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

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.

Scotland…again!

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.

Everton

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.

Let’s Break Football’s Last Taboo

football-blog-homophobia-lets-break-footballs-last-taboo

In the coming days and weeks, there will be thousands upon thousands of words written about how brave Thomas Hitzlsperger has been and while these words of support and praise are to be commended the stand out phrase from the interviews the former German international has given to date still remains:

I’m coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards.”

So let’s try our best to do it right now, not in a focus group years down the line, or when the next footballer, active or not, decides that the time is right to offer up his sexuality as a sacrifice for the discussion to be moved just another baby step further forward. It’s not going to be perfect but I’m going to give it a try. Firstly, let us not forget that, although he is the most high profile, Hitzlsperger is not the first footballer to reveal he is gay, both Anton Hysen and Robbie Rogers have made themselves involuntary martyrs for football’s last great taboo and they too were praised for their courage but how far has their courage really moved the debate forward?

Personally I think there are two ways you could look at this. In the first instance you could look at the way Robbie Rogers was actively encouraged back into the game as an indication of football’s growing acceptance of a lifestyle that has long been part of the norm in modern society. Conversely though you could say that the fact he only felt comfortable in making his revelation from the relative safety of early retirement as an indictment to the dated perception of homosexuality in and around our football grounds. At this juncture it’s worth noting at this point that at the time of his retirement Rogers was plying his trade within the United Kingdom and this is why we need to move the debate on from words and onto actions.

However with that said it is important to recognise that the football community in the UK has been at the forefront of the ‘acceptance’ movement with players, manager and even Match of the Day host Gary Lineker sporting rainbow laces in support of their colleagues. This, however, is not an issue that should be left to those involved in the game to solve, this is one that we, as lovers of the game, can help alter and change right now.

In the days following Hitzelsperger’s announcement, John Amaechi, the NBA’s first openly gay player labelled the culture surrounding football as ‘toxic’, and although a tad sensationalist in its terminology it clearly highlighted the feelings of many out with the game that football’s attitude to homosexuality would be placed on the evolutionary scale beside the man chasing a mammoth with a spear.

Football, however, has always proved it can change.

Think of a fan beside you hurling monkey chants and throwing banana’s at a player of African descent and the shock and horror that you are your fellow onlookers would feel at such behaviour. Has that shock and horror always been so prevalent? No.

To give another example, in Scotland, sectarianism still lurks in the shadows of the countries most famous derby between Rangers and Celtic, but efforts continue to close that divide. It’s staggering to think that it was only as little as 15 years ago that Rangers appointed their first Catholic captain in Lorenzo Amoruso. Should it have taken so long? No, but they still did it.

Am I saying that elements of racism, bigotry and other discriminatory behaviour are not still to be found in the game? Of course not, but the backlash for players and fans alike will continue to grow if such behaviours continue. It is no longer seen appropriate to have a laugh because a player is black or because a player crosses himself before stepping onto the field of player so why should it be any different if he’s gay.

As a member of the Tartan Army, known for championing just how great we are, I am privy to a repertoire of songs designed to help drive our nation to a level somewhere above the mediocrity we perpetually reside in. Amongst all the ‘Doe-A-Deer’s’ and ‘We’ll be Coming Down the Roads’ is an ode to former England international Jimmy Hill that goes like this:

“We hate Jimmy Hill, he’s a poof, he’s a poof.”

Now there is no doubt in my mind that for the dwindling number of fans that sing the words above it is done so with harmless intentions, but it should perhaps be seen as a telling insight into how far football fans have to come to catch up with the rest of the world around it. This doesn’t have to be solely in the form a song, it could come from the pensioners four rows behind shouting about a player’s ‘boyfriend’ as he lies injured on the pitch. It could even be as simple as a group of mates sitting in the pub, watching the game talking as if no one is listening.

While FIFA continue to trumpet their crusade for inclusion and diversity by hosting World Cups in Russia and Qatar, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in these countries homosexuality is perceived as a crime, it is up to us as fans to prove that football is indeed as inclusive as Sepp & Co. advertise. The actions of Thomas Hitzlsperger, Robbie Rogers and Anton Hysen should be praised as the catalyst for this debate, it is now up to us to turn this debate into actions.

More Than A Black Mark

With five minutes to go, your team are drawing one each. A point is enough for to secure promotion, a win and your champions, your midfielder, who has been doing his best Steven Gerrard impression all season has already scored 20 goals and is clean through on goal with just the keeper to beat. It’s the last minute. He surely can’t miss, you slowly rise out your seat with your scarf clasped tightly in both hands, ready to jump in the air with a moment of pure ecstasy that only football can bring. He rounds the keeper, the angle is a bit tight but you already feel the scream of joy rise up through your throat, he pulls back his left boot and manages to balloon it 12 rows over the bar.

Sorry Chris, but this was a shocker!

Sorry Chris, but this was a shocker!

You sit down, disappointed that your team couldn’t quite win the first trophy for what feels like years, but still elated with a season that ended in promotion, when relegation seemed the only way out.

A few hours later, a man, who should be disappointed that he missed out on his ultimate moment of glory, is celebrating, not with the fans, or even his fellow teammates, but in a room alone in his home, sitting staring at a pile of cash won as a result of that missed shot in the final seconds of the game, because that star midfielder, the one that tens, hundreds, even thousands of fans has put their trust in has just thrown the game to win a bet where he didn’t want his own team to win.

Thankfully the story above is pure fabrication, a meandering piece of fiction that started in my head and ended up on the page before you. As you continue to read, I want to reassure fans of ICT, Hearts and Rangers that I am not dubbing Ian Black as a midfielder of great prowess, and as such the story above can bear absolutely no resemblance to him as a player.

Neither am I saying that this was the case in any of the 3 games in which he bet on his team not-to-win, an offence he has been deemed guilty of by the SFA. No, this is am example of the dark path that professional football, and our national sport, could go down, if serious action is not taken against those who feel the need to further compromise the ‘integrity’ of the game.

Would you now pass to this man with a minute to go?

Would you now pass to this man with a minute to go?

Ian Black was found guilty of three charges resulting in an immediate 3 match ban with a further 7 games suspended until the end of the season along with a fine of £7500 with the football matches in which he was not involved resulting in censure.

The charge sheet read as follows:

Guilty of betting on 3 football matches on a then-registered club not to win.

Guilty of betting on 10 football matches that involved a then-registered club.

Guilty of betting on a further 147 football matches.

So let’s go through each charge as above, building up the severity as we go, bearing in mind that all of the above are deemed as chargeable offences by the SFA.

betslip2

Charge 1: Betting on 147 Football Matches

It is ludicrous for some people to think that young men with varying degrees of disposable income do not enjoy a flutter just as much as the rest of us. Personally I have no problem with a player betting on a game of football that has no direct bearing on their current teams circumstances, or which they cannot be seen to have any influence over. There will be arguments made that why do players have to bet on football, why not bet on horse racing, boxing or snooker? Well from what my many, many years of sports consumption has proven is that in comparison to football, although each are not without their merits, the aforementioned sports are not quite as good, this is of course without reflecting on the various betting ‘scandals’ that have effected them.

What would concern me, and should not be neglected, is the friendships and associations built up between players across their careers, could a well placed word in another player’s ear alter the outcome of a match where their would be no apparent connection. Surely if that accusation is to be made then it too should be applicable to a player’s barber, aunt or landscape gardener? Perhaps the sensible thing to do is not to outlaw a practice that is almost impossible to monitor successfully but to instead create a set of guidelines for games that which a player can get their football betting fix, removing any doubt or suspicions about match outcomes where an association can be made. Logistically, is that possible? I’m just not sure.

Charge 2: Betting on 10 football matches that involved a then-registered club

On the face of it this seems pretty straightforward, especially if you take into consideration that the final charge we will look at is in relation betting on a then-registered club not to win. By the process of elimination, that would suggest that a player who is found guilty of these charges, is guilty of betting on his team to win, and as a fan if that’s the case you’d hope he puts everything he owns on a victory, in theory resulting in the optimum effort being input for the cause of your club.

However the intricacies untold in this situation could suggest that any bets made in relation to this charge may also contain wagers on correct score or number of bookings to name but two examples. In that respect any bet made can only lead to a compromise in performance by the player no matter what protestations the accused may make about always giving the magical 100%. Taking these points into consideration common sense should dictate to any individual involved in a game not to bet on it, irrespective of whether or not that you fancy your team to knock six past your opponents that weekend.

Charge 3: Betting on 3 football matches on a then-registered club not to win.

