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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


The football community around the UK and further afield has reacted with shock and sadness at the news of the more than untimely death of the manager of the Welsh national team, Gary Speed, at the age of 42 yesterday. It was reported on the BBC and CNN yesterday afternoon that he had taken his own life, having apparently been found hanged at his Cheshire home a few hours earlier.

Speed, who played for several clubs including Everton, Newcastle United and Bolton Wanderers, started his career with Leeds United, and won the League Championship with the club in 1991-92, the last season before the inception of the Premier League. He won 85 caps for Wales between 1990 and 2004, and ended his playing career with Sheffield United last year before briefly taking up the manager's position at the club.

He left The Blades at the end of last year to take up the Wales manager's post, vacant after the departure of Speed's predecessor John Toshack. He seemed to have stopped the downward spiral of the national team's fortunes, with the team winning 5 out of his 10 games in charge of the side, and 3 out of Wales' last 4 competitive matches at the tail-end of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2012 European Championships. Speed's last match in charge was on 8/11/11, when Wales defeated Norway 4:1 in a friendly in Cardiff.

Tributes have been pouring in from near and far for Gary Speed, who was just as highly regarded off the field as he was on it. Regarded as tenacious (and, occasionally, a little over-physical) and talented on the pitch, he was also considered to be highly articulate and intelligent off it. He was also a regular guest on various football programmes, and his last public appearance was on the sofa on Saturday's Football Focus programme, broadcast on BBC1, where he appeared alongside his former Leeds United team-mate and good friend, Gary McAllister.

The death of Gary Speed, MBE, is a sad loss for football, for those connected with the Football Association of Wales (FAW), and, above all, for his family and friends, especially, of course, his wife and children. It would be nice to think that Speed's family circle and close friends will be allowed by the media to have the time and space to grieve in private. They deserve the sympathy, respect and understanding of one and all.

There was another sad story to report over the weekend, one which was no less tragic than the passing of Gary Speed, but one which was only briefly reported on both CNN and BBC News channels late on Saturday night. It was of news which emanated from the West African country of Togo, a land which has had more than its fair share of sporting tragedies to mourn over the past few years and where another one took place on Saturday morning.

A bus carrying 32 players and staff of local Première Division club Étoile Filante, based in the capital
Lomé, was bringing the team to play Sémassi Sokodé when a tyre apparently burst, after which the bus lost control, somersaulted and plunged into a ravine at the small village of Gléi, just to the south of the central city of Atakpamé, at around 11:00 local time on Saturday morning. The bus was reported to have burst into flames upon impact at the bottom of the ravine. Six of those travelling in the bus were killed, and all were reportedly sitting at the back of the bus when it burst into flames. 

Initial media reports of the accident were, to say the least, confusing. It was widely stated that six players were initially reported to have been killed, with several more injured, then it later emerged that no players had died, but two had been seriously injured and 26 other people, 19 of whom were listed as players, required hospital treatment. Several websites also later reported that 8 people had died, and that 70 people were on the bus at the time of the accident. More than 48 hours on, it is still not totally clear as to the number of casualties, nor has the total number of people on board the bus at the time of the accident been established.

The dead include Étoile Filante's assistant trainer (and ex-Togo international) Isidore Koumah, club general-secretary Christophe Dagbovie, plus the club physiotherapist and cook. Former international goalkeeper Charles Balogou (one of the club's technical staff) and a camerawoman, named on the Actu-Afrique website as Yolande Améyo Adabra, who were travelling with the team, were also named among the dead. The two seriously-injured players were named as Nigerian attacker Joseph Okewo, and the experienced Tchagbele Agouda. They and the other survivors of the crash were taken to hospital in Atakpamé.
"Most of the victims died in the fire," according to FTF (Fédération Togolaise du Football) spokesman Aimé Ekpe when interviewed by CNN on Saturday night. The Togolese president, Fauré Gnassingbe, later ordered the survivors to be flown by helicopter to the military hospital in central Lomé. Some of the injured, it was reported, were evacuated by ambulance from the scene of the accident; the ambulance was accompanied to the crash-site by a delegation headed by Togo's Sports Minister, Christophe Tchao.

One of the survivors, Les Météors' goalkeeper Mama Souleyman, told Togo national television in an interview from his hospital bed: "We do not know how we managed to get out of the accident. Most of the players got out of the bus before the officials could do so because they were all in the front row of the bus."
"The officials and technical staff were trapped..when the bus somersaulted several times and caught fire."
In a statement published on the Togolese government website yesterday afternoon, the FTF "expresses its condolences to the Étoile Filante team and the bereaved families and hopes for a speedy recovery of those injured."
British newspaper The Sun also published the above statement..and then showed that it doesn't always do its homework by displaying the emblem of Burkina Faso side Étoile Filante Ouagadougou (presumably culled via a copy-and-past exercise from Wikipedia) on its website alongside the article; an example of crass, lazy journalism. The Étoile Filante, club involved in this sad episode, meanwhile, have won their country's league championship seven times in total, but haven't won it since 1992.

The club, the name of which translates as Shooting Star in English, was founded in 1932. The Lomé side were due to play their first match of the season at Sémassi as a dispute between several clubs and the FTF had recently been solved. Shortly after news of the accident became known, the FTF decided to postpone all football action due to take place in Togo over the weekend as a mark of respect to the dead and injured, and to the families of those affected by the tragedy.

Earlier today, in a statement, Spurs player and Togo national team captain Emmanuel Adebayor expressed his condolences to the families who lost loved ones in the tragedy and his wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured, and said that he "hoped that Togolese football would be spared any more such drastic ordeals in the future."

Saturday's bus-crash was the third tragedy to affect Togolese sporting circles in recent years. In 2007, the Togolese sports minister Richard Attipoe and several Togolese fans were on a helicopter carrying 22 people which crashed on the way to Lungi International Airport, just outside the Sierra Leone capital city of Freetown after an African Cup of Nations between the two countries. There were no survivors. 

In January 2010, three people travelling in the Togo team bus which was on its way to compete in the 2010 African Cup of Nations finals were shot dead by gunmen belonging to an insurgent organisation in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. The bus was ambushed just inside Cabinda, having just crossed the border from the Congo. The Angolan-born driver was killed instantly; the Togolese assistant manager and press-officer both succumbed to their injuries the next day. Seven other people were wounded in the attack.

One note of good news to report was that the German referee, Babak Rafati, who had attempted to take his own life in his hotel room just before a Bundesliga game nine days ago, is recovering well. He was found by his two linesmen,with his wrists slashed, in his hotel bathroom shortly before he was due to officiate in the game between 1FC Koln and Mainz 05. The game was called off less than 45 minutes before kick-off.

However, that was tempered by the news that Belgian linesman Chris Schelstraete attempted to take his own life an hour before the second-level game between AFC Tubize and FC Molenbeek-Brussels. He was found in the toilets, with his wrists slashed, by the match referee, his fellow linesman and a steward, and was reportedly dicovered clutching a photograph of his girlfriend. Apparently, Schelstraete had been having problems in his private life, which, even though there are rumours appearing on various websites, they are uncomfirmed and so shall not be appearing here, and that goes for Babak Rafati as well. One wishes both Rafati and Schelstraete a full recovery and every assistance with their personal problems.

Indeed, it has been a sad weekend for football, with the, as said at the beginning of the piece, more than untimely demise of Gary Speed, the attempted suicide of Schelstraete and, by no means least - perhaps, in its own way, at the forefront of the weekend's misery - the multiple deaths as the result of the accident involving the Étoile Filante team-bus on Saturday morning.

