Footy thoughts

Football around the world mourns with Chapecoense.

When the news broke on Tuesday morning of the plane crash that carried the Brazilian side Chapecoense to Colombia to play what was arguably their biggest game in their history – the final of the Copa Sudamericana (the South American equivalent of the Europa League) – I, like everyone else, was in utter shock.

The Santa Catarina-based side were enjoying their biggest season in their history. In 2009, they were playing in Serie D, before being promoted to Serie C, where they played for three years. They were promoted to Serie B in 2012 and, after only one season, the club who only formed in 1973 as a result of a merger of two amateur clubs, were playing in Brazil’s top tier of football.

But this season was arguably the club’s biggest. They drew inspiration and similarities from the current Premier League champions.

“Our team really reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title,” the late manager Caio Júnior said after a league win over giants Fluminense. “I want to make a mark this season with this club, this group of players.”

Indeed it was on the continental scale where Chape really made headlines. In the Copa Sudamericana, they surpassed even their own fans’ expectations and made it to the final, beating teams like Argentine giants Independiente and San Lorenzo on the way.

But then unimaginable tragedy struck.

Seventy one people died on that flight as it approached Medellin, including 21 journalists and almost the entire first team and managerial staff. The surviving players were defenders Alan Ruschel and Neto. Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann also survived but had to have one of his legs amputated, according to reports.  Goalkeeper Danilo initially survived the crash, but later died in hospital from his injuries.

It’s an enormous loss. But I’m sure friends, families and supporters can take some comfort with the support the club has been receiving from the footballing community around the globe.

Força Chapecoense!

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Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments

Things turn ugly for Swedish hero Larsson.

Henrik Larsson is regarded by many in his native Sweden as a footballing hero. And rightly so. But the former Celtic striker was at the centre of some unsavoury scenes at the end of Helsingborgs’ 2-1 defeat to Halmstad last week.

Helsingborgs’ defeat meant that the club would be relegated for the first time in 23 years. Naturally this was catastrophic for fans of The Reds. But it turned ugly after the final whistle when supporters ran on to the pitch, most of whom had their faces covered by scarves and balaclavas, attempted to pull the jersey off Larsson’s son and HIF striker Jordan Larsson.

The 45-year-old Helsingborg manager then proceeded towards the supporters, appearing to be ready to defend himself if things turned a bit violent, which looked like something of an inevitability.

“I didn’t see that they attacked Jordan but if I had, I would have gone in there towards him,” the former Barcelona and Swedish international said afterwards. “I was not going to run from there. If they turn on me, they turn on me.”

Larsson left his position as manager a few days ago. His son is still with the club, but it rumoured to be moving to another Allsvenskan club.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Bloopers

Is this the worst miss in the history of football?

I’ve seen some bad misses in my time. But, ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to watch is quite possibly the worst miss in the history of the beautiful game.

The culprit was Djuricic, a striker for Serbian side Lokomotiva who somehow managed to miss an open goal against Turbina in Belgrade, when he was mere inches from the goal line.

Wow.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Republic of Ireland

Three points difficult, but definitely doable for Boys In Green.

It’s been quite the extraordinary week. With the news of new President-elect of the United States, the loss of the beloved Leonard Cohen, as well as the historic UFC event taking place in New York this weekend dominating the sports headlines, it’s easy to forget that the Boys In Green face Austria is a huge World Cup qualifying match tomorrow.

What should never be forgotten is the inclusion of Dundalk’s Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan. The duo have impressed Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane – and rightly so. Dundalk have been performing fearlessly both domestically and, impressively, on the European stage.

Defender John O’Shea and midfielder James McClean had been doubts for the tie in Vienna because of hamstring and back injuries respectively, however both were able to depart with the squad this morning. Only one player, Leeds midfielder Eunan O’Kane, has been forced to return to his club with a groin injury.

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Something that bothered me last week was the reports Eamon Dunphy gave that Ireland, if we play well, can earn a point at the Ernst Happel Stadion tomorrow. Content with a draw, it’s a wonder why Dunphy never went into football management. It reminds me of the time former Ireland goalkeeper coach Alan Kelly said that “two points out of six” wouldn’t be too bad for two similar qualifying games for Euro 2012. He was relieved of those duties in 2013.

A point would be the bare minimum we should leave Vienna with. Also despite our lack of attacking available tomorrow, and Austria’s world-class players like, most notably, David Alaba, the boys in green have absolutely nothing to fear. Determination and heart has always been Ireland’s strong point. It won’t be easy, but it’s doable.

