Archive for the ‘Political Footballs’ Category

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

In the Theatre of the absurd, timing is everything.

Friday, July 10th, 2015

Wales have the timing down to a tee. At International level, it has been a good period for Wales. They are top of their Euro 2016 qualifyng group, after gong unbeaten in the first six games. But does that place them in the World’stop ten? Few people would really claim this, but that is where the FIFA rankings have placed them this week.

It is difficult to take the FIFA rankings seriously, despite improvements when they changed the calculation methods. Coca-cola pays well to have their name attached to the monthly press release from FIFA with the new rankings, and they need dramatic headlines in the press to bring them to people’s attention. Hence we have a rankings system that allows for a rapid rise for a few good results in competition.

Headlines are all very well, but these rankings also decide the order of things in competitions organised by FIFA. England, for example played five friendly games in the year before the draw for the 2014 World Cup finals. Results were not bad, England lost to Sweden, got a win and a draw against Brazil, drew with Ireland and beat the Scots. However, the ranking methods count friendlies and then average the results over a season. Even if England had won all five, it would have had a negative effect on their ranking! Switzerland on the other hand played only one friendly (also beating Brazil), and sneaked into the last of the seeded places in the draw.

But for Wales, the time is right – the first time they appear in the top ten, and it is ranking that will be used to determine the seedings when the World Cup qualifiers are drawn later in the month. As a result, Wales will be seeded in the top group in the draw, along with Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, England, Spain and Croatia. Teams missing out include Italy, Switzerland and France. The French having no way of retaining their ranking as they play only friendlies before hosting Euro 2016

The draw for 2018 will be in 9 groups, with two of them having five teams, the rest having six. Russia do not take part as hosts for 2018, while UEFA’s 54th member, Gibraltar has so far been refused permission to join FIFA as well. All group winners qualify, with eight of the nine runners-up competing for four final places

Thanks to UEFA’s centralised TV contract, they need to maximise the number of matches for the “big six” countries, England, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France. Hence all of these six will be drawn in groups of six teams – but they are not kept apart except by the seeding. Hence if Wales are lucky enough to be drawn into one of the two five team groups, they cannot face France or Italy. England, however must have these two as potential opponents! Scotland and Northern Ireland are both in pot 3, while the Republic or Ireland are in pot 4. The seven minnows in the final pot are Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Georgia, Malta, San Marino and Andorra.

Had it been a European qualifying draw we are waiting for, then the seedings would be different. UEFA maintains its own ranking, which has less publicity and is published less frequently. The cynic in me says the main reason UEFA does this, is so as it does not have to use the FIFA rankings. UEFA will not publish their rankings until after the October round of Euro qualifying games. The rankings will be used for deciding the seeding of play off games the following month and for the finals themselves the following summer.

Unofficially, the rankings can be seen at http://www.footballseeding.com/national-ranking-uefa/ England, ranked 9th by FIFA, and hence 6th in Europe are 5th on the UEFA ranks, behind Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands. France keep their ranking as they do not drop points due to not playing in the current cycle. Wales may be 10th in the World, but they are only 29th in Europe.

A third set of rankings, which takes account of both friendlies and competitive games, but does not penalise teams for being outside of tournaments can be found at http://www.eloratings.net/ it is a useful site as the result of every game that is used in their database can be viewed. On this ranking, England are 8th in the World, 4th in Europe, while Wales are 25th in Europe (43rd worldwide)

The Surinamese Conundrum

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

We are still three years from the 2018 World Cup, and with the shenanigans now affecting FIFA, we cannot even be certain that it will be staged as planned in Russia. However, we already have had one round of fixtures played in each of Asia and the CONCACAF federations, with a total 13 teams knocked out on the field of play. A further two (Zimbabwe and Indonesia) are suspended by FIFA and are unlikely to play any part in the competition.

As an aside, the reasons for these suspensions were perfectly good. It has been a surprise that Indonesia were not banned much earlier.

The second rounds are now underway in these two confederations. In Asia, they are group games, meaning that each team plays on until March next year. For CONCACAF, it is still a knock out competition with ten more teams losing their chance before the official qualifying draw takes place next month, (it is only then that the European teams know who their opponents will be).

The first match in this round for CONCACAF took place in Nicaragua, where the home nation defeated Suriname by 1-0. This was not the biggest game in qualification. No one would expect either to get anywhere close to being included in the finals, and CONCACAF themselves have not even bothered to fill in the match stats. The home team started with 10 players from the local league, and one who played in Costa Rica. The away team was of similar nature, with the local players supplemented by one playing in Trinidad.

It could have been a lot different, Suriname may be ranked around 150 by FIFA, and may be a small country with a population not much over half a million. But it has produced a lot of footballers. Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were all born in Suriname, while Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Patrick Kluivert are all sons of Surinamese émigrés.

In May, a team of players who all qualified to play for Suriname (under FIFA rules) played a game in Almere, Netherlands. Most of the players were from the Netherlands Professional Leagues, although also included were Lorenzo Davids (cousin of Edgar, playing in Denmark) and Nigel Hasselbaink (nephew of Jimmy Floyd, playing for Hamilton Academical).

Why do none of these play for the National team? It appears to be a matter of politics. For reasons best known to themselves, the Surinamese have decided not to play any player who is not a citizen of the country and holds a Surinamese passport. The law of the country prohibits the holding of dual citizenship, so players cannot hold both Suriname and Dutch passports.

Other countries play to FIFA rules which are more relaxed. The majority of the players in the Algerian National Team are French citizens.

There have been moves in Suriname to change the situation, with a move to allow for dual nationality. Even if passed, it may not make a difference. The Netherlands also has laws against dual nationality, with only a few exceptions permitted. A professional football player would not be granted an exemption from the rules, and would not want to give up the citizenship that allowed him to play professional football anywhere within the European Union.

Suriname can still choose to allow these players to play for them. They are qualified under FIFA rules, so it only takes local will to change the attitude and they can join those nations with players who first step foot in their “homeland” to play an international.

But then perhaps it does not matter. Suriname’s team of foreign professionals lost in Almere, to another team who use mainly players with Netherlands passports. In fact their opponents, Curacao are still a constituent part of the Netherlands. Curacao may use players from the Netherlands League, and may be coached by a famous footballing son, but no one is expecting to see them in Russia (or wherever the finals are held). And all the best players will still decide they are better off declaring for the Netherlands. The coach of Curacao was born in Amsterdam, but could have played for his mother’s home country, Curacao – or by FIFA rules for his father’s place of birth, Suriname. I have already mentioned his name, Patrick Kluivert won all of his 79 international caps for the Netherlands.

The Winters Tale.

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inevitable Don.

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

It was always inevitable, that sooner or later AFC Wimbledon would come up in competition against MK Dons.

As a teenager, growing up on Southern League football in London, the Wimbledon of the seventies had a bit of a reputation, but as with most non-League teams of the time, they were in reality a haven away from the troubles with hooliganism that all the top teams were suffering from. The most memorable feature of a visit to Plough Lane was the huge bank of terracing behind one goal

There was not always a lot between teams, and what was needed for success (as we would later find out), was am inspired manager and a chairman prepared to back him. For Wimbledon, the manager was Allen Batsford, who had already led Walton & Hersham through their most successful years, (Athenian League title, FA Amateur Cup and humbling Brighton & Hove Albion during Brian Clough’s tenure there). Batsford was to take Wimbledon to a hat-trick of Southern League titles, and in his first season to their famous meeting with Leeds United in the FA Cup. The chairman, at least for the third year was Ron Noades, who apparently paid £2782 for the club.

Timing is everything, though and Wimbledon had this. After their first Southern League title, in 1975 they gained just 4 points in their election bid, behind Kettering (20) and Yeovil (8), who between them equalled Workington’s 28 points for re-election. No less than 12 non-League teams, eight from the Southern League had put their names forward. Again in 1976, there were 9 applicants, six of which were Southern League, and the combined scores of Kettering (14) and Yeovil (18) would have easily beaten Workington (21). For 1977, the leagues agreed that only one team from each of the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues would be put forward, and as Southern League champions, Wimbledon were up for election, along with Altrincham (despite finishing only 10th in the Northern Premier), Halifax, Hartlepool, Southport and Workington. It was Workington who had been bottom two places four years in a row that lost their place. It was a brief window, Wigan were elected 12 months later, but even with the creation of the Alliance (now Conference) and a reduction of non-League teams in the election to one from 1980, no other team joined the league until automatic promotion was introduced in 1987.

