Archive for the ‘Political Footballs’ Category

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

World Cup 2014 – Starting with a Whimper.

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Almost without notice, the qualifying trail for the 2014 started last Wednesday (15 June 2011). The opening game was played at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva on the Island of Trinidad. However, Trinidad & Tobago was not one of the countries participating in the opening game. The match was played here due to the fact there is no suitable stadium on the Island of Montserrat.

Montserrat is a small, British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, and had a population of under 6000 before it was devastated by volcanic eruption in 1995. That means its size is about one third of that of the Isle of Wight, but since the volcano, an exclusion zone covers the southern half of the Island, including the capital Plymouth. Around half the original population has left, either to other Caribbean islands or to Britain, (quick as a flash in an emergency, Britain granted right of abode to those from Montserrat three years after the disaster struck, and citizenship four years later).

Not surprisingly, Montserrat is one of six countries with zero points in FIFA’s ranking system. That means they have not won or drawn a game in the last four years. In their case, this only adds up to four matches – three in a Caribbean Cup qualifying group last October, and one match only in the last World Cup – a 7-1 defeat by Surinam (also played in Trinidad & Tobago). Back in 2004, they were allowed to play their world cup game at home, losing 7-0 to Bermuda. This of course was not useful as they had already lost 13-0 away. Of the 25 games since Montserrat started playing International football in 1991, they have won just twice, both matches in Caribbean Cup qualifiers against Anguilla, in the spring of 1995 (i.e. pre Volcano) – 3-2 in Montserrat and 1-0 away. (This earned them a match against St Vincent & Grenadines in the next round, losing 9-0 and 11-0). It is not surprising to find that Anguilla are also in that six team group with no international point in the last four years. Anguilla did pick up a victory during last year’s Caribbean qualifying, but as the opposition, St. Martin are not FIFA members, this match did not count in the rankings. Also in the bottom six are San Marino (only ever win was a friendly against Liechtenstein in 2004), Andorra (last win was against Macedonia in a 2004 World Cup qualifier, although they had 2 scoreless draws in 2005), American Samoa (famous for losing 31-0 to Australia in 2001, they have lost all 33 games played after beating Wallis and Futuna (another non affiliated nation) in their first ever international), and Papua New Guinea (who have only played one game in the last four years, but have been better, winning their last World Cup match back in 2004)

Not surprisingly, Montserrat were beaten in the game, losing 5-2 to Belize. Belize are ranked 172 in the World. With the bottom ten of CONCACAF’s 35 members in this knock out qualifying round, Belize are the only non-Caribbean side at this stage. Deon McCauley, who at the age of 23 has already played football in Costa Rica and Honduras, as well as his native Belize had the honour of scoring the first goal of the 2014 World Cup. He went on to complete a hat-trick.

This is not the end of the story. There should have been a second leg match in Belize four days after the opening game, after which Montserrat could be named as the first side knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, but a combination of the government of Belize and FIFA intervened.

Even before the match, the government of Belize had stated that the Football Federation of Belize (FFB) were not a properly registered association and could not officially represent the country. This dates back to the last election for the FFB executive and president in December. After the election, the government set up an “independent” Sports Investigation Committee. The sports minister has been quoting from an as yet unpublished report, which apparently says that by refusing to accept nominations from one of its members (the Belize Premier Football League, the country’s leading league),the FBB had broken its own rules. With the alternative candidate banned, the incumbent, Bertie Chimilio had a free run, but anyway he also handpicked the district representatives who were responsible for voting him back in.

A standoff between the government and the FFB appears to have been going on throughout the year, and FIFA who are notorious unfriendly to governments who interfere in footballing affairs,( with the obvious exceptions of dictators like Gaddafi), gave Belize a deadline before its recent congress, to sort out the situation by the end of the month of June. This deadline would, of course have allowed the two qualifying matches to take place, and give Belize a short window to sort the situation out before the next international match.

It was the government of Belize which took the step that brought proceedings to a halt. They wrote to FIFA in the week before the Montserrat match to state that the FBB did not have the right to represent the nation, and could not fly the Belize flag or play the Belize National Anthem at the match. These symbols are considered to be important, when in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup, North Korea refused to allow the South Korean flag or National Anthem to be used at matches between the two Koreas in their part of the peninsular – the matches were switched to neutral China. The North Koreans did play in South Korea as scheduled.

Anyway, the match in Trinidad last week went ahead, even without the sanction of the Belize government, but faced with a letter saying that the Belize government would not provide police or security for the match, FIFA finally intervened and suspended Belize from World Football on Friday. Citing Government interference, FIFA have said that any action taking by the government against the office bearers of the FFB would not be recognised.

Meanwhile, a new association has been formed in Belize, the National Football Association of Belize, and on Saturday it elected its first President. Representatives of all the district associations in Belize were present, along with those from the Belize Premier League and the Super League of Belize. With the exception of the Super League, these are the same groupings as would have voted for the FFB president, (not necessarily the same representatives of those associations). The vote was won by Michael Blease, but no list of alternative candidates has been mentioned.

The Super League appears to be a rival league to the Premier League, but not registered with the FFB. This appears to have been the case for some time, although the FFB have not been taking normal action against an unaffiliated league, as McCauley, the hat trick hero from the opening game is a player with Super League champions, City Boys United. One would normally expect a player with an unaffiliated league to be excluded from international participation.

FIFA have given Belize only until 10th July to sort out the situation and play the match. It seems this is not good news for Belize, as neither party is close to giving ground. A similar situation involving Brunei was only recently resolvedafter 18 months of suspension from FIFA. In the end, the newly formed National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam was allowed to take over, (which means that FIFA did give in to the local government), although I understand that FIFA are pretending otherwise.

Assuming Belize are suspended, they may not get any thanks from Montserrat if the island gets a bye into the group stage. While it is great for even a small nation to be involved in the World Cup in a small way, it would be a mistake to say they want to go beyond the first match. The top six CONCACAF nations are exempt from the first group stage, so if they get through, Montserrat will have to bear the expense of a six match group with little income from their home games (the game last week had a crowd shown as 100 by FIFA). FIFA have plenty of money to spread about, but they do not use it to support teams in playing their qualification games.

