Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shinawatra Stupidity: It's Almost Criminal

When news broke earlier this season that Jose Mourinho was sacked as manager of Chelsea, few would have thought that by seasons end another Premiership manager would suffer the same fate for even more ludicrous reasons. But after a couple of weeks of rumours and innuendo it appears that Man City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson will be managing Man City for the final time when they travel to the Riverside to play Middlesbrough on the final day of the season. Such a decision has shocked the football world but especially Man City fans and for very good reason. When you look more deeply at the situation, what at first seems a rash decision by Man City owner Thaksin Shinawatra becomes even harder to fathom and even more ridiculous. I will explain exactly why.

Probably the best place to start in all of this to look at the reasons that are being bandied around as to why Shinawatra has made this startling decision.

Firstly the reason most bandied about: Sven has wasted 40 million pounds on transfers for questionable returns.

To put it bluntly, this is absolute poppycock. True, it is not a small amount of money but that sort of amount is not going to automatically catapult a team that just escaped relegation the previous season into a top 4 side. It takes a much, much longer time for such a transformation to happen. One needs only to look at Chelsea as an example of what I am talking about. Before Abramovich and his millions arrived at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were consistently playing in the Champions League or at least challenging for Champions League spots. By definition, this means they had a pretty decent squad. The Russian billionaire’s millions were merely the final piece of the jig-saw for Chelsea that meant they were able to move from a top 4 team to a top 2 team. So in light of this, surely Shinawatra could not have expected that by laying out 40 million quid City would automatically turn into world-beaters….. could he?

One must also have a look at the players Sven has brought in to see that criticism of his signings is also wide of the mark. On a number of occasions during the year Sven talked about the need to sign players for the future so that City would build their team over time, rather than buy big names. He was always very clear from the start that he wanted to sign players with long-term success in mind rather than short-term success. It goes without saying that this is a smart move but many managers do not have the foresight or the courage to do this.

And when you look at the young players he has signed, you would have a hard time denying they do not have a bright future ahead of them. Corluka and Gelson have played the most out of the younger players Sven bought and, Corluka in particular, has been impressive and given much to the team already this term. Those two will only get better now that they have an English season under their belt. Garrido started well but faded a little: still at a price of just 1.5 million pounds the former Real Sociedad player can hardly be seen as a waste of money when you also factor in his young age. Bojinov was injured before we saw enough of him but from all reports looks a real prospect for the future and despite being young already has a few years experience under his belt in the Serie A so that shows he has quality. Caicedo at 19 (he joined during the January transfer window) and having to deal with a new language culture is excused from being evaluated, we will be able to judge him more fairly after a full pre-season and when he has settled in more. Finally for the young players brought in, Mexican Nery Castillo, on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk, was also unfortunately injured not long after he joined City and is another who cannot be realistically judged at this point in time.

Sven also brought in some more experienced names before the season started. Rolando Bianchi, bought for 8 million pounds was a failure and was loaned out to Lazio in January. Geovanni came on a free transfer and, winning goal against Manchester United aside, would realistically have to be seen as a failure. Benjani, brought in January, has been a bit hit and miss but I think overall, it is difficult to be too critical of his impact on the team. He came in when City’s form was not the greatest and subsequently has not had the best supply from the midfield and has played as a lone striker. His form has picked up at the end of the season though and he should be a solid contributor for City next year. Martin Petrov has been excellent in his first year playing down the left and while not the best defensively, has consistently caused problems for opposition defences. Elano, like Petrov, has been the major contributor towards giving City’s midfield an attacking edge that worries most opposition teams and, granted his second half of the year hasn’t been as good as his first, even when out of form still has had the ability to split a defence open with a pass as witnessed against Sunderland a few weeks ago and Fulham last week. Both Elano and Petrov have been great buys for City and credit must go to Sven for picking them out.

But for me the most important thing to keep in mind when assessing Sven and his transfer record is this: he had barely three weeks to orchestrate the majority of these transfers (with the rest coming via the notoriously difficult January window…) after he was hired meaning he had to act quickly to bolster a squad that the previous year had finished only a few points from relegation. When you examine it more closely and keep in mind Sven’s time constraints, it is a remarkable achievement that Bianchi and Geovanni were the only players bought in by him that could be considered out-and-out failures. A pretty good strike rate in a time-frame of 3 weeks if you ask me and if anything, Sven should be being thanked by Shinawatra for the great signings he made in such a short time.

The other main reason given for Shinawatra wanting to dispense with Sven is that he wasn’t happy with the second half of the season compared to the first. Now no one, including I, will try and argue that Man City had a good second half of the season. But the question has to be asked, was this enough to sack a manager over? And really, how much blame can be attributed to Sven for this poor second half of the season?

City started well, amazingly well when you think about it. A swag of new players from different countries and cultures having joined shortly before the season started logically pointed to it being highly likely that City would have a difficult start to life under Sven. But instead City started the season like a house on fire and saw themselves sitting in the stratospheric top part of the table around the halfway point of the year. What happened then?

Fatigue, lack of experience, poorer home form, injuries to key players (especially in defence..). There were many factors. They also found out what it is like when you have to go to places like Reading or Birmingham when said teams are fighting for Premiership survival or even host a team like Fulham who are facing an all or nothing/final roll of the dice scenario. The second half of the season is never easy for teams in the middle of the table with comparatively little to play for in comparison to those at the top and the bottom of the table. The top teams step up their performances with the title/European places in their sites while the poorer teams realise they are in trouble and therefore fight tooth and nail for every point. City with a host of players new to the league probably got caught out a bit by just how hard teams will fight for a point in the latter part of the year. But they aren’t the only mid-table team that got knocked off by a relegation threatened team and I guarantee that this sort of thing will repeat itself every year the Premiership is in existence.

Was the manager at fault for the second half of the season? In a word, no. A smart owner would put down the second half of the season dip in form to a team that is inexperienced, a team that may be tiring a little and beginning to be stretched by injuries, a team that was no longer able to slip under the radar due to the element of surprise. Maybe Sven didn’t have the greatest second half of the year himself but he does not deserve the sole blame at all. That is an insane conclusion to draw.

A good follow-on to this that helps to illustrate my point is to compare City’s plight to another Premiership team taken over by a rich foreigner, Aston Villa. In Martin O’Neill’s/Randy Lerner’s first season they finished 11th and like City and Sven had a difficult period after Christmas. This year, O’Neill’s/Lerner’s second season Villa are currently 6th. The previous year before Lerner bought them, Villa had finished 16th. Funnily enough, they were one point behind Man City. City are one year behind Villa in their re-building schedule, and look to be sure to beat Villa’s effort of finishing 11th in their first year under a new manager/owner. Can anyone remember people calling for O’Neill’s head after they finished 11th? Of course not, it would have been crazy to do that at such an early point in what is quite clearly a long-term success plan. I argue that what Shinawatra is doing now is just as crazy and shows he has no appreciation for how a team becomes successful. Here’s a hint Frank: it doesn’t happen over night and doesn’t happen by getting rid of a manager who has met the target you asked of him!

The really sad thing about this whole episode is the tiny minority of City fans out there clinging to the fact that a manager like Mourinho has been lined up to take over. To those fans I ask them to think about this for a second. What world class manager would come to a club where they know the owner will meddle in team affairs and possibly give them the boot even if they meet pre-determined targets like Sven did (it was understood that even as recently as a couple of weeks ago Shinawatra was satisfied with a top 10 finish). The answer is either a very brave or a very stupid manager. Mourinho, after his experience with meddling Abramovich would surely think twice about joining a club with an owner who has shown such footballing stupidity as Shinawatra is doing here and now.

Manchester City are in the headlines again not because they have achieved their highest points total since the advent of the Premier League or because the promising youth that demonstrated their potential by winning the FA Youth Cup a few weeks ago looks close to blossoming and bolstering the first team in the near future. They are in the headlines because a rich owner with seemingly no knowledge of football has chosen at a whim to replace a world class and extremely popular manager. It is a sad day for City fans, make no mistake about it.

The only happy ending I can possibly see is if Shinawatra, the ultimate populist, realises how angry rank and file supporters of City are about this and feels he has no choice but to back down and show contrition to Sven over this whole mess. Because it is crystal clear when you understand all the facts in this story that for Manchester City to be a successful club, all Sven needs is time and sadly it seems he will not be given it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Roots, Branches, Capello and the Media

The morning after England’s disastrous defeat to Croatia that resigned their country to being mere spectators for this year’s European Championships, the English FA Chief Executive Brian Barwick was quoted as saying that England required a “root and branch” review of all things related to the coaching and development of players in the country.

