The Challenges Facing Scotland After Yet Another Failed Qualifying Campaign

In an expected result, Scotland finished off their dismal qualifying campaign in style with a 6-0 win over lowly Gibraltar matching their result in Glasgow. Not quite the end they were hoping for but all dreams of reaching France next summer died when they failed to see off Poland with only thirty seconds remaining. Dissecting what went wrong in this campaign has a strange familiarity to it. Like a path ventured down too many times, Scotland continues to present the same problems over and over. Plucky when the underdog, Scotland displays the passion for which they have become famous for. But passion hardly ever ends in points and for some bizarre reason that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s when we are supposed to be top dog that is the main concern, unable to cleanly dispatch the lesser nations of the Faroes Islands, Estonia and our new nemesis Georgia. But surely both are equally important. Qualification isn’t dependent on taking the scalp of a larger, more technical nation but it can’t hurt right?

Poland's last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention (Image from PA)

Poland’s last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention
(Image from PA)

In this campaign when Ireland snatched four out of six points from Germany and ran Poland close in both of their meetings, why could Scotland not match or better that? Arguably they are a better team than their North Sea neighbors, even if you only base that on our two meetings with Ireland when Scotland took home four from six in terms of points. Why do they have the belief  that they can get a result yet Scotland appears to not. There are a thousand excuses for why Scotland failed to beat Germany or Poland, everything from unfortunate deflections to better quality of players and the personal favourite – they simply lacked that wee bit of luck on the ball. Nonsense, all of it. In football anything can happen. Look at Greece who went from struggling to win a European Championship game to tournament winners in just a few matches. It’s eleven men vs eleven men, not David vs Goliath. Germany were strangely under par in qualifying and were there for the taking but Scotland lacked belief that they could actually do it. Even when they do score, blind panic sets in and Scotland fold like cheap deck chairs. They prefer to go behind and rally rather than take the lead and control. But time after time, taking the lead is a curse. This is what cost Scotland a qualification spot really, not dropping three points against Georgia.

Shane Long fires Ireland's winner against Germany so why couldn't Scotland do similar? (Image from Getty)

Shane Long fires Ireland’s winner against Germany so why couldn’t Scotland do similar?
(Image from Getty)

It doesn’t help that the entire team seems unconvinced by the defence. Once a staple of Scottish football, the defense looks less convincing by the day. Bremner, Greig, Hansen, Gough and Hendry have been replaced with middle of the road defenders, all of which are good but never great. Indeed Strachan only ever played the same back four twice in ten matches. Leaky is not the word as Scotland shipped 12 goals in qualifying including Gibraltar’s first ever international goal. In comparison Wales conceded only four times as they qualified highlighting the real issue Scotland faces- they cannot defend. Makeshift left backs, rotating centre half, limited right backs and goalkeeper loyalty conundrums all plagued this campaign and ultimately cost Scotland qualification. Being tight at the back can be the difference between winning and losing, stopping the opponents from scoring then nicking a goal at the other end to secure an unfavorable 1-0 win. Scotland did it in the past against France (twice), Holland and England despite being under a barrage of pressure for the entire ninety minutes. Both in Scotland and in Poland, the Scots had the lead before letting it slip. Six points instead of 2 may have been the difference between Scotland progressing to France 2016 and Poland staying at home to lick its wounds.

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland (Image from Getty)

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland
(Image from Getty)

So what is the solution? Perhaps following the NFL’s lead and appointing a defence coach who knows how to organize the back five  and make them solid once more. Scotland could employ a permanent defensive midfielder to sit and cover the back line but again without coordination this move would be limited. There is a nucleus of players there to work with but the need structure and guidance if they are to be successful. Fresh blood is often what is needed but the lack of talent coming through is a concern however this is hardly a new problem for Scotland or indeed most countries of our size like Northern Ireland or Wales. Good players can become great if deployed correctly and possess the belief needed to succeed. Scotland have just under a year now to regroup, refocus and go again before the World Cup qualifiers kick off. That should be enough time to sort of Scotland’s defensive frailties and reestablish the passion and belief needed to help them qualify.

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Zlatan the Great Fires Sweden Into The Euros

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is like marmite, you either love him or loathe him. But deny as much as you like, Zlatan is one of the best players the game has ever seen. The 34 year old, 6ft 5in striker was a Swedish legend well before he stepped up in the second half last night to curl the ball over the Danish wall to put Sweden 2-0 up of their playoff match. The winner of ten Swedish football of the year titles, Zlatan has been the figurehead of Swedish football for over a decade now so it seemed fitting that it would be his goals (one in the first leg and two in the return) that would send them through to Euro 2016. It is also fitting that the player who put Ligue 1 firmly back into the public eye after years away from it should be front and centre as France hosts the latest major international tournament. It wouldn’t be the same without Zlatan there, inspiring many on the field with his amazing abilities and as many off the field with his outrageous behaviour.

BPI Matt West

Sweden celebrate after reaching Euro 2016 as Zlatan sinks to his knees (Image from BPI Matt West)

Ibrahimovic’s opportunities to entertain at the tournament may however be limited as Sweden changes of progressing past the group stage could be limited. Zlatan may be able to provide that moment of brilliance in front of goal but behind him is a host of problems. Sweden for all intents and purposes are an average side that is transformed by the inclusion of Ibrahimovic. Without him in their ranks, Sweden struggle to control games and lack the potency upfront to trouble sides. At the back, the once strong and resilient Swedish defence has been replaced with a nervous wreak who despite being 2-0 up and coasting in last nights game couldn’t prevent Denmark from leveling the tie and setting up a nervy final few minutes. Going ahead into Euro 2016, this will be a principle concern for manager Erik Hamren who needs to find a solution and quickly. The one shining light is the potential to draft in some of Sweden’s Under 21 European Championship winning side to freshen things up. Hamren has already bloodied a few of that team into the full national setup but will be looking to see if any of them can make the jump up in time for next summer.

_83962477_sweden

Hamren could call upon some of the Swedish Under 21 winning team for next summer tournament (Image from Getty)

Whilst the defence is a major concern, keeping Ibrahimovic fit and healthy is somewhat more crucial to Sweden’s chances next summer. Now in the latter stages of his career and lacking the pace and fitness that he once had in abundance, Ibrahimovic is winding down his stay in Paris and surveying his options. In the French capital, Ibrahimovic has become a god since his arrival in 2012 as part of the Qatari funded PSG revolution. He has helped the club to three titles in a row and has scored an incredible 115 goals in all competitions making him the club’s record goalscorer ahead of Pauleta. Ibrahimovic’s influence on the team, much like with the Swedish national side cannot be understated and is still a major component of Laurent Blanc’s plans. However age is against him and with that PSG have had to use him more sparingly this season as injuries have taken their toll. Zlatan’s confidence in his own abilities still outpace his age but he is now starting to consider where he should move to next if he is to leave Paris. England has already been ruled out due to its fast paced game but big money moves to the US or Qatar cannot at this stage. One thing is for sure that Zlatan has no intention of retiring from the game all together any time soon. He has hinted that Euro 2016 will be his swan song for his international career but believes that like a fine wine he is getting better with age. The nature of his performance in the win over Denmark backs up this claim as the player put in two stellar shows as he guided Sweden to the Euros.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring for Paris Saint Germain against St Etienne.

What next for Zlatan? (Image from AFP)

The defeat however did end the long standing managerial career of Morten Olsen who stepped down from managing Denmark after an incredible fifteen years in charge. Olsen took over as national boss after Euro 2000 and was instrumental in guiding Denmark to four major finals since then including the 2004 and 2012 European Championships and the 2002 and 2010 World Cups. The disappointment of missing out on France 2016 was clear to see when Olsen addressed the media after the defeat to Sweden. An emotional Olsen apologized to the Danish people stating that it hurt to end this way after more than 35 years as a player and coach and that he felt empty after the match. At 66, Olsen hasn’t confirmed what he will do next but retirement may not be out of the question. Whilst it will be disappointing not to see Olsen at the tournament, many will agree that it would be more disappointing if Zlatan wasn’t there to show the world one last time exactly how good he is.

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Viva La France As Football World Unites

After the atrocities in Paris on Friday night when terrorists massacred 129 people at various locations around the French capital, thoughts of football were rightly placed on the back burner.The whole of France and indeed the global community at large is in a state of mourning following these vicious attacks as police hunt for those responsible. The nightmare began early evening as Parsian’s headed out for the night in an effort to wind down and get ready for the weekend. Many headed to the Bataclan Concert Hall to see US band Eagles of Death fronted by Josh Homme perform whilst others made their way to nearby restaurants and bars or to the national stadium, the Stade de France where France were taking on the world champions Germany. The game was attended by a sold out crowd of 80,000 which included French President Francois Hollande. Twenty minutes after kick off at 9.20pm local time, the first attack happened on the stadium with a suicide bomber detonating himself after failing to gain entry to the stadium. He was stopped by a security guard who detected the explosives strapped to the terrorists body  which probably saved thousands of lives. The blast, which killed the terrorist and a passer-by was heard inside the stadium and was picked up on TV for those watching at home. Ten minutes later another terrorist detonated outside the stadium near a different entrance again after failing to find a way in. A third blew himself up at a fast food outlet near the stadium 23 minutes after that.

Inside the stadium, the game continued with many unaware of what was happening outside. The blasts sounded like fireworks which startled many inside but as the game played on, few left. At half time, both national managers were informed of what had occurred but decided to play on after consulting with security in regards to what was safest for the players and the crowd. In the end France ran out 2-0 victors but the result meant little as the players left the field only to find out what had being happening in the city that night on monitors inside the tunnel. Both teams looked visibly shocked as the news flooded in that gunmen had terrorized the city killing many, including 89 at the Bataclan. The fans who had just watched the match unfold now started to stream onto the pitch as they heard the news filter through. Many hugged each other and cried in fear of what many happen next but by that point the stadium was on lockdown. They would eventually be allowed to leave once the area was secured but both teams remained at the venue until the early hours of the morning until they knew that it was safe for them to leave. The following day news broke that two players on the French team,  Lassana Diarra and Antonie Griezmann had been directly affect with relatives caught up in the tragedy. Diarra’s cousin was killed by the gunmen whilst Griezmann’s sister had been at the Bataclan when the gunman had burst in and started shooting. Luckily she managed to escape but many didn’t in what is now considered to be one of the worst attacks on France in its history.

Mourners gather outside the Bataclan Concert Hall (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Mourners gather outside the Bataclan Concert Hall (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

With France now in three days of official mourning and still on lockdown, its hard to know when the country will be able to return to a state of normality. But the French are resilient and refuse to lie down to these terrorist acts. For that reason, France has decided to go ahead with Tuesday night’s international friendly with England at Wembley. All 23 players who reported for the Germany game have travelled to London including Diarra and Griezmann in a unite front. The result of the game is not important but the significance of it taking place is. It’s a defiant stand to show that the terrorists cannot win and that the UK like many other nations across the world stands shoulder to shoulder with France. The stadium whilst under tight security will be lit up in the tricolore in honour of the visitors whilst the home fans will join their French rivals in the emotional singing the national anthem of France, La Marseillasie.

#PrayforParis

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Vardy Run Continues But Hodgson Is Less Than Impressed

As far as zero to hero stories goes, Jamie Vardy’s takes the cake. The Leicester forward’s rags to riches story is remarkable given how far he has come in such a short space of time. Eight years ago, Vardy was playing non league football for Stocksbridge Park Steels F.C after being released by Sheffield Wednesday as  youngster. For many, being released by a football league club at such a young age would destroy your confidence but not for Vardy who used the experience as a learning curve. He knuckled down and trained hard with Stocksbridge which paid off with 66 goals in 107 appearances. That mentality and dedication has been the continuous theme in Vardy’s rise from non league to Premier League star. A constant performer, Vardy has risen through the ranks first moving to Halifax then on to Fleetwood before signing for Leicester in 2012. Now a regular for the Foxes and scoring for fun, Vardy is knocking on Roy Hodgson’s door so loudly that it is proving hard for the England manager to ignore him.

Vardy during his Stocksbridge days (Image from PA)

Vardy during his Stocksbridge days (Image from PA)

It was last season when Vardy first came to the England manager’s attention with some fine performances for Leicester under Nigel Pearson as they turned around a miserable start that saw them rooted to the bottom of the table at Christmas to securing  a mid table finish by the end of the season. Despite only scoring five times that season, it was Vardy’s overall contribution to the teams efforts and his non stop running that won him many plaudits. When Pearson was replaced in the summer by Italian Claudio Ranieri, many pundits believed that Leicester would struggle and eventually be relegated. However the Foxes have been in stunning form and currently sit 3rd in the Premier League with 25 points from 12 games. Key to their success has been Vardy who has scored in nine consecutive Leicester games and is now chasing Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record of ten goals for Manchester United. His exploits have spawned praise from far and wide and has included some remarkable comparisons to some of the games greatest strikers including Argentine goal scoring legend Gabriel Batistuta.

Gabriel 'Batigol' Batistuta (Image from Getty)

Gabriel ‘Batigol’ Batistuta
(Image from Getty)

The comparison to Batistuta is complementary but somewhat in jest. Vardy’s form for Leicester this season (and arguably last) has been impressive and deserves the praise he is collecting. But his manager’s remarks after the game were directed more towards answering the question asked than making comparisons. The question posed to Ranieri was when was the last time that he saw a player score on such a frequent basis. His answer was Gabriel Batistuta’s eleven goal run for Fiorentina back in the 1994-1995 season. Ranieri, who managed the Viola from 1993 to 1997 was hardly saying that Vardy reminded him of Batistuta but instead remarking on his incredible goal scoring run which was similar to that of Batigol’s ten years earlier. Batistuta is one of the world’s greatest strikers to have played the game scoring over 300 goals in just over 500 appearances for club and country during a 17 year playing career. At 29 years old, Vardy is quite a long way behind Batistuta’s exploits with only 163 goals in just under 300 appearances (most of which were non league) and has yet to score for his country in four tries.

Scoring for England is the next goal for Vardy who deservedly should be called up for England’s next few friendly matches. With Rooney short of form, Sturridge permanently injured and Theo Walcott more comfortable on the wing, Hodgson has a shortage of recognizable front men. With qualification to Euro 2016 already secured, the friendlies between now and next summer will be crucial for Hodgson to judge who should make his 23 man squad. Rooney, despite bad form will be there regardless as will Tottenham’s Harry Kane but the other striker positions are still up for debate. Vardy is keen to impress and show Hodgson what he can do but he needs playing time to do so. Whilst happy to include him in recent squads, it would appear as though Hodgson sees Vardy’s role with the team as being a wide player rather than the one that has seen him be so deadly in front of goal for Leicester, the traditional number nine role. In a recent press conference, Hodgson appeared to blast Vardy by saying that Vardy will play in whatever position that he dictates and that the player should just be grateful to be included.

Hodgson seems less than impressed by Vardy (Image from AFP)

Hodgson seems less than impressed by Vardy
(Image from AFP)

This remarkable outburst was unprompted as Vardy had not made any statement or remark to the media about his unhappiness to play out wide. Hodgson’s reluctance may get the better of him if England find themselves a goal behind with twenty minutes left in a crucial group game in France next summer. As he glances along that bench for a player in search of a player would can run like a man possessed and create chances from nothing, will he regret not giving Vardy a shot and a chance to impress in advance of the tournament beginning. Lets see.

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Canada – The Safe Option For The FIFA 2026 World Cup?

 

With questions being asked about the selection of Russia and Qatar for the next two World Cups in 2018 and 2022 respectively, few are thinking about the 2026 event with any real purpose. That is with one exception – Canada who is actively looking into making a formal bid to become the host nation. Ranked 110th in the world, Canada has failed to qualify for any World Cups since its one and only appearance in 1986. Despite this, the popularity of the sport in the region is at an all time high and is growing in terms of participation by kids under 16 at a faster rate than the more traditional sports in Canada like Ice Hockey and Baseball. The continued development of the Major League Soccer (MLS) which now includes three Canadian participants – Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact has helped to sustain this growth as has the increased exposure of foreign leagues like the EPL and La Liga on Canadian broadcaster’s schedules. Added into this, the diversification of the Canadian population over the past twenty years that has seen an immigration explosion from Europe, the middle East and Asia, football is more relevant to Canadians that ever before.

Canada's only World Cup appearance was in Mexico 1986 (Image from Getty)

Canada’s only World Cup appearance was in Mexico 1986 (Image from Getty)

Many will question whether Canada could host a tournament of this scale and whether the infrastructure exists but in truth the country has more experience with major FIFA tournaments than some of the other rumoured interested regions. Over the past twenty years, Canada has played host to almost every FIFA organized tournament with the exception of the world futsal, beach and club championships, Confederations Cup, and the Men’s and Women’s World Cups. However next summer sees Canada checking off one of those boxes as they play host to the 2015 Women’s World Cup. FIFA will be watching with interest to see how that tournament unfolds and if successful it could be the springboard needed for Canada to bid for the men’s tournament in 2026.

