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?

Africa’s Finest

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 7th 2015)

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Prestigious African Footballers

Football without super stars is like tea without sugar. We are in the season of celebrating the super-stars of African football – the players whose light has shone brightest in the football constellation. Tomorrow the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will elect its winner of the prestigious African Footballer of the Year Award for 2014.

The event, which takes place in Lagos has become very significant for the players because it shoots their status and profile sky high onto a new pedestal of respect and prosperity. It can earn players moves to glamorous clubs, or in some cases boost their wages and prestige. It also raises the profile of African football outside the continent.

Surprises

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In the final list of five players for the 2014 award there are a few surprise inclusions. The first is Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama. It is not common to find goalkeepers listed for the African award. If it were not so, there is no reason why Vincent should not have been listed, or have even won the award, in 2013.

His stellar performances in the French league for Lille FC, and for Nigeria during the African Cup of Nations, leading the Super-Eagles to only their third triumph has earned him more than enough credit to merit an indisputable place amongst Africa’s best players. But goalkeepers tend to be overlooked. Just look at what happened last year.

Vincent Enyeama Smiling

The belated observation made by a few of us – myself included – who commented on his omission last year may have precipitated the present attention on him (and possibly on other goalkeepers in the next few years).

Keepers

Goalkeepers occasionally used to be nominated, but their contributions have been neglected in awards. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since the last one was even nominated, let alone won. Before Enyeama’s recent nomination the last goalkeeper to be considered – and he did not win it – was Joseph Antoine Bell of Cameroon in 1989.

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And before Bell, the last keeper to be nominated was Zaki Badou – recognised by CAF in 2006 as one of Africaʼs best 200 players over the previous half century. Badou is the current manager of Morocco. It is his second spell in charge of the Atlas Lions. Sadly Moroccoʼs decision to refuse to host the African Cup of Nations has denied him the opportunity to shine.

Badou is one of Moroccoʼs greatest ever players. In 1986 Badou won the African Footballer of the Year Award, then by France Football Magazine. CAF organised its own award in 1992, which competed with the France Football Magazine award for two years (from 1994 onwards only CAFʼs award remains).

Badou played in Spain for RCD Mallorca and proved that his 1986 award was no fluke. He moved to Spain that year. Badou won the prestigious Zamora Trophy – the award for the La Liga goalkeeper with the lowest goals to games played ratio – for the 1988-89 season. As a manger he had success with his former club Wydad in Morocco and took the Atlas Lions to the final of the 2004 African Cup of Nations. Badou has pedigree.

Zaki Badou at Press Conference

Shamefully Overlooked

However Cameroonian great Thomas Nkono showed that goalkeepers who excel can be rewarded. Nkono won the African Footballer of the Year Award twice – 1979 and 1981. Sandwiched between his triumphs was my best year in this competition. I came second to his Canon Yaoundé team-mate and strangely unheralded (outside of Africa) Cameroonian great Jean Manga-Onguéné.

I canʼt complain as he led his team to the Cameroonian League title and African Champions Cup. Badou was not the first Moroccan keeper to win the award. Chabab Mohammédiaʼs Ahmed Faras beat African legend Roger Milla into second place in 1975.

Segun at Wembley

The good thing is that Vincent Enyeama’s nomination has reawakened interest in the performances of African goalkeepers, which has often been overlooked in favour of strikers or midfielders.

That may also explain why all of the players that have won the award since its inception (except for the goalkeepers listed earlier) have been goal scorers (strikers and midfielders). No defender has ever won the award despite the whole army of absolutely brilliant defenders in the continent’s history. If Enyeama wins it could therefore produce a change of attitude and appreciation of the finest exponents of other positions.

Surprise

Enyeama is not the only surprise on this yearʼs list. Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been one of the most underrated African players in Europe. He has been around the football circuit in Europe ‘quietly’ plying his trade and honing his goal-scoring skills and instincts. He is the son of another neglected African great. Pierre Aubameyang played for Gabon 80 times. Unlike his son he was a defender. He was the first Gabonese footballer to play in France, including for Toulouse and Nice. He is now a scout for AC Milan.

