Thursday, December 23, 2010

2010, a Footballing Year in Review.

2010 was a World Cup year and in that respect was widely anticipated but possibly more in hope than genuine expectation. The year also had its' usual packed calendar for clubs on both domestic and European fronts and the early part of the year also saw the African Nations Cup - nonsensically held in the same year as the World Cup - which was held in Angola, won by Egypt and unfortunately remembered for the fatal bus attack on the Togo team as they travelled to the tournament.

In the Premiership, last season was wrapped up as Chelsea took the double and the plaudits. Arsenal and ManYoo performed to the current top Premiership level of acceptable mediocrity. Spurs and Manchester City battled it out for fourth place with the former coming through the victors. The level of celebration that accompanies finishing fourth tells you everything you need to know about football nowadays.

This season has seen a very close title race and a league with little points spread - a sign of growing mediocrity in the league as this coming together is certainly not down to an improvement at the bottom of the table. The success of Blackpool - a welcome new entrant by the way - only demonstrates this.

So who were the big winners and losers? You would argue it was Chelsea's year as they took the double but they look in steep decline so I would vote for Spurs. So long in Arsenal's shadow - and they still are until they finish above them - they have had a fabulous year in their own right with so much more to their season than just trying to beat the Gunners. Redknapp has to a fair degree 'winged it' with some daredevil football but down the years, it is White Hart Lane and not the red part of North London that has had the reputation for flair football so the faithful are happy. There is a genuine case for optimism with the other top clubs (City apart) being unable to spend vast sums. A successful foray into the Champions League coupled with the coup of signing Rafael Van Der Vaart means last season's foundations have been built on.

Manchester City have failed so far despite the huge outlay with the minimum of Champions League qualification being missed out on. Until they change the scatter gun approach of collecting forwards, they will continue to struggle. Their failure to capture fourth place was all the more galling as there was little fight put up by this year's biggest losers Liverpool. Benitez's shoddy reign - punctuated by his media marketing campaign of blaming the owners which was entirely bought by the Kop - was brought to an end in the Summer and not before time. Whilst there is little doubt Liverpool's previous owners had nothing but their own self interest at heart, to say that they did not back Benitez is nonsense. An incredibly poor transfer market record and a complete lack of understanding of the English game and psyche were his undoing. Benitez lived off a fluked second half comeback against Milan which blinded Liverpool fans to the damage he was doing. Couple that with the warring owners and what was once England's premier club now looks set for an extended spell in the doldrums. There is hope that the new owners can turn things around but it may be a long road back for the Reds and the hindrance of a 40,000 seat stadium for a club that could sell half of that again each week has not been addressed either.

Around Europe, Jose Mourinho did what he does best, turns up for a few years, wins a lot of trophies and then leaves before his stock falls. He has assured himself living legend status at Internazionale by winning an unprecedented treble whilst at the same time walking out on his contract without sanction. He is no Wenger or Ferguson in that he does nothing to build the club and has no interest in a legacy other than silverware, but as a hired gun he has no peers.

This leads us into Spain and where Mourinho now faces possibly his greatest ever challenge as he faces up to a Guardiola inspired Barcelona that many are - the 1970s Ajax and late 1980s AC Milan both might have something to say about it - heralding as the greatest club side of all time. Barcelona so far this season have been irresistible sweeping all before them with their coronation being the 5-0 hammering of Mourinho's Real. People should also remember however that Mourinho knocked them out of the Champions League last season with Inter. Barca need to lift that trophy this season if they wish to be remembered amongst the greats. Barcelona is a club oft romanced and whilst their style of play should be applauded, Mourinhos' pragmatism is not to be underestimated and whilst people daydream over pretty football, that pragmatic approach over the years has won many trophies. Try asking the Italians, they've won a few World Cups playing like that. When Mourinho arrived at Chelsea, it was the time of Les Invincibles. I commented to a friend back then that Arsenal could not keep winning 4-0 every week but that Chelsea could keep winning 1-0 every week and I was proved right. Barcelona are probably too good this season but if Mourinho is given time, they should beware.

