Thursday, July 31, 2008

What's Happened to Aaron Lennon?

With Tottenham's $30 million acquisition of David Bentley yesterday from Blackburn, it would appear that the meaningful tenure of Aaron Lennon, who was a boy wonder and the next big thing in English soccer just a few years ago, at White Hart Lane is over.

At 14, Lennon signed a cleat-sponsorship contract with Adidas, becoming the youngest player in Premiership history ever to do so. Lennon then became the youngest player to appear in a Premiership game -- 16 years, 129 days old -- when he entered as a substitute for Leeds, ironically at White Hart Lane against Tottenham in August 2003, right at the end of the West Yorkshire club's glory days. By the age of 18, Lennon had already played in 38 league games for Leeds, and it seemed like the sky was the limit for the speedy right winger.

Leeds then struggled with the most high-profile financial difficulties I've seen in any professional sport in a long, long time. A club that was a regular participant in European competitions and top-five team in England for most of the 1990's and into the early years of this decade suffered a dramatic fall from grace at the hands of inept ownership. The club was forced to sell a slew of quality players, most of whom were bought originally with money it didn't have, instead using loans to finance the deals, to pay off mounting debts, including Rio Ferdinand, Paul Robinson, Mark Viduka, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, James Milner, Scott Carson, Robbie Keane, and Alan Smith.

Lennon was sold during this period as well, as Leeds made a $2 million profit by moving the youngster to Tottenham in June 2005. He had a solid, if not great, year in his first season with Spurs, evidenced by the nomination by his fellow players for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, which was eventually won by Wayne Rooney. In October of '05, Lennon earned a call-up to the England U-21 team and after just three appearances for head coach Peter Taylor, he was picked in May for the 2006 World Cup squad by Sven-Göran Eriksson, despite having not even earned one senior cap at that point. The 19-year-old Lennon came off the bench twice in that World Cup, acquitting himself well for his age.

Lennon had another good year in 2006-2007, again being nominated for the Young Player of the Year award, although he again did not win. Tottenham obviously believed he was a big part of their future, signing him in January to a new contract that ran through 2012, replacing the first contract extension he'd inked in March of '06. At the end of the '06-'07 season, Lennon had established himself as a first-team regular under Jol, playing in 53 league games and 17 more in domestic cup competitions and the UEFA Cup combined.

He had it all: blindingly quick feet, a place in the England setup, a prominent role on a London-based club, good looks, and plenty of money. He was still very young, and although his skills were still raw, the vast potential was patently obvious. People were talking about him as the successor to David Beckham on England's right wing. He was playing for a club that was the best of the rest outside the "Big Four". With his slight stature (5'5", one of the smallest players in Premiership history) and build, he did have some difficulty staying injury-free in such a physical league, but when he was healthy, he was very good.

Then, as I talked about in yesterday's post, Jol was fired unceremoniously and replaced by Juande Ramos, who is the polar opposite of the player-friendly Dutchman. Ramos brought changes to North London immediately, making it clear that it was his way or the highway. He replaced England's starting goalkeeper and obviously a shoo-in starter under Jol, Paul Robinson, with longtime backup Radek Černý. He brought in a dietary and fitness staff to improve the poor consumption habits of the largely English roster and get them into top physical shape. He tried to put an end to the drinking culture that was and is a big part of the lives of British players.

His strict régime brought out the best in some players on the field, particularly Jermaine Jenas and Tom Huddlestone, but seems to have had a negative effect on others, like Lennon. After Spurs' Carling Cup final triumph over Chelsea on February 24, a group of players, including Lennon, went out to a nightclub and partied until the late hours of the next morning. Pictures of the players in various states of drunkenness and belligerence immediately surfaced in the media, and Ramos was not happy. From that point on, Lennon seemed to figure less and less into Ramos' plans, and his poor on-field performances and continued problems staying fit didn't help matters either.

Lennon's development has stalled considerably under Ramos, and now that David Bentley is in the mix, one would expect that Lennon may be on the way out. Ramos didn't spend big money on Bentley to sit him on the bench. He can't play two right wingers at the same time, and with the return from injury of Gareth Bale, who can play either left back or left midfield, and Giovani Dos Santos and Luka Modrić now on the roster, it's unlikely that Lennon would move to the left.

He's still only 21, so the potential is still there. He's got some mileage on his legs now, though, and most of the teams in the running for UEFA Cup places (Aston Villa, Portsmouth, Everton, West Ham) already have starters at Lennon's position. There seems to be an opening at Manchester City, another UEFA Cup contender, but it's unclear whether new manager Mark Hughes would be interested. This guy was a star-in-the-making and he's going to catch on somewhere, but he's probably going to have to take a step backwards in the short term to advance his career in the long term. For a player rated so highly as a youngster, it's fascinating how quickly his career seems to have regressed.

I'm On The Third Half

Yours truly will be on the airwaves again, this time joining my good buddy Johnathan Starling, host of The Third Half, to preview teams A-F in the Premiership. We recorded a couple solid segments yesterday afternoon, and the podcast will become available for download on iTunes at some point later today after its first airing on CSRN. You can also, of course, listen to the show on CSRN, and on Sports Byline.

It's a weekly, hour-long show devoted primarily to MLS and the Premiership, and I encourage everyone to have a listen to any of the first nine episodes that John has put out so far. I'm honored to be his first guest; it meant a lot that he asked me to come on. My spot comes towards the end of the hour, so keep your ears peeled for that, but enjoy the rest of the show as well.

I'll be back on The Third Half again next week, and possibly the week after, to talk about several more clubs as we get closer and closer to the start of the Premiership season. As I wrote here on Monday, my full previews start tomorrow here at English Soccer Talk, and I'm looking forward to hearing your feedback on the show and my team capsules.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sour Grapes From Daniel Levy

After the gutless manner in which former manager Martin Jol was fired last October, only learning of his sacking through a text message sent to his nephew, I knew never to expect anything of significance handled with class by club chairman Daniel Levy. Levy had also repeatedly denied in public that he was going to replace Jol with Juande Ramos, and guess what, he did just that. During his tenure at White Hart Lane, Levy has developed an unflattering reputation with a significant contingent of Tottenham supporters and other higher-ups across the Premiership for relying on politics rather than doing what makes soccer sense.

Levy demonstrated his own stupidity once again in the past couple days with his comments regarding Robbie Keane's $40 million move to Liverpool. He would have the public believe that Tottenham was a helpless victim in the matter, and big, bad Liverpool bullied his club around and railroaded him into selling the Irish striker:

"I have already made my opinion clear on the nature of this transaction. I don't regard it as a transfer deal - that is something which happens between two clubs when they both agree to trade - this is very much an enforced sale, for which we have agreed a sum of £19 million as compensation plus a potential further £1.3 million in additional compensation."

He also effectively accused Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez of tapping-up after Benitez had praised Keane's abilities in the media, although to be fair, he didn't pursue his claims any further than that. Liverpool made a donation to Tottenham's primary charity in acknowledgement that Benitez's comments were inappropriate, but that was unnecessary.

I don't see where Levy gets off saying any of what he said. He didn't have to sell Keane, who was under contract with the North London club until 2010. He had a choice in the matter, and he agreed to the move. Tottenham are in better financial shape than Liverpool as it is, so Spurs didn't exactly need the money. Liverpool didn't force Levy into anything. How can he not call it a "transfer deal", which, according to his own words, has to be agreed upon, when clearly it was. If it wasn't, Keane wouldn't be allowed to go anywhere.

To say that a potential $40.6 million is just "compensation" is insulting to those who work far harder than Levy for exponentially smaller salaries. It also implies that Keane was stolen from Tottenham without consent, and Liverpool just threw some money out of the rear window while escaping with the player to make everything better.

As for his comments aimed at Benitez, give me a break. What exactly is the definition of tapping-up? Robbie Keane is many things, some positive and some negative, but ignorant isn't one of them. He knows other clubs would love to benefit from his services. The guy is good for at least 15 goals per season, so of course he's in demand. His agent, Struan Marshall, also represents Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, and Keane is good friends with both of the Liverpool stalwarts, who surely talked to Keane about coming to Anfield at some point or another. Keane supported Liverpool as a boy like many other Irishmen, and it was his lifelong dream to play for the club.

