Spain 0 (7) – Italy 0 (6): Spain advance on penalties

A dramatic and tactical masterclass, that.

Prandelli’s formation shift to a 3-4-2-1 was courageously adopted and brilliantly executed, forcing Spain (and perhaps more importantly, Jordi Alba) to play deeper than either are accustomed to. By playing Maggio and Giaccherini as wingbacks, Prandelli effectively marked the wide areas of the field as Italian territory, forcing the Spanish fullbacks, Alba and Arbeloa, into more defensive positions.

With De Rossi and Pirlo back in the starting eleven (the former sat due to suspension while the latter for injury), the Italian midfield more than held their own against the star-studded Spaniards. Indeed, the Spanish often looked bothered for much of the first half, unable to create good chances or set their own tempo, instead only being allowed to take what the Italians gave them.

The Italian wingbacks, Giaccherini and Maggio, continually caused Spain problems, specifically for Jordi Alba, whose defensive deficiencies are routinely hidden by his offensive positioning and contribution. The Spanish, so used to dominating possession and setting up shop in the opponent’s half, today were forced to play in their own half for long stretches, both with and without the ball — the latter of which they are not designed for.

Determined not to so easily cede possession as they did in last year’s European final, the Italians set out to attack more, moving forward with a renewed sense of confidence. If not for poor finishing and superb goaltending, Prandelli’s men might have taken a lead, with Maggio seeing two headers saved well by Casillas and De Rossi failing to make adequate contact when left unmarked on a set-piece.

With Alberto Gilardino (who started in place of the injured Mario Balotelli) sitting above Marchisio and Candreva, the Italian attack had the appropriate numbers to bother Busquets, Ramos and Pique in the middle. Candreva’s continual runs out to the right flank, just under Maggio’s forward bursts, particularly troubled the Spanish defense, as it routinely forced Busquets out of his natural central position. Yet for all Prandelli’s tactical adjustments, Gilardino just didn’t (or perhaps more rightly, doesn’t) have the quality that Balotelli does — or even Giovinco for that matter — an unfortunate reality the Italians had to face. Going into this match, we wondere from where the goals might come from, and apart from their dominance on set pieces (De Rossi especially might rue his scuffed header), Italy without Balotelli just didn’t have the necessary talent in the striking department.

With both managers making changes at or just after halftime, the match often looked like it was being played more on a chess board than a pitch, as Prandelli and del Bosque worked furiously in an effort to outmaneuver the other. Replacing Barzagli (who had a horrid first half) with Montolivo, Prandelli then moved De Rossi into the center of his back three, allowing his Italian midfield to play a more possession, passing based style — and having (astonishingly) completed more passes than the Spanish in the second half, the Italians rewarded their chess-master for his creativity.

With De Rossi playing centre-half for the entirety of the second half and beyond, both sides had central defenders who were comfortable on the ball. For Spain, the central pairing of Ramos and Pique offers a great deal of flexibility and freedom; an incredibly valuable skill-set from the back, and one that very few teams can match. But with De Rossi pulled back, both Italy and Spain had a bit of a creative safety valve in the back line: players who are both confident in, and capable of, playing smart, even creative passes from the heart of the defense. De Rossi, Ramos and Pique were routinely asked to start attacks, holding the ball until midfielders found the appropriate space from which they could trouble the opponent. Evident of their passing ability De Rossi (95%), Pique (93%) and Ramos (91%) each completed more than ninety percent of their passes, all while attempting a combined 38 (De Rossi: 14/15, Ramos 8/13, Pique 7/10)  long balls.

Vicente del Bosque, having started Silva on the left wing, was forced to admit that rather than linking with Iniesta, the Manchester City man instead clashed with him — not unlike the problems Barcelona encountered with Fabregas and Iniesta. While Silva tends to move inside into a more creative role in the center of the pitch, Iniesta’s natural movement causes him to drift forward and to the left, often resulting in the two players being too close. Replacing Silva with Navas, del Bosque countered Prandelli’s change with a rather clever move of his own. Keeping Pedro on the pitch, Spain’s attack looked for the first time in a long time, like a proper trident: with Navas and Pedro flanking Torres (a true — if still struggling — number nine), the forward line had an enjoyable and effective directness.

Navas’ introduction marked a shift in the Spanish attack, as his willingness to take players on one-on-one began to open up the previously staunch Italians. Indeed, Navas’ 4 shots on target (with an impressive 100% shot accuracy) were twice as many as the rest of the team combined (Xavi: 1, Busquets 1). Navas’ performance throughout was stellar, so perhaps it was only fitting that the only player who tested Buffon through the first ninety minutes would also be the one to find the net on the winning penalty. And while del Bosque does not typically look to start Navas, his pace, directness and trickiness might all prove ideal in an effort to exploit Marcelo’s defensive deficiencies come the final.

While Pedro’s energy and pace often prove useful, the Italians dealt well with both, encouraging del Bosque to replace the Barcelona winger with Chelsea’s Juan Mata. With Mata not entirely comfortable (or at his best) in a wide position, Iniesta initially moved forward into Pedro’s now vacated space, allowing Mata to assume the former’s position in midfield. This however, as is often the case with the Spanish midfield, was by no means set in stone; Mata and Iniesta were permitted to roam, sometimes dropping deep while other times pushing forward.

Extra-time brought a sharp shift in philosophy, as the Italians adopted a more defensive philosophy; sitting back, they allowed the Spanish the space previously denied to them. Meanwhile, del Bosque used his final substitution, replacing Torres with Javi Martinez; and while most assumed the change meant a shift in formation (likely to a 4-3-3 with a false nine), the defensive midfielder took up Torres’ now vacated spot up front. With time becoming a factor, del Bosque’s final tactical tweak saw Mata move to the center, sitting just beneath Martinez (wow, that feels weird to write) who now lead the Spanish line.

The final thirty minutes were dominated by the Spanish, both in possession and in chances;  though with most falling to Pique, Ramos and the defensive midfielder turned striker, none were converted. With both teams having hit the crossbar in the final act (Giaccherini for Italy and Xavi for Spain), penalties were less a formality than they often seem to become in cases such as this. Yet in a rematch of the European final, comprised of the last two World Cup winners, each captained by one of the world’s greatest goaltenders, penalties seemed the most dramatic, if not fitting conclusion. And after a penalty shootout that saw thirteen of fteen shooters score, the Spanish triumphed, having withstood and countered all the Italians could offer.

A Look Ahead At The UEFA World Cup Qualifiers

Starting Friday, 53 European nations will begin their journey to become one of 13 from UEFA to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The anticipation and expectations are high, and the headlines about the nine intriguing groups are everywhere as the big day has finally arrived. After extensively analyzing the groups, and eventually deciding on who I favor to make a run over the multiple home/away qualifiers, here are my top five things to look out for over the next 14 months:

1. Belgium (Group A)

The hype in Belgium has got to be high right now. Here’s a team that you didn’t see in Euro 2012, but with its current rise in talent, will be looking to at least grab a spot in a playoff next year. But to say that their road to Brazil would be difficult is an understatement. Even if you ignore the fact that they will face fierce competition from Croatia and Serbia for one of those two top group spots, you see that they, along with everybody else in Group A, will not have one easy game. Scotland, Wales, and Macedonia will all be tough matchups, home or away, and the potential to “lose” points is substantial. In order to get themselves off on a great note, and to perhaps ease some early nerves, I would expect to see them grab at least 4 points from their two opening fixtures. My prediction is a win in Wales followed by a draw at home against Croatia, results that would be perfectly acceptable for them. However, don’t be surprised if they were to grab anywhere from 2-6 points in those opening two games.

