Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Left Back In The Changing Room Bumper Christmas Quiz 2014

It has arrived - the geekiest football quiz of the year, the moment I sit back and think 'hang on a second didn't he actually play for Marseille' and jump in amongst the Rothmans Football Year Books just to double check, the moment I know some swivel-eyed blogger who hasn't left his bedroom for six months will correct me. Yes, Lord Alive, it is the Left Back In The Changing Room Bumper Christmas Quiz 2014.

This is the seventh Christmas Quiz. Last year's answers can be found here (and all the previous iterations can be linked to from there). The answers were correct when they went to press. This year's prize is a bottle from the Left Back Cellars - the prize often takes years to arrive but I promise it will. A Marrs always pays his debts even if, sometimes, that requires legal enforcement.

I have barely written this year. That's partly because of the arrival of Charlotte Rose, my beautiful 20-week-old daughter. Ultimately, spending time with her is time better spent than writing love letters to Zvonomir Boban and when I'm not spending time with her I'm just trying to sleep. I'm not mothballing the blog and will return in earnest at some point. In the meantime, it will be the odd piece here and there.

As ever, I'd ask you not to Google the answers. There isn't really much point, some of the questions can't be answered that way and you'll waste your own time as well as mine.

Ultimately, if you are the sort of rogue who would do such a thing then, well, you shouldn't be able to look at yourself in the mirror. It is supposed to be a bit of fun. Your mother will be ashamed of you and you will likely die alone and unhappy.

I reserve the right, when marking, to (a) dock points for any QI style clangers (b) award additional points for points of interest. Drop me an email to lbinthechangingroom@yahoo.co.uk with your answers. Results will follow early in the New Year. Please do email in the answers rather than sticking them in the comments thread.

So best of luck to those of you who do read the blog and those who only pop on to do the quiz. It is an enormous privilege that anyone reads what I have written and the nice comments I occasionally get are always something to savour. I've had a fantastic 2014 - happier than I could ever have imagined. I hope that your 2015 betters that and wish you all a very Merry Christmas.

Love, or what you will,


Name that man
1. Who is the dapper gent?

2. And who is this handsome devil?

3. And who is this legendary manager?

4. Name this stylish fellow.

5. And to finish this round... who do we have here?

Random trivia

6. Which Greek demi-god gives his name to teams in Spain, the Netherlands and Greece?

7. Which football club takes its name from a Princess of Denmark?

8. Oxford and Dublin have done it but London, Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh haven't. What have they done?

9. What have Real Madrid done five times, AC Milan done four times, Sunderland three times, Newcastle United twice, Falkirk once but Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have never done?

Sergei Kiriakov is the all-time top scorer for which nation?

11. When did Stanley Matthews play in Scotland colours?

12. Who is the only person to have played for Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal?

13. What did Charlton do in 1970, Sunderland do in 1979 and Chester in 2014?

14. Which is the only English city to have staged top-flight football in every league season since 1888?

15. What unwanted honour does Karl-Heinz Rummenigge hold?

16. Which two English league teams are not named after places?

17. Which team has lost the FA Cup Final the most times without winning the trophy?

18. Who were Gre-No-Li?

19. Who comes next in this sequence: Dunga, Kahn, Zidane, van Bronckhorst?

20. Three British regiments have won major British footballing trophies. Name them.

21. Ronaldo and Cristiano Ronaldo held it once, Cruyff once also, Suarez once but Maradona twice. What is it? And, for an extra point, who is the current holder?

22. Four men have scored a goal and an own goal in a World Cup. A point for each.


23. Who used to play at the Olive Grove?

24. Who used to play at Fellows Park?

25. Who used to play at Muirton Park?

26. Which international team plays their home games at Estadio Algarve?

27. What is the Signal Iduna Park better known as?

28. Who was Bill Shankly talking about when he said ''He belongs to the company of the supremely great like Beethoven, Shakespeare and Rembrandt'?

29. Who said 'I don't believe in God. In Spain all 22 players cross themselves. If it works the game is always going to be a tie'

30. Who said 'It was like seducing the most beautiful woman in the world. And then failing on the moment for which you did it all'? And what was he talking about?

