Appreciate Robbie Keane while you can, you’ll miss him when he’s gone

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Following Padraig Harrington’s recent, surprising, win at the Honda Classic, the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show on Today FM asked their listeners to pick ‘Ireland’s greatest sportsperson‘.

Debates of this nature don’t tend to achieve a whole lot, and comparing different sports isn’t an exact science, but they still provide an insight into the tastes and interests of Irish sports fans. The listening public settled on jockey A.P. McCoy in first place, ahead of Brian O’Driscoll, Harrington, Katie Taylor and former cyclist Sean Kelly.

The absence of any footballer was noticeable, if not unexpected. Though the perception of the Republic of Ireland team has improved since Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane replaced Giovanni Trapattoni, the side are currently in a dogfight to qualify for Euro 2016 and the ‘Ole Ole’ brigade have seemingly moved on since the harsh realities of international football became apparent.

If one footballer was to make a list like the one on Ian Dempsey’s show, most would most likely opt for either Roy Keane or Paul McGrath. Any mention of Robbie Keane would probably be met with raised eyebrows and a series of ‘boyhood clubs’ jokes. Our site conducted a Sports Personality of the 2014 poll and Katie Taylor won, with 32.8% of the 2,665 votes, while Keane received five.

That’s five votes, not five per cent. The Ireland captain finished second last, with 0.19 per cent of votes.

Puyol and Robbie Keane 16/6/2002 DIGITALIt’d be wrong to single out some of twenty-nine others who finished ahead of Keane, but it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest most Irish sports fans would fail to recognise a few of them if they walked by them in the street.

In 2014, Keane won MLS, was named the league’s best player and scored the winning goal in the cup final, while also scoring goals for Ireland. A failure to recognise the player’s achievements conveys a greater malaise about Ireland’s record goalscorer, and perhaps public perception of football in general.

However, without seeking to enter a ‘my sport is better than yours’ trivial debate (can’t we all just get along?), the failure to contextualise and appreciate Robbie Keane’s commitment to the Irish national team, his ability and achievements is dumbfounding.

And it won’t be long before he’s a former Irish international.

Robbie Keane of  Ireland celebratesSince making his international debut in March 1998, Keane has scored 65 goals in 138 internationals and is currently the twelfth highest goalscorer in the history of international football. The only Europeans to have scored more are Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller, Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis.

Klose and Muller are World Cup winners, while the latter two played for one of the greatest sides ever, the Hungary team of the early 1950s. Puskás even played for Spain for a while.

Keane never had the luxury of switching to another international side, or team mates of that quality to set him up, yet he’s consistently scored goals across three decades of international football. Four months before his 35th birthday, Keane remains Ireland’s best chance to score a goal, yet he’s become something of a punch-line, for many, about ‘boyhood clubs’.

In addition to not adequately recognising the Dubliner’s achievements, it could be argued there’s never been a proper appreciation of just how good a footballer Keane was, and still remains.

Keane’s not a natural athlete, hence the trademark rolly-tumble goal celebration, but what he’s always possessed is great finishing ability, intelligence and wonderful movement. Keane’s 65 international goals are testament to his quality as a player, not some by-product of always starting for Ireland and beefing up his tally against cannon fodder. The striker has scored almost every key international Irish goal for over a decade.

From the last-minute World Cup goals against Spain and Germany to goals away to the Netherlands, France, and Italy, it’d be unfair to ever label him a flat-track bully. Anyway, if it was that easy to even score against the perceived minnows, the team wouldn’t still be reliant on Keane to score goals, and he wouldn’t be the top goalscorer to come from these islands.

Robbie Keane of the Republic of Ireland scores a dramatic penalty kickKeane’s movement alone deserves considerable merit, an aspect of his game his former manager Gordon Strachan was particularly impressed by. ‘Where did you learn your movement from?’ the then Coventry boss asked Keane, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’.

‘I dunno’ Keane replied. ‘I didn’t learn it off anyone, it must have been something that just came to me. It wasn’t like somebody came and grabbed me and said, “Do this, do that,” you know. In training you learn little things, different movements, like coming to get the ball and spinning off… It was just something I must have just had as a kid’.

Keane’s a street footballer, honing his skills playing football growing up on a housing estate Tallaght, where space is a valuable commodity.

The striker would’ve been pitted against bigger, stronger opponents, but football’s beauty lies that skill and spatial awareness make such physical qualities redundant. If we could somehow attach Shane Long’s legs to Keane’s brain, the Irish team post-Keane wouldn’t seem so bleak.

Wigan Athletic v Tottenham HotspurKeane’s best spell in club football was alongside Dimitar Berbatov, an equally cerebal player. The two struck up a wonderful partnership at Tottenham Hotspur, before departing for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively in 2008.

Keane’s record in the Premier League also deserves recognition and contextualising. The Dubliner scored 126 goals in the English top flight, the twelfth highest amount and ahead of players such as Didier Drogba, Nicholas Anelka and his soon to be LA Galaxy team-mate Steven Gerrard.

