5 things that have ruined Premier League football and are not VAR and the new handball rule

If I hear another ‘pundit’ or manager complain how the new handball rule is ruining the game, I’ll tear out the remaining hair I have on my head. The twaddle that has erupted because some players, with the aid of technology, have been adjudged to have broken a rule, is amazing. The two managers, after Newcastle got a last minute penalty and earned a 1-1 draw with Tottenham, took different stances (funnily, the beneficiary was highly critical of his fortune):

Not everyone is buying this lamentation:

Ken Early thinks there’s a wider problem:

‘Except the problem is not the rule. The rule is only a second-order effect of the real problem, which is VAR. VAR has shown us that football is, to a surprising extent, a game of micro-handballs. In the past referees dealt with them equitably, by failing to notice them. If it happened too fast to be perceptible to the naked eye, nobody worried about it. No body, no crime. Now VAR spots everything that could possibly be a handball and demands to know what the referee is going to do about it.

However, my feelings go wider than the vein-bursting screams of Jamie Carragher that it’s “an embarrassment!”

Not one of the commentators thought to mention things that are a basic part of the modern game that have ‘ruined it’ for fans. Well, let me put a few to you.

1. Handling the ball instead of letting a goal score: that’s a rule being applied to its letter, but none of the moaners are arguing that a player should let the goal score and not handle, get a red card, and then help his team because a penalty kick is awarded instead of a clear goal. The injustice of that is beyond dispute! The selection below includes some handballs efforts to try to cheat and score a goal. They also include some odd handball decisions that had nothing to do with (and pre-date) VAR. The game was already ruined!

The game was not ruined by Maradona’s ‘hand of God’? Give me a break!

The gleeful celebration of a cheat, afterwards!

2. The ‘professional’ or ‘tactical’ foul denying a clear goal scoring chance. These so-called ‘dark’ arts of the game cannot be called for what they are; or are they? ‘Professional’ and ‘tactical’ speak to how they are taught and used as part of the ‘beautiful’ game at its highest level. Commentators are often ready to praise how a player ‘takes one for the team’, with such actions, committing the foul and getting maybe no worse than a yellow card.

3. Price of replica kits: ‘Dr. Peter Rohlmann, a sports merchandising expert carried out a study of the breakdown of the income and expenditure involved the market of replica shirts. He found that the manufacturers’ costs of material, labour and shipping were less than £5 per shirt, so a top selling for £50 is a 1000% mark up on costs. Perhaps the one surprising finding from Dr. Rohlmann’s report is that the clubs themselves merely receive around 6% of the price of the shirt, that is £3 on a top retailing for £50.’ The game isn’t ruined? I guess not, given the kit sponsorship money that clubs get.

4. Transfer fees and player salaries. I watched Spurs-Newcastle at the weekend and the cameras were trained on Gareth Bale, who’s just returned to his former club, after several years at Real Madrid, which seemed to end unhappily with him clearly not wanted by the club. But, poor (sorry, not poor) Gareth had to live with that and little playing time. How could he cope? Just so: ‘his wages are reported to tot up to an eye-watering sum of £350,000 a week after tax. Bale joined Real Madrid from Tottenham in September 2013 for a then world-record transfer fee of £85m (100m euros), and then signed a contract extension in 2016 worth a reported £150million, according to the Guardian. Contracted to the club until June 30, 2022, he is said to earn £600,000 a week before tax.’ Game not ruined for us all? I figured (no pun intended) not. Any wonder that ‘This year saw the Cardiff-born star top the 2020 Sunday Times Rich List in May, when he was named the wealthiest active sports star aged 30 or below.’ A player who cannot command a regular full-time spot on a team! Give me some of that! Game definitely not ruined for us.

But, let’s not heap blame on young Gareth, alone. Look at the top 10 young list; everyone’s a footballer, bar Anthony Joshua!

Oh, yea! The game is healthy and doing us all good. 😦

5. Entrance fees. The Premier League’s own research shows that ticket prices are about £30 pounds a game. About 3/4 of fans are season ticket holders: a £400 season ticket for 19 Premier League matches is £21.05 per match ticket. But such tickets for match-going adults last season ranged from £458 (Sheffield United) to £1395 (Tottenham). Top-end tickets were about £90 per match.

Though a bit out of date, the Bleacher Report indicated that paying to go to matches was out of the reach of ordinary punters: going to the football has become an unaffordable activity for the majority of the traditional supporter base’. ‘The cost of attending football has risen at more than twice the rate of the already extortionate cost of living in Britain today.’

For a little comparison, tickets for Bayern Munich’s games were lower than in any of the four top tieof the football LEague.

But, fans in the Football League still love the game, according to the EFL Supporters Survey 2019, and about 2/3 of them wanted goal-line technology and VAR to help with officials make decisions; that view might have shifted with experience, but it’s acknowledged to be a work in progress.

If Jamaican politics were the FA Cup Final

Today’s my daughter’s birthday and to celebrate, in her absence, I’m giving myself licence to be the Dad I am—a bit loony.

I’m a former footballer of not bad skills; think Adama Trouré with dashes of Wilf Zaha, on the right wing, mainly, sometimes on the left, as I was a good player with both feet. I was also a midfielder in later years, both right and left—energy bunny—and even played sweeper and full back when I was a player-manager—wide head. Gawk! Have to do everything, myself!

I often see sporting parallels in lots of life—I’m also a former sprinter of decent ability as a teenager.

