Monday, January 6, 2014

Time for the 20,000 footballers trafficked out of Africa to have voice heard

Originally published in The Irish Examiner, November 30th 2013. 

Yaya Toure: Rogue agents taking advantage of young footballers looking to emulate the Ivorian.
Yaya Toure: Rogue agents taking advantage of young footballers looking to emulate the Ivorian.

Last Thursday evening, a French-Algerian footballer arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport on a flight from Doha.

For the previous two years, he had been trapped in Qatar. A dispute over unpaid wages led to his numerous requests for an ‘exit visa’ being denied. Eighteen months with no income. A wife and two children to support.

Depressed, suicidal, he contemplated hunger strike. He sold his furniture and slept on the floor of his empty house.

For two years, Zahir Belounis was a slave, his basic human rights ignored. Last Thursday evening, he was finally free.

But Belounis is an after-thought. So too is Abdeslam Ouaddou, another journeyman footballer, a former Moroccan international who endured a similar stand-off with a Qatari club over wages owed. Speaking to the International Trade Union Confederation earlier this year, Ouaddou said: “When you arrive in Qatar, it’s beautiful — a country under construction with tall skyscrapers. But it’s like spotting an oasis in the desert when you’re thirsty.

“When you get closer, you realise there’s nothing there. It’s a mirage. If the country does not change its ways then in 2022 we will have the World Cup of Shame and the World Cup of Slavery because of how Qatar disrespects human rights.”

Football has turned its back on social issues for a long time. The sport’s governing body continues to avoid taking hard-line action against racism and awarded successive World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022 to countries who take pride in their anti-gay legislation. But Fifa’s form on such matters goes back a long way. In 2008, Sepp Blatter suggested there was too much ‘modern slavery’ in how footballers were bought and sold. He felt players weren’t protected enough. Naturally, there was an outcry. Blatter was not just wrong. The flippant remark, made in regard to the pampered, lock-jawed, pop-star, football elite, was insensitive and ignorant to an ill that was rapidly spreading.

Monday, on RTÉ One, the first episode in a new series of Peadar King’s ‘What In The World?’ focuses on this ever-expanding African enterprise. Filmed in Cameroon and France, the documentary investigates how rogue agents and local football ‘experts’ trade in a most-lucrative of currencies: young, naive footballers. They aspire to be the next Samuel Eto’o or Yaya Toure. They want the Premier League or Serie A. What they get is abandonment, homelessness and embarrassment.

We hear Issa’s story. A Malian, he arrived in Paris at 16. A goalkeeper, he dreamed of emulating his heroes Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon. His ‘agent’ promised everything. A contract with a French club? No problem. All the ‘agent’ needed was a substantial payment. Issa’s parents raised the money, somehow. The ‘agent’ accompanied Issa to Paris. They went to McDonalds. The ‘agent’ gave Issa €20. Then he left. Issa waited for three hours. That’s Issa’s story.

Another young African, Willy, points to a stairwell inside a dilapidated stadium. That’s where he slept for two months. He had been deserted by his ‘agent’ too. He called him relentlessly. The ‘agent’s’ phone was switched off. It’s a jarring, uncomfortable reality. The boys’ names are interchangeable but their stories are identical. Another boy, Raul, had paid the ultimate price. He returned home to Africa after similar broken promises. A talented player, his parents had handed over thousands of euro to get him to Europe. The ‘agent’ took the money and never came back. Raul’s father now needs treatment for diabetes. There’s no money for the treatment. Every day, Raul is reminded of the shame he has brought on his family. It’s why so many of these African teenagers choose a life on the streets of Paris. They will choose sleeping in stadiums. They will choose drugs. They will choose crime. But they won’t go back home.

Last Thursday evening, Zahir Belounis went home. He hugged his mother. He spoke to radio and television stations. He had a platform with which to tell his story. It’s a story of human rights violations, a story of football slavery. It’s critical that people listen to his story. It’s critical that people listen to Issa, Willy and Raul. It’s critical that the 20,000 footballers trafficked out of Africa are given a voice.

- What in the World, RTÉ One, Monday 2nd December, 11.20pm

Two decades later, another Bosman case simmers

Jean-Louis Dupont, a key member of Jean-Marc Bosman's legal team, has a new challenge: taking on UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations.

Originally published in The Irish Examiner, 26th November 2013.

Earlier this year, Jean-Marc Bosman was sentenced to 12 months in prison for assault and battery.
Living on benefits in Belgium, his life collapsed in a mire of alcoholism and mental health problems since his landmark legal victory in 1995, a generation-defining football moment. Though his personal story is more complex, there is an inevitable conclusion to draw: Bosman’s scars are the war-wounds of a weary, lengthy battle with a super-power.

He took on the force of football’s governing body. He bruised them, broke them, embarrassed them. But the long-lasting effects of the fight took him down too. An unwilling martyr.

