Exciting new clubs need to hold on to best players to ensure Champions League revival is here to stay

It was a refreshing surprise to watch three Premier League clubs receive their comeuppance in this week’s Champions League matches against nominally lesser opposition who have arguably been more deserving of praise in recent times. While Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City (and Real Madrid, who lost to Borussia Dortmund) have grown accustomed to strolling through to the latter stages of tournaments off the running of players attracted to their multimillion dollar salaries and brand names, lesser lights in Europe have quietly been compensating by diligently working on their player development programmes, respecting their managers’ remit and poaching talents from right under the noses of the giant clubs. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, they seemed eager to announce themselves to the watching world and more appreciative of the occasion of the Champions League than their more illustrious opponents.

There was the irritating sense that Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City had arrived for the kind of strolls in the park they seem to expect against lesser opposition in the Premier League, without bothering to give magnificent footballing theatres such as the Amsterdam Stadium and roaring Donbass Arena the respect of preparing with the utmost commitment. Manchester City and Roberto Mancini, in particular, were guilty of approaching their game with the same leisurely attitude that has suffused many of their recent near-scares in the Premier League, and the significant defeat inflicted on them by a vibrant, hungrier Ajax side has been a long time in coming. Arsenal’s emphatic defeat against Schalke should have conveyed the worrying message to Arsene Wenger that he can no longer claim to be miles ahead as a pioneer of sculpting exciting football teams from modest resources. Chelsea’s famously granite stubbornness was comprehensively shattered by the uniform wave of noise, ambition and quality that Mircea Lucescu’s enterprising club have been displaying for some years now.

In the face of these deserved reversals, it was a telling sign of the arrogance of the Premier League clubs and inertness of football’s competitive status quo that British papers should have already been focussing on which of the talents of Ajax and Shakhtar would be next to be plucked by their vanquished opponents. Willian of Shakhtar as good as put out the come-get-me call to Chelsea by describing them as “one of the clubs he was interested in” after putting in a starring shift against them for his employers. The Daily Mail noted that he left the Donbass Arena clutching a Chelsea shirt with his name and a question mark on its back given to him by one of the club’s supporters.

However, if Chelsea represent the best of the Premier League and Shakhtar showed that they can be more than a match for them on their day, then why should the billionaire owner of the Ukranian champions contemplate selling a player that they have helped turn into a star? For too long, smaller clubs in both domestic and European competitions have been happy to maintain the competitive status quo by selling their brightest players to bigger clubs in return for hefty sums of cash. This balancing of the books has neither advanced their sporting or business ambitions, and owners of these clubs have failed to realise that the surest way to grow their brand name is by success on the pitch. By retaining a core of players that displayed dynamism and fire in overwhelming Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday, Shakhtar have generated interest in their club that could be utilised to much greater financial benefit than any one-time sale of Willian. Rather than perennially serving as a stepping board for the ambitions of others, there should no longer be heresy attached to the idea of Shakhtar or Dortmund taking their ambitions as clubs to new heights.

The Champions League will be richer and more fascinating for it. The suggestion that players such as Van Rhijn at Ajax were driven to exceed themselves in the knowledge that the Champions League represented an audition of sorts to Europe’s traditional powerhouses is an insult to the clubs who nurtured them, and a shrug of the shoulders to the idea that the tournament will ever be anything more than an annual shootout between familiar names. If these players can drive success on the pitch, money will pour into the coffers that can be used to fund more lucrative salaries for them and provide an incentive to stay put. The theory implicit in Willian’s plangent call for a big club to take him off Shakhtar’s books was that the level of quality remains higher in certain leagues. To that the owner of Shakhtar can offer the sound riposte that their club beat the best in England in a competition that already represents the apex of European football. Shakhtar’s success will in turn inspire more interest in Ukrainian club football, and so it is vital for the landscape of Champions League football to be any different than the stale, monotonous state of the last few years that Willian stays put. Much the same could be said of Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund, who has recently been the subject of much interest. The list of pretenders for the final rounds of the Champions League has grown considerably this year, and it is making for a more interesting and vibrant tournament.

Deprived of the opportunity to exert financial muscle to cherry pick players crafted at other clubs, Premier League giants may just start rediscovering their sense of obligation towards bringing through youngsters, and creating teams of hunger and with a collective idealogy. There remains something ineffably exciting about witnessing sides such as Dortmund or Ajax in action, who have clearly been the product of creative ideas, hard work and a collective sense of purpose and are now reaping the rewards of their approach. The likes of Chelsea and Man City can offer nothing so tantalising beyond lumping together star names and pitting them in a yearly Champions League glamour match with another big European name. The continuation of this state of affairs, through breaking up the bright work of many rising clubs in Europe with money and power, would be depressing to say the least.

