Friday, August 28, 2020

The English Game

I have just finished watching a six-part series on Netflix, "The English Game" about the early days of football in England, around 1880s. The series are very good as it includes a strong historical component beyond football on the industrialization of Britain and the enormous changes that English society underwent in the second half of the 19th century.
This was also the period when football started becoming the modern game that was to conquer the world, and this is exactly where the storyline is set: the FA Cup had always been won by aristocratic clubs, where Old Etonians dominate, including in the English Football Association (FA), setting the rules of the game. On the other side are the upcoming teams organised around industrial workers in Lancashire; despite professionalism being illegal, a factory owner "hires" two Scottish players for his team in Darwen. Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter make Darwen a competitive side, but when Suter receives a better offer from their rivals Blackburn it leads to drama and even to some of the first football violence.
With Suter as captain, Blackburn make it to the FA Cup final as the first workers' team ever. They successfully fight against the FA's attempt to throw Blackburn out of the competition due to professionalism, with the inspired help of Sir Arthur Kinnaird, Old Etonian's open-minded captain, and go on to win the first FA Cup final for a workers' club; 2-1 after extra time.

Of course, as a history and football fanatic I have looked up how far the history in the series is correct.
Lord Arthur Kinnaird was in fact the founder of Old Etonians, and still today has the record of being the man who has played most FA Cup finals: nine, of which he won five (three with another team, Wanderers, and two with Old Etonians). He was a prominent banker who also went on to become President of the FA for 33 years and was part of the 1882 Old Etonians team that won the FA Cup against Blackburn Rovers, which stands as the last time an amateur team won the FA Cup. Fergie Suter was indeed playing for Blackburn Rovers in that same match in 1882, but neither did he win or score the winning goal. It was however, as depicted in the series, the first time a workers team had made it to the FA Cup final.
In 1883 Old Etonians, captained by Kinnard, made it to yet another the FA Cup Final, this time to face Blackburn Olympic. Blackburn Olympic won 2-1 and became the first workers' club to win the FA Cup. As in the series they won 2-1, after extra time, which Kinnard had accepted to play instead of a rematch (as he does in the series). But contrary to the series, Suter did not play that match, since he was playing for Olympic's rivals of Blackburn Rovers!
Blackburn Rovers won the next four FA Cups in 1884, 1885, 1886 and 1887, with Fergie Suter on the team, but never against Old Etonians.
In the first part of the series Old Etonians and Darwen play an FA Cup quarterfinal that ends in a 5-5 draw, and later Old Etonians win a third rematch as they refuse to go into extra time, because Darwen must then travel from Lancashire twice for replays (2-2 and 6-2). This indeed happened in 1879, with Kinnaird and Suter also playing for each respective team. Old Etonians went on to win the 1879 FA Cup (defeating Clapham Rovers 1-0 in the final), but the title remains tainted by the otherwise legendary clash against Darwen.

While the issue of professionalism in the English game, as depicted in the series, was real, it was far from limited to Suter or Blackburn; many teams in industrial towns in the Midlands and northern England were at the time paying players to play for them (in particular Scots), and it had indeed become a contentious issue in the 1880s, although throwing out the FA finalists of Blackburn did not happen as described in the series. That said, in 1884 Preston North End (winners of the 1889 FA Cup and first winners of the Double) were indeed accused of professionalism by the London club Upton Park, who asked the FA to void the result. But Preston North End were a powerful club that threatened to withdraw from the FA alongside many other strong clubs that were more or less openly paying their players.
This threat also appears in the series by Blackburn and Darwen. But in real life it led to the FA in 1885 accepting that players were paid, thus opening the doors fully for professionalism in football.

Curiously, the leftover aristocrats did form an Amateur Cup in 1893, and even a breakaway Amateur FA in 1907. But as it was dominated by aristocrats it was completely isolated and had by the outbreak of WWI broken up and been reincorporated into the FA.
A more curious expression of the glorification of the Gentleman-Amateur in football was the creation of the Corninthian Football Club in 1882, as a team for the best amateurs in England. The team attracted some of the best players in England, but refused to lower themselves to play the FA Cup, where they would probably have been competitive with the players they had (they did beat Blackburn in a friendly match in 1884). When playing matches they even refused to take penalties, and put pride in not warming up or overextending themselves. Corinthian FC toured the world and were instrumental in bringing the game to other parts of the world (SC Corinthians in Brazil are directly named after them), but by WWI had fallen out as a final leftover of a foregone time.

Considering the global billion-dollar sport that football is today, "The English Game", despite its liberties with historical facts, is very interesting and entertaining for anyone interested in the history of football. But as with any historical TV show, do not believe it at face blank!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Bayern Munich champions

There must be a certain strangeness in celebrating with “We are the Champions” in an empty stadium. But that is nevertheless what Bayern Munich did after their 1-0 victory against Paris St. Germain in the UEFA Champions League. They deserved the victory although the Parisians had some  big chances that, were it not for the extraordinary Manuel Neuer, could have given them their first title. But the Bavarian side largely seemed in control and Kingsley Coman’s header was enough to give them the title.
In the end it was a good final, but not as memorable as expected, although we will all remember the final with no spectators!

Friday, August 21, 2020

The owners of the Europa League

Sevilla did it again: they have won their sixth Europa League title since 2006 and is surely the most dominant team in this tournament. But also consider the fact that they have won six European titles since 2006!
It was a fantastic first half with a 2-2 score in an intense match, where both sides had been in the lead: Luuk de Jong had scored two headers for Sevilla, while Lukaku had scored on penalty and Godin on a header. Despite the parity, I had the feeling that Sevilla had an edge against an Inter Milan side that seemed more nervous on the night. The second half was more controlled, with Sevilla getting the lead late in the match and cruising to the title with experience and a certain degree of cynical time wasting.
Whom I feel really sorry for in Romelu Lukaku: he misdirected the ball into his own net following Diego Carlos' wide bicycle kick, and thus, in my view, scored the goal that gave defeat to his own side (Diego Carlos has nevertheless been credited with the goal). An unlucky finish to Lukaku's great season.

I watched the match under lockdown at home. I would have loved to have someone to debate with during the match, which was very eventful. The problem of discussing with the TV is that despite the fact that I am always right (I would anyway), is that they do not seem to listen to me!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Looking forward to a great final!

Olympique Lyon started the match well, and it could indeed have been a fantastic match against Bayern Munich, had it not been for the French side's inefficiency and the German side's efficiency. After Serge Gnabry had made it 0-2 for the Germans, the match was largely over, although one must commend Lyon's continued but feeble attempts at turning it around (Barcelona could learn something). But Bayern Munich were simply way too good, and in the second half appeared to even shift down a gear, even after Lewandowski made it 3-0.
Bayern Munich nevertheless has some weaknesses that Lyon saw in the initial minutes: a forward defense that can be outrun by fast strikers (very fast, as none of the Bayern defenders are particularly slow), which Paris St. Germain certainly has.
Something both Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain showed in each of their semifinals that they will punish mistakes; this cost dearly to both Leipzig and Lyon, and shows that they both have to be fully concentrated throughout the match.
With these two teams this looks to be one of the most memorable finals of all time in a tournament that given all these COVID-19 circumstances has been and will remain, one of the most memorable Champions League seasons ever. I regret that I will have to watch the final alone, in my house, without even the possibility of finding a good pub to watch it; but I will try to make the best out of it of a final that I have huge expectations about!

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

PSG's first Champions League final

Paris St. Germain had learnt from its mistakes against Atalanta, and with Kylian Mbappe and Angel DiMaria in the starting lineup they never looked back. Angel Di Maria, besides scoring the second goal, set up both other goals, headers by Marquinhos and Juan Bernat, and Neymar, except for the fact that he should have scored a goal, is concentrated and participating in the buildup. Paris looks like a team that really wants to win the title, and whoever they meet in the final will have to control their outstanding attacking players.
Except for the fact that PSG played a great match, there is not much to say about RB Leipzig. They seemed a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the occasion,  and made some mistakes in defense that PSG promptly punished, in particular in Juan Bernat's goal, where the German side appeared naive. They have been a refreshing side in this season's Champions League, but today surely did not show that they should belong in the final.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Sevilla-Inter Milan final

Sevilla and Inter Milan are the two most successful sides in the UEFA Europa League/Cup since its creation in 1971: Sevilla has been in five finals, and won them all (2006, 2007, 2014, 2015, 2016), while Inter Milan have been in four finals, and won three (1991, 1994, 1998).
Sevilla has made it to their sixth final as if the cup belongs to them. While Manchester United had its moments in the semifinal, one never felt that Sevilla was nervous or that they would not be able to turn around being 0-1 behind, and indeed, they made it with a well-deserved 2-1 victory.
But they will not have it easy against an Inter Milan side that under Antonio Conte appears confident and plays with discipline and organization. In their 5-0 victory against Shakhtar Donetsk was achieved by these qualities as well as a superb attacking due in Romelo Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez (each one scored two goals) that Sevilla's defense will have to control to have a chance.
Although I never bet, I think that Inter Milan has a small edge to take the Cup that Sevilla has won so often!
Don't miss it!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Ha ha ha Bartomeu

I just read that Barcelona's President rejected signing Alphonse Davies because he was Canadian:
https://ar.marca.com/claro/futbol-internacional/barcelona/2020/08/15/5f380746268e3e216b8b45b2.html?intcmp=MODCLAR01

With a leadership like that, no surprise that Barcelona is doing like they are!

