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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Ireland end of year review: O’Neill and Keane need to step up or 2015 will be damp squib

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It always seems to be the way, but Irish football has more questions than answers as the year comes to an end

No, the ever dwindling number of Irish players at the game’s elite level is not main one –  that problem is present at the end of every calendar year.

As 2014 draws to a close, there are more immediate issues to address, and they centre on the stewardship of the national team.

Martin O’Neill, the decorated manager, and Roy Keane, the most high-profile assistant manager in the history of football, face a crucial year. If 2015 in any way mirrors this year, then the national team could be steering into the abyss.

The focus on numerous off-field events dwarfed the attention afforded to Ireland’s performances this year.

O’Neill and Keane were dubbed a ‘dream team’ when appointed in October 2013. In terms of profile and column inches, the two men have lived up to their billing. Yet has the Irish team really progressed from the final days of Giovanni Trapattoni? It’s still relatively early days but missing out on Euro 2016 is now a real possibility.

Keane is such a controversial and compelling figure there will be possibly never be a time when interest in his life wanes. It certainly hasn’t been boring, but so far there are few hard facts that suggest the assistant manager’s coaching input outweighs the attention his presence generates.

The players and O’Neill say Keane is a positive presence on the training ground and he very well may be.

Yet during his time as a television analyst, the Cork man rarely seemed concerned with the tactical aspects of the game and, when manager of Sunderland and Ipswich, he frequently delegated coaching duties to his staff.

Keane undoubtedly possesses vast football experience and knowledge, but it was never apparent that he was destined to be a coach. There has been talk amongst fans, and media outlets, that Keane is perhaps more suited to international management, citing his potential ability to inspire and extract performances due to his direct nature and charismatic presence.

However, even at the Irish team’s lowest point no one could ever validly claim they lacked motivation. The players need coaches to frame and harness their enthusiasm, to wed it with a cohesive tactical plan, designed to make the side greater than the sum of their parts. It remains to be seen if Keane can contribute to this. There was little sign of such during his time as assistant coach at Aston Villa.

Roy Keane is spoken to by an official 14/11/2014

What is in no doubt whatsoever though is Keane’s position as a lightning rod for attention. O’Neill, while at times appears tetchy at being constantly asked about his deputy, evidently feels it is worth the cost, possibly because it has distracted from some of the side’s failings.

The manager would no doubt immediately dispute this. Fans would have just cause to cite Ireland’s result against Germany – the most an Irish fan has had to celebrate in years – as evidence for O’Neill’s positive influence on the side.

However, Ireland’s performance in the Scotland loss points to a number of pressing concerns. The team is essentially in a mini-group with Poland and Scotland. Without being overly presumptuous, the mighty German machine will spark into life next year and bulldoze their way to Euro 2016.

Every team will defeat Gibraltar, and, barring an upset, Georgia. This leaves three teams fighting for two spots, one of which being a play-off place. Currently Ireland are trailing and appear the weakest.

Before October’s tie against Ireland, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan said he and his counterpart were ‘old-fashioned‘. Ireland’s tactics during the game seemed archaic. O’Neill opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters up front, dropping main goal threat Robbie Keane to the bench, and leaving Ireland’s midfield outnumbered.

Charlie Mulgrew was made to look like some highland Xavi as Ireland struggled to pick up the roaming Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney.

Granted the Irish team were weakened by the absence of their first-choice central midfield pairing, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, but all the more reason to start a third player in the position. It had seemed the only reason to play such a formation was to accommodate Robbie Keane, yet the game was the first time in 13 years he had failed to start a qualifier when he was available.

Ireland’s tactical frustrations were further compounded by the stunting of Seamus Coleman’s attacking outlet and, at the times, the team were reminiscent of the worst elements of the Trapattoni years.

Hitting long-balls, yet not backing them up with pressure from midfield, cautious and overworked, Ireland fatally switched off as Scotland scored a well-executed goal. There is an argument to be made such a moment is a reflection of the work carried out by the respective management teams. If so, Ireland’s came up short.

Anyone who has followed O’Neill’s career will be familiar with his exuberant touchline antics and ability to raise the performances of his sides.

He was touted as one the game’s brightest managers and had fantastic success with Celtic and Leicester City.

After returning to England his time with Aston Villa ended acrimoniously, before his career seemed to bottom out at Sunderland. The Germany result pointed to a potential managerial renaissance for O’Neill, but the Scotland game further emphasised the evidence present before he took the Ireland job. It seems as though the modern game has surpassed him.

Martin OÕNeill reacts in the closing stages 14/11/2014

A sea change occurred in football in 2008. Spain’s team of small, technically gifted players blazed a trail through the European Championship.

For years midfield had been deemed the land of the giants, physicality ruled as Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Roy Keane became the benchmark for the position.

Being a good footballer alone was not sufficient; players had to be lung-busting athletes. Spain broke the mould. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona swept all before them in 2009, winning a historic treble of titles, it was confirmed; a new phase in football had begun.

Managers and teams were forced to adapt or perish as the dominance of both sides continued over the next five years. The current world champions are a hybrid of the two styles, combining German physicality with Spanish technique.

From Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool, Southampton and Everton in the Premier League, to the national teams of Chile, Italy and Japan, the influence of Barcelona and Spain remains omnipresent throughout world football.

Teams can be viewed as either being influenced by this change, or a reaction against it and most managers operating at the elite level, including international football, have adapted. Even if it is at a most basic level of not allowing the team’s central midfield to be outnumbered in favour of a more physical presence up front.

However, judging by his final days with Sunderland, and Ireland’s display against Scotland, O’Neill seems rooted to the past. He still seemingly favours the traditional ‘British’ style of 4-4-2, laced with physicality and effort and designed to hit a big-man up top early. O’Neill was, after all, Emile Heskey’s manager for over six years of his career.

He approached the Scotland tie as though it was a traditional ‘British’ derby game and was tactically outwitted by Strachan. One could argue Ireland do not possess the players to play any other way. But they would probably say the same about Scotland. In a game of apparent equals, the Irish team were made to look distinctly the lesser of the two.

2015 will be the most pivotal year for the Irish national team in recent memory. There are crucial qualifiers against Poland and Scotland, as well as Germany and a high-profile friendly with England. The prize at stake is qualification for Euro 2016, which has been expanded to 24 teams, almost half of the teams in Europe.

If Ireland fail to qualify, it will surely be the lowest ebb of the Irish team. Even Keane’s presence will not be able to deflect from that.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

‘Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?’ and more examples of great sportswriting:

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My article on the decline of elite Irish footballers was named the 32th best piece of sportswriting of 2014.

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Enjoy watching Spain at the World Cup as you will miss them when they’re gone

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Originally published by The Guardian 13/06/2014.

Despite winning three international tournaments in a row, this Spain team are more respected than they are loved. We should savour their artistry and applaud their successes while we can

As TV becomes increasingly saturated by football coverage, there is a chance that fans might take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players was a rare treat for previous generations but it is now a weekly habit for many. Each weekend we can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence and then switch over to see Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain overexposure can extend to international teams, in particular world and European champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection or even adequate appreciation of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements and the road Spain took to reach such heights.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, the Telegraph conducted a poll on their website, asking: “Is watching Spain boring?” Of the 1,243 people who voted, 66% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter-attack. Games could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, Spain still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with in-from players such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, but Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown.

Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying: “It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain were crushed 3-0 by the hosts. After the 7-0 aggregate pummelling Bayern Munich doled out to Barcelona in the Champions League, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki-taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated Spain’s play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil were worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team.

Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of 30. Spain enter this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, this is probably the last World Cup for Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being “boring” return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything.” However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time Del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The team has boasted some of the most technically proficient players to have played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. His prime, like that of the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and managing his playing time effectively could be crucial in Brazil. He is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer with such technical ability and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them?

Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so: “Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past did not experience such exposure. Between 1951 and 1956, Hungary played 59 games and only lost once: the 1954 World Cup final, in which they were defeated by West Germany. Games at the time were more open, but this Hungary team are universally adored while Spain’s dominance in the modern era is greeted indifferently by some.

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is dominant and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now. This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

Perhaps this skews some fans’ enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. They have the mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer and keep winning.

This could be the last summer to watch some of their greatest players in action. In that 1981 interview Del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back.” Perhaps people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.

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.

Spain: You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone

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Praised by many for their modern style of play, yet criticized by others for their perceived boring tactics, I look at why we’ll miss this generation of Spain players when they’re gone.

Originally published by These Football Times 3/6/2014.

As televised football coverage becomes increasingly saturated, there is a chance that football fans may take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players – a rare treat for previous generations – is now, for many, a weekly occurrence. Each week one can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence, before switching over to see either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain over-exposure can extend to international teams, in particular World and European Champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection, or even adequate appreciation, of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements, and the road Spain took to reach such heights playing in such a manner.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, The Daily Telegraph conducted a poll, on their website, asking: ‘Are you bored of Spain?’ Of the 1,243 people who voted, 65% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter attack. Games, as a result, could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However Spain, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with players in form such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, yet Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown. Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying:

“It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain was crushed 3-0 by the hosts. Combined with the Champions League pummelling’s of Barcelona by Bayern Munich 7-0 on aggregate, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated their play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of Spanish vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team. Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline, the latter terminally so. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of thirty. Spain enters this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad, and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, for players such as Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa, this is, most likely, their final World Cup. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being ‘boring’ return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything”. However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained overt quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The recent Spanish teams have had some of the most technically proficient players to have ever played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. The Barcelona midfielder’s prime, like the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and effectively managing his playing time could be crucial in Brazil. However Xavi is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer, with such technical ability, and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them? Former Liverpool midfielder, Graeme Souness, also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so.

“Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past would not have experienced such exposure. Hungary, from 1951 to ‘56, one of the most revered sides of all time, played 59 games and only lost one, the World Cup final in ’54 to West Germany. Granted games at the time were more open, but would such dominance in the modern era be greeted with the same indifference Spain seem to encounter?

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is the dominant ethos and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now.

