Saturday, October 26, 2013

Extra Time

Change everywhere.

It's just over two months into the domestic league season in Europe and the lasting feeling is one of complete change. In Spain, Real Madrid has yet another new coach and its latest annual prize player purchase, while Atletico Madrid, shorn of Colombian hitman Radamel Falcao, tries to remain the biggest threat to the big two. Real's season has begun under Carlo Ancelotti as he continues his whistlestop tour around Europe. After eight years at Milan, the old warhorse did a two year stint at each of Chelsea and most recently PSG, collecting a league and cup double with former and a Ligue 1 medal with the latter. It would appear that moneybags clubs are his thing, with Real spending a world record 100 million Euros on Tottenham's Welsh winger, Gareth Bale. Still, they trail both arch rivals Barcelona and crosstown rival Atletico respectively. The latter have replaced Falcao with Diego Costa, a Brazilian born striker who, having become a naturalised Spaniard, has been allowed to switch allegiance by FIFA after the Spanish FA made an official request. Interesting trivia note - he made his Brazil debut against Italy in March and if he does play for Spain this year, would have turned out for both teams in the same calendar year. Barcelona themselves have a new coach, as Argentine, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino takes the helm, with new superstar Neymar in tow. The Blaugrana remain the team to beat in Spain and are that much more ominous with both Lionel Messi and Neymar part of the attack.

In Italy, Napoli, under new manager Rafael Benitez continue to be one of the favourites for the Serie A crown, continuing their rejuvenation over the past few years, but find themselves trailing a resurgent Roma, who are top of the table with 8 wins out of 8, under a new Allenatore of their own, Rudi Garcia. Garcia is well known to followers of the European game as the man who took Lille to a league and Cup double in France in 2010-11, building one of Ligue 1's most exciting squads on a relative budget. At time of writing, Roma were five points clear of second place with 22 goals scored and only one against. For a team whose two biggest signings this off season were PSV’s Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman and Serb winger Adem Ljalic from Fiorentina, this is some achievement. It's only a fifth of the way in but the Scudetto appears to be a three way contest between Roma, Napoli and Juventus, who have won it two years in a row.

Germany sees Borussia Dortmund renew their rivalry with Bayern Munich. Having won the Bundesliga twice in a row before being overwhelmed by Bayern last year, as well as losing to the latter in the Champion's League final, Dortmund's attention continues to be focussed on their rivals from Bavaria. While Jurgen Klopp is still very much in charge at Dortmund, despite summer speculation linking him elsewhere, his opposite number at Bayern is another new appointment, although Pep Guardiola, needs no introduction on these pages. Bayern's epic treble winning season last year, where they simply annihilated everyone in Germany and Europe, including Pep's former all-conquering Barcelona side, was a perfect send-off to manager Juup Heynckes, who retired at age 67, having participating in more than 1000 games as either a player or manager in Germany. Pep's new side are not performing at full speed yet but are unbeaten and atop the table, when we went to press, a point ahead of Dortmund. Despite Bayer Leverkusen, in third, being tied on points with Dortmund, it's hard to see beyond the two finalists of the 2012-13 Champions' League domestic glory.

The most changed landscape surely has to be in the English Premier League with Chelsea (Jose Mourinho's second stint), Manchester United (David Moyes) and Manchester City (Manuel Pellegrini) all under new management. What's more, famously parsimonious Arsenal broke the bank to spend 42.5m Euros on German attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil. The latter is probably the most astounding of all the new developments as the London club are notoriously for spending next to nothing on transfers for over a decade. Despite a good start by the Gunners, their league leading position is sure to change as the tricker part of an easy opening schedule begins to appear. Currently on top, they are trailed by six teams, all within four points of each other. While financially supercharged City and Chelsea are the favourites for the title, the latter's familiarity with Mourinho may prove decisive over the season.

Finally, in France it appears that there's a new financial bully in town. PSG, who were threatening to make a mockery of Ligue 1, have a new challenger. Monaco, promoted back after a season in the second division, are powered by new majority owner Dimitry Rybolovlev, another Russian billionaire. His consortium's cash infusion has allowed the principality club to spend heavily on the likes of Falcao, Colombian winger James Rodriguez, Portuguese midfielder Joao Moutinho and French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia for a grand total of 150m Euros. They currently sit in second spot in Ligue 1, a brace behind with PSG. Everyone else is playing for 3rd place and the spot in the Champions League Playoff Round.

