Archive for the ‘Political Footballs’ Category

The Expanded World Cup is vote buying for Infantino.

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

The comments after the opening game in this season’s World Cup were over the mismatch between what were, at least according to FIFA, the two lowest ranking sides in the competition.

Russia, ranked 70th according to FIFA easily overcame Saudi Arabia, whose ranking was three higher. Russia’s ranking was of course false. One of the criticisms of the FIFA ranking system is that a host nation who are not playing competitive games will inevitably drop down the rankings. Because of this, and also because teams can protect their ranking (and therefore competitive seeding) by not playing while others play matches in which even a win results in them dropping in the rankings.

The new ranking system will be similar to the one used at www.eloratings.net – this works on points exchange so a team cannot lose points in the ranking while winning a game. It ranked the opening game as 45th v 63rd.

What is not addressed by the change is that the 32-team world cup is far from being the top 32 countries in the World. If we use the FIFA rankings, twenty of the top 32 ranked teams are from UEFA (14 teams at the World Cup) while 7 more are from CONMEBOL (5 qualifiers, including Peru via a play-off). The top 32 is made up with 3 from CONCACAF (3 qualified) and two from Africa (5 qualified). Asia has no country in FIFA’s top 32, despite having five teams in Russia. Using eloratings makes only a little difference to these figures, their numbers give a slightly better ranking to Asia (two in the top 33, as there was a tie for 32nd place pre-World Cup), and slightly worse for the Africans.

One might think that when the World Cup is extended to 48 teams, this would be corrected to some extent, with at least the possibility of the top 32 countries being there, but the new slot allocation has been defined as follows (with number of the number of teams in FIFA’s top 48 ranks in brackets). UEFA 16 (28), CONMEBOL 6 (8), CONCACAF 6 (3), Africa 9 (7), Asia 8 (2), Oceania 1 (0) – plus two play-off places for which each confederation except UEFA gets one chance in a six country pre-qualifying tournament. The host confederation will get one extra place in this – meaning UEFA is only involved when the finals are to take place in Europe.

I have made my own comparison of each confederation’s performance from 1950 onwards. The system I used was 2 points for a win, one for a draw (including a match that ends in a penalty shoot-out), and a bonus point for a win in any knock out game, including the final (but not the play-off for third place). I then divided the points by the number of teams involved. If no team from the confederation qualified, then a straight zero was recorded. For comparison, a middle “FIFA figure” is shown as well

 

The graph clearly shows how the South American teams did greatly better than the Europeans, especially in the two World Cups held in Mexico (1970 and 1986) and the one in Argentina in between (1978) while Europeans held sway in England (1966), Germany (1974), and Spain (1982). It also shows the failure of either Africa or Asia to make a break through.

Over the last five World Cups, we have had 32 teams and the same structure, leading to average points per team of 4.47. A total of the five cups of 22.35. During this most recent period, the European and South American nations have consistently beaten the standard, CONCACAF reached this target only once (2002) but came close in Brazil, while the others have consistently fallen short. Over the five-tournament run, the total points for each confederation are CONMEBOL 31.70, UEFA 28.62, CONCACAF 14.58, CAF (Africa) 11.50, AFC (Asia) 9.75 and OFC (Oceania) 6.00

If we added more teams from any Confederation, it should bring down the score, on the assumption these would be weaker than those already there, while conversely reducing the allocation should remove the weakest and improve the score. The clear implication here is that Asia and Africa are over represented, while Europe and South America do not get their just deserts.

So why do FIFA want to give more extra places to the continents which are over represented, but not to those which are under represented. The automatic response is that it is all about money, but this is not entirely the case. Most of FIFA’s income comes from the World Cup competition, through TV rights, sponsorship and (to a lesser extent) ticket sales.

In Asia, where the economies are on the rise, the increase in the numbers does have a financial case. Asia includes the giant economy of China, and the potential giant of India. Both are under performing on the International stage. We are a long way from the idea of India qualifying for this stage, but at least from 2026 onwards, the Chinese will have a good chance of taking part in another World Cup. In the final table, China were only a point away from the Asian play-off stage, so would not need a major improvement to get into the top eight in Asia

The TV rights sales and sponsorship money does not have Africa in mind and adding more African countries does have some logic behind it. The African qualification procedure, which currently involves no play-offs or second chances is the less likely than others to send the top five teams from the continent to the finals than the procedures used elsewhere. There is a belief that there are a few unlucky teams who are not particularly worse than those who have got through who have failed due to a poor draw or a single unlucky result.

To be honest, the same is true of the European qualification, but at least here we have the play-off procedure which gives a second chance. Still few would deny that the competition is missing teams such as Italy and the Netherlands. The argument that DR Congo were desperately unlucky to get knocked out, while teams such as Ghana, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire, all of which have impressed us in the past, are all missing. Of the latter trio, only the Ivorians finished second in their group.

Supporters if the FIFA stance, not giving the places that Europe believes are justified can also point to the graph above. When the numbers have were expanded to 24 and 32, Europe did not get the increases they may have expected, but this has not seen them gain a higher score.

South Korean fans in Frankfurt, 2006

However, Gianni Infantino came to power at FIFA on a promise of more slots in the World Cup, and more money to the members. If he is to retain the presidency, he must deliver on the promises to the smaller countries, in Africa particularly – but also in Asia and the Caribbean. Infantino basically came to power by trumping Michel Platini’s suggestion of a 40 team World Cup and brining in a 48 team one instead. Fortunately for him, the countries did back the Americas bid for the 2026 World Cup – which has income projections twice that of Morocco’s. This means that FIFA can continue to show largesse in financial grants to its members for the next decade at least.

The 48 team World Cup and the increasing costs of stadium building is placing a limit on who can stage future cups. The larger European Nations generally have the stadia, and always have plans for some improvements. The USA could have run a bid on its own, without joining up with Mexico or Canada – but neither of its partners could hold a tournament on its own. In Asia, only Japan and China clearly have the resources to hold the cup. I am sure China will be bidding soon. I am not even certain that Australia could mount a bid on current stadiums. In India, the new football stadiums inspired by the Super League are not of World Cup size, which means the big stadiums in the country are still the cricket grounds.

Then there is South America. The last World Cup placed a big burden on Brazil as FIFA takes money out of countries staging cups, but the countries have to bear the cost of building. There is a feeling that Uruguay should hold the 2030 World Cup in celebration that this is the centenary of the first world cup. But Uruguay cannot go it alone. There is a suggestion that a combined bid of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina may bid. England’s plans to bid (either on its own, or as a joint UK, or UK/Ireland) have been damned by a quotation in support from Sepp Blatter.

Infantino does not appear to be the initiator of ideas but has been in the background bringing them through. He was involved in the pan-European plan for 2020 and had left UEFA for FIFA before the disgraceful decision to water down the plan by giving group games to Wembley as well as the semi-finals and final. Both Cardiff and Stockholm would clearly have been better options. If 2020 goes well, then do not be surprised if Infantino is at the centre of a push for a pan-South American World Cup in 2030, with at least eight and possibly all ten of the nations staging games.

It is not only the World Cup itself where FIFA sees expansion as the way forward. They have two other adult men’s competitions for the World, the World Club Championship and the Confederations Cup. Both are somewhat maligned and ignored, at least here in England.

It is almost certain that the Confederations Cup will end after the 2021 event. It may well have even seen its last hurrah leaving an under-strength German side as the last winners. It cannot retain its current position as an event on World Cup venues twelve months before the World Cup as the disruption to leagues would be too great. If it is to be played in 2021, then it will have to be in the summer, and hence in different locations. FIFA are already discussion alternative titles of tournaments in its stead, with a World “Nations League” somewhere on the agenda.

The annual, 8-team World Club Championship has always been criticised and not particularly loved. FIFA have been searching for alternatives for some time, with discussions of 24 and 32 team tournaments. FIFA now say that they can earn an income of US$ 25 billion over a 12-year period for their two new competitions. This is based on an unnamed group of investors, who will guarantee the money, but will then sell on the various rights to the competition. FIFA would have a 51% share of a joint company running the operation and would lead on sporting decisions. A report on the BBC web site specifically says that the investor group, which comes from Europe, Asia and the Americas does not include Chinese investment or any direct involvement from Saudi Arabia. They second half of the reply seems to suggest there is indirect involvement from Saudi Arabia while the first may be a surprise given how big the Chinese advertising presence is at the Russia World Cup. Still, the Chinese government has ordered a reduction in capital outflow so I am guessing that the Chinese companies are no longer willing to commit long term like this. The current Chinese position has reduced the number of high value transfers into the Chinese Super League and also limits the amount that Chinese investors may bring to their European clubs such as the Midlands quartet of Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wanda have divested their 17% share of Atletico Madrid. The Chinese have not reneged on agreements made before the policy change, so Wanda is still the title sponsor at Atletico’s new stadium, while Chinese companies such as Wanda, Vivo and Hisense have stepped into to the void created in FIFA’s partnerships when some of their sponsors pulled out.

The author with Chinese fans, before their first World Cup finals game, against Costa Rica in 2002

So, we may expect the annual World Club Championship to end either in 2019 or 2020 and be replaced by a bigger tournament in the summer of 2021. The new tournament is expected to have 24 teams. Half of these will be European with the eight finalists from the four preceding Champions Leagues, plus the four Europa League winners all getting a place. CONCACAF, AFC (Asia) and CAF (Africa) will contribute two teams each while the CONMEBOL (South America) will have five or six contenders. Oceania will either have one, or maybe none at all.

Played in June, and with five games for the two finalists, one feels that the new form World Club Championship will get a much greater global presence than the current format. The plan is apparently eight groups of three, with group winners only entering the knock out stage. However, it is already fielding criticism from all sides.

There is concern about the increased number of matches for the players – and clearly one of the reasons for this competition’s expansion is that it can be sure of including most of the World’s star players. In contrast, the World Cup itself will always miss out a few because they play for nations such as Wales who rarely qualify. Other clubs and leagues will be concerned about the amount of money that will transfer to the competing clubs, and hence the further step up they in financial terms. FIFA have promised a fair distribution, but as with the European competitions, those that play always get a massive amount in comparison to the solidarity payments for the other clubs in the league

The World Nations League is less clear. It appears this could be a biennial competition, and hence starts with the various confederations own Nations Leagues competitions. The first European Nations League takes place this autumn, with the finals in the summer of 2019. At the same time, CONCACAF are staging a series of qualifying games which define both who is in the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer, but also the make up of the CONCACAF Nations League when it starts in the following autumn.

The Nations League concept is something that came out of UEFA while Infantino was still involved. The extension of this to become a FIFA competition has only been mooted since Infantino replaced Blatter in the chair. Previous ideas, such as playing the World Cup every two years had been rejected by the countries and their confederations, but it always appears that there is a contest between FIFA and the Confederations, (an in particular, Europe) over control of the competitions and the calendar.

The World Nations League, possibly under the title “Final 8”, would pit together winners of various Confederations Nations Leagues. If played in a single nation then one feels it is just the Confederations Cup re-aligned. Exactly how it fits into the international calendar seems ill-defined, but I have heard it suggested that the November International window in “Final 8” years could be two weeks instead of one, and somehow it gets played then!

Still, the “Final 8” is being promoted as between winners of continental nations leagues, and here there is a problem as only UEFA and CONCACAF currently have decided on this route. The Nations League concept is not exactly one size fits all, and may be difficult to work in CONMEBOL, Oceania or Africa. I would not dare to say that not having an Oceania representative would be one of the benefits of the format, but I have no doubt that someone behind the scenes has thought this.

The risk here, is that competitive games between the World’s top nations on a more regular basis could take the gloss off the World Cup itself. Do we really need three tournaments between the world’s top countries within each four-year cycle? Each federation’s own competition will come under pressure to change dates to fit into the FIFA formats as well. The global popularity of the European Competition, played in the even numbered years between World Cups means the others have now gone for odd numbered years. There will be a point next June when CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and Africa are all in the midst of their own continental competitions. The next Asia tournament is also in 2019, but in their case, it is played in January.

Oceania normally sneak theirs in at the start of the World Cup qualification process, and it is only played to a conclusion so as they can have two finals – one with the winner going to the Confederations cup, and another for the play-off place in World Cup qualification. The big surprise being the Oceania tournament in 2012, when New Zealand did not make the finals, and hence Tahiti played in the Confederations Cup. It was not even Tahiti that beat New Zealand in the semi-finals, but the New Hebrides who then lost to Tahiti in the final. New Zealand recovered quickly to win a round robin home and away tournament involving all four semi-finalists from the Nations Cup, and hence ensure their opportunity to lose (9-3 on aggregate) to Mexico in the play-off.

So, in simple terms, Infantino has made promises, and wants to change the scenery of World Football to keep them, and ensure he keeps in office. The World Cup expansion helps him to win votes in Asia and Africa, while the amount of money being offered for the other new competitions means that the opposition to them will probably be ignored.

Names such as “ITV Digital” and “ISL” keep echoing in the depths of my mind when thinking about this. While the investors may be able to deliver the promised riches, you can bet they have a back stop where the new company being formed fails to deliver. FIFA lost a bundle of cash when the ISL deal failed, as did the English Football League over the ITV digital debacle. In both cases, the money promised could not be backed by the product these companies were selling. Despite a series of new sponsors from China, FIFA have lost a lot of money after sponsors pulled out over the recent scandals. A recent report in the independent says that this is around 10% of the sponsorship income. In turn, this income is somewhere between a third and a half of all FIFA’s income.

Overall, the amounts promised for the new competitions would effectively double the income FIFA would expect to receive in any four-year period. It will allow them to send much more to the nations in grants both for administration and projects. I cannot see beyond the nations effectively voting for it because of the money. It is most likely there will be few objections, except from those nations where the additional income is lowest in percentage terms. Real Madrid and Barcelona have already been reported as responding positively to overtures over the club competition. Anyway, now the value of the genie has been let out of the bottle, there is the risk that if FIFA do not run such a competition, then someone else will – which will increase the rewards for clubs involved, while not helping out the rest.

The Price is Right? Selling Football by the Euro.

Friday, April 27th, 2018

There are major changes to qualification for European Competition from next season. UEFA are selling this as evolution, not revolution – but for the clubs who have hopes of reaching the Champions League group stages, the odds have become longer. So, they may not see it that way

The big change is in the number of teams that have direct qualification to group stages in both competitions. This is particularly true of teams who have not won their leagues, playing in the Champions League. In 2017-18, there were 18 clubs who had won the major prizes in the Champions League. Twelve countries got their champions into the competition as of right, five more through the qualification process. The 18th winner was Manchester United who won the Europa League. On this occasion, the Champions League winner were also a League champion.

The champions that managed to come up through qualification were well distributed in the rankings. So while Champions 1 through 12 were automatically included, the others were ranked 14 (Greece), 19 (Cyprus), 25 (Scotland), 26 (Azerbaijan) and 30 (Slovenia).

For 2018-19, only the top ten Champions get an automatic place, and they are joined by just four other champions. With places for the winners of the Champions League and Europa League already guaranteed, this means that the number of teams with a major trophy will be reduced to 16 – or 15 if the Europa League winners are one of the top ten domestic title winners, (a scenario that is unlikely in 2018, the only Europa League semi-finalists likely to win a domestic title are the Austrians, Salzburg – who would have to fight through qualifying rounds to get into the Champions League groups).

For the non-Champions, in the 2017/18 season, nine had direct entry to the groups, from six countries while five more won through from qualification. Although countries down to 15th rank were allowed into this phase, four of the five came from the top five. The exception being the fourth German team, Hoffenheim, who were beaten by Liverpool. The Russian team, CSKA Moscow (Country rank 7) completed the line up.

In 2018/19, there will be no less than 14 non-Champion clubs with direct access, no qualifying match. They still come from six countries, but now the top four all get three non-Champion clubs. The third clubs from France and Russia (ranked 5/6) compete with the runners-up in countries ranked 7-15 for just two further places.

There was logic to changing from three to four countries with the top numbers. The recent evolution of ranking point has seen two big gaps emerging. Rounding to the nearest who number, Spain had 105 points at the end of 2016/7, followed by Germany (79), England (76) and Italy (73). France, ranked 5th had only 57 points. While it may have appeared that another season would see Italy overtake England, what has actually happened is that German clubs have performed poorly, while the English have done well. Hence, England will probably rise to 2nd on the five-year aggregate, while Germany fall behind Italy. Giving the fourth placed teams a direct place without qualification seems a more contentious point. The only reason I can see for this is that UEFA feels it needs these teams in contention to build up the TV audience.

Where the changes will be felt most of all is in the qualification procedure. More teams will have to play more matches in order to reach the group stage. For example, to get to the group stage this season, Celtic had to play six matches over seven mid-weeks. A fairly hefty early season programme with four of the games taking place before the first league game. If they are to repeat the feat in the new season, they will have to play eight matches on successive weeks.

The pushing back of matches has added a preliminary round to the qualifying competition – and it is a strange and new idea. Four teams play the Preliminary round, for just one place in the First Qualifying Round. These teams will be the Champions of Gibraltar, Andorra, San Marino and Kosovo. There will be only three games in this, and this season they will all be played at the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar. The “semi-finals” will be on Tuesday 26th June, with the final game on the following Friday.

The other twist is that every Champions League team, knocked out in the qualification games will get a second chance in the Europa League. Also, in the Europa League, teams who have won their Championship but have been knocked out play in a section distinct from those who have qualified by cups or league position. This means that 12 of the 48 teams in the group stage will be National Champions. There will be 17 places given directly in the group stage to teams from the top 12 countries in the rankings. In all cases, these include the cup-winners (if not otherwise qualified for higher competition) and for five countries, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France, it also includes the next best league side. This number is just one higher than in 2017-18 with the club that finishes fourth place in France being the one that gets the advantage here. Again, this comes at a cost in matches for the others. In 2017, 25 clubs had entry at the third qualification round stage, meaning two rounds, or four games to reach the groups. Only 12 teams get this in 2018 – and they are not from the top countries, but only from those which do not get two automatic spots in the groups. England’s seventh European club, will have to play three rounds, six matches to reach the group – they will start in the final week of July. For Scotland, only the Cup Winners get to start that late, with the other two teams starting in the First Qualification round, two weeks earlier. Countries such as both Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland will have all three of their clubs starting in the First Qualification Round, while for Wales it is even worse as their three combatants will start in a Preliminary Round at the end of June.

UEFA does not have to sell this much to the smaller nations. For most, they will find it is a take it or leave it situation alleviated by the rewards their clubs get just for taking part. Working from UEFA published figures, Welsh Champions, The New Saints will have received €800,000 for scraping through the first qualification round and getting hammered by a Croatian team in the next. This sum of money means that they can run a professional team in what is otherwise a semi-professional league without losing money year on year. It goes a long way to explain their dominance of the Welsh Premier League. The chairman, Mike Harris put in a lot of money to get them where they are today but does not have to keep spending to keep them there. What I find more surprising is that other Champions League do not all dominate their leagues to the same extent.

The other clubs in Wales also benefit from UEFA’s munificence. Not one of their other three clubs won their First tie in Europe, but all benefited to the tune of €215,000. A further €403,000 is given to the FA Wales to distribute to the clubs in the division. While the FA Wales also collects money from other TV and sponsorship deals for distribution to the clubs, one can see that this is likely to be a major part quite probably the lion’s share of the source of this distribution. [It is worth noting though that Wales only received the base payment from UEFA, the English FA had over €13 million from this source (in 2016/17), Scotland had €4.6 million. Northern Ireland received the same amount as Wales, but the Republic got just over twice that]

When I spoke to Mike Harris at The New Saints’ first game of the season, I had asked him about the fact that there are only 12 teams in the top league in Wales, despite a general wish amongst fans to increase the numbers. He said he would quite like to see the number increased, but that funding would be a problem. Sums of money such as the €403,000 I have mentioned would be significantly diluted if there were more clubs.

UEFA have promised with the new system that more money will be given to the smaller clubs – so those sums I have mentioned are all due to be increased in 2018/19. Even though the distribution through market pool is being reduced, (meaning the English teams do not benefit so much from the English TV deals), I cannot imagine any of the Premier clubs being worse off than under the current system.

UEFA still consider it necessary to keep the structure in favour of the big clubs. There is a point to this. At least with this system, the clubs are tied into this money generation machine, and this is sending money down to the leagues in the smaller countries. Most of the 55 European associations run at least one division of professional football, but only 12 of them can claim an average attendance of over 10,000 per game. There isn’t a threat of big clubs pulling out of National Leagues and playing closed competitions amongst themselves. This will not happen as long as they can fill the stadiums and sell the TV rights for their domestic competitions, even when these are not very competitive. However, they are secure in the knowledge that each of the domestic leagues needs its best teams at least as much as the teams need the league. Hence the leagues would not be quick to respond to any UEFA edict to kick them out should they ever decide to remodel the Champions League without UEFA involvement. And while so many of the World’s best players are concentrated at the few clubs at the top of the few leagues, UEFA and FIFA need them to sell their own international tournaments.

So, the small clubs in the small countries have to allow the sale of their football, and they have to accept the largesse as UEFA offer it, as for them there are no alternative tables to feed from. UEFA will continue to “evolve” the competitions every three years, as it keeps them in the headlines. The big clubs will again find the competitive bias switching their way, but the others will accept it because frankly they need the amounts that UEFA pass down from the €1.4 billion money pool.

CONIFA – A World Cup for the Common Man

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

The Champions League final is on 26th May, and the World Cup starts nearly three weeks later. So how do ordinary mortals survive if starved of competitive football for so long.

Fortunately, there is an answer, the CONIFA World Football Club will start on the final day of May and run for 10 days, bringing live football to stadiums around London, and streamed football to everyone else via the sponsor, Paddy Power’s website.

CONI-who? I hear you ask, and how do they get to organise a World Football Cup?

So, starting with CONIFA, it is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. It is an umbrella organisation for a number of associations which for one reason or another cannot gain admittance to FIFA. It currently has 49 members, and these members claim a population of over 300 million people. CONIFA itself was formed in 2013, bringing together associations that had already competed in competitions organised by the NF Board, and attracting new members into the fold

The World Football Cup (so named as to avoid any trade mark confusion with FIFA’s event soon afterwards) is the major tournament. This is the third running of the tournament, which is held every second year. Prior to CONIFA, there were five VIVA World Cup’s organised by the NF Board, and the FIFI World Cup organised by St. Pauli FC. These were played with varying number of teams but overall the number of teams and competitiveness of the matches has increased each tournament.

So, the next question is who are the Non-FIFA nations?

FIFA itself has more members than any other international body, including the United Nations. One reason for this is that in the past, it has included many small territories that the UN does not recognise as Nations. Hence the United Kingdom is not a single member of FIFA, not even the four obvious ones, but also includes a number of British Overseas Territories that joined FIFA some time back – such as Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans. With Gibraltar recently joining, the British contingent stands at 11 teams. Britain has more than anyone else, but we are not alone. The USA, Denmark, and even China are amongst those with multiple representation. The recent addition to FIFA rank of Kosovo and Gibraltar came against opposition, and FIFA have tightened up the rules for new entrants. This leaves a number of countries and territories disappointed, as they cannot get the FIFA recognition even though others in similar situations have already joined.

CONIkFA ties up these with a number of other categories that where the people can be thought to have a “national identity” but are not countries by any definition.

According to CONIFA general secretary, Sascha Düerkop, CONIFA has ten different categories of membership. I cannot list them all, but these are the main ones based on the clubs playing in this year’s World Football Cup.

  • Generally accepted independent nations, members of the UN – but not yet in FIFA, (Tuvalu)
  • Effectively independent states, that are not globally recognised – and have at least one country that does recognise them (N. Cyprus, Abkhazia)
  • Autonomous regions, that may have been able to apply to FIFA in the past, but not under current rules (Ellan Vannin, aka Isle of Man)
  • Ethnic groups – a minority within the country they are in (Felvidek, Szekely Land, United Koreans in Japan, Western Armenia)
  • Diaspora groups (Tamil Eelan, Panjab, Barawa, Tibet)
  • Groups representing minority languages (Matabeleland, Kabylie)
  • Regional teams (Padania, Cascadia)

Some of these groupings may be questionable. I am not going into the politics of Tibet for example. In my mind a diaspora group means that the majority of the members of the group moved from the country of origin in the 20th or 21st centuries. While I know the United Koreans are an ethnic group, a mixture of those who migrated (in many cases forcibly) during Japanese occupation and more recent migrants, they could be called a diaspora or a minority language group as well. I cannot say whether the Western Armenians are people who actually live in eastern Turkey (which is the area they originate from), or have migrated elsewhere, and I certainly cannot give the full degrees of separation of Matabeleland and Kabylie from Zimbabwe and Algeria.

Sascha Düerkop told me that the pure regional teams such as Padania (Northern Italy) and Cascadia (North West USA /South West Canada) would not be able to apply in future. Despite this, CONIFA have recently accepted Yorkshire in membership (based on other criteria), but this does mean that an application from Surrey will be turned down, and there is no point in me trying to start a Cheltenhamshire team.

Tuvalu will be unique amongst the teams in London for this tournament as they have taken part in FIFA World Cup qualifying games. The 2007 Pacific Games were used as part of the qualification tournament for the 2010 World Cup and although Tuvalu would not have been allowed to progress, they played four games, including a draw with Tahiti before finishing bottom of their group.

Likely to offer much stronger teams than Tuvalu, are those teams representing the unrecognised nations. These are areas where there is an effective government in control, but another nation still claims the territory and a majority of countries do not support their independence. There tends to be a state that is powerful enough in defence of the current status quo preventing a violent reversion of status.

The Caucasus area of the former Soviet Union is about the most disputed series of territories around the world, with Russian support giving Abkhazia a level of independence while most of the world sees it as a breakaway from Georgia. Abkhazia both staged and won the 2016 CONIFA World Cup and are expected to field a strong side again. A similar long running dispute sees Cyprus divided with North Cyprus not being generally recognised, but Turkish support keeping them independent. Northern Cyprus staged a CONIFA European tournament last summer and finished second (to Padania).

CONIFA works hard at being a non-political organisation, but by including some of the most political of countries as members, they cannot help but be political. Ideally, they would bring together diametrically opposite groupings, but in practice this does not happen. UEFA makes sure that Azerbaijan and Armenian sides do not meet in qualification groups, or European club games due to the various conflicts between these former soviet republics. CONIFA includes Nagorno Karabakh as a member. This is a self-governed state, with a majority Armenian population, but in an area generally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. Hence when CONIFA had an application from a team with an Azeri majority population, their first comment was “You know Nagorno Karabakh is a member – is this a problem for you”. They then took this all the way through the application process without problem, until someone in the Azeri government said they could not join an organisation that has Nagorno Karabakh in it.

Turkey is the main supporter of Northern Cyprus, and has enquired about TV feeds for earlier cups, but then not gone through with this because Iraqi Kurdistan was involved. Now while Iraqi Kurdistan only covers an area within Iraq, the idea of Kurdistan in general includes part of Turkey, so any promotion of Kurdish independence within Turkey would not be allowed – even when the area the team represents does not impinge on Turkish territory. This year, Iraqi Kurdistan have not qualified so the matches can be shown on Turkish TV. The existence of Northern Cyprus is opposed by Cyprus itself and their ambassador put in a protest about them having a team playing in the UK. I feel the protest was only made because it had to be made, and there was no real belief that they would be drummed out. CONIFA have actually used Northern Cypriot involvement to their advantage, staging their matches in Enfield close to the main centre of Turkish and Northern Cypriot communities in London. Similarly, the Panjab team play in Slough – close to the heart of a large Panjab diaspora.

The most controversial of the teams included is Tibet. In the past the Chinese has always raised it hackles whenever there is any action that comes close to recognising the Dalai Lama’s government in exile.

Already this year, the Tibetan situation has created problems in the footballing relationship between China and Germany. The Chinese had agreed to send a youth team to play teams in the South West Regionalliga in Germany – the free team each week in a 19-team league. At the first of these games (in Mainz), pro-Tibet protesters unfurled flags, and there was a scuffle with Chinese spectators, the game was held up, but eventually completed. The DFB said they had no powers to stop protestors from showing up at the games, and the rest of the series of games was not played. I imagine many of the clubs were disappointed, as they were to be paid €15,000 Euros each to play. The incident generated far more publicity than if the protests had been allowed to go ahead with the flags ignored.

In the light of this, an offer from a smaller German club FV Lörrach-Brombach to play the Tibetan team in a friendly prior to the tournament in London was vetoed. The match was originally sanctioned by the local area FA, but later they changed their mind while refusing to state if pressure was brought to bear on the decision. It does appear that the pressure came from the German FA, and not from China itself, and as yet, the Chinese have ignored the CONIFA tournament.

While initially trying to block CONIFA’s predecessors, it appears FIFA and UEFA are now content to ignore the organisation and leave any administration to local football administrations. With the football organisation here in England being what it is, this is guaranteed to cause confusion and a lack of decision. Players for the recently formed Yorkshire Independent FA have been going through a process of deregistering from their clubs before matches, and then signing on again afterwards, so as they are not members of affiliated clubs when the matches take place – and hence not subject to sanction. It is well within the power for any one of the County FA’s within Yorkshire, (the County has four) to register the team.

The Manx team had a similar problem, but after lengthy process this has been solved. Initially, they went head to head with FIFA – but in turn FIFA, UEFA and the FA washed their hands and left it too the Isle of Man FA to deliberate on. Despite the Isle of Man not being an English County, it is treated as one by the FA. For that matter, so was Gibraltar for a long time until they decided to apply for an independent status. Gibraltar never entered FA Competition, but Man does, giving the locals a plethora of “national” teams to support.

In the FA County Youth Cup, the Isle of Man reached the quarter finals this year, beating Cumberland, Lancashire and Middlesex before losing to Norfolk. This, I believe is limited to youth players at Island clubs, while as far as I know, their opponents do not use players from the professional clubs. The Isle of Man also played in this season’s FA Inter League competition. For this, players must be with a club in the league, and must never have held a professional contract. They do not have to be Manx, though – allowing amateur footballers who settle on the Island to play for this team immediately. In this, the Isle of Man beat the eterborough & District League and the Liverpool League before losing to the North Riding league. In 2006, they won this competition and went on the play in the UEFA Regions Cup – representing England. They took the field wearing England colours, not those of Man, so three lions, rather than three legs on the badge. The Isle of Man also play in the Island games competition, which plays in the odd numbered years, (while CONIFA use the even numbers). The Island games team would apply a residential qualification (as minimum) for incomers, while the CONIFA team can choose its own parameters, making it the only one likely to include Manxman who have moved off the Island. Despite the various rules, the majority of all three men’s representative teams are the same.

