Tuesday, 26 July 2011


       Why we hate Man United, part 1.

               Dear Manchester United fans, your beloved club was this past week named, by Forbes, as the most valuable sports franchise in the sports world. See article. As most of you well, your club is also, now, the all time record Premier League winners and only Liverpool has won more European Cups in England than you folks.

               You folk are probably the largest fan club in the world. You overtook the Spanish giants when your club had the vision to venture into the Far East market before anyone else. Everyone is trying to copy that now but a large proportion of one third of the world’s population is already in your corner. By the way, buying J.S. Park was also a masterstroke, no disrespect to his game.  All this doesn’t stop Man U from having arguably the largest crowd of fans rooting against them every time they set foot on the field. It is the reason that so many rejoiced after Barca annihilated your dearly beloved club in the Champions League Final in May. For the vast majority, it wasn’t out of love for Barca  hard as they are to hate, but utter hatred for Man U. You could have been playing anyone really, everyone would root against you guys. Even those English professionals who sent messages of support before; and commiseration after were lying! They just couldn’t admit to the nation that they backed the foreigners to kick the stuffing out of the local boys. Jack Wilshere we’re onto you!
             So, the question is; why Man U? I can see many of you sneering, claiming it’s because of all your team’s success (actually this attitude may be part of the problem, but I digress). If that was the sole reason, Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern, and Barcelona would be equally hated. Why not  them? Why is Man U so roundly reviled by those who aren’t Man U fans? Why doesn’t one ever stumble upon a neutral, during a Man U game, who’s rooting for Man U just because he/she is a neutral? I did some research the reasons I came upon were so numerous so I’ll do it in bits. Here goes.

    Dodgy officiating.

             The biggest complaint, apparently, that we have against Man U seems to be biased officiating. Personally, I am a firm believer that refereeing decisions tend to even themselves out through the course of the season, for most teams. Maybe I am biased but in Man U’s case, I tend to agree with fans who believe they get the rub of the green a little too much. Take the Tottenham fixture last season, where Nani not only dived and proceeded to commit a handball, he had the nerve to dust himself off and score as Gomes plotted to take the ‘free-kick’. The ref pointed to the centre circle. It perplexed everyone but you guys! No doubt you have some explanation of events that explains that sequence of events and lauds praise on Sir Alex in the same breath. By the letter of the law, there was nothing wrong with this but it's the spirit in which  happened that ticked us off.

             The instances are many: Nemanja Vidic is a war criminal(during soccer games, not personal life  though his name and shaven head suggest a secret past life as such) Darren Fletcher is his trusted acolyte. If Patrick Vieira directed half the insults that Rooney hurls at match officials, he’d play 10 games all season! Paul Scholes somehow managed to play a full 90 for the majority of his career without ever getting the ball in any of his 'tackles' This forum doesn’t have enough space to list one third of the refereeing anomalies that happen when your team is playing especially at OT but we'll try.

A typical day at the office for Vidic; trying to incapacitate people.

             We’re not insinuating that there’s some sort of Calciopoli type syndicate at play here. I suspect Sir Alex has instilled the fear of God in referees past, present and future. When faced with an anti-Man U decision, especially at OT, inaction is usually the safe route that the refs take. I guess it’s easier for the ref to explain to the appointing authority that he didn’t see a thing, rather than sending off a one Vidic, for example, and having to deal with the fiery Scot insinuating that he's fat and unfit to take on matches of such magnitude, and him subsequently being sent to officiate in the Championship.

             In all, we get the feeling, in one of these fine Manchester derbies, we are bound to see a thrilling game headed for a draw, until ‘Fergie time’ kicks in. it goes as follows; if the Reds are losing or drawing, extra time goes on until, Wayne Rooney comes up with a winner(and then the final whistle is blown as soon as City kick off); if City is losing, Fergie shows the fourth official his Swiss chronograph at around the 80 minute mark and warns him not to dare add any more time than required. In the event that about 3 added minutes are shown, Sir Alex tells off the official for being too generous to the opposition. Then Fergie will breath down the neck of the fourth official, whisky breath and all, for the next 2 minutes and 15 seconds while simultaneously gesticulating at the ref. i don't know if it's just me, but 5 seconds later, the game is up. 

Vidic and Fletcher just stop short of stepping onto the pitch as strapped as Ed Wuncler and Gin Rummy from The Boondocks. These two would probably have to strike someone down with a mallet for a penalty to be awarded against United at Old Trafford! 

To be continued.........

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Messi: The greatest player of our time?

After the 2011 Champions League Final, FC Barcelona got all sorts of rave reviews, with most observers debating about whether it was the greatest club team ever assembled. This is discussion for another time. Inevitably, their best player was touted as the greatest player of our time; and possibly ever.'The Messiah', 'The Boy Wonder' First of all, I’d like to categorically state that I don’t buy into that ‘best ever’ argument, even being as much of a Messi fan as I am.

