Takeover done. Now what for Newcastle?

4 years. 48 months. 1460 days. 35,040 hours. It’s a long time to wait to get what you want but finally its happened with the consortium led by Amanda Staveley and back by the PIF taking control of Newcastle United Football Club. The deal worth £305m is not without its controversies, much of which is aligned to PIF’s involvement but for the Newcastle fans who have spent the last 13 years being ignored and abused by their clubs former owner Mike Ashley, it matters not. Finally their club is free again and can now hopefully live up to its potential. Staveley and co will undoubtedly be aware of the enormous task that sits in front of them. A lot needs to change and quickly but where to start? Likely the first point of call will be with the manager.

Amanda Staveley and Newcastle’s other new owners have a lot to do now that they have the keys to this iconic club.

There has been a lot of talk about what will happen with the manager situation but there are very few who actually think Steve Bruce should or will remain in charge. His £8m payoff has been widely touted as being the first piece of real business by the new owners and its a move that will please the fans who have been bewildered by how Bruce has remained in charge for this long. To be fair to Bruce, who is 1 game shy of making the 1,000 games as a manager, it’s not totally been his fault with a lack of funds and mounting injuries largely to blame. But he hasn’t helped himself with his inability to use what he has and get the best out of them resulting in only 3 points from Newcastles first seven games of the season. Adding in to this, his close ties to outgoing owner Mike Ashley means he has to go. But who will replace him?

The job itself is an interesting one especially the opportunity to build something almost from scratch and wealthy backers willing to do that. However it’s also a long term project that will need patience and a few transfer windows to rebuild a squad that is threadbare at present. Antonio Conte and Zinedane Zidane are two high profile names linked with the job with the former slightly more interesting given his experience in the league after he won the title in his time at Chelsea. Both are currently out of work and are title winning managers but would this challenge present an opportunity for them to test themselves or would it be seen as too much of a risk to their reputations. After all, money doesn’t necessarily guarantee success at least not in the short term. Perhaps which might be enough to deter them. The other option is to look more short term and find a manager who can stabilize the club, assist in creating a more balance squad and bring belief back to the fans and the players that Newcastle can once again compete.

Conte is one name tipped with the job but can Newcastle’s new owners persuade him to join?

Top of mind is Brendan Rodgers who has done just that at Leicester City. The former Liverpool and Celtic boss is tactically sound and capable of building squad needed to perform. Having come close to winning the league with Liverpool and with Leicester (to a degree), would he view the opportunity at Newcastle as a way to eventually go one step further or will he see it for what it is – a risk. After all, success is defined differently by everyone so his idea of success might not align with the new owners, even if they are saying outwardly to the fans that this will be a long term project. What, if after two seasons in charge, Rodgers has Newcastle comfortably in the top 8 and had a few good runs in the cups. Will that be viewed as a success or will he be dismissed in favour of a bigger name manager. There is however one manager who the new owners will give a longer rope to and that is former Newcastle boss and now Everton manager Rafa Benetiz. The Spaniard is viewed favourably by the consortium having been top of their wish list for manager over a year ago had the takeover gone through then. He would likely be afforded more than just a season and a half especially if his vision aligned with theirs. But would they be able to convince him to leave the project he has only just started at Everton for another bite at the cherry at Newcastle. Time will tell.

Regardless of who is brought in, the rebuilding job needed at a squad level is more than apparent. With the exception of Allan Saint Maximin, Callum Wilson, Joe Willock and club captain Jamal Lascelles, quality across the board is seriously lacking. With no real production line of talent coming through, acquisitions in the short term will be needed to improve Newcastles fortunes. The spending will start in January before a real overhaul in the summer. With 12 of the first team squad over 29 years old, time is not on Newcastle’s side and new faces will need to be added which will not be an easy task. Identifying these targets and working behind the scenes to start the conversations will likely fall to the clubs new Sporting Director which should only be one man – Les Ferdinand. The former Newcastle icon has been Director of Football at QPR for the past 6 years and has done a tremendous job there and is the right man to lead the changes at St James Park. Having played for the club in its heyday he will understand the deep connection the fans have to the club, their expectations and what needs to be done to return Newcastle back to a place where they are competitive. The fans aren’t expecting to see Mbappe or Messi walk through the doors and into the famous black and white jersey but they are looking for players who can make them better and give their all for the club every time they step onto the pitch.

