Up and Up

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 (February 25th 2011)

Missed Opportunity

Lord [Sebastian] Coe boasts that he saw the Olympic football competition in 2004 in Athens. A young Lionel Messi was the star turn. Coe is responsible for ensuring that Londonʼs Olympics are not only successful, but leave a legacy.

The elite sports are of course important, but for every Usain Bolt there others who deserve accolades. Bolt, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps, Al Oerter and Carl Lewis are just some of the great Olympians, but I remain convinced that the greatest ever is and always will be the fantastic Leonidas of Rhodes.1

Handball, especially the womenʼs game is the real test of the Olympicsʼ legacy credentials. It provides fast-moving action, tactical awareness, high scoring, defensive skill, dexterity, skill and control, passing awareness and shooting prowess. The officials are respected to the point that no campaigns are necessary. London 2012 is sadly a tragically wasted opportunity, as Britain lags way behind the rest of the world, especially Denmark.

The Quest

Three years ago I visited Denmark for the first time and was introduced to the pleasures of womenʼs handball. It soon won me over. Thereʼs no diving, waving imaginary cards, demanding that opponents are sent off or feigning injury – shirt-pulling and obstruction occurs, but you canʼt have everything.

Every second is played with intensity and sportsmanship, even though professional fouls occur. In short, itʼs everything a sport should be. Randers goal-minder Channa Masson came to Denmark to learn the game – sheʼs Brasilian. She was in the first wave of Brasilians to come to Denmark.

“Denmark has the best league in the world,” she told us exclusively, which is why she came here. Her club Randers sit proudly on top of the league, which bodes well for the play-offs.

Randers were rapidly eliminated from the Championʼs League, but look forward to the play-offs and a league title. Masson played a blinder against Odense HK tonight, providing a formidable last barrier. Randers won convincingly 37-20.

They were the better team, but Massonʼs goal-minding was as valuable as the shooting prowess of Camilla Dalby, who top-scored with seven and the penalty-taking calmness of Germanyʼs Nina Wörz, who modestly insisted that Dalby was the penalty-taker, despite a first-half hat-trick of penalties.

Advice

Masson advised British girls to come to Denmark and watch the best. It worked for her. Masson not only learned from top players; she became the best and pushes herself hard. Randers are sitting pretty at the top of the league and extended their lead at the expense of tonightʼs hosts HK Odense.

Masson remains an inspiration and not just in her country. She bemoans the lost opportunity of London 2012. It was an opportunity to develop handball in Britain and in the Olympic movement. London 2012 has missed its chance – a real pity – but 2016 offers another chance. It may be too late for her, but she is looking forward to Rioʼs Games and footballʼs World Cup too.

It may come too late for Masson to play, but it would require a brave person or a fool to bet against her beating the drum for handball in Rio de Janeiro and helping to develop handball in her country and elsewhere. Nevertheless she still hopes that Londonʼs Olympics gets the message in time.

1 For further information on the greatest ever Olympian, which we published in a previous issue of the magazine.

FC Barçelona On My Mind

Segun at Wembley

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

Fan

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

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

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

The Blueprint

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

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

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

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

The New Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

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

Lionel Messi – Back and Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knock Out

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

Patchy

Tottenham Hotspurʼs league form has been patchy, relying on a rich vein of form of striker Harry Kane, whose recent form compares to that of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Kane was recently rewarded with an improved contract. Vincenzo Montellaʼs Fiorentina side are aware of the threat posed by Kane.

At the moment heʼs kind of exploded onto the scene recently and thereʼs no doubt that heʼs one of Spursʼ best players at the moment”, veteran defender Manuel Pasqual said. “We know heʼs a goal-scorer, so weʼll be marking him and trying to stop him from scoring”.

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But Spurs have a chance of silverware – the first of the season – next month. They face Chelsea in the Capital One Cup Final, but first they have possibly their best chance to win Champions League football next season – the Europa League. Their manager Mauricio Pochettino expects a tough match tomorrow night. The former Argentine international expected the Viola not to be affected by the loss of Colombian World Cup Star Juan Guillermo Cuadrado Bello. He stresses that Fiorentina have good players.

Points to Prove

Among them is Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian winger has a point to prove. His performances for Basel against Spurs in the Europa League and then against Chelsea earned him a move to Chelsea. It didnʼt work out as he planned, but his move to Italy appears to have already rejuvenated the young Pharaoh.