But 20 years on from Bosman’s case initially being submitted to the European Court of Justice, another anti-hero is stepping forward.

In May of this year, a football agent, Daniel Striani, lodged a complaint with the European Commission (EC) on the grounds that Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FPP) regulations are anti-competitive and negatively impact his ability to generate income. His lawyer is Jean-Louis Dupont, a key member of Bosman’s legal team, who has a pedigree for taking on high-profile, high-impact sports law cases and winning them.

Striani’s case centres on FFP’s ‘break-even’ rule and its basic principle that a club can only spend what it earns (though there are some ‘acceptable deviations’). Failure to do so will result in suspension from Uefa competitions.

With clubs having less to spend on transfers and with wages likely to decrease, Striani’s economic situation will be adversely affected. Clearly, FFP contravenes EU law — most notably restraint on trade and, in the case of players, there’s perhaps a violation of free movement of workers also. However, so far, the EC’s view is that FFP regulations, though perhaps not perfect, are proportional to what could happen to football clubs without stringent financial stipulations. In simple terms, the end will justify the means.

But according to Dupont, the break-even rule will only serve to widen the gulf between the traditional, ‘big’ teams and everyone else. “The break-even rule only ossifies the existing market structure,” he argues. “Even worse, it increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Uefa, instead of coming up with a very technical answer to a very technical financial issue, came up with a rather political and ideological one instead.”

There is also the question of whether FFP in its current format is legitimate and necessary. Uefa extols its virtues — how it will provide long-term financial stability to football clubs and how it will preserve the integrity of the game. The second point, in particular, irritates Dupont, who feels Uefa’s territorial plan is flawed and discriminates against smaller EU states, including Ireland.

“Under Uefa rules, each national football association must organise its competitions within its boundaries. By maintaining those rules, Uefa denies top club football to places like Dublin, Brussels [and] Vienna. Consequently, Uefa cannot use the “integrity argument” regarding FFP since it has itself produced a structural playing field that’s uneven to begin with.”

For Dupont, the current FFP regulations overlook the importance of the size of domestic markets. Under FFP, each league and each club is treated the same regardless of the commercial gulf between them. Smaller clubs will not be able to invest over the long-term and will stay small. That, according to Dupont, is anti-competitive and goes against EU law.

So, what are the alternatives to FFP? How else can Uefa safeguard against reckless financial mismanagement of football clubs? Dupont has spoken before about a ‘luxury tax’ — clubs that want to overspend agree to a levy, with the money then distributed in a way that promotes competitive balance or other legitimate objectives. He believes that changes to Uefa’s territorial pattern would provide viable alternatives to FFP, alternatives that wouldn’t breach EU law, alternatives that would see smaller EU countries afforded opportunities to become more competitive.

Dupont says: “If tomorrow, Scotland and Ireland would decide to have a common Premier League, would it improve (even slightly) the level of football in both territories? I think it would. This example is just to show that even small changes would make a difference.”

Striani is not challenging Uefa’s existing territorial pattern as part of his case but Dupont feels a club would stand a reasonable chance in the EU courts if they decided to pursue a legal route. “If a Dublin club agrees with the English Premier League to play with them, from the perspective of EU law, it is their absolute right to do so. Therefore, any entity (FAI, Uefa, etc) that would try to stop it from happening would face an uphill battle. They would bear the burden of proof and would need to justify why such a violation of EU law would be absolutely necessary. I have my doubts that they would succeed.”

When informed of Dupont’s latest project, a prickly Uefa president Michel Platini brushed it off, saying he had a letter of support from the EC.

Dupont dismisses that support as political, not legal.

Dupont has been here before but Daniel Striani hasn’t. The fight will last a long time. Bosman’s took five years. It took his career too. And ruined his life.

Football. A fickle mistress.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

From the archives: Does Phil Jones Belong In Central Midfield?

When Roy Keane arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 1993, it was as the most costly player in the Premier League. The then-21 year-old attempted to deal with the pressure and anticipation in the most obvious way – scoring goals. Things began promisingly as he netted twice on his home debut against Sheffield United. The following month he racked up another brace on his European debut with the club against Honved of Hungary. He wouldn’t score twice in a game for another two years.

The sense of energy and urgency was to be expected. At that stage of his career, Keane covered a lot of ground, enjoyed the edginess of launching into challenges and relished his occasional forays into the area. But therein lacked a defining role within the side. His central midfield partner, Paul Ince, was the self-appointed Guv’nor – the big talker, the flash Londoner, that quintessential warrior. It took Keane the bulk of two seasons to find out what he was. Two seasons of discipline. Of developing an understanding that less is more. Of embracing the idea that being positionally sound, of reading the game properly and digesting its patterns and nuances, would ensure his particular niche.

