Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Sunday, August 19, 2012

English Premiership opening weekend

After months of waiting the English Premiership season finally kicked this weekend. Here are just some of the weekend’s talking points…

Frank Lampard was outstanding against Wigan today.

I was too impressed.

Ok, it’s only one match; but Lampard looks like he’s altering his game and adapting to this deep midfield role. It’s a criticism and a question mark that was placed over Lampard’s head.

Could he adapt his forward-raiding game – and more seriously – could Lampard still be useful at the highest level? On today’s evidence he can go on for a long while yet.

Frank Lampard ran the show against Wigan
It was a supremely cultured performance from Lampard. One touch passes, creating space, moving, offering himself, and laying the ball on for Mata and Hazard to create havoc. It really looked like a harmonious display. Chelsea’s midfield was on the same wavelength and it was Lampard who held it all together.

His partner Mikel was superb too.

Yes, I am still of the belief that Mikel has been the major reason for Roberto Di Matteo’s success as Chelsea boss. As soon as Di Matteo came in as manager he re-introduced Mikel into the team and Chelsea’s whole setup appears so much more assured. Mikel adds security and, mostly importantly, he keeps things simple.

John Terry was also unbelievable for Chelsea. He is an incredible player for Chelsea, an inspiration. He won everything in the air and, as usual, was precise in possession of the ball.

I still believe Chelsea’s best centreback partnership is Terry with Cahill because Cahill is a more orthodox defender than Luiz, but that is not to knock Luiz. Apart from the yellow card and a foul early on in the second half, where he tried to knick in ahead of the striker, Luiz was solid. Nonetheless, that over-exuberance is something he’s a bit too guilty of. He often tries to intercept the ball in front of the attacker and more often than not gets caught out, or penalised.

Chelsea’s forward players Mata, Hazard and Bertrand were excellent as well, although they could have been more clinical with their final pass.

Another thing I would like to see is more energy in terms of tracking back. This is what Barcelona and Madrid do – winning the ball back as quickly as possible. Hazard did this well in the early stages, but sort of relaxed as the game wore on. Perhaps he got tired. Nevertheless, too often in the second half Hazard and Mata let Wigan’s wide runners free reign, which is why wingbacks Figueroa and Boyce were able to cause more problems as the game wore on.

It was my first time to watch Oscar (he was absent in the Olympic final). He has shades of the Kakas about him; well, judging from that one bursting run where he skinned Ramis. It was very exciting to see. Though from there he conserved himself a bit… which wasn’t nice for the couch spectator – we expect to be entertained! But this is the first game of a very long season, so players are right to save themselves a bit.

Ashley Cole. Superb as usual at leftback; very assured, very committed. Petr Cech is certainly back to his best for Chelsea, and that ‘best’ makes him the best keeper in the league.

Any Chelsea fan will have been highly encouraged by their team’s performance.

And the guy people are always watching and scrutinising? Fernando Torres… He had a good game. He showed glimpses, and the difference is today’s glimpses, just like in the Community Shield, looked planned, whereas in the past at Chelsea it looked like he was hoping for the best. There was one classic Torres moment in the first half where he got turned, skinned his defenders and should have been awarded a penalty. He looks like he’s got that Torres pace back as well and that should excite any Chelsea fan.

Of course there is a lot of work to do for Chelsea if they are to challenge for the league. Despite the memorable Champions League win that has relieved pressure on the club and secured Di Matteo his job, there is now much more expectation on the manager to lift this side to greater heights and challenge the Manchester clubs in the league.

Integrating this new attacking talent into the team will be a challenge. Ramires wasn’t there today and Marin, Oscar and Sturridge will soon be itching for starting places. Even so, so far so good for the European champions.

Some credit goes to Wigan as well. They made a game of it, despite the very early setbacks. It might have been easier to give up. But they showed a bit of why they survived relegation last season. Their problem is at the back. They lack pace at the back. And the three central defenders doesn’t necessarily make them stronger because, as the first goal showed, one of their slow centrebacks is usually isolated covering the wide areas on the break. I always feel four at the back is the safest way.

But no second-guessing Roberto Martinez. He’s a super manager and I’m a huge fan.

Another of my favourites is Victor Moses, and he showed why he is so highly regarded. He’s certainly one of the very best attackers in the Premiership; he gets things done – to quote a friend of mine. Unfortunately his good work didn’t come to anything for his team.