Chelsea’s conduct in the John Terry affair of the lowest order

Of all the accusations and finger-pointing doing the rounds in the John Terry firestorm, Chelsea are almost as deserving of blame as the player. Their actions in attempting to deceive and insult the intelligence of everyone from the FA to the criminal justice system, the anti-racism campaign and the fans, have merely reinforced the impression that they are a club run along mafia lines favouring cronyism and protection of their own above truth and what they owe to the wider public. First, it was revealed that club secretary David Barnard had deliberately changed Ashley Cole’s witness statement to include that he had heard Anton Ferdinand use the word “black” when accusing John Terry of racially insulting him, when Cole had in fact initially stated hearing no such thing. This was a key (and false) alteration, as Terry’s line of defence rested on repeating abusive words that Ferdinand had accused him of saying in order to deny using them (i.e. “I didn’t call you a so-and-so”). Secondly, Chelsea then relented under overwhelming pressure to coax a statement of apology from Terry that nonetheless allowed him to omit acknowledging that he had ever directed racial language to Anton Ferdinand. Finally, they told the fans that they punished him but refused to reveal what those sanctions entailed, citing comparisons with the HR department of any company that would ordinarily refrain from revealing to the public any penalties it had imposed on its employees.

The difference between ordinary companies and Chelsea Football Club – of which they are well aware – is that football clubs have always been unique companies that are more beholden to the public than most corporates. They rely on the public to purchase their shirts, ordinary people to buy their season tickets, but also to maintain an intangible connection that has always gone beyond business into the realm of absolute loyalty. Yet in trying to use the specious analogy of an ordinary company obeying best practice in HR policy, Chelsea have insulted the intelligence of those loyal fans who might feel it their right to know what kind of punishment they have meted out to John Terry to preserve the image of their club.

The extent to which Chelsea were prepared to go to protect a handful of senior players was revealed in the brutal manner of their sacking of Andre Villas Boas last season, and has once again been on display in this tawdry episode. Yet there are some things that are greater than a single player, and even if Chelsea were now to side with the public in the name of a commitment to anti-racism and professionalism, it would seem like a political move undertaken after a careful, self-serving weighing of the pros and cons. Defend your player if you must, try not to mislead courts and commissions if you can help it, but please oh please don’t insult the intelligence of fans by claiming that you cannot reveal the sanctions the club imposed because of your commitment to high standards of company HR policy. Football has never existed within the realm of ordinary society, and public figures have always prompted public judgements. It is time Chelsea stopped acting so shiftily and talked straight with their fans, if not the general footballing public.

Pakistan Stars XI-International XI matches in Karachi a cause for celebration and praise

Just as Matthew Hayden was giving us one reason to look at cricket with fond eyes and a glimmer of excitement found once again, Pakistan and the International XI who have agreed to play there gave us another. By bringing stars such as Ricardo Powell, Sanath Jayasuria and Andre Nel to Karachi for two T20 matches against a Pakistan XI, the Sindh government has shown that terrorism and political machinations can only go so far in quashing the enduring love of the game in that country and amongst its wider constituents. Jayasuria’s presence is especially heartwarming, as it was the Sri Lankan team who were on the receiving end of that heinous attack in 2009 that put an end to international cricket in Pakistan until this weekend. Since then, I completed one and a half years of my university education, received my degree, travelled for seven-odd months and did a full year’s professional work. Such has been the gravity of the length of time in which the people of Pakistan have been starved of cricket, made worse by a country whose electrical shortages mean the national team cannot be followed with any degree of ease during their foreign tours.

Pakistan is probably not safe enough for international cricket to return with a full schedule yet, and while these matches may help, one has to hope that the contingency plans and security blueprints drawn up are of the highest quality. However, balancing such reductive fears is the contention by Arsene Wenger after the Mumbai terror attacks led to calls for England’s cricket team to return home from India that “we cannot let our lives be ruled by fear.” Otherwise, societies and people would never take the bold steps that are behind progress, and in sporting terms, behind staging the kind of spectacles that make a difference in people’s lives. Cricket in Pakistan has suffered countless body blows in recent times and been wracked by internal strife and division; in the face of this, it heartening to see help forthcoming from members of the international cricket community, and also to witness constituents of Pakistan society such as the Sindh government and cricketers themselves unite in service of their country and the sport that has been a source of such passion and positivity there. Here’s hoping the matches pass off safely, generate a great amount of attention from the public and slowly but surely help with the reintegration of Pakistani grounds on the international fixture list. If all goes according to plan, it should be a celebration of cricket as an enduring force of good against the more destructive influences that have sought to cut off its proximity and benefit to the Pakistani people.

