No More Excuses For Sorry Scots

Growing up in Scotland, football was my life. When I wasn’t at school, sleeping or eating I had a ball at my feet. Summers were spent at one of three places that kids in my hometown of Largs could play the beautiful game – Barrfields, Bowen Craig and Inverclyde. From early morning to the streetlights coming on signaling it was time to stop, I played football with my friends;  4 aside with jumpers for goalposts to a knockout tournament in pairs when real goals were an option. But eventually one by one the fences went up, the gates were locked and playing the game we loved was only possible if we booked a pitch and paid. My love affair with the beautiful game never wained but the amount of time I spent outside playing it did. Unfortunately my experience was not unique with similar situations happening all across Scotland as kids no longer able to play in the busy streets now also had no where else to play. Twenty years on, the knock on effect of this action along with a hatful of other problems has lead to the decline of Scottish football as we see it now.

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One by one the fences were erected and kids were stopped playing football (Image from Inverclyde Sports Centre, Largs)

Yet another tournament has passed that the Scotland men’s national team have failed to take part in. That makes nine in a row with the realization of a tenth only one more disappointment away. But disappointment isn’t the word not anymore. Scotland fans used to be disappointed about not qualifying but at the same time were optimistic that we would get it right the next time. Gradually over time with each passing failure that optimism disappeared and has now been replaced with pure frustration. Every two years the debate rages on radio call ins and in the press about the reasons why and what needs to change in Scottish football. But nothing ever seems to change despite the endless chatter. It has gotten so bad that the Scotland fans can not listen anymore, frustrated as we sit on the sidelines stranded once again while our neighbors all appear to be moving on.

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The SFA’s use of the tagline “This Time” in their latest ads for ticket sales for the upcoming qualifying campaign says it all (Image from SFA)

Enough is enough. We have heard the excuses for twenty years and it’s starting to get old. We don’t have world class players, they are not technically as good, the system is broken, there aren’t enough kids coming through and my personal favourite we were just unlucky. Bad luck can stretch for more than a few years granted, even seven if you break a mirror but seriously how many have Scotland broken then? We must have literally smashed the glass ceiling at this rate. The brutal truth and a difficult one to say and write is that we are full of excuses which fundamentally must stop before we can move forward. Accepting the truth that as a footballing nation we have regressed whilst others in similar positions have progressed is painful. Whilst we bicker over what is wrong, the rest are moving forward leaving this once proud nation languishing in the football wilderness. Enough with the 100 pages reports that suggest radical overhauls, systemic failures and a complete restructuring of scottish football only to be read once and then used a paperweight at the SFA. Enough of the dinosaurs at the Scottish Federation pondered the meaning of football (and life) instead of taking action; much as France, Belgium and Germany did. All three nations had eureka moments spurned by failure which prompted the swift changes that brought recent successes. The SFA will argue that all three are countries with larger populations and considerably deeper pockets which allowed for the quick progression and they may have a point but what then about Iceland?. The tiny island with a total population of only 330,000 may have embarrassed England in the second round of Euro 2016 but it should have made Scotland fans weep uncontrollably at the same time. With a fraction of the population of Scotland and a much smaller budget to play with, they boast more professional coaches, better facilities and a blossoming youth development program that should make us break down and cry. Iceland’s future looks remarkably bright whilst Scotland’s looks bleaker by each passing day.

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Iceland’s infrastructure which includes several 5G indoor all weather pitches puts Scotland to shame (Image from Telegraph.co.uk)

But the SFA are not the only ones guilty of burying their heads in the sand. The clubs are at fault too. Enough with the attitude that change is not welcome and that the clubs in Scotland’s top tier must protect themselves from it. A succession of frustrated performance directors have been and gone – first Dutchman Mark Wotte then Scot Brian McClair both tried to change peoples perspectives but gave up after months of banging their heads against the wall. Reform comes in many shapes and sizes, some more complex to execute than others  and whilst a few are so hair brained in conception that only the SFA would consider them, all have good intentions behind them. Change is needed now and the clubs need to embrace and support such change. Their self preserving attitude is damaging the core of Scottish football and its national teams chances of progression.

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Scotland line up against Brazil at the 1998 World Cup in France, the last time Scotland qualified for a major tournament (Image from Getty)

That said, there is and has to be hope. As the Flower of Scotland says “We can still rise now, and be a nation again”. Its not too late to make radical changes to Scotland’s setup – embrace the learnings of others, change our approach and reap the benefits in the long run. But to do so we need to accept that we are stuck in a rut, absorbed by our own defeatist attitude and over reliance of excuses. France, Belgium, Germany and Iceland all woke up to their problems and made the changes needed with the result being an upturn in fortunes. Scotland can follow a similar path towards progression and turn around their fortunes on the pitch. Only then will the Scotland fans be able to turn dreams into reality as the national team books their spot at a major international tournament once more.

