Monday, 26 November 2007

Aussies world cup downer

To everything there is a season, so the good book says. Well, reflecting on the sixteen months since Australian football was basking in the glorious German sun in 2006, you'd say that that particular season has turned distinctly and definitively. If the disaster of the Asian Cup finals was our autumn, then all of the portents for the upcoming qualifying season for South Africa in 2010 point to a rather more bleak mid-winter.

And in the last two weeks, Australian football has been hit with a triple onset of gloomy weather. First was the desultory spurning of the national team coaching position by the experienced Dutch manager Dick Advocaat. With many Aussies hoping that with Dick at least matching Guus Hiddink's nationality, that might put him at least part way to matching Hiddink's magic. But we weren't given the chance to find out, as Dick cocked his leg at the FFA and merely used the offer to extract some more roubles out of Zenit St Petersberg.

And in the last week, we have learned that several of the Asian qualifying ties don't fall on FIFA sanctioned international dates, meaning we will likely be denied the services of the bulk of our Europe based stars.

Finally, in last night's World Cup draw from Durban, Australia learned it had earned a spot in the Asian "Group of Death", alongside China, Qatar and its Asian cup nemesis Iraq.

Frank Lowy, godfather of Australian football, had nicked some pretty impressive chinks in the armour of the political juggernaut that is FIFA. Yet the happenings of the past two weeks just serve again to remind Australia how much progress it hasn't made in world football terms.

Not only can't we hold an experienced manager at his word, it is now any one's guess who we can recruit to steer the Socceroo ship through the qualifying campaign. Next, from the crazy match dates, Australia suffers the most of any of the Asian countries, with so many of its players in Europe. Don't expect any favours from Tim Cahill's gaffer at Everton, the anti-international terrorist David Moyes. And to cap it all off, Australia (and China) become the victim of the weird notion not to seed current Asian champions Iraq.

Australia found it tough enough to come to grips with the Asian challenge at this year's tournament in Malaysia and Thailand. The next lesson in its Asian football education looks like it just got a whole heap harder.

Australia made giant, joyous strides in its football journey heading to WC'06. It now faces a perilous path and will be desperate to avoid a slippery slide back down the hill.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Unlucky thirteen

It's been a fascinating season for Melbourne Victory. The mantle of "champions" is indeed a burdensome one to carry. And typically there's only one way for a current champion to go - down.

Victory manager Ernie Merrick is wise enough to understand that to attempt to stand still is in fact a recipe for being carried backwards in the current. So his 2006-07 squad has faced several changes. A number of fringe players out - Lia and Ferrante to Wellington, Sarkies to Adelaide. And, as stated before in these pages, the enforced loss of Fred to DC United.

All eyes, therefore, on the newer-looking combination as they kicked off the season. And stupefyingly, a run of five straight draws. And since then there's been a range of ups and downs. Until yesterday, when there was an almighty down, albeit in the context of a dramatic, traumatic contest.

One of the stand-out games of last season was the 3-3 draw when Central Coast came to Melbourne. And in yesterday's fixture at the deliciously named Blue Tongue stadium in Gosford, the same combatants fought out 90 minutes of similar ingredients to the Telstra Dome blockbuster 12 months back.

The sending off of Victory wing-back Keenan in the 21st minute proved a defining moment for this fixture. For the next hour of play, the visitors, in the same manner as when two players down a year ago at the Dome, played out of their skin. While the Mariners had their moments, hitting the woodwork twice, it was the disadvantaged Victory which produced its best football of the season. Muscat and new boy Pace holding firm at the back, ring-in Vasilevski proving to be a revelation, and the forward trio of Hernandez, Allsopp and Thompson looking as menacing as at any time this year. And the controlled way Victory brought the ball out of defence and into attack was exacting and admirable.

Reward was due, and finally arrived on 77 minutes when Hernandez finished off a concise move. Surely that would be that.

But several of the travelling party were just exhausted by that stage. And that, combined with the mental relaxation and attack-into-defence transition, meant that roles were suddenly reversed, with the Mariners pushing concertedly for an equaliser. It arrived only minutes later through the persistent Petrovski. On a day when new boy John Aloisi seemed plainly ineffective, it was always Petrovski most likely to be incisive.

Worse, much worse, followed for Victory, with Pondeljack finishing off a smart move in the 88th minute to leave Melbourne 2-1 down. And their misery was completed on 90 minutes with Vargas sent off for retaliating on the pesky Petrovski.

