209 to 1: The 2018 World Cup. The CONCACAF Commencement

March 23rd, 2015

I am making this initial posting now, with three matches still to preview, as games have started. I will add the others as soon as I can

CONCACAF, the Caribbean, Central and North American Confederation made their draw well ahead of the Asians, even though they were starting some two weeks later. Even when making the draw in January, they used the August 2014 FIFA rankings for seeding, allowing for many changes before the matches take place. The numbers shown in brackets are the seeds at February 2015, while I have underlined the seven seeds in the draw.

Bahamas (195) v Bermuda (180 equal)

British Virgin Islands (202) v Dominica (180 equal)

Barbados (142) v US Virgin Islands (197)

St. Kitts and Nevis (119) v Turks and Caicos Islands (176)

Nicaragua (177) v Anguilla (208)

Belize (167) v Cayman Islands (205)

Curacao (160) v Montserrat (170)

 

This shows how small changes can affect things, as if the draw was made on current seedings, three of the fourteen would have received a bye.

The matches are being played over a nine day period, starting at 23.00 (UK time) on 22 March in Barbados, and finishing on 1st April, after a 23.30 kick off (again UK time) on 31st March in Montserrat.

I will take the matches in order of commencement. UK times shown)

Barbados v US Virgin Islands (23.00 22 March, 19.30 26 March)

SO we begin in the former British colony of Barbados, independent since 1966 and home to a little over a quarter of a million. They have a long footballing history, starting way back in 1929 with a series of three games (all at home) to Trinidad & Tobago over a five day period. All three were won. Still it was friendly matches only for nearly 50 years. Before their first appearance in the World Cup, they had appeared in Olympic Qualifiers, and once in the Central American and Caribbean games. Playing two years ahead of the 1978 finals, Barbados started with a two legged game against Trinidad & Tobago, winning the home leg 2-1. After falling 1-0 in the away leg (and without an away goals rule at the time), they got home advantage for the play-off, but still went down 3-1. They then did not play in the next three tournaments, although they were in the 1986 draw, withdrawing without playing Costa Rica. When they did play again, it was Trinidad & Tobago again. This time they lost both legs.

It must therefore have been a relief to play Dominica in the first round four years later. Goals from Roger Proverbs (away) and Gregory Goodridge (home) meant they won each leg by 1-0, and got to play Jamaica a month late. This time both games were lost. In the 2002 World Cup, they had to face three knock out rounds, but successfully passed through ahead of Grenada, Aruba and Cuba. This gave them group matches against USA, Costa Rica and Guatemala – with a home win over Costa Rica, but five defeats in other games.

After 12 games in one qualifying series, Barbados only played 12 over the next three – just two ahead of 2006, St. Kitts and Nevis beating them twice, Dominica again proved easier before the 2010 World Cup with Barbados winning 2-1 on aggregate before losing 9-0 over two legs to the USA. Last time out they escaped having to play a knock out round, but lost all six matches in a group also involving Bermuda, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana.

AT the same stage, the US Virgin Islands also lost six games, their opponents were Curacao, Haiti and Antigua and Barbuda. The USVI had not been exempt from the first round, and had beaten the British Virgin Islands in both legs of the first round games. The US Virgin Islands lie just to the west of their British Counterparts, and are not an independent territory, but a territory of the USA. This means the just over 100,000 inhabitants have US citizenship. Curiously, and in common with some other non-state US territories, citizens can vote in the presidential primaries, but not in presidential election itself. The Islands were known as the Danish Virgin Islands until 1917, when the US bought them for $25 million (paid in gold). The US Virgin Islands launched as a national football team in March 1998 with a 1-0win over their British neighbours. However, it should be noted that the three games against the British Virgin Islands in 1998, and 2011 remain the only wins in the team’s history.

The US Virgin Islands have played in four World Cups before this one, a total of 13 matches. They opened in March 2000 (ahead of 2002) with a 9-0 defeat to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, losing 5-1 in the home return. Four years later they went down by 11 goals (aggregate) to St. Kitts and Nevis, while in 2008 they played only one game, a 10-0 defeat in Grenada. I guess they conceded the tie without playing again. Hence by beating the British Virgin Islands last time out, it became their most successful campaign, even if the six group games ended with fourty goals conceded. After all they scored twice. Since then, the USVI have played two Caribbean Cup qualifying games, (both on Montserrat, losing to the hosts and Bonaire), and then warmed up for this world cup with a 2-0 defeat in Antigua

I am expecting Barbados to win both games, and USVI could drop to zero points on the FIFA rankings when the wins from four years ago drop off the list in July.

As I did not publish this before the first game, I should adjust to report to say I was completely wrong over the first leg. The US Virgin Islands won the away leg in Barbados thanks to a Jamie Browne goal. Browne was also the scorer in USVI’s 8-1 defeat to Anguilla in the last tournament. The winner plays Aruba in June

St. Kitts and Nevis v Turks and Caicos Islands (00.00 24 March, 00.00 27 March)

Of the independent states in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis is the smallest in both population and land mass. In footballing terms, of course, there are some smaller dependent territories such as the Turks and Caicos Islands. St. Kitts and Nevis became independent from the UK in 1983, and could have separated further in 1998 when the population of Nevis voted in favour of breaking the union, but did not achieve the required two-thirds majority.

St Kitts and Nevis played their first international games in Caribbean qualifying games in 1979, when they played Jamaica twice – both away – and lost both by 2-1. It would be ten years before they tried again, this time losing a single match to Trinidad and Tobago by 2-0. In 1991, they played two games in the Cayman Islands, drawing with both their hosts (1-1) and the British Virgin Islands (0-0). The Cayman Islands beat Montserrat to qualify. St Kitts and Nevis played on home soil for the first time in 1992, and recorded their first win, a 4-0 victory over British Virgin Islands. They followed this up with a 10-0 victory over Montserrat. However, the only goal they conceded in this qualifying ground turned out to be crucial, as it was a single goal defeat to Antigua and Barbuda that put them out.

The following year, St Kitts and Nevis also staged a home qualifying group, drawing 2-2 with Dominican Republic in the first game. The Dominicans beat British Virgin Islands 3-1 in game two, leaving St Kitts and Nevis with a target to reach the finals for the first time. A 5-1 win over BVI meant this was achieved with a little to spare. The finals were in Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis were grouped with the hosts (lost 4-1), Puerto Rico (won 1-0) and Sint Maarten (drew 2-2). This meant they reached the semi-finals where they were beaten (on penalties) by Martinique. They also lost the third place play off to Trinidad & Tobago.

The first attempt at the World Cup was in 1996, ahead of the 1998 finals. They played St. Lucia over two legs, winning the home leg by 5-1 and adding a 1-0 away win two weeks later. They ended that cup unbowed and unbeaten, as in the next round they were playing St. Vincent and the Grenadines. James Alexander Gordon should have been made to read out the second leg result. St Kitts and Nevis nil, St Vincent and the Grenadines 0. Aggregate 2-2 – St Kitts and Nevis go out on away goals.

No qualifying for the 1997 Caribbean Cup and St Kitts and Nevis were to stage half the finals tournament. Antigua and Barbuda shared duties. In group games, St Kitts and Nevis beat Martinique 2-0, and then lost 3-0 to Trinidad & Tobago. T&T had lost to Martinique in the opening game, but Martinique went out, and St Kitts ended up in second place. As a result, they stayed at home for a semi-final against Grenada, while T&T crossed islands to play Jamaica. St Kitts beat Grenada 2-1, but did not get home advantage for the final itself, where Trinidad beat them again, this time by 4-0.

Since then St Kitts and Nevis have twice more played in the group stages of the Caribbean Cup, but not in any of the last six tournaments.

Back to the World Cup, where St Vincent and the Grenadines beat them again in 2000, this time winning both matches – St Kitts and Nevis had earlier beaten their opponent for this year, Turks and Caicos Islands by 8-0 and 6-0 (staging both games at home). In 2004 (qualifying for 2006), St Kitts and Nevis won in two knock out ties – firstly home and away over US Virgin Islands (agg 11-0) and then winning twice against Barbados (agg 5-2). This placed them in a group of four with St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico. [Mexico do not need an &]. St Kitts lost all six games, and switched the home game against Mexico (they were already out at this stage) to play in Miami, where they were rewarded with a crowd over 18,000. This is more than double the aggregate attendance from the four home games played before that.

Despite the away leg being switched to Guatemala, Belize proved to strong in 2008, winning 3-1 in that game and drawing the leg in St Kitts to go through. Last time out, St Kitts and Nevis had a bye until group games as there was only one knock out round and only ten teams were involved. St Kitts drew all three home games in a group with St Lucia, Puerto Rico and Canada. They also drew in Puerto Rico and won in St Lucia. This was not enough though – they lost 4-0 in Toronto and finished third in the group.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are still a British Territory, and have a population of just 31,000. IN footballing terms, they are an infant nation. I refer to the website at www.eloratings.net when compiling these stats. This is because the site has a reputation for accuracy and presents the scores in an easy to read fashion. They do include some matches that FIFA ignore as they are against non-FIFA nations. Still, the ELO Ratings show only 17 games for the Turks and Caicos Islands, with only two games at home. As it happens, these are the home legs in qualification attempts at the last two World Cups. They lost 4-0 at home to the Bahamas in July 2011, (and 6-0 away a week later). However, there other home game was a win over St Lucia in February 2008. With a 2-1 home win, they went down 2-0 away to drop out.

Turks and Caicos also played in qualification for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but as I have already mentioned, they conceded home advantage and played both games away to St Kitts and Nevis in 2000, losing 14-0 on aggregate, while four years later both games against Haiti were played in the USA. Haiti winning 7-0 on aggregate.

The first ever games for the Turks and Caicos Islands were in February 1999, in qualification for the Caribbean Cup. Two matches both played in the Bahamas, with the hosts beating them 3-0 in T&C’s first ever game, followed by their only ever draw, 2-2 with the US Virgin Islands. The Turks and Caicos Islands have a habit of either not entering, or withdrawing without playing in the Caribbean Cup, so they have only entered qualification games in 1999, 2007 and 2014. They have never lost every game in these qualifying tournaments, and in September 2006 (for 2007 tourney), they lost to Cuba and the Bahamas (in Cuba), but beat Cayman Islands 2-0; while last summer in Aruba, they lost to Aruba and French Guyana, but beat the British Virgin Islands. This win is their most recent international, but has shot them up the FIFA rankings as they now have 66 points. Prior to the match, they were tied in last place on the list.

St. Kitts and Nevis are expected to get through without a problem, to play El Salvador in the next round.

Nicaragua v Anguilla (00.00 24 March, 22.00 29 March)

Nicaragua are one of two central American teams starting in this round, and by far the biggest of the states at this stage. The country is part of the Central American Isthmus and borders only Honduras to the North, and Costa Rica to the south. Nicaragua has a population around 6 million, and apparently started their national footballing career with a 9-0 defeat by El Salvador in 1929. This match does not appear on the ELO records, but their second game, 12 years later does. This was a 7-2 defeat in Costa Rica in the CCCF Championship of 1941. They lost a further 10 matches over the year in the same competition before beating Panama by 2-0 in 1946 to record their first win. Nicaragua did not play a home game until 1975, when they beat El Salvador in an Olympic Qualifying game, although the 2-1 score was not enough to overturn the 4-0 defeat in the first leg.

In the World Cup, Nicaragua first entered the 1994 competition, playing El Salvador home and away two years before the finals. They conceded five goals in each game, scoring once in the away leg. By the time of the 2010 World Cup, Nicaragua had played 12 World Cup matches, and managed one draw against St Vincent and the Grenadines, even then losing 4-1 away. Hence there 2-0 win in Dominica in 2011 ahead of the last World Cup may have been something of a surprise. Nicaragua won the return game 1-0 as well, but sandwiched these with two defeats to Panama. Nicaragua only played two opponents as the Bahamas withdrew without playing. The last competitive fixtures for Nicaragua was last September in the UNCAF competition, which double as qualification for the CONCACAF gold cup. The games were not played in the region, but in the USA and Nicaragua lost to Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras.

Anguilla are a British Overseas Territory, and are home to just 13,500. In 1991, they played Montserrat in their first football game. The match was a Caribbean Cup qualifier in St Lucia and was drawn 1-1. They lost to St Lucia 6-0 two days later. Anguilla did not win a game until February 2000 when they won a friendly in the British Virgin Islands by 4-3. Still they played a second friendly two days later at the same venue and lost 5-0. Between then and last month, the only other official match won was over Montserrat a year later in a Caribbean Cup Qualification game in Saint Martin. Saint Martin play in CONCACAF competitions, but are not FIFA members, so neither the match which they lost to St. Martin just after their win over Montserrat, or their win over the same opposition in Puerto Rico in 2010 count for the FIFA rankings. Still, Anguilla will boost themselves a little by arranging two friendly games at home to British Virgin Islands less than a month before the World Cup games. Anguilla won both these, by 1-0 and 3-1. Surely a boost to confidence after three heavy defeats in the last series of Caribbean qualifiers, (last September).

In the World Cup, Anguilla have entered in the last four competitions. While in each series, they were knocked out in the first round of two legged games, only their first World Cup game, a 3-1 defeat by Bahamas was actually played at home. Playing the Dominican Republic in both 2000 and 2011, they chose to play both games away, while the 2008 “home leg” against El Salvador was played in the USA. It was only in the two games in the first attempt, when they played Bahamas, that Anguilla scored World Cup goals, but they lost both games. Still in the first of the two matches in the Dominican Republic in 2000, they managed a scoreless draw.

Anguilla will do well to even score a goal in these ties, so Nicaragua should earn the tie against Suriname

Bahamas v Bermuda (23.30 25 March, 20.00 29 March)

The Bahamas became independent from the UK in 1973, and currently has a population of around 320,000. Wikipedia says that the Bahamas Football Association was formed in 1969, but joined FIFA in 1968- which is an unlikely state of affairs, hence I am more inclined to believe FIFA, who state the BFA were formed a year before joining FIFA. Wikipedia has the Bahamas as losing 8-1 to Netherlands Antilles in Panama, 1970. ELO Ratings do not mention them until 1974, when they beat Panama in the Dominican Republic, part of a series in the Central American and Caribbean games , which they followed with defeats by the Dominican Republic and Bermuda.

This is the sixth World Cup for Bahamas, but their first entry came to nothing as they withdrew without playing the games drawn against St. Kitts and Nevis. I have already mentioned the first two games actually played – when they beat Anguilla in each of two games in March 2000. The Bahamas played Haiti the following month, losing 9-0 away, and 4-0 at home. In 2004, Dominica conceded home advantage, so Bahamas played at home twice. While Bahamas drew 1-1 in the first game, they lost the second by 3-1.

In March 2008, they played both qualifying games against the British Virgin Islands at home. Fortunately for the Bahamas, the first leg was the home game (1-1), so by drawing again in the second leg (2-2), the Bahamas went through to play Jamaica. This time it was the Bahamas who gave up home advantage and they lost 7-0 and 6-0 in the two games.

Oddly, they won both the last two World Cup games, 4-0 away and 6-0 at home to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Despite this good start, they withdrew without playing the group games of the next stage, when they could have played Nicaragua, Panama and Dominica. They have also been absent in the recent runnings of the Caribbean Cup, so they have not played since the games against T&C in 2011.

With a population of 64,000; Bermuda is the most populous of the British Overseas Territories. Bermuda have produced a number of well known players in the English Leagues, with Clyde Best and Shaun Goater the best known. From 2006 to 2013, the Bermuda Hogges entered in the Premier Development League, a fourth tier league in the USA. The team was part owned by Shaun Goater.

The National FA were formed in 1928, and they affiliated to FIFA in 1962. Their first game, was a friendly in Iceland which they lost 4-3. In 1967, they won an away Olympic qualification game in the USA.

