Saturday, July 15, 2017

Surviving a dry summer

THE DRAG OF THE CLOSE-SEASON IN ODD-NUMBERED YEARS


Summers in these off-years are hard to get through for football fans like me.

By off-years I mean those ending in odd numbers which have neither the World Cup nor European Championships to get excited about.

July is the dryest of dry seasons in years like this, with the daily mash of transfer gossip a poor substitute for the meat of real football news.

With some reluctance I find myself getting into summer sports here in England like cricket and tennis. When I was a child I looked in the newspapers for the football section and found only the Australian Pools forecasts.

In truth we all need a break of course and a reminder that there are other things in life. But breaking such a deep bond, even for a few weeks, is never easy.
I am already harking back to a less than vintage domestic calendar just passed, wondering if we will ever see the young wonders of Ajax or Monaco shine again, now their assets have inevitably begun to be stripped.


Neither won their respective continental cups of course, a reminder that pragmatism trumps creative genius all too often. Perspiration beat inspiration once more as Real Madrid won another UEFA Champions League without setting the world alight, while Jose Mourinho's tactical masterclass in winning the UEFA Europa League final for Manchester United was more proof the devil has all the best tunes.

England winning the U-20 World Cup was a brief highlight and an exciting final, but we are kidding ourselves if it relates much to the national team's prospects.



I mean no disrespect to fans of the CONCACAF Gold Cup either, but when the finals feature Curacao, French Guyana and Martinique, this competition sits some way behind the Euros and the Copa America, so much so that there has been talk of merging it with its southern neighbour for good, a format experimented with last summer in the Copa America Centenario.

Mexico, the traditional Central American powerhouse, has sent a B team this summer after its first eleven contested the Confederations Cup, a clear vote of demotion, while the USA's squad has a decidedly experimental feel to it with Russia 2018 qualification the clear priority after their poor start.

The Confederations Cup remains an odd tournament, a decidedly lukewarm, pallid and ultimately meaningless impression of the World Cup the following summer. Making a list of World Cup winners is relatively easy for the committed fan, but try to make a list of Confederations Cup winners and you have to stop and think.

Another problem with the cup is that the line-up for the finals always seems a little bizarre. This is for two reasons:

One, because it takes teams who have gone off the boil since winning their regional competitions as opposed to nations freshly qualified for the World Cup who are in good form.

Three of the eight in Russia this summer had won their cups in 2015 and one in 2014.

And secondly because some FIFA regions are much stronger than others, a final eight lineup looks much better in the World Cup than the Confederations Cup, where only half of the finalists could realistically stand a chance of making it to the quarter-finals next summer.

New Zealand relish it for their only chance at crossing swords with the stars but the persistent presence of such a week football nation diminishes the tournament as well.

Many fans seem to forget it is even taking place and as a journalist at the 2005 tournament in Germany I still felt duty bound to ask players how they felt about participating in it after a gruelling season.

Qualifiers France (1999), Germany (1997 and 2003) and Italy (2003) even declined to take part.

What started off as the invitational King Fahd Cup in Saudi Arabia only really justifies its existence now as a dry run for the following summer's World Cup finals host.

We should not worry excessively that Germany's less than best eleven winning the 2017 edition means a certain victory for the Mannschaft in Moscow next summer: No previous Confederations Cup winner has gone on to lift the biggest prize the following year.



Having said that, no European nation had ever won the World Cup outside of Europe until Germany broke that duck in 2014.

Germany's Russian conquest this summer combined with their U21s recapturing their European crown in Poland serves as a piquant reminder to the world which country remains the top dog in soccer.

Any football nation which aspires to greater things surely should be aping the German youth system and the DFB's overall planning instead of dreaming of Barcelona, Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Studying the German youth sides should be instructive: Their U21s took England apart in the 2009 final 4-0 and then using the same tactics and some of same players did the same to the national team, 4-1, at the 2010 World Cup.

Now both the Confederations Cup and the U21s are over I am scrambling around to feed my lifelong addiction to the Beautiful Game.

I have attended both those competitions as fan as well as journalist and enjoyed the experiences but they can only be hors d'oeuvres to the main courses of the Henri Delaunay or Jules Rimet trophies.

There really is only one remedy:

Bring on 2018 asap.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Garcia fallout and the 2026 World Cup

With little on the field to get excited about, my thoughts turn to football politics.

The Michael Garcia report on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup awarding decisions has finally been published, but sadly did not provide enough ammunition to charge Russia and Qatar or strip them of their World Cup hosting.

