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?

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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!

Life After Cuadrado

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

Won’t be Missed

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

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

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

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Impact of the Loss of Cuadrado

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

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

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

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The Shop Window

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

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

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

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

Going, Going, Gone

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

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

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

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

Familiar Faces

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

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

Ambitions

Ambitions

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

Test

Vincenzo Montella wants success. The current coach of Fiorentina, known as the Little Aeroplane due to gis goal celebration has made the transition from player to coach. His opposite number Tottenham Hotspurʼs Mauricio Pochettino has too. Both teamsʼ league positions suggest that qualifying for the Championsʼ League through their respective leagues will be difficult, but there is another option – winning the Europa League.

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Thereʼs no doubt of course that itʼs a really important game tomorrow and yeah, this is what we work for, this is why we are involved in football”, Montella said. “Weʼre very, very passionate about the game and Iʼm sure that tomorrow will be a fantastic experience and weʼre focussed on tomorrowʼs game. Of course we want to go as far as possible, but we want to focus on tomorrow and the rest will take care of itself”.

Montella knows that Spurs will be a difficult side to beat. “Tomorrow, itʼs going to be very difficult”, he said. “We need to ensure that weʼre extremely focussed out on the pitch. We need to be full of energy, but by the same token not get too carried away, because that could perhaps make things difficult for us, perhaps even have a slight bit of fear that could keep us on edge during the game”.

Ready

Veteran defender Manuel Paasqual has no illusions either. “… weʼre in the Europa League, direct knock-out round”, he said. “We know weʼre playing a very good team, perhaps one of the favourites for the competition. We know that theyʼre fast, tough, very physical. And this year weʼre up against Tottenham, but weʼre going to go up there and do our best to carry on in the competition”.

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His coach is ready too. “I think whatʼs really important for us is to be ready, to be prepared, physically, tactically, mentally as well and I think that is something which we all are”, Montella said. “My team is ready for the game. We know itʼs a big game. Itʼs a big game against a strong team, playing at home with their own crowd behind them, which is not necessarily something weʼre always used to playing in this kind of atmosphere, but yeah weʼre ready”.

Important

Itʼs not a season-defining match, but both teams know that victory is important. “Well I think itʼs a very important game for us, because obviously weʼre playing a very strong team in Spurs, but I think we ourselves in the past and at the moment, we are showing ourselves to be a very good team”, Pasqual said. “We know that Spurs are going to be difficult.

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Montella is keen to play their own match. “Well I think that we know that we have to play our game”, Montella said. “We have to display what weʼre capable of doing We have to be combative; we have to be energetic. We have to know match the opposition, whether itʼs physically, mentally. We need to play well, stay true to our style, be brave and also a little bit humble and be aware of what might happen if we donʼt play to our top level”.

Commitment

Among the players returning for their first taste of football in England since leaving these shores are Mohamed Salah on loan from Chelsea and former Manchester City and England defender Micah Richards. Montella doesnʼt think that will matter much. “I think that what is important isnʼt so much being used to play here in England, itʼs being used to playing at this kind of level against these kind of teams,he said.

He has no illusions that Fiorentina face a tough tie. “Tottenham are a complete team”, he said. “Thereʼs nothing missing from them whatsoever and theyʼre pretty special in that they combine a Spanish style of play and an English style of play, so a lot of possession and the slow the ball down, but then theyʼre also very quick in the transition phase. Theyʼre able to speed things up. Theyʼre able to be very direct as well, so thatʼs something you have to get used to and yeah, theyʼre strong opposition. We know that. Theyʼre a very, very complete team”.

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Pasqual shares his coachʼs opinions. “Itʼs going to be tough, but the important thing for us to give our best, play well on the pitch in exactly the same way as weʼve done in any other game weʼve played whether it be the Cup Italia – the Italian Cup – or in the Italian Championship”, Pasqual said.

Montella tempers his enthusiasm with a note of caution. “We need to be extremely enthusiastic”, he said. “We need to be very brave. We need to enjoy the opportunity, but by the same token we canʼt get too carried away. We canʼt be too euphoric, because obviously that might lead us to become a little bit careless and thatʼs when mistakes can happen”.

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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

Vincent Enyeama 1

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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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.

The Ides of October

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 10th 2014)

BPL – Under Starter’s Orders

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There are two things on my mind this weekend – the Barclays Premier league and Nigeria’s match against Sudan! I am thinking and looking closely at the real contenders for this season’s BPL trophy already. Just one week into the league season I noted that Chelsea FC looked very seriously like the team to beat this season – not much insight needed there. But Manchester United was proving an enigma. Was last season just a blip, or is there a bigger problem?

Until last week Manchester United looked out of sorts with the much travelled and successful Louis Van Gaal wondering whatever happened to his football magic wand. Van Gaal conceded that this has been his worst and most challenging experience since he started coaching and he acknowledged how difficult it now appeared to be for the club to rise again and play like the champions of old.

