Monday, October 31, 2005

Theo Walcott

Will over at LUAFC Life, a blog dedicated to Leeds United, tipped me off to an emerging talent over at Southampton named Theo Walcott, and I must say, he’s got star written all over him. Unfortunately for Leeds:

"He made his full debut versus Leeds ... and he ran our defence ragged (OK they are slow defenders). He scored one, should have had three. Not bad for a debut!" - Will

At only 16 years of age Walcott would, had Southampton survived last season, be making a splash in the Premiership this season. He’s playing way above his age and can compete for pace with any player around.

Walcott’s family stems from Barbados but he grew up in England. He was a member of the Reading Academy and joined Southampton despite interest from Arsenal and Chelsea.

Walcott has scored in each of his first three appearances so far leaving manager Harry Redknapp full of praise, in the process he’s become Southampton’s youngest ever scorer.

“Pace is the key in the modern game and Theo has that as well as terrific close control”-Redknapp

Redknapp’s hand was forced because of lack of goals. After using him on the wing he gave Walcott his chance in front of goal, and like every great player, he took it.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Giant killers

Middlesbrough knocked off Manchester United tonight in astonishing fashion, 4-1 at home. That means Middlesbrough have beaten both Arsenal and Man U so far this season while the rest of their results have been mediocre at best.

Manchester United were disinterested and unmotivated as Middlesbrough put on a great display of passing and counter attacking football, pushing 4 goals past United before substitute Cristiano Ronaldo pulled one back in the 93rd minute.

Edwin van der Sar opened the scoring when he flubbed Gaizka Mendieta’s first minute strike. It (I think) was van der Sar’s first lollipop of the season and foreshadowed United’s performance all game long. Unable to recoup the early goal, United floundered.

Rio Ferdinand was the next victim as a mistake gifted Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink the second goal followed by Kieron Richardson’s foul in the box on Stuart Parnaby. Yakubu, impressive all season long, converted from the spot.

Yakubu wasn’t finished as he whipped past Ferdinand to the end line and neatly pulled back for the charging Mendieta to get his second and the team’s deserved 4th goal in the late minutes.

After the 4th Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson promptly introduced Wes Brown in place of Ferdinand whose form all season has been nothing if not suspect. Ferguson’s face said it all, the old gaffer was pissed.

For Boro, this was a big win, if only they showed such determination against middle tier teams they would do fine. They have a decent core of strikers, George Boateng, who just keeps getting better and better, and a supporting stock of good talent.

As for United, the Malcom Glazer induced fall from grace seems to be real. I can’t recall a recent worse performance from them. Conceding 23 fouls versus Boro is an ominous sign. United are now another 3 points behind Chelsea and slipping. Next week United face Chelsea and I would expect the Abramovic’s to show the Glazer’s whose boss.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Bulgarian football interview

In part 8 of my global interview series we travel to Bulgaria. Ivan Simeonov hosts a weblog called Bet on Football.

Based in Sofia, Bulgaria, Ivan’s site is dedicated to posting football betting odds and international football commentary. My thanks for joining in.

FC: What are the Bulgarian football leagues are like? Do many players from foreign countries play there? If so, where?

IS: In Bulgaria we have one premier group called "A" with 15 teams inside. Of course, we have clubs all the way down to the regional groups - two "B" groups, four "C" groups and so on. All of them, excluding the premier league, are divided on a regional principle - for example West and East "B" Groups.

We can say that the football played in all the leagues across Bulgaria is not so fast and is not based on physical duels, but the players have good technique, skills, and an intelligent look on the game.

And yes, many foreign players play here - actually there are teams in the "A" group with just 4-5 Bulgarian players, such as the most powerful team in the league - CSKA Sofia, which recently beat Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen in the European tournaments. Most of the players are from Africa but there are footballers from Slovakia, Italy, France, Croatia, Serbia & Montenegro, Brazil and Venezuela too.

FC: Bulgaria had a few good national sides in the 90's with players like Hristo Stoitchkov, since then there has been a down-turn and qualification for Germany 2006 looks unlikely, what has happened?

IS: I think nobody can say what exactly is happening now regarding the national team of Bulgaria - we have great squad full of top quality players, we made a great start in the campaign and... something happened when we hosted Sweden in Sofia. Then we suddenly lost to Croatia and Sweden again as visitors and things went wrong. Now the team needs time, more games to play and should learn from their mistakes.

The golden generation is gone, we should admit that and work harder than ever. The good news are that Stoitchkov, Balakov, Kostadinov, Lechkov are ready to help the talented young players.

FC follow-up: They say that often great players don't make great coaches. What makes you think Stoitchkov will be different?

IS: Actually I don't think Stoitchkov is going to make it. First of all he is not ready, at all, to be a coach of any national team, he just hasn't got the practice yet! And we have already seen, in the World Cup Germany 2006 qualifying campaign, a couple of very serious mistakes made by him on the pitch. For that short period of time he "managed" to insult the Bulgarian journalists, a couple of good Bulgarian players as well as the FIFA, UEFA and Mr. Johansson. He was a genius as a footballer but now needs time, time and more time to prove that he will be the same as a coach.

FC: Who are your top 5 Bulgarian players at the moment? How about all time?

IS: At the moment:

1. Dimitar Berbatov (Bayer Leverkussen)
2. Valeri Bojinov (Fiorentina)
3. Martin Petrov (Athletico Madrid)
4. Stillian Petrov (Celtic)
5. Vallentin Iliev (CSKA Sofia)

All time:

1. Hristo Stoitchkov
2. Yordan Lechkov
3. Dimiter Yakimov
4. Ivan Kollev
5. Dimitar Penev

FC: What other leagues in the world are the most popular in Bulgaria?

IS: No doubt about that: the Premiership is the most popular league in Bulgaria. You can see, all the time during the weekend, groups of fans watching British football in a number of pubs. We have fan clubs of Arsenal, Man United, Liverpool and so on. At our stadiums you can often see across the fans Liverpool or Man United shirts. I personally know fans of "exotic" teams such as Burnley, Milton K. Dons and Coventry.

