Saturday, 28 October 2017

Barcelona & Catalonia: Their Football Relationship With Spain

Let me start with a football trivia question, just for fun:

Since 1934, the Spanish national team have played 17 out of their 62 home World Cup matches in Madrid. so how many World Cup matches have Spain played in Barcelona?

Maybe you're thinking that's a tough question? Almost impossible to get correct without a margin of error, say to the nearest 5?

OK. Well, how about this one?

Regarding Barcelona, what have Argentina, Andorra, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the Soviet Union all got in common?

The answer to that one is that their national teams have all played more World Cup matches in the city of Barcelona than the Spanish national team.  In fact, England, Ireland, Portugal and Yugoslavia have all played as many World Cup matches in Barcelona as Spain have.

Which leads to the answer to the first question: Spain have played just 1 World Cup match in Barcelona - against Yugoslavia in a 1969 qualifier for the following year's World Cup in Mexico. This match was played in the Camp Nou and attended by less than 10,000 fans in a stadium which holds ten times as many.

Spain also played a European Championships qualifier against Denmark in 1975, also in the Camp Nou and which was attended by less than 7,000.

That's it - two competitive international matches have been held in Spain's 2nd-largest city, ever.  And this in a country which likes to move the national team from city to city.

In fact, Spain have played more World Cup matches in Madrid, Seville, Valencia, Gijón, Alicante and Albacete than they have in Barcelona.

Now everyone is aware of the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid, but an awful lot of people who understand that rivalry are clearly bewildered by the declaration of Catalan independence earlier today.

Perhaps the above illustrates somewhat the incredibly fractious and difficult relationship between Spain "proper" and Catalonia. This feeling - approaching enmity in some cases - has been simmering for decades and the strength of feeling, on the Catalan side, should not be underestimated.

Having spent a fair amount of time in my late teens in small-town Catalunya (Catalonia) a couple of decades ago, whilst working temporarily as a language teacher, I was given a comprehensive education in Catalan nationalism.

My education first started from being told that Catalonia was not Spain. It became clear that many Catalans I spoke to had raw family tales of the repression of the Catalans by the Franco regime and the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, as well as opinions, rightly or wrongly, on the cultural and economic subjugation of Catalonia by the Madrid government.

I was able to speak a little Spanish, and no Catalan, so all my Catalan colleagues would break from their conversation in Catalan and were happy to speak to me in Spanish (and, in one case, German!) to allow me to understand a little better what was being discussed.

But, having arrived thinking Spain was Spain was Spain, it quickly became apparent I knew next to nothing about Spanish internal politics and especially its regions.

It's this same kind of ignorance which still seems to permeate non-Spanish journalism in the present day.

FC Barcelona was firmly described to me as "representing the Catalan nation". I was once in a bar in the tiny Catalan village of Camp-Redó and made the mistake of cheering a goal against Barcelona in a pre-season friendly match against Feyenoord. A grandmother who wasn't even watching the game gave me the most dagger-like look I've ever been on the end of.

It was the first Feyenoord goal (scored by Gaston Taument - anyone remember him?) which was the one I cheered. Naturally, I changed my approach for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th ones, which I think was appreciated!  Watch out for Ronald Koeman somehow converting a penalty for FCB:

During the Franco period, which lasted around 35 years, the Catalan culture and language were effectively banned. School lessons were in Spanish only. The Camp Nou on match day was the only place where Catalan could be heard in public.

The 1978 Spanish constitution was supposed to correct these perceived injustices, giving regions such as Catalonia significant autonomy and, amongst many other things, restoring the Catalan language in the classroom and the civil service. The huge rivalry with, and enormous desire to beat, Real Madrid still existed, but that kind of relationship exists for various adversaries in most mature footballing countries.

However, using football as a proxy for understanding nationhood, let me take you back to 1987, when Gary Lineker was a Barça player.  In February that year, he scored 4 goals for England in a 4-2 win over Spain in Madrid: 

Afterwards, he was asked by a journalist how he felt about scoring 4 goals against the country where he played football. Lineker is rumoured to have said "I don't play for a Spanish club, I play for a Catalan one". One newspaper in Barcelona the following day had a headline: "Catalan player scores 4 against Spain".

Cult status followed., assisted greatly by also scored a hat-trick for Barça against Real: 

Now, I make no judgement or comment on the legality of today's declaration of Catalan independence, but there can be great symbolism in the beautiful game. And as far as football is an indicator of anything societal, with the above scenarios and the fact that Spain have not played a competitive match in Barcelona since Franco's death in the mid-1970s, can anyone really be surprised when Catalans say that Catalonia is not part of Spain?

Whether the Catalan nationalists will realise their dream of de facto statehood is very difficult to say at this time, but the strong desire of a great many Catalans to create their own nation certainly shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Football has been an indicator of Catalonia going down this path for decades now.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

UEFAlona: Fact, Fiction Or #FakeNews?

On the face of it, Barcelona's triumph over Paris Saint-German last night was astonishing.  To recover from a 4-0 European 1st leg deficit and go through in normal time in the 2nd leg required all manner of things to go right for them.

PSG were pathetic. Unai Emery's performance as coach will be one he has nightmares about for the rest of his life. His players are some of the highest-paid sportsmen in the world. When Cavani made it 3-1, that should have been that. The fact that PSG didn't score again when Barça were pushing men forward was a factor. That they conceded 3 goals in the last few minutes, when "only" conceding 2 would have put them through, was appalling.

Likewise, Barcelona had a tremendous energy about them and it's hard not to get caught up with fantastic emotion in witnessing a match and an event like that.  I'm sure countless football fans of all manner of clubs were involuntarily cheering - or at least gasping - when Sergi Roberto scored the 6th.

Football gets you like that. Watching a moment of uniqueness, the kind of scenario you're unlikely to see again in your lifetime, makes you cheer even if you didn't intend to. It apparently makes ex-Real Madrid footballers run round desks in studios in England in celebration of Barcelona's achievements. It makes grown men of no allegiance to Spanish football whoop at the sheer Barcelonaness of the occasion.

However, part-way through the second half, just after PSG had scored their precious away goal, and when the prevailing opinion was that it was now pretty much impossible for Barça to qualify, Steve McManaman, the co-commentator on BT Sport - the live broadcasters of this game in the UK - referred to the fact that Dunfermline Athletic's European record comeback record would stay intact. And McManaman lamented that Barcelona wouldn't take the record: "Would you rather be talking about Dunfermline, or would you rather talk about Barcelona?" he asked rhetorically whilst broadcasting his bias to millions.

For context, Dunfermline lost their 1962/63 Inter-Cities' Fairs Cup 2nd Round 1st Leg match in Valencia 4-0. The 2nd leg in Fife was a different story and the Pars won 6-2 (there were no goals in the last 25 minutes in that match!) but lost a play-off in Lisbon, so even that record comeback isn't a true "comeback", as they didn't qualify. Valencia won the tournament that year, beating Hibernian in the quarter-finals. It could have been a Dunfermline v Hibernian Scottish show-down!

Nevertheless, the above illustrates that Barcelona's achievement last night was something special.

And yet.

The McManaman comment got me thinking. Seeing Owen dancing round the table as a team, which was at one point his bitterest rivals, (though he has form with deadly football rivalry not really mattering to him) scored their 6th, and then watching the analysis of the game, especially the refereeing decisions, left me wondering if I had been watching the same game and the same incidents as the "pundits".

