When in doubt, buy Lille

One French club recently seems to have caught a number of football geeks’ (myself included) attention – LOSC Lille. As well as being included in my comprehensive review of the 2010-11 season, Lille has become a bit of a watchword for the well-run, well-managed club over the last 5 years or so. It was watching Stoke v Newcastle tonight, and the way in which Yohan Cabaye seemed to just stroll through the 90 minutes (at a place which is notoriously difficult to play), that it struck me that to “buy Lille” would be a pretty good mantra for Premier League teams (and indeed any in more exotic locations) to follow.

Lille’s capacity to produce quality players has been particularly exemplified in the three players who have left the club in the summer of 2011 and have breezed into new clubs without so much as a jot of worry or trepidation (perhaps bar Gervinho’s opening day red card).

Firstly, the aforementioned Cabaye, on not only tonight’s evidence but on Newcastle’s amazing early-season form and their miserly defence has quite clearly been a revelation. He forms a robust midfield partnership with one of my favourite Premier League players, the effervescent and oft-yellow-carded Chiek Tiote, and just seems to be one of those players who does the job he is meant to do on the pitch with ease. Cabaye is clearly in as an enforcer and as a protector of the back four (which could, until this season, tend to be rather fragile) – it is a task he performs wonderfully well – but more than that he appears to take on a Scott-Parker-esque role, making the little passes that count in the middle of the park and keeping the play moving where appropriate. He also, on the evidence presented on Sky Sports this evening, is not afraid of tracking back deep into his own penalty box (to the point he got in Tim Krul’s way a bit on one particular occasion). Should particularly both he and Tiote stay fit (though Danny Guthrie was perfectly disciplined playing alongside him tonight) and Newcastle keep their defensive form, I expect Newcastle to at least finish in the top 8 of the table.

The second wandering chap from the north-east of France is the aforementioned Gervinho. Although I thought during August that the last player Arsene Wenger needed was a fragile yet gifted winger with a tendency for interesting hair, I have been proven wrong, to a point. Gervinho at the moment, other than the ridiculously-on-form Robin Van Persie, seems to be the man who can make things happen for Arsenal in attack. One hopes he can stay fit, particularly when RVP’s inevitable injury lay-off rears its head (I know, he’s been fit for the whole calendar year, but as sure as Christmas is on 25 December, RVP will get injured). Anyway, Gervinho has clearly contributed markedly for Arsenal, and long may that continue.

Thirdly, and finally (for now), Adil Rami deserves more than a mention. A young man who presumably for well-founded astrological reasons did not get into the French World Cup squad, since Laurent Blanc came in as national manager his career trajectory has gone steadily in an upwards direction. Forming a sturdy partnership internationally with the also astrologically-ignored Philippe Mexes, Rami has turned heads enough to join Valencia. And lo, Valencia are currently in their usual-ish position of 4th in La Liga (assuming their local rivals Levante start to slip down the table that should improve), and it would appear that Rami is taking to life in La Liga with consummate ease, even scoring a couple of goals along the way.

As for the future, it would appear there could be a couple more Lille players playing at the top level of European football by this time next year. Firstly, Eden Hazard is slowly becoming the worst kept secret in European football, and is surely far too classy a player to not catch the financial attention of the big clubs in England or Spain. He has been linked with predominantly English clubs thus far, including Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. I’d like to see him join Arsenal as his link-up with Jack Wilshere when he returns to fitness would be an absolute joy to watch – he is of course more likely to join either of the blue oligarchical behemoths.

Other than Hazard, there is talent in spades at Lille. Although Rio Mavuba is the captain and unlikely to leave at the drop of the hat, I’m sure the right kind of offer would turn his head. At 27 he should be at the peak of his form, and provide a similar if not identical service to a hypothetical new club to that which Cabaye provides for Newcastle. Moussa Sow meanwhile seems a reliable striker, while right-back Mathieu Debuchy has just made his French debut.

In all, it would seem that if a side buys Lille, it buys into a player which has been brought up in the right manner, playing football in a side which is provincial yet in an area with a huge fanbase. Andy Brassell often says that French football is a great breeding ground for a player who wishes to move to the top-end of English football due to the physicality of the French game – it would seem that playing for Lille only strengthens that ability to adapt.

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Adventures in Cape Verde

“Adventures” is maybe a bit of a strong word. What I should say perhaps is “some time spent on holiday in Cape Verde watching some football”, but it’s not as catchy a title. This article is split into two small-ish ones, both of which I tapped away on on my phone while I was away.

