Saturday, 19 January 2013

African Cup of Nations Preview

...or African Nations Cup as it's otherwise called.  As a friend pointed out last year, 'African Cup of Nations' sounds like a cheap brand of coffee that supermarkets like to roll out. Maybe flavoured with essence of horse, who knows?  What I do know, is that I enjoy watching this tournament.  True, some of the earlier games could be a chore in watching, but apart from the European Championship (where I think it's fair to say, that the majority of the teams are more evenly-matched in the former 16-team format) it's probably the best continental tournament to watch. It's the latter stages that make this cup exciting and I don't think any other tournament provides as many heart-warming stories from players who genuinely love playing football for their country.

Last year, Zambia (with their jean-wearing French coach Here Renard, screaming audible instructions from the sidelines) won the cup for the first time in a nail-baiting penalty shoot-out against overwhelming favourites Ivory Coast.  What made the victory though, wasn't Zambia's last-ditch defending or Gervihno's penalty miss, before Stopilla Sunzu (who has just recently signed for Reading) hit the winner, it was the fact that Zambia's 1993 squad were killed in a plane crash, a sort distance away from the stadium in Libreville in Gabon.  Incredibly, the 1994 tournament in Tunisia saw a hastily-picked Zambian team reach the final under the management of Sunderland's 1973 FA Cup hero, Ian Porterfield, but despite taking the lead in the 3rd minute, their opponents, Nigeria, went on to win 2-1.  Considering, with all due respect, that this was basically a Zambian reserve team, imagine what could have happened if those players hadn't have perished in that plane crash?  Watching the footage of the team celebrating that win in 2012, you could see on the players faces how much this game meant to them, it's a story that shows the true drama of football and how it can mean so much to people.

Due to recent troubles in Libya, this edition of the tournament has been swapped with the one that was due to take place in South Africa in 2017 and I think it'll be intriguing to see how the country's football infrastructure has change since hosting the 2010 World Cup.  Organisers are hoping for bigger crowds, which has proved to be a problem in the past, due in no small part to the expense and the sheer travel involved.  Otherwise, the stadiums are in great condition and football seems to be as popular as ever in South Africa.  They are up against tournament debutants, Cape Verde (who could provide another great story) in the opening game today, which will be worth a watch.

The tournament isn't without it's critics though, with Europeans moaning about the fact that the cup is played in January, meaning that the clubs lose their players for a couple of a months.  I think it's incredibly arrogant for people to start playing the 'superiority card' (because that's what it is) by saying the tournament needs to be played in summer.  Personally I've never been to Africa, but I'd imagine that large parts of it are extremely hot during the summer months and playing a very intensive football tournament may not be the best pursuit to partake in.  If heat isn't your bag, then maybe the cup could played in torrential rain and thunderstorms during the wet season in Central and Western Africa? Sadly, football has fallen victim to selfish society, with clubs and their fans who believe because they pay an exorbitant amount of money to a young man who grew up in Africa, that they own this person and he's got no right in representing his country.  Ask the Zambia players if they'll rather stay in Europe and collect their wages, instead of playing for the honour of their country - you don't need to be Sherlock Hound to work out the answer.  International football used to be the ultimate honour for a player, whereas today it's solely about the money and pride in playing for your country has disappeared.  It's what we Europeans are missing, not just in football, but possibly in life too and that pride is what makes the African Nations Cup a great tournament to watch.

As for the teams to watch, many aren't looking past the Ivorians, but seeing as they've only actually won the cup once and their 'golden generation' starting to show the signs of age (sound familiar?), it won't be too much of a surprise not to see them win the trophy.  Ghana are always a decent outside bet and Nigeria, who have had an awful couple of years, resulting in their government banning the football team from playing competitive matches for two years, would want to put up a good show on their return.  Former Latics winger Victor Moses could prove to be a key man.  Hosts South Africa could be a decent outside bet, they've improved as a side since the World Cup and being at home, they too would want to put up a good show.  Last year's winners Zambia shouldn't be discounted too, especially with the amount of young players they have coming through.  And their coach, the previously-mentioned Herve Renard, is always worth a watch, just to see him shout at his players!  It's normally the games you don't expect to be good, to be good, so I think it's well worth dipping into the group stages at some point, who knows? You may see the next African star to be exploited by a European side!  The Northern African teams, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, are relative outside bets but games involving these teams are normally interesting to watch as they contain mostly European-based players (moan, moan, moan), so the clash of styles is very prevalent when they come up against other African sides.

With UEFA possibly ruining the European Championship by expanding, then having it being played all over Europe (or more likely, in the richest countries) AFCON is a great alternative and could be viewed as a throwback to football tournaments as they used to be.  But best of all - it's different.  Imagine if everything was the same, ran by the same people and the same wallets. It'll be rubbish, won't it?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Greed of Modern Football

Believe it or not, there was once a time when footballers used to earn less than an average punter.  Before Jimmy Hill led his campaign, football was the only professional occupation to have a maximum wage, meaning that players wages couldn't top a certain amount.  Even though the top wage was a nice sum of money, it was rare that anyone actually earned it.  Clubs could do what they wanted - and with them not being liable to pay their players their full wage during the close season, many had to find a job in order to pay the rent.  On a house owned by the club, naturally.  Clubs could also retain a players' registration once their contracts expired, meaning that they could play god with a players' career and not transfer their registration if they didn't want to.  Football used to be a job where people played it for pleasure, a job which was far easier than working in a factory or down a pit all week.  The lack of money and lack of support from a club seemed like a easy ransom to pay.

These days, it's the supporters who are being held to ransom by the very club they support.  Once, we were the lifeblood of the club, the ones who used to pay the wages and fill the pockets of greedy directors who hung young men out to dry.  Today, we just fill the pockets of greedy directors.  We're not needed to keep a club running.  I don't care if Arsenal are a top side in London - £62 (or £94 against Spurs) is just TOO MUCH for a average person to afford in a climate where more people are being made redundant than jobs created.

For once, I'm not going to blame the players for the rise in ticket prices, because lets face it - there is no club that pays it's entire wage bill on gate receipts alone.  Wages of players have gone out of control since the abolishing of the maximum wage, but is it really the fault of a player when a club offers you that amount of money?  Once the maximum wage went (and more recently, the introduction of the Bosman rule), then clubs knew they had to do something to keep their better 'assets', rather than see them go to a rival for nothing. Paying them a ridiculous wage seemed like the only way for them to do it.  Is that really the fault of the player?  .

Looking back, you can see that it's the clubs that created this high-wage culture in football, through their own greed and for them to act all innocent about the issue and blame players, is just wrong.  Don't get me wrong, today there's probably many players out there who are only interested in money, but when you grow up in a culture that throws £1,000 a week at a 16 year-old, in order to keep him at the club, how are you supposed to turn out? On another hand, Football players seem to be an easy target for this type of criticism, whereas movie actors, for example, are paid $20 million for 3 months work on a film that isn't that great anyway. And who foots the bill for it, after it's passed from studio to studio to distributor to cinema? You the moviegoer!  Football seems to be too transparent at times, giving people the opportunity to tear it apart, but yet when it comes to the important things like finance and where it goes, the truth is hard to find. I wonder why?

If we look at the league now, the majority of each clubs outgoings are paid off with money from Television.  Latics relies on this even more than most clubs though, but still keep lower ticket prices to attract supporters.  True, our chairman had his fingers burnt with trying to rise prices during our second season (when in reality, he should have lowered them to keep those 'new' supporters who appeared from nowhere for our first season in the PL), but since then the reality has set in that people from Wigan can't afford to spend £35 a week each on a football match.  Statistics show that our fanbase is slowly growing and without the heavily discounted tickets, this wouldn't happen.  So fair play to the club for actually having a think about things and putting a long-term plan in place.

When I mention something like the above though, you always get the same argument 'well, Arsenal are better than Wigan and don't need to attract supporters'.  True, but there's always that loyal Arsenal supporter who will never be able to afford a season ticket.  The club knows this and they know that a richer type will roll up and splash the cash. Maybe buy a Bruschetta or two?  But are they a true supporter? Do they love the club? Are they only there for a status symbol, so they can brag to others?  If you ever hear that argument from someone, just point out that Bayern Munich charge barely £100 for their cheapest season ticket.  Bayern Munich, one of the world's most successful club sides. Argument over.

To be honest, I'm sick of hearing how the Premier League is 'the best in the world' - just compare it to Germany.  The only people that rock the 'best in the world' statement are the media types, SKY especially.  Personally, I'm a football supporter, you know one that actually wants to go to every game but can't afford to these days.  In Germany, they don't just offer fans cheap tickets, they offer free use of public transport and some even offer free away travel.  And this a league who gets LESS TV money than England.  The atmosphere inside the grounds is amazing too and that's because the true supporters are able to afford a ticket.  Football shouldn't be excluding these people, it NEEDS these people to further enhance their 'product' to the world, watching on their televisions and computer devices.  People will point out that Germany has a problem holding on to the very best players, but again, England gets much more TV money so holding on to them shouldn't be a problem.  And if things carry on the way they do - Germany will become the more attractive model to foreign television, in a couple of years anyway.

As I've said - let's stop this argument of 'the ticket prices pay for the players', because they clearly don't.  Obviously, the bigger clubs are able to spend more than the likes of Wigan because of an higher income from gate receipts, but Arsenal have been making profit upon profit every year and spending very little on players. Even if they halved their ticket prices and then drew up a sensible wage structure, they'd probably still clear a profit, or at least break even. But they have owners and directors to make money for. Some clubs have loans to pay off - and that's where the majority of the ticket money is going to. And that's the problem with the game - too many third parties who aren't interested in developing a football club for the local community. Which is what the majority of clubs were formed for.

I really hope the league gets a kick up the arse and lowers the prices, which will get the true supporters back. Maybe if something was done about getting more away supporters to games, the atmosphere inside every ground will be even better? Just think about it, Premier League and club directors - maybe you'll end up getting EVEN MORE television money to slip into your big pockets?