Kangaroo Leather Soccer Cleats, an Ethical Dilemma.

The Adidas Copa Mundial is the best-selling cleat of all-time. Players and aficionados boast that the shoes are the most comfortable, durable, and strong boot out in the market. One of the most important aspects of the cleat is the kangaroo leather (which covers most of the top). Although the Copa Mundial wasn’t the first shoe to utilize kangaroo leather, it did set a new standard with obvious benefits over calf or goat leather. These benefits unfortunately came with a cost on the kangaroo species. Kangaroo leather is great for cleats, there is no doubt about this, but is it ethical to purchase them? Lets take a quick look at the history and current issues of soccer shoes and kangaroo leather.
 

“45 velvet pairs and 1 leather pair for football.”

King Henry VIII is most notably known for two things: his separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, and his six marriages. What is little known is that King Henry was also the first recorded person to own a pair of soccer cleats. Included with his demand of velvet shoes was a “leather pair for football.” These boots were ankle high, heavy and made of calf leather. That was in 1526, and until the 1900′s, cowhide continued to be the primary material used for soccer shoes around the world.

It wasn’t until the 1940′s that soccer cleats began to resemble the ones we use today. The Brazilians are credited for influencing this change. A visiting Arsenal team saw what their South American counter-parts were using and marveled at the difference. The Brazilians favored boots that had a low-ankle, were lighter and more flexible. As opposed to just protecting the feet, they tailored their style to have a better “touch” on the ball. The influence of these shoes spread across Europe and eventually into Germany.

In the late 1940′s a German cobbler named Adolf Dassler split up a shoe company which he, and his brother Rudolf owned. Animosity over political differences was high at the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory. Rudolf created a new shoe factory on the other side of town and Adolf decided to rename the current store. Adolf renamed the company Adidas, while his brother started a separate company named Puma, perhaps you’ve heard of them?

These two companies utilized the South American influence to create shoes that were worn by the world’s best during the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s. Adidas and Puma dominated the market together until 1979 when Adidas released a new style, the Copa Mundial. What the Copa Mundial showcased was a much lighter, durable, soft, and comfortable cleat than any other in the market. After being used in the 1982 World Cup, the Copa Mundial would soon become the best-selling cleat of all-time. The difference was kangaroo leather.

Kangaroo leather has 10 times the tensile strength of cowhide and is 50% stronger than goatskin. If you were to split the leather down to only 20% of the original thickness, it would retain 30% to 60% of it’s original strength. If the same were done to calf leather, it would have a retention rate of only 1%-4%. If you were to put kangaroo skin under a microscope, you would notice a few unique traits. Their skin contains no erector pili muscles or sweat glands. This allows their hide to contain a high uniform orientation of fibre bundles, which makes it stronger. Their leather makes our cleats better, but what about the kangaroos themselves?

Viva!, (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals) have claimed that although it is legal for Adidas to hire workers to cull and kill the kangaroos, they do so using inhumane methods. Reports by Viva have shown that in certain situations, kangaroos have been beat to death using crude tools. The Australian Wildlife Protection Council along with the ABC documentary, “Kangaroos- Faces in the Mob” have also made complaints about the government-allowed “Code of Practice,” which allows the killing of kangaroos (young and old) using whatever instrument at hand (examples were: cars, water pipes and tree trunks). Numbers and reports claim that over a million die every year using these methods.

Wildlife Carers Group of Australia have also made claims that the government seldom use humane methods to kill the kangaroos. “They actually end up bashing them [kangaroos] to death. It’s never a clean kill,” states one member of WCG.

 

The government has responded by claiming that kangaroos, at times, are pests. In some areas of Australia there can be up to 1,100 kangaroos per square mile. The large numbers of kangaroos not only devastates local crops, but also destroys the grassy homes of endangered species. The government has also noted that large populations also put themselves in danger by running through traffic. In Canberra alone, around 1,000 kangaroos die each year by crossing into roads. The damages done to vehicles and roads cost $5 million per year. The overpopulation of kangaroos in Australia has proven to be a financial and environmental hindrance on the country. That being said, are the methods used to kill the kangaroos justified?

Luckily, man-made plastics and materials for cleats have been on the rise. With support from multiple wildlife and environmental groups, the push for synthetic cleats will continue for years. After the addition of Nike’s Mercurial Vapor’s onto the market, synthetic based shoes have become more popular. Will this soon cease the production of kangaroo leather shoes or will the synthetic materials prove to be a fad?

There is a pair of white Joma Castillas sitting across from me in my room. They are by far the most comfortable pair I have ever owned and breaking them in was almost too easy. They are also made of kangaroo leather. When I purchased them, I was aware of what they were made of but never thought too much about the situation. Should this stop me from buying the same exact pair? If I was to apply this logic of “ethics”, perhaps I should also throw away my iPod, not drive my car to work, toss half of my clothing away, and toss this laptop which I am currently using. I could also take these things one step at a time. Will I buy the same exact pair of shoes next time, I might. Will I consider my other options, I definitely will.

Being: Liverpool. More than just a show…

‘Being: Liverpool’, a six-part show produced by FOX, premiered here in the UK on Friday night.

The overwhelming response here in the UK seems to be one of disappointment. Liverpool fans are disappointed that the programme isn’t going to be that in-depth and they won’t learn anything that they probably don’t already know about the club, apart from what the inside of some of the players houses look like, Fabio Borini being a bit squeamish when getting some blood drawn, masseur Paul Small is as flexible as a block of concrete and Jamie Carragher’s not exactly a fan of yoga.

