Category Archives: Sport

Could football and hockey learn more from each other on rule changes?

Just over a year ago I wrote this piece on the difference between officiating (association) football and (field) hockey. It touched at the end on what the two sports could learn from each other. As both sports embark on a round of rule changes, are they doing any learning?

Football

The changes to the Laws of the Game to apply from June have been poorly reported, as some expected changes (notably to the penalty kick) have not in fact been accepted.

The outright changes to the laws are that:

  • from a goal kick or defensive free kick in the penalty area, the ball will no longer have to leave the area to be in play;
  • substituted players will leave the field by the nearest boundary line; and
  • yellow and red cards will be available as sanctions to team officials as well as players.

How thrilling.

The real changes are, as ever, to the interpretations and explanations of existing laws and procedures. Most notably, the laws of the game now clarify what may be described as “gaining an unintentional advantage” (my phrase) as one of the three instances:

  • a change of possession;
  • the creation of a “promising attack”; and
  • the scoring of a goal.

A team “gaining an unintentional advantage” so defined will be penalised if it comes about due to the ball striking the hand and will cause a dropped ball if the ball strikes a match official.

This means that even an unintentional handball will be penalised if it leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal. It also means that if the ball hits a match official (most obviously the referee), play will no longer automatically continue; if this leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal then play will re-start with a dropped ball. Notably, “handball” is itself more specifically defined (players must not make their body bigger unnaturally or hold their hands above their heads or they are liable to concede the offence of the ball hits the hand or arm) and the procedure for a “dropped ball” is amended so that it is not longer contested (possession returns to the team which last touched the ball except in the penalty area, where possession automatically goes to the goalkeeper regardless of last touch; note the laws were amended in 2012 so that no goal can be scored direct from a dropped ball).

There are some other technical changes too, perhaps most notably that:

  • forwards will not be able to interfere with a defensive “wall” at a free kick;
  • goalkeepers will be required only to have one foot on the line at a penalty kick; and
  • the team winning the toss will be able to choose to kick off (with the other team then choosing ends).

The IFAB (the International Laws Committee, in effect) also highlighted the requirement for captains to be responsible for the conduct of their team and for respect for referees, but made no specific amendments in this area.

Hockey

Hockey’s new rules are officially already in force although, as with football, in practice they will only apply from next season.

There are two highlight changes:

  • the game will be played in four quarters (maximum 15 minutes) with time stoppages at penalty corners at all levels (although the precise nature of that stoppage will still vary between levels); and
  • the “kicking back” (ahem, “player with goalkeeping privileges”) is abolished, albeit technically as an experiment.

In fact, there are some other subtle changes which are less reported by will likely make more difference to game play, notably the allowing of a free hit for an offence inside the circle to be taken anywhere in the circle and the abolition of shadowing inside the circle of attacking free hits just outside the circle except where they are taken immediately. There are also some very minor amendments to the permitting of the propelling of the ball by any part of the body by the goalkeeper (this was previously restricted to feet and kickers), the penalising specifically of the taker of a penalty corner (the gloriously named “injector”) for any attacking encroachment into the circle, and (usefully for umpires) the specification that an offence must be by definition “against an opponent”. There is also some tidying up over the end of a penalty corner, which is now consistent at all times for all purposes (with common sense on face masks still being worn briefly after the penalty corner ends also being written into the rules).

Rejected changes

A proposed change to the laws of football which was widely expected to proceed by some reporters but did not happen was to the end of the penalty kick. There was an experiment in some leagues that the penalty kick would end as soon as it was saved or hit the frame of the goal, with play then restarted with a goal kick. This would have brought penalty kicks taken in regulation into line with penalty kicks taken in shootouts (and also right at the end of the game or half) – and interestingly also with penalty strokes in hockey.

Hockey-like experiments with “sin bins” (i.e. temporary suspensions from play) and rolling substitutes are ongoing.

Alignment

The most obvious alignment above concerns the coin toss before the match. As they were before 1997, football captains will again, like hockey captains, be entitled to choose to start the game (but doing so cedes the right to choose ends). Interestingly, the justification given for this was the amendment to the kick-off rule in 2016 which brought the kick-off in football almost exactly into line with hockey’s centre-pass (or “pushback” or “passback” as it is still more commonly known, even though the ball need not be pushed and can be played forwards).

However, for me the most interesting trend is the notion (again, note this is my phrasing) of “gaining an unintentional advantage” with regard to handball. This is not a million miles away from hockey’s rule that any contact with the ball by the body is an offence, but (like any offence in hockey) is penalised only if it causes a disadvantage to an opponent. Could football be heading in the same direction with handball (or even, in the longer term, more generally)?

Both sports are also introducing procedures to speed up the restart when the defending team receives a free in its own defensive area.

