In a surprising move this week, representatives of all 72 Football League clubs failed to pass a change that would have allowed clubs in Leagues 1 and 2 to dispense with the lawnmowers and have 3G artificial pitches. Supporters were tied with their opponents on 34 votes with four clubs abstaining.
Back in September, all indications pointed to Leagues 1 and 2 being allowed to follow the FA Cup and permit 3G pitches – 29 of them had shown their support. So why did a good number of them go wobbly at the knees when the big moment came?
A large factor is surely the PFA’s unwavering refusal to accept it. Two years ago, the PFA surveyed its membership about their feelings on allowing artificial pitches – though the sample size was conspicuously absent, the PFA stated that 90 per cent were against the move. Concerns ranged from increased injuries (particularly for those hitting their 30s) to the effects on the game. But there is no scientific data to back the suggestion these pitches lead to more injuries.
Assistant Chief Executive of the PFA Simon Barker does accept the arguement for their use in areas of the world with ‘extreme weather conditions’, but when there are improvements in natural turf alternatives (like the hybrid pitches – boosted by, you guessed it, artificial material) he doesn’t accept any need in England. “In these areas of the world, I can appreciate they will benefit with artificial turf pitches but where there is reasonable weather conditions such as England, I don’t believe that artificial pitches are required at the top level of the game.”
Barker’s definition of ‘top level’ extends all the way down to Hartlepool and Tranmere propping up League 2. Should they fail to stay up, both clubs could find themselves playing league games on 3G pitches in the near future due to upcoming changes in the Football Conference leagues. Maidstone United, a torch bearer for the 3G movement after becoming the first club to build a stadium with a 3G pitch, were understandably disappointed by the Football League vote. But they highlighted introduction in the Conference is the next key step – which will take place across all three of their divisions from next season. Ironically, Conference members voted 21-11 at the start of the year against allowing 3G pitches – the Football Conference, however, took matters into their own hands and pressed ahead regardless.
Will the Football League vote lead to another rethink in the Conference? Many of us will recall the three-year period in the 90s where the Conference champions were denied promotion on stadium safety grounds. Since 1997, that hasn’t happened. But if a Conference side with a 3G pitch wins promotion, will the Football League return to a policy of denying teams promotion? It’s a situation that needs urgent clarity – Conference clubs may be hesitant to spend £500,000 on a pitch that denies them a lucrative move up the footballing pyramid.
We now have a situation where clubs across Europe have 3G pitches, with matches in the Champions League and the European Championships taking place on these surfaces. The reality is simple – it’s already happening in some of the highest levels of football. Not to mention at the highest level in some UK leagues – of the 12 clubs in Scotland that have artificial pitches, two (Hamilton Academical and Kilmarnock) are in SPL. Even players that opposed their use in the past, like David James, have been won over – in an interview last year, he highlighted his experience playing regularly on the surface in Iceland changed his views.
3G pitches are clearly not perfect, particularly if they are poorly maintained – see Wales’s recent qualifier at Andorra. And they are certainly getting some tough press lately. Lawyers of concerned players at next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada have accused FIFA of sex discrimination, with all six venues using artificial pitches – a move they say would be ‘unthinkable’ for the men’s tournament. And where climate and finance aren’t factors, a natural pitch will naturally be the preferred option for teams. But the lower you go in England’s top four divisions, the tighter finances are. For clubs looking at making savings from reduced postponements and reduced maintenance costs, a 3G pitch is an extremely attractive option.
The PFA seems to have its head in the sand on this one – as though any grass surface is preferable. Having seen many pitches in Leagues 1 and 2, a well-maintained 3G pitch will be undoubtedly a significant improvement for some clubs. Clubs should be free to make the choice. The PFA is right on one thing, that there’s a gap in long-term research in this area – this certainly needs to be filled, alongside continuing research to improve on 3G. But with players increasingly training and playing on these surfaces across all levels, including this year’s FA Cup, clubs need to be free to make the choice to expand 3G use further.
“People expect we’ll make the decision for football reasons, but this is a special type of thing, it’s unusual.”
Jim Phipps – Co-Chairman, Sheffield United
Should a footballer convicted and imprisoned for a serious crime be allowed to return to the game after serving his time in jail? Or should the nature of the crime have further repercussions on resuming that career?