There is a sense of disappointment amongst fans of other clubs and those in the media who enjoy nothing better than a bit of Liverpool bashing, as the programme really didn’t contain much ammunition for them. There was a bit of sniggering in some quarters about Brendan Rodgers having a portrait of himself in his house, which quieted down when it was pointed out to them that it was a gift from a charity he’d done some fundraising for, rather than a testament to his own ego.

Other sections of the sporting media and TV critics are disappointed as they seemed to be expecting some kind of hard-hitting exposé that would show Liverpool warts n’ all, but instead were treated to a pretty bland, vanilla show that amounted to an hour-long puff piece that in parts was more like something you’d find in Hello! magazine.

The important thing that seems to have been forgotten by most people in the UK is that this programme was not made with the UK audience in mind. It wasn’t made to please the Liverpool fanbase. It wasn’t even made for those Americans who really like football and know their stuff about the sport. It was made for people who have a passing interest in English football, or football in general, in the hopes that the programme might turn that interest into support for Liverpool, or maybe it would just appeal to those transatlantic fans who want to know a little more about Liverpool and what happens behind the scenes. It was also made with the intention that viewers may watch this and as a result, watch the next EPL game shown on Fox.

Generally, relationships between football clubs and the UK media are pretty poor. British newspapers are all sensation, no sense. The malicious nature of the media here means that there is simply no way any Premier League club would consent to a UK channel being given such access as they would not trust them to use the footage in a fair, responsible way and would probably be correct in their mistrust.

The documentaries I’ve seen produced by US sports channels are not only well written and well produced; they also present what’s on-screen in a totally fair, impartial way, leaving it up to the viewer to draw whatever conclusions they wish from what is on screen. In the UK there’s always an angle to shows like this, things are shown out of context to deliberately portray people in a bad light, if not completely humiliate them, and the viewer is always steered towards whatever conclusion the makers want them to draw.

There have been several of these style documentaries made in the UK before, but the difference between ‘Being Liverpool’ and the UK-made documentaries was that those shows were specifically made for their car-crash potential. They focused on clubs who were struggling, whether on the pitch in terms of league position, off the pitch in terms of finances or were just struggling to compete with bigger sides around them.

They also followed a similar format to each other. There were the long-suffering fans, a long-serving member of the club’s groundstaff who was ‘a bit of a character’, blood-and-thunder football and a beleaguered chairman desperately trying to hold everything together, and mostly failing. There was usually a megalomaniac owner who clashed with just about everyone and the spectacular fallouts that followed were captured on camera for all to see.

Usually, the star of the show was the manager. What most people, and I’m guilty of this too, tuned into these shows to watch was a manager absolutely blowing his top at his team during a game, tearing strips off players for some failing, or perceived failing at half-time, and trying to spur them on through threats, encouragement or if that failed, plenty of swearing.

Plenty of managers have suffered as a result of these shows in the past. Graham Taylor, a man who’s public image was already low as a result of his time in charge of England, was left humiliated after the screening of the show ‘The Impossible Job’, where his disastrous qualifying campaign for the 94 World Cup was captured on camera. There was “Premier Passions”, a show that followed Sunderland around for a season, where viewers were treated to the regular occurrence of then-manager Peter Reid turning the air blue with his half-time team-talks leaving him with a reputation that he’s found hard to shake off. Similarly, the show “There’s only one Barry Fry” followed Peterborough United manager Fry, who is one of English football’s more colorful characters, swearing his way around the old division two.

There was a show called “Leyton Orient: Yours for a fiver” (in the mid 90’s Orient’s then-owner coffee growing business collapsed as a result of the war in Rwanda, and he put the club up for sale for £5) that followed London side Leyton Orient and featured a memorable half-time team talk where co-manager John Sitton channeled his inner Ray Winstone (I’ll give an explicit language warning to that link), and another memorable half-time discussion where Sitton, who had been gradually getting angrier and angrier, sacked one player at half-time and offered to fight two others whilst delivering a team-talk peppered with ‘f’ and ‘c’ words to the rest of the team. After the documentary aired, Sitton, who had been fired by then, ended up becoming a taxi driver (again, plenty of swearing here, don’t say you weren’t warned!).

Brendan Rodgers doesn’t look as though he’s going to provide the same entertainment value in his dealings with the Liverpool squad, or if he does, the viewer won’t see it, save for a few players getting yelled at in training.

Rodgers doesn’t fit the old-school image of a manager. He is a more modern figure, who probably would look out-of-place in a corporate boardroom. He has obviously been trained in how to speak to the media, as he is very comfortable in front of a camera. He has been dismissed as a David Brent/Michael Scott figure, all management speak and gobbledygook, mainly because he can actually string a sentence together without lapsing into tired clichés. Rodgers came across as a confident, assured manager who has a clear vision of both what he wants to do, and how he intends to do it.

It is believed that Liverpool have a great deal of critical control and have seemingly exercised their rights. The cameras were there in the summer when Kenny Dalglish was fired, and it would’ve been interesting to have seen what actually happened and it would have been interesting to have seen the subsequent search for a manager that followed, but it looks like that footage may be consigned to the cutting room floor.