CONIFA is popular with ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring states. The borders in this area of Europe were drawn leaving areas with a Hungarian speaking majority that were not Hungary. Two have qualified for this tournament, Felvidek and Szekely Land (in Romania). Felvidek is the area on the Slovak borders, centred at Dunajska Streda. At various time, Slovak authorities have had different policies about the use of the Hungarian language and the showing of flags. There is still a general rule prohibiting any national flag except the Slovak one at football grounds. DAC Dunajska Streda gets the biggest crowds in Slovakia, thanks mainly to its position as a flagship for the Hungarian community. Sascha commented on the use of flags bearing the words, Red, White and Green to get past the Hungarian flag ban. When I went four years ago, they said it with balloons – as can be seen here. Supporters at the front are holding balloons in club colours, while behind that, the Red, White and Green of the Hungarian flag can be seen

Talking to Sascha, I got an idea of the amount of enthusiasm those running the tournament have for their cause. Even with the headaches this must create. As tournaments approach, running CONIFA is a full-time job, but they do not pay their officials. They do not even always get expenses. During his week in London, Sascha not only gets to drink with people like me, but also has to finalise details for venues, transport and accommodation – and hope that they can get enough sponsors and ticket sales to make the numbers add up. While the sponsorship from Paddy Power is generous and essential, it does not completely cover transport and accommodation.

The games are being played at grounds right across London, with the full fixture list and a link to buy tickets on the official page, www.conifa.org. I have mentioned the connection with the bookmaker, Paddy Power – who have been running campaigns to support the competition, but I particularly commend this one, which explains more about the philosophy behind CONIFA, https://news.paddypower.com/conifa/2018/03/21/conifa-president-per-anders-blind/

For those wanting to see the best teams, the obvious place to start would be the semi-finals in Carshalton the final games in Enfield. I feel that the rest needs to be seen, so on the final day, I will head to Enfield for the final (6 pm) after seeing the 15th/16th placement game at Bedfont (12 noon). The tournament uses six dates over ten days, and every team plays on every match day. Food for thought for professional managers who complain about their schedules.

I have seen comments from people who made it to Abkhazia for the last tournament that some teams were no more than Sunday league kickers, but with a more organised qualification structure, the weakest are not being represented this time around, so we may not get any double figure scores. The strongest teams are likely to be those that have home countries and can get support there, with the probably exception of Tuvalu, where the player pool is too small. Hence we may expect good performances from Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus, and also strong teams from the two Hungarian ethnic sides (Felvidek and Szekely Land). Padania gets support from the smaller cities in the region and may well be able to field some good semi-professional players. I’ll be interested to gauge the strength of the United Koreans in Japan, and Cascadia – as both have their domestic seasons running at the same time.

The preliminary squads will be announced in the next week, and while one cannot expect many famous players, the United Koreans team will include An Yong Hak, who has 38 caps for North Korea, including starting all three group games in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, (and incidentally in the qualifying game I saw in Pyongyang).

If you are only interested in the highest quality of football, and over hyped TV coverage, then ignore all this and wait for the World Cup to come to our screens. If you want your football to be more fun, then the CONIFA World Football Cup is the place to be.

 

ATW90 – Thailand Part 2. The rise of Buriram United

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

I thought my journey from Myanmar to Buriram might be a problem. Although it was two flights with a single airline, I would still have to pick up my luggage while changing, check it into the connecting flight and go through immigration in Bangkok. Fortunately, my morning flight from Yangon was on-time and two hours was easily sufficient to arrange the change.

On the Bangkok to Buriram flight, I saw something which I must say it is unusual generally, but especially so in Asian football. There were a small number of passengers wearing football shirts and these were not the shirts of a club from thousands of miles away. These are the shirts of Buriram United, the club I intended to see that evening.

It is a sign of the remarkable story of Buriram United, who are already the most successful club in Thailand, and by some metrics, could be considered the best on the continent. To try and unravel this, I need to look back into the development of the Thai Football League, which is one of the best demonstrations in Asia of what can be achieved.

My first football games in Thailand were in 1990, part of a few trips for work that I made to the region at this time. I was based close to Rayong, and my first game was on nothing more than an open field with a tent. This was the final of a local provincial tournament. The scale of development is such that the field is now under a sports hall, while close by, a new stadium has been developed.

All football in Thailand at the time was tournament based. Inter-provincial tournaments played between different areas of the country, while club competitions were played by clubs within a smaller area. One only ever heard about the Bangkok area club, with the Kor Royal Cup being recognised as the Thai Championship. I saw the final of this in Bangkok in June 1990. The crowd was sparse, not into four figures. All the clubs in the tournament were associated with companies or government department around Bangkok. My final saw Port Authority of Thailand beat Thai Farmers Bank 2-1 a.e.t.

In 1996, a league was started, but this was still an all Bangkok institution. A second parallel league was started for provincial teams in 1999.

Outside the I-mobile or Thunder Castle stadium pre-match.

Changes really started in 2005, when the top two provincial teams, Chonburi and Suphanburi were added to the Thai League. This did not create a national league, as neither was that far removed from Bangkok, but at least they were outside the metropolitan area. Chonburi finished mid-table, while Supanburi fared poorly and would have been relegated in further reorganisation had not taken place.

Technically, the two leagues merged, but this did not mean a great deal. There were now four clubs from outside the Bangkok area, thanks to the promotion of Royal Thai Police and Royal Thai Navy, who both used stadiums in neighbouring provinces.

A year later, the club of the Provincial Electricity Authority, PEA decided to head away from the capital moving north to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. With increased crowds, they won the title, but their stay in Ayutthaya was to only be for two seasons. After a second, less successful season the club was bought out by politician Newin Chidchob.

Chidchob had been a minister in Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, but had avoided the fall out when Shinawatra fell from grace. He went on to be critical of his former leader when groups that wanted him returned to political life were protesting early in 2009.

Chidchob moved his new club to the city of Buriram, which was where his political power base was. Buriram is a fairly nondescript city in North Eastern Thailand. By bus, it takes around 5 hours to get to the capital, (when I tried, it was nearer to six, but the last hour was all within metropolitan Bangkok as the weather and traffic combined to delay all).

Bangkok Glass FC – proud to wear my name, (or that of a very poor lager beer)

There was an added confusion to football in Buriram, as also in 2009, Buriram FC were founded and took a place in the regional league, playing at the Buriram Rajabhat University Stadium. Not that Chidchob was going to see this as a rival, the owner of the other club being none other than his wife, Mrs Karuna Chidchob.

A photo from the public display at Thunder Castle – Mrs Chidcomb holding the trophy after Buriram FC were promoted. Probably at one of the last games before they merged with her husband’s team

The stadium that Newin’s club had to use when moving to the city was the provincial stadium, and is 7km from the centre of town, but with promotion, Buriram FC soon had to move there as well.

Since moving to Buriram, Newin Chidchob’s club have won 5 out of 7 Thai League titles, four Thai FA Cups, Five League Cups, four Kor Royal Cups (now the Thai Supercup) and two Mekong Club championships. The Mekong championship is competed for by four or five South East Asian Champions. It has ran for four seasons, with Binh Duong (Vietnam) winning the inaugural cup (no Thai entrant, all games in Vietnam), and Thai teams winning the rest. Buriram’s biggest rivals, Muang Thong United being the current holders. Buriram have also reached the knock out rounds of the AFC Champions League once, when they reached the quarter-finals.

Game over – so its time to greet the fans.

Meanwhile, Buriram FC were also going from success to success. Two promotions had placed them one level behind Buriram PEA in 2011. The 2011 season was remarkable for the city, as both teams won their divisions. This presented the potential for the city to have two teams in the top division, with a husband and wife partnership as the two club presidents.

I cannot see many club owners doing this, but in Buriram you can buy dolls of Newin and Karuna Chidcomb, wearing the colours of their two teams prior to the 2011 merger

Also, during 2011, they opened the new stadium, known as the Buriram Stadium, the Thunder Castle Stadium, or the (insert sponsors name*) Stadium. (*I-mobile in 2017, Chang in 2018). The Stadium was built in 256 days, which is proudly proclaimed as a record for building a stadium (certified by FIFA, no less, as FIFA love to accredit a record that cannot be proved or disproved).

Of course, it would not be acceptable for his and hers football teams to play in the same league, so for 2012, a new name, Buriram United appeared in the top division. In Thailand, the moving of rights for a club in a division is allowed. After all, that is how PEA moved to Buriram in the first place.

The Chidcomb’s managed to sell the club rights to the furthest point they could find from Buriram, while remaining in Thailand, and so Wuachon United were created, sharing a ground and at least partial ownership with Songkhla FC, a team one division lower. Newin Chidcomb said at the time that this was to help football in Southern Thailand, a region that had never been represented at the top level. One can be certain that if this is the case, then he also had something to gain in literally selling the club south. I just cannot specify if this was for political advantage, economic advantage or a mixture of the two.

The name Wauchon existed for one season only, as Songkhla FC were relegated and the club owners decided to merge the two as Songkhla United. Songkhla United managed a further two seasons in the top division, and then three at the second level. They lost 1-0 in the match I saw at Trat, which helped both in securing their relegation, and making sure Trat just escaped. For 2018, they have failed to gain a license for the third level, and hence drop an extra step.

Meanwhile Chidcomb’s development of the site around the new stadium has increased. There is a small retail area, a modern hotel, the club superstore and a motor racetrack. The oddest of the features is a small castle, which is a replica of the ancient Hindu stone castle at Phanom Rung. The castle features on the club badge, along with two lightning bolts, a remembrance of the club’s origin as PEA.

I went back the day after the match to talk to Bubet Suppipat about the club, and was surprised to see a steady stream of tourists coming into the ground to take a look around, and see the entrance to the dressing rooms and take a selfie in front of the stand. I talked to a few of these and many were up on a trip that took in just the one game, as they came from towns in other parts of Thailand.

Coming to get you? The passage leading to the away dressing rooms!

Not quite the tours on offer at Old Trafford or the Bernabeu, but one can see that the club is selling itself as a destination. The club name is highly prominent around the town, with posters and a banner selling the fixtures.

If the objective is to use the sporting facilities to put the city’s name on the map, then it appears to be working. If you look on travel sites, such as Wikivoyage, then Buriram is listed as a “fairly nondescript town”, best utilised by tourists as a base for visiting ancient sites (such as Phanom Rung) in the area around it. These are well spread out, so time and transport would be required. I can confirm that there is not a great deal to see in the town itself, although it is appears to be neat, clean and relatively prosperous. What no visitor to the town cannot miss is that this is the home of Chidcomb’s ventures – the football club and the racetrack. You cannot avoid seeing posters advertising these.

While in the town during the day, I spotted a European couple who had been on the bus from the airport with me. While they had no thoughts of football before arriving, they were now considering going to the game, (they may well have been put off by the 4 km to the stadium and lack of public transport).

Bubet Suppipat, who also goes by the name Golf met me at the stadium after the match. For a while, I thought the meeting would not take place. It was originally scheduled for 10.00, but actually happened after lunch. Fortunately for me, as I have mentioned, the site has a few cafes where I could find some lunch. The delay was caused by an impromptu meeting requested by Newin Chidcomb. Clearly a request that cannot be ignored. Golf had football administration experience before coming to Buriram, and had been chief operating officer of Lao Toyota, the leading club in neighbouring Laos. He confirmed to me that Laotian football is far behind most of the South East Asian countries, (but of course, it is still somewhere I would like to visit).

After discussing the history of the club with me, we went on to the current financial situation. He did not know the exact budget, but thought it to be around 200 million baht. This is equivalent to about £4.5 million, and was ten times the figure mentioned by Rayong in the next division down. What is remarkable though is not the size of the budget, but the fact that the club is claiming to be breaking even. The basis of this is the merchandising operation, which apparently raises 40% of the clubs income. The city of Buriram has a population of around 30,000 – but the football club has sold around 700,000 football shirts in one season, and they were at pains to points out that this is only part of the operation, the figure does not include other parts of the kit, T-shirts, and other souvenirs. A similar portion of the budget comes from sponsorship, with the brewers Chang being named on the shirts and taking over the naming rights at the stadium for 2018.

With the rest of the budget covered by matchday income and the central allocation, (from the FA of Thailand, covering income from the TV contract, and league sponsors Toyota), it appears that Mr. Chidcomb no longer has to put money into his club to keep them at the top of the league.

Golf also mentioned plans to float on the stock market. When I expressed a need for caution, based on the poor record of stock market floats for football clubs in Europe, he corrected himself. It is not the football club itself that may be capitalised on the stock market, but the merchandising arm.

The stadium is straight forward, a single tier of seats running up to an even height all around, albeit that the lowest seat level being much too close to ground level. There is no track, so you are reasonably close to the pitch. Roofs on both sides, open behind the goals, sight lines are good except when too low. Unusually, the major side of the ground, with executive boxes, etc is on the East of the stadium, not the West. They do not tend to start matches before sundown, so this is less important.

A near square 32-page programme was sold for 20 Baht. It is a glossy affair, well produced but would still be short on information even if I could read Thai.

As far as the match was concerned, I found it dispiriting. Buriram won with a goal in the 90th minute, a header from a Brazilian player Coelho getting his head to a free kick sent on by Suchao. The free kick was won by their other Brazilian, Diogo who spotted the place where he would clearly get fouled if he ran through. Throughout the game the home side relied too much on these two players, who were generally poor until the final ten minutes, when they were clearly trying to set each other up for the goal.

It was the rest of the cynical play that I found worse though. Bangkok Glass have a talented young Thai player called Apisit, who simply attracted fouls until he went off injured. The injury was caused after he had won a corner. The Buriram player who had knocked the ball out then simply pushed Apisit into the advertising hoardings as hard as he could. At this point Apisit had has knee bandaged, but carried on. It took at least three more hacking fouls before he went off.

On a number of occasions Glass tried to run the ball through the midfield in counter attacking moves. As there was a risk of getting clear, the player would generally be fouled or pulled back by the Buriram captain Jakkaphan – I counted at least four occasions where this would earn a yellow card in Europe before he finally got a booking late in injury time.

There were about 10,300 people watching. This is down on the average attendance for the season by around 3,000, but not entirely unexpected for a midweek game

One final thought of thanks to the good people at the football club, as I mentioned, it is difficult for a foreigner with no knowledge of the area to find their way back from the ground – at least without their own transport, but the club arranged to get me into town both after the match (when I shared with one of the journalists), and after my discussions the following day.

The replica temple in the grounds.

Once in town, I had a good wander around, making the most of the last hour before sundown. I found the university stadium by chance, and there was actually football taking place as I passed. Naturally I stopped to inquire what was going on. The match had four match officials, so it was the fourth who tried to update me. The game was clearly competitive and it was described as fifth level. My later investigations showed that it was not part of the end of season fifth level competition – but I know there is a qualifying competition for this, and so these could have been fifth level teams, playing in another competition

The Rajabhat University stadium, once used by Buriram FC

On Friday, I took the bus south, starting in the bright sunshine of the North East, but soon travelling under grey skies before hitting the outskirts of Bangkok where the weather practically brought the suburbs to a halt. It was to be the story of the weekend

The Thammaset University Stadium is set on campus, about 40 km north of Bangkok centre, it is a 25,000 all seat stadium, which looks a little like a small brother to the national Rajamangala stadium, there are only 12 rows of seats in front of the scoreboard at one end while the numbers increase as you move to the centre, with around 50 rows opposite the centre line. There is cover on both sides, but not behind the goals, although the cover does not lean out far enough to protect the front rows on either side.

When I left the hotel, the skies were grey, but it was dry after a short lunchtime storm. As we headed north, the driver pointed out the “heavy rain clouds” ahead. In Bangkok, heavy rain is defined as such that you cannot see out of the car windows, even with the wipers going full pelt.

By the time we came off the elevated tollway, about five miles from the ground, the sideroads are completely flooded. You can see mopeds struggling to pass through water around 6 inches feet, and people who have taken their shoes off gingerly trying to walk through, not being able to see the ground.

I am thinking about what the alternative would be if the game is off, and whether my taxi can be held to take me onwards, but when I arrive, the ground is only mildly waterlogged. You can still see the grass, and the match is on. As it happened, my “second choice game” was postponed

The unlikely named Super Power Samut Prakan are the visitors today, while Bangkok United are the team that plays at Thammaset. It is an uneven contest, as United are near the top of the league and Prakan are rock bottom, with just one point from 28 games.

United had lost to second placed Muang Thong United on Wednesday, which left them six points behind second place, and 12 behind the leaders Buriram. So despite the comment from coach Alexandre Polking at the post-match press conference that he wants to win every match, and that he is not prioritising the cup, seven changes from Wednesday’s game suggests that players are being rested. One could say that this paid off, as they easily progressed through the following week’s cup game, beating mid-table Port by 5-1. United ended up reaching the cup final, before losing to Changrai United.

The combination of the weakened home side and a playing surface where every bounce caused a splash, and where players did not dare to take a dive as they were not provided with breathing equipment gave Samut Prakan some hope in the first half. Even a goal midway through from Dragan Boskovic did not mean they gave up, and just before the break they managed to get the ball into the net, but it was ruled offside

Supporters from both clubs get to show their colours during the break

In the second half, the rain was slowing and playing conditions were improved. The half time period involved much sweeping water off the surface. This allowed Bangkok United to feel a little more assured and to take control. Mario Durovski hit the second on 63 minutes, and then Alexander Sieghart added the third. Sieghart is listed as a Thai, he has a German father and played for Bayern Munchen II and Unterhaching before returning to the land of his birth.

A final goal, two minutes from time was credited to Mika Chunuonsee, (born in Bridgend, and formerly of Bryntirion, Neath and Afan Lido, Welsh mother, Thai father). However, his shot actually hit the bar and came out, hitting the keeper on the back before rolling in, so in my listing it has to be an own goal.

Programme was slightly smaller than A5 in presentation, but then unfolds into a single sheet of paper, nine times the size. One side has text, the other has a player poster.

The crowd was 819. This was to be the lowest turnout at the club for the season, thanks to a combination of weather and the failure last mid-week. After the game, I was fortunate to discover that the club runs a free fan bus from central Bangkok, and I was whisked back into town on this. Talking to a German supporter of the club, while on the bus, I was invited to book a place for Wednesday’s cup game, but had to decline as I was going to be back in England by then.

Having braved the rains, and facing certain relegation, the Samut Prakan fans can still wave their flags. They finished the season just 17 points behind the second bottom team, 30 off the mark required to avoid relegation


The players show their appreciation of the loyal band at the end

While seeing a low crowd at one game is not a problem in itself, the league will be concerned that the attendance for the whole season were 15% down, and that the 2016 season in turn was well below the leagues 2015 figure.

Apparently, the free fan bus also runs to away games, even if they are a nine-hour drive from Bangkok.

I only decided on my Sunday action on the day itself. Even the evening before, when I was doing some of the research, I had not decided whether or not to go to some of Thai Amateur games, and which ones to go to. I knew the Thai League had a 1-1-2-6 pyramid, with the top four divisions being professional, and the next two being semi-professional.

Sunday Morning, too early!!. The Leo Stadium staging fifth level games in the Thai Amateur League

The Thai League website also shows a fifth level, the Thai Amateur League. From this I discovered that there were matches due in some mini-leagues, that had started the previous week. Eventually, I managed to discover that the fixtures were being put out on a facebook page, but in an image format. This meant I could not use any automated translation engine on them.

It was clear that the matches were being played in a single venue each Sunday, with three matches on a day, using 10.00, 13.00 and 16.00 kick off times. The venues were not always the same from week to week, and I had to wait for the fixtures to appear on facebook.

I showed them to some journalists at the Bangkok United game. It was clear none had covered this level of football, but I had already worked out that there 12 leagues in operation, and that two of the areas were Bangkok and Bangkok Perimeter. From here I gathered that the stadiums being used this week for the Perimeter League was the Leo Stadium, home of top division Bangkok Glass, while for the Bangkok League, it was the Thammasat Mini-Stadium. While I could confirm that this was on the university complex with Bangkok United, no one knew exactly where.

 

The good thing was that these two were not far apart, it would be easy to travel from one to the other within the one-hour interval.

I also tried to find out information about one of the other leagues, with the thought it might combine with Chonburi’s league game, but here the information ran out. Even those who could read the language could not point to the location on a map.

As I awoke quite early, I decided to go for it, based on what I knew. So, my first stop was to be the Leo Stadium. I had always been quite eager to get to the stadium bearing my name, and were disappointed that I was in Thailand during a weekend they were away from home.

So at 9 a.m., I was out of the hotel, briefly heading into the metro station to use the ATM, and then asking a taxi for the Leo Stadium

This was quite straight forward, and I arrived at the ground about 15 minutes before kick-off, where no admission charges were being requested, and I managed to obtain the team lists in Thai quite easily.

The teams were Romklao United, a student team based at the Kasem Bundit University, and an Air Force team – google translate puts the name as Department of Air Marshal. The Leo Stadium is an unusual three-sided affair, one of the long sides is not used, with a three tier stand behind one goal, a two tier along the side and a single tier behind the other goal.

The individual players of the two sides were very good on the ball, but very poor off the ball. There is a lack of tactics or vision and the defences reigned. I though the Air Force team had done enough that they may nick it near the end, but then a silly foul in the middle of the field left them down to ten men, (it was a straight red as well), and changed the game dynamics. The students had the better of the last 20 minutes, but could not prevent the game from serving me up with my first draw (and hence first goal less draw) of the season.

On to Thammasat, no problems in getting there and none of the flooded roads of the day before. The advice I had been given was to ask directions from the University gatehouse. Considering that on the day before, my taxi driver had difficulty finding the big stadium, this seemed sensible. Naturally the driver would not do this, drove a while onto site, then asked someone, who said right at the end of the road and then left. In typical taxi driver style, he considered the second turning to be not worth his while, and drove off 400 metres in the wrong direction, turned around and then did it right. We still only got to about 200 yards away when he again decided he was lost, and could not see anyone to ask. I gave up at this point, paid him up and walked over to the building, where I was immediately and accurately directed to the mini stadium

It is a grass pitch with bleachers behind it, the only shade and cover provided by trees overhanging, and by three gazebos – one for each team, and one for the officials. I was invited to share with the officials

The individual players skills in this game were less than that in the earlier one, the lack of vision and movement off the ball was the same. The teams now were Rajdamnern and Tokio Bluearmy. The spelling Tokio is correct, it is a Thai footwear company. There is nothing Japanese about then, although the coach does look like a retired Sumo wrestler, (pot, kettle?). I thought that I was getting my second scoreless draw of the day, especially as while Tokio seemed to be on top. Twice Sarawoot got clear with only the keeper to beat, and beat the keeper both times. The first was wide, the second hit the bar.

Just to show, I am not making this up!

But then with four minutes to go to the added time board, Srichai found himself clear for Rajdamnern, and managed to beat the keeper without missing the target. Three minutes later, the same played passed a defender with a clever flick and made it two.

The attendances for the two games were just 30 and 50 respectively, although this included a drummer at the second game.

I made my way back to the central road, but the first taxi I stopped would not consider taking me to Minburi, despite this being a good fare to claim, it was a fair distance from where I was standing. Some taxi drivers on these trips won’t take you as they don’t want the hassle, but quite often it is because they just do not know where you want to go. Unfortunately, it turned out there were not many free taxis on the road within the university, but as I was waiting, a minibus stopped. It was the Rajdamnern team, on the way back to their base (wherever that is). They took me to a more major road where I could more easily find a taxi. It appears that there are no dressing rooms at the mini-stadium. I saw one of the match officials get on a bike and cycle away still in kit.

It took a couple of goes to find a taxi to take me to Minburi. This is the home of Thai Honda FC, and was close on to a one-hour drive from my position in North Bangkok. He phoned home to ask someone to look up directions to the 72 Anniversary Stadium. It did not really help and he still got lost more than once. I was trying to update him with the map on my PC, which I could not update offline, but could pan around a little, once we had got close enough to spot the stadium from the main road – still over two miles away I think. If you tell a taxi driver not to take a specific road, because my map says it doesn’t go through, he will of course try it, stop when he sees someone, and then head back when they confirm my feeling that we need to take the next turning.

The 72 Anniversary Stadium is quite interesting. The choice of slogan, “Club of tomorrow” is displayed with much aplomb as you enter the ground. Sadly, this is not likely to be true, as they were relegated at the end of the season – and administratively they are still about two days before yesterday. On entry, I was given my accreditation, and a slip of paper allowing me to access internet from the Press Room. So, I asked where the press room was? It was just behind the girl who gave me the card, but I was sent in completely the wrong direction, after which I was told they did not have a press room at all. Still, one gets there in the end. There is no viewing from either end of the ground and one side is just a raised concrete stand with concrete seating. The other side is similar, except that seating has been installed in the central section which Is under cover. There is a track around the pitch, but at least the elevations are good.

From the press room, I have a view onto the pitch and the stands, the weather was good when I arrived, allowing me to take a couple of ground pictures of the empty stadium, as I watch from comfort,

30 minutes before kick-off time, it starts raining. Heavily
20 minutes before kick-off time, the pitch is completely waterlogged
At kick off time, it is put back by one hour
45 minutes into the hour, the rain stops
One hour after kick off time, the referee goes for a paddle, and says we will kick off in 30 minutes
Five minutes later, the game is called off.

At some time during the wait, we were treated to an impromptu display of support from a small group of home fans with the name of the club emblazoned across their chests. Fortunately, it will wash off – and if they went to stand with the majority of the fans, it will have done before the game was called off.

In common with the practice I had seen at other games, even though the match was off, the players still made their way to the support on the uncovered side to make their ritual “thanks for coming”.

The taxi driver who took me to the stadium, said he would come back for me. I was uncertain as to whether this would happen, but not only did he come back, but he made it there around 30 minutes before the agreed time, meaning I did not have to wait long. Anyone else trying to get a taxi here needs to consider asking them to pick up after the game. You are at least a mile from the main road, with little chance of seeing a taxi before you reach it. I did not see many until we reached the centre of Minburi – a distance which would have required more than an hour of extra walking.

We also picked up two Thai supporters who were looked for a Taxi. Apparently, they had tried to stop my cab when he was on the way in, and he asked my permission to pick them up. They knew little English (despite having visited England – apparently London is cold in winter), and travelled on in the cab after I reached the hotel – so they were going a long way, so they spent at least an hour in the taxi. What they would have done, or what I might have done, without the taxi remains a matter of speculation.

Anyway, I was back in town allowing a drink before bed. In the morning, the hotel staff helped me in the unusual task of transliterating the Thai script on the fifth level team lists for my records. I had managed to get a few sorted and some sort of translation is possible using google, particularly when the name does not translate into English words. As I have found a couple of times in the past, in Thailand and Hong Kong, hotel staff are quite happy to help with unusual requests like this so long as you can make yourself understood and you pick a quiet time of day.

After that though, there was nothing to do but to head back to the airport and board my flight back to London. My flight out was my first on the Airbus A380, but the return was my first on an A350. To be honest, there is very little to say about either from economy class. But my last job was working automating the production procedures for A350 wing panels, so one felt a little more connected here.

ATW90: Myanmar

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Back into sequence? This is part of the series of articles being written for the book, Around the World in 90 minutes

The Myanmar visit was in September 2017, and came directly after the my visit to Bhutan.

Please send any comments or corrections to atw90@leohoenig.com

Please follow me on facebook (Leo Hoenig), Twitter (@leohoenig) or Instagram (@hoenigleo)

I felt I really should not have gone to Myanmar. I was quite aware that as a country, it has always been frayed around the edges. Unfortunately, much of this was the fault of the British when negotiating independence. The British ruled the country as a single state, or even as a province of India, and ignored the many different small groups of people within the state. (This was not just a problem with British colonialism, look at the mess the Dutch left Indonesia in, partly because they created a single state). The Burmese majority and some of the other groups did sign an agreement, but others were left out, despite an original demand by Britain that this would not happen. The result is that ever since independence (70 years now), the country has been plagued by internal strife as the other groups, Karin, Shan, Rohingya demand their own rights and even independence. The North East of the country is reported as particularly lawless, but I was not going anywhere near there.

Trouble really started to flare in the week I was heading out of the UK. An insurgent group (or freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on your viewpoint), attacked police stations in Rakhine state. The main demand of the Rohingya people appears to be recognition. Although they have lived in the northern part of what is now the Rakhine state of Myanmar for generations, they do not hold Myanmar citizenship. The Myanmar government considers the whole group to be illegal Bengali immigrants. The Bangladesh government does not give them citizenship, as they live in Myanmar. When the British were in charge, they recognised the Rohingya as a tribe, but probably gave little thought to how they were spread across what would become the Burma/East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) border.

The border is porous at best, so no doubt there has been unregulated movement across it since the countries became independent, but the continuing repression in Myanmar means that it is not a great destination for illegal immigrants to head for. By the time I arrived in Myanmar, it appears that at least 250,000 people had been pushed across the border into refugee camps in Bangladesh, which simple cannot deal with the influx. The United Nations security council actually managed to condemn this, with both Russia and China accepting the motion.

Myanmar cannot control information, everyone here has mobile phones and internet connections, and outside news sources are available. The internal news however says that all outside sources are lies. I went to Mandalay and Bagan, two centres which rely on tourism to some extent, (Bagan only exists as a tourist destination). The various taxi drivers and guides I speak too, while managing to speak enough English to take me around, to negotiate fares, or to try and sell me trinkets I do not want or need, somehow do not understand a word when I ask about the situation, or how they are going to cope with the reduction in tourists that this is going to create.

From Bhutan, I had taken a flight back to Bangkok – like the outward one, it stopped in India – but a different airport to the one used in the other direction. My flight to Myanmar was the following morning, but from Bangkok’s older Don Muang Airport. I had booked a small hotel close to the airport, but my taxi driver had no idea where it was. Even after stopping close to the destination and getting directions from other drivers, he still had no idea. In the end, I had to stop at the wrong hotel, and take another taxi to complete the journey.

