Footy thoughts

Gregory Mertens RIP

The blog was saddened to learn of the passing of former Belgian under-21 player Gregory Mertens. He was just 24.

The Sporting Lokeren defender died three days after collapsing on the pitch after playing in a reserve match. He had been in a coma since going into cardiac arrest early in a game against Genk on Monday night.

Mertens started his career with Anderlecht and had previously played for Cercle Brugge.

Rest in peace.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy travels

Footy Travels #13: Lisbon

The Portuguese capital, lying on the western Iberian peninsula, is a major hotspot for tourists who enjoy the city’s relaxed way of life with a warm climate. But they also boast some of the most famous names in the history of European football.

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How do I get in?  Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly into the city’s main airport from Dublin daily. The airport itself is just 7 km from Rossio square in the city centre. There might be long queues for taxis leaving the airport at times, but luckily it’s also connected by the city’s underground metro system.

What teams can I watch?  The city has three clubs in Portugal’s top tier. Two-time European Cup winners Benfica have 33 league titles to their name, Sporting (commonly known, albeit incorrectly, as Sporting Lisbon) have 18 league titles and a UEFA Cup under their belt, and Belenenses have a single league title in their honours list.

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How do I get to the stadiums?  Lisbon’s traffic isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen so taxis can be doable, though on matchday one might want to consider using the metro. Benfica’s Estadio La Luz is on the blue line and stops right outside the ground. As does the green or yellow line to Sporting’s José Avalade Stadium. Belenenses is in the Belem district which can be reached either by bus (nos. 714 & 728) or by commuter rail from Cais do Sodre in the city centre to Belem.

How do I get match tickets?  All three club, Sporting, Benfica and Belenenses sell their tickets from their websites and will vary in price when it comes to certain fixtures. Expect to pay a few bob for Sporting v Benfica, but you can see Belenenses for as little as €3 for some games.

What else is there to do?  It’s a city that likes to have a good time. Lisbon isn’t famed for it’s pubs like, say, Dublin or Munich, but you can only walk mere metres before stumbling across one the city’s many cafés or restaurants. That said, Hennessey’s Irish Pub near Cais do Sodre is worth a look. Music lovers should check out Music Box club which is around the corner. Also keep an eye on the world-class Rock in Rio Lisboa festival each summer. The city boasts many parks and spaces to simply relax and enjoy the Portuguese sunshine and one of course must try Lisbon’s famous funiculars.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Europe, Footy thoughts

The future is bleak for the once-mighty Parma

The 1994-95 season Parma‘s team consisted of names like Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin, Dino Baggio, Luigi Apolloni, Fernando Couto and Faustino Asprilla to name but a few. Their style of football, under manager Nevio Scala was exciting that year – arguably their greatest season in their history having finished in the top three in Serie A, finalists in the Coppa Italia and winners of the UEFA Cup, beating Juventus in the final.

But sadly their 90’s heyday are nothing more than a distant memory. The club are very much struggling both on and off the pitch. Currently planted firmly bottom of Serie A with just 16 points, the club has also been declared bankrupt with debts of €218.4 million.

In February, the club postponed their game against Udinese because they could not afford to pay players’ wages. Fans marched to the Stadio Tardini with a banner that read “Chiusi per furto” – “Closed because of a robbery”.

Last Saturday Parma beat league leaders Juventus 1-0 at the Tardini. A result that will make no difference to both teams’ outcomes this season. But it was a result that mattered to the players and staff who showed up to work everyday despite not being paid one cent since last summer. And it proved to the 15,000 heartbroken fans in attendance that the club, who are currently standing on the brink of oblivion, refuse to go out quietly.

Unless a new owner comes in between now and June, and pays the club’s football-related debts (wages and taxes etc.) of €74 million, then Parma FC will officially fold.

As Jim Morrison once sang “the future’s uncertain, the end if very near”. The future is bleak, but Roberto Donadoni’s men aren’t going without a fight. And with that there is hope for the Gialloblu.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts, Superstars

Is punishing Cristiano Ronaldo a bit OTT?

La Liga president Javier Tebas has said that Cristiano Ronaldo may face punishment for his goal celebration during last weekend’s El Clásico at the Camp Nou. The Real Madrid superstar appeared to urge the Barcelona faithful to merely calm down following his goal in the 31st minute.

Tebas has said that players must be careful when it comes to provocative gestures which could incite violence among spectators.

“It must be sanctioned,” the La Liga president said. “From a fine up to a suspension. We will look into it.”

