The Greedy 12 and the Super League

It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday until all hell broke loose. Embarrassing and greedy quickly started to trend on Twitter alongside the word “Super League” which told you everything you needed to know. The decision by 12 European clubs to announce a breakaway SuperLeague has been widely condemned by footballs governing bodies, its former and current players and most importantly the fans, who all see this move as financially motivated and without any consideration for them.

After months of secret, behind closed doors talks twelve clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have signed on to be founder members of this new JP Morgan backed European Super League (ESL) which was announced late Sunday afternoon, one day before UEFA was due to announce a potentially expanded Champions League.

The “Big 6” in England have signed on to a European Super League much to the dismay of the FA, the Premier League and the British government.

FIFA have been quick to condemn the move whilst UEFA has threatened tough sanctions on the clubs involved and their players including banning them from all other league and cup competitions and even stopping players from potentially representing their national teams. Legal action could also be taken against each of the 12 clubs with UEFA seeking significant damages rumoured to be around £50-60billion. UEFA have also been supported by the three national federations and leagues that the 12 currently play in, stating that any move of such would result in their eviction from their domestic leagues and cup competitions. But it’s the reaction of the former players and the fans that tells the story. Both have been outraged by the news and have rejected the idea of a Super League being a good thing or indeed even for them. Former Manchester United player Gary Neville called the move absolutely disgusting and a decision based solely on greed whilst former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher called it an “embarrassing decision for Liverpool and for those who have come before”. Hard to disagree.

In a statement released by the new ESL, the founding clubs had agreed to establish a “new midweek competition” with teams continuing to “compete in their respective national leagues”. Three further teams would join shortly to make 15 founding teams that would be secured in their places in the league (couldn’t be removed or relegated) and a further five would join based on performances elsewhere. The hope was that the new league could start as early as next year but the ESL has a lot to do before that becomes reality.

The statement went on to say that the global pandemic had “accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model” and that conversations with UEFA had failed to answer concerns about the need to provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid.” The ESL will apparently help to put the game on a more sustainable footing in the long term.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has been named as the president of the European Super League and is one of its principle instigators

ESL vice chairman and Manchester United owner Joel Glazer was quoted in saying “By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid.”

There is a lot to unpack there but underneath it all is the general sense that the owners of these 12 clubs are being motivated by one thing and one thing only – greed. The richest clubs in football simply want more money. Talk of fixing the European game, improving the quality for fans or providing a more financial support to the football pyramid is just smoke and mirrors for what this is really about. These 12 clubs feel entitled to more and because UEFA won’t buckle to their demands, they are trying to force their hand.

Whether all 12 believe this league will happen is one thing but what’s more important is that they have massively overestimated their own hand. Either foolishly or naively, the clubs believed that the fans would be excited about this league and more so that their own domestic leagues ( English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga) would be comfortable with this. Neither of which is true. What has happened is instead the greedy 12 have landed in a PR nightmare with no one for support and a general feeling from supporters that they don’t care about anything other than money. Now facing some difficult conversation, not only with FIFA and UEFA but as well with their national leagues, the European Club Association and the Players Football Association, it’s fair to say that the announcement didn’t quite go as planned.

Former players Rio Ferdinand, Francis Benali and Robbie Savage react to the news about the proposed European Super League.

The League may never happen due to a variety of reasons and as suggested earlier, it might never have needed to happen. It could all be a ruse to get UEFA to back down and agree to the changes these 12 clubs wanted as part of a new look Champions League – more power, preferential treatment such as annual participation regardless of performance and above all else more money. But now having overextended themselves and misread how much power they actually have at the wider footballing table, it might be a harder battle to win.

Regardless of how those discussions go or how things pan out over the next few weeks and months, the fans ultimately will have their say or the ability to voice their opinion at the least by turning their backs on the clubs in more than one way. For the instigators of this new league, it’s worth noting that it was supporters who helped to build these clubs up to where they are today and that they quite easily tear them apart as well – Super League or no Super League.

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Inside Chelsea’s youth development – turning talent into profit one player at a time

In medieval times, children are educated/skilled as apprentices in certain crafts to one day produce skilled craftsmen. But an apprenticeship is only the first step. Once an apprenticeship is completed, the individual leaves on a journey for some years to hone their skills as master-in-training in hopes of one day becoming a master. Individuals in this phase of training and life experience came to be known as “journeymen”.

In modern football, we see journeymen in young academy graduates who have not received the nod for first team football, taking loan opportunities in lower leagues or international leagues to gain playing time and experience. The loan system was seen to be beneficial to both the club and the player with the central idea of player development. The concept was welcomed by fans and association alike to train more elite talent for both club and country. But, in the recent decade, we have seen a change in the ethos of the loan system with clubs abusing and monetizing from the system.

Fans and analysts alike will point to Chelsea F.C. and their system of “youth development” as the chief contributor to this change but, they would not be completely right. Yes, it is true Chelsea found success through buying players, they have a notorious loaning system and more recently were fined and handed a transfer ban for their youth recruitment strategies. Although, today they are not only club who adopt such a system, they have certainly paved the way for such practices. 


Chelsea was taken over by Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich in 2003 which brought forth riches and a new identity to the club. In the upcoming years, Chelsea who were formerly, a mid table club were now among the elites of the premier league with superstar players recruited through transfers winning multiple league and cup titles. But, this model of splurging cash was never a long-term solution of success with the introduction of Financial Fair Play rules (FFP) in 2009. But, with the globalization of football and more revenue incoming from TV deals and sponsorships, success is expected spontaneously and in perpetuity. So, for years the club remained on the edge of creating financial controversy. So, they established reformation of their academy and dedicated a team of scouts, coaches and medical staff to take care of the recruits.

Talent Farming

The first generation of graduates from the academy provided several promising recruits like Ryan Bertrand, Gael Kakuta, Josh McEacharan and Patrick Van Aanholt. But these recruits were unable to break into a first team filled with talented cast the likes of Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. Between 2007-2011, Chelsea sacked 4 managers in hopes to compete with Manchester United who themselves lost Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. This meant the young graduates could not convince the new managers, whose priorities were always immediate success.

With the academy recruits unable to convince the manager and with the current squad playing past their prime, Chelsea saw more opportunity and increased their scouting methods and started to pickup talent from abroad with potential to develop and in turn also create a more global identity to the club. Now came the next set of youths: Lucas Piazon, Kevin De Bruyne, Oriol Romeu, Patrick Bamford, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen, Victor Moses, Christian Atsu etc. each showing potential to breakout. 

With the new generation of talent, Chelsea streamlined their “development” process to generate a path for these talents to first team. The club established a separate division to handle player development which included, a director, a set of coaches and medical staff. The process starts with buying players for a low fee, followed by initial assessment after which a player may be placed in the reserves or on the loan list. If a player is on the loan list, they are initially sent to a soft testing grounds (weak leagues with low expectations) to get some playing time. Chelsea have sent players to Vitesse Arnhem (a club owned by Roman Abramovich’s Friend), a city with a population of about 100,000. The loans are mostly for a year but, can sometimes be cancelled midway if a player is unable to adapt to the league. The financial deals are worked out such that a part or most of the players salary is covered. The coaches or director will personally visit the players at the loaned clubs and assess their development. Based on the assessment they may decide to allow the player to finish the loan deal or cancel it and move them elsewhere to suit their development needs.  

At the end of the year, the team analyses the data and decide to take one of three routes: Retain the player, Sell the player (if the market demand was present) or move them to a more challenging testing spot for further development. This started an eternal cycle of loan moves for young players who report to cobham facility at the start of the year and move on to the next loan immediately.


Success in life sometimes comes down to luck. Clubs may not always come across a player like Messi or Ronaldo immediately. Sometimes, talent is seen immediately, sometimes it only shows up later in life or in the eyes of another. Case in point, Chelsea have sold some talented players from their academy when they do no feel this player can reach a certain potential. So, they sold them after a few years of recruitment when their market value is at its peak as they cannot guarantee playing time with the club.

Some examples include, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Ryan Bertrand to name a few who were unable to convince the manager for regular football or who were not satisfied with the club’s communication. The club made dividends on their initial investment of these players when their market value and demand was high (in most cases selling them to the clubs where they were loaned).

Success stories

When all is said and done, this system has been in place since 2012. At one point, the club sent as many as 40 players on loan. So, what is the verdict? Was this system truly developed for “player development” or simply a money mongering strategy. What is there to show to the fans, analysts and association that their system is meant for youth development and not a monetization project.  

Andreas Christensen: The lanky danish Centre-back joined Chelsea at the end of André Villas-Boas tenure in 2012 with high expectations. After making his debut under Jose Mourinho in 2013, he spent two successive loan spells at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Chelsea immediately saw his value and integrated into the first team in 2015 as the touted heir to John Terry.

Thibaut Courtois: Similar to Christensen, the Belgium prodigy arrived at Stamford bridge in 2011 and was immediately sent on a three-year loan to Atletico Madrid where he won the Europa league, La-Liga (breaking a Spanish deadlock held by Barcelona/Real Madrid) and made it to the Champions league final in 2014. Chelsea immediately integrated the heir apparent to Petr Cech as the starting goalkeeper in 2014.

Kurt Zouma: The French Centre-back was signed from Saint-Etienne in 2014 but, remained on loan for a year at the former club. After making his Chelsea debut in 2015, he was sparsely involved in first team action. After successive loan spells at Stoke City and Everton, he is lauded as the future of the Chelsea’s backline alongside Christensen.

Kurt Zouma is one of several players to be bought by the club and developed into first team players (Image from Tumblr)

Mason Mount: The Englishman rose through Chelsea’s youth academy in 2017, spent two successive loan spells at farm club, Vitesse Arnhem and Derby county, where he played under Frank Lampard. When incoming manger Frank Lampard took the helm at Chelsea in 2019, he immediately integrated the young prodigy into the team. Then 20-year-old was an instant success and remains a key figure in the team till date despite the exit of the golden boy manager.

Undecided: Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Reece James. Chelsea’s transfer ban in 2019 along with the departure of superstar Eden Hazard meant the club were suddenly left vulnerable in the premier league. Incoming manager Frank Lampard was faced with a daunting task and decided to take a leap in faith with the many talent young reserves in his squad. With the exception of Loftus Cheek who departed for Fulham, the above-mentioned players featured heavily in Lampard’s squad rotation and feature in Thomas Tuchels now.

The Others

No system is perfect. More often than not, there are times when someone can get overlooked due to injuries, error in judgment or worst of all human greed. We will look at a few cases (not all) where Chelsea’s system failed the players and jeopardized their careers.

Tomas Kalas & Lucas Piazon: The Czech centre-Back and Brazilian winger arrived in London in 2010 and 2011 respectively during the dawn of Chelsea’s “youth development” stratagem. They both spent their initial testing grounds loans at Vitesse Arnhem followed by loans in Germany and in the English Championship. In total, they spent 7 loan spells each with Piazon making one start for Chelsea and Kalas played 2 games. Kalas’s Chelsea career may only be remembered for his debut at Anfield against Liverpool in 2014 where Steven Gerrard let the league title “slip” away whilst Piazon has no such privilege. Their market value was highest during their loan spell at Fulham F.C. in 2016-2017 and 2017- 2018 campaign where their stays overlapped and they found success helping the club promotion to the Premier League at the end of the 2017-2018 campaign narrowly missing out promotion the previous year. When they reported to the Chelsea at the end of their loan spell in 2018, they were expecting an offer from Fulham to start their careers but, they received no information from the club. In a recent interview with a Czech chat show on his role at Chelsea, Kalas said “I am a player for training sessions. If they need a cone, they put me there instead”. After another loan spell, Kalas was eventually sold to Bristol City for a profit whilst, Piazon was let go in summer 2021. 

Why were these two talented young players career’s derailed by Chelsea’s system. Was it matter of oversight? Surely, it is not something as simple as that. We may never know the answer at least that was Piazon’s opinion in a recent interview with Sky-sports.

FIFA Loan Rule Amendment

FIFA has also taken notice to the change in the trend of player loan system and decided to act on curb such practices. According to the new rules, starting from the upcoming season (2021-2022), clubs are allowed only 8 transfers in and eight transfers out per season (and not more than three transfers between clubs) with the number set to reduce to 6 players from the 2022-2023 season.

Why has FIFA decided to act now?

Whilst, managers and analysts alike scorned Chelsea’s model of “player development”, the system was not violating any rules. Other Clubs now started to adopt this system, the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Atlanta, Juventus, Inter Milan, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers adopted a similar model. Manchester City and RB Leipzig also setup a feeder clubs in Girona F.C. (City own 47% shares in Girona) and RB Salzburg respectively. The model was working and Clubs now had a way to avoid FFP rules and also fill the Home-grown player quota. But the situation got out of control as now clubs were sending an average of 30 players on loans. Although, in my opinion the nail in the coffin for FIFA’s involvement may have been the transfer of high-profile players like Kylian Mbappe and Alvaro Morata who initially moved on loan to their future clubs with the transfer fee following the next fiscal season thus, satisfying FFP rules.

At the end of the day, football is a business and clubs and fans seek success which cannot come without drastic measures in certain cases. Luck plays a large part in a world filled with several talented players. FIFA exists to maintain the integrity of the game and enact policies to support the players.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Russia’s WADA ban – What you need to know

Russia will not be allowed participate in the World Cup 2022. What else do WADA sanctions lead to?

The decision of the WADA Executive Committee, which for four years removed all Russian sport from the Olympic and world championships, will hit our football as well. Most importantly, Euro 2020 matches will be held in Russia, and the Russian team will perform at the tournament. However, at the World Cup 2022, there will not be Russian team, even if it goes through all qualifying games.

Euro 2020: everything is safe

The World Anti-Doping Agency clarified the issue of the European Championship 2020. This tournament is held under the auspices of UEFA, and this organization is not a signer of either the Compliance Standard or the WADA Code. And the tournament itself is continental, and accordingly does not belong to the concept of major events.

Nothing threatens the holding of Euro 2020 matches in Russia. As well as the participation of the Russian team in this tournament. Russian National team will hold at least three matches next summer in Saint Petersburg and Copenhagen in the form of a national team, the design of which has not yet been finalized. May be more, but here it all depends only on the results.

World Cup 2022: the Russian team only in the selection

In the qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Russian team will also be able to play, as usual. Although this is part of the tournament held under the auspices of FIFA, but part is continental.

