Can Messi Inspire Argentina one more time?

Argentina enter todays crunch match with Nigeria with their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance. A draw in their opening fixture against Iceland and a punishing defeat by Croatia in their second game has left Argentina needing a win and for other results to go their way. It’s hardly the start that Lionel Messi and co expected nor did many others. Argentina were widely considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy but two abysmal performances have left them looking more like shock exits. Every World cup has one, a favourite that exits in the group stage – in 2010 it was France and Italy whilst four years ago in Brazil it was Spain, Italy and England. Argentina qualified with ease winning all three group matches before a run to the final when ended in heartbreak as Mario Gotze poked home the ball deep into extra time.

Gotze wins it for Germany (Image from AFP)

Still hurting – Argentina came so close in Brazil only to fall at the last hurdle (Image from Tumblr)

Qualification from the group is not mathematically impossible but given their recent form, it looks doubtful. A win against a high-flying Nigeria who are fresh off the back of an impressive 2-0 win over Iceland would give them hope although they need a favour from current group leaders Croatia who face the rank outsiders Iceland earlier on. The fact that the Croatia vs Iceland game is scheduled to be played before the Argentina vs Nigeria match is peculiar given that all the other final group matches happen simultaneously but thats for FIFA to explain why. That means that as Argentina kicks off, they will know if their fate has already been sealed or still lies in their own hands. A win for Iceland will put them on four points so only a win for Argentina and a significant goal difference will sneak them through in second place. A draw or defeat to Nigeria will see them on the first plane home.

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Much is pinned on the shoulders of their superstar Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward is widely considered the greatest player of his generation but comparisons to former greats like Pele and more notably Argentine icon Diego Maradona are a constant hinderance. Whilst Messi has outgunned his compatriot on club level and has won far more trophies to show for it, a lack of silverware  (or more appropriately golden-ware) for Argentina continues to be the divide. Maradona has won the World Cup with Argentina back in 1986 and as a result is forever held up as a god back home whilst Messi despite his brilliance is viewed somewhat less favourably. Only by winning the World Cup will Messi win them all over. That in itself is a huge ask. Four years ago, Messi inspired Argentina on that run to the final, more than a few times acting as superman as he single handily dragged his team through games. But four years on, Messi looks tired and less enthusiastic about this challenge which is likely his last.

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Maradona wins the World Cup with Argentina in 1986 (Image from Tumblr)

His chances look vastly decreased too given those playing around him. Argentina are littered with talent up front but look less convincing the further back you go. Indeed the three goalkeepers they have in the squad have little international experience with 11 caps between them. Caballero should have been a safe pair of hands yet the Chelsea back up goalie’s howler in the game against Croatia will forever haunt him. Added into this, Argentina have a coach (Jorge Sampaoli) who is at best a one trick pony. That trick is to play a high possession, high pressing game closing down quickly further up the pitch. Whilst that has worked in his previous roles, Argentina lack the players to make this possible. Plan A therefore becomes obsolete. The issue with that is that there is no plan B. Sampaoli has no back up so continues with the same approach despite a lack of end product which makes Argentina’s chances of qualifying even slimmer.

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Sampaoli needs a Plan B and quickly (image from Tumblr)

The glimmer of hope is that if Argentina has goals in them – starting Aguero, Dybala and Messi should give them enough firepower to test a suspect Nigerian defence with the introduction of Higuian and Di Maria late as Nigerian legs waiver. The midfield with Mascherano as a holding midfielder will be crucial if they are to stem the amount of opportunities handed to Musa upfront. With exceptional pace and a keen eye for goal, Musa has shown that he is Nigeria’s dangerman so stopping him from getting the ball is the best option rather than trying to stop him in full flight. Rojo and Otamendi must start together in a revised 4-4-2 formation after failures using 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 in their previous two matches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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African Teams Keen To Show They Are Not Just There To Make Up The Numbers

Ghana vs USA 2010 World Cup (Image from afp)

Four years have past since the World Cup was held on African soil for the very first time and it’s safe to say that the buzz in that continent still remains. For the five African nations that have qualified for Brazil, it’s a moment to showcase to the world how football in that region is developing with all five naming exciting squads for the biggest football tournament on the planet. None are expected to win the event but all five have the ability to provide shocks along the way and should be pushing for places in the latter rounds. Nigeria in particular will want to continue to build momentum off of the back of their successful African Nations triumph in 2013 but will be mindful of setting expectations too high given the crash back down to earth the received at the Confederations Cups only months later. Head coach Stephen Keshi has kept faith with the team that won the African Cup of Nations in South Africa last January with Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel likely to play a major role. The recall of Peter Odemwingie and recent addition of former Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi will add experience and options upfront to a fairly young Nigerian side. Last nights friendly against Scotland gave Keshi a better opportunity to assess which 23 of his prelimary squad of 30 will be heading to Brazil and who else will be going home. For the Super Eagles, who often face heavy criticism from various elements back home who want to derail them, it’s a chance to showcase why they are currently the best team in Africa.