I was singing Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September’ to myself when I saw something about one of our political leaders. So, I wondered how things would be if, we were just savouring the FA Cup Final—played under COVID-19 rules, with very few spectators, but the usual intensity. Belmont (aka ‘The Bells’, playing in their familiar green and white and sporting footwear from a new sponsor), just crowned league champions, again, played Hope Academy (aka ‘The Academics’, having their roots in the intramural university football scene). Hope played in their usual orange and black, but their uniforms looked a bit worn and rumours of financial troubles looked to be true.

Belmont really rang the Academics’ bell, much like Leicester shellacked Southampton last year 9-0, coming out easy 4-1 victors; the win was sealed by half time. A couple of decisions had gone to VAR, but nothing really mattered to the overall score.

So, let’s peep into the dressing rooms and hear the managers’ team talks. First, let’s listen in on Hope, whose manager, in his 70s, is more like a Roy Hodgson figure—having steered the national team through some tough matches some years ago, but now trying for success at the club level. He’s somber and not given to rashness. He’s a local, and goes by the nickname “The Rock”:

“Put the blame on me. I led the team. We weren’t well prepared. Up front, in defence, especially in the middle, where we lost control and gave away the ball too easily. Damion, you had a shocker. Sorry, mate, truth hurts. You wanted all the plays to go through you, whenever we released you into space, you turned around a million times, your hair got into your eyes—those locks, mate—and you shot the ball at our goal at lest three times! We couldn’t win with that. Buck up, man!”

Damion was the team darling, and though he’d left the club a few times are being booed by home and away fans, had decided to give it another go, and had been awarded the captaincy. The Rock turned in frustration and said:

“You know, stuff this for a game of soldiers! I think you’re not serious and I don’t see that I need any of this, now. We’ve just had our heads hand to us, and as I’m talking I can hear you catfighting over who’s going to get the Digestive biscuits. What a bunch! You, Bunsome! You talked a lot before the match, but where were you when we needed someone to get stuck in? I’ll be surprised if you don’t get put on the free transfer list right away.”

“My health is a bit dicey and I’m in the vulnerable category for COVID; my family is really where I should focus. I’m done! The owner and director can figure out who they want to run this show, but it ain’t me.”

Along the corridor, we can hear the frenzied singing of a winning team: “Campeon! Campeon!…” We ease the door open, and the players are spraying each other and the gaffer with what looks like huge bottles of pineapple soda. Champagne will come later, we imagine. But, let’s get a bit closer as he gathers them together.

He’s another local manager, who likes to be called ‘Brigadeer’—he’s a natural leader with boyish good looks; he’s much younger than ‘The Rock’, and not as experienced, but he’s just come off a superb season—his team had an unassailable lead in the table, before COVID-19 forced all matches to be abandoned.

Little had got past his team in league games, especially on the wings, where masterful coverage was offered by two relative newcomers, Cameron Jordan-Smythe (a polyglot, who spoke the many languages of football style), and “Faithful’ Wilberforce, whose tactical brain and positioning meant being at least a move ahead of any opponent, and had grabbed her chance to impress when one of the team stalwarts was suspended in mid-season.

Some of his flamboyant forwards, were often wasteful in front of goal. One especially tricky dribbler, Darius Vasco de Gama, who has Brazilian blood, had really skated on thin ice once too often with match officials and seen the red card for some reckless play. He had a public tongue lashing from the manager: “His judgement has been poor! Really poor!”. A couple of seasoned players had also tipped the boat badly by getting into some money trouble and hanging with the wrong crowd, and had to be suspended for a number of matches—Rogelio Rendon and Andres Vietlief. But, the team had regained its confidence, come together well, blending some players thought well past their prime, with some stunning young talent, and sealed the deal once matches resumed in mid-June.

Here’s Brigadeer:

“What can I say? We did it in the league. We put in the road work and our legs stayed strong, even after the little lay off. We showed stamina; they took water breaks, we just sucked up the air and stayed focused. I love it! Hands in, on five, ‘My team!’. You know I don’t like pointing to anyone but myself for our successes or our failings—though we’ve few of those, eh. Hehe! But, I want to say a word about Nilesy (Niles Christensen). He came from Iceland and I really wasn’t sure he’d survive in the rough and tumble of our football, with its faster play, tough tackling, and some hostile crowds. But, he did. He had everyone on the carpet with his calm distribution. Nilesy, you’re the man, our MVP. My other word has to go to Cristoph (Tottenburg, for the media). Boy, did you come good for us after the break; re-energized and it seemed that no one could mark you. Untouchable, mate! I know you’ve ambitions to try a club in Europe, and whispers are Barcelona are interested but so too are Bayern; or you may just say it’s your time to manage a team. Whatever, happens, good luck, and I really appreciate the dedication and the vision. Kristoph!”

We’re being waved away, now, as the team looks to say a few words in private prayer. That really was a good look at how defeat and victory sit on the shoulders of players. Back to the studio.

