Friday, March 22, 2013

Sweden v Ireland. Stockholm, 1949

The last time Ireland were in Stockholm for a World Cup qualifier was over sixty years ago.

The team that took to the field that day featured iconic names like Jackie Carey and Con Martin.

But, there's just one survivor.

I delved deeper into a period of Irish football that nearly resulted in the country's very first World Cup appearance.

Originally broadcast on RTE 2FM's Game On, 21/3/2013.
A firm handshake to Stephen Finn, Mark O'Sullivan, Philip O'Connor and Gary Spain.
Special thanks to Stefan Lyssarides at Sveriges Radio.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reality Bytes For The Future Of Fixing Matches

'Instead of zero tolerance there is, well, tolerance. Both Hungary and Bulgaria were found guilty of racial abuse in January. Their punishment? To play their next home World Cup qualifiers behind closed doors.'

Everything is quicker these days. And everyone wants to be the quickest. We don’t have time to digest convoluted things like statements, paragraphs, chapters. We’re looking for the gist. The headline. The byte.

If it fits within 140 characters, perfect. But just one tweet, please. Anymore and we’ve lost interest, to be honest. It’s our own fault. We have kids and mortgages and our salaries have been cut. We’re in negative equity. We’ve just done sixty hours this week with no overtime being paid. We’ve got to call around to the in-laws and are literally racing out the door right now. We’ve got about thirty seconds. Maybe forty. Hang on. The youngest has fallen over and cut her chin. We’ve literally got about 20 seconds now. So whatever you’ve got to tell us, tell us right now. Seriously.

Okay. There’s been match-fixing. Lots of it. So much of it that there’s been an investigation. Some Champions League games were fixed, one that was played in England, we think. World Cup qualifiers too. And it threatens the very fabric of the game.


Well, not really. That’s the gist.

Wow. That sounds serious. Really serious. Champions League, World Cup. What have the football authorities said about this?

Well, eh, we’re going to write to them and let them know that they should heed the, eh, warning. But did you not hear me? Match-fixing! In the Champions League!

Yes! So what games?

We can’t tell you. But they were big ones. We think.

According to Europol, the deep-rooted character of football is stained by these recent developments. Professionals have cheated for money. They’ve dirtied the once-clear, pure waters of the beautiful game. But it’s just another byte. Just another gist. It did its duty. It filled some space for a few minutes, got people talking for a while. The headlines were made. ‘Match-fixing: Fabric of the game is threatened’. The tweet heard around the world.

Is match-fixing a huge problem for football? Of course. At a very basic level, once there’s a genuine belief that it’s happening somewhere, the doubt creeps in. Your club. Your favourite player. Your favourite manager.

But even still, what happens after that?

When Calciopoli broke, it brought down some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Kind of. A year after the scandal was first uncovered, AC Milan, who were originally banned from competing in the 2007 Champions League because of their involvement with influencing referees, were crowned European winners in Athens.

Fiorentina, who were docked 15 points as punishment, finished the 2006/07 season in 6th and were playing in the Europa League just a few months later. Even Juventus, seen by their own as having been treated so appallingly, were back in the top-flight within a year. Another year later, they were back in the Champions League.

Two years ago, Sepp Blatter pounded his chest and proclaimed FIFA were introducing a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to match-fixing.

The big plan was to detect suspicious betting patterns early but there was a problem.

Where smaller bets were placed in a multitude of different betting shops, FIFA’s software system couldn’t join the dots. According to a recent Spiegel report, an ex-UEFA employee who had inside knowledge of how the system worked said it was ‘essentially blind’ if the bets weren’t excessive and didn’t stand out.

In other words, football’s governing body had provided the byte, the headline, the gist. They did their part. Just not very well.

In January, Sepp Blatter pounded his chest and proclaimed football should have a zero tolerance approach to racism. He’s come a long way since telling CNN in November 2011 that there was no racism and that players should remember it’s all just a game.

Where once a handshake was enough to build a bridge, deduction of points and relegation should be the norm. But instead of zero tolerance there is, well, tolerance. Both Hungary and Bulgaria were found guilty of racial abuse earlier this year. Their punishment? To play their next home World Cup qualifiers behind closed doors.

Match-fixing will continue, as it always has. It will creep up on those lower-ranked players, managers, officials and administrators. It will make criminals vast sums of money and leave the weak and desperate take the fall, if there is any.

At times, it will permeate the upper echelons of the game and for a brief moment or two, there will be a flurry of activity as the story breaks. But as always, change will only come from those willing to change.

The wrong-doers will only be caught if those chasing them are interested.

And right now, football’s leaders aren’t interested.