Nigeria win the African Cup Of Nations  (Image from Getty)

Nigeria win the African Cup Of Nations
(Image from Getty)

It’s decision making time too for Cameroon who made it to Brazil despite playing poorly in qualification. The ever green legs of Samuel Eto’o carried a lot of the weight and his goals ensure the team qualified. More importantly for Cameroon coach Volker Finke, the issues between Eto’o and several other members of the squad that plagued the team’s qualifying campaign have now been resolved and the group is once again at peace. A freak injury to Pierre Achille Webo during the warm up match against Macedonia is the only fitness concern with Hamburg’s Jacques Zoua already ruled out with injury some time ago. Finke named a 28 man provisional squad and is deciding who to axe before the deadline to bring it in line with the required 23 man limit. One player who has marked his card to go is Lorient striker Vincent Aboubakar who has finished this season in impressive style with a haul of 16 goals. His inclusion alongside the midfield trio of Jean Makoun, Stephane Mbia and Alexandre Song is almost certain but the same can’t be said for Coton Sport duo Cedric Djeugoue and Loïc Feudjou who are likely to be left behind.

Out to Impress - Lorient's forward Vincent Aboubakar (R)  (Image from FRANK PERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

Out to Impress – Lorient’s forward Vincent Aboubakar (R)
(Image from FRANK PERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

The Ivory Coast face one of the easier groups in the World Cup so qualification to the knockout stages is expected. With Didier Drogba still pulling the strings for The Elephants, experience is key for Sabri Lamouchi as he makes his World Cup debut as a manager. Lamouchi will be the youngest international manager at the Brazil tournament and has picked a side packed full of caps to ensure his stay is extended. Alongside Drogba, there are call ups for Kolo and Yaya Toure, Newcastle’s Cheick Tioté, Swansea’s Wilfred Bony and Trabzonspor’s Didier Zokora. The giant Lacina Traoré makes the provisional squad but his place is not confirmed as the Ivory Coast already have a wealth of riches upfront. However the impressive Serge Aurier is likely to make the cut after a fantastic season with Toulouse in the French Ligue 1. How far the Ivory Coast can proceed in the tournament will rest on whether they can fix their defensive problems with an aging yet experienced backline in front of the error prone Baobacar Barry in goal. It will be a major test for Lamouchi who has only been a manager for 18 months so onlookers will be keen to see how he copes with the pressures that come with the tournament.

The youngest coach at the World Cup - Sabri Lamouchi  (Image from PA)

The youngest coach at the World Cup – Sabri Lamouchi
(Image from PA)

Algeria on the other hand name a squad that lacks real international experience with captain Madjid Bougherra as the most capped player on the team with 68 appearances for The Desert Warriors. Algeria’s manager, Vahid Halilhodžić is however highly experienced and will approach this World Cup with the same enthuasism and passion as he has done previously. He will look towards the future and the likes of Granda’s Yacine Brahimi and Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli for inspiration from midfield. A place in the final 23 is also potentially on the cards for Tottenham’s 19 year old winger Nabil Bentaleb but this World Cup may have come too soon for the talented youngster. Leading the line will be either Dinamo Zagreb’s El Arbi Hillel Soudani or Sporting Lisbon’s Islam Slimani with the latter likely to get the nod. Expectaions are low for Algeria who will struggle to get out of a group that includes Belgium, Russia and South Korea. Progress will depend on the result of their second group game against South Korea where if they are able to pick up all three points, playing for a draw against Russia may be enough to snatch second point in the group.

Lead by Example - Captain Madjid Bougherra  (Image from PA)

Lead by Example – Captain Madjid Bougherra
(Image from PA)

Ghana face a similar situation, placed in a group with Germany, USA and Portugal but few would bet against their progression. In South Africa, Ghana reached the quarter finals only to be knocked out by Uruguay on penalties so Kwesi Appiah and the Black Stars will be hoping to go one or two steps further this time. Former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan will captain the side which has a familour look to it with several members of the 2010 team returning like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng but the rest of the squad is made up of Ghana’s fresh crop if talented youngsters, all of which want to use the World Cup as a stage to showcase their skills. Chelsea midfielder Christian Atsu, who was on loan to Vitesse last year is one such player as is Sparta Moscow striker Abdul Majeed Waris who has spent half of last season on loan at Valenciennes. Ghana also has the luxury of calling upon the Ayew brothers (Andre and Jordan) who both possess an abundance of talent and pace. Attacking options will not be an issue but like the Ivory Coast, Ghana’s biggest weakness is at the back with regular goalkeeper Fatau Dauda dropped to the bench in favour of Adam Kwarasey due to bad form and lack of game time. Appiah may play Essien as a holding midfielder in order to protect his weak back four especially against attacking teams like Germany and Portugal but must get all three points against the US in their opening game to stand a chance of progressing to the knock out stages.

