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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

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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

Full world rankings

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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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Real's familiar machine motors on to Cardiff

Real Madrid maintained their march of glory in Europe by thumping city rivals Atletico 3-0 in their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg last week.

Real's familiar machine motors on to Cardiff.


Cristiano Ronaldo scored another hat-trick and bagged yet another record, the first man to reach 50 goals in the knock-out stage of the competition.

Barring an almighty upset Los Merengues are heading to Cardiff to defend their trophy on the 3rd of June. But are we excited? Not really.

Real of course have won two out of the last three Champions Leagues and FIFA Club World Cup and successfully moved out of the intimidating shadow of the Barcelona renaissance.

And yet there is still something underwhelming about Real being the world's top team. Perhaps it is because the core of the side have been there for some years there is no excitement of expectation of the future, or maybe it is because Barça invented a new form of football - tiki-taka, which defied conventional wisdom by attacking through the middle and most congested part of the field with short passes.

Real by contrast use the conventional weapons of spreading passes wide, putting balls frequently into the box, and piling in on corners and crosses with aerial threats like Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo and the muscular Karim Benzema.

In Ronaldo they also posess the best accelerator in the game and perhaps the best aerial attacker. Gareth Bale we also know has exceptional blessings of pace and power to penetrate the best defences.

But a lot of their side underwhelm when considered as footballers alone: Keylor Navas is able between the sticks but not one of Europe's top ten goalkeepers.

While Pepe and Sergio Ramos (combined age 65) are evergreen, the rest of their back line do not excite: Fabio Coentrao, Danilo, Nacho and Rafael Varane seem reliable but not exceptional defenders, while Marcelo, a useful crosser of the ball in the final third, has long been error-strewn.

In midfield Real seem solid rather than skilful. Toni Kroos is an adequate but unexceptional holding midfielder and even his more creative partner Luka Modric is not as inventive or penetrative as his replacement at Tottenham, Christian Eriksen, who is surely on the Bernabeu radar.

Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic has made 24 starts this campaign but only scored once, while Brazilians Casemiro and Danilo hardly get the heart racing either.

Young Spanish attacking talent in the form of Isco and Alvaro Morata have played minor roles this season, with 16 and 13 starts this season respectively.

Meanwhile James Rodriguez, golden boot winner at the 2014 World Cup for Colombia, has made only 12 starts and eight substitute appearances in 2016/'17, although his eight goals make a decent return.

Obviously the system employed by coach Zinedine Zidane works like a treat, based around making the most of Ronaldo's talents and if they are both fit, Bale and Benzema. The midfielders work hard to make sure the back four is not exposed at the other end.

And they also have strength in depth, as evinced by their comfortable 4-0 win away at Granada last weekend with a second eleven, a strength which makes up for the lack of galacticos in every position.

Clubs with big pockets can afford to have big squads to navigate a variety of competitions and whatever injuries come their way, so what keeps Real ahead of the pack is probably settled players and a simple system, a manager they trust and the high quality of their attackers.

There have been more remarkable dynasties in the Champions League/European Cup - think of the Real who won the first five, Cruyff's Ajax of the 1970s, Liverpool of the early 1980s, Milan a decade later or Pep Guardiola's Barça for starters.

There have also been some stellar one-off winners: Red Star in 1990 (although they played for penalties in the final they had dazzled on their way there), Louis Van Gaal's youthful Ajax of 1995 and Jose Mourinho's Porto in 2004.

But the current crop from the Bernabeu, albeit less obviously outstanding, still deserve to be remembered as dominating Europe, whatever the aesthetics or ingenuity of their playing style.

A stern test in Cardiff awaits next month, but Real will almost certainly take the field at the Millennium Stadium as favourites once more.

Staying at No.1 is no mean feat in football.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Fifa World Rankings May 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for May 2017 were published on May 4 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

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

The top 100 positions show little change from April.

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

England are 14th, unchanged from April, still behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and Poland in 11th. Egypt are the top African team in 19th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 50th place; Japan are in the 44th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 43rd place.

The USA are in 23rd. Wales are 13th. Scotland are in 59th position. The Republic of Ireland in 26th place level with Northern Ireland also in joint 26th position.

