Saturday, 12 July 2014

Brazilian State Championships: hope for the future?

The fourth round of beers was called for. As it tends to do in Brazil, talk inevitably filtered back to football. The past two days had seen lashings of rain pour down in Rio, as if the statue of Christ himself was weeping over the city, distraught at the humiliation of the country's 7-1 mauling by Germany.

In the small corner lanchonette where we drank however, the mood was less maudlin. Our friend Weberson, a carioca whom we had met through acquaintances in Sao Paulo, was our guide for the evening and we were to head into the party district, Lapa, for a Friday night of Brazilian partying.

We asked Weberson whether he thought Brazil would beat Holland in the next day's third/fourth place playoff. 'Honestly man, I don't care. I just don't want another humiliation like Germany. If we win, I'm happy, if we lose by one or two, I'm okay. Just not another seven!'

A little tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but the answer was revealing. The overriding sense in Brazil was that this game doesn't really matter. In fact, if anything, it just gave Brazil, the most successful nation in international football, a further chance for humiliation in a tournament wherein they have just suffered their most brutal chastening. But how did it come to this? How did a nation with such a rich tradition of producing aesthetic, successful footballers end up leaving its fans in fear of humiliation?

Brazil aren't in a crisis yet. They reached the semi-final of a World Cup. A semi-final of a tournament they were expected to win (a prediction that looked painfully optimistic in reflection), but they reached it nonetheless, which is more than most teams can say. Yet they are close to a precipice: the squad is talented, of course, but true world-class players are proving difficult to find and becoming harder to produce within their country. Think a samba-flavoured, yellow-tinged England, with more success. Only Neymar and Thiago Silva out of the current generation can truly be named among the best in the world in their position, a strange idea when you cast your mind back to team after team which oozed class in the 20th century and into the beginning of this one. 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2002... 2014. Something isn't quite right.

Like England, it can be argued that the reason for this lies in the national league system. The Brazilian league system is a confusing one: from May to December, the Campeonato Brasileiro takes place, the nation's flagship competition. From January to March (or even April in some cases) most teams play in nationwide State Championships. These competitions arose in the early part of the 20th century: travel between other states and cities was difficult due to the vast distances involved so the regional championships thrived instead. As time has gone on however, these championships have not been phased out but instead kept and played in conjunction with the national league system, meaning players have at most two months away from playing, if that. This can mean that players can play upwards of 60 or 70 games each season, leading to burnout and increased susceptibility to injuries. On a minor note, as the championships showcase local teams against each other, Serie A teams will pit their wits against Serie D teams, and sometimes even non-league teams, exposing a dearth of match quality.

I asked Weberson what he thought about the State Championships and whether they held any value. 'For me, no. They are bad for the big teams. The players get no rest.' And for the small teams? 'Better maybe, but still they are long for them too.'

My friend put it to him that they could be used as a youth or reserve competition for the bigger teams, enabling big clubs to give their youngsters a chance to play and the lower-division teams warm up games for their own season. 'Maybe, yeah. There should be something done about them for sure, but I don't know what.'

The idea of using the championships as a way to blood youngsters is a practice that has always been engaged with in Brazil, but making them exclusively a youth or reserve competition for bigger sides is an interesting idea. Regular competitive football would be a massive boost for the development of the players, and in time, the national team may be able to reap the rewards. The problem may arise when the older generation complain that the historical integrity of the competitions would be compromised, as they have done in the past when talk of jettisoning the competitions altogether has been mentioned, yet surely as time goes on younger fans will not feel as strongly about the issue.

Obviously, changing the format of the State Championships is not the only solution to Brazil's current problems, nor is it a surefire way to improve the fortunes of the national team. Clubs selling their brightest young talents abroad for large sums of money hasn't helped, and has definitely impacted on the progression of several players in recent years. Yet, the competitions remain an untapped source of potential, a way to improve the quality of young players that is already in place, and right in the eyeline of the football federation.

Brazil stands at a crossroads in regards to its football. The inquest into the sport in the country will be made, as it always is when a favourite nation turns in an underwhelming performance at an international tournament. Whether they will turn their attentions to the State Championships to aid them in their quest for improvement or abolish them instead is a question that remains to be answered. Maybe they will ignore them altogether. That would be a huge shame, as they could do a great deal to aid the country in getting back on track to producing the wonderful, exciting footballers of old. As Weberson said, something must be done about them. We just don't know what.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The game away from the game

While most of the world watched Ecuador vs Switzerland and continued their imbibing of World Cup action, the fourth day of the tournament coincided with a relaxed afternoon in Brazil. Many shops and restaurants were closed as the country entered a dozy state of Sunday bliss before the weekly buzz began again on Monday.

