July 28, 2010
You have to think that no matter when it happened, England's Under-19 team would get a roasting from the press upon their exit from the European Championships.
This happened on Tuesday, and while there is no doubt that Spain were the better team at the same time the young Lions put in a good display and, at 2-1, had chances to level matters.
That doesn't stop every paper laying into Fabio Capello for not being there. But just what exactly he was supposed to learn from watching the Under-19s? Is he going to play any of these players? He's only in the job for two more years and it is highly unlikely that any of those on show will enter his thinking for Euro 2012.
Still, we're very much in stick-beating territory where Fabio is concerned. But at least James Lawton, in the Independent, concentrates on the football rather than the man.
Fabio Capello has been castigated for his absence at England's exit from the European Under-19 Championships but how much punishment can a man who has grown up with certain basic football qualities, like controlling and passing the ball in reasonably coherent fashion, take in one long summer of discontent?
Maybe at £6m a year Il Capo might have put himself through a little more purgatory as young Spain at times exquisitely exposed once again the technical inadequacies of the English game.
But let's get to the real point. Capello was not hired to remodel England's football and conduct the kind of overhaul of tactics and skill which might best be executed with a hose-pipe. He was employed to deal with the consequences at the national level and if we all know the result in South Africa last month we also know that hounding him as a scapegoat is the worst kind of escapism.
Capello made his mistakes in South Africa – but what he is still probably trying to absorb by the shore of Lake Lugano is the stark gap between the culture of the English game and the rest of Europe. While irrigated by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres and other foreign stars, the Premier League captured a world-wide audience, but when the home product – which at an average of just 33 per cent of league selection is Capello's entire talent pool – is isolated and asked to represent the nation the results have become progressively desolate.
A score of 3-1 was more a tribute to English grit than Spanish ascendancy, which was increasingly explicit and coloured by three goals of the highest, and in one case, most exotic quality.
If Capello had the nerve to tune in, his worst fears about the paucity of the production line which has to supply England's international future – and the next two years of his professional existence – were surely confirmed.
Just to compound the English desperation, there was only one player on the field with Premier League connections who looked entirely ready to face the challenge of football at its highest level. This was the scorer of a first goal of sublime confidence, Liverpool's Daniel Pacheco.
It hardly needs saying that this latest evidence of Spanish brilliance flows from roughly 20 years of concerted application in the crucial matter of teaching young players the fundamentals, and the beauties, of the game and the creation of a system where values are maintained through every level of a player's development.
Meanwhile, the Football Association and the Premier League fight their civil wars while the national game withers on the vine. Maybe Capello should have been in France but what purpose would he have been serving? It is surely a little late for mere window-dressing.
July 27, 2010
With Mario Balotelli seemingly edging closer to a move to Manchester City, the Daily Telegraph have done a good assessment of his career to date.
Written by Ian Chadband, Balotelli is painted as a bad boy teenager with bags of talent.
There was a time when it would have been a badge of shame for Italian football to let their best young striker be sent to a finishing school in England. But then the Italian game never has known quite how to cope with the explosive cultural, political and sporting phenomenon that is Mario Balotelli.
So now it appears after being worn down by the years of controversy, they are perfectly content to pass on their problem child to another league where, if you believed in all the advance hot-headed notices, the Premier League can soon enjoy the cartoon sights of ‘Super Mario’ fighting with his team-mates, descending into petulance and simulation, disrespecting the shirt, shirking training and generally being a pain in the neck and impossible to handle.
The popular belief is that not even Jose Mourinho’s magic touch was able to tame Balotelli. Indeed, as a last resort to try to get him onside, the Portuguese tried an exasperated public rant at Inter, protesting: “Nothing has changed. Neither the way Balotelli works nor his attitude. His effort in training is 25 per cent; if it was at 50 per cent he would be one of the best players in the world.
“I don’t like the atmosphere he is bringing to the team and the way he works during the week. It’s not the right attitude for a young player. He lacks concentration and motivation. He must change.”
Yet here is the thing. Just like Roberto Mancini before him, Mourinho never gave up on Balotelli. He kept trying (and half-succeeding), right to the end of his reign, to discipline, cajole and encourage him. Why? Because both coaches worked closely enough with him to catch a glimpse in embryonic form of one of the best footballers in the world.
Balotelli does not have an attitude problem, reckons Mancini. He has a youth problem. He does not even emerge from his teens until next month.
“When you are young, you make mistakes. That is true of all of us. I do not think Mario is a hard player to work with. I think he is a fantastic player,” he says. “And why do you think he is talked about so much? Because it’s hard not to talk about a great player.”
July 26, 2010
Everyone seems to be penning articles about Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, cycling and Sky Sports News this Monday morning, so it's a bit of a struggle to find anything worthy of this grand stage.
What do we have though? Yes, it's an expose on new Manchester City signing Aleksandar Kolarov and his bullet of a shot.
This comes from Nick Pisa, who was writing in the Daily Mail, and is complete with You Tube clips.
Manchester City's £17million new signing Aleksandar Kolarov has a reputation for his thunderous shots - just ask an Italian referee and his former Lazio team-mates.
Referee Massimiliano Saccani was knocked out for several minutes in February 2009 by one of the player's strikes during a match against Torino.
Nine months later it was the turn of Ezequiel Lavazzi of Napoli, who also suffered the same fate.
During a Lazio training session, Kolarov managed to break three fingers of team-mate Sebastiano Siviglia after unleashing another power drive. Because of his powerful strike, his nickname at Lazio was Roberto Carlos.
