Tag: FIFA

Russia 2018- global extravaganza or disaster waiting to happen?

I’d really love to be Gianni Infantino or at least I’d like his job. He gets to run a globally powerful organisation whose credibility is so low that literally anything you do is an improvement on your predecessor (as long as you don’t stick your fingers in the till).

Even better- said organisation’s big event has already been handed out until 2022 so it’s not your fault if it’s a disaster!

Sepp Blatter’s regime handed the 2018 & 2022 World Cup to Russia & Qatar back in 2010 in dubious circumstances, and inadvertently triggered the downfall of their house of cards.

Qatar is another matter 5 years away with a desert sized list of issues attached. But what of 2018 in Russia.

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Whilst the decision to award Russia the tournament has aroused suspicion (although no proof of wrong doing has ever been confirmed), it has always seemed less controversial than handing out 2022 to a small nation with no football history an impractical climate, dubious human rights record but masses of cash.

Aside from Holland, Russia is probably the most storied football nation never to host its biggest event. They’ve won the European Championships and have made numerous long runs in tournaments (admittedly all but one as the Soviet Union) and qualified frequently for World Cups. So why the controversy and what are the prospects?

Mixing Politics & Sport

The obvious place to start is with Putin. The Russian President had long been mistrusted in The West and the tensions have been consistently cranked up in recent years over Russia’s involvement in the Syria and the Ukraine crisis’.

But even Blatter can’t be blamed for not predicting what would happen in those parts of the world back in 2010. In the same period the more respected IOC happily awarded Sochi the 2014 Winter Olympics and FIFA will point out it’s a global organisation not just a Western one.

But it’s hard not to compare awarding this World Cup to Russia to the IOC’s controversial awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing. Laughably at the time some claimed China’s hosting the Olympics would encourage them to adopt more progressive human rights policies- presumably said observers also thought South Africa should have been awarded a major tournament in the 1980s to encourage them to abolish apartheid.

The awarding of 2008 to Beijing looked commercially motivated and aside from the Torch relay fiasco eventually showcased a positive view of China, but it hasn’t altered China’s stance on Tibet.

With Russia Blatter’s FIFA probably saw money and unlike the western bidders a compliant media that wouldn’t raise questions about FIFA’s shady financial dealings or complete lack of transparency.

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Of course a controversial host doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a bad World Cup. Many fans of a certain age quote Argentina ‘78 as their favourite World Cup, the abiding image of that tournament is the ticker-tape eruption in the Stadia whilst people wax lyrical 40 years on about Kempes, the Dutch hitting the post in the dying minutes of the final and Archie Gemmill.

Yet at the time Argentina was controlled by a military Junta under who thousands were murdered and the tournament itself was dogged by the outright corruption of referees and match officials.

And on the subject of dodgy bidding processes it now appears there may have been skullduggery in the awarding of both Brazil and South Africa the tournament, Russia played by the rules of the bidding- it’s not there fault the rules were absurd.

Trouble on the terraces and in the drug testing labs

Russia’s sporting status sank to a new low before the 2016 Olympics. Scores of Russian athletes were banned from the games after the World anti doping agency (WADA) uncovered a widespread doping program.

Since that scandal erupted the Fancy Bears website based in Russia has launched a counterattack by hacking WADA in an attempt to discredit the organisation. Football has remained largely clear of doping issues but it remains a huge concern in Russian sport- not helped by its most famous sportsperson being given a 2 year ban for failing a drugs test. Admittedly Maria Sharapova has never been part of any Russian sporting program and is US based but it reinforces the image of a nation with a doping problem.

But the biggest worry about Russia 2018 comes from inside the Stadia: the threat of crowd violence and racist chants. Last month in the Champions League under 19s Liverpool reported Spartan Moscow for racial abuse one of their players suffered from the Moscow crowd. It was the latest in a long line of racial slurs visiting players have suffered in Russia. Even more worryingly the 2018 anti racism chief previously claimed the problem didn’t exist in Russia.

The other major crowd problem is hooliganism. The ugly scenes in Marseille during Euro 2016 were bad enough and yet shockingly one Russian MP claimed it was job well done because they beat up some English hooligans in the town and stormed the barriers in the ground after the game- never mind the fact that some of those caught up in the melee were children. All of this would seem to make Russia an unappealing destination for the Greatest Show on Earth.

