Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mandatory Season Preview

When is a good time to do a season preview? After the season starts? Definitely not, both you and I would think. But then the world of football is crazy. Games have been played, points have been scored and lost and some managers are already feeling the heat even before the transfer window has closed. So if we can have people getting unemployed even before they form a team, why can't I do a preview, after the view? More so becuase I've hardly seen any of the action yet.

Of course, if you follow the game, there is not much I can give you now in terms of information, so I will stick to opinions and maybe even general rambling. Let's see.

First up the big four. My beard if not my hair has gone grey and I'm wise enough not to claim to be a prediction expert, but it will be a real rocket up my a**e (yes, I edit my own day I'm looking at millions of readers including kids) if we do not have the same four comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack when the season closes. And though I'm tempted to further bracket them into two and two (Chelsea - Man U and Arsenal-Liverpool) I will resist the temptaion.

Why? Because I don't think that either Chelsea or Man U will be stronger than last year (not that they need to be) and the title will be decided by tactics, form and fitness rather than obvious superiority. I expect Liverpool to challenge more than before, though their success could depend on how easily the new fullbacks can gel with the squad and how fit the first choice striking pair remains. As for Arsenal, I believed it before and I do so now...we can all predict doomsday but Mr. Wenger is a little smarter than all of us, and I won't be surprised to see the Walcotts and the Diaby's step up and provide us with an entertaining four-way contest.

In the pack that follows, i.e. Villa, Everton, Pompey, Spurs, Hammers, Man City and maybe even the Toon, it is again difficult to predict a stronggest contender. Spurs have the most new faces and perhaps the biggest stars, but the loss of their strikers coupled with the lucky draw that is involved with bringing new players, might see them struggle before they hit the stride. Force me to pick a winner from this lot, and I would go for Portsmouth - I like the fact that they have Defoe and Crouch up front and if their squad is not too shallow, they may be the team to beat in this group.

The more I get into this, the more I realize that the exercise though not futile, demands predictions which I'm wary of making (unless there is money involved of course). So to cut a long story short (or make it more readable), I'll end this with a few things I'm most curious to observe in the coming season:

  • Managers: Scolari, Ramos and Moyes. Scolari and Ramos are obvious, but can Moyes yet again repeat the Everton story? If yes, I'll nickname him the 'Far More Entertaining Allardyce'
  • New Players: Many...all actually. Specially look out for Modric.
  • Old Players: Alves (Boro), Keane (Pool) and Crouch (Pompey)
  • Surprsie Team: Maybe Sunderalnd???
  • Fantasy Football favorites: Santa Cruz again, maybe Jenas
  • ...

This is also rather pointless...will just enjoy the football and then talk!

A silent prayer!

The season is two weeks on and I have watched all of one game (Arsenal's defeat to Fulham) and that too distracted by the demands of hosting friends at home.

Barely aware that Chelsea and Liverpool have won both and Spurs are struggling and other such stuff. Is footballjham turning to footballsham! God let there be more football in my life.

Gold for Albicelestes!

I'll be honest, I did not watch too much of these Olympics and even lesser of the football that was played. In betweeen shifting homes and hosting colleagues from far-off, I managed to catch a few glimpses here and there.

Of course, for me the stars of these Olympics are not about Phelps or Bolt or the Chinese, but the far more closer to home names of Bindra, Sushil Kumar and Vijender. But these were the Olympics and whatever else was happening all around me, I couldn't have lived through them ignoring the football.

And so I saw the American ladies beat Brazil in extra time for the women's gold, though I admit it was lucky that the pub I was in, chose to show the game and not models walk up and down on F-TV.

And equally fortuitously I managed to see the second half of the final between Argentina and Nigeria, being telecast right after I had finished my own Saturday morning game. As we all know, a Messi inspired Argentina scored the only goal to clinch gold with the Africans settling for silver. But it definitely was not Argentina all the way. While the blue-and-whites kept most of the posession in that second half and Messi entertained every time he touched the ball, the Nigerians waited patiently for their chance and whenever they did get the ball, they produced something dangerous.