31. Who was right when he said: 'The bacillus of efficiency has also attacked football, and some dare to ask what’s the point in playing well. I feel tempted to tell about the time they dared to ask Borges what is poetry for, to which he answered: ‘What is a sunrise for? What are caresses for? What is the smell of coffee for?'” 

32. Who said ''Ninety-five percent of my language problems are the fault of that stupid little midget'? And who was he talking about?

33. Who are 'The Little Donkeys'?

34. Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany, Ferencvaros in Hungary, Benfica in Portugal, Besiktas in Turkey. Who in England?

Which former England striker was nicknamed 'Atilla'?

36. Who is 'The Eastern Wind'?

37. What nickname links Ruben Sosa and Alberto Aquilani?

38. Which three footballers were known as 'The Three Degrees' in the 1980s. A point for each

39. Which England captain was nicknamed 'Crazy Horse'?

What name links...

40 A Colombian forward, arguably the greatest Futsal player in the world, and one of the finest midfielders of the 1980s.

41. A Japanese football team and arguably the finest Brazilian defensive midfielder of all time.

42. A Spanish Ballon d'Or winner with a recent European Golden Shoe winner?

43. One of England's finest ever uncapped players and one of England's most capped players?

44. A current Belgian international and a current France U19 star?


45. Who is Sweden's all time top goalscorer?

46. In 2004, each UEFA nation had to nominate their 'Golden Player' as part of UEFA's jubilee. Who was Germany's Golden Player?

47. Frank Lampard is Chelsea's record goalscorer. Who held the record before him?

48. Nine men have won the First Division or Premier League as a player and a manager. A point for each

49. Five teams have won the Turkish league title. One point for each.

50. Willie Angus, Donald Simpson Bell and Bernard Vann are three men to have all achieved which off-field honour?

Friday, 24 October 2014

We boast then we cower

It is never particularly nice to dissect your own team's rancid form but sometimes one must. It makes one feel better, it is cathartic and good for the soul. The rancour is out and, all of a sudden, the world feels a better place.

At Anfield, on a European night, Liverpool were taught a footballing lesson by Real Madrid. It wasn't just that Real Madrid were better - they are European Champions, after all, and plenty of teams will be given beatings by them this season - but that they looked, at points, as if they were playing a different sport to the Reds. Moreover, Liverpool looked like a different team to the one that strutted last spring. There is a line in a Proclaimers song 'we boast then we cower'. The bespectacled twins were talking about Scotland but it might as easily apply to the Reds.

Worryingly, Paul Hayward was right when he said in the first half 'Liverpool are doing lots of things right'. They were. The problem was they weren't doing enough things right and they weren't doing the basics right. It is possible to get away with catastrophic errors against sub-standard teams but against a team containing the likes of Ronaldo, Kroos and Rodriguez? It was always unlikely to end well.

Much of the focus since the game has been on Mario Balotelli and his shirt-swapping antics. This is the worst sort of football fandom. It neglects to look at what is happening on the pitch and focuses on the usual bluster and bullshit - pride, heart, chest-thumping, badge-kissing and all the rest of it. If only he cared more. If only he cared as much as us. Well, maybe, but this is scapegoating and we aren't even finding the right scapegoat.

Balotelli is performing a useful function. Such is the media's obsession with Mario that he acts as a lightning rod for Rodgers. However, to focus on Balotelli is to grab the wrong end of the stick and the wrong end of the pitch. Yes, there are problems scoring goals at present but that simply isn't as important as what is happening at the back.

But before we leave Balotelli behind, let's put the forwards to bed. Yes, it is unfortunate that Sturridge is injured. Yes, Suarez left but we need to remember a number of things here.

First, Suarez would not have been able to play, or even train, with the squad had he stayed with Liverpool until recently.

Second, yes, Suarez did leave but Liverpool were paid an awful lot of money for him. If he was not adequately replaced then questions should be asked of the club.

Third, yes, it is unfortunate Sturridge is injured but every team must be aware that their players will be injured from time to time and cannot bank on star players being fit all season.