2. Group C’s Second Team

I have Germany ranked as the second best team in Europe, only behind Spain, current World and European champions. To predict that they will win this group is nothing bold at all. But because of the teams they are grouped with, I think that Group C will be the most exciting of the nine. While the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan will be expected to finish in the bottom two spots, Sweden, Ireland, and even Austria can all compete for that second group spot, which would probably see them make a playoff. My final predictions are listed below if you want to see my pick, but this is the one group that I can see playing out in numerous ways. Unless I don’t see Germany in Brazil in 21 months, I won’t be surprised with whatever final group standings we see.

3. Who Will Step Up In Group E?

You’ll want to read my predictions at the end of this article. Group E contains my bold prediction that could make me look like a hero when all is said and done…or just stupid. Regardless, I’m looking to see who will step up and take control of this group. Looking at the teams, Switzerland would seem to be the one who has the edge over the other five countries. If they can win at Slovenia, they’ll have a great chance to get the full six points from their opening two when they go against Albania at home. A few slip ups from them, or any other country could leave the door open for an underdog to come out of this group though.

4. Russian Redemption? (Group F)

Not only did Russia get knocked out of Euro 2012 in the group stage by Greece, but they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by losing a playoff to Slovenia. How heartbreaking. The group they’ve been placed in is pretty favorable however, with Portugal and them expected to advance. Could they take this group from the Portuguese and not have to deal with yet another playoff? Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, and Luxembourg shouldn’t worry a team with the talent that the Russians have, but we’ll have to wait and see how new coach Fabio Capello adapts to his new squad.

5. Can England Get Back To Elite Status? (Group H)

After watching England so closely this past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that if the expectations are lowered a bit, England have a better chance to succeed. Assuming they qualify, I’d put them outside the top five of the thirteen European nations that qualify for the World Cup. They have slipped into the second tier, and are definitely going through a change with a handful of young players entering the squad. These qualifiers will give us a better look at just how good they are. If they obtain more than 20 of 30 points, they’ll be fine. In a group like this, the likes of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and Italy wouldn’t have much trouble. England shouldn’t have trouble ultimately qualifying, but it may not be easy. I predict seven wins, two draws, and a loss for the Three Lions. 23 points may simply be too much to give them at this point though.

Group Predictions:

 Positions/Group  A B  C  D  E
 1st  Croatia  Italy  Germany Netherlands  Switzerland
 2nd  Belgium  Czech Republic  Sweden Turkey  Iceland
 Positions/Group  F  G  H  I
1st Portugal Slovakia England Spain
2nd Russia Bosnia Poland France

And finally, the list of 13 countries who will qualify:

Croatia, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Slovakia, England, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Russia, France

*Iceland stands around 60/1 to make the World Cup the last time I checked. You can thank me later. Don’t blame me if my boldness doesn’t pay off though. Happy watching everybody!*

Familiar Chaos in African Football As Cape Verde Thrown Out Of World Cup

You may have noticed that FIFA two weeks ago delayed the publication of its ranking list. This wasn’t due to any technical problems, but because the ranking of two African teams was dependent on the results of a decision taken by FIFA’s disciplinary committee.

The ranking list was of great importance as the draw for the third and final round of World Cup Qualifying in Africa (CAF), with the ten group winners from the second round being drawn into five two-legged ties, with the five winners advancing to the world cup. The ten teams are split into two pots of five, with one team from each pot being drawn against each other. Which pot a team is put into is determined by their FIFA ranking.

The announcement came that FIFA had upheld a complaint by Tunisia that Cape Verde Islands had fielded an ineligible player in a qualifying match against Tunisia the previous weekend.

This meant that the result was overturned from a 2-0 Cape Verde win to a 3-0 Tunisia win, which not only meant that Tunisia were in the draw at Cape Verde’s expense, but because that result also bumped up Tunisia’s ranking, placing them in Pot 1 of the draw at the expense of Egypt who would be drop into Pot 2 (Egypt would draw Ghana in their World Cup play-off as a result of this).

Cape Verde’s exploits were the feel-good story of the World Cup qualifiers. Cape Verde Islands are an archipelago about 350 miles off the coast of West Africa, which became independent from Portugal in the 70’s, and have a population of about 500,000. They could potentially have been the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup (which may end up being Iceland, who are still in with a chance of qualification).

Qualifying for the World Cup would have capped a great few years for the Cape Verde team, also known as the Blue Sharks. For years since joining FIFA in 1982, Cape Verde had made little to no impression on International football. They didn’t enter the World Cup until qualifying for 2002 and had to watch several talented players, such as Nani and Manuel Fernandes opt to play for Portugal instead.

That changed a few years ago when Cape Verde began selecting professional players from Portugal, Angola and other nations, of Cape Verdean descent to make up, along with players from the local league, the national team. Under the leadership of manager Lucio Antunes, who’s also an air-traffic controller, the team started to improve and broke into the top 100 in the FIFA rankings.

A year ago, Cape Verde defeated Cameroon over two legs to qualify for the 2013 African Nation’s Cup; their first ever tournament appearance. In the tournament, Cape Verde acquitted themselves well, reaching the quarter-finals before being beaten by Ghana.

During the World Cup qualification, Cape Verde had already been eliminated, when it was ruled that Equatorial Guinea had played an ineligible player against them, which tuned a 4-3 defeat into a 3-0 win. This meant that Cape Verde’s game against Tunisia would determine which of the two teams qualified for the World Cup.  Cape Verde won the game 2-0.

Lucio Antunes celebrating the victory over Tunisia.

However, the drama was far from over as Tunisia lodged a complaint that Cape Verde’s defender Fernando Varela should not have played as he was suspended. Varela was sent off in the 4-3 defeat to Equatorial Guinea that was overturned, and Cape Verde believed that when the result was overturned, it negated Varela’s red card and subsequent suspension.

FIFA disagreed, citing Article 18 of its disciplinary code, which states:

“An expulsion automatically incurs suspension from the subsequent match, even if imposed in a match that is later abandoned, annulled and/or forfeited”

Lena Vasconcelos, the deputy president of Cape Verde’s Football Association (FCF) said after hearing of the decision “It is a nightmare… Lots of people have phoned up to tell us we are right, that when a match is forfeited all the red and yellow cards are taken away.”

Cape Verde does have the right to appeal, but it’s hard to see on what grounds. The rules seem pretty clear and it’s equally clear that they breached them. Ignorance of the rules isn’t an excuse.

The real question is, why didn’t they know the rules?

Cape Verde became the seventh team to be penalised for fielding an ineligible player in Africa’s World Cup qualifying, with
Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Togo, Burkina Faso, Gabon and Sudan also being caught out.

The problem, as ever in African football, is down to the incompetent and, in some cases, corrupt administration that prevails through the continent. In many countries, there is a total lack of transparency and accountability about their actions. Many of these administrators have some clout within the halls of power at FIFA, which means that FIFA are reluctant to step in and do anything to improve things.