Kolarov, who plays on the left-hand side of midfield, scored six goals in 82 appearances for Rome's second club.
Although no-one is disputing his skill, there has been surprise at just how much Manchester City have paid for him especially as his strike rate hardly lit up Serie A.
Last December, former Inter boss Jose Mourinho had offered £7m for him and it is hard to see how his price has more than doubled in just seven months.
Lazio fans' forums spoke of their surprise at the figure City had paid but wished Kolarov well, adding that they hoped the windfall would be spent on quality players.
Like everyone who scores against Roma in the cross-city derby, he is a darling for the Ultras.
July 25, 2010
Roy Hodgson is facing something of a thankless task to get Liverpool back on the straight and narrow, and that's a view which is also held by Des Lynam.
Des, most to known here in the UK as a latter day Gary Lineker, has long since disappeared from our television screens. That is, of course, unless he is locked away hosting a game show for some random digital station. Which he probably is.
Anyway, I do digress. Des is a bit worried for Roy, who could have had a job for life at Fulham but could now have a job for six months at Liverpool. Here's a little of what he writes in the Sunday Telegraph.
Even a few weeks on from the news that he was making the move, I am still in a certain amount of discomfort, even a little gloom, about Roy Hodgson’s decision to leave the relative cosiness of his job as manager of Fulham.
Hodgson is taking on what many see as the “poisoned chalice” of trying to lift Liverpool back to something approaching former glories.
My concerns have not been about Hodgson’s ability or ambition, more about what he was letting himself in for. I don’t want to see him flounder. He’s too nice, too good a man. I keep thinking what happened to him at Blackburn.
I have watched Fulham over the past few seasons and taken delight as they beat Liverpool and Manchester United and played Arsenal off the park, only to be outdone by a wonder goal from Van Persie.
I marvelled at their progress to the Europa Cup final, thrilling to the victory against all the odds over Juventus along the way; and they achieved it playing smart, possession football, each player secure in his place and position and role within the team. Those who had been considered past their best when joining the club, like Murphy, Zamora and Duff, excelled.
This little team, in Premier League terms, shone out like a beacon for what good management skills and coaching could achieve.
What might Hodgson have done for England, who looked like a group of strangers at the World Cup? I could have understood him taking on the England role, a possibility had the FA not ludicrously signed Capello to two more years, for £12 million, before his flop.
But why did Hodgson have to leave those civilised Fulham fans in the lurch and break so many hearts in the process, to go to a club seemingly with huge financial problems and up for sale by the American owners?
He wasn’t walking into the comfort zone of Liverpool past, with that nice John Smith at the helm and all that pools money to back them up. He was going to a club in disarray, on and off the pitch.
July 24, 2010
It seems as though The Independent’s James Lawton has snapped this morning. Fed up with players pretending that money is not a motivation for their summer transfer maneuvers, he ponders the problems afflicting football on Saturday morning.
It does not make pretty reading, with Joe Cole and James Milner in the firing line of the respected columnist.
“One problem with being led about by agents who attach a lead to the ring in your nose is that you don't get much time to look around and see the effects of such relentlessly prosecuted greed. It is something that footballers like Joe Cole and James Milner in particular and the Premier League in general really ought to consider.
“This week, at a time when confidence in the buoyancy of the national game, even its ability to recognise some of its problems, is probably at an all-time low, the neglect of such reflection has created public relations from hell.
“Joe Cole arrived at Anfield announcing he had signed for Liverpool not because they had come up with the best terms – which would have been fair enough in any open market – but because they were still the biggest club in England and that by joining them he was enhancing his chances of fulfilling some higher career destiny.
“Meanwhile, James Milner was insisting through third parties that he never asked to leave his most loyal fans at Villa Park, a statement flatly contradicted by Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill's report of a meeting with the player and his agent.
“Cole and Milner and their agents should do everyone a service. They should not quite so crassly insult all those who still retain a flicker of interest in the prospects of the new season – and a league which has fallen back so drastically in its ranking as the powerhouse of the European club game and whose short-sighted policies are now so widely, and so incontrovertibly, linked with the embarrassing failure of English football to even brush the surface of competition at the World Cup.
“Pile their snouts into the trough, if they like, but do not seek to preserve the facade of shirt-kissing commitment to anything much else but the numbers on next month's pay-slip. “
July 23, 2010
Manchester City’s extravagant spending has been in evidence this summer and it appears they are ready to once again redefine the transfer market by paying a ridiculous amount for Aston Villa jack-of-all-trades James Milner.
But the cash-rich club are not restricting their spending merely to their own squad and their players’ mind-boggling wages. Andy Hunter, writing in The Guardian, reports from New York on a worthy project undertaken by the club.
It is easy to be cynical about modern football clubs, particularly City and their chief executive Garry Cook, so we make no apologies for highlighting this positive tale.
“There is a price to be paid for flaunting extravagant wealth and Manchester City have been taking the flak for destroying football or improving the competition (according to taste) for the past two years. The largesse of Sheikh Mansour is not restricted to expensive footballers, however, as City were at pains to stress in New York yesterday.
“Roberto Mancini, Patrick Vieira, Shay Given, Vincent Kompany and the City chief executive, Garry Cook, sat in a sweltering school hall as a headmaster, or principal as he is known, delivered an impassioned lecture on values and opportunity. They were here for the dedication of a $250,000 (£164,000) "soccer" field that is being constructed on the roof of the PS 72 Lexington Academy in impoverished Spanish Harlem and funded by City and the embassy of the United Arab Emirates.