Although it is still morning in the league, the signs don’t indicate a typical Man United resurgence. Whatever happened to Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and the new mercurial on-loan striker, Radamel Falcao? Colombia’s talisman looks lost in the team, although he and United have the class to demand not to be written off. Falcao has scored goals wherever he [plays, but ominously United don’t play the way that he has thrived on.

English football’s most expensive player, the Argentinian Ángel di María, may well become the Joker in the pack and alter the fortunes of Man U for good if and when he hits full throttle and finally starts to play as well as we all know he is capable of doing. There’s no doubt that United have bought class players and paid well for them. It remains to be seen whether they will deliver and what place if any will be found for the club’s previous record signing Juan Mata.

Fluctuating Arsenal

The Gunners spent heavily this season, but results show that they still need to spend some more to get the perfect combination going. The Chilean winger Alexis Sánchez arrived from FC Barçelona sporting great credentials, but for me, he has been a great disappointment.

His performances during the World Cup for Chile were so fantastic that even I believed that any club would be lucky to pry him away from Cataluña. Instead, he has looked rather slow and uncertain about how to play in Arsenal, just as the team also continues to display great vulnerability when defending. He may just need time to adjust to a new league and team and his team-mates to him, but football is not known for patience.

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The team’s performance has kept oscillating between mouth-watering brilliance and the abysmal. Arsenal also, like Manchester United, have not played like potential champions. Arsène Wenger still needs to make use of the next transfer window for players that can to shore up the team’s defence. Otherwise, despite celebrating 18 years at Arsenal recently – the longest serving manager in the BPL currently – this may be his last season with the Gunners.

Liverpool face different problems. They have just not struck a great rhythm yet. They have played with the promise of great things, but have failed to be firm in their delivery. There is more bottled up in side the team than being displayed so far. Despite new signings led by Mario Balotelli, along with Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana, world class is hard to replace. Warts and all Luis Suárez is world class and proving hard to replace. Liverpool may find a way to click, but in my opinion they are unlikely to walk alone with the crown this time even if on paper they have the capability.

Impressive Defence

Manchester City FC have been impressive. They are improving with every match, and may indeed have the best front line in the Premiership this season with several attacking options upfront led by Edin Džeko, Sergio Agüero and Stevan Jovetić.

Yaya Touré continues to inspire with his week-in week-out textbook demonstration of how to play in central midfield. When in top form he is the perfect bridge between defence and attack. He surely must be in contention for the best central midfield player in the world, and a leading contender for Africa’s next Player of the Year Award again this December!

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But it is Chelsea FC in England (not in Europe where they have looked boring and have been played tamely) that have shown quite clearly their intention to win the Premiership. The team has played every match with the signature of José Mourinho written all over it. The shoving spat between Wenger and Mourinho last weekend, when Chelsea beat Arsenal with consummate ease, really confirmed Chelsea’s strength and determination this season. They are the team playing with the spirit of potential champions.

Stephen Keshi, Super Eagles and the Ides of March!

The last thing on my mind as we approach this weekend is the most discussed issue in Nigerian football at the moment. As Nigeria Super Eagles of play away in Sudan the match could determine Stephen Keshi’s fate as manager of the Super Eagles.

Undoubtedly, while not plumbing the depths of Berti Vogts’ Super Chickens, the Super Eagles have been anything but super since after the World Cup. Before then Keshi could do no wrong. He had amassed the most successful record for a Nigerian in the history of football in the country. Then he took Nigeria to the World Cup where he put up a fairly good performance until some immature behaviour by the players, that many people have said he encouraged and benefited from, crept in to ruin everything he had worked for.

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With a new Executive Committee that appears not to want him but cannot get rid of him easily, he now faces the biggest threat to his stay as manager of the national team. For now he is hanging on to the job by the skin of his teeth and is likely to be laid off should the Super-Eagles fail to impress this weekend.

The biggest thing going for him is the absence of any alternative to him as coach of the Eagles. In this era of ex-internationals, no other Nigerian ex-international has his rich football management credentials. So, to consider anyone amongst a list of the few in his category is difficult. It can’t be justified.

Samson Siasia, whose name is being mentioned as a possible replacement, would be a hard sell. Nothing has happened in Siasia’s career since he was replaced by Keshi to indicate that he is now a different and better coach. Perhaps, Sunday Oliseh? He looks the part, but can he walk the walk?

I do not like the setting of this weekend’s match at all. I wonder why CAF would allow a match of this magnitude to be played on artificial turf. This could well spell doom for the Super Eagles.

I do not like it one bit! The Super Eagles and Stephen Keshi must beware the Ides of March, or should that be the Ides of October. But good luck to the Super Eagles.

Segun at Wembley