It is too late for Gary Speed - who knows what may have drove him to take his own life? - but the world of football should rally round and try and offer support not only to his next of kin, but also to Barak Rafati and Chris Schelstraete and others like them and not try to pretend that depression, stress and mental illness do not exist within the confines of the game. They do, and very much so. Last, and definitely by no means least, sympathy and support should be offered to those bereaved and injured by the carnage in which the Étoile Filante team found itself. In the long run, they may just need that little bit of extra help.

Needless to say, condolences, sympathy and best wishes are offered to those affected by the weekend's tragic events, and it would also be hoped that the mainstream media, wherever they are, keep a respectful distance and leave those in need in peace.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: With regard to the tragedy in in Gléi, Togo, several websites etc. have published/released erroneous information over the past 48 hours or so, only some of which was of their own making; much of the incorrect information came from various sources. Apologies if any of the information contained in the above article is proved incorrect; every effort has been made to use authoritative sources in order to provide the facts. published the following, taken from, which includes a list of (most of) the dead and injured (in French):

Link to Afriscoop article:

Link to Sports Illustrated article:

Link to CNN article:

Link to The Sun article (and, no, they still haven't changed the badge; it's still that of the Burkinabe Étoile Filante which appears on the page below):

Thursday, November 24, 2011


In the midst of all the brouhaha in the game of football about racism, the Champions League, the lifesyles of footballers' wives and girlfriends, corruption and much more, some things occur which put a more normal spin on things; things which make you realise that football is, after all, only a game, but a game which is living proof that every footballing dog (don't take it too literally, dear reader) has its day.

On those sorts of days, pundits much better than yours truly can be made to eat their words; yesterday was one of those days - it happened to your correspondent, who is quite happy to tuck into some humble pie - as, while much of the football-loving world lay tucked up in bed, a tiny set of islands in the South Pacific had something to celebrate.

I am, of course, referring to American Samoa, who, in the wee small hours of yesterday morning (GMT, BST and CET) took on Tonga in the opening match of the OFC Nations Cup/2014 World Cup preliminary round qualifiers. Prior to very early yesterday morning, which was still Tuesday afternoon in the Samoan capital of Apia, where all of the preliminary round matches will be taking place this week, American Samoa had never won, or even drawn against, FIFA-member opposition.

However, 22/11/11 will live long in the memory of football fans in American Samoa, because not only did their national team not only come away undefeated against the Tongans - whose manager, 25 year-old Australian Chris Williams, is probably the world's youngest national team coach - but they actually beat them by 2 goals to 1, gaining their first-ever points in a qualifying tournament, not to mention their first-ever victory.

It was, by all accounts, a very competitive game of football, with the American Samoans taking the game to their Tongan counterparts for much of the first-half; Ramin Ott's 33rd-minute free-kick which hit the bar was the closest American Samoa had come to scoring a goal for over four years, until the same player's speculative long-range effort which beat the flapping Tongan goalkeeper, Kaneti Felela, two minutes before the break signalled not only in the end of the American Samoan goal-drought, but also was to result in a surprise half-time lead for the tiny American territory. It was Ott's second-ever goal for his country.

They didn't rest on their laurels, the American Samoans, and after an end-to-end start to the second-half, they took the game by the scruff of the neck and scored again in the 74th minute through Shalom Luani, when he lobbed Felela after latching on to a through ball.

American Samoa almost gained their first-ever clean sheet in international football, but Unaloto Feao pulled a goal back for Tonga, heading the ball home at the back-post from a Lafaele Moala cross with two minutes to go to set up a frantic finish. Almost straight from the re-start, Moala came close to putting Tonga back on level terms, but his shot was easily saved by Nicky Salapu, who then came to American Samoa's rescue with seconds to go, saving again from the same player before Timote Maamaloa's goalbound sidefooted follow-up was blocked by Salapu's team-mate Johnny Saelua. The game was up for Tonga, and American Samoa could finally celebrate their first-ever official victory.

The victory was a sweet moment, a kind of redemption, for Nicky Salapu, who was the American Samoa goalkeeper when Australia defeated them 31:0 in that world-record defeat ten years ago. The 33 year-old was quoted in the New York Times as saying after the game against Tonga: "I feel like a champ right now. Finally I’m going to put the past behind me."

This result, sweet revenge for a 4:0 loss to Tonga at this summer's Pacific Games, which were held in New Caledonia, has indeed helped put a little bit of his, and American Samoa's, past competitive international footballing history to bed; in losing all of their previous 30 games, the team had conceded 229 goals while scoring just 12 themselves. The victory against Tonga was Salapu's 13th official international appearance (he also played in the 4:0 defeat to Tuvalu at this year's Pacific Games; Tuvalu's FA has not yet joined FIFA, so this match was not recognised as an oficial fixture), and he is widely regarded as being one of the country's best players, and possibly the best-known outside the American territory.

It was an historic day in another sense, not just for football in American Samoa, but for football around the world as defender Johnny Saelua, who made his début for the American Samoan side yesterday, also became what is believed to be the first transgender footballer to take part in a full international football match. Saelua is what is known in both Samoas as fa'afafine (males who, from a very young age, behave in a manner more traditionally associated with females), which, in Samoan - and Polynesian - culture, has long been regarded as a third gender. Saelua said that his team-mates had been very supportive of him: "The team accept me and we have that mutual respect, which is great. It’s all part of the culture."

Saelua's national team manager - and former boss of the USA under-20 side - the recently-appointed Dutchman Thomas Rongen said: "I’ve really got a female starting at center back. Can you imagine that in England or Spain?" Probably not, but one could probably imagine the headlines that will more than likely appear soon in The Sun, The Daily Mail or Bild, for instance.

Regardless, Saelua's inclusion in the American Samoa team is an encouraging step forward in (slowly) helping football recognise that it needs to become an all-inclusive sport. Johnny Saelua, whether he realises it or not, has moved mountains all by himself, and it is good to see that his inclusion in the American Samoa team has, if it has far from brought about the death of homophobia in football, perhaps brought the subject of tackling homophobia in the game that little bit higher up the footballing agenda. Everything has to start somewhere. It may also help the stature of fa'afafine, not only in American Samoa, but throughout the rest of Polynesia.

Back to matters pertaining to the fortunes of the team, and the arrival of Thomas Rongen in American Samoa shook things up somewhat for the nation's footballers. Rongen, a native of Amsterdam, was a youth-team player at Ajax and later played for some of the bigger clubs in the now-defunct NASL (North American Soccer League), only joined the American Samoan set-up at the end of last month after being recommended to the local association by US Soccer, who had actually sacked him as manager of their under-20 national team at the beginning of May but still had him on their pay-roll.

"When I got here, I had never seen a lower standard of international football," he said this week. He soon set about trying to change that. Prior to leaving for Apia last Saturday, the American Samoan national side had spent four days cooped up in a training camp at the national stadium in Pago Pago, and previous to that, Rongen had been busy viewing potential squad members and holding daily training sessions since his arrival in American Samoa on 27/10/11.

There are others besides Rongen who are showing an acute interest in the American Samoa side. A film-crew has been following the American Samoa team's progress over the past couple of weeks and will shortly be compiling the best bits into a documentary; the project, a collaboration between two independent British organisations, Agile Films and Archer's Mark, is called "Next Goal Wins", and, all being well, there will be more news of that on this blog to come.

