Thursday 31 August 2023

The World Cup is Not Enough (But it's such a good place to start)

When Lucy Bronze drove with the ball into the centre of Spain’s midfield (Women’s World Cup Final, Sunday 20th August), the repercussions, once she’d been hounded out of possession, might have seemed limited. For all Spain’s technical excellence, a good goal scoring opportunity had already been spurned by Salina Parraleullo and the all-knowing heads would have expected such profligacy to continue until the ice-cold veins of Hemp and Russo at the other end would make them pay.

The brilliant Aitana Bonmarti may have seen a bigger picture. May have seen it all, even beyond her wonderful pass into the Bronze-vacated area, where Mariona Caldentay took receipt of her crossfield pass and played it outside her to the onrushing captain Olga Carmona, who checked her stride and blazed her shot across Mary Earps into the bottom right corner. Bonmarti, who would be crowned Golden Ball winner for Player of the Tournament, would not have wished to cause her team mate Jenni Hermoso the experience she has had to suffer in the wake of victory thanks to this goal, but hers is a pass that has started a revolution. If we thought Chloe Kelly’s penalty shoot-out strike to knock out Nigeria, faster than any Premier League goal in 2022-23, had caused a mini shockwave, we couldn’t have expected this. 

My animated reaction to Carmona’s shot resting in the net unseated me from my own all-knowing constituency. The on-pitch skipper and left back had just scored her second goal for the country, the first having been in the previous match, the late winner against Sweden in the semi-final. Notwithstanding Bronze’s concession, here was another example of the full backs' growing influence as an attacking threat. As goalkeepers become crucial to the passing process, full backs are finishing the moves.

But while the game evolves quickly, people within it remain unmoved. All Luis Rubalies had to do, in his role as president of the Spanish Football Federation, was understand his mistake, own up to it and offer his resignation for kissing the No.11, Jennifer Hermoso on the lips after greeting her on the ceremonial podium. Ron Atkinson apologised and resigned from his co-commentary job in 2005 for the unforgiveable content of his tirade at Marcel Desailly that he believed was off-air on the night of a Champions League semi final between Monaco and Chelsea. Maybe he was advised to resign, but regardless that's what he did. He didn't, as Rubiales has done, accuse the victim of lying and threaten a law-suit. Not all of us heard Big Ron, but we all saw Rubiales clutch Hermoso's head two-handed and plant his mouth on hers. He did say sorry for grabbing his crotch (within yards of the Queen of Spain and her daughter) when the full-time whistle blew, but with the "if anyone was offended" caveat, immediately downgrading the apology to words of self-protection.  

The machismo of a crotch-grab is enough to show that the person executing it shouldn't be in a position of authority, that he is a Trump disciple. Trump's penchant for grabbing is well-known, and not necessarily his own genitalia. The theatre of Rubiales' defiance at the general assembly of the Spanish Federation the following Thursday was pure Trumpball; more manipulated women at the front, male allies applauding everywhere else. Rubiales referenced his three daughters (like Gianni Infantino had referenced his four while addressing the potential of the women's game and telling the women that FIFA's "doors are open" to knock down, if only they'd persuade him of their worth. Andy Gray had talked about his daughter too while Sky investigated his own 'off-air' indiscretions). Hermoso had already extracted her pressured statement to support Rubiales when she'd been leapt on like her team mates had on Bronze, initially heard saying "I didn't like it" moments after the ceremony. For a while, this looked dark, as if the Spanish Federation were going to go all in on Hermoso while standing by their man, who was waiting to become the actual victim in this. It wouldn't have been surprising; in the last 10 years, Spanish crowds have booed visiting black and mixed-race England players, and abused Lewis Hamilton for the same reason. The mindset of this country has sometimes been characterised by former men's manager, the late Luis Aragones, who'd infamously encouraged the also late Jose Antonio Reyes to shrug off the spectre of his then club teammate Thierry Henry with a word similar to that which saw Big Ron leave ITV for good. 