Wimbledon were not an immediate success in the Football League. Indeed they started more amateurishly than in winning three titles, no scouting, no youth coaching until Dario Gradi was recruited to assist Batsford, (they did not get on). Batsford resigned after the team had to travel by car to an away match at Rochdale. Wimbledon were promoted from the basement division of the League in 1979, 1981 and 1983 – each time they spent only one season in the third tier, but in 1984, they moved upwards.

Dave Bassett, who became manager in 1981 led them through this spell, leading the club to the top division (still division one in those days) and keeping them up in his first season, before giving way to Bobby Gould who managed the Cup winning team of 1988. Overall, Wimbledon were to spend 14 seasons at the top level.

It was Noades, back in 1979 who first considered relocating the club to Milton Keynes. The City’s development plan included a stadium close to the central railway station, and Noades purchased the local Southern League club, Milton Keynes City for £1, thinking he could merge his two clubs and play at this new stadium. After a short period of study, Noades concluded that Wimbledon could not get any more to view them at Milton Keynes than at Plough Lane, and in 1981 he divested his interests in both clubs, before buying Crystal Palace.

Sam Hamman took over the ownership of the club. They still owned and played at Plough Lane. As with many football grounds, there were covenants in place on what could be done with the land. The Plough Lane football ground could only be used for Sport or Recreation, and in the event of Wimbledon FC folding, it had to be sold to the council for the less than princely sum of £8000. The amount Hamman paid to the council to change these conditions is not known, but was about half a million pounds. By 1991, Wimbledon had risen to the top division, with crowds around 7,500 per match. This was a remarkably small number for the top division, which had an average of 22,000+ that season. It was the Taylor report that was the excuse to re-locate to Selhurst Park. The club said they could not afford to upgrade the old ground. There was an immediate loss of 10% of the spectator base, but this quickly recovered. Around 1993, the averages exceeded 10,000 and they set their attendance record, over 30,000 for a match against Manchester United. In 1999-2000, the season Wimbledon were finally relegated from the top flight, the average crowd was 17,000.

Surely this figure could have been sustained, but at this time, Wimbledon had a fickle support, more concerned about visiting stars than the local club. Palace were an irregular member of the Premier League, and so while the big Premier stars came a visiting, Wimbledon were the best show in town. In one season out of the top division, the average crowd had been halved.

Hamman had by now sold Wimbledon to Norwegian owners, and in 1998 he had finally sold off Plough Lane for £8 million. Hamman stayed on at the club as an advisor to the Norwegians, (which of course meant a fee was paid, and I bet it was not a pittance). After proposals for two sites within Merton came to nothing, Hamman was behind a wild slew of relocation schemes, as far afield as Scotland and Dublin, (the Premier League quite fancied the idea of having a Dublin club, but the Football Association of Ireland vetoed it). All this added to the clubs problems – creating a wedge between the club and its supporters. Most clubs still try to maintain the illusion that their owners hold the club in trust for the supporters, and for future generations. With Wimbledon openly stating they wanted to move to somewhere where a profit could be made, the supporters were clearly thought of as dispensable.

Meanwhile, the Milton Keynes Stadium Corporation was formed in 2000. Fronted by former op impresario Peter Winkleman, and supported by big commercial names Wal-Mart (Asda) and Ikea, who were looking for sites in Milton Keynes. Later, AFC Wimbledon supporters have suggested that the Stadium plan was a Trojan horse required to get the commercial plans approved, but this does not truly recognise the situation in Milton Keynes. The City planners surely wanted it all, the Stadium and the Commercial developments.

But what could is a stadium without a team? The Milton Keynes City team Noades had once bought had folded some time back, and a new team of the same name were just a renaming of Mercedes Benz, playing four levels below the Football League in front of a few dozen spectators. The MK area boasted a number of other teams at similar level, but no one much more senior. Of course, with enough investment, it is possible to move a club from non-League football to the Football League, Max Griggs was just about to achieve this with Rushden & Diamonds – but as we have seen, the club was not sustainable without a continual injection of cash.

Winkleman wanted an established League club to move into his stadium (and at the time, that is all he wanted – he could see that clubs lose money, but stadiums with a well supported club make a profit). The Football League and FA always claimed to be opposed to a club moving into Milton Keynes, and the combination of this, and the clear connections between clubs and their fan bases meant that Luton, Barnet, Crystal Palace and QPR all rejected moves to Milton Keynes, but in the summer of 2001, Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel announced the intention to move to Milton Keynes.

The Football League immediately turned this down, but Wimbledon appealed to an FA panel, made up of David Dein (Arsenal), Douglas Craig (York City) and Charles Hollander QC (these panels always appear to have one legal ‘brain’). Craig was an odd choice, he had transferred the ownership of Bootham Crescent from one of his companies (i.e. York City FC) to another for a sum of £165,000 eighteen months earlier, and at this time he had just announced plans to evict the football club as he thought he could sell the ground for £4.5 million (this of course, never happened, although York’s long term future is unlikely to be at the ground). This panel found the Football League decision had not been fair and legal, and batted the issue back to the League for reconsideration. The League quickly returned the issue to the FA who had to set up a new Arbitration committee, this time of Steve Stride (Aston Villa), Alan Turvey (Isthmian League) and solicitor Raj Parker. This committee decided 2-1 in favour of the move, with Turvey being the one against. As a demonstration that it wanted to have its cake, eat it and wash its hands of the evidence, the FA quickly announced that the decision was binding, but that it was opposed to the move. Chief Executive Adam Crozier called it an “Appalling decision”. The average crowd for Wimbledon at Selhurst Park 2001-2 was just under 7000. The following season, it was 2787.

It was at this point the decision to form AFC Wimbledon was taken. Before this time, there was just talk about it, but the speed that they moved from talk to action was amazing. The initial meeting was held on 30 May 2002, with the manager, stadium, kit and crest announced to supporters just a month later. Clearly some of the groundwork must have been carried out in advance.

Only months previously, Kingstonian FC had been taken over Rajesh Kholsa and his son, Anup. Kingstonian had struggled through the season after relegation from the Conference, and gone into administration. They badly needed good administration. This is not what they got. Non-League football is not a good vehicle for profit making – the best opportunities for a profit – as we have seen in more than one case – involve separating the ownership of club and ground and selling the stadium when the clubs debts are too high for them to be able to resist. Many football clubs have means to avoid this, at the original Wimbledon FC, it was the arrangements whereas the club would have had to sell the ground for £8000 to Merton Council, (an agreement that Hamman splashed a little cash to get out of, before later feathering his next). At Hillingdon Borough, the club I supported in my early days, the directors had to see the football club fold in order to negate a covenant on the ground and take their profits. At Kingstonian, the ground was on a long lease from the council, with the ground only usable for sports use. Hence, the only way Kholsa could sell at a profit was if another sports club came in. Did Kholsa spy an opportunity in the headlines about Wimbledon? Is it possible that some agreement was suggested in advance? No one has ever said anything to suggest any wrong doing, but there is some feeling that Kholsa did see Wimbledon coming. He was quick to split football club and ground, leaving the head lease in the hands of Anup, and with the income once AFC Wimbledon agreed to share the stadium, this part of the business was running a nice profit, while the Football Club that were leaseholders a year before were starved of the cash.

