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Can the Indian Super League wake a sleeping giant?

An initial glance at the latest FIFA World Rankings yields few surprises: worldchampions Germany sit topwhile Argentina, the runners-up in Brazil, are second. However, as you scroll further down the list, one name sticks out above all others. Way down in 158th place, below Puerto Rico, Curacao and Kyrgyzstan, are India. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that population, football experience and per capita income are the best indicators of the strength of a national side. With 1.2 billion people and the world’s tenth largest economy, India – all set for the launch of the Indian Super League on Sunday – are undoubtedly the planet’s biggest underachievers. Football was introduced to the Indians by British colonists in the mid-nineteenth century to provide a form of entertainment for the armed forces, who competed with each other in games across the country. The Durand Cup – the third oldest competition in world football behind the FA and Scottish equivalents – was created in 1888, around the same time that clubs began to spring up in Calcutta, the capital of British India. In 1937, the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) was established and, when independence was accomplished ten years later, the governing body quickly gained FIFA recognition. Can the Indian Super League wake a sleeping img 2 Moderate success followed. India made their first official tournament appearance at the London Olympics in 1948, where they were narrowly defeated by a France side who required an 89th minute goal to seal a 2-1 victory in a game which saw the Indians miss two penalties and play in bare feet. Two years later, India were due to be Asia’s sole representative at the World Cup in Brazil, but withdrew due to travel costs (the story that they refused to participate because of FIFA’s insistence that they wear boots is actually false, a myth propagated by the AIFF to cover up what was, in hindsight, a terrible decision). Nevertheless, gold medals were attained at the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962, and India placed fourth in the 1956 Olympics, memorably defeating hosts Australia in Melbourne in the quarter-finals. Under the management of Abdul Rahim, India were increasingly seen as the continent’s best side. It would not last. Rahim, regarded as a real football scholar, died from cancer in 1963, and India’s rise was stopped in its tracks. Asian Cup runners-up in 1964, they failed to qualify again until the 1984 edition, when they finished bottom of their five-team group and were eliminated without scoring a goal. Results dipped just as the likes of Iran, Kuwait and South Korea started to come to the fore, yet it was a non-footballing event that provided the most decisive blow to the sport in the country. In 1983, India won the Cricket World Cup. The impact was colossal. Cricket instantly became the face of India’s growth and prosperity and was now undoubtedly the nation’s most popular sport. Politicians recognised its worth and the state began to invest heavily, while businesses scrambled to land potentially lucrative sponsorship deals. Inspired by the underdog story of India overcoming their former colonists England in the last four and the West Indies in the final, children across the nation decided to pick up a bat and ball to try and replicate their heroes. ‘The 1983 World Cup’, says team captain Kapil Dev, ‘changed the entire sport in our country’. Can the Indian Super League wake a sleeping img 4 Football was suddenly emphatically second-best, and its subordinate status persists today. Cricket, seen as India’s greatest chance of global success, receives substantially more government funding, and the resultant difference in infrastructure between the two sports is significant. Even at the highest level, football stadiums are grossly inadequate: the national team has had no permanent home since 2011 after multiple arenas were found to be in breach of FIFA’s health and safety guidelines, while communal grass pitches are scarce and extremely prone to flooding, particularly in the monsoon season. For the most part, it remains difficult for the game to secure private investment, with firms seeing little value in associating themselves with a sport that is widely perceived to be in a deep malaise. Although millions tune into the Premier League and La Liga every weekend, local matches have hitherto been poorly attended, a consequence of a globalised world which allows Indian fans to watch world-class talent from the comfort of their own homes. Indeed, 67 million tuned into the 2008 Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester United, yet many Indian clubs struggle to fill their 6000-capacity stadiums, not helped by the need to stage many games during midweek afternoons because of the lack of floodlights. Even when there is support – football is huge in the northeast, and there are significant fan bases in the states of Goa, Bangalore, Kerala and Calcutta – it is often taken for granted: the Calcutta derby between Mohun Bagun and East Bengal regularly attracts 100,000 spectators, yet the unwavering loyalty of the Calcuttans has been used as an excuse by the authorities to not update or renovate facilities and infrastructure. Can the Indian Super League wake a sleeping img 6 While football’s popularity has clearly grown in recent years, it has not been the Indian version that has attracted attention: Barcelona shirts and Brazil flags are commonplace, but there has generally been little appetite for the substandard localproduct, a situation that the authorities are hoping to redress with the launch of the more glamorous Super League, which will see European stars of yesteryear such as Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet line up alongside homegrown talent. The lack of a national league until 1996 certainly contributed to the widespread indifference shown towards football. By the time of the National Football League’s inauguration, cricket had firmly established itself as the nation’s principal sport, and football found it difficult to entice fans and sponsors. The division received very little attention and was replaced by the I-League in 2007 in an attempt to professionalize the game; hopes were high, particularly as thelaunch was accompanied by a long-term broadcast deal with Zee Sports, who secured the rights to air games throughout the country. The contract, however, was cancelled after three years, meaning the 2010-11 season went totally untelevised, and two I-League clubs were forced to fold due to financial issues and difficulties in marketing themselves to their communities. Can the Indian Super League wake a sleeping img 5 Australia, Japan and South Korea have demonstrated the value of a strong domestic league when football is not the country’s traditional sport, but India lags some way behind, the I-League damaged by organisational problems and a general disinterest. The hope is that the Super League – which runs in the I-League’s off-season – will be a catalyst for growing interest in football generally and that once it has reached its denouement Indian locals will tune into the nation’s primary domestic competition, but the claim is arguable and it is not difficult to envisage a situation whereby the population turns back to either cricket or the major European leagues once the initial curiosity of seeing foreign starts perform on Indian soil has been satisfied. There is also a cultural aspect to India’s footballing underachievement. Despite being one of the planet’s fastest growing economies,33 per cent of Indians live below the international poverty line, and the nation is thought to be home to a third of the world’s poor.Rags-to-riches stories are commonplace in football, and entrenched poverty and inequality have not hindered the production of talented footballers in places like Brazil, but in India, football is not seen as a viable way out. Education is heavily emphasised, and parents tend to discourage their children from wasting their time on a sport viewed as inferior to professional roles in fields such as engineering, law and medicine. Exceptions may be made for cricket, which is seen as a potentially fruitful career due to India’s lofty standing in the world game, but with extensive parental pressure leading to extra-curricular tutoring and homework, sport remains a mere luxury to many Indian youngsters. Indeed, something of a catch-22 exists: football is not seen as an expedient path out of poverty because of a lack of success stories, but talented Indian footballers can only emerge if the game is held in a higher regard. Despite all of this, some promising signs for Indian football can be found. Although there has traditionally been very little focus on youth development – the import of players from Africa and Latin America is such an embedded practice that the lengthier process of producing young Indian footballers has often been discarded –the AIFF finally seem to have recognised the importance of producing Indian youngsters: I-League clubs must now enter an under-19 team into a national league, and a recent grassroots project has seen the opening of residential academies across the country, providing excellent facilities for coaches and young players alike. FIFA, meanwhile, has committed itself to three projects since 2001: the building of headquarters and offices for the AIFF in Dehli, the construction of pitches in the northeast and south, and the creation of regional academies focused on producing players in the under-14 and under-15 age group. India’s potential has not been lost on European giants either, with Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona all forming links with academies in the Southern Asian state in the past few years. Perhaps the biggest boost to football in India would be a successful export akin to Japan’s Shunsuke Nakamura, South Korea’s Park Ji-Sung or Australia’s Tim Cahill. Sunil Chhetri, the best of India’s current crop, signed for Sporting Lisbon reserves in 2012 but played only three times before returning home; Baichung Bhaita, who joined Bury in 1999, and Mohammed Salim in the 1930s are the only other Indians to play professionally abroad. Talented footballers do not just emerge in isolation, however, for they are reliant on the facilities, conditions and environment in which they find themselves, and further investment is required in order to give youngsters the best chance of prospering. It is to be hoped that the launch of the Super League does not come at the expense of bottom-up initiatives: the nascent competition based on the model of cricket’s IPL must work in conjunction with sustained youth development for India to begin to realise its potential. Can the Indian Super League wake a sleeping img 3 India will not be represented at the Asian Cup in Australia in January, failing to qualify where the likes of Bahrain, Oman and Palestine succeeded. A 27-year absence from the competition was ended by an appearance at the 2011 edition in Qatar, where the Blue Tigers lost all three group games, conceding 13 goals. Nevertheless, the squad received a warm welcome on their return home, special praise reserved for goalkeeper Subrata Pal after a string of impressive saves and performances. Fellow participants may tend to be very week but triumphs at the Nehru Cup in 2007, 2009 and 2012 offer small signs of encouragement, and FIFA’s decision to award India with the right to host the 2017 under-17 World Cup could serve as a real boost to the country’s football culture and youth development. There is still a long way to go but if India can use the razzmatazz of the Super League to grow support for the game while concurrently continuing to invest at grassroots level, progress can be made. If India could punch just a quarter of their weight on the international stage, they would be a force to be reckoned with. Kyrgyzstan, you feel, would not stand a chance.
This piece was written by A Football Report contributor Greg Lea. Comments below please.

