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Thank you Ghana for proving football can be fun

March 29, 2011 1 comment

“It’s football, it’s not brain surgery. Have some fun.” 

One of the proudest things about being a British sports fan is our unparalleled support no matter where in the world we are playing.

You can guarantee that Brits will travel to a sporting event en masse. We follow Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas, the European team in America for the Ryder Cup and the British Lions in the Southern Hemisphere.  Whatever the weather, whatever the likely outcome, we’re there in droves. The most memorable of all was just a few months ago when the England cricket team recorded a historic Ashes win in Australia. Had it not been for the late night/early morning start and the glorious sunshine, you could have mistaken it for Lords because English fans had invaded. Patriotism has never been a characteristic I possess in any great abundance but there’s always an enormous sense of pride when I see such a large presence of British support.

So to see Wembley, the home of English football, infused with the culture of West Africa tonight was both surprising and awe-inspiring. The sheer number of Ghanaian supporters inside the stadium meant this could easily have been a home fixture for the Black Stars.

Gyan and co celebrate another goal

The concerns that the withdrawal of several of England’s more senior players would make this friendly even more redundant proved to be unfounded. As soon as I heard and saw the Ghanaian crowd, it was clear that this game would adopt an impetus.

It finished as an entertaining 1-1 draw and the game was played at a frenetic pace in an end-to-end environment. The passion and soul radiated down from the stands because Ghana played with the same intensity that made them so likeable in South Africa. Yes, there were times when that enthusiasm boiled over in the form of some rather choice tackles. But with a multitude of England players deeming this game expendable, it was encouraging to watch the Ghanaians play with real heart.

I have an apathetic attitude when it comes to international football, particularly mid-season friendlies. But I couldn’t help but be enthralled by this Ghana team. One player who captivated it all it was Asamoah Gyan. I’ve never seen a player treat an international friendly with such fervour. His goal at the end and the ensuing celebrations summed it all up. It could be a meaningless friendly in England or a World Cup quarter-final in South Africa; Ghana will always play with energy, passion and most of all, with a smile on their faces.

In the aftermath, the ITV cameras were greeted by a beaming Fabio Capello. The hard-nosed exterior was cast-aside as he joyfully waxed lyrical about the performance he had just witnessed. He may carry the demeanour of a deadly serious, no-fun type manager but we were reminded here that like us, he too can be an excitable fan.

We scrutinise over the game and spend countless hours debating its various nuances so it’s refreshing to reflect by just enjoying the spectacle. For once after an England game, Twitter wasn’t awash with comments on team selection and tactics. Instead we were united under an umbrella of appreciation for the game we’d just witnessed. So for that, thank you Ghana.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn

Fabio Capello’s poor communication skills have made England captaincy an issue


“Communication is the real work of leadership”

I don’t envy Fabio Capello some times. Picking an England captain should be a rudimentary decision. It should also be irrelevant. Yet we seem to hold the title in the highest esteem in this country and so handling it with such colossal thoughtlessness was not Don Fabio’s wisest move.

The armband and title are merely superficial. In fact, were England’s senior players not a collection of wholly uncouth morons, it would probably matter even less. It is just a title to appease the media hoards who want a figurehead to speak to and a scapegoat to hold accountable when, always inevitably in England’s case, the latest crisis rears its head.

The title of captain is one which John Terry clearly relishes. It may in part be egotistical but it’s more that possessing the armband shows that others appreciate his more endearing qualities. Terry is a leader; he is an organiser and a very good one at that. This season he’s performed magnificently at times in what has proven a difficult period for Chelsea. He also has an excellent injury and disciplinary record and is very committed to playing for his country.

Captaincy just latest in long of line of Capello's errors

Strip away the personality and the misdemeanours and you have a perfectly adequate candidate. Of course, that’s hard to ignore.

But Terry’s biggest faux pas and the reason why he shouldn’t be within a country mile of the captaincy dates back to a press conference he held back in South Africa. What he said on the record (we can only assume that what was said off it was an even more damning indictment of the Capello regime) completely undermined the Italian. He questioned his tactics, his methods, his team selection, all at a time when England needed to rally behind their manager the most.

