Thursday, November 29, 2007

 

Missing the Point, Part 1

I've been busily downloading some more past World Cup games of late, and very much enjoying them. Somehow, the games of yesteryear (well, the better ones, anyway) seem to have a flow and a rhythm that is rarely produced these days, even by the finest teams...and I still maintain that the pointless, ill-considered backpass rule is responsible for that in no small part.

Herewith some thoughts on two games in particular that left an impression, and an interesting tactical novelty they both featured.

First, Holland v. Bulgaria from the 1974 World Cup. A very fine game, this. Johan Cruyff and his famous Oranje machine were in top form, and the Bulgarians were no slouches either; their star midfielder and captain, the elusive Hristo Bonev, would have graced any side of any era. Had their famous centre-forward Georgi Asparoukhov not been killed in a car crash a couple of years prior, the Bulgarians may well have reached the second round (or better) in Germany.

In this match, though, they were no match for the speed and slick interplay of the Dutch, and the prodigious acceleration and close control of Cruyff. Yet it was another aspect of the Dutch performance that interested me particularly.

There are plenty of tactical schemes around these days, but whatever the numbers (which, so often, only represent an approximation of a team's modus operandi) may be, almost all teams are sure to have a player at the apex of the attack; "at the point", as the jargon tends to be these days. This player will either flick the ball on with his head (if he's British), make the clever runs off the shoulder (if he's Italian), or receive, turn on a 50 cent piece and create chances for himself (if he's Brazilian). And, wherever he hails from, he will usually have the job of laying the ball off as well.

But need it be so?

In most accounts of the 1974 Dutchmen, Cruyff is described, for convenience, as the centre-forward. Yet this is an inadequate description of his role; most attacks did indeed go through him, but he almost invariably started from deep, much preferring to run at the defence. There were two other men in the forward line, Johnny Rep and Rob Rensenbrink, but they were playing as wingers, occasionally switching flanks but generally attempting to penetrate out wide.

In midfield it was something like this: Wim Jansen as the holding midfielder and tackler, Wim van Hanegem as the deep-lying playmaker, and Cruyff and Johan Neeskens breaking from midfield to support the two wingers, rather than playing in between them. No centre-forward.

And yes, the Dutch did indulge in plenty of positional interchange, the hallmark of their 1974 side. But there was none of the usual pivoting around a central man; the route to goal was usually either a surging run from the middle of the park, or a ball over the top to the wide men.

These are tactics that, to be honest, I haven't seen any contemporary team use. Yet there seems to be much to recommend them.

For one thing, the attacking players are, I feel, more likely to receive the ball facing the goal. Then there's the question of "availability"; one of the things that constantly frustrates me about modern football is that so often a full-back has few close options for a pass, necessitating either a long ball or a telegraphed pass to a player already tightly marked. With the forward line dropping deeper, there are consequently more chances of there being a "receiver" nearby.

Below is an example of the strategy in action, from the first half of the game in question. The Dutch win the ball in their own half, and immediately the wingers set off up the wing, drawing their men out wide. Cruyff is then cleverly released by van Hanegem, Neeskens charges up alongside him...and the break is on! It's notable that the two central men are difficult to stop, not only because they happen to be Cruyff and Neeskens, but because they are facing the goal, with ample space to run at the defence because, unlike a centre-forward, they are not tightly marked. The move deserved a goal (despite Neeskens' lucky rebound off a Bulgarian defender at the end), but you can't have everything...

Next: Argentina v. Poland 1978, and an even more striking example.


video

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

 

Galactic Success

Well, my scepticism was unfounded. As all non-purists told me at the time, I was underestimating the scope of the Beckham phenomenon.

Last night's game was a phenomenal success in almost every way, and the gate takings will hopefully go some way towards easing the FFA's undoubted financial difficulties. The costs associated with bringing the LA Galaxy team over, not to mention the Beckham appearance fee, would have been considerable, but 80,000 spectators, at relatively hefty prices, bring in a fair whack of revenue.

The game itself had all the hallmarks of a team-in-season-vs.-team-out-of-season clash, with the Galaxy players looking ponderous throughout. Some first-time spectators can rest assured that they will rarely ever see a more inept defensive performance from a professional football side.

There was plenty to like about Sydney FC's play (extraordinary how well our much-maligned A-League troops are capable of playing when not being harried to within an inch of their lives in midfield, as has generally been the case this season). Alex Brosque confirmed his substantial improvement this season with a textbook performance in the "off-the-shoulder" role, while Juninho, with no Jedinak or Salley to restrain him for once, had a marvellously influential first half.

The star of the show deserves great credit for playing on after his first-half collision with Brendan Santalab, which obviously left him in considerable pain. Even Beckham's equanimity was shattered in the second half, however, when Robbie Middleby attempted to do to him what Adrian Leijer had done to Middleby last season; Beckham's awful foul on Middleby later was the only scar on an otherwise immaculate PR effort from LA Galaxy's marquee man (very considerate of Ufuk Talay to concede that foul on the edge of the area, too).

Will the newbie fans come back? Probably not, but any repeat business would have been only a fringe benefit. The night was not really about raising the profile of the sport, showcasing the A-League, or honouring a great (if somewhat over-rated) player. It was about bringing in revenue without embarrassment, and in that respect it succeeded handsomely.

And David Beckham, still a good ambassador for the sport, played his part well.

Monday, November 26, 2007

 

The Draw - update

Well, we can't really complain. Our qualifying group for the Asian Cup was very straightforward, and even our group at the tournament itself was not quite the horror pairing it was dubbed in retrospect.

Our initial qualifying group for the World Cup, however, is a banana skin.

The Iraqis, fresh from their Asian Cup triumph, will surely feel that World Cup qualification is not by any means beyond them. A little confidence is a dangerous thing...especially considering they defeated Australia so comprehensively in Thailand.

It should be noted, though, that Iraq will be playing its "home" games away from the country, for obvious reasons. A small plus for their opponents, Australia included.

Qatar is not to be underestimated either. They had their moments at the Asian Cup, most of them provided by their powerful striker, the naturalised Uruguayan Sebastian Quintana, who caused the Japanese plenty of problems.

I tend to think, however, that China will be the main danger in the group, for a couple of reasons. First, they will be eager to succeed after the vast disappointment of the 2006 qualifying campaign, when they were knocked out so early. With another failure at the 2007 Asian Cup, they will have plenty of motivation to succeed...and their side is not without talent, by any means.

Secondly, the game in China will be perhaps the only away game for which our choice of personnel will probably be circumscribed by the distance from Europe. In some ways, it would have been in our favour to have three West Asian teams in the group.

Thank heavens the top two, not just the group winner, will qualify for the next stage.

After yesterday's dreary Sydney v. Queensland game, I had the pleasure of chatting with an experienced, knowledgeable Japanese football journalist, in town for the AFC Awards ceremony on Wednesday. Inevitably, we got talking about the World Cup qualifiers, and he smiled knowingly when I mentioned that Australia might find the novelty of a far-flung qualifying campaign difficult to negotiate.

"In Asia," he said, "the football is the least important thing. What matters is just surviving the travelling."

He was only half joking, I suspect.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

 

The Draw

All eyes on Durban tomorrow evening, as FIFA prepares to conduct the qualifying draw for the 2010 World Cup.

For the first time, Australian football aficionados will have their attention focused on the Asian draw. The initial qualifying rounds produced few surprises, with perhaps Singapore the only real surprise entrant into the third round. Now things start to get serious.

All the major seeds will be hoping to avoid Iraq, who are surprisingly placed in the third qualifying "pot" (seeding group), despite their victory in the Asian Cup. Syria, in the fourth pot, thumped eleven goals past Indonesia in the second qualifying round (and, don't forget, Indonesia came within an 89th-minute miss of qualifying for the Asian Cup quarter-finals), and hence look like another team to be wary of.

Thankfully, the top two teams in this third group stage will qualify for the final round of matches, a change from the system employed in the last two Asian qualifying cycles, which saw some favoured sides knocked out prematurely.

The top European-based players have taken the opportunity to make their feelings known once again about their likely availability (or rather, unavailability). Fair enough in the case of the first two matches (although, as I've mentioned before, an away game in Syria or Lebanon is much more convenient for the Euro crew than for the A-Leaguers), but from then on, it's surely a test of who really wants to be part of the national side for the long Asian haul.

There seems to be some confusion as to the dates of the third round qualifiers; the Wikipedia article linked above has the third round stretching until November of next year, while this summary, as well as the original AFC communiqué, suggests that the process will be over by September, with two matches held, sensibly, in the European hiatus in June. I'm inclined to believe the latter version.

And if that latter version is true, then there are only two games - the first two - on friendly dates. After that, if the Euro "stars" choose to make themselves unavailable, one would have to question whether they are up for it. The Asian Cup showed very clearly that some of the celebrated Class of 2006 are not necessarily to be trusted when their hearts aren't in it.

And that doesn't necessarily mean heading only for the A-League for replacements, either. The European second tier may yet end up playing a crucial role in the 2010 campaign.

Friday, November 23, 2007

 

Memories of 1993

For once, a post of pure, shameless nostalgia.

Tomorrow, in case you didn't know, there's a rather important event taking place in Australia. The triennial ritual in which we attempt to sift through a barrage of rhetoric, slogans and mostly superficial media analysis to decide who is going to run the country for the next few years.

Such an event was held on March 13, 1993 as well. It has gone down in Australian history as Paul Keating's "sweetest victory of them all", John Hewson's "unloseable election", and many other trite phrases.

It was also the night that Australia reached the semi-finals of the World Youth Championship of football. Guess what I was watching.

Actually, at that point I wasn't exactly a football tragic, just a scruffy university student with a catholic interest in plenty of sports, yet with a decided preference for cricket, which has steadily been eroded in recent years. By Arts student standards, I was fairly indifferent politically, which actually meant that I took a keen but not an overpowering interest. Hence, it meant a night of constant channel-flicking. But SBS got the lion's share of the attention.

It was a joyous night in many ways. Australia had played well, though not brilliantly, in the early games; they'd had a significant helping hand from the referee in their first-round game against the Russians, when the latter had their defender Yuri Petrov sent off for a negligible foul (another fond memory: the screen graphic, clearly reverting to a default setting for some reason, informing us that the Russian player Fred Bloggs had been red-carded!). And in their final group match against Cameroon, the Aussie youngsters were frankly awful.

Uruguay always looked like being a tough opponent in the quarter-final, and it was a very tense game. The Uruguayan coach was dismissed from the bench, the initiative swayed back and forth; in the meantime, Bob Hawke was giving his confident early prediction that, in spite of the analysts' expectations, Labor was going to win the election.

The match went to extra time. Ten minutes in, there came the moment of ecstasy: Anthony Carbone broke through to score Australia's winner.

I don't know which I enjoyed more afterwards: Uruguay coach Angel Castelnoble's frantic gesticulations to his team from beyond the perimeter fence, or John Hewson's strangulated speech, conceding an unthinkable election defeat.

I make no secret of my desire to see our xenophobic, reactionary Prime Minister toppled in tomorrow's poll, on top of the Olyroos' success in Pyongyang. But, to my shame, I'll probably be watching Melbourne v. Wellington instead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

 

The First Qualifiers

Hearty, sincere congratulations, Olyroos.

Let's just sit back for a moment and consider the significance of their achievement: they are the first Australian men's side to qualify for a worldwide event since our move to Asia. The Joeys failed, the Young Socceroos did likewise. Although the Matildas are to be congratulated for making it to the Women's World Cup through the tough Asian confederation, they had the advantage of playing all their qualifying games on home soil. The Olyroos, by comparison, endured some decidedly awkward away trips, and came out triumphant.

It's a notable, laudable success...and credit is also due, of course, to Rob Baan and Graham Arnold.

The manner of their success was perhaps less than glorious, and indeed they were lucky not to be down and out within the first twenty minutes of this afternoon's game, when the Koreans came at them quickly and decisively, taking advantage of the Australians' unfamiliarity with the artificial turf. Mark Milligan's uncharacteristic error for the Koreans' goal can perhaps be excused due to his earlier knock, but in truth, the whole defence looked dreadfully shaky in that early period.

Luckily, the Koreans subsequently ran out of ideas and, ultimately, legs.

Graham Arnold's decision to start both Ruben Zadkovich and the blunt Leigh Broxham in midfield bespoke a defensive attitude, and it was fortunate that he found the courage to subsequently replace Broxham with Nathan Burns, who should surely have been on from the beginning. Dario Vidosic, too, was lucky to be starting after an indifferent performance against Iraq; he, too, didn't see out the ninety minutes. All one can say is that Arnold probably began with the wrong cattle, but was at least able to acknowledge his mistakes.

Some of the deficiencies that were apparent against Iraq surfaced again - an inability to play the ball effectively out of defence, a lack of options on the right, regular turnovers in midfield (how Stuart Musialik was missed in this department). I think it's fair to say that Australia faced opposition that was technically superior in the course of the campaign.

Yet the weapon that has served Australia well in Asia already - physical power - played an important role again. Not least when, in the last half-hour, after Arnold's charges had begun to settle, the robust Olyroo defenders won far more than their fair share of aerial balls. It was surely significant, too, that Australia's crucial goals in their last two games have come from set-pieces.

One final note about the Olyroos: Before watching the 2004 cohort playing in their Oceania qualifiers at Bossley Park, I glanced at the match program and noted that the vast majority of them were playing in Europe. Mostly at modest clubs, and in many cases suffering ongoing bouts of bench-splinter disease.

A quick look at the current Olyroo squad brings a smile. Plenty of them are based at home...and they are playing regularly in the A-League. So much for the "Youth Crisis".

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

 

A Miraculous Season


I recently got hold of a football book that I'd long been searching for; a friend in Melbourne (many thanks again, Matt!) lent it to me during my brief stay there last weekend.

Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro has acquired a sort of cult following among football fans, and, upon reading it, it's easy to see why. This is not the best football book I've read, by any means, but it's certainly the most extraordinary...and, in many ways, the most confronting.

McGinniss is an American author (previously considered chiefly a political writer), who caught the football bug in 1994 with the unexpected arrival of the World Cup in America. He subsequently, and quite naturally, focussed his attention on Italy, arguably the home of most of the world's top players at that time.

Yet he chose not to write about AC Milan, Juventus or Fiorentina. He made the perhaps inspired choice of following a team from an impoverished town in the Abruzzo region, who had astonished the calcio establishment by making their way to Serie B, alongside such erstwhile giants of the Italian game as Torino and Genoa. He spent a whole season with this group of modest professionals and their irascible, headstrong coach, Osvaldo Jaconi.

Yet the story that emerges is anything but the clichéd small-town-boys-make-good heart-tugger. Instead, the book scratches (or rather lacerates) the frightening underbelly of the Italian game, where powerful self-made men engage in behaviour that veers from the comic to the criminal...and beyond.

And although McGinniss clearly develops a hero-worship of many of the players, they are by no means spared his often rather supercilious analysis. The book's final chapter is heart-breaking in many ways, but not, given what has come before, entirely unexpected.

McGinniss's audience is American, and thus the first part of the book contains a fair bit of Soccer-For-Dummies information that does grate at times. And his constant accounts of how his tactical advice was constantly scorned by the proud Jaconi do make the reader cringe somewhat.

Yet he writes very well, and the book cannot help but draw you in, even when the events severely stretch the reader's credibility (especially the incidents concerning the mysterious Signor Rezza, who comes across as something of a hackneyed stereotype). Non-fiction it may be, but one does suspect that the history of Castel di Sangro's 1996/97 season has been jazzed up just a bit.

If McGinniss brings his own personality into the text rather too much, it's a forgivable flaw in this case; the book is a highly personal account, and he rarely makes any attempt at impartiality.

Let me repeat: there are better football books. But this one is something distinctly out of the ordinary...and a fascinating read.

Monday, November 19, 2007

 

The Journeyman Option

I suspect that everyone is more or less Advocaat-ed out by this point, so I won't go to any great lengths over the "betrayal". Plenty of journos and bloggers have already had their say, and have detailed the issues involved far more cogently than I could.

Pim Verbeek has, not surprisingly, thrown his hat in the ring. The FFA would be fools not to consider his "application" very seriously.

Mike Cockerill has, also predictably, come out in support of Graham Arnold again. His alternative suggestion of Gianfranco Zola (a magnificent footballer, but a rank novice as a manager) is faintly ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than the possibility of Jurgen Klinsmann, a remote control manager if ever there was one.

Let me throw another name into the mix. A gentleman who was considered a possibility for the Australia post some time ago, but has slipped out of contention in recent times (partly, I suspect, due to the knee-jerk mistrust of British coaches, which has become one of the more distasteful of Johnny Warren's legacies).

In the Euro 2008 qualifiers, Roy Hodgson has once again done what he does best: gotten a relatively modest team to punch above its weight. His Finnish charges found themselves in a distinctly tough European qualifying group, with Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Belgium all in the mix. Yet the Finns have kept pace, and are still in with a very slim chance of qualifying.

Yet it is just that, a very slim chance; their final game, away to Portugal (who only need a point to qualify) is on Wednesday, and they will almost certainly be eliminated from the reckoning. And then:

Hodgson has taken Finland to the brink of qualification for Euro 2008, but his contract expires at the end of the campaign, with the Finnish FA keen to retain the services of the former Blackburn Rovers manager.

They may be keen to retain him. But there's nothing to prevent the FFA making him an offer as well.

Hodgson has experience in Asia - he coached the UAE in the early part of this decade - and has a record of success at international level, even if his forays into club management have not always been as happy.

One to keep in mind.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

 

Almost There

It was a very good night for Australian teams, with the senior side knocking off Nigeria in a European friendly soon after the Olyroos had taken a large step towards qualification for Beijing, with a 2-0 win over Iraq in Gosford.

Sadly, because goal difference rather than head-to-head record is used to separate teams in the Asian Olympic qualifiers, the Olyroos are not quite home and dry just yet; they need to get a result against North Korea in Pyongyang on Wednesday, since Iraq will probably defeat Lebanon comfortably on home turf.

2-0, frankly, was better than the Olyroos deserved in a match which certainly showed up a few weaknesses in the youngsters' arsenal. True, Burns and Djite were absent, which did affect matters. But although Australia settled the more quickly and posed plenty of early danger (thanks mainly to the penetration offered by James Troisi on the left wing), when the Iraqis started pressing after conceding the opener, Graham Arnold's charges gave away the ball dreadfully cheaply at times, and often looked flat-footed by comparison to the Iraqis, especially in midfield.

I'm surprised that Ruben Zadkovich continues to be picked for the Olyroos in midfield; although he is full of running and occasionally makes himself useful in an attacking capacity, he is not really of international standard. When Nick Ward replaced him in the second half, Australia's general play improved markedly.

Another, rather more unexpected, worry is Danny Vukovic's distribution. The young Mariners keeper is a fine shot-stopper, his handling is good and his movement off his line is fairly sound, although there's certainly room for improvement there. But both his clearances and his goal-kicks were often badly misplaced last night - one of the many reasons why the Iraqis managed to dominate possession for long periods.

It's to be hoped that Graham Arnold doesn't approach the game in Pyongyang with an over-defensive mentality. If the Iraqis had offered better final balls and/or a capable finisher during their period of dominance, when Australia largely sat back, they would surely have come away from Gosford with a result.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

 

Plan B

So Dick Advocaat isn't coming.

The whole saga was badly handled by the FFA from start to finish, with, apparently, no other options being seriously pursued, and a predictable bidding war with Zenit St. Petersburg being entered into quite unnecessarily.

Where to turn to now, then?

Jesse Fink, now blogging for SBS, has suggested the former Tottenham manager Martin Jol. Not a bad option, certainly, but his lack of experience outside Europe (or at international level) is a concern.

An interesting possibility arises with the sacking of the legendary Bora Milutinovic by Jamaica, but Milutinovic's results in his various recent gigs have not been impressive, and he has acquired something of a reputation for intransigence.

The best option at this stage, in my opinion, is the man that was considered the chief alternative to Advocaat around the time of the Asian Cup: Pim Verbeek.

He ticks most of the boxes: he has worked in Asia (very recently, too), he is still unattached, he would not be prohibitively expensive, he speaks English, he is interested in the job (he made this quite clear in the aftermath of the Asian Cup), and he fits what appears to be the FFA's main qualification: Dutch nationality.

His South Korea side at the Asian Cup may have been a tad prosaic, especially by comparison to some of the entertainers from the Gulf, but they were tactically sound, physically well-prepared, and always competitive. That they gained third place without three key players was, in all fairness, a solid achievement.

The FFA have made a mistake in their single-minded pursuit of Advocaat, but there's no reason to compound the error by embarking on another sad love affair with an indifferent European aristocoach.

 

The Hare and the Fox - update

Queensland Roar's two youngsters have certainly been crucial to the club's success over the last few weeks.

The hare, Michael Zullo, finally found the crossing range to match his pace towards the end of last week's game against Wellington, and he delivered a beautiful ball into the box for Marcinho to score Queensland's third. He seems to have recovered his confidence after the "setback" against Newcastle.

But it is the fox, Robbie Kruse, who has really impressed. Wonderfully incisive against the Phoenix, when he slid a sublime through-ball to Matt McKay in the lead-up to the second goal and nearly scored a stunner himself with an outside-of-the-foot volley from a Zullo cross, his goal in last night's game was a very, very fine effort. Close control took him past two defenders, and the finish was the sort that one would expect from a far more experienced player.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Kruse's play is that he has that uncanny ability, which few players possess, to draw fouls with monotonous regularity. It was a shame, in fact, that Queensland made so little of the many set-pieces that they received as a result of Kruse's acumen in this regard.

I should add, however, that Kruse has also shown that he's not averse to making the most of the poor tackles he endures. Perhaps something for Frank Farina to have a word to him about.

The prowess of the two young revelations has, in fact, served to paper over some cracks in the Queensland side that have appeared in the absence of Danny Tiatto. Stuart McLaren has looked far from assured in the midfield anchor role (I still feel that Hyuk-Su Seo would be the best option in that position). Massimo Murdocca has drifted out of form. Marcinho, although he has clearly gained confidence from his recent goals, continues to frustrate in many ways, not least with his first touches.

In truth, Queensland lost the thread of last night's game around the twenty-five minute mark, as indeed they did against Wellington, when the dismissal of Ahmad Elrich was an absolute godsend for them. Against Melbourne, they were ultimately lucky that Danny Allsopp made a mess of two point-blank chances that he surely would have buried last season.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

 

Who's Afraid? - brief update #11

The fan violence in Italy over the last week is certainly attracting its share of international attention, and combined with the over-hyped events at Telstra Dome last weekend, there are plenty of opportunities for local columnists to use the general theme as a comfortable riff. Step forward Paul Sheehan, one of Fairfax's resident right-wing contrarians, and a rusted-on rugby union man (see, for instance, this piece of cringeworthy claptrap).

The football world according to Sheehan:

Clearly, there are too many stupid, violent peasants involved in Italian football.

Tongue-in-cheek? Well, you'd hope so, but there certainly doesn't appear to be any indication of irony in the subsequent paragraph. Perhaps I'm missing the subtlety.

There's certainly no irony in this little syllogism:

It's a soccer thing. There's never been any crowd trouble at rugby World Cups, despite the amount of boozing that seems integral to rugby culture. It's rare in American sports and in Australia.

The sheer fatuity of the logic is breathtaking. Perhaps Mr. Sheehan hasn't noticed that his beloved rugby has a comparatively tiny and almost exclusively middle-class audience, that the football World Cup (as opposed to domestic club matches) is similarly free of violence, and that the U.S. and Australia have levels of affluence that tend, for obvious reasons, to keep fan violence in any sport to manageable levels.

For 40 years, football in Australia was held back by petty feuds among the immigrant community and imported alien prejudices.

You see, folks, it really was that simple.

Not that Sheehan is alone in this. The facile "Old Soccer v. New Football" line has been relentlessly parroted by lazy non-football journalists ever since the inception of the A-League.

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of Sheehan's piece is that, at the close (after making his one good point, that it is the dumb aping of European terrace antics that is causing the relatively minor problems in the A-League), he attempts to appear genuinely interested in the well-being of the game.

He isn't.

 

Nothing to Fear but the Referees - update

Remember the Urawa Red Diamonds?

That's right, the side that sneaked ahead of Sydney FC to progress to the knockout rounds of the Asian Champions' League, after a 0-0 draw in Japan in which they were largely outplayed by Branko Culina's side.

Their supporters were certainly worthy of note, even if their football, on the whole, wasn't.

Well, the team from the Urawa prefecture has triumphed in the competition, winning the two-leg final against the Iranian side Sepahan (the highly-fancied Gulf sides this time failed to provide a finalist).

It seems to be a habit of Australian sides to put the winners of international competitions to a stern test.

Urawa's success should give Australian club sides plenty of hope for future instalments of the competition. If not for Ufuk Talay's missed penalty in Sydney's penultimate game against Shanghai, and David Zdrilic's egregious miss in the Urawa showdown, it would have been the men in light blue into the second round instead of Urawa.

Sadly, the fact that the A-League season clashes so awkwardly with the Asian calendar means that the best Australian sides will not necessarily take part (Melbourne Victory this season, as all have averred, is nothing like the Fred-inspired class of 2006/07). Still, the signs are good.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

 

Club v. Country, A-League Style - another brief update

Another international weekend, another availability mess.

Perth Glory are the principal victims this time, and Tony Sage has ripped into the FFA for their refusal to countenance a postponement of his club's game against the Mariners. He would be better advised simply to rebuke the FFA for their short-sightedness; it was obvious that these dates would become a problem, with the Asian commitments piling up.

Given that a youth league is apparently being introduced next year, and that the clubs (to the best of my understanding) are obliged to release players for international matches even on non-FIFA dates, under the terms of their franchise agreement with the FFA, the problem is only going to get worse. And it's not just Australia's fixtures causing difficulties, either.

Ben Buckley states:

"We have to have consistent policy and we have listened and we intend to have breaks on FIFA dates next season."

Notice the non-committal word "intend". I think Foxtel, munificent but demanding, might have an opinion about this particular "intention".

Sunday, November 11, 2007

 

Make Me a Memory

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Melbourne this weekend; to the e-friends with whom I played football, chatted volubly and enjoyed a fabulous Croatian feed, many thanks for your hospitality. It was a pleasure, too, to catch up with Eamonn of Football in the Capital at the Melbourne v. Sydney game.

Sadly, while he and I were watching John Kosmina field media questions with his usual semi-contemptuous swagger at the press conference, there were some lamentable events going on just above us.

Of course, the media reports of the events are typically exaggerated; from all accounts, apart from the unfortunate injury to a Sydney fan who was struck with a bottle after the game, and the idiotic pre-game "tram attack" by another Sydney fan, there were few genuinely untoward incidents.

What makes the whole thing so sad is that small, unruly elements from the A-League supporter groups keep giving the media fuel for the anti-football fire which has been slowly gathering strength over the last couple of years.

The Telstra Dome security certainly did not help by ushering the departing Cove into the wrong "safety suite" after the game, after which they spilled out onto the balcony to be assailed by some of the more foolish young home supporters. A few of the Sydney fans responded in kind, using the plastic chairs on the balcony as their weapons of choice (this, incidentally, is the best reconstruction of events that I've been able to make from the evidence of various people).

A prominent Covite whom I met at the airport this morning recounted most of the salient facts to me, by no means exculpating the Cove entirely. He then made what I thought was a very pertinent comment: that the younger fans, in their quest for "football kulcha" credentials of the European kind, engage in such stupid behaviour partly because, on the whole, they don't remember the NSL.

They don't remember the long history of incidents between rival supporters being blown out of proportion by a cynical and largely xenophobic media. They don't remember the battles that football faced for credibility as an "Australian" sport when every piece of terrace banter invited simplistic comparisons to some of the genuinely horrifying behaviour regularly seen in Europe. They don't remember that, for most Australians, a flare is a symbol of violence, pure and simple.

Although the police and the security (who, it often seems, treat the supporter groups with contempt) could certainly have done better last night by all accounts, it is up to the senior, respected members of the new supporter groups to imbue some of the younger fans with a bit of the corporate memory of Australian football. Many of them have done a tremendous job in this regard, but there's some way to go yet.

Friday, November 09, 2007

 

Striking up the Band

No doubt much will be made of the "new manager syndrome" in the wake of another mini-revival occasioned by a coaching change, this time at Perth Glory.

David Mitchell has joined John Kosmina, Gary van Egmond and Ricki Herbert on the list of managers who have stepped into a vacant A-League chair (of the plastic touchline variety), and seen their new charges sparked into life.

How is one to explain it? Of course, there are the well-known factors of players losing their complacency, realizing that they may be playing for their positions, perhaps now feeling unencumbered by dressing-room angst, and the like. But in all four of the cases above, there's been another ingredient which I think is important.

It is simply this: the addition of an effective striker.

Contrary to some stereotyped opinions, Perth have been playing some quite good football recently. As were Sydney under Branko Culina, and Newcastle under Nick Theodorakopoulos. But there was no-one there to exploit the approach play, either as finisher or focal point...until the arrival of the new man on the sideline.

The lively Nikita Rukavystya was finally handed a long overdue start up front tonight, and he was magnificent, scoring two goals and playing important roles in two more. Quite a contrast to Mate Dragicevic, James Robinson (he of the perpetually pained countenance), and even Jamie Harnwell, who, for all his virtues, could never run at the defence as Rukavystya did in Newcastle.

John Kosmina was fortunate that his arrival at Sydney FC coincided with the availability of Michael Bridges, who has offered intelligent movement, a sure touch and (it appears) a positive attitude in his role at the point of the attack.

A much underestimated factor in the Newcastle revival last season (along with Paul Kohler's move into midfield, and Paul Okon's eventual return to form) was the return of the injured Vaughan Coveny to the first eleven...in Gary van Egmond's first game in charge. Needless to say, Coveny was crucial to Newcastle's success in the subsequent weeks, operating in his usual front-man capacity.

Ricki Herbert, bringing the New Zealand Knights to belated life last season, benefited greatly from unexpectedly transforming the robust Neil Emblen into a target man, a deployment which allowed the quick Alen Marcina to play off him with great incisiveness.

In all these cases, too, the presence of the proverbial "cutting edge" in the final third has galvanized the other players.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

 

The Plan, Part 5

Finally:

5. Transfer Fees and Training Compensation

It's hardly a secret that the organisation which has shown the most intransigence towards the FFA in recent times is Football NSW. The state federation, whose major competition is home to many of the clubs ejected from the top table with the dissolution of the NSL, is perceived in the football community at large - rightly or wrongly - as the embittered bastion of "old soccer".

For one thing, in the matter of the AIS footballers and their need for decent competition, they could surely have shown a little more flexibility.

But one of the major gripes one hears from fans of the NSWPL clubs is that they can't make decent money on players they have developed anymore, due to the national registration regulations, which restrict the return on a player newly transferred to the A-League to $5,000. There is also the matter of the transfer fees payable for players still on contract; again, the registration regulations ensure that these are pretty measly.

In the section of the NFDP dealing with transfer fees and the like (Initiatives, Section 5), we may be seeing something of a sop to the state league clubs in the stated objective:

FFA to review the National Registration Regulations after the accreditation & rating system is made available to football developers to ensure clubs who play a key role in the development of a player are appropriately rewarded...

This may become even more important with the advent of the new youth league.

Before we leave The Plan, it's worth looking at some criticism which has already surfaced.

Now, Miron Bleiberg's argument from the NRL and AFL is just silly, given that these are two sports in which Australia does not face meaningful international competition. But Gary van Egmond is right, in my opinion, to suggest that aligning the state leagues with the A-League is a critical issue to be addressed in the coming years.

Monday, November 05, 2007

 

The Plan, Part 4

So much for the youth league initiative. Now:

3. Small-sided games

With this particular move (Initiatives, Section 1), one can only heartily agree.

The definitive experience for me in this regard came when watching what I later discovered to be an Under 9s game, at Coleman Park in Berala some five years ago.

The kids were playing on the full field, and the game was a miserable parody of football. Huge scrummages were followed by a belt into the far distance by one of the tykes, after which all 20 of the outfield players would run in synchronized fashion towards the ball. The scenario would then repeat itself.

It was, as a friend of mine recently described it, "round-ball rugby".

I'm not suggesting that such a game was necessarily typical, and in fact most of the more enlightened local associations, it seems, have introduced various small-sided initiatives of their own accord. But, as we read:

SSGs are currently played in some parts of Australia, but the format is not consistent and the particular form used is not always ideal for the age groups involved.

4. Women's National League

The success of the Matildas at the recent Women's World Cup certainly brought the women's game into the foreground, and the introduction of a national league (Initiatives, Section 4b) is a logical step.

The question of how such a league would be funded is another matter. Some of the expenses associated with the men's league (travel, accommodation etc.,) would be involved, without many of the usual revenue streams to offset them. Having said that, it would be a perfect opportunity for SBS to provide some of the local football content that they have been priced out of in recent years...and the TV revenue (meagre as it would be) might go some way towards making the league sustainable, in conjunction with sponsorship.

Next time: a look at the changes in the area of transfer fees and training compensation, an aspect of the NFDP which has gone somewhat unnoticed.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

 

The Plan, Part 3

More musings on the new National Football Development Plan.

2. The Youth League, Part 2

In the NSL days, of course, the clubs in the senior competition (well, most of them) had a development setup, and the juniors were able to play in the regional divisions of the old National Youth League, along with the AIS (in the northern division) and the state institutes.

These days, the Under 20s at old NSL clubs such as Marconi, Sydney Olympic and Sydney United (I use NSW examples merely for convenience, seeing as I live there and know a bit more about these clubs than those in Victoria and elsewhere) play in the Under 20 division of the state league. It is, presumably, largely from these teams that the A-League clubs will draw the cohorts for their new Under 21 teams.

So, what will be the benefits?

An obvious one is that they will then be associated closely with a fully professional setup. Despite the very good work that many of the state league clubs do in terms of development, they cannot offer that sort of proximity to a genuinely full-time professional outfit anymore. The experience that such kids would gain by being in an A-League environment, especially if they are occasionally drafted into first-team squads, as envisaged in the plan (Initiatives, Section 10) would surely be beneficial.

Then there's the chance for the younger players (and their coaches) to get a taste of what's on offer in the other states, and of course the crucial benefit, which Rob Baan hinted at here: that the kids, with a youth league in place, would be active more or less year-round (with participation in the state leagues virtually a given, one would assume).

A further plus for the competition as a whole would be the fact that there would be more players available as injury cover throughout the season (see, again, Initiatives, Section 10). The reserve-keeper-in-an-outfield-shirt embarrassment of last season might have served to remind the FFA of the problems inherent in a small squad.

Set against all this is the fact that the existing state league clubs have exactly what the A-League clubs don't: a long-established development path (with the infrastructure already in place), continuity of youth teams, and corporate knowledge and experience among the coaching staff. But, to revisit our old friend Initiatives Section 10, there is:

...a long-term aim for Hyundai A-League clubs to play a major role in the development of talented players in Australia throught the implementation of a three part of youth development (sic) structure...

Proofreading aside, this is excellent news. The big question will be, of course, exactly how long it will take before the A-League clubs undertake such a structural change. At clubs where the finances are tight, there may well be some resistance at various stages, even if they can use the younger groups as an extra, albeit minimal, revenue source.

Friday, November 02, 2007

 

The Plan, Part 2

There's plenty of material to chew over in the new National Football Development Plan, so it's probably best to take it in small chunks. First:

1. The Youth League, Part 1

Now, to clear the ground once again (since the old myth appears to be dying very, very hard): the proposed national youth competition is a genuine innovation. There never, repeat never, has been anything similar in the past. The round-robin youth competitions have only ever been regional, largely because of the expenses associated with travel.

The first obvious question is: will the players be paid?

One would assume so, if they are to be mostly between 18 and 21, as the document indicates (Initiatives, section 4a). Perhaps we will see some variant of the two-tier system adopted in America, where the apprentice players at the MLS clubs are paid what might be described as a nominal wage. As I've mentioned on this blog before, there are potential problems with this.

Neither in the main document itself nor in the FFA's summary are we given any information in that area, though. David Davutovic provided some scant detail in his original piece. Perhaps it's one of those details still to be thrashed out.

In any event, the costs will be considerable: travel, coaching of a sufficient standard, accommodation, and all the rest. The FFA has apparently undertaken to cover the bulk of the costs itself (see Davutovic's piece above), with the clubs to chip in enough to keep the national body solvent. It's a significant drain, whichever way you look at it.

So to the question of the benefits.

In many ways, the frustrating situation of the A-League and state league seasons not aligning has made a youth league a much more attractive option, given that younger players who can't quite make the grade at the senior A-League clubs have plenty of "off-time"; as Rob Baan has complained:

Using his first Olyroos camp at the beginning of the year as an example, he [Baan] said he realised a National Youth League was necessary after finding out about 70 percent of his squad was not playing competitive football.

"I'll give you a few names," said Baan. "Kristian Sarkies, not playing; Bruce Djite, not playing; Adam D'Apuzzo, not playing; Steven O'Dor, not playing. Nathan Burns had played a few games. Topor-Stanley had come in near the end with a few matches. But that was it."

It's a fair point, and one made by others in the past (notably Ange Postecoglou) as well.

But a question that deserves to be asked is whether a youth league would provide the players with the sort of competition from which they would gain real competitive sharpness and increased technical prowess. To quote from the NFDP this time (Talented Player Development, Page 7):

Deficient game skills and game hardness evident in mid teens and later...in the majority of the major footballing countries, by age 18 or 19, the best young players are competing in professional senior environments (with and against adult professionals), throughout the full season...

And here is something of an irony. The above is palpably true, but the FFA have elected to make their priority a youth league rather than an expansion of the existing league...which would surely provide more opportunities for young players to be truly mixing it with the senior professionals, in a testing environment, rather than simply playing among themselves.

The next question is how the new competition would differ from the youth competitions currently on offer (in the state leagues). But that will have to wait until next time.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

 

The Plan, Part 1

So the grand Australian football plan is finally here...weighing in at about 3.5MB, for those with download limits to keep an eye on.

And there's plenty to like about it, although there isn't much there that wasn't expected. One would assume that the chief architect of the document has been Rob Baan (whose name, bizarrely, is misspelled in the acknowledgements at the end), but there has clearly been plenty of local input as well.

A closer look at the details over the next week or so, but first: the context.

The FFA has presented a précis of the full document on their own website, full of joyful phrases and optimistic expectations.

Amongst the "highlights" enumerated there, the following catches the eye:

The introduction of a national youth league with all Hyundai A-League clubs (except Wellington) involved plus the Australian Institute of Sport...

So it's official.

It still appears a mixed blessing to me, and I'll go into the further ramifications of the innovation as described in the full document in a later post.

Then there's this, a little earlier in the piece:

The objectives of the plan are:

...

(inter alia) Identify, attract and retain more and better athletes particularly in the 12-16 age group...

Unfortunately, this rings a little hollow when you consider another little piece of news which has emanated from College Street in the last couple of days.

Now, the "levy", as it was then known, was introduced in 2002 to much indignation in the football community (I remember the grumbles at my own club, Strathfield Juniors, only too well). It was only ever intended as a temporary measure, to shore up the finances of the stricken Soccer Australia. Yet it has remained in place under the FFA, and has now been increased (albeit not by a great deal).

Ray Gatt, a well-known FFA sceptic, certainly didn't let this slip under the radar. Although he overstates the case somewhat, his sourpuss source is right to point out that the FFA has received a $16 million commitment (over four years) from the federal government already this year, although admittedly that was earmarked for the various national teams.

One wonders how much grassroots goodwill the FFA may be sacrificing in the interests of implementing its plan.

More on the details in further instalments.

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