Levy is nothing more than a spoiled sore loser who whines and moans when he doesn't get his way. As he showed during the Jol situation and now with Keane, Levy is as fickle as they come. He possesses the wrong personal traits to succeed as an executive in professional sports, and Tottenham's accomplishments over the last three seasons (Carling Cup, two 5th-place finishes, and appearances in the UEFA Cup Round of 16 and Quarterfinals) have come in spite of him, not because of him.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"20 Teams in 10 Days" Premiership Preview

As hinted to in earlier posts, it's almost time for my second annual Premiership preview.

Beginning this Friday, August 1, I'll be covering two teams a day for 10 days, starting with the club I believe will finish dead last this year and working my way up in order to the eventual league champion. Believe me, these are remarkably thorough looks at each team, something that you won't find at many other blogs out there.

I'll start with a quick recap of a team's 2007-2008 season, then move on to player movement this summer, both coming and going. I'll combine that with analysis of the holdovers and give you a full starting lineup that, barring injuries or transfers that take place after I put out a team's preview, should take the field for that team's first game. I'll examine the team's schedule, highlighting their difficult stretches and stretches where points need to be picked up. At the end of each capsule, you'll see a "Bottom Line", where I'll briefly summarize (in a couple of sentences or so) what a team's chances are based on their roster and manager.

Remember, because the transfer window will still be open well after I publish these previews, they have to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, I picked Manchester City to finish 15th last season before Sven brought in Elano, Martin Petrov, and a few other pieces of his international puzzle. I can only base my previews on the players that are there at the time of writing, not on transfer speculation or gossip that I see or hear in the media. I also obviously can’t predict injuries; certain players are more prone to them than others, but I can’t account for things that haven’t happened when I’m composing a team’s outlook.

I look forward to doing this, and I hope you'll check back daily as we get closer to the start of the '08-'09 Premiership season.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ashley Young's Goal Against Odense BK

A summer filled with video highlights here continues with Ashley Young’s stunning goal in Aston Villa’s 1-0 victory over Odense BK yesterday. The win sealed Villa’s place in the UEFA Cup second qualifying round, and Young sent the home crowd into raptures with this right-footed drive from his usual left wing position.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I won’t stop until people give this guy more love. Ashley Young was the best, and let me repeat, the best, winger in the Premiership last season after Cristiano Ronaldo, and although the players obviously agree with me as Young as voted into the PFA Team of the Year, far too many fans don’t appreciate how good of a player this guy truly is.

Believe me, I’m not praising Young simply because of this goal. Check the archives; I’ve been high on him ever since Villa’s first game of the ‘07-’08 season, at home to Liverpool. You can see a sampling of his quality here, but even this terrific goal doesn’t begin to do justice to Young’s full array of abilities. As the commentator on the video says, he is such an exciting player to watch, and you can mark it down here first: If England qualifies for World Cup 2010, Young will be a starting winger for the Three Lions come kickoff in their first group match.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"I'm on Setanta Sports" Will Return This Season

It looks like "The Special One" will still have time for fun and games this season after taking the job at Inter Milan. He's been busy this summer, already bringing in Amantino Mancini from Roma, and it looks like Portsmouth midfielder Sulley Muntari will head to the San Siro in the near future. Frank Lampard also could reunite with his former manager as Mourinho has made it clear he'd still love to have the Chelsea vice-captain.

Mourinho's sidekick and personal tool (on the show), Sven-Göran Eriksson, has a new gig to keep him occupied for a while as well. Eriksson is now the manager of the Mexican national team, which doesn't seem like a good fit, but money is money and Eriksson has never been one to turn a nice salary down.

These two, along with Wayne Rooney, Dave from Newcastle/Stoke, the "Voyeur", Rafa, Sir Alex, and other "special guests", will be back on Setanta during the upcoming season. I'm curious to see how the show starts off; it was clever and original when it debuted around Christmas last year, then turned stale and repetitive, then made a nice little push to bring me back on board towards the end of the season. Hopefully the folks at Setanta still have enough humor and wit in the tank to make this worth watching again.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Martin O'Neill Would Be Wise To Play Barry This Weekend

In one of my recent poll questions, which you can find on the left-hand side of the homepage underneath the blog archive, I asked which story you believed to be the biggest so far this summer. One of the choices was Gareth Barry and his desire to leave Aston Villa for Liverpool, and although I can't remember the exact number, it got its fair share of votes.

Villa is a club on the rise, with young but underappreciated stars in Ashley Young (I can't emphasize enough just how high I am on him), and Gabriel Agbonlahor, and some very useful players like John Carew, Nigel Reo-Coker, Martin Laursen, and Wilfred Bouma. They had the smallest senior roster in the Premiership last season, but the quality of their young players and middle-aged veterans was enough to surprise many outsiders.

Losing Scott Carson and Olof Mellberg is a tough blow for manager Martin O'Neill, who led this team to a 7th-place finish last year and a place in the Intertoto Cup this summer, but he's already been working the transfer market, bringing in Steve Sidwell from Chelsea and Brad Guzan from Chivas USA. O'Neill is also actively shopping for a right back, and is close to acquiring Brad Friedel from Blackburn if you choose to believe various reports.

Barry is Villa's captain and has spent just over a decade at the club. He has established himself as one of the top central midfielders in the Premiership, catapulting into England's starting lineup alongside Owen Hargreaves in the process. He's also capable of playing left back and on the left in a diamond-shaped midfield, and that kind of versatility is always a plus.

As I'm sure all of you read or heard about a couple weeks ago, Barry was banned from training and club premises by his manager and fined $120,000 (two weeks' salary) basically in response to Barry's public comments regarding his desire to move to Liverpool. Barry has made it fairly clear that he'd like to go to Anfield and play in the Champions League with his good friend, Steven Gerrard, and questioned O'Neill's commitment to bringing in more firepower.

Barry also called O'Neill out right after Euro 2008, saying the manager had time to be a television pundit but not to reach out and communicate with his captain. Liverpool and Villa have been discussing a transfer all summer long, but the two clubs haven't been able to agree on cash valuations or player swaps combined with cash to get the deal done. O'Neill has admitted that although he would like Barry to stay, for the right price, he could leave.

On July 16, though, Barry returned to training, three days before Villa went to Denmark and picked up two critical away goals in a 2-2 draw against Odense BK in the third round of the Intertoto Cup. An obviously unfit Barry didn't play in that game -- Stiliyan Petrov got the start in the holding role behind Steve Sidwell -- but did appear in Villa's friendly victory against Walsall two days ago. He was booed, and maybe rightfully so, by his club's supporters, but played an hour in his effort to work towards full match fitness.

The second leg of the Villa-Odense tie will be played this Saturday in England, with the hosts needing either a victory or a 0-0 or 1-1 draw to advance to the UEFA Cup second qualifying round. O'Neill said today that he was considering playing Barry in the upcoming game:

"I think that in terms of fitness the game on Tuesday will have brought Gareth on, so if he's mentally tuned in and he wants to go and play, why not?

'He will be in contention for Saturday. He's a quality player and that's what we're looking for. I have never not been impressed with him in two years as to his attitude on the football pitch.

'In fairness the Intertoto gives us that chance to get into the UEFA Cup, which we set out to get into by one way or another, and Gareth was a major part of that last year."

He then added:

"Deep down we would all love him to stay at the football club. We haven't heard back from Liverpool for some time and we're not exactly sure where we all stand.

'When people say people are in limbo, I don't think that applies to anybody more than ourselves. We don't know whether to move forward or not with it. It's a long-running saga and I wouldn't mind it ending one way or another.

'My preference - and hopefully I'm speaking for a lot of Villa fans, if not all of them - is that we would like Gareth to stay at the football club. That would be great because it will be hard to replace him."

So, where does that leave us?