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Euro 2016 – Ten Takeaways From The Group Stage

1. Let’s not get shirty

Generally one of the quietest men on the technical bench is the kit man but that wasn’t the case for the Swiss representative who was kept extra busy during the France vs Switzerland match. In a fairly heavy handed and tempestuous match the Swiss kit man was called upon not once, nor twice, but five times to replace ripped strips. It was a huge embarrassment for the shirt maker Puma who blamed it on a defective batch. But by then it was too late with the Internet exploding with a series of memes and jokes, the best of which came from Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri who remarked that he hoped the shirt manufacturers also didn’t make condoms.

2. Cheer up Ronaldo!

It’s proving increasingly difficult to like Cristiano Ronaldo. His narcissistic nature coupled with his constant need to hog the limelight (case in point: the Champions League final where he did nothing for 120 minutes then insisted on taking the decisive fifth penalty in the shoot out win) are lumping the Portuguese star recently in the same bracket of affection as Donald Trump. Arguably the world’s best player (ahead of Messi), this should have been Ronaldo’s chance to win over his haters. Instead, Ronaldo has come across as a whiny little b@tch. First, he complained that Iceland parked the bus against Portugal and didn’t really try. He then refused to acknowledge and shake their hands after the game, but did take a moment to pose with a pitch invader for a photo. Days later after missing a crucial penalty against Austria, Ronaldo was caught on camera grabbing a reporter’s microphone and tossing it into a nearby lake. Hardly the behaviour of a world class player. At least a brace in the final game against Hungary put a smile temporarily back on his face.

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It’s not been an easy group stage for Ronaldo (image from Tumblr)

3. Riots and flares

Unfortunately any positive memories generated from the group stage will be tainted with the ugly scenes of rioting in the stadiums and in the host cities. Gangs of imbeciles from a variety of nations (primarily Russia and England) have caused havoc and threatened to ruin what has been a good start to the tournament. Added to this, the throwing of flares at games by Russian, Turkish and Croat fans has led to UEFA handing down a stern warning or two to behave (like that will work). It has gotten so serious that the Croatian players had to plead with their fans (who bizarrely were fighting each other) to stop throwing flares after a steward almost suffered horrendous burns to his face when a flare blew up just as he was picking it up. When will these idiots learn? On a brighter note though, news is surfacing from France that one such idiot stuck a flare up his backside in order to hide it from the security searches only for it to explode leaving the yob with a burned bum and bruised ego.

4. The Underdog

When Platini expanded the tournament to 24, he did so in the hope of giving smaller nations the chance to qualify. But in doing so he created a new generation of underdogs – teams who many suggested had no chance of progressing. Sides like Albania, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Wales all reached new heights by not only qualifying but also recording victories in the group stages. What this demonstrates is that the gap between the traditionally more powerful nations in Europe (Germany, Italy, England, Spain) and the rest is narrowing. Part of this is down to the Bosman ruling which allowed players more freedom of movement across Europe, which in turn helped to develop them with the knock on benefit being that their national teams also improved. Whilst they may have exited at the group stage, Albania have shown that they are a team who are improving year over year  and could become a regular qualifier for international tournaments in the years ahead.

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They will be back – Albania (Image from tumblr)

5. Third place progress confusion

Nothing like taking a tried and tested formula and throwing that out the window in favour of a new approach. Expanding the Euros from a 16 team to 24 team tournament meant that some of the smaller nations had a better chance of qualifying and it worked. However the confusion surrounding who progresses to the knockout stages could have been avoided. The best four out of six third place teams progressed with the other 12 group winners and runners up leaving only eight packing their bags and heading home. However for some of the third place teams, like Albania, the wait to see was the killer. Having played and won dramatically on Sunday, Albania had to hang around until Wednesday to find out if they were continuing on in the tournament or heading home. In the end they were sent home along with Turkey, so the extra few days proved slightly pointless. Perhaps next time UEFA will change it again and have the eight third place teams play off to see which four progress. I’m sure the fans wouldn’t mind watching that.

6. Plucky Iceland

The smallest nation ever to have qualified for the Euros, Iceland were not expected to do much at the tournament. But two draws and a late 94th minute winner against Austria, Iceland qualified and in doing so showed that they should have been given more credit. After all, they did qualify ahead of the Dutch, including beating them twice en route. Frustrating Ronaldo in the opening match was a joy to behold as Iceland quickly became the neutrals go-to team. A mouthwatering knockout stage match against England now awaits. Their passionate fans showed how wonderful this tournament could have been if other nation’s fans had embraced the same attitude. The stat that seems to be on every commentator’s lips is that 8% of the Icelandic population is at the Euros, but on some occasions it feels like the entire nation had descended on France.

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Iceland scored their first ever goal of the Euro’s against Portugal (Image from Tumblr)

7. A new finalist

In any given tournament, the luck of the draw is very much a decisive factor in how far you progress within it. After an enthralling group stage that saw a few surprise upsets (Hungary topping their group, Croatia one upping Spain) the two sides of the knockout bracket look very different. On one side are the competition’s so-called heavy hitters: Spain, Italy, France, England and Germany, meaning that one by one they will be eliminated en route to the final. On the other side is Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Belgium, Portugal and Wales, meaning that there is a good chance that we will see a new team reach the final for the very first time (the only exceptions being Belgium and Portugal who reached the 1980 and 2008 finals respectively).

8. Late Goals

If the group stage has taught us anything, it’s to watch until the very end (or in Iceland’s case the very very end, deep into injury time). The group stage has given us its fair share of goals, but surprisingly a chunk of them have come within the closing minutes. From 69 goals in total over the 36 games, 27.5% came in the last ten minutes of games. The reason for this is uncertain, but you could speculate that it’s the reluctance of teams to press up the pitch, since more than half of the sides are content to absorb the pressure and hit on the break. It might be that Euro 2016 signals the return of the defensive approach or it could just be that every team is trying to replicate how Leicester City won the English Premier League this season.

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Iceland’s 94th minute winner against Austria was one of 19 goals scored by teams in the groups in the closing stages (Image from Tumblr)

9. French passion

If the sight of Dimitri Payet wiping the tears from his eyes after scoring a spectacular winner on match day 1 doesn’t get you, nothing will. The West Ham star has been the revelation of the French team and embodies the passion that is running through the country at present. Les Blues haven’t seen this amount of hope and good will towards them since the last time their country hosted a major tournament – the 1998 World Cup. Whilst this squad is arguably not as strong or as complete as that side was, there is optimism that perhaps they can go all the way just like they did 18 years ago. With Payet in form, Pogba pulling the strings in midfield and Greizmann still to shine, it would be foolish to bet against them.

10. Hidden gems

As always there are players who excel in the group stages and make a name for themselves. Beyond the more well known faces of Bale, Ronaldo and Pogba are a host of new faces – players almost unknown to the vast majority of fans before the tournament began. Players like Marek Hamsik of Slovenia who scored a peach against a very poor Austria side. Or Switzerland’s rock between the sticks Yann Sommer who has impressed with some fine saves as the Swiss progressed to the knockout stages. Finally, Turkey’s Emre Mor, the youngster who completed a move to Borussia Dortmund just before the start of the Euros. Mor didn’t start the first game but shone brightly enough when he came on, which forced his coach to start him in the next two games.  He is one to watch in the very near future.

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Three Reasons France Will Win Euro 2016

Along side World Cup winners Germany, former winners Spain and Italy and outside bets England and Belgium, France enter Euro 2016 as one of the early favourites and rightly so. This will be the 15th time the European Championships have taken place and the third time France has hosted (1960 and 1984 the other two). In 1960, France reached the semi finals losing out to Yugoslavia in an enthralling match that ended 5-4 despite France being 4-2 up with 35 minutes left to play. In 1984 with Michel Platini leading the way France went one better by reaching the final beating Spain by 2-0 to lift the trophy for the first time. Since then, France have always been in contention but have failed to reach the latter stages apart from on one occasion in 2000 when a late David Trezeguet goal handed them victory over a battling Italy in the final to earn their second crown. Now back in France, the French know that this is their chance to add yet another trophy to their growing collection and we at BOTN blog believe that they will. Here are the three reasons why:

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The European Championship trophy is lifted up by France’s Didier Deschamps in 2000 (Image from Tumblr)

Form

If you take a look at the winners of Europe’s top five leagues (England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy) and count the number of players that feature for those teams with their respective national sides, France comes in fourth with 6 players behind Germany/Spain (seven) and Italy (eight). But when you factor in the top three sides of each league, those stats dramatically change with France way out in front. Man to man, France has the most in-form players across Europe out of any of the squads attending this years tournament. At the back, Hugo Lloris has had a superb season with Tottenham and narrowly missed out on a winner’s medal losing out to surprise winners Leicester City.  At left back, Patrice Evra continues to roll back the years with Juventus and has earned himself a new 2 year contract despite being 35. At centre back, the Premier League pairing of Arsenal’s Laurent Koscieniny and Eliaquim Mangala may not be everyone’s ideal pairing and to be fair aren’t France’s either but with injuries to Raphael Varane and Kurt Zouma, the duo looks likely to be first choice. The good news is that both are in good form, ending the season well and should be ready for the Euros. Supporting the defence is a midfield packed with talent. At the heart of it is Juventus Paul Pogba who has established himself as one of the first names on Deschamps team sheet. Alongside Pogba is likely to be N’Golo Konte, Leicester City’s breakthrough star whose rise to promenance has been nothing short of amazing. Over a year ago, Konte was playing for lowly Caen and was further from the national team thoughts than most but a move to Leicester City last summer followed by an outstanding debut season which saw Konte play a pivitol role in Leicester’s surprise run to the title has catipulated him into the French national team and a role at Euro 2016. His form during the season, alongside three stand out performances for Les Blues in recent friendlies has push him ahead of Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi for a starting spot. On the wings, France have talent in abundance with West Ham’s Dimitri Payet also benefiting from a move to the Premier League. His form for the Hammers this season as well as his natural talent at dead ball situations make him a contender for a starting place. Ahead of him however is Atletico’s Antonie Griezmann who is in the form of his life, helping Atletico push Barcelona all the way in the La Liga title race. He played a crucial role in Atletico reaching the Champions League final and will be looked to by Deschamps to provide the inspiration that powers France to glory this summer.