I have always decried most "punditry" as simply awful, and often worse than that. But there was a word which kept popping up on my Twitter timeline after the final whistle. #UEFAlona. I will come back to this word, but first a bit of background.

UEFAlona was coined in 2009, when Chelsea were denied what they thought were 4 legitimate penalties (one of them was nailed on, to be fair) against Barcelona in the 2nd leg of the Semi-Final of that season's Champions League. None were given, Barcelona equalised in the last minute and went through to the Final on away goals. You remember the scenes after the match at Stamford Bridge, where Didier Drogba was yelling "It's a fix" into the camera?  He may as well have said "UEFAlona".

Barça then beat Manchester United in a straightforward enough Final victory, all of which helped with the creation of the modern all-conquering Barcelona legend we've all witnessed growing in the last decade or so.

Let's not forget Barcelona had won just 1 European Champions title (in 1992) at the time of Liverpool's 5th in 2005, a mere 12 years ago. For such a huge name in world football to have been Champions of Europe once in the first 50 years of the tournament is, frankly, pretty humiliating.

But they're everyone's darlings now, aren't they?

Somehow, somewhere, Barcelona - maybe through Messi, maybe because of tiki-taka - became a team the English media both report on endlessly, even in their domestic strolls/matches, and love to win. They are constantly shown on the more prominent TV channels in the UK and they are always in the sports news, on radio, TV and in the newspapers.

As a football fan, I have little to no interest in FCB. I admire some of what they stand for as a club. I certainly don't hate them, but I don't support them either. I don't read about them - in fact, I turn the page or the channel. I'm simply not very interested in a dominant "super-club". La Liga is not sport, it's simply a rigged corporate system to enable lots of people to feel better about themselves as "their" team beats a team from a smaller town in Spain with the occasional interesting more-evenly matched game popping up every other month.

Barcelona have finished outside the top 2 in Spain just once in the last 13 seasons. That was in 2007/08, when they finished 3rd - and still qualified for the Champions League. To all intents and purposes, the Spanish league is simply not competitive to any depth. The incredibly unequal distribution of the Spanish TV money, plus the virtually guaranteed European prize money, simply perpetuates the cycle of "winningness" for the Spanish big 2, plus maybe Atlético. It may be entertainment, but it's primarily forecastable business and no longer sport.

It does, however, keep the mega-teams in Spain ticking over nicely, with mainly barely competitive matches not taxing their players' energy and fitness too much. This enables these players to operate with a freshness in the more difficult European matches: a freshness the English teams could only dream about, given the physical battle and never-say-die attitude the best English teams can expect to encounter against any Premier League underdog, week-in week-out.

And if someone wants to write an article about football in Catalunya, post independence from Spain, and how that may affect FCB and La Liga, I'd love to read that, but otherwise, I want to read stories about the rise of Kazakh club football, how Ferencváros aim to re-capture their previous glory years, the first Liechtenstein team to play in the top Swiss league and so on.

But I digress. UEFAlona.

UEFAlona: the belief that referees will always assist FCB's advancement in Europe wherever possible.

There's nothing new about conspiracy theories in European football. There's basically nothing new about officials being biased and/or bribed and it's been going on since the '60s. It's also the easy cry of every football fan whose team has suffered a debatable decision in Europe - even Wenger was hinting at it the night before, as if he could explain away a 10-2 aggregate loss on a 50-50 (at best) penalty decision not going in Arsenal's favour.

Most of the claims of bias are laughable.

The problem in last night's match, however, was two-fold: firstly, that the referee didn't give any of those key decisions in favour of PSG, bar issuing a yellow card for the obvious and outrageous (first) dive of Luis Suárez, though if the referee had been part of a UEFAlona conspiracy, wouldn't he have given that as a penalty? Wouldn't he have ruled out PSG's goal for an imaginary push or such like?

So, it was not UEFAlona. It was a referee making certain calls and maybe getting caught up in the moment. I don't think it was bias. And as for the award of a penalty for the blatant Neymar dive over the body of the prostrate Meunier, was it just possibly correct? No, it wasn't, but let's give the referee the benefit of the doubt on this one, especially as it was clearly the official behind the goal who convinced the referee it was a penalty and not a goal kick.

However, and this is the second problem, why did neither BT nor ITV examine the obvious moments where the referee got the decisions wrong, where a correct decision would have almost certainly led to PSG qualifying - probably quite easily? It's almost as if the TV companies, who've paid millions for the rights, prefer the "right" result, rather than the "fair" result.

Major Issue 1: With 5 mins left and the score at 3-1, Di María's standing foot is assaulted by Mascherano's lunge (nowhere near the ball) as Di María is pulling the trigger 12 yards out. Di María was clearly impeded and missed the target. It was a clear penalty and a red card for Mascherano. Even if PSG missed the penalty, PSG would almost certainly still have qualified.

We didn't even see a replay of the incident on BT Sport's coverage during the game. During the post-match review, Lineker et al referred to it as a bad miss. So did Hoddle and Keane on ITV's highlights show. Not a hint on either channel of them wanting to examine Mascherano's challenge.

Major Issue 2: Suárez's dive for FCB's 2nd penalty. This was the worst of the lot of dubious decisions. Suárez was on a yellow card for diving earlier in the half and the referee should have expected him to try anything to get his team an advantage with such little time left. The referee awarded the penalty from an unsighted position and did it so quickly that I suspect the occasion got to him. He certainly had little chance to consult his official behind the goal, whose body language did not suggest he thought it was a penalty.

Again, BT did not properly call out Suárez for his blatant cheating, simply implying he'd been clever to win the penalty. ITV did refer to it as a blatant dive but moved swiftly on to talk about how Barcelona changed their penalty taker. Let's be clear here: no penalty should have been awarded and Suárez should have received a 2nd caution and been sent off.  PSG would have qualified.

Let's also be clear: with any use of video assistant referees and/or challenges to game-changing incidents, PSG would have qualified. They would have received a penalty at 3-1 with 5 mins left and Mascherano would have been dismissed. Also, FCB would not have been awarded their 2nd penalty and Suárez would have been dismissed.

Either way, PSG would have qualified. No question about it.

So why does this not merit much more discussion about the blatant unfairness of the game-changing decisions?

For me, it's down to the media. It's Barcelona. BT's ratings for Barça's next Champions League match will be higher with FCB involved than a match involving PSG.

So, with all the #FakeNews around at the moment, who would have thought that there is effectively #FakeNews in the media regarding sport?

But that's what it is. The absence of balance. The absence of equal treatment, of critical and independent analysis. If it was ever there in the first place, it's been missing since TV companies have been able to invest in certain clubs, either directly in financial terms, like BSkyB's investment in Manchester United a few years ago, or indirectly through the fortunes TV companies spend to secure broadcast rights, which means they have a vested interest in the more "popular" clubs continuing to win and making it through to the later and later stages of big tournaments like the Champions League.

As a public, we are being sold the fiction that having the same big clubs with the big stars all reaching the semi-finals so they can be pitched against each other is what we want. It certainly brings the ratings BT want.

But isn't sport supposed to be about fairness and equal competition?

Of course not - it's about profit, profit and more profit.

