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South America Has The Best Qualification System In The World And Last Night Proved It

Stephen McGovern - Friday, October 06, 2017

If you find international breaks boring, then you haven't been paying attention to the World Cup qualifiers in South America, writes Ste McGovern.


messi south america wolrd cup qualifiers


In this part of the world, international breaks are to be dreaded and rarely enjoyed. Moans and groans about the temporary stoppage of domestic football are commonplace: meaningless games against minnows, poor standard of football, crap atmospheres. Fans, pundits and managers alike all gripe about international football from time to time.


That may be the case for residents of some UEFA countries, but in South America it is a whole other ball game. It is home to undeniably the best World Cup qualification system in the world.


CONMEBOL, the football confederation for the continent, has a relatively small pool of countries but perhaps the highest concentration of talent, featuring the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez, Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala (I could go on and on). Their teams have 45% of all World Cups, while only one team -- Venezuela -- has failed to ever qualify.



While the trend of winners has been ebbing away from South America and back towards Europe in recent tournaments, their qualifying process is still the best -- and that has a lot to do with the format.


Ten countries enter into a league three years ahead of the finals, playing each other twice home and away as they vye for four automatic spots. The fifth-placed team in the group goes into an inter-confederational playoff, traditionally against the best team from the Oceania Football Confederation. With plenty of places up for grabs among several very competitive sides, it has always been the most exciting of all the confederations. And last night proves my case.


Brazil, being miles ahead of the pack, have already qualified, but behind them is an extremely condensed group where just six points separated Uruguay in second and Paraguay in seventh.


Before the night began, all eyes were on Chile and Argentina’s respective games, as they were considered the ones most in danger of missing out. Meanwhile, Paraguay still had an outside chance just behind the main group, needing a win versus Colombia to have any chance.


While one might think that such a format might lead to plenty of dead rubbers come the end of the process, Brazil-Bolivia was the only truly meaningless game heading into last night.


south america world cup qualification table 2017


Argentina, armed with their ridiculous firepower upfront, faced Peru, a nation that hadn’t qualified since 1982. Surely they would find a way through?


Not so. Despite having the majority of possession and chances, they couldn’t find a way through. Although it ended 0-0, the game was captivating; watching this resolute defence take a stand against the mighty Argentines and the greatest player in the world, spurning chance after chance.


On the flipside, La Albiceleste failed to create enough clear cut chances. Their forwards were too static, standing still instead of making runs and creating space to open up the defence. The ball would be pushed out wide repeatedly, despite the fact that it simply wasn’t working. In fact, the wide areas is one of the areas where they very much lack an edge. For all their world class talent though, they looked a team without ideas.


Argentina have scored just two goals in five games - a record that mirrors the Republic of Ireland’s. Their reliance on Lionel Messi has become counter-productive, stifling what should be the most feared front six in world football.





In Chile, meanwhile, a massive tie with Ecuador was taking place at the same time. The away side’s chances of qualification were slim, but still had an outside shot. A win would put them level with Chile on points before a final day encounter with Argentina. In other words, this was a must-win game for both sides, and it played out as such.


Former QPR winger Eduardo Vargas got the opening goal for the hosts after 22 minutes, and were determined to hold onto the lead. Romario Ibarra had other ideas, striking an equaliser with just eight minutes to go. Disaster for the Copa America champions, and a major lifeline for Argentina. It didn’t last long though, as Alexis Sanchez turned up right when they needed him to, restoring their lead three minutes later. They hung on for a vital win.


A game of equal importance that was taking place at the same time, although not as many people were taking notice of, was Colombia versus Paraguay. A win would see the Colombians take their place in Russia next summer, while a draw would also put them in a relatively strong position heading into their last fixture against Peru.


It looked to be going their way when Radamel Falcao, who missed the World Cup in 2014 due to injury, scored with just eleven minutes of normal time left on the clock. As the dumbest cliché in football goes though, they scored too early. Through super subs Oscar Cardozo and Antonio Sanabria, Paraguay somehow won it at the death. Arsenal’s David Ospina made a right hames of the two situations, but it’s also fair to say that the entire defence bottled it right when they needed composure. Now they are in serious jeopardy of going out.





Just like that the complexion of the table was changed in the space of a few exciting minutes.


south america world cup qualifying


Chile jumped ahead of their closest rivals and into the automatic spots, while Paraguay have given themselves an outside chance of qualifying, should they win and at least one other team to do them a favour. On Wednesday they face Venezuela, easily the worst team in the group. They will be keeping half an eye on Peru versus Colombia, as one of those is guaranteed to drop points. Paraguay will be hoping to go to Russia at the expense of one of them, and with their fixture being the last of the lot to kick-off, there will be a lot of nails bitten down to quick waiting nervously for the final result at Defensores del Chaco.


