Blue Sharks Swim into Last Eight

Viana Desert

A Cape Verdean scene.

This has been quite the weekend in terms of football shocks. Aston Villa, Tottenham, Norwich, QPR and Liverpool have fallen by the wayside in the FA Cup to lower league opposition, while St Mirren brushed Celtic aside to get into the Scottish League Cup final. The surprise to round the weekend off was the passage of the mighty Cape Verde into the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations.

The Blue Sharks needed a win to guarantee their place in the quarter finals, in what is their debut international finals tournament. Having scored only once in their previous two games, a difficult task looked nigh on impossible after Neves headed spectacularly past his own goalkeeper on 33 minutes to give Angola (a fellow Portuguese-speaking nation) the lead.

Both sides then exchanged chances, with Cape Verde throwing on two subs at half-time in an attempt to take the game to their opponents. Things were looking dire until the 81st minute, with the Angolan keeper Lama fumbling a corner and allowing Varela to convert. In the final ten minutes, all four sides in Group A were in a qualifying position for the quarter finals, with Morocco and South Africa exchanging goals in the other match.

The Blue Sharks’ place in the last 8, however, was not secured until the final minute of normal time, with Heldon capitalising on another Lama mistake and smashing home the winner. He was absolutely mobbed by his delighted team-mates, who continued the party in coach Luis Antunes’ post-match press conference.

Joining Cape Verde in the last 8 will be South Africa, their 2-2 draw with Morocco being enough for Bafana Bafana to go through as group winners. The Blue Sharks’ 600,000 followers back home will be watching their team most likely play Ghana in the next round. Though the Black Stars may be one of the favourites for the tournament, they cannot afford to take this Cape Verdean side lightly. Antunes (an air traffic controller by trade) will no doubt be relishing the prospect of putting his side from the island nation up against one of the superstar sides of Africa. It seems unlikely that Cape Verde can do a “Zambia” and stage a miraculous run to the final; what is clear in their peformances so far in South Africa is that they belong at African football’s top table.

 

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7 Bizarre Red Cards

Following on from Eden Hazard’s ridiculous red card this evening for kicking a ball-“boy” in the League Cup semi-final second leg against Swansea, here are another few weird red cards that came to mind.

1. Andre Bikey, Cameroon v Ghana, Africa Cup of Nations 2008

With time running out in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations and Cameroon holding a slender lead against the hosts, Rigobert Song goes down injured. The stadium medics come on to treat him… at which point Bikey barges one over. The referee is given no choice but to send him off, and Bikey is fined £5,000, missing the final.

 

2. Jamie Carragher, Liverpool v Arsenal, FA Cup, 2002

A heated FA Cup fourth round tie at Highbury for this one. Jamie Carragher has a coin thrown at him by the home supporters…and then deems it necessary to chuck it back into the crowd. Referee Mike Riley shows him a red card, as Arsenal win 1-0 despite losing Dennis Bergkamp and Martin Keown to similarly coloured bits of paper (though not for throwing money at people).

3.Samuel Inkoom, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk v Karpaty Lviv, 2011

On 60 minutes, with his side 1-0 up away in Lviv, Ghanaian international Inkoom’s number comes up and he wanders off the pitch to be substituted. Showing not a little petulance, he removes his shirt as he leaves the field. Just before he gets to the touchline and is able to give his team-mate ten and let him on the field, the rather over-officious referee catches up with him, showing him a second yellow and a red for removing his shirt on the field of play.

 

4.Antonio Luna, Sevilla v Atletico Madrid, 2012

Did I mention I went to the Vicente Calderon in November last year? As well as providing a thumping great win for the home team, this game also provided 3 red cards for Sevilla, the strangest of which was undoubtedly shown to Mr Luna. It’s something I’ve not seen before at a live game anyway. With barely 10 minutes left and his team already 3 down and on their way to a rather comprehensive defeat, unused substitute Mr Luna decides to direct some extremely naughty language towards referee Iglesias Villanueva. Señor Villanueva responded in kind by asking him to take his leave from the substitutes’ bench.