Keane’s on-field maturity came at the perfect time for a United side under-going a well-documented transition. Often over-looked in the much-discussed emergence of a stable of young stars-in-the-making is how fragile the team was. The 1996 Double winners had a central defensive duo whose combined age was 65. They struggled so badly with depth issues that Keane was deployed at centre-back on a number of occasions. But, just like the season before when Ferguson would alter things tactically and drop Keane to right-back, his performance levels never dropped. His attitude and desire ensured that at the very least he’d ‘put a shift in’.

Phil Jones is still just 20 years old, raw and unpolished. But the similarities are there. Jones has been used in three different positions this season and despite a lack of continuity, he’s rarely been badly exposed. In fact, his performances in the centre of defence (his supposedly default position) have been the biggest grounds for concern.

When pushed further forward, he’s quietly and efficiently gone about his role while his most explosive contributions have come in the most unfamiliar environment of right-back. Like Keane, youthful exuberance has led to Jones attempting too much in games – most notably selling himself by diving into tackles in dangerous areas and always attempting to play the ball. These aspects have shown up usually when Jones is part of the back four.

When pushed into midfield though, he’s looked composed and assured. His passing accuracy is a healthy 85% while his only Premier League goal this season came at Villa Park when playing in midfield – ghosting in behind Richard Dunne to neatly volley home from close-range. The following game, away in Basel, may have resulted in a 2-1 defeat but Jones once again impressed in central midfield – using his physicality to score again – a difficult downward header from a standing-still position.

Then, there are the runs. Those dazzling, powerful, uncompromising surges seen most prominently against Arsenal and Bolton. Purposeful, dangerous and a nod to the de rigeur resurgence of box-to-box midfielders, should United operate with a 3-man midfield more commonly, there will be plenty of opportunity for Jones to fine-tune his craft.

His midfield capabilities were also spotted by Fabio Capello who praised his decision-making when playing a pass. The Italian handed him midfield starts in the back-to-back friendlies against Spain and Sweden at Wembley in November and though Jones lasted less than an hour against Vincente del Bosque’s side, he did well considering the mentally-draining and mechanical nature of the game.
Against the Scandinavians, he was deployed in Scott Parker’s deep-lying role and almost grabbed England’s second goal, showing sharpness to seize upon a loose pass and then setting off on a charge to the Swedish area, rolling his shot just wide of the far post. After the game, Capello made an interesting point – suggesting that if Parker, for whatever reason, was forced to miss future England games, Jones could step in to replace him.

Though his country may have other plans for him, at club level Jones is currently a short-term solution to their right-back problems. For years United were blessed with full-backs who slotted in and stayed there for over a decade (Irwin/Neville). Though Evra should have two or three campaigns left in him (he turns 31 in mid-May), United have been attempting to introduce potential suitors to the position with 19 year-old Zeki Fryers hotly-tipped to command a starting berth in the next few seasons.

Worryingly for the club, Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio, who had looked certain of cementing regular first-team football, have regressed. Between them, they’ve racked up just 6 league starts this season – injuries and a loss in form have contributed to their decline.

With Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes the first-choice midfield pairing for the title run-in, Jones will remain a full-back until season’s end. But, should United move in the summer transfer market and bring in a specialist right-back, it’s a sign that Ferguson also sees the long-term appeal of Jones as a midfielder. Given the right development and encouragement to feel out the role, he will flourish.

He’s not the new Roy Keane but he could be the new Phil Jones.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Damien Comolli on Agger, Özil and the transfer window

"Arsenal are better off spending 42m on Özil than other clubs spending 100m+ on six players who aren’t world-class"

As a former Director of Football with Tottenham and Liverpool, Damien Comolli is well-placed to discuss the summer transfer window and provide some analysis as to how various top-flight teams did. Speaking with him recently, we touched on the strategies deployed by the sides destined to challenge reigning champions Manchester United for the Premier League title.   

On ex-club Liverpool’s signings:

“I think they’ve done some good business. I think they made a big decision signing Simon Mignolet especially when Pepe Reina was still there. They probably looked at data and stats and thought that if they got Mignolet, even if Reina was to head out on loan and they’d have to pay part of his wages, they could be better off. I don’t think people talk enough about Mignolet – I think he’s a big, big signing for them.
What I find a little strange is the Mamadou Sakho deal. PSG said they got 19m + 3m in add-ons and he had only one year left on his contract. That’s a lot of money, especially as he wasn’t playing. Carlo Ancelotti didn’t play him and Laurent Blanc didn’t play him either. The other aspect is they’ve now bought a player who will compete with Daniel Agger. They don’t need cover at left-back either because they’ve signed Sissokho and they have Enrique so for me, it’s a strange signing. If they’re thinking about long-term, they’ll have to deal with a situation where Sakho won’t be happy. He left PSG because he wasn’t playing enough and he wants to play for France in the World Cup, provided we qualify. And if he doesn’t play, Liverpool will have an issue on their hands.” 