The sub plot in Spain is the personal battle between the two finest attacking talents on the planet, Messi and Ronaldo. Their scoring rate over the last year has been nothing short of phenomenal. His orange hue and six kilograms of hair gel ensure Ronaldo is not everyone's favourite player but no one can question his effectiveness. Messi you simply sit back and enjoy, genius.

Elsewhere, in the Eredivise Ajax contrived to score 106 goals but be beaten by Steve McLaren (you may have to read that a couple of times) who has promptly gone to Wolfsburg and flopped. Bayern won the title yet again in Germany and just missed out on the treble but are currently enduring a tough season which is the usual pattern for a club coached by Louis Van Gaal. In Scotland, Rangers and Celtic continue to swap titles with the bankrupt Blue half of Glasgow currently in the ascendancy which says it all really.

So to the showpiece of the year, the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted for the first time in Africa. Before the start it had become a much maligned World Cup with anticipated poor organisation, unfinished stadiums and rampant crime all being cited as reasons for it to be a disaster. The reality was an event that South Africa delivered supremely with an utterly appalling display on the pitch provided in the main by players owned by the major European clubs, no irony there then.

It is hard to see where the World Cup goes from here, it will continue to be held and will be as popular as ever but it is plain to see that the dominance of UEFA means the players turn up half exhausted at the end of the season and in many cases with only a passing interest in the actual tournament itself. England players talked of being bored sitting around their hotel in between games, one hundred and fifty thousand pounds a week clearly has an effect on your attitude. The Champions League has supplanted the World Cup as the pinnacle of football and it is to the detriment of the World's biggest sporting showcase.

Much of the blame has to be placed at the feet of FIFA and in particularly the Swiss lawyer, one Mr Sepp Blatter who knows as much about football as the empty cup of coffee sat in front of me. FIFA answers to no one and is almost certainly rife with corruption. They paint themselves as the champion of the global fan, bringing football to Africa, away from the traditional European axis etc etc. The reality of any major Global organisation that is run as a profit making business - which FIFA is - is that when they come into contact with emerging nations or continents, they take much more than they give. It is far easier to plunder Africa than it is Europe and one can only guess as to Blatter's true motives in his various dealings. South Africa I understand is going to be busy dismantling the large and expensive stadiums it so recently built whilst FIFA can sit back and admire its' bank balance.The recent awards for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were covered recently in this blog and again, FIFA has proved itself a shady organisation at best. Change is required at FIFA and most importantly it needs a body in some form to be answerable to. This Stalinist totalitarian regime must not be allowed to continue.

As mentioned, the football was an abject disappointment. Spain ticky-tackyed their way to the title and won deservedly although they hardly hit the heights. Italy's team arrived with walking sticks, England were an embarrassment although less so than the imploding French with their ludicrous training strike. The Oranje betrayed a proud heritage with their kung fu final tactics (although had they won they would they have cared little and nor should they), Brazil were also decidedly average. The bright spots came from a young German side who have a great future in front of them and the sheer theatre provided by Maradona and his hugely talented Argentina side. Unfortunately his lack of tactical nous, his leaving behind of old heads such as Zanetti and Cambiasso and his inability to get anything out of Messi proved his undoing.

The poor football however should not reflect on the job done by the hosts South Africa who did much to provide a fabulous event - the neverending vuvuzelas aside. It is interesting to note that the further an event seems to be held from Europe, the less the problem with hooliganism seems to be. The prohibitive cost and travel logistics once you were actually in the country seem to have put the skids under any potential trouble, especially at a time when the spectre of football hooliganism in Europe seems to be raising its' ugly head. One last point to note were the swathes of empty seats that affected so many games. Again, FIFA must be taken to task on this. They dictate pricing policy and ticket distribution and they clearly failed on both counts. For this most feted, once every four years event to have so many unused seats (especially in a country where people would have literally walked tens of kilometres to attend) is a travesty so once again, shame on you Sepp Blatter.

So there we have the year 2010. A year dominated by Blatter, Messi, Mourinho and the vuvuzela. I could certainly think of a use for the latter on the former. No Nonsense.