What followed this defeat was predictable. The manager (in this case Steve McClaren) was roundly lampooned in the tabloid press as being the cause of the defeat and his decision to huddle under an umbrella from the London rain seen as indicative of a manager without the requisite passion to manage the England team. He got the sack eventually which at least for the time being placated the baying mob. The tabloids then moved back to their standard obsession with paedophiles and forgot about McClaren knowing that they had got what they wanted, namely a boost in sales before the game/tournament when they will inevitably make the team out as world-beaters and whip the public into a frenzy. Then when the team gets knocked out of a tournament, or as it was in this case not even qualify, the manager and/or a player(s) is demonised.

It is all too familiar a turn-of-events- in fact it is entirely predictable- and it sells, so the papers who after all are in the business of selling as many copies as possible regurgitate this same old formula every couple of years. And I believe this type of tabloid style rubbish journalism plays a larger part than many believe in holding back England as a footballing nation.

On the night of the Croatia game I was braving the November cold in Stockholm to watch the Swedish national team qualify for the Euro when, on the train home, I was informed that England were 3-2 down against Croatia. When I arrived home, knowing the match was completed about 10 minutes before, I turned to Sky News to check if they had any coverage of the result. What they had was a reporter set up out the front of Wembley Stadium talking to the inevitably disappointed English fans who gave them what they wanted; each took turns in abusing the manager, the team, and whoever else they could think of with the central theme being that a lack of “pride in the shirt” was the reason for failure. So again, a lot of vitriolic hot air blown about but nothing new or, more importantly, constructive.

Which was why a series of articles and discussions initiated by the BBC about the state of English football were such a breath of fresh air. Not a mention of pampered, passionless, over-paid stars but more talk about poor quality junior coaching and flawed footballing philosophies. If you want an example, read this article and subsequent discussion that draws heavily on the wisdom of Sir Trevor Brooking.

If a complete “root and branch” overhaul of English football is to happen I see two major obstacles to it taking place. The first one may be somewhat surprising. It is that Fabio Capello may be too successful.

Whatever one thinks of Capello as a manager, one thing is for certain: he gets results. And I for one do not think that this will change with him in charge of England. And this in itself creates a problem. If Capello was to go all the way in a major tournament or at least oversee an honourable final loss, he and the English team would no doubt be feted by the tabloids to the nth degree. The euphoria would create a climate in which any questioning of football structures would be dismissed by the fact that the senior team had been successful. Now, even though Brian Barwick has given assurances that the review will take place regardless of Capello’s appointment, who is to say that it would still happen if short-term success was achieved?

The second factor that will inhibit the overhaul has been touched on already, namely the English press. A technical overhaul of a football country/culture is an ambitious project that requires patience and an understanding public and media well versed in the strategic, long-term aims of such an undertaking. Results are often not seen for a generation. Which is why the tabloid press in England who, let’s remember, are selling the papers that the majority of the football watching public there will read, can be depended upon to provide everything that is not needed for the overhaul to work. They are pretty happy with the current cycle, it works well for them either way. If they build them up and they lose, they’ll sell heaps of papers for weeks after. If they win same thing. The one constant will be hyperbole.

Strangely enough failure to qualify for the Euro may prove to be a blessing for English football. It has created a climate where visionaries such as Sir Trevor Brooking who are advocating a radical overhaul of the structure of football in England from the ground up may finally get a good hearing. And at least it will provide a climate where debate about England’s place in the footballing world can take place, which is always healthy. The hard part though will come when their new manager brings probable success.

Will Barwick and his FA mates be able to see the overhaul through regardless or will they be intoxicated by the suddenly sycophantic tabloids if success does come England’s way? I have an inkling that yes, Capello is capable of bringing short term success, but listening to the likes of Sir Trevor Brooking will ensure success for generations.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

World Cup Special

Below you will find two articles preparing you for Australia’s qualifications to the 2010 World Cup which are just about to commence.

First up some reflections on the development of football in Australia from my recent holidays down under, which needless to say involved football, including a few words before the Qatar qualifyer. Subsequently, you will find a marathon effort by Martin Cassidy thoroughly analysing the challenge ahead.

Enjoy and fingers crossed!


Just the remedy for pre-Qatar jitters!

After spending a month back in Australia on holiday and recently arriving back in Sweden, I was reflecting on the differences that were noticeable in the football landscape in my home country from when I had left it eighteen months previously.

The first difference I felt was when I found myself watching my A-League team the Melbourne Victory from the palatial new surroundings of Telstra Dome. The last Melbourne game I saw was in my reserved seat on the halfway line at Olympic Park against a team who now no longer exist (Auckland). While the crowd for the game I recently saw at Telstra Dome wasn’t the biggest one for the year (25,489) it is still a number that compares very favourably and dwarfs many established European league crowds. So watching a Victory game at Telstra Dome was a novelty for me and quite a nice difference to experience.

Another difference I noticed was the amount of media space being given to football in the mainstream press. Football articles were given much more prominence in the newspapers at least, although it must be said that the usual suspects such as channel 9 often ignored to mention any football related matters at all in their sports “bulletin.” Leading on (perhaps) from this point, many of my friends who had never in the past talked about football had seemingly developed an appreciation of the game in the months since I had left. Another nice difference to experience.

But one difference that had surprised me but probably shouldn’t have was how cagey and, to be frank, negative so many people were about Australia’s chances to qualify for the World Cup. I would estimate that 90% of people whose opinions I canvassed about what they thought our qualification chances were gave opinions that indicated they were doubtful that we would be making it to South Africa in 2010.

It got me thinking about what had happened since the World Cup in Australian football. I must admit for me personally, I am still stuck in a frame of mind that came about from seeing the Socceroos live in all the World cup games and being so proud of the way we acquitted ourselves as a team (and proud because I had always been of the opinion that with the right coaching, we were always capable of such a performance). I went from Germany to living in Sweden where I have been able to watch high quality football from around the world both at the ground or live on TV every week (not at some un-Godly hour). Being immersed in a culture that loves football as much as I do honestly makes day-to-day life pretty easy to live and it is easy to forget about the struggles that football has in my native country (that is why it was great to finally read Johnny Warren’s biography on the plane back here). I still feel like an excited child waking up here every Saturday morning knowing that I will be watching top quality football from all of my favourite leagues during that day and not having to sacrifice hours of sleep to do it. People over here don’t get how hard it is to watch football in Australia.

Which is why for me Australia’s Asian Cup campaign, while being extremely disappointing, was played out on my computer through highlights and newspaper articles due to the time difference and the impossibility of watching matches due to lack of coverage and work commitments. The failure subsequently did not have as deep an effect on me as it so obviously had on my compatriots. From all reports, watching our players being given a footballing lesson by Iraq and seeing Arnold and Kosmina in charge of the debacle on the sidelines erased the feel-good factor many Australian football fans had about their team. And with good reason. It was a humbling experience if there ever was one.

I talked in an earlier article on this blog about why it was crazy for Australia to not have hired a manager of international pedigree after the World Cup. So many of us could see the malaise that has afflicted the game since the World Cup coming and this is why so many of the Australian footballing community are looking at what is admittedly an extremely tricky World Cup qualifying group with what I think is too much trepidation (or should I qualify this by saying an unhealthy amount of trepidation).Thankfully I have a cure for the pre-match jitters that so many are feeling at the moment: watch all or at least some of Australia’s World Cup games again.

Let me explain. I would have gone to the World Cup with my good friend and fellow WhenBallMeetsFoot columnist Martin Cassidy but for Martin sadly being denied tickets. On coming back to Australia a few weeks ago I set aside a day with him to watch all of our World Cup games again as, not only did I want to re-live this experience with him but I also wanted to get a feeling for what it really was like in Australia during that time and hear the always excellent commentary and analysis from the truly world class team at SBS (Australians, you really are spoilt having such a station).

Well, let me tell you it was quite a day. It really brought back the emotions of that time but what really stuck with us both upon watching it again was how well impressively we played. How composed we were in possession, how we kept possession even against the likes of Brazil and Italy. The list could go on and on about what impressed us, it really was such a joy to watch again and made us realise what a great job Guus Hiddink did with our boys in such a short time.