Of all the problems that Spain’s top tier faces, this is, in my opinion, hardly a top priority. Racism, which has long been a problem in Spanish football, doesn’t seem to worry Tebas as much as this.

The decision makers in football never fail to surprise me with their unusual decisions (a winter World Cup in Qatar being another example), but suggesting that Ronaldo should face punishment for celebrating a goal like this is truly nothing short of ridiculous.

I understand that La Liga officials are cracking down on provocative actions during games since the death of a Deportivo La Coruna fan last year, but come on, is this really bad and does it warrant punishment?

Decide for yourself.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Is it time to scrap the away goals rule?

Introduced fifty years ago to encourage away teams to play a more attacking style of football, it is now more likely to cause teams to park the bus and shut up shop. Is it time the away goals rule is scrapped?

In the 2009 Champions League semi-final second leg, the images of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba screaming “it’s a fucking disgrace” down the camera lens to millions of fans following the Blues’ exit on away goals following Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta’s 93rd minute goal will live long in memory.

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While referee Tom Henning Øvrebø made some woeful decisions in the Catalans’ favour, Chelsea technically didn’t lose. Yet the dreaded away goals meant their exit.

Indeed last night, Arsene Wenger echoed the sheer frustration of the away goals rule following Arsenal’s last 16 exit from the competition. “Every defeat hurts,” said the Frenchman. “But we didn’t lose”.

There are countless other examples of those who have fallen victim to the away goals rule. And, naturally, many have benefitted from it.

The away goals was introduced in 1965 for the right reasons. Playing away in Europe was once a daunting journey pretty much into the unknown.

But times change and the football, with away goals in place, has changed too. Many, Didier Drogba and Arsene Wenger included, believe it is now time to look at it.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Is spitting the worst thing that can happen on a pitch?

Last week’s spitting incident between Manchester United’s Jonny Evans and Newcastle’s Papiss Cissé, the outrage that would follow in the media would be pretty predictable.

Cissé was handed a seven game ban by the FA, while Evans received six.

Pundits such as Robbie Savage called it the “lowest of the low” (a view Republic of Ireland player Jon Walters publicly shared), while former Celtic, Bayern Munich and Scotland striker Alan McInally spoke about how the players’ punishments were probably not lengthy enough.

As disgusting and unacceptable as it is, is spitting really the worst thing that can happen on a football pitch?

Well nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been out for six months because of spitting. Take Stephen Ireland for example. The Stoke midfielder is out of action with 15 stitches in his right calf after Hull’s Maynor Figueroa sliced his leg with a tackle that went unpunished.

Or what about Alf-Inge Haaland, who in 2001 famously felt the intentional full blow of Roy Keane’s studs and never played a full professional game again. Would the Norwegian preferred to have been spat at? Well, I don’t know. One would assume so.

I know former France international Patrick Battison probably would. His collision with Harald Schumacher in the 1982 World Cup semi-final, which left him unconscious with broken bones, damaged vertebrae and minus some teeth, ultimately caused the Les Bleus player to slip into a coma. There wasn’t even a foul given at that incident.

In comparison to Cissé and Evans’ bans, it’s worth remembering that in 2012, an independent FA panel found Chelsea’s John Terry guilty of racially abusing the QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. He got a four game ban.

Again – is spitting really the lowest of the low?

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footy thoughts

A World Cup in Qatar? No, thank you!

The 2022 World Cup is happening. It will be staged in Qatar. And, unless something utterly drastic happens, it will be a winter tournament. I am wholeheartedly against this.

Theories of the tiny Gulf state “buying” the World Cup aside, I will forever associate the competition to be staged in the summer. Because, well, there is no other time to stage it. FIFA are going to change this for 2022.

The footballing traditions aside, as many as 50 leagues and competitions worldwide will likely be affected for three seasons – 2021/22, 2022/23 and 2023/24 – because of the knock-on effects of starting the season containing the World Cup early and ending it late.

While some leagues take a small break over Christmas, England has a long tradition of having a packed schedule then. This will make that utterly impossible.

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Disrupting some seasons won’t be ideal some may think. I firmly believe it’s absolutely ridiculous.  I have never been a fan of Sepp Blatter. For many, many reasons. I am still baffled as to how he is still running football’s governing body.

In fact, did you know that several FIFA members have publicly gone on record, including Theo Zwanziger and president Sepp Blatter himself, in saying that the decision of awarding Qatar the World Cup had been a mistake?

I know for a fact that I for one will not enjoy this particular World Cup. Even if my beloved Boys In Green were to qualify, I wouldn’t be too bothered travelling to support them. Qatar doesn’t interest me in the slightest. For personal reasons primarily.

While Qatar is the world’s richest country per capita, there is a major human rights issue. In 2013 Amnesty International published reports showing that unpaid migrant workers were left to go hungry, while according to a different report by a British newspaper, dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers had died in Qatar in just a few weeks around in September 2013, with thousands more were enduring appalling labour abuses.

They were workers for the 2022 World Cup.

According to their analysis, current construction practices will have resulted in over 4,000 deaths by the time of the 2022 competition. And FIFA has investigated this but, as you can guess, took absolutely no action to force Qatar to improve worker conditions.

Then again Qatar, not renowned as a major footballing nation, is the world’s richest country per capita. Alarm bells are ringing, Mr Blatter.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Superstars

Ronaldo is back…the original one that is.

Rejoice like it’s 2002, for one-time superstar footballer Ronaldo is coming out of retirement. The 38-year-old former Brazil international is set to play for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers – four years since he last kicked a ball professionally.

It won’t be for a while though. The 1994 and 2002 World Cup winner most likely won’t feature until the play-offs in November. Just enough time to train to a semi-decent level then.

“It’s going to happen. I have already said so,” the former Real Madrid striker said. “But it’s going to be a bit later, in the play-offs. For now, we are organising it all, but I am going to have a [weight] goal”

I don’t know about you, but I welcome Il Fenomeno back to any pitch at any age.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe, Footy diary

Ibra’s tattoos and Bayern fans’ Premier League boos

By now you are probably aware of the Premier League‘s colossal €6.9 billion billion television deal, which is for three seasons and begins in 2016. That’s around €12 million for each televised game.

To put this into perspective, the Bundesliga‘s television deal is worth €2.5 billion over four seasons. But it was fans of Bayern Munich who, during the Bavarians’ 8-0 demolishing of Hamburg, took a swipe at England’s top tier by brandishing a banner that read  ‘This ain’t no Premier League – No to the English model’.

English fans commented back via social media that Bayern are so powerful that they have made the Bundesliga a one-club-league, and the competition between England’s top teams and Germany’s top teams is very different. A fair point.

I know men of an older generation who would say that money has simultaneously improved and ruined football. Which is, when you think about it, also a very fair point.

PSG face Chelsea in the Champions League tonight. The Parisians at the weekend faced Caen at the Parc des Princes where the game finished 2-2. But in the 2nd minute, Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring, and removed his shirt in celebration where he revealed numerous temporary tattoes bearing the names of 15 people suffering from hunger due to his association with the United Nations’ World Food Program.

“If I could, I would write every single name on my body,” Ibrahimovic said. “But there are 805 million people suffering from hunger in the world.”

One person who wasn’t impressed was PSG coach Laurent Blanc. The Frenchman had said he was aware with the Swede’s commitment to the foundation, but that his antics ultimately cost him a yellow card.

Robbie Keane is in town next weekend as his LA Galaxy side take on Shamrock Rovers in a much anticipated pre-season friendly at Tallaght Stadium. The Galaxy are gearing up for a big season in which they’ll be joined by Steven Gerrard from July onwards. The MLS and League of Ireland seasons both start March 6th.

Finally, if you like Boca Juniors and music that sounds like The Ramones, then this is for you. I apologise in advance.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Entertainment & media

Dalymount Park to host an epic African Cup of Nations final party this weekend

Should you find yourself in need of a venue to watch the African Cup of Nations final this weekend, look no further than Phibsborough where Bohemians will be hosting a free shindig in their legendary ground Dalymount Park.

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While Ivory Coast and Ghana battle it out in Bata, Bohs are ensuring punters are treating to free food, bar promotions and some DJ’s to accompany the action.

There’s not many places you’d get all that for free. Check out their Facebook page here.

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Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Bottom of Bundesliga Dortmund’s players explain themselves to fans

Borussia Dortmund are in a bit of a pickle at the moment. The 2013 Champions League finalists are currently rooted to the bottom of the Bundesliga having only won four games this season.

Jurgen Klopp‘s men tonight faced Augsburg at home in the Signal Iduna Park and Argentine striker Raul Bobadilla’s 50th minute goal for the Bavarians ensured that Dortmund lost their 11th game this season. In fact, the last time Dortmund won a match was two heartbreaking months ago.

After the final whistle there was incredible scenes as Dortmund goalkeeper, and club vice-captain, Roman Weidenfeller, made his way to the stands to converse with the crowd about the club’s recent form. Defender Mats Hummels was also seen speaking with the supporters.

“We can be accused of anything tonight and it is all justified,” said Klopp in a post-match press conference. “Battling also means having the courage to take the right decision. We were missing that tonight.”

Dortmund were last year’s runners-up and winners of the Bundesliga in 2011 and 2012. But Jurgen Klopp now has them in a realistic position of getting relegated to the 2. Bundesliga. Something that was, not long ago, considered absurd.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ones to watch, Superstars

Just who exactly is Martin Odegaard?

I won’t profess that I know much about Martin Odegaard before a few weeks ago. In fact I never even heard his name before last month. But the Norwegian wonderkid this week, after being eyed up by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, has signed a deal with giants Real Madrid from Stromgodset.

The 16-year-old, who has been capped at senior international level, made a switch for around €3 million mark after passing a medical in the Spanish capital yesterday. “It’s a dream come true,” he said. “It’s a bit unreal that I’m here at the biggest club in the world. It’s huge for me, an honour.”

He will play for Madrid’s reserve team for the rest of this season, coached by the great Zinedine Zidane, but will train alongside both the reserve side and the senior side, alongside world-class stars like Ronaldo, James Rodríguez, Bale and Sergio Ramos. It is possible that Los Blancos’ boss Carlo Ancelotti could feature Odegaard this season in the senior team.

Odegaard came to prominence when, in 2014, he became the youngest player to appear and score in the Tippeligaen (Norway’s highest tier of football). As a left-footed wonderkid, he is often compared to Lionel Messi due to his age and style of play (see video above).

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It will be interesting to see just exactly what he can do when the time comes. Only a select few at the young age of 16 have proved that they can hold their own at football’s highest level – just think of players such as Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and even Pelé. Odegaard could join that elite, and the €3 million that Madrid paid for him could be the purchase of the decade.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts, Superstars

Should Barcelona cash in on Lionel Messi?

Earlier this month the internet went into overdrive as somebody somewhere noticed that Lionel Messi had started following Chelsea’s official Instagram account. The news spread like wildfire, and blues fans were even more delirious than the time they discovered that Mourinho was once again Stamford Bridge-bound in 2013.

It’s pretty much common knowledge that Messi isn’t overly happy with Barcelona’s title prospects this season (well, the lack of them considering how strong rivals Real Madrid are). He’s also allegedly not happy with the manager’s style. He’s not alone there. Many feel that Luis Enrique, himself a Camp Nou legend (he also played for rivals Madrid), simply isn’t the right fit for Catalans.

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Spanish newspaper Sport had said that the Argentine captain was “pissed off” on their front page recently. It is indeed a worrying time to be a Barcelona fan.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu in fact told reporters that Messi would not be sold and he will stay with Barça until at least 2018.  “There is nothing to panic about in that regard,” the President said. “Messi is the central figure. The team is built around him.”

But should Barcelona cash in on the Argentine genius?

I was in Barcelona last week for Barça’s fixture against Atlético Madrid. Speaking to people before kick-off, the general feeling was that selling Messi wouldn’t be the worst idea because some feel he’s going to end up with a lengthy or even career-ending injury. This was plainly obvious as Diego Simeone’s plan was to put two men on Messi and kick him off the park whenever he had posession. It was the only effective way to stop the three time Balon d’Or winner.

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But Atlético aren’t the only team to use this dirty tactic. Countless others try. Messi has many times been to quick for them. But some do succeed. And the last thing all at Camp Nou need is a repeat of Andoni “Butcher of Bilbao” Goikotxea’s horror tackle on then- Barcelona star player Diego Maradona in 1983, which jeopardized his career.

Lionel Messi’s buy out clause is €250 million. A quarter of a billion euros! Only a select few can afford that. But with the player’s enormous salary and of course the Financial Fair Play rules, it would be difficult to achieve that. Ultimately the player would have to force the move. But wealthy clubs such as Manchester United, Bayern Munich and PSG are realistically the only clubs with the kind of cash it would take to acquire Messi.

For Messi to force the move may not be so simple. After all, the city of Barcelona has been his home since 2000, and it was Barça that looked after him so well long before he became the global superstar he is today.

But, and as ever, you can never predict what can happen in football. If Barcelona were to receive a nine-figure sum for Messi, how could they possibly turn it down? But could any player – or players – fill the void in a Messi-less Barcelona team?

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Uncategorized

Junior Malanda RIP

Sad news came in from Germany last night with the death of Wolfsburg starlet Junior Malanda.

The Belgian was killed in a car accident near the city of Bielefeld. He was 20 years old.

Malanda was a hugely promising player and was regarded as one of the finest youngsters in the Bundesliga and had recently attracted the attention of Premier League side Crystal Palace.

Wolfsburg sporting director Klaus Allofs said in a statement: “We are all deeply saddened and our disbelief can hardly be put into words. We can’t believe he is no longer with us. Our thoughts at this difficult time are with his family and loved ones.”

Rest in Peace.

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Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Transfers

HAPPY NEW YEAR – the January transfer window is open

Happy new year, dear blog readers, and welcoem to the first blog post of 2015, which is the fifth year we’ve been active. We’re getting old. Anyway, now that January is upon us, it also means that the transfer window is open. Prepare for weeks of activity.

An already done-deal is the news that Fernando Torres is set to join AC Milan permanently from Chelsea. The Rossoneri will then loan the Spanish striker out to his boyhood club of Atlético Madrid from January 5th. That £50 million transfer seems like a really long time ago now. 

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Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech has long been linked with a move to Liverpool now that Thibaut Courtois has overtaken the Czech international as Jose Mourinho’s number one. Liverpool have struggled this season and need to strengthen the team, and quickly. A few wing-backs also wouldn’t go amiss, with Fabio Coentrão’s name having been mentioned.

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Brendan Rodgers insists that Mario Balotelli isn’t going to be pushed out the Anfield door, despite his poor form, but Liverpool need to strengthen their attacking options. Balotelli, either way, needs to find his form, or it could be a long and lonely time on the substitute’s bench for the Italian.

Meanwhile in France, newspaper reports in Italy suggested that Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t happy at PSG, and Roma are lining up a big for the Swede. But with only a year left on his contract, the powers-that-be upstairs may want to cash in on 33-year-old, who has never, so far in his career, spent more than three years at a club.

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Speaking of PSG, Ezequiel Lavezzi has been heavily linked with a move to Inter Milan, with some press even calling it a “done deal”. The truth is that it’s very far from being a done deal, but if Inter can raise the funds to bring the Argentine to the San Siro (along with their other target in Arsenal’s Lukas Podolski), it would be likely Lavezzi would leave the French capital.

Marseille striker Andre-Pierre Gignac seems like a likely candidate to leave Ligue 1. The 28-year-old’s technique and predatory goalscoring makes him ready built for the Premier League, but the Frenchman himself hasn’t ruling out elsewhere, such as “the Turkish and Russian leagues”. (A fine option for Brendan Rodgers?)

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In La Liga, Barcelona have been hit with a much publicised transfer ban. The club have enough players to see the ban through, but with players such as Dani Alves, Martin Montoya and Adriano all rumoured to leave, it could give the Catalans a headache at times.

The ban puts rivals Real Madrid in the driving seat in the race to win Borussia Dortmund’s ridiculously brilliant Marco Reus. While the German international may not move in this window, he has a release clause which kicks in during the next one, which means he can leave Jurgen Klopp’s army for as low as €25 million.

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Speaking of Real Madrid, los Blancos have reportedly told Man United that star player Gareth Bale is not for sale at any price. Louis van Gaal is determined to strengthen his United team, but the Welshman will not be a player that will be joining him. Players who the Dutch coach is highly interested in include Roma’s Kevin Strootman, Dortmund’s Mats Hummels and the currently-unattached, yet highly-decorated goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

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United’s neighbours Man City are keeping a close eye on the Edinson Cavani situation. The Uruguayan has been reported to be in talks with Arsenal in a cash-plus-player deal with PSG, but City will be keeping tabs on the player they’ve been interested in for some years now.

Arsenal have also been linked with Aston Villa’s centre-half Ron Vlaar. The Dutchman was reported to be on the verge with a move to Man United, but Vlaar himself told the Dutch press: “I’ve never heard from them (Man United). If a club had really wanted me, I would have noticed. That has not been the case.”

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There’s endless rumours, reports and chatter going on at the moment, but the next four weeks will be very interesting indeed. As usual at the end of the window, I’ll be doing a round-up of the best, worst, weirdest, talked about and least-talked about transfers in January. So stay tuned for that.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)