About Eliot Rothwell

20. Premier League and Euro 2012 accredited freelance. Iconic Bury fan. Co-editor @SFUnion_. Student @warwickuni. Work published in every continent. Slavophile.

Slovakia: Rising Fortunes In The East

The date is June the 24th. A Thursday, to be precise. Slovakian right-back Peter Pekarik picks the ball up from out of play under an overcast sky. The defender has just seen his teammate, Robert Vittek, fire past the Italian stand-in goalkeeper Marchetti to give the unfavoured Slovakians a 2-1 lead. Effortlessly and precisely he spots a white shirt driving across the turf, untracked by the supposedly imperious defence of the Italian world champions. In an instant he throws the ball in the direction of the man in that white shirt, the substitute Kamil Kopunek, who delicately and brilliantly plugs the ball over the already twice beaten Marchetti and into the net. 3-1. Game over. Well, apart from an extravagant Fabio Quagliarella chip to make the scores 3-2.

Slovakia, due to that result, progressed through the World Cup group stages at the expense of holding champions Italy but ultimately fell to the combination of steel and artistry displayed by eventual finalists Holland.

The World Cup represented a milestone for the Slovakian national team as they successfully qualified for their first ever international tournament as an independent nation, with Vladimir Weiss’ team providing a more than reasonable account of themselves in their debut on the world stage. Add that to the batch of technically gifted young Slovak players, such as Marek Hamsik and the manager’s son Vladimir Weiss Junior, progressing into the mainstream of European football and Slovakia, as a nation, is enjoying a growing reputation within Europe.

The successes at international level have been built upon by the current league champions MSK Zilina as Pavel Hapal’s yellow-clad side confidently overcame the more experienced continental travellers Sparta Prague 3-0, over two legs, to progress into the Champions League group stages. Despite having the pain of double defeats to Chelsea, Marseille and Spartak Moscow inflicted upon them, Zilina gained an added interest continentally for both themselves and Slovakia as a whole to complement the World Cup performances.

Defeat at the weekend to Tatran Presov, only their second this season, at the continuation of the Slovak league season caps off a less than satisfactory run for the championship favourites as they have failed to achieve victory in their past three outings. Regardless of their recent poor form Hapal’s side remain affixed to the top of the table with even the nation’s most celebrated manager Dr Jozef Vengloš suggesting “it looks like Žilina will end up winning it again.” It, therefore, appears that the Slovakian side will again earn the chance to test themselves at the fulcrum of European club football, in turn, promoting the rise of Slovak football exponentially following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Vengloš, however, is an interesting character, well travelled and experienced in the European scene after spells as the manager of Sporting Clube de Portugal, Aston Villa, Fenerbahçe and Celtic. Having gained a doctorate in physical education, the former Slovan Bratislava boss has now taken a back-seat role in football, regularly guest speaking at FIFA academies across the world.

Speaking to the official UEFA website, Vengloš acknowledged the rise in Slovak football and a rise in attendances and passion towards the game following the World Cup, but the Doctor reflected on his time in the British Isles when outlining how the Slovak fan experience could improve: “if clubs want more fans to come to games, the players have to look for inspiration from the top European leagues, like England’s Premier League. The atmosphere there is fantastic, the same in Scotland too.”

Whilst also calling for an increased impetus to be placed on improving the sporting infrastructure of the nation, the experienced former manager has witnessed a recent dip in the footballing fortunes of the Slovak national team. Weiss’ side have come into criticism as, after impressive victories over both Russia and Macedonia, Slovakia suffered the unfamiliar bite of defeat to minnows Andorra before a laborious draw against The Republic of Ireland, leaving them 4th in their European Championship qualifying group. Whilst these results may represent a metaphorical clip on the wings of Slovakian football, Dr Jozef Vengloš remains hopeful of Weiss’ side, suggesting the poor run of results is “no reason to be pessimistic or stop coming to the matches. All big teams have bad periods.”

Guest Article: Flight of The Moroccans

In full flow for his new national side - Mounir El-Hamdaoui

Continuing the influx of guest articles onto the blog, the very knowledgeable Thomas Archer of eredivisielife.footballunited.com introduces us to an interesting trend encircling Moroccan and Dutch football.

Don’t whisper it too loudly but there is a revolution occuring in The Netherlands.

The land of Edam, Delft and pancakes is fully behind ‘Het Oranje’ and Bert van Marwijk, following the largely unexpected success in the World Cup and the way in which van Marwijk has continued to introduce exciting young players to the national team.