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

Full world rankings

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Fifa World Rankings April 2017

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

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

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

England are 14th, unchanged from March, still behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and Poland in 11th. Egypt are the top African team in 19th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 50th place; Japan are in the 44th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 43rd place.

The USA are in 23rd. Wales are 13th. Scotland are in 59th position. The Republic of Ireland in 26th place level with Northern Ireland also in joint 26th position.

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

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dutch in the ditch

The latest round of European World Cup qualifiers went largely to script.

The big boys all won comfortably - Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and England all registered victories. Surprise European Championship semi-finalists Wales drew again and struggling to make it to Russia next year have probably reverted to type.

Only Switzerland and Germany have 100% records after five games. Gibraltar, Lichtenstein, Malta and San Marino kept up their pointless campaigns. 

As it stands the seven automatic UEFA qualifiers will be France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia. In the playoff berths are Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Montenegro, Slovakia, Italy. Greece and Iceland.

Dutch girls detained
Happier days for Dutch fans at World Cup 2010
The one stand-out story has to be the demise of the Netherlands, who lost 2-0 in Bulgaria and sacked coach Danny Blind afterwards.

As if failing to make it to Euro 2016 was not stunning enough for the doyens of classy soccer, the country which has produced Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullitt, Dennis Bergkamp and Arjen Robben and who finished third at the last World Cup, now languishes fourth in their group behind France, Sweden and Bulgaria.

All is not lost. For a first half of the campaign, two wins, a draw and two losses is not qualification form but recovery is still possible. The Dutch sit only three points behind second-place Sweden and a play-off spot.

Their rocky road to Russia in Group A so far:

06/09/16 Sweden 1:1 Netherlands
07/10/16 Netherlands 4:1 Belarus
10/10/16 Netherlands 0:1 France
13/11/16 Luxembourg 1:3 Netherlands
25/03/17 Bulgaria 2:0 Netherlands

They will surely take three points at home to Luxembourg in their next outing before a tricky trip to Paris at the end of August, where they really need to avoid defeat. Three days later they will have to take revenge at home to Bulgaria before winning in October in Belarus, a side who have surprisingly beaten the Dutch before in qualifying.

It looks however, like the fight for the playoff spot will all come down to the final day when the Netherlands host Sweden. 

What has gone wrong with the Netherlands? It seems to be a classic case of being caught amid an inter-generational transition. Only four of the players who came third in Brazil in 2014 were on the pitch in Sofia: Defenders Bruno Martins Indi and Daley Blind and attackers Arjen Robben and Georginio Wijnaldum.

Attention has centred on Danny Blind's fielding of 17 year-old debutant Matthijs De Ligt at centre-back, which even by the Netherlands' standards of developing young stars seemed recklessly premature.

The risk turned duly sour as Bulgaria raced into a two-goal lead after twenty minutes and De Ligt was hauled off at half-time. Blind, skipper of Ajax's youthful European Cup-winning team in 1995, may have seen something similar in the young Ajax defender, but it proved his downfall as manager.

Fred Grim is the caretaker choice but the KNVB will surely ring up Ronald Koeman to see if they can tempt him from Goodison Park, which seems unlikely.

Frank De Boer, most recently Inter coach last season, is a more likely possibility, or maybe Philip Cocu of PSV. One name surprisingly doing the rounds is Louis Van Gaal, who took them to third in WC 2014.
Looking at the young faces in Blind's side, none seem obviously to be of the same calibre of the great Dutch players of the last quarter-century, a revival which began with the Euro '88 triumph and featured consecutive Champions League finals for Ajax in the mid 1990's, World Cup semi-finals for the national team in 1998 and 2014 and second place in 2010.

Their domestic league was never powerful but now looks increasingly lightweight compared to England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. 
As with good players, its best managers are easily tempted away. In 2011, Martin Jol wasted little time in swapping Ajax, the great Dutch club, for lowly Fulham in the Premier League.

Three years later Ronald Koeman guided Feyenoord to second in the Eredivisie and a Champions League spot but left to coach Southampton who had finished eighth in England.