It was sublime stuff and difficult to believe that most of the players were under-23. How I wish the leagues and the continental club tournaments could serve the same quality - skilful, artistic and clean. I have read many English fans moan about the irrelevance of international football, but on the evidence of the last few months, there is definitely more joy there, than the "don't beat me even if you don't lose to me" club fair that is served. And with my favorite intenational team emerging champions, I had a happy Beijing '08.

Friday, August 22, 2008

AFC Challenge Cup Winners!

I'm a few weeks late with this...I was 70 minutes late getting in front of a TV so missed most of that spectacular final. At least I did catch Sunil Chetri complete his hat-trick.

Shifting the final to Ambedkar in Delhi proved to be a sensible move and though the pitch was hardly Old Trafford, it was a big improvement from the stables at Hyderabad. Bob Houghton had gone on record in Hyderabad with hope for rain and more rain, as he felt his team was more suited to the Rugby-style goal getting than competition, but the display in the final showed that the men in blue were definitely the superior outfit in this battle of the minnows.

Bhutia - MVP and with an international goal-scoring record that would put the biggest strikers in Europe to shame, continues to be our talisman and though come 2011 he will be 35, one expects that he would still have a role to play when we reap the rewards of this amazing triumph.

It was Chetri however, who warmed the heart. Even before his sensational performance in the final, he had established himself as the goal-scoring successor to captain Bhutia, and the shifting of focus from BB to SC as the tournament progressed, is very good news for Indian football. Add to that his excellent media presence and I'm left surprised why a few weeks on from that triumph, we have not seen him being signed by some agency or another. Wonder if we can get Chetri a few years in a good league and I don't mean League One in England. A chance in the J-League or A-League would be good enough. I'm sure he has the quality, hope we can find a path for him before it is too late.

We now have three years to prepare ourselves for the bounty that this tournament win has provided us with - Asia Cup '11. We've won and celebrated and it's now time to buckle up, pull up our socks and set our sights on that tournament. It is important to keep focus and not get lost in cries of "Why are we not in the World cup" come 2010. In between we will play many more international games and will be able to blood many new players. We should meet stronger (much much stronger) opponents, and use any distractions like WC qualifiers as preparation for this event. In between we may also participate in the next AFC Challenge Cup and there we can field our juniors to see who could make the cut.

I don't know when Indian football was last in for such excitement. A major tournament to look forward to and three years to hone your skills. We have the perfect platform to get it right. At the end of the Asia Cup, I hope that we will have progressed far enough to break into the top 8 in Asia and will not need to play any more challenge cups. You may say I'm a dreamer.....

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Beautiful Gold!

On August 11, 2008 we lived the single greatest moment in Indian sports.

Abhinav Bindra won gold at the Olympics. We have had world champions and team golds but the fact that this moment took a 112 years of Olympic time to arrive, shows just how unbelievable amazing this is!

This may have nothing to do with football and yet feels like the most beautiful goal ever scored...

Argentina v/s Australia (Group Stage)

I've felt before that Argentina are Arsenal in slo-mo (or Arsenal are Argentina fast forward). The thoughts and feelings came back when I caught some of the second half from the Argentina v Australia game. It wasn't just the short passing and movement, it was also the inability to convert...

Australia had ten behind the ball and in the box, and while that let the Argentine's get close to the box, it was the spaces they found and the runs they made in that crowded space, which left one speechless. Riquelme at the top of the box played the 11 to 1 o'clock angles and Messi though not at his best in the dribble or the pass, caused panic all the time. Yet, somehow for almost 80 minutes, it stayed one-nil before the Argentine goal came.

The youngsters looked great though thanks to Doordarshan taking a 25 minute detour (yes, in between the second half), I was unable to see enough to pick specific favorites.

