Fair Play

September 12, 2009

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Have FIFA taken the Fair Play thing too far?

Last weekend we witnessed some amazing scenes just prior to half time in the Scotland v Macedonia World Cup qualifying match.  Throughout the first half, Macedonian players were going down injured at every opportunity in an attempt to disrupt the flow of the match and waste time. It’s a tactic many teams – notably Arsenal – have used over recent years.  Around the 45th minute at Hampden, a Scottish defender kicked the ball into the side of the head of Macedonian striker, Naumoski. Not into his face, but into the side of his head. I’ve no doubt that it stung for a minute but Naumoski went down as if he had been shot. Scotland kept possession and mounted an attack before Macedonia regained possession deep in their own half. At that point German referee Wolfgang Stark blew his whistle to enable the “injured” Naumoski to receive treatment. Upon restarting with the drop ball, Scott Brown made it clear he was none too happy about being asked to give the ball back. As the ball was dropped he hit it as hard as he could straight into an opponent and watched as the ball rolled away for a Scottish corner. Of course pandemonium broke out as the visitors surrounded Brown berating him for his lack of fair play. After 3 minutes of pushing and shoving Stark booked two players including bizarrely James McFadden, whose crime, it seems, was to stay clear of everyone and wait to take the corner. Officially McFadden was booked for unsporting behaviour ie not giving the ball back.

Now this may have been clever refereeing by Stark. Had he booked the so called offending party – Scott Brown – it would have been a second booking and thus a red card. Stark, it appears, chose to book the nearest “other” player – a shame that McFadden was thus suspended for the crucial Scotland v Netherlands match as a result.

But why should he book anyone at all? Why should a team have to give the ball back – particularly to a team who has been playacting continually? Surely the level of “sportsmanship” is a personal thing and not something that can be demanded of a player? Is “not giving the ball back” any worse than taking it into the corner to run down the clock? Both lack sportsmanship in a kind of Old Etonian amateur “nice goal old chap” kind of way. Both are quite legal within the laws of the game. Surely Naumoski’s feigning injury was also worthy of a booking? Which is the worse offence – feigning injury or being competitive?

Football is more than just a game. It’s about passion. It’s about winning and playing to win. It’s about scoring goals and it’s about glory. Bill Shankly famously said it was more important than life or death. It is hard, it’s fast and it’s physical. It’s a competitive sport, not a pastime. It is not about pretending you are hurt to gain some kind of advantage.

Players usually know when an opponent is seriously injured and often we’ve seen a challenge for the ball resulting in one player going down injured whilst his opponent immediately stops and waves the trainer on, knowing that the injury is real and potentially serious. Human nature will see the majority of players automatically stop play for a serious injury.

Forcing players to give the ball back via threat of a booking is completely foreign to the competitive nature of the sport. In his own way, Scott Brown was letting Macedonia know that Scotland were fed up with their form of sportsmanship. It was noticeable that during the second half the Macedonians stopped getting injured every time there was a hard tackle.

FIFA Fair Play?? They can keep it. I’d much rather follow a team who is out there to win than a team who plays nicely.


Time for video replays?

September 5, 2009

 

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 The new season is barely a couple of weeks old in Europe, yet already we have seen enough controversial incidents for the subject video evidence to be raised again.

Possibly the worst refereeing decision since…..well last season at Watford I suppose….occurred at Bristol City last week where Crystal Palace had a goal disallowed because, despite the reactions of defending players, attacking players & fans, referee Rob Shoebridge didn’t realise that the ball had gone in. It seems Shoebridge – and his assistant – were the only people at Ashton Gate not to notice! Similarly at Watford last season Stuart Atwell awarded Reading a goal despite the ball going 3 metres wide!

At the Emirates last week Celtic’s Champions League hopes – already hanging precariously in the balance – were ended by a blatant piece of cheating when Arsenal striker Eduardo fooled the referee with a theatrical dive which won a penalty. It was a clear dive and fooled no one inside the Emirates nor in the millions watching world wide. You didn’t need to see a replay to know it was a dive, yet somehow Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez awarded a penalty.

These three incidents all have one common ingredient – apart from the obvious injustices – all were televised and everybody watching knew that the referees had made serious mistakes within seconds of the incidents occurring.  If we tv watchers can see quickly and clearly that these major decisions are wrong then it begs the question “why cant someone at the game advise the referee?”

Many other sports use video replays to adjudicate on potentially crucial moments. In cricket, tennis and rugby, video replays are now part and parcel of the game. Its true to say, though, that all those sports have “natural” stoppages in play whilst football tends to be a far more fluid sport. Thus, the overuse of video replays potentially disrupts the flow of the Beautiful Game.

However, in all three cases above, play was stopped by virtue of the ball going out of play. Given that in all cases play remained stopped as players protested the referees’ absurd decisions, it is fair to say that a quick look at a replay wouldn’t have affected the fluidity of the game.

One area of contention though, is what decisions should be referred to video? It is surely ridiculous for a 4th or 5th official to be watching every incident and checking that the referee is correct.  Every team accepts that you get some decisions and you don’t get others. We also acknowledge that referees are human and make mistakes. However it is clear that there are some decisions which are greater than others. Would it be so difficult to have an official in a position to radio the referee when incorrect match changing decisions are made?

In the 21st century football is big business. Refereeing decisions can cost clubs millions of dollars. The technology is there to ensure that blatantly wrong decisions can be avoided. Why don’t we use it?


Picking World Teams

August 23, 2009

It’s a game we have all played at one time or another.  If you could sign eleven players for your club, who would you pick? Select your world XI……

In the good old days it was a fun exercise because it was never going to be feasible that any one club could have the best eleven players or get close to it. For a start there were few imports to most countries, and of course, pre-Bosman, clubs held registration even after the end of a contract, so the exercise was hypothetical. You just picked your eleven players …probably gave a bit of thought to left & right and adjusted your formation to fit all your strikers or all your creative midfielders depending on your personal preference… and included your favourite player. There was no thought given to having a ball winner, to determining whether the styles of player would actually fit together, never mind the ego’s.

In this millennium it seems that building a world team is now perfectly feasible, if you are willing to pay enough money. Clubs such as Real Madrid and now Manchester City have seemingly endless sums of money and can lure the best players on the planet. But haven’t they gone about things differently???

Madrid are of course famous for Los Galacticos, the team they bought over a few seasons at the start of the 2000’s shortly after Florentino Perez was elected as president. His first move was for Luis Figo, an amazing coup from Barcelona, then Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian one!) and of course David Beckham. Those four players were arguably the best 4 players on the planet at the time, and were added to a team that already had Raul, Makelele, Roberto Carlos, Hierro & Morientes. Oh and Iker Casillas in goal.

Its commonly thought that Los Galacticos were a failure and won nothing but this is incorrect. In 2001 they were beaten in the Champions League semi by Bayern Munich and they won the tournament in 2002. They reached the semis again in 2003, beaten by Juventus. They won La Liga in both 2001 & 2003. The wheels fell off when they sold Claude Makelele to Chelsea. Makalele, the unsung defensive midfielder who controlled everything Madrid did. He protected the defence, he won the ball, he fed the stars. How many of us actually put a ball winner or water carrier, as Cantona once described Deschamps, in our hypothetical world XI?

In 2009 Real Madrid are building Los Galacticos mark II, in an attempt to keep up with the wonderful Barcelona team who were so admired throughout the world last season. Indeed at the Bernabeu in May, Barca hammered Madrid 6-2. Real’s response was to buy Kaka & Cristiano Ronaldo – that’s 2 of the top 3 players in the world – and supplement them with Benzema from Lyon, Alonso , Arbeloa & Albiol, adding them to a squad that boasts Van Nistelrooy, Robben, Raul, Guti & Diarra. Some names there!! It will be interesting to see if they can gel together to challenge Barce.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, Mark Hughes also has almost unlimited sums of money and is trying to build a squad capable of challenging their city rivals, and then going on to challenge, amongst others, Real Madrid for Europes crown. He started off, of course, with Robinho last September and has added Shay Given, Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Barry, Tevez, Bellamy, Santa Cruz and a host of others. Hughes also had a protracted bid for John Terry finally turned down and is now chasing Joleon Lescott much to Davie Moyes disgust.