Magnifique Lyon!

There was another surprise today as Olympique Lyon defeated highly-rated Manchester City 1-3 to make it to the Champions League semifinals, where they will be facing mighty Bayern Munich.
Although it is a surprise, the French side were far better than Manchester City. They were extremely organised and concentrated, in my view the best organised team of the 4 semifinalists, and their counterattacks, after Manchester City seemed on the verge of scoring where deadly, as Moussa Dembele scored the two winning goals after Raheem Sterling had missed the biggest goal in Champions League history!
There was some refreshing non-VAR controversy regarding Lyon's second goal: The Argentine commentators on ESPN were not fully in agreement as a player in clear offside jumped over the ball to let Dembele alone through to score. Did he influence the play or not? The goal was given, in my view correctly, and I am happy to say that the great Mario Kempes agrees with me!

Friday, August 14, 2020

Super Bayern Munich

8-2 is never a score you expect in a Champions League quarterfinal, but it was the score today, when Bayern Munich took apart FC Barcelona in what some people had called the "pre-final" of the Champions League.
The Bavarian side was 4-1 ahead at halftime in what reminded me of the infamous 1-7 World Cup semifinal match in 2014, and of the 2013 Champions League match when Bayern defeated Barcelona 4-0.  And surely Bayern Munich never put a break on their attacks, and eight goals was, if anything, not enough. The German side was simply outstanding; all their players performed to the highest level, with good ole' Thomas Muller, scoring two goals, truly at his best. The 19-year old Canadian, Alphonse Davies, also made a huge impression, in particular his build-up for Bayern's 5th goal (by Coutinho). Anecdotally, young Davies has an interesting life-story, as he was born to Liberian parents at Budumburam refugee camp in Ghana, moving to Canada in 2005. I was living in Ghana in 2005 (and have visited Budumburam a few times) and later lived in Liberia. I am sure that Mr. Davies is starting a glorious career!

And about Barcelona: you prove your greatness in adversity, and this Barcelona side is not great. They never looked as if they believed in a result (even when they equalized to 1-1, one had the feeling that Bayern would overrun them), and they were disorganized and slow. Sergi Roberto was probably substituted because the match was supposed to be played without spectators, and he was, alongside many of his teammates, a spectator.
Regarding Lionel Messi, we are used to him being petulant when things are against him (we have seen it with Argentina), and not doing anything to pull his team up, and this was also the case today; he looked as if he had given up by Bayern's second goal. That is no way to behave for a captain, but even less for a player who is supposedly the best in the world.
Barcelona will probably undergo massive changes in the next months, and in the meantime this will be the first Champions League semifinals since 2007 without any Spanish teams!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Historical RB Leipzig

Only 11 years after the club was founded, RB Leipzig just made it to the Champions League semifinals after defeating Atletico Madrid 2-1.
Atletico Madrid are hard to like because of their defensive awaiting style that almost seemed a bit sad today as Leipzig moved the ball around and was really the only creative team on the pitch. In the second half Dani Olmo finally brought the Saxon side ahead, which forced Atletico Madrid to wake up. The young Joao Felix entered the pitch and he gave Atletico Madrid some "happiness" ("alegria", as Mario Kempes said, commenting the match on ESPN), and he was also the architect of the equalizer, as he scored on a penalty against himself. Atletico Madrid continued pressing against a Leipzig side that looked tired, but on a counterattack three minutes before the end Tyler Adams was a bit lucky to have his shot deflected into a 2-1 lead and eventual victory.
RB Leipzig will face Paris St. Germain, and the French side will be favourites. But RB Leipzig have certainly shown they are a competitive side and will play without pressure, so they should certainly not be discounted yet!
I will be supporting them!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Paris in the semifinals

I felt sorry for Atalanta, who played a great match, and seemed headed for a historic semifinal after Mario Pasalic had given them a first half lead. But in the last minutes of the match the lead fell apart as Marquinhos equalised and Eric Chuopo-Moting gave them the victory goal after a build-up by Kylian Mbappe.
Mbappe and Chuopo-Moting both came in in the second half to give more power to an attack that completely depended on Neymar (who had two enormous misses in the first half), and it helped against an Atalanta side that seemed more and more tired as the match advanced, despite them playing an excellent match throughout.
But in the end I feel that Paris deserved the victory after they have kept on pressing against a difficult opponent, but surely they will have to play better to advance to the final: why not start with Mbappe?
It will be Paris St. Germain's first CL semifinal since 1995, so they have already improved from all their previous years!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Monday match