At the same time on another ground, Ronnie from Brazil scored two in a thumping victory for the five-time world champions. Yes, it's largely under-23 and yes it's New Zealand, but don't tell me just now that the toothy Gaucho isn't back.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Trumpet Time!

If I'm planning to do this often enough, it may make sense to just list all the stuff that I write and that gets printed elsewhere (with my knowledge and permission of course) in one place. So here it goes and any future links will be added to this post:

  1. 1-July '08: Magic Moments of Euro 2008
  2. 1-July '08: Analysing The Euro Final
  3. 8-Aug '08: AFC Challenge Cup'08 Slusheth Over
  4. 8-Aug '08: Let the Games Dribble!

Let the Games Dribble!

Today on 8.8.8 at 8 past 8 local time (approximately 8 minutes before I have started typing this), the opening games ceremony for the Olympics would have kicked off in Beijing. The Olympics though started a few days ago with the ladies and men both starting off in their quest for the football gold about the time the other athletes were beginning to pour in.

It has been a routine procedure now for clubs to groan in protest every time their players get called for national duty. While the Olympics would not be the tournament that pains the clubs the most, given the under-23 with three over age players rule, the run-up to these games have seen the club v country debate raise its head again. This has partly been due to the star status of the players involved (both under and over 23 years old) but largely due to the clubs taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) and the subsequent ruling in favour of the clubs.

It appears that FIFA had over-stepped its authority in dictating to clubs that they cannot prevent an under 23 player from representing their country in the games. CAS ruled that since the Olympics were not covered under the official fixture calendar of FIFA, they were not in a position to dictate terms to the clubs, who after all pay the salaries and risk losing their players to injury and fatigue.

While Blatter expressed disappointment and invoked the ‘Olympic spirit’, it is the reaction from the clubs so far that has been encouraging and positive. As of now, none of the clubs have recalled their major stars with Barcelona chief Laporta even wishing Messi the best of luck, now that the point has been made to FIFA.

One hopes that all other clubs follow suit and let their stars remain at the games. Messi has already scored and Ronaldinho seems to have had a decent first competitive outing, which raises our hopes of seeing him back at his best before long. The clubs, having scored one over FIFA can now completely gain the upper hand in this debate by winning public approval. And for FIFA, it is a window of opportunity to resolve the issue before it raises its head again in London ’12.

Will they take decisive action and incorporate the Olympics into their official fixtures list or utilize their time in getting any required new regulation approved is to be seen. One thing’s for sure, if the clubs find themselves in a similar position again, it will be hardly surprising if they pull their players out mid-way through the first half of a game.

AFC Challenge Cup Slusheth Over

Sunil Chhetri in his post match comments to the media revealed that the coach had told the team that they were not playing football and hence should focus more on winning the game. The opinion was shared by the Myanmar coach and will be confirmed by anyone who saw the fare on display.

But the fact remains that in official AIFF, AFC and FIFA records this will go down as an international football match, which is a shame really because the pitch that the game was played on would have been better used for mud wrestling or a pig farm or something similar.

For everything else which seems wrong with this tournament (and which I will mention later), the playing field has been the most un-level of all. Even before the tournament kicked-off we had the Indian team cancelling practice sessions because the practice pitches provided were so disgraceful. Then the fixtures between Gachibowli Stadium and Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium had to be interchanged as the LBS turf was much worse than the Gachibowli pitch and there was no way a majority of the matches could be played there. Hence, we have Gachibowli play host to 13 of the 16 matches, a move which has made the tournament inaccessible to local fans because the stadium is not really an easy commute for Hyderabadis.

True there has been incessant rain and with poor draining facilities and maybe an unfriendly soil, keeping the ground in shape must be a challenging if not an impossible task. That said, the blame for the fiasco should lie not with mother nature but with AIFF and AFC.