If an Irish player joining the Premier League now was to make 126 appearances in the English top flight, never mind scoring 126 goals, it would be seen as a considerable achievement.

Even Keane’s record in MLS seems strangely overlooked back home. Observers of the major European leagues may consider it a footballing backwater, but players with greater talent and significantly higher profiles, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, haven’t performed as well as ‘the unidentified fan’ in MLS.

Keane certainly hasn’t treated his time in LA as a semi-retirement gig.

460397826If one still doesn’t adequately appreciate Keane’s talent, or his considerable international achievements, then his commitment to the Irish team deserves merit.

In an era when the young Irish player of the year may end up playing for another country, and players seemingly treat international breaks as a nuisance, Keane consistently shows up when it’d be easier to stay at home, 5,000 miles away.

This isn’t an argument claiming Robbie Keane is Ireland’s greatest ever footballer or sports person, but more an examination of why he’s excluded from such debates, which lack obvious context.

Katie Taylor is the best in the world at what she does, it would be pure ignorance to dispute that and completely wrong. The Irish rugby team proved last weekend they are the best team in Europe and contenders for the World Cup, while Gaelic footballers and hurlers deserve considerable credit and admiration for their levels of dedication.

However, professional football is in a different stratosphere, in terms of competitiveness, to women’s amateur boxing, rugby and Gaelic games. 209 nations play international football, that’s more footballing nations than actual officially recognised countries, and, of those, 54 play in Europe, the most competitive and wealthiest football continent.

For Ireland to even be competitive is achievement, given that we are country with fewer playing resources and less developed infrastructure than a lot of those we come up against.

This isn’t an attempt to belittle other sports, but just a reminder to those who use Irish success in other sports as a tool to belittle the Irish team. Something that will likely happen if Ireland lose to Poland on Sunday, a week after the Irish Rugby team won the Six Nations.

Republic of Ireland v Gibraltar - EURO 2016 QualifierNo-one will ever better Robbie Keane’s goalscoring or appearance record for Ireland. As it becomes harder and harder for Irish players to break into teams across the water, it’s difficult to imagine anyone scoring more Premier League goals, let alone have a career spanning three decades.

And as football continues to be homogenised, we’re unlikely to see another street footballer like Keane again. Such players are becoming extinct, as academy clones continue to be mass produced.

Keane isn’t as polished as Brian O’Driscoll, as interesting as Roy Keane or as flawed as Paul McGrath. He’s just a footballer from Tallaght who’s had a brilliant career, and deserves suitable recognition. He should not be a punchline about having numerous boyhood clubs or for failing to be recognised by someone writing a picture caption in Los Angeles.

We’ll miss him when he’s gone, and, if Ireland don’t record a positive result against Poland on Sunday, that might not be too far away.

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The 10 Most Memorable Football Moments of 2014

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What a year it’s been for football.

2014 saw the best World Cup in recent memory, one the most exciting Premier League title races ever and the most unlikely Ireland result in the most dramatic of circumstances. This year had so many unforgettable football moments, here’s our 10 most memorable.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

10. Luis Suárez’s second goal against England

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The then Liverpool forward underwent knee surgery on May 21st, was expected to be out of action for six weeks but returned on June 19th to effectively knock England out of the World Cup. As the game was entering its final minutes, Luis Suárez was hobbling around the pitch, no-where near full fitness, but instinctively reacted to a misplaced Steven Gerrard header, went through on goal and smashed the ball home.

A fantastic World Cup moment, full of narrative and drama, the camera panned from the ecstasy of Suarez and the Uruguayans to the despair of Gerrard and England. A man who’d been in a wheelchair weeks before crushes a nation’s hopes.

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9. Eamon Dunphy curses live on air during the World Cup. Eamon Dunphy 17/5/2012RTE have just come back on air before the game between Brazil and Mexico in the World Cup. ‘The pitch was a fucking bog’, Eamon Dunphy doesn’t seem to realise it though. ‘You can see the level of expectancy,’ Bill O’Herlihy notes to the panel. ‘When Neymar was shaping up to take that penalty’ Dunphy continues, ‘I thought he was fucking… dreading it’.  The host takes a sharp intake of breath as Dunphy curses and it becomes apparent, the pundit has dropped a series of F-bombs on live television. Even by his own Olympic-like dedication and mastery of saying controversial things, this was a special moment.

‘We’re on air?!’ , O’Herlihy asks.‘Oh we’re not, are we?!’ Dunphy says, squirming in his seat and momentarily raising his hand to cover his mouth. Bill awkwardly laughs it off and when the programme returns from a break Dunphy says sorry for his slip. But, like a schoolboy apologising for misbehaving, Dunphy has a twinkle in his eye and you know he’s not really sorry. Never change Eamon.