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Best Not To Ask About His Age

Taribo West - How old is he really? (Image from PA)Former Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins has recently signed a contract to play in the MLS with Seattle Sounders at the youthful age of only 28 years old. The Toon army, Newcastle’s faithful followers, remember the Nigerian ace fondly after his spell at the club from 2006 to 2009. When he was bought from Inter Milan, Martins was a lively 22-year-old with his whole career ahead of him but in fact he had already spent six years in professional football making close over 90 appearances. Some, like Martins himself, insist that he started young, joining Reggiana at age 16 from local club, FC Ebedei but others suspect fowl play. Now, after a 13 year career involving moves to Inter, Newcastle, Wolfsburg, Rubin Kazin, Birmingham and Levante, Martin finds himself in the MLS in the supposed prime of his career. So why does he look so old?

Martins joined Seattle this season (Image from MLS)

Martins joined Seattle this season
(Image from MLS)

The startling truth is that Martins may be older than he is letting on. The problem of  players falsifying their age in order to extend their playing careers is rife in Africa, where birth records and certificates are few and far between. Over the past 20 years there have been several cases where players have been suspected of being older than they indicated. Fellow Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu’s official age is 36 according to Wikipedia but most suspect he is really around 44, whilst former international teammate and Bolton star Jay Jay Okocha is suspected to be in his late forties, rather than the 39 that he says he is. Now the latest player to be suspected of falsification is Tarbio West, with his former club, Serbian team Partizan Belgrade claiming he was lied to them in 2002 about his age in order for them to sign him. West told the club that he was 28 but is suspected of being actually 40. Whilst this estimation may be wildly exaggerated by Partizan, the club’s medical team did conclude that examinations of West’s knees revealed that he was older than the 28 years he suggested.

West is accused of being older than he indicated when he played for Partizans (Image from Afterfoot.fr)

West is accused of being older than he indicated when he played for Partizans
(Image from Afterfoot.fr)

The changing of ages by players has been an issue that FIFA have been aware of for some time and did in fact investigate Nigeria for almost two years, eventually banning them from all competitions after finding that the birth dates of three players submitted for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea did not match those submitted by the same players in previous tournaments. Recent measures introduced by FIFA to prevent this from happening again, including wrist scanning that through the use of magnetic resonance imaging can determine the player’s true age, have proven successful with several African teams quickly removing a majority of players from their youth squads without explanation.

Wrist Scanning is one way to determine a players true age (Image from Fotonet)

Wrist Scanning is one way to determine a players true age
(Image from Fotonet)

Regardless of their suggested ages, Nigerian players do possess the ability to prolong their careers into their later years which helps to mask their true age. Most, like Martin follow strict routines around diet and excercise in an effort to stay as fit as possible. But with many playing for over 20+ years and retiring at the normal age of 34 or 36, it’s not hard to see why many are suspected of changing their ages to continue to play. West, like Kanu, Ockocha and Martins, has had a distinguished career that has taken him to clubs in Italy, France, England, Germany and Serbia over the past 26 years before he finally retired in 2008 aged 40. We will never truly know how old he was during his career and West will never tell, claiming that he was only as old as he felt at the time. With that philosophy, West could be 26 all over again.

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Nigeria Takes Strong Action Against Football Cheats

Nigerian Football (Image  form PA)Nigerian league football usually doesn’t get a lot of press across the globe unless something bizarre happens. So when two play-off games, played on the same day resulted in score lines more in line with a rugby match or cricket score, the world’s media glaze was firmly placed on the African nation. In a strange turn of events, the Nigeria Football Federation (NNF) was forced to act when two lower league teams who were both chasing promotion and desperately needed to bolster the goal difference tally won their respective matches 79-0 and 67-0. The match between Plateau United Feeders and Akurba FC and the match between Police Machine and Babayaro FC fell under the spotlight of the NNF based on their high scoring results, with all four teams suspended pending a further investigation.  This week, the NNF decided to act further by handing out life time bans to all players involved in the two matches in what has now become a very embarrassing story for Nigerian football.

All players involved in the four games have now been given life time bans  (Image from Getty)

All players involved in the four games have now been given life time bans
(Image from Getty)

The scandalous score lines are yet another black mark on Nigerian football which has gone through its fair share of bad press in the last twenty years. In 2010 Nigeria was banned by FIFA from competing in any tournaments after political interference in the running of the national team and its governing body. FIFA acted swiftly after it discovered that several members of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) were hauled before the law courts to answer questions around election fraud, sparked by the refusal of the NFF to carry out the orders of the country’s Ministry of Sport, who wanted to restart the league without relegations from the previous season. FIFA were less than impressed and banned the African nation but eventually lifted it again when the court case was dropped. Previously In 1989, Nigeria’s youth national teams were banned by FIFA for fielding over-age players in FIFA-organised youth tournaments. In a growing problem in Africa, where birth certificates and registrations are few and far between, the true age of many players in the region is generally unknown. Just recently Partizan Belgrade questioned the true age of former defender and Nigerian legend Taribo West in court after deciding to sue the player for falsifying information about his real birthdate on his contract (covered in an earlier BOTN post). At the time of signing West, he told Partizans that he was 28 but after looking at the bone structure of his knees, the club concluded he was closer to 40. Looking back at the career of Taribo West (and indeed at several Nigerian players like Obafemi Martins, Jay Jay Okacha and Nwankwo Kanu) it’s not hard to see why the Serbian club were inquisitive about West’s extremely long career. The true age of West is unknown but many have speculated that he was at least 6 years older than he suggested at any given time.

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

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

Regardless of West’s real age, he had a fantastic career which is more than can be said for the players of the two fateful games mentioned earlier. They now face life bans which will more than certainly end their careers, with FIFA likely to extend those bans globally. The NFF concluded that the investigation had proved that all players and officials were involved in the match rigging. They also identified that the captain of Akurba FC, Arijide Said Timothy was the ring leader who organised the match fixing of both matches, and established that he had betting connections that were looking to profit from the two bizarre results. The two games were ridiculous in their execution and deemed shameful by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) vice-president Mike Umeh:

“It was embarrassing that in one of the games, a player scored 11 times while in the other, four goals were scored within a minute and a player scored three own-goals in a match.”

The chairman of the House Committee for Sport, Godfret Gaiya has gone public with his support of the NFF decision to ban all concerns citing that Nigerian football did not need this type of negative development in a time when the country was beginning to see a resurgence in football pride following the recent national team’s success at the African Cup of Nations in January this year. In an interview with Vanguard Sports, one of the largest media sites in Nigeria, he expressed his dismay in the selfish actions of a few that had put his entire country’s football pedigree and reputation back by twenty years. Nigerian football has indeed been on the rise over the last six months since their somewhat surprise victory in South Africa but this latest incident will give fresh though to the notion that Nigeria still has a long way to come before football in their country can be deemed a successful again.

For our story on the age defying players, click here: https://backofthenetblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/best-not-to-ask-about-his-age/

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Let The Games Begin But First The July Round Up

New Barca boss, Gerardo Martino (Image from Getty)It’s hard to believe that it’s August already but with the summer break drawing to a close, football is back on the menu once again with most leagues kicking off this month. Europa League and Champions League qualifiers have already begun whilst international friendlies like the much anticipated Scotland vs. England match at Wembley thrown in for good measure. But before we can start to look forward, in time honored tradition, BOTN is looking back at the month that has past – July. And what a month it was!

Lots to think about for Rooney (Image from Getty)

Lots to think about for Rooney (Image from Getty)

Speculation around the future’s of two of the Premierships biggest stars, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale reached fever pitch last month, with both rumored to be leaving for pastures new. Jose Mourinho wasted no time since coming back to the league with Chelsea to upset Manchester United and new boss David Moyes by suggesting Rooney is wasted at Old Trafford and should move to Stamford Bridge. It was enough to unsettle the petulant player who is now in a huff with United who won’t let him do what he wants. It’s a similar situation at Tottenham with Daniel Levy standing firm in front of the exit door that Gareth Bale is trying to walk out of. With Real Madrid pulling from the other side, Levy is stalling to make sure he gets as much capital as possible for the Welsh Winger before he allows the move to happen. Unlike Rooney, Bale is acting graciously and has refused to issue a formal transfer request but has had secret talks with manager Andre Villas Boas and Levy to tell them about his desire to move to the Bernabeau. One player who has already engineered his move away from the English leagues is the troublesome Djibril Cisse who ended his stay with QPR to join Russian side, FC Kuban Krasnodar. It’s his tenth move of his career and the seventh country he has played in so far that has lead to any questioning if it’s a language or an attitude problem that has resulted in Cisse’s stays at various clubs being limited to less than two seasons.