5. & 6. Emil Kremenliev and Luis Garcia, Bulgaria v Mexico, 1994

In a match which was notable for reasons such as a fantastic Hristo Stoichkov goal and a 10-minute delay due to a collapsed goal net, this World Cup last-16 tie was notable for something else: the utterly abject performance of Syrian referee Jamal Al Sharif. Bulgarian defender Kremenliev received a second yellow after 50 minutes for vaguely brushing Mexican midfielder Alberto Garcia Aspe. The ref clearly felt the need to even the numbers up 7 minutes later, quickly booking then sending off Garcia, the second yellow for accidentally kicking a Bulgarian going for a 50/50. The two sides played out a fairly insipid 60 minutes thereafter, the Bulgarians eventually progressing to the quarters on penalties.

 

7. Ronaldino, Milan v Inter, 2009

It’s derby day and Milan are 1 down. Ronaldinho steps up for free kick on the edge of the area in an attempt to bring his side level. He takes the free-kick too quickly for the referee’s liking, and is issued with a red card. Hold on, red? The referee very quickly realises his mistake and before he is pelted with rotten tomatoes by half the San Siro, quickly replaces the red with a yellow. Ronaldinho sees the funny side, thankfully.

 

I realise this is just a brief dip into a larger array of daft red cards – if anyone can think of any others, please share them.

Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey

This week (particularly on Thursday evening/Friday morning), the world will get to see Lance Armstrong apparently `fess up to Oprah Winfrey regarding his lengthy and comprehensive doping programme. The United States Anti-Doping Agency (“USADA”) report into his misdeeds (and there were a lot of them) was a massive shock to the sporting world, and this is Lance’s chance to get across his side of the story, whatever that’s worth.

Lance Armstrong had of course in his pre-2012 existence been an example to millions of people. Here was a man who had had a promising cycling career, then been stricken with apparently terminal cancer apparently in his prime. I read “It’s Not About the Bike” when he was hitting his peak of fame and felt rather emotional when Armstrong described, having had a particularly bad reaction to a session of chemo, being barely able to cycle 50 yards before feeling utterly exhausted and as a result demoralised. The book set out his battle with cancer in great detail, and at the time I found his words and his story utterly inspiring. Armstrong had seemingly battled back from the brink of death to the very top of one of the most physically demanding sports there is. Seven Tour de France in a row was an unprecedented achievement –  and he had done it clean. Or so we thought.

Cheeeeaaaaat

Lance Armstrong (from Haggisnl on Wikipedia)

Then there was his wonderful charity work. “Livestrong” became one of the most recognisable brands in the world; 2005 was awash with chaps of a certain age wearing yellow wristbands with the slogan subtly engraved into the plastic. The name, the wristband and the brand were so inextricably linked to Armstrong’s incredible recovery, and his subsequent “clean” victories. What cannot be denied is that Livestrong has raised millions for a cause that is so important that pointing out its importance is largely pointless. Cancer research and treatment are vital, and every penny which goes anywhere near that cause is an important one. I’m sure “It’s Not About the Bike”, and Armstrong’s apparent achievements, will have helped cancer sufferers and inspired them in their recovery.

Where the difficulty comes in for Livestrong in particular is that the money they have received since the charity’s inception has at best been raised on an untruth, and at worst is utterly tainted. Granted, it is true that he recovered from a seemingly terminal form of cancer – it is of course what he did after that that arguably taints the work of Livestrong. Armstrong the man and his associated brands are undoubtedly done for financially, though he made a shrewd and fairly selfless move in removing himself from the Livestrong board not long after the USADA verdict was announced to attempt to preserve the charity’s good name.

