From Stoke to Seville

How three poor spells in England (and one very good one) have helped to shape the Sevilla squad that is currently on course for an exciting second half to the 2018/19 season under Pablo Machín.

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“But can he do it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke?” Never has a phrase been more stereotypically English in judging the true ability of a player. For over a decade now imports to the Premier League have had their skill measured against this highly unquantifiable metric; a right of passage the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar may never experience preventing them from ever being truly considered amongst the world’s elite. There is something in it though. Not the crude imagery or the mythical levels of difficulty a midweek night at the Britannia should bring but that, for some players, a step away from the place they call home can be a step too far.


That doesn’t mean that these players aren’t talented, far from it, and a quick look at the team who have been occupying the top four in La Liga for a number of months now, Sevilla, shows a squad peppered with players with Iberian roots that have had far from happy spells in the English Premier League. After a slow start the Andalusians, under the guidance of former Girona manager Pablo Machín, have impressed with their progressive approach but a look at some of his most trusted performers this season could lead to some confusion in the heads of those who view the Premier League as the only place to be.


At the back Daniel Carriço has evolved into one of the defensive rocks of this new Machín inspired side. Rewind to the start of the 2013/14 season and the then 25-year-old Carriço was unveiled as a signing for Premier League Reading, a relative bargain at just £609,000, he appeared to be a player on the brink of breaking into the Portuguese national side after spending his formative years as captain of Sporting Clube de Portugal. It wasn’t to be though as he ended the season having completed only 87 minutes for the Royals across three games. A loan, and then permanent move, to Sevilla followed and after establishing himself in the side over the following two seasons, he moved to the fringes as Sevilla went through a spell of chopping and changing. The arrival of Machín though soon changed things and the centre back has been one of this sides constants forming both a strong partnership or, dependent on formation, two-thirds of a defensive three alongside another former not-so-good Premier League defender in the shape of Simon Kjaer. Now aged 30, the Portuguese defender now seems set fair for a sustained period of success with the Seville side, something that those who frequented the Madjeski Stadium would perhaps struggle to comprehend.


Further up the pitch another Premier League misfit has again started leaving his mark on Spanish football once again. When Roque Mesa moved to Swansea City at the start of the 2017/18 season, slicked back hair and pencil moustache a mere glint in his stylistic eye, there were two schools of thought in relation to the potential impact he could make.


The first, that Mesa would excel in a Swansea team that up until the point of his signing had played the kind of intricate passing football he had made his trademark as one of the driving forces of UD Las Palmas over the previous seasons. With the 4th highest pass completion rate in the preceding season he swaggered his way around many a Spanish ground in the trademark blue and yellow kit of his hometown side. The hope was that these skills would become easily transferable to the Liberty Stadium. The second school theorised that this gifted player would struggle with some of the demands of English football and that the boy from Gran Canaria would struggle outside the bubble of island life, a concern amplified as his fellow islander Jesé Rodriguez continued to waste his undoubted talents just 175 miles up the road at Stoke City.


His manager at the time, Paul Clement, clearly had faith in the £11m signing though and he started the opening game of the season, a 0-4 defeat to Manchester United. Sadly, this was a sign of things to come and the start of a decline for the South Wales side. A mere six months after signing on the midfielder was on his way back to Spain, joining Sevilla on loan in January 2018 before signing permanently in the summer. Whilst his 2017/18 was rewarded with just seven appearance as he seemed to struggle to regain the confidence that had first earned him move to the Premier League, he much like his Portuguese team-mate Carriço, has gone through somewhat of a re-birth this season becoming one of the key figures in midfield adding bite to his drive and ability. There is still a feeling that perhaps Los Rojiblancos may eventually upgrade their midfield terrier but for now he seems a world away from the player that left Wales the shadow of the player he once was.


What was clear in the cases of both Carriço and Mesa is that a return to form on the Iberian Peninsula was not instantaneous and sometimes the rehabilitation can be slow. A player currently going through the same process as the two previously mentioned players, albeit a year or so behind on the timeline, is former Celta de Vigo striker Nolito. One of Pep Guardiola’s first signings as manager at Manchester City the striker who had scored at a rate of better than one in three in Galicia never really settled in the north west of England and he soon took the well travelled path from the UK down towards the southern Spanish coast. His impact since arriving in Seville has perhaps not been what was hoped and he has, even under Machín, become a peripheral figure.


It’s important to stress though that there are players that have competed and succeeded in both of these two, very different, football environments. One of the most prominent examples of recent times can once again be found residing in this current Sevilla side in the shape of Jesús Navas.


The winger has long had a love affair with Los Rojiblancos starting his career there and winning two UEFA Cups, two Copa Del Reys, a European Super Cup and a Supercopa de España during his first spell. His form earned him a move to Manchester City as their sheikh funded revolution gathered pace and he went on to make 123 appearances, winning one Premier League title and two English League Cups along the way. Whilst there was some suspicions that his final pass could sometimes leave a lot to be desired, his ability to stretch the play was key in contributing to the success of the Eastlands side. The significance of his impact was perhaps underrated but come the time of his departure in 2017 there was no doubting the affection in which he would be continued to be held in by City fans.


