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.
Three days after Oldham’s League One success against Portsmouth saw the continuation of the Latics’ FA Cup adventure. Having knocked out Liverpool FC in the fourth round, Athletic had salvaged a replay out of their fifth round clash against the blue half of Merseyside, Everton FC, when Matt Smith headed home a 95th minute equalizer in an exciting 2-2 draw at Boundary Park. For Oldham it was a return to Goodison Park where they had achieved a famous 1-0 win over their hosts in the 2007-08 season and hopes were high amongst the Latics faithful that a repeat was on the cards.
I met up with the guys from the “Two Teams One Spirit” group once again as it was thanks to them that I had the opportunity to go to the game in the first place. We met in the Taxi Drivers’ Club on Walton Hall Avenue, just a brisk 5-10 minute walk from the stadium, and a decent proportion of the 4,000 travelling support had already congregated there for a pre-match pint or two. At 7:45 we took our seats in the Bullens Road End and the travelling support were in good voice right from the off but it wouldn’t be long before all of the pre-match optimism would suddenly disappear.
Fifteen minutes was all it took for Everton to take the lead, a Darron Gibson cross from midfield was taken from close range by an unmarked Kevin Mirallas on the half volley. The closest Oldham would come to scoring in the first half was when Jose Baxter, a former Everton player, was unfortunate to hit the post, a miss which would be punished on the 34th minute mark. A handball from Connor Brown saw a penalty given to the hosts for whom Leighton Baines made it 2-0 and already there was a big mountain to climb for the visitors. It was hard to take for Oldham to concede a goal from the penalty spot, especially as they had a strong case for a penalty of their own turned down following a handball by Gibson following the aforementioned Baxter opportunity.
At half-time most of us talking over a quick beer in the stand agreed that the next goal would be crucial; if Everton scored it would be game over but an Oldham goal would bring back some hope. Unfortunately for Oldham it would be the former that would ring true as Leon Osman got a crucial touch onto a Steven Pienaar cross to make it 3-0 and put the game to bed. There was at least a consolation goal for Oldham fans to cheer as Matt Smith, who had scored some crucial goals in the cup run, rose highest to meet Jonathan Grounds’ corner kick to reduce the arrears just after the hour mark. However, that would be as good as it got for Oldham with the game finishing 3-1. After the game there was only enough time for me to wish the Oldham boys, whether they be English or German, a good trip back as they boarded the coaches lined up outside the stadium whilst yours truly took a short cab ride home with some very good memories from the last few days.
On the pitch Everton are looking to qualify for Europe, either through a sufficiently high Premier League placing (currently lying in 6th place) or by winning the FA Cup for the first time since 1995. Oldham, on the other hand, will now hope to maintain their place in English football’s third tier as they currently lie 20th in the 24 team league.
Saturday, 23rd February: a trip to the northern English town of Oldham had been on the cards for a while. The trip not only coincided with a fine run in the FA Cup for the local team of Oldham Athletic but also with the 30th anniversary of a friendship between fans of the Latics and of German Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt. Although hailing from Liverpool, yours truly is also a fan of Eintracht and have met up on a few occasions with the Eintracht fan group “EFC 11-er Freunde”, about whom I have previously written about regarding trips to Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Dortmund. In Oldham I was helping to commemorate another friendship called “Two Teams One Spirit”, a collection of Oldham fanatics and the Eintracht fan clubs of “Rhönadler” and “Bockenheim”, all of whom I originally met on my away day to Dortmund at the end of the 2010-11 season.
