Tuesday, November 19, 2013

France's qualifying woes actually reflects well on FIFA - sort of

Today's UEFA World Cup playoffs will see France attempt to overturn a 0-2 deficit in hopes of qualifying for next year's football fiesta. Apparently local hopes aren't high, with one poll stating 84 percent of French citizens think the task will be too great for Les Bleus.

Ask the French Football Federation, and they'll intimate that the team shouldn't be in this position in the first place. This is because playoff seeding weights group-stage matches more heavily than friendlies. Because France drew a qualification group with four teams instead of five, Les Bleus were unable to achieve enough FIFA rankings points to demand a seed. Thus, Franck Ribery et al are now underdogs in a two-legged playoff against a quality Ukraine team who might boast one of the best home field advantages this side of Iceland. (And the US.)

France always contribute to the World Cup, whether because of sparkling football, a soliloquising coach or just because of their general combustibility factor (see: Anelka, Nicolas and Zidane, Zinedine). The Cup will miss them - as it will Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo, whichever player should not qualify. Plenty of teams are unlucky during the qualification process and thereby miss the Cup; four years ago, France got lucky when Thierry Henry's handball was instrumental in the Republic of Ireland missing out on a trip to South Africa.

FIFA are certain to want France to qualify for the sake of marketability and improved TV ratings, but may benefit indirectly by the absence of such a major nation. For many years - and especially since the farrago that the winning Qatar World Cup bid has been - the game's governing body has been seen as a laughable entity defined by factional and personal self-interest. Not "rigging the draw" to ensure all of Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo, Mexico and France's qualification is the first principled stand FIFA have made in years.

We can now celebrate Sepp Blatter and co. actually getting something right! Unfortunately, as recent events have come to light - predominantly surrounding football's newest/tiniest powerbroker, Qatar -  this stand is comparatively small. 

As will be the comfort taken by French football fans should Didier Deschamps’ men not triumph handsomely at the Stade de France this evening.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

World Cup 2014 deserves Iceland, not Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic

The argument that the World Cup would be immeasurably damaged by the absence of either Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo is understandable, but bobbins. While the sublime skills of these players would be missed – but perhaps not as much as their personalities – one wonders if the presence of  the best players in the world is actually what makes the World Cup great.

One of the greatest players in history, Georgie Best, never played at a World Cup Finals, yet the tournament during his career moved to the forefront of football’s imagination. Some more modern greats have appeared at the Big Dance on multiple occasions, only to continually disappoint. (I’m looking at you, Wayne Rooney. And you, Ronaldinho).

Throughout the qualifying process both Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (and the French national team) have trod many stages upon which they might shine. Either or both may still do so – probably to the other’s detriment. But the biggest platform doesn’t necessarily require the biggest stars; the World Cup is more about the sport’s unifying force than the paragon of the sport’s performance.

Seeding the Qualification and playoff draw may help ensure that the best players and most popular teams make it through to the World Cup finals, thereby protecting television rankings in major markets like France. But it does so at the expense of smaller nations who have achieved just as much (and, if relative populations are taken into account, more) to make the final phase of qualification.

If skill begets achievement and achievement deserves its place at the Cup, look no further than the minnows.

Put frankly, the 2014 World Cup would be greater for having Iceland – population 320,000 – enter the Big Dance for the first time in place of Cristiano or Zlatan doing so again. While moments of tremendous skill – often, but not always, perpetrated by the game’s greats – help improve the perceived quality of a tournament, this isn’t the reason why people watch the World Cup.

The Cup’s enduring appeal is a result of the multicultural and festive atmosphere that surrounds it, a product of nation playing nation at an event that occurs only every four years. The greatest and most dramatic moments from the last World Cup – which while perhaps not a great tournament technically, but absolutely engaging – were rarely a solo act of brilliance but the product of team play or the high stakes involved.