Although Ecuador have nothing left to play for, they won’t be pushovers and the Argentines’ form would suggest a win is far from a formality: their last competitive win was a 1-0 victory over Chile in March, before losing 2-0 to Bolivia at home and drawing against Uruguay and Venezuela. If they do manage to get the three points though, there is every chance they will make the playoffs, where they would face New Zealand.


Five teams are now battling it out for three spots, meaning there will be four mouth-watering games on show next week. Uruguay are all but through thanks to their superior goal difference, meaning their match with Bolivia is the only dead rubber in the final round of games. Whatever happens this coming Wednesday, we are guaranteed drama, excitement and the prospect of at least one really good team being bitterly disappointed.


Let’s face it: CONMEBOL has it so good.




The Major Nations In Danger Of Missing The World Cup

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, October 05, 2017

We're into the final month of World Cup qualifiers, the last hurdle before Russia 2018, but there could be a number of big names missing from next year's tournament, writes Ste McGovern.


Robben, Messi; World Cup 2018


Irish minds are focused on next week’s crunch tie with Wales in a quasi-playoff for a place in playoffs for the World Cup, although even then neither nation is guaranteed a spot in the final round of qualification.


The two countries either side of the Irish Sea are not the only ones anxious about their chances of qualifying for next summer’s tournament in Russia. Several major powers are in doubt of making it to the showpiece, including a past winner of the competition. 


Listen: We interviewed Huw Davies of FourFourTwo magazine ahead of Ireland's crunch tie with Wales:




Jorge Sampaoli took charge of La Albiceleste after his stint at Sevilla in order to steady the Argentine ship. It remains to be seen whether or not he has: before the former Chile boss arrived they had lost to Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia; since then they haven’t lost a game, but could only draw in his opening two competitive games in charge, against Uruguay and Venezuela, the only South American team to never qualify for a World Cup.


Argentina face a crunch tie tonight against Peru, who haven’t qualified since 1982 but sit ahead of their rivals on goals scored. A draw could be enough to see the Peruvians through to Russia, while anything less than a win could leave Sampaoli’s charges in serious danger of not even making it to a playoff with New Zealand. Can you imagine a World Cup without Lionel Messi? 


south american world cup qualifying




The country that Sampaoli led to Copa America glory in 2015 is in a slightly worse position than the Argentines. Sitting in sixth, they have to win their last two games against Ecuador and Brazil, no easy task, to have a chance of making a playoff at least. It would be a massive disappointment for the Chileans, who have won consecutive Copa’s and reached the Confederations Cup final this year, to not reach a tournament they have notions of possibly winning.


With only the Brazilians having clinched their spot so far, any four of six nations can qualify, complicating matters even further. Should Peru go through it would be an amazing story, but would be at the expense of one of football’s powers.




The Dutch missed out on Euro 2016 even with its extended format of 24 teams, but they were expected to bounce back for the World Cup qualifiers. The KNVB decided to stick with Danny Blind as manager, baffling fans and commentators alike. After an awful 2-0 loss to Bulgaria in Sofia in March, the former Ajax defender was sacked having won just 41% of his games.


Under Dick Advocaat the Oranje have bounced back, beating the Bulgarians 3-1 in the return fixture, but a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of France in August leaves them three points off second-placed Sweden. An inferior goal difference means they have to obliterate Belarus before taking on the Swedes in another quasi-playoff. 


group a uefa world cup qualifying netherlands


The last time Netherlands failed to reach a World Cup was, of course, when Ireland defeated them 1-0 at Lansdowne Road in 2001. They haven’t failed to qualify for consecutive major tournaments since the 1980’s, but look set to do so this month.




The nature of CONCACAF qualifying means that realistically the top teams involved only have to beat the bottom two teams in their group to make it to the finals. That’s very much the case with the Americans, as they have beaten Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago, but no one else.


Jurgen Klinsmann made way for Bruce Arena to return as manager, but they still sit in fourth place, nine points behind leaders Mexico. They’re tied on nine points with Honduras, although have a superior goal difference. That would be enough for a playoff against either Australia or Syria, not a gimme by any stretch, especially considering USA’s lack of form of late.


concacaf world cup qualification usa




The Socceroos are hardly a superpower in international football, but they have qualified for the last three World Cups in a row and won the Asian Cup in 2015. Australian football has made great strides since moving to the Asian Football Confederation in the mid-noughties, but failing to make it to Russia would be a huge setback to all the progress they’ve made.


Australia finished third in their group, behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference, meaning they have face the third-placed team in the other AFC group, Syria, in a playoff. The first leg is finished 1-1, but even if they make it through that tie, they may have to face USA in November. We could very well be without at least one familiar face next summer. 




You may not have noticed, but African qualifying has already taken a few scalps - Nations Cup champions Cameroon and Algeria are already out of the running with two rounds of games left to go. On the flip we could end up with one of Burkina Faso or Cape Verde Islands making the step up.


The Black Stars could be the next surprise exit if they lose Saturday’s contest with Uganda. The CAF qualification process means that only the winner of each group goes through, meaning that a draw probably won’t be good enough. Ghana trail Egypt by four points, who they will face next month in yet another potential quasi-playoff. The Ghanaians’ chances look especially slim, however.