PSG will be remembered for their awful capitulation at the hands of Barcelona. It should have been nothing of the sort and it's a sad indictment of the game that such travesties of justice are allowed to take place and are not decried in the media, due to the search for profit on investment.

What a world we live in - sport isn't sport anymore, football clubs are corporations first, exorbitant fees are charged to normal folk for the privilege of watching top-level football in their own homes and the governments and sporting governing bodies of Europe do next to nothing to address this. And whilst every household with any interest in top-level football sacrifices a little luxury on the choice of whether to pay high fees for sports channels, players and agents simply go from being extremely rich to mega-rich in the name of (contrived) entertainment.

And they can't even be bothered to leave the end results to sporting chance.

Give me video replays so I know what I am watching is fair, give me more equal competition so I can't simply predict the last 16 of the Champions League in September, more equitable distribution of money across Europe (what must it be like being a fan of football and supporting your local side in Romania, Hungary, Poland?) and give me media which simply reports independently on the games, rather than clearly taking sides.

Is that too much to ask?  Clearly it is and I hold grave fears for the game itself. But even just the video replays would help get rid of the hashtag #UEFAlona.


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Qatar 2022 Statement - Is No-One Currently Happy With WC 2022?

The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee has just released this statement:

"The current FIFA Executive Committee meetings in Zurich, Switzerland will discuss the period of the competition for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. 

We bid for the FIFA World Cup in summer because we saw the opportunity to present solutions for players and fans in our country, and others with similar climates, to enjoy the outdoors in cool, safe and comfortable conditions in the summer months.  We committed significant time and resources toward proving that we could host the tournament in summer in cool, comfortable and safe conditions.

If the international football community reaches a consensus to move the event to an alternate date, we are able to accommodate that change. This would not affect our planning and preparation.  Our commitment to cooling technologies will continue, for without it certain parts of the world will be denied the right to host such events. Qatar already has one cooled stadium at Al Sadd Sports Club, retrofitted in 2008. FIFA's inspection team visited this stadium and experienced the cooling first-hand.

In 2010, we constructed a prototype carbon-neutral stadium which utilised renewable energy-powered cooling technologies to cool the stadium, which FIFA's inspection team also visited.  We are currently in a period of research and development to implement these environmentally-friendly cooling technologies on a larger scale in our stadiums, training pitches, fan zones and public areas for the 2022 FIFA World Cup".

So Qatar would prefer to showcase their considerable technological prowess during a summer World Cup.  Europe (ex-UK) would prefer the winter.  The Premier League would prefer summer, as it potentially damages their brand (as does England doing well and deflecting attention from the Premier League itself, but that argument is rarely heard).

But the Qataris know which side of their bread is buttered, so they will concur with world opinion on this.

As a passionate Englishman who would like to know how it feels for my country to win the World Cup in my lifetime, this tournament may represent the best chance of that happening - and only if it's held in the winter.

The Premier League are clearly threatened by that.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

JW Henry's Draft Open Letter Of Apology For This Season

One year ago, when Liverpool failed to sign Clint Dempsey (!) on the last day of the transfer window, and hadn't strengthened their squad significantly, the "Principal Owner", a Mr John William Henry (63) wrote an open letter to fans.

Below, I can exclusively reveal the open letter he may currently be drafting to explain this season's cataclysmic transfer window.  His draft (including pre-publishing notes to himself, to Tom Werner - who likes a laugh - and Sandra, his secretary) may well read something like this:

Dear fan (maybe change this or remove it?)
Once again, I am (remain?) as disappointed as anyone connected with Liverpool Football Club that we were unable to add further to our strike force, defense (sp?) or middle-field (sp?) in this summer transfer window, but that was not thru any lack of desire or effort on the part of all of those involved. They pushed hard in the final days of the transfer window on a number of targets and it is unfortunate that on this second consecutive occasion we were unable to conclude acceptable deals to bring those targets in.
But a summer window which brought in three young, but (hopefully) significantly talented starters in Kolo Toure, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto (yes, I know I described Joe Allen, Nuri Sahin and Fabio Borini as that as well last year, but I'm running out of soccer - sorry, "football" - hyperbole, as you can tell by me using the word "starters" - CUT THIS BIT DOWN IN FINAL VERSION), as well as two exciting young potential stars of the future - Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto (yes, I know I described Samed Yesil and Oussama Assaidi as that as well last year, but I'm running out of names) - could hardly be deemed a failure as we continue to build for the future (without ever really convincing anybody we'll even get there or when it is - LOL).  
Nor should anyone minimize the importance of keeping our best players during this window. ***We successfully retained Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Luis Suarez (Martin Skrtel to be removed from this list once I've checked with BR). We greatly appreciate their faith and belief in the club. And we successfully negotiated new, long-term contracts with Luis and with Martin&&&.
*** Note to self - may need to change this sentence if those deals we're working quietly on with Barsa and Rayel Madrid actually come off. Don't know what I'll say to the suckers then, but I'll think of something - I'm John Fucking Dubya Henry.
&&& Note - not sure about this - need to ask IA and/or BR about truthfulness of this. Did Luis extend?  Failing that, I'll make some bollocks up.  Must emphasize point about whichever players did extend their contracts to show someone believes we're heading in correct direction.
No one should doubt our commitment to the club. In Brendan Rodgers we have a talented, and still quite young, manager and we have valued highly his judgement about the make-up of the squad. (Though perhaps not his judgement on transfer targets LOL! Must take this bit out before publishing).  This is still a work in progress. It will still take time for Brendan to instill his philosophy into the squad and build exactly what he needs for the long term. (especially when we make a profit on summer transfer windows! And vacuum up the increased TV money too.  Thank the Lord Randy told us about this EPL shit - so much easier to take UK money than make it in proper football at home).  REMEMBER TO REMOVE THIS BIT TOO!
The transfer policy is still not about cutting costs (although I will concede it certainly looks like it).  It was - and will be in the future - about getting maximum value for what is spent so that we can build quality and depth. We are avowed proponents of (and desperate for) UEFA's Financial Fair Play agenda that has once again been reiterated by Mr Platini** - something we heartily applaud. We must comply with Financial Fair Play guidelines that ensure spending is tied to income. We have been successful in improving the commercial side of the club and the monies generated going forward will give us greater spending power in the coming years.
** Must check this - it was true last year and he has almost certainly said something about it this summer.  If we can't find anything, leave it in.  Everyone will assume he said something anyway.
We are still in the process of reversing the errors of previous regimes. It will not happen overnight. It has been compounded by our own repeated mistakes in a difficult first three years of ownership. It has been a harsh education, but make no mistake, the club is healthier today than when we took over and than last season when I wrote to you all.   
Spending is not merely about buying talent. Our ambitions do not lie in cementing a mid-table place with expensive, short-term quick fixes*** that will only contribute for a couple of years. Our emphasis will be on developing our own players using the skills of an increasingly impressive coaching team. Much thought and investment already have gone into developing a self-sustaining pool of youngsters imbued in the club's traditions.
*** - Nope - cheap, short-term fixes will do the job just as well.  REMOVE BEFORE PUBLICATION!
That ethos is to win. We will invest to succeed. But we will never mortgage (or even take a small loan out against) the future with risky spending.
After almost three years at Anfield, we remain close to having the system we need in place. The transfer window may not have been perfect but we are not just looking at the next 16 weeks until we can buy again: we are looking at the next 16 years and beyond. These are the first steps in restoring one of the world's great clubs to its proper status.
It will not be easy, it will not be perfect, but there is a clear vision at work.  (And thankfully you fans can't see it, because you'd be furious if you could!) - REMOVE
We will build and grow from within, buy prudently and cleverly and, as you have no doubt seen, we will never again waste resources on inflated transfer fees and unrealistic wages. We have no fear of spending and competing with the very best but we will never overpay for players. (Remove the prefix "over" in "overpay"?)
We will never place this club in the precarious position that we found it in when we took over at Anfield. This club should never again run up debts that threaten its existence.
Most of all, we want to win. That ambition drives every decision. It is the Liverpool way. We can and will generate the revenues to achieve that aim. There will be short-term setbacks from time to time, but we believe we have the right people in place to bring more glory to Anfield.
Finally, I can say with authority that our ownership is not about profit (Limeys love this kind of guff, don't they TW! Why the F did we buy the franchise if we don't want to make money on it?  Can believe we're not getting a rougher ride about the "management fees" we charge!!). Contrary to popular opinion, owners rarely get involved in sports in order to generate cash. They generally get involved with a club in order to compete and work for the benefit of their club. It's often difficult. In our case we work every day in order to generate revenues to improve the club. We have only one driving ambition at Liverpool and that is the quest to win the Premier League playing the kind of football our supporters want to see. That will only occur if we do absolutely the right things to build the club in a way that makes sense for supporters, for us and for those who will follow us. We will deliver what every long-term supporter of Liverpool Football Club aches for.

Can't quite believe what I wrote a year ago hardly needs altering! Saved me an hour's work right there :-)  Write the same stuff as last year, sprinkle with a dose of optimism, tradition and sentiment and any English audience is happy!

Sandra - before typing up and publishing on the club website, please ensure TW takes a quick look at the remarks I made in italics.  He likes that kind of British irony, so it'll give him a quick laugh whilst he continues his hard work with the Red Sox.

Then make sure you remove all my words in italics - I reckon they believe my sincerity since Being Liverpool, but publishing with any of those jokes would certainly make it more difficult for me on my annual trip to Annfield this November.

Please also double-check to see if I've spelt some of the words correctly or their way - they seem to go nuts about uzing (!) "z" or "franchise", so double-check if I've done that above.

Deadline day is 9/2, so can you run this past me on September 1?  Then it can go up on the website on Monday 9/2, whenever BR and IA are ready to go home.  The fans expect them to be working to 10pm (5pm EDT) on deadline day, but I'll be gone by 3 that afternoon, so let's leave it to IA/BR to get it on the website whenever they feel like the day is done.

If they have any problems with irate fans, tell them to say that I will tweet something big later.  Supporters of all franchises love to hear that kind of stuff.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

£40,000,001 - Both Liverpool & Arsenal Have Questions To Answer

So Luis Suárez feels he has tried for a season, Liverpool didn't make the Champions League, so he wants to leave.  He says he agreed with Liverpool that there would be a chance to leave, if Liverpool were not playing in the promised land of the Champions League in 2013-14.  After this agreement had been reached, he sat down and signed an extension to his contract, committing himself to 4 more years at Liverpool.

He signed this contract at the end of the 2011-12 season, after Liverpool had finished 8th in the Premier League, 17 points behind 4th spot and had just changed managers.

Suárez and his agent were effectively saying that he knew the task ahead was almost unprecedented (going from 8th to 4th and overhauling a 17 point deficit under a new manager is not something I'd be betting too much money on, no matter what the club).  They were also saying that, if Liverpool didn't manage it, he'd like to leave, but he'd still commit himself to a 4-year extension on his contract.  Just a thought, but is there anything even slightly contradictory about that?

The striker, who scored 23 league goals from 33 appearances and 30 goals in total last season, told both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph: "I stayed on the understanding that, if we failed to qualify for the Champions League the following season, I'd be allowed to go".

Suárez wants Liverpool to honour their commitment and said: "I have the club's word and we have the written contract and we are happy to take this to the Premier League for them to decide the case".

Assuming Liverpool actually used professional, quality lawyers at any potential Premier League hearing, rather than the particularly poor, slip-shod representation they used to defend Suárez in the (lack of) racism FA hearing in 2011, I would love to hear Suárez explain how the details of the same contract he wants the Premier League to rule in his favour on also seem to be known by Arsenal.

Given that details of contracts and contract clauses are routinely prescribed as confidential, how would Suárez explain how Arsenal knew that a bid above £40m would allow, as he sees it, Suárez to move to Arsenal.  Surely he won't contend that Liverpool told Arsenal about this?

So, even if Suárez is correct and Liverpool must accept - rather than simply listen to - offers above £40m, his explanation as to how Arsenal know this should be well worth hearing.

If it turns out that Suárez, or his agent, have broken the terms of the contract, what happens then?

As for Arsenal, the question is why, if Suárez's release clause is £40m, Arsenal felt the need to offer 99p above the minimum they believed was needed to trigger this clause - such wastefulness is exactly what I thought Wenger had tried to cut out since Arsenal's last trophy, which they won 4 days before Liverpool beat Milan to win the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final in Istanbul.

One final thought: if Liverpool are wrong on this contract clause and that a bid above £40m means Liverpool have no choice but to sell Suárez if he wants to leave, then other people should be leaving Liverpool FC too.  In this case, let's start with the Managing Director, include anyone who was involved in the drafting of the contract, all Liverpool legal representatives and perhaps go as far as FSG themselves.  Because if Liverpool are wrong and Suárez is correct, the way Liverpool is run - from top to bottom - should be questioned, as well as why millions of fans worldwide should have any further faith in the competence of the club's management.

As someone whose knowledge of the law comes from common sense, a few years of life experience and having watched LA Law and The Good Wife, I shouldn't be in the position, for the second time in 3 years, of knowing more about the law than the lawyers in Liverpool's employ.

I truly hope that is not the case, but knowing Liverpool, there still I chance that it is.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Stevan Jovetić: A Timely Story

It was September 2008 and I was on holiday in Podgorica, Montenegro.

As many of you will know, I like to take holidays which co-incide with World Cup qualifying games, and this holiday was no different: it was Montenegro's first ever competitive match.

A World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria, with Dimitar Berbatov playing his first match since his £30m+ move from Tottenham to Manchester United.

As for their national team, the only one I'd heard of before the match was Mirko Vučinić of Roma.  I was on a voyage of discovery here!

And as an added bonus for me, I met one of my favourite players of all time:

Dejan Savićević and me at the Montenegro FA headquarters before the game

So this was always likely to be a tough match for the debutants, and so it proved.

1-0 down early on to a Stiliyan Petrov strike, Montenegro needed to get a foothold in the game and get the crowd going.  They'd been in great voice before kick-off, but Bulgaria's dominance had quietened them considerably as half-time approached.

And as the game progressed, more and more I was noticing this floppy-haired young kid playing in the hole behind Vučinić and orchestrating the game.  He was getting more and more of the ball, always trying to be positive with possession and looking increasingly threatening to the Bulgarians.