FIFA do not always back officers of National Associations against their governments, as one can see from the situation in Indonesia. Since 2004, the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) has been run by Nurdin Halid. Halid is a controversial character in Indonesia, and has been charged with corruption for his business activities on several occasions, and has suffered two jail terms during his tenure as PSSI president. At the beginning of the year, another business man, Arifin Panigoro set up his own football league in competition to the Indonesian Super League. The Indonesian Premier League started in January with many of the country’s top clubs running teams in this, although under different names to those operating in the PSSI supported league. FIFA did back the PSSI against the rebel league, and promised to enforce bans on players in the league from International football, (so unlike the situation in Belize there). Still, FIFA had threatened to suspend Indonesia from International Football because the government had interfered by appointing a commission to look into corruption within the PSSI.

However, since then, FIFA have had a change of heart and decided that the status quo cannot be supported. Sometime around March, FIFA decided they had rules preventing a convict from being a National FA President, but they have also banned Panigoro and two other candidates. With the election of new officers twice delayed by the PSSI, FIFA gave the PSSI until June 30th to elect new officers or face suspension. The June 30 deadline has been relaxed by FIFA after the PSSI realised that its intended election could not be held, as they had not given the electors 28 days’ notice. The election should take place on July 9th, with FIFA’s deadline to avoid suspension being 10th July. This should allow Indonesia to play their first World Cup qualifying match, scheduled in Turkmenistan on July 23rd.

Anyway, it will be Asia that gets the “honour” of the first teams knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, and they will also lose the most teams in Preliminary Rounds before the main draw takes place on 31st July. There are eight Asian qualifying matches on 29th June, with the first second leg on July 2nd. This match is between Timor Leste (aka East Timor) and Nepal and is being played in Kathmandu. Timor Leste, like Montserrat does not have suitable ground at home, but have reached the dizzy heights of 200th in FIFA rankings, thanks to a draw in Cambodia in 2008. Seven more Asian teams will be knocked out on July 3rd; four Concacaf teams (apart from Belize or Montserrat) will fall during July, followed by another 15 Asian Teams from a second round at the end of the month.

Of FIFA’s 208 members, Mauritania, Guam and Bhutan did not enter, and Brunei could not enter due to their suspension not being lifted until after the local draw had been made. 28 teams are scheduled to be knocked out before the 31st July draw. 175 countries will be in the draw, while Brazil is exempt to the finals as hosts.

ASIA – 43 out of 46 members participate. 23 knocked out in two qualifying rounds by the end of July. The surviving 20 go into five groups of four (six games each). Ten teams go through to round 4, where they are placed in two groups of 5 (eight games each). Winners and Runners-up from these groups go to Brazil. Third placed teams play each other, with the winner in an inter-Continental Play Off. Qualifiers will play a minimum of 14, but as many as 22 games to reach Brazil.

AFRICA – 52 out of 53 members participate. 12 teams knocked out in a First Round played in November. The remaining 40 play in ten groups of 4 (six games each), with the group winners going into a knock out round with the winners going through. So a place can be achieved with only eight games played, and not more than 10. Five teams go through

CONCACAF – 35 Participants, of which five are knocked out in the first round. The second round involves 24 clubs (six exempt) in six groups of four. The six winners and six exempt teams go into four groups of four. Six teams (winners and runners up) go into a fourth round which is a group of all six (ten games each). Three make it to Brazil, and one goes into a play off. If exempt in the first round, a qualifier would still play 14 games. If one of this month’s winners gets through on the Play Off, they will have played 22 times.

Oceania – 11 participants, but non FIFA members Tivalu and Kiribati also take place in the Pacific Games which makes up the first stage. This is the only confederation that does not play home and away, but 10 countries (not including New Zealand) play in a tournament in New Caledonia. They three qualifying from this will have played six games. These three play with New Zealand in a home and away group (six matches) with just one Champion going into an inter-Continental play off. The winners are also Confederations winners and play in the 2013 Confederations cup.

COMNEBOL – The most straight forward. Brazil are exempt, and the other nine matches play a league (16 games each) with the top four going through and the fifth team in a play-off.

UEFA – Europe has 53 participants. The teams are divided into nine groups. Eight will have six teams (10 games), while one will have just five (8 games). The winners all qualify, so one team will qualify after just 8 games. All but one of the second placed teams play off for four extra places, these are European only play-offs. One unlucky second placed team does not get a second chance. For political reasons, Armenia cannot play Azerbaijan, and Russia cannot play Georgia.

All Things to All Men?

Friday, March 18th, 2011

And so it is official at last. There will be an election for FIFA president this June, and Mohamed bin Hammam will oppose Sepp Blatter. At his press conference in Kuala Lumpur, bin Hammam announced his candidacy, and outlined his manifesto for the job.

  1. The FIFA Executive Committee to be replaced by a FIFA board consisting of 41 members, (17 more than the current ExCo). The new members to be four each from UEFA, CAF and the AFC, three from CONCACAF and one each from of CONMEBOL and the OFC.
  2. An executive committee, consisting of the President of FIFA, and the presidents of the six Confederations charged with implementing the decisions of the board.
  3. A transparency committee – supposedly to make sure that the operations of FIFA are open and clear to the public before they happen, rather than referring to the ethics committee to look into accusations after they have been made.
  4. A doubling of the grant given to each FIFA member annually, from US$250,000 to US$500,000
  5. An increase in the maximum grant available through the GOAL projects, so as the FIFA grant can now run up to US$1 million.

It is an agenda that should appeal to all tastes. In Europe and the USA, FIFA has been accused of being corrupt, and focussing power in too few hands – the new board and committees will not only address this, but if the transparency committee actually does its job, then some of the spectre of conspiracy may be rooted out. But this comes at a cost – currently nine of the 24 ExCo members (including Sepp Blatter himself) are European, while the new Board will be 12/41 UEFA. Meanwhile the Africans and Asians will double their influence from four to eight members each, and the president himself will be an Asian. If the power structure is then devolved from the centre to the Confederations, as bin Hammam appears to be promising, then one suspects there will be less of a central organisation to scrutinise how the handouts are spent, and we can be sure that the Europeans will not be welcome, when it comes to checking on expenditure on other continents.