African World Cup Qualification; Ghana


There are so many permutations in play this month and next in terms of World Cup qualifiers, not limited to the ones mentioned here. But at the end of it all we could end up with a finals missing the current champions of three different continents (four if you include New Zealand) and a former world champion nation. Expansion of the format can’t come quick enough for them.



Irish Football Fans Deserve Better Champions League Games

Stephen McGovern - Tuesday, September 26, 2017

When it comes to Champions League fixtures, the Irish broadcasters can sometimes feel like MUTV or LFCTV rather than RTE and TV3, writes Ste McGovern.   



Football fans in Ireland will get to see Real Madrid take on their group rivals Borussia Dortmund in a hugely important game in the Champions League. If the German side lose, their chances of a place in the knockouts are in peril, while a shock win would blow the group wide open. Shockingly, TV3 took the decision to show this game over Spartak Moscow versus Liverpool.


What’s weird about this is that it’s news at all. A station showing a stellar match-up between two outstanding teams full of incredibly talented players? Sacrebleu. even did a story on this, calling it the ‘hipsters’ choice. While the decision was unexpected, it hardly falls under hipsterism (that would surely have to be Napoli's tie against Feyenoord), although the use of the term was almost certainly tongue-in-cheek. 



Madrid have won three of the last four European titles, while BVB are one of the richest and best teams in Europe. Perhaps five years ago they were the quintessential hipster side, but they’ve outgrown that tag by now.


Naturally the story drew a lot of comments on their page, some of which echoed my sentiment: this shouldn’t really be surprising.


And yet, you have others who think this a ridiculous decision.


The tribalists amongst us remind us that Liverpool are no small fry themselves, five European Cups and all that. You also have people chiming in that it was in fact the correct choice because “Liverpool r shit m8”. Comment sections are so full of wisdom sometimes.


A familiar refrain, that you hear from all quarters and not just fans of a particular team, is that TV3 are missing out on easy ratings by not showing one of the most heavily supported fan bases in Ireland. Indeed, a survey earlier this year found that the two clubs in red have the biggest share of support amongst Irish fans.


It’s an argument I received just a few weeks ago, after I used the Final Third Twitter account to air some grievances about RTE showing Man United vs Basel over Barcelona vs Juventus.



One respondent, a Man United season ticket holder, replied “Want to find out how many Barca and Juve fans are in Ireland then, lads? Nobody's disputing which is a bigger game.” 



Other than the fact he told us to “suck a lemon”, his comment is paradoxical if not completely nonsensical. If it’s a ‘bigger game’, then why not show it? Is a relatively unexciting tie between United and the Swiss champions really going to bring in a ton of extra viewers over a repeat of the 2015 final? Besides the fact that there actually are a lot of Barcelona fans in the country, does this mean that broadcasters are beholden to showing only those two teams in the CL whenever they are on? That seems incredibly narrow-minded.


Another solution, as our insufferable tweeter informed us, is to simply buy a BT Sport package or stream a game illegally. An argument so easily rebutted I don’t think I need to waste my time doing it here.


One would hope TV3’s decision would be a sign of things to come, but RTE have chosen CSKA Moscow versus United for Wednesday night’s live game. On the very same evening Chelsea take on Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich face Paris Saint-Germain, so I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that the crowd in Montrose will follow suit. The irony in the choice of games this week, of course, is that Liverpool are the far more exciting team to watch than United under Mourinho.


I just miss the days of being able to switch between Champions League games on terrestrial telly without having to get an expensive subscription to do so.




The Two Sides To Serbia's Dusan Tadic

Stephen McGovern - Monday, September 04, 2017

As Ireland welcome Serbia to town, they bring with them Southampton's Dusan Tadic, the star player whose poor club form disappears on international duty, writes Rob Palmer.


Dusan Tadic, Serbia. (Sportsfile)


One of the worst things about modern football is the Sky-tastic, clichéd one liners that always crop up during a broadcast. Some of these bad boys include: “You couldn’t write a script like this”, “he’s almost hit that *too* well”, and “that’s a real Jekyll and Hyde performance”. However, in the case of Dusan Tadic, the latter really rings true.


Tadic is often Hyde for Southampton with the jury still out on his success as a signing after having spent almost four years at the club. This is typified in some of the reactions on Twitter in the wake of The Saints exhilarating 0-0 draw with Premier League giants Swansea City. To say the opinions of fans is divisive is an understatement. Some love him, some loathe him. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between among the Southampton fan base.


Compare that to the performances and adulation he receives while playing for Serbia. During this qualification campaign, he could be mistaken for a legitimately world class number 10. Tadic’s figures are up there with the best in the world with seven assists and four goals in seven games for the national team, who are unbeaten in their World Cup qualification group. Not bad for a side deemed to be average by most.