Norwich City is facing to the drop in the end of the season

It’s a simple question, and it’s one that Norwich City have faced time and time again. Two successive promotions and a remarkable 12th placed finish in the Premier League last year is a commendable achievement for any football club. The last day of last term saw the Canaries round off a delightful first season back in the big time, but also the cliché, ‘if they can cheat with you, they can cheat on you’ comes to mind. It was a little over 3 summers ago which marked Bryan Gunn’s last game in charge, after Paul Lambert’s Colchester decimated Norwich at Carrow Road 7-1. A few weeks later, Paul Lambert began his reign as messiah at Carrow Road, the start of the rise of one of Britain’s finest young managers. 3 years later would see Lambert take charge of the last team he beat with Norwich, Aston Villa.

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This leaves Chris Hughton with the task of moulding together a new philosophy, as we have seen with the switch to a traditionally British 4-4-2 and a new squad, as well as maintain Norwich’s status amongst the elite in English football. Sounds like an easy task given the comfort of the Canaries in the last campaign… right?

On one hand, the predominantly yellow-shirt wearing team in the Premier League face an uphill struggle in ensuring that crucial third year of Premier League survival, and this can be attributed to two main causes. The first and certainly most fundamental, is whether or not Chris Hughton can transform the old team & new signings, with the former being so accustomed to not only Lambert’s 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-1-2 formations, but also himself as a manager as he brought in the majority of players you see now, into a team of graduates from Tony Pulis’ ‘How to solidify as a Premier League Club’ master class come the 2013/14 season.

I believe a lot of the new signings will struggle. The first is Harry Kane; for all his comparisons to Teddy Sheringham, he only made his league debut this year, and before that he had only played half a season in the Championship with Millwall, so this season may be no more than an experience-builder for the Spurs youngster. Both Bassong and Turner are no more than relegation-threatened Premier League players. Both players at best are mediocre players who have often given numerous below-par performances which would not indicate that Bassong is formerly a Spurs player or that Turner once had his name in the England selection hat. Javier Garrido is a strategic loan signing, bringing with him a wealth of experience and dodgy over-lapping runs. However, the former Man City left back again is far away from the quality of player needed to take point’s week-in-week-out in the Premier League. Jacob Butterfield has only ever been a mediocre player for Barnsley which speaks volumes in itself as regards his ability to develop into a decent Premier League player, whilst Tettey, the new holding mid from Rennes, again looks like another mediocre midfielder, with the added luxury of being extremely injury-prone, as his time at Rennes would suggest.

This pins all hope on Snodgrass; a reputable winger with an excellent eye for goal for both club and more recently, country, and Whittaker, another Scottish international who not only brings invaluable experience, but also is an exciting right-back with pace. This formulates a wider belief that Norwich only finished 12th as Lambert knew his players inside out, allowing for managerial experience to over-rule natural talent. Therefore, based on their summer signings and the fact Hughton must now gel those signings into the previous squad, Canaries fans are worried, especially if you consider Southampton and West Ham just paid over the odds to land Gaston Ramirez and Andy Carroll, respectively.

But do the Canaries have enough to sustain Premier League survival this time round? New boys Reading, West Ham, and Southampton all have marquee signings in Pogrebnyak, Carroll, and Ramirez, QPR signed an arsenal of reject players across many of Europe’s top clubs, which although were very expensive, the majority are still talented players nonetheless. Welsh outfit Swansea have made confident steps under Laudrup whilst Martinez’s Wigan have proven themselves to be fighters as of when it’s required, where does this leave the likes of Norwich?

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Norwich must find a way to utilise Grant Holt to the fullest, which may be difficult as he now shares the striker role in the new 4-4-2 formation. Piklington and Snodgrass will no doubt serve as reliable assistants to whichever two strikers lead the front-line. The Canaries cannot afford a depletion of goals at any time this season, as Villa found out last season under Big Eck. Norwich appear to be limited up top. Should Holt get injured, Norwich would be without a recognised Premier League goal-scorer (if we can even call Holty that). This is where the relevance of the clubs around Norwich comes in. Ramirez isn’t going to be the new Kevin Phillips, however he will link up well with Lallana and create many chances for the Saints, who do have players who can score goals, most recently Ricky Lambert. West Ham look a decent team with Carroll in the side, whilst Reading’s spirited efforts at Chelsea alone – marked by a sublime header from Pogrebnyak himself – show signs of a spirited and but very focussed club.

Norwich must find a way to benefit from the weaknesses of those around them. I believe Norwich’s survival in the Premier League is reliant on their home form and their form in ‘6-pointers’ both home and away. If they can nick a few points here and there on the road at a big club, as evident with the monumental 1-0 away victory at White Hart Lane last term, then this is a bonus. However, the relegation battle looks as if it’ll be more open than ever before. For all their riches, QPR look a long way away from playing like a team containing 3 Champions League winners in Jose Bosingwa, Julio Cesar and Park Ji-Sung. Thus, it’s imperative the Norwich’s, the Wigan’s, the Reading’s notice QPR’s lack of confidence, and how a bad run will plunge them deeper into trouble, as was the case last season.

Norwich must also recognize the intangible and priceless advantage of experiencing two promotions and a 12th place finish in the Premier League all within 3 years. For the money a player is worth, you cannot buy team spirit or confidence, something which should be in abundance at Norwich going into the 4th season of their noteworthy turnaround from League 1 to the highest tier in English football. I believe such experience allows Norwich to not just participate, but compete in nearly every game they play in bar the top 7. This means Norwich are in good-stead to nick points off the Sunderland’s, the Villa’s and the Stoke’s at any time. Moreover, Norwich have an England international in John Ruddy, who was a pleasure to watch between the sticks last season, and this offers solidity to the team, so don’t expect to many blunders from the one-cap England international, however, the same cannot be said for those around them. Even QPR.

The final argument in favour of my beloved Canaries is style of football Norwich play. Norwich move the ball around the a lot, especially to the wingers who enjoy cutting in and dragging opposition defenders, whilst they do not struggle to create chances. This puts them at an advantage over the traditional English “long-ball to a big guy” style at West Ham, the counter-attacking football of Southampton and Reading’s passing football which has lacked an end product across their first 3 Premier League games. I say this as Norwich know how to remain competitive in games, whilst they can also win games, clearly evident in the spirited 3-3 at the Emirates on the penultimate game of last season. If Norwich can continue their attacking and confident style of football this season, names on a team-sheet will count for nothing as the Canaries will certainly emerge as a mid-table club again, should Chris Hughton manage to find a winning formula, be it a similar one to Lambert or his own one, it must compliment the mindset and abilities of the players at Norwich City.

Going forward, the 2012/13 season promises to warrant one thing from every Premier Club longing for success, whatever that may be: hard-work. It’s disheartening, but I do believe my adored Norwich will find themselves in a relegation scrap. However, Chris Hughton gave a monumental effort at Birmingham last season and he didn’t too badly in his time at Newcastle either, so us Canaries fans can take some confidence looking ahead at this season. The teams Norwich will be fighting against will be Southampton, QPR, West Ham, Wigan, Reading and maybe Swansea and/or Aston Villa. My worries come from Southampton, QPR and West Ham. If Carroll and Ramirez can click, then both squads will have an attacking who represents a country in the FIFA top 10 world rankings at the helm of the attack. What’s more worrying is that Adkins and Allardyce brought in two players compliment both the Saints and the Hammers style of play monumentally, leaving the potential to elevate them to the next level; more in the direction of becoming the next Stoke. At the end of it all, I see the Canaries finishing no lower than 17th, should everything go to plan for us, with Reading, West Ham and Wigan going down.

