Friday, 28 January 2011

Thursday Round Up: Diame on Wigan, Ridiculous punishments and Sevilla threats

One sometimes wonders what exactly a player expects when they make the move to certain cities to play their football. Clearly players want to test themselves at a higher level, but would you really fancy swapping Madrid for the joys of a wet and cold evening in front of a half empty stadium in Wigan.

Mohamed Diame, who signed for Wigan for around £3m in August 2009, has clearly been wondering the same following a recent interview, where he gave his impressions of Wigan and life in England:

“The truth about life in Wigan is that there is nothing to do. It is a crappy place. The town is tiny and there is no atmosphere. I go into training, I return home afterwards, and that is all I do.”

One wonders whether having come from Madrid, he expected Wigan to be a hive of cultural activity, but it gives a clear message to all aspiring footballers looking for a move abroad – visit the town before you sign.

However, that was not the only problem that he has with Wigan. Strangely, Wigan turns out to be slightly colder than Madrid as well:

“There is absolutely no comparison between Wigan and Madrid. I was happy there – it was a capital city, and I guess it is the same as any capital. After training, I was able to go for a peaceful stroll. It was never really cold over there. But as for here – don’t get me started. When it snowed, I felt like the temperature was minus 15 and feared I was going to turn into an ice cube.”

To be fair to him, it probably was minus 15 given the winter we have had, but it is no real surprise that it is difficult to compare Madrid and Wigan. Even Wigan chairman, Dave Whelan, had to accept that describing Wigan as having come from a mining and coal background.

However, Diame had one final observation to make on life in Wigan:

“It is rare to see truly beautiful girls when you go out during the day. In Madrid, I had the idea that all the women were beautiful.”

Clearly Mohamed isn’t overly enthralled by the allure of the northern birds. Compared to Madrid, can you really blame him?

* * *

The footballing authorities around the world continue to demonstrate that they have never considered the idea of using any semblance of common sense in decision-making. Last Saturday, Lionel Messi scored a penalty to make it 3-0 to Barcelona. No surprise

However, as he peeled away to celebrate, he pulled up his shirt to reveal a message scrawled on a T-shirt. For this celebration, the Spanish federation decided to fine him €3,000 and retrospectively award him a yellow card under their regulations against messages on shirts. So, what could this message have been that it required such punishment? A political message? A message that could have offended certain groups?

Nothing as strong as that. The message simply read, “Feliz Cumple, Mami.” A happy birthday message to his mother. A simple gesture from a child to his mother.

However, apparently that is no longer allowed. It is almost as ridiculous as the rule that players should be booked for celebrating with the crowd. The idea that a simple sharing of jubilation with the fans who make up the lifeblood of a club and a cynical and potential dangerous challenge should be worthy of the same punishment is simply absurd.

Emotion and common sense no longer have a place in football. Players should score important goals and simply turn around and quietly walk back to their positions. Or at least, that is what it seems the authorities would prefer.

* * *

Clubs and managers often resort to winding up their opponents ahead of big games or employing more subtle mind games to put their opposition off their game. However, Sevilla have taken it one step further. Ahead of their Copa del Rey semi-final first leg with Real Madrid, the players mocked up a quick video where they appear to appear topless and smearing themselves with war paint.

All the while, a threatening voice speaks in Portuguese, warning Mourinho that “we will leave you without the title.” There is no denying that it is slightly creepy, and indeed, Martin Caceres actually looks quite bloodthirsty covered in what appears to be blood.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to have the desired effect as an early Karim Benzema gave Real Madrid the all important away goal in a 1-0 victory. Maybe next time, they should spend more time preparing for the game than making these ridiculous videos.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Justine Henin Retires From Tennis

It is a sad end to the career of one of the greatest players of the modern game. With 43 singles titles, including seven Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal and over $20m in prize money, her achievements are almost unrivalled in the women’s game of tennis. However, the elbow injury that she picked up in a fall at Wimbledon last year has ultimately brought a premature end to the tennis career of Justine Henin.