An interesting season awaits.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Champions League Thoughts

I am not a fan of the current format of the Champions’ League. There, I said it. Look, I understand the logistics of trying to fit in eight two legged knockout ties and the obviously financial importance of the Global TV audience. But, creating a schedule that features 16 different games on eight different match days, spread over five weeks is just bad planning. It dilutes the excitement and breaks up the momentum. Fans want to see the knockout rounds take place in fewer installments, over two pairs of days, just like the regular group stage, with 4 matches on each day. Under the current format, teams play their first legs on Feb 12/13 and then their second legs on March 5/6. For the teams that kick off their ties on Feb 19/20, they don’t play again till March 12/13. Where is the continuity, why make fans wait for so long?

Moreover, even in the knockout stages, there appears to be a glass ceiling forming. There is a division between a set of teams who are always in the running and who will win the tournament one of these years, and another set of consistent also-rans who may get to the latter stages but will never challenge. This is because the former group will simply acquire the best talent from the latter group. As a result, despite being close to the finished product, the teams in the second group will rarely, if ever, get to add the final pieces to their teams and will almost never hold on to their entire rosters, serving instead as high level finishing schools for their up and coming players. It’s not ideal, and FFP or not, there is little that can be done to alleviate this trend. It must get a little frustrating for a team of exciting young talent or a cohesive unit of players, to build on a few years of teamwork and progress, reach the last 16 or eight of the Champions’ League and then get raided by one of the bigger teams.

Focussing on this season’s tournament, the usual suspects remain with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, still smarting from their shock losses, in successive rounds last year, to Chelsea. A deep run beckons for both, assuming they avoid each other in the draw. This column anoints them as the favourites at this point, all the while realising how unoriginal that declaration may be. This column likes to think it’s self aware. With two of the most dangerous teams - a resurgent Real and a revitalised Manchester United - squaring off against each other, it’s a win-win situation for everyone else as one heavyweight will get eliminated before the quarterfinals. Further afield, Barcelona’s seemingly annual set of ties against Milan will showcase just how far the Rossoneri have fallen, while Bayern’s tie against Arsenal, is surely a formality. With Europe’s most consistent qualifier from the Champions League, seemingly in terminal decline, this may be Arsenal’s last appearance in the knockout stages of Europe’s top tournament for a few years.

A neutral’s dream sees Borussia Dortmund and Shakhtar Donetsk play out arguably the most mouth-watering tie in years, as both clubs bring well drilled rosters bursting at the seams with exciting talent and an expansive style of play.  No doubt, a summer of potential sales awaits both teams. Elsewhere several other ties showcase the unpredictability and excitement of the tournament with Juventus taking on Celtic; Malaga, financially shackled of late but not unbowed, lining up against Porto; PSG versus Valencia and interestingly Galatasaray playing Schalke. Spain continues its dominance with four teams in the last 16, but Germany, after several lean seasons in Europe, has now provided three. England, who used to come up with four participants in the knockout stages, almost annually, has seen its contribution shrink to just the original big two of Arsenal and Manchester United – both Chelsea and Manchester City didn’t make it past the group stage. Italy returns just two sides and both teams, Milan and Juventus, erstwhile giants of the game, are outside bets, at most, for the trophy. Among the most consistent participants, Porto return to the knockout stages after a few seasons spent dominating the Europa League, while newly minted PSG are building on their new owner’s promise of competing in the Champions’ League. They look to be a fixture at this stage for years to come.

All in all, a very favourable draw for both Barcelona and Bayern, whom many will be hoping to see in the final in May as they are currently Europe’s two best teams. Still, stranger things have happened and nothing is certain; while it is highly unlikely that both teams will get knocked out by Milan and Arsenal respectively, it is possible. So, initial scheduling and parity gripes aside, it’s good to have the Champions’ League back and fans worldwide await the continuation of the best soccer competition in the World.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Extra Time - Officials are just doing their job

While it’s easy to be wrapped up in the week to week drama of the soccer season, one often loses sight of the fact that it is just a game. Life, with all due respect to a famous manager who, apparently, said otherwise, is far more important than football.

On December 2, 2012, Dutch amateur linesman Richard Nieuwenhuizen, 41, was attacked during a youth team game he was officiating. He died of severe head injuries the next day. He was running the lines during a game between his club Buitenboys, from Almere near Amsterdam, and Amsterdam club Nieuw Sloten. After a call that went against them, four teenage players from Nieuw Sloten, between 15 and 16 years of age, assaulted him, right on the pitch. Richard’s own sons, two of whom were playing for Buitenboys, looked on in horror, as he was kicked to the ground. The assailants are in custody and have been charged with manslaughter. Nieuw Sloten has expelled the players and withdrawn the team.

Contention over a call during an amateur soccer game has resulted in the death of an official.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the game, that respect for officialdom has fallen so far; that outright violence is apparently a considered option. While the behaviour of Chelsea fans in 2006, who threw objects at Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen during a Champions’ League game, causing him to bleed from the head, and prompting his retirement from officiating shortly after, will forever be derided, the relative lack of response by UEFA was even more damning.

More recently, Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho, manager of one of the highest profile clubs in the world, physically assaulted an opposing coach (his eye poke of Tito Villanova after a Real-Barcelona Super Cup game last season) and got into a spat with Atletico Madrid assistant coach German Burgos this season. Burgos was caught on camera threatening Mourinho by reminding him that unlike the soft spoken Villanova, he would ‘rip Mourinho’s head off’. La Liga is one of the most watched leagues in the world and this kind of behavior sets a bad example to fans, notably the immature and the young. Burgos’ conduct was deplorable and he should be fined and banned. However Mourinho has plenty of previous, and is an abrasive and combative character who gets into fights and verbally abusive situations that could lead to violence, in every league he has worked in. Nonetheless, the lack of response by any governing body to his mentality and petty squabbling is deafening. He is a high profile figure in the game that incites the baser aspects of human behavior. UEFA and/or the LFP should make an example of him by fining and banning him. Only then will an example be set that behavior which suggests or contributes to violence, will no longer be tolerated in the game.

This is another lesson that soccer can learn from North American sports leagues. Throat slashing gestures are banned in the NHL. Of course the irony, of a league that allows fighting during games, to support such legislation, is not lost on this column. However, the point is, that outside of fighting, which is a central part of hockey culture, any element of human behavior that suggests violence or encourages it, is dealt with severely. And in any case, players who fight during hockey games are given game misconducts and are removed from the game. Moreover, NHL players who get into physical confrontations with officials or fans are heavily fined. In the NBA, Gilbert Arenas was fined and banned for mimicking a gun during a pre game warmup. Other players have been banned for nearly an entire season for getting into fights. In the NFL, another notoriously violent contact sport, the coach of one of the league’s best teams, was banned for an entire season, for allegedly knowing about and not preventing his players from participating in overtly violent hits on the opposition for money rewards. Can you imagine a single soccer player or coach worrying about sanctions for encouraging his players for reducing the opposition with over the top tackles or for generally haranguing the officials?

Physicality will always remain in any contact sport. Sport, by its very nature is a passionate activity that promotes and thrives on tribalism, however the moment violence spills over and officials are the target, the game is broken and needs to be fixed by legislation from the governing bodies.

Several notable managers routinely and regularly belittle, bully and intimidate officials, setting a bad example and sending a message that disrespect towards referees is acceptable. FIFA and all the different continental associations and Leagues need to table a set of laws preventing such behavior with strict sentences, consistent rulings and the lack of appeal. However, too often, very little is done, since clubs, players and managers often overshadow the league. While these laws will seem draconian at first, over time they will become part of the consciousness of both fans and players, who will know that any form of aggression, mental, verbal or physical towards officials will not be tolerated. Soccer has worked hard to kick racism out of the game. It’s time to nip the emerging trend of violence and disrespect as well.

The way things are, at some point, what happened to Nieuwenhuizen, will recur at a more high profile game. While the thought of another official being severely injured and possibly losing his life, is a shuddering thought, it is also a sobering concept. Has our approach to the game gotten that out of hand?

Friday, October 19, 2012

2012-13 Europa League Commentary

While it's easy to write off the Europe League, as a distant second to the Champions' League, the fact remains that it makes for compelling viewing. Looking at this season's group tables, after just two rounds, one realizes how tricky it is to pick out likely quarterfinalists, let alone winners or the final four.

There is parity, unpredictability and, on account of the decidedly short sighted decision by UEFA to play games on Thursdays, a general lack of full strength teams, as many managers rest key players for the weekend tilts in the local league. As a result, from a neutral point of view, few tournaments appear as open as this season's Europa League, something that no doubt makes it fascinating to watch.

What's also becoming more apparent is the relative level of importance accorded the tournament by sides from different leagues. While clubs from the big five leagues of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain continue to treat it like a sideshow, seemingly sleepwalking their way through the group stage, resting regulars and fielding reserves; smaller teams from less glamorous leagues, especially Eastern Europe, seem to be taking the tournament quite seriously.

At time of writing, several minnows have started well and sit either atop or in second in their four team groups. While a six match round robin stage gives the trailing teams plenty of time to catch up, notably the bigger guns who have started, somewhat less impressively, this early enthusiasm is a tonic the tournament can do with.

The fact remains that the apathy displayed by Europe’s bigger names towards the Europa League is counterbalanced by the opportunity smaller clubs see it as. A decent run in the tournament, aside from making the season memorable and adding to the clubs’ history, has the potential for solid financial rewards. Matchday revenue is a huge payout, especially if a big club visits or an extra game is played in the knockout round. Moreover, the tournament is an extended shop window for almost every player on the roster of a smaller club as they can showcase their skills and attract interest from the financially well-heeled bigger clubs.

Over the years, multiple African, South American and Easter European players have used the Europa League as a chance to make a good impression before sealing a move to one of the bigger leagues. While the price is hardly the type that sees talent move from say Bayern Munich or Juventus, or Milan to Barcelona, the transfer is one that makes everyone happy. The buying club gets a decent talent they can work on for a relatively small fee, the player in question gets his chance to move to a bigger club and league, while the selling club cashes in on an asset with a very healthy return. Often, with a smaller club’s Europa League sojourn over by the time the group stages are done, players are sold in the January window and assist their new clubs’ league campaigns, cup tied as they are in Europe.

So, the tournament is not just a footballing competition but a cut price bargain marketplace as well with merchandise moving from often obscure sellers to sharp eyed buyers.

This season, one sees the likes of Czech side Viktoria Plzen, Ukraine’s Dnipro and Metalist, Hungarian club Videoton and Slovenian side Maribor, all occupy one of the top two spots in their groups. Admittedly Steaua Bucharest, Rubin Kazan and Anzhi are similarly less glamorous, and perhaps unheard of to most fans of the European club game. But Steaua have solid pedigree, having won the European Cup (forerunner to the Champions’ League) in 1986, when it was a straight knockout competition, as well as making another final in 1989 when it lost to Milan. The nucleii of both those sides went to on help Romania dazzle en-route to a quarterfinal elimination at World Cup ’94 in America. The latter duo, however, are flush with money and have used their new found wealth to emerge as two of the strongest clubs in Russia, pushing aside the traditional Moscow quartet and competing with Zenit St. Petersburg. While their ascents to the top of the group stage tables are worth noting, they are hardly commendable.

Of more interest may be the slow start of some of Europe’s footballing nobility. Liverpool for one, have lost at home to Udinese and edged Young Boys of Switzerland, away 5-3. But the blooding of several youngsters and fringe players was the real positive that the club took away from those games. Elsewhere, Bundesliga club ‘Gladbach are winless with just a point from their brace of games, as are fellow German side Stuttgart, bottom of their group. Iberian pair Sporting Lisbon and Athletic Bilbao, with some of the continent’s most sought after talent, are last in their respective groups. Meanwhile every neutral’s favourite Napoli, are in third, just outside the qualification spots. Group J, the closest thing to a group of death, sees two of its biggest and best supported teams, Tottenham Hotspur and Panathinaikos round out the bottom two spots, winless in four games, with just three points between them.

Obviously, much of this will change and the cream will rise to the top. But the biggest irony is the fact that the clubs who treat it as an afterthought, are the ones UEFA executives hope do well and want to see go deep in the draw. Their continued participation is the fillip the tournament’s profile badly needs.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Extra Time - Serie A's Slump

The decline of Italian football over the past decade has been a sad spectacle. Juventus and Milan squared off in the Champions' League final in 2003, in what seemed to be yet another installment of interminable Italian dominance on the continent. While Milan returned to the final in 2005, before winning again in 2007, city rivals Inter won the Champions’ League in 2010. But other than that there has been a relative and general absence of Italian clubs from the latter stages of European club competitions since that all Italian final. Ukraine and Russia have each seen a team win the UEFA Cup, Germany has moved past Italy in the UEFA coefficient ranking, while Spain and England have continued their stranglehold on the Champions’ League.

The departure from norm is not simply a cyclical downturn in the fortunes of clubs from the peninsula, but the result of a gradual decline of Italian clubs’ performances in general. Italian clubs no longer play as effectively as they used to and as a result, win fewer matches. Measuring quality is a notoriously subjective past-time but it’s safe to say that Serie A matches are not as exciting as they used to be, and contain fewer instances of skill and ability. Italian teams can no longer consistently beat their rivals in both the Champions’ League and Europa League. Portugal, Germany, France and even Russia have produced more winners.

Whilst attracting top talent was never the sole preserve of Serie A, it was always able to compete favourably for the best players, both established and emerging. And Italian clubs were often the best finishing schools for youthful potential. With the exception of Spanish teams, whose cultural connections to South America always gave them an advantage, the big Italian clubs generally outbid clubs from other countries. The likes of the two Milan clubs, Juventus, Parma, Roma, Lazio and Fiorentina were able to lavish large wages and spend huge transfer fees on the best players from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, South America and most of Western Europe. However, lately, there has been a steady trickle of players out of the league into other leagues, notably Spain’s La Liga, and most recently, even the French Ligue 1. This summer saw two premier talents (ace striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and one of the game’s best centre-backs, Thiago Silva) leave one of Italy’s biggest Clubs, Milan for PSG. And the move was purely for financial reasons. Silvio Berlusconi, one of the Italy’s richest men, and his team Milan, can no longer compete at the very top.

Moreover, with Italian sides consistently performing well in every European competition, reaching finals and usually sprinkling the later stages of the knockout rounds with a liberal dose of Serie A, joining an Italian team was an attractive proposition for players. The experience, chance to win silverware and exposure made Serie A teams a popular destination, in addition to the lucre on offer. But those are distant memories now. Italian clubs have fallen off the pace in Europe and the local league is no longer the spectacle it used to be. Two disastrous match fixing scandals have tainted the league, reducing its integrity and regard. Several teams are laden with debt and the financial health of the league is poor.

Various factors have been cited, a reduction of competitiveness, consistently declining financial clout, a league wide decrease in sponsorship and television revenue and a reduction in the appeal of the league to new young talent, many of whom now look to England, Spain, or even Germany, to further their careers. Moreover, the cyclical nature of these phenomena cannot be understated. The more successful a team is, the more likely it will be able to attract good players, thereby giving it a higher chance of sustaining said success. The more money a team has, the better its chances of recruiting top talent, the higher its probability of winning trophies and securing more financial rewards, either through prize money, or global exposure by way of TV deals and international fandom. And with Italian teams performing poorly in Europe, relative to their heyday in the 90s and early 2000s, the UEFA coefficient for the league has dropped, resulting in lower seeds and harder draws for Italian teams. Success breeds success, failure tends to bring more of the same.

It’s hard to say if Serie A will regain its position as Europe’s pre-eminent league. Or even one of its best. But the current slump in both the fortunes and quality of Serie A, is definitely a bitter pill to swallow for declining fans and neutrals alike. Milan versus Inter used to be one of the plum ties of the annual football calendar, the latest edition was an undercard sideshow to El Clasico between Real and Barcelona, played at the same time, on the same night. And while there is the odd performance from an Italian team that suggests Serie A’s epitaph etching may be premature, most recently Udinese’s defeat of Liverpool at Anfield in the 2011-12 Europa League, for example, they are far and few in between.

Serie A’s mediocrity is now the rule, rather than the exception.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Extra Time - RVP, Arsenal and the colour of Money

In an epiphany that is all too familiar to many Toronto sports fans, one must most definitely and irrevocably conclude that most soccer clubs, even some of the biggest one, are simply a business. The events of the summer transfer window, when taken with previous ones, demonstrate quite clearly, that for a large number of clubs, despite global fanbases and regular flirtations with silverware, the motivation is purely financial. Clubs being businesses is nothing new. But, while it was understood that remaining in contention for trophies was still the top priority, that is now no longer the case.

Clubs exist primarily to make money. Bar a few super rich clubs, whose ambitions are mainly founded on winning things, most clubs, realizing that they cannot compete and that regular triumphs are something they cannot rely on with any regularity, have basically thrown in the towel. They seek to pad their own bottom line, reduce debt and increase the gap between money spent and income generated.

Prestige, status, loyalty and fan happiness have all taken a backseat to financial sense. Clubs are brands which make decisions that prioritize financial sense first and foremost. The recent transfer of Dutch striker Robin Van Persie, from English Premiership club Arsenal to Manchester United is the most stark example of this phenomenon and ultimate proof of this development. Despite his age (29) and dodgy injury record, Van Persie was, in addition to being the captain of his side, their biggest star and most productive performer coming off his best ever season.  A season in which he was voted the best by both the press and his peers. And one where he singlehandedly led Arsenal to the promised land of Champions League football with a league best 30 goals. One of the best ever seasons in the league by any player, ever.

While Arsenal have not won a trophy in seven years or been in a major final for six, they have still managed to top the league table and challenge for the league a few times in recent history, with a four point lead at the start of March four years ago their closest tilt at the title. They are no longer favourites for a competition they traded with arch rivals United for seven years between 1998 and 2004, but are still considered one of the elite. Moreover, for most fans, the latter club is still Arsenal's biggest rivals, despite the gulf in status, financial pull and silverware between the two.

So, Van Persie's sale to United was nothing short of epic. And fan reaction was apoplectic. While the Arsenal board and manager Arsene Wenger can point to the 24 million sale price as excellent business for a wantaway, injury prone, 29 year old; fans can point to his departure to a club they love to hate, and eagerly circle fixtures in the calendar against, as a most heinous betrayal. Perhaps a move to some other club like Manchester City or even Juventus, both reportedly interested, would have been more palatable to the fanbase, but seeing their top performer go to a long established domestic foe, arguably the biggest such rival in England, was unacceptable.

However therein lies the conundrum. Fans need to realise that Arsenal are no longer a club of the fans. It exists to make money off of them - with ticket prices, the highest in the World. Their passions and desires come second to a financial behemoth for whom dollars and pounds are the driving force behind its day to day operations, not trophies and cups. Player loyalty and even captaincy have long been suspected to be fickle things. At Arsenal they are decidedly so, with several notable top players and four club captains being sold in the past seven years. Tony Adams was captain of Arsenal for 14 years, the most recent incumbent, Van Persie lasted just one. Club captaincy is simply another bargaining chip tossed into the mix to keep burgeoning stars in the stable till they are sold to the highest bidder or the player's choice of destination. Frankly, it would not be inaccurate to remark that the North London giants, England's third most successful club ever, are now Europe's biggest and best feeder club. I'm not saying that it is, but that it is possible to consider it so.

From a financial point of view the Dutchman's sale made excellent sense and while those who watched the Gunners labour to a 0-0 stalemate at home against Sunderland on the opening day of the new 2012-13 season will point to the shortsightedness of the decision from a football point of view, Arsenal the business, cannot turn down that kind of money for a player, especially one who wants to leave.

Frenchman Wenger, equal parts genius and inept, depending on which pole of the fanbase one consults, has long stressed finishing in the top four, as a trophy. This is because from a monetary point of view, it is. Arsenal cannot match the financial pull of Chelsea and Manchester United; and with super rich Manchester City the latest club to have bought their way to success, there are three clubs with a massive and crucial monetary advantage over Arsenal. And a vicious circle ensues because those same three clubs are best placed for success, can attract the best players as a result, and will offer them the most competitive salaries. Arsenal, quite frankly, are doomed.

So, fans need to step back, realise that their club is merely a brand, a company, a corporation who wants more money to come in then go out; and simply accept that while the odd trophy challenge is possible, the complete lack of major silverware, is in fact, far more probable.  Finishing fourth is the only realistic ambition the club can have. And it intends to make as much money finishing fourth as it can. To expect anything more borders on foolishness, no matter how passionate one's support is.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Send-Off to 2011-2012

Extra Time

A quick nod of congratulation goes out to all the champions of Europe from this column. 2011-12 provided so much, entertained, thrilled and captured the imagination. Even though Euro 2012 is the flavor of the month and takes top billing, the memories of the recently concluded season are too strong to forget or ignore.

From Germany, where Borussia Dortmund beat the odds, Bayern’s money, an indifferent start and many neutrals’ fears, to retain the league crown, playing with the same verve, passion and drive that characterized their title last season. As mentioned before, manager Jurgen Klopp is building something very special in Westphalia. To Italy, where Juventus celebrated their latest title, unbeaten, under rookie Serie A manager Antonio Conte, but then Serie A promptly got embroiled in another match fixing scandal.  From there to France where Montpellier proved to be the surprise package in Europe and set the cat amongst the pigeons, usurping the traditional heavyweights to win their first ever league title.  And in Spain where Jose Mourinho finally won the Spanish La Liga crown, ousting Barcelona from their perch at the top, completing a journey that looked in doubt after previous maulings. Finally, to England where Manchester City celebrated a long hoped for return to the top with a scarcely believable but cathartic Premiership win, made all the more remarkable by the fact that rivals Manchester United had surged into a seemingly unassailable lead, with just a month to go.

While Porto retained its title, losing only one match in Portugal, their tussle with Benfica made for interesting viewing; while PSV’s fall and Feyenoord’s rise was an interesting sideshow to Ajax’s latest title win in Holland. Belgium too saw a return to the status quo as Anderlecht returned to the summit while Scotland saw a took a major jolt to the system as Celtic got knocked out of the group stage in the Europa League while Rangers entered administration.  Russia’s extended season saw Zenit retain the crown after a hectic season which saw Russia change to a fall-winter cycle like the rest of Europe. The core of that team made up the nucleus of the Russian side at the European Championships. In Turkey, Fenerbahce shrugged off the tar of recent match fixing allegations to give Champions Galatasaray a run for their money but most encouragingly little Trabzonspor from the northern Black Sea coast came third to build on their encouraging performances in recent seasons.

The European competitions proved to be no less entertaining with Bayern Munich and Chelsea tearing up the scripts to deny Real Madrid and Barcelona their place in the Champions’ League final while Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao served up a feast of football enroute to the Europa League final.

After Euro 2012 the focus shifts to the Olympics, where the soccer tournament featuring U23 players, albeit in the shadow of the start of the following club season, will provide some thrilling matches. Brazil, Spain and Mexico are the immediate favourites for the medals but Great Britain, Egypt and Japan will look to run them close.  The make-up of the British squad itself is open to a lot of debate as players from the four soccer teams of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are eligible. Imagine a game in which Aaron Ramsey plays in Jack Wilshere who sets up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to score. The Olympics soccer tournament should get more air time and media attention however bad scheduling and the lure of the Swimming and Track and Field will always keep cameras and fans away.

At the end of the day the season showed us that while money is still far and away the biggest deciding factor when it comes to club success, the efforts of the eleven players on the pitch can do much to swing the balance back in the favour of the underdog.  Ironically, it took the heroic defensive efforts of one of the world’s richest clubs, Chelsea, to prove this very point as they won the Champions’ League despite being rank outsiders against Barcelona in the semi-finals and underdogs to Bayern Munich in the final.  That a multi-billion dollar club could finish off the pace in the domestic league but nick a title in Europe goes a long way towards restoring the basic desire for parity that most fans have. And the biggest story in that regard was the triumph of little Montpellier, who won the French League. Beating out PSG, Lille, Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille. Yes Montpellier.

The Financial Fair Play regulations will make for interesting viewing once they are applied as clearly European football has become unsustainable. As enjoyable as Manchester City’s win was, it was built on money, nothing else. There is no way they could have dreamed of competing without the acquisition of ADUG. And that cheapens the very spectacle.  European football needs a salary cap, a transfer cap, a quota on youth and homegrown players, no luxury taxes and a way to spread both the wealth and the talent on display.  However these remain a pipe dream while Global corporations and businesses own soccer clubs.

Here at Soccer 360 we wish you the best for the Summer !

Monday, June 18, 2012

2011-12 Euro Pass

Final Snippets from Around Europe


Champions:  Montpellier
Champions League:  PSG, Lille
Europa League:  Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille

Montpellier emerged as the surprise of the 2011-12 season in Europe, winning their first ever French Ligue 1 crown with equal parts verve and swagger. Their triumph is a resounding vindication of owner Louis Nicollin’s policy of youth recruitment and coach Rene Girard’s system of fast, possession based, penetrative football. While Qatari money, Carlo Ancelotti and a host of cultured transfers weren't enough to give PSG a title they seemed destined for, the flair and belief flowing through Montpellier was more than enough to tip the scales in the latter's favour.

Olivier Giroud showed the world his talents, both as playmaker and finisher, as he led La Paillade to their first ever league title. Lille, who finished third, have in recent years been the stable from which most young talent has been recruited by clubs abroad. However, after the purple and white's star turn, many an overseas manager and scout will be scouring their roster. The French League's reputation and performance has dwindled in recent years with both the performance and profile of Ligue 1 teams being called into question, however with a breadth of competition and parity not seen in any of the other top leagues, it remains fascinating viewing.

PSG's season can be considered a largely catastrophic failure as their inability to win a title that was theirs for the taking, and that they were in pole position to win, slipped through their fingers during a fatal run in. While individual players like Kevin Gameiro, Javier Pastore and Nene sparkled, PSG rarely took off and dominated opponents like Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Manchester City did this season. And while it is hardly fair to compare the Parisian giants to any of the aforementioned trio, PSG's financial clout is in the same league. Moreover their strength in both players and resources, compared to the rest of the French top division is even more dominant. PSG should have walked the title this year and will be expected to do so the following year.

PSG's chairman, however will consider this a job well done as he openly talked of regular champions' league participation as the club's goal for the near future. With the talent on tap, PSG should return to the winner’s circle next season as they will be the only team in France that can strengthen on all fronts.

Leading Scorers:  Olivier Giroud, Montpellier and Nene, PSG, 21 goals


Champions:  Ajax
Champions’ League:  Feyenoord
Europa League: PSV, AZ, Heerenveen, Twente, Vitesse

Ajax continued their renewal with their second League crown on the trot. After a slow start the Amsterdam club picked up steam when it mattered and eventually coasted to their 31st domestic crown. With a young team that many felt would struggle to retain their title from last season, the capital club showed they had the staying power and experience to last the distance. Frank De Boer has done wonders with a mashup of a squad that is big on heart if low on quality.

However, the story of the season has to be Feyenoord’s propulsion to second place, a complete turnaround from last season when they flirted with relegation. The Rotterdam club had been in the doldrums for several years and looked likely to fall out of the Eredivisie altogether in 2010-11 as heavy defeats to rivals (10-0 to PSV), coaching changes, a player revolt and heavy debt threatened to derail the club. However, after some crucial player sales, promoting talent from the youth academy and shrewd loan signings, Feyenoord began the season in recovery mode under the steady hand of Dutch footballing legend Ronald Koeman. The injection of youth paid off and Feyenoord improved on its horrific 10th place finish in 2011 with a solid second this time. Moreover the Dutch Footballing Authority, KNVB, declared the club to no longer be in the financial danger zone on account of its shrinking debt. If it does make it into the group stage proper next year, the windfalls can have encouraging financial implications for the club.

For PSV and Twente the season was very much one of regression and stagnation. PSV had the most talented squad with plenty of championship winning experience but came unstuck at crucial moments. While 3rd is nothing to scoff at, PSV should be doing much better. Twente, winners of the title in 2010, steadily dropped down the table and replaced sacked Co Adriaanse with Championship winning manager Steve McLaren; but he was unable to stem the rot as they finished sixth. Both Twente and PSV led the table at one point in time and could have held on to win the league. Around them AZ and Heerenveen in fourth and fifth, respectively, will look back on a positive and encouraging season. Both clubs will hope to strengthen their financial situation if nothing else, with a solid run in the 2013 Europa League.

Leading Scorer: Bas Dost, Heerenveen, 32 goals


Champions:  Porto
Champions League:  Benfica, Braga
Europa League:  Academica, Sporting, Maritimo

Porto continued its utter domination of the local top flight with another near flawless season that saw them collect the championship with 75 points from 30 games. They only lost once, at Gil Vicente, for their only defeat in the league in two seasons. They may have floundered in Europe, and were expected to struggle after the loss of managerial prodigy Andres Villas-Boas and several key players, but their domestic form is still as good as ever, more than a healthy springboard for their continental pursuits. Porto’s transfer policy allows them to hand pick players who suit their style of play, a robust direct style that relies on pacy wingers and strength in and around the box.

Benfica tried their best to run the Blue and White juggernaut close but other than a brief six week period in the middle part of the season when they were at the summit, were unable to turn the screw. They scored a healthy amount of goals (66 to Porto’s 69) but had a more porous defence than their rivals and eventually that proved to be the difference. Still, they have little reason to be unhappy as they return to the Champions’ League and can count on a solid roster that is only a player or two away from winning again.

Braga continued its impressive recent seasons with another third place finish and will head into the playoff round for the Champions’ League next season while Sporting paid for its deep run in the Europa League with a drop to fourth. Maritimo were most impressive of the smaller teams with an encouraging fifth place, a spot they maintained throughout the campaign.

Leading Scorer:  Oscar Cardozo, Benfica and Lima, Braga, 20 goals


Champions:  Celtic
Champions League:  Motherwell
Europa League:  Dundee United, Hearts, St. Johnstone

Celtic may have won the Premiership at a canter, after a sluggish start that saw them fall 10 points behind rivals Rangers, early on, however their European form showed that this was a third rate division in a country that is becoming footballing backwater. Celtic crashed out of the Europa League at the group stage and questions must be asked of the management at one of Europe’s oldest institutions. Across the city, things were even worse as Scotland’s other giant, Rangers, entered administration and were ineligible to enter European competition next season, as a result of remaining in such a state at season’s end. Rangers’ season started well, with a strong run in the league but their lead was slowly chipped away, as they floundered both on and off the pitch. If a club the size of Rangers is in financial meltdown, what hope for the rest of the division? However, this has come as a shock to the system and all clubs will take note.

But perhaps in the demise, albeit temporary, of one of Scottish football’s heavyweights, lies the roots of its rejuvenation. Motherwell, who had an excellent campaign to finish third, will enter the Champions’ League qualifying rounds and could do with the injection of money from a round or two of progression, perhaps even to the group stage. Behind them the trio of Europa League bound clubs will all benefit from the influx of much needed monies from European competition and the trickle of this money will be felt up and down the division. Hearts surprised everyone with a Scottish Cup win and will be buoyed by their success against the big two.

Scotland’s only hope is for the parity to return to the league so that the talent and money is better distributed across more of the clubs. And at this rate, things can only get better.

Leading Scorer:  Gary Hooper, Celtic, 24 goals