One of those stars coming to the fore is Ibrahim Afellay.  The man who is 99% certain of a free transfer ‘abroad’, as Patrick Kluivert put it on television last night, was the linchpin of Holland’s cruising  4-1 win over Sweden in the Amsterdam Arena, scoring two goals and setting up another.

Afellay was born in Utrecht to Moroccan parents 24 years ago and was, therefore, eligible to represent both Morocco and The Netherlands.  That he opted for the land of his birth was no ‘real’ surprise, as he was clearly good enough to become a regular fixture in the Dutch national team, but more and more players of Moroccan descent are choosing to play for the Maghreb country rather than the team that plays in such Briljant Oranje.

For those of you who are not aware of the Dutch political situation, you may have been drawn to the antics of Geert Wilders (recently invited to join a coalition government following the deposing of Jan-Pieter Balkenende), the man who wants to ban the Qu’ran and Burkha in The Netherlands.  Some may think that he is just a bit of a ‘nutjob’ with extreme views, although the opinion poles may suggest the opposite with many Dutch-voters drawn to his right-wing views.  This situation perhaps makes it less of a surprise that the Moroccan-Dutch feel more at home playing for the country of their ancestors rather than that of their birth, especially as the average Moroccan in The Netherlands is treated with as much suspicion by many Dutch as a Serb in a Chinese fireworks store.  The Dutch lay the blame for the increase in shootings and rapes at the door of the immigrant population, many of who live in Rotterdam and nearby Gouda.  A look at Feyenoord’s recent teams shows a team that represent the city with a population of more than 60% who were not born in The Netherlands..  Included in those teams was Moroccan captain Karim El-Ahmadi, born in the Western city of Enschede, who arrived at Feyenoord in a big-money move from Eredivisie rivals FC Twente, a couple of years ago.

Star of AZ Alkmaar’s title-winning team, Rotterdam-born Mounir El-Hamdaoui, who signed for Ajax over the summer has also recently opted to play for Morocco.  El-Hamdaoui has had a colourful career, polarising opinion with fans of some of the clubs he has played for including Tottenham Hotspur and Derby County, where he scored 3 goals in 9 games.  El-Hamdaoui has had a sparkling start to the season scoring 6 goals in 7 games for Ajax, having attracted the eye of a number of the continents top teams.  El-Hamdaoui previously played for the Jong Oranje (under-21) team as had El-Ahmadi, he has now scored two international goals for Morocco in the five games that he has played since switching allegiance and is now a firm fans favourite on his travels back to Morocco.

The list of players who have switched allegiance from The Netherlands to Morocco includes NAC winger Fouad Idabdelhay, PSV’s Nordin Amrabat, Heerenveen’s attacking left-back with a rocket of a free-kick, Younes El-Akchaoui, Wisla Krakow’s Rotterdam-born Nordin Boukhari and Utrecht-born Ismael Aissati.

Aissati and Amrabat were once seen as the hottest prospects in Dutch football.  Aissati has an impressive CV having played for PSV (with Ibrahim Afellay), FC Twente and Ajax and has recently been loaned out to supposed new super-power Vitesse Arnhem.  Amrabat on the other hand, starred for VVV Venlo in his first Eredivisie season and was subsequently transferred to PSV.  Neither players would have been first-chocie for the Dutch team although they would have been in with a chance to act as back-up players for the team.

It looks like this phenomenon is likely to increase in the future with the appointment of Pim Verbeek as Technical Director and coach of the Moroccan under-21 team working alongside Eric Gerets as head coach.  Recent defectors include Younes Mokhtar and Imad Najah of PSV and AZ’s Ali Messaoua.  However, the biggest loss to the Dutch team will be Zakaria Labyad, the Utrecht-born PSV player who made his debut as a 16 year-old in the Europa League against HSV in 2009.

Promising youngster - Zakaria Labyad

Much is expected of the 17 year-old who has already represented the Dutch at the 2009 under-17 World Cup as well as the under-19 team, however he was sent home from an under-19 training camp last week, when the Dutch received a message from FIFA confirming Labyad’s intention to play for Morocco.  Perhaps not the best way to handle things, but there is sure to have been a lot of pressure on the youngster to switch allegiance.  Labyad is now gone from the mind of the Dutch national selection as a player is only allowed to switch countries once and is therefore tied to Morocco for the rest of his career.