Canada plays host to the 2015 Women's World Cup (Image from FIFA)

Canada plays host to the 2015 Women’s World Cup
(Image from FIFA)

Formal bids for the 2026 World Cup do not need to be submitted until 2018 but preparation and discussions are already underway at the Canadian Soccer Association. CSA president Victor Montagliani knows that before they can submit their bid, there is a lot of ground work that needs to be done both in the region and at FIFA, lobbying those in power to show Canada’s true potential. FIFA are keen to continue the development of the game in regions not typically focused on football/soccer and Canada fits the bill perfectly. With a 35 million population, an established national transport network and a growing appetite for the game, Canada would present an interesting proposition. The only plausible concerns that FIFA may have would be around stadiums with a minimum of 12 all seater venues required, all of which needing a capacity of 40,000 or more. Currently Canada falls short but so did Qatar who was rewarded the 2022 games anyway by FIFA on the promise that they would be built for the event so that should offer some hope to Canada’s bid team.

Qatar won their bid despite still needing to build all of its stadiums like the one above (Image from Qatar 2022 bid)

Qatar won their bid despite still needing to build all of its stadiums like the one above
(Image from Qatar 2022 bid)

Given that the 2018 World Cup is in Europe and the 2022 event currently in the Middle East, bids from those regions would be not considered. That leaves countries from Asia, Australasia, North and South America and Africa to fight it out for the rights. Australia, who missed out on the 2022 games, will likely submit a bid as will the USA who is also seeing a growing interest in the beautiful game. No African country besides South Africa has the infrastructure needed to host a World Cup so FIFA is unlikely to see a bid from that region. In South America, Argentina and Colombia may formulate bids but at this time neither has suggested this as an option. Canada is the only G8 country not to have hosted the Men’s World Cup so Montagliani believes it’s now time for Canada to step up to the plate and do so. Having watched neighbours the USA host in 1994, Montagliani believes that Canada has a strong case to follow them given the similarities between the two countries. Canada has  history in preparing a bid; after FIFA stripped Colombia of the 1986 World Cup due to economic concerns, Canada, the US and Mexico all stepped up with bids of their own. Eventually the tournament was given to Mexico, much to Canada’s disappointment. However Canada has come a long way since then and any bid now would be far more robust than the one submitted all those years ago. In the end it will be FIFA who decides if Canada is the next country to host the World Cup. Given the issues that the organization is currently experiencing with Russia and particularly Qatar, a safe bid may be the preferred option. Given their past experiences hosting FIFA tournaments, surely there is no safer bid than a Canadian one?

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Down But Not Out – Scotland Now Prepare For Bare Knuckles Fight With Poland

If only points were awarded for effort in football, Scotland would surely have walked away with something last night against Germany. They put up a good fight twice coming back from going a goal behind but in the end left Hampden with nothing but a sore head and a bruised ego. It wasnt an unexpected result but stung nonetheless as Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016 took another blow. The sucker punch however was not against the Germans but instead last Friday night in Tbilisi when Scotland were TKO’d by an old foe in the form of Georgia. In a fight they had to win, Scotland looked sluggish failing to connect with any of their jabs at the home team before suffering a fatal blow to the abdomen which they were unable to come back from.

Georgia's suckerpunch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Georgia’s sucker punch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Much like a well-traveled fighter, Scotland has a checkered past. It has some famous shock wins against the heavyweights of world football including France and Holland in qualification but for each one there are several bouts they look back on and can’t believe they lost. It’s the same story year after year for Scotland and their supporters who turn out in their droves regardless of how bad the pummeling will be. They watch helplessly as lesser opponents push Scotland to the ropes time and time again, first jabbing then slamming Scotland with a hook and an uppercut. The fans see Scotland bleeding and want the referee to call time early to save their prize-fighter. But he can’t and he won’t. Scotland must defend itself but it can’t, unable to push their opponent back and stop the onslaught. Disbelief fills the stadium as the fans remember how Scotland managed to push better opponents, the so-called heavyweights all the way to the twelfth round. They think If only Scotland could be consistent then perhaps they would have a shot at something great.

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight (Image from PA)

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight
(Image from PA)

Unlike in Tbilisi, the effort was more apparent against the current world champions. Scotland battled hard, trying to stay in the fight they now most desperately needed to win.Their defence looks solid, if not totally convincing and held of the German onslaught of intricate passes and probing shots for a majority of the tussle. Against Georgia the midfield was lethargic and failed to create any really opportunities for the lone frontman Steven Fletcher to strike. But against Germany, Scotland where throwing wild punches, often missing the mark all together but still trying to push back. Germany had seen it before in their last fight but this time looked concerned as the pair exchanged blows in the first half. Twice Muller tried to knock Scotland out but twice they responded, first through Maloney and then by McArthur. The fight was evenly balanced going into the break. German trainer Joachim Low delivered a stern warning to Germany that they needed to win this fight to take a step closer towards the Euro’s. He told them to step up a gear and finish Scotland once and for all. They did just that with the fatal blow happening just moments after the restart, a blow that knocked the wind out of Scotland and left them dazed and confused. As the referee ended the fight, Scotland trudged off the park believing all was lost and it may be.

Up Next Another Heavyweight - Poland (Image from AFP)

Up Next Another Heavyweight – Poland
(Image from AFP)

To make matters worse, Scotland must watch as Wales and Northern Ireland edge closer towards the Euros. Once considered poorer versions of Scotland, the duo have now leap ahead of their northern rival and are challenging the heavyweights once more. The only chance Scotland has at redemption comes next month when they face up to another tough heavyweight in the form of Poland. They must win this fight and the following amateur bout against Gibraltar to stand any chance of reaching the play offs. Battered and bruised, Scotland must regroup and look deep inside themselves for the energy to go out in front of their home support once more and finally knock down a heavyweight. The gloves are officially off now as Scotland prepare to fight dirty in an effort to keep their dream of qualification alive.

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The Bright Future of Football In Singapore

Singapore has followed many countries in setting up academies and centres of excellence, which are churning out young players for the local and regional teams. Unfortunately, very few make it into the top teams in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and even fewer make it beyond the region’s borders. However, this may just be starting to change. Last month has seen the first Singaporean player ever to move to an Australian A-League team with 23-year-old Safuwan Baharudin signing on loan for Melbourne City. The versatile defender impressed the City Football Group team during a couple of friendly matches in the UAE and after completing the move has gone on to make 3 appearances scoring 1 goal in his first month. Young Singaporeans are also looking further afield for their footballing education. Adam Swandi spent 2 years in France with FC Metz (more of him later) and Mahathir Azeman has just returned from Brazil to Singapore to serve his National Service (NS). Azeman, 19, was signed from the National Football Academy (NFA) by Boavista Sport Club at the end of 2013 and has been a first team regular in the club’s reserves (U-21) side. He will play locally this season before heading back to Brazil with Boavista once his NS is complete.

Following this trend are the 2 eldest sons of (arguably) Singapore’s greatest player, Fandi Ahmad – the first Singaporean footballer to play in Europe – have huge shoes to fill. From a young age both have shown plenty of potential and have already been picked up the Chilean club CD Universidad Católica’s academy, without either having played a Singaporean league game. Irfan is a forward with good vision and touch, excellent speed and accurate passing. Ikshan is an attacking midfielder noted for his ability to dribble at defenders and beat them with individual skill. At 17 and 15 respectively, they have time to develop but it is already hoped that they will be key players for the national team for the next 15 years. (Oh, and they also have an 11 year old younger brother, Ilhan, who is rattling in the goals for his school team). Perhaps this growing trend of the best young players leaving Singapore to maximize their development will be the key to the country improving the national team’s FIFA Ranking and maybe even improve Singaporean football on the whole. However, it makes my task of identifying 5 of the best U20 prospects in the country a little harder.

So here goes, these are my 5 top players under the age of 20 that Singapore currently has:

Adam Swandi

Age: 19

Position: Attacking Midfield

Club: Courts Young Lions

Like some of the young starlets mentioned above, Swandi burst on to the scene with captivating displays for the NFA teams. A 2-year stint with FC Metz in France followed, although he has returned to Singapore this year to serve his NS and play locally. An intelligent playmaker with great control and one-touch passing, who plays with a very similar style and physique to that of Philippe Coutinho.

Recommended Future Club: Like many Singaporean players Swandi has good technical skills but lacks strength. Given a strict conditioning program to improve his physicality then he could certainly provide a playmaking role to a team that plays with a number 10 behind the forward line. A team like West Ham could do wonders for his development as they have a proven youth history, have an experienced manager renowned for getting the best out of unknown players and make good use of playmakers.

Anumnathan Kumar

Age: 20

Position: Central Midfielder

Club: Courts Young Lions

Kumar is a strong midfield general who has grown to dominate the Courts Young Lions’ boiler room. His presence inspires those around him, strong in the tackle, great vision and finds his teammates on most occasions. The national team has called him up regularly over the last 18 months and so we should see him playing regularly at international level.

Recommended Future Club: Kumar’s potential is crying out to be tested at a higher level. With his skills similar to those of a young Clarence Seedorf then AFC Ajax would be an ideal place for him to develop and hopefully follow in their tradition of producing world-class players.

Rising star Anumnathan Kumar in action against Palestine (Image from Getty)

Rising star Anumnathan Kumar in action against Palestine
(Image from Getty)

Adam Hakeem and Amer Hakeem

Age: 17 and 16

Position: Both defenders

Club: NFS U-17 and U-16

Standing at 1.92m, Adam Hakeem, son of Singapore football legend Nazri Nasir, is a looming presence that reinforces the backbone of the defence. His ability to get up in the air coupled with his towering height makes him a dominating player at both ends of the field. Younger brother Amer has impressed scouts and already impressed scouts and earned himself a training stint at the prestigious Ajax Academy in Holland. His humility, willingness to learn and effervescent leadership ability are certainly qualities of a star in the making.

Recommended Future Club: As these brothers are still so young I would keep them together and let them follow the example of Mahathir Azeman by going to Brazil with Boavista SC. The Brazilian training and league produces strong defenders without sacrificing any focus on skills and creativity.

Amirul Adli

Age: 19

Position: Central defender/midfielder

Club: Courts Young Lions

A versatile player, Adli, has been brought through the NFA system and established himself quickly in the Young Lions last season. A composed player who makes good use of the ball, he provides defensive cover to more attacking teammates. Made his international debut last year and should see more playing time in upcoming matches.

Recommended Future Club: With respect to Adli, his potential path to glory is unlikely to be as meteoric as others on this list. His solid style is perfect for development in the A-League with the Brisbane Roar. The 3 time champions have an experienced management team, good youth team structure and in Matt Mackay they have an international defensive midfielder for Adli to learn from.

Post by Kenny C, BOTN writer based in Asia

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From World Cup Winner To Bit Part Player – What Has Gone Wrong For Mario Gotze

With only ten minutes left of their crunch second leg game against Barcelona and trailing on aggregate by two goals, Pep looked at his bench. Sitting there was a player who could potentially turn the game, a baby faced assassin who seems to flourish in these big occasions. Mario Gotze knew his time had come so stripped off and prepared to enter the fray. Having the luxury to remove a player like Thomas Muller and replace him with Mario Gotze is a dream that only few coaches will ever experience. So deep is the pool of talent at Bayerns disposal that they can afford to leave out Gotze from the starting eleven is startling. But with the talent that Gotze has was it right of Guardiola to give him only four minutes or indeed leave him out of the starting line up all together? Whether or not Gotze starting the game would have had any effect on the overall outcome is unknown but arguably he offers slightly more to the side than others. But for one reason or another Pep has never really warmed to the little German.

No love lost between Pep and Gotze (image from Getty)

When Guardiola agreed to take over at Bayern he asked that they sign Neymar. Instead he got Gotze as the board felt he was as good and had the added advantage of being German. In the end, Neymar joined Pep’s former club Barcelona  whilst Gotze traveled across the country from Dortmund to Munich. It’s fair to assume that the relationship between the two has been on rocky ground for some time now. Gotze last year spoke publically about his frustration at the playing opportunities Guardiola had thrown his way that season. Gotze did manage to finish the season strongly and was selected for the Germany squad in a move that ended up securing them the World Cup thanks to his extra time goal. Returning to club football, Gotze must have believed that Guardiola would have been impressed by what he had achieved for his country but instead he found a manager who didn’t seem to care. Guardiola simply didn’t know what to do with Gotze. Talented yes but as a smaller player in a fairly tall squad where exactly would he fit?  In a 4-3-2-1 formation, dropping Muller or Ribery/Robben from wide positions was not an option, nor was the prospect of leaving the towering Robert Lewandowski out in favour of Gotze. Sacrificing one of his central midfield three appeared to be the best bet but that would mean leaving out Thiago, Schweinsteiger or Xavi Alonso. Thiago, who played for Guardiola at Barcelona was a player who the coach specifically wanted and who the board delivered, unlike Neymar. Schweinsteiger is a legend for both club and country and his work rate for both is unheralded. So that only leaves Alonso. At 34, Xavi Alonso appears to have lost none of his tactical awareness of the game with the way he reads it and dictates the play a joy to watch. In a midfield crammed full of talent, Alonso still stands out as the player Guardiola can ill afford to drop. He is their calm through stormy weathers, with a passage range that most great players would be proud off. To say that Alonso keeps getting better season after season is not far from the mark although he has notably slowed over the past decade as time caught up with him. Dropping Alonso for Gotze would mean a change in format and a switch to a more uncomfortable approach. Gotze would be condemned  once again to being  rotation player only for Bayern.

Alonso continues to impress despite his advancing years (image from pa)

To be fair to Pep he has played Gotze more times this season than last. Gotze has made thirty appearances in the league, fourteen of which came from the bench. Injuries to key players like Schweinsteiger, Ribery and Thiago have indirectly handed Gotze a few more starts than usual but as a result Guardiola had to adapt his formation to suit. His preference it would appear is to have Gotze come from the bench, something the player isn’t too happy about. Guardiola doesn’t necessary not like the player, he simply can’t fit him into his preferred system. In fact when Gotze was heavily criticized recently by German legend Franz Beckenbauer for being lazy, it was Pep who jumped to his defence stating that Gotze was one of the best professionals he had ever worked with. He fell short of saying that he was an important member of his squad however, something that would have perhaps made Gotze feel slightly better about his role at the club.

Beckenbauer has been critical of Bayern and Gotze in particular in recent weeks (image from getty)

Where to play Gotze is the puzzling question. Coming off the bench appears to suit Gotze style of play. He is an impact player who can grab the goal that wins the game. Given that a quarter of Bayern’s league goals this season were scored in the last fifteen minutes of the game, it’s not hard to work out why Pep prefers it this way too. Whether Gotze sees it this way is a different matter. With Pep confirming that he will be in charge next season, Gotze has two options – stay and fight for a spot or leave. If he does decide to leave the list of potential suitors will be a long one with clubs in England, Spain and Italy more than willing to add the German to their ranks. Gotze will have to decide if staying in his native Germany is more important at this stage in his career than regular games. He could bide his time and wait for Guardiola to depart at the end of next season when his contract expires but the risks with that strategy are great. Bayern are happy with what Guardiola has done so far albeit missing out on the Champions League final was not ideal. However if he can steer them to Europe’s top club prize next season, a new contract may be offered by the Bayern board if it hasn’t been offered before then.

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Rooney Overtakes Charlton To Become England’s Greatest Ever Goal Scorer

It was always going to be Wayne Rooney that took the penalty. Picking up the ball, he walked confidently towards the spot before placing the ball down. Hands on hips, Rooney stood quietly looking at the goalkeeper who stood between him and greatest. With England leading and only six minutes of regular time left, he could afford to miss but Rooney was never going to. The stadium was silent as Rooney started his run up but erupted in cheers as his rifled shot smashed into the back of the net. Rooney had done it, he had beaten Sir Bobby Charlton’s long standing record of 49 goals for England and in doing so became England’s all time leading goalscorer. At 29 years old, Rooney had managed to do what the likes of Shearer, Greaves, Lineker and Owen had failed to do, etching himself into the record books.