So in the space of 13 minutes, the champions forsook the chance to go equal top, instead find themselves sixth, and now with their defensive options decimated face the immediate prospect of a surging Sydney FC . Their backs are now truly against the wall, and require a turnaround of truly championship quality.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Coasting it

The new A-league season is well underway and at time of writing we have the quite remarkable situation of nine games played (two full rounds and the first game of round 3) and only one team has won any game – Central Coast, with 3 wins from 3, with the other six fixtures all drawn.

If the A-league was in England, Central Coast wouldn’t have a chance. They would be the Fulham or Derby County of the league. Sydney FC would undoubtedly be Chelsea and Melbourne Victory Man United. The salary cap, the two-headed monster of the fledgling Aussie league, is the saving grace. While it is the reason that the league can’t hold onto players like Victory’s Fred, or fails to lure the still out-of-contract John Aloisi, it’s also the reason that every team has at least on paper a decent chance of winning the thing.

And so it’s the unlikely Central Coast out of sleepy Gosford that rules the roost at present. And they’ve done so to date with a sparkling brand of football. One of the most enjoyable and absorbing games I saw last year was their visit to face an all-conquering Melbourne Victory at the Telstra Dome. A blistering opening 12 minutes saw four goals, and by half time Central Coast led 3-2 and Melbourne were down to nine men. The second half with only one albeit gloriously late goal from Danny Allsopp was just as compelling as the first, as the visitors piled on early pressure but couldn’t convert and Victory slowly made their way into the game and managed that memorable late reward.

In Lawrie McKinna the out-of-towners have a canny coach and they certainly make the most of their resources. They have every opportunity of matching their first season effort in reaching the final before the Lowy-propped up slickers from Sydney gained an unpopular victory.

But of course, it’s too early to rule out the balance of the challengers. While Melbourne Victory has been decidedly unimpressive to date, and Allsopp and Thompson are missing Fred terribly, the champions deserve to be considered strong contenders. Adelaide United has cast aside the traumatic end to its fine season 2 with Aurelio Vidmar assembling a fine squad behind the brilliant Nathan Burns. Queensland Roar will be nothing if not interesting with the two returning stalwarts Craig Moore and Danny Tiatto in their mix, albeit clothed in one of the football world’s most garish colour combinations. Tiatto announced his arrival with a hideous two footed tackle which was the most vile piece of thuggery I’d seen since, er, Tiatto the last time I saw him playing for Australia. Newcastle looks as though it’s going to be highly competitive again this year despite the absence of Nick Carle, while Perth Glory is showing some signs of an overdue return to the, er, glory days. Wellington Phoenix, hopefully, will be able to maintain its hopeful start to the season by shedding the forgettable memory of the Knights. I think it was a wise step to maintain a franchise in the shaky isles ahead of the frankly uninspiring Townsville bid. Surely there has to be more potential in a much bigger market, and Wellington strikes me as the kind of place that could get behind even a mildly successful outfit. They looked very engaging in their first round clash against Victory, and hopefully their game 2 blow out in Gosford will be a blip and not a trend.

That leaves Sydney, which remains an enigma. Their penchant if not hell-bent demand for glamour marquee players has seen Juninho pull on the mid-blue shirt this season. It’s not clear that Mark Milligan will be around all season following his premature sortie in Europe, while the returning Tony Popovic looks twice as slow as he did two seasons back when he looked awfully slow when I was cheering him on in a Crystal Palace shirt. Surely the harbour town team will be a better bet under Branko Culina than during the hapless Butcher era, but no doubt they’ll remain the team everyone else loves to hate!

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

A pack of Rothmans

Rothmans Football Yearbook has been a significant part of my footballing life for thirty years. Over all those years I've not really tired of the annual digest of over 900 pages of English-flavoured football statistics.

And just recently, via eBay and some online second-hand booksellers I completed my collection by backfilling with the first four editions, 1970-71 through 1973-74. And thumbing through those early editions brought home – lo and behold(!) – how much the game has changed in that time.

Back then, the Football League cocooned a comfortable collegiate of 92 football league clubs, where the Fourth Division teams boasted a legitimacy that meant they could be referred to in categories analogous with top flight clubs. The closest you got to “Johnny foreigner” in either playing or managerial ranks were Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk. Two points for a win, competitive and highly credentialed cup competitions. Stadia or “football grounds” bore the name of the location, not the sponsors of the day. Plain playing strips, which barely carried the manufacturer’s badge, let alone that of the league or principal sponsor.

The Rothmans also had a much stronger domestic flavour. Internationals carried heavy coverage of the now long-defunct Home Internationals, which carried as much weight as European Championship qualifying. The European Cup sat nicely alongside the UEFA and Cup-winners Cups. World Cups were covered well, even in 1974 when England didn’t make it – and Australia did.