Given points two and three, it is negligent of Liverpool to have so few options up front and it is negligent of Rodgers to have two strikers in the squad who play so infrequently (Borini and Lambert) and one abroad (Origi). It was obvious to most observers that Liverpool needed to replace arguably the best striker in the world with at least one, possibly two, players who would score a decent number of goals. Balotelli might be that man but the burden on him now is vast. Lambert was only ever going to be a bits and pieces player. Given Liverpool signed Markovic for £20m and Lallana for £26m (both of whom may come good but who were not really priority positions) then some of the blame must be levelled at the manager and the club for poorly allocating funds. Balotelli was a last minute signing but Liverpool could have pursued any number of strikers and utilised some of the Markovic or Lallana money to secure a quality striker.

The biggest problem though is in defence.  Rodgers most recent argument is that due to the Champions League he doesn't have the same level of coaching time as he did last season. This would be fair enough if, last season, Liverpool had been parsimonious in defence. Of course, they were not. There hasn't been a downward spiral in defence this year but rather a continuation of a trend. We haven't been able to defend set pieces since Benitez left.

This was laughed off last year. 'They score three? We'll score five'. Now we are terrified they'll score three. Our poor defence was masked by the brilliance or Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling. In fact, they masked myriad failings.

Liverpool lost the league last season not because of Gerrard's slip or Kolo Toure's pass or Henderson's sending off but because they conceded too many goals. 101 were scored but 50 were shipped - 13 more than Manchester City and 23 more than Chelsea. 16th place Hull conceded only 3 more goals than the Reds.

Most fans agreed that a left-back was needed (and Moreno, to be fair to him, has been better than most of the other arrivals). Most agreed a centre-back was needed. Lovren, however, so far has been an abomination. He and Skrtel are often bullied by average strikers and seem to be on entirely different wavelengths. Sometimes one seems to be marking a zone and the other seems to be marking a man. Sometimes they are marking the same person. Sometimes they seem to be marking nothing at all. There is something rotten at the heart of Liverpool's defence and, indeed, it might actually be both of them. It beggars belief that Sakho sits on the bench (it is increasingly clear that when Rodgers doesn't rate a transfer committee signing that he just benches them). It beggars belief - even with the caveat that his body was creaking - that Agger was allowed to go. It beggars belief that Rodgers hasn't taken a grip of them. He said today 'it isn't rocket science'. Well, fix it.

At right-back, it is perhaps telling that someone with 16 career appearances upon arriving at Anfield (Manquillo) already looks stronger defensively than England's starting right-back. Seeing Andre Wisdom perform well against Manchester United should have made Reds fans wince because, at present, he would walk into the Liverpool team. 

Behind the defence is one of the league's best shot-stoppers but a goalkeeper but whose distribution is exceedingly poor and who is about as comfortable dealing with crosses as Nosferatu. He isn't helped by the two banks in front of him. 

Ahead of the centre-backs, there are problems too. Neither Gerrard nor Lucas, at present, are offering enough protection to the defence which only - in turn - puts greater pressure on them. Gerrard is becoming an issue and he can't play three games in seven days. The problem is he all bar unstoppable at present but he is not offering his back four protection and, to be blunt, they need it. Imagine the vitriol if he was dropped and Liverpool lost? Perhaps Can can play that role but Liverpool needed someone to perform that role and to assist Gerrard. Given we raided Southampton endlessly over the summer one would have hoped either Wanyama or Schneiderlin would have been bought over the odds.

And, finally on defence, what has happened to Liverpool's pressing game? Last year they swarmed all over opposing teams. Harrying them, hassling them, breaking up play and defending from the front. That Liverpool seem to have moved away from the pressing system is mysterious but it seems a retrograde step. That might be because Balotelli is lazy. It might be because Sturridge and Suarez worked exceedingly hard. The whole system has changed and puts yet more pressure on defence.

So how to fix it? Go all out for Valdes, call up Sakho for either Lovren or Skrtel, drop Johnson for Manquillo, use Gerrard more sparingly and consider playing Borini. And get Origi and Wisdom back to the club as soon as possible.


Monday, 20 October 2014

He'll never do enough

How time flies when you are watching football? Life is what happens to you when you are watching Ryan Giggs, agree all.

Twelve years ago yesterday Wayne Rooney became the youngest ever goalscorer in the Premier League. The hubbub around him was immense at the start of that season and by scoring that goal, against that Arsenal team, he showed the world what he thought of the hype: it didn't faze him at all.

12 years on it is inevitable that at some point soon Wayne Rooney will become England's all-time topscorer. Unless, he leaves Manchester United he will almost certainly break their scoring record too. Both of these are achievements worthy of praise and adulation. If you had said, in 2002, that he would be England's top scorer before his 30th birthday most would have agreed that his potential had been fulfilled. Alas that isn't how English football works, laddie. It isn't enough. Whatever you've done it isn't enough. 

Let's not underestimate these achievements. The England record is huge. Anyone under the age of 45 will not recall a time when Sir Bobby Charlton wasn't England's all time top-scorer. He has held the record since 1968. It is one of those grand old features of British footballing life that generations of schoolboys can recount at will - Arbroath's 36 goals againt Bon Accord, Ted Drake's seven goals against Aston Villa, Dixie Dean's 60 goals in a season. Monuments, and touchstones, that have stood for so long they seem part of footballing life itself.

Only Lineker has really got close to Charlton but he holed out one short. It seemed, for a time, inevitable he would break the record. Michael Owen too looked a racing certainty. He raced to 36 England goals by the age of 26 but finished his career with only four more. Shearer was hamstrung by injury, missed out on the World Cup 1994 due to non-qualification, and had no qualifying games for Euro 1996.

Yet there'll be plenty of sniffing about Rooney when he does break the record and some of it will be justified. Charlton won the World Cup. Lineker was the top scorer at one World Cup (with 6) and scored 4 at the next. At both World Cups, England could reasonably think of themselves as a touch unlucky - probably not good enough to win but at least good enough to make the fans dream. Shearer top-scored at Euro 1996 as England, again, got to the mountaintop but couldn't quite make it across the River Jordan.

But Rooney? He shone, briefly and brightly, at Euro 2004 and, since then, has helped drag England to tournaments before going missing in them. He isn't quite - at international level - in the same league as those he would like to be compared to (Suarez, Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Villa, Berbatov, Eto'o, Villa, Drogba et al) let alone Messi or Ronaldo. His England record will not, I fear, be viewed as a monument to excellence but, rather, to volume - give a striker enough caps and he'll score enough goals. Few take Ali Daei's 109 international goals seriously. It just isn't viewed like Puskas's 84 in 85, Pele's 77 in 92 or Klose's 71 in 137. I fear Rooney's achievement will be like that. There's a smidge of fairness about that but only a smidge.

Despite that, it isn't really fair on Rooney. He has been a magnificent player for Manchester United and, generally, a very good one for England - though his performances at tournaments are questionable. He will, forever, be haunted by the future we painted for him as a teenager. He was never going to live up to that however brilliant he became. The future we threw over him now hangs over him. It is time we forgave him for not becoming the player we thought he would become.


Friday, 17 October 2014

Ched Evans

This morning Ched Evans was released from prison and is now a free man. This has upset a number of commentators both within the football world and beyond. This is understandable and inevitable.

Quite a few footballers have been entertained at Her Majesty's Pleasure over the years and most return to the game with a stain on their character, a sheepish look on their face and chants designed around their moment of infamy ringing in their ears. Some - like Tony Adams - truly are rehabilitated and go on to show that to the world. Others live with their crime hanging over them forever. 

The difference with Evans - different even from Graham Rix who was sentenced to 12 months in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old girl and who, upon his release from prison, rejoined Chelsea as a coach - is that he committed rape. 

That is not to deny the seriousness of the crimes of footballers who have seen the inside of a cell for dangerous driving, or drink driving, or assault, or affray but to note that rape is different and is to many people, including myself, the most horrific of crimes

Evans maintains his innocence and there are a cohort of fans who believe that he is innocent. None of us who are commenting listened to all the evidence so we must go with what the court said. He was found guilty in a court of law and his conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal.  He was found guilty of a crime that is notoriously difficult to prosecute. Far too often men who are guilty of rape are not arrested, not prosecuted and not found guilty in a court of law. That Evans was found guilty matters.

