There was a report in the British press earlier this week in which the UK prime minister David Cameron is said to have expressed his desire for the Glasgow “Old Firm” of Celtic Football Club and Rangers Football Club to join the English Premier League (EPL). One may question Cameron’s political motives behind the proposal as he seeks to influence the vote north of the border in the oncoming referendum on Scottish independence to be held in September 2014 but the idea is far from new. In the Former Soviet Union (FSU), momentum has also gathered pace as a number of owners from top clubs in Russia and Ukraine seek to form a breakaway championship run along the same lines as the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) which has been a major success since its inception in 2008. In the United States three Canadian clubs feature alongside their American counterparts showing that cross-border championships do happen in soccer as well as in other sports such as ice hockey, basketball and baseball. If the ideas proposed in the UK and the Former Soviet Union are eventually given the green light in the future will the leagues be as super as they look on paper or will it destroy the essence of the game?
As the Scottish Premier League has diminished in strength over the last 25 years it was always going to result in calls for the big two of the Scottish game to apply to join the English league system. Since Aberdeen FC, under the management of Alex Ferguson, became the last team from outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish championship in the 1984-85 season, Rangers and Celtic have completely dominated the league to the point where any potential third force capable of breaking the duopoly seems almost impossible. But where would the Old Firm begin any potential English journey? Some have suggested that they should begin the Conference league (fifth tier), some say in the Championship (second tier) whilst some call for the Old Firm to join the Premier League at the first opportunity in order to increase what is already a substantial TV contract. Were the two Glasgow giants to join the EPL any time soon they see themselves playing against the likes of traditional major English clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, to name but four, as well as the possibility of facing the two biggest Welsh clubs of Swansea City, who are already in the EPL, and Cardiff City, who look very likely to join them next season, in order to create a truly British super league.
This proposal, although attractive to many, would also see any number of clubs voting themselves out of a certain league in order to accommodate the Old Firm. Therefore the situation would be unlikely as it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas but it seems unlikely that the issue will go away. The alternative for the Old Firm would be to create what has been termed the “Atlantic League” along with the biggest clubs from the likes of Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia in order to create more meaningful and lucrative opposition. The biggest clubs from those countries, for example FC Porto, Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht, continue to dominate leagues in which competition over the years has weakened due to the increasing financial and sporting might of the big leagues. An Atlantic League would, therefore, allow stronger competition outside of officially sanctioned UEFA tournaments such as the Champions League and Europa League.
In the case of the Former Soviet Union there will be many who miss football matches of the calibre of Spartak Moscow v Dynamo Kyiv, Zenit Saint Petersburg v Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Shakhtar Donetsk v CSKA Moscow. Owners and sponsors of the some of the biggest football clubs in the region are behind the idea to merge the top leagues of Russia and Ukraine together. Just like with the situation in the UK, there are perhaps political machinations at work in relation to the proposed new set-up here too. Ukraine is a country which is stuck between a rock and a hard place and seems to face a choice as to whether it wishes to become a member state of the European Union or to align itself with its former master of Russia. Whatever the political issues the new money which is prevalent amongst the biggest clubs in both Russia and Ukraine could force the hand of European football’s governing body UEFA who are naturally against such mergers. Increasingly, in the modern game, money talks and one wonders if the status quo will remain in place for much longer especially as the sport of ice hockey in the FSU region provides the footballing hierarchy with a prime example of a trans-national sporting competition which provides ice hockey clubs from Russia the chance to compete in arguably the second best competition in the world (after the National Hockey League in the US and Canada) alongside clubs from Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belraus, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
It is not just in ice hockey where the trans-national approach has been broadly welcomed. Rugby union has embraced such competition in both the northern and southern hemispheres with the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Celtic League (top 14 clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy), Heineken Cup (equivalent to the UEFA Champions League) and the Super 15 (featuring the top 15 provincial teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). The other oval ball code of rugby league also embraces such competition but on a much limited scale with one French club, the Catalan Dragons, playing in the northern hemisphere UK-based “Super League” whilst the New Zealand Warriors feature in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL). As mentioned at the top of the piece there is currently one example of a football championship which currently uses such a system, namely Major League Soccer. Three of Canada’s top clubs – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – play alongside the best 16 American clubs in a league which is run alongside similar lines to the other major leagues of ice hockey (NHL), baseball (MLB) and basketball (NBA).
