Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Olympic Lessons

RIO'S SHINE SHADES OVER THE START OF THE FOOTBALL SEASON


The Rio Olympic Games have just finished and that two-week fiesta every four years has rightly had the lion's share of our hearts and minds again, despite the opening of the European football calendar.

The Olympics is a useful aide-memoire that other sports are out there, rather like the Roman who was employed to whisper "Remember thou art mortal" in the ear of generals returning to the seven hills in triumph.

Rio also served, like London 2012 did, to show the public how elite sportsmen can be good role-models and do not have to cut such greedy, ill-educated figures as so many top footballers do.

The clean and honest endeavour of so many gold medallists always cast footballers' modest achievements in a poor light again, and the abundance of aggression-free joy from Olympic spectators also served to shine a light on the darker sides of the Beautiful Game.

Only two months before, Europe's top international sides had gathered in France for Euro 2016 and several city centres were left full of broken glass and blood stains. Rio has its social problems of course but they were not caused by visiting sports fans in August.

The corrupting influence of too much money is of course the salient difference between football and Olympic sports, but it is hard to see that problem improving anytime soon.

Such was the unbridled joy Rio unleashed, the start of the football season suddenly seemed distinctly unattractive.

Brazil seemed to be unaware that sports other than football existed during the games, given that swathes of empty seats was the norm at most events, with the notable exceptions of ones in which they had a shout of winning - boxing, judo and beach volleyball.

The full Maracana got its golden moment when Neymar scored the fifth and clinching spot-kick in the men's football final, but Marta & Co. missed out on a home double by losing their semi-final to Sweden. In losing the men's final, Germany missed their own football clean sweep too.

Women's football makes more sense at the Olympics than male football given the full national teams take part, but the absence of England, World Cup semi-finalists, but not an Olympic nation, jarred once more.

There should be no problem having Team GB for women, any more than there is having the British Lions play rugby now and again. Having a men's team still looks a no-go however, because qualification depends on UEFA U-21 competition, where there is no Great Britain.

Brazil's win in the men's tournament went a little way to soothing the horror of the 7-1 Maracanazo at the World Cup two years ago, and the host nation had at last a reason to get out in the streets and party, so all's well that ends well.

The golden boy's successful seizing of his big chance on the big stage closed that chapter in Brazilian football history with aplomb, but no-one should be under any illusions that Olympic success will translate into victories at the subsequent World Cup in Russia in 2018.

The seleçao's next big short at glory is realistically the Copa America at home in 2019.

In the swirl of victory it is easy to forget that Brazil drew their first two games 0:0 with South Africa and Iraq. Only when they switched from a malfunctioning 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 did they start scoring goals.

Brazil also had two Barcelona regulars - Neymar and Rafinha - in their final team, which contrasted with the unknown German U23s lining up against them.

The tournament rules of eight U-23 players and three overage players is perhaps the best compromise they organisers can come up with but football, try as it might, still does not seem a good fit with the Olympics, even in such a soccer-mad nation as Brazil.

And so here we are with another long season beckoning. By the law of averages, the big teams will dominate once more and it is unlikely we will see another Leicester City.

The Champions League will only become interesting in next Spring's knock-out stages and there is no big tournament to look forward to in the summer of 2017.

I will need a little time to fall back in love with football.

Bring it on.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fifa World Rankings July 2016

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for July 2016 were published today at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

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

In the first World Fifa Rankings after Euro 2016 there have been quite a few changes

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

England are 13th, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales in 11th.

Algeria are the top African team in 32nd place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 59th place; Japan are in 57th. Near neighbors South Korea are in 48th place.

The USA are in 25th. Wales are 11th. Scotland are in 50th position. The Republic of Ireland are in 25th place, Northern Ireland are in 28th position.

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

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Les Miserablues

Les Miserablues, Euro 2016.
I wasn't intending to come to the Final, but since I returned home two weeks ago I had kept an eye on the UEFA ticketing website and had been able to get tickets for every game played in the knockout stage whilst I was back at work.

I mentioned this at work, and explained that if I got a ticket I would be late for work on Monday.

I checked all the details and figured I could stay at the same place in Paris and catch the first Eurostar at 6.30am on the Monday morning.

So on Friday 8th I saw that match tickets would be available from 1pm. I arranged to have my lunch at two ish as I know from experience that the first hour will just be waiting to get onto the website. Sure enough I managed to secure a ticket, a last check with colleagues at work who kindly agreed to cover for me and I secured the ticket.

The House of European Photography, Paris.


Returning home that evening I set about sorting out my journey.

Slight problem.

The first Eurostar available on their website would arrive in London at 2pm, meaning I would not be able to get back to Nottingham for work before my colleagues finished.

Portugal win Euro 2016.


