The best day for the big league

So it’s back again and we should all praise the fact that the Football League is all go once more, rejoice in the fact that our team plays in this incredible competition.

Just three months since the end of the 2009/10 campaign, 72 clubs are contesting the rights for promotion, hoping for a decent cup run and looking to avoid a relegation battle. Seventy-two clubs – 72! You’ve got to love the sheer size and quality in depth of the English Football League, as well as the history.

Where else on earth can you follow the fate of so many clubs in one competition. That’s normally 36 matches every weekend and thankfully, due to a lack of TV interference, most of these matches take place at the same time.

Saturday 3pm.

Please everybody remember this is when football matches are supposed to kick off. Not 12.30pm on a Saturday because of Sky, not 7.45pm on a Wednesday at the request of the police and not on a Thursday evening because there is a second rate European competition these days.

All football matches should kick off at 3pm on Saturday. It’s how things should be.

Ok, so I am as happy as anyone watching football on TV and I will absorb as much as I can but sometimes the Premier League will only have three or four games on a Saturday afternoon these days, and they rarely all kick off at the same time. One reason: TV.

Forget the Premier League, this is the real deal, proper football, the Football League.

The rules are that you get more and more worked up about the match throughout the week, go through all your matchday rituals on Saturday morning, read the match previews, watch Football Focus, meet your mates wherever you meet your mates and soak up the atmosphere ahead of the big kick-off. Pretty much every weekend .

At half time you take in the other scores from around the country, you eagerly await news of your biggest rivals downfall throughout the afternoon, and as soon as the final whistle goes you are keen to learn the results from around the league to find out how it affects the table.

Today is the first game of the season, the day when every fan should be optimistic for the season ahead. No matter what has happened in the boring close season (who cares about the World Cup, now it’s a distant memory) every fan should have hope in their heart that their team can punch above their weight and achieve great things, perhaps things that we can only dream of.

It’s going to be another memorable season one way or another. And it’s going to be a great season because it always is. It’s the Football League and it’s kicking off now, and (nearly) every weekend until the beginning of May – bring it on!
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England will never win the World Cup again

As the final preparations are made for the biggest match in world football maybe we should ponder whether anyone really thought that England could win the World Cup this year? After disappointment at every tournament the Three Lions have contested since Sir Alf Ramsey’s team won the Jules Rimet trophy 44 years ago, are we not setting our expectations a little high of the national team?

The only time England has achieved at a World Cup was in 1966; in a very different era, and also on home turf.

But, as a nation, the English always go into major competition thinking it can win and deeming anything else to be failure. I love the passion and emotion in England surrounding World Cups and European Championships – St George flags start flying from cars and rooftops long before the domestic season finishes, let alone the world’s greatest sporting contest kicks off. The proportion of red and white filling stadiums in South Africa for England’s four matches was also very impressive.

England fans

England fans

As England supporters we are always setting ourselves up for a fall in this regard though. Hope rules our heart and rightly so because football is an emotive game but maybe our expectations stretch too far.

So what’s the reason for this? First of all we should consider that England’s performances in major tournaments has not been below par. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s excellent book Soccernomics lays bare some stark home truths surrounding England’s standing in the global football fraternity and concludes (basically) that England has not underachieved at all in major tournaments when the size of the country’s population and the nation’s wealth is taken into consideration with other footballing factors.

Yes, man-for-man, England has some of the world’s best players in its squad but in three of four matches played in South Africa those players did not show the standards we come to expect of our players in the Premier League. Fleeting glimpses of greatness were there but too few in between long stretches of nervous-looking under-confident players.

And here lies one of the biggest problems: Club is king in England. How many supporters, when it comes down to it would rather see their club side have a successful season domestically than watching England triumph over the course of one month in the summer? And how many fans could find a way of answering this question honestly?

The domestic season is the bread and butter of most English football fans for around nine months of the year. If I was a season ticket holder I would want to see my team winning every week or at least performing at the peak of their powers.

The players have the same problem. The likes of Wayne Rooney and John Terry are paid in excess of £100,000 per week to play for their club from the beginning of August to the beginning of May. They are expected to perform at the highest level throughout that time and the clubs expect a return on their investment.

Rooney had an outstanding season for Manchester United, scoring an outstanding 34 goals from 44 games in all competitions and was widely tipped to be one of the top performers in South Africa. But he wasn’t. Put plainly, by Rooney’s own very high standards, he was ineffectual at the World Cup.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Rooney’s club manager, insisted that the player was not injured at the tournament but it is worth remembering that the Scouse striker trod a fine line between injury and fitness in the latter stages of the 2009/10 Premier League campaign.

Rooney scored his last goal at Bayern Munich on March 30 and sustained an ankle injury that same night but was back in action a week later against the German side. It was the first of ten games Rooney has played since that night in Bavaria and he has not scored since. Rooney may not have been ‘injured’ but perhaps a genuine factor in his lack of form in South Africa was fatigue.

Ferguson has stated the weight of expectation on Rooney as a factor in his difficulties at the World Cup but how can that wash when the 24-year-old has the weight of expectation that comes with playing for the world’s biggest (and England’s most successful) club side every time he steps out for the Red Devils?

Of course Rooney should not be attributed any more responsibility for England’s World Cup disappointment than any other player in Fabio Capello’s squad. The fact is most of the players who took to the field in South Africa did not perform to the level that has become expected of them at their Premier League clubs.

The phrase ‘prima donna’ has been used a lot in the British press and comments like Jermaine Defoe’s about the expectations placed on the players will not be welcomed by England fans. Even less so the comments moaning about being bored at a top notch hotel during the World Cup campaign.

However, those England fans who are also Tottenham Hotspur supporters will probably forget about the World Cup pretty quickly if Defoe is banging in the goals for Spurs before Christmas.

Of course, England coach Capello has also taken a hammering for his part in the team’s fortunes and a finger is always going to be pointed at the coach in such circumstances. Some of his decisions can judgements can certainly be called into question but his coaching history is one of the best in Europe and perhaps the fact that he has not been able to work with the players on a more regular basis as (he would have done at a club side) has been a learning curve for the Italian.

The fact is though that too many players looked nervous, overcautious, complacent or simply tired. And that cannot be attributed to the coach. Most of the England players play a high tempo game with at least a month of pre-season training (often involving trips to America, Asia or Australia) followed by nine months of high stakes Premier League and Champions League matches. Should we really expect them to be able to perform for another full month thousands of miles from home at the World Cup and not lose a single match to bring home the most coveted prize on planet football?

Thankfully for most England fans they can now concentrate on their regular sporting passion. All Premier League and Football League clubs will be back in pre-season training now. After a time of dejection optimism will reign for a few weeks now until the domestic season kicks off. Then the real football begins again.

The next World Cup takes place in Brazil in 2014. Can we foresee any reason why England could win the tournament in four years? I think not. The next best chance for England may come in 2018 if The FA wins the right to host the competition. The passion for a World Cup on home soil in England would be immense but at least we’ve already got the excuse for a lack of success – the weight of expectation could prove too much.

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Give Australia the World Cup

Socceroos fans

Australian football fans show their passion

I can’t say that watching the World Cup from Australia has been a great experience so far. Ok, so some of that is due to the time difference… (I have just checked the fixtures and every match after the current round will kick off at 2.30am Perth time – not sociable viewing hours). 

The fact that the Socceroos were pasted 4-0 by Germany in their first match obviously didn’t ignite World Cup fever down under either but I have seen the wrong shaped ball on the back of the newspaper too many times in the past couple of weeks. 

I was living Down Under when the last World Cup kicked off and there was much more excitement in the media surrounding the Socceroos but maybe that was because Guus Hiddink was in charge – that man seems to create the feeling that anything is possible in football. 

Still, commencing a World Cup by losing 4-0 to anyone and seeing your best player (harshly) sent off is always going to give you a mountain to climb. Coach, Pim Verbeek was roundly criticised for abandoning a familiar formation to play with two renowned midfielders up front in Tim Cahill and Richard Garcia. The Dutchman took his fair share of the responsibility but the damage had been done. 

The Aussies always manage to show fighting spirit and a winning mentality but as they were looking to redeem themselves against Ghana the tell-tale signs were that Australia’s top footballers were past their peak. Harry Kewell missed out against Germany but all of Australia seemed to be pinning its hopes on the former Leeds United and Liverpool man. He had struggled for fitness going into the tournament but still looked very dangerous in the opening stages against the ‘Black Stars’ before disaster struck. Having gone 1-0 up Kewell’s dismissal in the first half was another bitter pill to swallow. The referee will say he was following the letter of the law but it the Sydneysider could hardly get out of the way as he stood on his goal line defending a corner. 

So Kewell was out of the picture, Cahill was suspended and where was the spark going to come from? Marco Bresciano is a quality midfielder, who has played at the top level in Italy but, following a back operation in March, the 30-year-old didn’t appear to be fit enough to play full matches in South Africa. The remaining players performed admirably to beat Serbia but whether there is enough strength in depth for Australia is just one big question facing the country’s Football Federation. 

Many of the established Socceroos are now approaching (or firmly ensconced) in the twilight years of their careers. Whether the next generation can step up to the exploits of a team that has performed impressively in their last two World Cups is yet to be seen but there is no substitute for experience, especially at this level. 

Perhaps the biggest boots (or maybe gloves) to fill will be those of Mark Schwarzer, who is now 37. The other two keepers in the Socceroos’ World Cup squad, Adam Fedrici and Eugene Galekovic have just one cap between them. Fedirici was impressive in the English Championship for Reading last season but it would be good to see the shot stopper get some experience under his belt in one of the top European leagues. 

So what does the future hold for the future of football in Australia? 

Well, of immediate importance to Football Federation Australia, is their bid to host the world’s greatest sporting tournament in 2022. Having been in the frame for the 2018 competition alongside England and Russia, FFA Chairman Frank Lowy has been forced to concede that Australia’s best chance would be in 2022

And what a venue Australia could be for the World Cup! After the security fears and stories surrounding South Africa, there is no doubt that Australia has outstanding credentials. A memorable millennium Olympics in Sydney and an excellent Rugby World Cup in 2003 are recent examples of what Australia can contribute in terms of world class events. 

2000 Olympics

The Olympic Games in Sydney, 2000

 

You could also guarantee the Aussie people would make the most of such an opportunity. Having been involved in Sheffield’s contribution to the England 2018 bid I know that community is a vital component of the FIFA bidding process. And I know that the Australian people would embrace the world cup in an impressive and unique way too. 

Australia is a sports mad nation and never hesitates in getting behind its sporting heroes. Ok, so ‘soccer’ is still below the likes of AFL (Australian Rules Football), cricket and rugby in the Aussie psyche but I believe the World Cup would change that. 

The national competition launched in 2005 – the A-League – has established firm foundations and technical developments need to follow. The World Cup can provide that spark. Football (soccer) is the biggest participant sport Down Under but many potential professionals are lured away by the likes of AFL in their late teens. Part of that is probably due to a lack of a clear pathway into professional soccer but it is a big job to overhaul coaching and technical development. 

Winning the right to stage the World Cup would certainly make it easier to fund vital development programmes because the reward that is available in the long term is clear to see. 

Aussie rules may be a good game to watch but it is not played anywhere else on earth and the AFL is trying desperately to expand it’s scope across international boundaries. Football, on the other hand, is a global game and Australia will not have a better chance to unlock their potential on the global stage than by hosting the World Cup. 

USA are also bidders for 2022 but it would be good to see FIFA could choose a new location, having picked America as host nation in 1994. Another new location, and one pouring mega money into their bid for 2022, is Qatar but there are serious concerns over the heat with the need for pitches to be air-conditioned – outside! Holding the World Cup in the Middle East may have some plus points but Qatar is basically a hot, dry desert and all of the venues would be located in and around the capital city of Doha – not necessarily a great cultural variety for visiting fans. 

Australia on the other hand has great potential in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, and Adelaide. I genuinely think that awarding the World Cup to Australia in 2022 could have the biggest impact on any footballing nation but it would also prove a great destination for the rest of the world. 

Oh, and England just has to be the right choice for 2018!

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Is social media ruining the World Cup?

Apart from watching the games on TV, I am getting most of my updates on the World Cup via Twitter. I find it’s one of the easiest ways to follow all of the action across South Africa in simple bite-size pieces. Usually leading to the more in-depth, informative information I want to read.

But there is plenty of garbage to wade through too!

Countless comments about the curse of the vuvuzela. Yes, they’re annoying, but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of the horn blowers running out of breath yet so let’s just embrace the vuvuzela and get on with it – at least they managed to drown out the England band for a while!

Some Twitterers are also tweeting too much for my liking.

Real Madrid provided blow-by-blow updates on the match between Holland and Denmark, simply because Van der Vaart (the Madrid forward) featured in the game for the Dutch – and these double up in both Spanish and English. Of course, I don’t need any of these updates because I can watch the match on old-fashioned TV. And I don’t feel there is any kind of legacy from Real Madrid chirping into Tweeterspace every time the ball went near their striker.

Several tweets have been quite alarmist and misleading too. Leading up to the tournament in South Africa there were countless tweets proclaiming dozens of deaths when police opened the gates to a stadium hosting a warm-up match for the tournament.

Before too long it was apparent that nobody had been killed. Thank goodness. Yes, football fans had been injured and the incident raised serious security questions. But that is quite different to reporting that people are dying or have died.

Then, a few days into the tournament, an established Nigerian journalist, started tweeting that there was ‘BIG TROUBLE’ outside the stadium in Durban and that there had been an explosion. This was picked up and retweeted by various sources and alarm bells were ringing again.

It later transpired there had been a protest by some of the security workers after the match and police had to break this up. Nobody, it seems, was seriously hurt. I say ‘it seems’ because it is sometimes difficult to decipher the genuine information in the social media landscape. Exactly what kind of force was used in Durban I’m not sure but it certainly seems that it was nowhere near as threatening as was first being reported.

Is Twitter turning respected journalists into the boy who cried wolf? It does seem that rumour can sometimes be perceived as fact in social media. We should never believe everything we read but I think we need to be extra careful not to get carried away in Twitterland, especially following what seems to have been a sustained scaremongering campaign leading into this tournament for several months (if not years).

The other problem with social media in this arena is that so much information is so accessible. Ok, I Hoover it up as much as I can because I am a real football fan. Everyone wants a slice of the World Cup cake and they want to eat it. I am no different.

But in some ways the romance of the World Cup has been lost in the digital media explosion. Who knew about Roger Milla before Italia 90 kicked off? Not many I think. Cameroon’s amazing win over the holders was a major embarrassment to Argentina and the fact that the global audience hardly new a thing about the African nation made it all the more compelling.

Now we can access bucketloads of information on all of the teams (apart from North Korea maybe) prior to the competition and throughout. It’s great but doesn’t it take away some of the intrigue and awe?

The vast influx of foreign players into the English Premier League in the last ten to 15 years – and the fact that so many World Cup players of note will have competed in the European Champions League dilutes the excitement to an extent. We already know most of the biggest stars to take part in this year’s tournament.

Of the first 17 goals scored in the 2010 World Cup only two – Jung Soo Lee (S Korea) and Siphiwe Tshabalala (S Africa) were not established players in the main European leagues ahead of the tournament. All of the others would have played either in the Champions League or would have been playing for clubs competing for places in that competition or the Europa League. Both of these competitions, and most of the European domestic leagues of course command large TV audience and widespread media coverage (including many tweets from players, clubs journalists and fans).

Of those players that may be a bit more obscure you can bet there are many videos uploaded to YouTube from various corners of the world showcasing their skills with links shared on Facebook, Twitter and email.

So the World Cup seems to set become less renowned for new stars to be bursting onto the global footballing horizon. Yes, I am probably being sentimental but I just don’t feel the same excitement for the matches that I did in say Italia ‘90 or even USA ’94.

Don’t get me wrong I really enjoy some of the tweets I am receiving on the World Cup – notably Henry Winter, Mark Bright and ‘OptaJoe’. But what do you think about the news stream around the 2010 World Cup and how do you interpret the social media surrounding the best sporting competition on earth?

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In the wrong place at the wrong time

So the biggest event in world sport is kicking off. For the first time in Africa. And, again, I am in the ‘wrong’ time zone.

The last time I was in the ‘right’ time zone for the World Cup was in 1998. Living in England, the one-hour time difference was perfect for watching matches. Most employers in England would turn a blind eye to having a TV on in the background with live matches being broadcast in the late afternoon from across the English Channel.

The evening matches were perfect. They just felt like usual midweek games but with the added excitement of the world’s best players in the world’s best sporting competition. Knowing the games were so near to home without being in your own country created a special atmosphere. There was a sense we could put one over our near neighbours and the rest of the world, especially after Euro 96.

In 2002 the World Cup moved to Japan and South Korea – the electric atmosphere generated by hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Japanese bounced off the satellites with impressive effect. But it was a very bizarre feeling having to get up earlier than usual, watching a World Cup match before breakfast and having to listen to John Motson blabber on about ‘plates rattling on the breakfast table’, then going to work trying to keep up with matches being played out mid-morning. It just seemed too early in the day for serious drama to unfold.

I vowed to be at the next World Cup because it was going to be in Germany. I lived an hour’s flight away and I had family in Germany who would be willing to accommodate me.

Then I secured a job in Australia. Yes, I was working in football for Perth Glory but by the time the tournament was on the horizon I had used any money I’d had available to travel home for Christmas, using up most of my leave in the process.
Being in Perth, six hours behind Germany, could have been worse, I met up with a few ex-pats to watch matches in the pub mid-late evening but the atmosphere was a million miles from what it would have been in England.

I had already had the weird experience of England winning the Ashes in the middle of the night in 2005. And having got up at 2.30am to watch Liverpool in the Champions League final the same year, I even stayed up beyond half time with the Reds 3-0 down to see the best sporting drama I have seen from the ‘wrong’ time zone.

Despite the Socceroos‘ impressive display under Guus Hiddink in 2006, the atmosphere still didn’t seem to permeate in the same way Down Under. Whether it was the time difference or just the fact that ‘soccer’ remained below Aussie Rules (AFL), cricket and two codes of rugby in the sporting pecking order, I’m not sure.

By the time the Socceroos were eliminated I was in Malaysia (same time difference but while the Malays weren’t uninterested in football it wasn’t a World Cup atmosphere). A few days later in Kuala Lumpur I watched England’s elimination at the hands of Portugal. Predictable but at least I didn’t have to sit in a pub full of Brits wallowing in self pity – it was just me and Wayne Bridge’s biggest fan (and the fact that Wayne Bridge didn’t play played a part in England’s fate in his eyes).

For me, the tournament finished in the Cameron Highlands and all I remember about the match was Zinedine Zidane’s audacious head butt and dramatic exit from the world stage.

Again, I vowed to be at the next World Cup. I would find some way of getting to South Africa. Why had I not been to a major international football tournament by the age of 30? To make it worse a lot of my friends had been to Germany and experienced an amazing festival of football.

A few twists of fate unfurled in the preceding years though. Moving back to the UK, getting married, having a son, and, err, migrating back to Perth.

So I am in the ‘wrong’ time zone again. Seven hours ‘in front’ of South Africa. Ok, so the opening ceremony is excellent timing. Friday evening with a 10pm kick-off for the hosts v Mexico.

I have already planned to go ‘out’ for England’s first encounter against the USA. But I am only usually up at 2.30am if our young son wakes up. Staying up until 5am is going to be a real test. And that’s just the first England game. Looking at the World Cup guides published in Western Australia, most of the matches seem to have kick-off times of 2.30am.
It’s going to be a strange World Cup from this part of the world. The top sports stories on TV and in the papers are still dominated by AFL two days before the Socceroos’ first match.

In the mean time I am exploring the merits of becoming nocturnal and trying to put plans in place to be in Brazil four years from now.
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