Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Rossoneri Slump

There's nothing like an Italian vendetta to exact sweet revenge, especially when it involves football. In the 2007 Champions League final an aging, yet domineering AC Milan squad beat the comeback kings Liverpool, who just two years earlier came back from 3-0 down against Milan. When the Milan players exacted their revenge on Liverpool that night they had one of the most impressive squads in Europe. Such talents like Gattuso, Inzaghi and Cafu were comparable to the successful Milan squad from the 90s under former coaches Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. However, today that cunning and ruthless AC Milan side is no more as a worn out and mid table Rossoneri team is a far distant memory from the glory days. When comparing the two Milan sides from seven years ago to today, one can see just how faded these once contenders have become. Legends in defense like Paolo Maldini (considered the god of defending) and Alessandro Nesta once made Milan the most impenetrable back line in the world. Since their retirement Milan hasn't filled the gap in the back line with the team currently in 12th place regarding goals against in the Serie A. The team's main issue in defense is poor marking topped with too few players tracking back to mark the opposition. Call it lazy, but the truth is the team just isn't focused. If Milan want to climb back up the Serie A table then they need to first fix these issues through more discipline from the coaching staff. Still, with the departure of Massimiliano Allegri and arrival of former player Clarence Seedorf as manager the Rossoneri have taken on a major gamble. Seedorf was part of that vendetta squad seven years ago, but today he is faced with a team that can barely slice through a team like Hellas Verona. Owner Silvio Berlusconi (pimp, corrupter and by the way former Italian Prime Minister) has invested his fortune into the club throughout the years, but his recent legal battles have forced him to put the team to the side, which is why the current team looks like a group of washed up former talents. There's an aging out of his prime Kaka (also part of the vendetta squad) back from his spell at Real Madrid, where he did an exceptional job warming up the bench. Alongside is another faded Brazilian in Robinho, who just couldn't live up to his expectations at Manchester City and Real Madrid, so Milan is also no exception. The list goes on especially with the Italian contingent as the team recently got rid of unproductive Antonio Nocerino, who will try his trade as a Hammer. However, the biggest impact on Milan's form in attack are Stephen El Shaarawy and Super Mario Balotelli. With the former being injured and the latter being the circus show we all know entertains, but doesn't put forth enough effort, it's no surprise that Milan are currently in a slump. Beyond reorganizing the back line and whipping the mid into pushing back to defend and still create up top, the team also has its work cut out for them behind the scenes. The once mighty Milan Lab, where the latest technologies were used to measure player performance and bring up the young talents from the San Siro, has lost its endless funding and momentum. To compete with Europe's elite the heads of the club need to reinvest in the team's youth while still bringing in already proven talent. In general, the team need a new goal poacher or leader apart from Montelivo, who will inspire like when Shevchenko or Pirlo lit up the pitch for Milan back in the day. Seedorf might instill a new sense of understanding between himself and Balotelli, but the Italian is just a fuse waiting to blow that will never be the right type of influence the team so desperately need. My advice is to let the transfer rumors become reality and have Balotelli  reunite with Mourinho at Chelsea that way the team can refocus their strict model of discipline under a new star player. The addition of Michael Essien is a positive one as he is a proven force that will surely do more then Nocerino, but the key success in the mid is for new arrival Keisuke Honda to find his free kick form as he did at former club CSKA Moscow. Right now, I put Milan in the same boat as Manchester United. Both teams have failed to truly contend for their respective league titles, so the Champions League along with the Coppa Italia are the only tournaments left to win trophies. Still, what better way to exact revenge on the Italian media and all the doubters by being European champions like in the Rossoneri's glory days.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Invasion of Inglaterra

Back when Fernando Torres was lighting up the pitch with Liverpool a funny Nike commercial showed the Kop faithful learning Spanish, eating tapas and embracing all things Spain (check it here: Press fast forward and today the Spaniards are the hottest commodity in the EPL with last season’s PFA best player nominee, Juan Mata attesting to the recent influx of Spanish talent. To add to the hype, Spain’s national team is currently having its golden years and that means scouting on the Iberian Peninsula. However, with their beautiful futbol sala and tiki taka style, how is it that Spanish players are able to heat up a league known for its heavy tackling and long forward plays? Well for starters, Spanish players adapt well because there’s more space to control and dribble the ball in the EPL. Spaniards are taught to play with very little space, so their technically gifted abilities are allowed to flourish. Meanwhile, some EPL fans criticize the Spaniards and the modern game in that many of these players get rewarded for diving while once acceptable tackles are now disciplined. The modern game does favor the Spanish players, but really all nationalities have their divers and just because the EPL is more of a tackle minded league that doesn’t mean the Spaniards are at fault. They sometimes are too technical with the ball leaving the defender with only the option of a last minute tackle to stop the run of play. Still, why is it that these quick pass and go players choose to play in the EPL instead of their homeland? One of the many reasons is economy and bargain really. As of late, Spain as a country has had financial issues. This reflects on the majority of LA Liga clubs’ budgets, which aren’t able to accommodate rising players’ wages nor are they able to invest heavily on lucrative transfers. Apart from the big two (Barcelona and Real Madrid), the rest of the pack rely on selling their talent, so their budgets can stay stable. The recent influx of Spaniards also came, as a result of, players costing very little for such a high level of quality. For example, Swansea’s Michu is the ideal player in that he only cost the club around 2 million pounds while scoring 22 goals in all competitions his first season. The man responsible for this is Swansea’s Danish coach Michael Laudrup, who played with Barcelona in the 90s and coached Mallorca in LA Liga. While back in 2004, the first real major presence of Spaniards came when Rafael Benitez arrived at Anfield from Valencia. He brought super Spanish talents to Liverpool like Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia, Fernando Morientes, Fernando Torres and countless other gifted playmakers winning the Champions League and FA Cup. Today however, with all this talent some observers believe that this is just a temporary bargain hunt and eventually a new nation will emerge with pure talent at low costs. Already there’s a boom of Belgian talent flooding the English game. Still, the figures show Spanish players are currently second regarding foreign playing time in the EPL with a little over six percent, while the French have the most playing minutes after English players. With over 50 Spanish players currently on the roster sheet of all the EPL clubs, it’s quite a surge since the 92’ inception of the current league format, which only included one Spanish player, Nayim with Tottenham. This season’s new group of Spanish talents like Alvaro Negredo and even the not so well adapted Roberto Soldado are already starting players for their clubs. A player like Negredo is starting to find his footing to shine for Man City, which can only mean the EPL hunt will still continue throughout Spain as English clubs try to find the next mighty matadors of football. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Glory, Glory Man United

