Friday, February 27, 2009

Rule-makers are a law unto themselves

Radical change could be on its way. Football; the most popular, simple and - arguably - conservative sport on the planet is long overdue a 21st century overhaul. This weekend, the game’s lawmakers, the IFAB, convene in County Down, Northern Ireland for their 123rd AGM. On the agenda for discussion are a number of potential rule-changes which would have the greatest impact on professional football since the back was abolished in the aftermath of the awful bore-fest that was Italia ’90.

The International Football Association Board has been the ‘guardian’ of football’s laws since 1886. Four FIFA representatives and one each from the home nations sit at each meeting, and a three-quarters majority is needed to pass any motion (which can be submitted by any of FIFA’s member associations).

In 2009, it is surely anachronistic that the British FAs should still be so disproportionately represented on the IFAB panel, but what more should we expect from an organisation which Sepp ‘women footballers should wear hotpants’ Blatter has, in the past, acclaimed for its “stable and steadying influence” on the world’s favourite game?

While tennis (with the notable exception of Roger Federer) has welcomed the retrospective decision-making HawkEye system with open arms and rugby union ushers in controversial new laws (or ELVs) designed to move the sport away from insidious negativity and adapt to the modern era of professionalism, football remains, staidly, the same. The governing bodies still shy away from the introduction of technology to ease the burden on under-fire referees, but at least this year’s meeting will discuss several potentially crucial developments which could alter certain aspects of the game forever.

What might these changes be? Let’s take a look.

Sin-binning players for second bookable offences. Backed by the first and only refereeing galactico, Pierluigi Collina, the introduction of sin-binning or the ‘orange card’ has long been cited as a means of improving on-field discipline. This will mirror rugby’s introduction of the temporary removal of a player for infringing the rules. Raymond Kennedy, president of the Irish FA says: “The offence would be dealt with on the day and the team offended against would be the team to benefit. We see a lot of merit in it and I am hoping they sanction an experiment at youth level for a season or so.” Hit or miss? The current disciplinary model makes it rational for defenders to take out opponents in attacking positions, picking up a ‘professional’ yellow card, rather than concede a goal. As in basketball, cynical behaviour or dangerous tackling should be dealt with in a harsher manner than ‘technical’ offences like shirt-removal during goal celebrations or kicking the ball away. Just imagine Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard or (insert your favourite diver here) languishing on the bench for ten minutes as punishment for ‘simulation’ (i.e. cheating in order to win a penalty). Justice would be meted out in a fair and proportionate manner, dealing with offences summarily during the 90 minutes of play...HIT.

20-minute half-time interval. Altering Law 7 – ‘The Duration of the Match’; the mid-game break will be extended by a further five minutes. This will apparently allow players more time to negotiate their way through the labyrinthine corridors of badly-designed stadia and brings the total time of the average match (accounting for stoppage time) closer to the two-hour mark. Hit or miss? Stuff the integrity; it’s all about the money. Primarily suits advertisers and few others – certainly not the common fan sitting in the stadium. In mitigation, a half-time pee could be undertaken at a more leisurely pace, with ample time remaining to purchase your balti pie/tongue-scorching cup of tea/massively-overpriced Coke product, so all’s not lost. Nonetheless this one’s a...MISS.

A fourth sub for games that go into extra-time. A change to Law 3 – ‘The Number of Players’ to increase the maximum number of substitutions in the event of extra time. Possibly designed with increasing the chances of achieving a result during the extra half-hour (more fresh legs = more goalscoring opportunities). Hit or miss? This change would allow coaches to play their full hand, thereby initiating any necessary tactical changes, before 90 minutes are up, with the cushion of a further sub remaining. Many a major tournament classic has been tainted by the unedifying sight of two teams limping through the extra period with penalties a painful inevitability throughout. It’s more a cosmetic tweak than a major facelift, but this change could help a little...HIT.