So what is on offer is more power to those looking for more power, more money for those looking for more money, and more democracy for those looking for more democracy.

And now a thought, bin Hammam has been president of the AFC since 2002, and has just been re-elected in that role. So what has he achieved in that time. I had difficulty with that one, so I turned in desperation to the man’s own web pages, at www.afcpresident.com

To quote: “Under his leadership, AFC has grown in strength and stature, turning into a lean and modern organisation, playing its role as protector of Asian football’s interests. Further, the value of its competitions has now increased to a billion dollars, guaranteeing its financial future”.

I had to read that one more than once, and I still do not know what it means. It is true that since 2002, football has improved immeasurably in at least 3 of its 46 members. In particular, Japan has a powerful league, built up internally by generally ignoring Asian competition, (the Japanese still won the Asian Champions League title in 2007 and 2008). The South Koreans have dominated the competition in recent years, while the Chinese league appears to be strengthening, bolstered only by the AFC in ignoring its own rules, and not suspending the league for past corruption. The true strength of Japan is shown at National level, where the country has won four of the last six Asian Cups.

While UEFA at least maintains a shadow of hope in its Champions League, by allowing the Champions of all its countries to enter the qualifying rounds, before reaching group stages at which only the best countries are represented, Asia is far less democratic. At the behest only of AFC committees, Asian football is divided into ‘Mature Nations’ permitted to play in the Champions League, ‘Developing Nations’ which have a similar competition, the AFC Cup but with less publicity, less money and just the small carrot of a couple of qualifying matches where teams can be selected for either competition. These two together give places to not many more than half the countries in the region, with the rest choosing (or not) to enter a club into the Presidents Cup – which is for ‘Emerging Nations’, or as the AFC does not put it, crap footballing countries where there is no political or financial argument for inclusion.

These emerging nations are also excluded from the Asian Cup, and the Asian World Cup qualifying games are arranged to ensure that they play just one or two rounds of knock out competition, and the big guns never have to bother to play these minnows.

The record of the AFC in defending little countries or little clubs is stunning.

Brunei is not known as a hot spot for World Football, but by entering a club first into Malaysian competitions and more recently into Singaporean competition, they were doing more than OK. Quite frequently for home matches, DPMM could get 7,000 spectators, and sometimes as many as 10,000 – that is between 2% and 3% of the whole population of the country. That means one club in Brunei can be supported by a greater portion of the population than all the professional sports clubs in Britain put together! (The only country that competes with this is probably Monaco, where crowd figures can frequently be around 50% of the state’s population – but of course the majority of these have crossed the borders from France rather than living in the principality).

However, in 2008, Brunei’s football federation did not file its papers correctly with the national government. The Malaysian FA decided that as the BAFA was no longer a legal organisation in its home country, no Brunei team could play in Malaysia. In Singapore, they thought differently, and armed with an assurance that the team would be allowed to play a whole season, whatever happened, they accepted the team into their S-League. DPMM won the Singapore League Cup. Meanwhile, the BAFA was replaced by a new organisation, the Brunei Football Federation (BFF). FIFA ruled this as unacceptable political interference and suspended Brunei. The S-League threw DPMM out of their league with five games to play.

Over a year later, there has been little progress, and Brunei will remain suspended and not be permitted to enter the World Cup. The AFC’s part in all this is practically zero. The AFC should have been trying to negotiate a resolution to the problem, but there is little to be gained in Brunei, so let’s ignore the problem. The AFC also appear to be silent over the chaos at the heart of Indonesian football. Here again FIFA are taking the lead and their latest pronouncement shows something of a change of heart.

Earlier this year, when opposition was growing in Indonesia to the corrupt Football Association, the PSSI and the breakaway LPI (League Professional Indonesia) started, it appeared that FIFA was backing the current PSSI administration and the threat was to suspend the association if a probe into corruption went ahead. Now Blatter is speaking differently, stating that FIFA statutes must be adhered to and that it “is impossible to have a breakaway league in a well organised federation”. For greater clarification, another FIFA official, Thierry Regeness has said “As far as we are concerned the PSSI statutes as approved by FIFA are pretty clear and they mean clearly that someone who has been convicted of a criminal offence should not be able to [stand]” – a clear indication that PSSI chairman Nurdin Halid (whose Wikipedia entry refers to as an “Indonesian Criminal, Businessman and Politician”), cannot stand for re-election.

Also in Indonesia this week, a club called Persipura played an AFC Cup game in front of 700 people in the National Stadium in Jakarta. Indonesian football actually can generate good crowds and Persipura’s last home match as watched by over 18,000 – a typical figure. Persipura come from Jayapura, in Papua province – the most easterly point in Indonesia and quite simply rather difficult to get to. Asian cup football is not for everyone, so the AFC are far happier to send the home club on a journey almost a distant as that travelled by the away club to play in front of a handful of disinterested people in a massive stadium, than to play the match in front of a big crowd. The equivalent in Europe had been if Manchester City had switched their game against Kiev to play in Stockholm – and only Kiev had been allowed the benefit of a non stop flight!

One does not have to be a supporter of Blatter to be seriously concerned over this rival bid for the presidency. After all, we know that if Bin Hamman gets in, then he will be trying to stay in power until the 2012 World Cup is played out in his homeland. Would the world of football be better off holding on to the devil it knows for another four years, and then hope someone better comes along?

New Battles for Indonesian Football.

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

The Indonesia Premier League (LPI) kicked off a week ago. In the opening match Solo FC were defeated 5-1 at home by Persema Malang, in front of 22,000 spectators.

While some readers may be surprised by the size of the crowd, (which is in fact not remarkable by Indonesian standards), the first match of a league season halfway across the world is not a matter for concern to many.

