World Cup Rank Bank – Morocco

Tonight, I’m Gonna Give you my….Cous Cous!

Morocco Atlas-t (wayhey) make their long awaited return to world football’s top table this summer. It’s been twenty years since the Casablanckers came within a frenulum of making it out of a group that included would be champions Brazil in France. Will the class of 2018, summon the spirit of Mustapha Hadji, aul Naybet and the lads to go one better in Russia?

Manager: Hervé Renard

A cross between Francesco Totti and Jesus, Herv is a creature of beauty. Rumoured to have the tune of George Michael’s, “Careless WhispCAN2017-Hervé-Renard-Dreams-of-Topping-the-Tournamenter” follow him every where he goes, after a humble playing career in the French lower leagues, his managerial journey has taken him to more African countries than Joseph Conrad. Fantastic achievement in guiding minnows Zambia to the African Cup of Nations in 2012, Renard remarkably repeated the feat with the Ivory Coast in 2014. Having guided Morocco to their first World Cup in twenty years, the Frenchman’s tournament football know-how will no doubt come in handy. It’ll have to, in what is, on the face of it, a tough draw against Spain, Iran and Euro ’16 winners Portugal.

 

Star Player: Mehdi Benatia

In a team that blends experience, in the likes of Belhanda, Amrabat and Boussoufa in their midfield, along with exciting prospects such as Lille’s Hamza Mendyl and Real Madrid’s Achraf in defence, the star of the show is undoubtedly captain Mehdi Benatia. After a less than pleasant time in Munich with Bayern, Benatia returned to Italy with Juve at the beginning of last season on loan, before the Italian champions exercised the right to purchase him at the beginning of this season after impressing. He has gone on to cement his place alongside Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of The Old Lady’s defence, and must bring his club form into the finals if Morocco are to progress beyond the group stage.

 

Road to Russia

Hard to believe that Morocco started their qualifying campaign as far back as November 2015, when they had to come through a two legged knockout affair with Equatorial Guinea. And they did – just – a two nil home first leg win being enough after being beaten one zip in the second leg. In the subsequent round robin series to determine Africa’s five qualifiers, The Lions were, if not thrown to their own kind, certainly found in the snake pit. Pitched in with Ivory Coast, Mali and Gabon, our heroes came through unbeaten, with the W’s coming in their last two games against Gabon and a winner takes all final game against Ivory Coast away. Impressive.

 

Record v Ireland: Won (0) Drawn(0) Lost (1)

In what was the final international match to be played at Dalymount Park, and Ireland’s first run out since coming home from Italia ’90 to half a million mummies and grannies at Dublin airport, it was a David Kelly goal that gave us the spoils. And I’ve really nothing else to say about it.

 

How will they go?

The fixture computer has thrown Morocco a lifeline in the form of the Iranians in the first game. Any chance of progress from the group stages will mean having to turn over their Middle-Eastern opponents on Matchday One, and hope that a winner emerges from the Spain-Portugal tie. Ride that hurdle and the men from the Maghreb will at least hold a fighting chance. A lot will depend on Herv-the-swerve-on-whomst-we-perv drawing on both, that tournament experience and, indeed, divinity itself. Probably the most blasphemous line I’ve ever coined.

 

Prediction: Just to miss out – 3rd on goal difference.

 

 

World Cup Rank Bank – Saudi Arabia

The Least from The Middle-East

Al-Suqour ( I bet you would, boy!), or The Falcons, arrive in Russia as 1500/1 outsiders and the lowest ranked team in the tournament. But can the nation that employs Sergei Rebrov and our own Kevin Sheedy in club management cause a surprise for the hosts in Group A?

Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi

Juan_Antonio_Pizzi_(2)Famous for being Gerard Butler’s greasy brother and a favourite Championship Manager freebie of yesteryear, I’d personally thought the guy had gone back to live on a ranch, toting a gun and wearing a big silly hat in Argentina until he rocked up in Valencia a few seasons ago. After having made a real cataclysmic f**k up there, failing to qualify for Europe for the first time in donkeys, he resurfaced eighteen months later to become Chile manager, picking up where Jorge “The Orb” Sampaoli had left off  in winning the 2016 edition of the Copa América. Was acquired by the Saudis for many gold coins shortly after Bert van Marwijk guided them to Russia, and even more shortly after they disposed of Edgardo Bauza after a whole what embarrassing display in the Gulf Cup of Nations.