#COVID19Chronicles-99: July 22, 2020-How does it feel to lift the trophy? Part 1 #YNWA

This is the prelude to an historic moment; Part 2 will get written once the trophy presentation is over, following today’s match with Chelsea, at Anfield. So, this is really about anticipation, and it’s been a long time coming, whether you want to measure it on the 30-year arc, or the much shorter, but still intense arc of this current season, with the totally unexpected shutdown of most of the world due to a global pandemic. The title was a sniff away, when the league suspended matches after the last fixture on March 9, and Liverpool needed 6 points to assure the title. The 3-month wait till resumption on June 17 was filled with lots of anxiety for most Liverpool fans, especially when talk involved making the season null and void, when the lead was 25 points! (It was also anxious for other clubs, too, who were either looking from near the top of the table at possible European qualifying places through those who were even mid-table but could see possible relegation in their future. A lot of juggling was happening below the Premier League, though these will all be resolved today, when the Championship has its final match day today. Leagues below have all been settled with play-offs or standings determined by statistical trends.)

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Liverpool FC today will hoist the trophy for winning the Barclays Premier League, having never won it, and 30 years on since they last won the top league in England (and Wales). The joy of hoisting it at home in front of fans at Anfield will have to wait a few more weeks, because the country is still in the grip of various forms of restrictions on crowds gathering and social distancing.

It’s bitterly ironic that this happens after the last home game and the opponents are Chelsea FC, who cruelly snatched the title away from Liverpool in 2014, as a result of ‘the slip’ by Steven Gerrard.

They lost the game 0-2 and missed the title by 2 points, behind Manchester City. In the days before VAR, it was no saving grace that Raheem Sterling had had an equalizing goal disallowed against City, for an offside decision that was about 1 metre wrong :(: “Such a poor decision; you could see it with your naked eye.”

So, the bitter taste in then-manager Brendan Rogers’s mouth at the end of that season must have been awful. Scoring 101 goals, for the highest tally for runners-up. Last year, with 97 points, they lost the title to City, again, by one point; the highest total points for runners-up. That, after having a massive lead in the title race, months earlier. That, added, to the long wait for the Championship was a head of pressure that’s hard to fathom and to keep going for a club that had its heyday as league leaders and cemented itself into European Cup/UEFA Champions League history with astonishing comeback victories.

Fast forward. Rogers leaves Liverpool and moves to Celtic, where he gobbles up domestic trophies for a few years before coming back to manage Leicester and show with their resurgence of form that he is really a good manager. But, it opened the door for Jürgen Klopp and the rest is history.

So, the title-winning side was built on a solid base over a half decade and more.

The 2018/19 season was amazing and capped with a great UEFA Champions League win that was more than deserved after the summary dismantling of Barcelona in the semi-final 2nd leg at Anfield. “The unthinkable, the unbelievable…comeback”, from 0-3 after leg 1, to win 4-0. And how!

I guess an absolute neutral can watch and imagine the task and how it was managed and feel unmoved. But, every time I watch the 2nd half of that match, I am covered totally in goosebumps.

That Spurs pulled off a similar feat in their semi-final to beat Ajax 3-2 away, with similar last minute drama—winner in 90+5 minutes—makes the whole story both bizarre and pleasing beyond description. “I do not believe it!” I still don’t believe the 2nd goal Lucas Moura scored.

So, Liverpool went on and lost to the Community Shield to City on penalties, then won the FIFA Club World Cup and the UEFA Super Cup before December, and were already soaring in the Premier League, and the 2019/20 season was already one for the ages.

We are the Champions! But, have we learned the lessons?

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Reggae Boyz, victorious in the Caribbean Cup, and the coach is happy

They did it. The Jamaican men’s national team, aka the Reggae Boyz, won the Caribbean Cup last night. The flat facts are that the game ended 0-0 are normal time, and no goals were scored in extra time, so the match went to a penalty shoot out. Jamaica started well, scoring its first two penalties. Trinidad missed its first. All looked set till Jamaica missed its third kick, putting some drama into proceedings. But, Trinidad (FIFA rank 49) did not seem as comfortable, and when their kicker skied their fifth shot, the cup was Jamaica’s by a 4-3 margin.

Pandemonium followed as the relatively small crowd got the win they had hoped for. The coach, Winfred Schäfer was a little overcome with emotion immediately after the match, but had breath enough to utter that the team benefited from its preparation.

The simple profundity of that point may be lost on some. But, I am one of those who have wondered why the national team had been on a path set to fail rather than succeed, with a series of friendly matches notable for the lack of time to prepare. Off to Europe, long flights, tight schedule…results showed that very good teams have little sympathy with mediocre teams who are not up for the game. The result that stood out was the 8-0 drubbing by France (FIFA rank 7). I don’t know if Jamaicans were really shocked rather than embarrassed.

More recently, the team schlepped off to Japan (FIFA rank 52), and reportedly had half an hour to practice before the match. The ‘narrow’ 1-0 loss is not the thing to focus on, but the fact that having taken two days to reach a destination then try to play a high-level match is the action of the suicidal. Jet lag. Climate difference. Cultural difference. Away match nerves. Name many other things that were working against a team. Then, to practice as long as most people spend on dinner is a travesty.

If I were a serious Jamaican, I would have called for the head of someone, and I did in an indirect way. But, this is the fault of the Jamaican Football Federation, which needs money so badly it cannot put its players into a national training camp and find opposition to play at home or nearer than in Asia, and present the country with stale excuses about why the team is losing.

Jamaica’s FIFA ranking slumped badly as a result of the farcical venture and the string of losses, and sat at 113 coming into the Cup competition. To me, that alone should have been a humiliating outcome of a period of ‘rebuilding’. The nonsense was best summarised by the fact that they were ranked lower than Antigua and Barbuda (#70).