Tottenham's Gareth Bale could be on his way to Madrid (Image from AFP)

Tottenham’s Gareth Bale could be on his way to Madrid (Image from AFP)

It has been a fairly hectic transfer window for most clubs this summer, with the noticeable exception of one Newcastle United. With Joe Kinnear now fully settled in and the media circus around that almost dying down, attention should be turned to signing players. But unfortunately for Alan Pardew and the Geordie faithful, there have been more exits than arrivals at St James Park than the squad can cope with. Simpson, Harper, Perch, Moyo and Abeid have all left with only 16 year old French midfielder Olivier Kemen arriving. Frustration is not the word for Pardew, as he continues to wait to see if Kinnear is actually going to prove to be any value to the club this summer. If nothing happens, Pardew may resign and join Guus Hiddink on the unemployed list, following the Dutchman’s sensational resignation from Anzhi just a day after Tito Vilanova left his Barcelona hot seat for medical grounds. It seemed like a certainty that Hiddink would get the nod, but the Catalan club surprised many by announcing Argentine Gerardo Martino as their new boss. Martino has a tough job on his hands but with a glittering squad, he should succeed in La Liga. Over in Serie A, one team looking to succeed is tiny Sussuolo who are gearing up for their first ever season in Italy’s top flight after winning promotion from Serie B as champions. It was a fantastic group effort by the players who can now look forward to a selection of David vs. Goliath challenges against the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and Roma.

Sassuolo players celebrate promotion  (Image from Getty)

Sassuolo players celebrate promotion
(Image from Getty)

Also making the news last month was the retirement of the voice of Football – James Alexander Gordon from the BBC after surgery on his throat meant that he was unable to continue his job announcing the football results. Gordon had gained legendary status with fans across the UK for his approach and style in reading the results with celebrity fans like the late Eric Morecambe praising his technique. We said goodbye to another legend last month, with the death of former Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann. The tall German was known for his heroics during the 1956 Cup final where he played the last 17 minutes of the game with a broken neck. He made a host of last ditch saves as City held on to win the Cup by 3-1. Trautmann was an inspiration to many young goalkeepers including Arsenal’s Bob Wilson and recently to current City stopper Joe Hart.

Trautmann is helped from the pitch by his teammates  (Image from Getty)

Trautmann is helped from the pitch by his teammates
(Image from Getty)

Finally, BOTN covered the issues that concern the modern game with several Nigeria players suspended after two matches played on the same day ending with score lines of 79-0 and 67-0. An investigation uncovered match rigging ties to all four clubs involved as well as the officials and some ground staff in another black mark for Nigerian football. We also looked at the crippling financial implications of chasing the Champions League dream, with clubs like Rangers, Leeds and now AEK Athens paying for past expenditures. Whilst the larger teams grew in size and financial wealth, the chasing pack overspent beyond their budgets on players who were capable of competing in the Champions League, now with disastrous results. On a plus note, we did take a look at rising Austrian star Martin Hinteregger who scored a stunning goal in a pre season friendly as well as looking at the best way to pick your fantasy football team for the new season. Quite a month overall!

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Why being The Whipping Boys Teaches Nations Nothing

Tahiti taken apart in the Confederation Cup (Image from AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE SIMON)Everybody loves the David vs. Goliath ties in football, that is until Goliath crushes David into dust and the crowd are left feeling somewhat disappointed. Routing for the underdog is built into our nature; we secretly want them to prevail even at the expense of the more skillful or well liked team. But when we watch in horror as they collapse under the opposition pressure and start to leak goals like a sieve, we start to wonder what exactly are they learning from this?

The harsh true is nothing. Tahiti’s three performances at this year’s Confederation Cup, where they shipped 24 goals and only scored 1, was embarrassing to watch and occasionally painful. As a second string Spanish side toyed with them on like a lion plays with a dying zebra, you can’t help but think how is this helping the Tahiti players? Losing 10-0 to Spain only days after a 6-1 defeat to a young Nigeria side won’t exactly be a confidence booster. Pundits talk about experience and learning curves, but the only thing the Tahiti goalkeeper learned over the two games was how to pick the ball out of his net 16 different ways. In fact, he celebrated as if he had just won the game when Spain hit the cross bar. Added into that a third and final humiliation, an 8-0 defeat at the hands of Uruguay, Tahiti will be remembered not for their play but for being the whipping boys of the 2013 Confederation Cup.