Two additional goal-line refereeing assistants. These additional officials (bringing the total to an unwieldy six) will assist the referee with decisions within the penalty area. Hit or miss? This proposal makes clear that the law-makers’ stubborn refusal to entertain the introduction of goal-line technology remains stronger than ever. It would be something of a compromise, which acknowledges that something needs to be done to resolve ball-over-the-line controversy – particularly in this moneyed age – but the possibility of human error remains. The referee’s once all-pervasive authority would be diluted even further and there could potentially be three conflicting verdicts on any penalty-box decision. Also, if this comes into force; spare a thought for those officials who would need to stand statically at the end of the goal-line, taking all kinds of abuse from irate fans for an hour-and-a-half. All in all, a...MISS.

In an ideal world, the IFAB would also find time to address the inherent silliness of making obviously uninjured players leave the field before returning at the referees behest; re-clarify the offside law (which was exposed by Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goal vs Italy at Euro 2008); and formalise the clever use of an aerosol spray to effectively maintain the 10-yard distance between kicker and wall at free kicks. However, progress comes slowly in football’s corridors of power.

For now, at least, fundamental reforms such as larger goals, reduced penalty areas, and micro-chipped balls will have to wait. While past innovations such as ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’ goals were a flop, the IFAB should not fear change. The essential simplicity of the game must be retained at all costs, but not at the expense of innovation and modernisation. That is how the greatest game on earth can continue to grow for years to come.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

UEFA Cup Last 32, 2nd leg Previews

The UEFA Cup gets a bad press. While its bigger, better, more glamorous brother, the Champions League, draws attention with all manner of sexy match-ups between continental heavyweights – and there are some particularly alluring ties this week – Europe’s second tier are relegated to something of a mildly-amusing sideshow. It’s a sad state of affairs, especially because this year’s last 32 has a lot to offer – with a number of high-quality sides poised to resume battle on Thursday evening and a number of intriguing ties still in the balance.

The reality is though, for some, the UEFA Cup is something of an unwelcome distraction from the bread and butter of domestic competition. Just look at Tottenham’s approach to the first leg of their clash with Ukraine’s Shaktar Donetsk, where young Dean Parrett was handed an unexpected debut and on-loan back-up Frazier Campbell ploughed a lone furrow up front with minimal success.

Coming, as it does, sandwiched between Monday’s crucial late victory at Hull and Spurs’ Wembley engagement with rampant Manchester United this weekend, Harry Redknapp’s promised approach (a youth/reserve team XI) to the second leg essentially foregoes any further involvement in the competition they last won back in 1972. So, as a Shaktar side well-drilled by veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu should reasonably be expected to consolidate their first-leg advantage, it’s better to focus primarily on the other remaining English sides.

It is either high-flying Aston Villa or Roman Abramovich-backed CSKA Moscow that will await the Brazilian-inspired Ukrainians (should they take care of business at White Hart Lane) in the next round. CSKA do not resume domestic duties until next month, following a three-month break, yet looked far from ring-rusty in last Wednesday’s pulsating 1-1 draw at a vibrant Villa Park.

Finishing the 2008 campaign as runners-up to surprise winners Rubin Kazan, qualification for next year’s Champions League is already in the bag for the side now managed by Brazilian midfield maestro Zico.

As recent UEFA Cup winners, with victory over Sporting in the 2005 final in Lisbon, the Muscovites are no strangers to continental success. Money injected into the club by Sibneft, the Chelsea owner’s oil company, has enabled the team to recruit Brazilian stars such as extravagant striker Vágner Love (scorer of the brilliant, precious away goal in Birmingham and competition top-scorer with nine already) and talented midfielder Dani Carvalho, recently returned from a five-month loan deal back home with Internacional. Arguably though, CSKA’s star man was grown rather closer to home.

Yuri Zhirkov, a raiding left full-back for Guus Hiddink’s Russian national team, is a hugely effective, quick-witted winger for the club he joined in 2004. Zhirkov – voted Russian footballer of the year, ahead of Arsenal’s Andrei Arshavin – was largely contained by Luke Young during their first clash. In the more familiar sub-zero surrounds of the plastic Luzhniki pitch, Villa should expect the elusive wide-man to exert far greater influence on the second leg.

