Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Winter of Our Discontent

Two of the more eye-catching performances of this weekend’s A-League round were provided by Ivan Necevski, making a stunning debut in goal for the Newcastle Jets, and Mile Jedinak of the Central Coast Mariners, confirming his status as a young midfielder of much promise.

What do these two players have in common, besides their Slavic ancestry?

Answer: they both played in the NSW state league this winter, and have only stepped up to the A-League this season. Ditto Luka Glavas of Perth Glory, Adam d’Apuzzo of Newcastle and Nikolai Topor-Stanley of Sydney FC.

Add that to the number of A-Leaguers “wintering” in the state league – Mark Milligan, Mark Bridge and Paul Kohler among them – and it’s clear that there are some quite decent footballers taking the park during the state league season. And, I can assure you, some quite decent football being played.

It is assuredly the same story in the Victorian state league, with Roddy Vargas stepping straight out of Green Gully to become one of the best defenders of the 2006/07 A-League season.

It’s a pity, then, that more “neutrals” do not turn out to see some of the football on show in the state leagues. A pity, too, that the two competitions do not coincide, thanks to the FFA’s decision to make the A-League a summer competition.

Should it be so?

A few years ago, Les Murray published an opinion piece on the World Game website (unfortunately, it has lapsed from the site’s archive), in which he essentially argued that a return to winter for the national league would be sheer lunacy. Although he made one or two salient points, there are plenty of arguments to the contrary, one of the strongest of which is that aligning the state leagues with the premier national competition would engender many benefits.

The lack for possibilities for young players, about which Murray and his ilk make so much fuss, could be alleviated via a strategic alliance with a state league club, such as Terry Butcher hinted at here. However, such an arrangement would surely only work if the two seasons were aligned.

Then there is the question of the Asian Champions’ League.

Its group stage runs during the A-League off-season, and the lack of serious match time in between the ACL ties will put A-League sides at a considerable disadvantage, in my opinion.

The competition with the rugby codes for spectators, and the damage done to shared surfaces by rugby fixtures, continue to be important concerns in the timing of the A-League. But in the long-term, a switch to winter just might prove beneficial.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


AFC Antics

In Abu Dhabi tomorrow evening, the annual AFC Awards will be presented, including the jewel in the crown – the AFC Player of the Year award.

So, who’s likely to get it? Perhaps Shunsuke Nakamura, whose exploits at Celtic are known to all? Park Ji-Sung maybe, who followed his impressive spell at PSV with a promising first season at Manchester United? Let’s not forget our own Tim Cahill, whose performances with Everton and Australia even put him on the initial shortlist for FIFA’s World Player of the Year gong.

Well, I’ve got news for you. None of these three even made the shortlist.

The final three nominees are all from western Asia, all locally-based, and unless you were keen to discover the identity of that pesky Kuwaiti No. 17 who caused our defence no end of trouble in Kuwait City, you’re unlikely to have heard of any of them.

This is perhaps a little surprising, when you consider that some recent winners of the award have been European-based (at the time, anyway) players such as Shinji Ono and Mehdi Mahdavikia. What’s going on?

The answer is to be found in the curious criteria for the award, which, among other things, do not take performances for European clubs in domestic competition into account at all. The only ways in which Nakamura, Cahill and Park could have gained brownie points related to the award were by playing for their national teams, or in the Champions’ League or UEFA Cup. They must also be able to attend the AFC’s gala bash in person.

Clearly this is a bit silly, but it’s symptomatic of certain seismic shifts within the AFC that I referred to in an earlier piece. The recent, virtually obligatory T-shirt tours to Asia by the big European clubs have not gone down well with the AFC hierarchy, and, by extension, Asian players who have gained star status in Europe are somewhat on the nose, as the following piece of AFC spin makes quite clear:

An AFC spokeswoman added that the regulations were designed to "fully reflect the AFC’s determination to honour players who have shown a strong commitment to playing in Asia and popularising the game".

"It is to recognise those who have played consistently in Asia," she said.

"At the end of the day, it is not a popularity contest or about who gets written about the most."

This again raises the question of how welcome Australia will really be in Asia, given that all of our top players are competing in European leagues. In a sidelight, Australia is up for the Team of the Year award (and, by rights, should surely get it), but the Player of the Year award tends to attract the most attention.

And for the last few years, the latter award has been a symbol of western Asian pride in the face of the European success of some eastern Asian players.

Our Asian adventure is not going to be an easy ride, either on the pitch or in the boardroom.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Up for the Dome

Melbourne Victory’s move to Telstra Dome has been a godsend from a broader point of view. Attendances have been staggering, the atmosphere (in the opinion of many) has rivalled that of a plum European club fixture, and the football has often been of a very high quality.

I wonder, though, whether the move has been a mixed blessing for Ernie Merrick’s side.

Melbourne have only scored four points from their last four home games, while remaining a devastating unit on the road. And although their most recent loss – to Newcastle on Sunday – can partly be put down to injuries, I feel that opposing teams are now treating a game at Telstra Dome like the proverbial cup final. Newcastle certainly did.

Terry Butcher claimed during the week that Sydney FC were still, given their status as champions, the team everyone wanted to beat. It’s in Butcher’s interest to say this, of course, but I doubt even he seriously believes it any more.

The Central Coast came roaring out of the blocks in their thrilling 3-3 draw with Melbourne a few weeks back, although they faltered later. Adelaide produced easily their best performance of the season in the memorable Round 8 encounter at the Dome, probably the best game in the history of the competition.

On Sunday, it was a similar story. Ivan Necevski, playing his first competitive game since his miserable afternoon at Bossley Park in the state league grand final, gave a performance that befitted the occasion; perhaps the most impressive A-League debut by a local since Dario Vidosic’s decisive half-hour in Round 1 (which, sadly, he has not come close to matching since).

The rest of the Newcastle team followed suit; in particular, the central midfield pairing of Musialik and Kohler, who have played such a pivotal role in Newcastle’s revival, were robust and incisive. Nick Carle, although diligently marked by Steve Pantelidis, produced a few moments of brilliance.

Come the finals, will Melbourne’s impressive football theatre work to their detriment, bringing the very best out of visiting sides?

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Be My Guest - another update

Events at Bluetongue Stadium last night were certainly grist to the mill of those, such as my Well-Informed Covite friend, who have less than charitable attitudes towards guest player stints in the A-League.

Romario was hardly mobile, but we expected that. What was less expected was that he was horribly blunt in front of goal, missing three good chances. His touch, too, was surprisingly poor.

The veteran Brazilian can hardly complain about the service he received; Jason Spagnuolo – the find of the season, in my opinion – was influential and incisive as ever on the wing, and Fernando Rech did his best to bring his compatriot into the game. To no avail.

One problem that appeared to beset Adelaide’s regular attacking players was that, once in an advanced position, they couldn’t quite decide whether to go for goal themselves or play in their marquee man. Travis Dodd, for one, suffered such a moment of hesitation in the first half.

One of the counter-arguments to the usual guest player catechism (bums on seats, exposure for the league locally and internationally, etc.), is that the veteran Euro A-listers will be depriving young Australians of further game time in the league.

Last night, the force of this objection was plain to see; Nathan Burns, in his brief cameo, contributed more than had Romario in eighty minutes, again showing prodigious composure, adroitness and vision.

The “bums on seats” value of Romario’s A-League sojourn will only be fully clear after his appearances at Hindmarsh, and it’s a little early to be passing judgement on his on-field value as well. But the auguries are not good.

And Nathan Burns has been building up a precious head of steam in the senior league, showing he can match it and then some with professionals. Will a period of fifteen-minute cameos set him back, or affect his apparently limitless self-confidence?

A legitimate concern, for all the triumphalism surrounding the acquisition of Romario.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


For Frank to Fix - update

It would seem that Frank Farina reads this blog.

At a single stroke last night, shortly after the dismissal of Chad Gibson, he adopted all three of my recommendations. Reinaldo went off, Remo Buess came on and went straight into his favoured left-back position, forcing Andrew Packer to move to the right and Hyuk-Su Seo to undertake the midfield anchor role vacated by Gibson (who should never have been there in the first place).

Although you could hardly say that Queensland held their own thereafter, such was Sydney FC’s understandable dominance with a man more, Seo looked the part in midfield as always. Not only was he efficient in the tackle, but he always looked the most likely to conjure up a breakaway. He nearly succeeded in doing so on 50 minutes, sliding a clever pass through for Damian Mori, who laid the ball aside for Ante Milicic to shoot just wide.

Packer, too, looked far more comfortable on the right, and managed a couple of useful excursions upfield. In the first half, he had once again looked a lost soul, failing to deal with the intelligent movement of David Carney (who was, yet again, on the wrong wing).

Then came perhaps the most bizarre substitution we’ve seen this season.

Seo was replaced by…Stuart McLaren.

That’s right, another defender (following Gibson) was thrust into central midfield by Farina, just as the appropriate man for the job was warming to his role.

It utterly defied logic, and it was hardly a surprise that all the fight went out of Queensland thereafter.

It will be interesting to see how Farina deploys his side next week, with Gibson suspended (incidentally, Queensland’s captain deserves an absolute rocket for his foolishness last night). One would hope that Seo – curiously described as “a natural right-back” by Farina following the Melbourne game – will remain in the centre. But given Farina’s odd tactical approach so far, including starting with no less than three off-the-shoulder strikers last night, nothing is certain.

Friday, November 24, 2006


FIFA Flexes its Muscles

A significant piece of news on the international front today, from an Australian point of view: Iran, one of our chief AFC rivals, has been banned indefinitely from international competition.

FIFA's intransigence in the matter of government interference in football administration is well known. For the most part, it must be said, they ban national associations for the right reasons. Those familiar with the politics of Greek football assured me that the recent sanctions against the Greek FA were regrettable, but richly deserved.

Having said that, the threats of the Soccer Australia "rump board" to invoke FIFA sanctions in 2003 over the implementation of the Crawford Report showed that there are some paradoxical features in FIFA's hardline stance on governmental "interference". Governmental pressure is not always to the detriment of the game.

In the current case, it would seem that FIFA have made the right decision.

Mohammad Dadkan, the federation president, was sacked following Iran's indifferent World Cup performance, to be replaced - ominously - by the head of a government organisation. With FIFA sanctions looming, Dadkan even offered to resign to salvage the situation, to no avail.

One would expect the Iranians, with their proud football history, to be keen to put their house in order. But with a hardline theocratic government in charge (and apparently determined to meddle in all aspects of public life), who knows how long the ban will last.

We have joined the AFC in an interesting period. With an undercurrent of Islamic radicalism spreading throughout many of the Arab nations, Australia, with its close political connections to the U.S., may not be a welcome addition in some quarters. There are rumours that the AFC may eventually split along predictable ethnic and cultural lines (with Australia, of course, staying with the eastern "half"); perhaps today's events represent another straw in the wind.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


World Player of June

It’s around this time of the year that football forums the world over are crammed with speculation regarding FIFA’s top individual bauble, the World Player of the Year award. Football’s governing body has now narrowed the list down to thirty.

And, to the surprise of no-one, twenty-nine of them competed at the World Cup.

A World Cup year always tends to skew the award towards players who have excelled at the tournament. Let us remember, however, that in the World Cup a player can play a maximum of seven games, as opposed to about fifty in European club competition, domestic or external, throughout the year.

I can’t pretend to follow European football with the same enthusiasm or regularity as I do the local game, but I would have thought the outstanding Daniel Alves of Sevilla was worth a nomination. Ludovic Giuly, perversely omitted from the French World Cup squad, is another significant omission. And Juninho Pernambucano, the subtle architect of Lyon’s continuing success, is not there…presumably because he was only a bit-part player at the Big Event.

Fabio Cannavaro is the hot favourite for the top award after his superb World Cup, but he has made a decidedly mixed start at Real Madrid. In Tuesday’s Champions League match he was made to look an absolute tyro by the mercurial John Carew.

Conversely, Ronaldinho, winner of the award in 2004 and 2005, appears to be lagging behind Cannavaro in the polls, largely because his own World Cup was surprisingly poor.

It’s an unwritten law that a player must have played at the World Cup to gain the award in a World Cup year. But, if the award is to have any genuine credibility, there should be some balance.

May I suggest a candidate who had a fine World Cup, but also helped his erstwhile side to a league triumph, and has been one of the most consistently impressive players in Europe? He made the original shortlist, but has disappeared from the top thirty.

He’s a defender, which is a big black mark against him to start with, but what the heck.

His contributions are so rarely acknowledged that he was actually a makeweight in one of the more high-profile moves of the European summer.

He is one of the fastest defenders in the game, excellent on the ground, efficient in the air, and capable of scoring the odd goal.

He is pleasingly adaptable, functioning effectively both in central defence and at left-back.

He has been one of my favourite European players for many years, and I feel that recently he has been at his peak. But few seem to have noticed.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the World Player of the Whole Year, not just June. Mr. William Gallas.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


The Daily Tragic

A quick note to my loyal (and not-so-loyal) readers to confirm that I'm reluctantly admitting defeat in the battle to produce a post a day. TFT will still be updated very regularly, but not necessarily every day from now on.

Nevertheless, the eternal tragedy will continue.

Monday, November 20, 2006


Battles of the Barrier Range

Although Melbourne Victory fans have a right to be aggrieved that their excellent side is likely to miss out on the next instalment of the Asian Champions' League, it's perhaps fitting that the two sides who have created the A-League's first great rivalry will represent the competition.

Yep, Melbourne v. Sydney, Melbourne v. Adelaide and Central Coast v. Newcastle might all have their attractions, but it is the Sydney v. Adelaide clashes that have provided some of the most memorable incidents of the competition in its opening two seasons.

Yesterday they were at it again, and the match didn't disappoint. It had all the ingredients we've come to expect from the "Bling versus Barrels" contests:

Good Goals

Although Sydney's defending was woeful, both the build-up play and the finish were impressive in Adelaide's ninth-minute opener. Add that one to Shengqing Qu's impeccable finish in the final game of the regular season last year, Travis Dodd's solo special in the preliminary final first leg a week later, and, last but not least, Nathan Burns's delightful goal in the first meeting between the sides this term.

Sydney were not to be outdone. Mark Rudan's tap-in resulted from an eye-catching move, and joined the likes of Alvin Ceccoli's left-foot rocket in last season's final round, Kazu's precise narrow-angled shot earlier in 2005/06, and Petrovski's finish from Benito Carbone's outrageous back-heel at Hindmarsh this season (Benny, we hardly knew ye).

It's worth adding that never has a Sydney v. Adelaide encounter in the regular season produced less than three goals - and both sides have always scored. An enviable record.


There's always a talking point or ten after an Adelaide v. Sydney clash (and most often, it's John Kosmina doing the talking). Matthew Breeze was particularly generous in providing further grist to the universal mill this time: a questionable penalty, an unpunished back-pass, and so on.

Reminiscent of the Timpano "handling on the line" in the closing minutes of the very first encounter between the two teams last season, an incident which prompted Kosmina, in an unguarded moment witnessed by your tragic friend, to thunder "it was a f--king penalty and a f--king sendoff!"


The all-in brawl that followed Clint Bolton's save from Fernando Rech in the second half was not the first such event at an Adelaide v. Sydney fixture. Again, it was their first battle, at Aussie Stadium, which provided the precedent.


The two sides have always been close to the top of the table, and there has always, always been something at stake. Last night, Terry Butcher's raucous celebrations on the touchline after the final whistle showed exactly what it meant to him. Two points from second place, and an apparent vindication of his risky decision to drastically alter the team, so as to accommodate those returning from injury.

Here's to plenty of incident-packed battles of the Barrier Range in the future. May they always be eagerly anticipated by fans of both clubs and neutrals alike.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


1999 Vintage - brief update

The Age's Michael Lynch has become the latest to board the youth train, which has been quickly gathering steam since the failure of the Under 20s to reach the World Youth Championship. Perhaps it's the Foster-Postecoglou shouting match that has piqued the media's interest.

There's little in Lynch's article we haven't heard umpteen times before, but the following paragraph has a keen irony to it, given that he is referring to the lack of opportunities for young players domestically:

"Questions are being asked about where the next generation of Mark Vidukas, Harry Kewells, Lucas Neills and Tim Cahills will come from."

Well, Mr. Lynch, three of those four über-Socceroos you mention learnt their trade at European clubs. As many young Australians are doing now, incidentally.

Given that the FFA have already announced their intention to fast-track their reserve/youth league plans, I really can't see what the youth blatherers are achieving, beyond producing a great deal of hot air.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


For Frank to Fix

It was not an auspicious return to Australian domestic football for Frank Farina.

Despite their resurgence in the second half, Queensland never deserved to get anything out of a game in which they looked defensively inept, and short of width and ideas in attack. Had Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson shown a little more precision (and had Fred not been forced to miss the second half), Queensland could easily have lost by four or five.

It's clear that Farina - who, let it be said immediately, had very little time with the team before the match - has quite a job on his hands to turn things around. True, the Roar are still in the top four and their injury concerns are not pressing. But they are playing like a team that has lost all self-belief at present.

It will be interesting to see how Farina goes about righting the ship. Here are three simple suggestions of mine:

1. Move Andy Packer to the right

The use of Packer at left-back was one of the strangest of all Miron Bleiberg's tactical quirks, and it was a shame to see the former Sydney man starting on the left again last night. He has not done altogether badly there, it must be said, although he endured a wretched first half against Melbourne.

In his brief right-wing cameo against the Central Coast a few weeks back, he looked as effective as anyone in a Roar shirt has been this season. Last night, again, on the one occasion when he found himself in a right-wing position, he evaded two defenders and sent in one of the more dangerous crosses of the game.

With Spase Dilevski in such indifferent form, Packer seems the obvious choice to provide Farina's team with some bite on the right-hand side.

2. Restore Hyuk-Su Seo to central midfield

Last season, Seo proved himself a holding midfielder of drive, great stamina and considerable passing ability. In his role as metronome of the side, he could rarely be faulted.

Honestly, what on earth is he doing being wasted at right-back?

For a start, he is no true full-back, as Alessandro proved last night by skinning him with embarrassing ease on two occasions. But far more importantly, the Queensland side is denied his quality in the middle of the park, where they are palpably lacking a "general". Marcus Wedau has been a disappointment, and the Chad Gibson experiment last night was a disaster. It's time to give "the Korean", as Miron Bleiberg called him, his proper role.

3. Rest Reinaldo

The big Brazilian has been an ever-present for Queensland this season, but in the last few games he has simply been ineffective (although, interestingly, he looked a lot better against Melbourne once he drifted over to the right wing). Farina was denied the presence of Simon Lynch due to a training-ground injury, but when the Scotsman is fit again he should surely start.

There are, of course, concerns for Queensland in other areas, but given the essentially lopsided nature of their squad, I find it hard to offer suggestions. Since there is no right-back and no left-winger on the roster, Farina will have to make the best of a bad bargain in those areas. The left is a particular headache at the moment; Dario Vidosic was utterly anonymous last night, and although Matt McKay could probably fulfil the role capably, he is surely better off in the centre.

Altogether, not an easy task for our erstwhile national manager.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Donkey No Longer

Mike Cockerill's piece in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, dealing with the return to form of David Zdrilic, was timely.

The overwhelming majority of Sydney FC fans wrote him off following his indifferent 2005/06 season, while complaining (not without some justice) that we should have expected more from a player on a generous six-figure salary.

I always felt that Zdrilic had been rushed back into action too soon after his pre-season injury (just in case anyone sees that as a case of wisdom in hindsight, I stated as much here). Pierre Littbarski, in a rare moment of candour, admitted to a few prototype Covers after the opening game against Melbourne that Zdrilic had been a long way from match-fit. And yet he played ninety minutes in the following match!

In the 2005/06 pre-season, he formed an excellent partnership with Saso Petrovski. For much of the 2005/06 season proper, Petrovski would play the target-man role; in the lead-up games, Zdrilic had been the frontman, with Petrovski working just behind him. Such a setup was partially reprised against the New Zealand Knights last Friday, and although the opposition was barely testing, some of the old understanding was perceptible.

To be sure, there are some aspects of Zdrilic's play which still frustrate. The "five yard first touches", as one Sydney FC aficionado recently described them, do occasionally grate. Occasionally he doesn't hold the ball up as effectively as he might.

Yet he is one of the few Sydney players who is currently prepared to "pull the trigger", so to speak, and it's hardly a coincidence that he has gotten back amongst the goals as a result.

Cockerill makes reference to the number of goals Zdrilic has scored for Australia, and indeed he has shown a happy knack of scoring in the green and gold. They haven't always been against Oceania minnows, either; I remember him ghosting cleverly into the box to score against Scotland in 2000, and controlling the ball sharply before powering home in a cameo appearance against Indonesia.

At the very least, his recent performances in light blue should have gone a long way towards banishing the "donkey" nickname - with which he has been burdened by a surprising number of Sydney FC fans over the last couple of years.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Friendly Fire

The Australia v. Ghana friendly was, above all else, a most enjoyable game of football.

Both sides went into the game with a positive attitude, there were few nasty tackles, and there were plenty of chances in the course of the evening.

This, of course, was Australia's first friendly international on European soil since the World Cup. During our Oceania incarceration, I would constantly tear my hair out at the lack of European friendlies organised for the team; being in Oceania meant we were always underdone when it came to important competitions (the most exacting of these being, of course, the World Cup playoff). The problem was exacerbated by the failure of successive administrations to organise a solid friendly schedule for our first side.

Now that we have all the problems and opportunities of Asia to deal with, friendly practice suddenly doesn't seem so important.

And the pleasant upshot of this is that we have taken a genuinely positive, adventurous approach to our first Euro friendly of the Asian era.

In the course of Frank Farina's Socceroo reign, inordinate importance was placed on results in friendlies. Understandably so, however, since these were often the only regular opportunities to make a judgement upon Farina's coaching. The Oceania matches were largely jokes, and such competitions as the Confederations Cup and the Olympics were brief flurries of significant activity inamongst an ocean of relative irrelevance.

Because "his" performances in friendlies attracted so much scrutiny, Farina often took what I considered to be a craven approach to friendly matches. Significant in this regard were the two games against Turkey in mid-2004; Farina's tactics were of the damage-control variety, allowing the Turks to dominate the first half in Sydney to an embarrassing degree.

Even in the game against Jamaica a year earlier (which was, inexcusably, one of only three friendlies we played in 2003), Farina appeared content with a 2-1 result once Harry Kewell had scored the Socceroos' second goal. Although more than half an hour remained, he made only one further substitution, five minutes from the close, and it was an unambitious one.

Graham Arnold clearly felt less obliged to protect a result this morning, and the football was much better for it. What's more, the usefulness of the exercise was surely enhanced.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Tinkerman the Second

So farewell then, Miron Bleiberg.

It seems strange for a coach to resign when his team is occupying a place in the top four of the competition, but things have just not been clicking for Queensland of late. Perhaps it’s for the best.

What has stifled Queensland this season more than anything else, I feel, is Bleiberg’s insistence on experimenting. Claudio Ranieri won the nickname “tinkerman” during his final season at Chelsea, when he constantly changed his personnel so as to keep the egos in his multi-millionaire team under control, but such a sobriquet more properly belongs to Bleiberg.

Ante Milicic, the best finisher at the club, has been in and out of the team, and often quite unwisely deployed. Simon Lynch, whose early-season performances surely merited a regular starting place, has also been bouncing between the first team and the bench. The forward in whom Bleiberg seems to place the most faith, Reinaldo, has blown very much hot and cold – as Hamish at Football Down Under has recently pointed out.

Then there has been the positional confusion.

Andrew Packer has been bizarrely deployed at left-back, while Matt McKay has shifted between the left and the centre. Stuart McLaren has popped up in a few different positions. Spase Dilevski has popped up almost everywhere.

The Roar take the field in orange, and the frequent tactical changes adopted by Bleiberg have certainly added spice to last season’s Brisbane Hollandia jokes.

Bleiberg’s media manner will be missed, though. I commented with awe on his refreshing tactical explanations after the game against Sydney at Aussie last month, and his on-camera rant after the Roar had thumped Newcastle late last season has already entered Australian football folklore.

And Frank Farina as replacement?

It wouldn’t be a bad choice at all, in my view. Although Farina often looked out of his depth in the Socceroo job, his relatively brief coaching stint in the old NSL was a palpable success.

One hopes that, should Farina get the gig, his media manner will improve from the shocking low he reached towards the end of his national team tenure. The fact that he will be dealing chiefly with Fox rather than SBS augurs well in that respect, of course.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


1999 Vintage

It was inevitable that the early exit of the Australian Under 20 side from the Asian Youth Championship would lead to the gnashing of teeth in certain quarters. Sure enough, Craig Foster has obliged with another piece along familiar lines, droning on about the need for a technical director while damning John O’Neill with faint praise. His use of such a pejorative term as “upheaval” to describe the gains of the past few years is grossly unfair.

But enough of Foster for the moment. In fact, many of us have had enough of him for months.

Let’s just examine the basis for this hand-wringing over a sub-par performance in a junior tournament, in the light of recent history.

The accusations against Ange Postecoglou of negativity, failure to get the most out of his players, etc., reminded me of another Under 20 tournament in which Australia participated.

I remembered, somewhat dimly, watching Australia’s games in the 1999 Under 20 World Cup with some dissatisfaction. The impression that springs to mind is of the Young Socceroos of seven years ago getting outclassed technically by Mexico, and comprehensively outplayed by a fit, motivated Irish side.

Sure enough, on checking the relevant page of the Australian Football Archive (an invaluable resource, this, for anyone interested in Australian football history), my recollections were confirmed. The match reports appended to the games in question have a very familiar ring to them: Australia overly defensive, time for a coaching change, players rotting away on the bench at their clubs, etc.

So who were these underperforming Young Socceroos?

Erm, Mark Bresciano, Vince Grella, Brett Emerton, Mile Sterjovski, Simon Colosimo…

I’ll say it again.

The correlation between success at junior level and success at full senior international level is absolutely minimal.

By way of contrast, the 1999 Joeys, who reached the final of their particular World Cup, only going down to Brazil on penalties, have turned out to be an ordinary bunch indeed.

In terms of our various national teams, the success of our senior international side should be priority number one, with daylight second and third. For obvious reasons.

And once players have reached senior level, their continued development has far, far more to do with their getting regular action, at a decent level of competition, at their clubs. The contribution of national bodies to the continuing development of senior players is negligible, especially if the majority choose to pursue their careers in Europe (as indeed they do).

There have been plenty of young Australians in the recent past whose careers have stalled (or worse) thanks to unfortunate, or unwise, club moves. David Seal, Ned Zelic, Nick Rizzo, and - dare I say it - Craig Foster. We've heard plenty about the need for a technical director; how about an experienced, disinterested expert (a former agent, say), to advise young Australian players on club choice?

It’s worth pointing out here, incidentally, that one of the problems in this area for young Australian players recently has been their automatic choice of British over continental European clubs…often with disastrous results.

I would be the last to deny that the development of young players is crucially important.

But results in junior tournaments?

Of decidedly limited significance, in my view.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


He Who Hesitates - update

Fans of Alex Brosque will be pleased to note that he gave a far better account of himself against the New Zealand Knights on Friday night. Although quiet for the opening twenty minutes, he was highly influential thereafter, managing a good shot on goal, a couple of excellent through-balls, and, last but emphatically not least, a successful run at a defender. He managed to take on Sime Kovacevic on the left wing and win, and was clumsily fouled by the Knights' centre-half.

Sadly, the news was not so good for another former Queensland Roar player, whose form has nose-dived this year.

I refer, of course, to Jonti Richter.

Richter was one of the revelations of last year's A-League season. A lively, adroit winger with a knack for beating his fullback, Richter was at the heart of some of Queensland's best moves in the first season of the new league. For obvious reasons, I remember his Round 19 performance against Sydney FC particularly well; he absolutely murdered Sydney FC's World Cup-bound fullback Mark Milligan, and had a hand in both Queensland's goals.

Early on this season, many pundits felt that Paul Nevin was not giving him sufficient game time with the Knights, particularly given their lack of penetration out wide. Well, Nevin has now made him a regular, and perhaps he's wishing he hadn't.

The sort of hesitation which was a feature of Alex Brosque's play early in the season has been even more evident in Jonti Richter's performances. Against his old club last week, he worked hard and helped to stifle Queensland out wide, but when he found himself in position to shoot, or even cross, he tended to be either fearful or over-elaborate.

Against Sydney FC on Friday, he could have given the away side the lead twice in the first half, had he been prepared to back himself a little more.

Clean through on goal on 21 minutes, he paused, almost amazed that such an opportunity had been given him, and back-heeled weakly, missing his intended colleague by some distance. Then, twelve minutes later, he was through again. This time he did manage a shot, but only after a few seconds' hesitation; it sliced off his left foot, and over the bar.

It's a pity to see such a talented young player apparently losing faith in his own abilities. The sort of healthy self-confidence that has marked the performances of some A-League youngsters at times this season (Nathan Burns, in particular, is worth a mention here), seems to have eluded Jonti Richter.

Friday, November 10, 2006



Paul Gardner, World Soccer's always controversial American scribe, has devoted his editorial space in the most recent issue of the magazine to the issue of penalty shoot-outs (the recent comments from Blatter have certainly re-ignited the eternal argument).

Gardner's proposed solution is not one of the trendier ones, like player removal or shots on goal. He favours decision by corner count, one of the older proposals which somehow fell out of favour.

I've never been able to take it particularly seriously, given that, for a start, the count is often so low. There are plenty of games which feature only five or six corners altogether; the corner statistic, in that case, is virtually meaningless (as any mathematician worth his salt would tell you).

One other objection I have to such a method is that corners for the same side often follow each other in close succession (due to headed clearances, etc.). In other words, a side might end up being rewarded for five minutes' solid pressure rather than ninety.

Having said that, there is a little to recommend the corner count. Looking back through the stats for the recent drawn A-League games, the side whom I felt played the more enterprising football did generally force the more corners.

But here's an interesting little fact. Melbourne Victory are currently standing on top of the table with a near-perfect score; one would expect their corner count to be formidable by comparison with their opposition.

Yet, in the majority of their games, they have conceded the more corners. Even against the Knights in Auckland, they were "outnumbered" six corners to four. And yet they won 4-0!

I believe the explanation for this lies partly in Melbourne's style of play. They play largely (though not exclusively) through the middle, favouring the central thrust to the release out wide; the excellent Fred, nominally a right-winger for much of the season, tends rather to roam around just behind the forward-line much like a No. 10.

In my experience, sides playing like this generally force fewer corners than either sides with two genuine wide men or long-ball specialists. Yet it seems against the spirit of the game - and certainly against Paul Gardner's principles - to indirectly punish sides who prefer the intelligent central build-up.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Imperfect 10

From the way some people carry on, you would think that there is a deep, dark conspiracy in Australian football to keep Nick Carle out of the national team.

Successive Australian managers have shunned him, despite the fact that he is, as most would admit, easily the most technically gifted Australian player still playing here.

Les Murray recently offered some perceptive comments on Carle (using them as parentheses for a robust exculpation of Nick Theodorakopoulos). Les compared him – not without reason – to another fine Australian midfielder of South American descent, Oscar Crino.

Like Crino, Carle is a genuine No. 10, a technically accomplished playmaker, ideally suited to the “three-quarter” role beloved of Italian purists.

When on song, he can be wonderfully exciting to watch. His cameo performance in the home Olympic playoff against New Zealand in 2004, after coming on as substitute, was stunning. Never have I seen a newly-arrived player turn a game so quickly and decisively.

Yet Frank Farina was never truly convinced by Carle, and the erstwhile national manager left him at home for the Athens tournament itself – a very poor decision, I feel.

This season, he has been used more sensibly by Newcastle’s two managers than he ever was by Richard Money, and he has flourished. His picture-book goal against Adelaide capped a fine individual performance, and against Sydney on Saturday he again caused plenty of problems with his fluent, enterprising play.

Yet there is one element of Carle’s game that is still lacking, and that is sharpness in front of goal.

It was easy to forget, in the afterglow of Carle’s strike against Adelaide, that this was his first goal in a long, long time. Too often he works his way into good scoring positions, only to make a poor fist of the shot.

Twice, against Sydney, he cut inside from the right into an excellent position, but in both cases Clint Bolton was not troubled; the first shot flew over, while the second was directed straight at the Sydney FC gloveman. In both cases, too, Carle was able to use his preferred left foot.

Against Adelaide, before his moment of triumph, it was the same story.

In many ways, Carle has matured this season. He contributes in defence far more, and he seems less prone to moments of hot-headedness. He is, in my view, not far off being a player of true international class.

With some more reliable finishing skills, the jigsaw will be complete.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Pick a Ref, Any Ref, Part 2

The selection of referees for the World Cup did surprise me initially, I must admit. But the one European referee I felt was especially unlucky to miss out, Terje Hauge of Norway, had an absolute shocker in the Barca v. Arsenal Champions’ League final.

I’ve complained in the past, too, about FIFA’s “affirmative action” policy with regard to referees; there are often a few third-world officials at the event who would have been better left at home (this was emphatically the case in 2002).

However, in Germany, the established European referees hardly covered themselves in glory. The tournament’s best official probably was the man who ended up refereeing the final, Horacio Elizondo of Argentina. The Slovakian Lubos Michel, a ref who has improved enormously in recent times, ran him a close second.

But back to the point: the general standard of officiating was unquestionably poor.

So what’s the solution?

One thing would help considerably. Namely, for FIFA’s top brass to keep their big mouths shut for the few months leading up to the tournament, and preferably during it as well.

Before each one of the last four World Cups, we have heard thundering declamations of clampdowns on this, zero-tolerance attitudes towards that, and occasionally even new regulations (or interpretations of regulations) for the referees to digest in an unmanageably short time.

Then, halfway through the tournament, the powers that be change their minds.

2006 provided a perfect case in point.

The referees had a number of missions drummed into them before the tournament, and in the blood-curdling Round of 16 game between Portugal and the Netherlands, Russian referee Valentin Ivanov appeared to be following them to the letter. Yet he was lambasted by Blatter afterwards.

What’s a ref to do, when the man in charge can’t resist putting in his two cents’ worth, and one cent contradicts the other?

It’s an impossible situation, and it’s perhaps not surprising if the officials fall below their usual standards as a result.

Expecting faultless displays from the officials is as futile as expecting such performances from the footballers. But a period of silence on the part of Blatter and his ilk during the World Cup period would be most appreciated.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006



So then. A limp exit at the quarter-final stage of the Asian Under 20 Championship, and a rare absence from the World Youth Championship.

Our worst Asia fears realized, then? Hardly.

The realization that “Asia won’t be a cakewalk” is new only to those with a blissfully unrealistic idea of Australia’s place in world football.

As for the performance(s) of the Young Socceroos, I wasn’t able to see the games; but Shane Davis and James Brown, two gentlemen whose footballing judgement I trust, are both of the view that we played the same sort of dour, unambitious football that our Under 20s produced in Holland last year. And that the eventual 2-1 scoreline against Korea flattered us.

It’s probably time for Ange Postecoglou to go, not necessarily because of the results – as I’ve already asserted, youth football should be more about “seeing what you’ve got” – but simply because he’s been in the gig long enough, and a fresh approach would be beneficial.

Perhaps the silver lining on what is admittedly a disappointing result is that we have been able to do a reconnaissance mission of sorts. With no disrespect to the Matildas, who have already competed successfully in Asia, I think it's fair to say that this was our first really testing assignment.

We have now experienced, in condensed form:

(a) The sort of availability issues which will no doubt dog us to some extent at senior level as well. For full international games we have the backing of FIFA’s rules on player release, but there are still bound to be problems – the recent comments from Mark Bresciano, if nothing else, make that quite clear.

(b) The need to produce quick, flexible defenders if we are to be competitive in Asia. One thing that many of those who saw the games in India mentioned was that our defence was often made to look leaden-footed by fast, tricky attackers – something that was evident also in Kuwait City, when the elusive Al-Mutwa made monkeys of the underdone Australian defence.

(c) The exigencies of an entire competition conducted in challenging conditions, against opposition who have, by and large, faced such conditions before.

We didn’t move to Asia for a cakewalk. We came for a challenge, and that is what we’re getting.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Kicking On

Sydney FC's players have attracted plenty of red cards this season. Many of these punishments, I might add, have been richly deserved.

But - and I hope I'm not guilty of subconscious bias here - Matthew Bingley's dismissal on Saturday night was not.

I have always had a problem with the notion that playing on after the whistle should result in an automatic yellow card. Referees certainly seem to see it that way, but I'm not sure that it should be so. To revisit, for the umpteenth time, Law 12:

"A player is cautioned and shown the yellow card if he...delays the restart of play"

Let's clear up one issue first. In some cases, kicking the ball away after the whistle might be considered dissent by word or action, another infringement for which Law 12 decrees that a yellow card should be given. However, Bingley's rushed clearance, after Nick Carle had been fouled, was surely nothing of this sort.

There remains the issue of delaying the restart.

Realistically, this can surely only mean deliberately delaying the restart, since a defender making a lofted clearance a microsecond after the ref has blown can hardly be held accountable.

The time that elapsed between Mark Shield's whistle and Bingley's hoof to safety was considerably more than a microsecond, but the principle was much the same. In my opinion (accusations of bias here, please), Bingley was committed to the clearance, and in the heat of battle, I feel it's unreasonable to expect players to "pull out" at such short notice.

An incident from the Champions' League a few years ago might illustrate my point a bit better.

In the 2003/04 competition, Chelsea hosted Turkish side Besiktas at Stamford Bridge. Shortly after half-time, the away side's centre-forward, Ilhan Mansiz, was clear through on goal. A very late offside was called, and the referee, some thirty yards behind the play, blew his whistle.

Ilhan, with little time to react to the whistle, ran on and finished nicely.

The play was called back, Ilhan was yellow carded, and, thanks to an earlier caution, he was sent off.

Quite ridiculous, I felt then - and still do.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Pick a Ref, Any Ref, Part 1

Vince Grella has become the latest to weigh into the debate over Sepp Blatter’s Australia v. Italy comments. Grella makes a few pertinent points.

The standard of officiating in the games involving Australia at the World Cup was, indeed, uniformly abysmal. Many Australian fans may have forgotten, in the wake of the outrage directed at Messrs. Cantalejo (v. Italy), Poll (v. Croatia) and Merk (v. Brazil), that the referee for our match against Japan, Abd El Fatah of Egypt, was equally bad (as Grella points out).

Probably with reference to the Brazil game more than anything else, Grella makes a very valid observation about refereeing standards:

"I wouldn't say that referees are biased but our name didn't count for anything," he said. "If you referee Empoli against Milan, for example, if you know the names of the Milan players and you don't know the Empoli players, that can sometimes mean a different call without even thinking about it. Maybe that's what happened to us at the World Cup.”

It’s an all-too-familiar story.

In my match report on the Brazil v. Australia game, I commented that Markus Merk had given the Brazilians a number of “free kicks by reputation” throughout. Merk, however, has not been the only one to do this of late.

Perhaps the worst performance by a referee I have seen in recent years was given by a Korean, Kim Young-Joo, in the Brazil v. Turkey game at the 2002 World Cup.

Kim, like Merk, favoured the Brazilians to a risible degree; every 50-50 call went against the Turks, many legitimate Turkish tackles were viewed as fouls. Markus Merk, eat your heart out.

The culmination of Kim’s star-struck officiating was Brazil winning via a penalty that wasn’t, and Hakan Unsal getting sent off thanks to some utterly disgraceful play-acting from Rivaldo (which, predictably, did not result in suspension for even a single match).

But Grella, whose comments bespeak a healthy common sense, ends his call for sanctions again poor referees with a pessimistic, if accurate, caveat:

"But maybe if we do that with the referees we will have no one left."

That, indeed, is the issue. How do we ensure that the best referees are selected for the top competitions? And, just as importantly, what can we do to enhance their performances at the event itself?

More on that next time.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Making the Numbers Count - update

Lawrie McKinna must be a worried man at the moment. He was unsparing in his criticism of his team last night, when they failed to score against nine men in the second half, while allowing Danny Allsopp an equalizer in the final minutes of normal time.

It is not the first time a numerical advantage has been more of a curse than a blessing for the Mariners this season. Against Newcastle recently, McKinna’s side lost the plot after Paul Okon was sent off for tripping a goal-bound Adam Kwasnik; they soon conceded a goal, and in fact should have conceded a penalty as well.

Apart from demonstrating that Vuko Tomasevic simply should not be playing in defence, what last night’s game appeared to indicate was that the Mariners are uncomfortable playing with a numerical advantage.

I feel – and this is mere speculation – that the Mariners may have taken their “underdog” status too much to heart.

The constant message we received last year from both the media and McKinna was that this was a club without “stars”, who relied on hard work, good organization and collective spirit (perhaps a significant word, that last one, given the provenance of most of the original Mariners players).

All true, of course. And the horrible sequence of injuries they suffered last season made their eventual achievement in reaching the grand final all the more impressive. McKinna has much to be proud of.

But such a reputation can have an effect on the players’ mentality, and the “thriving in adversity” tag that the Mariners have attracted perhaps engenders a sense of confusion when they suddenly become the favourites.

That’s about the only explanation I can offer for the team’s listless performance in the second half last night, and their meek surrender to Newcastle in the derby a few weeks ago.


No-Show - brief update

Mike Gibbons over at Planet World Cup has chosen to devote his latest column to Sepp Blatter's recent comments on the Australia v. Italy game at the World Cup. Although I've pointed out recently that Blatter's words have been largely misinterpreted, Gibbons certainly has a point when he asserts that Blatter, as it were, tends to suit his opinions to the location.

Having said that, I should add that Blatter is no worse than most politicians in this regard - and certainly no worse than a certain Pelé.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Kings of the Angles

Frank Lampard's extraordinary goal at the Nou Camp, one of four superb goals in the Barcelona v. Chelsea game, was of a type I particularly enjoy seeing: the narrow-angled strike. In Lampard's case, it was an extremely narrow angle.

It requires precision, not to mention a certain healthy arrogance, to go for goal from a position on the by-line, when the cut-back is the obvious option. When it doesn't come off, the player in question is sometimes accused of selfishness. But when it works, it's often spectacular.

You could argue that it was karma for Chelsea. A few years ago in the Premiership, they suffered a painful home loss to Arsenal, thanks to a sensational late hat-trick from Nwankwo Kanu (now, happily, finding his best form again), the final goal of which was another narrow-angle special.

Kanu managed to draw the Chelsea 'keeper out of goal in reaching the by-line, and then sent a seemingly impossible shot beyond two defenders and into the far corner. I will never forget Martin Tyler's cry of amazement from the commentary box, followed by an elongated "!!".

My favourite narrow-angle goal was scored in a World Cup final. It was a wonderful strike, and the player in question had brilliantly beaten two defenders in the lead-up; yet, perhaps because it was scored by one of the World Cup's "footnote" players, it is hardly ever featured on any "Best World Cup Goals" list.

The setting: Santiago, 1962. The unfancied Czechs have just taken the lead against defending champions Brazil in the final. Brazil are without Pelé, injured in the first round. Enter a certain Amarildo.

Apparently trapped by the left corner-flag, he beat two defenders with a sudden, mischievous swerve. Now clear on goal, yet still hugging the by-line, he was faced by the Czech 'keeper, Schroiff, who was dutifully guarding his near post.

Not closely enough, though. Amarildo sent in a glorious low shot that threaded the needle between Schroiff and the post.

1-1, and Brazil recovered their momentum to eventually run out 3-1 winners.

For my money, it remains probably the second-best goal ever scored in a World Cup final, just behind Pelé's marvellously cheeky "chapeu" goal of four years earlier.

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