These days of course, companies such as Rothmans are on the nose, or more pointedly the lungs, and it’s been a few years now since Sky Sports took over the mantle of sponsoring this fact-fest. “Sky Sports" somehow typifies 21st century football rather than Rothmans of Pall Mall.

And while England, home to groups such as the Association of Football Statisticians, continues to do this sort of thing quite well (eg. Wisden), a look elsewhere in Europe also bears fruit. For many years I've been a fan of excellent publications of Kicker, the German football magazine. For example, grab a hold of the 40-year round up of the Bundesliga. And on my travels last year I purchased the greatest value-for-money football yearbook in Europe, if not the world – Marca’s annual publication Guia de la Liga which covers not only Primera Liga but the rest of the world’s football with a terrific emphasis on South America and Europe. All this for a massive five euros - cheaper than a packet of smokes!

Sunday, 3 June 2007

MCG ado about nothing

Football followers in Melbourne are set to be mightily short-changed with the news that the Australia-Argentina international friendly has been rescheduled for Tuesday 11th September. The story behind this game embodies a few salient themes – the perpetual challenge for Australia to rise above its geographical isolation and lack of political influence, and the power shift over the last year or two in favour of its Sydney cousins.

The game was originally set down for June 6th, which was well placed since it post-dated nearly all significant European league action but pre-dated Australia’s upcoming involvement in the Asian Cup finals. So a good chance to have at least a smattering of first-choice Aussies and not too many excuses for the Argentineans save those on Primera Liga duty. Distressing then, that a few months back, having sold the bulk of the tickets for the June encounter, the FFA announced Argentina had gazumped the Aussies by signing up instead to play friendlies in Europe, notably choosing to front up against the fairly anonymous Swiss in favour of our boys.

A reality check therefore for those of us Aussies who thought that a great ten minutes against Japan, a sterling draw against Croatia and a narrow loss to the world champions may have caused a swing shift in the level of respect for our football credentials. I suppose casting my mind back to the Charlie Yankos-inspired 4-1 Bicentennial Gold Cup win over the Argies in 1988, that didn’t cause much of a ripple either. Our entry into Asia means we might feature a little more regularly on the FIFA website results page, but may not count for a lot more.

Once the FFA had meekly copped Argentina’s ill-mannered blow on the chin, it has been no doubt prodded incessantly by the Victorian Government Major Events folk to find a new date - those capitalised terms in deference to those who continue to smother the Melbourne public with an exaggerated diet of attention-seeking sporting events of every kind. Such as the World Swimming Championships in February that no-one attended.

And so we ended up with the all-too-gushing announcement yesterday of the rescheduled date, plonked at the MCG right in the middle of the AFL finals series. Mid-September also being one month into the new English Premier League season and around the time that a new Serie A season – and domestic A-league - will have kicked off. The FFA press release, including a hyperbolic Victorian tourism minister Tim Holding’s blather containing words such as “terrific”, “world’s number one team”, “boost the sport at a grassroots level”, “inspired”, claimed that this “unique international major event” would have the “players … looking forward to another huge crowd in Melbourne.”

I can just imagine the conversations in managers’ offices at Anfield and Goodison Park in late July. Rafael Benitez and David Moyes, having put up with the injured absences of Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill for a full season and half a season respectively, and having watched their employees in action at the Asian Cup finals in July, will no doubt be of resolute minds when faced with a request for a leave pass to spend 50-plus hours flying back for a meaningless friendly. Moyes in particular, notwithstanding Graham Arnold’s reports of congenial cups of tea, has been particular in his distaste for such international sojourns.

So the chance of any of Cahill, Kewell, Viduka, Schwarzer, Emerton, Culina, Bresciano or Grella darkening the dressing room doorway at the ‘G must be remote. Similarly, one wonders where the incentive will be for the Argentineans for whom the distraction isn’t even conditioned by the bonus of a return to home comforts.

The likelihood then of a meeting of B team against B team will merely be the latest chapter of a book that stretches back some distance for Melbourne football fans. I'm old enough to have experienced first hand the variously touted blockbuster fixtures that have turned out to be anything but. I recall a friendly between Manchester United and Nottingham Forest at the MCG in the early 1980s where barely a face was recognisable - Tommy Hutchison’s guest appearance for United was his first and last game for them! Younger readers will remember the embarrassment of the Man United Socceroos fixture in 1999 where massive admission fees were dismantled at the last moment in order to boost numbers.