That Qatar paid $2 million to the ten year-old daughter of a FIFA official (the fantastically bent Brazilian Ricardo Texeira) would be hilarious if it were not so tragic. That a nation with no discernible football heritage, a hostile climate and apparently incompatible culture could trump the superior claims of Australia and the United States immediately shocked.

The subsequent humiliation of Qatari AFC President Mohammed Bin Hammam, aka Mr Bribe, and the tsunami of FIFA corruption cases has done nothing to change the impression that hosting the World Cup was a tainted victory for the tiny Gulf state, yet Garcia believed Bin Hammams's payments to individuals to help his bid for the FIFA presidency had no connection to Qatar's 2022 bid.

That said, other bidding nations came out just as embarrassed - Japan and South Korea for their largesse to potential supporters and Australia and England in their clumsy attempts to woo the kingmaker Jack Warner, the epitome of FIFA corruption and malfeasance, with money, friendlies and jobs for the boys.

England also tried to do a vote swap with the Koreans on the eve of the vote, but that nation already had a deal in place with Spain, an inevitable consequence of scheduling two hosting votes together. It was all to no avail of course as none of those three nations emerged victorious.

Along with Michel Platini's, Franz Beckenbauer's football career is over as a result of the fall of the house of Blatter. Der Kaiser was shown to be evasive in his answers to Garcia and appears to have violated his organisation's Ethics Code in assisting his advisors to help with Australia's bid.

Spaniard Angel Maria Villar Llona, who famously said "All the fish are sold" referring to his nation's tie up with Korea for 2018, also came out badly from Garcia's dossier, but uniquely amongst Sepp Blatter's tarnished FIFA Executive Committee, remains in a position of power, second only to current president Gianni Infantino as we speak...

The only 2018 bid apparently beyond criticism was that of Belgium & The Netherlands it should be noted.

This was a perfectly valid application, promoted by Johann Cruyff and Ruud Gullit amongst others, yet fell at the second hurdle, only beaten in unpopularity by that of England, which despite being the best host on paper was firmly dismissed by the squalid ExCo as punishment for its investigative journalism, as Blatter confirmed in his brazen instructions to voters.

Russia escaped pretty neatly from the Garcia report but question marks remain at the miraculously fortuitous destruction of the computers used in its bidding process. Amid the shadow of Russian involvement in the US presidential election and international cyber-crime, the 2018 tournament hosting still looks less than bona fide.

At the same time however, the football world accepts a show as big as the World Cup must sooner or later visit all the world big nations, even those with short footballing traditions like India or China.

Since Russia has a long footballing heritage with household names like the Moscow clubs Dynamo and Spartak, it lets them somewhat off the hook.

We have all been left so jaded by the fireworks at FIFA since the December 2010 vote set the whole house on fire that for now it is hard to get excited about who is iine for the 2026 World Cup Finals.

By rights England should be hosting the World Cup before long but there is no appetite here to trust FIFA again after what happened in Zurich in 2010, with our heir to the throne and Prime Minister present for the debacle, lest we forget.

By the time of the bidding process for 2030, the first possible time England could host again, the culture of FIFA might just have become fair enough for the FA to consider throwing its hat into the ring.

2026 will encompass a whopping 80 games with 48 finalists, which seems to rule out most of FIFA's membership and major football nations. Absurdly, there will be as many finalists from CONCACAF as from CONMEBOL (six a-piece).

With Europe and Asia prevented from bidding because they are hosting the next two tournaments, and Africa hosting as recently as 2010, 2026 will therefore take place in the Americas or Australia.

Colombia has announced its interest but the country has poor infrastructure, with no railway network for instance, although arguably no worse than that of South Africa in 2010.

Their main challenger and the favourite is clearly the combined one of the USA, Canada and Mexico, which envisages 60 games in the States and ten in each of their joint-hosts. Three versus one, Colombia already looks outgunned.

That a nation as big as the USA is not proposing to host the finals alone is proof enough that expansion is a bad idea. Who beyond China could host such a behemoth alone in the future? The quality of first-round matches is already an issue at the 32-team finals so a 50% expansion can only makes things worse.

Of course it will make more money for FIFA though, the prime motivation as always.

With the deadline of the 11th of August looming, it seem the North/Central American bid is the only game in town. Morocco, Chile and Australia have mentioned interest in hosting but are not expected to launch a serious bid in time.

The final decision is set for 13th of June next summer, on the eve of the Russian World Cup.

After being controversially jilted for 2022, CONCACAF and particularly US Soccer expect to be cracking open the champagne in Moscow.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

James joins Bayern

Never mind the hype about the Premier League: James Rodriguez has agreed to join Bayern Munich, it was announced this morning.

