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December 2012

Week 18 – Festive football (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

25 Dec 2012(Tue)

So, this is Christmas, and as such footballers across the continent of Europe are joining their families for the festive celebrations to enjoy a well-deserved mid-season break through the coldest weeks of the year. In England, with that quaint little island nation way of ours, we naturally like to be different. Players and coaches may spend Christmas morning opening presents with their loved ones, but they are soon whisked away to training ahead of the Boxing Day fixtures that kick off the most congested period of our footballing calendar.

After 26 December, another full league programme will always immediately follow with no more than two days (indeed, usually just one) in between, before a third as a hangover cure for the fans on New Year’s Day just ahead of another celebrated occasion – the Third Round of the FA Cup – the following Saturday.

Eschewing rest in favour of yet more toil (the more I think about it, the more I discover similarities between my home and adopted island nations) in a competition as physically intense as the Premier League undoubtedly does little to help its clubs in European competition nor the England national team come summer. It is, like the black gowns and white bow ties that students at the University of Oxford must still wear to their Finals, a tradition that no sane person would seek to introduce were everything to be started again now. And yet, as I’m sure the foreign tourists who once took my photograph as I walked to Examination Schools with a head full of Hōjōki would agree, the reason we Brits are so attached to our silly traditions is that they are, in fact, downright brilliant.

‘Boxing Day’ is a perplexing holiday in the sense that it only seems to exist in the Commonwealth and, when Americans ask us why on earth we call it that, no-one actually has any idea. But it is essentially just a second Christmas Day, as its equivalent is actually labelled – far more sensibly, of course, but equally more boringly – in European countries like Germany and the Netherlands. After the main events of 25 December, we might spend the following day visiting and exchanging presents with the other side of the family. Alternatively, parents and children might head out somewhere to spend the day together. This is where football, and the unique atmosphere that tends to greet the Boxing Day matches, comes in.

Television schedules, police/steward requirements, and other socioeconomic factors may have diluted the experience in the top division over the past few years, but historically, the yuletide programme was a time for derbies – the idea being to make travelling as easy as possible for teams and supporters. Full of the joys of the season – and perhaps with a hip flask hidden away inside the coat pocket to stave off the cold – fans wear Santa hats in club colours and sing Christmas songs like ‘The 12 days of Cantona’ at Old Trafford. Even today, sides that may not always fill their stadiums will often record their highest attendances of the year.

As barmy as the current schedule may appear, until 1957 it was actually combined with yet another round of league fixtures on the 25th as well. The reason that this was culturally possible was, as a Brentford spokesman who ill-advisedly attempted to revive the idea some years later once put it, there was an “old tradition of husbands going to football on Christmas Day while the wives cook the turkey”. Fortunately, some things do change for the better.

But while Mum was still left in the kitchen, the really excellent thing about back-to-back fixtures on 25 and 26 December was that the same teams would face each other twice, home and away. This added an immediate narrative to the spectacle as anyone whose Christmas had been spoiled with defeat would have an immediate opportunity for revenge just 24 hours later. Nobody did this more explosively – or improbably – than the Tranmere Rovers side of 1935, who welcomed Oldham Athletic back to Prenton Park on Boxing Day hoping to avenge a 4-1 thrashing in their away meeting. Although they once again shipped four, Rovers became the second of only three teams in Football League history to net 13 goals in a single match – Robert ‘Bunny’ Bell netting nine of them for a hat-trick of hat-tricks.

Christmas was also the setting for surely the most poignant football-related story of all time. In 1914, the Allies and Central Powers were entrenched along the Western Front at the beginning of what, until the conclusive events of late 1918, effectively became four years of bloody stagnation as over 13 million lives were lost for almost no territorial gains. But for one day, on 25 December, a serious of unofficial truces were declared as troops from both sides climbed out into no man’s land to share carols, presents of alcohol and tobacco, and games of football.

Letters sent home and tales later recounted by those who miraculously survived to witness the Treaty of Versailles told of battle lines that were, in large sections of the Front, forgotten. A message in The Times reported on a 3-2 win for a British regiment called the Saxons against their German counterparts. One veteran described his match as melee-like, with “a couple of hundred taking part... no sort of ill will between us... a sudden friendship had been struck up”. In the midst of the ultimate example of senseless inhumanity that was World War I, football at Christmas embodied the pure humanity of those individuals so tragically sent by their countries to die.