But the away team, Persema Malang have already played eight league matches this season, prior to the opening league game. How can that be?

The reason is that the Indonesian Premier League is not what you might expect, the top level of football in Indonesia, but an entirely new league formed without the authorisation from the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI).

The authorised league, started in September with 18 teams, and is called the Indonesian Super League. It now has only 15 teams, as Persema have withdrawn, along with PSM Makassar and Persibo Bojonegoro. The new league will start with 19 teams, but hopes to actually have a 20th member added soon.

Most of the teams have names that would be more familiar outside Indonesia than within it. Six of them are just a place name followed by the initials FC, while three more have the title “United”. In Tengerang, there is Tengerang Wolves, while elsewhere we see Real Mataram and Batavia Union. The Indonesian standard of either using initials are an abbreviation of a much longer name has only be kept by those clubs moving from the old league. The two initials PS, or starting a team name with “Pers…” or “Perse…” are standard abbreviations for Football Association, and were common to 13 of the 18 clubs starting the old ISL.

The new names are for new clubs, although one cannot help but think that some of these include an unofficial connection with the old clubs. In Jakarta, a new team is called Jakarta FC 1928. An odd name one would feel for a club founded in 2010 or 2011? Its badge has red and white stripes and a tiger. The badge of the main club in the city, Persija (still, of course in the ISL) also shows red and white stripes, while their major supporters club, Jakmania, shows a very similar tiger on their web page. If there is no connection, then I would imagine a court case for using similar symbols will be forthcoming.

FIFA has taken the only action available to it. It is fully supportive of the status quo, and has backed the PSSI against the new league. While strong on words, the PSSI are short on actions so far, and the only action clearly taken is to remove a few players who have switched leagues from their squad for a forthcoming Olympic qualifier. Considering how little chance Indonesia had of qualifying for the finals in Britain, weakening this squad is not quite a case of cutting one’s nose off to spite the face, more a light bruising.

Meanwhile the PSSI has other worries. The Corruption Eradication Commission has been investigating their activities, and has now called for a full audit of the PSSI’s financial affairs. Accused of mismanaging funds and tickets, the PSSI are protesting that such interference is unnecessary. Here too, they will find support in Zurich. FIFA have a long record of protecting national FA administrations from local investigation, even though FIFA provide an annual subsidy and this money is part of that which may be misused.

The treasurer of the PSSI, Achsanul Qasasi said the association was audited annually by a public accountant. He also argued that FIFA, the international governing body of football, routinely checked PSSI’s use of the annual subsidy. Not certain if the last bit was a joke or not, but it had me laughing.

It is not only the PSSI that is accused of unclear spending. Almost all the clubs in the ISL get a subsidy from local government, often in excess of £1 million. The local authorities are also generally responsible for the stadiums, and their maintenance. Most clubs, meanwhile are losing money as wages spiral, as well as the costs of travelling the length and breadth of the archipelago.

The new league, for the moment is free of local subsidy – although one wonders for how long. If the new league becomes popular, than politicians will soon try to ride on club’s coat tails for the publicity and popularity. Still, the new league does have ways of keeping costs down. The ISL now has only seven clubs on Java, the most populous and wealthy part of the country – this is down to historical reasons, as promotion and relegation is on merit, except for a when clubs financial problems cause them to fold. The IPL, which does not have to worry about merit, has 11 clubs on this island, and one more on neighbouring Bali. Still this does not ensure commercial success. Past viewing of the ISL and its predecessors suggest that 3 clubs in Jakarta, and one more close by in Bogor may be too many in a small area.

The extremities of the country are still represented with teams in Aceh (the northern tip of Sumatra), and Jayapura (close to the border of Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea). It also has teams at both ends of Sulawesi, Makassar and Manado. There are no Kalimantan (Borneo) teams in the new league, while the old league has three.

While keeping the league more compact will keep travelling costs down (from Jakarta, you will not get to Jayapura in less than 6½ hours, although you can do it for £200 return). On the other hand, I have always heard that some of the bigger crowds can be found far from the capital.

The league is the brainchild of oil tycoon Arifin Panigoro, and he says he intends it to improve football in the region. Whatever the established order may think about this, one thing they cannot claim is that Indonesian Football is not broke or that it does not need fixing.

Smoke, Mirrors and the North-South Divide

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

The non-League play offs can be found, all in one place at http://www.1790.co.uk/Playoffs_2010.htm

From the Football Conference National Division, three teams are relegated – Grays Athletic, Ebbsfleet United and Forest Green Rovers. The fourth relegation place is for the folded Chester City – any replacement club will not be in the Conference. All three of the clubs heading for the drop appear to be South, rather than North, but FGR are near the border line.

Two clubs will be promoted from each of the Conference’s Northern and Southern sections, and as it currently stands, these divisions will lose two teams each in relegation. Vauxhall Motors (who are based near Ellesmere Port) and Harrogate Town from the North, Weston-super-Mare and Weymouth from the South. The third team to drop from the North is Farsley, who dropped out in mid-season, while in the South, Worcester City have earned a reprieve by having the best record of clubs in the relegation zone.

The six news clubs are

Northern Premier – Guisley and Bradford Park Avenue or Boston United – both to Conference North

Isthmian – Dartford and Boreham Wood or Kingstonian – both to Conference South

Southern – Farnborough and Nuneaton Town or Chippenham Town – Farnborough to Conference South, Nuneaton to North, or Chippenham to South.

So the most unbalanced situation is that Chippenham win, the Southern section would then be due to take on 7 teams, while only four go out, and hence three would need to transfer to the North – these would be Forest Green, probably Worcester (who are believed not to be too worried about a transfer) plus a further club which would be on of Bath City, Braintree or St. Albans City

However, it does not stop here.

Grays Athletic. It is strongly expected that Grays, who have lost tenancy of their own ground, will voluntarily accept relegation to the Isthmian League, rather than take up their place in Conference South. If these reports are correct, then Vauhall Motors will be reprieved from relegation, and one less transfer from the South to North will be required.

Appendix E. This is the rule that makes the Conference stricter on clubs falling into administration than other leagues. It demands that clubs going into administration exit said administration before the AGM, and that any CVA allows for 100% repayment of all debts. Both Salisbury City (National) and Northwich Victoria (North) could well be in breach of these rules and both face possible expulsion from the league. In Salisbury’s case, a lesser punishment of relegation is possible, but unlikely.

If anything happens to Salisbury, then Forest Green will not be relegated. If Salisbury take their place in the Southern section, that is the end of it, but otherwise Harrogate Town are next in line to be reprieved from relegation after Vauxhall Motors. If Northwich are forced out, then a Northern section team should escape relegation, but in the extreme position, where all three of Grays, Salisbury and Northwich leaving the league, only Weymouth would still be relegated.

Incidentally, I am fairly sure that Weymouth themselves have used a CVA to escape debts this season, but they have not been deducted 10 points, (I think they did not go into administration first). This might still place them in breach of appendix E, but is not likely to be tested as they finished bottom of their division

 Meanwhile a poster on the Forest Green forum, suggested seven ways they could be saved.

1. Blue Square North/South play off winner’s ground deemed not up to standard.
2. Darlington deemed too financially unstable and suffer the same fate as Boston.
3. Histon go bust
4. Kettering fail to sort out their stadium problem.
5. Other club randomly goes bust.
6. Other club decides to voluntarily relegate itself Canvey Island style.
7. Chester’s expunged results are re-added.

Number 1 is no-go, teams do not enter the play-offs if their grounds are not up to standard, and I have been told that Darlington these days are close to stable. Number 6 is likely to happen with Grays, but this does not help FGR, and number 7 is a no-go.

That leaves Histon (named) or another random club (unnamed) going bust, or Kettering’s stadium lease falling foul of Conference administration. I have heard suggestions that the unnamed club could be Stockport, if they fall off the football map before the AGMs (something I am not expecting), then one less team will be relegated from the Football League, but also Forest Green could escape as it is unlikely that a new club could join the Conference National Division, (Conference North is possible).

I have a suspicion that Kettering will be allowed to carry on, with the ground question hanging over them for a while yet, and I believe Forest Green’s best hope of avoiding the drop lies with the notorious Appendix E, and the fate of Salisbury

Harimau Muda look to the West

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

It is reported in Malaysia that Harimau Muda (translates as Young Tigers) are to enter a side into the Slovakian First Division when it resumes following the winter break. As yet, I can find no equivalent reports from Slovakia to confirm the agreement, and the fixture list still shows fixtures for Sport Podbrezova, who pulled out of the league just five games into the season. Confusingly, the report says they will be based in the city of Vion. I can find no reference to this place, and suspect that they will actually be at Zlate Moravce, whose team in the same league carries the sponsor’s name ViOn.

Harimau Muda is basically the national youth squad of Malaysia, with the players concerned having been removed from club teams and put on central contracts, in much the same way as the English cricket team. At under-19 level, they have been competing in the lower division (perversely called the Malaysian Premier League) of the Malaysian league. At the end of last season, they won this division, but were prevented from taking up promotion to the Malaysian Super League. Instead, they have remained the Premier League, and remained as an under-19 squad. Those players graduating from the young squad on age grounds were not given anywhere to go, as they were still not permitted to rejoin club sides. The team to play in Slovakia are the national U-21 squad.

Having been kept out of their own national league, there then came a suggestion they should join the Singaporean League. It seemed a surprising suggestion, considering the politics of this are. Until 1994, Singapore entered a team in the Malaysian League. Although this team had non-Singaporeans, it was still the basis of their national side as well. The S-League has a history of allowing a number of foreign sides into its competition. Albirex Niigata, with a senior team in Japan’s J-League have been operating in Singapore for several seasons, I guess they believe it is a good training ground for their younger players. There have been a number of Chinese teams in the league, and for the last few years, there has been a Korean team. All the ‘foreign’ teams in the S-League have a base within Singapore, and play a team made up 100% of their own nationals. The rest of the S-League combines Singaporeans with a limited number of foreign nationals. Whereas I have never been certain about the success of say, Albirex Niigata, in terms of transfers back to Japan – it is clear that their existence has increased the number of Japanese players with other Singaporean clubs – most are graduates from the Niigata club.

There was a departure for the S-League last season when DPMM were admitted. DPMM had followed on from a long tradition of Brunei clubs in the Malaysian leagues, but were thrown out in December 2008 (between seasons) when the Brunei FA failed to register properly with a governmental agency. Taking them into the S-League, DPMM were an instant success with good crowds and results. Unlike the other ‘foreign’ teams, they continued to play in Brunei, and used Brunei players with a permitted number of foreigners. However, local politics conflicted with FIFA policy, the government attempting to set up a new organisation to run football in Brunei. FIFA then suspended the country from all international football, and DPMM were forced out of the S-League with just five fixtures to play, and the League Cup in their trophy room. Had Harimau Muda been accepted into the S-League, they would have been a team of Malay nationals only, but it was uncertain whether they would have been based in Singapore, or played home games in Malaysia.

However, despite the fact that they had a vacancy, and the chance to turn the tables on their local and larger rivals, the S-League refused to admit the Malaysian team into their membership. Instead they have given places to a side affiliated to Chinese champions Beijing Guo’an, and to Etoile FC, who are intending to use only French nationals. Incidentally, the Singaporean equivalent to Harimau Muda, the Young Lions, play at Under-21 level in the S-League, so by taking in the Malay team, they would effectively be raising three matches per season to the level of U-21 international.

Not perturbed by this, the FAM turned to Europe, and appear to have come to an agreement where their team will take over Podbrezova’s fixtures from the end of the month. The Malaysian report says these matches will be competitive, but that must be open to questioning? With 14 games to play, it is difficult to believe that points will be awarded, as they will be playing 3 of their 11 opponents twice, but the rest once only. If points are not awarded, then surely these games are no more than friendlies, and the Slovakian sides will have no incentive to put out their strongest XI.