Which is why I believe you should take some time out to watch a game from our World Cup campaign in the next day or so (the Italy game if you’re pressed for time) if you are feeling pessimistic about our chances against Qatar at Telstra Dome. I promise it will make you feel better as you will see us matching it with the best teams in the world (with all due respect to Qatar, they are teams well ahead of them), and most importantly you will see us when we have an internationally experienced Dutch manager. Granted Pim Verbeek has had precious little time with his squad, I still feel so much more confident with him in the dug-out than Arnold and believe that he will get our team playing well enough in a relatively short period of time (as Hiddink did).

The long journey to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa begins against Qatar tomorrow but I believe that it is wise to look back on those glorious days from the last World Cup in Germany to restore the confidence that has been lost by our fans in the Socceroos under the helm of Graham Arnold. Hopefully, and much more importantly, Verbeek has been able to restore the confidence of our players since he took over as well…

Australia’s road to South Africa 2010 starts now

Guest article by Martin Cassidy

*NB: For those quickly looking for the preview of Australia vs. Qatar, scroll down through the more general information to “The Socceroos”.

Asian World Cup qualification for 2010 kicks off this Wednesday, with Australia commencing its campaign at home against Qatar. While this may not initially seem the most daunting of tasks for a team who reached the final 16 of the 2006 World Cup, it is important to understand the realities of the challenge ahead.

Two preliminary elimination rounds have already been contested in Asia, hence 20 nations remain. These 20 are divided into 5 groups of 4, with each group’s teams to play each other home and away between February 6 and June 21. The best 2 teams of each group advance to the final round, consisting of 10 teams divided into another 2 groups of 5, from which the best 2 of each group qualify for 2010. The third placed nations of each group play-off for the right to contest the intercontinental play-off against the winner of Oceania, most likely New Zealand in late 2009. Therefore, 4 AFC countries are guaranteed representation in South Africa with a strong probability of a 5th spot.

If you are reading this in Europe, South America or Africa, you may be asking the question, ‘what sort of idiot thinks there are World Cup qualifiers this week’? Fair question. Due to the large qualifying schedule required in Asia, there are not enough FIFA “International” dates to accommodate the amount of matches necessary. As a result, the opening two fixtures, February 6 and March 26, fall on FIFA “Friendly” dates. This is not a problem for the vast majority of the 20 nations whose players are either domestically-based or play in other Asian leagues. In some cases, leagues cease playing so as to best prepare the national team while other Asian league are on hiatus. For stronger nations however, Australia being the most extreme case, players who are based in Europe will have great difficulty combining their commitments to both club and country, which is of course if their clubs allow it. As an example, Australians employed in the English Premier League played for their clubs mid last week, then again on the weekend, then immediately fly 24 hours across Europe to the farthest point of Asia – south-eastern Australia – to play a World Cup qualifier Wednesday night, before immediately embarking on the return trip so as play for their clubs again on the weekend. You’re probably tired just reading that.

To place in context Australia’s predicament with travel, 15 players are returning from Europe of which 12 arrive home between Monday and Tuesday morning. Remember, the match is Wednesday night. Compounding matters, none of the 12 has ever trained with (or likely met) their national coach. Furthermore, the 15 travellers do not include another 8 European-based regular Socceroos who are unavailable through injury, fitness or because they played club games on Sunday. In contrast, Australia’s opponent has been in camp for 6 weeks and arrived in the host city 9 days prior to the match. And they only have one player based in Europe. Meanwhile other Asian powerhouses such as Japan, Korea Republic and Iran will also face this challenge but it is obviously less of a burden to fly Munich to Tehran than London to Melbourne. And even Asia’s highest ranked team Japan has only very few players in Europe. While this may read like I am presenting excuses in case we lose, please realise there is nothing here other than facts. With that said, let us now assess the task at hand.

4½ Spots for Asia

As was the situation for the past two World Cups, Asia has been allocated 4.5 places by FIFA. However, following Iran and Bahrain failing in the intercontinental play-offs for ’02 and ’06 against Ireland and Trinidad & Tobago respectively, Asia’s play-off representative shall this time face the winner of Oceania. The only time these confederations directly faced off was the remarkable ’97 contest when Iran advanced at the expense of the Socceroos. With Australia now in the AFC and having performed so successfully in the last World Cup, Asia has been rewarded with this seemingly easier task and supposedly a 5th qualifier, although New Zealand would probably fancy themselves against teams that Trinidad could beat. The difference now is, with Australia plus the four AFC qualifiers of last time, the play-off nation will be much stronger than in the past.

An investigation of recent major Asian competitions reveals a steady pattern of dominance from a select few. The last three World Cups have seen Japan, Korea Republic (referred to here as Korea) and Saudi Arabia repeatedly qualify. Iran has made two of these and China one. Australia qualified for 2006 via Oceania and a play-off with Uruguay. The 2007 Asian Cup saw each of these same nations, except China, reach the quarter finals and beyond. The winner however was Iraq, with Saudi Arabia, Korea and Japan next best. Iraq was also at the 2004 Olympics where they reached the semi final following a defeat of Australia in the previous round. Japan and Korea were Asia’s other qualified nations. And the 2008 Olympic qualifying competition proved remarkably close before Australia, Japan and Korea advanced narrowly ahead of Iraq (by 1 point), Saudi Arabia (by 2 points) and Bahrain (by 1 point) respectively. Iran was eliminated in the first round from the group won by the Saudis ahead of Australia’s Olyroos. For Sydney 2000 it was again Japan and Korea, along with Bahrain, who qualified.

The trends continue through club football and the Asian Champions League. It is no surprise that of the 2007 quarter finalists, Japan and Korea each had two representative clubs, with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and UAE one each. Japan’s Urawa Reds ultimately defeated Sepahan of Iran for the title, while Australia’s Sydney FC performed admirably with draws home and away against Urawa in the group stage, only failing by 1 point to eliminate the eventual champion. Likewise, the Asian Games at u/23 level consistently produces similar outcomes, dominated recently by Iran, Japan and Korea. There was however a change to that in 2006 when Qatar won the gold medal at home, defeating Iraq in the final while Iran defeated Korea for the bronze. Should these trends continue the 2010 World Cup positions will surely include Japan and Korea and probably Saudi Arabia, with Australia battling for one of two remaining chances among Iran, Iraq, China, and perennial near-misses Bahrain and Uzbekistan.

2010 qualifying: Group of Death

With Australia seeded one for the World Cup draw, we were certain of avoiding Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. On paper, these five nations are most likely to be the five Asian qualifiers in South Africa, with due respect to Oceania’s champion. However, football is not played on paper and the Socceroos’ first Asian experience at the 2007 Asian Cup proved exceedingly more difficult than expected. With that in mind, a careful study of the AFC seedings for the draw clearly indicated China, Iraq and Qatar were the teams to avoid from the respective pots. Australia got them all in Group A.

Granted the travel could actually have been more problematic (try getting to Turkmenistan), and the away fixtures are not scheduled for the most extreme climatic conditions (Iraq in Dubai and Qatar in Doha during June is not quite as bad as July-September heat!), but as football opponents they are extremely good. Iraq is the current Asian Cup champion, having defeated Australia, Korea and Saudi Arabia on route to claiming that honour. They welcome back striker Emad Mohammed, one of Asian club football’s best, after missing the Asian Cup. But Iraq has lost its Asian Cup coach, replacing him with Egil Olsen who coached Norway to the World Cup in 1994 and 1998. He is a defensive, unattractive tactician although Norway did defeat eventual runners-up Brazil at France ’98. Meanwhile Qatar is the current Asian Games champion, having won the tournament on home soil when defeating Iraq in the final. And China was a World Cup finalist in 2002 before falling at this very hurdle last time around. Be certain they are leaving no stone unturned to ensure the same fate does not befall them this time. Unfortunately for all, two of these nations will be eliminated a full two years out from the 2010 World Cup.

Each of the teams will take different approaches to their home fixtures due to varying considerations and circumstances. Australia will use its home games as a major source of revenue raising, thus selecting host cities and stadia on the basis of capacity, demand and state government incentives. For example, the match against Qatar may be best suited in cooler-climate Hobart, better for the returning European-based players and troubling for the Qataris. Instead, the Qataris are better acclimatised than us after nine days here, while a likely 10 of the starting 11 Socceroos flew in Monday to a hot and humid 33 degrees in Melbourne. Qatar’s home games, if their league and Asian Games are any indication, could be played before very small crowds. Iraq is hosting its fixtures in Dubai so crowd support may be muted but like Qatar, they have the advantage of the desert heat. (It is important to note here that in 2006 Asian Cup qualifying, an A-League-based Australia accounted for Kuwait 2-0 in Sydney before the best available Socceroos wilted in the heat to lose 0-2 away). China on the other hand has opted to host their games at altitude, 1890m above sea-level. While this is within FIFA’s new 2500m restrictions, the Chinese FA and their Serbian coaches obviously feel there is an advantage to be gained.

