World Cup Rank Bank – Nigeria

How cool do you think you are? You could think you’re pretty cool. My aul mate Baz played Darude’s Sandstorm on Paddy’s Night blowing into the top of a half drunk bottle of Vitazade. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool. Twenty four hours later, I now realise I was just drunk. But dare anyone tell me that the coolness of Nigeria’s USA ’94 garb, has depreciated over the last twenty four years – and this year’s isn’t too shabby either. Yes, from the land that brought you Daniel Amokachi’s right foot, Taribo West’s hair stylist and John Fashanu’s many hats – I give you, the Super Eagles!Super-Eagles-at-USA-94-

Manager: Gernot Rohr

The experienced German leads up a team of coaches, having been appointed to the role of head coach back in August 2016. You’ll remember a previous post where I made the rather spicy comment that angel-on-Earth, Hervé Renard, had seen more African outposts than Joseph Conrad. Well, Gernot gives him a run for his money – Nigeria being his fourth consecutive international management role having oversaw the fortunes of Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2010. That’s where the similarities with Herv the Swerve stop, unfortunately for Herr Rohr – who’s resemblance is more Albert Reynolds battering out the Anglo-Irish Agreement than it is Jesus.

Star Player: Kalechi Iheanacho (Leicester City)

Despite having somewhat of a disappointing time at Leicester to this point- his failure to dislodge Jamie Vardy playing a pivotal role – Iheanacho is proving his worth at international level with his country.  Having scored eight times in the green of the SuperKelechi-Iheanacho-676701 Eagles in only fourteen appearances, the young striker will relish the chance to put his name firmly back to the forefront domestically, by impressing at the tournament. Nigeria have plenty of exciting options alongside the former Man City man in attack in the shape of Odion Ighalo, Alex Iwobi and the more offensively deployed Victor Moses.

 

Road to Russia

Nigeria’s journey to the finals started along with the four other African representatives in November 2015, disposing of minnows Swaziland over two legs. Subsequently, they were drawn into what many pundits were calling “the group of death” alongside highly ranked Cameroon and Algeria and the tricky Zambia, with a berth in Russia only reserved for top spot. But a strong start to the group and three wins from three at home ensured they were the first African team to book their travel arrangements for this Summer. They even had enough in reserve to have their draw away to Algeria stripped from them and awarded to the home side in the wake of fielding an ineligible player. So cool. So Super Eagles.

Record v Ireland: Won (2) Drawn (1) Lost (0)

We have still to beat those pesky Nigerians. Having first welcomed them to Landsdowne Road in the farewell and good luck game before heading to Saipan, the Nigerians played out a one-all draw most recently with us back in May 2009, in a game played at Craven Cottage. Sandwiched between that was a three-nil drubbing in an end of season embarrassment called the Unity Cup, back in 2004, whilst any decent European footballing nation was focusing on the upcoming European Championships. Tasty names from that team sheet included the likes of Nick Colgan, Martin Rowlands and Ireland’s own miracle man Clive Clarke, who’s career was cut short a few years later after suffering a cardiac arrest whilst playing for Sunderland against Forest.

 

How Will They Go?

Group D is definitely one of the most exciting groups of the first stage. Nigeria are pitted against a GOAT inspired Argentinian side, the ever unpredictable Croats and debutantes Iceland – who we know only too well proved to England that revenge is a dish best served cold, the latter having made Kerrynigeria-2018-world-cup-home-kit-3 Katona synonymous with the island nation. Unfortunately for the Nigerians, the only thing that could well live long in the memory at this tournament are their absolutely naughty jerseys. Despite their undoubted flair in attack, I shudder to think what the likes of Messi, Mandžukić and Sigurðsson would do to their defence.

 

Prediction: 4th – let’s hope they score, so we can enjoy an audacious celebration at least.

 

 

World Cup Rank Bank – Australia

Gotta love them ‘Roos. Personally, I have a soft spot for Australia when it comes to professional sport. They’re just great craic, aren’t they? If it’s not their cricket fans giving the English players hell during The Ashes, the anarchy of Pat Cash climbing through the throngs on Centre Court, or indeed the thongs of their Women’s Beach Volleyball team, it’s a Mark Bosnich green card marriage. Their footballers travel to Russia as the rank outsiders in what is officially the tightest group. But this isn’t their first rodeo, and their fans will be expectant, as the men from Down Under compete in their fourth successive finals.

 

Manager: Bert van Marwijk

The Aussie’s are managed by Dutch Football’s answer to Elvis and Michael Jackson, in father Bert van Marwijk and son-in-law Mark van Bommel. The paralleling of van Bommel and Michael Jackson entertains me. They have an unbeaten record at the helm, certainly at least in part thanks to the fact they haven’t yet had a match – van Marwijk announced his first squad for friendlies with Norway and Colombia last week. In the Dutch man, the ‘Roos are tapping into a vast wealth of international management experience. After guiding his compatriots all the way to the final in South Africa in 2010, he also secured Saudi Arabia’s qualification to this year’s tournament, oddly. Failing to agree a new contract with the Saudi’s in the aftermath of their qualification, van Marwijk left his role in the Gulf, but his physical and dynamic brand of football could well be a perfect fit for the Australians.