8. James Rodriguez goal against Uruguay Colombia v Uruguay: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilJames Rodriguez was already the best performer at the World Cup before the last-16 tie with Uruguay. The Colombian had scored two and and assisted two in the group stages, but this goal raised his profile to superstar level. Rodriguez drifted into a pocket of space between Uruguay’s defence and midfield, took a quick glance towards goal before cushioning a pass with his chest and, in one motion, turned and volleyed a peach of a shot in off the underside of the bar. Rodriguez nonchalantly saunters off and signs for Real Madrid for €80 million a few weeks later. A star is born.

7.Sergio Ramos last minute Champions League final goal against Atletico Madrid Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final La Décima, the title Real Madrid, a club that has everything, craves more than anything is about to be lost to their city rivals. Atletico Madrid, the plucky underdogs, upstarts who were not expected to get anywhere near this stage, are seconds from completing the most improbable of league and Champions League doubles. Real need a hero.  https://vine.co/v/MdjJlggWwVw/embed/postcard

Sergio Ramos, like some Iberian Chuck Norris, arrives to save the day. Out jumping everyone, the defender powers home an equaliser and sparks manic celebrations for Real.

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6. David Moyes gets sacked by Manchester United

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League

A highly regarded manager becomes a laughing stock as years of hard work is forgotten in months, a dream job becomes a nightmare and one man gets the blame for turning the Premier League champions into also-rans. ‘The Chosen One’ became ‘The Wrong One’. Poor David Moyes.

There were so many moments of Moyes in 2014, with each passing week Manchester United appeared to sink deeper into mediocrity as the ghost of Alex Ferguson watched on from the stands and their manager seemingly aged years in the process. When the inevitable happened, and news broke that United would part company with the Glaswegian on April 21st, Moyes was no more sacked than put out of his misery. Although handled pretty poorly by the club – journalists had told him of his sacking before the club did – releasing Moyes was the humane thing to do.

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5. Luis Suárez bites Giorgio Chiellini Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil When a person does something for the third time, you’d imagine it wouldn’t be all that memorable. However, when that someone is Luis Suárez, the action is him biting an opponent on the pitch and the stage is a crucial World Cup game with millions watching, it becomes unforgettable. Suárez almost broke the internet. Reactions went from shock, to laughter, to indignation, and back again. The maddest of Suárez’s many mad moments, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon.

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4. Steven Gerrard slips

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

As cruel for Liverpool fans as it was funny for Manchester United fans as it was unforgettable for football fans. Steven Gerrard slipping in the decisive game on their unlikely title push was the Premier League’s most memorable moment of 2014. Just two weeks previously, Anfield was rocking as Liverpool beat eventual champions Manchester City 3-2 on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A tearful, exhausted Gerrard addressed his team on the Anfield pitch, and told them ‘this does not slip’.

In the next game at the ground, he slipped. The dream of Liverpool being crowned champions for the first time in 24 years was gone. Gerrard, the one-club man, the team’s hero over 15 years and symbol of the club became the victim of the most cruelest of ironies.

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3. John O’Shea’s last minute equaliser against Germany

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

Ireland are trailing to the world champions, there are seconds remaining on the clock and it looks like they’ll be returning home with nothing. Up steps John O’Shea, wearing the captain’s armband, on his 100th cap to guide home a deft finish. Incredible stuff. Ireland nick a point from the mighty Germany and fans of the Irish team have something to sit alongside the great moments of the past.

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What made the goal all the sweeter and more memorable is the lack of such in a moment in recent Irish football history. Not since Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Italy in 2009 had there being such a moment of pure, explosive joy for followers of the national team. The crushing disappointment of Euro 2012 carried on into a equally depressing qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, when Ireland were hammered 6-1 by Germany. If we were compiling a list of most memorable Irish football moments, there’s no doubt John O’Shea’s last minute goal against the world champions would be in first spot.

2.Van Persie’s goal against Spain

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Robin van Persie’s goal was breathtaking, a truly unique piece of skill rarely seen before or unlikely to be repeated. Daley Blind’s diagonal ball was precise and perfectly weighted, but Van Persie’s movement and speed of thought was stunning. When watching the replay it’s almost as though you can see the cogs in his head working.

The Dutch striker arrived onto the ball just inside Spain’s penalty area, having run off their flat defence, and seems to instantly measure the distance between the goal and Iker Casillas. He then leaps at the ball, almost performing a corkscrew motion to send it over the stranded goalkeeper.

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The goal itself is unforgettable, but, when considering the wider significance of the moment, it becomes even more memorable. Van Persie’s header was the exact moment the aura of the World and European Champions, the most dominant international side in football history, was shattered. Until that point Spain were leading 1-0 and were cruising and the Netherlands had barely a kick in the game. The Manchester United striker’s goal burst Spain’s bubble.

An incredible act of skill, athleticism, speed of thought and execution, a goal that will be replayed for years to come. It’d make you wonder how the hell van Persie, after scoring such an amazing goal, then lacked the co-ordination to properly high five Louis van Gaal.

1.   Germany destroy Brazil

Brazil v Germany: Semi Final - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Football’s JFK moment. A seismic event that saw a simultaneous dropping of jaws across the globe. This game was the most tweeted about sport event of 2014, but transcended football or sport, it was as though we were watching a nation disintegrate in front of our eyes. Germany were as relentless as Brazil were hideously awful.