The move is only a two-year loan but includes an option to buy the 25 year-old for £35 million at the end of it.

The 2014 World Cup golden boot winner sorely needed a change of scenery after being exiled to the bench for most of the season at Real Madrid, but his final destination is a real shock after so much linking of him to England.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and most of all Manchester United, whose manager Jose Mourinho shares the same agent as Rodriguez, 'super-agent' Jorge Mendes, had been tipped to nab his signature, with Bayern, PSG and Juventus firmly thought to be in the chasing pack.

According to the endless miasma of transfer gossip, such English teams had been "in advanced talks" for weeks, which makes Bayern's press release the snatch of the summer.

That the Colombian is headed to Germany must be down to manager Carlo Ancelotti's personal intervention.

How short our memories are. The Italian brought him to the Bernabeu after the last World Cup, where in his first campaign he was Real's player of the season. James was used in a variety of midfield roles by Ancelotti, who clearly valued him as a crucial and versatile support for the BBC (Bale, Benzema & Cristiano) trident ahead of him.

James might not score like a forward, but he certainly gets involved in attacks and supplies the bullets to his teammates.

However, his mentor Ancelotti did not last beyond 2015 in Madrid. Despite winning the Club World Cup, Real finished two points behind Barcelona in the league, exited the Copa del Rey in the round of 16 after losing to Atletico Madrid and were knocked out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage by Juventus.

Rafael Benitez was brought it but lasted less than a season before Zinedine Zidane was promoted to first-team boss.

Zizou was never convinced by James, preferring the tough Brazilian Casemiro as an anchor behind the duo of defensive Toni Kroos and creative Luka Modric.

When he rejigged the formation into a diamond, Isco was his preferred attacking midfielder and more recently Marco Asensio and Lukas Vasquez have been called upon. And so the hottest property in world football after the last World Cup became a bench-warmer, a reserve and substitute at best.

One domestic title and two Champions Leagues in three seasons sounds a reasonably impressive haul but James has played a less than key role in all of them.

By last summer it was clear the Colombian captain should move on and this past season must be really go down as a waste of his talents with only 13 starts made. When Zidane failed to name James for Real's squad for the Champions League final in Cardiff this May, the game was up for him.

Cardiff was a sad bookend to his Real career because it was in the Welsh capital where he had made his debut for the merengues, in their European Super Cup win in 2014.

But this move is clearly a wise one for him, to a top European club who play excellent football and with a manager who has always believed in him.

Whilst the Bundesliga fails to match the star-quality of the Premier League or the big three in Spain, Bayern continue to be unfairly forgotten about on a wider stage.

Yet the Bavarians have won the last five Bundesligas and reached at least the last four of the Champions League in five of the past six seasons. There is no reason to believe they will achieve anything less in 2017-'18.

So all eyes will be on James in his new domestic challenge and after his marvels in Brazil, much is expected of him at next year's World Cup finals, should Colombia make it through as expected.

He leaves Real having scored 36 goals in 111 appearances.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Fifa World Rankings July 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for July 2017 were published on July 6 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

Confederations Cup winners, Germany go top ahead of Brazil and Argentina.

The full top ten is: Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Chile, Colombia, France and Belgium.

England are 13th, Wales drop to 20th. Egypt are the top African team in 24th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 45th place up three spots; Japan are in 46th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 51st place.

The USA are in 35th. Scotland are in 58th position. The Republic of Ireland in 29th place now behind Northern Ireland who climb to 22nd position.

1 Germany
2 Brazil
3 Argentina
4 Portugal
5 Switzerland
6 Poland
7 Chile
8 Colombia
9 France
10 Belgium
11 Spain
12 Italy
13 England
14 Peru
15 Croatia
16 Mexico
17 Uruguay
18 Sweden
19 Iceland
20 Wales

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Fifa World Rankings June 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for June 2017 were published on June 1 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

The top 100 positions again show few changes from May.

The full top ten is: Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Chile, Colombia, beaten Euro 2016 finalists, France, Belgium, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Switzerland, Spain and Poland.

England are 13th, level with Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales. Poland move up to joint 10th with Spain. Egypt are the top African team in 20th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 48th place up two spots; Japan are in the 45th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 43rd place.

The USA are in 23rd. Wales are 13th. Scotland are in 61st position. The Republic of Ireland in 26th place now ahead of Northern Ireland in 28th position.