Sao Paulo, where my friend Adam and I are for the next week whilst out in Brazil for the Cup, was no different. We resolved to find something to do and jumped on the Metro in search of something to relieve the sleepy atmosphere that had engulfed our hostel. The first few days of staying in Sao Paulo had been a whir of Metro lines and bus terminals, all efficient as a Swiss clock despite what the media would have you believe. We picked our stop - Jardin Ayrton Senna - purely for the promise of seeing a memorial to one of Brazil's favourite sons.

Upon arrival however, nothing indicated that we were in an area which contained such a treasure. Our surroundings were as quiet as the hostel we left, and much more rural and isolated. We followed the map and found the park. Still nothing.

A trip wasted. The R$3 Metro fare didn't bother us - an expense that cost less than £1 - but more the fact we had chased an idea only to find nothing at the end.

The feeling lasted until we heard shouts coming from the park. A football match was taking place. The pitch was a rich terracotta canvas of dirt, with four irregular quadrilaterals of grass in each corner. That raised a wry laugh: the Brazilians obviously don't like wing-play as much as the English. We stayed to watch for 20 minutes, surprised to find that the overall standard was akin to a decent standard Sunday league game. There were shanked passes, nervous clearances, and overly speculative long balls. The only difference was probably a marginally better first touch on their part.

Just before half-time, the two strikers from the blue team combined beautifully to score. A ball over the top of the midfield was chested over an onrushing defender by the number 9, into the path of his more nimble partner, number 10. The receiver raced past the last defender and curled a perfectly weighted shot past the goalkeeper and into the top corner of the threadbare net.

The whistle went and we left to continue our journey around the park. More shouts and cheers led us to investigate behind a clutch of trees, where we found a group of 25 or so children playing futsal in a cage; their ages ranging from six to 16. To begin with it looked as if the younger children were not allowed to play; they sat quietly by the side of the pitch, eyes feverishly following the ball over the concrete, feet mimicking the movements of the older ones.

But two goals from one team later and they were the next team to enter the fray and grace the cage. Skilful despite their younger years, what they lacked in strength they made up for with boundless energy. Having made the score 1-1 against the run of play to great celebrations, they were sent back to the sidelines after the star player from the older team darted through them from the back, his feet outfoxing their developing motor skills, before finishing into the bottom corner. They were gone, but not without showing promise: high-fives and claps on the shoulder were their reward for doing well.

The standard of skill from all in the cage was mesmerising: even the two heftier boys and the only girl on show were dazzling. Rabonas, pannas, elasticos rolling as effortlessly from their feet as they do from the tongue.

We left, smiling and uplifted. It was clear we had seen a glimpse of the beating heart of Brazilian football. While much of the country had shut down for the day, the football carried on, far away from the multi-billion pound Fifa extravaganza in the centre of the city. 11-a-side games, fame and stardom may be the aim for these Neymars-in-potentia, but for that Sunday, there was only the cage, and the glory that lay within it.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Potential Christie MLS move begs serious agent questions

The news that Coventry City full-back Cyrus Christie may be on the move to a Major League Soccer (MLS) team in North America has raised a few eyebrows, not least amongst the Sky Blue fans and the team manager, Steven Pressley.

When the news broke a couple of weeks ago that the States could be a potential destination for the Coventry Academy graduate, it seemed a tad far-fetched and a perfect example of the rumours that can arise during the 'silly-season' of the summer transfer window. But with the names of three clubs that are supposedly interested in Christie being revealed in the Coventry Telegraph yesterday - Toronto FC, DC United, and New York Red Bulls - it seems that this is one bit of hearsay that may have its beginnings in truth rather than guesswork.

Everyone connected with Coventry and Christie was well aware as far back as September that this would be the defender's last year at the club, barring a quite sensational change of heart. Out of contract this summer, and in the form of his life up until Christmas, it was widely accepted that Christie would be off to ply his trade in pastures new come the start of the 2014/2015 season. But from slightly over-hyped speculation that Spurs were monitoring him, to Huddersfield and Bolton emerging as interested parties in the early part of the year, this fairly solid link between the player and the MLS is a slightly bizarre twist in an otherwise familiar and well-trodden path for Coventry.