Divergence

Some of the changes will in fact cause divergence. Hockey will, for example, keep the rule that play simply continues if the ball strikes an umpire. Hockey also retains the requirement that players leave (as well as enter) the field on the same side within three metres of the centre-line for substitutions, which will be specifically contrary to football. Hockey goalkeepers will also still be required specifically to have both feet on the goal-line for penalty strokes.

Football is also introducing cards for team officials, something hockey abolished. There is also little prospect of football moving towards quarters, which hockey will at all levels (at least so far as the rule book is concerned) from next season.

Future

The football authorities are better than their hockey counterparts at explaining the precise reasoning for changes to the laws. Agree with the changes or not, their purpose is clearly outlined in football; it is arguable whether this is so with hockey. The amendment to require all hockey matches to be played over four quarters with time stoppages for penalty corners has raised particular concern because, to many, it is an unnecessary time-keeping complication at lower levels with no clear purpose.

The outcome of the way changes are presented is that it is easier to see where football may be going (hence the interesting idea that it may be heading towards a more hockey-like interpretation of an offence as needing to cause a disadvantage to an opponent, at least in some instances, before it is penalised).

There has been some discussion in football of moving to rolling substitutes as hockey did in the 1990s (at the same time, in fact, that it removed offside). However, with the changes to the requirements for leaving the field for substitutions just introduced, this would appear now to be unlikely in the short term.

The report (by former referee David Elleray) which recommended the ball be put directly back into play from goal kicks (now adopted) and that penalty kicks not have rebounds (which was expected to be adopted but was not) also included two further proposals taken directly and overtly from hockey. One was to have the game shorted to two halves of thirty minutes but with time stopped for all breaks in play (not exactly as hockey but close); and the other was to allow “self-passes” at free kicks (i.e. remove the restriction that a player taking a set piece cannot play the ball again until it has been touched by another player). However, neither of these has even reached experimental status.

The likeliest convergence for me, therefore, is the possibly reasonably imminent introduction of “sin bins” (temporary suspensions from play) at all levels of football, although exactly how this will be done is anyone’s guess.

Fundamentally it seems, for now at least, that there is as much divergence as convergence between the sports when it comes to the rules.

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Should football learn from hockey on video reviews

In this article, “football” means soccer and “hockey” means field hockey. (As they rank first and third globally in terms both of sports participated in and sports attended, this is as it should be…!)

In the recent Champions’ League fixture in Gelsenkirchen between Schalke and Manchester City, six minutes were taken up by the referee trying to establish if a handball incident should result in a penalty, in part because it turned out the in-stadium video replay was not working so he had to go “blind”, taking the word of the video replay assistant team. A similar rigmarole (albeit with the system working) took place even in the World Cup Final. While “VAR” has generally been applauded for making decisions more accurate, it has been challenged by those who feel it takes too long (or does not account sufficiently for the speed at which the game is played particularly with reference to handball decisions – a clear example occurred last night, when Napoli was awarded a ludicrous penalty via VAR more or less for kicking the ball at the arm from close range in a Serie A game against Juventus).

It does seem to be an unwieldy system. Not only can it take a considerable length of time for a decision to be reached, but typically five video assistant referees are involved. That is a lot of effort, combined with significant opportunities for things to go wrong (the assistants are often located remotely, sometimes several hundred miles from the stadium).

In parts of the world where rugby is known, some have suggested a “TMO” system would work better, but I have argued before here that it too takes too long and, particularly, that it has led to on-field referees becoming over-reliant on the technology. Even the award of clear scores can be delayed, at the expense of time and indeed the base emotion which is the very reason many of us attend and enjoy sport.

Hockey’s system is not absolutely perfect either, but seems to offer a happy medium. In that case, a “video referral” is made to a single video umpire in a booth after an on-field decision has already been made, and the video umpire may be asked only very specific questions (“I am looking for a foot in the circle”; “I need to check if it hit an attacker’s stick”; or similar). The video umpire then responds essentially affirmatively, negatively, or with the line “I can see no clear reason to change your decision”.

The key difference is that, although hockey umpires may themselves make a referral (particularly in the case of goal versus no goal), each team also has the right to ask for reviews. In each half, each team may request a referral for major decisions as many times as it likes until it is wrong (in which case it loses the right for the rest of the half). Therefore, umpires are less inclined to make their own referrals but can quite openly ask teams appealing for or against a major decision “Do you want to refer it?”

The other difference versus football is that the on-field umpire is bound by the video umpire’s decision if one is clearly given either way (which is effectively what had to happen at Schalke when the video system at the side of the field was not working). Football has long had the culture of the referee’s decision is final, so “VAR” has been constructed to enable that. How important is that, really?