They’re just looking for the gist.
The headline.
The byte.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

It's Up To Rooney To Prove Ferguson Wrong

'The harsh reality of the last few years is that Rooney has been overshadowed by others when, particularly in the aftermath of Ronaldo's departure, the stage was his if he wanted it.'

Back in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson received an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration from Manchester Metropolitan University. He gave some advice to his fellow graduates. 'Failure is not a problem. How you deal with it is a problem. If you don't deal with it, you'll fail again. Adversity has always driven Manchester United on. We don't like losing. And therefore, that character we've got in the dressing room has to come to the surface in moments where we've lost a game.'

Wayne Rooney didn't just lose a game on Tuesday night. He lost his place. And the general consensus seems to be that his manager has lost faith. It's not the first time, of course. Rooney's refusal to sign a new contract in 2010, the subsequent public damning of what he perceived as United's lack of ambition and his engaging in such heavy-petting with Manchester City was followed by a remarkable turnaround within days. An apology to Ferguson, his team-mates and the supporters quickly followed, as did a new contract. In an interview with the BBC last September, a sheepish Rooney admitted it had been the biggest mistake of his career. When recounting the story, his relief that both Ferguson and David Gill accepted his apology and agreed to re-open negotiations was palpable. He was in their debt and he worked hard to make amends. Ultimately, Rooney's 2010/2011 season will be remembered not for the contract dispute but for his astounding overhead-kick winner against Manchester City.

In recent years, Rooney has attempted to carry the United team. In 2010, his league goals single-handedly earned the club 20 points. They finished second. In 2012, his league goals single-handedly earned the club 16 points. They finished second. In 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo's goals earned United 15 points. They finished first. The year before, Ronaldo's goals earned them 23 points. They finished first. The year before that, he earned them 17 points. They finished first. Even in 2011, when United should've suffered through Rooney's loss of form and his off-field behaviour, the goal-scoring of Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez contributed 30 points. This season, should United claim another title, it will be Robin van Persie, not Rooney, who'll be identified as the catalyst, the inspiration. Rooney has been a critically important player for United, just not the most important. The harsh reality of the last few years is that Rooney has been overshadowed by others when, particularly in the aftermath of Ronaldo's departure, the stage was his if he wanted it.

Speaking with the Harvard Business School in 2011, Ferguson described dealing with high-profile players, 'I tell them that hard work is a talent too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for, they are out.'  Has Ferguson seen Rooney lose an edge? Has Rooney's desire to keep working waned? Has he looked upon the arrival of another new face as a curse rather than a challenge? His goal-scoring last term improved considerably - between March and April he racked up 12 goals in 11 games. If things had worked out differently, his strike on the final day of the season against Sunderland wouldn't have merely been a game-winner but a league-winner. And there were important goals too. Braces against Chelsea and Liverpool, a hat-trick against Arsenal, a winner in a nervy clash with Fulham, another double in the Cup win over City. His 27 league goals was his best tally yet. But, van Persie's arrival meant Rooney was pushed deeper again. Pride dented? Certainly.

But, just when United needed van Persie the most, he failed to deliver. He's scored once in his last eight games. He needs help. The question is, will Rooney have the attitude, the desire, the work ethic to step up? Or, sidetracked by the current rumour-mill and his manager's dissatisfaction, will he seek the solace of his other team? Agent Paul Stretford was identified by Ferguson as having played a major role in Rooney's 2010 mutiny, referring to him as "not the most popular man in the world – certainly at our club". Ironically though, having engineered such a lucrative deal for his client at the time, Stretford may have inadvertently cost Rooney in the long-run. Manchester City is no longer in a position to offer what they put forward two and a half years ago. Paris St-Germain has been touted as a possible destination and given their unlimited funds, heavy English-influence (Carlo Ancelotti, Paul Clement, Claude Makelele, Alex), their newly-acquired international profile and relative closeness to home, it may not represent as much of a difficult transition anymore. But, with Ancelotti doing an excellent job balancing such a delicate collection of egos, would Rooney even command a regular starting place? The cut and thrust of Premier League football, the easy camaraderie at training, the routine of it all would be difficult to leave behind. Starting somewhere new, different, strange at 28 - when a player should be reaching their peak, seems a monumental challenge. With a World Cup around the corner and a general acceptance that he's failed to deliver on the international stage since 2004, Rooney will need stability and focus. But, is that what he wants?  
So, the next few months are critical for Wayne Rooney. Come the summertime, he'll have two years left on his current deal. If he's willing to follow Ferguson's advice in how best to handle adversity, he'll be rewarded. He'll continue to be an important player for the club, perhaps, finally, the most important. His manager has laid down a challenge. It's up to Rooney whether or not he wants to take it on.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fergie's Lost Weekend Started Here

'The night belonged to Ronaldo, though the glittering array of talent around him (notably Zidane) made the most of United's imbalance and subsequent positional problems.'

