Russian League Set To Return But Not Without Concerns

With the current COVID-19 situation Russian football has faced a multitude of problems much like other businesses throughout the country. Despite the fact that the amount of people suffering from the disease keeps on growing daily, the Russian government has decided to weaken its security measures. This means that in the nearest future life in Russia will return to its previous course. However, the ban on mass gatherings is going to be active until the end of the summer.

The decision about whether it makes sense to start restart the Russian Premier League or not was made recently by Russian Football Union. They made the decision to start the Russian Premier League with kick off scheduled for the 21st of June. This news has brought up a lot of questions and concerns about the organization of football matches in the country.


How will they play?

Originally the RFU planned to play all games will be played without spectators which  given the current COVID 19 statistics in Russia, it seemed like the most logical decision. However they have since altered that plan and now will allow a small amount of spectators (10% of stadiums’ seats) to be filled. As for the structure, the remaining eight rounds will be held from June 21 to July 22 and to follow the previous schedule and complete within one month, clubs will have to play every two days. The Russian Cup is also returning on 24th of June.

Is it safe?

Russian Football Union and Russian Premier League jointly worked out a protocol for holding games, which has taken into account all the requirements of state authorities, as well as the achievements of other leagues that have decided to continue their seasons.

“The return of football will be a signal that we are on the path to restoring a familiar lifestyle,” said the RFU president Alexander Dyukov. “Football is needed for teams, coaches, players. In making this decision, we understand that the health of players and employees remains a priority for us. Not a single footballer, not a single employee was infected.”

RFU President Alexander Dyukov (Image from Tumblr)

RFU President Alexander Dyukov (Image from Tumblr)

Despite the decision being made by the RFU and RPL, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the league will restart as normal. The final decision will be made by the government only about a few elements:

1. Allow foreign players to return to Russia.
2. Development of regulations for the matches
3. Restrictions on training and competitions at the regional level

However, RFU president is sure that these small obstacles will be overcome in the nearest future and football will return to us in June.

What about transfers?

Right now, it is hard to say. First of all, many football clubs faced severe financial problems. Secondly, there are still restrictions on entry into Russia with many players still unable to get back to their clubs. In such conditions, it’s very difficult to talk about buying more foreign players. What’s more important not all Russian players got tested, which means that there are still risks of infections.

Post by Irina Kuzina, Back Of The Net Russia correspondent. Follow her now on Instagram.

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.

Russian Premier Liga Review – will anyone stop Zenit?

After 19 weeks, it’s a good time to take a look at the situation in the Russian Premier Liga (formerly known as the Russian Premier League). Zenit keeps on taking the lead in the title race and it seems like there is no other club that can stop them. However, the situation among other teams is really getting interesting with four clubs are going nose to nose below them!

A lot can change after the resumption of the championship in early 2020 following the winter break. The capabilities of all the teams participating in the fight for top spot as well as the coveted Champions League places may change. First of all, fortunes could improve if one of the clubs in the fight has a successful winter transfer window. In addition, it’s likely that someone’s schedule will become easier due to the exiting out from a European competition. 

Can anyone stop Zenit from winning the league? (Image from Tumblr)

Theoretically, for the 11 remaining weeks, anything can happen. But in truth it’s unlikely that Zenit’s will lose its advanced position as leaders given their current form. Never in the history of the Russian Premier Liga has a leader lost such a spectacular margin over his pursuers. A gap of +10 points is surely a sign of champions elect.

Although the fact that both Kransnodar and CSKA (who are taking second and third position in the league respectively) are done with Champions League may affect the situation. It has always been a case in the Russian Premier League that international competitions require more strength and endurance, and it usually influences the final positions in the home championship.

Krasnodar started poorly in the Europa League group but have recovered to win their last three games (Image from Tumblr)

Taking a look into upcoming springs games, there are only three potentially dangerous games for Zenit – matches with CSKA, Rostov and Krasnodar. Even if they were to lose all these matches, Zenit should still remain at the top of the table. At the same time, the likelihood of such a failure seems extremely low. Obviously, Zenit exceeds above all the above teams in terms of sheer talent at its disposal, and over the winter transfer window the squad is unlikely to change significantly.

All these factors might sound extremely positive if you’re a Zenit fan, but for the football lovers it looks more like a disaster. For the second year in a row, intrigue is being killed long before the end of the championship. This means that on the grander scale that Russian league became weaker overall.

Post by Irina Kuzina. Follow her now on Instagram.

The Tragic Tale Of Serhiy Scherbakov

The name of Serhiy Scherbakov may not be as well known as Puskas, Maradona or Cruyff but for a period in the early 90’s, Scherbakov was one of the world’s best footballers. The Ukrainian midfielder burst onto the public’s attention in his breakthrough season with FC Shakhtar Donetsk in 1988 as a highly gifted and spirited 17 year old. Under the watchful eye of Valery Yaremchenko, Scherbakov’s pace and trickery marked him out as one of the game’s brightest talents. Over the next two seasons, Scherbakov made himself into one of the first names on the team sheet and irreplaceable player for Shakhtar so it was hardly surprising that a call up to the USSR national team’s under 20 squad for the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championships in Portugal came in.

Portugal were the winners of the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championships (Image from Getty)

Portugal were the winners of the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championships
(Image from Getty)

That tournament, which kick started the careers of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Roberto Carlos and Andy Cole, would be the making of Scherbakov and catapult him further toward stardom and global recognition. He helped the Soviet Union to a third place finish and walked away with the Golden Boot after scoring five goals. Back at Shakhtar, Scherbakov would win player of the season in 1992 and earn him a call up for the newly formed Ukraine national team alongside the likes of Andriy Husin, Viktor Onopko and Serhiy Rebrov. He would play only two games for his country but was proud to be pulling on the Ukraine shirt during a time when other well known Ukrainian’s were choosing Russia over their homeland.

Golden boot winner Serhiy Scherbakov (Image from FIFA)

Golden boot winner Serhiy Scherbakov
(Image from FIFA)

In 1992, Scherbakov would win player of the season for Shakhtar Donetsk, with his fine performances for the club earning him a call up to the freshly independent Ukraine National Team. He played only twice for his country before Sir Bobby Robson came calling. Now coach of Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon, Sir Bobby was looking for an attacking midfielder who could play alongside the gifted duo of Luis Figo and Krassimir Balakov. Scherbakov fitted the bill perfectly and in the summer of 1993, he persuaded Shakthar to part with their prize asset. Scherbakov quickly became a fans favourite and helped get Sporting through to the third round of the UEFA cup where they would face Austria’s Casino Salzburg over two legs. Having won the first leg 2-0 (Scherbakov was on the score sheet), confidence was high going into the return leg in Salzburg. But Robson’s tactical plan was unraveled with a goal in either half that would take the game to extra time and then a late winner by Martin Amerhauser that would knock Sporting out. It would be the end of Sir Bobby’s time as manager with the Englishman removed from his position only days later. With the manager held in such high regard, the players and fans held a leaving dinner for him on the 14th December, a night that Scherbakov will remember for the rest of his life.

Robson rated Scherbakov highly (Image from PA)

Robson rated Scherbakov highly
(Image from PA)

After the conclusion of the dinner, Scherbakov was involved in a horrible car crash on his way home which ended his footballing career and almost resulted in him losing his life. He was saved by doctors but his injuries were so severe that he knew he would never kick a ball again. The accident fractured Scherbakov’s skull and his spinal column in three places, paralyzing the player from the waist down. Russian newspapers at the time suggested that Scherbakov may have been drunk at the time of the crash, but no police action was ever taken to back up this claim. At aged 22, Scherbakov’s career was over and his life was in tatters. Sporting and Robson were devastated by the news about a player they saw as one of the best in the world. Robson claimed at the time that if the accident hadn’t happened, Scherbakov would have gone on to be one of the best midfielders in Europe on the same level as teammate Luis Figo.

Figo played alongside Serhiy Scherbakov at Sporting (Image from Wikipedia)

Figo played alongside Serhiy Scherbakov at Sporting
(Image from Wikipedia)

During his rehabilitation, Scherbakov dreamed of pulling on the Sporting Lisbon jersey again but his dream would never happen, eventually accepting that his time on the pitch was over. Despite his early retirement, Scherbakov has remained close to the game working with several football related charities such as the Federation of Football that unites football lovers that have cerebral paralysis.  Scherbakov’s career may have been cruelly cut short but for those lucky enough to have seen him play, they will know that they had the pleasure of witnessing one of the game’s greatest players in action.

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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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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 1 – Groups A, B and C

Watching the European Championships or any major international tournament with your friends is generally highly enjoyable. That is until your so-called friend starts spouting stats and facts about each team making you feel simply like you don’t know anything about football. But fear not, we are here to help. Below is your group by group cheat sheet which should help impress your friends and shut up Mr. Know it all. Each group contains who should win the group, who are the dark horses (a horse racing term for an unexpected winner that in football only seems to appear at major tournaments), one player to watch and some good old fashion generally knowledge about each team. Enjoy!


Captain Lorik Cana will lead Albania out at their first ever tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Group A – Albania, France, Romania + Switzerland

Q: Who should top the group? – France

Q: Who are the dark horses – Switzerland

Q: Player to watch – Breel Embolo (Switzerland)

France host for a record-breaking third time. Its a record that France should hold onto going forward after UEFA announced its intentions to hold the next set of European Championships across multiple countries. Albania play their first ever major men’s tournament having qualified second in a group containing Portugal, former winners Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. More remarkable is that they only scored ten goals in 8 games, the lowest of all the qualifying teams. Goals will be a problem for them in France. Romania drew more games in qualifying than any other (five) but benefited for the collapse of Greece under the management Claudio Ranieri (who would be sacked only to re-emerge months later and lead Leicester to a surprise Premier League title) beating them in their first match. They also have in their squad the tournaments tallest player in goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (6ft 6in).  Finally the Swiss kick off their Euro 2016 with an interesting clash with Albania which will see brother face brother as midfielder Granit Xhaka faces up to his little brother Taulant. Both born in Switzerland to Kosovo Albanian parents, Granit opted for his country of birth whilst Taulant picked Albania. It will be the first time they have faced each other at international level and a first for the European Championships but not in major competitions with the Boateng brothers (Kevin Prince and Jerome) holding that honour when Ghana met Germany at the World Cup in 2014


More than just Bale? (Image from Tumblr)

Group B – England, Russia, Slovakia + Wales

Q: Who should top the group? – England

Q: Who are the dark horses – Slovakia

Q: Player to watch – Deli Alli (England)

England embark on a record ninth Euro’s appearance (more than any other nation) but also sadly own the record for most appearances in the quarter finals without winning the trophy (eight times). This year the selection of Marcus Rashford means that England will have the youngest player at the tournament (18 years old). They face an aging Russia side that is the second oldest (behind Republic of Ireland) however the late inclusion of 26-year-old Zenit midfielder Artur Yusupov should lower it slightly. Interestingly Yusupov was not originally in the squad for the Euros but benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Yusupov lucked out when he happened to stay in the same hotel as the Russia national team in Monaco whilst on his holidays. After Igor Denisov pulled out, Yusupov was asked to cut his holiday short and make up the numbers. Much to his girlfriend’s annoyance, he accepted and immediately joined the squad despite not having his boots (he had to borrow a pair whilst his boots were flown in from Russia with love). Slovakia’s players may not be that well-recognized but could be one of the surprises of the tournament. Their key player is Napoli’s Marek Hamsik who will have the best haircut at the Euro’s – his signature mohawk. If Slovakia are to progress they will need him and fellow midfielder Vladimir Weiss to be on form, creating chances for their forwards. Weiss finished qualifying with the most assists which contributed to 33% of all of Slovakia’s goals. Wales found goals hard to come by in qualifying scoring only 11 times (7 of which were scored by Gareth Bale – 64%). They may be seen as a one man show but in fact have one of the best defences with only Spain, England and strangely Romania conceding less in qualifying. Manager Chris Coleman has the team playing as one and defending as such which shows in the qualifying stats with forward Hal Robson Kanu the third highest fouler with 26.


Poland beat Germany in qualifying – can they do it again at Euro 2016? (Image from Tumblr)

Group C – Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland and Ukraine

Q: Who should top the group? – Germany

Q: Who are the dark horses – Poland

Q: Player to watch – Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine)

World champions Germany enter the Euro’s in indifferent form having struggled at times during qualifying. However history is on their side. Germany are the constant theme at the Euros having featured in every one since 1972. They have also reached the most finals (6), winning half of them – a record they share with Spain. At this Euro’s Germany will be heavyweight hitters (they are the heaviest squad on average at 80.3kg) as they look to become only the second side to win the Euros whilst current World Champions. Northern Ireland feature for the first time having never reached the finals before (they have qualified for two WC’s in the past). Michael O’Neill’s side enter the tournament as the inform side unbeaten in their last 12 games. They will rely on the goals of Kyle Lafferty to get them out of the group stage after his heroics in qualifying. Lafferty has found game time at club level hard this past season and in fact made more appearances for Northern Ireland since August 2015 than he did at his various clubs (9 for country versus 6 for club). That is in stark contract to Poland’s Robert Lewandowski who was a constant for Bayern and Poland last year and has been in devastating form. He finished the season in Germany with 42 goals in all competitions plus as top scorer in qualifying with 13. However Poland are far from being the Lewandowski show with several other members helping them to finish as the top scorers overall with 33 goals. Ukraine on the other hand could only muster 15 strikes (6 of which were against Luxembourg). Having only ever won a single game at the Euros (2-1 vs Sweden at Euro 2012 – surprisingly one more win than the Poles have achieved), they will be looking to build on this and hopefully progress with a win over Poland. To do so they will need Seville’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Dynamo Kiev’s Andiy Yarmolenko to be on form. Both players are looking to impress during the tournament to earn money spinning moves to the Premiership or Bundesliga. Captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is an avid collector of wines so will be looking to toast his sides progress if they can get beyond the group stage for the first time.

Look out for Part 2 – Groups D, E and F on Monday.

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Nations Look To Copy Belgian Blueprint for Success


It may have taken 88 minutes for Belgium to grab their second win in the 2014 World Cup group section and secure qualification for the knockout stages of the tournament but for Belgian fans, the wait to see this moment has been a lot longer. Belgium is revelling in what has been proclaimed as the Golden Generation – a group of talented players who have come through in recent years and are accredited with turning around the fate of Belgian football. However the evolution of Belgian football should be credited to the vision of one man, Michel Sablon who put the wheels in motion many years ago. It was in 2000 when Belgium was co-hosting the European Championships with Holland that was the main turning point. Placed in a group with Turkey, Italy and Sweden, expectations were high that the hosts would reach the knockout stages with relative ease. Despite an early win against the Swedes, Belgium suffered back to back defeats against Italy and Turkey eventually finishing in third place in the group and missing out on progression. With an aging squad including captain Lorenzo Staelens, Luc Nilis and current Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots Belgium were looking towards the future generation and what they saw was bleak.

The failure of Euro 2000 was a blessing in disguise for Belgium (Image from AFP)

The failure of Euro 2000 was a blessing in disguise for Belgium (Image from AFP)

Belgian football was on a downward slide and faced years of mediocrity. Few saw the problem as clear as Sablon and even fewer would have thought that the overhaul needed was so radical. Sablon realized that the Belgian league was failing, that it was struggling to produce on a regular basis talented players for the national side. Added into this, any ones that did emerge moved abroad at an early age in order to play in a better league. So he created a new blueprint for the national obsession, one that went back to basics and focused on what was really important. What he came up with was hardly revolutionary but instead common sense. To succeed, he needed clubs on every level to embrace his plan, not partially but fully committing to it. Changing the philosophies and mindset of an entire nation is one thing but managing to convince everyone to implement it is another but somehow he managed to do just that. Not that it was an easy task, especially given the changes he was asking them to make at a youth level. Sablon asked for all teams in the Under 18’s and below to play a 4-3-3 passing formation and more importantly forget about winning.

Youth football in Belgium is focused on technique rather than winning (Image from Getty)

Youth football in Belgium is focused on technique rather than winning
(Image from Getty)

He realised that younger players and their coaches were too obsessed with the result of the game and what it meant for their position in the table to care about perfecting their individual game. He used university professors to film and study over 1,500 youth games in an attempt to show them what he meant. The result was exactly what he thought and backed his argument that winning at all costs was killing the game. So with the support of the Belgian FA, he simply scrapped the league tables and reorganised youth football introducing smaller pitches, five against five at junior level, seven against seven for older kids and a renewed focus on technique development. The best players from across Belgium were regularly taken out of their clubs and sent to six performance academies for two weeks at a time. This meant that the younger players got to know each other early on which has helped as they all migrated to international football, first at youth level then later to the full internationals you see today at the World Cup. The years passed slowly, with friction from the clubs and youth teams an ever present until in 2007, Belgium’s youth changes started to show promise when they made the last four of the European Under-17 championships for the first time in their history. The stars of that tournament were Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke.

Eden Hazard is one of Belgium's best players (Image from PA)

Eden Hazard is one of Belgium’s best players
(Image from PA)

Now 14 years after instigating change, the fruits of Sablon’s labour were on show at this years World Cup. Belgium possessed one of the more talented squads in the tournament and was even tipped as potential dark horses to win the trophy. In every position, Belgium has star players who are all plying their trade at the highest level. As an attacking team, Belgium boast the likes of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel and Romelu Lukaku and not forgetting Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke who only due to injury is not in the squad. Their backline is impressive too with Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany playing in front of one of the best goalkeepers in the current game, Thibaut Courtois. Indentifying a weak link in this vibrant squad is near impossible and the talent doesn’t stop there with a host of youngsters coming through the youth team like Thorgen Hazard, Laurens De Bock, Dennis Prat and Massimo Bruno, all eager to break into Wilmot’s team.

The current crop of Belgium stars (Image from PA)

The current crop of Belgium stars
(Image from PA)

Other countries are now following suit in particular Scotland who have taken the Belgian blueprint and have implementing it fully with the hope of having the same effect. Formerly under the guidance of Mark Wotte, the SFA invested £20m in seven performance schools and indoor training centres. But they face an uphill battle to change the mindset of Scottish clubs who are struggling to stay afloat and with the mentality of the Scottish public in general. If they want to have the same success as Belgium, then following Wotte’s plan is the only way forward regardless if of who is in charge. The results may not be obvious now but if Scotland can produce a squad with the same quality of talent as Belgium for the 2022 World Cup, then it will be money and time well spent. For Belgium, the future looks bright with the current squad set up to dominate for the next 10 years. The possibilities of this team are endless and it may start with a surprise World Cup final victory in the near future. If they can lift that trophy, Sablon will be hailed as a hero, the man who changed Belgian football for the better.

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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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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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The Tragic Tale Of Serhiy Scherbakov

The name of Serhiy Scherbakov may not be as well known as Puskas, Maradona or Cruyff but for a period in the early 90’s, Scherbakov was one of the world’s best footballers. The Ukrainian midfielder burst onto the public’s attention in his breakthrough season with FC Shakhtar Donetsk in 1988 as a highly gifted and spirited 17 year old. Under the watchful eye of Valery Yaremchenko, Scherbakov’s pace and trickery marked him out as one of the game’s brightest talents. Over the next two seasons, Scherbakov made himself into one of the first names on the team sheet and irreplaceable player for Shakhtar so it was hardly surprising that a call up to the USSR national team’s under 20 squad for the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championships in Portugal came in.

Portugal were the winners of the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championships (Image from Getty)

That tournament, which kick started the careers of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Roberto Carlos and Andy Cole, would be the making of Scherbakov and catapult him further toward stardom and global recognition. He helped the Soviet Union to a third place finish and walked away with the Golden Boot after scoring five goals. Back at Shakhtar, Scherbakov would win player of the season in 1992 and earn him a call up for the newly formed Ukraine national team alongside the likes of Andriy Husin, Viktor Onopko and Serhiy Rebrov. He would play only two games for his country but was proud to be pulling on the Ukraine shirt during a time when other well known Ukrainian’s were choosing Russia over their homeland.

In 1992, Scherbakov would win player of the season for Shakhtar Donetsk, with his fine performances for the club earning him a call up to the freshly independent Ukraine National Team. He played only twice for his country before Sir Bobby Robson came calling. Now coach of Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon, Sir Bobby was looking for an attacking midfielder who could play alongside the gifted duo of Luis Figo and Krassimir Balakov. Scherbakov fitted the bill perfectly and in the summer of 1993, he persuaded Shakthar to part with their prize asset. Scherbakov quickly became a fans favourite and helped get Sporting through to the third round of the UEFA cup where they would face Austria’s Casino Salzburg over two legs. Having won the first leg 2-0 (Scherbakov was on the score sheet), confidence was high going into the return leg in Salzburg. But Robson’s tactical plan was unraveled with a goal in either half that would take the game to extra time and then a late winner by Martin Amerhauser that would knock Sporting out. It would be the end of Sir Bobby’s time as manager with the Englishman removed from his position only days later. With the manager held in such high regard, the players and fans held a leaving dinner for him on the 14th December, a night that Scherbakov will remember for the rest of his life.

After the conclusion of the dinner, Scherbakov was involved in a horrible car crash on his way home which ended his footballing career and almost resulted in him losing his life. He was saved by doctors but his injuries were so severe that he knew he would never kick a ball again. The accident fractured Scherbakov’s skull and his spinal column in three places, paralyzing the player from the waist down. Russian newspapers at the time suggested that Scherbakov may have been drunk at the time of the crash, but no police action was ever taken to back up this claim. At aged 22, Scherbakov’s career was over and his life was in tatters. Sporting and Robson were devastated by the news about a player they saw as one of the best in the world. Robson claimed at the time that if the accident hadn’t happened, Scherbakov would have gone on to be one of the best midfielders in Europe on the same level as teammate Luis Figo.

During his rehabilitation, Scherbakov dreamed of pulling on the Sporting Lisbon jersey again but his dream would never happen, eventually accepting that his time on the pitch was over. Despite his early retirement, Scherbakov has remained close to the game working with several football related charities such as the Federation of Football that unites football lovers that have cerebral paralysis.  Scherbakov’s career may have been cruelly cut short but for those lucky enough to have seen him play, they will know that they had the pleasure of witnessing one of the game’s greatest players in action.

