Can’t help getting excited about the World Cup

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Maradona BelgiumIt’s debatable whether there has ever been a golden period for the World Cup. If there was it was probably in the 70’s and early 80’s, when Brazil and Holland pretty much guaranteed entertainment. After that it’s been a mixed bag, and the event itself has become a grotesquely bloated vision of what it once was. Host nations plough billions into developing stadia while FIFA takes billions in sponsorship revenues. Tickets are set prohibitively high for many people to buy them, and local traders are shunted aside to allow corporate partners to reap maximum benefits from this four week harvest.

The process that decides where tournaments are to be held is a corrupt farce, resulting in outcomes so irrational they make a mockery of everyone involved. We have reached the point where the World Cup is being presented as some sort of purpose built Expo or World Fair. A chance for a nation with ridiculous resources to show what it can make and do, with the ability to play football matches barely considered, while less tangible factors like culture and atmosphere aren’t even on the agenda. FIFA has gotten so fat from the World Cup it can’t help itself. It doesn’t care about makes a good tournament for the people watching it, it only cares about how much money can syphoned off.  And, this year’s tournament in Brazil – which should be an amazing setting – has an overtly political backdrop, with demonstrations expected by local populations disgusted at their Government’s wasted resources when millions live in poverty.

So, there’s all that to digest. It’s hardly a great way to get into World Cup Fever (©FIFA). You could make a pretty convincing case that we should bin the World Cup completely and start over – if only to get rid of FIFA – but that would miss the point. The World Cup is just a reflection of the changes that have happened to football over the past two decades, and most of those have been driven by the major European leagues. For example, we have these pathetic rules to try and curb the ridiculous excesses of clubs under the ruse of ‘fair play’; the money comes from all over the world and no one really questions whether that’s ok; leveraged buyouts in football are actually a thing; and, Barcelona and Real Madrid – so often the toast of European football – are under investigation by the EU for irregular public funding’. If they’re found guilty it essentially means they’ve been systematically cheating for years. Wonderful.

And yet, despite the endless truckloads of manure slurry that FIFA has poured over the World Cup – it’s still fucking great because none of this club v club bullshit really applies. Players can’t play for one country for years and then switch to another for more money or a ‘better chance of winning trophies’ as it’s otherwise known.

Any nation can produce talented footballers, even tiny ones like Bosnia, playing in its first World Cup this summer. Of course, some nations exploit family ties to recruit talent from outside their borders, but the majority of footballers represent what they feel is their home nation, because they actually want to.

It matters to get to the world cup. It matters to perform well at the finals, and it definitely matters if you win one. Sometimes a nation has to wait generations for enough talent to emerge at the same time to establish a competitive team, like the Belgians this year. There are occasional once in a lifetime collections of talent, such as the Yugoslavians in 1990 and the Croatia side of 1998. Or, you get solid teams built around one magnificent star, such as Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria in 1994. History is littered with teams that surprised and surpassed expectations.

The nostalgia that precedes each tournament tells you how much these moments live in the memory. People start talking about their favourite world cup goals and teams. The media start replaying highlights and writing about classic moments. People can’t get enough of it, because it remains a platform for greatness that can only be partially destroyed by greed. The swaggering egos of superstar footballers that are nauseating during the regular season become compelling at the World Cup, because here they don’t get many second chances. There’s no time to wage a campaign to get the manager sacked if you don’t like his approach (unless you’re France). That’s not to say the big names always turn up, but the ones that do are the ones that get talked about forever.

Wayne Rooney might have a lucrative new contract, but Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Holland will be resurrected every four years for eternity. That’s what the World Cup provides – immortality.

It’s a wonderful thing. It is depressing that FIFA will have done everything they can to sterilise the setting for this year’s tournament, but Brazil is still the most iconic nation to play host to this event. Personally, I think the Russian World Cup will be pretty cool because it’s an interesting place, and it will showcase a lot of the lesser known towns and cities that rarely make the news. After that things look a bit shit, granted. But, even then, I doubt people will switch off. FIFA know this – it’s what enables them to be complete bastards and get away with it, but I don’t want to finish on a negative, and Qatar is still eight years away.

The World Cup in Brazil is about to start and it’s impossible not to be excited about that. Come at me, football. Come at me.

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The worst Premier League idea yet: B teams

B-Team Logo 2

A couple of years ago the Premier League strong armed the football league into accepting its proposed Elite Player Performance Plan. If you can’t recall the particulars it basically gave Premier Clubs greater freedom to hoover up young players from smaller clubs. It means any player showing a glimpse of potential is likely to end up on the books of one of the country’s largest clubs, joining huge first team squads before being farmed out on loan for three or four seasons to try and prove themselves. In other words, a massively accelerated version of the current trend, undermining the incentive for smaller clubs to invest in youth development. It means those smaller clubs are only likely to keep hold of the lesser talented players, while the best ones will be signed to a bigger, bloated fish as early as possible.

The logic behind this policy is that the big fat clubs know best. They have spent the most on shiny new academies, and players can’t develop unless they’re running on a tread mill wired up to computers like some sort of military experiment to create the ultimate weapon. Stability and a gradual introduction to first team football are no longer important factors, apparently. This probably sounds like sour grapes from the fan of a Football League club – which it is – but it seems Premier League expansion isn’t going to stop there. The FA are considering plans to introduce one of the worst ideas that European football has to be offer in the form of ‘B’ teams.

You may have noticed that many of the major clubs in Spain and Germany have ‘B’ teams competing in the lower divisions of their professional or semi-professional structure. This means clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona can run an entire second string set up for their younger players, giving them regular competitive football against real clubs with experienced pros, instead of academy fixtures played at training complexes.

It means they can blood their vast squads of first team hopefuls in a professional setup that they control, instead of packing them off on loan to various clubs in the lower leagues. This sounds great for the big clubs, and the FA no doubt hopes it means better long-term development of future England players (where have we heard that before?). However, for fans of lower league clubs, this proposal stinks. Competing against clubs of similar size and status is enjoyable because it has purpose – your club taking points at their expense. It is a competition, after all.

The Premier League would surely like the competitive challenge provided by the Football League and Conference in a way that it can control more directly. But, taking points off a glorified reserve team is as far removed from the romantic ideal of football as you can get. These ‘B’ teams will not really be competing with the established league sides they face – they will have a ceiling beyond which they cannot pass, so even if  they continuously win their division, they will not be promoted.  No one really cares about these ‘B’ teams – their home fans will be anoraks with nothing better to do, essentially the same people that used to attend reserve team matches when they were a thing.

One of the best things about football in England are the attendances in the lower professional and semi-professional tiers of the game. They are remarkable compared to most other countries. And, now the Premier League want to rip it all up because they’ve decided ‘B’ teams are the way forward. It’s much easier to destroy things than it is to build them, so you’d hope Greg Dyke and his Commission at the FA have second thoughts before rushing to accept the proposals they are currently considering.

However, it’s not like the FA has track record of getting things right, so we should probably assume that this is going to happen one way or another within the next five years. If the Premier League wants this to happen – it probably will, and press reports suggest they’re broadly in favour. Another limb hacked off the corpse of English football.


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Crystal Palace: Tony Pulis and the joy of ugly victories

Tony PulisWe’d all like to see our team sweeping opponents aside, owning the pitch with the confident swagger of an unbeatable army. But, for many fans this reality is unknown, and matches are often closely fought contests between two evenly matched opponents. This is bearable providing your team can compete and has a chance of victory. However, if your team ends up in a league where the average standard appears unachievable then your ability to enjoy football is rapidly eroded. The Championship has a history of placing teams in this horrible predicament by promoting them to the Premier League completely unprepared.

Gaining promotion is euphoric, but a season long slog of inevitable defeats is a joyless existence. This is the scenario Crystal Palace faced when Ian Holloway departed in the early stages of this season. Palace had chalked up one victory, but lost their other seven fixtures, including a 4-1 home defeat to Fulham. Derby’s miserable 2007/08 record breaking campaign total of 11 points was suddenly looking evidently beatable. Holloway suggested the new players he acquired in the summer had disrupted the team spirit from the previous campaign. They had also lost Wilfred Zaha – the star player responsible for scoring or creating all of the goals that secured Palace’s promotion through the playoffs. To pretty much everyone Palace were as good as relegated by mid-October, but Tony Pulis made a different assessment of their fate and decided he fancied his chances.

What Pulis has achieved since is one of the most sensational managerial achievements of the past decade, eclipsing his early triumphs at Stoke. The problem with acknowledging what Pulis has done is that it requires people to accept that he has some skills and insights that other managers do not, when it is easier just to dismiss him as a Luddite. The kind of football played by Pulis’ teams doesn’t get blogged about, it doesn’t appear on YouTube videos, and it doesn’t get turned into graphic designs and printed on t-shirts. Pulis’ football is characterised by a mantra of  results first, with entertainment a distant second, if you’re lucky.

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Street Child World Cup: more than just a game for Team Liberia

While the FIFA World Cup has been dogged by controversy, another tournament is kicking off in Brazil that all football fans should get behind. George Smyth of Street Child explains. 

Months before the World Cup kicks off in Brazil this summer, Rio will be hosting a tournament of somewhat different dimensions: the Street Child World Cup. It starts on March 28th and, as recently as six months ago, many of its competitors were children still living on the streets from some of the poorest parts of the globe.

Team Liberia is one of the 19 national sides taking part. For its players there is more at stake than world fame and huge fortunes. It’s represents the chance to bring their own issues to a global stage.

The World Cup epitomises football’s global brand. With an audience of more than half the globe, the most famous competition in the world is worth billions in commercial revenue. The Street Child World Cup, in contrast, represents another side to football. This tournament is not so much about glory and prestige, but social change. The tournament’s purpose is to raise awareness of the plight of disadvantaged children across the globe and provide street children with the opportunity to say “I am somebody” and prove that fact to the world.


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Ticket stub memories

Ticket stubs

One of the best things about going to your mum’s house is rummaging through all your old crap that she’s been wanting you to get rid of for years. During one recent salvage operation in my Mum’s loft I managed to recover a load of old match tickets, a get well soon card from the 1994 Watford Team, an Italia 1990 Ferrari Testarossa, and a letter from Glenn Roeder. Admittedly, these were not the items taking up the most space, but you have to start somewhere, and what a start it was. I’ll probably write about all of these items at some point, but it was the match tickets in particular that I most enjoyed finding.

Sheff Wed WatfordSome people buy a match programme at every game as their keep sake. I have a fairly solid collection of 1990′s Watford programmes myself – who doesn’t – but after a while I decided they were too expensive, and the content was often awful. In terms of banking some nostalgia, my old tickets have proved to be a more reliable currency, prompting vivid memories of my travels to watch football. Take this one (left) from a 3rd round cup replay at Hillsborough. This is my equivalent of a grizzled Soldier’s flashback to a particularly brutal tour of duty. It was a midweek fixture in early January; the match went to extra time and penalties, which Watford lost. We were quite late getting out of the stadium and back to the train station, but still had enough time to catch our train.

However, when we got back the station, we learned that the train we were planning to get back did  not exist, at least not until the Spring timetable started. The station was about to close until the morning. It was fucking freezing, and I was not dressed appropriately for the weather. It was only then that the true horror of the situation hit home. Me and my mate spent the next five hours huddled in a bus shelter. I’m not sure how we survived, but it was a long night. Probably the longest I have ever known. At our lowest points I think we both contemplated killing each other for food and clothes, I know I did. I suffered for you that night, Watford. I swore to myself I’d never be that cold, or stupid, again.

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