Irrespective of the reasons, there is one common factor to each team’s home games: in this group you must win at home to be any chance of advancing to the final round. Assuming the worst team earns at least 1 point in 6 matches, it is mathematically impossible not to advance with 12 points; I am confident 10 points should be enough. That means winning your 3 home games and getting at least one away draw would be the minimum requirement plus a positive goal differential is imperative. With this in mind, and considering the past result in Kuwait, Australia must not be satisfied with anything less than a 2 goal win over Qatar this week.

The Socceroos – Verbeek and the Dutch influence

“If the organisation within the team is right and you have some special players in your team, then it’s great. That’s what we have with Australia” – Guus Hiddink, following the World Cup heroics against Croatia.

The Dutch system and all that involves has been remarkably successful for Australia. Hiddink’s work with the Socceroos is obviously the stand out but FFA technical director Rob Baan has continued this with his development of the Olyroos and his one game in charge of the Socceroos, an impressive 1-0 win over Nigeria. For a variety of reasons the combination of flexibility and fluidity in play, along with a disciplined and heavy work rate mentality has been perfect for a group of players who already possessed skill, versatility and a strong work ethic based on their physical qualities. When Dick Advocaat reneged on his contract, FFA quickly agreed to Pim Verbeek taking the reins for the 2010 qualifying campaign, thus continuing the Dutch methodology.

Appointed early December, Verbeek had the unenviable task of moving his family half way across the world to watch a league he knew next to nothing about, so as to select a domestically-based national team for the opening qualifiers against Qatar at home and China away. And he had less than two months to identify the players, teach them his methods, prepare them tactically and ultimately produce a winning formula. He describes the Dutch approach to football thus: “We always try to put high pressure on our opponents; we try to have the ball as much as possible, control the game. We don’t look forwards to the typical kick and rush game (of British football). We always try to find the combination football... (but it) depends on the quality of the players and the players that are available.” Speaking to SBS three days after his appointment by FFA, the final line is in reference to whether or not he has the best Socceroos available. The rest creates a vision of Australia’s play under Hiddink.

Verbeek has considerable coaching experience under the Dutch masters and in Asia. When assistant to Hiddink, he was part of Korea’s run to the 2002 World Cup semi final, assisted Advocaat with the same team at the 2006 World Cup (where they drew subsequent runners-up France 1-1) and took charge of the team through to the end of the 2007 Asian Cup. Despite much criticism from Australian commentators regarding Korea’s problems at the Asian Cup, they did finish 3rd without their best three players through injury, including Park Ji Song of Manchester United. They drew Saudi Arabia 1-1, qualified from the group, overcame a superior opponent in Iran on penalties, only lost the semi final to Iraq 3-4 on penalties, and then defeated Japan for 3rd also on penalties. As such, despite not scoring a goal in the last 417 minutes of play at the tournament, Korea’s defence held out for even longer and Verbeek got the results needed. He took Iraq to penalties while Australia was comprehensively outplayed in losing 1-3 to the same opponent. He defeated Japan on penalties while Australia lost to the same team in that manner. And all this was achieved without his three best players. I don’t think Verbeek did such a bad job with Korea after all.

Verbeek has inherited fellow Dutchman Baan to assist him through his knowledge of the Olyroos and his assessment of the A-League. Remarkably, he also inherited his predecessor Graham Arnold who stayed on as assistant in the same role as the Australian played when Hiddink took charge. Ultimately his experience and knowledge of Australia’s players at home and abroad makes him useful to the new coach. But Verbeek has also brought in another assistant, indeed another Dutchman, in Henk Duut. Duut’s official role is to remain based in Europe and act as the eyes and ears, watching the Socceroos, identifying other Australians and importantly scouting our opponents overseas. This does not always run smoothly, as his recent trip to Doha to watch a Qatar friendly proved – the Dutchman was barred entry. Duut has vast experience, playing ten years in the Dutch top flight before coaching club sides in Holland and Japan. He worked as assistant to Verbeek during the latter’s brief spell coaching the national team of Netherlands Antilles in 2004, before being recruited by Ruud Gullit to assist at giants Feyenoord, a club for which he played. He remained the assistant there for three years until mid 2007 and could be viewed as a slightly younger version of Verbeek.

Like all great coaches, Verbeek is a highly intelligent man who is not prone to grand statements or being adversely affected by the big occasion. He accepted the Australia job in the knowledge it would be an enormous challenge, in large part due to the likelihood of not having had the Europeans available to him. His response to this is again something Hiddink would say: “We don’t think about problems – we think about solutions.” This is in stark contrast to Arnold who boldly stated anything short of reaching the final at the Asian Cup would be a failure, and always looked upon games as Australia’s to win or lose with no regard for the qualities of the opponent. When it all unravelled following a last minute draw with Oman and loss to Iraq, he publicly accused the players of not wanting to be there and having too many egos. FFA CEO Ben Buckley attempted the PR damage control the following day, suggesting Arnold was caught up in the heat of the moment – that’s sport. But as SBS’s Craig Foster pointed out, if that is how you react in the heat of the moment, you are not equipped for the intense pressure of coaching international football.

With all that is required of great coaches, Hiddink demonstrated with Australia that the ability to react to your opponent, assess the situation and make the right adjustments at the right time is what defines success at this level. It means attacking when an ordinary person would instinctively defend, selecting players to fit the right tactical structure rather than succumbing to external pressures, and ultimately turning the match around from the sidelines when all seems lost. As Kipling put it, “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.” That is how to react under pressure.

Verbeek and his selection headache

It seemed a certainty that Verbeek would not have the option of calling on any of the European-based players for the first qualifier in Melbourne, given it falls on a ‘friendly’ date. Clubs are only required to give leave to players for two days prior to an international friendly, surely making the trip from Europe logistically impossible for this task. Therefore, Verbeek nominated 37 A-League players for a training camp in Sydney in early January, consisting of 22 senior players and a 15-man Olyroos squad. He did however make it clear from the start there were concerns about what he had seen in the domestic competition and reserved the right to call on the Europeans if he needed them. Over the following weeks, and three A-League camps of two days each, those concerns solidified in his mind.

Prior to the first camp he stated of the league, “I saw great goals, but also unbelievable mistakes. It’s up to me to find out if the same players make the same mistakes because then I cannot use them.” His initial impression was not entirely negative however, recognising the talent particularly among the strikers available to him: “If I think I can do it with Aloisi, Thompson and Griffiths, then I will leave Cahill in England.” After the second camp he hinted at the direction he was heading when saying, “There are a lot of talented players (in the A-League) – the question is can I make the right use of them for the important game ahead.” Verbeek also indicated the type of players he needed: “The pressure of the Qatar game, that we have to win and will have 55,000 people, will be unbelievable. I definitely look for players who are mentally strong. I am looking for players who will boost team organisation.”

There were few surprises in his first training squad, other than the non-selection of former Fulham player Ahmad Elrich and Melbourne goalkeeper Theoklitos. Former Socceroos captain Craig Moore was left out although Verbeek made it clear that he knew Moore from his time in the German Bundesliga when he assisted Advocaat at Monchengladbach. Advocaat had made Moore captain of Glasgow Rangers and brought him across to Germany, hence Verbeek was satisfied the now ageing Moore could rest instead of partaking in the camps. Based on the need for experience of high pressure matches, international experience and an ability to adapt to the Dutch style of play, anyone with experience under Hiddink or Baan was surely at an advantage. This included World Cup heroes Aloisi, Thompson, Moore, Milligan and Covic. It required players who could adapt to specific roles in positions not generally utilised in the A-League, such as the wide forwards in a 4-3-3 formation and overlapping full-backs. Also required was an altered mental approach, remembering the Dutch philosophy of ball possession as opposed to long balls, route one football, or “kick and rush” as Verbeek put it. These attributes proved very difficult for Verbeek to find here.