The hosts had bulldozed their way through the tournament, playing awful football and almost kicked their opponents Colombia more than the ball in the Quarter-Finals. When Thomas Muller opened the scoring you could see Brazil deflate, like a bully who’d been hit back for the first time, their perceived confidence had been shown to be bluster. David Luiz went rouge as the team crumbled and no-one could believe what they were watching.

Not only the most memorable football moment of 2014, Germany’s demolition of Brazil is the most memorable football moment of the 21st century and, it could be argued, potentially the most memorable football moment ever. Brazil’s collapse will never be forgotten.

THE FALL OF IRELAND’S ELITE FOOTBALLERS

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The decline in the number of Irish players in the Premier League is concerning for a nation now ranked 70th in the world.

Originally published on These Football Times 31/07/2014.

Upon arrival in cities, generations of Irish migrants’ first port of call, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

However some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. The experience of migrants encountering racism is by no means exclusive to the Irish and such discrimination is something that is largely resigned to the past.

Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, escaping unemployment rather than famine, but the majority are now greater educated, skilled and employable. In this global and largely more tolerant age, Irish migrants do not face the same level of hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

To play in the Premier League, as for millions all over the world, represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and, for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets, dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, North America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. Former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles in his autobiography recounts listening to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight-years-old, United was his favourite team, and the captain Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers have long plied their trade successfully in their Anglo neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to Belfast’s George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful and, for some, best footballers of their respective generations. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams (pictured, the Irish contingent at the Gunners in the 80s – O’Leary, Stapleton, Jennings, Nelson, Devine, Rice, Brady) of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. In 2014, the largest Irish Premier League contingent is at strugglers Hull City.

In the 2007/08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013/14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, however when you consider this development alongside other aspects, it becomes apparent that Irish football is in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain’s big leagues, is ever dwindling and the career progression paths stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, while the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull’s Shane Long.

The paths of these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent, who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means for finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as England and Scotland’s own playing pools continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long’s careers are another case of accident rather than design. Both come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary respectively. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams until moving to England as adults. Long was eighteen when Reading signed him for a nominal fee, Coleman aged twenty when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic to secure such moves, the transfers, from the English club’s perspective, would have been considered low-risk transactions.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These previously considered, more talented players, would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea. Moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak scenario for young Irish footballers, but also an unavoidable reality. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new teammates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make a top flight first team, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The export market is one of the key tenants of the Irish economy, in both boom and bust years. However the market for exporting football talent has significantly diminished. Therefore the current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home.

Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5 million – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done such in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over two hundred clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However it is strikingly obvious that, like England, there are not enough of these coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 UEFA Pro licences, 183 holders of the ‘A’ licence and 488 with the ‘B’ licence. A factor may be that these qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than Germany or Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who admirably dedicate their time and effort.

That said, there are also too many who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a team in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant and country of two hundred million people, without a creative, dynamic presence in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

It could be argued that these players would materialise through self-sufficiency involving a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight, and of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the Chief Executive, has a yearly salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing the association’s significant level of debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those atop the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings which allowed ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.

Ugly Brazil team unworthy of World Cup glory

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Originally published by Back Page Football 4/6/2014.

Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff was appalled after watching his country play Spain in the World Cup final four years ago. Referring to the Netherlands as: ‘ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic’ Cruyff, the iconic leader and symbol of the great total-football Netherlands and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and architect of the current style of Barcelona and Spain, said the Dutch: ‘were playing anti-football’.

The Netherlands kicked and hacked their way through a gruelling 120 minutes, committing twenty-eight fouls, receiving eight yellow cards and had, fortuitously, just one player dismissed. The team, rather than the wonderful attacking Dutch sides of the past, featuring players such as Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten, was typified by the aggression and gamesmanship of players such Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The classic, romantic image of technical, graceful Netherlands teams was firmly dented when de Jong karate-kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso.

Spain still prevailed though, winning 1-0 thanks to an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta. The tournament had been dour, the final was ugly but the Spanish were worthy winners, a measure of saving grace for an otherwise forgettable month of football. The 2014 World Cup does not require such redemption as it is on course to be widely considered as the best tournament in recent memory.

Within this festival of football there have been some disappointments. The most notable being Luis Suarez’s bite, the performance of some European teams and the petty squabbling among the Ghana and Cameroon sides. However, the biggest disappointment of the tournament, with the possible exception of one hungry Uruguayan, has been the Brazil national team.

The hosts, with the exception of golden boy Neymar, have failed to adequately contribute to their own party or come close to playing the type of samba football synonymous with the country. Following their controversial, unconvincing opening victory over Croatia, Brazil laboured to a goalless draw with Mexico and secured top spot in Group A with a 4-1 victory over hapless Cameroon. They now face Colombia in the quarter-final after eliminating Chile in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

For those who watched last summer’s Confederation Cup, the sight of a functional, aggressive, hard pressing Brazil team, relying on some Neymar magic to save the day, will be familiar. Indeed, there has not been a Brazil team to fit the romantic image, forged by the great teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in over thirty years. It has been well documented that the 1982 World Cup team are considered the last to match the famous ideal of Brazilian jogo bonito.

That Brazil side, featuring some of the country’s greatest ever players such as Zico, Socrates and Falcão, were playing exhilarating, fluid attacking football. However, their defensive failings were exposed by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick as they crashed out 3-2, in the second group stage, to eventual winners Italy. Zico said the game was ‘the day football died’.

While that description may be dramatic, subsequent Brazil teams, such the teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, have been more functional than fantastic. Each side have had ultra-attacking full backs, a plethora of defensive midfielders and individual brilliance from a star forward. However, if one ascribes to Zico’s view that the classic, romantic Brazilian nature of football died in 1982, then the current side must resemble the equivalent of Brazilian football zombies.

Brazil now treats the centre circle as though it is a shark infested lake, repeatedly hoofing long balls into the opposition final third in hope something will land for Neymar. They attempted almost sixty long passes against Cameroon and again in the second-round tie with Chile. In both games they played just a handful of through balls and against Cameroon their main pass combination was between midfielder Luis Gustavo and central defender David Luiz.

Neymar said this week:

The games are very hotly contested and equal and whoever shows the most commitment is the winner. Brazil didn’t come to put on a show, we came to win.

Further evidence, if any was needed, that the image of beautiful Brazilian football now borders on myth. This team is built on an ethos of ‘commitment’, which seemingly extends to their embarrassingly overly emotional rendition of the national anthem and crying before penalty shootouts.

Brazil are also committed to a tactical plan that involves pumping the ball as far down the pitch as they possibly can, abjectly defending, physically bullying the opposition and desperately relying on Neymar. The defence is creaky, the midfield lacks incision, and gets bypassed anyway, and to claim Fred is misfiring would be incorrect because that involve the striker actually shooting.

One may argue that Brazil do not have the required personnel to play an expansion, attacking game. That it is foolish to imagine Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Hulk could play like Zico, Socrates or Ronaldinho. However, we have seen apparent lesser teams, such as Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico, play in an attacking style with cohesion, neat passing and tactical discipline. The current Brazil side may not have to tools to mirror the famed teams of the past, but that does not automatically mean they should resort to playing like the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s and 90’s.

Regardless of whether one is viewing through a purist or pragmatist prism, Brazil verge between being ineffectual, ugly and, at times, difficult to comprehend, typified by David Luiz. In the 73rd minute of the host’s game with Cameroon, Luiz, the most expensive defender in the world, stepped onto a misplaced opposition header around thirty-five yards from his own goal. Brazil was leading 3-1 against a dispirited team who had already been eliminated.

However, Luiz, under no opposition pressure, rather than taking the ball down, playing a short pass or even attempting to pick out one of his attacking teammates, aimlessly smashed a volley seventy yards down the pitch. If this was to occur during an over forties Sunday league match it would be a needless waste of possession. However, this was a Brazilian player with undoubted technical ability, in the World Cup in Brazil, and in a situation that presented vast scope for personal expression. In this context, the act was infuriating, nonsensical and dispiriting.

Next up for Brazil is South American rivals Colombia in Friday’s quarter-final in Fortaleza. Los Cafeteros have comfortably dispatched each side they have faced thus far and have, arguably, the tournament’s star performer in the form of James Rodriguez. The Monaco forward has been a revelation and, with Brazil’s defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo suspended, could be in line to continue his heroics. Colombia looked primed to provide the Seleção with their toughest test of the tournament so far and cause a potential upset.

Cruyff was asked, prior to the World Cup final in 2010, if the Netherlands would mirror Inter Milan’s defensive performance in their aggregate victory over Barcelona in that year’s Champions League semi-final.

I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style… I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style.

This Brazil team has seemingly taken such a path, but they are neither pragmatic nor purist. They instead resemble a parody and perversion of past Seleção sides and the supposed footballing ideals of a country regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game.

A victory for Brazil would be a triumph for FIFA and the ruling establishment within the country, both of whom will wish to use a sixth World Cup title as a way to paper over the failings of the tournament’s organisation, corruption allegations and the plundering of Brazil’s economy and poorest citizens. A final perversion, but this time also serving to distract from the failings of the Seleção, and an unfitting outcome to a wonderful festival of football.

England and Uruguay – Football Pioneers

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Originally published by Back Page Football 18/06/2014.

The fixture between Uruguay and England on Thursday in Sao Paulo is set to be the pivotal fixture in Group D. Both sides lost their opening games so another defeat for either will spell the end of their campaign.

However, the match will also be notable for a number other reasons. It will feature the country that invented football against the first great international team. England and Uruguay are two nations that have had sharply contrasting international football success, despite radically different resources. It could also be billed as a battle between each team’s most high-profile players, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter may have claimed that China is the birthplace of football, but, for the rest of us, there can be no denying that the version we all recognise was devised and first organised in English public schools in the 19th century. The students of these schools were a mixture of children of the old money, aristocracy, and the nouveu riche, middle class of the Industrial Revolution. Disobedience and violence was omnipresent among a large group of boys in a confined space.

