I have mentioned several times on these pages and on Foot! TUESDAY about how international breaks rarely capture the imagination like they used to in England, now that we would all rather be watching the Premier League. However, I must confess that this week has been an exception; as it always is at the same point in each four-year cycle. For those nations that have already qualified for the World Cup, like Japan and Holland, it is the first real chance to ramp up preparations with friendly matches that genuinely set the pulses racing. For those whose destinies remain unsure, meanwhile, now is the last-chance saloon – with two intercontinental playoff ties plus a further nine across the regions of Africa and Europe offering 11 places in Brazil to the winners, and the winners alone.
For sheer tension, there is nothing quite like the knockout fixtures over the final week of World Cup qualifying. But apparently the resultant spike in blood pressure is not to universal liking. Everybody’s favourite FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, took to the federation’s website on the eve of the playoffs this month to speak out against their very existence:
“There will be drama because you have to eliminate teams over two matches, which is good for television and good for the spectacle of football,” admitted the 77-year-old. “But we should try to find a solution where, at the end of qualification, you are in or out and not this playoff. Okay, it gives more intensive action, but for those teams involved it is a hard way to go.”
This is of course, in the immortal words of one German journalist, the man who has 50 ideas a day and 51 of them are bad. In terms of actual suggestions, Blatter was singing a familiar tune at the end of October when he again went through officially-approved channels – this time FIFA’s new weekly magazine – and described the total allocation of 9.5 spots at Brazil 2014 to African and Asian countries as a “flawed state of affairs [which] must be rectified”.
“From a purely sporting perspective,” he argued, “I would like to see globalisation finally taken seriously and the African and Asian national associations accorded the status they deserve at the FIFA World Cup. It cannot be that the European and South American confederations lay claim to the majority of the berths at the World Cup (18 or 19 teams) because taken together they account for significantly fewer member associations (63) than Africa and Asia (100).”
More World Cup places for Africa? Ah, there must be a FIFA presidential election on the horizon. The beauty of the ‘democracy’ that Blatter loves to underline as a bastion of footballing fairness is that every member nation gets a single, equal vote; which sounds like a brilliantly pure and simple way of doing things until you remember that this affords Seychelles (population 84,000; FIFA ranking 196) the same electoral power as Brazil (population 201 million; five-times world champions). Home to roughly one-seventh of the human race – less than China or India individually – African countries nonetheless account for over a quarter of the total FIFA membership and thus the electorate.
It certainly makes most of the squabbles over constituency boundaries in real-life politics suddenly look very minor indeed. When a FIFA presidential candidate becries a lack of representation for the CAF 56, it is rather an acknowledgement that their over-representation in such democratic matters dictates that the African vote is key and so Blatter and co need to stay friendly. To put this another way, the easiest way for the interests of Japanese football to gain international priority would be for the country’s 47 prefectures to declare independence, Sengoku style, and all join FIFA as separate entities.
Not wishing to fall behind in the early hustings, Michel Platini – almost certainly Blatter’s chief rival when the ballots are cast at the FIFA congress in May 2015 – was moved to publicly share the incumbent’s call for more African World Cup places a day later. But then, as the current UEFA president and thus likely reliant on European support, it would have been political suicide to suggest this should come at the expense of his home region. The Frenchman’s answer? Expand the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams and find room for everyone.
Brilliant. As Jonathan Wilson details in The Guardian, eight groups of five would increase the number of first round matches from 48 to 80 – likely necessitating a TV schedule-heavy four matches per day and a minimum 16 stadiums to give the grass time to recover. Obviously, there would be many more mismatches and dead rubbers, while the final group games could no longer all kick off at the same time – giving rise to collusions akin to West Germany and Austria eliminating Algeria, who had played their third match 24 hours previously, in 1982.
But all that said, providing genuine support and incentive for the growth of football in regions like Africa and Asia is undoubtedly very important. Balancing the interests of different continents is tricky, and subjectively comparing the number of World Cup places each deserves is nigh on impossible with competitive intercontinental fixtures such a rarity. The solution is to go right back to the concept of the playoffs, see that Blatter wants to abolish them, and then do the exact opposite.
My proposal would be to allocate just 22 automatic places among the various regions, but invite a further 20 countries to take place in an expanded round of two-legged intercontinental playoffs. For example, instead of Sweden playing Portugal and Ghana taking on Egypt, the Europeans would be asked to face testing away ties in Africa or other parts of the world. No two sides from the same region would be paired together; the matchups would be drawn with this condition but otherwise randomly, rather like the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. Ideally without any attempt at seeding.
This would allow the ultimate number of places per confederation to be determined not via conjecture, politicking, or past performance, but immediate results on the pitch. Uruguay’s 5-0 demolition of Jordan in Amman demonstrated that it would have been pure folly to grant Asia an extra automatic qualifying place at the expense of South America before the current competition; but on another day, perhaps Uzbekistan might have knocked out Romania. Eliminated at the final hurdle this week, maybe Ethiopia, Senegal, or Tunisia would have fancied their chances against Croatia, Iceland, or Greece. Pit the continents together in November and let’s sort all this out properly.