This success is even more noteworthy given the very public battle he had with chronic homesickness during the early part of his career with walk outs from Spain squads and refusals to travel a regular occurence. He eventually overcame these anxieties though to the betterment of his long-term prospects. He returned to Sevilla and under Machín his role has evolved from winger to wingback and he continues to contribute both on and off the pitch, adored by his fans and with the captains armband now firmly wrapped around his arm.


Seville is officially the hottest city in Europe and whilst some of these players may indeed have struggled during those cold wet midweek nights in The Potteries there is no doubting they have become key in their sides excellent start to the 2018/19 season. It’s easy, and quite frankly lazy, to dismiss a player who falters in one league as not being good enough for another and I’d be willing to wager that those that thrive in the grey of the north would struggle just as much come summertime near the Andalusian coast. The fact that these players have even dared to make this journey should be commended, handling not just the change in climate but a cultural shift that some players will forever remain scared to make. For three of the four players covered here their time in England may not be laden with trophies and glory but maybe, just maybe, it helped to shape the players that they were to become.




Can Los Leones Roar Again?

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It’s been coming for nearly two seasons now.

The momentum at San Mames, home of Athletic Bilbao (one of only three Spanish sides never to be relegated from the top flight along with Barcelona and Real Madrid) has been on a downward trajectory. The rot set in some time ago, almost as soon as it became clear that Ernesto Valverde was the man that the aforementioned Catalan side were wanting to steady the ship after a tumultuous end to the Luis Enrique era. To his credit Valverde still did enough to steer his side to a comfortable 7th place finish and a place in the following seasons Europa League but there were signs that all was not well.

Fast forward to the end of the 2017/18 season, and under the guidance of former youth team coach Cuco Ziganda, Los Leones had finished 16th, a poor season that was punctuated by an end of season run that included just two wins from their last ten games and a limp Europa League exit to a Marseille team that would be thoroughly trounced in the final by Atletico de Madrid. Another change in management came for the start of this season with hopes high that former Celta de Vigo and Sevilla manager Eduardo Berizzo would be the man to arrest the slide. That assumption wasn’t without caution though, as although his Celta side were viewed as one of the league’s entertainers his time at Sevilla ended after a poor run of results where he appeared to be scrabbling and clueless in his search for the formula to halt their own particular side.

It soon became evident that despite a decent start, including a draw against Real Madrid, the latter had arrived. Whilst draws kept them hovering just above the relegation zone the inevitable happened following a 3-0 (going on seven) trouncing by Levante on 3rd December 2018. The Argentine was replaced by another youth team coach, this time former Eibar manager Gaizka Garitano. Garitano, one of the catalyst’s in the rise of the tiny Basque club, has a big job on his hands as not since a final day victory against Levante at the end of the 2006/07 season secured their safety has Athletic’s status as one of the three founding members never to have been relegated seemed so at risk.
When referencing that side who completed a final day escape there are some areas for concern to consider for this current iteration of Athletic Club. Whilst in 2007 Mane (who replaced Felix Sarriguarte mid-way through the season) was able to guide them to safety on a points per game ratio of just 1.05 per game. The current side have – at time of writing – only amassed 16 points from 17 games at an average of only 0.94 per game. Not a massive drop but one significant enough that would have seen them relegated at the end of the 2006/07 campaign.

Whilst the mid-season change of manager is an often used technique by struggling sides there are further parallels to consider too. The 2006/07 season, despite reaching the heady heights of 9th on the opening weekend, saw Los Rojiblancos climb no higher than 15th over the following 37 weeks, a position that the current version of the side haven’t made there way past since the 7th week of the season. The last four of those weeks have been spent in the relegation zone. This current side also has the same over-reliance on their main striker: Aritz Aduriz. Twelve years ago he finished the season with nine La Liga goals forming part of an attacking duo that contributed just 17 goals over the course of the season with a further eight contributed from the boot of 36 year old Ismael Urzaiz, who at the time was the kind of talismanic striker Aduriz himself has become. With six goals to his name so far this season, including two penalties in recent weeks, he is once again the sides top goalscorer. The penalties themselves demonstrating the level of cajones needed to hep his side get out of their current predicament. One in injury time to earn a win over Girona and another a quite ridiculous one step stroke into the corner during a 1-1 draw against Real Valladolid.

Aduriz however can’t do it alone, and there is a feeling that at 37 his powers may not be as enduring as they once were. Whilst there is no doubt that this current side is not of a classic vintage there are players there with the potential to help really make difference. At 26, Iker Munian has now played over 250 games at San Mames and beyond but there is still a feeling of unfulfilled potential, his four goals so far this season feeling like the bare minimum to expect from a player who stood shoulder to shoulder with contemporaries such as Isco in Spanish youth squads of the past. Another player to contribute four goals to the current La Liga campaign is Inaki Williams. At 24 he is now entering a crucial stage of his career where the need to match his blistering pace with a consistency of performance has perhaps never been greater. A standout performance during a 3-2 defeat away to Atletico showed exactly what he could bring to the party, although the strange decision to substitute him with the game stretched as Atletico went on the search for goals perhaps underlines the fact that, for some managers, there is still a measure of trust to be earned.

Athletic’s Basque-only signing policy is widely known but only in recent seasons has there been a feeling that this has started to leave them a little hamstrung therefore there must be a hope that two of their summer signings from Eibar, Dani Garcia and Ander Capa, will start to find their feet under former boss Garitano and that Raul Garcia can continue to drag his broken body through the season in helping to support the cause. Bilbao have talent out there to grab too though. Fernando Llorente’s desperation for a return from England is one of the worst kept secrets in Spanish football at the moment whilst the form of Alaves midfielder Ibai Gomez may see him make a return to his former club whilst any player with a Basque enough link to go by the name will be considered in the quest for improvement. Money, unlike for most Spanish clubs, is available to spend.

How that money is spent will no doubt be influenced by the recent presidential elections with well known Basque chef and entrepreneur Aitor Elizegi gaining the majority to become the newly appointed president. Elizegi himself is a member of the Basque Nationalist Party, a well known independentista and supporter of the recent motion for FIFA to recognise the Basque Country as a separate footballing entity. Mixing these ideologies together will no doubt lead to the recurring thought that his cause would only be diminished if Los Leones drop out of the top tier for the very first time.

At the end of the day though the Athletic Bilbao story will forever be wrapped in romance. Whether it be the legend of Pichichi and the fact his name adorns the golden boot trophy in Spain’s top division, their La Catedral home of San Mames and the tradtions and fans held within to their policy of only signing players of Basque origin, all contribute to the feeling that most people, including this scribbler, would be sad to see them fall. The good news is, that hope may have just arrived in time.

Deliberate Deliberations

Surely I can’t be the only one more than a little confused at the decision by the English FA to rescind the red card that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually was awarded for his sprawling save in the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea. I mean as deliberate hand balls go this season that was by far the pick of the bunch. Arsenal contested the decision on the basis that the visible trajectory of Eden Hazard’s attempt on goal was destined to go wide and as such the midfielders deliberate, and successful, attempt to stop the ball with his hand would have all been in vain anyway. The FA’s conclusions to agree with Arsenals’ thesis on this matter is one of the most ridiculous decisions of the season and I’m astounded that given the propensity for the English media to chastise the FA and all that they do there has been not so much as a whimper of disagreement, in fact I’ve read and heard many agreeing with what the FA has decreed.

I’ve been trying to rationalise the outcome of the governing bodies findings and I have struggled whilst simultaneously trying to cast aside any conspiracy theories about how being young and English give’s you that little bit of extra leeway. Somehow over the last 12 months the rules surrounding handball have become just as muddled as offside and the six-second rule. Natural body position, deviations in flight and general proximity to the ball itself have all been used as defence’s when the deliberate nature of handball has been the focus of debate, and you know what? That’s fine, it would be remiss of any official not to take these factor’s into consideration when making a final decision, the problem I have is that in the case of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain none of these factors came in to play. It was deliberate as deliberate could get. Yes, Andre Marriner made a massive error in red-carding Kieran Gibbs but the decision to give a red card and penalty for the offence itself was spot on as far as I’m concerned.

Let us try to transport ourselves into the mind of ‘The Ox’ on that fateful Saturday lunchtime. Your team are 2-0 down after a 15 minute spell where you are getting totally over-run, recent history has shown that another thumping is on the cards and here come Chelsea again. You get yourself back on the line for the inevitable moment they manage to break through once again. The shot comes in and it’s heading towards you. It’s at chest height but too far away to get in front of it. You could head it away but with the speed of the ball coming at you the lack of control you would have would probably result in a goal anyway. You decide to risk it and fling your body to your left and stick your hand out to claw the ball away. Now I’m fully aware that the timeframe required to read that paragraph is far greater than the time the midfielder had to make the same decision but I hope it shows that the decision he made to throw a hand out to stop it was a conscious one and one taken oblivious to the fact that the ball was going wide and as such a foul worthy of a straight red card.

Whenever I delve into a debate of this nature I like a comparison and when it comes to red cards and handballs there are a few to pick from but I have restricted myself to just a couple, both with goal scoring opportunities at the heart of them.

One of my earliest memories of being a Scotland fan is a World Cup qualifier in 1992 away to Switzerland, at that time I had to make do with a combination of radio and late night television highlights but I, like many other members of the Tartan Army, still to this day remember the moment that Richard Gough caught the ball. A good old-fashioned punt up the park from the Swiss defence headed towards the then Scotland captain. With a Swiss forward descending all the signs pointed towards Gough launching a header back from where it came, however the ball was too high and in a moment of madness he reached his arms into the air and plucked it from the sky like a front row in a rugby line-out thus preventing an almost certain one-on-one opportunity for Switzerland to score. His punishment was rightly a red card but imagine that same scenario in the world of the English FA. If you refer back to the  Oxlade-Chamberlain incident as Gough’s offence did not occur within the 8ft by 8yd area contained within the goal posts a red card would not have been necessary.