In Tuesday afternoon's other game in the OFC/World Cup preliminary round, hosts Samoa defeated the Cook Islands 3:2 in what was a see-saw encounter. Luki Gosche put the Samoans in front after 20 minutes later, and it could have been 2:0 to Samoa seven minutes later after the Cook Islands' goalkeeper, Iona Lupena, fouled Desmond Fa'aiuaso, but Lupena immediately made amends for his eror, saving Silao Malo's spot-kick. 

Campbell Best tapped in the Cooks' equaliser sixteen minutes later, but the parity was far from constant; just a minute after their equaliser, the Cook Islands found themselves a goal in arrears once more after Gosche scored his second for the Samoans. Gosche's second was identical to his first; netting after finding himself in a one-on-one situation with Lupena.

Best was on target again with just five minutes left to level things up once again after latching on to a fumble from Lupena's opposite number, Masi Toetu. However, but Pati Bell scored a dramatic winner in second minute of injury-time, firing a shot across Lupena, to settle matters in Samoa's favour and break the hearts of the Cook Islanders.

It will be the Cook Islanders who are next in American Samoa's sights in the Thursday afternoon kick-off in Apia. For the Cooks, managed by New Zealand ex-international Shane Rufer (brother of the more famous Wynton, who played professional football for several years in Europe and appeared at the 1982 World Cup Finals), defeat will mean elimination from both the OFC Nations Cup and the World Cup. Before the prelims kicked off, this game would have been regarded as American Samoa's best chance to get something on the board. Now, it has become an opportunity to help turn Saturday's game against their near-neighbours Samoa into a potential winner-takes-all contest.

Meanwhile, Samoa take on Tonga in Thursday's late kick-off at the Tofeoloa JS Blatter Field in Apia, and it would be hard to envisage anything other than a hard-earned win for the Samoans. However, a win for Chris Williams' Tongan charges would not only be a compensation of sorts for Tuesday's defeat, but it would put them back in the frame while blowing the whole group wide open.

Although the American Samoans are still understandably buoyant after their victory against the Tongans, Thomas Rongen still has his feet firmly on the ground, and had this to say on Tuesday: "We still have two good teams to play in Samoa and Cook Islands, both of whom we respect tremendously. I have only been working with the players for three weeks which is not a long time to put a team together but long enough to make a change. I hope that we can improve our standings in the FIFA rankings and get into the hundreds. We are 204 at the moment [on the FIFA ranking-list] and the win will have helped."

Rongen is right, of course, to remain realistic, but at least Nicky Salapu and the rest of the American Samoan squad finally have something to celebrate, and their first-ever victory will see them move up the FIFA ranking-list next month for the first time ever, modest as the improvement will be. A victory against the Cook Islands on Thursday afternoon will simply leave them in dreamland, and leave this humble scribe's pre-tournament prediction looking even more ridiculous. 

Will American Samoa's win on Tuesday prove to be a turning-point in the history - not to mention the status - of football in the islands or merely a fluke? The players and staff certainly enjoyed the moment; Rongen has provided the know-how and the kick up the backside that the game in American Samoa patently needed. There may be more days for the dog to enjoy in the future, but the rest is up to the players and those running the FFAS, not just in a few hours' time or even on Saturday, but in the months and years to come. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's back to the humble-pie, which is going down quite nicely this time around..

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As ever, thanks are due to the OFC and Priscilla Duncan in particular; visit for more information about the dual-purpose qualifying series and football in the Pacific island nations in general. Other info was culled from articles in the New York Times; here's the link to their take on American Samoa's victory:

For those with gender issues who wish to find out more about the fa'afafine, there is an article covering the subject on Wikipedia, the following links to fa'afafine organisations are below, the first relates to one in Samoa, while the second organisation is based in American Samoa:

Match highlights can be viewed here (courtesy of the OFC via YouTube and also thanks to Stefan Cerrocchi):


Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is already well under way in the Americas, Africa and Asia. And now, Oceania joins in the four-yearly fun with the OFC preliminary round, which will involve American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga. 

The fixture-list (and predictions as to how the group will pan out) is contained in a previous blog:



1 Nicky SALAPU, 23 Chin Fu TAASE


2 Llatame AMISONE JR., 3 Uasila'a HELETA, 20 Shalom LUANI, 5 Tala LUVU, 18 Justin MANA'O, 19 Rawlston MASANIA'I, 16 Johnny SAELUA, 12 Terrence SINAPATI, 4 Daru TAUMUA


10 Kid BARTLEY, 7 Ismael D'ANGELO HERRERA, 8 Moe Casper KURESA, 22 Fitiuta MAIAVA, 17 Natia NATIA, 
9 Ramin OTT, 21 Suani UELESE


6 Roy ULANI, 15 Gene NEEMIA, 11 Diamond OTT, 13 Faimalo "Rambo" TAPUI III, 14 Frederick "Charlie" UHRLE






2 Mii JOSEPH, 3 Nikorima TE MIHA, 4 Tahiri ELIKANA, 5 Nathan TISAM, 18 Paul EIJK, 19 Teriiahoroa FRAMHEIN


7 Grover HARMON, 8 Roger MANUEL, 10 Gichin FUHINIU, 14 Junior PUROKU, 15 John QUIHANO,
16 Taylor SAGHABI, 17 Paul TUREPU, 21 Junior PUROKU


6 Paavo MUSTONEN, 9 Campbell BEST, 11 Joseph NGAUORA, 12 Twin TIRO, 13 Emiel BURROWS






2 Andrew STEFANO, 3 Charles BELL, 4 Vaalii FAALOGO, 5 Silao MALO, 6 Albert BELL, 7 Jarrell SALE,
15 Ray VICTOR, 16 Sapati UMUTAUA


8 Penitito TUMU, 9 Mason HOEFLICH, 11 To'o GOSCHE, 13 Lionel TAYLOR, 14 Joseph HOEFLICH,
18 Jared CURTIS, 19 Shaun EASTHOPE, 20 Peni KITIONA, 21 Ethan ELISAIA


10 Luki GOSCHE, 12 Mike Saofaiga FOAI, 17 Des FA'AUIASO




1 Soane FAUPULA, 22 Kaneti FELELA


2 Sione TOVO, 3 Ilalio LEAKONA, 5 Samisoni MAFI, 6 Folio MOEAKI, 16 Petesa ONGOSIA, 19 Aleki FEHOKO,
21 Vitolio LATU


4 Fineasi PALEI, 7 Pio PALU, 8 Neo FEAO, 11 Lafaele MOALA, 12 Timote MAAMALOA, 17 Siosifa MOIMOI,
20 Beni PAU


9 Kinitoni FALATAU, 10 Malakai SAVIETI, 13 Pila VAITAKI, 14 Lokoua TAUFAHEMA


AUTHOR'S NOTE: Squad-lists courtesy of the OFC; please check for more information via the OFC website,

Friday, November 18, 2011


It hasn't been a particularly good year for FIFA president Sepp Blatter, and it may just get worse after his latest comments regarding racism in football, broadcast yesterday on CNN and Al-Jazeera. In an interview with CNN sports reporter Pedro Pinto, Blatter stated that he did not believe that racism existed on the football pitch, and basically said that players abused during the course of a game should simply shake hands with the abuser at the end of the game and there let the matter rest.

During the interview, Pinto asked Blatter whether he believed that racism was evident on the pitch, Blatter replied: "I would deny it."

"There is no racism. There is maybe one of the players towards the other, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that, he should say it's a game, we are in a game."

"At the end of the game, we shake hands; this can happen because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination."

Blatter continued: "The whole world is aware of the effort we are making against racism and discrimination. And on the field of play, sometimes you say something..that is not very correct, but then at the end of the game, the game is over and you have the next game where you can behave better."