This week, Ched Evans will be released from prison after serving half of a 5 year sentence after being convicted of rape in 2012. For some careers, like law or politics, a return to a past career would be near impossible – for lower profile roles, much more feasible. Last month Sheffield United Co-Chairman Jim Phipps revealed the club is weighing up whether to offer Evans a contract back at Bramall Lane. A decision, by Phipps’s own admission, that carries additional considerations other than simply football given they have for the last 25 years branded themselves as ‘The Family Club.’
A vocal opposition
It’s a highly emotive issue. A petition against Evans’s return to the club already has over 140,000 signatures. Its supporters ask what message it would send if a previously highly paid and popular player, found guilty of rape, could return to a profession where players are seen (rightly or wrongly) as role models.
They argue that it would suggest to young fans that rape is a crime which can be easily forgiven – and without any lasting professional repercussions. Blades fan and Sky Sports presenter Charlie Webster hit back at those dismissing concerns – “This is not a feminist or a men/women issue. It is a society issue of collective responsibility.”
Opening the door to a return
Many United fans feel that justice has been served and that Evans should be free to return to the club – if boss Nigel Clough wants to sign him. PFA head Gordon Taylor agrees. Speaking to the BBC, Taylor believes Evans should be free to make a fresh start: “I didn’t know there was a law that said once you come out of prison you still can’t do anything. As a trade union we believe in the rule of law … besides that, he still wants to contribute to society. If he earns money he’ll pay taxes, those taxes will go to help people who maybe can’t get a job.”
And these aren’t just questions for United. With 13 caps so far for Wales, Evans’s return to football could lead to international recall. Chris Coleman didn’t dismiss the idea when asked over the summer. “Normally the manager picks the squad. This one is different though and I would have to discuss it with officials at the FAW. If Ched were to return to a club and do well, then it’s a conversation for us to have.”
From prison to pitch
Evans wouldn’t be the first player in the Football League to return to the game after a lengthly prison sentence. Ex-West Brom striker Lee Hughes joined Oldham in 2007 after serving 3 years for causing death by dangerous driving. Plymouth keeper Luke McCormick served nearly 4 years for a similar offence, returning to the club after stints with Truro City and Oxford United.
Despite two successful spells at West Brom, Hughes did not head back to The Hawthorns following his release. Warren Stephens, who blogs on West Brom for the Express & Star, explained to 1FITG why the Baggies didn’t ever seriously consider re-signing Hughes. “He’d been a hero on the terraces, but bringing him back was never widely mooted as a realistic possibility. This was purely down to footballing circumstance rather than prejudice based on his conviction. Hughes was widely considered to be in decline at that point, and the club were never under any pressure to re-employ him.”
McCormick returned to his old club Plymouth Argyle, albeit not directly after release. He has since been handed the club captaincy. Pilgrims fan Sam Down told 1FITG that McCormick’s return did see some initial opposition, but this has faded with time. “It goes without saying that some, indeed many, supporters were opposed to it. But there was nothing in the way of a lobbying group or a united opposition putting pressure on the club. Most of the opponents of his re-signing grudgingly accepted it after he signed.”
Pressure for success
Were United less desperate for a goalscorer, there would likely be far less pressure to re-sign Evans. Since Evans’s 35 goals in 2011/12, United have struggled to replace him – and have languished in League 1. Dave Kitson, Nick Blackman, John Cofie, Lyle Taylor, Shaun Miller have all passed through the doors at Bramall Lane without coming close to Evan’s potency. Not forgetting Marlon King, convicted in the past of sexual assault and causing actual bodily harm, whose brief spell a year ago caused similar debate about the impact on the club’s image – “a very poor decision on and off the field” according to Webster.
If it were a pure footballing decision, it would be a simple decision. Evans is still only 25, an international, and has a very impressive record in League 1. Were United to pass on him, another League 1 team could potentially take a chance on him. Perhaps Barnsley, where his old boss Danny Wilson is in charge.
A major PR problem
But as United already acknowledge, football is not the only consideration. There is also the issue of how Evans’s re-employment would be perceived.
Both Hughes and McCormick issued public apologies for their crimes and the damage they caused. Evans, who maintains his innocence, has not – and continues to press for his conviction to be overturned.
Down suggests that this therefore puts the Evans situation in a different category altogether. “To have served ones time and have come out rehabilitated to my mind is a distinct difference between someone who has made no apology and does not even consider their actions to be wrong or unlawful.”