The Dutch’s loss is Morocco’s gain and as a result of the success of the Dutch team in recent years, many more players of dual nationality may see the idea for playing for the country of their forefathers as more inviting and possibly a quick fix.  However one of the strongest reasons may prove to be the increasing nationalist sentiment in Holland, fuelled by the political ideologies of Wilders.  The days of footballers of Moroccan descent such as Khalid Boulahrouz, Afellay and Otman Bakkal choosing for Holland ahead of Morocco may be over.  For now, Morocco’s future appears bright, and it may even be Orange!

Romania – “The collapse of football: Greed and Corruption.”

Dumitru Dragomir

The year is 1998, the location is Toulouse, France. Romania and Chelsea right-back Dan Petrescu receives a high ball from the left hand side, out muscling England left-back and Chelsea team-mate Graham Le Saux before delicately placing the ball through the legs of England’s ‘keeper David Seaman and into the gaping net. The Romanian players, and fans, go wild as a 2-1 victory over one of football’s traditional powerhouses is achieved. The baying hoards up and down Romania, from Bucharest  to Craiova, had little idea that, by 2010 they would still be waiting for another taste of World Cup football.

The sorry state that Romanian football now finds itself in could not have been foretold in the 1930’s as Romania were one of only four teams to compete in the first three World Cup’s. The journey from founders of competitive international football to the crumbling bastion of flair is a long and arduous process that would be better described in a historical volume. One of the main reasons for the decline in Romania’s national game, in recent years, is the corruption within the national game and the way the game is run in the former communist Country.

The degree of corruption has been highlighted recently by the Romanian daily ‘Adevarul.’ The daily published, on Monday, a detailed and damning analysis of the state of Romanian football holding the ominous title “The collapse of football: Greed and Corruption.” The heavily critical analysis of the current Romanian plight pinpoints Mircea Sandu, president of the Romanian Football Federation (FRF), and Mitica Dragomir, president of the Professional Football League (LPF), for vehement criticism.

Part of the analysis reads: “Everything started immediately after the revolution when the legitimate issue of taking this sport out from under any government, hence political, influence was raised. The Romanian Football Federation was organized as a non-governmental association; however those that created it made sure to basically ensure their “immortality.” Mircea Sandu was the beneficiary. A few years later, Dumitru Dragomir, another “man of football,” requested for his share of the pie and received the leadership of the Professional Football League (LPF), the entity that manages League I. Under their reign any worthless person was able to become a football club owner. In recent years the Sandu-Dragomir duo watched as some amazing cases of corruption were revealed in the system that they have led for two decades: money laundering, bribing referees, bribing players. They said and did nothing. Now they sit and watch, just like us, the draw against Albania”

Sandu was a renown goal-scorer in his day’s as a player, netting 169 goals in 442 appearances, although he made little impact on the Romanian national team. He was elected to the presidency in 1990 and has since been reelected twice, his past pales in significance to his colleague Dragomir. With a nickname like “Corleone,” you can immediately see the portrayal of the League’s president in Romania.

Dragomir is not a footballer, he is a politician who entered the world of football in 1977, aged just 31 when he became president of, the now disbanded, Ramnicu Valcea. So that’s his induction into the football world, now for his induction into the murky world of crime and imprisonment. in 1976, yes so that means Ramnicu allowed him to preside over footballing matters even though he had a criminal record, Dragomir was handed a three-month sentence for illegal gambling, but his criminal jaunts don’t stop there. Whilst president of yet another football club, Victoria Bucharest, Dragomir was handed another prison sentence. The politician was handed a seven month sentence for “abuse of office” in 1990, making that ten months in total. Surely a candidate to become deputy in the national parliament and president of the national football league…

As well as a politician, it transpires that Dragomir is a xenophobe and anti-Semite. These, less than startling, revelations came after the collapse of his sports newspaper, Romanian Sport, after the editorial team of the newspaper left to create a rival institution. Dragomir then launched these attacks through the national tabloids until he was given a “warning” by Sepp Blatter and his pals at FIFA.

Just to put this into a little bit of perspective for English readers, this is like Richard Scudamore, head of the Premier League, being a twice convicted criminal with xenophobic and anti-semitic tendencies and when these tendencies became apparent, him being given a slight slap on the wrist by the men leading the world game. Ho hum!

Guest Article: Wales, Better Luck Next Time?

