking the Europa League lightly. KSC Lokeren progressed to the group stage on away goals, leaving England with just two representatives in the Europa League this season – the one where it really matters. This seasonʼs winners qualify for the Championʼs League. Tottenham Hotspur and Everton are Englandʼs only representatives in the Europa League this season.

Mauricio Pochettinoʼs Spurs team will play Turkeyʼs Beşiktaş, whose striking prowess was bolstered by the capture of Senegalese international Demba Ba in the summer. Belgradeʼs Partizan dropped down from the Championʼs League qualifying stage, but only had the chance to play in the top competition because Serbian champions Red Star were banned after falling foul of Financial Fair Play obligations by failing to pay their debts. Greek outfit Asteras Tripoli completed Group C.

Meanwhile, Roberto Martínezʼ Everton will play Russiaʼs FC Krasnodar, Germanyʼs VfL Wolfsburg and Franceʼs LOSC Lille in Group H. The French team, boasting last seasonʼs record breaking goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, were beaten by Porto for a place in the Championʼs League group stage.

Pick of the Rest

Defending Europa League winners Sevilla will play Croatiaʼs HNK Rijeka in Group H along with Belgiumʼs Standard de Liège and Rotterdamʼs top team Feyenord. Following Pochettinoʼs departure to Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton lured Feyenordʼs manager Ronald Koeman to St. Maryʼs Stadium. The vacancy at the de Kuip Stadium was filled by Fredericus Rutten. Unai Emery Etxegoien will expect the Andalusian club to dominate Group G despite losing captain Federico Fazio to Spurs.

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Villarreal is the only other Spanish team to make the group stage. They will expect to progress from Group A. Germanyʼs Borussia Mönchengladbach along with Cypriots Apollon Limassol and Swiss outfit FC Zürich complete the group. French outfit Saint-Étienne and Ukrainians Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk will expect to confirm Azerbaijanʼs Qarabağ Ağdam FK as Group Fʼs whipping boys while Internazionale di Milano complete the group.

 

Interʼs Vice-President and former on-pitch icon Javier Zanetti welcomed the draw, but assured us that Inter would not take the tournament lightly. Group K consists of Portuguese club EA Guincamp, Belarusʼ Dinamo Minsk, Salonikaʼs finest PAOK and Fiorentina, still boasting the talents of Colombiaʼs coveted winger Juan Guillermo Cuadrado Bello. Fiorentinaʼs CEO Sandro Mencucci told us, “He [Cuadrado] is one of the best players in the world”. The Viola do not want to sell him and Mencucci refused to put a figure on Cuadradoʼs value.

Controversy

Italyʼs final representative is controversial. Torino got the nod, although Parma have a right to feel aggrieved at being denied their place due to a financial infraction over taxes that they had not been informed of in time to meet the deadline – an utterly absurd situation. Despite the sympathy of Italian courts the sanction against Parma stood and Torino took their plaCIMG9125ce.

Torino could have qualified in their own right if Alessio Cerci had not missed a penalty against Fiorentina at Florenceʼs Artemio Franchi Stadium on the last day of the Serie A season. Cerciʼs tears showed what it meant to him, but the Granata were reprieved by Parmaʼs fate. Torino will face Belgians Club Brugge and the Scandinavian challenge of FC København and HJK Helsinki.

Celticʼs heroic recent performances in the Championʼs League particularly against Barçelona won the Glaswegian club deserved plaudits, but that goodwill was dissipated after a 6-1 thrashing by Polandʼs Legia Warszawa was turned into a 4-4 draw that allowed Celtic through on away goals after a technicality that had no bearing on the result. A Legia player had a three match ban – he actually served it, but the paperwork was defective. UEFA overturned the result, costing Legia their win and the possibility of earning in the Championʼs League. Legia was dumped out of the Championʼs League, allowing a shambles of a Celtic team another chance, which they failed to take. Sloveniaʼs Maribor beat them in Scotland to progress. Celtic and Legia both qualified for the group stage of the Europa League, but the draw kept them apart.

Austrian club FC Salzburg, little known Romanian outfit FC Astra from Giurgi, and Croatiaʼs Dinamo Zagreb provide the opposition for Celtic in Group D. Meanwhile, Ukraineʼs Metalist Kharkiv, Hull Cityʼs Belgian conquerors KSC Lokeren and Turkish outfit Trabzonspor are Legiaʼs opponents in Group L. The Europa League Final will be held in Warsaw this year.

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Disrespect?