This decision has to be taken against a context where sport is increasingly under pressure to hold high profile players to account for actions off-the-field. The NFL was widely criticised for its slow response in sanctioning Ray Rice after the player punched his then-fiancée in an elevator. Now indefinitely suspended, some believe his career in the NFL could now be over.
Interestingly, the petition on Evans is not targeted at the Football League, but simply just at one of its members, Sheffield United. What message does it send for United to not re-employ him, only for another club to do so? It would seem more consistent for Evans to be either allowed to play for any club, or prevented from playing for anyone.
Wherever Evans ends up, opposition fans will surely prevent him from returning to the game as if nothing has happened – he will be hearing fans’ taunts for the rest of his career. And whoever takes the reputational risk of signing Evans will likely receive the full brunt of the immediate public backlash. Evans has indicated he’d prefer to return to United, which is why in the first instance it’s the dilemma that United alone face. Few clubs will envy their position.
‘Will Scotland keep the pound, or that old lady that appears on it?’
‘Will the Scots have to empty their sporrans at the border when they head South?’
‘Will Irn Bru be moved to the exotic foods part of the supermarket?’
As the independence debate enters the final furlong, an important question has been largely overlooked. If they vote Aye, what the hell would happen to the most important issue of all – football?
Scotland’s place within football internationally
For starters, it would likely end FIFA’s debate on whether the plucky home nations can continue to exist within a single political state. Indeed, FIFA insiders were recently quoted as saying that a No vote would see this topic “come up as a conversation” and that “there is going to be real pressure to have that UK disparity finally dealt with.” Presumably a Yes vote would kill this completely (for Scotland at least).
What won’t be affected? In what’s surely a relief to the future Matt Phillipses of the world, it won’t alter who qualifies as eligible to don the Tartan Army shirt. And unlike with the EU, NATO, and Eurovision, their membership of FIFA and UEFA won’t be affected as they already have a separate seat at those particular tables through the SFA.
Effects on the English leagues
The obvious question of the English football fan: how might it affect the stuff I’m interested in? In a best case scenario Scotland would join the EU in March 2016; in a worst case scenario, it could be 2019 before they could join. That could mean a substantial limbo period where Scotland might be independent but temporarily out of the EU. Would Scottish players need an additional piece of paperwork, a work permit perhaps?
This season, there are 118 Scots plying their trade in first team squads in the main English leagues: 28 in the Premier League, 51 in the Championship, 24 in League 1, and 15 in League 2. Plus a handful playing elsewhere in the EU. In a climate where we see points deductions for player ineligibility, with so many players to sort through you’d imagine some clubs might not be completely on-the-ball. Will Sebastian, the summer intern at Fulham, remember to properly obtain the right paperwork for inexplicable £11 million player Ross McCormack?
And if considered as non-EU players, what of the work permit criteria – the ‘highest calibre’ standard for example, where a player has to have played in 75% of competitive international games in the previous 2 years. Fine if you’re someone like Steven Fletcher – less so if you’re someone like Jamie Murphy. The standard also prevents players playing in non-league. Then there’s Greg Dyke’s commission’s recommendation that clubs should be limited to two non-EU players in the future.
All this could seriously impact on player movement during this limbo period. Also, outside of the EU, the Bosman ruling does not apply. Scottish players approaching the end of their contracts would no longer be bought on-the-cheap.
Effects on individual clubs
Rangers would obviously have to cope with the sudden demise of the Union Flag, (somewhat trivial compared to the problems at Rangers in general). The larger effect on both Glasgow sides would be to cement them more firmly in the Scottish leagues. Much like the FIFA debate on home nations representation, the equally tedious debate on whether Celtic & Rangers would join the Premier League would potentially disappear. It’s never been particularly likely anyway, even less so with Rangers’ recent odyssey round the lower SFL divisions.
A more immediate concern though would be for the only English-based team in the Scottish professional leagues – Berwick Rangers. Would they be allowed to stay? John Bell, their vice chairman, is adamant they would. He recently told the Independent: “Berwick Rangers are full members of the SFL and as such we would expect to remain members of it, regardless of any independence issue.” Perhaps, John… But just to be safe, this could be the first target of the newly-formed Scottish Defence Force. You can just picture a charge over the border, led by Michael Stewart, Brian Cox, and The Proclaimers, to the battle-cry of “For Scottish League Division Two!”
Plenty of questions then, and about as much clarity as a Kenny Dalglish interview. Common sense would suggest any move to independence would probably be handled fairly smoothly for sport. But too often we see not only a lack of common sense but a lack of foresight applied by football’s governing bodies. Let’s hope in the event of a Yes vote they aren’t caught napping.
Written by Roberto Kusabbi, @RKTweets
Vines are here to say. No matter what News International want.
The Premier League issued a diktat on sharing Vines from Premier League footage this weekend. This particular iron has been in the fire for awhile. Even sharing links of Vines would be in breach. Apparently. Yet the first weekend of the Premier League showed no sign of this trend stopping. Much like many organisations instead of embracing a new platform and making the footage higher quality and sharable News International and others (who have paid a lot of money for ‘exclusive digital rights’ put their footage behind a pay wall. Try as they might and considering where some of the Vines actually come from (not in the UK) is it a battle the PL are willing to push hard for? And will Twitter make examples of people and betray their use base? We’ll see.
Van Gaal is human.
The United job was never going to be easy, even after David Moyes. Van Gaal will come good, I am of the strong belief of that. But it may be another season of frustration for United. Yesterday they were laboured and disjointed. Their squad needs some experience at the back and that is going to cost some cash. The loss to Swansea was just that, one loss. What it may mean is they spend a bit more than they expected in the next few weeks…
Swansea have a decent squad actually.
If they get through the rest of the window and keep Bony then Swansea may actually surprise a few people, by surprise I mean stay up comfortably. Before the United game I wasn’t sure how they would fare this season. Monk, who comes across a lovely chap, just seemed a bit lost if not ernest last season. But with Sigurdsson, Gomis who came on and was a nuisance and Fabianski they may just survive. For another year.
Koeman has a job on his hands.
Southampton have been the story of the summer in many ways. Vaunted for their trust in youth, development and playing entertaining football with the ball they lost a lot of key men. Ronald Koeman comes with a decent record, though not a consistent one. They were impressive, especially in the second half and there were good signs that perhaps they will be okay post fire sale. But his big problem, much like Spurs last season is to get the players to gel. Southampton have a new philosophy – how deep did they defend vs Liverpool – and also new partnerships all over the pitch. From Goalkeeper to his back four, to midfield and forwards. It may be a difficult year for the Saints but they showed enough early signs to maybe they will do just about enough.
Expect a tighter Premier League?
Of the 7 fixtures 6 winners only won by one goal. Are we about to see a tighter more competitive Premier League? Usually we’d have seen a few drubbings and that could still happen with Chelsea tomorrow. But maybe the self promoted best league in the world is going to get a bit tighter…
What did we miss?
With all the attention this summer focused on the World Cup, which league Luis Suarez would sink his teeth into next, and Southampton selling anything that breathes, you may have overlooked another non-entity of a pre-season at Villa Park.
You’d be forgiven for missing the news that owner Randy Lerner, long-rumoured throughout last season to be seeking an exit from Aston Villa, at last put the club up for sale at the end of May. It’s been 8 years since Lerner swept into Villa Park following a £62.6m takeover – which triggered a wave of optimism that things might actually move from the morosely mediocre to something bordering on excitement.
After some initial promise in the Martin O’Neill era, which included appearances in the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals and 6th place three seasons running, Villa appear to have slipped back into yet another rut. When you look at the current Premier League, they stand out as the club where as a fan you never really exceed a resting pulse between August and May. There is no real threat of relegation – there are always three worse teams. There is no hope of finishing in the top 6 – the rest of the league has pushed on at a sharper pace. They seem perennially barnacled to the middle. Come May, there is simply nothing to be remotely excited about. Doubly so for any neutral casting their eyes at the club.
For a passionate and loyal fanbase, this has to be a huge frustration. Their last real success of note, the 1996 League Cup win, is almost a distant memory. It’s so long ago that Paul McGrath was even playing alongside the likes of Mark Draper, Bossie the Aussie, and Savo Miss-a-lot-ovic. It was a wonderful age where Andy Townsend existed as the Villa captain, rather than the nightmare ITV pundit we’ve come to endure. Yes, this was a hell of a long time ago.