It is not the first time that Henin has announced her retirement from tennis. Back in 2008, she stunned the tennis world by announcing her retirement half way through the season. At the time, she was only 25 years old and was ranked as the number one player in the world. She claimed she had fallen out of love with the game and lacked any motivation for tennis:

"I didn't want to be on the court anymore. The tennis itself wasn't a problem. The problem was motivation. I just felt: 'Please don't talk to me about the French Open or Wimbledon'. To me it wasn't important any more. I just wanted to know more things about myself. And I had the feeling that tennis didn't have the capacity to make me happy any more. I felt it was the time to go away.”

She decided to return to tennis just over 12 months ago after regaining her love for the game and lured back by the one missing feather in her crown – a Wimbledon title. Her first match in over 18 months came in Brisbane in January where she defeated the world number 20, Nadia Petrova, in straight sets.

The comeback continued to gain momentum and she progressed right through to the final, where she was eventually defeated by fellow Belgian, Kim Clijsters, who herself had recently returned from retirement from the game.

All the focus was on Justine as she headed to the Australian Open and whether she could imitate Clijsters’ achievement of winning a Grand Slam on her return. The fairytale looked to be on as she cruised through to the final, dispatching world number five, Elena Dementieva, in the second round, and dropping just one game in hammering Jie Zheng in the semi-final.

However, the formidable world number one, Serena Williams, stood in her path. Despite winning the second set, Serena proved too strong for Henin, but it had been a remarkable effort in only her second tournament in 18 months.

Even more focus was on Henin when the clay court season came around. Before her first retirement, she had been virtually unstoppable on her beloved surface, having won the French Open title four times in five years, including consecutive titles in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In her first tournament back on clay, she picked up her first title in 26 months, beating Australia’s Sam Stosur in the final.

Going into the French Open, she was the favourite to reclaim the crown that she had never properly lost. Comfortable victories over Pironkova and Zakopalova were followed by a hard-fought win over Maria Sharapova. However, she was stunned in the last 16 when Sam Stosur, whom she had beaten less than a month before, overpowered her, beating her in three sets.

However, it provided extra time to prepare for her ultimate aim – Wimbledon. She cruised through her warm-up tournament in s-Hertogenbosch, dropping just one set on her way to the title. Coming into Wimbledon, the hype surrounding her was huge. Comfortable wins over Sevastova, Barrois and Petrova only served to fuel the fire.

The round of 16 match pitted the two Belgians together – Clijsters and Henin. Since Henin’s return, Clijsters had won both their meetings, but Henin went into the match as the slight favourite. She was magnificent in winning the first set 6-2, but toward the end of the set, she slipped and fell on her right elbow. She continued the match, but it was clearly troubling her and she crashed to a three set defeat.

After the tournament, it was diagnosed as a partial ligament fracture and the injury would keep her out for the rest of the year.

She made her return at the 2011 Hopman Cup, despite revealing that the injury had not properly healed yet. However, she appeared to show no adverse signs as she won all of her games without dropping a set, including a victory over former world number one, Ana Ivanovic.

Coming into the Australian Open, she was one of the favourites to take the title, but struggled in her opening match against Sania Mirza. A more straight-forward task against Elena Baltacha was passed with ease, but she fell in straight sets to Svetlana Kuznetsova in what would be her final ever match.

Today, she revealed that her elbow had been further damaged by her Australian campaign and had been in pain for months with the problem. “My elbow is too fragile. Having followed the advice of doctors, it is now clear and I accept that here my career ends.”

Her single-handed backhand was one of the best shots in the game, whilst her speed and mental toughness have often been hailed as reasons for her great success. Many former players have hailed her as one of the best. Andre Agassi claimed “Justine Henin is one of the most talented women ever to have played the game of tennis,” whilst Billie Jean King said that, “pound for pound, Henin is the best tennis player of her generation.”