23rd April 2003 - the beginning of a tumultuous era at Old Trafford. What followed included a trophy drought, boardroom battles, in-fighting and, whisper it, a common acceptance that Sir Alex Ferguson should be replaced.

The game itself contained so many sub-plots. There was Beckham, then-England captain, inexplicably on the bench - rumours swirling of a summer move to the Bernabeu. Juan Sebastian Veron was selected to start after seven weeks out with injury - signed so extravagantly almost two years earlier, still stubbornly backed by a manager reluctant to admit an error of judgement. There was a fragility to the United squad, highlighted by the calibre of the opposition - Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo having won 6 FIFA World Player of the Year awards between them at that stage. The home bench featured 36-year old Laurent Blanc, the much-maligned Diego Forlan, two utility players in Phil Neville and Quinton Fortune plus the inexperienced Darren Fletcher. Finally, the selection of Steve McManaman in the Madrid midfield showed that their boss Vincente Del Bosque was (a) mischievous and (b) as adept at mind-games as his counterpart. 

The night belonged to Ronaldo, though the glittering array of talent around him (notably Zidane) made the most of United's imbalance and subsequent positional problems. His first goal came from United gambling on a counter-attack and losing possession. The second saw one pass from Zidane take out three flat-footed United players. The third was simply an inspired strike. 

For Fergie and United, the game was a water-shed. Despite claiming a 16th league title a few weeks later, Ferguson desperately had craved another European success - the signing of Veron was an attempt to add a calm, creative ball-player as a third central midfielder, having been so badly caught out tactically away to Anderlecht and PSV in 2000. Ruud Van Nistelrooy had been identified as a striker who could easily lead the line and excel with support from deep - a move away from the rigidness of attacking partnerships. But despite the brilliance of the Dutchman (with 10 goals in 11 tournament starts), United's defensive frailties cost them in the first leg of their semi-final with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Ferguson acted swiftly and broke the British record to sign Rio Ferdinand. But, with Wes Brown, Mikael Silvestre and John O'Shea playing in an assortment of defensive positions, United's defence never quite looked secure. Over two legs against Madrid, the deficiencies had come under the microscope. Now, it would be four years before the club would get as far in the Champions League again. The bulk of the squad would be moved on quickly. Barthez, Blanc, Veron, Beckham, Butt, Keane, Forlan, Phil Neville and Fortune all made their exits over the next three seasons. But most worryingly of all, Ferguson was about to enter his 'lost weekend' that lasted until 2006.

He had already made costly mistakes with his squad. The decision to replace Jaap Stam with Blanc had badly misfired. Bringing in Veron was well-intentioned but misguided - his role within the side never properly defined, his presence proving unsettling for others. The deterioration and eventual disintegration of his relationship with Beckham was alarming and unusual - Fergie seemingly allowing other factors motivate his decision to marginalise a player still doing it on the pitch. The heavy presence of model-pro Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as an antithesis to the Beckham 'celebrity circus' surely swayed his decision-making even further. The 1999 side had been ripped apart - Schmeichel, Irwin, Berg, Johnsen, Blomqvist, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham were all gone by the summer of 2002. Big money had been spent on a handful of players but the squad was still desperately short on numbers. The team needed a new goalkeeper, again. Ferguson, so impressed with the recent emergence of American shot-stoppers, signed Tim Howard from Major League Soccer. His first season would end with an FA Cup winner's medal but question marks remained. By the end of his second term, he'd lost his place to Roy Carroll, a back-up keeper signed from Wigan three years earlier. Only with the 2005 purchase of Edwin van der Sar did Ferguson finally land a consistent performer, a born winner, well able to deal with the inevitable, glaring spotlight.

Howard, infamously, had a part to play in United being dumped out of the Champions League by Porto in 2004 but so did Ferguson. With Keane suspended, Eric Djemba-Djemba was handed a start. With another makeshift back-four and Nicky Butt making what would be his final Champions League appearance, United were ill-prepared for the well-drilled, street-smart Portuguese outfit. Ferguson whinged about their antics, about an incorrect offside. Benni McCarthy, scorer of two goals in the first leg, said afterwards, 'United should try and respect their opponents a bit more'. Ouch.   