Matthew Hayden’s brief rise from post-retirement obscurity a reminder of a great game

It was funny how it took a few choice words from Matthew Hayden, one of modern cricket’s all-time greats, to briefly relight the fire this writer once felt for the game on a daily basis. Hayden may be safely ensconced in retirement now, but the vehemence with which he hit back at Jimmy Anderson’s claims that the Australian camp was divided during the 2006/7 Ashes revealed that none of the fire and brimstone that was behind his ascent to greatness in his playing days has left him now. In calling the comparatively cheeky youngster a “B-grade bowler who got his arse whipped by Australia that many times it’s not even funny”, Hayden sounded a war cry that lurched the past into the present, and reminded us what cricket was and what it is becoming.

Powerless now to affect the seismic changes gripping the game, his words nonetheless contained memories of an era when a great team played the game with such fervour, ingenuity and sporting integrity that they elevated cricket beyond its normally parochial boundaries to capture imaginations far and wide. By providing Australia a contest that was sadly lacking throughout much of the first decade of the 21st century, England teased their greatness out of them and provided us with duels that hit the heights of what cricket was capable of as a great sport. Anderson’s allegations concerned the aftermath of the Adelaide test match in the 2006/7 series, and who can forget the way Australia overturned implausibility to chase down a 200-plus total after tea on the fifth day of that test match? Who can forget the awe-inspiring manner in which Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden propounded the concept of playing T20 cricket – before it was invented – by dispatching successive sixes and fours in the much riskier venue of a Test match? The echo of Shane Warne’s guttural roar every time he took an English wicket to provide an absorbing contest with yet another twist still reverberates around me today. Say what you will about Australia, but in the coming together of a great generation of players with a frighteningly strong will to succeed, they elevated the game to heights from which it has fallen far and long today.

How would cricketers of such integrity as Matthew Hayden have dealt with the proliferation of formats, and subsequent diluting of players’ singular commitment to their national teams and to the Test format – which remains the only mode able to showcase the game in all its richness? How would they deal with the fractured state of cricket today, a sport whose divided community and constituents’ self-serving interests have resulted in it beginning to eat itself up rather than grow as it briefly did during those heroic Ashes contests? We can only imagine, but Hayden’s enduring competitiveness brought with it a warm reassurance that the qualities that make cricket a sport loved by so many – and which were so often on display by his team – have not yet vanished completely amidst the whirl of T20 leagues, dwindling commitments and encroaching corruption. His words were – perhaps unwittingly – a cry from the wild, a shot in the arm, that evoked memories which are not so easily forgotten no matter how despondent the current picture looks. Cricket remains a game of greatness underneath all the fluff that has recently descended on it – and one of its giants reminded us of just a fraction of that greatness by thankfully refusing to let bygones be bygones just because of an inconvenient retirement.

Senegal redefine the phrase ‘bad loser’ in African Cup of Nations farce

The Confederation of African Football has acted with great merit in throwing Senegal out of next year’s African Cup of Nations following the riotous behaviour of their fans in the match against Ivory Coast over the weekend. The worst, most petulant, megalomaniacal face of Africa was on display in that match, where the Senegalese home crowd reacted to going 2-0 down in the match by starting fires, hurling missiles and generally threatening serious violence completely disproportionate to the event on show. “Football is a religion in Africa” and other such quotes do not come close to sufficiently apologising for what must rank as one of the worst cases of bad loser syndrome in the sporting annals. Culturally, the hostile reaction of fans in the face of defeat brought to mind the equally arrogant, masochistic machinations of those in African countries who attacked foreign embassies following the release of a perceived anti-Islam video in the US. It is time to grow up. An unintelligent video made in bad faith is nothing more than that, and a loss in a football match should be treated with sporting disappointment rather than as a trigger for going crazy and assaulting everyone associated with the opposition. It is the sense that the home fans would have committed a crime as serious as murder out of as trivial a source as a childlike inability to swallow a loss in a game that is so infuriating. Once Senegal gets its house in order it can step back into the football fold, but in the meantime, it would do well to send everyone in that stadium back to their mothers and fathers for some basic life lessons.

Turning a blind eye to ever-increasing signs that cricket is gripped by corruption will end badly

Although the ICC have offered plausible explanations for why they have commented so little on the sting that caught out six umpires involved in and around the World T20, it is still noticeable how quickly that story has faded. Cricket is not a sport that can afford to treat stories on how those meant to be in charge of protecting the laws of the game were willing to cheat with short-term, absentee memories. The accumulated drip-drip nature of scandalous revelations regarding match-fixing has reached levels now where it is not unreasonable to fear that corruption is endemic and entrenched behind the scenes, stretching from players to officials, boards to governing bodies. The three Pakistan players that were caught out in 2010 tends to drown out the whispers surrounding certain Sri Lankan players for some time now; the involvement of the South African team around the turn of the century is recalled when one considers the exile of Marlon Samuels for two years for providing information to bookmakers; Danish Kaneria’s lifetime ban from county cricket has parallels to allegations of fixing in the Indian Premier League. Put together, cricket has a serious problem. One has only to look at the extraordinary success with which Lance Armstrong covered his tracks for so long in cycling to know that it is foolish to presume that all is as it seems in a sport, or as its protagonists would have us believe.

