I just had to comment on the big story of the week so far. Javier Mascherano, the captain of Argentina and an integral part of the Liverpool midfield decided he ‘didn’t want to play’ against Manchester City on Monday night. He decided that the club who pay his wages, his team mates, and the fans that idolised him weren’t worth his time and effort. What an utter disgrace.

I had liked Mascherano since he moved to England. He is ideal for the Premier League, strong in the tackle, fairly quick, and above all, he has ability on the ball. Yes, he can be a bit of a hothead, but all the best players have that ‘nasty’ streak (with the exception of Gianfranco Zola, clearly. I’m thinking Bergkamp, Cantona, Keane, Viera, Scholes etc).

However, he had seemed to learn from his red card at Old Trafford against Manchester United in 2008, and was one of Liverpool’s better players in a poor year last season. But all respect I had for him has gone following his show of complete disrespect to all around him. Firstly, he is disrespecting his fellow professionals. Players like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, Liverpool boys who have dedicated their career to the one club.

Now normally, I’m not overly concerned about players being disrespected. I don’t care too much when we see the Press criticising players for their actions (or lack of) both on the field and off. However, these circumstances are entirely different.

Secondly, he is disrespecting the club. That same club who has given him the platform to play at the highest level, in the Champions League, and in the upper echelons of the Premier League. The club that pay him millions of pounds a year to do something that many of us would do for nothing.

And thirdly, he has disrespected the people who matter most to the game, without whom, football wouldn’t exist. Of course, I’m talking about the fans. Football managers of the past would regularly talk about the privilege of the players, reminding their players that supporters, especially in traditional working-class areas such as Liverpool, had worked hard all week in order to be able to go to football, and that the players had a duty to entertain them. Supporters deserved to see their teams give every ounce of effort they could muster, and if players weren’t prepared to do that, they should accept their fate in the reserves for weeks to come.

Can you imagine then what a Shankly, Stein, Busby or Clough would say to Mascherano? In excess of £50,000 a week, a good portion of that coming out of the pocket of the fans through their tickets, yet he has decided against playing for them? I think the first thing Shankly would have said would be “Tommy, break his legs” towards the legendary Liverpool skipper Tommy Smith the moment Mascherano walked back into training.

And of course, Mascherano is not on his own. Charles N’Zogbia is trying to force a move from Wigan through to Birmingham, and Asmir Begovic (who?) is another who refused to play for his club. This is just utterly wrong. To me, it’s like putting in a miserly bid for a house which is rejected, and then camping on their lawn until they accept the same miserly offer. It’s just not on.

Cesc Fabregas was in a similar position. He clearly wanted to leave Arsenal to return to his boyhood idols, Barcelona. However, he also understood that in order for him to do that, the two clubs had to agree a fee. As the two clubs couldn’t agree on a price, he had to stay at Arsenal. Did he go on strike and throw his toys from the pram? No, he has buckled down, worked hard, and prepared for the new season.

I hope that the managers of Liverpool, Wigan and Stoke are successful in acquiring players who actually want to play for their clubs rather than these mercenaries, but if not, I’d love to see all of them simply rot in the reserves for an entire season. Cases like this have to make Jimmy Hill wonder if forcing the game to end the ‘Maximum Wage’ law was really a good idea after all.

Of course, you have to ask how and why this can happen, and the answer is simple: the players have been ‘tapped up’. Now we all know that tapping up is against FIFA’s laws, so why are clubs who do it not brought to justice? Why are contracts not worth the paper they’re written on? We are going to see more and more strikes until FIFA take action to put the power back in the hands of the clubs.

Where’s a Bill Shankly when you need one?

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So that’s the end of another tournament then. “The Rainbow Nation” has had it’s hour in the Sun, and the rightful team have gone home with the trophy. We’ve heard Mr Blatter and co tell us how wonderful the tournament has been, a complete success for FIFA, that it has been a feast of football to satisfy the world. So that’s that then, right? Not quite.

In my humble opinion, the final summed up the tournament in a nutshell. Dour, defensive tactics, a lack of goals, a lack of breathtaking saves, and the deciding factor being a mistake. Quite simply, Holland were abysmal, and although Howard Webb has come in for all kinds of abuse today in the Dutch media, they should be looking much, much closer to home. Coach Bert van Marwijk’s tactics disgraced the famous Orange shirt.

Now although the Spanish misfired their way to the trophy, they are rightfully regarded as the best team in the world at this moment. However, over the course of 90 minutes, the Dutch side should certainly be able to hold their own. The difference between Holland’s 4-2-3-1 last night, and the 4-2-3-1 adopted by the Germans was breathtaking.