Star Player: Nawaf Al-Abed

The Al-Hilal playmaker is quickly becoming one of Asian football’s hottest properties and was pivotal to the Kingdom’s qualification for the finals. Scoring five goals, four of which came from the penalty spot, the men in green will look to him to take the game to opposition defences, not having the luxury of a proven goalscorer up top. A man with what must be enormous testicles.

Record v Ireland: Won (0) Drawn (0) Lost (1)

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The week after Keane’s wonder strike beat Khan in Kashima, our Boys in Green had to finish the job off in what was a slippery sort of final group game against the Saudis as they bid to make the last 16, back in 2002. Robbie was on target early to settle nerves, before big Gary Breen and Duffer sealed the victory with second half strikes. The epic and heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat to the Spanish would follow five days later, but Ireland could leave the Far East with their heads held high after the fiasco in Saipan. You can stick that up your bollocks Mick!

Little known fact: The Spanish Experiment

Frustrated at the Premier League’s all conquering domination of television rights in Asia, La Liga had the brainwave in January of encouraging a clutch of Saudi football stars to take the almost unprecedented step of venturing to foreign shores to ply their trade. La Liga called the arrival of the Saudi players in Spain a result of a “rigorous scouting process”. Yeah, for all your oily coin. Of the four players that joined La Liga clubs, as of the start of March they had accumulated a grand total of sweet F.A. in game time.

How will they go?

In what could possibly the scariest game of football ever televised, Russia will host the Saudis in the opening game of the tournament. If there are those of you who are thinking “apocalyptic bloodbath”, know you are not alone. On the field, this may be the men from the middle east’s best chance of registering a point, catching what might be nervous hosts cold, in front of an expectant, and what’s bound to be fervent, home support. Can’t see them coping with Suarez nor Salah in their remaining group games.

Prediction: 4th in Group A

Alan Ruschel: Eternal Champion

No longer a survivor but a footballer…

On Tuesday night past, Monte-Carlo Sporting Club played host to an event so breathtakingly high end, that it made BBC Sports Personality of the Year look like a night in the Queen Vic. Phil Mitchell shouting the odds and waving a concealed bottle of liquor because Ian Beale got to play Gary Lineker for the night. The mind doth wander…

The 2018 Laureus World Sports Awards saw the likes of Michael Johnson, Martina Navratilova and Luis Figo gather alongside none other than Prince Albert (almost certainly the hairy guy from WWF) to recognise the indelible sporting achievements of the past year.

In an evening where Roger Federer and Serena Williams walked away with the prestigious Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year gongs, and that absolute fox Kate Abdo walked away with my heart, little fanfare was made about the award for Sporting Moment of the Year. It came on a beautiful early August evening in the Camp Nou, the scene for so many significant sporting moments throughout the years. However this year, the award would not be bestowed for another scintillating championship win or a divine piece of brilliance – there was something far more important at play.

The Chapocoense story is a familiar one – far more familiar than any of us could ever have wanted. But on that balmy mid summer night in Catalunya, the eight long months of darkness finally seem to dissipate into the evening air. The recovery was finally complete and Chapocoense, and Alan Ruschel, could finally concentrate on what they had always wanted to again – the football.

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Ruschel captained Los Chape that night, miraculously leading his team on to the Camp Nou turf exactly thirty seven weeks after being pulled from the wreckage of LaMia Flight 2933, after it had plummeted into the hills just south of Medellín’s, José María Córdova Airport on 28th November 2016. One of only six people to survive the crash, Ruschel, along with teammates Neto and Jackson Follmann, lost nineteen of their Chapocoense family.