But the Russian team will not go to Qatar in any case, even if it breaks through there. This was stated by WADA representatives at a press conference in Lausanne, but the final decision is for FIFA. Although even such a powerful international federation is unlikely to go against WADA.

And what team will go to Qatar instead of Russia if our team gets a ticket there? The team of neutral athletes, each of whom must receive a separate admission to participate. However, it will still be Russian team, even if there is a chance that individual players will not be allowed to the World Cup.

Final Champions League 2021 and European Cups: nothing will change

Club tournaments are not included in the major events category. So, nothing threatens the participation of Russian clubs in European competition. As well as holding the final of the Champions League season 2020/21 in Saint Petersburg.

What about Euro 2024

Judging by the fact that the sanctions are prescribed for four years, then by the European Championship in 2024 they should be lifted. So even if WADA forces UEFA to sign a compliance standard and a code, Russian sport should by then end the ban.

However, it makes no sense to think for such a long time. Russia needs to deal with current punishments. Hopefully, all Russian officials involved in the scandal will also receive their punishment. Russia has already launched a formal appeal.

Post by Irina Kuzina. Follow her now on Instagram.

Away with The Away Goal Rule?

Most football fans know what the offside rule is but only a few can really explain it in only a few words to a non fan without the use of some props to represent the play. We have all seen it in bars, pubs and dinner tables across the world as the salt shaker becomes the central striker with the ketchup and pepper as the last line of defence. Regardless of how clear they are, rules like the offside rule are there to make the game fair and to create stability to a game that is often temperamental and lacking clarity. But some rules, like the away goal rule still confuse many in the game, both on the pitch and off it. The away goal rule was first introduced by FIFA back in 1965 in an effort to decide the outcome of closely fought double-headed knockout competitions. In essence, the rule is as such, the team that has scored more goals away from home in an otherwise tied game wins. For instance if team A draws 1-1 with team B away from home, then ties the home leg 0-0, they progress because of the away goal. Ridiculous.

The offside rule as explained by many (Image from FourFourTwo)

The offside rule as explained by many
(Image from FourFourTwo)

The rule was brought into effect by FIFA to encourage the away team to attack but what it in fact has done has encouraged the home team to defend and defend in numbers. Jose Mourinho once called it “parking the bus” after his then Chelsea side were unable to break down Tottenham’s defence in a 2004 Premiership match and left angry and empty-handed. Deemed unattractive to watch by fans and opposition managers, it can be vital for progression in a tournament to keep a clean sheet. Having stopped the opposition from scoring in the first leg at home, the balance of the tie is then dramatically swung in their favour as they know that the now home team will need to be extra careful to not concede or they face the uphill task of scoring twice to win the tie.

Parking the Bus (Image from Tumblr)

Parking the Bus
(Image from Tumblr)

There is no better example of this than Glasgow Rangers 2007 UEFA cup run when they managed to reach the final of the competition only to fall at the last hurdle to an impressive Zenit St Petersburg. What made their run incredible was that on route to the final they scored only five goals in five games (they dropped into the competition at the last 32 after an unsuccessful Champions League campaign). But it was the way they protected home advantage and “parked the bus” that helped Walter Smith guide his team to the final. Clever tactics by a very smart coach, despite the objections from his opposite numbers in the Panathinaikos, Sporting and Fiorentina dugouts. Smith’s squad lacked the star names of yester year and employed 38-year-old David Weir at centre back and on one occasion with 34-year-old Christian Dailly for company. What he lacked in flair, they made up for it grit and determination and worked out a strategy to frustrate and then punish teams along the way.

Rangers on their 2007 UEFA Cup run (Image from Tumblr)

Rangers on their 2007 UEFA Cup run
(Image from Tumblr)

In the first game against  Panathinaikos kept the clean sheet at home before snatching a late goal in the return leg to tie the game but progress on the away goal rule. The next game against Werder Bremen, Rangers broke from their strategy as they were gifted two clear chances which they converted to seal a 2-0 first leg lead. The match in Germany would be tighter but this time Smith decided to hold what they had and managed to escape after conceding only a single goal despite numerous chances by Bremen. Sporting Lisbon were up next and a return to their trusted formula, holding the Portuguese club to a 0-0 draw at Ibrox. As the second leg started as the first had ended, Sporting began to lose their patience, which let Rangers French striker Jean-Claude Darcheville snatch a valuable away goal. Now chasing the game, Sporting had to score twice so pushed forward in numbers only to leave too much space at the back, which let Steven Whitaker score a late second and send Rangers into the semi finals to play Italian side Fiorentina. Rangers once again defended in numbers but this time in both legs against a very skillful and talented Fiorentina side. Eventually the game went to penalties and Rangers snuck away with the win, disgusting head coach Cesare Prandelli, who was quoted after the game as saying that Rangers killed the beautiful game with the way they played. Smith didn’t care as he plotted one final victory that would lift them the cup but their luck ran out in Manchester as Rangers were beaten 2-0 by an Andrey Arshavin inspired Zenit team.

Darcheville escapes his defender to score (Image from Getty)

Darcheville escapes his defender to score
(Image from Getty)

Without the away goal rule and its tactical implications, its doubtful Rangers would have progressed as far as they did. Granted the tactics employed worked to their advantage and they took their chances when needed, but if they were out to attack from the first kick of the first leg, then the story may have been very different. We have seen examples  in the UEFA cup and the Champions League where great teams like Inter Milan and Arsenal knocked out on the away goal rule which in modern-day football seems harsh. Critics will argue that they didn’t do enough in the first leg to merit going through but like most jobs, occasionally teams have off days. In 2013, Tottenham thrashed Inter 3-0 at home but struggled to beat them in Italy, losing 4-1 after extra time with only an Adebeyor goal in the second leg enough to put them through. Yes they lacked the explosive Gareth Bale on the wing but Inter looked like a different team than the one that lost so convincingly only two weeks prior. In the Champions league, Arsenal did what was needed by winning 2-0 in Germany against Bayern Munich. But the 3-1 score line in the Emirates stadium meant that their efforts were in vain, despite the scores being level after 180 minutes of wonderful football.

Heartbreak for Arsenal against Bayern (Image from

Heartbreak for Arsenal against Bayern
(Image from

To suggest there is any real advantage or disadvantage of playing at home vs. away, especially in modern football is somewhat archaic. But what must be looked at is the reasoning behind keeping such a strange rule as the away goal rule. Nobody really feels that it is of benefit and most would rather that if a match is indeed tied after 180 minutes then the game should go into extra time in an effort to resolve it. Better still don’t play it over two legs and instead choose an independent ground for the teams to play in and contest the match. If this isn’t feasible then the extra time and penalties will have to do. After all, no one has a problem with a team being eliminated by penalties right?

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World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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One on One with: Karina LeBlanc

Few athletes can boast of the sort of international soccer career Karina LeBlanc enjoyed during her 17 years in a Canada shirt, including five World Cups, two Olympics and of course, that London 2012 bronze medal – and fewer still have managed the transition like she has since hanging up her goalkeeper’s gloves three years ago. A FIFA and CONCACAF Ambassador, public speaker, mentor, budding broadcaster and of late, with her own foundation just up and running and a park in her native Maple Ridge, B.C., named in her honour, LeBlanc remains a highly visible, totally inspirational figure in the game. We caught up with her as she prepared to leave for the World Cup in Russia, to take on the likes of Maradona, Ronaldinho and her one-time idol Peter Schmeichel in a FIFA Legends event around this year’s tournament opener.

Backofthenet: What are you doing at the World Cup?

Karina LeBlanc: I’m a FIFA Legend. No kidding. We play a game on the 12th, with or against Maradona, Puyol, all the real legends. I don’t know which team I’m on yet, but it’s a little mini-tournament and we’ll play against each other for fun. And I’ll be just pinching myself. Last time (at the World Cup draw) Maradona was teasing me and I was talking trash back to him – like, who does that? And then Ronaldo, Ronaldinho – the true legends, that’s my reality. We’ll sit in on the FIFA Congress for the 2026 voting, and then we all get to watch the opening game of the World Cup in Russia.

BOTN: You’ve been to five World Cups as a player, but I guess you’ve never done the World Cup like this.

Karina: Never. There’s no pressure on me, first of all. I’m literally going as a fan of the game and I get to be an Ambassador at the same time. I’ll get to be there and watch and take in all of it. I’ve never been to a World Cup game as a spectator, and get to do it with all the heroes I grew up watching and had on my wall. It’s gonna be kind of cool!

Passion is something that Karina has never lacked (Image from Karina LeBlanc's instagram)

Passion is something that Karina has never lacked (Image from Karina LeBlanc’s instagram)

BOTN: It’ll be exactly 20 years next month since you made your international debut for Canada. Can you put into words how long a journey that’s been for you, and also for the women’s side of the game?

Karina: It really makes me feel so grateful for it. There’s moments I remember especially when we were fighting for things. We’d have eight people at a game and we’d be staying at a barracks – you’re fighting to find a place in this world and make a stance in the women’s game not only as a country, but also as a woman. And in the journey you have this picture, you’re actually thinking beyond what you can see, trying to pave the way as a group. In 2015 when I retired I think that was one of the proudest things – you always want to leave the game in a better place than when you came into it, and I think that’s one of the true legacy pieces we talked about in the national team. Now I think what I’m proud of is how it’s continuing to grow, how it’s continuing to take notice and I think the biggest thing now that I’m removed from the game is to see and hear and be able to be part of continuing the change and seeing how the women’s game can truly impact the next generation. I think 20 years now, when I look back, I’m proud of where the game has come to and I’m proud of being a part of helping continue to take the game where it can go. Being named a FIFA Legend – I don’t know about that, but I’m pinching myself, almost feeling that little kid within me again. The innocence of it, the excitement of the World Cup – I haven’t had a chance to do that in so long, because there was always pressure around it. I’ve never even thought of that – 20 years – that’s half my life.

(Image from Karina's instagram)

Karina in her new role as a FIFA Ambassador (Image from Karina’s instagram)

BOTN: Do you remember that first time you put on the shirt?

Karina: It was in Ottawa, I believe, against China. I was really young and I was trying to process what it all meant. I was proud because at a young age I’d already been through some stuff – I’d been cut, I’d been told I wasn’t good enough. So when you finally get there you’re proud, but you’re also standing next to women who have paved the way for you to get there. It’s the honour of that, and the respect of that, and just the opportunity. Who gets to play for your country? That’s one thing that never left me every time I put on the jersey – how privileged I was to put that flag on my heart. That’s what I love about the World Cup. It’s not about the numbers and the TV – you’re putting that flag on your heart and representing your country. I never ever took it for granted.

BOTN: You did it for 17 years.

Karina: It didn’t feel that long. For every failure, it didn’t feel that way, because I learned so much about myself. One of the most beautiful lessons in life that sport teaches you is that failure is okay, but then you get the successes – as a goalkeeper you think of those big saves, those big moments, all the work comes down to that adrenaline rush of that moment when you’re stretching out and tipping the ball and it’s bending around the post and you know that all your work came into that matter of inches. Yes, I did it for 17 years but you know what? I think because the way my life is right now, I haven’t missed it. I miss my teammates, that part of the game, but the actual hard training and that kind of sacrifice, 17-plus years of doing it, I definitely was ready to walk away.

BOTN: A lot of players have trouble after their playing days end. Why do you think you’ve been able to handle that so well?

Karina: I think one of the biggest things was I wanted to align everything with my purpose here on this Earth. That’s why I always say that being a UNICEF Ambassador is one of the proudest moments of my life, because I remember one of my first trips before I retired and it was a defining moment, because life is about feeling that you’re doing something. When you’re doing that in service to others you feel it more than ever. I remember being in Honduras and seeing those kids in the first ever jersey I wore as a kid in Maple Ridge B.C. and so many things hit me that this was the next step for me. I think I aligned my life to feeling that fulfillment in helping others, and it helps me understand that all my difficulties as an athlete – you’re like why? and people go through this in life too – when you can align that your life is not actually about you, it’s about other people and your voice can actually help inspire people, I think that helped me in my transition. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always peachy, it wasn’t always perfect. I had my days where I felt alone and you miss those two hours of sitting around at dinner talking about nothing with your teammates in a foreign country, you miss that taking your body to the extreme. But I think what I’ve been able to fill that hole with is the ability to impact other people to be a better version of themselves.

(Image from Karina's instagram)

Karina as UNICEF ambassador (Image from Karina’s instagram)

BOTN: That’s the challenging part right?

The challenge for me is that I’ve been able to do it in multiple areas, not just one, and it’s ever growing and continuing, and I think for me that’s the beauty of it. That helps my transition. Even my speaking now, it’s taken off and got into the corporate world, which if you asked me two years ago … I speak to a lot of huge corporate gigs and it’s because people are saying, come talk a little bit about your sport life, but come talk too about this idea of living and working purposefully – not for the bottom dollar, but where we each as individuals can step into this idea of living for a purpose on this Earth and being who we were meant to me. That makes me feel so alive. And then doing the stuff with the CBC, the RBC Training Ground where we travel across Canada to find Canada’s next Olympic hopeful – even that is fulfilling because it’s these kids being given the opportunity by RBC to pursue their dreams … everything that I’m doing, I guess it all aligns to me using everything I’ve been through on this Earth where every day I wake up and I’m actually living my purpose. It’s such a cliché, but it’s a beautiful challenge and in the last four months I’ve probably had 50 appearance and they’ve all been different. And that’s beautiful. Every day I feel alive, and it’s not the same – In the smallest ways, it’s actually making people people be a better version of themselves, and when I retired I thought there’d be no chance I could impact people this way. You’re in this team environment, but when you remove yourself you have to figure out who you are as an individual and in exploring that and stay true to myself I’ve been able to create so many different opportunities.

BOTN: How has your perspective on the team you used to be a part of changed – they have a new coach (Kenneth Heiner-Moller), a new group of players, John Herdman has gone on to the men’s side of things. How do you see that now from a distance?