On Mamadou Sakho possibly being signed as a safety measure should Daniel Agger leave:

“Maybe. But I know how much Agger loves Liverpool. And he’s not the type to request a transfer so unless they push him out, I don’t think he’ll want to leave in the near future. That’s why the situation with Sakho might become an issue. For me, Daniel is the best left-footed central defender in the world so if you spend 19m euro on a player who’s got one year left on his contract and he has to compete with the best player in the world in that position, it’s going to be a challenge.” 

AUDIO Damien's account of what deadline-day is like for a club executive here - and the important role pizza has in a frenzied 24 hours!

On Arsenal’s capture of Mesut Özil:

“Even though they couldn’t do what they wanted in terms of a striker, they didn’t move from the fact that they would only spend money on a world-class player. And that’s why, in the end, they went for Özil. I think they’re better off spending 42m on Özil than other clubs spending 100m+ on six players who aren’t world-class. They’ve added incredible creativity, imagination and skills to an already very creative and skillful team. So it can only be very positive.”

On other Premier League teams reportedly turning down the chance to sign Özil:

“Very often, at the end of the transfer window, the clubs that lost out will say ‘We weren’t interested’ or ‘We couldn’t afford his wages’ or ‘We thought the price was too much’ but what’s being said internally is not being said externally. I don’t think Özil was shopped around because if Madrid didn’t get Bale, there was no way they would have allowed him to go. Once they got Bale, something had to give. Whether it was Benzema, di Maria, Özil – someone had to be a loser from a Madrid perspective.”

On Spurs’ spending spree:

“I’m convinced they have a better squad than last year, whether they have a better team than last year remains to be seen. In the last 2/3 years, they’ve lost their three most creative players in Van der Vaart, Bale and Modric. Have they replaced those three extremely creative players? Last season, I never felt that was the case. This season, I think Lamela and Eriksen will bring the creativity that Spurs had lost previously and those two were ‘must-have’ players for the club. But they’re young and we must wait to see how they will develop and adapt to the Premier League. All of the other players, as far as I’m concerned, are at the same level as those that Spurs have had before.”

On Manchester City’s transfer activity:

“Fernandinho is a player we’ve all been looking at and has always impressed, even before his injury. He broke his leg a couple of years ago and we were at the match watching him, when I was at Liverpool. He had an incredible game. He’s a very good player. For the first few games, he didn’t show 20% of what he can do so I’m sure there’s a lot more to come from him. Negredo is a top player who I really like. Jovetic is another top player with plenty of room for improvement. And Navas, for the first few games I think was their best player. They’ve got a very, very good manager and with Begiristain there, Pellegrini will be able to adapt quickly – he can help him settle into the club. I’m a big admirer of Pellegrini because all of his teams are very positive in their approach to the game, very attacking. People should remember that he qualified Malaga for the Champions League playing Jeremy Toulalan and Santi Cazorla in midfield. Toulalan is a very good defensive midfielder but playing Cazorla at midfield takes incredible bravery for a manager. I think they have the right setup with Begiristain and Soriano and the experience they both have from Barcelona.”

On Chelsea’s investments:

“Their big issue is up front. They didn't get the player they wanted and who could have made a massive difference so they went to plan B. But Eto’o will need a few months before getting back to where he was. Obviously, Mourinho wasn't comfortable with any of the other strikers but over the long term it could go against them. 
It also shows the football landscape has changed so much. When was the last time Chelsea didn't get the player they wanted? They didn't get Cavani or Rooney. 
Going forward, the competition for the few world-class players available every year will be ferocious.”

Monday, September 9, 2013

October 2012 Revisited...Ireland: Time To Move On

I wrote this eleven months ago. He really should've gone then.

'Trapattoni has been on thin ice since, not just the Euro 2012 tournament, but the qualification campaign that preceeded it'

There’s a moment in Hunter Davies’ seminal 1972 classic ‘The Glory Game’ when Spurs are in France for a UEFA Cup clash with Nantes. The game ends scoreless and the visitors troop off the pitch frustrated at full-time. They were better than this. A sullen Martin Chivers, who was well-marshalled, mutters to himself as he slumps to his seat in the dressing-room. He’s venting. He knows both he and his team didn’t perform. ‘A poor team’, a poor team’. Bill Nicholson mis-interprets what’s been said. The boss starts to tremble a little. He stares straight into the Big Fellow’s eyes. ‘You mean we had some poor players’. Chivers’ mood changes. ‘What do you mean?’ He was animated now. ‘What do you know about it? You never praise us when we do well. Never. You never do. What do you know about it? You weren’t out there. You didn’t have to do it. It’s easy to say we didn’t do well, bloody easy’.

