A game of four quarters

half-time

Half-time. Photo by Alan Myers, http://www.flickr.com

Football is a beautifully simple game. That, more than anything else, accounts for its global appeal. A ball, a scrap of land, a few willing friends and you’ve got yourself a game.

Even at the highest level, played by multimillionaires with their own Twitter emojis, the essence of the game is the same.

As a player, Marco van Basten was a marvel. He was one of the greatest centre forwards of all time, scorer of ‘that goal.’ Now he’s FIFA’s technical director and he’s decided that perhaps the beautiful game is in need of a makeover.

It’s a mystery to me why FIFA needs a technical director. Who is Marco supposed to be directing in a technical sense? Since it’s clearly not what we might call a proper job, the Dutchman has been using his time in it to dream up some radical proposals for changing football.

His proposals include scrapping the offside rule, introducing sin bins, replacing penalty shoot-outs with those run-ups that they used to use in America (when it’s fair to say the U.S. was still getting to grips with this whole soccer thing), and splitting the game into four quarters rather than two halves.

There are many things wrong with football today: diving (by far the ugliest thing in the modern game), saturation TV coverage, match fixing in many parts of the world, ‘third strips,’ and a preponderance of pink boots to name just a few.

But Marco proposes remedies for none of these blights. Instead (as is so depressingly common these days) he goes in search of solutions where no problems exist.

Offside is not a problem in the game, other than when someone asks you to explain the rule. The shifting interpretations of it don’t help either but nonetheless offside does not detract from the spectacle of football.

Sin bins aren’t actually a totally ridiculous idea. They work ok in rugby, which is a sport that has a fairly similar rhythm to football. But yellow and red cards have served the game perfectly well for years. Van Basten suggests that ‘maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card.’

The cunning solution currently in place is that incidents not heavy enough for a red are dealt with by a yellow. Again, not really a problem in need of solving.

On his idea for replacing penalties, the Dutch maestro argues: ‘It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.’ It’s not clear to me that penalties are ‘less football’ but what makes them such a wonderful part of the game is the extreme tension and nerves that they generate.

I’m sure there are many players and ex-players (perhaps Chris Waddle, who still has a penalty orbiting the moon) who would happily see the back of penalty shoot-outs but they are a brutally, agonisingly beautiful part of the game. To lose them would be a tragedy.

Finally, and most incredibly, is the four quarters idea. Van Basten: ‘The coach can have three times with his players during the game.’ Imagine if you’d told Manchester United players that Fergie would have three opportunities during a game to set the hairdryer blowing.

Four quarters would make football a completely different game, the whole rhythm and dynamic would change. Forty five minutes is a perfect length of time for the ebb and flow of a match to be established and develop.

Managers get one opportunity to decisively influence the outcome at half time but they also do so through substitutions and tactical adjustments during the rest of the game. There are lulls in football punctuated by periods of intensity. It is, in short, nothing like basketball.

I haven’t been to a live basketball match but at the other end of the spectrum I have been to a baseball game. It lasted all night. In fact, I left the game around 11:30pm while it remained in progress. Back in a Manhattan bar at midnight, it was still going on.

One half time break is also more than enough punditry and analysis. We don’t need to be cutting back to the studio every twenty odd minutes for the considered thoughts of Ian Wright or Robbie Savage.

So please Marco, leave our game alone. It is fine just exactly as it is (so is the World Cup by the way but that won’t stop FIFA’s relentless quest for money, sorry I mean ‘change’).

It’s a game of two halves; not four quarters.

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Wearing a scarf in the tropics

Malaysia v Timor Leste

I’ve been living in Malaysia for three years but the only game I’ve been to see in that time was a friendly between a national select XI and Barcelona. It was thus long overdue when I took myself to the national stadium last week for Malaysia v Timor Leste, the opening game in qualifying for both the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup. I presume that the two tournaments are too close together to have separate qualifying rounds.

My ticket cost me a very reasonable thirty ringgit and I headed to the stadium early as I had to collect it there. After a few false starts and several well intentioned if somewhat inaccurate directions, I had my ticket in my hand.

My search for the ticket counter had led me round quite a bit of the perimeter of the ground and I was able to enjoy the show provided by the Malaysian ‘ultras’ doing a pre-match tour of the outside of the stadium, singing and letting off flares.

I also found several shops selling merchandise and treated myself to a scarf. For those of you who haven’t visited Malaysia, it has a tropical climate. It is hot, baking hot, all year round and pretty much all day and all night. Inside the ground, the giant screens informed me that the temperature was 29 degrees Celsius (accompanied, as always, by intense humidity).

A scarf is perhaps not the best accessory for such conditions. I wonder if some alternatives could be considered in this part of the world – a branded fan for the fans maybe? I admit that the spectacle provided by the ultras might not look quite as good if they were waving fans rather than holding scarves aloft.

The Bukit Jalil stadium is very impressive. It was built in the mid-1990s for Malaysia’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and its 90,000 capacity makes it one of the largest stadiums in the world. That capacity would not be required for this game however; I estimate that the crowd wasn’t much above 10,000. It was a free seating arrangement and so I was able to choose an excellent position among the many free seats.

To my right, the ultras began to assume their position behind the goal. They had brought with them no less than ten drums and would go on to use them to wonderful effect, providing a rhythmical and passionate soundtrack to the entire game.

The much maligned pitch looked in reasonable nick. The surface at the national stadium comes in for frequent criticism and the delicate superstars of Barcelona refused to play on it when they visited, prompting a late and rather farcical change of venue.

The teams emerged on to the pitch behind a banner which read ‘My game is fair play – FIFA.’ I think FIFA may also want to reconsider some of its accessories.

When the game got underway the first decent chance fell to Malaysia as one of our (I was going to say ‘their’ but hey, I have a scarf) strikers cut inside but dragged his shot meekly wide of the near post.

After twenty minutes or so it was already clear that both teams were living up to their lowly rankings. Malaysia currently find themselves ranked a rather embarrassing 162nd in the FIFA rankings. For a country that loves football and invests a reasonable amount of resources in the game, its level of international football success might generously be described as modest.

Timor Leste, to my surprise, are currently ranked 146th. Despite their higher ranking, Timor Leste were considered the underdogs in the match. The FIFA rankings get a little dodgy the nearer you get to the bottom. I don’t mean ‘dodgy’ in the usual FIFA sense of the term, merely that it gets harder to rank the weaker sides against each other, especially when they don’t necessarily play each other on a regular basis.

Justifying their status as favourites, Malaysia were on top in the first half. We missed an incredible chance to take the lead on 25 minutes when one of our players was left all alone on the penalty spot as the ball dropped invitingly to him but he somehow contrived to blast the ball wildly over the bar.

Timor Leste then spurned a glorious chance of their own as their centre forward burst clear of the static Malaysian defence to find himself facing a hesitating goalkeeper. It may have been an elaborate rouse on the part of our custodian though as confronted by such obvious panic, the Leste striker succumbed to it as well and attempted a dinked finish that rolled harmlessly wide.

I hadn’t spotted any Timor Leste fans in the ground but following that miss the giant screens showed them (all six of them) celebrating the fact that a chance had been created by their side. The prospect of crowd trouble seemed slim.

One Malaysian player was wearing tights which seemed just about as ridiculous as me being sat there in a scarf. In fact it was quite a lot more ridiculous since at least there were many others wearing scarves. Perhaps anything less than 30 degrees is considered a cold night in KL for some.

Things warmed up considerably just after half an hour as Malaysia took the lead. Safee Sali slotted high into the net from a scrappy rebound after our man in tights had dug the ball out from a scrum of flailing arms and legs as the Leste defence’s attempts to clear turned into a game of Twister.

It was a deserved lead and we all celebrated ecstatically but the wide empty spaces meant that the usual embracing of strangers that accompanies a goal was lacking on this occasion.

Before half time, Timor Leste had a ‘goal’ correctly ruled out for offside. It highlighted a theme of the opening period whereby a single missed tackle in midfield invariably left either defence shockingly exposed.

There was no half time entertainment. That is not a criticism but a compliment. I’ve written before about the needless and pointless attempts frequently made nowadays to ‘entertain’ fans during the half time interval. It’s only 15 minutes: time enough for a pee, a pie (or in this case a spicy burger) and a quick Facebook update regarding how poor your team has been in the first half.

Reflecting on the first half it occurred to me that the ultras had produced a better prepared, more coordinated and more committed effort than their team.