The Moyes troll is an all too familiar image popping up online nowadays mocking the manager through puns and quirky statements. However, a renewed momentum is currently building at Manchester United and those mocking pics might soon start to lag. Right now, the Red Devils are on a four game winning streak during the hectic Christmas to New Year schedule in the Premier League. Obviously, United haven't had the best of starts with their new manager, but this renewed sense of hope buzzing around Old Trafford might just lead the team back into contention. Just last week, United started to look like their old selves with a come back from 2-0 down to beat Hull City 3-2. All the trolling football fans need to remember that no matter what their views are of United, the men from Sir Matt Busby Way have in their war chest a traditional strong spirit that very few teams possess. Just looking at the numbers, we've reached the halfway point in the season with United eight points shy of retaining the title. With such a manageable margin of points, a confident mentality at the club is resurfacing because so far no other team in the Prem has really been able to run away from the pack. As long as teams like Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea drop points every so often there's still a light at the end for United. Jose Mourinho's quote from the Daily Mail summed up the reality of the situation best. “If it is another club I’ll tell you impossible. But with Manchester United I don’t say that because of the potential of the club, the culture, what it represents.” Stepping back from the mental aspect of everything United the major hurdle that remains is the physical product on the field (I should say bench). The youngsters emerging at the club right now are nothing compared to the Class of '92, when Becks, Giggs, Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers lit up the field with their renowned English talent. However, United can still look forward to strengthening their side with the transfer window approaching. I'm not saying United will get a deal like Mesut Ozil going to Arsenal, but if they can bring in someone to play deep in the Mid unlike the uncharacteristically out of place Fellaini then that could only add to the team's winning mentality. Most of all though, apart from Moyes, the players and the culture of the club; there still remains the great one. Sir Alex is still a sporting director and ambassador at United, so it's highly likely that the Scot can drop into the dressing room for an inspirational round up with the players at any necessary point in the season. When Ferguson stepped down as manager he did the most generous thing for the future of the club. By doing this he was able to create a smoother transition for the new man in charge while still making sure to advise and mold him. Football fans must remember that when Ferguson came to United in '86 he didn't have the easiest of starts with United finishing 11th in the table with only an FA Cup title in '90 helping him keep his managerial position. On top of all this, United are still challenging in all possible tournaments with a beatable foe like Olympiacos in the Champions League round of sixteen while Swansea look like a weakened side this season in the FA Cup. Also fans should note that the entirely new backroom staff at United is just starting to adjust. Ferguson admitted once before that a harmonious back room staff was key to his success at the club. With all this in mind, I'm not saying Man United will be champions this season, but they definitely shouldn't be counted out because everything is still possible. If Moyes can continue to unravel United's fighting spirit then the Red Army just might sing Glory, Glory Man United come the end of the season.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Polish Problem Part 2

In an earlier post I touched on the Polish national team's failure to qualify for yet another World Cup. Through PZPN, the Polish football association, corruption and greed undermined the development of football in the country. However, I needed to write this post to also show what problems Poland faced on the field. For starters, Poland has only had one golden generation of footballers stretching from the '74 and '82 World Cups, where the national side clinched third place both times. Superstars like Kazimierz Deyna, Zbigniew Boniek, Grzegorz Lato and countless others showed the world that Poland was an emerging juggernaut in the world of football. Sad to say, after that generation retired Poland slipped back down the pedestal, with the group stage being the farthest qualification thereafter. After so much promise in the 70s why is it that Poland can't get back on the mantle on which it once stood? Well, the first problem rests on the shoulders of the man on top. Almost every Polish manager since Kazimierz Gorski (1971-76 Poland coach) has also been a former player. Like Simon Kuper outlined in his book Soccernomics, most players, who go into coaching fail because they aren't qualified for the position in the first place. Being the man, who sets up the formations and tactics is an entirely different challenge. Think of it like a chess piece suddenly stepping into the role of the hand that moves it. Actually, it's quite fascinating that the only coach in the national team's history to have never been a player has also been the only non-Polish manager. Leo Beenhakker was the Dutch mastermind, who took Poland to its first ever Euro tournament in 2008 rightfully so before being hosts in 2012. It would have been sad if the first ever Euro was due to automatic qualification. Now, to make Leo look even more distinguished, the Dutchman is the only coach in Poland's history to have coached a world class club. Real Madrid, Ajax, and the Dutch national team are all on his resume. Looking at the Polish coaches, the collective have only coached top clubs in Greece, Cyprus and national teams like Tunisia and Sudan. The poor bill of top teams on the Polish end is really because most Polish coaches can't speak a foreign language and they also tend to stay very Polishcentric. This means that Polish coaches rarely study the game abroad, instead they focus all their knowledge through only Polish sources. For a coach to break out abroad they have to really have something special and unique that clubs can't find in the main managerial pool. Therefore, Poland lacks coaches with solid resumes abroad and ones who have studied for the position not as former players, but aspiring managers. After looking at the man on the sidelines, the next major issue is the man leading the team. Robert Lewandowski. That isn't a typo. He is the main reason why Poland have such a weak attacking force. Through his goal scoring prowess at Borussia Dortmund many people tend to forget that since Euro 2012 he's only scored against Greece in the tournament and most recently against Denmark in a friendly. Add two more goals in World Cup qualifiers and in over one year, starting every game for Poland, he's only found the back of the net four times. At this point, it doesn't matter if there's no player in Mid to lay off the ball to him like Marco Reus or Mario Gotze. The problem is that the team is shaped to play the ball to Lewandowski. Lewy is like dark matter in the Polish formation with everything orbiting around him, but there's just nothing there. Don't get me wrong, he's a great player, who will continue to score, but not for Poland. Once you get rid of him from the squad, Poland should slowly start to find a new identity in attack. It's like when Raul was in the Spanish national team. Once Spain stopped capping him they suddenly gained a new style that has led to three major trophies in world football ever since. Call me crazy, but I also believe that Poland needs to stop defending so tight and start taking risks by opening up the field through its attack. If we're already losing games on repeat I feel like stepping up and having the balls to make an offensive minded team could at least give Poland a chance. The major obstacle to overcome in all of this has always been the Polish mentality though. Polish people are afraid to take big risks and fail because then everyone is a smart ass from the media to the fans. They all say, you see the reason we lost is because of these drastic changes. Well, the reason Poland is losing all the time right now is because there are no drastic changes, so all I hope for is that Adam Nawalka or Zbigniew Boniek come across this post in some twist of fate and comprehend what the problem is. Just do something drastic because this ongoing minimalism is not suiting my dreams of a juggernaut Polish national team that has been absent since '82.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A New Red Star on the Football Horizon