Karina: I think it was interesting. Everything came out quicker than John wanted to or even the players. It kind of came up in the way it wasn’t intended to. I remember speaking to John – he’s a builder, and if you ask him he probably had the practice schedule for June 10, 2020. He said there came a time when the team is so ready, and Kenneth is so perfect for them – it’s a changing of the guards but it’s like when you lose your best boss you’re bummed about it, but you’re also getting another incredible boss. I think the program’s in great hands. He knows the group and he’s also led himself so he knows how to lead, and it’s the perfect time to transition because there are a lot of younger faces on the team that they can take this change. I think it’s a positive because I think that what John’s going to be able to do on the men’s side is also different from what most of the coaches were able to do there. He is that planner. People have said he can’t motivate the men like he did the women, but I think after the first camp the response of the men was exactly that – they were like, this man is legit, he understands that you understand who you’re leading first before you decide how to lead. That’s the mark of a great leader. I think both the women’s and the men’s team will be better off from all of this.

BOTN: You’ve always spoke of the huge influence John Herdman had on you.

Karina: Huge. Me even becoming a UNICEF Ambassador came from the words of John. We were in Brazil and he said ‘I’m going to take my coaching hat off … if you think your purpose on this Earth is to kick a soccer ball for Canada then I’ve failed you.’ He brought out things about myself I wasn’t even aware of – you don’t see yourself with the eyes of others. He said I was destined to do so much and that conversation rocked me. I was like, ‘this is my purpose, I’ve been on this team 14 years and I give everything. If anyone’s been in one job for 14 years, it’s like, this is what I do.’ And had he not had that conversation with me I probably wouldn’t have taken a step back to ask myself why am I here on this Earth? If it’s not as a soccer player, then why? That openness led me to being open to different things and that’s when the UNICEF opportunity walked in – it was a changing moment in my life, to be around people asking how to be of service to others. That completely shifted my mind. Even to this day with John it’s like that. He sent me a text the other day because he wasn’t able to be at the opening of the field and he basically said this is only the beginning. That’s the voice of John Herdman in my ear, it keeps still pushing me, keeps challenging me. He’s always said his legacy is not winning that bronze medal – or in his case, back-to-back medals – but it’s what we go on to do. He really does live that.

John Herdman's words to Karina in Brazil (Image from Karina's Facebook page)

John Herdman’s words to Karina in Brazil (Image from Karina’s Facebook page)

BOTN: Let’s go back to that Karina LeBlanc Field. What’s going through your head when you see that?

Karina: If you watch the video, I bawled like a baby. It was like ugly crying. You never dream of a moment like that. You dream of winning a medal, and the irony of it was that in that park I’d be there with my brother and dreaming of the crowd going wild and you can hear your name and you make the big save, all those things. Then you fast forward all these years later and the park is actually named Karina LeBlanc Field, and it’s now the field of dreams for this next generation. That’s what I said in my speech – I want you to dream big crazy dreams every time you cross into this park, make it a moment where you don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t do anything, or cut you down. You believe in yourself, and you have fun. That’s one of the biggest thing about sports, that it can change to a business or a job. But that thank-you speech was almost like my wedding day, in that you feel like the most special woman and the luckiest woman – but for sports. I never knew that it’d have that kind of impact on me. That’s what triggered me with this foundation. I want every young girl, especially in my community, to know there’s somebody backing them. I was that young girl who had a couple people backing me other than my family, and was able to do some pretty cool things. I cried like a baby.

(interview edited and condensed for purposes of length)

BOTNBlog supports Karina and her foundation, The Karina LeBlanc Foundation which focuses its resources on adolescent girls from all socio-economic backgrounds to achieve their dreams and to produce future leaders.

Interview with Chris Young (@HighParkCy)

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Playing Games – The Evolution of FIFA

The Evolution Of FIFA by Clubline Football.

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it

There is a famous American idiom that states “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. It’s a simple informal saying that, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is said when you recognize that something is in a satisfactory state and there is no reason to try to change it. This saying appears to be lost amongst the members of the International Football Association Board (Ifab) who this week announced their latest list of ideas of how to improve football by developing the laws of the game over the next five years. Under the guise of their overarching strategy entitled ‘Play Fair’, the board have included a variety of suggested changes to tackle “on field issues” with three main objectives  – improving player behaviour and respect, increasing playing time and increasing fairness and attractiveness – core to all of their ideas put forward.

The Ifab have named their strategy "Play Fair" (Image from Tumblr)

The Ifab have named their strategy “Play Fair” (Image from Tumblr)

The board, which is made up of members of FIFA and the four home nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have proposed a variety of topics for discussion, some of which would require no rule changes and could be implemented immediately whilst others would need to be drawn into the global rules of the game. These suggested changes include:

  • A proposal to switch to two 30 minute halfs instead of 45 minutes
  • players allowed to pass to themselves at a free-kick, corner and goal-kick
  • a stadium clock which stops and starts along with the referee’s watch
  • allowing the goal-kick to be taken even if the ball is moving
  • a goal-kick being taken on the same side that the ball went out on
  • a “clearer and more consistent definition” of handball
  • players who score a goal or stop a goal with his/her hands gets a red card
  • a keeper who handles a back pass or throw-in from a team-mate concedes a penalty
  • the referee can award a goal if a player stops a goal being scored by handling on or close to the goal-line
  • referees can only blow for half-time or full-time when the ball goes out of play
  • Only captains allowed to speak to referees about decisions
  • Adjustments to the order of penalty takers in shootout to make it fairer on both teams
  • a penalty kick is either scored or missed/saved and players cannot follow-up to score to stop encroachment into the penalty area

To be fair to the board, some of the suggestions are creditable idea which if implemented could improve the quality of the match day experience not only for the fans but for the players as well. Changes like blowing for half time or full-time when the ball goes out of play will allow the game to flow better, only captains to talk to referees will help with fairness whilst a clearer and more consistent definition of handball is needed given the greyness that surrounds some calls at present (i.e. is it handball if it hits the player’s foot, rebounds and hits the hand at pace?). Others including goal kicks to be taken on the same side as the ball goes out and sending players off who score a goal with their hand be sent off need further discussion and research into whether it’s a growing issue.

Suggested changes are meant to help the game flow better and assist referees (Image from Tumblr)

Suggested changes are meant to help the game flow better and assist referees (Image from Tumblr)

However other suggestions are quite simply absurd, namely allowing players to pass the ball to themselves from a free kick, corner or goal kick or my personal favourite reducing the playing time down from 90 minutes total to 60 minutes in an attempt to deter time-wasting. The reasoning behind their logic is that they see only 60 minutes of effective game time at present with teams time wasting for the remaining 30 minutes. Some current and former players are in agreement including Peter Cech and Gianfranco Zola who both feel a reduction in overall time would see an increase in the amount of football played. I would have to disagree though. Football is much like chess, it’s a tactical game where each team is set up in advance with a strategy for attack. That strategy starts from moment one and builds during the course of each half, with often two steps forward and one step back. Reducing the time does not immediately lead to better football nor does it mean that time wasting wont be a factor. That will always be part of the game no matter how long the game is. In addition the move would likely be met with opposition from the fans who already feel short-changed in the stands, paying over inflated prices whilst the clubs they watch get richer and richer. TV viewers will suffer too with more programming stuffed in and around the game (including advertising) rather than less.

Supporter - Zola has backed calls for a 60 minute game (Image from Tumblr)

Supporter – Zola has backed calls for a 60 minute game (Image from Tumblr)

I can understand the need for this board to make suggestions and as stated earlier, some proposed changes look promising. But a majority of the suggestions appear to have been done with little thought with more glaring ones ignored. Why not embrace video action replays and goal line technology at all matches or give referees more power/help to control the game through additional off field support. Or introducing bans for player simulation/diving retroactively. Change can be a good thing but in some occasions its better to leave things as they are. It’s human nature to want to constantly improve things but often it’s not needed. When it comes to football, the lawmakers need to involve a wider group including the fans to see if these changes should be made. Only with a consensus will football evolve and continue to be the beautiful game.

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Messi walks free as FIFA chooses money over integrity 

In a recent match between Argentina and Chile, television cameras captured the moment that Lionel Messi verbally abused a linesman for flagging a foul committed by Messi on an opponent. Whilst not listed in the referees match report, the incident was reported later to officials at FIFA who took retroactive action to discipline the 29 year old forward; banning him from Argentina’s next four international games and fining him CHF 10,000 ($10,000 USD). The FIFA disciplinary committee who’s sole purpose is to enforce the FIFA disciplinary code globally handed down the ban citing that Messi had broken article 57 of the code around abusive language or acts towards match officials. They proceeded to back up the severity of the ban citing that the punishment was in line with several other cases handed out by the Committee over the years.

Messi argues with the linesman following a late call (Image from Tumblr)

Messi argues with the linesman following a late call (Image from Tumblr)

However in a startling turn of events, that ruling has now been overturned by FIFA’s appeals committee who have lifted the ban permitting Messi to play in all forthcoming games for Argentina. At  the hearing in Zurich, the Appeals Committee approved the appeal lodged by the Argentine Football Association along with Messi’s lawyers citing insufficient evidence to support the ban. However in a baffling statement they did appear to acknowledge that Messi had indeed directed foul language towards the linesman by calling his behaviour reproachable. Messi himself was not at the hearing ‘for personal reasons’ but is said to be happy with the outcome.

FIFA appears to be a loggerheads over this incident (Image from Tumblr)

FIFA appears to be a loggerheads over this incident (Image from Tumblr)

As of course are the Argentine Football Association who are now able to field Messi in their next three games which all coincidentally are crucial 2018 World Cup qualifying matches. This news could not have come at a better time with Argentina struggling in the South American qualifying group. Sitting fifth on 22 points after 14 games, Argentina need to put points on the board if they are to stand a chance of qualify for Russia. With only the top four going through automatically and the fifth placed team playing in a two legged qualifier match with the winner of the Oceania region, Argentina needed their star player back and on the field. Having lost him already for the game against Bolivia at the end of March (which they lost 2-0), Argentina were at real risk of slipping further down the table without him. Messi will now be back in the team (injuries permitting) to face Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru as Argentina look to prevent the worst from happening – failing to qualify.

Without Messi, Argentina have struggled (Image from Tumblr)

Without Messi, Argentina have struggled (Image from Tumblr)

That in itself would be disastrous for Argentina who reached the 2014 final and for Messi himself who is desperate to win the World Cup and finally put to bed the argument that Diego Maradona is better than him simply because he lifted the coveted golden trophy. But it would have also been a disaster for FIFA too if Argentina and more importantly Lionel Messi weren’t at the World Cup next year in Russia. In a constant fight with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo for the title of the current best player in the world; Messi is an iconic player who drives not only fan interest on a global scale but significant advertising revenues as well. A World Cup without Messi would be like the NBA finals without LeBron James. It would still function and take place just perhaps not as great as it could have been with him there. Sponsors certainly wouldn’t be as happy taking on a tournament with no Messi included.

Messi missing the World Cup is like LeBron missing the NBA playoffs (Image from Tumblr)

Messi missing the World Cup is like LeBron missing the NBA Finals (Image from Tumblr)

So whilst to many it would appear that the Appeals Committee simply overruled the disciplinary committee, perhaps what in fact happened was that both were overruled by FIFA’s underlining desire to line its financial coffers more than its desire to protect the integrity of the game. I wonder if the situation had been exactly the same but the player had been a lesser known figure in the squad; would the appeals committee been as eager to throw out the ruling made by their brothers over in disciplinary? Or indeed would they have backed the decision made by them and upheld the ban? What is certain is that FIFA as a whole would have cared less about the ruling and its effect on qualifying; that was unless said players absence had a direct knock on effect to Argentina’s chances of qualify. Then perhaps they would have stepped in once again to influence proceedings and protect its bottom line.

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An Expanded World Cup? Sign Me Up!

After the expansion of the 2016 European Championships, the World Cup is now set for a revamp. The FIFA Council has unanimously decided on a 48-team World Cup from 2026. The increased World Cup would see 16 groups of three teams with the top two teams in each group would progress to the knockout rounds.

Ordinarily I would be cynically calling this a money making exercise. More teams would mean more games, more fans and greater broadcasting revenues. Adding 12 more teams is rumoured to generate an extra £823m in revenue, which sounds a lot like FIFA chasing more cash. But the football fan in me can’t wait. 48 teams, 80 matches, a tournament 25% longer. An expanded tournament creates optimism in qualifying; everyone thinks they have a chance.


The format of the World Cup was last changed in 1998 to expand it 32 teams. France won the trophy that year (Image from Tumblr)

During qualification for Euro 2016, Albania, Iceland, Slovakia and Wales all made it to their first European Championships whilst Northern Ireland won Group F. Everyone thinks this is a devious plot by FIFA, but, in truth, the Word Cup has always invited more and more countries to play. Originally 16 teams competed which rose to 24 in 1982 and then 32 in 1998. One of the great fears of an expanded tournament is the addition of so-called weaker teams. Currently 11 of the top 30 nations in the FIFA World rankings did not qualify for the last World Cup in Brazil. There is quality waiting in the wings. So the idea of Moldova or San Marino rocking up at a major tournament would be very, very unlikely.

The elitist mentality of football fans is quite odd. We all loved watching Leicester winning the Premier League or Wales take the Euros by storm but now we are turning our noses up at smaller sides. In early June 2004, England played Iceland in preparation for the European Championships a few weeks later. England won 6-1. Twelve years later Iceland would knock England out of the Euros to complete their remarkable journey. There are up and coming sides out there, like Iceland, who are desperate to join the party. We need to stop being snobs and let the new guys have a chance. Football fans are quick to hate the idea but do not see the amazing benefits. 16 more games, roughly 800,000 more fans, a longer tournament for us all to enjoy. Sign me up.

Post by Tough Tackler – @thetoughtackler (

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Bosman Twenty Years On – The Ruling That Changed Football

Twenty years ago on a cold December morning in a dusty court room a decision was made that would fundamentally changed football as we know it. On December 15th 1995 in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the Bosman ruling came into effect. Named after former player Jean Marc Bosman who brought the case to the court following a contractual dispute with Belgian side R.F.C de Liege, the Bosman ruling abolished a restriction on the free movement of workers as it was a breach of Article 39 (now Article 45) of the EC treaty better known as the Treaty of the European Union. The courts ruling had a profound effect on football as it allowed EU national players to move freely to another club at the end of their contract without a transfer fee being paid. Prior to the ruling, clubs had more control over their players and made decisions on their futures with the players granted little room for movement or discussion.