This column will return in the New Year after a brief visit back to the UK. Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2013 to you all.

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FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012: Interview with Chelsea defender Gary Cahill

14 Dec 2012(Fri)

European champions Chelsea cruised to a 3-1 victory over CF Monterrey in Yokohama on Thursday evening to seal a place in the FIFA Club World Cup final against Corinthians this Sunday. I spoke to centre-back Gary Cahill for his thoughts after the game.


Was it as easy as it looked?
Without being disrespectful, I think it was comfortable in the end for us. They made it difficult at times but I thought we did the job well tonight and scored the goals to put the game to bed. So thankfully we got the right result.

Monterrey couldn’t live with you in the end – it was like a practice match.
We didn’t know much about them before the game, but from watching the video I think they like to play at a slow tempo, and obviously as you know the Premier League is really fast. So it was stressed to us to keep the same tempo as in the Premier League and I think that’s probably what caught them by surprise early on.

Things seemed to slow down towards the end of the first half, but then you came out flying in the second. Was that the focus during the interval?
Yeah, that was the thing – that was the instruction basically. I certainly felt that we started the game really quickly, but in the second half of the first we got sucked into slowing our tempo down which is never really good for us. So it was important to start back again like we had started the first half.

Was the quiet atmosphere a factor? Had you ever experienced anything like that before?
It was strange. I’d not really, if I’m honest. But it was down to us to motivate ourselves and to go out and start quickly. We knew that we needed a second goal, and the timing of it – coming so quickly – was obviously great for us. It made us be able to see the game out.

Is this tournament of particular value to you?
For sure. I don’t think you get many opportunities, if ever again, to play in this tournament. To travel all this way and have all this preparation in the middle of our season, but then to go home empty-handed would not be a great feeling. So we want to go and do the job now for sure, and we’ll all be ready for the game on Sunday.

In the UK, the Club World Cup is usually talked about in terms of the impact it will have on the rest of your season.
I don’t think we look that far ahead. Obviously we’ve got a massive game now on Sunday to win a trophy, and like I said before you don’t get many opportunities to do it. So we want to make the most of it. And in the Premier League, who knows? Having nine games in December is not ideal by any stretch, but there’s nothing you can do about it so you may as well get on with it. Like I said, we’re fully focused on Sunday and we’ll deal with everything else after that.

Is it good just to get away for a while?
Maybe. We’ll obviously have a full week bonding together and spending a lot of time with each other. Like you say it’s a little distraction away from the Premier League, and maybe that will be healthy. Time will tell when we get back, but we’ve definitely had a few good days’ training now, a good result tonight, and hopefully if we finish the job on Sunday – that’s the plan, obviously.

You’ve had a tough few months back home – is it a relief to leave that behind?
I don’t think it’s a relief. It’s just maybe a bit of a distraction from the Premier League, but we got a great result before we left so that was positive coming into this tournament. If can we bring the trophy back, again that would be positive for us and our confidence for going forward for the second half of the season.

How much do you know about Corinthians?
Again, we watched the game yesterday, so we’ve seen them play then, and no doubt over the next three days we’ll be seeing the previous clips and games to get to know how they play. But obviously they’ve got some talented players so it’ll be a tough game.

They’ve been watching you and focusing on this for six months!
I’ve seen how huge it is for them – the send-off they got from the airport and everything else was amazing, so it’s obviously massive, absolutely massive for them. They’ll be hungrier than ever, but like I say we haven’t travelled all this way to go home empty-handed so we’re fully focused ready for Sunday now.

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Week 17 – On top of the world? (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

11 Dec 2012(Tue)

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The FIFA Club World Cup’s playoff game between the host nation representatives and the champions of Oceania represents, by its nature, a somewhat low-profile opening to the competition. But speaking to players from both sides in the mixed zone after Sanfrecce Hiroshima had scraped a narrow 1-0 victory over Auckland City in Yokohama last Thursday, there was no doubt as to their excitement about being a part of it all.

Having recently returned to his amateur football career after a four-year hiatus as a professional model (!), Auckland goalkeeper Tamati Williams typified the manner in which this competition spans the four very different corners of the football world. One of the New Zealanders’ star performers on their big night, the 28-year-old told me, “This is my first game at this level. I enjoyed it. I had an absolute ball out there and I’m sure a lot of the guys did too... It was bittersweet because we didn’t get what we wanted out of it, but it was good... Getting back here [to play in the Club World Cup again] is fantastic for morale and it’s fantastic for the lads.”