I looked at other options. Available flights were in the evening and the overnight bus back to London left Paris at 10.15pm. Too early.

I remembered Ivan telling me about Captain Train, a French website that he used to book European trains. They had an option. I could get the TGV to Lille from Paris at 7.40am, and then join the Eurostar, arriving London 10.29am which should mean I get back to work for 1pm so my colleagues can have some lunch.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


Not surprisingly this option was more expensive than I hoped, so to offset the cost I looked at cheap ways to get to Paris, the best I could find was Ouigo, the SNCF low cost bus at €29 and nine hours.

I had already checked what's on in Paris and found I had already been to the top five so I decided I was in no rush and so completed a sequence of visits to Paris, by Plane, Train and boat (as the bus uses a ferry between Dover and Calais).

Portugal win Euro 2016.


After testing the three different routes the winner for me is definitely the Eurostar.

It goes from the heart of the city, and delivers you to the heart of Paris. You can arrive 45 minutes before departure, no lengthy queues to get on ferries (as Welsh fans will testify).

My first task Sunday morning was to collect my final ticket, and so I headed to Parc des Princes for the fourth time this tournament where my ticket was waiting.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


It felt strange on Sunday morning, travelling towards the ground without the football crowds, it was on my last journey here that I learnt the words to most of the Welsh songs... "5 at the back, With Bale in attack", couldn't quite manage the Welsh national anthem though.

During the afternoon I visited The House of European Photography, where they just happened to have an exhibition with French photographers covering the work of Oscar Niemeyer (remember him?). It reminded me I have unfinished business and intend to be back in Brazil in 2019. After that I visited Victor Hugo's house, of course I left it wondering who were going to be Les Miserables this evening.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


I arranged to meet a few friends for a pre-match meal. The majority of whom had been here for the whole tournament. They agreed that it had been great travelling round France, but that the football was nothing special.

The match itself saw Ronaldo, manage the Portugese team to victory. After he was forced off on 20 minutes. I saw him reappear at the end of 90 minutes, then gather the team for a huddle for the start of the second period, before wandering up and down the touchline barging his manager out of the way as he gave his commands.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


Later it emerged that there had been tear gas used at the fan zone by the Eiffel Tower as police struggled with the crowd, also a proposed victory parade on Monday, had been cancelled before the match.

Would winning have caused more problems for France?

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.


It was a shame that France didn't win to try to heal the scars from 2015, and show how far the team had come since their debacle in South Africa 2010, but the Portuguese Resistance had been evident throughout the tournament and in the reign of their current manager who is undefeated in 14 games. I guess it sums up the state of the modern game where winning is more important than entertainment.

Portugal win Euro 2016, Paris, France.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

French revenge could light up the Euros

French revenge could light up the Euros.
Let us be honest, the Euros have been a bit of a damp squib this time around.

Northern Europe has had a wet and cloudy June and this seems to have been reflected on the field of France 2016.

The free-flowing football of Brazil 2014 is a bit of a memory, perhaps a telling comment on the tactics-heavy European teams.

With the possible exception of Portugal's 3-3 draw with Hungary, there have been no standout games which ebbed and flowed to keep the neutrals enthralled. There have been a couple of thrashings – France racing to a 4-0 half-time lead over Iceland or Belgium thumping Hungary 4-0 for instance, and some very clinical, high-quality football – Italy in the group stage most notably, but not a lot to write home about.

The multi-team format, three times the size of the eight country Euro '92 in Sweden, has led to some teams deliberately playing for draws (Slovakia against England), fielding weakened elevens (Italy v Eire) or even happily losing 1-0 (Northern Ireland against Germany).

The knock-out stage was supposed to add some spice to the mix and has done to a small extent – Wales' surprising 3-1 dismissal of Belgium woke the continent up even more than Iceland's 2-1 win over a soporific and mesmerised England.

Then Germany and Italy provided some welcome comedy in their penalty shoot-out after an exhausting 120 minutes.

Finally France remembered their lines as host nation to the relief of most football followers and put in a bravura performance to eliminate the Viking upstarts. The lack of an on-fire host nation, in sharp contrast to their outstanding team when they hosted the World Cup in 1998, has probably hurt the tournament.

The Champs-Elysees may yet become a sea of red, white and blue on Sunday night, an echo of 1984, 1998 and 2000, but Les Bleus have only two games left in which to impress.

Euro 2000 lingers in the mind as a colourful tournament decided by a rollercoaster final, Euro 2004 had the fairytale of a minnow, Greece, cheekily stealing the crown with unashamedly entertainment-free tactics.

Euro 2008 was nourished by the exciting emergence of the Spanish tiki-taka dynasty and in 2012 La Roja's 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the final was the stuff of wonder.

On paper a 24-team field in 2016 should have provided a fertile patch for great stories and indeed the tales of Wales and Iceland will live long in the memory.

Just ask the citizens of those formerly minnow nations and they will tell you. I have an Icelandic friend who said despite many experiences, a wife and children, his country's run to the quarter-finals was the happiest time of his life.

And Welsh football has had nothing to sing about since 1958 for goodness' sake.

How disappointing therefore that the dragons lost their fire-breathing lungs last night in Lyon when they needed it most. Portugal had been there for the taking having stumbled into the semis after finishing third in their group and not winning a single game in 90 minutes.

The shallow Welsh squad was sadly exposed last night with the yellow-card absences of defensive rock Ben Davies and their midfield schemer Aaron Ramsey.

How wrong is this rule every tournament? Yet again the authorities' po-faced insistence on an imaginary ideal of fair play has deprived the big matches of some of their key actors.

Play in the league and you only miss a game after five yellows, so why after only two in tournaments? Ramsey's second caution, earned for a handball against Belgium, was a harsh call at the time whose consequences cruelly blunted his nation's big shot at glory.

The French have it in their hands to rescue Euro 2016 and make it a championship to remember. Didier Deschamps' men certainly should have the motivation to turn on the power against the Germans in Marseille tonight.

Les Bleus were knocked out the World Cup semi-finals by the Mannschaft in 1982 and '86 and most recently were knocked out by their old nemesis in Brazil 2014.

The '82 semi is the one which is referred to most readily in the press for good reason. That was one of the most emotional football matches in history.

France threw away a 3-1 lead in extra-time to lose on penalties in a match most recalled for Harald 'Toni' Schumacher's flying and unpunished kick on French striker Patrick Battiston.

The trauma was immense for the French players, who gained some comfort back however by winning Euro 1984 at home.

Yet the '82 semi-final loss remains a thorn in French football consciousness, a pain invoked every time France play Germany in knock-out football.

The Dutch felt the same trauma when they lost the 1974 World Cup final in Munich to West Germany, and only exorcised their demons in the semi-final of Euro 1988 in Hamburg.

If France want to similarly slay the ghost of Seville 1982, then tonight in Marseille is their chance.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, June 27, 2016

Euro 2016 Fin?

Who would have thought it? Two weeks have passed since we set out on our own "Tour de France" and I heard in the last few days that all the Home Nations have qualified for the next round. Brilliant, who are Scotland playing?

Napoleon's Tomb, Paris, France.


I have struggled to keep up to date, (wifi in France isn't great) with things whilst we have been on the road, so maybe I missed something. Did UEFA finally actually act against Russia? Did they reinstate Scotland? Are the chances of those two things happening the same?

OK, so now you know that the final game I watched at this tournament was Wales against Northern Ireland. With the break between the group stage and the Round of 16, I was lucky enough to have time and good weather to explore Paris.

Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris.


The Louvre, Petit Palais, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Napoleon's Tomb, Pere Lachaisse, Centre Pompidou were all visited where exhibitions of art by Rousseau, Paul Klee, Albert Marquet were viewed. But my favourites were The Beat Generation, with as well an exposition at the Philharmonie de Paris featuring The Velvet Underground (yes the ones that wrote I'm waiting for my man. Never early, always late, - you know who you are!).

Pere Lachaise - Oscar Wilde's tomb, Paris.


Looking for positives in the football I have witnessed is proving difficult. The real positives lie in having visited nine French cities, and sampling the food. Everyone knows about Paris, and I have just listed a few of the things you can see there.

We were lucky enough to have good weather in Nice which helped to make it my favourite city. If you've seen the photos you may notice the difference, and understand why I choose it as my favourite on this trip.

Stade de Bordeaux, France.


Then there was Bordeaux where it’s historic old town is on the UNESCO World heritage list and described as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble of the 18th century". Toulouse, the Pink City.

Lyon with the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Marseille, a huge city which unfortunately saw bad weather to stop us fully exploring it on the two occasions we were there. Lille, with its Flemish architecture where we could see the beauty of this city, but didn't feel comfortable due to the situation I mentioned on our first night.

Sacre Coeur, Paris.


Lens & St Etienne are football hotbeds unlike the rest of France where you would have struggled to find out there was a tournament going on. The size of the towns and the size of the stadiums bear witness to this fact. Lens population 32,663 - Capacity of Stade Bollaert-Delelis 38,223. St Etienne 178,530 - Capacity of Stade Geoffroy-Guichard 42,000.

Petit Palais, Paris, France.


Special mention to the best Croque Monsieur, which was found at Fric Frac by Canal St Martin. But the French have other things to worry about. I visited the lively 11th arrondisment, scene of atrocities eighteen months ago when the Charlie Hedbo offices were attacked, and The Bataclan as recently as last November. It remains closed but is due to reopen on November 16th with Pete Doherty. The lively backstreets are vibrant, with bars full of students away from the tourist crowd.