The AIFF knows the grounds it has, the impact of monsoon on the grounds and the wear and tear the surface faces when a football match is played. How then could they plan a 16 match tournament with 13 of these to be played on the same ground over 11 days? And how could the AFC approve a tournament with such a plan, if indeed this was the plan submitted by the AIFF?

With a packed schedule of fixtures, at least two top class venues (f not more)were needed with the group matches and semi-finals equally split between the two venues. Of course that would mean increased costs for the organizers, but then organizing an international tournament is never supposed to be a piece of cake.

The funny part is that India hosted this tournament only after the originally designated hosts Chinese Taipei could not guarantee that they would be able to meet AFC's standards for hosting the tournament. So are we to understand that the standards that the AIFF have met comply with the minimum required? Is it that the lowest of the low footballing nations (which is what these teams are really) deserve nothing better? Is the team that lifts this mud-tainted trophy really deserving of a prized place in the AFC Asian Cup 2011?

Which brings me to the other question that has irked me since this tournament kicked off? If the prize is so big then what explains the manner in which participating countries approach this tournament?

It’s difficult to understand why so many teams have not called up or not been able to call up their best players for a tournament which could be an easy route to a chance to rub shoulders with the big boys in Asia. Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and DPR Korea were some of the teams that could not or did not call up their players playing in European lower leagues. Is the chance to qualify for Asia’s prominent event not big enough for the AFC to be able to pull strings to compel Afghan players in Germany to be released for their national teams? Is the chance to qualify not significant enough for the giants of the tourney (DPR Korea) to send their first string team? Maybe there is some information that I don’t have that may explain this approach, but till that comes in, I am completely mystified.

This tournament has not been a showcase for emerging and developing countries of Asian football that AFC would want us to believe. It hasn’t been a platform where the AIFF has established itself as the big brother amongst the tiny tots of Asian football. Had it not been for the footballers who have turned up not to play football but to compete with the conditions and the few hundred fans per game, this tournament would not have been worth commenting upon. This to put it mildly, has been an embarrassment.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Longest Penalty in the World

The Longest Penalty in the World (Penalti más largo del mundo, El) is a comic love story set in the backdrop of lower league football in Spain.

In the final league game of a championship season a goalkeeper is injured, the reserve goalkeeper (the village loser) is called to save a penalty which the referee postpones by a week because of crowd trouble. The film tells us the story of this one week and how Fernando makes the most of his celebrity status with a number of sub plots woven in.

From information that I could glean, it appears that this movie was made to capitalize on the success of another football film called ‘Dias de Futbol’ where Fernando was one of the minor yet popular characters. So the producers basically made some changes to the character (namely Fernando becomes a goalkeeper), found a director with reputation but no feature films to his credit – Roberto Santiago and the outcome was ‘TLPITW’ (yes, I do read Bollywood film reviews once in a while). Incidentally, Santiago has also written the script based on a short story by Osvaldo Soriano.

Most of the film and its characters are about relationships and expectations that come with them, but the narrative relies on humor to construct the message. The characters all have shades of grey but are almost all well-intentioned, likeable and simple people. At times the film begins to feel like a lengthy skit with scenes moving from location to location after the involved characters have spoken. The script is funny, yet the weakest part of the story. Fernando and company are able to make you smile more than the writing warrants by making all the exchanges seem almost normal, even when they talk to each other while standing in lines of ten and facing the camera.

But leaving the criticism for the critics, the film does have enough of football involved throughout to connect with the everyday fan. It doesn’t take long for Fernando to realize that for seven days he is a king and he exploits the situation to the fullest much like one-season wonders acting like prima donnas as soon as they realize they are getting noticed by ‘bigger’ clubs. However, Fernando who intends to retire from football after the penalty kick, is not focussed on a big final payday – his interest is the lovely Cecilia who also happens to be the coach’s daughter and the first choice goalkeeper’s girl friend.