Meanwhile, Blatter, in an interview with Al-Jazeera's Lee Wellings, said this: "During a match you make a movement towards somebody..or you may say something towards somebody who is not exactly looking like you, but at the end of the match it's forgotten..On the field of play, I deny that there is racism."

When questioned by Wellings whether any action against racism on the pitch should be taken by football authorities or the police, Blatter said that it was an internal matter: "When it happens in the league, they have to make an investigation and they should come to a solution. And what would they say? They say: bring the two people together and they say 'shake hands.'"

The subject of racism was not the only matter discussed in the interview between Pinto and Blatter, but Blatter's seeming assertion that players who have been the victim of racial - and, presumably, by extension, sexist, religious and homophobic - abuse (should) turn the other cheek has caused ructions and has, quite understandably, not gone down at all well with anti-racist organisations and individuals involved in the world of football.

Both interviews touched on events which are currently unfolding in the English Premier League. Investigations are ongoing into alleged incidents of racism allegedly perpetrated by John Terry and Lúis Suarez in recent weeks. The Metropolitan Police are looking into claims that Chelsea captain Terry is alleged to have racially insulted QPR's Anton Ferdinand, while Suarez is faced with having to deal with the accusation that he did likewise to Manchester United player Patrice Evra during the 1:1 draw at Anfield last month, and was charged by the FA for racial abuse.

An excerpt from the FA's brief statement, posted on their website yesterday, is below.

"It is alleged that Suarez used abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra contrary to FA rules.

It is further alleged that this included a reference to the ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race of Patrice Evra."

As anybody who occasionally reads this blog will know, your correspondent is a Liverpool fan, but if Suarez and Terry are found guilty of the charges laid against them, then they both deserve to be upbraided for their actions and have the book thrown at them. No excuses, no exceptions. If, on the other hand, both players are exonerated, this may leave Evra and Ferdinand open to full-blown abuse. That is also to be condemned in the strongest terms, should that happen.

Suarez allegedly called Evra a negrito (roughly translated as "dear little black one"); Suarez agreed that he did say this to Evra, but not in malice. Negrito is a diminutive of negro, and in much of Spanish-speaking South America, it is a term of endearment, meaning "friend" or "pal", which has now encompassed racial barriers. Brazilian Portuguese uses the word neguinho as a term of endearment, and this has also transgressed all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

To give an example of this, in Roberto Muylaert's book on the late, great, former Brazilian international goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa, "Barbosa - Um gol faz cinquenta anos", Barbosa was addressed by his "unofficial" daughter, Tereza Borba, as "neguinho". Barbosa was black, as was she. (In assisting with research on the two-part story on Barbosa, Moacyr Barbosa - A Miserable Life, Indeed, published on this blog earlier this year, Ms Borba also referred to Barbosa as "neguinho.") Only Suarez will know whether he used negrito pejoratively. In any case, Liverpool are standing by their man, at least for the present. The jury is out as to whether Terry will be charged by the FA; there is, as yet, no sign of that happening.

Blatter's comments were aired less than a day after the play-offs for the final four places at Euro 2012 were completed, with Ireland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Croatia managing to qualify. Try telling Croatia's Eduardo da Silva that there is no racism in football. The former Arsenal player came on for Croatia as an 88th minute substitute against Turkey - in Zagreb - to a chorus of cheers; however, mixed in with the cheers was an audible dose of "monkey-chants." Not very edifying for a country whose national football team was in the last throes of qualifying for the final stages of a major competition. To give Blatter his dues, however, he did say during the course of the interview with CNN's Pedro Pinto that racism was often evident among those attending football matches.

Evra's United team-mate and brother of Anton Ferdinand, Rio, weighed in the growing controversy via Twitter: "Tell me I have just read Sepp Blatter's comments on racism in football wrong … if not then I am astonished.

"I feel stupid for thinking that football was taking a leading role against racism…it seems it was just on mute for a while. Just for clarity if a player abuses a referee, does a shake of the hand after the game wipe the slate clean??"

Ferdinand also left a message on Blatter's own Twitter page: "Sepp Blatter your comments on racism are so condescending its almost laughable. If fans shout racist chants but shake our hands is that ok?"

A statement was issued yesterday by Kick It Out (an English anti-racism organisation funded and supported by the FA, the Professional Footballers' Association and the Premier League) regarding Blatter's comments during the interviews, and this is the text in full:

"These comments are worryingly out of touch. Shaking hands to compensate for a racial slur is not what the game has signed up to, and trivialises the work of campaigns like Kick It Out, which has been in the vanguard of rooting out discrimination and unacceptable behaviour in our game for the best part of two decades.

"High-profile incidents have brought the issue of racism back into sharp focus. But complaints are still being lodged at grass roots level. Shaking hands doesn't resonate with the zero-tolerance approach we encourage and certainly wouldn't resonate with the victim of the abuse.

"Report the incident to the regulatory body, and the investigation process begins. If it's found to be proven, action must be taken. New challenges and questions are being posed in this field every day. But leadership is needed to make headway. And comments like this don't help in the ultimate goal of kicking racism out football and making it a discrimination free-zone."

In response to the criticism that was coming his way, Blatter released a statement on FIFA's website last night, which contained the following text:

"I would like to make it very clear, I am committed to the fight against racism and any type of discrimination in football and in society. I have been personally leading this battle against racism in football, which FIFA has been fighting against throughout the past years through campaigns in all of our competitions such as the “Say no to racism” campaign.

"I also know that racism unfortunately continues to exist in football, and I have never denied this. I know that it is a big problem in society, and that it also affects sport. I strongly believe that we should continue to fight all together against racism on and off the field of play, in order to eradicate this plague.

"My comments have been misunderstood. What I wanted to express is that, as football players, during a match, you have “battles” with your opponents, and sometimes things are done which are wrong. But, normally, at the end of the match, you apologise to your opponent if you had a confrontation during the match, you shake hands, and when the game is over, it is over. Anyone who has played a football match, or a match in any sport, knows that this is the case.

"Having said that, I want to stress again that I do not want to diminish the dimension of the problem of racism in society and in sport. I am committed to fighting this plague and kicking it out of football."

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, tonight echoed the call from his Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, and that from PFA leader Gordon Taylor, for FIFA's president to resign, but Sepp Blatter won't listen to a man who is just as inept as he is, and who is a bandwagon-jumper par excellence to boot. (Poppygate and the botched attempt to oust Blatter at this year's FIFA Congress will suffice as examples of this for now. It's a shame bandwagon-jumping isn't an Olympic event; the Great Britain team would have at least one gold medal in the bag.)  Would Cameron have been more disposed toward calling for Blatter's resignation had the television interviews taken place and been broadcast in the days after either incident involving Roberto Carlos?

Blatter's English is not quite up to the Queen's standard, that's true, but his remarks came across as plainly absurd and were, at best, ill-considered and a classic case of burying one's head in the sand to an issue which still needs to be addressed. The racism issue has overshadowed one or two other potentially interesting items which were up for discussion during both interviews.

When CNN's Pedro Pinto asked Blatter what he considered his personal low point of 2011 to be, Blatter said this: "The lowest point for me was the week before the election [for the FIFA presidency] was a low point in my life.. [though the result of the election] gave me the power, gave me the confidence."

Regarding FIFA's release of the documents relating to the ISL trial, he said: "We don't want to open the case, we want to close it." (And not before time, too.) The documents are expected to contain evidence of fraud relating to the collapse of ISL in 2001. ISL, or International Sport and Leisure, assisted FIFA with its marketing strategy, and allegedly bribed high-ranking FIFA members in return for ISL being awarded broadcasting rights for FIFA tournaments throughout the 1990s.

In his interiew with Wellings, Blatter added that he had not considered resigning his post after all of the corruption scandals within FIFA, and he had been given "total confidence by" FIFA Congress. The Al-Jazeera reporter ended the interview by asking Blatter what he would like to be remembered for when he eventually steps down from football's highest post, and Blatter's reply was: "What I want to realise is at the end of my mandate is that I could say that football is part of our society, especially in the social-cultural part. Football is more than a game; it is a school of life."

If the treatment meted out to Eduardo by a section of his own supporters is anything to go by, then the school of life that is football is a very hard one indeed. He is not the only one to have suffered the monkey-chanting routine. And then there was the case of Roberto Carlos, now playing in Russia for Anzhi Machachkala, who, in a set of throwbacks to the bad, ugly, spiteful old days of hooliganism in England during the 1980s, had a banana thrust at him by a Zenit St. Petersburg supporter in March of this year, and three months later, a banana was thrown at him by a Krylya Sovetov supporter.

By no means every Russian who goes to a game is an avowed neo-Nazi, but it can hardly be denied that there is a significant racist element among Russian football supporters. Power, corruption and, erm, bananas. A heady mix awaits any foreign football fans planning on journeying to Russia for the World Cup Finals in seven years' time. Bet you all can't wait..

And, just in case you missed the interviews; here are the links, starting with Blatter's chat with CNN's Pedro Pinto:

This is the link to the Al-Jazeera interview with Lee Willings:

Andrew Jennings, the scourge of Sepp and friends and the man behind Transparency In Sport, only had this to say this evening on the man that is Blatter: "The torrent of long overdue corruption revelations are destabilising Blatter. He still clings to his fantasy that he is football, football is perfect – thus he must be."

It might not be the cronyism or the collection of corruption allegations that might be the undoing of Blatter. It might not even be this latest in a series of gaffes; this is the man who once said that he would like to see women footballers wear tighter shorts, the man who suggested that homosexuals would be better not to travel to Qatar to watch the 2022 World Cup if they were intending to indulge in any hanky-panky, the man who is unable to say that he is wrong, the man who doesn't know the meaning of the word crisis, the man who can only say that his comments are misunderstood by one and all, the man who doesn't realise that football is rotten to the core.

Blatter himself would be well advised to engage brain before mouth before he steps in front of a microphone again. The question is: will the next time he steps in front of a microphone be his last? His time is almost up and he really should think about leaving FIFA. There won't be a shortage of people to help him pack and hold the front door of FIFA House open for him.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


How wonderfully clear and blue the sky looks on this fine November day. How gently the breeze blows. How tuneful is the singing of our wingèd friends. How warmly the sun shines. How sweet is the scent which wafts in the air. All of this can only mean one thing; Ireland have qualified for the European Championship finals, and a monkey the size of King Kong has finally been wedged off the collective back of Irish football - the 5:1 aggregate victory against Estonia is the first time that an Irish team has beaten European opposition in a play-off.

It's only taken 45 years and many attempts. Reel off the list of European opponents to whom Ireland have lost in play-off action: Spain, Holland, Belgium, Turkey, France. And then there was defeat to Norway in qualification for the 1938 World Cup in what was officially a two-team group, but which could - and should really - be regarded as a play-off. Someone, somewhere will no doubt mention that the Boys in Green defeated Iran over two legs to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, and that would be correct, but the Iranian FA is a member association of the AFC.

Ireland have never had much luck in play-offs; every single one of them (apart from the game against Holland) was a closely-fought nailbiter. Irish fans will still go on about the game against France in Saint-Dénis two years ago and the injustice that was done. However, Roy Keane was right on the money (for a change) when he said in the aftermath of the second-leg that Ireland had more than enough chances in the first-half at the Stade de France to wrap up qualification for the 2010 World Cup, but didn't take them.

The build-up to the play-off against Estonia has already been covered in a different blog, so no need to rake over old ground as to how Ireland reached it. (The blog/article in question was: Ho-hum; It's the Play-offs Again for the Boys in Green. Should you need to read it, kindly look in the Archive.) Hope and expectation were, as always, evident in equal measure; Ireland were expected to easily dispose of Estonia over the two legs, not least by the media and pundits of variable quality. For once, Ireland were favourites to qualify.

If Ireland never had much good fortune fall their way in all of the previous play-offs against European opposition, they received enough good fortune during the first-leg  of this one, played last Friday in Tallinn, to compensate for all of those in the past in which they were defeated. Ireland eventually ran out 4:0 winners, a Keith Andrews header in the 13th minute settling those early nerves, which were apparent as Estonia came out of the blocks with gusto. It was end-to-end stuff for a while, until, in the 35th minute, Robbie Keane was upended on his way through a yawning gap in the Estonian defence by the last defender, Andrei Stepanov, who saw the red card brandished in front of him for his troubles. Estonia 0:1 Ireland at half-time; a good start, and it would only get better.

Buoyed by the dual advantages of having scored an away goal and having the extra man, Ireland slowly tightened their grip on the game. Apart from Richard Dunne almost scoring a bizarre own-goal, all was nice and quiet at the back, with the Estonians only threatening with shots from distance; Spartak Moscow's Aidan McGeady was having the game of his life out on the left wing, Keane was running his socks off and Stoke City's Jon Walters was proving to be a handful for the Estonian defence. It was he who scored the second goal, heading the ball home after a dinked cross which looped upon several players on and just in front of the goal-line. Walters got there first and headed the ball over the line, just in front of a despairing attempted clearance by one of the home side's defenders, a just reward for all his endeavour.

Robbie Keane notched his 52nd and 53rd goals for Ireland to round off the scoring, the first of which came after a free-kick was parried by Sergei Pareiko in the Estonian goal into the path of the onrushing Keane who could hardly miss. His second, and Ireland's fourth came via a penalty, awarded after Stephen Hunt was upended in the penalty-area after a challenge from Ats Purje, which you could see coming from around five seconds beforehand; the ball broke free and Hunt hared after it as it entered the area. Purje came across but it was obvious he was going to be second to the ball, and, after what seemed an eternity, the inevitable happened. Keane stroked the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, just out of reach of the 'keeper.

In between times, a second Estonian, Rajo Piiroja, was given his second yellow card of the night after handling the ball in a chase between himself and Keane. Keane immediately responded with his trademark pose, a repeat of the immedate aftermath of the challenge which saw the first Estonian receive his marching-orders; knees bent, back hollowed and arms outstretched at the "ten past two" position. This is perhaps the only criticism one can level at Keane - he appeals every nudge, every handball with wild gesticulations, and the ploy worked every time last Friday evening. With regard to the second sending-off, Keane actually nudged Piiroja first, causing him to lose his balance somewhat. As they would say in Tallinn, Eesti 0:4 Iirimaa; a job well done, and Walters was surely the man of the match (that'll please Potters fans everywhere), followed closely by Andrews and McGeady 

If Ireland had received seven play-offs' worth of good fortune in Tallinn, then lady luck had certainly deserted Estonia last Friday evening. Two men sent off, a dose of inconsistent refereeing, slapdash defending, nervy goalkeeping; you get the picture..

If the game in Dublin yesterday evening was Ireland's triumphant homecoming, it was also Estonia's attempt at some sort of redemption. Party-time as it was in the stands, with paper-planes, made from green cards distributed by the FAI's (FAI=Football Association of Ireland) main sponsor before the game, fluttering their way towards the pitch at regular intervals, there was no carnival football to be seen on the pitch.

The game meandered gently from beginning to end, with Keane looking dangerous early on, and Keith Doyle, Richard Dunne and Keane missing opportunities to finish off the job in style. The laid-back nature of the game was punctuated only by two goals caused by yet more goalkeeping errors; Stephen Ward's tap-in after Estonian goalkeeper Pavel Londak had fumbled the ball, headed on by Kevin Doyle, from a Damien Duff corner put Ireland in front.

Estonia's equaliser early in the second-half came after a strike from distance from Konstantil Vassilijev saw a delayed reaction from Shay Given, which caused the ball to ricochet off his underarm and into the net behind him. It gave the travelling Estonian support (and those based in Ireland) something to cheer about, and the goal itself was at least something to show for an improved display from their team, who troubled Given from distance on more than one occasion last night.

So, Ireland have qualified for the European Championship after a gap of 24 years, under the tutelage of Giovanni Trappatoni, the 72-year-old Italian, who got the Ireland team playing to their strengths; the phrase "the sum being greater than the parts" would apply to the team at the moment. And why not play to your strengths? There are many among the Irish general public who have decried, and continue to decry, Ireland's cagey tactics, but if you don't have something - "flair" players, for example - you can't use it.

"Trapp" and his assistent, Marco Tardelli, have worked wonders with the Boys in Green over the past few years; Ireland don't score many goals, but they don't concede too many, either, and have lost only 1 out of 12 competitive matches played since the start of the qualifiers for Euro 2012. The football might not have held the average fan spellbound, but no-one can say that it doesn't work.

Who stands out in the present Ireland team, and what of the future? Shay Given can count himself among the best goalkeepers in Europe; Richard Dunne (his propensity for scoring own-goals notwithstanding) is a formidable, not to say brave - his and Given's performances against Russia in Moscow were something worthy of a serious bout of statue-building - central defender and came to Ireland's rescue on more than one occasion during the qualifiers; Robbie Keane has now scored 53 goals for Ireland, an incredible goalscoring record in anybody's book; and Damien Duff, although starting to show signs of slowing up, is still more than capable of tormenting the best of defenders. Sadly, though, it already looks like the end of the road for the over-criticised and ever-dependable Kevin Kilbane, who has won 110 caps for his country but wasn't selected by Trappatoni as part of the Irish squad selection for the play-offs.

The Ireland team's prospects for the future don't look too bad, though they were handed no favours when the draw was made at the end of July for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. They were drawn in European Group C alongside Germany, Sweden, Austria, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan.

A tough draw, but it will doubtless give more or less established players such as Keith Andrews, Aidan McGeady, John O'Shea, and Keith Doyle a chance to shine somewhere along the line, alongside comparative newcomers Jon Walters, Everton's Séamus Coleman - definitely one to watch for the future, Simon Cox and Stephen Ward.

But Euro 2012 is first up on the agenda, and Ireland will find out just who they will be up against on 2/12/11 when the draw is made. The seedings for the draw were made public by UEFA today, and here's how everything adds up: 

POT 1: Poland, Ukraine, Spain, Holland
POT 2: Germany, Italy, England, Russia
POT 3: Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Sweden
POT 4: Denmark, France, Czech Republic, IRELAND

It may well be that Ireland will not get past the first round, and should they be paired with the likes of Spain or Holland to begin with, and then alongside Germany or Russia, for example, the chances of progress will become slimmer still. The final stages of Euro 2012 are still seven months away, and who knows what little plans Trappatoni and his faithful assistant, Marco Tardelli, have up their sleeves? Whether Ireland get past the first round or not, their opponents will know that they have been in a game, and whether or not their opponents - and some of the Irish fans themselves - might not find the tactics of the Irish team to their liking, they seem to work, and any amount of criticism levelled will not affect Trappatoni and Co one little bit.

Ten years the Irish support has waited for the Boys in Green to qualify for the finals of a major tournament. Last night was a sweet moment for all concerned with Irish football. One day on, as Irish fans continue to fall out of cupboards, as day turns to night and the stars come out, the air has cooled but a delightful scent still lingers. Ah yes, 'tis the sweet smell of success that wafts in the air. How welcome it is.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Two and a half months behind schedule, the qualifying campaign in the Oceania region for the 2014 World Cup and for the OFC Nations Cup 2012 kick off in just under a week and a half's time with a dual-purpose, 2-competitions-in-1 preliminary group, which will be played out over five days from 22/11/11 at the incongruously-named JS Blatter Field in Apia, capital of Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa).

Four nations are due to take part: American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga.but why behind schedule? The 2011 Pacific Games tournament (won by tournament hosts New Caledonia) were meant to double as the first round of Oceania World Cup qualifying, but AFC member nation Guam took part, thus rendering the OFC's plans unworkable. Guam themselves decined to participate in the Asian qualifiers due to financial constraints and the need to update their national stadium to FIFA standards.

As said, the preliminary round for the OFC Nations Cup also doubles up as the preliminary round for 2014 World Cup qualifying in the Oceania region, and the fixture-list is as follows (kick-off times are at Samoan time):

22/11/11   14:00   American Samoa : Tonga
22/11/11   17:00   Cook Islands : Samoa
24/11/11   14:00   American Samoa : Cook Islands
24/11/11   17:00   Samoa : Tonga
26/11/11   14:00   Samoa : American Samoa
26/11/11   17:00   Tonga : Cook Islands

All matches in the preliminary round will take place at the JS Blatter Field, Apia.

The OFC Nations Cup Finals are scheduled to take place in Fiji between 3/6/11 and 11/6/11. This tournament will also serve as the second round of World Cup qualification, and the top four teams will progress to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, to be played in a round-robin competition which is to be played between 7/9/12-26/3/13. The winner of the third round, in other words, the country which finishes top of the Oceania World Cup qualifying, will progress to an intercontinental play-off in late 2013 against the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF final qualifying group.

The four countries represented in the OFC Nations Cup/Oceania World Cup preliminary group are among the lowest-ranked nations in the FIFA ranking-list. The Cook Islands are currently ranked in 196th place, Tonga are 201st, while American Samoa and their near-neighbours are both placed joint 203rd - dead last, in other words. At least two of the aforementioned national sides may well move up the list by the end of the prelims.

AMERICAN SAMOA are not expected to be one of them. The American territory, with a population of around 55000 people, has only had a football association, now known as the FFAS (Football Federation of American Samoa), since 1984, and it has only been a member of FIFA since 1998. Since joining FIFA, American Samoa has only played foreign opposition in OFC Nations Cup and World Cup qualifying matches - friendlies are a luxury for several of the OFC nations - and has never won a FIFA-sanctioned international match.

They have only ever won one international match, and that was a 3:0 victory against Wallis and Futuna (part of French Polynesia) in an OFC Nations Cup (then known as the Oceania Cup) in 1983. The American Samoans have played over 20 competitive FIFA-sanctioned internationals, losing them all, and have conceded ten goals or more in a match on an alarmingly regular basis. The FFAS took over control of the territory's footballing affairs after its forerunner, the ASFA (American Samoa Football Association), fell foul of FIFA in 2007.

The national side also holds probably the most unwanted record in international football, the record for conceding the most goals in an international match, which became theirs by right after Australia put 31 without reply past hapless goalkeeper Nicky Salapu during a World Cup qualifier in Cotts Harbour on 11/4/01. Salapu missed out on a tournament or two, but he returned to international duty in this summer's Pacific Games, when American Samoa finished bottom, losing all four games and failing to score while conceding 26 goals, including 4 against Tuvalu, who are "merely" an associate member of the OFC.

Things do not look any brighter now for them now as they did before the Pacific Games, and that is without taking into consideration that football in American Samoa is still recovering from the tsunami which struck most of the South Pacific region to one degree or another in 2009, when the country's football complex and national ground were more or less destroyed. To say the least, they will be up against it, and while even a point gained in the group would be welcomed in the extreme, not just in American Samoa but in the football community at large, that may still be beyond them. PREDICTION: Bottom, with no points and a hefty goal-difference against them.

The COOK ISLANDS, meanwhile, will also find it difficult against Samoa and Tonga, but should come away with a win against American Samoa. The Cook Islanders are more famous for competing in Rugby Sevens on the world stage than in football, but their national football team, while among the weakest in Oceania, are still a feisty bunch. They do have a tendency to leak goals, but also have a reputation for not letting their heads drop, and this may well prove to be useful.

The geography of the Cook Islands is a bit of a handicap in the CIFA's efforts to improve the standard of football in the islands; the archipelago's population of some 19000 people is spread amongst fifteen islands and atolls across a stretch of the Pacific Ocean the size of Western Euope. The CIFA (Cook Islands Football Association) was founded in 1971, and became FIFA members in 1994.

Scoring goals is also a problem for the Cook Islands team; they scored 4 goals at the last edition of the Pacific Games - three of which were in a 3:0 win against Kiribati, who, like Tuvalu, are associate members of the OFC - while conceding 15. It may be the lack of goalscorers in the squad which might prove to be the team's downfall, but if they can shore up their defence, the Cook Islands might prove to be a real handful nevertheless. PREDICTION: 3rd in a tight group.

Football in TONGA has had its fair share of ups and downs, from finishing runners-up in the Polynesian Cup, a now-defunct qualifying competition for the OFC Nations Cup, in 1993 to (briefly) holding the world record for sufering the heaviest defeat in international football when they lost 22:0 to Australia in World Cup qualifying in 2001. Political troubles in the country (population estimated at 104000) in recent years haven't helped matters much, nor has the world-wide financial malaise.

Like their counterparts in Guam, the Tongan Football Association, founded in 1965 and FIFA members since 1994, faced an agonising choice: compete in World Cup/OFC Nations Cup qualifiation or compete at the Pacific Games. They couldn't afford to compete in both tournaments. Unlike Guam, the Tongans eventually chose the former option. It was a shame for Tonga's national squad, who had spent 13 weeks in intensive training for the Pacific Games by the time the Tongan FA had made their decision in June not to go ahead with sending the men's squad to New Caledonia. (Conversely, the Tongans sent their national women's team, who finished in a creditable fourth place in their tournament.) Money talks, even in the lower reaches of the international game. 

As the Tongans have not played competively since the 2007 Pacific Games (which also doubled as the OFC preliminary round for the 2010 World Cup) and then won only one match in the tournament, it is rather difficult to gauge how they will fare in Samoa this time round, but judging on results from then and over the last ten years or so (although they, just as the other three teams in this round of matches, are very much an unknown quantity), they may well finish in the top two this time. PREDICTION: Runners-up at worst.

The hosts of the preliminary tournament, SAMOA, also declined to take part in the Pacific Games this time round, instead preferring to concentrate on qualifying for the OFC Nations Cup and attempting to get as far as possible in the World Cup qualifiers. Apia's JS Blatter Field - or, to give the ground its full name, the Toleafoa J.S. Blatter Football Fields Complex - named after the FIFA man himself and opened in 2001, will be hosting its second tournament in four years, having been the host venue or the 2007 Pacific Games. Samoa has the largest population of the four countries competing in the preliminary round, estimated at 179000 people, 5700 of which play football (according to FIFA records), though only 2300 are registered as members of the local football authorities.

Football was properly organised in what was Western Samoa in 1968 with the formation of the Samoa Football Soccer Federation (FSFS), but after financial and other difficulties which eventually led to a FIFA suspension, the organisation was reorganised in 2009 as Football Federation Samoa (FFS) and later re-admitted to FIFA. The Samoan national side have only played two international matches since the country hosted the 2007 Pacific Games, and both were defeats away to Fiji in mid-August of this year, by 3:0 and 5:1, though they thrashed an American Samoan Under-20 side 9:0 in Apia in April.

Kiwi SC won the domestic league championship earlier this year, finishing 5 points in front of last season's champions Moaula United; Kiwi SC's women's team stormed to the league title as well, but in even more emphatic style, winning 16 out of 18 matches and drawing the other two. PREDICTION: Winners, but there probably won't be much in it.

It will be hard to separate Samoa and Tonga, and maybe also the Cook Islands, as the Pacific Games are normally the only occasion when the smaller OFC countries meet each other, and the squad players and their capabilities are virtually unknown outside their respective countries, but only one team can progress to the next round of World Cup qualifiers and the OFC Nations Cup finals next year.

If the smaller nations would at least be able to play against each other on a more regular basis, it might make them all - American Samoa included - more competitive, especially in the more advanced stages of regional competition. Money and the vast distances between all of the OFC are huge obstacles, not to mention a lack of infrastructure and very small pools of players to choose from.

As for the next round of matches, to be played in Fiji next year, the winners of the preliminary round will not have it easy. They will have to play against New Caledonia, Tahiti and Vanuatu in Group A, while the draw for Group B saw Fiji, the favourites New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands pitted together.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the above information, including the fixture details for the  2-in-1, dual-purpose OFC Nations Cup and 2014 World Cup preliminary round fixture-list, came from the OFC website, Thanks as ever to Priscilla Duncan from the OFC.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


It appears that the media and the general public at large in England were less than pleased with FIFA's decision not to allow the England squad to wear poppies on their shirts this coming Friday when they face Spain in a friendly at Wembley. The poppy, of course, has a special significance for the British as it grew in abundance on the fields of Flanders during some of the bloodiest conflicts of the First World War, but it seems to have been the Americans who first used the poppy as a symbol of rememberance after the war's end (and an act of charity towards the needy children of France in Belgium), and they still do today to mark Memorial Day, the USA's equivalent of Remembrance Sunday, which itself is marked not just in the UK but also around the Commonwealth. Armistice Day, which commemmorates the end of the First World War, will be held for the 93rd time on 11/11/11.

In any case, the poppy is used by the Royal British Legion for fund-raising around the time of the anniversary of the Armistice and Remembrance Sunday (which takes place on 13/11/11), the British Legion consisting of former British soldiers, and the monies raised are used to help those former comrades in need, and also the dependants of those who died.

That in itself is no bad thing, not at all, but not everybody agrees that they - or a printed version - should be worn by players on international football duty. Those supporting the wearing of the symbol on an England shirt included Prince William and David Cameron, the current Prime Minister of the UK, who called FIFA's decision "absurd" and added that it seemed "outrageous", is that it is a commemoration of Britain's war dead, not a political statement, and that Premier League clubs have the poppy on their shirts during their last match before Remembrance Sunday. Clubs the length and breadth of the UK hold a minute's silence before matches around this time of year, and did so last weekend.

British newspapers such as the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Telegraph predictably jumped on the bandwagon, pouring scorn on FIFA's original stance, and the former stated that "even" the General Secretary of the DFB (Deutsches Fussball Bund - the German FA), Wolfgang Niersbach, "backed" the FA's attempts to have the poppy displayed on the England team's shirts.