We also have the chance to watch the Italian Seria A games, Spain Primera Division, German Bundesliga and French First League.

FC follow-up: Does such a high level of interest in the Premiership damage the Bulgarian league?

IS: Sure, we have games in the first league with no more that 100 fans at the stadium. Yes, it is not a mistake, 100! And it happens every weekend. But it is not a result of this high level of interest in the Premiership action - the problem is more complex: the corruption in the Bulgarian football should be uprooted.

FC: If the Bulgarian League were to join up with leagues from neighboring countries, would it be good or bad for Bulgarian football?

IS: It will be bad for sure. The teams in the region are actually at the same level of football skills. We need more European battles to improve the level of the Bulgarian football. We should use every chance playing at Anfield, for example, to learn "how to play" at top level.

*Please email if you'd like to conduct an interview (over email) or if you know the name of a weblog in your country.

Wigan wonder

When Wigan Athletic kept Chelsea at bay for 90 minutes in the opening game of the season I thought they were a decent side playing above their heads. Looking back, seeing the drubbings that Chelsea’s been giving other sides, and I see how that game was no fluke. Wigan are a heck of a good team.

At the start of season who would have ever used the words ‘Wigan’ and ‘Europe’ in the same sentence? That’s just what we have.

In 1993 Wigan were relegated to the Third Division and languished until local entrepreneur Dave Whelan bought the club in 1995. In 1997 Wigan won promotion to the Second Division, just nipping Fulham for the title. It took a few more years, but in 2003 the Latics achieved promotion to the Second Division. Finishing second in the Championship last year they made it to the top flight for the first time.

Coach Paul Jewell's side has earned 19 points in 9 games since losing the opening two encounters against Chelsea and Charlton. They sit level on points with Tottenham and Charlton. Considering that 40 or so points pretty much assures you of survival at the top, Wigan have, in less than a third of the season, earned half the points they need. Pretty impressive stuff from a club that, a decade ago, was nowhere.

Are clubs underestimating Wigan? Looking ahead to a derby or a match against the Arsenal’s and Manchester United’s? Probably a bit, but they better stop. Wigan’s run won’t last, but survival looks pretty much assured.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Charlton beats Portsmouth, manager probably finished

I figured the first manager this season to get canned would be Graeme Souness over at Newcastle but it looks like Alain Perrin is going to lose his job as Portsmouth manager after tonight’s 2-1 defeat to Charlton Athletic.

Charlton came from behind and remain unbeaten away from home. Portsmouth on the other hand still remains winless at home.

While Pompey started the game brightly with a 14th minute Dario Silva goal, their belief faded fast when Charlton drew level in the second half. From that point on it was more or less one way traffic as Charlton eventually secured the winning goal in the 77th minute.

Darren Ambrose and Dennis Rommedahl were the goal scorers for Charlton.

Portsmouth, lacking points in the Premiership table, have at least been entertaining to watch. It was a good match with flowing football and good passing. Perrin, for all the pressure he is under, has at least provided the fans something to see. Playing with a single striker up front the team was still able to produce good football.

Compare that to Moyes at Everton and you have a good case to keep Perrin around. But this loss, a failure to beat 10 man Birmingham last week, and a recent Carling Cup exit to Gillingham is probably too much. What was dismaying was the team’s attitude after the equalizer; Chairman Milan Mandaric must be mulling that over for sure.

Charlton, for their part, won with what has been their strongest asset this season. They are a good passing team. Second in the table, level with Tottenham on points, they are doing it without the millionaire names we see underneath them.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Dong Fangzhou

Dong Fangzhou is probably China’s best football prospect ever. Signed from Chinese club team Dalian Shide last year by Manchester United, he’s currently playing for Royal Antwerp in Belgium, United's favorite feeder club.

A former striker for the China U-20 team, now aged 20, he’s been moved up to the senior side and I expect him to do really well. The cynic will say he was purchased to sell shirts, but he can play.

A few months ago Fangzhou was named on the shortlist for the first FIFPro Young player of the Year award which was given to fellow Manchester United striker Wayne 'tantrum' Rooney at a ceremony last month.

While he’s quite a way from a place in Man U’s senior side, he certainly has the potential. He showed very well earlier this month in a friendly against Germany and has been scoring regularly for his club team in Belgium, albeit in the second division. Don’t laugh, they all start somewhere.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Give it to Henry

Once again FIFA has released its short list for its annual World Player of the Year award. Once again the list is way too long. If you look at all the players listed, only a few deserve the consideration. But or me, there is only one choice this year: Arsenal striker Thierry Henry is the best striker in the world and deserves the award.

In fact, I think Henry deserved it last year but was usurped by Barcelona playmaker Ronaldinho, now a 2 time winner. The rest of the list should reads more like a list of whose famous (or who’s overrated) rather than an award for the best player in the world. Why bother listing players you know will never win?

The non-contenders:

Michael BallackLampard is better
David BeckhamWashed up, slow, and Lampard is better
CafuToo old, nothing spectacular
Cristiano RonaldoToo young, what happened to the tricks?
DecoNot even the best player at Barca
Didier DrogbaPutrid first touch
Michael EssienWhat has he ever done?
Steven Gerrard Lampard is better
Zlatan IbrahimovicToo inconsistent
Paolo MaldiniIf he didn’t win it 10 years ago, won't now
Pavel NedvedHas already peaked
Alessandro NestaSuper defender, but an unrealistic choice
Jay-Jay OkochaThere are ten different #10’s better
Raul GonzalezIn a 2 year slump and on the list?
Juan Roman RiquelmeTop notch player, no gravitas
Arjen RobbenHardly plays anymore, always injured
Roberto CarlosAn occasional free kick, so what?
RobinhoWhat has he ever won?
RonaldoWashed up and overweight
Wayne RooneyIn between tantrums?
Ruud van NistelrooyRecent good form, bit of a dirty player
Zidane ZinedineHas already won 3 times, too old

Now, there are some players which really deserve the consideration. So the real short list, for me, is:

AdrianoCan score from anywhere and has developed touch
Gianluigi BuffonBest keeper in the world
Samuel Eto'oJust keeps getting better and better
Thierry HenryArsenal must keep him
KakaThe wonderkind, finest young prospect in the world
Frank LampardMost complete and durable midfielder in the world
RonaldinhoBrings everything and never takes a game off
Andriy ShevchenkoA truly complete striker

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Socceroo interview

In part seven of my global interview series we travel down under to Australia and learn about football from Graham Drummond. Graham hosts a blog dedicated to West Ham called Whu-au, West Ham United blog for fans in Australia. My thanks for joining in.

