Thursday, December 30, 2010

Return of the meddling midget

An annoying ghost from the past is back to haunt English football.

Colin Moynihan
, Margaret Thatcher's loyal elf who shrilly yet unsuccessfully hawked her ill-conceived plan for I.D. cards for football fans around an unwilling nation 22 years ago, has returned to put his foot in it with soccer again.

Moynihan, UK Minister for Sport between 1987 and 1990,
has waded into the debate over the 2012 Great Britain Olympic team, in his role as chairman of the British Olympic Association.

Despite categorical opposition from the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh football associations, Moynihan has insisted the Olympic team must reflect the UK as a whole, and allow the likes of Gareth Bale, this season's outstanding performer in the UEFA Champions League, to play for Britain.


The diminutive Tory points to the BOA's Constitutional requirement that all British sportsmen must be considered for selectio
n and warned that an English-only team could trigger a flood of legal challenges from excluded Celts.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has assured the four associations in writing that a truly British Olympic team will not change anything regarding their status, but he alone cannot out-vote any motion to that effect supported by a majority of his organisation's delegates.


The infamous ID-card plan which Moynihan trumpeted was a desperate response to 1985's Heysel tragedy and a never-ending saga of domestic skirmishes involving English football fans.

It had first been mooted in Judge Popplewell's verdict on 1985's Bradford fire, but the driving force behind it was the late and unlamented MP David Evans, a former chairman of Luton Town. Evans, who belonged to what was colloquially known as 'The Broadmoor Wing' of the Conservative Party, took the unprecedented decision in 1985 to ban all away fans from Luton's Kenilworth Road ground following a famous riot by Millwall supporters. Meanwhile, Luton's own supporters had to register and gain an identity card which was swiped at the turnstiles.

Moynihan, crassly, sported a Charlton Athletic tie for his TV appearances - he was MP
for nearby Lewisham East at the time, but wore his soccer knowledge lightly as he told us again and again the only way to stop hooliganism was for all fans to carry cards. The then government was football-unfriendly, with the exception of Nottingham Forest-supporting Ken Clarke, and made no effort to tap into the sport's popularity like every subsequent government has.
Thatcher's provincial market town upbringing and education at Oxford had kept her far from professional football and the industrial regions it sprang from. Her reign coincided with the darkest years of English hooliganism but she adamantly refused to accept that it was social, rather than footballing problems, that she was dealing with.

The opposition to ID cards was near-universal amongst football folk and the whole sorry episode was instrumental in giving birth to a national supporters' association in response to a suddenly politicised environment.


It was the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 and the subsequent Taylor Report which delivered the coup de grace to Thatcher's foray into football.
The axing of a dud idea was welcome, but it should not have taken 96 deaths for it to have happened. CCTV had already turned the tide against stadium violence, and by the early 1990s, football fighting was just no longer a cool thing to do. Cards would have made no difference.
The Iron Lady resigned in 1990 and Moynihan scuttled away into the shadows after losing his seat at the 1992 General Election, only briefly reappearing in court in 1996 to claim the title 'Baron Moynihan' after the death of his brothel-keeping half-brother. Football fans were glad to see the back of him.
Perhaps the Celtic associations do have nothing to fear from the passing novelty of a UK team, but being clearly petrified of the unthinkable, they have every right to refuse to participate.
What Moynihan the BOA man fails to understand is that Olympic football has so little prestige compared to the real prizes in the game that the three smaller British associations cannot allow a minor competition they never enter anyway to risk ending their existences.

Against this background, a man with apparently no knowledge of the sport really should back off. Football decisions should be down to football people, and Moynihan is not one of us. If no association apart from the FA wishes to participate in the UK eleven then we can all live with that.


One man who knew how to deal with Moynihan was Brian Clough. Cloughie referred to him as 'The Miniature for Sport' and brought a puppet of him onto television to ridicule. When Moynihan charged onto the field to congratulate Britain's gold medal-winning hockey team at the 1988 Olympics, Clough judiciously pointed out how Moynihan could never again lecture football fans about pitch invasions.