After almost two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of very rich oligarchs are working on bringing back one of the most dominant forces from the days of the Iron Curtain. These powerful decision makers are proposing a new super league that would consist of clubs from the former Soviet Union. Through funding provided by Russian gas giants Gazprom, who own Zenit St. Petersburg, the new league would initially give clubs from Ukraine and Russia a €22 million incentive to join. However, the idea is still just a blueprint in the works as the politically dominant businessmen of the East work to try and curtail UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. While the league sounds exciting for football fans living outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the current way these clubs are run might lead to some consequences in the future for the region. The proposed super league would draw a big crowd with heavy interest from the European community, but what would happen if someday the oligarch owners pulled out? Arsenal Kiev are already one example this year of a club that challenged in the Ukrainian top flight only to go bankrupt after their owner backed out. As a result, the club had to forfeit the Ukrainian Premier League. What if other oligarchs decide to venture away from football ownership someday? Anzhi Makhachkala recently dropped to the bottom of the Russian Premier League after its owner radically sold off all foreign players due to the not so immediate success of the club. It’s this type of risky behavior that could hurt a proposed super league someday. In retrospect, if the oligarchs are really interested in the well-being of football in their homeland then maybe they should instead focus their attention on investing in youth development within the CIS leagues. Then again this is the land of the former Soviet Union, where the memory of the Iron Curtain isn’t as distant as we would like to believe. The Soviet Supreme League was quite a dominant force in Europe before its break up in 1993. The most successful of the clubs was Dynamo Kiev leading the pack by winning two European Cup Winners’ Cups through their renowned coach Valeriy Lobanovsky, who also happened to manage the Soviet national team. Other major achievers included the Moscow based teams Dynamo and Spartak. By the 1988/89 season the Soviet Supreme League was so dominant that is was ranked the second best league in Europe by UEFA, but this dominance quickly faded as a crippling Soviet state started to allow players to leave and play in the West. One of the agendas of the proposed super league focuses on the difference between the East and West with money at the center. The Eastern structure doesn’t rely on TV contracts and ticket sales like the Western model. The Ukrainian and Russian teams rely solely on income from the immensely rich owners, who sway foreign players with lavish salaries to come play in the frigid Eastern climate. While the model brings in talents like Samuel Eto’o, Keisuke Honda and the strong Brazilian contingent at Shakhtar Donetsk, it isn’t as solid as it appears in the long haul. A proposed super league would rely exclusively on overpriced foreign talent. This type of emphasis could eventually undermine the Russian and Ukrainian youth systems, since the focus would be on giving the majority of playing time to the highly priced foreign talents. Even more concerning in the broad scheme is UEFA President Michel Platini’s stance on all of this. Platini has yet to give any official statements regarding the proposed super league, which only furthers the notion that everything has its price. Gazprom sponsors the UEFA Champions League, so maybe Mr. Platini is just making sure that the money keeps flowing in without any unnecessary criticisms. Now, I’m not saying that this super league wouldn’t be an exciting league to watch through its revitalized increase in competition. What I’m concerned with is the way this proposed new league is getting planned out without really assessing the consequences on the future of football in the CIS. If clubs in other states are eventually able to participate then a Georgian league without a powerhouse club like Dynamo Tbilisi or an Armenian league without Ararat Yerevan, both former Soviet Supreme League winners, would start to deteriorate. The major oligarchs need to figure in these factors, so they can maximize the super league’s potential because, whether it takes years to happen, the oligarchs always get their way in the land where the red star still illuminates the football pitch.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Planting the Football Seeds

Each time a major competition rolls around the football community gets a new list that shows which countries have climbed to the top of football greatness, but does it really seem that way? The FIFA world rankings have been criticized over and over again by the football community, so it's no surprise the recent top seeds are currently on the firing line. The current top teams for the 2014 World Cup group stage will be: Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, Switzerland and hosts Brazil. Now, before judging the teams and saying how messed up the ranking system really is, one has to realize this is all just based on a formula! Points = match value x importance x ranking of opponent x strength of confederation x timeliness. This is a very general look at the way teams get points. However, the point I'm making is that it's all based on numbers and not team analysis. We all think it's absurd that certain countries are ranked higher than others, but instead of stating the obvious, the football community needs to stop criticizing the formula and start thinking of a solution. How can we rationalize how good a team truly is? One way is to look at the history, style and performance, which are difficult to measure by just numbers alone. Some criticisms regarding the current formula state that goal difference, home advantage and the stakes of a match are also not taken into account. Rightly so, all these factors should definitely be considered since they directly influence that value of a team. Now, I'm no mathematician nor are the heads of FIFA, so how do you get that message across to them? If FIFA changes the formula then as a kind of political ploy they would be admitting the ranking system is flawed and we all know they will not submit to something like that. However, there is a concept that I think could put all these criticisms and flawed calculations a little bit to rest. What if instead of just implementing a formula, FIFA could set up a kind of committee that would also take into account different factors that can't be rationalized through numbers alone. They could look at the current values and reach a consensus on the other factors as a means to come up with a reasonable ranking. Of course, this could be biased and based on misinterpretations, but to be honest the critics have also been quite biased themselves in their own ranking, so it's something that will have to be taken into account and worked on. All the critics seem to repeat the past history of the top countries and all they look at sometimes are the squads on paper, but they don't ever mention recent results. One has to realize that, with club football, the chances of getting international play are very minimal at times. Basically, the data that FIFA works with is based on a very small sample, so it can be skewed. Sometimes teams have more games with weaker opponents, which could have an influence on the ranking. Still, all these football fans criticize the system without giving any solutions. Let's be real and realize that the ranking system won't change through our constant nagging, so why not have FIFA keep their hierarchy while trying to fix the problem through a type of committee analysis. In the end though, I feel that if your team is good enough to win it all then it shouldn't matter what pot they're in for the group stage draw. Yes, everyone wants to draw Switzerland as their top team in the group, but no matter what teams are in the first two pots, aren't they typically the same teams anyway? The argument people make is that their side could be drawn against the top team like Spain or Germany, but why not get that draw. Show the world that your side have what it takes by facing a tournament favorite. Stop hiding behind a ranking system that we all know is flawed and start measuring your team's success by how they perform when the time comes for the world stage to shine again.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Three Blind Lions

What if England's trophy case was overfilled with numerous World Cup and Euro titles? What if they lived up to their expectations not just through their league, but through their national side? What if? The reality is England has always been stuck in the 'what ifs' of football. The three lions only have one world cup ('66) on home soil, while their best run at the Euro competition was a semifinal loss also as tournament hosts ('96). Even though England always underachieved throughout the years, they still are one of the most overrated teams before each major tournament. The reason behind the hype and expectation lie heavily on their domestic league. The English Premier League has the highest amount of investment, world viewership and overwhelming talent in football. However, sometimes you get the good with the bad. While the league is gaining even more momentum, the national side is quickly falling to its knees. It's getting so bad that no English player would currently make it in a world starting eleven nor on the bench for that matter. Still, for a country with one of the biggest football leagues in the world why is it that the national side just can't live up to the same status? After examining countless criticisms and theories regarding this issue, I've found that it's more of an inability to change the traditional English way of thinking about football. Granted the current trend in their domestic league relies heavily on foreign investors, foreign coaches and foreign players, which helps create the league's global status, it's also about an inability to step out of the English comfort zone. FA Chairman Greg Dyke said current figures show the 92/93 league season was made up of 69% English players, while last season season consisted of only 32%. Last season English players under the age of 21 only covered 2.28% of the total minutes played in the league. It's easy to criticize the increasing trend of foreigners in the league since these figures show that English players just aren't getting enough playing time. However, the English need to change their way of thinking. If English players can't break into their own league they should try and go abroad. There they can hone their skills in leagues that will be willing to accept young English talent. Leagues like the Eredivisie in Holland are filled with teams vying for new talent as their figures show a different trend, where the best talents tend to leave at a young age. Even English coaches should push their knowledge on the European scene as Steve McClaren did at FC Twente taking the team to their first ever Dutch title in 2010. Since the EPL is the upper echelon of all the leagues it would make sense for a young English player to take small steps in a foreign league only to one day return to the EPL with a fresh style and worldview. At the same time, the English are known for their northern style of high pace, physical and attacking football. Though this style is attractive and appealing, England need to start taking some influence from successful sides in Europe. Countries like Spain and Germany are currently major contenders because of their playing styles, but also their source of talent. When one thinks of these two countries it's really F.C. Barcelona and Bayern Munich that come to the forefront. The two countries implement similar tactics in accordance to their club counterparts, which means there's already a steady foundation in their national sides. Now, looking at the English side there's really no foundation from a Manchester United or Arsenal or Liverpool side. Basically, what England needs is a club side in the domestic league that would have the majority of the top players alongside each other week in and week out. The reality is many of these England players just don't weld well together because the national side consists of too many different top clubs with different philosophies. Another aspect lies at the grassroots level. The English tend to focus on bigger players rather than the small technically gifted. There appears to be a tendency on size and strength over technique in youth development. Once again the English should change their traditional ways by scouting different types of young players, so they could create a new depth in their next generation of footballers. Currently, the English are trying to combat these issues with new strategies recently implementing the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan), which will try to improve youth development through more funding. In order for England to really contend and possibly win a World Cup by 2022 it won't take an evolution, but a revolution in the English FA. For that revolution to take place the FA will first need to take off their blindfolds, so they could see that their out of date English mentality just isn't working.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Case of Football Identity