Moments of incredible technical prowess don’t make a World Cup. They help, certainly, but the reason the World Cup is the globe’s greatest sporting event isn’t necessarily soft-shoed talent – for that, look to the UEFA Champions League or any match featuring Lionel Messi – but the celebration of national pride and the unlikely stories behind the unfolding events.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Manchester United 2013-14 player use trends

The chart below maps the player usage trends of David Moyes at Manchester United. It's hardly revelationary, but it is interesting to get to grips with his concept of "squad rotation" (especially considering it's impossible not to hear how rarely he was afforded that chance at Everton).

If one certainty has emerged from this week, it is that this pattern will change, with Michael Carrick ruled out for up to six weeks with an Achilles injury. As you can see below, it is likley his minutes will be divided between Ryan Giggs, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini (because let's not talk about Anderson ... please).

Interesting trends include the deployment of Jones, Smalling, Evra and Rafael as prominent defenders during the club's recent nine-game unbeaten streak, as well as a forward reliance on Wayne Rooney and (recently) ... Shinji Kagawa.

Key: X = started match, I = made substitute appearance, 0 = unused substitute. Blank spaces = player left out of the matchday squad. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Farewell, Mark Schwarzer, and thanks.

I still get goosebumps.

It’s been nearly eight years since the greatest moment in Australian football, and whenever that shining, glorious shootout against Uruguay crosses my mind, I allow my mind to wander fondly around the memories.

Last night I watched that video again.

First came the goosebumps, prickling as if to reinforce the importance of what I was witnessing. Then, even though I’ve watched that film ten times or more, my temperature rose and my heart began thumping louder and faster.

As Marcelo Zalayeta strode to the spot, my eyes began to water.


No sporting event has left such an imprint on me as that shootout. It might be the most important Australian sporting moment this century, fuelling an Australian interest in soccer only Jonny Warren thought possible. The strength of the A-League and the Socceroos’ prominence in the Asian Confederation are thanks to that one Australian team and the feats of Marc Bresciano, John Aloisi and Mark Schwarzer.

When the maudlin mood takes me, the first and defining image I come to isn’t of Aloisi’s bare-chested sprint around the Sydney Olympic Stadium but Schwarzer, eyes closed, torso extended and fists pumping, howling in inarticulate elation.

Looking back, these seven minutes of footage completely represent the Socceroos involved. Tony Vidmar, rock solid and no fuss, perhaps the guy most integral to Australia’s 2006 qualification, did precisely what was required but fades into the background (he never played for the Socceroos again). Mark Viduka’s career is summed up by his near miss. Harry Kewell returned from an overstated injury to provide an element of sublime talent that Uruguayan goalkeeper Fabian Carini barely saw. Lucas Neill doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Aloisi, always the last forward used but forever effective, delivered the final blow as he would seven months later against Japan.

And Schwarzer, the man on whom that ultimate triumph was built. Longtime rival for the gloves Mark Bosnich might have saved one of those two penalties; contemporary Zeljko Kalac would have been lucky just to get near one. But Schwarzer, ever unflappable, ever uncompromising, simply outwilled his Uruguayan opponents.

That magical night cemented Mark Schwarzer as my favourite Socceroo; chances are he will never be replaced. And now, in the shadows of his third World Cup, he’s gone.

While too much is made of Australia’s Golden Generation, it is true that the nation has never had more talented teams than those in which Mark Schwarzer played. It is testament to the man that for the majority of his career, he was the first player picked; the player around whom his country's best were assembled. No matter how intimidating the opposition, there was a certain surety Australians felt with the big guy between the posts. More importantly, his teammates felt the same way.

Mark Schwarzer was the single most important (and approachable) Socceroo of his generation; honest, hardworking and, by dint confidence in him, capable of inspiring teammates into greater performances. He is, without question, the best goalkeeper – and perhaps the greatest player – Australia has ever produced. Certainly no other shot-stopper will be boast his resume, nor be remembered as fondly.

Thank you, Mark Schwarzer. Australian football wouldn’t be what it is without you.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Lloris injury highlights need for soccer concussion protocols

When Hugo Lloris shrugged off the Tottenham training staff and put himself back into Sunday’s game against Everton to save  the decisive penalty, public reaction moved quickly from curiosity to disbelief and then to rampant rationalization. 

The shot-stopper had recently concussed by an errant knee by Toffee forward Romelu Lukaku and despite his save, we must now ask whether players should input into such decisions.

Lloris, captain of France and number one at White Hart Lane, essentially pulled rank on educated medical professionals and convinced manager Andre Villas-Boas he was fine to continue despite obviously losing consciousness. It’s a fair bet Lloris couldn’t have named the President of France, the date or even his name and thus been assessed as having a (probably mild) head injury. 

Plaudits are often paid to those who play on despite injury. This is not one of those times. Alongside dizziness, visual dysfunction and sometimes vomiting, one cardinal sign of head trauma is reduced executive function (decision making).

Automatically, klaxons sound: if a player with diminished cognitive capacity has the loudest voice in whether he continues playing, serious consequences are close at hand. The decision must rest with medical professionals alone, usually by applying a concussion assessment tool. Altered executive function may result in the concussed player’s condition worsening, or him putting himself or other players at further risk. The best solution would be to remove such a player from the game and, if necessary, adding a fourth substitution mediated by the umpire.

British jockeys and NFL players have strict rules in place for the management of head injuries; if an athlete can’t pass the famed “concussion protocols”, they don’t play. The same must apply to football players both during and after matches – even though there’s less chance of such catastrophic impact, it can and does happen.

The reasons are simple. While manager Villas-Boas stated the final call rested with him, he is only sort-of right. The final tactical decision may rest with the manager, but had further injury occurred either to Lloris or another player due to Lloris’ reduced capacity then liability rests with the medical team. Ergo, the ultimate decision has to be made by trained healthcare providers rather than a coach or a motivated player with faculties perhaps already below 100%. Despite Spurs' protestations that they did clear the player, the time taken to do so on Sunday - in comparison with kayoed NFL players - seemed remarkably short even considering the circumstances.

The support staff for a club want the team to win just as much as players and coaches do. However, they must also balance this with the wellbeing of the individuals. While one would hope coaches and players also have player welfare foremost at heart, several past examples suggest this may not always be the case. With head injuries, especially in light of the recent spate of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy diagnoses, safer is better than sooner.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Beckham and Miami a perfect fit

News filtered through this week that David Beckham has selected Miami as his venue of choice for a new MLS franchise. The as-yet-unnamed team seems set to become the third visible expansion team after the Manchester City and New York Yankees’ joint venture, New York City FC and the record-setting Iron Lions of Orlando.

Really, selecting Miami was a no-brainer. The appeal of the city to athletes is notorious, and although one MLS franchise has already failed in South Florida, the times have changed in MLS such that Beckham and his co-investors are making this decision based on expected strong crowd support. While this hasn’t always been the case in South Florida – especially during particularly unsuccessful sporting summers – the city is a major market with a passionate soccer fan base.

(c) Author's own collection
Scanning the list of major US and Canadian cities without MLS franchises, Miami is the most populated unrepresented city and has been targeted by the league as a possible location for some time. Other options it was believed Beckham was looking at were San Diego, Orlando and … wait for it … Montreal.  

Commissioner Don Garber is on record plugging the merits of a twenty-four team league with a presence in Florida, Atlanta (please let this potential franchise keep their NASL nickname, The Silverbacks) and another SoCal team. That he has now leveraged three global brands into associations with MLS means smaller, more … optimistic parties should begin doubting their immediate chances.

As the business plans for each nascent franchise gain clarity, so does the picture of MLS’s mid-term future. Fittingly, David Beckham is front and center for this new era.