“The project, over a year in planning, involves a synthetic grass pitch being laid on top of the school and a roof eventually being constructed above. Not an easy task in a six-storey building in Manhattan. The school has been transformed from a 17% pass rate to an A-rated academy in recent years but a lack of facilities leads its pupils, mostly of Hispanic origin, across New York in search of football.
“That will now change, with students plus an extra 600 local children benefiting from the facility and City-organised football clinics. The faltering voice of Tony Hernandez, the principal who has overseen the radical improvement, as he thanked City and the UAE for delivering a project "this school has dreamed about for years" put the cynics in their place.”
July 22, 2010
Roy Hodgson has inherited a bit of a mess at Liverpool, but the arrival of Joe Cole and the news that stars including Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Pepe Reina and Daniel Agger are all happy to stay suggests he's doing something right.
He's also been fairly ruthless in clearing out the underperformers, with Emiliano Insua, Philipp Degen, Albert Rieira and co all heading out. For Tim Rich, writing in the Independent, Hodgson has started well by keeping Gerrard and signing Cole and clearing out Benitez's dead wood.
The Anfield boot room, where championships were once plotted, now serves as Liverpool's press room and sometimes Rafael Benitez would point to the pictures on the wall. They showed the team that won Liverpool the European Cup in Istanbul and Benitez would gesture towards the photographs and remark that most of these footballers, the ones he inherited from Gérard Houllier, were not very good. "I wonder how we ever won it," he would say.
The squad Benitez left behind is considerably better than the one he inherited from Houllier but Roy Hodgson knew it needed breaking up and rebuilding. With his half-a-dozen languages and his studied, professorial air, Liverpool's new manager may be the nearest thing to an English Arsène Wenger, but he has begun his first month in office with a deft ruthlessness.
A manager's first signing sets the tone. In his first summer Benitez brought in four Spaniards – one of whom, Xabi Alonso, was exceptional – and allowed Michael Owen and Danny Murphy, products of Liverpool's once flourishing academy, to move on.
Persuading Joe Cole to leave London was an invigorating move. He may have been a free agent but he was a name who did not require a Google search or a subscription to Marca and when he talked of Liverpool being the "biggest club in the world" or recalling the European Cup semi-final in 2005 "when the atmosphere made the hair on the back of my neck stand up" he talked the Kop's language. Curiously, recreating 'atmosphere' in what has been a dispirited dressing room is a word Hodgson uses a lot. More importantly, Cole secured Steven Gerrard's future. The Liverpool captain had not enjoyed last season and he had seldom enjoyed working with Benitez. At 30, he has one move left and did not give his commitment to Anfield immediately after Hodgson's appointment. Liverpool's shortlist to find a successor to Benitez was sufficiently weak for Kenny Dalglish to suggest himself as the new manager. Gerrard would wait and see, although he did not have to wait too long. If there is a photograph that sums up Liverpool's summer it is the one of England team-mates Cole and Gerrard grinning as they cycle beside each other at the club's training camp in Switzerland.
Frankly, it would be hard for anyone at Anfield to deny Gabriel Milito's assertion that: "It is unrealistic of Liverpool to think they can keep hold of [Mascherano] when they can't even offer him Champions League football and are not close to challenging Chelsea or Manchester United for the title." As for Fernando Torres, nobody really knows. Perhaps the biggest factor in Liverpool's favour is that there are very few clubs that could raise the fee for the striker.
Perhaps that is why there was a realism about Hodgson as he prepared for his first game, against Grasshoppers Zurich, last night. "It is not going to be an overnight thing," he told the club's website. "I don't want to dupe the Liverpool public by telling them that everything is rosy because Joe Cole has signed. There is a lot more to be done and many more players needed."
July 21, 2010
With the transfer market still somewhat subdued, despite Joe Cole’s move to Liverpool, and the pre-season calendar yet to inspire, Martin Jol’s prospective move to Fulham has demanded attention in recent days.
All the newspapers on Wednesday morning carry updates on the negotiations with the coach and Ajax, though there is precious little analysis of what would be something of a coup from Fulham.
But Mark Fleming, writing in The Independent, has got to grips with the story and his is a cautionary tale for Fulham, detailing Jol’s ruthless edge when it comes to negotiations.
“A few months into his time at Tottenham Hotspur, Martin Jol was sitting in his office at the training ground when there was a knock at the door. A club official appeared in the doorway dangling some car keys and outside was a brand new Porsche, a present from chairman Daniel Levy to Jol to mark the manager's 49th birthday.
“The £70,000 sports car was also Levy's way of saying ‘thank you’ after Jol turned the team's fortunes around with the minimum of fuss. The Dutchman had taken over and steadied the ship after the ill-judged appointment of Jacques Santini had left Levy with egg on his face. Jol took one look at the car, stuck out his Desperate Dan chin and joked: ‘It's a pity it's not a Cabriolet.’
“Fulham can't say they haven't been warned. Jol appears to be one of those insecure types who are constantly concerned that the grass might be greener on the other side of the fence, that he could do better somewhere else. He is the guy who wins the lottery but complains that it's not a rollover.
“During his three-year spell at Tottenham he was jovial at times, spiky at others, but always driven. Jol is not alone among managers in wanting to better himself and in showing little shame in using one club as a stepping stone to manage another, bigger, one elsewhere. No one is criticising Roy Hodgson, for example, for walking away from Fulham.
“However, Jol does have previous when it comes to playing one side off brazenly against another. He did it in 2007 when he was doing well at Spurs, but was only too happy to court the attentions of Newcastle until he was spotted by club officials in the company of the Newcastle chairman, Freddy Shepherd, who at that time was in search of another new manager.”
