Monday, September 8, 2008

Croatia boss must say no to West Ham jokers

Watching "new" countries perform well against the more established nations is one of the few enjoyable activities international football has on offer. Even as an England fan (but not a fanatic), it was somewhat heartwarming to see Croatia reach Euro 2008.

One of the key reasons for their recent success has been their coach, Slaven Bilic. The young manager is a breath of fresh air in what can be the grey and drab arena that is international football. For that reason, I hope he doesn't decide to jump ship and replace Alan Curbishley at West Ham.

Although I would love to see Bilic in England one day, as he could surely show some of the other managers how to behave, the circumstances surrounding Curbishley's departure will hopefully rule-out a move to Upton Park. Bilic still has work to do with Croatia, and would be wasted at West Ham.

Bilic was quoted by as saying: "
It is great that I'm linked to the club from the best league in the world but it doesn't make my work with the national team harder. In training we always make jokes. Players tease me to take them to England as well. The interest of West Ham is proof that we are doing a great job with the national team."

Of course, Bilic played a season-and-a-half for West Ham in the mid-1990s and may me tempted. My message for him would be this: Slaven, you are far more appreciated where you are and the more you do for Croatia, the more your profile grows in England. West Ham are in a mess and you would do well to steer clear of it until things improve...assuming they do.

Then again, Bilic may realise the English league is not as good as he thinks when his Croatia side play England later in the week. After dispatching England at the qualifying stage for Euro 2008 (well, the fact the team was awful didn't help), would anyone bet against Croatia doing exactly the same again?

Some England fans don't get it...

Following my comments about how some England fans have a superiority complex I received a couple of emails asking what I meant. Allow me to explain. On a basic level, it's that some still think England have a God-given right to qualify for every major tournament.

Now, before I go into full-on rant mode, let me make it clear I am English myself. But that doesn't mean I lock myself in a room and ignore how a worrying large proportion of England fans think and behave.

Following England's drab 2-0 win against Andorra on Saturday (Sep 6) I flicked through a number of football forums, expecting to see the usual whinges about "foreign managers are c**p" or "more players from our team should have played" and, while there was a lot of that, a few other posts jumped out at me.

The most ridiculous was the suggestion teams like Andorra should have to pre-qualify for the qualification stage as they have no chance of actually winning the group or doing enough to get anywhere near qualifying. So why did England only beat Andorra 2-0? Why did Macedonia beat Scotland, who are ranked one place and just a handful of points below England in the world rankings?

Furthermore, why is the United Kingdom - the legal country - allowed to enter four different football teams (I know the historic reasons, I'm saying it's daft)? If France tried to enter a four teams for every tournament, there would be outrage among the so-called England die-hards.

Perhaps the problem is that those who follow England so closely, those who put flags on their uninsured cars and one bedroom, crumbling flats think that the only way to be "patriotic" is to support the England football team, no matter what. If so, it's an issue with wider society rather than football - and there are clearly many issues there.

But as long as this section of support believe the hype about how wonderful the English players are, instead of realising the national team has been distinctly average since Italia '90, more ridiculous excuses will be pulled out with every result...

On a final note, I also find it ironic how those who bang on with the line "don't believe the media, they are anti-our club" happily accept the Great Lie about how wonderful the so-called Golden Generation of English players really was. And it's painful to observe.

Juve chief puts Europe before league

Any remaining doubts that clubs cared more about their domestic league than winning the Champions League have probably been dispelled following comments from Juventus chairman Giovanni Cobolli Gigli.

The Italian side's supremo admitted the "league is important but we want a good run in Europe more this year and my players have told me that they think the same". More interesting, perhaps, were his comments about the club being a "worldwide brand" - something the clubs at the very top seem to worry about more than anything else.

Gigli told La Gazzetta dello Sport: “I want to see Juventus in Japan for the Club World Cup because the Champions League is my main priority. The League is important but we want a good run in Europe more this year and my players have told me that they think the same.

“I want us to be the masters of Europe because we are a worldwide brand and I want us to succeed with a more Italian Juve. Alessio Secco and Claudio Ranieri are good at identifying young talent and developing gifted starlets like Iago and Albin Ekdal for example.

“Then we have the Italian youngsters, like Giovinco who will soon sign a new contract. Along with Mario Balotelli, who has talent and character, I think Giovinco will be the future of the Italian national side."