Philharmonie de Paris, France.


We witnessed strikers marching at the Bastille against Hollande's labor legislation. There were more police than we had seem at any football match. Two thousand sealed of the area around the Bastille to ensure there were was no repeat of the incident the previous week when cars were set alight in protests at République.

If you remember before I set out there was problems with the level of water on the Seine, the rain seen in the first ten days couldn't have helped this.

Nice, France.


There was also the small matter of strikes, which I quickly realised was an occupation in themselves. Thankfully we were only affected once, and were not inconvenienced by them. Others would not have been so fortunate as planes were cancelled and if you didn't know about the strikes missing your train could have meant you were unable to get to your chosen destination on time.

So back to the football, the highlights, the fact that there was interest in all the group games, as quite often there can be meaningless games at the end of this stage. The fact that third place could qualify gave every team hope (OK maybe with Ukraine being the exception).

Northern Irish fans.


The supporters, seeing every country backed by well behaved supporters was a joy. The Northern Irish win my award for being the best supporters, the highlight - them out singing their German counterparts. Special mention to the Icelandic supporters with their clapping.

Also the passionate Hungarians who clearly were not going to be defeated by Iceland, it felt as though the ref had to play on until they scored such was the atmosphere in the Velodrome.

Hungary fans at Euro 2016.


Unfortunately now I have to go against what the supporters of many countries, yes not only the English speaking ones, have adopted as their anthem.

"Please don't send me home,
I just don't want to go to work,
I wanna stay here,
Drink all your beer."

Personally I would be happy just to stay and eat all their food, and take in the sights I didn't have time for, of which there are still plenty, oh and maybe attend one or two more football matches.

Iceland fans at Euro 2016.


Ross Clegg
footballtravelswithross.wordpress.com

Friday, June 24, 2016

Paris The Last Leg

The last leg of our Tour De France, saw us wake in St Etienne, and catch a train to Lyon, where we boarded our Ouigo train to Paris Marne-La-Vallée-Chessy. A journey of over 300 miles.

Paris The Last Leg, Euro 2016.


Ouigo is the French National Railways low cost train line (their Ryanair if you like.) We (I) booked our tickets last year for €10 each. We met someone yesterday who had paid over €100 for the Lyon to Paris leg of the journey.

There was a large queue to board, as tickets and baggage were checked. On board facilities were basic, again just think Ryanair - without the garish blue and yellow.

Paris The Last Leg, Euro 2016.


The two hour journey saw us arrive in Paris just after 10.30am.

Paris was open.

Lunch was had before heading to the stadium, where Northern Ireland fans out sang their German counterparts.

We then headed off to the eleventh arrondissement, a lively area near La République, today 21st June is Fête de la musique. Where you can find bands in most bars playing live music.

Paris The Last Leg, Euro 2016.


Unfortunately for us the festival seemed to be continuing into the night as we arrived back at our accommodation.

The next day, and we didn't have to travel!

Paris The Last Leg, Euro 2016.


We stayed in Paris and visited the cemetery at Pere Lachaise, The Crypt at Notre Dame and passed by the Louvre before heading off to Stade de France to see Iceland v Austria.

Paris The Last Leg, Euro 2016.


After the match we went to Grand Train, a disused railway building turned into an assortment of pop up bars and eateries.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

St. Etienne

Beautiful blue sky first thing in the morning as I ran up the hill at Fourviere, 5km and 250 steps later, I returned to find the other two still asleep.

St. Etienne, France.


We visited Musée Des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, before catching the train to St. Etienne.

In the afternoon we found the majority of shops and restaurants shut. Clearly the locals were put off, by what they had seen and heard earlier in the tournament and had decided to lie low. We had to settle for a pizza. There was nothing else.

Despite talk of alcohol bans, people were drinking in the streets, where Slovak fans mingled with the English. There was no hint of any trouble, but police were in the background in case.

St. Etienne, Euro 2016, France.


Supporters marauded through the streets to the ground, several clearly suffering from the lack of any alcohol ban, to the stadium, a fifteen minute walk from the centre of town.

The four stands inside the ground are next to the pitch and provide a better atmosphere than the newer stadiums with their sterile seating plans.

I couldn't quite make out the words to songs, as they seemed to be sung in a foreign language, but inspired by their performance on the pitch I think they were singing "England's going home". Then there was some other song "30 years of hurt", I must have misheard that one as I am sure it's 50.

I am pleased to report that I witnessed no problems in the city throughout the day, other than a few individuals who had drunk too much.

Ross Clegg
footballtravelswithross.wordpress.com