But this isn’t Football Manager and I cannot take over another club, sell me their best players on the cheap, and watch Norwich prosper from there on after. Norwich are still subject to the cruel wrong-doings and injustices of football, and could find themselves in the Championship next year. With all that in mind, I have two questions to for you: Do you think Norwich will stay up? And which 3 clubs will go down this year? 

This piece was written by Ajay Rose, writing from London. You can follow him on Twitter @ajay_rose. Comments below please.

Full-time: Barcelona 1 – 2 Sevilla So Sevilla will leave Camp Nou and the first leg of the Copa Del Rey quarterfinal against Barcelona with the clear advantage. Sevilla were not the better side today, but they won’t care as they go back to Andalucia. Diego Capel took the lead for Sevilla in the 60th minute before Ibrahimovic equalized in the 74th. With quite the lucky break, Alvaro Negredo capitalized on a penalty for Sevilla that really should not have been. This is another example of a scoreline that does not reflect a game, as Barcelona had more chances and were disallowed perfectly good goals from Bojan Krkic and Dani Alves. The referee might be the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons at the end of tonight, as he was atrocious. Thankfully this quarterfinal has a second leg that will played at Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, so hopefully that game will determine a deserved winner. Sevilla did put in an admirable effort, and they probably deserved something from this game, but certainly not a victory. But isn’t that football? Copa Del Rey Match Centre Barcelona v Sevilla img 2 90+4º Ibrahimovic is just a step away from Dani Alves’ excellent left-footed cross. That was probably Barcelona’s last chance. 90º Four minutes of added time. Dani Alves looks completely level as he is through from Xavi’s pass, but his chipped finish won’t count as the referee brings it back wrongly once again. 87º Chigrinsky heads from 8 yards from Xavi’s free-kick, but his effort just goes a bit high and wide. 86º Messi so close! Busquets plays him through, and the Argentine skipped over several Sevilla tackles before slotting his far-post effort just a bit wide. Messi looks up to the clouds in despair. That was a golden chance. 85º Sevilla trying to do all they can to hold on to their lead. That means possessing and time-wasting. The Barcelona fans are not happy about it. 83º Maxwell is rightfully shown a yellow card for a late tackle on Diego Capel. 81º Lolo is hobbling off injured, so Duscher will replace him. 80º Referee blows yet another call, as Dani Alves’ cross is clearly tipped behind by Palop. Should be a corner for Barcelona, but ref gives a goal kick. A frustrated Bojan earns himself a yellow card. 79º Sergio Busquets crosses it in for Xavi, who comes close with a good strike across goal from 22 yards. Just wide. 75º GOAL!!! Barcelona 1 – 2 Sevilla! A terrible, terrible, terrible penalty decision that Negredo converts. Diego Capel is dragged down by Chigrinsky, and the ref gives a penalty. The replay shows that the foul was actually not in the box. Calls not going in Barcelona’s favour today. 74º GOAL!!! Barcelona 1 – 1 Sevilla! Zlatan with a bit of vigilante justice as he rounds Palop and slots it home. Marquez played Ibra through with a great 45 yard through ball. 72º Barcelona truly robbed! Dani Alves makes a great 40 yard run to cross for Zlatan. The cross is a bit far for Zlatan, but it falls to Bojan, who strikes it first time. Bojan strike deflects off a Sevilla player and goes into the Sevilla net. A seemingly nice goal is disallowed as the ref says Ibrahimovic pushed Konko. Replay shows how terrible of a call it was. 71º Thiago now comes off for Xavi. 69º Kone now comes off for Alvaro Negredo. A straight forward for forward swap. 66º Gabriel Milito coming off for Sergio Busquets. This should shift the Barcelona formation to some sort of 3-6-1, with Zlatan the only real forward. 65º Lolo is shown a yellow card for a deliberate hand-ball. Pressure mounting on Barcelona at the moment. 64º Romaric’s swings a free-kick from 22 yards, but Pinto does well to parry over the bar. 60º GOAL!!! Barcelona 0 – 1 Sevilla! Perroti gets a cross off that deflects and falls straight to Diego Capel. Capel cooly slots his effort near post past Pinto. Nothing the Barcelona keeper could do about that one. 59º The corner falls to Pedro, who curls an effort from 18 yards into Palop’s arms. 58º Bojan shows his strength by holding off Konko and snatching a Barcelona corner. 56º Excellent defending by both sides at the moment. 53º Barcelona counter from the Sevilla corner, and Fernando Navarro hacks down Andrés Iniesta. Navarro is rightfully shown a yellow card. 52º Konko should have just put Sevilla ahead! He was clear from 10 yards out, but Pinto made himself big and came up with a spectacular save. Corner now for Sevilla. 51º The intensity of this game has dropped since the first half. Rain is pouring down, and neither team looks too happy to be on the field. 49º Navarro wins a free-kick for Sevilla from 35 yards out. Pinto does well to save the resulting effort. 46º Zlatan Ibrahimovic is coming on for Pedro. Pedro had a good first half, but maybe the Swede a much needed spark for Barca. Copa Del Rey Match Centre Barcelona v Sevilla img 3 Half-time: Barcelona totally dominating, but lacking that final touch. The Barcelona faithful are not happy about the scoreline, and rightfully so. The half finishes with Barcelona on top of Sevilla, no one is happy with the referee at the moment. Barcelona have been better, but as with the Villarreal game on Sunday, I wouldn’t count Sevilla out of this one just yet. All it takes is one moment of brilliance for Sevilla to come out of this game with something. Diego Capel looks most likely to produce for Sevilla. That being said, Barcelona’s whole attack looks incredibly dangerous. 45º Two minutes of added time. Whistles filling Camp Nou at the moment. Messi has a chance after Iniesta plays him through, but Messi takes first time and it goes well wide. The ref calls it back as offside, but the replay shows otherwise. 42º Escude is shown a yellow for a rash challenge on Rafael Marquez. Jesus Navas is now struggling to continue. 40º Thiago is shown the yellow card for attempting a bicycle kick, but kicking Jesus Navas where it hurts. Ouch. 39º Navarro crashes into Lionel Messi. The free-kick is taken quickly, and Bojan wins Barcelona yet another corner. 34º Diego Capel finishes near post, but if offside. Kone whiffs on his effort, the ball deflects to Diego Capel who was well offside. 32º Romaric’s free-kick is blocked by the wall, but Sevilla are piling on pressure. 28º Iniesta wins Barcelona a corner after cutting up Escude with great skill. Iniesta’s corner meets Marquez near post, but Palop saves easily. 24º Messi plays Maxwell in, and a decent cross wins Barcelona a corner. Nothing comes from the corner though. 22º Dani Alves drives in a free-kick that goes low and across goal. Marquez follows up, but his effort rolls just wide for a Barcelona corner. The corner falls to Messi, who curls it near post. His effort just hits the crossbar and saves Palop from a bit of embarrassment. 21º Messi takes on three players, but Romaric takes him down from behind. From kick to Barcelona now from 30 yards. Dani Alves to take. 14º Pedro does well to beat Escude down the left flank with a sly stepover. Stylish play from the Blaugrana at the moment. 12º Iniesta with amazing dribbling to evade a few Sevilla players then set up a good Barcelona chance, which Messi scuffs high and wide. Iniesta, tonight’s captain for Barca, looks in great form. 10º Messi with a moment of magic! Gliding past four Sevilla defenders and striking a shot from 20 yards out, the Argentine’s far-post effort is well-saved by Palop. Corner Barcelona. 6º Romaric forces Pinto into a good save with a well-struck free-kick. 3º Neither side is using its true best 11, but nevertheless both sides are filled with youngsters that feel the need to prove themselves 1º And we’re off! Barcelona surely won’t be held back to back at Camp Nou. Or will they? Lineups: Barcelona: Pinto, Maxwell, Marquez, Milito, Alves, Chigrinsky, Iniesta (captain), Thiago, Messi, Krkic, Pedro Subs: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Busquets, Henry, Ibrahimovic Sevilla: Palop (captain), Escudé, Navarro, Lolo, Dragutinovic, Jesus Navas, Romaric, Konko, Diego Capel, Perotti, Kone Subs: Hernandez, Cala, Redondo, Duscher, Renato, Negredo, Vazquez

Canadas Oldest Rivalry Comes To MLS

When Toronto FC joined Major League Soccer back in 2007, the Columbus Crew, one of the league’s ten charter members, became their chief rival. This manufactured-for-MLS rivalry was largely a conflict of convenience, a function of the lack of any other team in closer proximity to Canada’s largest city and the fact that Reds fans required a destination for road trips. The rivalry served its purpose in those early years. Some 2,400 TFC supporters filled a grandstand at the end zone at Crew Stadium for the 2008 season opener. In 2009, some actual animosity was injected into the previously placid relationship when a post-game melee led to 20 Columbus Police Department cruisers arriving on scene, a tasering and some arrests – a rare display of rambunctiousness for the usually unfailingly polite Canadians.