Her retirement is a blow for tennis fans around the world, but her career has provided a huge number of great memories. Despite problems in her personal life throughout her career, she has rarely let them affect her on court, and anyone who has seen her play will agree that she was undoubtedly one of the best players of her generation. Her presence on court will be sorely missed in the coming months.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Could the Qatar World Cup be the beginning of the end for Blatter?

Ever since the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar on December 2nd, controversy has swirled around the details of the tournament. From arguments over moving it to the winter to expanding it to make it a Gulf World Cup, FIFA have proved once again that nothing is simple and straightforward when it comes to dealings within the governing body of world football.

When Qatar was announced as the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, people around the world were stunned. Having started the process as huge outsiders, they had launched the most extraordinary campaign to position themselves as serious contenders. In true Qatari fashion, the level of spending on the campaign dwarfed anything that has ever been seen before.

England’s 2018 campaign budget of £15m over the two year process was seen as being a huge amount of money, but the details of the Qatari spending are just being revealed. In 2010 alone, it budgeted an incredible £27m on communications alone. This one-year communications budget was greater than the entire budget of all the other bids, with the exception of Australia.

The bid proposed a number of investment opportunities in foreign countries. They offered to bail out the entire Argentine Football Association in 2009 following a financial crisis that had hit the organisation, including the option that Al Jazeera could buy the television rights for the league. A new football academy in Thailand was proposed and scouting opportunities in Nigeria were expanded.

A curious mix of countries until we look at what they all have in common. They are each home to a member of the FIFA Executive Committee.

They spent over $7m on recruiting ambassadors for their bid, including Gabriel Batistuta, Zinedine Zidane, Ronald de Boer and Roger Milla. They also offered a proposal to move the Asian Football Federation headquarters to Doha, including the free use of an entire tower block, residential property, diplomatic cars and the use of a private jet. They even sponsored the Conference for the Confederation of African Football last year to guarantee themselves exclusive rights to present their bid to delegates.

Whilst the Qatari bid did not break any of the regulations, the sheer scale of it is almost unbelievable.

Since winning the bid, Sepp Blatter has been proposing a radical shake-up by switching it to the winter to solve the issue of the summer heat. However, this has been met with a great deal of opposition from virtually all of the major European leagues, whose seasons would be hugely disrupted by the change.

The most interesting opposition to the switch comes from Qatar itself. Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari President of the Asian Football Confederation, has refuted Blatter’s suggestion that it be moved to the winter. He has also come out strongly against Michel Platini’s suggestion that the matches should be spread out amongst the Gulf nations.

Indeed, there have been leaks suggesting that Blatter and Platini had already discussed the option of moving the World Cup to the winter even before the decision to award the tournament to Qatar had even been made, leading some people to suggest that the Qatar bid was based on a false prospectus.

Chuck Blazer, a member of the Executive Committee, explained that “there were comments about moving the event some weeks before the decision. Otherwise I really couldn’t understand how they voted for football in that level of temperatures, because I knew them (executive committee members) well enough, and their support for their own teams, so it seemed illogical.”

He also spoke out against the suggested move to a winter tournament claiming “it could get pretty bad. We can’t just say, ‘The hell with you guys. We’re going to change it all over again just because we’ve taken the decision that we’re gonna play in a climate that’s not hospitable.”

However, bowing to pressure from the major European leagues, Blatter has stepped back and admitted that FIFA do not have the power to shift it themselves – the move must be instigated by the Qataris themselves.

Not only this, but there are even reports that Blatter and Platini are working on a plan to try and permanent move major league football to the summer, with international tournaments and qualifying all being played over the winter period. Virtually all the major European leagues have already come against strongly against this and any attempt by FIFA to force it through could lead to a major split between domestic and international footballing bodies.

And the growing dispute between the side of Blatter and Platini, and Mohammed Bin Hammam will provide a fascinating backdrop to the FIFA Presidential elections next year. Sepp Blatter is running for a fifth term, whilst Bin Hammam is expected to be his most dangerous rival.

His statement clearly showed his views on Blatter and Platini’s suggestions. “I believe Qatar can stand alone and organise the competition by itself and I’m really not very impressed by these opinions to distribute the game over the Gulf or change the time from July to January.”