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Griezmann should play a pivotal role for France in the Euros. (Image from Tumblr)

Upfront Deschamps has options despite overlooking the obvious pair of Karim Benzema and Kevin Gamiero. The former finds himself excluded due to off field shenanigans with the Real Madrid striker under investigation for allegedly attempting to blackmail fellow international Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. Benzema would likely have been a starter given his form for Madrid but Deschamps has taken the bold move to remove him from the equation for the betterment of the entire squad. Sevilla’s Gamiero on the other hand just can’t seem to quite force his way back into the national team despite being in blistering form. The former PSG striker who scored in the 3-1 victory over Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final hasn’t featured for Les Blues since 2011 making him the forgotten man. Ahead of him however are three strong options, all of whom are playing well for their respective clubs. Like him or loathe him, Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud is a proven goalscorer with 14 goals for his country so far in just under 50 appearances. with Benzema now excluded, he is in contention for a starting spot but faces stiff competition from Andre-Pierre Gignac. Many feared that Gignac’s international career was over following his strange decision to leave Marseille for Mexican side Tigres but the move to North American has worked out well with the powerful striker rekindling his form and reestablishing his belief in his own abilities. Unlike Italian head coach Antonio Conte who has refused to call up the in-form Toronto forward Seb Giovinco due to his stance that the MLS is too weak a league, Deschamps has had no such hesitations and has given Gignac more game time than first expected. Finally the emergence of Anthony Martial at Manchester United has given Deschamps a new but nice headache with the electric teenager forcing his way into his plans. Whilst United stuttered this year under Louis Van Gaal, Martial has blossomed into one of their star players despite constant unfair pressure that came with his record-breaking monster transfer from Monaco. This trio, along with the exciting talents of Antonie Griezmann, Bayern’s Kingsley Coman and Dimitri Payet France have goals in them.

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Benzema misses out due to off field issues (Image from Tumblr)

Deschamps/Harmony

Heading into this tournament, the French are in an unfamiliar position – they actually all like each other. Historically the French national team has been splitting at the seams entering into major tournaments with in squad squabbles often derailing their challenge before it can begin. But heading into Euro 2016, the French are playing with a new-found sense of camaraderie which should bode well for the tournament. At the heart of this is manager Didier Deschamps who has built a squad that complements each other and more importantly has removed any potential bad apples that could ruin the pot. There is no place for the feuding Benzema and Valbuena for the reasons mentioned above nor is there a spot for Hatem Ben Arfa despite a stellar season with Nice. The former Newcastle winger has been on fire since returning to France scoring 17 goals this season but his colourful history as a disturptor has obviously been taken into consideration by Deschamps who has decided not to risk it. With a more balanced squad than ever before and a renewed focus, France look better prepared for this tournament than any other.

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Home support will be key for France at Euro 2016 (Image from Tumblr. Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Home turf/Passage

Never underestimate how important home field advantage can be. Playing the tournament in France in front of their own fans will benefit the national team much as it did at the World Cup in 1998. That year, France’s golden generation finally lived up to its potential and lifted the coveted trophy much to the delight of the thousands packed into the Parc des Princes. In that tournament, France benefitted from having an easier path to the final with their quarter-final clash with Italy proving to be their first real test. This year, France’s route to the final is arguably similarly easy having been placed in a very winnable group with Romania, Albania and Switzerland. Progression as the group winners should set up a clash with the Ukraine followed by a tie against either Austria/Iceland or Slovakia/Wales in the quarters. That leaves only a clash with Germany or Italy in the Semi’s and a potential final against Spain or England all being well. By the semi’s, France should have momentum behind them and with the home crowd in support, they should go on to lift the trophy to similar euphoric scenes as were seen in 1998.

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European Championships 2016 Review

The European Championships in France are vastly approaching and with less than two weeks until the tournament starts. It may be time to consider the contenders for the tournament and what footballers may impress. Here are five potential winners to consider.