FC: Australia has not traditionally been a football nation, what is the domestic league like?

GD: Football was always a very popular participation sport but not very popular as a spectator sport. There's a big divide between roundball (soccer) and eggball (AFL, Rugby League, and Rugby Union) in this country. The National Soccer League, or NSL, was the domestic league for years but was suffering from lots of fundamental problems. For example, many of the clubs were ethnically based, and the match coverage was non-existent.

However, that's starting to change. We've recently gone through a bit of a revolution. The new league, called the A-League, has just started this last month and this is a huge improvement. There are only eight clubs which means that the overall skill level in the league is higher. The clubs also represent a whole city, state (Queensland), or even country (New Zealand) rather than an ethnic subgroup or small locale within a city. This will make a big difference in the supporter numbers because it's an inclusive system rather than exclusive. The marketing and coverage has so far been excellent and the crowds have been good. Even the eggball fans are starting to watch it. Hopefully this upward climb will continue. Unfortunately the matches can't be seen on free-to-air TV and I think this will really hold the sport back.

The quality of the league is probably somewhere in the bottom half of the English Championship, or top half of League One. The teams have only just been formed though so it should improve by the season's end.

FC: What other football leagues do you get to see there?

GD: If you don't get cable TV, then not much. You can see the World Cup, FA Cup Final, Champions League finals and a few Australia international matches, but little else. Up till recently you could also see the English Premier League. The primary free-to-air football provider, SBS, is a governmentally funded channel and can't afford to buy the rights any more, which is a terrible shame. However, they do have a superb four-hour show called The World Game every Sunday, and give the sport good coverage on their nightly sports news programme.

If you have cable TV then you get heaps of coverage: EPL, A-League, Champions League, Primera Liga, Serie A, FA Cup, internationals, and probably a couple of others that I've forgotten.

FC: Who are you top 5 Australian players? How about 5 we have never heard of, but you rate?

GD: Of the players who play in overseas leagues:

1. Mark Schwartzer
2. Mark Viduka
3. Tim Cahill
4. Craig Moore
5. Marco Bresciano

I don't rate Harry Kewell because he's been injured so much, but he might have otherwise been top of the list.

Some of the overseas players who I rate but you may not have heard of are Zelkjo Kalac, Scott Chipperfield, and Ahmad Elrich. Max Vieri, who is Christian's brother, is also pretty good.

In the A-League, the top few Australian players are (in my opinion anyway) Andy Thompson, Ned Zelic, Alex Brosque, Jonty Richter, Michael Ferrante, and (as much as I hate him) Kevin Muscat. Kristian Sarkies and Chad Gibson are also very good. There are quite a few more who might shine over the coming season. Of all of them, Andy Thompson is the most likely to make an impact internationally.

FC Follow-up: Max Vieri is Christian's brother, but he's Italian, how has he ended up with an Australian nationality?

GD: Their family moved to Australia when Christian was very young. Their father played for a Sydney club Marconi Stallions (a good example of the ethnicity I was talking about - this was an Italian club). Max was born in Australia. The family moved back to Italy and that's where Christian became a professional. Christian could have chosen to play for Australia but instead chose to play for Italy. Max also had the same choice but chose to play for Australia. I'm not sure but this may be the only case of two brothers playing for different countries!

FC: What if Australia and New Zealand joined their domestic leagues, would that be good for football down under?

GD: There's a New Zealand team that plays in the A-League. That's good for the sport but unfortunately they don't appear to match the Australian clubs in terms of talent, which is a bit of a shame. They were unlucky to lose 3-1 to Sydney last week, though.

FC: What are your thoughts on having Guus Hiddink as your part time coach? And your chances for the World Cup in 2006?

GD: I suspect Guus Hiddink didn't know what he was signing up for! I think he'll be great for the team but I would be absolutely gobsmacked if we qualified for the World Cup. Despite what many Australians will tell you, the national team is pretty ordinary and doesn't really play well together. There's potential but it's never been realised. Hiddink is a good coach, but he needs more time than he's got to really develop the team, and he needs the full backing of the FFA. If he stays, Australia could become a good, world-class team.

FC: I've never read anything about the youth football system in Australia, what do you know about it?

GD: We have national and state institutes of sport, which help develop young players. Beyond that I don't know much about it but don't think it's very good. I believe that football is the most popular participation sport in the country, particularly amoung kids and teenagers. Unfortunately there seems to be no way to help players take that big leap from being a good player to being a world class professional, without actually playing overseas. The A-League should help that a bit, but there should be some sort of reserve competition to help players go from the amateur and state leagues to the A-League and beyond.

*Please email if you'd like to conduct an interview (over email) or if you know the name of a weblog in your country.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Taye Taiwo

Rough around the edges, a bit too eager to go forward and a touch prone to go in for the tackle, but beyond that, we have a Nigerian diamond in the rough.

Olympique de Marseille swooped up Taye Ismaila Taiwo during last year’s transfer window to replace former French international Bixente Lizarazu who returned to Bayern Munich in Germany. The 20 year old Nigerian left club team Lobi Stars to join the French giants, founded in 1899 and 8 time winners of the league.