Pierre Aubameyang Snr

Pierre-Emerick came through AC Milanʼs youth structures, but was laned to various clubs in France, eventually signing for Saint-Étienne in 2011. Having established his credentials in France and when Gabon co-hosted the African Cup of Nations in 2012 he moved to Borussia Dortmund FC last season.

That transfer has changed not only his profile, but also the quality of his football, providing him the platform to showcase his immense striking prowess and nose for goals. This past year, particularly, he has matured into one of the deadliest strikers from Africa playing in the Bundesliga and in the European Champions League.

His speed and deadliness in front of goal have been phenomenal. Playing for one of Europe’s best teams along with other world class players has surely sharpened the edge to his game. He is attracting raving reviews, lots of attention, respect and accolades.

Coming from a small African country that does not win anything in the continent surely has reduced his direct impact in Africa, but that didnʼt stop Liberiaʼs George Weah and Maliʼs Frédéric Kanouté winning in 1995 and 2007, it would not surprise me if, purely on the strength of present performance, he is acknowledged in a year that few Africans have really been exceptional.

Surely, in terms of ability and his contribution to the ongoing success of his Borussia Dortmund – despite the wretched start to this seasonʼs Bundesliga that Jürgen kloppʼs team are enduring – week in week out, he stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the other nominees.

Another Surprise

My compatriot Ahmed Musa is another surprise inclusion. He is a regular in CSKA Moscowʼs team. Musa showed his talent in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011 – a tournament graced by several talents on their way to becoming important names in football. West Bromwich Albionʼs Saido Berahino made that trip too. Joel Campbell hasnʼt delivered for Arsenal, although he has impressed on loan and is a mainstay of Costa Ricaʼs national team also appeared in that tournament.

Real Madridʼs James Rodríguez and Isco, Atlético de Madridʼs Koke and Antoine Griezmann, Liverpoolʼs Philippe Coutino, Tottenham Hotspurʼs Erik Lamela, Benficaʼs Nelson Oliveira (just loaned to Swansea City for the rest of this season and Chelseaʼs Oscar and Mohamed Salah, among others. Musa held his own in this company even then and he has developed since then.

He is one of the fastest footballers in the world with the uncanny ability to outsprint defenders. His finishing and crosses could be inconsistent and that has often reduced his overall impact. His performances for Nigeria during the 2014 World Cup and during the AFCON 2015 qualifiers stood out as one of the more consistent in a field of erratic strikers in the Nigerian team. However, his chances of winning the 2014 African award are slim considering that the next two players in the list may be just ahead of him in terms of impact for their club and country.

The Lifetime Achievement Candidate

Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan could have won the African Best Player award already if he had not been playing his football in the same era as Didier Drogba, Samuel Etoʼo and Yaya Touré. One after the other, these three players have completely dominated the African football scene in the past decade.

Samuel Eto'o

It is clear that a player had to be exceptionally gifted to break their grip on the title. That’s the reason why even extra-ordinarily talented players like Nigeriaʼs Jay Jay Okocha and the Black Starsʼ Michael Essien did not win it.

Asamoah Gyan has resurfaced again in CAF’s list even as he has moved in the past three seasons to establish himself as one of the best players ever in Asian football history. But Asia is not Europe. Gyan held his own in England at Sunderland before forcing a move to the Middle-East. Playing in an obscure league for a completely unknown club called Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates does not help his cause. It may cost him the award again.

Nevertheless, some people think he played some of his best football during the 2014 World Cup, scoring two goals and becoming the African player with the highest number of goals in the history of the World Cup, one goal ahead of the legendary Roger Milla. Another factor in Gyanʼs favour – perhaps the most important this time – would be because selectors may already be developing Yaya Touré fatigue.

Dominant

Yaya Touré has been so dominant in the midfield where he plays for his Club and for his country that it will surprise no one should he get the award for the fourth consecutive time. Without question he is the most gifted African player of this generation – tall, powerful, elegant, graceful, skilful, deceptively quick, technically proficient and masterful on the ball. He is the only African player in FIFA’s list of the world’s best 20 players in 2014.