Bermuda’s World Cup records goes back to the 1970 World Cup when they started with a three team group playing both USA and Canada. They drew the home match against Canada 0-0, but lost the other three games. Still they were not entered in the next five World Cups. When they played again, a late goal from Goater gave them a 1-0 win over Haiti. Goater scored again to increase the lead in the second leg, and while Haiti managed to level the aggregate, Haiti went through on away goals. Next up were Antigua and Barbuda who were beaten twice, placing Bermuda in a group with El Salvador, Canada and Jamaica. Bermuda started well, with a 1-0 home win over El Salvador. They drew their other home games but lost all three away games

Again, they did not push on in the next tournament. Instead they withdrew after drawing to play Trinidad & Tobago. Bermuda were unbeaten in the 2002 competition, with two wins over the British Virgin Islands, followed by two draws against Antigua and Barbuda. As the home leg was 1-1 after 0-0 away, Bermuda went out on away goals. Similarly four years later, they easily overcame Montserrat (20-0 on aggregate), and then narrowly beaten by El Salvador (4-3 aggregate) and in 2008 they won away legs in matches against both Cayman Islands and Trinidad & Tobago. In the first round they had drawn the home game, so sent through but T&T beat them in Bermuda and went on to the group stage. Finally, they started with group games in 2011 – and played four at home after Barbados conceded home advantage. They still went out, but not far behind Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago – the defeats in these two countries were their first two games.

Since then, Bermuda’s rankings have not been helped as most wins have been against non-FIFA teams, Four wins when staging the Island games in 2013 (against Froya, Falkland Islands, and Greenland (twice)) mean nothing to FIFA. Still they have warmed up with a draw and a win against Grenada

Bermuda start as narrow favourites to go through to the next round, which would mean matches against Guatemala.

Belize v Cayman Islands (02.00 26 March, 01.00 30 March)

The winners play the Dominican Republic in the next round

British Virgin Islands v Dominica (23.00 26 March, 22.00 29 March)

The winners get to play Canada in June

Curacao v Montserrat (00.00 28 March, 23.30 31 March)

For the right to play Cuba.

The other matches in the second round are

St Vincent and the Grenadines v Guyana

Antigua and Barbuda v Saint Lucia

Puerto Rico v Grenada

209 to 1: The 2018 World Cup. 1. The nature of nations

March 8th, 2015

It may be well over three years before the 2018 World Cup fills our TV screens, but the tournament is just about to start in some of the lesser known footballing corners of the world. FIFA now has 209 members, one up on the numbers available for the last World Cup, and for the first time ever, all the members are believed to be entering into the draws. I am saying believed to be, as the qualifying draw does not actually take place until 25th July.

When the draw takes place, for countries in Europe it will still be a year before they start the new round of matches, as the 2016 Euros are completed first, but this is not the way of the rest of the world, where the playing of Continental and World competitions are mixed (and in some cases combined).

So you may ask. If the qualifying draw takes place in July to reduce the 209 countries in the World Cup to the 32 finalists, why am I starting to write in February. The reason is simple. Even before the July draw, the effort to pare down the numbers will have started. The North, Central and Caribbean American Association (CONCACAF) drew its first two rounds back in January, while the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) made its draw this month. Both areas will start with two legged knock out games in March.

Before I get onto the draws, which of course mean little except local pride – as they involve a few teams with no hope of being in the final 32 beating other teams with no hope of qualifying, I want to bring FIFA’s headline number to the fore.

209?

FIFA has 209 member associations, which makes it the largest international organisation in the World. The United Nations only has 193 members, which means to all intents and purposes there are only 193 countries in the World.

We all know one of the major difference, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is represented as a single member of the United Nations, but it has four members of FIFA competing separately. But this is not the end of the British involvement in the World Cup. Britain still has remnants from its empire. There are fourteen British Overseas Territories that for various reasons have not become independent states, or parts of other independent states. These territories are not independent, and so do not have their own representation at the United Nations, but six of them are FIFA members. The six are mainly Caribbean based, and all members of CONCACAF. They are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands. Hence the country (by United Nations standards) known as the United Kingdom has no less than ten FIFA members.

The British are not the only nation with old empires or other associations. The USA accounts for two more members of CONCACAF, in the form of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Both have a status that stops short of making them full states, but gives the islanders US Citizenship. The USA also lays claim to two of the Pacific Island “nations”. Guam (which is a member of the Asian Confederation) and American Samoa (Oceania). Also in on the act are the Chinese. The two special administrative areas, Hong Kong and Macau had become members of FIFA long before administration returned to China in the last years of the 20th century. The change of sovereignty from Britain and Portugal to part of China has not changed their status with FIFA and they still run as independent members – both are part of the Asian Confederation. The fourth Chinese member is a matter of political fudge. Back in the 1970s, the United Nations accepted the political reality that China existed, and was not a province of Taiwan, (which refers to itself as the Republic of China). The situation ever since is that Taiwan has been effectively a self governing state, it has always fallen shy of calling itself independent, while the Chinese always claim Taiwan as part of their nation. It is something of a diplomatic faux pas to show an outline map of China which does not include Taiwan, as shown by the London Olympic Committee when they made the mistake, and were forced to quickly apologise.

While the United Nations transferred their seat from the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the Mainland), and left the smaller territory not represented, sports organisations were more flexible in allowing both to stay members. So the Taiwan now plays as Chinese Taipei in international football

The Netherlands accounts for two more of the Caribbean territories in Aruba and Curacao. Newcastle United’s Dutch International Vurnon Anita was born on Curacao and could have played as an international there, but for some reason, having moved to Europe at the age of eight, he has chosen to play for the Netherlands instead. The French also have two island groups, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, both of which are members of the Oceania Football Confederation. French Polynesia is normally referred to as Tahiti for football. These leaves two final FIFA members which are considered parts of other nations, in the Cook Islands (Oceania) which is affiliated to New Zealand, and the Faroe Islands (UEFA) which is still part of Denmark.

That leaves one special case – Palestine. Palestine has some representation at the United Nations, but is not a full member state. As its neighbour, Israel has conveniently and politically aligned itself into UEFA, (there is no definition that includes the area within Europe), there is no argument with Palestine being a member of FIFA. They joined in 1998 and have taken part in international competition ever since, even though they had to wait until 2008 to play a home match.

Stopping for a moment, let’s do the math. I originally stated there were 209 FIFA members, compared to 193 in the United Nations. I then quoted 10 British members of FIFA, (compared to a single UN member), and four for USA, three for China, two for the Netherlands and France, one each for Denmark and New Zealand in addition to the nation at the UN. With the addition to the list of Palestine, I have enumerated 24 FIFA members who are not UN members, and only one (United Kingdom) the count in the opposite column. In other words, I have counted too many additional nations.

This means that dotted around the World there are seven recognised nations, members of the United Nations which are not members of FIFA. As it happens, six of the seven are island groups in the Pacific Ocean, and grouped together, the population is barely more than 300,000. These are Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu. The seventh is a slightly different case, being situated in Europe, and having a football team in one of Europe’s major leagues. This is of course, Monaco. The leading team from Monaco plays at the only football field in the principality and in the top division of the French League. Monaco has decided not to attempt to join UEFA in order to ensure the status of their club. This is despite the example of countries such as Wales, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Andorra – all of which have teams in the leagues of neighbouring countries, while fielding their own national team and having local competitions for entry to European Club competitions.

Monaco’s main club competition is played between company teams, with some games played on a small ground across the road from the Stade Louis II. The road is however the border between Monaco and France. So the matches are actually staged in France. The other ground I know to be used also abuts the border, but is on the French side, while Monaco’s reserve and youth teams also tend to use grounds in France. There is no sign that Monaco will attempt to change their status in International Football at any time in the near future.

The Vatican, for those who wonder has observer status with the UN, and hence is not a member of either organistation.

One may have noted that UEFA’s newest member, Gibraltar has not yet appeared on my list of non independent countries in FIFA, and you would also know that they are not a UN member. Despite having become a full member of UEFA, Gibraltar are not members of FIFA and thanks to opposition from Spain, this is not likely to change. Gibraltar managed to get various courts to support their bid for joining UEFA, especially as the organisation had tried to preclude their joining by changing some rules after the application had been started. The rule changes prevent other semi-independent territories from becoming UEFA members in the future, so the door is now closed to Jersey and Guernsey, and those disputed zones of Eastern Europe – Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Kosovo cannot change their UEFA status until their statehood is confirmed. Kosovo, at least gets to play some friendly internationals in the meantime

Gibraltar’s status as a member of UEFA, but not of FIFA is not at all unique. With the exception of CONMEBOL, the South American Federation, all the Federations that makeup FIFA have some members that are not also part of FIFA. Some are associate, rather than full members which does limit them to regional, and possibly continental football.

For UEFA, Gibraltar is the only oddity. The other 53 member states are all full members of FIFA as well. The home nations all compete in the Olympics as the United Kingdom, a team that would include any Gibraltarian Olympians. The Faroe Islands also does not have an Olympic team, being Danish in this regard. CONCACAF has six members who are not FIFA affiliated. They are all in the Caribbean, and are Bonaire, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin and Sint Maarten. French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe are all French territories with clubs actually playing in the French Cup, (along with the two French territories mentioned in Ocenaia). Saint Martin is also French and shares an Island with the similarly named Sint Maarten. Sint Maarten and Bonaire both remain parts of the Netherlands. None of these six, all recent additions to CONCACAF are members of the IOC, (International Olympic Committee), and four more of the dependent territories, Anguilla, Curacao, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands lack direct Olympic representation.

Africa has two associate members who play only in regional competitions. They are Reunion, a further French territory which enters a team in the French Cup and Zanzibar – the latter is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania (which includes a good portion of people who might like full independence). Mayotte, which also has a team in the French Cup does not enjoy even associate status. Reunion and Zanzibar are also not members of the IOC, South Sudan, which is the most recent addition to membership of both the United Nations and FIFA is not as yet a IOC member. It was represented by a single runner at the London Olympics, Guor Marial, who was listed as an Individual Olympic Athlete and finished 47th in the men’s marathon.

Asia has one associate member, the Northern Mariana Islands. The NMI are, like Guam, territories of the USA. The actually changed affiliation from Oceania in 2009, having joined the East Asian Football Federation a year earlier. The Northern Mariana Islands recorded their first ever victory, a 2-1 win over Macau in an East Asian FF Qualifying game in 2014. They also played in the qualifying competition for the AFC Cup (a second ranking Asian competition, now disbanded) in 2013. As the World Cup and Asian Cup qualification procedure is being merged in Asia, there was speculation that NMI would take part in a World Cup qualifying, although they could not qualify. There is a precedence for this, as the Pacific Games used to be used as part of the World Cup qualification procedure even though it included non FIFA affiliated countries.

In fact the practise of using the Pacific games as part of the World Cup qualification regime was ended not because of the inclusion of non-FIFA members, but because of the inclusion of Guam – a member of the Asian Football Confederation. Oceania itself has three associate members, Tuvalu and Kiribati are both independent countries and members of the UN, so I have no doubt they could move up to full member status and join FIFA if they wanted, as could those four other UN members already mentioned, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau. It is surprising that the OFC does not try to push their membership through, as increasing the number of countries (and hence number of votes in FIFA congress) may not actually do anything to improve football on these Islands, but could help them to get a full slot in the finals, rather than one play off slot. The final member of Oceania is Niue, which like the Cook Islands is a generally autonomous state, but “I association” with New Zealand. Niue’s best ever football result was a 14-0 defeat by Tahiti in the 1983 Pacific Games, their worst result was a 19-0 defeat by Papua New Guinea on the following day. The first two days of September 1983 representing their entire international football history.

The Early Draws.

Although CONCACAF put out is draws first, it will be in Asia that the first matches are played. For reasons of their own, the AFC are not using recognised international dates, but are scheduling the two legged games on 12/17 March. Unless home and away matches get switched, all the home teams are seeded. IN Asia, the seeding tends to be meaningful, even if they are derived from FIFA rankings, as there tends to be a significant difference in quality as one drops down the rankings. I would not be surprised therefore if all five seeded teams got through, and I would certainly be surprised if more than one of the lesser teams broke ranks and qualified. I am putting the FIFA rankings (as at February 2015) in brackets. The draw was done using January 2015 seedings, which is poor news for Nepal and Pakistan, both of which rose up the rankings, and would have been seeded (in place of Chinese Taipei and Timor Leste) had the draw taken place later.

India (171) v Nepal (180)

Timor Leste (187) v Mongolia (194)

Cambodia (185) v Macau (188)

Chinese Taipei (186) v Brunei (198)

Yemen (179) v Pakistan (172)

Sri Lanka (173) v Bhutan (209)

 

The twelve countries that open this session of the World Cup have a varied, if unsuccessful World Cup pedigree. The first match to be played in the 2018 World Cup, some 1221 days before the final will also be the first International Football match to be played in East Timor

Timor Leste v Mongolia

Known in English as East Timor, Timor Leste first tried to declare independence (from Portugal) in 1975, but was then invaded by Indonesia, which took control for the next 27 years. They finally became independent in 2002, the first “new country” of the 21st Century. They made their footballing debut in qualifying games for the Asian Cup. This was in a group of three teams, with all matches played in Sri Lanka. East Timor actually went ahead three minutes into their first international, through an own goal by Mohammed Hamza. Falling behind, an East Timorian, Cabral scored an equaliser for East Timor, but it was not enough as Sri Lanka scored in the 89th minute to win the game. Timor Leste lost their other game in the series to Chinese Taipei (3-0).

Timor Leste sat out the 2006 World Cup qualifying, but entered a team for 2010. With the home stadium not suited for playing, they travelled around 700 miles to play the home leg on the Indonesian Island of Bali. Playing Hong Kong, they again lost 3-2, and then a week later went down 8-1 at the Hong Kong Stadium. In all, they lost their first 13 straight international games before drawing against and in Cambodia, in an ASEAN regional qualifying game in 2008. The score was 2-2. IN the summer of 2011, the World Cup came along with a pair of games against Nepal. This time they elected to play both games, just three days apart in Kathmandu. Both games were lost, with an aggregate of 7-1. East Timor have had some limited success in the 2012 and 2014 qualification games in South East Asia. The 2012 matches were played in Myanmar, and East Timor beat both Cambodia (5-1 no less) and Laos, while in 2014, playing in Laos, they gained a 4-2 win over Brunei, and a 0-0 draw with Myanmar. To date, East Timor have drawn 2 and won 3 of their 32 international games, (using the ELO Ratings database). East Timor’s World Cup record is four matches played, all lost.

The National Stadium in Dili has played host to Kylie Minogue, but not yet an international football match. Hence, the game on March 12th, is not merely the start of the World Cup, but also the historic first international game at the venue.

Mongolia’s debut on the International Football Scene was in 1960, when they played in a tournament in North Vietnam, losing three games to North Vietnam themselves (3-1), China (6-1) and North Korea (10-1). They then took a short sabbatical, not playing again until the 1998 Asian Games in Thailand, where they lost two games, to Kuwait (11-0) and Uzbekistan (15-0).

Mongolia’s World Cup debut was in 2001, in Asian qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. They were in a group of four teams, with all matches played in Saudi Arabia. Mongolia had to play Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Bangladesh (in that order) twice. After five defeats, Mongolia had lost all, without a goal and conceded 20 goals. The sixth game was a 2-2 draw against Bangladesh (neither of which could go further). This was the first time Mongolia had avoided defeat. In 2003, they won an East Asian Qualification game by 2-0, their first ever win. In the last three World Cup’s Mongolia’s participation has been limited to a two-legged first round game – played nearly three years before the finals. In 2003, a 1-0 home defeat to Madives was the first official international played in Mongolia, they lost the second leg by 12-0. Four years later, Mongolia lost 9-2 on aggregate to North Korea, and last time out Myanmar beat them, but the aggregate was just 2-1, and Mongolia won the home leg 1-0. Mongolia’s World Cup record is 12 games played, with one win and one draw.