Many people looked at the ranking without understanding that the placement matters. Players cannot get into the major European leagues if their national teams are ranked outside the top 75, so Jamaica’s development could be hurt by that unnecessary slip.

The country has an abundance of talented players. We are not spoiled by the riches that Louis van Gaal has to manage at Manchester United–are any of his subs Jamaicans? But, we have a small crop of players capable of holding their own in the premier divisions around Europe. We could have more and that should be the aim. The current coach understands that locally-based players cannot compete well enough against seasoned internationals in much better teams, who are almost all playing in the top leagues in Europe or Latin America. National pride is not really hurt because the team has only 4 locals in the squad. Antigua– a tiny nation–has realised this, and had only two (if memory is right).

Much of the discussion about football that goes on locally is not about the national team: it’s about schoolboy football. That really sums up one of the major dilemmas. Local football at the professional level is not that good. That has to change. We would be laughed out of the room if we went around touting how well Jamaica College had been doing in the Mannings Cup and wondering if STETHS would again haul in the Dacosta Cup, and who were the real close rivals. Truth is, though, that professional football is at least the second class citizen in that conversation. Few have resources as good as the schools on which to play.

Talk has moved, recently, towards how the local professional game can be developed and the many ideas all have some merit. Will any of it materialise? Well, the chances are improved by a better performance this past week. Backers like winners. It’s a better platform on which they can build.

Let’s hope that Coach Schäfer can get enough time with his players to run good camps before each set of fixtures. The Captain (Horace Burrell) should know that to bake well, the ingredients need to given time to rise before they are put into the heat of the oven.

No chalk, good talk, and much innovation in education: UNICEF Activate Talk, Kingston

The Jamaica office of UNICEF held its version of ‘Activate’ talks, last night, at the UWI Law Faculty. As the UNICEF website states, these talks ‘bring together innovators, experts and thought-leaders to showcase the latest innovations that can deliver progress on the major issues confronting the most vulnerable and marginalized children in each country’. The Jamaican offering was “Far from Chalk and Talk: Learning from Innovative Approaches in Education.” My fellow blogger, Emma Lewis, has written a very good piece on this already and I will not even attempt to do better, so read her post in the Gleaner’s Social Impact blog.

I ended up at the talk in interesting circumstances, as a special guest, having responding to a promotional challenge for ideas of innovate ways to educate. I offered them my ‘magical’ approach to teaching some very young children the rudiments of football.

Children learn readily through play. Games are often an easy way to try to give new information. A child’s imagination is usually fertile ground. Even when children cannot count, read or write, their ability to relate physically goes far.

For example, I was coaching 2-3 year olds soccer. They cannot understand the mechanics of kicking or throwing. Some can barely run without stumbling. They do not have good control over their legs and arms, or heads. But, they know stories.

So, to get them doing exercises, we ‘played in the woods’. We walked like bears: our arms bent high at our shoulders. We writhed like snakes, arms together, in front, making weaving motions. We froze: keeping our balance and being attentive to any noises in the woods. We picked up sticks, bending down to reach for imaginary pieces in front of each foot. Then we threw them to the sky, raising our arms high above our heads.

After 10 minutes, we are all loose, sweating, and laughing. We could now start to do some faster running, to the fairy house behind the bush.

I believe in fairies, so do children. Do you?

They believe in fairies!

After I coached this group of kids yesterday, several of them offered their principal a piece of ‘cake’ that we had baked with ‘raisins’ and ‘strawberries’, in an ‘oven’ under a noni tree. She graciously took ‘slices’ with her as she headed off to teach at another school. Some of the children could not contain themselves when their parents arrived for pick-up, and had to show off their best ‘lion’ roars, which I’d just asked them to do as it’s a good way to get them to take deep breaths. 🙂

Yours, truly, with Allison Hickling, Communications Specialist, UNICEF
Yours, truly, with Allison Hickling, Communications Specialist, UNICEF

As is very common in Jamaica, and many small countries, the audience was full of people already known, or with whom one is already connected.

Allison Hickling turns out to be a family friend whom I had never met before. Some UNICEF and UN staff I knew from my time as a resident representative in Guinea, and they had since been transferred to Jamaica.

I have had nice connections with Jason Henzell, Chair of the BREDS Treasure Beach Foundation, and work with one of his former football coaches, now that I am coaching at schools in Kingston. Interestingly, the video that Jason showed last night had ‘games’ that I have used a lot in the past, including ‘trust’ games (such as encouraging people to fall with their eyes closed, assured that they will be caught) for team-building. As you can see, above, I also like to let kids’ imagination do the work. Adults are often uptight about ‘feeling goofy’.

Deika Morrison and I had never met before, but we spend a lot of time having interchanges on Twitter, and I love what she’s doing with Crayons Count, the benefits of which I have also seen first hand at the school my daughter attends.

Dr. Renee Rattray and Marvin Hall are both people I want to meet again, not least because they have amazing energy and ideas for working with ‘less-advantaged’ children, which is an area to which I am drifting with some other activities.

Laugh with me, not at me: the Brazilian national football team seeks redemption

Real life came back to Brazil abruptly when it was hosed by Germany in the World Cup in midweek. The president admitted that. Her political fortune might have gone up in flames with it, but that’s her life. Today, the football team gets a chance for some redemption, or the complete cementing of their legacy as loses. They play for third place against Holland, who have been frequent losing finalists. What should Brazil do? Play the A team, which capitulated so badly that they all should be sent for psychological assessment? Put in the B team, which clearly wasn’t good enough earlier to pull any rabbits out of hats? Play some new combination? Mix and match? If they win, what will it matter? It’s not for the big banana. If hey lose, it just goes to prove that they were kittens in paper bags and a bunch of whatever pejorative Brazilians use.