Meanwhile, the AFC Wimbledon bandwagon was the biggest story in non-League football. In a marvellously orchestrated media circus (something the early AFC W seemed to lead the way in), they held open trials on Wimbledon Common, where some 230 turned up for a trial. If I am not careful, I could even blame Wimbledon for the X-Factor here, but I’ll shy away from such an accusation. Safe to say that some of the 230 would have been an embarrassment, but fortunately not in front of TV cameras. Another sign of how it was to be was the quick signing of a kit sponsorship deal, which meant that AFC Wimbledon would already have more money behind them then the average club in their league, notwithstanding the £75,000 raised at the initial meetings, and the benefits of crowds that were to exceed 3000 on average.

Of course, it has to recorded that AFC Wimbeldon were a different type of football club. The ownership structure, where all fans had an equal say at general meetings, and to elect the board does present a novel contrast to the idea that your votes reflect the size of stake you take in the club (or business). However, the model was not that new, hundreds of clubs (as opposed to companies) had been operating as members clubs in the less rarefied atmosphere of non-League football – indeed many of their opponents in that first season were also “Fans Clubs”, the different being that only a handful of fans would ever turn up at a meeting. There were members clubs in the Football League up until 1982, when Nottingham Forest became the last to change to a limited company, and then Wycombe Wanderers were still a members club when joining the Football League in 1993. The supporters retained “golden shares” in the club when it became a limited company in 2004. Steve Hayes became MD of the club in 2005, built up debt and then paid it off in return for becoming 100% owner. To be fair to Hayes, he has since given up control of both Wycombe (to their supporters Trust) and while I cannot say the exact status of the ground, I feel certain Hayes lost a lot of money through his involvements at both Wycombe and Wasps.

It was not long before some bright spark at AFC Wimbledon decided that the best course of action was to purchase Kingsmeadow from Kholsa. To this day, AFC Wimbledon fans tell me this was the only course of action, as otherwise it would have been sold for housing. As I have already mentioned in this piece, that was not an available option – but a sale (around £3 million) sounded good to Kholsa, especially as he could loan some of the money at high interest rates. AFC Wimbledon did manage to change this over time to bank loans at conventional interest rates, and later sold off a portion of the moral high ground shares in the club to pay off this debt.

Before AFC Wimbledon came on the scene, I had already visited all but one (Horley Town had just moved grounds) of the Combined Counties League grounds, but as I was working mainly in Slough, I saw AFC three times in the first two seasons of their existence. Without doubt, it was this that removed any romanticism I might have had about them being the best thing in non-League football. For the most part, with average crowds well under the 100 mark, the Combined Counties League is a civilised place. When it is quite clear who is shouting what from a sparsely populated terrace, one tends to watch your language. AFC Wimbledon fans, grouping in numbers more common in the Football League, but with no security other than their own stewards, had the run of the league. Generally the vilest comments were reserved for those of their own players not performing to the standards expected (they were behind for just 7 minutes at Horley, but the worst was their home crowd when they took time to break down stubborn resistance in a scoreless first half). The club lost seven games in their first season, finishing third in the league behind AFC Wallingford and Withdean 2000. There was crowd trouble at the Wallingford game, which AFC Wimbledon always deny is to do with their own fans, but was then used as an excuse not to play at Wallingford in 2004, but to switch the match, (AFC Wimbledon’s last game in the Combined Counties League) to Kingsmeadow. This game did not even matter in the scheme of things, AFC Wimbledon already having secured the league title by a country mile, but it appeared they were unforgiving for Wallingford’s title the previous season, and were determined to hang onto their unbeaten record.

The other thing that was noticeable from those early visits were how many AFC Wimbledon fans were glued to radios, (we did not all have internet phones then). Their rivals in the Combined Counties League never featured on the radio – it was only ever the fortunes of the other Dons that interested them. There were two things they wanted to hear – Wimbledon losing, and Wimbledon getting a lower crowd than AFC Wimbledon. For 2002-3, this is exactly what they got, Wimbledon (still at Selhurst Park) drew an average of 2787, while AFC Wimbledon claimed just over 3000. This disparity led to Wimbledon FC going into administration before they actually left South London. They even started 2003-4 season at Selhurst Park, before moving to the Hockey Stadium in MK in September, and all this under administration. AFC Wimbledon’s rash move in buying Kingsmeadow meant that they were not in a position to even contemplate buying their old club out of administration, and instead spent their time hoping no buyer could be found and that the club with move into liquidation. With crowds in Milton Keynes much better than the last Selhurst season, (Wimbledon averaged 4751 compared to AFC Wimbledon dropping to 2606). Still, Wimbledon did get relegated, and eventually they were bought out of administration by Pete WInkleman, who after all was keen to see the club stay alive to play in his stadium. When Winkleman took over the club, he rebranded them as MK Dons. This basically meant it was a new club in a new location, and after a dispute in which various football supporters bodies supported the AFC Wimbledon case, MK Dons gave up any pretence that they were Wimbledon FC. Trophies and other mementoes of the earlier club’s history were given over to the London Borough of Merton, but pointedly not to AFC Wimbledon. There is not any justification for claiming that AFC Wimbledon has won the FA Cup, but the AFC Wimbledon web site still lays claims to all the honours not just of Wimbledon FC, but also of Wimbledon Old Centrals back to 1899. From my point of view, I cannot be 100% sure that the club that joined the Athenian League in 1919 was the same as the one that spent a single season, 1909-10 in the Spartan League.

MK Dons dropped down to League-2 for two seasons, but have since moved back up one division, and have been close to the promotion bracket in recent years. They finally moved into their new stadium, with its curious name of Stadium: MK in 2007. The crowds rose significantly on moving to the new stadium, helped by the club winning the League-2 title and Football League Trophy. I made my trip to MK in 2008 when Cheltenham played their (the only time so far). MK won that game 3-1, and the return at our place 5-3. I have to say I liked the ground, and we were well beaten. In a nearby pub before the gae in MK, I met with at least one fan who had transferred loyalties from the original Wimbledon FC and had watched at Selhurst, such people do exist, (admittedly in small numbers). I would wager that by now only a minority of AFC Wimbledon’s support have been with the club since long enough to have been regulars at Plough Lane. We have since lost to them twice in the League Cup. Wimbledon continued to rise up the leagues, winning promotion in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011 – the last being the one to take them into the Football League. The clubs Conference South season(2008-9) saw them exceed their first season average crowd for the first time, this was bettered again two seasons later in winning promotion, and again in their first Football League season. 2011-12 was also the first time AFC Wimbledon were to lose more matches than they won. The notable thing about the visits to Kingsmeadow with Cheltenham is that the place had actually become more friendly than it appeared to be in those early Combined Counties seasons. AFC Wimbledon fans are no longer a different breed, but are part of the general football fraternity.

Both clubs now have their own support and following, and the meeting this weekend ought to be the last time the connections are aired before the clubs fully part. However, there is now a new campaign in Wimbledon, (started I think by the local paper and not the football club), to try and get MK Dons to drop Dons from their name. Dons was the original nickname of Wimbledon FC, and was certainly what their supporters would have called them back in the seventies. However, the popularity of the Wombles on TV, and the adoption of a Womble as mascot (originally by Wimbledon FC, but now by AFC Wimbledon, and never of course by MK Dons) means that Wombles is more commonly used now. As a Don is also an academic term, there is no reason why MK should drop it – it all seems part of the sour grapes fight by those that still believe MK Dons should not exist. While like most people, I was aghast at their creation, I recognise that you cannot turn back the clock and you cannot now remove MK Dons from the map any more than, say the state of Israel, no matter how many people think differently.