That the coach agrees to help him and Cecilia overcomes her disgust of Fernando as well as the fear of her boyfriend to go on a couple of dates with the loser illustrates what the championship means to the fans of the little club. And it’s not just them, but the local paper vendor and wannabe journalist, the owner of the club (who also owns the departmental store where most of the players work), Fernando’s sister and virtually everyone else in the village – all will do anything to keep Fernando happy so he is in the best possible mood when the time to stop the kick comes.

The theme of obsession with football is also evident when the unemployed player, spends borrowed money on a pair of cleats while his wife struggles to buy food and the child continues to need a dental check up.

Match fixing, intimidation of referees, home support and mind games between opponents all form quick and amusing sub plots as we reach the climax with our ‘Hero’ the only one not worried about the championship, but the ‘date’ that stopping the penalty guarantees him. The film ends on a ‘feel good’ note with smiles and happiness and plans for the future and the true joy of winning a championship at any level.

Football fans will enjoy this movie without doubt and those who grew up in European countries following mega clubs long ago will remember the times when the players and the fans drank together at the local pub. Fans of small teams from the lower divisions will see a glimpse of their own aspirations and connections with their local teams and will relive the joys of promotions and victories they have been through.

But if none of that interests you, there are still more reasons to see this one – Maria Botto and Marta Larralde, the two leading female characters and both difficult to take your eyes off. And the end credits of the movie where all the characters stand in their club colors and sing the anthem of their beloved club – Estrella Polar.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

India v/s Turkmenistan

Just saw (only the second half) India beat Turkmenistan in last league game of the AFC Challenge Cup '08 at Hyderabad. India are now through to the Semi-Finals having topped their pool and will take on the winner of the Myanmar and North Korea game.

Two second half Baichung Bhutia goals set India on the way to victory and though Turkmenistan got a goal back in the 86th minute, India held on to a deserving victory.

By all accounts, India had dominated the first half and should have had something to show for it but missed some chances to go ahead. They made up for it in the second half though. Chetri laid the ball well for Baichung who managed to get a shot in even as three Turkmenis converged on him and it rolled slowly past the outstretched goalkeeper into goal. The second came through a Renedy Sing corner, which Baichung was allowed to meet on the near post unchallenged and he let his instincts guide the ball into goal.

The pitch was pathetic - muddy slush with a coating of grass. It will be unfair to comment on the quality of play since staying vertical while moving was a player's biggest challenge. Yet, some of the passing and kicking was embarrassing to put it mildly. The fact that India dominated the game completely should not be mistaken for an impressive performance. If anything, the ease with which Turkmenistan scored their goal will be a worrying sign for Bob Houghton about our ability to defend against the long ball. But over ninety minutes, the opposition that India received was feeble and is unlikely to be repeated in the semi-final.

On the positive side, Chetri and Bhutia combined well with Climax Lawrence, Gouramangi Singh and Surkumar Singh all looking impressive. But that was about it. We played with almost no width and barring Climax, the midfield was just making up the numbers. Defending against long balls and set pieces is a definite weakness and there is tremendous scope for improvement in the passing and kicking, which given the basic nature of the issues is a cause for worry.

Winning this tournament is important for it will allow us to compete against the best in Asia, but to a large extent it depends on whether or not our opponents are as bad as us. North Korea is ranked 93rd by FIFA and for us lowly footballing nations, a match against such a nation could turn out to be a little bit of a mismatch.

Let's hope Bob Houghton and his men can pull off some sort of a miracle because if they only pulled off their football moves, it is likely they will fall well short.

Desi Tycoon for Toons

As a matter of blogging principle, I try to refrain from quoting or discussing speculation, but am unable to resist this one.

If Anil Ambani does indeed end up replacing Mike Ashley as the owner of Newcastle, it will be something for us back here. Lakshmi Mittal and friends are already well underway with their QPR project and it will be interesting to see if Ambani (twice richer than Roman Abramovich) can turn the fortunes of Newcastle around.