Rooney celebrates his first goal for England against Macedonia  (Image by Andy Hooperway)

Rooney celebrates his first goal for England against Macedonia
(Image by Andy Hooperway)

After the match, an emotional Rooney gave an impromptu yet rousing speech to his England teammates challenging them all especially Harry Kane and Theo Walcott to beat his record. He singled out Ross Barkley for praise after the Everton midfielder shone in a match that he started from the bench. Fabian Delph has started the match but only lasted 9 seconds before pulling up with a hamstring injury gave Barkley his chance. Delph like Rooney entered the record books that night but for all the wrong reasons becoming England’s shortest ever international appearance. His injury however couldn’t mar Rooney’s night as the England captain finally grabbed the record for his own.

There is an argument that can be made that suggests Rooney’s path to 50 was much easier than Charlton’s for a variety of reason. Firstly the number of internationals played currently has rapidly increased since the sixties when Charlton ran riot giving Rooney a better chance of beating the record than ever before. In addition changes to the weight of the ball and the rules which favours the attacker more have also aided the Manchester United frontman in his quest. Finally the teams that England faced were arguably easier opponents than Charlton faced. Rooney benefited greatly by playing and scoring against smaller nations like Andorra, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein and San Marino  which between them contributed to 13 of his 50 goals to date. Against tougher opponents, especially in major tournaments Rooney has struggled only managing 6 goals in total which included braces against Croatia and Switzerland at Euro 2004 and single goals against the Ukraine at Euro 2012 and Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Sir Bobby Charlton during his playing days for England  (Image from Getty)

Sir Bobby Charlton during his playing days for England
(Image from Getty)

Charlton on the other hand excelled against the best teams of his day like Portugal, Argentina and the Soviet Union.  His brace against a tough Portuguese side including Eusebio set England on its way towards victory in the 1966 World Cup, a feat that Rooney has not managed to match. But like Rooney a majority of Charlton’s goals came in either friendlies (22 vs 14 for Rooney), in qualifying  (9 vs 30 for Rooney) or the now defunct British Home Championships (13 goals). In fact out of Charlton’s 49 goals, 16 came against the home nations – Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.  Regardless of how they got their goals, both players are phenomenal in their own right. Charlton finished his England career at aged 32 shortly after being knocked out of the 1970 World Cup by a Gerd Muller inspired West Germany. At 29, Rooney still has plenty left in the tank and will likely continue playing for England for the foreseeable future. That will give him a chance to add further goals to his current tally, stretching the gap between himself and Charlton. Whether he can reach the next target of 100 international goals is yet to be seen but on current form, you wouldn’t put it past him.

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Wales On The Brink As Britain Prepares To Invade The Euros

“Three more points” is the message that Wales boss Chris Coleman will be telling his team as they stand on the edge of greatness. After a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cyrus in their seventh European Championship qualifying group match, Wales find themselves on top and within touching distance of next years tournament in France. It will be an amazing achievement for Wales who have failed to qualify for every tournament since 1958. Mathematically Coleman has it correct – three points from their last three games will be enough for Wales to reach the promise lands and rid themselves of the ghost of ’58. And with Israel up next on Sunday who they ironically beat back in ’57 to reach the 1958 World Cup, it’s surely a case of when not if for Wales. Rush, Giggs, Hughes and Saunders all tried in the past to propel Wales to a major finals without luck. But now this new generation looks set to do it and write their names into the record books.

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament (Image from Getty)

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament
(Image from Getty)

Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu have all played their part but Wales owe a huge debt to one man in particular who has been outstanding. With five goals and several assists so far, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale has played an instrumental role in putting Wales in with its best chance of qualifying in nearly sixty years. It was his goal that settled the tie with Cyprus much like his strikes against Belgium, Israel and Andorra before that. Bale appears to be unstoppable when he pulls on the red shirt of his home nation. Arguably a poorer side without their talisman in their starting eleven, Bale makes Wales tick but is far from the only reason why they find themselves in this position. Coleman has done a solid job since replacing Gary Speed under tragic circumstances, bringing his side together as one whilst instilling belief that qualification can and would be achieved. Standing in their way were some formidable foes but by playing as a group and more importantly for each other, they look set to do it. Stunning yet hard-fought wins over Belgium, Israel and Cyprus has Wales on a seven game unbeaten run that looks set to continue all the way until the Euros kick off next summer in France.

Bale does it again (Image from Reuters)

Bale does it again
(Image from Reuters)

Wales will likely be joined there by England who are unbeaten in their group and are within touching distance themselves. But if current form continues and some other results fall favourably for them, Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be joining Wales and England at the Euros making it a clean sweep for the home nations. Northern Ireland lie second in their group behind Romania but ahead of Hungary going into today’s crunch clash with the Faroes Islands. Three points today are essential before Micheal O’Neill’s side can even start to think about Monday’s defining match against Hungary. By that stage, Northern Ireland could have a five point cushion between themselves and Hungary, especially if Bernd Storck’s side fails to beat leaders Romania in their match today. With Greece and Finland still to come, qualification is hardly guaranteed but like Wales, the Northern Irish players have faith that they can make it happen. Unlike Wales though, Northern Ireland don’t have a Gareth Bale-esque figure in their ranks. Instead they have a team of grafters who give their all to the cause and to date have produced some fine results against Finland, Greece, Hungary and Romania. Kyle Lafferty, the gangly former Rangers frontman has been their unlikely hero, picking up the hero status from David Healy and running with it. Five goals in six games shows he is a man in form and if his country is going to qualify, they will need Lafferty to maintain that form and fire them towards France.

The Unlikely Hero - Kyle Lafferty (Image from Getty)

The Unlikely Hero – Kyle Lafferty
(Image from Getty)

Out of all of the home nations, Scotland has the toughest challenge after being placed in a group with the current World champions Germany and heavyweights Poland. But Gordon Strachan’s side has performed brilliantly so far and kept themselves in contention going into the home straight. Currently third in the group only two points behind Germany and three behind Poland, their remaining four games will have the Tartan Army on tenterhooks. Up first is a must win game against Georgia today, played at the same time as Poland visit Germany with the result of that game arguably more important than Scotland’s. After Poland’s surprise victory at home against Germany, the group has been left wide open and is anyone’s for the taking.

Poland's win over Germany has left the group wide open (Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Poland’s win over Germany has left the group wide open
(Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Strachan knows that to stay in contention he needs to win today and then prepare his side for two crunch home fixtures against the group leaders. He will look towards the more experienced members of his team – Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and Shaun Maloney to provide the motivation to the rest of the squad as they remind the others of the anguish they went through after several failed qualifying campaigns. Not that the Scotland squad needs to be motivated though, having lost only one of their last six qualifying games. There is a real belief in the group that if they play together they can get the results they need to reach France. Two wins from their last four games might not be enough but three wins especially one over Germany or Poland could be. It would be an amazing achievement for Strachan’s men to reach Euro 2016 and join the other home nations in doing so.

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Jamaica Stuns US To Seal Gold Cup Final Spot

It wasn’t meant to end this way. Inspired by the heroic performance of the women’s team at the Women’s World Cup, the US men’s national team were supposed to bring home a trophy of their own – the Gold Cup. The defending champions had it all in their favour – home field advantage, a better squad than most of the others in the tournament and good form after a series of impressive friendly victories over Germany and Holland in the run up. Despite a less than convincing start in the group stage, the US finally found its second gear in the quarter finals hitting lowly Cuba for six. Klinsmann’s men looked ready and were already preparing for their six consecutive appearance in the final when they came up against Jamaica in yesterday’s semi final. But the Reggie Boyz clearly hadn’t read the script that the US had written. Instead of rolling over, they took the game to their opponents and in the end walked away with a much deserved victory leaving the US players shell-shocked. Jamaica now proceed to Sunday’s final against Mexico whilst the US are left wondering what just happened.

Down and Out - The US players leave the pitch shell shocked (Image from Getty)

Down and Out – The US players leave the pitch shell shocked (Image from Getty)

Goals from Giles Barnes and Darren Mattocks were enough to seal the shock win and knock the holders out. Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley did manage to pull one back for the US but it counted for nothing as they crashed out of the Gold Cup. Despite having a majority of the possession and more than enough chances to win the game, the US simply couldn’t find a way past Ryan Thompson in the Jamaica goal. The 30-year-old, who plays for Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the USL (the US third division) was in stunning form making save after save as the US bombarded the Jamaica goal. Indeed the only real mistake that Thompson made during the entire game was the failure to hold onto Johannsson’s long range shot which bobbled from his arms straight into the path of Bradley. By the time the newly elected US captain struck, the US were already trailing by 2-0. Despite having limited shots on goal, Jamaica made each one that they did have count with Mattock’s first on the score sheet. The Vancouver Whitecaps frontman rose well inside the box to connect onto a throw in from Kemar Lawrence and loop his header over Brad Guzman and in off of the far post. US national boss Jurgen Klinsmann will be disappointed with his centre back John Brooks  who was out jumped by Mattocks despite having a sizable height difference (6’3 versus 6’0). Still shaken from that goal, it wasn’t long before the US had conceded again. This time the goal came from an exquisite free kick by former Derby prodigy Giles Barnes from the edge of the box. Barnes curled the ball round the outside of the wall and into the near post with Guzman failing to get across in time to stop it.

Giles Barnes curls his free kick round the wall to give Jamaica a 2-0 lead  (Image from PA)

Giles Barnes curls his free kick round the wall to give Jamaica a 2-0 lead
(Image from PA)

Bradley’s goal just after the restart gave the US the lift it needed and rallied the crowd behind the home team with Jamaica now looking rather nervous. But Winfred Schafer’s side would not give in and held on for the remaining 42 minutes to book their first ever appearance in a Gold Cup final. Remarkably its only their 2nd win over the US in 23 attempts but one that they will saviour for a long time to come. Their focus will now turn to Sunday’s match against Mexico, a side who are beatable based on their performances so far in the tournament. They finished second in group C behind Trinidad after an enthralling match between the two in the final game. Mexico surged into an early lead but seven goals in the last forty minutes of the game saw the game finish as a 4-4 draw and left Trinidad on top of the group with Mexico behind them. The knock out rounds were less than convincing too  for Mexico as they struggled to find their rhythm. They needed extra time in both their quarter-final against Costa Rica and their semi final against Panama  to win the games and book their final spot.

Mexico sealed their place with a controversial win over Panama  (Image from Getty)

Mexico sealed their place with a controversial win over Panama
(Image from Getty)

This could hand Jamaica a much-needed boost with Mexico potentially facing up to fatigue after two gruelling matches in four days. But El Tri will be the strong favourites to lift their tenth title, and will take comfort in the fact that they are not facing the US as predicted. Jamaica however will once again relish the underdog carding and will be out to show that the US result was not a fluke as they look to lift their first ever Gold Cup.

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US Run Rampant over Japan To Lift Women’s World Cup

In a rerun of the 2011 final, the USA faced a Japanese side looking to claim back to back titles in yesterday’s 2015 World Cup final. Japan, who had knocked out England in the semi finals to advance to yet another  grudge match with the US, have not been as impressive in this tournament as they were in Germany but in a sign of a true champion have battled through each round, usually relying on a single goal for progression. The US on the other hand have grown stronger as the tournament progressed, firstly escaping from a difficult group before convincing wins against Colombia then China in the knock out rounds. But it wasnt until their semi final match with a rampant in form Germany that the US showed their real potential as contenders. The Germans had scored a remarkable nineteen goals in opening play from five matches with Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag in particularly impressive form.

Celia Sasic (13) had a fantastic World Cup  (Image from PA)

Celia Sasic (13) had a fantastic World Cup
(Image from PA)

But against a much tougher defence, Germany failed to find the space that was afforded to them in their previous matches. Unable to find  the breakthrough at one end put more pressure on a nervous looking German defence that weakened as the match went on. Eventually the pressure became too much and the German’s conceded a silly penalty. Carli Lloyd converted that spot kick to hand the US the advantage in a defining moment in the game. The US added a second late in the game to secure their passage to the final and continue the US fine record at World Cups. In the seven Wormen’s World Cups that have been playing to date, the US has finished in the top three on every occasion, including three times as winners (1991,1999 and 2015) and once as runner-up (2011).  Germany who are have won the tournament on two occasions (2003, 2007) have faltered in recent years and are in somewhat of a transition phase with half of their current squad under 25 years old. That inexperienced showed in their semi final match when they came up against an US side filled to the brim with seasoned internationals. In fact 10 of the US squad have over 100 caps whilst another 6 have more than 50 caps.

Captain Carli Lloyd is one of several experienced players in the US side (Image from Getty)

Celia Sasic (13) had a fantastic World Cup (Image from PA)

Since their defeat in 2011, the US has stuck with the same group of players making only a few additions along the way but importantly retaining a good mix of youthful exuberance with experienced professionals. Whilst captain Abby Wambach (249 caps) and defender Christie Rampone (308 Caps) may not feature as much in the starting eleven as in previous campaigns, their influence especially on the younger players in the team has been the making of this World Cup winning side. Gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London was a huge turning point and gave the US the confidence that they need to believe that they could become world champions. With a squad that contained Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Rampone and Wambach it was hard to see anyone stopping them.

Gold in London was the springboard for World Cup success  (Image from AFP)

Gold in London was the springboard for World Cup success
(Image from AFP)

Meanwhile Japan took on England who had knocked hosts Canada out in the quarter finals. England, who had never reached this far in the World Cup before, played well in a tight match and looked on course to provide yet another upset by beating the Japanese. However a late own goal deep into added time at the end of the game by Laura Bassett knocked England out and put Japan into the final. It was the confidence booster that Japan needed having once again failed to live up to their billing as one of the tournament favourites. All that stood between them and another World Cup title was ninety minutes of football against the US. As the match kicked off on a sunny night in Vancouver in front of a sell out 53,341 fans, both sides looked evenly matched but it wouldn’t take long for one side to step up a dominate the game. It’s hard to argue that US captain Carli Lloyd should be the player of the tournament after some stunning shows in the previous rounds but she saved the best for last.

Two quick goals within five minutes gave the US the lead before Lauren Holiday made it three within 15 minutes. Lloyd would add a fourth a minute later to complete her hat trick with a stunning long distant lob from the half way line over the back peddling Kaihori in the Japanese goal. Japan however did not give up and snatched a goal back eleven minutes later to make it 4-1. After the restart, Japan added a second with Julie Johnston scoring an own goal to make it 4-2. Japan saw an opportunity to get back into the match and pressed forward to find the two goals needed to send the game into extra time. But it wasn’t to be as almost immediately the US raced up the pitch and scored their fifth goal thanks to Tobin Heath. With the game won, the US could afford to make two token substitutions, bringing on Wambach and Rampone for one final swansong.  A fitting end to this historic win for the US women’s team.

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USA Ready To Defend Gold Cup Title

Can the US defend the Gold Cup? (Image from AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)The US Men’s National Team has had some trouble recently however they have come together to defend their Gold Cup title with experience over youth. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has chosen to use a more experienced team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the youthful team he is using in the Gold Cup could prove to be the US team of the future. 

#1: The Youthful Team

The youthful team that is going to the Gold Cup is facing other youthful teams from neighboring countries. There are many experienced players in the world who choose not to play the Gold Cup, and the countries must dip into their junior ranks to find the players they need. The players on the US team are more experienced overall, and the US team’s chances will rise immediately. Even the likes of John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin have played for the US over ten times despite being only 22 years old. 

The US squad looks remarkably different now without the likes of Donovan and Holden  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The US squad looks remarkably different now without the likes of Donovan and Holden
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

#2: Stiff Competition

As always the threat to the US regaining the title lies with Mexico. The El Tri are not at full strength in the Gold Cup, but the Mexicans always field great teams filled with players who play professionally around the world. Stiff competition comes in the form of a US team that is not able to get past its previous failures. The Americans have won the Gold Cup, but that team did not perform very well in the last World Cup. The Americans are stuck in a cycle that sees them only progressing so far before being eliminated. The change in the roster could cause problems for a team that does not have an identity, and the match betting on the team becomes quite complicated.

As always, Mexico pose the biggest threat  Image from Getty)

As always, Mexico pose the biggest threat
Image from Getty)

#3: Is This Klinsmann’s Last Stand?

There has been little improvement to the US team since the World Cup and Jurgen Klinsmann is running out of opportunities to turn around the USMNT program. The team has not improved much since Klinsmann took over, and the Americans are not in the mood to be disappointed again in 2018. The World Cup 2018 could be a watershed for everyone in the ranks of world soccer, and Klinsmann could be let go if it appears that he is unable to manage the Americans to victory. His coaching philosophy is not perfect, and his results are varied.

Could this be a defining tournament for Klinsmann  (Image from Getty)

Could this be a defining tournament for Klinsmann
(Image from Getty)

#4: Will The US Win The Gold Cup?