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Pasqual is impressed. “Well obviously it goes without saying that weʼve replaced Cuadrado with someone who is an excellent person to replace him and 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”.

Montella has been won over too. “Salah is a very good player”, he 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”.

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Hungry for Success

But Salah is not the only player with a point to prove. Mario Gomez has endured a terrible year recovering from injury and the disappointment of missing out on Germanyʼs World Cup triumph. He is scoring again and confident. Pasqual was one of the most supportive players in the Violaʼs squad about Gomez.

“Well I donʼt think that the way that heʼs playing now is just down to me”, Pasqual said. “Itʼs down to the whole of the team and I think that when a team sets out to play in a certain way and create chances for a striker to score goals then all of the team contribute to that”

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He remains supportive. “I think you need to bear in mind that Marioʼs a striker”, he explains. “Strikers score goals and once he started scoring goals, things got a lot better for him. You know he was out for a whole year. Thatʼs a long time and it did require time for him to get back to his form, but I think now certainly heʼs playing at a very good level”.

And for anyone tempted to write a eulogy for his career after tomorrowʼs last 32 tie, he has a simple message. “Certainly I donʼt believe itʼs going to be my last game playing in this kind of match playing for Fiorentina”, Pasqual said.

Shamefully Broken Promises

Editorʼs Note

Today (January 15th) Zambians will elect a new government following the death of previous President Michael Sata. We were given assurances – recorded ones – that Sataʼs government would be different. It would be open and it would honour its word. For the first time a Zambian government in the form of Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili, gave an unequivocal promise to release the report on the Gabon Plane Crash which killed the cream of Zambian football bar the current President of the Zambian Football Association the great Kalusha Bwalya. They promised to request a copy of Gabonʼs report too.

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They have had the best part of three years to keep their word. On the anniversary of the crash last year we published the story again to remind Sataʼs government of their promise – the one they had failed to honour. Like the year before it made no difference. We accept no excuses. The promise was given without coercion. There is no excuse for failing to keep it. Sataʼs government has become yet another – the sixth – to fail the Golden Generation and their families.

We hope that Zambiaʼs new government will do what all its predecessors have shamefully failed to – deliver the truth to the families of the heroes that gave their lives that terrible day in April 1993 and to the Zambian people. It is long overdue.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 13th 2013) – Updated April 27th 2014 and January 15th 2015

Promises, Promises

Imagine a national football team, say Spain in 2007, or England in 1965, or even Germany in 2013 that was tipped for great things, were killed in a plane crash before they achieved their potential. Now imagine successive governments over two decades promising to release the report of what happened and each of those governments broke their promises. And somehow, despite the tragedy, the players that replaced them reached the final of a major tournament the following year, losing narrowly.

Couldn’t happen? Well it has to last year’s African champions (2012) Zambia. 21 years ago the Zambian team, bar three regular players [Kalusha Bwalya, Johnson Bwalya (no relation) and Charly Musonda], were killed off the coast of Libreville, Gabon. Despite the changes in government over two decades the families of the victims of the Gabon Air Disaster, which robbed Africa of the most promising generation of Zambian football are still waiting for answers. Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili pledged to release the (Zambian) report last year.

“The only other issue remaining is the release of the reports for the families to know exactly what transpired,” Kambwili told me exclusively on the eve of Zambiaʼs triumph in the 2012 edition of the African Cup of Nations.

“The previous government – our predecessors – didn’t release the Gabon Report, but as the new government, we are looking very positively to try and see the reports, so that we can release it to the public, so the public can know exactly what transpired here.”

When pressed on whether the new government would release the report Kambwili said: “Certainly.” I pressed further about when that would happen. “Very soon,” he said. Sadly we are still waiting. The sudden death of the President Michael Sata last year meant that a new election had to take place within 90 days. Sataʼs government has therefore become the latest to fail the Zambian people over the Gabon Air Disaster. Letʼs hope the incoming government will do the right thing at long last.

A Pressing Need

Despite Kambwili’s pledge made 35 months ago the reports have not been released, but representatives of the families are still requesting their release. Without the report the gap in our lives can never be filled until we die,” said Numba Mwila Jnr, whose father a Zambian midfielder of the same name was one the victims of the crash. Mr Mwila spoke to us in 2014 on behalf of all the victims families.