Following an early morning train ride from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Victoria followed by a tram ride to Oldham Mumps, the day was still only twelve hours old and with plenty of time left for beer and football events started early in a pub called the Rifle Range. In there the German guys were selling T-shirts commemorating the 30 year friendship between the two sets of fans for £17.50 (20 Euro) so naturally I parted with the necessary money to own one. Oldham’s opponents on the day were Portsmouth FC, a club who had only been in the Premier League as recently as the 2009-10 season but were now rock bottom of the third-tier “League One”. Their most famous supporter, a man called John Westwood, stood out like a sore thumb in his usual matchday regalia of big hat, chequered blue and white clothes and all over body tattoos. One of the locals, Pete, had written to him personally and invited him to the pub before the game and whilst there a German called Bernhard had brought over a copy of the football magazine “11 Freunde” (no relation to the Eintracht fan club mentioned earlier) in which “Mr Portsmouth” himself featured in an article and was only too happy to sign the magazine.
Before long it was time to go to Boundary Park, the home of the Latics, where we arrived with just minutes to spare before kick-off. After downing a pre-match beer we took our seats in the Rochdale Road End and saw a great strike from 25 yards out by Jose Baxter give Oldham the lead after just ten minutes. Sadly, though, the rest of the game was far from a classic with very few clear cut chances for either side. Oldham carved out a couple of decent efforts and the three points gained from the 1-0 win meant that they had won the last three league games in a row, a run which would help them in their fight against relegation. Portsmouth, on the other hand, were dreadful and I personally feel sorry to see the club suffering its current plight. With ownership issues, administration and issues of massive debt the last few years have really taken its toll on Portsmouth Football Club. To make matters worse on the pitch Sam Sodje was sent off after 50 minutes for violent conduct, his reaction to the red card as disagreeable as eating red cabbage after a skinful of beer on a Saturday night.
Following the game there was still plenty of time to enjoy a beer at the Oldham club bar in the Main Stand, with fans mutually exchanging Oldham and Frankfurt songs, before a short bus trip to the Bluebell Inn where Oldham’s match winner Baxter joined the current caretaker manager Tony Philliskirk in a question-and-answer session. One of the fans asked Philliskirk if a friendly match between Oldham and Frankfurt could be arranged in the near future. Needless to say if such a fixture does occur then expect to read about it here. Watch this space………
It had already been a fantastic week for cup shocks in England, with Bradford City and Swansea City both reaching the League Cup final, but this weekend saw the FA Cup provide further upsets for some of football’s big names. The same can also be said of the Scottish League Cup where favourites Celtic FC were knocked out at the semi-final stage by St Mirren. In Northern Ireland there would be cup celebrations for Cliftonville FC who convincingly defeated defending title holders Crusaders FC 4-0 in the League Cup final on Saturday.
The FA Cup could be accused of having surpassed itself in terms of shocks this weekend with the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Norwich City going out to lower league opposition. Seven times winners Liverpool were the biggest casualties of the round losing 3-2 to League One (third tier) side Oldham Athletic whose progression to the next round has guaranteed them a home draw with Liverpool’s local rivals Everton. Matt Smith (2) and Reece Wabara scored the goals for Oldham whilst Luis Suarez and Joe Allen replied for the visitors in a match which effectively ruined Liverpool’s season. Out of both cups and lying in seventh place in the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers’ men can at least now concentrate on trying to climb the league table.
Tottenham Hotspur also lost on Sunday away at Championship (second tier) side Leeds United at Elland Road. Luke Varney and Ross McCormack scored the goals which gave Leeds a 2-0 lead which was later halved by Clint Dempsey. Tottenham, however, were unable to equalize and Leeds held on to seal a fantastic win and will be rewarded with an away trip to Premier League champions Manchester City in the fifth round. Chelsea almost made it a hat-trick of cup shocks on Sunday but were able to secure a late draw against Brentford FC. Fernando Torres’ 83rd minute equalizer was enough to give the Blues a second chance and, should Rafael Benitez’s side prove successful in the replay, will see them travel to Middlesbrough in the next round.