I landed in Mandalay. While Mandalay has always sounded like an interesting city, it does lack something. It is said that you are never far from a rat in any major city, but in most places they stay relatively well hidden. In Mandalay, you will see them if you take any short walk of an evening. It makes the plan of using street vendors for food seem somewhat unappealing.

I was picked up at Mandalay airport by the hotel’s transport. This was a good idea as the airport is a long way from the city centre, and no one likes to haggle with the local drivers before they have a true idea of costs. Indeed, I did not even hold currency until after I reached the hotel.

While we were heading to the city, I discovered we would pass close to the city’s impressive and modern football stadium. I could not get access inside, so had to content myself with a few outside pictures

I now had two and a half days of sightseeing planned. First, I would walk look around Mandalay, then take a trip between Mandalay and Bagan, stopping at the most impressive temple on the route, and then I would spend a whole day travelling around Bagan, before taking a morning flight down to Yangon. It would be down in the commercial centre of the country where the football would take place.

I managed, of course to see many sights on my first three days, more than can be possibly be shown here, but here are small number of highlights. The first two are in Mandalay, the second pair at Mount Popa, which is en route between Mandalay and Bagan, (or if you are staying in Bagan, the place most taxi touts want to overcharge to take you to), and the rest are in Bagan itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Being as this is a Football Blog, I could not resist this football pitch in Bagan, with a couple of small stupas behind. No sign to say when the next game would be.








 

 

 

 



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The Myanmar government makes a charge to visit the antiquities in Bagan, and please do not think for a moment that this goes mainly into maintenance, even if there are some signs that maintenance may be ongoing. The figure is 25,000 Kyat – which is in fact around £14. While this fee is well worth it, no one bothers to check if you have a ticket or not at most places. It was only at the last temple I visited, Shwesandaw that I was forced to hand over my money.

Still, it had to be paid as this is one tall temple, and you can climb up the sides (in relative safety). The views over the 360o panorama are magnificent, and naturally this is a favourite (and recommended) sunset hangout.

Of course, the next morning is Saturday, and I need to get to football. I am staying at a hotel near the airport, so it is a straightforward matter of getting their airport shuttle to the terminal – well they told me it was a bus!

In common with about 99% of the road traffic in Myanmar, this “bus” is right hand drive, and hence intended for a market where one drives on the left. In Myanmar, they drive on the right. I asked more than once about this and the answer I got was consistent. It is apparently because the cars are all made in Japan. The Japanese drive on the left (that much is true), and hence do not make cars for with the steering wheel on the other side, (such as China, USA and most of Europe).

This is repeated enough that I think the locals believe it. The true reason is that most vehicles in Myanmar were not intended for the local market, but were sent to neighbouring countries, (India mainly, but also Bangladesh and Thailand) where they do use the left hand side of the road.

And then onto the plane, which starts off in the wrong direction and makes two other stops before getting to Yangon

 

Some good aerial views, even if I did not spot the Shan United home ground


There were no delays in my flight, fortunately, which meant I had no difficulty in getting down to Yangon and into my hotel in good time.

After a short while in the hotel, I am on my way again, to see a Rakhine United “home” game. This is where football in Myanmar starts to get confusing. Rakhine is the state where the problems with the Rohingya was happening. When I started my trip, I assumed the game would be played within the state – I had even gone as far as looking to see if I could get there and the down to Yangon for a game on the Sunday. I do not think I had noticed that the Magwe do not have a home stadium, and therefore were due to play in Yangon as well that day, (Wikipedia lists a stadium for every club, but then notes that some are not in use). I had planned my timing with the thought I could travel to Hpa-an (about six hours on the bus) for Monday’s match and back on the Tuesday. This was in fact the main reason I had booked to leave the country on Wednesday, rather than the day before.

While the Myanmar National League web site confirmed the fixtures and kick off times well in advance, so as I was not just dealing with sites such as soccerway, it was only in the week before the match that they release the confirmed fixtures, with venues!

It turns out that Zwekapin’s matches were not in Hpa-an, but also in Yangon. Two other teams, Chin United and GFA, both of which hail from Chin also play their home matches in Yangon. Meanwhile, the number of matches for the weekend was reduced from six to five as the team from Nay Pyi Taw was thrown out of the league for not paying players’ wages.

All in all, therefore, six of the 12 clubs in the league play their home matches in Yangon, even though there is only one Yangon team in the league. It goes a step further than this, as all of the 12 (reduced to 11 by Nay Pyi Taw’s problems) actually train at the same place – the two artificial pitches next to the offices of the Myanmar Football Association offices, and across the road from the National stadium.

Even Yadanarbon, the team from Mandalay use the facilities in Yangon, which is rather sad considering that when I saw the outside of the stadium, the driver pointed out the academy pitches outside, and these present superior facilities to those in Yangon.

Another thing I discovered after I started planning was the existence of the ASEAN federation’s under-19 tournament, which would reach it’s final on the Sunday of my visit to Yangon. When this first came to my notice, I wondered if I could get from Yangon United’s ground after their Sunday match to the national stadium for the final. Google maps said yes, but I think the traffic would have made it close to impossible.

However, once I discovered that Rakhine were to use the Yangon United ground, it seemed that life would be simpler, as I could go there on Saturday, the National stadium for two U-19 games on Sunday and the Aung San stadium on the Monday.

It started hammering down with rain when the taxi was half way to the stadium, and on arrival the driver took my straight through the gates and then signalled to someone close by to come and hold an umbrella as I exited the door and walked to the stand. I’m not used to this. Normally, it rains, I get wet.

As a result, I do not even know if avoided paying to get in or not! I paid to get into the game on Monday, so I am guessing I missed paying (maybe almost 60p) here.

Anyway, despite being a modern artificial surface, it appeared the game would be in doubt. There was standing water right across the pitch, and despite people trying to sweep it clear, nothing could change until the rain stopped. But those of you that know South East Asia know that it rains hard, but rarely for long.


 

So, they announced a 30-minute delay to kick off. By that time the rain had stopped and the sweepers had returned the playing surface to something close to normal. There was no obvious water, but the surface was slippery, and this showed as the game went on. When a new rainstorm hit on the hour mark, the puddles soon appeared again, but the referee played through and all was back to normal by the end.

The Yangon United Sports Centre acts is the home ground for Yangon United, and also stages games for other teams as and when necessary. It has a track, but not full size. It has one long stand which goes all the way along the pitch, and another smaller one on the other side of the pitch. The only floodlights are attached to the top of the stands, so I do not think they are for match play (explaining the 3.30 kick off time), but as we did not start until 4.00, they were on at the end.



Shan United, are top of the league, and it was soon clear why. Playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation, they made good use of the wings, and utilised the power of their Nigerian forward Christopher Chizoba. It was two goals by Chizoba that gave them a half time lead. The first a powerful shot, after another player had sent a shot from distance onto the crossbar, and the second a tap in after good work from Han Kyungin. Han himself pounced on the loose ball following a corner on 65 minutes to complete the scoring.


Rakhine’s best period of play came at the start of the second half, but they too frequently failed to find the man in the area with undirected crosses, or ended up with powder-puff shots. They kept trying to play, as fresh rain created puddles on the pitch in the second half, the best chance coming after a save by Thiha Sithu leaving Sunday Mathew with an open goal which he fluffed. The Nigerian players’ union matched this a minute later when Chizoba headed over.

The smallish crowd included people supporting both sides, including a fair group wearing Rakhine colours. It appears these are all Yangon residents who may have once lived in the state.


Chizoba, I noticed ended the season as joint leading goalscorer, I spoke to him briefly after the game, when he mentioned a desire to move higher, maybe to the Indian Super League, as he had already played in India. However, he has been stayed at Shan for the 2018 season




After the game, I had a quick drink (coffee!) in the café just outside the ground. All eyes are on the TV, showing the lunchtime game in England, just as night falls here. Leicester City are 2-0 down to Crystal Palace at half time. (final 3-0)

As a prelude to heading to the ASEAN Football Federation Under-19 finals on the Sunday, I first had to visit the Myanmar Association’s offices in the morning. The offices are just across the road from the main stadium and stand next to two artificial pitches.

Although it was not apparent, looking on, these pitches were sodden with water, and if you walked across them you get the splish-splosh that you might normally associate with walking on a carpet which has been flooded and not dried out.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The match when I wandered past was South Korea v Japan, or to be more accurate, a match between ex-pats working in Yangon from the two East Asian nations.

The fibres of the surface were all lying flat, which probably damages the drainage. One got the impression that there is a lack locally when it comes to translating the words, “regular maintenance”.


The sign on the building at the back reads “National Football Academy”, the corner flags are set in concrete within a can marked “Gloss Enamel” I’m sure the FA uses the same techniques at St. George’s Park.


There is a lot of rivalry amongst the nations of South East Asia, and the ASEAN Football Federation organises at many levels. The tournament for U-19 players is held annually. Australia have been admitted to this region, even though they do not fit naturally into any Asian region, and may be better placed in the East, against South Korea, Japan and China. Although the Australians are the holders at this level, they have declined to enter this time around. New Zealand were originally invited to fill the gap, but then pulled out when the fixture schedule was given, (this was before the Rohingya business flared up). Hence, we had two groups one of six teams, the other of five.

Group A, the six team group was dominated by Thailand and Malaysia, who both won four games before drawing with each other. The biggest surprise was when Timor-Leste (East Timor to you) beat Singapore in their final game to finish third. Malaysia were group winners on goal difference

Group B was tighter, the Phillipines lost all four games, and Brunei only beat the Phillipines. Vietnam won their first three, including a 3-0 win over Indonesia, while Indonesia and Myanmar both had two wins before the final games. Indonesia had beaten Myanmar 2-1 thanks to a late injury time goal. Hence Vietnam had a +15 goal difference, plus they knew a draw made them group winners. However, Indonesia needed to make themselves safe in case Myanmar did win, which meant beating Brunei by 8-0. As it happened, the final score was Indonesia 8, Brunei 0.

For the final game, this meant that Vietnam would win the group if they did not lose the game, but with a defeat, they would drop to third place, as the goal differences and goals scored would be identical with Myanmar (assuming a single goal defeat) and hence head to head for their match against Myanmar would be decisive. Vietnam were a goal to the good in the first minute, but Myanmar pulled it back and won with a goal four minutes from time.

Both semi-finals finished scoreless. No extra time with only two days before the finals, and it was the group A teams, Malaysia and Thailand that went through. I was in a restaurant in Bagan for the semi-final, and it ground to a halt as the penalties came on. Even a group of French people stopped and cheered for the home team. Myanmar had an early penalty saved, but drew level when Malaysia’s fifth hit the post. But then another save stopped Myanmar on the first sudden death penalty, and Malaysia progressed by 5-4.

Although less central than the Aung San stadium, Thuwunna is the chosen national stadium for most international games. It was built in the mid-80s, Four curved stands, each two tiered surround an 8 lane running track. The two sides are roofed, while the ends are open. It is built mainly in concrete with large entrances to the seats between the tiers. The base row of seats are not more than 3 meters above pitch level, and while no one chooses to sit this low, quite a few of the home support do stand on the path that runs in front of these seats, forcing the sitting spectators further up.

For some reason, quite high mesh fences are erected on both sides of the ground, but not behind the goals. The mesh itself is too fine to interfere with the views, but the scaffolding poles that support it are a very annoying feature.

The pitch is grass, and the surface is clearly soft, with patches where the grass has worn thin, but despite the heavy rain and the high load on the surfaces, the surface actually appears better than the artificial surfaces at Yangon United and the training centre across the road.

Myanmar v Indonesia. Indonesia are on top from the start, forcing one good save and threatening the home defence well before a ball from the right is slipped through to an unmarked Mursalim who scores the first goal. As can happen, this results in a more positive play from Myanmar, and they should have levelled when Tun got into the area and found LW Aung in space, practically on the penalty spot, but he directed his shot straight at Savik in the Indonesian goal.

The pressure does not last, and on 27 minutes Sulaeman is released by a counter attack, picking up the ball in the centre circle and passing it into the net when the keeper advances for 2-0

Again, Myanmar push forward but without effect, the Indonesian keeper parries a couple of cross balls, but no one can finish them, while PS Naing fails to make contact with a cross from Tun.

This is the story of the game in a nutshell, Myanmar rushing to try and create chances which by and large come to nothing, their opponents being just that bit more clinical as they approach the goal. Indonesia are three goals to the good at the break, and extend this to six with a few minutes to go. Myanmar finally get a reward for their efforts in injury time, but there is still time for Indonesia to score again, and the final result is 7-1.

Close to the end, the announcer informs us that 16,000 are watching. I don’t know why he says this. There cannot be more than 1000 in the ground. The figure does not appear in the official records of the game, and I don’t think even the local press would report it.

By the time of the final, it is raining again and the pitch surrounds are looking very wet, but there is no standing water. Thailand get the first chance, a free kick from Noomchansakool is met on the far post by Kamingthong, but he puts the ball just over, then Rashid breaks forward for Malaysia, and hits the post when he should have scored.

The crowd has thinned out greatly, less than half of the figure from the first game, but there are two groups of noisy Thai supporters, each about 30 people and on opposite sides of the ground. For once, the rain is merely gentle, but less than a dozen people remain in the open seats, one of which has both an umbrella and a TV camera.

Thailand can just about muster enough fans to raise the giant flag before kick off.

The game is cagier than the first match, both sides will pass the ball right across the back line before choosing their position to push a forward ball. After the chances in the opening minutes, these are not finding the attacking players in space, as the defenders clearly have the upper hand. Malaysia have the most possession, but that is because they play more tippy-tappy at the back. Thailand are quicker to push the ball forward, and quicker to lose possession.

However, almost imperceptibly, Malaysia push their back line up and this moves the game into the other half of the field given Thailand some problems. Thailand have a player injured, but make two substitutions, so at least one is tactical. It is not changing the 4-1-4-1 formation used by both teams though. The new forward, Lertlum manages to get a shot close to the keeper which is blocked for a corner. Goalless at half time, I cannot see there being many added after the break, and a penalty shoot-out may well be the end result

The first goal comes from nowhere, a cross to one of the Thai substitutes, Panya, who is given a little space in the area, and a looping header which you could tell from the first moment was beating the Malay keeper. Within minutes it is two, a free kick from the right and Kamen meets it with a powerful header. A typical centre half coming up for the set piece.

Thailand continue to look the more dangerous, getting another three free kicks that all cause problems to Malaysia in the next fifteen minutes, but following the third of these, something happens off the ball, and Thai full back Kumkean is dismissed. Pulling a winger back, Thailand look to have moved to a 4-1-4-0 formation. Malaysia make the obvious change, bringing on Azeman, a forward in place of a midfielder, Thailand bring on a defender, which at least allows the winger back to his position, especially as Malaysia had created a chance in that space between the two substitutions. With this they revert to 4-1-3-1 and almost get a third when a header from Lertlum bounces off the crossbar

Thailand are happy to try time wasting tactics, such as having a player carried off on a stretcher, and then standing up fit enough to return. Malaysia have switched to 4-3-3 which is creating a few chances, with Razan hitting the ball over the bar in the 82nd minute and then beating the ground in frustration as he knows he should have got closer.

As we move on, it becomes clearer that Malaysia do not have the right moves to turn it around, as they keep pumping long balls into the area which are easily cleared. The call for four minutes of injury time is generous to Thailand, who immediately manage another injured player, and another minute lost.

Malaysia finally get their chance, two minutes into injury time when Khirudin is tripped in the box, but even this is to no avail as Manpati saves Azeman’s penalty. It was their last chance, the referee manages only to add 30 seconds to the four minutes, when two have been wasted (one for the injury, and one for the time between penalty award and it being taken). Still, for all their late gamesmanship, Thailand have bossed the second half and deserve their cup.


Viewed through the mesh – Malaysia’s late penalty is saved

As I had seen in Thailand, the first action of the Thai team after the whistle is to go over and cheer their fan group. About five minutes later the Malay team acknowledge (very briefly) a small group of their own fans, who were on my side of the ground, but had been quiet during the game.

The rain, which had kept off during the second half of play suddenly becomes torrential again as we wait for the presentations.

After this, I make my way back to the hotel, pleased with the days entertainment.

I take a little time to look around my locality, which is the old centre of Yangon on the Monday morning. The city is typical of this area of Asia, with its busy streets and crowded paving. There are a few sights to see, but the real joy here is not any specific item, but the kaleidoscope of noise and colour that makes up life in an Asian city.

A Buddhist temple within a roundabout, and surrounded by shops


And to prove harmony is not impossible, the mosque across the road!

One unusual feature here, which sets the city apart from other cities in Myanmar, and Asia generally is the lack of motor scooters. In most cities, they are a popular form of travel, and it is a common site to see whole families riding on one scooter, but here they are banned.

The Aung San Satdium in Yangon is not far beyond where I was walking in the morning and I actually considered walking from the hotel, but the heavens opened at about 1.45. I started the walk 30 minutes later when there was a brief respite in the rain, and hailed a taxi five minutes later when the respite ended.

I ducked out of the taxi immediately outside the ticket stall, so I quickly paid my 1000 kyets (about 60p to you). It was still pissing down with rain as I walked into the ground, did not stop until well into the second half.


This is the old national stadium, it is not really bigger than the new one, even though the capacity quoted is. I asked one of the journalists covering the game (there were two to choose from) whether it might be better to kick off the Monday games later than 3.30.

He replied that the floodlights do not actually work, so it is not possible.

Open concrete stands on three sides, a newer covered stand where I came in to the West.

The “visiting team” is Gospel for Asia comes from Chin State, which seems plausible as the state has a majority Christian population according to wiki. GFA are bottom of the division, with Chin United one place higher. The state of Chin is one of the most impoverished in the country. Like its neighbour, Rakhine, it is in a continuous state of conflict, with the army trying to assert their authority by methods that to put it mildly, international groups such as Human Rights Watch find distasteful.



Zwekapin took the lead on 22 minutes. A free kick was parried by the visiting keeper. KS Lin got the loose ball on the right side of the field and crossed to the far post for YK Hywe to score.

Slightly to my surprise, GFA equalised soon afterwards, a ball was played into SM Aung on the edge of the six-yard box, where either the keeper or the centre half should have taken it off him. Instead he was allowed to bring the ball down, turn and softly tap it in. Luis Carlos Martins restored the home sides lead, a diving header to a cross from SM Tun.

I thought that Zwekapin would be able to step up a gear after the break, but actually GFA had the better of the play. Still the home side should have made certain when Martins missed open chances in both the 80th and 81st minutes, (the first was easier). His manager decided he had seen enough, and replaced him with a defender, seeing out the game in a 5-2-3-0 formation.

No official crowd for this one, but my estimate was around 150. The impression I get is that bigger crowds can be seen outside Yangon, depending on the amount of success a team is having and the importance of the game – but this is not going to balance the costs the team incurs in travelling to the game. The national football association has only a little cash to distribute to the teams, so basically the 12 teams in the National League are all dependent on the amount of money their owners and sponsors can put in. Still, the division is a professional league, and even the second division has enough money that many teams have recruited foreign players, (which must therefore be full professional).


I had a brief chat with an agent who was meeting some of the players outside the ground, most of the foreigners in Myanmar football are from Africa, and they benefit from the centralised nature of the league, as they appear to group together between matches.

The chances of at least one of the Chin sides staying in the division has been enhanced with Nay Pyi Taw having been banned from the league with five games to play. All matches will be awarded 3-0 to their opponents. They still sit one point ahead of Chin, two ahead of GFA, but will not be allowed to stay up even if they were to stay in their current (non-relegation) position.

In the 2017 season, United of Thanlyin were removed from the second division after 10 games, (half way through the original season). Their results were expunged.
Also missing this season are Manaw Myay (last season’s second division champions), Zeyar Shwe Myay (mid-table top division last season). By the end of the season, GFA had done enough to be clear of the relegation zone, but Chin United finished bottom. Chin United did not continue running following their relegation, while the other relegated club, Nay Pyi Taw have also folded. For the second season in succession, the champions of the second division have dropped out of the league, rather than taking promotion.


A view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Not certain what the golden ball is for,

The demise of Chin United in particular is disappointing, as they were an interesting case. Their owner James Lian Sai started the side after running football competitions between players in orphanages in Yangon. He himself is running several orphanages. It appears that not all of the children are actually orphans, as with the poverty and conflicts in states such as Chin, many parents will send their children to the relative safety of the south. Still, the Chin are an ethnic minority within Myanmar, and as well as problems in their home area, they face discrimination and abuse in the larger city.

Despite that, Chin United have managed to develop players, and at least one has made it into the national team

The second division becomes more confusing with three of the teams changing names! It runs in 2018 as a seven-team league. In both 2017 and 2018, the second division is a Yangon only league, using the two main stadiums in the city, and the Padonmar Stadium, just north of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which is one of Yangon’s major attractions).

The top division continues much as before, with five of the clubs not being able to use grounds outside Yangon, so six of the 12 will play there again.


After the match I managed to find my way to Yangon’s only microbrewery. Finding it is typical of a taxi drive in the city. First you show him the address in writing and on a map on your phone. He then quotes you a price, (in this case, one that I thought was very low). He then heads off in completely the wrong direction to a place which he thinks you are going to. You then point out the real address, and the phone number attached, (which you had also suggested in the first place). Eventually he makes his way in the right direction, hitting the traffic at every corner. The brewery is slightly hidden in an industrial area, and the driver has to ask three times close by to find it. This is not helped of course by the fact he does not follow his directions as given.


Let is be known that I like a good beer!

 

In this case, I paid more than the original quote, in line with the cost I thought I should pay. Fortunately, the return journey was easier, the pub called the taxi for me, and his price was reasonable. He even knew where my hotel was.

The week before my visit, Kyrgyzstan called off their home Asian Cup match with Myanmar due to the threat of protests by their Muslim population against the visitor’s treatment of the Rohingya. The situation is worse, not better with this match now re-arranged for March. Meanwhile, the subject has faded from the world’s TV screens, but like many of the other conflicts in Myanmar still goes on. Even the pope managed to fail to mention it while in the country. In Myanmar, the official version is still believed in almost all quarters and any alternative view is down to foreign dislike of Myanmar and its leaders. Something of a mistaken assumption as Aung Sun Suu Kyi is still someone seen as a heroic leader by most of the world, and until this crisis, she was almost the “Asian Nelson Mandela”. Carefully burying the rest of the administration’s human rights abuses in the sand.


In such a country, the problems of the Football organisations appear to be small potatoes. Still, I cannot help but think that devolving the development of the game away from Yangon would not only be good for the game, but could act for the good of the country. Half the teams play home games in front of miniscule crowds in one city, while the other half travel from this city to play in front of much better crowds elsewhere. If the government could help provide facilities for football in Rakhine (Rohingya), Chin (Chin) and Hpa-an (Karen), this might be a move in the right direction for bringing communities together, rather than the conflicts that plague the country.

Still, I leave with the thought that the country’s chosen name is so close to the that of the Muppet song, Manah Manah, Myanmar? And the lyrics are so appropriate to the way home and foreign governments seem to view the problems

Myanmar? (ba dee bedebe), Myanmar, (ba debe dee)
Maynmar! (ba dee bedebe badebe badebe dee dee de-de de-de-de)

The Whole Game Solution – Survey Results

Sunday, September 18th, 2016

An interesting exercise, running my first survey. The results show not only some idea of the views of the fans, but also gave me an insight into how to write a survey.

I feel that there is a benefit in running a few surveys of this kind to pick up the opinions of my clubs’ fanbase, and I will be suggesting this at a trust meeting.

I used survey monkey to run the survey. They provided a simple, and importantly free service, although limited to ten questions. One does get rather bombarded by attempts to sell you their more professional services. At the time of writing, I have received 80 responses, 53 (66%) stated they were Cheltenham fans, 9 were from other League-1 or League-2 clubs, 6 from supporters of Premier League of Championship clubs, 7 for non-league and 5 with no specific club.

Some 66% claimed to go to more than two thirds of home games for their club, while only 22% saw less than a third. Some 20% of respondents did not answer the question on away games, while 58% of those who responded saw less than a third of away games. 22% saw over two thirds.

Survey Monkey allows the application of one filter only, and I think the most useful tool I can apply is to see how Cheltenham fans responded. For the viewing habits, the Cheltenham fans were slightly more pronounced, with 70% seeing more than two thirds of games and only 13% seeing less than a third. Again quite a few did not add away game details, but 53% of those who answered went to less than a third, while only 17% saw more than two thirds.

It was my third question where I demonstrated my inexperience with questionnaires. I wanted to know which possible changes to league structure might be acceptable, but I did not specifically specify a no change option. I think it would have been best to split this to two questions, firstly whether one thought changes to the structure were a good idea, and then which ones were acceptable. After the initial burst of answers to the questionnaire, I edited this question to specify that no response meant that no change was acceptable, and after that there was about a 33% for no reponse.

Among Cheltenham fans, 52% of those showing an option thought 20 teams in the Championship, 24 in other divisions would be acceptable, 27% would accept 22 in the lower divisions and 30% would accept the originally publicised divisions of 20. When expanded to all replies, there was a smaller difference between those who thought it acceptable to drop just the Championship to 20 teams (42%), and those who those who would go for 20 throughout the structure (39%), the 20 team championship and 22 in other divisions stayed at 27%. The numbers do not add up to 100 as multiple replies were allowed.

I then asked where new teams brought into the structure should come from. The results were overwhelming for doing this on merit alone (i.e from the National League). Only five people thought it may be acceptable to bring Celtic and Rangers on board, four thought reserve/development teams could be accepted and only three thought that franchises could be started in cities (for example in Dublin, Belfast or Edinburgh). Three of the four who would accept reserve/development fans were Cheltenham supporters, (the other had no specific affiliation). Within the promotion on merit selection, there is a preference for no rules over the demanding licenses based on ground facilities and finances.

When the option of a five division structure was suggested, and the question, should the lowest divisions in this be regionalised North and South, there was only a marginal rejection (55% to 45%). When this is limited to Cheltenham fans, it becomes more pronounced (60% against). As Gloucester City travel further on average to each away game in their regionalised division then Cheltenham do in their National one, this is understandable. Interestingly, even if not a big enough sample to be truly accurate, of the 12 responders who said they travel to more than two thirds of away games and who also answered this question, there was a positive response (7 to 5) in favour of regionalisation.

When it comes down to what to do with dates freed by reducing numbers in the divisions, the results are overwhelming for reducing mid-week matches. 70% of respondents would go with this, (Cheltenham fans – 75%). Again I allowed multiple answers, and got just 21% (Cheltenham 17%) for a shorter season and 14% (Cheltenham 13%) for a winter break

When it comes to the EFL Trophy, the fans are against it – but not very much so, 53% overall would scrap the competition. When asked how it should be formatted if it were to continue, the vast majority would go back to the straight lower division knock out formula (69%), as opposed to lower divisions but with groups (21%) or this season’s format with development teams (10%). Cheltenham opinions are slightly more pronounced, 60% would scrap the competition, while 71% would go back to knock out if it were to continue, and only 8% would keep this season’s format

Finally, the FA Cup, where there are again clear indications, 84% want the Cup to stick to weekends, and 71% think replays are an essential part of the competition. Here the Cheltenham fans are slightly less committed, at 82% and 66%. The minorities in both groups that think replays could be scrapped would do so for all rounds. There are few who that they should be scrapped from the First or Third round proper, keeping replays in the earlier rounds.

The Whole Game Solution

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

If you were to ask me “What is the Whole Game Solution”, then my first, two word answer would be “a misnomer”.

There are just fewer than 6000 football clubs in this country offering Men’s Saturday Football. The whole game solution is a change to the structure for 100 of these clubs, and it clearly favours the requirements of 40 or less.

At the moment, the “Whole Game Solution” is, according to the EFL, a discussion document. I have not seen the full document, but the football league themselves have summarised the proposals and the reasons for them and this can be viewed at http://www.efl.com/news/article/2016/a-whole-game-solution-3119809.aspx.

After the initial discussion during the summer’s AGM, the League has then had further discussions with the Premier League and the FA, and have then asked for club’s opinions on various options. This has been published on-line, http://www.fsf.org.uk/assets/Downloads/News/2016/SH-WGS-letter-to-clubs-August-2016.pdf and this gives more insight into the thoughts of those who are making plans.

Unfortunately, the letter in the second link is dated August 17th, and requested clubs to respond by the 2nd September, prior to the next club’s meeting on 22nd September. This letter was not initially released to supporters’ organisation, so while the League claim that they want input from all stakeholders including fans’ groups, the truth of the matter is that we are already playing catch up.

Despite being a board member of a supporters’ trust, and even though the trust has a fan elected director, I had not heard of the 2nd September deadline until it had passed. I do not know of any club that has asked for supporters’ opinions in this time span, but several have now promised some form of consultation before any clubs vote on final proposals at next summer’s AGM. It is just that supporters do not appear to be getting a chance to shape proposals first.

Indeed the clearest response was a rejection by AFC Wimbledon, but even this was done without consultation of those fans who are not on the trust board.

The base plan was a new structure with 100 clubs in a Premier League and a Four division English Football League. All divisions to have 20 clubs, with three promoted and relegated from each division. While the football league appear to demand the three up/three down between their structure and the Premier League, there is a notable omission where they do not specify whether they will keep two up/two down at the bottom of what will become League-3, or whether this could be increased or reduced.

In the initial proposal, it was claimed that although the number of teams each division of the League was being reduced from 24 to 20, the clubs would not suffer financially. The letter that followed in August shows that the one comment some clubs have made was to doubt this. The basis for such a claim is that the plan allows for a greater redistribution of wealth from the Premier League to the lower divisions. The trouble is that with a 17% reduction in number of matches played, and effective relegation for 24 clubs, (four from Championship, eight from League-1 and twelve from League-2), it is difficult to believe in this claim. The suggestion that some of the loss from lost games could come from increasing season ticket sales or reduced squad sizes is considered by many clubs to be fanciful at best. The league has admitted as much in the letter. The league claims that by freeing up more weekends for the Premier League, they can increase the TV contract amount, but then they also project reducing the weekends by taking a winter break

The Football League had a number of other questions on their mind. In particular, in response to the loss of income from the reduction of games, they have now suggestions a Championship of 20 and three division of 22, (requiring 14 new clubs, rather than 8). I can see the logic of reducing the numbers in the Championship, where the fact they also take international breaks, means there is an inordinate amount of midweek matches, but I would keep 24 at the lower levels.