The Gold Cup is anyone’s tournament to win, and it is a tournament the Americans could easily lose. The major changes in the American roster have caused an upheaval that most onlookers do not understand. The upheaval that the Americans take to the Gold Cup could become so problematic that they are eliminated early. The experienced team that the United Stated takes to the Gold Cup could help turn around Jurgen Klinsmann’s fortunes, but the Gold Cup is only one step in the rebirth of American soccer.

This article was written by Tony Samboras who is a sports writer with a passion for soccer. He has written for many online publications and currently writes for www.freebets.com.au

Portugal Crush Germany To Advance To Under 21 Final

Outclassed, outplayed and outscored was the story of the Under 21 European Championship semi-final match between Germany and Portugal. A 5-0 win enough to seal passage to the final. But somewhat surprisingly were the victors, Portugal who sent the tournament favourites Germany back to Bavaria for a rethink. Despite having a World Cup winning defender at the heart of their defence and a Champions League winning goalkeeper behind him, Germany simply could not contain a rampant and free flowing Portuguese side that appears to grow more in stature as the tournament progressed. They now face one final challenge, a repeat match with Sweden tomorrow to see who will lift the coveted trophy. The last time these two met in the group stage the game was tied 1-1 in the end but in the final only one team can leave victorious.

Germany will be watching that final with disappointment after failing to live up to their promise. The German squad was one of the strongest in a long time. In a week when English FA elite Director Dan Ashworth claimed that they couldn’t possibly ask full established internationals like Sterling, Barkley and Shaw to drop back down to Under 21 level, it was refreshing to see that other nations don’t seem to have the same hang ups. Germany called up Matthias Ginter who was part of the senior teams triumph in Brazil last year as well as goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen fresh of his heroic’s for Barcelona in the Champions League cup final win over Juventus last month. In fact out of the squad of 23 players, six have represented Germany at senior level and have had no issues dropping back down to play in this tournament. That number could have been greater if not for injuries and lack of form towards the end of the Bundesliga season had not ruled out a few other players. Their passage to the semi-final was not exactly to plan with two draws and a win in the group condemning them to a second place finish behind Denmark. That put them up against Portugal rather than Sweden with the ‘Esperanças’ knocking them out.

Ginter (bending over) and ter Stegen were unable to stop Potugal in the semi final (Image from Getty)

Ginter (bending over) and ter Stegen were unable to stop Portugal in the semi final (Image from Getty)

Portugal have been a revelation in this tournament with several players playing key roles in their success. It’s a talented batch that Rui Jorge has arranged with pace, skill and vision throughout. At the heart of his team is captain Sergio Oliveira.  The central midfielder who plays for FC Porto is highly regarded in his homeland as well as throughout Europe with several clubs scrambling for his signature. Technically gifted with incredible close control and a good range of passing, Oliveira has been exceptional in the tournament so far with an 85% average passing accuracy that highlights this. Alongside Oliveira is another highly rated youngster, William Carvalho. The Sporting Lisbon defensive midfielder is wanted by numerous bigger clubs and his performances in this tournament will not have done his chances of securing a move any harm.  A regular for the full senior team, Carvalho like some of his German counterparts had no issue spending his summer competing for the Under 21 Euro title and that dedication could now pay off. Portugal will be considered strong favourites after their stunning win over Germany on Saturday. Sporting Lisbon pair Ricardo and Joao Mario helped themselves to a goal each as did Benfica striker Ivan Cavalerio, Monaco’s Bernardo Silva and Malaga’s Ricardo Horta as Portugal ran riot. Silva in particular was instrumental in the win with the dazzling attacking midfielder proving why many in the game are comparing him to Portugal greats Rui Costa and Luis Figo.

Sergio Oliveira has been exceptional for Portugal so far  (Image from AFP)

Sergio Oliveira has been exceptional for Portugal so far
(Image from AFP)

Winning the final is the end goal but in their way is Sweden who progressed to the final with a convincing 4-1 win over Denmark. Goals from John Guidetti, Simon Tibbling, Robin Quaison and Oscar Hiljemark cancelled out Uffe Bech’s strike for the Danes.  Both Guidetti and Tibbling go into the final looking to score in order to seal the top goal scorer award. Currently both players sit on two goals with Czech midfielder Jan Kilment leading the way on three goals. But scoring against Portugal will not be easy, given that they have only conceded one goal so far in the tournament. That goal however was scored by Tibbling in their 1-1 draw in the group stage which will offer the Swedes hope. The final should be a spectacular end to what has been a fantastic European championship with two talented teams battling it out for the trophy.

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England Fail Again As Calls For Rethink Grow Louder

Most England fans will remember or at least have heard about the events of July 30th 1966 when Bobby Moore famously led England to its first and so far only World Cup triumph. However few England fans will be able to recall what happened almost thirty years later on July 25th 1993. That was the last time that an England side at either under 18, under 19, under 21 or senior level won an international tournament. That day, with a squad that contained the likes of Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Robbie Fowler, England beat Turkey by a single goal (a penalty by Darren Caskey) to lift the UEFA European Under 18 Championship trophy. Twenty two years later, England are still looking for their next trophy after being dumped out of this years Under 21’s European Championships at the group stage. Gareth Southgate’s side finished bottom of their group after two defeats and a win in yet another disappointing tournament for English fans.

England's 1993 winning team (Image from AFP)

England’s 1993 winning team (Image from AFP)

England entered the tournament as a strong contender with a talented squad at their disposal. With Tottenham’s 30 goal a season striker Harry Kane leading the line, Southampton’s James Ward Prowse in midfielder and Everton’s John Stones solidifying the defence in front of the ever reliable Jack Butland in-goal, England should have at least progressed beyond the group to the knockout stage. But defeat in their opening game to Portugal left Southgate’s side with a mountain to climb. They appeared to be back on track with a nervy 1-0 win over Sweden, with substitute Jesse Lingard striking with five minutes to go but going into the final game against Italy, England looked disheveled and unorganized. What followed was a mauling at the hands of a less than convincing Italy side despite England having the majority of possession and a greater volume of shots. A brace from Torino’s Marco Benassi and one from Andrea Belotti had already sealed the win before Nathan Redmond grabbed a late consolation goal. The result in the end was good for no one with neither side progressing to the knockout stages after Portugal and Sweden drew in their final match and both advanced. Southgate almost immediately sprung to the defense of his team insisting that despite the team being knocked out, there was still a lot of positives in terms of the individual progress of certain players. Hardly what the England fans want to hear from one of their national managers.

There will be an inquest into what went wrong with several influential figures in English football like Harry Redknapp, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville all calling for rapid changes across the board. The first question raised is a valid one and is around selection. Whilst Southgate did select a talented group of players for this tournament, he chose to ignore other more experienced players like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshire. The make up of his squad was primarily Championship players and fringe Premiership players with the except of Stones, Kane and his strike partner Danny Ings. For comparison, Italy fielded a squad that had between them played over 270 games in Serie A last season whilst England could only boast 130 appearances in their squad with a vast majority of them being in the Championship or below. When questioned before the tournament about his selection, Southgate spoke about being fair and loyal to the group of players that had gotten them to the Championships through qualifying. It’s a fair point but one that should be addressed by the FA with a major rethink into priorities.

Jack Wilshire could have operated in the attacking midfielder role  (Image from Getty)

Jack Wilshire could have operated in the attacking midfielder role
(Image from Getty)

If England does want to win a tournament like this one, then they should be giving themselves the greatest chance of doing so. They need to select the best squad possible with the likes of Sterling, Barkley, Chamberlain, Shaw and Wilshire going in place of others. These players should have been part of this squad from the very start, creating a nucleus that lasted not only for this tournament but beyond. The team needs to grow together and more importantly progress together through the various international stages. In 2009, Germany beat England in the final of the Under 21 Euro Championships with a squad that would largely make up the team that would lift the World Cup at senior level five years later. England needs to adopt a similar approach if its is to build a team that is capable of winning the World Cup or European Championships in the future. Winning breeds confidence and giving a team the chance to be successful at one tournament only benefits them when it comes to their next one.

England must follow Germany's example by developing teams that progress together through the ranks  (Image from Getty)

England must follow Germany’s example by developing teams that progress together through the ranks
(Image from Getty)

There also needs to be a tactical adjustment. England through all levels up to the senior team are being instructed by FA Director of Elite Development Dan Ashworth to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation but without creative midfielders in the squad, this formation simply does not work. At the under 21 level, Southgate has used this formation repeatedly forcing players like Danny Ings or Tom Carroll to operate out of position in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar attacking midfield role. This role should have been played by Rosss Barkley or Jack Wilshire, both of which are comfortable in the role and can create chances. Similarly the inclusion of a player like Raheem Sterling could have offered more width to England and presented Harry Kane up front with more chances, something he was sadly starved off during the whole tournament in the Czech Republic. Southgate’s lack of backbone and willingness to go against the FA’s wishes will no doubt cost him his job. But its far from his fault. The FA should shoulder some of the blame for appointing him in the first place instead of a more progressive manager. Their desire to appoint a yes man to the role has led to failure once again and yet another set back for England. Strangely Southgate still believes that England can win the 2022 World Cup given the quality of players coming through but in order to do so the country’s FA needs to make a fundamental decision into how much they want to win a tournament and what changes will be needed to make that happen.

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Serbia’s Next Generation Spoils Brazil’s Party

Serbia have won the Under 20's World Cup (Image from Getty)With the majority of media coverage focused on the Copa America, Women’s World Cup and Under 21 European Championships, its understandable that few people really knew that the Under 20 World Cup was happening this month in New Zealand. In what had been a fairly unremarkable tournament, the final between surprise side Serbia and Brazil was anything but. In a thrilling encounter, Serbia secured a memorable late win over their South American rivals etching a new chapter in their short but colorful history. Serbia who were debutants to the tournament performed like champions in front of the sold out 25,000 seater North Harbour Stadium in Auckland. The Balkan peninsula took a 70th minute lead through striker Stanisa Mandic who brushed home a Nemanja Maksimovic cross from four yards out. Brazil who had dominated the game stepped up a gear and piled more pressure on Serbia but were unable to find a way through. It was going to take a moment of brilliance from one of their players and that is exactly what they got. Manchester United midfielder Andreas Pereira had only been on the pitch less than seven minutes when he picked up the ball wide on the left. After evading the challenges of Zivkovic and Maksimovic, Pereira surged into the box with right back Milan Gajic in pursuit. Pulling the ball back inside, he lost Gajic before drilling a low shot past Predrag Rajkovic to tie the game.

But it would be Serbia who had the last laugh when deep into extra time Maksimovic ran on to a through pass from Zivkovic which split the Brazilian defence wide open. With two defenders racing on to him, Maksimovic only had time to take a few touches before looking up and coolly slotting the ball past the diving Jean in the Brazil goal. Chaotic scenes followed with the Serbia bench running onto the pitch to celebrate whilst the Brazilian team sank to its collective knees. After the match, Serbia’s head coach Veljko Paunovic spoke warmly about his giant killers by insisting that the team unity was the key reason behind their success in the tournament.

“Were we lucky? Yes, we were lucky. But you have to deserve your luck and we worked extremely hard. We are a team that plays as one and, in the end, I think the team that wanted most to win this trophy has won it, It will give us confidence for the future but we must continue building, and rebuilding, our football and our society.”

Paunovic was right. His Serbian team had entered the tournament as rank underdogs but emerged as champions by playing together. There are no pre Madonnas in this team, only grafters who were willing to fight tooth and nail for each other. After defeat in their first group match to Uruguay, Serbia could have crumbled but instead they rallied to beat surprise outfit Mali (who finished third overall after beating Senegal in the third place playoff match earlier in the day) in their second match. A convincing 2-0 win over Mexico propelled them into the knockout stage and a match against Hungary. Again that never say die attitude that epitomised this Serbia team rang true. Despite being a goal behind going into the closing moments of the match, Serbia once again pulled themselves level through a strike from substitute Ivan Saponjic. Seconds later they would be reduced to ten men with the dismissal of Gajic but that would not deter Serbia who dominated in extra time, finally making the break through with two minutes to go sending them into the quarter finals. In their next match, they faced a tricky game against an ever improving USA who had dispatched Colombia in the last round. The match would be a stalemate and eventually be settled by penalties with Serbia goalkeeper and captain Predrag Rajkovic saving the decisive penalty.

Serbia did expect to meet Germany in the semi finals but Mali had different ideas by knocking out one of the tournament favourites on penalties.  Like in the round of 16 and the Quarter finals, the semi final between Serbia and Mali would go all the way into extra time after Youssouf Kone’s strike cancelled out Zivkovic’s fourth minute drive. Once again it was the substitutions and tactical alterations by Paunovic that changed the game in Serbia’s favour. Ivan Saponjic netted a memorable goal that was enough to win the match and send Serbia into the final against favourites Brazil. The rest they say is history.

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Canada Gears Up For Women’s World Cup Kick Off

Canada gears up for the 2015 Women's World Cup (Image from Getty)After a week of controversy at FIFA, the return of competitive football will be a welcomed distraction to the outgoing president. Despite announcing his departure on Tuesday, Sepp Blatter has confirmed that he is still set on attending the seventh Women’s World Cup which kicks off tomorrow in Canada. The tournament runs for just under a month and features 24 teams playing across six Canadian cities – Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. Somewhat surprisingly no games will be played in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto but this is largely due to the fact that they will be playing host to this years Pan American Games which starts around the same time. FIFA’s decision to hand Canada the Women’s World Cup is another show of good faith towards the country, who have previously hosted other FIFA tournaments including the Under 16’s and Under 20’s men’s World Cups and the Under 19’s and Under 20’s Womens World Cup. However it is the magnitude and prestige of this tournament that has the Canadian Soccer Association so excited as they see it as a perfect way to demonstrate their capabilities to FIFA with a view to a potential bid for the men’s tournament in 2026 or 2030.

Christine Sinclair will be hoping she can inspire Canada to glory  (Image from Getty)

Christine Sinclair will be hoping she can inspire Canada to glory
(Image from Getty)

That said, Canada has not belittled the Women’s World Cup in the slightest and is rapidly turning up the heat on what is set to be a compelling competition. Current holders Japan are out to win back to back titles after winning the 2011 World Cup in Germany, beating the US in the final via a nerve jangling penalty shootout. The star of Japan’s victory four years ago was their inspiration captain Homare Sawa. At 36, Sawa is Japan’s most capped female player of all time with 197 caps and is the country’s top goalscorer with 82 goals to date. Her five goals in the 2011 World Cup bagged her the Golden Boot award and a place in women’s football growing history. She will now look to add to that legendary status with a record breaking sixth World Cup appearance and a chance for one last final swansong. Japan are in group C alongside an impressive looking Switzerland and the fairly unknown commodities that are Cameroon and Ecuador. Progression is expected at which point the real defense of their title should begin.

Unlike Germany four years ago or China four years before that, the number of competitive teams able to win the tournament has increased dramatically. Besides Japan, any one of Germany, China, Brazil, USA, England, France, Sweden or hosts Canada could lift the World Cup trophy in Vancouver on July 5th.  A victory for Canada on home turf would mean more to the side than can ever be expressed and would be as a career high for captain Christine Sinclair are her teammates. Qualifying from their group however may be tricky with China, Holland and New Zealand making the foursome. Germany and Brazil should reach the knock out stages fairly easily after being placed in substandard groups. England and France will battle it out with Colombia and Mexico in Group F but its Group D that has everyone talking of a group of death. As one of the clear favourites for the tournament, the news that the US had been grouped with Australia, Sweden and Nigeria was not welcomed widely.

US star Hope Solo selected for US women's team despite facing domestic abuse allegations (Image from Getty)

US star Hope Solo selected for US women’s team despite facing domestic abuse allegations
(Image from Getty)

With arguably the strongest and most experienced squad in the tournament, the US should be good enough to make it through at the expense of Australia and Sweden but its the challenge of Nigeria that potentially poses the biggest threat. Whilst the Nigerian team is fairly unknown with a majority of their players still playing their league football back home, it is their comfort on artificial pitches that has the US worried. In controversial circumstances and blaming the weather conditions in Canada, FIFA decided in its wisdom to play this World Cup on all artificial pitches. The decision sparked protests from the players who claimed the move was an act of discrimination against the women’s game and that FIFA would never make the men’s game play on artificial surfaces during their World Cup. They are of course right as the risk to serious injuries on these synthetic surfaces is greater than on grass. Despite calls for a change back to grass, the tournament will go ahead on artificial pitches which could hand those teams who play regularly on the surface a huge advantage. Nigeria are one such nation who play 100% of their games back home on fake pitches. Their knowledge of how the ball performs on this surface and the fact that they have spent years working with it could give them a slight competitive edge.