His interview with Oprah won’t, I think, change very much. I imagine she won’t have asked him particularly searching questions – it certainly won’t be Paxman repeatedly asking “Did you threaten to overrule him?”, which might actually have worked as a question for Armstrong himself in relation to this treatment of his US Postal team-mates. Although he does seemingly confess to something, one imagines we will get a small percentage of the full story at best. This is Armstrong’s last chance, you feel, to redeem himself in the eyes of the world.

I for one, hope he doesn’t redeem himself, and I don’t think he will in any way. USADA have proved Armstrong is a liar, a man who duped people into believing his incredible story, myself included. He has a long road ahead of him, with most of the next  few years likely to involve going in and out of courtrooms in defence of multi-million-dollar claims against him (the US Postal Service is seemingly working up to raising an action as I type). I must say I feel not a twinge of sympathy for his predicament – I imagine his chat with Oprah will do nothing to raise such sympathy in anyone else.

East Fife v Brechin, 12 January 2013

Things about to get underway at New Bayview

Things about to get underway at New Bayview

The second Saturday in January is never the ideal time to visit New Bayview. Any time of year, the ground is famously cold as the breeze whips off the Firth of Forth but in winter it’s all the chillier. As it was, this Saturday, I attended my third East Fife game of the season in the Methil bite , dragging two of my younger cousins (Daniel and Greg, who support Celtic and Arsenal respectively) along for the occasion.

The match was one which lived up to that classic football cliché – a game of two halves. The first half began with East Fife looking sluggish and a little lackadaisical on the ball, and Brechin taking the match to their opponents as a result. Brechin were on a run of four straight victories and it looked like a fifth was on the cards when they opened the scoring after 5 minutes. David McKenna’s lofted cross/shot rebounded off the post, with the defence and keeper seemingly expecting the ball to drift wide. Alan Trouten capitalised on the hesitancy in the East Fife defence, smashing home the rebound for 1-0.

Brechin then proceeded to create a further number of chances, taking advantage of East Fife’s slightly slow response to Brechin’s counter-attacking play. However, East Fife grabbed the next goal. A Darren Smith corner was met by the head of Collin Samuel to bring the home side level. The Trinidadian striker unfortunately had to go off injured not long after.

What also occurred not long after was a second Brechin City goal. Another quality counter-attacking move, with a tight offside decision being called the right way saw Derek Carcary put through on goal and making no mistake in sliding the ball under Calum Antell for 2-1.

Daniel, Greg and I then made the collective decision, on about 35 minutes, to go for a pie to beat the half-time queue. Having acquired our traditional football refreshments, we made our way back into the ground, missing Bobby Barr’s apparently brilliant equaliser by about 10 seconds. Given the descriptions of it as a 25-yarder into the top corner, to say I was a bit gutted would be an understatement, though I look forward to seeing it on the East Fife website’s excellent video coverage.

Half-time arrived with East Fife having been much the poorer team but somehow level at 2-2. The fans expected the men in black and gold to receive their traditional half-time reprimand from Billy Brown, and so it was that East Fife came out and mostly dominated the second half, without, unfortunately, finding a winning goal.

New  Bayview

Some second half action at New Bayview

Chances came during the second half for Scott McBride on several occasions and for Paul McManus on one very notable occasion to give the home side the lead. There was some lovely combination play and passing on show from the Fifers, but unfortunately no-one could apply the decisive touch. As well as that, the stand-side linesman made some particularly ropey decisions, one when a ricochet off a Brechin player broke to Paul McManus who was subsequently called offside, another when goal-kick was signalled after Andrews had touched a McBride effort over the bar.

As the half wore on, Brechin came back into it and looked as though they would apply the sucker-punch on 85 minutes when the ball fell to Andy Jackson with the goal at his mercy. Somehow he managed to skew the ball wide, and in the end,  2-2 looked like a pretty decent final score for all concerned. East Fife’s second-half performance must have given Billy Brown some encouragement – he will be hoping the Fife can do that for a whole game against Alloa next week. It was time to head back to the car and warm up.

