England 1-1 Ghana, 29 March 2011

International friendlies tend to be the bane of a football fan’s existence, beside a watery Bovril and a dodgy pie. Games you feel you should care about, but ultimately don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, unless your team sneaks a victory against a big nation (witness Don Hutchison’s winning goal against Germany in that fetching pink strip in 1999 for Scotland). I present Scotland’s recent friendly against Brazil, and the first Scotland game I went to, a crushing 3-1 win over the mighty Canada, as evidence for the prosecution.

Which is why I was surprised and delighted by last night’s England v Ghana match. I’d missed the first half, but saw Carroll’s impressive goal at half time. Reports suggested there would be 20,000 Ghana supporters at Wembley – the noise they made it could have easily been double. They booed when Welbeck came on (he’d been hastily called up after Ghana had approached him earlier in the week); they got ridiculously excited every time Ghana came forward.

And they did come forward rather often. It was, to use that football cliche, end to end stuff, with each side doing its best to take the game to the other. Capello was clearly keen to keep sampling the 4-3-3 which had worked well, particularly in the opening 20 minutes, against Wales. The Ghanaians used a similar system, with Asamoah Gyan providing the creative and attacking hub.

And provide it he certainly did. Ironing one’s shirts is certainly made an awful lot less dull with a goal of the quality Gyan provided at about 90:17 in last night’s match. He picked up the ball on the edge of the area, turned beautifully, skipped inside another couple of loose England challenges, including one from the never knowingly mobile Joleon Lescott, before curling an exquisite left footed finish outside of Joe Hart and inside the far post.

It was a fitting end to the game; Ghana certainly deserved their goal  (a point that was surprisingly magnanimously made by Clive Tyldesley in commentary). Just because their away strip looks a bit like a Partick Thistle home shirt, they certainly don’t play like them. Ghana for me represent everything that’s good about African football at the moment: strong, athletic players with no lack of skill, good organisation and most importantly, wonderful supporters who back their team to the hilt and provide a whole new dimension to the game (Pot Man in the World Cup was a highlight). With Michael Essien still to return, Ghana can surely only go forward towards the next World Cup; one wonders if any African side can join them in doing so and providing us at last with an African semi-finalist, or even finalist. The game was a joy to watch, and I agreed with the commentators’ assertion that another 30 minutes wouldn’t have been a bad move.

Not to make this totally Ghana-centric, a special mention is deserved for Matt Jarvis of Wolves who made his international debut in the match. He’s had an excellent season for Wolves, and he seemed to fit into things rather nicely – certainly a good option for Capello to have going forward.


4 more years…

Sepp Blatter’s done everyone in football a favour this week. He’s announced he’s quitting as President of FIFA. The slight flaw in this favour is the fact that he will so do in 2015. By which time he’ll be a sprightly 79-years-old (older than both of my grandfathers currently are, and they’re both long since retired), and he’ll have been in his job for 17 glorious years.

Mercifully, there is a presidential election on the horizon, one at which Sepp will be challenged by Mohammed Bin Hammam of Qatar (62, and likely to be more of the same given the recent destination of the 2022 World Cup) and Grant Wahl, who of course has not a hope in hell of winning because he’s young and is likely to bring fresh thinking and transparency to the organisation.

Blatter is the epitome of the football administrator: the power-hungry old man with no real love for the game; no idea of the views of its fans, players or those whose opinions actually matter. Even at the level of lower league clubs, we see egomaniacal chairmen clinging onto their empires, despite the protestations of supporters, trying their best to cling onto the blazer and make a fast buck where possible. East Fife even had its own endlessly misguided chairman in J. Derrick Brown – luckily a fantastic protest movement started by the fans eventually forced him out, and brought us a new era of doing slightly better.

Where Sepp and Brown the tragically differ, of course, is that firstly, Sepp cannot be removed by people power, rather only by the national associations, whom he can butter up through campaigning. Secondly, someone just as bad will be no doubt waiting in the wings take over.

One could argue that what football really needs to run it at that level is an intelligent former player, one without any chance of being corrupted, and who can have his own views. Sadly, Michel Platini at UEFA is also Sepp’s man; witness UEFA and FIFA’s joint attempt recently to take World Cup and Euro Championships football off UK terrestrial TV. No doubt Platini has done some things correctly: the redistribution of Champions League places so more actual champions are involved; the rebranding and restructuring of the UEFA Cup/Europa League – again, good work. 24 teams for the European Championships from 2016? Not so much. No doubt Blatter will want Platini to drift quietly into his vacated shoes come 2015. The power brokers in FIFA must be overcome with excitement at the prospect.

The solution….? vote for me. I can’t be any worse.

East Fife 3-0 Forfar Athletic, 12/03/2011

The 60s behemoth that is Methil Power Station.

Ah, the trip to Methil. That knowledge that at 4:45pm, one will return to Edinburgh either wistful or happy, depressed or at least slightly more tolerant of the world.