Will crowd trouble erupt next June?

I don’t expect hooliganism to be a factor at World Cup venues this summer. The main reasons being the high levels of security we’ll be seeing at the grounds and the difficulty in obtaining tickets mean World Cup crowds are all together different from club crowds. Usually that’s a criticism of World Cup ticketing- this time it’s a plus, with crowds likely to be a mix of supporters clubs, school kids, families, Middle class fans and corporate guests.

An example of this came at Euro 2012 when the build up was dominated by worries of crowd trouble and racist chanting in Ukraine, particularly after a Panorama expose featuring Sol Campbell advised fans to stay at home. In the event English fans were neither targeted nor visiting players subjected to racist idiots, with England fans tweeting what a great time they were having. The organisers will be hoping for similar next summer, it remains to be seen if they practice the zero tolerance to racism they’ve promised- but at least FIFA is no longer run by a man who thinks you combat racism by shaking hands at the final whistle.

So what are the positives?

Part of the mystique of World Cup’s is holding them in far away places most travelling fans and those watching from home have never visited and know little about. Joey Barton recently claimed Brazil can’t win the World Cup in Russia because of the cold climate, actually Joey June in Russia is quite hot (much warmer than the UK or South Africa) around World Cup time. OK Joey Barton doesn’t represent a scientific sample of the public, but it is an illustration of how staggeringly ignorant most are of Russia with their understanding of the country based on Putin, The Cold War and Dr Zhivago. It’s the equivalent of someone’s understanding of America being restricted to Trump, Watergate & John Wayne. As someone who’s visited Russia frequently in recent years I can say Russia has plenty to offer and those heading there next summer will find plenty of none football related things to see and do. Whilst those watching from the living room will also learn more about this largely unknown land.

In football terms the biggest match hosted in Russia to date was the 2008 Champions League final between Manchester United & Chelsea, despite fears of a catastrophe the handling of the game and both sets of fans went off without a hitch.

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More recently Manchester United’s Europa League tie with Rostov saw the town of Rostov treat the arrival of United’s superstar squad like a Royal visit; not that it stopped Jose whinging about the state of the pitch. Away from Moscow & St Petersburg in the Russian interior teams are likely to find a similar welcome from the local population.

World Cup’s like Olympics needs to leave a legacy- the infrastructure projects this World Cup has brought about will undeniably make life better in parts of the country that desperately need it.

Host nation bounce?

This summers Confederations Cup went off without a hitch in terms of infrastructure (if not FIFA’s inspired decision to use VAR). But the performance of the home team didn’t suggest a run the World Cup semifinals is on. Russia failed to get out of the group, only managing to beat New Zealand. Guus Hiddink’s stylish side characterised by Andrei Arshavin is long gone, Russia’s current side appear only marginally better than their awful Euro 2016- their lack of options summed up by the inclusion in the first 11 of Yuri Zhirkov (yes the one who played for Chelsea about 7 years ago) although they do possess a potential match winer in Alan Dzagoev. They will be favoured by the draw seeding but it’s hard to see them progressing beyond the last 16 and carrying their nations hopes to the later stages, something that usually boosts a tournament.

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Ultimately this World Cup has plenty of red flags (no pun intended) but past tournaments have shown our worst fears are rarely met as countries pull out all the stops to show their nation in a positive light, let’s hope the Russian organisers and public take up this once in a lifetime opportunity.

 

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England v Slovenia preview

So here we are England will seal their 6th successive World Cup appearance and 9th in the last 10 with a win at Wembley against Slovenia.

With a 5 point lead in Group F and a big goal difference advantage over the rest a point will almost certainly be enough. But against a side ranked 55th in the world a win at Wembley will be expected and for Gareth Southgate a perfect sign off on a successful qualifying campaign in front of 80,000 Home fans. But mess things up and a frosty night in Lithuania awaits to stumble over the line.

Despite their low ranking Slovenia gave England a rough time in a 0-0 draw in Ljubljana a year ago and sit only a point behind second placed Slovakia so arrive at Wembley with qualifying ambitions of their own. Their brightest star is Athletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak who’s impressed in Atheltico’s recent run of Champions League campaigns. Going forward the main creative threat will come from Serie A regular Josip Ilicic- who clocked up 100 appearances for Fiorentina before moving on to Atalanta this summer.