By the first week of December he was walking – thanks to emergency back surgery – and by March he was back in training, all culminating in his emotional return to action in Barcelona. Neto made the bench that night. Unfortunately, Follmann would grace the field that night using a prosthesis, his right leg having succumb to the injuries sustained in the accident. He will never play again.

And so it was fitting, that on Thursday, Ruschel signed a two year contact extension with the club, in the same humble and unheralded fashion with which Chapocoense picked up their award two nights previously.

Despite only managing four appearances in the now iconic green jersey last season, Director of Football, Rui Costa, insists the decision to award Ruschel a contract was one not borne of “charity”, but of the courage and sheer grit of the man. “He has faced the greatest challenge one can have in life and was able to wear the shirt”.

Costa’s words will no doubt signify the end of one arduous and painstaking chapter for Ruschel, who poignantly commented after the Barca match, that he no longer wished the world to see him as a survivor, but once again as a footballer. We all await the next chapter in one of this world’s most inspiring tale that is not yet at it’s end.

Alan Ruschel. Muito respeito meu amigo.

D’ya have any Irish in ya?

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I never gave much notice to the Beast from the East yesterday. Driving home from work, I even made the incredibly funny joke that the only Beast from the East I knew, was my old mate Chris McCann, who happened to move to East Belfast last year. Yeah, none of the boys laughed either.

But after pawing at the 7 a.m. alarm, clambering out of bed, and pissing all over the toilet seat in what has become a morning ritual over the past few days, I rubbed my eyes (hands freshly washed of course), looked out the window and saw it…

“Snow Day”!!!!

I dabbled in work around lunchtime, but found a tasty wee article on the Guardian Sports Page about former Spurs trainee Stuart McManus, who forged a career in Sweden after a decidedly average career in the U.K. The footballing equivalent to Ulrika Jonsson clearly.

That’s not important – what’s important is he got me thinking of what Irish players there might be out there, stranded in foreign lands, being held against their will, being made to perform like circus monkeys come 3 p.m. on a Saturday.

And like any self-respecting 29 year old male, I set about making an eleven from these wretched, lost souls in a team I’m calling the “Ronnie O’Brien Bray Del Piero Rovers”.

Goalkeeper – Sean McDermott – Kristiansund (Norway)

Brought up in Norway, by a Norwegian mother and a father from Donegal (raw as f**k then), Sean now plays for his home town club in Norway’s top division having spent his formative years at Arsenal. Earned himself six caps for the U21’s in the process. Good man Sean.

Centre Half – Patrick Kohlmann  – Holstein Kiel (Germany)

This man should have been courted with St Brigid’s crosses at frequent intervals. Born in Dortmund, he spent 12 years at the German giants at the heart of defence. For the B’s. Managed five caps for the U21s in his time and, having hung up the boots at the end of last season, he’s taken a role as assistant manager at 2. Bundesliga outfit Holstein Kiel.

Centre Half – Colin Falvey – Ottawa Fury (Canada)

Cork man who has played football on four different continents and, according to some reports, the moon. Left Kilkenny City in 2008, voyaging to New Zealand and India along the way. Back for a second spell at Ottawa Fury in Canada, having dabbled in some non-MLS American backwaters.

Centre Half – Jason Gavin – Stirling Lions (Australia)

Aww yes! What a head this man has. Reminds me of Eastenders toe rag Nick Cotton. Big things were expected of the young Middlesbrough player at the turn of the millennium. But having made one Irish squad under McCarthy his career petered out a bit, bar what must have been a career high winning the league with The Drogs in 2007. No one actually knows if he’s still playing or not out in Australia, so if anyone has seen him, let us know he’s still alive and well.

Inside Right – Conor Henderson – Pirin Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria)

Another Arsenal product, he starred in their successful FA Youth Cup winning side of 2008-09. However injuries were to hamper his progress. Got a final shot of redemption in 2013 when Brucey rolled the dice on him at Hull City. But Conor never made the grade. Evidently, he’s the player I’m most worried about. If you see this Conor, please call.