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Brazil Recovery On Track As Copa Approaches

BrazilThe 2014 World Cup semi final still haunts Brazil. The humiliating defeat at the hands of eventual winners Germany was an eye opener for a team so confident of success in the tournament that they became blinded towards the truth. Despite having arguably one of the best players in the world in Neymar, the Brazil squad selected for the World Cup in their home land was less than inspiring. Luiz Filipe Scolari’s side were good on paper but lacked the creative spark or cutting edge of previous Brazil world cup teams. No Robinho or Ronaldinho to add an extra dimension to their play and no Romario or Ronaldo like striker to fire them to glory. All in all it was a side built for one purpose – to support Neymar. The talented 22 year old was given a free role, allowed to roam and create and basically do what he does best. With that freedom, Neymar shone picking up four goals on route to the quarter finals and placing himself in the running for player of the tournament. But a bad clumsy challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in the last few minutes of their clash in the quarters ruled Neymar out for the rest of the tournament. Heading into the semi’s Brazil were like a chicken with its head cut off. Unable to function and without Neymar to lead the way, Brazil were torn apart by a rampant Germany hungry for success. The 7-1 score line was flattering to Germany but in truth it could have been more. Their pride severely dented, Brazil’s national team was in tatters.

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup (Image from Getty)

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup (Image from Getty)

Two months later a fresh looking Brazil side took to the field to play Colombia in a friendly. Led out by new manager Dunga returning for a second spell as national boss, Brazil looked nervous yet prepared to start to rewrite the wrongs that had happened months previously. Their ranks had been changed dramatically with several key players from the World Cup notably absent. Striker Fred, who suffered the most due to his poor showing at the World Cup, had retired from international football aged 30 whilst Julio Cesar, Jo, Hulk, Maxwell and Paulinho all were left out in favour of fresh blood. In came Diego Tardelli, Everton Ribeiro, Philippe Coutinho and a recall for Robinho to add options to Brazil’s approach. The inclusion of Atletico Madrid defender Miranda was also welcomed by the fans and Brazilian media, many of whom felt that he should have been part of the World Cup squad in the first place and not have been excluded. His addition helped to solidify a shaky looking defence, even if it meant breaking up the much hyped PSG duo of David Luiz and Thiago Silva.  The match against Colombia finished in a 1-0 win with newly appointed captain Neymar sealing the win with an 83rd minute free kick. That nervous win would kick start a run of friendly victories that has now stretched to eight in a row. Brazil are back so it would seem and with a bang. Or are they?

Yes they have played against some good sides (notably France, Chile, Argentina and Colombia) scoring 18 times and conceding just twice but in a majority of the games Brazil have labored away to get the win. This may be due to Dunga crafting the team in his vision – less flair, more workhorse like in their performances. Brazil is more disciplined than before preferring to play through teams on the deck rather than looking for adventurous but risky long balls. Neymar in his new role as captain has a more disciplined approach too, less free to roam the pitch and more focused on linking the play and inspiring the team with some quick setup work or a shot on goal. The results of this change have been evident with the Barcelona player scoring eight times in as many games, including a self demolition of Japan when he scored four goals. Unlike during the World Cup though, the pressure on Neymar as his country’s only real goal threat has been lifted with several new players drafted in to ease the burden. In particular, the emergence of Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino has been a massive boost to Brazil’s attacking options with the 23 year old playing a significant role as provider and finisher of some of Brazil’s best moves in recent games. Despite having only four caps to date, Firmino has scored two fantastic goals and looks set to cement his place in Dunga’s long term plans as long as his form continues for both club and country.

Brazil’s fresh start under Dunga has been impressive to date but the biggest challenges await with the Copa America the first of them. Due to be played in Chile in June, Dunga will know that only a strong performance and perhaps a win will be enough to mend the bridges with the Brazil fans that were so violently destroyed by that defeat by Germany. The Copa is far from an easy competition to win, arguably tougher than the World Cup so Brazil will need to be on their best form to be triumphant. Brazil face Peru, Colombia and Venezuela in the group stage starting June 14th with progression expected. Failure to progress is not an option open for Dunga especially with the heartache from the World Cup still fresh in Brazilian hearts and minds.

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Oscar Misses Out As Brazil Gears Up For Copa Run

Copa target - Brazil manager Dunga (Image from Getty)With the Copa America just over a month away, Brazil manager Dunga has decided to name his squad in preparation. There are few surprises in the squad that will likely be captained by Neymar. In a fairly balanced squad Dunga has named a majority of the players who have played under him over the past eight friendly matches. However there is a recall for former Manchester City striker Robinho after his impressive season for Santos this year. The 31 year old forward will be hoping he can inspire Brazil to yet another Copa America title much like he did back in 2007. Currently on loan from AC Milan, Robinho has racked up only five goals in 13 league appearances this past season but has contributed much more to Santos overall style of play that his return of goals give him credit for. Also in the squad is Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho who has been the shining light in what has been a difficult season for the Anfield club. Having lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury for a majority of the season, Liverpool have failed to build on last year’s 2nd place EPL finish. That said, Coutinho’s form especially in the last few months has propelled the club back into European contention and now sit in 5th place with three matches left to play.

There is no place however for the creative Oscar who has had a frustrating past few months with injuries, summed up perfectly by his knock out at The Emirates thanks to a wild challenge by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. The Chelsea midfielder was hoping that his recent injuries would be overlooked by Dunga and be able to claim a place by a call from Jose Mourinho soon sorted that out. The Portuguese coach, who spent last weekend celebrating his four Premiership title, placed a call to the Brazil manager to inform him about a thigh injury that Oscar had sustained in training. It’s a devastating blow for the 23 year old playmaker who is keen to build on his already impressive 45 appearances for his country including some standout performances at the last World Cup. Also missing out are the influential trio of Ramires, Dani Alves and Kaka with Dunga preferring to play favour with a group of players who fit more comfortably into his style of play. It may not be the style that most expect from Brazil, with attacking bias benched in favour of slower build up play with the midfield rather than the strikers playing a more significant role. This cautious approach is designed to avoid the pitfalls experience last summer.

Brazil as a nation is still reeling from the events of last summer and the Copa America, set to take place in Chile in mid June has been viewed by many in the country as the salvation. Since their 3-0 defeat to Holland in the third place playoff’s, there have been several personnel changes including the manager with Scolari replaced by Dunga. The changes have worked with Dunga’s new look Brazil side unbeaten so far in the eight friendly games they have played. They approach the Copa with confidence, with the country slowly coming back to support them in their droves. Dunga however is taking nothing for granted and knows that the memory of that 7-1 mauling at the hands of Germany in the World Cup semi final is still fresh in most Brazilians minds. The coach is always looking over his shoulder and for good reason. His first spell in charge was deemed a failure with his tactics especially in competitive matches questioned. Eight wins on the bounce is a great feat and goes a long way to mend the deep cuts inflicted by the Germans nearly a year ago. But failure to win the Copa, which is considered one of the more historic and important titles by many in South America, could result in Dunga leaving his job before the 2018 World Cup qualifiers begin in October. Reaching the final is a must, with even the semi’s not being enough to satisfy many. Dunga’s side will have to play six matches in four weeks if they are to reach the final so his team selection is designed specifically for this challenge. Instead of having a set eleven much like Scolari had at the World Cup, Dunga will use his full squad and rotate players depending on the opponent, with the only player likely to feature in all the matches being Neymar. He has strength in depth with several players in the squad able to play numerous positions which gives Dunga options in terms of tactical approach.

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup  (Image from Getty)

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup
(Image from Getty)

He has strengthen the backline, which looked shaky and unorganized last summer, with Atletcio’s Miranda coming in to break up the reliance of David Luiz and Thiago Silva at centre back. In goal, Julio Cesar has been sacrificed for  the more reliable, no nonsense Jefferson whilst Danilo and Fabinho have been drafted in to offer support from full back but perhaps not as much attacking threat as a Dani Alves. The addition of Everton Ribeiro and Diego Tardelli add attacking prowess and mark a first for Brazil by calling up players for the first time who play in the UAE and China respectively. Much rests on captain Neymar’s shoulders but perhaps not as much as in the World Cup. His absence in the semi final due to injury was a huge blow to Brazil’s attack minded approach with Fred the only real option. That over reliance cost Brazil dearly and is a mistake that Dunga is cautious to avoid making again. The Copa America offers the chance at redemption for one of the world’s best sides. How far they can go will depend on many aspects but one thing is certain – failure is not an option.

Brazil squad for Copa America

Goalkeepers: Jefferson (Botafogo), Diego Alves (Valencia), Marcelo Grohe (Gremio)

Defenders: Fabinho (Monaco), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Filipe Luis (Chelsea), Danilo (Porto), David Luiz (PSG), Marquinhos (PSG), Thiago Silva (PSG), Miranda (Atletico Madrid)

Midfielders: Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Elias (Corinthians), Casemiro (Porto)

Attackers: Everton Ribeiro (Al-Ahli), Douglas Costa (Shakhtar Donetsk), Willian (Chelsea), Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool), Robinho (Santos), Neymar (Barcelona), Diego Tardelli (Shandong Luneng), Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim)

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How Long Before FIFA Cracks Under The Heat Of Its Own World Cup Report?

Another World Cup Scandal for FIFA to deal with (Image from Getty)FIFA’s report into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has cleared Russia and Qatar of any wrong doing, ending the possibility of a re-vote. Since the winning bids were announced in 2010, controversy has surrounded the proceedings with several claims made of bribery and corruption against the FIFA delegates, some of which has now been substantiated by various newspapers across the globe. FIFA originally denied any illegal activities and insisted that both bids had been awarded on merit and with the games’ best interest at heart. However as problems began to emerge, particularly with the Qatar winning bid, the fire underneath FIFA was turned up forcing them into action. FIFA President Sepp Blatter launched an independent inquiry, led by US lawyer Michael Garcia and a FIFA appointed ethics adjudicator, German judge Hans Joachim Eckert. After two years of investigations, Garcia concluded his findings and handed them to Eckert for review on September 5th 2014. A 42 page report was revealed earlier this week that cleared the two hosts nations but surprisingly heavily criticized England for its part in the bid process.

You didn't believe the report? Blatter in hot water yet again  (Image from Getty)

You didn’t believe the report? Blatter in hot water yet again
(Image from Getty)

The report claims that England acted inappropriately by trying to win over now disgraced Jack Warner by offering him assistance in getting a person of interest to him work in the UK, letting the Trinidad youth team hold a training camp in the country in 2009 and sponsoring a gala dinner for the Caribbean Football Union. England’s bid team is bemused by these claims, insisting its transparent bid was fully in line with the guidelines provided. But FIFA claims that England actions damaged the FIFA image and the bid process as a whole. These claims are laughable given FIFA’s handling of these bids and recent revelations of corruption by certain high profile members of their organization. It is not by coincidence that the English FA has been the most vocal of its objection to the handling of the bid process after the winnings bids were announced and have been stoking the preverbal fire under Blatter to reveal the truth. This report has been written in a way to silence the critics and put England back in its place whilst pulling a veil over what has really gone on.

England were blasted for their dealings with Jack Warner (Image from AFP)

England were blasted for their dealings with Jack Warner
(Image from AFP)

Put yourself in FIFA’s boots for a second and imagine that they were accused of helping with a murder along with two other accomplices. Faced with acquisitions that you had a role in this death, you would do everything in your power to clear your name including helping organize an investigation. However you would hardly leave the body out in the open or any other clues that could connect you with the death?  Of course you wouldn’t and this is exactly what FIFA has done. Case in point, it has been revealed that the Russian bid team only handed over limited documents to Garcia’s investigation claiming that the rest were on computers that were leased to the bid team and have subsequently been returned to their owners and wiped. Very convenient you may say. Added into this the report made mention of connections to the Qatar bid and former Fifa vice-president Mohamed bin Hammam including payments he made to several individuals but insisted that these payments were made for his personal political interests rather than that of the 2022 bid.

Russia's bid team have made sensational claims about what happened to all of their bid information  (Image from Getty)

Russia’s bid team have made sensational claims about what happened to all of their bid information
(Image from Getty)

Few believe this to be true including the man who started the investigation, Michael Garcia who has sensationally blasted the 42 page report insisting that it contains numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions. He, along with several others including UEFA president Michel Platini and FA chairman Greg Dyke have called for the full 430 page investigation to be released rather than FIFA’s interpretation of it. Dyke in fact has gone one step further by writing to every current sitting FA chairman across the world to take a stand and boycott any future World Cups until the full findings are released. German Football League president Reinhard Rauball has echoed this sentiment but also added that UEFA could leave FIFA if the findings weren’t published in full.  Pressure is now mounting on Blatter to act but once again the FIFA president is refusing to do so. Can we really be surprised by this or by the nature of FIFA’s handling of this matter? Not really as it’s is to be expected. Its dark criminal underbelly remains intact for the time being but as the fire is reignited and intensifies, will Blatter really be able to hold out any more or will he eventually cave and reveal what really happened during that bid process four years ago? There is a body somewhere that needs to be dug up after all.

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Home Nations Take Step Closer to France

 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man is an expression that perfectly describes what happened on Saturday in Israel.  With Wales taking on group leaders Israel in a must win game, the welsh fans were looking to one man in particular to be their inspiration. Gareth Bale did not fail to disappoint and when his country needed him the most he was there to provide the goals and the gloss on a well fought 3-0 victory over their group rivals. The Real Madrid star who has had a problematic season so far in Spain with many of the Real fans turning on him was a constant threat from the first whistle to the last. He provided the set up for Aaron Ramsey to head Wales into the lead before adding a stunning brace himself to wrap up the points. His first was a perfectly taken free kick, curled over the wall into the corner leaving the goalkeeper stranded. The second came thirteen minutes from the end; a drilled shot from Aaron Ramsey’s pass was enough to give Wales the win and have them leapfrog Israel into top spot in the group. Israel and Belgium do have a game in hand to play against each other which could see Wales drop back down to second before their crunch game with Belgium in Cardiff in June.

Expectations were high for Scotland going into Sunday’s must win game against Gibraltar at Hampden. Having warmed up with a narrow win over Northern Ireland four days earlier, Scotland fans were expecting a goal rout against the tiny peninsula state. The visitors were playing only their tenth international since being granted UEFA membership in 2013 and had until Sunday failed to record a competitive goal or a win. So when Luke Casciaro collected a pass from Aaron Payas on the twentieth minute of the match before coolly slotting it under David Marshall in the Scotland goal, dreams of an upset were very much on the cards. Scotland looked rattled having taken the lead only moments earlier through a penalty from Shaun Maloney but soon found the composure needed to get back on track. Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher added Scotland’s second of the day with a glancing header just before the half hour mark before Maloney added a third with his second penalty of the day. Steven Naismith put Scotland into a commanding position with a four goal six minutes before the interval.  The second half started much as the first had ended with Scotland in control and Fletcher in particular looking hungry for more goals. He would add a brace to complete his hat trick and earn himself a place in history as the first Scotsman to score three goals in an international fixture since Colin Stein did it in 1969. The win leaves Scotland still in contention in 3rd place in the group of death which also included World Champions Germany, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland meanwhile put their 1-0 friendly defeat to Scotland behind them when they took on Finland at Windsor Park on Sunday. Amidst scenes of protests outside the ground from religious groups who were calling on the IFA to boycott the game as it was played on a Sunday, Northern Ireland surged out of the blocks and into an early lead only to see the goal strangely ruled out. But the home support didn’t have to wait long before Kyle Lafferty drilled home his twelfth international goal after some good work from Niall McGinn who headed the ball towards the striker who sweetly volleyed home. The former Burnley and Rangers front man added a second five minutes later with a fine header from a Conor McLaughlin cross. Finland did manage to pull one back late in the game but Michael O’Neill’s men held on for another valuable three points. The win leaves them in second spot, a point behind Romania who they face next in June. With Greece already out of the reckoning and Finland struggling to find a winning formula, it looks to be a three way race between Romania, Northern Ireland and Hungary for the two automatic spots. A win against Romania followed by three points against the Faroe Islands could see Northern Ireland clinch its place at the European Championships for the first time in their history.

Harry Kane’s dream season continued with his debut appearance for England against a very poor Lithuania. In typical Kane style, he marked his first England cap with his first England goal only two minutes after coming on as a substitute. The Tottenham striker latched on to Raheem Sterling’s cross to head in at the back post and seal England’s four nil victory. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Sterling handed England all three points and kept their quest for qualification on track. Sitting top of the group after five matches with a six point lead England will progress if they win their next two games against second placed Slovenia and whipping boys San Marino. Few would bet on England progressing especially given the depth of talent available to manager Roy Hodgson. Already blessed with several options upfront, Kane’s addition and strong showing on his debut including not only his goal but some strong link up play will be sure to give Hodgson some food for thought.