Sir Les Ferdinand should be the only name under consideration for Sporting Director

To help this evolution on the pitch, several things need to happen off it. Firstly investment into the training ground and in to St James Park to modernize them both is much needed. Both have suffered over the past 13 years under Mike Ashley’s ownership who barely put any money into either besides enough to give it a lick of paint. Secondly, rebuilding the youth academy from scratch including renewing ties with key youth clubs in the surrounding area to unearth the next generation of stars. Adding former players like Warren Barton, Lee Clark and Rob Lee to the youth setup would help as well as only players from the past can educate the players of the future about what it’s like to play for this club. Thirdly, establishing a strong scouting system and opening up ties internationally will allow the club to expand further, generate new sources of revenue and find hidden gems from across the world which will keep the club competitive in the future. And finally and likely the hardest of them all, making Newcastle United into a global brand. It’s something that Mile Ashley foolishly ignored whilst other clubs in the league and around Europe reaped the benefits. Outside of England, Newcastle has only a small loyal following and certainly not on the same international scale as Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United. Building a global brand will take time, it will need the right people leading it from a strategy perspective, it will need to tap into the clubs icon players of the past like Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan, David Ginola and Jonas Gutierrez who can passionately sell the club to foreign fans and it will need funding, something that shouldn’t be an issue now. Opening up this iconic club to a wider audience only has upside and will elevate the club into a new stratosphere as they look to compete with the biggest clubs in world football both on and off the pitch.

Article by Martin Cowgill

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Is Going Down The Worst Thing For Newcastle? Maybe that’s the plan.

After another woeful performance, this time against Brighton and Newcastles chances of staying in the Premier League took a nose dive. With nine games left, it’s hard to see how they survive especially with Steve Bruce still filling the managers chair. Tactically inept, starved of ideas and with the players body language suggesting they have given up hope of survival, Newcastle under Bruce look like a sinking ship. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the loyal Toon Army who have endured more than most as the season has gone on. The end, we all fear, looks right around the corner and we are perilous to stop it.

Relegation however may not be the worse thing for Newcastle and indeed might be part of the plan as Ashley continues to work behind the scenes on reviving the failed Saudi bid. That bid was stopped by the Premier League’s new ownership test as well as a handful of other instigators who fuelled by their own personal agendas (or indeed paid by someone else’s) kiboshed any chance that Newcastle United had of a better life. That might sound flippant but for all Newcastle fans, the last almost 14 years have been a nightmare under Mike Ashley who decided early on that owning a football club was more for a personal advancement than that of the clubs. The Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bid was far from perfect and indeed didn’t quite sit right in the minds of a lot of Newcastle fans but when you have the opportunity to escape the clutches of a torturer’s cell, you don’t consider if its any worse on the outside.

The Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund failed in its first attempt to buy Newcastle but are rumoured to be waiting in the wings

For now Ashley remains in charge and the club stumbles towards yet another relegation. But this one feels almost different as if it has been engineered that way. It might sound like the ramblings of a drunken Newcastle fan trying to make sense of what is happening but if you would just allow me to explain my thought process, it might not be that insane. So here goes. It’s no secret that Ashley has wanted to sell the club for a long time and indeed has entertained several offers but none met his lofty elevated set price tag. That was until the Saudi’s came along with more than enough money to meet Ashley’s greediness. From that point onwards, Ashley and his band of merry idiots pushed everything towards making that deal happen. Unfortunately a coalition of naysayers that including BeIn Sports, Amnesty International bizarrely, several MP’s likely paid handsomely for their objections and of course the insecure duo of Liverpool FC and Tottenham FC threw blockers up at very convenient intervals in the hopes of derailing the bid. And it worked. It gave the Premier League enough doubt that it sat on its hands for long enough that the Saudi’s walked away.

