Archive for the ‘Political Footballs’ Category

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

Africa’s games highlight Club and Country conflicts.

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Having lost my computer en-route, regular bulletins have ceased, but here is a general view of the politics surrounding the tournament. A summary of my trip will be added, probably next week

This biennial tournament is well known for creating and recreating a debate on the club versus country issue, as it takes players away from their paymasters for around a month.

For years the clubs have been upping their protests against the competition, or to be more accurate against all international football that does not meet their terms. Although never explicitly stated, the terms are along the lines of –

1. International teams should pay the clubs the players wages for the periods in which they are away on international duty
2. International teams should provide insurance for players on international duty, so as compensation is paid for any player who is injured.

Up to now, these demands have been refused on the simple basis that the international teams cannot afford it, but the massive amounts of cash now generated by the World Cups and European Championships have damaged the argument. The principal body arguing for the clubs has been the G-14, the oddly named group of 17 of the World’s richest, most popular clubs, and Bayer Leverkusen. The G-14 have long been a thorn in the side for the Football Confederations, and the have a nice trick of appearing to support the little guy, for example by bring a court case on behalf of Belgium club, Charleroi who not surprisingly are not members.

The case, which I have covered in this column before concerned Abdelmadjid Oulmers, who sustained an injury when playing for Morocco, keeping him from playing for his club team for best part of a year. As part of the case, G-14 asked for a massive €860 million as compensation not only for Charleroi but also for similar cases involving their own members. The monetary side of the case was dismissed by a Belgium court in May 2006, but this was only the start of things – as they then referred the issues concerned to the European Courts.

A fortnight ago, a meeting between FIFA, UEFA and the G-14 clubs resulted in them agreeing to drop the case, (and other court cases), and to disband as an organisation, with the football organisations instead recognising a new 100 member European Club Association (which will include at least one member from each of UEFA’s 53 states). As such an organisation will find it hard to reach a consensus unless bullied by the big clubs, this appears to be a victory for UEFA add FIFA, and a demonstration that since Platini had taken over at UEFA, the two bodies are working in unison, rather than in competition with each other.

In the week leading up the the African Cup, there were two almost conflicting statements, from the secretary of the CAF, and Sepp Blatter. The CAF statement was to re-state the Federations determination to keep the tournament every two years, and to play it in January. The claim of the CAF is that a June or July date would be a problem because this is too hot in may countries, and it is the rainy season across the central belt of the continent. Only right down in the South is the weather supposedly suitable, (the 2010 World Cup, will of course be played in the South African winter).

There are some problems with this claim – although it is clearly cooler in some countries than others in January, this does not mean the sport is limited to this period of time. The African club competitions run on an calendar year system, with matches from February to November, while this season the federation has scheduled four rounds of world cup qualifying for June – just the time said to be too hot or too wet.

The CAF statement concluded that the biennial, January tournament will continue unchanged at least until 2014. The next edition, though – in Angola will be held two weeks earlier, from January 10-31. Not that this makes a difference to the European clubs, as the main suppliers of players – France, England, Spain, Portugal all play through this period – only Germany which restarts its top division in the first week of February would be helped by the decision.

On the other hand, Sepp Blatter stated that by 2016, this tournament must change to playing in June and July, in line with the other continental competitions. Of course, Blatter did not mention that the next Asian tournament will probably be played late in the year, around November and December to fit the weather for Qatar. If the Qatar tournament was to be played in June or July, then temperatures could exceed 40 degrees centigrade during the matches. The 2000 tournament in the Lebanon was played in October, while 1996 it was December in UAE

The Perils of Platini – Part 3.

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

If Michel Platini has learned anything from his first year in office as President of UEFA, it will be about the need to compromise, and the clear fact that the power lies with the money. His advisors have done well to hide some of the scale of his defeat from view. The changes to the European Club Competitions for 2009-2012 will still have Platini’s stamp upon them. By making the announcement on a Saturday, the day before the draw is made for the Euro 2008 Championship finals, UEFA have made sure that the political ramifications of the announcement will not be read centre page of European newspapers.

The changes are not without some success for Platini. Increasing the numbers of actual champions in the Champions League group stages was always one of the biggest objectives, and this has been achieved. The number of Champions that get direct entry into the group stage is increased from 10 to 13 (it was the top nine countries, plus the holders, and will now be the top twelve countries). The compromise was to allow the third placed team from the top three countries in the rankings (currently Spain, England and Italy) to go through without a qualifying game. An even bigger change is to separate the qualification competitions into two parts, one for champions only, and one for ‘other clubs’ from the top 15 ranked countries. Each part of the qualifying draw will produce 5 teams into the group stage. So the number of actual champions in the group stage, 2009 will be 18 (Holders, Champions of countries ranked in the top 12, and five from the rest of the Union).

The plan to allow cup winners into the draw has been lost, although I believe that hidden in the rules will be a clause allowing individual countries with a ‘non-Champions’ qualifying place to enter their cup-winners instead of the one league team. Strangely, an idea that started in England was condemned by opposition primarily from England. Certainly, the FA were in favour of the FA Cup winner being in the Champions League, but some Premier League clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, perchance) were the biggest opponents of the plan. When the consequences of the cup-winners plan came out, Scotland too (and we are talking of Rangers and Celtic here) were massively opposed.

For England, the change in 2009 will be quite small – three clubs rather than two have direct entry to the group stage, while the fourth club will play a single qualifying match, but this must be against a non-champion from a country ranked 1-15 (seeding probably means from a country ranked 6-15), as opposed to the possibility of the champion of a weaker country. For Scotland, assuming their ranking (currently 11) remains between 7 and 12, it is good news for the Champions, excused from qualifying (they played one round this season), but not for the runners-up who will still playing two qualifying rounds, but can no longer draw a weak country’s champions. Should the Scots drop down to 13-15 in the ranking, then the task for the runners-up is unchanged, but the Champions will face other Champions, and have to face two qualifying rounds.

For UEFA’s other competitions, there are certainly positive improvements. The five team UEFA Cup groups, which were just too easy to get out of, have been replaced by four team groups, with only two teams from each passing through to the knock out stages. The number of groups goes up from eight to twelve, so the number of teams in the group stage has increased. Only one team is exempt from playing at least one qualifying match for the group stage – that is the current champions. The UEFA Cup qualifying rounds will produce 37 of the teams in the groups. Three English sides will be involved, but one of these will have to face two rounds to reach the groups. The remaining ten teams in the UEFA Cup group stage will have been knocked out in the Champions League final qualifying stage (i.e. five Champions, and five others), whereas those knocked out in the next to last stage (ten Champions, and five others) also get a second life in the UEFA Cup.

The Intertoto cup is being abolished. It will be missed by few. An extra place in the early rounds of the UEFA Cup is being given to middle and low ranked countries, but not to the top ranks, (so England will not get an eighth place by this route). The lowest ranked countries therefore are guaranteed four places in Europe – but this requires an extra qualifying round starting on the 15th June. Wales and Northern Ireland will feel the pinch here, so there may be renewed calls to move their Premier Leagues to the summer. This also means those three extra UEFA Cup places given to the ‘fair play champions’ are a mixed blessing. They too will start qualifying in mid-June.

Platini has achieved something in terms of spreading some of the Champions League money thinner. There should be more countries represented in the group stages, with more cash going to them. The Final Qualifying Round and the UEFA Super Cup (an unchanged challenge between the Champions League and UEFA Cup winners) are now included in the central marketing and TV rights packages. But the largest parts of wealth redistribution have remained beyond him – Platini’s comments has shown he is only too aware that Champions League money is damaging the competitiveness of leagues across Europe. If he could bring the UEFA Cup into the marketing package with the Champions League, then a big step would be taken to change this.

Finally, the Final itself will be changed. From 2009 it will be on a Saturday, rather than a Wednesday evening. The claim is this will make it more fan friendly, but this is only true if UEFA go out of the way to make sure the tickets end up with the fans of competing clubs.

Whose Club? My Club?

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

With many new owners coming into the English game, either on a strictly for profit plan (such as the American buy-outs of Liverpool and Manchester United) or for who knows what motive (as at Chelsea and Manchester City), the question of who owns football clubs has never been more openly debated. Platini has seen fit to comment on this as well, although he has said nothing specific, just added to a general paranoia against foreigners. The most intriguing change in ownership is that of Blue Square Conference club Ebbsfleet United, (previously known as Gravesend and Northfleet). It has been agreed that a 51% share in the club will be bought by the web site, Myfootballclub.co.uk, when the deal has gone throw, the members of the web site will effectively own the club. However, the intention is not just to have these shareholders appointing the executive as generally happens with limited companies. Instead they will have a say, via on-line polls into every aspect of running the club, including the choice of the team each Saturday. At least 20,000 people have signed up, paying £35 each for the privilege, (with 21% going on administration costs, I think the web site owner is making a small fortune somewhere along the line).

Many of the existing support are not surprisingly suspicious of the deal, while I think the administration probably see this as £500,000 of new money, with an idea that will soon be forgotten, leaving them to run the club much as before. (Ebbsfleet may also be considered a poor choice by some of the people who have bought in – the original aims of the site said a club capable of reaching the Premiership, with Leeds United topping the members poll of clubs to approach).

I cannot guess who this one will work out, but I will keep an eye on it and report back later.