Regardless of whether he accepts he committed a crime, he has been found guilty of committing that crime, he has subsequently served his time and has been released back into the community. There are lots of voices in the media, and elsewhere, saying that he should not be able to resume his career as a professional footballer. That is the big question: should he?

The reason for their objections seems to be three-fold.

Firstly, that professional footballers - even distinctly average ones like Evans - make exorbitant amounts of money. This sticks in the craw of many people. It feels intuitively wrong that a man who has committed such a heinous crime should be wealthy. 

Secondly, that given the status of footballers in this country that he will be viewed as a role model by lots of young football fans but, particularly, young male football fans. There are worries about the signals that will be sent to those fans. 

Thirdly, that his sentence wasn't long enough. That is a legitimate opinion but, ultimately, Evans had no say in his sentencing. Maybe he should have served longer. Maybe all rapists should. We are, however, where we are. 

These are understandable concerns and should be respected. Ultimately, though, they should be put to one side.

Taking each in turn:

When someone commits a criminal offence and they serve their time they are released back in amongst us. They have to reintegrate into society. They have to earn money. They have to pay bills, taxes and all the other humdrum things we all have to do. They are, we hope, rehabilitated. We hope that they do not reoffend and that they spend the rest of their lives contributing to the wider public good or, at the very least, not breaking the law again.

It seems perverse to say then that a person that we hope has been rehabilitated cannot undertake certain jobs because of the likely rewards of that job. This is like moaning when an ex-offender wins the lottery. Once they are outside, by and large, they have the rights and freedoms that we all have.

It might not seem fair that Evans will earn lots of money but 'it not seeming fair' isn't a good enough reason to stop it. What was the point of sending him to jail otherwise? Punishment alone? Disgust at what he had done? Yes, both fine reasons but we need more than that. If we believe in the rehabilitation for the offenders we believe in it for rich ones and talented ones too.We believe in it for the one who can kick a ball about. Our principles aren't really principles until they make us think about things or make us feel uncomfortable.

It is extremely unlikely he will be a role model for many people. We know from experience that players who have been found guilty of a crime will, for the rest of their days, get an extremely hard time from opposing fans and (in some instances) from home fans. Evans will be booed at every ground in the land. He may be booed by his own fans. He may have protests outside his ground. There may be shirts burnt, petitions lodged and fans refusing to watch them until Evans leaves. It is extremely unlikely he will play for his country again. It is extremely likely that many clubs will look at him and say ''not worth the bother''. That is their right - he should have the opportunity to make a living but, like everyone else, it is neither owed to him nor guaranteed.

When the young fan turns to their dad and says ''why are they booing him, dad?' there will have to be an answer. And that answer will likely be ''because he raped someone''. When the young fan turns to their mum and says ''why can't Ched play for Wales?'' there will have to be an answer. And that answer will likely be ''because he raped someone''. When the young fan says ''why can't I get Evans number 9 on my shirt'' it will be because their parents don't want their child walking around in a shirt with a convicted rapist's name on the back.

Saying that he should be allowed to play isn't to forgive Evans or forget what he has done. Nor does it condone his actions. It is to say that I believe that people deserve a second chance and deserve to be treated like others who are released from prison. It is the hard cases that matter. Nor does a belief in rehabilitation of the offender mean we shouldn't think about the victim.

We should always remember that a young woman's life was ruined and torn apart by Evans. For all the crying from some fans about Evans' life being ruined, he will likely be comfortable for the rest of his life even if he is haunted by prison. Any trauma he feels is of his own making.

That is the price he pays for his crime. For me, and I concede I am guilty of this in my post, too much time is given to Evans and not enough focus on his victim (I won't name her - it was despicable enough that a newspaper named her and I will not be part of that). Nor is enough thought given to what happens when we focus on ''how does this affect the rapist who has been released'' rather than ''how do we help his victim lead as normal a life as possible''. Evans will be booed up and down the land (if a club takes him on). This will affect and upset him but that is as nothing to the long-term psychological effects his victim will be facing - and that will, no doubt, have been brought into sharp focus seeing his name in the press endlessly this week. Rape - even more so than most crimes - does have severe long-term psychological impact but too much focus suggests that it was merely an event. Little focus is given to the aftermath. 