The players who could tick at least most of the necessary boxes included the five World Cup players mentioned previously. Other A-League players such as Popovic, Vidmar and Tiatto met the criteria and were all playing well but having retired from the national team, were no longer considered. Other veterans like Muscat and Corica were enlisted, along with a host of home-based Olyroos holding their places for the later camps. One selection of note for the third camp was 18 year old James Holland of Newcastle Jets, a player yet to be called up for the Olyroos by Arnold, not even for Verbeek’s first camp. With the team now taking shape, it was clear there would be problems with the full-backs, defensive midfielder and even at centre-back.
Topor-Stanley, a left full-back was the only obvious choice after Dean Heffernan’s stellar season, following his return from Germany, was cut short by a broken leg. The Olyroos’ left-back is less attacking than Heffernan and had some worrying moments in the crucial Olympic qualifier against Iraq. Likewise, Newcastle captain Jade North, a 2004 Olympian and fringe Socceroo, is not a naturally attacking right full-back, while the logical selection for the holding midfielder in place of Grella would be Simon Colosimo but he would not have enough time to learn this specific role. Others considered automatic selections were doing themselves no favours by their performances in the league, the end of season pressure magnified by the knowledge Pim was watching.

Strikers John Aloisi, with 7 goals in his only 12 games, and Joel Griffiths, the leading scorer, were playing at a level worthy of a return to Europe. Archie Thompson was occasionally recreating the form that encouraged Hiddink to bring him to PSV but in Melbourne’s final home game missed some straight forward chances. At Sydney, Alex Brosque was making a strong case to play wide left in a front three, while Olyroos captain Mark Milligan put in a couple of moments that must have caused Verbeek serious concern. In the final round of the regular season, with the top four clubs level on points, Verbeek’s questions seem to have been answered by performances he could not risk having repeated against Qatar. His comments after the round told the story: “I saw the important games last weekend and you can see players under pressure that they didn’t bring the same performance that I have seen before... That’s why I was here for five weeks. No-one can tell me I didn’t give them the chance.” With that he named an extended 39-man squad, 19 of which were in Europe, to face Qatar and his doubts were probably vindicated in the first week of the finals. Sydney and Queensland played out an ugly 0-0 draw in which Brosque had two clear chances to score and was at fault for not doing so. Meanwhile Aloisi’s Central Coast lost 0-2 away to Newcastle despite him almost having a hat-trick. Aloisi missed a first half penalty, scored what would have been an equaliser before being incorrectly judged offside, and smashed a free-kick through the wall and passed the ‘keeper, only to see his shot cannon off the inside of the upright. Whether it is luck or skill, such chances must be put away for Australia.

The Socceroos

Unlike Graham Arnold, who stated after the Asian Cup that we are not as good as we thought we were, I believe this team is good enough to potentially win the World Cup – why not? Uruguay were the only previous world champion not at Germany ’06 and the only team to get the better of Brazil, head-to-head over the home and away legs, during the last World Cup qualifying campaign. They even beat Argentina in the last round before the Socceroos ended their dream. Australia then comprehensively outplayed European champion Greece to win 1-0, drew a full-strength Netherlands 1-1 in Rotterdam, and at the World Cup were only defeated by Brazil and champions Italy, the world numbers 1 and 2 at the end of the tournament. Along the way they beat Asian champion Japan and, in every sense but the 2-2 score line, got the better of Croatia who are now in the world’s top 10 and conquered England in Euro ’08 qualifying. With the right coach, anything is possible for this group of Socceroos. Even so, the match with Qatar could be extremely difficult.

The most notable performance of recent times that may give an indication of Verbeek’s tactical set up is that of the Socceroos against Nigeria under Rob Baan in November. Baan opted for a change in tactics, setting the team out with the regular defensive four including attacking full-backs, a diamond midfield of Valeri behind and Carle in front, and a two-man strike partnership. The team played compact, possession-based passing football with width created by the full-backs and wingers. The result was a well deserved 1-0 victory to Australia. In a trial match played Saturday between the A-League members of Verbeek’s 39-man squad and an under-strength Melbourne Victory, the new coach also opted for the two men upfront, playing Aloisi and Griffiths together in the first half, and Thompson and Brosque in the second. This is an important departure from the 4-3-3 system which was in part utilising the strengths of Mark Viduka. As much as I admire Viduka’s talent, I actually think the team may be better balanced without him, particularly with a quicker striker now available in Scott McDonald.

Verbeek’s European selections confirm this formation to be the most likely way he will set the team out in Melbourne. With Viduka, Chipperfield, Sterjovski and Kisnorbo being omitted for various reasons, none of which being form, and the subsequent exclusion from the squad of Grella, Kewell, Carle and Beauchamp in recent days, again for various reasons, the starting XI has become a clearer vision. The 4-3-3 typically Dutch formation requires the wide forwards to remain in advanced positions so as not to be 4-5-1. They must stay out wide, making late runs onto the full-backs and possess the skill and willingness to get beyond those full-backs in order to create chances in the box. Without Kewell and Sterjovski, and with Carney likely to play at left-back in the absence of Chipperfield, this system is not ideal for Wednesday night. Furthermore, with several central strikers available, Verbeek is sure to utilise the diamond midfield 4-4-2 option.

Elsewhere, Valeri is the obvious replacement for Grella, a role he performed well against Nigeria. Verbeek has all but stated Moore will start, as Beauchamp’s exclusion should have indicated. Neill and Emerton are automatic selections and along with Carney and Moore, plus Schwarzer in goal, make up the Socceroos’ backline. The midfield will include Cahill, Culina and Bresciano, joining Valeri playing behind them. Upfront, McDonald’s form for Celtic demands his selection and he is likely to be partnered by Kennedy, although Aloisi is a chance. I predict the line-up to be (goalkeeper to strikers, left to right):

Schwarzer; Carney, Moore, Neill, Emerton; Valeri; Bresciano, Cahill, Culina; Kennedy, McDonald. I would predict the remaining members of the 18-man final squad, in order of likelihood of being a substitute, to be: Aloisi, Wilkshire, Holman, Thompson, Troisi, North, Covic. At present the squad numbers 21 and no longer includes Joel Griffiths or Mark Milligan due a hamstring strain and broken nose respectively from the trial match Saturday.

The recent form of several of these players in Europe has been outstanding. Scott McDonald is the leading goal scorer in the Scottish Premiership this season, with 15 goals in the league and 21 in all competitions. Among his other goals are 2 in the Champions League, one of which was the winner against AC Milan. His type of predatory striker has been lacking for Australia and may well have made the difference at the World Cup. He scored twice on Saturday in the Scottish Cup and was joined on the score sheet elsewhere by Josh Kennedy, scoring one and assisting in another for his new club Karlsruhe, sending the previously goal-shy club up to fifth in Germany.

David Carney also scored Saturday as well as having two shots blocked and a header cleared away. Brett Holman scored in Holland the previous weekend and has been playing regularly there, as has Luke Wilkshire. In England, Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton and Tim Cahill are all regular starters for their clubs, the latter having scored goals in the Premier League against each of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea this season. (If Verbeek can find the right formation and combinations, Australia’s abundance of natural goal scorers (Viduka, Kewell and Bresciano included) could produce some outstanding results). Meanwhile, Bresciano only played the last half hour for Palermo and Culina was not used by PSV, leaving these two fresh for Wednesday.

Looking back only a couple of weeks, it was impossible to imagine an essentially full-strength Socceroos would line up this week. Had the FFA known earlier, they certainly would have charged more for tickets, but that’s a welcome reward for the true fans who bought most of the 55,000 seats in the stadium when it was still to be an A-League outfit. The players stood up to their clubs in greater numbers than ever, with Everton boss David Moyes being the most vocal in his disapproval of the trip. He claimed Cahill was injured before playing him for 90 minutes Saturday, and earlier stated, “We said it would be better if Tim didn’t go... I think it’s ridiculous that somebody would have to fly half way round the world but Tim has to make his decision whether he goes to play for Australia or not.” Thanks Timmy, you are a legend. Thanks also go to Qantas for arranging first-class return flights for the 12 who played on the weekend in Europe, and to FFA management for their professionalism. I don’t agree with everything they do and maintain their lack of football knowledge is a major problem, but they do handle professional and corporate matters extremely well.