A furious Mike Ashley, who saw his dream of buying Necker Island and kicking Richard Branson out slowly disappearing, has sought legal advice and challenged the Premier League to justify why it delayed its decision to refuse or approve the Owners and Directors Test’ (‘OADT’) which all new owners need to pass. With the PL not willing to budge on its fence sitting position, it will need to go to the Court of Arbitration which could take many months if not well into next year. That for Ashley is too long. So perhaps he came up with another plan. A plan so mischievous that even Dick Dastardly and Muttley of the Wacky Races would approve. Why fight the Premier League on the takeover when he can push through the take over through the EFL, who are the governing body of the English Championship and the other leagues below. Given the EFL’s previous track record of takeovers (looking at you Nottingham Forest) and their lighter version of the directors test which involves solving a 16 piece jigsaw puzzle and telling them how much you like football, it should be a breeze for Ashley to sell the club.

Footage of a director trying to pass the EFL directors test recently

The challenge however was how to get into the Championship without the fans, the league or anyone else known their dastardly plan. The answer came in the figure of Steve Bruce. Retaining his services as manager and potentially cutting him in on the plan made it almost too easy. Under Bruce, Newcastle would play boring defensive non attacking football. He would throw any notion of tactical changes out of the window and would set the team up so badly it could only really hope to not fail too badly. Relegation would land Ashley, his band of idiots and likely Bruce a very handsome pay off when the revived Saudi bid finally got its approval in the Championship. Ashley would walk away into the sunset with two bulging suitcases full of cash and leave Newcastle under new billionaire owners who would then transform the club into PL challengers within a matter of years, much to the disappointment of Liverpool, Spurs and the Premier League. Far fetched? Maybe. But let’s see what happens if they are relegated. If i’m right, it’s going to be a very interesting and lucrative summer for Newcastle Football Club.

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Newcastle’s Failed Takeover Was Anything But Black And White

Another season, another disappointment for the Toon Army. After 13 years under the bewildering ownership of Mike Ashley, the Newcastle fans began to believe that the end was nigh as a consortium from Saudi Arabia jumped through Ashley’s hoops in order to try to secure the club. All that stood between them and ownership of the North East club was a fit and proper ownership test by the Premier League.

Amanda Staveley led the bid team trying to takeover Newcastle

For a club known for its black and white, this failed takeover was anything but that. Indeed the failure of the takeover has left the fans with more questions that answers – why did it take 17 weeks for the Premier League to respond, why was the World Trade Organization involved and who else played a role in the bids demise? The clouds over Newcastle are a dark grey colour now as these questions lie unanswered. So what happened? Why did the Premier League take so long to respond. And what else can we read into this deal falling through.

First in was Amnesty International who took the unusual step of writing to Premier League Chief Richard Masters urging it to consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record before signing off on the takeover of Newcastle United. These are genuine concerns but the question is more about why Amnesty decided that this takeover over all others was the one that they had to weigh in on. In 2017, Amnesty identified human rights violations in 159 countries which included Saudi Arabia. But also in that list was the USA, Russia and China, all of which have had companies that have bought Premier League clubs in the last twenty years. Indeed Sheffield United are owned by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad who won control of the club just last year. Also included was Qatar and the United Arab Emirates who have state owned ownership of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City respectively. The decision by Amnesty to act now and oppose this takeover rather than the others appears to be motivated by factors outside of the common good.

Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad takes over Sheffield United

That was followed by BeIn Sports who challenged the Premier League to block the deal on the grounds that Saudi Arabia had been involved in piracy and should be held accountable for operating a pirate network that was illegally streaming EPL games. The Qatar based company’s staunch opposition to the deal made little sense as the two elements (piracy in Saudi Arabia and ownership of Newcastle) have little in common. It could be argued that like the Amnesty International objective, third parties could have been operating in the background in an effort to derail any deal. Ironically BeIn’s chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi is also the current president of Paris Saint Germain; a club who would not react well to another English based club gaining the same financial muscle as they currently have.