I would not want to be Coach Scolari on any day, least of all this one. His star player, Neymar, save some ignominy by being injured for the naked ice bath, has an agent, as do all the big footballing kahunas. He also goes by one name, Ribiero. He wrote on his Twitter account a sarcastic list of credentials to be a Brazilian national coach:

‘One – being Portugal Coach and winning nothing.’
‘Two – going to Chelsea and being sacked the following day.’
‘Three – going to coach in Uzbekistan.’
Four – returning to Brazil, taking over a big team [Palmeiras] and getting them relegated to the second division.’
‘Five – leaving the club 56 days before the end of the Brasileirao [season] to ‘escape’ the relegation.
‘Six – being an old jerk, arrogant, repulsive, conceited and ridiculous.’

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Now, Ribiero may really know diddly squat about football, but knows how to grab headlines. Last year he insulted the god of world football, Pele, who’d called Neymar “ordinary”, after disappointing national displays. Agent Ribeiro took out his pointed matchstick and jabbed Pele, saying his comments were pure “jealousy”, and insisting the Brazilian veteran would be an “inferior” player in today’s footballing world. Okay. I think Pele would be on any all-time team, if not the first pick. But, I’m no agent, so what do I know? So, children, let’s put away the toys and sing one more verse with Barney. “I love you. You love me. We’re just one big family…”

The match will be in Brazil’s administrative capital, Brasilia, while the final will be in Rio, the one-time capital and heart of the national spirit. The carnival and samba, and favelas and girls from Ipanema capable of walking onto any national men’s football team and beating the world, save their own men’s team. Well, that was a nice dream. Now, bitten by reality as if the arm of Ivanisovic were in the jaws of Suárez, Brazil is going to be the butt of jokes for all-time. It all happened in the worst of places, in Brazil. Not in the sun baked desert of Qatar. Not in the frozen steppes of Russia. Not in the lung-burning altitude of Mexico City, where they had already reached unreachable heights. But, in Bela Horizonte.

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Nothing pretty to see there.

It will be the end of the tournament for the hosts, and the stage will be set for the visitors to fill on Sunday. Neymar has thrown his hat onto Messi’s head and Argentina to win. He probably hates himself for backing the arch rivals, but how could he back the true Weltmeisters, Germany, after they shown that his teammates had no backbone?

That seems to sum up where the Selecao are: nowhere they want to be.

The beautiful game is now about to get deadly serious: Brazil 2014 semifinals

This is my third time being in the host country during the World Cup final stages. In England, 1966 was all about World Cup Willie and that ‘We’ll win the cup.” So, it turned out, and a victory so steeped in historical significance, as West Germany were beaten on the hallowed turf of Wembley.

20140708-120148-43308443.jpg I’d like to say that the word for the tournament should have been lionized. I really remember many things apart from the final. The kicking of Pele. The rise of Eusebio. The horrible tactics of the Argentina team, especially, Ratín. England playing in red, and the country full of bulldog spirit.20140708-121213-43933310.jpg I was wrapped up in it all. The West Ham trio of Hurst, Moore, and Peters were national heroes, so was manager, Alf Ramsey.

Twenty years later, I was on a working visit to Latin America, including Mexico in time for the final game. My boss had hooked up his tickets; I had to fend for myself. I did alright, snagging a pair from a tout at face value. My friend and I were right behind a goal, with a perfect view. The final was superb play and drama, with Argentina, blessed with the imagination and guile of Maradona, overcoming Germany, again. I was bitter that the Argentines were in the final, having cheated England out of the semifinals, with Maradona’s handball goal. But, I swallowed that as I feasted on my luck, seated at the final.

The endearing image of 1986 was Maradona, good and bad. It was his tournament.

The whole trip was intriguing, involving mainly meetings with central bankers, finance ministry officials, and commercial bankers, about how to get the region’s major debtors out of their debt crises, which had started with Mexico declaring default in 1982. Some of our meetings were interrupted by football, never the other way around, as we moved through Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico, as the region sought solace in the bliss that was football.

It’s only now that I notice that Germany was a constant, getting to the final each time I was present, and losing. Ominous? My Brazilian hosts must hope so. They have ready made excuses if they fall now, having lost one of their stars to injury. No more, Neymar.
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But, they have Christ the Redeemer looking over them in many ways. The statue is the dominant image of Rio. But, religion is taken seriously here, and saying that football is religion is no mere cliche. I think Brazilians feel that they will win at home. But, they are afraid…of Argentina. The rivalries between the two countries are long-lived, deep-seated, and ready to flare up over football. Brazil could lose to any country, but not Argentina. It would be beyond grief, if they lose. The ecstasy side would be simpler…party, forever.

Brazil has left one great image, the image of David Luiz scoring against Colombia in the quarterfinal. The free kick was sublime: a knuckleball kick, with ball not rotating and hit the net from about 25 meters. Watch it. Then see his glory run. Pure relief for him and 190 million others.

Churches are decked in yellow and green bunting, their insides bathed in green light.

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National colour on everything

If praying counted, the match will be Brazil’s.