History

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The draw Slovenia gained last year was the first time they managed to avoid defeat to England- losing the previous 4 meetings. The most notable being the final group match of the 2010 World Cup when Jermain Defoe stabbed home the only goal of the game and secured England’s only win of a largely awful campaign. More recently the sides met in the Euro 2016 qualifiers. England came from behind to win 3-1 at Wembley and then 3-2 in Slovenia when Jack Wilshere bagged a memorable second half brace.

Team News

Since the squad was announced last Thursday Fabian Delph and Phil Jones have been ruled out with injury whilst Dele Alli will serve his one match ban for flipping the bird in the Slovakia game last month. It’s a particular blow for Delph who was likely to play following his good run of form for Manchester City. But Delph’s injury is short term and he should be back for City when the Premier League resumes, he currently looks a key component to Pep Guardiola’s side so should get his chance in the November internationals.

England Squad Takeaways

The late call up to the squad is Tottenham’s Harry Winks who’ll be hoping to make his debut. Winks has been promoted from the Under 21’s and with Delph joining a lengthy injury list in midfield has been given his chance sooner than expected, but the talented young playmaker looks a confident player who may well grab his opportunity with both hands and it is good to see a young player with potential getting the late call up rather than a veteran with little upside.

There’s been no word yet on team selection but inevitably there’ll be a lot of focus on the goalkeepers. Southgate backed Joe Hart after his error against Scotland in the summer but then was partly to blame for Slovakia’s goal at Wembley. Southgate needs to give his other keepers a chance with at best 7 games remaining before the World Cup (assuming we make it!) I’d like to see Jack Butland given the start but I suspect the manager will stick with Hart.

Elsewhere the absence of Jones means a change in central defence- the favourite must be John Stones after a good start to the season with City and his ball playing skills should be a huge asset against a side likely to sit deep for long spells.

Prediction

Slovenia will come looking for a point and hit on the break when they can. I expect England will score in the first half and should run out comfortable winners 2-0.

 

World Cup Qualifying Part 2: All Around The World

Away from Europe qualifying is reaching its climax across the globe, so in brief who’s on their way to Russia?

Whose made it?

Brazil, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia & Iran

South America update:

With Brazil home and hosed Uruguay are the only other team who can guarantee a place this round with an away win at Venezuela. Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Chile are playing musical chairs with Colombia & Peru currently sat in the automatic qualifying places and Argentina in the playoff place whilst Confederation Champions Chile are currently set to miss out. Chile host Peru in the game of the week but this will go down to the final run off games next week but surely Messi won’t miss out will he?

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Asia Update:

The groups are finished and the 4 qualifiers confirmed, Now it’s down to the playoff between Australia and war torn Syria, with the Socceroos overwhelming favourites. Their reward will be a playoff with the 4th placed Concaaf side speaking of which…

Concaaf Update:

Costs Rica will join Mexico in the finals if they beat lowly Honduras this week. The real story here is the US who’ve endured a torrid campaign and currently sit in the playoff spot a point behind Panama who visit the States this week. The Americans need the win  and should have enough to push Panama down to the playoffs.

Oceania Update:

New Zealand trounced the Soloman Islands are now await the 5th place side from South America. Clearly the All Whites would prefer to play Peru to Argentina. But New Zealand go in on good form and won’t be the pushover some have predicated.

Africa Update:

The final round of African groups are only 6 games long meaning with 2 games to go a lot can change and nobody is secure yet. Tunisia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Egypt are all current group favourites. Group D remains the curious one with the romantics favourite Burkina Faso currently top on goal difference from the Cape Verde Islands whilst Senegal and South Africa have to replay their game from earlier this year after some suspicious refereeing.

World Cup Qualifying Round 9: The draw takes shape

World Cup qualifying Part 2: Rest of the World

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 England Squad Takeaways

The most fitting adjective I can think of for Gareth Southgate’s squad is sensible, I’d have preferred scintillating but sensible will have to do for now. With such exciting prospects at youth level ‘doing for now’ seems to be where England are right now. There were few surprises so what can be read into this selection?