AFC Wimbledon fans still seem to need to be on the defensive against some suggestions against them. I read it a lot on the internet boards. I think the three great defences that are over their entry into the Combined Counties League, the buying of the stadium and the fate of Kingstonian. So to try and see through the smokescreens, the Combined Counties League was not by any means the lowest level the club could have started, there are many levels of lower football. However, they were voted in by member clubs of the Combined Counties League, which was the legitimate method of clubs entering at that time. They did not take the place of any other club, indeed the league extended its numbers to take them in. Of course, AFC Wimbledon would have liked to enter the Isthmian League but were turned down. I have always thought that the purchase of Kingsmeadow was a bad move, and I feel that developing this ground hinders their attempts to relocate to their home borough. It is possible that Kholsa might have allowed Kingstonian to fold had AFC not appeared on the scene, but if that had happened, the lease would have reverted to the council paving the way for any reformed club to move in. Kingstonian still exist, but their crowd base has been eroded by the coming of Wimbledon to their town. It is an illusion that football supporters follow clubs through thick and thin. Fans come and go, and some may turn up occasionally to see what is going on at the local ground. It is from these that the long term supporter is somehow made. When two clubs share a stadium, it is natural for those new fans, at least if not subject to other influences, to watch the bigger of the clubs at the stadium. With AFC Wimbledon’s media juggernaut, (even being the team of choice for a TV detective), it was always inevitable that they would take some support that might have watched Kingstonian, even with a Wimbledon team in the next borough. When Wimbledon first bought the ground, Kingstonian’s rent was to be paid from the proceeds of a pre-season friendly between the teams. A great advert for altruism that did not actually last long.

Of course, the greatest knock on from the Wimbledon story is the increase in fan owned clubs – this is now becoming both a common way of restarting a club after the original has floundered, but also there have been more cases of supporters clubs breaking away from the original. In England, we have Enfield Town who actually thought of the idea before Wimbledon (perhaps the reason why they did not take up the name AFC Enfield). Enfield Town were founded after the chairman of Enfield refused to walk away with the lion’s share of the proceeds of the sale of Enfield’s old ground, leaving the fans with a clean start, a debt free club and a little money in the bank, (a deal had been brokered, but the owner of Enfield reneged on it). Enfield Town started life sharing at Brimsdown Rovers and playing in the Essex League, (three levels lower than Enfield that season). At this point, Enfield Town refused to merge the two clubs. The clubs met in the Southern League in 2005-6. Enfield FC finally went into liquidation in 2007, but a new club, Enfield 1893 was immediately started (in the Essex League, only one level down on the last season as Enfield). In 2010, Enfield 1893 moved into Brimsdown Rovers ground, after years sharing grounds outside the borough, meaning that both clubs shared a ground for the season – Brimsdown had folded or merged with 1893, depending on the version you listen to. By this time, Enfield Town had secured the new ground they always wanted, now called the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, and took with them a stand they had added to the old Brimsdown ground. This meant the ground did not meet Isthmian League standards, and although 1893 were Esssex League champions in 2011, they could not be promoted.

Other fan clubs include AFC Telford United, formed quickly after Telford United folded, and Wrexham who had to fight long and hard for control, but always kept fighting. An attempt at a protest club called AFC Barnsley lasted only a short time, playing its last season on Barnsley’s training pitches before being absorbed by the club it was protesting about. FC United of Manchester were also formed as a protest against the way Manchester United’s American owners took control. They claim far higher crowds than others in their leagues but are hampered by high rents at Bury. Unlike AFC Wimbledon, they do appear to have identified a site for their own ground, and may well progress further after they move. Their fans sing a curious mixture of Manchester United songs, and anti-Glazer (the United owners) songs. Despite their claims, they have not actually had any effect on the Old Trafford club, although their fan base may well effect other clubs in the area, including Bury who are benefitting greatly from the income United provide. By contrast, it appears that AFC Liverpool only exist as an echo of United. They have not developed a fan base above that of the better clubs in their league, when you look at the programme and ground, it appears to bristle with indignation at either the main Liverpool club, or the injustice to the 96, but the fans do not reflect this. Last time I saw them play, their only indignation was a complaint over what appeared to be a perfectly justifiable penalty.

The supporters’ umbrella group, Supporters Direct seems almost to favour the formation of new clubs over the alternative of trying to identify and remove bad club owners. The latest example being at Northwich Victoria. Now there is no doubt the old club has been incredibly badly administered, leading to the loss of their ground, (and the new owners can develop the site there), and the club playing 40 miles from home in front of negligible crowds. Even so, there should have been hope for some compromise, but the existence of a rival club appears to be strengthening the owners resolve not to let the old club go.

It does appear that a lot of AFC fans are not for a boycott of the match, as shown by the fact that a large number are travelling to Milton Keynes to see it. The directors are making their protest by standing with the fans and not accepting hospitality, but this is only noticed because they have managed to get the press to mention it. I noticed the Cheltenham Town chairman sitting among the fans, rather than accepting hospitality at an away game two weeks ago. This was not a protest, he was there because he likes to be there! No doubt there will be protests or posters from within the crowd over the existence of MK Dons, and if the TV cameras care to show it, there will be a large audience watching the match back in Wimbledon, but this match may be the last stand for the protests.

The real villains of this piece are not the current owners of either Football Club, whose only problem seems to be that they cannot find a way to live in peace with each other, but the football authorities. The game needs a system of licensing that is more stringent in stopping clubs from building up unsustainable debt, it needs more care applied to the idea of “fit and proper” persons as directors, and a way of taking sanctions against club directors who are found not to meet the required standard after taking up the post. Above all, the practise of separating the ownership of club and ground must be stopped, as it is a license for asset strippers. The legacy of the MK Dons/AFC Wimbledon saga should not be the extinction of either club, but the assurance that history cannot be repeated. While Northwich Victoria play home matches in front of a handful of spectators in Stafford, that legacy still looks far from achievable.

England C Team in Gibraltar

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Once the laws of football had been formalised, it did not take long for them to spread across International borders, and almost inevitably, the first International game was played as far back as 1872. By 1906, football had become so professionalised that there was little room for the amateur in international football, and England started fielding an all Amateur International XI as well. Their first game was played in November 1906 and resulted in a 15 (fifteen) -0 win against France. The side for that match included players from South Bank, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Old Malvernians, Old Foresters and Luton Town.

I am not certain if that game was entered as an official first team international for France, but most of the Amateur teams early games were against the full international XI of their opponents, (which meant they awarded full caps, while England did not). The England Amateur XI won their first 17 games and went unbeaten through the first 20. (To be accurate, three of these games were played by the team as a GB XI, as they were part of the 1908 London Olympics). In March 1909, the England Amateur team beat the full International team of Germany by 9-0, and a month later they beat Belgium 11-2. Both these results are still recorded as the record defeat for the National teams concerned.

Credit to Belgium though, as a year later, they gained a 2-2 draw with England (Amateurs) in Brussels, the Amateurs first failure to win. 1906-10 was a golden age for English International football with the Senior team also managing 18 unbeaten games between defeats in Glasgow in 1906 and 1910. The Amateurs finally lost in Copenhagen in May 2010. Denmark were the team beaten in the Olympic final, in 1908 and again lost to “England” in the 1912 final. The FA claim that England Amateur teams played at the 1908, 1912, 1920 and 1936 Olympics, but non English players may have been included in the latter pair.

I do not have a full record of England Amateur games, but one notable fixture, 28 January 1939 saw England beat Wales 5-2 at Whaddon Road, Cheltenham. Although by that time Cheltenham were a member of the professional Southern League, GE Perkins was in the England XI. By that time, the England Amateur XIs had become quite London based. Apart from Perkins, only two players were not Londoners, the goalkeeper G. Whitehead (Bury Amateurs) and T.H. Leek of Moor Green. I am saddened to note that Bury Amateurs changed their name to AFC Bury at the start of this season.

The England Amateur team was disbanded in 1974, basically because the distinctive name “Amateur Football” was being scrapped. The move was slow coming, and by 1974, many Amateur players were receiving so much boot money, that semi-professional clubs could not compete.

Still, with a strong distinction between the professional game (as in Football League) and semi-professional (or amateur), as in everything non-League, there was a case for a representative XI at this level and so in 1979, an England Semi-Professional XI was started. The first game was a 2-1 victory over Scotland, at Stafford Rangers in May 1979, with the Netherlands beaten at the same venue a week later.

Since then, the name of the team has morphed to the England National Game XI, and now England C, but the team has always been effectively the same, a representative side of the Football Conference, with the odd player entered from the lower leagues. Players have always come from the English non-League system (but including some playing for Welsh clubs), with I think just one exception. Kevin Todd, who I remember as a part of the Newcastle Blue Star team of the late 80s, made his one appearance in 1991, after signing for Berwick Rangers.