[Suggested World Cup allocation]
AFC+OFC*: 3 automatic places, 4 intercontinental playoff places
CAF: 4 automatic, 5 intercontinental playoff
CONCACAF: 2 automatic, 2 intercontinental playoff
CONMEBOL: 4 automatic, 2 intercontinental playoff
UEFA: 9 automatic, 7 intercontinental playoff
(*One OFC member to join AFC qualifying from Round 2)
The most profound astonishment I have ever experienced watching football in this country came in front of my television two years ago this week when England somehow eked out a 1-0 victory at home to world champions Spain.
However, my surprise came not so much at the result, achieved courtesy of a solitary Frank Lampard strike, nor the manner in which Fabio Capello’s side had managed to hold out despite being outshot 21 to 3 and conceding fully 71% of the possession. Instead, I had spent the entire 90 minutes utterly distracted by the fact that the Japanese commentators seemingly had no idea there was to be a minute’s silence beforehand; even less as to what it was actually for.
Throughout the week leading up to that Saturday evening kickoff at Wembley, the British sports pages had been dominated by a single story – the refusal of FIFA to allow the England team to wear poppies on their shirts in a traditional mark of respect to the country’s war dead. It had been decreed that national team kits may be altered to display competition logos but not political, religious, or commercial messages; and to much outrage, an official request that FIFA make “an exception in this special circumstance” – issued by no less a figure than Prince William, in his position as president of the Football Association – had fallen upon deaf ears. In the end, a loophole was exploited whereby players wore black armbands to which the Armistice Day emblem could be attached without technically touching the official uniform.
Having since been fortunate enough to have a go myself, I am now more aware of the difficulties commentators face in describing a game from a television studio on the other side of the world. With no images to go on except those being transmitted to the viewer, a delicate balance needs to be found on the headphones between internal direction, the local feed, and stadium audio. Programme running orders sent by the host production company to the international broadcasters are not necessarily exhaustive and can be subject to last-minute change.
The source of my frustration as a viewer two years ago was an evident lack of research. But then, in order to look for something, it rather helps to know what to look for. Remembrance Day and the poppy are so firmly established within British culture that, until being repeatedly asked as to the latter’s significance over this past Premier League weekend, it had never really occurred to me that – quite understandably – people in Japan and other countries might not necessarily know about them.
World War I hostilities were formally ended “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918, and for 95 years since, the United Kingdom and many other Commonwealth countries have observed two minutes of silence in memory of those who lost their lives in the line of duty – whether during the Great War or in other conflicts since – at 11am on 11 November. Over the preceding weeks, many people wear paper poppies distributed by the Royal British Legion in return for donations to the Poppy Appeal in aid of military veterans and current armed forces personnel. On Remembrance Sunday, the second Sunday of the month, the Queen and several members of both the royal family and parliament lay wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph in London; with similar local ceremonies also taking place across the rest of the country.
The significance of the poppy dates back to the red flowers that sprouted around the graves of fallen soldiers in the churned earth of battlefields in Flanders. Inspired by its poignant reference in the 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, it was adopted as a symbol of remembrance in North America from 1920 and in the United Kingdom the following year.
Though football has long maintained a tradition of minute’s silences before matches at this time of year, and managers have been free to wear poppies on their lapels too, the idea of displaying the flower on players’ strips is actually very recent. Leicester City were the first Premier League team to do so in 2003 – the year in which a million Britons took to the streets of London to protest against the Iraq War – but the idea soon took off and, by 2009, 18 of the division’s 20 teams were adorning the symbol. Manchester United and Liverpool followed suit a year later to complete the set, and the league introduced a standard poppy design for the first time last season.
There is, as must typically be the case with British political correctness, a certain amount of controversy over the poppy; namely concerning a negative shift of emphasis whereby its usage, originally voluntary and positive, becomes nigh on obligatory for public figures and institutions. Despite supporting veterans’ charities in other ways, United and Liverpool were subjected to a characteristically self-important pressure campaign by the Daily Mail, a sensationalist right-wing newspaper, to wear the poppy in 2010. Highlighting the irony of such methods when the wars we remember were supposedly fought in the name of freedom, the newsreader Jon Snow once famously chastised this “rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism”.
Torn between history and present, between influences American and European, we are not always good at knowing when we should or shouldn’t ‘mention the war’. To my eternal regret, I never asked my own grandfather – who was born during the First World War and served in the Second – about his experiences. I smile wryly at our Britishness that the final conversation we shared, 15 years ago, was about a 3-3 draw between Manchester United and Barcelona.
Yet, for the most part, we never forget to remember. Largely by accident, the global appeal of the Premier League has made football perhaps the most internationally prominent vehicle for this silent message of peace and gratitude. To the foreign players who observed the minute’s silences this past weekend, and to the Japanese and other overseas viewers who joined them, I am grateful also.