More recently two Dutch starlets have come to England but fluffed their lines: Memphis Depay, who signed for Manchester United just before the 2015-'16 season to great fanfare but was quietly sold to Lyon in this year's January transfer window after an unimpressive year and a half at Old Trafford.

Vincent Janssen, the Dutch player of the year after a whopping 27 goals in 34 games for AZ Alkmaar, has been firmly in Harry Kane's shadow since joining Tottenham. He has only scored once for the north Londoners since joining last summer and 15 of his 20 appearances have come from the bench too.

Perhaps the Dutch football philosophy needs challenging, despite the long admiration from around the world for their nation's over-achieving.

4-3-3 and multi-functional players remain articles of faith for Oranje but tactics are evolving around them. Leicester won last year's Premier League with an effective direct style, speed and three individual talents, 4-2-3-1 has been all the rage this decade and now it seems 3-4-3 as practised to effect by Chelsea on top of the Premier League (and England last week against Germany) is the formation du jour.

If the Netherlands stick to their guns and refuse to learn from the competition, they will have fallen into England's historic trap and will miss out on another tournament next summer.

And that would be a tragedy for one the most outstanding football nations of the last half century.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Yu keeps the Chinese Dream Alive

Yu keeps the Chinese Dream Alive.
* China kept their slim hopes of making it to Russia 2018 alive with a 1-0 win over South Korea 1-0 in Changsha in their AFC World Cup qualifier this afternoon.

Yu Dabao of Beijing Guoan got the only goal for Marcelo Lippi's side in the 34th minute, his nation's second win over Korea in 32 attempts.

With four games to play, Iran 1-0 winners in Qatar, remain four points clear of the Reds at the top with Uzbekistan, who fell to a last-gasp penalty away to Syria, a point behind in the playoff position. Despite a 100% home record, Uli Stieleke's Korea have only point in their three matches away from home.

China is scattering money around its domestic league to attract overseas stars and its hour must surely come, but fifth out of sixth, their national team's next realistic hope of World Cup participation is at Qatar 2022.

In Asia's Group B, Saudi Arabia and Japan occupy the top two slots with 13 points, and Australia are third with ten.

The Saudis won 3-0 away in Thailand, Japan won 2-0 in the U.A.E. but Australia could only draw 1-1 in Iraq. The top two in each group go to Russia with the two third-place nations playing off against each other home and away before another two-leg tiebreaker with CONCACAF's fourth-best for the final ticket to Russia.

*The South American qualifiers kick off later with Argentina and Colombia, fifth and sixth respectively and out of the automatic qualification spots, desperately seeking home wins against Chile and Bolivia respectively.

Elsewhere, second play first in Montevideo where Uruguay host Brazil.

* Lukas Podolski's rocket against England last night was the perfect swansong, a Roy of the Rovers winner even every Englishman watching had to doff his cap to and applaud.

Germany's wonder goal and result should not make the world champions lie back with confidence they can defend their crown in 2018: For the first half England were clearly the better team with a superior shape and excellent pressing.

But for Adam Lallana striking a post and Dele Alli letting Marc-Andre Ter Stegen off the hook with a tame shot, the visitors would have led at the break.

In the second half, the usual routine of multiple substitutions altered the nature of the game wholesale.

Gareth Southgate can nevertheless leave thrilled by his experimental formation which bodes well for the future. 3-4-3 seems to be the formation flavour of the month, much like 4-2-3-1 was in 2010.

* In a rare moment of sanity, FIFA have talked about limiting squad sizes to help increase the competitiveness of top leagues. When Premier League leaders Chelsea can send a whopping 38 players out on loan, something surely must change to even things up.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fifa World Rankings March 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for March 2017 were published on March 9 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

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

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

England are 14th, down one, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and Poland in joint 12th. Egypt replace Iceland in 20th and are the top African team, ahead of Senegal, who are in 28th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 55th place; Japan are in 51st spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 40th place.

The USA are in 30th. Wales are 12th. Scotland are in 67th position. The Republic of Ireland in 24th place, Northern Ireland are in 39th position.

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

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Monday, March 6, 2017

New Chelsea Stadium Gets Green Light

Chelsea's new 60,000 seat stadium has received final planning permission and should be ready for the 2021-'22 season.