The club's financial situation means that we can rarely, if ever, be in a position where we can keep players who hit form or who have the potential to thrive at a higher level. We expect every player who impresses and gains column inches in the national press to be prised from our tired and weary fingers, often for less than we expected, and sometimes for free. The result is that we are always either replacing from within our own academy, an institution which is thankfully turning out some very adept youngsters, or taking a chance on out-of-contract journeymen.

Yet, the most problematic aspect of  the Christie conundrum is not to do with the player himself, or the club, but rather an element of football which is oft criticised: the agent. It seems that Christie's agent has been the orchestrator of a standoff where neither party looks, for the moment at least, to come out of this any better off.

It is not a massive stretch of the imagination to conclude that Christie's agent probably advised him that running down his contract was the best course of action for his career. With no transfer fee to be paid and only the small matter of compensation to be awarded to Coventry for investing so much in his footballing education, the idea must have been that higher-placed clubs would be clambering over themselves to sign him. So far this has not happened, and the only words we hear through the footballing grapevine are the whispers that he may be off to try his luck in the United States.

Christie is a young man, and a talented footballer as well. He has put in a decent amount of service with the club, and not many fans would begrudge him the chance to go and further his career elsewhere. As it happens though, the MLS doesn't really represent a forward move for a young footballer trying to further his career; if anything, it's a sideways/backwards one. Sure, the individual quality may be higher than League One thanks to your Thierry Henrys and your Robbie Keanes lighting up the place in the twilight of their careers, but as a place to enhance your reputation, it just does not cut the mustard.

The thought still remains that if Christie was to have signed a new contract this year, like mercurial teammate Callum Wilson, he would not be in this position. If no bids came in from outside parties, he would still be able to ply his trade with his boyhood club at a respectable level, whereas if interest was high, the club would have been able to recoup a substantial fee for him and the defender could make the step-up that he desires.

Alas, as with so many young, talented players these days it seems the murmurings of his agent and promises of grandeur have forced him into a corner where the MLS is the most promising option that remains to him, at least from the outside looking in. However, at the time of writing, the transfer window is still a month away from opening, and speculation is sure to increase with regards to where Christie will be playing next season.

The hope is that this gutsy play by his agent won't prove to be a mistake. It would be a tremendous shame should the club and Christie come out of this worse off. For Coventry, that would mean losing a prodigious academy talent for significantly less compensation than they were expecting if he moved to the MLS, whereas for Christie, it would be moving to a league and country where the chances for career betterment would be severely limited.

Manager Steven Pressley probably put it best in his interview with the Coventry Telegraph: "I think his current agent has got a number of things he needs to answer to. Over the course of the last year I think Cyrus has been badly advised and if he’s faced with this type of scenario then I feel its been down to bad advice, I really do." 

As mentioned before it is still early days, but if this scenario ends with Christie in America, then Pressley is right: his agent has a lot to answer for.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Wilson, Lallana, and a little bit of hope

Saturday, 8th May 2010. Into stoppage time at St. Mary's stadium, Southampton. Adam Lallana races onto a through ball, with just the goalkeeper to beat. He slots the ball home, effortlessly comfortable throughout, for his 20th goal of the season. Southampton have just gone 3-1 up against Southend on the final day of the season. But they will not be promoted to the Championship this year. Lallana is 21 years old, to turn 22 in two days.

Fast-forward to 28th April 2012. Lallana connects with fellow Englishman Rickie Lambert's knockdown at the far post to finish past goalkeeper Joe Murphy for his 13th goal of the season. Southampton have just gone 4-0 up against Coventry City on the final day of the season. They will be promoted to the Premiershup this year.

Lallana is a special case. He has been with Southampton since he was a child. He played his first game for them when he was 18, and suffered the relegation to League One in the 2008-2009 season. But he stuck with the club, earning promotion to the Premier League with the Saints, playing 227 times and becoming their captain in the process.

In a meteoric rise, Lallana even earned his first England cap in a 2-0 defeat to Chile in November 2013, with public calls for him to be a starter for the World Cup 2014 team getting louder by the day . And so they should be. He is a special talent.

Sunday, 16th March 2014. Into stoppage time at Sixfields stadium, Northampton. Callum Wilson gathers the ball on the left-flank, shrugs off two defenders and makes his way into the box. He jinks past the remaining players trying to steal the ball from him, and shapes to shoot. Inevitably, he finishes past the keeper, effortlessly comfortable throughout, for his 19th goal of the season. Coventry have just drawn 2-2 with Port Vale. It is only March, but they know they will not be promoted to the Championship this year. Wilson is 22 years old.