With elder brother Mukesh having firmly established a presence in sports through his ownership of the IPL team Mumbai Indians, it is likely that Anil is looking to outdo his brother as a sports 'franchise' (what an American word) owner just like they try and outdo each other in virtually every sphere of business.

However, I doubt if Anil Ambani would adopt the Abramovich approach to football success as trophies and club balance sheets will compete equally in his frame of reference unlike the 'can't be bothered with a few hundred million here and there' Roman.

Having said that he will not be in it to just make the numbers up either. It's not the Ambani and the Reliance way and we all know that when they enter a business they intend being number one or two and they do things on a scale which competition can rarely match. So Toon fans who are desperate for silverware and understand that a generous owner is increasingly a minimum prerequisite to get there these days, will do well to hope that their benefactor is an Indian with no previous history of interest in football.

Unless like the millions of other headlines I see every day, this turns out to be baseless as well. In which case, writing this was such a waste.

My Football Diary: 2 August 2008

Yet another day of 4-a-side on a muddy slushy pitch, low on skill but a good workout none the less.

Missed half a dozen open goal chances and generally stank in whatever I did.

Don't want to talk about it!

Friday, August 1, 2008

India at the 2010 World Cup

Here's another one that slipped by unnoticed.

It's old news now, but Indian IT giants Satyam have signed up as a FIFA World Cup Sponsor for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Confirmation of this is also available on Satyam's website.

Some excerpts from the press release available on FIFA's website below:
  • This historic agreement awards Satyam global rights for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil and the two FIFA Confederations Cups which fall within the 2007-2014 period.
  • As the Official IT Services Provider to the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, Satyam, which already enjoys a business relationship with FIFA, will play a crucial role in developing the core IT event management system for FIFA and its service partner for IT, accommodation and hospitality - MATCH AG, as well as local organising committees during the next seven years.
  • Satyam is the fourth company - after Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's and MTN - to join the proposed six-member FIFA World Cup Sponsor line-up under FIFA's commercial hierarchy, which comprises six FIFA Partners, six FIFA World Cup Sponsors and six National Supporters.

It is both pleasing and strange to become aware of this. Pleasing to see that an Indian company is investing significantly in football and strange because I am not aware of Satyam being a sponsor for any sports event or personality prior to this.

To satisfy my curiosity I have done a quick lookup of Satyam's website and find that they are involved in a number of social and community programs, but none related to sports. They have also sponsored a number of events with the closest association with sports being an animation and gaming event in January 2007. But nothing strange about it really since such a patronage would have been directly in line with their cyber-cafe and other online businesses.

While I understand that Satyam will be looking at be benefits on a global scale through this association and they do not seem to have anything significant to gain by adopting similar strategies in India, I would be very interested in knowing the strategic thinking behind this deal.

It is unrealistic though to expect them to start pumping money to change the face of Indian football. For one, what is in it for them and can the people who run football in this country show them enough value? Secondly, can sponsoring Indian events guarantee them that the funds are used properly and to deliver good events? Given the track record of all Indian football events, it is hardly likely that a company which associates its name with the glamour of a World Cup would like to have much to do with the shoddiness of the I-League or Santosh Trophy or anything similar.

Having said that I would still like to believe that the people at Satyam could be encouraged to look at other avenues of associating with the game, especially as their commitment to FIFA is a long term one. Maybe a good proposal for sending Indian boys on long term training program to some of the major clubs with associated benefits in case any of the player's makes the cut and ends up performing on big stages. Maybe a performance-linked sponsorship plan for the Indian national team for a set of annual matches against good global opposition or a joint training program etc.

Will any of this happen? I haven't seen anything to suggest that the AIFF have been involved in the World Cup deal or have identified Satyam as possible backers of the sport. I doubt if they are doing it all in the background and going about their business quietly. I would believe that it would be up to some enterprising private companies in the business of football or up to the powers that be at Satyam to see if they want a larger association with the beautiful game. Money or software, anything would be welcome!