Tahiti goalkeeper Xavier Samin celebrates as Spain hit the bar  (Image from Getty)

Tahiti goalkeeper Xavier Samin celebrates as Spain hit the bar
(Image from Getty)

Tahiti to be fair deserved to be there just as much as Spain, Uruguay or Nigeria after winning for the very first time the Oceania Nations Cup last June, mostly thanks to favorites New Zealand pressing the self destruct button against New Caledonia in the semi finals. With no Australia to content with, Tahiti brushed aside a group made up of Samoa, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, before dispatching the Solomon Islands 1-0 in the semis, teeing up a return fixture with surprise finalists, New Caledonia who they eventually beat 1-0. The question however is not necessarily if Tahiti should have headed to Brazil for the tournament but why does FIFA rate the Oceania Nations Cup so highly that its winner gets to participate in the world cup trial run tournament that is the Confederation Cup? With Australia and New Zealand the only countries from the region in the top 60 teams in the world and New Caledonia squeezing into the top 100 nations in 97th place, what benefit does it serve to have this group as an automatic qualifier? Surely rolling them into the wider Asian group would make more sense, with stronger sides like South Korea, Iran, United Arab Emirates contesting it; a stronger team would have gone to Brazil to represent the region rather than Tahiti? By no means is this a dig at the tiny island community, whose entire squad play on the island, with the exception of 33 year old striker and French native Marama Vahirua, who plays in France for Nancy. Instead it’s asking the question of the infrastructure that helped to send them to their humiliating demise in Brazil this month.

Tahiti were outclassed by Spain  (Image from PA)

Tahiti were outclassed by Spain
(Image from PA)

This isn’t the first time that a major tournament has seen the qualification of a nation, only for them to become laughing stock and the whipping boys. Saudi Arabia had the pleasure in 2002 when they lost their first match 8-0 to Germany before going on to lose the other two matches in their group by score line of 1-0 and 3-0 respectively. In 2010 North Korea put up a gallant effort not to become a laughing stock, mostly because they feared imprisonment back home by their fearless ruler if they did. They did hold Brazil at bay in the first game before eventually losing 2-1 but in the second match, a rampant Portugal tore them apart hitting seven past them without reply. By the time they played the Republic of Ireland, some of the first team squad had already fled the country, seeking political asylum in nearby countries. The rest stayed to be beaten 3-0 and went home to face up to their impending prison terms. For Tahiti, their return home has not been as brutal with very few in the country actually thinking that they achieve much if anything, but the experience will have taught the players very little expect for looking gracious in defeat.

Jail was the reward for the North Korean players following the South africa World Cup  (Image from ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Jail was the reward for the North Korean players following the South africa World Cup
(Image from ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

For smaller teams across the world, FIFA needs to look more closely at how to improve the quality of football they are playing and instill confidence in them rather than making them sacrificial lambs to be slaughter by the world’s best. Encouraging teams to climb the official rankings by playing teams higher than they are will encourage development. This does not mean that a team in 138th position (currently occupied by Tahiti) should play the team ranked 1st (Spain) but instead they should look to line up matches against the likes of Cyprus (122nd) or at a push Latvia (119th).  By pitting two teams of similar caliber against each other, the result is not a foregone conclusion and therefore could make for a more compelling match.

Latvia - Much better opponent  (Image from Getty)

Latvia – Much better opponent
(Image from Getty)

In addition, qualification for major tournaments should be split in two with the bottom 140 nations in the FIFA 200 rankings playing against each other to determine which 20 teams go forward to the second stage with the top 60 in the world. Yes this means more games but at least if they are able to reach this phase they will be prepared for the tougher teams rather than rolling over as we see too often in international football. Everyone wants to see a David succeed against Goliath but to make this happen you have to prepare them first, and not just with a sling shot and pebble.

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Super Eagles Soar Again

Nigeria Squad (Image from Getty)It’s been 13 years since their last final appearance but Nigeria are back there once again after securing their place in the African Cup of Nations final. After qualifying from a tough group that contained reining champions Zambia, new boys Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, they faced favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter finals. After taking the lead, Nigeria (known as the Super Eagles) were pegged back by a Chieck Toite goal that looked to have swung the balance back in favour of the White Elephants (Ivory Coast) and all but end their run. But midfielder Sunday Mba had a different plan and hit the wining goal twelve minutes from time to put Nigeria into the semi finals. Surprise package Mali awaited for them there after knocking out host South Africa in a dramatic game eventually settled by penalties. Mali were 90 minutes away from their first final appearance since 1972 and approached the game with confidence. What they didn’t expect was to face a youthful Nigeria side out to prove a point and keen to secure their place in Sunday’s showcase match. A stunning first-half display helped the Super Eagles demolish Mali 4-1 at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban and book their place against Burkina Faso in the final.