Let me start by saying this, as a professional, in any field, at what point should it be considered a good idea to bet against yourself? Whether it’s before an interview, during a big presentation or on a football pitch. Especially on a football pitch, the ultimate results business. To bet against the team that pay your wages, the fans that chant your name and the children who buy your shirts smacks of the highest level of disregard for all those parties. I know that was all a tad vitriolic but as a football fan to know that a player I pay to watch is willing to bet against a win, in ANY circumstance, whether its Barcelona or Brechin City is totally unacceptable.

Is good early season form going to be enough once the ban is over

Is good early season form going to be enough once the suspension is over? Is the trust gone?

And the above is just from the fans perspective, what about the coaches and players they spend their daily lives with. Earlier I mentioned the ‘magical 100%’ that every player should strive to give. How can those words be taken seriously by the teammates and management of Ian Black. When Ally McCoist looks at the options available to him when Black’s suspension is over will he be able to pick the player on his individual merits, throwing aside the shackles of doubt that surely must lurk wthin, no matter how many snappy supportive sound bites that may or may not come in out in the forthcoming weeks.

What about next time a teammate strides forward with minutes to play and Black is the only option, will the adrenalin rush of the game out think the fog of doubt that surely must surround him? Or am I being naïve and the camaraderie of fools that is professional football let this ghost by without a second thought? It shouldn’t but I feel the paltry nature of the sentence to be served does almost nothing to discourage the practice.

The Final Verdict

As previously stated the SFA punished Ian Black after he was found guilty of all three charges  resulting in an immediate 3 match ban with a further 7 games suspended until the end of the season along with a fine of £7500, with the football matches in which he was not involved resulting merely in a censure.

All decisions should be made on a stand alone basis, and to compare the ban given to Ian Black to that given to other players by other federations is to do so without taking into consideration the specific circumstances of each case. With that being said once again yet another indication has been given that when it comes to the big decision the SFA would fail to exert enough authority to announce its nap time at a nursery whilst armed with a box full of cookies and a Peppa Pig DVD.

Ian Black has been found guilty of betting against his own team. To ban him for only 3 games, knowing that barring a gross act of stupidity on his behalf, that the further 7 games will never be missed is a slap in the face to anyone who has worn the scarf of the clubs he has played for, the managers who put their trust in him and the players he played both with and against.  As he has been found guilty, of something that I believe to be just a few short steps shy of match-fixing, the punishment should have been given out as such, instead the SFA failed to take the opportunity to send a clear and concise message that behaviour of this nature will not be tolerated and should never be seen again.

King Kenny The Second

It’s Wednesday 14th August 2013, Scotland are at Wembley for the first time since Don Hutchison scored with a header to give them a memorable 1-0 win. It’s half time and the score is 1-1. 2 seats down the row I find myself located next to a red faced man in a kilt is taking a break from the barrage of abuse he has been directing at our sole striker. Within 4 minutes, said striker, spins the defender and fires a beautifully placed shot past Joe Hart sending over 20,000 members of the Tartan Army into absolute raptures.

I hug the man 2 seats down and say ‘He’s no bad him, eh?’. He looks suitably ashamed.

That my friends is Kenny Miller in a nutshell, derided by some but always just one touch away from proving his doubters wrong.  For all his flaws, he never failed to give anything but 100%, made himself available at every opportunity and has a goal scoring ratio when put into perspective is not to be sniffed at.

After 69 caps and 18 goals, Gordon Strachan will begin the unenviable task of finding Scotland a new first choice striker. Who should be that man is a debate for another day, when results are more relevant and hopes are freshly renewed for the ‘Road to France 2016’. For now let us reflect on a fantastic servant to Scotland after his announcement, at the age of 33, to retire from the international scene.

He was given his debut by Craig Brown in 2001 but it wasn’t until Berti Vogts called him up for a home qualifier against Iceland 2 years later did he cement his place as national number nine, scoring on his re-debut.

A goal against Germany one of many highlights.

A goal against Germany one of many highlights.

He was part of the team that so nearly separated Italy and France in Euro 2008 qualification and we can forgive him the occasional missed chances, like that one in one in Milan, when you compare it to the sheer orgasmic elation of the aforementioned second goal against England at Wembley, what turned out to be a fitting farewell moment.