Regrettably, and contradictorily – given their protracted involvement in the mid-summer Intertoto Cup as a means of getting to this stage – Martin O’Neill will field a much-weakened team in the Russian capital. The Villans’ notoriously thin squad can barely accommodate more than one or two absentees at a time, as the second-string’s limp defeats against Hamburg and MSK Zilina earlier in the competition testify. The club of the Russian Army must, therefore, be firm favourites to progress.

Such a scenario could leave Manchester City as the Premier League’s last remaining representatives. Their helter-skelter two-all draw with FC København leaves Mark Hughes’ side ideally placed to advance to the last 16.

Another graduate from the final Intertoto competition was Deportivo La Coruna; the Galicians slumped to a 0-3 away defeat at the hands of Danish champions Aalborg and so have a mighty task on their hands to turn things round at the Riazor.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hot property Hernanes heading for Europe

Anderson Hernanes de Carvalho Andrade Lima – simply Hernanes to his mum – has shown sufficient promise to be hailed as Brazilian football’s ‘next big thing’. Quite some accolade, given the oceans of talent swilling around the Thankfully, due to his preferred role as a deep-lying creative midfielder, the 23-year-old will side-step unfortunate comparisons with the likes of Pele, Garrincha or even Ronaldo, which up-and-coming Brazilian starlets routinely face.

One unavoidable comparison is often drawn though. Right now, Kaká belongs to Jesus and Milan (in that order). At the birth of his galactic career though, the one-time Manchester City target honed his inimitable skills at São Paulo; the club where Hernanes now occupies the role of creator-in-chief.

In reality, though, there aren’t all that many similarities between the two products of the Morumbi. While Kaka has made his name as a thrusting attacking midfielder or support striker, with unmatchable pace, power and composure, his successor is a player more in the mould of, say, Cesc Fabregas or Brazil’s USA 94 star Rai. In Hernanes, the requisite technical excellence of a Brazilian playmaker is allied to great mobility, vision and impressive ease on the ball with either foot.

South American football expert Tim Vickery reckons “there's no one better in Brazilian football at the moment.” By way of confirmation, the young midfield maestro was named the Premio Craque do Brasileirao (domestic player of the year) last season and The Times’ no.1 ‘rising talent in football’ in 2008.

Wednesday evening’s entertaining Copa Libertadores clash with Independiente Medellín of Colombia showcased Hernanes’ exemplary talents. Throughout the close-fought game, the São Paulo no.10 was a constant thorn in the side of the visiting underdogs. With an upright, compact style, his shimmies, step-overs and surges earned a number of free-kicks and kept his opposite number fully engaged throughout.

At 5ft 11, he’s hardly a giant by modern football’s exacting standards, yet – like Cesc – Hernanes was seemingly born with the authority to direct a game with abundant simplicity and awareness. He’s not afraid to shoot either – a number of mid-to-long-range efforts (with both feet) troubled Independiente’s Paraguyan ‘keeper Aldo Bobadilla and the folks in Row Z alternately. Allied to the honest endeavours of his omnipresent midfield partner Jean, Hernanes ensured that the flow of the game remained towards the Colombians’ goal.

The frustrating immobility of ex-international striker Washington, however, rendered much of São Paulo’s attacking efforts in vain. In fact the three-times continental champions looked likely to slip to a shock defeat before striker Borges scored a frankly ridiculous equaliser deep in to stoppage time. Muricy Ramalho’s team begin their quest for a fourth successive league title in mid-May and they hope their brightest star (contracted until 2012) will remain at the hub of their challenge.

Already an Olympic bronze medallist – a tournament at which Brazil’s under-23s (plus Ronaldinho et al) were outclassed by Argentina and he came up short in the midfield battle with Real Madrid’s Fernando Gago – Hernanes has so far earned only a solitary senior international cap. The Seleção has lacked, of late, players to dictate the action from deep in midfield; relying on the prosaic toil of Gilberto Silva and Wolfsburg’s Josué. A vacancy is there to be filled at the heart of the world’s favourite team. To fully establish himself in Dunga’s plans for the 2010 World Cup, it’s fair to assume that the boy from Recife might now be entertaining thoughts of a move to Europe.