The Victorian establishment were fixated with physical well-being and how it translated into living a healthy life for the country’s future power brokers. Games, such as football, would also provide an opportunity for the unruly youth to channel their energies into a cohesive exercise. Rather than kicking and chasing each other, they could kick and chase a ball around a field.

Football continued to develop and grow in popularity. The Football Association was formed and codified the game in 1863 and the first FA Cup final, in 1871, was won by Wanderers, a team of former Harrow public schoolboys. However, from beginnings as an aristocratic, amateur pastime, football, in the final decades of the 19th century, became colonised by the masses. The shortening of the industrial working week, combined with a rise in disposable income, gave forum for both participants and spectators. Clubs and leagues sprang up, particularly around Lancashire’s industrial hive, and football began spreading further south, before being exported throughout the world.

Wayne Rooney and Roy Hodgson

The story of the development of football is, in essence, the story of industrialisation and modernisation. England was the first country to experience mass industrialisation and through its global spanning formal and informal empire, the game grew. Throughout this vast empire, from Bilbao to Belfast, Glasgow to St Petersburg and Budapest to Sao Paulo, the spread of football can be sourced to the British expatriates organising games amongst themselves, as curious natives looked on

William Leslie Poole, a Scottish P.E. teacher at an English School in Montevideo, is credited with beginning the spread of football in Uruguay. Poole founded Albion Football Club in 1893, originally as a branch of the Albion’s cricket club. The pattern of football’s shift from being the mainstay of the elite minority, to working class dominance was accelerated in Uruguay by the country’s rapid industrialisation and droves of European settlers in the country in the late 19th century. In 1903 Nacional, a club founded by Hispanic students in Montevideo, represented Uruguay, against Argentina in Buenos Aires, in one of the country’s first international games and won 3-2.

Twenty seven years later Uruguay again faced Argentina. This time the tie between the neighbours was in Montevideo in the inaugural World Cup Final. Ninety-three thousand supporters crammed into Estadio Centenario to see the hosts win 4-2. FIFA had awarded them the staging of the tournament due to a consensus that the country was the best team in the world. Uruguay had won gold at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where they beat Switzerland 3-0, and retained their title at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, again victorious over Argentina. La Celeste had also won six of the previous twelve Copa Américas, but it was the World Cup final win which firmly cemented Uruguay’s place as international football’s first great team

The Parisian crowd, at the 1924 Olympics, were enthralled by the skills of the South American team. Uruguay, unlike their opponents, played a short passing game. Gabriel Hanot, a French journalist, summed up the spectators’ appreciation, writing: ‘They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective’. In an excerpt taken from David Goldblatt’s book, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Hanot was less kind towards English footballers. ‘Before these fine athletes, who are to the English professionals like Arab thoroughbreds next to farm horses, the Swiss were disconcerted’.

That estimation of the talents of English players may seem unfair, however, at the time, the country, was in a state of deliberate international football isolation. They declined entry to football at the Olympic Games during the 1920s, the World Cup tournaments in the 1930s and only played internationals with other ‘Home’ countries. When England first entered the tournament, in Brazil in 1950, the decedents of the beautiful game’s inventers received an earthshattering shock.

England, with players such as Billy Wright and Tom Finney, were perceived as favourites for their maiden World Cup. However, the ‘Kings of Football’ failed to advance from the initial group stage and lost 1-0 to USA, a team of part-time players. A seismic result, perhaps born out of England’s hubris regarding the game they had invented and one which would leave long-lasting scars. England had given the world football, but, in part due to their lofty isolation, they had been surpassed. Uruguay would win the tournament with perhaps the most iconic underdog result in World Cup history. In front of two-hundred-thousand fans at the Maracanã stadium, in the tournament’s final game, hosts Brazil succumbed to a 3-2 loss.

Luis Suarez Uruguay

Uruguay, with a population of just under three and a half million, is international football’s most successful country. They have won twenty titles in total, the most recent being the Copa América in 2011 and finished fourth at the last World Cup. If Uruguay is international football’s great over-achievers, the popular consensus has long been that England has been under-achievers at international level.

England’s World Cup win on home soil in 1966 is the only international title for the country which gave football to the world. Some would consider this a meagre return for a country with such seemingly superior resources. England’s population is sixteen times that of Uruguay, the country boasts a prominent domestic league and have produced great players. However, according to journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski, authors ofWhy England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, the tag of international underachievers is false. ‘The sad fact is that England are a good team that does better than most. This means they are not likely to win many tournaments, and they don’t’.

The authors use statistical data in an attempt to explain, among other things, the performance of the England national team. Their findings conclude that England’s win percentage, between 1970 and 2007, is on average 67 per cent, never lower than 62 per cent, and never higher than 70 per cent. A consistent and credible performance but, considering Brazil win on average 80 per cent of their games, England’s win percentage is not enough to achieve international glory. From 1981 to 2001, it was the tenth best in the World, hardly grounds for being labelled underachievers.