Accusations that he did not score enough are far from the mark. His record stands up well against the likes of Joe Jordan (52games/11goals), Ally McCoist (61gm/19gls) and even James McFadden (48gms/15gls), all of whom are considered as some of the greats of the Scottish game. As much as we all love our national team, in today’s footballing climate Scotland are a 3rd tier European team, our primary tactic involves playing one man up front who’s job is to run until his feet bleed and to feed off the scraps the occasional punt up the park provides. Now hopefully this is a footballing ethos on the turn, but in Kenny Miller Scotland could not have had anyone better suited for that role.

In 20 years time Kenny Miller should be remembered as the man that provided the odd fleck of hope during the Vogts and Burley era’s whilst helping create some moments of ecstasy against the likes of Germany, Italy, Spain, France and England. As he has already stated it must be a nagging regret that he was unable to help Scotland qualify for a major championship but in a time of Soviet separations and the ever increasing fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia things have never been so tough for a nation of Scotland’s pedigree to make it to the play-off stages nevermind a finals tournament.

Not everybody loved him and not everybody rated him as a player but as far as I am concerned Kenny Miller deserves the upmost respect for the load he has carried for over a decade as Scotland’s first choice striker. Many would have folded, a few certainly did, I’m looking at you Chris Iwelumo, but when Gordon Strachan selects his squad for the first qualifiers of the 2016 campaign there will be a space far bigger than just one man.

Thank You Kenny!

Here is a link to your finest moment in all its glory for all to see.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKt6UXz4ljg

24: Too Many?

Euro 2012 has been a marked improvement on what was a rather underwhelming World Cup in South Africa two years ago. Is it a coincidence or is it more to do with the fact that it really is the cream of the region as opposed to a bloated act of inclusivism used as a Marketing ploy by FIFA and UEFA to ‘stand up for the little guy’?

From Euro 2016 onwards the European Championships will expand from 16 to 24 teams, in the official literature produced by UEFA’s Executive Committee it stated the reason would be to:

“give middle ranked countries a much greater chance to qualify for the final tournament,  thereby expanding the fanbase directly reached, and increasing the number of matches played and increasing overall stadium capacity”

In short make more money. I don’t want this to come across as a negative attack on the current trend for taking football to new frontiers, as ridiculous as a World Cup in Qatar does seem, but more an assessment if something isn’t broke then don’t go trying to fix it.

Let us start with some simple figures, UEFA has 53 member associations who can enter the qualification process for the European Championships, in the present format 16 teams can earn a place in the finals (host included), a percentage representation of 30%. That’s right being within the top 30% counts as being part of the elite of European Football. Expanding the tournament to 24 teams sees that percentage rise to 45%, nearly half! This means that almost 1 in 2 teams could qualify for a prestigious tournament reserved for the best in Europe.

But the UEFA statement reads as ‘ to give middle ranked countries a much greater chance to qualify for the final tournament’ I hear you say, well if you don’t mind begging my indulgence here is a list of  teams  who I’m sure fall under UEFA’s ‘middle ranked demographic’ and when they made their debuts:

As can be seen every tournament since its re-invention as the Euros in 1980 has seen at least 1 country debut, many of the countries listed there have also then re-appeared at later tournaments and some of them have produced some of the most memorable tournament performances in the history for football.

Denmark’s triumph at Euro’92 is the greatest football fairy-tale ever told, while Greece gritted their way to triumph at Euro 2004, both teams considered nothing but cannon fodder before a ball had been kicked. At Euro ’96 the Czech Republic re-debuted as beaten finalists and Turkey reached the Semi-Finals of Euro 2008 showing that these middle ranked teams who have earned their way to the Finals have done well. Add this to FIFA and UEFA’s recent penchant for giving tournaments to countries who you would not usually expect and there seems little risk of each and every tournament not seeming fresher than the last one. The fact that Euro 2016 is going to be in France is fresh in its sheer conventionality.

In the qualifying for Euro 2012 countries such as Estonia, Bosnia and Montenegro were a play-off away from making their debuts. The current format does give these ‘middle tiered’ countries the opportunity to qualify for these tournaments they just have to work hard and perform well to take them. What the UEFA idea of expansion to 24 teams does is attempt to gift these sides an easier path, and perhaps more cynically help prevent the bigger nations from not qualifying if they have an indifferent campaign.

It would take something special away from the actual achievement of qualifying if the path to the Finals is met with less resistance and when you get there you find your still only one of about half the best teams in Europe. If it was meant to be easy to get their then it wouldn’t be called the European Championship FINALS if would be called the ‘Next Round’.