What a magnificent statement of intent by the Premier League leaders Arsenal to travel to Borussia Dortmund, whose prowess exhibited in last season’s run to the Champions League final elevated their global popularity beyond the realms of mere hipsterdom, and return with all three points.
The Gunners’ unbeaten run away from home now stands at 15 – the only hosts to force so much as a draw being West Bromwich Albion, twice within the space of 11 days, although even they succumbed on penalties in the earlier, League Cup encounter. It began with that superb, if heartbreakingly insufficient, 2-0 victory at European champions-elect Bayern Munich in March, when Arsène Wenger dropped Thomas Vermaelen after his derby nightmare and ‘discovered’ the Laurent Koscielny-Per Mertesacker partnership that has been the foundation for their solidity ever since. Where Arsenal were once ridiculed for their inefficient failings in trying to pass the ball into the net, they have now shown in two trips to Germany that they can subvert this old tendency to frustrate more fancied opposition, while retaining the style they typically exhibit when favourites to score when afforded the opportunity to attack.
At the head of a difficult, defining run of games that will lead the North Londoners into Christmas, Aaron Ramsey’s winner at the Westfalenstadion sets things up perfectly for Sunday, when Manchester United await in arguably the most significant game of the 2013/14 title race thus far.
The reigning champions are yet to play well for an entire 90 minutes since David Moyes took over, but for all their many, well-documented problems, the ship has slowly been steadied and victory at Old Trafford would take them – as well as likely all of the Premier League title contenders – to within five points of the summit. Though still a long way from their old, imposing selves, there have at least been signs of late that the former Everton boss is discovering some of the qualities that define United – faith in youth with Adnan Januzaj’s brace at Sunderland, a dramatic late comeback at home to Stoke City, and attacking excellence to blow away Fulham inside 22 minutes at Craven Cottage. Following early season defeats at Liverpool and Manchester City, plus a drab draw at home to Chelsea, maximum points and a strong performance at last against a genuine rival would constitute two more ticks on the checklist of what had been missing.
Over the opening three months, pre-season suggestions that managerial changes at each of England’s three most powerful clubs would open up the championship battle have been sustained more profoundly than most neutrals would have dared dream.
Liverpool remain up in third despite a defeat at the Emirates which exposed some of the flaws of their 3-5-2 experiment detailed in this column a couple of weeks ago. Considering how far they had fallen off the pace over the past two campaigns (seventh place and 28 points behind the leaders in 2012/13; eighth and 37 points down in 2011/12), merely maintaining their challenge for a first Champions League qualification in five years would constitute a successful season; anything beyond that, a wonderful bonus. Ironically, top four is still in the sights of Everton and Southampton too – for the time being at least – despite the departure of Moyes sparking fears of demise at Goodison Park and the anger that accompanied the dismissal of Nigel Adkins from St. Mary’s less than a year ago. For this, Roberto Martínez and Mauricio Pochettino each deserve enormous credit; as do the chairmen who appointed them.
As for the other two giants making high-profile appointments over the summer, it has been a frustrating autumn of highs and lows for both Manchester City and Chelsea. The sheer strength of their respective squads is reflected in the fact that every major bookmaker continues to place them as first and second favourites – in that order – for the overall crown. However, just as the Blues were looking to have mastered that champion-like quality of winning consistently despite not always performing convincingly, they slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Newcastle United with a woeful display that even José Mourinho was at a loss to explain.
City, too, have seen occasional highlights where they look the cream of the crop – the 4-1 derby win and 7-0 demolition of Norwich City stand out – contrasted by vulnerability in the absence of Vincent Kompany, a succession of silly mistakes, and embarrassing losses away from home. Understandably, there is a sense that Manuel Pellegrini is still feeling his way into the job, characterised by some strange selections including a 4-4-2 against Bayern and Sergio Agüero as an isolated, lone striker at Stamford Bridge. But given just how much more dramatically United have suffered in the initial stages of their new regime, it feels ominously careless that Chelsea and City, respectively, could only pull out a three- and two-point advantage over the Red Devils after ten games.
For this is where reputations come into play. The essential question for United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era is how much of that dominant, never-say-die DNA was theirs and how much was just his. It will take perhaps two or three years to discover the answer, but the sheer fact that it is United at the back of the contending pack dictates that nobody in front of them will rest easy.
The opposite, of course, applies at Arsenal. As much as their performances have wowed and their current position is quite genuine, it will take them reaching May without a collapse – injuries in key positions, perhaps, or defeat in one competition that triggers a domino effect across the others – before everyone stops expecting one. Wenger’s men actually picked up more points from the corresponding fixtures last term than the 25 from a possible 30 accumulated so far, and now need to show if they can maintain their form against the bigger sides to make it a happy festive season. Six league games against the top three in 2012/13 yielded just two draws and four defeats.
Were the positions reversed, everyone would be writing Arsenal off already. For a United team down in eighth, no-one is quite prepared to do that. But the former can approach this Super Sunday in confidence, knowing that victory would push Moyes and company a near-terminal 11 points behind them and offer the clearest possible message that, this year, the Gunners are for real.