This season he has not played quite up to the level of the previous season but he is still dominating every midfield, dictating and controlling play, and delivering deadly ‘poison’ of goals whenever he finds himself in the periphery of the oppositionʼs goals. Also he has returned to form for Manchester City at just the right time for the selectors to notice.

CAF and its President Issa Hayatou may sentimentally want a new face to adorn the award and to break the monotony of another Yaya Touré victory, but on form and achievement he is the best of the candidates. He deserves to clinch the title of Africa’s best footballer again.

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A Long Time Coming

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (November 23rd 2014)

A Change is Gonna Come

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It;s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come”, sang the legendary soul singer Sam Cooke. Just 42 years ago Englandʼs womenʼs football team played their first international against Scotland at Greenock since the FAʼs 50 year-long ban on womenʼs football was overturned. Prior to that outrageous ban womenʼs football had been popular. Before the ʻWar to End All Warsʼ it had even threatened to eclipse menʼs football.

The ban had a seriously detrimental effect. Other nations had not stood still and there was now a lot of catching up to do as the lack of exposure, investment and development of infrastructure all took a heavy toll on the sport. The first international that England played was in Scotland, but that squad had trained at Wembley Stadium ahead of that match. That team captained by Sheila Parker, who was later inducted into the Hall of fame, never got to play a match on the famous turf.

Against the Odds

This afternoon – almost 50 years after Cooke was murdered – a seismic change will come to Wembley Stadium. History will be made and itʼs long overdue, as Englandʼs women will play at Wembley Stadium against European champions Germany in front of around 50,000 football fans. Five years ago England met Germany in the final of the European Championship, losing 6-2. Both teams have a very impressive record in qualifiers for next yearʼs World Cup.

Just five years ago the best English talent had to go abroad to develop their skills to the maximum. There was no professional league here. Lianne Sanderson is a classic example. She had the dedication and talent to become a professional footballer, but like Kelly Smith before her, she had to go to the USA where the sport was taken seriously.

She had played for both Arsenal and Chelsea before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. She also played in Spain before another stint in the USA. After that she returned to Arsenal, the club she started her life in football at, a better player, having benefited from a commitment to womenʼs football in the USA that was absent here at the time.

Now the Football Association has demonstrated that it is committed to womenʼs football. In 2010 the FA delivered a long-awaited promise – the Womenʼs Super League. Liverpool recently won the title after a nail-biting conclusion to the season. Sanderson has returned, helping to build that league and pass on what she has learned.

Making History

The challenges are immense. Television wasnʼt interested in womenʼs football at first, but that has changed. The first time they will play at the home of football, the BBC will cover the match live. Another piece of history will be made as Birmingham Cityʼs Karen Carney will receive her golden cap.

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Carney, like Sanderson, has come full circle – a journey that took her to Arsenal and then Chicago before returning to Birmingham. She won her first cap in 2005 – the youngest player given a debut by former manager Hope Powell. The winger has scored 14 times for England. She also played five matches for Great Britain during Londonʼs Olympic Games in 2012 including at Wembley against Brasil.

She will become only the seventh English female player to reach the landmark. She will join Gillian Coulthard, Kelly Smith, Casey Stoney, Rachel Unitt, Fara Williams and Rachel Yankey as Englandʼs female centurions. She will also be the youngest, aged just 27. Carney hopes that this afternoonʼs match will be the first of many at Wembley.

Coulthardʼs record of 119 caps was beaten by Yankey two years ago. Yankey is Englandʼs most capped player with 129, but she is over 200 caps shy of the most capped player ever, the USAʼs Kristine Lilley who appeared for her country a staggering 352 times.

No Challengers?

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

Nathan Adams at Wembley

Centurions

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

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

Captainʼs Performance

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

Slovenia Celebrate

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

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

False Dawn?

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

Ales Mertelj

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

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

Positives

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

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

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

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Upset

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

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

Valter Birsa

Mouthwatering

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 24th 2014)

Segun at Wembley

El Classico – Another War

This weekend there is going to be another battle of epic proportions. It will be fought between two of the biggest and most powerful ‘armies’ in the world. The battleground is the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, home of Real Madrid Football Club. The invading ‘army’ is, in my humble estimation, the greatest team ever – Barçelona FC!

