FIFA’s greed knows no bounds

If you thought Sepp Blatter was the devil incarnate and his ousting was the best thing for football, then sadly think again. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino, the man who was supposed to clean up the governing body’s mess and act in the game’s best interests has once more taken the decision to follow the money.

FIFA last Friday announced plans to expand the Club World Cup to a 24-team contest, starting from June 2021. The European elite are understandably furious — not that they would pass up an opportunity to boost their balance, but because they weren’t kept in the loop over the decision. FIFPro, the world’s player union, weren’t happy either and rightly so: when exactly will footballers have time to rest? While I’m sure many would enjoy a genuine World Cup for clubs, how much football is too much and where would the expansion end?

Infantino, who described himself as a “very happy man” in seeing his Club World Cup vision backed, has also explored the possibility of expanding the World Cup from a 32-team tournament to 48 in time for Qatar 2022. The addition of 16 teams will happen in 2026 when the competition heads to North America, but change could happen earlier than FIFA imagined. Infantino is lobbing for a bigger tournament in a country smaller than the greater Sydney region and its football heritage is about as reputable as Katie Price’s singing career. Qatar are not exactly thrilled with proposals for expansion, but in the end if that is what FIFA decide, FIFA will make it happen. Following the money led them to stage a World Cup in the gulf and it won’t stop them from creating bigger tournaments to maximise revenue.

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FA Cup: Manchester United’s solace in a season of indifference

The FA Cup has a special significance for Manchester United, and with the draw for the Champions League pairing Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team against favourites Barcelona, the domestic cup is realistically their best bet for silverware. United have been faultless so far in the competition, winning away at Arsenal and Chelsea and will be looking to continue their good form on the road at Wolves, who dumped title-chasing Liverpool out in the third round.

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Review: World Football Club Crests

Nothing symbolises a football club’s identity better than a crest. It is hard to escape the feeling that a club badge today stands for globalisation and functions as a merchandising tool, when it once reflected history and tradition. In its purest form, the club crest promotes the community it was born out of and acts as an emblem that unites supporters who love a particular team. Leonard Jägerskiöld Nilsson, a Swedish sports journalist argues the crest has been taken for granted, and in writing “World Football Club Crests” wanted to bridge a connection between generations: “A study of club crests is therefore as much to do with learning about the club’s past as understanding its future,” he writes in the introductory chapter.

Each club crest comes with its own story, and this delightful book traces the history of over 150. Amazingly while conducting his research, Nilsson discovered a number of clubs had discarded defunct badges or chose to censor them. Nevertheless this doesn’t hinder the book, which oozes nostalgia and would make the perfect present for any football aficionado.

Review – Why Are We Always On Last?: Running Match of the Day and Other Adventures in TV and Football

One evening last February, Barry Davies stood on a stage to receive an award for his services to sports broadcasting. The commentator and presenter, who began his television career in the 1960s, gave a short but stirring speech that was reassuring and reminded those in attendance of why he is such a cherished personality. Davies is perhaps best known for his work on Match of the Day and when he called time on his illustrious stint on the show in September 2004, Kevin Keegan and Arsène Wenger, the managers of the clubs he commented on (Manchester City, Arsenal) were gracious enough to hand him a signed football shirt and a large bottle of champagne. Continue reading

Stirring the pot may help Guardiola rediscover his mojo

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Should Manchester City fans take any notice of rumours linking Pep Guardiola to Juventus? In recent days there have been reports of a verbal agreement between the manager and representatives of the Italian champions, a four-year deal and funds to transform the club. The Mirror today lead with the story in their back pages, citing Luigi Guelpa, an Il Giornale correspondent as a source — he reportedly was the journalist that first broke the news that Cristiano Ronaldo was off to Juventus. Continue reading

Interactive football: an innovation that wore off

Earlier this week Manchester United and Porto advanced to the Champions League quarter-finals with the aid of VAR. Two penalty decisions were reviewed and subsequently awarded, sparking a furore over the implementation of the video system. I’m not going to bore you with the merits of VAR and whether Presnel Kimpembe had committed a handball because there are enough articles out there on the internet to make an informed decision. What VAR won’t do is take the sting out of contentious decisions, because the interpretation of an offside or foul is still down to the referee. Just because there is a sense of finality, and validity thrown in for good measure does not mean they will make the “right” call.

Watching the Champions League midweek did make me think of innovations in football that bystanders have been more receptive to. Goal-line technology has cleared up lots of debates. Certainly on the broadcasting front you can delve deeper; one that comes to mind is on screen scorebars. The digital TV push of the late 1990s heralded the launch of Sky Sports Active, an interactive service that gave viewers the choice of watching a game without commentary, while changing camera angles, accessed all through the press of a red button on a Sky remote.

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Sky Sports Active was trialled in April 1999 when Manchester United faced Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final and formally launched four months later when the two teams played in a league encounter. Yet 20 years on if you were to watch Super Sunday and pressed the red button, you may struggle to find Playercam or “FanZone” for these features were slowly phased out by the late 2000s. In hindsight, Sky Sports Active was nothing more than a gimmick, launched at a time when the boundaries of interactive TV were waiting to be explored.

The matchday experience is all rather different now; streaming provides greater choice and today’s viewer is inundated with football statistics. You can probably reel xGs (that is expected goals) and heat maps off your Twitter feed while watching your favourite team.

Manchester United: frappé de malchance

An injury crisis sandwiched between a Champions League knockout against French opposition. Sound familiar?

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On a Saturday mid-morning in February 1998, Phil Neville scored a priceless goal at Stamford Bridge to consolidate Manchester United’s position at the top of the Premier League. They were eleven points clear of their nearest rivals, although Arsenal had three games in hand, but the chance of winning a third title in succession was within their grasp. The gap was enough for bookmaker Fred Done to close the book and pay out, a stunt Alex Ferguson in later years was keen to nip in the bud.

The lead Manchester United found themselves in by March was rather borne out of the chasing pack slipping up at every given opportunity. Although they did enough in the winter months to keep momentum going, there were moments to concern Ferguson such as the manner Coventry City staged a comeback in December 1997, or how his defence allowed Chelsea to creep back into an FA Cup tie that they were 5-0 up; it ended 5-3.

Nonetheless, United’s grip on domestic matters was enough to focus their full attention on Europe. In the Champions League they were paired up against Monaco, a skilful Ligue 1 side that had the competition’s top goalscorer up until that point, one Thierry Henry. Neither side were able to be separated in the first leg at Monaco; a poor pitch hampered United from playing their fluent best but they defended resolutely.

Ferguson was optimistic over the return of Ryan Giggs for the second leg, but the winger failed to shake off his hamstring injury. Preparation went from bad to worse as goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was also ruled out, rushing forward in the latter stages of a vital league game against Arsenal and pulling his hamstring on his return. Gary Pallister was also absent, but Phil Neville, Ronny Johnsen and Nicky Butt came back into the first XI after weeks of treatment.

At Old Trafford, United began the second leg sprightly, but fell behind after six minutes when David Trezeguet scored for the visitors. Oh non ! The task of getting two goals became trickier as first Gary Neville and then Paul Scholes succumbed to injuries. Although Ole Gunnar Solskjær equalised and United plowed on, finding that second goal ultimately proved elusive.