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But in general, Torontonians have nothing against the good people of Columbus, Ohio. As far as rivalries go, that’s a tad problematic.  A competition which derives its moniker from a pretty plant – the teams compete for the Trillium Cup, named for the official flowers of Ontario and Ohio – isn’t the easiest to get excited about.

Enter the Montreal Impact. Major League Soccer’s nineteenth and newest franchise hails from the one city Torontonians love to hate most. The rivalry between these two cities has been manifested multiple times before: between the Argos and the Alouettes, the Blue Jays and the now-defunct Expos, and, most importantly, in the nation’s oldest sporting rivalry: that between the Maple Leafs and les Canadiens de Montréal. Fans of both sides have already even had a taste of what Montreal’s first season in Major League Soccer will bring.

Back in 2009 when the Impact, playing in the second-tier USL, were defending Canadian champions, the Reds went into Saputo Stadium needing to win by four goals to claim the title over the Whitecaps. They embarrassed their hosts, thumping them 6 goals to 1, to take the first trophy in the Toronto club’s history. A year later at BMO Field, TFC won 2-0 in a match featuring six yellow cards which saw Impact striker Roberto Brown sent off for a punch to the face of Toronto defender Nick Garcia.

“I think the fans came to see a soccer match and a boxing match – they got both,” said then-TFC striker Chad Barrett at the time. “You’re going to get a lot of feistiness, especially playing against Montreal. As of right now, that is our rival. It’s always going to be a heated matchup.”

Virtually no one from either side remains. But the sentiment lingers. The roots of this rivalry run deep – below layer upon layer of snow and ice.

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From 1944 to 1978, the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens met each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs 12 times and faced off in five finals. While the competition on-ice is fierce, this rivalry is actually symbolic of a much deeper cultural cleavage in Canadian society. It is merely a manifestation of the historical enmity that has existed between English and French Canadians since Canada’s formation.

From the time of the British defeat of Québec at the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the chief tension in what would eventually become the country of Canada has been that between English- and French-speaking Canadians. English Canadians, were for the most part of British ethnic stock and Protestant, associated with and loyal to the British Crown. In contrast, the French Canadians,  known as the Québecois, were of French descent, heavily Roman Catholic, and did not express a strong allegiance to the British monarchy – to put it lightly.

When the NHL was created in 1917, these differences continued to play themselves out in the rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens – the oldest rivalry in the history of the National Hockey League. The Maple Leafs’ fanbase consisted primarily of English-speaking Canadians of British descent; in fact, the team’s logo from 1927 onward was a stylized version of the badge insignia sported by the Canadian Army (who fought on behalf of the British crown) during World War I. As late as the 1970s, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s official head of state, hung in the Leafs’ home arena, Maple Leaf Gardens, and God Save the Queen, the royal anthem, was the song of choice before any game.

The Canadiens, meanwhile, captured the imaginations of Canada’s French-speaking population, mainly concentrated in the province of Quebec. It was the Habs, as they are affectionately known, who pioneered the use of what is now Canada’s national anthem, O Canada, at that mecca of hockey, the Montreal Forum (albeit with bilingual lyrics as opposed to the entirely English version used throughout the rest of Canada). Canada’s greatest rivalry was particularly acute during the 1960s, as one of the two teams would capture the Stanley Cup each year of the decade, with the exceptions of 1961 and 1970. The rivalry reached its zenith in the 1967 season, when both teams met in the Stanley Cup Finals during the centennial year of Canadian Confederation. The city of Montreal was hosting Expo 67 that year, and the Canadiens were expected to beat the Leafs with ease. Yet Toronto, the underdog, upset the Habs to capture Canada’s most coveted piece of silverware.

The Leafs and the Habs will next face each other on Saturday night at the Bell Centre – while across town, the Impact will host their familiar rivals, TFC, for the first time as a Major League Franchise. One could not have imagined a more salivating night for sports in Canada if they’d tried. Simply stated, Montreal and Toronto hate each other. They always have, and they always will. This is a good thing. If soccer is to continue its exponential growth in Canada, it needs an audience – and nothing generates interest quicker than a heated rivalry.

What can we expect from Saturday’s tantalizing tie? Both teams are arguably equally hungry for a win, with Major League Soccer’s new kid on the block still seeking their first victory and Toronto hoping to ease their lingering disappointment over their failed attempt to make history earlier this week. Expect spirit. Expect entertainment. Most of all, expect Montreal’s douzième jouer, their vociferous, vocal fanbase, to make their presence felt. Keep your ears open for a familiar phrase, heard often round these here parts when Torontonians are around:

Canadas Oldest Rivalry Comes To MLS img 3

         24 cups, your team sucks.

Aston Villas change of strategy

The philosophy of a football club will determine the immediate goals and long-term vision of the club. Within England, this has often been dictated at most sides by the manager. However in recent times as a more continental approach has been inserted by some; others have remained old-fashioned. Under Martin O’Neill it was plain to see who organised footballing matters. A disciple of Brian Clough, that demanded complete control, a man-manager that would get the best out of his players. Transfer targets were his own and the strategy was to invest heavily in good young English talent as well as utilising players that he had worked successfully alongside in the past. With strong investment from the nice American after years of Scrooge Doug, the future looked bright and the ambition to break into the top 4 was almost within touching distance. When O’Neill rolled into town, Villa had just finished 16th – 8 points off the relegation zone. The next season they finished 11th followed by 3 consecutive 6th placed finishes but not without cost. According to figures used from transferleague.co.uk under O’Neill’s 4 season tenure they had a net spend of £84.15 million! In comparison to the previous four seasons where it had been just £13.625m. In the same time period as O’Neill, Rafa Benítez at Liverpool had a net spend of £53.05m. Although both had different starting points, initial strength of squads and expectation levels, Liverpool were expected to fight for league titles. Had you watched a pundit or picked up a newspaper at that time you would have been misled. In order to make the final push into a Champions League berth O’Neill felt more investment would be required, whilst progressing up the Premier League can be done at a moderate cost the next step would need to be much higher. Randy Lerner decided it was a risk he wasn’t prepared to take, in doing so it was perceived as lacking ambition by the manager and a number of key players who have since departed. This may have been wise as clubs who have over spent throughout Europe such as Valencia and Sevilla are now in the uncomfortable position of balancing the debt. What many fans don’t realise is that Aston Villa like nearly all football clubs do have debt, which currently sits at £110m. £24m less than that of Arsenals which is often perceived as a well run club but with a turnover 4 times as insufficient as the London side. Question marks over a number of signings from fans were clearly matched by the board. Direct football and fast counter attacking wing play at best often worked against sides that were prepared to take the initiative but struggled when teams put 9 to 10 men behind the ball. A solid first eleven that would fade away in February every year as fatigue and injuries took their toll on a squad lacking depth. Gérard Houllier and Gary McAllister took over proceedings for last season, results were poor and so was the Frenchman’s health in a season to forget all round. Gérard struggled with a number of players within the dressing room, he had after-all sold both John Carew and Brad Friedel at previous clubs and not given Stephen Warnock a chance whilst at Liverpool. Other players may have felt loyal to O’Neill and unhappy with the owners perceived new stance on expenditure. An initial payment of £18m for Darren Bent in January was made in order to starve off relegation as the striker hit 9 goals in 16 games. Before his arrival Villa had scored just 24 goals in 22 games, after which they bagged another 24 goals but in only 16 games. A deal which seemed a panic signing at the time proved to be more of a calculated risk, a price tag more than justified as the Midlands side kept their Premiership status. A 9th placed finish but just 9 points off relegation as things became tighter in the bottom half of the table. So who’s pulling the strings at Villa Park now? Aston Villas change of strategy img 1 Randy Lerner holds the purse, it’s his club and won’t pay out big money unless the club are at significant risk. He pays a manager to manage and in fairness that’s what he has allowed them to do but now there are certain limitations. Whilst searching for the new man this summer they met with Spaniards Rafa Benítez and Roberto Martínez. Now the key to both of these coaches being sounded out is not their country of origin but there style of football, progressive and possession based. Tactics suited for the top-tier of the table, not exactly the same style as Alex McLeish! Martínez has a fantastic relationship with chairmen Dave Whelan at Wigan and a clear goal of top half football in the next 3-5 seasons. Benítez has already battled it out with 2 Americans over money and wasn’t about to make it 3rd time lucky. What’s needed is a manager that is in no position to try to call the shots, enter the Scotsman. A move that united all the fans but for all the wrong reasons. Maybe Villa have got long-term goals, they have just been changed accordingly over the past 18 months? Maybe a realisation (after interviewing 2 managers) that the squad was best suited to direct long ball football? Without significant funds to change style of play, it’s probably best to stick to what you know. Last month McLeish made these comments: ”We’re trying to sign another one, and trying to replace the players who have left with players who are at the club, for the time being, it will just be one and we’ll be doing further assessment of the squad over the next few weeks.” These comments made despite the sales of Ashley Young (£17m) and Stewart Downing (£20m) two of their best players. Both deals on the suffice seemed like good fees earned with Young having just 12 months left on his contract and many believing that Downing is over priced. However it doesn’t matter how much money you receive for a player if that money is not reinvested within the squad. But when you dig a little deeper it’s not quite as straightforward, Downing has completed more successful crosses in the past three seasons than anyone else in the Premier League. He is the top-flight’s 5th-most successful chance-creator over the past seven seasons only to be outdone by Giggs, Lampard, Gerrard and Fabregas. In this time he has created 40 assists the same total as Stevie G and on average he was fit to play in all but three games a season over the past five years. Still over priced? Charles N’Zogbia has been brought in for a fee in the region of £10m and is an able replacement for one of these players in terms of ability but not both. Last season he completed the most dribbles in the league but reports that he was willing to go on strike to seal the move are hardly ideal for any dressing room and god help anyone who gets his name wrong. It’s still not out of the realm of possibility that new signings will come but it’s unlikely to be for commanding fees. Selling your best players for a tidy profit isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you have the scouts to identify cheaper replacements that could potentially reach the previous players level. A problem not just found at Aston Villa but at most Premiership sides as their scouting networks often let them down when measured against their European Big Eck hits the nail right on the head, O’Neill’s signings were geared towards top six finishes with wages to match. There are a number of players that whilst they didn’t command the highest of fees are on wages which are too high just to sit around on the bench. At £80 million, Villa have the 6th highest wage bill in the country higher than that of Tottenham. In comparison to similar sized supported clubs Sunderland and Everton who both have a wage bill of £54m, there is some shredding to be done. Without being able to release these players off the wage bill, it seems that McLeish has been instructed to get the best out of what he has got. The recently appointed manager stated: ”We can’t just discard players that are on big wages and say ‘right, we’ve had enough of you, I’m going to try someone else, but in the meantime you can have your wage every week.” Perhaps that’s wise as Alex had a net spend of £36.5m over his last 2 seasons at Birmingham and they still got relegated. The other approach is to utilise the youngsters; of which Villa have many but having successful youth teams is not the same as having good young players that can play at the highest level. Sales this summer seem to be in order to cover the cost of Mr Bent but what happens if he doesn’t get the service required to score the goals? More investment in January? Having dreamed of Champions League football just 18 months ago, fans are now faced with the prospect of more limited aspirations. A top half finish would now be deemed a success as Villa enter the 2011/12 season. With McLeish having been manager of their hated rivals, results and performances will need to go through the roof in order to win over the Villa sceptic. A tall order for any manager in this situation, if the fans don’t want you from the start then your on a hiding to nothing, just ask Roy Hodgson. The biggest question if things go wrong quickly will be the reaction of Mr Lerner, for the first time fans are beginning to ask serious questions of his ownership. Does he listen to the fans as he supposedly did over Steve McClaren or does he show faith in the man he appointed as he has done previously? Chopping and changing managers also costs money that he is unwilling to part with. Perceptions will be hard to change and the adjustment in strategy has just made things even more awkward

An Open Letter From Me A Scotsman To England

I think it’s time we sat down and had a conversation but I’m too afraid to face you directly. The thought of millions of furious, misled eyes staring back at me while I sheepishly list all the things that I think are wrong with your national team chills me to the bone. I also know where it would end; with my limp corpse hanging from the Wembley arch.

That is why I’ve chosen to write you this letter. I want you to see what the rest of us see and until someone sits down and points it out to you, you’ll live forever in blissful ignorance. If you want that then by all means, turn away from this letter. Print it out and use its burning to ignite your wicker effigy of Roy Hodgson if you must.

I worry about you, England. 

It’s undoubtedly time to address the elephant in the room. An elephant wearing a kilt, sporran and with a massive saltire plastered across its hide like an SNP billboard. I’m Scottish. You remember us, of course.

We’re the ones who baulk with the indignation of a much better country every time a major tournament comes round and we’re not there. We’re the ones who claim to support, “whoever’s playing England” or arbitrarily pick a nation based on who has the nicest kit or where we once went on holiday. We’re the hypocrites who will happily take English players into our fold as long as their grandmother’s goldfish was bought in a pet shop in Linlithgow. The long and short is that we’re not very good.

Many English football fans believe that Scotland fans take an anti-English attitude because we hold a seven hundred year old grudge against King Edward I or because we’re jealous of the English Premier League’s quality. A sizable majority are like me; they trundle towards major tournaments wanting you to succeed.

It’s of no real detriment to Scotland if you win the Euros. If anything, it improves the quality of the England squad and improves our squad by ensuring that we get the former U21s who languish in the international wilderness and qualify for Scotland by virtue of the “Granny Rule”.

Frankly, it’s not you; it’s your media.

Every four years, they go into an overdrive of expectation and arrogant posturing about the depth of quality available to your manager. The way some of your more renowned pundits go on, you’d assume that England could be managed by a small bowl of tiramisu and still expect to win the World Cup every four years.

You’re right to be annoyed at me, as I’m sure you are. I’m claiming that the media are ramping up your expectations and you’re all blindly and willingly complicit in it. I’m sorry you’re annoyed; I’m also sorry that I’m right.

If I was to go to any English city and ask one hundred people if they thought England had a chance of winning the European Championship this year, I confidently predict that 60% of them would say yes. Some might go on to say that injuries would probably hamper them and that this is a rebuilding period.

Others might go on to say that the lack of pressure on the squad might mean that they could go on to win it.

Coming from a country that once sent our squad off to a World Cup to the haunting melancholy of Del Amitri’s ‘Don’t Come Home Too Soon’, I find that notion completely astonishing. The media position have altered inexorably since the injuries to Frank Lampard, Gary Cahill et al. Where there was once the bluster and bravado and constant intimations that this could be England’s year, now there is a paradox.

An Open Letter From Me A Scotsman To England img 2

“There’s no pressure so we might go on and win it.”

That’s still pressure.

You know that, you’re not stupid. The media doesn’t seem to understand the notion that by suggesting you could win or even reach the final, the pressure still exists. Even Gary Neville’s noticed it. That should terrify you.

Let me reiterate my desire to see you do well now before Friday when I face the first of my battles against Adrian Chiles’ shit-eating grin and the banal observations of Alan Shearer. You should have no desire to once again hear Clive Tyldesley preemptively claim a goal-glut as he did against the USA in 2010 and have no wish to hear Harry Redknapp lament the absence of the players he would have called up.