A bitter pill for Melbourne folk to swallow is the loss of meaningful fixtures to Sydney. Those who lived through the epic World Cup qualifiers at the MCG in 1997 and 2001 looked on more than enviously when the vital 2005 decider moved to Sydney, and squirmed when the NSW government gleefully announced that they had garnered the fixtures that matter for the next few years, thus relegating the Victorian major event folk to sell up more of those useless friendlies. The massive crowd at the ‘G for the Australia-Greece game last year cheered on its to-be World Cup heroes, but was mightily disappointed with the couldn’t-care-less attitude of the visitors. The faithful who front up in September will prepare themselves for disappointment, while the Victorian marketing folk scurry off to find the next fish to fry.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Cold Porridge

Many Australians holidaying in the northern hemisphere contrast the respective culinary experiences of United Kingdom and mainland Europe. Compare Spain and England for example. A dining experience in Madrid, Barcelona or say the Basque country is a delight – an adventure, a collision of exciting flavours, a flamboyant feast worth every measly $A. Conversely, eating in England is by and large a grudge purchase – a necessity, expensive, and definitely subtitled not to be enjoyed.

We’re in the middle of the cup finals season in Europe. And over the past four days, we’ve had the opportunity to sample fare of two distinctly different flavours. The UEFA Cup final last Wednesday featured the Spanish adversaries Sevilla and Espanyol, while Saturday’s English FA Cup final featured leading clubs Chelsea and Manchester United.

The UEFA Cup is a damaged brand these days, largely inflicted by UEFA itself. It’s true to say that ever since it was born out of the curious Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the 1960’s, it’s been by definition the poor cousin of the European Cup, now Champions League. The competition for those not quite good enough for the other comp. And yet it’s produced its fair share of brilliant football memories over the past 40+ years. But in most recent times, it’s become another plaything of the top clubs, the so-called G14, which wraps UEFA around its bloc-style little finger. And now it’s set up so that any of the big boys prematurely knocked out of the Champions League can get a “lucky loser” go in the UEFA Cup.

Yet, despite its lower status, it still throws out memorable finals. Liverpool edging Alaves 5-4, no, not on penalties, but after extra time a few years back a special case in point. And last Wednesday, at Hampden Park Glasgow, was another open, brilliant end-to-end affair. Sevilla, last years winners, and aspirants for this years Liga title as well as the Copa del Rey, were deserved favourites against their countrymen Espanyol from Barcelona, the club forever in the shadow of their city rivals, and with barely a highlight interrupting their long existence. But Espanyol and Sevilla put on a dazzling display, which finished 2-2 after extra time and saw the dogged Catalonians again playing bride after penalties has decided the matter in Sevilla's favour.

Contrast this with the English final, with the much awaited new Wembley on display for a global audience to take in for the first time. And the opponents couldn’t have boasted a higher pedigree. Chelsea and Man United, at each others throats all season in the league and Champions League, now fighting for the last piece of domestic silverware.

And what a sad bore-fest in turned out to be. Or, in my case, snore-fest as I struggled desperately to keep awake. With the opponents having clocked up an aggregate of over 120 competitive fixtures this season, this unfortunately played out as one of the worst of them. The all-star cast, primed for a chefs-hat feast, served up cold porridge. Defensive formations, scared to make a mistake, no way through crowded defences. On a night where many Australians are staying up late to watch the “spectacle”, this was a terrible advertisement for the world game.

The cup final has served up many substantial dishes in the past and over my lifetime it’s been a delight to savour such tasty morsels as 1973 Leeds-Sunderland, 1979 Man Utd-Arsenal, 1987 Coventry-Spurs, 1990 Palace-Man Utd and 2006 Liverpool-West Ham. In the greater European scheme of things, the FA cup has lost its lustre in recent years, with the inevitable domination by the same clubs that dominate the EPL. But there's still the chance of a great game to justify the great occasion. But not this year.

The English like to occasionally bang on in Gordon Ramsey style about their league being Europe’s premier. By such bland measures as Euros invested across their top clubs, they have an argument to mount. But much too often its top ingredients still end up with a result that’s no better than lukewarm mush. How to change the recipe?

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Kicking off

A football blog? How unremarkable, you may think. This is a football blog with an Australian flavour. Not a blog on Australian football, but a commentary on the world game from someone unable to avoid an Aussie orientation. Maybe still unremarkable, but with the intent that the ebb and flow of the blog may divert or stimulate. Anyway, we're just seconds after kick-off, and the movement and pattern in this fixture is yet to take shape. Looking forward to 90 interesting minutes!