April 16, 2010

When we talk about the greatest players the world has ever seen, the same old familiar names continually crop up…..Puskas, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Pele, Maradona, Beckanbauer. Then fans add their personal favourites….Hoddle, Charlton, Dalglish, Larsson, Eusebio, Best etc   Invariably it comes down to the two number tens. Are you a Pele fan? Or a Maradona supporter? A Brazilian and an Argentine ……when it came to announcing the player of the century, even FIFA wimped out of making a decision and made them joint champions. Pele or Maradona? We have all got an opinion – the hard part is keeping Maradona’s off field antics out of the debate.

Now there is a player on the verge of making that duopoly, a triumvirate. In the space of five days last week we watched as two of Europes great clubs were reduced to a shambles by a player known as “the flea”.  Lionel Messi tore Arsenal to shreds in their champions league quarterfinal. Four goals of the highest quality. Messi’s movement, his vision, his touch, his whole game, were out of this world. Arsenal simply didn’t have an answer. To his credit, Arsene Wenger said as much after the game, likening Messi to a playstation footballer – that’s where one player seems to score all the goals and makes all the great runs.

Following the Arsenal slaughter our attentions were drawn to El Classico – Real Madrid v Barcelona ….and the supposed mouth watering subplot of the two greatest players in the world today. What a mismatch. Messi was sublime again, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo was virtually anonymous. In his first decent run he weaved past a defender saw the line of the penalty area and sank to his knees looking for a penalty….. Messi meanwhile was running amuck up front. His quick thinking and a wonderful one-two with Xavi resulted in “the flea” jinking behind a defender and putting the ball beyond Casillas and giving Barca the lead, a lead they would never look like giving up. Like Arsenal, Real just couldn’t handle Messi’s off the ball runs, his timing, his movement.  Its not the first time the two have faced each other – famously last seasons champions league final saw Messi – all 5’ 7” of him – score with a header as Barca won 2-0 against Ronaldo’s Manchester United. Ronaldo was missing in action that day too. Put simply there is no comparison between the two.

Messi is, of course, the current world player of the year, after being ranked second in each of the last two years and is streets ahead of whoever is considered second now.  But is he good enough to join the other number 10s? Well, not yet. Though he has proven himself at club level and in the strongest league in the world (the Champions League), he has still to shine at a world cup. Not only shine at a world cup, but win it for his country. When we recall Pele, we remember the 17 year old scoring for fun in 1958 and the star man in what is arguably the greatest team ever, Brazil of 1970. When we think back to Maradona, we recall a man who won the 1986 world cup almost single handedly and somehow inspired a poor Argentine side to the Italia 90 final. Magnificent achievements! Both those players played in four world cups.

Messi is just 22. He played in Germany and could potentially play in a further four world cups.  In 2006 he became the youngest player to represent Argentina at a world cup, and being the youngest scorer in the tournament, he was also the sixth youngest scorer of all time. He made three appearances at the tournament but was amazingly left on the bench as Argentina were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

It’s the great tournaments that define the truly great players. South Africa in June seems to be beckoning for Messi, but his country’s team are struggling under Maradona’s stewardship. We are looking at the most wide open world cup for a long time. Spain are as good as they have ever been, England (as always!) fancy themselves, and we can be certain that Germany and Brazil will be a threat as they always are.  There’s also the suggestion that Ghana, Nigeria & Ivory Coast will have some say as to who wins the trophy. Argentina may have struggled through qualifying but they will no doubt be a threat. If Messi can transfer his Barcelona form to his national team……if Maradona can build his team around him……we might well see Messi really stamp his authority as one the truly great players of all time.

Its almost frightening to think that he is still five years from his peak.


Who’s a Kiwi?

April 2, 2010

New Zealand’s qualification for this winter’s world cup has thrown up an interesting and probably unexpected problem – that of players suddenly interested in playing for New Zealand when they otherwise might not have.

There are three that spring to mind – Daniel, Tommy Smith and Winston Reid. Reid of course was born in New Zealand but moved to Denmark at the age of 10. Since then he has played for Denmark at under 19, under 20 & under 21 levels. At the start of March he confirmed his allegiance to Denmark but then remarkably changed his mind. That he is a Kiwi is beyond dispute. His mother is a kiwi and he was born here. He is good enough to fill the problem right back slot so why wouldn’t we take him to South Africa?