Looking back over the course of the tournament, how many sides released the shackles and went for the throat? How many teams set out to entertain the planet in the “best show on Earth”? Not many. Even those bastions of pure football, the Brazilians, played a style of football more accustomed to Rome than Rio. It is little wonder then, I suppose, that the country who gave us “total football” would degenerate into animals last night. For all the criticism directed by those in orange towards Howard Webb, they are clearly blind to the favours the Rotherham man gave them by allowing them to keep 11 men on the field for 109 minutes.

There were very few truly spectacular goals, or games that we’ll remember in a year’s time (even a week’s time is pushing it!) or truly breath taking individual performances. Many have blamed this on the ball, others on the games being played at altitude, but the blame lies solely at the door of managers and players.

Perhaps we should have expected a mediocre tournament when the World decided it no longer wanted to go to South Africa because of the quite extortionate prices being charged for everything from match tickets to hotels and flights. The South Africans themselves were determined to enjoy their World Cup, and I’m sure many of them will remember the competition in a very different manner to me, but nothing is more depressing than seeing a World Cup semi final played in front of empty seats.

So now the tournament moves on, and Brazil awaits the world’s coming. As disappointed as I’ve been this last month, I cannot wait for the competition to kick off in Rio de Janeiro. Neither can, I would assume, the cameramen of the BBC…

So you’re in the last minute of extra time, a few seconds away from a penalty shoot-out and the opportunity to put your country into the World Cup Semi Final. You’re defending a set piece, your keeper is beaten and the ball is coming at your head. Do you try and head it, knowing you may miss it and your team are out?

Or do you put your hands up and punch it out the goal, knowing you will inevitably sent off, but your keeper has a chance with the penalty? This is the very scenario which must have gone through Luis Saurez’s head last night. Or rather, it would have been if he’d had any chance to think about it.

Predictably, Suarez has been labelled a cheat, compared to both Maradona and Thierry Henry, and FIFA are discussing extending his ban to ensure he would miss the Final if Uruguay manage to get there. Is this justified? I’m not so sure.

Deliberate handball on the goal line carries a very severe punishment already. It leads to a penalty kick and a red card, unlike a handball further up the field. If the officials had seen Henry’s handball, he’d have just received a yellow card. Same for Maradona, yet both of these incidents were just as game-changing as Suarez’s incident.

Of course, Ireland fans may view this very differently to me. Suarez stopped a certain goal through ill means, and although Ghana had an opportunity to punish him with the penalty, they did not. Indeed, I remember a similar incident in an Old Firm game a couple of years back, where Bougherra handled a Nakamura shot on the line and was dismissed, only for Scott McDonald to miss the penalty. I certainly understand the feeling of being “cheated”, but then I blamed McDonald for not scoring the penalty.

So being able to see both sides of the argument, where do I stand? Well, I think if FIFA are looking to clampdown on cheating, this is completely the wrong place to start. I’d start by sending Joan Capdevilla, the Spanish left back, back to Spain with his tail between his legs for his disgraceful piece of cheating against Portugal.

The game we love is suffering from a cancer of players diving, rolling around, attempting to con the referee and get players booked and sent off. Watch any match and you’ll see this is the case. I can almost guarantee that an incident of “gamesmanship” will occur in today’s match between Argentina and Germany. Now this is something for FIFA to tackle, much like it was something for UEFA to tackle last summer, but they lost their nerve and gave Eduardo (and every other diver, for that matter) a reprieve. Is football now a game where conning the referee is “clever” or is that an act of cheating that needs to be punished? If it’s the former, then the soul of the beautiful game is really in trouble.

Handball on the goal-line already has a harsh penalty written into the rules of the game, yet handball is not what is killing the game. Some would argue that it is too late to stop players diving, it is now “part of the game” and we should just accept it. I cannot and I will not, so for as long as I have to I will continue to highlight the impotence of the game’s governing bodies until they take action against those conning us all.

Time to pick your side, folks.

Deja Vu, anybody?

June 27, 2010

Don’t panic, I’m already in the middle of a post about England’s World Cup exit. However, just in advance of that I thought I’d refer to the disallowed Frank Lampard strike. I’m prettey sure it’s been covered here and here.

Come on Sepp, pull your finger out…

So we are a week into the tournament, everybody is buzzing with excitement and marvelling at the fabulous football on display night after night; enthralled by brilliant goals and revelling in the atmosphere of the greatest competition on Earth. Oh, what’s that? No you’re not? Most games have been rubbish, hardly any goals have been scored and the vuvuzelas are driving you up the wall? Thank Yoda it’s not just me!