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 29th 2014)

Poor Relation offered Riches

The Europa League is still seen as the poor relation of the Championʼs League. To some clubs it is seen as a distraction – at best a poor consolation for missing out on the Championʼs League. Last season when asked by us what Chelseaʼs objectives for the season were José Mourinho quipped, “to not qualify for the Europa League”. He then expressed satisfaction that the aim had been achieved.

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Spain and Italy among others take the Europa League more seriously. Few can forget the drama provided last season. Stéphane MʼBiaʼs last gasp winner at Mestalla took Sevilla to the final in Turin where Béla Guttmannʼs ghost toyed with poor Benfica again. Unai Emery Etxegoienʼs Sevilla triumphed on penalties after a bore drawn in Turin. Nevertheless the emotion and drama of the Europa League at least matched the Championʼs League. Still itʼs not enough. This year the winners will join the Championʼs League at the very least at the final qualifying stage for the group phase.

Distraction?

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“If we were to get to Europe it would be a good European tour and I think thatʼs one of them where obviously we wouldnʼt go into the competition expecting to win it, but it would be a good few weekends out for the fans”, Hull Cityʼs captain Curtis Davies said after reaching the FA Cup final last April. They qualified. Only Belgian outfit KSC Lokeren stood between them and a European tour.

Davies promised that unlike some English teams previously Hull City cared about the Europa League and would take it seriously. Their Egyptian winger Ahmed Elmohamady backed him up. Davies insisted that the Europa League is not a distraction.

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“I wouldnʼt say so because when I was at Birmingham and we were in the Championship and in the Championship you play 46 games, so obviously we played 46 games and we played 8 games in the Europa League and then we got to the play-off semi-final, so it was no distraction for us”, Davies told us. “It didnʼt take away from us. Itʼs more of the fact that youʼre playing catch-up in games in terms of you might three games behind the rest of the field, but itʼs no distraction and I think if youʼre winning games it breeds confidence, so if you can go in those games and win then I donʼt see why you canʼt be happy”.

Tigerless

Hull City looked forward to playing in Europe despite losing two cup finals last season, they were given the opportunity. Beat Lokeren and the European tour was on. A 1-0 defeat in Belgium left a far from unattainable task, but the dream ended before it started. Lokeren got a crucial away goal.

Robbie Brady got both Hullʼs goals, but resting key players cost them dear. Allan McGregorʼs error in Belgium in the first leg proved costly as did the red card shown to Yaninck Sagbo.

Ultimately the Europa League was disrespected. Despite beating Belgian outfit Lokeren 2-1 Hull Cityʼs European adventure ended before it got started. Steve Bruce and Hull City fans can at least console themselves with a pair of astute signings ahead of the Premier League campaign. Former Spurs captain Michael Dawson joins Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone at the KC Stadium.

Uruguayʼs forgotten striker Abel Hernández Platera awaits a work permit after leaving Sicilian club Palermo. Hernández rejected Benfica for Hull. Their conquerors were drawn against Ukraineʼs Metalist Kharkiv, Turkeyʼs Trabszonspor and Polandʼs Legia Warszawa, who were controversially ejected from the Championʼs League.

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Arsenal trounce Manchester City

by Satish Sekar at Wembley Stadium © Satish Sekar (August 10th 2014)

The Trophy Habit

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After almost a decade without a trophy Arsène Wenger has delivered two in less than three months. Arsenal beat Steve Bruceʼs Hull City last May to set up this afternoonʼs clash against Manuel Pellegriniʼs Manchester City. Olivier Giroud scored the last a pick of Arsenalʼs three goals – sumptuous 25 yard dipping and swerving effort that gave former Málaga shot-stopper Willy Caballero no chance.

Santi Cazorla opened the scoring after 21 minutes. With less than five minutes of the first half remaining Aaron Ramsey got the second. Yaya Sanogo provided the assists for both goals. He ploughed through Cityʼs defence before poking it through to Cazorla in the area. Caballero should have done better, but a lacklustre Manchester City side posed few threats.

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Sanogo could have grabbed one for himself with just under half an hour played, but failed to capitalise on the chance created by Cazorla by dragging his shot wide. Wojiech Szcizęsny was a virtual spectator in the first half as new signing Mathieu Debuchy blocked Samir Nasriʼs effort. Predictably, the former Arsenal midfielderʼs every touch was loudly jeered by Arsenalʼs fans.

