The Importance of Being Earnest

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 9th 2014)

Crunch Time

Tonight Greek champions Olympiacos will play one of the most important matches in their history. Their fate is partially in their hands. Only a win against Malmö at their stadium which is named after Greek Independence War hero Giorgios Karaiskakis gives them any chance of progressing to the knock-out stage of the Championʼs League. But they need a favour.

While any win will do, it will count for nothing unless last yearʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid beat Juventus. The irony of a former Real Madrid great needing a favour from his cross town rivals is surely not lost on Olympiacosʼ coach Michel (José Miguel González Martín del Campo). But the Greeks can only take care of their end, beating the Swedish team and hope that Juve lose.

Christian Karembeu 2

I think everything is always difficult for any team, because we never know about the challenges”, said the World Cup winning French midfielder Christian Karembeu. “We never know about it – the favourites may not play well, so all expectations always with favourites, but we never know about the challenges”.

The Greeks had an interesting draw and will take some confidence from having beaten both favourites for Group A. “I think that for my part with Olympiacos, for us itʼs a great honour to play against Juve, to play against Atlético Madrid who were finalists in the last Championʼs League tournament”, Karembeu said. “So far we are very happy”.

Safety Net

Olympicos know that a win or draw tonight will guarantee third place and barring something unforeseeable a berth in the Europa League. While the financial benefits of that competition are not comparable to the Championʼs League, they are not to be sniffed at, especially in economically ravaged Greece and in the era of Financial Fair Play (FFP).

Olympiacos can always compete on the national stage, but Europe is another matter, especially now. FFP limits their room to manoeuvre. Karembeu is thoughtful on the initiative. “I think that everyone should think about it”ʼ he says. “Everyone should talk about it, discuss it and try to find a really great solution, knowing that itʼs a really good initiative to try to make balance to any of the teams”.

Christian Karembeu 1

But does it achieve that or lock the door shut after teams that have done their spending in advance, or adjusted their revenue-making options to fit the new fiscal requirements? Karembeu is aware of the pitfalls, but broadly speaking he supports the initiative. “I know”, he says, “thatʼs why I say everybody should discuss [it], everybody: owners, investors and UEFA. They should work together and discuss why this matters”.

While it lacks the prestige and resources of the Championʼs League, the Europa League can expect to be taken seriously this season, even in England. The winner of the competition will play in the Championʼs League next season. Will that make it more competitive? Karembeu adopts a wait and see perspective. “We will see”, he says. “Now itʼs an idea. We will see if itʼs going to be competitive or not and thatʼs when we will see. This is like how you say like a reason. We will see what will happen”.

Advertisements

A Villainʼs Charter?

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

A Clean Slate

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

CIMG7551

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

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

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

Christian Karembeu 2

Villainsʼ Charter

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

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

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

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

Foul and Fouler

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

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

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

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

Ivory Coastʼs ʻGolden Generationʼ Fail Again

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

Dramatic Ending

Fernando Santosʼ Greece snatched a last gasp win over Ivory Coast to advance to the knock out stage for the first time in their history. Baselʼs Giovanni-Guy Sioʼs clumsy challenge caught the back of Georgios Samarasʼ boot, sending the Celtic striker to the deck. Samaras picked himself to handle the pressure admirably.

Despite Ivory Coastʼs goal-keeper Boubacar Barry going the right way to his left, Samarasʼ penalty was well-placed. At 2-1 the Ivory Coast had to attack. Kolo Touréʼs weak shot went wide ending Ivorian dreams again. For the third World Cup in a row the ʻgolden generationʼ had failed to get out of their group in the World Cup.

Sabri Lamouchi and his team cannot complain. They knew what they needed to do to progress – just avoid defeat. Moments before conceding the penalty the Elephants outnumbered the Greeks four to two, but Yaya Touréʼs shot was easily taken by Panagiotis Glykos, who had replaced Orestis Karnezis after Udineseʼs goalkeeper was forced off with a back injury after 25 minutes.

The Ivorians only needed to avoid defeat, which forced the Greeks to play against type and rely on a not unlikely favour from the Colombians against Japan. Defender José Holebas hit the crossbar from just outside the area with Barry well beaten. Just before half-time a dreadful error by Newscatle Unitedʼs Cheik Tioté gifted possession to Samaras. He put substitute Andreas Samaris through and Olympiacosʼ midfielder through to put Greece ahead.

Chastened

The Elephants knew that they had to score, yet the Greeks came closes. Their most-capped player Giorgos Karagounis struck a thunderous 35 shot against the cross-bar with Barry beaten again. Moments earlier Salomon Kalou jinked between Dimitris Salpingidis and Vasilis Torosidis and shot just over. With 20 minutes remaining Lazaros Christodoulopoulos took a free-kick that ruffled the top of net from 30 yards out.

That caused the Ivorians to spring to life. A flowing move through the centre was spread to the left. Gervinho pulled it back for Swanseaʼs Wilfried Bony to score to Glykosʼ right. At that point the Ivorians were heading to the last 16. The 36 year-old Didier Drogba was taken off after 78 minutes. He received thunderous applause, as did Karagounis, who was substituted a minute earlier.

Sadly for the ʻgolden generationʼ and probably Lamouchi – this is his first managerial job – it was the Elephants rather than Greeks that came to this match bearing gifts. Meanwhile, history will be made as either Greece or their opponents Costa Rica will reach the quarter-finals for the first time.