The vital difference between these two faces of Dusan Tadic is how he is used by his club and how he is used by his country. For Serbia, Tadic is an integral part of everything they do. He’s the central figure of all their creativity and positive play goes through him. The team has been built and set up in such a way that allows him to do the minimal amount of work off the ball and just focus on his undeniable prowess on the ball. He still works harder than, say, Nicklas Bendtner, but not by much. 


Podcast with Ken Early talking on the fifteenth anniversary of Saipan:


For Southampton he’s a totally different player. He’s very much one of the cogs in a larger machine, nearly always played on the left or right-hand side of a front three behind a striker. In this role, Tadic doesn’t get to spend nearly as much time on the ball in dangerous areas like he does for Serbia. Rather, he’s normally tracking full-backs or working hard defensively. Steven Davis is the one who is given the mantle of Southampton’s creative focal point, a decision which can only be looked at as beyond stupid. Especially when you consider that some of the Saints’ best football last season came when Tadic played centrally under Claude Puel while Davis was injured. A fleeting spell which showcased how poorly the South Coast club have, and continue to, misuse a quality player.


This is something that Ireland need to be wary of on Tuesday night. Tadic’s club form has absolutely no bearing on how he plays for his country because he plays a totally different role, in a different position in a system built to get the best out of him. He is literally a different player. There have been many occasions in the past when he’s gone away in horrendous form, scored and set up a couple of goals, only to come back resume his poor club form. This has nothing to do with attitude or work ethic, as he’s always shown a good attitude and incredible work rate at Southampton; it’s purely down to being used incorrectly.


At international level, the only way to stop Tadic is by taking the game to the Serbs. While they have some passable technical players dotted around their team, they’re not exactly world beaters, much like ourselves. Ireland would be more than able to compete with them in a game of football. Serbia like to play out from the back, keep it comfortable and work the ball into the feet of Tadic to let him do his magic. The only way to stop this from happening is to press them, force them to go long and keep the ball ourselves.


Ireland needs to force Serbia to come out of their shape and make Tadic work harder defensively than he normally would have to. While this absolutely increases the risk of getting hit on the break, it’s still a lower risk of getting picked apart by Tadic dropping between the lines. If we sit in a low block and hoof the ball long like we did against Georgia, we will get annihilated, simple as that. Tadic is simply too good, and clever, in this Serbia team to not rip apart a poor Irish defensive unit. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to get an in-play bet out on Tadic to do his patented Serbia double of a goal and an assist if O’Neill employs the outdated, embarrassing and downright disgraceful tactics he used against Georgia. I’m definitely still not angry about that.




Read: The Renaissance of the Football Magazine

Man City to Win the Premier League? Our Predictions for the 2017/18 Season

Stephen McGovern - Friday, August 11, 2017
The Premier League season is upon us, so obviously it's time for us to make fools of ourselves and give our best guesses for what will happen. We asked each of the lads for their opinion on how the season will go.


Premier League predictions 2017/18, Man City 


  • Who is going to win the Premier League?


Only one of the group believes Pep Guardiola won't pick up his first Premier League medal.


Rob Palmer: Manchester City.

Conor Kelly: Man City.

Rob Canavan: Chelsea.

Adam Kelly: Man City.

Ste McGovern: Man City, but wouldn’t it be so typical of Jose Mourinho to spoil it for us all and win a fourth title?


How will the Top 6 look come the end of the season? (1-6)


Manchester City and Chelsea are the two favourites to make up the top two places in the league, while Liverpool (4) and Spurs (3) got the most votes to finish outside the Champions League spots. Only Rob Palmer thinks the Reds will finish fourth again.


RP: Man City - Chelsea - Arsenal - Liverpool - Man United - Spurs

CK: Man City - Chelsea - Man United - Spurs - Arsenal - Liverpool

RC: Chelsea - Man City - Man United - Arsenal - Liverpool - Spurs

AK: Man City - Chelsea - Man United - Arsenal - Spurs - Liverpool

SM: Man City - Man United - Spurs - Chelsea - Liverpool - Arsenal



Who’s going down?


Consensus is that Huddersfield should look forward to their parachute payments already, while Canavan believes Stoke City -- a consistently mid-table team -- will face the drop this year. Southampton fan Palmer is sick of the sight of the Cherries. 


RP: Burnley, Huddersfield and Bournemouth, on the final day.

CK: Huddersfield, Burnley, Brighton.

RC: Burnley, Huddersfield, Stoke.

AK: Burnley, Huddersfield, Brighton.

SM: Huddersfield are going to be fun, but surely can’t stay up. I’d love Brighton to stay up, but equally can’t see it unfortunately. Swansea City did a great bit of business in getting Tammy Abraham on loan, but that defence is wojous and they haven’t improved it a tap.


Who is going to be this season’s dark horse?


There's always one team who defies the odds and does better than expected, but there's no real agreement on who that will be this season. 


RP: Brighton, I think they can upset the odds and get a nice, comfortable mid-table finish. Hughton one of the best at managing underdogs.

CK: I think Watford will do better than expected.

RC: Newcastle United.

AK: Crystal Palace.

SM: Should be Bournemouth, but signing Jermain Defoe on a massive three-year-deal is going to have so many knock-on effects. So I’m going to say Newcastle will finish top half.


Who is the first manager to lose their job? 


RP: Slavan Bilič. 

CK: Mark Hughes.

RC: Mark Hughes.

AK: Slavan Bilič.

SM: Frank De Boer, just to be different.



Is Harry Kane going to retain the Golden Boot, or will someone else be the top goalscorer this season?


RP: Manolo Gabbiadi- nah, Gabriel Jesus.

CK: Harry Kane again.

RC: Alexandre Lacazette.

AK: Romelu Lukaku.

SM: Romelu Lukaku.


Who will be the Player of the Year?


RP: Sadio Mané.

CK: Kevin De Bruyne.

RC: Bernardo Silva.

AK: David Silva.

SM: Paul Pogba.


More importantly, who is going to be the best Irish performer?


If ever there was a set of answers that proves Conor and Rob Canavan spend too much time together, this is it.


RP: Harry Arter (or dark horse Shane Duffy).

CK: Sexy Jeff Hendrick.

RC: Sexy Jeff Hendrick.

AK: Jeff Hendrick.

SM: Stephen Ward, obviously.


Who is going to win the Champions League?


RP: Real Madrid, as fuckin' usual. Would love Juventus to do it, but I can't look past Real. Anticipating a Juve-Real final again anyway.

CK: Real Madrid or Barcelona.

RC: Bayern Munich. 

AK: Bayern Munich.

SM: PSG, if they sign Kylian Mbappe. Don’t @ me.


Here’s where you likely embarrass yourself: what is your mad prediction for the season ahead?


Last season Palmer claimed Hull City would finish with less than 12 points, while Conor predicted City would win the title by twenty points. The lads are going to have to try really hard to beat those bad bets.


RP: Lacazette to scrape 10 goals. Not quite as bad as Vincent Janssen for Spurs last year, but enough to draw a comparison.

CK: Jose Mourinho to leave/be sacked at the end of the season.

RC: Alan Shearer to wholeheartedly embrace xG.

AK: Kyle Walker to score a free kick against Spurs in either game.

SM: Antonio Conte to walk away from the Chelsea job before the end of the season.


What do you think of our predictions? Let us know yours on Twitter and Facebook.

The Renaissance of the Football Magazine

Stephen McGovern - Friday, July 21, 2017

Football magazines are surging in popularity, with more and more popping up all over the place. But what is behind this resurgance in a form that was thought to be dying? Ste McGovern finds out.



Growing up, the football magazine was a staple in the diet of the young fan. Any one of Match, Kick or Match Of The Day could have been found in most schoolbags in any given classroom. You might even find the odd fanzine or whatever official version your club offered. Approaching teenage years it was common to move on to something a bit more mature, like Four Four Two. But after that, interest generally dwindled, especially as the internet became an infinite source of news and opinion.


The only other notable monthlies that spring to mind are World Soccer and When Saturday Comes, both exceptional publications, but the dearth of choice on your local newsagent's shelf is startling. One might make a fair assumption that they just aren't a thing anymore, but you'd be wrong: the death of the football magazine has indeed been greatly exaggerated.


There is somewhat of a movement going on in the subculture of football fandom. Dissatisfied with the direction of modern football journalism, the clickbait model and instant news feeds, creative minds have banded together to produce something unimaginable - print editions that actually sell. By focusing on high quality writing and niche subjects, these companies have zeroed in on a market that has been crying out for something more than just match reports or 200 word pieces. 



The Blizzard is, of course, the go-to in this field, giving some top class journalists the room to write about the topics they wouldn't be able to for newspapers or websites in longform for several years now. The three-quarterly has been wildly successful, selling thousands of subscriptions since 2011. Jonathan Wilson explains on their website why he founded the project:


"I’d been frustrated for some time by the constraints of the mainstream media and, in various press-rooms and bars across the world, I’d come to realise I wasn’t the only one who felt journalism as a whole was missing something."


It's a common complaint in the Search Engine Optimisation era. In the spirit of online freebies though, they have made their entire back catalogue of articles, literally millions of words, available on the site, and if you want to see what they're all about you get three free articles per month.


In this writer's opinion however, Mundial is a standard bearer of print production. Over the course of nine issues they have created their own unique style in both design and the written word. Not only have they featured interviews with such greats as Andrea Pirlo and Cristiano Ronaldo, the articles are from another planet. Where else would you find an analysis on why Javier Zanetti's hair reflects his political viewpoints?


Editor Dan Sandison tells us they started the venture around the time of the 2014 World Cup "to champion the stuff that we loved about football as there was a lot of negativity surrounding the game at the time."


Something the Mundial team loves is style and fashion -- something that is evident in their adoration for all things Adidas -- so much so that it's become a bit of a meme.



Naturally, their covers are beautiful too.




Covers are an entry point for potential readers. The better or more imaginative the front page, the better chance you have of drawing people in. It's a prerequisite that every magazine strives for. Just look at Eight by Eight and Howler, and the outstanding efforts of their covers. Some of them go for wild illustrations, while others like to keep it simple and minimalist. Either way, it makes for a nice change from the crowded nature of your average magazine design.


Whatever about judging books by its cover and all that, you won't keep readers for long unless your content is on the ball. What brings people back for more is great ideas that are executed well in brilliant prose. Mark Godfrey, editor of The Football Pink, tells Where The Owl Sleeps why that's the case.


"The importance of good, original content can't be overstated; especially considering you're trying to persuade the reader to part with actual money when nowadays there are plenty of high quality websites putting out excellent material for free."


These Football Times is one such online space that offers top class content without charge, but they have gone about things in a somewhat backwards manner. Many publications start out in print format before having to submit to market forces and create an online presence.


For TFT, who specialise in long pieces on subjects that you wouldn't find on the back pages, the magazine came after the website, as their loyal following wanted a piece of their tremendous work to hold in their hands. Each issue is dedicated to a different country, with loads of stories delving deep on a specific topic. Mark tells us this is an important aspect of ensuring a dedicated readership.


"Ideally, each magazine needs to have a particular niche or style to appeal to a specific type of consumer. In that respect I don't imagine this is any different to the fanzine and magazine scenes of the past."


Ireland is not immune to this new culture of magazines either, with Pog Mo Goal carrying the flag here. Not content with looking at the game through the prism of English football, there is a real international feel to this one. "We wanted to feature some of the great writers we have had on our website," explains creator Kie Carew.


"We give them a platform to create timeless pieces that they might generally not have been able to dedicate the time to before, and marry their words with illustrators and photographers from countries all over the world, not just Ireland.


"In our last issue we had an designer from Japan illustrate a story about the soccer playing exploits of the Easter Rising's Oscar Traynor by Donal Fallon. We thought that was an amazing mix of cultures to tell a story so close to home."


The marriage of Irish football writing with global designers and artists is unique to this island. It's so nice that it's hard to believe such a thing exists in this country. It's a niche, but it's also the key to it success thus far, as Kie explains. 


"I think the resurgence in football magazines has a lot to do with the power of the internet and the demand for a different way to consume football culture. The people that are making the magazines are finding a market of football fans that want to delve a little deeper into the game, and on a world wide scale more so than a local or exclusively Premier League focused one. With YouTube and other online resources we are now able to demand a little more from football content, and find stories we have never heard before."


There are so many more amazing publications we could have talked about here, which gives you an idea of how popular this form has become. Publications like Rabona, Soccer Bible, Nutmeg, Proper, and Pickles offer incredible choice, while new ones continue to pop up all over the world, such as Unusual Efforts in North America. Whether this phenomenon of football magazines is here to stay or not is an unknown. Increasingly, followers of websites and podcasts want more beyond what they get on the screen of their laptop or phone. Sometimes that manifests itself in the form of merchandise or even a live show, but sometimes it can just be a bloody good mag.



Let's Get Real: Wayne Rooney Was Never Elite

Stephen McGovern - Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wayne Rooney was a decent striker for Man United, but several forwards could have scored the goals he did in that team, writes Ste McGovern.


wayne rooney



When Wayne Rooney left Everton, he was a prodigy that many thought would turn into a world class striker for club and country. 13 years later, he returns bigger, slower and, most of all, over-rated.


While the boy wonder holds multiple records at this stage, he should have performed far better over the course of his career. Watching a video of his highlights on YouTube it's clear to see he was an incredibly explosive player back then, one you could easily envisage becoming what they call "unplayable". For Jose Mourinho, he is quite literally unplayable and it is no surprise his Man United career has come to an end.


Ever since his breakout year there has been a desperation from parts of the English media to him legendary status. Let's get to the fact of the matter: any decent striker would have scored the goals he scored in that team.


We're not talking about a guy who made the whole team look better. Rooney was surrounded by great players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and so on during his time there. You would struggle not to score with some of the guys around. They made him look better.



For a second let's compare him to another Premier League striker, someone who maybe wasn't as spectacular in his heyday but very consistent all the same: Robbie Keane. The Irishman scored 165 league goals in 349 appearances, a tidy total for any forward. Rooney, meanwhile, sits on 198 goals in 460 appearances. While the former United man has surpassed Keane in terms of goals, it's worth noting that means Rooney has scored on average 0.43 goals per game, while Keane's average is 0.43.


Of course, that's not a massive difference and it would be remiss of us to overlook the fact that our Robbie did indeed play in some good teams like Leeds United and Spurs, who had terrific players like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale to supply him with assists. But to have a better goals-to-games ratio, despite having made his Premier League debut at a later point in his career and playing in weaker teams, is eye-opening.