East Timor are seeded to get through to the next round, but climate may be all important. East Timor is still within its wet season, not as hot as it can be but humid and sticky, by comparison they can expect dry and sunny weather in the return leg, and if they are lucky the temperature may rise above freezing point.

India v Nepal

India actually qualified for the 1950 finals in Brazil. However, two caveats apply. Firstly every one of their potential opponents in Asia and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Burma and Indonesia) withdrew so India qualified without playing, and secondly, India themselves withdrew without playing in Brazil. The myth is that this was because FIFA had banned barefoot football, but in reality it was more to do with the expense of the trip, and the feeling that the FIFA World Cup was secondary to the Olympics.

India also entered the competition in 1974, but withdrew without entering the draw, so it was 35 years after they could have played in the finals, when the opened their world cup account in the qualification rounds for the 1986 World Cup. Krishanu Dey scored India’s first world cup goal, to put them 1-0 up against Indonesia in Jakarta, but in front of a 70,000 crowd, they succumbed to a 2-1 defeat. India played two more away games – a draw in Thialand and a win in Bangladesh before starting their home campaign – by this time Indonesia had played five of their six games, and picked up four wins (2 points for a win in those days), so India needed to win all three games to reach the next round. It was not to be, as Indonesia took an early lead in the first game, and despite a late equaliser, India could not turn the game around as Indonesia had at home. Perhaps this was down to the crowds – the Salt Lake Stadium is known to regular see 80,000 watch Kolkata derbies, but for this game, only 10,000 turned out. The matches against Thailand (draw) and Bangladesh (won) were seen by even lower turnouts. For the 1990 World Cup, India were drawn in a five team group with South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Nepal. Home and away was abandoned, in favour of a series of games in Seoul, followed by a return series in Singapore. India thought better of this, and withdrew without playing.

They were back in 1994, and have played in every World Cup since, but they have never got out of their first group, or won a two legged qualification game. India have won eight and drawn 10 of their 33 World Cup games to date. Their last outing, in July 2011 was a two legged game against UAE, with India going down 3-0 in the away leg, so the 2-2 draw at home would only be a consolation. India enjoyed some success in early Asian Cup and Asian Games, (when the number of entrants were much fewer than today). They were runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup in Israel, where the lack of contestants meant qualification was not required, and won the Asian Games tournaments in 1951 (home soil) and 1962 (Indonesia). In recent years they have had to content themselves to success in the South Asian Football Federation regional tournaments, India have reached the last five finals, winning three and are likely to stage the 2015 edition. They also staged the AFC Challenge Cup (a now disbanded competition for second ranked nations) in 2008, and by taking the title, they were given a place in the 2011 Asian Cup, where they failed dismally. This was the only time they reached the finals in the last 30 years. The most recent competitive result was the final of the 2013 SAFF Cup in Kathmandu, where they lost 2-0 to Afghanistan.

Nepal, who India play in their opening game also have a World Cup pedigree dating back to matches played in 1985. Nepal had joined FIFA in 1970, and the AFC two years later, but did not start to appear in the major tournaments until the 1980s. Nepal made their World Cup debut in 1985, when they lost 2-0 at home to South Korea. Two weeks later, Malaysia were held 0-0, again in Kathmandu. Nepal lost both away games, 5-0 in Malaysia, and 4-0 in South Korea. Four years later they lost all six games, and again did not score in attempting to qualify for the 1990 World Cup. Not surprisingly, they sat out the 1994 tournament. They also sat out qualification for 2006 (withdrawing after the draw was made – avoiding a match with Guam, who in turn also withdrew without playing). The first goal and second point was in the qualification for 1998, a 1-1 draw with Macau, while four years later they beat Macau twice (matches played in Kazakhstan) while losing the other four games in the group. With the change in recent years to two legged matches at the start of the competition, Nepal drew Timor Leste, (East Timor to you and me) in the last World Cup. This gave them the advantage of an opponent without a suitable ground, so both matches were played in Nepal. Nepal won both of these, 2-1 and 5-0, and even drew the home match of their second round game against Jordan. This of course was immaterial, as the first leg was played in Jordan, and Nepal were 9-0 down (lets repeat that in teletype fashion – nine) from the first leg. Overall, Nepal have won 4 of their 28 World Cup games, and drawn three.

The first leg of the games will be played in the Indira Ghandi Stadium in Guwahati, North Eastern India. The stadium has been recently renovated and used for the home games of North East United in the recent Indian Super League. Reports suggest sizable and vociferous crowds, which is what India will be hoping for. The second leg, five days later will be in Kathmandu at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium.


India ( in Blue) Line up before losing 4-0 to Australia in Qatar, 2011

Cambodia v Macau

Cambodia have been playing International Football since 1956, playing as Khmer or Khmer Republic before switching to the name of Cambodia. They opened with a home game against Malaya in qualifying for the Asian Cup. They lost this 3-2, and the return leg in Malaya by 9-2. They were regular participants in Malaya’s annual Merdeka tournament, gaining the occasional draw, and finally started to win games in 1967, playing a group of Asian Cup qualifyers in Burma (now Myanmar). They then beat India 3-1 and Pakistan 1-0, but lost to the hosts by 1-0. For the 1972 Asian Cup, they actually won through qualification, playing in the finals for the first and only time. They beat Kuwait to reach the semi-finals of what was just a six team finals tournament. They lost the semi-final to Iran (the eventual winners) and the 3rd place play off to hosts Thailand.

Cambodia’s opening World Cup was in 1997, playing in a four team group searching for places in France the following year. The games were home and away and they started poorly, losing 8-0 to Indonesia in Jakarta. They got a point from the return game, but lost home and away to both Uzbekistan and Yemen. It was a similar story in 2001, trying to get to the Japan/South Korea World Cup. Cambodia managed to draw one home game (1-1 v Maldives), but they had already been beaten 6-0 in the Maldives, and went on to lose twice to each of Indonesia and China. Cambodia did not play in the qualification for Germany 2006. They lost twice to Turkmenistan in 2007, while in the last World Cup, they beat Laos in the home game, by 4-2 – but were 4-2 down after 90 minutes of the return in Vientiane. Two extra time goals gave Laos the second round game against China. Cambodia’s last competitive matches were also in Laos, in qualifying for the 2014 South East Asian Championships. Cambodia win two (against East Timor and Brunei), and lost two (against Laos and Myanmar).

Macau played their first international, at home to South Korea in 1949. They lost 5-1. The second attempt was at home to Australia, some 21 years later. Macau lost 9-0. Five years later, they tried again with Panama is the rather surprising choice of visitor. This was Macau’s first win, by 2-1. Competitive football started with Asian Cup qualification matches in the Philippines, with the opening game on Christmas Day 1978 ending in a win for South Korea. They then lost to China as well, but beat the hosts in the final game of the series.

Their opening World Cup game was in 1980, playing for a place in Spain 82. Macau only had to make the short trip across the Pearl river to play three games in Hong Kong – again over the Christmas period. They lost each game by 3-0 to North Korea, China on Christmas Eve, and to Japan four days later. In 1985, playing for a place in Mexico 86, Macau were in a four team group with China, Hong Kong and Brunei. Hong Kong and Macau played standard home and away games, although the Brunei vs China games were played on neutral venues – one each in Hong Kong and Macau. Macau won both games against Brunei, but lost the rest.

Macau sat out qualifying for 1994, but were back in the hunt for the 1998 World Cup. This time the group was against Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia and Nepal. Nepal however withdrew without playing, and Macau lost all six games, scoring only once and conceding 46. These games were played in only two venues, so Macau played three games in Malaysia, and then three in Saudi Arabia. Four years later, the same format was used for a group including Japan, Oman and Nepal (who did turn up this time). The games were played first in Oman, and then in Japan. Macau drew their first game in Muscat, and won their last game in Tokyo. Both of these were against Nepal. The four games against Oman and Japan were all lost.

Macau and Nepal were to meet again in the 2002 qualification games. Again neither were to play at home (although originally they were planning to play in Nepal). The other teams in the group were Iraq and Kazakhstan, with the first series of games in Baghdad, and the later series in Almaty. This time Macau lost all their games. As with the other teams I have mentioned, the last three World Cups have started (and finished) with two legged games. For Macau, the opponents in 2003 were Chinese Taipei (aggregate 1-6), then Thailand in 2007 (aggregate 13-2) and finally Vietnam in 2011 (aggregate in 13-1).

Macau’s last competitive game was a 3-2 win over Mongolia in the East Asian championships preliminary qualifying. Having drawn with the tournament host Guam, and then losing to Northern Mariana Islands, Macau were already incapable of qualifying. Mongolia did still have an outside chance. The one advantage for Macau is as Northern Mariana Islands are not FIFA members, the match did not count against them in the FIFA Rankings.

 

Chinese Taipei v Brunei

I have already mentioned something of the Taiwanese history. They have been playing international football in Asian tournaments since 1954. Indeed they entered into the 1954 World Cup, but withdrew without playing, the other two teams in the region, Japan and South Korea ending up settling the finals place in a two legged game. Similarly, four years later, they withdraw after being drawn to play Indonesia They then ignored the next four World Cups completely before finally trying their hand for qualification in 1977, ahead of the Argentina tournament the following year.

Although members of the Asian Confederation, Chinese Taipei were something of an inconvenience, thanks to the politics which meant the chance of meeting China itself was not acceptable. However, the solution was found by placing Chinese Taipei in with Australia and New Zealand. Oceania did not have its own qualifying groups at the time. Hence in 1977, the Taiwanese team lost twice each to Australia and New Zealand, and did not get a match on home soil. Both Australian games were played in Fiji, with Chinese Taipei’s first World Cup game being a 3-0 defeat. They lost 2-1 in the second game and then played two games in New Zealand, losing both by 6-0

In 1981, Australia, New Zealand, and Chinese Taipei were joined by Fiji and Indonesia, Chinese Taipei were defensively frugal, not conceding a goal in four home games, three of them draws, with Indonesia beaten by 2-0. All four away games, played in a 16 day period were lost.

The qualification for 1986 saw another political misfit joining in. Chinese Taipei played against Israel, as well as their two old foes, Australia and New Zealand. No home games this time, as theu travelled to play two matches in each of the opposition countries, losing them all, and conceding 36 goals in the process. Nothing learnt from their relative success in the previous series.

While Israel were again made to play Oceania teams in preparation for the 1990 World Cup, Chinese Taipei did not have to face them again. Instead their involvement was limited to a two legged game against New Zealand, losing 4-0 at home, 4-1 away

For the 1994 World Cup, Chinese Taipei were at least allowed into Asian qualification, in a group of five teams until Myanmar withdrew. Their other three opponents were Iran, Oman and Syria – this was a two venue group with the opening six games in Iran, then six in Syria. Taiwan lost all six of their matches, conceding 31 goals in the process. For 1998, the mix of opposition was more varied – Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. Again it was a two venue tournament, with a series of games in Malaysia, followed by a series in Saudi Arabia. Chinese Taipei started with a 2-0 defeat to Saudi, (in Malaysia), but then beat Bangladesh by 3-1. Their third game saw them lose 2-0 to their hosts. A week later, they drew with Malaysia in Saudi, but then lost 2-1 to Bangladesh before crashing 6-0 to the second host. As Bangladesh only got points for beating Chinese Taipei, the Taiwan team avoided finishing bottom of the group. It was a similar story ahead of the 2002 World Cup, the group games were played first in Uzbekistan, then in Jordan, with Turkmenistan is the fourth team in the group. Chinese Taipei fell to six defeats and did not even score a goal, while conceding 25.

You may have spotted it above – from the 2006 World Cup onwards the first round in Asia was a straight knock out game, and in November 2003, Chinese Taipei had to face Macau twice, winning the first match 3-0 at home, and then adding a 3-1 away win. The reward for this success was a group with Palestine, Uzbekistan and Iraq. Now all the Taiwanese home games were at home, but most of their travels were to alternates. They did play in Uzbekistan, but met Palestine in Qatar, and Iraq in Jordan. It almost goes without saying that they lost all six games.

For the last two cups, the draw has been less kind, and Chinese Taipei have fell at the first hurdle, to Uzbekistan (11-0 aggregate) and then extremely narrowly to Malaysia. Malaysia won the first leg 2-1, and extended the lead twice in the first half, each time being pegged back to level on the day. With 15 minutes to go, Chinese Taipei took a 3-2 lead from the penalty spot. However, this turned out to be the final goal of the game, and they went out on away goals. The goalscorer was Xavier Chen. Chen was born in Belgium to a French mother and Taiwanese father, and played in the Belgium under-19 team. He was then persuaded to switch allegiance to Chinese Taipei, but apparently has played only one game for them. AT the time, he played for Mechelen in Belgium, but he is now playing in mainland China. Since then, Chinese Taipei has played in two East Asian Cup qualifying tournaments, and one for the AFC Challenge Cup – Each time they have managed a solitary draw but lost their other games. The last East Asian group was played in Taiwan, where they were beaten by Guam and Hong Kong. In the final match, they drew 0-0 with a North Korean side who had already secured the place in the finals later this year.

Brunei’s world cup history is somewhat shorter. The country only became independent in 1984, after nearly a hundred years of being a British protectorate, (with a small gap when it turned out protectorate did not mean protected – at least against Japanese forces during World War II). Brunei have played in only two of the World Cup qualifying tournaments, attempting to achieve a place in the 1986 and 2002 finals. On both occasions they were placed in four team groups. These were groups with home and away matches, although while Brunei did indeed play both Hong Kong and Macau both home and away in 1985, they did not play either in Brunei or China for their games against the Chinese – instead these were played one each in Hong Kong and Macau. Incidentally, both Hong Kong and Macau visited Beijing, with Hong Kong winning their game there, and in doing so both qualifying for the next round and causing a riot among local soccer fans, rather embarrassingly for the Chinese officials, who had to get the army out to restore order.

Anyway, back to Brunei, who did not enter in the next three World Cups, but returned to the fray in a bid for a place in the 2002 finals. The opposition was Yemen, India and UAE, and all six were lost, with Brunei not even scoring a goal, (they conceded 28). In fact, Brunei’s greatest success had come in 1999, just not in official internationals. A Brunei team had been playing against the states of Malaysia, and Singapore in a Malaysian competitions since the 1920s when all were part of the British empire. With a population much smaller than most of the states, Brunei were not generally known for their successes, even after Singapore (who frequently won the title) pulled out in the mid-nineties. In 1999, Brunei shocked the Malays with a win. They beat Sarawak in a match that to date is the only final for both teams, and the only time two teams from Borneo reached the final. (Sabah, the other Borneo team has lost on three occasions). It was also the last final (to date) to be played at the historic Merdeka Stadium in central Kuala Lumpur. The team representing the Brunei FA was replaced in 2005 by DPMM, a team owned by their former goalkeeper (who just happens to be the Crown Prince of Brunei).


DPMM playing a Malaysian League match against Kedah in 2007

Having sat out the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Brunei found themselves under FIFA suspension due to “government interference with the football association”. The argument hinged on the fact the FA had been suspended (along with many other sporting institutions in Brunei) for not correctly submitting paperwork. This was one of the periods when FIFA was authoritarian on such issues (they have always been remarkably inconsistent over such things). Brunei’s authorities did not quickly resolve the dispute, despite the effect this had on DPMM who had almost completed a first successful season in the Singaporean S-League. They had already won the league cup. The situation was not resolved until late in 2011, well after World Cup qualification had started DPMM returned to the S-League in 2012, finishing as runners-up twice (2012 and 2014) and winning the league cup in each of those year. The head coach for 2014 was former Blackburn Rovers coach Steve Kean, and he also took on the national team for their four games in the South East Asian Cup qualification last October. This resulted in four defeats for Brunei at the hands of East Timor, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Chinese Taipei should take this tie without too much difficulty.

Yemen v Pakistan

While Nepal may consider it unfortunate that they were not-seeded, when a draw that took place after the February rankings had been released would have been easier for them, Yemen have a similar problem from being seeded. It also shows the volatility of the seedings that win in a home friendly against Afghanistan pushed Paksitan 17 places up in the World rankings.