Fleming believes that even if Fulham do manage to prise Jol from the Amsterdam club, they could find that the hunter becomes the hunted if the Dutchman is successful at Craven Cottage.
“One thing has been made abundantly clear to Fulham in the chaotic last couple of days. Jol is not totally committed to Fulham, or to Ajax. Even if he did agree to take over at Fulham there can be little doubt that it would only be considered by Jol a stepping stone towards moving to a bigger club as soon as possible. The example of Hodgson taking charge at Liverpool is all the incentive Jol needs to see that Fulham could be a bridge for him to greater things.
“In which case it would only be a matter of time before Fulham were caught in the same dilemma in which Ajax now find themselves. And there would be a good chance that Jol would be heading off to pastures new at high speed, probably driving that birthday Porsche that Levy gave him.”
July 20, 2010
All indications had been that Joe Cole wanted Champions League football and to stay in London, but the bookmakers gave us indications a move to Liverpool was on over the weekend and now he has agreed the deal.
Mark Fleming, writing in the Independent, says it was not the reported £90k-a-week wage on offer at Anfield that brought about the move but rather the promise that he would be loved.
In the end, it was the football that swung it for Joe Cole. Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal were both waving tempting offers in his direction, but neither club could promise quite the security that Roy Hodgson was all but guaranteeing at Liverpool.
Not financial security, for he could have earned similar amounts to the £90,000-a-week deal his agents have negotiated with Liverpool at either club. But footballing security, the comfort that comes from knowing the manager likes you and wants to put you in the team, the kind of security that Cole once enjoyed at West Ham United but he never really felt at Chelsea.
Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, claimed at the weekend that Cole's departure was "economic" but there were also some serious footballing considerations behind the decision to let him walk away. Cole wanted to play every game, and his frustration at not doing so was felt throughout the squad. His replacement Yossi Benayoun, signed for £5.5m from Liverpool a month ago, will not rock the boat if he is left out.
At Liverpool, Cole will find in Hodgson a manager who does not tend to chop and change the side from week to week, a manager who likes his teams to play a passing game, a manager who values English talent, a manager who is universally respected by the players under his charge. Cole will also find a club where creative players are idolised by their passionate fans, a bit like West Ham with knobs on. This is what Cole craves.
There is little doubt they will love him on the Kop. No manager has ever criticised Cole's work-rate and commitment, characteristics that have earned him the adoration of the supporters at both Upton Park and Stamford Bridge. If he can also win the love of his manager, then Cole will be in his element. As Liverpool's most famous sons once sang: "All you need is love."
The drawback for Cole is that by moving north to Liverpool he is undoubtedly taking a step down, from the champions to the team that finished seventh. Chelsea are aiming to win the Champions League this season; Liverpool are hoping to qualify for it next season. That drop in class will be made evident to Cole all too swiftly. His last appearance for Chelsea came in the 1-0 victory over Portsmouth in the FA Cup final that sealed the Double. His Liverpool debut could be the second leg of the Europa League qualifying match against a team from Armenia or Macedonia. But at least he should be guaranteed to start.
July 19, 2010
So, just as Don Fabio thought the dust would settle, his buisness mate goes and publishes the "Capello Index" on the world wide web.
Now, what the general media has failed to pick up is that Capello has not come up with these ratings, his name is simply attached to them. Think of it as a competitor to the Castrol Rankings.
Capello did not realise the uproar this would cause (especially if England did not have a good World Cup) and be used as a stick to beat him with.
So, a good three weeks since that thumping at the hands of Germany, the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel sticks the boot in again,
Adam Johnson is a better player in the summer, apparently. So is Joe Hart.
These were the two names that leaked from Capello’s meeting with the FA last week. They emerged almost as a peace offering to those still vexed by the performance of England’s old guard at the World Cup. We will go forward, was the message. We will be shiny and new.
Johnson’s promise is to be used to appease those who feel the England squad is tired and stale; but the reasoning is flawed. If Johnson should be in the squad now — and he should — he should have been in the squad then, at the time when Capello was trying to coax Paul Scholes from international retirement at the age of 35.
Johnson was left out of England’s party on June 1 when it was cut to 23 for the World Cup. England’s next game, at home to Hungary, will take place on August 11, three days before the Premier League season starts.
Johnson will not have played a competitive game within this period. What has he done, then, to justify being touted as the player who will ride to England’s rescue?
Hart was the only one of three goalkeepers not called on in South Africa. It may well be that he is England’s best prospect long term, but to have him instantly marked for glory is surely counter-productive. Capello did not use Hart at the tournament because he felt it too much pressure for an inexperienced player. What has changed?
Play Hart against Hungary, by all means, start the European Championship qualifying campaign with him, too. Just don’t make a song and dance about it.
To serve up these new faces as if they will transform the English game is self-serving and they should not be made to carry this burden. Just as Westcott was no goalscorer in July, if the future of English football is better created during hiatus, then we truly are in a crisis.
Over to the Guardian now, and Andy Hunter's thoughts on Manchester United's new intake of young talent.
Two days after the sponsorship soirée, United arrived in Toronto for their first friendly of the pre-season, a 3-1 win over Celtic, and Ferguson's increasing reliance on youth was evident immediately. A defence with an average age of 20 began the game – excluding 39-year-old goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar – and a forward line containing two teenagers finished it. This is not the date in the football calendar to be making watertight predictions, but the responsibility on young shoulders will not lessen once the task of regaining the Premier League title from Chelsea and reasserting Champions League credentials begins in August.