And that’s the thing about Wigan. They play beautifully and technically are a match for anyone. But they need more consistent substance. They are a team that plays to the gallery or against the odds, for example, away from home. Perhaps the fact the DW is rarely full is a reason they don’t do as well as they could. Wigan always seem to do well when eyes are on them – the big game on TV.

Ben Arfa – Le Roi

Hatem Ben Arfa celebrates his winner against Tottenham
I am of the firm belief that Hatem Ben Arfa is one of the very best players in the world. Along with Giovani dos Santos, I believe he is right up there. Like they say in Spain: Ben Arfa and Giovani are cracks.

There is Lionel Messi. Then there’s a small group behind Messi – Iniesta, Cristiano, Robben – and then there is Ben Arfa and Giovani in the batch just behind. Whenever Ben Arfa gets the ball there is danger, something happens.

Alan Pardew has done a great job to accommodate him and his two Senegal bombers. This was a problem at the start. In my opinion, it would still be best with Ben Arfa behind one striker, and four midfielders behind him. But when you have Ba and Cisse, they both have to play! And Pardew has found a way to play all three, and still be effective.

That said, Newcastle are still not compact enough. And I worry about them in this sense. The opposition has a chance to control the middle of the park and oftentimes Tottenham did just that. Indeed, Spurs hit the woodwork twice and could have easily won the game. But Newcastle have passion and fighting spirit, especially at home with their marvellous fans.

They chase and harry, and in some way this makes up for their loose setup. However, without that real shape, it’s hard to see them breaking into the top four, which Newcastle should be aiming for with the talent and support they have.

Tottenham were a bit unlucky. And Jermaine Defoe must be the unluckiest player in the world. This guy is the best English striker, hands down. He has been for a while. He works hard. Has technique, the directness of a Messi or Cristiano – which is difficult – and is a superb finisher. Still, he never gets an extended run and doesn’t seem to be trusted by his managers. Adebayor or not, Defoe would be my number one.

And sometimes this is a problem mangers have. They overlook what they have. I think Villas-Boas might be a bit guilty of this. He has Giovani. Yes, he is out injured. But when he’s fit give him a chance. Give him the team. Gio, Bale, and Lennon behind Defoe – that is seriously scary. I doubt this is in AVB’s thinking though, judging by the signing of Sigurdsson.

Van der Vaart should play whenever possible as well. It should be between him and Giovani for the role in the hole.

At home Van der Vaart could even play the Modric role, something Spurs will miss on the evidence of the Newcastle defeat. Sandro and Livermore are good players, solid defensive midfielders, but they aren’t the best at pushing the team forward and building play. In this sense wouldn’t a player like Josh McEachran be perfect? He won’t get much opportunity at Chelsea; get him on loan with the option to buy. And you are done.

At the back there are few problems for Tottenham. It’s men back there, with one of the league’s most reliable keepers behind them. Spurs can challenge. But give Van der Vaart and Gio a chance to shine. These are premier players. In my opinion, Spurs’ two best footballers.

The Mighty Gunners of North London

One team you can never criticise when it comes to compactness is Arsenal. And in this sense I don’t think Arsene Wenger gets a lot of credit. The problem is these guys don’t like defending! So they allow soft goals.

Another problem Arsenal have is they just don’t have any urgency whatsoever. Arsenal always seem to believe they can score in the second half, or whenever they want! That’s why they always look more dangerous in the second half of games or after going behind.

Lukas Podolski has to step up for Arsenal
0-0 at home against Sunderland was a disappointing result, considering how much Arsenal had of the ball and the great chance for Giroud. First game or not, Arsenal were a bit too laid-back in the first half.

But the positive is the clean sheet and the point. Let’s not discredit that. The back four did ok, though when Koscielny comes back I would probably try him at rightback with Sagna out for the foreseeable future. Mertesacker is needed at the back there. He is a calm head and a natural defender. Jenkinson is a good prospect, very hungry and willing to die for the jersey, but he’s a bit raw. Gibbs also did extremely well so that’s another major positive. A potential back four of Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Gibbs is all of sudden starting to look very good to me.

In midfield there is no problem. Diaby, Arteta and Carzola looked really great.

The only problem was the urgency in the final third. Podolski was too deep at times. And although Giroud missed that chance at least he was there in the box. Podolski wasn’t enough of a striker in my opinion during his hour on the pitch.

Yes, Arsenal has lost players, but they still have quality. They should be winning, they should challenging for the league, and they be looking to kill teams.

Not sure what the situation with Nicklas Bendtner is, but he’s a good player and should be an option, if not a starter. He’s a bit lax at times, but he scores.