Fans are donning their green and yellow garb, teeth are not spared. My wife has turned our troupe into Neymar babies. One paper had masks of the fallen hero. We are all number 10.

Heavy rain has just started, a few hours before the match. An omen? Pull out the rosaries.

Football can be Krul: How Dutch courage changed a match

Call me a snob about football. But, I think I’ve been in and around long enough to know what I see. Yesterday, another pair of quarter finals matches were played. Argentina looked better than Belgium throughout and got a 1-0 win with an quick volley from Higuain, whose form had been in question. Asked and answered. We watched the match by Copacabana Beach, in a restaurant with a good crop of Argentine supporters.

Next up was Holland-Costa Rica. I’m pulling for the Dutch, who are nation which has been to the final game the most and never won. It was what I would caught a hard-fought match. Costa Rica looked content to defend tightly and break away when they could. The Dutch looked to attack constantly, and snuff out counter attacks. Los Ticos were very well organized, and goalkeeper, Navas, was in great form; call him Howardesque’, performing similar heroic saves as the USA keeper had a few days ago on the same ground against Belgium. Maybe, it’s the grass. The posts and crossbar was playing for them too. The Dutch had good enough chances to score, but didn’t, and the match went to a penalty shoot out. Never my liking as a player, coach, or spectator. I would always prefer to see more play, with reduced numbers.

But, this shoot out would different. A minute from the end of extra time, the Dutch made a substitution. They brought on goalkeeper Tim Krul. “That’s an insult!” said my daughter-soccer coach. Not at all, I said. Krul is a great shot blocker, with excellent form in shoot outs. A bold move by coach van Gaal. This bringing on of a penalty saving specialist had never happened before in the World Cup finals. Bold the move proved to be, as Krul saved two shots and the Dutch won the shoot out 4-3. 20140706-070346-25426202.jpgThat set up the classic encounter with them against Argentina. You can look up the history of that contest, but let me just say the record shows epic battles.

Now, why did I mention snobbery? Some people thought the match had been pedestrian or boring. The latter came from its lack of goals. Since when has that been the measure of great football? It’s like saying that chess matches are boring because they end in stalemate. The countering plays of each side is THE game. Goals may come, but luck plays a big part. Instead of the woodwork being hit, we could have seen at least one stunning goal, which would have been memorable. But, football is also much about the agonizing near misses. So, put away your nonsense about boring and get back to reading about cuticle removal.

The game being pedestrian is trickier to deal with. It’s open to several views, depending on how literal one wants to be. I thought the match was played at a fast pace, considering the conditions, which we know to be hot and humid. But, it could refer to the style of play. The Dutch tried to weave their way through Costa Rica’s covering layers, and often found the way to hola blocked. The Costa Ricans played balls forward quickly, trying to catch the Dutch exposed in defence, but often finding their lone striker couldn’t get past the last defender. At least one commentator thought the Dutch moved the ball too slowly. Relative speed of play may matter to some, so I won’t bang hard against pedestrian. But, each team plays to its style and rhythm. The Dutch have Arjen Robben, who, though 30-something, was clocked at 37 kilometres per hour (23 miles per hour) during Holland’s 5-1 rout of Spain – a new record for a footballer. He is surely not pedestrian, except when lying prone on the ground.

Two thrilling semi finals to come, which will be played however each team feels best to shift the delicate balance of top-level play in its favour. Au Jeu.

The World Cup and the three wise monkeys: the lustre of Brazil 2014 is fading

Football brings out all the passion in players and fans. Often, the level of passion is excessive.

C'mon, ref! Did you see that?
C’mon, ref! Did you see that?

Players conduct themselves violently, verbally and physically. They often get punished for that. Fans go out of control, and fight or verbally assault opposing fans; they, too, sometimes get punished. Not all the crimes are seen, so some of them go unpunished. Technology can help with identifying offences. It often is with regards to fans’ behaviour; it is less often used for players: the governing body, FIFA, prefers to let errors be a core feature of the sport. To my mind, that is a very ignorant stance. It is getting full exposure during this World Cup.

FIFA bent a little by allowing ‘goal line technology’, so that ghost goals would not be allowed, and good goals would be counted. It has not been needed that much, and on one occasion seemed to fail, but it was because the ball approached the line twice; the right decision (goal) was made, eventually. But, it moves with fear and hesitation to use video technology further. It had to, though, because of a horrible-looking incident during the match between Italy and Uruguay. Luis Suarez, Uruguayan, appeared to bite Gustavo Chiellini on the shoulder, then seem to feign that he had been hit. FIFA mounted an investigation. They found Suarez guilty yesterday, and banned him for 9 matches, fined him SwF100,000, and from any football-related activity for four months. For what it’s worth, I think that sentence was ludicrously light. Sure, it will hurt his club and country in many important games, if they wanted to use his services. But, he is a serial and repeat biter of other players on a football pitch. He needs psychological help, clearly, if he feels that biting is a reasonable reaction to either minor provocation or no provocation. Amazingly, his team mates and national association, think that he has been hard done by and will appeal the sentence. But, other pertinent opinion is not wholly against Suarez. Citing a Reuters report:

  • Uruguayan Football Association president Wilmar Valdez: “…to me it really seems like a completely exaggerated and abusive sanction.”
  • Uruguay captain Diego Lugano: “Indignation, impotence, I think that’s what we all feel. We’d all like a fairer world, but that world simply does not exist. Those who rule, rule, and the strong ones are the strong ones… Keep feeling proud of him, he deserves it. Nothing will stop us. We will carry on with humility, union, determination, recognition of mistakes, and with our heads always high.”

