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.