Putting the qualifying process aside though the expansion to 24 teams also leaves us with a bit of a Mathematical problem. 24 doesn’t easily work its way down to 2 for a final. UEFA’s Resolution: a final tournament consisting of six groups of four teams, followed by a round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. The top two from each group would qualify in addition to the four best third-ranked sides, the same system as was applied in the World Cups from 1986 to 1994. A format last used 20 years ago, really? And if that doesn’t make sense what makes things worse is UEFA’s General Secretary Gianni Infantino, a man in part responsible for coming up with the idea in the first place, has said the new format is ‘not ideal’.

I tell you why he said that, because it’s not just ‘not ideal’ but it is in fact flawed.

Earlier I mentioned that 45% of those entered will qualify for the finals, well of the 24 teams entered, 16, yeah that’s right 66% of those who turn up will qualify for the next round. In theory a team could qualify for the Round of 16 without winning a game. How does that create positive, attractive and exciting tournaments?

Greece won their way to Euro 2004 with organisation and opportunism, and here we are 8 years later and this same philosophy is being proclaimed as the way to win a tournament for a lesser light, while teams like Spain and Germany try to pass and counter their way to glory. Even England are settling for being ‘functional’ as that’s the cool thing to do now if you’re not very good.

Let us look at the conclusion of Group A as an example.

What if Euro 2012 had 24 teams would Greece have gone for the win they needed to qualify against Russia knowing that 3rd place could be enough to get them through? The drama of the final of round of Group A would not be matched in a 24 team format. Part of the joy of football is its sadistic nature to suffer defeat when glory seems far easier to achieve.  The second half would have seen Russia pass the ball about their defence knowing that a defeat would be enough to see them through. Football is about winning, not settling for defeat.

Ask any fan what they hate about tournament football when watching a game their side is not involved in, a lot will say ‘dead rubbers’, games where the conclusion is known before kick off or have no relevance to the greater picture of the Championship. With the possibility of 3 teams coming out of your group if results go a certain way a final round decider could turn into a boring procession. The proclamation of fuller stadiums and greater variety at UEFA’s inception of the format will be replaced with apathy towards games that once meant something to everyone to games that mean nothing for some and just a bridge to the next stage.

When an idea is rolled out and described as ‘not ideal’ by the people that formulated it you have to ask, is this change necessary or is it change for the sake of change, for the sake of one man’s vision of his own legacy? A similar set of changes  have been made in the Champions League, although they have resulted in a greater variety of teams and great stories like APOEL it has left a tournament of prestige split into a warm up event of group stages with multiple chances of redemption before the main attraction of the knockout rounds. Fans have been turning off to it.

Football’s governing bodies are often chastised for their resistance to change, goal line technology a case in point, but when change is brought in and you as the implementer are not sure of what the changes are, are you not best leaving things as they are? The European Championships works because it is a streamline, high stakes month of football where the cream of a continent compete head to head at the top of their game knowing that one off day could see them sent home knowing this time they just weren’t good enough.

First Team Football: Is it a Must?

As I made the long trek back to the car after Scotland’s 2-1 victory over Denmark, getting what felt like my umpteenth soaking of the day when in reality it was only the second a wave of slight optimism washed over my body. I say slight for a couple of reasons. Firstly it was a friendly and
Denmark coach Morten Olsen had already said he was looking well past this game to his side’s qualifier against Norway. Secondly optimism by definition in Scotland is paired with cynicism, a sense of oncoming dread and a general feeling it’s not going to last. Therefore I give you: ‘Cautious Optimism’, the watch words for those that live in eternal hope and infinite fear.

The football played was good and every substitution was met with that ‘optimism’ that this player has the ability to contribute, even Craig Mackail-Smith who is still being viewed upon with sceptical eyes looked busy and I believe that he has the ability to become a very useful part of the squad. In fact from the midfield forward I can’t remember a time, since I’ve been following Scotland anyway (born 1985), that Scotland have had such a talented group of players in the final third. The starting midfield last night consisted of new Tartan Army cult hero Charlie Adam, James ‘The Brazilian’ Morrison, Scott Brown, Robert Snodgrass and Steven Naismith with Don Cowie replacing Scott Brown early on. Without thinking too hard the fact you could name another midfield five of a decent quality in Darren Fletcher, Lee McCulloch, Barry Bannan, Craig Conway and Barry Robson shows what kind of strength Scotland have had in that area.