Centre Mid – Andy Mulligan – Southern United (New Zealand)

One of a rake of Wexford Youth players to up and leave for New Zealand in wake of their relegation in 2016, Carlow man Mulligan makes the Rovers side purely on the basis that I needed another midfielder. Those lads must have had some craic though.

Inside Left – Richie Ryan – FC Cincinatti (USA)

Tipp man Richie Ryan must have thought big things lay ahead after making his professional bow in the Tyne-Wear derby in 2003. Picked up silverware at Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers before anchoring himself in Ronnie’s Rovers. But get this – crossed the pond and amongst others, worked with Maldini and Nesta at Miami FC. They even spent $750,000 on him. Still on his J1 Visa.

Wide Right – Vinny Faherty – PAEEK (Cyprus)

A prolific goalscorer in his youth, the Galway man turned down Ipswich and Coventry back in ’07, opting to play for his hometown club. Became a bit of a League of Ireland journeyman, but once scored fourteen goals in a twenty game sabbatical for some dog shite team in Melbourne, in a state of what I can only imagine to be unadulterated intoxication. Currently playing second division football in Cyprus. Vinny can sure do it!

Wide Left – Ciarán Kilduff – Jacksonville Armada (USA)

Pottered around League of Ireland before really bursting on to the scene during Dundalk’s fairtytale Europa League run in 2016-17. Scored a late goal in Alkmaar to earn an away draw, before going one better and bagging the winner against Maccabi Tel Aviv. He even made the Europa League Team of the Week for Christ’s Sake. Where is he now, you cry? Barca? Madrid? Paris? No. In the US, not even playing in the big leagues. Limp.

In the Hole – Cillian Sheridan – Jagiellonia Bialystok (Poland)

Forever remembered for the Old Trafford stadium announcer ushering him on to the field in a Champions League tie as Sill-Eye-Ann, the Cavan man turned his back on potentially scintillating careers in both GAA and Aussie Rules to join Celtic. Never quite made the grade at Parkhead and having skirted around Scotland, embarked on a Euro Trip in 2010 that has seen him in Sofia, Nicosia and now Poland. Three international caps.

Number 9 – Roy O’Donovan – Newcastle Jets (Australia)

A great langer and Cork City legend. Scored a rake of goals at Turners Cross before getting his big move to Sunderland under Keane. Never worked out for either of the Roys really and despite a spark of success in the English lower leagues, he now finds himself in Australia, via Singapore and Indonesia. Granted he’s spent more time in the Far East than his namesake Keane ever managed. Currently injured after having a promising start to the season with Newcastle Jets.

Honourable mentions to Andy Keogh, Ooh Aah Tony Stokes and of course Robbie.

You can’t say you aren’t informed.

Long Drawn Silva Saga Set to Continue

I never had the patience for reading Treasure Island – or any book that happened to grace the modular reading lists from A-Level English through undergraduate. I had more to be at.

Back then, Wikipedia proved a potent ally – a quick scour for plots and themes would just about see me through. “When will I ever have to personify the characteristics of Long John Silver in real life?”, I would chortle, whilst the doorman at the Hatfield House Bar, in the heart of Belfast’s student quarter, bid me adieu.

Oh yes, in the heady days of 2009, no one had ever had to deal with the misfortune of hearing of Marco Silva, never mind coming up with a good old literary pun with which to beat him with.

Having anchored at Estoril on the Portuguese Riviera, no one could have imagined back then that almost a decade later, the journeyman right back, who had only ever managed two outings in the Portuguese Primera Liga during a mundane playing career, would hold Premier League giants by the proverbials.

Silva’s meteoric, and oft times chaotic, rise to the top of the European game as a manager is undoubtedly unique. Taking up the reins at Estoril not long after he hung up the boots, he only suffered four defeats in his first twenty four league games in football management, securing the second division title in the process. An unprecedented fifth place finish and qualification for the Europa League in the following season and the big ships were taking notice.

