Monday, June 29, 2009


Opportunity Knocks

Congratulations to Brazil on winning their second successive Confederations Cup, in an enthralling final which illustrated the virtues and the defects of both sides very nicely.

As the informative Tim Vickery has often reminded us, the culture of Brazilian football has changed significantly in recent years, and their goalscoring hero Luis Fabiano almost embodies that change.

Opportunism in the final third has become, in my view, the vital weapon in the Brazilian arsenal. Although there was more creative midfield interplay than we often see from modern Brazil sides this morning, due to the space the U.S. vouchsafed them after they went ahead, a 24-pass Cambiasso-style goal never looked likely. Instead, Fabiano took advantage of a second's inattention in the U.S. defence to score that pivotal goal just after the break.

And it was opportunism in more ways than one, too: this was the perfect time for such a counter-blow, both catching the opposition cold and setting the tone for the rest of the half.

Cast your minds back three years, and there was a very similar goal, at a similar stage of the game. This time, a rare misjudgement from Scott Chipperfield, a half-chance for Adriano (another prime opportunist before his psychological problems became overwhelming), and Brazil suddenly took charge of a game in which they had looked disjointed and unsure of themselves.

Yet the old Brazilian defensive problems were manifest at times during this morning's game. Not only on the occasion of the second American goal, but twice afterwards they were badly exposed on the flanks. Brazilian fullbacks have never been in too much of a hurry to track back.

As for the Americans, how much did they owe to Tim Howard? Although their outfield players have rarely been among the world's best, the U.S. have produced three keepers of patent international class in recent years: Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel (one of the players of the 2002 World Cup), and Howard. But for a couple of fine saves in the first half, the tide in this morning's match would surely have turned far earlier than it did.

Ultimately, though, Bob Bradley's brave side couldn't match the Brazilians for ball control, movement and invention, although they perhaps began to sit on their lead a touch too early. But they have the consolation of having taken part in one of the best-ever finals of an international tournament.

The Confederations Cup often produces attractive football (the Brazil v. Egypt game from the opening round was one of the most entertaining matches I've ever seen), even if its competitive relevance is limited. A big thank you to SBS for showing the event in its entirety.

As for the notorious's bloody annoying, of course, but is it really any worse than the obnoxious horns of the 1982 World Cup, or even the ubiquitous rattles of 1966?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


KNVB-all and End-all - update, Part 1

The National Football Curriculum has arrived. 5MB worth of impressive-sounding methodology, nuggets of good advice and, as I mentioned earlier, a couple of worrying little kickers, if you'll pardon the pun.

First, a couple of small quibbles. The "Identified Gaps" section contains a couple of highly questionable assertions which deserve a wider airing; the document makes much of the fact that the successive waves of European immigration have dried up, and concludes that Australian football needs an injection of new blood as a result:

The historical immigration dynamic that has underpinned football in Australia appears to be weakening. This poses a major threat to Australia's future talent pool unless offset by a much greater share of young athletes from rural areas...

With the greatest respect, this is nonsense.

Second- and third-generation players of European background are still to be found in huge numbers at elite and close-to-elite level in Australia, and to pretend that a rush for the bush is necessary as a result of a change in the immigration dynamic bespeaks a flimsy understanding of Australian football, in my view. One can easily see more FFA money wasted on feelgood rural programs, if this is what the document envisages.

Then there's this richly ironic statement:

In Australia however, football is becoming an expensive sport and therefore not affordable for some families. When a child is identified as being talented and selected for participation in State and National Championships the threshold becomes even higher because of the ‘user pays’ system. Sometimes this is exacerbated by distance from the main football centres. Therefore, the assumption is justifiable that this situation causes a substantial loss of potential talent.

I need hardly point out the irony of a Technical Director whose substantial salary might have gone instead towards reducing the national levy on junior players complaining about the "gap" in this area.

Time for a few positives though. The spicing up of the theoretical framework with the odd parcel of good basic advice is a commendable idea, and indeed the suggestions throughout, general and specific, are basically very sound, if hardly original. Graded small-sided games for the different age groups? No arguments here, from a long-time supporter of this idea.

Next time, the big sticking points - the mandatory 4-3-3, and the "Accreditation and Rating" section, which, I feel, could ultimately prove dreadfully counter-productive if put into practice.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


The Bozza We Knew

These days, when Mark Bosnich isn't defending current Socceroo stars from media calumny, he is appearing in the NSW Premier League for Sydney Olympic. In fact, he is the local competition's most high-profile acquisition of recent years, by some distance.