France

When host nation France kick off the tournament on June 10th 2016 at the iconic Stade De France stadium in Paris, expectations will rise and reach fever pitch. It only seemed yesterday to most followers of Les Bleus, when they lifted the trophy back in Rotterdam in 2000. Since then French football has gone through many transitions and from the devastation of an early group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup a new young and exciting side has emerged.

Built around the young and powerful Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, Didier Deschamps has produced a side that can threaten any side in Europe on their day. They possess huge potential in young strikers Antoine Greizmann and Anthony Martial, who have had great seasons respectively with Atletico Madrid and Manchester United, and will be the blueprint of French football for many years to come. Experience is vital too and they can look to wise old heads of Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna to help carry a nation.

However, the loss of Karim Benzema may be a big blow to their hopes. After he was excluded from the squad regarding a bizarre blackmail story with fellow French teammate Mathieu Valbuena. It has left a dark cloud over French football. The striker much like Pogba is a genuine world class footballer and will be devastated to miss out on a home tournament. Someone will have to fill the gap that Benzema has left.

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Benzema has been left out of the French squad due to off field issues (Image from Tumblr)

Spain

In some ways Spain have gone quietly under the radar coming into the tournament and this may help their chances. This is a side that for all their world class talent were so underwhelming in Brazil and were never really able to get going. They still are to be taken seriously however and Vicente del Bosque will be desperate to make up for that disappointment.

What cannot be underestimated is that they are still much very strong defensively and offensively. Real Madrid and Barcelona defenders Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are in their prime and are still on their day as good as any centre-backs in Europe. Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba can still be a dangerous outlet for the national side going forward too. Their midfielder is full of quality and they have strength in depth in so many areas. David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Koke can all open up defences with great movement and passing.

The question mark and in recent times has been their strikers. Spain have struggled to really find a natural goal scorer in matches and have tried numerous experiments. They have tried Diego Costa, Roberto Soldado and Paco Alcacer in lone roles and all have failed to establish themselves as Spain’s main man up front. They may place their faith in Juventus striker Alvaro Morata, who at 23 has a bright future and continues to impress at the Italian club, domestically and on the European stage.

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Spain will rely on Morata to fire them to glory (Image from Tumblr)

England

When the tournament starts it will be fifty years since the national side lifted the World Cup trophy back in 1966 at an ecstatic Wembley and still to this day it is a source of inspiration for the suffering fans. Every tournament is the same too, the expectations rise only for the side to perform poorly. Only for another golden generation to fail where their predecessors were so successful.

The 2014 World Cup added to a long line of failures at major tournaments and since then Roy Hodgson has vowed to create a brand new generation that can be exciting but at the same time be able to rise to pressure. Emerging is a new generation of young players with big potential and exciting ability.

Harry Kane is a prime example of this new system. He has adapted well to international football bringing the form that helped him win Premier League golden boot for Tottenham this season. There are mentions for his club team mate Dele Ali, who like Kane has been a revelation since he made the move from League One side MK Dons last summer and Ross Barkley. The young Everton midfielder, who is exciting to watch and has a huge future for the Merseyside club.

From an England’s fan viewpoint, they will be hoping they can go one better than the past generation that featured David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Wayne Rooney is the last remaining active player of that generation and would be desperate to at least be one player to win a major international tournament.

It would be great also to note the achievements that Leicester and Jamie Vardy have achieved this season. It was not so long ago that Jamie Vardy was playing in the lower tiers of non-league football in England has had a remarkable rise. He has helped Leicester achieve a fairy tale by winning the Premiership this season and that story may continue with England.

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Harry Kane will lead the line for England (Image from Tumblr)

Germany

Germany are the World Champions and will be hoping to replicate recent sides such as France and Spain, who in recent times have followed World Cup wins with winning a European Championship.  They are in good shape but may be slightly different from the current side that ended the World Cup with several stars retiring and will have to replace the hole their influence had on the side.

Phillip Lahm, the Bayern Munich full back was the engine of the German National side and has retired leaving a huge gap to fill in defence. Miroslav Klose was always the talisman with a knack for always scoring vital goals for the national team and his retirement was always set to happen at the age of thirty seven. The record scorer with seventy one goals would always be a big miss for any side.

There is still enough world class talent to make them favourites and forward Thomas Muller is their star man going into this tournament. A man for the big occasion. His record in World Cup finals for goals is very impressive and will be eager to make a mark in this European Championship. Mesut Ozil is always a creative force and with numerous assists for Arsenal will be looking to unlock defences for the national side.

Matts Hummels, who has swapped Bayern Munich from Dortmund in recent days is a world class performer and adds defensive stability to the back four. It would be good to look out for Wolfsburg’s talented midfielder Julian Draxler as well who has huge potential. Mario Gotze may have had little game time at Bayern but still could be a game changer on his day as well.