During this summer’s FIFA World Youth Cup he had some impressive performances at left back. Nigeria reached the final but was beaten by Argentina. Since then he’s gotten the starting nod for Marseille.

As Taiwo gains tactical maturity he’ll be fully able to show off his abilities. For now, he’s a hulk of physical prowess. Marseille quickly extended his contract until 2009 this summer after Dutch club PSV Eindhoven appeared to be making a move for him.

Taiwo moves effortlessly down the left flank. He’s very quick for his size and closes down space. He likes to provide support for the wingers (maybe too much) and is also strong in the air.

Against PSG last night he was in great form and has been earning plaudits in the French papers. He’s been included in the senior Nigerian national side and looks to be a long term replacement for Newcastle’s Celestine Babayaro.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

The FC Porto youth academy

Web logger Morphy hosts a blog called “Esperança Portista: os jovens do FC Porto” which translated means “Hopes of Porto fans: the youths of FC Porto”. The blog is dedicated to following the club’s different youth sides, the club's youth academy as well as Portugal’s international youth sides. I have yet to see such a blog on the net and am really impressed at Morphy’s dedication in covering something for his fellow Porto fans that they’d normally never hear about.

Curious about the youth academy, I’ve interviewed
Morphy about it.

FC: How does a youngster in Portugal join FC Porto's youth academy?

M: From 5 to around 12, FC Porto makes drafts (captações), at the "Campo da constituição". It’s hosted around June/July.

Pupils go there, play and a few are selected to the youth teams. For older players, the only way is to shine is at some other club.

FC: At what age does the club start accepting players?

M: Around 5/6 at ‘as escolinhas’, meaning ‘the little schools’.

FC: How many different teams are there within the youth academy? Is it done by age or skill? How many players in the academy in total?

M: There are a lot of teams... for the kids; I would say some six teams.

Age is the main criteria, but a skillful player can play with the older boys. In total? Ummm... 500.

FC: Does the youth side get much interaction with the senior team?

M: Not really. Some B team player (u23) and junior (u19) are occasionally called to training.

FC: Does bringing in foreign youngsters, for example from Brazil, damage the prospects for the local players?

M: I think so, yes, particularly if they are not excellent players. In that case, it's just wasting a spot a local player could fill.

FC: How involved are parents in the whole development process within FC Porto's youth academy?

M: It varies. In Portugal, when it comes to parents, it's good if they don't cause trouble (protests with trainers, etc). Some parents are involved by helping with many little things (players transportation, etc).

FC: What about normal (academic) school, how is that worked in?

M: FC Porto pays for a private school or arranges for public school.

FC: Do the youth players get paid?

M: From u17 level yes, a standard u17 receives 100 euros per month. Then it goes up with the age group. But some already have professional contracts and earn more.

FC:Can you name a few players that you think are outstanding, that you think we might see in Porto's senior team soon?

M: Ivanildo, 20, is already on the A team. A great left winger.

On loan are Paulo Machado, midfielder, Vieirinha, right winger and Bruno Vale, goal-keeper. All great prospects.

On the B team, Helder Barbosa, left winger, has been training with the AA's. He’s a very talented left winger.

Others to watch are João Pedro, centre back, Nuno Coelho, midfielder, and Bruno Gama, an allround forward (can play on either wing or on the 10 spot).

On the u19 side, Castro, a midfielder, Rui Pedro, number 10, and Candeias, striker, are some of the many promising players. This team has finished second in 2002 u15 Nike Cup (a sort of youth World Cup) and has played in two high level tournaments (one was the Milk Cup) in the summer, reaching the semi finals in both, and beating Manchester United and Real Madrid along the way.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The writing on the wall

Today Chelsea stormed to another victory against Bolton Wanderers, this time with 5 second half goals. Arsenal lost to West Bromwich Albion while Manchester United managed a win and Tottenham Hotspur cruised past Everton, more hapless by the week. Regardless of the other action in the Premiership today, Chelsea are miles ahead.

Bolton went into the half actually up 1-0 from a Stelios Giannakopoulos goal from close range but were thrashed after the break with 4 goals in 9 minutes (including a red card on Ricardo Gardner for a ridiculous hand ball). The goals came 2 apiece from Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Eidur Gudjohnsen, who’s hardly played this season and looked great, added the fifth late on.

West Brom pulled off the afternoon’s shocker with a win over Arsenal. Goals came from former Gunner Kanu and an absolutely beauty from Darren Carter.

Philippe Senderos scored off the volley for the Gunners who should have won the game were it not for Baggies keeper Chris Kirkland, man of the match for me. Arsenal sit 8th in the table, with less than half the points Chelsea have scored and with a +5 goal difference to Chelsea’s +20.

Manchester United defeated Sunderland 3-1 to keep some semblance of chase. A goal from Wayne Rooney and a pair from Ruud van Nistelrooy ensured Stephen Elliott's long range goal posed no threat. Must admit, van Nistelrooy has looked sharp all season.

It was not as wide a gap as the scoreline, Sunderland came to play but were clearly outgunned on the attack, they have yet to win at home this season.

Tottenham, were it not for Chelsea, would be the story of the young Premiership season. Sitting second in the table they have looked stronger and stronger as the season has progressed and have a balanced side that works for each other.

Egyptian international Mido and Jermaine Jenas provided the scoring and continued to showcase Everton’s shocking fall from grace.

Everton sit bottom of the table and have only scored a single goal all season! What a boring side as well: they only look to frustrate opponents and hope for a lucky goal. It’s time to question manager David Moyes tactics, they simply aren’t working.

What can you say? It’s a one horse race. Chelsea aren’t boring but having owner Abramovich’s mega-bucks sure makes it hard to keep it interesting, the same as when Ferrari dominated Formula One in recent years, what good does that do the Premiership?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A scathing load of nothing

It was called ‘scathing’ and he used words like ‘pornographic’. Clearly the comments, in part, were aimed at Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and new Manchester United owner Malcolm Glazer but failed to convince me that FIFA president Sepp Blatter is nothing but a false populist, saying what he felt others wanted to hear to take the load off himself.