Other more local issues also conspire against Yemen. Just ask yourself when the FCO ever considered the Yemen a safe place to go to. Certainly not for many years now. Yemen is one of the generally ignored hotspots of International politics, as it does not have the comparative oil wealth of its immediate neighbours. One result of all this is that there has not been an international game played in the Yemen since 2012, when Palestine won there in a friendly.

South Yemen was a former British Colony that had been abandoned as more trouble than value, while the North was formed after the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918. The two generally got along with each other, despite occasional short lived disputes. Still the unification in 1990 certainly did not lead to prosperity. South Yemen played at various levels of football from 1965 to 1989. They only entered for one World Cup, the 1986 tournament when they were drawn against Bahrain and Iran. This was at the height of the Iran-Iraq was, and when the Iranians withdrew rather than playing games at neutral venues. The South Yemen – Bahrain games were played in March and April of 1985, with the first game played in Aden, South Yemen. Bahrain won this by 4-1, and a 3-3 draw in the home match saw them through to the next round. The Bahrain game was not only South Yemen’s only home World Cup tie, it was their last home match of any type. Curiously, the last tournament they played in was a tournament in Kuwait, soon before they united with the North, which also involved both Iran and Iraq (South Yemen lost to both, while they drew 0-0 with each other). The South Yemeni side did bring their international career to a halt with a win, 1-0 over Guinea, in the same Kuwaiti tournament

Like South Yemen, North Yemen also started to play international football in 1965. In fact both territories debuted in the 1965 Pan Arab games in Egypt. South Yemen starting with a 14-0 defeat by the hosts on September 3, while their Northern counterparts went down 16-1 to Libya. Like the South, North Yemen entered for the 1986 World Cup and played in March and April of 1985. North Yemen’s World Cup debut was a home defeat by Syria, 1-0. They then lost 5-0 in Kuwait, and 3-0 in Syria before returning to home soil to wrap up the campaign with a 3-1 defeat by Kuwait. North Yemen did enter the 1990 World Cup and played Syria and Saudi Arabia in qualifying. They lost three games by 1-0, and the fourth (Syria away), by 2-0. The game in Saudi Arabia was the last game played as North Yemen.

The first game for the United team was a 1-0 win in Malaysia, part of preparation for the 1990 Asian Games in China. At this time the captaincy of the side was rotated between players from North and South. At the games themselves, Yemen drew 0-0 with both Thailand and Kuwait before losing their third game, by 2-0 to Hong Kong. Next up was 1994 World Cup qualifying, with a two venue, five team group. Yemen’s first World Cup game was a 1-1 draw with Jordan, in Jordan, and they followed this up with a 5-1 thrashing of Pakistan. Iraq showed themselves somewhat stronger, and beat Yemen 6-1. Yemen then beat China 1-0, before heading to China for the second legs. Here they again drew with Jordan, and again beat Pakistan, but lost to both Iraq and China finishing third in the group. Only Iraq progressed.

Four years later, Yemen beat Cambodia twice, and drew with Indonesia twice, but came second in a group where Uzbekistan beat them twice. This was a home and away group, as was qualifying for 2002, where they came even closer to getting through the first round. Yemen won two of their three home games, beating Brunei and UAE, and drew with India. Away from home, they also drew with India and beat Brunei, but lost to the UAE. India had an identical record, but UAE won four games (all the homes and Brunei away) to win the group by a point.

This was enough success to mean that when the lowest seeds in Asia played knock out matches, prior to group games for the 2006 World Cup, Yemen were not in those lowest ranked teams, and went through to group matches with UAE, Thailand and North Korea. Crucially none of these had played in the first round, and Yemen finished bottom of the group, with one win (UAE – home) and two draws (North Korea Home, Thailand Away). North Korea won the group. For the 2010 World Cup, Asia played two knock out rounds prior to groups. Yemen won through the first of these, with an aggregate win over Maldives (3-0 home, 0-2 away) but then lost to a single goal in Thailand after a drawn home game. Yemen were given an exemption in the first round for the last world cup, but despite having staged the Gulf Cup (which includes Iraq) at the end of 2010, by the time of the games against Iraq in the summer of 2011, Yemen was considered an insecure country to play in. Iraq won 2-0 at home, while the return match was played in Al-Ain, UAE and ended scoreless

Pakistan came into existence with the partition of the sub-continent in 1948. Their first international match was a friendly in 1950, when they went down 5-1 in Iran. Two years later they played a small tournament, the Colombo Cup in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known), drawing first with India (0-0) but then beating both the hosts and Burma. They did not try for the World Cup until the 1990 edition, when they were grouped to play home and away games with Kuwait and UAE. Pakistan’s first Word Cup game was a 1-0 home defeat by Kuwait, they then lost both away games before scoring their first World Cup goal in a 4-1 home defeat by UAE.. I have already mentioned the 1994 campaign insofar as they lost both games to this year’s opponents, Yemen. Pakistan actually finished bottom of the group with eight defeats out of 8. They scored just twice. They increased the goals scored yet again for the next World Cup, going up to three. All three were scored against Iraq, two at home and one away, but Iraq were to hit 6 in each game. Kazakhstan also played in the group and put ten goals past Pakistan. In qualification for 2002, Pakistan were not to play at home, but only in Lebanon and Thailand. The fourth team in the group was Sri Lanka (now under current name). Again Pakistan increased their goal tally, reach five goals in the six games. Four of these were against Sri Lanka, including Pakistan’s first World Cup point from a 3-3 draw in Lebanon. Hence Pakistan gained their first draw in their 19th World Cup game.

Moving onto knock out games, Pakistan played Kyrgyzstan over two legs in 2003, well ahead of the 2006 finals, losing both games aggregate of 6-0.They have since increased their run without scoring to three World Cups, but have managed draws in the away leg against Iraq played in 2007 (after losing 7-0 at home), and the home leg against Bangladesh in 2011 after losing the away leg 3-0. The “away” match to Iraq in 2007 was played in Syria – so this is not the first time Pakistan have been helped by problems abroad.

Apart from Yemen not enjoying home advantage, the first leg being played in Qatar, Pakistan have gained moderate results in recent competitive games including wins over Macau and Bangladesh in 2013. This gives them hope that they may finally win a World Cup game, and actually win the round.


Sri Lanka v Bhutan

Sri Lanka became independent from Britain, along with India and Pakistan in 1948. It operated under the name Ceylon until 1972. Their first international football matches where in the Colombo Cup (already mentioned for Pakistan) in 1952, when first India and then Pakistan beat the hosts 2-0. Although Colombo (when not detecting in a dirty raincoat) is the capital of Sri Lanka, the Colombo cup was not fixed to the city or country, and was played in Burma, India and Pakistan in successive years. It was in India, in 1954 that the Sri Lankans first drew with the hosts, and then beat Burma. Sri Lanka made their world cup debut in the qualifying games for 1994. They were drawn in a two venue five team group with games in Japan and the UAE. They also had to play Thailand and Bangladesh. Their first World Cup game was therefore a 4-0 defeat by UAE in Japan. No goals were scored in the 8 game series, 28 were conceded and all 8 games were lost.

Only one venue, Qatar was used for the four team group including Sri Lanka ahead of the 1998 World Cup, this started poorly when Sri Lanka went down 3-0 to the hosts, but they improved to get a 1-1 draw with India, and then beat the Philippines by 3-0. Two venues, Lebanon and Thailand were used before 2002, with Pakistan making up the group. Sri Lanka got nothing from games against either host, but they managed to draw the first game against Pakistan (3-3), and win the second match 3-1. Sri Lanka started 2006 qualifying with a two legged game against Laos, drawing the away game 0-0, and then winning the first World Cup game to be staged on their own turf by 3-0. This gave Sri Lanka home and away matches with Turkmenistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. In Colombo, Sri Lanka managed draws (both 2-2) with both Indonesia and Turkmenistan, but they lost the other four games. In the last two tournaments, the first series of two legged matches also turned out to be the last, Qatar winning both games before the 2010 World Cup, while the Philippines accounted for them last time out, with Sri Lanka managing a draw in the home game


Action from the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup in Sri Lanka

Bhutan, a small landlocked country in the Himalayas is the first country in the World to measure Gross National Happiness. According to Business Week magazine, it is quite good at this. Being rated the happiest country in Asia. Happiness does not require being defeated in early World Cup qualifying games, and as far as I know, this is only the second time that Bhutan have been included in the draw for the World Cup. On the previous occasion, 8 years ago, Bhutan were drawn to play Bahrain but thought better of the idea and gave their opponents a walkover.

Bhutan first appeared on the football scene in 1982, with a 3-1 defeat in Nepal. They played 8 local games, all losses before going into hibernation for a dozen years. On their return they lost a few matches in the South Asian Cup and then entered the qualification rounds for the Asian Cup. This meant four games in Kuwait, with Bhutan scoring only in the last of these, an 11-2 defeat by Yemen, the group hosts beat them by 20-0. By June 30 2002, World Cup Final Day, the record of Bhutan in international football was simple. Played 20, Lost 20. Naturally they were bottom of the FIFA rankings. They also had never staged a home game. Then along came the Dutch advertising agency wondering who was the worst team in the World, (spurred on by the Netherlands failure to reach the 2002 finals). They decided to invite the lowest pair of teams of the FIFA World Rankings to play a challenge match. Montserrat accepted the challenge, but with their home crowd having been destroyed by a volcano, a single match in Bhutan was agreed. FIFA agreed to play this on World Cup final day, a few hours ahead of the main event. Wangay Dorji put Bhutan into the lead after five minutes as Bhutan took the initiative. It took more than an hour before the score was increased, Dorji scoring from a free kick. With Montserrat tiring at the end of the game, Bhutan eventually won 4-0 and Dorji completed his hat-trick. The referee was an Englishman, Steven Bennett. Bhutan did not exactly push on from this, losing all three games without scoring in the next South Asian tournament, but they had got the taste for staging the occasional home match, and were rewarded with the early qualifying stage for the 2004 Asian Cup. The opponents were Guam (beaten 6-0) and Mongolia (0-0) which put Bhutan through to the next stage. Six matches in Saudi Arabia in which Bhutan lost every won without scoring a goal. Bhutan’s third and most recent win was in the 2008 South Asian Cup, where they beat Afghanistan by 3-1 in Sri Lanka. Bhutan are now in last place of the FIFA rankings, the only team without a ranking point, which means they have lost every game played for the last four years – they have played 11 games in that time, but the run actually goes back 19 games since the win over Afghanistan.

Despite their low rankings, Bhutan are actually unbeaten in home games. The three matches mentioned in this piece (two wins and a draw, no goals conceded) are in fact the only games they have played at home. I suspect Sri Lanka will gain enough of an advantage at home, that it will not matter if Bhutan can retain this status for the return game.

The Winters Tale.

February 24th, 2015

To the surprise of absolutely no one, but to the consternation of the Premier League (and we are led to believe the other major European Leagues), the World Cup for 2022 has been set for November/December.

This is the decision that had to be made, despite the obvious fact that FIFA were going to be damned for making it. There is no point within the standard winter season that would not have annoyed the European clubs, but frankly it had to be a winter cup. Had the tournament been held in June or July (or even in May), then it was not a risk that someone would die from the heat, but a probability.

Those that do not believe that the leading European Leagues should be allowed to demand all of World Football follow their rules will be pleased that the precedent has been set, and that the World Cup does not have to be played at the height of summer, regardless of the climate. This means that all countries can consider bidding in future. Many countries (especially in Africa) with a much better footballing pedigree than Qatar have been ruled out of the running for too long, and can now consider if they can stage the competition.

On the other hand, the decision to award 2022 to Qatar (and for that matter 2018 to Russia) still rankles. Everyone knows that something is rotten in the state of the FIFA ExCo, and their own decision to give themselves a clean bill of health does not remove the gangrenous smell of corruption.

Qatar at least are getting the one penalty that all winners of major tournaments now get. The glare of publicity lights up those dark recesses that you would prefer the rest of the world to ignore. Everyone knows that construction workers throughout the middle-east get a raw deal. Safety standards that are steadfastly neither safe, nor standard and employment contracts which are close to serfdom. This has been the case for decades, and not just in Qatar. Migrant workers die in the Arabian peninsular, for no better reason than the pay is slightly better than in the home countries. European companies and governments have always turned a blind eye to this because we want the oil. (In a lot of countries nearby without oil, conditions are no better, but there is less construction and fewer migrant workers without oil to grease the wheels).

The Khalifa stadium, before the opening game of the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. It is now being reconstructed for 2022

In fact, UEFA worked out the contingency plan for the winter world cup some time back. It goes something like this. The 2021-22 season will start and finish about two weeks earlier than is normal. The 2022-3 season will start a full month early. With the World Cup taking something in the order of 7 weeks out of the middle of the season, the 2022-3 season will end up finishing around 3 weeks late.

This does not even have to seriously affect the leagues and TV audiences. I think after a long break, there will be an eagerness to return to watching live football. Naturally there is a fear the Christmas matches will be affected – but this is more because the other European Leagues would prefer to bring the tournament close to Christmas. England is the only major footballing country that plays between Christmas and New Year, so in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, a finish close to Christmas is preferable to an earlier end. Still, the hyped date of 23 December is unlikely. When was the last World Cup Final to be held on a Friday? December 18th is a far more likely date.

The other joke is that because of the winter world cup, the FA could be forced to dispense with FA Cup replays. This is balderdash of the highest order, put about by those who already have the removal of cup replays on their agenda. Sadly, the FA has already devalued the competition when they allowed Manchester United to pull out in 2000, to take part in the first World Club Championship. Not only did this not achieve the FAs aims of gaining favour from FIFA by supporting the new competition, it began the erosion of the Cup’s prestige. It is also to United’s shame that they should have gone along with the FA, rather than demanding they should play in the Cup, with different dates to the other teams.

As for League-1, League-2 and non-League football. This can go on unchanged, with just the occasional matches moved if they should clash with major (read England) fixtures. One must even ask if the Championship loses enough players to the World Cup to justify changing its dates either. Football at these levels may well benefit from being played at the same time as the World Cup. There has never been a rule that demands that all football comes to a halt, just because a major tournament is being played. In the USA, the MLS plays throughout World Cups, despite some teams losing a number of key players. In Germany, the fact that amateur football seasons continue into June was not changed due to the World Cup there. I saw two semi-professional games in Germany during the first week of the 2006 tournament, as well as half a dozen World Cup games, and two matches in the Czech Republic. The Czech third division was still running when the Czech Republic had been knocked out of the World Cup.

1 FC Gera 03 seen on Day 9 of the 2006 World Cup

I also have no sympathy for the American TV network who had already agreed the deal for 2022 TV rights, priced for a summer tournament (away from any other major US sports event – everyday baseball does not count). They now have a tournament in the middle of the NFL season which is nowhere near as lucrative. Still, I understand they have been compensated immediately by getting the rights for 2026 without the other stations bidding against them. This will be an even bigger bonus if their belief that 2026 is the USA’s turn to stage the tournament again proves accurate.

So crucify FIFA is you want to, but for the right reasons. The decision to award the cup to Qatar in the first place was not merely flawed, it was beyond comprehension and those that made the decision should be banned for life from any role that involves any type of decision at all. I would not even allow them to choose their own ice cream flavours. But this week, the committee were not given the option to reverse the original decision. They were faced with the fait accompli, and asked to decide when to hold the 2022 World Cup, not where. They made the only choice they could.

Where do we go from here?

February 14th, 2015

Down in League-2, there are two main reasons why a manager gets changed – these are

  1. Success.
  2. Failure.

The longevity of Yates’ tenure at Cheltenham Town reflects this, for a long period he was neither successful enough to be a target of other clubs, or enough of a failure to warrant being sacked. I think Paul Tisdale, who has served longer than Yates’ is now in the same situation at Exeter. Most of the other managerial changes in the division this season have also been down to failures, even if some of them have had successes in the past. Of the changes in our division this season, only two are down to success (Gary Rowett leaving Burton, and Justin Edinburgh’s departure from Newport). The other eleven are down to reason 2.