My only caution about the team selections listed here is my awareness of Verbeek, like Hiddink, to do the unexpected. After announcing the extended 39-man squad he said, “I am not here to please players but to win the game. My side will not necessarily comprise the best players but it will be the best team.” Like Hiddink, Verbeek may see something more in Dutch-based Wilkshire than I do, as he may in Holman. Wilkshire is highly adaptable and plays specific roles very well without being brilliant, which Verbeek may initially prefer than say Bresciano. Of Qatar, Verbeek is sure they will try to defend and as I stated previously, anything less than a 2 goal victory for Australia (minimum) will be unsatisfactory. Verbeek’s assessment has been consistent for weeks, “They will not attack. They will wait and wait until you make a mistake... You cannot lose balls in midfield or in the backline (because) they will have very quick, fast strikers... It will be very important for us to be patient.”

Martin Cassidy

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Will the Blue Moon rise or fall in 2008?

Rewind almost 12 months and Man City fans probably didn’t know what was going to hit them after a pretty successful Christmas/New Year period. Stuart Pearce’s side had been a bit up-and-down for the pre-Christmas part of their Premiership campaign in 2006 but 3 victories from 3 games from boxing day to New Years Day would have instilled a belief in City fans that better times were around the corner and that the year 2007 was one that held promise for them and hopefully a decent final league position. Unfortunately for Man City the year 2007 (at least the part of it that included Stuart Pearce as manager) would not be so kind besides the promising and in hindsight false dawn that occurred last New Years Day when two Samaras goals earned them victory against Everton.

After that win (and doesn’t it look strange to see the words Samaras and goals together?!), little did Man City fans know that they were about to embark on a goal drought at their home ground of epic proportions (they were not going to score at home for what was remaining of the 2006-07 season). Additionally due in large part to the aforementioned point, they were to be dragged into a relegation battle that threatened at times to take them down to the Championship. Add to this the embarrassing bust-up between Barton and Dabo, the ignominious honour of becoming the team who has scored the least goals at home in a season ever in the top flight (with a paltry 10), and the eventual sacking of Stuart Pearce meant it was a pretty miserable second half of season 2006-07 for Man City and their supporters.

Fast forward to today and it couldn’t be more different for City. They sit 5th in the league, they’re unbeaten at home in the league and due to their chairman’s millions, not to mention a world-class manager and a high league position, they now have a real reason to look towards January with optimism due to the fact they should be in an ideal position to add some genuine quality to their playing squad.

Before their final game of 2007 against Liverpool tomorrow, Sven-Göran Eriksson is armed with the knowledge that, should they take all three points off Liverpool, they will finish the year in 4th position on the table. It really is a remarkable position for them to be in considering how quickly this particular squad was assembled before the season started.

Let’s take a look at a few factors that will go a long way towards helping to determine why it is unlikely that Man City will suffer a similar fade-out to the one suffered after the New Year last season:


City supporters must be having a bit of a chuckle looking on at what’s happening with a team like Newcastle. The “give him more time” brigade in the English media are working overtime trying to do just that and defend the performance of Sam Allardyce overlooking the fact that managers like Sven and to a lesser extent Ramos at Spurs are showing that good managers are almost always able to get good results quite quickly (without the need for “time”). It must be a little embarrassing for many of them that wrote so disparagingly about Sven that he has so quickly turned City’s fortunes around for them, especially when their darling Big Sam (who don’t forget many in England thought was good enough to take over their national team…) is overseeing some of the least attractive football played by a team in the premiership for many a year.

The brutal reality is in the Premiership at the moment, the top clubs are not-so-coincidentally managed by top foreign (meaning non-English in this case) managers. City, by the virtue of having Sven in charge must feel pretty confident that their good form will continue into next year unlike last year under “Psycho” Pearce. There is quite a large group of teams below City with, if one is honest, similar or even possibly better playing lists than City. Where City can gain an edge over the teams snapping at their heels is with their super-cool and experienced manager. Sven’s experience in the run-in will be priceless and may well be the difference between a place in Europe or not. How he integrates any new signings into the line-up will also be crucial but, judging him on how he performed with his pre-season signings, in Sven City seem to have a manager who would rank in the top four in the Premiership when it comes to man management.

Sven and “Psycho” are like chalk and cheese in many ways; for City fans they will be hoping that under Sven their second half of the season will follow suit and turn out to be the opposite to what happened under Pearce.

January transfer window

Having spent much of my time on Man City fan forums it can be estimated that every couple of minutes someone posts a comment that contains some sort of speculation about who City will bring in over January. Rarely have I ever seen a group of fans so excited by a transfer window. And with good reason, I reckon. They now have some serious Thai money behind them, a high league position snapping at the heels of the “top 4” and a manager with contacts all around the world.

After the success this year of Elano, Petrov and co. who were signed in the pre-season, expectations are high for January and have been fanned further by the loan-signing already of young Mexican starlet Nery Castillo from the old stomping ground of Elano at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Who will City sign then? Don’t ask me; they have been linked with pretty much every player in the world over the last four months and it would be impossible and ultimately a waste of time to give a list of everyone they have been linked with in this article. I will say that I think City could do with signing another striker (even though Castillo has been signed) as their current batch, while showing the odd glimpse of promise, are not going to keep City up where they are now on the table. That is why they need to add to their stable of strikers (remembering the exciting Bojinov will be returning early in 2008 and without a doubt Sven will be letting go a striker or two).

Midfield cover would be great as well and in particular for the excellent Hamman (at his age Didi can’t be expected to shoulder all the defensive midfield duties!). And, without being greedy, a defender and a goalkeeper would top things off nicely for City in January. The defence has been looking more and more shaky of late, and bringing in a world-class central defender would really add to the squads chances of staying where they are now. And as Sven doesn’t appear happy with Isaksson, a world-class stopper is probably needed due to the fact that, as impressive as Hart has been and notwithstanding the promise he shows for the future, having a keeper that young starting would be flirting with danger as it is a position where the best players are usually much older and more experienced.

If, as we have been promised, City both buy and sell players in January it has the potential to have a major impact on the second half of the season for them. The ability of Sven to, after having had a good 6 months now to have identified deficiencies in his squad, go out into the market-place and fix them, could well be the difference between a top 6 finish or not for City come the end of the season.

Home vs. Away form

City’s results at home have been stunning so far, away not so good. That is the way it looks on paper anyway. But on closer inspection I don’t think the gulf between City’s home and away form is as big as it is made out to be by some pundits. The quality of the teams that they have played away from home is better than the quality of team they have played at home and I think this has no doubt had an impact on this stark difference between home and away performances.

Here’s the deal; if the season turns out logically based on the quality of their opponents that they are meeting home and away City will start winning more games away and losing a couple at home as they start playing weaker teams away and stronger at home.

Put simply City have a real chance to improve and/or consolidate their position if the City of Manchester Stadium (COMS) continues to be a fortress regardless of the quality of teams coming there while at the same time they start getting some results against the weaker teams away from home. Obviously if their home performances deteriorate and their away performances stay the same, City will be finishing the season around the middle of the table.

Chelsea aside, City have been competitive and at times unlucky on their travels in every game. I’m pretty sure against weaker opposition that they will be facing away for the remainder of their season they will start to pick up wins on the road. It is their home form that will be the x-factor and ultimately determine how high they will finish the season. I have an inkling they will continue to be strong at home (it will be hard to match what they have done so far, admittedly…) so that bodes well for their final league position.

Regardless of how things in the next five months, ever fatalistic City fans can for once rest assured that surely, even for a team as historically schizophrenic as City, they can go into the New Year thinking that things can’t possibly be as bad as last year. That thought alone will bring comfort to many of their loyal fans. So if you hear an even louder than normal cheer when (notice that I’m saying when, not if) City scores their first goal of 2008 at COMS you will know why…

Monday, December 3, 2007

Guest Article: The Circus Comes To Town - Beckham Style

Aussie correspondent for Whenballmeetsfoot Martin Cassidy reports on the marketing phenomon/footballer David Beckham's sojourn down under with his team the LA Galaxy and analyses the massive reaction he has received.


The David Beckham circus is in town this week with Sydney’s Olympic Stadium acting as the big top. The main event, an exhibition friendly between Sydney FC and LA Galaxy, was played there tonight in front of 80,295. To put that in context, it is the largest football crowd in Australia this year for an international or representative fixture, surpassing the 79,322 that attended the Wallabies vs NZ All Blacks at the MCG. The crowd is therefore larger than that for the Socceroos against a virtually full strength Argentina featuring Messi, Tevez, Mascherano, Heinze, etc. It is also only 1,100 short of the crowd at the NRL rugby league grand final at the same venue but larger than State of Origin. Such is the drawing power of David Beckham.