Clearly, there are differences. Football has offside to consider; hockey has two types of major decision (penalty stroke and penalty corner) as well as goal or no goal. Match timing is different too (in football time keeps running for reviews and is then added on; in hockey the clock stops). However, would it not be easier if football abandoned all the extra video assistants checking for everything and instead went for team referrals? It’s a question worth considering, anyway!

Colour clashes becoming ridiculous in top-level football

In next week’s “Super Bowl”, a toss-up will decide which team wears white and which team wears a colour. The teams will be easily distinguishable even where reception is poor or even in black and white.

Sheffield Wednesday in black, with the goalkeeper in purple, defend against Chelsea in blue. How “easily distinguishable” are these colours?!

Yesterday’s FA Cup tie between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday was yet another example of (association) football failing to do the bleedin’ obvious. Blue faced black with one goalkeeper in purple. None of these was easily distinguishable, as required by Law 4, particularly the visiting goalkeeper from his own team mates. It was ridiculous.

It used to be so much easier. Referees wore black, goalkeepers generally wore green (or generally yellow in the unlikely event that a team chose to wear green), and teams were easily distinguished. This was managed despite each club maintaining only two kits for outfielders.

These days, despite clubs being allowed three or sometimes more kits, colour clashes are common, particularly between dark colours (black versus blue or claret, for example). Goalkeepers often wear shirts which are barely distinguishable from their own team – Arsenal’s has even contrived to wear dark pink at home, blatantly clashing with red. Even if the referee is satisfied at the distinction (and I would not be), the viewers at home can hardly be. What is more, it is all so unnecessary.

In the name of rampant commercialism, we have made a simple thing complicated. If goalkeepers wore green and referees wore black, one team could wear a predominantly dark colour (just not black or green) and the other light. Why make it all so hard?!

Ryder Cup 2018 was an annihilation – US need game to go global

The 2018 Ryder Cup was in some ways the most one-sided since the current format (28 matches with Europe) was introduced in 1979.

Europe in fact won 29 more holes than the United States (more than one per individual match), the biggest gap ever under the format. Typically, a gap of that nature would have seen the largest ever match score, of around 19-9. In other words, 17-10 was comprehensive – but actually kind to the Americans.

In this sense, the competition has changed and now Europe is unquestionably the dominant team. In five Ryder Cups staged in Europe this century, not only have the Americans lost all five but they have in fact been thrashed four times.

This is different from thirty years ago or so when, even though Europe won on several occasions, the Americans were still in general equal to or even better than their opponents. In fact, from 1987 thru 1999, the Americans actually won more holes in every single Cup (even though they lost three times out of seven and tied once). What was happening then was that the Americans were in fact scoring marginally better, but the Europeans performed better under pressure in clutch situations (thus tending to win the huge majority of close matches).

It remains a quirk that Europe has never lost the Ryder Cup having won more holes, but has quite often won or at least retained it while losing more.

With the extraordinary exception of 2012 (the Miracle or Meltdown at Medinah, depending on your view) when the Americans actually won in terms of holes more heavily than they had since 1981 but contrived to lose overall, this century has belonged clearly to the European side no matter how you calculate it, and is becoming more so. The team which has won more holes has also won the Cup on every single occasion otherwise (and that has been Europe six times in eight) and the overall match score has rarely been close (whereas the previous seven and eight of the previous nine had been settled by two overall match points or fewer).

Why is this? The most obvious reason, which has already been discussed, is that the American locker room had a reminder to “leave egos at the door” but as ever it was the Europeans who actually did so. Tied to this is, however, the potential reason that the Americans are not actually as good as the rankings suggest.

We should remember that three of the four majors and most of the other biggest tournaments (world championship events, the Tour Championship etc) are hosted in the United States. These carry the highest ranking points, with Americans having an in-built advantage of playing at home.

The Americans have to consider, therefore, whether it would be good for the global game and even for their own Ryder Cup team if more high-ranking events (including all World Golf Championship events and quite possibly the PGA Championship) were hosted away from the United States. This would take Americans out of their comfort zone if they want to earn the big rankings points, and would get them used to playing away from home. Such a move would surely then give them the experience required so that no future United States team goes an entire generation without winning a Ryder Cup in Europe…

Serena needs to stop hiding behind accusations which harm her supposed cause

On Friday evening I popped along to Carrickfergus Amphitheatre to watch the home ladies hockey team, Castle, take on Irish hockey league side Ards. This was an opportunity, in the land of the World Cup Finallists after all, to see the game played at a very high level. Ten minutes before the game started, it emerged they were short of one umpire, and so it fell to me to help out.

Hockey has a four-warning system – verbal warning, two-minute suspension (green card), longer suspension (yellow card), and permanent expulsion (red card). My personal preference even with top-level teams is to try to avoid using the cards at all, if possible, managing the game as best I can by friendly chats rather than disciplining.