O'Neill should insert Barry into the starting eleven for Saturday's match. As the manager, his responsibility is to field the lineup he believes gives the team the best possible chance to get the result. There is no question that Gareth Barry is one of Villa's best players and would immediately bring that cool, savvy demeanor into an otherwise young and inexperienced -- at least in European competition -- team. He links up very well with his wide players, Young and some combination of Nigel Reo-Coker, Shaun Maloney, and even Agbonlahor on occasion, but also takes corner kicks and free kicks from the right side. Villa is deadly off the set piece with Laursen, Carew, and Zat Knight in the air, and Barry's in-swinging balls are always dangerous.

By playing Barry, O'Neill is also forcing Liverpool's hand, saying that unless Rafa Benitez comes up with a satisfactory offer to meet the valuation, Villa simply won't sell and will retain the services of their captain. Liverpool seems to want Barry desperately for some reason (if you go back to early May in the blog archive, you'll see why I don't believe he's a necessary piece to Liverpool's puzzle), so they're going to have make a decision sooner rather than later. The closer we get to the start of the Premiership season, the more Villa can dictate the situation and the more they can raise the desired price.

I think you'll find that as we move forward, the mutual hard feelings between Barry and O'Neill, which seem to be more of disappointment than anything else, will begin to evaporate. If Barry stays at Villa, the fans will eventually welcome back one of their club's most loyal players. They don't seem to understand or appreciate that when players want to change teams, it's usually business more than it is personal. Liverpool would be able to pay Barry more and give him a chance to compete in the Champions League, but that doesn't mean Barry has lost his love for Villa and his respect for their fans.

Martin O'Neill should bring Gareth Barry back into the fold this weekend. The Birmingham-based club have the ability to break into the top four with just a couple more impact signings, definitely at right back and possibly at right wing, and need a bit more depth. They have the talent right now to be a serious contender in the UEFA Cup. I believe Barry will get his wish to play in the Champions League at some point, and possibly next season for Villa if he stays where he is now.

It all starts on Saturday, though, and I'm extremely interested to see whether or not the skipper is leading the team out of the tunnel.

Update (07/26 -- Noon): Barry is amongst the substitutes named by Martin O'Neill. He's opted to use the same starting lineup that drew 2-2 last week.

Update #2 (12:30 PM): Barry is coming on after a horrific-looking ankle injury to Wilfred Bouma. Barry presumably will go to left back, showing the versatility I mentioned earlier in this post.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Solid Signing for West Ham

West Ham sealed their first major signing of the summer today, bringing in 23-year-old Switzerland international Valon Behrami from Lazio for $10 million.

Though clearly not to the same extent as Chelsea in their acquisition of Deco earlier this month, West Ham got away like bandits with what they paid for Behrami. He'd been originally valued at $22 million by Lazio, according to England's Daily Mail, but because his contract was expiring and could've soon left without the club receiving compensation, the Italian side opted to take what they could get.

He's a young 23, meaning that for his already relatively young age, there's not a lot of mileage on his legs like there is with some other wingers in the same age bracket -- Cristiano Ronaldo, David Bentley, Ashley Young, and Behrami's Swiss teammate, Tranquillo Barnetta, are just a few well-known examples who have significant first-team experience under their belts.

He's a very versatile player, something that West Ham can't have enough of given their horrific injury record in recent seasons. Behrami can play at right back if necessary, but is a natural winger and capable of playing both on the left, where he can cut inside with his right foot, and the right, where it's easier for him to serve balls into the box.

At 6'1", a rather tall height for his preferred position, Behrami is quicker on the ball than one might expect. Don't get me wrong, he doesn't have the fast-footed, change-of-direction moves like a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Robinho, but he can get down the field in a hurry if given the opportunity. He's also adequate with his left foot, so he'll demand more space from Premiership full-backs than someone who basically only uses one foot for everything.

If you saw him play for Switzerland, for whom he has 15 caps since making his debut in 2005, in Euro 2008 this summer, you had to have come away impressed. He started all three games for the Swiss opposite Barnetta, and along with Hakan Yakin, those three players really stood out for a country that had very little to offer going forward after the loss of Alexander Frei to a knee injury.

Behrami will bring his Champions League experience with Lazio to East London, where his new club has been starved for success in Europe for years now. West Ham has done absolutely nothing outside of England since 1999-2000, when they were joint-Intertoto Cup winners and reached the second round of the UEFA Cup, where they bowed out to Steaua Bucureşti. Now with Behrami, Freddie Ljungberg, and Craig Bellamy on board, the Hammers hope to make a serious push to get back into European competition.

The one major knock on Behrami is the fact that, like Ljungberg and Bellamy, he is injury-prone. There is a reason he hasn't played as many first-team games as the players I mentioned earlier and isn't because Behrami doesn't have the talent, it's because he's had a problem staying consistently healthy. If the "Swiss David Beckham" can get over that hump, he's going to be a very good player for Alan Curbishley and West Ham.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Arsenal Is Now a Selling Club

Every day, I start off the morning surfing around various sites and checking for interesting stories or issues relating to, most often, the Premiership. You all know by now how much I despise the summer (in the soccer world, that is, not in real life) and the gossip used as filler to pass the time until August, when the new season kicks off.

Two leading media outlets in this country -- ESPNsoccernet and CSRN -- have raised the question in recent days of whether or not Arsenal is now a "selling club". Soccernet's Norman Hubbard believes Arsenal could be for the next 20 years (, while my colleague at CSRN, Johnathan Starling, takes the opposite viewpoint and doesn't believe Arsenal is a selling club even now.

When you simply look at the Gunners' domestic and international prestige, not to mention the fact that they're a perennial top-four team in the Premiership and a participant in the Champions League, it would be hard not to agree with Starling. More often than not, success doesn't come cheaply, and sustaining success is even harder to do without spending money.

We've seen this in England with Chelsea, a mid-table team until Roman Abramovich bought the club and invested hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to launch Chelsea to the status it enjoys now. We've seen it with Portsmouth, who you could count on to finish in the lower half of the league until a wealthy Franco-Russian-Israeli businessman, Alexandre Gaydamak, became the sole owner of the club in July 2006. We've seen this here in the States with the New York Yankees and now the Boston Red Sox, and especially in college football and basketball, sports traditionally dominated by larger, public, well-endowed universities.

Upon closer examination, though, Arsenal doesn't fit that same mold anymore. To me, they're still a successful club, although those with different definitions of success have every right to disagree with me, but they're not doing it in the same manner as any of the teams mentioned above.

It seems like too many people attach a negative stigma to the term "selling club", and they're wrong for doing so. Look, soccer is a business just like any other professional endeavor: it's all about the bottom line, money. How much money can you make, or perhaps to put it another way, how much money can you save while not compromising your high standards and still putting a good product out there for the consumers.

There's nothing wrong with being a selling club, just like there's nothing wrong with buying every player in sight if that's what you want to do. It's a personal choice made by those in charge, the ones spending the money.

Arsenal just moved into a new ground, Emirates Stadium, after spending decades at Highbury, which had become a charming but antiquated and out-of-date stadium for the North London club and their large fanbase. It takes a lot of money to build new, state-of-the-art stadiums, and the Emirates was no exception -- cost of construction was roughly $860 million for a stadium that can seat 60,355 people. That may be chump change when compared to the new Wembley Stadium, also in London, which took four years and over $1.5 billion to construct, but still, the Emirates didn't come cheaply.

To pay back the loan required to build the Emirates, Arsenal needs to bring in a surplus of $48 million a year for the next quarter century. Ticket prices are rising every year and fans who love their club will deal with it and pay the extra money, but that alone isn't going to completely repay the debt. Arsenal also has to rely on bonus money from playing in the Champions League and from finishing at the top of the Premier League, not to mention merchandise sales and other financial efforts that are based off the field.

Manager Arsène Wenger has earned a well-deserved reputation over the years of having one of the keenest eyes for talent in the game. He buys players when they're young, often times in their mid-to-late teens, and cheap, then brings them through Arsenal's youth system and, if they develop sufficiently, into the first team. If/when they play well enough at the highest levels, raising their values, and if/when Wenger sees fit, he sells them off, thus making a huge profit on his original investment. He then takes that money and spends it on more young players, and then the cycle repeats itself again. Remember, this is a man who holds a Master's degree in economics; he knows what he's doing.

