Monthly Archives: May 2011

Blatter, Barça and Ireland lift a cup.

It was an extraordinary weekend of football. We may aswell start with the Champions League final and what a glorious display Barcelona put on. The powerful midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta combined with the attack-minded David Villa and Pedro not to mention the genius that is Messi proved to be far too much for Sir Alex’s men.
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Watching the game, there could have been more goals. The first 20 minutes of the second half was really telling the story of how Barça play. In control and completely taking posession – the extra goals that followed were inevitable. Barcelona won 3-1. And deservingly. The party in Catalunya went on for the many hours that followed around the city’s main square before a presentation in the Camp Nou to a full house. The party then continued over at the city’s Olympic Stadium where some of the players joined Shakira onstage for some celebrations. Gerard Pique, naturally, leading the way.

Another cup was lifted this weekend. A far less important one. The Carling Nations Cup. OK, the cup itself means nothing to the players and, if we’re honest, the fans. But it was Ireland’s results in the tournament that mattered. Maximum points and maximum clean sheets is the best possible situation ‘il Trap’ could have asked for. With the competitve qualifier against Macedonia next weekend, confidence should be high in the camp. Still, it was weird watching Ireland lift a trophy. How I pray for a repeat next summer in the Euros. One step at a time, I guess.
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Controversy, controversy and more controversy has been on the menu for FIFA quite a bit as of late. An email leaked by the suspended Fifa vice-president, Jack Warner stated that Fifa’s secretary general, Jérôme Valcke had said that Qatar had basically “bought the World Cup“. And of course, it was the ever popular Sepp Blatter who faced the media at FIFA’s HQ in his native Switzerland on Monday. “Crisis?” asked the 75 year-old, “what’s a crisis?” at the press conference. Knowing full well of the media’s awareness of alleged corruption within the organisation, Blatter did say that there are some “problems” and they would be solved internally (or “inside our family” as Blatter put it). It’s not all happy families for the FIFA boss. Oh, it will be an interesting summer.

Champions League Final preview

And then there were two. Saturday night sees arguably the biggest night in European football as FC Barcelona take on Manchester United at Wembley with both teams looking to claim their fourth European Cup title. Like everybody else, I believe it’s going to be an absolute cracker.

Wembley stadium is roughly 200 miles from Old Trafford and players like Wayne Rooney will be more than familiar with the territory when they are on England duty. With this in mind, the game being played on English soil may give the United players the mentality of a home game. But this isn’t any old team that’s coming to town. The recent volcanic ash threat over Europe meant that Barça travelled to London a few days ahead of schedule and confidence in the squad is booming. The Catalan giants will undergo their final training session at Arsenal’s London Colney tonight and Sir Alex will be thinking how his Red Devils can stop the talents of Xavi, Villa, Iniesta, Pique and Messi on Saturday night.
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The bookies are making Barça slight favourites. Their La Liga season has been phenomenal and Pep Guardiola’s men have proved themselves time and time again (although The Special One may not entirely agree). The truth is, Manchester United’s season has been equally as impressive. I think it’s exactly 50-50. The last time these sides met was in the 2009 final. Barça won 2-0 and won admirably. Talents have come and gone in both squads so I wouldn’t be too surprised if this game goes to extra time. Both sides have equal desire. But on the night – anything can happen.

Ones to watch #7: Romelu Lukaku

This Belgian player has become something of a phenomenon. Standing at a mighty 6ft 3ins tall and weighing in at 14 stone, last year he became the Belgian Pro League’s youngest ever goalscorer at the age of 16. The press already label him as “the new Drogba“, Romelu Lukaku is one of the game’s rising young stars.