There’s barely a qualifying tournament that happens in Africa without an administrative blunder, and when teams do qualify for tournaments, there’s often hugely disruptive disputes about, logistics, pay and bonuses, which should have been sorted out long before.

A report by the Forum of African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) called Killing Soccer in Africa, which was started after a Cameroonian journalist was beaten up after he looked into the finances of the Cameroon Football Association (whose president is CAF president Issa Hayatou) concluded that:

“African soccer will not achieve until its administrators are reigned in and held accountable for their high-living, wasteful and destructive management style. Maybe most importantly, this investigation shows that African soccer administrators are not the only culprits. The international soccer body FIFA is shown to protect and even promote bad African soccer managers”

FIFA’s stance on government interference into football does not help either. Many African football associations heavily rely on government support for the infrastructure and finance required to compete, so it is virtually impossible to separate football from state, which FIFA requires. Bad administration can often lead to government inquiries, which can lead to the government wanting to step in and take action; but that can lead to FIFA sanctions, so in many African countries a vicious circle of bad administration and bad performance is maintained.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND – JANUARY 09: Pele during the red carpet arrivals for the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala 2011 on January 9, 2012 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

Pele famously predicted an African nation would win the World Cup by 2000. No African team has progressed beyond the quarter-finals.

Pele once famously predicted that an African nation would win the World Cup before 2000. When he said that, African football was developing rapidly. Since then, there really hasn’t been much progress. With a couple of exceptions, African teams haven’t made much of an impression in recent World Cups, and the dream of an African nation winning a World Cup seems further away than ever.

British journalist Jonathan Wilson says about the situation in Africa “Until African nations have financial resources that are competitive with Europe, they’re doomed to be susceptible to corruption, they’re doomed to have a lack of infrastructure, and they’re doomed to constantly be scrabbling around because the bureaucrats in positions of authority won’t organise things properly

African nations certainly have passionate fans and people who love football. Several African countries have the talent to compete with the world’s best. However, too many African countries are let down by the terrible administrative mistakes that have made a mockery of African football over the past few years, and until that is rectified, it’s hard to see African teams competing with the very best in the world.

The New Boys of Brazil

This is an article on some of the lesser known faces of recent Brazil squads (all of them defenders or midfielders) that stand a good chance of making the final selection for the 2014 World Cup. I have tried to avoid the more obvious players such as Neymar, Lucas Moura, Oscar etc here or even the established Brazilian players that have been in Europe for quite a while (the likes of Lazio’s Hernanes and Shakhtar’s Willian being examples):

 

Leandro Castan (Roma)

After impressing in Corinthians double of the Copa Libertadores and their Campeonato, Castan was purchased by Roma in the summer of 2012 for 5 million euros.  He is a powerfully built left-footed centre-back but in his caps for the Selecao so far he has been deployed as a left-back – a position he can defensively hold down but when it comes to the attacking phase of play he looks awkward at best.  Brazil coach Mano Menezes has a liking for the player though and he has a strong chance of starting at the World Cup.

 

Dede (Vasco da Gama)

 

Dede was voted as the best domestic defender by the Brazilian public in 2011.  He was a tower in Vasco’s late surge towards the Brazilian Serie A only to be beaten in final matchday by Corinthians.  Atheltic, comfortable in possession, strong in the tackle – he possesses all the necessary tools to go all the way.  His performances have earned him call-ups to the national squad and in 2012 he has 4 caps in 2012 so far.  Dede was expected to make the move to Europe last summer but in June he signed an extension to his current contract which also added on a 20 million euro buy-out clause.  This scared off potential suitors such as Manchester City. The player also seemed quite reluctant to move as he was afraid of losing first team football in the build-up to the World Cup. Whether or not this is a choice that again factors his decision-making this season is yet to be seen.

 

Arouca (Santos)

Comparisons to Edgar Davids fit this midfielder fit very well.  He stands at only 5ft 7 but he is extremely mobile, his pace allowing almost allowing him to be in two places at once.  Arouca is also a very tidy and precise little player and has been a pivotal figure at Santos for nearly three years now.  Some even attribute the strengths of Arouca as a big part of the hype surrounding his former midfield partner Ganso.  He only has two caps at the moment but Arouca is a player whose reputation is steadily increasing by the week.

 

Ralf (Corinthians)

In the way that Arouca is compared to Edgar Davids, Ralf shares many similarities in style with Felipe Melo.  Ralf is a bit more mobile than his compatriot but both share that same warrior spirit.  He excels in physical battles and is one of those players who rises to the challenge.  Strong links to Fiorentina surrounded him in the summer but he decided to sign an extension with Corinthians.  He works beautifully with the midfield Paulinho mentioned below.

 

Paulinho (Corinthians)

Paulinho is the ying to Ralf’s yang at the engine room of the Copa Libertadores winning Corinthians side.  Both are very athletic, physical players who do not shy away when the tackles come flying in.  Paulinho is more box-to-box than Ralf. He breaks late into the area and as a result possesses a good scoring record for a midfielder that gets through so much defensive work.  Paulinho is also very strong in the air and is a real threat at set-pieces, scoring more than a few crucial goals for Corinthians in such situations.  It should be noted that the tactical discipline of Ralf and Paulinho was the cornerstone of such a successful Corinthians side and that although both may not start at the World Cup, it would not be surprising to see both eventually become consistent figures in the Brazil team post-2014.

 

Romulo (Spartak Moscow)

Romulo was another player to make his name in Vasco’s 2011 Campeaonato run and since then he has not looked back.  After impressive displays with the Selecao at the Olympics, Romulo moved from Vasco to Spartak Moscow for a fee of 8 million euros, some reports saying it could rise as high as 12m.  After a blazing start to his career in Russia, scoring against Rubin Kazan and the second goal in the 3-2 away defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League, Romulo’s season was cut short after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and partially rupturing his posterior and lateral ligaments in a league game against FC Rostov.  The young man’s burgeoning career has been put on hold for the time-being but it will be intriguing to see if he can regain fitness and playing time for the Confederations Cup.

 

Rafael Toloi (Sao Paulo)

The final two players mentioned in this article are wildcards I have selected.  Toloi is a centre-back who has recently found himself playing at right-back since his move to Sao Paulo and has been thriving in it.  He is one of the main players of the current Sao Paulo side along with fellow defender Rhodolfo, midfielder Casemiro and attackers Lucas Moura and Luis Fabiano.  His team have recently reached the semi-finals of the Copa Sudamericana and Toloi scored an absolute screamer of a long-range free kick against Universidad de Chile that was clocked going in at 129 km/h.

 

Marquinhos (Roma)

The second Roma player to feature on this list and one that turned up in Serie A a complete unknown.  Despite having one of the leakiest defences in Italy, the youngest has been one of the few shining lights defensively for the Giallorossi.  At only 18 he has become a regular over the past two months and I for one cannot find another centre-back the same age who looks more complete than young Marquinhos.  He has captained the Brazilian U-17 team and has recently made a leap to the U-23 squad.  The 2014 World Cup may come too soon for him but he is a player destined for the highest level.

Has Platini ruined the EURO’s?

I may be looking back through rose-tinted glasses, but I remember EURO 2008, as being a truly great tournament. In fact, I’d say it’s the best tournament that’s taken place in my lifetime. It was, at least in my mind, a tournament where the attacking teams were rewarded and the teams that played negatively went home early. Similarly, EURO 2012 was a good tournament, certainly a step up in terms of drama and tension from the 2010 World Cup.

It didn’t take too long after EURO 2008 for UEFA to ruin things by announcing the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, starting with the next European Championships to be held in France in 2016. UEFA’s executive committee said that the expansion would,

“give middle ranked teams a much greater chance to qualify for the final tournament, thereby expanding the fanbase directly reached, increasing the number of matches played and increasing the overall stadium capacity”

The part they didn’t publish, but was lost on nobody was “and make more money”.

UEFA currently has 53 members, with at least one more expected to join in the next few years. Having 24 teams involved means that around 45% of UEFA’s members will compete in the final stages of what’s supposed to be a major tournament, which is far too high a proportion.

What seems even more stupid is that in the new format, which is expected to be the same as was in the World Cup from 1986 to 1994 – only UEFA could try and modernise something and then come up with a format that was last used 20 years earlier- of the 24 teams going into the tournament, 16 will qualify from the group stages, the top two from each of the six groups of four, plus four third placed finishers.

A team finishing third in their group could quite conceivably not win a match, and yet they are rewarded by progressing to the next stage? It’s highly possible that this will lead to teams playing extremely negative, defensive football in order to grind out enough draws to go through, which will diminish the tournament as a spectacle. It also seems likely that this will lead to an increase in dead rubbers, both in qualifying and the tournament proper, which no fan wants to see.

UEFA’s premise of expanding the number of teams to give middle ranked nations the chance to play just doesn’t add up. Since the inception of the tournament, even when only 4 teams took part, in every European Championship there has always been a nation making their tournament debut, with co-hosts Ukraine continuing that record in this year’s tournament. Remember also that in the playoffs for EURO 2012, Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro could have come through their playoffs to make their tournament debuts.

I can’t see what’s wrong with the current system. It does give ‘middle tiered’ nations the chance to qualify. It’s not easy, but then again, it shouldn’t be. This is a major international tournament we’re talking about. In EURO 2004, against all odds, Latvia qualified for the finals after beating Turkey in a playoff. This was an incredible achievement for a small country, and one which they can look back on with immense pride. Would a team like Latvia get the same sense of satisfaction if they qualified after things were made a little easier for them to do so? I don’t think so.

Generally, the reason why countries are in the middle of the pack is because they don’t have as strong a pool of players to choose from as the teams above them. There are two ways players improve, better coaching and a higher standard of competition. With the latter in mind, it seems incredible that UEFA are seriously considering scrapping the Europa League in favour of an expanded Champions League, which would probably only benefit teams from Europe’s best leagues at the expense of teams from some of the lower-ranked European leagues, which will prevent a lot of players from reaping the benefits of having to compete against a better standard of opponent than they would in their domestic leagues.

When deciding to increase the number of competing teams, something UEFA seemingly didn’t foresee was that more teams in a tournament means more matches, an increase from 31 matches in the 16-team format to 51 in the 24-team format to be exact. This in turn means more stadiums would be required to host those matches, and increase from 8 in EURO 2012 to 10 in EURO 2016, which in turn means more money is required to build or refurbish stadiums to a required standard. Add to that the other costs of hosting a tournament; infrastructure, logistics, security etc. and that means that the cost of hosting a tournament is restrictively high.

Most European countries are currently in deep financial trouble and are on austerity drives to try and stave off financial meltdown. When governments all over Europe are faced with decisions regarding which essential public services they may have to cut to try and cut spending deficits, spending hundreds of millions hosting an international football tournament isn’t high on the agenda for most European nations.

When the invitations to bid for EURO 2020 came in, the list was quite short. There was a half-hearted joint bid from Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland that never really got off the ground; and a bid from Azerbaijan and Georgia, where neither party seemed exactly sure if it was a joint bid or separate ones, but neither bid really went anywhere. Turkey were the only nation to put in an official bid, despite having been ignored several times in the past. However, Istanbul is bidding for the 2020 Olympics, so as a result, UEFA were reluctant to award them the tournament as they don’t want their showpiece to turn into an afterthought.

The lack of an appealing bid from a host nation, or host nations, has led to UEFA announcing that EURO 2020 will be held in 13 cities all over Europe, rather than in one place. “We’re looking at something bigger and more united,” UEFA President Michel Platini said.

“Countries that would never have had the chance to host the Euros will be able to participate in this festival of football.

“The situation is difficult in Europe. It’s hard to ask one country to invest in 10 stadiums like in Ukraine. There’s also the idea of belonging to a European country. It’s a great idea to mark the anniversary.

“The Euros will go to the fans. It’ll meet supporters. In previous years, they had to go to the Euros. Everything will be done so that the fans are able to get to games.”

It hasn’t been announced exactly how it’ll work; there has been some vague talk about the seeded teams being the hosts, but Platini has assured fans they won’t have to travel from side of Europe to the other in order to follow their team.

UEFA have insisted that this will be a one-off, and they plan to revert to having the tournament based in one host country, or host countries, for the 2024 tournament, but I can’t help but get the feeling that this idea may be the shape of things to come rather than a one-off.

This decision hasn’t gone down well with fans. They think Platini is playing a clever political game, and this decision is more about currying favour with some of Europe’s smaller footballing nations in the hopes of securing votes in future elections, rather than being a decision that has been taken with the best interests of supporters in mind.

When an English journalist asked Platini how a fan could be expected to attend games in, for argument’s sake, London, then Munich then Copenhagen, in order to follow their team in the group stages, Platini answered “As you know, there are budget airlines”

Of course, Platini’s right, there are budget airlines, but what he seems unaware of is that these airlines, which are riddled with hidden costs anyway, making what looks to be a cheap flight on paper, not-so cheap in reality, will hike their prices up to exorbitant levels and that assuming that fans can get seats, which are limited.

Even FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke isn’t in favour of this idea, though it does apparently have the support of Sepp Blatter. Valcke said

“If I can express myself as Jerome Valcke, only, not FIFA’s Secretary General, I would say that I don’t understand it,”

“If it transpires that a tournament with 24 teams is more difficult to organise in just one or two countries…that destroys the spirit of the competition.”

One of the huge benefits to having a tournament based in one or two countries is that it becomes a celebration of the host nation (or host nations). It’s a chance for a country to show off a bit and for fans, many of who will be coming to that country for the first time, to experience the culture and traditions of these countries. Also, it’s a chance for visiting fans to congregate and meet people from all over the continent.

That will all go in one fell swoop. Fans will only stay in one place for a day or so at the most, which not only prevents fans from seeing anything other than the football matches, but denies fans the chance to mingle. These tournaments cost a lot to stage, but countries do it knowing that they’ll get a lot of tourist money both for the tournament, and in the future as if a visitor comes to a country for the first time and enjoy themselves, chances are they’ll come again.

UEFA have made their decision and, as a result, EURO 2020 will now be held all over Europe. Platini claims that this decision and the decision to expand the European Championships is all about including more teams and more fans, which in theory is a laudable notion. However, I can’t help but feeling the reality will be a diluted version of the existing tournament, which the ordinary fan is priced out of attending.