For every Brazilian success story among the habitual mass migration upon the opening of a European transfer window, there are many failures – abject or relative - who limp home with tail firmly fixed between legs. One such chastened returnee was Hernanes’ Olympic team cohort Thiago Silva, who flopped spectacularly with both FC Porto and then Dynamo Moscow. Yet, the versatile defender has since resurrected his career back home at Fluminense; impressing enough to encourage Milan to shell out €10m for his services.

He’ll be eligible to play for the rossoneri from the summer. Speculation is building that Hernanes might follow on Thiago Silva’s coat-tails to the San Siro as a potential successor to Andrea Pirlo – though surely the sublimely gifted Italian has much left to give, particularly at a club which has come to see itself as safe-haven for declining veterans. It’s the club where where Kaka was a near-immediate success upon his arrival from the Morumbi. It’s the club, too, where fledgling talents such as Patrick Vieira and, more recently, Yoann Gourcuff have slipped off the radar, only to resurface spectacularly elsewhere.

The move to Italy is far from a done deal. Barcelona is another possible destination – but with a league of exhilarating midfield stars already present at Camp Nou it would be a brave move for Hernanes to make in a World Cup year. For all the excitement about his obvious talent, there are still areas in his game which could be improved and honed to perfection upon a switch to a club at Europe’s top table. The hunt for Hernanes’ signature begins, in earnest, this summer.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Blackburn and Boro’s blues: The true price of the drop

In spite of the inescapable economic crisis, which will get its grubby little hands on us all in one way or another, English football remains in rude health. Or so it would seem.

Within the space of seven days, the publication of Deloitte’s Club Football ‘Money League’ and announcement of a new, improved TV deal have given cause for optimism to those concerned about the impact of the contracting economy on the much-loved national game.

If the exchange rate value of the pound had not depreciated so dramatically of late, there would have been nine, rather than ‘just’ seven English clubs in the Deloitte Top 20 and Manchester United would instead have topped the list (which is based purely on revenue) ahead of Real Madrid. Even so, the big guns of the Premier League need not fear falling far behind their continental cousins any time in the near future.

In the face of the challenging economic environment, the Premier League also secured a record deal for live domestic broadcast rights for 2010/11 to 2012/13, up 4% to £1.782bn in total. And that’s before lucrative overseas rights are stirred into the pot.

It’s a rosy picture indeed for those clubs at the top of the pyramid, but for the vast majority of Premier and Football League members, that picture is increasingly obscured by stormy clouds on the horizon. To say nothing of the problems faced by a plethora of lower league clubs, those top flight teams without the clout of United, Liverpool or Chelsea are facing up to a period of enforced austerity and serious belt-tightening.

Let’s take, for example, two long-established Premier League clubs; both firmly entrenched in the unseemly scramble for survival which has, this season, engulfed the top-flight’s traditional also-rans.

Struggling Middlesbrough, it has emerged, are in debt to the tune of a hefty £85m. Under-fire manager Gareth Southgate has been quick to acknowledge the pressure that such a ticking financial time-bomb places on his position and on the club as a whole.

“We know the resources we have and we know the parameters and that makes life difficult,” said Southgate.

“We are in a different position now to the last eight or nine years. The chairman knows what he will get from me and that is every hour towards keeping this football club in the Premier League.”

Failure to do so, though softened a little by two years worth of ‘parachute payments’, would hold catastrophic consequences for the Teesiders, let alone the managerial career of the ex-England international.

It’s a simple economic reality: If a club can't regularly fill a 35,000 capacity stadium, then it will inevitably incur big, fat debts. Middlesbrough have punched above their weight for a sustained period now. Fortunately for them, their saintly proprietor Steve Gibson has underwritten the majority of that colossal debt and should his side be one of the three to slip through the trapdoor this May, then the resulting loss of revenue will fall at his door only. Of course, should such a Boro blow-up come to pass, there will be few, if any, buyers willing or able to take a quite unattractive proposition off Gibson’s hands.