The Perils of Platini – Part 2.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

After the World Cup draw, we wait another week for the next big draw – for the finals of Euro 2008. This will be the end of a big week in European Football, as not only is there another series of games in the Champions League and UEFA cup, but the week will end with UEFA’s Executive committee delivering a verdict on the Platini plan to reform the club competitions. It appears however, that the plan has already been holed below the waterline after last week’s meeting of the European Professional Football Strategy Council. This organisation brings together representatives from UEFA, Clubs, Leagues and Professional footballers, and includes three Englishmen in its sixteen members. Geoff Thompson, (FA Chair/UEFA Vice President), Peter Kenyon (club rep from Chelsea) and David Richards (Premier League chairman). It cannot be co-incident that Platini had threatened to be less than fully supportive of England’s 2018 World Cup bid just before the meeting started.

The piece of the Platini plan that has certainly been lost is the idea of allowing the cup-winners of 16 top countries to play a special qualifying competition with four places in the group stage at stake. However, it may still be possible for individual countries to choose to send cup winners instead of an extra league team into this qualification place. Rumour is that Italy, where the national cup is run by the league may choose to do so, whereas here in England, the FA do not have the power to push the Cup Winners above the fourth place in the league. What Platini will keep is an extension on the number of Champions automatically placed in the group stages. Currently there are 16 places directly allocated (10 Champions and six runners-up), but this will be increased to 22 (13 Champions, six runners-up and three third placed clubs). Platini wanted to separate the qualifying competitions, so as six of the ten qualifying teams had to be champions, the other four being from the Cup-winners section. It will still be an achievement for Platini if he can reserve the six places for Champions.

The UEFA Cup part of the plan was to change from 8 groups of 5 teams with three qualifying from each to 12 groups of 4, two qualifying from each. This is logical and I would expect it to be carried through. In order to provide the extra dates, teams knocked down to the UEFA Cup in the last round of Champions League qualifying will go direct to the group stage.

Platini has been publicly raging against the inequalities of the current system. These are two fold, the Champions League (but not the UEFA Cup) is earning riches that go in the main to those clubs in the group stages. These earnings allow the clubs that make it to this stage to be in a higher financial league than that of their league rivals. This has created an inequality and lack of competitiveness within many leagues, including the best in Europe. The earnings are not equally distributed between the clubs in the Champions League though, and those clubs from the ‘bigger’ countries have a major advantage over the smaller nations based on both national and champions league earnings. I wrote to UEFA and asked what the plan to deal with these inequalities would be. The reply was that they had not decided yet. This is the battle yet to come for Platini. And again the trump cards are all in the hands of those clubs whose wealth may be affected by a Platini victory.

In another move, Platini wrote to the prime ministers of every European state back in the summer, asking for special treatment for the sport in European treaties, (especially the current EU one that is under debate across the continent). There are a few lines about sport in the treaty, and Platini is actually claiming a victory. But those few (almost meaningless) lines fall well short of the standard Platini was asking for. Indeed, Gordon Brown openly said no to Platini within days of the original letter. What UEFA have been asking for is a position for sport that places it separate from other businesses, and allows it to at least negotiate to stand outside certain aspects of company law. The European Union would argue that in fact there are only around five major leagues in Europe (of which the Premiership is one). To not allow all European citizens equal rights to play for clubs in these leagues is a restraint of trade and will not be allowed.

Croke Park – The Irish Dream

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

200710170047re.jpg

There are few places where the line between Sports and Politics is more blurred than in the republic of Ireland. At the centre of this is the Gaelic Athletic Association. The association was formed in 1884, roughly the same time as the different sports organisations were being organised in the rest of Britain, (all Ireland being under British rule at the time), with the specific purpose of promoting games of Irish origin. The original intention was to re-establish an ancient sports event, the Tailteann Games and if this had stayed the main focus, Gaelic games would have become singular atheltics events, a cross between the common international athletics meetings and the highland games. However, the focus was soon changed to the two major Irish field sports, Football and Hurling, (Gaelic Rounders is also promoted, this is a sport much closer to the American baseball than the British rounders games you may remember from schooldays). As with sports in Britain, prior to organisation, there were a number of variants of any sport, with the rules changing from institution to institution. By laying down a common set of rules, it became possible for the games to move beyond single communities and for competitions to take place between different counties. Naturally, other areas of progress in the last 19th century also helped this progress – the development of transportation (the railways and better roads) to enable the teams to meet, and the changes to working hours bought about by the industrial revolution.

It is worth noting, considering the directions the organisation took within 30 years of being founded, that one of the GAA’s founding fathers was a capped International at Rugby, and a member of the Royal irish Constabulary, while another became the father of a cabinet member in theBritish government. As the question of Irish identity became one of nationalism and independence, so the GAA quickly became an organisation that not only shunned British sports, but actually legislated against them. The organisation was always unashamedly Catholic in nature, but would never prohibit members of other demoniations or religions from participating. Most games, anyway were played on Sundays, which has always ruled out the participation of those protestants who took their religion seriously.