Up front Kenny Miller will be more aware than anyone that any drop in form, effort or another one of his fabled one to one chances going
begging (at half time we came up with four howlers in key games) than he too will find himself under pressure from the likes of Mackail-Smith, David Goodwillie, Chris Maguire and if you are to believe in recent statements a resurgent Kris Boyd.  His position more key as it becomes clear that Levein favours a 4-1-4-1, meaning the position of goal getter in chief falls on the lone front man.

Add to that the X-Factor that is the lesser spotted James McFadden last seen training at Fir Park, a man you hope hasn’t lost his spark, and
then Scotland too has a strength up front they have not experienced for a long time.

That just leaves the defence, admittedly Alan McGregor had a howler last night as that free kick sailed over his head but mistakes happen
and with Craig Gordon competing when fit  Scotland still have two truly top drawer goalkeepers. What is a concern, well until last night was the centre of defence. In the last few games Scotland has looked susceptible at the back to giving away stupid goals, not to blame any one player but how much better and organised did the defence look without Christophe Berra in it.

The partnership of Gary Caldwell and Danny Wilson looked extremely solid, the tippy-tappy nonsense at towards of the game aside.  Gary Caldwell may have won man of the match but the clichéd assessment that Danny Wilson is mature beyond his years rang true against Denmark and he would have been an equally deserved recipient.  Both players were responsible for last ditch tackles either to save goals or to cover for gaps on the flanks and here in lies the question: is the first team football really the Holy Grail to Scotland
selection? The answer is No.

Christophe Berra played over 30 games for Wolves last season, however in a Scotland shirt he still seemed bereft of positional sense, nervous and an ill-fit with Caldwell. Wilson on the other hand has played a finger full of games for Liverpool since signing from Rangers and has in my
opinion cemented the second centre half berth. Caldwell has matured into a fine defender at this level and with the inclusion of Wilson it allows him to be the sitting centre back holding position while Wilson does the charging down, it may be a grand statement but Wilson’s inclusion helps to make Caldwell a better player, less prone to those rushes to the heads that had previously surfaced.

In the full back areas on the right Alan Hutton will be first choice if he is ever fit but will he be a first choice at Spurs if hestays there? I doubt it, doesn’t stop him being the best man for the job for Scotland although in Phil Bardsley Scotland have an accomplished replacement with an edge that helps bring fans on side and if his performances for Sunderland are anything to go by a penchant for the spectacular.

In fact I would say the only position truly up for grab, apart from the numerous permutations available in midfield, is is that of left back with Stephen Crainey, Lee Wallace and Steven Whittaker the 3 candidates. Crainey seems to be the man in possession at the moment and although he has not made any mistakes as I write I feel like this sentence should read any mistakes…’yet’. I fear that his lack of pace will one day will be his undoing when it counts. Lee Wallace has been the one ear marked as the future for the position but he first of all has to prove his fitness and secondly displace the model of consistency that is Sasa Papac in the Rangers team to get regular games although if the form of Danny Wilson is a reference point if he is the best available then get him in. As for Steven Whittaker he just needs to start playing well again, once he does that he is the perfect utility full back to play either side and also move further up the pitch, although in an already crowded midfield that he would not be required in that role for the national side.

This has morphed into something else, more of a squad assessment than a look at the significance of first team football but I’m going to bring
it back to that to finish off. When Scotland go into the double header with Lithuania and Czech Republic there is a real possibility that key players such as Charlie Adam, Danny Wilson and possibly a fit again Darren Fletcher are not getting regular first team football. Do you then drop them because of this? Quite possibly the three best players at Scotland’s disposal, or do you play them knowing that they are the best that we have. If first team football becomes a necessity for a Scotland cap then soon we could have Gary Kenneth back in the team and nobody wants that. So the obvious answer is yes they play, they have to.

This is the trap that Craig Levein has to avoid when pressed on reasons for exclusion of the latest press darling during any squad announcement.  The term ‘he needs regular games’ is not to be used as it will be contradictory to the good work he is doing and will give a fresh opportunity for the doubters to surface. At the end of the day as proved by Danny Wilson if you are good enough no matter how often you play you should be in the squad and as long as Levein keeps true to this mantra going forward surely the only way is up, surely.

I’ve decided to include a video treat at the end of each article and nothing gives me more pleasure than to show you Scotland’s second
goal against Denmark as well the other goals from the match, from the great work at the back to the Hollywood ball from Don Cowie it was top class all the way. Enjoy!