As for the J. League champions, Mihael Mikić was positively beaming when he said, “I’m very excited, I must tell you, because the World Cup is the World Cup. I don’t know when I will get the chance to play in another. Everybody at Sanfrecce is very excited and before we started the tournament, we said the minimum that we want is the semi-final. We want to come to the semi-final with pride to represent Japanese soccer. That is our motivation.”

In complete contrast, however, the few vaguely related news headlines appearing in the United Kingdom’s major media outlets over the weekend were simply concerned with John Terry’s withdrawal from the Chelsea travelling party for further treatment on his knee injury. Given that this is a man who has never previously shown any qualms about visiting another country to play the central role in celebrating a cup final win to which he had made no contribution whatsoever, it serves to illustrate the indifference with which English football tends to regard the Club World Cup.

The underlying theme is that, even when there is a Premier League team taking part, the competition is only ever referenced in terms of its influence upon the wider, and implicitly far more important context of domestic and European competition. How much, we ask, will the 12,000-mile round trip to ‘that tournament in Japan’ tire out the poor Chelsea squad ahead of their busy Christmas programme? Might it actually do them some good to get a ‘holiday’ away from all the recent negativity surrounding poor results and the appointment of Rafa Benítez? Perhaps Fernando Torres could decisively rediscover his confidence with a hatful of goals against CF Monterrey – because we’ve never heard of them so they can’t be any good.

Of course, economic inevitabilities mean that a global club competition will not – at the moment, anyway – garner as much excitement in Europe as it can in the other continents, and South America in particular. During my post-match interviews after last year’s final, where a highly-vaunted Santos were thrashed 4-0 by FC Barcelona, the look of disappointment on Neymar’s face was far more palpable than the joy manifested by Cesc Fàbregas.

But while Spanish and Italian football still do care, quite clearly, for the Club World Cup, our unabashed sneers are quintessentially British. They epitomise the awkward duality of a parochial island nation that was proud to colonise the planet on its own terms. A country that quickly proclaimed Wolverhampton Wanderers as ‘Champions of the World’ after a friendly win over Hungarian giants Honved in 1953; but whose own Football League denied Chelsea entry to the inaugural European Cup two years later because it was not seen as being ‘in the best interests of English football’.

Even the specific nature of our complaints, when we are pressed to actually explain it, tends to be short-sighted and superior. We scoff at the Club World Cup’s small number of fixtures, which is ridiculous as we would object the most if it were increased. We deride the seeding system, even though it works effectively as a highly condensed version of that which has applied in our grand old FA Cup since 1925. We say sod the rest; let’s skip straight through to the inevitable meeting of Europeans and South Americans – forgetting both that we cared even less for the old Toyota Cup and that Congolese side TP Mazembe beat Internacional of Brazil to face the Italians, Internazionale, in the 2010 final.

Our hypocrisy is further confused by the nostalgia which, as a nation, we are wont to enjoy. We moan at the money, the same big teams in the Champions League each year, and the globalisation at the top of the game that means even the World Cup offers up few players we don’t know already. There are no more unknown surprises like Cameroon at Italia ’90. So why the hell do we ignore the Club World Cup? Even if we are selfish enough to neglect our ambassadorial duties – or to disregard the carrot this opportunity aims to provide to the representative clubs (and, by extension, the regional and domestic competitions) of the four ‘smaller’ continents – surely the rare opportunity to see different teams as diverse as Al-Ahly and Ulsan Hyundai should be a godsend to any football fan with an ounce of curiosity?

The one possible exception is Manchester United, who have prided themselves on their pioneer spirit ever since Sir Matt Busby went against the Football League’s wishes to insist upon their participation in the 1956-7 European Cup. They remain the only English club to have won the club world title in either of its two guises (actually both, in 1999 and 2008), while Sir Alex Ferguson mischievously used the tournament’s CV prestige as a tool to renew verbal rivalries with Benítez a couple of weeks ago.

It would be to the benefit of both English and world football if Chelsea were to embrace their visit to Japan with a similarly positive mindset and, should they win, to celebrate and be celebrated with the enthusiasm befitting of their achievement.

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FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012: Interview with Auckland City goalkeeper Tamati Williams

7 Dec 2012(Fri)

The 2012 FIFA Club World Cup kicked off on Thursday night with a difficult 1-0 win for J. League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima over Auckland City of New Zealand. After the match, I caught up with goalkeeper Tamati Williams – one of Auckland’s star performers and a fascinating character whose unusual back story typifies the manner in which this competition spans the four very different corners of the football world.


A narrow defeat for Auckland City – how would you rate your own and your team’s performance?
There were parts [of my own performance] that I was happy with. Obviously I was disappointed about conceding – I’ve never seen a ball move like that. And my kicking was atrocious. But as far as the team was concerned, it was fantastic. It was exactly what we were aiming for all week, and dare I say we had the chance to pull off a result – maybe it was a little unjust. But we definitely worked our arses off just as much as they did.

You made a sensational double save (from Koji Morisaki and Satoru Yamagishi) midway through the second half.
I can’t remember too much about the first save. For the second one, I was just trying to get something on it and did what all goalkeepers did. Pure instinct!

But it must have been a psychological blow to go from that to conceding the only goal 30 seconds later.
Yeah, that wasn’t the way I’d hoped it would go! I think you could see from the team that we knew conceding was going to make the hill even bigger. So it definitely knocked me. But what do you do? You’ve got thirty minutes to play, so you’ve got to try and go for broke.

How was the experience of playing on the world stage?
This is my first game at this level. I kind of had a very small foray in the Kingz (New Zealand’s first professional football club in the old Australian National Soccer League) when I was 19, but that’s it. I enjoyed it; I had an absolute ball. It was bittersweet because we didn’t get what we wanted out of it, but it was good.

Were you nervous?
I would say it came and went. Within 24 hours of the game, there were patches where I would start thinking about doing really well, not a problem; then patches where I was thinking about the other side of things. But once I arrived at the stadium it just disappeared and it was all about getting the job done. And luckily for me, apart from my kicking my first couple of touches were good ones.

You come from quite a sporting family.
My dad is a hard man – he’s an Otago rugby player, so he’s a big mighty boy. I think at first he wasn’t happy that I made the switch from rugby to football, but then he saw me playing for the rep sides when you’re kind of 15 or 16, and he got behind it.

But then you had a long break from the game. Why?
I had three and a half or four years off. I was a full-time model. I always struggle to say that with a straight face! It was good – I had a great experience with that, but I had to put the football on the back burner. At the time I was in the national team, so it didn’t sit well with a lot of the coaches.

Who were you modelling for?
I did a bit of everything. I got to do a few in-house things for Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana. And I did a worldwide campaign for Esprit, which was cool – I got to see my face in the middle of Dubai and stuff like that.

Do you still plan to combine the two? What’s the next step?
To be honest, I’m kind of done with that chapter – if I can get work through modelling then it’s good because it’s pretty easy money, but my study and my football are the big priorities at the moment. The next step is obviously going up to playing as a professional, but it’s not something I have to worry about. If the bridge comes along, then I’ll worry about it then, but otherwise the first priority is football and study.

New Zealand is unfortunately isolated as a football nation. How up against it are you?
It’s hard. I think we at Auckland City are restricted by the fact that we can’t officially be a professional team, and that there’s only eight teams in New Zealand that play in the competition so the season is very short. Probably only the top half of the table is really where we get our competitive matches, so there’s so many things to overcome.

Australian football has moved from Oceania into Asia – is this a move that New Zealand should hope to follow?
Definitely. I think that’s why (New Zealand-based, Australian A-League side Wellington) Phoenix for us is such a massive thing because that is our closest thing to the gap we’re trying to close.

Auckland City have put in another good showing at their fourth FIFA Club World Cup. Where do the team go from here?
Getting back here is fantastic for morale and it’s fantastic for the lads. I had an absolute ball out there and I’m sure a lot of the guys did too. Hopefully we can just keep pushing the results back home and get a roll on.

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Week 16 – So here it is (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

5 Dec 2012(Wed)

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December is upon us, which for those of us from the United Kingdom, signifies the unavoidably final countdown to Christmas. Excitable childhood gluttony is renewed with the first few chocolates from the advent calendar (my mother was kind enough to send me one all the way from Somerset this year – thanks Mum). Panic sets in once you realise you’ve got through half of the little doors already and still need to buy presents for most of your relatives before Amazon’s last posting dates. And the silly season for the forthcoming January transfer window gets going with the spontaneous revolution of what we like to term the ‘managerial merry-go-round’ – which, in contrast to the fairground attractions at German-style Christmas markets around the world, is generally a lot more fun to observe than actually be part of.

This year’s circus, as we saw last week, began with the firing of Roberto di Matteo and the hiring of Rafa Benítez at Chelsea. In a move that tempted one to speculate if Queen’s Park Rangers supremo Tony Fernandes hadn’t sought to earn another pretty penny by betting against Mark Hughes, the bookmakers’ overwhelming favourite for the ‘sack race’ pre-Abramovichgate (Part VII), this was followed almost immediately by the beleaguered Welshman’s dismissal and replacement with Harry Redknapp.

The change at Loftus Road was football’s worst-kept secret since, well, Benítez for Di Matteo, but played with typical shrewdness by the man who used to be England’s next manager back when fourth place was good enough for the Champions League. Redknapp openly flirted with a Ukraine job he patently had no intention of taking while setting a deadline of Saturday 24 November for QPR to make their move – thus ensuring he could be in charge just in time to take credit for any shock win at Old Trafford but not long enough to be blamed for their eventual defeat.

And all this behind poor old Sparky’s back. Still, I suppose “there will always be overlap” – as a well-meaning friend at university once ill-advisedly consoled me after my girlfriend had been unfaithful then decided to make her ‘transfer’ permanent. Questions surely will, in any case, be begged of the future of Hughes’s career; given that it seems to have begun at the pinnacle that was successful international management with Wales but travelled in reverse ever since. Certainly, leaving his previous West London job at Fulham in 2011 after just one season because he always believed himself worthy of greater things would appear to have backfired somewhat.

I was asked last week why the former protégés of Sir Alex Ferguson all seem to be failing so – which is a good question but misses the point slightly. In a team sport where success is inherently relative to one’s competitors rather than absolute, there can only be a finite of number of players who reach the top, and approximately 25 times fewer managers. The real issue is that Hughes, Steve Bruce, and many other ex-players of similar status have repeatedly been reemployed at biggish clubs despite limited results and at the expense of opportunities for managers serving strong apprenticeships in the lower divisions. Paul Ince is perhaps the notable exception; his complaints about the reluctant employment of black managers a battle against what we all liked to think was the last bastion of racial prejudice in English football until it suddenly became so horribly prominent again.

Sadly, the clear new leader in the sack race according to all published odds is Martin O’Neill, who just cannot seem to make things click at Sunderland despite his initial impact upon replacing Bruce a year ago. A European Cup winner as a player with Nottingham Forest, the much-loved Ulsterman cut his managerial teeth by taking Wycombe Wanderers into the Football League before bringing the Premier League, silverware, and European football to Leicester City. But despite success in Scotland with Celtic and a flirtation with the Champions League places at Aston Villa, he never quite seemed to be in the right place at the right time to find the big English job many assumed him destined for.

What was (is still?) intended to be O’Neill’s first full season at the Stadium of Light has been marked by all manner of embarrassing stats – a total of just 13 shots on target in their opening nine games, no Sunderland scorer bar Steven Fletcher until mid-November, and now just one point outside the bottom three. It has, to say the least, been quite the test of the 60-year-old’s famous good humour, and the bookmaker William Hill now has him at just 6/5 to be the next man out of work. Incidentally – and pretty hilariously – Benítez is already second favourite at 5/1, with Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini just behind in third on odds of 7/1. Like Di Matteo before him, obviously, the Italian’s main failing is that he hasn’t delivered one of the big trophies they hand out in May since as long ago as May.

Our final destination on the merry-go-round of musings for today is Everton, whose manager David Moyes is, as the Liverpool Echo puts it, someone “you wouldn’t want to play poker with”. Until this past week, the Scot has been playing his cards close to his chest – and, given that his own odds for the chop are fully 80/1, he holds most of them – with regard to the expiry of his own contract at the end of this season. But he has now offered a rare tell, announcing that he plans to wait until after January so that he will have the chance to observe “where the club are looking to move to in the future”. In other words, a not-so-cryptic message to chairman Bill Kenwright that offers for Marouane Fellaini or Leighton Baines must be rebuffed, else Moyes might just flip the poker table and storm off.

More on Everton, and their trip to Manchester City, in this week’s edition of ‘Foot! TUESDAY’. See you all again next week – by which point I hope to have started my Christmas shopping.

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