Let’s fill in the blanks here: Sepp Blatter published an interview in the Financial Times yesterday and hit out with lots off bru-ha-ha about how football is awash with too much money and owners that have no real interest in the game. Yes, Mr. Blatter, this is big news. Did you pop your head out of your Swiss chalet to notice?

You can clearly tell Blatter is up to his old games by announcing a task force. A task force? Isn’t that what governments do when they want to appear to do something but really don’t want to do anything? It sounds really good, ooo, a task force, but how many times have we heard that, especially from the master of cronyism himself, Sepp Blatter.

Blatter also talked about the practice of agents buying the contracts of young African kids, a practice which often ends with many young men being badly lied to when their careers don’t pan out. Surprise! This is news? This has been happening for 20 years, what’s the newfound motivation to ‘tackle’ this issue now? There is none.

Sepp Blatter is a wind bag and has run FIFA for many years like his own private kingdom. The Belgian government (Belgium is probably the worst offender) should be the ones arresting these agents for fraud, they don’t care either.

Populism has been a useful tool for eons for men who want to cover there bad intentions. Populism is a tool to keep you popular. Say what people want to hear, wink at your powerful friends and assure them nothing new will happen. ‘Task force’ is code for ‘don’t worry, my rich friends, I am going to say a scathing load of nothing; as you were’.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Bundesliga: A Brief History Of

With World Cup 2006 in Germany less than a year away I thought I'd present something else about German football in addition to the great interview Markus Klöschen did recently. Brian A. O'Driscoll writes a very informative piece about the history of the Bundesliga. Originally printed at Goal.com, he was kind enough to allow me to reprint it here.

The German Bundesliga is the world’s best supported domestic league championship with a rich tradition and dramatic past.

The Early Days

Formed in 1963 to usher in a new era of professionalism in the German game, it is the most important football league in continental northern Europe, with a sphere of influence stretching from Denmark in the north to Russia in the east via the Balkans, the central European states, and near neighbours Austria and Switzerland.

Until its formation, football in Germany was regionally-based, with a knockout tournament held each season between the regional champions to determine the federal masters. Köln, defeated in the federal play-off final of 1963, became the first Bundesliga champions in 1964 and boasted players of the calibre of Wolfgang Overath. They would win the title again in 1978, but have experienced a yo-yo existence since the great days of Pierre Littbarski, Klaus Allofs, and Harald Schumacher, though have just returned to the top flight once more with young sensation Lukas Podolski.

The 1960s saw numerous different winners including 1860 Munich, Eintracht Braunschweig, and Nürnburg, the latter returning to the top table last year after a difficult period in the 1990s. The most notable champion in that decade, however, was a small club from Bavaria propelled to the top by perhaps the richest seam of young talent ever unearthed. Bayern Munich won their first Bundesliga title in 1969 with youngsters Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, and Sepp Maier making a name for themselves in domestic football for the first time.

The Golden Years

The 1970s heralded a golden age in German football, though a bribery scandal darkened the early seasons of the new decade. The national team was dominant in the international arena, and Udo Lattek’s Bayern were continental masters three years in succession. Domestically, Bayern were engaged in an absorbing rivalry with Borussia Mönchengladbach, a club that also made its mark on the European stage with players like Günter Netzer, Jupp Heynckes, and Berti Vogts. While Gladbach won the first title of the ’70s, Bayern took over with three titles on the bounce. However, Gladbach emulated the feat by 1977 as a fierce rivalry simmered. With Beckenbauer and Müller finishing their dazzling careers, Bayern turned to former star Paul Breitner and the young Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to restore pre-eminence. However, one club would prove a constant thorn in the side of the brilliant "Breitnigge" duo. Ernst Happel’s Hamburger SV, the giants of the north, emerged to take the 1978 championship and lured European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan to the Bundesliga in a demonstration of league supremacy. Nevertheless, Bayern now posssessed the world’s greatest striker in the maturing Rummenigge, and successive titles followed for the Bavarians along with two European Footballer of the Year awards for the super-dribbler. Yet, HSV would not be outdone, and the team of Felix Magath, Manfred Kaltz, and Horst Hrubesch took two more titles of their own along with the European Cup itself in the early 1980s, adding a glorious chapter in the club's history to that of Uwe Seeler's days in the 1960s.

Legionnaires Abroad

The high water-mark had been reached for the Bundesliga, but attendances continued to rise throughout the 1980s. Bayern’s dominance of the German game continued with Lothar Matthäus moving from Mönchengladbach to cushion the blow of the Rummenigge departure to Italy, a journey that many top German players would make over the coming decade. Stuttgart and Werder Bremen emerged to rival the Bavarians as Hamburg faded from prominence. Bremen sensationally missed a late penalty against Bayern in the last match of the 1985/1986 season and lost the title, the width of a post costing Otto Rehhagel his first crown. However, "King Otto" would eventually triumph with Rudi Völler up front in 1988. That same season, national team goalkeeper, Harald "Toni" Schumacher, published his sensational expose of German football, Anpfiff. Containing allegations of general debauchery and drug-taking, the book rather unfairly cost Schumacher the captaincy of club and country, and his career.


The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 led to the first unified German championship since the War. However, Eastern sides have fared badly in the new order, and Dynamo Berlin, Carl Zeiss Jena, Lokomotiv Leipzig, and Dynamo Dresden have all dropped into lower divisions or even regional football, sometimes under new names. Last season, only Hansa Rostock represented the old GDR in the top flight, and sadly lost that honour after a depressing season ended in relegation.