This also means that we have three basic options when appointing a new manager.

  1. Pick on someone who has had at least one failure on his CV, most likely his most recent position
  2. Pick on someone successful, and currently in a job, (which means bringing someone up from a lower league)
  3. Pick on someone with no previous managerial experience.

Paul Buckle, who left Luton for “personal reasons”, but wanted a return to English Football Management was at least on paper slightly outside these categories. Clearly he had a failure on his CV, at Bristol Rovers; but he could at least claim that his last managerial role was successful. At Luton, it is at least possible to find some supporters who beg to differ over this. Paul Buckle can certainly say he moved from Torquay to Bristol Rovers due to success.

When appointing Buckle, our directors claimed that they knew him well, as he frequently visited us in the past – and that they were told by Burton Albion that he was almost given the job there, before they selected the more surprising candidate of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. By having a previous record outside the UK, Hasselbaink’s managerial record before joining Burton was not success or failure. Outside the UK, there is much more of a feeling you can just let a contract run out, and then not renew it. A seventh place finish in Belgium Division 2 is by the standards of Royal Antwerp, par for the course.

Much of the support was underwhelmed by the appointment, but he did a little at least to steady a ship that had leaked goals in Yates’ final two games in charge. For a period, Buckle had us down to losing exactly one goal per game, but no clean sheets. There was talk of a more professional attitude on the training field, as he brought in his own team to run the coaching and John Milton as the scout that does not scout. (There was nothing wrong with the role Milton played, except it did not match the job title. In these days when everything that happens in Football, even at League-2 is under scrutiny, there are people who want to know why a scout is on the bench every game).

If there is such a thing as new manager bounce, then with Buckle it passed unnoticed during a December in which we did not win a match, (including the embarrassing loss to Dover). In December, Buckle was not capable of bringing new players into the squad and settled for working out which of the players were pliable, and which would not be able to fit into his system. By trying out youngsters who had come through our youth system, and then signing them to elongated contracts, he made himself temporarily popular with the fans. The belief was that changes would be made early in the transfer window, with those out of favour leaving and bevy of fresh players signed up.

January 3rd was the apogee of Buckle’s tenure. He entered the new year with the coup of signing three Liverpool youth players. Two of them scored at Oxford United and Cheltenham won the game. It is very noticeable that none of this trio appeared during Buckle’s final game in charge. Two had already returned to Liverpool with injuries by then, while Lloyd Jones (dropped in Buckle’s penultimate game) sustained his own injury just before the game.

The rest of the month was somewhat downhill, as we waited for the signings that were going to lift our season and found they were not hurrying to our door. Despite conflicting reports, there is no doubt the budget was already stretched, but with Jason Taylor, Byron Harrison, Paul Black and Andy Haworth departing, some money would have been freed up. It looked as if changes would be minimal, until the last Saturday of the month when the team finally collapsed into disarray at Dagenham. The first of the Liverpool three had already headed back North before this, and then Jack Dunn was injured during the game. Despite having just signed Durell Berry, we left him on the bench for 90 minutes while Lloyd Jones looked lost in covering the position.

This stung Buckle into a flurry of activity, as we made deadline deals like never before, (and Yates was always one to make deals on deadline day). For Buckle this was the last throw of the dice, but it was made knowing that the next three games (Burton and Bury at home, Southend away) were all difficult games for a team who had only been introduced to each other earlier in the week. We had five new players in the starting line up, Denny Johnstone, Wes Burns, Jordan Wynter (in his second spell), Durell Berry and Mathieu Manset. A sixth, Eliot Richards came on at half time to make his debut while two loan players who had not started came off the bench as well. The very much better organised Burton side found enough weak spots to put the new team to shame, with only a brief spell of play just after we scored to suggest things could get better.

From reports I have heard, we were no better at Southend. I am rather glad that I was not in a position to get there after work. Meanwhile, the rumours that all was not right on the training field were ramped up. Steve Elliott left the club with a parting twitter comment that appeared to suggest he left mainly because he could not work with the manager, while Lee Vaughan was openly critical after being dropped from the 18 at Southend. When a team is struggling for points, the one thing it needs above all is unity. Buckle’s response when questioned on this after the Southend game was flippant. Something along the lines of “I don’t do Social media”. In the same way as he tended to take little of the responsibility for what went on for the 90 minutes that count, this attack against the media, ignoring the message being sent was the wrong answer.

Another question that has to be asked. Having made such a deal of placing players such as Bobbie Dale, James Bowen, Harry Williams, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence on extended contracts, (as if any of these was in a rush to leave), why are none of them at least on the bench, looking for a little game time? Were these contracts a blind to try and garner popularity – or was Buckle sidelining the players he actually believed were the future of the club?

I am sure that Buckle said something on the lines of if you fail at Cheltenham, what is there next for a player when he arrived. One could say the answers to that involve contracts at Chesterfield, Accrington Stanley or Atlanta Silverbacks. What next though for a manager who fails so spectacularly at a struggling League-2 club.

Meanwhile the club handled the departure of Buckle in a typical shambolic way, reminiscent most of all of their handling of Yates’ departure. While negotiating for Buckle to come in as a replacement for Yates, Paul Baker made an entirely unnecessary interview, in which he professed (if not with enthusiasm) to support Yates, and to suggest we should all be behind him. My understanding is that Buckle was sacked on Wednesday, but it took two more days to sign and seal the agreement and make the official announcement. Still Baker again felt the need to go onto the radio on Wednesday night and announce Buckle had not been sacked. Again he would have been better off not saying anything at all, (after all, I say it best, when I don’t even allude to a Ronan Keating lyric).

So the incoming team is led by Russell Milton. He comes in with goodwill from two sources. Firstly he played for us with distinction, and secondly he is not Paul Buckle. There is already speculation over who will come in as next manager. Most of those mentioned are currently unemployed, and it is for “reason number 2″. The alternatives appear to be our old players, either in the form of Russell and his old boys team who become the caretakers for the moment, or someone like Archie Howells. Archie is in his third season at Bath City (two levels below us). That means his longevity is based on being neither successful or a failure – the team are currently mid-table.

Still, to bring in the inexperienced locals must be preferable to most of those players who have managed at a significantly higher level. Our two worst managers in the league have both had the same thing in common, a long and chequered managerial career and the feeling that because of their past record, they were bigger than the club they were managing.

I hope that Russell Milton is given long enough for us to see if he is up to the job before we name the next man, but I can see that the board is liable to panic after one or two bad results. Thirty minutes before the end of Tuesday’s games, we looked like dropping into the relegation zone. We stayed just above the line only thanks to two late Luton goals, it was nothing of our doing. With two teams below us, and six that can be caught if we were to win two in a row – we are far from down yet. But as I have repeatedly said, we need better results because otherwise we will go down.

Good luck, Russell. We are all hoping this is your time.

Don’t Speak too Soon

February 2nd, 2015

..for the wheel’s steel in spin. As the poet said back in the sixties.

So writing a blog before the transfer day is complete is certainly speaking too soon. There are plenty of suggestions that Cheltenham will sign more players in the four hours between writing these first sentences and the deadline tonight. AT 23.00, the ball is in play, but the wheel will spin for another three months until the season ends on May 2nd.

I made the obvious comment on Saturday – either our results improve, or we get relegated. It is not a comment that required an incredible amount of intelligence to make. Our last 18 league matches (if I have done my sums correctly) have resulted in 15 points. I have chosen that figure as there are 18 more to play, and 15 more points would take us to 45. Teams that finish a league-2 season on 45 points tend to get relegated. The fact that so far, Buckle’s record is worse than Yates’ is another factor that makes us fear that our stay in the League will be for 16 seasons only.

Still, I am going to make a much bolder prediction here. If we know our fate before the final day of the season, then it will be good news, not bad! What I mean by that is quite simple, I believe that our results will be good enough to leave our fate in the balance on the final day. I am not however going as far as to say it will not be in the lap of the gods. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we are hoping for Terry Gornell to come good for his new club on the final day and score the goal that puts Mansfield down.

When Buckle joined the club as manager, everyone hoped for “new manager bounce”, a brief spell of improved results as the players show the new man they are worth their place. This did not happen, although as the stattos have pointed out, few managers have managed the bounce at Cheltenham.

Until the New Year, Buckle had his hands tied – no new signings could be made, and he contented himself with giving young players a run out, and then signing them to 18 month contracts. Come the New Year, the new broom had the chance to sweep – and within days we had change. Jason Taylor was packed off to Northampton, while three more kids entered the fray from Liverpool, no less. The scouser revolution started well, as despite going a goal down we actually won the first match of the year, with two of the new players scoring. To date, it remains our best result under Buckle. Since then we have seen the departure of another player considered to be a “non trier”, in Byron Harrison. Also out of the door were Paul Black and Adam Powell. Black was thought not to be what we needed – I do not think anyone has said he failed to put the effort in when called upon, while Powell never made it into the league. One more loan player was signed in Jake Gray from Palace, while Kane Ferdinand’s loan was extended to the end of the season. This meant we had five loan players on the books, even if only one was a long term deal. The entrance of the loan players also changed the ball game for the home grown youngsters who had been their chance. Hanks and Kotwica have been in and out, Williams has found his chances limited, while players like Bowen are just hoping to get back to the bench! At least they all know they have a year to get themselves into the team.

As results after the Oxford match did not keep up the pace, there has been some frustration both with the manager himself, and with the lack of further movement. Confusion reigned by varying comments coming out of the club, casting doubt on our ability to sign players, and then suggesting money was available again. Buckle himself appeared to be frustrated by this inconsistency, and by at least one player not signing. He was also reported to change his mind at least once, with Moke set to sign, but then remaining in the Conference.

If we had hope that we could let things ride with the squad, this was blown away at Dagenham. Buckle’s claims to a team that was more defensively resolute than that of his predecessor were shown up by the Dagger’s strike force. In a match reminiscent of many of Yates’ failures, our defence (and in particular the full backs) failed, while the midfield was disjointed and failed to either protect the defenders, or to link the play and set up our singular forward. In particular, criticism had to be fired at the manager for playing Lloyd Jones at right back throughout, despite having two alternatives on the bench. One of these is the out of favour Vaughan (who has surprised me so far tonight by remaining a Cheltenham player), while the other is new signing Berry (ostensibly, Vaughan’s replacement at right back). To make matters worse, one of the Liverpudlians, Stewart was missing through injury, while Dunn – possibly the only bright spark for Cheltenham in the game was injured late on. Fortunately, we were allowed to say to Liverpool, “we have broken them”, and send them back. We therefore were exempted from paying further for their services even if Liverpool did not redeem the guarantees and send us replacements.

A team can play up to five loan players at any one time. While it may be foolish to have more on your books (as happened when Allen was manager), loans have the advantage of allowing us players for a fraction of their full wage, so we give experience to young Liverpool and Palace players who we could not afford to take on at full wage. Loans also afford us the chance to look at players who may become permanent signings later. IN the past, Grant McCann and Marlon Pack first entered the team in this way. Some rumours suggested John Marquis might have become available, but we did not pursue this one.

As a player can get injured at any time, the loan deals for Stewart and Dunn currently appear as better value on our books than the full time signing of Asa Hall, still waiting for the 9th minute of his Cheltenham playing career. Let us hope to see him again, maybe in six week’s time?

So come deadline day, Buckle knew that he had to make changes. The squad just could was not balanced enough to give us more than a thin chance of escaping the drop. The players here had been given the chance and found wanting. Whether this is the fault of the previous manager, the current manager, the players themselves or even the chairman is not really a point worth arguing. On transfer deadline day, it is too late to change the manager and still change the squad, or for a new chairman to come in and revitalise the budget. Only the playing squad can seriously be changed on this day.

I dislike the need to wheel and deal on this final day, and was more hopeful when Buckle tried to get his deals done earlier, but he had not addressed the problem with scoring goals, and even his sticky plaster (Dunn) which only partly addressed this has now come unstuck. With Stewart and Dunn back at Liverpool, we could sign two new loan players to bring the total back to five, and quickly moved to do so. Denny Johnstone (Birmingham) and Wes Burns (Bristol City) both coming in to bolster the attack. Meanwhile, the surviving member of the Liverpool triumvirate, Lloyd Jones confirmed an extension to his loan. Burns has scored three times this season, and two of them (once for Bristol City, once for Oxford) have been against us. I am not sure we should allow him back into defensive positions now.

The reports say that all the new loan deals are to the end of the season, but I note that they are all players under-21 years of age, so it is possible that they are in fact youth loans. Having five players on loan at the moment means we are limited in using the so called emergency loan system. If the loans are youth loans, rather than half season loans, then at least we are not committed to paying further if they turn out not to be the right moves, and we can try to plug the gap with emergency loans. We can, of course sign further emergency loans, but we cannot play more than five loan players in any one game. It would be interesting to see how we react to further injuries, but it is not something I hope is not an issue.

For the afternoon, we made two further changes, both up front – Terry Gornell has had his contract ended, and has moved to Accrington Stanley, while Eliot Richards arrives from Tranmere in a similar way. My reading of these deals is the players have accepted 18 month contracts, probably at slightly lower wages than they were on previously, while the settlement from their previous club means they are not financial inconvenienced in the first six months, they may even be better off short term. Gornell was out of contract at Cheltenham at the end of the season, and I would guess that Richards was as well at Tranmere, so the 18 month deals guarantee them another season as a professional footballer, (and if they can prove themselves, both have chances of lasting longer). During his stay at Cheltenham, I had always been impressed by Gornell’s work rate, and his apparent acceptance that he would have short runs in the squad and then be dropped quickly and without reason – but he is a striker, and he rarely got to score a goal. We need to try something different, and so does he. This is a move that may work out well for both parties. Eliot Richards is a player I know little about. He has played in 13 games for Tranmere this season (the last was in November). The 13 have been nine starts and four as substitute, and the only goal was against us, when we won 3-2 early in the season. Last season he played against us without scoring for both Exeter and Bristol Rovers, but did manage a double digit haul over the season.

A late signing, 75 minutes before the deadline is a player we know – Jordan Wynter returning from Bristol City. He was on loan earlier this season. At some stage I said that the only two players that quickened the blood when watching the game earlier in the season were Wynter and Arthur. Loan players who could do something unexpected with the ball. I was disappointed when Wynter was recalled by Bristol City, so naturally I welcome him back. He played six times for us earlier in the season, scoring in the same game as Richards, at Tranmere, and also played against us, for Bristol City in the JPT.

The club and echo twitter feeds seem to suggest that is our lot for the day, but that another player will sign tomorrow. Players may, of course sign outside the window if they are free agents. Hence we can assume the player in question has already made his settlement with another club.

I think this is the busiest any Cheltenham manager has been on deadline day since the current transfer rules have been in place, the team will look very different next Saturday to the one that played at the end of last year. The manager has been given enough leeway to manoeuvre, and the team is clearly now the Buckle team, rather than a Yates’ XI managed by Buckle.

The wheel is now in spin, and no doubt people will be speaking about where it will land even before Saturday’s game gives us the first clues. It is more than plausible that things may get worse before they get better, and it is possible that things do not get better at all. Either of these would cause some calls for the manager’s head. I personally do not believe that change for changes sake will make any difference in the next three months. This is Paul Buckle’s team, and it his job to make it work. There is hardly any scope to change the players again until the summer, (and we now have a remarkable number of players signed for next year, with the 18 month deals today, added to the youngsters given deals earlier). If Buckle has not built a foundation for the future in the last few days, and the walls come tumbling down, then even those star names of the Premier League would not be able to shore it up again.

Interesting Times.