That’s a lot of players

28 in total! The message is clear if you didn’t get in and you’re not in an England youth squad, injured/ short of fitness or suffering transferitus then you’ve got a lot to do if you want to go to the World Cup.  Only 2 players have been dropped Ben Gibson (now of the Championship) & Fraser Forster (England’s number 5!) Forster’s Southampton teammates Nathan Redmond & James Ward-Prowse are amongst the few who might have been expecting the call and didn’t get one, must do better lads!

That’s a lot of goalkeepers

Southgate’s insistence on picking 4 keepers is on the face of it odd. But there is some logic to this, for the first time I can remember the England Goalkeeping jersey is up for grabs. Previously it’s been a case of 2 similar level goalkeepers fighting for the gloves; Seaman & Woods, Seaman & Martyn, Green & James and hmm Carson & Robinson. This time it’s anybody’s to claim, Jack Butland is favourite but Jordan Pickford is rapidly improving. Joe Hart’s still around and officially number 1 making Tom Heaton the fourth man.

My suspicion is if Hart doesn’t get picked for any of the next 4 England games he’ll announce his international retirement, I just can’t see him wanting to travel to a World Cup as third choice a role I could see Heaton filling. Much of next week’s back pages will be dominated by this issue as we wait to see who’s wearing the number 1 shirt in Valetta next Friday.

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New boys added

Only 2 new call ups; Harry Maguire & Nathaniel Chalobah. Maguire was a surprise to some but his early season form has been great. He’s clearly got a range of passing and composure on the ball that Southgate wants- bad news if you’re Chris Smalling and perhaps explaining the exclusion of Swansea’s Alfie Mawson. With Maguire following Michael Keane into the squad England suddenly don’t look so dependant on John Stones converting promise into performance as a ball playing centre back.

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Chalobah’s call up was widely predicted. 18 months ago it looked like the precocious midfielder would suffer the same fate as Josh McEachran- endlessly miles on the Chelsea loan treadmill followed by a career in the Championship.  But Chalobah has finally made it to Premier League regular with a move to Watford. If he continues to develop I suspect Vicarage Road will only be stepping stone to a bigger club but for now he’s playing well and likely to win his first senior cap to go with the 97 he has at junior level.

Midfield worries

Whether it’s 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1 the central midfield pair is England’s biggest problem. Chalobah’s call up means we have 3  holding midfielders (Chalobah, Livermore & Dier) and Jordan Henderson, if Henderson’s unavailable who comes in? Against Scotland the midfield was too cautious and lacking creativity because we had 2 holding midfielders against a side happy to defend, these 2 qualifiers will provide a similar challenge.

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There are extenuating circumstances with Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley & Danny Drinkwater all currently unavailable whilst this World Cup will probably come too soon for the likes of Lewis Cook, Harry Winks & Tom Davies, we’ll just have to make do for now.

World Cup Winners kept back

Nobody from England’s victorious Under 20- World Cup side has been promoted to the senior side, but 13 of that squad have been selected for the Under 21s. It’s a smart move from Southgate, keeping a winning group together (for now) and letting them develop at the next level of the international pyramid.

Previous England managers would have picked Dominic Calvert-Lewin straight away, but that’d have been short sighted. Had he been picked he’d have sat on the bench and maybe got 15 minutes for his debut, whereas now he’s likely to play twice for the Under 21’s- the first a tough away qualifier in Holland, which will he get the most from? Exactly.

Welcoming back the Welbler

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Danny Welbeck is back- 18 months and a major injury recurrence on from his last cap. Welbeck was a favourite of Roy Hodgson due to his versatility, he may well have a roll to play next week, particularly if England go 3-4-3: where he fits anywhere across the frontline.

Welbeck needs to make an impression next week, he’s got Lacazette & Giroud ahead of him in the Arsenal striker pecking order and his recent run in the side has been largely due to the absence of the returning Alexis Sanchez. Might he need excusing from England training to finalise a late move to Everton or if desperate Newcastle?

Was Rooney called up?