The England C team (using its current name) was not even limited to Englishmen. While only three players have been capped for both the C team and at Full cap level, I can easily name an equal number of players later capped for other nations. For the record – the players who moved up to the England squad were Alan Smith (Alvechurch) and Steve Guppy (Wycombe),with Peter Taylor (Maidstone)dropping to the semi-professional team in 1984, eight years after he won a full cap. Meanwhile, in the early days, I clearly remember Eammon O’Keefe moving up from playing in those first two England games, to play for Eire after switching from Mossley to Everton, Barry Hayles has gone on to play for Jamaica, while Junior Agogo has played for Ghana. The first two of these at least were English born. Agogo was born in Ghana.

In recent years, the shape of the Conference has changed. The effects of two promotion and relegation places has been to open up the Football League to those worthy non-League clubs which previously did not have the chance to improve themselves, but in reverse, the Conference itself has become the resting place for some many clubs with a lengthy Football League history behind them. Some of these clubs are getting far bigger crowds then their replacements; compare Grimsby, Luton and Stockport with Cheltenham, Morecambe and Macclesfield. Not surprisingly, these clubs have stayed full time professional, and the more ambitious clubs among the rest have also gone full time, boosted by increasing attendances and owners who put money in, (surely not still under the illusion that there is a pot of gold beyond any promotion rainbow?).

So, as the distinction between the Conference and the Football League has been eroded, in terms of professional clubs and even in wages offered, the choice of running a England representative side for players from Conference level down is looking more and more arbitrary. Players do not take the drop in level simply to get into the England team, but they can get into the team by taking such a drop, while many of last season’s team cannot play this season, as they are with either Crawley or AFC Wimbledon and hence moved into the league.

To my mind, the whole business of the England ‘C’ team is very arbitrary. Why do we award caps for one group of professional football players, while we have other groups of better players who are deemed too good to earn England ‘C’ honours, but fall far short of the standard required for England ‘A’. (The rarely used England ‘B’ designation is normally used for a reserve team of players picked from the same pool as the ‘A’ squad).

The only criterion I see the current XI being based on is to make it competitive in those tournaments it enters, and to neither overwhelm, nor be overwhelmed by its opponents. This at least is achieved, with the eight games 2009-11 resulting in two draws, five English wins, all by a single goal and a 1-0 defeat to a Portugal XI in the final game of the last International Challenge Tournament.

For England’s first International of the 2011-12 season, one could easily believe the squad had the ability to overpower their opponents. All but two members of the squad coming from the Football Conference, the odd couple being from Conference North. This predominantly professional squad was to play Gibraltar. The Gibraltarian League being an all amateur combination, played on the single stadium within the territory. Only a couple of players from Gibraltar have moved on to play semi-professionally in the lower levels of Spanish football, and there are no full professional players at all in the squad. The local newspaper’s sports reporter, loyal to his team tells me that one or two players have been offered chances in England or Spain, but have not taken them up; and as the game is played, one can see that there is some talent around and maybe some players could have made a higher grade with full time training and coaching.

The England team is very different to the one that played in the previous season. The age band, everyone over 20 and under 24 is very narrow, and only four players have played for England ‘C’ before, totalling only six gaps. The left back, Sean Newton (himself a late call up to cover for the inevitable absences in a team playing abroad on a Tuesday, when everyone has played club football on a Saturday) has two caps and is the only England player to have scored for the team before.

Lack of experience, difficult transport regimes, and little training together would all conspire against a team that one would expect on paper (or for that matter on a 3G artificial surface) to be far stronger than their opponents.

For the Gibraltarian team, there was no lack of preparation, the squad had been chosen weeks in advance and had been training together far more often than most club squads in the territory. Apart from the hope of a good game, and a close result in the match against England, the objectives of the Gibraltar FA are somewhat different to those of England. Soon after the Gibraltar FA was formed, it affiliated with the Football Association, and for many years had the same rights as any of the County associations, even though it did not enter clubs into FA Competitions, but seeing the explosion in the numbers of UEFA members, including the inclusion of other micro states (Andorra, San Marino) and dependent territories (Faroe Islands), there was a very good case for Gibraltar to join UEFA.

The GFA’s original application for membership came in 1997, and FIFA pushed it out to UEFA for consideration. If Gibraltar were accepted as a member of UEFA, then FIFA membership would also follow. Back at the time, FIFA were proud of the fact that their membership numbers made it the biggest international organisation in the world, currently 208 members, compared to just 193 in the United Nations, and at the turn of the Millennium it seemed there were opportunities for more to be added into the mix. Gibraltar ceased to be a part of the English Football Association and with the territory enjoying a similar autonomous role, to say the Faroe Islands, the candidacy looked good.

But there was one hurdle to overcome, and it was a big hurdle in the form of Spain. As soon as the Spanish Football Association (prompted by the government) objected to the inclusion of Gibraltar within UEFA, the plan was scuppered. I still believe the Spanish FA’s threat to leave UEFA if Gibraltar should be allowed to join is a bluff. With the National team for once on top of the World, and with Real Madrid and Barcelona carrying all before them on the club fronts, it seems they have a lot to lose by carrying out their threat.

UEFA went a step further than simply refusing Gibraltar’s application, they changed the rules and said that in future, only a recognised Nation could become a member of the organisation (I think this now applies to FIFA as well). This is not retrospective, so the continued participation of the Faroes and others is not in doubt. Now for a long time, FIFA has said that members should not appeal through local courts, but should apply to the Court for Arbitration in Sport in the case of any dispute. Gibraltar did just that – and won. The CAS said that the new rules could not be applied retrospectively, and any applicant that had attempted to join earlier had to be accepted on old rules. (This does rule out a floated move by Greenland to join, and delays any application from Kosovo until they gain full independence). After an appeals process, which did not change the decision, UEFA felt they had no choice, and in December 2006 announced Gibraltar were provisional members, to be rubber stamped by congress the following month. Congress involves the 52 countries (at the time) having one vote each, and with an intensive lobbying operation from the Spanish (with the threat of Spain pulling out to the fore), Gibraltar’s application was refused by 45 votes to three (with four abstentions). The three who voted in Gibraltar’s favour are believed to be England, Scotland and Wales

Gibraltar are pushing on with lobbying to bring the issue back to UEFA in the future, but despite confidence among some of the officials on the Rock, I feel it will be a long time before there is an change.

The following match report was written for the non-League Daily web site, and appeared there the day after the match.

The England C team were humbled by a well organised Gibraltar side at the Victoria Stadium, going down to a 3-1 defeat in their first game of the season.

England C can call on any players outside the Football League, which at the top level means 24 teams of mainly full time professional players, but any number of semi-professionals in the lower divisions. Gibraltar has only two divisions of Senior football, comprising a total of 16 teams, and generally amateur status. Yes, it is true that Gibraltar can put out Manchester United players, but that is only because there is a team by that name in the local league. Two Gibraltarian players do play in the Spanish Leagues, but only at semi-professional levels.

The game started in frenetic fashion, with more pace on display than purpose. England settled into a 4-4-2 formation, and appeared confident that they could play an attacking game. Gibraltar chose a more defensive minded 4-1-4-1 format, but from the word go they took the game to their opponents.

The story for most of the first half was Gibraltar attacking with pace and flair, particular the pair who play in Spain, Joseph Chipolina, the left full back was a constant threat overlapping, while winger George Cabrera was the threat on the other flank. England managed to stand firm despite numerous attempts, and should have taken the lead on 38 minutes, Danny Rose crossed from the left and Adam Boyes shot against the bar. Lindon Meikle then attempted to get a grip on the loose ball, but shot high and wide. This cost England dearly, as we were suddenly treated to a display of pace from Lee Casciaro, swopping passes with George Cabrera and then firing Gibraltar into a deserved lead.

Gibraltar appear too quick for the static English defence

After the break, England came out with six changes, but few differences. The goalkeeper, three midfielders and both strikers were swapped. Before the new grouping had even managed to greet each other and exchange names, the referee spots a stray hand where it should not be. Gibraltar’s Aaron Perez nets the resultant penalty. 2-0.