When Lord Justice Taylor killed the ID cards off once and for all, Cloughie concluded,

"I would like to thank Mr Moynihan, and anyone who is above him...which is most of us."

- Sean O'Conor

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Flying another flag

There's nothing like Christmas to bring up old and unresolved family issues.

With the rest of Europe, England apart, on hibernal hiatus, 32,000 turned out at Barcelona's Olympic Stadium tonight to watch Catalonia hammer Honduras, a representative in last summer's World Cup Finals, 4-0, with a brace from Barça's Bojan Krkic.


The Catalan eleven also boasted blaugrana stalwart Carles Puyol and teammate Sergio Busquets, who both lifted the World Cup in Spanish colours in South Africa this year. Barça heavy though the team was, the Catalonia squad actually contained more players from the city's other team, Español.

The Catalan national team remains of course unr
ecognised by FIFA or UEFA, as are a handful of European 'countries' like Corsica, Gibraltar, Jersey, Kosovo, Monaco and the Vatican City. FIFA now demand full United Nations recognition before they rubber-stamp anything, but in their quest for acceptance, the 'forgotten nations' point to the footballing status of not entirely sovereign states such as Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino, as well as the four nations which make up the United Kingdom, which has only one seat at the UN.

The Spanish close season or mid-winter break are the only times the Catalan nat
ional team can realistically assemble, but on the evidence of recent outings, their side, now coached by Barcelona idol Johan Cruyff, would be a force in European football were it playing regularly: Last year they downed Diego Maradona's Argentina 4-2 at the Camp Nou, beat Colombia 2-1 the year before that and in 2003 thrashed Ecuador 4-0, five years after a memorable 5-0 walloping of Nigeria. And absent from their ranks tonight were Catalan aces Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Xavi, World Soccer's Player of the Year for 2010.

Indeed, Spain won the World Cup playing the Barcelona style and with far more Catalans (five) than any other regional nationality, although the skipper who hoisted the golden prize aloft in Soweto was Madrid-born and 100% Real man Iker Casillas.

That magical night in the Rainbow Nation shone a brighter than ever spotlight upon Spain's fractured footballing loyalties, which were last probed in depth following their Euro 2008 victory. Claim and counter-claim surrounded the extent to which the triumph of 'La Roj
a' ('The Red') was cheered in its less than ardently patriotic regions, and the apparently obvious semantics of the chant 'Yo soy español, español, español' ('I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish') which echoed around the country this summer, were equally dissected at length.

Maybe it was the dawn of a new and modern Spain ready at last to jettison a pain
ful past or perhaps it was just a passing fiesta where everyone fervently embraced each other in brotherly love as on New Year's Eve, toasting La Roja with ample Rioja, before waking up hungover the next morning with unforgiven feuds and remembered rivalries.
AS Diario, one of Spain's daily football papers, summed up the conundrum quite succinctly in its headline 'Visca España' - 'visca' being the Catalan version of 'viva'.

And Cruyff, despite his assimilated Senyera DNA - he named his son Jordi after all, does not foresee or even desire that Catalunya should become FIFA-recognised or an independent nation any time soon. He
speaks (ropey) Castillian Spanish rather than Catalan, yet remains proud to take charge of what are essentially glorified friendlies once a season in his adopted homeland.

With Spain defeating Holland
in the World Cup final only a few months ago, harvesting the fruit of the seeds he had planted as a player with Barcelona in the 1970s, perhaps this is not the best time to be questioning Cruyff's cultural leanings with any certainty anyway.
The Basque country also has a national team in action over Christmas, hosting Venezuela tomorrow night in Bilbao. Heavily dependent on the historically Basque club sides of Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, their squad also boasts Spanish World Cup-winner Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid.

Euskadi
are no slouches either, having claimed the scalps of a ho
st of FIFA nations across the last twenty years including Uruguay, Ghana, Russia, Serbia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Bolivia and Morocco. Famous former players from the Basque country include the great goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, still Spain's record cap-winner, and the flying French World Cup-winning left back Bixente Lizarazu.