Shortly after, the World Trade Organization issued a report which found representatives of the Saudi state had facilitated the activity of the pirate network BeoutQ, which illegally broadcast a host of sporting events including Premier League matches. Why this report was produced and released is unknown nor what the WTO, whose mandate is around the regulations of international trade between nations, is doing looking into broadcast rights in the first place is a bigger question. In addition the timing of this release is suspicious given how close the Premier League were to making its decision. The release of the report only added a new layer to navigate and delayed the decision even further.

Finally there was pressure from the UK government to not allow the deal citing the need for Saudi Arabia to reform its justice system and release all political prisoners and the attempt to ‘whitewash’ them with the takeover. Eight MPs in total wrote to Richard Masters led by John Nicolson, SNP spokesperson and a member of the House of Commons on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He stated on Twitter shortly after the deal collapsed that “the Premier League must now revise its Owners and Directors Test to ensure this fiasco isn’t repeated”. He continued “Heads of States with gruesome human rights records should never be allowed to launder their reputations through sport”. Ironically Nicholson had no objection to Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad’s takeover at Sheffield United despite his father being the brother of the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

John Nicolson objected to the Newcastle takeover but not other previous takeovers.

Also worth noting that the position of Nicholson was not exactly backed by the Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston who distanced himself from talk of Newcastle United’s takeover saga. Huddleston swung the spotlight firmly on to the Premier League to make the decision. When asked about the government’s stance, Huddleston said: “I’m very uncomfortable with the level of expectation of involvement on government with things that are very clearly decisions for football. There is obviously the fit and proper persons test to go through with any acquisitions of this nature and I think that is absolutely appropriate. It’s something that I’m keeping an eye on but it is a decision for those involved. It would be inappropriate for me to interfere at that kind of level.” Why his understudy felt it important to push the matter without Huddleston’s blessing is unknown yet the same theory could be applied in that he was influenced to do so.

All of this along with the Premier League’s irregular delay in making a decision about whether the prospective owners passed their owners and directors test suggests that the events that led up to the PIF withdrawing its bid in frustration, were not as black and white as we are made to believe. It’s natural to assume that all these events were planned and orchestrated to derail the proceedings. When one failed, the next stepped up sometimes only days later. Amanda Staveley who was fronting the bid spoke shortly after the collapse of the deal and implied that fellow Premier League clubs, Tottenham and Liverpool had made their objections to the deal going through clear to the Premier League but its likely others were involved as well. Several clubs across Europe had a lot to lose of this deal went through primarily as it would put Newcastle at a financial advantage and provide them a better chance of challenging for silverware both at home and abroad. Whatever is the truth, this deal didn’t happen due to due diligence or because of delays at the Premier League. It never stood a chance of succeeding as others orchestrated moves to undermine it and protect their own interests.

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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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Asia Awaits Its New Champions As The Asian Cup Draws To A Close

After 28 games over a period of three weeks, the final of the Asian Cup takes place tomorrow with South Korea taking on host nation Australia. Whilst not considered as one of the pinnacle International tournaments, this year’s event has showcased the talent that can be found in this region and just how far the game has progressed. Competitiveness in the region has improved dramatically over the past decade with more teams challenging for final spots in the tournament. Along with the regulars like Japan, South Korea, UAE and Australia come new pretenders like Qatar, Uzbekistan and debutantes this year, Palestine highlighting the rich diversity that this cup has.

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final  Image from Getty)

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final
Image from Getty)

It’s an incredible achievement for Palestine to reach the Asian Cup and one that has not gone unnoticed in the footballing community. Despite much publicized adverse conditions, the Palestine team qualified in style by winning the AFC Challenge Cup without conceding a single goal and drawing only one out of the five games. Whilst their experience in Australia was not quite what they had hoped for (three defeats, eleven goals conceded, only one goal scored) they exit the tournament with their heads held high. Similarly Uzbekistan’s remarkable resurgence continues as they put up an impressive show by finishing second in what was a difficult group Despite losing to group winners China, they secured good wins over North Korea and Saudi Arabia to progress to the quarter finals where they were eventually knocked out by South Korea.