Statistical data may be able to debunk the idea of England underperforming on the international stage, however, for many fans, the sense that the anointed ‘Golden Generation’ underachieved still lingers. The final remnants of this crop of players, in the form of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, face their potential last stand on Thursday against Uruguay. The sense of underachievement is undoubtedly felt more in relation to Rooney than his teammates.

Indeed, it could be argued, that many have given up on Rooney, including England manager Roy Hodgson. The Manchester United forward was shifted to the left-wing in the 2-1 loss to Italy. He provided an excellent assist for Daniel Sturridge’s goal, but was unable to provide adequate defensive cover for left-back Leighton Baines.

This failure to perform a tactically disciplined role is a common feature of Rooney’s performances, but, as Irish Independent journalist Dion Fanning said: ‘Hodgson asked too much of him in Manaus when he was delegated to work up and down the left-wing, something he would struggle with on a mild October evening, let alone a suffocating night in the Amazon rainforest’.

It was not meant to be this way for Rooney. After his outstanding performances at Euro 2004 he became the great hope. A boy who played like a man, Rooney was raw, powerful, boundlessly energetic, possessing the fighting spirit English fans yearn for, but with the skillset of a South American.

Rooney’s former manager, David Moyes, said: ‘Wayne was the last of the classic street footballers’. The Liverpudlian is a product of the English urban working class and football’s colonisation by the masses and perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the street footballer. The decline of playing football in the street is seemingly mirrored by Rooney’s plight.

Whereas, Rooney was once the chosen one, he’s now the square peg. He is seemingly too famous to omit from the starting eleven, but no longer trusted to be the team’s focal point. Rooney’s only escape from this football purgatory will be a starring performance against Uruguay. If he cannot do this, it could be the last World Cup stand for the last of the street footballers.

If the teenage Rooney promised so much, the opposite was perhaps the case for his Uruguayan counterpart. Luis Suarez was not a child prodigy, but he is also a product of the urban working class, as he told journalist Sid Lowe: ‘I played in the streets with my friends, barefooted. That was the way we lived’. Simon Kuper said when the forward moved to Ajax, in 2007 aged 20, Marco Van Basten said that: ‘He can’t really play soccer’. The Liverpool forward, has since dramatically improved.

The popular consensus is that Rooney peaked at Suarez’s age; however the Uruguayan shows no sign of plateauing. In tandem with his supreme skills and spatial awareness, Suarez embodies his country’s fighting spirit, la garra charrua, named after the indigenous Uruguayan population. If Suarez is fit to play on Thursday, there is no chance of him being shunted out to the wings.

Hodgson said this week that: ‘You can be a great player in your league but for the world to recognise you are one of the all-time greats you have got to do it at the World Cup’. The England manager was speaking in relation to Suarez but perhaps he is also addressing Wayne Rooney. Indeed his comments could relate to the fortunes of both countries on the international stage.

Thursday’s game will be crucial for the World Cup fortunes of England and Uruguay, a chance for their most famous sons to make the telling difference, perhaps Rooney’s last, and another chapter in their long and proud football history.

Roy’s reliance on Rooney could ruin England’s slim chances

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Originally published by Back Page Football 26/5/2014.

Wayne Rooney’s role, as in previous tournaments, could prove crucial to England’s chances at the World Cup in Brazil. England manager Roy Hodgson said last week that Rooney: ‘knows the eyes, certainly of England, if not the rest of the world, are going to be on him’.

However, this has been the case in previous World Cups and each time the Manchester United forward has failed to deliver. Would England be better served without their perceived talisman? And should Hodgson take heed the lessons from previous tournaments regarding Rooney’s likelihood to deliver on the game’s highest stage?

It could be argued that the different stages in Rooney’s career are linked to respective World Cups. In 2006 he was raw but immensely talented. ‘The White Pele’, despite carrying a metatarsal injury, was seen as the spark to ignite the so-called ‘Golden Generation’. Rooney featured in four games, failed to score and was sent off in England’s quarter final loss to Portugal.

However, the striker was largely given the benefit of the doubt. His dismissal was impetuous, and ultimately costly for his side, but he was young and not perceived to be at peak fitness during the tournament. While the memory of his performance at Euro 2004, where he scored four goals in four games, was still fresh in the public consciousness. His time to shine on the world football’s greatest stage would surely come.

Over the next four years, at club level, Rooney won three Premier Leagues, a Champion’s League title and, in the season leading up to the South Africa World Cup, had his most prolific season. Rooney, Scoring 34 goals in 44 games, became the focal point of United’s attack after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. No longer subjugating himself for the betterment of Ronaldo, Rooney was seemingly liberated to become the player many thought, or hoped, he would become. The spectre of injury again loomed prior to the World Cup, but Rooney was fit enough to start every game.