It's impossible to tell how a player like Keane or of similar quality would have done during that same period of time at Old Trafford, but there's no doubting that Rooney never dipped into those vast reserves of potential and turn it into the goal-scoring goldmine we thought he would. Aside from the two seasons where he scored 34 goals in all competitions, his tallies have been average for a good striker in the league. Harry Kane has already better Rooney's season record after scoring 35 times in 2016/17, having already scored 59 over the two years before that. Surely that's the level of consistency they would have hoped for?


Some of you reading this will argue that Rooney was played out on the wing to make way for Ronaldo for many of those seasons, but that points to the big problem: that when he should have been at his peak and leading the line for his club, he was instead told to play out of position because that was his only way to get in the team. As the years wore on and took their toll on his body, he moved back into midfield. Again we were told he was too good to be left out of the England side, but that wasn't the case at all. It was just more proof that he was well beyond his best.


His return to Goodison Park an admission that his top level career more or less over. Some think he'll do well, but being realistic he probably won't even make the starting eleven with some of the brilliant signings the Toffees are making this summer. If this transfer is about anything, it's about the romance. What other club would take him at this point?



Cheikh Tiote's Passing Raises Red Flags

Stephen McGovern - Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cheick Tiote's death poses questions over China's ability to cope with responsibility that comes with their severe financial power, writes Liam Baxter.



The untimely death of former Newcastle United combative midfielder Cheick Tiote two weeks ago brought to light the awfully painful question of whether professional sporting organizations, particularly those in China, are doing enough to ensure heart defects among professional and amateur athletes are detected early and sufficiently.


According to a list of players that have passed away during a game or in training, Wikipedia begrudgingly being the most accurate source there is to date, a total of sixty-four players have died since 2007. Eight of the previous ten are of African descent, raising eyebrows and questions within the footballing community. Can more be done to prevent seemingly young and healthy athletes from just falling down dead? Are athletes of sub-Saharan descent more susceptible to these conditions? And are the Chinese sporting authorities taking steps to implement safety measures that befit their new found position in the financial totem pole?


Early reports into the cause of Cheick Tiote’s death are suggesting that Beijing Enterprise, the club in China where Tiote was plying his trade at the time, did not have emergency cardiac equipment at the training base where he collapsed. Prior to that, Tiote had only been with the team and in the country for six months. Would Tiote not have had to pass a stringent medical before making the move from the northeast of England? With players moving to China for exorbitant amounts of money, there needs to be processes in place to ensure the players that arrive are fit and healthy.



After Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba collapsed during an FA Cup tie in 2012, the English FA introduced a ruling to ensure all professional clubs had access to the necessary cardiac equipment, including defibrillators, and mandatory cardiac screenings at all professional football clubs, equating for around 1,400 cardiac screenings per calendar year. While in Italy a mandatory cardiac screening process was set up in 1982 for all athletes taking part in organized sport. To prevent further unnecessary deaths this protocol has to be rolled out worldwide by the relevant governing bodies.


The medical complexities that shroud heart conditions and their links to African-born players underline the need for stringent screening in England, China and across the globe for all professional athletes. English charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) offer screenings for just £30, highlighting the fact that cost is not an issue. According to statistics released by CRY, around 12 people under the age of 35 die each day in the United Kingdom because of an undiagnosed heart condition. However the number could be much higher as it is supposedly difficult to diagnose cardiac issue after the heart has stopped beating.


In some cases footballing ambition is seen to be clouding the judgment of players when an alarming condition is caught during a screening. Mohamed Diame’s time at Lens was cut short because of a heart problem, while Loic Remy is another known example of a player found to have had potential heart defect during a medical, only to transfer from Nice to Marseille in 2010 anyway - that “anomaly on the wall of his heart” would also scupper Remy’s move from Queens Park Rangers to Liverpool in 2014.


Cardiac screening is not a foolproof system; there are those who are found to have no existing problem but a potential future condition known as a “false positive”. The heart is a complex organ constantly evolving and requires repeated screening.


With the accelerated spending of Chinese Super League clubs in the transfer market -- fueled by billionaire tycoons and the enthusiasm of President Xi Jinping -- surely measures should be put in place to ensure the safety of players willing to make the move to the far-east.




Follow Our Confederations Cup Coverage Throughout June


Real Madrid and the Curious Case of the Double

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, June 01, 2017

Why haven't the world's most successful club not won La Liga and the Champions League in the same season for 50 years? Ste McGovern asks.



For a club as successful as they are, it’s bizarre that Real Madrid have only done the League and European double twice in their history. It’s not to be sniffed at of course, any club would love to be able to say the same, but it’s an oddity that belies their lengthy honour roll. Barcelona after all have won two trebles in the last decade alone.


Perhaps it points to their relentless hunger for the mouse eared trophy, the league becoming almost irrelevant in its shadow. Many a manager in the capital has won La Liga and lost their job immediately after anyway, as Fabio Capello did on two separate occasions. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else? That piece of silverware only matters when the club say it matters.


