Monday, April 30, 2007

Life is like a box of chocolates...

Life can be full of amazing coincidences. I’ve just been away on a belated honeymoon to Bilbao for four days and during that time, I hoped I’d go somewhere near Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium (old romantic fool that I am). Sadly it was not to be. In the short time I was there, I walked around the old town, along the river, visited the Guggenheim Museum, but did not see the home of the Red and Whites.

It’s shame because as your roving reporter I was hoping to tell you all about Athletic Bilbao, their current struggle against relegation, their history, the ground at which they play – all kinds of things. But no. I failed you. It’s inexplicable, and I can only apologise.

Luckily, one of those aforementioned coincidences was just around the corner, meaning I would have something to write about after all.

By the third day of my break, I was staying with friends about fifteen miles away from Bilbao in a beautiful mountain retreat. They suggested we go out to visit a nearby centre which celebrated the life and work of Eduardo Chillida, a well-known sculptor and artist who was born in the area.

We wandered around the huge, green, leafy grounds, permeated as they were by the many stone and iron pieces by the artist who died in 2002. Amid the hazy spring sunshine, we examined each and every item of artwork that crossed our path. It was all very nice, all very pleasant, and by the end of our visit I felt I’d learnt a lot about a man whose work was probably unheard of beyond the country’s borders.

As we left, we passed through the ubiquitous gift shop (that no modern museum or art centre should be without, of course) and I naturally felt it churlish not to pass up the opportunity to survey many of the items of merchandise it had to offer.

All the usual suspects were there – the t-shirts, the coasters, the key-rings – but it was the posters and prints displayed in frames on the wall that got my attention. Chillida’s drawings are largely recognisable as line sketches of the hands and the human form, and one poster encapsulated this in a strangely recognisable way.

I was stopped in my tracks as my eyesight locked onto an image of a clenched fist with a circular shape just above it – a ball, but made up of a series of words. Without my glasses on, it was difficult to see what they were. I squinted, and I just about made out the phrase ‘Bilbao ‘82’ repeated over and over again. It was then that I realised what I was looking at: the official poster for Bilbao as a venue of the 1982 World Cup.

As a ten-year-old, I’d started a Panini ‘Espana 82’ sticker collection when the World Cup was played in Spain but sadly my album never really got anywhere near half-full, let alone completed. I cherished the stickers I had, though, especially as Mum and Dad didn’t have much money to throw around on such luxuries. It’s therefore no surprise that one of the stickers I came to know intimately was that which featured the poster for Bilbao as one of the 1982 World Cup venues.

Without realising it, I’d had my first sight of Chillida’s work all those years ago when I didn’t even know who he was, and here I was staring up at a huge version of that same poster. I felt like I was ten years old again, staring at that picture in my sticker book.

It may not mean much to anyone else, but that amazing coincidence had the power to make me smile and think about a happy time in my childhood when I least expected it.

I’ll be talking more in future articles about the 1982 World Cup and the pastime of collecting football stickers, but as I sit here back in London, I think about Bilbao, Chillida and the great connection I made with both over this weekend just passed.

Friday, April 27, 2007

STOP : Hammer Fine

As many predicted, West Ham have been punished for there 'transfer dealings' of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.

A record fine of £5.5 million was issued to the club but most importantly West Ham were NOT deducted any points.

The consists of 2.5 million pounds for rule-breaking and 3.0 million pounds for the non-disclosure. The Premier League were given the right to terminate Tevez's registration. West Ham have until noon Saturday 28th April to register Tevez.

A statement on the clubs official site said : "West Ham United Football Club was given an opportunity to present its case and received a fair hearing.

"The club's submission that the contracts gave no actual influence to any third party was accepted by the commission.

"The club has not been found guilty of fielding an unregistered player and speculation about a likely points deduction has proved to be unfounded.

"The club regrets the fact that they fell foul of the FA Premier League regulations, but the new owners of the club now want to focus on matters on the pitch and remaining in the Premiership.

"The club believes that promotion and relegation issues should be decided on the pitch and we are pleased that the commission agree with that view.

"The club will reflect on the financial penalty that has been imposed and will take advice before commenting on the possibility of an appeal or any further steps that might be taken."

Incase your were wondering, the 'FA Christmas Party Kitty' will not be the lucky recipient of the £5.5 million. Instead, it will go to an FA Charity. Here's hoping that Charity is called the 'Steve McLaren Contract Pay Off Fund'.

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #9

Better known as...
17 Nicknames of Football Teams From Around the World

1. Kartoffelkäfer (Potato beetles) - Alemania Aachen, Germany
2. La Dea (The Goddess) - Atalanta, Italy
3. Los Colchoneros (The Mattress Makers) - Atletico Madrid, Spain
4. Galo (The Rooster) - Atlético Mineiro, Brazil
5. Mussi Volanti (Flying Donkeys) - Chievo, Italy
6. Estrela Solitária (The Lonely Star) - Botafogo, Brazil
7. Die Alte Dame (The Old Lady) - Hertha Berlin, Germany
8. Il Biscione (The Big Grass Snake) - Inter, Italy
9. The Brazilians - Mamelodi Sundowns, South Africa
10. Rayados (The Striped Gang) - Monterrey, Mexico
11. Los Leprosos (The Lepers) - Newell's Old Boys, Argentina
12. Crociati (Cross bearers) - Parma, Italy
13. Canallas (Scoundrels) - Rosario Central, Argentina
14. Myaso (The Meat) - Spartak Moscow, Russia
15. Matsatsantsa (The Swanky Boys) - Supersport United, South Africa
16. Los Ches (The Bats) - Valencia, Spain
17. El Submarino Amarillo (The Yellow Submarine) - Villareal, Spain

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Alan Ball (1945 - 2007)

Sad news reaches us this morning about Alan Ball - member of England's World Cup-winning team of 1966 - who has died at the age of 61.

Ball came to prominence as the youngest member of Alf Ramsey's squad for that campaign. Aged just 21, he was an unknown playing for Blackpool at the time, but Ramsey was aware of his reputation as a hard-working and tenacious midfielder and quickly made him part of the team.

His skill as a great passer of the ball and his stamina for joining attack and defence whenever it was needed was what his colleagues valued most about him. Sir Geoff Hurst today referred to him as the 'Man of the Match' in the 1966 World Cup Final - a true compliment from the man who scored three that day.

His success in the World Cup prompted Everton to sign him for £100,000 - a record at the time - and he soon slotted into a great midfield alongside Colin Harvey and Howard Kendall. Such quality got Everton into the 1968 FA Cup Final, the FA Cup semi-finals the following season and in 1970 won them the League Championship.

A year after England's failed attempt to replicate the success of '66 in the World Cup of 1970, Ball was signed by Arsenal for £220,000 as they continued to search for further glories, but sadly they were to struggle. Despite his best efforts, Arsenal lost the FA Cup Final of 1972 a year after winning the trophy signalling a slow decline for the North London club.

Ball, meanwhile, remained a fixture in Alf Ramsey's England team and even retained his place when Don Revie took charge in 1974. His reputation as a valued member of the team looked certain when he was made captain of the national side for six games in the mid-70's, yet completely without warning Revie dropped Ball and he was never to represent his country again.

In 1976, he joined Southampton and within a year had helped them win promotion to the First Division and the following season won a League Cup runners-up medal after a defeat to Nottingham Forest at Wembley.

Ball's playing career seemed all but over after brief spells in the NASL with Philadelphia Fury and Vancouver Whitecaps, but a coaching career beckoned when in 1980 he returned to his first club, Blackpool. Though heralded as the great hope for the struggling seaside team, a year in charge only perpetuated their plight and Ball couldn't bring them the victories they wanted, but Southampton provided a lifeline yet again.

Lawrie McMenemy was putting together a side based around experience and quality and had already secured the services of Kevin Keegan (returning from Hamburg) and another former England star player, Mick Channon. When Ball was asked to join them at The Dell, he was obviously only too happy to pull on his boots and play alongside them. It was a golden era for McMenemy's side and one that was to give the Saints the stability they needed to stay in the top flight for many years to come.

By 1983, however, Ball's playing career really had come to an end as he moved full time into management. In the years that followed, Ball enjoyed mixed success at different clubs. At Portsmouth a three-year campaign ended with promotion to the First Division but relegation followed a year later along with the end of his contract.