Imagine if one day a rich businessman bought the club you supported your entire life and all of a sudden decided to change the team's entire history and tradition. Your blue jersey and team crest adorning the bluebird suddenly change to red while a red Welsh dragon complimented the crest. Well this imaginary nightmare is the reality facing English Premier League side Cardiff City right now. After over one hundred years of history and tradition, Malaysian business owner Vincent Tan decided to rebrand the club by implementing changes to the team color and crest. Someone who doesn't support Cardiff City could easily say, well as long as the club have the financial backing and now play top flight football why does it matter? However, such commercialization and rebranding takes away the thing that matters most to true supporters; not results, but identity. What if this happens to a team like Liverpool. One day they no longer wear red, instead they become blue and their beloved liver bird is no more. Would it matter then because this is more than just about having money and being a successful club. In the last decade there have been more cases of protests from fans regarding rebranding. Some of these were so drastic that supporters decided to form entirely new clubs true to their team's identity. Take for example, F.C. United of Manchester. In 2005 the Glazier family decided to takeover Manchester United by buying the main shares of the club. This move pissed off the Red Army enough to break away from the American owners and form an entirely new club that embodied the true spirit of United. Another equally known breakaway was done by supporters of Wimbledon F.C. In 2002 the chairman of the club decided to relocate due to financial issues. The fans decided that no one could just break their team's traditions with the city of Wimbledon, so they formed their own team known as AFC Wimbledon. This success story started off in the ninth league and currently plays in the fourth winning countless promotions throughout the years. All this goes to show that no matter what the reason is behind a change in club identity, the true supporters are always willing to take extreme measures to preserve their team's traditions. New ownership and rebranding are one thing, but what about an entire business taking over the heart and soul of a club. Well, with their expansion away from the extreme sports market, Red Bull decided to venture into the world of football and do just that. In 2005 Red Bull bought out SV Austria Salzburg and in doing so completely disrespected all supporters of the club by saying "this is a new club with no history." Well, they definitely overlooked quite a bit of history; 77 years before the takeover along with 3 Austrian Bundesliga titles and a runners-up position in the 1994 UEFA cup. All the same elements applied like the changing of the team crest to the Red Bull logo and renaming the team Red Bull Salzburg, but the open disregard towards the club's tradition was something the fans never forgot. Their hatred led to the formation of a new club SV Austria Salzburg, which also ran through countless promotions currently playing in the Austrian third league. If these two sides were to ever meet through the Austrian Cup or eventual promotion to the top flight rest assured SV Austria Salzburg would be the team with the real wings. Apart from the extreme measures taken by fans to secure identity there's also the contemporary issue of fan association. Take for example fans of Ajax and Tottenham, who are the biggest clubs associated with being called Jews. Their association isn't based on any deep connection with Judaism. Instead it's an association the two teams embraced because their rivals used the term as a means to insult. Both teams just happen to be placed in an area of the city where there's a higher number of Jews, though there are only a few other connections these team truly have with Jews. Still, for Tottenham fans the identity is so ingrained that they call themselves the Yid Army. The identity itself has caused controversy in England due to the term Yid being regarded as Anti-Semitic. Spurs fans have been threatened with stadium closures and arrests, but the fans made themselves clear. They are going to sing what they want and call themselves what they want. Their identity even though it's controversial is exactly what the fans feel represents them. They embrace it fully and once it's there no threat will make them rebrand themselves. There are countless other examples in football that show diverse identities in fans and their respective clubs. For example, La Liga side Athletic Bilbao has a Basque policy that assures only ethnic Basques play for the club and it's been that way since the team's inception. Another aspect to the identity spectrum are 'works teams' where a city's major business is the reason behind a clubs' formation. These teams are associated throughout history with the company that established them like PSV/Phillips, Wolfsburg/Volkswagen and Leverkusen/Bayer to name a few. There are numerous identities throughout each league that demonstrate just how deep the tradition goes. The point I'm making here is that rich business owners, through their commercialization, aren't in a position to take over years of football tradition and history without upheaval from true supporters. All these examples show that the fans' identities with clubs are real and meaningful. Rich owners can try to change things by buying teams out, but the fans will always be beating their drum because they are the never ending heartbeat of the club.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Off to the Races EPL Style

Bookies will have a host of new clients this season in the English Premier League as the number of contenders has multiplied for the first time in years. After just ten rounds, there are only six points separating first and seventh place in the table. Of those seven teams each one has already lost, not to mention, Manchester United sit uncharacteristically in eight place. What does all this mean for English football fans? Well, for starters this new scenario gives fans a fresh breathe of hope and optimism. This season the title might finally go to a team like Spurs, who last won in the 60s, or an Arsenal side, who look to end an eight year title drought, or a Liverpool team that wants to return to its glory days and oust the Red Devils as the most decorated club in the league. However, the most alarming component to each of the top teams are the exposed weaknesses. Therefore, no matter how excited fans get, there will be many fans left with their hopes up come the 38th round of the season. Here's a breakdown of what each team is doing right, wrong and what needs to be done for them to lift the league trophy this season. Current leaders Arsenal have great depth in their midfield as Mesut Ozil and, back from injury, Santi Carzola look in-sync. The pair have all the means to lay the ball off to in-form strikers Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud. However, the Gunners' starting 11 is really all they have going for them. If they want to finally make Arsene Wenger look like he still belongs they will have to bring in players to widen the team roster. Injuries and the pressures of the Champions League might wear them down, but for once Arsenal fans can be happy their team spent money to strengthen the squad. The January transfer window will be crucial for them to go all the way. Currently sitting in second, Chelsea F.C., are a rejuvinated side under the 'Special One' himself Jose Mourinho. They are playing tight leaving opponents with little space while they pressure down sides into submission. However, their weakness came to the forefront this round as Newcastle knocked them off their mantle with a 2-0 loss. The Blues have so many big name strikers, but each one of them has only netted in one goal so far. There's an all too rusty Fernando Torres, out of his prime Samuel Eto'o, benched for no reason Juan Mata and a still adjusting Andre Schurlle. In order for Chelsea to be back on top, Mourinho needs to channel his charisma and get his strikers finding the net more frequently. Next up, the men from the Kop, Liverpool F.C., are finally looking more like a side that can challenge for dominance once again. Manager Brendan Rodgers should be ecstatic that his two strikers Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez are understanding each other perfectly with a combined 14 goals. However, I'm not sure they have a solid enough midfield to close down the other top tier clubs in the league. For example, Liverpool looked out of shape and unable to reorganize themselves during their 2-0 loss to Arsenal this week. Therefore, Rodgers needs to find the right tactical formation, so his mids, Stevie G and Lucas, can connect with the S&S duo up top. Now, lets travel back to the capital London to find a Tottenham Hotspurs side that is over 80 million Euros richer. The big payoff from the Gareth Bale transfer to Real Madrid has brought in top talent like striker Roberto Soldado and playmaker Andros Townsend. Along with the two, their key this season is the defense as Jan Vertonghen and captain Michael Dawson lead the back line with an attacking prowess. However, if Spurs want to jump past all the other big spenders, and end over 50 years of waiting, they will need to get Soldado to score more than just penalty kicks. Speaking of big spenders, Manchester City look hungry once again as new coach Manuel Pellegrini looks to be the right man to whip up all the expensive talent into shape. The Chilean's expertise, having managed Real Madrid and Malaga, has instilled new life in Sergio Aguero and the other Spanish speaking superstars. Having benched England's number one Joe Hart, the manager proved he has the balls to do what's needed for all the talent to stay disciplined. Still, the biggest concern for the blue side of Manchester is whether or not their Champions League aspirations might get the better of them as they have a tendency to drop points mid season to mid table clubs. Finding the right balance between competitions and player rotation will be the key for the men in sky blue. Finally, sticking to an all too reoccurring history the two remaining sides, Southampton and Everton, will realistically only be fighting for Champions League football next season. They both show a good fight, but they just don't have the financial power right now to hold on until the end though they will and are forces to be reckoned with. With all these teams vying for the number one spot, I need to include one asterisk that is Manchester United. Even though, many doubt David Moyes has the sensei powers of Sir Alex to get the team consistently scrapping up three points, the great one is still there behind that scenes and rest assured he's still pulling some strings. It's all too early to say who is the favorite after only 10 rounds, but the odds will definitely keep putting out new favorites after each round. My guess is Arsenal will win it. Actually no Man United will pull ahead. Wait, Chelsea just might, but Man City are looking good. You know what Spurs can, but lets just see what happens.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Polish Problem

