Friday, 28 October 2016

All the Leicesters

I had some time on my hands while waiting for some chilli con carne to reduce, and I wondered how many Leicesters there are now in world football.

Any smallish club which wins a game or two nowadays will inevitably be branded The New Leicester, just as a few years ago any moderately talented youngster was The New Messi (see everyone from Xherdan Shaqiri to Gai Assulin).

So here is the semi-definitive list of the world's Leicesters, with links to the articles claiming, sometimes rather dubiously, that they deserve that status...

The American Leicester - Colorado Rapids
The Argentinian Leicester - Godoy Cruz
The Belarusian Leicester - Krumkachy Minsk (yes, I wrote this one)
The English Non-League Leicester - Braintree Town
The Finnish Leicester - IFK Mariehamn
The German Leicester - Red Bull Leipzig (or Kaiserslautern?)
The Hungarian Leicester - Vasas (thanks to Tomasz Mortimer for that one)
The Italian Leicester - Sassuolo
The Russian Leicester - Rostov
The Scottish Leicester - Aberdeen
The Spanish Leicester - Atletico Madrid (yes, a club with 4 European finals in the last 7 seasons is a Leicester)
The Ukrainian Leicester - Oleksandriya
The Welsh Leicester - er, Wales...

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Indoor stadium for the 2018 World Cup?

I've covered Russia's World Cup 2018 preparations extensively here and here, but I keep stumbling across little interesting details like this one: Sochi could have an indoor World Cup stadium.

Indoor stadiums don't have a great record in the World Cup. The first time games were played under a roof, at the Pontiac Silverdome for U.S. '94, it was a hot, humid disaster.

Still, those pushing for an indoor stadium in Sochi think they have solved those problems with a new-generation design - the indoor rugby ground in Dunedin, New Zealand is their model.

Sources involved in planning for the 2018 World Cup tell me organisers could keep the temporary roof that was put on the Fisht Olympic Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies of February's Winter Olympics. All that's required, apparently, is a little extra reinforcement to comply with government regulations on permanent structures. At the moment, a debate is under way behind the scenes between those World Cup planners in favour of keeping the roof, and those who want a more conventional outdoor arena.

Keeping the roof would make the 45,000-capacity Fisht the first World Cup arena since 2002 to be fully indoor (some German venues in 2006 had retractable roofs). And, among some rather bland designs for the other 2018 arenas, it would be the most innovative, testing possible ideas for Qatar 2022, when air-conditioned indoor arenas are likely. It's also being promoted as having legacy benefits - under the roof, the stadium becomes a vast indoor theatre.

The downside, however, is that spectators are deprived of the stunning views the Fisht was designed to provide - one end open to the Black Sea, the other looking towards the Caucasus Mountains. No other 2018 venue can compare to that.

Indoor venues are catching on in Russia as a way to deal with the cold climate - CSKA Moscow are planning a transparent roof for their new stadium, while billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets NBA team, wants to build a 15,000-capacity indoor arena for Torpedo Moscow. For the last few seasons, Russian Premier League side Ural Yekaterinburg have used an indoor hall as a way to dodge freezing winter temperatures at their first-choice stadium... but it's not exactly a looker.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Quiz answers

Here they are, the answers to my (at least partly) World Cup-themed quiz. Congratulations once again to Samuel (@ecanalla), the only person to get them all right.

1. Turkey. In order, those were the last six winners of World Cup third-place games.
2. They were the top teams in the FIFA ranking not to qualify for the World Cup.
3. He scored a record five goals in a game as Russia beat Cameroon 6-1. Salenko promptly got signed by Valencia and then managed just seven goals all season in La Liga.
4. Bhutan and Montserrat were the two lowest-ranked international sides, playing the "other final" on the day of the World Cup final.
5. It was the first ever World Cup qualifying win for the Central African Republic, 34 years after they first entered the competition.
6. They've all been banned for failing drug tests.
7. Birmingham, Rotterdam and Turin are all cities with Champions League or European Cup-winning clubs.
8. The Intertoto Cup.
9. Scotland.
10. The FA Cup final.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Legal trouble at the Russian Football Union

The Europa League may be the Champions League's poor relation, but in Russia it can provoke some surprisingly strong emotions. Over the last month, the Russian Football Union (let's call it the FA for short) has fought tooth and nail to stop Russian Cup winners FC Rostov taking up their place in the Europa League. Why? No one seems to know.

It started on May 8, when Rostov beat FC Krasnodar on penalties to win the cup, their first ever major trophy, and to book a first European appearance since 2000. Three weeks later, a committee at the FA's House of Football HQ took that place away, claiming Rostov had breached financial fair play (FFP) rules over some long-ago-resolved unpaid wages and gave a Europa League place to Spartak Moscow. Rostov, understandly aggrieved, took the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won yesterday. They'll be in the Europa League next season; Spartak won't.