If that is too subtle what about the moment where Luis Suarez ‘broke the hearts of Africa’, as one commentator proclaimed, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when stopping Asaomah Gyan’s winner in the final minutes of extra time in Uruguay’s World Cup quarter-final with Ghana. He was again rightly red carded and much debate followed about whether Suarez had cheated or simply done what he had to do to keep his side in the tournament. His histrionics as Gyan missed the resulting penalty are now part of World Cup folklore but there is no debating that the punishment fitted the crime. If that ball was going a couple of inches over the bar and Suarez had done the same thing would there have been the same ambivalence to the incident by the media and the red card reversed or would a pre-Premier League Suarez be a villain before he had even hit these shores. Suarez just like Oxlade-Chamberlain was knowingly trying to stop a goal, the only difference was the shot he stopped was on target.

My argument remains that Oxlade-Chamberlain was guilty of preventing a goal scoring opportunity with his hand and the red card and penalty awarded was the correct decision to give. The fact that the ball was going off target is a technicality that opens a can of worms that will go to further blur the lines of what should be one of the simplest rules in a game where the primary objective of an outfield player is to kick it with his foot, not to juggle it with his hand.

Pretty in Pink

Courtesy of The Football Blogging Awards

Picture courtesy of The Football Blogging Awards.

Last week Scotland unveiled their new away kit for the European Championship campaign. A primrose, yellow and white tribute to the classical racing colours of Lord Rosebery, a strip that on its debut must surely have been a contributing factor in Scotland defeating England 6-1 at The Kennington Oval, current home of Surrey County Cricket Club. The new strip unsurprisingly has divided opinion but pink in all its shades has become a way for clubs and individuals to leave their own special stamp on the world of footballing fashion. In celebration of this latest inductee to the football kit hall of fame, or shame dependent on your viewpoint, let’s take a look at some of the more notable examples of players looking pretty in pink.


Palermo, unlike the rest of the teams that will be mentioned in this piece, sport pink not as an alternative but as their primary kit colour. Based in Sicily, historical home of the Mafia it seems almost fitting that the island’s number one club would sport a kit so flamboyant that it almost encourage those that visit to, ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’. Initially playing in red and blue when formed in 1898 the strip was changed to the now familiar pink and black nine years later at the suggestion of Count Airoldi to represent the ‘sadness and sweetness’  of the sides consistence inconsistencies only for Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s some time BFF in facism, to order it be replaced with a more regimented red and yellow of the area’s municipality during the Second World War. After a brief flirtation with light blue in the post-war era the Rosanero (when translated from Italian means ‘The Pink-blacks’)returned to Airoldi’s recommendation soon after and they continue to sport the colours of pink and block to this very day.

Partick Thistle

While Palermo’s pride in pink is born out of history for other clubs the choice of pink can simply be a case of standing out from the crowd, something that Partick Thistle managed with ease in the 2008/09 season when they became the first Scottish team to sport pink as part of their team colours. Their away strip looking like something out of the creation centre feature on a computer game sported grey and pink hoops and, as is often is the case with ‘novelty’ kits, was a runaway success generating extra revenue and media coverage for the club.

The Maryhill Magyars were not done there though and the following season continued to think pink with a pink camouflage change kit that’s splendour was only matched by how preposterous a concept it was, looking like something that Barbie would have thrown on if she had wanted to swap her dream house and convertible for a panzer tank and a box of hand grenades. In some eyes the west end of Glasgow where Partick are based is viewed as home to the trendiest bars and shops in Scotland’s largest city but to this day the trend of pink hasn’t really caught on.


Although Partick Thistle were the first club side to sport the colour pink with pride, the national team have slowly been forming a reputation as having some of the most striking kits in recent times. This was led by a particularly fruitful spell of fashion related madness in the mid 1990’s. Notable inclusions where an orange and purple pin stripe effort and a white kit with a green, blue and purple lightning storm adorned upon every players chest. A few years later a strip appeared that looked as if someone had photocopied readings from a Richter scale taken during a massive earthquake and then when mental colouring it in with red, orange and purple felt tip pens. It was gregarious to the extreme but to this day is still fondly remembered by many members of the Tartan Army.

While those the strips were brilliantly mad, the salmon offering of the 99-2000 qualifying campaign was dreadful, not because it was pink but because the manufacturers insisted on calling it salmon and to make matters worse it was also rather dull. In fact it was so boring in its conventionality that after a near decade of away kit related lunacy many fans, myself included, made as much effort as possible to erase it from their minds.