Thankfully, mercifully, the reaction on the Spanish streets and in the their stadiums is akin to an uprising. #Se Acabo~. 81 women and men players are refusing to play for their country until Rubiales, now suspended by FIFA while the investigation continues, has gone. Hermoso received a standing ovation on the opening day of the men's season, and men's players wore t shirts honouring her. Strong allies in Jorge Vilda, women's football team manager and the men's team manager turned on Rubiales too - even if this was only when they had ben made aware of the prevailing wind. It may be too late for Vilda, who had already orchestrated his own revolt, 13 players making themselves unavailable for the World Cup citing their mental well-being and below-par preparation. Eight years in the job with this fine squad, featuring Barcelona's Champions league winners of last season, yet for the first time this summer his team went beyond a quarter final. The Spanish FA are reportedly exploring ways to sack him. During the puffed-up protest at the general assembly, Rubiales had shown his intention to extend Vilda's contract, offering 500,000 euros a year to the son of Angel Vilda, a prominent figure in Spanish football circles. Perhaps, in his now impotent position, Rubiales is rallying his remaining loyalists to storm the senate, or perhaps in his terms, run the bulls.

Vilda embraced Infantino on the podium, the Head of FIFA gracing everyone with his presence. Infantino probably hadn't noticed that the last England player to greet him, Bronze, didn't put herself in a position to shake his hand and, instead, hands on hips, ducked into the medal he put round her neck. If only more people did that. Her misguided run into the pack of Spaniards is a trifling matter compared to the snubbing of Infantino. She deserves, well, a medal for it. She also, without knowing it at the time, played a part in the downfall of a narcissist at the heart of women's football, the scalp of Rubiales. Lucy, no doubt, would not have given the ball away if given the chance again, and hope instead that Rubiales would be brought down in a different way somewhere along the line. But if she is looking to forgive herself, then the hastening of Rubiales' exposure must contain some kind of medicinal properties.          

Human beings make mistakes; it's what makes us interesting. Gianluca Vialli said "you never lose, you either win or you learn". I wouldn't have wanted to hear that just after, say, the 2001 FA Cup Final, but looking at the following season, you see his point. It's how we respond to our mistakes, or even how we feel about them after a period of sometimes painful reflection that means something. Arsenal were without doubt hard done by in that Final, let down by insufficient officialdom but still good enough to have won the game with the chances they gave themselves. Oh well, you just have to suck up the glory-boy baiting in the pub and the one-eyed analysis of Alan Hansen. Your time will come, just a bit later. Though not for everyone. Even if Rubiales had conducted himself with dignity after the indignity, there should have been no Double to win for him, rather the kind of anonymity to look forward to that Big Ron has faced, but sometimes you have to put the world first.    


Tuesday 15 August 2023

Seeing the future. Women’s World Cup semi finals

 I’d gone ashamedly Rio Ferdinand watching Australia-France’s quarter final. Don’t worry, no one got merked in the process, I just heard myself saying that “England beat both these teams” just as he had when watching the Italy-Spain Euro 20/21 semi-final. 

Although England pounced on a couple of defensive lapses to come back and beat Colombia, you could also spin it to say that they had the clinical quality to take their chances when they were presented. There seems to be no one better at that fundamental aspect of the game, and this ability to put the ball in the back of the net cuts through all the kind of chaos and endeavour that was evident in the 0-0 - 7-6 win on pens for the host nation. Maybe a fully fit Sam Kerr will make the difference tomorrow, but it’s tempting to feel that with a composed and concentrated defensive organisation, England will get through to another final, regardless of the home support. 

Italy’s men’s team in 2006 (semi final) and 2020/21 (Final) kept their cool to rise above the threat imposed by location and a partisan crowd surely isn’t enough to get the Aussies over the line. Even if England were beaten, only a Spanish surrender seems the likely route to a host nation triumph. *

Watching the Spanish against the endearing Swedes in the first semi this morning, I didn’t get the Rio observation travails to the same extent, seeing Spain move themselves and the ball around with such belief, although for a long time in the game it seemed that the same goalscoring problems besetting everyone but England would again haunt them. In France during the 2017 Euros, the cultural make-up was just the same as in the men’s game: Spain were technically superior to England but they didn’t have anyone like Jodie Taylor. 

The Swedes themselves missed a great chance through Stina  Blackstenius in the quarter final against Japan, who they imposed themselves on powerfully and offensively, unlike against USA, but an opportunistic flick home by Blackstenius’s new Arsenal team mate Amanda Ilistedt, and a penalty after customary Japanese bedlam from a corner put Sweden into the driving seat, seeing out a late scare to face Spain, who in turn pegged Sweden back for large spells in Auckland.

All three of commentator, Jonathan Pearce, co-commentator Sue Smith and Gabby Logan in the Sydney studio used “cagey” to describe the first half, which i disagreed with. It certainly wasn’t chess, which might have suited the Swedes (hey, I’m allowed to use cultural stereotypes; ABBA boomed out of the public address as soon as the final whistle went against Japan). At half-time in the studio, Fara Williams thought Sweden would make Spain pay for their possession- without-goals system. 