The Champions League exit, the third-place league finish, the invincible Arsenal side under Wenger were all enough to give Ferguson plenty of restless nights. But what pushed him closest to the edge wasn't football-related at all. His biggest distraction were the legal proceedings he had begun in the Dublin High Court against John Magnier over ownership rights to the race-horse 'Rock Of Gibraltar'. At the time however, Magnier's company Cubic Expressions, owned over 25% of Manchester United. Magnier, a deeply private person, was secretly seething at Ferguson dragging their dealings into the public domain. In January 2004, Magnier and his business partner JP McManus sent letters to then-chairman Roy Gardner and CEO David Gill questioning Ferguson's transfer dealings and probing the amount of commission received by his then-agent son Jason from 13 different deals. Later that same year, a BBC3 documentary, 'Fergie And Son', delved deeper into the story (the same programme that resulted in Fergie Snr refusing to speak with the BBC until 2011). The letters also questioned why Ferdinand was still being paid his weekly wage of £70,000 despite serving an 8-month suspension for missing a drugs test. They questioned Ferguson's morals. They questioned his values. The most important question of all, perhaps most significantly, was left off the list. Though everyone with the ability to read between the lines knew what it was. Manchester United's biggest shareholders were questioning Sir Alex Ferguson's position as manager. 

Ferguson was floored but was backed by hardcore supporters. Some formed United4Action and threatened to protest at that year's Gold Cup against what they viewed as Magnier and McManus's attempts to de-stabilise the club. A desperate Ferguson pleaded with fans not to go through with it. They honoured the request and a compromise was finally reached between Ferguson and Magnier later in the year.

But off-field battles were complemented by continued on-field troubles. The arrival of Mourinho at Stamford Bridge and the speed with which his newly-assembled side gelled stumped Ferguson. The unlimited cash, the brazenness, the brashness and most annoyingly of all, the results to back it all up. United offered little in response - the signing of Wayne Rooney offered plenty but injuries to Van Nistelrooy and Saha plus the relative ineffectiveness of Alan Smith saw him carry a heavy burden in his first campaign. Come March 2005, United were out of the title race again, out of Europe again (this time to AC Milan). They were flat-lining. The season petered out with a limp 3-1 home defeat to the title-winners Chelsea (which came complete with a humiliating guard of honour before kick-off) and an FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. David Gill spoke of Ferguson, once the most untouchable man in European football, as 'sackable'. Blasphemy, surely? The man himself pondered if he had the energy to continue. The club's profits had more-than halved. Fergie was doing more bad than good.

In May 2005, John Magnier and JP McManus netted about an £80 million profit as they sold their share of the club to Malcolm Glazer. Shortly after, Glazer had full control. In July, the family pledged to stand by Ferguson and revealed there would be significant funds available to strengthen the squad. But the internal problems persisted. Keane was sacked by the club, his criticisms of younger players and of Ferguson's management seen as a bridge too far. Two and a half weeks later, United suffered the humiliation of being knocked out at the Champions League group stage. By the end of the campaign, Van Nistelrooy had gone too, sold to Madrid after Ferguson grew tired of what he perceived as a major drop in attitude, especially showcased in a 1-0 Cup defeat to Liverpool at Anfield. The season ended with another three goals shipped to Chelsea who eased to a second successive championship. In between, Ferguson incurred the wrath of the hardcore supporters when he described Glazer as being 'excellent for the club'. An editorial in the influential fanzine United We Stand said the comments smacked of "a struggling employee attempting to ingratiate himself with his new bosses. They are sickening, inflammatory but, above all, sad. Yes, Ferguson would be a fool to criticise the Glazers and hope to hang on to his increasingly tenuous position, but did he need to say anything?" Struggling, tenuous. The crown had slipped. The once loyal subjects were openly discussing anointing a new king. 

But Fergie's lost weekend was over. He went back to basics but also borrowed from unusual sources. Nemanja Vidic was the powerful, commanding, physical centre-back not seen at Old Trafford since Stam. Patrice Evra was a converted attacker who could provide pace, skill and determination on the left-flank - in much the same way Ashley Cole did at both Arsenal and Chelsea. With Cristiano Ronaldo now less of a p ock-marked, flashy kid and more of an explosive, consistent revelation, Rooney also shone with extra responsibility. There was a solidity to the United side - in comparison to the softness witnessed so often in the years previous. The swagger was back, superbly demonstrated in the 7-1 demolition of Roma at Old Trafford in their Champions League quarter-final second leg. Though there was eventual defeat to a magnificent Milan in the semis, Ferguson knew a major foundation had been laid. Wrestling the league from Chelsea and seeing off a younger, aggressive, progressive rival manager proved many things - his critics were wrong to right him off. He never backed down from a challenge. He had the energy, will and desire to continue. He hadn't been faced with such relentless debate and argument about his credentials for a long time but he'd survived his toughest ever period at Old Trafford. He prepared himself for arguably his most successful.