Michel Platini clearly doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Diego Forlan 100th Cap

At 34 and playing his club football in Brazil, many thought Diego Forlan’s best days in a Uruguay shirt were behind him. Three years removed from winning the Golden Ball in the 2010 World Cup, Forlan had been forced to return to South America — the continent he left in 2001 — after his failed season at Inter Milan in 2011. On the peripheral of the Uruguayan national team and well behind Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in the striking order, his odds for a starting World Cup place seemed long. And then came the second half of Uruguay’s Confederations Cup opener against Spain.

Forced to watch from the bench as Spain terrorized La Celeste, Forlan could only sit helplessly, left waiting for an opportunity to change Uruguay’s fortunes. Having watched for more than an hour, his opportunity arrived in the 69th minute. As one Diego exited another arrived, when Diego Lugano made way for what would become Forlan’s record breaking 99th appearance for his country. With Uruguay already down two, Forlan found himself on the pitch with just twenty-one minutes with which to work a comeback. The substitution moved Cavani out to the right flank as Suarez occupied the center, leaving the space beneath the Liverpool striker appropriately available for Forlan — the man who wears Uruguay’s #10 shirt.

While his tangible impact may have been minimal — a more cynical critic might point out that he failed to even once threaten Casillas’ goal — and the comeback was ultimately left only half-complete, Forlan introduced a new mindset to the Uruguayan midfield. From the moment he came on, he brought a belief that the Spanish midfield could be attacked, that there was finally a player in white who believed he could provide the pass that might open the Spanish defense. Indeed, it was his pass into Suarez that forced Sergio Ramos to concede the foul that led to Suarez’s curling free kick that that saw Uruguay climb to within one — the closest they would get.

Despite the loss, Forlan showed enough of his enduring quality to warrant a place in the starting eleven three days later in the pivotal match against Nigeria. In a game that would see the winner advance to the semifinals (barring a shock defeat to Tahiti in their final group match Uruguay would finish on six points with a victory), Forlan proved the difference for the South Americans. Marking his 100th appearance with a goal and an assist, the 34 year old Forlan won man of the match, providing the attacking impetus his side so obviously lacked against Spain. While the difference in opposition is clear — 30 spots separate Spain from Nigeria in FIFA’s rankings — it would require a far more calloused viewer than I to deny Forlan’s creative influence on this side. Having previously lost his place to Cavani, a player who so often fails to replicate his club form at the international level, Forlan (who is quite the opposite, as his goal against Nigeria saw his then Uruguayan record climb to an impressive 33) looks to have surely forced Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguayan manager, into permanently adopting a three pronged trident in attack.

And so two years on from having scored twice in the final of the 2011 Copa America — a result that earned Uruguay its place in this Confederations Cup — it seems only appropriate Diego Forlan would score the goal that books them their trip to the semifinal. All, while re-establishing himself as the all-important Uruguayan #10.

In Defense of the Confeds

The Confederations Cup – often perceived as little more than a tune-up for the World Cup – is an infinitely interesting competition. While the sides that participate are often international powers (Spain, Italy, Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico participated in this year’s installment), the overwhelming sense is that it isn’t a competition that has to be won. Indeed, it’s the only major international competition Spain hasn’t won, having been knocked out in the semifinals in 2009 to, gasp, the United States. And it’s exactly this sense of indifference that makes it so exciting, often bordering on the exotic. Without fear of losing, caution is thrown to the wind as the matches are there to be won.

Lacking the glory and prestige of the European Championships and the World Cup, the Confederations Cup is a chance for the larger powers to experiment, to tinker, and to ultimately attack. While the Euros and World Cups are often devoid of the swashbuckling sides who venture forward unafraid to concede, the Confederations Cup exists for precisely such purpose. Consider the play of this year’s participants: Spain has, for the first time since they conquered world football, abandoned the safety of the double pivot. Italy, a side notorious for its defensive tactics, failed to keep a clean sheet in three group matches, conceding four to Brazil, three to Japan, and one to Mexico. While Brazil has restored their place among the top sides in the world after a difficult three years, taking nine points from nine in their opening group (including a 4-2 win against Italy). Japan, everyone’s favorite 2014 dark-horse not named Belgium, both dazzled and disappointed, simultaneously instilling confidence while failing to live up to the increased expectation.

And all this without mentioning the tournament darlings, Tahiti. Having qualified for their first major competition, Tahiti boasts a squad with just a single professional footballer, one Marama Vahirua, who plays his club football for Panthrakikos. Yet despite their limitations, the Tahitians refused to park the bus or to accept defeat, playing instead an attacking brand of football, complete with their very own offside trap – a strategy that was not ultimately rewarded. Conceding twenty-four goals in just three matches, Tahiti’s tournament was expectedly short, although having netted a goal against Nigeria, their performance almost seems impressive.

Leaving behind team performances, the matches themselves have been every bit the entertainment the Confederations Cup has come to provide. Having been devoid of a truly exciting World Cup since the mid to late 90’s, the open, attacking brand of football played in Brazil has been a gift to be cherished. Surely the match of the tournament thus far (although a potential Spain/Brazil final certainly leaves us salivating), Italy’s absurd 4-3 win against Japan provided a little bit of everything: two lead changes as Italy overturned an early 2-nil deficit, only to see Japan tie the match at three before they disappointingly (and undeservedly) conceded a fourth late at the death; two terrible penalty awards; and an own goal. Truly, footballing entertainment at its peak.

On an individual level, we’ve seen both the good and the bad of several high-profile players. Neymar has responded brilliantly to the impossibly high expectations that come with the title of “next great Brazilian,” scoring three goals in three and winning all three available Man of the Match titles. Likewise, Diego Forlan has turned back time in his one and a half matches – once in a substitute appearance against Spain and the other with a Man of the Match performance against Nigeria (he was rested against Tahiti in preparation for Uruguay’s semifinal against Brazil) – reestablishing himself as an indispensable player for La Celeste. And as for the bad, Gigi Buffon’s poor tournament has begun to elicit questions as to Italy’s goalkeeping situation: could it finally be time for him to step aside? While aside for one sterling free-kick in the opening match, Buffon’s club and Italian teammate Andrea Pirlo has struggled to impress, especially in the match against Japan. While most likely little more than aberrations taken from a small sample size, both players’ poor form has certainly made life harder on coach Cesare Prandelli, who will need both men at their best if they are to exact revenge on Spain in their semifinal encounter on Thursday.

The 2013 Confeds edition has been used by teams with legitimate hopes of 2014 success as an opportunity to tweak formations, build confidence and correct problems. Vicente del Bosque has used the competition as a chance to try a new, more direct approach, perhaps hoping a new wrinkle in an old system will combat complacency while yielding further success for a side that has won almost everything.

For Brazil, it is a confidence builder; dropping all the way to 22nd in the newest FIFA rankings (barely above Mali who find themselves at 23), the Seleção were in desperate need for a successful tournament. And while Neymar has deservedly received the plaudits, it’s the defense, anchored by Thiago Silva and David Luiz, having conceded just two goals in three matches (and none in the first two) that have Brazil again dreaming of winning the Cup on home soil.

For Uruguay and Mexico, two teams that have struggled mightily in World Cup qualifying, this tournament was supposed to provide the opportunity to right past wrongs and return to qualifying with a renewed sense of hope. And while Uruguay, fresh off their successful navigation of a tricky group, might have accomplished exactly that, Mexico return home having earned just three points, while being routinely outplayed for long stretches. In desperate need of answers, Chepo de la Torro was instead bombarded with only more questions, the biggest of which involves his future.

After a week and a half of open and dramatic football, four teams went home: Tahiti’s fairy tale was brought to a close, Mexico found little to no hope for their future qualifiers, Japan’s attacking style yielded a disappointing zero points, while Nigeria leaves desperately hoping they can find a striker with a knack for finishing. The knockout stages, as many would have expected, left us four traditionally great sides – indeed, all four semifinalists have won World Cups.

As Brazil’s dramatic 2-1 win against Uruguay in the semi-finals put the hosts through to the final, all that is left to be decided is who they’ll play. And with a dream final between the newest Brazilian generation and mighty Spain now within reach, the unfairly derided and oft-maligned Confederations Cup has perhaps saved the best for last.

Can Iceland make the World Cup?

By Tuesday night, something incredible may have happened in European and World football.

One European nation may well have taken a giant step towards becoming the smallest ever country to qualify for the World Cup by securing a place in the playoffs, meaning they would be just one two-legged tie away from making the World Cup.

This team has scored more goals in qualifying than much stronger teams like Spain, France, Portugal, Serbia and Croatia and has managed to defy the odds in order to give themselves a real shot at making history.

This team is Iceland. For those who don’t know, Iceland is an island nation found in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is famous for being extremely volcanic; you might remember a few years ago an ash cloud from a volcanic eruption stopped air travel in Europe for a few days; and is also very seismically active. Iceland has a population of around 325,000, and it is Europe’s most sparsely populated country.  To put it into context, Iceland has a population one quarter of that of the current smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup, Trinidad and Tobago (1.3 million).

Iceland currently lies in second place in its qualifying group, with the eight best runners-up from the nine qualifying groups moving on to a playoff. They play Norway away on Tuesday. On paper that doesn’t sound too easy but Norway are now out of contention for the qualifying spots.

Group E is one of the tightest groups in UEFA’s qualifying competition for second place. Up until the penultimate matchday on Friday, no team had qualified and only Cyprus have so far had been eliminated.   Switzerland’s 1-2 victory away to Albania on Friday night saw them top the group five points clear of second placed Iceland ith one game to play.

Now that Switzerland have qualified,  there are still two teams that can finish as runner-up in the group, but as it stands, only Iceland would have enough points when the results against the bottom-placed team are ignored (in UEFA there are 8 groups of 6 teams and one of 5 teams, so to make it fair the 8 best runner-up places are determined by results against the top 5 teams in each group), to count as one of the top 8 runners-up without having to rely on goal difference.

This means the ball is very much in Iceland’s court. Whilst Iceland are playing Norway away, Slovenia travel to Switzerland. Although the Swiss have already secured top spot, they are on a 13 game unbeaten streak and will not relinquish it easily.

If Iceland do manage to finish second in their group, it will cap a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Strakamir Okkar (which means ‘our boys’) in just a couple of years.

Iceland have never qualified for a major football tournament before. Their previous best qualifying performance was in the qualifying competition for EURO 2004, where they went into the final game against Germany with a chance of topping the group, but lost 3-0. The most famous moment in Icelandic football might have been in a game against Estonia in 1996, where Arnor Gudjohnsen was substituted for his son Eidur (who later went on to play for Chelsea and Barcelona amongst other clubs).

Following a dismal qualifying campaign for EURO 2012, where Iceland only picked up 4 points and lost 6 out of the 8 games they played, Iceland fired their manager, Olafur Johannesson. Iceland thought big when looking for a replacement, and ended up hiring Swedish manager Lars Lagerback. Lagerback had been manager of Sweden for 9 years (for 4 of those he was joint manager with Tommy Soderberg, having previously been Soderberg’s assistant), managing Sweden in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, as well as EURO 2000, 2004 and 2008. Lagerback had also managed Nigeria in the 2010 World Cup. So, Iceland had hired a very experienced international manager.

Despite the Icelandic league being weak (currently ranked 37 in Europe) and the small population size to work with; for the past couple of decades Iceland has seemed to produce a disproportionate amount of good footballers, but they weren’t producing enough to make a strong team.

In 2000, the KSI (the governing body of football in Iceland) decided to overhaul the league system and infrastructure, with a heavy emphasis on improving the facilities available to young players.

Vidir Sigurdsson, Sports editor of Morgunbladid (a leading Icelandic newspaper) believes the change in infrastructure has been the key to improving Icelandic footballers

“The start of the radical change in Icelandic football we’ve seen over the past ten years was the building of the indoor facilities and stadiums we have now. It was a big effort but we can now see the benefits of it.

“As well as building these big, expensive facilities, the KSI made moves to build small artificial pitches all over the countries, close to schools. This puts focus on the small game and the technical side and means that now we have a generation of young football players who have had excellent facilities and the best coaching since a very young age”

As a result of an improvement in facilities, more people are now playing football, with an estimated 22,000 registered footballers in Iceland, which is about 7% of Iceland’s total population. This has been coupled with a sevenfold increase in the number of UEFA qualified coaches from what the number in 2000.

Sigurdsson says, “The level of coaching in Iceland is at a very high standard now. Every club now has a team of well-educated coaches for each of their teams, at every age group.

“Of course, it would be no good to have great football facilities if there weren’t qualified coaches to guide the young players (England take note). You need to get the mixture right, and it looks like we’re doing that.

“Promising players get their chance very early on here, and we regularly see 16-18 year olds performing in most of the teams in the top two divisions. If they’re good enough, they play for the first team. It’s not a case of gradually working them in, like it is in other countries. That’s just not the mentality we have.”

This policy has started to bear fruit, with Iceland’s Under-21 team qualifying for the 2011 UEFA Under-21 Championships, where they beat Germany to a qualifying spot in their group, including a 4-1 win over Germany. Currently, Iceland’s under-21’s are top of their qualifying group for the 2015 championships, with four wins out of four so far.

Over the past four years, 17 players have graduated from the under-21 team to the senior side (which would’ve been 18 had Aron Johannsson, not opted to represent the USA having represented Iceland at every level except the national team), which is far more than most countries can manage.

Apart from the obvious advantages of having an influx of fresh talent in the team, with several of those players now plying their trade in some of Europe’s stronger leagues; there’s also an advantage in having a large proportion of your team having played with each other from a young age, and that’s an advantage Iceland have used well.

Despite having an experienced manager and an improved side, the odds were still stacked against Iceland qualifying. Their poor performances in EURO 2012 qualifying meant that their ranking was so low, they were in the bottom pot (UEFA teams are split into 6 groups of nine determined by ranking, with qualifying groups being made up of 1 team from each group) when it came to drawing the qualifying group, which meant that, in theory at least, Iceland would have had to face five teams that were stronger than them.