Amongst the other FA Cup games over the weekend struggling Aston Villa went out of the competition. Just three days after their elimination from the League Cup at the hands of Swansea, Villa were forced out of the FA Cup at the hands of League One side Millwall FC who defeated the Premier League side 2-1 on Friday night. Millwall’s reward for progressing is a trip to the only non-league side left in the competition, namely Luton Town. Luton narrowly defeated top flight club Norwich City 1-0 away at Carrow Road with Scott Rendell’s goal proving the difference. Elsewhere in the competition some of the big boys managed to get through to the next round unscathed. Record winners Manchester United easily saw off Fulham FC 4-1 at Old Trafford whilst Manchester City edged past Stoke City 1-0 at the latter’s Britannia Stadium. Arsenal did suffer a couple of scares, going behind twice, before persevering 3-2 away at Championship club Brighton and Hove Albion.
The 2012-13 Scottish League Cup final will see Heart of Midlothian play against St Mirren following another exciting round of knockout action north of the border. Saturday saw Heart of Midlothian, currently holders of the Scottish FA Cup, play against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Easter Road, the Edinburgh home of Hearts’ big rivals Hibernian FC. Andrew Shinnie (Inverness) and Michael Ngoo (Hearts) traded strikes as the game finished 1-1 with thirty added minutes of extra-time unable to separate the two sides. A penalty shoot-out then saw Inverness’ Phillip Roberts miss the crucial spot kick as Hearts went through 5-4 on penalties to leave the Jambos hoping of lifting their first League Cup title since 1963. Sunday saw another exciting semi-final at Hampden Park where Celtic FC have made a bad habit of losing crucial cup matches in the last couple of years. Following defeat to Kilmarnock in the final of last season’s tournament, Celtic went out at the hands of St Mirren today to leave coach Neil Lennon wondering just when he’ll enjoy some more luck in Scottish domestic knockout competition. Esmael Goncalves gave St Mirren the lead after 8 minutes but Gary Hooper equalized for the Hoops on the stroke of half-time. In the space of five second half minutes, however, St Mirren would set themselves up for a famous win thanks to a Paul McGowan penalty (64 mins) and a wonder strike from Steven Thompson (69 mins). Celtic did pull one back through Charlie Mulgrew’s stoppage time effort but the damage had already been done for Lennon’s men. St Mirren will hope it will be third time lucky for them in the League Cup final having lost in their two previous final encounters in 1956 (v Aberdeen) and 2010 (v Rangers).
In Northern Ireland’s League Cup tournament Cliftonville FC won the trophy for the second time in their history on Saturday following a convincing 4-0 win over 2011-12 winners Crusaders FC. Goals from Diarmuid O’Carroll, Joe Gormley (2) and Ryan Catney saw off the defending title holders and gave Cliftonville their first success in this competition in eight years.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all in football, the sport continues to show that it has the capacity to surprise. In England’s Capital One Cup, the latest reincarnation of the League Cup, there has been no shortage of surprises throughout this season’s competition with a fair amount of controversy thrown in for good measure. After being derided as a “Mickey Mouse” cup over the years, one can argue that, in terms of excitement, the League Cup is actually far more interesting than its big brother, the FA Cup. The 2012-13 League Cup final will see Premier League side Swansea City, set to play in their first major English final (the Swans have ten Welsh Cup triumphs to their name), against fourth-tier side Bradford City who have already disposed of three Premier League clubs so far in this competition.
Swansea City, who hail from Wales’ second city, will become the second Welsh team to reach the League Cup final in twelve months after their arch rivals Cardiff City were beaten by Liverpool in the 2011-12 edition. If Swansea can live up to their billing as heavy favourites then they will create history for Welsh football by becoming the first team from the country to win this particular competition (Cardiff won the FA Cup in 1927). The achievement of reaching the final for Swansea City is remarkable given that the club were only promoted to the Premier League just two years ago and under the management of Danish footballing legend Michael Laudrup have continued and expanded on a fine passing game played under his predecessors Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. The Swans have knocked out of the competition, amongst others, defending cup holders Liverpool and European champions Chelsea. The latter game was laden with controversy after Chelsea’s Eden Hazard kicked out at a ballboy during the semi-final, second leg when trying to retrieve the ball in the last stages of the game, which was goalless on the night but stood 2-0 in Swansea’s favour. The ballboy, revealed as 17 year old Charlie Morgan, fell on top of the ball after a tussle with Hazard who subsequently aimed a kick whilst Morgan was lying on the ground. Hazard saw red, both in terms of anger and in the form of the card shown from the referee’s pocket, but went on to speak to Morgan after the game with both parties apologizing to each other in the aftermath. The incident almost overshadowed the fact that Swansea had successfully defended the 2-0 lead gained from the first leg at Stamford Bridge and will go to Wembley hoping to win their first piece of major silverware since their 2010-11 Championship Play-Off victory which guaranteed their promotion to the Premier League.