Dr Andrew Evans, a performance psychologist at Nottingham Trent University thinks differently: “This punishment won’t serve as much of a deterrent to Suarez in the future as it’s too similar to previously imposed sanctions. What is really needed now is a psychological program capable of promoting long-lasting behavior change.”

We are FIFA. We are FIFA...
We are FIFA. We are FIFA…

Brazilian forward Fred seems supportive of Suarez: “It was unfair because it could end a player’s life. Four months, nine games, everyone on top of you, criticizing his error. He has to be punished, yes, but I’d like to see Suarez still playing in this World Cup.” (Perhaps, he means seeing him on another pitch and far away from him?)

Sports equipment firm Adidas: “Adidas fully supports FIFA’s decision. Adidas certainly does not condone Luis Suarez’s recent behavior and we will again be reminding him of the high standards we expect from our players. We have no plan to use Suarez for any additional marketing activities during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”

Andreas Campomar, author of “Golazo! A history of Latin American football”: “For many Latin Americans the ban will have wider repercussions. It will be construed as the usual high-handedness Europe employs in relation to Latin America. A case of one rule for them and one rule for us.”

We see reactions vary depending on relationships to the player concerned. Facts are not all the same, it appears. This, I know already. I also know that footballers do not see their own actions the same as those who watch them. But, let that confusion roll on.

Say "Please, nicely"
Say “Please, nicely”

A week or so ago, I took issue with a Jamaican organization that supports children, for their apparent willingness to put forward the good behaviour seen during the World Cup as examples for children to follow. I asked why they did that without reference to the very bad behaviour. They said they were stressing positives. I responded that it was as if the bad were invisible. Their CEO contacted me privately and told me that the messages were not clear and they would be withdrawn. I do not know how they would have survived a credibility test with the Suarez offences. Again, however, people seem to see what they want to see.

I don’t want to equate Suarez’s actions to those of a killer, but some the reactions are not far from those of The National Rifle Association, which is challenging proposed legislation that would prohibit stalkers and perpetrators of domestic violence from buying guns, arguing that not all stalkers are violent and that the bill violates their Second Amendment rights.

Some stuff happens out of sight to the viewing public. Take the action alleged by the Ghana FA, that Muntari punched a staff member, and Boateng insulted the national team coach; both players were sent home before the team’s final match. Muntari had punched Armah during a meeting over US$3 million of unpaid money as senior players rounded on team officials for not keeping promises. The Ghanaian players’ discontent over the lack of payment, which had been simmering for days, exploded on Tuesday when they refused to train–even threatening to boycott their match against Portugal on Thursday–until they were paid more than $3 million in appearance fees, to be divided among the 23 players (about US$130,000 each). The fragile situation even required an intervention by President John Dramani Mahama, who spoke to the players on Tuesday and assured them the cash would be loaded on a plane and arrive Wednesday afternoon. Ghana played on Thursday, losing 2-1 to Portugal, and a neutral observer could easily say that they looked nothing like value for money, even playing at a level so low it was hard to believe that they almost beat the mighty Germany a few days ago. As I wrote on Facebook: ‘Ghana showing that if any good set of players so desire, they can play with supreme ineptitude.’ If someone levelled another charge of match-fixing against Ghana, I would not be surprised.

Of course, technology is making FIFA and match officials into a laughing-stock. While, they covers their ears and eyes to the many offences that are committed in the name of ‘the beautiful game’, cameras catch most, if not all of them. Some are broadcast immediately, showing officials to be either incompetent, unobservant, capricious, uncaring, or any range of other negative characteristics. I loved the replay last night of a player being held back by his shorts, which just about stayed on: the referee saw nothing, admittedly, because the offending player manhandled his opponent to the referee’s blind side. But, the assistant should cover the other angle. I know the system does not work, but that’s the theory. Other images now get aired almost as quickly and with added flair. They can come as ‘GIFs’ or ‘memes’, repeating the offending action, with some added animation or commentary; take a look at a compilation here. Again, the officials can look foolish.

The Economist published a very good article a week or so ago, arguing that football is a great sport, but it could be so much better if it were run honestly. That dishonesty comes in many forms, some of which I have just touched. Self delusion, denial, lying, cheating, greed, slothfulness, and more can be seen at this World Cup. It’s really a crying shame.

The anger of my Ghanaian friends yesterday was palpable, as they carried the collective shame of ‘Paradise Lost’, seemingly for ’30 pieces of silver’. Contrast that to the image (staged?) of Muntari handing out money on the streets in Brazil a few days ago. I felt it too: I had pinned hopes on Ghana reaching the final and winning it all. They had been ousted in 2010 by a set of controversial circumstances, including a goal-saving handball in the final minute of normal time, by none other than…Luis Suarez! That had left a bitter taste. It still is there. It is more bitter because I saw a team of wonderfully talented players reduced to the level of mediocre 12 year olds. Energy sapped. Imagination gone. Ability to think nil. Ability to execute nil. How do you go from heroes to goats in only a few days? It can’t just be money.