And the tapestry does not end there: Andalucia, Aragon, Asturias, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Extremadura, Galicia, Murcia, Navarre and the Region of Valencia have all played friendlies against FIFA-recognised nations during the past decade.

A united Spain might have won the World Cup in June, but the red of its national shirt, in truth belies a coat of many cultures.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, December 27, 2010

The last to know

The night was foggy and the environs of the Royal Bafokeng Stadium poorly lit.
We had just finished a nightmare journey to reach the England v USA clash at last summer's World Cup on-time, though little did we know the absurdly delayed drive to Rustenburg from Johannesburg would be as nothing compared to the never-ending story that was the trip back.

Two hours after the final whistle we were still waiting to leave the car park, or rather the strip of wasteland commandeered to house the many vehicles used by fans
visiting the 42,000 venue; Rustenburg had no railway station.

What was FIFA thinking handing the World Cup
to a place like this, I thought. A veritable nightmare for visiting fans, by some margin the most inconvenient of the six World Cup finals I had attended. Then I got my answer - a military helicopter, searchlights beaming through the gloom, hovered in to land. The doors opened and a posse of security ushered US Vice-President Joe Biden into the stadium.

Biden doubtless had a five-star experience of the World Cup like all FIFA dignitaries did, and the TV feed did its job in pumping the games into people's homes across the globe.

But what about the real fans, those of us who had shelled out to be there in the South African winter in person. Did anyone care about our experience of the World Cup?

Talking of winter, and in South Africa the thermometer dipped below zero on many nights, a winter World Cup in the Middle East in 2022 looks ever likelier now the International Players' Union has come out in favour of it.

FIFPRO has added to calls from Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini, endorsed by Sepp Blatter and Jerome Valcke, for the Qatar tournament to be shifted to the European winter months, presumably January when the African Nations Cup takes place to avoid th
at continent's oppressive summer heat.

"Tourists are advised not to travel to Qatar in the summer months," said FIFPRO's spokesman Tijs Tummers. "Inhabitants of Qatar leave the country en masse during this period."

Tummers went on to note how supporters would suffer in the 50C midday heat "The summer months in Qatar do not provide suitable conditions for a festival of football."

Did someone mention supporters? Those quaint old aficionados who pay an arm and a leg to support multi-million pound stars across the world instead of watching it at home on their i-Pad. Since when were they a cons
ideration for the game's decision-makers in Switzerland?

South Africa was a challenge for them: The distances between venues was vast, the public transport next to non-existent and the road network wholly inadequate for a show of the World Cup's magnitude. The clogged one-lane highway in and out of Rustenburg will live long in this European fan's memory.

Brazil, the World Cup host in 2014, has equally vast distances and poor transport options compared to recent European and Far-Eastern host nation
s, plus a crime problem at least as worrying as South Africa's. 2018 host Russia has more enormous distances to cover in addition to a train network below Western European standards, problems shared by Euro 2012 hosts Poland and Ukraine. And then there is Qatar.

The fans, the lifeblood of the game after all, as it is they who provide the lion's share of club revenues in their ticket purchases, have become the last thought, if considered at all, by the game's decision makers.

What visiting this summer's World Cup finals, and witnessing Russia and Qatar win the right to host future ones confirmed to me was that TV rights, sponsor revenue, FIFA politics, moneyed suitors and geo-political pulls have left fans, the real ones that is, facing more mammoth journeys and myriad inconveniences in their unwavering, unchallengeable, yet increasingly unrequited love for the Beautiful Game.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

It's snow joke

Snow.It's the holiday season, unless you're a British footballer.

How bad is the winter in the UK, where football insists on playing o
n while other nations enjoy a hibernal hiatus? Some parts of Britain have recorded record low temperatures at the end of 2010, the coldest snap since detailed records began in 1910.

Given England's World Cup failure in the summer, calls for a December/January pause are resonating more loudly than ever.