There are multiple factors behind the accelerated youth-training scheme at United, however, and not all sit comfortably at commercial engagements in America. While the wealth of Abu Dhabi allows for another round of extravagant spending at Manchester City, Ferguson – who protests there is plenty of money available at United, but that he sees little value in the market at present – spends modestly by comparison with the game's elite. Last summer, £20m went on Valencia and Gabriel Obertan, while the outlay 12 months on currently stands at £19m, for Hernández and Chris Smalling. Interest payments on the loans taken out by the Glazer family for their takeover of United, meanwhile, stood at £69m for last year alone.
A radical overhaul is not required of a squad that would have secured an unprecedented fourth Premier League title last season with two more points. The looming threat of time conspiring against a United squad containing 12 players aged 29 or more must be addressed, however, regardless of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes defying nature with every passing campaign. The lengthening injury record of Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville confirms that not every veteran is immune.
Ferguson does not deny the need for his next generation to impose themselves on Old Trafford. "We expect progress. We have a strong belief in their abilities. They will eventually, at some point, be the next Manchester United," he said of those who featured against Celtic.
"We're good at bringing young players through like that. Some we have to sign, some we bring through from the academy. The important thing is it gives us a proper spirit at the football club to bring young players through the way we do. So I was pleased with most of them against Celtic. I thought when we changed the back four we were a bit rocky at times, but we got through it. I think there are really good talents in the striking department with young players like [Federico] Macheda, [Danny] Welbeck and Mame Diouf. They are very good talents I'm very hopeful about those and, of course, Hernández joins us in Houston. So that's a good area of the squad. There is a good future there."
July 18, 2010
Emile Heskey's retirement from international football on Thursday was slightly overshadowed by the decision of the more illustrious Thierry Henry to throw in the France towel on the same day.
But Heskey's decision to quit England has still got the British press talking, with Soccernet writer Richard Jolly penning a piece in the Sunday Express that explores where the Aston Villa striker's career can go from here.
"Emile Heskey is a figure of fun and butt of countless internet jokes but managers admire him, players love to line up alongside him, but to the fan in the street. Following his retirement from the England scene, it’s time to weigh up the pros and cons of the striker who often started but very rarely finished...
His finale summed up his failings. When Emile Heskey came on for his last international appearance, England needed three goals in 19 minutes against Germany. Needless to say, Heskey didn’t get any.
After 62 caps and seven goals, the career of statistically England’s least potent striker – among those who have played 20 times or more – was over. Heskey announced his international retirement in a dignified statement on Thursday.
Others are less polite. Type “Emile Heskey jokes” into internet search engine Google and you get 65,400 responses. One website has 39 pages of them. The punchlines tend to be similar – most involve some mention of shooting and Heskey missing.
Whereas some sportsmen become national treasures, poor Heskey became a national joke. When England thrashed Germany in Munich in 2001, the visiting supporters chorused: “5-1 and even Heskey scored”. "
Elsewhere, and with the Open Championship Golf managing what few sporting events can - stealing some precious coumn inches from football - Patrick Collins at the Mail on Sunday welcomes the arrival of a sport that has not displayed any of the diving or fouling that was on display in last Sunday's World Cup final.
"After spending the past few days watching some of the most gifted sportsmen in the world, I have something extraordinary to report.
Despite the intense pressures of ferocious competition, nobody has squealed or flounced or cheated. Nobody, so far as I am aware, has insulted or demeaned an opponent. And, although they are playing for a first prize of £850,000, nobody has attempted to shave the rules or steal a cheap advantage.
There may be precious few saints on the pro tour but on major occasions like this, the golfers do their sport some admirable service. Now contrast their conduct with the finest players of a quite different sport. A week ago in these pages, I was pleading for a Spanish victory in the World Cup final.
While the Spaniards represented most of those things which are good in the game, the Dutch epitomised the functional, pragmatic, uninspiring face of football. Little did I realise that they would prove a great deal worse than that; being cynical, thuggish and even vicious.
While the golfers revealed their game in its finest colours, the men of Holland turned up in rags. And yet, those malevolent impostors have discovered support from the most unlikely source."
July 17, 2010
David Beckham has found himself back in the media spotlight in the last week - appearing on a Yahoo webchat before being interviewed on British television on Friday. Involved in the England World Cup set-up despite not being part of the playing squad and spearheading his nation's 2018 World Cup bid - Beckham is never far from the headlines.
Though his playing days appear to be coming towards a close, the LA Galaxy midfielder's already astronomically high-profile has continued to rise - something that seems to irk Barney Ronay at the Guardian, who would like to see Beckham bow out of the spotlight gracefully.
"The sudden reappearance of David Beckham this week – giving interviews, frowning through webchats, being fondled by Jonathan Ross – was quite hard to comprehend at first. My own reactions ranged from bafflement, through a vague sense of hectoring persecution, to a grudging acceptance that this is in some way inevitable.
Right now it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Beckham will simply never go away. The World Cup is barely cold in the ground; we may have been jilted horribly at the altar, left raw and giddy and snot-smeared in our smudged wedding lace, but here he is again – here's mummy, a single liver-spotted hand clenching our wrist, leaning in and breathing into our face and saying: "It's OK, dear. You'll always have me. Always. Always."
Not going away is a new thing. People used to go away. England's 1966 World Cup winners went away for decades. Beckham, though: not so much. In ambassadorial semi-retirement his sole outstanding quality is an absolute refusal to go away. This is his thing and it would be a mistake to assume that it makes him in some way an irrelevance or a side issue.