Either not reducing or a lesser reduction in the number of games for lower division clubs would also mean they are slightly less reliant on the distribution of money from the higher leagues in order to keep the current fully professional set up. I believe my club currently receives between 25 and 33% of its income from these sources. If they were to balance the loss of 4 homes games, then this would be close to 50%. While one may see the Premier League footing the initial bill, if their own agenda is met; who can say what the situation will be five years down the line. It would be foolish to assume the supply of golden eggs being laid from the TV contracts will keep growing. If at some time in the future, the amount is reduced, or at least stops rising faster than inflation, will Premier League clubs (who earn the money) wish to reduce their largesse to the rest of the league?

The Football League has also asked where additional clubs should come from. To most supporters, this is easy – the best clubs in the National League should be promoted to fill vacancies. Maybe with some restriction to deny promotion to a minority who either do not have the facilities or have a poor financial model. A financial fair play rule as currently enforced in League-2 would be a slap in the face to the promotion prospects of clubs such as Eastleigh and Forest Green. However, that is not the only potential source of new teams. The idea of reserve/development teams in the league has already been raised, and slapped down by public opinion. Despite this the league clubs voted to take the extra cash on offer to degrade the already maligned EFL (Checkatrade) Trophy, by allowing some of these teams to enter. If there is a significant cash boost, would clubs vote now for them to join the league?

There is one other source of clubs that gets mentioned quietly on the sidelines, and this clubs outwith the English system. Top of the list here, as always are Celtic and Rangers, but there is also the thought that new clubs could be formed, simply to take up places. The word franchise, considered the ugly word of English football ever since Wimbledon morphed into MK Dons would be more accurately placed against new clubs, which could be in cities such as Belfast and Dublin. The franchise would be initial only – once a club had been installed in the league (possibly as high as championship level), promotion and relegation would come on the field. The problem with any such move is that while it is not against FIFA and UEFA rules, (there are plenty of other examples of clubs playing within a different country’s league), it must be approved by the FAs of both countries. The Scots would almost certainly rail against such a move, but one would be less ncertain that the two Irish organisations would.

The league also asked if they should consider regionalisation of the bottom two divisions of the new structure, so as we end up with League-2 North and League-2 South. Of course, regionalisation does not mean that every club in the division travels less distance. We are in a national league, with an average journey of 108 miles to away games. We share the ground with a club in a regionalised league and an average journey of 124 miles for away games. Regionalisation has two other effects, it reduces the scope for promotion, the promotion places being share by the two divisions, and it reduces the profile of the leagues. Hence the overall crowds would be less. While no other country has as many national divisions as England, many leagues have introduced new national divisions in recent years, and in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, this has resulted in some degree of increased attendances compared to the regional leagues. The expectation ought to be that regionalisation will reduce attendances overall, not increase them.

The subject of a winter break was brought up. I get the impression that this is more of interest to the top clubs than at our level. It is clearly possible to take two or three weeks out of the season, but these have to be replaced in some way. The options are increasing the overall length of the season, adding more mid-week fixtures or reducing the size of the division. The Premier League is not about to reduce its numbers, but it may add one Saturday at the start of the season, despite some managers complaining about the short break when it follows a tournament. Overall, a winter break would be accommodated by switching FA Cup rounds to mid-week. The unwritten addition to this is that replays would be scrapped as well, at least from the Third round onwards, (a third round replay would fall inconveniently within the break). At the moment, the suggestion is that two rounds, probably fourth and fifth, get switched to midweek. The reason for this is the International and European clubs calendar takes up so many mid-week dates that more could not be found. If two rounds get switched, then two more will surely follow. The French Cup already follows this pattern, with their equivalent of the third round on the same date as in England, and following rounds all mid-week (31 January, 28 February, 4 April, 25 April). With no replays, England could follow suit

Incidentally, long winter breaks are not common across Europe, despite the general opinion that all the rival leagues have them. Italy plays matches on the 22 December, and then returns 17 days later, the French do similar (with the cup when they return). Spain has two Saturdays off, but have cup matches every midweek, except the one between Christmas and New Year. The Bundesliga has been shortening the winter break as modern pitch technology means they can promise matches are on. They still take a full month off with games on 21st December and 21st January.

In order to get some better ideas, I have designed a short survey, please fill it in. I will publish the results if there is a significant response. Thanks

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/JNJ9MDZ

Easter Internationals

Friday, March 18th, 2016

 

Full internationals are spread rather unevenly through the season, there are monthly international dates in the autumn, in September, October and November filling up a crowded schedule for the top players who are also involved in league and European club matches, then there are the qualifying games and tournaments held at the end of the season – but without doubt, the fixture dates that European clubs would most like to end is the one set of spring fixtures – which this season falls across the Easter weekend.

The football calendar is strangely static, while Easter is a movable feast – and anyway in football terms it is only within Britain that clubs tend to double up with two fixtures over the weekend. With the inevitability that Easter is either an international week, or between Champions League mid-week dates, the Premier League generally forgoes the idea of playing two sets of fixtures within four days. Oldies like me who grew up watching Southern League football in the seventies remember the Easter weekend as a time for a triple header with games on Friday, Saturday and Monday.

Whether the clubs have one match to play over the weekend, or three, or even now with the Premier League taking an enforced break, this set of fixtures is unwanted by the clubs not just in England, but across all of the main leagues in Europe, where it is an unwanted interruption at a vital part of the season.

While we can understand the top level club’s annoyance at the enforced break and the disturbance to their season, at least the league fixtures stop when the internationals start, and the clubs will be pressurising the national teams not to make many substitutions and not “over tire” their players.

The same is not true in the National League, there are ten matches in the league on the Saturday before Easter, and then a full programme split evenly between Good Friday and Easter Saturday, followed by another full programme on Easter Monday. Despite this, the FA has seen fit to arrange a ‘C’ International on the Tuesday before Easter – and at that a match away in the Ukraine.

England’s ‘C’ International team is an anachronism, (and when did the ‘B’ team last play, anyway?). There was once an England Amateur XI, and this had some value – the best players from the Amateur game, playing against amateurs from other countries. But even fifty years ago, some of the “amateur” players were being paid more than semi-professionals at neighbouring clubs. The FA slowly got to grips with the problem, abolishing the official difference between amateur and semi-professional football. There are still amateur footballers of course, just turn up at any playing field in the country on a Saturday or Sunday and you can see them chasing after a ball hoofed down the pitch.

Still, with the top level outside the football league being entirely semi-professional, a semi-professional National team was formed. This was mainly from the top level of non-League, with a few names appearing from lower levels. In their time, Cheltenham Town supplied a few players to that team, and I recall going to Hayes to see a team including Steve Book, Mark Yates and Neil Grayson beat Italy by 4-1 at Hayes, (Grayson scored the first two goals). At this time, if a team relegated from the Football League remained as professionals while hoping for a return, their players were not picked.

But now, the rules have changed again, and most of the players picked this year are already full time professionals. One has to ask why full time professional players for clubs such as Cheltenham Town can now qualify for international football, but not if they are one level higher? In other words, is the line defining this level now rather arbitrary?

Once we have decided to have such a team, why run it in such a shambolic fashion. With the players all having games on Saturday, they will meet and train briefly on Sunday, travel on Monday, play on Tuesday and return to England in Wednesday. Hardly a chance for them to gel together. They will look like players who have only met, simply because they will have only just met. It is no wonder that the last time I saw the team play, they lost to a Gibraltar National team. Any club team in the National League could have won the match, but a selection of players who met a day or two before the game could not perform.

There was a training camp for potential players in the team, held back in the autumn, but the 16 players that have been selected to go to Kiev do not reflect that camp. Only half of the sixteen were in the 23 training at Warwick University in September, (no prizes for noticing that the ‘C’ players did not even get to use the FA’s much lauded facilities in Burton).

I am expecting that when it comes down to it, Paul Fairclough will be receiving and making plenty of phone calls over the weekend as his squad is worse than decimated by withdrawals of players who choose to put club before country and cry off over the weekend.

If England are to have an International team at this level, it needs to be better run than this. England apparently have three matches in the International Challenge Trophy, playing in Kiev this week, then at home to Slovakia (June 5th) and finally travelling to Estonia in the Autumn. The logic of not playing now and trying to play all three games with a single squad in the summer seems to have escaped the FA, as has the idea of holding a training camp, and then using players from this in the playing squad. Oh, and if they are playing in an organised competition, why is it impossible to find the details on the internet. What purports to be the official web site goes off line without mentioning England’s last result in the last tournament. The FA see fit to mention the squad, and the matches and competition, they even let on that England won that last competitive match (4-2 v Estonia at Halifax). Still, the page says “There are no upcoming fixtures available”, only four days before a game.

Time to change the subject.

While the European teams are playing friendlies ahead of Euro 2016, in the Americas and in Asia, World Cup qualification for 2018 is taking place. The expectation, we reach the end of the round, which should mean nine teams having their (generally narrow) hopes of making it to Russia finally dashed. One of these will in fact by decided a few days later by FIFA, but I will come back to this later.

It is best to start in South America, as nothing can be decided there. All ten teams play 18 games in a home and away league, with Ecuador the unexpected leaders with 100% in their first four games, including a 2-0 away win in Argentina in the first game. Ecuador will play at home to Paraguay, who have also made a good start (7 points), and then travel to Columbia who are trying to make up ground after a poor start. Argentina will be trying again to get their campaign off the ground. Although they have not lost again, they drew the home match with Brazil, and were held 0-0 in Paraguay. Argentina’s only win to date is away to Columbia and both are outside the position required to qualify at this early stage. Uruguay with three wins (Chile and Columbia at home, Bolivia away) against only one defeat (in Ecuador) stand second in the table, with Brazil in third. This makes the Brazil v Uruguay game the standout match in this month’s matches. Venezuela sit bottom of the table, the only team with no points (or indeed without a win). They travel to Peru (3 points and 9th out of ten countries) before entertaining Chile.

On to the CONCACAF region. Here they are down to twelve clubs, with 23 of the area’s nations already out. The current round has the teams in three groups of four, the top two from each group making up the final group of 6. This gives a stretched schedule for this round – two games were played last November, two this month and the final pair in August/September.

The matches this week see each team playing their opponents home and away. In Group A, Mexico have won their two games to date, and play Canada who have four points. The first match is in Vancouver with the return in Mexico City. This means that either El Salvador (one point) or Honduras (none) could go out if the results go in the wrong directions. El Salvador get home advantage first in their duals with Honduras.

Group B has Costa Rica (6 points) playing Jamaica (3) with the first game away, while Panama (also 3 points) play Haiti (0) with the game in Haiti first.

Finally in Group C, USA and Trinidad and Tobago both have four points, Guatemala have three while St. Vincent and the Grenadines are pointless. With a 6-1 defeat in the USA and 4-0 at home to Guatemala, St V/D look somewhat out of their depth at this point. The other two groups have zero point teams, but they have goal differences of two and three against. The USA play away to Guatemala before playing the home leg in Columbus, St Vincent will have home advantage first against Trinidad and Tobago as they try to make something out of this section of their campaign

And so to Asia. The current stage is eight groups, all but one of which has five teams, (Indonesia’s expulsion leaves one group of four). This is the last round of matches and the next round is two groups of six. Hence all the group winners and half the runners-up go through.

Only two teams have guaranteed their place in the next round, South Korea and the Qatar all-stars (well, rather too many of them were not born Qatari internationals, you can still buy a certain degree of international success).

Where the AFC and FIFA have got the seedings right, the top seed play two home games, with the second seed as visitors in the final game. Thanks to Indonesia being missing, only games against teams in positions 1-4 count in making up the “second place table” which decides which quartet join the group winners

In group A, it is UAE who have this position, but they are currently three points behind Saudi Arabia. So the UAE are at home to Palestine before entertaining Saudi, the Saudis themselves play Malaysia at home in the first game. Palestine still have a chance of finishing second, by winning both games, but this would only give them nine second place points. More likely, UAE will beat Palestine, and Saudi Arabia will beat Malaysia, setting up the all important Arab derby. Should UAE prevail, then Saudi may still have 13 points in the second place table. If UAE come second, they probably have ten or eleven

Group B will get the headlines in England, with Jordan the second seeds, visiting Australia in the final round. Jordan are two points behind, so a win in Sydney could give them the group. Before the final day, Jordan play Bangladesh (guaranteed to finish bottom of the group), while Australia play Tajikistan in Adelaide. Kyrgyzstan have only a very slim chance of getting second place, and this could disappear before they play their next game. Should Jordan win one and lose one to finish second, (and I am assuming they do not lose to Bangladesh), then they would have ten second place points

Group C is really interesting, as China, where the clubs are splashing big bucks to bring players in, are still underperforming in National terms. Two scoreless draws with the territory of Hong Kong leaves China in third place, while Qatar top the group with six wins out of six, and have already guaranteed their place in the next round. As Qatar started as second seed, they travel to the Chinese city of Xi’an for the final game, and entertain Hong Kong before that. Hong Kong have a three point lead over China, but play only one game. China’s first game this time is at home to the Maldives, while Bhutan have only one game to play when they go to Bhutan. I think China will sneak into second place, but I say it without certainty. If China win both games, they would have 11 second place points, which should be enough. I would not bet on that

If China underperform, I do not know what words describe India’s football team. They sit on three points from six games, with a high chance of finishing behind Guam. Yes, they may finish behind Guam, a tiny American territory. Guam’s coach in English, Gary White (28 games for Bognor Regis, after which he left the country – he has managed the British Virgin Islands and Bahamas before going to Guam). Guam is highly thought of by the FA, who have included him on the elite coach training programme, the highest level. Still, I do not see him mentioned as a possible for jobs in the Premier League. All this comes to little, as despite their best performances in a qualifying tournament, Guam have already been knocked out, with just the visit to Oman to come.

Oman are second seeds, and finish their games with a match away to Iran, currently three points ahead of them. As India are the first visitors to Tehran over the weekend, I cannot see the positions changing. Turkmenistan play India in Kochi in the final round, but I think the will be fixed in third place before that. Oman may have as few as 8 second placed points.

If you want to see decent football played in Oman, you may as well choose to watch Syria as Oman. Despite the problems that have caused the Syrians to play all their home games in Oman, they have done remarkably well, and we know that the top two in Group E will be Japan and Syria. Japan are at home when they meet in the final game. Syria lost to Japan in Oman, watched by a crowd of 680, but they have won their other five games to date. Japan have also won five games, and not conceded any goals, as their other game was a scoreless draw at home to Singapore. Oman will play Cambodia before travelling to Japan, Japan play Afghanistan (another who cannot stage home games) first, while the other game on the final day sees Singapore travel to Iran to play “away” to the Afghans. Although Japan only lead the group by a point, I expect them to prevail, but as Syria already have 12 second place points (Cambodia have been confirmed in last place), they will get the nod as a second placed team.

Group F is Indonesia’s group and hence has only four teams. Thailand lead Iraq by five points. Like Afghanistan, Iraq are playing their home games in Iran, (a choice I thought was odd, surely they would get a better reception in an Arabian country?). Still, I am expecting Iraq to win both their games, at “Home” to Thailand first, and then to Vietnam which would allow them to finish ahead of the Thais. Still, as we do not take points off the Thai total, (there not being a fifth placed team), Thailand already have 13 second placed points, if that is where the finish. Should Iraq slip up, then they will have 8 points, plus whatever they garner in the last two games, (and they need two wins to go through). Vietnam still have the chance to finish second, by beating first Chinese Taipei at home (should be easy), and then beating Iraq (and assuming Iraq have not beaten Thailand). Still this only gives them ten second placed points.