With five games remaining, all four home nations look to be in good positions to qualify for Euro 2016 set to take place in France. With two automatic places in each group and the best third place team qualifying, the home nations all know that this is their best chance of all reaching the tournament. They will want to avoid the playoffs considering who may be involved at this stage in the game. Holland, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Switzerland all occupy third spots in their respective groups and are struggling for consistent form. If that continues the playoffs could be one of the most hotly contested of all time. Hopefully be then all of the Home nations have already sealed their places and will be focusing on the challenges that lie ahead of them in France.

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Where Are They Now Series – France 1998 World Cup Winning Team

With the chaos surrounding the fitness and mental state of Brazil’s star striker Ronaldo, the media spotlight had swung away from the hosts and firmly on to their opposition.  With the pressure lifted, France was able to complete their historic march to the World Cup lifting the famed trophy following a stunning 3-0 victory. The team heralded as legends in France would later go on to lift the Euro 200 championship trophy cementing their status in World football as legends too. With Euro 2016 due to be held in France next summer, we now look back on that 1998 final team and ask where are they now.

Goalkeeper – Fabien Barthez

The eccentric Barthez played an integral part in his country’s first ever World Cup triumph by conceding only twice in the seven games during the tournament, winning the Yashin award for best goalkeeper in the process. The former Marseille, Monaco and Manchester United stopper took over the No.1 jersey from Bernard Lama shortly after Euro 1996 and held onto the shirt for almost a decade. In the final itself, he made a wonder save from a nervous looking Ronaldo which kept France in the game. After retiring in 2012, Barthez became honorary president of US Luenac and now splits his time between performing that role and partaking in his new passion for motorsport.

Right Back – Lilian Thuram

Widely considered as one of the world’s greatest ever defenders, Thuram retired in 2008 as France’s most capped player with 142 caps to his name. Versatility is the word that describes Thuram the best, as a player he was comfortable anywhere across the back four, either as an outright defender or an offensive threat. During a distinguished playing career that saw him turn out for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, Thuram won over all that watched him with his grace, passion for the game and outstanding physical and technical attributes.  A great thinker on the pitch, it comes as no surprise that now retired Thuram has shown interest in raising the awareness of a variety of political and social issues, both at home in France and in his role as UNICEF ambassador.

Centre Back – Marcel Desailly

Sent off in the final after receiving two yellow cards with twenty minutes to go and France two goals ahead, Desailly could only watch in anticipation of a Brazil revival. Luckily for him that revival never came and France completed the rout with an Emmanuel Petit strike in the dying minutes. Desailly, often criticized by many for his outspoken nature and often over exuberance about his own abilities, was the rock at the heart of the France side alongside Blanc. Like Thuram, he is considered to be one of France’s best defenders with 116 caps to prove it. The former Nantes, Marseille, Milan, Chelsea player finished his career in 2006 after a two year spell in Qatar, first with Al-Gharafa and then latter with Qatar S.C. Now working as a pundit for the BBC and Canal Plus, Desailly has the platform he so desperately wanted during his playing career in order to make his opinions heard.

Centre Back – Frank LeBouef

In for the suspended Laurent Blanc, the then Chelsea defender has only played a bit part in France’s run to the final but would play a larger role in their final 90minutes of the tournament. Tasked with man marking Ronaldo, LeBouef gave the performance of his life limiting the Brazilian to only few attempts on goal. Not considered to be on the same playing field in terms of legendary status as Desailly, Thuram or Blanc, LeBouef’s showing in the final did earn him cult status at home and abroad which has helped in his career after football. Now an accomplished actor, LeBouef starred in the Oscar nominated The Theory of Everything as the Swiss doctor who tells Stephen Hawking’s wife that he will never talk again. Hollywood is calling for more of LeBouef with several casting firms keen to sign him up following his performance in the film.

Left Back – Bixente Lizarazu

Having made his name at Bordeaux during a ten year spell in the late 80’s early 90’s, Bixente Lizararu was set for greater things. A brief stint in Spain was followed by a career defining move to Bayern Munich where he would play for seven years and win countless honours including the Bundesliga title six times and the Champions League. The diminutive left back, at only 5ft 7inches was a star player for both club and country, always reliable and never caught wanting.  During the final he was asked by Jacquet to control the runs of Rivaldo and Cafu, something that Lizararu did perfectly with the duo limited to bit parts roles in Brazil’s defeat. Since retiring, Lizararu has gotten involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitions, becoming the European champion in the blue belt senior 1 light division.

Midfielder – Didier Deschamps

Captain fantastic, Deschamps was a leader both on the pitch and off of it for France and played a starring role in lifting the World Cup and latter the Euro 200 cup.  Over a 16 year playing career with Nantes, Marseille, Juventus, Chelsea and Valencia, Deschamps perfected his trade whilst using his time wisely to ingest as much information about the game as possible. Since retiring, Deschamps has become an accomplished manager in his own right although serious honours have somehow eluded him to date. Now the France manager, Deschamps is looking forward to next summer when France host the European Championships with Deschamps keen to become one of only a few to win the tournament as a player and as a manager.

Midfielder – Christian Karembeu

Originally from New Caledonia, Karembeu was one of several players in the French squad from French overseas territories but it matter little to many as he earned his spot as part of the national team. An accomplished tough tackling midfielder, Karembeu alongside Deschamps and Petit boss the French midfield during the 1998 World Cup. He would only play a bit part in the Euro 200 triumph as well but by then Karembeu’s legacy was complete. Another player who started at Nantes, Karembeu travelled far during his playing career with spells in Italy (Sampdoria), Spain (Real Madrid), England (Middelsbourgh), Greece (Olympiacos), Switzerland (Servette) and France (Nantes, Bastia) chalking up 414 appearances along the way. Now strategic advisor at Olympiacos, Karembeu also campaigns for peace throughout the world as part of the Champions for Peace club.

Midfielder – Emmanuel Petit

The long blonde locks of Petit are probably what he is remembered most for but his role in the final could not be understated. His corner just before the half hour mark was met by Zidane to give France the lead and it was his goal in the dying minutes after a through ball from Patrick Vieira that sealed the victory. Petit in fairness had played a significant role in getting France to the final with his nonstop running and occasional goals. Having spent nine years at Monaco, it wasn’t hard to see why he jumped at the chance to reunite with his old boss Arsene Wenger at Arsenal after the Frenchman took over there. It was here that Petit was converted into a defensive midfielder in a move that benefited both Arsenal and France in the end. He would spend three years at the Gunners before moving to Barcelona and then back to the Premiership with Chelsea. Since hanging up his boots, Petit has become a football analyst back home in France whilst also throwing his support behind football initiatives like the Homeless World Cup.

Attacking Midfielder – Zinedine Zidane

Widely considered the greatest French football of all time (some argue Platini is), Zinedine Zidane did not have the greatest of tournaments but popped up at the right time to become a legend. Having been sent off in the group stage against Saudi Arabia, Zidane returned for the quarter final against Italy and semi final against Croatia without really having an impact. But buoyed by the chance to win his country’s first world cup, Zidane stepped out onto the pitch to deliver arguably one of his best performances in the Les Blues jersey. His two headed goals sent France into half time with a 2-0 lead and the momentum they needed to go on a win the trophy. After the final whistle, Zidanes name rang out across France as a legend with his image projected onto the Arc de Triomphe in Paris along with the words Merci Zizou. He would go on to play a bigger role in France’s Euro 2000 success and latter in their march to the World Cup final in 2006, where despite losing his head and the game to Italy (he was sent off for head butting Marco Materazzi in the chest after the Italian had insulted his sister), Zidane retired as a legend. Now manager of Real Madrid’s B team, Real Madrid Castilla many believe Zizou’s is destined to manage France one day, a notion the great man has failed to dismiss.

Attacking Midfielder – Youri Djorkaeff

The little magician, Youri Djorkaeff played a vital attacking role alongside Zidane in Jacquet’s 4-3-2-1 formation.  The son of former France defender, Jean Djorkaeff it only seemed fitting that it was part of France’s greatest hour given his performances up until that point. Despite only scoring once in the tournament, Djorkaeff was one of France’s biggest contributors of assists including that cross in the final for Zidane’s second goal.  After spending eight years in France perfecting his craft, Djorkaeff eventually left home to join Inter before a spell in Germany with Kaiserslautern. But it was his switch to Bolton in 2002 that he will be most remembered for, at least with British fans. During those years, Bolton attracted the likes of Jay Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo to play for them but Djorkaeff was by far their best signing. After leaving England he spent the last year of his career in the US with New York Red Bulls before retiring to become a pundit and bizarrely a singer releasing “Vivre dans Ta Lumiere” as a single.

Striker – Stephane Guivarc’h

Picked ahead of Dugarry and a youthful Thierry Henry, Guivarc’h had only played a bit part up until the final despite being handed the number nine jersey by Jacquet at the start of the tournament. He did start against South Africa, Italy and Croatia in the run up but was substituted on all three occasions. Even in the final, Guivarc’h failed to complete ninety minutes, giving way to Dugarry on 66 minutes. The former Auxerre, Rennes, Rangers and Newcastle striker had a mixed career with the highlight of it being the World Cup win. Since retiring in 2002, Guivarc’h has done a variety of things including selling swimming pools. No diving jokes here.

Subs

Alain Boghossian

A 57 minute substitute for Karembeu, Boghossian is probably the least well known player to have played in the France win. Dogged through his career with injury, including picking up one a day before Euro 200 started, Boghossian was limited to only 26 caps for France. He did spend eight years in Italy making a name for himself with Napoli, Sampdoria and Parma before eventually retiring in 2003. He is now a coach with the French national team.

Christophe Dugarry

Replacing Guivarc’h in the final was surprisingly Christophe Dugarry ahead of France’s top goal scorer in the tournament Thierry Henry. Jacquet decided to throw Dugarry on with a view to introducing Henry later. But when Desailly was sent off, the plans were changed and Henry never took to the field. Dugarry had played well during the tournament so it was only fair to use him and as a different type of striker to Guivarc’h, one capable of holding up the play, it was just what France needed. The former Bordeaux, Milan, Barcelona, Marseille and Birmingham striker played 55 times for France over eight years starting in 1994. He joined LeBouef and Lizarazu in the punditry box after retiring in 2005.

Patrick Vieira

Best known for his spell with Arsenal, Vieira was still a youngster when the tournament was in full swing so was limited to substitute appearances. At Euro 2000 however he would take Karembeu’s spot as starter in the midfield, a role he would hold for a further nine years. After leaving Arsenal in 2005, Vieira returned to Italy with Juventus and then Inter before heading back to England for a final year with Manchester City. It’s at City where Vieira has remained appointed as part of their new administration as Football Development Executive.

Manager

Aime Jacquet

The mastermind behind the win, it’s hard to believe that even up to a month before the start of the tournament that Jacquet was not liked by the French fans, many of who were calling for his head. Despite this, Jacquet created a siege mentality and national pride within the team giving them the opportunity to win the World Cup on home turf. After securing the World Cup, Jacquet quit his job later becoming technical director of French football a month later. He held that role until 2006 when he finally retired from the game.

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Equatorial Guinea’s Fairytale Ends As African Cup Of Nations Draws To A Close

Equatorial Guinea have hosted a good tournament despite the off field drama (Image from Gavin Barker/BackpagePix)It was almost the fairy tale story for Equatorial Guinea in this year’s African Cup of Nations. The hosts came within 90 minutes of a dream final appearance, only to be stopped in their tracks by a rampant Ghana side managed by ex Chelsea boss Avram Grant. Equatorial Guinea, who gained a place in the tournament after they stepped in at the last minute as hosts due to Morocco’s reluctance, had low expectations of what was going to be possible but have surprised many along the way. Placed in a tough group with Congo, Gabon and 2013 finalists Burkina Faso, the home fans would have been forgiven for thinking that their stay in the tournament would be a short one. However two draws and a win were enough to send Guinea into the knockout stages much to Burkina Faso’s frustration who finished the group in last place. Up next was Tunisia who provided stiffer opposition. It looked to be the end of the road for Guinea who fell behind with twenty minutes left thanks to a goal from Ahmed Akaichi. But Esteban Becker’s side rallied and push Tunisia back, eventually nicking the goal they needed in the ninetieth minute to send the game into extra time. With the momentum firmly behind them, Equatorial Guinea now faced a disillusioned Tunisia side who finally gave up in 12 minutes into the first half of extra time, thanks to  a stunning free kick from Javier Balboa who notched his second goal of the game.

Up next was Ghana who had blasted past Guinea in their quarter final match by a score of 3-0. It took their total to seven goals in the tournament so far with Grant side looking more dangerous as the event progressed. Beating Ghana would take a lot of grit and determination with a slice of luck on the side of Equatorial Guinea but alas it wasn’t to be. In an ill tempered match that was marred on several occasions by crowd troubles including two incidents where Guinea fans invaded the pitch. With Ghana coasting to victory after Andre Ayew scored his side’s third goal of the game, Equatorial Guinea fans pelted the visiting Ghanaian fans with bottles and stones which drove them onto the pitch forcing the players to run for the cover of the dressing room in the 82nd minute of the match whilst police tried to restore order. It took forty minutes and a helicopter firing tear gas to eventually subdue to angry Guinean fans so that the game could restart and the teams could play out the last eight minutes. The Confederation of African Football were quick to condemn the troubles, fining Equatorial Guinea $100,000 USD along with forcing the countries FA to front the medical bills of those 36 people who were injured during the riots. They have been warned about further sanctions that will be imposed if crowd trouble starts again in tomorrow’s third place game against DR Congo. Not quite the end to the fairy tale that manager Becker had hoped for.

Ghana will face the Ivory Coast in Sundays showcase with both sides keen to write a new chapter into their already rich histories. The Ivory Coast, who beat Cameroon and Congo to reach the final were beaten finalists in 2006 and 2012 but haven’t won the tournament since 1992. It’s a similar story for Ghana who lost the 2010 final to Egypt and ironically the 1992 final to the Ivory Coast. They have to go all the way back to 1982 to remember the last time they lifted the coveted trophy so are keen to not slip up this time. Both teams featured in last year’s World Cup but neither side lived up to their potential, failing to make it out of the group stages. Packed with star names like Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony, Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan, it should be a spectacular finale to what has been a surprisingly good African Cup of Nations.

Ghana will face the Ivory Coast in Sunday's final  (Image from Getty)

Ghana will face the Ivory Coast in Sunday’s final
(Image from Getty)

Despite the chaos that surrounded the last minute substitution of host and the limited time for re-organization, the tournament will be deemed a success with several of the plaudits going to the host, Equatorial Guinea. It is unfortunate that the latter stages of the tournament will be remembered more for its crowd troubles than the football on show but despite this, Africa’s pinnacle tournament looks to have survived and prospered once again under extremely difficult circumstances. CAF president Issa Hayatou faced much criticism for not postponing the tournament when Morocco pulled out but it appears that his decision has been vindicated much to his own delight.

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Why Platini’s Tinkering Could Destroy UEFA

All smiles from the joker (Image from PA)With the application phase firmly underway, there appears to be no turning back on Platini’s revolution of the European Championships. The next event, due to be played in France in 2016, will be the last of its kind as a new format is adapted for the 2020 tournament. No longer will a single country host the entire tournament, instead 13 cities will host various games in an attempt by Platini to mix things up. His argument is that no country alone can afford to host the games on its own, with infrastructure alone being a huge cost to the host nation. Added into this falling attendances and partially filled stadiums at some of the less glamorous games highlight a need for radical change. Platini is convinced that a revitalized European Championships that encourages smaller nations to join in with by hosting games can reignite the passion and generate more money. The fans will benefit too in his eyes, with hotel chains and airlines unable to hike up their prices specifically to the host country. Instead low cost airlines will profit by ferrying passengers between the various cities where the games are being played.

13 venues across Europe will host Euro 2020  (Image from Skyscraper.com)

13 venues across Europe will host Euro 2020
(Image from Skyscraper.com)

It’s another hair brained idea by Platini which on paper looks sound but in practice makes little sense. Logistics aside (organizing a 4 week tournament across 13 countries with consideration for fans, TV broadcasters and players would be a nightmare for anyone), the idea of ripping up the framework of the world’s second biggest football tournament and starting from scratch is crazy. This isn’t the first time that Platini has been found guilty of making strange suggestions and he has many wondering if he is a football genius or a buffoon. Orange Cards, sin bins, Gulf World Cups and a newly created Nations Leagues to replace international friendlies are all straight from the Frenchman’s head whilst goal line technology which the game is crying out for is ridiculed by Platini as Playstation football. His support of the switch to the winter for the Qatar 2022 World Cup also shocked many, none more so that the leagues that play in his own organization who will see major disruptions to their domestic schedules that will take seasons to rectify. Platini appears to have too much time on his hands and too much of that time is spend on his own thinking up new ways to change football “for the better”.

