Tuesday, October 31, 2006


He Who Hesitates

Of all Sydney FC’s woes this season, perhaps none is more puzzling than the hugely disappointing form of Alex Brosque.

Before the season proper, the acquisition from the Roar was in fine fettle. He scored two excellent goals in the pre-season victory over Perth in Wollongong, and was instrumental in other warm-up games.

Comes the A-League, and he has been little more than a passenger for most of the time.

He should perhaps not have been kept on the pitch for the entire game against Newcastle in September, when he had just returned from injury and was far from full effectiveness. I suggested as much at the time, and there is a grim analogy in the fortunes of David Zdrilic last season, rushed back into action before he’d recovered from a pre-season injury, and short of confidence for most of the season thereafter.

And it is confidence, surely, that is at the root of Brosque’s current troubles.

There are those who feel that Terry Butcher has misused him, employing him typically on the left side of midfield rather than in the centre. An interesting debating point (I tend to disagree), but wherever he plays, he seems to encounter the same problems.

At Gosford a couple of weeks ago, I watched as he was released for about half a dozen potential runs at his full-back, only to jog around in circles with the ball, before sending a trivial pass back.

No winger, then? Well, Terry Butcher tried him in the middle on Sunday, and for a while it appeared to be working; he showed excellent control at times, and played a couple of good through-balls.

Yet he faded sadly from view as the game wore on, and there was a moment of rich significance in the 78th minute.

David Zdrilic, bullocking his way down the left, managed to bundle the ball across to Brosque, who was waiting in the centre. A player in form would no doubt have tried a first-time shot, or taken a quick touch before a crack at goal. Instead, Brosque prodded the ball this way and that, desperately searching for the perfect opening, before slicing a poor shot wide of goal.

If there is one word to describe Brosque’s play at present, it is hesitant. And engendering some confidence and urgency in his play should be one of Terry Butcher’s top priorities at the moment; after all, when in form, Brosque is a player capable of turning a game.

Monday, October 30, 2006


The Unhappy Medium

A recent, puerile statement on the Sydney FC Unofficial forum to the effect that football experts don’t need to go to games, as they can clearly see what’s happening on TV, got me thinking about the relationship between TV and football.

And no, I’m not talking here about broadcast rights, or windfalls for Australian football from Fox. I mean how well the game of football adapts to the medium of television.

Funnily enough, despite its popularity therein, football must be one of the most unsuitable sports for this particular medium.

Other sports popular in Australia are far more TV-friendly. Cricket, with its generally narrow focus, suits TV particularly well. Field placement tragics may still feel that the subtle strategic changes adopted by captains throughout the day can only be appreciated at the ground, but they are surely in the minority.

Tennis might have been invented for television.

The two rugby codes are both more readily adapted to the demands of TV than football. League, with its predictable five-tackles-and-kick rhythm, leaves little room for the unexpected. Rugby union is a bit more of a challenge; the intricate backline movements beloved of rugby purists are difficult to capture faithfully in a box format.

Perhaps only AFL football shares our code's particular problems.

Movement “off” the ball is such a crucial facet of good team play, and it’s hard to get a true picture of this from TV. A midfielder might have been drawing defenders and creating new options for a full 90 minutes without being noticed particularly by the cameras.

Then there’s the question of tactics. Even commentators, with their eyes primarily on the ball, may miss an important tactical switch that, for whatever reason, the TV image is incapable of acknowledging. Likewise, the general strategies of compressing the pitch, playing a high or a deep line in defence, etc., are only properly discernible for the live viewer.

Managers – national team managers particularly – must obviously judge a great deal on TV footage these days. But to get a proper idea of a player, or a team, every manager worth his salt will still get to a game.

Not that I feel it was much of a loss for me to be (unavoidably) absent from yesterday's Sydney v. Perth encounter...

Sunday, October 29, 2006


The Professionals

Surprise surprise, Craig Foster has kept the SBS youth barrow rolling with an article in this morning’s Sun-Herald. Replete with the trite generalizations we’ve come to expect from the Socceroo-turned-pundit, the article does, however, contain one or two pertinent comments.

To wit:

…Youth football is a delicate balance between development and results…

I would go further.

Youth football, at international level, should be mainly about “seeing what you’ve got”.

The correlation between success or failure at youth level and future results at full senior international level is, as I have pointed out endlessly over the years, absolutely minimal. The panic at our poor results in the Under 17 Asian qualifiers last year was perhaps the biggest fuss over nothing we’ve seen in recent years, especially given the extraordinary gains being made elsewhere in Australian football.

One thing that never seems to be acknowledged in the shrill youth rants we see so regularly is that after a certain age, development will happen mainly at club level, simply because it is with clubs that players will spend the majority of their time.

Foster mentions the poor form of the Under 20 side at last year’s youth World Championship in the Netherlands, and the team did indeed look poor. They were thrashed by a far superior Netherlands side, and managed only draws against the two other sides in their group, who were hardly world-beaters.

But it is significant, to my mind, that a few of the local-based players in that Under 20 side have improved markedly since. I refer to Jacob Timpano, Mark Milligan and Nick Ward.

And that is surely, at least in part, down to the fact that they subsequently had the chance to play at fully professional clubs – the first time such a thing has been available in Australian football for some time.

Milligan and Timpano looked nervous and positionally naïve in Holland. Both players have grown in stature and confidence at Sydney FC (incidentally, one excellent legacy left by Pierre Littbarski was his support and development of younger players).

Nick Ward looked lively at times during the youth World Championship, but it was at Perth that he really caught the eye, with some consistently impressive performances.

Foster is, I feel, wrong to dismiss our group at the Asian qualifiers as “comfortable” – the Arab nations have always been strong at youth level, and China is hardly a pushover – but the fact that Nathan Burns and Dario Vidosic have had a taste of the professional game, and come through with flying colours, must give us a better chance of progressing.

Saturday, October 28, 2006



Did Jade North do the right thing?

His pragmatic handling on the line two minutes from the close last night ultimately resulted in his team winning a game they would surely otherwise have lost. Yet the odds on that effect must have been long, and North (one of Newcastle’s best players in their last two games) now finds himself suspended.

Incidentally, it is the second case of a game-saving professional foul by the Jets this season, following Paul Okon’s calculated tripping of Adam Kwasnik in their encounter with the Mariners.

So, was it justified?

From an ethical standpoint, you would have to say no. There can surely never be a disinterested excuse for wilful flouting of the rules.

But from Gary van Egmond’s point of view, the situation is less clear.

After Michael Ballack had committed a cynical, nasty foul on Lee Chun-Soo in the 2002 World Cup semi-final, when the Korean was clean through on goal, his coach Rudi Völler praised him unreservedly afterwards.

Ballack’s foul meant that he was suspended for the final, and Völler talked of “sacrifice”. An interesting way to make cheating sound noble.

Despite what some have said with the wisdom of Latinophile hindsight, Germany matched Brazil and then some for the first hour of that final. With the sharpness of Ballack at their disposal, they may well have toppled Ronaldo and co. in Yokohama.

In other words, perhaps Ballack's foul wasn’t quite an act worthy of Völler’s commendation.

North’s fine form has contributed substantially to Newcastle’s renewed solidity in defence, and he will be greatly missed. They have put together a fine run and appear full of confidence, but with one or two soft goals against them in subsequent games…

Returning to the ethical side for a moment, I must admit to being a bit old-fashioned. These acts of “sacrifice”, especially when praised by coaches afterwards, do little to enhance the image of the game. And it would be unfortunate if the young players watching came to feel that a deliberate red-card offence, if it enhances your team’s chance of a result, is an honourable act.


Glanville on Target - brief update

Right on cue. Following my review of Brian Glanville's novel Target Man, he has devoted most of his weekly column from the World Soccer website to some recollections of Giorgio Chinaglia, on whom the novel was based.

Well worth a read, if you can cope with the endless typos (the result, as I recently learned, of Glanville's insistence on writing up his columns on an old-fashioned typewriter, fingerslips and all, before faxing them to base).