Taking the groups out of order for once, group H sees North Korea and Uzbekistan fighting over the top places. North Korea only have one game to play, but are a point ahead. This final game is in the Philippines. This is after the Philippines visit Uzbekistan. The second seed in the group, Bahrain are currently in fourth place, a point behind the Philippines. Yemen are assured of last place, barring an unlikely barrage of goals when they travel to Bahrain.

SO finally we come to Group G, the one that is not decided on the pitch. Kuwait have been suspended by FIFA, their games have therefore been postponed, but not already awarded to the opposition. Instead we await a FIFA decision on this. The precedent is that Kuwait’s game in November was also not played, and was then awarded to Myanmar. That result immediately put South Korea (six wins out of six) through as only Kuwait could catch them, the Kuwaitis needing to win all of their last three games to overhaul South Korea. The table still shows Kuwait in second place, but there is no sign of them regaining FIFA recognition in time to play these last two games. Lebanon need to win both remaining games, firstly in South Korea, and then at home to Myanmar to reach ten second place points, which does not look to be enough. However, if FIFA decides to expunge the Kuwaiti result en bloc, then this redraws the table as all points then count. South Korea still win the group, unless Lebanon has won twice, but Lebanon have nine second place points, which increases to 12 with a win against Myanmar – putting them through to the next round. (In the unlikely event of South Korea losing the group leadership because of Kuwaiti being disqualified, they would still be the best of the second place teams).

It appears to me that a team will need 11 second place points to go through, with a possibility of this then being decided on goal difference. If this drops to ten points, then I am sure goal difference will decide. This is good news for Saudi Arabia, Syria and Thailand, all of which expect to go through even if they finish second.

An Underwhelming choice, but still the best New Hop

Saturday, February 27th, 2016

I think the lack of comment about Gianni Infantino just shows how underwhelmed the football world is about the appointment. From the five candidates, he appears to be the best bet, but not a good bet.

 

FIFA is still reeling from the fact that the US justice system (with the Swiss system following up with smaller measures) is doing a job that FIFA itself has failed to do. The corruption in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL regions was not really a secret, although many did not realise what sums of money were involved.

 

The payment from FIFA to Platini that finally took both Blatter and the UEFA President (still in office, and probably being paid) out of the running has still not been fully explained. There are allegations that it was a bribe, but no evidence for this. There is still no explanation of the work done for the money. If Platini accepted more for a job then the job is worth, then he has not actually done wrong (assuming he declared the money on his tax return).

 

The reform package may be the answer, but is tied up in woolly wording. It will be down to how the new management use this mandate that counts.

 

Infantino has made a bad start, but it was necessary in order to get the job. He has promised all those Football Associations that depend on FIFA grants, that these grants will be increased. Whether there is scrutiny on how the grants are spent remains to be seen.

 

These grants, and the scrutiny of how FIFA money is spent remains the main stay of corruption within Football organisations, and it remains a matter still generally ignored. If the money does not pass through the USA financial system, it is not within the FBI’s scope of investigation.

 

Many Football Associations rely on the grants from FIFA. FIFA’s annual report for 2013 shows US$183 million paid out as “Development Related”. Most of this goes direct to the 209 associations, but with no scrutiny beyond this point, much of the money ends up in the pockets of officials or their friends, with some associations still unable to pay for their teams to travel to tournaments.

 

FIFA has another trick up its sleeve. If a government puts its national FA under scrutiny and tries to take action against a corrupt organisation, then far from co-operating with rooting out the problems, FIFA will ban the association due to political interference.

 

Two associations, Kuwait and Indonesia, were prevented from voting in this congress due to such suspensions, and a move from one of the candidates to get the suspensions lifted was defeated. While I am not clear on the reasons for Kuwait’s suspension, Indonesia’s is a demonstration of FIFA’s lack of action in the face of inevitable.

 

The PSSI (Indonesian Football Association) has been farcically corrupt for years. Despite relatively good crowds, most of the clubs have financial difficulties, and rely on sponsorship – much of which comes at the behest of local politicians currying favour, or demanding favours of the business community.

 

If there income is slow in arriving, (and in Indonesia, that is almost a certainty), then player’s salaries are also delayed. Worse still, medical insurance is not paid. FIFA should have come down hard on the PSSI after the deaths of Diego Mendieta and Salomon Bengondo. In both cases, the players were penniless after not being paid by their clubs, and were not treated because no one could pay the medical bills. Mendieta died from a virus which could have been easily treated. He could not pay his bills or pay for a ticket back to his native Paraguay. Bengondo had actually been seen begging on the streets six months before his death.

 

Instead of reform, we had a farce as two separate leagues competed for dominance (even though many club owners spread their bets and ran teams in both). FIFA only thought to take action when the government stepped in the suspend the the PSSI and put football in the country under the control of other sports committees.

 

Unless FIFA can scrutinise the expenditure of funds it provides to the associations, and will take against clear cases of corruption or incompetence, then it cannot be said to be reformed. It needs to be able to differentiate between government interference in order to weed out corrupt or incompetent officials, as opposed to the replacement of elected officials with government stooges (which is the purpose of the rule).

 

Whether Infantino is the man to bring this about remains to be seen. It is unlikely that any of the others were capable of the job. Salman has been president of the AFC for some time, but the AFC took know action against the PSSI, leaving this to FIFA. The other candidates were nothing more than spoilers, although it would have been the headline writer’s heaven if Tokyo Sexwale had taken the job.

How was it for you?

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

Analysis of qualifying draws for International competition always focuses on who has an easy draw, and who has the more difficult task. It is not an easy thing to judge, but I will still come to that for the European draws (which grabbed the headlines) at the end of the piece.

Firstly, what does the draw mean for the other five Confederations, starting with the one where it meant the least

Asia.

The reason for this was that the second round groups in Asia have already started, and the third round will not be drawn until completion of the current round. The 39 teams are playing in eight groups of five (one group playing a team short because of the expulsion from competition of Indonesia). The eight group winners and four of the runners-up go into a third round, two groups of six with the winners and runners-up qualifying for the finals. The two third placed teams then play for 5th place which gets into an intercontinental play-off game.

Hence the only news in this draw for Asia is that right at the end of the process, the team fortunate enough to finish as 5th, has drawn against the fourth team in the CONCACAF draw. This is not great news, but better than that for the winners of the group in…

Oceania.

The winners of the qualifying process in Oceania will face the 5th place team from the CONMEBOL grouping. This has to be the worst possible draw one can get in the intercontinental section, and I very much doubt that we will see an Oceania representative in Russia. Despite Oceania having just 11 teams in the contest, the process is rather drawn out – starting at the end of August, when a four team tourney takes place in Tonga, with American Samoa, Samoa and the Cook Islands also playing. One team of this quartet joins the other seven from the confederation in the next round.

The second round also takes place within a single country, (probably two venues). There will be two groups of four teams, with Tahiti, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and the winner of the first round in Group A. Group B consists of New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

This second round is also the 2016 Oceania Nations Cup, and has a semi-final and final defining who plays in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Those matches are not World Cup qualification games though – the top three from each group goes into a home and away series based on two groups of three. There is then a final before the eventual winners go against their South American opponents.

CONMEBOL.

All ten of the South American countries play in a single group. This means 18 games apiece. It also means that there is no draw, except for the order of the matches to be played. We now know that Brazil will open with a game in Chile, and complete their schedule with a home game against the same opponents. Argentina will play host to Brazil in round 3, which will be in November this year and the return will be in round 11. The top four go through, while the 5th place gets to play the team from Oceania.

CONCACAF.

The North, Central and Caribbean American section is the most advanced, with 17 of the 35 teams in the Confederation being knocked out in two knock out rounds already played. A further six fall in the third round, played late August and early September. Included in this round is Jamaica, finalists in the CONCACAF Gold Cup (the final is on the same day as I write these notes). The ranking points for reaching the final are not added until too late for this draw. Jamaica have draw Nicaragua, and there is little to comment on in the other games. Expect Canada, El Salvador, Haiti and Jamaica to go through. I am less certain about Guatemala v Antigua and Barbuda, or Aruba v St. Vincent and the Grenadines – but I suspect that the FIFA seedings (which are based on the rankings before the qualification started) are right in picking Guatemala and Aruba to carry on.

The winners of the six games, go into three groups of four along with six teams exempt from the knock out rounds. At this stage, it would be a major surprise if the highest seeds, Mexico, Costa Rica and USA do not breeze through, but any of the second seeds, Honduras (with Mexico in Group A), Panama (with Costa Rica in Group B) or Trinidad and Tobago (with USA in Group C) could fall to an improving form team from the knock out rounds.

Two teams from each group of four go through to a final series – a singular group of six with three places directly up to grabs, and that match against the last survivor from Asia for the others.

Africa.

Africa is the only confederation with no style of play-off. When it reaches group stage, the winners of the five groups (each of four teams) will qualify for the finals. Of course, five groups of four only requires 20 teams, and the CAF has 54 nations. One of these, Zimbabwe had their entry removed, thanks to being suspended by FIFA. That means 33 teams will drop out in two rounds of knock out games in October and November this year.

The draw is highly seeded, meaning that not only do the “top 20” avoid each other, but all of the “top 13” get to play a second round against the weaker states who played in the first round. Nothing really catches the eye in the first round games, but three second round games do.

Angola v South Africa. Angola have qualified once before, in 2006, while South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup. South Africa are the seeded team, but this will be close.

Togo v Uganda. Uganda are seeded to beat Togo, who like Angola made it the German World Cup in 2006. Another close run game.

Morocco v Equatorial Guinea. Morocco have been to the finals four times, but none since 1998. Equatorial Guinea are the seeded team, but this appears to be mainly thanks to performances in the 2012 and 2015 African Cups of Nations. IN the first they were joint hosts, while for the second they stepped in as hosts at short notice. I expect Morocco to defy seeding and go through.

UEFA.

The European draws were always going to grab the headlines, despite no games taking place until September next year. If in the UK, the England v Scotland line up draws the eye, it is other groups that should do so. The recent surprise form of teams such as Wales, added to France not picking up many ranking points as they play only friendlies, while everyone else tries to qualify for Euro 2016 means that France and Italy both found themselves in the second group of seeds. With UEFA insisting these two play in groups of six in order to maximise their matches for TV, (52 teams in qualifying means seven groups of six, with two of five), they had an enhanced risk drawing against England, Germany, Spain or the Netherlands (who are also constrained to the six team groups). And it came to pass, with France in the same group as the Netherlands, and Spain playing Italy.

Group A features a third strong team in the form of Sweden, while Bulgaria may well be able to pick up the odd point to disturb the equilibrium. With one of the nine group runners-up missing out on play-offs, this is more likely to be a team from a close group, rather than one where the best two teams run away with the competition, except for points off each other. At least in group A, Belarus and Luxembourg are unlikely to take many points off the top three.

Groups B and C are more straight forward, the top seeds of Portugal and Germany should find a clear route with the second seeds, Switzerland and Czech Republic also expecting to come in as seeded. In Group B, none of Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia or Andorra are likely lads, while group C has Northern Ireland as third seed, but I think fourth seed Norway may finish above them and are more likely to nick points from the teams above them. San Marino hold no fear for anyone, and Azerbaijan have yet to see much progress from significant investments in their football infrastructure. Keep an eye open to see if they have any interesting naturalised players.

Both groups D and E appear relatively weak, but Group D in particular is another one where points may well be taken off each other. Wales are top seeds, Austria second, Serbia third and the republic of Ireland fourth. I do not believe Wales can win the group despite their recent good results, which makes this section wide open. Moldova and Georgia should get few points between them though. In group E, I suspect there is little to choose between Romania, Denmark and Poland, but the Romanians do have a habit of doing well in qualification. Montenegro, Armenia and Kazakhstan make up the group. None of these should present a problem on the field, but it does add to the logistics of anyone trying to see all their teams games. Missing Group F for the moment, we come across the other TV schedulers dream, Spain v Italy. At least in Group G, this pair should comfortably take the top two places, so the second team should get a play off position. Albania and Israel can both take the occasional good point without getting through, Macedonia and Liechtenstein should be able to present easy points.

Belgium will be more than happy with their draw, in a five team group with Bosnia, Greece, Estonia and Cyprus, but the other five team group is far more open, with Croatia seeded but playing Ukraine as third seed, and Turkey as fourth. These are both teams that can cause an upset. Second seed Iceland may well be above their station, while Finland may not be the whopping boys that other fifth seeds are.

Finally Group F. England are top seeds, with both Slovakia and Slovenia in the group. The only care is that supporters travelling need to know when to go to Bratislava and when to head to Ljubljana. Members of the Scottish Diaspora in England should already be applying for FAN numbers from the English FA in order to apply for their tickets in November next year. Lithuania and Malta make up one of the less exciting groups.

Even with the seeding, competition draws never produce completely even matches, but this draw in Europe highlights the difference between the FIFA seeding and other ranks, and may push FIFA to once again reconsider if they have it correct. It is one thing to produce a ranking that moves teams up and down the tables quickly, producing headlines either way, but it is another to use it in seeding tournaments and reducing the chances of some of the World’s best teams reaching a major finals tournament.

From FIFA’s point of view, pot one contained the top nine European teams, pot 2 the next 9, etc., so if we add the ranking positions of the top four in each group, we could theoretically get numbers between 58 and 90 as the totals, with a mean of 74. Now lets try the exercise comparing the ELO ratings, instead of FIFA rankings for the top four in each group. (I have made allowances for teams not in the draw, on the Elo ratings page http://www.eloratings.net/europe.html ). I have chosen the top four from each group as the fifth and sixth seeds tend to be poor any every ranking system. I could have easily chosen three (FIFA totals would be between 30 and 54 with a mean of 42), and so I show these in brackets.

Group A – 48 (18): Netherland 2, France 5, Sweden 11, Bulgaria 30

Group B – 92 (44): Portugal 6, Switzerland 12, Hungary 26, Faroes 48

Group C – 84 (53): Germany 1, Czech 16, Northern Ireland 36, Norway 31

Group D – 83 (62): Wales 24, Austria 17, Serbia 21, Ireland 21 (the latter two being tied in the Elo ratings)

Group E – 78 (45): Romania 14, Denmark 13, Poland 18, Montenegro 33

Group F – 66 (38): England 4, Slovakia 15, Scotland 19, Slovenia 28

Group G – 74 (43): Spain 3, Italy 8, Albania 32, Israel 31

Group H – 91 (53): Belgium 7, Bosnia 19, Greece 27, Estonia 38

Group I – 67 (44): Croatia 9, Iceland 25, Ukraine 10, Turkey 23

No one can claim the ELO ratings are without fault, but the comparison between the two demonstrates that FIFA may have a problem with their rankings. It seems to me that this goes to add fuel to my feelings that Group A is very strong. Group G has two strong teams, but little completion to them. England’s task may not be as easy as some think, while Group I is certainly close to call.

The other point is that before the matches get under way, we have a number of rounds of Euro qualifying, and of course the 2016 finals in France. The rankings could look very different when we get under way next September