You would have had no trouble finding a seat to watch Sydney FC play Sunday evening in the A-League, at the smaller Sydney Football Stadium and at a much cheaper price. Incidentally, Beckham was at that game as a guest and was paraded before the crowd at half time. Add to that Sydney rested several players for tonight’s exhibition, including former Leeds United striker Michael Bridges who picked up a knock on the weekend. For LA, they came with their new coach Ruud Gullit and with several internationals including US national team hero Landon Donovan, although I don’t think they were the attraction. Rather the fact a reported 20,000 Galaxy shirts with “Beckham 23” have been sold in Sydney in the last few days suggests the spectators were there for one reason.

The match itself was billed as a showdown between the MLS and our A-League, although with Sydney battling to reach the finals and LA missing out on reaching theirs, not to mention them being in the off-season, I’m not sure it was much of a guide. That said, LA started quite well while Sydney were nervous in front of the biggest crowd to ever greet an A-League club and there were numerous early errors as the home side struggled to maintain possession in midfield. However, in the 20th minute former Brazil and Middlesbrough star Juninho slid through a wonderful pass for Alex Brosque and he finished well for the home team. The goal settled the nerves and led to more open play and more chances, Brosque soon netting his second and before long it was 3-0 inside half an hour. The highlight of the night came in the final minute of the first half, Sydney conceding a free kick in front of the D and Beckham curling a trademark free kick over the wall, into the top corner. As an indication, it was similar to the goal he scored against Greece, but obviously with less pressure.
The public got their money’s worth in the first half but the goals continued after the break, Sydney eventually winning 5-3. Despite the game being a “friendly”, LA learnt that concept doesn’t exist for Australians, although Galaxy gave as good as they got. Beckham was felled midway through the first half, caused partly by the slippery surface following earlier rain. He took a knock on his troubled left ankle and limped about for the next ten minutes, no doubt causing heart palpitations amongst organisers and Beckham’s employers alike. He obviously played on and stuck through the full 90 minutes, producing several majestic long-range diagonal passes and the aforementioned goal. An LA team mate was red carded late for a very sinister act, deliberately standing on a player’s arm after pushing him to the ground. The same player earlier kicked Juninho but despite several unattractive incidents, the crowd got what they came for and went home happy.

I believe $1 million was Galaxy’s appearance fee but organisers would certainly be happy due to the estimated $3.5 million in gate receipts, not to mention the unbelievably positive promotion this has been in the media and the associated benefit to sponsors. Which ultimately is what this exercise was about. Beckham is indeed a great player and this was probably his only ever match in Australia. Even so I never thought about travelling to Sydney for this event and had it been in Melbourne I am still not certain if I’d have paid the asking price. However 80,000 people did, Sydney caught Beckham fever with him featuring on the back and front page of the daily newspapers, and even Channel 10, having never shown real interest in soccer before, broadcast the game live. They had to import an SBS (theworldgame) commentator for the occasion but the subsequent news bulletin described Beckham as a “genius” and referred to this as “the most highly anticipated soccer match in Australian history.” Now Vinnie and I, and a few mates, did fly to Sydney and paid good money to attend the qualifier that saw Australia defeat Uruguay to reach our first World Cup in 32 years. If emotion and historical significance are anything to go by, I would suggest that was somewhat bigger, but anyway... such is the nature of Australian football in the eyes of mainstream media.

There has always been problems of this type in Australia, where frustration with the lack of knowledge of new converts clashes with the reality they are needed for the game to really grow. Indeed, long suffering fans may have thought the same about me in years past, so I should not complain. The fact is Beckham’s tour of Australia has been a huge success on all counts, be it cocktail parties, mingling with fans, sponsors’ events or his on-field job. Yesterday he kicked footballs on the harbour from one boat to another, as part of an Adidas promotion with representative players from AFL, rugby and league and never stopped smiling. Tonight he gave a performance surely beyond the promoters’ expectations and the game produced 8 goals, ideal for the audience who were probably more used to higher scores in other football codes and often use that fact to criticise this sport. So in light of the growth of A-League crowds, and governments offering bipartisan support for future development, including a 2018 World Cup bid, an opportunity to win over more converts can ultimately be nothing but good for the game.

Earlier this year the Socceroos opened their Asian Cup tournament against Oman, hardly one of our traditional sporting rivals. The match drew the highest ever average audience for a sporting event on Australian pay TV. This did not include the additional tens of thousands who watched the game in 3,600 accredited bars nationwide, and it was a Sunday night in mid-winter. Melbourne Victory has attracted three crowds of over 47,000 to A-League games in the past 12 months and for the first time ever, the Socceroos are preparing to enter a full and meaningful World Cup qualification campaign, meaning more big matches than ever will be played in Australia in the next year. That comes on top of 95,000 to watch a friendly against Greece last year and two internationals over 61,000 this year for Argentina and Uruguay.

Football, soccer if you will, was always regarded as the sleeping giant of Australian sport until at least 2005 and the win over Uruguay. If it needs David Beckham’s celebrity to stir certain sectors into realising what the sport has to offer, so be it. There is already considerable support in Australia with more kids registered than any other sport. With more people being attracted each year, and Beckham aiding that cause, the future is very bright. Just as long as we qualify for the next World Cup.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Are you Dutch and Available?

Dick Advocaat’s last minute u-turn on his Socceroos coaching gig unfortunately did not come as a huge surprise last Friday. There were rumblings that the u-turn was on the cards for a few weeks before the news officially came out and the rumblings became louder when Advocaat’s current club, Zenit St. Petersburg, took out the Russian championship. The possibility of Coaching Zenit in the Champions League next year along with a reputed 4 million US dollar a year salary proved to be too big a lure. The fact that he had signed a contract to coach the Socceroos didn’t seem to bother him too much.

It is the way of the modern football world unfortunately that contracts often aren’t worth the paper they are written on. The FFA are rightly frustrated with the whole thing, as well as a little embarrassed I am sure; it is this embarrassment that will no doubt drive them to try to exact some revenge through legal avenues. Stay tuned on this, I have the feeling it will be a long drawn out process (please not as long as the Tevez saga from last year!) where a lot will be said/written, and ultimately not much gained.

There are of course serious football issues to write of now that Advocaat will not be the man to take over. Australia needs a new coach, and relatively quickly it seems, with the first game of World Cup qualifying campaign creeping ever so closer. The big question is who should that man be?

Having read a lot of Australian media over the past few days it seems pretty unanimous that it should be a foreigner (I do emphasise pretty unanimous. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Mike Cockerill somehow still puts Graham Arnold’s name forward as the best candidate for the role. I quote from a recent article of his: “The FFA's best choice has always been right under its nose. It's just it has been too blind to see it.” I don’t even know where to start with this, but as I’ve already written an article referring to his stupidity before, I’ll leave it there for the moment…).

So, what would be the ideal profile that the next Soccerros coach should have? I’ll go through what I think the desired attributes are point-by-point:

1) Be Dutch (or an equivalent nationality)

Having had great success with a Dutch manager in the past and having a Dutch technical director currently, this is a bit of a no-brainer. The Dutch footballing philosophy seems to be a good fit for Australia and is getting results, so, to use the marvellous quote that the monarchists used ad nauseum in the lead up to the Republic referendum in Australia “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” (shudder).

A final point on this, if a prospective candidate was not Dutch, they would preferably come from a country and/or come through a coaching system that was similarly as technically rigorous and impressive as the Dutch one that by design would subsequently add to the development of the game in Australia.

Unfortunately that rules out an English coach, as that particular footballing culture has had too big an influence on Australian football over the years and therefore having a coach from there does not fit in with the brave new direction Australia is taking to ensure it develops as a footballing nation. No offence to England on this, it is just time another philosophy was tried as we have had England as the major influence in a footballing sense for a long time and it is time we branch out as we must to develop further technically.

2) Have Asian experience

Australia found out the hard way in the Asian Cup that qualifying for the World Cup through Asia will be very tricky. The diversity of opponents, cultures and conditions is as extreme as it gets in World football and having a coach who has been there, done that and been successful would be a huge boost for the Socceroos.

3) Be willing to re-locate to Australia

Now that Australia is in the early stages of implementing it’s new National Football Development Plan, it is even more vital that whoever takes over the reins of the Socceroos lives here full-time. There will be a lot of work to do and oversee across all age-levels and the A-League. Quite simply, this will mean we should try and avoid a manager being based for the majority of his time in Europe or elsewhere.