 

Star Player: Tom Rogic (Celtic)

Playmaker Rogic is a wholly biased choice, after his beautiful solo effort pulled the Hoops back on terms last Sunday in the Old Firm game, but he will play a central role if the Aussies are to have any success in Russia. He’s one of a number of recognisable names in their midfield, including the likes of Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy, Villa enforcer Mile Jedinak and of course Premier League legend Tim Cahill, who has recently rocked back up at Millwall. Rogic and Mooy will look to lay on chances for goal threats Matthew Leckie and Tomi Juric up front, but for now, lets just drink that goal in again…

 

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

Twice, Australia have made the trip over in international friendlies. Goals from John O’ Shea and Clinton Morrison secured a come-from-behind victory back in August 2003, a brief release from the terrible Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. Good man Mick. They returned again in August 2009, this time to Thomond Park, where Australia were to run out comfortable victors – Tim Cahill getting a brace on the night.

 

Little Known Fact: Hello, Goodbye at the FFA

So try to keep up. Five months ago, Australia claimed passage to Russia after a rousing second leg play off victory over Honduras in Sydney. Hurrah say all those at the Football Federation of Australia. Six days later the bombshell of coach Ange Postecoglou’s tearful resignation seemingly threw plans for the finals into the wind. However, in the months leading up to the decisive play off, conjecture was growing that Postecoglou was beleaguered with his country’s top job. At the end of January, the FFA announced that Bert van Marwijk would step in on an interim basis to negotiate preparations for Russia and the finals themselves, an exciting coup for all involved. But like a night I once had with a girl from Sweden when I was eighteen, the excitement will eventually lead to an all too brief affair. That’s because last Sunday it was announced that Graham Arnold, manager of Sydney FC, was to step into the breach on a long term basis after the World Cup. Many aren’t happy. Roberto Mancini and Marco Bielsa had been touted for the job, not to mention the questionable form of Arnold’s Sydney side since the start of March – one draw and three defeats could have come at a more convenient time one imagines. I’d imagine this is what arranged marriage feels like.

 

How Will They Go?

Despite being the lowest ranked team in their group, the distraction of the rotating coaches, and having to take on the delectable French, I actually feel Australia could cause a few surprises. Given that experience and creativity in their midfield, the games against Denmark and Peru could be extremely tight affairs, especially if van Marwijk and van Bommel have enough time to put their physical stamp on the team. Certainly, the 100/30 that Bet Victor are offering on them to finish Top Asian team at the tournament could prove a shrewd investment.

Prediction: 2nd – ballsy and outlandish statement. How very Australian of me!

 

Football’s Invisible Man

Stockpiled : The Matej Delač Story

The third weekend in February, back in 2009, proved a significant one in Premier League goalkeeping history. After nearly four months, fourteen games, and a mind boggling 1,334 minutes, Roque Santa Cruz skipped around a faltering Ferdinand and one useless PIG and rolled the ball into the empty Old Trafford net. It was the first goal United had conceded in the Premier League since Samir Nasri had put them to the sword in early November at the Emirates. Trust Kuszczak to ruin all of van der Sar’s good work. Pole in Goal for any of you wondering.

United went on to win the game 2-1, Ronaldo securing another home win en route to three in a row.

Ahhhh, halcyon days indeed.

Twenty four hours later, another significant goalkeeping milestone was taking place for a sixteen year old boy in a small Croatian town, close to the Slovenian border. Matej Delač had a dream debut. Inter Zaprešić won the game 1-0, beating NK Zagreb, their near neighbours from the capital. The hero was their young goalkeeper, saving a penalty in the dying throws of the encounter to ensure victory. He would play fifteen games for Inter before the end of that season. It wasn’t long before Europe’s bigger clubs sat up and took notice.

That summer, Benfica looked in pole position to secure the signature of the young shot stopper, but after negotiations broke down, Chelsea would swoop. Delač penned a five year deal with the Blues, but would stay in Croatia to continue his development whilst Frank Arnesen kept his eye on the talent from afar. After a final season with Inter, Chelsea sent Delač on a well trodden path. Days after his eighteenth birthday, he was farmed out to Vitesse, Chelsea’s feeder team in the Netherlands and de facto kindergarten for a ream of Chelsea youngsters over the last decade.

And so it began. The first of ten loan moves in seven years. The starlet at sixteen who had dreams of Premier League football and the higher echelons of the European game has amassed a grand total of zero appearances for the team he put to pen to paper with, coming on nine years ago this September – oh and again in July 2014 and just one more time, two years later.