It should be a great final between arguably two of the strongest teams in the region. The pair met in the group stages in a hotly contested battle with South Korea eventually coming out on top thanks to a goal from Jung Hyub Lee. Australia will be looking to make amends in the final in front of the home crowd at the packed ANZ stadium in Sydney.  There is extra incentive for the Aussies heading into the match given that they have never won the Asian Cup. Their best performance to date was four years ago in Qatar when they reached the final only to be beat by Japan in extra time. The memories of that day still live fresh in the mind of Australian legend Tim Cahill. The former Everton midfielder has been the heart and soul of the Australian team for over a decade and did announce his retirement from international football after last year’s World Cup, only to be persuaded to stay on for the Asian Cup. For Cahill, it was an opportunity to sign off in style – a win in the Asian Cup on home turf his final swan song. His contribution and influence to the team is unquestionable but along with it he brings goals. His three goals so far, including an impressive brace against China have propelled Australia to the final. Now one last performance is needed from their star man to rewrite history and finally put Australia’s name on the Asian Cup.

Standing in their way is two times champions South Korea. Despite having not won the trophy since 1960, South Korea have been there and thereabouts in almost every tournament since, three times finishing as runners up and four times as the third place team. After a dismal World Cup where they failed to show their true potential, picking up only one point from a possible nine in a 1-1 draw with Russia in the opening game. Changes at the top were made fairly quickly upon their return with manager Hong Myung-Bo being sacked and replaced by former West Germany midfielder turn sweeper Uli Stielike. Having spent the six years before coaching Qatar based sides Al Arabi and Al Sailiya; Stielike understood the significance of the Asian Cup and immediately started to put plans in place for an aggressive assault on the competition. He wasted little time in refreshing the squad he inherited adding Hoffenheim’s Jin Su Kim and Guangzhou’s Hyun-Soo Jang to a defense which was considered one of the worst in the World Cup. Stielike who was affectionately nicknamed “The Stopper” as a player has tightened up the defence and has encouraged the front line to close down more in order to play a high line game and relieve the pressure on the backline. So far the plan has worked with South Korea managing to get all the way to the final without conceding.  Upfront the addition of fairly unknown striker Lee Jeong-Hyeop has transformed the attack and given South Korea an edge in the matches they have played so far.

With the expectations on what South Korea should achieve at this tournament set low by the South Korean FA, Stielike and his side can look forward to the final with no pressure attached. It would be nice to complete the tournament without conceding a single goal as it would illustrate how far they have come since Brazil and in turn restore pride back into their bewildered fans but for the manager the only thing that is important is the victory. He knows that it will be a different Australia than the one they faced in the group stage and will be prepared for a hostile crowd. For the neutral it will be a match to remember with two of Asia’s best teams going at it with an intense ferocity for at least ninety minutes if not more. The victor will lift the trophy that night and earn their place in the record books whilst the loser will go back and ponder what could have been.

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Norwegian Wonder kid Odegaard Signs For Real Madrid

Norwegian wonderkid, Martin Odegaard (Image from Getty)Touted as one of the hottest prospects in the game, it was only a matter of time before he left his home in Norway for pastures new. After months of speculation, Stromsgodset prodigy Martin Odegaard has finally signed for Real Madrid for a reported fee of around 3m Euros.  A formal announcement and unveiling is expected today at the Bernabeau as the 16 year old is presented to the Spanish media. The Norwegian wonder kid has chosen to move to the European champions ahead of various other lucrative offers including ones from boyhood favourites Liverpool, Manchester United, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Madrid rivals Barcelona. But the draw of working with Carlo Ancelotti and being part of the new generation of Galatico’s was too good to refuse. Ancelotti has already spoken about his delight in getting the deal done proclaiming that Odegaard is a kid with exceptional talent and personality.