These events have largely come about for two reasons. With travel getting easier and the world becoming smaller thanks to modern technology it is natural that teams and individuals want to constantly challenge themselves against the very best on a regular basis. With the financial rewards that this brings then it is, for better or worse, another natural consequence that such teams and individuals will try to gain those rewards and, if necessary, upset the status quo in order to do so. If UEFA was to allow such cross-border league mergers along the Russia/Ukraine route or allow more of the MLS style leagues to become a reality (for example, a British League as discussed) then this could, and probably would, open up a can of worms for the game’s administrators at both UEFA and at FIFA, world football’s governing body. If such eventualities occur in Europe then how long before mergers become commonplace in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania? Whereas administrators from other sports have had to think outside the box and have undertaken such measures in order to broaden their appeal, football is the one truly global sport and it seems that whatever the traditions and customs which have made the game great in the past, its future could and probably will take a financially driven path down a whole new route.
Hosts Costa Rica won a record extending seventh Copa Centroamericana title in the nation’s capital of San José on Sunday when defeating defending champions Honduras.
Costa Rica reached the final in fine style, winning two and drawing one of their three matches in the group stages, going on to defeat El Salvador 1-0 in the semi-final. Honduras’ route to the final was more laboured in comparison. Although they topped their group it was due to goals scored as all three teams in their group had the same number of points due to each game ending as a draw. In the semi-finals Honduras also needed just a solitary goal to progress thanks to Brayan Beckeles’ goal in the 67th minute of the game against Belize. The final would also prove just as tight with just a solitary strike from Giancarlo González in the 37th minute deciding the game in Costa Rica’s favour, giving los Ticos their first tournament win since 2007.
The Copa Centroamericana also doubled out as a qualifying tournament for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which takes place in July this year in the United States, with the best performing five teams progressing through. As well as the two finalists, losing semi-finalists Belize and El Salvador qualified along with Panama who defeated Guatemala 3-1 in the 5th/6th place play-off match last Friday.
COSTA RICA 1-0 HONDURAS GOAL AND TROPHY PRESENTATION
The 2012 FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony has been held in Zurich with the undoubted star of the show once again being FC Barcelona and Argentina sensation Lionel Messi. He has picked up FIFA’s top award for individual footballers for the third consecutive year since FIFA’s World Player of the year and France Football’s Ballon d’Or awards merged in 2010, and his fourth overall.
The 25 year old has already achieved more in his career than most players would ever dream of but the personal accolades still keep rolling in for a player whose setting of a new record for scoring the most goals in a calendar year has grabbed lots of headlines despite the relative lack of success for his club side in 2012. Messi, with 41.6% of the vote, beat off challenges from Real Madrid’s Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (23.68%) and FC Barcelona team-mate Andres Iniesta (10.91%).
FIFA’s Manager of the Year went to Vicente del Bosque, the UEFA European Championship winning coach of the Spanish national team having secured 34.51% of the vote which put him ahead of Real Madrid’s José Mourinho (20.49%) and former FC Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola (12.91%)
In the women’s game top honours went to Abby Wambach, the American thoroughly deserving the accolade following a year in which her goals helped secure the Olympic gold medal for the USA women’s team in London. She won with a 20.67% share of the vote putting her ahead of five-time former winner Marta (13.5%) and compatriot Alex Morgan (10.87%). Coach of the Year went to Pia Sundhage, the Swede having led the United States Women’s national team to their gold medal, with 28.59% of the vote compared to challengers Norio Sasaki (23.83%) and Bruno Bini (9.02%).
FIFA’s Ferenc Puskas award, which goes to the scorer of the goal adjudged to have been the best, went to Miroslav Stoch for his goal against Gençlerbirliği in a Turkish Super League match (see below). He beat off competition from Colombian superstar Radamel Falcao and Brazilian hot shot Neymar, the winner of last year’s award in this category.
FIFA’s Presidential Award, a sort of lifetime achievement award given to an individual, team or organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the game, was given to German football legend Franz Beckenbauer. “Der Kaiser” won everything there was to win in the game with FC Bayern München and the German national team and has played a vital role as a coach and as a football ambassador since he gave up his playing career in the early 1980s. The Fair Play award went to the Uzbekistan Football Association whose record in terms of fair play on the field has been exemplary throughout the last twelve months.
Finally, the FIFA/FIFPro World XI for 2012 was announced. This team is voted for by users of the FIFA website:
Iker Casillas (Goalkeeper); Dani Alves, Marcelo, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos (Defence); Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez (Midfield); Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao (Attack)
Tigres are the new champions of Mexico following their 4-1 aggregate victory over Santos Laguna in the Torneo Apertura (Opening Championship) final.
Tigres had finished in third place in the regular season table with a record of seven wins, seven draws and three defeats from seventeen games, before going on to defeat Pachuca CF and Queretaro FC in the play-offs on their way to the final.