Nigeria celebrate during AFCON (Image from Eurosport.com)

Nigeria celebrate during AFCON
(Image from Eurosport.com)

Nigeria’s management team of Stephen Keshi and Daniel Amokachi, both legends in Nigeria, knows all about winning this tournament. Alongside the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Amuneke and Rashidi Yekini, they were part of the famous Super Eagles team that won the countries last African Cup of Nations title in February 1994, before going on to compete in the 1994 World Cup held in the USA. As they look forward to Sunday’s final, they will know that success is within their grasp especially now as they face Burkina Faso, who shocked the world by knocking out Ghana in the semi finals on penalties. But Nigeria will be weary of the surprise package after drawing 1-1 with them in their opening group game some three weeks ago. Keshi’s young squad is still growing in stature but this will be a huge challenge for the manager to mental prepare his team for their first cup final.

Keshi and Amokachi watch from the sidelines (Image from Futaa.com)

Keshi and Amokachi watch from the sidelines
(Image from Futaa.com)

After leaving out a host of more established players like Taye Taiwo, Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, and Yakubu Aiyegbeni in favour of blooding a host of stars for the future, Keshi looked to be adopting a risky strategy coming into the tournament, but his faith in his young squad is paying off after some blistering performances. Whilst it is still early days for his new look squad, Keshi knows that the goal is ultimately to recreate the brotherly like bond that was found in that 1994 squad, that was the platform for the Super Eagles to build a successful international team around that was feared throughout the football world:

“There is a lot of talent and potential in this team, but it’s going to take a while to get them up to where I want to. So far it’s gone well. There were lots of problems back home when I left out some of the senior players in the team, but I had my own reasons, which are known to me only. I know that some people did not understand, but I knew exactly the type of players we wanted, the mentality, the players who can work for the team. It took us five years to build the 1994 squad, this one is just five weeks old. That was a wonderful squad, the spirit in that team was unbelievable, we’re friends, we were brothers. Until I can get that same atmosphere from this team, we can’t really compare. I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves; as I said, we’re still building. I Don’t think we’re there yet.”

Amokachi and co celebrate scoring in the 1994 World Cup (Image from Reuters)

Amokachi and co celebrate scoring in the 1994 World Cup
(Image from Reuters)

Keshi and Amokachi can further cement their legendary status in Nigeria by helping their country to lift the trophy on Sunday but that will matter little to the two former players. This tournament is part of a long-term plan that will hopefully take Nigeria to the World Cup Finals in Brazil next summer. A win on Sunday would be the perfect platform to build upon and give this young squad the confidence it needs to push forward. With the luxury of being able to bring back some of the more established members of the squad after the tournament, Keshi knows that his team can only get stronger and can hopefully recreate the family like atmosphere that the 1994 squad had. Ten years on from that team, it looks as though the next generation of Super Eagles stars has arrived and is keen to make their mark on the world game once again.

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The Strange Ones That Got Away

January Transfer WindowThe January transfer window slammed shut on Thursday at 11pm much to the disappointment of the UK media. However they wont be too upset for too long as the stories underneath the transfers that weren’t are still out there to be covered. The press is likely to cover over the next few weeks what exactly happened in the strange transfers of George Boyd from Peterborough to Nottingham Forest and Peter Odemwingie’s move from West Brom to QPR. Neither made the move but both attracted attention for the manner of which their transfers broke down.

Beckham signs for PSG (Image from Getty)

Beckham signs for PSG (Image from Getty)

For Boyd, it looked like a dream move. New Forest manager has been a fan of the Scotland B striker for some time now, and even made an approach whilst he was the Aston Villa boss to secure his services only to be turned down. This time Peterborough agreed the fee and the player agreed personal terms so all that stood between him and a move to the City Ground was the medical. Little did Boyd or Peterborough know that only a few hours later, the player nad his agent would be heading back to Peterborough in amazement after failing his medical. The reason given by Forest was around Boyd’s eye test, with an issue detected by the Forest medical staff that has been missed by Peterborough’s medical staff for over 5 years now. Ironically the player spend a loan spell at Forest back in 2010, which will leave many to suspect if the eye issue is the real reason why the transfer fell through. Having played over 260 games for Peterborough and known for having an eye for goal ( excuse the pun) it seems difficult to believe that Boyd’s eyes have deteriorated since his 2010 loan spell. The player is disappointed but so is Forest boss Alex McLeish who having spent 3 weeks trying to get the player in, has voiced his public disappointment at the failure of the club to get it finalised. Rumours now surround Nottingham that it was the owners decision to back out of the deal and it may result in McLeish quitting, much to their frustration.