I’m all for national pride when it comes to football. Your national team and top division is something that you should be immensely proud of. Your pervasive, deluded pundits desperately clamouring for ratings with their masquerade of confidence. This is the media that invented the ‘Golden Generation’. The generation of flops and failures, beset on all sides by scandal and flaccid, disjointed performances.

I think you know that you’re not going to win this tournament and I think in your heart of hearts you believe that by Euro 2016, a full half century after the halcyon days of 1966, the Wembley trophy cabinet will still be nothing more than an irritation to the cleaners.

The 1966 generation were the Golden ones and your next generation have all the potential to be the next if they’re given the opportunity to grow, join together and form a cohesive unit. The media will never allow you, the English people, that new golden generation. Flops and failures make better headlines.

Take a stand. Don’t let the media overstate the case. Get behind your team but don’t expect great things. The simple fact of the matter is that this is football. If you fail to win another tournament, the players will not be voted out of the team or marched into The Tower Of London and summarily executed. The media want you to believe that every year is your year so that their vicious, heartless dissections of where it all went wrong will sell more papers.

It all went wrong when the media started speculating on who you’d be playing in the final before the first group game had even kicked off.

Yours sincerely,

A Concerned Scotsman (Michael Park)

Eto’o Says Farewell to Barcelona

Samuel Eto’o may have retained his pace and his finishing abilities throughout his five-year time with Barcelona, but the Cameroonian goal-machine is lacking a bit of common sense. Forward Samuel Eto’o reportedly told Barcelona president Joan Laporta he no longer wants to be part of Barcelona’s plans for next season and that he fancies a move to England. After his most trophy-laden season with the Catalan club, winning the UEFA Champions League, Copa del Rey (King’s Cup), and La Liga, why does he want out? Eto’o was integral to Barcelona, netting a career-record 36 goals in all competitions, the most significant of which was in the tenth minute of the Champions League Final in Rome, helping his team beat Manchester United 2-0. Barcelona showed the potency and perfection of their squad; their exploits this season would make it hard to bet against them for their upcoming La Liga campaign. Etoo Says Farewell to Barcelona img 2 At the end of Eto’o’s somewhat disappointing 2007-08 La Liga season, the striker also wanted out of Barcelona — in search of silverware. In April 2008, The Daily Telegraph quoted Barça’s No. 9 as saying, “If we continue like this next year…then I will have to leave and go somewhere else. I have to win trophies.” Having won three of them, the question arises: Why does he still want to leave the club that he has been at since 2004? The fanfare around the possibility of Barcelona signing Spanish forward David Villa from Valencia could make Eto’o question his starting place in the Barça lineup if Villa joins the Blaugrana this summer. Many Barcelona players have been urging Eto’o to stay at Camp Nou and play alongside Villa. “Of course they can play together,’’ centre-back Gerard Pique told reporters after the Confederation Cup in South Africa. “Competition is always good and Villa could help Barcelona considerably.” Joan Laporta tried to retain the services of his leading scorer by offering him a new two-year contract extension. Eto’o did not respond to the offer, effectively rejecting it. Laporta has talked with Eto’o attempting to persuade him to stay, but Eto’o has decided to leave the club. Etoo Says Farewell to Barcelona img 3 After Manchester City formally ended their pursuit of Eto’o on Friday, their cross-city rivals, Manchester United now look frontrunners to sign the twenty-eight year-old Cameroonian on a fee of £25 million and a four-year deal of £150,000-a-week, although he wants additional money based on appearances and goals. Eto’o’s agent, Josep Maria Mesalles, also cited his client’s desire to win in jumping ship. “He wants to join a club which will give him another chance of winning trophies,” The Telegraph quoted Mesalles as saying. Goal.com dispelled rumours and reassured Barcelona fans, quoting Joan Laporta as saying, “There is nothing going on with Eto’o, he will return because he is a player with a running contract…” The tough part of that argument for Catalan fans:  Eto’o obviously doubts Barcelona’s title contention next season, with tough opposition coming from Real Madrid, bolstered by their recent signings, Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Carlo Ancelotti: Cool in the hottest of moments

On the margins of a blank piece of paper, he would scribble in his starters. He would fill the rest of the page with points about the defence and attack: to maintain possession, to play two-touch football, to bide your time. And he would make copies and hand them out to his players before matches. Carlo Ancelotti writes all of his notes by hand. He writes in ink. He always wanted to make that human connection. “You can’t write a love letter on a computer,” he writes in his book, The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius. You could say Ancelotti is a bit of a romantic. Communication is the most important thing. He wants everyone’s opinions. If one of his players is upset, Ancelotti hears them out. He prefers talking to his team instead of shouting; listening instead of ignoring, even when he knows he is right. Carlo Ancelotti Cool in the hottest of moments img 2 “For me,” says the 54-year-old, coach of Real Madrid, “it’s managing people. Managing Ronaldo is the same for me as managing Carvajal or Morata.” Maybe there’s a reason why his players like to hang out with him, to go out for dinner. Ancelotti once took 50 of his colleagues to a restaurant in the Basque country, as the journalist Simon Kuper recounts in an article in the Financial Times, and Ancelotti paid for the all the meals himself. He likes to say that he is not their father or their brother, but their friend. Maybe that’s why Ancelotti was able to bring together a group so divided and so damaged just a year ago and win the club’s 10th European Cup. Things were so different under Jose Mourinho. He was more about controlling the information that went in and out of the club, controlling the private lives of the players. According to the Spanish journalist Diego Torres, who wrote the book, The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho, it was Mourinho who suspected the presence of moles in the dressing room. He couldn’t trust anyone. He called his team “sons of bitches.” Mourinho wanted his team to cease any relationship they had with players from Barcelona, to accept their role as bad guys. “You’ve left me all on my own,” Mourinho is quoted as saying. “You’re the most treacherous squad I’ve had in my life. Nothing more than sons of bitches.” No, not so for Ancelotti. He had a certain belief in his players. He respected the talent they had. Before the Champions League final, Ancelotti said there wasn’t much for him to do. The players didn’t need any motivating: They knew the stage and stakes. La Décima. After all, his starting XI was worth something around €420 million. And they delivered. After the match, Ancelotti looked cool and unfazed, explaining the victory in the post-match presser, until the his players made that noisy entrance. They danced up and down, and Ancelotti banged along, and Pepe and Sergio Ramos gave him a kiss on the way out. There is real love here. Ancelotti is almost some kind of football whisperer. He doesn’t make some grand speech to his players or persuade them to do something extraordinary; he simply calms them down and allows them to be the great players they are. It is true that Ancelotti has worked with some of the best talent over his 19 years as a coach – Paolo Maldini, Zinedine Zidane, Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo – and that it is easier with those kind of leaders, but Ancelotti creates an environment for them to simply be. Ancelotti treats his players as adults. That’s one thing Nils Liedholm taught him while coaching Ancelotti at AS Roma, but several managers have left an impression on Ancelotti, once a baby-faced midfielder. Arrigo Sacchi taught him respect; Fabio Capello taught him discipline; and Sven-Goran Eriksson taught him to be human. Eriksson would shake the hands of all his players before each training session. Some of them grew tired of the formality, but Eriksson did it anyway. Ancelotti is all that, and more. The two best coaches were probably his parents, a pair of farmers living in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. They taught him patience. They would produce the milk, their main export, “but they never saw the money until the dairy sold the finished cheese,” Ancelotti writes. It would take almost a year. So when we see Ancelotti in the dug-out, barely breaking a sweat, barely reacting to a goal scored, we know he is waiting for something bigger, the grand prize, and that his parents, while they were waiting to be paid, were the first of the Ancelotti family to show their cool and calm. Carlo Ancelotti Cool in the hottest of moments img 3 But Carlo has lost his temper a few times before. (Even then, he’ll go back and ask if he was wrong.) After a match in Bologna, while coaching AC Milan, Ancelotti stormed into the lockers and kicked the door on his way in and slammed the table and broke a bottle. He would even tell a few lies to the journalists. It was all about survival. Then there was the time the legendary referee Pierluigi Collina gave the big coach his first red card. (Ancelotti never really did call Collina an asshole.) He could have done something drastic at half-time this past weekend. Ancelotti could have gone off. Atletico Madrid were leading after 45 minutes, a header from the defender Diego Godin and a mistake from Iker Casillas costing Real Madrid. But Ancelotti simply told his players to keep going, to keep attacking, that Atletico’s resistance would soon break. It wasn’t really so soon – Sergio Ramos equalized in the 93rd minute – but Ancelotti was the one to reassure them in a moment of doubt. “He calms both the team and its players,” Paolo Maldini told the Spanish daily Marca. “We’re talking about someone with great knowledge of the game.” And it is true: Ancelotti has won titles in Italy, England, France and, of course, in Europe. He has won the European Cup five times in total. Spain is next to conquer. Maldini knew from the beginning that Real Madrid would not be patient. Had they lost to Atletico Madrid, perhaps Ancelotti would have lost his job. It is not enough to win: Real Madrid have to play well. They have shown a bit of everything – they went a record eight games without conceding a goal while also scoring 160 goals in all official competitions. They conceded just a single goal in the Copa del Rey, a tournament they eventually won after beating Barcelona. They blew a few of their easier games, but they were spectacular on the counter-attack. Ancelotti doesn’t impose the same system every where he goes. He assesses his teams and plays to their advantages. He adapts. He is not an authoritarian like Mourinho or defined by a singular style of play like Pep Guardiola. Ancelotti did indeed bring fame to the Christmas Tree: a 4-3-2-1 formation, possession-based football. He used it while coaching Milan, players like Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko, and Filippo Inzaghi all at his disposal. But when Silvio Berlusconi wanted to see something different, Ancelotti observed and gave in. He knew when to indulge the famous owner of AC Milan. In 2004, Berlusconi ordered Ancelotti to play with two forwards. The coach obeyed, and the team won the Scudetto that year. “With a squad of players like the Milan squad,” said Berlusconi, “I could coach them myself.” Berlusconi would also sit in player meetings, Ancelotti giving the instructions, worrying about this brooding presence. Ancelotti had a lot to handle there – a meddlesome owner, the pressure of a big club, and a multicultural team, players from France, Italy, the Netherlands, both black and white. Before that, he was coaching Juventus, and the ultras called him “pig-face.” The media there questioned his job security before many matches. After that, there was Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, and the time Ancelotti was fired inside the bowels of Goodison Park. No wonder his ass is “earthquake-proof.” He was ready and prepared for the Real Madrid job. “He’s used to being at winning clubs,” Maldini says, “ones that want to play good football and be successful. He showed that in England, Italy and France, and not many managers can say that. There isn’t a single team that Carlo couldn’t manage.” Madrid president Florentino Perez wanted Ancelotti for a long time. He first tried in 2006. Ancelotti, like Andrea Pirlo, would have left right there and then for Real Madrid. Milan said no. Then Ancelotti had secret meetings with Chelsea. He was always a man in demand. It is not that he is a master tactician. He can be shrewd – he brought on Marcelo and Isco midway through the final in Portugal, and they helped to change the game. And Ancelotti can make mistakes – he once mistook Real Sociedad for Real Zaragoza, a club relegated a year earlier. He is not even considered one of the top two managers in the game. That’s Mourinho and Guardiola. If Mourinho is the antagonist, and Pep Guardiola is the protagonist, then Carlo Ancelotti is the best supporting actor. Ancelotti does his job best when he’s not in the spotlight, when he’s with everyone else, not on his own. “He holds in all his worries and pressures,” writes Maldini in the forward of Ancelotti’s book, “and so the team preserves its tranquility. There’s no need to be the Special One, Two or Three to win. It’s enough to have an inner equilibrium and to stay out of the limelight, to keep from setting off fireworks in front of television cameras.” Above all, Ancelotti is simple. He loves life. He jokes, and he enjoys eating back home in Emilia-Romagna. Tortellini, pork and a glass of wine – the meal of a real champion.
This piece was written by Anthony Lopopolo, a Senior Writer for AFR. Comments below please.