Opening weekend results
Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland; QPR 0-5 Swansea; Fulham 5-0 Norwich; West Ham 1-0 Aston Villa; West Brom 3-0 Liverpool; Reading 1-1 Stoke; Wigan 0-2 Chelsea; Manchester City 3-2 Southampton

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Arsenal 2012

One thing I can say is Arsenal has finally bought winners. That has always been a major gripe for me. For the past few seasons the Arsenal squad had absolutely no one who’d won a trophy in their careers – or at least recently – which must have been some sort of record, especially for a club of Arsenal’s stature.

Santi Cazorla... The Future is Here
You really can’t expect to win anything when the players in the team have never tasted the success of winning, and therefore don’t know what it takes to win a trophy.

But in Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla there is a massive change, and if Sahin joins, all of a sudden you have a strong spine to the team, of winners. Giroud has just won the French league with Montpellier against pretty great odds while being a key player in that run with his goals. By all accounts, the Frenchman is an old-fashioned penalty-box striker which could suit Arsenal because, funnily enough, Arsene Wenger’s team has recently been one that gets plenty of crosses in the box through Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy before and now Kieran Gibbs or Andre Santos on left.

Podolski is a German international and that says it all! He brings a naturally engrained winning mentality. He is vastly experienced, even though he is still young, and he is a more direct player to what Arsenal have at their disposal. He too is talented and technical, but he is driven towards the final product – winning and getting the ball into the net, which is not necessarily the case with Walcott or Van Persie, for example, who are more beautiful players who like to make things look stylish and are more elaborate.

Cazorla could represent Arsenal’s most influential signing since Gilberto Silva. He is world-class; a premier player. Only 27, he has already achieved plenty, primarily with Spain, and here again is a guy with a winning mentality. He is a quality footballer too, consistently superb at set-pieces – something Arsenal haven’t really had since Thierry Henry – and is a leader on the pitch as well.

Sahin would be a final piece. He would be coming from Real Madrid, a team of winners and expectation; so he would therefore be coming from good traditions and habits. He would represent a vast improvement on Alex Song, even if the defensive role isn’t his most natural position. Potentially you could have a midfield of Sahin, Arteta and Cazorla – all of whom are disciplined, educated footballers. With Diaby, Rosicky, Wilshere and Ramsey also in the mix, Arsenal would no doubt have the finest midfield group in the English Premiership.

Nuri Sahin. The final piece?
Indeed, from the halfway line forwards there are few teams that can compare with Arsenal in Europe.

There’s everything – speed, technique, invention, skill. Out wide you have Walcott, Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Miyaichi; all quality, all explosive, then you have Podolski, Giroud, and van Persie – if he stays – as the central attacking options.

Personally though, I would sell Van Persie. He has to come out in the next week and say if he really wants to stay at Arsenal. If not, you have to cut your losses. Get that money in the coffers or sign one more player, hopefully in defence, who can improve the team.

This season is just too big for Arsenal. All hands on deck. A trophy has to be won. This is a minimum requirement. Not second place or a close shave.

That’s one of the reasons Song has to go as well. If it is indeed true that he has been flipped by interest from Barcelona, then there is no need for him. Arsenal need soldiers this season. Fully committed, fully concentrated.

The only worry for me is still that back five, in my opinion one of the least reliable defensive units in the whole league. Sagna apart, there is no defender I can trust there. In fact, to me, Miquel is Arsenal’s best defender. None of the guys seem to embrace the boring parts of their job, which is what makes you great as a defender... not even the keeper!

Goal Machine... RVP, will he stay or go?
If you’re a defender your job above all is to stop danger and pass the ball. Basics. There is no need to be going crazy every game. These guys at the back there are a real worry for me. It’s worse with Song there. The league game against Tottenham, when Arsenal won 5-2, those first 20 minutes were the worst thing I’ve ever seen – Spurs just running freely through the centre of the pitch. Schoolboy stuff.

There is no doubting Vermaelen, Koscielny and Song’s natural talent, actually they would make amazing attacking players, but as defenders they are yet to convince me.

With all that said, it is my belief that Arsenal are two players away from being on par with the very best teams in Europe, your Barcelonas, Madrids and Bayerns. A keeper and a centreback. For example, a Julio Cesar, who is available for free, and a Lucio, who was available on a free. Theoretically, if the Arsenal team could be something like this…
    Julio Cesar
 Sagna Lucio  Vermaelen   Gibbs
     Arteta   Sahin
Chamberlain   Cazorla   Podolski
    Van Persie (Giroud)
…then you have a very solid team. You have a team with experience, know-how and one that can still play to the Arsenal traditions.