Beckham was, after all, the only England footballer to have a great World Cup, albeit mainly this was down to the fantastic expression on his face throughout: concerned, interested, but also let down and – crucially – not really involved or to blame in any way."
Elsewhere, Manchester City have also enjoyed much of the spotlight over the summer, mainly thanks to their flurry of transfer activity. The arrivals of Yaya Toure, Jerome Boateng and David Silva have led many to believe that Roberto Mancini's side could emerge as genuine title contenders next season.
But Des Kelly at the Mail believes that the actions of City chief exec Garry Cook - who he nicknames 'Santa Claus" for his incessant spending - in bringing even more foreign players to the Premier League could negatively affect the future of the England team.
"They call him Santa Claus. And here he comes now, carrying a pile of expensive presents and shiny new toys to play with. It's the nickname football agents and club executives across Europe have given to Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook as they watch him arrive at various airports waving Sheik Mansour's chequebook around.
Whenever Cook opens transfer negotiations, he may as well wrap some ribbon round his head and stick a bow on the end of his nose since everyone regards him as all their Christmases, birthdays and Easters rolled into one. Already this summer Santa has dished out £75million, nudging City's spending towards the £300m mark in three seasons.
So don't worry about that World Cup depression; forget about England's dismal failure. Just look at all the new players in the Premier League. City have recruited a Serb, a Spaniard, an Ivorian and a German - Aleksandar Kolarov, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Jerome Boateng.
But who cares that it isn't going to help Fabio Capello? The new kits are in the shops and middle-aged men are again trying to cram bellies into replica jerseys, despite the danger that someone might strap a wicker basket underneath them and light a fire just to see if they will float."
July 16, 2010
News of Emile Heskey’s retirement from international football appears to be the cue for the nation’s newspapers to stick the boot in.
Leading the not-so-generous appraisal of Heskey’s contribution to the England cause is the Telegraph’s Jim White, who sees fit to undermine a player who never seemed anything but committed to succeeding for his country, despite his poor strike rate.
White also seems to overlook the fact that Heskey was possibly England’s man of the match in their 1-1 draw with USA at the World Cup. His intro is quite amusing though.
"Astonishingly, given the gravity of the news, the sun actually did rise this morning. Amazingly, the world continued to spin on its axis.
"Across the globe, people managed, despite what they had learned, somehow to get up, feed and dress themselves and head off to work much as they had before. Yet we know the world will never be the same again. Not now that Emile Heskey has announced his retirement from international football.
"There are those of a cynical persuasion who will feign surprise at this declaration. They will claim to have assumed, by the way he played, that he already had ordered his pipe and slippers and parked his feet on the fireside stool during the World Cup in South Africa.
"He certainly performed like a man failing to shake off the after-effects of his own leaving do. But how wrong they would be. His career, so he insists, had not ended before the defeat against Germany. It ended yesterday with a brief note posted on the news wires that he was no longer available for selection.
"So now we must brace ourselves for a Heskey-free future. No more will his name appear in an England squad list. And, as a result, never again will the rest of the world scratch its head in astonishment at how it was that the glitch in the Football Association's computer system – the one which continued mistakenly to insert his name in every squad list – had still not been fixed."
The Sun's Mark Irwin isn't much kinder either...
"England flop Emile Heskey jumped before he could be pushed last night by announcing his international retirement.
"The goal-shy Aston Villa striker was facing the axe after another World Cup failure in South Africa. But he has done the decent thing and saved Three Lions boss Fabio Capello the bother of making an awkward phonecall.
"Heskey, 32, managed a measly seven goals in 62 England games - or 3,413 minutes to be precise - and once went almost SIX YEARS without scoring for his country."
July 15, 2010
The reasons for England's World Cup failure are, if recent quotes are anything to go by, reall quite extensive. Thomas Muller blamed it on too many 'alpha males', Ryan Giggs similarly said it was a lack of teamwork, a wide variety of people attributed it to a lack of technique and, even before the tournament, there were fears that Fabio Capello's 4-4-2 was doomed to failure.
On that last point, the Guardian's tactical expert, Jonathan Wilson, asks what will become of British football's favourite formation.
When even its old friend Michael Owen starts doubting it, the future for the formation that has ruled British football for 40 years looks bleak.
Johan Cruyff got stuck in as well last week – not particularly surprisingly given his lifelong ideological insistence on 4-3-3 – pointing out that "the numbers don't match up" and explaining that a system of three straight bands doesn't lend itself to the creation of passing triangles. This has always been an axiom: all else being equal, a triangle will always beat a line, and the Cruyff mode of play has always been predicated on the creation of triangles. A 4-2-3-1, with its W shape in midfield, is essentially comprised of interlocking triangles.
Which raises the question of why, if 4-4-2's disadvantages are so obvious, it has survived for so long? To start with, it should be made clear that Cruyff is speaking about his particular vision of football, which is rooted in ball possession and pressing, something that caused him, even before the game, to align himself with Spain rather than Holland in the World Cup final. That is one way to play – and the recent success of Barcelona and Spain shows it is a successful way to play – but it certainly isn't the only way. That a short-passing, technique-based game isn't for everybody was demonstrated very clearly in a tournament in which many people preferred the more dynamic, if more reactive, football of Germany.