Gareth seemed a lot less sure than Wayne that he’d have been recalled. Rooney claimed the manager was going to pick him on announcing his retirement. Southgate meanwhile side stepped the question saying he was under consideration. He went to hail Rooney a legend and state he would ask him to come back if needed, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

 

Farewell Wayne

 

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Imagine my surprise when the article I was writing about the merits of Wayne Rooney’s imminent England recall were torpedoed by the announcement Rooney was retiring from international football.

It’s the right decision for Rooney, for Everton and probably England too. Rooney has got himself in condition, found form and is rekindling his old flame with Everton, good luck to him.

The challenge of a 38 game league campaign plus cups plus Europa League is a sizeable undertaking for a 31 year old without the additional demand of internationals. If he ends  Everton’s 22 year trophy drought it will provide a final flourish to a glorious career.

Yet somehow Rooney has never quite become the loved figure his record seems to merit. As has been poured over this summer following his departure from Old Trafford, he left Manchester United with the clubs goalscoring record, a truckload of medals and accolades but never seemed to quite have the love of the Old Trafford faithful afforded Charlton, Best, Law & Ronaldo.

His England career will inevitably be summed up with this sort of sentence- He’s England’s record goalscorer and he never delivered in a major tournament. It’s the Rooney paradox.

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Rooney arrived with England to tremendous hype- the final piece of the golden generation jigsaw, the superstar to bring glory to England’s hugely talented side. Rooney’s first tournament with England was by far the best- setting Euro 2004 alight with  three stunning displays and 4 goals from the group phase. But then came the first metatarsal injury in the quarter finals and his tournament came to an abrupt end.

In 2006 he suffered another metatarsal break at the tail end of Manchester United’s season and the nation went into a month long ‘will he won’t he go debate’. What’s alarming looking back at the 2006 media furore is I can’t remember a single journalist or pundit giving serious consideration to what England would do without him. But it seemed the nation didn’t need to worry, Rooney was training and declared ‘injury free’ by Sven so it was panic over.

Of course the term ‘injury free’ was carefully selected and really meant he wasn’t match fit or even fully recovered. He was kept out of England’s opening game but brought off the bench in the next and it became evident quickly he was at best 50% fit, his frustration grew and ended in a red card in the quarter finals.

The biggest scar on Rooney’s England career (and many others) came in South Africa in 2010. Rooney arrived at the tournament England’s great hope, but left with 4 appearances no goals and no assists. Again a pre tournament injury meant he wasn’t 100% fit but that didn’t explain why he suddenly couldn’t trap a ball, his post match rant about supporters after an insipid 0-0 draw with Algeria didn’t help his standing.

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Fabio Capello kept faith with Rooney for Euro 2012 qualifying and Rooney rewarded him with goals, but in England’s final qualifier for Euro 2012 Rooney picked up his second England red cad- with a 2 match suspension slapped on as punishment. England started the tournament well picking up 4 points from 2 Rooneyless games, new manager Roy Hodgson brought Rooney back straight away but again a lack of match sharpness told. Alex Ferguson always maintained Rooney needed games to reach his maximum level and was not a player who could make an immediate impact, it’s hard to argue with his assessment.

And so to Brazil 2014, Rooney’s last chance to make a major impact at the World Cup, sadly the England squad of 2014 was a pale imitation of 2006 with few major stars. A tough draw did for Hodgson’s limited side but notably England’s only goals came from a Rooney cross against Italy and his neat finish against Uruguay, had he been in a better side maybe that would’ve been his tournament.

In 2015 Rooney became England’s record goalscorer by despatching a penalty against Switzerland in Euro qualifying. By the time England arrived at Euro 2016 a new generation of strikers were available to England: Kane, Rashford & Vardy. Hodgson shuffled Rooney into midfield with initial success but when England crashed into the Icelandic iceberg Rooney was heavily criticised.

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In 2016/17 Rooney’s form faded and new England manager Gareth Southgate wisely dropped him, Rooney to his credit took it professionally and got on with it. Ironically  Southgate wanted to recall Rooney this week when Wayne decided it was time to go.

It’ll be interesting to hear Southgate’s thoughts on Rooney at tomorrow’s squad announcement, was the proposed recall with the World Cup in mind or a reward for his club form this season? Southgate had always maintained he would recall Rooney if his form merited inclusion.

