Friday, August 31, 2007


Mix 'n' Match - brief update

Graham Arnold has put a brave face on the compromise squad he's been forced to pick for next month's friendly against Argentina in Melbourne. The Argentina squad is an imposing one, featuring many of the players who provided such a fine display of football at the recent Copa America; full credit to them for sending their crack troops, but in truth the match has very little relevance beyond ensuring the FFA some much-needed gate revenue.

With the Olyroo qualifiers happening at the same time, and thus depriving the senior side of such 2010 hopefuls as Mark Milligan, Nathan Burns, Danny Vukovic and Stuart Musialik, Arnold's use of the term "squad of the future" to describe the collection of players due to face Argentina is faintly ridiculous. Once again, though, it's hard to see what else he could have done.

The original June 6 date for the friendly would have been both opportune (given the proximity of the Asian Cup) and free of availability issues. As things stand now, the match is taking place in a strange no-man's-land, in the midst of the Euro season, with no tournament on the horizon, and without the Under 23s.

That's what happens when you allow yourselves to be bullied over scheduling, as I remain convinced the FFA were with regards to the original date.

It's an unbalanced squad as well, with no less than eight central midfielders and no natural right-sided players (unless you count the tactical salamander Luke Wilkshire). But that is what we've come to expect in recent times.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


NSL and All That

"Old soccer" has been rather a hot topic recently. Following on from Richard Hinds's comments about the old competition, there was a furiously polemical editorial in this week's Australian British Soccer Weekly, in response to Geoff Lord's rather arrogant dismissal of the idea of a second Melbourne team.

Joe Russo, the ABSW man, seized upon Lord's "riots" remark (not without reason), and subsequently penned what amounted to a robust defence of the NSL. Although Lord may have been implicitly referring to events at the Melbourne Victory v. South Melbourne friendly earlier this year, it should again be pointed out that the trouble at that game was not, by all accounts, instigated by South fans.

Perhaps a little excursus on the NSL, its failures and its modest successes, is timely.

The persistent perception of the old competition as a xenophobic enclave of ethnic clubs is, as I've mentioned before, a false one. Plenty of broad-based clubs sprang up in the final decade of the competition; it should be added that all of them, bar Perth Glory, failed for one reason or another.

But was it the possibility of "riots" that kept the fans away from these non-aligned newcomers? Hardly. The story of the competition's slow demise was more about the lack of television coverage (thanks again, Channel 7), pitiful administration and boardroom infighting than any ethnically-related terrace trouble.

The majority of the players in the A-League's first season came straight out of the NSL. Some of the coaches did as well. So why the idea that suddenly, everything was different?

It was a carefully orchestrated brand placement, and it generally succeeded. There are plenty of younger fans who seem to see the A-League as a competition severed cleanly from the NSL in every respect, and their confusion is understandable. It's all about perception.

The reaction of Sydney FC fans to the recent replacement of Edmund Capon as club chairman by Andrew Kemeny, a former chairman of NSL club Sydney City, has been fairly indifferent on the whole. Kemeny is a close associate of Frank Lowy, whose obvious conflict of interest as FFA chairman and majority owner by proxy of Sydney FC has been smothered by the "new football" propaganda. Some would argue that it's a necessary evil.

Others, like a friend of mine who knows the Australian football landscape well, claim that Lowy has managed to exclude the "ethnic" NSL clubs who are now subtly demonized, but has managed to slip Sydney City into the new competition via the boardroom (while carefully preventing his old club from being tarred with the usual NSL brush).

Although I don't entirely agree with him, it's an issue that deserves a mention. Ethnically specific clubs have been excluded from the new competition for the best of reasons, and there is good cause to think that this policy can - and should - be maintained once the league begins to expand.

But this doesn't mean that the NSL clubs (or the competition as a whole) deserve unequivocal ridicule or contempt. That way dangerous revisionism and present-day misjudgements lie.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Affable Assassin

So farewell then, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Although his was a career made up largely of bit-parts, how crucial some of those bit-parts turned out to be. At his best (around the turn of the millennium), I'd venture to say that there were few strikers in Europe better than the gentle Norwegian.

Everyone remembers, of course, Solskjaer's instinctive goal which won Manchester United their first European Cup in thirty-one years and sealed their "treble" in 1998/99. What not so many people remember is that, if not for the contributions of Solskjaer, United would probably never have been in a position to claim that trifecta in the first place. He had been in tremendous form leading up to that amazing night in Barcelona.

One of the league games in which Solskjaer featured during that season was an 8-1 away win at Nottingham Forest. The score was already 4-1 when the Norwegian entered the game, 15 minutes from the close. A quarter of an hour and four Solskjaer goals later, he walked from the field shyly holding the match ball.

They were all fine goals too. Real striker's specials. One of them, I recall, was a "thread-the-needle" specimen, in which Solskjaer subtly evaded both the Forest 'keeper and an advancing defender before volleying nonchalantly into the tiny gap that had been vouchsafed him.

Towards the end of his career at Old Trafford, Solskjaer converted himself into a right-winger of sorts, and proved almost as effective as he had been up front. There is no doubt that his return from injury last season was a crucial factor in United's eventual league success, along with the more celebrated contributions of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Best of all, Solskjaer was always a thoroughly likeable figure, with a ready smile, an affable media manner and a reputation for sportsmanship; the sort of character the game always needs.

Fans and opponents alike may have known him as the "baby-faced assassin", but there can have been few more genial assassins in the history of football.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Who's Afraid? - brief update #7

Another A-League season, another bit of condescending sideline scoffing from the Fairfax media. This time, rather than the bully-boy put-downs of Peter Fitzsimons or the eloquent insanity of Michael Duffy, we have a series of snide remarks from the often quite readable Richard Hinds.

The oh-so-patronising tone is masterly. Some of the comments (such as those concerning guest players) are, in fact, pertinent. But the point needs to be made yet again: no other major sport would be the object of such subtle ridicule in the mainstream media. Not one.

There is one observation in Hinds's piece, too, with which I take particular issue:

You broke down the old ethnic barriers that had made those of us who liked the game feel like lepers at NSL clubs.

Never mind the arrogant exclusivity implied in the word "us" above, the distortion of the truth inherent in the above statement will be obvious to anyone who followed the NSL.

Sadly, the myth that (a) the NSL was made up entirely of ethnic clubs and (b) they treated "us Aussies" like scum has gained considerable currency since the inception of the A-League. For the record, I never felt like a leper in the years I watched (and supported) Sydney Olympic, despite the complete absence of Greek blood in my veins.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Lions and Tigers

Last night's Queensland v. Adelaide match had all the features that the competition opener didn't: real intensity, good interplay, some fine goals, and a number of impressive performances from younger players.

Although the game was played at a frantic pace and got pretty physical at times, there was plenty of creativity shown on both sides (more of it from Queensland, it must be said), and pleasing movement off the ball - still an aspect of the game so rarely commented on by the pundits - throughout.

The two youngsters who established themselves so impressively last season in their respective first elevens, Matt McKay for Queensland and Nathan Burns for Adelaide, both put in sterling performances. Massimo Murdocca, too, worked at a furious clip on Queensland's right, and posed constant danger in the first half before succumbing to tiredness a little. It was definitely a night on which the Roar's lion cubs showed their mettle.

And the newcomers?

Marcinho was, ultimately, a little disappointing, but given his far from ideal preparation for the game, this was understandable. He seemed to always be looking for the direct ball into the mixer rather than the short pass (and not just from set-pieces), and showed little ambition in terms of taking on his man. But he had his moments.

The other new Brazilian, Cassio, had a better game at left-back for Adelaide, setting up their second goal and providing a useful option on the overlap throughout. He did, however, experience some difficulties against the fiery Murdocca in the first period.

As for the returned 'roos, they had differing fortunes. Craig Moore, I think, was simply surprised by the quality of the opposition. Once or twice, the muscular Bruce Djite got the better of him, and his frustration with the pace and enterprise of Burns eventually led to a silly studs-up challenge which earned him his second yellow; perhaps it was a little harsh, but to go in for such a tackle when one has already been booked was not too intelligent.

By contrast, Danny Tiatto had a rousing game. Always a magnificent competitor, he was an absolute tiger in the tackle last night, largely nullifying the threat of Travis Dodd (who did, however, come to life somewhat in the second half), and offering a good deal coming forward as well. His challenges were on the dangerous side once or twice, and he must be at short odds to receive a red card at some point this season, but one would expect nothing less of Tiatto.

Restricted to a late substitute appearance, Paul Agostino did...nothing, apart from planting a free header well wide of goal.

A final comment about Reinaldo: once again, he was frustratingly inept in front of goal. But, as happened last season as well, once he moved over to the right wing, he was excellent. One for Frank Farina to ponder, particularly given the Roar's patent lack of options out wide this term.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Blunt Beginning

It was hardly the opening to the competition that neutrals would have been hoping for, but there were a few hopeful signs.

From a Mariners point of view, it was good to see Nik Mrdja back in action and looking fairly sharp. In tandem with Saso Petrovski, he might provide the finishing they so patently lacked last term, when Adam Kwasnik had such a frustrating time of it in front of goal.

On the subject of Kwasnik, he cut a sad figure last night. Last season's disappointments appear to have sapped his confidence; apart from one fine shot on the turn, he had an evening of poor first touches, wrong turns and long faces.

Lawrie McKinna's men lack pace at the back, too. Alex Brosque's industry and occasional adroitness troubled them at times, and even Juninho came close to bursting through on a couple of occasions.

In midfield, though, they look good. Mile Jedinak had another excellent game, policing Juninho very effectively (if a little clumsily at times), and Andre Gumprecht was probably the player of the first half, prompting well and putting in a number of important challenges.

In the second half, though, the Mariners went badly off the boil. This was partly, I feel, due to the fact that Sydney were pressing far better and moving off the ball more after the break, but McKinna would surely be unhappy at his team's propensity to give the ball away so easily when under pressure.

Sydney FC's problems were those which most of the fans had already identified: the lack of a finisher up front (certain fans seem to be seeing Patrick da Silva as some sort of messiah in this regard), and the uncertainty in the full-back positions (Terry McFlynn and Iain Fyfe were both all at sea in the opening period).

On the upside, Steve Corica and Juninho worked surprisingly well together, combining in some pleasing one-twos and posing a genuine threat to Danny Vukovic's goal at times. Although Alex Brosque made a terrible hash of a good chance towards the close, he had a good game overall, getting through a pile of work in the lone striker role and often forcing the Mariners defence into errors.

Adam Biddle's A-League debut, on the other hand, was a wretched one. Sadly, he looked out of his depth, getting hassled off the ball regularly and succumbing to nerves in front of goal.

Branko Culina's switch to a back three in the second half was appropriate and welcome, and should probably become the modus operandi from here on. The signs were that Corica and Juninho are capable of working in tandem, so perhaps a 3-4-1-2 system of sorts, with Corica dropping a little deeper, is the go. The question is then who patrols the wings; on the evidence of last night, neither Iain Fyfe nor Robbie Middleby is really suited to the left. I still think that young Nick Tsattalios is worth a punt there.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Global Grind, Part 2

My general ramble on the worldwide decline of progressive football continues…

Teams that have adopted a more thoughtful, open approach in World Cups have not fared too well in recent times. Mexico, for instance, have consistently played intelligent, pleasing football at the last several tournaments, but have typically fallen early, succumbing to more pragmatic sides.

Their exit from the 2002 tournament was particularly instructive; despite garnering 70 per cent of the possession against their bogey team of the time, the U.S. (since supplanted by Argentina), they conceded two simple goals on the break, and never really looked like scoring.

Should we be up in arms about results such as this? In a sense, no. Midfield artistry and thoughtful build-ups count for nothing if you don’t have sufficient sharpness up front and sound organization in defence. Mexico in 2002 had neither. And I might add that the U.S. coach, Bruce Arena, had marshalled his forces extremely cleverly in that second round game.

Yet there have been contemporary World Cup teams that have maintained a progressive approach yet covered the other bases as well.

My picks for the best all-round footballing teams (not necessarily the most effective teams, please note) at the last four World Cups, the only ones I’ve watched sufficiently closely to make a judgement, would be these. Argentina in 2006, Spain (the best of a very bad bunch) in 2002, Holland in 1998 (by a whisker from Brazil), and Romania, with Gheorghe Hagi at his magnificent best, in 1994.

And on the basis of the little I’ve seen of the previous two tournaments, I’d nominate Italy as the flag-bearers in 1990, and Tele Santana’s Brazil in 1986.

You will notice that all six of these teams have something significant in common.

That’s right. They were all knocked out of their respective tournaments on penalties.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Insignificant? Well, perhaps…but I think it’s a point worth making.

I’ve argued in the past that the penalty shoot-out is, in many ways, an anti-football procedure, and should be replaced by a tie-breaking system which takes the previous 90 or 120 minutes into account in some way.

The fact that it has served to eliminate some of the most attractive national teams from the World Cup in recent times is surely food for thought.

And this leads us back to the peg upon which Les Murray hung his original article (which I have subsequently and quite shamelessly used as a peg of my own): Brazil’s success at the 2007 Copa America.

Argentina won through their semi-final against Mexico 3-0, in one of the best displays from a national team you are ever likely to see. But Brazil…needed penalties to get past Uruguay.

And in that penalty shoot-out, their ’keeper Doni indulged in that favourite pursuit of modern goalkeepers, strolling off his line before the opposition kickers could get to the ball.

That’s right, another shoot-out rendered farcical by deliberate (and, of course, unpunished) flouting of the rules.

And thus are major titles won and lost, and often major trends initiated as well, these days.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


A-League Anticipation, Part 8

Last but not least:

Wellington Phoenix

For the last of this year's instalments, I'm handing the mantle over again to my trusty Trans-Tasman friend who provided such an informative account of the struggle to maintain a New Zealand A-League franchise for the 2007/08 season.

That struggle, of course, was ultimately successful, and my Kiwi correspondent has had a good chance to cast his keen eye over the new club that has risen from the ashes of the Knights. I sincerely thank him again for his contribution; I know very little about most of the Wellington players, and there are few better qualified than he to comment on the likely fortunes of the A-League's new face.

Here we go:

On their day, Paston and Moss can stop anything. Paston controls his area better and was a busy man last season. Moss may be the better shot stopper, but his one error a game may see Paston get the start despite Moss's pre-season form. Spoonley is there as an U-20, and may see game time depending on the All White commitments of his more senior partners.

The backline could be the Phoenix's vulnerability. Stephen Old, Jeremy Christie and Vince Lia are the right back options but none play there as a first choice. Karl Dodd is an excellent pick up, and the first of the four Brazilians, Cleberson, looks a big physical defender and should do all right against most of this league's attacks. With Old and Stephen O'Dor as cover, there are enough central players. Left back will be mostly All White Tony Lochhead, who can be a little inconsistent, but on his day was a successful MLS player, so should handle A-League duties OK. His cover would be Daniel, but more on him later.

Midfielders we've got in abundance, the aforementioned Lia and Christie, plus Michael Ferrante, Ross Aloisi, All Whites captain Tim Brown, Richard 'Taxi' Johnson, Daniel and Felipe. Aloisi as captain will start most games probably, with a fit Tim Brown, although Ferrante has done a good job in pre-season. What width they play with will probably come from a roving Daniel who will chop and change wings as suits, and based on pre-season form will scare the living daylights out of some A-League defences. The signing of Daniel for two years rather than just one may turn out to be an inspired piece of management. Meanwhile Felipe will probably be seen playing an advanced 'Fred'-like role although, having only played about 60 minutes of football, he is more of an unknown.

Up front is where it will live or die though, and it's still a bit unknown. We scored goals in pre-season but as every excuse-making Sydney or Melbourne fan will tell you, "It's only pre-season". There is a chance that the Phoenix will play at times with only one man ahead of Felipe and that man will probably be Shane Smeltz; his heroics against Wales and threatening displays in pre-season have probably given him pole position. Rumours abound that Wee-George is the least convincing of our Brazilian signings despite some success in Portugal, so no-one knows quite where he will fit in; I would imagine he is behind Smeltz, Royce Brownlie and the ageing Coveny in the pecking order.

That leaves the two U-20 forwards, Costa Barbarouses and Greg Draper. Draper proved a handful at the recent U-20 World Cup and Costa is leading the line (less than convincingly, on the evidence of the first game) for the U-17 side in Korea this week. They are both Under-18 and have a way to go, but if they get time they will give it everything.

That leaves us with two questions though, where will they finish and how many people will watch them? I've long said I'll be happy with 7th, anything is better than the final spots that have been the norm for the NZ sides since the Kingz were slashed and burnt. Realistically, I think we'll chase a play-off spot but it might be a bit ambitious in the first season.

Crowds? Anyone's guess. Wellington is a far smaller market than Auckland, but people do get out to events here, plus the city has a major football playing base and culture. The other thing that should never be overlooked is that the ground is located right in the central city, pretty much above the railway station and near bars and city life. If the weather works for them and they show some spine in the opener, then people will keep coming back, and if they get on a winning streak the sky really is the limit.

Monday, August 20, 2007


A-League Anticipation, Part 7

Across to the wild west for the penultimate preview:

Perth Glory

Last season was, by and large, a disaster for the West Australians. Although they did well to reach this year's pre-season final, and although the off-field problems seem to be sorting themselves out, the outlook for 2007/08 is fairly grim.

Signing the injury-prone Hayden Foxe was always going to be risky, and indeed the curse has hit again, with Foxe likely to miss the entire first “round” of the competition. Stan Lazaridis, last season’s marquee man, is still under suspension…for how long, nobody quite seems to know.

Two other Socceroo hopefuls of yesteryear, Nick Rizzo and Anthony Danze, have made the trek home. Of these, Rizzo may go some way towards filling the left-wing gap occasioned by the absence of Lazaridis, while Danze should add some spine to the midfield.

It’s a sure sign of Ron Smith’s paucity of options up front that Jamie Harnwell has been pencilled in as a striker once again. An experienced campaigner in Eastern European football, Mate Dragicevic, has been lured down under, and there is also young Nikita Rukavystya, who showed some good form in his cameo appearances last season. Hardly an array of striking options to make the other clubs quake in their boots, it must be said. How the Perth faithful might end up missing Bobby Despotovski.

In defence, Nikolai Topor-Stanley has made the journey across the Nullarbor from Sydney FC; he’s excellent in the air and is a tenacious man-marker, but offers little otherwise…as yet. Ron Smith apparently intends to use him as a left-back; I'm not sure that this will prove a wise deployment, given that Topor-Stanley’s most effective performances for Sydney were in the centre.

It’s not all doom and gloom; Simon Colosimo, who shrugged off his poor first season in the league to deliver a solid string of performances last term, is still there to anchor the midfield; Leo Bertos will pose danger on the right, and David Tarka has, in my opinion, been improving steadily throughout the first two years of the competition. This season could see him really step up as Perth Glory’s rock in the centre of defence.

Perth will be competitive, but it’s difficult to see them making the finals this time around.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


A-League Anticiaption, Part 6

Back up the F3 for our next instalment:

Central Coast Mariners

Lawrie McKinna has resisted the South American craze, and instead looked closer to home in an attempt to bolster his already impressive squad for 2007/08. A number of players from local clubs have been promoted to the Mariners squad, and although these Central Coast natives will probably be bit-part players at Bluetongue this season, the initiative is a commendable one.

The core of the side that has battled through the first two A-League seasons is still there, and one of the stars of 2005/06, the powerful attacking left-back Dean Heffernan, has come back from FC Nürnberg.

It is just this cohesion and familiarity with their fellow players that could make this a good season for the Mariners. Saso Petrovski, though subject to moods, is a good acquisition up front; Nik Mrdja, who has seen precious little A-League action thus far, might find the signing from Sydney FC a suitable partner.

Adam Kwasnik is another striking option, but his poor finishing last term suggests that he might be better employed in a right-wing role. On the other flank, Stewart Petrie has finally hung up the boots, but Damien Brown could go some way to filling the breach (especially with Heffernan supporting him on the overlap).

In central midfield, the Mariners look good, with Tom Pondeljak still one of the most creative players in the country, Andre Gumprecht a miracle of perpetual motion at his best, and Mile Jedinak improving fast. Greg Owens is a very useful addition, especially given his pleasing versatility; he may end up being an understudy of sorts, if Gumprecht can rediscover some of his 2005/06 form.

It is at the back that the Mariners are surely a little vulnerable. There is a distinct lack of pace in central defence (this was particularly apparent during their pre-season hitout against Blacktown City), with the notable exception of Andrew Clark; combined with the attacking tendencies of their left-back, this could leave them open to quick counter-attacks at times.

On the whole, however, the Mariners look good. Barring the sort of injury run that has blighted both of their previous A-League campaigns, I feel they have the quality and depth to make the finals in 2007/08.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Global Grind, Part 1

Whatever one thinks of Les Murray's opinions, his pieces on the World Game site are always very readable, and occasionally thought-provoking.

His latest article, an excursus on the increasing homogeneity (and sterility) of modern football, is worth a look.

To clear the ground first, though, a couple of small quibbles:

Didier Drogba is a good case: since joining Chelsea he has become a tower of steel and muscle, an apex of intimidating power at the head of Jose Mourinho’s tactical design.

In truth, Drogba has always been this kind of player, as anyone who watched his performances with Marseille could confirm. Sub-Saharan African players have, in fact, been some of the chief beneficiaries of the pan-European move towards a more physical style of football.

Earlier in the article, we return to the familiar theme of Brazil:

Later [post-1970] the Brazilians did flirt intermittently with notions of European-inspired so called modernity, but always with failure.

Now here I think Les has missed the point somewhat.

Brazil's last two World Cup victories have been achieved precisely by adopting a more "European" approach. Typifying this has been the use of not one but two hard men in midfield; in 1994 there were Dunga and Mauro Silva, in 2002 Gilberto Silva and Kleberson (after the more creative Juninho, used in the preliminary games, was jettisoned). Skilful opportunism in the final third, of course, was the other essential element of both of these tournament triumphs, and Brazil possessed it in spades.

But Les's essential point is, I believe, valid. There is far less distinction between individual club and national teams these days, and the worldwide trend has undoubtedly been towards greater fitness, allowing opponents the minimum of time on the ball, and sacrificing numbers up front in favour of stiffening the other areas (especially the centre of midfield).

Significantly, the team that bucked this trend most notably at the recent Asian Cup was Saudi Arabia, whose players are yet to really descend on the European leagues. But the corollary of a lack of exposure to European levels of fitness and organization (and perhaps cynicism as well) is vulnerability in defence, from which the Saudis have suffered for some time.

The rest of the football world will follow Europe these days, for many reasons. Bosman has merely exacerbated the general tendency. Had Argentina won the recent Copa America, it would have been a small victory for those who prefer a more thoughtful version of the game, but I'm not sure if it would have had a long-term impact.

Although the success of an Argentina-esque side in the UEFA Champions' League (or even a national league of sufficient status) might help, I feel that the best thing that could happen to football in terms of playing style would be for a genuinely entertaining team to win the World Cup. Although there have been some very worthwhile winners of the event since 1970, there has usually been some sort of stigma attached to them, and in recent times all the winners have relied rather more on graft than inspiration.

And there's an interesting pattern emerging from the fortunes of the positive footballing sides at World Cups. More on that soon.

Friday, August 17, 2007


A-League Anticipation, Part 5

And next to the team that, in the opening two years of the A-League, has promised so much but faltered when it has mattered:

Queensland Roar

This club has gone youth crazy during the off-season, with Frank Farina recruiting a number of teenage players from either the local scene or the academies. Most of them, however, are only likely to be reserves come the season proper.

Three of last year’s underachievers (Chad Gibson, Marcus Wedau and Yuning Zhang) are gone. Dario Vidosic has also left, to join the Australian contingent at FC Nürnberg; a loss, but not a disaster. His form last season was mercurial to say the least.

Craig Moore as marquee? I’m not too keen on the idea of a defender being a marquee player, but there’s no doubt that it’s a significant coup for the club. With the pairing of Josh McCloughan and Sasa Ognenovski already there, Queensland will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in central defence this season.

With Remo Buess released, who will play left-back? Hopefully not Andrew Packer, who did his best in the position last year but would surely be better used elsewhere. Perhaps Danny Tiatto, another ex-Socceroo signing, will fill the role which he has occupied in the past, although he is more often to be found further upfield.

In attack, Queensland have plenty to offer, but neither Miron Bleiberg nor Farina settled on a deployment that worked last season. Ante Milicic had a poor term by his standards, and Simon Lynch was in and out of the team. Reinaldo is not what one could call dependable.

Just like last season, too, Queensland don’t appear to have much to offer on the wings. There is plenty of talent in central midfield, though; Matt McKay and Massimo Murdocca would be assets to any A-League side, and Marcinho appears to be one of the more promising of the many A-League signings from Brazil. Hyuk-Su Seo, suspended for the opening two games of the campaign, is perhaps the best holding midfielder in the competition on his day.

Will they flatter to deceive again, or will they finally discover how to find the back of the net with more regularity? Hard to tell, but I somehow get the feeling Queensland might end up being the nearly men once more.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


A-League Anticipation, Part 4

And so to my own beloved…

Sydney FC

…a.k.a. Sydney United (there are a fair few Edensor Park veterans at the club by now).

The Asian Champions League campaign was very encouraging, and although concerns about the firepower up front and the cover in the full-back positions remain, Sydney FC can look forward to the league with reasonable confidence.

Juninho ticks all of the boxes as a marquee signing, and he should provide plenty of creativity in his favoured playmaker role. The only downside of the Brazilian’s arrival is, as I’ve mentioned previously, that it might be difficult to fit Steve Corica in alongside him in the middle. Corica could therefore either be used from the bench (a pity, since he has been, on the whole, Sydney’s best outfield player over the course of the club’s existence), or on the flanks, where he is nowhere near as effective.

This season will surely be the tester for David Zdrilic, who has done just enough to suggest that he’s worth another chance, despite some painfully blunt performances in the ACL. The striking options beside him do not inspire great confidence; Ben Vidaic is inexperienced at the top level, while Brendan Santalab has apparently not impressed in the pre-season. Perhaps Alex Brosque will end up partnering Zdrilic in attack as a rule, although the partnership is not quite ideal.

In midfield, Ufuk Talay is still there to spread the ball about neatly, and Terry McFlynn is always useful if an enforcer is required. The loss of David Carney does rob the side of some width, but with two promising young flankers in Adam Casey and Adam Biddle now wearing the sky blue, his departure to Sheffield United might not, ultimately, be felt too keenly.

Then there’s the question of Mark Milligan. His outstanding performance against Thailand in the Asian Cup reinforced my belief that he is best used in a central defensive role, and this season he would seem to be the perfect man to play sweeper behind the stopper pairing of Mark Rudan and Tony Popovic, both of whom are dominant in the air, but lack pace.

This leaves the full-back, or wing-back, positions. Ruben Zadkovich, often used as a right-back or right wing-back by Terry Butcher, is not entirely comfortable with the role; Robbie Middleby may prove a better first-team choice in that capacity, but Zadkovich is a handy reserve. On the other flank, I think Nick Tsattalios has done enough to suggest he could grow into a left-sided role. Although raw, he has energy and enthusiasm in abundance, and decent skills to boot.

With Juninho and/or Corica providing the ideas in attack and Rudan, Popovic and Clint Bolton holding the fort at the back, I expect Sydney FC to make the finals once more. Not too much should be read into their abysmal pre-season performances, in which they have lacked plenty of key players.

Monday, August 13, 2007


A-League Anticipation, Part 3

And now for a quick trip up the F3.

Newcastle United Jets

No Nick Carle. No Milton Rodriguez. No Paul Okon. No Vaughan Coveny.

And, in all honesty, these key men have not been adequately replaced.

Much of the talk up Newcastle way recently seems to have concerned the imminent arrival of Mario Jardel, the Brazilian striker who proved so prolific in Portugal (and in Europe) in the late nineties. Yet nothing is finalized at this point, and a glance at Jardel’s recent CV indicates a rapid decline. Not quite Stan Collymore, but perhaps not value for marquee money.

Incidentally, if the acquisition of Jardel appears to be an attempt to jump on the Brazilian bandwagon, I should point out that Jardel is perhaps the most un-Brazilian Brazilian player I’ve ever seen, if that makes any sense.

Another recent samba signing is Denni, a playmaker who has knocked around the second tier in Brazil and made one unsuccessful foray into Europe. It’s hard to tell, of course, but he doesn’t sound like another Nick Carle.

There’s another South American on the books in Jorge Drovandi, a player whom Gary van Egmond no doubt hopes will go some way to filling Milton Rodriguez’s shoes as a left-sided attacker. Drovandi’s performances in pre-season have apparently been fairly encouraging.

Otherwise, the squad is much the same. Paul Kohler and the very able Stuart Musialik are still there to organize the midfield, Joel Griffiths offers penetration on the wing(s), and the young opportunist Mark Bridge will surely add substantially to his A-League tally this season. Adam Griffiths has joined his brother at the club, and appears to be earmarked for a central defensive role.

The Jets will still rely on Ante Covic in goal, and they are quite likely to concede some unnecessary goals as a result, in my view. He did not look remotely convincing last season, despite his lofty reputation.

It’s not all doom and gloom, but it could be a difficult season for the side which played such excellent football last year.

Friday, August 10, 2007


A-League Anticipation, Part 2

Next: last season’s runners-up.

Adelaide United

The South Australians’ Asian Champions League campaign was not quite the fizzer it was considered to be in many quarters; their group was probably more difficult than Sydney FC’s, and in the end they gave quite a creditable account of themselves. In threatening to make the next stage at the first attempt, however, their A-League colleagues from the harbour city rather upstaged Adelaide United.

Aurelio Vidmar is now in the manager’s seat following the departure of the combustible John Kosmina, and he has a very competitive squad at his disposal. Lucas Pantelis has returned from injury, and with Bobby Petta, Travis Dodd and Jason Spagnuolo still around, Adelaide will pose a considerable threat out wide this season.

Paul Agostino has finally returned home, as Adelaide’s marquee player; his best years are surely behind him, but it can only be beneficial for talented youngsters such as Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite to work alongside such a well-travelled striker. I have the feeling that Agostino may end up being surprised by the quality of some A-League defences, however.

The centre of the park has been stiffened with the arrival of Jonas Salley, who looked solid and resourceful last term for the New Zealand Knights (and even, very briefly, for Sydney FC). With two new central defenders at the club in Isyan Erdogan and Milan Susak (who has apparently been very impressive in the pre-season games), Angelo Costanzo may end up moving up into central midfield, where he is more than capable of operating.

There does seem to be a lacuna in the full-back positions. The Brazilian Cassio has been the toast of the pre-season, but, like most left-backs from Brazil, he apparently loves to attack; with an ageing Richie Alagich patrolling the other wing, Adelaide may end up being caught out on the flanks at times this season.

Kristian Sarkies should get more first-team action with Aurelio Vidmar’s side than he did at Melbourne Victory, now that both Fernando Rech and Carl Veart are gone. Although Sarkies comes with a reputation for inconsistency, he can be pleasingly effective when allowed to play his natural game. Adelaide’s width in attack should ensure that he will find sufficient space in which to operate…sometimes, at least.

Plenty of young talent and a good core of experience. Adelaide should expect to make the finals again in 2007/08.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


A-League Anticipation, Part 1

Another A-League season beckons, and it's time for pundits everywhere to pass the ruler over the clubs and their squads. Here's the TFT take.

First, the champions:

Melbourne Victory

The biggest question for last season's all-conquering bunch is whether they can adapt to the loss of their superb playmaker Fred. After the Brazilian had played such an influential part in their 2006/07 success, it was always unlikely that they could hold on to him, even if Melbournites were perhaps hoping for a more glamorous destination than DC United.

Carlos Hernandez, the Costa Rican international, is the man Ernie Merrick hopes will plug the gap. Despite some minor concerns over his fitness, he seems to be settling in well; he scored a good-looking long-range goal against Perth Glory a couple of weeks ago.

The youthful Kaz Patafta, on loan from Benfica, is an intriguing newcomer to the competition, who will presumably play second fiddle to Hernandez in the attacking midfield department.

The two other major losses for the Melbourne club have been Adrian Leijer and Kristian Sarkies. The former was perhaps the most promising defender in the competition; strong, good in the air and positionally intelligent, he made an excellent partner for the experienced Roddy Vargas for much of 2006/07. Sarkies made a useful understudy to Fred, but did not see a great deal of game time last season; perhaps his move to Adelaide will allow us to get a better idea of his potential.

The arrival of Ljubo Milicevic appears to offset the loss of Leijer and then some, but I'm not so sure. Already the big defender's arrival seems to have led to a clash of egos with Kevin Muscat, and he has always looked a bit ponderous in the green and gold.

Several of the other success stories from last season are still around; the smooth front pairing of Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson, the inventive Adrian Caceres, the robust Grant Brebner and the much improved Michael Theoklitos. Some depth has been added in the wide defensive areas with the acquisition of Joseph Keenan and Matthew Kemp.

Pre-season results have not been encouraging, and Merrick has not taken them lightly, but when it comes down to business, Melbourne Victory should start as one of the league favourites this time around.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Foot-Lit, Part 4

The list continues:

4. Phil Ball, Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football

Already reviewed here.

5. Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

“Fan-lit” is virtually taken for granted these days, especially the light-hearted, self-pitying type. It’s easy to forget, then, that there was a time when such writing was virtually nonexistent. It was Nick Hornby’s wry, lovingly-crafted chronicle of his life as an Arsenal fan that kick-started the genre (which is now, incidentally, becoming turgidly predictable).

There have been plenty of serious studies of the psychology of the sports fan, but Nick Hornby’s self-analysis, although often flippant, provides a much more vivid picture. The lack of a rational explanation, the clammy fears of missing important games, the loss of objectivity, the acquired pedantry…they all get an extended rumination.

In between times, Hornby offers some often perceptive comments on the various issues facing English football in the seventies and eighties, including the slide towards hooliganism, the effects of the post-Heysel ban, and the move to all-seater stadiums following the Hillsborough disaster. His account of the evening of Heysel, which he spent in the company of some pleasant young Italian students, is perhaps the most moving part of the book.

Hornby’s decision to mark off the book not by chapters but by games was a masterstroke (with apologies to Guus). The football fan, we are presumably meant to infer, marks off his life (it is, as Hornby mentions, chiefly a male phenomenon) in seasons, then matches.

And Hornby can write. There are some truly memorable passages, and one of them occurs in the lead-up to the book’s undoubted climax, Arsenal’s extraordinary league triumph of 1988/89, when they scored the decisive goal in injury time of the final match of the season, to pip their old rivals Liverpool. Hornby recalls:

…as the game progressed, and it became obvious that Arsenal were going to go down fighting, it occurred to me just how well I knew my team, their faces and their mannerisms, and how fond I was of each individual member of it. [Paul] Merson’s gap-toothed smile and tatty soul-boy haircut, [Tony] Adams’s manful and endearing attempts to come to terms with his own inadequacies, [David] Rocastle’s pumped-up elegance, [Alan] Smith’s lovable diligence…I could find it in me to forgive them for coming so close and blowing it…

Except that they didn’t, and their ultimate success provided Hornby with the perfect finale.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


The Top Two - update

Congratulations Blacktown City Demons, NSW Premier League Champions 2007.

In the end, they had to pull an extraordinary Houdini act in a game which, for the first hour, they largely controlled.

In typical Blacktown v. Bankstown fashion, the first half was almost unbearably tight, with time on the ball at an absolute premium, long balls the rule rather than the exception, and stoppages annoyingly frequent. Suffice to say that there were only occasional outbreaks of football in the opening forty-five minutes.

Set-pieces looked the most likely route to a goal, and sure enough, after half an hour, a deep, looping corner from Brendan Renaud met the head of Blacktown’s Michael Cindric on the far post; his bullet header whistled through the arms of Bankstown’s ’keeper Cem Akili, late off his line.

Although Bankstown were putting the occasional promising move together, they were simply not clicking as a whole. The wing-backs, Shane Webb and Steve Liavas, were finding it very hard to get into the game, and Robert Mileski and Tallan Martin were being extremely tightly marked.

Player-coach Peter Tsekenis replaced the ineffective Liavas at the break, and his replacement, Ibrahim Haydar, immediately set Blacktown problems. However, after a brief period of Bankstown pressure, Blacktown should have killed the game off when a bad defensive error allowed Tolgay Ozbey to cross neatly to an unmarked Luke Roodenburg, six yards from goal. The latter succumbed to nerves, and sliced wide.

Yet Blacktown soon regained their dominance in midfield, thanks to the resourceful “Chi Chi” Mendez. Then…the turnaround.

First, from a messy goalmouth scramble, Robert Mileski equalized for Bankstown. Then, a moment of sheer madness from Blacktown’s most influential player.

Mendez had already, very foolishly, encroached on a Daniel Severino free kick (which eventually required a fine save from Matt Nemes in the Blacktown goal), earning himself a soft yellow card. He should have received a second caution a few minutes later for some cynical time-wasting at a Blacktown free-kick; he didn't, but, as Leo Carle warmed up on the bench (surely due to replace Mendez), the Blacktown playmaker launched himself into a horrible studs-up tackle in the centre circle.

Blacktown down to ten, and it looked as if the match had swung completely Bankstown’s way.

Bankstown, indeed, now came forward in numbers and combined well in midfield, but the Blacktown defence was proving hard to breach. Still, it was hard to imagine them holding out in extra time...

But this game obeyed a logic of its own making. In a rare Blacktown breakaway, an absolutely ordinary cross from the left from Roodenburg, which should have been a ’keeper’s ball, was fumbled by Akili in a challenge with Paul Wither (the Bankstown players would bitterly complain that their goalie had been impeded, and they seemed to have a fair case). The ball ran loose, and Tolgay Ozbey collected yet another goal for Blacktown.

Ozbey then gained a just reward for his pursuit of lost causes throughout. With three Bankstown defenders coverging on him, he reached a ball on the right-hand by-line that he had no right to haul in; whipping it across the goalmouth, he perhaps surprised Akili, who faltered again. Chad Gibson was there to tap in.

And so, for the second year running, Bankstown have been knocked out of the finals after their opponents have had a man sent off. Hard luck on them, but Blacktown’s recovery from their double blow in the second half said a great deal about their resolve and fighting spirit. Hats off to the champions.


The Top Two

In an unguarded moment after a tight, niggly match between the Blacktown City Demons and the Bankstown Lions at Jensen Park this winter, Branko Culina (who should know) described the two sides as the best in the NSW Premier League.

Those two sides meet again this afternoon in the competition's grand final, to be held at the rather inconvenient location of the CUA stadium in Penrith.

It should be a fascinating game. Both teams have performed steadily throughout the season, Blacktown eventually storming home to collect another minor premiership while Bankstown slipped into second following the extraordinary collapse of the season's surprise packet, APIA Leichhardt (who eventually missed out on the finals series altogether after losing their last three games).

In the end, though, Blacktown were very lucky indeed to make this afternoon's final. Down 2-0 against the unfancied Manly side in the preliminary final, they equalised with a penalty in the last minute before picking off their opposition - who had been reduced to ten men - in extra time.

Bankstown have adapted well to the loss of their midfield general Nahuel Arrarte; in his absence, the underrated Japanese midfielder Hidetaka Ishii has come to the fore, while Daniel Severino continues to be a significant threat from set-pieces. The wing-backs, Shane Webb and Steve Liavas, are probably the best players in the league in their respective positions.

Blacktown are, as always, organised and physically imposing. The striking partnership of Luke Roodenburg and the speedy Tolgay Ozbey has been a constant menace this season; Roodenburg has become a real bête noire for Bankstown fans, following some unsavoury incidents during matches between the two teams this season.

The Demons are not without quality in midfield either, with Gabriel Mendez and Milorad Simonovic providing guile at times.

Come along, if you're in the vicinity. 3 p.m., CUA Stadium, Mulgoa Road, Penrith. There's an intriguing afternoon's football in prospect.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


The Asian Path

We now know what we will need to do in order to get to South Africa. It’s a long, laborious process involving at least fourteen matches, but pity the poor unseeded nations in Asia. It is theoretically possible for a team to endure twenty-two matches in the search for a precious World Cup berth. And we thought our 1970 qualifying series was horrendous.

The unnecessarily convoluted third and fourth rounds appear to have been driven by the need for gate and television revenue. And, needless to say, they will favour those teams with the majority of their players based locally (the west Asians, that is).

Nevertheless, it’s good to see that the winners-only first round system employed by the AFC for the 2006 cycle has been abandoned. It made life extremely difficult for the slow starters, and ended up costing China a place in the second round last time. Even Japan, in fact, nearly missed out.

As far as the dates are concerned, the earlier panic about the AFC’s scheduling has, predictably, proved to be unfounded. All of the third and fourth round matches (that is, the ones Australia will be involved in) will take place either on FIFA designated dates or outside of the European season. The details can be found here and here.

Admittedly, matchdays 1 and 2 from the third round and matchdays 2 and 3 from the fourth are on "friendly" dates, which only require players to be released from their clubs 48 hours prior to the game – a little awkward for the European-based contingent. But if the FFA approaches the qualifying series in a sensible, professional manner, it should not prove too great an obstacle.

It is to be hoped that the administrative slackness that characterized the Graham Arnold era was merely a cost-cutting measure. The general consensus following the appointment of Arnold seemed to be that the national body had decided to watch the pennies until the 2010 qualifying series, and perhaps, in the final analysis, it mightn’t have been a bad move (partly since it was chiefly Arnold, rather than the FFA, who copped most of the criticism).

The likes of Rale Rasic (who seems to consider himself the Delphic Oracle of Australian football these days) might rail against the “delay” in getting a high-profile foreigner to replace Guus Hiddink, but the financial difficulties of the FFA – and their subsequent reluctance to splash out for a second Guus before the 2010 campaign gets serious – are not to be underestimated. As for Rasic’s belittling of Jorvan Vieira, he might have a point in that one tournament win doth not a masterstroker make, but surely managers with significant experience in Asia should be looked upon more favourably than aristocrat Euro managers with astronomical price tags.

A small point about Jorvan Vieira though: as a convert to Islam, how would he feel about leading out a side from a country that has, by and large, denigrated his religion against a nation from the Gulf?

Pim Verbeek’s name has been mentioned in connection with the Socceroo job as well, and we could do worse. His Korean side at the Asian Cup reminded me in many ways of Hiddink’s Socceroos in Germany; very fit, combative and well-organized, if a little short of bite up front. If we are indeed after a second Guus…

One final note: it seems that, despite FIFA’s earlier indications, the Oceania winner will once again be limited to a one-off two-leg playoff.

The Kiwis are learning what it’s like to be top dogs in Oceania. They will surely now resolve, as we did, to take FIFA statements on World Cup qualification with not just a grain but a pillar of salt.

Friday, August 03, 2007



Sydney FC fans were today able to breathe a huge sigh of relief: we are getting a marquee player for next season, after all.

And a fine one he is. Juninho (Paulista) was always one of my favourite players during his Middlesbrough days; short of stature but calm and elegant on the ball, and with an unfailing eye for a clever through pass. Aussie Stadium's patrons can look forward to plenty of entertainment from him this season, I feel.

The other main marquee target for George Perry was John Aloisi, but his apparent desire for a three-year contract scuppered the attempts to secure his signature. The Phillip Cocu "interest" evaporated fairly quickly.

Perhaps the only concern about the acquisition of Juninho is that Steve Corica may end up being forced out to the flanks again, due to the Brazilian's presence. Although (if I remember rightly) Juninho did occasionally play up front for Boro, he gave his most influential performances in the playmaker role, and he is surely likely to occupy the space behind the striker(s) in Branko Culina's team. One of Culina's comments about Juninho's signing did set some alarm bells ringing in my head:

When asked which position Juninho would play on once the season kicked off, Culina quipped: "Wherever he wants to play."

Shades of Pierre Littbarski and Dwight Yorke. However, this is probably just a case of Culina playing his cards close to his chest; Juninho will almost certainly be used as a three-quarter man.

The signing of Adam Biddle is an interesting one. The Blacktown City winger has impressed me greatly this season: he is fast, tricky, and confident beyond his years. Definitely one of the better young players in the NSWPL.

Sydney FC still look a bit light in the striker department (Ben Vidaic, though promising, is unproven, and Brendan Santalab has apparently looked somewhat unimpressive in the warm-up games), and the lack of cover in the full-back positions is glaring. But there is enough talent in the squad to give the league another fair shake, in my view.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Thai Panic

The recent takeover of Manchester City by the deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has certainly ruffled some feathers.

Human rights groups are not amused, while Manchester City fans seem to have taken the presumption of innocence to, well, new levels of presumption. One wag on a BBC blog has suggested that Shinawatra's most heinous crime has actually been to give Sven-Goran Eriksson another job in English football!

With the massive influx of foreign money into the Premiership, and with clubs increasingly reverting to private ownership in the process, a person of highly dubious antecedents was bound to appear on the scene at some point. It's worth pointing out that there are plenty of questions over Roman Abramovich's past, too, although he has not (to the best of my knowledge) been implicated in extra-judicial murder.

Are the "fit and proper person" tests appropriate for the new breed of foreign owners cashing in on the marketing phenomenon that is the English Premiership? Probably not, but it's hard to see the Premier League acting too speedily to review their criteria.

Although the situation in England makes one hanker for the fan ownership systems in place in Spain, there are problems there as well, such as World Soccer editor Gavin Hamilton outlines in his latest piece. Democracy is ever imperfect, and fickle, impatient fans render it even more so in the case of a football club.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Foot-Lit, Part 3

Next, another series of player profiles on a theme. But this time, the players in question are rather better known worldwide:

3. Garry Jenkins, The Beautiful Team

This book, which bears the subtitle in search of Pelé and the 1970 Brazilians, is sheer joy to read. The author set himself the task of tracking down the members of the legendary side that had lifted the 1970 World Cup, and he managed to get some quality time with nine of them. Everaldo, the left-back, had already passed away, while Jairzinho (the top scorer) and the centre-half Brito were contacted, but managed to avoid an interview.

As is the case with Matt Hall’s book, it is the personalities which make The Beautiful Team so memorable. Particularly vividly drawn are the midfielder Gerson, authoritarian and irascible but with the proverbial heart of gold, and the defender Piazza, a proud mineiro who wears his provincial heritage like a badge of manhood.

Perhaps the most engaging of all Jenkins’ interviewees is the reclusive Tostao, whose background is clearly more middle-class than that of most of his 1970 team-mates. He emerges as a gentle, thoughtful figure, not surprising given his intelligent style of play.

There’s plenty of humour along the way, of course. A healthy dose is provided by the goalkeeper Felix (well-known for being perhaps the most fallible member of the side), who, when Jenkins met him, was running a garage called, amusingly, Liar Motors. One of the many well-known images from the tight Brazil v. England game from the first round is of Francis Lee following up after a shot from distance, and accidentally-on-purpose slamming his knee into Felix’s temple.

Felix relates that after that, he spent the first half “not knowing where he was”…and it later emerges that Carlos Alberto, the captain and right-back, was detailed to give the rugged Lee a taste of his own medicine at some appropriate moment later in the match!

Another droll figure is the portly Rivelino, whose Italian heritage gave the final against Italy special significance for him. He emerges as the quintessential Italian figlio di papa, his father even appearing by his side, chest puffed out, in the black-and-white photo at the book’s centre. In the text, Rivelino and his Dad engage in some comical debate as to what the father’s own nickname from his playing days, “horse”, actually signified.

The encounter with a busy Pelé is necessarily brief, but it doesn’t matter. Pelé’s story is well-known; Jenkins is clearly more interested in the tales of the others who combined to create that thrilling footballing exhibition in Mexico, and he tells them lovingly.

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