1 Brazil
2 Argentina
3 Germany
4 Chile
5 Colombia
6 France
7 Belgium
8 Portugal
9 Switzerland
10 Spain
10 Poland
12 Italy
13 Wales
13 England
15 Peru
16 Uruguay
17 Mexico
18 Croatia
19 Costa Rica
20 Egypt

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

One night to shine in Sweden

One night to shine in Sweden.
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL 2017

Manchester United v Ajax

Friends Arena, Stockholm 19:45 GMT

The heat appears to be on Manchester United tonight, or more specifically Jose Mourinho.

The club is bigger and richer than Ajax and demands success so winning the Europa League against a lesser side is expected at boardroom level.

Louis Van Gaal was given two years and did not deliver so was sacked, Mourinho is well aware.

But the so-called special one has so far failed to apply his Midas touch to the Red Devils since arriving last summer and has even managed to finish lower than Louis Van Gaal did during his two-year reign at Old Trafford.

Mourinho has jettisoned any humour or wit in the past few weeks for earnest seriousness as he has homed in on the Stockholm final for his make-or-break 90 minutes this season.

Fielding below-strength sides should in a perfect world incur a penalty but sympathy for the logic of the manager's stance is axiomatic.

The former Champions League and Europa League winner is clearly under tremendous pressure to win in Stockholm so we can cut him some slack.

Man Utd shelled out a fortune last summer, not least £89 million on Paul Pogba from Juventus, yet have failed to qualify for the Champions League from the Premier League.

Despite their youth, Ajax have been the far more impressive team in the knock-out stages, winning big with an elan and fluency the Man U fans can only remember wistfully after the error-strewn David Moyes era, two years of possession-marinating under Van Gaal and another fitful, stuttering season this time around.

Then to cap it all, United players have been dropping like flies to injury. Were centre-backs Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo as well as former Ajax striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the field, one would surely tip the English side to overcome the Dutch one.

Yet the now the outcome hangs decidedly in the balance.

Have no doubt,  despite their injury headaches, Man U's pre-match analysts have been working long into the night with Mourinho to hatch a plan to defeat Ajax.

United have lumbered through the lesser of UEFA's two big club competitions winning few admirers with their lone-goal aggregate victories while failing to provide any rousing victories for their home supporters.

Mourinho is well-known for putting results before style however and as a master tactician for the big occasion he is probably without comparison, but this winner-takes-all tie is his biggest test yet.

In United's favour of course is their superior experience, a factor boosted by Ajax's near collapse in their semi-final second leg when they scraped through 5-4 on aggregate having led 4-1 from the first leg.

At their best this young Amsterdam side look irresistible, as in their home wins over Schalke and Lyon. The club best known for valuing style over results tonight meets the manager proud to preach the opposite.

Memories inevitably hark back to the glorious kids of 1995 who won the European Cup, but that side and its system was quite regimented as befitted its coach Van Gaal, a man who clashed with Johan Cruyff and his footballing philosophies.

Ajax's current manager Peter Bosz however takes his cue from his mentor Johan Cruyff's desire to let flare into the equation.

Patrick Kluivert who scored the '95 winner is back in the form of his son Justin, while Edwin Van der Sar and Marc Overmars are part of the back-room staff alongside Dennis Bergkamp and Winston Bogarde.

Will this side of starlets go the same way as the '95 outfit and be cherry-picked by bigger, richer European sides than Ajax?

Danish teenage striker Kasper Dolberg, Colombian centre-back Davinson Sanchez and midfielders Davy Klaasen and Hakim Ziyech are already firmly on the radar of other teams.

Perhaps then the pressure is just as much on Ajax tonight as after over twenty years of restructuring, internecine disputes and struggle, the club has finally reached another European final.

If they win, the lure of the Champions League may be enough to keep their side intact. Lose, and another wonderful Dutch dynasty could be over just as it was getting started.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Cardiff's big night of the Champions League final

I am delighted Cardiff, the first city I made my home, is hosting next month's UEFA Champions League Final, but I am also keen it puts on a good show to the continent and increasingly the world.

Whilst no-one can deny the impressive 74,500 Millennium Stadium is a fine venue for any soccer showpiece, eyebrows everywhere have been raised at the realisation that Cardiff is a little on the small size as a city (population 340,000) and does not have a major airport nearby.

Cardiff's big night of the Champions League final.


Cardiff-Wales airport flies a summer timetable largely to beach resorts. Hopefully there will be extra flights laid on from Madrid and Turin, the two finalist cities.

Whilst the Welsh capital has experience of dealing with F.A. Cup finals, Football League playoffs and football and rugby internationals, the tens of thousands expected for European football's showdown will be coming from overseas via London so there must be plenty of transport options before and crucially after a game which could go on through extra-time and maybe penalties.

Given local hotel rooms for the night have been jacked up to outrageous rates, a depressing occurrence whenever a big sporting event happens, most will be leaving Cardiff the same night.