Of course, some of the big clubs have been taking notice. His current club, Anderlecht, won’t be too keen to let the 17 year old go too quickly.  Belgian national coach Georges Leekens took notice also. He gave Lukaku his first caps. Lukaku responded by giving him dazzling displays of pace, strength and agility that some of his team-mates could only envy. Last November, he scored his first two goals for Belgium, in a friendly against Russia in Voronezh. And it’s not only Leekens taking notice. He has long been linked with a move to Liverpool – with every other major European club such as Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Juventus also in the loop. Though Lukaku is an admitted Chelsea fan. Roman Abramovic must take note of that.
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It seems every time he is in the 18-yeard box, he tends to put the ball in the back of the net, making it look almost simple. The lad really has got what it takes to prove himself on a major stage. He won’t be at Anderlecht forever.

The best (and worst) of 2010/2011

Well, the football season is coming to a close. Unless you follow the MLS or the Airtricity League, of course. Let’s look at some of the best and worst of the past nine months.

1. The return of the King: OK, Roy Hodgson was never the right choice for the Liverpool job, in my opinion. Liverpool had won only one league game between the start of the season and the end of October. They were within eye-shot of the relegation places. Oh dear. Goodbye Hodgson. Hello…who? Mourinho? Rijkaard? Hiddink? No no…a club legend that hasn’t managed a club since 2000: Kenny Dalglish. The result? Great football, great league results and a respectable league finish in the higher half of the table. Long live the King.

2. Pep’s Barça kills José’s Real: Last November as blogged, I missed the opportunity to watch Cast play a reformation gig in Liverpool’s o2 Academy in order to watch el clásico in a bar across the street. The result was a match that will go down in history for a long time. Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou. To Madridistas this was unthinkable given they have The Special One as coach.  To culés (Barça fans) this was a result that will be talked about for decades to come. I love Cast, but I’m glad I missed them to witness this.

3. Ibra’s kung-fu celebration: When most players win Serie A, they celebrate…sing, cheer, dance. Not Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He’s tried to roundhouse kick team-mate Antonio Cassano.
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4. A city united with trophies: For years at Old Trafford, Manchester United fans flew a flag showing the amount of years Man City had gone without winning a trophy, updating it every year. Not any more. The same day United had won the Premier League was the same day City won the FA Cup. I’d say the bars around central Manchester had a busy one.

5. Bibotelli: Speaking of City, who can forget this moment of genius from Mario Balotelli? At least Edin Dzeko seen the funny side of it.

6. The return of Dortmund: Bayern Munich have long been the dominating team in the Bundesliga. This season they were ten whole points behind winners Borussia Dortmund. Jurgen Klopp’s men have had a remarkable season winning every game except for their five losses and six draws. And they won it well playing fantastic football. So much so that Dortmund had the 2nd highest average attendance in world football this season, just behind Barcelona.

7. The good, the bad & the ugly: The season seen some memorable finishes. Like this: a good goal. Or this: a spectacular own goal. And I don’t know how this wasn’t a goal.

Brazilian free agents and massive pay-cuts

The summer transfer window is fast approaching and no doubt some big money signings will take place. Already the media are hyping up big-name players to major clubs for ridiculous amounts of money. Smaller clubs should will be making their signings also. But they needn’t spend the fortunes for decent players. In some cases, they needn’t spend anything at all.

Three Brazilians who are currently without a club are former AC Milan ‘keeper Dida and ex-Barcelona stars Juliano Belletti and Sylvinho. OK, none of them are exactly young. But these three are capable of giving even the best players a tough challenge. Twelve months ago, Belletti was part of the Chelsea team that was fighting for a Premier League winners medal, which he won. Before Dani Alves’ was attacking and defending the right-side for Barcelona and Brazil, it was Sylvinho doing the exact same thing only on the left-side with his powerful left-foot. He was still doing this up until last year for Manchester City. And of course Dida, who told the Brazilian press that he’d be willing to take a major pay-cut for first team action (having previously refused to do so) in South America or Europe, has also been a free agent for the past 12 months. Of course, Celtic Park would be an unlikely destination. Hoops’ faithful would be concerned of the 6 ft 5 inch ‘keeper falling to the ground if he even shook hands with adoring fans.
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These are just three of many free agents who will be looking for a new club in the summer and it should be players like this who the likes of newly promoted top-flight teams or ambitious lower league clubs all over Europe should be looking at – especially seeing as they are willing to take massive pay-cuts. Take note, Sven.

Gary Neville goes head-to-head with Noel Gallagher

Manchester United won their 19th English top-flight league trophy while rivals Manchester City won their first FA Cup since 1969. The rivalry off the pitch continued as ex-Oasis songwriter and Man City fanatic Noel Gallagher and former Man United defender Gary Neville went head-to-head recently. With Rio Ferdinand acting as a middle-man.

It started off with Neville tweeting the lyrics of the chorus from the Oasis classic “Fade Away“. Ferdinand then tweeted “just been asked by Noel to tell you to not use lyrics from Fade Away or any other Oasis songs…Said he feels violated!”. Then according to reports it moved on to text messages with Ferdinand again acting as the middle man. Neville asked Noel “Shouldn’t you be writing a new album or has your pen run out of ink?”. Gallagher hilariously responded “My pen runs on pure gold. Ink is for your daft mates’ tattoos”, to which Gary Neville replied: “Gold? If you take any longer you’ll be on UK Gold”. Gallagher, a lifelong A.B.U., texted back “The thought of you humming my new tunes while combing your ‘tache in the mirror makes me want to take another year off. But if you promise not to buy a copy when it comes out, I’ll get a move on”.

Gallagher then told a British tabloid newspaper “If  Mr Neville continues to use the holy scriptures of Oasis to communicate with the Cockney massive, I shall be forced to come up to Cheshire in the middle of the night and break into his house. I will then tie him to a chair, make him listen to the ‘The Best of Simply Red’ while I pull his ‘tache out one grey hair at a time (with my teeth), liberate those Oasis CDs and shit in his manbag. You have been warned!”.

Football El Mundo is still waiting to hear Neville’s response, though we hope he picks on brother Liam next – a brave move.

When supposed fans take the beauty out of the beautiful game in Scotland

When Neil Lennon received death threats before a Northern Ireland match against Cyprus in August 2002, it was enough to make the Lurgan man call time on his international career. And rightly so. What’s the point? However, what he has endured as Celtic manager in recent times beggars belief.

In January of this year, a package containing bullets addressed to Lennon was intercepted at a sorting office in Antrim. Then, just last March, a parcel-bomb was intercepted at a post office in Kirkintilloch, around eight miles outside Glasgow. It was addressed to Lennon at Celtic’s training ground. It was initially thought thought by police to be a hoax but after forensic specialists examined the parcel, the police said that it was actually a “viable device”. If that wasn’t scary enough, last night when Celtic faced Hearts at Tynecastle, a fan (or nutjob) stormed over the fence where the Hearts fans were sitting and made a run at Lennon and attacked him. Three major incidents since January. And three too many.

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The death threats, the abuse and now physical attacks that Neil Lennon has had to endure over the past year as Celtic boss are not only unnecessary and ridiculous, but also would be quite frightening for any person. “We obviously have to see how he is going to react to this”  Celtic assistant Johan Mjallby said last night. If I was in Lennon’s boots, having been repeatedly threatened in the past year, I would be reconsidering my position as manager in Scotland. Some things are simply more important than football. I love the beautiful game. This ugliness has no place in it.

Football's greatest rivalries: Olympiacos v Panathinaikos

Olympiacos, Panathanaikos and AEK Athens are the three most popular clubs in Greece. They all have a rivalry with one another. But when Olympiacos and Panathinaikos meet each other, the derby is as intense as some of the game’s most fierce rivalries.

The rivalry stems back mainly due to the two clubs’ regional differences. Olympiacos come from the busy port town of Piraeus, just outside Athens. Panathinaikos hail from right in the centre the centre of the Greek capital itself (and the large shamrock in the club’s badge sadly has no connection to Ireland, before you ask). These regional and cultural differences created a great animosity between the two sets of supporters and that feeling has been carried on into the 21st century. Down the years, both clubs took it in turns to dominate the eras. Olympiacos are the most successful team in Greece in terms of domestic titles but it is Panathinaikos who boast a far more superior European record having even reached the 1971 European Cup final making them the only Greek club to get that far in Europe’s premier competition.
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The game itself is amogst the most tense in Europe. The sheer emotion and raw passion between both sets of fans would equal some of the most high profile derbies in Spain, Italy or England. Football hooliganism from a minority in recent times has seen a complete crackdown after a series of incidents (as with many rivalries worldwide unfortunately) but that doesn’t take away the magic that happens on the pitch with Greece’s two most successful clubs. Players such as Rivaldo (one of Olympiacos’ most inpirational players during his time there), Yaya Toure, Paulo Sousa, Christian Karembeu, Helder Postiga and Olof Mellberg have all played in this tie.

The “derby of the eternal enemies” also extends to both clubs’ basketball teams, making it one of the most significant in the sport in Europe. Football fans have been known to attend the basketball games for two reasons – cheering on the team and winding up the opposite fans even more so. The Greeks are very passionate when it comes to football and the derbies and rivalries. It’s incredible to see the intensity when it comes to Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. Watch the video above to see what I mean.

Milan's seven years of bad luck ends

AC Milan finish off their remaining games in Serie A with the knowledge that they are champions. A credit must go to coach Massimiliano Allegri for winning the Scudetto in his debut season for Milan. Carlo Ancelotti won that amount in his eight years at the club.

Of course, Allegri will be looking to make history while he’s at it. The Rossoneri have never won the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia domestic double. In the cup, they face Palermo today in the semi-final 2nd leg having played out a 2-2 draw last month in the 1st leg at the San Siro. It’s a goal Allegri will aim for. Regardless of the Coppa Italia outcome, fans can be happy with the Serie A title – their first since their Shevchenko-influenced 2003/04 season. Seven years, eh? Did Berlusconi break a mirror?
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Fans will be looking towards the summer having been promised more “gifts” from Silvio Berlusconi. Having already tied up defenders Taye Taiwo from Marseille and Philippe Mexes from AS Roma respectively, Milan are strongly in the loop to secure the services of 21-year old Brazilian playmaker Ganso from Santos. But many fans are eager to see if vice-president Adriano Galliani can lure the much-loved Kaka back from Real Madrid. With the possible exit of stars such as Pirlo, Milan could certainly raise the funds for the Brazilian but he may not be Allegri’s first choice. If they choose to make on-loan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic a permanent player, it would cost the club around €24 million from Barcelona. “It is not about presents and cherries on the cake,” insisted Allegri  “The important thing is to build a balanced squad.”

But the Milan faithful can worry about that in the summer. The objective is to get as far in the Coppa Italia as possible and finish the season on a high. Not that the celebrations haven’t started – as defender Massimo Oddo will tell you.

Handballs, phantom goals and some refereeing howlers

Referees have a tough job. Without the use of technology (which boggles many as to why they still don’t) the job they do can be tough. And contraversial as has been the case on many occasions.

One of the most shocking fouls in the history of the professional game to go unpunished occured at the Estadio Pizjuan in Seville at the 1982 World Cup in a game between West Germany and France. With France’s Patrick Battiston clean through on goal, he had only goalkeeper Harald Schumacher to beat. The 6 fot 2 inch ‘keeper launched himself in the air at Battiston and collided with him mid-air. The French defender was instantly knocked unconcious (before later slipping into a coma) and required oxygen on the pitch. The then-Saine Etienne player lost three teeth and badly damaged his vertebrae. The referee’s decision? Sending off? No. Yellow card? Nope. A talking to at least? Not a chance. Seeing as the ball rolled out of play during Schumacher’s challenge, he waved for the German ‘keeper to take a goal kick. Cheers, ref.
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One of the most famous decisions that a referee got wrong involved the great Diego Maradona when he famously punched the ball into the English net at the Azteca Stadium in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The Argentine genius later said in his autobiography, El Diego, that it felt a little like “pickpocketing the English”. Maradona may have scored the goal of the century four minutes later, but the many English fans and media have refused to forgive the legend for his ‘hand of God’. But even Gary Lineker himself now would admit that Diego put a ‘touch’ more class on the handball than when a certain Frenchman did against Ireland recent years.

Some phantom goals have been awarded in recent years, as have blatant goals that haven’t. But when a ballboy scores an 89th-minute equalizer for Brazilian club side Santacruzense against Athletico Sorocaba and it’s given, we a truly entering the world of ridiculous. Sepp Blatter has stated that FIFA intend to not bring in goal-line technology anytime soon. At least his decision will continue to be the subject of much discussion for years to come.

Tackling football's biggest taboo

Sports stars such as Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, English cricketer Steven Davies and Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack have all come out as gay. The one thing in football that is certainly taboo. But why?

Flying to the Barcelona – Madrid tie recently, I read an interesting article about Swedish footballer Anton Hysén, son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysén, had come out as an openly gay professional footballer. “A club might be interested in me and then the coach might change his mind if he finds out I’m gay, but that is his problem not mine.” said the 20-year old defender. This is almost unheard of in football.

Fashanu was the first openly homosexual footballer

Many will remember Justin Fashanu. Britain’s first black, million-pound player with a talented eye for goal. This week is the thirteenth anniversary of the death of the former Norwich City, Notts Forest and Torquay United striker. He publicly came out as a homosexual in 1990. A tabloid newspaper ran the front page headline £1m Football Star: I AM GAY . His brother, the fomer Wimbledon star John Fashanu, allegedly disowned him publicly calling him an “outcast”. No doubt Justin’s latter years were somewhat troubled but personal problems with former team-mates and family certainly could have contributed to his suicide in 1998. He was the only openly homosexual professional in the sport until recently.

But being gay and being a professional is still very taboo in the game we love. It shouldn’t be. “If I perform as a footballer, then I do not think it matters if I like men or women.” says Hysén. The Swede himself talked about the lack of openly gay players, saying “where the hell is everyone else?”. Clubs and organizations have long been involved in tackling the issues such as racism and hooliganism in football. Organizations such as Kick It Out also focus on homophobia in the stands and the dug-outs. Which hopefully one day itself will become taboo in our beautiful game.

Champions League semi-finals preview (part 2)

Two teams are edging closer to the Champions League final in Wembley. Manchester United and Barcelona both defeated Schalke and Real Madrid respectively but don´t write off any team just yet. We all know football can sometimes be a funny ol´game.

Football El Mundo is writing from the sunny climate of Barcelona today where I´ll be witnessing first-hand el gran clasico. Confidence is high in the Barça camp. Pep Guardiola will be praising the the return of Eric Abidal after he had a tumour removed from his liver recently. Andres Iniesta is also in the squad having recovered from a calf strain that kept him out for the past week. Madrid come to Catalunya today without defenders Pepe and Sergio Ramos who are both suspended. This is a huge blow for The Special One who, according to Spanish newspaper reports, is fighting for his job. Los Blancos today have returned 3,200 of their 4,687 allocation for tonight – which makes one wonder how confident Madridistas are. Let´s hope we don´t get a repeat of some of last week´s antics and get to see some great football (and I´m personally hoping it doesn´t rain as I didn´t bring a coat with me).
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Manchester United host a relatively inferior side tonight at Old Trafford and go into the game with a two goal cushion. Sir Alex´s men will be looking to make the tie as one-sided as the first leg. The two away goals for United would make it appear as job done. But Ralf Rangick’s men have had some admirable moments in this seasons Champions League. Yes, beating United 3-0 tonight would be unlikely. But as I said: football can sometimes be a funny ol´game. Just ask AC Milan fans who witnessed the Champions League final in 2005. Fergie is set to make some changes with bringing Scholes, Berbatov and Owen back in. The Red Devils will be looking for an early goal to effectively kill off the tie and Schalke know this – even if they have the brilliant (and Manchester United target) Manuel Neuer as their last line in defence. Being the biggest fixture in European world football, el clasico will over-shadow this tie, but I reckon this game will probably see the better football.

Wembley awaits. Which of the four will be there later this month? Tonight we shall see.