Footy thoughts

Burnley promoted while Leicester within touching distance of history

There were incredible scenes at Turf Moor this evening following Burnley’s 1-0 victory over QPR. Sean Dyche’s men came into the fixture with the knowledge that a victory would guarantee them a top two finish in the Championship.

Sam Vokes’ 61st minute goal was enough for the Clarets, which prompted jubilant scenes and an old school pitch invasion following the referees whistle. Images of Joey Barton being mobbed like a Beatle circa 1964, was a far cry from the comments from Burnley fans who were unsure, to say the least, of the Liverpudlian’s inclusion in the squad months ago. It just goes to show.

Meanwhile eyes will be firmly fixed on events at Stamford Bridge where Chelsea face Tottenham. Anything other than a victory against the Blues for Mauricio Pochettino’s men, and Leicester will be crowned Premier League champions – something they were famously 5000/1 to do at the start of the season.

Personally, I hope to see Leicester do it. I think everyone does. Except Spurs fans that is. Will history be made at the Bridge tonight? We’ll find out tonight.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments

When Souey caused Turkish delight (and drama).

One of the most memorable moments from the Istanbul Derby (known locally as the Kıtalararası Derbi), happened twenty years ago this week.

In April ’96, Graeme Souness made headlines when he planted a massive Galatasaray flag into the centre circle of the pitch of fierce arch-rivals Fenerbahçe after his Galatasaray side had beaten them in the Turkish Cup final.

Needless to say, the Istanbul Derby is one of the most tense fixtures in world sport. The mustachioed Scotsman near caused a riot that night, yet his actions made him a hero among the Galatsaray faithful, who compared him to national hero Ulibati Hasan, who was killed as he planted the Ottoman flag during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The Galatasaray fans haven’t forgotten him.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Football's greatest moments

Blitzkrieg Klopp

It was the stuff of dreams. For the neutral, it was utterly thrilling. For the Liverpool supporters, it was sheer ecstacy. Liverpool’s Europa Cup quarter final second-leg tie against Borussia Dortmund was one of those nights that had everything. It was like Istanbul of the Klopp era.

Initially 2-0 down after nine minutes, then it was 2-1. But when the great Marco Reus put Dortmund into a 3-1 lead on the night, which left Liverpool needing three goals to progress, there was a silence over Anfield, and the keyboard warriors of Twitter and Facebook descended into a verbal crusade against the Reds. It was a mountain to climb.

But somehow Klopp’s men pulled it back against his former side. A goal from Phillippe Coutinho on 66 minutes, followed by another from defender Mamadou Sakho twelve minutes later brought the two sides even on the night, before leaving it to the very last minute when defender Dejan Lovren won the game with towering header.

“We might have got a little bit lucky,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp after the match. “But we never stopped trying”. And that, dear readers, is what makes football great. The Klopp effect is in full swing.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footballers' mad moments

Great players don’t always make great managers.

As full time rang out in the Volkswagen Arena, Zinedine Zidane walked into the tunnel knowing that he has to lead his Real Madrid side back from a two goal deficit against a Wolfsburg side that they were supposed to be favourites against.

Things haven’t been going to well for Zizou. Along with the Champions League loss, the derby defeat to Atléti is a big no-no for the former World Cup winner’s coaching CV for the Real Madrid faithful. While Zidane likely won’t be sacked immediately, a swift exit from the Champions League, and Florentino Perez may not stick with the Frenchman after the season’s end.

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But other high profile players have also had a go of management. Some have done enormously well at both sides of the beautiful game – think Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Fabio Capello, Diego Simeone or Giovanni Trapattoni. But some less so.

One of the greatest players of all time Diego Maradona. A genius on the ball, his managerial record hasn’t set the world on fire. The Argentine, with one-time team mate Carlos Fren, led Mandiyú of Corrientes (1994) and Racing Club (1995) in management, but with little success. Years later, el Diego became manager of the national team for two controversy-filled years, before deciding to take up the role of boss of Dubai-based club Al Wasl in the UAE Pro-League. He was sacked after a year.

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Bobby Charlton is one of the greatest Englishmen to ever play. They’ve recently named a stand after him at Old Trafford. When Charlton became the manager of Preston North End in 1973, he signed his former United and England team-mate Nobby Stiles as player-coach. His first season ended in relegation.

Arguably the greatest Bulgarian to ever kick a ball is the great Hristo Stoichkov. His management skills left a lot to be desired, having once claimed that he “doesn’t believe in tactics”. The former Barcelona star failed to guide Bulgaria to the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 followed by a disastrous short stint at Celta Vigo which saw the club relegated.

Let’s hope Zizou doesn’t end up in that kind of a bracket.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments, Footy thoughts

Cantona, van Basten and other players whose career was cut short.

Dean Ashton scored a beaut of a bicycle kick Monday during his former team-mate Mark Noble’s testimonial match at Upton Park. It brought back memories. In his prime, Ashton had everything it took to succeed as a player at the highest level. Sadly in late-2009, the former Norwich striker was forced to retire after failing to recover from a long-term ankle injury sustained during international duty with England a year previous.

But he is not the only player who has cut a great career in football short.

Eric Cantona famously quit football at the age of 30. But not due to injury. Age 30 is when some players are at the peak of their powers and the Frenchman was certainly a prominent player in the English game. Some Premier League players will remember Espen Baardsen, the former Tottenham goalkeeper, who hung up his boots (and gloves) in 2003 at the age of 25 having claimed to have simply lost interest in the game.

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David Bentley was once described by former England manager Steve McClaren as “the next David Beckham”. The player had buckets of talent. He retired in 2014 at the age of 29 – and he had been without a club for year previous to that. But it could be worse – he now owns a restaurant in Marbella in Spain.

Many will remember Fabrice Muamba, who, at the age of 24, suffered a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup match between Bolton and Spurs in 2012, from which he recovered despite his heart having stopped for an astonishing 78 minutes.

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And of course, and possibly the greatest player to not play a lengthy career is the great Marco van Basten. The Dutch superstar played his last game in 1993 at the age of 28 due to an injury that forced his retirement two years later. The three-time Ballon d’Or winner. managed to enjoy a decent career in the game as a manager, having been boss of the Netherlands, Ajax, Heerenveen and AZ. He’s currently the assistant manager for the Netherlands.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footy thoughts

RIP Johan Cruyff

Football had improved because of his existence. The sport and the world is worse off because of his departure. One of the very finest there ever was. Rest in peace.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Entertainment & media

So you like football songs…?

I can only apologise for the shamelessness, but I am only about half sorry. Today I have released a record called “Bostero“, aimed at my Argentine audience – Boca Juniors fans to be precise.

No, it’s no World In Motion, nor is it ever going to be a Put ‘Em Under Pressure, but it is what it is. And before you say it, yes, I know it sounds a lot like The Clash. But that’s a good thing surely?

Listen to it (or if you feel compelled to purchase it), go here. Normal service for this blog resumes shortly.

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Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footballers' mad moments

The eastern promise of Vladivostock

If you support Cork City and ever made an away trip to Finn Harps’ Finn Park in Ballybofey, that journey one-way is around five and a half hours by car and I’m sure it’s not much fun. But that is absolutely nothing when you compare to Russian side FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostock.

Being located in far eastern Russia, the city is not far from the borders of China and North Korea. This presents problems to the club where travelling to away games take a financial toll. A trip to Moscow, where many of the country’s teams are based, is a seven hour flight. In fact, a fixture against Baltika Kaliningrad, in a Russian enclave squeezed in between Lithuania and Poland, sees a round trip of over 9,000 miles. That would be like Bohemians having to travel to Dallas, Texas for a league match.

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“It’s not as bad for other teams because they only need to travel this distance once a year,” said former-defender Matija Kristić in 2008. “We have to do it for all away matches”. But that still doesn’t satisfy CSKA Moscow and Russian international goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev who, following a 4-0 loss to the side, said said that “they should play in the Japanese League”.

With the club operating on an approximate €4 million budget per season, the club is operating on a shoestring budget when you take in salaries and, most crucially, the cost of flying the entire team, coaches and staff a whopping 125,000 miles per season.

Sadly, the air travel is necessary. The only other real option is by rail. And Moscow to Vladivostock on the world-famous Trans-Siberian Railway takes six days. Not exactly ideal.

here has been much controversy about whether the Russian league should be split into Western and Eastern leagues, much like in the MLS. This has yet to happen, and until then Luch-Energiya Vladivostock will have to keep on trekking. Literally.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Uncategorized

International Champions Cup comes to Dublin

The 2016 edition of the International Champions Cup was announced today. This will be the tournament’s forth installment and is set to be played in the last week of July and first week of August. Heads have been turned though on these shores though, as Barcelona have been confirmed to take on Celtic at the Aviva Stadium on July 30th.

This is obviously of big interest with the vast numbers of Celtic fans in this country, as well as the colossal worldwide interest that Barcelona bring. All of the online publications screamed that Messi and Neymar are coming to Dublin this afternoon. I would be surprised if Barcelona’s full starting XI feature. I’d be surprised if even Messi, Neymar or Suarez will at all feature. I’d put money on that you’re more likely to see Rafinha, Munir and Sergi Roberto as opposed to MSN. I could be wrong, and hope I am for football fans’ sake in this country. I doubt it however.

Neymar-Barcelona-1

The fixture list in full:

Saturday, 23 July
Celtic v Leicester City, Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland

Sunday, 24 July
Paris Saint-Germain v Inter Milan, Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon

Wednesday, 27 July
Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Bayern Munich v AC Milan, Soldier Field,  Chicago, Illinois
Liverpool v Chelsea, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

Saturday, 30 July
Celtic v Barcelona, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland
Chelsea v Real Madrid, TBA, USA venue
Bayern Munich v Inter Milan, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Liverpool v AC Milan, Levi’s Stadium; Santa Clara, California
Paris Saint-Germain v Leicester City, Los Angeles, California. TBA venue

Wednesday, 3 August
Barcelona v Leicester City, Friends Arena, Stockholm, Sweden
Bayern Munich v Real Madrid, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Chelsea v AC Milan, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Saturday, 6 August
Liverpool v Barcelona, TBA European venue (reports suggest that it will be Aviva Stadium)

Saturday, 13 August
Celtic v Inter Milan, TBA European venue

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

The Camp Nou is set to get even bigger

Barcelona announced on Tuesday that the club are set to expand their world famous stadium, the Camp Nou, to an 105,000 capacity deluxe stadium. A four year project, the upgrade is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2021/22 season.

The stadium is without question long overdue something of a facelift. It’s bare concrete exterior which covers three quarters of the ground today is the same one that fans would see when it was built in 1957.

Of course, it’s not the first time that plans were made to upgrade the stadium –  world-renowned British architect Normal Foster was given the task of presenting the stadium with an entire new look as part of an upgrade in 2007. The plans were made by then-club President Joan Laporta, only to be scrapped by his successor (and rival) Sandro Rosell.

But the stadium, despite it’s uneven shape, has character. It’s instantly recognizable because of it’s shape, size and layout. There’s a lot of new stadia being built that seem a bit generic for my liking. Football grounds are supposed to be unique. From Goodison Park to La Bombonera, or from the Vélodrome to the San Siro, for me grounds are supposed to have character.

mosaic_camp_nou

For Barcelona, upgrading the stadium is probably essential. It is old. The club attracts around 10,000 tourists to each home game, and have been doing so for a few years now. Yet games, aside from crucial Champions League matches and el Clásico, are very rarely sold out. Increasing the numbers will unquestionably baffle some.

“Excited about the project that we’ve chosen for the Camp Nou of the future,” tweeted current club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. “Good news for Barça fans everywhere”. And yes, a change is exciting. I just fear that another great stadium will lose a bit of it’s character. I hope I’m wrong.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Footy thoughts

I love Barça, but the club is far from perfect.

I do love FC Barcelona. I have done for years. Since when current manager Luis Enrique was playing and captaining the squad. But there’s a few things at Barça that have been disappointing me as the years go on.

Back when I first started supporting Barcelona, it was a pre-Messi and even pre-Ronaldinho time, and the club had no sponsor on the shirt. That’s long gone. Barça actually started wearing the UNICEF logo on their jersey in 2006, in a deal which they actually paid the organisation money to do so. That was until Qatar Airways came in with €25 million per season and the only Catalans that rejoiced were in the board room at Camp Nou.

Speaking of the Camp Nou, it’s constantly rated as one of the stadium that one must visit before they die. And I agree. But it has never, ever lived up to the hype for me. I’ve seen El Clásico, Champions League games, and all kinds of strong and not-so-strong opposition take to the field and the atmosphere is pretty dead. There’s always empty seats, and the tickets are enormously overpriced.

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For example, the cheapest seat in the grandstand of the Camp Nou for Barça’s encounter against Sevilla this coming Sunday will set you back €121. That’s fairly ridiculous. But there are always tourists ready to spend. In fact, the club receive around 10,000 tourists to each match.

I once paid €20 to see Barça play Inter Milan there. How much would that ticket be worth now?

Més que un club is Barça’s famous motto, which translates to more than a club. But it should read more than a corporation. The club sold it’s soul long ago, even if things on the pitch are beautiful to watch.

 

 

Footballers' mad moments, Mavericks

The Messi/Suarez penalty wasn’t disrespectful…it was entertaining and fun.

You’ve probably heard that Leo Messi and Luis Suarez successfully performed something of an audacious penalty in Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Celta Vigo at the weekend.

If not, welcome back to planet Earth, and here it is:

What amazed me – and others – is how many people considered the penalty to be disrespectful to the opposition. This is 100% not a view that I share.

Barcelona were 3-1 up at the time of the penalty. It was audacious, yes. But it was glorious, entertaining and fun. Isn’t that what the beautiful game is supposed to be?

When a player nutmegs another player, that can be very humiliating for the opposing player. Yet nobody considers that to be disrespectful. But why this?

Eamon Dunphy had a strong opinion about it. “I thought it lacked class,” the 70-year-old said on 2FM. “You have to respect your opponents and you have to respect the history of the game. None of the great players of the past would have ever dreamt of doing anything like that.”

Of course, Eamon must have forgotten the great Johann Cruyff who scored an identical penalty with a little help from Jepser Olsen while playing for Ajax in December 1982. He also said in the same interview that Messi “was way out of order, he should apologise and if he doesn’t, he loses a little in my eyes.”

Eamon isn’t alone. People went bezerk on Twitter. Yet, I fail to see how it is disrespecting the opponents. I thought it was entertaining, cheeky, and most importantly, fun – much like a nutmeg. Besides, isn’t the object of the game is to score as many goals as possible in order to win?

But I haven’t heard a strong argument as to how it is disrespectful. What did you think?

 

Let Rob know your thoughts via Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts, Issues in the game

Liverpool owners listen to protesting fans…and back down

When Liverpool supporters left Anfield last weekend in protest to the new ticket pricing scheme, which would have seen the most expensive tickets cost a whopping £77 (just under €100), the club’s owners FSG clearly took note.

Principal Owner John W Henry, Chairman Tom Werner and President Mike Gordon said that they were “particularly troubled by the perception that we don’t care about our supporters, that we are greedy, and that we are attempting to extract personal profits at the club’s expense,” in a statement on Liverpool’s website on Wednesday evening. “Quite the opposite is true.”

The initial plan for a £77 matchday ticket in the redeveloped main stand and season tickets of £1,029 have been scrapped. They will now remain at £59 and £869 respectively.

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It’s a very decent move from FSG. They could have ignored the planned walkout, which was organised by the supporters groups Spion Kop 1906 and Spirit of Shankly, and simply kept the ticket prices high. They know they can get buyers for the €77 tickets, as Liverpool are one of the most supported teams on the planet, which fans jetting in to Merseyside from all over the globe most weekends.

From experience, the FAI have been criticized for many things, but ticket pricing has, since the Aviva stadium era began, always been one of them. In fact, a seat in premium level for the forthcoming friendly against Switzerland will set you back €120. That’s roughly the same price for a decent seat in the grandstand of the Camp Nou for most La Liga and Champions League games – though often go much higher than that. Hence why that stadium is rarely sold out and lacks atmosphere compared to say the Allianz Arena or La Bombonera – Barcelona’s prices are realistically for tourists.

But FSG have backed down in pricing the local fans out. And, I for one, am deeply impressed with how they handled the issue.

liverpool

“We believe we have demonstrated a willingness to listen carefully, reconsider our position, and act decisively,” FSG’s statement read. “The unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters has always been foremost in our minds.”

Football, at the highest level anyway, is nothing without it’s fans. It’s refreshing to see a club’s owners recognize that.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Superstars

Guardiola will strengthen City’s bid for that elusive Champions League title

We now know that Pep Guardiola will be joining Manchester City from July 1st on a three year contract. The Catalan is, by far, the most in-demand manager in world football. It’s his third club, following an enormously successful stint at his beloved Barcelona, and an impressive three years at Bayern Munich.

Typically, as you can imagine, Pep doesn’t choose clubs that are struggling for cash. Clubs that already have a plethora of talent at the manager’s disposal. But he took over at Barcelona (having managed the reserve side for one season), at a time when they hadn’t won anything for two years. And with an ageing team where egos were a problem. On the pitch, it didn’t get off to a good start as they lost at Numancia on the opening day of the season and then drew to Racing Santander at the Camp Nou. Pep turned it around and over the next few seasons created arguably the finest club side in the sport’s history.

After four deeply impressive seasons, he stepped down. The pressures of managing had taken it’s toll both physically and emotionally. He spent a year on a break, uprooting his family to live in New York. Then three years ago, he announced that he would be taking over Bayern Munich.

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Guardiola’s agent, Josep Maria Orobitg, had said “Bayern weren’t the team which offered the most money”. Yet Bayern were the team he chose. A major team that promotes from within, yet challenges for the best players and, ultimately, the biggest trophies. It was so familiar to him. Plus the club’s initals were FCB. Not that that makes any difference, but it’s a minor coincidence in the many parallels between the clubs.

He took over from the great Jupp Heynckes who, in his final season, won the German league and cup double as well as the Champions League. The only way for Pep was down. In his first season at the club, Guardiola won the Bundesliga, the German Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. He never won the Champions League with Bayern, but he played a unique and exceptional brand of football week-in, week-out.

His move to England isn’t that surprising. He has long been linked with the Premier League, going back to his Barcelona days. It’s long been said that Pep was Roman Abramovich’s first choice as Chelsea.

If José Mourinho takes over at United and with Pep at City, the Manchester derby will echo the psychological warfare that existed between the two managers since their Real Madrid and Barcelona tenures respectively. It’s a derby that could potentially rival El Clásico in terms of TV numbers. But with Pep at City, the club are going to become a superclub, and their bid for that elusive Champions League trophy will become stronger.

Things are about to get even more interesting.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Why are so many players flocking to China?

When on Wednesday that it was announced that midfielder Ramires had completed his move from Chelsea to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning, six years after the 28-year-old joined the Blues from Benfica, many Chelsea fans were disappointed to see the Brazilian leave Stamford Bridge. Others, and neutrals like myself, wondered the obvious “why is he going to China?”

China, with all due respect, isn’t a major footballing nation. Yet players and managers are flocking there.

Robinho, the one time darling of Brazilian football (a title once held by Pelé, now held by Neymar), plies his trade for Guangzhou Evergrande, who are based in Tianhe District, Guangzhou. His team mates include former Spurs star Paulinho and former West Ham playmaker Alessandro Diamanti. The latter they can afford to put out on loan to Atalanta. Oh, and the manager is the hugely decorated and widely respected Luiz Felipe Scolari.

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Plenty more talent in the league too, and they are not exactly players at the very end of their careers. For example former Bayer Leverkusen star Renato Agusto is with Beijing Guoan. Asamoah Gyan is with Shanghai SIPG. Demba Ba is playing for Shanghai Shenua, as is former Inter Milan star Fredy Guarin. Former Boca Juniors striker Emmanuel Gigliotti is with Chingqing Lifan. Roma recently sold Gervinho to Hebei China Fortune. The list goes on.

Serious money is swapping hands in exchange for the players, who themselves will be paid enormous wages. Many top players are willing to leave some of the most prestigious leagues in the world to join a fairly anonymous league in a country with an enormously different culture base, lured by the insane money on offer to them.

Where does this money come from, you ask? Most of the top clubs who employ the big names are owned by multi-billion dollar Chinese corporations. You probably could have guessed that, right?

While I applaud any effort to make less prestigious leagues grow, I can’t but help feeling like it’s a massive gamble really. Only a week ago, it was reported that a Chinese club offered to make Fernando Torres the highest paid player on the planet (despite the fact he hasn’t been the same player in years most would argue). He’s still with Atléti as we speak. And according to reports new Chelsea signing Alexandre Pato turned down enormous amounts of cash to join a team in China’s second tier. Remember when Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba went to China in 2012, but made a huge u-turn at the first opportunity?

Will many of these players manage to see out even the first year of their contract? Only time will tell. But, as time goes on, more and more players are flocking to China. Keep an eye on things there – it could get interesting.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)