January 1st, 2015

Let’s start with what we know. We are half way through the season, with a points tally of 25 points from 23 games. We are placed 19th out of 24 teams, only three points better off than Dagenham & Redbridge, who are in the drop zone. Hartlepool may be somewhat further adrift, but they are not in an unrecoverable position. If we can double our points tally to 50 by then end of the season, we will probably (but not certainly) finish above the drop zone. Only a point or two more than that takes us well into the comfort zone. If we do not reach the 50 point mark for the season, then we are going to be in trouble to the last day – drop down to 46 and we can expect to play Conference next season.

Going beyond the points total, to the trends, and things look worse – we had a tremendous start to the season, unbeaten in the first six league games, with 14 of our points to date coming in those games. Any attempt to extrapolate to the end of the season based on stats that ignore those games leads only to one conclusion, and the five league (and one cup game) since Paul Buckle has taken over has not helped this – three draws and three defeats.

So results have not improved under new management, but the winds of change are clear for anyone to see. I do not know of anyone among the regular support who does not believe we are now playing better than we were in the last couple of months under Yates, (discounting the Swindon result as being an aberration during this period). Experienced players have found their position in the team under threat. Jason Taylor was dropped completely from the squad, and sent away to Northampton as soon as there was a chance to offload him. Byron Harrison has been dropped to the bench, and despite being our leading scoring this season and last, he has not taken to the field in the last two games even though we have lost both. Instead it is the youngsters who have come in – Omari Sterling-James, Zack Kotwica, Joe Hanks and Harry Williams have all been given a chance to shine and new or extended contracts meaning, they are all now committed to being with us next season. The other young professionals in the squad may feel that they have more of a chance now as well.

Players have also seen they need to show commitment to get on here. If I am to believe rumours I have heard, Raffaele de Vita was offered a fresh contract as well, but having not grasped in with both hands, found that it was not still there. I have also heard that Buckle demands much more than Yates during training, and not just from each player on their own account, he also expects the senior players to help the younger ones in improving their game. Whether this has counted against players such as Harrison and Jason Taylor is however no more than speculation by those passing on the rumours. So far, our manager has guarded against revealing such insights. He is too professional for that.

On the first day of the year, we have a surprising amount of transfer activity – with the departure of Jason Taylor, and three young Liverpool players coming in. Kevin Stewart appears to be the most experienced of the trio. He has been on the bench for Tottenham in three Europa League games, and has started four times on loan for Crewe Alexandra. Lloyd Jones has apparently been on the bench for Liverpool in one Premier League game, at Fulham in May 2013 – but has yet to make his first team debut. He has played for both England and Wales at under-19 level (if Soccerway is accurate on this) and for Wales U-17, (born in Plymouth). Jack Dunn has also played for England’s younger age teams, I have even seen him briefly in action when he came on as a substitute for an England U-19 side at Preston in May 2012. (As it happens, Luke Garbutt was originally selected in the same squad, but withdrew to play for us in the play off final at Wembley. All three of our new players already had squad numbers at Liverpool (41-Dunn, 51-Jones, 55-Stewart).

The result of these signings is that our already young squad is getting even younger. I would not be at all surprised if someone calculated this as the youngest ever team we have fielded – especially as the two oldest players at the club, Elliott (36) and Matt Taylor (32) are both missing through injury. The fact that all the changes today have been loans is generally forced as full transfers cannot be registered until Saturday morning. I thought they could play on Saturday (with the exception of teams who are playing in the FA Cup, who can only use players registered by lunchtime Friday). As such, it is less than clear whether Jason Taylor has left for good, or if this is a short or long term loan. The first tweet from the club said he was “leaving on a permanent basis”, but the news report later referred to it as a loan. The Liverpool trio have all signed on loan forms with an initial one month period. With the exception of Kevin Stewart, these can be youth loans, which would allow the players to spend all of the half season with us, while still having the flexibility to return to Liverpool on demand. They can even play some non-first team games, or attend training at Liverpool and then return to us afterwards. Stewart is too old to be on a youth loan, so is either limited to 93 days, or needs to sign a longer deal before the transfer window closes.

I would expect all three of our new faces to be in the 18 on Saturday, but I cannot even speculate over who will start and who will be on the bench. I doubt if Paul Buckle himself knew the answer to this before the first training session today. It will also be interesting to see where this leaves those youngsters promoted into the squad in the last few games, and of course where all this leaves the other players whose future has been questioned. As Williams was preferred to Harrison last week, will Harrison be dropped from the 18 this time?

While the sudden throughput in players, which may well not be terminating this week – the window runs to the first Monday in February after all, this is certainly an interesting time to be a Cheltenham fan – and I do not mean this in the way of the (fictional) Chinese curse. We have no choice but to wait and see what the team looks like on Saturday, and by the end of the month, it could well change significantly again.

I admit to having some worry over loan signings. Our support has shown itself to be a little uncertain about loans, especially when they play a few games and then return to their clubs. It is true that some of the loan players have not been up to the task, or did not appear to put their heart into playing for Cheltenham. However, some of the more successful loans, (such as Garbutt and Butland) have made such an impression that they have been followed by our fans as their careers develop. My worry also harks back to those six good games at the start of the season. Our early season form owed something at least to loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter and I felt that we never found adequate replacements when they were recalled by their clubs. This was at least a contribution to Yates’ departure in November. Let us hope that Buckle has made agreements that suit us as much as they suit Liverpool in bringing these players on board.

If Buckle has got this right, then there is no reason why we should not climb back up to at least mid-table obscurity. If it is wrong, then there is not even much point in calling for another change in manager. We have chosen our steed for the second half of the season, and changing again before running the course is not likely to bring relief. One way or another, January 1st 2015 may turn out to be one of the most significant dates without even a game for Cheltenham

Has India Created the Super League?

December 18th, 2014

The first Indian Super League final will take place this weekend, when Atletico de Kolkata take on Kerala Blasters in Mumbai.

One cannot doubt that the three month season is going to be declared as a success, but it will take a somewhat more measured timescale before the actual realities come to light. Only time will show if this is the first blast of a new style of football competition, or a damp squib, that disappears from view after a few seasons.

Operating its teams as franchises, and having drafts to select the playing squads means that the ISL has been likened to American sports, and in particular Major League Soccer, but its dependency on marquee players, many past their use-by dates, and the bidding for the franchises mean it is more a hybrid of that other Indian Cricket phenomenon, the Indian Premier League and the short lived North American Soccer League.

There has always been football in India, with concentrations in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, and the city of Kolkata (Calcutta as was). The Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata is the venue for some of the biggest derby matches in the world, and matches between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have reportedly filled the stadium even when its capacity was 130,000. However, it is also true that the reality of the game in India is that most games take place in front of crowds of a couple of thousand, plus in some case a handful of snakes (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/mar/26/snakes-pitch-india-football-mohun-bagan). The official figures for the national I-League in 2013-14 season – an average crowd of 5618 was greeted by derision from fans of the game in India on social media, and a quick word with a friend who travelled to some games during the season backed up this.

Until, the mid-nineties, there was no Indian national championship, but a series of state and city competitions, and competitions where the top clubs from these came together in centralised locations for short tournaments. A national league was started in 1996, and then re-launched as the I-League in 2007. The first winner was Jagatjit Cotton Textile Mills (generally abbreviated to JCT Mills) from Phagwara – not far (in Indian terms at least) from Dehli. Since then, clubs from either Kolkata or Goa have won every title until last season when FC Bengaluru won on their first attempt. Bengaluru are evidence of an unevenness in the All Indian Football Federation’s attitudes to the I-League. While promotion and relegation is in place between this league and a second division (which is run as a tournament, rather than a league), they also parachute in new franchises. Hence for the 2013-14 season, they gave places to both Bengaluru (who became champions) and Mumbai Tigers (who did not start the season). When the now misnamed 2014-15 season starts in January, the league will include Royal Wahingdoh, promoted in place of bottom placed Mohammedan, and also a new club Kalyani Bharat (Kalyani is a company name), sharing the ground at Pune. Meanwhile three clubs, including Churchill (twice champions) have failed the obtain a licence, so the league will operate with just 11 clubs.

India’s National team did qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup, thanks to the confederations curious use of giving places to the winners of a second ranking competition, (the AFC Challenge Cup). There are 16 places in the Asian Cup, but only teams ranked less than 24 entered the lower competition, and India were just low enough to qualify for this in 2008, and won a competition they hosted. In the following competitions (2010 and 2012), India lost all three group games, while they could not even qualify for the 2014 tournament, which means they will not be in Australia next month for the next Asian Cup. The Challenge Cup is now being discontinued.

One could claim that the high point for the Indian National Team was the 1950 World Cup, as it is the only one they qualified for. Indeed in both qualification and the finals in 1950, India went unbeaten. They also did not win any games, and for that matter did not draw any. All of their opponents in the qualification phase, (Australia, New Zealand, Burma and Indonesia) withdrew and hence India reached the finals as “last man standing”, but simply not withdrawing earlier. India did withdraw before the final tournament started, and hence kept their perfect record. The myth is that this was because FIFA had banned barefoot football, but in reality it was more to do with the expense of the trip, and the feeling that the FIFA World Cup was secondary to the Olympics. India were reported as playing barefoot (which often means the feet are bandaged, but not booted), when losing 2-1 to France at Ilford in the London Olympics of 1948. The laws insisted on footwear afterwards, meaning they were booted when losing 10-1 to Yugoslavia in Helsinki two years later. Thanks to other withdrawals, India reached the semi-finals of the Melbourne Olympics (they had to win one match, against the hosts, Australia)in 1956, and also played in Rome in 1960 (when the matches were in groups of four). India finished bottom of their group with one draw (France) and two defeats. They have not troubled the World stage since.

The idea of an Indian Super League goes back to the start of the contract between the AIFF, and commercial partners Reliance and IMG signed in 2010. Reliance is India’s second biggest company, operating across a number of fields. IMG (International Management Group) is a US based sports marketing group; their production ground, (TWI) is already involved in the broadcast of football across Asia, including packaging Premier League shows for the international market. At the time the contract was signed, the Indian Premier League was a relatively new concept.

There are many reasons why the IPL concept is not truly suitable for football. The sixty matches of the IPL season in 2014 were compressed into around 7 weeks. The popularity of cricket in India is such that the IPL can offer the players far more than they earn with other domestic, or even from international competition – but anyway they can return to playing in other countries, or to the international circuit as soon as the IPL season is finished. Football requires a greater recovery time between games, so while the Super League season is 61 games, it is played over a period twice as long as the IPL season. With a requirement to train together and play some warm up games, Super League players need to be with their Indian clubs for around four months. The Indian Super League is not competitive with the major European Leagues in salary terms, so the big stars of the game are not going to leave their day jobs to play in India. This meant that the foreigners who made up a large part of the Super League were either stars whose light is already waning, or journeymen willing to travel for a short term contract.

Soon after the Reliance-IMG contract had commenced, they announced their first attempt at a new league. This would have been called the West Bengal Premier League. Despite one of the leading teams in the city being name East Bengal, the city of Kolkata is within the state of West Bengal, (generally, what was East Bengal is now known as Bangladesh). The intention was to create a franchised league with six franchises within the city and state. The existing teams would have been called on to be involved. The venture got as far as naming four marquee players – Fabio Cannavaro, Robbie Fowler, Hernan Crespo and Robert Pires. All four of the players, in their late thirties and just retired from major leagues were offered in excess of £500,000 to play in India. In the end, this league never took place, but the organisers had not given up on the idea. Instead they came up with what looks like a more ambitious plan – eight franchises spread across the country. There is good reason why this could succeed where a more localised league did not. A league involving teams from eight cities would be more capable of pulling in a national TV audience.

Still the plans did not run smooth. When the I-League released their fixtures for 2013-14, it included a very long break from January to March into which this new league would be plugged, but disagreements between some of the I-League teams and the new league meant that again the start was postponed. Other problems included the non-availability of a ground in Mumbai, and difficulties at other venues as well. The fact that the official launch of the league was on October 21st 2013, but the postponement of the dates was given just eight days later shows some chaos in the organisation. As a result, the I-League was rescheduled to complete a normal schedule.

Things really started to move in April, when the eight cities that had won franchises were announced. Test cricketers Sourav Ganguly and SachinTendulkar headed up the consortia that won the Kolkata and Kochi franchises, while Bollywood stars were named in three of the other winning bids. All the bids were backed by a number of Indian companies, and two of the I-League teams, Shillong Lajong and Dempo were directly involved. The Kolkata team named Atletico de Kolkata was also partially owned by Atletico Madrid.

With the franchises in place, each one could start recruiting, by signing its marquee player and coach. Most of the squads would come from two player draft sessions, from which seven foreign players and 14 Indians were chosen. In the Indian players draft, North East United selected exclusively from players of Shillong Lajong, and FC Goa from Dempo. Judging by the names I have seen for the draft, four i-League clubs, Bengaluru, Pune, Salgaocar and Sporting Goa declined to allow their contracted players enter the draft. Some state leagues, including Goa carried on at the same time as the super league, and so clubs may have preferred to keep their players for this. All of the I-League teams also run teams in their own state leagues. The Super League teams, as franchises created for this purpose only do not, although some promotion of the game in their areas is supposedly included in each franchises remit.

The Big Names.

Club Name Stadium (capacity) Head Coach Marquee Player
Atletico de Kolkata Salt Lake (68,000) Antonio Lopez Habas (Spain) Luis Garcia (Spain)
Chennaiyin Jawaharial Nehru (Chennai) (40,000) Marco Materazzi (Italy) Elano (Brazil)
Delhi Dynamos Jawaharial Nehru (Dehli) (60,000) Harm van Vedhoven (Netherlands) Alessandro del Piero (Italy)
Goa Fatorda (19,800) Zico (Brazil) Robert Pires (France)
Kerala Blasters Jawaharial Nehru (Kochi) (70,000) David James (England) David James (England)
Mumbai City DY Patil (55,000) Peter Reid (England) Fredrik Ljungberg (Sweden)
North East United Indira Ghandi (35,000) Ricki Herbert (New Zealand) Joan Capdevila (Spain)
Pune City Shree Shiv Chhatrapati (11,500) Franco Colomba (Italy) David Trezeguet (France)

 

Luis Garcia (36) said he had retired after a long career, mainly in Spain, but with three years at Liverpool, he finished his career in Mexico, and was out of the game for nine months before heading to India

Elano (33) played mainly in Brazil, but also for Manchester City and Galatasaray, his contract with Gremio was terminated in the summer. 50 caps for Brazil, including winning the Confederations cup

Alessandro del Piero (40) – over 500 games for Juventus, and 91 caps for Italy. Del Pierro has spent the last two seasons in Sydney. One world cup and eight Serie A medals.

Pires (41) – played for Arsenal when they could win the league, France when they could win the World Cup, but not played for three years before this

David James (44) – Had played up to the summer of 2013, when we was playing for IBV in Iceland. 53 England caps.

Fredrik Ljungberg (37) – 75 Swedish caps, and over 200 appearances for Arsenal. I last saw him when he was with Seattle in 2010, but he has had short spells with Celtic and Shimizu S-Pulse since. He announced his retirement two years before going to India

Joan Capdevila (36) – 60 Spanish Caps, and another World Cup winner, played almost all his football in Spain, mainly for Deportivo la Coruna and Villareal. After an unproductive season in Portugal with Benfica, he spent two years at Espanyol who released him in the summer.

David Trezegeut (37) – 71 French Caps, World Cup winner, French champion with Monaco, and then Italian champion with Juventus, but a bit of a traveller over the last few years, going to Hercules in Spain, who were relegated despite his goals, then after a very short spell with Baniyas in Abu Dhabi, onto River Plate recently relegated to the second division in Argentina. Despite helping the club return to the top division, they loaned him out last season to Newell’s Old Boys.