Here is the thing, however: if a player ever referred to me as a “liar”; ever suggested I had “stolen” something from them; or ever suggested I “owed an apology”; or certainly ever said they would see to it that I “never umpired on [their pitch] again”; I would have the red card out in an instant.

This brings us, of course, to Serena Williams. On Sunday, in a major final, she used each and every one of those terms – having already been correctly warned for coaching, and then correctly docked a point for breaking her racquet.

Unfortunately Serena, rightly a role model for many good reasons, is frankly being untruthful. She did not lose a game for using the word “thief”; she lost a game because of a series of warnings (for coaching, breaking a racquet and then verbal abuse) and the warning for verbal abuse came after a litany of outrageous accusations directed at an umpire powerless to answer back other than through the warning system. She was also untruthful even with what she said as she launched her abuse at the umpire – in fact, she had looked at her coach by her own admission, but caught on camera he had no option but to confirm he had not given her a “thumbs up” as she claimed.

Therefore, Serena is entirely responsible for a gross lack of discipline and an outrageous lack of respect for one of the most senior and respected officials in the history of the game. As she is a role model, this is worrying. It is inevitable that others will adopt a similar tone, and believe that they too can launch abuse at an umpire, over and over again, and somehow expect not to be penalised (to the extent even of dictating who umpires their matches). Nor, unfortunately, is this even the first instance within the current season of a senior woman player suggesting that a particular umpire should not be allowed to officiate her matches ever again – an appalling notion.

To try then to dress this all up as “sexism” is then a further outrage, not because sexism is not a problem in the game but rather because it absolutely is. Serena herself raised some legitimate examples post-match and there was much truth in Billie Jean King’s tweeted response in support of Serena noting differential coverage and reaction to female players versus men. However, to try to present outrageous abuse of an official as somehow part of a battle for women’s rights is offensive to those who are battling for women’s rights. It is also a shift in Serena’s position, from initially denying she had received coaching  to claiming instead that she had but somehow was treated differently for having received it. This specific case had nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with a senior player trying to abuse her position to attack an official and have the crowd join in. We may only be thankful that her opponent, Naomi Osaka, was not put off and went on to claim a thoroughly deserved victory.

There is another important issue here. What we saw on Saturday night was utterly inappropriate abuse of an umpire. It is no surprise, therefore, that tennis and indeed other sports like hockey are struggling to bring through officials (as evidenced by my own call into action on Friday) – who on earth would take on a role which, when done correctly, sees you accused of stealing, lying and sexism all while being treated as a pantomime villain?

Serena is plainly not a fundamentally bad person, as her post-match defence of her opponent showed. She still has time to put this right by simply apologising to the umpire and accepting publicly that her conduct was unacceptable and should not be held up as an example to anyone. However even if she does not, everyone else must come to terms with the fact she stepped well, well over the line on Saturday – not least because the cause of tackling sexism in sport deserves better than a nonsensical association with poor behaviour, and because sport itself simply cannot be played without umpires.

Today, we are all hockey fans

Well, well, well.

The qualification of both Irish teams for their respective Hockey World Cups this year (the women’s in England just past, and the men’s in India towards the end of the year) was seen as a significant step for the sport here, as it had never happened before. The progression of the women’s team all the way to the Final really was a rub-your-eyes fairytale.

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What is striking about the above image, courtesy FIH, is how happy the players are to be there. Indeed, running out for the final, far from nerves there were smiles. This was a team which was proud simply to be at the tournament – but also stunningly determined to stay there!

First, a word on the scale of the achievement. Some correspondents thought any comparison with soccer is silly, because the vast majority of countries in the world play soccer whereas very few prioritise hockey. Yet that was the point. Ireland is one of those which doesn’t prioritise hockey, and yet still reached the Final having not even qualified for three previous tournaments.

Indeed, remarkably, only three countries had played in the Final since the tournament became established as a regular four-year event from 1990 – each of the last seven finals had involved two of the Netherlands, Australia or Argentina. It so happened that all three of those plus hosts (and effectively Olympic champions) England ended up on the same side of the draw; and Ireland seized the chance (a chance it had earned by winning England’s group) to come through the other half brilliantly.

Second, there is then the issue that the team’s progress was followed by inevitable calls for better funding. As someone whose whole family in involved in the game – playing and (in my case because I have no actual talent) umpiring – I have no objection to that idea. However, what we saw over the past fortnight was bigger and better than a mere appeal for funding. Indeed, it was the ultimate proof that the best things in life do not involve money.

Hockey, in Ireland (or certainly Ulster) at least, does not do money. Not only are players expected to pay levies (even, until recently, to play for Ireland), but administrators, PR people, coaches and umpires all operate for free – most do not even receive expenses (even at lower levels a football referee, for example, can expect £30 plus travel). The whole culture and basis of the game, therefore, is different from those of sports which are designed from the outset to be professional.