But, the tournament will move on. Little can change in terms of how the games are administered. People are excited that referees can spray white foam on the field and players do not move from where they should be. Now, it’s obvious if cheating is going on. Yet, FIFA resists doing similar things to make games more transparent and officiating easier. They were dragged kicking and screaming to sanction water breaks, while players are wilting in extreme temperatures and humidity. But, the quality of football had been lost on them for a while. Why else give the tournament to Qatar? Why not send it to Greenland in December? Who cares that they are not FIFA/UEFA members?

I’m not going to rant about the way that a simple game can descend into chaos. You read about how referees have performed in each game, and have a laugh while thinking whether they have a hard job or make an easy job look hard. They are the camel on whose back the straws are laid.

The world at our feet...
The world at our feet…

The layers of straw are sitting in their luxury seats and loving the beautiful game and all its flaws. Play on!

Accepting change means overcoming fear: the beautiful game (Brazil 2014 edition) is a good teacher

I believe it is better to be hopeful rather than hopeless. My French host went for a job interview yesterday, in Paris; the train operators were still on strike. He travelled to Paris for free, because he was unable to buy a ticket. That’s a win-win, because the interview went well.

It’s good to correct mistakes early. I like to think that those who really want to change, look at what has happened and use the information to avoid a repetition. I am less hopeful about FIFA changing, but now and again I feel optimistic. A Jamaican paper reported: ‘FIFA said Friday it has withdrawn Colombian linesman Humberto Clavijo from World Cup match duties after he flagged in error for two offsides in Mexico’s 1-0 victory over Cameroon. Two goals by Mexico’s Giovani Dos Santos were ruled offside in Friday’s Group A game. FIFA did not give details of the incidents ruled errors.’ That is rare corrective action, in terms of speed and decisiveness. It would be nice if FIFA could bring itself to explain what went wrong, but I can imagine the men clutching their jackets and already feeling nausea over what they have done. Let them have some calm.

Small is beautiful in the beautiful game. Admitted, the world is mostly about small countries, but very small ones are kicking butt at this World Cup: Ecuador, Costa Rica, Belgium, Netherlands are riding higher than expected. The ‘superpowers’ have never dominated football, and we will see how the USA and Russia fare in coming matches.

Hairstyles seems to have gone wild. I have to laugh and the way that professional athletes try to get an edge. The shoes? The clothes? The supporters? They all count. But, the hair? It must matter. Why else all the bizarre designs? Read this lovely summary. Some look like they were done in the dark and with less than a steady hand. The French team alone seemed to have gone wilder than most in their match against the Swiss, who also had their share of ‘hair heads’.

People love to watch football. FIFA is ecstatic that during the first week all sorts of TV viewing records were smashed. Read their bumph. Great news for them now and going forward with the sale of future TV rights. The USA market may at last be on board. See that train roll. Most of my American friends are football (soccer) fans of long-standing. But, it’s the only place I know where during big international football events major celebrities seem to fall over themselves to gloat that they don’t get it, or find it boring, etc. I’m not going over the silly arguments with people who will spend hours watching baseball, which I love, too, but please put away the ‘boring’ card.

If FIFA could guarantee lots of goals. Most football fans will take matches without goals, but we all love to see the ball make the net bulge. We know that scoring is very difficult, so when it happens it is a big achievement; Hence, the mad reactions of scorers and supporters. Those dances are justified, though some need much more rehearsal: France, you have time to work on that as much as set piece plays; call the Colombians.

Time was that players focused on their golf and video games in their spare time. On the goals, rather than the celebrations, they are raining in. France and Swizerland served up seven yesterday. The average number per match is just under 2.9, on track to be the highest since the 3.8 in Sweden 1958. Why? Here’s a brief analysis. Robin van Persie’s ‘flying Dutchman’ is still the favourite and has spawned the craze of ‘Persieing’, based on his flying pose. But, Australian Tim Cahill’s volley was special, too. Those two nations served up a festival of good goals, so lap all of them up, here.

Let’s take sports health seriously. The inaction by officials during the match over the concussion of a Uruguayan player has so far been matched by the silence of FIFA on the incident. I wrote on this yesterday. If the player had died or suffered an obvious brain injury, FIFA officials could not find enough distance between themselves and lawyers and media baying for someone’s head. But, it need not get to that stage. Enough experience and expertise exists for FIFA to draw on. The notions that govern football are rooted in the 19th century. The world has moved far from that point. Use the progress. The world’s players’ union has called for an investigation of FIFA’s concussion protocol. Hydration issues are now well-known, but football matches did not take stoppages to ensure this happened. Instead, players use breaks in the action to get bottles thrown at them to suck on quickly; goalkeepers tend to keep some fluids in the goal for themselves, or share with players who come nearby. Americans have rolling substitutions for youth-through-college players, so leaving the game to get a drink is easier. Not so, the pros in most leagues. But, wait. Some have had enough. A court in Brazil has issued an injunction on FIFA for it to have mandatory water breaks during matches played in high temperatures. This is really forcing FIFA to enforce its own norms. They seem to just be dysfunctional as functionaries!The breaks are now mandatory when temperatures reach 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 Fahrenheit) in the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature index, which takes into account factors such as time of day, cloud cover, wind, humidity and location. Anyway, FIFA must pay 200,000 reals (about US$90,000) for each match in which the ruling isn’t enforced.

We are reaching the point in the matches when caution gets you nowhere. That’s good for excitement. The albatross that is FIFA will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept that many things about football must change. It nearly died before and its revival is better sustained with regular massaging. Is being in Zurich really the reason FIFA is so dull? Maybe, they should move the HQ to Rio.