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European Squad Announcements Shock Few – Part 1

Torres in the Spain squad for now (Image from Getty)England kicked off their preparations for the World Cup this week with the announcement of Roy Hodgson’s 23 man squad and 7 standbys. Hodgson has learned from the mistakes of previous bosses by naming a squad that blends youthful energy with experience. The inclusion of Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley is unsurprising given that both players have had sensational seasons. Shaw got the nod ahead of the experienced Ashley Cole who misses out and is now set to retire from international football. Also missing out is Toronto’s Jermaine Defoe who is reduced to the standby list with Rickie Lambert picking up the fourth striker position. Lambert to be fair has been in great form for Southampton who shocked many with their 8th place finish in the EPL. It is believed that Hodgson went for Lambert over Defoe as the latter was too similar in style to the other strikers in the squad – Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge. With Wayne Rooney the starting striker, Hodgson preferred to take Lambert over Andy Carroll as the powerful Alan Shearer type striking option. It will be the first time in history that Southampton will have three players in an England World Cup squad with Adam Lallana joining Lambert and Shaw in the squad. The midfielder, who is rumoured to be a Liverpool target will offer Hodgson an additional attacking threat, and may even get the starting spot over Chelsea’s Frank Lampard.

Lambert has earned his spot for Brazil  (Image from Getty)

Lambert has earned his spot for Brazil
(Image from Getty)

Belgium manager Marc Wilmots surprised few with his squad selection with only two names standing out. Manchester United youngster Adnan Januzaj has finally decided to pledge his loyalty to Belgium despite several other options on the table and has been rewarded in kind with a place in the 23 man Belgium squad heading to Brazil. In too is 19 year old Lille striker Divock Origi, who gains his place in the squad thanks in part to the injury to Christian Benteke who has been ruled out of the tournament with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Surprisingly though there is no place for Thorgen Hazard who has been in blistering form this season and recently won Belgian League player of the year. However he will have to settle for a place in the standby list unless an injury to a fellow midfielder grants him his chance. Thorgen will be praying that chance is not at the expense of his older brother, Eden Hazard as they look to be the first Belgian brothers to play together in the World Cup since the Mpenza brothers in 1998.

Stepping out of the shadows of Eden - Thorgen Hazard  (Image from PA)

Stepping out of the shadows of Eden – Thorgen Hazard
(Image from PA)

Fellow Group H contenders Russia left out two noticeable names when their manager Fabio Capello announced his 30 man provisional squad. The exclusion of Andrey Arshavin from the list suggests that the former Arsenal man’s international career is now over and there are doubts too about former Tottenham striker Roman Pavlyuchenko too after his omission. But it’s the inclusion of Reading’s Pavel Pogrebnyak that has most people talking. So far he has never featured in a Russia team under Capello but it appears now has a shot of becoming an option from the bench for the former England coach. Capello still has to cull his squad down to 23 so Pogrebnyak is right not to celebrate just yet but he is one step closer than Arshavin or Pavlyuchenko.

Arshavin's international career looks to be over  (Image from Getty)

Arshavin’s international career looks to be over
(Image from Getty)

Two players who will also be disappointed not to be going to Brazil are Manchester City duo Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy after they were left out of France’s World Cup plans. Didier Deschamps believes that the pair didn’t show enough this season to warrant a place in his team which has a strong EPL bias with nine players selected who are plying their trade in England. Nasri failed to comment on the inclusion unlike his girlfriend who took to twitter to blast the French team and their manager in a vile outburst. Also missing out are uncapped wonder kid Kurt Zouma as well as Lyon trio of Yoann Gourcuff, Bafetimbi Gomis and Alexandre Lacazette although the latter striker is on the standby list. Group E opponents Switzerland have also named their squad with little to no surprises in Ottmar Hitzfeld’s selection. The team that was unbeaten in qualifying had been ravished by injuries of late but with the return of influential winger Xherdan Shaqiri and goalkeeper Diego Benaglio plus the positive signs of the recuperation of Tranquillo Barnetta, Switzerland should be at full strength going into their first game against Ecuador.

Tweet Revenge from Anara Atanes  (Image from Twitter)

Tweet Revenge from Anara Atanes
(Image from Twitter)

For Spain’s opponents in Group B, a weak Spanish squad is something they were praying for but unfortunately will not experience after head coach Vicente Del Bosque named his provisional squad. The current World and European Champions are looking to make history by completing a unique quadruple by lifting the trophy in Brazil and have named a squad full of talent and experience to do so. The inclusion of Iker Casillas was not unexpected despite featuring only on a few occasions this season for Real Madrid but the man who displaced him Diego Lopez does miss out. Also in the squad is Fernando Torres after yet another disappointing season at Chelsea. His soon to be replacement Diego Costa on the other hand has had a breathtaking season with Atletico Madrid and books his spot on the plane back to his country of birth, Brazil. Del Bosque still needs to axe seven players from the team before he confirms his final selection so Torres spot may not be as secure as others but given his past endeavours for Spain, it would be foolish of Del Bosque not to take him. The news that Thiago needs knee surgery so will miss the tournament is a blow for Spain but with a wealth of riches in midfield, the current champions should be able to cope without him.

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Billionaire Dream In Tatters As Platini Clamps Down On Finances

Changes ahead for Kerimov (Image from Business Insider)It was a project constructed to fail from the start but the decline of Anzhi Makhachkala has happened not because its wealthy owner has lost interest, but UEFA is forcing its hand as the governing body tries to grab back control of the game. Over the past decade, money (in particular from Russia and foreign shores) has threatened to tear apart the infrastructure of the game in Europe by the creation of uber wealthy clubs who can monopolize the transfer market. Chelsea were the first team to start to see this influence when Roman Abramovich took control in 2003 but many have followed with clubs across Europe benefiting from an influx of cash and increased spending power. It has become a billionaire’s playground with clubs like Manchester City, PSG, Monaco, Zenit St Petersburg and Liverpool all being purchased as investment opportunities with the scope of creating world dominating teams through heavy spending and marketing initiatives. Anzhi’s owner Suleyman Kerimov too dreamed of creating the world’s greatest team that would rule Russia as well as Europe but UEFA’s recently introduced financial regulations look to have pulled the plug on his ambitions plans.

Anzhi Makhachkala squad  (Image from BBC)

Anzhi Makhachkala squad
(Image from BBC)

The brainchild of UEFA president Michel Platini, who upset at what he defined as exuberant spending by clubs (ironically in reference to Anzhi as well as Manchester City and PSG), introduced new guidelines prohibiting clubs from living beyond their means, capping their spending power in line with their profit margin. In other words, as of 2015 clubs will be restricted from spending more money than they can generate from player sales, ticket sales, merchandising and other cleared revenue sources. Clubs found guilty of spending above these limits will be fined and banned from European club competitions, potentially including the league that they currently play in. This would have devastating effects on clubs so most are looking at ways to fall in line with the new guidelines before the start of next season.