The minister, after Zambia won the cup, promised the release of the report,” he said. “We want the government to recognise our worth and presence and respect us, because our people pioneered all the glory that Zambia [the Chipolopolo] has today.”

Kambwili recognises that the people of Zambia, especially the victims’ families need to know what happened. Over two years ago the Minister told me exclusively: “As I go back I will table that with the Cabinet, because you know that the government is run by the Cabinet. As [a] Minister I will take the issue before the Cabinet and then Cabinet will approve, so we can release the report.”

Almost three years later if the issue was ever placed before Zambiaʼs Cabinet, the government that pledged open government has yet to keep its word and release the report.

The families still want answers and to understand what happened to their fathers. People went to Gabon to watch the Final, using our names instead of ourselves,” Mr Mwila said. “We want to go to Gabon as the families to see the site were our fathers died so we can know and see what happened. Always when the memorial is about to approach there is some talk, but for 20 years we have been denied the truth about what happened, despite many promises.”

The denial of the truth has continued throughout the lifetime of Sataʼs government.

Open Government

Kambwili stressed to me that Michael Sata’s government was pledged to openness and that there would be no problem releasing the report. “I can tell you something: there has been agreements,” Kambwili said. But 35 months after Kambwili’s pledge, Zambia’s Cabinet never released the report. Despite further requests for the release of the report by the victims’ families, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Why?

“All the five Presidents have pledged to release the agreements to the people, but we’ve done it as the new government,” Kambwili told me exclusively on the eve of the Chipolpolo’s African Cup of Nations triumph in Gabon in 2012. “We’re very committed to being transparent with everything that we do, so even the Gabon Disaster Report; it will not be a problem. It will be published. The people of Zambia have a right to know what exactly transpired.”

The best part of three years later the report into the deaths of five crew members and 25 passengers, which included the cream of Zambian football has yet to be released and Sata can be added to the lis of Presidents who failed to deliver the promise.

On April 28th 1993 the Zambian Air Force’s de Haviilland Canada DHC-5D Buffalo piloted by Fenton Mhone took off from Libreville International Airport. Problems had already been noticed at Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo and again in Libreville where it refuelled. Work was done on the plane in Gabon, but it soon ran into trouble after departing nearly two hours late, raising questions as to whether it was flight-worthy or not. It crashed, killing all on board. Almost 22 years later the truth of that terrible night has yet to emerge.

Speculation

“Like I said I’m not privy to the Gabon Report,” Kambwili told me in our interview in February 2012. “It hasn’t been released, so I don’t have the details, but from what we were told when we went to the beach where the accident happened, the people that were there – eyewitnesses – told us that as the plane was going it started to turn like it wanted to go back and re-land at Libreville International Airport.”

It never got the chance killing perhaps the finest generation of Zambian football. A mystery that still awaits resolution began that night, fuelling conspiracy theories about the cause of that crash and who was to blame. Mhone is not the first pilot to be blamed for a crash, but his family have to live with not even knowing what exactly he was accused of doing and whether other causes have been ignored.

“In the process the plane exploded and there were some flames in the air before it went down, so it is difficult for me to say that the plane was not flight-worthy, or it wasn’t in good condition until I read the report,” Kambwili said. “That would be speculation.” The report still has not been released – the speculation continues.

Still Waiting for Answers

Nearly three years after Kambwiliʼs pledge – yet to be kept – the families of the victims of the Gabon Disaster are still waiting for answers. The report has not been released and it will not be by Sataʼs government now. But this is not the only report on the terrible crash never to see the light of day. The Gabonese Ministry of Defence also investigated the causes of the crash and produced a report.

Its preliminary report suggested pilot error, but the full report and its conclusions have never been released for public scrutiny. Until told of its existence by me, even Kambwili was unaware of it. “No, no, no,” he said. “We haven’t seen it. As we are here, the Vice President is going to pay a courtesy call on the President and probably I can ask him to find out if they have got a report that was done from there.”

When assured that there was no doubt that the Gabonese investigated the crash themselves and produced a report Kambwili expressed interest in it. “We will try and follow it up and I will ask the Vice President when he pays a courtesy call on his brother [Gabon’s President] to find out if there is any report and if there is any report we will try and ask for it, so we can compare it to the report that is going to be produced,” Kambwili said. Both reports have not been produced.

Football Unites

The twentieth anniversary of the crash passed in 2013. Neither the Zambian or Gabonese reports on the disaster had been released – they still havenʼt been. Sheila Coleman, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, supports the Zambian footballersʼ familiesʼ fight for justice.

This sad story of the loss of so many lives will resonate with anybody involved in the Hillsborough Disaster,” Ms Coleman said. “Twenty years on and families are still seeking the truth – sound familiar? Football supporters around the world should support the families of the victims of the Gabon Disaster in their fight to establish the facts surrounding the deaths of those young talented Zambian footballers.”

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign extended solidarity to the victimsʼ families. Their fight for justice over the Hillsborough Disaster took a quarter of a century before justice began to emerge. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign extends itʼs support to the families of the victims of the Gabon Air Disaster,” Ms Coleman said. “Although continents separate us, we are united by our struggles.” Pity Kambwiliʼs promises on behalf of the late President Sataʼs government proved hollow.

Among those who lost their lives just off the coast from Libreville on April 28th 1993 was goal-machine Godfrey Ucar Chitalu, whose feat of 116 goals scored in 1972 remains unsurpassed despite Lionel Messiʼs achievement in 2012. Chitalu was the coach of that promising Zambian team, which included perhaps the best ever goal-keeper to represent the Chipolopolo, Efford Chabala.

They died representing their country over two decades ago. Their families and the nation still await answers. The new President has the opportunity to put right a terrible wrong. The election is too close to call. Edgar Lungu of Sataʼs party is fractionally ahead, but the oppositionʼs Hakainde Hichilema cannot be ruled out as Guy Scottʼs interim Presidency reaches its end. Whether Lungu or Hichilema assumes the Presidency Zambian football and its people need answers about the about the Gabon Air Disaster. It is long overdue.

The Battle of Seconds

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (November 12th 2014)

Victory

Fazio

Tottenham Hotspurʼs Federico Fazio was happy with the win if his Argentina team beaten a second string Croatia 2-1 at the Boleyn Ground – home of West Ham United. Croatiaʼs second-string – the regulars remained at home to prepare for this weekendʼs vital Euro2016 qualifier against Italy – took a shock and against the run of play 11th minute lead, courtesy of Anas Sharbiniʼs first goal for his country in only his second match. Interʼs Mateo Kovačić provided the assist.

Despite dominating the first half Argentina, captained by Lionel Messi, back to his mesmerising best, trailed to Sharbiniʼs strike. The move began on the right flank before working it inside to Kovačić, who beat Christian Ansaldi and found Sharbini on the left of the area. The mixed-race – Croatian and Palestinian – midfielder finished with aplomb across Sampdoriaʼs Sergio Romero from 10 yard out.

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Astonishing

Argentina created chance after chance. Sevillaʼs Ever Banega wasted a glorious opportunity created by the first of many mazy runs by Messi from the right wing into the left of the area. Banega missed after 5 minutes. The normally clinical Sergio Agüero had one shot well saved by Croatian goalkeeper for the night Lovre Kalinić, another volleyed straight at the keeper, failed to collect a Messi pass and prodded two shots wide from Messi passes after mazy runs all in the space of ten minutes without scoring.

Premier League defences had best savour the moment. Rarely has the in-form Kun proved so profligate. Messi was also denied. Another mazy run treading the same path as before, a one-two with Ansaldi, resulted in Messi shooting into the side-netting. He also hit the post in the second half with the keeper well beaten. However both Messi and Agüero would not be denied, albeit in controversial fashion for Kun.

Reward

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When Agüero got his goal only the eagle-eyed noticed it – well them and the replays. 3 minutes into the second half Ansaldiʼs fierce shot from just outside the area was deflected in past Kalinić by Agüero taking protective action. It went in off his arm with Kalinić stranded.

12 minutes into the second half Messi found Agüero on the left of the six yard box. Kalinić brought him down, conceding a penalty. Messi converted it. 

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Returning Idols

The Hammersʼ fans got to see the great Lionel Messi in the flesh, but by far the biggest cheers of the night greeted the return of 2007 West Ham hero Carlos Tévez. Will you please welcome Argentina and West Ham legend, Carlos Tévez”, as , the announcer said after 62 minutes as Agüero was replaced. Tévez received a standing and loud ovation despite the sparse crowd.