Since the FA doesn't seem to want to explain Rostov's exclusion and the court's full reasoning isn't out yet, here are a few unanswered questions:

- Why is the Russian FA trying to enforce European FFP rules on its own? Why not just let UEFA handle it?

- Why don't the FA's supposed experts understand how FFP works? It's designed to stop clubs making massive losses in pursuit of success, and the FA's scant justification doesn't explain why Rostov would fit the bill.

- The FA has had deep financial problems for years, so why (according to Rostov vice-president Alexander Shikunov) did it hire a team of "the best lawyers in Europe" to fight this case?

- Was any of the decision-making influenced by FA executive committee member Sergei Galitsky, who owns FC Krasnodar, a club that would have skipped Europa League qualifying rounds if Rostov were excluded? Was there pressure from Spartak, Russia's most-supported club and one of its richest?

At first glance, this is small beer. Only the Europa League, and all that. But it's a prime example of the sort of bureaucratic vendettas that ruin Russian football. Whether it's a pointless legal feud, financial problems or slap-on-the-wrist sanctions for clubs whose fans stage a riot, the House of Football is a pretty dysfunctional place.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Quiz time

Here's a quick pre-World Cup quiz on obscure football knowledge. Answers to the email address at the bottom and I'll announce the winner at the start of the World Cup.

Starting with five World Cup-related questions:
1. Italy, Sweden, Croatia, ..., Germany, Germany. Fill in the gap in the sequence.
2. Ukraine in 2014, Croatia in 2010, Nigeria in 2006. What dubious honour have these teams all earned in the run-up to a World Cup?
3. Oleg Salenko set a spectacular record while playing for Russia against Cameroon at the 1994 World Cup. What was it? (Incidentally, he never played international football again).
4. What was special about Bhutan’s 4-0 win over Montserrat on June 30, 2002?
5. And why was the Wild Beasts’ victory over the Zebras in a 2012 World Cup qualifier remarkable?

And now for five non-World Cup related questions:
6. What links Abel Xavier, Stan Lazaridis and Oleksandr Rybka?
7. Birmingham, Rotterdam and Turin share this honour, but Berlin, Paris and Rome don’t. What is it?
8. Which European club football competition was established in 1961 and abolished in 2008?
9. If you were watching the Honest Men play the Red Lichties last season, what country were you in?
10. The Oval, Old Trafford and Bolton’s Burnden Park have all hosted which prestigious match?
Answers by email to j.p.m.ellingworth AT gmail DOT com

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Russian scenario? Racism and violence ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

It’s four years before Russia hosts the World Cup. The stadiums and infrastructure are on track, and confidence is high enough that the Sports Minister has been boasting Russia’s avoided “the Brazilian scenario.” But what about the Russian scenario?

Time is running out for Russia to crack down on violence and racism in the stands. If the 2018 World Cup becomes a hate-fest, it doesn’t matter how nice the grounds are. 

Here’s a rundown of some of the nastiest incidents this season:

-         - Dynamo Moscow defender Vladimir Granat sustains a head injury when a Zenit St. Petersburg fan punches him as hundreds more invade the pitch. They were angry at being 4-2 down and decided to stop the game. (May)

-         - Yaya Toure is abused with monkey chants by CSKA Moscow fans, earning the Russian champions a one-match partial stadium ban from UEFA. (November) 

-        -  Two weeks after serving that partial ban, the CSKA fans earn their club a full stadium ban for yet more Champions League racism, this time against Viktoria Plzen. (December) 

-        -  Spartak Moscow fans brandish a swastika flag as they fight running battles with police and smash up the stadium during a cup tie against inoffensive second-tier side Shinnik Yaroslavl. (October)

-        -  Armoured vehicles are used to rescue fans as a second-tier league game in Nazran turns into a race riot between fans of two North Caucasus teams. (October)

-        -  Over 60 arrests at two Moscow derbies (May 16), over 40 arrests for brawling at a Far East derby (May 14), over 40 arrests in Irkutsk when fans attempt to attack Division 2 East players (May 14), over 100 arrests at Lokomotiv-Zenit (May 4). That’s not even all the figures from this month.

If you go back a little further, there’s more. Since 2012, there have been three incidents of black players being taunted with bananas in top-flight games, one of a fan pouring a bottle of urine over a Moroccan player, and a goalkeeper sustaining eye injuries from pyrotechnics thrown from the Zenit crowd. Perhaps most famously, a major Zenit fan club published a manifesto calling for a ban on black and gay players at their club.

On a more personal note, I’ve seen a father and his young son roll snowballs in the stands before the father points out a black player and tells his son: “Hit the n*****.” That same player, Akes Dacosta Goore, returned to play at the same stadium a year later and was racially abused from the start of the match. He raised a middle finger to the crowd and was sent off.

There’s no meaningful system of punishment. The Russian FA hands out a sprinkling of tiny fines every week that mean nothing to the clubs or their hardcore fans. The standard punishment is just £1,700 for “the shouting by fans of insulting expressions” – everything from questioning the referee’s eyesight to the vilest racism.