Here's today's fixtures in Scotland's come rain or shine Highland League:

Brora Rangers OFF Fraserburgh
Buckie Thistle OFF Formatine United
Cove Rangers OFF Rothes
Deveronvale OFF Inverurie Loco Works
Fort William OFF Keith
Huntly OFF Strathspey Thistle
Lossiemouth OFF Forres Mechanics
Turriff United OFF Nairn County
Wick Academy OFF Clachnacuddin

A winter break? Q.E.D.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Eto'o is Africa's lion again

Eto'o.If Alexander the Great conquered the known world and beyond by the age of 30, Samuel Eto'o has come pretty close on the football field. He has just been named African Footballer of the Year for a record fourth time and shows no signs of calling a halt to an already illustrious career.

At 29, the Cameroonian captain has a soccer CV most of us would die for.

He is his country's captain and record goalscorer and has represented Cameroon in three FIFA World Cups, won an Olympic Games gold medal and won two African Nations Cups with the Indomitable Lions, while participating in a further four. He remains the all-time top scorer in that tournament and has netted 52 times in 101 games for his nation.

His club resumé includes Barcelona, Inter and Real Madrid and Eto'o has won the UEFA Champions League at all of them. This year he became the first footballer to win two continental trebles of league, cup and Champions League, having collected a clean sweep first at Barcelona and then at Inter.

Leaving Spain after five seasons and 171 strikes he joined José Mourinho at Inter in a swap deal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and bagged 21 goals, not bad for an inaugural outing
in defence-heavy Serie A.

A string of other garlands include a purple year in 2006 when he became La Liga's top gunner and won the Man of the Match award in the Champions League final. Most recently, Eto'o scored in the FIFA World Club Cup final as Inter were crowned the best team on the planet, their Cameroonian ace receiving the Golden Ball.

A lithe runner blessed with turbo-charged heels, a quick-thinking footballing brain and a lethal shot, Eto'o has also had his fair share of knockers, from coaches, players and journalists who have questioned his attitude and priorities, to 'fans' bellowing racist abuse at him in Spain and Italy.

Yet like all great players, he answers his critics on the field of play, a perfect pitch for this indomitable lion of Africa.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Shahtar or Shakhtar

Why it is that the Russian and Ukrainian sound /h/ (like in Hull or Harvard) is (mis)represented in English by the letters "kh"?
It's been bugging me somewhat.

So, it should be Shahtar, not Shakhtar; also, Harkov, not Kharkov (or Harkiv, as the name is in Ukrainian).

Even funnier, some geniuses determined that the Ukrainian sound /g/ (almost like in Galloway or Glasgow, just a bit softer) should be transcribed into English with the letter "h"!

Thus, English transcribes the Ukrainian word Liga (League) as
Liha (!), but Shahtar as Shakhtar. And naturally, 99.9% of English
speakers will mispronounce both words... So weird.

George's Premiership Predictions December 26

George got 0 results right last week.

Sun 26th December 2010

Fulham 1 v West Ham Utd 0
Blackburn 0 v Stoke City 1
Blackpool 2 v Liverpool 2
Bolton 2 v WBA 0
Everton 2 v Birmingham 0
Man Utd 1 v Sunderland 0
Newcastle 0 v Manchester City 0
Wolves 2 v Wigan Athletic 1
Aston Villa 1 v Tottenham 1


Mon 27 December 2010

Arsenal 1 v Chelsea 1

Previous week's George Predictions

Sunday, December 19, 2010

If FIFA can't stand the heat....

So Qatar is too hot in summer after all.

And at 40-50C in the shade, who can disagree? Even if t
he stadia are cool enough, the outside won't be, and the prospect of a million beer-hungry fans stumbling out into such a furnace in desperate search of a cool lager does not bear thinking about.

"I support definitely, definitely," Sepp Blatter said, "to play in winter here, to play when the climate is appropriate."

The FIFA President's support for a January World Cup in 2022 appears clear enough. The temperatures in the summer months in Qatar are far more oppressive than their anti-alcohol or anti-gay laws, that is for sure. Playing in the Middle East's winter makes sense therefore, when the thermometer rarely rises above 25c by day and has an average low of a pleasant 13C.