Like Lallana, Wilson has come to prominence in England's third-tier. Similarly to the Southampton man, Wilson was not a wonder-kid; he didn't burst onto the scene as a 16 year old, promising much with precocious talent. He paid his dues on loan, and there was a time when it seemed he might not make it at Coventry before he surprised many with his goal-scoring exploits and all-round play this season.

Perhaps most importantly of all to Sky Blues fans, like Lallana is for Saints, Wilson is a local boy. Born in Coventry, he made his professional debut aged 17 and has been with the club ever since. Rave reviews and a penchant for scoring have alerted the vultures of the Championship and beyond, all eager to feed off of the starving, dehydrated traveller that is Coventry, lost in the desert of Northampton.

The 2013-2014 campaign has given us little to smile about, but Wilson's emergence and at-present commitment to the cause has been a blessing, and his goals have given many fans hope. In times of great drought this season, Wilson has been a well of goals, the water of the game. It is easy to die stranded in the desert, but when you have water, then there is always a chance of survival.

The fear is that after this season, Wilson and other key performers will be unceremoniously torn from our tired fingers. Football's eternal Catch-22: you need your players to perform to stay clear of relegation. But to perform, they run the risk of being bought by other clubs, meaning they can't perform for you any more. He signed a new contract earlier this season, but Coventry fans have long known to be wary about 'contracts'.

Wilson is the same age as Adam Lallana was on that day in May 2010, against Southend. The similarities between the two are plain at present. What is less clear is whether we will be able to draw more parallels in the future.

Fast-forward to May 2017. Into stoppage time at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. Callum Wilson is sent through on goal, his speed leaving defenders in his wake. He finishes into the bottom left corner, effortlessly comfortable throughout, for his 30th goal of the season. Coventry City will be promoted to the Premiership this year. Wilson is 25 years old. He has been with Coventry for the whole of his career to date.

Monday, 6 January 2014

New Year, New Question

It's a new year, and with a new year comes hope that this one will be different. That resolutions might be kept; that I will better myself as a person; and that I will learn from previous mistakes.

To be honest, I couldn't give a monkey's about all that this year. The one thing I really, really hope for this year is that Coventry City return to the Ricoh Arena.

Does it look likely? Not at all.

After the heads of the two warring parties (Ann Lucas of Coventry City Council and Joy Seppala of Sisu/Otium) involved in this sorry saga refused to cooperate late last year over a possible sale of the stadium or rental agreement which would allow the Sky Blues to return to their rightful home, there has been no activity of note to give fans any optimism that we will be out of Northampton soon.

When the draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup was made on Sunday afternoon, I found myself rather thankful that we had been drawn away to face Arsenal at the Emirates; fans would undoubtedly turn up to support the team at one of the best English stadiums, and we would probably be able to take more fans to London than could actually fit into Sixfields.

Waking up this morning though, and thinking over the possible permutations of us being drawn at 'home', I found myself wondering whether facing a big team at Sixfields would have prompted at least a discussion of a return to the Ricoh.

The issue was raised in a way by the Coventry Telegraph Live (@CovTelLive) Twitter page, who asked:

If Coventry had drawn Arsenal (or Chelsea, or Liverpool etc) at home, would Sisu have attempted to engage in discussions to take the club back to the Ricoh for that one match? And could those discussions have paved the way for a return: permanently, or if only until the 'new stadium' we have been promised materialised years down the road?

As depressing as it can be to look down these alternate-reality paths, it is a point worth considering. Taking into account that we are subject for up to (God forbid) five years in Northampton, we could have a few more of these situations arise in the future.

Personally, given the fact that Sisu have previous with cutting off their nose to spite their face, I wouldn't bank on them ever entering rental deal discussions without a sale of the Ricoh included. There are without doubt more qualified people than me who could look at the financial and business side of this and come to a more reasoned conclusion as to why they may or may not have looked at utilising the Ricoh for one big match.

Who knows, in some parallel-universe, Coventry might already be back at the Ricoh and in the play-off places, with Sisu ready to relinquish hold of the club and sell to a more benevolent benefactor.

Or not. Happy New Year, fellow Sky Blues. Let's hope this one gives us more to cheer about than last!