The outgoing John Toshack

The excellent Gary Andrews opens the “Guest Article” spot on Not Bad On Paper, with his very knowledgeable thoughts on the position of Wales national team manager.

John Toshack’s departure as Wales manager was done in a particularly Welsh way. There was no coup, just sad resignation among Welsh football fans as the former Swansea and Real Madrid boss took nearly a week to confirm what everybody knew was inevitable from the day after the defeat to Montenegro.

Toshack had cut a dejected figure during Wales’ first qualifier for Euro 2012, and for much of the latter part of the doomed World Cup campaign. As a manager, he had always insisted that he was judged on his results. Yet the results weren’t good enough, and the Montenegro defeat meant Wales were facing a struggle to qualify for 2012 after just one game.

When Toshack took over from Hughes in 2004, Wales were ranked 58th in the world, having narrowly lost out on a place in Euro 2004 to Russia, while beating Italy along the way in qualifying.

Today, the Dragons are ranked 84th and haven’t scraped any kind of result from a major footballing power, bar a draw away to Germany, since defeating the Azzurri. Toshack’s competitive record reads W10 D3 L16. It’s hard to conclude Wales have gone anything but backward under his tenure.

Toshack wasn’t helped by the retirements of key players, many of whom were frozen out, clashed with the Swans legend, or had simply had enough. Robbie Savage – who admittedly could start an argument in an empty room – was the first to go, followed by Ryan Giggs, John Hartson, Gary Speed, Mark Pembridge, Mark Delaney, and Simon Davies. This represented the cream of the Welsh crop.

How many of these players would have retired under a different manager is perhaps a moot point. Many were coming to the end of their careers, although the majority of these players still had much to give.

More worryingly, Toshack had a tendency to fall out or publicly question some of the more talented, established names, most recently Craig Bellamy and Robert Earnshaw. This is fine if you have a wide pool of players to draw from, but Welsh talent has always been spread thinly – a few exceptional players sitting alongside lower league journeymen.
The one area where Toshack was praised was his rapid promotion of youngsters such as Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Jack Collison to the senior squad (he awarded 43 players their first cap), and worked well with Brian Flynn, the Under 21s coach. But although there is admire in this approach, the players they replaced were simply not up to the task. Bale and co may have been young, but were still streets ahead of the League 1 and 2 seasoned pros.

In fairness to Toshack, he was presented with a difficult situation when he took over. His predecessor, Mark Hughes, was well liked and could do no wrong after taking the Dragons within touching distance of the European Championships. But Hughes also probably knew his ‘golden generation’ was already declining and when he departed for Blackburn Rovers late in 2004, the squad was already showing signs of strain.

Toshack, meanwhile, while revered as a player, adored at Swansea City, and respected for his coaching work around Europe, most notably at Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, was viewed with skepticism. Part of this stemmed from his first spell as Wales manager, when he resigned after 41 days and one game, but also because of his particularly acerbic criticism as a pundit for the Welsh media, which alienated several players before he was appointed.

Yet, in the wake of Hughes’ departure, there was no other Welshman with quite the qualifications for the job. Perhaps the FAW should have looked abroad at this stage for a Trapattoni-like figure to add some European know-how. But once it was clear foreigners were ruled out, then Toshack was the only man for the job, ahead of the popular, if limited, Flynn.
But Toshack’s main probably, apart from his prickly nature, was tactically he was wedded to a flowing European system, often comprising of a 3-man defence. This may have been fine for Spanish football, and was fresh and revolutionary at Swansea in the late 70s and early 80s, but for a team like Wales, it was ill-suited to the players available. What was needed was a battler like Hughes or Tony Pulis who knew how to get the best from a limited team.

Newport-born Pulis, now at Stoke, has already ruled himself out of the running for the job, as has Kenny Jackett, who took Millwall into the Championship last season. But the quality of potential Welsh candidates is certainly higher this time around.

The right man for the job?

Ryan Giggs, the outstanding Welsh player of his generation, would be the popular choice but the 36-year-old is still very much in Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans at Manchester United. While Hughes was still playing when he took the job, without any coaching experience, this may be a tournament too early for the softly-spoken Giggs, although it would be a surprise if he did not end up coaching his country one day.

Flynn is again being talked up, in a potential partnership with Giggs, but would seem best suited to the Under 21s, while Mark Bowen, Hughes’ long-term assistant, would be an interesting, if untested gamble. Meanwhile, Welsh legends Ian Rush and Dean Saunders have failed to impress at Chester and Wrexham respectively.

This probably leaves the former Fulham, Real Sociedad, and Coventry manager Chris Coleman has the most obvious candidate. Coleman knows how to keep a small club battling at a higher level, having performed admirably at Craven Cottage before controversially being dismissed for Lawrie Sanchez.

There is a question mark over his inability to push Coventry on from Championship also-rans, but for the time being – unless a better foreign coach is available – he remains the obvious choice.

Whoever takes over may find that, despite only having played one game, that qualification for Euro 2012 is already beyond Wales, although a third place finish in their group would be a decent start. Yet again, Wales, with a crop of talented youngsters, are already eyeing up the next qualifying campaign and hoping this time it will be our year. It’s a familiar story.

You can find Gary at http://www.garyandrews.net/ and on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/GARYANDREWS

Ukraine: The Road To Euro 2012

The outgoing Myron Markevich

“I’ll start with the airports,” said Markiyan Lubkivsky, Tournament Director of Euro 2012. Lubkivsky then proceeded to rattle of specific dates linked to when, he thinks, each airport in Ukraine will be able to accommodate the mass of people heading there for the 2012 tournament. The director also informed Liga.net that all was running smoothly to have the appropriate stadiums ready for use by June and July of 2011, despite concerns that Donetsk, the home of Shakhtar, is too small a city to provide hotel rooms for the large quantities of journalists, players and fans. The one thing that Lubkivsky could not guarantee, however, is whether the Ukrainian national team will be ready.

This week the national team was shrouded in controversy with the resignation of manager Myron Markevich due to the fact that he wanted to concentrate solely on the other facet of his managerial career: Metalist Kharkiv. In the chaos that ensued, President of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), Grigoriy Surkis suggested that Markevich’s decision had been forced upon him by someone “behind the scenes.”

An added bout of board room mudslinging ensued when head of the FFU fair play committee Igor Kochetov proclaimed his view on another person acting in a dual role with both Metalist and the FFU: Sergei Storozhenko. Kochetov claimed that Storozhenko, the Vice President of the FFU, needs to decide where his loyalties lie, adding that he “doesn’t know who’s shirt he holds dearest.”

Kalitvintsev: Firefighter

In response to the back-handed jibes between members of what is essentially supposed to be a close-knit, functioning football federation, Surkis, in a tremendous display of competence, ushered in Markevich’s former assistant Yuri Kalitvintsev. Kalitvintsev is seen as a fire-fighter, guaranteeing to safeguard the future of the national side and, possibly, steady the ailing ship until the federation can solve the internal feuding and appoint a successor to guide the team to Euro 2012.

Kalitvintsev, in traditional caretaker fashion, appeared unflappable to the most probing of media questions and presented an intelligent and mild-mannered image in the wake of this troublesome period. The caretaker boss rebuffed worries stating that “there is no need for panic” whilst outlining his ambition for the national side stating that they can win the upcoming European Championships. As experienced football fans will now know, words mean little when it comes to achieving results and popularity, but Kalitvintsev moved quickly to appoint former national team hero Sergei Rebrov to the coaching staff. A smart move that will no doubt appease a portion of discontented fans.

Money talks

The notion of a caretaker also requires there to be a permanent manager instilled at some point and in predictable fashion, Ukrainian press are reporting that, inimitable cash-cow, Lord Sven-Goran of Eriksson has thrown his diamond encrusted hat into the ring. The Swede’s unmatched ability to land himself cushy, cash-laden, jobs may serve him well as a candidate and, with the fact that Ukraine, as hosts, have already qualified for the 2012 tournament Sven may just fancy a swift venture behind the long-felled Iron Curtain.

Whoever takes the reigns as the national team boss, they would do well to avoid the poisoned boardrooms of the FFU, where any snivelling directors should be greeted with great hesitancy. Ukraine, like many Eastern European sides, have technical quality in abundance but the former Soviets never seem to be able to orchestrate a fully functioning team, note the striking similarities with the FFU boardroom.

In the race to equip the country for the 2012 tournament, minds had strayed from the fortunes of the national team until the events of this week. The fact that any new manager will not have to navigate through a qualifying campaign may stunt the development of the national side but, with footballing mercenaries such as Sven out there, there should be no lack of takers for the job. And if all else fails, at least those airports will be ready!