And Qatar has already successfully hosted big-name games of football outdoors at that time of year. But avoiding the sweltering summer and the need for expensive and unproven technology has a serious downside to it - a sandstorm brewing in club boardrooms across Europe all of FIFA's making and the spectre of an almighty club v country conflict on the horizon. Blackpool manager Ian Holloway, famous for his juicy quips to the press, was typical of the domestic reaction when he launched a fiery tirade at the possibility of the football season closing down for two months to make up for FIFA's initial error.

Holloway likened switching the World Cup to the European winter as akin to changing the date of Christmas.

"So we'll just change everything cos your weather's really hot," he said. "Brilliant! I mean come on, what's going on? What happened to the air-conditioned arenas. Bit too expensive 25 of them was it or what?"


It was Franz Beckenbauer who first publicly floated the idea of switc
hing the month of the tournament, closely followed by nods of approval from UEFA President Michel Platini, FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke and then Blatter himself: This hitherto unthinkable idea now has legs.

FIFA's own technical evaluation of the hosting bids, even though it was blithely ignored by the Executive Committee, marked Qatar as "high-risk" on account of its hellishly hot summer - "a potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectat
ors".
As it stood, the arena temperature would still have only been 27C at its coolest. But clearly the assurances that (carbon-neutral) air conditioning, powerful enough to cool a dozen big stadia and presumably 32 more for the finalists to train in, will be ready in time for 2022, are seriously doubted in Zurich, only two weeks after they made the controversial choice of a Middle Eastern summer host.

Now the vote is over, Blatter has also mentioned moving the Qatar World C
up into other Middle Eastern countries, surely against the spirit, if not the rules, of the bidding campaign. While staging matches in neighbouring countries such as the United Arab Emirates would not be disastrous, the move from June to January potentially is as it places the international game in its most direct opposition yet with the clubs they have been trying to placate for the past two decades.
Clubs are so far aghast at the prospect of having their leagues shut down by FIFA for a two-month hiatus and watching their best players come back jaded and/or injured mid-season. The risk FIFA runs is rebellion against its plans from the big European teams, leaving the governing body to think the unthinkable, recall the 2022 vote and select the USA, the runner-up, as host instead.

A stand-off could increase the already floated idea of a breakaway from FIFA led by major European nations, or at the very least, herald big concessions in the form of exemption from friendlies for top players or compensation paid by FIFA to cl
ubs for borrowing their star men for international duty.

Instead of global harmony appearing around the 2022 World Cup decision, awarding the tournament to Qatar has created global warming of a different kind, and there appears no ready solution besides cancellation of the hosting. It's another fine mess from Sepp & Co.

As Henry Winter commented today in the Sunday Telegraph:

"FIFA is not just lobbing a pebble into the club waters, but a huge chunk of granite hewn from the Matterhorn."




(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


World Cup Posters

Friday, December 17, 2010

George's Premiership Predictions December 18

George got 4 results right and 1 perfect score last week.

Sat 18th December 2010

Sunderland 1 v Bolton 1
Arsenal 3 v Stoke City 1
Birmingham 1 v Newcastle 1
Blackburn 2 v West Ham Utd 0
Wigan Athletic 0 v Aston Villa 0
Liverpool 2 v Fulham 1

Sun 19 December 2010

WBA 1 v Wolves 1
Blackpool 2 v Tottenham 2
Chelsea 0 v Man Utd 1

Mon 20 December 2010

Man City 2 v Everton 1

Previous week's George Predictions
World Cup Posters

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fifa World Rankings December 15 2010

Rankings.
Fifa's last World Rankings of 2010 came out today from Fifa HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. World Cup winners Spain remain in top spot for 2010 followed by The Netherlands, Germany and Brazil.

England are in 7th place despite a friendly loss to France at Wembley, still one adrift of Argentina who remain in 5th.

Egypt is the highest African team in 9th. The USA are up to 18th. Italy are in 14th.


1 Spain
2 Netherlands
3 Germany
4 Brazil
5 Argentina
6 England
7 Uruguay
8 Portugal
9 Egypt
10 Croatia
11 Greece
12 Norway
13 Russia
14 Italy
15 Chile
16 Ghana
17 Slovenia
18 USA
19 France
20 Slovakia

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