I don't like Mondays. And today's Europa League Monday match between Manchester United and FC Copenhagen was a disappointment worthy of a Monday.
The historical part of the match was that two Norwegian managers who had both played on Norway's 1998 World Cup side faced one another: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for Manchester United and Staale Solbakken for FC Copenhagen.
The Danes started well, but as the Argentine commentator on FOX Sport said: they need to score on their chances. And they certainly did not, and as time wore on they became slower and took no risks. Despite this, they were a better side than a very bad Manchester United side, which only seemed to depend on occasional bursts by some of its star players. It had to go into extra time for Anthony Martial to be awarded a very small penalty (I guess that the referee just wanted it all to be over with as well) that Bruno Fernandes converted against FC Copenhagen goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson, who was without a doubt outstanding in an otherwise tiring match.
Manchester United will face the winner of Wolverhampton-Sevilla.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Champions League 2019-20 Quarterfinals

I must admit that I hugely enjoyed watching the round of 16 matches the past week, and watching Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals and semifinals for the next two weeks will be great. And as they are only played as one match knock-outs, on a neutral venue, there should be extra excitement!
The quarterfinals are as follows:

  • RB Leipzig-Atletico Madrid: Both of these teams knocked out last years' finalists, Tottenham and Liverpool respectively. Atletico Madrid shocked the defending champions, and will be looking for yet another shot at the title that has always eluded them despite three finals.
  • Paris Saint Germain-Atalanta: Atalanta are probably the surprise side in this years' CL, but have in my view not really been tested against one of the best sides. We should expect this to happen now as PSG has their eyes firmly set finally being able to have a shot at the title; they have only been in one semifinal (1995), and their last previous quarterfinal was in 2016. I would bet on them making it to the semifinal, at least.
  • Manchester City-Olympique Lyon: Two teams who have a decent Champions League record over the last 20 years, but have never been in a final, but each have been in one semifinal each (Manchester City in 2016 and Lyon in 2010). Manchester City took out mighty Real Madrid, highly deserved, while Lyon eliminated the elderly Juventus side (and cost the Bukowski- loving banker, Maurizio Sarri, his job). Manchester City has always had ambitions to get a CL title, and will see this as a great chance. At the same time a young Lyon side will play without pressure in a surely exciting match!
  • FC Barcelona-Bayern Munich: This is certainly the match most people are waiting for. FC Barcelona has not had a good season, and will look to redeem itself in the CL. Lionel Messi was again outstanding in the 3-1 victory over Napoli, and people seem to expect him to carry the side. In the meantime, Bayern Munich totally cruised to the final via Chelsea, and are perhaps slight favourites to make it to the quarterfinal. However, with Messi and in a knock-out, anything can happen!
Be sure to have some beers if you, like me, are watching these matches alone and locked down at home!

Saturday, August 08, 2020

The importance of Jurgen Klopp

I just heard this BBC documentary about Jurgen Klopp, and would greatly recommend it:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct0q0y
It shows that he combines incredible football intelligence and work, with a unique personality. It does not surprise me, but it makes my admiration all the greater for Mr. Klopp.
The world, even beyond football, needs more people like him.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

The Europa League 2019-20 quarterfinals

During this past week I have enjoyed watching the Europa league last-16 fixtures that were seriously delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am in fact somewhat glad that football can provide a little relief in this my sixth month of lockdown, although I would love a pint in a pub while watching....
We now have the following EL quarterfinals:

  • Shakhtar Donetsk-Basel
  • Inter Milan-Bayer Leverkusen
  • Manchester United-FC Copenhagen
  • Wolverhampton-Sevilla
Both the Europa League and the Champions League will, due to the pandemic, take place as mini-tournaments over the next couple of weeks, in Germany and Portugal respectively. For fans (who will nevertheless be able to attend the matches), this will be a replacement for all the tournaments we have missed this summer, and maybe the format will be a success. More interesting will be whether these tournaments will lead to different outcomes than what would be expected from the more traditional format: teams focused completely on this and playing only one match, without spectators, after such long breaks. It would appear that this format will be more open for surprises, why it will be very interesting to follow!
UEFA appears to have taken strict measures regarding COVID-19. Beyond playing without fans, teams are completely isolated in their hotels (even from their management, which is perhaps only pleasant...), and players are routinely tested. But some measures appear more symbolic, such as not shaking hands before the match (appears redundant considering how close contact that players undergo during the match) or prohibiting the exchange of shirts after each match (after 90 minutes of close contact and the need to wash the shirts anyway, this appears redundant). 
In any case, someone recently told me that the virus spreads over a distance of 600 meters, which would make any measure redundant anyway, except for every human living in sealed bubbles 600 meters apart...

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Gracias Iker

Iker Casillas is retiring. He is certainly one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and one of the gentlemen of the sport, of which there are few left. He won it all with Spain and Real Madrid, and it is therefore terribly unfair how he was treated when his career was on the wane. They should have thanked him forever for what he gave them, but Mr. Casillas was never a bitter man, and has, as always, shown more grace than the people who criticized him! Thanks for everything Iker Casillas!

Saturday, August 01, 2020