We've seen this model most recently with Lassana Diarra, who was sold to Portsmouth last winter, but perhaps most famously with Patrick Vieira (signed for $7 million, a relatively large sum by Wenger's standards, then sold to Juventus for nearly $27.5 million) and Nicholas Anelka (signed for $1 million, then sold to Real Madrid only two years later for just over $44.5 million). We're going to see it continue the future with players like Kolo Toure, who was signed for just $300,000 from Belgian club ASEC Mimosas, Cesc Fàbregas, who joined as a 16-year-old from Barcelona, and perhaps as soon as later this summer with Emmanuel Adebayor, who came to Arsenal from Monaco for a reported $6 million but could be sold for anywhere upwards of $50 million.

He is loyal to his players, but only to a certain degree. He'll stick by them when it suits him and the club, but when he believes it's time for them to go, even if they'd essentially devoted their lives to the club and contributed significantly to the club's success like Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pirès, and Martin Keown all did, they go.

Wenger refuses to pay his players a salary that would break his traditional wage structure, meaning that no matter how good Cesc Fàbregas becomes, it's likely Arsenal won't pay him what he could make at that same point in time as, for example, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Manchester United. Wenger would rather sell Fàbregas to one of those big clubs and take the transfer fee and replenish the already-thriving youth system he's helped create.

He had the opportunity to raise Mathieu Flamini's wages when other teams became interested, but he declined and let Flamini walk to AC Milan without getting a pound in return. Instead of paying Flamini, a very good holding midfielder with the ability to get forward, what he could get elsewhere, he let his fellow Frenchman go, showing his steadfast desire to stick to his guns.

Wenger beat the likes of Manchester United and Everton to bring in Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff, who's only 17 and, in a not-so-coincidental anecdote, will wear #16 with Flamini's departure. Ramsey is an extremely talened (for his age) center midfielder, which Arsenal have plenty of already, and probably won't play more than a handful of games for Arsenal's first team this season. He may make a couple appearances in the Carling Cup, which Wenger seems to use as a glorified training ground for his young players, but likely won't play in the Premiership. Wenger may or may not be around for many more seasons, but there should be no doubt that if in three or four years, Ramsey could bring a substantial return, he'll be moved elsewhere.

Even the cost of Arsenal's high-profile signing this summer, 21-year-old Samir Nasri, formerly of Marseille, was basically offset by the sales of Aliaksandr Hleb to Barcelona and Gilberto Silva to Panathinaikos. The net sum of players brought in compared to the net sum of players sold is generally very close to equal for Wenger, and rarely does it exceed more than $10-12 million, which is play money these days in the Premiership.

Like I said earlier, this is an interesting issue that had been brought to my attention recently. Arsenal doesn't buy established, big-name players like Chelsea, and won't pay to keep players at the Emirates when they become superstars. It's a personal philosophy that Wenger and club executives clearly believe in, and even if the fans don't agree, it's not necessarily about them. Yes, the club has the responsibility to provide its customers with a capable product, but at the end of the day, those who foot the bill are the ones who get to make the decisions, not those who benefit or don't benefit from those decisions.

In Arsenal's case, a clear pattern has emerged during Arsene Wenger's tenure and it's one that favors young players over veterans, cheap over expensive. It has brought the club success, but the question is, can they maintain that success in a global soccer market fueled by large amounts of money more so now than ever before? We'll see.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Scott Carson’s Questionable Move to West Bromwich Albion

After yesterday’s posts, I’m sure you all know how much I hate the “silly season” and how I can’t stand to hear the constant gossip and rumor mill concerning player transfers during the summer. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I don’t hear or read any of it; it’s everywhere and practically impossible to avoid.

Out of all the goalkeepers I’ve heard being bandied around thus far and/or ones that have already made moves — Brad Friedel, Gomes, Mark Schwarzer, Paul Robinson, Robert Green, etc. — Scott Carson is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. He’s also only 22 years old, and with the widely accepted notion that goalies don’t hit their peaks until their late 20’s/early 30’s, the sky could be the limit for Carson. He’s shown a lot of ability early in his career, and the potential to improve even more is clearly there.

That’s why I was surprised when I, to steal a line from U2 in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, heard the news today. Carson signed a four-year contract with West Brom, a newly-promoted team who paid Liverpool $6.5 million for his services, a fee that could rise to $7.5 million based on performance-related criteria.

Carson spent time on loan at Premiership bottom-feeders Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic before joining Aston Villa for the entirety of last season. As someone who watched Martin O’Neill’s club very often last year, I can tell you with 100% certainty that if it wasn’t for Scott Carson in goal, Villa wouldn’t have finished seventh in the league and be playing in European competitions in ‘08-’09. No one is as high on Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, among others, as I am, but if all things were equal and Villa played exactly the same way last year with Stuart Taylor or Thomas Sorensen between the sticks instead of Carson, they’re not even a top-10 team, simple as that.

Carson was very impressive for the Birmingham-based club, probably the best English goalkeeper last season after Portsmouth’s David James, who revived his club and international career with his performances in goal. Carson thrust himself into the senior national team discussion after racking up 29 appearances at the U-21 level, second-most in England’s history.

Everyone remembers his competitive debut for England, when his horrible start allowed Croatia to jump out to a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in do-or-die Euro 2008 qualifier for the Three Lions at Wembley, but I’m not sure why people would expect much more out of a young man being thrust into a high-pressure situation like that for the first time in his life. The truth of the matter is after those early mistakes, he actually played reasonably well for the rest of the game and gave England a chance to overcome the deficit.

West Brom is going to struggle to stay up next year, to say the least. I don’t want to give too much away now regarding my Premiership picks, but suffice it to say that I believe the three teams who got promoted from the Championship last season are going to have a very short stay in England’s top division. Out of those three, West Brom has the best chance to survive, but let’s be honest. Take a look at their squad right now, even with the summer signings that have cost the club $27.5 million, and tell me who, besides Stoke City and Hull City, they can finish ahead of. Fulham? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Wigan? Nope. Sunderland? Not with Roy Keane at the helm.

Look, I understand that Carson had to leave Liverpool. He was never going to be their first-choice keeper, at least not as long as Pepe Reina was there. I get it. But West Brom is not good enough for someone who played basically every game for a European contender (Carson played 35 league games, he was ineligible for the two against Liverpool and missed another due to a red card, I believe) and at 22, established himself as, at the very least, a genuine candidate to be England’s next goalie after James calls it quits. If he would’ve waited just a couple more weeks, a possible player/cash swap involving him and Gareth Barry might’ve been on the cards between Liverpool and Villa.

He’s going to get peppered this year. No longer will he have stalwarts in Martin Laursen and Olof Mellberg ahead of him to win almost every ball in the air. Instead, he’ll have to rely on the likes of Pelé (no, not that one, the one from Cape Verde), Leon Barnett, and Marek Čech to clean up the mess in the back. Please. Give me a break.

I can’t see how this is going to be a good season for Carson and his development, but at least he’ll have plenty of work. I can’t see him staying at West Brom after this season and certainly not if they’re relegated. At that point, I’d expect him to head back to a bigger Premiership club, one that has more to work with.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Joseph Yobo’s Brother Released by Kidnappers

About two weeks ago, I wrote a story about the kidnapping of Norum Yobo, the brother of Everton’s solid center back Joseph Yobo, and how incidents like that involving high-profile African players and their families have become too all-too-common in recent times. While the situation obviously didn’t look too good at the time, the good news was that more often than not, the situation was resolved peacefully — and that’s a relative term — as long as the ransom was paid.

I’m happy to report that Norum was released last night and is back safely with his family, all according to Joseph’s personal manager, John Ola Shittu. Shittu confirmed to that after spending 12 days in captivity, the majority of which were spent without the two friends who were taken at gunpoint as well, Norum is OK, at least physically. He declined to elaborate on the presumed ransom demand made by the kidnappers and how much of it was paid, but there was no reason for him to do so.

Shittu did, however, release a brief statement:

“On behalf of Joseph and the family, I want to say a big thank you to Everton Football Club. They were very supportive in every way possible, especially the chairman (Bill Kenwright), who was calling on a daily basis to find out how things were progressing.