“We submitted a bid suggesting we are going to be ready in June, July. And we said we are going to face all the challenges and we are going to meet all the requirements. Our focus is June, July. It is never our interest to change one week beyond June, July.

“I know, from the bottom of my heart, there are a lot of stakeholders who should be consulted and their views brought to the table. It’s not up to one, two or three members of FIFA to talk about changing the time without getting the real stakeholders’ opinions.

“We will not change our minds. We are not interested. We are very happy and we are promising the world that we are going to organise an amazing World Cup in June and July. And even here in Qatar that is going to be a perfect welcome.”

It is clear that Bin Hammam is positioning himself for a serious campaign to oust Blatter. Statements on FIFA’s need to reform from within and how the leadership need to take a serious stance can clearly been seen as barely-veiled attacks on Blatter.

There is growing discontent within certain segments of FIFA over the virtual dictatorship of the Swiss septuagenarian, who has ruled FIFA for over twelve years. His announcement that FIFA were considering a winter switch came as a surprise to many within FIFA, including members of the executive committee themselves, raising concerns that he was developing his own personal strategy on the fly.

The corruption exposure in recent months has besmirched the name of FIFA and Blatter shows little interest in confronting the issue. A week ago, a senior member of FIFA’s own ethics committee resigned claiming that "FIFA has no real interest in playing an active role in the resolution, pursuance and prevention of violations of its ethics code.” Indeed, only days ago, Sepp Blatter claimed that there were no plans for an anti-corruption unit within the organisation.

Mohammed Bin Hammam’s opposition to a winter world cup has reportedly won him the support of the major European federations, and he is rumoured to have agreed an alliance with the powerful Michel Platini. With his Asian connections and the Middle Eastern contacts built up in Africa during the Qatar bid, he looks well set to provide a very dangerous challenge to Sepp Blatter in the coming elections.

Ironically, after all of Sepp Blatter’s ideals of pushing the World Cup to open up new areas, culminating in the shock decision to award the tournament to Qatar, it could be the backlash from this campaign and that decision that fatally undermines his position at the head of world football

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Renewed Sense of Optimism at Villa Park

Two weeks ago, a ten-man Aston Villa side fell into the relegation zone of the Premiership for the first time in eight years following a 1-0 home defeat against Sunderland. With morale at rock bottom, reports of bust-ups between players and management and the dwindling support of the fans, things seemed to be on a downward spiral for the side that have finished in the top six of the league for the past three years.

However, there is now a renewed sense of optimism around the club. Gerard Houllier joined the club after the summer transfer window had closed and thus was unable to make any changes to the squad to suit his style of play and management. The day after the Sunderland defeat, Aston Villa announced their first new signing of the window – Kyle Walker on loan from Tottenham. Whilst a decent signing, this merely seemed to confirm the view that funds had dried up at Villa Park. Having to bring in a player on loan from a side we were challenging last season seemed symptomatic of the slump that has befallen the club since Martin O’Neill departed.

However, only nine minutes into his debut, Walker collected the ball just past the halfway line, running past Rob Kozluk and slotting the ball into the corner of the net. The first glimpse of light in what have been dark times at the club in recent months.

At Liverpool, Gerard Houllier was often criticised for his signings, and that is one of the things that slightly worried Aston Villa fans. However, he has made a spectacular start in bringing new players permanently to Villa Park.

His first permanent signing was the Cameroon international midfielder, Jean Il Makoun, from his former club Lyon. Makoun has played regularly at the top level in France with Lille and Lyon, as well as being a proven Champions League quality player with both clubs. Given that Lyon paid almost €15m for him three years ago, he would appear to be a bargain at the reported €5m that Houllier has paid Lyon for him.

The transfer dealings were only just beginning. Reports began to surface that Blackpool captain, Charlie Adam, was a serious target for Houllier. After bids of £2.5m and £3.5m had been rejected by Ian Holloway, the two clubs were set to agreed terms on a deal worth around £4m only two days ago. However, one event was about to change all that.