For all the flak given to football clubs and the players that play for them, often chastised as money hungry and disassociated with the common fan they do every now and again show they do have a heart. In the 2008/09 season Everton released a limited edition pink shirt to help raise funds for the NSPCC and the clubs own charity ‘Everton in the Community’. The tops were a huge success, so much so that later in the season another limited edition batch were produced raising a total of over £75,000.

Four years later Scottish club Rangers also went pink also raising over £75,000 for the Rangers Charity Foundation where much like the case was at Everton the demand far exceeded the supply. This trend has been continued by other clubs and countries since allowing football to continue to show the softer side that we all secretly know that it has.

Paulo Aurrecochea

In the main goalkeepers are considered the loose cannons of the footballing world prone to eccentricity and never far away from the next calamity. This is even truer in South America where it is the norm for goalkeepers to be the penalty takers and free kick specialists of their teams. I once saw a clip of an Argentine keeper doing battle with a bee hive positioned in the corner of the net so it will be no so surprise to find that a South American has made his way onto this list.

While many of you may have been expecting the name of Mexican legend Jorge Campos to be highlighted in this section, known as he was for the self designed monstrosities that brought him worldwide infamy at USA ’94 further investigation revealed that this man, Paulo Aurrecochea, is the true king of goalkeeping pink. A Uruguayan playing in Paraguay who not only sports pink in a variety of designs from leopard print to cascading stars but also includes such childhood favourites as Krusty the Clown, Tom and Jerry and fittingly enough The Pink Panther on his goalkeeping attire. Never capped internationally and having never scored a goal he instead has assured his place in South American folklore with his penchant for kids cartoons and a splash of pink every now and again and for that I salute him.

Pink strips continue to pop up everywhere from Birmingham to Bordeaux and as can be seen by Scotland’s latest effort are probably here to stay for a good while yet. So let’s all say cheers to the continuing madness of kit manufacturers everywhere and for those of them who continue to think pink.

Defining World Class

"courtesy of @8bitfootball"

“courtesy of @8bitfootball”

There is an old adage that is true across all walks of life, but is particularly poignant in the world of sport. It goes, ‘Form is temporary. Class is permanent’. But what does that mean? And with the topic being wholly subjective to personal opinion and preference how do we, as individuals, define the parameters to which the term ‘world-class’ can be donned upon a player. I’m certain somebody with more time and resources could make a fairly interesting book out of trying to provide a true definition but in lieu of those aforementioned gifts I’m going to try to do it in around a thousand words. Wish me luck!

Before I look at what world-class is I think it is pertinent to provide some context to my conclusions by defining the term ‘Form is temporary. Class is Permanent’. In my eyes, and remember this is just one man’s opinion, the magic of one moment whilst glorious and beautiful does not make a world-class player. Neither does a series of these moments sporadically appearing over a one or two year period. I would also suggest that for any players in their late teens to be dubbed as ‘world class’ without being prefixed or suffixed with word ‘potential’ somewhere around about it is highly unlikely, although not impossible.

For me, to be world-class, a player has to have a body of work littered with moments of outstanding skill, supplemented by both personal and collective achievements whilst possessing an almost Zen-like aura that demands the confidence of your teammates in every little thing that you do having earned the respect those who deem themselves man enough to stand up against you. What world-class should definitely not be is a catch-all statement for any player, especially a young player, who is billed as the next big thing, something that the likes of Adnan Januzaj and Ross Barkley have been lumbered with in this current season. They may prove to be in the future but at present they are nowhere near; but who is?

Let’s start by making things easy for myself. Lionel Messi is world-class. He’s a statistician’s wet dream, sending goal records tumbling and in this current season turning his considerable talents to the creation of goals over scoring them himself in a slightly amended role within Tata Martino’s Barcelona set up. He is already a human highlight reel of footballing excellence and has shown in countless Clasicos and Champions League finals that his level of performance is not lessened even when the skills of the opposition are at their greatest. There has been criticism levelled at him for the perceived lack of success in the blue and white of Argentina but his skills at club level, perceived by some as superseding international football asking of the modern game, more than make up for this and with a World Cup as close to home as it is ever going to be who’s to say that 2014 will not be his crowning moment.

So what of his perennial challenger for best in the world Cristiano Ronaldo, is he world class? Once again I think the answer would have to be yes, although not as decorated personally Ronaldo still has a goals and assists record that makes the mind boggle. He’s won titles and Champions leagues and in international colours for Portugal he is as close to a one-man team as you will get at the highest level, exemplified by the way he singlehandedly dragged his team to Brazil scoring a hat-trick just when it looked like Sweden had got the better of his nation in Stockholm.

Then there is his nemesis on that particular day, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Winning titles in Holland, Italy, Spain and now France playing for some of the most famous teams in world football. Often derided as being not as good as he thinks he is there is no question that he possesses an aura that demands your attention, and once he has it he is capable of some truly memorable things, would Messi or Ronaldo have had the audacity to attempt a 45 yard overhead kick, never mind score from it? The fact that on that playoff night in Stockholm that he too was moments away from dragging his team to what potentially could have been his last World Cup almost goes forgotten such was the performance of Ronaldo and although he may be at level just below theEl Clasico rivals he too has earned the moniker of ‘world class’.