For the next six minutes, England are just wondering what has hit them, and then thinking it may be worse, with Robert Guilling hitting the post after a good interchange between Cabrera and Perez – then it was worst. Guilling was allowed to stand alone on the half way line, where he was picked out with a perfect crossfield ball, running on alone before shooting past the advancing Preston Edwards.

If Gibraltar ran out of steam after the hour mark, it was a sign of how much they had put into the early part of the game. Anyway, England continued to be disorganised, and despite having more of the ball, they could rarely show either enough guile or strength to worry Jordan Perez in the home goal.

Gibraltar stuck to the game plan, 4-1-4-1 throughout, although they were flexible enough to rotate some of the players positions within this system. Roy Chinpolina, who had an excellent game started off shielding the back four, and later joined it. Cabrera took up the lone forward position from Lee Casciaro allowing Casciaro to drop back, while Brian Perez and Aaron Payas had excellent games wherever they played.

Penalty – Gibraltar’s all important second goal.

England did get a goal back with less than ten minutes to play, it was knocked in by Connor Jennings at short range, following a rare defensive mix up for Gibraltar. England commanded possession after this, but there was never a suggestion that the goal was anything but a consolation.

Marks must go to Fairclough for demanding that his players went forward to applaud the home crowd at the end of the game. The crowd had chanted throughout (one of the few chants surely that uses the name of the organisation G-F-A, rather than the country). At the end they were calling again for UEFA recognition as well.

England. Jonathon Hedge (Tamworth) (Preston Edwards (Ebbsfleet)), Shaun Beeley (Fleetwood), Sean Newton (AFC Telford), Jamie Turley (Forest Green), Rory McAuley (Cambridge United) (Adam Watkins (Luton)); Lindon Meikle (Mansfield), Jai Reason (Braintree), Danny Rose (Newport County) (Kenny Davis (Braintree)), Robbie Willmott (Luton) (Ashley Chambers (York)); Adam Boyes (Barrow) (Connor Jennings (Stalybridge)), John Paul Kissock (Luton) (Michael West (Ebbsfleet).

All substitutions at half time, with Reason dropping from midfield to defence.

Gibraltar. Jordan Perez, Ryan Casciaro, Joseph Chipolina, Joseph Chipol (Jason Pusey 82), Lee Ferrary (Daniel Duarte HT); Roy Chipolina; George Cabrera (Gareth Lopez 89), Brian Perez (Jeremy Lopez 85), Aaron Payas, Robert Guilling (Kyle Casciaro 66); Lee Casciaro

Referee: A. Bacarisa (Gibraltar).

Attendance: Approximately 800

Gibraltar is a curious place to visit, very welcoming and an odd mixture between Spanish and British. Public transport and the border crossings are now straight forward, so visiting the territory by crossing the border from Spain is now quite easy, as is using Gibraltar airport as an entry point into Spain (you walk across the Spanish border, about 100 yards from the airport terminal). One curious point, soon to be changed is that the only road into Gibraltar runs straight across the airport runway, and so closes when a plane takes off or lands, (fortunately, there aren’t many flights). If driving, queues to cross the border can be several hours in length, entering Gibraltar early in the day, and leaving from mid afternoon onwards. Even during the game, I could see the line of cars across the runway until well into the second half, I was told this meant a one hour delay if I had left the territory at that time. A new airport terminal is being built, and then a tunnel under the runway which will alleviate some of the problems and allow more flights into Gibraltar.

The Stadium is next to the airport, and consists of a single cantilever stand over around 1000 seats. On the far side, some concrete seating has been built up, but this was not used for the International.

Island Games

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

The Olympic Ideal is alive and well. Whether or not any of the original ideals still cling to the expensive and overbearing presence due in London next summer is certainly open to debate, but the ideal has been replicated across the world in many smaller contexts. The best known alternative games here is the Commonwealth games, and I believe French speakers have an equivalent in the Francophone games. The format is popular in Asia, with the Asian games provided a continent wide tournament, and others such as the South East Asian Games providing a more local competition for fewer nations. Even at national level, the provinces of Indonesia come together for their own national games.

But you do not have to be nations to compete. The concept is open to any group to combine together for competition and friendship, with a linked theme connecting the various competing groups. The concept of Island Games therefore would not be a surprise in areas where many Islands. And so we have such combinations at the Central American and Caribbean games, and the South Pacific Games. The latter includes a football competition that was used as part of the qualification procedure for the 2010 World Cup. It was intended that this year’s South Pacific Games would again be part of the World Cup qualifying competition, until it fell foul of FIFA regulations. While it was alright to have places not affiliated to FIFA playing in a competition that formed part of the World Cup, as happened with Tuvalu (their games were simply ignored by FIFA), it is not acceptable to have a FIFA member of the Asian Football Confederation (Guam), playing in Oceania qualifying. Even though Guam are one of only four FIFA members who have not entered for the 2014 World Cup, FIFA are not prepared to simply ignore their results.

One has to wonder though about the International Island Games Association though, simply as it does not specify any geographical limitation. One should not wonder though, as this is in fact one of the most successful games around. Commencing in 1985, the Island games have been run every two years, and regular increased in size. The initial games involved 15 islands, and some 700 competitors. In fact the games, which were started in the Isle of Man, have always been dominated by islands with some connection to Britain. The fifteen included the Isles of Man and Wight, Shetland and the Orkneys, Guernsey, Jersey and Ynys Mon. The other mainstays were Scandinavians, Froya, Hitra, Gotland, Åland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Two came in from further afield, the mid-Atlantic British territory of St. Helena, and the Mediterranean Island of Malta. Only Iceland and Malta have not remained as members, both leaving after 1997 and both now giving their attention to the European Small Countries Games (the smallest nine countries in Europe).

Flying the Flag – the Red and White of Greenland.

The Island games added three more of the British in 1987, Alderney, Sark and Gibraltar, (the only member of the Island games which is not an Island). In 1989, Greenland joined – Greenland has similar status to the Faroe as an autonomous Danish territory, although they timed an application to FIFA at the wrong time, and won’t be trying for the World Cup any time soon. 1991 saw two more join, the Canadian Island Province of Prince Edward Island, (who have now resigned due to lack of funding), and the Estonian Island of Saaremaa. In 1993, the games reached the South Atlantic with the Falklands joining, and the next additions also added to the scope, the Cayman Islands and Rhodes in 1999, followed by Bermuda in 2003. In 2005, one more British Island group, the Western Isles joined, while the most recent member (2007) is Menorca from the Balearics.

So the organisation is dominated by the British, with 15 members being connected to Britain. These are five overseas territories, (Bermuda, Falklands Islands, Cayman Islands, St Helena and Gibraltar), five crown dependencies, (Alderney, Sark, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Jersey) and five which are parts of the British Isles, (Isle of Wight, Western Isles, Shetlands, Orkney and Ynys Mon). With the exceptions of the two Mediterranean islands, all the rest are Scandinavian.

In terms of population, the Islands vary from just 600 on Alderney, to 140,000 on the Isle of Wight. I took a brief look at the association rules, and they recommend that any new members should not exceed 125,000 in population, and must be true Islands (i.e. no more like Gibraltar). They also say a maximum of 25 members. I am not certain that maximum is strict, but the games cannot easily expand more. Around 4000 people are on the Isle of Wight for the games, (3500 contestants, plus officials, and supporters). At least half the Islands are not potential hosts as they could not cope with this influx, and an increase in the number of islands would reduce further the potential to rotate the tournament.

It is worth considering the number 4000 people for the games, widely publicised, and the official count of athletes which sat just short of 3500. The last winter Olympic games brought just 2566 competitors to Vancouver.

So far there have been 14 editions of the Island games, with 10 of the Islands having taken their turn to be hosts. In 2013, Bermuda will be the 11th, while Jersey have their second games confirmed for 2015, and it is expected that Gotland will again be hosts in 2017.