In such an argument, the variables are too many for one to come to unanimous decision. For example, comparing players who played who played in different eras is an exercise in futility. The Maradonas played in an era where international football took precedence over club football; players from outside Europe could play for clubs in their home countries and still be considered the best in the world, Pele being a case in point. Also, the statistically such an argument would be flawed because if one looked at goal tallies, for instance, modern players play in a Champions League format that involves various Group stages whilst the old European Cup was a straight knockout competition. The World Cup now has 32 teams; there was a time when it was an invitation only tournament! Modern footballers play nearly twice as many games as the older ones did per season.

This brings me to the argument about Messi being the best player in the modern era .i.e. from the 90s on. Someone can’t be the greatest in a vacuum; we have to consider whom we are comparing him with. I think most would agree that, all factors considered, we’d have to juxtapose his skills with those of the Brazilian sorcerer Ronaldinho and the French maestro Zinedine Zidane.

All three players were blessed with extraordinary technique, vision and the ability to ‘see’ things and paint mental pictures that mere mortals just can’t. Messi’s phenomenal goal scoring record, in many people’s eyes, overshadows a very big part of his game – his passing ability. It’s hard to believe but he had the second highest assist total in La Liga last season! By my reckoning, Messi and ‘Dinho’ aren’t far apart in this category, the Brazilian just made every pass – every touch on the ball really – a joy to behold. Maybe it was the permanent toothy grin.

 In this category, the French maestro takes the cake. I don’t know if it’s just me but many a time as I watched the French national team in World Cup 98 and Euro 2000, Zizou would play a pass, seemingly to no one and I’d spit some un-printables in his direction. A second later, I’d eat my words as Lizarazu or Thuram ran onto what turned out to be a delicious through pass. I haven’t seen any one with that kind of vision since. Xavi gets close though.

In terms of goal scoring, Messi outshines his competitors by far. He’s now scored over 100 goals for Barcelona in the past three seasons! It took ‘Dinho’ 5 years at Barca just to crack 100.  And that's probably more than ‘Zizou’ scored in his entire club career. But a judgement based on goals is skewed in Messi’s favor because he plays in a more advanced role; and the other two were more of facilitators than goal scorers.

Regardless, they all have one thing in common; their goals have taken our breath away severally over the years. Ronaldinho’s samba dance goal against Chelsea. Zizou’s volley. Messi in UCL ‘El Classico I’ These goals don’t need further description; everyone remembers them at the drop of a dime. There’s a certain ‘wow’ factor these goals have. Anyone, seeing such goals and such moments, feels the need to rub their eyes, ask themselves if they actually just saw what they think they saw, and wait for the replay to confirm. After that all one can say is “WOW!” One can’t help feel a sense of history when watching geniuses like Messi play. Ronaldinho, resoundingly, takes this category. I am sure John Terry, Peter Cech and co. are still bamboozled by that goal; and all the victims of his elasticos still can’t believe they fell for it. And we all remember that surge of electricity when we witnessed these moments.

The one factor that divides the absolute upper echelon of players from the not so great, is how their opponents react to them. This reaction is always a good pointer to how great a footballer is because who better to gauge greatness than fellow footballers. When these players have just emerged on the scene, most opponents try to neutralize them by kicking them incessantly; or trying to man mark them in a bid to deny them any influence on proceedings. As their careers progress, they adopt their games in various ways to counter this ‘anti-football’ campaign against them; more efficient off-ball movement, more economical touches on the ball, you name it. All the same, the way opposing players approach a footballer tells one a lot about his greatness.

In a Champion’s quarterfinal at the Bernabeu between Real Madrid and Manchester United back in 2003 which ended 3-1, something truly remarkable happened. Madrid’s Zidane was so dominant in the midfield that at some point in the second half, Zizou picked up the ball from his half and casually strolled halfway across the park while skipping over the ball while Roy Keane and co. just backed, further into their box. Roy Keane, arguably the most combative and no nonsense midfielder of the Premier League era! Before the Euro 2000 final between France and Italy, Azzurri coach Dino Zoff was asked how he planned to contain Zidane. He said, as a pragmatist, that was impossible and that the better idea would be to hopefully keep Anelka and Henry, the beneficiaries of his brilliance, under check.

Zidane: Zidane Ronaldinho FE ...
I wonder what happened next.

Something similar happened in a  Champions League fixture between AC Milan and Barcelona at the San Siro (Barca won 1-0 thanks to a Ludovic Guily volley off another of Dinho’s ‘eye of the needle’ through balls). One moment captured the respect (or fear) that Gaucho had instilled in the Milan side. Just before the said assist, Dinho picked up the ball and looked around. Andrea Pirlo, who was nearest to him backed off. Gattuso hesitated for a minute, and then at the prompting of Pirlo, made his approach. His worst fear was realized as he was shrugged off and the pass sent on its way. The rest is history. The lesson being, if you can get illustrious opponents like Gattuso, Pirlo and Keane to be so in awe, they think twice about attempting to dispossess you, you have arrived.

