Stop the Assault on Referees

This week Roberto Mancini complained about the slipping standards of referees, as well as adding a somewhat cowardly accusation of bias in favor of United.  True, there have been some bizarre decisions, but the constant attacks against referees in the professional game are unhelpful at best.  Managers are often pressurizing players as their responsibilities as role models, and managers should realize that the same weight lies upon their own shoulders.  Many an amateur team player or manager will be balling at a referee for not giving a call a certain way this weekend. It’s only natural for us to lose our temper when things don’t go our way, especially when we want to win so badly, but the easiest way to accept referees errors and to be philosophical is to appreciate how tough it is.

I came across this interview between managerial legend Brian Clough and BBC football pundit John Motson this week, and what Clough says about the treatment of referees at 4:45 in the video is really insightful:

Nobody is making this point strongly enough today about how hard it is for a referee – making split second decisions when a mass of legs are tangling.  The reason why is because, though most of us have played the game, very few have refereed.  Brian’s son Nigel Clough, now Derby County manager and a former England player, once refereed a junior game I played in. He was still a professional at the time and he wanted to see what refereeing a load of teenagers would be like.  It’s fair to say he was utterly attrocious as a referee and admitted as much after the game.  I refereed the odd game at college (mainly our ladies team) and it was not at all easy, even with all of about 12 supporters watching, let alone 30,000!

With managers and the media perpetually undermining the refereeing upper echelons, it also undermines referees throughout the game and removes the level of respect necessary.  My rugby playing friends are always keen to explain the superior civility of rugby precisely due to the fact that the referees are afforded the utmost respect.  One of them recently sent on this amusing video of a ref putting a player in his place with a negative comparison to soccer:

One guy I played soccer a lot with over the years, and who had also played a lot of rugby, insists on calling the referee “sir”.  It caused derision among some of London’s soccer playing low life, but I always admired it.  It also helped that he was a superb player.

So, back to Mr Mancini and his colleagues distinct lack of respect.  Roberto Mancini played 32 games for Italy and over 545 top flight club games.  My question to him would be, how many games of eleven aside football has he ever refereed?  I’d like to see him out with a whistle on some torn up pitch refereeing Moss Side vs Halton Juniors on a Sunday morning and giving a penalty the wrong way in a game like that.





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Pelé – Watch out, Leo’s coming

A few months ago, I revelled in Pelé’s answer to the incessant questions from reporters concerning Lionel Messi, who this week, at the tender age of 24, became Barcelona’s all time leading goalscorer.  Is he a better player than you? He might have wondered why we have journalists, who ought to play the roles of chroniclers and of critics at the same time, if they have to ask him questions like that. Shouldn’t it be up to them the football writers to make the comparisons?

Some might argue that the standard and athleticism of La Liga and Champions League football is vastly more challenging than it would have been in Brazil in the 50s, 60s and 70s, making this a non-debate. But, by and large, you can only really judge a player by his own time.

It also seems to have become implicit part of the footballing consciousness that while Pele was a goalscorer, the likes of Maradona and Messi are entertainers.  I don’t know about that.  From my early youth watching nostalgia laden highlights videos from World Cups past, Pelé seemed to be a marvel to watch.  A different kind of player certainly, more physical, incredible in the air, but also incredibly skillful. There was a quote from a former player that I liked (think it might have been Bobby Moore but not sure and google is failing me), “We jumped together, but when I landed Pelé was still floating”. It’s not often that footballers verge on the poetic, but this romantic characterization comes close.

The Argentina fans allegedly still call Messi the Catalan, indicating that his successes and magical performances belong to his adopted Spanish region, and not his homeland.  He has certainly yet to set a World Cup on fire and that’s something Pelé certainly did, winning three and only failing to do so in England in 1966 after being  kicked half to death by both Bulgaria and Portugal.

The Brazilian legend himself coolly batted away the comparisons with Argentina’s star, saying there’s only one measure for an attacking player: the number of times they hit the back of the net.  There are varying tallies for Pelé, depending on which games count, but some “back of the cigarette packet” arithmetic has me estimating 784 goals in competitive games over a 21 year career for Brazil, Santos and the NY Cosmos.

Messi might be lucky to play until he is 37 (unless he buys Giggsy’s yoga DVD) and will certainly struggle to keep up the ferocious goalscoring pace when he surpasses 30, but at 24, he’s already racked up 260 goals for Barca and Argentina, after roughly a third of Pelé’s career.  It is possible that he might outstrip the great Brazilian, or at least get pretty close.  I don’t think anybody would have thought this feasible in 2003 when he made his first team debut, and it still feels dizzying that it can be considered a possibility.  If he were to close in on Pelé’s awesome stats, I’m pretty sure that would settle the argument of who was the greatest player of all time.

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Not a matter of life and death…

It was Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly who brought the phrase “It’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that” to soccer (although he stole the line from an American college football coach).  And this week we’ve seen the world of Premier League more than live up to this mantra, in all the wrong ways.

As The Times (of London) columnist Matthew Syed brilliantly identified this week, the magistrate setting John Terry’s racism court case date seemed to ascribe to the belief that soccer trumps all. The magistrate in question moved back Terry’s court case to after the Euro tournament in part due to pressure from Chelsea which suggested that the court case would mess with their players’ schedules, disadvantaging the club. The game trumps the law of the land by all accounts.

Today things only got worse when Suarez refused to shake Patrice Evra’s hand. I’m neither Man Utd, nor Liverpool fan, but as a lover of the game I hold both fine and successful clubs in high regard. I won’t hesitate to agree with Sir Alex Ferguson that Luis Suarez is a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club and its virtually unmatched history.  Yes, he’s a fabulous player but clearly  not a particularly honorable or mature individual.  The defence of his racism charge was pathetic but the petulance he showed today was utterly disgusting.  Still Liverpool and many of the fans stick behind him, much to the discredit of the club – a clear demonstration that their tribal football loyalty trumps their own moral compass and sense of fair play.

Football is not more important than life and death, but a hugely important aspect in the foundations of the game was that it was enstilled with the basic principles of civilized society.  It was to be a gentllemanly pursuit.  How can it be while we harbor people who will gladly belittle opponents due to the color of their skin? Ian Darke, ESPN’s commentator today, offered the opinion that the pre-match handshakes are meaninglesss and should be abolished.  Why? Because we have had one cancelled because of a racial abuse scandal (QPR vs Chelsea) and one that went awry because a player banned for racial abuse refused to shake the hand of the victim of that abuse. But it is not a trivial thing, it is designed to reinject the sense of honor and gentlemanly conduct into the game.  The handshakes should stay, it’s Suarez and Terry who should go.

On a less serious, but related note, Darke also said when one Liverpool player aggressively rifled the ball at an opponent to return it to him for a throw in. “Well, he’s entitled to throw it back how he wants” said Darke.  No he’s not, it’s clearly ungentlemanly conduct.  He should be booked… there’s a reason you can be booked for ungentlemanly conduct – we want the game to remain civvilized.  You can also be booked for dissent, as Torres should have been at half time in the game at Goodison.  Referees need to feel empowered (as they technically are) to sanction anyone who acts like a petulant child or a beligerant drunk.

For God’s sake, can we stop saying soccer is a form of escapism where people can step beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior? That’s not how it started out.  Gentlemanly conduct was at the heart of the game when Lord Kinnaird and his chums started kicking about.  Marina Hyde (The Guardian) brilliantly satirized the notion of escapism by asking if the flat-cap wearing thousands attending games before WW2 were singing songs about such and such player or manager being a paedophile.

Everyone who plays has said and done things on a pitch they regret, but let’s not brush it under the carpet or blindly support our team’s players and deny it when they have clearly acted reprehensibly.  Let’s not make football more important than life, let’s instead apply the social

On a positive note though, while one club on Merseyside not only disgraced themselves (and played dreadfully – I’ve never seen such little pressure on the ball was when United were in possession today… and Glen Johnson had a horror show for both goals), the other club was an advert for football.  Everton were magnificent against Chelsea today from front to back.

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England – “The envy of less happier lands” but that doesn’t mean football has won the battle against racism

As a Premier League neutral, I was honest enough to say that I had a soft spot for Liverpool at the start of the season.  Being a child of the 80s, the shadow of Liverpool’s omnipotence loomed large.  Now living in Boston, there is also an affinity for the Reds here thanks to the John Henry/Red Sox connection.  I’m looking forward to seeing them here at Fenway this summer for sure.

But it’s hard not to be bitterly disappointed by the way the club have handled the recent (and ongoing) racism row involving Luis Suarez.  It’s been a dark period for English football over the last two or thee months. After years of many of us English fans being smug about how we have addressed racism in football, condescendingly shaking our heads at the behaviour of some fans in Italy and Spain, our naivety has been exposed.

I’m not suggesting that Liverpool should have hung the Uruguyan out to dry, but they should have ackowledged more clearly that racism on the field is not acceptable.  Backing up Suarez’s ludicrous explanation that his words were not derogatory was an insult to everybody who doesn’t want to see racism anywhere in football.  It’s not credible that during a heated on field exchange  that the words used were done so affectionately.  And even if that is the case, Suarez clearly needs to moderate his language to the conventions acceptable on an English football pitch and in British society, or accept the consequences. The club’s decision to let the players wear t-shirts in support of Suarez was a further terrible, pig-headed move, which simply illustrated that they did not think Suarez had done anything wrong and he was the victim in this whole sordid affair.

Things may have died down a little but Liverpool mush have been aware that Saturday’s fixture might revive the issue. So why not brief the manager to tread a fine line on questions regarding Patrice Evra, instead of reacting with misplaced righteous indignation to journalists’ questions. It was inevitable that Evra would get booed on Saturday, but for Dalglish to suggest that it was just banter and to equate it to himself getting booed seems to illustrate how out of touch some of the footballing world are.

This whole fiasco might be a symptom of the club’s PR being run by people who are supporters first and professionals second, but backing up the pathetic excuses of the player in this case was absurd.  If they had issued a statement saying simply that they denounce racism and that they were co-operating with the FA in its enquiry, much of the furore might have died down.  But they kept the story and the debate alive.  People make mistakes in the heat of the moment and say things they shouldn’t.  It doesn’t mean they should be lynched and never forgiven, but the important thing is to own up to it and confirm that it is not acceptable. Liverpool did not do this clearly enough and many have lost some respect for the club.

The whole issue was of course complicated by the John Terry and Anton Ferdinand issue, and it was again disappointing to see QPR’s owners encouraging Ferdinand to shake Terry’s hand, apparently echoing Sepp Blatter’s ridiculous advice.  Everybody seems to want to “put the whole thing behind them”, which seems pretty similar to brushing it under the carpet to me. Terry’s excuses seemed to be even more ridiculous than Suarez’s and we’ll see how that plays out in court this week.  I understand why the clubs decided to do away with the customary handshakes at the weekend (the site of all eleven QPR players snubbing Terry could certainly have stoked the tensions among fans) but this again does feel a little bit like ducking the issues at stake here.

Whatever the decision in Terry’s magistrates court case on Wednesday it will cause another stir.  Hopefully it will be the catalyst for the game in England to consider what else can be done to kick racism out of football, and not to rest on its laurels, apparently happy that there is less racism than in other European stadia. We should surely be aiming for none.

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Everton need Donovan “to try for the sun”

Everton take on Bolton today at 3 pm ET.  Mid-week games are a pain here when you are driving a desk, so I’ll be checking in with the BBC’s text commentary occasionally for the score in this and the Man Utd game.  When United are playing, why would I blog about Everton, the perenial mid-table, competent outfit.

Because their left back, Leighton Baines, is their joint top scorer at present! Three goals in half a season is a respectable tally for a full back, but it is pitiful that none of Everton’s striking options have surpassed this number. Louis Saha has been shouldering the burden… though not particularly well. He has one league goal and one in the cup. Understudy Apostolos Vellios has fared better with three goals in 11 league matches. Everton have scored just 19 goals this season in the BPL! This puts them on a par with West Brom and QPR, and only slightly ahead of Wigan. Yet, thanks to the tight ship Moyes is running in other areas of the field, they are comfortably mid-table. Win their two games in hand and they’ll go 8th and be back in the hunt for a European berth.

Goals are a massive problem for the Toffees.  It can’t all be blamed on the stirkers of course, they’ve lost significant creativity in the middle of the park. Losing Mikel Arteta as a chief architect of attacking play has not helped, and Tim Cahill, who brings boundless energy to the midfield and a fox in the box himself,  has had some injury problems that he seems to be playing through.

Enter Landon Donovan, fresh from his title clinching goal in last year’s MLS Cup Final. Last time out for Everton he weighed in with just two goals in 13 appearances but they got bags more from him in link-up play and general work ethic.  He’s an all-round forward per se as opposed to an out and out goal scorer – a grafter, but also a playmaker, and the U.S. all-time leader in assists. But this time around, with no striker amassing a meaningful count, David Moyes will be hoping Donovan can not just oil the cogs for Saha and co, but improve his own goal tally from his last stint as well.

It will be interesting to see if he can start with a bang against Bolton today.

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The Best Time and Place… to be a Soccer Fan?

With the International break in the Premier League and the MLS having a week off before the cup final next week,Ii thought I’d take this opportunity to write about something a bit  fanciful. I was inspired by this wonderful article in The Economist’s sister publication Intelligent Life about the best time to be alive:

To all intents and purposes, the realists/statisticians/scientists among us would say it has to be today thanks to advances in healthcare and more liberal attitudes.  They are no doubt right but where’s the romance in that?! Similarly, if you were to apply it to soccer, you might say that today’s TV diet of wall to wall games of unquestionably high standard (Premier League, La Liga, Champions League) would be the best for the armchair fan.  But again where’s the romance?

I thought it would be interesting to look at some of football’s golden ages and then pick the very best. What would be yours?  Let me know in the comments!

1. The advent of Association Football  1867 – Hanging out with Kinnaird and his boarding school chums for the Big Bang moment in soccer!

Football had existed in one format or another for centuries in Britain and abroad (apparently there was a Chinese version for military training in 3rd century B.C.), but the catalyst for the beautiful game of association football was the enthusiasm of Alfred Lord Kinnaird and his aristocratic chums from Britain’s finest boarding schools.  It’s 1867 and the FA is sitting down to its first ever meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern on Great Queen Street in London (it’s still there, and a two minute walk from Covent Garden underground). The beer’s no doubt flowing, the room’s awash with Harrovians, Etonians – they’re arguing about the rules in pitch perfect Queen’s English.  It doesn’t feel like this is “the people’s game” when these gentleman of privilege are laying the foundations, but this is how it all begins.  Less than five years later England will be playing the first ever international against Scotland and soon working men in the big industrial cities will be spending their scant leisur- time alongside the pitch watching the game.

Some attendees at the Freemason’s will drop out of future meetings disgusted at the removal of carrying the ball and hacking.  They’ll go on to set up the Rugby Football Union. Those that stick around have the legacy of creating the world’s finest sport.  They couldn’t have dreamed how big soccer would become, but can you imagine how exhilirating it must have been to be one of those early enthusiasts and to set the wheels in motion, to light the spark?! “Mine’s a pint of Fuller’s Ale please old chap… now we really must talk about this using the hands nonsense…”

2. Madrid, 1945 – 1966

Living in the heart of Franco’s fascist nightmare might not have been especially wonderful, but if you were a Real Madrid fan, soccer would have been a wonderful escape.  Los Merengues’ new president Santiago Bernabeu has the vision to build a brand spanking new stadium and training facility. In 1955 he also has the brain wave of a European inter-club competition for the biggest and best teams.  Not a bad idea really, especially when Real go on to win the European Cup six times in ten years between 1956 and 1966 (five times in a row from 1956!).  And it’s not just the trophies that would have made this one of soccer’s most glorious nooks and crannies to exist in, it’s the players – attacking talent like Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugarian Ferenc Puskas.  Reliving the grainy highlights from the 1960 European Cup final at Hampden Park in Glasgow, it is clear to see that the “blonde arrow” Di Stefano and his teammates were pretty tasty soccer players and kept their fans well-entertained for a decade.

3. Britain 1966 – 1985

“This happy breed of men, this little world / This precious stone set in the silver sea” – well the denizens of John of Gaunt’s “other Eden” and “sceptered Isle” can’t have been very happy at all as the Spaniards dominated European football.  The average football fan was probably burning with shame.  We’d given the world football and it had taken it with both hands.  It wasn’t just club football where the Brits struggled to match the foreigners – Brazil were dominating the international game and England hadn’t been up to much (in 1950 they lost to the U.S. in the World Cup…ouch).  Puskas’ (see above) Hungary had humiliated England in 1954 beating them 7-1 with the great Real Madrid man himself scoring two.  England didn’t get out of the group stages of the World Cup in 1958 and then had to watch a 17 year old Pele take the world by storm. Fine players on the domestic scene like Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright and Tom Finney weren’t able to make England a world class outfit (sound familiar England fans?)

Then things began to change – the Sixties got swinging!  England won the World Cup on home soil in 1966 to put the home of football back on the international map.  Celtic became the first British team to with the European Cup by beating Inter Milan 2-1 in Lisbon (ten of the eleven players were born and raised in Glasgow!).  They were back in the Final three years later narrowly missing out to Feyenoord.  The year after Celtic’s triumph, Manchester United followed suit with Best, Charlton and co., decked out in their blue change strip, giving Eusebio’s Benfica a real lesson. Not just a triumph for English football but – with Paddy Crerand, Shay Brennan,  Tony Dunne and George Best in the side – a triumph for Scotland and Ireland too.

The British Isles were all of a sudden the epicenter of World Football again! England didn’t win the World Cup in 1970 but they created one of the most memorable games ever when they drew with Brazil in the group stages.  Pele vs Moore, that save by Gordon Banks.  Football hadn’t come home exactly, but it was certainly making a visit.  Then the Dutch invented total football and decided to mercilessly outplay everybody (especially Italian opposition) for a bit (see below).  But for the supporter in the UK, the game had more character than ever.

George Best was the game’s first popstar. Other like Kevin Keegan soon followed.  Brian Clough was emerging as manager at Derby County and his one-liners and bombastic boasting were bringing a color to the game rarely seen before.  Soccer stars were finding themselves on the front pages and on talk shows. And then a massive resurgence came.  Leeds reached the 1975 European Cup Final and were narrowly defeated by Bayern Munich (incidentally they won it the next year as well… not a bad period to have been in Munich swilling beer and eating sausage).That Leeds team had five Scots, four Englishman, one Welshman and one Irishman.

In ’77 Liverpool conquered Europe for the first time. They won again at Wembley the next year against Belgium side Brugge thanks to a Kenny Dalglish goal. They were also reigning supreme on the domestic stage, winning the league five times in eight years in the 70s. Clough’s Nottingham Forrest only won the championship in England once, but they won the European Cup two years on the trot becoming the fourth British side to lift the trophy.  Forrest’s second win was over Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg at the Bernabeu. Liverpool were winners again in 1981 before Aston Villa claimed the cup in ’82.  The Reds were back in ’84, however, beating Roma to create a streak that saw an English winner in the European Cup seven times in eight years. This truly was the golden age of English club football and a miraculous domination.

All empires fall and the English domination of European soccer was to end in the most ignominiuos of fashions. Hooliganism had been a growing problem in the UK in the 70s and 80s and at the 1985 European Cup Final in Brussels, Liverpool fans attacked a group of Juventus supporters who attempted to flee causing a crush and a wall to collapse.  39 Juventus fans died.  Unquestionably this was one of the worst moments to be a soccer fan. A real nadir.

English clubs were banned from European competition for five years but it took them nearly 15 to re-emerge as a major power.  The golden era ended abruptly and a under a cloud of shame.

4. Total Football – Amsterdam, 1970 – 1974

England had awoken from it’s tactical slumber to finally ditch the WM formation of the 20s.  But just as they did, the Dutch went and innovated a step further.  Total Football meant that, whatever formation you played, it should be a loose one and that any player should be able to take on any role within the team.  The team could move around freely, swap positions and still be competent attacking and defending.  Pressing, positional interchange and exceptional ball control and short passing were all cornerstones of the philosophy (interestingly the very things that there is such a dearth of in most England teams over recent years).

In the 1972 European Cup final the philosophy was put to the test as Ajax took on Itnernazionale (a shining example of Total Football’s antithesis, Catenaccio – Italian for “door bolt” and the name given to the defensive mentality that dominated Italian tactics).  Ajax ran out winners

There were sensational players about to make it work. The Ajax and Feyenoord team were awash with talent and combined into a formidable national side. Drunk on the intoxicating brand of football purism, the Orange-clad Dutch supporters expected to win the 74 World Cup and were encouraged as Cruyff and co outplayed all and sundry.  In the Final, West Germany’s first touch of the ball was the restart after they had conceded a goal!! But Total Football took a knock as the Germans beat the Dutch 2-1 in that game.

Cruyff’s legacy at Barcelona led to a similar philosophy in place there today.  It seems to be paying dividends for them.

5. United States of America – Summer of 1994

It started inauspiciously with Diana Ross fluffing her kick during the opening ceremony but the World Cup in 1994 was a revolutionary event for soccer in the United States.  Not only was it a wonderful world cup (Romario and Bebeto forming one of the best ever forward partnerships for Brazil, Roberto Baggio probably player of the tournament and then missing the spot kick in the final, Gheorge Hagi, Jack Charlton’s plucky Ireland team beating Italy in the first round, chemically enhanced Maradona), but it also inspired kids in the USA to consider soccer.  The New York Cosmos had folded back in ’85 and soccer seemed to be terminally ill here. The World Cup led to the formation of Major League Soccer and revolutionized how the game is seen.

For soccer fans at the time it must have felt like their dreams had come true – the world’s best players, packed out American Football stadiums hosting the beautiful game.  It was a sure sign that the game could be revived.  Young kids would want to play, people would want to watch elite players and pay to do so, companies would be happy to invest in the game and sponsor teams.  Amateur and professional soccer was on the cusp of a return.  It was time to dream big again.

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A Tale of One City – A Tale of Two Full Backs

There is not a shadow of a doubt that Johnny Evans’ clumsy and lazy defending cost Manchester United dear today after he hauled down Mario Balatelli. In the second half City’s attacking talent was able to pick apart United’s 10 men with ease, particularly as the home team tired towards the end.

Yet City managed to come out of a first half performance where their red rivals had the lion-share of possession with a one goal advantage. How?

Full backs don’t often get the limelight, but Richards and Clichy were phenomenal today and completely stifled the contributions of Nani and Ashley Young. A combination of wonderful positioning, matching pace and patience helped Clichy and Richards stay with their men at all times.  They didn’t dive in unless they were 100% certain of getting the ball and tracked the wide men doggedly, both on and off the ball.  In the end, Young and Nani became ponderous, unimaginative and wasteful with their final crosses.

Mancini would have been delighted to see the support Silva and Milner offered their full backs throughout the period of equity.  Ferguson will be frustrated by how easily the pacey width that has troubled so many other sides was neutralized by the Italian’s tactics and the assiduous application of the men in sky blue.

Richards in particular was superb and also got the assist his performance deserved – I also felt his booking was a little harsh. From an England fans’ point of view it is encouraging to see such a fine performance.  Perhaps we won’t have to see Glenn Johnson’s impersonation of defending in an England shirt again.

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