Leading Real Madrid and Barçelona are with respect to Zlatan Ibrahimović and others the two greatest footballers of their generation – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. At stake are the crowns of ‘best team in La Liga’ and the ‘best player in the world’. In the past 6 years these players have held the title of the world’s best player in a vice – Messi four times, and Ronaldo twice. 2014 promises to be no different; perhaps it will be the most interesting contest yet as it is far more open than previous contests where one or other seemed the clear winner.

The Battle Lines

This season there appears to be a new edge to the rivalry between the two players. Although they both deny that their rivalry fuels their performances, the truth is that both players have drawn inspiration from each other and have shared the global limelight in almost equal measure because of each other.

Ronaldo, who always seemed to play second fiddle to Messi before the last season, needs to prove a point. Many people believe that although he was brilliant last season for Real Madrid, but in my opinion he won the title of world’s best player more because the world wanted a change from Messi. The mercurial Argentine had monopolized it four consecutive times. Did Ronaldo win because he was clearly better than the little Argentinian, or for changes sake?.

I have watched Ronaldo play this season. He has not been this sharp and focused in a long time. He is playing with a deliberate single-mindedness that convinces me that he has more than just helping Real Madrid FC to win La Liga trophy on his mind. He has ‘Messi must be beaten’ written all over his game.

Messi, on the other hand, has less to prove, but he has shrugged off the rustiness and casual attitude of the World Cup and is playing now with a lot of physicality and uncommon determination. Surely the avalanche of falling records at club, Spanish, European and World levels is propelling him to even greater heights. The list of his established and near-accomplishment records is very long. What must be noted, however, is that between them they have made goal scoring an art form.

Several great players spend a lifetime chasing after recording one hat trick. Ronaldo is about to break an all time La Liga record in that regard. He needs one more hat trick to beat the late great Alfredo di Stéfano and Athletic Bilbao maestro Tello Zarra (Tello Zarraonandia Montoya) – Marcaʼs award for Spanish scorers in La Liga was named after the Athletic Club great. Ronaldo is already in legendary company, three ahead of Messi.

The Supporting Cast?

But tempting as it is to focus on these two great players, El Classico boasts plenty more great players. Gareth Bale is the most expensive footballer on the planet, Karim Benzema is rated by no less an authority than Ronaldo as the best striker in La Liga. Luka Modrić is the cog that makes Real Madrid tick and while finding his feet in a new league Colombian heir apparent James Rodríguez has immense talent and of course thereʼs Sergio Ramos marshalling the defence too. And thatʼs just Real Madrid. Barçelona had a poor season by the their standards last term. It cost current Argentina coach Tata Martino his job. But the Catalans are no one man team. Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta arenʼt just club legends, they are football ones. Neymar is a precocious talent and El Classico is set to witness the La Liga début of former Ajax and Liverpool icon Luis Suárez. Meanwhile another duel with El Classico dimensions to it takes place this weekend too.

Van Gaal versus Mourinho

No roads lead to Rome this weekend and not all roads that will lead to Madrid either. In England Old Trafford is the place Iʼd like to be at as an almost equally important rivalry between two of the BPL’s great teams will be ignited. Manchester United and Chelsea will face off in what promises to be a match up between the coaches – two of the most experienced and renowned football managers in the world – as well as the teams they select.

Louis van Gaal will test his fledging Man U squad against a high riding Chelsea. In this encounter current form would matter little. It is the team that gets its tactics right that will carry the day. Van Gaal is going through a difficult period with his team struggling to find the old rhythm that made Manchester United the most successful team in the history of the Premiership and him one of the most successful coaches around.

Mourinho has donned his armour of confidence and loquacity, and is daring any other team in the premiership to break down his defensive tactics and, at the same time, stop his rampaging forwards. He has been trophyless for two seasons – he doesnʼt like it and seems set to take it out on opponents this season, although he insists that it is far too early to talk about titles. So, this weekend the battle line is drawn between them.