Before I go on I’d like to apologise up front; I feel a rant coming on, but I’ll be as brief as possible.

I’m generally the World Cup’s biggest fan. I do everything I can to watch as many matches as possible, from the big boys of Brazil, Spain and Holland to the minnows of New Zealand and North Korea. I’ve watched 15 of the 16 games so far, and feel quite deflated about the quality of the tournament.

OK, early on in the competition, teams will feel that playing for a draw is acceptable. After all, getting off the mark in the first game is vital, and how many times do you hear the phrase “you don’t want to peak too soon”? So maybe teams are going all “George Graham” on us, and not having a go? Possibly.

Quite simply, the tournament has really lacked any genuine quality. The question we have to ask is why?

Many players, managers and pundits alike have blamed the official ‘Jabulani’ ball, claiming it is difficult to control and causes goalkeepers major issues. Makers Adidas have described the Jabulani as being “the roundest football ever”, in an effort to lead to more goals. Now that I can understand, because let’s face it, any time ‘keepers are having problems is good for us as fans. We all want to see goals, and spectacular 30-yarders are particularly special for us. So ‘keepers struggling is fantastic.

But then we’ve also heard that the ball is “difficult to control”, with players from many squads largely condemning it. However, surely I’m not the only fan to think ‘will you just shut up and get on with it’? To me the excuse ‘the ball is too round’ is up there with Ol’ Red Nose’s excuse about United’s players not being able to see each other in their grey shirts!

Adidas have instead hit out at the players, and their preparation. They blame a combination of a lack of practise and the game being played at altitude. Indeed, I can certainly understand the altitude argument. Every rugby fan (and physicist, for that matter) knows that matches played at altitude mean longer goal kicking is possible. (Just look at Mourne Steyn for the Springboks during last year’s Lions tour) I refuse to accept that football management and players were not aware of this phenomenon, so they should have prepared for it. On this note I unreservedly agree with Adidas.

My only quibble about the ball is the fact that Adidas supplied it to the Germans six months before the World Cup kicked off. Understandable I suppose, a German company attempting to aid the German national team, but it’s not really in the spirit of fair play. It would have been nice to see Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard “getting their eye in” with the new ball, as it would for the rest of the world. However, it is just a football. If you’re being paid the amount some of these players are, you should be able play with tennis ball, let alone a new light size 5 football. Just look at Maradona doing just that below (apologies for the music, by the way!)

Then of course there is the vuvuzelas. The BBC have apparently received 545 complaints about the vuvuzelas in their coverage, and players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have joined the calls for FIFA to demand they are banned. Now I will admit the vuvuzelas are an irritant, but the BBC receiving complaints just seems ludicrous. What exactly do people expect the Beeb to do? Complete waste of effort from 545 people, in my humble opinion.

However, I can understand the players voicing their criticisms, even if I’m not sure they’re valid. Obviously, deafening noise makes communication difficult for the players, but if players can talk to each other in Old Firm games, or the Milan Derby, then their argument is null and void.

No, the way the quality of the tournament will improve is simply tactics. Managers need to remove the shackles on players, adopt a more attacking mentality and just let them go for it. As always, I’m optimistic this will be the case once we get to the last group games and the knock out stages (with the exception of Italy, obviously!)

England can easily do this by ensuring Heskey never gets another kick of the Jabulani (or any other football, for that matter.) Gerrard playing further up the field can only be good for England, and getting Joe Cole into the side will add to the side’s creativity.

Add to this a little shooting practise, there’s no reason at all to suggest England can’t do well in this tournament. However, whether they have the mentality to get past the likes of the Dutch or the Germans, only time will tell.

How do you feel about the World Cup? Have you been disappointed, or are you enjoying the tension of the tournament. Let me know below.

So here we are then, just another day to go before the World Cup starts. I don’t know about you, but I’m almost wetting myself in excitement.

I love the World Cup. I especially love going out to watch matches with a combination of England, Scotland and Ireland fans as the atmosphere and banter are just brilliant. It is a shame that this tournament will be missing both sets of fans (I’m certain the South African publicans are quite dismayed!) but the tournament has the promise of being quite some spectacle.

The South Africans are creating a phenomenal atmosphere already, and the ‘vuvuzela’ is something I think we’ll all be very familiar with in the next few days. However, despite my excitement there is a little feeling of disappointment inside me. I don’t want to get too deep into that negativity on the eve of the World Cup but I refuse to ‘gloss over’ it. Instead, I’ll be brief.