Yet no-one is asking the hard questions in the weeks following the bombshell news about the umpires. Why is it still only independent news channels that are making us aware of a greater problem behind the scenes, with the game’s governing body always playing catch-up? Does the fact that umpires who are sanctioned by the ICC are corruptible mean we have to consider the sincerity of commitment of a financially-dependent institution to tackling wealthy mafias that have always preyed on cricket? If the International Cycling Union aided and abetted Armstrong in getting away with his crimes for so long, there is no reason for cricket fans to place their trust in an organisation that has so far failed to deliver results in the fight against corruption and has often seemed more willing to turn a blind eye than shed a light on the sport’s ugly side.

Sportsmen have always had a code of silence when it comes to protecting their world. No-one inside golf ever felt the need to spill the beans on Tiger Woods’s real personality behind the carefully packaged image; more regrettably, the ominous code of omerta enforced in cycling meant that many were prepared to take the secrets of Armstrong and his allies to “the grave” (in Tyler Hamilton’s words). It would be extremely interesting to be a fly on the wall in most cricket dressing-rooms, and hear what players have to say about the match-fixing disease away from the cameras. Rather than expressing the same amount of shock as they did to the public about the Pakistan scandal in 2010, the regrettable suspicion abides that some might have been laughing at how foolish they were to have been caught.

If the ICC continues to deal with match-fixing on a case-by-case basis, rather than designing a comprehensive program to smoke out and clear out every place in the game in which corruption has taken a hold, cricket will suffer a body blow from which its fragile popularity may not recover. The number of fans who have turned away from the game in Pakistan as a result of the failure to protect – and subsequent banishment – of two of its best cricketers should not be underestimated; if that was merely the tip of the iceberg, cricket needs to know now because the longer corruption is allowed to fester in the game, the worse the ramifications will eventually be.

St George’s Park is merely the first step on the long road to success

With the opening of the FA’s fabulous new national football centre, St George’s Park, there might be a temptation for England to believe that they have taken a massive leap forward in their chances of becoming a top footballing nation. This would be short-sighted and dangerous.

While St George’s Park is undeniably an impressive, technologically state-of-the art facility, it will not address the pressing questions of unearthing technically able footballers in every region of England. The good work has only just started, and there will need to be carefully-implemented mechanisms to ensure that the kind of enlightened coaching that will take place on St George’s Park’s 11 outdoor pitches can filter down to the youth training programmes of every professional club in the country. For it is here that the gems of future generations of footballers will be discovered, and only after this process that St George’s Park will come into the picture as a place signifying that they have made it to the big-time. Alan Hansen claims that footballers do not improve on the technical skills in their possession once they are past fifteen years of age; up until that point, all their significant tutoring will take place under the watch of their hometown clubs.

The model for national footballing excellence is quite rightly Spain, and it is striking how many clubs in Spanish football have contributed to both producing stars of the future and ensuring that they all are comfortable at playing a fluid passing game. Spain is not just made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Isco of Valencia, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain of Bilbao, Adrian of Atletico Madrid, Sergio Canales of Racing Santander. These are but some of the names that have ensured Spain’s U21s and U19s look well-set to continue the record-breaking path forged by the seniors, and the range of clubs that have made up the composition of the squads is testament to a common winning formula that has been implemented at youth level across Spanish clubs. Partly to do with using resources the right way –Jimmy Burns has described how money was poured into building top-class facilities in every village and city football club in the land after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – ,partly the product of a footballing culture that emphasises enjoyment and love of the ball over winning at all costs, what is noticeable is how this concerted effort to nurture cultured footballers reached every corner and most clubs in Spain. As a result, the country now boasts a system that throws up more talents than their national teams can accommodate, and they all come to the national team already acclimatised in a style of play that has been practised by club teams across the country. While England has built an impressive totem to their ambition in the form of St George’s Park, none of the funds have yet gone towards clubs’ youth facilities at every level – nor has there been evidence of a plan to implement a homogenous vision of how budding footballers in the country will play the game. Meanwhile, in the absence of such a plan, the recruiting ambition of Premier League clubs mean that a great number of young English footballers are frozen out in favour of their more technically able overseas counterparts.

These are the hard questions that the FA have yet to provide answers for as they seek to correct England’s stagnation and decline at international level. Spain have set the bar wondrously high, but in doing so, have also given clear signs of how to approach building the right footballing culture. England will have to bury far deeper than the shining foundations of St George’s Park if it is serious about restoring pride to the national game.