Chaos Theory

It simply would not be Nigerian football if there were no crisis, or at least one around the corner. I truly believed that with the start of the era of Stephen Keshi as manager of the national team Nigeria has seen the last of a foreign coach handling its national team. While Clemens Westerhof was a great success, letʼs not forget the disastrous appointments of Berti Vogts and Lars Lagerbäck, which cast Nigerian football into the doldrums.

We turned to local coaches, eventually settling on Keshi. I thought that Keshi’s generation, with their experiences in Europe and a little training in the coaching techniques, would kick-start the period when only qualified Nigerians would handle Nigeria’s national teams. It should have happened and it still can.

Keshi may have failed in his human relations, and may also have been slightly deficient in some of his tactics, but he surely did better than most of the foreign coaches that Nigeria hired since Westerhof. Success as a coach is measured only with the results of a team. Keshi delivered the African Cup of Nations – the first Nigerian to do so. For that he has our respect and a lasting place of honour in Nigeriaʼs football history.

It would be interesting to see which foreign coach would be hired of all the names being dangled by the media. We are waiting to see, hoping that if it happens it is not Berti Vogts Mark II. Keshi, with all his failings won laurels and went beyond what any coach, local and foreign, had ever done for Nigeria. Of his generation there are a few that could have been challenged to come ‘try their luck’.

Sunday Oliseh is an interesting proposition. His limited experience in handling a big team notwithstanding, his intellect and analytical prowess, which are acknowledged worldwide, should more than be a compensation. Check out several of the best coaches in the world at the moment led by Pep Guardiola, and you would see a trend that swings away from old, retired and tired coaches, local or foreign.

So, a foreign coach? Without great players any coach would ‘fail’. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have exceptional players in this era. Mark my words: Nigeria would soon be back to square one, looking for an indigenous coach from amongst our own.

Wales Believes Again

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

Marvellous Support

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

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

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

Counting

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

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

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

Delivering the Promise

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

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

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

Double-edged

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

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

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

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

Newcomers handed Plush Group

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 28th 2014)

Mixed Bag for English Clubs

Bulgarian first-timers to the Championʼs League, Ludogorets, were handed a plush group of fixtures as defending champions Real Mardid – ten times winners were paired with five times European champions Liverpool, returning to the top flight of European football in the post Suárez era. FC Basel 1893, who defeated Chelsea home and away last season before losing their the Pharaohsʼ prize asset Mohammed Salah to the west-Londoners, make up Group B.

Manchester City, yet to excel in Europe, have another tough ask. Pep Guardiolaʼs FC Bayern München are the class of Group D, but CSKA Moskva (Moscow) and AS Roma will provide tough opposition. Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez, Arsène Wengerʼs marquee signing for this season will hope to guide his new team past former winner Borussia Dortmund. SC Galatasaray and RSC Anderlecht complete Group D.

2012 champions Chelsea, boasting the return of the legendary Ivorian striker Didier Drogba, face Kevin-Prince Boatengʼs Schalke 04 along with Sporting Club de Portugal. Sloveniaʼs NK Maribor complete Group G. The victory of the Slovenians in the last round of qualifiers avoided the embarrassment of an undeserving Celtic finding a way into the Championʼs League group stage despite by thoroughly outclassed by Polandʼs Legia Warsaw.

Celtic were fortunate to be given a reprieve despite being thrashed by 6-1 on aggregate by Legia, due to the Poles fielding an ineligible player for a couple of minutes of a dead return fixture. A bureaucratic error to be sure, but a classic case of the punishment exceeding the offence. The Scottish champions failed to benefit from their good fortune. Celtic were defeated at home by Sloveniaʼs NK Maribor who took their place in Group G.

Curses

The beaten finalists in the last two Europa League finals, Benfica begin their latest effort to defeat the Curse of their legendary coach Béla Guttmann in Group C in a tough group against and AS Monaco, recently shorn of the Golden Boot winning Colombian maestro James Rodríguez, but still boasting the services of fellow Colombian Radamel Falcao, whose efforts to join Real Madrid seem plagued by Guttmann at his malevolent prime.

Falcaoʼs former club and last yearʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid will face competition from Juventus, Olympiacos and Malmö, as they bid to make club history with a first triumph in Europeʼs top competition. They have a tough group to negotaite, especially after selling prized striker Diego Costa to Chelsea along with defender Filipe Luís Kasmirski. Coach Diego Simeone faces a tough test from teams whose radar are set to ensure Atlético will not evade it.