The European Court of Justice where the ruling was handed down (Image from stockphotos)

This conflict led to several cases like Bosman’s who found himself in limbo with the club unwilling to let him leave but also unwilling to pay him. For Bosman it all began in 1990 when his contract with Belgian First Division side RFC Liege was expiring that summer. With limited playing time, Bosman wanted to move clubs in order to gain regular first team action and fortunately attracted the interest of French side Dunkerque. However despite Bosman’s contract expiring, Liege were unwilling to release him unless Dunkerque paid a transfer fee, something the french side were financially unable to do. Now in limbo and no longer a first team player, Bosman found himself in a confusing spot made worse when his wages were significantly reduced due to his contract expiring. After perusing legal options directly with the club that ultimately went nowhere, in October 1993 he took his case to the European Court of Justice and sued for restraint of trade citing FIFA’s rules regarding football most notably Article 17.

Jean-Marc BOSMAN PANINI RFC Liège 1989

Bosman as a RFC Liege player (Image from Getty)

Despite taking over two years to go through the courts, eventually the ruling fell in favour of Bosman and the Bosman rule came into effect. This lead to changes within FIFA’s guidelines that allowed for freedom of movement after a contract expires and the ability for clubs to engage with players in signing talks six months before the end of their existing contract. The ruling handed players more control over their careers than ever before with several high profile players using it to their advantage since 1995. Edgar Davids became the first notable player to move under this new rule, switching from Ajax to AC Milan in 1996. Steve McManaman’s move from Liverpool to Real Madrid in 1999 highlighted the benefits of the ruling from the players prospective. As one of Liverpool’s prize assets at the time, the lack of transfer fee from Real Madrid was frustrating for the Anfield club but allowed the Spanish side to divert that cash into McManaman’s salary package instead. In recent years, Bayern Munich have also capitalized in a similar way when they signed Polish striker Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund after his contract expired.


Steve McManaman benefited financially from the ruling as Real could pay him more in salary due to lack of transfer fee (Image from PA)

Whilst there have been some negative aspects to the ruling including smaller clubs losing out on lucrative much needed transfer fees when bigger teams poach their star players, in general the Bosman ruling can be deemed a success. It has set a more even playing field between the player and the clubs with the clubs looking to secure their best talent on longer deals or selling them off a year before their contract expires. It has encouraged more free movement of players across Europe than ever before with clubs benefiting from not having to pay a fee and therefore able to take a risk on players they may not have considered before the ruling (Paul Lambert’s move from Motherwell to Borussia Dortmund a great example of this and one that worked well for both parties).


Paul Lambert move to Borussia lead to a European Cup win for the player and club (Image from afp)

It has also encouraged players to challenge and question “the norm” in regards to their careers with some taking heart in Bosman’s victory. Former Scotland defender Andy Webster was one such player to do so. Unhappy with his club at the time Hearts refusal to grant him permission to talk to Rangers, Webster became the first player to exploit the updated transfer regulations of FIFA which stipulated that any player could walk away from a contract after a fixed period by paying out their remaining contract. Whilst highly controversial at the time and it still splitting public opinion today, Websters move would not have happened if Bosman had not started the ball rolling some ten years before. The knock on effect of that ruling is still being felt in football today and is now spreading to other sports across the globe. As for Bosman, his life now is spent away from the football limelight preferring to focusing his efforts on raising his kids rather than fighting for justice. But his impact on the game will live on  well beyond his years, his name forever grained in the FIFA rule book. Some players have thanked him in person for what he did but countless others haven’t. Maybe now at the 20th anniversary of the ruling that changed football for the good, those players who benefited from it will take a moment to remember the man who made it all possible, the former player who fought for their rights as players and won.

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Europe’s Elite Gather to Discuss Escape Plan

Its been less than a week since Gianni Infantino won the FIFA presidential election but already he could face one of his biggest challenges. The man chosen to replace Sepp Blatter in last Friday’s vote could be staring down the barrel of his worst nightmare, with the top clubs in Europe looking set to change club football across the region. In a meeting held in London’s Dorchester hotel between England’s top five clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) and American billionaire Stephen Ross, the resurrection of a once benched idea took place. The discussion centered around the creation of a breakaway league for Europe’s elite to be referred to as The European Super League.


The Super League would mean the end of the Champions League (Image from getty)

If successful the league would invite Europe’s best clubs to participate and more worryingly leave their existing leagues. Top of their wish list are Spanish duo real Madrid and Barcelona who have both expressed an interest in forming a breakaway league in the past. These discussions poses a huge threat to the various leagues who could see their overall value and interest deteriorate rapidly if their top clubs were to exit. It would also be the end of the UEFA run Champions League which was ironically expanded after UEFA reacted to a plan by Italian company Media partners in 1998 about forming a breakaway Super League. By disbanding the Cup winners Cup and offering places to at least the top three sides in the five major leagues in Europe, UEFA managed to please the frustrated clubs who saw the Super League as a way to generate more revenue. Money unfortunately is at the heart of this move with both the clubs and Ross seeing this as a lucrative way to cash in on the growing global interest of Europe’s biggest clubs.


Stephen Ross has big plans for Europe’s elite (image from Getty)

Ross, who is the majority owner of NFL side the Miami Dolphins was not actually present at the meeting but was represented by senior executives of his company Relevant Sports who have already made some moves to be involved in football by organizing money spinning pre and post season tournaments across the globe for Europe’s elite under the branded international Champions Cup. But now Ross sees a bigger opportunity to create a revenue stream that would last longer than just a few months a year and instead generate considerable returns all year round. Owners of clubs outside of this invitation only League have reacted badly to the idea with West Ham’s David Gold calling the idea “sad” and saying that the move would ” destroy football as we know it”. He may have a point.

West Ham co-owner David Gold watches on against Everton before t

David Gold has a stark warning for the clubs considering joining the Super League (Image from Getty)

For Infantino, the concern is how to tackle this. Whilst realistically it is a UEFA problem with the various clubs being mentioned all UEFA members, it is something that infantino will be keeping an incredibly close eye on as it could affect FIFA and football as a whole moving forward. The unknown is what scares him the most with several doomsday scenarios possible. For instance lets say the Super League goes ahead and europe’s elite clubs leave their respective leagues to join, what then becomes of the leagues they left? One scenario is that they prosper with more clubs in the running to become champions making it more attractive to watch. Consider La Liga without Barcelona and Real Madrid. That would mean that clubs like Valencia, Seville, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal would all be competing for the title. However the unknown is what the effect would be on crowds and more importantly tv and sponsor interest with the departure of the Real and Barca. It could result in a lack of interest in the league and a drop in money which then has a domino like effect on the quality on display. The other risk is that if all the best players in the world migrate towards the mega rich clubs in the Super League, the various domestic game suffer with the end result being a knock on effect on the national level which FIFA is keen to avoid.


Imagine La Liga without Barcelona and Real Madrid (Image from Getty)

It is unknown at this stage what the outcome of that meeting was or what those clubs that did attend the meeting are thinking. What is for certain is that change is coming with the clubs becoming more powerful by the day. The existing Champions league format has become tiresome for Europe’s elite who want more money and more control over UEFA’s premier club tournament. Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu is pushing for  a wild card entry system to the champions league to guarantee that the top sides in Europe all make it into the tournament regardless of where they finish in the league. Whilst a radical view and deemed by many as unfair, it is being considered by UEFA along with several other options. They have little choice than to do so especially if they are to hold off those who want to breakaway to something better.

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Will FIFA chaos end with new president?

After years of mental abuse at the hands of its last master, today football’s governing body FIFA will finally welcome a new President. Following the shock resignation of Sepp Blatter last June only days after winning yet another term in office, FIFA delegates gather in Switzerland today to vote for his replacement. The new president will be the first since 1998, when Blatter was elected. With front runner Michel Platini ruled out due to a ban for accepting illegal payments, the race for the presidency is now between five men.

End of the line for Joseph “Sepp” Blatter (image from Getty)

They are Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, Gianni Infantino, Tokyo Sexwale and Jerome Champagne. Despite valid attempts by Prince Ali to have the vote postponed due to his concerns around voting transparency, the election will take place today in Zurich. Who will come out on top is anyone’s guess with Shiekh Salman and Gianni Infantino the bookies favourites heading into the vote. Unfortunately picking between these five men is like deciding which dentist to visit for a root canal – all could do the job, just which one will make it less painful. None of the five have played the game at any notable level, several suffer from a lack of a visible personality and all come with some (or in the Sheikh’s prospective considerable) baggage including ties to the old regime. Only one can come out of today victorious and as the new ruler of FIFA but which one is right for the job?

Shiekh Salman and Gianni Infantino are the early favouites (image from Getty)

Whilst the candidates are all running with slightly different manifesto’s, there is a common theme that runs throughout all of them – reform. All five have acknowledged that the FIFA system is broken and needs to be repaired with several point towards the need to separate church and state or in FIFA terms commercial interests from football matters. For too long the greed of select FIFA representatives has blighted key decisions made and in the end football has suffered. The money has not flown as smoothly back into football development especially in impoverished nations as easily as it should have. Instead it’s lined the pockets of many before what’s left is distributed unevenly to the nations. Cleaning up FIFA will not be an easy task nor should it be but that task along with several others will fall into one of the five candidates lap come Saturday.


The FBI are closing in (Image from Tumblr)

One thing that is certain is that the rein of Sepp Blatter will finally come to an end. His critics will point out that anything Blatter achieved during his 18 year presidency has already been eroded by the corrupt state in which he will hand FIFA over to its next leader. Whether Blatter will eventually face criminal charges is very much in the hands of the Americans and in particular the FBI who continue to unearth the dirty path of greed and corruption that is sure to lead to Blatter’s door. With a eight year worldwide ban preventing him from working in any capacity within football moving forward, it appears as though the end has arrived for Blatter. At 80 years old, retirement should be his primary focus but instead keeping the FBI wolves from his door will likely be his main concern. Avoiding jail is also an issue with the US district attorney tasting blood and eyeing up a sizeable kill. It’s a sad end really to a legacy that could have meant so much more. When Blatter took over in 1998 for Joao Havelange his first task was to decide what path to take – continue down Havelange’s dark murky path lined with huge personal financial gains or take the high road and change FIFA for the better. Unfortunately he chose the former and in doing so created his own legacy as the man who brought the beautiful game to its knees.

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Will FIFA Bans Spark Madrid Led Transfer Frenzy?

Despite the ongoing chaos that surrounds FIFA, the governing body’s wheels are apparently very much still in motion as they handed down transfer bands to two clubs this week. Spanish giants Real Madrid and their city rivals Atletico Madrid have been punished for what FIFA has deemed as irregularities regarding the signing of several under 18 players in the last few years. Both clubs have now been banned from registering players in the next two transfer windows, effectively curtailing their ability to sign new players. Ironically it is the same punishment that FIFA handed down to Barcelona in April 2014, one that the Catalan club fought for months with no eventual success.


FIFA have handed bans to Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid for breaching transfer rules concerning minors (Image from FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

In all three cases, FIFA have acted after an apparent breach of the rules around the transfer of minors. FIFA rules state that international transfers are only permitted for players over the age of 18 unless the player in question meets one of three qualifying criteria – Under-18s can move to a club in a different country if their parents move there for non-footballing reasons, if they are from another nation within the European Union or European Economic Area and aged between 16 and 18, or if they live within 100km of the club. A FIFA led investigation into the two Madrid clubs found several examples of minors being signed up without any of the three criteria being met – something that Real Madrid in particular have taken exception with. Real director Jose Angel Sanchez blasted the ban calling it absolutely unjustified and totally unexpected, confirming that Real will appeal the ruling. Atletico as yet has made no such promise.

Real director Jose Angel Sanchez

Real Director Jose Angel Sanchez has confirmed the club will appeal the bans (Image from AFP)

Those appeals process could however take months, much as it did with Barcelona leaving Real and Atletico with a decision to make – to buy or not to buy during this current window. The opportunity for both clubs to go out and buy players now is there given that the bans will start at the next transfer window in the summer, giving them two weeks to strengthen their squads ahead of the ban coming into effect. Given Barcelona’s failure to have a similar ban lifted on appeal only adds weight to the argument that the Madrid clubs should kick their current transfer activity into overdrive. If the bans are held up, both clubs will still be able to purchase players (much like Barcelona did with Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal) but they will not be able to play them until they can be registered when the ban is lifted.

Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal

Barcelona signed Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal whilst under a registration ban but the duo couldn’t play until it was lifted this month (Image from Getty)

For Real Madrid, the need to go out and purchase 5-6 players in a rush is not there given the current strength of their existing first team and the wealth of talent residing in their reserve sides. That said, they might still make a few moves for players they have highlighted as essential given that those players could be snapped up by other sides as Real rides out its ban. Top of their list is the British based trio of David De Gea (Manchester United), Harry Kane (Tottenham) and John Stones (Everton). All three have growing reputations in the game and it’s inevitable that they will depart from their current sides in the near future. Real would have to spend heavily (roughly 125 million Euros) to secure their services ahead of others but this has never been a problem for Real in the past. They could also finance the moves by selling one of Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez or Gareth Bale. Rumours of unrest and a desire to test out new pastures have circled the trio of late but to date Real have been reluctant to let them leave. However the possibility of losing them during a transfer ban and not being able to replace them may speed up a decision which president Florentino Perez is not ready to make.

England U21 Training Session and Press Conference

Will Real make a move for England duo John Stones and Harry Kane this month? (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

For Atletico, the situation is slightly different with the Rojiblancos not quite in the same financial situation as their neighbours. The surprise 2013-2014 La Liga champions run a tighter ship in terms of transfers but have bought well bringing in a talented batch of young players who now make up the nucleus of Diego Simeone’s side. All of those deals have been achieved by the development and then subsequent sale of players to foreign clubs (Falcao to Monaco, Costa to Chelsea etc), which means that Atletico are in good shape if such a ban was handed down. They still however need a few pieces to compete the puzzle with the forward line in particular a concern. Simeone may invest in a young striker to see Atletico through to the end of the ban but that is still to be confirmed. More importantly for the coach is to hold on to the players he has especially French star Antonie Greizmann who has attracted interest from England and Germany in recent months. A strong performance at this summers Euros may encourage clubs to match Greizmann’s buy out clause leaving Simeone in a difficult situation, unable to replace a crucial part of his team. That is of course if the Argentine is still at the club come the summer with Chelsea circling following the sacking of Jose Mourinho. Simeone may feel that under a transfer ban he cannot improve the squad enough to keep it competitive therefore undermining his ability to be successful which is the very thing that drives him.