It is human to consider Evans' feelings - even if we are repulsed by his crime - when he is called every name under the sun yet too little thought is given to the feelings and life of his victim. It is difficult for anyone to imagine how hard her life has been in recent years. Just because it is difficult doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt to do so.

Too often when young athletes are found guilty of sexual crimes we hear tales of ''he was a young man with a promising future'. Well, yes, he was until he committed a vile and repulsive crime. The promising future was ruined but it was ruined by his own heinous behaviour. Sympathy should be low. We are asked by the media to mourn the loss of their futures but rarely are we asked to consider the future of his victim. It is a little like those cricket fans one meets from time to time who complain about the injustice that various South African superstars didn't play enough test cricket because of the boycott on apartheid South Africa. It is - as a sports lover - a shame we didn't see more of Pollock, Proctor and co at the highest level. It is, however, bizarre to focus on that injustice when, you know, we are considering apartheid!

All that said, I wouldn't want Evans playing for my club. I am sure many fans would feel similarly reluctant about seeing him in their shirt. It may be that clubs don't touch him. 

Ultimately, though, you either believe in rehabilitation or you don't. You either believe in giving offenders - however despicable their crime and however wealthy they are - a second chance of you don't. On both counts, I do. The Football Association, or the Football Association of Wales, could ban him, I suppose. They have decided not to. Unless and until they choose to do so he should be allowed to play.

If you want to make a difference why not  donate to Rape Crisis England and Wales, Rape Crisis Scotland, or Rape Crisus Northern Ireland.


Monday, 11 August 2014


I'll be taking a bit of a break from the blog. Two weeks ago I became a father and, as you will either know or can imagine, this has left me previous little blogging time.

I shall return.


Friday, 25 July 2014


It is, Lord help us all, my 32nd birthday today. A little present from me to those happy band of brothers and sisters who still log in to see what drivel I've written.... a video of Dejan Savicevic dribbling. Enjoy!


Saturday, 19 July 2014

A thing of beauty

This blog isn't usually one for kit porn but the new Universitario kit is a thing of beauty. The 26 stars represent their 26 league titles. Wonderful stuff.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A quick post on Germany

Lots will be written in the coming days about any number of aspect of German football that England should replicate - the ownership of clubs, the number of youth coaches, the promotion of young talent at big clubs, the trusting of that talent rather than acquiring superstars globally and so forth. 

La Masia is out of the window as a model. As is Clairefontaine. As is Coverciano. The new model must be German. Unless and until someone else wins something. We need an English solution to this English problem - taking things like magpies from around the world and adapting them.

I won't add to that juggernaut. I will merely note that like all other leading nations German footballers are far more global in their outlook than English footballers. If everyone else is doing something and we aren't maybe that should be the place to start? I know I bang on about this but the point is obvious - we import but we don't export.

From the squad which won the World Cup, seven players play in major leagues elsewhere in Europe (Mertesacker, Özil and Podolski at Arsenal and Schürrle at Chelsea in England, Klose at Lazio and Mustafi at Sampdoria in Italy, and Khedira for Real Madrid). 

To that number, Toni Kroos will start next season at Real Madrid whilst both Boateng and Zieler have played overseas whilst the likes of Hummels, Reus (injured but he would have gone but for that) and Draxler are also subject to interest from clubs around the continent.

Outside the squad, ter Stegen and Gomez are playing abroad. Younger players like Can, Kreuzer, Gnabry, Yesil and Jesgarzewski.

England? At the highest level, Mancienne, Defoe, Cole and Dier. We need to up our game.


Monday, 14 July 2014

The LBITCR Team of the Tournament

So it is over - a joyous, reinvigorating World Cup is done and dusted. For some lucky devils that was their first ever World Cup. They will be in love for a long time yet and, in twenty years time, they'll be reminiscing over James Rodriguez, Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez and co.

Who will be this year's Viola - the best player on the pitch in the 1994 World Cup Final (for the 14 minutes he was on the pitch) but never heard of again?

Will there be players who had a fine tournament but who will be forever defined by their moments in Brazil? Surely there must be. Skuhravý, Polster, and Schillaci all had fine careers but it was their exploits in Italia '90 which will see them remembered.