Watching the Premier League Cape Verde Style

During my time in Cape Verde (group of islands off the west coast of Senegal, fact fans) one thing astounded me (other than the weather, the beaches and the plentiful free drink) – the utter ubiquitousness of the Premier League. On arrival on 2 October I was greeted with live coverage of the North London derby, on the Spanish Canal + from what I assume was the hotel satellite feed. I then managed to see, on various channels, bits of Barca v Sporting Gijon and Juventus v Milan. On 3 October I was greeted with a re-run of Bolton v Chelsea. Not looking too rosy for Bolton at the moment… (though it is interesting listening to what I think is Steve McManaman as co-commentator, presumably speaking flawless Spanish in a Scouse accent). This continued for much of the fortnight, though international week was a bit of a let-down for the discerning Scotland supporter (i.e. me) with Norway v Cyprus being shown live on one channel…

Back to the topic, it really does seem like the world has fallen in love with the Premier League. Granted, it would seem the hotel had access to a pretty darn good satellite dish and that the local station (TCV) probably cant afford the big bucks needed. But there I was, 250 miles off the west coast of Africa and still able to watch a host of Premier League football.

Indeed, although the idea is utterly abhorrent to me as a mostly traditional football fan, I can see why the Premier League, and particularly Richard Scudamore, was briefly so eager for the “39th game”. The Premier League clearly has a vast international audience, including on an archipelago in the Atlantic. The whys and wherefores of this have been argued over many times – suffice to say there is at least (as is further exemplified by various Premier League sides’ Asian pre-season tours) a pretty persuasive commercial argument for doing so in a number of locations. Although the national stadium in Praia might need a bit of an upgrade, as I was soon to discover.

Cape Verde 2-1 Zimbabwe; Liberia 2-2 Mali

The second major football experience of my holiday was watching the Cape Verde national team in action. The original plan had been to go see them in Praia, but on researching the possibilities, and realising that our hotel was on a whole different island from the country’s capital city, the kibosh was very soon unfortunately put on that.

My experiences of the Cape Verde national team were therefore restricted to watching them on the national broadcaster (TCV), among its adverts for something called “ESTRELA POP”. First impressions were good – the stand of the national stadium in Praia looked sturdy and from the look of the numbers getting up in front of the camera when the Verde ventured forward, the 8,000 capacity stadium (that’s a whole 4 times bigger than New Bayview, you know) got pretty darn lively. The pitch looked decent but understandably dry for a country that gets 261mm of rain a year (about half an hour’s worth in Glasgow).

It was at Cape Verde’s last venture forward in the first half that I saw something that kind of shocked me and yet really made me wish I could have gone there all in one. If any readers have ever had the privilege of going to Firs Park (and it was a privilege, believe me), they would be aware that one end is a wall with a retail park overlooking it. Well imagine that, except with no branch of Land of Leather behind it. Then imagine a good twenty or thirty people sitting on it (at least 9 feet off the ground), and getting up and jumping when CV scored…! It was all a scary for a pasty Western football supporter used to plastic seats and warm pies, but frankly when you discount the complete lack of health and safety it did look a rather fun way to watch a game of football.

Half-time was probably my favourite bit of the game, however. Not just because at that point Cape Verde were well in charge against Mugabe’s lot, being 2-0 up, but after the lengthy commercial break I was treated to a massive supporters’ song, to the tune of”Beat It” by Michael Jackson. I didn’t understand a word (plainly, as it was sung entirely in Portuguese), but it did feature a guitar playing shark (the mascot!). I discovered from the video that as Ivory Coast are the Elephants, Cameroon are the Indomitable Lions and the Central African Republic are the Wild Beasts (thanks Wikipedia) , then so Cape Verde are the Tubaroes Azuis or “Blue Sharks”. It certainly made for a far more entertaining spectacle than listen to Hansen/Shearer/other pointless pundit drone on about nothing in particular.

I would almost be tempted to recommend it for Scotland matches, but then would be reluctant in the face of the fact that if this was implemented half-time would probably be taken up by the Tain and District Pipe Band playing Highland Cathedral for fifteen minutes. Something for the BBC to think about though.

Anyway back to west Africa, the Blue Sharks were two up at half-time on their relatively big opponents thanks to early goals from Valdo and Ryan.

Cape Verde needed a win to have a hope of qualifying for their first Africa Cup of Nations and hope that Liberia could do them a favour in Monrovia (Martyn) by beating group leaders Mali. Cape Verde held up their side of the bargain by getting through a reasonably turgid second half and winning 2-1. Unfortunately, Liberia could only draw with Mali, and as such Cape Verde was left to wait, with as little stress as possible, for the World Cup qualifiers to begin. From what I could see online on my return to the UK, they had done their country proud with their run. If only Nani hadn’t decided to play for Portugal.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s the mad yet brilliant half-time Cape Verde tune. And I’d thoroughly recommend Cape Verde for a holiday!