Friday, October 27, 2006


Glad I'm Not a Kennedy - update

There was some irony in the fact that Ben Kennedy produced easily his best performance between the sticks for Newcastle after Ange Postecoglou had selected his Under 20 side for the Asian Youth Championship.

In truth, he didn’t have a great deal to do against Queensland on Sunday, such were the sterling efforts of North and Durante in central defence. Yet he dealt with the few Queensland attempts at goal with a minimum of fuss, and he has noticeably improved his command of the penalty area.

To be thrown in at the deep end at a new level of competition is always difficult for a youngster. But goalkeepers have it especially hard, given that their mistakes tend to be remembered more than others’.

And Kennedy has made a few, in the opening months of the 2006/07 season. But they’re becoming harder to find as the season wears on.

In some ways, Kennedy’s dramatic introduction to professional football has reminded me of Iker Casillas’s first season at Real Madrid (1999/2000).

After only four games with the B team, Casillas was called into the first eleven – not quite the galactico pin-up team of today, but still an absolutely first-rate team – as an 18-year-old. He entered the perpetual Madrid melodrama in an especially turbulent season; the coach, John Toshack, was sacked half-way through the term, the new star recruit Nicolas Anelka was causing his usual problems, and the club stood perilously low in the league.

Sound familiar?

Of course, Casillas seized his chance, impressing everyone with his brilliant shot-stopping, and Madrid went on to win the Champions’ League – with Casillas in goal for the final.

Ben Kennedy is not yet in Casillas’s class, of course, but he has ridden the early punches well, and is looking better with every game.

A-League or Champions’ League, the principle is the same; if you’re chucked in, take your chance. Kennedy faces a difficult assignment against an in-form Adelaide side tonight, but he will probably be facing it with more confidence than ever before.

I just hope I haven't now lumbered him with the columnist's curse...

Thursday, October 26, 2006


The Penalty Curse - update

The often excellent Mike Gibbons over at Planet World Cup has recently produced his own article on the eternal penalty issue, which has come into somewhat sharper focus since Sepp Blatter, in a rare moment of sense, decried the use of penalties to decide this year's World Cup final.

Blatter, sadly, has not shown much imagination in his suggestions for a solution. A replay is obviously the only completely fair method, but with the international calendar as brutally tight as it is, there are obvious problems with it.

I've said enough on the subject in my three earlier pieces, but Gibbons makes a suggestion of his own: the "winning goal" method (to be used for the final only, apparently). Partly since he has also dismissed as "ludicrous" my own preferred method of foul count, I'll return the compliment and describe his favoured solution as not just silly, but dangerous.

Essentially, it's merely an extension of the "Golden Goal" system put in place by FIFA following the 1994 World Cup. In extra time, the first goal decided the game.

It was a worthwhile experiment, but two things scuppered it: the grimly defensive tactics adopted by so many international managers, and the generally timorous attitude adopted by teams in extra time, when they knew that allowing the opposition one breakaway could be fatal.

FIFA were right to try it, and equally justified in eventually abandoning it. And there is no reason to believe it would work any better now, given the craven tactics currently fashionable in world football.

But extending extra time indefinitely until a goal is scored? What is Gibbons thinking?

Doesn't he remember that Portugal, one of the semi-finalists, went six hours without scoring a goal during the tournament?

Doesn't he remember that the World Cup is a summer competition, and that those playing in the final will have contested seven matches in four weeks, some of which might have gone to extra time as well? Doesn't he remember the name Marc-Vivien Foe?

Comparisons with schoolyard football, with its vastly different goal-to-time ratio, are just, dare I say, ludicrous.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Department of Youth – update, Part 2

Back to Les Murray’s “youth crisis” piece. His depiction of the young Australians attempting to crack into the European club scene is quite Dickensian:

“…mediocre, low division clubs in Europe that offer neither decent money nor a guarantee of a future…”

Let’s look at the other side of the coin.

James Troisi, Shane Lowry and Rostyn Griffiths are three young Australians currently plying their trade at Premiership clubs in England. They are making good progress, and a couple of them are even pushing for a first-team place.

And, incidentally, they are the sort of players who may have been occupying first-team places at NSL clubs back in 1991, when parents of talented young footballers did not immediately think of a possible European contract.

They are all still teenagers. So why, I hear you ask, are they (and other European-based teens) not part of Ange Postecoglou’s Under 20 squad for the AFC Youth Championship?

And here we come to the nub of the matter.

The AFC Youth Championship will be held in India over a two-week period during the European club season. Sadly, the FIFA rules regarding the release of players for international matches do not apply to youth tournaments. This, of course, makes the job of an Australian youth team coach even more unenviable: some players are, in a practical sense, simply beyond reach.

The same, incidentally, is true of the Under 23 squad going into training camp this week. No sign of Neil Kilkenny or Nick Ward there, of course. Yet Murray again ignores the European club factor, and produces the following tendentious paragraph:

“It’s a similarly gloomy story with the Olyroos, restricted to under-23s come the Beijing Games in 2008. The vast majority of the players Graham Arnold is eyeing for selection for the Olympic qualifying campaign are inactive. Only two or three are based with overseas clubs, and very modest clubs at that, while the rest, though contracted in the A-League, are not being used or are under-used by their coaches. Australia faces the Beijing challenge with a bunch of bench-players or ones actually getting a game with the likes of Bray Wanderers and Chesterfield.”

Apart from the plain inaccuracy of the sentence in bold, Les has once again ignored the fact that our choice of players is circumscribed by their club circumstances, particularly in the case of those employed in Europe.

The final part of Murray’s piece is simply pathetic, and shows clearly why so many believe that, underneath the surface, there is still an unhealthy “we wogs own sokkah!” attitude prevalent at SBS.

Apparently, there is a desperate need for technical development now because migrant parents are no longer there to mould their kids!

Perhaps, in their long-running quest for a technical director, SBS will finally unveil a migrant grandpa from Sydney’s west?

Leaving aside the arrogance, how does Murray square his statement that “this era is dead” with the presence of, to take one example, three very young players of Slavic background on the Perth Glory bench on Saturday night? There is a third generation coming up, Les, and it doesn’t appear to have deserted football just yet.

Murray is right in saying that migrants have made an enormous contribution to football in this country.

He is wrong in saying that the era of migrant influence is dead, as merely a cursory glance at the A-League squads will confirm.

He is wrong in saying that the ethnic clubs are all but dead. They have been denied a place in the A-League for the best of reasons, but many of them are still alive and kicking in the state leagues, and still, in many cases, doing a fine job developing young Australian players...along with many other, non-ethnic clubs.

And Les is wrong in saying that the development of Australian youth is in a crisis.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Not-so-New, but Improved

The “Version 2.0” marketing hook for the new A-League season gave rise to plenty of jokes, but the pleasing truth is that the league has indeed improved.

And a small but significant point to note is that the four teams who have been producing the best football so far are exactly the ones who retained their coaches from season one.

What’s this, you say? Wasn’t our tragic friend in favour of dispensing with Pierre Littbarski?

Indeed I was, and I still believe that it was the right decision. The pay-packet being offered to Littbarski was enormously over the odds considering the drab football produced by Sydney FC for much of Version 1.0.

But Miron Bleiberg deserved another shot. As, of course, did Lawrie McKinna and John Kosmina.

By contrast, Steve McMahon and Richard Money had shown no inclination towards encouraging positive, attractive football. Not missed, in my opinion.

Adelaide United have added some genuine flair to their erstwhile resolute qualities, and have unearthed a wonderful young prospect in Nathan Burns.

Queensland have stiffened their defence immeasurably with the addition of Sasa Ognenovski, and they now boast some genuine striking power up front.

Lawrie McKinna’s men have simply carried on where they left off. After an indifferent period at the start of the season (occasioned, in large part, by the injury to Andre Gumprecht), they have gotten back into their 2005/06 groove, playing positive, cohesive football.

As for Ernie Merrick, what can one say? Last season’s Aunt Sally manager has presided over a stable, effective team, restructured with a view to eliminating last season’s midfield frailties.

Elsewhere, the managerial changes have largely been for the better.

Newcastle, under Nick Theodorakopoulos, have been playing a far more enterprising brand of football, and I still feel he could have been given more time. Full marks to Gary van Egmond for leading the side to two wins on the trot, but in some ways he has been reaping the benefits of Nick Theo’s approach, in my view.

Ron Smith has overseen a modest improvement at Perth Glory, aided by Simon Colosimo’s return to form. Even the Knights, despite their wretched results, have shown some signs of life.

And Sydney FC?

That same well-informed Covite who questioned the conventional wisdom on Kazu put it best.

The rest of the league, on the pitch, has moved forward. Sydney FC has stood still.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Department of Youth – update, Part 1

Not content with his on-air gaffe last Sunday, Les Murray has now decided to pen an editorial piece on the “youth crisis”. The SBS editorial team have, in fact, become quite adept at creating crises out of nothing ever since the inception of the A-League.

As usual, there’s plenty of frothing at the mouth, and a distinct absence of balance.

Let’s look at the centrepiece of Les’s argument first.

The presence of only five contracted A-League players in Ange Postecoglou’s squad for next month’s AFC Youth Championship, he states, is “very worrying”, and bespeaks a decline in Australia’s youth development. By way of illustration, he compares this with the 1991 World Youth Championship squad, which featured ten players “on professional contracts or first-team choices” at their NSL clubs.

Comparisons are odious, they say. In this case, they are downright misleading.

Never mind that the A-League is, and was always intended to be, a fully professional competition of the sort the NSL was not,

Never mind the fact that the European exodus was a mere trickle in 1991 compared with the flood it is now,

Never mind that there are only eight A-League clubs compared with 14 NSL clubs in 1991.

Moving on from that piece of Murray casuistry, let’s examine his bleak assessment of the options for Australia’s youth at present:

"…the A-League offers next to nothing for the young..."

...someone better tell Nathan Burns, Dario Vidosic et al....

"...and the nation’s technical future is on hold. Young players either accept their lot and study in institutes, play in modest state competitions waiting for their A-League break, or pack their bags for a trial at mediocre, low division clubs in Europe that offer neither decent money nor a guarantee of a future. But they do it because it’s better than nothing…"

So much misrepresentation and distortion in that paragraph that it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll begin with the “modest state competitions” comment.

Aren’t these “modest state competitions” now populated by some of the same clubs who made up the old, semi-professional NSL?

In other words, aren’t the kids getting the same sort of development they were getting beforehand, with the option of a full professional contract if they make the grade (as, for instance, has happened to Adam d’Apuzzo and Luka Glavas, among others)?

Poor deprived things.

Then there’s the matter of these “mediocre, low division clubs in Europe”.

There’s a tale to be told there. Tune in next time.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


The Caceres Factor

Most of the plaudits for Melbourne Victory’s come-from-behind win over Sydney FC last night have gone to Archie Thompson for his two fine goals, but there is another player who deserves considerable credit. And, for whatever reason, he doesn’t ever seem to receive much.

Adrian Caceres was centrally involved in both the goals, playing a clever through-ball to Fred in the lead-up to the first, and crossing superbly to Thompson for the second.

Looking back through my notes on Sydney FC games last season, I noticed one thing particularly about our encounters with Perth. Adrian Caceres often entered the game late on, and immediately caused Sydney problems.

Sadly, he was mainly used as a bit-part player by the unimaginative Steve McMahon last year, and, as a result, he was perhaps unable to exercise the influence he might have had.

After the superficially dazzling early-season performances of Alessandro this term, Ernie Merrick must have been tempted to make the Brazilian his regular choice on the left wing. But even in the opening game, it was quite clear that Alessandro had little interest in helping out in a defensive capacity.

What was also evident was that, like many “entertaining” wingers, he did have a tendency to want to beat the same man several times.

In addition to this, his play was somewhat two-dimensional; in some games, whenever he received the ball, he seemed to be looking to hit the by-line. In the second half of Melbourne’s first game against Sydney, his limitations were quite clearly shown up by Iain Fyfe (who is hardly a full-back of conspicuous quality).

Caceres has shown himself to be, on the whole, more versatile. He does occasionally head for the by-line, but he can drift infield in support of the engine-room, and does help out in defence at times.

What was particularly impressive last night was that he adapted himself well to a right-wing role; he had, it seemed, been moved over to that side to inhibit Alvin Ceccoli’s upfield forays.

Archie’s finishing was certainly one important element of Melbourne’s success at Aussie Stadium last night. But don’t underestimate the Caceres factor.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Disquiet on the Western Front

Nothing, but nothing, is going right for Perth Glory at the moment.

The last two games, in which they dominated for long periods, have both been lost 2-1. Against Queensland, two clear penalties were denied them in a frantic second half. In Gosford last night, they were very much in the ascendancy late in the game, with the score at 1-1; but a nasty injury to Jason Petkovic, and a consequent long stoppage, thoroughly took the wind out of their sails.

A marvellous piece of opportunism from Tom Pondeljak restored the Mariners’ lead, and despite a concerted effort in injury time, Ron Smith’s team couldn’t level the scores.

So, the team heads back west with an injured goalkeeper, a key midfielder also in trouble, and spirits low.

But that is not the only problem facing the club that was the very emblem of “new football” until quite recently.

The FFA, of course, have been administering the club since the departure of Nick Tana at the end of last season. One would have expected a viable consortium to have taken the reins by now, but, for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened yet. And the fans are not happy.

Most of the vitriol from the diehard Glory fans has been directed at Matt Carroll, the FFA’s A-League supremo. The feeling seems to be that he has ignored the existing culture at the club in favour of marketing Perth Glory along rigidly similar lines to the other A-League clubs.

Indeed, some of the completely generic and rather featureless public faces of the clubs – such as the abysmal official websites – have been one of the worst features of the A-League.

Here is a sample of the opinions of the Shed. Recent hints that the club may be changing its colour scheme, or even its name, have been met with predictable (and, in my opinion, deserved) criticism.

Perth was in an unfortunately anomalous position as the only A-League club with a significant history behind it when the new competition began. The NFL-style generic branding favoured by Carroll was never going to be particularly popular out west, where the desire for individuality is, for obvious reasons, stronger than elsewhere.

A plea to the FFA, on this and other Perth-related issues: tread gently. The first few seasons of a new franchise competition may be all about standardization, but, like it or not, Perth Glory is a special case, for a number of reasons.

Chiefly, because they have a history.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Glanville on Target

Long after I began reading (and enjoying) Brian Glanville’s regular column in World Soccer magazine, I discovered that he was also a respected novelist. Not surprisingly, some of his fictional work is concerned with football, his lifelong passion; recently, I’ve read a most enjoyable short novel of his, with the unambiguous title Target Man.

Loosely based on the career of the controversial Giorgio Chinaglia, the book details a turbulent year in the life of Tony Cardinale, an Italian-born, English-raised striker who has been plucked from the obscurity of the English lower leagues to play in Serie A. Glanville’s fictional club, Alba, bears more than a passing resemblance to Lazio.

We follow Cardinale as he becomes a star with his new team, clashes with the coach, falls in love with the club president’s daughter, and seeks to reconcile his family’s simple values with the playboy lifestyle he finds himself beholden to.

There are a number of engaging sub-plots, the most touching of which involves a humble, hardworking young midfielder whose career is ruined by his pig-headed coach’s insistence on his playing despite a serious injury. A very familiar tale for long-term followers of European football.

What amused me particularly was that the offhand corruption, suspicious practices and empty rhetoric described in the book echoed the detail of the recent “Moggiopoli” scandal in Italy perfectly. Reading Glanville’s dry descriptions of relations between clubs and referees – often through mysterious intermediaries – I was instantly reminded of some of the telephone transcripts doing the rounds when the scandal broke in May.

Glanville’s Cardinale is a man both valued and despised in Italy for his “English” qualities; he is strong and good in the air, we read, but technically poor. He has to deal with cynical defenders, dishonest journalists and all the predictable cultural shocks, and, in the book’s climactic scene, it all drives him to one of the rashest acts a footballer can commit.

To give away any more would be unfair, but never fear: all ends happily enough.

Good football fiction is surprisingly rare, with most writers rarely straying from the obvious clichés. The hero scores the winner in the cup final, and is hoisted on the shoulders of his team-mates, who carry him over to his father, with whom he has recently reconciled – you know the deal.

Target Man is refreshingly free of such commonplaces, and its gently ironic tone is tinged with a real affection for perhaps the most football-mad country in the world, and all the human frailties displayed by its players, administrators and fans. Well worth a read.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Unrecognizable Ukrainian

What has happened to Andriy Shevchenko?

Admittedly, he may now be past his best. Admittedly, he may still be feeling the effects of the injury which threatened to keep him out of the World Cup, at which he eventually put in a subdued performance. Admittedly, he would not be the first to find the transition to English football awkward initially.

But his display in this morning's exciting Chelsea v. Barcelona match, especially by comparison to that of his strike partner, the incisive Didier Drogba, was woefully mediocre. And it was not just a matter of one uncharacteristic miss; his touch, anticipation and finishing were just not there. The Shevchenko we know and love seemed to have gone AWOL.

He was regularly hassled off the ball by Carles Puyol, and seldom managed to link up with Drogba to any effect. When Michael Essien put one precise pass through to him in the first half, a decent touch would have given him a clear run on goal. But he let the ball slip out of his control, and the Barca defence pounced.

Then, there was his great chance to leave his mark on the game; early in the second half, Frank Lampard played a neat ball through to the Ukrainian, who had broken free of his marker. He was fifteen yards from goal, with time to pick his shot. Meat and drink for such a great striker.

Yet he compounded a poor first touch, which allowed Victor Valdes to narrow the angle for the shot, with a miserable slice wide of goal.

Chelsea does, in fact, have a history of signing players of class from Italy or Spain who subsequently struggle to adapt to England; such names as Didier Deschamps and Hernan Crespo come to mind. Even Claude Makelele produced some indifferent performances soon after arriving at Stamford Bridge in 2003, although he has gained in confidence and authority with every season since then (and against Barca this morning, incidentally, he was magnificent).

But Shevchenko has been outstanding in European competition for as long as I can remember; even back in 1999, when he was destroying the Real Madrid defence to take his Dinamo Kiev side to the Champions’ League semi-final.

What’s the story?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


We'll Meet Again

When the teams in the Champions’ League group stages were allocated into their pots a few months ago, you could almost have put money on Chelsea – still, bizarrely, ranked in the second tier – being drawn against their great rivals of the last couple of years, Barcelona FC. They meet in this year’s competition for the first time tomorrow morning.

The perception in European football seems to be that, for all Chelsea’s extravagant (some might say obscene) spending, they just can’t buy the superb fluency and class possessed by the current Nou Camp squad. On the evidence of last year’s competition, I’d have to agree.

One of the most memorable ties I remember watching in the Champions’ League was another Barca v. Chelsea battle, one of the 1999/2000 quarter-finals. At that time too, the Catalans were considered the flag-bearers of elegance and Latin artistry in the European game, with Luis Figo, Rivaldo, Luis Enrique and the rest producing much sumptuous football.

Barca’s status, in other words, was similar to that of Frank Rijkaard’s team now. Chelsea’s, however, couldn’t have been more different.

The eccentric Gianluca Vialli, prone to confusing pronouncements and inopportune emotional outbursts, was in charge of Chelsea. The club was known in some quarters as the Chelsea Retirement Village; many veterans from the continental aristoclubs had settled in West London, but most of them gave the impression of being spent forces.

In other words, it looked a mismatch.

Ye Chelsea went within seven minutes of knocking the then favourites out of the competition. And in coming so close, they owed a very great deal to one of those “retirees” – Gianfranco Zola.

It was the Sardinian with the engaging smile who scored the opener at Stamford Bridge – a superb free kick – before laying on the second for Tore Andre Flo. Zola was at the heart of every attack, prompting and feinting, driving the Barca defenders to despair.

Chelsea ended up winning the home tie 3-1, but an overly defensive approach at the Nou Camp saw Barca reverse that result, before scoring two decisive goals in extra time.

What relevance does all this have for the current competition?

For all the excellence of their expensive roster, Chelsea still don’t have a Zola. Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are midfielders of great drive and technical skill; Didier Drogba and Andriy Shevchenko possess strength, poise and enviable finishing ability. But they are all, essentially, predictable players for the most part. They don’t often produce the sort of inspired, uncoachable pass or shimmy that Zola, and a select few others, produced so regularly over the years.

For that reason alone, I’m picking Barca to once again go further in the competition than their English rivals.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Just Reward

From a neutral perspective, it was great to see a crowd of 32,000 turn out for the always tense Melbourne v. Adelaide clash on Sunday. But what was even more pleasing was that, for once, a bumper A-League crowd got the match it deserved.

Last year’s Grand Final, with its live audience of over forty thousand, was not a great advertisement for the quality of the league, in all honesty. Nor was the Melbourne v. Sydney game earlier this season, which, despite its undoubted drama and its five goals, was largely a display of footballing mediocrity.

Not so the match on Sunday. It was an absolute beauty.

The individual battles – Allsopp versus Rees, Petta versus Storey, Fred versus Costanzo – were fascinating. The contrast of styles, Adelaide’s thoughtful use of the wide areas versus Melbourne’s quick-release utilization of Thompson and Allsopp, was intriguing. The eventual winning goal was of the highest quality.

There were other memorable features about the game, too.

Robert Bajic was superbly defiant in the final half-hour, constantly blunting the Melbourne breakaways at the crucial moment.

Alessandro, for once, showed glimpses of his undoubted quality, causing Adelaide considerable concern on the left wing during his brief cameo.

Angelo Costanzo again showed why he is rated so highly by many long-term followers of Australian football. His unhurried, commanding display in the centre of the park could almost be judged the decisive factor in the contest.

Simon Storey, one of the A-League’s more under-rated players, provided a textbook display of the full-back role.

Not even the unsavoury Aloisi-Brebner and Muscat-Kosmina incidents could spoil the occasion. It was, as Simon Hill aptly commented, one for the purists – an enthralling battle, and one worthy of such an impressive turnout.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Department of Youth

On yesterday's instalment of The World Game program, Les Murray, pushing one of his favourite barrows, decried the lack of a youth league to complement the A-League. Clearly feeling he was making a telling point, he made the observation that "if Graham Arnold wanted to form an Olympic (Under 23) squad from the current A-League, he couldn't do it!".

At which point Nick Theodorakopoulos, after politely pointing out that this assertion was plain wrong (as indeed it is), assured Murray that the coaches were aware of the eventual need for a youth competition, but that the problem was financial in nature.

It is a simple point which the youth league tirade merchants always contrive to ignore.

More on that in a moment, but first let's deal with that Olympic question. Murray's claim was not only inaccurate, but extremely misleading, given that Australia's last Olympic team was made up very largely of players who had already departed for Europe.

So, a youth league. Why not?

Well, basically because it would involve costs similar to (if not quite commensurate with) those occasioned by senior A-League sides, without any of the associated revenue streams to offset them. Teams would still have to be kitted out, trained (presumably by a coach of sufficient quality to command a reasonable package), flown across the continent, and, of course, paid. And don't forget stadium hire.

Yet there would be little or no television or advertising revenue, and pitiful gate takings. Football tragics like myself would often come to games (yes, folks, I really would), but the vast majority of those who turn up to support the A-League sides would consider it a sideshow at best. This may sound pessimistic, but the story is the same all over the world.

Club first teams must be in a position to support professional youth teams before the latter can be seriously considered.

Hopefully, in a few years' time, it will be feasible; I don't think there's any doubt that it would be beneficial for Australian football. But patience is required.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Be My Guest - update

In this piece, I detailed the concerns of a thoughtful Covite who bemoaned the disruption to the Sydney FC team caused by Kazu’s guest stint last year.

On that occasion, the team was altered to accommodate Kazu.

Interestingly, in the current instance, the opposite has been the case. Benito Carbone has, in many ways, been accommodated to the existing Sydney FC modus operandi.

In the win over Adelaide, Carbone played in the role known by Italians as “trequartista”, “three-quarter man” – the central link-man between midfield and attack, the provider of the killer passes. He was superbly effective there, if only in short bursts.

The problem was, Steve Corica had been used in such a position for the early part of the season by Terry Butcher. Corica fulfils the role in a slightly different manner; not blessed with Carbone’s vision and touch, he is nonetheless hard-working and adept at wriggling past his marker. It does appear, however, that he has lost the proverbial “half a yard” over the last year or so.

Corica’s suspension, following his four-letter blast against Newcastle, allowed Carbone to take his place against Adelaide. But what would happen when Corica returned?

There were many Sydney FC fans who commented on the likely difficulty of fitting Carbone and Corica into the same team.

Terry Butcher’s solution, somewhat questionable given Carbone’s efforts against Adelaide, has been to re-assign Corica his old role, while shifting Carbone about. Against Queensland, the Italian was partnered with David Zdrilic up front, while in Gosford he found himself on the right side of a front three.

In each case, the frequent use of long balls by the Sydney backline, combined with the aerial aptitude of the likes of Sasa Ognenovski and Paul O’Grady, has meant that Carbone was starved of service. Up front, he has suffered.

In Butcher’s defence, one could argue that he has been planning for the post-Carbone period, when Corica will presumably remain fixed as the trequartista. But it has seemed a sad waste of Carbone’s abilities.

Again, the guest player issue is not as simple as it appears.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


The Kendall Chorus

Writing about the football in last night’s Central Coast v. Sydney game will only depress me, so I’d like to turn my attention to another facet of the occasion.

The Central Coast Leagues Club has a small, rather dimly-lit room near the back called the Kendall Bar. This has been the pre-game meeting point for the Marinators, the Gosford team’s boisterous fan group, since well before the A-League proper began.

Last season, before the Central Coast v. Sydney game that was won 5-1 by the visitors (sorry folks, had to remind myself of that), the Kendall played host to an exuberant singing contest between the two groups of supporters.

In one memorable exchange, the Cove’s attempts to underline their “Bling” tag by chanting “We’re so rich it’s unbelievable!” met a witty retort from the Marinators: “Buy us a beer, buy us a beer, buy us a beer…”.

Last night, battle was rejoined, in similarly good-natured fashion. The Marinators were reinforced by some energetic conga-drumming, and although the Cove numbers were inevitably depleted, they gave as good as they got. It was a wonderful sight (and sound).

What made it particularly pleasing was that, outside of the singing conclaves, the two groups were mingling warmly. Less vocally gifted Covites and Marinators were chatting about the game to come, about Australia’s performance on Wednesday night, about the regime change up the road in Newcastle.

Let’s just step back for a moment, and contemplate what was happening.

This was a putative derby game, in which the two sets of supporters – and the most passionate on each side were there, believe me – were in the same bar, many half-pissed already, chanting their hearts out. And yet I doubt whether there was a single genuinely cross word exchanged between the two groups.

How often would you see that in world football?

Passion without vitriol, or violence. It’s something about certain A-League fan relationships to foster, and cherish.

Friday, October 13, 2006


The Asia Shift, Part 2

Mark Bresciano’s proposed roster system may seem, on the face of it, an expeditious and appropriate means of dealing with the problem of qualifiers in Asia during the European club season. However, there are a number of reasons why I believe it should not be adopted.

Some of the stronger South American nations, in dealing with their ludicrous 18-match World Cup qualifying schedule, have implemented an ersatz roster system in practice, if not in theory. Significantly, it has produced decidedly “mixed” (read inexplicably poor) results, particularly in the case of Brazil, who so regularly struggle in the qualifiers.

So, what are the problems with the idea?

In short:

1. Continuity

A constantly shifting personnel would make it extremely difficult for a national team coach to develop any sort of cohesion. Some of the criticism of Graham Arnold for his failure to engender any continuity in recent times has been most unjust; it shouldn’t for a moment be forgotten that he has been forced to field an almost entirely different eleven each time. The recent home double-header has been the one exception, but even then the necessity of farewelling the long-service four against Paraguay militated against true continuity.

If a roster system were to be used for the Asian qualifiers, the problem would only become worse.

2. Injuries

Injuries are, sadly, a fact of life, and in a roster system they could make things extremely awkward. If a rostered player is injured, does a non-rostered player from the “first selection” fill the breach…or would that contravene the (perhaps unwritten) agreement that players would be given set rests on set dates? If so, it would probably require a player of lesser calibre to turn out for the national side.

3. Morale

Some away trips in the vast Asian confederation are more challenging than others. Damascus is some five hours’ flight from Europe, Australia is more like twenty-three. Who gets the short trips, and who the long? Who gets the games in 35-degree heat, and who gets the less demanding gigs? How is genuine fairness for all established? How is the inevitable resentment to be managed? It’s a logistical nightmare.

Talking of logistical nightmares, David Lewis described the Socceroos’ Asian qualifying schedule as such in his piece from a few days ago. But here’s a bit that interests me:

The Socceroos, who expect to be seeded after their exploits in Germany, must top a four-nation group to qualify for stage two in 2009 where the top two sides from a four-team group qualifies.

Now, some confederations change their qualifying system from one World Cup cycle to the next. There have apparently been some complaints within the AFC about the sudden-death first stage system employed for the last few World Cup cycles.

Has there actually been an official statement from the AFC that it will be used again? To the best of my knowledge, the confederation allocations for the next World Cup have not even been decided yet. Hence, it seems odd that the AFC would have already rubber-stamped the qualifying system to be used.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


The Fake Break - update

Although Mark Bresciano’s superb goal was worth the price of admission last night, most Socceroo fans will have left Aussie Stadium feeling slightly disappointed, I imagine.

Much of this can be put down to the Bahraini tactics in the second half, which seemed to be to force as many stoppages as possible, so as to put the Australian team off their rhythm.

Thanks to a sympathetic (some might say hopelessly weak) referee, they succeeded.

The feigned agony from many of the Bahrain players was nothing short of disgraceful, and the booing from the spectators – who had, no doubt, conveniently forgotten the Jade North “incident” against Kuwait – was thoroughly justified.

We come back, unfortunately, to Australia’s reputation. Our supposed physicality undoubtedly worries many of the Asian sides, but the corollary is that Asian referees may be more inclined to believe in a foul by an Australian than a foul against an Australian. Markus Merk has set a bad precedent in this regard.

But back to the matter of the fake breaks.

Time-wasting is, of course, a cautionable offence. With a more robust official in charge, those Bahrainis who stayed on the ground just long enough for the stretcher to arrive before undergoing a miraculous recovery might have gotten a yellow card for their troubles.

And as for the players who have left the field, it might be worth considering a rule whereby the player in question is obliged to stay off the field for at least as long as the stoppage lasted. Blood injuries would obviously be the exception here.

In the course of their Asian adventure, the Socceroos will have to deal with unfamiliar environments, partisan crowds and the privations of travel. But they should not have to deal with blatant time-wasting, and the cynical abuse of their reputation, into the bargain.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


The Asia Shift, Part 1

Lots of rumblings lately in the media about the difficulties posed by our Asia switch. Mostly with regard to the eternally problematic issue of player availability; Mark (not Marco, please) Bresciano has fired the first shot from the players’ locker, suggesting that a roster system be put in place for the Asian qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.

More on that idea soon, but first, a small point about one statement from the Socceroo midfielder:

“When we have to play a weekend in Italy and play here on the Wednesday, you are going to be travelling most of the week. It will be a big issue for most of the clubs.”

No doubt, but the majority of midweek games will probably be the second match of an international double-header. FIFA have, sensibly, ensured that these are all Saturday-Wednesday, rather than Wednesday-Saturday, affairs, giving international teams four or five days to get together and prepare after weekend club commitments. Hence, Bresciano will not often have to play for Palermo on the Sunday and Australia on the following Wednesday.

Nevertheless, some Asian qualifiers may be held on friendly dates rather than full international dates, as our home qualifier against Kuwait in August was. So the scenario outlined by Bresciano may be realised from time to time.

Next, an unnecessarily alarmist prognosis from David Lewis in the Daily Telegraph. He states, inter alia:

“Australia's bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup could be over before it begins if the Socceroos are forced to follow a horror schedule of matches drawn up by the Asian Football Confederation.

Football Federation Australia is so concerned at a 12-game fixture list for 2008 and 2009 – including the logistical nightmare of eight midweek dates – that it is poised to deploy chairman Frank Lowy to lobby the AFC for a calendar rethink.”

Now, further to the excuses-in-advance tenor of the phrase in bold, the implication seems to be that the AFC has blithely ignored the usual FIFA conventions regarding international dates. Although I have recently acknowledged that the AFC are not always helpful in their scheduling, the fact is that the late 2008-2009 period contains seven full international midweek dates (see here).

That means that the other confederations will, presumably, be scheduling international fixtures on seven of those same eight “logistically nightmarish” midweek dates. Asia is not exactly a rogue confederation in this regard; they do take liberties with the FIFA calendar, but not outrageous ones. And again, let’s not forget: all of these seven are part of international double-headers, and will not immediately follow a club weekend. The logistical challenge is, in my opinion, somewhat over-estimated.

So, what of the roster plan?

In Part 2, I will explain why I think it should be consigned to the bin.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


End of a Theocracy

So, Nick Theo is indeed gone.

He deserves some sympathy, despite his errors of judgement this season. Newcastle's problems have been substantial and varied, but they have produced some excellent football at times. Theodorakopoulos could, I feel, have been given more time; the analogy with Miron Bleiberg last season, whose team entertained but failed to reel in the points, is striking.

James Brown has penned an excellent piece on the departure of Theodorakopoulos and the possibility of his being eventually replaced by Frank Farina. Read and be informed, and entertained by James's sly sense of humour.


There's No Substitute - update

I recently came across a nugget of advice from Gordon Jago, manager of Queens Park Rangers during their period of rejuvenation in the early seventies. In his book Football Coaching, he makes the following comment about substitutions:

“For a tactical switch involving a substitute to have any chance of working, it should be made at least fifteen to twenty minutes before the end. That is really an absolute minimum time to allow the substitute to get into the game; for others on the field to adjust to his arrival, and for any change of tactics to become workable.”

Nick Theodorakopoulos, take note.

I’ve commented previously on the Newcastle manager’s tardiness in making his substitutions, and, in my opinion, it may have cost his team once again on Sunday evening. If we are to believe the reports circulating in the media at the moment, it may even have cost him his job.

Many of the problems at Newcastle are not, admittedly, of Theodorakopoulos’s making. The necessity of using a tyro in goal, the injury to Vaughan Coveny, leaving the Jets without a viable target-man, and the loss of several influential players during the winter…all these have been factors in Newcastle’s poor run of results. But a more proactive approach to substitution from the manager would surely have been beneficial.

Up until the 87th minute, Theodorakopoulos had made only one substitution against Melbourne. And, as against Sydney, it was hardly a daring one. Two attacking players still remained on the bench, in a game in which Newcastle had lacked the finish to their incisive build-ups yet again.

They both finally arrived, in the closing few minutes of the match, but did Theodorakopoulos really think that they would make a difference, with no time to find their bearings and gell with their team-mates?

(Just as an aside, it was two chucked-on-at-the-last-moment substitutes who arguably cost the Socceroos victory on Saturday evening, too.)

As it happened, Tarek Elrich, fresh on the scene, was presented with a palpable chance a couple of minutes from the end. Not surprisingly, he made a mess of the shot.

And Theodorakopoulos’s reluctance to make proper use of Tolgay Ozbey, who had such a prolific season with Blacktown City, has been a complete mystery to me. Ozbey can operate up front or on the wing, he is impressively quick, and he is a promising finisher as well.

But what good can he do in a two-minute cameo?

Monday, October 09, 2006


The Miron Show

Post-match press conferences at Aussie Stadium are often tediously predictable. From the managers, a few clichés along the “lads did well” lines, a couple of slyly derogatory remarks about refereeing decisions, and a studied avoidance of any questions dealing with the actual tactical nuts and bolts. From the players, often little more than the odd syllable here and there.

All that changed yesterday, when the Miron Show came to town.

James Brown, on his excellent blog, has begun a “Miron Quote of the Week” segment, and having now seen Mr. Bleiberg in glorious flow, I can only heartily applaud his decision.

To start with, Queensland’s manager joyfully dispensed with the convention that the journos ask the questions, and the manager dutifully responds. Before Ray Gatt could pose his customary opener, Bleiberg decided to tell us the story of the game. This was quite an experience.

Auxiliary verbs mysteriously disappeared from Bleiberg’s sentences as he whimsically worked his way through the major events of the Sydney v. Queensland game, taking a moment to urge FIFA to calculate injury time in half-minutes from now on (seeing that Sydney’s equalizer had been scored in the final thirty seconds of first half injury time).

The canons of English word order were thrown out the window as Bleiberg dispensed with typical managerial pretence to state that Queensland were playing for a draw from about the 60-minute mark. Surprising honesty, given that few managers would readily admit to such a negative approach. Yet to Bleiberg, it was merely the appropriate approach, given the opposition and the occasion.

The hearts of ESL teachers everywhere were broken as Bleiberg keenly outlined his tactics to the assembled coaches at the back of the room.

In all seriousness, it was very refreshing to hear a manager talk in quite specific detail about his tactical approach; he had expected the pressure on Sydney’s backline from Reinaldo, Lynch and Milicic to entice them to go long more often than not (they did), he then counted on McCloughan and Ognenovski to dominate David Zdrilic in the air (they did), and he furthermore entrusted Matt McKay and Massimo Murdocca with the task of cleaning up the “second balls” (on the whole, they mnaged to do this). All aimed at nullifying Benito Carbone, and all pretty successful.

Of course, this may have been merely wisdom after the event; with Bleiberg, you can never be quite sure.

One thing, however, I am sure of: yesterday afternoon, Miron Bleiberg was a definite breath of fresh air.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Filling the Gaps

Four long-service Socceroos were suitably farewelled in last night’s testimonial match in Brisbane (the Paraguayans may have foolishly believed they were taking part in a friendly international). Let’s have a look, then, at the gaps they have left, and how they might be filled.

None of the four, of course, were considered first-teamers at the World Cup (although Tony Vidmar might have been, had his heart condition not intervened), so it could be argued that the losses should occasion nostalgia rather than genuine concern. Nonetheless, there are certain qualities that were offered by some of the departing quartet that we will miss.

Tony Vidmar

Perhaps our best player over the two legs against Uruguay last year, Vidmar’s flexibility was one of his best qualities; he could play anywhere across the back four, and his positioning was generally sound wherever he was deployed.

Of the current green and gold crew, both Lucas Neill and Mark Milligan are comfortable operating both at fullback and in central defence. But Neill appears to be a fixture in the middle now, while Milligan has apparently been marked out by Graham Arnold for a midfield role.

Patrick Kisnorbo, not entirely convincing in his Socceroo appearances so far, may yet grow into the role of national team utility. Another one to keep an eye on is David Tarka, currently operating at left-back for Perth, but quite capable of fulfilling a central role.

Tony Popovic

Poppa’s stopper role, so crucial against tall, strong forwards, might fall into the hands of Ljubo Milicevic in the future, or even Adrian Leijer. But he will be missed at the other end, too, where his head often connected with set-pieces to good effect (as Gary Neville, for one, will remember). Few other current Australian defenders are so dangerous in the air; Jamie Harnwell is perhaps the only one who is similarly adept at exploiting set-pieces.

Stan Lazaridis

Australia has a number of promising left-sided midfielders at the moment, but how many have the ability to beat their fullback as regularly as Laza did in his prime?

Harry Kewell’s career currently hangs in the balance, and it’s doubtful that he will ever be the force he once was on the left wing. Alex Brosque has shown promise in the position, but there is still debate as to whether he is best deployed there.

In the long term, Australia’s best option on the left wing may turn out to be another Sydney FC player – David Carney. He, for one thing, has no qualms about taking on and beating opposing fullbacks.

Zeljko Kalac

Although Kalac’s comments on Mark Schwarzer’s form prior to the World Cup were tactless and selfish, the competition between the two arguably spurred them on to better performances for the national team.

Schwarzer’s performances leading up to the World Cup were superior to Kalac’s, but the Spider loyalists complained that Schwarzer didn’t take sufficient command of his area. Up to a point, this was true, although it could be countered that Kalac often attempted to take command in his area and didn’t (the pre-World Cup Greece friendly was a good example of this).

Ante Covic looked ordinary in his Socceroo debut against Bahrain. Sooner or later, Danny Vukovic must surely be entrusted with the Socceroo gloves; in almost every respect, he has shown himself a wonderfully accomplished young keeper.

On a final note, congratulations to Carlos Gamarra on a distinguished international career with Paraguay.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


Be My Guest, Part 2

So what of Benito Carbone, and Romario?

Carbone has already demonstrated his on-field value, and the fact that some of the fans remember him from his vibrant days in the English Premiership and the Serie A counts for a lot.

As for Romario, although the FFA apparently baulked at his age somewhat, he is one of the most recognizable figures in the game, a goalscorer of peerless class, and his recent exploits in Miami have shown that there’s life in the old poacher yet.

Both are excellent choices as guest players.

Below are, for my money (a curiously apt term, that), the three boxes to be ticked when a guest player is being sought:

1. He should be recognizable.

A good proportion of the fans must have seen him in action before, either live or (far more likely) on TV. Thus, at least a spell in either the English Premiership or the Serie A (the Sunday morning highlights package of which I used to look forward to so avidly) would be desirable. In Romario’s case, all long-term football fans will remember him from the 1994 World Cup, not to mention his Barcelona days.

2. He should have an acceptable history of professionalism.

In my opinion, the FFA were absolutely right to block the Newcastle Jets’ attempts to sign Stan Collymore. An intermittently brilliant player he may have been, but his off-field behaviour has frequently been downright despicable, and any untoward incident during his stay in Australia would have been seized on by the ever-vocal anti-football element in the media.

There is also the small fact that he hasn’t played at a decent level for five years, which should have killed the idea at birth. Even if he had been active during that time, however, it wouldn’t have been a wise move.

Romario may have had his squabbles with management in the past, but he's hardly in the Collymore class.

3. He should be an entertaining player.

Not necessarily technically dazzling, not necessarily a prolific goalscorer. But guest players derive their value from their capacity to fill the stands, with the inevitable knock-on effect once the guest stint has finished; if they can provide the neophyte fans with a moment to remember, a move that raised the game above the mundane, then the expense will most likely have been worth it.

Three simple, but important, criteria.

As for the matter of provenance, any hope of brand-building in the guest player’s country of origin is largely misplaced, in my view. Kazu may have been watched by millions in Japan, but how many of those millions will give a fig for the A-League now?

And on the matter of disruption to the existing team structure, I genuinely believe that a canny coach should be able to minimize the damage in this regard. It will be very interesting to see how Terry Butcher and John Kosmina will manage things after their guests have taken their leave.

Friday, October 06, 2006


The Bugno Era, Part 2

Although there has been constant debate as to the real extent of Sydney FC’s losses last season, there’s little doubt that the balance sheet looked worse than Walter Bugno had initially expected.

The contract offered to Pierre Littbarski, whose managerial resume was not nearly as impressive as it may have appeared at first glance, was far too generous. Even most of Bugno’s supporters would agree that the “Littbarski package” was a misjudgement.

Littbarski strained the wage bill, and alienated the fans with his insipid tactics. Few tears were shed when he left rather than accept a humiliating pay cut. Bugno backed Littbarski to the hilt throughout, and reacted surprisingly angrily when a small number of fans questioned the German’s suitability for the job mid-season.

And there we come to an aspect of Bugno’s chairmanship that occasionally disappointed: his sensitivity to (often oblique) criticism.

He aimed to be loved by the fans, and to a large extent he achieved that objective. His presence on the unofficial website, on which he patiently and fully responded to fans’ concerns on a regular basis, bespoke considerable goodwill and commitment. But there were times when he over-reacted, either in public statements or on SFCU, to fairly mild criticism.

The majority of the fans, even those occasionally voicing doubts, did like him (I count myself among the above), but Bugno appeared pained when any chinks in the armour of affection appeared.

But on to other matters.

Dwight Yorke was, of course, the other major personal financial drain on the club (the exorbitant Aussie Stadium rental was, and is, another sticky issue). On the pitch, he was, arguably, not quite worth the money. But the publicity he gained the club and the league were truly priceless, and Bugno, in my opinion, deserves to be congratulated for being the first A-League chairman to take a risk on a high-profile foreign star.

Would Adelaide United have had the gumption to begin their ultimately successful pursuit of Romario, had the bar not been set by the acquisition of Yorke?

The consensus seems to be that under the stewardship of Capon – a Lowy proxy in the opinion of many – the club’s brand-building ambition will be sacrificed on the altar of the bottom line.

Capon himself is apparently a long-term football aficionado, but it’s hard to see the fans taking to him as they did to Walter Bugno.

But, says this Sydney FC fan, let’s give him a chance.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Who's Afraid? - another brief update

Long-time readers might remember my brief, contemptuous dismissal of Michael Duffy's moronic anti-football piece from the Sydney Morning Herald.

For a detailed, vigorous response to Duffy's absurdities, I commend you to Simon Hill's excellent article in the November edition of Australian FourFourTwo. Sadly, there is no link available, as far as I know.


Une Dizaine d’Arsène

Arsène Wenger last week celebrated ten years in English football. When one considers Arsenal’s place in the Premiership pecking order when he took over, by comparison to their current lofty status, Wenger’s reign can only be judged a tremendous success from a Gunner perspective.

Yet he has, at times, been a controversial figure. Lately, the criticism has centred, not on his legendary bouts of convenient blindness, but on his supposed preference for non-English players. Alan Pardew, West Ham’s manager, has had something to say on the subject in recent times, as have a number of fans.

To my mind, their criticism misses the point, and bespeaks an inability to distinguish between club motives and national team motives – something I have commented on previously.

Wenger’s response, that “football is about quality…not anything else”, sounds pretty apt to me.

The make-up of the Arsenal team circa 2006 is simply a product of the post-Bosman era, and if Wenger feels that his Francophone brigade are the players most likely to bring success to the club, no qualms about the effect on English football of such an apparent exclusion of the locals should deter him. That is simply not his concern – not that Wenger has ever shown much concern for international football anyway, but that’s a different issue.

Wenger is certainly not anti-English players in general. Arsenal’s double success of 1997/98 owed a great deal to the strikeforce of Nicolas Anelka and Dennis Bergkamp, not to mention the outstanding wing play of Marc Overmars, but the famous Dixon-Adams-Keown-Winterburn defensive line, Englishmen all, also played a crucial role. As a matter of fact, Wenger kept faith with a couple of these local old-stagers longer than was perhaps justified.

And who was it, in the late eighties, who introduced the talented Glenn Hoddle and Mark Hateley to French football, at Monaco? None other than one Arsène Wenger.

England, in any event, has much to thank Wenger for. His Arsenal sides have been exciting to watch, and have not only made the Premiership a more entertaining competition, but raised the bar in the quality stakes.

One final point: had Arsenal not stung Manchester United by snatching the 1997/98 title, and then matched them step for step in 1998/99 before conceding the Premiership by a single point, would Alex Ferguson’s men have had the competitive edge to bring England its first European Cup in 15 years, in 1999?

Worth a thought.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Be My Guest, Part 1

A recent interview which deserved a wider audience was the grilling of the FFA’s Head of Operations, Matt Carroll, by Attila Mosonyi and prominent Covite Grant Muir. An mp3 of the interview is available here, in two parts.

Carroll, in my opinion, came out of the discussion fairly well, despite a few truculent moments.

Particularly interesting were his comments on guest players (about a minute and a half into Part 2, for the record). Perhaps now, with Benito Carbone in the A-League and Romario on his way, it’s time for a closer look at this particular concept.

Carroll seemed to be of the view that Sydney FC’s Kazuyoshi Miura experiment last season was an unqualified success. Certainly, for a time, there was a large presence from the Japanese media at Sydney FC games, and I’ll gladly accept Carroll’s statement that the matches were seen by millions in Japan.

But with all respect to him, I’m not sure that the effect was uniformly positive.

Firstly, the Japanese interest in Sydney FC was, in my opinion, fairly transitory. The attention of the Japanese media appeared to be very firmly on Kazu, rather than the club or the league, for the duration of his stay; after Kazu had gone, there were very few, if any, Japanese photographers to be found at Aussie Stadium.

Even the questions from Japanese journalists at Sydney FC press conferences just prior to Kazu’s arrival were breathtakingly parochial, basically implying that Kazu’s presence would lend the club instant credibility and respect.

Then, there was the aftermath of Kazu’s guest period.

A knowledgeable Covite of my acquaintance, who has some strong opinions on the matter of guest players, insists that the necessity of accommodating Kazu disrupted the balance of the team, and contributed substantially to Sydney’s poor form following the World Club Championship. And he certainly has a point.

I’m still undecided on Kazu. It was a brave move, and its benefits were always going to be largely intangible. But it’s misleading, in my opinion, to suggest that it was an unequivocal blessing for Sydney FC and the league. What is beyond doubt, however, is that Kazu's behaviour on and off the pitch was utterly professional and a credit to him.

In Part 2, a look at the cases of Carbone and Romario, and some possible guidelines for the choice of future A-League “guests”.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


The Inventor

One of Brian Glanville’s favourite phrases, used with reference to players of great creativity and vision, is “inventing the game”. It is, significantly, an idiom of Italian origin.

Those capable of “inventing the game”, as Glanville often tells us in his weekly column, are those who can produce the unexpected; split the defence with an instinctive pass, beat a defender in imaginative fashion, or simply come up with an unorthodox trick to resolve a situation.

In the days when I followed the English Premiership somewhat more closely, these were the players I admired the most. Prominent among them were Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Paolo di Canio and Juninho.

Another who fit the description was a less glamorous character, a putative journeyman who pinballed between a series of lesser clubs, generally providing the sole moments of on-field inspiration for his employers.

His name was Benito Carbone, and all Sydney FC fans with memories long enough to encompass Carbone’s Premiership exploits (not to mention his early days in Italy), welcomed his arrival.

And didn’t we see the unexpected yesterday.

There were many examples, but I’d like to focus on just one. Take his pass (to use a woefully inadequate description) to Petrovski for Sydney’s third goal.

Petrovski, starting from a position on the left, laid the ball off. Carbone, barely pausing to look up, back-heeled a gently-weighted lofted ball into the path of Petrovski, who was rushing diagonally at goal. It fell perfectly for the Sydney FC striker, and he buried the chance.

The back-heel – along with the instinctive lob for Ruben Zadkovich’s opening goal, and the outrageous shimmy to beat Aaron Goulding on the wing near the close – belonged wholly to a type of player who is increasingly rare in the modern game. I’m quite convinced that the sort of vision and, above all, cheek required to pull off such tricks cannot be coached (although it can certainly be encouraged). It comes down to character rather than technique, individualism rather than polished skill.

Modern football, with its propensity to produce one-size-fits-all players, still desperately needs its “inventors”. And Benito Carbone, if he can carry on in similar vein for Sydney FC, will be a precious commodity indeed.

Monday, October 02, 2006


It's Coming...

Yep, there's a lengthy piece coming up on today's thrilling Adelaide v. Sydney game, but I'd like to get my thoughts vaguely in order first...

In the meantime, another musing on old Law 12 below. Enjoy.


Law 12 and How to Ruin It

Back to our old friend, Law 12.

I mentioned earlier that the regulation concerning the “denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity” had an aspect to it that irked me. Here it is again:

…denies an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick

It’s those last four words which shouldn’t be there.

The “professional foul” rule, as it is commonly known, existed in England before it was set in stone by FIFA. Its intent was to punish the cynical outside-the-box foul, whereby a player with a clear run on goal was bundled over by a shrewd defender.

In applying the law to the 18-yard box as well, FIFA completely missed the point.

If a player is brought down in the box, the penalty is sufficient punishment – unless, that is, the foul is a particularly dangerous one.

Let’s see how this silly piece of legislation has affected the A-League in recent times:

In Thursday night’s game, after Darren Bazeley’s slovenly back-pass had put Damian Mori through, Che Bunce’s desperate lunge brought the veteran striker down. A penalty was given (although there appeared to be some doubt as to whether the foul had been committed within the box), and Bunce went off.

From a common sense point of view, what reason was there for dismissing him? The foul had not been dangerous, a goal was now likely to be scored anyway (just as likely as if Mori had continued his run, in fact).

At least the Bunce incident happened at the end of the game, though. Last season’s Central Coast v. Sydney game in Gosford, potentially one of the games of the season, was ruined by the early dismissal of Michael Beauchamp for a similar foul (a highly debatable one, at that) on Dwight Yorke inside the box. Sydney FC played the remaining eighty minutes with a man more, and duly crushed Lawrie McKinna’s team.

And finally, an example of the law as it should be applied – again, coincidentally, in a game involving the Mariners. Their exciting derby against the Jets last week saw Adam Kwasnik clean through on the break on 75 minutes. Paul Okon, the last defender, brought him down quite deliberately, some 30 yards from goal.

This was exactly the kind of foul that should be punished by a red card, since the resulting free kick is so unlikely, by comparison with a striker’s one-on-one with the keeper, to produce a goal. Although not dangerous, Okon’s foul was quite calculated, genuinely denied the opposition a likely goal, and in fact (arguably) gained a point for the Jets in the long run.

It was, in other words, the archetypal “professional foul”.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Floundering Fozzie - update

I'd considered giving a more detailed analysis of Craig Foster's latest pathetic diatribe in the Sydney Morning Herald, but it's barely worth the effort. Suffice to say that he has been, for the last month, steadily losing touch with reality; he now expects a club in its second year of existence, still struggling with a hefty wage bill and stadium rental, not to mention a limited roster, to put in place a "football department", with the rather nebulous function of providing:

...long-term strategic plans for recruitment, the scouting process, player development, coaching appointments and, most urgently, the football philosophy...

That's just fine, Craig. We'll hire a pile of experts from your favoured footballing regions to come and provide us with the fruit of their collective wisdom, provided you cough up the dough. Deal?

Apparently, though, the likes of Barcelona, Ajax, Bayern Munich and others do this, so Sydney FC should as well. The fact that these are clubs with half a century of history behind them, worldwide fan bases and multi-million dollar transfer kitties seems to have flown under Fozzie's particular radar.

His Terry Butcher fixation, meanwhile, is moving beyond embarrassing and becoming downright repugnant.

His Littbarski comparisons are not only deeply unfair, given the ever-changing playing roster that Butcher has had to deal with for the first few rounds of the A-League, but also deeply ignorant. To wit:

...No club with a sound football strategy would employ Pierre Littbarski one year then Terry Butcher the next, and expect any continuity of style...

Well, erm, yes, Craig. That was rather the point. Given the turgid football produced under Littbarski last season, I'm sure most Sydney FC fans, not to mention the board, would have been quite happy with a discontinuity of style, shall we say.

And I wonder if Foster is aware that any "sound football strategy" in the matter of Sydney FC's new coaching appointment had to dovetail with sound fiscal practice, given that the new manager was never going to be allowed the bloated package offered to Littbarski, thereby cutting down the club's options considerably.

Terry Butcher has hardly made a good beginning, it is true. His comments about fighting spirit and siege mentalities have smacked of a dearth of ideas, his tactics and selections have been questionable, and his relationship with his squad is clearly not all that it could be. But the fact remains that his decimated squad holds third place in the league, that several key players are still to return, and, importantly, that some other players (Alex Brosque in particular) are yet to regain full match-fitness.

Butcher may deserve criticism, but he does not deserve the sort of pig-headed, ill-informed assault he has been copping from Craig Foster's pen over the last few weeks.

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