Who will be the Saeed Al-Owairan - the scorer of a wondergoal but now little more than a footnote in footballing history*?

Will Higuain become synonymous with a sitter missed? The van Vossen, Rosenthal or Smith for the Snapchat generation.

There is plenty to write about this World Cup - hopefully a hundred or so bloggers will write a piece entitled 'in defence of Messi' - but today let's celebrate the stars. Who, if we were in the position to pick the best team of the tournament, would we pick?


Before the final most observers thought that Keylor Navas of Costa Rica was the goalkeeper of the tournament. After the final, when Neuer didn't save a shot and, in my opinion, should have been sent off the punditariat thought that Neuer should win the golden glove hands down.

On balance, this shift to the winner is right. Neuer was overlooked earlier when he had been immense throughout. He looked, at points, like he was inventing a position (not really - Jongbloed played a similar role 40 years ago. There is nothing new in footbal).

Neuer is everything one would want in a goalkeeper and rather a lot more. Numerous other goalkeepers performed well - Navas, Howard, Ochoa etc - but Neuer was outstanding. There's an argument, whisper it quietly, that he will be mentioned in the same breath as Yashin, Banks, Zoff and Maier.


Equally gifted was the German captain. Guardiola noticed that Lahm could play in the midfield as well as on either side of the defence - he was the outstanding throughout, barely putting a foot wrong. Like Neuer, and Muller, Lahm is redefining what players in his position can do.

On the other side, Daley Blind. It was his deep crosses that defenestrated Spain - first for van Persie's wonder header and then for Robben's goal. A solid defensive player who added so much to the Dutch going forward.

The only Brazilian in the 11 is Thiago Silva. He was impressive throughout the tournament but it was in absentia where his true value was shown. Without him, Brazil looked like schoolboys. With him, they looked like potential winners.

The team that charmed the world was Costa Rica. There standout player, particularly against the Dutch, was Giancarlo Gonzalez. The Group of Death barely troubled him at all and, over the course of the tournament, the defence he organised let in two goals. Against the Dutch, his performance was outstanding - one of the best of the tournament.

Central midfield

It is always difficult looking into the eyes of a player whose team lost the World Cup final. That was particularly true of Mascherano. He was the best player in the knock-out stages of the tournament - wonderful in the semi-final and final in particular - and if there was such a thing as desert in football one would say he deserved a winners' medal. The German team which won out was a superb attacking team at points. They eviscerated Portugal and Brazil. That they were limited to so few chances against Argentina was largely down to Mascherano's reading of the game, vision and work-rate. The vision was a two-way thing - not only did he have a radar like quality to snuff out attacks his passing was, at points, outstanding. No one was more offended by the ''one man team' jibe that was often levelled at Argentina - they were behind, in the entire tournament, for 7 minutes. The last 7 minutes..

Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos could all sit next to Mascherano but Schweinsteiger was the pick of the bunch. A deep-lying destroyer, like Mascherano, who showed that sumptuous skill can be allied with determination and grit. For years, he has been under-rated but that has changed forever.

Attacking trio

Given the passing, solidity and work-rate in the base of midfield there is a bit more freedom up front.

James Rodriguez had the tournament that many of us wanted Messi to have. Running games, running past players and playing football with a grin plastered across his face. His goal against Japan was the finest in the tournament - yes, there were some wonderful blasts from distance (including one from Rodriguez) - because it was so nonchalant. Few players make scoring so beautifully so easy. He was the Cruyff of this tournament.

At points people seemed to think he had arrived from nowhere. That wasn't true - he's been a wonderful player for some time - but he announced himself to the world with a series of jaw-dropping displays.

Lionel Messi starts alongside him. If only the genius had won the tournament! Then we wouldn't have to listen to the blowhards forever more about him not being an all-time great - they are to be despised. It was he who scored the late goal that won against Bosnia, he did the same against Iran and then scored two against Nigeria. It isn't inconceivable to think that Argentina wouldn't have got out the group stage without him. Instead they finished with 9 points.