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Germany are in good spirits ahead of the tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Italy

Out of all the contenders Italy are the most unpredictable. They usually reach the final of a major tournament and win it or struggle and fail by crashing out at the group stages. However they could never be counted out due to the quality and pedigree they possess.

The Azzurri are Europe’s most successful side in World Cups and will be eager to make up for the final disappointment back in 2012. In truth, they were simply torn apart by Spain on that night and Antonio Conte was appointed in the aftermath to lead Italy to glory. His domestic success with Juventus has made him one of Europe’s best coaches and will be changing the blue of Italy for Chelsea at the start of next season.

His management has built a calmness to the national side and this is based around the legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who at the age of 38 is still one of the best goalkeepers in world football. A huge influence on the national side and still breaking records too, going 870 minutes without conceding a goal in Serie A for Juventus this season. The experience of Daniele De Rossi is still there for the Italian side and the Roma midfielder can still have an influence breaking up the play in the midfield.

Leonardo Bonucci is the man in defence for the Italians after a rock steady season for Juventus and will be the man to help keep things nice and steady defensively. Lorenzo Insigne is a dangerous and exciting performer for Napoli. Huge expectations may be on his shoulder to deliver the goals for the side and will be looking at the influence of Lazio winger Antonio Candreva to supply the chances.

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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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Europe’s Minnows Finally Turn Up To The Party

Europe's minnows finally stepping up? (Image from Getty)It’s been an interesting start to the 2016 European Championships qualification campaign with a series of surprising results so far. In the earlier match weeks Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Iceland showed non believers that spirit and determination sometimes can overcome experience and skill as they set about securing a handful of points in the race for qualification. Meanwhile the so called European heavyweights appeared to be sluggish out of the gate with Holland, Spain and Greece all failing to dispatch teams ranked much further down the FIFA official rankings. Whilst the Dutch and the Spanish have rebounded in spectacular fashion, Greece stuttering start to the campaign under new coach Claudio Ranieri came to an abrupt halt this past weekend when the lowly Faroe Islands arrived in Athens and left with their heads held high and three vital points in the bag. Joan Edmundsson’s 61st minute miss hit shot was enough to condemn the Greeks to bottom place in group F and to give the Greek FA enough leverage to finally dispatch Ranieri.

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece  (Image from AFP)

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece
(Image from AFP)

To be fair, the Faroes result was a shock but not as much as San Marino’s point against Estonia. The enclave microstate has not managed to secure a single point in their last 61 international games so ending that run meant more to them that winning itself. For a while it looked like the match would follow the usual storyboard with Estonia pressing from the off. But the resilient San Marino side held on to the end, securing a valuable point and ending that horrific losing run. The last game the San Marino actual won was in a friendly back in April 2004 against fellow strugglers Liechtenstein who have had their fair share of defeats as well since then. But recent results including a 0-0 draw against Montenegro in October followed by Saturday’s stunning 1-0 victory over Moldova have given Rene Pauritsch’s side much need optimism for the future. Liechtenstein now find themselves in a strange position, three points ahead of Moldova in fifth place with the former Soviet state rooted to the bottom of the table. It’s the same position that Malta now finds themselves in after their 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in Sofia this past weekend. The tiny Mediterranean island used to be the whipping boys of European football but in the past few years have started to show a more formidable side to their play, carving out friendly wins against the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Luxembourg whilst holding Northern Ireland to a draw. However in international competition the team still lacks that killer instinct showing only flashes in recent years, especially in the 1-0 win over Armenia in June of last year. Sunday’s match in Sofia started much like most of the others, with Malta going behind after only 6 minutes to a bundled in goal by Andrey Galabinov but fought back well to earn a point from the penalty spot converted by left back Clayton Failla.

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria  (Image from PA)

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria
(Image from PA)

When the idea of changing the qualification criteria for this upcoming European Championships was floated, it was met with a tidal wave of negative responses from critics citing that it would not make for interesting viewing nor makes it easier as UEFA President Michel Platini suggested for smaller European nations to qualify. Platini ignored the objections and pushed ahead with his master plan to rejuvenate what has becoming a stale second tier tournament behind its much more glamorous cousin, the World Cup. But after four matches which has shown that the qualification process is far from pre determined and is in fact wide open, Platini will surely now be sitting back with a large grin across his face. All nine groups are very much still in play with a variety of nations who have struggled to qualify in the past like Wales, Iceland, Scotland and Cyprus all in good positions. There is still a long journey ahead before reaching France but if qualifying continues to throw up these startling results, it may not be impossible to believe that the tournament will see not just one but several new faces taking part.