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UEFA’s Landmark Ruling Opens Pandora’s Box

Norway celebrated a hard fought 2-1 victory over England in the Under 19’s women’s Elite Round group 4 qualifiers early last year. But days later those celebrations were muffled after Europe’s football governing body UEFA ruled that part of the match would have to be replayed. In a landmark decision, UEFA stunned football by demanding that the last 18 seconds of the match be played again. The reason behind this was a mistake by German referee Marija Kurtes who awarded a free kick to Norway for an encroachment by England player Rosella Ayane in the run up to a penalty. Having awarded England a last minute penalty with the game at 2-1 in Norway’s favour, Kurtes correctly penalized England for the encroachment (when a player enters the box before the penalty kick is taken) but instead of ordering a retake as the rules say she instead rewarded Norway a free kick. Law 14 states that if the penalty results in a goal (which in this case it did with Leah Williamson converting) but an attacking player encroaches then the penalty must be retake. If however the penalty is missed (and an attacking player encroaches) then an indirect free kick must be awarded. This is where the error by Kurtes happened but is understandable as a misunderstanding of a complex rule. The replay took place three days later just hours after England faced Switzerland and Norway faced Northern Ireland in the last group game. Kurtes for her part was sent home in disgrace and did not officiate the replay.

UEFA set a dangerous precedent with this ruling that could change the direction of football. However this is not the first time that such an incident has taken place. In 2005 Uzbekistan met Bahrain in a fourth round World Cup playoff match. Leading 1-0 in the first leg, Uzbekistan was awarded a penalty which they duly converted. However the referee Toshimitsu Yoshida spotted an encroachment by an Uzbekistan player and disallowed the goal and offered an indirect free kick to Bahrain instead. The game did end 1-0 but so incensed by the mistake, Uzbekistan formally requested to FIFA that the game be recorded as an automatic 3-0 victory. Instead FIFA decided to classify the entire game as void and ordered it to be replayed. The resulting replay ended as a 1-1 draw and after a 0-0 draw in the second leg, Bahrain progressed much to the annoyance of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan players embrace after defeat sends them out of qualification (Image from AFP/Getty)

Uzbekistan players embrace after defeat sends them out of qualification (Image from AFP/Getty)

These decisions by FIFA and now UEFA showcase a dramatic swing in the forward direction of the game. The decision also devalues the role of the referee. Once seen as a fundamental part of the game, tasked with holding matches within given guidelines, their role has become marginalized over the past twenty years. Fourth officials were introduced; headphones and microphones added allowing the match officials to talk to one another and recently goal line technology to confirm if the full ball had crossed the line. All of these additions have chipped away at the referee’s decision making process. This all in a world where the game is scrutinized from multiple angles over and over thanks to TV cameras all over the grounds making their job harder. Yes they should be held accountable for their actions and for mistakes that are made however not backing the referee’s decisions could result in their role becoming even less important. The other problem is that now there is an example for teams to use when they feel aggrieved by a referee mistake. Calls for replays will become more frequent but where does UEFA draw the line? Does the ruling only apply to last minute mistakes or would a referee mistake in the first minute of the game result in a replay of the entire match? With the European Championships approaching, would UEFA award a replay during the tournament throwing the scheduling and outcome into disarray?

Referees like Marija Kurtes should be supported not used as scapegoats by UEFA and FIFA  (Image from Bongarts/ Getty)

Referees like Marija Kurtes should be supported not used as scapegoats by UEFA and FIFA
(Image from Bongarts/ Getty)

These questions and more remained unanswered. UEFA insist that their Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body (CEDB) who fundamentality made the decision were correct to do so and has backed the replay but you have to wonder what Pandora’s box they have opened with it. In terms of the Group 4 qualifying group, the replay which will start with a penalty to England may be irrelevant if England beat Switzerland and Norway win against hosts Northern Ireland. Six points each should be enough to end the group as first and second regardless of the outcome of the replay. However with only the group winners and the best placed runner up progressing to the showpiece event in Israel in July, the stakes are high. England’s 9-1 victory over Northern Ireland on Monday may work in their favour especially if they convert the penalty in the replay and draw the match. In this case with both teams level on points, goal difference would be used to decide who finishes first and who is runner up. If Norway does finish second in the group and is knocked out, they could in theory protest to UEFA or FIFA and insist that the entire game against England be replayed. Then what would UEFA do?

How The FIFA Scandal Could Affect The Rest Of The World

In the wake of the recently published reports of the massive wave of corruption in world football governing body FIFA, football fans and governments are angered. Even though there are several people who are willing to help and there are several football federations and governments that are investigating the corrupt practices there is undoubtedly a long list of unfortunate things yet to happen. Recently several questions have been answered however the following are likely ramifications to the corruption issues.

The Russian Status Change in World Football

The upcoming 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia, however, should UEFA actualise the threat of withdrawing from FIFA, the Russians would be left in a rather precarious situation. It would mean that should Russia decide to host the World Cup, it would be left with no other choice but to quit UEFA. Should the Kremlin decide to quit UEFA and given the country’s geographical location, it would mean that Russia would have to make a move. It would have to apply and hope to be invited to be part of the Asian Football Confederation. Should they be granted the invite, it would be beneficial for nations signed up to the AFC region, both for financial and popularity reasons. However, one wonders what would Russia get from such a deal? Departing the European championships, especially now that the country has a club level on UEFA Champions League and joining the AFC is not a great option for the Kremlin.

Russia out - Could Putin pull Russia out of UEFA? (Image from Getty)

Russia out – Could Putin pull Russia out of UEFA?
(Image from Getty)

New Changes to the Game of Football

Currently, the IFAB (International Football Association Board) determines any potential changes as well as additional football laws. As separate as FIFA is from IFAB, the former has a position on the latter’s board carrying 50% of the voting power. The board’s derived from Great Britain makeup 50% and should UEFA withdraw from FIFA, then FIFA would lack a majority in its body and thus would be affected in the voting of new laws. We would be left wondering whether UEFA would prefer going their separate way and forming a new body and have a say in the formation of new laws. Again one is left to wonder what if UEFA decided to part ways with FIFA, would it mean that Northern Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh board would also have to pull out of the IFAB? However, it is unlikely that it would have two different codes for association football. However, countries in UEFA would have to follow the rules given by UEFA as the rest of the World prescribed to a different standard altogether.

The IFAB - An uncertain future ahead (Image from PA)

Russia out – Could Putin pull Russia out of UEFA? (Image from Getty)

The Players’ Jeopardy

European-based players would also suffer from the wrath of a split as they would not likely take part in FIFA World Cup tournaments. They would rather remain in their home continent and participate in UEFA Champions League and European Championship games. The players that would be hampered most are football players that were born out of the UEFA Zone and players that don’t have European passports. The rules for them to be included in UEFA games would potentially be adjusted to be stiffer. Perhaps what we may witness would be players moving to the UEFA side and get a ban from participating in FIFA events. Clubs in Europe would also be affected not knowing whether they would be asked to let go of their non-European players. In general, a World Cup event that would exclude the best players from non-European countries who play for UEFA clubs not featuring in the tournament would just be outright sad. Moreover, a World Cup event without Europe’s great countries taking part would just be outright awful, why? Because many players playing in the European leagues would choose to play for the clubs as they pay better than their countries. In summary, these are just some of the ramifications FIFA is faced with, should the world governing body fail to take measures to restore its image!

This article is courtesy of author and sports analyst John Hawthorne. John is not just a writer of sports he is also a sports analyst for U.S based sports system Simply The Bets. Follow him now on Twitter : @johnhawthorne82

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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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Valcke’s Dismissal Could Spell The End For Blatter

Valcke's dismissal could be bad for Blatter in the long run (Image from Getty)It’s only been a few weeks since Jerome Valcke suggested that he may run for the FIFA presidency. The Secretary General of football’s governing body was reported to have spoken to several delegates and federations to see if they would back his bid. His dream however to take over FIFA’s top job dissolved yesterday when he was relieved of his current role due to allegations that have surfaced about his involvement in yet another FIFA scandal. Valcke’s suspension pending an investigation is the direct result of revelations that Valcke was involved in a scheme to sell World Cup tickets over face value. The Frenchman who has been with FIFA since 2007 has denied his involvement but with the FBI likely to take notice, it’s unlikely that this will disappear without any further action. Valcke, along with Sepp Blatter have been the subject of much interest from the US-based domestic intelligence and security service who are stepping up their corruption case against FIFA.

Blatter now lives in fear of the FBI (Image from AP)

Blatter now lives in fear of the FBI
(Image from AP)

With Sepp Blatter already stepping down next year, it was expected that Valcke would follow suit but the Frenchman decided against better judgement to ride it out, pleading his innocence and lack of involvement in any wrongdoings. But now the net is tightening around him forcing Valcke to constantly look over his shoulder. It is surprising that it has taken this long for Valcke to depart given allegations a few months ago about an illegal payment of $10 million made to secure the 2010 World Cup for South Africa. Valcke was on route to Moscow for a meeting about the 2018 World Cup when his plane was turned around and told to return to Zürich. He was immediately suspended and removed from his position by Sepp Blatter.

Tough at the top - Valcke and Blatter (Image from Getty)

Tough at the top – Valcke and Blatter
(Image from Getty)

It’s the latest black mark against FIFA whose hierarchy is slowly being picked off by the FBI one by one. Their end goal is to arrest and charge all those responsible for corruption within the organization starting at the bottom and working their way to the top with Blatter in their sights. To date they have arrested eight members of the FIFA executive committee including Jeffrey Webb, FIFA’s vice president. Their extradition from Switzerland to the US is underway with the help of the Swiss authorities who made the arrests in May, As yet, the FBI doesn’t have enough to arrest Valcke or Blatter but this latest revelation may give them a new angle to pursuit. They believe that if they can get Blatter’s top advisers to crack then they will in turn give the FBI enough information for them to build a sizable case against the man they actually want, FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Webb's arrest was one of eight in May as the FBI closes in (Image from Getty)

Webb’s arrest was one of eight in May as the FBI closes in
(Image from Getty)

Blatter must believe that an arrest is coming as he has changed his plans on several occasions to prevent him from leaving Switzerland. He decided against travelling to Canada for the Women’s World Cup in fear of an arrest by the US and is debating whether or not to hold FIFA’S next executive committee meeting in Japan at the end of December.  Having admitted defeat in his decision to stay on as president, Blatter would have been hoping to slip  into retirement quietly rather than facing potential jail time. At 79 years young, Blatter now lives in fear of what is coming next and rightly so. Valcke is likely to be next in line to be questioned by the FBI and Blatter will be worried that his former right hand man may end up singing like a canary in order to save himself and in doing so sell Blatter down the river. Blatter’s decision to sack Valcke this week will have destroyed any relationship the pair may have had previously which could be costly for the FIFA president in the future.

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Age Is Only A Number As Newcastle Seal Mbemba Signing

Newcastle United Unveil New Signing Chancel Mbemba (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)The revamp of Newcastle United under new boss Steve McLaren continued this week with his third signing of the window so far, defender Chancel Mbemba from Anderlecht. The Democratic Republic of Congo full back has arrived at the club for a fee of £8.5million and should go into Newcastle’s starting line up for next Sunday’s season opener against Southampton along with fellow newcomers Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic. Mbemba is a powerful full back with good pace and a strong reading of the game who should add some bite to the Newcastle back line. Having played 36 times for Anderlecht last year including their six Champions League matches, Mbemba appears comfortable at the highest level and is being heralded as a coup by Newcastle who have stolen a player with the best years of his career ahead of him.

Chancel Mbemba impressed at Anderlecht  (Image from Getty)

Chancel Mbemba impressed at Anderlecht
(Image from Getty)

But how many years exactly has become an interesting side point and distraction in this transfer. The uncertainty over how old Mbemba actually is has plagued the player since he moved to Europe three years ago. The issue is that in Congo birth certificates and record keeping are rare so Mbemba’s exact year of birth is unknown. What is certain is that he arrived into the world on August 8th but of what year? The players first two clubs registered his birth year as 1988, making him 26 today however his country submitted 1991 as his year of birth when registering him for the African Cup of Nations. That would make him 23. Then when Mbemba moved to Europe to sign for Belgian side Anderlecht they registered his birth year as 1994 making him 20. The player himself has been reported to believe that his birth year was 1990 making him 24 today.

Mbemba in action for DR Congo  (Image from Getty)

Mbemba in action for DR Congo
(Image from Getty)

Where the truth falls in this story is unknown but FIFA has now launched a formal investigation to get to the bottom of it once and for all. It is suspected that the date given by the DR Congo national team was fabricated to allow Mbemba to take part in the 2012 Olympics games, a tournament he would have been illegible for if he was indeed born in 1988. By bring the clock forward, a move done by several African nations, he would be able to compete and would hand Congo an advantage against its competitors given Mbemba’s then size and strength. The birth dates given by Mbemba to his first clubs are likely to be incorrect as well due to poor medical/birth records or simply down to the players desire to play professionally for as long as possible. Many players in Africa see a career as a footballer as an escape from their current lives and a way to help their families. Adjusting their year of birth as they move around allows them to prolong their careers further and generate more money to send home. Mbemba is not the first nor will be the last player from Africa to have their age questions. Stars like Taribo West, Nwankwo Kanu and even former Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins have been questioned about their real age given that they appeared to have played at the highest level from a very young age.

Taribo West - How old is he really?  (Image from PA)

Taribo West – How old is he really?
(Image from PA)

To Newcastle and their fans, they care little about how old Mbemba is. Whether he is 20 or 24 makes little difference to Steve McLaren who sees the player as someone who will become an instant hit with the fans and will help Newcastle to progress on the pitch. Mbemba himself seems unmoved by the ongoing speculation around his year of birth and in fact has become accustom to having his teammates tease him on the issue. His international colleagues ritually poke fun at his ever-moving birthday but all agree that he has the potential to go all the way in the game. He has raised comparisons between himself and Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany back in Belgium and its hard to argue with. Both are powerful yet skillful defenders who can read the game brilliantly. Mbemba will now have the chance to show what he can do in England’s top league and whether he can replicate Kompany’s success and become one of Europe’s best defenders.