Bosnich played his latest home game for Olympic at Belmore this afternoon, as the Greek-backed club gained its first win in the league since April, against Penrith-Nepean United. It was a good opportunity to have a look at the on-field qualities of Bosnich circa 2009, and although there were many signs of decay, there was one moment of patent class...for which, read on.

He was never famed for his distribution, and it was this aspect of his game which apparently made him goalkeeper non grata at Manchester United. Sure enough, this evening, he did not impress with his accuracy, and his defenders were only too aware that expecting him to clear with his right foot was asking for trouble.

Less predictable was the fact that his communication with the backline was quite poor. No fewer than three times, there was confusion between Bosnich and the centre-half pairing of Mirko Jurilj and Michael Cindric, and twice it very nearly cost Olympic. True, the centre-halves were partly to blame for this, but a player of Bosnich's experience could have been expected to take charge a bit.

It's no secret that Bozza is, erm, "carrying a bit too much baggage". He admitted to a Sydney Olympic insider of my acquaintance that he needed to shed a good 12 kilos to be back to his professional best. Fair enough, but...didn't we hear much the same during his stint with the Mariners? If Bosnich does indeed intend to have another crack at Europe, he's pacing himself rather gently.

But enough criticism. Bosnich's trump card is, and has always been, his prodigious shot-stopping. My mind goes back to a 0-0 draw at the Bernabeu in 2000, in which Bosnich brilliantly repelled wave after wave of Real Madrid attacks, in perhaps his finest game for Manchester United. It was not enough to endear him to Sir Alex Ferguson on a long-term basis, but it showed just why he was so highly valued by so many in Europe.

From the Bernabeu to Belmore: the 80th minute, to be exact, with the score still at 2-2. A Penrith attack has forced the Olympic defence to crowd around the 18-yard area, and the ball reaches Paul Crisp, 25 yards from goal. He sends a cracker of a shot goalwards, and it's heading straight for the top corner. The Penrith players are getting ready to leap in celebration, until the Bosnich of old leaps to his right and makes a fantastic, breathtaking save.

Thirteen minutes later, Olympic score a last-minute winner at the other end. And their distinguished keeper, still one of the finest players Australia has produced, can afford a satisfied little smile.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Who's Afraid? - update #19

World Cup qualification achieved with a minimum of fuss, and the Australian government giving generous support to a bid for a World Cup of our own in the near future. Football threatening to make serious progress in the country, despite the indifferent financial state of the A-League? Cue the football refusers, out in force.

First, this. A blog, admittedly, not a "proper" op-ed piece. But it is instructive for showing just how absurd the moaning of the refusers can get.

Yes, soccer players in the top European leagues have long seasons and often play mid-week games. But league's greater physicality means that the NRL's 24 game season...more than makes up for that.

Twenty-four games?!? With no major travel involved? You couldn't make it up.

As for the "greater physicality" argument, a tawdry myth dragged out at convenient moments, league's five-tackle-and-kick rhythm involves endless stoppages, even without taking into account scrums, penalties, conversions and the like. Confusing greater physical contact with greater demands on fitness is a childish error, but it doesn't stop certain axe-to-grind pundits making it.

And, to make one of my usual points, Stathi Paxinos is a league writer. Time for Michael Lynch to lambast the fitness levels of the top NRL stars, I think.

Now to our old friends at the Tele, who have decided to make some mileage out of Tim Cahill's stonewall TV interview after the game against Japan. Petulant it may have been, but given his recent history with the media, it was surely understandable. But for the Murdoch mob:

Cahill...showed he was still stinging from criticism over last week's drunken nightclub incident. After he was given a standing ovation when he left the field, all fans wanted after the match was to hear from their hero. Instead Cahill let them down.

Ah, so warmly acknowledging the crowd after their hearty support throughout the evening was "letting them down"? In the strange News Ltd. parallel universe, it appears so.

He drew criticism...

...from, well, us,

for creating negative publicity for the code...

...that emanated from, well, us. And:

Cahill answered his critics with a five-star performance on the field, but undid all that good work with his show of petulance.

It would be uproariously funny, if it wasn't in print.

Don't write in to them, as some have unwisely done to Phil Rothfield, thereby fuelling both his ego and his prejudices, and ensuring that such pieces will appear again. Either just grin with satisfaction, or direct any relevant criticism, in sober terms, to the editors of these journals, with the request that football simply be granted the same respect as any other major sport.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


The Summary

It's always nice to have ninety minutes of football essentially summarise an entire campaign. And that is what we had with the Socceroos' 2-1 sign-off victory over Japan tonight.

There was:

The slow start

In our home games against Bahrain, Uzbekistan and Japan, we have looked languid (some might say woeful) in the first half: sitting too far back, not fashioning any decent linkage between defence and midfield, and relying too much on the aerial ball. Again, Australia's first-half efforts tonight, after an admittedly brisk start, did not enthuse.

The lack of any opposition presence up front

How much has Pim Verbeek's team owed to the lack of any truly commanding strikers in our World Cup group?

Tonight, once again, Japan produced plenty of intelligent, progressive play in the middle third, but there was no-one to take charge, or take the chances, up front. Around the hour mark, with Japan pressing but not penetrating, one always felt that the pendulum could swing quite easily.

Mark Schwarzer

Enough said.

I don't think anyone would deny him the title of the finest goalkeeper in the Asian confederation; realistically, only Seigo Narazaki and Lee Woon-Jae come remotely close. With the Fulham keeper between the sticks for the Socceroos, the defensive task becomes so much easier.

He was not unduly tested this evening, but was still there to snap up the corners, deal with the half-hearted shots, and generally lead the team from the back. Quite priceless.

The midfield axis of blah

Yep, the two screeners were there again.

Vince Grella may have added some impetus to the side in the previous game against Bahrain, but his predisposition to dangerous fouls (many of them quite close to goal) could have cost the Socceroos tonight, and may well do so once the team faces stronger opposition.

As for Jason Culina...well. He has been an ever-present under Verbeek when available, but there have been times when he has appeared supernumerary. He did at times this evening.

The opportunism

It's not just Tim Cahill. The Socceroos, in stark contrast to their Asian opponents, have shown an ability to score in adversity, shall we say. European experience? Physical dominance in the enemy area? Flapping opposition keepers? A bit of all three. But it has been an invaluable weapon for Australia throughout the campaign.

What to say about the fringers? Nick Carle had a quiet game until his crucial little cameo just prior to his substitution, but that did at least underline his value. Rhys Williams, after a nervous start, grew into the game quite well. Shane Stefanutto was threatened surprisingly little by the often dangerous Atsuto Uchida, and had a generally solid game.

Whatever the doubts over the team's readiness for stronger opposition in South Africa, it has been a splendidly successful campaign.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Who's Afraid? - update #18

The Fairfax press might have its moments, but for real football refuser frothing, you can't beat the Murdoch stable. And this morning, they have been at it full bore.

The touchpaper? An incident involving Tim Cahill, at a Kings Cross nightclub. It's a calamitous day for football in this country, I tells ya:

A blind drunk Tim Cahill has shamed Australian soccer...

Cahill's disgrace soured the most important fortnight for the game in Australia...

The reports are an unwanted blemish on football's reputation in Australia...

In passing, there is a totally gratuitous reference to the club being a "popular hangout" for John Ibrahim. We get to the nub of the matter several paragraphs down, however:

Kings Cross police confirmed to The Sunday Telegraph that they attended an incident at the club and investigators were reviewing Trademark's CCTV footage. But police said there was no official investigation.

David Riccio is a league writer, of course. I trust that, in this spirit of News Ltd. collegiality, John Taylor will be entrusted with coverage of the next NRL embarrassment.

Not content with the above cheeky beat-up, the Tele's Sports Editor, Phil Rothfield, decided to have his say. Mr. Rothfield's general maturity level can be gauged from his exchanges with fans here, in which, in passing, he made a proper idiot of himself:

I noticed last night the Socceroos didn’t even have a sponsor on their jerseys. I wonder why? Major companies are reluctant to put up money in this current climate. When they do put the cash in, they want media exposure which the coach is robbing them of.

Needless to say, he was pulled up on the above absurdity by an alert fan within minutes.

Back to his reaction to the Cahill incident. The misrepresentations of Mr. Riccio's piece are repeated, with some additional NRL whining, but the following is particularly amusing:

The NRL has shown the way when it comes to dealing with player misbehaviour.

As shown, of course, by the immaculate behaviour of their players in the wake of the panicky fines of recent times?


Saturday, June 13, 2009


Who's Afraid? - brief update #17

When the football refusers start to clutch at straws, it can be amusing to watch.

Can't criticise the Socceroos for their off-field antics? Tired of veiled references to how boring they have become under Pim Verbeek? No worries. Rugby league writers like Mr. Swanton (mysteriously given leave to write about football) can carp at them for, well, erm, being exemplary sportsmen.

The portion of this utterly risible piece that really evokes a cringe is Mr. Swanton's justification-with-a-pathetic-caveat of the NRL and its culture. Just feel the squirming...

For all the NRL's troubles, it's some kind of circus, right? Circus is a completely inappropriate term to describe a sport mired in sexual assault allegations, positive drug tests, alcoholism and whatever else is going on, but it's impossible to ignore. It's just such a...circus. Clowns to the left of David Gallop, jokers to his right. Good guys, bad guys, the kind of real-life drama that Serena Williams only gets on HBO. And without doubt the most impossible-to-ignore show in town.

Others might conclude (if they hadn't already concluded, given the competition's history over the last decade or so) that the NRL is a breeding-ground of rampant misogyny and testosterone-fuelled excess of all kinds, to which the sport's administrators have repeatedly turned a semi-blind eye.

But nah, it's just a bit of drama, just a bit of a circus.

Fairfax, shame on you for allowing that piece of puerile drivel to go to print.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Beyond 2010

Another clean sheet, another couple of goals, in a dead rubber, no less! Pim Verbeek can afford a little chortle of satisfaction.

And the Socceroo performance, on the whole, wasn't too bad. As in the Uzbekistan game at the same venue, Australia were languid and short of ideas in the first half, but became more cohesive and incisive as the game wore on. The 2-0 scoreline perhaps flattered Verbeek's side a little, but Bahrain, in all honesty, were callow and ineffectual in the final third and rarely looked like scoring, even during their periods of sustained possession.

It was good to see a few of the fringe players in the green and gold again, too. The redoubtable Paul Goodwin of Back of the Net has been a regular companion of mine in media boxes around Sydney in recent times, and last night we spent some time weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of the players who are likely to be mainstays of the team post-South Africa. Although the picture could be a fair bit brighter, there are one or two good signs.

Mile Jedinak has attracted some criticism for a few silly challenges last night, but I think this propensity for unwise fouls (which has been a feature of his game for some time) tends to mask his virtues. He was thoroughly dominant in the air in midfield, and although unambitious in his distribution, he made few real mistakes. Ultimately I think that Jedinak might find central defence a more congenial role than central midfield...but that's a question for the future.

Brett Holman has been a regular punching-bag for many fans, mainly due to his often heavy touches and a tendency to panic in goal-scoring situations. Last night, though, he did manage a couple of clever through-balls, and traversed every blade of grass on the pitch, as is his wont. He's not a player of outstanding quality by any means: a "coach's player", as Goodwin aptly dubbed him, willing to follow instructions until he drops. A handy reserve, in other words, although our stocks are indeed low if he is to become a first-team regular.

And what of the inscrutable Mark Milligan? His Chinese sabbatical seems to have rejuvenated him, and he had a good game, his best in a Socceroo shirt since the game against Thailand at the Asian Cup. There always seems to be a howler just around the corner, though, and he needs to temper his impetuosity if he is to become another Lucas Neill...rather than another Hayden Foxe.

It was a pity we saw so little of Nick Carle. Verbeek, of course, has made no secret of his ambivalence (to use a mild term) towards Australia's most polarising player. Perhaps we will see more of him against Japan. Or perhaps not.

And...Scott McDonald.

Jokes were flying around the box last night about Pim Verbeek seeking special dispensation to have McDonald take the field in green and white hoops rather than green and gold, to enable him to score. And it's true, despite the fact that he is simply not suited to the point-man role in which Verbeek has often employed him, his form for Australia in general has been lamentably poor. Last night's awful miss in the first half was only the latest of many, and getting the best out of the Celtic marksman should be one of Verbeek's top priorities in the lead-up to South Africa 2010 - for both the World Cup, and beyond.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Strictly Business

We've made it!

With a fairly colourless draw against Qatar early this morning, enlivened at times by Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell, the Socceroos have qualified for their third World Cup. Congratulations to Pim Verbeek and the squad.

Of course, as many have already pointed out, there wasn't quite the sense of occasion this time; no penalty from John Aloisi or rocketing shot from Jim Mackay to stir the blood. But that is in keeping with the rest of the qualifying campaign, which has been, well, businesslike.

But that's life in a proper confederation, and we should be grateful for it.

Now is perhaps a good time to take stock of the move into Asia, and the tremendous benefits it has brought to Australian football. Not only are our top club teams (well, our previous year's top club teams, anyway) regularly facing peer opposition from other climes, not only do our youth and women's teams face proper challenges more than once every couple of years, but the grand prize - World Cup participation - is achievable via a proper, long-term campaign with a margin for error. A far cry from the two panic-filled weeks every four years that has been our lot since the 1998 cycle.

The manner of our qualification, and our play in particular, has been more controversial, but a full analysis of that aspect can wait until preparations for South Africa begin in earnest. One thing that can definitely be said for Pim Verbeek: his teams are solid defensively. No goals conceded in the entire second qualifying phase is a remarkable achievement, and an echo of his Korea Republic team's performance at the 2007 Asian Cup.

Some of my friends have chided me for giving Verbeek such a wrap in the post-Arnold selection process, given that he has presided over some pretty turgid football (incidentally, Jesse Fink seems to have confused the author of that November 17 article with himself). It's true, he hasn't always impressed as Socceroo coach. But I do believe that his prior experience in Asia has been valuable along the way; a member of the Socceroos' backroom staff confirmed to me late last year that it had been of quite tangible value to the squad when many were smitted with that stomach bug in Tashkent.

Now, to return the compliment and echo Mr. Fink, the aim must be to secure some good, convenient friendlies in the lead-up to South Africa, to try out a few fringers, foster even greater on-field understanding among the troops, and above all add some attacking impetus to a unit that has been solid as a rock, but less than thrilling at the other end of the park.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


The Lessons of Ljubo - another update

The running bitchfest between Ljubo Milicevic and his employers is going beyond amusing and becoming thoroughly embarrassing for Australian football. It needs to be mediated, quick smart.

It's hard not to read a touch of cynicism into Milicevic's championing of Kaz Patafta, who has been something of a poster boy for those who choose to drone on ad nauseam about "technical players being ignored" in Australia. In reality, Patafta has not yet shown that he really has the capacity to impose himself on a game, and it's easy to see why both Ernie Merrick and Gary van Egmond have found it a little difficult to fit him into their respective systems. But for Mr. "Keep it Real", it's another way of getting his name in the papers, and cementing his hero status in the eyes of certain deluded fans.

Not that Con Constantine has done himself any favours with the above-linked response, which is typically undignified and childish. He may or may not be right about the other players' attitude to Milicevic, but the chairman should be the very last person to air dressing-room dirty linen in the press.

And it's hard to feel any genuine sympathy for Constantine, given that Milicevic's reputation for rabble-rousing and judicious media-fuelled ego inflation was hardly a secret when he was signed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


How the West Won't Be Won - update

The Western Sydney crew have thrown their collective hat into the ring for the 2010/11 A-League expansion, with ANZ Stadium (formerly Telstra Stadium, for those outside NSW) mooted as the home venue.

In my humble opinion, it won't work, and the FFA would do well to look at the other bids on the table (particularly the well-established Canberra one), or, as I've suggested before, delay the expansion for another year.

One of the fundamental misconceptions concerning a Western Sydney bid is that the area is monolithic, in terms of regional loyalty. Penrith is Penrith, Campbelltown is Campbelltown, Parramatta is Parramatta, and so on. Sydney FC's basic catchment area is the inner city and the east, which forms a natural demographic in many respects. The vast expanse of outer Sydney suburbia is quite a different animal.

I also feel that the most passionate football fans west of Ryde are already taken, as it were. The seething hostility towards the A-League among many fans of the state league clubs is not to be underestimated (a couple of hours spent in the stands at Jensen or Belmore would convince anyone of this), and although these would hardly be expected to make up the core supporter base, they would be handy in terms of bumping up numbers initially.

But the biggest mistake, in my view, is the proposed use of ANZ Stadium. One problem is simply its sheer size; the illusion of television is very kind to a crowd of 15,000 at Hindmarsh or Bluetongue, but at ANZ Stadium it would look pathetic.

Primarily, though, the location is wrong, especially if the idea is to genuinely "expand" the league. ANZ is only a twenty-minute train ride from the Sydney CBD, and is situated well to the east of the current demographic centre of Sydney. For supporters in Penrith, Macarthur or even Liverpool, it would be practically as bad as the Sydney Football Stadium in terms of accessibility.

Either Parramatta Stadium or CUA Stadium in Penrith would be the best options if a Western Sydney bid is to go ahead, in my view.

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