Part of the conundrum with England was his various England managers (he played for 6) had different ideas about where to play him; Sven saw him as a deep lying forward, Capello an out and out number 9, whilst Hodgson eventually put him in central midfield having previously played him as a striker, wide attacker and number 10.

Another issue was Rooney’s lack of tactical discipline, he always seemed to follow the ball rather than hold his position, the worst example coming in 2014 against Italy where he wad deployed on the left of a 4-2-3-1 but failed to provide Leighton Baines with cover and Italy cashed in.

All that being said Rooney was a fine player for England lighting up Euro 2004, many a night at Wembley and dragging England’s chestnuts out of 1numerous qualification fires. While he was never quite the Leo Messi he was once hailed but he was a great international player.

I’ve said before he reminds me of former Spain & Real Madrid striker Raul- a creative forward with an eye for goal who left the Bernabeu with a bookful of records and a suitcase crammed with medals. For Spain he enjoyed a hugely credible career playing 100+ times and setting a new goal scoring record but was never quite the  national saviour he was hailed and never got beyond the quarter finals of a major tournament- sound familiar?

Interestingly Rooney’s resignation statement ended with this reference “One day the dream will come true and I look forward to being there as a fan – or in any capacity” referring to the possibility of England winning something. Is he hinting at a coaching career? Maybe not but it’s important Rooney passes on his knowledge of international football to England’s next generation and remains visible at St George’s Park perhaps helping the juniors or even just giving talks about his England career.

Rooney was a great servant to England and Gary Lineker was probably right in saying we have under appreciated him. But it’s the right time for England and it’s most famous player to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

England Squad Announcement- Why fans should care

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On Thursday lunchtime Gareth Southgate will announce his first England squad of the season. International squad announcements are usually followed by a collective groan. It’s the signal that a fledging season whose narratives we’re becoming engrossed in is shortly to be paused in order for England to take on the footballing powerhouse of Malta. It’s the footballing equivalent of a Theatre interval and the usher telling you the bar’s shut and we’ve run out of ice cream.

International breaks are tedious and I’d be happy to see friendlies restricted to the summer. However this squad announcement is more important than most.

Of course the first subject will be somebody not included: Wayne Rooney. Inevitably Southgate’s opinion and tribute to Rooney will be the headline but not the main event. Southgate handled Rooney well, taking the decision to drop him. Some will argue Southgate has egg on his face for attempting to recall Rooney but all he needs to say to that is he wanted to pick Rooney based on current form (which has been excellent).

Thursday’s squad will be the first of a World Cup year, with a manager keen to promote youth there will inevitably be new faces, with Rooney departing expect Southgate to hammer home the youth message. Coming only 2 games into the new season the number of new players will be limited with many young players thus far restricted to bit part roles in the fledging campaign. That’s normal until the autumn and the onset of injuries and two games a week forces managers to shift around their squads. It means players like Dominic Solanke, Will Hughes, Demarai Gray & Harry Winks all of whom could be in for a break out year will have to bide their time.

However Southgate’s squad will include some or possibly all of Jordan Pickford, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Nat Chalobah, Harry Maguire, Alfie Mawson, James Ward-Prowse & Tammy Abraham. Might there be another left field selection?- Marc Albrighton’s positive start to the season shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

There will be those veterans waiting anxiously by the phone to see if their lack of game time costs them an England place. Southgate has insisted it’s important players are getting a regular game so where does that leave Chris Smalling, Jesse Lingard, Jermain Defoe and Theo Walcott? It is hard to judge based on the limited sample size of 2 games another reason I suspect there’ll be a sizeable group from Everton whose Europa odyssey has seen them play 5 games already. Against City this week they started 8 English players, Calvert Lewin was particularly good although if picked he’d be on the bench behind Marcus Rashford so perhaps would benefit more from going with the Under 21s.

The Under 21’s are the other announcement of the week and fans should keep an eye on this one. The Euro Under 21’s in June marked the end of one squad cycle for Aidy Boothroyd and this week starts a new one. Many of the side that made the semis this summer are now over aged for the U21s meaning a squad reboot is upon us. For England that means the introduction of players from this summers 3 tournament winning squads, a nice position to work from.