Well, no he didn't, at least not explicity. He did say in an article published in yesterday's online version of the Daily Mail that it was a decision for the FA to make and that the DFB "would be happy for them to make it". He went to say that nobody had heard of the FA move in Germany, but that he could not "imagine" that the DFB would have any "objection" to England team's wearing of poppies, nor would it be a "problem" or an "issue." (However, that doesn't sound like a statement of outright support for the move.) It also said in the article that FIFA were afraid of causing offence to the Germans should the poppies be worn by the England players. Obviously not, if Herr Niersbach's comments are to be bellieved, and there was no mention of German discomfort in FIFA's statement over the matter, which was made on 5/11/11, and updated yesterday after their partial climbdown.

But why all the brouhaha? Is it so bad that the poppy be "worn" on the shirt? On the other hand, is it a bad thing that FIFA have stepped in and banned the England team from displaying the symbol on their shirts? It was, apparently, the England team who last year came up with the idea of playing in a shirt displaying the poppy, and they were in negotiation with the FA as to how they could go about organising this. Then, several days ago, someone let the cat out of the bag to the media, and, well, you can guess the rest.

The FA of Wales were also considering getting the poppy printed on their shirts in the run-up to Friday's game against Norway, but FIFA's decision not to allow the England team to do likewise also ended up putting the skids under their plans. Now the Welsh team, along with their English counterparts as well as the Scots, who play away to Cyprus on Saturday, will have to make do with the poppy-armband.

FIFA have been pillloried for their decision by those in the media, along with many of those twittering, blogging and leaving comments under online news articles, have been critical of the decision, claiming that FIFA's stance is an insult to those who have given their lives for freedom. FIFA have, however, allowed a minute's silence to be held, and, after additional pressure from the British government and Prince William, to allow the national teams representing England, Scotland and Wales to wear poppies on black armbands during international matches this weekend.

FIFA rules state that there may be no extra markings added to shirts used by national teams during the course of a season, and this is one reason given for their refusing the English team's proposal to wear the commemmorative shirt. It also says in the FIFA rule-book that any form of advertising on kit used by the national team (training kit and tracksuit excluded), be it for a company or a charity, is prohibited. The same rule is applied towards anything (emblem/logo/lettering) appearing on a shirt which might be regarded as having a political connotation. Now, the British teams in action this weekend will be wearing something which, in the eyes of many, has political connotations, even if it is "only" on a black armband - the black armband is still apparel and will be visible on the shirt. And, in doing so, breaks the FA's own rules.

For reference, the following can be found in FIFA's Equipment Regulations under Article II, General Terms, point 2.4:
"Except as explicitly authorised to the Member Associations under these Regulations, no additional elements such as marks, insignia of the Member Association, a Manufacturer or any third party, further Colours, numbers, names or Decorative Elements are permitted on Equipment items without the prior written consent of the FIFA general secretariat."

Meanwhile under Article VII, Sponsor Advertising, Sponsor Advertising For Teams, point 54.1, is what probably formed the basis of FIFA's reasoning for banning the wearing of the poppy on the England shirt:
"For all Matches, all forms of advertising for sponsors, Manufacturers (exceeding the extent of
Manufacturer’s Identification permitted under Chapter VI above) or any third parties, of political, religious or personal statements and/or other announcements, are strictly prohibited on all Playing Equipment items
used on, or brought into (permanently or temporarily), the Controlled Stadium Area."

Depending on your point of view, the poppy might be considered as a political symbol and would perhaps be reason enough for its not being allowed to be reproduced on the England team's shirts. If that wouldn't have been reason enough, then the fact that the symbol would come under the description of  "other announcements" would in itself have been sufficient for FIFA to reach its decision.

Advertising is permitted on replica kits; the replica version of the Irish national shirt has been carrying the names of sponsors for well over 20 years now. It might have been an idea for the FA to have considered releasing a commemorative shirt. The FAI, on the other hand, gave their support to a local breast cancer charity a couple of years ago by bringing out special pink versions - one for the lads and one for the girls - of the Irish national shirt (yes, complete with the sponsor's logo from a moblie telephone company) for both men and women. A worthy cause, and the women's shirt was very stylish indeed, it must be said.

The argument was also raised that if FIFA were to permit the England squad to wear the poppy design on their shirts, other countries would wish to follow suit. The potential scenarios of the North Koreans commemorating their war dead and the Chinese celebrating the "liberation" of Tibet in the same way have been mentioned many times by bloggers on various websites.

What would the reaction of those in the UK complaining about FIFA's decision be if, for instance, England qualified for the next World Cup Finals and were drawn against Argentina, and the Argentinians had the insignia of AVEGUEMA (Asociación Veteranos de Guerra de Malvinas - Falklands War Veterans' Association) emblazoned on their shirts? What then? Would the media and the British public at large then be so supportive of countries having various insignia on their shirts?

The Argentine FA could claim that AVEGUEMA was a charity and that they were merely assisting with fund-raising for the veterans' organisation. One can only imagine the hoo-hah that such a move would cause among certain sections of opinion in the UK. But, that would merely prove to be a move of gross hypocrisy on the part of those now claiming that it is only right and proper to have the poppy emblazoned on the shirt, and, as everybody knows, you can't always have it both ways. But now that FIFA have back-tracked somewhat and allowed the wearing of a poppy-armband, one could now maybe suggest that the Argentine FA would be within their rights to request permission for the AVEGUEMA emblem to be shown on black armbands.

There are many things one could say about FIFA, and they have rightly been criticised for many things recently, but there are times when FIFA have got something right. This time, they had got it absolutely spot-on..until agreement was reached to wear the poppy-armband. After all, the poppy appearing on the England shirt would be only the start. What next? Full-blown advertising?

Before anyone begins threatening to knock down the front-door, yes, Ireland's replica shirts are emblazoned with the logo of the FAI's main sponsor, but the shirt is left blank when the Boys in Green are on the field of play. There is already too much greed in the game of football, and to have something other than the national team's badge and the name of the kit-manufacturer on the average international football shirt would just relegate the item to the status of a domestic shirt. FIFA's decision to allow the wearing of a poppy-armband will doubtless see other associations clamour for the same rights as the FA, and it will eventually lead to the wearing of advertising during competitive international football matches. Poppygate will be just the beginning.

Not only that, but it would seem that the whole "wear the poppy on the shirt" thing has degenerated into a media stunt, and with all due respect to the fallen and maimed and to their loved ones (and no offence is meant to anyone here), it would also seem that the original meaning of wearing the poppy has been lost in recent times and a whole industry has been built up around its wearing. Add to that Twitter-power, which is, in other words, the power of knee-jerk reaction (not to mention Twitter being the haunt of the faceless), the media bandwagon plus what would appear to be the British Government's attempts to make everybody forget about the state of the UK economy, if only for a short while, and a veritable monster - Poppygate -was created.

And then there was the sight of two members of the English Defence League holding a rooftop protest at FIFA House in Zurich yesterday in opposition to FIFA's stance on poppies on shirts. The EDL is a far-right grouping whose founder was convicted of hooliganism after leading a riot involving 100 football fans in Luton this summer. The EDL members who took part in the rooftop protest in Zurich were arrested by Swiss police, and this incident is bound to prove embarrassing for the FA, due to the EDL's political stance and also because the FA's campaign to stamp out racism in football is still ongoing.

Back to the row over poppies on shirts. FIFA thought that they had got rid of that particular monster, but by allowing the wearing of the poppy-armband, they have merely fed the thing, which now has a name - Poppygate - and left it to sit in the corner. This article was due to end with a "well done" to FIFA for being positively consistent for once and ensuring that a potentially dangerous precedence is not set. Now, I'm not so sure; it will all eventually end in full-shirt advertising. It looks as though Sepp and Co have put their feet in it again, and this will only be made apparent in the long run.