East Fife 2-2 Brechin City (Samuel, Barr; Trouten, Carcary)

Att: 578

12-12-18

No, that’s not a possible formation for an entire American Football team. It’s the latest frankly baffling proposal to reorganise the Scottish Premier League (SPL) and Scottish Football League (SFL) into something more coherent than the current 12-10-10-10 structure, which now appears to be going to a vote among the SFL clubs at the end of January.

Somewhere behind those red bricks (on the other side of the ground from them, in fact) talks are/may be happening.

Somewhere behind those red bricks, reconstruction talks are happening.

There is no doubt that the current system is not fit for purpose, and the Rangers issues of the summer were supposed to open informed debate as to how this lack of fitness could be rectified. At the moment, each side in the 12-team SPL plays one another 3 times (2 home, 1 away), before the split occurs after 33 games (usually in late March/early April of a season). The sides in each set of 6 then play one another once more, giving a grand total of 38 games in a season. The split is arbitrary, and the top league is simply too small. The 10-10-10 in the SFL is no better – in the Scottish Second Division (where East Fife currently reside), only 4 of the 10 places currently don’t provide the possibility of either promotion or relegation. The divisions as they stand are simply too small to allow good clubs the time to grow organically and develop local talent.

The new plan is no better, particularly for the top two leagues. The SPL’s proposal, which is apparently now being foisted on the SFL, is for two top divisions of 12 (there’s that number again) clubs. Each side in the Scottish Premier League and the newly-anointed Scottish Championship (SPL2 by another name) will play the other home and away, bringing a total of 22 matches.

Then, the two divisions of 12 will split to become 3 leagues of 8  and the points for each side reset to zero. Thereafter the top 8 in the SPL will fight it out for the title and the  European places, the bottom 4 in the SPL and top 4 in the Championship will decide who goes into the SPL for the next…bit of a season, and the bottom 8 in the Championship will fight against relegation to the new National League (formerly the Second Division, and at 18 teams that is a good size), with each side in each mini-league again playing one another home and away.

I have a series of problems with this proposal (as you might expect). Firstly, this idea has been tried before – in Austria from the mid-1980s until it was abandoned for the start of the 1993-94 season, and in neighbours Switzerland from 1987 right up to 2003. Both have now adopted a 10-team top league (which to my mind isn’t a solution either but I’ll let that slide), with no pointless splits. You get the feeling (admittedly a slightly Teutonic-effiency-sterotype-based feeling) that if it didn’t work in those countries, it ain’t going to work in Ecosse.

The only current league format which is perhaps analogous to the proposed Scottish structure (without going into Apertura and Clausura territory in the Americas) is that of the Belgian top flight. The 16 team top-flight  plays each other once at home and once away, bringing a total of 30 matches. The top 6 then breaks into a play-off system to decide the title winner, with each time again playing the other twice. At the other end of the table, the sides in 15th and 16th duke it out over 5 games (akin to the American play-off system for the World Series or the Stanley Cup), with the loser being relegated. The side in 15th then enters a further play-off with the sides in 2nd, 3rd and 4th from the second tier to decide the final place in the top league (the Pro League).

This clearly isn’t ideal either – for a kick-off I’ve wasted 100 words explaining the odd system of another country. And this is where my second concern comes in; I think if there’s too much to the format, and too much debate over the intricacies of the format, then the format becomes the story, not the clubs and the players involved. This time next year then, if this dog of a system is voted through, the talk will be about one club or another avoiding the bottom 4 in the SPL and achieving a “top 8” place for the second half of the season. How enthralling.

