Tag Archives: football

The End

22 Feb

It’s two years since I started writing this blog.  During that time I’ve written some stuff that I’m fairly proud of – looking back there’s also one or two posts I’m less enthralled about, not because of what I’ve said, rather the standard of writing.

Regardless, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed FootballFutbolFitba.  I do think though, that the blog has run it’s course.  I will probably come back with a new site in the future, possibly something more specific, rather than a general site where I simply wrote about whatever I liked.

Thanks to everyone who has visited FFF, and an extra thank you to anyone who took the time to post a comment.  I received some excellent replies to the articles posted.

I will continue to write for other sites when I have the chance and I will continue to tweet nonsense.

Bye for now.

Advertisements

The Hardy Tale Of Honduran Football

20 Sep

My recent piece for the excellent Oval Log

The Liga Nacional de Honduras cannot match Argentina’s Primera Division when it comes to the technical ability of its players.  Nor does it possess the flair of Spain’s La Liga or the financial resources of England’s Premier League.  However, it can lay claim to being every bit as competitive as its more illustrious counterparts.

The Central American nation have, from a football perspective, impressed beyond their own borders in recent times – the national side appeared at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the Honduran youth teams have qualified for the Under-17 and Under-20 equivalents on a number of occasions recently.  The likes of David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios and Emilio Izaguirre meanwhile, have seamlessly made the transition to European club football after catching the eye of foreign observers whilst appearing for their clubs and for Los Catrachos.

Naturally, the starting point for most Honduran players is their domestic championship.  Since its formation in 1965 (replacing the previous amateur championship), four clubs have dominated the league.  Like many other nations in the Americas, Honduras operates on an Apertura and Clausura basis, meaning two champions each season.

Must successful of all are Olimpia.  Hailing from the capital city, Tegucigalpa, the Leones have not only been champions of their country a record 23 times, they are also the only Honduran club to win CONCACAF’S version of the Champions League, lifting the trophy in 1973 and 1988.  They have also reached the final on another two occasions.

Olimpia’s tally of titles could be even greater had they not been denied in the finals of both the Apertura and Clausura last season.  The latter of those defeats came against their city rivals, Motagua, who triumphed with a 5-3 aggregate to clinch their twelfth title (second on the all-time list), and their second straight Clausura.

From the northern city of San Pedro Sula come Real Espana.  Other than Olimpia, Espana are the only side to win three straight league titles (achieved in the 1970’s) and are this season’s other defending champion, having won last year’s Apertura.

The last in the quartet of Honduran super-powers are CD Marathon.  Also from San Pedro Sula, Marathon are long-standing rivals of Olimpia, their contests are known as the Clasico Nacional.  Marathon also have the wonderful nickname of El Monstruo Verde, or The Green Monster.

Other clubs of note include Platense, who were champions in 2001 meaning they were the last side from outside the ‘big four’ to win the title.  Vida and Victoria meanwhile, have both regularly reached the play-offs over the past ten years.

The ten teams in the top-flight play each other twice, meaning 18 matches each in the two different stages of the season.  With no domestic cups currently played for, the league title is the be all and end all for Honduran club football.

Then it becomes interesting – for most seasons since 1970/71, the sides finishing in the top four positions have then competed in play-off semi-finals over two legs, with the winners meeting (again over two legs) to decide who will become league champions.

There will though, be a slight amendment for the 2011/12 campaign, which kicks-off on 6th August.  The top six will now qualify for the post-season, meaning 3rd will play 6th , and 4th will play 5th in eliminators to decide which clubs will join the top two in the last four.

This change could potentially lead to a more open competition with more teams having the opportunity of winning the title.  However, it must be considered somewhat unfair that a club who ends the regular season in the bottom half of the table, could feasibly end up national champions just half a dozen games later.  Any league system which does not recognise the team who gain the most points as champions will always be contentious, but this appears to be a rather extreme example.

In a social context, Honduras doesn’t have its problems to seek.  Political unrest led to the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, being removed from power in 2009, while drugs and the demographic make-up of the country – 50% of the population are aged 19 or under – contribute to gang culture being a huge issue.  The ‘maras’ dominate everyday life in many areas, and have links to other gangs in the USA and other countries.  It’s also reported that more than half of the population live below the poverty line, and around one-fifth of adults are illiterate.