With only 4000 hotel rooms, all booked up some time ago, there is little option other than car hire and hotels further afield, or in one of the tents specially erected in a city park, Pontcanna Fields.

The now customary Final Festival will take place around a mile away in Cardiff Bay as the Millennium Stadium itself sits in the very tight streets of the city centre, which of course is a fabulous location for so big a venue. Fans arriving by train at Cardiff Central will see its looming stands and cantilevers as soon as they exit the station.

Unlike at Wembley or other out-of-town venues, there are plenty of bars and eateries within a stone's throw of the stadium. If it is a sunny day, Cardiff's ample urban parkland, particularly Bute Park beside the castle will provide a great place to relax and have a kickaround.

The centre has two main avenues. Fans will probably stroll down the pedestrianised Queen Street but not linger in the shops. St Mary Street leading to the castle is mostly bars and restaurants and will be buzzing on final day however.

The castle, originally Roman but added to by Normans and others, most notably the C19th coal baron the Marquess of Bute, is the one photo stop every visitor will make, its impressive outer walls now surmounted by a blue UEFA dragon clasping the Champions League trophy.

There will be road closures and plenty of police but if everyone is relaxed the visiting supporters will enjoy the occasion.

Cardiff's big night of the Champions League final.


I have travelled to Cardiff from London by train on big match days before and found long queues at Paddington Station for passage to the Welsh capital. Pre-booking is of course advised but the fact so many Italians and Spaniards will be landing that day in London none the wiser will surely mean the railways and bus lines need extra capacity.

21 post-match trains to London have been promised and I hope that will be enough.

In changing the final from Wednesday to Saturday and adding a festival for a few days around it, UEFA have consciously tried to ape the Superbowl, increasing the price of tickets concomitantly, to make it a global event.

As much as I love Cardiff, it is not a city on the large side. Only Gelsenkirchen, the 2004 host, was a smaller place but Schalke's home is close to several other German cities in the most densely-populated part of that country.

Near to Cardiff there are only other modestly-sized cities like Swansea, Bristol and Bath. The only realistic result is that many will hop back on the London train after the match, meaning four hours of travelling on the day instead of soaking up the atmosphere of the host city.

London remains the major pull for overseas fans like it is for visitors. Travelling around Euro '96 it was clear many foreign fans were basing themselves in the capital and returning from Birmingham and Nottingham if not further afield after matches finished.

I am sure it will be all right on the night but I just hope UEFA have been adamant enough that the travelling fans, the frequently neglected factor in modern football, will enjoy the experience as much as the corporate guests, UEFA family and billion-odd TV viewers.

In the rush to make football big business, the supporters who make the effort at short notice to get off work and jet across to another country at some expense to fill the seats and cheer millionaire footballers, are usually the last to be considered.

The other issue if course security given the heightened threat of a terrorist attack on a high-profile European event. 1,500 police will be on hand to ensure nothing untoward occurs and the city did successfully host a NATO summit in 2014.

The city expects 170,000 visitors on the day, although that can only be rough guess. The Fan Zone in Coopers Fields can hold 7,000 and the Football Village in Cardiff Castle another 2,000. Down in the bay area, a Champions League museum will be open in the Wales Millennium Centre.

Many living nearby will be tempted to drop by to savour the unusually Mediterranean atmosphere.

Coming a year after Wales stunned the world by reaching the semi-final of Euro 2016, despatching the highly-fancied Belgians 3-1 in the quarter-final most notably, having the final of the European Cup in Cardiff constitutes something of a golden age in one of Europe's forgotten football corners.

Scotland remains far more famous overseas than Wales despite being of equal political status, so every piece of international fame can only be good for the local economy. I used to have to explain where Wales was to many a European but hopefully that has changed now.

Despite boasting an excellent castle, museum, parks and pleasant urban landscape as well as quick access to the Brecon Beacon mountains, the idyllic Gower Peninsula and other fine fortresses like Caerphilly, Cardiff remains a little off the standard tourist track for visitors to the UK because it is in the west of the island.

Doctor Who is filmed there but pretends it is London or various alien planets.

While Cardiff has a small Italian population, as shown by a number of family-owned ristoranti and Italian surnames in South Wales, and Juventus are the traditional team for Italian immigrants and their offspring, the fact local boy done good Gareth Bale is at Real Madrid will surely sway the majority of locals into backing the Spaniards.

Whether the Cardiff-born star can be fit in time for his big night on his home turf remains in doubt however.

A fit Bale or not, Cardiff will surely put on a good show and make a night to remember.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile