Sunday, March 29, 2009
The Appropriate Path
With that in mind, it was perhaps not surprising that Mike Cockerill was moved to write this piece, which expressed a slightly tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for the agonizing tension of previous Socceroo campaigns. A few of the fans may be missing the Russian roulette aspect of earlier World Cup playoffs, but the FFA would surely be grinning from ear to ear, given the extra lead-in time (sponsors, here we come), and the gate receipts from the several "serious" matches already contested.
And if things don't go our way on Wednesday? Cockerill:
No worries. They'll still have three more chances. That's what moving to Asia has done. Widened the margin for error. It's not easier, as some suggested when the move became official three years ago. But fairer? Definitely.
To my mind, words like "easy" or "fair" miss the point of Australia's move to Asia. There were some who curiously described Australia's path as "too hard" through Oceania, given that we went straight from playing opposition of no consequence to facing a hardened South American (or, in 1997, Asian) outfit. There were others who described it, rather more logically, as too easy, given the weakness of the opposition we faced before the final playoff (as I never tire of pointing out, Australia had to play only four games to qualify for Germany, given that the prior Oceania games were actually Oceania Nations Cup fixtures).
But our current path through Asia is not really "harder" or "easier" than the playoff route. It is simply appropriate.
It was just madness that a country of our relative strength should have had to play a series of gimme games against Pacific cannon fodder, plus New Zealand, before a one-off tie against a serious rival. Qualifying for a World Cup simply shouldn't work like that.
What we have now is a logistically awkward and physically challenging pathway, which has been made to appear easier than it really is by fortuitous results in Kunming, Brisbane, Tashkent, Manama and Yokohama.
Incidentally, the fact that there have been so many strokes of luck along the way makes Craig Foster's questioning of Pim Verbeek's suitability to lead Australia at the tournament itself quite legitimate. And he touches on the key issue towards the end of his article:
The issue is whether these questions will be asked, by whom, and whether Han Berger, the new technical director, is able to ask them of Verbeek, his countryman?
A member of the "Dutch mafia" prepared to grill one of their own? I wouldn't count on it.
Friday, March 27, 2009
The Lessons of Ljubo
It is still possible for the situation to be salvaged (Alvin Ceccoli continued to turn out for Sydney FC long after telling Terry Butcher to "f--k off" in clear view of many fans), but I doubt that Milicevic will ever win the hearts of Australian fans after his latest blown gasket.
Some background on my own views: I first saw Milicevic in live action during the qualifiers for the 2004 Olympics, sharing central defensive duties with another ex-Perth player in David Tarka. Milicevic had received rave reviews from many quarters, and was already being earmarked as Tony Popovic's successor in the stopper role for the Socceroos.
My reaction on that occasion was "nothing special", and little that he has done since has altered that impression. On his return to the A-League, some mileage was made out of the fact that he had played in the UEFA Champions League. So have Jacob Burns, Frank Juric and now Michael Beauchamp. Mere participation is hardly a shining standout on one's CV.
It was clear that he had a somewhat inflated view of his own capabilities even prior to the 2006 World Cup, when he was quite shrill in his complaints about not being included in the Australian squad. Given Guus Hiddink's preference for flexible, diligent and above all obedient players, his omission is completely understandable, and not just in hindsight.
So to Melbourne Victory, "breakfastgate", and Milicevic's extraordinary, incontinent tirade on the FourFourTwo website about his time at Melbourne, in which Ernie Merrick, Kevin Muscat and others copped a thinly disguised serve.
What was so remarkable, after all this, was that Milicevic got such a sympathetic hearing from some of the footballing great and good. Partly, no doubt, because the word "depression" was glibly slipped into the story (almost anyone is guaranteed gushing sympathy these days if they can get someone else to hint that they are "suffering from/battling with depression", whether this is diagnostically true or not). But partly also, I feel, because Milicevic's contempt for the methods of Merrick dovetailed ever so nicely with the ongoing denigration of Australian coaches which has been a stock-in-trade of certain football commentators lately.
Milicevic returned from Europe (a fading Swiss club, to be exact) to an A-League side, and repeatedly clashed with the coach and the management in general over, well, just about everything. Ergo, it seemed, the Australian football scene simply didn't meet the standards he would have expected as a matter of course in Europe.
Much hand-wringing and justification later, it seems more likely than ever that it was simply a case of a prima donna, a decent player but not an outstanding one, having a career crisis.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Take Me to Your Leader
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his example, has always been an individualist, and has never looked like possessing any leadership qualities, for all his sublime skills. So much was amply in evidence both at the 2006 World Cup and EURO 2008, where he failed to inspire the Swedish side when the chips were truly down. Just this weekend, there was another example of Ibra's essentially egocentric approach to football when he was teed up for a shot by a fine byline run and cutback from Mario Balotelli: sending his shot against the post, he spent the succeeding seconds agonising over his miss, failing to properly acknowledge Balotelli's constructive lead-up work.
It should be added that later in that game against Reggina he scored a breathtaking individual goal, underlining the fact that he doesn't have to be a great leader to be of inestimable value to Inter.
Les, like the strident Paul Gardner of World Soccer magazine, places the blame for the lack of charismatic players on the rising power of coaches. I've never quite accepted this view, partly because authoritarian coaches have been around for a long time, and one could argue that the likes of Helenio Herrera and Brian Clough were more domineering than any of today's touchline hollerers.
There are other reasons, for my money. One is the fact that football is increasingly becoming a young man's game, with players over thirty finding it ever harder to keep up with the pace of modern football. Younger players, of course, generally find it harder to exude an air of real authority.
And it is sadly true that "making it" in the modern game requires such dedication that the top players have typically had little time for the education (in the broader sense of the word) and life experience that helps engender leadership qualities.
But it's worth asking: is it really a bad thing?
The great leaders always provide the game with some lustre, but they have been responsible for some of the more unsavoury moments in the history of the sport as well. Les rightly counts Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer among the game's great generals, but they could both be petulant to an embarrassing degree. Cruyff's childish ranting at the referee in the 1974 World Cup final, and Beckenbauer's decision to moon some jeering fans at the same event, are not easily forgotten (or forgiven).
Closer to home, what about the "example" provided by Melbourne Victory's undoubted leader, Kevin Muscat, in the A-League grand final? Badgering the referee from the outset, he was lucky to find in Matthew Breeze a weak-willed accomplice, and there was little doubt that Muscat's overbearing antics had a distinct effect on some of the decisions...one in particular.
The leaders have their virtues, without doubt. Alfredo di Stefano, Danny Blanchflower, Michel Platini and others like them will always be remembered fondly. But a charismatic captain can be a mixed blessing for the game at large.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
TFT v. TFF - brief update
Liverpool. Recorded their biggest win at Old Trafford since 1936 and put new life into the title race. (He wrote, not at all sure what he was talking about. I think Old Trafford must be where Manchester Someone plays...)
For anyone considering writing in: don't. Roll eyes, laugh, and look at the scoreboard, as it were, given the numerous PR disasters that have beset the 2009 NRL season already.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Out of Africa
Cockerill mentions the example of Qatar, but the real coping stone to FIFA's alterations has probably been the ridiculous number of players currently being naturalised by African countries (notably Togo and Equatorial Guinea) to get a leg-up on their rivals. The whole sorry tale has been covered in some depth by World Soccer's Africa correspondent Mark Gleeson in the April issue of the magazine.
The implications for Australia, with our current influx of young refugee talent from Africa, are obviously serious. And one wonders whether the picture painted by John Didulica is really accurate:
FIFA have been very helpful, and given us the impression they are prepared to be flexible. It will be done on a case-by-case basis, and there will be exceptions made.
A case-by-case basis? An administrative nightmare for FIFA, surely.
Another consideration which is obviously relevant for Australia is that although FIFA have now clamped down on the fast-food naturalisation epidemic, there remains the anomaly of players with dual nationality being able to airily pick and choose where they will play their international football, without needing to spend any time in the country in question. It is richly ironic that, after we have made such copious use of our migrant population for the last four decades, the European defection problem is now such a pain in the Ognenovski.
A passport is a passport (well, give or take the odd Veron or Recoba), but there must be room for some tighter regulation here. Countries that have developed players, often at taxpayer expense, are surely entitled to first dibs on their services - and the problems that arise when an "international bidding war" ensues are well-known.
Now that FIFA have dealt with the matter of cynical naturalisation, it's time for a look at the "what's my nationality again?" turncoats.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Made in Italy - another brief update
Many of the great players had their signature moves. There's the "Cruyff turn", the "Blanco hop", the "Matthews swerve". Michael Laudrup was a genius at transferring the ball quickly from one foot to the other in order to shimmy past a defender, one of the most recognisable signature tricks of recent times.
What I used to particularly admire about the incomparable Roberto Baggio was his uncanny ability to turn a defender, bring the ball crisply under control and position himself perfectly for a shot, all in the one touch. In scoring the above goal against Bologna, Alex del Piero could not have emulated his compatriot, with whom he shares much in common, any better. And the finish was immaculate.
Like Baggio, del Piero still oozes class, even in his mid-thirties.
Monday, March 16, 2009
The Benign Drain
Yesterday I attended a very enjoyable NSW Premier League match at Jensen Park, in which Bankstown City overcame last year's premiers Sutherland 4-2, despite going an early goal down. Bankstown is, of course, a Macedonian-backed club, but as one of their supporters remarked to me at the final whistle, "It was the Lebanese boys who scored!".
Indeed it was. Specifically, Ibrahim Haydar, now back at Bankstown following his heroics with the Sydney FC youth team, scored the first with a well-placed far-post header. Then it was the turn of Bankstown's Lebanese international Hussein Salameh to grab the spotlight: he scored the penalty that put the hosts ahead, after his clever dummy had set Shane Webb free on goal to be fouled in the Sutherland area, and then combined sweetly with Haydar before scoring a gem of a third, sliding the ball deftly past Sutherland's advancing keeper.
When Sutherland pulled themselves back into the game with a goal from substitute Matthew Villazon, it was Bankstown sub Hussein Akil - another player of Middle Eastern descent - who restored the two-goal cushion, with some muscular help from Richard Luksic (a defender whose authority and acumen frankly dwarfs that of many A-League centre-backs).
Salameh was the star of the show, his movement, touch and eye for goal causing Sutherland endless problems. He did, it must be added, indulge in some shameful play-acting at times. But it's fair to say that Bankstown have gotten themselves a worthwhile asset for 2009 up front.
Each successive wave of European migration has, of course, helped Australia greatly in a footballing sense, and players of Middle Eastern heritage are just starting to make their presence felt in the game here; many of the talented young players in the state leagues, not just in NSW but elsewhere, are the children of Turkish and Lebanese migrants.
But the other good news is that a few Middle Eastern players are beginning to find Australia a land of new opportunities. Marconi's Ali Abbas, an Iraqi international, is the most high-profile addition to the local competition this year, but Salameh looks a certain crowd-pleaser as well. As we have seen already in Asia, players from the Gulf and its environs can, with their neat, nimble skills, provide plenty of entertainment.
What price a step up to the A-League for one of them?
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The Song Remains the Same - update
Messrs. Foster and Murray were, naturally, the first cabs off the rank. No mention, of course, of eternal SBS punchbag Graham Arnold's earlier success with an A-League Socceroos side against Kuwait in 2006. That would complicate things, wouldn't it?
Now there's this.
Phil Micallef has been a regular in the Sydney Football Stadium press box during the last two seasons of the A-League, and I have always found him very pleasant company...which is why it pains me to write that the above contribution to the SBS party line is, quite frankly, a contemptible cheap shot.
The very title suggests that the A-League has been paraded as a competition of world-class quality, which is misleading to say the least. Everyone is aware of the limitations of the league (not least in terms of its recruiting power, given the salary cap restrictions), and the construction of a straw man of puffed-up A-League pride does no-one any favours...except those who are always looking to belittle the competition.
A few other small points:
Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners, Australia’s ambassadors in this year’s AFC Champions League, enter the competition with this backdrop and it will be interesting to see if they can emulate Adelaide United who reached last year’s final against Gamba Osaka.
This season's ACL should tell us if the Reds’ surge was purely accidental or a true reflection of the A-League’s standard.
Predictably, the screamingly obvious point that Newcastle and the Central Coast were not the best teams in the league (or anything like it) this past year, and that consequently their performances can hardly be used as a barometer of the strength of the league's "best", is swept under the carpet.
This is not the first time that a Socceroos match involving A-League players has received an unflattering report card. Remember China who gave the domestic Socceroos a football lesson in Sydney in their last match of the previous phase of World Cup qualifying?
In a dead rubber for both sides? Yes, Phil, we remember. Incidentally, we also remember who the coach was that evening, in what was probably the second-worst performance by an Australian side at home in recent memory. Do we see a pattern emerging here?
Adelaide’s run to the 2008 ACL final was a case in point. The Reds fought bravely against all odds, showing true Aussie grit and producing a magical half an hour in the semi-final against Bunyodkor that will go down in football folklore. But in the competition's decisive match they were outclassed by Gamba essentially because the Japanese play a much better and more refined type of game.
Of course, none of it had anything remotely to do with the fact that Gamba's player budget is something like five times Adelaide's. Can we use the same argument when Sporting Lisbon are thumped by Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League?
Had it been Graham Arnold (or Frank Farina, or any other Australian coach for that matter) rather than Pim Verbeek in charge on Thursday night, does anyone seriously believe he would have escaped the wrath of the SBS brains trust?
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Who's Afraid? - brief update #15
Two recent cases in point. This laughable whitewash appeared in the SMH yesterday, in response to the incident; can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, such a pussyfooting, "society's to blame" piece appearing in print in this country with regard to an alleged "soccer riot"?
On a lighter note, it gave me a malicious sense of satisfaction to hear Rebecca Wilson - who was responsible for a truly despicable football refuser article some months ago - squirming when she received a talkback call on radio yesterday, unfavourably comparing the NRL culture of drinking and predatory behaviour towards women to the "cleaner" image of European football (not entirely fairly, I must admit). Groping for a way out, Wilson quickly agreed with her interlocutor about the problems in the NRL, going on to pick her own preferred counter-example - the high-pressure world of, erm, rowing.
As radio comedy goes, it was a moment worthy of the Goon Show.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
My memories of Prior were mainly of his time with Derby County in the Premiership, which I followed much more closely at the time. The impression that remained was one of a typical "English defender": strong in the air, combative to a fault, technically average. Now 37 and out of professional football for a little while, how would he adapt to the NSW Premier League? The answer, surprisingly, was very well indeed.
Although he was obviously a little short of pace, and targeted by last night's opponents Marconi in this respect, he was only seriously caught out once, when the quick Ben Vidaic beat him to a through-ball, but Manly's keeper Brad Swancott (who had a tremendous game) came to the rescue.
At other times, Prior's anticipation and positioning were simply exemplary. Manly had a player dismissed (somewhat unfairly) midway through the first half, and were therefore on the back foot for much of the game; I counted nine occasions when a dangerous Marconi attack was blunted by either a last-ditch tackle or a smart clearing header from Prior.
And as for those headers...it wasn't only about distance. It was refreshing to see a player who cared for more than just butting the ball as far from their goal as possible; a few of Prior's well-directed headers found unmarked men in midfield, who were able to begin a new Manly move without wasting time.
With the ball at his feet, Prior conformed a little more to the British stereotype, since his first option did mostly appear to be the long ball into the channels ("Good old British coaching, hit the corners every f--king time!" was the comment of a certain former Socceroo coach at a NSWPL match I attended last year). But Prior's were, again, rather more well-directed than the typical hopeful hoof, and he was quick to spot a fullback out of position or a central defender drifting away from his man. On one occasion, a lofted ball from Prior set Manly's Michael Lloyd-Green free on the right for a run to the byline, in approved fashion.
English football is easy to caricature, and there are many who make very good mileage out of doing so. But it's easy to overlook the virtues as well as the vices of the English game, and salutary to be reminded of them occasionally.
On a related matter, another welcome addition to the NSW state league to grace the field last night was Marconi's Iraqi international Ali Abbas, one of the players who made headlines by seeking asylum after the Iraqi Olympic side's loss to the Olyroos in Gosford. Although he seemed to adopt a deferential attitude at times, not getting involved as much as he might have, his class was evident from both his subtle touches and his fine range of passing. He will be good value for Marconi this season.
Friday, March 06, 2009
The Numbers are Up
In the first of the A-League Socceroos’ Asian Cup qualifiers, the Dutchman had the excuse of limited preparation, oppressive conditions and a thrown-together team. In the case of last night’s debacle against Kuwait, there are no such excuses, and he has reaped a just reward for his arrogant, divisive comments in the lead-up to the game, which did nothing but destabilise and belittle the team.
Unbelievably, after the team set-up against Indonesia was shown to be toothless, with two holding midfielders and a misplaced Tom Pondeljak ensuring that the forwards were starved of service, Verbeek opted for exactly the same midfield array (with Michael Zullo in for Dean Heffernan), in a home qualifier. Again, it resulted in nothing but hopeful punts from the back or deep on the wings, which came to nothing against Kuwait’s surprisingly resilient defence. Zullo, too, found himself double-teamed all too often.
Absurdly, Travis Dodd was again omitted from the squad. The only man likely to provide width (and the willingness to run at his man) on the right, who had just rounded off a sterling season with a fine, fighting performance in the A-League final, couldn’t even make the squad for such a game?
The substitutions (for which, perhaps, we can blame Graham Arnold just as much as Verbeek) were ludicrous. Zullo, the only man providing any width, replaced by yet another midfield grafter in Fabian Barbiero? Robert Cornthwaite as an emergency striker? Shades of Nikolai Topor-Stanley at the Olympics.
But the essence of the problem last night, in my view, was that the entire coaching staff – starting with Verbeek – showed that they had absolutely no faith in the players. And the players (not to mention the Kuwaitis) responded.
To claim that the A-League players are not capable of stepping up to opposition such as Kuwait (as Verbeek will no doubt imply in the coming days) is nonsense. Even under the eternally-maligned Arnold, an A-League XI managed to defeat Kuwait, Bader al-Mutwa and all, fairly comfortably in 2006.
Rob Baan showed with the Olyroos in 2007 (yes, I know, there were a few Euro players in the mix as well) that a mainly A-League outfit could indeed play crisp, cohesive football with good preparation and a little bit of faith shown in them.
But almost every statement that Verbeek has made in the media over the last two weeks has had one implicit message: the A-Leaguers are ineducable third-raters with whom he has been working under sufferance. His comments about Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp against Indonesia were deeply self-serving and unfair, given the wretched service they received from midfield throughout (as Thompson indignantly and justifiably pointed out afterwards).
The ultimate, unforgivable insult dished out to the A-Leaguers last night (and whether Verbeek is responsible or not, he must take some share of the blame) was the ridiculous shirt numbers they were made to wear, stretching to three figures in many cases.
How is a player meant to feel when it is suggested so cruelly that his selection is a case of scraping the bottom of the barrel? And, even more importantly, how is that likely to make an opponent feel?
It was abysmally poor psychology, and emblematic of a disastrous evening for Australian football.
In private (rather than in public, where he has made so many crass statements recently), Verbeek deserves an absolute shellacking from his employers…not that he is at all likely to get one.
Monday, March 02, 2009
A-League, Version Four: A Look Back
Below, some thoughts on A-League Version 4 as a whole, and the "expansive" future.
Although there weren't too many startling performances from younger players this season, a few newcomers made promising debuts in the competition. Ben Kantarovski, in the midst of a dismal season for the defending champions, showed composure beyond his years for the Jets. Tahj Minniecon, Michael Zullo and Mitch Nichols all shone at times for Queensland. Adelaide played host to a couple of energetic young fullbacks in Scott Jamieson and Daniel Mullen - particularly pleasing given the dearth of good Australian fullbacks at the moment. Even Michael Marrone, another young wide defender used by Aurelio Vidmar, showed some promise.
On the flipside, Robbie Kruse's personal demons and injury problems prevented him from carrying on after a bright 2007/08; Kaz Patafta remains a puzzle, enthralling the purists but failing to impress the coaches, while James Downey is yet to add sufficient technical prowess to his searing pace.
It was good to see some younger stars heading to relatively modest European destinations, where they are likely to get game time (even though Nathan Burns' move to AEK Athens has been something of a disaster). Mile Jedinak, Nikita Rukavytsya and perhaps James Holland and Bruce Djite will be in the national team reckoning before long (Jedinak, arguably, already is). The Asian drain? A pity, but not exactly unexpected given the "three plus one" rule now operating for the Asian Champions League. Australian players are valued for their strength and fighting qualities - and they are cheap. A potent mix for ambitious Asian clubs.
The Old Guard
With Kevin Muscat and Craig Moore making substantial contributions to their respective clubs' achievements this year, the grey brigade have shown that they are still a force, even if Steve Corica appears to be withering on the vine.
More surprising, and pleasing, was the fact that a couple of the older imports proved well worth the punt. Charlie Miller was outstanding for Queensland, podgy figure notwithstanding, while Eugene Dadi provided fine support for the exuberant Nikita Rukavytsya out west, where the Brazilian Amaral also put in some classy performances before his unfortunate injury. No Jardels, Deanes or Dragicevics this season.
The average age of the returning Socceroos (or, more broadly, Euro-based Australians) is gradually getting younger - Paul Reid, Dylan McAllister and Wayne Srhoj were all good additions to the A-League, and of course Jason Culina is a great get. With the expansion of the league and the importance of the lifestyle factors which apparently sold Culina, the trend is sure to continue.
Pim Verbeek has been filling in his time between engagements making plenty of enemies with his remarks on the A-League, but shorn of the shock factor, some of his comments are worth heeding. There is still a problem with the space between the three lines in the A-League, and long balls and telegraphed passes to marked men are still a groan-inducing feature of the competition. By comparison with "Version 3", however, more teams were prepared to throw men forward and take the game to their opposition this season. Good wing play was still at a premium (Queensland were the undisputed kings here), but this seems to be something of a worldwide trend.
Srebre Delovski was generally very good, and young Chris Beath did well at times. The rest, sadly, were poor. There must be more serious repercussions for referees after unsatisfactory performances...at the moment, there appear to be none at all.
The Youth and the Women
Low-key, but a qualified success. Full marks to the ABC for coming to the party with coverage of the women's league, which predictably attracted poor crowds, but produced some engaging football at times (especially the impressive Queensland side).
The youth league didn't produce any fill-in superstars, although Brendan Gan, Rhyan Grant and Kofi Danning made decent contributions for Sydney FC (some cynics were quick to point out that Sydney's youth coach Steve O'Connor had, naturally, the first pick of the AIS players). It's a worthwhile initiative, even if perhaps the FFA should have gone for expansion in 2008/09 first.
Off the Pitch
On the marketing and PR front, there is still some work to be done. The generic nature of the clubs, which manifests itself in everything from the strips to the still dreadful club websites, has ceased to be a necessity and is stifling the growth of the individual club cultures, in my opinion.
There was little crowd trouble, thankfully. The Murdoch hecklers had very little to bite on in this regard, and concentrated instead on the "scandalous" use of public funds to underwrite Australia's 2018 World Cup bid. The contretemps between Newcastle's combustible chairman Con Constantine and some members of the Squadron late in the season was an embarrassment, but I don't think any long-term damage was done.
The first big plus of an expanded competition? More games. 21 is just too few, and although 27 doesn't sound that much more, it's a definite step in the right direction. Although they looked tired for a while, Adelaide United showed that a testing Asian Champions League campaign did not affect them unduly at the back-end of the season, and in the unlikely event that the Mariners or the Jets go on a similarly inspired run, they should be able to cope even with a slightly longer A-League season.
Then there's the novelty factor, the gestation of new rivalries, and the re-appearance of Miron Bleiberg at press conferences...all likely to add some lustre. I only hope that the fatuous six-team finals series idea, which would make the competition a joke, will be quickly scrapped.
And when to go to 12? Two seasons with ten is surely the way to go, to see whether the much-discussed talent dilution really affects the standard of the league or not (I tend to think not, but plenty of knowledgeable football people of my acquaintance disagree).