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Platini Ready To Answer The Call And Run For FIFA President

Platini to run for FIFA president (Image from PA)In France’s darkest hours during the Second World War, the French looked around desperately for a figure who could stand for them and lead their fight against the invading Nazi Germany. In Charles De Gaulle they found that leader who formed the Free French Forces that would fight back against their occupiers. De Gaulee was pragmatic figure forthright with his opinions and an inspired leader whose efforts during that time went along way towards the allies eventually winning the war. Now 70 years later, another Frenchman is stepping up to the plate as the voice of the people, not to stop a war but to restore pride and honour to football’s governing body FIFA. This week, UEFA president Michel Platini will step into the FIFA presidential race much to the delight of many in the game. Like De Gaulle, Platini does not mince his words and has been vocal about his distaste for the current regime and how it has been operated.

French leader Charles De Gaulle  (Image from BBC)

French leader Charles De Gaulle
(Image from BBC)

As a legend in the game as a player, Platini has used his reputation wisely post retirement to cement himself into the running of football first in his native France then later at UEFA. His rapid ascent through the football ranks to become UEFA president would not have been possible if he hadn’t established a pedigree on the pitch. Quite simply he would have not have had a seat at the table without it, a fact that Platini is keenly aware of. However Platini the player has now progressed into Platini the politician – a suave, calculated operator who leverages his knowledge of the game and his ideas by encasing them in his rich Gallic charm. But unlike a politician, Platini can separate his opinion from that of the organization allowing him to rock the apple cart without letting one fall from it. When the Swiss authorities arrested several key FIFA delegates at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich in May, many in opposition to Sepp Blatter’s reign took it as an opportunity to slam his running of FIFA publically to any media outlet nearby. But Platini took a different route by going to meet with Blatter one on one and pleading with his friend to step down. Blatter rejected the idea claiming it was too late to do so but days later recanted and did indeed resigned.

Blatter ignored Platini's original suggestion to resign  (Image from Getty)

Blatter ignored Platini’s original suggestion to resign
(Image from Getty)

Despite their differences, Blatter and Platini are friends, aligned closely due to shared interests. That said, Platini has told the FIFA president in no uncertain terms that what has happened under his watch is simply unacceptable and that his reputation within the game lies in tatters. Blatter will depart form FIFA next February by which time Platini should be the clear favourite to replace him. He may have delayed his announcement to run for as long as possible but his intent was always there. Gaining the support of the majority of the six confederations was important to avoid ending the election with egg on his face. With four now secure including Africa and Asia, Platini has time to win over the remaining two, one of which should be incredibly easy given that he is their current sitting president. Abandoning that position may be viewed as detrimental to UEFA SO Platini will look to lock in his successor if not formally but at least in principle. Current vice president Michael van Praag, UEFA executive David Gill and the inexperienced Portuguese legend Luis Figo should all be front-runners, each offering something different to a Platini run FIFA.

Will Luis Figo step into Platini's UEFA shoes?  (Image from Getty)

Will Luis Figo step into Platini’s UEFA shoes?
(Image from Getty)

In the next few months, Platini will make his case for reform at FIFA. His manifesto will be etched onto a chalkboard not stone to allow for greater flexibility and fluidity than the current regime offers. Matters concerning the restructuring of FIFA, the purifying of its members and the unravelling of key decisions such as the World Cup award to Qatar will be crucial sections that will be scrutinized the most. But there will also be a fair amount of Platini ideas scattered in amongst it – changes he sees that would be to the betterment of the game in the long run. He has shown as UEFA president that he is not willing to sit back and let things run as they have done for centuries. During the last eight years since Platini was elected to UEFA’s highest chair, he has made changes to almost every tournament under its jurisdiction, most notably abandoning the European Championships single country format for hosting in favour of a multi country extravaganza. But he has also tackled the bigger issues including child trafficking, racism and in recent years club debt that is threatening to cripple the game. Platini is at heart a reformist, someone who wants to adjust the norm rather than destroying it. After years of behind doors corruption at FIFA, Platini’s arrival could be exactly what it needs.

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The A-Z Of The Season That Was

Harry Kane has been a revelation but what else happened this season? (Image from Getty)After a thrilling World Cup which saw Germany steal Brazil’s thunder, the domestic seasons across the world return with higher expectations than normal. And they didn’t disappoint with too many moments to mention. In order to capture as many of them as possible, we have pulled together an A-Z list of the season that was, highlighting those great achievements, the miserable moments and sometimes the downright bizarre. Enjoy!

A – A is for Aberdeen who pushed Celtic all the way in the title race in the Scottish Premiership; and for Auckland City who won the OFC Champions League for the fifth time in a row.

B – B is for Bournemouth, Bristol Rovers, Burton Albion and Bury who all secured promotions from various English leagues and for Bolivar who won their 24th title in Bolivia. Its also B for Blatter and more importantly Chuck Blazer whose testimony could end up bringing FIFA’s corruption to an end.

C – C is for former Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro who faces jail for breaking in to his own house to go for a dip in the pool and for Chelsea who won their fourth Premier League title with an eight point margin over second place Manchester City.

Cannavaro is in deep water with the law after going for a dip  (Image from Getty)

Cannavaro is in deep water with the law after going for a dip
(Image from Getty)

D – D is for Dost and De Bruyne who inspired Wolfsburg to second place in the Bundesliga and ruined Jurgen Klopp’s leaving do by beating his side in the DFB Cup final. Its also for FC Dila Gori who shocked Georgian football on route to their first ever title and for Memphis Depay who inspired PSV to glory in the Eredivisie before departing for Manchester United.

E – E is for Eibar, the little club from the Basque country who have managed to stay in La Liga for another season despite finishing third from bottom after 13th placed Elche were relegated due to unpaid taxes.

F – F is for the FBI who finally brought FIFA to its knees with a series of arrests and a mountain of confessions and for Luis Figo who gave everyone the briefest of hopes by running for FIFA president before eventually dropping out in disgust.

The FBI are continuing their investigation which could spell trouble for Blatter down the line  (Image from PA)

The FBI are continuing their investigation which could spell trouble for Blatter down the line
(Image from PA)

G – G is for Germany, who not only embarrassed the World Cup hosts Brazil on their own backyard but won the trophy in dramatic fashion and for Girona who won promotion to La Liga for the first time in their history. G is also for Gibraltar who began their first ever journey towards a international tournament by competing in the European Championship qualifiers and for Steven Gerrard who played his last game for Liverpool before joining LA Galaxy.

H – H is for Hearts who went unbeaten until January on route to the Scottish Championship title, ahead of arch rivals Hibs and favourites Rangers. H is also for Hamburg who after a torrid season managed to save their place in the Bundesliga next season with a late strike against Karlsruher in the playoff final.

I – I is for the Ivory Coast who finally ended a twenty three year wait to lift the African Cup of Nations and for Inverness Caley Thistle who won their first ever Scottish Cup and with it secured a place in Europe next season. I is also for FC Ingolstadt who will play their first ever Bundesliga season next year after securing promotion.

Inverness Caley Thistle celebrate their Scottish Cup win  (Image from PA)

Inverness Caley Thistle celebrate their Scottish Cup win
(Image from PA)

J – J is for Juventus, the Italian champions for the four consecutive year as well as the Coppa Italia and a place in the champions league final. J is also for Jorge Jesus, the new manager of Sporting Lisbon after sensationally leaving arch rivals Benfica to join them, the first manager ever to cross the divide.

K – K is for Harry Kane, the Tottenham and England striker who has been a revelation this season for club and country and is also for Kasier Chiefs, not the band but the Johannesburg side who regained the South Africa title with a record breaking 21 wins in 30 games.

L – L is for Luiz Adriano who was on fire in the Champions League scoring nine goals in seven appearances and for Leicester who despite being bottom of the Premiership at Christmas managed to survive with thanks to their pragmatic manager (see P). L is also for Lens who crashed out of Ligue 1 primarily due to a court order forced them down.

Leicester's recovery was nothing less than spectacular  (Image from Getty)

Leicester’s recovery was nothing less than spectacular
(Image from Getty)

M – M is for Mourinho, the Chelsea coach who steered his side to yet another title and one more for his growing collection. M is also for FC Metalist who managed to lose all six of their Europa League group games and for FC Midtjlland who proved that the moneyball theory can work in football as they breezed to the Danish title for the first time.

N – N is for Norwich and their inspirational manager Alex Neill who guided them back in the Premiership despite having only taken over five months previously. N is also for Newcastle who imploded after the departure of Alan Pardew and almost got relegated before a last game of the season win saw them saved.

O – O is for Michael O’Neill, the Northern Irish manager who has transformed the once whipping boys of European football into a real force that stands a strong chance of qualifying for France 2016. O is also for Olympique Marseille who pushed PSG all the way in Ligue 1 for most of the season before faltering at the last hurdle.

Michael O'Neill has turned Northern Ireland around  (Image from AFP)

Michael O’Neill has turned Northern Ireland around
(Image from AFP)

P – P is for Nigel Pearson, Leicester media friendly manager who turn around the fortunes of his side by creating a siege mentality and for PSG who won the domestic treble whilst PSV snatched the Eredivisie title away from Ajax. It is also for Parma who were declared bankrupt by the Italian courts and fell out of Serie A for the first time in their history.

Q – Q is for Qarabag, the Azerbaijani champions who shocked Europa League finalist Dnipro in the group stage with a 1-0 win whilst holding Inter Milan and Saint Etienne to a draw. Q is also for Queens Park Rangers who dropped back out of the Premiership only a season after winning promotion to it from the Championship.

R – R is for Ronaldo who scored an amazing 48 goals this season in La Liga, 5 more than Lionel Messi and for River Plate who won the Copa Sudamerica this season only four years after being relegated from the Primera Division

River Plate lift the Copa trophy  (Image from Getty)

River Plate lift the Copa trophy
(Image from Getty)

S – S is for Sevilla who beat Dnipro in the Europa League final to secure back to back cups and for Stjarnan FC, the new Icelandic champions for the first time in their history. Finally S is for Sassuolo who continue to impress in Serie A, this time finishing 12th despite many tipping them early on for relegation.

T – T is for Luca Toni who at 38 has showed that he is still a lethal striker by finishing the Serie A season as joint top goal scorer with 22 goals and for Thomas Tuchel, the man chosen by Borussia Dortmund to fill Jurgen Klopps shoes.

U – U is for Peruvian side Universidad Cesar Vallejo who came from behind to beat Alizana Lima and win the final of the Copa Inca.

V – V is for Andre Villas Boas, the former Tottenham and Chelsea boss who has finally hit his stride again by winning the Russian title with Zenit. V is also for Videoton who retained the Hungarian title after a four year absence. V is also for Jamie Vardy, the one-time non-league player who now finds himself in the England squad after an impressive season at Leicester City.

Zenit celebrated their league title with a bizarre photo shoot  (Image from Getty)

Zenit celebrated their league title with a bizarre photo shoot
(Image from Getty)

W – W is for Watford for gaining promotion back to the Premiership and for Western Sydney Wanders who won the AFC Champions League title by beating Al Halil in the final.

X – X is for Xavier Alonso who has rolled back the years, becoming a key player for Bayern Munich this season and also for Spanish midfield maestro Xavi Hernandez who called time on his Barcelona career after 24 years at the club.

Y – Y is for Ashley Young, the once forgotten man at Manchester United who has been a revelation this season as a utility player under Van Gaal.

Z – Z is for Zenit St Petersburg who under Villas Boas secured the Russian title and for Zidane who continues to lie in wait for his chance at the Real Madrid managers job.

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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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Thank F…IFA! Blatter Finally Quits

A weary Sepp Blatter resigns from FIFA (Image from Getty)In a surreal press conference attended by only a handful of journalists who had hung on after the completion of last Friday’s FIFA presidential election, Sepp Blatter finally gave up. In front of stunned faces, FIFA president Blatter announced that he is stepping down from his role and that an extraordinary meeting will be held to appoint a new president. The sudden change of heart by Blatter is puzzling but today’s revelation of an US led investigation focused on his involvements into the current FIFA corruption scandal could have been the deciding factor. Added into that, rumours that the testimony of former FIFA member turned FBI informant Chuck Blazer could be unclassified in the next few days and released into the public domain could have influenced Blatter into making this decision.

FBI snitch Chuck Blazer  (Image from Getty)

FBI snitch Chuck Blazer
(Image from Getty)

His decision to go now only four days after sealing re-election gained a mixed reaction from the international footballing community. Many were delighted at the news of his imminent departure, with the realistic notion that now changes could now be made to FIFA for the betterment of football. Others especially in Blatter friendly countries across Asia and Africa reacted with sadness, claiming that conspiracies and a witch hunt had forced Blatter out. The sad truth though is that Blatter saw the end coming well before the election result was called last Friday. He firmly believed rightly or wrongly that by winning the election he would reunited the memberships of FIFA once more behind him, but after the arrests of last week the chances of that happening disappeared out the door. Blatter is at heart an egotistical man, who savoured the victory over Ali with the same pizzazz as Mayweather did over Pacquiao in their heavyweight boxing match last month. But with the US noose tightening around his neck, Blatter knew he had to quit before he was forcibly dragged from his position. By quitting on his own terms, he could build on the idea that he was a good man, resigning for the sake of world football and the sport he has cherished for over forty years.

Blatter however is anything but a good man. Having turned a blind eye for decades to the corruption and illegal activities happening under his watch at FIFA, he is simply put a criminal. Whilst the Swiss authorities are reluctant to go after Blatter, the US authorities are not; preferring to use a series of plead bargain deals  with lower level executives to eventually get their man. The FBI is continuing its investigation with the hope of finding enough evidence to strike FIFA at its jugular and arrest Blatter. This process however will take time, time that Blatter will use to reform FIFA by implementing new guidelines and practices in an attempt to correct years of misgivings. Many speculate that this is a deliberate ploy by Blatter to cover up a lot of the connections he had to the illegal activities across FIFA and destroy any evidence that could be used against him in an investigation.

The US investigation into FIFA has gained momentum with Blatter firmly in its sights  (Image from Reuters)

The US investigation into FIFA has gained momentum with Blatter firmly in its sights
(Image from Reuters)

Blatter’s resignation however does raise a new question of who will replace him. In his resignation speech, Blatter called for FIFA not to unnecessarily delay the election until the next FIFA congress in Mexico next May, instead calling for an extraordinary congress to find his successor. It is expected that this will happen between December 2015 and March 2016, with Blatter remaining in charge until that point. There are several candidates who could potentially replace Blatter and more adding their names to the list by the day. Former footballers David Ginola, Zico, Luis Figo and UEFA president Michel Platini are all likely to run, along with establish political figures in football like Prince Ali, Jerome Champagne, Michael Van Praag and Issa Hayatou. Former Manchester United chief executive David Gill has also been touted as a possibility. Gill was elected to FIFA’s executive committee earlier this year, only to reject the post after Blatter’s re-election last Friday. With Blatter now leaving, Gill has dramatically changed his mind and will take up his new post but several well-known faces in football are now encouraging him to up the ante and run instead for the presidents job.  FIFA will vet all the candidates over the next few months with a final list eventually presented to the FIFA members in advance of the election. Regardless of who the final candidates will be, each one will need to present a unified manifesto to the delegates that will help swing their votes. Not an easy challenge considering how divided the football world is at this time.