Saturday was no different. It began with the usual “will the match survive the slightly inclement weather” worry. The added factor was that I was accompanying my German tutor, Niels (Uni night classes – only £125 for 11 weeks tuition – very good) on the latest part of his continuing “odyssey” around the holes former industrial heartlands of Scotland’s Central Belt to watch football. Motherwell, Airdrie, Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and Paisley were all done and dusted. I would be the local wise fella to his Michael Palin on his trip to Methil. Fully aware of my responsibilities, it was he who found out that the game was still on.

We began at Waverley, with the usual 35 minute train ride plus 40 minute bus journey (with several interesting inhabitants of the locale at Kirkcaldy Bus Station) to Leven. I was also looking forward to introducing Niels to the merits of the Bayview pie (one of the best in Scotland in my humble opinion) but sadly discovered somewhere near Buckhaven that he is in fact a vegetarian. Darn. On arrival at Leven’s overly shiny bus station, a quick trip to the Caley for two pints and nachos was followed by the trek to the ground.

As usual, the power station dominated the skyline. It was great to see that (once we’d occupied our seats to get a good view of it) this enormous plook on the Fife landscape was finally on its way out – a reassuring corner of the building having disappeared from view (see the picture above). It gave me the opportunity to entertain Niels with some factoids about the area, and East Fife’s various history, as well as my efforts to go and see them on occasion (the trip from Rosemarkie to Stranraer in 2007 was prominent). Our conversation did also involve me ranting a bit about how 90% of Scotland supports the Old Firm, and how in a conurbation of Levenmouth’s size (40,000 approx), only 469 can make it along of a Saturday afternoon.

Just say no, kids.

The game kicked off at 3 (obviously – ah the  joys of the non-Sky Sports infected world of the Scottish lower divisions), and when I went for a pee after 10 minutes, nothing particularly exciting had happened. On returning to my seat, I discovered that Forfar were down to 10 men, according to Niels for a 50-50 ball which the ref had deemed was not the Forfar player’s (Bishop) to go for. Clearly Niels had not seen the tackle correctly, and it was an obvious red.

From thereonin, East Fife attempted to play a bit like Barca, but a bit slower and more Scottish Second Division-y. A typically excellent pass from Bobby Linn (who ran the show as usual) was met with a nice sharp finish into the far corner from Stevie Hislop (ironic shouts of “use your pace Stevie” could be heard throughout the game. I love the Bayview gallows humour)  on 33 minutes.

That was the end of the scoring for the first half, with East Fife creating a hatful of chances but converting only one. Forfar’s one notable effort was met rather poorly by Chris Templeman, whose forehead hadn’t improved in accuracy since a black and gold shirt was pulled over it.

Come the second half, it was more of the same. Patient (!) build-up from East Fife (despite the obvious frustration of some of the crowd that the punt wasn’t being deployed more often), countered with general malaise from the Loons.

The match was all but over on 73 minutes, Johnny Smart sticking home a knock-down from a corner kick. His celebration was interesting – a poor knee slide followed by almost falling on his arse when he got up again. Still, hero.

Goal number 3 came two minutes from the end; some handy work down the right found Lloyd Young in a good crossing position. His cross was flapped to the edge of the box by Gallacher, the Forfar keeper, where that man Linn waited to tuck it home with his left and send the crowd into what counts for raptures in Methil. There was still enough time for an appalling tackle on Linn by Ross Campbell, who was lucky to get away with a yellow, and Michael Brown (who was excellent throughout, particularly with his quick distribution) to tip a free kick round the post for save of the day.

In all, a thoroughly deserved win, and for the first time this season for me, an East Fife  victory. Niels and I left with Niels of the view that Bayview occupies a “unique” setting (he’s not wrong) in terms of football grounds. Given he’s used to sitting in the Fritz Walter Stadion with 47,999 other Kaiserslautern (they won 2-1 on Saturday) supporters, I’ll take that. The fact that the train we’d planned to get from Kirkcaldy back to Edinburgh was cancelled only sealed the Scottish experience for him further.

FIFA,UEFA and the UK Government’s List

Ah, the Ofcom Code on Sports and Other Listed Events (the “List”). Not the snappiest title, but contained within is the UK Government’s very noble attempt to ensure that sports fans don’t have to fork out £60 a month to Sky to watch some decent sport now and again. The List is currently in the midst of a seemingly never-ending review (and with a currently Murdoch-friendly Government in power, who knows how that’s going to end). However, the List currently denotes which annual sporting events must be shown live on terrestrial, free-to-air television, and which of those at the minimum must be shown on terrestrial TV by way of a higlights package.

Therefore, the List currently looks like this in terms of football: (my thanks to Wikipedia)

Group A (guaranteed live terrestrial coverage):

The World Cup (all matches)

The European Championships (all matches)

The FA Cup Final

The Scottish Cup Final (Scotland only)

Why my chagrin, you ask. Well, in the last few weeks, FIFA and UEFA were mercifully defeated in the European Court of Justice, in their attempt to stop the World Cup and the Euros being shown in their entirety on UK terrestrial television.