This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult such as the popular advent of watching television dramas, when they have ended their run, in short bulks. Consuming shows like The Wire, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, over a short period of time, is more appealing than following them week to week, month to month and year to year. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

There is an argument to suggest that this ideal skews some fans enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. The mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer, when many would have rested on their laurels, to keep winning.

However, for many, Spain’s brilliance will still pale in recognition to their perceived sterile domination. For some of their greatest players this could be the last summer to watch them in action. In that 1981 interview, del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back”. Perhaps, like The Wire or Breaking Bad, people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.

Costa on the cusp of greatness

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Originally published on Back Page Football 19/5/2014.

The popular consensus ahead of next month’s World Cup in Brazil is that the tournament can be the defining moment in Barcelona forward Lionel Messi’s career.

If the Argentina captain can propel his country to glory, on enemy soil, it will be hard pressed to argue against the inevitable proclamations that the diminutive genius is the greatest footballer of all time. However, even if Argentina fall short, Messi’s place among the pantheon of the game’s greats has long been assured. The next two months will go some way to defining Messi career, but it will not be the definitive estimate of his career.

Messi’s Atletico Madrid rival, striker Diego Costa, is, however, facing the prospect of a career defining period. It would be foolish to suggest the striker can, or ever will be able to put himself on par with Messi. However, Costa has a unique opportunity to capture the game’s greatest prizes and thus secure his standing as a peak operator.

The striker has had a stunning season, scoring 36 goals in 50 appearances and driving his club to an historic league title and Champion’s League final. A reoccurrence of a niggling hamstring injury prevented Costa from pushing his team over the line in last night’s La Liga decider against Barcelona. The striker went from been visibly distraught to elation upon his side capturing the unlikely title.

However, with part one of the double complete, Costa’s prime focus will be on a swift return for Saturday’s Champions League final against city rivals Real Madrid. In what may prove to be a tight encounter, Costa’s power and proficiency could be the decisive factor, as it was when the two sides met last September. The striker scored the only goal as Atletico won at the Bernabéu for first time in the league for 34 years, spoiling Gareth Bale’s debut and upstaging Cristiano Ronaldo.

Regardless of whether Costa can return for the culmination of Atletico’s improbable season, his power, intensity and proficiency have embodied the qualities of Diego Simeone’s side. Costa is reported to be on the verge of a €40 million move to Chelsea, and, if so, the Champion’s League final will be a fitting end to his time with Atletico. Saturday’s final, and next month’s world cup, could mark the beginning of the next stage of Costa’s career.

‘Costa is not Spanish’ chanted the Real Madrid fans as their team lost last year to their great rivals. And while the striker may not be Spanish in their eyes, he holds a Spanish Passport and within five months he would make his debut for the World and European Champions. Costa had made just two friendly appearances for his native country and was not included in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad for last year’s Confederation Cup, despite Brazil’s relative lack of quality centre-forwards. As he had not appeared in a competitive game, Costa was free to choose which country to represent.

When Brazil came calling again last autumn it was too late. ‘When I heard there was interest from Spain I began to imagine things, to think: ‘Why not?’ the striker said in March, in an interview with Spanish-based journalist Sid Lowe. ‘It was a privilege that the world champions want you, a privilege to be able to help the great players they have. I felt very important. I valued it a lot’. Therein lays the basis of Costa’s decision. Whereas he felt undervalued by Brazil, when he was just a promising striker, Spain’s interest reflected his new status and Costa’s decision represented his new-found place at the cusp of the game’s elite players. He chose perceived loyalty and estimation of his personal value over national allegiance, or the emotional pull of potentially winning the World Cup in the country of his birth.

It was a bold statement and one which irked Scolari, who said ‘He is turning his back on a dream of millions, to represent our national team, the five-time champions in a World Cup in Brazil’. The Brazil manager is clearly bullish about Costa’s defection to their key rivals. Yet one can only imagine Big Phil,when he announced his squad with just two centre-forwards, was left wondering what might have been. Costa, with his incisive movement, powerful running and clinical finishing, would have been the ideal focal point of his attack. And perfect foil for Brazilian golden boy Neymar.

Indeed, it is telling that Chelsea, the club team that perhaps most closely resemble Brazil, see Costa as the missing piece in their side. Both Chelsea and Brazil are built on a solid defence with an industrious midfield. At their best they are both direct, fast and hard pressing, with a sprinkling of individual flair, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard being Chelsea’s equivalent of Neymar. On July 14th, the day after the World Cup final, will Scolari, as his Chelsea counterpart José Mourinho has done all season, be ruing the absence of a world class centre-forward?

Costa himself was largely anonymous during his adopted country’s friendly win over Italy in March and, until the World Cup begins, it is unclear exactly how the striker fits into Spain’s tiki-taka system. However, even if it is by virtue of denying their main rivals of his quality, Spain is set to profit from Brazil’s loss as Costa could prove the tournament’s decisive figure.

From international cast-off and second choice Atletico striker, to a Spanish, and potential, European and World champion, in less than a year. Costa is on the cusp of the game’s greatest prizes, and cementing his place on football’s elite stage.