Tommy Smith though is not quite as clear cut. Smith is English but emigrated here as an eight year old. He returned to England at age 16 and played with England under 17 & England under 18 before declaring himself available for New Zealand and making his debut against Mexico. He played for England in the 2007 under 17 world cup and was on the bench AGAINST New Zealand!!!  It appears Ricki Herbert will be taking Smith as part of his squad…but should he? Okay he is eligible for New Zealand but is he really a Kiwi? I’m not so sure. He’s lived just 40% of his young life in New Zealand…he wasn’t born here, his parents aren’t Kiwis…. Within a year of returning to England he was playing for England against New Zealand. To The Thinker, this boy is English and we shouldn’t be selecting him however eligible he is.

Daniel is indicative of so many Brazilians around the world. There’s no doubt he has done a great job for Phoenix and he has often professed his love for New Zealand (well why wouldn’t he?!). He has taken out New Zealand citizenship in the hopes of playing for New Zealand but hasn’t yet satisfied FIFA’s five year rule. Citizen or not, its perfectly clear that Daniel is not a Kiwi – he is Brazilian. He shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our national team. His situation is similar to another Brazilian the Arsenal player Eduardo – he who is infamous for that shocking dive against Celtic in the Champions League qualifier.

Eduardo was scouted and signed by Dinamo Zagreb when he was 16. He moved to Croatia and since then has learnt the language, bought a home and married a Croatian girl. He lived in Croatia for just eight years before moving to London. He professes his love for Croatia and I am sure that every time he plays for the country he gives 100%. But simply he is NOT Croatian. He is a Brazilian and he quite possibly would never have gone to Croatia except that a Croatian club signed him. Now suddenly he is playing for the national team! He’s not the only one of course. In recent years there have been Brazilians playing for – amongst others – Japan, Qatar & Portugal. We’ve had Nigerians playing for Poland, Australians playing for Croatia, half the French national team were born in Africa and Netherlands regularly have players born in Surinam.

Its time FIFA closed these loopholes and became stricter on which country a player can play for. International football is becoming like club football, with players playing for the country which is the highest bidder. Your country should be limited to one of three things – your birthplace, your parents birthplace or a ten year residency period.

We live in a much smaller world than we used to. World travel is much more accessible  and affordable. The result is that players are playing all over the world ….usually a result of whichever team has come in for them offering the most money.

I am well aware that back in ’82 our squad was built upon a British immigrant foundation. The likes of Almond Boath McClure Malcolmson Wooddin Sumner & Hill were instrumental to our success. When they emigrated to New Zealand, it was always expected & accepted that they were emigrating for good.  New Zealand was their new home.  But those days are gone. Its time to tighten things up.

Video technology

March 20, 2010

In a year when football in New Zealand seems to be progressing in leaps and bounds and going from strength to strength, how disappointing it is that at the top of the football tree, FIFA have once again stuck their heads in the sand and refused to budge on an issue which would take the game forward.

I refer of course to the decision last week of the IFAB to reject completely the use of goal line technology – or any technology in fact.

It’s an issue that the vast majority of football fans around the globe are in favour of, its an issue that the lesser sports have embraced with no harmful effects to their games and its an issue that won’t go away.

On the very day that IFAB rejected the issue, Birmingham City were knocked out of the FA cup having scored a “goal” which was not awarded. It was as if the gods were having a wee joke at FIFA’s expense.

There seems to be no clear reason for FIFA’s decision. In fact as each month goes by there seem to be more and more reasons why we should use some form of video technology. We already have a fourth official at most top league matches around the world. What do they actually do apart from hold a board up for time added on or for substitutions? Can they not monitor the game from a television? If the technology is there, why can’t it be used?

Common consensus is that FIFA think that the resulting stoppages in play will “disrupt the flow of the game”. How absurd is that really? We’d rather have injustice than a stop in play?!

Around the world we watched in horror as Thierry Henry cheated France to the world cup finals. Within seconds we all knew he had handled that ball, not once, but twice. It was blatant and it was deliberate. It seems that only the three blind mice officiating inside the stadium didn’t see it. Because it was a goal, play had stopped! Long before the ball was returned to the centre circle we knew that it should have been a free kick. The fourth official using a tv could have radioed the referee and said “it was a clear hand ball, award a free kick to Ireland.” So to use video technology here, wouldn’t have disrupted the flow of the game.

And of course, if we used the video to award any of the litany of goals not given in recent seasons then yes the flow of the game may well have been disrupted…but then play usually does stop when a goal is scored!

Football has changed immeasurably in this generation. More games are televised from more leagues to more homes. We have the benefit of a number of camera angles which in an instant tell us whether a refereeing decision is right or wrong. Why are FIFA happy to allow their referees to be criticised so regularly when the technology exists to assist them in avoiding that criticism?

We’ve already had one world cup decided by human error in allowing a goal that never went in. Lets hope that FIFA’s obstinacy doesn’t result in a similar situation this year.