Fresh from evading the consequences of the serial breach of the rules on transfers of youngsters from foreign nations Barçelona by splurging in the transfer market ahead of the inevitable and fully deserved ban – they knew they were serially breaching that rule – the Catalan giants crammed a couple of years worth of transfer activity into this window. Paris Saint-Germainʼs Zlatan Ibrahimović will play against two former clubs – the Catalan giants and Ajax as well as rank outsiders Apoel of Cyprus in Group F. Porto are the top ranked team of Group H. Ukraineʼs Shakhtar Donetsk will provide the stiffest competition for the Portuguese according to UEFAʼs ranking system. Bilabaoʼs Athletic Club and Belarusʼ Bate Borisov complete the Group.

Awards

For the first time ever the Womenʼs Best Player in Europe Award was presented along with the menʼs. Last yearʼs inaugural award was won by Germanyʼs goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. The repeating champions VfL Wolfsburg provided all the three nominees. Swedenʼs Nilla Fischer and Martina Müller lost to the clubʼs captain Nadine Kessler.

Bayern Münchenʼs flying Dutchman Arjen Robben was nominated along with his team-mate Germanyʼs World Cup-winning sweeper/keeper Manuel Neuer. They were beaten by record-breaking marksman Cristiano Ronaldo, who paid tribute to his team-mates at Real Madrid. The former Manchester United star couldnʼt resist a swipe at Liverpool. Ronaldo pointed out that when Liverppol beat Real 5-0 on aggregate, it was different as he wasnʼt playing for Real then.

Glorious Defeat, but USA Finally Embraces Football

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 1st 2014)

Belgium Defeat America the Brave

Everton goal-keeper Tim Howard set a World Cup record of 16 saves in a heroic losing effort against Belgium tonight. The excitement flowed as the USA were beaten 2-1, but the nation finally got excited about football and made headlines for all the right reasons after the notorious Chuck Blazer affair. Even President Barack Obama was watching.

Neither Kevin de Bruyne, nor Chelseaʼs seemingly permanently on loan Romelu Lukaku had set the World Cup alight to date – Lukaku lost his place to Liverpool target Divock Origi – but they found a way past the record-breaking Howard in extra time. They had the assists on each othersʼ goals too.

Lukaku replaced Origi at the end of normal time. His run down the right flank and pull back for de Bruyne broke to his team-mate. De Bruyne shot across Howard to finally beat the American keeper.

In the last minute of extra time in the first period of it de Bryune found space on the left before threading it through to Lukaku who blasted it past Howard at the near post.

But the Americans refused to give up despite Lukakuʼs strike. Substitute Julian Green – one of the German-Americans recruited by Klinsmann – was brought on for the second period. He was put through by Michael Bradleyʼs chip and volleyed powerfully past Thibaut Courtois two minutes after coming on.

The young Belgian keeper who has spent the last three years on loan at Atlético de Madrid has yet to lose for his country.

The Formidable Last Barrier

Howard began his assault on the record books with less than a minute played. De Bruyne surged forward before finding Origi. The 19-year-old Lille strikerʼs shot was saved by Howard with his legs at the expense of a corner. It proved to be the first of many, some far easier than others. Both de Bruyne and Eden Hazard had efforts more akin to practice than the greatest stage.

The second half opened as the first had with a Howard save. Dries Mertens headed de Bruyneʼs cross at goal and Howard tipped over. Meanwhile, Courtois was not really tested. Their first shot on target came after 20 minutes. Clint Dempseyʼs run and interchange with Bradley resulted. Unfortunately the ball stuck under Dempseyʼs foot as he shot, so it was saved by Courtois.

With less than 20 minutes of normal time remaining a mazy run by substitute Kevin Mirallas, but was poked away as he was poised to shoot. It broke to Origi whose shot was saved by Howard. With 15 minutes remaining Hazard tracking back broke up an American attack and unleashed a quick counter-attack. Origi passed to Mirallas on the left of the area. Mirallasʼ shot across Howard was saved the immense keeper with his feet.