Firm favourite- Michel Platini  (Image from Getty)

Firm favourite- Michel Platini
(Image from Getty)

Take into consideration Africa, a continent that commands 54 of the 209 votes and one that has been faithfully loyal to Blatter for over 20 years. Their loyalty was not necessarily bought using bribe money but instead by promises made by Blatter to invest in football in Africa, promises that he has faithfully kept. He helped develop grassroots football in impoverished countries as well as bring the continent its first World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010. Reports from journalists inside Ghana have reported that the African delegates are keen to vote in someone who shares the same philosophies and ideals as Blatter to ensure that Africa does not get left behind as it has been in the past. Rightly they want to ensure that the FIFA monies continue to flow into Africa so that development can continue. Any potential successor would be wise to build his or her manifesto with this in mind as the African votes could be a major decider in who is to follow Blatter in the presidents chair.

Replacing Blatter and putting FIFA back on the right tracks will not be an easy task. Like a foul odour that has ingrained itself into the furniture, ridding FIFA of Blatter’s legacy will be a tough challenge. It will take years, not months to fully get FIFA back on the straight and narrow and potentially longer to reinstall faith in the troubled organization. The arrests made last week were merely the tip of a very large iceberg with further arrests likely in the coming weeks and months. To date the investigation stretches back to the early nineties but could go back further to the early seventies when Blatter’s predecessor Joao Havelange was in power. Blatter learned much from the Brazilian during his early years at FIFA and was influenced heavily by him. It’s not hard to assume that some of FIFA’s illegal practices were already in place when Blatter took control so he may not be fully responsible for this. However as president for the last 17 years, it was Blatter who was ultimately responsible for the continuation and development of these illegal practices. His resignation may spell an end to them or it may just be the beginning of a new chapter in FIFA’s long lasting corruption story.

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Blatter Wins Fifth Term As FIFA’s Corruption Machine Rolls On

Another four years under Blatter (Image from Getty)In between the over spilling cocktails and the highly inappropriate dancing girls, an election of sorts took place. The result was expected but more than ever was met with a general feeling of disdain. Joseph “Sepp” Blatter may have secured a fifth term as FIFA president but the fall out of this decision will be felt for the months and years ahead. There is little faith that Blatter is the man to stop the rot within FIFA, mostly because few believe that he hasn’t been involved or indeed orchestrating the corruption from the start. Despite this lack of faith, few of the 206 delegates attending the election in Zurich were willing to go out on a limb in opposition of Blatter, probably in fear of what will happen. Only the European delegates under the protective banner of UEFA stood tall but in the end it matter little. In a two horse race between a heavyweight hitter and a featherweight, there was only going to be one winner.

Prince Ali was never likely to win. Lacking the charisma of Portuguese footballing legend Luis Figo and the experience of former Dutch FA head Michael Van Praag, Ali was nothing more than a lame duck. But despite this many believes that last weeks arrests and as a result the negative view point towards Blatter and FIFA, Prince Ali stood a strong chance of an upset. However the timing of the arrests may have worked ultimately in Blatter’s favour. FIFA denied calls to delay the election, stating that it simply couldn’t. But in truth forcing the election to go ahead only two days after news of the latest scandal broke meant little time for lobbying by parties connected to Prince Ali’s campaign. Few were turned in those 48 hours resulting in an alarmingly sizeable victory for Blatter. Prince Ali’s concession speech said it all. He thanks those few who “were brave enough” to support his campaign but in the end it wasn’t enough. With only 67 votes from a possible 206, Blatter secured 64% of the vote and with it a fifth term. He won thanks primarily to the delegates from Africa and Asia who are loyal to the FIFA president. They claim their loyalty is tied to FIFA’s assistance in growing the game in their continent but the sad truth is that financial compensation over decades helped to soften their resolve and secure their favour. Like a sugar daddy, Blatter used his position of power and the draw of riches beyond their wildest dreams to entice the highly impressionable delegates into doing exactly what he wanted. FIFA will deny all allegations of such rewards but the truth always has a habit of eventually revealing itself one way or another.

Never likely to win - Prince Ali  (Image from Getty)

Never likely to win – Prince Ali
(Image from Getty)

Universal reform at FIFA is needed but unlikely to materialize. Blatter talked passionately about changing FIFA starting tomorrow but like a drug addict or an alcoholic, his promises of being better in the future will hold little water with those who know him well. Protests against his reappointment will happen as well as calls for boycotting of FIFA organized events like the World Cup but again this is unlikely to happen. Blatter is set for another four year term at least unless health or criminal charges halt him in his tracks. At 78 years young and with the FBI breathing heavily down his neck, both scenarios are possible. The only other likely scenarios would come from either a huge advertiser walk out that would cripple the FIFA machine or the total collapse of the organization itself by federations leaving to set up a new brand. UEFA delegates have refused to rule this out stating that they will consider all options when they meet next week to discuss the aftermath of this election. UEFA president Michel Platini has played the whole situation very well, protecting not only his constituents that make up UEFA but also his relationship with Blatter by speaking to him “as a friend” when he asked him to step down. But if changes are to be made, Platini will need to make a difficult decision and side with only one of them going forward.

If looks could kill - Platini is annoyed with another Blatter win  (Image from Getty)

If looks could kill – Platini is annoyed with another Blatter win
(Image from Getty)

This has always been Platini’s fight but he has chosen to remain on the sidelines for one reason or another. He is the obvious candidate to run against Blatter in the race for FIFA highest position but he has been reluctant to do so perhaps because he doesnt believe he would win. He may be right about that which is worrying for the world of football. If Platini cannot beat Blatter in a race then who can? The hopes of the world rest now on the FBI investigation and the potential for Blatter to be forcefully removed from his position as leader of the world most corrupt organization.

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FIFA Plunged Into Chaos With Arrests of Key Executives Over Bribery Charges

FIFA rocked by bribery arrests (Image from FIFA)With only days to go before the next FIFA presidential election and opponents dropping like flies, it appeared to be an easy week for Sepp Blatter. The current president faces a straight race with Prince Ali bin al-Hussein in Friday’s crucial election as he seeks a fifth term as FIFA’s ruler. However his preparations have been rocked by the breaking news of yet another scandal that threatens to blow FIFA apart. During dawn raids carried out by Swiss authorities and back by the US government, seven current or former FIFA executives were arrested in Zurich as part of the FBI’s ongoing three year investigation into bribery and corruption. Those arrested include current FIFA vice president Jeffrey Webb, former Brazil Football Federation president Jose Maria Marin and the current presidents of the Costa Rican, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan football federations. All seven men face extradition to the US where they will be joined by two other disgraced former FIFA executives Nicolas Leoz and Jack Warner as well as six other officials associated to FIFA with all fifteen facing charges. The arrests are in connection with suspected bribes given to or received by these delegates totally more than $100m. The bribes were primarily for votes for major tournaments stretching back as for as the early 1990’s.

FIFA vice-president Jeffrey Webb was one of those arrested  (Image from Getty)

FIFA vice-president Jeffrey Webb was one of those arrested
(Image from Getty)

As part of a calculated raid of not only the hotel where the executives were staying but also FIFA headquarters in Zurich and the CONCACAF head office in Miami, the FBI and US department of Justice has seized assets and electronic data that they believe will help their investigation.  The charges that the FBI intends to lay upon these 15 officials associated to FIFA threaten to blow the lid off an alleged scheme of corruption, illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes that has haunted the FIFA corridors for over three decades. The scheme primarily involved corruption over media and marketing rights to matches and tournaments organized by FIFA including its prized asset, the World Cup. To date, Sepp Blatter has not been arrested nor faces any charges but the FBI is continuing its investigation into the organization to see exactly how far up the chain the scheme was known.

Another four years under Blatter (Image from Getty)

In a separate move, Swiss authorities have opened criminal proceedings against FIFA over the awarding of the controversial 2018 and 2022 World Cups, due to be held in Russia and Qatar respectively. Swiss police plan to question up to ten FIFA executive committee members who took part in the voting process back in December 2010. For a long time now, many have suspected wrong doing when it came to the result, especially with the announcement of the tiny but oil rich nation of Qatar being awarded. Qatar, who has an appalling human rights record and could boast no football stadiums during the time of their bid beat out the US and Australia for the rights, sparking a much heated debate around bribery by several FIFA executives that continued for months afterwards. FIFA attempted to defuse the situation by appointing an independent adjudicator in the form of Michael Garcia to investigate the allegations of bribery over the awarding of these two world cups, with the results to be made public. Garcia did manage to produce a 430 page report despite several key figures and countries refusing outright to participate in his investigation. His report was then handed to a FIFA appointed German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert for summarization. The result of this summary cleared FIFA and the two winning bids of any illegal activities, a move that was slammed by Garcia who quit in protest claiming that the summary was materially incomplete and an erroneous representation of the facts and conclusions.

Michael Garcia quit in frustration after his report was summarized and republished with erroneous mistakes  (Image from Getty)

Michael Garcia quit in frustration after his report was summarized and republished with erroneous mistakes
(Image from Getty)

FIFA have been quick to pounce on the breaking news about the two investigates claiming through their spokesperson that the moves were a good thing for FIFA and that they welcomed the involvement of the US and Swiss authorities in the struggle to root out any wrongdoing in football. This calculated reaction is further proof of how corrupt and rotten to the core FIFA has become under not just under Sepp Blatter’s watch but before that under former president Joao Havelange. The investigations are unfortunately unlikely to have a detrimental effect on Blatter’s chances of retaining the presidents chair post Friday but it could seriously damage his reputation in the long run. Blatter is by no means out of the woods after the arrests today with both investigations continuing and likely to uncover further scandals. Even if they are unable to find clear proof that Blatter was involved directly in the corruption and bribery, the arrest of key current FIFA committee members under his watch as FIFA president means that the buck stops at his door.

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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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FIFA Continues To Fumble With The Womens Game

Christine Sinclair, right, of Canada challenges for the ball with Fara Williams of England during the Cyprus Cup final (Image from AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Only FIFA in its disorganized and corrupt state would allow two tournaments’ to run simultaneously. Hard to believe but this week saw the completion of two international tournaments in the women’s game – the Algarve Cup and the Cyprus Cup. The invitation only Algarve Cup to be fair has been running for longer (since 1994) so the addition of the Cyprus Cup in 2008 must have come as a surprise to its organizers. Having another tournament in the women’s international space is not a bad thing but FIFA allowing it to run at the same time is just ludicrous.

Record breakers - The US women's national team lifted its 10th Algarve Cup  (Image from AFP)

Record breakers – The US women’s national team lifted its 10th Algarve Cup
(Image from AFP)

With the best teams in the world split between the two cups it’s hard to see how either could be set for success. Crowds were low to nonexistent at both whilst media coverage was limited in several key markets with various media outlets unaware that the tournaments were actually taking place. Yes the tournaments are organized separately but by combining them into a mini world cup format or even scheduling them in separate months would likely be more beneficial to all involved.

Mexico and South Africa played in the opening match of the Cyprus Cup in front of empty stands  (Image from PA)

Mexico and South Africa played in the opening match of the Cyprus Cup in front of empty stands
(Image from PA)

It’s another poor reflection of how little FIFA appears to care about the women’s game across the world. Already at the centre of controversy over the decision to test out artificial pitches at this summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. Protest rang out from the players when the news broke of FIFA’s intentions to use artificial surfaces rather than grass for the women’s pinnacle tournament. FIFA retorted to criticism of sexism by suggesting that this was a trial for the men’s which they hoped would follow suit. This only angered the players further who saw themselves being used as guinea pigs by FIFA, something the footballing organization denies in a contradictory statement. Despite legal action being taken by a group of high-profile players against FIFA and the threat of a strike before the world cup, FIFA held its stance. Unfortunately for the players, the women’s game doesn’t have the same amount of clout as the men’s does. If the men were to strike, it could cost FIFA financially as well as being a PR disaster but with the women’s game still in development, they are likely years away from having equal billing in FIFA’s eyes.

Controversy around the choice to use artificial pitches at the Women's World Cup continues  (Image from THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Controversy around the choice to use artificial pitches at the Women’s World Cup continues
(Image from THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

In the end the results of the two tournaments were hardly important. The Algarve Cup is held on the picturesque Portuguese coast and saw twelve teams from across the world compete in the competitions 22nd iteration. The US secured a 2-0 win against France in the final to lift their record-breaking 10th Algarve Cup. A stand out performance from the controversial Hope Solo in-goal, who made several key stops including a penalty to keep them in the game, pushed the US towards the trophy. At the other end goals from Christen Press and Julie Johnston were enough to see off a French side who had laboured well bit could not break down the resistant Americans.

Elsewhere at the Cyprus Cup, World cup hosts Canada were looking to finalize their preparations for the June-July tournament with a finals appearance. They were hoping to add a historic third Cyprus Cup to their trophy room but fell at the last hurdle to a determined England side. A single goal from Lianne Sanderson settled the contest and handed England the much-needed morale boost ahead of their participation this summer. The style of the win suggest that England will be a feared opponent in Canada this summer.

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Yet Another Black Mark In The Fight Against Racism In Football

Chelsea have been caught up in yet another racism incident (Image from Getty)Yesterday’s showcase game in Paris between hosts Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea should have been the poster boy for this round of the Champions League but instead the actions of a few travelling Blues supporters tarnished the night and with it Chelsea’s reputation. Reports coming out of Paris suggest that an incident happened on the Paris underground system between a group of rowdy Chelsea fans and a black Parisian man with the fans refusing him entry onto the train they were travelling on. To make matters worse, they then racially abused the man before shoving him back onto the platform. Footage of the event has emerged as a bystander Paul Nolan who shocked at what he was hearing and seeing pulled out his phone and recorded it. Chats of “We are Chelsea, We are racist and that’s the way we like it” can be heard clearly on the video. Nolan described the scene as  “ugly” and “very aggressive” also alluded to chants made by the Chelsea supporters on the train about World War Two and other grotesque topics. One fan has been quick to try to defend his fellow supporters suggesting they was simply no room on the train for the black Parisian man and the chants were coincidental and about John Terry not the man himself. Given the footage and the aggressive nature of how the fans acted towards the man in question, it hardly seems to be a misunderstanding as suggested by the fan.