Whilst Real Madrid have sought to buy the best players, it seems Man City have sought to build a team. Individually there seems no comparison between the two teams and yet one feels that perhaps Mark Hughes has been a wee bit wiser.

Both clubs have spent the money. It remains to be see whether they have built great teams or just great names.


Club Loyalty

August 1, 2009

With the transfer season in full flow there have been a number of transfers which have caught the eye. As usual we have had the overpriced transfers which seem to amaze us annually – £80m for Cristiano Ronaldo???? – but theres always those transfers that come under scrutiny because of the lack of loyalty involved. When the prospect of making millions of extra dollars, euros or pounds makes itself available, club loyalty is quickly forgotten.

Manchester United have been involved in two, other, transfers which raised the eyebrows. Firstly, they signed Michael Owen from Newcastle. From a purely footballing point of view this is a great signing – a low risk, low cost investment which has the potential to reap big rewards, especially as Owen seems unstoppable in preseason matches. Owens career has lost its way in the past few years and Old Trafford might just be the place to reignite it. But what is interesting here is that not that long ago, Owen was the favourite at Liverpool, Uniteds bitter rivals. In no time at all then he has become a despised figure amongst Liverpool fans. Of all teams to sign for, why them? One wonders whether Owen really cares what Liverpool fans think – probably not when he picks up his wage slip each month. Should it be an issue for him? Is he free to play wherever he wants without guilt? Football is a passionate and tribal game but sadly it would seem that that passion is quickly dissipated when self interest is concerned. Owen has shown scant regard for the feelings of those who support the club with which he made his name. Of course, it is rumoured that Owen was a boyhood Everton fan, so perhaps in his own way he is showing some loyalty!

The other United transfer is of course that of Carlos Tevez to United’s local rivals Manchester City. Clearly, here there is a smack of revenge. Tevez often complained about being left on the sidelines particularly when he only had a substitutes role in the Champions League final. Utd it seems offered Tevez a five year contract which would have made him one their highest paid players yet Tevez still chose to leave. Despite being a fans favourite Tevez could never be guaranteed selection. Tevez had the choice of any number of clubs throughout Europe to move to and yet chose Manchester City….. a mid table side who have been big players in the close season as they seek to bridge the gap between mediocrity and the top 4. Upon joining City Tevez was quoted as saying “I’m here to win things…” That remains to be seen but its an odd statement given that he turned down an offer from Manchester United!

Then we have the rather bemusing transfer swap of Samuel Eto’o + €46 million, for Zlatan Ibrahimovic between Barcelona and Inter Milan. One wonders who it is at Barcelona that considers Ibrahimovic to be not just better than Eto’o but €46 million better!!!! Ibrahimovic is the player that Martin O’Neill in 2006 rated as the most overrated player on the planet! But there is a loyalty twist to this transfer as well. In his first post transfer interview, Ibrahimovic was at pains to tell the assembled press that there was only one club he would leave Inter for. Apparently he told Inter President Massimo Moratti “I made an agreement with the president of Inter that the only club they could sell me to was Barcelona.” Then upon presentation to the Barcelona crowd he made a grand display of kissing the badge. A Barcelona fan for life then.

I wonder if anyone believes him.


Television Running the Game

July 18, 2009

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This close season, as always, is silly season with clubs around the world paying ludicrous prices, and even more ludicrous wages, for players who don’t deserve it. It is nothing new and with each passing year the amounts just seem to get higher and higher. Christiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Real Madrid of course has been the major talking point. £80 million is the reported transfer fee – thats about NZ$204 million. Real also purchased Kaka from Milan for a reported €65 million – another NZ$140 million.

Real, of course, can afford the money. Over the past four years they have topped the revenue league amongst football clubs – yes, even surpassing Manchester United. Of course they are world famous and have a huge following which generates much of their income but significantly the edge they have is their income from television rights. In 2006 Real signed a seven year deal with Spanish Pay TV company Mediapro for a staggering 1.1 BILLION Euros. Not bad money if you can get it. Mediapro now have exclusive rights to all Madrids games. Real’s huge annual income then seems assured for the next few years anyway…. or does it?

We are all aware that in England it’s the volume of television money from Sky which has enabled the Premiership clubs to shop at the top end of the market but perhaps what isn’t so clear is just how much the television money enables smaller clubs to stay afloat. And this can be said for the majority of countries around Europe.