A pattern of Bayern dominance interspersed with rare pickings for occassional challengers was now developing in the German game. Kaiserslautern had their moment in 1991, and Christoph Daum’s Stuttgart in 1992. Bremen won a third title in ’93, and for once it seemed as if the balance of power had finally shifted away from Bavaria. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund became the most serious challenger to Bayern hegemony in 15 years when they took two titles and a European Cup in the mid 1990s, but Bayern remained the standard, with further championships in 1994 and 1997. Kaiserslautern pulled off the rare feat of winning the 2. Bundesliga and 1. Bundesliga in successive seasons under Rehhagel in 1998. Leverkusen, UEFA Cup winners in 1988, fueled by the huge backing of pharmaceutical giants Bayer, became major players and threatened to take the big domestic prize on a number of occassions, but agonisingly failed each time.

So Close...

Hitzfeld moved from the Westfalenstadion to Munich to safeguard Bayern’s supremacy, and two European Cup finals were contested with mixed fortunes. Three Bavarian Bundesliga crowns told of last-day heartbreak for Leverkusen and Schalke 04, before Dortmund reasserted themselves under Matthias Sammer to clinch the 2002 title. Though Bayern won in 2003 by a record margin, Werder Bremen arrived out of the pack to dominate the following season, as the Bundesliga continued to lead the European attendance tables as the best supported championship. The Weser hedgemony was short-lived however, with Bayern re-establishing themselves as German champions once again last season, winning at a canter after Schalke 04 threatened a maiden title. That's been the story of the German game in recent times. So many clubs remain competitive, and many get so close to glory, only for Bayern to appear like a spectre and hoover up the titles.

The Bavarians start the 2005/2006 championship as clear favourites again, but some interesting summer business adds to the fascination of the pre-World Cup domestic campaign. Bremen have re-signed Torsten Frings and let Valerien Ismael plug the gap left by Robert Kovac in the champions' defence. Schalke have signed German international Kevin Kuranyi from Stuttgart and will sport former Bremen ball-winner Fabian Ernst in their revamped midfield. Hamburger SV audaciously captured Dutch talent Rafael van der Vaart in a bid to bridge the gap to the top table of championship contention, while Stuttgart welcomed back legendary coach Giovanni Trapattoni to German football after a six year break. Add to that the return of superstar-in-the-making Lukas Podolski and you've got plenty to look forward to over the next nine months.

© Copyright 2005, Brian A. O'Driscoll, Berlin


Sunday, October 09, 2005

Africa keeps it interesting

To describe Africa’s representatives to next year’s World Cup as a surprise is an understatement. Ivory Coast’s emergence onto the world stage has been solidified with a new crop of talent such as Didier Drogba of Chelsea and Kolo Toure of Arsenal. But to imagine a scenario in which all but one team coming out of Africa would be a first time qualifier was far-fetched.

The African 5 for Germany 2006 are:

Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast pulled off a surprise, beating out traditional powers Cameroon with an away win over Sudan. Cameroon, veterans of 6 World Cups, were held to a draw against Egypt, a game they needed to win. In fact, in Ivory Coast fans celebrated outside the Egyptian embassy in a show of appreciation for making their qualification possible. Cameroon are missing only their second finals since 1982.

The continent’s traditional powers have all crashed out, most notably South Africa ahead of hosting their first World Cup. The continents most successful international teams to date, Cameroon and Nigeria have also been eliminated from the finals. But for South Africa, you have to wonder, ahead of hosting the Cup in 2010, they fail to qualify? In my opinion, time for some introspection.

Nigeria made their finals debut in 1994. It’s their first time missing the finals since then. For Nigeria, failure to qualify is all the more surprising when you consider Angola’s team is mainly made up of local players in the domestic leagues. Only 2 or 3 players on the entire squad play outside Africa.

One Angolan player to note is striker Pedro Mantorras who plays for Benfica in Portugal. He was in every scout’s black book a few years ago until, in 2002, he suffered a devastating knee injury which cost him the better part of 2 seasons and almost ended his career. Mantorras was part of the side which won the African under-20 championship in 2001.

For Togo, clearly the lightweight of the bunch, qualification was as tense. Playing at home in Brazzaville they eventually won 3-2 against Congo but had to come from behind twice to secure the win and qualify at Senegal’s expense.

Ghana, who have always looked like qualification but failed in the past, have finally broken thru. Having players like Michael Essien at Chelsea has done a lot for their prospects but it must be said, South Africa fell apart giving Ghana little competition for a qualifying place.

Tunisia only needed a draw last night against Morocco to secure qualification. With their destiny in their own hands, Morocco failed to secure the win and qualify.

If you look at qualifying in other countries, there is no continent which could have created so much drama. In literally 90 minutes Africa’s qualification was turned on its head and football’s continental power base shifted completely.

What this means for Africa’s prospects for the World Cup is unsure. Likely, it’s going to be a recipe for crash and burn since most of these sides, while competitive on the continent, are going to be severely undermanned when it comes to the finals. Who knows though, nobody, including in Senegal, expected Senegal to beat France in the first game of the group stages and eventually advance to the quarter finals.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Maradona masterpiece

In what can be politely called a ‘colorful’ 20-year career, Diego Maradona led Argentina to a World Cup victory in 1986. Against England in the quarter final he scored one of the most memorable goals in football history.

Many consider it the finest goal ever scored; at the very least it was the goal that cemented Maradona's reputation as the most talented footballer of his generation.

The goal was truly brilliant, I remember watching that 1986 ArgentinaEngland quarterfinal match with my father and, after he scored it, recall him ignoring the match and talking to his friends about it for a good 10 minutes after it happened.

The slaloming run past six England defenders from deep within Argentina’s own half ended with as much quality as it began.

Maradona took the ball up in a tight space; the first touch was almost the end of the movement. To avoid the defender closest to him he pushed the ball backwards and faced another charging defender immediately. A gorgeous spin and touch forward with the left foot left both defenders trailing. Maradona then burst down the right wing, stutter stepped, and evaded several more tackles before sending England goalkeeper Peter Shilton the wrong way and scoring that brilliant goal effortlessly.

What makes the goal even more poignant to me is that Maradona, sensing glory, could have easily played for the foul just outside the box but rather chose to gallop over the outstretched leg to finish what he had started. No faking injury, fixing socks, or defenders shown the yellow card, just magic.