So many companies have priced supporters from the rest of the world out of going to the competition. Flights and hotels have been out of so many people’s price range, so the competition may lack the ‘cosmopolitan’ feel many were hoping for. Much of the country’s infrastructure is behind schedule, such as road-widening and transport links. Even the police have already shown that they’ll be extremely heavy-handed quite simply out of necessity. Understandable when the ticketing systems appear faulty, such as the Johannesburg stampede a few days ago, but there has been several years to resolve this. FIFA have claimed they are not responsible for this, and I really want to believe them, but with their record I’ll hold judgement, thank you very much! Then there is South Africa’s extraordinary crime rate….

That being said, the South Africans have been looking forward to this since FIFA awarded them the competition, and will be determined to show the rest of the world that our fears are unfounded. Indeed, they have put on brilliant tournaments in the past. Last year’s Lions tour was exceptional (despite the dodgy refereeing decisions!) and so was the Rugby World Cup of 1995, so the country has a history of delivering on the big stages.

But now on to the football itself, and how do we think the tournament will go. I for one rate England’s chances. There’s a clear ‘plan B’ at this competition, something Sven could never manage. Providing England don’t suffer a major injury crisis you never know. My guess is the semi finals, and from there who knows? But perhaps that’s the idealist speaking.

If I’m being realistic, the best side in the world is the Spanish. With a midfield including the likes of Xavi, Fabregas and in my opinion, the best midfielder on the planet, Andres Iniesta, they have a chance. When they have Fernando Torres and David Villa up front, they look frightening! Then there is Brazil, who always perform. But that’s the easy option.

I’m expecting the Ivory Coast to perform, and the entire African continent to get behind them after South Africa’s group stage elimination. Indeed, I fully expect Portugal to be out after the group games, especially if Côte d’Ivoire get Drogba fit. I even have a sneaky fiver on the Dutch, which at 14/1 looks a steal.

All I do know is I will do everything I can to ensure I don’t miss a single kick. I hope you’ll all enjoy it as much as I do, and get yourselves back here so we can discuss the tournament as it happens. It’s moments like this the ‘beer fridge’ was invented for! Let’s hope that beer is used for celebration and not commiseration this time around…

As always, your comments are appreciated.

Now regular readers will know one of my major bug-bears is the people who run this great sport of ours. From UEFA’s climbdown on diving (and an acknowledgment that cheaters DO prosper) to FIFA’s absolute refusal to move into the 21st Century and embrace goal-line technology, the game’s governing bodies seem to make mistakes left, right and centre.

However, nothing compares to the latest move by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). These geniuses have decided that the decision of Togo’s Football Association, backed by their government,  to withdraw the squad from this year’s African Cup of Nations was unacceptable. This is despite the team being attacked by rebels with machine guns on the way to the tournament. The attack left two team officials dead, as well as wounding goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale, yet CAF have announced that Togo will be banned from the next two African Nations competitions. They will also have to pay a fine of $50,000.

This decision, coming the day before the final of the competition, is quite simply staggering, not to mention callous in the extreme. The football community as a whole perfectly understood the decision taken by Togo to pull out, and anybody who saw the pictures of Emmanuel Adebayor in the aftermath of the attack would vociferously defend the actions of the Togolese. Indeed, I’d expect many of the squad to end up in a psychiatrist’s office in the not-too-distant future.

For those unaware of African history, conflict in Angola is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the Angolan Civil War only finished in 2002, 27 years after it began. Perhaps the question of why CAF chose Angola to hold it’s largest tournament should be raised by FIFA. It seems churlish then to criticise Togo after they were attacked in a country that is almost synonymous with war.

Perhaps naïvely, I hold out faith that FIFA will overturn this decision from CAF. The African body have argued that they simply had to ban Togo, as their regulations stipulate that no country can pull out just before the competition in order to uphold the Cup’s integrity. Be that as it may, it must also understand the special circumstances behind Togo’s decision. And if it does not, it must be made to do so by Blatter and Co.

Indeed, with this being the year of the first ever African World Cup, it may even be worth the rest of the game’s governing bodies using their power to force CAF to back down. Imagine Platini’s UEFA refusing to allow the European qualifiers to travel to South Africa and fill CAF’s coffers. This would almost certainly see CAF’s decision overturned.

However, if Togo’s ban is allowed to stand, a possible solution is an invite to the Copa America, who normally invite Japan. This would allow Togo to take part in competitive football, and be a massive source of embarrassment to CAF at the same time. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

Sepp Blatter always stated his ambition was to hold a World Cup in Africa. Before that, he should ensure the idiots who came up with this ban are sacked, and replaced by people with a degree of compassion.

This one promises to run and run, and I’ll be following it with a great deal of interest.