It was a risk to allow a show to be screened so soon after the footage was shot. Usually, these shows are more retrospective, being shown long after the events were captured on film. This means that Liverpool are somewhat hostages to fortune, as subsequent events can add an unwanted context to what is shown in the programme. It was genuinely sad to see Lucas’ enthusiasm and happiness at returning from injury, knowing that he would suffer another bad injury just a few weeks later and be left very despondent as a result. It was a bit cringeworthy to hear Brendan Rodgers saying how he believed Andy Carroll still could play a part for Liverpool and how it would take something extraordinary to get rid of him knowing that Carroll has now gone.

There were more than a few awkward moments in the show, but the most seemed to be when Liverpool visited the Red Sox clubhouse and people who had very little in common being forced into conversation, which is difficult enough at the best of times, but to have to do it whilst being filmed ratcheted up the awkwardness factor a few notches. Rodgers and Bobby Valentine, two men who clearly had no idea who the other was, were both trying and failing to establish any sort of common ground between being the head coach of a baseball team and the manager of a football team and Cody Ross trying to get some kind of conversation out of a pretty taciturn Charlie Adam were particularly uncomfortable moments captured on camera.

Other than that, I quite liked the programme. Usually, when Liverpool is shown on TV, it is just the waterfront areas that are shown, so it was nice to see some of the other parts of my city shown, even some of the slightly rough areas that surround Anfield. It is also nice to see some of the players acting naturally, rather than the robotic personalities they are trained to present to the media.

UEFA clubs now have to adhere to Financial Fair Play regulations, which mean that clubs cannot spend more money than they make, or face being denied the chance to play in European competitions. This in turn means that clubs have to try and find ways to raise as much money as possible. ‘Being: Liverpool’ is basically a marketing exercise, and other clubs will be watching to see if it works and if Liverpool are able to generate any revenue off the back of this show. ‘Being: Liverpool’ may be the first of these shows to be produced; but I doubt it’ll be the last.

Match Report: Netherlands vs Germany

Before I begin criticizing either team (especially the Dutch) or any part of the game, let me remind you that this group stage is far from over. Technically, the Dutch can still qualify for the next round and the Germans can still be knocked out. The Dutch need a 2-0 over Portugal with a German win over Denmark in order to qualify for the next round. The Germans on the other hand can still be knocked out if the Portugese beat the Dutch and if the Danes beat Germany 2-0. Confusing? You bet it is. The Netherlands and the Germany will be rooting for each other during the last game, though the same can’t be said for earlier today.

—–

Germany 2-1 Netherlands

 

Match Summary

Both teams came out hard during the first fifteen minutes. Counters were utilized left and right as both sides were looking for an early goal. Robin Van Persie had two solid chances early on but couldn’t find the back of the net. The game was even-sided, yet slightly favoring the Dutch as they controlled most of the possession. By the 24th minute, a watershed moment had arrived when Schweinsteiger made a direct pass to Gomez in front of the 18-yard box, Gomez took the ball in and made a highlight-worthy spin and shot to knock the first one of the game in. The Dutch back line went from satisfactory to completely falling apart after this goal. Schweinsteiger and Ozil completely conquered the middle of the field, stopped Dutch movement forward and created impressive counters.

In the 37th minute, Podolski skipped a pass by Willems to Gomez who placed the ball beautifully past Stekelenburg into the Dutch net. Heitinga, Willems and the rest of the defense continued to have trouble covering the German offense for the rest of the game. The only flash of brilliance for the Netherlands was during the 74th minute when Van Persie made a magnificent shot outside of the box and past Neuer. The clock ran down as the Germans slowed the pace of the game down with the Dutch seeming too tired to argue their decision.

 

Post-Game Thoughts

Although the Germans had won their first game, they seemed to be in a similar situation as their Dutch peers. Fans and critics from both sides were underwhelmed with their play during their first game and were skeptical with their striker choices (Gomez & Van Persie). While Gomez silenced his critics, Van Persie’s will be even more critical. Van Persie did score a goal, but he did miss two vital shots early on in the game which could have completely changed the outcome. It was similar with his performance against Denmark, too many chances for a starting forward to miss.

It seems almost unfair for the Dutch team when most of them have played decent soccer. They weren’t terrible against Germany or Denmark, they might have been lackluster at times, but they were never terrible. If Van Persie had scored those two chances earlier today, would we be so harsh on the Dutch? Can a team be terrible if they play well and never score or can a team be awesome if they are lousy but do? Either way, the Dutch have put themselves in a tough position against Portugal this Sunday.

The Germans on the other had a chance to silence critics and utilized every opportunity they had. To me, one of the biggest differences between the two teams was the Germans ability to capitalize on their counters. I guess it also helps when Schweinsteiger is at hand and able to completely control the game with the help of Ozil.

Looking towards their next game, the Germans should be able to lay off the reigns, open up a beer and sit back as the other three teams have a panic attack over the 2nd spot for the group. I know I mentioned that the Germans could get knocked out, but I find this highly unlikely. The only thing they need to worry about is the pace of their play during the 2nd half which looked a little lazy during the past two games, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The back line has also not been tested enough but should be in good hands with Neuer who hasn’t made too many mistakes.

Man of the Match

My heart says Mario Gomez, but my head says (and knows) it’s Bastian Schweinsteiger. He set up both goals for Gomez while also dominating the middle. The Dutch helped him look immaculate by giving him too much space and allowing him to link up beautifully with the offense and Ozil for most of the game.

Flop of the Match

Mark Van Bommel. He was too passive during most of the game, almost non-existent as Ozil and Schweinsteiger ran circles around him. Not exactly the kind of play you’re looking for in your team captain.

Cardiff accuse Crystal Palace of ‘Spying’

On April 5th, Cardiff City lost a home game to Crystal Palace 0-3. This game was what’s termed a ‘six pointer’, meaning that the winning team not only gains three points, but they also stop a relegation rival getting three points. While this result was seen as a good win for Palace and a bad defeat for Cardiff, it was otherwise unremarkable.

Except for what has happened in the aftermath.

A few days after the game, there were accusations from Cardiff that someone from the club had fed information about the Cardiff team, including the starting XI, to Crystal Palace a day before the game. Reports here in England say that just before the match, as the team sheets were handed in, Cardiff manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said to his Crystal Palace counterpart, Tony Pulis, words to the effect of ‘here’s our team, but I guess you already know it’

Cardiff voiced their concerns to the Premier League, who told them to make a formal complaint if they wanted it investigating. A few days ago, Cardiff did submit a 5-page formal complaint to the Premier League, asking for the result to be declared void.

Part of Cardiff’s complaint is believed to read “This was not merely an attempt to obtain confidential information – Crystal Palace succeeded in their efforts and achieved an unexpected 3-0 win over the club. We will never know the extent to which the confidential information affected the outcome of the match”

Cardiff allege Palace are in breach of rule B15, which states “In all matters and transactions relating to the league each club shall behave towards each other club and the league with the utmost good faith”; and rule B17, which states: “A Club shall not without the Board’s prior written consent either during its membership of the League or at any time after its membership has terminated disclose or divulge either directly or indirectly to any Person whatsoever or otherwise make use of any confidential information as to the business or finances of the League or any other Club or any of their dealings, transactions or affairs or as to any other matters which may come to its knowledge by reason of its membership save to statutory and regulatory authorities or as may be required by law or to such Officials and Auditors of that Club to whom such disclosure is strictly necessary for the purpose of their duties and then only to the extent so necessary”

If you remember, a few months ago I wrote about Cardiff’s owner Vincent Tan taking the decision to fire manager Malky Mackay, and eventually replace him with former Manchester United player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

A month or so earlier, Cardiff dismissed their Head of Player Recruitment, Iain Moody after a club investigation into overspending on the transfer budget replacing him with Alisher Apsalyamov, a friend of Tan’s son whose only notable previous experience in football was work experience at Cardiff last summer where his duties included maintenance work on the stadium.

Apsalyamov was never able to take up his role because it was subsequently found he didn’t have a valid work visa. Moody went to work for Crystal Palace as Sporting Director.

Iain Moody

It is Moody who Cardiff alleges obtained the Cardiff team prior to the match, and Cardiff further claim that he tried to contact three of their employees. Moody, Tony Pulis, and Crystal Palace as a whole deny any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Tomorrow, Tony Pulis and Crystal Palace Chairman Steve Parish will meet with the Premier League to discuss Cardiff’s complaint.

Reports here in England say that as part of the complaint, Cardiff allege that Moody accidentally sent a text to Bolton Wanderers manager Dougie Freedman, a former Crystal Palace player and manager, the Cardiff line-up, which he allegedly obtained from Cardiff midfielder Aron Gunnarsson.

Moody is alleged to have texted:

“Straight from Gunnarsson their line up is 4-4-2 Marshall, KTC (defender Kevin Theophile-Catherine), Caulker, Turner, Taylor, Daehli, Medel, Mutch, Zaha, Campbell, Jones”

Freedman, who is friends with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, told the Cardiff manager that Crystal Palace had their line-up. Aron Gunnarsson also denies passing on any information to anyone, and it is believed that Cardiff do not suspect him of doing anything wrong, but have opened disciplinary proceedings against another member of staff at the club.

Presumably, for any charges against Crystal Palace to stick, Cardiff will have to prove that either their employee, or employees, gave the team to Crystal Palace at the behest of someone from Palace, or that someone from Crystal Palace directly solicited the information from someone at Cardiff. If someone at Cardiff gave that information to Palace of their own volition, it’s hard to see what could be done about that, apart from internal disciplinary proceedings.

In my opinion, this is not going to be easy to do. Even if Cardiff can prove some sort of phone contact between one of their employees and someone at Palace, it will be very hard to say for certain that those conversations weren’t entirely innocent.

With Iain Moody having moved to Palace, it’s perfectly feasible to suggest that he may have took some staff from Cardiff with him, and a lot of staff members at Cardiff have friends who work for Crystal Palace, and vice-versa. Therefore, it’s possible that there may have several conversations between employees of the two clubs, all of which were totally innocent.

Without a direct admission of guilt, email chain, or if someone was stupid enough to have texted sensitive information from a club cell phone, it’s going to be very difficult for Cardiff to prove that any conversation between an employee of theirs, and one from Crystal Palace, was for the purpose of giving away sensitive information.

Tony Pulis has strenuously denied either being informed about Cardiff’s line-up, and then using that knowledge to alter his team. Crystal Palace’s starting XI for the game against Cardiff was exactly the same as they had used for the previous two games, with Pulis insisting that he named his team days before Moody allegedly was fed the Cardiff line-up, and has training records to prove it.

Also, Pulis isn’t a manager known for tailoring his tactics to suit the opposition. He generally has his teams play the same way every match, regardless of how the opposition line up. There is no suggestion that Pulis altered the way Palace played at all in that game compared to other matches.

That’s almost irrelevant though; If Cardiff can prove that someone at Crystal Palace asked for, and received, the Cardiff team, then that’s a clear breach of the rules, whether Palace then used that information, or not.