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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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Platini Views Changes to Champions League Amidst Pressure From Others

Changing the Champions League? (Image from UEFA)Once a giant of European football, AC Milan have struggled in the past few seasons and as a result do not feature in this year’s Champions League. Given their absence and the loss of revenue they would have received having participated; AC Milan Director Umberto Gandini has called for changes to be made to the qualification process for the Champions League with the introduction of a wildcard or other access routes to be established. He believes that the tournament is weaker for not including a team of the size and prestige of AC Milan. Whilst one of the most successful teams in European football over the past 50 years, Gandini’s suggestions are absurd along with the notion that Milan should be given access based not on result but on who they are. Currently Italy has three places for Europe’s top club tournament, two automatically placed into the group stages and the third going into the play offs. Milan finished last season in 8th place, 21 points off of the Champions league places so to suggest they should gain entry into the tournament would make a mockery of the system as a whole. However the underlining notion posed by Gandini is correct, that the Champions League tournament can be improved.

Gandini believes Milan should get a free pass into the Champions League based on history alone  (Image from PA)

Gandini believes Milan should get a free pass into the Champions League based on history alone
(Image from PA)

Like the European Championships, UEFA President Michel Platini has desires to alter and improve on the existing Champions League format although it’s not clear how he intends to do this. In 2012 amidst concerns that Europe’s top clubs would form a breakaway tournament to compete with the Champions League, UEFA under Platini’s instructions started to look at ways to improve both UEFA run tournaments, the Champions League and Europa league. His initial idea was to scrap the poorer of the two, the Europa League in favour of a new look 64 team Champions Cup. Whilst this idea was never put into practice, it has still not been dismissed and could be executed at any time. The existing format is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world, drawing huge viewing figures globally as well as large advertiser dollars. For this reason Platini is conflicted, wanting only to make adjustments that he thinks will see increases in both viewers and revenues.

Changes Coming - Platini looking to improve the Champions League  (Image from ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Changes Coming – Platini looking to improve the Champions League
(Image from ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

So what changes could be made? The name itself needs to be changed as ironically the new format bares more resemblance to a European Cup than a competition for Champions. The original idea was for a tournament to exist for the champions of each country but soon it became apparent that the advertisers and viewers wanted to watch two runners up such as Barcelona and Liverpool more than actual champions like Ludogorets Razgrad and APOEL. This led to the opening up of the tournament to include not only Champions but the runners up in Europe’s big five leagues – England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. Arguably the change made the tournament more exciting to watch but to the same effect it has made it harder for sides outside of the top five leagues to qualify and compete. Take the example of Slovenia champions Maribor who find themselves in this year’s Champions League group stage with three tricky sides – Chelsea, Sporting Lisbon and Schalke all of whom were runners up in their respective leagues.  So far they have held their own however qualifying from the group looks unlikely given the strength of the other three. Added into this, Maribor had to qualify for the group stages via the play offs where as the other three gain automatic entry.

Maribor have a tough group made up of teams who didn't win their leagues  (Image from UEFA)

Maribor have a tough group made up of teams who didn’t win their leagues
(Image from UEFA)

This favoritism towards what is seen as the money makers of European football is driving a wedge between those in the top five (plus a handful of other teams like Benfica, Ajax and Sporting) and the rest of Europe. UEFA is hoping to correct the balance by giving Champions of individual countries higher seeding during the drawing process as of next season. Previously teams were ranked on their European performances over the last five years which given the above mentioned problem was a flawed way of ranking teams. This may go some way to narrow the gap but in truth the damage has already been done with former European powerhouses like Steaua Bucharest, Celtic and Red Star Belgrade further away from challenging for honours than ever before. Platini has been vocal about helping smaller countries qualify for major international tournaments but has yet to come out in support of the same principles for club sides. Money talks and unfortunately it also controls how the Champions League will look going forward. Platini can ill afford to annoy advertisers who are investing in Europe’s biggest club tournament but at the same time he can’t afford to isolate the clubs that are making it so successful. Any changes that are made will need to be done with the blessing of both to maintain the status quo. What this means for the viewers however and what they will be watching is anyone’s guess.

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Is It Time To Resuscitate The World Cup?

Should FIFA revamp the World Cup? (Image from Getty)The pressure is building on Brazil to be ready by June with some stadiums only partially completed whilst infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired. However the tournament itself is under more scrutiny than ever before as it attempts to live up to its hefty billing. The World Cup is and always has been football’s global showcase but it’s a title that is slowly losing its grip of. With the luxurious Champions League pulling in a growing number of admirers especially in its latter rounds due to exciting football and a soon to be revamped European Championship that will encourage better fan participation with more teams than ever before, the World Cup is starting to show her age. The old girl has been around for a considerable amount of time but has lacked the panache in recent years that it once had.

Audience's tune in to watch the Champions League in their millions  (Image from David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Audience’s tune in to watch the Champions League in their millions
(Image from David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Not since France 1998 have crowds been held on the edge of their seats from day one all the way up until the last kick of the ball in the final.  Not to say that viewers are turning away from the World Cup as globally the audience continues to grow but there has been a shift in recent years towards a lack of care or enthusiasm for what was unfolding. Watching smaller nations like North Korea face Brazil in a one sided match was less entertaining and instead more painful.  China’s approach to the 2002 World Cup was pure survival, preferring to enjoy the spectacle rather than compete; resulting in three losses and no goals (they boasted a total of two shots on target during the entire tournament). Not that these teams did not deserve to be there as they fought hard to qualify from their respective groups but the sizable gap in performance and skill is so evident that you wonder why they wanted to get there in the first place. Yes reaching the World Cup is magical but so is competing in it. Give it your best shot as it may be your only one should be the battle cry but more often than not teams appear with a whimper than a roar.

All hands on Deck - North Korea defend in numbers against Brazil  (Image from FIFA)

All hands on Deck – North Korea defend in numbers against Brazil
(Image from FIFA)

The World Cup should be as it’s billed – the planets best 32 teams competing for the right to be called World Champions. If Iran and North Korea are in that 32 then great as they deserve to be there but not in the way that they are right now. Personally I blame FIFA’s spot allocation system that dictates how many teams each region can send to World Cup. Being fair is one thing but if the main event suffers then surely questions need to be asked over it validity?  How can a region with an average FIFA ranking of 101 be given 4.5 spots whilst another with an average of 90 is allocated only 3.5? Both regions have a similar number of teams but it would appear that FIFA favours one over the other for reasons unknown. Perhaps it’s the fact that the region with the higher number of spots also helps to contribute to a larger share of money going into FIFA’s coffers than the second mentioned region.  Either way what has happened is that the World Cup has become a competition for a handful of teams to win rather than all 32. Heading into Brazil, fans will be placing their bets on who will lift the coveted golden trophy at the end but few bets will be placed on the likes of Costa Rica, Algeria, Honduras or Iran. Do they have a shot? Of course they do but it’s a very long one that will require more than just good fortune along the way for them to win the tournament. In fact qualifying to the knockout stages may be a challenge for most of them given the gap in quality between them and the other nations in their group.

Long Shot - Iran will need a miracle to win the World Cup  (Image from PA)

Long Shot – Iran will need a miracle to win the World Cup
(Image from PA)

FIFA has taken a gamble by focusing on growing the World Cup brand, focusing on the pre show rather than the main event which may come back to haunt them. A radical overhaul may be required to keep interest in the World Cup high and keep the competition itself competitive. Realignment of the qualification process including a mixing of the groups by FIFA rankings or through knock out stages may be necessary to protect the World Cup’s long term health. There is still life in the old girl yet but without something to keep her interesting; she may just start to fade away from the public eye. That really is the last thing that FIFA wants.

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International Footballer Puts Family First

For professional footballers, representing their country as a full internationalist is often one of the highlights of their career. This was no different for Vyacheslav Malafeev when he was selected for his first cap for Russia in 2003 at the age of 24. The young goalkeeper was filled with pride as he stepped onto the pitch for the first time to play against Wales in a Euro 2004 qualifier. The Zenit St Petersburg player would go on to represent his country another 28 times after that night, playing in three European Championships – 2004, 2008, 2012. Malafeev appeared to be living his dream as the first choice goalkeeper for Zenit and Russia, with the best years ahead of him, until a personal tragedy changed his outlook on life.

On a cold night in March 2011, Malafeev’s wife Marina, was driving home in the couple’s Bentley when she lost control on the icy roads, flipped over, and smashed into a billboard and a tree. Despite the best efforts of emergency staff called to the scene they were unable to save Marina who died due to her injuries. A well-known model and business woman in Russia, her death shocked the country and in particular her husband’s club, Zenit. She left two young children behind, a daughter called Ksenia who was seven at the time of the accident and a son called Maxim who was five. Instantly Vyacheslav Malafeev’s life changed as he faced up to life alone without his wife and with two young children to raise on his own.

His announcement to give up international football shortly after the Euro 2012, and just over a year after the death of his wife, wasn’t expected but was respected. The added demands of international fixtures proved too difficult to manage for Malafeev, who decided that he wanted to spend more time with his children and to watch them grow, rather than continue on his quest for more caps.

” It was a difficult decision to stop my international career from both a professional and human point of view, but it’s the only correct decision for my family” said Malafeev after the announcement.

Vyacheslav Malafeev’s decision to give up on his international career should be commended. In the passion of the game, we tend to forget that footballers are people like us and that playing is just a job they have, much like our own. After each match or training session, they return to their families, to live their lives, and spend time with those who matter most to them. Malafeev’s children are his main focus now and if we were faced with a similar situation, I’m sure we would do the same.