Some of the other better known players are just as old, Chennaiyin included Alessandro Nesta (38), Mikael Silvestre (37) and the positively youthful Bernard Mendy (33) in defence, alng with Erik Djemba-Dejemba (33). At Kerala Blasters, David James picked Michael Chopra (30), who had been at Blackpool last season, and the Canadian Iain Hume (31) who went to India from Fleetwood, as well as Scotsmen Stephen Pearson (32, signed from Bristol City) and Jamie McAllister (32, from Yeovil). Dehli signed 38 year old Czech goalkeeper Marek Cech, who has played as far afield as Vladivostock, but never selected him, preferring to give the jersey to the 27 year old Belgian Kristof van Hout, formerly of Genk and Kortrijk. They also had Morten Skoubo (34) and Mads Junker (33), both from Denmark in their attack. For goals, though, they relied on the 20 year old Gustavo Marmentini from Brazil who had played for Atletico Paranaense, but only in their regional squads, not the top division. Pune City included 37 year old Italians in Bruno Cirillo who had a season off after playing for Metz in the third division in France, and the Romanian Adrian Mutu (35) – who ended up without an appearance in India. They also had Jermaine Pennant, a free agent since being released by Stoke in January. AT Mumbai, Peter Ried included Nicolas Anelka (35) who could not play for three games due to a ban from his time at West Bromwich. He went on to play seven times and scored twice. North East United signed New Zealander Leo Bertos (formerly of Barnsley, Rochdale, etc.) on loan from East Bengal. The 32 year old had been released from New Zealand’s A-League side at the end of last season, and had signed as the marquee player for the I-League club, but then went north on loan after playing a small number of CFL games (the regional league in Kolkata is still known by its British title, the Calcutta Football League, not under the current city name of Kolkata). They also included James Keene who has played 2 Premier League, and nine League-1 games for Portsmouth, while spending most of his career with Elfsborg in Sweden.

So what is this league supposed to achieve, and what will it achieve? The Indian authorities see it as revitalising the domestic game, and even improving the results of the National team. It may well have done the first of these, but it will take a long time to see if it can achieve the second. Both the NASL and the J-League started with a high number of European players who really ought to be retired, but in both countries, there are now vibrant football competitions. On the opposite side of the coins, the regular appearances by similar players in Arabian countries (for example) has done little to promote the game, or improve their national teams. I cannot see it having a beneficial effect on the other national league. Surely if the crowds come to the Super League, they will see the I-League as a secondary competition. Crowd wise, the league is claiming an average attendance in excess of 26,000 – meaning only the Bundesliga, English Premier and Spanish League get higher averages. However, the costs of putting the league on mean that even if every match is played to a capacity stadium, every team would lose money. The financial implications of the league are in the TV audience. The league has managed to negotiate a deal with Star TV (part of the same group as Sky in the UK), which puts games out on multiple channels, so as they are available in five different languages. The success of the league will depend on having a viewing audience. The scheduling of the matches is generally one at a time, with games on almost every day, to give a continual presence. The season ends with semi-finals and a final, so four of the eight teams reach the finals. The teams are closely enough matched that almost every game, right to the end had something on it.

If it is a success, then one has to ask what this means for the game worldwide. Even if Indian football itself improves massively, this will not change the world. World football can take in any number of improved national teams, and the game can only benefit if populous nations such as India join the club. The format however presents a challenge, and if successful it may well be imitated elsewhere. It is not difficult to imagine a football circus travelling the world and playing for a few months in one country before decamping to the next venue. I fear that such a scenario may well damage local football in the host countries, as I find it hard to really imagine these leagues building the continued effort to work with the local kids.

I do not believe it will affect the dominance of foreign televised football in countries such as India. The marquee players of the Super League are all aging players who have made their name in the European Leagues and International football. Still, I wonder if it is co-incident that right at the end of this tournament, we also saw a marketing push for the English Premier League, based on a weekend event which brought over 20,000 to watch games at a fan-park in Mumbai. Does the Premier League now feel it needs to work to keep its dominance in the market?

It will be years before we know the answers, but before this league started, one had to say that Football in India needed fixing. This is the most innovative attempt at changing the structure of the game anywhere in the world, and I for one am not sure if that is to be embraced or feared.

In the meantime, Kerala Blasters will play Atletico de Kolkata at 12.30 (UK time) this Saturday (20 December 2014)

I also suggest reading this. Written just before the league started

The Changing of the Guard

November 26th, 2014

When the change came, it was quick. It is easy to guess how the process went, even if at least one press statement (given b Paul Baker on Monday) confused the issues.

Those members of the board that were at last Saturday’s game will almost certainly have decided there and then that things were not right, and at least considered at that point that it was time to change. I believe most of the board attend most of the home games, so discussion will have been occurring straight away.

If you decide to change manager in mid-season, there are two basic ways to go about it – either you sack the incumbent, appoint a caretaker and then open up the position for applications, or you quietly approach someone and have an basic agreement in place before the sacking. There is a slightly confused variant of this, when the chosen replacement is working for another club – as you cannot formerly approach a club while your old manager is still in place, as any leak would make his position untenable.

In the past, Cheltenham have taken all available approaches. After bringing us into the league, and winning promotion to the third tier, Steve Cotterill left at the end of the season, giving the club plenty of time. They went for the option referred to be many as “cheap”, appointing Graham Allner who was already on the coaching staff. Allner was given the very difficult job of keeping the team at their highest ever level, but did not have the playing staff to achieve this. I was never one of the anti-Allner brigade, and would happily have kept him through the season, even if it ended in relegation. Considering criticism of later managers, he did at least try to have us playing in expansive, entertaining style that mirrored his successes in non-League football without mirroring the results.

When Allner was sacked, we took several weeks contemplating his successor, ending with a short list that was heavily leaked, (not that I can now remember all the names). I do remember saying that while some candidates would be an interesting risk (was Luther Blissett interviewed?), one was guaranteed to result in our relegation. Clearly my words were not heeded. We employed the one man I thought certain to lead us back to the fourth tier, Bobby Gould. I believe rumours that he was also a cheap option, having agreed to work to the end of his first season for free to be true. Even so, for his second season he had a contract.

The Gould tenure was less than a year, and in the end he did not wait to be pushed. For this we should always be grateful, and I know that Gould is always welcomed back to visit the club. Having led us to relegation (that was expected anyway), the lack of improvement in the lower division was always going to account for him. With a resignation, you cannot have the new man in place directly. As I recall it, Gould left the club immediately after the home defeat by Rochdale on 18 October 2003. John Ward arrived just under three weeks later.

Ward always had his critics. Even in his promotion winning season, some supporters were critical of dour defensive displays, and this did not improve after promotion. We reached our highest ever league position under Ward’s management while many complained about the football being dour. I personally always felt Ward was doing a good job, and I was hopeful that he could build the club and finally start brining youth players through the system and into the team. At the start of the 2007-8 season, results were worse and we looked as if we had gone backwards. Ward finally resigned in October, and many felt it was time, although I was disappointed as I thought things would pick up. As with the appointment of Allner, we took the option of promoting from within. Before Keith Downing took the reins, he had a month as caretaker. If a caretaker manager has a period of time to make his case irresistible to the directors, then Downing was a surprise choice. His five matches as caretaker involved two defeats and two draws, with the solitary win coming in the much maligned JPT Trophy game at Swindon. He was still appointed at the start of November and finally delivered a league win at the end of the month, (prior to which we had fell to Brighton at the Withdean in both the JPT Trophy and the FA Cup). However, the fact his first win was at home to Leeds United did remove some of the doubts about his ability. Without doubt, our best match under Downing was the tremendous 2-1 win at Leeds on a Tuesday night some months later. We eventually secured safety by beating Doncaster on the last day of the season. This result also consigned Doncaster to the play offs (they finished two points behind Nottingham Forest), although that displeasure would have been alleviated by beating Leeds United in the play off final.

The first six matches of 2008-9 produced just one win and no draws, and on no less than four occasions we had four goals put past us. Downing’s sacking was practically inevitable, and came after a soggy Friday night in Hartlepool. Martin Allen was considered a favourite candidate by many supporters before Downing was appointed. This time there was no delay, and Allen was installed before the weekend was complete. The rest of the season was something of a roller coaster, before a final drop to relegation, while our squad always appeared to be on a carousel, with more comings and goings than ever seen before at the club. By the end of the season, the squad numbers of new players had to be defined by those numbers we could add to the shirts (I believe we run out of 2s and 4s). We had more loan players than it was permissible to play, and each newcomer was treated like a child’s fresh toy – great for the first days and then discarded for something else new and shiny. Allen assured us that some of the loan players were given free of charge. Others have assured me that this was either untrue, or did not include massively inflated expense payments. Eventually the board came to their senses, saw the bills and decided that we just could not afford the squad we had. So as the transfer window approached, we had to offload whoever we could to offset the expenses. It is worth noting that Lloyd Owusu was one of those who left and he scored seven goals for Brighton after departing. Had he scored those seven for us (in the right games), it is just conceivable that we could have avoided relegation.

Although we won the opening game of 2009-10, we soon started to falter, and after thirteen league games, we had just three wins, compared to five defeats. Poor, but not disastrous, the results were combined with several disciplinary offences to put Allen on “gardening leave”. This led to a long and protracted exit, with John Schofield as caretaker manager for eight league, and one FA Cup match, with just one highlight, (5-1 at home to Barnet). Eventually, a compromise was reached where Allen left, and this left the way open for another popular choice.

Mark Yates came in during December 2009, and did not make an immediate mark. We lost our first three home games under his management, while somehow being unbeaten in five away games over the period, (even if we only won once). The highlight was also away from home, the stunning 6-5 win at Burton, but home fans had at least one treat when Bury were disposed of by 5-2. The last trip of the season was a 5-0 defeat at Notts County, leaving us still vulnerable on the final day. We needed a point to be safe, but Grimsby needed three points and to make up a six goal deficit to condemn us to the Conference. In the end, we picked up our point, Grimsby lost 3-0 to go down while Barnet did overtake us on the last day to leave us 22nd in the table. The following season did not start badly, but ended up little better. We finished the season with thirteen wins and thirteen draws in the league, but only four of the wins game in the second half of the season. We finished five points clear of relegation, having basically secured our status with a win at Lincoln on Easter Monday. Lincoln went down with Stockport, we drew at Stockport on the final day. The poor second half of the season, and securing more points away from home were features of Yates’ time in charge. 2011-12 was, I felt, Yates’ best season. We got into the rhythm quickly, and were playing some really good football in the fall of 2011. We beat Tranmere and Luton, both away to set up a third round cup tie at Tottenham. However, Yates’ mid-season transfers do not seem the best in retrospect. If the playing strength was supposedly strengthened, the spirit of the team was not, and March in particular was unpleasant, without a win in seven games, and five on the trot without a goal. Still, we recovered and reached the play off final. The following season was a similar story – much better in the first half of the season than the second and play-off defeat, this time without the final itself.

Having reached the play-offs twice, there was an expectation last season that we could do it again. This was never realised, and we ended the season with 55 points, five ahead of the relegation zone, although as this included losing the last two, we generally always had enough in reserve to be safe. Still, it was the away games that kept us in the league. We picked up 24 home points, and we had only picked up 24 away, this would not have seen us safe. It is also notable that only 21 of the 55 points came in the second half of the season. While I did not feel Yates’ should have been sacked during this run, I did not think he should get his contract renewed. The board decided just to change to second in charge from Howarth to North, and to give Yates another year. For a brief moment, it looked like a good decision. We picked up 13 points from 5 league games in August. It soon became clear we were flattering to deceive. Most of the flair on the field came from loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter, both recalled to their parent clubs, while the defence lost its solid appearance with the injury of Matt Taylor, (with him, our defeats tended to be by single goals, without him, 3-0, 5-1 and 4-1). Only nine points from the last 13 games, and precious little for the home fans – just nine goals in nine home league games. At times we have played really well, but these times are few and far between. I will see the Cambridge and Swindon games as highlights of the season, however we finish. If we are to repeat our habit of not doing as well in the second half of the season as the first, we would need to go the next five league games unbeaten to have the safety margin we need, (with three wins minimum).

So come the end of the game, the board feel change is needed. I would imagine somewhere along the line, a quiet word with Shaun North comes up with the idea that Buckle is available, and of course that he would work with the existing staff. For those who do not know, Buckle worked with North at both Torquay and Bristol Rovers. It was not the most obvious of appointments, Buckle had moved to the United States with his wife, the sports presenter Rebecca Lowe. Reports say that he had a reasonable position as technical director of the Metropolitan Oval, a historic playing field which now acts as a USSF academy. International relationships are not easy (as I know from experience), so it comes as a surprise that he wants to return to UK management so soon.

There was no popular choice on the supporters’ forums this time. The change came quickly and Buckle’s name appeared to be leaked quite soon into the process. The oddest part of the process was Paul Baker’s press statement on Monday, which did not show confidence in Yates, but appeared to say that he was in the last chance saloon, rather than about to be kicked out from it. It was a strange statement to make when Baker must have already started talking to Buckle. Would he not have been better keeping quiet for the day? Buckle’s record in the past suggest that he will not be a bad appointment. He has been successful at Torquay, and had a good spell at Luton. Still, the appointment has immediately caused some criticism. This seems mainly based on his short (and unsuccessful) period at Bristol Rovers. Choosing Cheltenham is not the easiest of choices to make. We are not the highest of profile of clubs, but a failure here will be close to a death knell for his hopes of a long football league career. By the same argument, it will be interesting to see if Yates’ career in management progresses. The 18 league games this season will not be an overall plus on his CV, and he may well have been better leaving during, or at least at the end of last season.

I am more than hopeful that this appointment is at least a safe pair of hands, and that we can lose our fear of relegation. For this week only we get some idea as to whether Yates and his second in command saw eye to eye. I believe Yates would have kept to the 3-5-2 formation if possible, so if we start 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 then surely this is a difference due to North. It is almost a relief that the closing of the “emergency” loan window comes quickly, and there will be no new signings now. This gives the new manager a serious chance to review the squad he has inherited before making changes. We know that if can get the best out of the group we currently have, as Yates has managed on too few occasions this season (Bury, Tranmere, Cambridge, Swindon), then the players can deliver. This is Buckle’s first priority. Clubs change managers at this stage of the season, because anything is still possible, and that is the case at Cheltenham. Automatic promotion is not impossible, the play offs certainly within reach, but we are also nowhere near safe from the drop, and many games like last week’s would make this seem the greater possibility.

Buckle is not starting with a blank canvass, but he still needs to make his mark, and to build confidence from the supporters, he needs to do it quickly.

Tesco 0, Cheltenham Town 0.

October 30th, 2014

I have heard that Tesco’s recent figures have been poor. Sales and profits are down. So what will Tesco do next? Well, first there is the blood-letting stage. Those senior executives believed to have taken the wrong decisions will lose their jobs. Please do not worry about them though. They will receive a big payout as they leave the job, and in most cases they will soon find another highly paid position*. After that there will be some analysis of where they are going wrong. Following that there will be some action to try to regain their market share. I am not certain what that action will be, but I am sure they will not be increasing prices while keeping for the same, or even an inferior product.

While the overall figures for League-2 Football are not suffering after a quarter of the season has been played (the average for the division is exactly the same as last season*, while all the higher divisions have seen a drop), some clubs within League-2 have seen a significant drop. Mansfield are 19% down on last season, Newport County and Oxford United both find their custom down by over 14%, while Cheltenham Town are 15.7% down so far. However, none of Mansfield, Newport or Oxford also saw a significant drop in attendance last season. Indeed, both Mansfield and Newport had a big increase on the back of promotion into the division. Cheltenham’s attendances for 2013-14 were 8% down on the season before, and even though 2012-13 was considered a successful season, it also saw a 5% fall in crowds. So it appears that over 25% of Cheltenham’s support has ebbed away in a three year period.

So where is the blood-letting? In football, responsibility tends to lie with the managers. So much so that more than half the managers of professional football clubs are changed every season. Not all of these are sacked for failure. There is much poaching of successful managers by ambitious clubs with bigger budgets. It is therefore quite surprising that after Arsenal’s Arsene Wegner, the two longest serving managers are Exeter’s Paul Tisdale and Cheltenham’s Mark Yates. If they are good managers, why has no one poached them? If they are not good managers, why have they not been sacked?