Joseph is very happy to see (Norum), but he is still down emotionally, still shaken. Right now, he just wants to get himself emotionally ready enough to get set for pre-season training.”

At the end of the day, as much passion as we have for it and as much time as we dedicate to it, soccer is a game. There are more important things to worry about than Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer gossip or whether Samuel Eto’O will play in Uzbekistan this season. When it comes down to it, those are really only trivial topics and aren’t worth as much publicity as they get. No one I know in the media spent much time at all talking about Norum Yobo and the problems that continue to plague Africa, and this was only one of many life-or-death situations that go on daily and monthly and yearly on that continent.

I’m glad that the Yobo family has now been reunited, and hopefully Joseph, Norum, and Albert (the older brother) can go on with their lives in as normal a fashion as possible. Like I said, this was just one crisis and it’s great that it was averted, and hopefully it can serve to illuminate the ugly underbelly of Africa that much more. We appreciate the terrific talent of African players in Europe, especially in the Premier League, but tend to ignore their backgrounds and the places in which they grew up, and we can’t continue to do that.

TV Schedule for 2008 Big Ten/ACC Challenge

On April 15, I posted the matchups for the 10th annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, an event won by the ACC every year so far. Member schools from that conference have gone a combined 56-30 over that span, thoroughly dominating their brethren from the Big Ten en route to the Commissioner's Cup.

You can take a look at that post here ( for more information about the competition itself, but the complete TV schedule was announced today so I want to get that out there right now.

Once again, all 11 games will be televised -- 2 on ESPNU, 5 on ESPN2, and 4 on ESPN -- and they'll take place during the first three days of December.

As I'm sure you all know by now, I'm a huge Michigan Wolverines fan, and if you didn't know that, trust me, you'll be hearing a lot about them as we get closer to college basketball season. Michigan is a Big Ten school, all of which will be highlighted in bold. Like always, all tipoff times are Eastern.

Monday, Dec. 1
Wisconsin at Virginia Tech (7 PM, ESPN2)

Tuesday, Dec. 2
Ohio State at Miami (FL) (7 PM, ESPN)
Iowa at Boston College (7 PM, ESPNU)
Clemson at Illinois (7:30 PM, ESPN2)
Duke at Purdue (9 PM, ESPN)
Virginia at Minnesota (9:30 PM, ESPN2)

Wednesday, Dec. 3
Indiana at Wake Forest (7:15 PM, ESPN)
Penn State at Georgia Tech (7:30 PM, ESPN2)
**Michigan at Maryland (7:30 PM, ESPNU)**
North Carolina vs. Michigan State (from Ford Field in Detroit) (9:15 PM, ESPN)
Florida State at Northwestern (9:30 PM, ESPN2)

Once again, Michigan's been relegated to ESPNU, which is a relatively big insult in my opinion. Michigan-Maryland should be a much more compelling game than either Penn State-Georgia Tech or Virginia-Minnesota, not to mention Florida State-Northwestern, so frankly I'm a little bit surprised that the TV schedule worked out like this.

The most high-profile matchup is North Carolina-Michigan State, without question. It will be played at Ford Field, home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, but will still basically be as good as a home game for Tom Izzo's Spartans.

UNC will be the #1 ranked team to start the season; there will be no doubting that with the returns of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green, and Wayne Ellington, and the addition of two highly touted incoming freshman standouts, Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis. The Tar Heels are the clear favorite to win the NCAA Tournament next March, but Michigan State is always tough. This game will surely be a sight to see.

The other big game to keep your eye on is Duke-Purdue. If it was being played at Cameroon Indoor Stadium, the toughest place to play in all of American sports for visiting teams, Duke would likely come out on top, but it isn't. Coached by Matt Painter, Purdue is a team on the rise and will be a contender for the Big Ten title this season. They've been young and successful over the last two seasons, but they're expecting to make the jump to the next level and make a deep run in the Big Dance. Duke is Duke: they were young last year as well and with that season to gel, they'll be back at their usual perch at or near the top in the ACC.

I can't wait for this competition. I think this may just be the Big Ten's year to finally break through, and hopefully Michigan helps their conference pick up a win on the way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Steven Pienaar is Making a Difference

First off, let me explain why I’ve been lacking on the actual content side of things lately.

I hate the off-season in all sports, but especially so in soccer. There is no other sport with a “silly season” as public and pronounced as soccer. Papers and media outlets with little else to talk about speculate on rumors about where players are headed, who managers want to sign, where managers may take another job, and other similar topics. I read conflicting reports all the time. I see “quotes” from players in one place, go to another, and see something different from that player where he was quoted originally. Gossip and rumors run rampant and to be honest, I’m really not interested in that.

I like to see things confirmed — signed, sealed, and delivered. Sure, I’m game for discussion and debate as to where I think a player will end up and what’s the right fit for that player, but I try not to fall into the trap the media sets to attract readers or sell papers, whatever their medium is.

Take, for example, the Cristiano Ronaldo saga this summer. If I believed everything I saw or heard, he would’ve left for Real Madrid weeks ago. I could care less what Roman Calderon and Ronaldo’s family and David Beckham and Carlos Queiroz have to say. It’s an absolute joke what this man’s life has turned into. It’s a media circus, and nothing has even happened yet one way or another. If you’ve wondered why, unlike some of my colleagues in the blogosphere, I haven’t once touched on this “will he/won’t he” situation, it’s because I try and hold myself to a higher standard than what tabloids and gossip pages have to say, and I just don’t want to take the easy way out and be associated with that style of journalism.

That’s why my summer posting frequency has been rather light and will likely continue to be so until later this month and into August, when I’ll be doing my second annual “20 Teams in 10 Days” preview of the Premiership. Don’t get me wrong, if something happens in the soccer world, especially in England, I’ll cover it and give it its just due, but for the most part, I refuse to get caught up in rumors and half-truths. That’s just a personal choice.

Anyway, now that that rant is over and done with, I want to get back to Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, who is featured in the short video above. Pienaar is a South African international and has appeared 35 times for his country since making his début in 2002. He was born in Johannesburg, the largest and most populous city in South Africa, and grew up in a small town just outside the city limits. Johannesburg is the country’s economic hub, but like every other big city in the world, it has its problems with crime and also has some poor, run-down districts within.

As Pienaar will explain, he grew up in one of these areas and started playing soccer on a surface that wouldn’t even come close to passing for my elementary school recess field. He understands, as I detailed in my earlier post about Nigeria’s Joseph Yobo and his brother, who was kidnapped, that soccer is basically the only way out athletically for kids in South Africa. These children need to have something that they love to do and is logistically easy to do, because if they don’t, there is a very good chance that they’ll become part of these high crime rate statistics and contribute to Africa’s struggle to develop into a truly 21st-century, modern continent.

Pienaar also talks briefly about the state of the South African national team and how they are looking with the 2010 World Cup, set to be hosted in their country, right around the corner.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Yossi Benayoun's Beautiful Goal Against Tranmere Rovers

Another day, another video clip.

Take a look at Yossi Benayoun's superb curling effort in Liverpool's 1-0 victory over Tranmere yesterday. The Israeli international will be making a push for more playing time in midfield with the likely departure of Xabi Alonso, Ryan Babel's recovery from injury, and Javier Mascherano's absence to play for Argentina in the upcoming Olympics. Goals like this help make a claim for more run-outs.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

David James Interview with Shaka Hislop

Well, David James' afro and full beard are still going strong -- in fact, they look better than ever.

Portsmouth's goalkeeper was the best at his position in the Premiership last year, and as he was voted as such by the players in their Team of the Year, it obviously isn't just me who thinks very highly of James. As far as I'm concerned, he can do whatever he likes with his facial hair and the hair on his head as long as he continues to do the job he did last season.

In this interview with ESPNsoccernet's Shaka Hislop, a solid netminder himself in his playing days for several English clubs, including Pompey, and internationally for Trinidad & Tobago, James talks about his disappointment and frustration about England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008, his excitement about the addition of Peter Crouch and the strike duo of Crouch and Jermain Defoe, and addresses the issue of the lack of young goalkeeping talent in England.