Yet their current status as a black hole for excitement continues to be a mystery. This will be Villa’s 27th consecutive season at this level. While other clubs have experienced great turmoil in that period, Villa have generally been fairly stable – despite former chairman Deadly Doug Ellis’s occasional trigger-happy temper. They really should be doing better than they are. While recent seasons have seen Paul Lambert scouring the Championship and League 1 for talent, it wasn’t too long ago that Villa were spending big. Around £48 million in 2008 (James Milner, Curtis Davies, and Carlos Cuellar the notable signings), £32 million in 2009 (including substantial cash for Stuart Downing and Fabian Delph), and £32 million more in 2010 (over half of which went on Darren Bent).
This is not a club that’s been idly sitting on its hands in the market in the past, but the investment in the years has dipped – and this summer seemed to grind to a halt completely. Free transfers are virtually all that Villa have brought in – the likes of Phillipe Senderos, Kieran Richardson and Joe Cole feel more like rustling through the Premier League bargain basement bucket rather than adding any real lift in talent to make a significant impact. Lerner appears to have realised spending some cash may be necessary before he sells the club, reportedly releasing £10 million to be spent by the end of August. In today’s money, that nearly buys you one Ross McCormack. Not exactly game-changing.
Lerner’s eventual departure provides both uncertainty and opportunity. Opportunity if the right owner is found, but several months on from Lerner’s announcement and there appears to have been very little interest – which is in truth a bit puzzling. On paper, this should be a very attractive club for anyone wanting to find the next club to mount a challenge at the European places. They have a consistent average attendance each year that’s on a par with Spurs and Everton, who have both regularly challenged at the top in recent years. And they also have a very decent Academy, which has produced in the past the likes of Gabby Agbonlahor, Gary Cahill, Marc Albrighton and more recently Gary Gardner, Chris Herd and Andreas Weimann. There are not many clubs with the For Sale sign up that can offer the same sort of potential for a foreign investor. But if Villa are to wake from this slumber, it requires a substantial cash influx, and a manager to use it wisely.
With 12 months left on his contract, and a record that appears every bit as mediocre as Villa’s recent seasons, you wonder whether this season might be the last for Paul Lambert. You would almost expect him to be one of the first casualties of any new regime to walk into Villa Park – a fate Lambert himself is only too aware of. Were Deadly Doug in charge you suspect he would have been moved on by now. It could have been so different had their first choice Roberto Martinez not turned the club down 3 years ago – though the fact he didn’t see it as a more attractive prospect than Wigan should have sent alarm bells ringing. The team seems ripe for someone like David Moyes to rebuild his reputation at, or a talented boss from abroad to come and bring in some desperately-needed new ideas.
Villa are a big club, with a rich history, a good all-round set-up, and a loyal (and admirably patient) fanbase. It needs to catch the imagination again, and requires wholescale changes across the top. Unless that happens, prepare to see much of the same boredom through to the next decade.
1. After an unpredictable group stage, are we back to predictability?
You’ll have seen everywhere since the Round of 16 concluded the stat that this is the first time since the World Cup became a 32-team competition that all the group winners have progressed to the quarter finals. It’s actually more impressive still – you can include the 24-team tournaments from 1986 to 1994, and it’s still the case. That was back when four of the best third-placed teams joined the top two of the groups in the around of 16 – overall the group winners took more of a battering in these tournaments too, despite playing some of those 3rd placed teams. Belgium in ’86, Argentina in ’90, Italy in ’94 for example.
Should be therefore expect the expected in the semi-finals?
2. Is one great in-form player enough to take a team all the way this year?
Neymar for Brazil, Messi for Argentina – both have delivered when their teams have been up against it this tournament. Both teams were widely tipped to featured in an all-South-American final, but with both surviving gruelling matches that went to extra time, you have to wonder how sustainable this is.
Put simply, neither team would probably be at this stage had either player been injured or out-of-form. How far can they be carried? You have to expect that something will need to change for either of them to go on and win it, as there have been too many bumps along the way so far to suggest they can keep getting away with it.
3. Are any of the European nations strong enough to make history?
France and Germany surged out of the groups following some encouraging performances, the Dutch dipped after their opening game heroics, while Belgium meandered their way through their group. In the Round of 16, we finally saw the Belgians in a more attractive and exciting style, though all four nations progressed after gruelling encounters against what should have been very beatable opposition.
No European nation has won a World Cup on South American soil – numerically, Europe is at an advantage, up 4-3. Having avoided the rigours of extra-time, you would assume that France and The Netherlands are perhaps best-placed to progress. France in particular looked a transformed side once Benzema was switched centrally, while RVP surely won’t be as anonymous in the quarters.
4. Can Costa Rica keep the underdogs dream alive?
You felt that as Greece squeezed home that injury-time equaliser that this was it for 10-men Costa Rica, that had their chance and blew it. But once again they were able to somehow find a result from somewhere – holding on doggedly, and following up with a penalty shootout display that would put most teams to shame.
They are the last true underdogs left. With the perceived injustice they dished out to Mexico through Arjen ‘wobbly-legs’ Robben, you can expect them to have most of the world behind them.
5. Can Colombia win it?
They have the tournament’s most impressive performer in James Rodriguez, the world’s most engaged football fans, and followed up their group domination by being the only team to ease through the Round of 16.
They’re at the quarter finals stage, and you don’t feel they are either phased, tired, or afraid. While the other favourites are falling over themselves to add doubt to their own chances with a mix of shaky performances, Colombia are the only team that have looked consistently impressive throughout. All this while missing their star player.
The quarter final with Brazil will answer this soon enough, and their record is not favourable. Plenty of draws recently, but only two wins in 25 – one in a friendly, one in the 1991 Copa America. History is not with them. But they are so far the tournament’s star performers…
1. Predictions of Belgium’s brilliance have been way off the mark
We fell into the trap of thinking that with the players available to them this was going to be an exciting team. But though on paper they’ve got great individuals, the end product hasn’t been pleasant to watch – they are the Movie 43 of this tournament.
Yes, they won all three games in their group, but they’ve struggled in large parts of their games against quite mediocre opposition. Lukaku hasn’t impressed, they’ve really missed a presence up front like Benteke, which will only become more apparent as they face tougher opposition. Don’t expect this team to stay around much longer.
2. CONCACAF on fire
Nobody could have predicted that the performances of Mexico, Costa Rica and the USA would have been quite this good (we certainly didn’t). Costa Rica ended up topping a group they were everyone’s favourites to prop up, while Klinsmann has guided the US through one of the toughest groups. You could see both teams progressing to the quarter finals if they play as well as they have done so far.
As for Mexico, they came here after a year of instability and some poor recent form, yet have been surprisingly entertaining to watch. We want to see them take the lead against The Netherlands just to see another crazy Miguel Herrera celebration, one of the tournament’s highlights so far.
3. The refereeing has been erratic – and still needs help
We’ve had the comical-but-effective vanishing spray introduction, the generally-positive goal-line technology, but we’ve also seen some fairly terrible refereeing on some of the key moments in the group matches. This started badly in the Brazil-Croatia opener with an extremely generous penalty awarded to the hosts, continued with Giovani dos Santos being denied two perfectly good goals against Cameroon and has continued in unconvincing fashion all the way to the Italy-Uruguay game. While many have speculated what the effects of the heat have been on individual players, perhaps it’s also had an impact on the officials.
The speed at which the new innovations have settled in this tournament highlights that football shouldn’t be as conservative as it is. ‘Suarezgate III: A Shoulder To Bite On’ highlighted that officials can’t be expected to see everything – perhaps it’s time for video replays to be introduced more widely.
4. It’s not just England that has problems
There’s no hiding the dismal failure that was England’s World Cup campaign. And that’s a failure in spite of diminished expectations. A minority were predicting England would top the group, but most were at the very least expecting to finish ahead of Costa Rica and Uruguay.
England’s a nation in crisis apparently. Bring in B teams to the Football League, screams Greg Dyke and his review panel. It’s remarkable to think that Spain have exited at the same stage, despite a team full of World Cup winners – and despite the all-crucial B teams in their leagues. You suspect that Spain will not be looking over at the Chile footballing pyramid for inspiration any time soon. Italy, Russia Portugal, and Croatia also all came with high hopes for this tournament – they are all heading home early. Misery loves company.
5. Columbia or Chile could feasibly win it
Both Columbia and Chile have perhaps been the most entertaining teams to watch so far. With Brazil and Argentina not quite dominating as predicted, showing slight signs of weakness in their groups, could one of the other South American sides actually go all the way? It seemed before the tournament that Brazil-Argentina was the most likely final – the group stages have muddied the waters somewhat.
No European team has ever won a World Cup hosted on South American soil. France, Germany and The Netherlands have all shown signs in the groups that they could offer a challenge to that rule. But the smart money’s on a South American team – and based on what we’ve seen of them all so far, why not Columbia or Chile?
In our final preview of this year’s World Cup, we look at a group featuring the neutral’s choice for the tournament. Are they as good as people think they are, and can the rest cause an upset?
A set of recognisable stars at the top of their games, a nation absent from the past two competitions, and a weight of expectation from the footballing world to bear. With the most talented group of players since their 1986 4th place finish, Belgium has an excellent opportunity in Brazil to write a new chapter in their footballing history. Indeed many are suggesting this set of players has the potential to equal if not better the accomplishments 28 years ago. Only 6 of the squad were alive for that – and only the 36-year-old Van Buyten old enough to have any memory. This is a youthful side, packed full of current Premiership stars, and on paper they could go far .
Though Christian Benteke misses out through injury, coach Marc Wilmots can call on two players that had excellent seasons for Everton in Lukaku and Mirallas. Eden Hazard has the chance to stick it to Jose Mourinho with an impressive tournament, while at the back Vertonghen, Vermaelen and captain Kompany are on their day 3 of the best defenders currently in the Premier League. They conceded just 4 goals in an unbeaten qualifying campaign – expectations are justifiably high for their prospects in Brazil.
Prediction: 1st, showing the hype is justified and not simply the Belgian waffle of pundits. This is one set of Red Devils that won’t disappoint this year.
It’s been a rocky couple of years for Algeria. A poor display at the Cup of Nations saw them fall at the first hurdle, despite being among one of the favourites to win it. After topping their group in qualifying for Brazil, it took two feisty playoff games with Burkina Faso to confirm their spot in the finals. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic was supposed to have been in South Africa 4 years ago after steering the Ivory Coast through qualifying, but was sacked 4 months before the tournament started after disappointment in the Cup of Nations – where they were eliminated by Algeria. In contrast to most of the other teams in Brazil, Algeria opted not to test themselves against other teams competing in the finals, instead picking up 3 wins in friendlies against Slovenia, Armenia and Romania.
England fans will remember Algeria’s 0-0 draw in South Africa as one of the all-time lows in Capello’s time as coach, and there are a few that remain involved from that squad – notably Rafik Halliche and former Crewe and Rangers centre-half Madjid Bougherra, while Getafe’s Lacen and Udinese’s Yebda remain in the midfield. In Sporting Lisbon Slimani and Dinamo Zagreb striker Soudani they pack a stronger punch than the timid side 4 years ago, and in Valencia winger Feghouli a player that can create from the right. Look out also for Nabil Bentaleb, who following his rise at Spurs in the 2nd half of the season was fast-tracked into the Algerian side, only making his debut in the Slovenia friendly and scoring the opener against Romania.
Prediction: an improvement on their experience in South Africa and a 3rd place finish.
4 years ago Fabio Capello led an England team through a very successful qualifying campaign before guiding them to a lacklustre set of games in the finals. Part 1 of that story has been replicated with Russia, as they powered through to top their group, forcing Portugal into a playoff. There was a bump along the way (the inexplicable 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland) but by all accounts this is a Russian side that arrives in Brazil with expectations of reaching the knockout stages. This despite a fairly dismal World Cup record of late – this is only their 3rd appearance at the finals since the break up of the Soviet Union, and their 1st since 2002. Their last appearance past the group stages was back when Belgium finished 4th.
In contrast to Russian teams of previous coaches, Capello has decided to go with 23 players that are all domestically based – not one is currently playing abroad. Former regulars like Andrei Arshavin have been moved on. At the back, experienced CSKA Moscow duo Ignashevich and Berezutski have 176 caps between them and helped guide the side to concede just 5 goals in qualifying, aided in no small part by keeper Igor Akinfeev. Former Chelsea flop and midfield workaholic Yuri Zhirkov is still involved, scoring a spectacular volley against Morocco in their final warm-up game, while experienced Zenit St Petersburg striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov features up front.
Prediction: A 2nd place finish was disappointing for Capello 4 years ago, but he’ll be delighted with this in Brazil.