Bradford City, a Premier League club as recently as 2001, have suffered a downward turn in fortunes since losing their top flight status. As well as three further relegations, the Valley Parade club were placed into administration in 2002. Nevertheless the spirit of the club has prevailed in tough times and the League Two table currently sees Bradford lying in tenth place, five points behind Northampton Town in the automatic promotion spots and just two points outside the Play-Off places. Their cup form has been nothing short of extraordinary, knocking out three Premier League clubs along the way. Penalties were needed in both the fourth round match against Wigan and the quarter-final tie against Arsenal before Bradford put the challenge of Aston Villa to bed by defeating the Birmingham based side 4-3 on aggregate. Should the Bantams win the trophy against Swansea on February 24th it will go down as one of the most remarkable cup triumphs of all time and would give the West Yorkshire club their first major cup win since they saw off Newcastle United in the 1911 FA Cup final.
Anybody who bemoans the fact that none of the giants of the English game have reached the League Cup final really ought to remind themselves of what makes cup football so exciting in the first place. The chance for David to get one over Goliath is an essential part of knockout football. The fact that two clubs such as Swansea and Bradford are in the final should be celebrated as it gives other clubs the opportunity to dream that it could be them one day, especially in an age where money seems to be deemed more important than the silverware. Try telling that to two clubs whose trophy cabinets aren’t quite as full as they are at Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, to name but three giants of the game.
In this respect the League Cup tends to be more open than its counterpart, the FA Cup. Apart from Portsmouth FC’s triumph in 2008 and Manchester City’s in 2011, the FA Cup has been won by one of just four teams – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – every year since 1996. In the same period the likes of Leicester City (twice), Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough have all lifted the trophy as well as the traditional heavyweights of United, Liverpool and Chelsea (Arsenal, surprisingly, haven’t won the League Cup since 1993). Perhaps the fact that the League Cup concludes early in the new year provides motivation for many teams to win that first piece of silverware in any given season. One thing for certain is that the League Cup deserves far more respect than it currently gets in the English game. Swansea and Bradford will no doubt provide one last highlight this season for a competition which is more interesting than its detractors realize.
The first silverware of the new year in Welsh football was handed out today as Carmarthen Town eventually saw off their Welsh Premier League Cup final opponents The New Saints in an eventful goal-fest at Latham Park, Newtown.
The New Saints, leading the current Welsh Premier League standings by seven points from nearest challengers Prestatyn Town, struck first with Steve Evans giving his side the lead after just seven minutes. Parity was restored just three minutes before half-time when Carmarthen Town, who currently lie in seventh place in the Welsh Premier League table, got back into the game through Craig Hughes. After the break further strikes were traded between both teams in a topsy-turvy fashion. The New Saints regained the lead after Sam Finley’s shot went in off a post on 58 minutes only for Carmarthen Town to turn things around following a brace from sub Corey Thomas, helping his team to a 3-2 lead. However, the game was to take a further twist when TNS’s Michael Wilde equalized with six minutes remaining helping to take the game into extra-time.