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But West Hamʼs former idol could not provide the fairytale goal despite a glorious chance made for him by Manchester Unitedʼs Ángel di María, which Tévez pulled just wide of the post. He also spurned another chance by heading Pablo Zabaletaʼs cross straight at Kalinić.

Midway through the second half the other Argentinian returning Hammer from the 2007 season Javier Mascherano, unleashed a pile-driver, which Kalinić saved. Five minutes earlier Barçelonaʼs defensive midfield enforcer inflicted a crunching shin high tackle on Tin Jedvaj. Not only did Mascherano not receive a card – friendly or not – but referee Lee Probert didnʼt even award the Roma defender currently on loan to Bayer Levekusen a free kick.

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Argentina got the win and Croatiaʼs second team showed spirit that pleased the President of Croatian Football Federation Davor Šuker. “[They] need to give back to Croatian national team and I think we have great performance”, Šuker said, “and we have great future in the Croatian football federation”. Croatia face Italy at the weekend and Argentina will face Cristiano Ronaldoʼs Portugal at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

Second String

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

Omissions

A full strength Argentina – the second best team in the World according to Croatian Football Federation President Davor Šuker – will play Croatia at West Hamʼs Boleyn Ground tonight, but the Croatians will be shorn of their stars. Mario Mandžukić, Ivica Olić, Luka Modrić, Danijel Pranjić and Dejan Lovren are among those who will not face La Abiceleste.

Croatiaʼs coach Niko Kovačʼs priority – understandably – was this weekendʼs Euro2016 qualifier against Italy. “My coach decide in that way and we will talk about [it] on Monday, after the game in Italy”, Šuker said explaining the omissions from the squad for tonightʼs friendly amid rumours that Kovač was far from happy with the choice of opponent. So why Argentina?

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Choices

What is the best teams in the world”? Šuker asks. “Playing the best teams and I think is Argentina. They are the second team in the World Cup and itʼs great to play a friendly game in London with big awareness and big players and just the young players can play against Messi and this is next step for these players”.

Kovač is said to have wanted to play the USA rather than Argentina tonight. The Americans play Colombia at Craven Cottage on Friday. Meanwhile, Croatiaʼs stars didnʼt come to London. The ʻfirst team squadʼ remained in the former Yugoslav nation. They are being trained by Kovačʼs assistants.

It could prove to be inspired. Youngsters with no fear and nothing to lose could come of age, or they could be torn apart by facing a precociously talented Argentina team.

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Gamble

Former Barçelona coach Gerardo Tata Martino replaced Alejandro Sabella after the World Cup. Martino has brought a full strength squad, which includes former West Ham hero Carlos Tévez – recalled after a three year absence.

Itʼs a gamble for Croatia. Some answers will come tonight when Šuker and Kovač find out if this untested squad come through the examination. But the real test is against Italy. Only then will it be seen if the gamble has paid off. “Thatʼs the big game and I hope we can surprise Italy of course and we will play a nice game”, Šuker said.

Friendlies

by Satish Sekar

Meaningless?

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Argentina and Croatia meet tonight at West Hamʼs Boleyn Ground in a hastily arranged fixture. Croatia clearly have their eyes on the Euro2016 qualifier against Italy at the weekend. This squad reads like a Whoʼs Who of those who wonʼt be involved at the weekend. Argentina, meanwhile, showed their intent by bringing a squad with talent enough to field two teams, led by Lionel Messi. The in-form Sergio Agüero will lead the line. Former West Ham players Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano provide able assistance along with English footballʼs most expensive player Ángel di María!

Croatiaʼs manager Niko Kovač didnʼt want such a tough fixture ahead of the important Euro2016. He had wanted to play the USA, but a ʻbetter offerʼ meant that Argentina it was. He left his stars behind in Croatia to be trained by his assistant. Hardly the best preparation, but at least the Croatians, led by Šime Vrsalijko have a point to prove against top opposition and perhaps the opportunity to force their way into Kovačʼs long-term plans Argentina will expect a confidence-boosting win before the big one at Old Trafford when la Albiceleste take on Portugal. The mouthwatering prospect of Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo v di María takes place next Tuesday.