Delač did see some European football, alright. Although he didn’t get a single minute as an eighteen year old in the Eredivisie, he would go on to see action in the Czech Republic, in Portugal, back to his boyhood club for half a season as 2012-13 wound down in Croatia, before hot footing it to Serbia, Bosnia, France and Belgium over the past four and a half years.

Somewhere, in the midst of all this chaos,  he hilariously became Chelsea’s longest serving player – when John Terry left for Aston Villa this past summer. And so, at still a youthful twenty five years of age, Matej finds himself back at Cobham. Not able to play for the first team due to work permit issues, that have played a part in the stunting of his Chelsea career, yes, he has announced that he will call time on his career in London (Ha!) at the end of this season.

This extraordinary situation must be the most pertinent example of a strategy deployed by the club over the past decade. The media have given it a chillingly crass title – ‘stockpiling’.

So how does it work?

Chelsea’s vast scouting system identify a talented youngster – the younger the better – both in the UK, but more often abroad, and secure his signature, welcoming them into the bosom of the club’s illustrious academy.  This is usually achieved at a relatively nominal fee. From there, they will compete with the swathes of young men around them, most of them in the first instance to achieve a loan move away. Some will be sold on relatively early, some will sign contact extensions. Seemingly none will ever stand a realistic chance of breaking into the first team. None have yet. You see the trick is to sell them on at the height of their value. And this occurs again and again and again.

Let’s look at some notable examples.

2096On the final day of the January transfer window in 2012, the Kings Road outfit signed Patrick Bamford, an 18 year old striker showing plenty of promise at Nottingham Forest. After six loan moves in five years, Bamford’s career had seemed to stagnate, he hadn’t been able to register one league goal at any of his final three foster clubs, Palace, Norwich and Burnley. It was time to cash in. Bamford was sold to Middlesbrough just shy of celebrating his fifth anniversary at Chelsea for a £4.5 million profit. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.

Christian Atsu signed for Chelsea on September 1st, 2013 and was immediately shipped off to Vitesse. Four years and five loans later, Newcastle eventually exercised a right-to-buy option on Atsu landing Chelsea a cool £3 million profit on their Ghanaian acquisition. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.

Eden Hazard has been a shining light for Chelsea since his move from Lille in the summer of 2012. Less is known about his younger brother Thorgan who Chelsea brought along for the ride. Having appeared in a Chelsea shirt only the once, in an under 21 game against Man City, twenty four days after he signed, he was immediately sent back to Belgium, where he would spend two seasons with Zulte Waragem, who wouldThorgan-Hazard ensure his continued development. He returned for pre-season training at the start of July 2014 but no sooner had he laced up his boots before he was off again – this time to Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany, where he would spend one season on loan before signing permanently in February 2015. Chelsea earned £6 million off that transfer – a £5.5 million profit. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.

There are countless others to choose from – Bertrand Traoré, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Aké, Dominic Solanke – all sold for significant fees without really been given a fair crack at the whip.

They have ballsed up at times too. They sold Kevin de Bruyne to Wolfsburg for a £10m profit in 2014, only two years after acquiring him from Genk as a 20 year old. De Bruyne must, now, surely be worth ten times the £18 million they received for him. They sold Mohammed Salah, of course, to Roma, for a profit of only £1 million after a frustrating season and a half which saw him loaned to Fiorentina, before signing permanently for I Giallorossi. Salah and De Bruyne are currently both at the head of the betting for Premier League Player of the Year for the 2017-18 season, having returned to England with Man City and Liverpool respectively. Chelsea have also had to eat humble pie on other occasions – notably in the buying, selling and re-purchase of Nemanja Matić, and again in their prolonged pursuit of another former player in Romelu Lukaku.

They currently have twenty eight senior players out on loan to other clubs, including the likes of Marco van Ginkel, plucked from feeder club Vitesse at twenty and already a Dutch international, he has a grand total of two Chelsea appearances to his name, the last coming in 2013. Others include Tomáš Kalas, the Czech international defender who has been under contract since 2010, Lucas Piazon, the former Brazilian youth international who has been under contract since 2012, and Danilo Pantić, a Serbian youth player they scooped up in 2015 at the tender age of eighteen, who has already had three season long loans under his belt.

No-one can deny the feasibility of ‘stockpiling’ as a business model. Chelsea Football Club have secured tens of millions of pounds worth of profit, using third parties to develop their Chelsea branded players, before sending them on their way permanently and pocketing what is usually a healthy gain. But what is a fantastic business model amounts to nothing short of exploitation in the sense of footballing welfare. These young men, many not even adults when they smile through adolescent teeth as they sign their contracts, are catapulted all over Europe before their arse barely hits the ground at Heathrow. Some have managed to come out the other side unscathed. But how many careers have suffered like that of Matej Delač – how many players have been left asking “What If?”.

I wish Matej Delač all the best in his future endeavours, and hope that he can reignite the spark that Chelsea extinguished almost nine years ago. What are the chances he is afforded a token testimonial as way of thanks for his service?

Football trafficking is alive and well and the culprits can be found in London, SW3.

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