Is this the way forward for small nations, anxious for the players to get experience? Could we see a number of National, or National Under-21 sides playing in European leagues? It certainly could help their players to gain experience in a more competitive arena (at least, if the games are made to be competitive), and it puts these players closer to the market place, increasing their chances of being picked up by European clubs generally.

On the other hand, keeping a squad of 26 players and their coaches away from home for four months or more must be testing the FAM’s finances. In the meantime, their home league is in disarray, two top division clubs pulled out at the end of last season, and this season they will have only one representative in Asian club competitions, the other citing costs as their reason for not competing. The clubs also complain that the rule banning foreign players in Malaysia reduces their competitiveness in these competitions.

The senior national team fares no better, with heavy defeats in the 2007 Asian Cup followed by straight defeats in all their games in the quest to reach the 2011 finals, while the World Cup campaign was over almost before it began. The loss of a group of players who should be among the best in the league is not exactly doing anything to improve the situation.

Last seasons under-19 squad, having won the lower division of the Malaysian League, then narrowly failed to make it to the finals of the Asian Under 19 competition. This may be an acceptable return for keeping the squad together, but one wonders what will be required to justify running a squad abroad – the next challenges for Malaysia are Olympic qualifying for London 2012 (an u-23 squad then, so basically using the current u-21 team) and the 2014 World Cup – Asian qualification is going to start incredibly early, but I think Malay pride would settle for an improved performance in the more local ASEAN Cup at the end of the year.

Post script – since writing this, I have been alerted to a Slovakian news story. What this shows is that while the idea is being given serious consideration in Slovakia (as a series of friendlies, not for league points), the decision will not be made until a meeting of the clubs on 15 February.

Whose Money are we losing?

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

We had a post on our club forum, asking whether or not our fans would appreciate it if the club was taken over, and if we could achieve promotion thanks to the input of one or more directors. The question was supposed to be hypothetical, but I wondered if it was really hypocritical. The fact is that few clubs in the lower division are even coming close to running on an even keel, and at my club (Cheltenham Town), we rely on a regular input from two of our directors to offset the losses we post on an annual basis. Furthermore, Cheltenham won promotion in 1997 (from the Southern League), 1999 (into the Football League), 2002 and 2006 (both times from what is now League-2 to League-1) with only one relegation in the period. This has not been achieved purely thanks to good managers and players, but also thanks to directors dipping into their pockets when the requirement was there.
It is to the club’s good fortune that all this investment has since been turned into equity, and the directors will not be getting a return on their investment unless the share price was to increase. They cannot even leave the club and demand their loans to be returned – their only rights being to whatever they can get by selling their shares.

Many other clubs survive on their director’s pots of money, but these are still booked as loans to the clubs. At the top end, this means that Chelsea FC owes over £500 million to Mr Abramovich. Abramovich may have put far more than this into the club, but the figures show that nothing will move at Chelsea, without the express consent of the chairman. Unlike the rest of the ‘big four’ Chelsea are still returning year on year losses as well.

Looking at the news over the last couple of days, Newcastle and Manchester City have been highlighted. Newcastle changed hands a short while back, with Mike Ashley having to spend over £130 million to buy the shares. It appears to be a high price to pay, as the publicly available records showed that in the previous two seasons, on income of around £80 million per annum, the losses had totalled over £40 million. Later newspaper reports said Ashley had to pay another £75 million to pay off debts (and provide a little money for the purchase of new players). I would expect this to be noted as a loan to the company in future accounts. With Ashley’s major business, Sports Direct showing reduced profits over the summer, and the shares dropping 10%, it is not surprising that the club has been a little slow into the transfer market this summer, and that Milner was sold over the head of Keegan. Keegan, whose position is still unclear at the club (if not exactly tenable), should have known that with the club having an Executive Director (Football), a Vice President (Player recruitment) and a Technical co-ordinator all somewhere above him on the player buying and selling programme, his job was more a head coach, than overall manager.

Manchester City has changed hands twice in little over a year. The first buyer was former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra valuing the club at £81.6 million. Not bad for a club that had an £11 million lost to post for the 2006-7 season, and much higher accumulated debts. The buyout was controversial from the start, Shinawarta had to rely on those assets he had outside Thailand, as Thai courts had frozen some £830 million he held within the country, pending corruption trials. Despite the fact that his supporters have won the general election that returned Thailand to democracy, the trial will go on, (even in Shinawarta does not turn up). The club spent over £30 million on transfers in Shinawatra’s years, and paid the less than negligible wage bill of Sven Goran Erikson (including the inevitable pay off to remove him when the club only reached the UEFA Cup thanks to England finishing top of the fare play table). Shinawatra’s investment suddenly looks like a good investment, as he manage to sell the club for around £200 million to Abu Dhabi United group last weekend. The new owners splashed out another £32 million within 24 days to sign Robinho from Real Madrid (and more significantly, from underneath Chelsea’s nose). They also tried to hijack Berbotov’s move to Manchester United from Spurs.

This move appears to me to appear to be a piece of one-upmanship in the rivalry between the two oil rich gulf emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Dubai, through its investment arm, Dubai International Capital has been trying to buy Liverpool FC, so with this bid floundering, Abu Dhabi have gone and got a club for themselves. (Apart from football, both cities compete with massive construction projects in their cities, their own international airlines and airports; Dubai also owned Tussards for two years, profiting by £200 million on the sale, and retaining 20%, and owns Travelodge – the biggest hotel chain in the UK; Abu Dhabi has been buying extensively in the London property market, taking advantage of current low prices).

Investment funds like Abu Dhabi United (part of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority – ADIA) are state run operations, original set on a cause of low risk (but therefore low return) investments. Manchester City football club sits uneasily in such a portfolio, but ADIA has assets of US$ 875 billion – approximately US$ 1 million per citizen of the Emirate, so they can probably afford the hit.
While many buy outs of football clubs seem more to do with prestige than business, the highest profile of them all, the American buy out of Manchester United appears to be a hard headed business plan, which is so far paying off. Despite the two or three thousand disenchanted fans watching FC United, Old Trafford has not yet gone empty, and the company has been making the profits required to finance the debt leveraged for the original buy out. If the world wide fan clubs of Manchester United could group together to raise the finance, then there are few clubs that are better positioned to operate as a true, supporters run co-operative under Football trust ideals.