The games covers 15 sports from Archery to Windsurfing, but with around 500 of the competitors in 25 teams (15 men’s, 10 women’s) football is the biggest of the sports here. For the record, three of the members of the Island games association members are also members of FIFA, although none of the three are countries in their own right. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands both send their own teams to the Olympics, while the Faroe Island’s international recognition is limited to FIFA.

Jersey take on Menorca in Cowes

Nine different football grounds were in use, as the games spread across the island. The Isle of Wight is home to four members of the Wessex League, steps five and six in the English pyramid, which means the grounds are enclosed, with some covered accommodation and floodlights. The rest are used for Island League matches. Most of these are somewhat more open, with the pitches merely roped off, rather than a permanent rail. The ground at Oakfield was exceptionally tight, with just a small bank on one side for most of the spectators. The one thing that all the grounds selected do appear to have in common is a good club house.

In most of the sports of the games, the spectators consist of friends, family, a few competitors watching on their free time, and maybe the occasional local. There were two casual “supporters”, one from the Isle of Man, the other from the Falklands who were staying at the same B&B as me, but both were former officials with their teams. The one sport that attracted a significant outside crowd was football. There were a good number of groundhoppers who made the trip from various parts of England, who while being interested in the football, were also trying to maximise the number of grounds visited on the trip. I would also hazard a guess the locals were more prominent in watching the football than most of the other sports, with the home team naturally attracting more locals than other teams.

I could not justify a full week off work for the trip, although after three days on the Island, I was regretting this. I instead chose to stay for three days starting on the Sunday, (the opening day for football). The plan was for seven games, four on Island league grounds which would be new to me, and three on Wessex League grounds not visited for over 25 years. The only two grounds that I did not visit had both been on my itinerary when the games were held on the Isle of Wight in 1993, and a day trip allowed me to go to West Wight, East Cowes and Ventnor. As it turned out, I added an eighth game to my list, the only one to be played on the Monday morning, and for me a rare viewing of the ladies game.

I had to leave home for the trip around 8 in the morning, but this allowed my drive down to Southampton to be comfortable, arriving over 30 minutes before the 11 O’clock Red Funnel ferry. This drops one at East Cowes around an hour later, and I easily had time to check into my Bed & Breakfast (in Shanklin) and then drive back up to Brading for a 3 O’Clock start. Admission for the game, (individually for all games) was set at £3, but I was fortunate in being able to obtain a season ticket for £20. A small saving over an eight game trip.

The Ladies in Action – Jersey v Hitra at Oakfield

Brading is a neat and tidy ground, that has added a small stand and floodlights since my earlier visit. At the entrance, I obtained a tournament brochure (£3) and a matchday programme (20p). The latter contained the names and squad numbers for the two teams involved, and was printed on green card folded over to four pages, A5 size. The squad numbers turned out to be generally accurate at all the games I saw, except this first one. The game was Rhodes against Greenland, and provided an entertaining start to the trip, with a sting in its tail. It was played in very hot sunshine, the highest temperatures we were to enjoy on the trip. Much of the rest of the time, it was more traditional “Football Weather”, with us giving thanks not to get too much rain at those grounds without covered accommodation. Greenland played a very open and entertaining game, and had a fair support, most of which appeared to be their own Women’s team. They also came with a match commentator who had to watch from the clubhouse, about 30 yards behind the goal as this was the only place where he could get the connections allowing him to broadcast the details to his homeland. Still, the Greek side were too strong for Greenland, and spurning an early chance by missing a penalty, Rhodes were 1-0 at half time and increased the lead soon after the break. Greenland brought on their third substitute, Steve Broberg with seven minutes to play, and he scored within a minute of entering the play.

This caused the Rhodes team some anxious moments, which were really not necessary, and were compounded by their own foul play. As injury time started, and with the ball as far away from their own goal was possible, a stupid but violent tackle earned a red card. This meant five minutes of injury time with ten players for Rhodes, but with this almost up, the goalkeeper, already booked for time wasting collected a ball just outside the penalty area and hence picked up his second card. Rhodes therefore finished with nine men, although they did take all the points.

Greenland had a fair modicum of support at the game, even if most were from their other teams, such as the Ladies Football team, they also had a radio commentator, who had to watch from the clubhouse somewhat too far behind the goal, as it was the only place he could get a connection allowing him to broadcast direct to Greenland. The Channel Islands had a TV crew at the games, giving some delayed coverage on the following morning’s news. I did not notice much else in terms of media coverage.

I travelled on to Cowes Sports, where the only stand was still there as a memory of my previous visit. Here the game was Jersey v Menorca, in the same group as the Rhodes v Greenland game. To be honest, this game was not as entertaining as the previous one, but it was of a higher general quality. All of these who had watched the pair seemed in agreement that the evening game would settle the group, and the other pair were liable to suffer two further defeats. As it was, Jersey who became stronger as the match went on, scored a goal in each half against their Spanish opponents. Despite the match being played in good spirits, we again had an injury time sending off, and it was a Menorca player who saw red.

Up bright and early the next morning, I started my tour at Oakfield, which was to be the first of the Island League clubs I visited. Indeed, I was to go there twice, first for this Ladies game, (the only match being played on Monday Morning), and then the next day for a men’s game. The ground is in a residential (and slightly run down) part of Ryde, and is the tightest of the grounds, with most of the spectators settling on one side, where there is a slight grass bank. The spectators mixed somewhat with an overflow of players and officials on this side. Behind the goal were two buildings, a bar which incorporated a small area with tables, and a dressing room block which also provides a minimal covered area. The game was Jersey against Hitra. Hitra is a small island off the coast of Norway. Both sides had played the day before, Hitra losing 3-0 to Isle of Wight, while Jersey had gone down 5-0 to Åland. I am not a great fan of Ladies’ football, and this was not a game to change my prejudices. It was just played at too slow a pace. Some of the Jersey ladies showed a little skill on the ball, but this was spoilt by a failure to master teamwork, or to support the player with the ball. Jersey’s Jodie Botterill frequently found herself alone up front, and uncertain what to do. Greater support would have resulted in the final score being much more than the six goals to one that Jersey eventually won by, and Botterill could well have done more than score a hat-trick. The biggest cheer of the day from a crowd that exceeded 100, must have been for the Hitra goal, a fine long distance effort.

The Western Isles and Åland at Newport

From Oakfield, I went on to Newport, where St Georges Park, despite now being over 20 years old, still has a feel of being a new ground about it. It is very square and while it has a good main stand, the three other pieces of cover still look as if they are there to meet some foolish piece of ground grading, and a single, larger area would have looked better. Still, it is a good functional ground, and the tea bar was inviting. The match was the Western Isles and Åland. The Western Isles are the Hebrides, off the western coast of Scotland, where most of the local football is an amateur summer league. I noticed that with these games in mind, the Highland Amateur Cup quarter finals involving Back and Carloway were postponed for a week. The general feeling on the Western Isles is still very much against any sport on a Sunday, and it had been agreed in advance that they would not play on the opening day, but could use the rest day (Wednesday) instead. As it happened, they were conveniently drawn in the three team group of a 15 team competition, and hence were only asked to play on Monday and Tuesday. Åland is an island betwixt Finland and Sweden. It is governed by Finland and speaks the language of Sweden. It has a football team, IFK Mariehamn in the top division of the Finnish League, but players from this team were not used in the Island games. The game was hard fought, the Western Islanders are a resilient team, strong in defence but eventually Åland took control, and two second half goals settled the game. Åland had of course already played on the Sunday, when they had drawn 3-3 with Saaremaa

Lining up for the anthems at Rookley

The third game of the day was at Rookley. Being the only game scheduled at this venue, it brought in a flood tide of groundhoppers who had varied their choice of games earlier in the day. It may have been thought of as an odd venue. The club here had picked up only one point from 20 Island League third division games in the season past, and ended with a goal difference of -202. Perhaps it was a reward for not giving up. It is a very pleasant set up, with a fine club house, and a lot of space around a roped off pitch. The Sun came out to great us again, after dull weather earlier in the day. Still, this was not the biggest game in the tournament. The Falkland Isles had already lost to Guernsey 5-0, while the Isle of Man would be clear favourites after a 4-2 win over Gotland. There was no doubt that the Manx would be looking for goals as well, as holding a goal difference advantage would clearly help them out when facing Guernsey in their third game. In the first half this was the way of things, with the Isle of Man starting the scoring on ten minutes, and reaching 5-0 by half time. The second half was somewhat different, and only one more was goal was added, just five minutes before the end. As it turned out, Guernsey were in the process of beating Gotland by 5-2, so the two were to go head to head level with the same goal difference and each having scored ten goals.