It's about 8 minutes long and provides some interesting insight, so I highly recommend that you take a little time out of your day and give it a whirl.

Friday, July 11, 2008

How Carlos Queiroz’s Departure Affects Manchester United

You can’t blame Carlos Queiroz one bit for answering the call from his country. He’s 55 years old, and if he didn’t take this job now, he may never have gotten another chance, especially with Jose Mourinho already on the record as saying he intends to finish his managerial career with the Portuguese national team.

His record in the past as the top man for both club and country has been less-than-stellar, particularly at the senior level. Again, you can’t blame him for seizing this opportunity to prove himself and to show that he can be successful outside of the large shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Queiroz’s acceptance of the Portugal job has left Ferguson without his right-hand man just five weeks before the start of the Premiership season. There are several candidates in-house that will almost assuredly be considered by Ferguson to fill that assistant’s role — Brian McClair and Mike Whelan chief among them — but none that seem to have the same working relationship and mutual understanding that Queiroz and Ferguson have.

Manchester United will be seeking to win their third consecutive Premiership title, a remarkable feat that the club also achieved from 1998-2001. There is no doubt that United wouldn’t be in this position without Cristiano Ronaldo, who has developed into the best player in the world during his tenure at Old Trafford.

Queiroz was largely responsible for convincing Ronaldo to remain at the club after the incident with Wayne Rooney at World Cup 2006 threatened to permanently sour his relationship with English fans. Queiroz visited the star winger in Portugal immediately after that tournament, and the rest (back-to-back league titles and a a Champions League title) is history. Queiroz has also made his best efforts to drive Real Madrid off Ronaldo this summer, accusing the Spanish giants in no uncertain terms of tapping him up and comparing him to Christopher Columbus, who both Spain and Portugal claim sailed for their respective nations. Simply put, it’s well-documented that Ronaldo and Queiroz have a close relationship.

Queiroz, too, played a significant role in Manchester United’s acquisitions of Nani and Anderson, who both speak Portuguese, last summer. Nani is the natural successor to Ronaldo, if and when he does leave, and certainly has a bright future ahead of him. He’ll play more this season than he did last year, allowing the veteran Ryan Giggs to rest and conserve whatever he has left in the tank. Anderson will do the same for Paul Scholes, who simply can’t go box-to-box on a regular basis like he could in his prime. Anderson can, and is the central midfield general that Manchester United is really lacking.

At 66, there’s no way Sir Alex Ferguson is involved with the day-to-day affairs of the club as much as he once was. He can’t be expected to do everything 100% anymore, and that’s not a knock on him, that’s just the natural effects of age. Having Queiroz right by his side allowed Ferguson to concentrate on the big things, delegating the lesser but still important responsibilities to a man who was on the same page as him. Ferguson has also never been known as a master tactician by any means and again, at his age, it’s unclear how up to speed he is with everything else going on in the European game, knowledge that is necessary for United’s Champions League campaigns.

With Queiroz gone, Manchester United will take a hit. He is widely regarded as one of the top, if not the top, assistant managers in the world, and he can’t just be replaced like-for-like. He has significant influence in Portugal, obviously, a country that produces some of the best young players on the continent, which Manchester United has exploited in recent years. He is almost a second father to Ronaldo and while that may not change, his absence from Old Trafford may push Ronaldo over the edge in his desire to play for Real Madrid.

United fans would be unwise to not take this seriously and assume that the train to another Premiership trophy will simply continue full speed. The club has been able to stay at an extraordinary high level after parting ways with several high-profile players in recent years — Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, etc. — but I’m not sure they’ll be able to do the exact same without Queiroz at Ferguson’s side. Money can buy you more talent on the field, but it doesn’t work that way with coaches.

A Little Summer Reading

These are truly the dog days of summer. With apologies to Arena Football, baseball and cycling (Tour de France) are the only major sports going on right now, and we're waiting until late summer/fall when the sports calendar will really get busy again.

With this in mind, I'm sure you, like me, have an abundance of free time on your hands. Instead of wasting your lives away sitting indoors doing nothing, perhaps eating too much, sitting on the couch all day, or playing virtual games of some kind (which I do as well, so I'm not knocking it) for hours and hours, do something constructive.

If you're a college basketball fan like I am, then here's the perfect suggestion. Pick up a copy of Michael Litos' "Inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball", which chronicles the 2005-2006 season and focuses on the Colonial Athletic Association, whose headquarters in Richmond are right in my backyard and a conference with teams stretching up and down the Atlantic Seaboard from Massachusetts (Northeastern) to Georgia (Georgia State).

There's a great foreword written by former Duke player and current lawyer and ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, discussing the general state of mid-major programs in this country. Litos picks up specifically on the CAA as he's from Richmond and is a fan of VCU, one of the top two or three basketball programs in the conference in recent years. The '05-'06 season, of course, was the year of George Mason's miraculous run to the Final Four and Mason is part of the CAA as well, so there's plenty of ink devoted to the Patriots.

This book isn't just about games and on-the-court action, however, it's about more than that. It's about perseverance and dedication, trials and tribulations, the thin line between failure and success in a so-called "small" conference like the CAA. It's truly a fascinating, firsthand account of what was a special season in college basketball and for the CAA, so I recommend you head to your local bookstore or library and get your hands on this book. You won't be sorry.

Portsmouth Purchases Peter Crouch

Portsmouth has completed a $22 million move to bring Peter Crouch back to Fratton Park after seven years, during which Crouch played for four other clubs and earned his way squarely into the England setup.

Crouch, the tallest player ever to put on a Three Lions shirt at 6′7″, spent the last three seasons at Liverpool, where he scored 22 goals in 85 league matches but led the club in ‘06-’07 with 18 goals in all competitions, including a hat trick in Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal.

He was obviously out of favor at Anfield with the emergence of Fernando Torres, and manager Rafael Benitez found a formation that worked towards the end of the year — playing Torres as a lone striker with Steven Gerrard right behind him. Crouch was relegated to long stretches on the bench, usually coming in very late in games when Liverpool needed a spark. His playing style and body build wasn’t suited for Benitez’s preferred gameplan, and there was no way Crouch was ever going to be more than a role player as long as he stayed on Merseyside.

He’s come back to the South Coast now, where he’ll immediately link up with fellow England international Jermain Defoe. The two have the potential to feed off each other brilliantly — Crouch is very good at holding up balls and playing with his back to goal, allowing others to come into the attack, and the speedy Defoe should be able to run off Crouch and benefit from the big man’s dirty work.

There is no doubt that Crouch has superb technical ability, especially for a man his size, and he provides options that many teams aren’t built to defend against. His stats at Liverpool don’t truly reflect how good of a striker Crouch is; he was never put in a position to succeed and was playing in a system that limits individual creativity for the most part and focuses on the team and playing as a unit.

Under ‘Arry Redknapp, for whom Crouch will be playing for the third time in his career, he’ll have an opportunity to thrive. Niko Kranjčar and John Utaka are very good crossers of the ball from the wings and will give Crouch service he just wasn’t getting at Liverpool. He should be able to build more chemistry with the English contingent at Portsmouth (David James, Glen Johnson, Defoe, Sol Campbell, etc.) than he ever could with a semi-United Nations delegation at Liverpool, and that will come in handy.

For $22 million, Portsmouth signed a player who can score anywhere from 15-20 goals a season and almost as importantly, brings the skillset to allow guys like Defoe and Sulley Muntari and Utaka to come into the play and collect what Crouch starts out of the air. This was a very good signing for ’Arry’s club, and the regular first team games Crouch will get and the chance to continue to play in Europe (albeit the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League) will benefit the player as well. Look for Defoe and Crouch to form a productive partnership, certainly at club level, but I have a feeling they could be leading England’s front line as well in World Cup qualifiers this fall and beyond.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Luton Town Docked 30 Points..What’s the Point?

The Football League decided today to deduct an additional 20 points from Luton Town, who will be in League Two this season after finishing dead last in League One a year ago. The club was unable to agree to a company voluntary agreement to get out of adminstration, and according to the BBC and the Football League, this is the third such instance in the last 10 years for Luton Town.