Two weeks ago, Giovanni Trapattoni gave an interview to Italian national broadcaster RAI. Looking back on his managerial career, he gushed that he’d had ‘five beautiful girls’ in Milan, Inter, Juventus, Bayern and Benfica. When asked if Ireland was a beautiful girl, he replied, ‘She is nice. She needs small surgery, a retouch’. A delicious line, one he couldn’t resist. The playful smile. The twinkle in the eye. Everyone knew the situation. Everyone was in on the joke. Ireland was the joke.

The oft-used excuse does carry some weight. During Steve Staunton’s reign as Ireland boss – the lowest ebb in recent memory – the players were better. Even on that fateful night in Nicosia just over six years ago, the Irish back-four included one Champions League winner, one soon-to-be Champions League winner and the then club-captain of Manchester City. But, it’s worth pointing out that when the Trapattoni era began in Mainz with a World Cup qualifier against Georgia in September 2008, those three players also started. Two of those players remain critical members of the current squad. And as much as Trapattoni feels this Irish team are a limited group, he has had ample opportunity to refresh, to ‘retouch’. He’s ignored the numbers, the data, the forward-thinking. And through his stubborn resiliance, he’s lost a valuable buffer.   

Over the last three full seasons, Marc Wilson has started 84 Premier League games yet he’s still to make a competitive start for his country. Instead, Stephen Ward cemented a starting place in Trapattoni’s team in the same season that his Wolves side were relegated. He featured in a defence that leaked the second highest amount of goals in any Premier League season.

Against Germany, Darren O’Dea partnered John O’Shea in the centre of defence. The 25 year-old moved to Major League Soccer in August where he plays for the worst team in the league – Toronto FC. He’s featured in 10 games for them so far – losing 8. In fact, he’s still to win a game in TFC colours. In fact, outside of the victory in Kazakhstan, you have to go back to April to find the last time O’Dea featured in a competitive victory. Meanwhile, former England Under-18 captain Ciaran Clark, who has steadily impressed for Aston Villa in a multitude of different positions (under a multitude of different managers) was only sitting on the Irish bench last weekend because of Sean St. Ledger’s withdrawal. Otherwise, just like the trip to Kazakhstan, he would’ve been left out.

Plenty of other examples abound – Gibson, Coleman, Hoolahan, McClean, Pilkington. Ultimately however, just like the seeds of Mick McCarthy’s eventual exit were sewn in Saipan, Trapattoni has been on thin ice since, not just the Euro 2012 tournament, but the qualification campaign that preceeded it. Unconvincing against the minnows, embarrassed by the Russians, a sterile system being adhered to by disinterested and bored players, luck came in the form of a play-off meeting with Estonia. Suddenly, the growing discontent with the style of play, the approach to games, the lack of exciting and fresh faces was gone. As Euro 2012 got closer, the blind optimism, the giddiness took control. That optimism was washed away five minutes into the second half of the first group game. But according to Trap, ‘fear’ is what cost them in the end.

The fear has been perpetuated from the top down. Through the snide comments, the relentless focus on the players’ inability to do things right, Trapattoni’s belief that this group will never be good enough, the basic strategy/formation/tactics – it has all fed into the current malaise sweeping across the camp. Following Saturday’s humiliation, there was no apology from the Italian. There was a shrug of the shoulders, an acceptance of sorts. There was nothing to be ashamed about. Trap told reporters after the game, ‘Realistically, we were never going to compete with Germany for first place in the group’. He had prepared for a defeat and as a result, the players were already beaten when they stepped onto that pitch, whether they liked it or not.

In-game management decisions were lazy. Before his first goal, Marco Reus had already been roaming, cutting into central areas and popping up as a spare man. There was no subtle change, no message to the Irish midfield and centre-backs about the threat. No urgency, no energy. Slow, disinterested. Though it mattered little because, well, we were going to lose anyway, weren’t we? 

Upon the inspection of the damage, there wasn’t anything to worry about, according to Trap  – just a few scratches on the surface, nothing serious. There wasn’t even the faintest pang of anger or frustration. That came only when quizzed on whether he’ll still have a job by the end of the week. When his performance is brought into question, when he’s told he hasn’t been good enough, he snaps.

October seems to be a sorry time for Irish football, certainly in recent years. In 2009, the team led Italy 2-1 at Croke Park in their penultimate World Cup qualifier. An 87th-minute header from Sean St. Ledger had seemingly given the team not just a famous victory but possible automatic qualification for South Africa. Three minutes later, Alberto Gilardino equalised and Ireland were in the play-offs. A furious Trapattoni bounded down the tunnel, screaming and swearing in his native language. Yet, according to Liam Lawrence, he never showed any anger in the dressing room. Afterwards, he spoke of players being nervous, not being experienced enough with winding down the clock. If it was a boxing match, he said, Italy would’ve won on points. 