The squad is:

Goalkeepers: Darren Randolph (West Ham United), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), Colin Doyle (Bradford City)

Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Richard Keogh, Alex Pearce (Derby County), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), Paul McShane (Reading), Shane Duffy (Brighton & Hove Albion), Andy Boyle (Dundalk)

Midfielders: Aiden McGeady (Preston North End), James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Harry Arter (Bournemouth), David Meyler (Hull City), Stephen Gleeson (Birmingham City), Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City), Jonathan Hayes (Aberdeen), Daryl Horgan (Dundalk)

Forwards: Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), Adam Rooney (Aberdeen), Kevin Doyle (Colorado Rapids), David McGoldrick (Ipswich Town)

 

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Ones to watch

Five of the best under-21s in the world today.

As Francesco Totti recently celebrated his 40th birthday and 24th year in Roma’s senior side, it got me thinking how there are some supremely gifted up-and-coming players that are half his age – or in some cases, even younger.

Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)
A sublime midfielder, the 19-year-old Belgian is already into his fourth season with the Brussels side. Having made his debut in summer 2013, Tielemans became the youngest ever Belgian to play in the Champions League in October 2013. All the big clubs around Europe have been keeping an eye on him – he definitely won’t be at Anderlecht forever.

 

Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan)
When Diego Maradona famously said that he watched his “successor in Argentine football” in Leo Messi, I do wonder if Gigi Buffon thought the same of Donnarumma. The 17-year-old is a phenomenon to put it frankly. His athleticism for his 6 foot 5 frame is phenomenal, and he possesses the agility and footwork of any world-class ‘keeper today. He will become the world’s best between the posts, mark my words.

 

Carles Aleña (FC Barcelona)
Many Catalan-based journalists have for some time praised Sergi Samper as the heir to Xavi’s throne in the centre of the pitch. An intelligent holding midfielder with a eye for glorious key passes. The truth is, the most complete young player Barcelona have in that position for the next generation is 18-year-old Carles Aleña. Irish fans had a glimpse of the midfielder as he made his debut against Celtic here at the Aviva Stadium. He will without question be a big player for the Blaugrana.

 

Viktor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk)
The 20-year-old has with ease filled the void left by China-bound Alex Teixeira at the beginning of 2016, and has wowed crowds at most grounds he plays in. Widely regarded as one of the top young promising players, fans, critics and former pros rate the Ukrainian to go as far as Shevchenko did and even better it. A top player who will play for a huge club no doubt about it.

 

Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich)
The French winger is, of all the people on this list, possibly the most complete and uniquely gifted players. Currently with Bayern on loan from Juventus, 20-year-old possesses all the attributes and more to become one of the world’s best. His pace, skills, touch, and vision, combined with his diversity to play on either wing or, if needed, as a centre forward. A phenomenon with a massive future.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts, Superstars

Carlos Alberto R.I.P.

The blog is very saddened to learn of the passing of Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto. The 72-year-old died today after suffering a heart attack in Rio de Janiero.

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Alberto was captain of the Brazil side in the 1970 World Cup and led them to victory. He scored the forth goal in the final in the 4-1 victory over Italy in the final in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The goal is often considered one of the greatest goals in the history of the tournament.

He enjoyed a twenty year playing career. In Brazil, he had two spells for Fluminense, but it was at Santos where the defender made his name as a world-class player. He spent a number of years playing in the United States playing most notably for the New York Cosmos.

He will be remembered as an incredibly gifted right back, and a leader of arguably one of the greatest teams of all time.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Champions League, Europe

New UEFA president open to move Champions League final stateside.

“What I know is that I’m a team player, a man of conviction, a passionate man and a man of his word. I am not a showman and I’m not a man of unrealistic promises.”

The words of the new president of UEFA Aleksander Čeferin. Indeed the Slovenian Football Association chief’s rise from relative obscurity to landing the most powerful role in European football in six months is a great story in itself.

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When the 49-year-old faced the world’s media following his 42-13 triumph over the far more experienced Dutch FA president, Michael van Praag, both he and the media knew the work he had ahead of him and the changes he would need to make.

At the time of his appointment, Čeferin vowed his first priority will be to review the controversial recent deal to give more Champions League revenue to the continent’s bigger clubs.

Today the new UEFA president has said that he would be open to having the Champions League final played outside of Europe.

“I think it might be an idea in future but we have to speak about it,” the Slovenian said. “To go from Portugal to Azerbaijan for example is almost the same or the same as if you go to New York. For the fans it’s no problem but we should see. It’s a European competition so let’s think about it.”

Personally I think the idea of that is as ridiculous as staging an All-Ireland final in Düsseldorf.

But Čeferin did also today say he was preparing the first open bidding process for the right to host the Champions League final. Up to now there is no public process for UEFA to award the the finals to football associations or cities. It all seems to be done in secret. Dodgy? Probably. For Wembley to be awarded it twice in three years under Platini’s tenure is something worth mentioning.

“The bidding process should be very clear because if you get the Champions League finals or Europa league finals as a political favour then it’s not OK,” he said. “With a clear bidding procedure I will protect also the administration and myself because whoever tries to call us, to push us, to ask us for such a favour we will have a clear answer, ‘Sorry there are clear rules we cannot do it.’”

I long for a Champions League final at the Aviva Stadium someday. Definitely not in Yankee Stadium.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Superstars

Happy birthday, Francesco Totti.

Buon compleanno Francesco. One of the very few true one-club men, since joing Roma’s youth academy in 1989.  The striker is 40 today. Still playing top-flight football. Still scoring. Still has the touch. Still has the skills. Like a fine wine…

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footballers' mad moments, Internationals

Is that it for Big Sam?

England manager Sam Allardyce is under serious pressure right now having been filmed giving advice to undercover Telegraph reporters posing as Far East businessmen on how to “get around rules” about third-party ownership of players. The 61-year-old said it was “not a problem” to bypass the rules which in 2008 were banned by his employer, the FA.

He spoken about knowing agents that were “doing it all the time”, the former Sunderland manager, talked about a deal for which he would be paid £400,000 a year to address investors in a firm that wanted to buy footballers in Singapore or Hong Kong around four times over the year.

Big Sam also mocked his predecessor Roy Hodgson, calling him “Woy”, and also spoke negatively about his assistant Gary Neville in the secret recordings. Allardyce also criticised the England players in the Euros, but personally I see little problem with that as it’s merely an opinion – and one that many England fans share.

Having only been in charge for England after one game, it’s safe to say his future as England manager is in jeopardy. The FA requested a full transcript of the meetings with the undercover reporters.

Stand by for further updates.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments, Superstars

Yaya’s agent given the Guardiola ultimatum.

Yaya Touré’s agent Dimitri Seluk has been in the media before. Who can forget the episode back in 2014, when he claimed Yaya was so upset with Manchester City for not wishing him a happy birthday with a cake, the Ivorian was thinking of leaving the club.

“What happened at his birthday meant the club don’t care about him. It was proof,” Seluk said at the time. “None of them shook his hand on his birthday. It’s really sick”.

I know.

Now Seluk has got himself on the wrong side of current Man City boss Pep Guardiola. Touré was left out of the 25-man squad earlier this month and has yet to feature for City this season.

That led the Ukrainian to criticise Guardiola, questioning whether the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona boss had “the balls to say that he was wrong to humiliate a great player like Yaya”.

Guardiola was not pleased.

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“His manager spoke. In that moment, Yaya is out!” the Catalan said in a press conference on Tuesday. “Except if Mr Dimitri Seluk comes back into the press conference or his friends in the media, if he has not got the courage to call me, go to the media and apologise to Manchester City, the first one. The second one, his team mates and after that, the trainer. When that happens, Yaya will be part of the group and will have the same chance to play all of the games”

“I cannot imagine in my period when I was a football player,” Guardiola said. “My manager going to the media and speaking against Johan Cruyff, about this and about that.”

He’s right about that. Can you imagine if a footballer’s agent was to criticise a figure such as Alex Ferguson?

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Guardiola has received criticism in the past from agents and players. At Bayern Munich for example, Franck Ribery said the 45-year-old “lacks experience” and  “talks too much”. Others, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, famously disagreed with Guardiola’s ethics, which cost the Swede his career at Barcelona, which he called at the time his “dream club”.

Yaya Touré it seems could well be on his way out of the blue half of Manchester. Seluk is incredibly outspoken and don’t forget that Guardiola has in the past turfed out big name players such as Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco, and of course Ibrahimovic to name but a few.

But this is a man who also knows what he is doing. Pep Guardiola after all has won 14 trophies in the first four years of his managing career and is globally considered as one of the best managers in the world.

Like birthday cake-gate, we’ll see how this plays out.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Superstars, Where are they now?

Five top footballers you forgot played for obscure clubs.

I was reading an article recently about how Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi went from Real Madrid to Barcelona via Italian side Brescia, where he played in Serie B, I had forgotten that the former Galatasaray manager has played in Italy’s second tier for a relatively obscure side. There are some other big name players that played for teams that most of us forgot about. Let’s look at some.

Yaya Touré – Metalurh Donestsk.

In 2003, the younger Touré brother had a trial with Arsenal. He even started a pre-season game against Barnet in which his performance was described as “average”. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was still keen to sign the the talented 20-year-old but Touré had difficulties in obtaining a work permit, and the Ivorian signed for Ukrainian side Metalurh Donetsk, where he spent one and a half years. Within two years of leaving Donetsk, he signed for a little known club called Barcelona.

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David Bentley – FC Rostov.

The story of David Bentley is interesting in itself. Having not played for more than a year, the former-England international retired from football in 2014, aged just 29, citing his loss of passion for the game. In the 2012-2013 season, the midfielder went to Rostov-on-Don, in south-western Russia, to sign for FC Rostov, becoming the first Englishman to play in the Russian Premier League. An ankle injury hampered his time there, and he made seven appearances for the club.

Hulk – Tokyo Verdy.

Brazilian winger Hulk currently plays out in the Chinese Super League for SIPG, along with a plethora of talent following the ridiculous cash on offer to anyone with talent willing to play it seems. In the late-noughties, the Brazilian was one of the most sought-after players in the game signing first for FC Porto, then Zenit St. Petersburg. The latter spent €60 million on his transfer. But before his European triumph, Hulk had a three year stint in Japan, where was scoring goals for fun and setting up countless others.

Joan Capdevila – Lierse.

Joan Capdevila in an under-rated player in many ways. He was a mainstay in the Spanish national team, during their dominant years as a European and World Cup winning force. He was the only member of the Spanish side in the 2010 World Cup final who was not a Real Madrid or Barcelona player. Having played top flight football for years with Villareal, Deportivo, Benfica to name but a few, in 2015, Capdevilla signed for Belgian second division side Lierse, making five appearances. He now bizarrely plays for Andorran side Santa Coloma.

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Samuel Eto’o – Antalyaspor.

In the mid-noughties, Samuel Eto’o was scoring goals left and right for Barcelona. Often regarded as the greatest ever Cameroonian footballer ever, he is also the most decorated African of all time. With successful stints at Inter Milan and Russian side FC Anzhi (remember them?), Eto’o had short stints with Chelsea, Everton and Sampdoria. He now plays for Turkish side Antalyaspor, aged 35.

 

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Footballers' mad moments, Where are they now?

Super Mario regrets Liverpool, but insists the future is bright.

Well, it’s safe to assume that we won’t be seeing Mario Balotelli around Merseyside again. Not unless he joins Everton. The Italian striker was in the news this weekend having scored twice for his new club Nice against the mighty Marseille in a 3-2 win, and also claiming that his stint for Liverpool was “the worst decision of my life”.

The 26-year-old – he’s only twenty-six – scored four goals in 28 appearances in all competitions for the Reds. He scored only the one goal in 20 Serie A games on loan at Milan last season before Jurgen “The Normal One” Klopp deemed him surplus to requirements and Balotelli joined Nice on a free transfer.

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“Apart from the fans, who were fantastic, and some players who I got on really well with, I didn’t like the club,” the former Man City striker said. “I had two coaches, with Rodgers and Klopp for a short time, but neither their methods nor their personality left me with a good impression”

I rate Balotelli highly. I think he’s a gifted player. But, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, he appears to have a lack of interest at times. I’ve seen him train a few times and needless to say, he’s wasn’t exactly giving it 100%.

But perhaps Balotelli can turn it around at Nice (I know, I know, we’ve said that before). He’s 26 now. When he was 18 or 19 and promising if difficult player, managers made allowances. Ask Roberto Mancini.

He still regards himself as an elite player. When asked about the Ballon d’Or, he said “I think I could have already won it by now, but by working hard in training I could still win it in the next two or three years.”

The truth is that he’s been nowhere near making the final three, let alone winning it. But he’s right. It’s not too late. Football is a short career and regrets last a lot longer. I wonder is Super Mario finally realising this and will he get down to showing the world what a remarkable player he truly can be.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Internationals, Superstars

Robbie Keane to call time with Ireland.

Republic of Ireland captain, legend, and leading goalscorer Robbie Keane will make his final international appearance next Wednesday, when the Boys In Green face Oman at the Aviva Stadium.

“It has also been a great honour, for both me and my family, to have been given the opportunity to captain my country for over ten years,” a statement read.

“As a young boy growing up in Dublin playing football on the street I could never have imagined the path my life would take – it has exceeded my wildest expectations. I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to play for and captain my country – it was my ultimate goal all those years ago and it has been, by far, my greatest achievement.”

Keane made his debut against Argentina back in 1998 at the old Lansdowne Road. Since then, as we all know, he went on to score an astonishing 67 goals for his country.

“I had always hoped this day would never come and I will miss putting on the Ireland jersey and walking out to a sea of green,” the LA Galaxy forward said. “I am looking forward to the game against Oman & putting on the jersey and singing the national anthem one last time in front of the home crowd at the Aviva.”

It’s the end of an era for all Irish fans, but hopefully Keano can add to his 67 goals in his last ever game.

"How long is the flight from Heathrow to LAX?"

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Republic of Ireland

Why I won’t be renewing my FAI season ticket.

I’m quite passionate about my national team. I always have been. My earliest memories of the Boys In Green is them getting knocked out of Euro ’88 at the hands of Wim Kieft’s late goal for The Netherlands in Gelsenkirchen. When the FAI announced the season ticket scheme a number of years ago, I jumped at the opportunity. I feel I can no longer fund the FAI and here’s why.

You’re probably aware by now of the FAI’s €100,000 grant programme to 20 clubs, granting €5,000 per club to assist them in meeting five-year strategic plans. That’s a grand per year per club. It was refused immediately by first Derry City, calling the figure “disgraceful and disrespectful”.

 

Then it was refused by St. Patrick’s Athletic, who said in a statement that the FAI had “utterly failed in its responsibility to the domestic game and to those clubs who, in spite of its indifference, have managed to keep some semblance of professionalism within football in Ireland.”

The FAI hit back with a statement of their own expressing “extreme disappointment” with the Inchicore club.

It was quite astonishing to many, myself included. Pat’s responded. “Our game is in crisis,” they wrote. “What prevails with the FAI is an approach whereby it decides everything and where it dictates policy with the occasional PR flurry to try and create a public image that its senior executives are committed to change and to improvement.”

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It should be pointed out at this point the salary of the FAI’s CEO John Delaney is €360,000 – after two pay cuts. That’s around €7,000 a week – more than the actual figure each League of Ireland club will receive from the FAI for the five-year plan. Let’s not forget that this is the man who called the League of Ireland “a difficult child” – a phenomenally disrespectful statement to say the least.

If the league is a difficult child, that man is certainly an absent parent.

Besides, isn’t it in the FAI’s interests to improve the league properly so we can produce more top international players like Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan, Seamus Coleman etc.?

I personally feel that I can no longer fund the FAI with buying tickets and merchandise. I cannot fund that man’s salary any longer. There’s something not quite right with the huge salary he receives compared to the League of Ireland teams barely keeping their head above water.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

 

Europe, Republic of Ireland

Dundalk dare to dream. And dream big!

By now you are probably aware of Dundalk’s amazing 3-0 victory over BATE Borisov which progresses the League of Ireland side to the Champions League play-off stages. It is, and I know I’m not alone here, probably one of the most remarkable achievements by a domestic club side in history.

The victory guarantees Stephen Kenny’s side with group-stage European football. A remarkable achievement in itself. But the victory against BATE, who have beaten Roma, Athletic Bilbao, Lille and a little-known club in Bayern Munich in the Champions League since 2012, is wonderful. The Lilywhites want to go that one step further.

“We’re not content with the Europa League,” said midfielder Robbie Benson. “We want to make the Champions League.”

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Whoever Dundalk’s opponents are at the next phase may not be that clued up on them. And that could make Stephen Kenny’s men dangerous – as BATE Borisov, a mainstay in the Champions League in recent years – found out first hand.

Money and the League of Ireland have never gone together. When the FAI announced that they were going to invest in all League of Ireland clubs, eyebrows were raised. The amount? €5,000. I could write plenty of posts about that and the FAI’s CEO, but I’ll resist.

They are guaranteed a figure of around €5.6m and qualification for the group stages of the Europa League – more should they do the impossible and get into the Champions League group stages. Invested properly and they could be a force to reckon with at both the domestic and European scene.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)