In the following thirty minutes of extra-time there were no further goals and, thus, the game required a penalty shoot-out to decide the winner of the trophy. In the ensuing shoot-out it was Carmarthen Town who kept their nerve, prevailing by a 3-1 scoreline. Craig Hanford scored Carmarthen’s fourth penalty to make it 3-1 and then saw victory secured when TNS’s Paul Harrison had his spot kick saved. Carmarthen’s success was only their second such triumph in this competition having previously beaten Rhyl FC to win the 2004-05 edition of the tournament.
It has been reported on The Guardian website today that up to 900 away end tickets have been returned by Manchester City to their hosts Arsenal ahead of the forthcoming Premier League clash between the two teams. The reason is suspected to be that, at £62 a ticket, it is simply either too expensive or a case of fans not wanting to pay such an extortionate amount of money out of principle. For fans of the English game this is simply not a surprise anymore; indeed the only surprise is that anybody still puts up with being ripped off.
Since the formation of the English Premier League in the 1992-93 season ticket prices have been rising at an alarming rate. Even in the last year, a survey published by the BBC revealed that the cost of the cheapest adult ticket in the top four divisions had risen by 11.7%. Of course it is Premier League clubs who will be largely responsible for the biggest of price hikes especially as the clubs are finding it more difficult to pay ever increasing wages to top stars, despite the fact that the Premier League is raking in more money than ever before due to increased television revenue. The advent of all-seater stadia was supposed to herald a new era of safety and comfort in English stadiums with the TV money a prime reason to help keep ticket prices as cheap as possible. In recent years, however, it seems that clubs will rip the fans off anyway, a situation which has arguably been a factor in increased calls for the re-introduction of standing areas in English football grounds. Fans simply cannot keep forking out at the current rate for match tickets along with all the usual necessities that going to a football stadium brings such as a match programme, food, drink and transport.
In recent months many English newspapers and football websites have made comparisons between the situation in England and that in Germany and how fans of Bundesliga clubs get such a bargain. Current German champions Borussia Dortmund, for example, charge as little as €190 for a season ticket which allows a fan to see seventeen home league games, an average of €11 a game. When one takes into account that the possession of a match ticket allows free travel on public transport to the stadium and the fact that one can drink beer whilst watching the match (something that ceased to be the case in England years ago where beer must be drank in designated areas away from the seating) and it is clear that fans in Germany have a much better deal. Even when clubs have tried to raise prices for big games in the Bundesliga fans have always been ready to vote with their feet, a most famous example was when fans of Borussia Dortmund boycotted a derby match against arch rivals Schalke 04 due to their hosts raising the ticket price to €20. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve been to watch many games as a fan of Eintracht Frankfurt, the most amazing deal was going to the Olympiastadion in Berlin to watch Eintracht play against Hertha BSC five years ago. The cost of a ticket? Only €9! And in a stadium which has hosted the FIFA World Cup final too.
Such a ticket price, which would work out at £7.30 at the current exchange rate, would be a dream to any English football fan in the current climate. The worst offenders in the English game tend to be clubs from the south of the country, the worst being Chelsea at £41 for the cheapest ticket, perhaps not surprising given that the cost of living is much higher than elsewhere in the country. Even Manchester United, who are the par excellence example in the commercialisation of the game throughout the Premier League era, still keep their cheapest ticket prices to a reasonable £30. Season ticket prices are an even more obvious example in how fans are having to dig deep in their pockets with Arsenal being the most expensive. There wouldn’t be much change given from £2000 if you were to get a season ticket at the Emirates stadium.
The fact is that Premier League clubs will always be prepared to charge what they want as long as people are prepared to keep paying the money. If fan movements in England had any importance, such as they do in Germany, then perhaps there would be no need for clubs to have to send batches of tickets back in the first place for such big games. After all it is the big games which fans want to see but the clubs should know where to draw the line and, in the name of fairness, stop testing the patience of loyal, hard-core fans whose bank balances suffer terribly in order to subsidize those of their heroes.