TV money has become the major source of income, so it was a rather rude shock last month when Setanta Sports made public their financial problems and failed to make a payment to the SFA – a payment that was necessary for the ongoing viability of the SPL. Immediately, we were made aware that as many as five SPL clubs were facing insolvency. That is almost half the league! The Setanta contract was worth approximately £1 million per season for each club, and whilst the bigger clubs like Celtic and Rangers are relatively unaffected, for the smaller clubs this money was vital in them breaking even. There’s not many banks around that will allow a football club to trade in a million pounds worth of debt.

Before stopping their service in Britain, Setanta had almost three million subscribers but despite their popularity, they found the pay-tv market too competitive and as a result failed. Setanta also held partial rights to the Premiership and of course could no longer afford them. The Premiership, being the world wide commodity that the SPL is not, were able to quickly find a buyer and giant American network ESPN stepped in. From the clubs point of view there is little change. ESPN & Sky have offered to step in and save the SPL but their offers have been described as far too low by the Old Firm clubs who hold much of the power in Scotland. They may have little choice but to accept the offer. Because the Premiership is accepted as the strongest league in Europe, it can afford to command a fee, the SPL must take what it can get.

Scottish football remains in crisis and one suspects that in European terms they are just the tip of the iceberg. It will surely only be a matter of time before other leagues from smaller European countries are confronted by the same problem. At one end of the spectrum, a missed payment of £3 million plunges a whole league into crisis and at the other end, a club pays 25 times that amount for a single player. Its hard to believe it’s the same game.


Confidence…..

July 4, 2009

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It was disappointing to see the reaction by the players following last weeks goalless draw with Iraq in South Africa.

You may recall, as the full time whistle was blown, scenes of All Whites hugging each other, celebrating, and goalkeeper Glen Moss with fists clenched cheering New Zealand’s first ever point at this level.

Whilst it’s great to stop a run of eight consecutive Confederations Cup losses, this was a game that New Zealand should be disappointed to draw.  New Zealand should have won this game, not only on the balance of play and the chances created, but also because of the low ranking of their opponents. Iraq by any measure are not a strong side.  At the end of May they were ranked eight places below New Zealand by FIFA. The “post Confed. Cup” July rankings now tell a different story, but at the time, we should have gone into this game expecting to win. Instead, the players reactions told a story of drawing a game they had expected to lose. If the team are jubilant at drawing with Iraq, how can they approach Octobers World Cup Playoff with any confidence whatsoever? Iraq failed to even qualify for the final stages of the Asian qualifying – losing out to Australia and Qatar….. that’s a Qatar who won just one of their eight final round matches.

Having said all that, it was a much improved performance by the All Whites and one which restored a little bit of confidence following the two debacles against Spain and South Africa. At last there appeared to be some communication and understanding at the back, we managed to put some passes together, and at times we even had the audacity to attack and create chances. Of all people Shane Smeltz missed a sitter with just two minutes remaining. If you had to pick a player to have that chance fall to……..

One of the benefits of meeting Iraq in the Confederations Cup of course is that they are a Middle Eastern country, and we are due to play the winner of two Middle East countries to qualify. Whilst obviously not as good as our likely opponents The Iraqis play a similar brand of football to that which we will encounter. Plaudits too for the NZ Football Board for having the foresight to arrange friendly matches against Jordan and Iraq (again) prior to that play off. It has long been a problem for New Zealand that the team just doesn’t get enough matches and can’t begin to gel into a unit. The two matches in Amman will help Ricki Herbert immensely in his preparation, not only in finalising his side, but also in the conditions that will be faced away from home in October.

Good results in those matches is absolutely paramount as self confidence and belief will play a major part in determining November’s outcome. Think back to January 1982 and the play off in Singapore. Adsheads All Whites went there knowing that in their two previous matches, China had failed to even look like scoring. That fact, coupled with the confidence gained in the thumping of Saudi Arabia to get to the play off, meant that the All Whites knew that if they played to anywhere near their potential, they would win, and win they did.