The club had already been docked 10 points and fined $100,000, a lot of money for a lower-league club, by the Football Association after they were found to have paid agents via a third party, which is illegal in England and grounds for a charge of misconduct.

Combined, the 30-point penalty is the largest in Football League history, and it just makes life that much more difficult for a side that has been relegated in three consecutive seasons, a far cry from their glory days in the 1980’s.

As a fan of the game in general and not of Luton Town specifically, I could really care less about the financial situations and board room troubles of any team. The only thing that matters to me is the product on the field, and while the two are obviously related, that doesn’t mean I have to spend my time thinking about how the front office is run. I’m no economic genius or money wizard or anything else; that’s just not my cup of tea.

What I am interested in, however, is competition and what I see week-in and week-out on game days. I don’t pretend to know anything more than what I’ve read about Luton Town and their backroom troubles, but what do I know is this: It makes no sense for the club to start next season 30 points in the hole, no matter what has gone wrong behind the scenes.

Last year in League Two, 60 points was good for a tie for 11th place out of 24, a respectable, mid-table finish. Even if Luton Town was able to gain the equivalent of 60 points, which is highly unlikely given the sheer fact that they’ve been free-falling down the Football League in recent years, that would only give them 30 points with this penalty, and 30 points is 10 points fewer than what 24th-place Wrexham earned last season. Luton would need to win 10 games just to break even, and that’s no guarantee seeing as the bottom seven teams last year in League Two won anywhere between 10-13 matches.

Suffice it to say that this point deduction confirms, for all intents and purposes, another demotion for Luton Town. It’s going to be nearly impossible to climb out of this hole even with the best of runs, rendering Luton’s whole season virtually meaningless. There will be no incentive to sign or play for a club that has had its fate already sealed, and opposing teams will gladly come to town and pick up what should be a relatively easy result, or at least a positive result of some kind.

As I said, I can’t sit here and tell you that the punishment does or doesn’t fit the crime because I don’t know enough about the specific situation. I can tell you that taking 30 points away from Luton before they even step on the field for their first game gives them very little chance to do anything positive this season. The club is appealing the original 10-point deduction and the case will be heard next week, but even if the penalty was fully reversed, sitting at -20 points isn’t much better, and as we all know, appeals are rarely won by the defendant anyway.

I have a solution. Maybe this debacle, at least from the Luton Town point of view, was warranted, maybe the club deserved everything they got. Fine, I can live with that. But I wouldn’t take a lump sum of 30 points away, I’d spread it out like we do with car payments or house payments. I could live with a 10-point deduction to start the next three seasons, that way the punishment is still the same, but Luton still has a chance to save themselves and actually field a fairly competitive team with something to play for. At -30 points, they’d basically be slogging through a 46-game season just to play out the string, knowing that they’ll be in the Blue Square Premier division next year anyway barring an unforeseen miracle of epic proportions.

Will my proposal or one like it, perhaps a 15-point deduction in each of the next two seasons, come to fruition? Probably not, but from a fan’s standpoint, I think it should, and I hope it does.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Frank Lampard to Inter Milan?

Born and bred in London on opposite sides of England's capital, Frank Lampard could very well be leaving home to rejoin former manager José Mourinho in Milan.

According to BBC Sport, Inter Milan have begun negotiations with Chelsea to bring the high-profile 30-year-old midfielder to Serie A. It is understood that Chelsea have received a fax from the Italian giant inquiring about Lampard, who has only one year left on his current contract at Stamford Bridge and so far has been hesitant to commit to a new deal.

With the arrival of Deco last week and the holdover presence of the rather large figure that is Michael Ballack, not to mention the fact that Zenit St. Petersburg and Russian national team star Andrei Arshavin is now being linked to Chelsea as well, it seems safe to assume that Lampard doesn't really figure into new manager Luiz Felipe Scolari's future plans. If Arshavin was to be signed, Chelsea would have three terrific attacking midfielders in a formation that, going by Scolari's past history, really only has room for one at a time. With Lampard and Arshavin, Chelsea would have four players for that one position, and simple mathematics tells me that that won't work out.

Inter's first offer is reported to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million dollars, $3 million less than what Chelsea just paid for Deco. In an earlier post I talked about how $16 million for Deco is a steal, and with that in mind, $13 million for Lampard would be flat-out highway robbery. I understand that his value decreases the closer his current contract gets to expiring, but there is no way that a proven 20-goal-per-season player is only worth $13 million.

Chelsea and Luiz Felipe Scolari can continue to say all the right things in public about how they'd like Lampard to stay in West London, and they really have no choice but to say that or else his value will be slashed even more, but the fact of the matter is this is Lampard's decision to make and his alone.

It's no secret that he is one of Mourinho's favorite players and it's no secret how much Lampard loves playing for Mourinho, and to be honest, I think this is the perfect time for Lampard to move on. He's won two Premier League titles an FA Cup, and two Carling Cups, and been named to the PFA Team of the Year twice, all with Chelsea. The only major trophy he didn't win was the Champions League, and that was through no fault of his own with the way he carried the Blues in the later stages of that competition last year before they lost to Manchester United in PK's in Moscow. He can't accomplish any more with the club, and I think his tenure there has run its natural course.

Chelsea and Inter will surely go back and forth discussing a transfer fee for Lampard, because there's just no way Chelsea would only sell for $13 million. Remember, just one or two seasons ago, this is a guy who was valued anywhere between $35-$40 million, so a sum of not even half of that seems very outlandish. Lampard is in the prime of his career and would benefit from the slower pace of Serie A.

If I had to put a percentage on Lampard leaving for Inter Milan at this point, I'd say it's at least 50/50, if not 55/45 or even 60/40 towards him going. There's no room for him at Chelsea and Mourinho is a huge Lampard fan as I already mentioned.

Update (07/08-6:57 PM): Inter’s first official bid — nearly $16 million dollars — will be rejected by Chelsea, the West London club announced. Chelsea have also stated that they “will not enter into any discussions” regarding a possible transfer for Lampard, but come on, we’ve heard that plenty of times before and then that club eventually sells the player anyway.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Joseph Yobo's Brother Kidnapped in Nigeria

Anyone who follows the Premiership or any other top domestic league in Europe, especially Ligue 1 in France, knows the talent level and importance of African players. They're coming to Europe in greater numbers than ever before and are making huge impacts with their clubs. I could name an all-African XI right now that I'd be willing to take over any other collection of players in the world for one game.

For all of the positives associated with African players, however, there are far too many downsides and the real shame of it is that these negatives have nothing to do with soccer, at least not on the field itself.

I highlighted Watford midfielder Al Bangura and his quest to remain in the UK when a permanent work permit question was raised last winter. He was, for all intents and purposes, smuggled out of Africa and into France by a man who wanted to make Bangura a male prostitute. Bangura was literally in danger of losing his life if he had been forced to return to his native Sierra Leone because of his personal background, with his father having been a member of the Poro Secret Society. Fortunately, things worked out for the best and he was allowed to stay in England, but he would've been in a grave situation had that not been the case.

Bangura's case is just one of the many that successful players from his continent deal with. Conditions in Africa are so poor in so many countries and we hear and read far too often about players' family members being held for a considerable ransom or even killed, in some instances. Players are extorted for money through gunmen or semi-militant organizations who threaten violence or some other form of intimidation on the families.

Corruption is prevalent throughout Africa and it's seemingly a never-ending cycle: money is being spent to set up modern infrastructure in cities and to provide things like better health care and even life's basic necessities like food and water, but that money is winding up in the wrong hands and nothing is ever improved. Because of this, countries and charitable organizations are hesitant to spend more money to help Africa, which further limits progress, and even when they do spend it, once again, it's not going where it should. Africa has plenty of natural resources -- oil being chief among them -- but instead of being used to better the conditions of vast impoverished regions, profits are going directly into the control of already-rich individuals who wield power and influence.

There is very little stability, either political or economical, in Africa. Civil wars are currently raging in several countries, including Chad, Sudan, and Somalia, and countless others have ended only within the past 10-15 years.