"Who is he and how old is he?", I asked the Montenegrin press guy next to me. According to the teamsheet and profiles, his name was Stevan Jovetić, he was 18 and he played for Fiorentina, having just moved there from Partizan Beograd in Serbia.  A little more questioning at half-time and I learned he was the captain of the Montenegro U-21s and had been captain of Partizan too.

For an 18-year-old to be captain of a club who'd played in a European Cup Final means he's something a bit special.  But what about his temperament?  Level-headed, I was told.  And so he was.

Montenegro equalised on the hour through a terrific Vučinić free-kick and then with 8 minutes to go, they got a penalty.  Who strode up to take it?  Jovetić - of course.

An 18-year-old stepped forward to take a potentially game-winning penalty in his new nation's first ever World Cup match.  That's certainly showing some confidence.

How did he do?

That answered that question...

Unfortunately for Montenegro, the game ended 2-2 with a last-minute Bulgarian equaliser.

So, on a lovely, balmy night in Podgorica, I walked around in my Liverpool top and after getting a couple of beers, I walked to the central square (Podgorica has a small city centre) near the stadium.  And who should I see, but Jovetić strolling around with his family.

He recognised my team's shirt and said hello to me.  I greeted him and told him I hoped to see him in a Liverpool shirt in the future.  He smiled and that was that.

So a year later and Fiorentina get drawn to play against Liverpool in the group stages of the 2009-10 Champions League...

So I went to Florence and, as we waited for the game to start, I explained to my mates just how good I thought Stevan Jovetić was - even as a 19-year-old.  I'm not sure they believed me, hyping him up.

So here's a clip of him in action in that game...

In a very painful defeat, Liverpool lost 2-0 and the slow decline of the season and Rafa Benítez's reign began.  By the end of the season, Rafa had been sacked and Liverpool haven't qualified for the Champions League since.

And the scorer of the 2 Fiorentina goals: do I really need to say?  A first-half double to knock the stuffing out of Liverpool that evening, rubbing salt in Rafa's wounds. Rafa had wanted to buy him in the summer of 2009, but was effectively forced by the owners (Hicks and Gillett) to buy Aquilani instead.

I've always wanted to see Jovetić at Anfield - and he'll be there this coming season, but he'll be in a City shirt.

Breaks my heart...

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Brazilian Thoughts On Stoke & Liverpool

A few of you may know that I am writing this in Brazil.  I didn't watch the Stoke v Liverpool game today but it sounds like not only did Stoke outfight Liverpool (which I can live with), but they also outplayed Liverpool (which I can't).

My father-in-law, through my wife's translation, asked me why I was feeling down.  I told him I'd won some money.  Counter-intuitive, I know.  He observed the same.

I told him that my team had lost & I had won money on it, mentioning that I knew exactly how Stoke played and saw that Brendan Rodgers had selected the same team that had beaten an almost willing Fulham 4 days previously.  I saw the line-up prior to the game and lumped £60 on Liverpool not to win - I often put bets on, but this was a bigger bet than normal for me.

I then did the modern day equivalent of watching the match on Ceefax, by scrolling through Twitter all game. There were some less than complimentary comments about a lack of fight, but having already seen the line-up, with neither Carragher (our best defensive organiser) nor Coates (a terrific aerial option in defence and attack) selected, I feared the worst.

Last season, just over a year ago, I went to watch Stoke v Liverpool in the League Cup.  Kenny Dalglish selected Martin Kelly (6'3") at right-back, Daniel Agger (6'3") at left-back, Jamie Carragher and Sebastián Coates (6'6") at centre-backs.  Carra is the shorty of that group (at 6'1" or 1.85m)!  Dalglish also had Andy Carroll (6'3") in the team.

Throw-ins from the left were defended by all the above, including Agger's starting position at the near post - to enable him to attack any throw which didn't quite make the front post and to allow Reina (6'2") or a centre-back to attack it, if it was a deeper throw.

As an aspiring coach, I was delighted with this.  It made a lot of sense and combated Stoke's firey, Route-One style with defensive fire alike.  Nonetheless, Stoke led 1-0 at half-time.

But Liverpool had options.  For the second half, Dalglish increased the average height of Liverpool's back four to 6'4" by bringing on Martin Škrtel (6'3").  Of the back 5, the goalkeeper was now the shortest!

Two moments of brilliance from Luis Suárez won the day, but Stoke had to worry about a number of different options on Liverpool's side and therefore did not have the game their own way.  For your information, Steven Gerrard did not play in this game.

Back to today, and I became embroiled in a discussion with another Twitterati about the last time a Liverpool manager defeated Stoke away.  He said never and pointed out that Evans, Houllier, Benítez, Hodgson, Dalglish and Rodgers had failed to win there.

There were a number of points to this: firstly, it's a bit harsh to say that Evans never won at Stoke, when he never played them.  It's even more harsh on Houllier, as he did play them at the Britannia Stadium, but only in the League Cup and won 8-0!

Nevertheless, I pointed out that the answer is last season.  He said that wasn't in the Premier League.  I asked him why that was important.  Did Stoke play a different way, depending on the competition?

No response from him, but the answer, of course, is no.  Leaving aside the question as to why only Premier League victories over Stoke are seemingly important and League Cup wins not so, I have a question to ask of Rodgers: Why, as the new manager, wouldn't you look at the last successful trip to the Britannia, when most of the players you have at your disposal played in that game?

Is this what Rodgers did?  We'll never know, but he chose to play the same (lightweight) 11 who ran rings round a complicit Fulham a few days before.  Two defensive lynchpins (Carragher & Coates) from the victory at Stoke last season were on the bench today.  In addition, Kelly is injured, Carroll is on loan and Reina isn't half as confident or in form as he was.

So we had Suso (lightweight), Shelvey (blows more cold than hot and apparently had a 90-minute stinker today - so why all 90 mins?) and Downing (don't get me started).

This is the team that would battle an undefeated Stoke to a victory at the Britannia? Of course not.  You could tell a mile off.

So what worries me more than losing to Stoke are the tactics of our manager.  One or more of three things happened today:

1) BR stayed faithful to the team that dismantled Fulham, so:
a) he's loyal and has learned a valuable lesson OR
b) he's an idiot and expected the games to be similar AND/OR
c) he's showing the owners he has very few options.

2) BR thought that his team's brand of football would dictate the game, so:
a) he's learned a valuable lesson that a passing team cannot impose their game on a Route-One team's game - it can certainly win the game, but it can't stop half the game being played in the air, OR
b) he's an idiot and expected to be able to stop Stoke playing "their" way.

3) BR thought he had more players willing to man up in games like that than he actually has, so:
a) he's learned a valuable lesson that he has very few men willing to fight for him in difficult games in the current squad, OR
b) he's an idiot because he hadn't figured this out sooner from the training sessions and numerous disappointments and failure to knuckle down and fight in the current season so far.

Stoke WANT to play the ball in the air up to the big man/men.  This is widely known by every fan, never mind every multi-millionaire manager.  You can't stop them doing it - well, not unless you press every single pass to precision, which is impossible anyway.  So half the game will be spent heading the ball away and scrapping for the second ball (or losing the initial header and scrapping for the second ball anyway).

How does a passing team stop that happening?  Answer: they don't.  But what is important is what they do with the ball when they have it and are not being pressed by Stoke.