Those passing triangles are only important for a side looking to dominate possession. For a side looking to disrupt that, 4-4-2 can be extremely effective – the famous "two banks of four" that for a long time seemed to be such a feature of any English team playing an away game in European competition. Fulham showed last season how effective the style can still be. Sit the midfield line deep on the back four so there is minimal space between the lines for attacking midfielders or deep-lying forwards to exploit, and it becomes very hard to penetrate. It doesn't matter how many triangles you create if you never get the ball closer than 35 yards from the opposition goal.
Think of Gérard Houllier's Liverpool away to Roma in the Uefa Cup in 2001, with Owen and Robbie Fowler left high upfield, often 50 yards and more from the midfield: keep it tight, make sure of the clean sheet, and if, as in that case, Owen can pilfer two goals, that's a bonus. Think of Fulham in the Europa League semi-final against Hamburg.
There's plenty more to read there, so click the link and enjoy some more fine tactical analysis.
July 14, 2010
England's World Cup exit may have been some time ago, but the press are eager trying not to forget its lessons.
Martin Samuel, writing in the Daily Mail, feels all English kids should have their school hours completely restructured to put an end to those embarrassing international displays.
Governance is very much the mot du jour in football. The FA, apparently, do not have enough of it since the departure of noted dinner date fantasist Lord Triesman and this is worrying FIFA, who have plenty of it.
Suppose, however, the problem runs far deeper. Suppose that instead of it being a governance issue, it is a government issue, affecting not just football, but education.
Consider this. In Spain, the secondary school day is over at 2.20pm; in Germany a school day lasts from 8am to 1pm and includes at least alternate Saturdays; in Holland, school hours are flexible, amounting to roughly 30 hours each week, to include a 10-minute break each hour. A child could work two nine-hour days, two six-hour days and have three days off.
Do you see where this is heading? The three European nations involved in the World Cup semi-finals all have school hours that are more conducive to achieving excellence in sport, because greater free time can be given to coaching.
A good swimmer in Britain will rise at roughly the same hour as the milkman to make training before school. As for footballers, school starts before 9am and finishes close to 4pm here, so any specialist coaching can barely be scheduled before 6pm, by which time the child has already done a day's work. (Quite what we are teaching in these schools, considering every German and Dutch player speaks English fluently and some of ours do not, is another matter.)
What would happen if, instead of the easy answer to another England disappointment which involves giving Sir Dave Richards a kicking and advocating rules that contradict European Union employment law, we started our overview of England's failure in any number of sports with a look at school hours?
No chance. We play at reform, we tinker with change, we prefer internecine squabbling to action.
July 13, 2010
The World Cup may be over but the fall-out from the biggest tournament continues in earnest on Tuesday. According to Real madrid manager Jose Mourinho, football's biggest showpiece event is not better than the Champions League - an opinion that has been heavily criticised by former Liverpool defender, turned TV pundit, Alan Hansen.
In the Telegraph, Hansen launches a vociferous defence of the World Cup, insisting that, for players, it remains the most prestigious prize in the sport.
Jose Mourinho’s claim that the Champions League is now “bigger and more important” than the World Cup might provoke a debate in the wake of South Africa 2010. But personally I believe the World Cup remains far bigger, despite the poor quality of this tournament.
One thing that the football world has to face up to, however, is the fact that lesser teams at the World Cup will continue to become more organised and difficult to beat.
It makes for boring and dour football, but there is nothing that can be done about it because the primary objective for every team is to reach the last 16 and, if they have to be organised defensively to do that, then so be it.
But in spite of the poor games and lack of stand-out matches in South Africa, Mourinho’s argument about the Champions League being a better tournament is irrelevant because that competition still pales into insignificance compared to the World Cup.
I won the European Cup three times, but if you ask any player what they would rather win, it would be the World Cup.
July 12, 2010
So it's all over. Spain secured the World Cup on Sunday night and the overriding feeling in the UK press is that football won the day over Dutch thuggery.
While the Spanish stuck to their style, the Netherlands embraced brutality and were lucky to finish the first-half with 11 players still on the pitch.
Writing in The Sun, Steve Howard sums up the feeling under the title "Dutch disgraced the World Cup".
"They were the finalists who died of shame. The finalists who disgraced both a tournament and European football. The finalists who made the world fall out of love with Dutch football. It is almost beyond belief it all came to this.
The only comfort is that Spain's name is on the trophy for the first time, after Andres Iniesta spared the new world champions the lottery of a penalty shootout. Brave, admirable Spain, who stuck to their footballing principles on the night Holland deserted theirs.
Had Vicente Del Bosque's side not won, it would have been one of the greatest travesties of all time. Had Bert van Marwijk's cynical Dutchmen taken the trophy home, no one outside Holland would have been cheering."
Writing in The Guardian, Richard Williams is not quite so gushing about Spain. Although they didn't resort to kicking lumps out of the Dutch, they did indulge in a bit of negative, anti-football themselves.
“No more all-European finals, thank you very much. The one four years ago that ended with Zinedine Zidane's head-butt and a penalty shoot-out was bad enough. But no one seriously expected a classic in Berlin that day. Last night's match was supposed to be a fascinating contest of stylistic nuances, a collision of rival philosophies featuring some of the finest attacking talents in the modern game.
But as we had to wait until deep in extra time for Andrés Iniesta's goal, 84,000 people in the stadium and a reputed 700 million television spectators were left wondering when the football was going to start.
Didn't someone tell the players that Nelson Mandela was in the house, never mind Shakira, Charlize Theron and 16 heads of state? Football is about 22 men in search of a result, nothing more and nothing less, but a little entertainment never goes amiss.”