At Southampton, he nurtured the much-overlooked talents of Matthew Le Tissier which in turn helped the whole team avoid the drop from the Premier League. Back at Portsmouth for a second time in 1998, he repeated the same feat and earned himself a reputation as someone who could bring good fortune to a struggling side.

Alan Ball deservedly retired from the game in 1999 having achieved so much for so many, but a chance to look back on his happy memories was shortened as personal tragedy struck his life. In 2004, his wife Leslie died of ovarian cancer having seen his daughter also struggle to overcome the illness in recent years.

Personal thoughts
So what do I remember about Alan Ball? A lot of things, actually. Obviously that trademark shock of red hair, the high-pitched voice, those youthful looks of '66... he was one of the first players to wear white football boots as well, if memory serves.

He also struck me as a man who you didn't want to mess around with but who was friendly and had great integrity. He was a man whose life seemed to revolve around football, and that was what made people respect him.

I remember a few years ago looking back through one of my old Panini sticker albums from 1982 and seeing Alan Ball's face staring back at me on the Southampton pages. It amazed me - here was a man whose image was locked in my brain in black and white thanks to the 1966 World Cup Final, yet here he was still playing in the First Division in 1982.

His appearances on TV recently gave me cause to smile. Last year, he made a commercial for Carlsberg along with many other great players from the past, some of them old team-mates such as Jack and Bobby Charlton. It was a way of showing what an amazing Sunday morning pub team you could make from great stars of the past, and though full of humour, you were left all the happier for seeing so many legendary England players now in their prime - Alan Ball included.

The last time I saw Alan Ball, he was a guest of Sky Sports on the day the new Wembley Stadium opened. He was present to give his thoughts on the new home of English football and was more than happy to give it his seal of approval. Never one to claim that 'things were better in my day', he even confided that he'd like to have had the chance to play in the new stadium himself.

He looked proud, happy and quietly contented, an and that's how I'll remember him.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Brainstorm #2

Time once again to get the old grey cells working as we attempt to solve one of the problems of modern-day football, and today's scenario is given to us by Chelsea manager José Mourinho.

Following his team's 0-0 draw with Newcastle United yesterday, 'The Special One' bemoaned the fact that Middlesbrough hadn't been awarded a penalty in the dying moments of their game against Manchester United on Saturday. It would have almost certainly won them the game causing United to lose all three points enabling Chelsea to close the gap in their race for the Premiership title with Sir Alex Ferguson's men.

Mourinho was quoted as saying: "It was a penalty at Old Trafford. It was a penalty to us. We are talking about points. It is not a conspiracy, it is fact. I speak facts. If you tell me it was not a penalty for Sheffield United, or a penalty for Middlesbrough, or for us against Newcastle, I must go to my optician."

So what are you to do if you feel your arch-enemies are being given preferential treatment by every referee in the country?

Mr. Mourinho, you're in luck as SPAOTP has the answer. We've been working through the night to come up with a solution and after much mental gymnastics, this is it:

Win more games, thereby avoiding the reliance on other teams being awarded occasional penalties.

It's a solution we like, and we hope you like it too.

Next time on Brainstorm: Neil Warnock asks why poor teams should even be allowed to play in the Premiership.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Does my bum look big in this tournament?

FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007

Today (Sunday) saw the draw for the FIFA Women's World Cup, which takes place in China [as every tournament seems to nowadays] later this year.

England have been given a tough group, as they open against 9th ranked Japan. Next up for our ladies are the current holders and 2nd ranked Germany. Argentina complete Englands Group A games.

USA - currently ranked 1st in the world - head a very tough looking Group B. They are drawn against Sweden, North Korea and Nigeria - who are ranked 4th, 5th and 24th respectively.

The two remaining groups look a bit mediocre in comparision, with Norway [3rd] favourites to win Group C, and a decidely average Group D could be anyones.

The groups in full [World rankings in brackets]:

Group A
Germany (2)
Japan (9)
England (12)
Argentina (32)

Group B
Nigeria (24)
USA (1)
Korea DPR (5)
Sweden (4)

Group C
Norway (3)
Ghana (48)
Australia (14)
Canada (10)

Group D
China (11)
New Zealand (23)
Brazil (8)
Denmark (6)

England's group schedule:
11 Sep Japan (in Shanghai)
14 Sep Germany (Shanghai)
18 Sep Argentina (Chengdu)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Dare I say... Better than Maradona?

The goal that is, not the player.

I'm talking about Lionel Messi, and his superb solo goal against Getafe this week.

Shades of Maradona's 1986 World Cup goal against England (not that goal, the other one), Messi's superb solo run for half the length of the pitch, twisting and turning past defenders and finally the keeper oozes quality.

Take a look for yourself here...


... and for comparison, and a worthy trip down memory lane, check out 'the original' ...


Messi? I'd say that was quite 'tidy'.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #8

Looks familiar...
Seven Team Badges Currently Under Investigation By The Fraud Squad

1. Feyenoord of Rotterdam? No! It's Feyenoord Academy of Ghana!

2. Glasgow Rangers? Of course not! That's Hong Kong Rangers!

3. AS Roma? Why no... you're getting confused with St. Catherine's Roma Wolves of Canada!

4. Ajax Amsterdam? No way! That'll be Ajax Cape Town, silly!

5. Arsenal FC? Not quite - Berekum Arsenal of Ghana...

6. Sporting Lisbon? Wrong again! It's Sporting Clube da Praia, Cape Verde...

7. Surely this must be Sporting Lisbon? No? How about Sporting Clube da Praia? Not even them?!? No, you'll kick yourselves - it's Sporting Clube de Goa, India...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

News Catch-up

A selection of recent news stories from the world of football that we'd love to have talked about earlier but frankly didn't have the time...

Neil Desperandum

How very sad. How incredibly ignorant and pathetic.

That was my reaction to the utterances of Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock last Friday as he was interviewed on the eve of their match against West Ham. Warnock was aggrieved by the fact that West Ham were likely to avoid relegation due to a goal scored by Hayden Mullins against the Blades in their previous encounter which should not have been given and another scored recently by Bobby Zamora against Blackburn where the ball never actually crossed the line.

Such things happen in football as we all know, but because Warnock's side are now slipping dangerously close to the relegation zone that West Ham may now scramble out of, he feels West Ham don't deserve to stay up. By his reckoning, West Ham have played poorly all season as reflected in the poor number of points they've accrued (which no-one can deny), but what an insult it would be if they avoided the drop on the back of those two 'non-goals'?

He even went on to say that “everyone else will be very bitter” if the Hammers were to stay in the Premiership (by a single point) too.

Well here's a reminder for Mr. Warnock: the Premiership is played over an entire season, and if at the end of that season West Ham somehow manage to gain just enough points to stay up while Sheffield United endure months without a win, he'll have no-one to blame but his miserable old self.

It's hard to be spiteful about an individual - especially one who this season has been less irascible and outspoken than in the past - but on the basis of his comments last week it has to be said that this emotionless man deserves to be banished back to the lower leagues he languished in for so long.

Chelsea v Man U x 3

So we appear to be heading for a triple showdown between Chelsea and Manchester United, but what are we to make of it all?

If the great fixture organiser in the sky has his way, we could be seeing a European Champions League Final, an FA Cup Final and a Premiership decider all featuring the top two teams in England. Such a mouthwatering prospect... or is it?

On paper, it could be a chance to see two teams that both think they're the best thing since sliced bread battling it out in a goal-packed and somewhat fractious series of games, but do we need to see the same thing played out in triplicate?

Yes, they're both great teams that at times play to a breathtakingly high standard, but the big games are an ideal opportunity to showcase the variety and talent of as many teams as possible and to that end it's a pity we may be denied the chance to see it.

And I know what you're going to say - it's not the fault of Chelsea or Man United that they've been successful enough to get where they are - but it's got to be a fear amongst many that follow the game that this may be the start of a trend that leads to only the biggest teams battling it out for glory.

In the meantime, let's keep our fingers crossed that we at least get to see one game between the two that shows the quality they have as a sign of the best that the Premiership has to offer.

Brazil to host the 2014 World Cup... maybe...

On the eve of UEFA's announcement on who's to host the 2012 European Championships, FIFA has given notification that Colombia have now dropped out of the race to host the 2014 World Cup. This leaves Brazil as the only contenders under FIFA's continental rotation policy that dictates that the World Cup after next should be held in South America.

But before you pack your yellow and green shirt and head off for your apartment overlooking Copacabana beach, be warned: things aren't as cut and dried as they look.

The problem is that Brazil lack the wherewithal to host the World Cup. Its stadia are in desperate need of an overhaul, its transport links are feeble and the money to improve both is practically non-existent. Even if the Brazilian government could somehow stump up the money to make such wide-ranging improvements, it would meet vehement opposition from the public who feel it would be better spent on education, crime and poverty.

And yet by taking on such a huge project, Brazil could make things better for themselves. The jobs created to improve the transport systems and build nearby hotels could invigorate the local and national economy. The notoriously low attendance figures for league football would undoubtedly be boosted and who knows - maybe tomorrow's young players would want to ply their trade in their home country rather than in Europe?

Deep down, I suspect many of us would love to see the World Cup return to Brazil for the first time since 1950. It represents the spiritual and emotional aspects of the competition and the game of football itself to millions all over the world, so it seems only right that Brazil should provide it with a temporary home in seven years time. Don't be surprised, though, if sheer practicality dictates that the World Cup doesn't on this occasion return to the birthplace of Jairzinho, Rivelino and Pélé.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #7

Bottom at the top
20 Teams Who Are Currently Bottom of the Top League in Different Countries Around the World

1. Ittihad Tanger (Morocco)
2. Factor (Slovenia)
3. Vlazrimi (Macedonia)
4. Zamtel (Zambia)
5. Slovacko (Czech Republic)
6. Universidad (Honduras)
7. Shahdag Samur (Azerbaijan)
8. Cwmbran Town (Wales)
9. Vikingur Reykjavik (Iceland)
10. Tanta (Egypt)
11. Al-Khaleej (Saudi Arabia)
12. Beira Mar (Portugal)
13. Eden Stars (Barbados)
14. FC 32 Mamer (Luxembourg)
15. Cayon (St. Kitts and Nevis)
16. Liaoning Guangyuan (Singapore)
17. Ascoli (Italy)
18. Portuguesa (Venezuela)
19. Tot (Thailand)
20. Schaffhausen (Switzerland)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Host With The Most: Football Rules Australia

Football - or rather 'Soccer' as it is known - is on the up 'down under'. In a country where rugby, cricket and of course, Australian Rules Football are the national sports, soccer (as we'll call it from now on to avoid confusion) is at last becoming the big spectator sport it deserves to be.

Melbourne's Telstra Dome held this season's 'Grand Final' of the A-League, which saw Melbourne Victory face Adelaide United. An attendance of 55,436 saw Melbourne coast to victory - an attendance which was not only the highest of the season but also higher than any Aussie Rules match held in that stadium.

Attendances have been impressive throughout the season too, with crowds of over 40,000 being a regular occurrence. Even amongst the young, Soccer has found a new home with over 350,000 children taking part. That figure is second only to swimming, and Soccer among boys only has more participants (268,000) compared to Aussie Rules (188,000).

So what has gone so right for Soccer in Australia? Obviously the World Cup effect has a lot to do with it, as the 'Socceroos' performed well in Germany last summer. However, the club scene has changed drastically. Major cities now have one club to support, allowing them to call on the support of every fan in their region - Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory for example. Try to imagine that in England if you can - London City, Manchester Rovers, Liverpool Echo... or perhaps, Glasgow?

Consider also Australia's new qualification path to the World Cup Finals. They now play sides from Asia instead of the mismatches against the likes of Western Samoa en route to the inevitable final against New Zealand. Soccer suddenly has a competitive level never seen in Australia before - at both club and national level.

The A-league of Australia has followed a similar path to that of the J-League of Japan, hiring bigger name coaches and signing older but recognisable stars to their league. This trend will continue until Australia produces enough big names of its own or the A-League is attractive enough a proposition to tempt players away from Europe and South America.

Those days are a long way off, of course, but with rising attendances, TV coverage and sponsorship revenue, surely a production line of young and talented footballers is a realistic possibility in a similar way to their cricket academies?

FIFA like to give the 'Global Game' (as they promote it) even more coverage across the globe. The apparent failure in trying to convert the Americans into fans of the sport has had a lukewarm response at best. America had its own favourite sports such as Baseball and American Football, and in cricket, rugby and Aussie Rules it seems Australia had the same problem.

That may have been the case not too long ago, but is that the case anymore? As we know, they love a pis... party down under, and have the infrastructure and experience (thanks to the Olympics, Rugby World Cup and Ashes series) to handle such a major event. Surely, then, Australia is ripe for picking as a World Cup host very soon?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Host With The Most: Euro 2012

One week from today in Cardiff, UEFA's executive committee will announce the venue for the 2012 European Championships. Three bids for the hosting rights are on the table: one is from Italy while the other two are joint bids - one from Poland and Ukraine, the other from Croatia and Hungary.

Italy are the favourites to win having secured the most votes in the previous round of UEFA's selection process. It was after the first round of voting that the bids from Greece and Turkey were rejected to leave the final three, but what is it that makes Italy the hosts elect out of those that remain?

Well to begin, Italy are the most experienced at organising major football events. They were the host country when the second World Cup Finals were held in 1934, and again in 1990. They've also held the European Championship Finals back in 1968 and 1980, so the organisational aspect to a venture such as this is one that Italy can comfortably deal with.

The other two pairings have no such experience, with the exception of Croatia who, as part of Yugoslavia, hosted one of the European Championship semi-finals in 1976.

Then there's the stadia. Italy have put forward eight stadia with a further four held in reserve should UEFA decide to expand the Finals to 24 teams from the current 16 (as is being suggested by various associations).

The stadia selected by the Italians are essentially the same as those used for the 1990 World Cup. Florence, Bari, Rome, Milan, Udine, Verona, Cagliari, Bologna and Genoa would undergo refurbishment while three new arenas would be built in Palermo, Naples and Turin.

The Polish and Ukrainian bid will focus on ten stadia - six in Poland, four in Ukraine - but seven of them are brand new venues and building work is due to be completed between 2007 and 2010. The average capacity of all ten stadia will be somewhere in the region of around 46,000 (compared to 52,000 for the Italian sites).

Like the other two contenders, Hungary and Croatia are also using a mixture of new and renovated stadia but capacity details are somewhat sketchy. What is known is that the successful bid would see the opening match played at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium and the Final played in Budapest.

So the stadia side is all much of a muchness (although admittedly the Italians have the least work to do to reach the required standards. What of the other factors like transportation links and nearby accommodation for all the travelling supporters? Here's where the joint bids slip a little.

Italy seemingly have little to worry about. Only last year they made a wonderful job of looking after spectators from all over the world when the Winter Olympics took place in Turin. Go back to 1990 again, and you'll see evidence of another perfectly executed competition when the World Cup rolled into town. Transport links were excellent and hotel venues were plentiful in both cases.

Sadly the UEFA delegation weren't so impressed on their trip to Poland and Ukraine. They openly complained about the quality of the road between two of the venues, Gdansk and Lviv, while in Hungary and Croatia the lack of decent accommodation was a slight concern. That said, venues like Budapest and Zagreb have already benefited as profitable tourist destinations and a prosperous economy should ensure there are funds available to spend on any required improvements.

So do the two outsider bids stand any chance at all of hosting such a big event? Well the Hungarians and Croatians seem to think so. They feel they deserve the chance to host Euro 2012 because Italy have hosted the big tournaments so often before. They say that while Croatian football is currently riding high, Hungarian football is in need of a boost. Add to that the fact that Hungary have been all but overlooked since they were one of the best teams in the world in the 1950's, it's not hard to see why the slogan 'Give us the chance' is so prominent in their campaign.

The Ukraine and Poland can point even more towards a dire need to develop the game in their respective countries. They also suggest that a big competition such as the European Championships rarely finds itself so far east in Europe which in itself makes for a compelling argument.

The pair also proudly boast their organisation of various big recent sporting events, namely the Ski Jumping World Cup, the 2001 Volleyball World League Final and a callisthenics championship. Perhaps not much of a boast on reflection, then...

So is it just a formality for the Italian campaign team to turn up in Cardiff next week and be given the hosting rights? Perhaps not. There are some notable weaknesses which could prove to be a metaphoric banana skin as UEFA surveys the available options.

Last year, Italian football was left reeling after a match-fixing scandal that resulted in Juventus being relegated to Serie B and Lazio being withdrawn from this season's UEFA Cup. In February this year, a police officer was killed after the match between Catania and Palermo as violence between opposing spectators escalated to new levels.

And yet even those factors may not derail the Italian campaign. They have the pedigree, the experience, the infrastructure and the organisational skills to win the big prize, but will UEFA rule with their hearts rather than their heads in making their decision? If they're to acknowledge the fact that its group of nations stretches east beyond the German-Italian frontier, surely now would be the best time to give one of the joint bids a chance.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Obscure Kits From British Football History #4

Let your imagination drift now as we take you back to the 1982-83 season in England.

Liverpool began the season as champions, Ipswich Town were playing in Europe (well we did tell you to let your imagination drift) and so, too, were Arsenal. A fourth place finish the season before ensured them entry to the UEFA Cup, so what better way to celebrate than to ditch the boring old kit they'd been wearing since Charlie George was a lad?

Their new kit was silky and shiny and the shirt even had [gasp!] a v-neck wingless collar. It also had a stripy pair of red and navy blue socks to complete the ensemble, but what of that yellow and blue away kit? Surely it was just as iconic and seemingly untouchable as the red and white home kit, n'est-ce pas?

Well, no - at least not in the eyes of the Umbro kit designers who felt the time was right to ring the changes in dramatic style, and so they did.

So behold, then - the 1982/83 GREEN and blue change strip...

Yes, you read correctly: Arsenal once wore green shirts away from home. Not for long, mind you. The move to green and navy blue turned out to be about as popular as an anthrax-eating contest.

Oh sure, it was worn a few times, and it pains me to say it that one of those occasions was a defeat of West Ham, but it never quite caught on the way Umbro wanted. They tried bringing in green change strips for other teams such as Bolton Wanderers in the same season, but time after time it was met with dismay by the fans.

Lack of sales caused the Arsenal green and blue away kit to be replaced with a far more traditional yellow and blue one the following season and that was that - the Gunners' were never to wear that particular colour combination again.

And so the trend continues even to this day. You'd still be hard pushed to find a green shirt outside of Plymouth Argyle, perhaps because the grass makes it hard for players to see each other, but you'd think someone somewhere in England would want to adopt it as their own colour, wouldn't you?

Bring back green, I say! Oh and while you're at it, bring back orange and purple too - we could do with more colour in the modern game...

(Our thanks go to John Devlin at True Colours Football Kits for giving us kind permission to use the above kit design image.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

The (Good) Friday List of Little or No Consequence #6

Incomplete CVs
14 Players Who Never Played at the World Cup Finals

1. Jim Baxter (Scotland)
2. George Best (N. Ireland)
3. Liam Brady (Republic of Ireland)
4. Eric Cantona (France)
5. Alfredo Di Stefano (Argentina / Spain)
6. Duncan Edwards (England)
7. Johnny Giles (Republic of Ireland)
8. David Ginola (France)
9. Mark Hughes (Wales)
10. Arnold Muhren (Netherlands)
11. Ian Rush (Wales)
12. Bernd Schuster (West Germany)
13. Frans Thijssen (Netherlands)
14. George Weah (Liberia)

Have we left anyone out? If so, tell us by leaving a comment. We look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Continuing the theme about penalties...

Guest writer: Kedge

It’s a Saturday night. There you are curled up on the sofa with the one you love (a can of lager?) watching 'Match of the Day'...

The post match interview: on comes one of the managers, usually French with a name that sounds like 'Whinger' and complains about the referee favouring the opposition.

So which teams get all the penalty decisions in their favour?

Based on the number of goals scored from the spot in the Premiership so far this season (because I didn’t have easy access to the actual number of penalties awarded), here's what I found:

8 goals

6 goals
Aston Villa

5 goals

4 goals
Man Utd

3 goals

2 goals
Man City
Sheff Utd

1 goal
West Ham

Was that the result you expected?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Half-way to Ghana

While much of the footballing world had its attention focused squarely on the Euro 2008 qualifiers two weekends back, Africa quietly went about the business of undertaking its own equivalent - The 2008 African Nations Cup.

The first competition took place in 1957 and in the fifty years that have followed, many big names have emerged to not only dominate the game in Africa but also make a big impact on the world stage.

2008 hosts Ghana have won the tournament four times but haven't raised the trophy since 1982. They'll be hoping to make their home advantage pay off as Egypt did in 2006 and should start as favourites following their spirited run to the second round of the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Egypt themselves have started their qualifying campaign for Ghana 2008 well. They now lead Group 2 with seven points from a possible nine following a 3-1 win over Mauritania nine days ago. Egypt hold the record for most African Nations Cup titles - five in all - and a good showing next year will make up for a recent lack of World Cup Finals appearances.

Of the countries who played in Germany last year, Ivory Coast and Angola have 100% records at the top of ANC Group 1 and Group 6 while Togo and Tunisia have dropped points but still lead Groups 9 and 4 respectively. All four teams won their games at the end of March although Togo's progress was derailed temporarily back in October 2006 when they lost 1-0 to Mali.

Ivory Coast finished as runners-up to Egypt in the last African Nations Cup while Nigeria beat Senegal in the third-place match. The Nigerians, now under the leadership of Berti Vogts, continued their perfect start in Group 3 of the 2008 qualifiers, beating Uganda 1-0 on March 25th. A goal from Nwankwo Kanu secured all three points for his team in a close game, while El Hadji Diouf had a hand in the first of Senegal's four goals as they shut out Tanzania in Group 4. Senegal head a close group in which they've already lost to third placed Burkina Faso.

Cameroon are four-times African Nations Cup winners just like Egypt and they currently top Group 5. With three goals scored against each of their three opponents so far, the Indomitable Lions already look like clear-cut favourites to qualify ahead of Liberia, Equatorial Guinea and Rwanda, and all that so far without the goalscoring contribution of star player Samuel Eto'o who is yet to get off the mark.

One team that seems to raise their game for the World Cup qualifiers but not the African Nations Cup are Morocco. They've only won the latter once back in 1976 with their only other honour being a runners-up spot in 2004. This year they're in the only group of three teams (the others having four) and already they've dropped points following the recent 1-1 draw with Zimbabwe. Despite this setback, the Moroccans lead the group ahead of Malawi who are two points further behind.

South Africa's return to international football in the mid-90's was emphatic following decades of political isolation. In 1996 they won the Nations Cup for the first time and two years later were runners-up to Egypt. Later that same year, South Africa reached the World Cup Finals in France and repeated the feat once again in 2002, but that was the last major achievement of the 'Bfana Bfana'.

The last two Nations Cup Finals have seen South Africa fail to even qualify from their first round groups but that trend could be reversed following a good start to their 2008 qualifying campaign. Blackburn Rovers defender Aaron Mokoena scored in their 1-0 win over Zambia back in October and a recent 3-0 win over bottom-placed Chad means they lead Group 11 with seven points from a possible nine.

The same can be said of Algeria in Group 8 but all is not as it seems for the North Africans. Though Algeria lead the group by three points, they've only scored an average of one goal a game against the likes of Guinea, Gambia and Cape Verde and only scrambled to a draw against the former. Given that the Algerians didn't even qualify for the last African Nations Cup Finals and their last win in the competition was back in 1990, many of their supporters are quite rightly expecting something better this time around.

And that just leaves Group 10 which is arguably the most open of them all. The Democratic Republic of Congo head the group on goal difference with four points ahead of Libya but Namibia in third and Ethiopia in fourth are only one point behind. Ethiopia's heyday was in the early days of the tournament back in the 1950's and 60's but they've already picked up a win against Libya who in turn have already beaten Namibia and drawn against the Congolese.

The only blot on the horizon for DR Congo is the current political unrest which has already caused their match against Ethiopia to be cancelled. Further disruption in the country may force the former Zaire to withdraw allowing one of the chasing pack to take their place in Ghana next year.


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