Boothroyd has an embarrassment of riches to choose from and the likes of Solanke,  Calvert-Lewin, Tom Davies, Ryan Sessegnon, Phil Foden & Mason Mount could be forming an exciting new team. Whilst the World Cup is ultimately England’s goal the 2019 Euro Under 21s should be the next prize England are seriously hunting. Adding it to the Euro Under 19s, Toulon tournament double, Under 20 World Cup and 2014 Euro Under 17s all in the bag.

The accumulation of junior prizes is an essential part of success at senior level. But the tournament is a long way off and England face a tough opening fixture away to Holland, in a group that also includes Ukraine & Scotland. It’s also important to keep the momentum going from England’s excellent summer, the Under 17 World Cup is only a couple of months away and building interest in the face of an all consuming domestic season and an imminent senior World Cup is a tough challenge for the FA.

This week should provide some indication of where England are going, hopefully some progress on the pitch and 6 points in the bank.

Predicted England Squad;

Goalkeepers- Butland, Hart, Pickford

Defenders- Walker, Alexander-Arnold, Bertrand, Cresswell, Cahill, Keane, Stones, Jones, Maguire, Mawson

Midfielders- Henderson, Dier, Chalobah, Ward-Prowse

Wingers/ Number 10s- Alli, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling, Redmond

Strikers- Kane, Rashford, Vardy, Welbeck, Calvert-Lewin

Injured/ short of fitness Clyne, Trippier, Shaw, Rose, Lallana, Barkley, Wilshere

 

 

 

 

 

World Cup Memories- Mexico ’86

For me the summer of 1986 was about 2 things; finishing Primary School and watching my first World Cup.

In the pre Premier League era live football on TV was pretty much limited to the FA Cup final so for football mad kids the World Cup was heaven sent.  My last days of primary school were largely spent trading swaps from the Panini Mexico 86 sticker album; I vividly remember trying to trade endless duplicates of Pat Jennings in a futile attempt to acquire Brazilian superstar Zico.

The constant flicking through the sticker book also meant the image of World Cup mascot Pique remains indelibly printed on in my mind.

When the action kicked off I was quickly disappointed by holders Italy- much talked up by older kids who remembered Spain ’82, Paolo Rossi and all that, in 1986 it was the same players just 4 years past it. But two surprise teams bolted out of the traps in Mexico. First there was the now defunct Soviet Union who pummelled Hungary 6-0 in their opener, then midfielder Vasily Rats scored a stunning long range goal against France, and then came Denmark.

Unlike their victorious Euro ’92 side the Danes of 1986 were spellbinding to watch with star strikers Preben Elkjaer & Michael Laudraup rampaging through defences in the early days of the tournament. They also sported the perfect mid 80s pinstripe and chevron jersey.

Strangely both the Danes & Soviets crashed and burned in the last 16 against unfancied sides as I learned a great World Cup cliche: don’t peak too soon! Both clearly did but provided some great memories along the way.

Denmark’s rise was particularly surprising given they were drawn in a group with Germany, Uruguay & Scotland introducing me to yet another cliche ‘the group of death!’ It was from here the Scots introduced me to a further wellwarn cliche: Scotland will always find the unluckiest possible way to miss out.

It’s often forgotten the Scotland team of 1986 was managed by a certain Alex Ferguson, who’d taken temporary charge after the tragic death of Jock Stein in their final qualifier. Defensively they were strong enough for Ferguson to omit Liverpool captain Alan Hansen, the midfield featured a wonderfully moustached Greane Souness and the creativity of Gordon Strachan whilst the forward line of Steve Archibald, Frank McAvennie & Charlie Nicholas didn’t lack firepower.

As it turned out, the Scots first ran into the Danish juggernaut and then faced West Germany, Strachan scored early to put them ahead but the Germans proved too strong and the Scots went down 2-1.

But still qualification could still be achieved with a win over Uruguay who’d just shipped six against Denmark, it couldn’t have started much better with Uruguay defender Jose Batista red carded in the first minute for an appalling foul on Strachan. What followed was 89 minutes of Scottish attacking and agricultural Uruguayan defending with Uruguay kicking their way to a 0-0 draw and a second round berth.

But my enduring memory of that game came in the aftermath when the BBC tried to get some post match reaction from the Tartan Army outside the ground and one angry fan barked “I hate Uruguay! I hate ’em so much I hope they get through and play England and I hope England win! That’s how much I hate Uruguay!!”