Chelsea, the English FA, UEFA and FIFA have all come out united in their disgusted at what happened with the club in particular annoyed stating that racism plays no part at their club or in football in general and that they will assist the Metropolitan police in bringing those responsible to justice.  FIFA president Sepp Blatter took to twitter last night to condemn the actions of the fans stating simply “There is no place for racism in football”.  Both FIFA and UEFA are unable to enforce action onto Chelsea as the incident took place away from the stadium outside of their remit but have supported the club in their involvement with the police in tracking down the individuals responsible and handing down whatever punishment is needed.


Blatter is vocal about his opinions but FIFA has failed to act in recent years  (Image from Twitter - Sepp Blatter)

Blatter is vocal about his opinions but FIFA has failed to act in recent years
(Image from Twitter – Sepp Blatter)

FIFA and UEFA however will likely punish Chelsea after additional reports surfaced of crowd trouble at the stadium before the game that was so severe that French police were forced to use teargas to bring the situation into order. This is not the first time that an English club has clashed with French police with Everton fans involved only months ago in an altercation in the run up to their Europa league game against Ligue 1 side Lille. These two incidents come at a time where the fight against racism in football appears to be a losing battle with a return to the darker ages becoming a more realistic reality. The increase in racist and homophobic chants inside English stadiums as well as in other countries like Russia, Greece and Italy are in stark contrast to the messages surfacing from UEFA and FIFA that their campaign to say No to Racism is gaining valuable ground. In fact the opposite is true with the ten year fight now losing its impotence. Each anti racism message read out at football stadiums across Europe before the start of games is simply ignored or dismissed. UEFA’s campaign has gone stagnant and its failure to hand down severe penalties to players like Luis Suarez and Chelsea captain John Terry (who was caught on film racially abusing a fellow player, Anton Ferdinand) does little to help their cause. Swift reform and harsher punishments are needed. UEFA will ban a club from European competition for overspending but it refuses to hand down similar punishments for racist or homophobic acts by clubs fans, players or officials. Where is the logic in that?

Racism has long been a problem in football and not something that will be solved any time soon. Whilst UEFA can be commended for tackling the issue head on some ten years ago, they now need to desperately breathe new life into it before it spirals further out of control. As for Chelsea, who take a small advantage back to Stamford Bridge for the return leg thanks to a hard fought 1-1 draw,  action will need to be taken to address not only this story but a growing concern at the club that a racist element is resurfacing. John Terry’s actions and lack of punishment have not helped the situation but it is hard to point the finger fully at that given the amount of time that has now passed. But for a club that has its fair share of black players in its first team including the legendary figure of Didier Drogba, it must take a stance to eradicate this element before it grows and festers into something more sinister. How Drogba himself feels about the incident in Paris is unknown but it would be surprising if he was anything but appalled by what he saw from the fans who he has given his all for over the last ten years.  Chelsea may claim that this group of individuals is only a small minority and that a vast majority of the Chelsea support is against racism but until they can prove it and finally stamp it out of their club, few will believe them.

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Nothing Fair About UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rule

Masterstroke or Mistake - Platini (Image from Getty)The inclusion of the word “fair” in UEFA financial fair play rules is somewhat ironic given that its intended purpose will be anything but fair. Introduced by UEFA president Michel Platini as his masterstroke idea of how to curb exuberant spending by clubs across Europe, its objective is to limit the spending capacity of clubs to their net gains. By net gains what we mean is the difference between what they spend each year in transfers and employee wages vs. what they make back from gate receipts, TV revenue, advertising, merchandising, sales of players and prize money. With a host of clubs now bankrolled by wealthy investors and owners, Platini is keen to stamp out overspending before it damages football in Europe beyond repair. But will the rules really prevent clubs from spending beyond their means or will it simply drive clubs to be more deceitful about its practices and how it generates revenue?

UEFA's Financial Fair Play Rule is designed to make things fairer but will it?  (Image from

UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rule is designed to make things fairer but will it?
(Image from

Breaking it down, it comes down to profit vs. loss and the difference between them. So if a club’s overall running costs (not including infrastructure, training facilities or youth development which is not factored in) are $2million per year whilst they make $6m, they are allowed to spend $4m in that year (give or take a 5% grace window). In theory the rule is sound and restricts clubs from spending astronomical amounts to bring in top talent, and widening the gap between those that have and those that have not. However in practice the rule is flawed and like most things full of grey holes and loopholes. For instance UEFA’s terminology for what they consider acceptable sources of revenue are questionable and without limitations. Advertising revenues generated mostly by corporate sponsorships are  an area that should be built within barriers but none exist to date which will lead to inside deals and US style advertising. Currently there is nothing to stop a club structuring a multimillion pound sponsorship around something as non essential as a training ground or their corner flags. Whilst the latter is idiotic (at the moment) the former is already been explored by clubs desperate to retain their financial clout and advantage. Barcelona recently announced a $25million deal with Intel, for a shirt sponsorship that would be inside the player’s shirts. The deal itself caught the headlines but for the wrong reasons as many looked at it as a unique and quirky ad campaign by Intel. A closer look exposes a potential risk of clubs having more than one shirt sponsor (similar to Formula one) with each piece of the shirt classified as advertising space. Multiple shirt sponsors mean that rule will be exploited as clubs rake in the cash.  If expenses total $2million but revenues, including such sponsorships equal $50m, surely that defeats the purpose of this rule?

Is the Intel deal a sign of things to come?  (Image from AFP)

Is the Intel deal a sign of things to come?
(Image from AFP)

In addition, TV revenues are factored into the profit margin which presents a further problem. The top five leagues in Europe have never been as popular on a global scale as they are right now on. Interest in the leagues continues to surge and as a result so do the various TV deals attached to it. BSkyB, BT, NBC and Al Jazeera have paid billions of dollars between them for the exclusive rights to showcase these leagues, with the money trickling back down eventually to the clubs. However in most Leagues the allocations of TV revenues are not shared evenly but instead the top clubs profit more than the rest. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid command the lion share of this allocation with the rest in La Liga getting a small fraction of the remainder. In the Premiership, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City all received bumper payouts last season based on their top half finish but all have wealthy owners backing them. It’s a similar story when talking about gate receipts and the ability to strike multimillion dollar deals. The top clubs can play host to larger crowds due to larger stadiums which in turn entices companies to invest in association advertising.  Barcelona’s deal with Intel is a good example as Intel see the value in working with the Catalan giants and their extended global reach. A deal with fellow La Liga teams Elche or Almeria would never have been structured by Intel as the value exchange does not exist. In essence the rich are getting richer whilst the poorer clubs struggle to compete. The gap will only widen unless clubs in the lower half of the divisions can compete but in order to do so, they need better players which cost more than they can afford.

NBC has invested heavily in US TV Premiership rights (Image from NBC)

NBC has invested heavily in US TV Premiership rights (Image from NBC)

These are just a few of the loopholes and grey areas within the Financial Fair Play rules but there are many more including 3rd party ownership of players (clubs only pay a fraction of a players wage, whilst an outside corporation picks up the remainder), multiple club ownership outside of Europe (Manchester City’s owners have acquired teams in USA, Mexico and Australia with a view to setting up a network that will see player and financial exchanges outside of these guidelines), varied country specific economical situations(some countries will have higher wage bills due to higher tax rates like France) and charity payments (not included in the calculation by UEFA but questions are being raised over using charities to invest in a clubs development). All in all the Fair play rules, set to begin in full next season, with clubs that fail to adhere to the new rules punished either in the form of a fine, deduction of points or exclusion from European competition.

Manchester City's owners expand their reach across the world  (Image from Getty)

Manchester City’s owners expand their reach across the world
(Image from Getty)

Clubs like Russsian side Anzhi Makhachkala are taking the new rules seriously and have made drastic cuts to their playing staff in order to fall in line with the new rules. Bankrolled by billionaire Suleyman Kerimov since 2011, Anzhi had grand ambitions to dominate European football and with Kerimov’s wealth in support embarked on a spending spree like no other, tempted some of football’s biggest players into moves to the Russian wilderness. Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos, Willian and Christopher Samba were paid astronomical wages by Anzhi as they looked to exploit the system and buy success. But the club has now cut its cloth accordingly, selling most of its star players and started to live within its means. Kerimov is an example of what Platini calls “fat cat owners” and the reason behind the introduction of this new rule but will others follow suit or will they instead look for ways to exploit the system and continue to operate as they have done over the past decade? Share your thoughts now on Facebook: or on Twitter:

Goal Celebration Ends In Tragedy With The Death Of Player

Tragic - Peter Biaksangzuala (Image from PA)Goal celebrations are a fairly new affair having only started in the past few decades. Previously players celebrated with a hearty handshake or pat on the back but in recent years this has changed into elaborate expressions of joy and exuberance.  Whilst a majority of these new celebrations are risk free, a few players have started to show more dramatic and acrobatic celebrations like somersaults and back flips. Ireland’s Robbie Keane and Portugal’s Nani are two examples of players who use their training from junior years in athletics to dazzling effects. However in a tragic case in India, one such celebration went tragically wrong with the worst outcome.

Nani celebrates a goal whilst playing for Manchester United  (Image from Getty)

Nani celebrates a goal whilst playing for Manchester United
(Image from Getty)

Bethlehem Vengthland midfielder Peter Biaksangzuala died after landing awkwardly while performing a somersault shortly after scoring in a Indian league match against Chanmari West. In the fall he severely damaged his spinal chord and sadly died in hospital five days later. At 23 years old, his death shocked Indian football and has has a detrimental effect on his teammates who are struggling to cope with the passing of their close friend. It was not the first time that Biaksangzuala had performed this acrobatic manoeuvre so his teammates were used to seeing it. However this time as he landed heavily and failed to get back up quickly, they realized something was horribly wrong and called on the medical team to come help him. Despite efforts on the pitch and subsequent treatment at a nearby hospital, nothing could be done with the player slipping away later that week. His club has been quick to retire his number 21 shirt in tribute to their fallen player.

Biaksangzuala's somersault ends in tragic circumstances  (Image from AFP)

Biaksangzuala’s somersault ends in tragic circumstances
(Image from AFP)

His death has prompted questions and debate on whether FIFA could get involved to prevent further tragedies by introducing limitations on what players can do during celebrations. Currently players can be booked for removing their jerseys, covering their faces with a mask or encroaching onto the crowd however as yet no further guidelines have been structured. FIFA has reiterated that any changes to the rules can be submitted by a country’s FA but needs the approval of the International Football Association Board (IFAB).  Enforcing a new policy would fall to the referees but in the case of Biasksangzuala the referee was powerless to prevent such an incident from happening. It may be down to the clubs as employers to enforce a policy in order to protect their assets but as yet it hasn’t become an issue that clubs take note of. Perhaps now though, the tragic and shocking death of such a young and talented player will make them reconsider this and act quickly in order to prevent another player from dying on the pitch from simply celebrating a goal.

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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

13 venues across Europe will host Euro 2020
(Image from

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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YouTube Star Roche Makes FIFA Goal Of The Year List

Goal of the Year contender - Stephanie Roche (Image from Getty)There are a couple of familiar names on this year’s FIFA Puskas Award for goal of the year and one not so familiar. Irish striker Stephanie Roche is hardly a household name like the other two other contenders on the list – Manchester United and Holland striker Robin Van Persie and Real Madrid and Colombia midfielder James Rodriquez but her place on this year’s list is as much deserved as theirs. The former Peamount United striker has earned her way onto the shortlist with a stunning goal against Wexford Youths in October. Receiving the ball on the edge of the opposition area from a cross from teammate Wendy McGlone, Roche neatly controls the ball with her right before dinking it over her marker with her left and spinning round to hit an unstoppable volley past the helpless Wexford Youths goalkeeper Mary Rose Kelly.

The strike, which was luckily captured on film by someone in the 95 person strong crowd, has become a YouTube sensation capturing thousands of views only weeks after it was initially posted. The buzz created by the video has worked in Roche’s favour who has now been given a professional contract by French side ASPTT Albi as a result. Pundits and former players have also been quick to praise the strike and in particular the technique applied by Roche in executing the volley. Former Republic of Ireland defender Paul McGrath, ex England striker Matt Le Tissier and former player turned pundit Gary Linekar have all taken to social media to wax lyrically about the strike. Roche herself is over the moon by the attention the strike is getting and by her subsequent nomination stating on BBC Radio 5 in the UK that she has been overwhelmed by the messages of support and encouragement and is generally happy that her goal is getting recognized, not just for herself but for women’s football in general.

Roche’s goal was one of ten to make an initial shortlist before it was eventually whittled down to just these three. Now it is up to users of and to decide which one of the three goals wins the award. Roche though faces tough competition as both goals by Robin Van Persie and James Rodriguez, which happened during this past summers World Cup have enough merit to win the award themselves. Real Madrid ace Rodriguez was undoubtedly the star player at the tournament, scoring six goals as he helped Colombia march into the quarter finals only to be eventually beaten by a Neymar inspired Brazil. But it was his volley in the round of 16 match against Uruguay that earned him a place in this year’s list. With his back to goal some 25 yards out, Rodriguez controlled a headed pass on his chest before swiveling round to unleash a venomous dipping volley which crashed into the net off the crossbar. Perhaps seen as less spectacular that Roche’s or Rodriguez’s volleys, Van Persie’s elegant swan like diving header goal for Holland against Spain in their World Cup group opening match was equally as impressive. The goal which showed great vision and technique by the Dutch striker who carefully watched the ball before leaping well to head the ball over Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal, setting Holland on its way towards a shock 5-1 victory which effectively ended Spain’s defence of their title before it even began.

The award named after Hungarian and Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas, who scored his own fair share of spectacular and impressive goals during his career, will be presented in Zurich on January 12th 2015 at a star studded event. Roche will be present, along with Van Persie and Rodriguez for the announcement of the winner and if Roche’s name is called she will become the first ever female winner of the award.

You can view all three strikes again and vote for your favourite here:

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