One hopes that this time we approach the playoff matches with some belief that we will win and not with the Confederations Cup attitude of “a close loss is something to be proud of.” After all we will be playing a team currently ranked in the 60s in the world. There’s every chance that the America’s play off will involve Argentina & Mexico currently ranked number 8 and number 33.


New Zealand’s Progress

June 20, 2009

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Spains hammering of New Zealand at the Confederations Cup this week was little short of an embarrassment and should have us seriously wondering what is happening with our game in this country.

On the surface a loss to Spain is no embarrassment. They are a fine team and have some of the best players in the world. In fact they are the best team in the world, but watching that game was like watching two different sports. One, a game played by athletes with ball skills, and another which involved mindless running, chasing an elusive sphere. There was not one facet of the game where we could say “well, we did okay in this area”.  The All Whites seemed completely devoid of ideas and completely devoid of skill. There was no pace, the players looked cumbersome and their “first touch” resembled that of a circus juggler – usually it was two touches to control the simplest of balls.  The ability to pass or cross accurately just wasn’t noticeable. Even organisationally there were passages where one shook ones head in disbelief. Have a look at the last two goals again….appalling.  Its not untrue to suggest that only poor officiating prevented five becoming a seven or eight goal slaughter.

Have we progressed at all in the ten years since the 1999 Confederations Cup? In that tournament we lost all three matches (to USA, Germany & Brazil) but none were hammerings and in all we held our own for long periods of play. All three of those countries played in the latter stages of the 2002 world cup, Germany & Brazil contesting the final.

So why have we gone backwards?

There seems to be no vision in New Zealand football. There is no long term plan aimed at developing juniors to the sufficient skill level required to compete at international level. When quality players come through – the Nelsens & Bertos’s – it is by chance rather than by design.  It is surely obvious to all – especially those who run the game – that New Zealand football exhibits a lack of the basic skills. So why do we not have a national policy centred around skill development? To push a well worn theme, why is something like the Coerver program not mandatory across our junior players? Coerver is a program famous the world over for its success. Now more than ever before we need something with a proven track record to assist in enhancing the sport. Its time we taught ourselves to look beyond winning matches at junior level and concentrate on teaching the necessary skills which will prove successful at senior level.

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Wynton Rufer has the right idea with his Wynrs program. His program suggests that The focus of training is skill development. Wynrs is convinced that in order to achieve this goal, at this age, the emphasis should be on skill development rather than tactical knowledge/play. Sadly, it appears that in order to enter his program one must pass a trial. I wonder why? Is Wynton not confident that his methods are good enough to teach and improve beginners? Nevertheless at least he is focussing on skill development.

No, it won’t happen overnight but lets have a long term goal. If we start teaching to our seven year olds now, then in 15 years we will have a generation of quality players. We probably won’t be world beaters but at least we will be proficient and competitive.

It seems we are progressing in completely the wrong direction. Capital Football’s decision this year to hand over teenage football to the schools is frankly astonishing. What do schools in Wellington know about football and, especially, coaching football? Schools are there primarily to provide academic education. They are not about sporting excellence, so why do they have the power to shape our sporting future?

We are all more than aware that we live in a country obsessed by rugby. Logically then, it follows that the majority of teachers, and therefore sports teachers, also follow rugby more so than football. In effect Capital Football are entrusting our junior development to teachers who probably don’t follow the game, who probably don’t care about the game and are coaching because they have to.

Although players will continue learning about football throughout their careers, there is no doubt that it is the junior years where the basic skills are learned and mastered. For any player, these are the most important years. A player who starts learning late will never develop the required skills to play at the top level. How then can we expect our juniors to develop and progress when non-football teachers are coaching them?

In any football club there will be good coaches and there will be bad coaches. There will be coaches with great ideas and great understanding who may not have the ability to get their point across. But the coaches that you will find in football clubs are invariably volunteers who have a love and passion for the game and a desire to see players improve. Can we say the same about school teachers? I think not.

Further … think about the longer term ramifications. Players play football at school with their friends and when they finish school, what next? Life takes over and the player drifts away from the game. On the other hand the player that plays club football with his/her friends will continue to return to the club – his friends are there, the surroundings are familiar – theres an element of comfort in returning to a place where one spent their formative years.

Capital Football has made a capital mistake.