A substitute made the difference: 19 year old Salma Paralleulo was a menace to the Swedish defence, and after a couple of glorious opportunities wasted by team mates kept me chuntering away, she turned in a loose ball with a first time shot past Musovic, played by Peep Show’s Big Suze in the Swedish goal. Ten minutes of regulation time remained, although such things are beginning to lose their place in the world. 

Two substitutes saved Sweden, a smart header across goal by Lustig was turned expertly in by Rebecka Blomqvist, whose delight was a joy. Two goals within a few minutes to shame my assumptions regarding goalscoring prowess. Within a minute, though, Spain were back in front, the full back Olga Carmono, who reminded me of Hector Bellerin, was left alone to receive a short corner and blast past Suze, who was blamed by Pearce and Smith, which was a shame considering her recent performances. If she should have kept out the shot as they said, it wasn’t as glaring an error as say, France’s Joel Bats in Mexico 86 or anything, letting an Andreas Brehme free kick squirm under him in another semi final following his heralded thwarting of Brazil in the previous round. 

Pearce remarked that Carmona’s two previous long range efforts had been “dreadful”, when in fact the first one had skimmed just past the post, collecting a deflection off a Swedish defender’s boot along the way. A goal kick was given, despite the player’s protest - VAR, or at least the decision/policy not to use it - shown up again as the deeply flawed keeper of justice, or at least should have been if people were watching. Pearce didn’t mention the error, probably too busy thinking up another piss-take to hit Smith with. Carmona’s second effort was admittedly wildly off-target, Pearce suggesting that Big Suze’s form in the tournament meant the goalkeeper wouldn’t be beaten from distance anyway, which Smith agreed with. Both would later reveal to have been merked. 

It was the keeper at the other end, Cata ‘The Cat’ Coll Lluch, and indeed Carmona who produced my first conscious viewing of play-acting in the Women’s World Cup. Maybe Coll Lluch did genuinely need to keep needing treatment, but Carmona so obviously bought a foul off Lustig by the corner flag in the final few seconds. The Swedes were rattled about it and rightly so, and though the nationality of the deception isn’t a surprise given that’s where Rodri learned it, I hope this isn’t the start of a widespread philosophy shift in the women’s game. Like Carmona’s deflected shot in the first half, VAR was neither called upon or bothered. Perhaps you could argue she was just even-ing it up. 

*Italy’s men’s team were also unable to get past a semi-final in a World Cup they hosted (1990)*

Wednesday 9 August 2023

The ref penalty

Lauren James a bit unlucky to be sent off?

I haven’t changed my opinion in over 25 years that ref Kim Neilsson (and subsequently the tabloid press) was more responsible for the abuse David Beckham received after his dismissal against Argentina in France 98 than Beckham himself, and James’s ‘violent conduct’ against Nigeria on Monday was less forceful than his.

In both cases, the victim - Diego Simeone in St Etienne, Michelle Alozie in Melbourne - were laughing as they received the full effect of the respective retaliations, one a petulant but aimless flick of the leg, the other a kind of jenga placement of boot on backside. A little talking to - for both players in the two incidents - would surely have been sufficient. 

As it was in ‘98, England went on to lose in a shoot-out and 23 year old Beckham was gleefully vilified by a willing audience, people like the effigy-burners of West Ham who worship their grandads that went to battle but are also open to a bit of whipped-up rallying from agenda-driven sources. 

Last Monday, England prevailed in the spot-kick drama, though even if they’d lost there isn’t the mass idiocy around the women’s game to berate James on the Beckham scale, possibly because the key exponents of that mass idiocy don’t think women should play football while there are still houses to clean and meals to cook. 

Instead there is focus on England’s struggle with Nigeria, a performance so below-par compared to the previous game’s 6-1 pounding of China that it brought to my mind the men’s Euro 96 shoot-out escape against Spain, which had been preceded by the 4-1 dissection of Netherlands. 

Personally, I was fascinated by Chloe Kelly’s penalty technique in scoring the decisive kick, a little drag-flick into the air with her left foot before running up and bashing the ball into the net with her right. Was it a Jonny Wilkinson centring thing? Or even, without wishing to go all Micah Richards or Dion Dublin on the matter, a me thing? Back in 1988 or 89, at least 10 years before Kelly was born, I took a penalty at Warners End fields for the school B team, running up to the ball, then stopping to flick my right heel against my right bum cheek before shooting with my left foot past the keeper.