The 'matchstick cathedral' design by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, who designed the Beijing Birds' Nest Olympic arena and renovated London's Tate Modern, got the final nod from London Mayor Sadiq Khan today.

Didier Drogba poster at Stamford Bridge.


It will certainly be a distinctive stadium with 264 bent brick piers giving a skeletal surround with no sliding roof although one wonders how much sunlight will penetrate, as with many modern arenas.

Best known for the Bird's Nest, possibly the greatest Olympic arena of all time, the firm has also designed football stadia before: Munich's Allianz Arena, Basel's St Jakob Park and Bordeaux's stadium.

On the plus side, Chelsea are staying on their historic Stamford Bridge site where they have played since 1905. After a long quest by owner Roman Abramovich to find a new home, a search which included Battersea Power Station, Earls Court exhibition centre and allegedly even an enquiry about Hyde Park, the club is staying put after all.

The new stadium will along with Arsenal's Ashburton Grove and Tottenham's rebuilt White Hart Lane be the third club ground in the capital coming in at 60,000 seats (Spurs will have 61,000).

As with Tottenham, Chelsea will have to decamp to Wembley while their new home takes shape. Tottenham are due to play at the national stadium from next season but have hinted at waiting an extra season. That might eat into Chelsea's plan to play three years away from home before moving back to the Bridge.

Stamford Bridge is the closest London stadium to the city centre, accessible by tube and surrounded by housing, albeit expensive apartments and Georgian avenues rather than the working class terraces which usually accompany English club grounds.

It has the wealthiest location of any London club, as part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, although the adjoining Fulham Road was traditionally more blue collar than the neighbouring King's Road and its exclusive boutiques.

Unlike at Tottenham, where club owners have slammed City Hall for not subsidising transport improvements to London's most famously hard-to-reach ground, Chelsea has a tube station Fulham Broadway close by and several bus services calling outside the stadium, meaning getting to and from their new home should not be a problem even with an increase in crowds.

The name Stamford Bridge refers not to the English Civil War battle but to a crossing of a long-vanished tributary of the Thames, the Stanford or sandy creek.

60,000 is a significant increase on the current capacity of 42,000 and will boost the club's coffers as they stake a claim to return to being one of the leading sides in the Champions League, which they won in 2012. As it stands, Arsenal make substantially more money in matchday income.

The new capacity will fall short of the ground's record attendance however, 82,905 for the visit of Arsenal in October 1935.

London clubs record home attendances

  1. Chelsea - 82,905 v Arsenal, 1935
  2. Charlton - 75,031 v Aston Villa, 1938
  3. Tottenham - 75,038 v Sunderland, 1938*
  4. Arsenal - 73,295 v Sunderland, 1935
  5. West Ham - 56,985 v Sunderland, 2016
  6. Crystal Palace - 51,482 v Burnley, 1979
  7. Fulham - 49,335 v Millwall, 1938
  8. Millwall - 48,672 v Derby, 1937
  9. Brentford - 38,678 v Leicester, 1949
  10. Orient - 38,219 v Tottenham, 1929
  11. QPR - 35,353 v Leeds, 1974

* At White Hart Lane; 85,512 watched Spurs play Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League at Wembley in 2016.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Fifa World Rankings February 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for February 2017 were published on February 9 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

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

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

England are 13th, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales in 12th.

Senegal are the top African team in 31st place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 54th place; Japan are in 52nd spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 37th place.

The USA are in 29th. Wales are 12th. Scotland are in 67th position. The Republic of Ireland in 25th place, Northern Ireland are in 39th position.

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

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Five Ways To Deal With Bullying

When you're a coach, your biggest goal isn't just to win games. Rather, it's to shape the minds and lives of the young people who you work with. This comes from fostering a sense of teamwork and ensuring that all of your players get along.

However, when you spot bullying, it can be hard to keep a feeling of teamwork alive. In order for you to keep your team at their very best, here are five ways that coaches can deal with bullying.

1. Make It Clear To Everyone That Bullying Isn't Tolerated

If you've been noticing bullying at meets and practices, you don't have to go to the perpetrators directly, at least not right away. Instead, have a quick chat at the beginning of practice about how bullying harms everyone, both as individuals and as a team. Sometimes one of these simple group meetings is all it takes to nip bullying in the bud.