Three minutes later Howard was at it again denying Hazard after a superb run and pull back by Mirallas that was touched back to the Chelsea midfielder. Hazardʼs shot was powerfully parried by Howard. With six minutes left Origi shot powerfully from just outside the area, but Howard easily tipped it over. An end to end counter-attack started and finished by Vincent Kompany resulted in yet another save by Howard.

Despite being finally beaten after three minutes of extra time Howard pulled more saves out of the hat denying Lukaku after 6 minutes to concede yet another corner that Belgium failed to profit from. With ten minutes gone Hazard released Lukaku on the left of the area, but yet again Howard blocked at his near post. Belgium tried the right with a nice flick by Hazard releasing Mirallas, but his shot could not beat Howard..

Lukaku was in the mood for more. He latched on to a long clearance and beat both Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler to get his shot off from the left of the area only for Howard to deny him again with his left foot. Howard was simply imperious tonight.

Attack and Counter-attack

Both teams attacked and counter-attacked. While Belgiumʼs had greater quality, the USAʼs defence and Howard held firm. De Bruyne was profligate, although he created chances too. After 25 minutes an excellent move on Belgiumʼs left culminated in Jan Vertonghen squaring it for Marouane Fellaini to tap in, but DaMarcus Beasley had other ideas and cleared with Origi wondering why Vertonghen did not pull it back for him instead.

With just under an hour played Hazard released Origi on the left of the area. Origi got to the goal-line and pulled it back for Dries Mertens who tried something fancy that almost came off – a subtle back-heeled flick went just wide. Further attacks created chances for Origi, Hazard and even Kompany, but perhaps the best of normal time fell to the Americans. After pressing in the final third Geoff Cameron lofted it into area. Jermaine Jones nodded it to right where substitute Chris Wondolowski was clearly onside, but wrongly flagged. He was played onside by Alderweireld, but missed badly from 7 yards out, shooting well over Courtois and the bar – he had to score, but didnʼt. It could have been so different.

They had a chance to tie when the excellent DeAndré Yedlin crossed from the right for Wondolowski to nod back to the right for Jones who struck it with the outside of his right foot. It went just wide. Still the Americans refused to give in. After 23 minutes Michael Bradleyʼs inventive free-kick was touched on by Wondolowski to Dempsey, but Courtois was huge and blocked Dempseyʼs close range effort. The USA certainly added to this World Cup and will be missed. Belgium go on to play Argentina in the quarter-finals, but football has arrived in the USA at last.

 

Suárezʼ Alleged Bite Mars Uruguayʼs Win

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 24th 2013)

Third Bite

Atlético de Madridʼs Diego Godínʼs 81st minute winner put Uruguay into the last 16, almost certainly to face fellow South Americans Colombia. The story should have been about their performance, but it wonʼt be. FIFA will examine footage of an incident two minutes earlier as Liverpoolʼs Luis Suárez and Juventusʼ Giorgio Chiellini clashed.

Both should have been dismissed, but the fall-out is likely to be far more serious as Suárez appeared to bite Chiellini. If the footage confirms it it will be the third time Suárez has bitten a fellow player and will surely lead to a very lengthy ban. Chiellini certainly believed that Suárez had bitten him and tried to show the officials his shoulder.

It was ridiculous not to send Suárez off for biting me”, Chiellini said to RAI TV, but the Méxican referee Marco Rodríguez Moreno was unmoved by Chielliniʼs attempt to show him the bite marks.

Actions

FIFA will investigate further. If confirmed as seems likely Suárez will miss the rest of the World Cup and face further sanction. FIFAʼs Disciplinary Code allows it to be reviewed and its maximum sanctions are 24 matches or a 2 year ban, even though the harshest punishment imposed in a World Cup was the disgraceful elbow in the face of Spainʼs Luis Enrique by Italyʼs Mauro Tassotti in 1994.

It would be the third time that Suárez has bitten a player. In 2010, while playing for Ajax he was banned for seven matches for biting PSV Eindhovenʼs Otman Bakkal. Last year the FA banned Suárez for 10 matches for biting Chelseaʼs Branislav Ivanović. He missed the start of the season and then played so well that he became the Player of the Year and deservedly so.