FIFA’s motto is “the Good of the Game.” Blatter and his organisation constantly talk about “transparency”, “Fair Play” and earlier this week “those in power taking responsibility.” I cannot see how a bid to remove the World Cup from free to air television chimes with any of these values. FIFA’s argument was that the List, as it stands, blocks competition in terms of the EU’s competition laws. In short hand, of course, this can be translated into “we want to sell the World Cup to Sky/ESPN/other sports provider and get paid an even bigger sackload of cash than what we currently receive.”

The BBC (and it applies to ITV in this context too, even if in its many other remits it has the temerity to keep Jane McDonald in employment) acts as the public service broadcaster – ensuring that, by way of the List, the most important sporting events (and the Boat Race) can be broadcast for all and sundry. This turns the World Cup into a national event – like it or not, when England are in the World Cup, the whole country tunes in collectively to enjoy it. The same can be said of a great game in the first round of the Euros (Czech Rep 3-2 Netherlands in 2004, anyone) or a thrilling World Cup first round game in which the underdog triumphs (Cameroon 1-0 Argentina, 1990) or that enthralling, edge of your seat World Cup semi between two utter giants of the game (Italy 2-0 Germany, 2006).

The ECJ’s judgement is to be welcomed – as common sense, but also as an opportunity for the country to continue to collectively enjoy a summer, every 2 years, in front of the telly watching top notch international football. Plus, it also means Blatter makes a wee bit less cash from the World Cup…

Sepp Blatter and the Snood

If, like me, you’ve read Andrew Jennings’ tremendous book “Foul” (although be prepared to take some his views with perhaps a minor pinch of salt), you’ll know that FIFA is, to all intents and purposes, utterly unfit for purpose.

Today, that complete lack of fitness was exemplified. FIFA in the past, barring the corruption allegations and the fact that those at the top are utterly devoid of any sense, management talent or even a tangible love for the game, has shown a complete lack of sense in many of its rule changes.

Take, for example, the yellow card for the removal of a shirt or perhaps a brief flirtation with the crowd having scored a goal. Surely the goal is football in microcosm; the utter point of the game boiled down into that one utterly fantastic moment of collective euphoria, sometimes among thousands of people (not to mention millions watching on TV). The goalscorer, utterly caught up in the moment, as any other person who had any kind of notion of a liking for football would understand, chooses to remove his shirt or perhaps leap the hoarding into the crowd for a second to celebrate for that little moment he has. And gets booked for the privilege. Yup, that same punishment which can be doled out for a rash tackle from behind, mouthing off endlessly at the referee or perhaps a good old kicking the ball away is given to a footballer for acting like a human. Thanks FIFA.

Then, there’s the offside rule. I could write an essay on active and passive, interfering with play or not interfering with play, but I won’t. What I utterly fail to understand is how a governing body can blithely allow a perfectly sensible, sane rule to become completely clouded in confusion. Again, good work from FIFA and IFAB.

Arbitrary rule number three could probably be summed up in one word – altitude. FIFA’s flirtation with stopping sides from playing above 2,500m, effectively stopped the Bolivian national team from playing in its own national stadium for a number of months. Thankfully, someone at FIFA saw sense and this was lifted soon after.

Today’s announcement that the snood is on its way out of football is yet another example of FIFA’s bizarre attitude to the game. My first memory of seeing one was Gianluigi Buffon sporting one at a windy, wet Hampden in November 2007 (never a free kick ref, if anything it was a foul on Hutton). I did think at the time “well he’s a bit girly is he not,” but other than that could see no real problem with it.

But no, FIFA and IFAB have deemed that the snood is not to be part of the beatiful game, and is to be “outlawed” by 1 July this year. A more pointless announcement I could not imagine. I can’t see who it offends (perhaps other than some old school football chaps like Sir Alex), I can’t see any health and safety issues with it, and thus I can’t for the life me determine why FIFA have decided it is deserving of its focus. Indeed, Arsene Wenger has touted the medical benefits of actually wearing the blinking things. The fact that FIFA has chosen to focus on a piece of fluff that warms footballers’ necks rather than get its own house in order is of course, not a surprise; Blatter and co are the masters of the PR distraction – talking nonsense about female players wearing tighter shorts while taking $2bn in TV revenue out of a country plagued by a high murder rate, an AIDS epidemic and now several large, empty football stadiums.

Today’s announcement is classic Blatter, and classic FIFA. They are no doubt well aware of the world’s impression of them following the utter debacle that was the selection of the winning bidders for the 2018 and (particularly) the 2022 World Cups. Therefore, no doubt Messrs Blatter and Warner see the eradication of the evil that is the snood from the game as some positive PR. “Well, you may think Qatar was an astoundingly terrible choice for 2022, but look, we’re banning that scarfy thing.”

So I say, bring back the snood. It may look ridiculous to some, but there are far bigger things to be concerned with in FIFA’s world. Sadly, most of that concern rests within their own house, and with the current president and executive committee at the helm, that won’t change any time soon.

P.S Encourage your local executive committee member to vote for this guy: