Tuesday, 27 October 2009

To Giantkill a Mockingbird

With average attendances of around 25,000, not to mention the 19,000 season tickets that the club sold over the summer, Norwich City are a Premiership outfit in League One clothing. More people were at Carrow Road on Saturday to witness the Canaries' 1-0 win over Swindon than watched Premiership games at Bolton, Birmingham, Burnley, and Hull over the weekend. Often dismissed, even ridiculed, for its poor transport links to the rest of the country and relative isolation from other cities, Norwich's football team thrives on fierce and loyal support from people from all over the county of Norfolk. With the closest other Football League club some 40 miles away, the Canaries attract supporters not just from the city of Norwich but from the surrounding market towns too - right out to where the North Sea meets the British mainland at places such as Great Yarmouth, almost 25 miles away.

Norwich are not a small club, and anyone who thinks otherwise should try mentioning it to a fan of Paulton Rovers. The draw for the FA Cup First Round took place on Sunday and Norwich have been drawn away to the side from the Zamaretto League Division One South and West. Not since the 1959/1960 season have Norwich been drawn in the FA Cup at this early stage, their relegation to the third tier of English football last season meaning that they no longer enter the competition after Christmas as Premiership and Championship clubs do. The Canaries' reward is a trip to Somerset to play the team lower down the league pyramid than any other still left in the competition.

Paulton beat Chippenham Town 3-0 in front of 931 people to book their place in the first round, but their game with Norwich on 7th November will see their Winterfield Road stadium playing host to its full capacity of 2,000 people - with a million or so others watching at home on ITV. This is the time of year, in the month or so before and after Christmas when the first few rounds of the FA Cup take place, that non-League clubs have the opportunity to gain the sort of television exposure that certain clubs enjoy twice each week. Paulton do not even have to beat Norwich to achieve nationwide fame and affection. Two years ago, Havant & Waterlooville lost 5-2 at Anfield but before succumbing they took the lead against Liverpool. Twice. The scorer of Havant's second goal, Alfie Potter, looked like a character from the Beano and had the name to match, helping to ensure that the goals that Liverpool went on to score could never overwhelm the impression that Potter and his teammates had made.

Therein lies a problem with the FA Cup. Too often, match reports from the early rounds of the competition reflect less those of sporting events and instead resemble one of Sir Trevor McDonald's "And Finally..." news items. If the tie features a side considerably smaller in reputation than their opponents, there is a habit for them to be portrayed as something unusual or even weird. Eccentric fans will be interviewed, as if they are not common to every club, and the jobs that the players hold down during the week will be mentioned at every opportunity. We are expected to be shocked to learn that a man who has just tackled Yossi Benayoun drives a van for a living. It is an unedifying way to treat a contest that remains a case of eleven men against eleven. Sixteen years ago, Norwich City were to Bayern Munich what Paulton currently are to the Canaries. Norwich travelled to Germany for a UEFA Cup 2nd Round tie against a side that had never lost at home in European competition. Norwich went on to win the game, and finished the job two weeks later with a 1-1 draw at Carrow Road in the return leg, but even now it is depressingly common for reports on Norwich's descent to League One to focus on what makes them unusual - the financial, once-vocal, support of Delia Smith.

Friday, 23 October 2009

As English as Queen Victoria

The 1998 World Cup was won by the host nation, France. The leader of the British National Party, the oily-haired Nick Griffin, was a guest on the BBC's "Question Time" last night. Those two statements might appear to be unrelated, but this week I want to discuss the significance of the French team in 1998 in relation to both football and politics, and next summer's tournament in South Africa. Stay with me on this one.

Firstly, a bit of background information about the 1998 World Cup. I love that tournament. It was the first one to take place when I was old enough to appreciate the games and, because it was being played in Europe, the kick-off times were all at reasonable hours of the day. Those weeks in the summer of 1998 saw matches being played almost always in blazing sunshine, or under floodlights on humid evenings. England went out in the second round but the game with Argentina was like a tournament in itself. So much happened: Michael Owen's wonder strike, Javier Zanetti's infuriatingly clever equaliser to make it 2-2, David Beckham's sending-off, Sol Campbell's disallowed golden goal in extra time, Argentina missing first in the shoot-out only for Paul Ince and David Batty to miss their spot kicks too. The world seemed different at the end of that penalty shoot-out. Us young fans felt different too - somehow wiser, less innocent.

Football had been changing in the years prior to France 98 and the tournament helped the game to evolve even more. From an English perspective, the Premier League had been running for six years and, to show what effect that had had on the league, it is so easy to forget how unexpected it was in May 1998 for Arsenal to win the title under Arsene Wenger, a bespectacled French manager who looked like a village teacher. That Arsenal side still contained the members of George Graham's legendarily effective back four - Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, and Lee Dixon - but in terms of style and tactics the team was unrecognisable from the league-winning sides of 1989 and 1991. The French national team's success in 1998 had a tactical signficance too. They played with a lone striker, Stéphane Guivarc'h, who was not there to score himself so much as to distract the opposition's defenders and create space for his teammates (including a fresh-faced Thierry Henry) to attack from deeper positions. Aimé Jacquet's system, so derided before the tournament, was vindicated when Brazil were conquered 3-0 in the final. The decline of the centre forward in the modern game has only recently been adapted to by English football. Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008 without a traditional number 9, opting instead for two deep strikers linking up with two wide players, and next year in South Africa England will in all probability line up with Emile Heskey occupying the Guivarc'h role.

Politically, however, the French team was very interesting too. If the first few years of the Premier League made English club football a more cosmopolitan place - thanks to Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Juninho, Jurgen Klinsmann, and many others - then the World Cup in 1998 also refreshed the appearance of international football. France's captain, Didier Deschamps, was born in France but many of the rest of the side were not. Lilian Thuram, the elegant full back and unlikely scorer of both goals in the semi-final win over Croatia, was born in Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. Christian Karembeu's birthplace was an island territory of France in the southwest Pacific, Lifou. Patrick Vieira, then at Arsenal and a substitute in the final, famously did not move to France from Senegal until he was 8. The greatest player in the team, Zinedine Zidane, was born in Marseille to Muslim parents who had emigrated from Algeria. So, whenever France scored during the tournament, the players literally embraced one another as Frenchmen united not necessarily by birthplace, religion, or ethnicity, but a common purpose and a responsibility towards one another. They all wore blue; they were a team.

France's answer to Nick Griffin, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has in the past denounced the French national team for containing players from immigrant families and those born in the country's colonies. The president of France's National Front is clearly no football fan, for which one of us would mind if England's goalkeeper was green and had eyes on stalks if he never dropped a cross? If anything, the eyes would be a bonus. But flippancy aside, nationality is such a slippery term that trying to define it is like trying to pick up a bar of soap from the bottom of the bath water. Just when you think you've got a grip on it, you realise you haven't. Nationality only really exists in a legal sense, in terms of what it says on your passport.

Colour in football, and so too nationality, is a matter only for the difference between the shirts of the two teams, not those wearing them. There is no reason why Manuel Almunia, Arsenal's Spanish-born keeper, could not play for England next summer if he does have UK citizenship. Any player who can, and does, put on an England shirt is, by virtue of that very act, as entitled to wear it as the man next to him in the dressing room. Owen Hargreaves' parents are English but he was born in Canada and then moved to Germany at 16 to play for Bayern Munich. He made his senior debut for England in 2001, six years before he would come to live in this country for the first time as a Manchester United player. He certainly runs around as much as an Englishman should do, when his knees let him that is, but he speaks English with a foreign accent just as Almunia does. It doesn't matter. Gabriel Agbonlahor speaks with a broad Birmingham accent but he could have represented Nigeria. He also could have played for Scotland. What the young man considers his nationality to be outside of football is entirely up to him, if it even concerns him, but when wearing the colours of England he is English and I for one relish what it says about this country that he and Wayne Rooney, that near-caricature of what the BNP think a British person should look and be like, may well be tearing through a defence on the counter-attack together next summer.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wither Scott Carson

This week's blog was going to focus on Real Madrid. On Sunday evening, the Galacticos Mk. II lost for the first time this season when Sevilla gained a 2-1 victory that severely flattered the team from the Spanish capital. Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored several times for his new club and yet still faced accusations that he is not settling in well to his new surroundings, was missing through injury and Madrid looked rather impotent in attack in Seville without the Portuguese.

As I said, this blog was going to focus on Real Madrid. My initial thoughts were to write something on how refreshing and reassuring it was for Madrid not just to lose, but to be outplayed. Despite spending over £200m this summer, and being considered part of a two-horse race with Barcelona for the La Liga title, Sunday's result raised hopes that other top clubs such as Sevilla themselves and a resurgent Valencia might be able to keep pace at the top with the big two.

However, what changed my mind about the subject for the blog was the outstanding performance of Iker Casillas in Madrid's goal on Sunday. As the defenders in front of him faced one Sevilla attack after another, Casillas was called upon to make a series of saves. Had Casillas not been in superb form, Madrid would have lost by far more than the odd goal in three. One save that he made just before half-time, and another just after the interval, were both nothing short of astonishing. Only Jesus Navas and Renato were able to beat Casillas, both with fine headers.

Iker Casillas' status as one of the world's best goalkeepers has not been in much doubt for the majority of his professional career, which began when he broke into Madrid's team some ten years ago at a mere eighteen years of age. Although he has endured losses of form, Casillas has remained a near-constant presence between the posts for Madrid ever since - including during the first Galacticos era of Zidane, Luis Figo, and the original Ronaldo.

No English goalkeeper since David Seaman can claim to have been so synonymous with a top club as Casillas is with Real Madrid. More importantly than that, though, no present English goalkeeper can claim to be as consistent at the top level as Casillas has been. With the World Cup only eight months away, England's preparations are complicated by the fact that there is no outstanding candidate to be the nation's number 1 when the tournament gets under way in South Africa.

Writing in today's Daily Mirror, Robbie Savage makes the point that England have five decent goalkeepers to choose from but no supreme ones. David James, Robert Green, Ben Foster, Paul Robinson, and Joe Hart can each manage four good games out of five but with all of them (and I speak as someone who would dearly like the third-placed name in that list to have grabbed his chance this season) there is the possibility that the next cross will be fumbled, the next shot will be spilled, or the next clearance will be shanked.

Not every mistake that a goalkeeper makes will result in a goal for the opposition. A good number of them do though, simply because the goalkeeper is the last man. That's an unfair situation for a goalkeeper to be in, compared to the striker who can concede possession without nearly so much fear of the consequences, but such is the responsibility of the team's number 1.

If the World Cup began this weekend, I would select Robert Green in goal. However, if Ben Foster has a good run of games before Edwin van der Sar returns to fitness then his hold on the jersey will be strengthened significantly as so much has been expected of him for so long. David James has more experience than any other goalkeeper in the Premiership other than Foster's Dutch team-mate, and so he should not be discounted - no matter how poor a season Portsmouth are likely to have. But my worry is that, whoever is in goal in South Africa, the likelihood of them playing between three and seven games without making a critical error is as slim as Robbie Savage writing another column worth reading.