The first leg of the final, which was played last Thursday, saw Tigres claim a narrow 1-0 win over hosts Santos Laguna with an early goal from Damián Álvarez separating the two sides. Yesterday saw Tigres fall behind in the return fixture with Oribe Peralta levelling the scores on aggregate. The second half, however, saw Tigres restore the lead through Hector Mancilla and the game would be settled as a contest with Danilinho and Alan Pulido finishing off matters by making the score 3-1 on the night.
The championship win was Tigres’ first domestic title since 1982, a long wait of 29 years, and also secured a place in the 2012 Copa Libertadores.
TIGRES 3-1 SANTOS LAGUNA – APERTURA FINAL, 2ND LEG
Kashiwa Reysol and Al Sadd have booked their semi-final places in the FIFA Club World Cup following hard fought victories over Monterrey CF and Esperance Tunis respectively.
Kashiwa, representing the host nation Japan as the 2011 J-League champions, needed a penalty shoot-out to get past North and Central American champions Monterrey after the two teams had played out a 1-1 draw. Leandro Domingues gave Kashiwa the lead in the 53rd minute only to see Humberto Suazo restore parity just five minutes later and the rest of the game proved frustrating for both sides as neither team could kill off their opponents. In the shoot-out Ryohei Hayashi converted the crucial final kick as Kashiwa went through 4-3 and secured themselves a meeting with South American champions Santos FC in the final four.
Controversy reigned in the other semi-final between African champions Esperance Tunis and Asian Champions League holders Al Sadd. Khalfan Ibrahim and Abdullah Koni had given Al Sadd a two goal lead by the 50th minute but Oussama Darragi pulled one back on the hour mark. However the Tunisians had two goals controversially ruled out for offside, decisions which so enraged one supporter who ran on to the pitch. Al Sadd, who are based in Qatar, now look ahead to a semi-final clash with European champions FC Barcelona who will be in fine mood following a 3-1 win against Real Madrid in last night’s El Clásico.
Real Madrid took the lead after just 22 seconds as Karim Benzema took advantage of some uncharacteristic woeful defending by Barcelona only for the visitors to equalize on the half hour mark through Alexis Sanchez. Further goals in the second half from Xavi and Cesc Fabregas helped secure the three points for Barcelona who can go into the FIFA Club World Cup knowing that their arch rivals are not going to be so far ahead when they come back from Japan. Had Real Madrid won last night they would’ve been six points clear with a game in hand. Following last night’s result, however, Barcelona are now on the same points but Madrid, nonetheless, still have the advantage of an extra game to play.
Mexican clubs have dominated the CONCACAF Champions League in recent years and Monterrey CF kept up that trend when winning their maiden title this year. Monterrey, therefore, will enjoy their first appearance in the FIFA Club World Cup with a quarter-final tie against the winner of the qualifying play-off between Oceania champions Auckland City and the J-League champions (as yet undecided).
Monterrey started off their CONCACAF Champions League campaign with a record of five wins and a draw from their six group phase games against Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica), CD Marathón (Honduras) and Seattle Sounders (USA). They then had to beat two fellow Mexican clubs in consecutive knockout rounds, a 1-0 win in each leg helping them through the quarter-finals against Toluca whilst the semi-finals against Cruz Azul was won by the odd goal in five. The 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League final against 2009 Major League Soccer champions Real Salt Lake was a tight affair, the Americans gaining the tag of slight favourites to win the trophy following a credible 2-2 draw away from home in the first leg with goals from Monterrey’s Aldo de Nigris and Humberto Suazo cancelled out by strikes for Nat Borchers and Javier Morales. The Mexicans though had enough in the tank to take the game to their hosts in the second leg with Humberto Suazo proving to be the hero, his goal on the edge of half-time proving crucial as Monterrey held on to win the second leg 1-0 and the tie 3-2 on aggregate.
Since Monterrey clinched the CONCACAF Champions League back in April they have been defending their title in the 2011-12 edition of the competition. So far Monterrey have kept up their impressive form, topping their group once again, and look forward once more to a quarter-final match-up against a Mexican side, in this case Monarcas Morelia, when the tournament resumes in March 2012. Domestically Monterrey have been struggling somewhat in the 2011-12 Apertura (Opening Championship) tournament; having won the previous two Opening titles Monterrey could only finish in 11th place during the regular season and failed to make the play-offs. Monterrey’s last competitive game came on November 5th so they might prove a little bit rusty going into the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. Should the Mexicans win their quarter-final tie they will face off against a Santos team who will be going straight to the tournament on the back of a tough Brazilian league season which finishes on December 4th.