Being world-class should not be solely reserved for those who strut their stuff in the final third of the pitch. For me the greatest player I have ever seen is Zinedine Zidane, and with a flick and a twirl he changed the meaning of the verb poise to simply read ‘Zizou’. The film, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is not only achingly beautiful from an audio and visual standpoint but essential viewing in understanding why he was so good. His symbolic walk past the World Cup in 20o6 after the head butt heard around the world perhaps tarnished the man but not the playing legend.

The captain of the eventual winners that year Fabio Cannavaro was another world-class performer. Diminutive by centre half standards he is rightly considered one of the greatest central defenders of all time as well as achieving the almost impossible for a defender by winning the Ballon d’Or. In Italy he was known as ‘The Berlin Wall’ so great was ability to make even the greatest strikers look like a Sunday league stalwart feeling the effects of the night before. Perhaps only Vincent Kompany currently has the ability and aura to do even a fraction of what the Italian did for the profile of central defenders in the modern game.

What about Suarez, Ribery, Rooney or Bale, surely they’re world-class? Some will argue they are but does the sum of their personal achievements to date even come close to comparison when stacked against those of just one of the aforementioned individuals? I don’t think so. Nor am I suggesting that the names I have mentioned are the only ones worthy of the title world-class.

Ronaldo, the Brazilian version in this instance, was a part of two World Cup winning squads with his performance in the 2002 final seen as redemption to the farce that was his appearance in the very same game 4 years earlier. Henrik Larsson, whilst spending the majority of his career in Scotland blew away those doubting his class with career defining spells at Barcelona and Manchester United and it would be remiss of me not to make mention to Barcelona once again and the midfield mastery of Spanish midfielders Xavi and Anders Iniesta. There will be a few more, but not many, and for each of these men all have individually contributed to the evolution of the game across the globe and in doing so forming the essence of what world-class should be. Not reserved for the best, or even the very best but for those that have helped form and continue to define footballing generations.

If you enjoyed this then maybe you will enjoy My footballing adventure searching out the tastiest snacks at grounds across Scotland and beyond. The link is on the right hand side.

The Descendants of Djemba Djemba

With the news that former Manchester United and Cameroon midfielder Eric Djemba Djemba has signed for SPFL Premiership side St. Mirren until the end of the season now seems as good a time as any to give a nod to some of Scottish football’s most fondly remembered African imports.


1. Jose Quitongo

Former clubs: Hamilton Accies, St. Mirren, Kilmarnock, Hearts, Alloa Athletic, Albion Rovers, Partick Thistle, Dumbarton, Livingston, Stenhousemuir, Glenafton Athletic, Lesmahagow, Pollok and Muirkirk.

Any list about African football in Scotland would not be complete without the Angolan Pele/Maradonna/Platini/Laudrup/Charnley. A player with a trickery that seemed to often confuse him as much as it did his opponents who after moving to Scotland decided he loved it so much that he thought he would try to play for as many clubs as possible while his legs allowed him to do so. After starting his career at Benfica he found his way to South Lanarkshire and Hamilton Accies, a club that when all else failed would welcome back Jose with open arms time and time again.

Quitongo was a player who could play hopscotch with the line between terrible and brilliant all in a matter of steps but through it all continue to do so with a smile on his face, even when  blowing out his backside in almost every game he played. He also had spells in Sweden, Poland, Ireland, UAE and Italy but Scotland was where he would always call his footballing home, returning in 2006 with the hope of making it into the Angolan national team for the 2006 World Cup, unfortunately for us all that was one dream that didn’t come true. Towards the end of his career in professional football he was a one man game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ appearing at clubs across the central belt for trials and the odd substitute appearance.

Where is he now?: He’s still in Scotland and sports one of those wonderful accents that only a foreigner living in Scotland can obtain. After a playing spell in Junior football with Glenafton Athletic, Lesmahagow and Pollok amongst others he was this season appointed player-manager of Ayrshire District League side Muirkirk. Jose clearly loves Scotland and I think it’s fair to say we love him a little bit too.


2. Bobo Balde

Former club: Celtic

Bobo Balde was a behemoth, strong in the air, quick on his feet and like all entertaining central defenders prone to moments of blind rage and calamity. A player who is as well know for his dominant displays in over 200 appearances for Celtic as he was for sitting on his bahookie and getting paid a handsome sum to do so. Not since Rangers Basile Boli had Scottish football seen a man who possessed the Guinean’s incredible combination of mass and speed, a skillset that led to Celtic fans chanting the phrase ‘Bobo’s gonna get ye!’ at opponents in celebration of his intimidating presence.

He was part of the successful Martin O’Neill side that reached the UEFA Cup Final only to be beaten by Porto by another man called Jose. Mourinho on this occasion. In Scotland he is without doubt Africa’s most decorated export, winning 5 league titles, 3 Scottish Cups and 2 League Cups whilst playing over 50 times for the Guinean national team. After falling out of favour with new manager Gordon Strachan moves to England failed to materialise and his departure was met with little fanfare or surprise when his contract expired in 2009.

Where is he now?: After leaving Celtic he had spells with Valenciennes and Arles Avignon at the foot of Ligue. 1 in France before retiring from the game.

toure mamam

3. Cherif Toure Mamam

Former club: Livingston

Back in the golden days before Livingston were known for their frequent flirtations with administration they were one of Scottish footballs nouveau riche, well as nouveau riche as you can be in Scotland. A rebranded Meadowbank Thistle moved to that bit of the country between Glasgow and Edinburgh in the hope of attracting new support in the heart of silicon glen. Using their new wealth to move their way up the divisions names such as Oscar Rubio, Guillermo Amor, Rolando Zarate and eh…David Bingham were often seen at the stadium formerly known as Almondvale but none came with as much expectation upon them as the Togolese international.

After trials at Rangers and Fulham, a team who themeselves were going through their own financially backed revolution, the then 20 year old midfielder came with a hype that he never quite lived up to. Sporting the number ’91’ his lucky number and an homage to his basketball playing roots, the ‘Sheriff’ as he was called, until the SFA decide they didn’t like that, had a pedigree to match any young foreigner coming to Scottish football at the time with spells at Eintracht Frankfurt and Marseille under his belt and had a sheer athleticism that had not been seen in Scotland before. Brought in as a player with the potential to be sold on for millions a spate of injuries meant that his potential was never fulfilled and he was released in 2004 as the financial problems we all expected started to rear its head.

Where is he now?: Well he nearly ended up back in Scotland in 2007 but a trial with Hearts was unsuccessful. After being part of the Togo squad at the 2006 World Cup he took the root of many African players and had a spell in the Middle East. Most recently he had a spell with Ghanaian Premier League side Asante Kotoko where even at 33 he was still being billed as the next big thing.


4. Hicham Zerouali

Former Club: Aberdeen

The man with the ‘Zero’ on his back is perhaps still to this day one of the most gifted players to grace Scottish football and one of the few successes of the Ebbe Skovdahl era. A menace anywhere in the final third when the mood took him and capable of scoring some quite incredible goals resulting in him becoming an instant hit at Pittodrie. A Moroccan internationalist during his time at Aberdeen an injury towards the end of the 99-2000 robbed him of an appearance at the Sydney Olympics but that didn’t tarnish the memories of Dons fans with a hat trick against Dundee perhaps being the pick of many a highlight.

When looking back at the impact he made it’s not too far of a stretch to say that he blazed the trail for North African talent to find its way to Scottish shores. In the years since his departure players such as Merouane Zemmama and Abdessalam Benjelloun came in often billed as the new ‘Zerouali’ without ever living up to the inevitable hype such a comparison brought. While players such as Majid Bougherra and Ismael Bouzid have left their mark at the other end of the pitch.

Where is he now?: Unfortunately ‘Zero’ is no longer with us. After his contract expired he returned to his native Morroco via the united Arab Emirates where he was killed in a car accident two days after scoring a double for FAR Rabat. His death prompted tributes and a memorial was held in Aberdeen with thousands in attendance. The ‘Morrocan Magician’ to this day is still one of the most gifted players to play in Scotland since the turn of the millennium.


5. Momo Sylla

Former clubs: St. Johnstone, Celtic and Kilmarnock

If you were to ask the fans of the 3 aforementioned clubs to give a review on the impact Momo Sylla had on their respective clubs you will probably hear three very different stories. At St. Johnstone he arrived as a speedster capable of playing anywhere on the left hand side of the pitch. A bag of tricks with his feet sometimes moving faster than his brain and capable of producing a tackle that sent shudders down the spine of opposing players.

A key part of the Perth side’s success of the early noughties it wasn’t long before the Old Firm came calling with a £650,000 move to Celtic a just reward for a player who seemed to be consistently improving. However, like many players making the move to Glasgow things were not all that they were cracked up to be and as many predicted he struggled to find his place, never being anything other than back up to a team going through one of its most successful periods under Martin O’Neill and he was released when his contract expired. He then was part of Craig Levein’s ill-fated Leicester City revolution, before returning to Scotland for a short and unspectacular spell with Kilmarnock. Although born in the Ivory Coast he played internationally for Guinea although with only 2 appearances he, much like his career post McDiarmid Park, was nothing more than a bit part player there.

Where is he now?: A bit of digging shows that he had a spell in Moldova before seemingly disappearing off the face of the planet only re-appearing once prior to the 2012 Champions League Final to advise that he once told Didier Drogba he wasn’t good enough to play for Celtic. You can’t get them right every time, eh Momo.

Honourable Mentions:

Pa Kujabi – The Gambian Roberto Carlos, was apparently gifted with a wand of a left foot and a deadly free kick, those that attended his performances at Easter Road would beg to differ.

David Obua – Scottish football’s only ever Ugandan, a player who had more positions than the extended version of the Kama Sutra.

Madjid Bougherra – The Algerian Amo. For comment see Bobo Balde without the 3 years of sulking.

Sol Bamba – Now a mainstay of the Ivory Coast national team, during his time in Scottish football he tackled pretty much everyone, including his teammates.

Quinton Jacobs – A Namibian international who once turned down Ajax to play for Partick Thistle in the Scottish Second Division. Somebody must have done a really good job selling the concept of the Maryhill Magyars.

Will Eric Djemba Djemba be looked back on as favourably as some of these greats, only time will tell.

The Boys Who Cry Wolf


The AFC U22 Championship is not usually where I would find inspiration for the things I write but an incident in the quarter final between South Korea and Syria was sufficient in prompting me into writing about something that more than a niggles. In this instance, with South Korea comfortably leading 2-0 they followed popular convention and kicked the ball out of play so treatment could be given to an injured Syrian midfielder. Syria, however, never got the memo and from the resulting throw in proceeded to score an ultimately meaningless goal in their sides 2-1 defeat in Oman.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, think back to 1999 and that infamous moment when Arsenal striker Kanu, galloping forward in a way that only he could, passed a ball through to Marc Overmars to score the winning goal in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield United. There was such an uproar that Arsene Wenger felt obliged to offer a replay which Arsenal duly won, would he have been so generous had it been against Manchester United, we’ll never know. There is countless other examples, including that of Luiz Adriano, who after scoring for Shakhtar Donetsk against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League from what should have been uncontested dropped ball, found himself handed a one game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct.

This issue continues to evolve, highlighted most recently in a game featuring Arsenal once again. With 20 minutes to go and the scores level Arsenal were on the attack with Chelsea midfielder Ramires down in the centre circle, the ball was at the feet of Aaron Ramsey who, clearly unsure what to do, decided to kick the ball out. A decision that brought a handshake from opposition midfielder Frank Lampard but raised the ire of Olivier Giroud and a number of his teammates who believed Ramsey had thrown away a potential advantage in one of the biggest games of the season. Was Ramsey right to do what he did? And to that matter is it right that it should fall into the hands of the players to make that decision?

Well I think the answer should be a resounding no, in today’s footballing climate where going down injured is employed more as a tactic to break up play and time waste as opposed to the occurence of an actual injury. Why should a player place his trust in the fact that another player is not ‘at it’ for want of a better term. We’ve seen it hundred’s of times before, a player goes down, the ball gets played out and minutes later the he is running about at the peak of his powers without a physio even entering the field of play. It’s frustrating to watch and I’d imagine equally frustrating to play alongside as well.

Perhaps the referee should intervene, they already have the right to stop the game for a head injury why not expand that remit to include any injury that they see worthy of a stop in play? Surely a better idea than player intervention but on deeper contemplation still subject to the same fundamental flaws that are a result of a member of either team kicking the ball out of play. Well, except in this situation there is the added pantomime of the player being guided off the pitch only to be waved back on seconds later whenever it takes the official’s fancy.

Then there’s the third option, we don’t stop play at all. I’m not a heartless man, I’m just a man who is fed up of games being interrupted because a player who has got a blade of grass stuck up his nostril is dealt with in the same manner as a player who has torn a ligament or broken a bone. Now generally I’m not an advocate of rules of other sports being transferable to football. I think the addition of a video referee would be a step too far, taking away some of the controversy that we as football fans thrive on, and that sin-binning in a football context would not be as effective as a deterrent as it is in ice hockey and rugby. With that said the method in which players are treated during a game of rugby could and should be implemented in the football matches of today.

For those unfamiliar of the procedure when a player goes down but the game continues and a physio comes on to the field of play to administer treatment when and where required. If the injury is serious then a communication is made to advise of such and the game is stopped.

None of these actions require new technology, they would reduce gamesmanship and time wasting, stop the needless to and fro from the touchline of players and, in theory, as an action it is instantly implementable. I say ‘in theory’ as there would still be a bit of working out to do in relation to such a change. For example if a player is being treated on the field of play do they become inactive? I would suggest they would, meaning that if a defender is lying stricken they can’t play an opponent onside whist at the other end a striker can’t resurrect themselves suddenly whilst realising that they are clean through on goal.

As a resolution it’s not perfect, a first draft of any proposal is testament to that. When a foul is given and there is a natural stop in play then bring the physio on and let treatment be given but don’t then make the victim of the foul traipse off the pitch because you made someone else who was chancing his arm fifteen minutes earlier do the same thing. Like many things in football the best resolutions involve the mythical concept of common sense but until such time arrives in that the myth becomes a reality I think those with the ability to do so should empower themselves to ensure that yet another one of football’s more annoying foibles doesn’t continue to blight the game that we love.