Perhaps because of this, hockey receives very little exposure or coverage. Yet there is a further issue here we may need to contemplate – unusually by global standards, in Ireland hockey is a predominantly female sport (in terms of playing participation by about 2:1). In fact, in Northern Ireland alone, during the season over 2000 women play senior club hockey every weekend, plus many hundreds more in junior clubs and schools. It would be interesting to know if many other sports can match that figure.

The gender issue is a tricky one but it needs to be raised because gender balance is to be achieved not only by encouraging female participation in sports where participation is mainly male, but also surely by encouraging coverage and exposure of sports which are already predominantly female. What happened over the past few days offers a glorious opportunity to address that deficit.

Therefore, beyond any funding issue, there is the broader point that hockey deserves – in terms of everything from the level of volunteer participation to the success of elite level players in the world stage – broader exposure and coverage.

So the next time we see the standard “sports marketing” picture with the supposedly big three sports (soccer, GAA and rugby), let us ask ourselves: what about hockey? And then think of players with smiles on their faces…

Youthful France’s victory exposes another English myth

On Saturday, the ITV commentary team explained away England’s second defeat to Belgium (whose team is drawn from a population a fifth of its size) by noting that Belgium’s side is “seven or eight years further on in its development”.

The next day, France won the World Cup. Its team had an average age lower than England’s.

Somehow or other France, a country which in general does not take football as seriously as England, has managed to reach four major finals since winning the World Cup for the first time 20 years ago, winning two (and losing another on penalties). England celebrated a place in the semi-final – the first it had reached in any tournament in that period – as if it was a spectacular achievement.

To emphasise, it was not a terrible outcome for England by any means. The team coach earned it support from unusual quarters; the attitude of the “young” players suggests that they are aware of the need to improve markedly; and the hopelessness that had shrouded the team for four years or so has been lifted.

However, there remains a peculiar and pervasive attitude that somehow success will occur if we just, well, “believe in it” or something. The task now is simply to wait for the next tournament (whose Final and semis happen to be in London) and then, well, basically “hope” that the team has learned a bit. That is no more a strategy for international football success than it is for negotiating Brexit.

Indeed, it is not hard to see that the two attitudes are peculiarly linked. There seems – in football as in broad society and politics – an odd unwillingness in England to learn from Continental Europe. When comparing health systems, public debate suggests that it is the NHS or America; not once are Continental European countries – with their better outcomes and higher life expectancies – ever given a second glance.

So it is with football. Continental Europe has provided every single European Champion and the comfortable majority of World Champions, including each of the last four (and in fact seven of the last eight finallists, constituting six different teams). Not once do I recall hearing any sort of discussion as to how, exactly, they do it. Indeed, England’s elimination was met with a bizarre debate about whether the term “It’s Coming Home” had somehow particularly motivated the Croats, in a way they would not anyway have been motivated when playing in a World Cup semi!

So again pundits retreat to an odd safety blanket of a “young team” (even though it is older than the one which won) and an underlying notion that all would be well except for those pesky foreigners particularly raising their game against England because of some tagline. Not once is there any consideration of what it takes to develop a team with tactical nous, technical ability and indeed raw hunger – the type of nous, ability and hunger which saw tiny Croatia (hardly backed by world-class facilities or a world-class league) achieve a level England have literally never reached away from home – actually beating their own best, which was already better than England’s!

As one correspondent implied on this blog, as of next week England’s World Cup victory will in fact be closer to the beginning of World War One than it is to today. A fine story though it is, to the rest of the world the constant harping on about it has become beyond embarrassing – but in fact, as Fabio Capello noted, it is the English themselves who are harmed most of all by the “ghosts of ’66”. It is as if international football should remain petrified there, in its natural place with England at the top of the pile, and no further effort should be made to invest in coaching, facilities and analysis which may enable a serious challenge for honours to be maintained on as regular a basis as it is in other countries of similar size and resource.

In football as in government, it is long since time England thought not about running away from the Continent, but of embracing the concept of humility as its coach so ably did and learning from those who do things better.

England may long regret semi failure

It was understandable that England fans were pleased to have some self-respect restored after debacles of 2014 and 2016, and they had every right to take pride in the way they were represented by Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and others. However, where they previously understated the prospects of the English team, they are now vastly overstating this year’s accomplishment.