So, there has always been a dis-connect. The World Cup qualification campaign was different however – there was a hunger, a passion. There were new faces. There was an iconic football man in charge whose approach made sense. He spoke of ‘poetry and novels’ (far cry from Stan) and the importance of knowing the difference between them. Trapattoni’s Irish team wasn’t interesed in aesthetics. They were interested in results. This was a new Ireland. Determined, professional, borderline boring. With the team’s best players at their peak, the strategy worked a treat and, in many ways, elimination in the play-offs was undeserved.   

There needed to be freshening up but some call-ups, particularly in light of what’s been happening recently, lacked any sort of method. Greg Cunningham had made three substitute appearances for Manchester City but was in the squad. Jonathan Walters meanwhile, hadn’t even received a call-up to the senior team before November 2010, despite impressing consistently for Ipswich over the previous three seasons.

Trapattoni has found it far too easy to blame the quality of the Irish players when his selection policy is a flawed one. If there is a lack of natural talent, surely players who are consistently proving their worth at club level need to be handed opportunities in an Irish jersey? James McClean hasn’t made a competitive start for his country, despite illuminating the Premier League last term and subsequently being voted Sunderland’s Young Player of the Year. He had been at the club for nine months. Robbie Brady, who has been handed a start against the Faroes, has played five competitive minutes for Manchester United. With Shane Long cutting a disconsolate figure on the bench, with Darron Gibson fed up and in self-imposed exile, with Ciaran Clark admitting he doesn’t know how to get back in contention, the atmosphere is toxic.

All of the players mentioned above need to feature prominently for Ireland. They are the future. They are also the present. Unfortunately, Trapattoni is the past.    

Spurs did ultimately do quite well come season’s end, of course, beating Wolves in the UEFA Cup final to become the first British team to win two European competitions. But even still, Nicholson was reluctant to indulge his players in hearty congratulations. ‘We still have problems. For such experienced players, a lot of them are not consistent. I can’t sit and watch them in comfort, not the way I’ve done with other teams I’ve had.’
Two years later, Nicholson stepped down as Spurs manager. He had difficulty in relating to the changes within the game. He had difficulty, perhaps, in having reached the peak many years before. He had difficulty, perhaps, in adapting to something new when he’d already achieved so much with a tried and tested method.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Nothing Special: Mourinho's Behaviour Boring, Lazy, Predictable

'Mourinho can never love a club more than he loves himself'.

Standing room only for his first press conference since The Return. And early on, he gave the throngs what they came for, a few morsels thrown to the masses. But with the following day's headlines quickly out of the way, it became clear that Mourinho 2.0 was short on sound-bytes. The pout replaced by the slouch. He looked tired, bored, beaten? The talk of 'love' seemed cheap, disingenuous. The body language, the mood hinted at a stale relationship, devoid of passion and energy. He was 'happy'. Ouch. It seemed the new/old partnership was in place, well, because it seemed logical. Ouch again. As a football Lothario, Mourinho's arrogance, brazenness, brashness and success made him the most desirable bed-fellow. His high-octane trysts at Chelsea and Inter were refreshing, his style outrageous, the adoration infectious. But in Madrid, a sobering conclusion early on. Mourinho can never love a club more than he loves himself.  

For Mourinho, it's been a frustrating realisation. It's why he's back at Stamford Bridge. It's why the pageantry at that press conference seemed tinged with melancholy. He eyed up a different girl at the party. She left with someone else. And a Lothario can never go home alone. The old flame made eyes from across the room. She loved him, needed him. Easy.

Mourinho's pride was dented when Manchester United didn't come calling. For a manager specialising in short-term stints, attempting to emulate an icon would be the stuff of fantasy. It would be a long-term project, no boardroom back-stabbing, back in a country where he's beloved. The energy. The freshness. The challenge. The biggest job. And he didn't get it. His CV counted for nothing more than a few customary conversations between the Old Trafford top-brass. Perhaps what hurt most of all was that Fergie wanted someone else. The old, wily dog played one final trick. Mourinho always the pretender, never the master.

Mourinho, of course, is unable to help himself. Last weekend, there was the finger-wagging at Paul Lambert. There was the post-game posturing and patronising, Lambert's in-game behavior reminiscent of a younger, sillier, immature Jose apparently. There were more lectures on Friday, pointedly, at his former stats-man, Andre Villas-Boas. Referring to Chelsea's poaching of Brazilian midfielder Willian from under the noses of Tottenham, Jose instructed the North Londoners as how best to conduct a player's medical. Funnily enough, no mention of Roman Abramovich's relationship with Anzhi Makhachkala owner Suleiman Kerimov at the press conference. 

In Madrid, Mourinho was held accountable for the gobby, impudent brat he was. Held accountable by his employers, he didn't like it. Held accountable by his players, he didn't like it. His legacy in Spain is that of a coach so thoroughly frustrated by his inability to beat another team, he resorted to mindless thuggery to make himself feel better. But in Mourinho's head, he broke Barcelona's dominance. At his Chelsea unveiling, he claimed to have 'hurt' Barca. Recounting Madrid's Cup wins and 'historic championship', Mourinho was over-reaching to an incomprehensible, almost pathetic, degree.  