The teams re-emerged for the second half and I was reminded how much bigger and more physical the Timor Leste players were. Malaysians are not generally tall people or particularly physically imposing but the footballers appeared to me to be rather worryingly lightweight for the rigours of the modern game.

The nation’s new technical director for badminton, Morten Frost from Denmark, has ordered all of the players to take fitness tests and improve their physical conditioning. I think the same approach might usefully be applied to the national football team.

Safee Sali began the second half with some inspired and improvised juggling down by the corner flag as he held off several opposition defenders. The game then settled back into the rhythm that had been established in the first forty five minutes.

It was a rhythm that reminded me of futsal (the fast-paced five-a-side version of the game played on a small pitch that is popular in this and many other parts of the world). It was obvious that most of the Malaysian players had grown up playing futsal and that it was their initial reference point for the game. One consequence of this was that they had a very limited understanding of how to best make use of space on the pitch.

They frequently failed to spot teammates in lots of space or were unable to play the pass that would have opened space up. Much of their movement was towards the man on the ball, condensing space and making it easier for Timor Leste to put pressure on the player in possession.

In some football cultures, such as the UK’s, the introduction of more futsal would be an unambiguously good thing as it emphasises technical ability and encourages players to be comfortable on the ball in tight spaces – things that aren’t developed naturally when you have eight year olds playing 11-a-side on full sized pitches. Futsal has long been credited with developing the skills that we associate with Brazilian players for example.

In Malaysia however the overall standard is not yet good enough for futsal, by itself, to produce very technically proficient footballers and it also appears to have conditioned Malaysian players to play the game in a slightly unbalanced way. The rhythm of futsal is closer to basketball than to regular football and Malaysia left themselves very open as a result of their futsal-influenced style of play.

Despite that we were still the better side by a considerable margin. More chances came and went, any one of which would almost certainly have made the game safe. 1-0 is always a dangerous lead though and just to emphasise that point a Timor Leste midfielder smacked a speculative effort off the bar with ten minutes remaining.

It was a warning but Malaysia didn’t heed it. End to end the game continued in its basketball style. It was a good example of how two poor sides can produce an entertaining game. The clocked ticked past 90 minutes. Almost there.

Then a silly free kick was conceded as Timor attacked down the right. The ball was swung in to the box and Saro got his head to it for the equaliser. He had been given as much space as those of us up in the stands. It was the ninety second minute. Dejection.

As had been the case throughout the game, the Malaysian players got off lightly from the crowd. I don’t speak Bahasa but it was obvious that whatever insults were hurled they were pretty mild. The ultras drummed and sang on, completing a hugely impressive performance on their part.

I looked across to the stand opposite and saw that the press gallery was almost as empty as the rest of the stadium. I’m pretty sure I could have got myself a press pass if I’d mentioned that I was going to do a write up of the game.

There’s a book I’ve seen in several bookshops here titled ‘How Malaysia Never Reached the World Cup’ by a blogger going by the name of Lucius Maximus (I suspect that’s not their real name) with the tagline ‘a 40 year chronicle of failure.’ I very much doubt that Malaysia will make its World Cup debut in 2018 (the group includes harder opponents such as Saudi Arabia and UAE) but to have any chance at all we better win tomorrow night at home against Palestine. I’ll be there.

Yes, I’m going back. Well, I have a scarf now.

Ronaldo d’Or Messi?

Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo by: Nathan Congleton www.flickr.com

Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo by: Nathan Congleton
http://www.flickr.com

Last night I watched Getafe v Real Madrid including the recent recipient of Fifa’s Ballon d’Or award Cristiano Ronaldo. Real won 3-0 and Ronaldo helped himself to a couple of goals bringing his tally to 36 already for the 2014-15 season. A few hours later Messi scored a hat-trick (incredibly, the 30th of his Barcelona career) as Barcelona won 4-0 at Deportivo La Coruna.

Separating these two great players is generally not very easy but the Ballon d’Or voters seemed to find it quite straightforward as Ronaldo won with a convincing 37.66% of the vote compared to Messi’s 15.76% (putting him just a tiny margin ahead of Neuer who polled 15.72%).

I think Ronaldo was a worthy winner but I’ve no doubt that Messi would have triumphed if Argentina had won the World Cup. Ronaldo’s World Cup was a very disappointing one but there’s no doubting how brightly he’s lit up the world stage with Real Madrid – almost as bright in fact as the suit that Messi wore to the award ceremony, the choice of which merits some considerable doubting.

Perhaps shaken by Messi’s sartorial selection, Ronaldo emitted a very strange screech towards the end of his acceptance speech. Quizzed about it later, he said: “The scream? The players know I always do that shout when I score a goal or when we win – it’s our team shout.” It may have a place as part of a goal celebration (although personally I’ve always favoured more understated approaches) but in the acceptance speech context it was quite ridiculous.

It was of course very Ronaldo – a man that’s already built a museum dedicated to himself and someone who removes his shirt almost as readily as Matthew McConaughey. Yes, Cristiano, you have a six-pack and rippling muscular physique but then you’re one of the world’s highest paid athletes, surrounded by trainers and dieticians, so maybe that’s what should reasonably be expected.

As Balotelli (another of football’s vain brigade) once asked: “when a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?” Next time you score or win an award Cristiano, try just smiling and raising your hand in the way that Alan Shearer used to.

Accepting his award, Ronaldo said: “It has been an unforgettable year. To win this trophy at the end of it is something incredibly unique.” Well, not that unique in all honesty since he won the same trophy last year.

There were a few other interesting things to emerge out of the Ballon d’Or voting. Roy Hodgson opted for Mascherano, Lahm and Neuer, somehow overlooking both Ronaldo and Messi. Perhaps this was part of some new FA diversity scheme to promote inclusion for midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers. Jamie Carragher tweeted: ‘love Roy Hodgson going for a clean sheet with his Ballon D’or picks.’

Scotland boss Gordon Strachan, a former winger, opted for Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Arjen Robben while Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s picks (Ronaldo, Lahm, and Muller) weren’t counted after his football association failed to submit the documents on time.

The Fifa team of the year for 2014 was also announced and there weren’t too many surprises other than the inclusion of David Luiz at centre half. Luiz is actually quite a decent footballer; the problem is that he plays in defence despite displaying little aptitude for defending. In my first blog post I crowned him the ‘defender who absolutely refuses to accept that he’s not a striker’ and I suspect that being picked in defence for the Fifa XI will not prompt him to think differently.

There’s no World Cup this year so the 2015 winner is likely to be judged almost solely on domestic performances. Just two and half weeks into the new year, who would bet against it being a two horse race again? Perhaps only Roy Hodgson.

Platini remains cool on the question of the heat in Qatar

Photo by: Klearchos Kapoutsis, www.flickr.com

Photo by: Klearchos Kapoutsis, http://www.flickr.com

The subject of the timing of the Qatar World Cup in 2022 is back in the news today. Uefa president Michel Platini has insisted that the tournament “will be in winter” as “it’s not possible to play in May when it’s 40 degrees.”

Europe’s big leagues would prefer May if the tournament is moved from its traditional June/July slot as this would cause them the least disruption. Fifa’s preference is apparently for a switch to November/December and they have set up a task force to investigate the possibility, due to report in March.

I’m no meteorologist but I could have forecast that a summer World Cup in Qatar might be a little on the warm side. In fact, since moving to Malaysia I’ve been amazed to discover that many people from the Middle East visit here during their summer in a bid to escape the heat. Trust me, it’s not exactly cool here.

Platini rarely broke sweat as an elegant midfielder in the 70’s and 80’s and he seems very relaxed about the prospect of the World Cup dates being changed: “I have no problem whether it’s in November, December, January or February” he said.

I suspect some others might though: other nations that bid on the basis of it being a summer tournament, other leagues, competitions and even other sports. Fifa president Blatter has already pledged that the World Cup will not clash with the Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, Theo van Seggelen, the secretary-general of Fifpro (the global players’ union) has warned that players could boycott the tournament if it’s played in the searing heat of summer in Qatar and they feel it poses a risk to their health.

Van Seggelen believes that finals must be played in November for the sake of the players and to avoid a clash with the Winter Olympics. In my favourite quote of the entire episode he said: “you cannot blame the International Olympic Committee for having their tournament in the winter.” Indeed Theo, hosting the Winter Olympics in winter does seem entirely reasonable on the part of the IOC.

However this ends there’s likely to be a lot of red faces; the number of which will multiply if Scotland manage to qualify for a World Cup in Qatar.