July 11, 2010
Now that everything is coming to a close, Sean Ingle of the Guardian rounds it all up and wonders where South Africa 2010 can be placed in history. His piece in The Guardian reckons it was better when he was a kid.
So where does this World Cup rank in the pantheon? It's probably a question best asked in a few months' time, when the tournament – like a Christmas Day Shiraz – has had time to breathe, and the essential accomplices, such as Cris Freddi's Complete Book of the World Cup and Fifa's official tournament DVDs, have been called to duty again. My instinct, however, is that this has been a middling-to-decent World Cup, but no more.
What makes a classic tournament is fiercely subjective, but the following are surely necessities: humdingers that scramble your equilibrium like a check hook to the temple, did-you-see-that individual performances, superb goals, a balance between epic matches and jaw-slumping shocks, a nod to the thrill of the new, and, perhaps most importantly of all, great matches between great teams when it really matters.
South Africa 2010 has had its moments - Germany's shock pummellings of England then Argentina; Ghana's free-running football; Spain, after a stodgy start, showing why they lost just once in 45 matches before the tournament; Brazil's second-half implosion against Holland; Diego Maradona's virtuoso press conferences, the unity of support for the Bafana Bafana – but also its frustrations. The Jabulani beach-ball soaring repeatedly into the stands. The lack of great goals. The vuvuzelas' unilateral sound – a belching didgeridoo – forcefully imposed on every match. And too many teams, particularly in the early stages, regressively stuffing players into their own half, afraid of going forward for fear of allowing too much light in.
But what this tournament has had, which was painfully lacking in Korea/Japan and Germany, has been goals in the knockout stages. Excluding the largely irrelevant third-place play-off, there have been 37 of them in 14 matches (an average of 2.64 a game). That's still a decent way behind Mexico 70 (4.71 goals per game) and more recent vintages, such as USA 1994 (2.93 goals a game) and France 98 (2.80 goals per game), but it's a lot better than we've gotten used to.
Four years ago, in the group stages of Japan/Korea 2002 there were shocks, goals, exciting games – and a scattering shake-up of the world order. France and Argentina, the pre-tournament favourites, humbled, humiliated; South Korea, Senegal and the US holding ambitions that were fantasies two weeks previously. Everyone agrees: this World Cup could go down as a classic. Then, a few hours later, Germany v Paraguay kicks off and cold caution kicks in. The dingy 1-0 sets a precedent; thereafter results read like binary code – 0s and 1s and 1s and 0s – and not much else. In the end there are just 25 goals in 15 knockout games (excluding the irrelevant third-place play-off) and just one classic – Italy v South Korea. And soon another consensus is reached: this World Cup has been dire.
Ditto Germany 2006, where group games were followed by knockout stages characterised by timidity and turgidity. Again there were only 25 goals in 15 games, and only one absolute belter – Italy v Germany. As I wrote at the time, I lived and loved every minute in Germany: the random chats with strangers; the frenetic four-hour blur of match-watching, writing and interviewing; the midnight stagger out of the stadium and into a hotel bed. Even the 7am starts to catch the Deutsche Bahn to a new match in a new city. But while the atmosphere in the country was utterly memorable, the football wasn't. It didn't help that the top five Fifa World Players of the Year for 2005 – Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, Adriano and Andriy Shevchenko – all disappointed.
This time round, the football from the last 16 has been more expansive and attacking-minded, and for this reason South Africa 2010 probably sneaks slightly ahead of Japan/Korea 2002 and Germany 2006 in my internal rankings. As I've mentioned previously, others romanticise Italia 90, but for me it was overly cynical and cautious – West Germany were brilliant, especially in their 4-1 demolition of a Yugoslavia side containing Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic and Dragan Stojkovic, but no one else really was. And, the Germans' spit-soaked 2-1 win over Holland, England's 3-2 win over Cameroon and their epic semi-final with West Germany apart, blockbusters were scarce. However the underrated USA 94 (Romania 3-2 Argentina, Italy 2-1 Nigeria, Italy 2-1 Spain and Bulgaria 2-1 Germany) and France 98 (Nigeria 3-2 Spain, Argentina 2-2 England, Holland 2-1 Argentina and Brazil 1-1 Holland) were a good deal better than this year's vintage.
But of the eight World Cups I've watched, Mexico 86 and España 82 glow warmest of all. Mexico had its plunging lows, as anyone that stayed awake through the twin tediums of West Germany v Morocco and West Germany v Mexico will remember. But they were spectacularly trumped by the magic moments – France 1-1 USSR and Denmark 6-1 Uruguay in the group stages, followed by Belgium 4-3 USSR, Spain 5-1 Denmark, Argentina 2-1 England and, of course, France 1-1 Brazil, a game Pele described as the greatest he'd ever seen.
España 82 wasn't far behind. Even now iconic images linger in the memory: David Narey's wonder-strike against Brazil, and the seleção's sizzling riposte, including Eder's featherduster chip over a statuesque Alan Rough; the creative genius of Zico, Falcao and Socrates; Marco Tardelli's tears in the final. There were great games too, especially in the ultimate group of death, which saw Brazil, Argentina and Italy play winner takes all, as well as a wildly exciting semi-final between West Germany and France. There was dross too, including Italy's grinding group draws and the shabby West Germany v Austria stitch-up, but for me, as a seven-year-old boy, there seemed to be a million moments of awed wonder.
Perhaps that's the key. And World Cups, like Christmases, are always better when you're a kid. But, in 20 years' time, if some young buck hails South Africa as the best they've ever seen, I doubt I'll be joining them.