Saturday, March 31, 2007



What began as a one-off kickaround between fans of opposing clubs has become, thanks to the dedicated efforts of certain individuals, a laudable Sydney FC spin-off.

Tomorrow (April 1) marks the league debut, in the Eastern Suburbs Football Association, of the club now known as Lokomotiv Cove – a collection of similarly-minded Sydney FC fans who have built a club from scratch in a remarkably short time.

I’ll be able to tell my grandkids that I played in the first ever Lokomotiv Cove game, a hastily-arranged match against a group of Mariners fans in late 2005, which formed the centrepiece of a community day organized by the Central Coast club. For the record, the Sydney men won 4-0 (and, also for the record, my contribution was minimal).

The Lokomotiv moniker was apparently derived from the fact that several of the Covers in question had travelled up to the Coast by train that day.

Shortly afterwards, Lokomotiv Cove took to the hallowed turf of Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane to take on representatives of The Den, Queensland Roar’s most dedicated fans, in a curtain-raiser to a Queensland v. Sydney FC league match. The Covers fared better than their professional counterparts on that occasion.

But it was not to be just an ad hoc phenomenon. A determined, tireless crew, comprising (among others) Lincoln Saunders, Shane Porter and Ben Willing (the SMH’s football blogger) have been going through the maddening process of registering the club with an association, hiring grounds, securing sponsorship, and recruiting players over the last year or so. The result is that, on Sunday, no fewer than eight teams will be representing Lokomotiv Cove in the first round of the ESSFA competition.

It’s a superb initiative, and one that I hope can be replicated (in some form) by all the A-League supporter groups, if it hasn’t already been.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


The Sarkies Situation - update

No, not a post about Kristian Sarkies' supposedly imminent move to Adelaide United.

A short time ago I expounded on some of the club-country problems that have arisen since our move into the Asian confederation. On the previous occasion, it was Sarkies' injury on Olyroo duty that caused something of a ripple.

Now there is the rather more serious issue of players being withdrawn from Asian Champions' League duty in favour of preparation for the Olympic qualifiers.

This makes, frankly, little sense. The Olympic football tournament is moderately important, to be sure, but Adelaide United and Sydney FC are both still in with a fair chance of progressing from their repsective ACL groups (Branko Culina's side, of course, is far better placed at the moment).

To deny the clubs the services of certain players a week out from the Olyroos' return match with the Saudis is excessive, in my view. And very unfair on the clubs.

It is, however, consistent with the tendency of Australian football administrators to bend over backwards for their foreign recruits, sometimes at the expense of local clubs and managers (Branko Culina and Aurelio Vidmar, in this case). In the case of the Socceroos, Guus Hiddink and Terry Venables were given the sort of free hand that the likes of Eddie Thomson and Frank Farina would have craved.

Under FIFA regulations, my understanding is that the clubs could insist on retaining their players should they wish. Will they seriously, and publicly, take on the FFA?

I rather doubt it. It has undoubtedly been very important for the clubs and the national body to show a united front in the A-League's formative years, and I hope that some sort of compromise can be reached in this case, one that would allow Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite to appear (or at least be available) for Adelaide United. Likewise Ruben Zadkovich and Nikolai Topor-Stanley for Sydney FC.

Rob Baan has already pulled off something of a coup by securing the services of Neil Kilkenny and Nick Ward in the midst of their English league exertions. But the FFA should be wary of allowing Baan to get his way on this one (much as he is entitled to try). It could set a poor precedent indeed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Echoes of Foe

As the grim mystery surrounding the murder of Bob Woolmer deepens, one gets the distinct impression that international cricket - or its World Cup at least - will never be quite the same.

The fact that the ICC has, for ages, been turning a blind eye to the activities of the subcontinental betting syndicates is well-known. Now, however, they might just have to overcome their legendarily pussy-footed approach to the chicanery on the subcontinent if they are to maintain any credibility as an organisation.

That credibility has already been undermined by their typically facile, self-serving statements to the effect that "the show must go on", "we must show that cricket is strong", etc., etc. Such meretricious rhetoric has been robustly and eloquently torpedoed in a recent article by the noted cricket commentator, and former player, Mark Nicholas.

What has all this to do with football, you ask?

Cast your minds back four years.

At another nonsense event, the football Confederations Cup, a heatwave has been sweeping through the host nation, France. Cameroon and Colombia meet in the semi-final in Lyon. Late in the second half, Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe collapses, with no-one near him. The cameras reveal a haunted, frozen look on his face as the medics desperately try to revive him.

They failed. Foe had died, as an autopsy later revealed, of cardiac failure.

In the desperate blurtings of cricket officials at the moment, there is a distinct echo of FIFA's party line following Foe's death.

"...collective tribute of respect and solidarity...what would make Foe happy must go on..."

Sound familiar? Agatha Christie once wryly observed that any given person's view of "what (the dead person) would have wanted" tends to correspond remarkably closely with what that person wants. Blatter's assertions that the Cameroon team were united in the wish to play the final, incidentally, were later shown to be misleading; of course, their opponents, the French, were simply embarrassed to be forced to play the game.

The crass grandstanding of Blatter, Blazer and the rest was justly condemned in this piece, published shortly afterwards. The tournament named after Foe? Of course, Blatter reacted warmly to such a suggestion at the time, while knowing full well that such a move would be politically disastrous. You will notice that, in Nicholas's article, he too predicts that the ICC will make some suggestion as to the connection of Woolmer's name with the tournament. Watch this space.

One particular thing that Blatter did in the aftermath of Foe's death was, in my opinion, unforgivable.

After the findings of the autopsy were made public, the FIFA president was straight out onto the hustings, declaring that Foe's death "had nothing to do with football". All that the autopsy had determined was that the death was cardiac-related, and might have been the result of a congenital defect. The rigours of a tournament played in the daytime, at the height of summer, at the end of a gruelling European season and a World Cup before it, definitely had nothing to do with his death? A pernicious, self-serving lie, which Keir Radnedge exposed in a subsequent editorial piece in World Soccer (in which he made the obvious suggestion that the best memorial to Foe would be to scrap the pointless Confederations Cup).

And yet, you have the same sort of thing happening now. Cricket officials are doing their level best to distract the attention of media and fans from the murky tales of match-fixing and bookmaker greed which, as is becoming increasingly clear, probably hold the key to Woolmer's murder.

The issues in any particular sport must be faced, whether they concern intolerable fixture crushes or nefarious betting rings. And whether they result in murder or natural death, they require action, not bluster.

Monday, March 26, 2007


The Death of Oceania

Another FIFA communiqué has seen the light of day recently. Nestling inamongst a number of largely trivial matters, there is an announcement of a small change to the format of that irrelevant but moderately lucrative tournament, the Club World Cup.

Although the format for the six-match final tournament of this year's FIFA Club World Cup in Japan will be no different from in 2006, the executive agreed to introduce a qualifying play-off between the Oceania champions and the league champions of the host nation, with the victors then lining up alongside the champions of the five other confederations.

Oh dear. Poor old Kiwis.

Or, to put it another way, what FIFA gives with one hand (Oceania participation in the latter stages of the Asian World Cup qualifiers), it takes away with the other. And this just when the Oceania confederation had launched its own “Champions’ League” (yes, really) as a qualification route for the 2007 event in Japan.

But there is a silver lining for our trans-Tasman friends. What both the FIFA moves have in common is that they appear to point inexorably towards an eventual dissolution of the Oceania confederation – which is good news for just about everyone except the frequent-flyer Oceania bureaucrats.

Oceania’s history is a study in the ridiculous. Formed in 1966 basically because the Asian confederation didn’t want a bar of the colonialists to the south, it festered along without representation within FIFA for thirty years, while taking part in the Asian qualifiers anyway. For the 1986 and 1990 cycles, it was a politically convenient dumping ground for football’s two pariahs of the time, Israel and Taiwan.

Now the confederation has only one member of any consequence, and that member has not qualified for the World Cup since 1982. As the big fish in the tiniest of ponds, one can hardly expect them to do so again without some good competitive experience – which they will never get in Oceania.

In the long term, a move to Asia can only be good for New Zealand. As for the Pacific nations, they would probably simply find themselves in the same basic situation as before.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Friendly Fire - another update

A very pleasing result for Graham Arnold's side overnight, and, for most of the game, a pleasing performance. The fact that Australia looked somewhat languid in the second half may have had more to do with, shall we say, "injury limitation" than any serious lack of spirit or drive.

The first 45 minutes constituted perhaps the best performance we've seen from the team since the World Cup. It helped that the Chinese were astonishingly poor; second to every ball, laboured in their distribution and failing to track the Australians adequately in midfield, they gave Brett Holman, in particular, an acre of space in which to operate.

It was good to see Holman finally used in an appropriate role behind the main striker, although his impressive workrate meant that he often found time to help out Carl Valeri (who made a promising debut) in the engine room as well. Holman must surely be considered close to a first-teamer now.

Marco Bresciano had an influential time of it, scything through the paper-thin Chinese defence to set up the first goal and scoring the second after an elementary mistake from the experienced Du Wei. Few traces of Bresciano's mediocre World Cup form, and a relief to see him performing with such conviction given his apparent distaste for excessive international duty away from Europe. Mark Viduka showed all his old class, proving too much for the frail, static Chinese defence to master.

It was interesting to see Luke Wilkshire given the set-piece duties. I mentioned recently that the Socceroos are currently still searching for a reliable purveyor of corners and free kicks; although I don't really think Wilkshire is the answer, he floated in a couple of fairly dangerous corners, one of which produced a half-chance for Patrick Kisnorbo (who had an excellent game).

Shane Stefanutto did well in attack, but did get shown up in defence once or twice; in one significant moment, a telegraphed Chinese pass into the outside-right channel saw Stefanutto eventually scrambling the ball away for a corner, despite a two-metre start on his man.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


The Butcher Bitchfest

Deary me, what a couple of wet whingers we have here.

First Terry Butcher desperately attempting to exculpate himself after a pretty miserable season down under, by making the usual, knee-jerk, patronising British comments about the standard of the league, betraying a complete ignorance of football's history in this country as he does so:

"Football [in Australia] is only two years' old and in its infancy."

Gosh, that previous 120 years or so of competitive football here was an illusion, then?

"They cannot get to the standards of other leagues unless they go abroad for the best coaches and the best players. There are a lot of things they can improve on. I would say some games would be League One and sometimes below that."

I wonder how long it is since Mr. Butcher actually watched a League One game. Or League Two or Conference, come to that.

It's the usual putdown we've come to expect from the more ignorant British fans. Only in this case, it's been made by someone who should have known better.

Now, on to Cockerill.

He is generally a diligent, decent journalist and a capable commentator (if sadly prone to clichés, particularly in moments of excitement). But I have noticed in the past as well that if you assail his parochialism, you cut him on the quick...and you can expect a vehement response.

There have been few more vehement responses than his piece linked above. In fact, I would suggest that it crossed the line into unprofessional.

Not only is there the same tawdry, hackneyed, and largely inaccurate long-ball stereotype which was attached to Butcher throughout his period in charge (largely by pundits far more ignorant than Cockerill), not only is there an unmistakable sense of gloating (for all Craig Foster's attacks, he has never expressed any overt personal glee), but Butcher is criticized for - horror of horrors - complaining about Australian coffee!

Mike, for heaven's sake, stick to what you know.

Incidentally, it is a little strange that Cockerill neglects to elaborate on his comment about stories of Butcher's behaviour being "legion". You would think that he could have shared one or two of them with us.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


The Red Army - update

It must be something about the colour red.

Some time ago, I penned a tribute to the Korean fans at the 2006 World Cup, easily the most memorable and exuberant supporter group at the event, in my view.

The Japanese fans provided something of a contrast in Germany; although they outnumbered the Australians in Kaiserslautern, you wouldn't have known it from the respective volume produced by the two fan groups. And after Tim Cahill's equalising goal, the Japanese contingent were not to be heard. At all.

With that in mind, I wasn't expecting truly great things from the fans of J-League club Urawa Red Diamonds last night, particularly considering that the match was taking place so far away from the supporters' home town.

How wrong I was.

Every home match for Sydney FC this season, up to now, has been just a game. Last night was a real occasion.

The Urawa army behind the southern goal was a magnificent sight, first and foremost. An unbroken sea of red shirts, waving elaborate banners with either impressive illustrations or elegant kanji script, with the occasional Brazilian flag to be glimpsed.

But that was as nothing compared with the sound. They roared their team on from start to finish, even after they had conceded that soft penalty to go 2-0 down. Were some of these guys in Kaiserslautern as well? It was hard to believe.

With all due respect to my friends in the Cove, I could hardly hear them all night. The occasional chant dealing with karaoke or whaling was discernible, but all too often they were drowned out by the co-ordinated wall of noise coming from the general direction of Randwick.

Best of all, the Urawa fans provided a wonderful image of fandom for the local media. The fans were enthusiastic but well-behaved, passionate without letting off flares. In the midst of increasing levels of hostility from the pro-eggball media (most latterly, some smug idiot on ABC News Radio who implied that all football fans were akin to the Tottenham thug who recently accosted Chelsea's Frank Lampard), such positive displays are truly welcome.

Urawa Red Diamonds, arigato gozaimasu.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Made in Manchester

Longtime readers of this blog might remember my penchant for the well-worked breakaway goal.

There was another absolute classic of the genre in this weekend's exciting Manchester United v. Bolton fixture; a piece of sublime interplay between Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo (has there been a better player in Europe than the Portuguese winger this season?), culminating in a deft finish by the former. Clearly that "incident" in Gelsenkirchen has been consigned to history, as the two combined superbly throughout the vibrant first half.

United's fourth goal was another breakaway special, with Alan Smith the provider for Rooney this time.

Not a second wasted - and that's what I love about such goals.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


The B Bridge

Plenty of comment in recent days on the necessity of exposing our younger, second-string players to international competition. Graham Arnold has come up with the none-too-original suggestion of a B team (so just what exactly was the team you put out against Kuwait in August then, Arnie?!), while Les Murray has suggested raising the age bar for the Olympics, gently implying that the tournament has become something of an irrelevance (he's right).

It's interesting that much of this seems to have been sparked by the Olyroos' sub-par result against Jordan during the week, in which the Jordanians indulged in some Bahraini-style chicanery (and, predictably, gained the indulgence of the referee in doing so). It will be a continuing problem; doubtless we will see more theatrics from the West Asian sides in Thailand later this year.

Back to the B team issue.

B internationals are, by their very nature, only semi-competitive, so as a means to give our younger players experience in a competitive environment, the idea falls flat. Add this to the fact that the only opposition likely to be found for a B side on an international date would be fairly inconsequential; it's perhaps not even going too far to suggest that a putative A-League B side would be better off scrapping it out with a decent state league side (something which would be a good deal cheaper to arrange, for one thing).

And as always, the fact that the younger A-League corps is effectively a C rather than a B contingent is ignored. The younger players, or even the mid-twenty-somethings, who are in Europe but yet to hit the big time, are the forgotten men of Australian football, for the most part. The often-heard complaint that the A-League season is too short (which, of course, it is), only suggests that quality players over a certain age should be actively encouraged to try for Europe. As a developmental aid, in the long term that's far better than a few meaningless internationals against rubbish teams.

Typically, in the feelgood panic over the development of "the next batch of Socceroos", an obvious point has been missed. Graham Arnold:

"Ideally, the Olyroos will qualify for Beijing, and the next generation will get the experience they need. But what if they don't? What are those players going to do for the next 18 months, two years?"

There's a wonderful new invention, Arnie. It's called the football club.

And, believe it or not, the vast majority of a player's development at post-Under 20 level will be conducted at one of these, despite what most football pundits in Australia seem to think sometimes.

Another obvious point which is constantly missed is that the "2010 Socceroos", like the 2010 version of any national team, will not consist of a single cohort. There may be a discernible peer group of a similar age, as there was in 2006 (made up, let me remind readers again, of players who bombed at junior international level). But there will be plenty of late bloomers (Scott Chipperfield, anyone?), a few youngsters too good to leave out, and a few quality over-30s left over from the last campaign.

It is another fuss over very, very little.

As for Les's suggestion, both FIFA and the clubs would be dead against it, and therefore I can't see it happening. At the moment the Olympic football tournament is simply a pain in the backside for FIFA, and the patchwork compromise that currently exists has made the tournament less than credible.

Friday, March 16, 2007


The Real World Cup

An acquaintance of mine, a retired magistrate with a mischievous sense of humour, reacted with indifference a few months ago when I informed him that I'd been to Germany for the 2006 World Cup (the football version). He stated that he was waiting for the real World Cup to begin later this year. "Which is that?" I enquired. "The Rugby World Cup!" he replied triumphantly, with the merest twinkle in his eye.

In the past few days, we've been assailed with news of the latest World Cup to demand the attention of a parochial nation. The Cricket World Cup.

This event started in 1975, and I'll admit that its early instalments promised much; the thrilling final of the inaugural tournament, with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson nearly snatching victory against the odds with a brave tenth-wicket stand, was an excellent start. The shock of India's victory over the mighty West Indies in 1983 lived long in the memory. Australia's unexpected triumph in the 1987 tournament could be said to have kick-started our recovery in the late eighties.

After that, things got a bit messy. And it's interesting to see how the changes to cricket's world championship - which is still, of course, really a Commonwealth championship - paralleled the development of the football World Cup.

In 1992, the cricket World Cup went all-in round-robin in its early stages. This made a mockery of the very idea of a "cup" competition, but the problem was that more games were required to give the event credibility (and TV revenue). In 1983 and 1987 the four-team groups had been double round-robin (reminiscent of the football World Cups of 1974 and 1978, when there were two group stages), but in 1992 even the likes of Zimbabwe played eight preliminary games.

That 1992 tournament was further compromised by the absurd rule then in place for rain-affected games, which made an utter farce of the England v. South Africa semi-final, among others. And the tournament was eventually won by a side that had won only one of its first five games.

So, the all-in round robin experiment went by the wayside. But in 1996 the era of expansion echo of the 1982 (football) World Cup.

The problem was that only the commonwealth sides played remotely decent cricket. So it was that I watched a World Cup in 1996 featuring a UAE bowling attack that I (a half-reasonable club cricketer at the time) was pretty confident I could rack up a half-century against.

Once expansion starts in these events, there's no holding back the tide. And it's got very little to do with sporting quality, and very much to do with TV revenue and sponsorship.

The first few games of the current event in the Caribbean have featured two victories by over 200 runs (in one-day games!), plus a tie between two sides patently unworthy of test cricket status.

The tournament is a joke. And that's coming from a long-time cricket lover.

But the football World Cup has undergone expansion and changes of format too. And there have been complaints that the event has been cheapened beyond recognition. Isn't it a similar story?

Not remotely in the same ballpark. Although some weak teams do sneak into the footballing event, they are all at least competitive. And there is a significant turnover in the teams qualifying for each event: no less than thirteen of the teams who made it to the Far East in 2002 failed to get to Germany. By contrast, the line-up for this year's rugby World Cup is practically identical to that of the previous event, in 2003.

There is still only one world game, and still only one real World Cup. And it's played with a round ball, without a six-stitch seam.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


The Kiwi Perspective

For today, I'm vacating the soapbox in favour of an e-acquaintance of mine from across the Tasman.

He's angry at the continuing misunderstandings between the FFA and Soccer New Zealand over the requirements for a new franchise to be set up in Wellington. He also has a far better understanding than I of the history of relations between the football administrations in our two countries, and of the attempts to get fully professional football established in NZ.

Since we have heard so much in the Australian press about how the now-defunct Knights, and New Zealand in general, were hampering the growth of Australian football, I thought it might be good to get the other side of the story.

He has given the other side of the story below, and my sincere thanks to him.

...and with that, it seems it's gone.

Two decent seasons and then five years of struggling, and just when it looked like it had come right, it's gone. There were irritations, but no one was particularly upset when the FFA pulled the TV payment out from the owners of the New Zealand Knights pre-Christmas. Sure, the lack of interest in the players' welfare was pretty demoralising, but hey, Perth got abandoned and 18 months later it's all resolved. We got rid of the egos that had hamstrung the club, and with Soccer NZ and Ricki Herbert in charge it went magically. A loss by a patchwork side to Melbourne but plenty of spirit, and then wins and draws to see out the season.

By the time the crowd erupted at the end of the final game against Perth, you could be have been mistaken for thinking it was re-born, and the future was bright. So, why, six weeks later are we within hours of the end of professional football in New Zealand?

Perhaps the signs should have been there when the FFA terminated the players' contracts and removed any starting point? Perhaps the signs should have been there when 4 week timeframes were mentioned, after Perth got over 12 months?

Who's to blame? Anyone's guess. I suggest the recriminations will be long and bitter between all 3 parties, (4 if you include the Knights' former owners, who have been conspicuously quiet for the last 3 months). Go back to the start of those 5 years, and you could lay some of it at the mess SKY TV caused with an infatuation that was as quickly off as it was on, when they purchased the club and it looked like it was a road paved with gold.

Did Soccer NZ pin all their hope on the Auckland proposal coming off, purely to retain the biggest market and remain close to the offices? By all accounts the Auckland bid pulled out because 4 weeks was not enough time to line-up $2m in finances.

But that was okay, Wellington were still in. As of last week Graeme Seatter, the head of NZ Soccer, was telling us that it just needed the FFA's signature and it was all confirmed. By Monday...

Wellington bid head John Dow:

"Our proposal on Friday was that we had $1.1m capital for the first 15 months and $1.8m capital for the next two years, and the New Zealand Soccer board signed off on that and recommended to the FFA we sign the participation agreements."

"I just don't understand what this $2m thing is because it is not necessary. And the other clubs in Australia haven't been asked for that. Also, why is it being talked about at this late point?"

Matt Carroll:

"The failure of the New Zealand Knights has cost the FFA $1m, and we just cannot afford to lose that kind of money again. We need to be absolutely sure that the New Zealand investors can support the club."

That would be $1m of the $1.3m in TV dollars that you never paid the former club then, Matt?

Did the FFA move the goalposts? Is the reason for Matt Carroll's sudden departure at the heart of this? Did Soccer NZ ignore what the FFA were telling them, or mis-interperet what they were being told?

All I know is that it seems over.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


State League Merry-Go-Round

My Well-Informed Covite friend, well-known on these pages, is an endless source of information (or perhaps I should say corrections, since he has disabused me of many misconceptions over the years).

Like me, he follows Sydney Olympic while the A-League is in abeyance. Like me, he has groaned at their fortunes in recent times. Unlike me, he has a very clear understanding of the issues affecting state league (and lower league) clubs.

On Sunday evening, we watched Olympic founder against Wollongong at Belmore, their midfield showing pitifully little cohesion, their defence even less. Taking a quick look at the team sheet, W.I.C. commented to me that there was only one player on the park in blue and white who had been at the club last season. The lone man - quite significantly - was Kosta Lagoudakis, a player of Greek descent.

Although it's a similar story throughout the NSW Premier League, that's a wretched statistic.

Why is it happening? Because of a current regulation whereby (to the best of my knowledge) state league teams in NSW can only sign players on one-year contracts. Under such circumstances, team cohesion is surely difficult to maintain, when there are always better offers coming in from elsewhere.

It certainly helps when you have players who feel particular attachment to a club, either for geographical or, as is often the case, community reasons. From last year's title-winning side, Sydney United have managed to hang onto the likes of Ante Juric, Joe Vrkic, Peter Markovic, Milan Bosnar and Ben Vidaic; even Mile Jedinak has taken some time off from the Mariners to help out his old club. All the above players are of Croatian heritage.

Otherwise, it seems to have become something of a free-for-all.

But W.I.C. told me something interesting (and I've no reason to doubt him, as he is usually right on such matters); the clubs are apparently in favour of the rule.

And, try as I might, I cannot understand why.

It just seems to hurt them in so many ways. On-field stability becomes far more difficult, budgets are harder to balance, long-term plans for the team are impossible...and, most importantly, they are unable to make any decent money on transfers (particularly to the A-League).

There is a durable myth that clubs can only receive a mandated maximum of $3000 when "selling" a player to the A-League. Not so: this is the so-called "training compensation" payment, which is not a transfer fee (see here). However, the one-year limit to contracts means that the whole question is rendered academic.

Having said that, the calculations now used to determine maximum transfer fees mean that the sums involved would not be substantial anyway (see here).

Can anyone with contacts in the NSWPL world enlighten me? I find the clubs' position quite inexplicable, if the situation is as my well-informed friend has outlined it.

Monday, March 12, 2007


General Generic

So farewell then, Matt Carroll.

It's been interesting to compare the immediate reaction to Carroll's resignation to that which greeted John O'Neill's departure. The Australian football community had largely taken O'Neill to its heart, and his previous rugby connections were no longer resented. Carroll, by comparison, has been booed off the stage...particularly by fans from beyond the Simpson Desert (and across the Tasman).

Perhaps he doesn't deserve all the vitriol that has come his way. But there are certainly a number of things he could have handled better.

The scheduling of the A-League this season was truly mysterious, and not even the necessity of sharing grounds with practitioners of other codes could fully explain all the anomalies.

The continuing insistence on the use of away shirts, even when there was clearly no colour clash, was simply stubborn and foolish.

But the worst aspect of Carroll's management of the new league, in my view, has been that the clubs have been allowed so little leeway in terms of branding themselves. Carroll is known to be a fan of the American methods of generic branding, and has taken the A-League so far in this direction that I believe General Generic is a suitable nickname for the departing A-League boss.

This has hamstrung the clubs in many areas, nowhere more so than in the case of the official club websites.

These are simply atrocious. Short on content, badly laid out, slow in delivering news, and containing no appealing, quirky features whatever, they have been a significant hindrance to the league, in my opinion. In an era when the first contact with any organisation (including a football club) is often via an official website, the bland, awkward club sites may well have been a turn-off for many potential fans...and sponsors.

My fervent hope is that the very first thing Mr. Carroll's replacement will do is to allow the clubs to develop their own websites, with features likely to appeal to their own particular fanbases.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Freddie Freeloader

Plenty of hand-wringing over the apparent move to DC United by Melbourne's superb playmaker Fred. His agent even went to the trouble of explaining his actions on the Melbourne Victory fans' forum, only to be shot down in flames (as it were) for his troubles.

The only criticism of Fred's behaviour with any validity is that he previously made some wistful statements about making Melbourne his home over the years to come...which may or may not have been ingenuous. Otherwise, why should he not go? He has a young family, financial stability is obviously important to him, and he will be closer to his native Brazil.

The question that arises for A-League clubs is whether they should be more willing to take a risk on multi-year contracts for promising "unknowns". That it would be a risk is shown by the fact that the two other Brazilians signed by Melbourne did not, on the whole, provide value for money. Claudinho, too, apparently found the culture shock too much for him - another factor to be taken into account.

But I digress.

Fred's part in Melbourne's success this season was absolutely pivotal. He was arguably the player of the season - realistically, only Kevin Muscat and Nick Carle are comparable, in terms of influence - and he would (will?) be sorely, sorely missed.

On the upside, it could be the chance for Kristian Sarkies to finally come out of his shell. The youngster has been disappointingly inconsistent for the past two seasons, but the lack of regular first-team action surely has much to do with this (especially in the 2006/07 season). His promise is obvious; whether he can make something of it in the long term is a different matter.

Could we have seen, in Fred's intelligent, precise promptings for many of the goals in the grand final, Melbourne Victory's past...and, in Sarkies' thumping final goal, their future?


Who's Afraid? - brief update #5

I always reach the point of believing that the football refusers just can't get any sillier. But they have.

Now just to get this straight: the above piece of pernicious drivel is not a blog, or a letter to the editor. That is a paid columnist denigrating an entire sport, in an absolutely infantile manner.

Would any Adelaide readers care to ask the Sunday Mail why excrement like that makes it past the sub-editor's desk?

I reiterate my usual point: this sort of thing would not be tolerated at editorial level if directed against any other major sport.

Friday, March 09, 2007


True Local

Suddenly, the media has gone all glowingly positive on Sydney FC, and on their new manager in particular. Thankfully, Branko Culina is experienced enough not to get carried away with things (he has managed Sydney Olympic in the past, after all, and is therefore used to wild mood swings), but the usual fourth estate suspects are lapping up the recent air of optimism.

Michael Cockerill's piece in this morning's SMH was so fluffy it almost belonged in a patisserie:

The banter is back. The smiles are back. Good luck, and good fun. It's a winning combination...

In the course of Cockerill's exuberant tribute to the new order, however, there was a revealing comment from Peter Turnbull, Sydney FC's gregarious part-owner:

Peter Turnbull, proudly wearing his Sydney FC scarf as he clutched a celebratory beer, offered a simple message: "We don't ever need to go overseas for a coach again."

After a wild ride with Pierre Littbarski and then Butcher, Culina's familiarity with his players and his understanding of their needs and their beliefs has made a telling difference. "The foreign coaches need too long to get up to speed," Turnbull says.

Indeed. I could not agree more.

It should be mentioned, however, that Turnbull was well known as Terry Butcher's knight in shining armour on the Sydney FC board during the season just gone, something of which Cockerill should perhaps have made his readers aware.

You would have thought that at the end of the 2005/06 season, Sydney FC's stewards had learned their lesson. It is easy to romanticise the Littbarski era (and many have done so), given the eventual grand final success; the plain truth is that Littbarski took a long, long time to adapt to the players and the culture, that the dressing-room was divided during much of his reign, and that Sydney played much dire football in the A-League's first season.

Yet the board didn't learn their lesson. With Terry Butcher, it was largely a case of same old, same old, with a few extra injuries and unnecessary suspensions thrown in for good measure.

Even now, names such as Arie Haan and Steve Bruce have cropped up with regard to the Sydney coaching position. Characters with no experience in the Australian game, no familiarity with the culture or the players. One hopes that these were simply frivolous rumours.

So far, the Sydney board has been careful not to commit themselves publicly to the retention of Culina after the ACL.

They would be fools not to retain him, success in the ACL or not.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Two Countries, Two Contrasts

On the first night of Asian Champions' League action, we saw two away wins, and two telling contrasts, in the matches involving Australian (and Chinese) clubs.

Firstly, the Chinese perspective. Although their eventual winning goal owed something to luck, Shandong Luneng were good value for their win over Adelaide. They had a perfectly good goal ruled out in the first half (Michael Valkanis playing the last man onside - just how often have we seen this in the last couple of years?), and looked the more organised outfit. Incidentally, they also possess a striker of patent quality in the clever Li Jinyu, whose positioning was excellent throughout.

There was some speculation as to whether the loss of their influential playmaker Zheng Zhi, now playing in the English Premiership with Charlton Athletic, might cramp their style. But young Wang Yongpo proved a useful replacement in the "three-quarter" role, and the adventurous full-back Jiao Zhe proved a real handful for the match-shy Aaron Goulding.

Shandong looked the settled, organised side that they surely are.

Shanghai Shenhua, by comparison, looked a rabble.

The recent merger of the two Shanghai clubs has obviously not aided cohesion, and although Sydney FC deserve plenty of credit for their enterprising play in the first half, they were allowed an extraordinary degree of freedom in midfield at times.

The Uruguayan forward line did not appear on the same wavelength as their Chinese team-mates, and although the influential Mao Jianqing made plenty of inroads down the left in the first half, his delivery never looked like being exploited.

Then there's the Australian angle. Adelaide United are clearly still recovering from the shock of their grand final thrashing, and the departure of John Kosmina (not to mention Greg Owens). Aurelio Vidmar's safety-first 4-5-1 formation handed the initiative to the Chinese visitors, and Adelaide simply didn't look dangerous until very late in the game.

Bruce Djite held the ball up well and managed to bring others into play at times, but still looked pitifully hesitant in shooting positions. Nathan Burns did what he could down the left, but ran into cul-de-sacs all too often. Fernando Rech, playing more or less in the hole, had one of his poorest games in an Adelaide shirt.

The whole team looked short of confidence (even Angelo Costanzo was far less commanding than usual), and Vidmar's subsequent fulsome praise of his team's efforts seems a little, well, deluded.

Sydney FC simply carried on where they left off last week. Although they again suffered from their traditional second-half slump, they played some fluent, pleasing football in the first half, and fully deserved to go into the sheds with a 2-0 lead. The goals, too, were both of the highest quality.

There are clearly still some problems. Specifically, the fact that there is now not a single established full-back at the club; both Robbie Middleby and Nikolai Topor-Stanley are better used elsewhere, and both were shown up repeatedly by Mao Jianqing and Sun Ji respectively. Yet the impression that one gets at the moment is of a team slowly but surely recovering its self-belief.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Round Pegs at Anfield

So the 2006 European champions are out of the Cup, at the hands of a typically cautious Liverpool.

In my view, it is the coach who must shoulder a good proportion of the blame.

I mentioned recently that Frank Rijkaard has been expecting certain players to do the job that Samuel Eto'o has done in the past, even though the players in question are not suited to it. In the second leg, there were plenty of round pegs in square holes, and Barcelona were a mess in the first half as a result.

Ronaldinho, probably the most brilliant player in the world but hardly a central striker, started at the apex of the front three. Samuel Eto'o, not entirely fit but still undeniably dangerous, started on...the left wing. And, as Gary Bloom never tired of mentioning, barely saw the ball in the first half hour.

Moreover, Andres Iniesta - one of the most under-rated players in Europe, in my opinion - was transformed from the influential all-round midfielder he usually is into a virtual left wing-back.

Meanwhile, on the right of Barca's new-look back three, Oleguer couldn't seem to decide where he was meant to be much of the time, with the result that Jon Arne Riise had an embarrassing degree of freedom in the opening stages.

Small wonder that Liverpool dominated the first half, and should have scored more than once.

They hardly deserved to, since they went into the game with the same come-and-get-us attitude with which they had approached the first leg. All very well in the Nou Camp, but misplaced at Anfield, I felt.

Although things got much better for Barca in the second half, Rijkaard managed to ensure with his first substitution that there were no Barca strikers on the pitch at all. And this when they were desperate to score!

When one finally arrived in Eidur Gudjohnsen, he scored the only goal of the game in typical striker's fashion; cleverly beating the offside trap before deftly rounding the 'keeper. A message there, surely.

Victory without glory for Liverpool, then...and hopefully some serious reflection on the part of Frank Rijkaard.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Re Registration

The beginning of SBS’s World Game program this afternoon consisted of a tribute to Sydney Olympic, in the year of their 50th anniversary.

It was, understandably, a warm and fuzzy piece, with much nostalgia and deserved acknowledgement. But lurking just beneath the surface was the issue which still clearly excites passions in state league circles: the enforced “relegation” of the clubs which developed some of our finest players, in the wake of the A-League.

Tom Doumanis, Soccer NSW’s former president, articulated the role of clubs such as Olympic in the new Australian football environment clearly and well. A hint of bitterness, however, was quite discernible in some of the other interviewees – Les Scheinflug especially.

I felt that there was a somewhat unfair implication that the state league clubs are doing the work that the A-League clubs are neglecting; that is, youth development. The truth, as I have stated previously, is that the A-League cannot afford a full-fledged youth competition just yet.

Which begs the question: why is it possible for the state league clubs, then?

And therein lies one of the nasty little secrets of Australian football, which I felt SBS’s little item might at least have touched on.

The state league clubs, in general, fund the quality of their first teams with bloated junior registration fees. Parents hoping for their kids to be developed in the stables that produced the likes of Brett Emerton, Tim Cahill and Jason Culina tend to pay through the nose for the privilege.

There are plenty of state league clubs doing a great job nurturing the Socceroos of the future, but it’s hardly an altruistic pursuit.

In some cases, the revenue accrued through the social clubs attached to the football clubs helps to support the senior sides as well. But even at these clubs, junior registration fees are high.

One final point: a first-time viewer might have been led to believe, on the basis of SBS’s piece, that the state league was almost exclusively the preserve of ethnically-based clubs. In fact, half of the clubs in this year’s NSW Premier League are “non-aligned”.

Having said all that, felicitations to Sydney Olympic, a club I’ve followed, on and off, for the last seven years, and always enjoyed watching. Just this afternoon, although they went down 3-2 to Bankstown, they produced some pleasing football despite the scorching conditions…including another superb goal from Shannon Cole, a youngster A-League clubs would do well to keep an eye on.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


World Soccer, I love you because...

There is one day of every month which I especially look forward to. It is the day when World Soccer, the venerable British magazine, arrives in my letterbox.

On seeing that there’s a new World Soccer to be devoured, my wife generally abandons all hope of conversation for the evening in question.

In his autobiography, Les Murray refers to the eagerness with which he awaited the delivery of the magazine in his formative years, when it was his only good source of information on the international game. He also recounts his subsequent adventures with the eccentric Eric Batty, one of the publication’s most distinguished contributors. Les, incidentally, has contributed articles to the magazine himself.

Eric Batty regularly railed at the insularity of English football, and it is indeed the universal outlook of World Soccer – as opposed to the parochialism of so many football publications, in England and elsewhere – that makes it so special. I always enjoy the maudlin humour and offhand nostalgia of When Saturday Comes, but its centre of gravity is firmly placed in the British Isles. Although World Soccer unashamedly makes Europe the centre of its attention, the magazine always contains news and analysis from everywhere, and never treats any regions of the footballing realm with disdain.

The writing is, almost without exception, first-rate, and the analysis is better. Significantly, many of the contributors from particular regions – notably Brian Homewood, Mark Gleeson, Eric Weil and Paul Gardner – have been reporting on the game in their neck of the woods for a very long time, and know the issues in the domestic game inside out. Those with a more roving brief, such as the endlessly informative Keir Radnedge, draw on a vast reservoir of experience.

I received the March issue in the mail yesterday, and, typically, got through it in a single evening. Just a sample of the contents:

- A cutting piece on the Beckham transfer by the always controversial Paul Gardner; memorably, the column begins “This deal, this Beckham deal. This absurd, overpriced, ridiculous deal to bring David and his family to America…”

- A grim report on the continuing on-field and off-field problems at Real Madrid, by the entertaining Sid Lowe;

- An in-depth look at the growth of the game in Paraguay, and an account of the growing schism in their domestic ranks. All thanks to WS’s jack-of-all-South-American-trades, Tim Vickery;

- An analysis of the implications of Michel Platini’s election as UEFA president, by who else but Keir Radnedge. Plus a nostalgic look at Platini’s playing days, by who else but Brian Glanville;

- A strong attack on FIFA over the video technology issue – Paul Gardner at it again;

- A detailed resume of the recent fan violence in Italy and the subsequent brief suspension of football in the country, again thanks to Keir Radnedge.

And, of course, plenty more.

Roll on April.

Friday, March 02, 2007


Be My Guest - yet another update

Pierre van Hooijdonk to Perth? Sound the trumpets! Well, loud enough to drown out those Brian Deane echoes, anyway.

Yes, van Hooijdonk is a class above Deane as a player. But he’ll be nearly 38 by the time the next A-League season begins. And, most importantly of all, it’s another guest stint.

I would’ve thought that this season’s experiences would be enough to make any A-League club think very, very seriously before going in for a guest signing. And Pierre van Hooijdonk may be a name familiar to long-term followers of the game, but to the man in the street, he’s just another Dutchman.

A recent piece by Paul Gardner – not always the most balanced of writers, but always thought-provoking – should be required reading for the CEOs of A-League clubs (although one can ignore the cringeworthy “scandalous” comment about the lack of Brazilians). Melbourne Victory achieved success this season by looking, not for fading Euro A-Listers, but for underpaid, under-rated players capable of bringing both entertainment and added bite to their side. And I’m not only referring to Fred and the peripheral Alessandro, but to Grant Brebner, anonymous when he arrived, but vital to Melbourne’s success.

In some A-League squads, there’s a worrying age range: plenty of over-30s, plenty of under-24s, and not many in the middle. Significantly, that is not the case for Melbourne Victory.

But back to the guest issue. Dwight Yorke’s value, both on-field and off-field, was his presence at Sydney FC for the whole season. Kazu, Benito Carbone and Romario have come and gone, and despite how well they played (and all three did play well at times), their presence adversely affected their teams’ results, in the long (and sometimes the short) term.

At the moment, I feel the league needs more Freds, and fewer Romarios.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Sydney FC, Version 3.0

Fans of this season’s drama queen club have now had two chances to see the new, Branko Culina-led Sydney FC in action. They have recently played two warm-up games in preparation for the Asian Champions’ League; last week Culina’s men drew 1-1 with the Sutherland Sharks, and yesterday evening they defeated state league powerhouse Blacktown 2-0.

And they have improved.

Against Sutherland, they struggled with the unfamiliar artificial surface, and didn’t quite get into a rhythm. Nevertheless, there were some good signs, particularly in the second half, when Alex Brosque was to be seen in an unfamiliar box-to-box midfield role, where he acquitted himself surprisingly well.

Last night, things really began to click. Ironically, Culina made use of the same 4-2-3-1 formation for which Terry Butcher has been roundly castigated, but this was a much more fluid version. There was slick interplay between the front four of Zdrilic, Carney, Brosque and Corica, and good overlapping on the left from young Nick Tsattalios, who looks a useful addition.

Carney again started (insert groans and lamentations here) on the right, and had a couple of his usual infield traffic jam excursions after surging down his nominal wing. Yet he moved around enough to be more of a nuisance to the Blacktown defence than might have been expected. It was he, too, who scored the opening goal, when Steve Corica – still a class act, despite the old legs – slid a sublime pass through to him, after he had taken up a position on the…left of the penalty area. His better peg did the rest.

There was rich significance, too, in the fact that he twice found himself similarly free in front of goal in the second half, but on the opposite flank. The loss of time incurred in bringing the ball onto his left foot saved Blacktown on both occasions.

There were a couple of shaky moments in defence, not least when Iain Fyfe tried to dribble around two attackers in order to pick a pass upfield, and predictably failed. But it was encouraging to see the defenders – Mark Rudan in particular – trusting themselves to play, rather than whack, the ball out from the back. There was a fair bit of kick and chase in the first half, but it came from Blacktown. Not that it was an entirely ineffective tactic, given that Tolgay Ozbey (now back at Blacktown after his unhappy spell at Newcastle) easily had the beating of both Rudan and Robbie Middleby, whom Culina has used at right-back, for pace.

So, what of the Asian Champions’ League? It will still be a stern test. Terry McFlynn is likely to miss the early games through injury, and his replacement in the engine room, Noel Spencer, has looked a weak link (although he did manage a fine long-range shot at goal last night, which required an excellent save). But Mark Milligan is still to return, and the side has certainly looked somewhat fitter in their two warm-up games, Ufuk Talay quite markedly so.

Bring on the ACL.

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