Most of those clubs that have tried a fans trust based ownership method have not been successful, as despite the good will that attends the start ups (normally from the ruins of a failing club), trusts are not a good method of pulling in finance to support a loss making enterprise, and even part ownership does not persuade fans to come week in, week out to watch a relegation bound club. The most successful (maybe the only successful) trust run clubs are those where the supporter base is still so far above their league rivals as to give them an income edge, (AFC Wimbledon still fits into this category – their crowds took an annual hit every season after formation until last season).

At lower levels, the arrival of a businessman with money has often resulted in a brief flare as a club climbs the pyramid, followed by the even more sudden decline when the money runs out. Non-League football is littered with the ruins of temporary success – Rushden and Diamonds, Canvey Island, and Hornchurch being some of the most obvious. Rushden were in fact one of the best of these, with Max Griggs’ club climbing to what is now League-1 before the cash ran out. Despite the owner trying his best to gift the club with everything they needed to be self sustaining, they had not built a level of support that matched the owners’ ambition, and dropped back to the Conference in quick time. They have survived better than the others, and have not been forced into administration, or re-named. There are far worse owners that can befall a club, than Mr Griggs at Rushden. If you do not believe me – look no further than Oxford.

The 6-5 Principle.

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

FIFA have chosen to oppose the European Union, but to take a populist stance with the 6+5 formula that would provide minimum quotas for Englishmen in the English Leagues, but will this really improve the England team, or may it make us look better, by making the opposition worse?

The FIFA statement makes it look like a great step forward, with the resolution voted for by an overwhelming 155 to 5 of delegates at the FIFA congress. However, the proposal had already been neutered by UEFA’s insistence that the wording was just one of negotiation. The resolution requests that “the Presidents of FIFA and UEFA to continue to explore … all possible means within the limits of the law to ensure that these crucial sporting objectives be achieved”. Anyway with 201 associations at the Congress, (seven did not turn up), 41 must have abstained. The voting record – exactly who voted against, or just abstained would have been interesting.

English football is very much in the mind of the people who are promoting the plan, Franz Beckenbauer said that “Everyone regrets that England will not take part in Euro 2008”, while Blatter said “This is a subject close to my heart. I want to protect the national teams and prevent leagues having only a small number of clubs with any chance of winning the title”. To be honest, it is an idea that has a general popularity with fans as well. Reading comments sent in to the BBC’s web site, the majority are in favour of rules to increase the number of Englishmen on view in the Premiership. Statistics (also provided by the BBC) point out the degree of the problem – just over one in three of all players who appeared in the Premiership are actually English, while on average, only 72 of the 220 starters on any given Saturday are English. To look at this from the other direction, 41 of the 368 registered players for Euro 2008 play in England, only Germany (58) and Spain (42) have more, and they of course are both in the finals.

The 6+5 plan means that in any domestic league match, a minimum of 6 of the players that start the game must be qualified to play for the country in which the club is domiciled, (i.e English, for clubs in the English League, except Cardiff and Swansea which are domiciled in Wales, and so would have to field 6 Welshmen). Ideally FIFA would phase this in with a minimum of 4 qualified players in 2010-11, and 5 the season after. Now, naturally this would not create much of a stir outside Europe as most national leagues already run with more stringent regulations in place. The only exception that immediately comes to my mind is the S-League in Singapore. While most teams are limited in the number of foreigners they field, they have three clubs that are associated to other countries, and none of these play any Singaporeans at all, but have squads that are 100% Japanese (Albirex Niigata), Korean (Korean Super Reds) or Chinese (Dalian).

Within the European Union, though, the situation is clear. Any player who is a citizen of the EU has a right to sign for and play for any club within the Union. Also a rule that discriminates the choice of one citizen over another is not permitted. Naturally there is nothing to prevent a rule being placed that at least 6 players in the starting line-up are EU citizens.

There is another string to the European Argument. There are clearly around five leagues within Europe that have a big financial advantage over all the others; these leagues provide most of the finalists for European club competitions. An international player who wants to prove himself among the best wants to play in one of these five leagues. Indeed the lack of good competitive play in his home league means that the player practically has to leave his home country in order to gain the experience required. On the way to Euro 2008, England were beaten by Croatia – only one out of their squad of 23 plays in the Croatian League, while three play in England.

Apart from England, concern over the number of nationals in their own league expands to Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands – but despite the money on offer, the situation is nowhere near so acute in either Italy or Spain. So is the problem for the English Leagues really due to the foreigners coming in, or is it due to the lack of Englishmen coming through the training regimes? The quota system suggested by FIFA may well help England do better against the likes of Croatia – but this may not mean the English team is any better – only that we restrict the chances for the Croats, and make their team worse.

Welsh FA looking for new roads to Europe.