As early as 1886, the rules of the GAA banned members of the British military and the British Police forces in Ireland from taking part in Gaelic sports, a ban that was not lifted until 2001 – and then only with much controversy in Ireland. Another rule banned GAA players from particpating in, or even watching other sports (this was lifted in 1971), while the ban on GAA premises being used for non-Gaelic sports lasted much longer. The words non-Gaelic really meant British, as the headquarters of Gaelic sport, Croke Park was used for a Boxing match in 1972 (Mohamed Ali won) and two American football matches in 1996 and 1997.

The worst of all events at the stadium took place on 21st November 1920. On the morning of that day, a series of attacks by members of the Irish Republican movement, killed 14 British Intelligence Officers around the city of Dublin. That afternoon, a football match was taking place at Croke Park between Dublin and Tipperary. Members of the British Army’s Auxiliary division entered the ground and shot indiscriminately into the crowd. Thirteen spectators, and the captain of the Tipperary team, Michael Hogan were killed.

The Croke Park of today is somewhat different to stadium of 1920. It was essentially rebuilt in the 1990s. The stadium today has three sides of a uniform, three tiered stand. These are everything that you would expect of a modern stadium. The upper and lower tiers present unhindered views of the pitch. Sandwiched between these are the VIP areas, business lounges, and the like.

Sitting uncomfortably against this modern and concrete edifice sits Hill 16. A low slung area, which can still be used as a standing area for the Gaelic games. While most of the stadium sits under arching roofs, Hill 16 is open to the elements. While I was there, this area was converted to seating, and one small section of it was used by the away fans.

Much of the cash for the modernisation of the stadium came from the public purse; so of course is the money for the rebuilding of the Landsdowne Road Stadium, the home of Rugby and more recently football in the Republic. The FA of Ireland has now given up its plans to have a big and expensive stadium of its own, and will go along with sharing Landsdowne Road for the foreseeable future. There is still a considerable volume of opinion that would not rebuild the old ground, currently a heap of rubble on the ground, and move all sports into Croke Park permanently – but that requires the same type of logic as would have been required to make Twickenham into London’s main stadium for all sports. (And do not forget that in addition to Twickenham and Wembley, an improbably expensive Olympic stadium is currently about to be built within five miles of Arsenal’s new Ashburton Grove facility, and yet both Spurs and West Ham are talking of starting fresh ventures of their own).

It has taken a lot of political effort to get other sports into Croke Park. It was only a few years ago that the GAA voted against lifting the ban, and hence put an end to a proposed Celtic bid (Ireland, Scotland and maybe Wales) for a European Championship. Now a mixture of Government money, and a sum of over £1 million per match has persuaded the doors to open for other sports. Still the agreement is only a temporary one – the GAA have only agreed to five Rugby matches (two seasons worth of six nations championship matches), and four Football games (now all completed in the current run of qualification of Euro 2008). In fact, two more six nations series, and most of not all of the qualification for the next World Cup will have to take place before the new Landsdowne Road is ready. Assuming they accept these matches, there is a chance they could be offered the chance to play a major European club final in the city as well.

On arriving at the stadium, a few things surprised me. One is the fact that GAA pitches are significantly larger than those for Soccer and Rugby, so the playing area is marked out on the middle of the green with a very wide expanse of green all around. Secondly the lower tier of seats are arranged not a direct rake, but a gently concave one. The lowest seats are down close to pitch level, but some 20 yards from the action. They also go into the corners, some 20 beyond the goal lines. The front rows of the lower tier are also far forward of the leading edge of the roof, so if it was a wet night, (as it happens, it wasn’t), the spectators here would know about it.

In a stadium like this, where the best views, (apart from the VIPs and corporate areas) were to be had from the upper tier, or at least the upper reaches of the lower tier, I suppose I should not have been surprised to find that only two price ranges existed, and by buying the more expensive tickets, I seemed to have been given the worst view in the house, (two rows back, lower tier and well behind the goal line). Fortunately, the ground was far from full – but this was the only time I have ever ‘sneaked’ into the cheaper seats!

As for the match, it was better than I expected. The opposition, Cyprus may be one of the lesser teams of Europe, but they came to the match to win, and played the ball around in a controlled and confident manner. The Irish on the other hand, played a game of hoof and hope, and rarely held onto possession for more than a couple of kicks. Cyprus really deserved to win, and went ahead with just over ten minutes to go. The Irish did fight until the end, and gained the equaliser in injury time. Even so, the crowd was making their displeasure known, and manager Steve Staunton took the blame for the result (part of a series that left them well short of qualification), and was sacked before the week was out.