Never has one player dominated a World Cup like Maradona did in 1986. At the end of the match I recall the commentator saying “Maradona 2, England 1”.


The revolving door at Anfield

French international striker Djibril Cisse has threatened to leave Liverpool during the January transfer window due to lack of playing time.

"If my situation remains the same by December I'll make my move and I'll go" -Cisse

Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez has of yet been unimpressed with Cisse’s performance since becoming coach last year. Inherited from former coach Gerard Houllier, Cisse has been rumored to be trade bait for Real Betis winger Joaquin, a rumor that has been denied.

Marseille have gone on record and confirmed interest in signing Cisse on a loan deal during the January transfer window.

When he has been featured Cisse has been played out of position and has even lost out on the wing to Florent Sinama-Pongolle. Neither player is a winger, nor is Cisse much of a crosser of the ball.

Didn’t Liverpool make the same mistake with El-Hadji Diouf under Houllier? Now another coach is making the same mistakes? Benitez is not using his assets not giving the players a fair shake. For a club that has only scored 4 goals this season (conceding 6), why not give the guy a run. If Cisse fails, it’s because of him. Otherwise, add another expensive signing to the revolving door.

The greatest save ever

(Video clip below) In 1966 England had won the World Cup and were back in 1970 to defend their crown in Mexico. In the second match of the group staged they faced Brazil in one of the finest football matches in history, a match which included, what I think, was the greatest save in history by former Leicester City and Stoke City goalkeeper Gordon Banks.

The moment occurred when Brazilian captain Carlos Alberto played right winger Jairzinho thru on the wing. The playmaker dribbled to the byline to lay in a perfect cross across the goalkeeper to the far post straight into the path of a charging Pele who rose and headed the ball fiercely down into the corner.

It looked a certain goal. It was not to be.

Gordon Banks showed incredible agility to go all the way across goal and leap into a full stretch, twist, and tip the ball with his outstretched right hand straight up and over the bar. It was a truly incredible save. Banks was not even aware he saved the ball until he got up and saw the ball rolling away from goal.

It looked so certain a goal that, right after heading the ball, the greatest player in the world at the time, Pele, had already started to celebrate.

Pele was quoted as saying afterwards it was the greatest goal he’d never scored and also that it was the greatest save he'd ever seen.

A 59th minute goal from Jairzinho meant England ended up losing the game, but it was not because of Gordon Banks who created an indelible memory for generations to appreciate.


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Is this what he left for?

I tuned into watch the Northern Italian derby between Juventus and Inter Milan tonight to see how former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira was getting on in Italy. New look Inter also piqued my interest and I was thinking that this might be a match worth watching.

The match is still on. After 37 minutes, I just couldn’t take it anymore and turned it off. I’d be more content cleaning my neighbor’s garbage bin with my underwear and then putting them back on and wearing them to work tomorrow.

It was the most horrible foul fest you could imagine. The referee showed 3 yellow cards in the 37 minutes I watched but should have shown 12 or 13. In the Premiership he would have. I don’t recall seeing a single sequence of more than 4 or 5 passes. I’m not kidding, it was rugby. The ref was awful, allowing this crap to play out. I hate to say it, but it fulfills all the stereotypes of Italian football.

Vieira, for all his grace as a footballer looked right at home. He got one of the yellows from the kind of tactical foul that boils my blood. He looked awful. I can’t believe he left Arsenal to be a part of this, to hell with winning the Champions League. I’ll bet Luis Figo is having second thoughts as well.

You’d think that 2 goals in 30 minutes might just mean an interesting football match but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Both goals came from free kicks. Nobody could get a decent chance on goal: unpunished fouling took that away from the start.

Man o man. With all the millions splashed out from the array of stars on the pitch you’d think a) some respect would exist and b) some skills would be displayed. None were true. It’s another shining example of the kind of complicit refereeing and trash football that is ruining the game.

Chelsea show Liverpool whose boss

Today Chelsea defeated Liverpool 4-1 in an emphatic romp which makes it a whopping eight strait victories in the Premiership. Chelsea lead the Premiership overall now by a huge margin of 9 points over Tottenham Hotspur and Charlton Athletic.

Tottenham defeated Charlton in the best match of weekend to go level on points for second spot. Charlton, the surprise of the season along with West Ham United (on the other end of the scale, can you believe how piss poor Everton are playing?), haven’t a prayer of catching Chelsea and this season’s Premiership is looking more like a one horse race every day.

To compound the loss Liverpool are an astonishing 17 points behind Chelsea in the Premiership table. I wonder what is going through Rafael Benitez’s mind right now. Last season Liverpool struggled just as badly in the campaign and the plague of inconsistency continues regardless of Liverpool’s new signings. Today they lost at home.

Chelsea’s superb defensive organization proved the difference between the two sides. You could pretty much write that sentence about any game they have played this season.

An early penalty on Didier Drogba gave Chelsea the lead as Frank Lampard coolly converted from the spot. It looked like a classic when Steven Gerrard gave Liverpool the equalizer with a great strike from a tough angle.

It was not to be, though. Damien Duff saw Chelsea ahead again before the half. Liverpool, forced to abandon their defensive shape were punished by Joe Cole and late on as substitute Geremi finished the scoring to complete the scoreline. It was clinical counter attacking.

Didier Drogba, usually substituted when he starts, was instrumental all match long providing lots of link up play and industry. Even his first touch (awful by a striker’s standards) was sharp.

It wasn’t a blowout by any stretch but Chelsea showed what a complete package they are. Liverpool fought hard all match long but it takes so little to fall behind one, two, three goals to Chelsea. It’s the kind of dominance that, while you appreciate it for what it is, doesn’t make for late season drama.

The football in Germany interview

In part 6 of my global interview series we travel to 3 time World Cup winners Germany. Markus Klöschen writes a web log called the Bundesliga Blog.

Markus’s blog, as you might have guessed, covers the teams, players and matches from the Bundesliga. My thanks for joining in.

FC: How do you think the German Bundesliga compares to other European leagues today as opposed to 10 years ago?

MK: Well, 10 years ago the Bundesliga was well known as one of the best soccer leagues in Europe. These days we have only one or two teams which are able to win a cup in Europe. But we are on the right track with young new players in several clubs which will help us to have better chances in the Champions League and UEFA Cup.

FC: What club in Germany has recently impressed you the most?

MK: Most impressive was FSV Mainz 05, a very small soccer club with a young team and a young coach, who played in Mainz himself and has a lot of fans in Mainz and Germany. They got into the qualification for UEFA Cup because they are known for the fair fans, players and all around. Because of their size, Mainz 05 gets a lot of sympathy in Germany these days. Of course, FC Bayern München is impressive and dominating the Bundesliga for the last couple of years.

FC: You're going to host the World Cup next year, what are your thoughts about the tournament?

MK: All Germany is awaiting this great event. Everybody is in the Championship-fever here in Germany. The ticket assignment caused some trouble as there are not enough tickets for the "normal" fan, since a lot of tickets are reserved for sponsors and the press. But we are looking forward to watching the matches on big video-walls in our cities to celebrate this big event as good as possible. And you will be impressed by the German soccer team next year since we will be one of the top teams in 2006 :)

FC: Do you think financial laws, such as in Italy's Serie A where clubs must remain at a certain financial level, should also exist in Germany, how about allover the EU?

MK: In Germany we have some kind of financial law for soccer clubs to get the license for playing in the Bundesliga (or even lower soccer leagues). But they don't have to have a positive amount of money at the bank but have to have good plans for the next years so the licensing group agrees to it and give them the license. We had some discussions the last years since one club (BVB Dortmund) was in deep financial trouble caused by the old management. But they got the license since they sold some players, and have a sold out stadiums for every Bundesliga match. Our clubs have credits of 700.000.000 Euros but a lot of managers and so on believe that the DFL (Deutsche Fussball Liga - German Soccer League) is exemplary in these things within UEFA. I think it is very important to stay at a certain financial level, while it is not necessary to have money in the bank, but with a positive tendency.

FC: What's the German youth football system like, what's good, what needs work?

Well, I think we have the same problems as every country out there. The young are not that interested in soccer these days as we where 20 years ago. I play soccer in a small club and we still have problems having one team for each age. Never the less, the German soccer clubs do a lot for the youth. The results are now playing in the national team, IE, Sebastian Schweinsteiger or Lukas Podolski. For a long time we missed the trend but in the last years we’re working with the youngest and the results of the good work will be shown at the world championship in 2006. The soccer clubs have to continue the hard work and our kids need to go out playing soccer instead of playing PlayStation or similar.

FC: Who are your top 5 German footballers at the moment? How about ever? How about naming a few rising stars in Germany that we've probably never head of?

MK: According to kicker.de - THE German soccer magazine - the best 5 players are: Ivan Klasnic, Miroslav Klose, Torsten Frings (all Werder Bremen), Christian Fiedler (Herta BSC) and Owen Hargreaves (Bayern München) but this is just a count based on goals, mistakes and some strange ideas.

My favorite German players are:
Oliver Kahn (Keeper of Bayern München)
Michael Ballack (Bayern München)
Miroslav Klose (Part of the magic K&K-Team with Ivan Klasnic at Werder Bremen, most successful)
Patrick Owomoyela (Werder Bremen)
Kevin Kuranyi (FC Schalke 04)

Best players ever:
The "kaiser" Franz Beckenbauer (FIFA World Cup 70/74)
Gerd Müller (FIFA World Cup 74)
Rudi Völler (90/94)
Jürgen Klinsmann (90-98, today coach of our national team)
Lothar Matthäus (World Cup 82-98)
Michael Ballack (2002 until now)

Rising stars, as we’ve already seen playing on the Confederations Cup: Sebastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Mike Hanke or Philip Lahm. What we need is a new goal-keeper since Oliver Kahn will be too old for 2010. Our youngest well known talent is Nuri Sahin, who did his first match for Dortmund who turned 16 in August.

The team which hopes to be a rising star is FC Schalke 04. They have some new players which are playing for the national team and are known as the toughest competition for FC Bayern this season.

Please email if you'd like to conduct an interview (over email) or if you know the name of a weblog in your country.

Keane a United manager?

Roy Keane, for all the plaudits he’s won as a professional footballer since moving from Nottingham Forest in 1993, is not manager material. Manchester United and the press seems to have this idea that he’s an ideal successor to current manager Alex Ferguson, but I disagree.

It has nothing to do with experience, well not directly. The guy’s too angry. Not that Alex Ferguson is calm, but Ferguson has a history. Keane is off the handle angry, the kind of angry that will quickly turn the modern coddled footballer on him because he’s got no leg to stand on as a manager.

Take a guy like Alan Shearer, he's got a strong personality but is much calmer and more suited to the role. I'd play for Shearer but not for Roy Keane. I wouldn't trust him.

Ferguson has the kind of track record which allows him to get the way he does and get away with it. For Roy Keane, like every other player that tries to turn the same corner, all that playing experience is out the window. Irrational tantrums would lose the player’s confidence. At United, Keane has a manager to reel him in, but as a manger, there is nobody but self control. Players are more likely to accept inexperience with understanding but inexperience coupled with a volcano personality is a recipe for disaster.

In addition, Roy Keane wouldn’t deal with a clubs upper management very well, something that will matter a lot to the ‘new look’ management at United. I get the feeling the Glaze-balls are biding their time until Ferguson leaves before they start making their large scale changes at the club. They need a manager that will comply. Currently, one wrong word from Ferguson could turn the tide quickly.

Carlos Quiroz looks much more a candidate to coach the team after Ferguson. While he’s been (unfairly) derided lately, Quiroz is an excellent coach, and would be more complicit towards the team’s management. Maybe that’s not such a good thing to have, depends on your perspective.