Over in Lancashire, amid the big-spending might of United, City and Liverpool, lies Blackburn Rovers FC. It’s more than a decade now since their remarkable Premier League win under the stewardship of the Walker/Dalglish dream-ticket. They’ve had their ups and downs since then, but in the aftermath of the inspirational Mark Hughes’ departure, the hasty curtailment of Paul Ince’s tenure and subsequent installation of Sam Allardyce, Rovers are prime candidates for the drop.

The posting of record turnover this year (£56.4m, collated principally on the back of media money) presents a positive facade. Yet, as chairman John Williams pointed out this week, Blackburn are still, more or less, only breaking even. This is due to ridiculous wage expenditure - 76% of their turnover has been splurged on salaries over the past five years. Such a percentage is absolute commercial nonsense.

Allied with average attendances of under 24,000 (currently the 3rd lowest in the League) and a commendably reasonable ticket pricing policy (generally speaking, Rovers lay on the cheapest top flight tickets); Blackburn have cultivated a model which is impossible to continue upon relegation.

Not only Blackburn but all clubs, whether they’re spending 60, 70 or 80 percent, should be striving to reduce obscene salaries. In fact, most other businesses operate around the 25% mark. In other European leagues there are strict rules capping the percentage of income a club can spend on paying players. Unless the English game is to slip into a deep black economic hole, the most extravagant spenders have no alternative but to fall in line.

Chairman Williams admits that his club are walking a financial tightrope: “If we ran with the 17th highest wage bill - believing that would mean three teams finish below us - that would be incredibly risky.”

“Of course if you have the 12th highest wage bill and you get relegated and you have a relatively small turnover you are in for trouble, which is why relegation for us would be so worrying.”

The Premier League has made token efforts to even up the playing field between the haves and the have-nots. They would argue their distribution formula of TV revenue gives a semblance of even distribution. And, more so than in other leagues (such as Serie A, where each club negotiates its own deal) it does.

“It could be more even,” argues Williams. “More sporting socialism, a bit like the NFL, would suit Rovers.”

For a club that effectively bought its way to the title in the recent past, that might strike some as a rather hypocritical stance to take. Williams, though, has a valid point. The NFL employs a salary cap in which each franchise can spend only a set limit on wages. Under European employment law, this scheme would be almost impossible to integrate into the Premier League, even if the will was there among the clubs – and it isn’t.

Another US sport, baseball, might hold the key to tackling this escalating problem. Teams mutually agree an upper salary limit. If this limit is exceeded, the franchise must pay a ‘luxury tax’, to be re-distributed among the other teams. That’s the kind of ‘sporting socialism’ which could conceivably return some semblance of a level playing field to our game. But, again, enforcement is a major problem.

All of the top clubs are in significant debt too, whether it is to an individual (Chelsea) or to our beloved, eminently trustworthy financial institutions (United, Arsenal, Liverpool). These vast debts, however, are serviced by guaranteed income from giant international fanbases, ownership of lucrative stadia and regular Champions League football. Other more modest clubs such as Blackburn, Boro, Portsmouth now find themselves in a predicament which, if it doesn’t yet threaten their very existence, might see any one of them go the way of Charlton, Southampton or even Leeds United.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Uncommonly loyal Shay’s outburst is a given

Saviour of club and country for well over a decade, Shay Given has long earned his place in the hearts and minds of Geordies and Irishmen alike. The 32-year-old from County Donegal was unveiled as a Manchester City player on Thursday morning, after completing his move from Newcastle United for an undisclosed fee, understood to be around £8m, on Monday.

Throughout the continuing turbulence which has plagued the North East giants since Sir Bobby Robson’s unfortunate departure, Given has been “a small, reassuring constant in an ocean of change”. So says a Shay fansite, where one Newcastle supporter laments that his departure “will sting as only the bitter break-up with a loved one can”. Now that’s some serious feeling.

It’s safe to say, though, that unpopular owner Mike Ashley failed to appreciate the depth of the attachment between the fans and their hero. Given explained:

“The first contact I had with Mike Ashley was on January 26. There were a few things they could have done to try and keep me but they didn't do so. In the end they were happy to take the money and move on.”

The goalkeeper continued: “It felt like a long and drawn-out transfer. I felt they could have dealt with it a little bit better. Considering the service I gave the club, the regime could have looked after the whole thing a bit better. They made me do things I didn't want to do.”

Given, having already sealed his lucrative move up the Premier League pyramid, stood to gain little by indulging in a barely credible Charles N’Zogbia-style self-pitying rant. Instead this was a calculated assessment of the state of play at Newcastle, borne out of frustration at having to leave in order to fulfil his ambitions.

Despite the alarming slump from top four contenders to relegation-threatened also-rans in recent years, the Ireland no.1 has long remained tight-lipped about the wandering direction of the club he did so much to serve. Only now that he is free of the unedifying circus which poses as the Newcastle United hierarchy has Given chosen to speak out. A decade-plus of total commitment and outstanding performances (papering over the gaping cracks left by Bramble, Boumsong, Cacapa, et al) have earned him that right.

The Christmastime thumping at the hands of free-flowing (yes, really) Liverpool facilitated his departure. That humiliating 1-5 reverse was the nadir of a long, illustrious career which encompassed spells at Celtic and Blackburn prior to his arrival at St James’ Park. With the club offering only token resistance to City’s advances, Given’s switch to Eastlands was a fait accompli.

Kinnear’s version of events, not surprisingly, doesn’t quite tally with that of his fellow countryman’s though. According to the ex-Wimbledon gaffer, he maintained a “great relationship” with the ‘keeper he claims is “one of the best in the world.”

“I would be the last person in the world who would want to sell him,” he said, “But these things happen.”

With his frequent rants against the media and perceived unfair treatment at the hands of referees, it is clear that under-pressure Kinnear hopes to foster a siege mentality at St James’. However, to successfully pull off such an approach, as frequently mastered by the likes of Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager must keep the playing staff firmly onside.

Given’s mid-season exit (with the words: “over the last six months it has been fizzling out and it’s not been enjoyable going into training”) allied to N’Zogbia’s altogether more predictably messy departure, suggests that the Geordie ship is sinking – with a helpless Captain Kinnear flailing helplessly about at the helm. His man-management skills must be called into question if, as expected, there is a mass exodus – led by perma-crocked Michael Owen – from Tyneside in the summer.

The interim manager revealed several weeks ago that he had been offered a new two-year deal to remain as manager, which will apparently be formalised come the summer. The offer was seen as means of Ashley instilling a little stability. But is it really such a wise decision? And speaking of ‘Wise’ decisions: has Newcastle’s executive director of football really made a competent fist of the post he was so bafflingly appointed to?

Wise’s abject failure to recruit adequately during the January window could prove costly. The prospective arrivals of Toulouse full-back Albin Ebondo, City’s Michael Johnson and Kieran Richardson of Sunderland failed to materialise. A flimsy, ill-balanced squad, littered with dead wood, has been supplemented by Kevin Nolan, Ryan Taylor and Peter Lovenkrands, but stands in real danger of a calamitous drop through the top-flight trapdoor.

Only saintly-patient Steve Harper’s obvious ability to step into the void left by Given is a small mercy. The imminent returns, from injury, of Alan Smith, Oba Martins and, to a lesser extent, Mark Viduka might yet engender an upturn in mood and fortune. A win from Saturday afternoon’s clash at The Hawthorns with fellow strugglers West Brom is now desperately important if the Magpies are to survive their second successive relegation battle.

“I've got no bitter feelings towards the fans, they are extremely loyal,” said Given as he wrapped up his move to Manchester. An accurate assessment of the Geordie faithful’s dedication, but it’s difficult to see how that loyalty will ever be re-paid as long as the much-maligned ‘Cockney Mafia’ remains in situ at St James’ Park. You can’t help but feel that Seamus is better off out of it.