If the Rooney of the 2006 World Cup was talented and raw, but combustible and unrefined, 2010 Rooney represented the player at his peak. Or at least it should have. Rooney again failed to score, as England impotently exited in the second round to Germany. Isolated up front, physically, and, as it would later transpire, mentally out of sorts, the forward seemed unable to carry the burden of an expectant public and a jaded team.

Which leads to the current scenario facing Hodgson and England ahead of next month’s World Cup. Which Rooney will show up? How does England extract the maximum from Rooney? And is doing such automatically related to the fortunes of the side?

The United striker appears more focused and prepared than in previous tournaments, saying: ‘I feel good. I am settled at home with my family… I feel this is the really last big one that I feel will probably get the best out of me. I feel ready, fresh and as good as I can do to go into this tournament’. A sentiment that was echoed by Hodgson: ‘He knows what a good player he is… and he’ll do everything he can to make certain he brings out his best qualities’.

Rooney’s former United teammate, Paul Scholes said last week that: ‘to get the very best from Wayne in Rio, the manager needs to tell him: ‘Don’t bother running back. Stay centre-forward. That’s your job in my team’. However, that has not been Rooney’s role in the team. And when Rooney has played as the lone striker, particularly in 2010, he has cut a frustrated, forlorn figure, starved of service and lacking the tactical discipline to ‘stay centre-forward’.

The blistering form of Daniel Sturridge, for the majority of the Premier League season, means that Hodgson is likely to deploy Rooney in the No.10 role, behind the Liverpool striker and centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This is his position for United and the natural fit for his attacking skill set. When the team lose possession the player in Rooney’s position would be expected to put pressure on the opposition’s midfield schemer. However, Rooney has proven in the past to be unable to do this against top class opposition.

The basis of the breakdown in the relationship between Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson can be linked to the player’s inability to perform this tactically disciplined role. It has been well documented that the pair fell out after Rooney was dropped from the starting line-up of last season’s Champion’s League second-round exit to Real Madrid. While it was a shock at the time, Ferguson’s choice was justified when one considers the two games that perhaps most crucially shaped his decision; the tie’s first leg and the 2011 Champion’s League final against Barcelona.

In the 2011 final Rooney was set the task of pressing and tracking Sergio Busquets, Barcelona’s deepest lying midfielder and initial instigator of their attacks. Rooney scored a wonderful goal to level the score, but never got close to the Busquets, who found his more offensively effective teammates time and time again.Barcelona won comfortably 3-1.

Ferguson, two years later, was therefore unwilling to deploy Rooney in the same role to subdue Madrid’s Xabi Alonso. With Robin Van Persie’s status as United’s lone striker firmly cemented, Rooney started the first leg, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, on the right side of midfield. His job, when Madrid had possession, was to provide cover for full-back Rafael. This proved unsuccessful as the Brazilian full-back had a night to forget. Madrid players targeted United’s right side, with their equalising goal coming from a cross Rooney failed to close down.

In the second-leg Rooney was replaced by Nani, who scored before being harshly sent off, while Danny Welbeck effectively stifled Alonso, Real Madrid’s dynamo. The entire tie turned when Welbeck was moved to the wing following Nani’s dismissal, Alonso now had the freedom to operate and Madrid quickly scored twice. In the game’s aftermath it emerged that Rooney was furious at being dropped, but Ferguson made a rational decision. He had a more prolific striker in Van Persie. And felt he could not rely on Rooney to perform a tactically disciplined role, in a game against high quality opposition, who are proficient in retaining the ball. What other choice, than dropping Rooney, had Ferguson got?

Hodgson faces a similar dilemma for next month’s World Cup in Brazil. England’s first game, against Italy in the jungle of Manaus, will prove decisive. Assuming Hodgson will play Sturridge in the central striker’s position, can Rooney be trusted to disrupt the majestic Andrea Pirlo? All evidence would suggest not.Rooney’s ability, when in possession of the ball, is not in question, despite not hitting the individual heights of his one-time rival Ronaldo. However, England will undoubtedly seed possession to Italy. The country’s chance of progression could be greater improved by dropping their talisman.

Paul Scholes suggested that the England management team lack the ‘balls’ to drop Rooney. While that may be the case, it is perhaps more likely that England, and many English fans, are still bound to the idea of the player they thought Wayne Rooney was going to become when he burst onto the international stage ten years ago. Yet it has become apparent that their idealised version of Rooney as a world-class, game changing, decisive operator, in the mould of Ronaldo or Messi, will not come to fruition. The England starting eleven would be collectively stronger for his absence.

However, this will not happen. Roy Hodgson is not Sir Alex Ferguson and Rooney will once again carry the hopes of a nation into another campaign. Rationality would suggest this is adverse, but football fans tend not to deal in rationality. Rooney represents something more than just an elite footballer. He was, and for some still is, the embodiment of a nation’s hopes. ‘The White Pele’, the one to finally end the years of pain.

To fully concede defeat in him would be to admit the near misses, hard-luck stories and glorious failures were, in fact, due to a relative mediocrity at a game they invented. Rooney is still the great hope, but it’s the hope that kills you.