Messi doesn’t yet seem to have instilled that awe in his opponents. Yes they fear him. Yes they know he can run rings around them. Yes they know he can unleash thunderbolts or well placed shots with a flick of his left boot. Yes they know he can nutmeg their entire defence. And yes they know he scores hat-tricks for fun. But they still throw themselves at his way and they seem to have a genuine feeling they have half a chance against him. I get the feeling it has something to do with his stature and/or his seemingly humble, unassuming demeanor.

We also can’t underestimate the value that winning adds to a player’s claim to greatness. In the end, the game is played with the aim of winning trophies, both individually and as a team. The ‘Messiah’ has been named World Footballer of the Year twice(2009 & 2010), he won 5 La Liga titles, 3 UEFA Champions League(UCL) titles and an Olympic Gold in 2008. Zidane, on the other hand, won the Serie A twice with Juventus, 1 La Liga and 1 UCL with Madrid. With France, he won the World Cup in 98 and Euro 2000. He was also named World Footballer of the Year 3 times, a record he shares with the Brazilian Ronaldo. Ronaldinho won 1 each of La Liga and the UCL in Catalunya. He won the World Cup with the Selecao in 2002 and the Copa America in 99. He was named the best footballer in the world twice, back to back in 2004 and 05.

Through this mini-analysis, I think it’s fair to say Messi has just about pulled level with Ronaldinho in the upper echelon of elite footballers. Another two years at the top and he’ll have the buck toothed Brazilian in his rear view mirror. Zidane is going to take some catching though and that will all depend on how far Messi can drag the Argentinean national team in international competition. At 24, barring injury and/or loss of form akin to Kaka , it wouldn't be wise to bet against him. When all is said and done, his accent into the pantheon of football’s greatest is tied with the fortunes of Argentina.

People will always argue that his club success is due, in large part, to the greatness of his Barca teammates and this is a notion that he can dispel only by willing his average national team to a World Cup win for example just as Zizou did with France in 98. Zizou did it with Karembeu, Guivarch and Henry as a winger. Messi should be able to pull it off with Tevez, Kun, Mascherano and co. Otherwise, he’ll forever be known as ‘El Catalan’- a somewhat scathing nickname given to him by those who resent him for never having played a club game in his native land, and his ‘dismal’ performances for Argentina!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Super Rugby


Carter, the old master               Cooper, the pretender

Battle of the fly-halves.

Dan Carter, aged 29, heads and shoulders above his peers at the No. 10 position for the best part of 5 years now. In world rugby, he’s been there, done that and got the t-shirt. He has the highest points total in Super Rugby and the highest average points per Test match in the world.

Quade Cooper, 22, is the young gun, trying to take the master’s throne. He has an embarrassing amount of confidence to go with his sumptuous talent. One moment in last weekend’s semifinal against the Blues is apt to summarize the phenomenon that is Quade Cooper: he picked up an aimless Blues kick from his own half, swatted Blues back Lachie Turner like a fly; ever so gingerly, stepped round ‘Smoking Joe’ Rockokoko, engaged one more Blues defender before beautifully offloading to a teammate for the easy score. His play was so brilliant; he was a Twitter top trend for the entire weekend. There’s also the small matter that he is the leading points scorer in this year’s competition.

Both players are supremely talented playmakers with the ability to change the course of a game with a stroke of magic. Cooper, like most brash young men, has his moments of over-confidence. On occasion, he can take on all comers, or throw some audacious passes. They’re brilliant when they come off but could lead to disaster at the highest level. Carter may have the edge here, with a more experienced head on his shoulders. From the talent standpoint, there seems to be little to split these two.

The one thing that could make a difference in this battle is the goal kicking statistics. Carter has goal kicking down to a tee – literally. This partly explains his points stats. Cooper is somewhat erratic in this department. One fine Saturday, he kick 9 of 10, another weekend, his radar will completely be off and he’ll miss penalties which he would normally make in his sleep. This is, of course, offset by his other-worldly ability on many a night. The result could hinge on whether the radar is on or off.

That Cooper will dethrone Carter is as inevitable as Nadal dethroning Federer was. No one cheats Father Time. The question is; will this be the game in which Carter passes the torch; or will he hold on for year or so. This could also be instructive as to which team between the Wallabies and the All-Blacks gets the edge at the World Cup later in the year.

Other factors.