Hard to see why Boyd's transfer broke down (Image from Getty)

Hard to see why Boyd’s transfer broke down (Image from Getty)

Another frustrating situation was transpiring at West Brom with striker Peter Odemwingie but this time, it was very much the player who was the disappointment and not the failure of either club to get the deal done. Having been the subject of many weeks of transfer speculation including two failed bids by QPR in this months window, the Nigerian striker decided to drive down to QPR on the final day of the window to secure his move, angering his current manager Steve Clarke in the process. West Brom and QPR had failed to reach a conclusion over the transfer and no fee had been agreed but the player believed he could simply force through the move as the final hours ticked away. But the striker was out of luck as he was turned away at QPR and denied entry after Harry Redknapp found out from Steve Clarke about the players movements. Redknapp, a man of his word, gave Clarke the reassurance that no move would happen and that Odemwingie would be sent back with his tail between his legs if he was to show up. He kept his word and the player left angry, taking to Twitter to blast his current club in a move that will surely see the player punished heavily. Clarke has banned the player from training for the next week, whilst he and the West Brom board decide on what to do with their defiant front man.

No Escape for Peter Odemwingie(Image from AP)

No Escape for Peter Odemwingie
(Image from AP)

Whilst some big moves went through, including David Beckham joining PSG, Christopher Samba’s dramatic £12 million move back to the Premiership with QPR or Jack Butland’s transfer from Birmingham to Stoke for £3.5million, the story of the day will likely be around the transfers that never were. Boyd will return to action with Peterborough still puzzled as to why he isn’t pulling on a Forest jersey whilst Odemwingie will be surely wondering what jersey he will be allowed to pull on in the next six months if any and how he will managed to get himself out of this situation. West Brom will not want to hold on to a disruptive player so will either look for an apology from him or if not, a buyer in the summer transfer window.

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Ethiopia Look Towards Zambia For Inspiration

2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Image from Wikipedia.org)With the African Cup of Nations 2013 kicking off in eight days time, all attention is turned towards South Africa to see what country manages to emulate the 2012 surprise winners Zambia and lift the coveted trophy. Competition will be fierce with host South Africa, along with Ghana and Ivory Coast joining Zambia as favourites to win the tournament. However if Zambia’s win has taught us anything, the African Cup of Nations is wide open with all teams capable of causing an upset. Former champions Tunisia and Nigeria will be hoping to reclaim the trophy after a years of disappointment whilst other teams like Togo and Morocco will be thankful that 7 times winners Egypt and World Cup regulars Cameroon failed to qualify for this years event. But for one team, taking part in th African Cup of Nations is the first step in rebuilding pride in football within their country.

Zambia wins last years Cup (Image from AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO)

Zambia wins last years Cup
(Image from AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO)

After a 31 year absence, Ethiopia are back in the Cup and are looking to make an impact. The winners in 1964 have a relatively inexperienced side, whose squad contains only three players who play in leagues outside of Ethiopia (Yussuf Saleh in Sweden, Saladin Said in Egypt and Fuad Ibrahim in the US), are attempting to follow in Zambia’s footsteps and upset the apple cart by winning the tournament. Having beaten Sudan on away goals to qualify, Ethiopia are out to prove that they warrant their place and are not there just to make up the numbers. Place in a Group C, they face three tough games against Nigeria, Burkina Faso and current champions Zambia with hopes of reaching the second round looking relatively slim.

Ethiopia will face Nigeria in the group stages (Image from FIFA.com)

Ethiopia will face Nigeria in the group stages (Image from FIFA.com)

Whilst expectations are low, Ethiopian football is on the up at the moment with the national team experiencing a good spell. Not only have they qualified for this tournament, they also lead  Group A in the 2014 World Cup qualification. Whilst they still have along way to go, it will give the country a lift to believe that they may qualify for their first ever World Cup appearance. But for Head Coach, Sewnet Bishaw and his team, the focus is 100% on the African Cup of Nations for now. With a host of good young players making up the step up to national team such as striker Getaneh Kebede and fellow striker Saladin Said (the country’s record holder for the highest transfer paid), the future looks bright for Ethiopia. The youngsters are supported by the more experienced members of the squad like Adane Girma and captain Degu Debebe who are looking towards Zambia’s success last time for inspiration. Debebe, interviewed during their latest training session gave his views:

“What matters most is our strength. We saw how Zambia performed in the last Afcon. No one expected them to win the cup. They won because they played as a team and didn’t underestimate any team. We can learn a lesson from them and make possible what seems impossible. We will give our best.”

Youthful team - Ethiopia (Image from Ethiosports.com)

Youthful team – Ethiopia (Image from Ethiosports.com)

Regardless of how Ethiopia perform in this tournament and if they can make the fairytale underdog story come true and win the cup, their country will be proud of what this young team has achieved. With each game comes more experience and the longer these players play together, the better they will become. If they can continue their existing form, then maybe they might just shock a few teams at this years event and help to write yet another chapter in their football history.