Handing him back the captaincy is one thing but the manner in which Capello has handled it is a more worrying one which highlights his most underlying flaw. Rio Ferdinand’s continually sporadic England appearances should result in a charging of the guard if not on a permanent basis then at least a temporary one. But instead of a quiet word in Ferdinand’s ear explaining the decision we had Chinese whispers, we had a reportedly disgruntled Ferdinand who was blissfully unaware of Capello’s thoughts. Capello’s biggest drawback was highlighted once again. He is completely distant from his team. He doesn’t communicate with those in the camp frequently enough.

It is not, as some of his naysayers claim, to do with his grasp of the language. There are a growing number of problems Capello has caused himself simply by ignoring one of the most fundamental managerial qualities; communication.

Ferdinand should have heard from Capello, not the media, that he was to lose the armband. The goalkeepers should have been informed of who would start in South Africa well in advance rather than a day before.  If he wanted to recruit Paul Scholes, he should, as Scholes alluded to, have called the Manchester United midfielder much earlier. Then there was the awkward Community Shield moment when Michael Carrick, who Capello had presumed unfit, strode past the bewildered Italian to collect his medal.

Communication is vital. It is important not just to gauge the opinions and thoughts of your players but also in commanding respect from all involved.

Was there any uproar and upheaval when Rio lost the captain’s armband to Nemanja Vidic? No, because Alex Ferguson communicates with his players. As a result they respect him and they respect his decisions.

The England captaincy shouldn’t have been an issue but the cloak and dagger stuff that has surrounded Terry’s reappointment has soured what should have been a positive week for England. I think that people are overly critical of Capello but he has to start communicating better with his players to ensure he doesn’t contribute to his own downfall any more.

This is a classic example. Moreover, how can Capello expect to command the respect and discipline he yearns for when he promotes the one man who so publically challenged his methods? By handing Terry the captain’s armband, Capello has handed over the keys of the asylum to the lunatics.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn

My Favourite Match – Netherlands 2 v 3 Czech Republic 19/06/04. Aveiro.

March 10, 2011 2 comments

By Tom Victor

This is the first international match in our series and what a corker it is. A fary cry from the tedious tripe which was all too prevalent in South Africa, this one is a thrilling end-to-end affair. Admire the moves, the goals and some world-class saves from a match which literally had everything. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tomvictor and read more of his work at his Footy Matters column.

I have maintained for some time that the bulk of the criticism levelled at the 2010 World Cup came from the fact that we were spoiled so much by the three major tournaments which preceded it. Euro 2008 had the thrilling semi-final between Germany and Turkey, while two years earlier Jose Pekerman’s Argentina gave a footballing lesson to Serbia and Montenegro in one of the best attacking displays in recent memory. And these competitions were by no means defined by those single matches alone: in Germany and just across the border in Austria and Switzerland we saw a month-long display of top quality football, dismissing the myths that international tournaments did not represent the highest stage for a whole host of players.

2006 and 2008 were brilliant, but you have to go back a little further to find my favourite match.

A truly great game should be played out at breakneck speed, involve two well-matched teams without the rivals cancelling each other out, have controversial talking points, not to mention plenty of goalmouth action of the highest quality. Czech Republic v Holland at Euro 2004 had all of this and more.

After one match in the group of death, the Czechs had edged past outsiders Latvia while a late Ruud van Nistelrooy equaliser helped rescue a point for Dick Advocaat’s side against a Germany side for whom that 1-1 draw would prove a high-point.

Karel Bruckner’s squad took on the mantle of dark horses despite most observers beyond the mainstream media recognising them as far more than that. Jan Koller had finished the season with his best ever Bundesliga tally of 16 goals, Karel Poborsky was enjoying a renaissance at Sparta Prague, and Pavel Nedved was playing some of the best football of his career. There was also an intriguing side-plot set to develop, with Petr Cech lining up against Arjen Robben. The duo were set to join Chelsea after the competition as a parting gift from Claudio Ranieri, and their performances here would give a taste of things to come for the future English champions.

Milan Baros smashes home the equaliser

The Dutch may have lost out to Bruckner’s men in qualification, earning the Czechs a modicum of revenge for their Euro 2000 defear but a 6-1 playoff victory over Scotland demonstrated that there were goals in this side. Ruud van Nistelrooy had found the net 30 times for Manchester United in the season prior, and he was flanked by Robben and Internazionale winger Andy van der Meyde in an exciting front three.