2. Talk To Perpetrators Directly

Unfortunately, not all students will respond to meetings about combatting bullying. If some team members are still participating in hurtful or mean activities, talk to them directly. While a group meeting might not reach them, a one on one discussion can often do the trick.

3. Talk To The Parents

As nice as it'd be if all kids would listen to their coaches and teachers the first time, sometimes it takes the stern voice of Mom or Dad to really drive the anti-bullying message home. If a student continues to bully others despite being spoken to about it, either call the parents or schedule a meeting. Chances are that the parents will take action.

4. Administer Disciplinary Action

If one student doesn't respond to notes home or one on one conversations about the dangers of bullying, it might be time to administer disciplinary action. If a student continues to pick on or abuse others, bench them from a practice. If the behavior continues, bench them from a game or meet.

5. Contact The School or Recreation Committee

Sadly, there will always be a few students who don't respond to discussions, notes home or disciplinary action. When you have a student who's caused you to hit a wall, talk to the school or to the recreation committee that oversees your league. If all else fails, suspending the student from a season or indefinitely might be the only option. While we'd like to accommodate all of our players, once in awhile you might encounter young people who simply aren't ready or fit to play team sports.

Bullying is a sad reality of youngsters' lives. However, it doesn't have to be an inevitable part of childhood. As long as teachers, school administrators and coaches take an active role in combatting bullying, we can all reduce the amount of harm that our children experience. Ultimately, you want to teach your kids about teamwork and the importance of supporting one another instead of tearing each other down.

Jessica Kane is a writer for SteelLocker Sports. A leading provider of sporting goods and training programs for coaches, players, parents and institutions with a primary focus on youth sports.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Two Weeks in Gabon

After the final Gabon group match in Libreville six of us went to a nearby restaurant in the dimly lit night. Though it was hard to read the menu, there seemed to be a lot of options.

We called the waiter over and he explained that the restaurant's speciality was wine.

On the menu in Gabon.


There were four items on the food menu, and two of them were off.
(Do not trust this menu!)

That should have made the choice easy, we took so long to decide that I suspect that next time we appear there will only be one item on the menu.

The choices were sausage and pork. We ordered 4 sausage meals between us.

We waited patiently (I have saved this phrase so I can type at the touch of one key). Eventually after they caught whatever they served they arrived with two plates. One sausage and one pork.

Gabon beach.


The waiter explained that the chef had just told him that this was all they had left.

We amicably agreed who would have what, before they arrived with two more plates of pork.

Meanwhile we heard a screech of car brakes and a crash. I turned round to see a telegraph pole wobbling.

Settling the bill seemed to take as long as the food, as firstly food that they didn't have was added to the bill. Then the adding up was clearly wrong. Then the Germans sorted out who had had what and announced how much person owed based on what they had - well you can't imagine Germans going Dutch can you?

Later we waited patiently for a taxi, and flagged one down just near the teetering telegraph pole. He he took a left turn round the roundabout to reach us. (Yes you guessed they drive on the right in Gabon.) Of course he wanted far too much for the fare and if that's how he drives then we made the right decision to carry on waiting patiently.

The next day I decided to stay in Libreville and had a lazy day. That was after my morning run and swim, sitting around under the palm trees at the Tropicana, attending Tunisia v Zimbabwe in the evening along with 1,800 others.

The final group matches were being played at the same time so now there is only one match to watch each day and tomorrow the action moves to Port Gentil and Oyem for two days.

I chose Oyem and made plans on how to get there. Of course I looked to see if there was a flight, but confirmation of these sometimes does not come through until after 9pm in the evening. I confirmed where the local bus left from and found that I should leave at 6am to get to Oyem for 2pm.

Thankfully the email confirmation came through in the morning saying I was booked on the next day's flight from Franceville to Oyem at 3pm.

Helicopter in Gabon.


Arriving at the airport terminal, the first thing I noticed was that the flight had been changed to 3.30pm. Then when on the plane they announced the flight time as 30 minutes. I was sure it had taken longer last time. Have you ever got on a bus and been unsure if it was taking you where you wanted to go? Have you ever been on a plane and sat there thinking this is not going where I thought it was!