Iceland started their qualifying campaign with a great 2-0 win over Norway, but followed that up with defeat in Cyprus. There have been some disappointing results, including a 2-4 home loss to Slovenia, but as the other teams in the group have been taking points off each other, Iceland has been steadily winning. They showed that they were serious contenders in September by coming back from being 4-1 down in Switzerland to draw 4-4, which is even more remarkable when you consider that prior to that game; Switzerland had only conceded 1 goal in qualifying. Iceland then followed that up with a 2-1 win over Albania, which has put them in a great position to get to the playoffs.  And with Friday’s 2-0 home victory over Cyprus, it has set the scene beautifully.

Should they get there however, it won’t be easy. The playoffs are seeded, and amongst the current second place sides, Iceland are one of the lowest ranked, which could mean they play a team like Croatia, Greece, Portugal or Sweden.

However Iceland’s 2014 World Cup story ends, the team can feel very proud of the massive step forward they have taken during this qualifying round, and, thanks to a tremendous amount of effort in developing a thriving youth system, have every reason to feel optimistic that they will be able to sustain this improved level of competitiveness in years to come.

Football Reunites in Cyprus

It’s not often I can write something in praise of FIFA and UEFA. However, last week, they may have helped to broker a deal to end a bitter dispute between two nations (in terms of playing football, anyway) and to bring in one of the largest European nations currently outside of FIFA and UEFA in from the football wilderness.

Cyprus is an island nation in the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout history, Cyprus has been subsumed into the various empires that have existed in the Eastern Mediterranean, ending up as part of the Ottoman Empire. The population of Cyprus was split, mostly between people of Greek and Turkish extraction, with about 75% being of Greek origin and about 25% of Turkish origin.

In 1878 after a war with Russia, the Ottomans allowed Cyprus to become a protectorate of the UK, in exchange for UK military aid should Russia attack Ottoman territory. When World War One broke out in 1914, and the Ottoman Empire declared war on Britain, Britain annexed Cyprus (though they did offer it to Greece in exchange for Greek participation in WW1, which was refused), and after the war, it became a British Crown Colony and the British introduced football to the island. The Cypriot Football Association (KOP) was formed in 1934 and a league was organised consisting of both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot players and teams, who coexisted and played in a national league without too many problems. Cyprus was admitted to FIFA in 1948.

Post World War Two, civil war broke out in Greece. This had a knock-on effect to the Greek community in Cyprus. Cypriot clubs and footballers had to swear allegiance to the fascist Greek government if they wanted to play. This meant that a lot of players with left-wing political views ended up kicked out of their clubs and barred from playing by the Cypriot Football Association. Those players ended up forming the Cypriot Amateur Football Federation (CAFF) in 1948, and created their own football teams that played in a championship created by them. Six teams were formed, Omonia Nicosia being probably the most famous of them (and are still heavily associated with left-wing politics to this day).

After five years, the CAFF clubs were allowed to join the main Cypriot league, and Omonia Nicosia, Alki Larnaca, Nea Salamis and Orfeas Nicosia still play in the Cypriot leagues today (Orfeas have the distinction of being one of the few football teams in the world whose stadium is both adjacent to a medieval city wall and in a UN buffer zone). Unfortunately, this unified league was only to last for two years.

In the early fifties, the rumblings amongst Cypriots about the future of Cyprus came out into the open. Most Greek Cypriots favoured a policy of enosis (union) with Greece, and started to put pressure on Britain internationally to allow Greece to annex Cyprus. After Britain resisted, an organisation called EOKA was formed, with the aim of forcing Britain out of Cyprus and allowing enosis to take place; and they conducted an armed campaign on British and British-connected targets and were not averse to using bombs.

The Turkish Cypriot community were horrified by the idea of enosis, and responded by declaring they were in favour of the policy of taksim (separation), and set up their own armed group, TMT, and declared the northern half of Cyprus for Turkey.

This conflict had a catastrophic effect on lives in Cyprus, as both Greek and Turkish Cypriots were forced to leave their homes in the face of increasing violence. It also had a huge impact on football in the island. Allegedly, Cetinkaya, the most successful Turkish Cypriot team were prevented from playing and as a result, the Turkish Cypriot teams withdrew from the league and set up their own governing body, the Cyprus Turkish Football Association (KTTF) and their own league, the Birinci Lig.

In 1960, a compromise was reached between the Greek and Turkish communities on Cyprus and Britain, which resulted in the formation of an independent Cyprus with a power-sharing agreement between the Greek and Turkish communities. Cyprus was allowed to join UEFA in 1962.

However, this peace on Cyprus didn’t last long. Some Greek Cypriots were not prepared to let the idea of enosis die, and in 1963 came up with the Akritas Plan, which aimed to remove all Turkish Cypriots within the government, thus allowing plans of enosis to be able to be pushed through. Violence broke out on the island, and most of the Turkish Cypriots fled to enclaves. In 1964, the UN, fearing a massacre of the Turkish Cypriots, intervened, sending peacekeeping troops to Cyprus, where they remain to this day.

In 1974, things got worse on Cyprus. A Greek-sponsored coup d’état tried to overthrow the government and prompted a retaliatory invasion by Turkey. After about a month of fighting, the Turks captured about 38% of Cyprus, most of the North of the island. During this time, there was a population exchange, where 200,000 Greek Cypriots were located to the South, Greek Cypriot controlled part of Cyprus, and 60,000 Turkish Cypriots went north.

The result of this was the Cyprus was divided by a line called the Attila Line (it’s also called the Green Line in Nicosia), which separates Turkish Cyprus from Greek Cyprus and there is a UN buffer zone between the two sides. In 1983, the Turkish zone declared itself to be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is only officially recognised by Turkey, and is under heavy embargos from Cyprus.

During this time, Cyprus’ football team, which is solely made up of players from the Republic of Cyprus (the Greek part of the island), were regularly participating in international games, and qualifying campaigns for the World Cup and European Championships, though they didn’t qualify for any tournaments.

Northern Cyprus also has a football team that was playing internationals, usually against Turkey, but, crucially, they weren’t officially recognised by FIFA or UEFA. In 1975, FIFA general-secretary Helmut Kaser granted permission for Northern Cyprus to play friendly internationals against FIFA countries, but not competitive games. Technically this agreement still stands; but after the formation of the TRNC in 1983, no FIFA team apart from Turkey would play them.

In recent years, Cypriot football has become much stronger. Though they had a poor qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup; Cyprus’ national team has improved a lot in recent years, and was ranked in the top 50 of the FIFA rankings a few years ago.

During that time, club football has seemingly improved. APOEL FC have become regular participants in the Champions League and Europa league, and they reached the Champions League quarter-finals two seasons ago.

As football in the Repulic of Cyprus has been steadily improving; football in the TRNC has been stuck in limbo (Steve Menary’s excellent book Outcasts, explains it really well). The Birinci Lig isn’t particularly competitive or of a high standard; the best players often opt to play in Turkey (Galatasaray have an academy in Northern Cyprus), where they are counted as overseas players and can struggle to find clubs, or worse (from a TRNC perspective at least), play in the Republic of Cyprus. Some TRNC-eligible players have represented Turkey (Muzzy Izzet and Colin Kazim-Richards being two examples) and one, Everton’s Leon Osman, has played for England.

The TRNC did join the NF board for teams not affiliated to FIFA, winning the FIFI Wild Cup in 2006 and were runners-up in the VIVA World Cup last year, losing to Iraqi Kurdistan in the final.

However, football fans in the TRNC are fed up with the football world passing them by, and want the situation to change.
There have been attempts to reunite the KOP and the KTTF in the past. In 2007, FIFA opened talks, which were tentatively progressing before a change of government in the TRNC put a stop to them.

FIFA and UEFA tried again, and last week, after several months of discussion; KOP President Costakis Koutsokoumnis and KTTF president Hasan Sertoğlu announced that, in principle, a deal had been reached, which if ratified, would mean the KTTF would become a member of KOP, which would allow Turkish Cypriot sides to play in KOP competitions, but retain the right to organise competitions between TRNC clubs, should they wish to do so and arrange friendlies between TRNC teams and foreign sides, meaning money-spinning games with some of the large Turkish club sides are a real possibility. Also, the KOP and KTTF have agreed to set up a committee to find a way to allow Turkish Cypriots a substantial say in how the game is run in Cyprus.

“Today is a historic day for football in Cyprus, but also for the Cypriot people in general,” said Koutsokoumnis. “After 60 years of separation, it is now possible to reunite football. The fact that we have got to this stage, under the auspices of FIFA and UEFA, and drawn up and signed a road map for a united Cypriot football gives us all hope that we can solve all of the issues that lie ahead, provided the good will shown until now continues”

This deal wasn’t universally welcomed in either side of Cyprus. One Turkish Cypriot newspaper described the deal as “Political Treason”, and TRNC President Dervis Eroglu has spoke out against it. There were also reports that Sertoğlu wants to change some aspects of the deal, which Koutsokoumnis insists isn’t up for discussion, and the deal does contain a clause which allows both parties to terminate it at any time. But, for the first time in a long time, there is a real possibility of things changing for the better, in football terms at least, for Northern Cyprus.

It’s way too early to talk about a unified Cypriot football team, but such an idea has moved closer than it has been for nearly 60 years. Sepp Blatter recognised the significance of this deal by saying

“Both the Cyprus Football Association and the Cyprus Turkish Football Association are today providing the whole world with an excellent example of how football can build bridges and bring people together after a long period of conflict. I would like to thank both associations and UEFA for their outstanding contribution to this milestone arrangement.”

UEFA President Michel Platini added “We live in a world in which it is easier to divide than to unite, which means that today is all the more exceptional. It is a historic moment for Cypriot football, and I would like to congratulate the presidents of the two associations, who have shown exemplary courage and perseverance.”

This deal probably puts to an end the TRNC national team, as them playing a game would probably prompt the KOP to tear up the agreement, but players from the TRNC could now in theory, appear in the World Cup, or other FIFA competitions. An appearance by a Northern Cyprus team in the UEFA Regions Cup (a competition for amateur teams) is a possibility.

Kosovo make their international debut

Last week saw international football being played all over Europe, with friendly games giving most of the European teams going to this summer’s World Cup another chance to experiment with different players and formations, or just to give players a little more international experience.

However, one of those international games was a little different from all the others. For a start, there weren’t any national flags or symbols on display and no national anthems were played before the game. That didn’t matter too much to the host nation however, as it was their first ever international game; a game which for years seemed unlikely ever to happen. That nation is Kosovo, who hosted Haiti on Wednesday night.

Kosovo is a region that seceded from Serbia after years of warfare and ethnic tensions between Serb and Albanian communities, and declared its independence in 2008. It is currently officially recognised by 23 of the 28 member nations of the European Union and 108 UN nations in total worldwide.

To become a member state of the UN, the state applying needs the support of at least 9 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council, which must include support from all five permanent members (USA, UK, China, Russia and France). At present amongst the current UN Security council members; Argentina, Chile and Rwanda do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. Unfortunately for Kosovo, neither do Russia or China, so Kosovo stand little chance of becoming UN members for the foreseeable future.

This really hurts them when it comes to playing international football. In 2002, as part of their efforts to keep Spain sweet by barring Gibraltar from joining (despite a their own executive committee recommending their admission); UEFA passed a resolution stating that all UEFA members need to be members of the UN, with grandfather clauses allowing non-UN nations England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Faroe Islands to keep their UEFA member status.

In the case of Gibraltar, a court ruled that as they had applied for membership before UEFA passed that resolution, it didn’t apply to them and UEFA had to let them in, which they eventually did, following multiple court orders, in 2013.

So in international football terms, Kosovo have been on the outside looking in. Sadly, UEFA president Michel Platini seemed unmoved by Kosovo’s plight and was unwilling to do anything to help. In 2012, Sepp Blatter, in a rare display of acting for the good of football, and much to the chagrin of Platini, forced a decision through the ExCo, which meant that Kosovo could play international games against FIFA teams.

It took some time for the details to be worked out, but FIFA announced in January that Kosovo could play friendlies, albeit with restrictions that include no displays of emblems or flags, no national anthems and Kosovo can’t play against any of its fellow Balkan nations. After some consideration, Haiti were chosen as Kosovo’s first opponents.

There was some controversy over Kosovo’s choice of venue. Rather than the capital, Pristina, the game will be played in Mitrovica, a town with a sizeable Serb population. The ruling body for football in Kosovo, the Football Federation of Kosovo, said that this was the only suitable stadium in the country.

Then there was the question of who Kosovo would pick to play. The violence and poverty which has blighted life in Kosovo for years has resulted in a substantial Diaspora of Kosovar people all over Europe. Several footballers of Kosovar heritage have emerged as players for other countries. Players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami of Switzerland, Sweden’s Emir Bajrami, Lorik Cana of Albania and Shefki Kuqi of Finland are all experienced internationals, who would qualify to play for Kosovo.

Also, some ethnic Serbs from Kosovo have chosen to represent Serbia at international level. This includes recent Serbian international players Milos Krasic and Miralem Sulejmani.

Sepp Blatter has said that if Kosovo were ever to join FIFA, no player could switch nationality if they had played for another international side (except Serbia), but as this is just a representative team, there was theoretically no reason Kosovo couldn’t select any eligible player who wished to play.

On Sunday, the Kosovo squad was announced. As expected, none of the players currently involved in the Swiss setup were selected, but Albert Bunjaku, who played for Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup, was included.

Hashim Tachi, Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo, meets the Kosovan squad before the match against Haiti.

Other members of the squad include Palermo goalkeeper Samir Ujkani, an Albanian international, as well as fellow internationals Ardian Gashi (Norway) and Lum Rexhepi (Finland), as well as under-21 internationals Loret Sadhiku (Sweden) and Flamur Kastrati (Norway). Emir Bajrami missed out because of injury.

Kosovo had also hoped to call up Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj, who was born and raised in Belgium, but qualifies for Kosovo through his parents. However, Januzaj has opted to give this game a miss and is still undecided on which country he wants to represent, with Belgium and Albania both vying for his services, and he could also qualify through residency for England in a few years.

Wednesday’s match was played in front of a packed stadium, which could have been filled several times over, such was the demand for tickets. While it looks as though Kosovo’s football team won’t be able to join UEFA or FIFA any time soon, at least they are able to finally play and Kosovar footballers can dream of representing their own country in the future.