However, when it comes to providing a football league where there is genuine competition and a platform for young players to showcase their talents before moving overseas, Honduras is by no means a poor relation.

Goals That Changed History – Emil Kostadinov

14 Apr

Parc De Princes 17 November 1993: After looking like absolute certainties to qualify for the following year’s World Cup in the USA, France’s hopes hang in the balance.  A shock defeat to Israel has left the French with a winner-takes-all clash against Bulgaria in their final group game.  In the dying minutes, the match is tied at 1-1, Eric Cantona’s first-half goal for the home side being quickly cancelled out by Emil Kostadinov.

The French look like they’ve done enough when David Ginola receives the ball in the Bulgarian half from a short free-kick taken by Vincent Guerin.  All he has to do is head for the corner-flag with the ball and run down the clock.

Unfortunately for Ginola, he decides on another course of action – his cross into the opposing box is wildly overhit and allows Bulgaria to break.  A ball over the top finds Emil Kostadinov and as he heads in on goal from the inside-right channel, he slams it home from a difficult angle.

That was it for the French.  There was no way back after such a hammer blow, so late in the contest.  Instead it was Bulgaria who went to USA 94’ and acquitted themselves in some style – the side containing Stoichkov, Letchov and that man Kostadinov made it all the way to the semi-finals, before falling to a Roberto Baggio inspired Italy.

Immediately after the defeat, much of the attention focused on Ginola, and his inexplicable decision to voluntarily concede possession so late in the game.  The winger claimed that manager Gerard Houllier called him “the murderer of the French team”.  Houllier not surprisingly, has a different version of events.  He has admitted that he was indeed unhappy with Ginola, but states this was down to the player telling the French media that he should be selected ahead of Jean-Pierre Papin.   Cantona was also rumoured to have clashed with Ginola over the same issue.

However, regardless of any in-fighting, the fact remains that France missed out on the World Cup for the second successive finals, despite the fact they should already have booked their place long before Bulgaria came calling.

In hindsight, this result was the best thing that could have happened to French football.  Reaching the USA may have merely papered over the cracks, defeat however left them exposed for the world to see.  Houllier left his post and was replaced by Aime Jacquet, while Ginola, Cantona and Papin amongst others, reached the end of their international careers.  This allowed for the introduction of a new generation of players including Christophe Dugarry, Lillian Thuram, and of course, Zinedine Zidane.  The rest is history: a semi-final place at Euro 96 was followed by World Cup victory as hosts in 1998 and glory at Euro 2000 when arguably, Les Blues were at the peak of their powers.

Few French fans will have fond memories of that infamous night in Paris more than 17 years ago.  However, given the resulting upturn in the fortunes of their national side, perhaps Emil Kostadinov is due a thank you, or a merci.

From Honduras To The World

10 Apr

Until recently, many people would have associated Honduran football with two events: the infamous World Cup qualifier with El Salvador in 1969 which contributed to all-out war between the two nations, and an appearance at the 1982 finals in Spain.

However, an increasing number of players from the Central American country are leaving their homeland, and making a name for themselves overseas.

Currently, the English Premier League boasts the likes of Maynor Figueroa and Hendry Thomas at Wigan, as well as former ‘Latic’ Wilson Palacios, who is now at Spurs.  David Suazo meanwhile, has played for Inter amongst others, Georgie Welcome is on loan at Monaco and Julio Cesar de Leon plays in China for Shandong Luneng .

Emilio Izaguirre’s debut season at Celtic meanwhile, has been mightily impressive.  The full-back has been one of the star performers in this season’s SPL, and while he’s not the finished article his performances are rumoured to have attracted the interest of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.

This demand for Honduran players is reflected in the performances of the national side who in qualifying for South Africa in 2010, reached only their second World Cup finals.  While they failed to progress beyond the group stage, a first-round exit with a group containing eventual winners Spain, attack-minded Chile and a stubborn Switzerland, was no disgrace. 

Despite recent friendly defeats against South Korea and China, Los Catrachos will hope that they won’t have such a long wait until their next World Cup appearance, and their cause isn’t harmed by the success of their younger sides – Honduras under-20 side has appeared in two of the last three World Cup’s for their age group, though they have just missed out on this year’s finals, which are due to be held in Colombia.  The under-17’s have appeared in two recent World Cup’s (2007 & 2009) and in 2008, the under-23 side qualified for the Olympics in Beijing.  So far, no Honduran side has reached the latter stages of one of these competitions, but the exposure to this level of competition will surely benefit the national side in the years ahead.