Many were excited by Mourinho's return to Premier League management. But where once was a sharp, refreshing, unique personality there's now a stale, old-hat performer. Where once was the young, cheeky, runt-of-the-litter, there's now a grey, sombre, know-it-all. Reveling in this faux-role as a calmer, more mellow 'veteran', his dispensing of advice and opinion to all and sundry is tough to watch. 

His comments about how David Moyes should be held responsible for Wayne Rooney's unhappiness at Old Trafford were bitter, ill-informed and mis-guided. But it's box-office, so that's okay. The pre-match narrative is set. The fancy TV graphics are being readied as we speak. IN THE RED CORNER: DAVID MOYES! IN THE BLUE CORNER: JOSE MOURINHO! There are those who identify this type of bullish behaviour as Mourinho unselfishly moving the spotlight away from his players. But it's too much of a coincidence that he has jeopardised each of his managerial jobs by failing to control his mouth. His opinion matters most. He shouts the loudest. It's about him. The problem for Jose though is that he's been here before. We've seen the jaded act before. And we know how it ends. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dortmund: A Club Reborn

'Klopp’s greatest achievement at the club has been to develop a relentless spirit, a common bond, a unity.'

They’ve learned the hard way, Dortmund.

16 years ago, they were crowned Europe’s best. 8 years later, they stared bankruptcy in the face. But since then, with a couple of diversions along the way, they’ve dominated domestically to such an extent that their bitter rivals Bayern have enticed some of the world’s most sought-after youngsters and seduced the world’s most sought-after manager to try and grapple control of German football again.

This year’s Champions League decider at Wembley - a showdown between two German sides - has sparked plenty of debate about the current state of football in the country. The Bundesliga is being trumpeted as the best league in Europe. It’s entertaining, it’s economical and it’s sustainable. But, for Dortmund and Germany, it wasn’t always this way.

By November 2005, the club’s financial situation was perilous. A Munich-based analyst Peter-Thilo Hasler warned that “you cannot make a business plan based on the best-case scenario". This was the root cause of Dortmund’s predicament - basing future earnings on past successes and gambling millions on inflated wages and ‘expected’ Champions League qualification. An old cautionary tale perhaps but this was different. This wasn’t just any club. Giddy on excitement, drunk on possibilities, a high-profile European side embarrassed itself with its lack of basic business acumen and brought a powerhouse to its knees.

In the summer of 2001, Marcio Amoroso was signed for a German record 25m euro. He had an instant impact. The club won its sixth league title with the Brazilian finishing the campaign as joint-top scorer. But less than three years later, Amoroso would have his contract cancelled due to increasingly volatile behaviour. Dortmund involved themselves in other short-sighted transfers, dropping 6 million for Victor Ikpeba, a similar amount for Fredi Bobic, even more for Sunday Oliseh. Within a couple of years, all three would be moved on. Within a couple of years, the club was a mess. A third-placed league finish in 2003 meant a Champions League qualifier the following season. They lost on penalties to Club Brugge. It got worse. The supposed tranquility and safety of the UEFA Cup spectacularly backfired with a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Sochaux in the second round. The second leg was in Dortmund. They were humiliated 4-0. This was not in the script.  

Dortmund’s plight got so bad so quickly that Bayern loaned them 2 million euro to pay staff for a number of months. They sold their stadium to a real estate fund and leased it back. By early 2005, share prices were at an all-time low. Dortmund couldn’t afford to pay their rent anymore. Having so desperately desired the deep end of the pool for so long, they were now drowning in it. By March, desperate for cash to secure a license to compete in the league the following season and avoid administration, the club was thrown a lifeline. Its landlords, Molsiris, agreed to Dortmund’s proposal of a buy-back of the Westfalenstadion. A deal was arranged which saw the club get a crucial net cash-flow of 9 million euro. Molsiris allowed Dortmund use a 52 million security deposit to buy back 42.8% of the stadium. Rent was reduced from a crippling 1.3 million euro per month to 300,000 euro through 2006. After the five-hour meeting with investors, club president Reinhard Rauball said 'I hope I never have to endure another day like this.'  He had only been in the role for a number of months, replacing the long-serving Gerd Niebaum. He and Managing Director, Michael Meier, were seen as the architects of Dortmund’s downfall, the focus of fans’ frustrations and fury. By the end of the season, both had been banished from the club for good.