And this is why guys like Maxi Rodríguez were important.  His far post runs netted him goal tallies Downing could only dream of.  Downing has scored a few goals for Liverpool in his 18 months, but not one of them (as far as I remember) was a tap-in. Why?  Because he doesn't make those type of runs, hence the full back can afford to push up onto the opposition more, because at worst he doesn't have to make as far a recovery run as he would if he were playing against Maxi.

If you look at the goal Aaron Lennon scored for Tottenham against Liverpool last month, when Downing was left-back, Lennon tapped the ball in, with Downing static and Lennon running past him.  He didn't know what to do to defend the ball, because Lennon made a run Downing never even thinks about when he's in Lennon's position (ie on the wing).

But this is not really a blog about Stoke's manner of playing football - it's a blog about how a few seeds of doubt have now crept into my mind about Brendan Rodgers and how much he understands the need for pragmatism in some games, rather than religiously sticking to an ideal about how the game should be played.

I won't mention the lack of quality, depth of squad, lack of goal threats etc.

In conclusion, however, I will make a wider point about football culture.  Needing no interpreter this time - I can speak reasonable football in Portuguese - my father-in-law told me about a team in the 1950's in Brazil who played long-ball, Route-One stuff.

He said the fans of that team booed and complained so much that the coach was fired and a new one came in.  He asked the players what material the ball was made out of.

"Leather" they replied.

"And where does leather come from?" queried the coach.

"Cows" was the quick response.

"And what do cows eat?" was the final question.

"Grass" said the players.

"Exactly," said the coach, "which is why the ball should stay on the grass and not in the air".

This style of play has never happened in Brazil since.  It's the jogo bonito over here - the beautiful game.  Fans would never accept that style of play.

In England, it's at worst tolerated by Stoke fans.  Perhaps it's even enjoyed by some. And it's certainly successful to a point: Watford, Wimbledon and Stoke have hung around in the top division for many seasons playing like that, encouraging others to try similar plans.

Brazil have won the World Cup five times.  England once.  None of those teams played Route-One football.

But all of those teams could combat it, fight against it and have the will to defeat it. Does Brendan Rodgers?  Does his squad?

Not at the moment.

But even worse, Liverpool don't look like they're as good a group of footballers as Stoke.

Now to any Liverpool fan, that is worrying.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Manchester United Rumours?

With the transfer window just around the corner, news and rumours from around the football world have begun to swirl and Manchester United have been involved in several big stories.

In addition to transfer news, there is talk that Alex Ferguson's future replacement has been tapped.  Here are some recent news articles and rumours concerning Manchester United:

Zaha Staying at Crystal Palace

One of the biggest names to be tossed around as a potential transfer to Old Trafford is Crystal Palace's star Wilfried Zaha. The asking price to see Zaha make the move over to United is £20m, but it appears that deal may not even see the light of day.

Over the last couple of weeks, it appears that Palace are looking to hold onto their star. Quoting a source with the squad, "It's a case of giving it our best shot to win promotion, and that means keeping Wilfried at Selhurst Park."

Jonny Evans Not a Fluke Champion - Wins Charity Poker Event Again

Jonny Evans joined four other Manchester United stars to play in the MUFC PartyPoker Challenge late last month. The event was taped for MUTV and the proceeds of the game went to an anonymous Northern Irish hospice. Evans won this title last year and looked to prove it wasn't just beginner's luck.

Evans defended his title against Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Rafael da Silva and Darren Fletcher. Professional poker player and sponsored pro Tony G gave some instruction to the players prior to the event so that they would look good on TV.

Fletcher and Evans faced off heads-up with the final hand seeing Fletcher gamble on a flush draw and missing.  Proving that last year was no fluke, Evans wins the MUFC PartyPoker Challenge.

Kevin Strootman to Help Fix Struggling Defence

If recent news is to be believed, it appears that PSV Eindhoven midfielder Kevin Strootman will be heading to Old Trafford shortly.  Talksport reports that Manchester United are looking to move ahead with a deal for Strootman.

According to reports, it will cost ManU around £14m to bring him to Old Trafford and that it is just a matter of time before the deal is completed. The report also claims that "PSV is already planning for his departure."

Pep Guardiola Next Manager at Old Trafford?

In a report recently posted by The Sun, Alex Ferguson's replacement could already be negotiating a deal with the team.

Barcelona's former boss, Pep Guardiola, is currently taking a year off from the game.  Reports have placed Guardiola in talks with Manchester United about taking over from Ferguson once he decides to retire.

It is not known what the terms of a deal may entail, but United should have the funds to afford his contract, considering their recent Bwin sponsorship deal that saw the company become their shirt sponsor.

How badly does Guardiola want the job?  The Sun reports that, "Guardiola would be prepared to hold out for another year" should Ferguson decide not to retire after this current season.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Favouritism Towards Jonny Evans?

I discovered today that Jonny Evans has not conceded even one foul in this season's Premier League - please feel free to let me know, if my sources are incorrect.

I find this believable and yet beyond belief at the same time and I'll explain why.  This is a guy who could quite easily (and legitimately) have been sent off twice and conceded a penalty in 3 separate incidents in 2 matches this season.

He could have been sent off for dangerous tackles (fouls?) on Jonjo Shelvey against Liverpool at Anfield and on Fernando Torres (where he could also have been seen as the last man) against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.  In both cases, Evans "decided" to roll around as if injured after making contact with his opponent.

I hope referees have started to see this, but does he benefit from playing for Manchester United?  This is a club, who are seemingly receiving huge numbers of favourable decisions this season. They are normally treated more fairly than anyone else anyway - Howard Webb, anyone? - but this season, it's becoming outrageous.

Evans is the player, don't forget, who was sent off by Mark Clattenburg in United's embarrassing 6-1 defeat at home to Manchester City in 2011-12.  Clattenburg then received disgraceful, unfair and unwarranted criticism from Ferguson in his post-match interviews.

As for Evans not making one foul this season: I think not.  But when do referees ever give crucial fouls against Manchester United and not get criticised by Ferguson? What tends to happen is that referees send a Manchester United player off, get enormous amounts of mud bravely flung at them by Ferguson in various interviews, wait an unusual number of weeks before refereeing Manchester United again, then give Manchester United at least one hugely controversial decision in their first United match since whatever incident got them "banned".

As a reference, and this is one of many different instances with many referees by the way, Clattenburg refereed Chelsea v Manchester United last Sunday, in his first United match since the 6-1 Manchester City defeat, which was 38 matches previously.  Given there are only 17 Premier League referees on the Select Group list, it can only really be seen as punishment for him sending Evans off against City.

And what does Clattenburg do in his first United match since being verbally assaulted by Ferguson?  He sends off 2 Chelsea players (where he could and should have, once again, dismissed Jonny Evans) and his assistant allows an offside winner for Manchester United.

Is there any chance that favouritism is regularly shown towards Manchester United by referees affected by Ferguson's criticism, Ferguson's networks within football and the Manchester United CEO being on the FA Board?

Any chance at all?

Jonny Evans certainly seems to benefit.

Friday, 5 October 2012

UEFA Need To Learn From Their Own Marketing Successes

There was a fascinating story in some of the media yesterday/today about how UEFA would like coaches and media officers to praise the Europa League, for fear of it being seen as a secondary competition.

According to yesterday's Daily Mail, UEFA issued a memo under the heading "Discover The Drama", which stated that "At the start of press conferences, the messages below should be used by press officers and to brief coaches and players.