Against Switzerland, he set up the winner with a sumptuous pass. He started the move that set up the goal against Belgium and played, in that game, one of the finest passes I've ever seen played at a World Cup. Admittedly, he wasn't at his best against the Netherlands or Germany (though there were flashes of his genius in both games) but he seemed to be labouring - either under pressure or fitness. The latter seems probable. Some will argue he should have won Argentina the World Cup. Others will point out that he seemed to be struggling with injury, did a Baggio in getting Argentina out of the group stages, and it wasn't as if the team that beat Argentina were a bunch of duffers.

Next to him is the second Dutchman Arjen Robben. There will be some who will never forgive him his diving but the man is a phenomenon on the football pitch. A whirling dervish who, at various points, was utterly unplayable. Some players - too man wearing the white of England - shrink in their national shirts. Robben, like most of the Germans and like Alexis Sanchez, seems to perform at his absolute peak when playing international football.

Up front, we pick the man who isn't quite a striker but who can't stop scoring goals: 
Thomas Müller. Few other players globally have his sense of awareness and sense of space. Where others chase the ball, he senses where the ball be or, if not, opens the game up for others. Probably the cleverest and cutest player playing the game. He's a one-off.

So the team is:

  1. M. Neuer (Germany)
  2. P. Lahm (Germany)
  3. D. Blind (Netherlands)
  4. G. Gonzalez (Costa Rica)
  5. Thiago Silva (Brazil)
  6. J. Mascherano (Argentina)
  7. B. Schweinsteiger (Germany)
  8. J. Rodriguez (Colombia)
  9. L. Messi (Argentina)
  10. T. Muller (Germany)
  11. A. Robben (Netherlands)

Subs: Medel (Chile), Boateng (Germany), Kroos (Germany), Herrara (Mexico), Valbuena (France), Neymar (Brazil), Navas (Costa Rica)


*No insult to Al-Owairan there. Most of us would crawl over broken glass to be a footnote in the history of this game!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Brazil - the end of a long era

There are times in football when a defeat is more than a defeat - it is a disintegration that, over time, becomes a recurring nightmare that changes how that nation thinks about football.

England against Hungary in 1953, Scotland against England in 1961, Netherlands against Germany in 1974 and - now - Brazil against Germany.

These results don't have to be huge reverses. They don't even need to be games where the loser is comphrehensively outplayed. Netherlands lost narrowly in 1974 and weren't outplayed. The result, though, echoes down the generations. English football still smarts at the name 'Hungary'.

Brazil were humiliated last night - outplayed, out thought, out fought, and thrashed hopelessly at home in a World Cup semi. It is difficult to think how it could have been worse - in the final, perhaps, or against Argentina. It wasn't the booing that would have hurt but rather the Brazilian fans applauding German passing late on in the game. That is the moment that Brazil changed forever.

Some have criticised Hansen for his comments that 'this was a low point' for the game. He was right. Not in terms of quality - Germany were magnificent and it  is scary to think Draxler, Schurrle, and Gotze on the bench (and Reus elsewhere) - but because the idea of Brazil is important to the game and that idea has been destroyed. Those who cherish that ideal will feel low today even if you are applauding the German magnificence - they were as far from the stereotype as Brazil were. The Germans were as brilliant as the Brazilians were woeful.

They are supposed to be joyous, supposed to play a certain way, supposed to be brilliant. They were rotten and wretched last night. They were leaden. They couldn't pass, couldn't tackle, couldn't organise themselves and - at points - looked as if they didn't know how to play the game. These are Brazilian players who play in some of the top sides in the world and they were amateurish.

Many will note Brazil haven't really played like Brazil since the Socrates, Eder, Falcao, Zico and Cerezo team of 1982. I was born in 1982. They haven't played as we feel they should in my lifetime. There have been great players and there have been very fine teams from the men in yellow but when did they really make the heart sing? When did they play differently from the rest of the world? No. The last truly Brazilian team was 1982.

Going forward young fans will not think of the Brazilian greats even the recent ones like Ronaldo and Kaka or the current ones like Neymar. They will just think of them as what they are: a team with a stellar history and the occasional mesmeric player. They will be remembered as a team who lucked and tricked their way to a semi-final where they were shown to be a sham. It is sad for those of us who enjoy the idea of a Brazil but this humbling has been a long time coming.