But then, unlike Tesco, most League-2 football clubs (certainly true in Cheltenham’s case) are not profit making enterprises. I can understand why they may not wish to have to make a payout to sack their manager. It is less clear why a contract was renewed at the end of an unsuccessful season, which saw the club falling well short of the previous season’s level of achievement, and as already mentioned losing 8% of the customers en-route. This season’s even larger fall in attendance is partially a knock on from the season before. Despite results being vastly better, a high portion of the customer base pays for the full season in advance. Hence disillusioned support from 2013-4 (many of whom did not bother to go to matches at the end of the season) do not show up in the figures until the new season. I know that a large number of season ticket holders did not renew, even if the full scale of the problem has not been made public.

So, surely the club will not be increasing prices? The base claim is they are not doing so, with the general price remaining unchanged over the last few years. However, four years ago they came across the idea of Premium price matches, designating about six games a season where prices across the board were £1 more than the standard cost. At some stage since then, the Premium has been increased to £2. Generally the games chosen are those where the away team are expected to bring more support. The logic being that the away fans will turn up regardless of the £2 extra charge (and generally this is correct). The catch is that the home support also has to pay the Premium prices. The first game this season to be declared a Premium game was the match against Northampton. The extra charge did not deter visiting supporters, but the home crowd was around 400 down on the previous game. The total crowd has been given as 2447. Let’s assume that after we take off season tickets, junior robins and other complimentary tickets, 1500 paid the extra £2, so an increase in revenue of £3000, which once we deduct the VAT comes down to £2500. Now according to the club chairman, the average take per ticket is £11*, (this is after deducting VAT, which is why I deducted it above). In other words, those lost 400 fans cost the club £4400 and the overall for the day is down by £1900. Of course, there were other factors in play for the Northampton game, in particular, there was racing in Cheltenham which has a triple disincentive to the club, (increased traffic congestion, the closure of the racecourse park and ride, and the fact some people may wish to have “A Day at the Races”*). It was already planned that the game against Oxford United at the end of November was also to be a Premium game. Now, with a home draw against Swindon in the FA Cup we have added another at the higher price into the budget.

While Swindon is an attractive visitor, a close neighbour and a division higher than ourselves, the FA Cup has been attracting reduced attendances compared to League games for some years. This is considered to be down to two reasons – the fact the competition has been devalued by the top clubs not putting out their full first team, and the fact season ticket holders have to pay for admission in cup matches, so if a season ticket holder is going to miss one game, why not miss the one not already paid for?

Raising prices seems like a move borne out of desperation. It appears we have already conceded we will lose the match, so we must maximise the take from a single game. Revenues for the game are shared, and the extra £2 includes VAT, so for each paying customer we will only gain 83p. For each customer lost, we lose £5.50. I agree we are not likely to lose as many as one in six of those who would have come to the game, so we will take more at the higher price. I cannot estimate how much more we lose as those who do not turn up will not go into the bar, buy a programme, a raffle ticket or use the catering in the ground.

One can only guess too whether or not some of those coming to the FA Cup game will feel they do not need to come to five games over a seven Saturday period, and so decide to miss one or other of the later games in the month instead. If any do, then that is a loss of £11 per person at the Wycombe game, £12.67 for the Premium Oxford game.

I can almost guarantee that in order to improve their figures, Tesco will first of all wish to increase the footfall, the number of people entering the stores, even if this means lower prices and more advertising; in short a cutting of margins and less profit in the short term. By contrast, our football club is responding to lower attendances by trying to squeeze more money out of each individual still paying. They are doing this without presenting any improvement in what we will be on view. This is not a recipe I would expect to create success.

 

* Notes.

1) At some stage, Tesco may decide to cut costs by reducing shop and warehouse employment. Where I will not waste my sympathy on high paid executives with large pay outs, the lower paid employees will suffer more if they lose their jobs, and in no way can be held to blame.

2) Actually, crowds in League-2 are marginally down. The divisional average is the same (so far) as last season but the incoming clubs have slightly more support than the outgoing clubs, meaning there is an overall decrease of about 125 fans per game, just under 3%

3) I am taking our chairman at his word on this. I would love to see the breakdown

4) Copyright, the Marx Brothers, and later Queen.

The Coppa Italia Job

October 3rd, 2014

So, the boss lady wants me to drive her around Italy and Southern France, covering both the first two weekends of the English League season. A disruption to the start of my season, but of course, not bad enough to rob me of all football.

Hence on Sunday afternoon, we arrived at a second rate hotel, halfway between Florence and Pisa, and after a decent interval made my way to the nearby town of Pontedera.

For many years, the divisions of the Italian League were called Serie A, Serie B, Serie C and Serie D, although for some reason Serie C was split into C1 and C2, and hence was both the third and fourth levels. Serie D is very regionalised, with nine regions. A few years ago, Serie C1 and C2 were re-launched as Lega Pro, but still with two levels, and regionalised divisions in both. The support for this level of football has been shrinking. About a decade ago, I remember recording that the Italian system like the English had over 100 clubs showing average attendances in four figures. The English numbers have actually increased in the last decade, but European Football Statistics only recorded 74 in Italy last season. The Lega Pro in 2013-4 consisted of two levels of two divisions, and a total of 69 clubs. For 2014-15, it was decided to change this to a single level consisting of three regional divisions. Hence Serie D, for the first time since I have taken an interest in these things is actually the fourth level.

While none of the league divisions in Italy start this early in the month, the Coppa Italia is underway. My experience in other countries shows cup competitions that either have an open draw, or actually give the smaller teams home an advantage with chances to play bigger teams and even home advantage by right. Not so, Italy where everything is biased in favour of the selections from the top.

In the first round, there are 15 ties, all on the grounds of Lega Pro clubs, the away sides being either Lega Pro or lower. I admit to being uncertain of how qualification is achieved, although there is a Coppa Italia Lega Pro (which would be the equivalent of the FA Trophy in England), and maybe a Coppa Italia Serie D as well. There are also regional cups. The 15 winners go into the second round, where all 20 home teams are from Serie B. At the time of the draw, Serie B had 21 teams, due to the bankruptcy of Sienna. However, Novara (one of the relegated teams) appealed against this state of affairs and gained what can only be seen as a pyrrhic victory. The league decided to return to 22 clubs, by promoting an extra club, rather than by reprieving a relegated one. The position went to…., after rivals, Pisa could not file all documentation by the deadline.

So, at the time of the draw, one of the 21 Serie B teams suffered and away draw, along with the 15 winners from the previous round and four more Lega Pro clubs which had byes. There will be 16 games in Round 3, and 12 of the Serie A teams enter at this stage – all 12 will play at home. After 8 games in Round 4, the 8 qualifying teams will all be away to the privileged few, the final 8 teams from Serie A, (AC Milan, Torino, Inter, Napoli, Roma, Fiorentina, Juventus and Parma) enter with home matches in the middle of January.

Pontedera play at the Stadio Ettore Mannucci, which they will share this season with Tuttocuoio, now in the same division. It sits on the Northern side of a town which I did not actually visit. It has a running track and a high fence, which means elevation is required to view the game well. The main stand, probably a fifties or sixties construction made mainly of pre-cast concrete, (including the roof) had around 360 seats in a good position, and a further 480 in front where the views are questionable. Alongside this is what I normally think of as a “meccano” stand – uncovered and held up by scaffolding, which seemed to be the abode of the local “ultras”. On the far side is a substantial and long uncovered stand, with two more small “meccano” constructs as an adjunct for when the away team has a lot of followers. The substantial stand which is raised (on clearly visible concrete supports), so as the views will not be bad has a large fence down the middle to separate home and away fans. There is no spectator accommodation, or access behind the goals.

Last season, Pontedera finished 8th in the top division of the Lega Pro, which qualified them for a play off, (8 teams in a knock out for one Serie B place). The visitors Messina, (from Sicily) were the champions of their ground of the second Lega Pro division. Messina are on the rise again in their complex history. A Messina club was in Serie A for two seasons in the sixties – with two intervening bankruptcies, (both within a couple of years at the end of the 90s), a new Messina club managed three seasons in Serie A from 2004, but this too went bankrupt when back in Serie B. The assets were sold by the courts in a blind auction, but the club, now named AC Rinascita Messina were in Serie D. They won promotion out of this in 2013. Amazingly, considering the distance from their home town, which means that if travelling home by road straight after the game, they would still miss breakfast, Messina had about 60 fans in their section, with a good number of flags on show.

Pontedera have never been higher than their current status, but do have one claim to fame with Marcello Lippi starting his management career here. The club are nicknamed Granata, a reference to the colours they normally play in, although for this game, Messina played in Red (with a yellow chevron), so Pontedera were in all white. I think these were not the official shirts for the season – both teams lined up as 1-11, and there were no sponsors names on either club’s shirts.

Messina will not play Pontedera in the league, but with only two regions last season, they did have to travel this distance to play Tuttocuoio, (who used a different stadium then).

Pontedera has the better of the early exchanges, but there shooting was woeful, and by the middle of the half, Messina were well on top. As such, it was no surprise when they took the lead. A well taken free kick by Vincenzo Pepe providing the opening score. Messina did not push on from this though, and instead fell back to the own defensive areas, giving Pontedera a better chance. Still the equaliser came as something of a surprise – Luigi Grassi’s free kick from the right being easily covered by the Messina keeper, but he mishandled it and saw it sneak just inside the far post.

Pontedera were again prominent at the start of the second half, the very first attack resulted in a shot against the cross bar. Messina again worked their way back into the game with Pepe beating the keeper only to see his shot cleared off the line. The decisive moves came just after the hour mark. A Caponi corner headed in powerfully at the near post by wing back Gregorio Luperini to put Pontedera ahead, and then three minutes later the home side won a penalty. The decision was unusual in itself, as the referee deemed contact was made inside the area, but the fouled player fell to ground outside the zone. There was hardly any dispute, so Messina appeared to accept it. Grassi gratefully took the chance to increase the lead. Messina did try to get back into the game, but the home goalkeeper, Matteo Ricci, who had looked shaky early in the game was now well in command, in particular making saves from Bonanno and substitute Izzillo. To add insult to injury, Messina’s veteran 40 year old striker Giorgio Corona managed to get himself sent off in injury time

I was talking during the game to a local referee, who assured me that Pontedera were a full time professional team, and that the majority of Lega Pro clubs are full time. When one realises that Pontedera, like half the Lega Pro clubs cannot average 1000 spectators per game, it is surely no surprise that so many are falling into a financial abyss.

My route through France does not take me close to any matches, so I make a point of adding Varese into the itinerary. Here I choose a hotel good hotel to compensate for the previous two nights staying in bog-standard chain hotels at rather ridiculous prices. The Kyriad in Nice is adjacent to some of the car parks for the new stadium, and I make a note that if the prices return to “sensible” after the high season, it may simplify a trip to the ground. Meanwhile the Palace hotel in Varese is one of aging grandeur, but well decorated . My wife is so impressed we quickly decide to make this the base for both of the last two nights. This is despite the SatNav system failing to pinpoint where the roads to the hotel run. It correctly identified the location of the hotel, but had it as accessed via a steep grass path, rather than the tarmac roadway from the other direction.

The hotel is only about a mile from the Stadio Franco Ossola – named after a local hero who appeared only a few times in Varese colours before being sold to Torino, where he was one of the “Grande Torino” team who dominated Serie A until the Supergra disaster.

To describe the ground as splendid hardly does it justice. It is an oval, as often found in Italy, with curved ends. Old concrete stands, (no specifically marked seats) runs around both ends and the east side, the southern curve – being the away end – is lower than the rest. Most of this is in two tiers, but the front tiers is almost entirely useless, as, as well as having a tarmac track, there is also a cycle track which has been added sometime after the stands were built. From the curves, the lower tier therefore only views the track, and not even the cycles on it. As the backing is reduced on the straights, there is a view of the fencing from here. On the east side, a small gap has been made halfway along, with glass, rather than fences and a bit of cover above. The viewing from here is helped by a gap in the advertising boards (standard modern video type). I reckon half a dozen wheelchairs (with owners) could use this, but there was only one on the day.

The main stand is on the west side, a simple construction, with a paddock in front, (although this is also rendered almost useless by the cycle track). AS Varese are Serie B, having dabbled with Serie A only for a couple of short periods in their history, (and with financial ruin slightly more often). Juve Stadia hail from close to Napoli, and have never played higher than Serie B. They were relegated at the end of last season.

I am not certain if the home team’s colours, white with a red St. George’s cross means I should give them all my support. I would have thought that the cross was more a symbol of Milan than Varese, but looking at the official website of the Province shows a coat of arms which is based on the cross, (Wikipedia failed me here, showing the wrong coat of arms). The club has an up and down history, with a Golden decade (1964-75) in Serie A. However the club dropped out of Serie B a decade after falling from Serie A, and did not re-appear at this level until 2012. Financial collapse and reformation took place in 2004, at which time the club became AS Varese 1910. AS Varese start this season on -1 points

The visitors were from Castellamare de Stabia, and are the fourth of a string of clubs from the town, (with the current club claiming history from its predecessors), AC Stabia played one season (1951-2) in Serie B, and folded in 1953, the name Juve Stabia came from another club in the town which came to prominence after its rival had folded. This club, actually SS Juventus Stabia had been formed in 1945 and folded in 2001. In 2002, a nearby Serie D club, Comprensorio Nola moved into the gap, changing the name to Comprensorio Stabia immediately, and SS Juve Stabia 12 months later. They rose to Serie B in 2011, but were relegated at the end of last season.

Juve Stabia had the better of the early chances without really threatening, and the opening goal went to Varese. Pereira Neto claimed a push in the back. I cannot say this was not a foul, but he went down with theatrical relish. It was enough to convince the referee anyway and Arturo Lupoli took the penalty well enough. In the following period, we had chances at both ends, but with both sides employing a single forward formation (4-2-3-1 for Varese, 4-1-4-1 for Juve), one found the midfield was not backing up close enough to have a chance. Both Neto for Varese and Ripa for Stabia had shots parried to a safety.

The crowd does not appear to mind this though, and they reserve their venom for the assistant referee who is consistently, correctly (and rather too frequently) raising the offside flag. Varese do make a couple of chances late in the half, which are spoilt by their own lack of competence.

Juve Stabia again make a good start to the second half, as they try to get back into the game, but these are fleeting chances which the home defence blocks with ease. In the 53rd minute, Neto surprises most of those in the ground with a speculative lobbed shot from distance. It catches Pisseri in the JS goal well off his line, and the Varese lead is 2-0. It leads to a flurry of activity was William Jidayi, the most impressive of the Juve Stabia midfield lets fly from around 25 yards, with the shot just glancing the lower side of the crossbar to make it 2-1. Even the home supporters applaud this effort, but they are happier a minute later when their team attacks down the right, producing a low cross which Lupoli meets within the six yard box for 3-1. The game has now livened up considerable, with chances at both ends even if the Varese ones look the most likely to be completed. A fine save from Pisseri keeps the score at 3-1 in the 70th minute when Andrea Cristiano has a shot after a good combination move with substitute Luca Tremolada. Just after we see the added time board go up, Juve have a free kick on the left, which is crossed in for Marco Migliorini to get a glancing header and give the 18 travelling supporters a little late hope. Varese seem incapable of holding the ball for the final three minutes to give a comfortable finish, but they are good at tackling back, so Juve Stabia do not get a further chance.

I sat in the main stand, having parked in the car park behind the south goal, (nothing was busy for this low key match). The police however, took this as a full scale operation and did not allow anyone back into the car park until all 18 JS fans had left the ground, got into their five cars (in the same car park) and then had a few minutes to get away. The fact that they drove directly into areas where home fans were allowed to be while the same fans were not permitted to go back to where the JS fans had been seemed to be lost. I recommend the ground to anyone, except those requiring a quick departure, (including any attempt to reach the town centre or railway station from the main stand).