This being a team sport, the final can’t possibly hinge on the fly-half battle, other factors have to come into play. There are key tactical battles all over the park: The Crusaders experienced and wily pack has the edge over the younger Queensland side.  Will Genia will fancy his chances at scrumhalf against the Crusaders’ Andy Ellis/ Kahn Fotuali’i.

Sonny Bill Williams could also have a say on which way this final swings. The All Black centre is an absolute beast. He is 6ft 3in and 110kg.  He tackles hard, runs hard into contact and creates line breaks galore. Most impressive, is his knack for offloading perfectly in the tackle. The Reds backs have to be wary of him at all times.

Lost in all this fanfare is the fact that the man considered the best open side flanker, and by some as the best player in the world- ‘Chuck Norris’ Richie McCaw is back. After being plagued by injury for the last months of the competition, he finally logged  a full 80 minutes in the semifinals against the Stormers. He should be raring to go for this one.

Who wins this one?

The Reds will be at home and it will be a tough ask for the Crusaders. The New Zealanders have played all their games ‘away’ from home this season due to the earthquake that hit their Christchurch hometown earlier in the year so being the away team shouldn’t intimidate them too much. The Reds, on the other hand, will be looking to grab the trophy for their long suffering fans who saw them through some lean times.

I see the Crusaders winning this one by the skin of their teeth. A combination of experience, pedigree and the emotion of winning for the people of Christchurch should be enough to see them through. It will be close though     

Fun facts.

Quade Cooper was arrested and charged with one count of the buglary of a residence in Australia. The charges were later dropped amid insinuations of being high on sleeping pills.

Sonny B. Williams moonlights as a heavyweight boxer.

This is Sonny Bill, relaxing!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Spanish Dominance....


It would be hard to bet against this becoming a familiar sight.

After Spain gold medal at the just concluded Under 21 World Championships, what we’ve long suspected has been confirmed; Spain are not just the kingpins of world football at the moment, they are going to be top dogs for a while yet. In case anyone was still any doubt, or had the idea that the European and World champions are resting on their laurels, think again.

The consummate ease with which the Spanish youngsters swatted aside all opposition in the youth tournament points to a decade or so of dominance for ‘La Furia Roja’.  Along the way, they gave England a lesson in possession football- as if the Brits needed another of those after Wembley. They then beat the other favorites Czech Republic 2-0. In the semis, they showed the mettle to go with their craft, in coming back from a goal down to tie the game at the stroke of full time against Belarus. They then ruthlessly scored twice in injury time to advance to the final.

 In the final, Switzerland was swept aside 2-0 with young Barcelona midfield maestro Thiago Alcantara, a contender for player of the championships, majestically stroking in a 40 yard free-kick to seal the inevitable victory. Over the course of the tournament, Spain had a mind blowing  possession average of nearly 70%, I kid you not.

Xavi Hernandez 2.0?
The mastery that young Thiago Alcantara (above) showed on the ball is reminiscent of a young Xavi, albeit with a certain arrogance in possession which could be attributed to his Brazilian roots, or the blood of football royalty that flows in his veins- he is a son of the Brazilian 1994 World Cup Winner Mazinho. Luckily for him, he doesn't have the goal hodoo that plagued his father and made him famous at the 1994 World Cup. I can’t believe Barca even entertained the thought of using this kid as a make-weight in the protracted and now boring transfer saga involving Cesc Fabregas!

 He isn’t the only one. Juan Mata is world class. David de Gea has to be a quality goalkeeper. I can only speculate on this one because like many a Spanish keeper nowadays, he hardly saw any action. I think I’ll trust Sir Alex’s judgment on this one. The team was stacked with such talent that Barcelona first team players Borjan Kirkic and Jeffren Saurez weren’t regular starters. I suspect Borjan would start in the senior squads of most European national teams. (I won’t name names) Diego Capel who has been a regular at Sevilla also had to settle for a spot on the bench for most of the tournament.

It turns out there are a lot more Xavis and Iniestas where the current ones came from. The carousel seems to be churning out brilliant youngsters like a well oiled German assembly line. One can see these young guns readily stepping into the giant shoes of the current generation and continuing the winning tradition, all the while producing an entertaining(for fans) yet suffocating and overwhelming brand of possession football that will take some getting to terms with.

Congratulations to Spain. In my opinion, they look set to be to the next decade, what Brazil was to the 90s. They may not win the World Cup or the European championship every trip (that’s impossible anyway) but they’ll be the team to beat. The animosity between the 'Big Two', Barcelona and Real Madrid could prove to be the only stumbling block to utter domination as Spanish national team coach Vincete del Bosque warned, in the heat of last season's 'El Classico' battles 

On a sad note.

River Plate, Argentina’s most successful club with 33 league titles got relegated last weekend for the first time in their history, amid violent scenes. Fans tried to lynch everyone they felt was culpable for this atrocity- which meant everyone absent and present. The club that gave the world Hernan Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Marcelo Salas was relegated!