After the announcement, Platini spoke about his reasoning’s on why this move was so significant to the long term health of football across Europe:

“Fifty per cent of clubs are losing money and this is an increasing trend. We needed to stop this downward spiral. They have spent more than they have earned in the past and haven’t paid their debts. We don’t want to kill or hurt the clubs; on the contrary, we want to help them in the market. The teams who play in our tournaments have unanimously agreed to our principles…living within your means is the basis of accounting but it hasn’t been the basis of football for years now. The owners are asking for rules because they can’t implement them themselves – many of them have had it with shoveling money into clubs and the more money you put into clubs, the harder it is to sell at a profit”

Not impressed - Platini  (Image from AFP)

Not impressed – Platini
(Image from AFP)

Anzhi knows that with current costs per season sitting at $180million and revenue potential at between $50-70million, they have a long way to go to be compliant with the new regulations. That has forced Anzhi boss, Suleyman Kerimov into making some rapid changes including a fire sale of his expensively acquired squad. Top of the list is star striker, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, who is on a whopping $350k per week at the club. Bought in 2011 shortly after Kerimov took control of the club, the sale of the now 32 year old Eto’o would shave a massive $20million off of the current costs but with only a collection of clubs able to afford his wages and all of them looking at making financial savings, it may not be as easy to get the striker off the books. More likely will be the departure of key players like Christopher Samba (yes, he returned to Anzhi after only 6 months at QPR for $12million), Brazilian trio Willian, Ewerton and Jucilei as well as Moroccan Mbark Boussoufa and Ivory Coast striker, Lacina Traoré, all of which are on high weekly wages. The vultures are already circling about Makhachkala, keen to pick up a bargain or two but with Kerimov keen to get as much value as possible for his stars and still retain a squad capable of competing, these players will not be allowed to depart for cheap. Kerimov has looked at other ways to slice costs and has already made several changes including two managerial adjustments. The sudden departure of Dutch legend Guus Hiddink in June is now starting to make a lot of sense, as it cancels his $6million a year contract. In his place, former Manchester United coach René Meulensteen was appointed but he lasted only 16 days before being axed in favour of Russian Gadzhi Gadzhiev, presumably as he is more likely to follow the orders of Kerimov and club chairman, Konstantin Remchukov who has been given the unenviable task of overseeing the reduction of the wage bill. In a series of tweets, Remchukov has eluded that his mandate is to adjust the makeup of the club to secure its long term future whilst maintaining a squad capable of competing. No statement was made about Meulensteen’s departure but many suspects that the new manager is on considerably less than the departing Dutchman.

For Sale - Samuel Eto'o (Image from PA)

For Sale – Samuel Eto’o (Image from PA)

It’s hardly surprising that the club finds itself in this situation after three years of exuberant spending and trying to build something that wasn’t sustainable. Before the purchase in 2011, Anzhi was a struggling team in the Russian leagues, playing their home matches in the war torn region of Dagestan. Geographically removed (it’s a two and a half hour flight to Moscow) and with a population of just over 500,000, creating a footballing dynasty in this small pocket of the former Soviet Union was never going to be easy. Despite paying very little for the club (reportedly only $1.6million), the revenue potential was always going to be restricted due to the reluctance of people moving to the region. In addition, the continuing war meant that the team could not reside in Dagestan, instead having to live in Moscow and commute on match days for home games, under heavily armed guards of course. As Kerimov’s home town, it is understandable why he chose to invest in Anzhi but as a business, it made very little sense. Now his dream is falling apart as he strips back his team to the bare bones in order to comply with the rules. It’s surely only a matter of time before he does become bored of playing with his expensive toy and drops the club, spinning it into further peril. The club won’t comment on how many players will leave at this time but if Kerimov interest does start to dwell, Anzhi could see all its players leave as the club folds under pressure from UEFA’s mighty hand.

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Make Or Break For Clubs During January Transfer Window.

Transfer Window now open (Image from fans love it. The media loves it even more. So why does the January transfer window scare so many clubs including its managers and chairman? Well quite simply, the next 32 days can make or break your season.  Less than 7 days into the window, the early signs are indicating that it will be a busy one, with several clubs already dipping into the market to strengthen their squads. History has taught us that the January transfer window, whilst generally not as busy as in the summer, can be more important to the success or failure of a club. In the summer, players have time to bed in to life in the Premiership and with their new team, managers can play around with formations and players. But come January, the gloves are off. There is no grace period, each signing needs to make an impact immediately or risk being labelled a poor capture. Managers are frantically watching at the over priced market, looking for ways to save their season. So what clubs need to act during this window and who should they chase?


With the Ba saga finally concluded, Newcastle can focus on getting back on track in the league. Moving Papa Cisse into main central striker role once again from his wide right position, should lead to more goals but its the lack of depth across the squad that has been Newcastle’s undoing this year so far. With the loss of key players like Cabaye, Ben Arfa and Steven Taylor, their replacements have been unconvincing, lacking both in the talent and experience needed to play competitive Premiership football. Alan Pardew appears to be still nursing the hangover from celebrating his new eight year contract that keeps him at the club until 2020, but now faces the real possibility of relegation as Newcastle slip further down the league. With only three clean sheets this campaign and having won 2 of their last 11 games in all competitions, strengthening across all areas is a necessity for survival. French right back Mathieu Debuchy has arrived to help the defence but another one or two are needed. West Ham’s James Tomkins and Southampton’s Luke Shaw could offer options at the back and fit with Pardew’s mandate of investing in young talented players. On a similar note, midfielders Ross Barkley from Everton and Southampton’s Adam Lallana or James Ward Prowse could bolster a weak midfield. Upfront, the Ameobi brothers provide cover but lack goals so Loic Remy of Marseille or Genk’s Jelle Vossen would make strong partners for Cisse.

Newcastle Target? James Ward Prowse (Image from

Newcastle Target? James Ward Prowse (Image from


Harry Redknapp has a job on his hands. His toughest challenge yet sees him inherit a good squad that lacks in confidence and results. He needs to hold on to Ryan Nelson, subject to a coaching offer by his former club, DC United or if he lets him go sign a replacement quickly like Michael Dawson from Spurs. But midfield is the area Harry needs to work on the most. QPR haven’t looked the same since Mark Hughes broke up the trio of Barton, Derry and Taarbat and results have gone against them ever since. Barton, now on loan with Marseille and partner Shaun Derry weren’t the silkest of players, but as two tough tackling, no-nonsense central midfielders, they broke up opposition teams attacks like a hot knife through butter. Without the duo, teams pass their way through the QPR team until they get to a weak back four and eventually punish the team. An enforcer like France’s Yann M’Vila would be an ideal fit if they can secure him, but a player of his calibre should be pulling on a shirt from one of England’s top four, not its relegation favourite. Harry also needs to find a player in the style of Scott Parker or  former Newcastle captian Rob Lee who can not only protect the back four but drive the ball up field and create openings. They are few and far between and come at a price so Harry may struggle to get a player of this nature. A loan deal for Yossi Benayoun may be ideal as QPR look for inspiration. Whilst not defensive, Yossi can create from very little and would add a new dimension to the team.

Good Signing: Yossi Benayoun (Image from

Good Signing: Yossi Benayoun
(Image from


To be fair to Nigel Adkins, Southampton haven’t played that poorly this season but still find themselves in  a relegation dog fight. Sitting in 17th place, above Wigan on goal difference only, Adkins needs to strengthen to survive. Based on form and looking at attacking statistics, Southampton have played well and would be sitting comfortably in mid table but in reality, having drawn six games and lost ten (five of which were by only one goal), they find themselves in a mess. Adkins biggest problem is his defense and in particular his first choice goalkeeper. During the first half of the campaign, the Southampton boss used three different goalkeepers – Kelvin Davis, Artur Boruc and youngster Paulo Gazzaniga with little success. None of the three have stepped up to make the slot their own and all are  guilt of making mistakes. Granted Gazzaniga, at 21 years old is still learning so can not be too harshly criticized, but both Davis and Boruc a have had long careers so should  not be making the schoolboy type mistakes that they have been guilty of. It appears as though Adkins has no choice but to buy another safe pair of hands and stop the rot. Former England and Blackburn goalkeeper Paul Robinson would fit the bill, or Birmingham’s Jack Butland, who is attracting a lot of interest due to his recent form.. If money is tight, then a 6 month loan deal for QPR’s Rob Green or the free signing of Scotland stopper Crag Gordon may also be options available.

Opion: Paul Robinson (Image from EPLTALK.COM)

Opion: Paul Robinson (Image from EPLTALK.COM)


Liverpool need a striker and it’s not Daniel Sturridge. The recently £12 million acquisition from Chelsea is not the answer to Brendan Rodgers problems, even if the Northern Irishman thinks he is. Despite scoring on his debut in the cup against Mansfield, the England striker has never been an out-and-out goalscorer. With 40 career goals from 140 appearances, the pacey forward has never really demonstrated his ability to be a 15-20 goals a season striker. His best ever tally was 12 goals in all competitions for Chelsea last season but that was from 44 appearances so 1 in 4 on average. With 17 games left in the domestic season, and based on the same goal scoring ratio that would mean Strurridge would chip in an extra 4 goals between now and the end of the season. That’s £3 million a goal, which to Liverpool fans may be a difficult pill to swallow. Strurridge is a useful player, a squad player, but he is not the next Fernando Torres. For that Liverpool will need to look elsewhere. The likes of Charlie Austen of Burnley, Nicolas Helenius of AaB and Loic Remy of Marseille may be a better option for Rodgers to look at. With Liverpool almost coming out publicly and admitting they got the last transfer window wrong and were left short of numbers up front, Rodgers won’t make that mistake again. Well hopefully not for his sake.

Not the answer: Daniel Sturridge (Image from

Not the answer: Daniel Sturridge
(Image from


The Welsh side have yet again performed above expectations but not unexpectedly. The foundations laid down by Roberto Martinez, followed by Rodgers and current boss Michael Laudrup have led to stable base to build upon and success on the pitch. Laurdrup, who faced criticism when he took over the post in the summer, has won over the players and the fans with his strong work ethics and approachable manner. Added into this, his ability to locate and purchase a bargain such as Michu has helped to bolster the teams chances of survival. Sitting 9th in the league with 29 points to their name so far, it would appear as though Swansea are safe. But as history shows, the magic mark for survival in the Premiership is around 42 points which leaves them needing 13 points from their last 17 games. To give them a chance of getting the points needed, they need to retain the services of their influential spanish midfielder, Michu. A sensation since arriving in the summer, he has helped lift Swansea to the position they are in with some incredible performances and 13 goals along the way. His form has started to attract interest both domestically and back home in Spain, with several clubs rumoured to be willing to pay over the odds to sign him during this window. Laudrup could cash in on his £2 million signing and likely make considerably more. But he also knows that it could cost his team dearly as they push to secure Premiership football for yet another year.

Swansea must hold onto Michu (Image from The

Swansea must hold onto Michu
(Image from The

Manchester City

The defending champions find themselves trailing in the race for the title, some 7 points behind local rivals, United. It’s not been a smooth first half to the campaign with Mancini’s men being knocked out of Europe at the Champions League group stages by three teams they should have been winning if not competing against. Added into this, the constant drama surrounding Mario Balotelli has led to more than one sleepless night for Mancini. The latest event, a training group bust up with the manager himself, will surely signal the end for the talented yet troublesome Italian striker. Mancini has tried to father him over the past few years but has not managed to curb Balotelli’s enthusiasm for destructiveness. With suitors watching with interest, Mancini must sell him now to give his team the relief it needs for a final push towards retaining the title. With the money he gets from selling Balotelli, Mancini can pursue another striker who will add goals rather than headaches to the mix. Falcao is on every clubs radar so may be too difficult to secure in this window without a fight so it may be worth Mancini switching his attention to Russia and the problems that Hulk is having in settling there. A powerful striker, with goals galore across his career, he may give City the edge against United in the race for the trophy.

City Option? Hulk (Image from

City Option? Hulk (Image from

With 24 days left in the transfer window, there is still plenty of time for clubs to make the necessary changes to their squads before attacking the second half of the campaign. At the end of the season, we will be able to look back and see who has bought wisely, who made rash purchases and who failed to make the grade which ultimately lead to their club being relegated. Come May three teams will face this fate, but for the managers involved in that struggle at the moment, and the ones balanced just above them, now is the time to act to save your clubs season.

What a Month! What a Year!

The Ndlovu brothers - Adam, Madinda and PeterWell it’s officially 2013 so Happy New Year everyone! Hope you had an enjoyable, if somewhat over indulging festive period. It was quite the end to the year so as tradition, we look back on some of the stories we covered on the blog last month. Crowd troubles featured heavily as problems in Turkey and Russia both affected games. Remarkably in the latter, condoms were used to smuggle firecrackers into the stadium with one being thrown onto the pitch and blinding the goalkeeper. FIFA must surely act before more of these types of incidents occur. In other new, Football mourned the death of Adam Ndlovu who was tragically killed in a car accident this month. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in December as we looked at the players, old and new making the news that month. There were features on up and coming stars like Will Hughes, Hachim Mastour and Zymer Bytyqi as well as a look at former star Ronaldo and his battle against the bulge.

Will Hughes

Managers featured too, with the returns of Antonio Conte and Harry Redknapp marked out for special note and a sideways glance at Arsene Wenger as he contemplates his Arsenal future. Barcelona’s Tito Vilanova was in the news again as he unfortunately had to step down from his role temporarily in order to continue his battle against cancer. The Barca faithful will be praying for Tito’s speedy return in the early part of this year. Global football politics and issues were talked about in pieces around Gibraltar‘s inclusion finally into UEFA competitions as well as inventor Tim Jahnigen’s remarkable story of how he created an indestructible ball to help kids in poverty across the globe continue to play the beautiful game.

Home made football's are normal across poorer countries

Home made football’s are normal across poorer countries

January brings a lot of excitement with it as well with the opening of the transfer window. The key questions of who will Liverpool sign as their new number 9 and the tale of two south american strikers, Hulk and Falcao were answered in last months posts. January also sees the naming of this years Ballon d’Or winners with Alex Morgan looking favourite to steal the crown. It’s also the start of the second half of the season for clubs across the globe with Belgian team SV Zulte-Waregem hoping to continue their form from the first half of the season up until the end of the league campaign. Newcastle on the other hand will be looking to forget the first half of the season and are hoping they can strengthen accordingly so they can avoid yet another relegation battle. Palace fans are hoping they have more than just their cheerleaders to cheer about in the second half of the campaign as well.

US star Alex Morgan

2013 is going to be a great year, with lots of exciting stories coming out of the world of football and we will be there to cover them all (well most of them). You can now follow us as well now in the Back Of The Net Blog on Facebook (!/BackOfTheNetBlog) so please like it now! Additionally if there are stories you would like us to cover and haven’t yet, please let us know using the comments field and we will try to tackle them over the course of the year. With that, enjoy 2013, enjoy the football and enjoy the blog!

Turkey The Latest Country To Tackle Crowd Issues

Turkish striker Burak YilmazLast Sunday’s game between Süper Lig leaders Galatasaray and Trabzonspor was supposed to be the showcase match for Turkish football, wrapping up this half of the domestic season. Unfortunately the match, which ended in a stalemate will be remembered less for the football played between two of Turkey’s better teams but rather yet another unsavoury incident that has blighted football this year across the globe. Since the launching of this blog back in September, we have featured a story of similar nature every month that not only gives football a bad name but highlights a growing problem within the game that UEFA or FIFA has been unable to resolve. In past blogs, we have talked about several types of objects being thrown from the stands onto the pitch such as coins at the recent Manchester derby, firecrackers in Russia that blinded Dynamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin and even unbelievably a live grenade that was found with a player who luckily threw it from the pitch, moments before it exploded.

A smoke bomb explodes near the two players

A smoke bomb explodes near the two players
(Image from Screengrab)

The latest incident to mare football saw yet another object, a smoke bomb this time, thrown from the stands injuring two players in the process. The drama unfolded in the second half as Galatasary striker Burak Yilmaz, a former Trabzonspor player, broke free of the defence only to drag his shot wide of the goal. As he turned to make his way back to the centre circle, he was apparently struck by an object (apparently a water bottle) thrown by the Trabzonspor fans. When Yilmaz fell to the floor clutching his head, Trabzonspor defender Gircay Kaçar went over to check on his international teammate. As he bent over to see if the stricken striker was ok, a second object, this time a smoke bomb was thrown at the pair, exploding inches from the duo sending both scrambling for safety. The footage of the incident shows several objects being thrown including lighters, plastic cups and coins ruling out the possibility of this being a single hooligan in the crowd.

Hamit Altıntop pleads with fans for calm(Image from Screengrab)

Hamit Altıntop pleads with fans for calm
(Image from Screengrab/LigTV)

As police moved in, Galatasaray midfielder and captain Hamit Altıntop pleaded with the crowd for calm, repeated angrily pointing to the Turkish flag on his shirt as if to say to the crowd that we are all Turkish. Medical staff helped both injured players off the pitch treatment and luckily both managed to return to the match later on to finish the game. There has yet to be any sort of reaction or statement from the Turkish FA, UEFA or FIFA but as incidents like this grow in their frequency, action is needed to protect the players and the game itself. Suggestions of bringing back terraces and football nets in front of stands have been suggested as improvements to the game in recent months but do not solve the core issue of why these so-called fans are looking to disrupt the games they attend and harm the players who are there to entertain them? FIFA and the individual countries need to act swiftly to avoid further incidents like this from happening in an attemp to prevent one of these events ending up as a fatality.

To see the incident, click here:

Russian Fans Smuggle Firecrackers Into Stadiums Using Condoms

Russian fans Since FIFA awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, the headaches have not stopped. Surprisingly for FIFA, its Russia that is proving the most worrying to the body’s governing council rather than the oil rich footballing minnows. Reports of stadium building issues, corruption and racism have plagued the country since the announcement. But now the latest concern is the growing rise in fan violence that is threatening to tear the 2018 tournament apart at the seams. In recent weeks, violence in the stands and towards players has escalated turning into a major issue for the Russian Football Federation to tackle.

In a recent match between Dynamo Moscow and reigning champions Zenit St. Petersburg, Dynamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin was blinded in one eye and suffered burns to his face and ear after a firecracker was thrown onto the pitch from the stand. It exploded near the 25-year-old, sending the Russian goalkeeper to the floor in agony. The match was stopped by the referee, Alexei Nikolaev to allow treatment to Shunin but was eventually abandoned as police attempted to apprehend the suspect responsible and control the crowd. A total of 53 Zenit fans were arrested at the ground as the violence increased due to disharmony over the abandonment of the game but officials had no choice but to do so.

Shunin lies helpless after being struck by a firecracker

Shunin lies helpless after being struck by a firecracker

Security at games in Russia is generally high with regular inspections of fans entering stadiums to prevent weapons or other objects being brought in. However reports coming from the ground suggest that fans are suspected of smuggling in the firecrackers in question by wrapping them in condoms and inserting them into their bodies. Cleaning crews at the Khimki Arena found numerous torn condoms lying on the floor in stalls in bathrooms across the ground, leading to this assumption. If this reports are indeed true, the lengths that fans are going to  evade police detection and continue their disruption tactics are mind-blowing.

Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev condemed incident

Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev condemned incident

Regardless of how they managed it, their actions injured a player on the field in an act deemed by the Russian Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev as “a premeditated crime”. The Russian League was also quick to condemn the incident:

“Taking into consideration the recent negative tendency of acts of hooliganism by some football fans, which caused dangerous consequences for other supporters and players, the league decided to discuss the case at an extraordinary meeting.”

Unfortunately this type of indicent is not only restricted to the Russian league. Its exists at an issue in several leagues across Europe and in the past few months a few cases of objects being thrown from the stands and injuring players have appeared in the media. In the Premiership, Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was struck by a coin thrown at him from the stands during an ill-tempered local derby against rivals Manchester City. The game, which United won at the death, thanks to a superb free kick from Robin Van Persie was marred moments after the strike went Rio was hit. As he tried to recover, a City fan ran onto the pitch towards Rio but was fortunately stopped by the 6ft 4in frame of City goalkeeper Joe Hart. His manager  Alex Ferguson spoke after the game about the incident and the growing trend that it stems from:

“That shouldn’t happen. The same thing happened at Chelsea, which was masked by all the other things. We could have done without that. We can all do without that, after a great game between two sides”

Joe Hart holds back a City fan from attacking Ferdinand

Joe Hart holds back a City fan from attacking Ferdinand

Back in Russia, Shunin continues to recover from his injuries with doctors confirming that he had indeed suffered from a burn to his cornea in one eye. Shunin should see again with little difficulty but the incident and that of Rio Ferdinand showcases a growing problem in football that needs to be addressed by the sport’s governing bodies before a player is seriously hurt or killed. FIFA is conducting its own investigation into Shunin’s injury ( no word on one for Rio’s)  which may eventually lead to further sanctions that Russia will have to enforce if they do not want to lose the World Cup in 2018.

To see the report on Shunin’s injury, click here:

To see the report on Ferdinand’s injury, click here:

Former Porto Duo Top January’s Transfer Most Wanted List

Falcao - Top Transfer target?This January’s transfer window is likely to be an active one for clubs across Europe. The first half of the new season has highlighted weaknesses in squads that need to be corrected soon to prevent the proverbial wheels from coming off. In the EPL, Newcastle’s lack of depth is a worry for boss Alan Pardew as he competes in competitions domestically and in Europe. Liverpool’s lack of striking options have been a source of discussion, with Rodgers likely to buy a new player despite the option to recall Andy Carroll. And Chelsea may finally call time on the Torres project and splash out on a new striker, despite the Spaniard starting to show his former self in the past few games.

End of the line for Torres project?

End of the line for Torres project?

Chelsea have been linked heavily with goal sensation Falcao, who continues to strike fear into defenders across the world. The prolific Colombian striker, who single handily destroyed Chelsea in the Super Cup Final, will demand a high transfer fee but this is unlikely to put off owner Roman Abramovich. Falcao can operate as a solo front man or as part of a strike partnership so current blues boss Rafa Benetiz may be looking towards Falcao as a partner for Torres, rather than a direct replacement. For 26-year-old Falcao, (full name Radamel Falcao García) goals seem to come naturally for him, no matter where he plays. At River Plate, where he got his break into professional football, he scored 34 times in 90 appearances which attracted the attention of clubs across Europe. FC Porto secured his signature in July 2009 for a meagre fee of only €3.93 million and instantly started to repay them. Falcao scored in his first 4 games for Porto and continued to do so, racking up 41 goals in 51 appearances over two years for the Portuguese club, helping them to the league title, 2 Portuguese cups and most importantly Europa League triumph. Porto struggled to hold on to their dynamo striker and eventually gave in selling him to Aletico Madrid for €40 million in 2011. His form has continued in Madrid, where the colombian has hit 40 goals in 48 games , winning the Europa League again for the second year running and bagging the Super Cup as well following that thrilling performance against Chelsea. He has gradually become the most feared striker in Europe and sits top of most clubs wish lists this Christmas.