Cruise Control

Both managers rang in the changes at half time. Olivier Giroud replaced Sanogo. It proved an inspired substitution. Jesús Navas González cross seven minutes into the second half gave Montenegrin international Stevan Jovetić – the only City player to impress – an opportunity to halve the deficit. His header from close range hit the post to Szczęsnyʼs right and he blasted the rebound high and wide.

Less than five minutes later Aleksandar Kolarov put Jovetić through. Jovetićʼs fierce 25 yard effort was well saved by Szczęsny. Just past the hour mark Giroud made the match safe with a stunning slightly deflected effort. Jack Wilshere on the right wing threaded it through to the French international striker from the right wing.

Polish international keeper Szczęsny ensured that Arsenal kept a clean sheet. However, he required treatment twice after collisions in and out of the area – the latter with substitute Scott Sinclair being the more serious.

Missing

Although Pellegriniʼs side was far from full strength, there could be no excuse for such a poor display. Captain Vincent Kompany and World Cup finalists Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis and Sergio Agüero were notable absentees. Álvaro Negredo is out injured, but Arsenal were below full strength too.

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World Cup winners Mesut Özil, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and Laurent Koscielny were absent and Colombian World Cup star David Ospina wasnʼt on the bench either. Theo Walcott has yet to recover fully from injury too.

The £15m sale of Belgian defender Thomas Vermaellen to Barçelona is yet another example of Wengerʼs transfer acumen. After almost a decade of trophyless slumber Wenger has awakened expectations at the Emirates Stadium once more and is confident that major trophies will follow. Despite the defeat and nature of it Pellegrini remained confident that Manchester City would retain their title.

Trophy Drought Ends

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

Relief

Arsène Wenger ended almost a decade without a trophy with a 3-2 defeat of Hull City after extra-time victory over Hull City at Wembley this evening. It was relief and happiness because of course we were under severe pressure to win today”, Wenger said. “Hull started stronger and we were hesitant, then we made a demonstration of how to respond to being 2-0 down and also how not to start the FA Cup final”.

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Wenger committed his future to Arsenal after his fifth FA Cup triumph – the sweetest of them. “This team has a special togetherness”, he said. “In the end, it finished well, so it is a big, big moment of happiness. We waited for a long time with that, and it is sometimes linked with the suffering we had to wait for. It was an important moment in the life of this team, because to lose today would certainly have been a major setback. It was more important today than all of the others”.

Reeling

With less than 10 minutes played Steve Bruce saw his unfancied team race to a 2-0 lead with goals from James Chester and captain Curtis Davies. It could have been three if Kieran Gibbs hadn’t cleared Alex Bruce’s header off the line.

Less than four minutes into the match Stephen Quinn’s corner found Tom Huddlestone on the edge of the area. He either shot badly, or intended to pass to Chester who diverted it wide of Łukasz Fabiański’s dive to send Hull’s fans wild with joy.

Four minutes after taking the lead a free-kick taken further forward than it should have been led to Hull’s second. Quinn received the ball on the opposite flank and crossed. Bruce’s header beat Fabiański, but not the post. It rebounded to Davies who scored from close range.

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Arsenal were reeling until a free-kick needlessly conceded by Bruce gave Santi Cazolrla the chance to bring Arsenal back into the match. His shot from 25 yards out gave Alan McGregor no chance. Despite efforts from Huddlestone and a move down the left flank where Mikel Arteta squared for a tap in for Cazorla who somehow failed to make contact.

Destiny

Needing to break the drought before it became a Béla Guttmannesque curse Arsenal had the better of the second half. Cazorla and Giroud had penalty claims waived away by referee Lee Probert. Arsenal created the better chances as Hull tired, trying to defend what they had. The pressure paid off as Laurent Koscielny turned Cazorla’s corner in from 8 yards out.

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Arsenal could and perhaps should have won in normal time. Gibbs wasted a glorious chance, blasting over from just inside the area. Shortly afterwards Olivier Giroud was thwarted by McGregor’s fine save. Extra-time beckoned.

Hull had acquitted themselves well, but were tiring. Man of the Match Aaron Ramsey – Wenger thought he should have been in the team of the season – came into his own in extra-time. He had contributed superb distribution previously, but in extra time threatened Hull’s goal. In the first 15 minutes he was denied by a fine save by McGregor and the side-netting.

Ramsey netted the winner in the second period of extra-time following a sublime back-heeled assist from Giroud. The long wait was almost over, but there was still time for Fabiański’s rush of blood to almost cost his team dear. Substitute Sone Aluko clipped a through-ball down the left flank, but with the goal gaping clipped his shot wide. It was Arsenal’s day.

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