"UEFA Europa League is prestigious; it provides clubs, fans and players with the challenge of competing for an elite trophy.

"The Europa League is rich in heritage, having provided some of European football's most memorable moments and characters in recent years.

"The most important quality that we want to communicate is that the Europa League is dramatic".

Well, like many people, I view the Europa League as a secondary competition.  Not in a bad way - it just is. How can it not be?  If your club had a chance of qualifying for whichever European competition it wanted, would it choose the Europa League or would it choose the Champions League?  The clue is literally in the name, surely?

UEFA have branded the Champions League brilliantly since its inception in 1992. Everything has been done to market the competition exceptionally well: for example, think about the Champions League "theme" tune.  Many of you will even be humming it as you read this!  But do you know the Europa League music?  Exactly.

So how good a job have UEFA done in branding the Champions League over the last 20 years?

Think about the logo, the advertising boards (or lack of them) down to more minor stuff like insisting all matches kick off at 20.45 CET (19.45 UK time) with the exception of Russian home matches, which kick off at a time which guarantees the match finishes before the other Champions League matches start.

Have you also noticed how an odd one or two Europa League matches can be played on a Tuesday or Wednesday night.  But again, these matches must be finished well before the 20.45 CET kick off time of the "real" entertainment for the evening (ie the Champions League).  Nothing must overshadow the Champions League on Champions League nights...

So, UEFA, by its very insistence on the primacy of the Champions League, has necessarily relegated the Europa League to a second-tier competition.  It can't logically be viewed any other way.

The Europa League may be exciting - I know I love visiting the more unusual places the Europa League sends me to as a Liverpool fan (and I may have to get used to "only" playing in the Europa League for the foreseeable future).  The recent trip to Bern was an outstanding trip to a place which would be unlikely to be on the Champions League map.

In fact, the trip to Bern illustrated what one difference is between Champions League and Europa League - the flight was Heathrow to Basel.  Based on previous Liverpool history, the trip would have terminated there had it been a Champions League match and Liverpool would have played at the St Jakob Stadium against FC Basel.  But the trip didn't finish in Basel and the next part of the journey was a bus to Basel railway station and then a train to Bern.

That's tells you a lot of what you need to know - the trips to Champions League matches are generally made with one flight from a London airport to the city where the match takes place.  Europa League games generally would involve a further trip from the airport: for example, travelling to Udine in December necessitates a flight from London to Venice, followed by a train journey to Udine.

The match against Anzhi Makhachkala may well be played in Moscow.  If not, how many direct flights per week go from London to Makhachkala.  None.  I'm not even sure how you'd get to Makhachkala.  Fly to Azerbaijan and travel across the border? So it's not a bad proxy for understanding whether it's a Champions League or Europa League game you're attending - did you have to travel on a train/bus on to your final destination, after arriving at the airport?

Secondary competition?  Absolutely.

And here are some more reasons why the Europa League is secondary: no-one could even properly hazard a guess as to who could win this season's Europa League.  Why?  Because, come February 2013, 8 of its competitors are currently playing in the Champions League.  Until UEFA stops the "prize" for finishing 3rd in a Champions League group being participation in the last 32 of the Europa League, the competition can be nothing other than a booby prize for the good, but not great (at least not this season) clubs of European football.

To a lesser extent, this procedure also happens in qualifying rounds for the Champions League.  Lose the last qualifying round (which UEFA calls the "Play-Off Round") and you get parachuted into the Europa League.  A loser's charter, perhaps?  How's that for prestigious and/or elite?

Europa League matches are played in the same week as Champions League matches, but they are almost exclusively played on a Thursday - the day of the week most unused by most European leagues for most of the season.  It is an awkward day to play football and requires the following Saturday's domestic league match to be put back to at least the Sunday.

Even disregarding the above argument, UEFA does itself no favours with Thursday matches for the Europa League.  If Thursdays are a premier day to play European competitive matches on, why does UEFA move the Final of the Europa League to a Wednesday?  This act, in and of itself, illustrates that Thursday is the ugly sister of Tuesday and Wednesday, regarding choices for days to play football on.

The Europa League winners don't get to play in the Champions League next season. With a minimum of 15 matches (Internazionale, Liverpool and others would need to play 19 this season) required to win the competition, the Europa League represents half a league season.  Bigger clubs, wanting the greater payday of the Champions League, will certainly use squad rotation/youth team players to take on the burden of all these extra minutes/matches clubs are required to play.

Somewhat paradoxically, the Europa League winners are, however, given the opportunity to beat the Champions League winners in the Super Cup at the end of August.  Logically, this means that UEFA integrally recognises the ability and playing strength of the Europa League winners to play on the same field as the Champions League winners, but not the need to allow them to enter the Champions League.  Well, not unless they have done very well in their domestic league, whilst in the same season playing 15+ Europa League matches and winning UEFA's competition.

This doesn't seem to make much sense to me: Europa League/UEFA Cup/European Cup-Winners' Cup winners have beaten the Champions League winners on 9 of the 15 occasions, including the first 4 times, and 2 of the last 3, since the Super Cup moved to Monaco in 1998.

Doesn't that indicate that the winners of the Europa League may enhance the quality of the Champions League next season?

If UEFA is worried about the secondary nature of the Europa League, well, it is secondary, so perhaps UEFA should embrace that fact, rather than try to convince coaches/media officer and hence the public that the Europa League is something it simply isn't.

Therefore, given UEFA should embrace its secondary nature, if UEFA is worried about clubs not taking the Europa League seriously enough, why not offer the winners a place in the Champions League (or at least the qualifying rounds) for the next season?

In addition, why not get rid of at least 2 matches - it would still be a marathon, but it would help a little.

How about increasing the prize money?  Winning the Europa League nets the winners about as much money (although it depends on TV revenue as well) as losing all matches in the Champions League group stages and exiting European football in December.  That's hardly a great reason for clubs to prioritise this season's Europa League over qualifying for next season's Champions League.

Referring to UEFA's memo, from the start of this article, I don't know how UEFA can describe a 2-year-old competition as "rich in heritage" or that it is an "elite trophy".  It clearly isn't either and can't be logically described as such.  It doesn't mean it won't become so, but it needs longer, with more strategy behind the marketing and simple raison d'être of the competition itself.  Also, I would suggest that UEFA's rhetoric probably needs to be taken down a notch.

And finally, my suggestion to UEFA is to change the competition week cycles, so that Europa League matches take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in weeks when the Champions League isn't being played.  This currently happens for the last set of Europa League group stage matches.

Surely it makes sense to give the illusion that the Europa League matters, even if no-one is currently fooled by it?  The Europa League is quite simply a work in progress - nothing more.

But then, it's been a work in progress ever since the termination of the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1999 and it's still not quite right...

...No matter what UEFA says right now.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Gibraltar Achieves Provisional UEFA Member Status

Congratulations to the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) for finally achieving UEFA provisional member status, which was confirmed by UEFA on Monday at the Executive Committee meeting in St Petersburg, Russia.

This is the culmination of years of effort, with Gibraltar previously having complied with FIFA qualification standards in 1997 and requesting to join UEFA in 1999. Spain is heavily against Gibraltar's international football recognition, due to its opposition to Gibraltar's very existence.  Spain fails to see the irony of its political position of opposing British ownership of Gibraltar, whilst ignoring Morocco's claim to Spain's African continent territories of Ceuta and Melilla, both of which have land borders with Morocco.