I had met Steve Munday earlier in the day, and he was eager to persuade me to drive around some of the good beer guide pubs on the Island, while I preferred the idea of getting back to Shanklin before drinking much. Steve’s plans carried the evening, but driving back to Shanklin we attracted the notice of the local police. Fortunately, I had not over indulged, and comfortably passed the breathalyser test – but because the stop came within minutes of leaving the pub, we had to wait around for fifteen minutes before I could be tested, (this reduces the chance of a false positive). Fortunately, this did not prevent me from having a couple more pints in Shanklin, after the car was parked. Steve actually disappeared part way through this to try out another pub.

Although what would happen if the Isle of Man’s game against Guernsey was a subject of conversation at the Tuesday morning game, it was not the only subject. I had already seen Rhodes having two players sent off at the end of their victory over Greenland. In defeat to Jersey, the story was worse and they had three more sent off (two in an elongated injury time period). Events after the game did not help matters, and another red card was reported as being shown after the final whistle. Rhodes have previous as well, famously having five men sent off in a game in a previous tournament. A disciplinary committee was quickly set up to look into the matter, and we soon heard that Rhodes were not only out of the football tournament this time, but would not be allowed into games football tournaments in 2013 and 2015.

The only game on the Tuesday morning was at the Isle of Wight Community Centre, just a couple of hundred yards from the Cowes Sports ground. The venue was similar to Rookley, in having a large field, roped off pitch and a good clubhouse. Most teams in the games were playing three games in successive days, the sort of schedule that would have Premier League managers tearing their hair out. Not quite the attitude for these teams. Alderney and the Falklands were planning an extra game if they did not meet each other, with a special trophy, “The Small Islands Cup” available for the better of the two footballing Islands with the lowest population.

The Tuesday morning was a little more relaxed, in so far as the two teams involved had only played once each in the only three team group. I had already seen the Western Isles lose 2-0 to Åland, so Saaremaa who drawn 3-3 with Åland in their first game knew that a better result would see them top the group. All the advantages should have been with the Estonian side, who of course had taken a day’s rest while the Western Isles were playing. While most sides in the tournament were made up of players from different clubs, and wore kits showing Island badges, Saaremaa wore the kit of FC Kuressaare – a first division side that plays on the Island. Their entire squad was made up of players from this club, although not all the first team regulars could play. The rules did not ban those from being with a professional club, but only those players either born on the Island, or who had passed the residency qualifications could play. One of the features of this was that the players’ shirts had names as well as numbers on their backs, but not every player was a member of the first team squad, and so the others had other players names on their backs. Still the game turned out similar to the Western Isles game the previous day, as they defended well, but showed little promise going forward. Scoreless at half time, Saaremaa scored early in the second period, but only hit a second with five minutes to play, ending up with the same record as their rivals.

This was to be the highlight of the day, all four of the other teams I was to see would go into their games with two defeats each from their earlier games. First it was a rather hurried ride back to Oakfield to see the Falkland Islands again, this time against Gotland. Both may have lost twice, but there was never any chance this game would be close fought. The Falkland Isles were 3-0 down at half time, and 6-0 down on the hour mark. They pulled one back, and ended up on the wrong end of a 6-1 defeat.

After this, I had plenty of time before the final game. With Steve again as passenger, we headed towards St Helens and Bembridge, for no other reason than I had been here on family holidays near enough forty years before. I remembered very little of the villages as I sat on the green and ate fish and chips. Steve, unsurprisingly was again checking out the good beer guide pubs. I do know we used to stay in static caravans, (we did not have a car, so we certainly could not tow one). It was good to hear similar accommodation was used by many of the games competitors.

Then it was onto Shanklin – this was the best of the Island League grounds we visited, with low banking each side of the pitch. In the same way as there was no surprise when the Falklands had lost in the afternoon, it was also a straight forward victory as went down 5-0 to Ynys Mon, (the Welsh Island better known as Anglesey).

And so ended my trip – a rushed drive across the Island meant I was on the Ferry around 45 minutes after the match finished, along with several other car loads of hoppers who had also rushed across from Shanklin.

The tournament of course carried on. The Wednesday was a rest day, but there was still one feature – a penalty shoot out between Åland and Saaremaa, which decided that the Finnish side could play in the semi-finals. They were joined at this stage by Jersey, Guernsey and the hosts. The other sides with the exception of expelled Rhodes would play again in placing matches, The Falklands 3-1 win over Alderney have them 13th place overall and the “Small Islands Cup”. The other placings were Westen Isles 12th, Greenland 11th, Gotland 10th, Ynys Mon 9th, Isle of Man 8th, Menorca 7th, Saaremaa 6thand Gibraltar 5th.

In the semi-finals, 816 saw the Isle of Wight beat Jersey, while Guernsey defeated Åland3-2. The following day, and the fifth game of the week for the final four. Jersey beat Åland by 5-1, and over 2000 saw the hosts win 4-2 over Guernsey to take the title. On the same day, Åland took the Women’s title with a 5-1 win over the Isle of Man, Greenland took the Bronze with a 1-0 win over the Western Isles.

The official crowd figures, not finally published until two weeks after the event, showed a total of 11,000 spectators at the games. (Some of the figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, as with the majority of the spectators having passes, counting was a little loose – still, I think the total will not be far out). Most of the spectators did not pay on the day. There was a £20 football season ticket available, or a £25 games pass (which allowed the purchaser to use the bus services as well as enter any games event). All competitors also had a games pass, (indeed, a lot of the time, they were expected to use the local bus service to get from their accommodation to the venues).

There were a few other items to report from the organisation of the games, such as the opening days games were started without National or Island anthems, they were not delivered to the grounds in time. The rest of the time they were played. Some of the groundhoppers that stayed until the Thursday were annoyed when the 7th/8th placing match was switched at short notice from 11.30 to 10.00 kick off, to allow the Manx players to go on to support their ladies team afterwards. The support for other teams within your island is a feature of the Island games, but football benefits most from this, as the matches are relatively short, and of course the timing is known, as opposed to sports that just book the venue for the morning. Still, in helping out one group by changing a fixture, the organisers antagonised others who thought they knew the location and kick off of the match. Future organisers should consider setting the dates and venues, and allocating matches to them later – this will mean that one can be certain of a match by just turning up, while services such as the internet and twitter could inform people of the actual fixtures.

Within the multi-sport environment, football does tend to grab the headlines, plus more than its fair share of resources. I remember my first trip to China, and skipping through some of the sports pages of old copies of the English Language China Daily. There was an editorial commending the Chinese on a record number of medals at the Asian games, held in Beijing earlier that year. But, the editorial added, the average Chinese citizen would swap them all for just taking the Football Gold. There is enough dissent in the Islands game circuit, that football could miss out on some future games. This would not be the end of football at the games, other sports miss out from time to time, (there were no gymnastics on the Isle of Wight for example, but seven of the Islands instead held a gymnastics competition in Jersey soon after the games finished). Football could miss a games, and then return for the next one.

In the meantime, and as a possible prelude to an amicable divorce, with a football competition separate from the games, it has been announced that a four team tournament will be held next summer in Gibraltar. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man will take up the challenge. This new competition will be called the “International Challenge Shield”, and the organisers hope some of the other islands will join later.

Changes for 2011-12

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

I have been asked a few times to produce a Changes List for this close season. This is the first draft, and will be updated with matters of fact, plus a few missing leagues.

Changes 2011