4) Have a high profile/be charismatic

Football in Australia still has momentum built up from the last World Cup campaign that needs to be built on even further; the momentum and good-will won't last forever, though (in fact it has no doubt already decreased since the World Cup). What better way to build on this momentum than bringing in a high profile coach or one that is charismatic enough to feed the growth of the game even more?

Ideally the coach will act as an ambassador for the sport as a whole, we all know how competitive the market is for sport in Australia so this point is important as if the right person gets the job he could be successfully marketed as the public face of the new development plan.

5) Play an attractive style of football

Many would argue with me on this one but linked to the above point, Australia is a hugely competitive sports market and therefore we cannot afford to have a coach in place that burdens us with an un-attractive long-ball style of game, regardless of whether or not it gets results. The incumbent coach should carry on Hiddink's legacy in this regard and encourage the players to uphold the possession at all costs mantra that Hiddink instilled in his players so successfully and in such a short space of time.

6) Have been successful

Last but not least, the incumbent coach will have been successful at both club and national level as a coach (success in this case would mean winning titles). Any proven ability to have been successful in a country other than his own would be a merit as it would demonstrate an ability to have broken through the constraining and potentially hindering walls that exist when trying to succeed in an environment and culture foreign to your own.

Now let us first go through some of the names that have been bandied around over the past few days and see how they match the above criteria. The coaches that I am highlighting in detail below I classify as most likely to be hired due to their conceivable or real availability.

Pim Verbeek

Well he’s Dutch which means he gets a tick for the first desirable managerial attribute.

He has significant Asian experience having managed teams in Japan as well as been an assistant for Hiddink and Advocaat for South Korea and then taking over the reins himself to lead South Korea to 3rd place in the recent Asian Cup. I reckon he earns a tick for this desired managerial attribute also.

He has been quoted in this article as saying he’d be happy to re-locate to Australia and gave sound, logical reasons why it would be important for the coach of Australia to live in Australia. Another tick for this one.

He certainly doesn’t have the same high profile as a Hiddink or Advocaat. As for his charisma, from the little I have seen of him, it doesn’t seem to be a strength or a weakness. You would have to give him a cross for this desired attribute.

Not having been able to watch any of Korea’s games during the Asian Cup as I live in Europe I must plead ignorance on point 5. As he’s Dutch and was assistant to Hiddink I’ll give him a tick for this one (not very scientific reasons I know!).

Verbeek hasn’t had great success at club level, his most recent club managerial experience was with Kyoto Sanga F.C in the J-League in 2003 and from the stats (W 6 D 5 L19) it wasn’t a great year for Kim or Kyoto. Not taking into account the success of the Hiddink team he was an assistant for, his biggest success in management is undoubtedly from his most recent stint as a manager, leading Korea to 3rd place in the Asian Cup. So on balance as he hasn’t been a winner, probably a cross for this this desired attribute as well.

This leaves Pim Verbeek with a score of 4 out of 6.

Jorvan Viera

He’s not Dutch. He does though originate from an obviously strong footballing country and culture in Brazil having coached there early in his coaching career. Has a long coaching CV from many different places so he deserves a tick for the first desired attribute I think.

Asian experience is an obvious strength for Viera. He has vast Asian experience especially from the middle eastern part of the confederation. Manging Iraq to the Asian Cup under exteme adversity underlines that not only is he experienced in Asia, he is successful to boot (not to mention resourceful). Definite tick for attribute 2.

Like Verbeek, Viera has come out and said he would be willing to re-locate to Australia. Tick for desired attribute 3.

Not a high-profile choice. Somewhat of a journey-man of a coach. Haven’t seen enough of him in the media to now of his charisma but this point appears to be his weakness. Obviously an intelligent bloke as he apparently knows seven languages and has a doctorate in Sports Science, but I will give him a cross for this desired attribute.

Lack of seeing his teams in action again means I will presume that he plays attractive football as I haven’t heard anything to the contrary from the Asian Cup (I may be proved wrong on this point). I’ll give him a point for this as I did for Verbeek.

Viera has led a number of his club teams to titles in a number of countries over his career. As mentioned, he led Iraq to the Asian Cup which must go down as one of the greatest managerial feats ever due to the limited and disjointed preparations the team had. Another tick for how he scores for this desired attribute.

This leaves Jorvan Viera with a final score of 5 out of 6.

Martin Jol

He’s Dutch. Tick.

No Asian experience whatsoever as a coach. Cross.

No word on whether or not he’d be willing to re-locate to Australia but as he hasn’t said anything either way, I’ll give him a half score for this desired attribute.

He would be a high-profile choice largely down to the fact that he has just finished a managing role in the Premier League which is undoubtedly the most watched league at the moment in Australia (and even the know-nothing sports journalists from the mainstream media in Australia have at least heard of the Premier League and Tottenham). A tick on this one purely because of that.

Tottenham were known for their attacking football under Jol, it was their defense that was the problem at times. On balance, a tick for this desired attribute.

Jol has had success at club level in the Netherlands winning silverware and did a good job at Spurs lifting them into European contention. As it hasn’t been sustained success (as in winning tiles and trophies regularly) over his managerial career, he deserves only a half score for this desired attribute.

Martin Jol finishes with 4 out of 6.

Johan Neeskens

He’s Dutch.

Has some Asian experience through his time as Hiddink’s assistant. Engineered an impressive Asian Cup qualifying win against Bahrain when Hiddink was away and the team was 1-0 down at half-time. He earns half a point for this one.

Would most likely to be willing to re-locate; he even more than Hiddink seemed to warm to Australia and Australians, so I will give him a point for this desired attribute.

A top former player who has scored in a World Cup final and current assistant at Barcelona give him a fairly high-profile, though his profile doesn’t necessarily stem from his management skills. Half a point.

Being Dutch and having spent all of his time since assisting Hiddink at the World Cup under Rijkaard at Barcelona there is a high likelihood that attractive football would be the norm under a Neeskens-led team. One point.

Unfortunately for Neeskens, previous managerial success (where he's the sole man in charge) wouldn’t be his strongest point. So for this he scores no point.

Johan Neeskens finishes with four out of 6.

While it is not an exhaustive list, I have a feeling the next manager will be one of the above due to their current employment circumstances meaning it more feasible that they would be able to take up the position quickly. I think that the man who scored highest from the above grading (Viera) is not the most likely though; to be honest none of them are, it is really difficult to know which way the FFA will go on this one. No one candidate sticks out for me.

That is why they should make enquiries after all Dutch managers coaching at the highest level in Europe. Frank Rijkaard, Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman would be a good place to start. Out of that trio, I think van Gaal would be the man Australia could most possibly get, the other two have more prestigious positions at big Spanish clubs while van Gaal is managing a less glamorous Dutch team (AZ Alkmaar and doing a pretty good job too!). Louis van Gaal would be the man I’d go after out of the above trio as he also has experience as a technical director at Ajax, which would mean he could offer Australia even more help in that area too. But van Gaal hasn’t been mentioned by anyone in the Australian media from what I see, so maybe it is my own private pipedream (one of many I assure you!).

The Big Names

Then there are those who I consider to be in what I would call "the big names but do we want them, or them us?" category. Jürgen Klinsmann, José Mourinho and Fabio Capello have been the main ones mentioned.

Klinsmann is highly unlikely in my book and coached even his native Germany from the US; what chance that he suddenly will want to move even further to coach a country he has had no previous connection to, Australia? Not much I reckon.

Mourinho is a huge name and gets trophies, no one would be stupid enough to argue otherwise. But he was let go by Chelsea for playing unattractive football and besides, can you really see the self-proclaimed “special one” deciding to take up a job such as this? The odds must be extremely long and I don’t know why some of the media are even wasting column space with the notion. No chance.

Capello has the same issues as Mourinho in that he wins trophies nearly everywhere he goes but also seems to turn off the fans with his style of football. Seems to be awfully keen on the England job too if you read this article.

There it is, I’m sure that the FFA will make a fool of me and appoint someone else not listed above but I think an exercise such as what I’ve just done demonstrates how tough the decision is going to be for them. Sure, there seem to be many candidates but many are unrealistic or just plain silly. At this vital time in the games history in Australia, the powers that be in Australian football need to make sure that the new coach has the necessary abilities to not only bring success on the pitch for Australia but also off the pitch.

Let’s hope they choose wisely.