Martin with father Hans take in a Real Madrid match earlier this year  (Image from Getty)

Martin with father Hans take in a Real Madrid match earlier this year
(Image from Getty)

Born in December 1998, Odegaard was always destined to be a footballer as his father was a huge influence on him in his early years. Hans Erik Odegaard, a former player himself, has nurtured his son throughout his childhood and instill a strong work ethic into him, regularly encouraging his son to train for a minimum of 20 hours per week, even as a small child. Many have criticized Hans for being a pushy parent but he insists that Martin always dreamed of becoming a footballer much like other boys his age so all he was doing was encouraging his development into one. And what a job he did. Martin’s endless hours spent practicing and perfecting his technique have made him into one of the most exciting players ever to emerge from Norway. Hans would also provide Martin with his first step into the game by landing him a trial at his old club Stromsgodset who quickly snapped up the youngster before any one else could. As the bigger teams across Europe started to get wind of this talented 12 year old, Stromsgodset with the help of his father pulled the player closer and encouraged him not to become distracted with their interest and to focus on his career in Norway which would start by breaking into the first team. His progression was quick with Martin joining first team training sessions aged 13 before eventually making it onto the subs bench two year later.

Odegaard became the youngest player ever to play in the Tippeligaen at aged 15 years and 117 days when he was handed his Norwegian league debut for Stromsgodset against Aaelsund. Then manager Ronny Delia, now head coach at Celtic in Scotland, saw something magical in the boy and decided it was time to let him shine. Appearing as a substitute in the 72nd minute of the game, Odegaard wasted little time in showcasing his natural ability by dancing round four players before playing an inch perfect pass to fellow substitute and teammate Thomas Sorum to score.  One month later he would score his first goal for the club in a 4-1 victory over Sarpsborg, making him the league’s youngest ever scorer, a record that had stood for over 100 years.  Two months later he would make his European debut in the Champion’s league second qualifying round defeat to Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti. By now speculation was mounting over how long it would be before the wonder kid was called up to the national team. Having starred in Norway’s Under 17 team in a tournament played in Scotland back in early 2014, it was expected that Odegaard would be made to wait and move slowly through the ranks before making his full debut. However with manager Per Mathias Hogmo under increasing pressure to freshen up his under performing squad ahead of the start of the European Championship qualifying stage, Hogmo accelerated Odegaard’s progress and handed him his full debut in a friendly against Saudi Arabia. A month later he became the youngster ever player to play in a European Championship qualifier as he rose from the bench to replace Mats Moller Daehli in the 2-1 win over Bulgaria.

Carrying the label of the next Lionel Messi is a heavy burden for someone so young but his father is confident that his son will be able to cope. Having spent hours working on his first and second touches plus running at pace with the ball, Hans believes his son has the tools to emulate his idol and become a player of similar stature. Fellow professionals agree calling him a phenomenon and a player with unbelievable talent, the best that Norway has ever produced. High praise for a player who is still only 16 and has a lot to prove in the game. But at Madrid, Odegaard will get the best coaching that money can buy and has the best chance of becoming the player that many hope he will. His father, who has protected his son well and kept him grounded, will be beside his son all the way on his journey after accepting a youth coaching role with Real Madrid as well. Both Odegaards are now looking forward to the next chapter in their lives with Hans determined to make their time in Spain a success. Success comes in various forms but for his son getting into the first team and playing for Madrid is the dream. With an already talented squad, it may be a harder and longer road for the young player but a journey he is prepared to take as he looks to become the next Lionel Messi.

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Why being The Whipping Boys Teaches Nations Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

Tahiti were outclassed by Spain  (Image from PA)

Tahiti were outclassed by Spain
(Image from PA)

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

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

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

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

Latvia - Much better opponent  (Image from Getty)

Latvia – Much better opponent
(Image from Getty)

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

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