There was always every prospect of England reaching the latter stages of the tournament once the draw was made. In the group, they had only to get past small North African country, Tunisia, and a Central American country whose population is smaller than Scotland’s and whose main sport is baseball, Panama. After that, a second round encounter with a team from the weakest group in the tournament (a group with no previous finallist at either a World Cup or a European Championship) was assured, making the quarter final a likelihood. Even at that, England progressed to that stage having lost the other group game against Belgium (still a country with barely a sixth of England’s population) and then via a penalty shootout. Then, in the quarterfinal, there was a bit of luck, after Germany had surprisingly folded in the first round for the first time since 1938, that it was not the world champions but rather a very average Sweden who awaited, and thus the semi-final was reached for only the third time.

Having played no country which had even reached a World or European Final within the lifetime of someone of average age in England, and only one country with a population more than a fifth as large, England were in a World Cup semi-final. Then there was another stoke of luck – due to the vagaries of the draw, a country smaller than Scotland which was only there courtesy of two penalty shootouts awaited, Croatia. This century, only Germany in 2002 had a comparably easy route to the Final. There was a difference, though. That German side (the one trounced by England in qualifying, in fact) made the most of their luck and got to the Final. Despite scoring first, England in 2018 still contrived not to.

For a country of such a small population, Croatia has an astonishingly good team packed with players who have done all there is to do at club level. But England will surely regret the missed opportunity. In 2014, finallists Germany had seen off past winners and hosts Brazil and past winners France, and Argentina had seen off three-time finallists the Netherlands. In 2010, Spain beat past then three-times winners Germany and the Netherlands beat five-times winners Brazil and two-times winners Uruguay. In 2006 Italy had to come past Germany and France had to get past each of Spain and Brazil. In other words, you generally don’t get to the Final without beating other major sides – typically past winners or at very least multiple finallists.

England’s run was, therefore, so straightforward. As ever, the media vastly exaggerated the scale of the achievement when England dispatched tiny Panama (in its first ever World Cup); and then lost the plot entirely after beating Sweden (a country with a population only slightly larger than Greater London). You can, of course, only beat the teams in front of you. But that is just the problem – England didn’t!

England’s overall record, despite not playing a past winner, was played 7, won 3, drew 1, lost 3. In reality, that is mid-table obscurity.

While there was much to commend in the way the team went about their business and, particularly, in the way the manager conducted himself, the fact is all the same failure traits were apparent. In times of desperation against real quality – Colombia in extra time or Croatia or Belgium more or less throughout – England were overrun in midfield and resorted to punting the ball forward aimlessly. A fuss was made about scoring more goals than 1966 but half of them in competitive play were against the worst team in the tournament – and all this while conceding on average more than one a game.

The problem, therefore, is that although England’s long suffering fans had every right to revel in their good fortune, they should be under no illusions for the future that that is what it was. England’s players still remain tactically behind, unable to switch a game during it; arguably they remain technically behind too, overly relying on set pieces; and there remains no evident ability to kill or turn a game by maintaining possession for long periods. Even in games England dominated, actual chances in open play were few and defensive vulnerabilities evident. More than that, the profound failure to be able to analyse the game – so obvious when listening to the tiresome “punditry” which accompanied the run – suggests England are still not learning.

There are four Western European countries with comparable populations to England – Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Each of these other four has won at least one major tournament and reached at least three Finals this century alone. England haven’t even reached a Final in over 50 years, and never away from home. The scale of the difference is stark, and demonstrates why the odd semi here and there should not be overstated. England should be in semifinals fairly regularly – and winning them quite often.

This is not to say good runs should not be celebrated. But it is a stark warning that there is in fact little evidence that a corner has truly been turned. There is some hope that youth development has improved so the decade to come should indeed be an improvement on the one which has just passed. However, for as long as the prime objective of English football is to maintain the richest league in the world rather than the best national team, it is unlikely much will truly change.

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As a separate point, there was an interesting discussion on Twitter about whether final placing should be the ultimate determinant of how well a team did. Essentially, on that basis, England 2018 are the second Best England World Cup team ever, joint with 1990.

I see the logic of that, but dispute it! In 2002, for example, England faced former finallists Sweden, former double winners Argentina and 200m-strong Nigeria in the group, before meeting former European champions Denmark in the knock-out round and then being eliminated in the quarter final by Brazil en route to their fifth title. Given the quality of the opposition, I would argue that team did better than the 2018 team, whose opposition were of lower calibre. I would certainly argue that the 1990 team, which faced then current European champions the Netherlands, beat Belgium and lost on penalties to eventual winners for the third time West Germany, had a clearly better record than 2018’s.

But it’s definitely arguable, so thoughts on that welcome!

1990 and 2018 – a comparison

My father is a Londoner and my mother is a Belfastwoman – from a very early age I chose Arsenal as my club team for the former, and Northern Ireland as my international team for the latter. It has been a lot of fun – just enough disappointments to provide value for the glories, and just enough glories to cover for the disappointments!