So UEFA used a 2001 FIFA ruling, which barred all territories which were not members of the United Nations (Gibraltar is a territory of the United Kingdom and cannot therefore become a UN member), in order to block UEFA membership.

On the basis that the GFA had already successfully complied with the admission rules prior to the 2001 FIFA ruling, the GFA took their application to the Court for Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2003 and won.  UEFA were forced to accept their provisional membership which was then voted out by 45 votes to 3 at the next UEFA Congress.

So Gibraltar are back for more, and Spain will certainly be opposing them.  A statement on the GFA website (which you can view by clicking here) stated:

"The Gibraltar FA is pleased to announce that it has today been granted provisional membership of Uefa at a meeting of the European football governing body's executive committee in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"The vote on the Gibraltar FA's full membership of Uefa will take place on the May 24, 2013 during the XXXVII Congress, to be held in London, England.

"The Gibraltar FA thanks the Uefa Executive Committee and reiterates its steadfast commitment to working with Uefa on the road map towards full membership and to building relationships with the 53 fellow member associations."

The best of luck to Gibraltar.  Spain's original tactic in opposing the GFA's membership last time was to threaten to leave UEFA.  It is doubtful such a tactic will work this time, given the rewards available to Spain and Spanish clubs from UEFA competitions, but Spain will certainly be working behind the scenes to see if it can influence other countries to vote against.

Also, think about that previous vote: 45 against and only 3 countries for.  Gibraltar is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, which has 4 associations with votes at UEFA.  That means that at least one of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales failed to vote for membership of UEFA for another part of the UK.

How utterly disgraceful.

Almost as bad as having a captain of the Great Britain Olympic XI not singing the national anthem of his country.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Terry vs Suárez: Why The Punishments Were Different & The Post-Verdict Reaction

With advanced apologies for some of the quoted words below, here are my thoughts on the recent John Terry racism verdict.

A few people have contacted me in the last day or so to ask why John Terry received a 4-match ban for the same offence (using abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards QPR's Anton Ferdinand and which included a reference to colour and/or race contrary to FA Rule E3[2]) as Luis Suárez was found guilty of back in December 2011.

This is a perfectly fair question, which I do not think has been clarified particularly well in the press today: not by Sky Sports News, not by The FA (decision announced here) and certainly not by John Terry's biographer, Oliver Holt, in his newspaper, The Daily Mirror.  I'll come back to this shortly.

As many will know, I have regularly sat on county FA Disciplinary Commissions. They are not easy things to sit on and virtually always require a fair bit of educated guesswork as to what happened, given that you can very rarely believe either side's version of events to be 100% accurate.  This is why Disciplinary Commissions work to the "balance of probablities" burden of proof, rather than the "beyond reasonable doubt" principle that the courts of law work to.  This also explains how Terry can be found guilty by an FA Disciplinary Commission, but innocent (or perhaps more "not guilty") in a court of law.  The same apparently contradictory verdicts would also have been reached in Suárez's case as well - there was not a snowflake in hell's chance of a criminal conviction for Suárez as the evidence was virtually non-existent.

Anyway, back to the question: if Suárez and Terry were found guilty of the same offence, why was Suárez's punishment an 8-match ban and Terry's only 4?

Well, it has to do with the fact that Suárez was also found guilty and also punished by a 4-match ban.  However, this ban was then doubled, because the Commission found Suárez had made repeated references to race (they believed the number of times Suárez made racial references to and/or about Evra was 7).  As such, they had the power to double (or more) the original punishment.

I don't know why Suárez's fine was only £40,000 when Terry's was £220,000.  We may need to wait for the detailed verdict to find this out.  It is certainly possible that the Commission were aware people would question why Suárez's ban was double Terry's and this was a (poor) attempt to equalise the verdicts in some way - not that anyone would actually admit that was the reason, of course.  It may be that the Commission wanted to increase the ban but were not able to, so they increased the fine instead.

As many people will know, I think the show trial Suárez was subjected to was farcical, where facts/opinions which helped Suárez's case were regularly ignored or rejected, but facts/opinions which supported Evra were not subjected to the same scrutiny or doubt.  In short, Evra received every benefit of the doubt possible and Suárez none.  Add to that some incredibly complicated nuances regarding language and culture, translation and interpretation and the trial and the verdict became ridiculous.

However, the FA made a rod for their own back.  Given that Suárez was guilty in a conversation between 2 people, it was IMPOSSIBLE for Terry not to have been found guilty using the same process and burden of proof, when what he'd said had been seen all around the world.

I can only imagine the meltdown in the Twittersphere, had the Englishman John Terry been found not guilty by the English footballing authorities, had those same authorities found a foreigner guilty of racism in what was essentially a private foreign language conversation between 2 people, which happened to take place on a football field.  The vitriol in my blog would also have been hugely acerbic, accusatory and disbelieving.

One more point I'd like to make: contrast the back pages of the Mirror reacting to John Terry's guilt, as opposed to its announcement of Luis Suárez's "guilt":

England (through their Football Association) has found Uruguay's Luis Suárez racist, as you can probably see by the somewhat subtle Mirror headline of "RACIST", made worse by the fact that the judgement explicitly stated that no-one believed Luis Suárez was a racist, but was guilty of making a racist comment.

England also found England's ex-captain guilty of exactly the same offence - not that you'd know it from the headline "Kicked in the Teeth".

Suárez referred (in his native tongue) to Evra as "a small black guy", which was heard by a maximum of 2 people, including Suárez himself! Terry, allegedly, called Anton Ferdinand "a fucking black cunt", which was seen all over the world.

I can understand why people question why Suárez's punishment was double Terry's. Apparently, a factually correct comment (albeit likely said with aggravating intent) is worse than naked, sneeringly superior racism from a person charged with leading English football on the field.

What kind of society is this?  Even Joe (or is it "Joey"?) Barton has a point - he received a 12-match ban for stupidly kicking out at a Manchester City player. Contrast that with Terry's 4-match ban for verbally racially assaulting Anton Ferdinand.  How outrageous.

The hypocrisy surrounding the Suárez case is simply mind-blowing and makes me incredibly angry - both at the witch hunt/show trial nature of Suárez's case, but also at the racist way it has been handled, especially by the British press.

A case in point (made in my blog article here) and with thanks to Adolph Addison (@addypenno) - is The Guardian newspaper racist?:

John Terry has been charged with exactly the same offence by The FA, so why does The Guardian report that Suárez was "charged with racism", but that England's ex-captain John Terry was only charged "with using abusive language"?

The irony of popular English culture screaming that the foreigner is a racist but the English captain has been found innocent in a court of law and not treating him with the same headlines as the foreigner, despite being found guilty of the same offence by the same process, will not be lost on foreigners or foreign football associations.

The fact that the World Cup is awarded by foreign football administrators means England won't be awarded the tournament any time soon - not while England has (and is certainly perceived to have) an attitude which suggests that only non-English people can be racists.

Oh, the sheer, unambiguous, numbing, outrageous hypocrisy.  All people want is a level playing field: black, white, red, yellow, blue or purple - people should just be treated the same.

Racism, eh?  Who'd have it?