Controversy

Italy began the match needing just a draw to progress to the last 16. Despite rough treatment of Mario Balotelli – he was withdrawn at half time – Italy were inn pole position until just before the hour mark. Claudio Marchisio was shown a straight red card for a studs up challenge that connected with Edigio Árevalo Ríos shin. Italians protested vociferously, but it made no difference.

They held on until two minutes after the bite Gastón Ramírez Pereyra crossed for Godín to powerfully head across Gianluigi Buffon – advantage Uruguay. They held on to set up a last 16 clash against the winners of Group C. Italyʼs second consecutive elimination in the first round proved too much for coach Cesare Prandelli. He resigned immediately after the match.

 

England Bow Out

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 24th 2014)

Changes

Roy Hodgson rang in the changes – nine of them – for the final match of a disappointing World Cup campaign. It ended 0-0 against the supposed whipping boys Costa Rica. Jorge Pinto Alfanadorʼs team ignored the script and won the group by avoiding defeat. Arsenalʼs Joel Campbell Samuels was less impressive than in the previous two matches. Meanwhile, Liverpoolʼs Daniel Sturridge was the focal pint of Englandʼs attack.

Sturridgeʼs first chance was created by Jack Wilshere, but he shot wide twice in just over .the first 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Celso Borges 25 yards out free-kick was finger-tipped onto bar for corner by Ben Foster. England felt that they should have been awarded a spot-kick by Algerian referee Djamel Haimoudi after 26 minutes.

The Obdurate Barrier

Wilshereʼs cross was nodded on by Ross Barkley to Sturridge, but Óscar Duarte Gaitán got his leg in front off Sturridgeʼs as the Liverpool striker prepared to shoot. Sturridge went over Duarteʼs leg, but no penalty was given. After 34 minutes Sturridge had another chance. Barkleyʼs corner was nodded on by Phil Jones and Sturridge headed it over.

The half ended with a route one effort from the Central Americans. Levanteʼs goalkeeper Keylor Navas Gamboa booted it 80 yards up the pitch, but Randall Brenes Moya lacked composure and his effort ballooned up into Fosterʼs arms.

Navas performed heroically, taking Sturridgeʼs studs in his leg as he bravely claimed at the strikerʼs feet three minutes into the second half as Luke Shawʼs cross ballooned up into the area. With just under an hour played Adam Lallana was played in behind the defence on the left. He squared it for Sturridge, but Navas intercepted before it could reach Sturridge.

Farewell

Chris Smalling passed to Wilshere who found Sturridge, but the striker missed again from close range and with just over 20 minutes remaining Sturridge was poised to shoot, but an excellent tackle by Miguel Rodríguez Echevaria conceded a corner rather than the penalty some hoped for. Steven Gerrard was brought on for a few minutes – possibly his last appearance for England. His 88th minute cross was just too high for Wayne Rooney.

England could not find a way past Navas, who is enhancing his reputation with each match at this World Cup. Roy Hodgsonʼs hopes of going far in this competition are over. The three lions finished bottom of the group and Italy bid an acrimonious farewell to Brasil after Luis Suárez was accused of biting Giorgio Chielliniʼs shoulder.

There were controversies in Belo Horizonte too. Campbellʼs early shot was clearly deflected by Gary Cahillʼs hand – accidentally – yet the referee gave a goal-kick. The officials a lunge by Raheem Sterling on Gamboa, giving a corner where a card would have been appropriate. Haimoudi also insisted on pulling play back after Gamboa had broken free from Barkleyʼs attempts to swap shirts during play.

While the referee correctly booked Lallana and Giancarlo González for fouls on Bryan Ruiz González and Barkley respectively, the officials made too many mistakes that were easily exposed by replays. There was nothing as controversial as Frank Lampardʼs disallowed goal in this match, but too much is at stake in modern football for mistakes to be tolerated when they are so easy to correct.

Three former World champions Spain, England and Italy failed to make it out of the group stages, while unfancied Costa Rica top the group. Itʼs been an entertaining and strange World Cup so far.