Nevertheless, England’s arrival at the semi-final stage of the World Cup is remarkable – partly because of the relative youth of the team which as done it; and partly because it has taken so long. Comparable countries such as Italy, Germany and France have regularly appeared at this stage. England has managed it away from home just twice.

Unlike most of the current team, I do remember 1990 – and there are interesting parallels alongside the differences.

Firstly, it is hard to grasp that 1990 was actually nearer to the 1966 triumph than it is to now. Already, in 1990, it was becoming a noticeably long time since England had done anything at all – England had been knocked out at the quarter-final stage of three of the five intervening World Cups, and failed to qualify at all for the other two. A little like now, there was in fact little real expectation in 1990, although perhaps for different reasons – at the time, the whole country was feeling a little disgruntled as a recession set in, and football in particular was in the doldrums with English clubs banned from European competition due to hooliganism and stadiums being condemned after the deep shock of the Hillsborough disaster. Such was the level of trust towards English football, the team was deliberately placed on the Italian islands for its group games to keep its fans away from mainland cities.

In 1990, the opening game was far from spectacular – an ugly game against Jack Charlton’s Ireland finished 1-1. Perhaps a parallel with 2018, however, is that the second game provided some real hope – a 0-0 draw against the Netherlands, then European champions, was the beginning of “Gazzamania” and a sense that this English team could perhaps do something. Bizarrely, England went into the last group game with all the previous games in the group having been drawn, and secured the only win in the group as Mark Wright’s header eased out Egypt (coincidentally, the Egyptians did not return to the finals until this year).

The 1990 team was more experienced and had a better established defence, with Wright joined by Des Walker and, when needed, Terry Butcher. John Barnes, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne provided the type of flair the 2018 model probably does not have; and Gary Lineker provided the goals (an obvious parallel, with current Spurs marksman Harry Kane doing likewise now). Perhaps, however, it lacked the youthful exuberance of the current side, although an emerging David Platt knew few bounds and was about to become a hero.

As in 2018, the 1990 side looked at the draw for the last sixteen and realised there was a once-in-a-generation chance to reach the semi; and, as in 2018, it looked like the trickier of the two ties en route would be the immediate one at the second round stage with the quarterfinal something of a walkover.

As it happened, England’s first knock-out game in 1990 was against Belgium, a team now ageing but which had just had its most golden age – reaching the semis at the previous tournament as well as a European final a decade earlier. The Belgians hit the woodwork twice but England also had a good goal disallowed (which would have stood in the VAR era) and, as with the game against the Netherlands, all seemed set for that rarest of entities – a genuinely entertaining 0-0 draw. However, just as penalties loomed, Gazza stepped up and chipped in a free-kick and young Platt swivelled to crash home a memorable volley, thus securing a place in the last eight.

As in 2018, the assumption was now that England would cruise into the semis for the first time since winning it a generation earlier. Unlike in 2018, it turned out to be nothing like as simple as that assumption. Platt again emerged to give England a half-time lead as in 2018. However, in 1990 opponents Cameroon, the first Africans ever in the last eight, hit back with two goals in five minutes midway through the second half to take a fully deserved lead. The English were eight minutes away from an ignominious exit and were running out of ideas until a hack on Gary Lineker allowed him to fire home an equaliser from the spot. The same man was fouled and scored again from the spot in extra-time to enable England to squeeze home.

There are definite parallels, therefore, that an England side which gave rise to little expectation suddenly spotted a draw at the last sixteen stage which gave a clear route to the semi, made the first knock-out game exciting, and then won the quarter-final. The feeling in 2018 is perhaps more one of bafflement about how uncomplicated England’s progress against Sweden was; in 1990, there was much more relief at the equivalent moment as the team was less than ten minutes from outright embarrassment in a game in which they had largely been on the back foot.

Of course, the semi itself is a different matter in this case. In 1990, the opposition was provided by a West German team which had appeared in three of the previous four and four of the previous six finals; even victory there would have secured a final showdown with either the hosts Italy or the holders Argentina. The game was watched by an English audience more in hope than any sort of expectation, but proved to be remarkably even and after Gary Lineker’s late equaliser in regulation resulted in the emotional trauma for English fans of the three-pointed tragedy of Gazza’s tears, Pearce’s error and Waddle’s blaze (made only worse by the fact Waddle also hit the inside of the post in extra time). In 2018, the opposition is a country smaller than Scotland. England are the favourites in a World Cup semi final for the first time in over half a century – failure to reach the showpiece itself would at best now be a significant disappointment.