Sporting Club chose to take the gamble. A year into a four year contract, it became hilariously obvious they wish they hadn’t. Despite having secured the Portuguese Cup, Sporting’s first trophy in nine years, four days previously, he was sacked for not wearing a club suit in another cup game. Right…

Undeterred, Marco set sail. Firstly to Greece, managing not to balls up Olympiacos’ annual procession to their domestic title, before unbelievably landing at the most golden of golden coves – the Premier League. That post-dated another strange departure from Piraeus, resigning during the reigning champions preseason tour of Austria. In fairness, winning a one team league wouldn’t exactly get me tingle-tipped either. Beggars couldn’t be choosers at Hull City, however. Languishing at the foot of the table, and with a family of rockets in the boardroom, Marco was given the mandate of saving the sinking ship. He didn’t. Everyone drowned.

That should have been it, surely? With Marco? Surely, that was it?

Cue another set of questionable owners, cue another stepping stone Premier League club. Not unlike his one-legged namesake from Treasure Island, Silva couldn’t miss the opportunity to further his interests. It came as no surprise then, that he eventually came to see Watford less Robert Louis Stevenson, more Awkward Lanky Richarlison. When heavyweights Everton flirted and winked, Marco grinned nervously and played with his all natural brunette hair. When Papa Pozzo didn’t approve and grounded Marco in Hertfordshire, Marco did what Marco seemingly does best. With all the dignity of a love scorned teenage girl, Marco raised hell. Rumours abound, that by the end of the run of only one win in eleven games that saw his tenure at Watford come to an end, Silva was refusing to take training.

And here we are – not a month on from his latest self-progressive plundering, and we stand at quite a disturbing moment in time. Marco Silva, the one-time weary old sea dog who lumbered round small Portuguese ports, is now, perhaps, the most eligible admiral on the high seas.

And what’s more infuriating – at least Steve McClaren knew he was shit. Silva’s behaviour is more akin to that of another arguably self-absorbed Iberian in Mourinho. But as football begins to fall in love with another sharp suited, brown eyed and lusciously haired “Portu-geezer”, someone must take their hand out of their pants for a second and face a few facts.

What has brought Silva to this point? If it’s trophies – it’s two league titles in Dog & Duck leagues and a cup win at a team where they couldn’t wait to get shot of him. If it’s style of play – what has he proved in England to make him worthy of such high praise? I count one relegation and a win ratio of one in every three. If it’s potential – surely homegrown developing talents such as Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche are far more deserving of their chance at a top English club.

There’s always the chance of lightening striking twice, and it’s football after all, so why not? But if José is Blu-ray Disc, Silva, for now, is your five movies for a tenner, market stall copy. A pirate.

Move over Eddie the Eagle

eddietheeagleA lesson in bossing Britain’s insatiable appetite for sporting mediocrity:

Step 1. Acquire threads from the Conservative party rail in your local BHS store.

Step 2. Develop a socially awkward interest in Winter sports.

Step 3. Accessorize with some snazzy eye-wear.

Step 4. Pillage the public purse to make real your dream. You’re almost there!

Step 5. Fail spectacularly on the world stage (crying optional).

Elise Christie is obviously a lady at the top of her game. Having captured three gold medals at the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships, she made the final list of nominations for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2017.

Yet, for all her undoubted success, she will be defined by her equally amazing ability to balls a good thing up. Viewers of a nervous disposition, look away now.

Location – Sochi, Russia. It’s the year 2014 and dear old Elise, one of Britain’s high hopes for a medal at the 2014 Winter Olympiad is the ringmaster, tightrope walker, and elephant in her own one woman circus. Three events, three spectacular disqualifications. A nation weeps.

Four years on and redemption beckons. Result – more pile ups than an Antarctic motorway.

Thing is, I do genuinely feel for her. It would be inhumane not to. Eight years of intense training to fall on your ass six times out of six is bloody galling. I hope she recovers mentally from the trauma and I wish her well. 

Yet I can’t fail to be struck, by the widespread gush-fest going on in the British media, and not contrast it with their vilification of true sporting geniuses – those who achieve. Step forward Messrs Froome, Hamilton, O’Sullivan.

The mediocrity messiah is reborn for a new century. Move over Eddie the Eagle. Arise, Elise the Eejit. Sigh.