As always, these kinds of acts are perpetrated by a minority of fans. But in modern Britain, at least, there is a majority of fans prepared to condemn violence and racism. If the general mood is that it’s not acceptable and should be reported, the hardcore are less likely to cause trouble. That point hasn’t been reached in Russia.

The Russian government has made some efforts to control hooliganism recently, passing a so-called Fan Law that, among other things, introduces the first court-ordered football bans for individual fans. Unfortunately, there hasn’t yet been much sign of these in use. After Zenit fans invaded the pitch and attacked an opposition player earlier this month, the club itself has banned 200 fans, but director general Maxim Mitrofanov admits that to stop them entering the stadium, Zenit must rely on the goodwill of its own fan club – an influential organisation that, among other things, distributes thousands of tickets.

The clubs must also try to make the stadiums more hospitable for families and less hardcore fans. The fact is that at the moment, the Russian matchday experience is pretty unpleasant and many games end up as a standoff between hardcore fans and the police. It can be done – last week’s title decider between CSKA and Lokomotiv had loud, vocal crowds with many women and children included. There a lot at stake, plenty of passion and no trouble.

Before Euro 2012, some feared the host nations were too dangerous to host a major football tournament. In the event, the Polish and Ukrainian fans were largely peaceful – it was the Russian travelling support who caused unrest hugely disproportionate to their numbers. 

Unless swift changes are made, at the 2018 World Cup, it will the host fans ruining their country’s reputation.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Big Red Machine grinds to a halt

It was supposed to be different.
The Russian hockey team, packed with NHL stars and playing in front of a partisan home crowd in Sochi – how better for Russia to win its first Olympic gold since Soviet days?
Instead, all they got was schooled by a 43-year-old Finn.
It started so promisingly, too. The Russians may have lost to the U.S. 3-2 on a shootout in the preliminaries, but everyone agreed that game was an instant classic. It was physical and fast from start to finish, with players using the extra creative opportunities offered by the larger Olympic ice.
Sure, losing that shootout was going to be painful – it was the U.S. after all - but it was only the preliminaries and no one went home. It shouldn’t have broken Russia, but it did.
From then on, the Russian stars – Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Koavlchuk – lacked any semblance of coordination, as if they’d just been introduced to one another and asked to play a scrimmage. Russia went 100 game minutes without scoring a goal, all the way through a tedious shootout win over Slovakia. That meant a first-round playoff game with Norway that the Russians won with all the charisma of cold cabbage soup.
Russia may have been trying to recapture the glory of the Soviet Big Red Machine, but it looked as threatening as Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Despite that, Wednesday’s 3-1 quarterfinal defeat to Finland came as a shock. Crashing out of the Olympics wasn’t in the script. It was especially unsettling to see Ovechkin, whose gap-toothed grin adorned so much Olympic advertising, trudge off the ice and say: “I have no emotions” as the Bolshoy Ice Dome echoed with jeers.
The signs of imminent failure had been there, but no one wanted to believe them. After all, what were Slovakia and Norway? Surely Russia would play better against a big team like Finland. It seemed that way for a few minutes when Kovalchuk fired in a slapshot to give Russia a 1-0 lead, but then the tide changed.
Juhamatti Aaltonen started the fightback, picking up the puck from a faceoff and marveling at the space Russia allowed him before scoring on goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
After that, an unlikely hero came forth. Finland has a solid, mostly NHL roster, but with no real stars, unlike the Russians, and it was the unglamorous Teemu Selanne of the unglamorous Anaheim Ducks who made the difference. Aged 43, he played his first Olympic tournament before some of the other players on the ice were even born, but Selanne rolled back the years with a goal and assist to put the game beyond Russia’s reach.
The host nation tried to respond, pulling hapless goaltender Varlamov for Sergei Bobrovsky, but Finland played strong defensive hockey and Tuukka Rask was on solid form in net.
Afterwards, as the jeering died down and the crowd filed out of the arena, the search began for someone to blame. One obvious target is Varlamov, who was at fault in some way for each of the Finnish goals. Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov wants to stay and hasn’t been fired yet, but it’s hard to see how he can cling on.
Maybe there’s something else to blame, though. The Russians were under unimaginable pressure to win gold on home ice. When a small crack appeared, like an otherwise meaningless preliminary shootout, the whole structure fell apart.
Maybe the problem lies not with individual players but with the sheer weight of expectation. Two days before the game, President Vladimir Putin said the Russian hockey team was “the best” at the Olympics with a clear subtext – they should win gold. Three months earlier, the team received an open letter from 16 former Olympics champions with the message “don’t let Russia down.” In hindsight, those ostensibly supportive gestures could have sown the seeds for failure.
Still, there’s always another chance. There’s no reason any of Russia’s top players should be missing at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and many will still be around in 2022. By then, captain Pavel Datysuk will be 43, the same age as Selanne, and it could be time for someone else to get schooled.