And so to England, drawn in Group F the tournament was a week old before we got started and it wasn’t a great start, England began against Portugal with high hopes and they dominated possession for long spells, looked in control but conceded on the break 15 minutes from time, 0-1 on dear.

If the first game was bad the second was a disaster. Against Morocco England should have eased to victory but Captain Marvel Robson succumbed to a shoulder injury and midfield partner Ray Wilkins was bizarrely sent off for throwing the ball (accidentally) at the referee. The game ended 0-0.

The knives were out for Bobby Robson, it was England’s worst start to a World Cup since the 50’s and he needed to rework his entire midfield and attack. His solution was to bring in Peter Reid, Steve Hodge, Trevor Steven & Peter Beardsley, dropping Mark Hateley & Chris Waddle. The reshaped team was a gamble but it took only 8 minutes to pay off with Gary Lineker turning home Gary Stevens’ cross, by half time Lineker had a hat trick and England were through.

Suddenly England had a star in Lineker and a team set up perfectly to maximise his poachers instinct with Hodge and Steven providing width and Beardsley able to provide clever through balls from his deeper forward role. 

Sadly for me we’d gone on a family holiday and I only saw the game next day (due to the late kick off times In Mexico) and found out the result from Derek Jamieson’s breakfast show. 

Onto the last 16 and I was still in Cornwall, most expected England to sneak a win and despite a shaky start England again won 3-0. Lineker now had 5 goals and was set for the Golden Boot.

And so to the quarter final and the most infamous moment in English Football history. In footballs ‘where were you when Kennedy was shot’ moment I was watching it on the telly with my dad. It wasn’t until full time that I realised it was handball, watching it live in realtime was very different to looking at the photo everyone remembers- he was devilishly quick!


Everyone knows what followed; Maradona scored a brilliant second, Lineker pulled one back and almost equalised. England were out whilst Maradona went on to lift the trophy.

I think the main reason the infamy of that goal has endured for so long is Maradona’s obvious pleasure in it, he’s never shown any regret at what he did, it’s hard to believe Pele or Cruyff would have reacted with such glee, nor was it Maradona’s only handball moment playing for Argentina (he would later handle the ball whilst clearing off his own line).

When Thierry Henry later handled against Ireland in a 2009 World Cup playoff, it was clear even on the night Henry was embarrassed and whilst never actually apologising for it he clearly would like to expunge the incident from his career, Maradona by contrast has often revelled in his.

The day before England played Argentina I witnessed my first great World Cup match; Michel Platini’s France against the Brazilian Samba boys. 1986 was probably the last chance to see the Brazil at their beautiful best, Brazilian sides since have concentrated on string defence combined with pace and power, back in ’86 it was all flair, tricks and samba soccer. Facing them The European champions and their dynamic midfield quartet of Platini, Giresse, Tigana & Fernandes.

The game ebbed and flowed, the crowd a sea of yellow & blue- Argentina may have had the best player but these were the two best teams. Amazingly only one goal apiece was scored with the French triumphing on penalties. 

Everyone expected a Platini/ Maradona final, Argentina made it but the French fell foul of another great World Cup cliche: German efficiency. West Germany made it almost unnoticed into the last four, perhaps France underestimated them or maybe they were exhausted from the epic win over Brazil, whatever the reason France were subdued in the semi and went down 2-0.

The final proved entertaining but slightly underwhelming (the second part of that assessment could be applied to every World Cup final since.) Jorge Burruchaga scored the winner 6 minutes from time after the Germans had fought back from a 2 goal deficit, Argentina were champions and my first World Cup experience was over.

Mexico ’86 had everything, great games, brilliant players, colour, atmosphere and controversy. It was a heady cocktail that cemented my love of the beautiful game and it’s biggest event.

A year later my local library got a Mexico ’86 book recapping the  tournament in A3 size prints of the matches, the book spent much of the following year on loan to me. I remember very clearly the last picture in the book- of 2 fans in the Azteca stadium after the final whistle of the tournament, both stripped to the waist with their backs printed, on the first fan ‘Adios Mexico ’86’ on the other ‘Ciao Italia ’90’. The summer of 1990 couldn’t come around fast enough.