Sure enough we landed at what appeared to be a military base in Mongomo, Equatorial Guinea. We then disembarked our plane and walked across the tarmac to the waiting helicopter.

This must be the helicopter that was out of service four days ago! Inside it is just a shell with fold down seats along the sides. I quickly found a seat and attempted to fasten the seatbelt. It fastened, but it was for someone at least three times my size, and it didn't appear adjustable. There was some luggage and it was stacked loosely in the middle of the helicopter. Now all the seats were taken and it was standing room only for about twenty of our party.

Paul (!) fan of the match at Burkina Faso v Tunisia.


Not sure what make it was but it was Russian, at least second hand and at least 40 years old.

The overhead blades started to rotate and we seemed to taxi forward to get some momentum, then we slowly ascended over the trees and made our way to Oyem airport.

I had booked the same accommodation that I stayed at last time with Sebastiane for two nights, but I did not know how I was going to get back from Oyem to Libreville. I heard that there was a flight back this evening after the game at 23.30.

Port Gentil Stadium.


This made me wonder if my flight back would be at this time the next evening. This would present a number of problems, but if I could find out in advance I could work round it. So I sent emails to all the contacts I had to find out if there was still a flight on Thursday during the day.

Thankfully one of them responded and I was booked on a flight as I had intended.

But of course, nothing is straightforward. I arrived on the day of my confirmed flight from Oyem to Libreville to find the Ugandan team bus and delegation already at the airport. I tried to check in to get my boarding pass but was told I was on a later flight and should wait.

Looking around I felt very much on my own as I could see no familiar faces. Apart from the players Dennis Onyango and the captain Wasswa. I asked again, and this time was told my flight had been cancelled and that I should come back tomorrow.

Stade d'Angondjé, Libreville.


I had already arranged an evening out and meal that evening in Libreville. If I had known there was no plane I would have caught the bus which departed at 6am and would have been expected to arrive about 2pm but now it was 10am, and if I caught the bus at this time it would take longer. I was told I could be back around 9pm.

I decided to wait patiently. I confirmed that the Ugandan flight was full, and asked if there were any other options other than coming back tomorrow. The Mali team were due to fly at 3pm so I could wait and ask them.

So at the airport with the least facilities you have ever seen, I waited. Everyone else seemed to be on the Uganda flight. My dilemma was do I try and find if there is someone else in the same position as me, but if I do that they may get my place.

So I decided to stick on my own, Diana the local organiser called me over sometime later, she had arranged for me to travel with the Ugandan luggage some time today.

So I arrived back in Libreville, two hours later than expected, completing my travels around Gabon.

I was in Gabon for 15 days, taking a total of 16 plane journeys and one helicopter ride. I must have spent over one day just in airport waiting lounges. I attended 19 football matches, oh and I also found time to run the distance of a marathon up and down the Libreville beach exchanging bonjours and 1-2's on the way.

So apologies for anything I might have forgotten to tell you...... I can't tell you everything can I?

Finally a few observations on life in Gabon after two weeks.

I don't remember having to reach out of a car window and having to open the door from the outside so much because the lock doesn't work from the inside. A feature found in every city.

Volunteers turn up every day to promote the competition and help to serve their country (as they put it). They are also being paid to do this. Some have even been given time off from their normal vocation.

The president Ali Bongo has called for calm, and promised (!) to review the country's situation after the tournament.

Stade d' Oyem, Gabon.


I am told keyboard warriors have been arrested and I can see certain websites are blocked.

It is noticeable when you speak to the locals that they appreciate positive comments, but anything that is not is queried until they have some positive point.

The price of oil has had a negative effect on the nation's finances, as it the main source of income.

I spoke to one person who a few years ago was earning US$ 11,000 a month. Now with the price of oil being so low production has been cut back and they come out with only US$3,500. Family holidays to Paris are no longer affordable.

Stade de Franceville.


On a positive note it is making the Gabonese aware that they need to look for other revenue streams. They are aware they have scenic beach settings and an untamed jungle which they could use to their advantage to attract tourists, and income if they improve the internal infrastructure.

I was also told they are looking to grow their own crops as currently most things are imported. With seemingly 80% of the country covered by forest there is massive potential.

I hope they can look forward to the good life in the future

Ross Cleggfootballtravelswithross.wordpress.com

Monday, January 23, 2017

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017

I have been here in Gabon for 14 games of the Africa Cup of Nations 2017 now, but it seems like just over a week. I have managed to make my way around the country. Not by the different modes of transport I intended but by flights that I have found that were not available to book before I came.

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.

We have completed the second round of matches and the games have gone from Libreville to Franceville, Oyem and then Port Gentil. So have I. But I have had to go back to Libreville, the capital, every time in order to make the next destination.

When I last wrote I had lost the two Germans I met earlier as they failed to make their scheduled flight back to Libreville.

No worries. Thirty minutes after I got back to our apartment they turned up. They had got a lift and arrived at the other airport terminal.

Instead of walking 50 metres to the terminal that they arrived from, they caught a different plane which departed after mine.

The next morning the heavens opened and the rainy season has shown itself for the first time in Libreville. We tried to wait for a gap in the weather but there didn't seem to be one.

Outside the stadium we met a group of Burkina Faso supporters. One was keen to practice his English. He was a big man with body paint depicting his country's flag. (I have a picture somewhere but am struggling to download photos at present.) His opening words: "I am from Burkina Faso."

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.


At the end of the match I heard a shout in English, I turned round to see it was him. He was delighted with his team's performance and gave me a big hug. I looked at my arm and saw red. His body paint had rubbed off on me.

My trip to Franceville was uneventful, although this time I went with Sebastiane.

We agreed to meet at the end of the second match to catch the shuttle back to the airport. With 10 minutes to go, a shout went out that all journalists for Libreville should go to get their bus now.

There was no sign of Sebastiane (from DRC), so I waited in the stadium and watched the game while looking for him. He sauntered over towards us slowly after the final whistle. Unaware that we had nearly gone without him.

I can't lose anyone else, can I?

The next day the football moved to Oyem and this time I received confirmation for the Oyem flight, returning the next day. So no helicopter, that was for CAF officials.

Before leaving the Tropicana, where I was staying I advised them that my room would not be used and they could sell it again if they wanted.

Went for my breakfast at the airport, croque monsieur, and then to Afrijet terminal about 11.00. Plane wasn't due to depart until 13.30.

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.


Sebastiane was there, but had some bad news. There was a problem with the helicopter and the CAF delegation were now going to join us on our flight.

At this stage we weren't sure of the implications, but an hour later they advised us that no journalists would travel.

So Sebastiane and I went to the airport terminal to try and book a flight to Oyem.

All the flights for Oyem had left, there were no more today.

We were offered a taxi who guaranteed he could get us to Oyem in time for kick off. With less than five hours to go. We declined, and went back to Afrijet.

I was in the throes of sending an email to a travelling companion who was in Libreville to ask him where he was and where he would be watching tonight's games. I didn't finish the email.

We heard that a request had been put to the CAF president to pay for a flight for the journalists. But it is not that simple, how do you get a plane that is ready to fly immediately from your point of departure.

The media scrum followed the person in charge round the room. Eventually an announcement was made, the gist was there were eight places available to journalists from the competing nations. I had already been enlisted to help Sebastiane at the RDC press conference. Does that make me a Congolese journalist?

Unfortunately there was a girl with a Congo shirt on, who just happened to be from Rwanda. Maybe I could get away with being Congolese if I borrowed one of Sebastiane's shirts.

I said that if this tournament is anything to go by it is most likely to be a draw, and so we should go straight to a penalty shootout. I later found out that Joseph Antonine-Bell, the former Cameroon World Cup keeper had said the same and offered to go in goal.

Sebastiane got his boarding pass, and I was left with Ed Dove, who thought we had no chance.

Now that all the passes had been handed out I started to work. There was no one waiting around the boarding desk so I spoke to the two gentlemen there, suggesting there ought to be some neutral coverage of the game. I then found out that there were 45 CAF delegates, but that if any didn't show there would be a place. Unfortunately the Rwandan woman was around and she was first on the waiting list. She asked to check this and was told there was no list, but just stay close. I put myself forward for second, as Ed who had no chance sat down at the back of the room.