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

There may have been a time when the football authorities listened to the people they were supposed to represent, and had some agreement before they started making statements on changing competitions – but what on earth would be the fun of that? In the current world, leagues and associations make statements first, and discover the consequences afterwards.
The FA of Wales has always been a good one for this – the history of the league of Wales from its inception has demonstrated their inability to communicate with its own members. Until 1993, things were straight forward enough – the FA of Wales ran non-League football in Wales, the International team and the Welsh Cup, but the biggest clubs in the principality played in English leagues. All those clubs playing in English leagues, plus a few selected other would play in the English FA Cup, and by reciprocal arrangement some English teams would play in the Welsh Cup. When European competition came along, the Welsh Cup was considered important enough to enter a team in the Cup Winners Cup almost from the start. It was soon agreed that this team had to be Welsh, and could only be the winner or runner-up of the actual cup. This did not present a problem as except for a short period in the mid 1930s, there has always been a Welsh side in the Welsh Cup final. Wales’ first representatives in European football were Swansea Town, who lost to the East German team, Motor Jena. Oddly the next two seasons saw non-League teams Bangor City (then Cheshire County League) and Borough United (Welsh League North) in Europe. Bangor drew with Napoli and had to play a third game before they went out. Borough were the first Welsh side to win in Europe, beating the Maltese side Sliema Wanderers before losing to Slovan Bratislava. These were one-offs, as Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham took the majority of the places and it was more than 20 years before non-League football (Bangor, then Northern Premier in 1986, and Southern League Merthyr Tydfil in 1988) again qualified. Newport County, although in the Football League, played only once in Europe. This was of course a legend – they reached the quarter-final but like Swansea could not get past Jena (now known as Carl-Zeiss Jena).
The League of Wales was started in 1992-3 despite much opposition within Wales. The first champions were Cwmbran Town, who entered into the European Cup the following season, beating Cork City 3-2 in their first game, but going out on away goals. (In four returns to Europe since, Cwmbran have lost every game). The FA of Wales arguments for starting this league were numerous – creating a league that had European status was just one of the reasons, while another was to create a clear division between English and Welsh football at a time when they thought their status as a separate member of UEFA and FIFA was under threat. Although the idea of a combined British international team had been made on several occasions, it was mostly newspaper talk, and there was little international call for this to happen. In the early and mid 1990s, a large number of new footballing nations were emerging thanks to the breakup of post-communist Russia and Yugoslavia, while in other areas of the world, more and more smaller nations were joining the confederations. UEFA realised they needed numbers to keep them one step ahead in international terms of the growing Asian and African federations, and so they were not about to deny Wales their existence. By the end of the decade, they have even added San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra to the club competitions, despite the fact that all these cases, the territory’s most senior clubs play in another country. (All Liechtenstein’s clubs play in Swiss football, and as such the principality does not have a league, only a cup; AC San Marino play in the Italian Serie C2, while Andorra has had a club in the Spanish second division, even if they have now dropped down to a local Catalan division).
The next move by the FA of Wales, however was the worst one. In an attempt to improve their fledgling league, they withdrew their sanction for Welsh clubs to play in English non-League competition. They decided not to take on the league clubs, and to give Merthyr Tydfil a period of grace. This did not go as expected, as some of the clubs refused to tow the line, even though this meant a period of expulsion, playing in exile on shared English grounds before a high court ruling stated the club’s rights to stay in the English pyramid even with grounds in Wales. This led to the end of the exchange rule where some English clubs could play in the Welsh Cup in return for the Welsh clubs in the FA Cup. Meanwhile in England, the FA had made clear that although Welsh clubs continued to play in the English leagues, there was no chance of them qualifying for Europe through the League or FA Cup.
There has in fact, only been one occasion when a Welsh team could have qualified for Europe through the English game, and this was Swansea back in 1982. As it happened, they managed to qualify for Europe through the Welsh Cup, and this took priority over their league position. In 1995, the Welsh Cup final saw Wrexham beat Cardiff City 2-1, and Wrexham lost to the Romanian side Petrolul Ploiesti by a single goal in the following Cup-Winners-Cup. Since then, only clubs entered into Welsh completion have entered the Welsh Cup. Curiously, despite the FA of Wales abandoning their clubs to English football, they retain control of disciplinary procedures for these clubs, resulting in many accusations that the football league trio get an easy ride.
The League of Wales allowed more Welsh participation in Europe, but by keeping the league sides out, put paid to any positive results for the Welsh, apart from the odd win against some non-entity from Eastern Europe. (This season, The New Saints lost to Latvians Ventspils, and runners-up Rhyl to Finnish club Haka (both on away goals), while Carmarthen went down 14-3 on aggregate to Brann Bergen).
The FA of Wales have long recanted, and been trying to get their big clubs back into Europe, but have found that UEFA are now determined not to change the rules for them. The creation of a Welsh Premier Cup did not help as UEFA ruled it could qualify clubs for Europe. Had the FA of Wales made an effort to find a true champion of the country in the early 90s, when UEFA rules were in flux, then a place might have been found for a Welsh Champion, with the competition to decide it running in parallel to the English and Welsh competitions.
Earlier this season, the FA of Wales announced a new change to the Welsh Premier League (giving it its new title). The league would reduce from 18 to 16 teams and include the reserves from Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham. This was announced without consulting the administrators of the Welsh Premier League, any of the clubs, the League clubs or UEFA. It turned out the clubs did not fancy it, and UEFA would not sanction the idea, (if one of the reserve clubs qualified for Europe by this route, they would only be able to use players registered to the Welsh club, and there could be no dual registrations across the border). It is worth thinking though, that Cardiff City, the loudest opponent of the plan had suggested something very similar some time ago (different chairman), when they considered taking over one of the Welsh teams.
Another attempt will take place next month to get Michel Platini’s backing for a change in the order, (which even if successful would have to get full UEFA backing later). There is just a possibility that this might come to something if it was for a return of the exiles to the Welsh Cup, and a simultaneous withdrawal of the clubs from the English FA Cup (if they will accept that). This is similar to the situation where all of Liechtenstein’s clubs play in the Swiss Leagues, but they also play their own national cup, (and not the Swiss Cup). With FC Vaduz normally winning the cup and playing in the Swiss second division, Liechtenstein’s clubs now have a higher UEFA co-efficient than Wales! (Liechtenstein are 37th of 53, Wales are 48th, ahead only of the Faroes, Luxembourg, Malta, Andorra, San Marino and new entrants Montenegro). Back in 1992, there were only 33 countries, but Wales were in 25th place. If UEFA were to accept the idea, then the FA of Wales may still find that the clubs may reject it. Indeed, it may be more interesting to clubs such as Merthyr Tydfil, who could get a serious shot at European competition, than to Cardiff City – whose run to the semi-final of the FA Cup has netted them £420,000 in prize money alone. I would estimate well over £1 million when additional gate money and TV fees are accounted for. These are not sums that can be equalled by clubs losing in the early stages of the UEFA Cup