What’s less clear is what the potential punishment would be, should Cardiff’s complaint be upheld. It’s possible that the game could be declared void and a replay ordered, or that Palace are hit with a points deduction, but I don’t think that’s likely.

At present, Cardiff’s complaints have not been sympathetically received by fans, including Cardiff fans. Some Cardiff fans believe that this complaint is little more than a smokescreen to try and deflect attention from some of the poor performances Cardiff have been putting in on the pitch.

Malky Mackay was a popular figure amongst the fans. Under him, Cardiff had not only gained promotion to the Premier League, but they were making a good fight of trying to stay up. When Vincent Tan chose to remove such a popular manager, especially in such acrimonious circumstances, he became a figure of hate amongst the fans, and he hoped his appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could help rehabilitate him in the eyes of Cardiff fans.

That hasn’t happened. Under Solskjaer, Cardiff have only won 3 of the 15 league games they’ve played, and have slid into a relegation battle. Solskjaer has struggled to find a formation or game plan that works. He has looked out of his depth tactically, and even worse, his players have looked devoid of any confidence and motivation in the past few weeks, and were dreadful against Crystal Palace. Some Cardiff fans are asking that if, as alleged, Solskjaer was aware that Crystal Palace had been given his starting XI, then why didn’t he change it? Or, why did he not change his tactics?

So, some Cardiff fans believe that by making this issue public, rather than dealing with any staff misconduct in private, it’s a ploy to try and shift blame from the manager and the owner, to the alleged nefarious dealings of another club, and only serves to make the club seem like sore losers.

There’s also a perception amongst people here in England that even if Palace are guilty, then it’s not a big deal. It’s not uncommon in football for teams to try and obtain information which is not either publicly available, or can be scouted, about other clubs. Fulham manager Felix Magath stated last week that he has got information from some of the January transfers in his squad about their former teams. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce says that someone from Manchester United got hold of his team before their game last month.

In my opinion, this moves reeks of desperation by Cardiff. I think it’s starting to dawn on Vincent Tan that his decision to fire Mackay, which was based more on personal reasons than football reasons, and replace him with the untested Solskjaer, has come back to bite him, and he’s looking for someone, anyone, to blame rather than the real culprit for Cardiff’s plight. Himself.

Eleven Hardest Players of the Modern Era

Hard men in football are often overlooked but every single great team has at least one of them.  There are the kind of players whose presence alone breeds a fearlessness in their team-mates and strike fear and hesitance into the hearts of opposing players.  Here we listed the hard men of the modern era (post-1974) from 11 to 1.

 

11) Bobo Balde

A pivotal member of Martin O’Neil’s Celtic team and one who embodied his manager’s emphasis on physical superiority.  The Celtic fans would taunt opposing strikers with the phrase “Bobo’s gonnae get you” over and over again.  After playing against Celtic in the UEFA Cup in 2003, Michael Owen recently admitted that Balde was one of those defenders he dreaded meeting again in his career as winning the ball was simply not enough for Bobo, he always made sure the opponent knew they were in for one of the most daunting 90 mins of their career.  Even in the volatility of Old Firm matches the 6ft 5 Balde was untouchable and no-one dared cross him.  A rare occurrence indeed.

This goal below showcases everything Balde was about – power and a disregard for whatever was in front of him.

 

 

10) Pablo Guiñazú

 

Currently dawning the black and white of Vasco da Gama, Guiñazú has earned a reputation throughout his career as one of the fiercest midfield enforcers on the South American continent.  He is not one to shy away from conflict but often it is conflict that shies away from him.  There aren’t any really great videos of Guiñazú to illustrate this point but as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is definitely true for the above.

 

 

9) Tomas Repka

Repka made his name as a defensive stalwart with the exciting Fiorentina side of the late 90s containing the likes of Francesco Toldo, Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa.  A lengthy period followed at West Ham before he returned to Sparta Prague.  Often his own worst enemy on the pitch as too often his passion overflowed towards downright anger, it is no surprise to hear he picked up 19 red cards in his career.  A player adored by the fans of every club he played for and one who left a mark despite his tendency to lose his mind.

In the video below you can see Repka kick-off very aggressively against the referee, an opposing coach and then slap the camera once he is sent off.  The incident starts at around 01:05.

 

 

 

 

8) Matthias Sammer

 

Sammer in the history of football is one of only three defenders to win the Ballon d’Or, the other two being Franz Beckenbauer and Fabio Cannavaro.  One of the finest players of his generation and an often overlooked quality of his is his tenacity in breaking forward out of defence to meet the tackle.  The raw aggression Sammer used to drive his game on became the driving force of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund.  He was the kind of player that went to any limit necessary in order to win, to the extent that his determination became intimidating to the opposition.

 

 

7) Vinnie Jones

Since his retirement Vinnie Jones has branched out into acting taking his hard man persona with him and doing well in the process, most notably in Guy Ritchie’s films.  Jones was the last of a long line of hatchet men in British football before modern laws gave the attackers much more protection towards the end of his career.  The image above of Paul Gascoigne and him has worked its way into English footballing immortality, and rightly so.

 

 

6) Roy Keane

Keane’s aggression made him stand out from an early age.  An all-round talented footballer with an incredible engine, bit it was his will to win that set him apart.  Sir Alex Ferguson broke the British transfer record at the time to bring him to Manchester United and Keano would become his on the field general for the next decade.  Various scuffles stick in the mind when lookng back at his career but the most infamous is the Alf-Inge Haland one in which Keane waited four years to get retribution.  Even now it is still labelled as the worst tackle in Premier League history.