The Czechs will have been well aware of their opponents’ firepower, but could hardly have expected the Oranje to get off to as fast and clinical a start as they did. Koller and Marek Jankulovski had already had time to miss a couple of presentable chances before Robben’s 4th-minute free-kick was headed in at the back post by an unmarked Wilfried Bouma.

And almost before their shell-shocked opponenents had time to settle, a controversial second followed. Van Nistelrooy was clearly beyond the last Czech defender when Edgar Davids found Robben with a precision through-ball, but took full advantage of the newly-implemented ‘separate phases’ element to the offside rule and ambled forward to tuck home his team-mate’s low cross as static defenders looked on dumbfounded.

Many teams might have given up when trailing the Dutch by two goals not twenty minutes into the game, opting for damage-limitation ahead of a winnable third tie against an aging German side, but the Czechs were in the mood for no such thing. Indeed the sense of injustice brought on by van Nistelrooy’s goal – whether warranted or not – may have been just what they needed to wake from their slumber.

Of course the comeback was helped by a misplaced pass from Gio van Bronckhorst a couple of minutes later. That error let in Milan Baros, the archetype of a player who saves his best performances for the big occasions, burst forward before keeping his cool with Edwin van der Sar closing in to feed Koller, and the lumbering striker slotted home to halve the deficit.

Some stunning saves from van der Sar and Cech followed, as both defences appeared to sit back and admire their respective opponents’ attacking flair, the pick of them from the former Rennes number one to tip over Johnny Heitinga’s rising 30-yard effort. There was even time for Davids to smack a low shot against the inside of Cech’s left-hand post before the half was up.

After the break Cech kept his side in it once more, denying van Nistelrooy with his feet, while at the other end Nedved and Poborsky were plugging away with plenty of skill but little reward. Not long later it was van der Sar’s turn, preventing a near-certain equaliser from Vladimir Smicer with a fingertip save. The two goalkeepers were as flamboyant as they were busy, and it would clearly take something special to add to the three goals the game had brought so far.

That special moment arrived with 20 minutes left on the clock, and epitomised everything Bruckner’s Czech Republic side were about. Nedved cut inside from the left to swing in an inch-perfect cross, Koller played a cushioned chest-pass of which Ronaldinho would be proud. It fell perfectly for the advancing Baros and the Liverpool striker rifled a shot into the top corner with such ferocity that even a parked bus could not have stopped it.

Even with the score tantalisingly poised at 2-2, tension was never going to overcome these two attacking powerhouses. A game of chicken ensued, with neither side prepared to sit back and let the opposition come on to them, which of course was an absolute treat to everyone watching.

The pace was too much for Heitinga, who picked up his second yellow for a shove on Nedved as the winger burst forward, after which the Dutch threat was restricted somewhat and the Juve man came inches away from a winner when his 35-yard shot came back off the woodwork, but it took until the 88th minute for the dramatic winner which a game of this calibre richly deserved.

Van Bronckhorst surrendered possession in the Czech half, setting up a lightning break made even more remarkable by the energy-sapping 87 minutes which had come before it. Marek Heinz’s low shot towards the bottom corner was parried out as far as Poborsky, who proceeded to demonstrate the phenomenal calmness under pressure which saw him net the goal of the tournament at Euro 96 and a £4m move to Old Trafford that same summer.

With the winger five yards from goal and with a chance of glory, it would have been easy for Poborsky to close his eyes and hope his effort snuck past the advancing van der Sar. However, with the Dutch goalkeeper rising from sleeping lion to Schmeichel-esque star-jump in a split second, the veteran looked up and calmly squared the ball for Smicer to tap into the empty net.

The final whistle was greeted by tears of joy for the Czechs, dumbfounded shakes of the head from the Dutch, and a realisation from fans and neutrals alike that they had witnessed one of the greatest games in European Championship – if not football – history.

The statistics do not lie: 36 shots, 21 on target, and 90 minutes of end-to-end football. It was not just the excitement which makes this such a memorable game, but also the consistently-high level of football which has rarely been matched before or since.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.

 

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