By today’s run up standards - set by Jorginho and Bruno Fernandes among others - my approach is perhaps not so weird, even if I’m not entirely sure whether I was trying to fool the goalie somehow (with a dummy trick Peter Beardsley played on defenders) or regain some kind of control or alignment, like when I used to straighten the fire guard or avoid the cracks in the pavement. It wasn’t a pressure moment like Kelly’s of course, but I had just been dropped from the first team and had been desperate to play my way out of it before my dad found out. A missed or saved penalty at that level would not have helped my cause. 

Had I missed, I would have hunted for a box of matches and a cardboard cut-out of myself immediately. 

Monday 7 August 2023

The long game

Preparations for an unwelcome family reunion messed with my commitment to USA-Sweden in the last 16 yesterday morning, but I was back just in time from that ultimately stress-free event (the individual concerned in the side-show didn’t turn up) for ITVX’s live showing of Arsenal-Manchester City in the Community Shield, which as everyone knows is the traditional eyebrow-raiser to surely not another new season. 

I’d managed the first half from Melbourne and glimpses of the second, in which USA’s dominance had seemed total, and on a day when a player named Vieira earned Arsenal some silverware with a winning penalty in a shoot-out, the highlights showed Sweden beating the champions USA very much in the manner of Arsenal beating the holders Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final. 

Arsenal’s Wembley joy was certainly more deserved than at Cardiff on that rainy, joyous day, even if you are of the opinion that a deflected Leandro Trossard goal in the 90th+11th minute proves that the hand of fortune is very much with you. True enough, Arsenal were flat in the second half and didn't look remotely like scoring, resigned it seemed to a “ninth defeat in a row” by the fossil fuel-powered treble winners when sub Cole Palmer bent his shot beyond Ramsdale in the 80th minute; this was followed by Phil Foden, also a sub, drawing a vital save from Ramsdale, who then also denied Rodri. But Arsenal had been in the proverbial ascendency for the majority of the first half, creating two chances at goal for Kai Havertz, and you really have to question the new directive to clampdown on time-wasting or gamesmanship (in itself a welcome move) if the master of it, Rodri, is allowed to make four cynical fouls without even being spoken to, while two Arsenal players are instantly booked for one instance of the same offences, not to mention Mikel Arteta being cautioned for complaining of a second foul by Bernardo Silva that went  unpunished.

Maybe there was justice, though, in a staggering 20 minutes being played after the Cole goal, even if, as Arsenal played the ball around way beyond the original eight minutes of added on time, I grimly awaited the final whistle (if not the deafening sounds of victory from City’s soporific support). I tried to take heart from the 11 year run of Community Shield winners not going on to win the league, and in all honesty allowed my own weariness to handle the full perspective side of things. Then Rodri headed out a Saka corner, the ball was worked to Trossard, who turned inside Juliano Alvarez (I think) and used Akanji as a Ronnie Whelan tribute act, the ball crawling joyously into the net past a wrongfooted Stefan Ortega as a crescendo of jubilation rained down upon the narked little face of the hapless defender. 

I tempered my own celebrations, pinned down by the missus' legs as she snoozed next to me on the sofa, but my now 20-year gripe about penalty shoot-outs in Charity/Community Shield matches was discredited in an instant. That said, I would have been just as delighted if Trossard’s goal had meant we’d got a draw and therefore shared the shield. There was - amazingly - still time for the 12 yard spectacle to be avoided, with De Bruyne’s free kick worryingly arching into Ramsdale's box, but finally the match ended to allow Arsenal the opportunity for a second chance in three years to win the fixture this way.

Maybe there is a note of interest in both goal-scorers being subs (another, De Bruyne, had nudged the ball to Palmer for his goal) but it's not like its 1983 anymore, and my dad pointing out excitedly that John Hewitt's goal for Aberdeen against Real Madrid in the Cup Winners Cup Final was all the more fascinating because he'd been the replacement for the scorer of their first goal, Eric Black. The game is so long now, and full of so many interchangeable faces, that it's difficult to keep track.

In the shoot-out, De Bruyne had found only the crossbar and the six-yard box with his effort by the time the untouchable Rodri stepped up. I didn't much fancy Ramsdale's chances of extending his unremarkable penalty saving record, or more to the point expect a man who would be an assassin if he were not a footballer to complete his mission, but I took great joy in being proved wrong, his scuffed shot kept out by a man who equals Shilton in 12 yard excellence (but is eminently more likeable). Rodri probably later complained that Ramsdale went over too easily. 