Andre Villas Boas and The Tale of Benjamin Lefty

Whilst many spend decades finding their calling in life, both Andre Villas Boas and Benjamin Ruggiero embarked on their career paths relatively early. The former, born in Portugal’s second city Porto, originated as a covert scout compiling dossiers on the intricacies of local rivals for hometown manager Bobby Robson; the latter arose as a fleet footed street soldier on the pavings of New York; his bond with the Bonnano crime Family moulded by the time his twenties had swung onto the horizon. Andre Villas Boas and The Tale of Benjamin Lefty img 2 A chasm of 50 years existed between the two; Ruggiero passed away in 1994. Villas-Boas was only 17 at the time and plying his efforts in a field far removed from that of the Mob. Yet as events in North London reached their unavoidable conclusion earlier this month; striking similarities led to parallel end credits.

Embedded deep in the traditions of La Cosa Nostra rests the hallowed ideal of Omerta; a wiseguy’s unwavering commitment to the prohibition of cooperation with the authorities, at least in theory. Amongst the plethora of illegitimate activities and the frivolities involved with ill-gotten yet easy money, there will arrive a period in every Mafioso’s journey where his oath to the Mob is tested; for Manhattan’s Benjamin Lefty Ruggiero, August 1982 was that calling. The Mafia had placed a price on his head and in an opportunistic counter the FBI sat him down in a New York precinct and tabled an escape route; the serenity of the witness protection programme and withdrawal of the myriad of charges mooted against him; in return they asked he turn his back on the organisation that had become family.

Six months earlier, the 56 year olds closest confidant and fellow criminal (or so he thought) Donnie Brasco sent reverberations through the United States when he revealed his true identity as an undercover FBI agent; the hierarchal structure of the Mafia’s criminal empire had been infiltrated and Ruggiero was to blame. Shocking all (and despite several attempts by the authorities) he would repudiate any offer to depart from Omerta, instead opting for incarceration and a pledge of loyalty to a faction plotting to kill him.

“When they send for you, you go in alive, you come out dead, and it’s your best friend that does it.” – Benjamin Ruggiero 

On the morning of December 16th 2013, Luís André de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas was sent for; he arrived at Tottenham’s Bulls Cross training complex and by mid-day was out of a job. Like Lefty, the 36 year olds unwavering loyalty to his principles had engineered his collapse.  In early 2013 the Portuguese native had remarked, Any match we play to win it and sometimes we pay for that.” But at what point do you compromise?

For the majority half past five on Sunday the 15th of December would have been that point; out of substitutions, his side trailing by two goals and now reduced to ten men Villas-Boas saw no need for change. Confident his attacking philosophy would prevail he urged his side forward. The result? Misery. The remaining 35 minutes made for squeamish viewing; Tottenham were exhaustively dismantled; every weakness exploited; every flaw left on display in a Luis Suarez led slaughter. Boyish confidence gave rise to naivety and fundamentalism had ultimately resulted in destruction.

The strife for style; most importantly ‘his’ style had blinded Jose Mourinho’s former sidekick. “The most important thing for us will be our own principles and our style of play,” AVB had eagerly beamed upon taking the job; and he meant every word. Regardless of the opposition, Villas-Boas always has and always will play to win; this brought Tottenham’s record league tally last season but when it fails, it fails spectacularly.

The mauling at the hands of Manchester City an evident extension of this theory; 1-0 up within seventeen seconds the 2012 league champions would go onto hit five more goals. Of course; there would be no compromise, as the situation grew more precarious Villas-Boas’s behaviour would progressively veer towards ultraism, until finally Daniel Levy had had enough.

The idealistic elements of AVB’s philosophy proved admirable for the romantics yet the pressure of success left little room for fantasy, dynamism was needed. To discover that truth AVB needed not leave the North Circular; a glance into proceedings in neighbouring Islington would have sufficed; there he would have found the ever-mellowing character of Arsene Wenger who in recent years has decided to do away with some of his own fundamentalist tendencies.

“A wise guy’s always right even when he’s wrong, he’s right.”- Benjamin Ruggiero 

Andre’s refusal to adapt in his last weeks transcended the football pitch as relationships with the press rapidly soured. Although arguably provoked by false stories and back pages splashed with misreports; his radical reaction in hindsight was a mistake. After the humbling defeat in Manchester, Villas-Boas lashed out at perceived antagonists before sniping at one journalist, “If I had any chance that I was liable to sue, [it would be] something that would give me extreme pleasure.” Following that outburst, criticism from all quarters inevitably intensified; the newspapers were painted with stories about alleged deficiencies as a coach and as a manager; his relationship with Chairman Daniel Levy came under scrutiny and rumours of unrest in the dressing room began to circle.

With the unrelenting backlash from Fleet Street still ongoing and showing no indications of subsiding, speculation of pressure from Levy and Director of Football Franco Baldini festered; their silence was condemning and it became apparent that tension was now genuine. Despite their fractured relationship journalists continued to pour in for scheduled press conferences and Villas-Boas, unremitting, continued to speak.

Following the maiming at White Hart, Lane Boas hinted at an absence of autonomy in the transfer market before disclosing that he and Daniel Levy were not in regular contact, needless material to disclose. Any forewarnings or advice from the Tottenham PR department evidently went unheeded; like Ruggiero thirty years before him a refusal to yield had sealed his own fate.

Whilst Ruggiero’s mishaps left him marked for death; AVB has been marked in a different way but marked nonetheless. The allure of Andre Villas Boas is the opportunity to fashion a long term vision in an industry being pulled apart by impatience and short-sighted chairmen, but at just 36 the former Chelsea manager has already occupied four managerial posts and none has lasted more than two years; a worrying indictment on his resume’s primary selling point.

The appointment at Tottenham in mid-2012 was an opportunity to rebuild his reputation and prove to all that the unrivaled success enjoyed in his hometown could eventually be repeated. But after surviving only eighteen months in his most recent adventure, this is a setback that may prove problematic in recovering from. At the dawn of last season, AVB had remarked that, “Only teams with style succeed.” In pursuit of both with attainment of neither; a steadfast refusal to compromise may have permanently blemished what was once the most promising managerial CV on the continent.

Thirteen years into his sentence, Lefty was released from prison; in an unprecedented move La Cosa Nostra issued a ‘pass’ and invalidated the contract on his life. His unbudging allegiance to Omerta had been recognised and Benjamin Lefty Ruggiero would die a free man ten years later. Perhaps given time AVB’s fierce devotion to his own principles may yet surprise all and yield results; we may just have to wait a while.

This piece was written by Aniefiok Ekpoudom. Comments below please.

Will Bayern make it a blue day in Munich for Chelsea The bloggers think so

It’s not quite what we expected. Bayern Munich edged past Real Madrid in a penalty shoot-out of epically comic proportions, and Chelsea saw off Barcelona in an incredible encounter at the Camp Nou. Now, the teams that beat arguably the best club sides in world football meet at the Allianz Arena in Munich, where Bayern will look to draw level with Liverpool on European Cups won, and Chelsea are after their first. Roberto Di Matteo has seen his side to a sixth-place finish in the league, but that matters little: if Chelsea win tonight, Tottenham, despite snatching fourth, will not qualify for the Champions League. The match has been overshadowed somewhat by the suspensions of key players on either side, and a refusal by UEFA to adapt the rules of the competition means that Terry, Badstuber, Ramires, Alaba, Ivanovic, Gustavo and Meireles all sit this one out. Bayern are regarded as favourites to lift the cup in their home stadium, but Chelsea pose a threat as underdogs, and have overcome greater obstacles on their way to this final. It promises to be a fascinating encounter. Will Bayern make it a blue day in Munich for Chelsea The bloggers think so img 2 Some of the writers at AFR, alongside a selection of talented bloggers have put their heads on the chopping block, and share their predictions for the final with you here.
Max Grieve – editor of The Substitution and contributor to AFR, Bayern Munich 3-1 Chelsea 

Firstly, we need to forget the score in the DFB-Pokal from earlier in the week, where Borussia Dormund beat Bayern 5-2. There appears to be only one side in European football at the moment that has repeatedly proven themselves capable of handling Robben, Ribery and friends, and that’s Dortmund. Luckily for Bayern, it’s Chelsea they’ll be playing in the final, and although Roberto Di Matteo has turned the Blues’ season spectacularly around, it’s hard to look past some of the incredible fortune that they’ve enjoyed over the last couple of months. Bayern players and fans are running scared of a dangerous Dider Drogba, but a tendency to condense play when up against arguably superior opposition will hurt Chelsea: Bayern’s wingers will revel in any given space (though I don’t think either will score). Lahm, too, should be threatening in attack. I’d expect to see Mario Gomez’s name on the scoresheet – he’s scored every 96 minutes in the Champions League this season, so Chelsea will be hoping that there’s not too much injury-time (I know that’s not how it works).

That said, the llama backed Chelsea.
Mohamed Moallim, Bayern Munich 3-1 Chelsea
Despite their woeful defensive performance against Borussia Dortmund, much of it self-inflicted, Bayern I feel will triumph. Chelsea doesn’t play with the same intensity and dynamism as Jürgen Klopp’s side so will have to trouble Bayern in another way. The absence of Ramires could be pivotal. The German side have their own concerns: no Holger Badstuber, Luiz Gustavo (who didn’t exactly cover himself in glory against BVB) and David Alaba – harshly yellow carded against Real Madrid. So, attack will be the best form of defence for Jupp Heynckes; this is where Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry come into play. The two I feel will win the game. Ashley Cole against the Frenchman will be an early taste of their potential duel in Donetsk, the dynamic duo often swaps flanks, which means an evening José Bosingwa cannot afford to be lackadaisical. Or it will be nighttime Robbery.
Daniel Colasimone, Argentina Football World, Bayern Munich 3-1 Chelsea
Obviously anything can happen in a one-off match (literally anything), but I really think Bayern will cruise to victory in this one. Chelsea have relied on all their experience, pluck and rat cunning to make it this far, but winning the final is just a bit beyond their limitations, especially considering the players they will be missing. I expect Bayern to come out all guns blazing and take an early lead through Mario Gomez. From that point on, Chelsea will be forced to come at them, and Bayern will be able to pick them off on the counter. Ribery and Robben to pick up a goal each to seal a comfortable 3-0 win for the Germans.
Kickette – Kickette.com
Why, exactly, are we going with the Germans when there’s a talented English team for us to support? Simply put, one is easier to get behind than the other. Ba-dum-cha! But seriously, both teams will be rocking adidas kits for the final, so there’s bound to be some supremely awesome short tent sightings throughout Saturday’s 90 minutes of play. Which makes us and our readers the real winners here.
Kyle Elliot, footy-boots.com, Bayern 2-1 Chelsea
“History is made by those who show up” according to the famous quote from to former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. However, when Chelsea meet Bayern Munich at the Allianz this Saturday, the overwhelming feeling is that those who are unable to ‘show up’, via either suspension or injury, will be the ones most talked about when the final whistle blows at the 2012 UEFA Champions League final. With Bayern Munich both teams suffering many losses of players  – the overall winner will likely be the one which adapts to it’s missing personnel quickest. Chelsea’s duct-tape defense has the unenviable task of subduing a Bayern triple-threat from Gomez, Ribery and Robben, and with no Ramires to offer extra running power on the wings, Jose Bosingwa could prove easy-pickings for the Franck Ribery eager to make something of an otherwise forgettable season. All that said, Chelsea have shown nothing on the road in Europe this season if not grit and determination, and if Di Matteo can make recapturing the siege-spirit of the Camp Nou his last managerial miracle at Chelsea, then the final in Munich could prove to be the one that puts the blue ghosts of Moscow to rest. Prediction: Both teams will come out the blocks quickly, playing direct, attacking football resulting in an early goal each. After half-time, Bayern will wear down the Chelsea defense, Gomez slots in a cross from either Ribery or Robben and it finishes 2-1.
Keith Hickey, kckrs.com, Bayern 4-2 Chelsea
I really can’t look past Bayern for this one, but I do expect lots of goals along the way. There will be important defensive players missing on both sides, and some of fantastic attacking talent available to take advantage of the makeshift back lines. Didier Drogba will run all over a Munich defense lacking Badstuber, and Mata will see plenty of the ball against a patchwork defensive midfield, but I have a hunch the weapons at Bayern’s disposal, especially the wide players Ribery and Robben, will be too much for the Londoners. Expect (or at least hope for!) something crazy, like a 4-2.

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