Falcao scored a stunning hat trick against Chelsea in teh Super Cup final

Falcao scored a stunning hat trick against Chelsea in teh Super Cup final

Falcao will rightly be the source of a lot of speculation in January but it could be the man brought in to replace him at Porto that grabs the headlines. Brazilian Givanildo Vieira de Souza or better known as Hulk is another player who made his name in Europe with the portuguese giants. Hulk, like his namesake, is a powerful striker who picked up where Falcao had left off and scored over 54 goals in 99 games before a €60 million move this summer to Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg. His transfer, along with Benfica midfielder Axel Witsel, caused uproar at Zenit when his new teammates learned how much the duo would be paid. Captain Igor Denisov, flanked by striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov spoke up about the gap in wages between Hulk and Witsel and the rest of the squad, reportedly three times as much, deciding to go not only to the club’s manager and owners but to the press as well. This act led to Denisov and Kerzhakov being fined and dropped into the club’s youth team as punishment. The duo sat in the youth team for nearly two months as manager Luciano Spalletti refused to give in to their demands.

Denisov was relegated to the youth team following a bust up at Zenit

Denisov was relegated to the youth team following a bust up at Zenit

But not all was right with Hulk. Having started well for his new club, Hulk began to disagree with Spalletti as well and in particular his tactics and team selection policies. Hulk declared that he was seeking to leave the club in January which has put a lot of clubs on alert as they see Hulk as the perfect answer to their striking problems. However FIFA regulations bar players from playing for more than two clubs in a season, which means that Hulk may not be able to play for another club (having played for Porto and Zenit so far this season) and forcing the Brazilian to stay in Russia at least until June 2013. Clubs may still invest in Hulk in January and have him spend the next 5 months in the reserves, in an attempt to avoid a battle for his signature in the summer.

Hulk and Spalletti haven't seen eye to eye for a while

Hulk and Spalletti haven’t seen eye to eye for a while

As the race hots up for Falcao, clubs across Europe may start to pull out and divert their attention to the troubled Brazilian instead. Likely to be sold at asking price, Hulk will be too expensive for the likes of Newcastle and Liverpool but Europe’s high rollers like Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid and PSG may just find the cash to end the Brazilians short stay in Russia.

End Of An Era For Dutch Master

When we think about the greatest managers in the world today, Guus Hiddink’s name is often mentioned. The likeable Dutchman has spent the last 20 years of his life building a successful managerial career, off of the back of a somewhat unsuccessful playing career. Over the past 2 decades, Hiddink has managed club sides like PSV, Real Madrid, Valencia and Chelsea as well as international teams like South Korea, Australia, Russia and of course Holland. Yesterday Hiddink, 66, announced that was all going to come to an end when he finally retired from management next summer. The current head coach of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian League, has decided to move more into an advisory role, although has not confirmed if that is with Anzhi or another club just yet. Either way, Anzhi will have a task on their hands this coming summer to replace the Dutch master.

Hiddink started his playing career with his hometown youth team, SC Varsseveld before signing his first professional contract with De Graafschap in 1967.  After spending two unsuccessful years at PSV, the young midfield grafter finally became a regular starter at De Graafschap and favourite of manager Piet de Visser in 1972, who forged a strong bond with the player which has stayed with them over the years. Hiddink played 130 times for the club and helped them to gain promotion back to the Eredivisie, Holland’s top league and to this day is still a firm fans favourite. In 1977, Guus was transferred to N.E.C. Nijmegen, where he spent the next 4 years of his life. His spell at N.E.C was never as fruitful as his time at De Graafschap and saw Hiddink twice go out on loan to US clubs, firstly with Washington Diplomats and then with San Jose Earthquakes, but the draw of De Graafschap still lingered with him. So when the opportunity arose, Hiddink jumped at the chance and rejoined for on final swan song year. He retired in 1982 from playing and almost immediately became assistant manager at the club to manager Huib Ruijgrok. This would be Hiddink’s first taste of management but it wasn’t long before he got his first full-time job as manager.

Hiddink and Piet de Visser remember where they started

In 1984, PSV manager Jan Reker noticed Hiddink and remembered watching him play for De Graafschap so persuaded the then 38-year-old to leave his team and join him at PSV. The move to Eindhoven proved invaluable as Hiddink, Reker and PSV own the league title that year. He would remain as assistant until the sacking of Reker’s replacement, Hans Kraay allowed an opening for Hiddink to get his shot. He officially took over in March 1987 and led the team to the title that year which open the door to Hiddink’s first European adventure the following year. And what a year that would be. With a squad that contained the likes of Ronald Koeman, Eric Gerets, Søren Lerby and Wim Kieft, Hiddink led PSV to the treble, picking up the title, Dutch Cup and the clubs first ever European Cup beating Benfica in the final on penalties. Hiddink continued his success with PSV into the next season winning his third league title before deciding to leave to firstly manage Fenerbache then later Valencia but his biggest challenge was yet to come in the shape of the Dutch National Team.

Taking over the top job in 1995, Hiddink knew he had a squad of great individual players but not a team. Feuds between black and white dutch players were frequent and his no-nonsense approach to this was to take action, sending Edgar Davids home just weeks before Euro 1996.  After surviving a group that contained England, Scotland and Switzerland, Holland would eventually be knocked out of Euro 1996 by France in the quarter finals on penalties. Hiddink would keep the job and lead them to World Cup 1998 in France where he would go one better and reach the semi finals before being knocked out by Brazil. Hiddink left after the tournament to move to Real Madrid but was sacked from there after making some off the cuff remarks about the clubs finances. A short spell at Real Betis followed before Hiddink’s next international experience.

Edgar Davids and Hiddink didn’t always see eye to eye

South Korea were a team in development when Hiddink took charge. As joint hosts of the 2002 World Cup with Japan, the hosts were never considered to have a chance. But under the guidance of Hiddink, South Korea were the surprise team of the tournament, qualifying top of their group and knocking Portugal and Poland out in the process. A march to the semi finals, beating Italy then Spain along the way, was only halted by an impressive Germany but left South Korea fans with a sense of pride and football scouts from across Europe scrambling to grab their stars. After the tournament, Hiddink returned to PSV as manager, winning 3 titles and 2 cups in the next 4 years. Whilst in his final year at PSV, Hiddink announced that he would also be taking on the job of the Australian national team where he would become an ever increasingly popular figure with fans and players alike.

He led Australia into World Cup 2006 and after being knocked out by Italy, in dubious circumstances, Hiddink left for his next adventure, to manage the Russian national team. It was here, through old friend Piet de Visser that Hiddink would meet a wealthy billionaire called Roman Abramovich. A friendship started that would eventually led Abramovich to appoint Hiddink as head coach of his own team, Chelsea. Hiddink managed the team briefly after the sacking of Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari in February 2009 and led them for the next four months, winning the FA Cup in the process. Strangely Hiddink decided not to remain at Stamford Bridge but honour an older agreement with the Turkish FA to take over the national team so in June 2010, he left Chelsea to do just that. But Russian money was never far away from Hiddink and he was eventually tempted away from his role in February 2012 by a new Russian billionaire, Suleyman Kerimov and his team, FC Anzhi Makhachkala. With a star-studded team including Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o and millions to spend in the transfer market, Hiddink saw a chance to create something and took the challenge where he has remained ever since.

Eye on the Prize – Hiddink wants to win the Europa League before he goes

As the summer approaches, Hiddink gets closer to securing the Russian title to add to his collection. And with Anzhi still in the last 32 of the Europa League, he must be eyeing that trophy as well. Regardless if he wins it or not, Hiddink will go down as one of the most respected and loved coaches of all time. Many clubs and countries have benefited from his leadership skills over the years, some more than others. But what they all have in common is that they will look back at Hiddink’s contribution and mark it a defining moment in their football history.

International Footballer Puts Family First

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

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

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

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

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