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)
It is reassuring to know that football, and those within the game, can still play a part in attempting to tackle some of those issues which affect many in society. In the past two days we have seen the actions of two individuals whose respective stances against racism and homophobia grab media attention for all of the right reasons.
Yesterday AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng took such exception to racist abuse being aimed at him from the stands that he grabbed the ball just 26 minutes into his team’s friendly match against Pro Patria and kicked it in the direction of those people whose abuse he had suffered. Having made his point directly to those supporters he then walked off the pitch in disgust and his team-mates followed suit in a move which has won many admirers and which, we can only hope, will be repeated in future if such scenes are witnessed at any other football ground.
Today it has been reported in the English press that West Ham United player Matt Jarvis is to feature on the front cover of a gay magazine in order to point out that homophobia has no place in the game of football and that gay footballers shouldn’t be scared to ‘come out’ publicly. This is an issue which seems to remain taboo in football with only Anton Hysen, son of former Liverpool and Sweden defender Glenn Hysen, having publicly declared his sexuality. Although the issue remains sensitive in other sports there has been a slow stream of stars in recent years who have revealed their sexuality including Welsh rugby union player Gareth Thomas, boxer Orlando Cruz and Basketball player John Amaechi.
Although Jarvis himself is not gay he, like many others, believes that homophobia, just like racism, should not be ignored and it is the actions of people such as Jarvis and Boateng which proves that football can do things in a sensitive and sensible fashion and for a game which all too often attracts negative headlines in such cases in this instance it should be applauded.
The recent European dominance in the FIFA Club World Cup came to an end today in Japan’s second city of Yokohama as Copa Libertadores champions Corinthians became world champions for the second time with a narrow 1-0 defeat of UEFA Champions League holders Chelsea FC in a final which will hardly go down as a classic but which for followers of O Timão will go down as another chapter in their famous history.
Since fellow Brazilian club Internacional of Porto Alegre won the 2006 version of the FIFA Club World Cup, South American teams had struggled in this competition with European champion clubs winning the previous five tournaments in a row including two victories for FC Barcelona (2009, 2011) and one each for AC Milan (2007), Manchester United (2008) and Internazionale (2010). Corinthians’ victory in today’s final broke the dominance and added to Brazilian football’s wonderful history in this tournament with four title wins comparing to their South American neighbours, no other nation from that particular continent providing a winner of this tournament since it changed its format in 2005.
Corinthians had won the inaugural version of this event in 2000 when a dour final, played against compatriots Vasco da Gama, was decided by a penalty shoot-out following 120 minutes of goalless action. The second title win will perhaps be more celebrated due to the fact that Chelsea FC went into the game as most pundits’ favourites to win the title. Chelsea had qualified for the final with an easy 3-1 win over North and Central American champions Monterrey CF whilst Corinthians had to work harder to overcome the challenge of African champions Al-Ahly in a semi-final which was decided by a single goal from the Brazilians’ Paolo Guerrero, whose presence would ultimately also prove influential in the final.
With twenty minutes remaining, and the game stuck at 0-0, the deadlock was finally broken when Guerrero took advantage of some confused Chelsea defending to head home from close range and spark a mass frenzy of celebration amongst the Corinthians supporters, up to 30,000 of whom are said to have made the journey to Japan to transport the spirit of their São Paulo home Pacaembu stadium to FIFA’s showpiece event.
For interim Chelsea coach Rafael Benítez, the winning coach when Internazionale won the title in 2010, today’s final was a bitter disappointment and there is no doubt that those fans who have failed to warm to him will use this as a stick to beat him with. For Corinthians’ coach Tite, however, legendary status is now assured. Having taken over the coaching role in 2010, Tite led the Paulista club to their fifth Campeonato Brasiliero title in 2011 before sealing the club’s first ever Copa Libertadores title this year following a 3-1 aggregate win over six-time South American champions Boca Juniors. With the world title now in the trophy cabinet it is fair to say that Tite will bask in the celebrations as much as those fans who travelled all that way to see their team triumph in Japan.