On Sunday, rumours on an Aston Villa fans forum claimed that Darren Bent was unhappy at Sunderland and that Aston Villa were on the verge of an £18m deal to bring him to the club. It seemed an outlandish suggestion, given the supposed lack of money at the club. However, less than 24 hours later, the breaking sports news was that he was in the Midlands to discuss terms with the club over a deal worth £18m, possibly rising to £24m with add-ons.

This was the moment that the clouds over Villa Park truly parted. It dispelled all the newspaper gossip that there was no money to spend to try and turn around the season. And more than anything, it showed that Villa mean business again.

Darren Bent is one of the most proven Premiership strikers of recent times. In the past five years, only Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney have scored more goals than Bent. Given that he spent a prolonged period of that sitting on the bench at Tottenham, it is a phenomenal record.

Aston Villa have been crying out for a proven goalscorer for over a decade, ever since Dwight Yorke left to join Manchester United. Various players have had the odd decent season – Dion Dublin, Juan Pablo Angel, Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew amongst others – but Darren Bent is the real deal.

And it is unlikely that Aston Villa’s dealings in the transfer market will end here. However, it will now become more difficult to secure good value deals. Until the Darren Bent deal, clubs were under the impression that money was tight at Villa Park. However, it is now clear that there is funding available to strengthen the squad.

It is believed that the money received from the James Milner deal is still available to spend, and was not used to fund the Darren Bent signing. If this is true, it means there is still another £15m or so still available to Gerard Houllier, plus whatever he can recoup from moving squad players out.

Steve Sidwell has already departed to join Fulham and a number of other players are likely to be following him out the door. John Carew is set to move to West Brom on loan with a view to a permanent move, whilst Curtis Davies and Stephen Ireland are being strongly linked with Celtic. The likes of Habib Beye, Stephen Warnock and Luke Young are decent bets to be leaving Villa Park over the next two weeks.

It is likely that there will be another two or three players coming into Villa over the next couple of weeks. The club are still debating a further bid for Charlie Adam, having been on the verge of agreeing a £5m move before the Bent deal revealed the extent of funding at the club. Blackpool reportedly now are demanding £7m for their captain, which may put off any further offers.

A left-back is almost certain to be joining the club, given the recent demotion of Stephen Warnock to the reserve team. Various names have been mooted in the press – Maynor Figueroa and Taye Taiwo are two popular names – but the favourite currently appears to be Montpellier and Bosnia captain, Emir Spahic. Whilst predominantly a central defender, he can play on the left, and is well-known to Houllier from his French connections. One other outside possibility would be Newcastle’s Jose Enrique, who has been one of the most impressive fullbacks in the league so far this season.

Another central midfielder is also high on the list, with Charlie Adam the favourite. However, the recent bad blood between Holloway and Aston Villa has made Blackpool unwilling to sell him to Villa, and he is likely to move to Everton instead. If he does not join, it is unclear whether there are other targets, although newspaper gossip is suggesting that there is an interest in Japanese star, Keisuke Honda. Whilst this would be an incredible signing, it seems highly unlikely and there would be far bigger clubs in for him if he were available.

As to the third reported signing, there are reports that there is interest in bringing a new keeper to Villa Park. Brad Friedal is beginning to show signs of his age, although remains a very good Premiership keeper. However, he is naturally reaching the end of his career, and Brad Guzan has hardly suggested that he is ready to make the step up to the big time.

The other suggestion is that there may be interest in another striker, although it is likely to be a younger striker who will be slowly brought into the first team picture. Quite who that might be is a mystery, but it remains to be seen.

The recent flurry of transfer activity has launched a new era of renewed optimism at Villa Park that has been missing since the summer and the departures of Martin O’Neill and James Milner. Clearly, the club need to start getting the results on the pitch, but Houllier is building a very strong team at Villa Park, whilst he still retains the crux of the side that recorded consecutive European finishes. If he can restore confidence to the players, Aston Villa should be moving back up the table in the coming months.
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