After a poor performance on the field as hosts of Euro 2012 and now a disappointing display throughout World Cup qualifiers; the Polish Football Association is once again trying to fix their sinking boat with chewing gum. The recent appointment of new manager Adam Nawalka from Polish side Gornik Zabrze has fans once again voicing their concerns. Skimming through countless comments online I'm amazed at just how much Polish people tend to contradict themselves by first criticizing and then praising different coaches throughout Poland's history. Though I have my own beliefs in the new coach, the major issue isn't whether or not the new man at the helm is suited, but instead the question is how PZPN (Polish Football Association) is going to restructure itself after years of what could only be called shit. It's no surprise to any Polish football fan that corruption, greed and everything in between is responsible for years of poor decision making on the part of the PFA. During the reign of Grzegorz Lato as PFA chief (2008-2012) tapes surfaced that clearly recorded PZPN members talking about skimming money, intended for youth development, into their own pockets. However, the only thing that restructured after the emergence of those tapes was the sacking of one board member while all the backlash seemed to just fade before Euro 2012. Today, the new PFA chief Zbigniew Boniek (Juventus star and Polish international) is spearheading change through gradual reforms, but many of the old farts are still there pulling their strings. The ideal solution to the Polish problem would be to destroy the current structure and replace all the money hounds with knowledgeable people committed to developing the game at the grassroots level. It seems like a pretty simple concept. Invest in football fields throughout Poland, fund lower football leagues and provide footballers with a means to get educated about the game. German international Lukas Podolski once mentioned that when he grew up in Germany he would leave his home and there would always be a football field ready for him to hone his skills. On the other hand, during his visits to family in Poland he noticed the same basic needs for footballers were not as readily available. Still, in a country ripe for corruption, with politicians influencing their own agendas through greed, how can an entire system as powerful (money=power) as PZPN be wiped clean? Well, one of the roads would be for Boniek to use his Juventus connection by getting former teammate UEFA President Michel Platini to pressure PZPN into using its funds for development. That option maybe a long shot since Platini is clearly focused at the moment on France hosting the next Euro, but a more direct approach could also lead to a positive change. Boniek could easily take it upon himself to get support for the development of the beautiful game in Poland. Why not just direct key funds towards building new fields and if any old fart objects or tries to sneak away some money then finally flash the light on the vodka guzzling vultures. Still, this is Poland and the bureaucracy involved would definitely make such an investment time consuming. However, even with these countless roadblocks, if we don't take the time now to change this structure we call PZPN then Poland might, and already is to be honest, fall into the bottom tier of world football. What else could be said about a football association whose own fans sing jebac, jebac PZPN, which simply means f**k PZPN.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Borussia über Schalke

If you drove past the industrial heartland of Germany today you would only find Weissbier filled glasses, office paperwork untouched and either the color blue or yellow complimenting it all. Today's battle of the Ruhr, where Schalke Gelsenkirchen hosted bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund, was anything, but an ordinary match. With just 15 miles separating the two sides, the fanaticism engulfing the region and bragging rights at stake left the hard work ethic of the Ruhr paralyzed. However, through European success, two recent Bundesliga titles and today's 3-1 victory, Dortmund is decisively the über team. BVB spent very wisely during the transfer window going against coach Jurgen Klopp's philosophy of buying cheap players and bringing them up. With the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from St. Etienne for 13 million Euros and Henrikh Mikhitaryan from Shakhtar Donetsk for 27.5 million Euros (two difficult names to spell) the new spending habits already paid great dividends. The man from Gabon already netted six goals while the Armenian has been the key play-maker filling in the void left by Mario Gotze's departure. Turning our attention to the men in blue, it's apparent that there were big hopes that just haven't maximized fully. The addition of Adam Szalai from Mainz has been paying off; however, the Hungarian striker looked lost and indecisive during the big match-up. Apparently, like many promising players before him, Szalai was the top man at a lower table club and now he finds himself unfit to perform each weekend for a team like Schalke that's desperate for a consistent striker. Another transfer issue for Schalke is AC Milan's Kevin Prince Boateng. Looking at the player sheet one would think otherwise, but the Ghana international looked sluggish on the field today especially after his penalty miss. The transfer window has only strengthened the side in yellow. Another major component to Dortmund's powerhouse status are its fans, specifically their Ultras. Borussia's home, Westfalenstadion, is the setting to some of Europe's best tifo displays. Who could forget their tantalizing display against Malaga in the Champions League, where a giant BVB fan popped out of the yellow backdrop looking through binoculars for the coveted cup. Today's derby showed the dirty side too as Borussia fans threw flares on the pitch and at the opposing supporters. With such disregard for the German ordnung it's apparent that this mighty force is against modern football, which only solidifies them as one of the best supported sides in Europe. Really, the only good thing that Schalke could take away from this match was the only man in blue to score. Max Meyer came off the bench and within five mintues scored what looked to be a glimmer of hope for Schalke, but it wasn't enough to motivate the rest of the team to pressure. Still, Schalke should look more toward its youth players to try and find others like Meyer, who are hungry and have the desire to perform for a club they were raised to support. Basically, the Ruhr derby, no matter if Dortmund continue to reign for many years to come, is what rivalries are all about. Dortmund's Kevin Grosskreutz said it best, "If my son becomes a Schalke fan , I'll give him up to an orphanage." No matter where you're from in the Ruhr region the colors you put on say just as much about you as your work ethic. Work hard, support harder.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Gladiators are Back