I waited patiently as the numbers in the room dwindled, but stayed close to the boarding desk.

The woman was handed a boarding pass, others now surrounded us as her details were recorded for the flight, and I boldly held out my accreditation, Thierry who handed out the passes looked at it but seemed to blank me before taking it from my hand a presenting me with one of the last boarding passes.

Ed realised and came forward to the desk presenting his pass.

I saw him on the plane later.

We landed at a clearing that looked like it had recently been carved out of the surrounding forest and of course there were no lights.

The ground also has been carved out of the forest and with the nearest football team, Union Sportive de Bitam being 75 km away I suspect the forest may take the ground back very soon.

Two good football matches later and we sampled the nightlife in Oyem.

I decided to reserve the same accommodation for next week when I intend to return for two nights.

Leaving Oyem from the half-started open-plan airport, there was a sign for the cafeteria, where workmen were painting the walls and old fashioned weighing scales were lifted from one check-in table to the other.

The security scanning machine didn't work and so they had a casual inspection of the luggage before allowing us through.

The plane eventually set off and arrived at 12.30pm. I hadn't received confirmation of a place on today's flight to Port Gentil, but as I was at the airport I thought I would check to see if there was any possibility of travelling.

The flight was full, and due to fly at 13.00 and my name was not on the list. Never mind, by now you will have learnt that all you need is patience. Sure enough 30 minutes later and I was on my way to Port Gentil again.

This time we have been advised the shuttle to the airport will leave twenty minutes before the end of the match. I spoke to the media operations manager and she simply said "They don't understand".

Towards the end of the evening I asked again. I was told someone had asked to leave 20 minutes after the match. I immediately said that was not possible, but perhaps we could leave at the end of the match. Agreed.

Egypt, scored a late winner to ruin the report I had already before the final whistle.

We got to the shuttle and the driver wasn't there. The crowd started to stream out the ground in a large single line. Queues were forming for transport home. The problem in Port Gentil, and all the other stadiums is that there is only one road that leads to it.

We saw the convoy of CAF cars starting to move with a police escort. We were in pole position, to latch on behind them. Then we pulled over to the roadside. Three more journalists got in but we had lost the convoy.

There was a roadblock ahead and we were denied access and had to turn off. I presume this driver has not driven the press before. Didn't he know all he had to do was put his hazard lights on and drive as fast as possible, while the journalists on board would shout "Press", waving their accreditation at anyone that got in the way.

There was another convoy and we latched on it but he was not allowed past the next roadblock.

Now he started to speed up and drive in the middle of a road, which appeared only just wide enough for two large cars and with ditches at the side of the road.

I adopted the brace position on my seat waiting for the inevitable. We managed to arrive in one piece and on time for the 35 minute flight back to Libreville.

Following the same routine brought back memories of four days ago, when clearing security, Sebastiane accidentally picked up my accreditation and put it round his neck. As I was looking in my tray for it I saw Sebastiane pass.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Africa Cup of Nations 2017 Images

Enjoy these images of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.

Check back as we add more each day. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Ghana fan at Afcon 2017.
Ghana fans enjoy Afcon 2017

Uganda fan at Afcon 2017.
Uganda fan

Gabon fans at Afcon 2017.
Gabon fans

Stade de l'Amitié, Libreville, Gabon.
Stade de l'Amitié, Libreville, Gabon
Mali fans at Afcon 2017.
Mali fans at Afcon 2017
Stade de Franceville (capacity 22,000) in Franceville.
Stade de Franceville (capacity 22,000) in Franceville



Gabon mascot & dancing girls.
Gabon mascot & dancing girls

Ghana fans give their team a big hand.
Ghana fans give their team a big hand

Mali man.
Mali man

Stade de Port-Gentil (capacity 20,000) in Port-Gentil.
Stade de Port-Gentil (capacity 20,000) in Port-Gentil

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.
Burkina Faso Fans

A week in Gabon for Afcon 2017.
Ivory Coast Fans