Platini compared goal line technology to Playstation Football  (Image from PES)

Platini compared goal line technology to Playstation Football
(Image from PES)

Granted the European Championships needs a fresh coat of paint and some additional glamour added to it, but starting from scratch is not the solution. Yes the cost is intrusive but can limited if the country selected already has the stadiums in place. It should be pointed out that some countries in Europe have the facilities and infrastructure in place to stage a tournament tomorrow. England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy could all host with ease whilst Turkey would only require spending on infrastructure like roads and airports which is already doing. The problem sits with Platini and his inability to listen to reason or any other argument other than his own. Many saw Platini as the man to save football from the clutches of a corrupt FIFA and the eventual successor to Sepp Blatter but now many are hoping this won’t happen as given a bigger remit, his damage could be on a grander scale. Imagine a World Cup split over five continents or a new international Super league that pits Scotland against New Zealand or Chile against Japan on a frequent basis. As crazy as it may sound, it could be a possibility if Platini got his way. Like Napoleon, there is a danger that Platini believes he can conquer the world and change it for the better. His world however is football and needs to be protected. Football fans across Europe will be hoping that common sense returns to this once great man and he returns the European Championships back to its original format just in time for the 2020 tournament.

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The Show Must Go On As The 2015 African Cup Of Nations Gets Set To Start

Who will win the African Cup of Nations? (Image from Getty)This Saturday sees the kick off of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations with host nation Equatorial Guinea taking on Congo in the opening match. The start of this year’s tournament will come as a great relief to the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Issa Hayatou who has endured a stressful time of late since Morocco spectacularly pulled the plug on hosting the event in an announcement made in October 2014. Originally selected back in 2011, Morocco informed CAF that it refused to host the tournament amid concerns around the Ebola virus epidemic that was gripping parts of western Africa spreading to their country. Their principle fear was that if the virus spread to Morocco it would affect one of their principle pillars of revenue – tourism with visitors staying away as a result. Whilst reassurances were made by CAF, Morocco failed to budge and as a result the tournament had to be relocated quickly. Step forward Equatorial Guinea, who despite the tight turnaround believed that they could host Africa’s biggest tournament.

CAF President Issa Hayatou has had much to ponder of late  (Image from Getty)

CAF President Issa Hayatou has had much to ponder of late
(Image from Getty)

Tight is hardly how to describe the situation that Guinea faced, left with only 8 weeks to organize a 16 team 3 week long tournament. Venues had to be identified and secured quickly, accommodation for all 16 teams established as well as hundreds of other smaller items including match scheduling, ticket allocation and security to name a few. There was little time for this small oil rich central African state to improve on the stadiums so some fall far behind what would be classed as international ready. But Hayatou is hardly in a position to complain having taken the tough decision not to delay or postpone the tournament after Morocco’s exit. Hayatou is also facing the wrath of several national teams and coaches who are highly critical of the facilities in Guinea and its organization in general, citing the federation has done little to help resolve a growing list of problems. Guinea to be fair has done a remarkable job in getting ready, albeit with slight hiccups along the way – some nations are still hunting for additional accommodation as there aren’t enough hotel rooms to go around whilst others who are lucky enough to have rooms have found in some cases a lack running water or rooms in a desperate state of disrepair. Despite the chaos, the tournament will kick off in earnest on Saturday with the football taking the spotlight rather than the circus that has led up to it.

Not all the accommodation options in Guinea have been up to scratch  (Image from Seastravel.com)

Not all the accommodation options in Guinea have been up to scratch
(Image from Seastravel.com)

Algeria enter the tournament as strong favourites after an outstanding World Cup which saw them reaching the last 16 for the first time in their history. Regarded by many as the best team in Africa at the present time, Algeria play an attractive fast flowing game which utilizes many of the same squad retained from the Brazil World Cup. Stand out players Yacine Brahimi, Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli will need to be on form and up for the event when they kick off their campaign against South Africa on Monday. To win the tournament, Algeria will need to first escape from what is by far the hardest group that also contains Ghana and Senegal alongside South Africa. Ghana in particular are keen to put their poor performance at the World Cup behind them and show that they are a dominant force in African football. It has remarkably been 30 years since Ghana lifted the Cup, something the current team is all too aware of and keen to rectify. As too are the stars of the Ivory Coast team who have had to wait 20 years since their last victory. But with Manchester City’s newest signing Wilfried Bony on a rich vein of form coming into the tournament as well as host of other star players around him like Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, the Ivory Coast has a very strong chance of ending their run of bad luck. South Africa and Cameroon are considered potential winners as well after strong qualifying campaigns. The two nations, who have a rich pedigree in international football have fallen on darker days of late but are displaying early signs of recovery in their recent form.

Few are giving host nation Equatorial Guinea much of a chance of providing a shock but as history has shown in the past, the winner of the African Cup of Nations is hardly an easy one to predict. Zambia were shock winners in 2012 whilst Burkina Faso almost upset the apple cart last year before being beat in the final by a young and vibrant Nigeria side. Regardless of the winner, the next three weeks will be an action packed hell raising experience for the fans that have made the journey. Whilst not on the same level of stature as the World Cup, the African Cup of Nations is certainly one of the most vivacious in international football. It’s a tournament that showcases the very best of African talent and for Hayatou is the highlight of the calendar year, hence his desire to make it happen.

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Robert Prosinecki Hired As Azerbaijan’s new Manager

New man in charge - Prosinecki (Image from PA)It might not be the most glamorous of jobs in international football but that matters little to Robert Prosinecki who has taken over as national manager of Azerbaijan. The former Croatia midfielder succeeds German Bert Vogts who quit in October after six years in charge. Vogts, who also had spells managing Germany, Scotland, Nigeria and Kuwait, left his position after Azerbaijan lost their opening three matches of the Euro 2016 qualifying. His last game in charge ironically was against Croatia who romped home to a 6-0 victory leaving their opponents firmly rooted to the bottom of their group. At the time AFFA President Rovnag Abdullayev offered Vogts another job within the organization but the German decided to end his affiliation with a clean break. Now Abdullayev has turned to Prosinecki in the hopes that he can inspire the team ranked 126th in the world in the official FIFA rankings to greater things.

New Challenge - The Azerbaijan national team  (Image from Getty)

New Challenge – The Azerbaijan national team
(Image from Getty)

This will be Prosinecki’s first taste of international management having only been the boss in club football previously at Red Star Belgrade and Turkish side Kayserispor. He did spend his formative years after retirement as assistant manager to Slaven Bilic during his spell in charge of Croatia but this challenge will be a harder one to handle.  He inherits a team who lack quality and belief that qualification could be possible. Since breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan which is sandwiched between Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and the Caspian Sea has struggled to grow as a footballing force in the region with its neighbours stealing most of the limelight. They have yet to reach a major international tournament and have only won a handful of their 100 qualifying games to date. With most of their squad playing either at home in the Azerbaijan Premier League or in the lower leagues in Turkey, it has been a hard for football in the region to develop. Vogts time in charge hardly helped to improve the situation but in fairness to the coach, he did manage to unearth and blood some new players who bring hope to the national team. Vogt’s followed in US national coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s footsteps by looking to Germany for new players and he was pleasantly surprised by what he found. Into the squad came the likes of Ufuk Budak, Tugrul Erat, and Cihan Ozkara, all of which were born in Germany but with Azerbaijani roots.

Cihan Özkara is one for the future  (Image from Getty)

Cihan Özkara is one for the future
(Image from Getty)

Prosinecki will likely follow suit scouring Europe for players eligible to play, those who have potentially been displaced by the separation from the Soviet Union in the early 90’s and the troubles that followed. He will be all too familiar with their plight having been born and raised in Germany after his Croatian father and Serbian mother fled Yugoslavia as conflict began. Football was his savour from an early age and it wasn’t long before the tough tackling no nonsense midfielder started to impress. After moving to Croatia aged 10, he was quickly snapped up by Dinamo Zagreb where he would go on to make his debut at 16 years old. Despite scoring a goal on his league debut, he was never given a full time contract and moved to Red Star Belgrade shortly after that. It was in Belgrade that he would start to make waves and before long Real Madrid came calling who paid well over €15 million for his services.

His time however at Madrid would be cut short after three years when they fell out with the player due to his poor attitude towards many of his lifestyle habits that were affecting his play. Prosinecki would leave in 1994 and become a journeyman player with spells at Barcelona, Sevilla, Dinamo Zagreb, Standard Liege and Portsmouth before retiring in 2004 back home in Croatia. Whilst his club career was less than successful, his international career was more colourful. Selected for both Yugoslavia and then Croatia after the breakup of the region, Prosinecki became a key figure for both countries. He played in three World Cups (one for Yugoslavia in 1990 and two for Croatia in 1998 and 2002) and one European Championships (Croatia- 1996) becoming the only player to have scored in a World Cup finals with two different nations. Prosinecki is remembered best for his grit and determination on the field, something he has shown in glimpses since becoming a manager. The task that now awaits him is daunting but given his fierce love of the game and strong self belief, Prosinecki could be the man to turn things around for Azerbaijan.

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There’s Only Two Claudio Caniggias

Wait a second? Even the mascot didnt believe it was Caniggia as Cordone tries to pull a fast one (Image from Reuters)The unmistakable figure of Claudio Caniggia stood motionless in the tunnel, waiting for the call to take the field for Sunday’s friendly veteran’s game between Argentina and Brazil. The match in Natal, Brazil was billed as a clash of the greats with 1986 World Cup winning Argentina centre-back Oscar Ruggeri, Argentine midfielder Ariel Ortega and Brazilian duo Junior Baiano and Adilio all on show. But arguably one of the star attractions was Caniggia, a pacey winger turned striker that in his day excited crowds wherever he played. As the teams took to the field, Caniggia’s name was read out over the loud speaker and his photo flashed on the big screen to a barrage of applause and cheers. Wearing the number 7 shirt, Caniggia looked good for his 47 years with his famous long blond locks blowing in the wind. But in closer inspection, something just wasn’t right. Caniggia appeared to have gotten a tattoo on his right forearm, which did not look like a recent addition. Added into this, his style of play was slightly different and his passing somewhat off. As the game began fans began to wonder if the player on the field was in fact Claudio or instead an imposter?

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year  (Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year
(Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

They were right to question this as it was in fact not Caniggia but instead former Newcastle and Velez Sarsfield striker Daniel Cordone who was on the pitch. The former Magpie striker was pretending to be Caniggia who it was later revealed had missed his flight. Cordone, who was deemed a flop on Tyneside played the full ninety minutes before quickly scurrying off the field into the dressing room ignoring the waiting media. This caused suspicions to arise in the press core as Caniggia was usually more than willing to speak to reporters, especially given his status in Argentina as a legend. Unlike Cordone who never represented his country, Caniggia appeared over 50 times, scoring 16 goals during a 15 year international career. He played in two World Cups (selected for three but didn’t take the field during the 2002 World Cup) helping Argentina to the final in 1990 but his finest hour was leading Argentina to Copa America success in 1991. His dynamic play and gritted determination to own the ball during that tournament steered Argentina to its first Copa win in over 30 years. Caniggia is also fondly remembered for his club career and the many teams that he turned out for. After starting his career in Argentina with River Plate, he moved to Italy where he would play for Verona, Atalanta and Roma before moving to Portugal with Benfica. After a single season, he returned to Argentina with Boca Juniors before being persuaded three years later to return to Atalanta for a final swansong. Caniggia was happy to escape his homeland after a troubled three years which including losing his mother who commited suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of her apartment building. The event affected Caniggia deeply who considered retiring after spending almost a year out of the game in mourning but when the offer from Atalanta came in, he decided to give it one last shot. It was a move that would eventually see him move to Britain but strangely not to one of England’s big clubs who had been chasing him his entire career but instead to Dundee in the Scottish Premiership. In Scotland he regained his passion for the game and after a fantastic debut season, he secured a lucrative move to Glasgow giants Rangers where he would gain cult status with the fans over a two year stay. He would eventually leave Scotland for a single season in the money laden Qatar league but in truth Caniggia had by then called it a day. Now retired from the game and in an effort to maintain his fitness, he takes part in exhibition matches like this one, but for reasons unconfirmed was not in Natal come Sunday.

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby  (Image from PA)

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby
(Image from PA)

An investigation has been launched into why the organizers would allow Cordone to play in place of Caniggia and more importantly lie to the fans about it. The event organizers, Phoenix Sports insisted when questioned that there was nothing to hide and that it was Caniggia who took to the field on Sunday. ‘This is the Caniggia, the real Caniggia. There is no other Caniggia,’ insisted Andre de Paula, promoter of Phoenix Sports after the game.  But he quickly retracted this remark later on and admitted that Caniggia had failed to turn up so they were forced to field Cordone.  In the end the result of the match was not important, with it finishing in a 3-3 draw. But for the fans it was a bitterly disappointing day as some had paid good money to come and see Caniggia play in particular. Several fans left in disgust before the match had finished after working out that it wasn’t Caniggia on the field, with many more feeling angry about being lied to. There has been no word yet about whether further action will be taken against the promoter or against Cordone himself for his part in this fraud. Caniggia has yet to reveal his side of the story and has remained silent as the controversy over why this happened continues.

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Morocco Pulls Out Of Hosting African Cup Of Nations Due To Fears Over Ebola

Where now for the African Cup Of Nations? (Image from PA)There is something to be said about the impact fear alone can have on society. Just the notion that something could go wrong often leads to us as a civilization to pause and retreat. Often nothing comes from it, or at least it cannot be measured as things have been altered to prevent that fear from becoming a reality. Fear overcomes many obstacles in order to get its way with people dismissing common sense, raw data and logical arguments along the way to giving in to it. It would appear as though fear has won again, this time in Africa with Morocco deciding that they can no longer play host to next years African Cup of Nations due to the fear that Ebola may surface in the country during the tournament.

Issa Hayatou, President of CAF now faces a race against time to find a new host for the event (Image from Getty)

Issa Hayatou, President of CAF now faces a race against time to find a new host for the event (Image from Getty)

Seen as the pinnacle of international football in Africa, Morocco’s decision to walk away from hosting next January’s event has thrown the tournament into chaos. For organizers the Confederation of African Football (CAF), finding a suitable replacement at such short notice may be an impossible task with other nations unwilling to play host due to similar concerns. Cancelling is not an option at present but if a country cannot be found within weeks then they may be left with no other choice than to postpone their flagship tournament. To be fair, Morocco has every right to be fearful about Ebola spreading to its lands. The epidemic, which has been traced back to a two year old girl who died in December of last year in Guinea has rapidly infected thousands in the largely impoverished countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea and to date has killed just under 5,000. Included in that count was Thomas Eric Duncan, a US citizen who after contracting the disease through contact in Liberia flew back to Texas only to die in quarantine some five days later. A handful of other people have also undergone treatment in the US, Spain and Norway but all are in the medical profession and had been in Western Africa helping fight the disease so understood the early warning signs enough to seek help.

Dr Kent Brantly is a US doctor who contracted the disease but has since made a full recovery  (Image from Reuters)

Dr Kent Brantly is a US doctor who contracted the disease but has since made a full recovery
(Image from Reuters)

The disease can only be passed through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids and is not as many feared an air borne virus. Contracting the disease is extremely difficult unless you have come into contact with someone already infected but that information appears to fall onto deaf ears as fear takes control. Whilst new cases are being reported in the three worst hit regions, no new cases outside of that have come to light in the last two weeks. In fact leading doctors in the field are starting to see that the disease is plateauing in the worst hit country of Sierra Leone with fewer new cases coming forward than previous months. The latest information released suggests that the containment infrastructure employed in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia is working with the disease mostly contained now to these countries and that progress is being made a pegging back the onslaught of the disease.

The Ebola virus has spread panic across the globe since the first cases were diagnosed  (Image from Getty)

The Ebola virus has spread panic across the globe since the first cases were diagnosed
(Image from Getty)

However global fear has overtaken raw data and logic and is fueling the continued panic about Ebola. Football had already seen a few cases of this with select clubs unwilling to accept their African players back to training after international appearances. But now the fear has won its first victory with Morocco overlooking recent health reports in favour of believing that the fear could be real. Fear will continue to grow until Ebola is once again eradicated but until then it will flourish with few willing to side against it. The fate of next years African Cup of Nations will depend on the next few weeks and how much progress is made in tackling the outbreak. However by then it may just be too late to rescue the tournament which looks set to be yet another victim of the Ebola crisis.