Arteta would be my Xabi Alonso, to allow Sahin a little more freedom. But in essence the pair would share the defensive midfield responsibility, in a similar way to what Xabi Alonso and Busquets do for Spain.

2005 FA Cup, the last time Arsenal won a trophy...
Whatever happens in the remainder of this transfer window, this is a crucial season for Arsenal. A trophy has to come. Or else the club will forever bleed players.

What riposte will Arsenal have for a player who wants to go elsewhere to win trophies?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The 2010 World Cup Legacy

The 2010 World Cup Legacy
The unmistakable sound of the vuvuzela ringing around World Cup stadiums will forever be remembered; but will the 2010 showpiece itself echo through time for South Africa?

This is a question that has continually cropped up since Spain brought the tournament’s curtain down with their glorious Soccer City triumph two years ago. And now as the Olympic Games beam across our television screens, thoughts are naturally transported back to when South Africa had its moment in the limelight.

On numerous fronts the question of a World Cup legacy is a pertinent one to ask, especially considering the amount of money that was spent to host the event. In all, an estimated R30 billion was pumped into the World Cup and questions of its fruits understandably become more valid at a time when many are struggling to escape the clutches of poverty.

Nevertheless, as is the case with all such complex topics, it is important that we be objective in our analyses and ways of thinking. It is also important to quickly add on that there are tangible and intangible benefits of the tournament which we as the next generation, and the keepers of the World Cup’s fruits, need to understand as we embark fully into this challenging 21st century.

In terms of a lasting legacy, the massive 13 billion transporta­tion infrastructure developments are obviously the most tangible examples of long-term benefits of the World Cup. From the high-speed Gautrain to improved roadways sprawling through Limpopo, the country now has at its disposal world-class transport links.

And there is little argument that they were needed.

As a developing country aspiring to be a leader not only in Africa but globally, South Africa desperately needed upgraded roads, airports and other transport links.

One stick, however, that has been used to beat these developments is their funding ‘came out of the blue’ and at the expense of other more pressing developmental needs such as providing water, electricity and housing to underdeveloped communities.

This, though, is not the case. Most World Cup-related projects were in fact already budgeted for in the government’s long-term infrastructure development plan and as such would have been delivered in any case, actually possibly at a much slower pace.

Therefore, the 13.4 billion government spent on World Cup-specific infrastructure seems almost insignifi­cant considering that it planned to spend up to 846 billion on its public infrastructure investment programme between 2010 and 2013 – including 16 billion on housing alone in 2010/2011. Furthermore, all of the pre-World Cup spending by national, provincial and local governments had been allocated as part of annual budgets since 2006.

So today, as a result of this World Cup driven development, Bloemfontein, like other host cities, has inherited much-improved infrastructure, including stadium upgrades and enhanced transport systems – improvements that had long been budgeted for and were sped up by the hosting of the 2010 World Cup.

There are other positive effects emanating both directly and indirectly from the World Cup which have perhaps not been publicised.

Tourism, for example, has continued to hold strong not just in Bloemfontein but the rest of South Africa as well. According to research by the UN World Tourism Organisation, the country recorded a 15% increase in tourists during 2010, outperforming the global average by 8%, with just over eight million (8 073 552) tourists visiting the country.

Continuing on this theme, the World Cup has undoubtedly created a better image of South Africa, thus cementing a foundation for sustained investment and growth in the tourism industry which accounts for a sizable chunk of the country’s income. Other intangibles such as reduced crime and improved social cohesion are effects of the tournament not always seen on front pages of newspapers.

This is a common theme; one of legacies people aren’t aware of – legacies that range from job creation to boosts to sport itself.

One such is the World Cup Legacy Trust account which came into being this April.

As part of the programme the world football governing body, Fifa, has transferred 450 million to the South African Football Association (Safa), money which will be administered by international auditors Ernst and Young.

This hefty sum is in addition to the 700 million Fifa allocated to Safa in the build-up to the World Cup – 450 million for preparation purposes and 150 million for the construction of Safa House. It is also in addition to 40 million given to Safa for football development projects and a further 70 million for investment in a fleet of buses and cars to enable the association’s 52 regional structures to transport their teams.

However, the 2010 Legacy Trust is not merely aimed at football and will support a wide range of public initiatives that harness football for sport development, education, health and various humanitarian and community development activities across South Africa.

Presidents collide... World Cup Legacy Trust
South Africa president Jacob Zuma (left) and Sepp Blatter
Since the end of the tournament two years ago much has also been written about the uncertain future of the ten World Cup stadiums, their cost and their potential to be money-sucking white elephants.

World Cup stadiums – Expenditure, in Rands
Upgrade cost
Construction cost
Projected annual maintenance cost
Green Point
4.4 billion
5 million
Ellis Park
240 million
2.4 million
Free State Stadium
314 million
3 million
Loftus Versfeld
131 million
1.2 million
Moses Mabhida
3.4 billion
1.5 million
Nelson Mandela Bay
1.7 billion
20 million
Peter Mokaba
1.3 billion
10 million
Soccer City
3.3 billion
15-18 million
World Cup Bid-Book total stadium cost estimate
818 million
Total cost of government expenditure on stadiums
16.445 billion
Source: Man of the Match

Looking solely at the numbers above one would perhaps be justified in baulking. It is in fact true that 2010 organisers have not got it completely right regarding the super-arenas. Nevertheless, the fact is the stadiums represent a key part of the 2010 legacy and leave South Africa with world-class multi-purpose sport and event facilities.

And one key point to put across is that it’s not just football that has benefitted.

Since the World Cup, acts from Coldplay to U2 have performed from Cape Town to Johannesburg while history was made in July 2010 when the Springboks hosted New Zealand’s All Blacks at Soccer City – the largest crowd (94 713) for a rugby match in South Africa. The Moses Mabhida Stadium, meanwhile, has been converted into a multi-purpose sporting facility – notably hosting a sell-out cricket match between South Africa and India last January in honour of Makhaya Ntini – and has also become a major tourist attraction in Durban thanks to its majestic arch and cable car.

Indeed, on closer inspection, the ten stadiums continue to confound critics with how much they continue to contribute.

The majestic Soccer City, now the FNB Stadium
Speaking to Fifa earlier this year Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the 2010 organising committee, said: “This is the first time in our history that there are purpose-built stadiums across the country and world-class homes for football.”

“Football is by far the most popular sport in South Africa, so certainly there is a demand for stadiums. The challenge for cities is to find creative ways to use the stadiums in conjunction with sports clubs, hosting events and allowing commercial activities. Many of these stadiums are already making use of these options and quite successfully,” said Jordaan.

One of these successes is set to be the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations to be held in the country next January – a chance for another boost in national morale, even if Bafana’s latest results haven’t suggested so.

But perhaps the most visible of all World Cup benefits is seen in the rise of the national football league.

From an infancy stage only 15 years ago, the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) has grown into one of the top leagues in the world. World Cup stadiums, hype and facilities have attracted spectacular sponsorship into the game and thus phenomenal growth.

In terms of television sponsorship revenue, the PSL is now placed seventh worldwide thanks to a bumper five-year 2 billion-plus deal with broadcasting giants SuperSport.

Stars are coming home. Last year it was Benni McCarthy, this year it is Siboniso Gaxa. Attendances are improving year on year. And in terms of product there is little argument that the PSL is the glamour league on the continent and a gateway to the big leagues of Europe.

Undoubtedly this explosion has been brought about by the World Cup, and if harnessed correctly there is no telling where football in South Africa could be in the next ten years.

And ultimately that is perhaps the crux of the argument – understanding. Understanding how blessed the country was to host an event as unique as the World Cup.

While the economic benefits of the tournament maybe not be clearly measurable for another few years at least, it is difficult to dismiss the feel-good fac­tor and improved integration across racial groups brought about by the World Cup.

Yes, divides and strain still exist in South Africa’s social fabric, poverty remains a headache but it is hard to knock the World Cup as a legacy.

A tournament to remember for Spain,
A legacy for Africa
One thing we can say though is the World Cup has illustrated the disconnection between those who govern and those governed. And like many other things, for the country to truly reap the rewards of the World Cup there not only has to be more accountability on the part of government and leaders, but also an interest and willingness to learn on the part of the community.

This is the continual challenge South Africa faces as it continues to grapple to with the massive goldmine of opportunity it sits on, not just stemming from the World Cup.

All in all, two years from its conclusion, it is difficult to dispute the positive impact of South Africa 2010. Considering the pre-tournament scare-mongering, the country emerged with flying colours. Fifa declared the 2010 World Cup its most successful edition with Fifa president Sepp Blatter awarding South Africa nine out of 10 for its hosting. The tournament has improved the countries standing worldwide and South Africa now boasts world-class facilities for generations to come.

The 2010 World Cup has set the foundation for bigger and better things, now it is up to the people of South Arica to build on it.