In contrast to the Russians, South Korea has a pretty decent record at recent World Cups, notably their 4th place finish when hosting in 2002. But a number of questions surround a squad that struggled at times in qualifying, narrowly scraping past Uzbekistan to claim a place behind Iran for the finals. As a result of this unconvincing display, they will have a new coach guiding the team in the finals – Hong Myung-Bo, who captained the 2002 team. Though he’s said to have instilled more confidence, recent results would suggest otherwise as 4-0 thumpings from a poor Mexico side and most recently Ghana bookend their 6 matches so far in 2014.
If they are to survive past the group stages, they will be reliant on Kim Young-Gwon to marshall the defence, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung Min to create from midfield. Roughly half of the team were part of the successful bronze medal team at the London Olympics. This includes striker Park Chu-Young, who despite being South Korea’s leading goalscorer in the squad had a torrid time at the Emirates as he failed to break through into Arsene Wenger’s side.
Korearing out of Brazil in 4th place.
Six down, two to go. In our penultimate preview, we turn our attention to a tricky-looking Group G. A former legend of one nation coaching the team of another, the surprise package four years ago, and one team that nearly suffered a shock exit in qualifying.
This has been an unusual build-up to the World Cup for Germany. Much of the focus has been on the growing injury crisis surrounding the team. Phillipp Lahm, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil all have doubts over their fitness, Marco Reus has had to be sent home, and keeper Manuel Neuer is still recovering from a shoulder injury – the absence of fully-fit ter Steigen seems careless, while coach Joachim Low opted not to wait on Mario Gomez’s fitness as he has with others in the squad.
Low himself is downplaying his squad’s chances, but Germany remain one of the bookies’ favourites. Miroslav Klose has an opportunity to equal or better Ronaldo’s record number of goals at the World Cup finals, having recently become the all-time German top goalscorer at Germany thumped Armenia 6-1. There may be plenty of questions, but having come so close in the last three tournaments perhaps this is the time they can go one stage further.
Prediction: Just enough to see them through in 1st
Portugal, 4th in the 2006 finals, were so very nearly watching this World Cup at home. By their own standards they were poor in the qualifiers, drawing at home to Israel and Northern Ireland while scraping a victory at Luxembourg. That led to finishing behind Russia in the group, and for moments of their resultant playoff against Sweden they looked in serious danger of heading out.
Cristiano Ronaldo has had another ridiculous year, scoring 51 games in 47games – that’s now an incredible 252 in 246 in his Real career. But there are limits to how much he can affect Portugal’s fate this tournament, and at times Paulo Bento’s team have been overly reliant on him for success. When Ronaldo was poor in the qualifiers, the players around him struggled to compensate. When he was on form, he single-handedly changed the game – as he did in the 2nd leg of the playoff. Fans will be concerned at reports he’s suffering from tendonitis in his left knee. Terrible timing, though he came through this week’s friendly with Ireland unscathed.
Prediction: More disappointment as they finish 3rd.
Four years ago Ghana reached the quarter-finals with an impressive display, and would have faced the Netherlands in the semi-finals were it not for the agile goalkeeping of Luis Suarez in injury time to keep the scores level. Many of the stars from that team are still key parts of the current one – Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Kwadwo Asamoah and in particular Asamoah Gyan. Michael Essien, who missed the 2010 finals through injury, is back in midfield.
The Black Stars were enjoyable to watch in South Africa, and with the nucleus of that side intact, they will be looking to repeat their success by negotiating this tricky group. Their recent 4-0 win over South Korea this month shows that they may pick up where they left off.
Prediction: An impressive 2nd.
The US exceeded expectations at the last finals, winning their group ahead of England before falling to Ghana in the Round of 16. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has freshened up the squad, with the likes of Bocanegra, DeMerit, and Spector from the last campaign not involved. He’s also taken the arguably-controversial move of leaving Landon Donovan at home, though in truth even the occasional MLS watcher will have noticed a decline in his performances this year compared to the Donovan of old.
What Klinsmann has assembled is a hard-working and united group with fewer big names – Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley the main stars. Despite losses at Costa Rica and Honduras in the qualifiers, Klinsmann’s new-look US side eased through to the finals. In Donovan’s absence, much rests on whether their new-look back 4 can gel, and whether Dempsey and Sunderland nuisance Jozy Altidore can get the goals to get them through the group.
Prediction: It’s really a toss-up between the US, Portugal and Ghana for that 2nd spot, but the US will prop up the group, perhaps harshly.
Written by @josephclift