For all that, it does seem that 2018 is doing something that 1990 did, but in a different context. The story of the World Cup does not involve England until 1950. A country which assumed it remained pre-eminent in the game went to Brazil that year and lost to the United States, a defeat so ludicrous that it was largely ignored for another three years until Hungary’s “Magnificent Magyars” stuffed England 6-3 and Wembley and left no doubt that the game had moved on technically and tactically. 1966 is significant not only because it provided England’s only World Cup win, but because it was seen as a “correction” of the previous thirteen years of not being the best. Four years at the pinnacle ended ignominiously, however, with a loss to West Germany having been 2-0 up in the 1970 quarter-finals and no further appearance in the finals at all until 1982, by which time football was all too often followed by the word “hooliganism”. With the game in the doldrums, the 1990 World Cup served to lift football out of the depths and, with the emergence of the Premier League two years later, it has gained public interest hugely since. However, the focus of English football on providing the world’s richest league rather than the world’s best international team led to a series of tragedies (in various penalty shoot-outs) and embarrassments (such as failures to qualify or losses to Iceland) as the Premier League’s star quality was complemented only by mediocrity in international tournaments.

By 2018, this mediocrity had become an accepted fact of life by most English supporters. This World Cup will, therefore, become known as the one which reminded them of what is possible at international level as well as club level. Still we hear the ghosts of past arrogance in some of the wildly exaggerated BBC and ITV commentary, but fundamentally there is an acceptance that a successful England team is a bonus not an expectation. That, alongside the manager’s own story (the man who missed the crucial penalty in the 1996 European Championship semis then leads his team to the World Cup semis via a penalty shoot-out – Netflix would be proud of that script!), has led to significant sympathy for the team even outside England in a way which is genuinely novel and exciting.

1990 played its part in taking the game out of the doldrums in England; 2018 will probably not prove quite as decisive, but it will take the national team out of the doldrums. Whether in the 2040s Harry Kane is presenting Match of the Day remains to be seen…

World Cup – corrupt but still intriguing

The World Cup was always my favourite event of any four-year cycle – to the extent I once dedicated this entire blog to it for a month (in 2010). It is a gripping spectacle as the whole world comes together for a feast of its most popular sport.

I cannot deny that I have become less enchanted by it since 2010 given the obvious and outrageous corruption encircling its governing body, FIFA. The decision to award Russia this year’s tournament was curious when it was taken, although not outrageous at the time. However, the decision to award to the next one to Qatar – blatantly contrary even to the rules of submissions and at a cost of hundreds of lives (in construction workers operating with no health and safety to build stadiums whose viable use will be just a few weeks) – is a scandal to which the big national associations should by now have responded by setting up their own tournament in the summer of that year.

We are where we are, unfortunately, and there is little point in not enjoying the sport even if those who run it are blatantly corrupt.

This World Cup is curious also because of the number of establish teams not participating. The biggest is four-time champion Italy, eliminated in a play-off by Sweden. Missing a second major tournament in a row having reached the 2014 semi and the 2010 final are the Dutch. Once in the case of Italy may be misfortune, but twice for the Netherlands looks like carelessness. Those who have illuminated past tournaments but who are also absent this time include Chile, Romania, the United States and Cameroon (as well as, bitterly, Northern Ireland).

The tournament will, enticingly, include the likes of tiny Iceland (whose staggering achievements continue), and at the other end of the scale big African countries Nigeria and Egypt.

Two former winners seeking to restore their pride are Brazil (after the astonishing 7-1 demolition by Germany at home in 2014) and England (having crashed out of the European Championships to Iceland). As a side note, global television audiences for World Cup games in which either of these two participate are notably greater than otherwise. They may well face each other in the quarter-final.

Brazil, with Neymar and motivation, is the obvious team to watch as it seeks redemption. An Olympic title two years ago and a comfortable table-topping qualification programme suggest this is not impossible.

Most would see the main challenger as defending champion and top-ranked Germany, and it is easy to see why. The Germans qualified at a canter, know how to win tournaments, and have all the same strengths which won it on a different continent four years ago.

Previous winner (and treble tournament winners from 2008 to 2012) Spain and European champion Portugal in fact meet tomorrow evening in the game of the group stage, and either (particularly the former, given its strength in depth despite the lack of a manager) is a potential champion this time.

Another question is whether last time’s beaten finallist Argentina could hope to give Messi a World Cup in what is surely his last viable attempt. Recent form suggests not, but then that was the case in 2014 also.

Three European teams of significant interest but rarely talked of are Belgium, Switzerland and Poland, all ranked in the top ten in the world. Belgium has quality across the field; Switzerland functions extremely well as a unit; and arguably Poland has the tournament’s best goalscorer. There is also a parallel universe not far from here where Croatia won Euro 2016. Could this be the year of the semi-outsider?

You can rarely discount the host either, although whether Russia really has the quality to go deep into the tournament is debatable.

In the end, when you combine proven quality across the team with the motivation for real redemption, taking account of the draw my money would be on Euro 2016 runner-up and third favourite (behind Brazil and Germany) France.

We shall soon find out…

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