Fortunately, the second-half of his comments are more promising. If a club can be turned into a worldwide brand without having to sign ridiculous numbers of worldwide players, then the tradition and connection with the fans can be maintained. In reality, though, that's not an easy thing to do, as many clubs have shown before.

It is possible - how possible is questionable - that when top-flight football either implodes or explodes, some form of Champions League structure will be all that remains. A few teams across Europe pooling their resources to create a continent-wide tournament. Perhaps we are already going that way?

For the comment made by the Juve chief hardly express an unusual sentiment, as clubs are increasingly determined to win the Champions League rather than anything else. What is a worry, though, is that Juventus are playing in one of the world's top-three leagues and don't put the pursuit of that title as their number one priority.

Then again, a certain club have been doing that in England for some time, and have reached two finals and lifted the cup once in the past few years...

Rangers star snubs Scotland - report

Following my recent comments about the state of international football, I was not too surprised to read a report in this morning's Daily Record claiming Rangers player Lee McCulloch has told the Scottish FA he does not want to be considered for selection as long as George Burley is in charge.

If McCulloch has actually told the SFA this, he should be given a clear-cut answer: If you don't want to play under Burley, you'll never play again. Because why should a player be able to walk away from the international stage, only to walk back in a year or so?

Without wishing to go over old ground, footballers used to be proud to play for their country, whether it be England, Scotland, Australia or Senegal. A player would always try his best for his club in an attempt to be spotted by his national manager, hoping to one day pull on his country's jersey alongside other players.

According to the Record, McCulloch "will refuse to play for Scotland again while George Burley is in charge". The newspaper also claims they have reason to believe "the Rangers star is one of a number of leading internationals who have lost faith in the new manager just four games into his tenure."

I watched the game between Macedonia and Scotland - if only because I wanted Scotland to win to increase their chances of moving above England in the world rankings next month. Even though I'm English myself, the unjustified superiority complex shown by some rabid sections of the support disgusts me. One of the reasons I'm not too sad football is dying, perhaps...

But back to the Macedonia game. For those who didn't see it and haven't seen the result, Macedonia won 1-0, though Scotland should have been awarded two penalties in the space of about five seconds and did, at times, dominate. The main problem appeared to be the surprisingly high temperature Macedonia and Scotland's lack of end-product.

I couldn't see any reason why a player would blame Burley for the result - with the possible exception of not playing Shaun Maloney from the start (although his time on the bench at Aston Villa may have left him with some rust). What Scotland need now is to put this setback behind them and try and pick up points elsewhere.

They showed in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign they can beat the likes of France and Italy, so for the likes of McCulloch to turn his back on his country, if that is what he has done, disgusts me, is worthy of a ban from all future Scotland matches, and shows, yet again, the mess this once-great game is in.

Man City after Essien and Gerrard?

I've always believed Sunday tabloids exist more for entertainment than news reporting, but today's News of the World really does take the biscuit. In black and white, on their back page, is an article claiming Manchester City boss Mark Hughes has "targeted an incredible double swoop for Steven Gerrard and Michael Essien in January".

Oh, and their billionaire owners are "set to splash the cash to make the world's first £500,000-a-week player". Now, I'm not one to make predictions (okay, that's not true, as I clearly predict top-flight football is terminally ill), but I can't see either transfer happening for so many reasons.

The first is that Chelsea are unlikely to do any business with Man City. Even though Roman Abramovich doesn't have the money of City's billionaire Arabs, he has enough to keep players at Stamford Bridge if he so desires. Robinho leaving Real Madrid for Man City - instead of Chelsea - also ruffled a lot of feathers.

Secondly, there is a good chance Liverpool will be taken over sooner than later. If they are taken over by Dubai International Capital (DIC), there are also unlikely to do any business with Manchester City. Even if a takeover doesn't occur, it's hard to imagine Gerrard leaving Liverpool. Money can buy you a lot of things but, with some players at least, there are limits.

Tabloids, like a good piece of cod, need their "sources" and the News of the World article includes one. A "City source" said: "Mark knows money is no object but he also wants to bring in the kind of players who will fit in with his plans, not just spend massive money for the sake of it. Gerrard and Essien in the same midfield would be incredible. They would fit together perfectly and wouldn't have to take time adapting to the English game in the same way as any big foreign name."

Perhaps the scariest thing about this is that, even though it's hard to imagine either player moving to Man City, everybody is already assuming the January transfer window will see an obscene amount of money being thrown around at any player with a half-recognisable name. And the law of averages suggests that if enough offers are made, enough players will eventually sign.