Even now in his role as a pundit Keane still has that very underlying aggression in a lot of what he does, particularly when sharing the studio with Gareth Southgate.

5) Duncan Ferguson

Notorious from an early age, at just 23 years old Ferguson was jailed for 3 months for headbutting Raith Rovers defender John McStay whilst playing for Rangers (video below).  He would soon move down south to Everton and quickly earned the nickname Duncan Disorderly.  The Everton fans instantly took to him and he went on to become a longstanding hero at Goodison Park.  Some of Big Dunc’s hard man moments are so good that they are funny.  His antics brought him some lengthy bans but there was something almost romantic about the way Ferguson brought the laws of the game into his own hands and it is easy to see why the Everton fans took to him so strongly.

He also famously once caught two men trying to rob his apartment and went face to face with the both of them.  One burglar managed to flee but Duncan detained the other and in doing so the burglar ended up spending three days in hospital.  This also led to the second man being caught and both burglars ended up doing prison time.

4) Jaap Stam

Sir Alex Ferguson himself said the only major regret of his career was selling Jaap Stam to Lazio at a time when United thought the best of him had passed after a serious knee injury.  Stam was imperious in United 1999 treble winning season.  Compared to the likes of Roy Keane, Stam was more of a silent hard man.  In a clash with Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira, it took roughly 8 players to hold Stam back.  Even now in his retired days he still has those moments in him.  In the 2012 Soccer Aid, a charity football event in the UK, Stam went through Olly Murs, a tackle which caused the singer to come off the pitch well before he was expected to.

The clip is the ultimate example of Stam scaring the life out of an opponent.  As the player tried to stamp on Stam, Jaap bounces back up and the sheer fear in the player’s face says all we need to know about Stam:

3) Walter Samuel

One of the greatest ever South American defenders and his performances in Serie A over the last decade put him along modern greats such as Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta.  Samuel rose to prominence as part of the formidable Boca Juniors team at the end of the 90s that went 40 games unbeaten and won the Copa Libertadores, forming a seemingly impenetrable partnership with Colombian Jorge Bermudez.  Samuel, nicknamed Il Muro (translated as ‘the Wall’) then moved to Roma and won the Scudetto in his first season in Italy.  An unsuccessful spell with Real Madrid followed before he turned to Italy to play with Inter Milan.  Samuel was an essential part of Mourinho’s Inter side that won the Champions League in May 2010.  The watertight defensive duo of Lucio and Samuel put in some historic display against Messi and co. manhandled Drogba with ease and made light work of Bayern in the final.

Samuel never lets an opponent by him, even if it means he has to resort to a clear out and out foul.  And although he isn’t the tallest (stands at 6ft), he is a colossus to move around. No-one messes with him.  Even Ibrahimovich and his enormous ego knew better than to provoke Walter Samuel.  It is also worth noting that Walter Samuel is one of the few players to successfully return to a world class level after two cruciate ligament injuries.  A testament to Samuel’s ability and the effect he has on his team-mates is that since he joined Inter in the summer of 2005, Inter have won every single Milan Derby Samuel has played in.

2) Claudio Gentile

Two performances of Gentile’s continue to gain notoriety, the man-marking jobs he put in against Zico and Maradona in the 1982 World Cup, a tournament Italy would go on to win.  Gentile had a reputation for his uncompromising style of defending and his willingness to follow tactical instructions to the smallest detail.  It was no shock then that Italy coach Enzo Bearot tasked Gentile with the role of stopping the two key men of Italy’s opponents in the group of death against Argentina and Brazil.  This had become a regular feature of Bearot’s tactics as in previous tournaments he had used Gentile to man mark other players he believed were the biggest threat at the 78 World Cup – Holland’s Johnny Rep, Argentina’s Mario Kempes, Brazil’s Roberto Dinamite and Austria’s Hanz Krankl.  Italy topped their group ahead of their well favoured opponents, Argentina would go on to win the World Cup in 1986 and the Brazilian side of the 1982 are often cited as the greatest ever squad to never win a World Cup.

Gentile’s performances in these two matches cemented his place alongside the great Italian defenders.  At the same time, they are now looked upon as performances that would be impossible to get away with nowadays as they were so aggressive and heavy-handed.  In the videos below that show both of his matches mentioned, you can see both Zico and Maradona becoming visibly less eager to be involved in play as Gentile’s incessant presence continues to wear them down.

1) Graeme Souness

The midfield pitbull who led Liverpool through the best moment of their history in winning three European Cups in a span of 6 years.  The second Scot on our list, Souness was famous for his tree-trunk like legs, something he says he gained from his days delivering milk up high tenement buildings as a milkboy in Edinburgh.    Souness was a player who would often very quickly set the tone in matches and let the opposition know they’d have to battle tooth and nail to even stand a chance against his side.  Perhaps the best story of Souness is from the 1984 European Cup semi-final matches between Liverpool and Dinamo Bucharest.  Souness broke the jaw of Dinamo captain Lica Movila in the home leg at Anfield by throwing a punch at Movila behind the referees back.  The Dinamo players were outraged by this and Liverpool went to Bucharest to protect their 1-0 advantage from the first leg, the Romanians were hell-bent on revenge against Souness and singled him out for one of the biggest kickings the tournament had ever seen.  This rough treatment however only served to motivate Souness and he put in one of his best ever displays in a Liverpool strip as they went through 3-1 on aggregate.  One of the Romanian commentators described Souness’ performance as as close to insanity as he had ever seen on a pitch, Souness at one point started to laugh whilst on the ball as he dodged three very wild tackles from Dinamo.  The Scot later said that his legs were cut to pieces after that game but he never wanted to give the Dinamo players the satisfaction of knowing they could hurt him.

Even in management Souness still had that fire in him as he sparked a riot in the Turkish Cup Final in 1996 when he planted a Galasataray flag in the centre of the pitch, igniting a volatile response from the Fenerbahce fans inside the stadium.

Pinochet, The Cold War, and the Most Pathetic Match Ever Played

November 21, 1973. Estadio Nacional. Santiago. The match to determine the final participant of the 1974 FIFA World Cup is about to take place between Chile and the Soviet Union. The Chileans take the field and line up for the national anthem. They wave to the fans and kick off. But this is no ordinary World Cup qualifier. It is, rather, one of the most absurd sights ever seen on a football pitch. The reason? The Soviets are not there. Chile dribble the length of the field unopposed and roll the ball into an unguarded net, a strictly symbolic goal to ensure victory. The story behind this mockery of a match is yet another example of the inevitable intersection between sport and politics, a narrative of Cold War intrigues spilling over onto the pitch and producing what the legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano deemed “the most pathetic match in the history of football.”

To qualify for the 1974 World Cup the winner of Group 3 in the CONMEBOL zone had to play the winner of Group 9 in UEFA zone for the final spot in the competition. Chile was placed in a group with Peru and Venezuela, but Venezuela withdrew before qualifying began. Peru and Chile finished level on both points and goal difference, and a play-off was scheduled to determine the winner of the group. In Europe, meanwhile, the Soviet Union recovered from an initial loss to France in Paris to win the remainder of their matches and clinch their spot in the play-off. Back in South America, the Chileans beat Peru 2-1 in the play-off held in Montevideo. The stage was set for Chile and the Soviet Union to battle it out for a ticket to West Germany. The first leg was to take place in Moscow on September 26; the return leg, in Santiago on November 21. After defeating a side from Porto Alegre 5-0 in a friendly, the Chileans were set to depart for Moscow on September 11. But history took an unexpected turn.

In 1970 Salvador Allende became the first democratically elected Marxist President in Latin America. His government immediately began to enforce socialist policies. Many of Chile’s industries including the copper mines and banks were nationalized, and a land reform program was implemented. Despite support from the workers and trade unions Allende faced huge opposition from the Army, industrialists, and Congress. To make things worse for the President, the existence of another Soviet ally in its own hemisphere did not sit well with the United States. The details of the events of September 11, 1973 remain murky. But what is known is that the Chilean military, with the tacit support of the CIA, overthrew Allende in a coup d’état led by the commander-in-chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet. As the bombs fell around him, Allende made a famous last speech inside of the under-siege presidential palace in which he defiantly refused to accept an offer of safe passage and vowed to stay in the country. Shortly afterward, he allegedly committed suicide with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro.

Every day they let twenty, fifty people go… they called them by loudspeaker. They made them sign a document declaring that they ‘had not been poorly treated in the stadium’ (although some still had visible sings of torture and beatings). Everyone signed, it was the price you had to pay… we all hoped to hear our name in the ‘lists of freedom,’ [our sentiments] were logical and legitimate. We were guilty only of being defenders of the legitimate constitution.”

Guitarists allegedly had their fingers broken and were then forced to play their instruments. Army vehicles blasted the music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at full volume to drown out the cries of the detainees. It is estimated over 40,000 people spent time in the stadium; between September 11 and November 7 alone, 12,000 people were interned there.

An event of such magnitude inevitably affected the country’s football scene. The day of the coup the Chilean national team was supposed to have a meeting at the Juan Pinto Duràn training complex to finalize the details of the trip to Moscow. But the meeting never took place. Eduardo Herrera, the left back, played club football at Wanderers of Valparaíso and was staying at Hotel Carrera, some 100 meters from the facilities. He recalls:

“When we arrived at the field the coach, Luis Álamos, ordered us to return home. But I had to return to the hotel and on the way the soldiers stopped me about 10 times. I was spared getting arrested because I had a bag with the inscription “Chilean National Football Team.”

Victor Jara, the iconic singer and activist, was arrested, tortured, and executed shortly after the coup. The death of Pablo Neruda, though brought on by cancer rather than the regime, was made all the more traumatic due to the fact that Pinochet refused to allow a public burial. The funeral was a muted affair, but thousands of Chileans defied the authorities and crowded the streets in mourning.

Clearly Chileans had more to worry about than the fortunes of their national team in such a tense environment, but the first leg against the Soviets was fast approaching. Several players, including Carlos Caszely and Leonardo Velíz, were well-known socialist sympathizers and feared for the safety of their families while abroad. There were doubts as to whether the match could even be played, as the junta ordered that no one be allowed to leave the country. But it just so happened that Dr. Jacobo Helo, the physician of the national side, was also the personal doctor of General Gustavo Leigh, head of the Air Force and one of the leaders of the coup. Helo convinced the general that the national team could bolster the international standing and image of the regime. The junta relented and allowed the side to travel, but with a clearly worded warning: “If you talk, your families will suffer the consequences.”

The Soviets and their allies in Europe and Africa launched a complaint. In a communique to FIFA, the Soviet Union announced:

The football federation of the USSR has asked the international football federation to hold the match in a third country seeing as how in the stadium, stained with the blood of the patriots of the people of Chile, Soviet sportsmen cannot at this time perform on moral grounds.”

In response to these complaints FIFA sent a delegation to Santiago to examine the stadium. The delegation, headed by FIFA Vice President Abilio d’Almeida and General Secretary Helmuth Kaeser, arrived in Santiago on October 24. The military did everything possible to remove all evidence that the stadium was being used as a prison and torture center. Despite the fact that there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of detainees still in the stadium, they succeeded. In a press conference given alongside the Chilean Minister of Defense, Admiral Patricio Cardajal, the FIFA officials announced “the report that we will submit to our authorities will be a reflection of what we have seen: total calm.” Whether FIFA had been successfully duped by the Chileans, or whether they were aware of the situation and simply chose to ignore it, is a question lost in the annals of history. But what was important is that the world governing body had given the green light for the match to go ahead in Santiago; humanitarian considerations were clearly secondary.

The Soviet Union refused to travel to Santiago. The press reacted with outrage. In the weekly ‘Football-Hockey’ the journalist Lev Filatov wrote:

The day that the FIFA committee arrived in Santiago, the stadium was still being used as a concentration camp. But the delegation received guarantees from the junta that the stadium would still be free, and that the junta guarantees that the match will be held in ‘normal circumstances.’ But until this day the stadium remains a concentration camp, and bloody terror still reigns in Chile.”

The Soviets also speculated about the possibility of a conspiracy engineered by then FIFA President, Englishman Stanley Rous. The newspaper ‘Soviet Sport’ pointed out that Rous himself succeeded in changing the venue of a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Bulgaria from Belfast to Sheffield at the height of The Troubles. So if Rous has no qualms about holding matches at neutral stadiums in times of political upheaval, the newspaper asked, what kept him from putting pressure on the Chileans in this case? Their response was that by insisting that the match be held at the National Stadium in Chile, Rous hoped that the socialist countries would boycott the tournament. This would allow Rous’s England, who had failed to qualify, a backdoor entry into the tournament. Such rhetoric was widespread in the media of the Soviet Union and that of their satellite states. Perhaps the most piercing condemnation of the decision came from the East Germans, who asked FIFA if they would consider holding a match at Dachau.

The standard account of the Soviet decision seems to be that they refused to play in Santiago on humanitarian grounds; the junta was using the stadium as a prison for dissidents of the regime, and thus the Soviet Union could not in good conscience allow its sportsmen to play there. While there may certainly be an element of authenticity to this narrative, like most events of the Cold War the truth is far more ambiguous and murky than the words of a government official or the article of a censored publication suggest. An interview with Evgeny Lovchev, a defender for Spartak Moscow and the Soviet national team at the time of the events in question, sheds some light on the political realities of the situation. According to Lovchev:

our lack of desire to go up against the football players of the country that had been taken over by the dictator Pinochet was less a show of support for the opponents of the new regime and more simply the fact that the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Sports Committee feared the possibility of our defeat.”

Later in the interview, Lovchev reveals that the head coach of the side, Evgeny Goryanskiy refused to promise a victory in Santiago to the authorities, who thus refused to let the team travel to Chile. Lovchev believes that had the Soviets won the first leg in Moscow, they would have been allowed to play in Santiago. Instead, Lovchev holds the view that the party bureaucracy denied the players an opportunity to battle for a place in the competition. Fearful of a propaganda defeat to their latest Cold War adversary, the Soviet authorities opted to settle for the moral high ground and boycotted the match.

Whatever the true motives of the Soviets were,they had voluntarily given up their chance to perform at the 1974 World Cup finals. With the refusal of the Soviet Union to travel to Santiago, Chile all but qualified for the tournament. But the story does not end here. Inexplicably, on the date the 2nd leg was to take place, the Chilean players lined up in the stadium, as if there were an opponent to play.

“This game is beyond metaphor, its evil is real,” writes David Goldblatt in his Global History of Soccer.   In the video above you can see for yourself the farce put on by General Pinochet and the junta.  The stands are half-full, the fans unenthusiastic, the players almost embarrassed to be taking part in this travesty.  Why the Chilean authorities chose to go through with the match, and why the 3-0 result usually used as the default when one team fails to show up was unused, is not known.  Perhaps the match was meant as a propaganda victory, although how rolling the ball into an empty net with no opponent in sight constitutes a propaganda victory by any stretch of the imagination is anyone’s guess.

After the match, to placate the 18,000 fans that had bought their ticket for the match but had instead witnessed a farce, a friendly was organized against the legendary Brazilian club Santos.  In what was supposed to be a celebration of their qualification to the World Cup, Chile was promptly humiliated 5-0 by the visitors.   At the World Cup in West Germany, Chile’s performance was uninspiring.  They lost to the hosts and could only manage draws against Australia and East Germany, crashing out after the first round.

Pinochet remained in power until 1990.  The Soviet regime outlasted him by one year, collapsing in 1991.  It is unlikely that we will ever discover the truth behind all of the decisions taken by the various actors in this little snippet of Cold War drama.  But one thing we can learn from this episode: sport and politics, despite claims to the contrary, are forever and inextricably tied together.  The same was true during the Cold War, and the same is true today.

I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Pablo Aro Geraldes, whose wonderful article on the subject was both the inspiration for this post and provided much of the material.

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.