The club’s problems had deeply worried German football authorities. After all, even hardcore Dortmund fans had surrendered to the likelihood of the club going bust. But financial problems were threatening a number of teams, not just one. In 2002, Kirch Media, who owned German football’s biggest TV contract, went bankrupt. Bayern’s Karl Heinz Rummenigge questioned the future of the country’s second division and  “about a third of the clubs in the first". 60 per cent of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign and commanding big salaries. By 2005, the 36 Bundesliga teams had a combined debt of 698 million euro. One financial expert was deeply pessimistic about the future, ‘The situation is very tense and very critical. It's five minutes to 12 for the Bundesliga," said Angelika Amend. Schalke were struggling, though their risk of carrying a heavy wage bill paid off as they racked up numerous Champions League qualifications and unearthed a string of quality underage players later sold for decent money. Hamburg also battled bravely against heavy debt – their clever transfer policy keeping them consistent. For Kaiserslautern, the 1998 Bundesliga champions, years of off-field problems finally resulted in their relegation in 2006.

Dortmund meanwhile acted fast to rebuild the club. By December 2005, the Westfalenstadion had been re-christened Signal Iduna Park, ironically enough through a sponsorship deal with a German insurance company. The transaction netted the club about 20 million euro. Salaries were slashed by, reportedly, as much as 30 million euro when compared to late-90s figures. Between 2004 and 2005, Dortmund spent next to nothing on transfers. High-earners like Amoroso, Frings, Lehmann and Heinrich were sold. Youth was given a chance, essentially by default. Roman Weidenfeller was brought in on a free from Kaiserslautern, sixteen year-old Nuri Sahin was promoted to the senior side, making an historic debut against Wolfsburg in the opening game of the 05/06 campaign. The average age of the Dortmund starting XI that day was 25. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said, ‘The young players are our future and so won't be sold’. This wasn’t quite true. Watzke was intent on operating a business, not an unsustainable fantasy like his predecessors. At 25 years old, Tomas Rosicky was sold to Arsenal for 10 million in the summer of 2006. At the same time, 22 year-old David Odonkor was moved on to Betis in Spain for 6.5 million. Watzke knew a good deal when he saw it. Those young players were hot commodities. It was his job to get the club back on a relatively even keel financially. Performances on the pitch came second to performances in the boardroom.

Jurgen Klopp’s eventual arrival as manager led to much of the deadwood being swept away. The summer of 2008 saw 17 players leave the club, only three of them on loan deals. Klopp made shrewd additions to the squad, focusing on young, cheap players. 19 year-old centre-back Neven Subotic was signed from Klopp’s former club Mainz for 4.0 million. 22 year-old defender Felipe Santana was brought in from Brazil for less than 2 million. 20 year-old Marcel Schmelzer was promoted from the youth team. Tamas Hajnal came from Karlsruhe for next to nothing. Over 2 million was spent on Mohamed Zidan from Hamburg. Sahin was back after a highly successful loan spell with Feyenoord. After years struggling to find an on-field identity owing to the off-field pressures and blinkered transfer strategy, Dortmund had a solid spine to work with. And when there was an urge to ‘splash out’ on a player (Mats Hummels moving permanently from Bayern in 2009 for 4.2m, Lucas Barrios signed for the same amount), funds were raised from player sales (Petric, Valdez, Frei). The success of Klopp’s bargain-bin strategy in the transfer market has been commonly highlghted by Shinji Kagawa’s arrival from the J-League for 350,000. But between 2009 and 2010, Sven Bender, Kevin Grosskreutz, Lucasz Piszczek and Mario Goetze all arrived in Dortmund’s senior side for a combined total of 1.5 million.

Dortmund’s strategy used to be based on a simple economic ideal: spending more money on players means better results. But football has too many variables for economics to work flawlessly every time. Klopp’s greatest achievement at the club has been to develop a relentless spirit, a common bond, a unity. The goalkeeper, Roman Weidenfeller, has been with the club ten and a half years - from the relegation and administration scraps through successive league titles to a Champions League final.  Captain Sebastian Kehl has been there even longer. Grosskreutz and Reus used to cheer on the team from the Yellow Wall when they were part of the club’s academy. Hummels, Schmelzer, Bender, Subotic, Blaszczykowski and Piszczek have all signed new contracts this season. When Reus explained his decision to re-join the club who let him go as a youth, he said,’ I just felt this is the best-supported team with players who work well together under a great coach. Players don't come and go as often as they do at Bayern. It's the same with the manager. I felt there would be more stability and consistency here. It was the best place for me, and I was coming home’. There’s a comfort to Dortmund now. They are a club once again.

On Saturday, Bayern’s starting XI will comprise of seven signings and four products of their youth system (it would be five if Toni Kroos was fit). The seven signings cost the club 140 million euro. Dortmund’s starting XI, by way of contrast, cost them 41 million. Four players cost them nothing at all. Bayern will always have the luxury to splash out on desirable objects of affection like Martinez or Goetze. They will always pay the biggest wages and offer the best incentives. It’s a unique existence. Years ago, Dortmund attempted to live in the same world. Now, they’re just happy to still be living.