In the backdrop of the mighty Roman Colosseum stands an A.S. Roma side with a gladiator spirit as it looks to contend for the Italian Scudetto this season. Newly appointed coach, Rudi Garcia has assembled a team that is currently on top of the Serie A with a flawless 8-0 balance equaling the record held by Michel Platini's Juventus. Few would have imagined that Roma would be a focal point in the season with so many league contenders like champions Juventus; an all-star Napoli squad and a rejuvenated AC Milan. With only eight games into the season, Roma already outplayed their hometown rivals Lazio along with Italian giants Inter Milan and S.S.C. Napoli. With so much commotion and excitement from the Rome camp it's hard to realize that the club finished in sixth place last season and is currently waiting 13 years for a league title. This drastic turn of events is the result of tactics unbeknown to much of Italian Calcio through manager Rudi Garcia. The heads of the Roman club knew that when they appointed the Frenchman they were instilling a fresh breathe of attacking football to a defensive minded league. Before the call up, Garcia made his name known with French Ligue 1 side Lille. Garcia's entire philosophy rested on playing stylish attacking football. During his time at Lille he brought out the most from youngsters like Eden Hazard to clinch a cup and league double in the 2010/11 season. Just watching the Roma-Napoli match I couldn't help, but notice such attacking football brought about through Roma's high line of defense and rapid tempo. Currently, Garcia's tactics are putting goals in the back of the net leaving opponents unprepared strategically to face off against the league leaders. Apart from Garcia's managerial skills, Roma are utilizing their newest acquisitions brought to the club over the summer. The team has a solid defensive line through their new addition; the experienced free agent from Manchester City, right back, Maicon. His communication with the fullbacks keeps the team organized allowing the midfielders to push forward to create chances. However, this attack minded side owes a great deal to their new goalie from Napoli, Morgan De Sanctis, who has only let in one goal so far in the season. Granted the defense has been solid the number 1 has made some crucial saves against top strikers like Goran Pandev and Rodrigo Palacio. Still, the focus on this team is the sword and not the shield. Creative midfielder Kevin Strootman from PSV and striker Gervinho from Arsenal look ripe to fit into Garcia's attack minded tactics. All this creates a wide bench that helps keep players on rotation as different stars shine each game. One of the strongest forces in Roma's new attack is the Balkan connection in  Serbian Adem Ljajic from Fiorentina and Bosnian Miralem Pjanic. The former being a young energetic second striker while the latter is a technically gifted play maker. All these attacking options for Roma are the reason why they currently lead the league in goal differential with a plus nine over the second best team. Now, all these new additions and improvements add flare and bring results, but Roma also have an incomparable heart and soul in Daniele De Rossi and 'The Roman Gladiator' himself Francesco Totti. Both stars have played their entire professional careers representing only the imperial purple and golden yellow. With Totti already 37 years old, and one of the last of his generation, it would be the ideal send off for a player of his stature to finish his role as the king of Rome with a Serie A title. The spectacle unfolding in Rome has been riveting so far in a league that has seen a drop in its contention for European dominance. With these gladiators from the imperial city back in form there's no telling how many ferocious beasts they will slay on their way to contend for the Scudetto.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The most Exclusive Club in the World...Cup

This week The Balkans erupted. Not literally though, as Bosnians celebrated their country's first qualification for next summer's World Cup in Brazil. After watching the celebrations in Sarajevo I couldn't help, but imagine what would happen if they were to actually win it all. As the new inductee, Bosnia will face a challenge they might not be ready for. With the likes of Brazil, Spain and Germany just how difficult is it for a country with a population of a little over 3 million like Bosnia to make it all way? For starters, they will have to rely on a good deal of luck in the group stage. Currenlty, Bosnia is ranked 18th in the FIFA World Rankings and since 13 countries before them are already qualified they will most likely be put in the second basket. That means they will definitely have to face one of the big powerhouses early on. The group stage can extinguish any hopes of seeing your country longer than 3 games. Basically, the first group game is the opener, so all the jitters and tactics come to the forefront. Teams that lose the first game are already at knife point. Count two loses in a row and your last game is pretty much just for honor as you exit the tournament. For the sake of the blue and yellow, lets imagine our inductees making out of the group stage after being even across the board with a win, loss and draw. Great success! Well, since the probability will be that the powerhouse in the group finished in first the Bosnians will have to have a first place finisher in the round of sixteen. Going back to the 13 countries in the rankings before the Bosnians, that challenge could be anywhere from Brazil, being the toughest, to England, (just my opinion) being the weakest,. Now, I always believe in the twelfth man helping guide a team through the toughest of challenges, but at this stage all these teams have that advantage. In the end, it's going to have to come down to an outstanding performance by the collective with a star or two outshining the opponent. Manchester City's Edin Dzeko and Stuttgart's Vedad Ibisevic are the front runners to shine along with youngster Miralem Pjanic and Captain Emir Spahic bringing the team together. Maybe Bosnia can pull off the same feats as their Balkan neighbors Croatia pulled in the '98 World Cup, where Davor Suker won the golden boot to propel the Croats to 3rd place. Still, many have tried and only so few have made it onto the quarter finals in the cup's entire history. Out of all the countries that participated over 35 have never made it past the round of sixteen. This includes Greece, Serbia, Columbia and Russia to name a few. However, let's say the Bosnians pull off the upset and manage to surpass a team like England, who have their own doubts, especially after Joey Barton's little rant about them not having any chance in Brazil. At this point in the tournament, the teams on repeat, as I like to call them, use their experience to compete in the tournament. Teams like Germany, Italy and Brazil have made it to the quarterfinals at least nine times throughout history. Their secret is part experience and part talent. They have the right formula for producing the top players with each generation. When looking at the former, they play in tournaments so much that they know how to rotate players and maximize their talents throughout the entire competition. Therefore, an inexperienced team like Bosnia might have the talent, but lack the strength at this point in the tournament. I know any Bosnian fan will disagree and say their team are motivated and have a fire inside that can't be matched. Still, that fire will have to challenge a tournament favorite, which can only mean one of the biggest upsets in the Cup's history. Let's say they make the impossible happen and now have only one team in their way to make it to their first final in their first ever tournament. Crazy right, but remember it's just to show how difficult it is to lift the cup. If there are no other dark horses or surprises that make it this far I predict that Bosnia would have to face either Brazil, Germany or Argentina. There are too many variations, but there's a good chance these teams will make it this far. At this point I have no more possibilities for Bosnia. Only a fan could dream of making it past this brick wall and it's entirely possible, but not in my head. Therefore, no matter how far the Bosnians make it in the World Cup one has to remember just how many obstacles stand in the way. Qualifying for the first time is a giant leap. Winning for the first time after qualifying for the first time, well then, the laws of gravity no longer apply.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


When a national team runs out onto the pitch and their national anthem plays a special connection brings the players together. The national bond they hold goes beyond just picking up a football kit and saying from now on this is the team I represent. These footballers should not only feel the spotlight, but the heart that beats for the country they represent. However, through increased globalization the issue of footballers representing a national side far different from their roots has been one of FIFA's constant battles. Recently, Manchester United's young Albanian, Serbian, Turkish and Belgian born star Adnan Januzaj made a name for himself by scoring two goals in United's win over Sunderland. Through his background though, he got caught up in the ongoing struggle over naturalization in football. All these reports started surfacing that Belgian team coach Marc Wilmots wanted to call him up against Croatia, while claims surfaced that England was even interested in naturalizing the ethnic Balkan. Januzaj has yet to make a decision. In the past couple of years, FIFA has been trying to keep a lid on the naturalization of players from getting too carried away. The rulings have constantly changed through special committees and constant amendments. Today, for a player to represent a national team they must be a citizen of the country and either be a resident for more than 5 years or show a connection through a family member. Even with all the ruling there's still a false sense of pride behind it all. Take myself for example. I was born in Poland and I am a naturalized citizen living in the States for well over 5 years. If I was ever a pro and the time came to make a decision I would only choose Poland. I have a strong connection to my homeland and I feel that if I ever represented the States I would be disconnected and never accepted because eventually everyone would see where my heart lies. Whenever a foreign player comes into a national team's dressing room there's the sense of there's us and then there's him and no other country creates so many 'hims' like Brazil. Some of the hottest Brazilian exports have featured across countless national sides in Europe like Roger/Poland, Eduardo/Croatia and Pepe/Portugal to name a few. These players can incorporate themselves in the squad and play well, but there's still an element of the outsider. Apart from the immigrant player there's also the question of the player who chooses to play for their parent's home country. There's no better example of this than the Boateng brothers. Kevin Prince Boateng represented countless German national youth sides, but after a falling out with the coaching staff he decided to accept an offer to represent Ghana, the country of his father's birth. At the same time, his brother Jerome Boateng represents the German national side on a regular basis. Two brothers with the same blood representing two completely different national sides. There's no doubt in my mind that both players have the right to represent their respective sides, but maybe players should start considering what it means to stand in front of a nation representing its ideals as its peoples look on. Still, one of the major culprits behind the naturalized footballer issue is spotlight. Many great players from the top national sides might never get the chance to get called up. Therefore, if they can get the opportunity to represent any other side then their name gets out there on the world stage. A player doesn't just stand out through their skill, but they look different from everybody else. Representing a national side has become a way of branding, so players get exposure. This branding is one of the newest approaches along with globalized integration within the many leagues and the emergence of modern football, but with all of this heart and meaning get lost. Therefore, my advice to Januzaj is very clear. Don't choose a national side at all. As a footballer your heart and soul should already be there.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Two Much for the Champions League

The Champions League crown has never had a stable home. However, last year's winners, Bayern Munich, will try to change all of that. As the tournament favorites, the Bavarian giants will have to overcome a hurdle no Champions League winner has yet achieved. The German side must defend the title. Since the tournament's inception in 1955, teams have won consecutive times. However, since the restructure of the European Cup in 1992 leading to what we call the Champions League today no team has won consecutive titles. Still, how is it possible that with so many kings in the last two decades each one has been overthrown. An understanding of the differences between the old and new formats of the tournament are key to seeing just how difficult it is today. For example, back when the tournament was the European Cup teams took on a very different route. Only the champions of each country would face off against one another. Basically, it was like having a spin at the roulette wheel with only one team from all the top leagues facing off against the the lesser known leagues of Eastern Europe. With the Champions League format today, teams face the highest caliber opponents from the top leagues and the lower ranking leagues have to fight to join the pack. After Porto won the Champions League in 2004, Jose Mourinho said the best team doesn't always win and it's the luck of the draw. The 'Special One' was spot on with his comment. In football there's a great deal of luck that goes into going all the way in tournaments. For example, a team like Borussia Dortmund was able to reach the 2013 final by facing Donetsk and Malaga. Now imagine if Borussia had the same route as Munich, who faced Arsenal and Juventus. I'm not saying Borussia wouldn't be capable of reaching the final without knocking off some giants. They proved their potential with a demanding two leg win over Real Madrid, but having to face two giants in a row could have definitely been too much to handle. Apart from the luck of the draw, the Champions League is just one of many focal points in the season. It's a competition among domestic leagues, league cups, international play and for those at the upper echelon world club competitions. It's no surprise that once a team wins the coveted crown they represent Europe in the FIFA Club World Cup. This pointless (just my opinion since it's always just Europe v. South America) tournament only puts a strain on teams making it difficult to rest key players during the winter period. By the time most leagues and the CL competition get swinging again in the Spring these teams face some serious injury concerns and player fatigue. More so, from the standpoint of this fanatical football follower, the CL is more like a tournament, not of kings, but of gods. I don't think there's any other sports competition in the world that can match the overall financial and historical value of the tournament. Having teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid or Juventus in any given group makes for a giant showdown, as opposed to, the old format. The old school European Cup only featured 5 big names from the 5 big leagues with the occasional breakout team in Eastern Europe. Basically, the ratio of talent grew substantially with the CL format. With this Bayern Munich side there's potential to change history and keep the crown for another year. Pep Guardiola, who is great at rotating players, will be capable of keeping the German engine running full throttle to the end, but many giants came before and all have failed. We'll have to wait until the dawn of Spring to see if Munich holds the coveted crown.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Dirty Side of Football A.K.A Politics

This past Sunday I witnessed a game that I'm sure would have every American crying out for justice, if only it hadn't of happened in a place all too familiar with football violence. I'm talking about one of Turkey's biggest games. It's the Besiktas v. Galatasaray derby, of course. Just imagine over 70 thousand fans filled inside Besiktas' Ataturk Olympic Stadium (The namesake couldn't have fit any better for what ensued) as they faced their bitter rivals Galatasaray. The visitors from the other side of the Bosphorus were winning 2-1 with stoppage time approaching when all of a sudden Galatasaray's Felipe Melo got a red card. Things were heating up as people slowly started to jump out onto the pitch with one person even running up and trying to hit Galatasaray's Emmanuel Eboue. All this madness took place while the stone faced referee waited to take action since there were only 2 minutes left. However, things got way too carried away and soon fans equipped with plastic chairs stormed the pitch. After watching all the clips of the mayhem online I realized this was nothing new to Turkish football, but then some of the comments written by the Turkish faithful made me think more in depth. Judge the credibility yourself, but according to some comments online a pro government group was apparently responsible for inciting the pitch invasion. This so-called pro government group's goal was to make the Besiktas Ultra fans, known as Carsi  Group, look like the ones responsible. All this ties in to the protests against the Turkish government back in the summer. The Corsi Group doesn't shy away from their involvement in the protests with chants like "Taksim is everywhere" and "revolution is everywhere." Hence, the irony involved with the namesake of the stadium Ataturk. The protesters are against a government that's slowly and manipulatively trying to get Turkey away from Ataturk's Western ideals and more towards a secular Muslim state. Still, without getting too in depth on the history and issues lets stay focused on the football. The point is, one of the biggest games of the season  in the Turkish league ended with the match getting abandoned with politics being the perpetrator. One might argue that it's Turkey and these types of things happen there all too often. That might be the case to some extent, but the Turkish league has really grown in the last couple of years to include huge names in football like Dirk Kuyt, Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba, who was one of the players that had to run off the pitch during the ensuing mayhem. Even the sidelines had their draws with the likes of Slaven Bilic (Croatia's former smoking rock star coach) and Fatih Terim (coach of Euro 2008's comeback kings Turkey). Basically the idea here is that no matter how big of a spectacle football is it sometimes is too representative of a society's ills. One doesn't have to look too far from Turkey to get that impression. Just look at the 1990 game between the Yugoslavian League's two biggest rivals Dinamo Zagreb and Crvena Zvezda. Long story short the fighting between the Croat and Serb fans on the field that day showed just how much football was intertwined with politics. Many people to this day still believe that match was a catalyst for what would be the war in the Balkans. However, it never is solely the football that leads to such political tension. It's more like the football stadium and the pitch are the ideal place for any unrest to take place since even in times of peace it's the hotbed of any gathering of peoples. With regard to the fighting in Zagreb, just weeks before the match Croatia had voted in a pro nationalist party, which focused on Croatian Independence. All it took was the perfect place like a football match against your bitterest rivals to incite unrest. Even the World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and Honduras, leading up to Mexico 1970, was regarded by some people as the match that led to war. Though a war did ensue after the heated game it was years of tension between the the countries that really led to the bloodshed. The match itself was just another example of how much a football match brought out the tension within people. In that case, football has to be looked upon as something that can go either towards the good or the bad. It can lead to seeing the beautiful game and feeling the most compelling emotions or it can lead to the dirty side also known as politics.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Belgian Revolution Part Deux

Vive le Belgium! With World Cup qualifications nearing an end next month the group leading Belgian national football team is really getting ready to shock the world this summer. In the past decade they couldn't even come close to matching their powerhouse neighbors France, Germany or Holland. Now, the rise in Belgian talent has made the country the third most expensive team in Europe. Just looking back ten years ago they couldn't even break the top 60 in the world ranking, but now they're in the top ten. How did all this happen or better yet where do other countries find this type of luck? After doing some research it turns out it isn't based on luck at all. The Belgians actually made their country into this endless supply of talent all on their own. With only 11 million people in the country, here's how they did it. Belgium was pretty good for many decades always qualifying for the big two, World Cup and Euro tournaments, but they never really made a huge mark on world football like their neighbors. Then in 2000 they got the chance of a lifetime to host Euro with Holland. There was hope for the Belgians just like with any host nation, but they got knocked out of the group stage early on. Belgium was quickly becoming another washed up former contender until Michel Sablon, some big shot in the Belgian FA, came along. His staff would talk to the powerhouse neighbors, learn from them, then they would force all the major Belgian clubs to bring up their youth players through their blueprint. This blueprint became a booklet that Sablon passed out to all the Belgian clubs. The aim was to create talent not through winning, but youth development. It didn't matter if your teams lost, as long as your players kept learning and getting better, but wait that must have been crazy. All of a sudden the top teams like Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liege had to develop players based on some little brochure. Well, that's exactly what happened, but not without controversy and disagreement, still in a miraculous way the clubs followed the blueprint. Fast forward and holy crap I can name over 11 players in the national team even though, while writing this post, I have yet to watch a single Belgian national team game. The miracle doesn't end there though. For such a small country Belgium has had some history of tension between its two major linguistic groups; the French speaking Walloons and the Dutch speaking Flemish. Still, they have been able to manage their differences through coach Marc Wilmots, former Belgian football star and politician, along with Captain Vincent Kompany, better known as the Belgian patriot. In fact, the team is made up of all sorts of different ethnic groups from Fellaini's Moroccan background to Benteke's Congolese roots. The beauty behind all of this is how the national team has been able to use all the diversity to add to their style of play. They can play like a Barcelona tiki-taka team, but they also have the speed and tempo since many of their players play their club football in the Premier League. With all the newly found talent through the Belgian system I only wanted to know one thing. Why don't other struggling countries do the same if it worked for Belgium? Remember, this was all done through the youth development in the Belgian league and all in the past decade. I guess, Belgium does have one advantage or bit of luck that the rest of Europe might not. It's located in the West. It's main city Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union for Christ's sake. Basically, they have the mentality and means to bring something like this together. I simply can't imagine all major clubs in countries like Poland, Bulgaria or Hungary coming together financially to base all their development on one unified theory like this. Instead, all I can imagine right now is just how big of an impact these Belgians can make in the World Cup. No matter what they achieve or how far they make it I know one thing for sure now. Hazard, Benteke, Fellaini, Vertonghen, Mignolet, Lukaku, Witsel, Mertens, De Bruyne, Van Buyten, Mirallas, Kompany, Vermaelen and countless others will all be names mentioned on repeat by the footballing public during this World Cup. I for one will be watching this second Belgian revolution unfold this summer.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

U.E.F.A Ultra Extreme Fanatical Atmosphere

It is that sore cough from a sudden burst of screaming or yelling that lets me know just how much it all means to me. This past week I watched the final round of qualifiers for the 2013/2014 Champions League group stage. Personally, I had so much invested in this one since my side Legia Warszawa were playing. They were on the verge of qualifying for the first time in over 17 years, but fate made sure that number would only grow. With a 1-1 tie against Romanian side Steaua Bucharest away and then 2-2 at home we got knocked out by the away goals rule. I was down and couldn't come to terms with why this had happened. I mean with all our passion and support for the club I thought that the determination and drive would have finally taken us to the promised land. All this emotion led me to point out one major formula that plagues countless other sides apart from just my beloved Legia. A team's fans don't determine how successful the team truly is. Legia's fans put on a great show with a provocative Ultra display. The acronym U.E.F.A was displayed with the words Ultra Extreme Fanatical Atmosphere right underneath followed by a dazzling showing of soccer flares. Note: Legia will definitely pay for this one, but not even UEFA could put a price on that fanatical atmosphere the fans produced. I guess the only thing that consoles me at a time like this is the fact that so many other great clubs in Europe have great fans, but no results on the field. Take for example, Newcastle F.C. where St. James' Park holds, in my opinion, some of the most compelling English fans in the Premier League. However, not even the likes of the great Alan Shearer or King Kev could pull this club into the top of the league. It's a shame though that with the advent of the filthy rich owner investing unlimited sums of money, a club with the most passionate fans doesn't equate to a better performance on the pitch. Don't get me wrong though, a team like Manchester City and their fans waited long for their moment of glory two seasons ago, but still the formula for success doesn't rely solely on the fans. Just imagine if that was the case though. If a team's performance was based on the support they received from the fans. If instead of the twelfth man being some idea it became personified and in fact the team had the real advantage of one more talent on the field. Imagine the likes of West Ham United forever blowing bubbles on top of the league's mantle or how about St. Etienne finally returning as the green giants of French football. The list could continue on into every single league from Den Hague in Holland to Atalanta in Italy, but that's not the point I'm making. The point of this article is just to point out a sad truth. No matter how much passion and love fans have for their clubs it doesn't mean results. However, who needs results when you know you and you're kind are the roughest toughest most hardcore fans around. I guess getting the results are just the cherry on top.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Campeones Campeones Ole Ole Ole

This is it. This is the turning point in my life. I finally found the one thing I'm passionate about and really want to do with my life. Football, futbol, soccer, fussball, pilka nozna, calcio, whatever it's called this word symbolizes it all. However, it's more than just a sport or game that I grew up watching and playing. There's a depth to this phenomenon. There's no boundaries. It's taken a form that goes beyond the simple idea of a game. What I'm implying is that this is what we as people throughout history have tried so hard to capture. It's the simplest thing we all desire in life. Connection. Football connects us with who we are and where we come from. It's such a generic thing to say, but so complex once you really examine how much people invest in it. I can ramble on for days about what it means to me and how it affects my life, but then no one would care to spend so much time reading this blog. Therefore, I only want to make one point. Whatever club or country we support we as people can always say that football makes you get out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Football lets us enter our inner selfs, so we can experience adventure and risk at our control. The football match and everything around it provides a theme or feeling that promotes our inner self's adventure. Football is that crusade. It's the Robin Hoods of today. It's adventure and the most intense emotion felt by those who really support their team through everything. However silly or extreme people think I am for loving football, Deep down I will always be a fan. Even if the team I support is relegated to near extinction I will still be singing. Campeones, campeones, ole, ole, ole because I found the thing in this world that makes me feel like a champion and that is the best treasure I have ever found. To anyone who stumbles upon this blog I say thank you for first taking the time to read it. Second, I hope this blog helps other fans find passion in football because it's more than I can describe in one post. All I can say is eeeeaaaooo, eeeeaaaaooo for more than just 90 minutes.