The latest hot properties include 17 year old striker Antony Lozano and 18 year old midfielder Andy Najar.  Lozano trained with Spurs last summer and although he has not yet moved to White Hart Lane, the deal may still go ahead in the near future.  DC United midfielder Najar meanwhile, has committed his international future to Honduras, despite speculation that he would represent the USA.

While it won’t attract a great deal of attention beyond its own boundaries, Honduras can also lay claim to a very competitive domestic league.  The Liga National de Futbol de Honduras was first started in 1965 and remains the pinnacle of the Honduran game, with there being no domestic cup competitions.  As is the case in other Latin nations, the league operates on an Apertura and Clausura basis, resulting in two champions each season.  The ten teams in the top flight play each other twice during a regular campaign, before the sides finishing in the top four compete in play-offs to decide on the new champion.

Four clubs dominate the game in Honduras.  Most successful of all are Olimpia from the capital, Tegucigalpa.  With 23 championships and 2 Concacaf Champions League titles, they are normally there or thereabouts come the end of the season.  Their cross-town rivals (and often rivals for the title) are Motagua – the Cyclo Azul (blue cyclones) are second on the all-time list of league titles won and were leading the current Clausura, but have now fallen behind Olimpia.

The other two ‘big guns’ hail from Honduras’ second city, San Pedro Sula.  Real Espana were formed in 1929 and are the only side other than Olimpia to have won three straight league titles.  Espana also won this season’s Apertura.  From the same city come CD Marathon, with the wonderful nickname of El Monstruo Verde, or The Green Monster.  Marathon claim to be the second best supported side in the country and are long-time rivals of Olimpia – their clashes are known as the Clasico Nacional.

The fact that the people of Honduras are able to devote time to watching, playing or even thinking about football, is remarkable in itself.  The country has enough political and social issues to keep a whole continent busy.

In 2009, President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from power and sent on a plane to Costa Rica.  His plans to hold a referendum on constitutional change were opposed, and ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.  Zelaya’s departure led to a huge amount of unrest, including reports of the murder of Zelaya’s supporters.

It’s said that three-quarters of the rural population of Honduras (53% of the total population) live below the poverty line, with the country being the second poorest in the Americas, after Haiti.  There are high levels of infant mortality, child malnutrition and one in five adults are unable to read or write.

Gang culture is also a huge issue.  From the early 1990’s, gangs or ‘maras’ have sprung up across the country, resulting in Honduras having per head of population, one of the world’s worst murder rates.  There are all sorts of reasons as to why gangs play such a prominent role in Honduran life: poverty, drugs, population movement to and from the USA, and the demographic makeup of the country are significant factors – 50% of the population are aged 19 or under.

Anyone in any doubt as to the devastation that the maras can cause need only look at the massacre that took place in San Pedro Sula on 23rd December 2004.  Gunmen opened fire on a bus packed with passengers, killing 23 people.  Football doesn’t escape the bloodshed either – in October 2010, again in San Pedro Sula, 14 players taking part in a friendly amateur game on a local pitch were slaughtered by gang members. 

One former player is striving to offer youngsters an alternative to life as part of a mara.  Hector Zelaya was a member of the 1982 World Cup squad, and is head of Futbol Para La Vida, a UNICEF sponsored programme which was founded in 2002.  As well as providing kids with the opportunity to play competitive football, the scheme aims to educate participants in avoiding drugs and HIV.  Already, the programme has helped more than 25,000 children.  While projects like this are by no means a cure to all of Honduras’ ills, they are certainly a massive step in the right direction.

Given what they have to contend with in their homeland, it’s perhaps even more of an achievement that so many Honduran players have established themselves abroad.  They have demonstrated that they not only have the talent, but also the adaptability to thrive in new surroundings.  It would be little surprise therefore, to see more of their compatriots move to Europe and beyond.

Old Firm Comment

21 Mar

1. Rangers collect the first silverware of the season, and probably deserved the win.  This was more a war of attrition, rather than a football classic, but great entertainment as usual.

2. It’s almost as if Walter Smith thought: “What the hell, it’s only the League Cup.”  Caution was thrown very much to the wind, with a far more positive formation and attitude from his side, highlighted by the inclusion of young Gregg Wylde.  Had they sat back as they have in recent visits to Celtic Park, they may well have been on the end of another hammering.