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Lippi Calls Time On Success Laden Managerial Career

The master - Marcello Lippi (Image from Getty)After a managerial career spanning more than three decades, Marcello Lippi is finally calling it a day. The Italian coach, who has recently been managing in China with Guangzhou Evergrande, has decided at aged 66 that he wants to step out of the cauldron and instead admire the game from afar. Lippi will be remembered by Italian fans for guiding them to World Cup success in 2006 as national team manger. Heading into that tournament, Italy were never considered favourites but with Lippi’s guidance and tactical nuance Italy swept into the final eventually upsetting former champions France in a memorable clash. The World Cup trophy was added to the growing collection of trophies that Lippi had secured during his managerial career, which at the end of this current season included five Serie A titles. Four Supercoppa Italiana’s, three Chinese Super league titles and champions league trophies in both UEFA and AFC becoming the first coach in history to do so.

A young Marcello Lippi in his playing days  (Image from AFP)

A young Marcello Lippi in his playing days
(Image from AFP)

A philosopher of football, Lippi’s mantra for success was built on two guiding principles – team spirit and unity. He viewed his team as his family and treated them as such acting very much as the father figure to his players both on and off the pitch. Whilst compassionate and quiet on the touchline, Lippi’s players knew he was the boss which he had earned through respect and loyalty to those who worked for him. Unlike other football maestro’s like Ferguson or Mourinho, Lippi never fell out with his players instead trusting them to act as a professional should which some believe helped him in his quest to be successful. Guiding his country to World Cup success was his finest hour and whilst many will argue that Italy possessed the squad to do so, it would not have been possible if Lippi was not in charge. He instilled a siege mentality of them versus us into his Italian squad that boosted morale and helped the team unite to pull in a single direction. That direction ended with Fabio Cannavaro lifting the World Cup for Italy for the fourth time.

Cannavaro lifts the World Cup for Italy in 2006  (Image from Getty)

Cannavaro lifts the World Cup for Italy in 2006
(Image from Getty)

Lippi’s no nonsense approach to management spawned from his years as a player in Serie A where he served several clubs as a stylish yet effective centre half. Whilst his career was never considered to be glittering, it did form the basis from which Lippi would build his managerial career. He seemed destined to walk the sidelines sooner rather than later, noted by his teammates to have a keen interest in all things tactical and a thirst for knowledge on how to train effectively yet smartly. At 25, Lippi took his first coaching course which would lay the foundations for what was to come. After retiring in 1982, Lippi took charge of Sampdoria’s youth team for three years before making the long and winding step up to full time management in Serie A. After spending ten years crafting himself into a manager, Lippi took his first real step on this journey by taking over at Atalanta before eventually being poached by Napoli. It was in Naples that Lippi started to catch the attention of Italy’s larger teams with some fine displays, guiding Napoli to a UEFA cup spot in his one and only season. A move to Juventus was well earned and kick started Lippi’s winning run. With talents like Gianluca Vialli and a young Alessandro Del Piero at his disposal, Juventus dominated Italian football with three titles in five years plus that now famous Champions League win in 1996 over Ajax. He would have a short spell at Inter before returning to Juventus to win a further two titles before Italy came calling. He reluctantly accepted the job which proved to be a masterstroke with Lippi helping Gli Azzurri to its first World Cup in 24 years. He would quit after the success in Germany only to return two years later in what is now considered a black mark on his managerial career. After failure in the 2010 World Cup where Italy finished bottom of their group, Lippi quit and disappeared into the wilderness only to reappear two years later as the head coach of Chinese superclub Guangzhou Evergrande. With financial backing, Lippi transformed them into a dominant force in Asia and has now departed leaving them in a much stronger position than before, with three back to back titles to their name.

Lippi celebrates with his Guangzhou Evergrande players after another title win  (Image from Getty)

Lippi celebrates with his Guangzhou Evergrande players after another title win
(Image from Getty)

Alongside other legendary Italian bosses like Vittorio Pozzo, Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, Lippi will go down in history as one of the most successful coaches of all time. Already viewed as one of the top 50 managers in the game, Lippi’s legacy will live on in the game and his style of management will be used as a template for future managers. Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once called Lippi “the most impressive manager he has ever seen” which is high praise considering what Ferguson achieved in his career. But the sentiment is correct; Lippi was impressive both as a man and as a manager. He may have ended his love affair with the game but his impact will be felt for years to come as many look back at the successes that Lippi brought to his clubs and to Italy.

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FIFA Ignores Other Key Issues With Qatar World Cup As Heat Debate Continues

Call it what you like but farcical may be the correct way to describe FIFA’s handling on the 2022 World Cup. Surprisingly handed to the tiny Arabian peninsula of Qatar ahead of Australia, controversy has surrounded the decision since it was announced.  Questions about the bidding process roll on with many suspecting that votes had been purchased in advance, a practice that FIFA venomously denies. Other more pressing issues such as whether it’s ethically correct to allow a nation with such a poor human rights record to host football’s biggest tournament still continues as well as questions about the lack of infrastructure (with entire cities needing to be built) and more importantly the treatment of workers in the region given recent reports of over 1,000 migrant deaths already since the FIFA handed Qatar the tournament.

Ethical debates over Qatar's poor migrant working conditions continue (Image fro Getty)

Ethical debates over Qatar’s poor migrant working conditions continue
(Image fro Getty)

These problems continue to go unanswered with FIFA only apparently focusing on one issue – when to play the tournament. The World Cup traditionally has been held in the summer months but with temperatures reaching the high 40’s in Qatar during that time, playing a month long tournament in these conditions is nearly impossible. The Qatar bid team has acted quickly to alleviate concerns by highlighting that all the stadiums will be centrally cooled making it easier for the players but the concerns are more around the safety of the fans before and after the match with Qatar unable to cool an entire country. One recommendation posed to FIFA was to switch the games to the much cooler months of December and January but this plan has faced much opposition from both clubs and advertisers who are unwilling to rework their schedules to suit FIFA’s pinnacle extravaganza. As the debate rages on, FIFA have now decided to enter into an eight month consultation phase to review potential dates for the tournament with a formal decision expected next summer. This move has been done to quell the discussion and further delay what many see as an evitable step of removing the event from Qatar and reopening the bid process. Whilst time is still on their side, FIFA president Sepp Blatter is reluctant to do so and in fact appears to be trying to run down the clock.

The Al Wakrah Stadium which is to be built will include state of the art cooling systems to keep fans and players comfortable (Image from Qatar.TO)

The Al Wakrah Stadium which is to be built will include state of the art cooling systems to keep fans and players comfortable
(Image from Qatar.TO)

The fact that they are “ignoring” the other concerns suggests that FIFA has no intention of stripping Qatar of the World Cup and is set to press ahead regardless of safety or ethical concerns. The reason for this is unknown but we can speculate that a darker story exists behind closed doors at FIFA. If in fact FIFA members are guilty of taking bribes for their votes then having this information leaked out to the press or authorities could spell disaster for the organization. By pulling the tournament away from Qatar, the group behind the bid would have little to lose in coming out with the truth so keeping them silent could be a key reason why FIFA is turning a blind eye to the other issues that exist. FIFA it seems needs the tournament to take place as planned in Qatar regardless of the consequences it may have.

Questions are being asked about the voting process including allegations of corruption and vote buying (Image from PA)

Questions are being asked about the voting process including allegations of corruption and vote buying
(Image from PA)

FIFA President Sepp Blatter is mandated to continue to build the FIFA brand and promote football on a global scale which he says is a core reason behind bring the World Cup to the Arabic nations but he is also mandated to build an accessible tournament for the fans, something which appears to have been placed on the back burner in recent months. During the initial bid process, the security and health concerns were raised but again ignored by FIFA even though the inspection committee did flag them as major risks. Whilst the players may be able to play in Qatar, it will ultimately be the fans that will suffer in the extreme heat and humidity regardless of when the tournament will be played. FIFA’s brazen attitude towards their safety showcases how farcical the situation has become and strengthens the argument about hidden reasons behind why FIFA is so insistent that the Qatar World Cup shall go ahead. FIFA will eventually have to address these other concerns if it is to hold the World Cup in Qatar after all as it can ill afford to have blood on its hands if a fan dies during the event as a result of these extreme conditions.

World Cup Hangover Hands Hope To Europe’s Smaller Nations

Three games played and maximum points obtained for Northern Ireland and Iceland has placed them in a good position in their quest to end their respective hiatuses from international competitions. Having never qualified for the European Championships and possessing only limited exposure at World Cups (Northern Ireland have qualified three times – 1958, 1982 and 1986 whilst Iceland have never made it) both nations are desperate to qualify for France 2016. The startling improvements in both sides over recent years have given hope to their legions of fans who are praying that this is the time that they will make it. Having suffered heartbreak during the last World Cup qualifying campaign by narrowly missing out thanks to a playoff defeat by Croatia, Iceland have once again stepped up and are showcasing  the talents of what many are describing as a new golden generation. Convincing wins over Turkey and Latvia were swiftly followed by a shock 2-0 win over Holland on Monday past that has left Lars Lagerbeck’s side top of Group A, level on points with the Czech Republic. To suggest Holland were off the pace would be accurate with their World Cup heroic’s still heavy on their legs but credit must be given to Iceland who battled hard and created several good chances throughout the game and deserved the points. Whilst Holland licks their wounds under new coach Guus Hiddink, Iceland can prepare for their next game against the Czech’s safe in the knowledge that significant progress has been made in their bid to qualify for France.

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland (Image from Getty)

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland
(Image from Getty)

In Group F, Northern Ireland gave their chances a dramatic boost with three stunning wins over the Faroe Islands, Hungary and Greece putting them top of the pile. Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty has been in exceptional form scoring in all three games but it’s at the back that Northern Ireland have looked so impressive. Roy Carroll has rolled back the years with a series of fine performances in goal whilst Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have marshaled the defense against some top opposition. In the last game against Greece in particular, the Northern Irish backline stifled attack after attack by the Greeks who like Holland have failed to spark under a new manager, Claudio Ranieri. The group is far from over for Northern Ireland with a long way still to go including tough matches against Finland, Romania and Greece to come but manager Michael O’Neill will take much optimism from the performances of his team in their opening few games which has left his side with a strong chance of qualification.

Lafferty sinks Greece (Image from Getty)

Lafferty sinks Greece
(Image from Getty)

The World Cup hangover appears to have affected several of Europe’s top nations including its current world champions. Having gone all the way in Brazil, Germany looked odds on favourites to top their group and progress to the European Championships in France for a shot at winning an historic double. But it would appear that the hangover from the party following their World Cup win has not yet subsided after three below par performances. One win, a draw and a shock defeat to Poland has Joachim Low’s team lying in third place in the group on four points with it all to do. After the retirement of the influential defensive pair of Philip Lahm and Per Mertesacker, Germany have looked less than convincing at the back. Manager Joachim Low has drafted in several potential solutions but none look as convincing as the exiting duo. Germany’s problems are not just limited to the back either with issues upfront as well. With Miroslav Klose finally calling time on his international career and an injury to Chelsea’s Andreas Schurrle, the World champions have struggled to convert the simplest of chances in their last three games. In total Germany created 35 chances in their opening group games against Scotland, Poland and Republic of Ireland converting only three of them. Borussia Monchengladbach striker Max Kruse has been identified as the successor to Klose’s crown but has yet to replicate his goal scoring club form on the international stage.

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany (Image from PA)

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany
(Image from PA)

Scotland’s chances of reaching their first international tournament in over 16 years stayed on track with a well fought 2-2 draw with Poland. After losing to Germany in game one and then beating Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday by a single goal, Gordon Strachan’s team travelled to Warsaw to face a buoyant Poland, who had surprised many with their 2-0 win over Germany. The game was ninety minutes full of end to end action with neither team willing to walk away with nothing. In the end a draw was a fair result and leaves both teams in contention for qualification. Next up for Strachan and Scotland is a home match against Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland with both managers knowing that only three points will do in what is becoming an increasingly open group. Having held Germany to a 1-1 draw in their last match (thanks to a 94th minute equalizer by John O’Shea), the Republic travel to Glasgow next month with seven points from a possible nine. After collecting maximum points against Georgia and Gibraltar in the first two matches, the hard fought point against an arguably tougher foe in Germany will give the Republic of Ireland belief that they can beat Scotland in their own back yard. With all time leading goal scorer Robbie Keane back firing at all cylinders, the Scots will need to be cautious next month if they are to gain any points.

John O'Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany (Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

John O’Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany
(Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

Wales too are playing a cautious game after an impressive start to their qualifying campaign. Wins over Andorra and Cyprus plus a 0-0 draw with Bosnia has put Wales top of the group but with a series of difficult matches ahead against Belgium and Israel, Wales are taking nothing for granted. Led by the talents of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, this youthful looking Welsh side hold strong belief that they can reach France 2016 and end the welsh fans misery. Having only ever reached one World Cup (1958) and one European Championship (1976), the welsh fans have been starved of competitive international tournaments for too long and are now looking towards manager Chris Coleman and his new batch of players to correct this problem. Hope is high in the welsh valleys but like the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Scotland there is still a long way to go.

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Could A Facebook Post Have Ended Jourden’s France Chances Before They Have Even Begun?

As France gear up to face Portugal on Saturday in an international friendly, spare a thought for Didier Deschamps.  The French national coach has had a torrid week not at the hands of the press or his players but online. For the second time this year, Deschamps has been blasted on social media by the partner of a player he did not select. The wife of Montpellier goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourden took to Facebook to call out Deschamps on his apparent snub of her husband when selecting his squad for the forthcoming friendlies against Portugal and Armenia. Noemie Jourdren vented her anger by saying that she hoped Deschamps died the next day. Her comments come only a few months after Anara Atanes ranted on Twitter about Deschamps excluding her boyfriend Samir Nasri from his World Cup squad. Atanes repeatedly swore about France and Deschamps before calling the former Monaco boss as bad manager.

Anara Atanes, pictured with Nasri blasted Deschamps for not picking him for the World Cup (Image from Getty)

Anara Atanes, pictured with Nasri blasted Deschamps for not picking him for the World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Nasri has since retired from international football citing he was unhappy with everything associated with the national team. Deschamps was questioned by the French media at the time about the exclusion of Nasri, especially given that the midfielder had played a significant role in securing the English Premiership title for his club, Manchester City but the coach simply felt that the player did not play in the same way he did for his country as he did for his club. In the end Nasri’s exclusion matter little with France making it to the quarter finals of the World Cup in Brazil before being knocked out by eventual winners Germany. In the case of Geoffrey Jourden however the player has yet to be capped for France. He has been performing well for his club, Montpellier this season and was in contention for a call up when Saint Etienne goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier pulled out of the initial squad due to injury but Deschamps instead opted to call up Rennes Benoit Costil instead. This was obviously a massive disappointment to Jourden who has dreamed of representing his country at full international level since 2006 when he first pulled on the Les Blues jersey for the Under 21 team. However the actions of his wife may have ironically made that dream a more distant reality than it was before her post.

Jourden must save his international career by speaking to Deschamps (Image from AP)

Jourden must save his international career by speaking to Deschamps
(Image from AP)

It calls into question the impact that social media can have on a player’s career. Whilst a vital tool to connect the players with their fans and give them a voice away from the pitch, it can be argued that it could be detrimental to their careers especially if they are too vocal in their opinions. Both club and international managers are adapting to the way players use social media with some embracing it as a form of expression and free speech whilst others clamp down heavily in order to protect the players from themselves. However controlling those connected to the players is almost impossible as in the case of Jourden and Nasri. It is admirable that both Noemie Jourdren and Anara Atanes felt compelled enough to protect their partners and voice their anger at what they saw as a grievance as many of us would however when it has the potential to have a negative effect, then they must stop and think about the impact before posting. It must fall to the players to control the situation that surrounds them and stop any social media outbursts that could damage their brand or impact their jobs. Football careers are short as they are and given the increased pressures to perform on a regular basis at the highest level, it is to be anticipated that emotions will run high. However like in any job, blasting your boss on social media or going public with your negative view points about how they do their job will only end up with bad consequences.

Tough week for Deschamps (Image from AFP/GETTY

Tough week for Deschamps
(Image from AFP/GETTY)

As national manager, Deschamps has every right to select the players he feels are correct for the games ahead and will not be deterred by the actions of Noemie Jourden or Anara Atanes. In fact, publicly blasting the manager on social media if anything made it harder for their respective partners to be selected.  France automatically qualify for Euro 2016 as hosts so Deschamps is using the time between now and the tournament starting to test players and formations. For Jourden, he had time on his side to continue to impress and eventually win his way into Deschamps plans but the outburst of his wife and in particular the nature of her comments may have made that challenge an impossible one. Jourden would be wise to act quickly to mend the bridge between himself and Deschamps before this situation becomes irreparable or face years of wonder what could have been if only his wife hadn’t written that post.

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