Vieira looked cool when he stepped up, looking Ortega in the eye, and though his (sur)namesake didn't kick a ball for Arsenal again after his strike past Roy Carroll in Cardiff, I'm hopeful Fabio will (spot) kick on from here after driving his shot past the second choice (?) City goalie. 

Not so convincing was Linda Hurtig’s shoot-out winner against the Americans earlier in the day, finally watched by me eight hours after I first tuned in, which in the near future will be the regulation injury time for every match. Hurtig’s effort was saved by Alyssa Naeher but was pushed up and ultimately fell millimetres over the goal line, confirmed by a VAR intervention. Sweden didn’t record their first shot on target until the 83rd minute and had goalkeeper Zecira Musovic to thank for two brilliant saves from the 11 she faced. 

While the Swedes now face ‘team of the tournament’ (as said by somebody) Japan, USA go home unable to complete an unprecedented third successive World Cup title. Megan Rapinoe, now 38, had already announced her intended retirement come the end of the tournament - although that’s what Roger Mills said after Italia ‘90. The Americans didn’t seem to be able to get going in Australia, winning one and drawing two in seat-of-your-pants fashion, before, like the equally lethargic Italian men in ‘82, coming good for the knockout stage, except lacking a Paolo Rossi type figure to similarly rise from the ashes. 

Sweden will presumably play the same way against Japan, but maybe that’s how Brazil viewed their meeting with Rossi’s Italy in ‘82. You never know with football. 

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Northern Lights Off

This post was originally completed in April. I just omitted to publish it!

The disheartening and yet also heartening number of empty seats at Wembley Stadium for the Manchester City-Sheffield United FA Cup semi-final brought the right noises from the pundits in the television studio (even the following day too, during the full house of Brighton & Hove Albion versus Manchester United) but these are grumbles the FA are braced for, and they are well-versed in staying quiet and riding it out; the day will end, the grumbles will dissipate, the next match will come, as will another semi-final in the national stadium next season. 

Peter Schmeichel argued the most eloquently against the idea of two Northern teams being sent down to London in the midst of a ‘cost of living crisis.’ Crisis, what crisis, appears to be the reply, and in fairness, anyone who’d care to walk around my house for five minutes would think my family were exempt from everyone else’s struggle, with lights ablaze even on the brightest of days and the fan heater left on for hours, but it is this prepubescent attitude to reality that the FA seems to share. 

16 years it has been since the arch regenerated from the Twin Towers, surely Wembley doesn’t still need the recouped cash? We know it’s down to money, and not, as they claim, about allowing as many supporters to see the match as possible. Even less people than were at Wembley for the Saturday semi-final would have been present at say, Elland Road, a likely neutral venue of days gone past, but the atmosphere would have been transformative, even in the event of a similar runaway win for City.

So, we have three strong arguments against the existing semi-final policy - adding into the equation the preservation of the Final’s prestige -  but none of them are about making money, so are rendered pointless. The FA doesn’t care about scarring it’s own competition, wary as they are that it’s lost it’s fizz thanks to its teams happy to air other priorities through their weakened team selections, which come as a consequence of…money.

Schmeichal himself is steeped in FA Cup history thanks to his penalty save from Dennis Bergkamp in extra time of the 1999 semi-final against champions Arsenal at Villa Park that was followed by Ryan Giggs’ equally memorable winner for a Manchester United team by then down to ten but on their way to an unprecedented treble in England. This was the last replay in the FA Cup, the last replay allowed, as the first chips in the bodywork began in earnest. The following season United didn’t even bother entering at all. 

So maybe we shouldn’t complain about these Wembley semis. Who actually really cares? If you can’t afford, just don’t turn up. And anyway, Brighton-Utd was a thriller, all the way to the penalties. And look at all those people who got to see it. City’s 1981 semi-final win over Ipswich Town, won like United in ‘99, in extra time and at Villa Park, may have stirred the senses but it’s just nostalgia, just the past. It’s all about the present, and United and City will be back down for the Final, won’t they, well, in amongst the neutrals. Something a bit skewed there.

‘One more’ lonely night: Spain 2 England 1. Euro ‘24 Final

 I've already back-tracked on unflattering comments I made towards Alvaro Morata in these pages, so let me now add Marc Cucurella to tha...