Joseph Yobo was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and is one of Everton's two starting center backs. He is the vice-captain of his club and of the Nigerian national team, for which he's appeared 59 times, including in the 2002 World Cup and the 2008 African Cup of Nations, since making his debut in 2001. His older brother, Albert Yobo, has also represented his country. There's a youth soccer tournament named after Albert, who assists Joseph in the running of the Joseph Yobo Charity Foundation, which helps under-privleged kids in Nigeria and has handed out well over 300 scholarships for kids anywhere between elementary and university level. Joseph has also started a soccer academy in southeast Nigeria and runs camps in Lagos.

Suffice it to say that Joseph and his family have a fairly high profile in Nigeria, to say the least. It should come as no surprise, then, when you read that Joseph and Albert's younger brother, Norum Yobo, was kidnapped at gunpoint along with two others early this morning as they were returning from a party. The other two, Ifeanyi Nwa and Barry C Lakara, have already been released, but Yobo has not (surprise, surprise). So far, no one has claimed responsbility and no ransom demands have been made.

This is exactly the problem facing soccer players in Africa. It's a catch-22 situation: they desperately want to escape and make it in Europe or elsewhere, and earn a living they'd never be able to achieve if they stay in Africa. Soccer is their key to a good life, but if they have too much success, they and their families can be exploited simply as a bi-product of their talents and abilities. There's really no way for these players to win. They can't stay in Africa because conditions there are so poor and their potential goes unrealized, but it's hard for them to go abroad because they're leaving their families and potentially putting them in danger in the process.

According to the Yahoo! article in which I found this story, kidnappings in common in the West African nation, particularly in the oil-rich Niger River delta region where this incident also took place, but most of them end peacefully after the ransom payment. However, deaths and injuries have occurred when security forces confront the kidnappers.

Obviously we all hope that Norum Yobo is returned alive and well by whomever seized him out of the car, and that the person or persons responsible are dealt with appropriately.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th of July!

I'd like to wish everyone here in the States a happy, and most importantly, safe, Independence Day.

Even though Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, it wasn't until two days later that Thomas Jefferson's wording in the document itself was approved. It also wasn't actually signed by most delegates until August 2, but for some reason, we've chosen to commemorate American independence on the 4th of July.

This is the 232nd anniversary of that date, which has gone down as the most celebrated of its kind on our calendar and for good reason. With that in mind, I encourage you to spend a few minutes today thinking about how fortunate we all are to live in the greatest country in the world and salute those who risked their lives to separate from Great Britain in 1776. This is a day to barbecue and spend time with family and watch fireworks, but don't lose sight of why we can even do those things in the first place.

Again, I hope everyone has a great day today. Go outside, enjoy the summer weather, be with family. The soccer world always goes on, and it'll be here tomorrow, the next day, and the day after.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Manchester City Draws EB/Streymur in UEFA Cup First Qualifying Round

The draw for the first qualifying round of the 2008-2009 UEFA Cup took place yesterday, which ordinarily wouldn't have much significance at least as this site is concerned. This time around, though, an English club will be taking part.

Manchester City are playing in this competition based on their exemplary fair play record last season, not through their league position, and thus will have to start from the very beginning. Aston Villa likely will enter in the second qualifying round (they will if they advance out of the Intertoto Cup, which they should), and Tottenham, Portsmouth, and Everton all begin their respective campaigns in the first round, which is the group stage.

New manager Mark Hughes, who confirmed today's signing of Brazilian striker Jô for a club record transfer fee (officially, it's undisclosed but most sources are indicating a price of $38 million dollars), has very little time to get used to his surroundings, the club, and his players. The first leg of the tie will be played in about two weeks, on July 17, with the second leg two weeks later on July 31. His team will be on the road first, giving them the advantage of hosting the pivotal second leg, not that they'll need it.

City's opponent?

EB/Streymur, who is currently 10-2-1 and in first place in the Formuladeildin, more commonly known as the Faroe Islands Premier League. They finished second last year to powerhouses NSÍ Runavík. EB/Streymur's stadium holds only 1000 people, yes, 1000, and it is located in the northern half of a twin-village (Hvalvík is the southern village) with a combined population of just over 400. It is on the eastern coast of Streymoy, the largest and most populated island in the Faroe chain.

I know absolutely nothing about the team's roster except for the fact that as of June 23, it boasted three players from the Faroe Islands national team, so take what you will from that.

The first leg won't be played at EB/Streymur's own stadium; according to the club's director, it will take place in either Toftir or Tórshavn, the nation's capital. Both cities have stadiums with seating capacities of 6000, and there's no doubt the match will be sold out and a relatively raucous atmosphere (at least as far as that country goes) will await Mark Hughes and his men.

The second leg won't be played at Manchester City's own stadium either. Barnsley's 23,000-seat Oakwell will host that game as the City of Manchester Stadium is undergoing field maintenance, including a relaid surface, after a recent Bon Jovi concert and other events held there this summer.

Here's the complete first qualifying round draw, with its ties scheduled for July 17 and 31. It's made up primarily of sides you've probably never heard of, unless of course you support that team or follow the leagues in which these teams play. The team listed first plays at home first:

Southern-Mediterranean Region
Cherno More vs. Sant Julià
Pelister vs. APOEL
Vaduz vs. Zrinjski Mostar
Široki Brijeg vs. Partizani
Hapoel Ironi KS vs. Mogren
Koper vs. Vllaznia Shkodër
Interblock Ljubljana vs. Zeta
Juvenes/Dogana vs. Hapoel Tel Aviv
Hajduk Split vs. Birkirkara
Milano vs. Omonia
Marsaxlokk vs. Slaven Belupo

Central-East Region
Red Bull Salzburg vs. Banants Yerevan
Győri ETO vs. Zestaponi
Ararat Yerevan vs. Bellinzona
Dacia Chişinău vs. Borac Čačak
Tobol vs. Austria Wien
Hertha BSC vs. Nistru Otaci
Khazar Lenkoran vs. Lech Poznań
Legia Warsaw vs. Gomel
Spartak Trnava vs. WIT Georgia
MTZ-RIPO vs. MŠK Žilina
Shakhter Karagandy vs. Debrecen
Olimpik Baku vs. Vojvodina

Northern Region
FH vs. Grevenmacher
Vėtra vs. Viking
Racing vs. Kalmar
Honka vs. Akranes
Glentoran vs. Liepājas Metalurgs
Brøndby vs. B36 Tórshavn
Nordsjælland vs. TVMK
EB/Streymur vs. Manchester City
Olimps vs. St Patrick's Athletic
Djurgården vs. Flora Tallinn
Sūduva vs. The New Saints
Cliftonville vs. Copenhagen
Cork City vs. Haka 17
Midtjylland vs. Bangor City

Realistically, Manchester City should have no problem whatsoever advancing, and I'll go for a 6 or 7-0 aggregate scoreline. The draw for the second qualifying round, which already has 16 entrants, takes place August 1.

I'm On The American Soccer Show (Part II)

Hopefully everyone enjoyed my segment on the American Soccer Show last week with Kartik Krishnaiyer, a good buddy of mine. We had a good chat about the Euros and the US National Team and the feedback I've gotten so far has been positive, so I appreciate that.

Living where I do in Virginia (at least I until this fall, when I head up to Erie, PA for my second year of college), I get a chance to follow DC United fairly closely. They're playing very well in MLS right now and advanced in the US Open Cup last night with a victory over Rochester, and ABC reached a record audience in United's 4-1 win over the LA Galaxy last weekend immediately before the Euro 2008 final. Players like Luciano Emilio, an early MVP candidate, and Marcelo Gallardo are extrememly fun to watch, so keep an eye out on this team heading into the dog days of summer.

DC United was the topic du jour for Kartik and I in our segment today, which will hit CSRN's airwaves on Friday at 2 PM and iTunes shortly thereafter. With SuperLiga upcoming, we previewed United and their chances as they're in a group alongside Atlante and Guadajalara of Mexico as well as MLS' Houston Dynamo. We discussed their recent surge in form and some potential landmines down the road. We touched briefly on SuperLiga itself as a competition and where it ranks on the pyramid of importance for United.

Check it out and have a listen Friday afternoon; hopefully you'll enjoy it.