3. Steven Davis and Steven Naismith were the main men for Rangers.  Busy, energetic, and in the faces of the opposition from kick-off.  Davis looked more like his usual self.  A mention also for David Weir – on the receiving end of all sorts of stick recently, but made some vital clearances.

4. Nikica Jelavic will receive much of the acclaim for his winning goal.  Another hard-working performance but he’s difficult to work out.  On one hand he gave Thomas Rogne a difficult afternoon, but his dive was poor, particularly when he could have been in on goal.  Still doesn’t look like and out-and-out scorer, and needs a prolific partner.

5. Celtic on the other hand, never really got going.  They didn’t take the initiative after the equaliser or during extra-time following Bougherra’s departure.  There were too many average performances on the one day and too many players overrunning the ball and failing to release it when they had the chance.

6. Georgios Samaras started the match like a man on a mission and looked set for another barnstorming Old Firm performance.  However, it was ultimately a frustrating afternoon for the Greek – poor first touch and no genuine chances.

7. Walter Smith’s decision to bring on Vladamir Weiss proved to be a masterstroke.  A player with a lot to prove after a poor season, his pace and direct running helped Rangers get the better of their old foes during extra-time.  He also played the pass for Jelavic’s winner.

8. Celtic seemed to miss Daniel Majstorovic more than Rangers missed Kyle Bartley.  The big Swede’s physical presence was needed and had he been on the pitch, Jelavic may well have seen less of the ball.  Thomas Rogne seemed to struggle without his usual defensive partner and at times, Charlie Mulgrew looked like more of a natural centre-back – Mulgrew however, went to ground too quickly at the winner.

9. A decent performance from Craig Thomson and his assistants, and credit to Thomson for being brave enough to reverse his initial penalty decision when Jelavic dived.  Rangers could have had a spot-kick when Wilson’s arm connected with the ball and there was the bizarre award of a free-kick in Bougherra’s favour after he barged Kris Commons.

10. Rangers will take heart from their performance and the result.  The destiny of the SPL title is still in their hands and they will look ahead to the remainder of the season with some confidence.  However, both sides know that one slip could cost them the title.  The last Old Firm encounter at Ibrox will be huge, but it’s unlikely to be decisive.

 

Goodbye Walter, Hello Ally

6 Mar

As well as this blog, I also write some stuff on the game in Scotland for Just Football, an excellent site covering the game across the globe.  It’s well worth a look and features some fine writers…..and me.  This is a recent piece on the confirmation of Ally McCoist as Rangers manager. 

No matter how the SPL title race turns out, this season will be Walter Smith’s last in charge of Rangers.  The most successful manager in the history of the club, Smith’s second spell in charge was supposed to be a short-term appointment, to fill the gap left by Paul Le Guen after the Frenchman’s short, and disastrous, time at Ibrox.  However, with two successive League titles and an incredible run to the 2008 Uefa Cup final, it could be argued that Smith has achieved even more this time around. 

During the 1990’s, Smith delivered the last six of Rangers record-equalling nine straight league titles, but despite spending huge sums in the transfer market, failed to make an impression in the Champions League.  During his current reign, Smith’s ability to bring in new players has been hampered by Rangers current financial plight, with free transfers and loan signings more common than big-money buys.  Such restrictions make recent successes all the more remarkable and the new manager will have his work out.

Step forward Ally McCoist.  As expected, Smith’s assistant will step into the top job in time for the start of next season, the announcement coming in the wake of Rangers’ 3-0 hammering in the latest Old Firm clash.  Despite this being McCoist’s first managerial role, he is the right choice.

Those opposed to his appointment will point to McCoist’s lack of experience since he’s never been a manager in his own right, but such slights are lazy when considering the facts.  As number two to Smith with Scotland and Rangers, the former striker has been involved in European Championship qualifiers, Champions League matches, and of course, the run to that Uefa Cup final in Manchester.  Smith has also helped McCoist’s development as a coach by taking a step back and allowing his assistant to take charge of the first team for domestic cup ties.

Should the Rangers hierarchy have any concerns about appointing a supposed ‘rookie’ coach, they need only look across Glasgow at their great rivals.  Neil Lennon is in his first full season as Celtic boss and he has assembled a young side who are in contention for all three domestic trophies.  He is nearly nine years younger than McCoist, and has a great deal less coaching experience.  McCoist will also be able to rely on current Ibrox backroom colleagues Kenny McDowall and Ian Durrant, who will step up to assistant manager and first-team coach respectively.

Given that he spent 15 years at Ibrox as a player, he’s Rangers record goalscorer and only two players have made more appearances for the club, it’s fair to say that McCoist is something of a legend in the eyes of the fans.  His appointment will be a popular one and, rightly or wrongly, he will probably be granted a longer ‘honeymoon’ period than other managers would have been.  However, his popularity will mean little in the long-term should he fail to deliver silverware.

McCoist also has the temperament for the job – having grown up on the outskirts of Glasgow and being involved with one half of the Old Firm for nearly 20 years, he understands the hateful, often poisonous atmosphere that exists in one of football’s fiercest rivalries.  While some seem to struggle with life in the goldfish bowl (Le Guen and Tony Mowbray often looked like they would rather be somewhere else) McCoist thrives – laid-back, funny, outgoing and media friendly, there is little chance of him being overwhelmed by what he encounters as an Old Firm manager.

While neither Rangers nor McCoist would publicly admit it, there is one other crucial factor which works in his favour – he’s cheap.  He’s already on the payroll and he loves the club, meaning that he won’t ask the earth in terms of salary – McCoist also understands that there won’t be fortunes to spend on new players.  The alternatives for Rangers were to appoint someone who is out of work or pay compensation to another club for their manager.  Rangers are not in the best of shape financially so the latter would not have appealed to the club’s bankers, Lloyds TSB, who have a big say (too big?) in how the club is run.

If Rangers fans had been asked during the 1990’s which member of their all-conquering side was most likely to go on and manage the club, it’s unlikely that Ally McCoist would have topped many lists, with a natural leader like Richard Gough being a more obvious choice.  McCoist was seen as the joker in the pack and it was no surprise when he embarked on a media career (Question of Sport, match pundit etc) at the end of his playing days.

However, it’s McCoist who will replace Walter Smith.  Smith himself believes that his protege is ready and able to take on the challenge, and while there are no guarantees about how he will perform, McCoist deserves the chance to find out.

Old Firm Analysis

2 Mar

1. A senior Police officer this week called for Old Firm games to be scrapped due to the trouble they cause.  Maybe he has a point after this battle – complete and utter madness.

2. Celtic deserved the win.  They created the few chances that came in the match and were never threatened at the back.

3. Rangers weren’t exposed nearly as often as they were in recent league defeat at Celtic Park, thanks to playing an extra man at the back.  However, this resulted in the Ibrox side being even less of an attacking threat.  It worked against Sporting Lisbon, but not tonight.

4. That extra man, Kyle Bartley, was one of Rangers’ better performers.  His pace helped nullify the threat of Georgios Samaras on more than one occasion, and he was a different player from the one who picked up an early yellow card in the last match between the two sides.

5. Steven Whittaker’s first booking was possibly soft but there was no doubt about his second.  Madjid Bougherra can have no complaints – yes he took the ball, but he took Kris Commons with it.  The challenge on Hooper for his first booking was pointless, and his conduct after the second yellow was pathetic.  Still one of the most overrated players to turn out for either half of the Old Firm in recent years.  Ironically, he was Rangers’ biggest attacking threat in second-half when he broke out of defence.

6. El Hadji Diouf – where to start.  He was left isolated so was unable to make an impression on the game.  Despite his talent, Rangers should never have went anywhere near this guy.  Yes, the Celtic players and management were trying to provoke him, but he must be used to it by now.  He only gets a hard time from the opposition because of his previous conduct, so he has nobody to blame but himself.  Did Rangers not think that he may draw a bit of attention if he came to the SPL?

7. The best player on the park was Beram Kayal.  He seems to thrive in these contests and is one of several Celtic players set to attract the interest of English and European clubs. 

8. Mark Wilson is showing the best form of his Celtic career and the recent goals are a well deserved bonus for the way he is playing.  A mention also for a sensational clearance from Sasa Papac for Wilson’s shot before the goal, even if it didn’t do him much good in the end.

9. Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist need to grow up and move on.  The current Celtic manager and the future Rangers boss squaring up like two dads at an under-14’s match is embarrassing.  Not much of an example, considering what goes on in Glasgow and the surrounding areas on Old Firm day.

10. After all that, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Inverness Caley knock Celtic out in the cup quarter-final.