To my mind, the solution is a simple one, and can be split into 3 points (not three leagues):

1. There should be two leagues. One of the arguments being made by the SFL/SPL is that a 16 team top league gives 4 less home games per season for the first tier sides. Well, why not make it a 20 team league if that’s the concern, and have the 19 home games. It could lead to some interesting results as the format beds in, but as Rangers’ sojurns in the Third Division this season have shown, there is perhaps more depth to the Scottish game than people think. Two leagues, one of 20 and one of 22, would certainly work better (in my view) than the current bizarre structure being proposed, and addresses the issue of the format being the focus. I think 16 is the ideal – it works for Portugal (to a point) and Portugal has a similar club dynamic to Scotland (though with 3 rather than 2 dominant clubs), but can understand the commercial reluctance to go for this. 20 clubs in the top league provides the right balance.

2. Put in a pyramid system. This may in the end come to bite East Fife on the bottom, but it needs to happen, and will at least serve to freshen up the leagues a little. A 22 team second tier would start with perhaps one relegation place to a Scottish Conference, with a second place coming in in due course. The Conference would be made up of the best sides of the Highland, East of Scotland and South of Scotland leagues – relegation from that Conference would see those sides go back into those leagues. A Conference might even, whisper it, involve the best Junior teams as they cotton onto the prize of actually getting to play in the Scottish Football League some day rather than a bit of a token invite to the Scottish Cup. The lack of relegation in the current set-up breeds complacency – a pyramid would encourage some competition in the lower SFL, and help to improve the grass roots game in the country as the pyramid structure moves down through the non-league, junior and amateur set-ups.

3. Don’t just amalgamate the SFL and SPL (as is being proposed) – put the whole lot under the umbrella of the Scottish Football Association. A country of Scotland’s size needs only one governing body for the sport (we’re about to have one police service and one fire service, after all), and doing so should, among other things, help the SFA to use the leagues to prioritise the needs of the national team (or at least have greater control over those needs than currently).

12-12-18 is not a solution. The fact Gordon Smith is boasting about coming up with it during is tenure as SFA chief executive should be enough to ward off the SFL clubs in and of itself, particularly bearing in mind that Smith previously sought to compare a real issue of 1,500 people losing their jobs at Hall’s in Broxburn with the not quite as big issue of  a famous football club going bust. In July, when the debate raged as to which league the newco Rangers would end up in, clubs listened to their fans and Rangers were made to start again in the fourth tier. One only hopes they listen as hard to the growing dismay at this proposal being foisted on the country’s lower league clubs – which of course now count Rangers (temporarily) among their number.

As always, comment and debate welcomed.

Espinoza and Tahiti

Two things caught my eye this week – one was the completion of Roger Espinoza’s transfer from Sporting Kansas City in the US to Wigan Athletic; the other was the fact that the Confederations Cup draw for June 2013 has taken place (and indeed took place on 1 December 2012…).

Roger Espinoza

Oh look, Wigan have signed another Honduran. How comical. Except this time, in my view, they have signed a damn good one in  midfielder Roger Espinoza.

Espinoza

Roger Espinoza, in action for Honduras at the 2012 Olympics against Brazil (he’s the leftmost Honduran in this shot)

Having seen Mr Espinoza in action at the London 2012 Olympic tournament on three separate occasions, I can confirm to all Wigan supporters out there that they may have captured themselves a bit of a bargain. Particularly against Brazil in the quarter-finals, Espinoza showed he was skilful, tenacious and with a real eye for goal. In that match he was (harshly) sent off in the last minute; in so doing he received a standing ovation from the St James’ Park crowd for his performance, something I’ve never seen before in more than 20 years of going to football matches. He was also exemplary against Spain, chasing down lost causes and trying to keep the Spanish off the ball for as long as possible as he helped his country to an historic victory against the world and European champions.

Although only scoring twice in more than 100 appearances in the MLS for Sporting Kansas City, I fancy in the Premier League he may grab a couple of vital goals for Wigan before the season is out. His physicality and drive should make his adaptation to the English game a little easier. From an entirely biased perspective, I hope he thrives in the remaining months of the season.

Tahiti and the Confederations Cup

Completely changing the subject, and continuing my fascination with the underdog in world football, I learned today that the C0nfederations Cup draw took place… at the start of  December 2012. As regular blog readers will know, the unlikely participants in this year’s tournament will be Tahiti, who managed a surprise win in the OFC Nations Cup last year and thus travel to Brazil in June  as the representatives of Oceania, rather than perennial attendees New Zealand.

The draw, as it would have been no matter which teams were pulled out, is an absolute stinker for the Tahitians. They begin against the winners of the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations in Belo Horizonte (admittedly not a ground that’s a stranger to shocks given the US’s victory over England in 1950), followed by a game against Spain in the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. The last match of their odyssey sees the French Polynesians face Uruguay, admittedly not the side of their 2011 Copa America triumph but still ironed-on favourites to win, in Recife in the north-east of Brazil. By that point, if they’re not playing solely for pride I will be amazed. However, it will certainly be an adventure for the Tahitians and, going by the current qualification criteria for the tournament (i.e., win your continental championship or the World Cup), they have every right to be there.

One concern I do have is that Tahiti’s probably awful showing may damage the reputation of a tournament which is already seen as largely pointless. Certainly, their form in recent World Cup qualifiers doesn’t provide much comfort. Although the Confederations Cup now serves as a useful warm-up (for the host nation rather than the countries involved) for the World Cup to follow the year after, particularly in terms of testing infrastructure, the performance of the Tahitians may call into question the usefulness of the tournament from a footballing perspective. Unless we see a miracle in June, I also think questions will be asked about whether or not Oceania should continue to be represented at the Confederations Cup, and indeed if there is a continuing justification for the Oceania confederation’s separate existence. It may be unfair to lump all of that responsibility on a side doomed to fail – however, I do think those questions will be asked. If  Tahiti beat Spain on 20 June in Rio, I’ll gladly munch on my words.

Predictions for 2013

At this time of year, having done a fairly brief review of 2012, it seems only right to do a small set of predictions for the year to come, which I will no doubt get mostly entirely wrong. Here goes (feel free to disagree):

Football

Manchester United will win the Premier League; QPR will stay up while Reading, Southampton and Newcastle will go down. Chelsea will retain the FA Cup and win the League Cup too.

Celtic will win the SPL; Dundee will get relegated. Celtic will also win the Scottish Cup, while Inverness Caley will win a first major trophy in the League Cup.

The Champions League will go back to Barcelona, and I think Dortmund will get a long way in the tournament too. Napoli will win the Europa League, ending Atletico Madrid’s domination of the competition which subsequently will lead to Falcao departing for either Real Madrid or Chelsea.

Rangers will win the Third Division, and the proposed league reorganisation will result in them jumping to a new second tier. East Fife will stay in the Second Division.

Brazil will win the Confederations Cup on home soil, raising hopes to be subsequently dashed in 2014. Tahiti will get absolutely blitzed in their three matches and the entire concept of the tournament will be called into question (the draw will be covered in a separate post later today).

Nigeria will win the Africa Cup of Nations, with Cote d’Ivoire again not living up to the hype. Dider Drogba will retire from international football after the tournament.

Other Sport

In tennis, Andy Murray will win another Grand Slam in 2013, with Federer and Djokovic sharing the others.

As far as the big cricket this year is concerned, England will win the Ashes  at home in the summer; the Australian series will end in a 2-2 tie with England therefore retaining the urn.

Mo Farah will win one gold at the World Athletics Championships; Jess Ennis will come second. Team GB will win two golds in total.

Rory McIlroy will win two Majors in the golf, with a first-time winner for one of the others.

In the rugby union world. Scotland will have yet another awful Six Nations, with England running out Grand Slam and tournament winners.

Chris Froome will win the Tour de France, with Bradley Wiggins helping him to do so.

That probably covers all the vaguely interesting sports. Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything, or if you disagree with anything.