MONTERREY CF v REAL SALT LAKE – FINAL, 1ST LEG
REAL SALT LAKE v MONTERREY CF – FINAL, 2ND LEG
Los Angeles Galaxy claimed the title of Major League Soccer champions for the third time in their history following Sunday’s 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo in the 2011 MLS Cup final. Although the game featured prominently in the headlines before kick-off due to it being David Beckham’s last game for the club, the headlines were reserved afterwards for a true American hero in Landon Donovan whose goal late in the game gave Galaxy the cup for the first time since 2005.
The game remained scoreless after 71 minutes before Republic of Ireland international Robbie Keane played through USA captain Donovan who guided the ball beyond the oncoming Houston keeper Tally Hall to give his side the crucial strike of the final. The 30,000 crowd were treated to one of the league’s better finals in recent years despite the lack of goals and a fitting ending in which the Galaxy proved their worth as the best team in MLS this season.
Their regular season record of 19 wins, 10 draws and 5 defeats saw them pip the Seattle Sounders to the Supporters’ Shield by four points. In the post-season the Galaxy won all four of their knockout games against New York Red Bulls (played over two legs), Real Salt Lake (Western Conference final) and Houston Dynamo to show that they had learnt the hard lessons of 2010 in which they lost out to FC Dallas in the Western Conference final.
Los Angeles Galaxy had already qualified for the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League as a result of winning the Supporters’ Shield and they will be joined in that competition by losing finalists Dynamo, US Open Cup winners Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake, who finished third in the Supporters’ Shield behind the Sounders.
FC Barcelona, FIFA Club World Cup champions in 2009, will face either African champions Esperance Tunis or Asian champions Al-Sadd in the semi-finals of the 2011 edition.
The tournament, which returns to Japan this time following a two year stint in the United Arab Emirates, will open up on December 8th with the Japanese national champions, as yet undecided, facing off against Oceania champions Auckland City with both clubs hoping for a quarter-final meeting with North and Central American winners Monterrey CF three days later.
The winner of that quarter-final will then go on to face South American champions Santos FC who hope to restore some pride to their continent following last year’s shock exit of Internacional of Porto Alegre at the hands of Africans TP Mazembe.
The competition will be completed on Sunday, December 18th in Yokohama.
Seattle Sounders made history by becoming only the third team in American soccer history to win the Lemar Hunt US Open Cup three times in a row. Following wins in 2009 and 2010, this year’s competition was secured with a 2-0 victory over the Chicago Fire in front of a healthy 35,615 crowd at the Sounders’ CenturyLink Field Stadium. Goals from Freddy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso secured the historic triumph for the Sounders who became the first club in the Major League Soccer (MLS) era to win the cup three years in a row and follow in the footsteps of Stix, Baer and Fuller Football Club (1933-35) and New York Greek American Club (1967-69) as the only teams to have accomplished this feat.
The cup victory also ensures that the Seattle Sounders will gain a berth in the qualifying rounds of the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS 2-0 CHICAGO FIRE
Seattle Sounders have qualified for their third straight US Open Cup final having defeated FC Dallas in Tuesday’s all-MLS clash. They will meet Chicago Fire in October’s showpiece match in America’s knockout competition who beat lower league Richmond Kickers by the odd goal in three.
Seattle Sounders have been victorious in the last two US Open Cup competitions defeating Columbus Crew and DC United in 2010 & 2009 respectively. Tuesday’s semi-final was played in front of a noisy crowd at the Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila, as opposed to their usual home at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, and the change of venue didn’t deter the Sounders from reaching their third consecutive final. Freddy Montero’s 40th minute strike proved the difference between the Sounders and FC Dallas who were hoping to reach their first final since 2007 but whose title drought remains having won this competition for the only time in 1997. As for the Sounders they are hoping to become the third team to win the US Open Cup three years running and follow in the footsteps of the elaborately named New York Greek American, who won the cup from 1967-69, and the long forgotten Stix, Baer and Fuller Football Club who were the first team to accomplish this feat from 1933-35.
If Seattle Sounders are to make history then they will have to beat Chicago Fire in the final on October 4th but the Sounders will have the advantage of playing at their home stadium. Chicago Fire had a tough semi-final match against Richmond Kickers, a team from the third-tier USL Professional League, eventually coming out 2-1 winners. The Fire took a two goal lead thanks to goals from Sebastián Grazzini (32nd minute) and Dominic Oduro (61st minute) but the Kickers, who had knocked out MLS clubs Sporting Kansas City and Columbus Crew in the previous two rounds, pulled one back in the 68th minute through Yomby William. Sadly for the Kickers they were unable to get a crucial equalizer and Chicago, who have won more US Open Cups than any other MLS team with four victories, will hope to clinch a fifth title in their first final since 2006.
The winners of the cup will gain a place in the preliminary rounds of the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League.