When Santiago Bernabeu was president of Real he helped create the European Cup, and wanted to use its lustre to build the club’s brand. They would have the best players playing the best football in the best competition in the world. This was part of what they refer to as their economic sport model -- winning competitions with stylish, attacking football to attract bumper crowds -- ensuring both footballing and financial success.



It’s a model that Florentino Perez has followed during his time as president with great results. Over the course of his two terms, he has transformed the club’s financial state and added three Champions Leagues to their trophy cabinet. Not bad going, but now he’s hoping the team can achieve something that hasn’t been done since Bernabeu was the head honcho.


In 1956-57 and 1957-58, Real Madrid completed the league and European Cup double, the only times they have done so, although they did complete a double that included the UEFA Cup in 1986. It’s odd for a club considered so powerful and historic to have not achieved it in the modern era. Man United, Internazionale, Bayern Munich and their aforementioned Catalan rivals have all won trebles, never mind doubles, in the last twenty years. So why haven’t Madrid?


To say that Real don’t care about the league would be an absurdity, having won it 33 times, more than any other side in Spain. But it is perhaps fair to say that they don’t care about it quite as much as the Champions League. After all, dominating the competition in its early years helped Los Merengues foster their identity in the fifties and the iconic trophy is now sown into the fabric of the club.



Unfortunately for them that identity ebbed. They could not continue to afford the star names into the sixties, and the team that won the sixth European title in 1966 was made up entirely of Spaniards. Despite dominating La Liga in the seventie and late eighties, they wouldn’t win another European Cup for thirty years.


In 1998 they defeated Juventus 1-0 at the Amsterdam Arena for their seventh Champions League win. Finally one that wasn’t just in black and white television. They went on to win another two in the next four years, winning the league either side of their 2002 triumph. They could never match up domestic and European success in the same season, and even finished fifth in 2000.


With the exception of 1957, Real have never made the final of the European Cup and won the league by a margin of five or more points. This season they pipped Barcelona to the title by three points, setting the stage for an incredible double that would cap off an astounding first two years as manager for Zinedine Zidane. It seems their energies can barely focus on more than one competition, which shouldn’t be the case for a club with such resources. This is Real though, where money might talk but it makes no guarantees. The Frenchman has gracefully guided this squad to its most consistent level in a long, long time.


Promisingly for Los Blancos a precedent was set in 2014 when they won the Copa Del Rey to go along with their Champions League, the first time they had won such a double. Zizou was assistant coach that season, and he’ll be looking to make more history as manager on Saturday night.


In many ways it is fitting that Real Madrid so rarely complete such feats. Their tunnel vision wouldn’t have it any other way: it’s the Champions League or nothing.



For One Weekend Only, The FA Cup Really Matters

Stephen McGovern - Saturday, April 22, 2017

A tournament that rarely excites anymore is ready to host two giant clashes, writes Ste McGovern.



The FA Cup is an anachronism. It’s a symbol of glories past, of childhood memories, of a game played in a different time. It’s not the same as it once was, and never again will it be. Winning it used to be the pinnacle for many a British player. Now it’s hard to place what it even means in the modern game.


Not even Championship clubs bother putting out their first string teams anymore. Premier League sides, with squads presumably big enough to withstand the added load, who haven’t won a trophy in decades -- or, in some cases, ever -- can’t be arsed seeing out the third round. Denying a dancing Pards in 2016’s showpiece final wasn’t enough to save Louis Van Gaal’s bacon in the end.


It’s just a weird competition; we’re told of this magical tournament, of its special place in the game, and no one -- not the players, managers or fans -- could care less about the games. That’s not to say none of the above would like to win it. They do, but it’s often not worth the effort to get there unless you can wade your way through the thicket of lower division opposition without affecting your league position. And that’s where our four semi-finalists come in.


Ask Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur at the start of the season whether or not the FA Cup was a priority, and you could safely bet your house on them all answering ‘No’, assuming of course they’re being honest and not just paying hollow deference to a glorified tin pot.


Aside from City, they have all fielded much weakened teams on cup weekends up to this point. It is by chance as much as strength of depth that they have made it this far. And now that they have, they might as well go all out to try and bring it home. Notwithstanding that, the cup actually means something this time around.



While Chelsea and Spurs are still battling it out for the title, City and Arsenal are fighting for a spot in the top four. This is their last chance for a major trophy this season, one that could put a glossy sheen on a testing time for these clubs.


Pep Guardiola, perhaps not entirely privy to the tradition of treating cup ties in England as if they are reserve team games, has hardly taken his foot off the pedal in this competition even when it might have seemed better to do so. For all the talk of the Spaniard’s marriage to a philosophy, an ideology that takes precedence over winning, his true love is success. Many expected City to be on their way to a third Premier League by now, but it’s been a weird one for the Sky Blues. They play some of the nicest football in Europe, and their underlying statistics would have you thinking they should be higher up the table. They will settle for a cup for now, knowing they surely have bigger fish to fry in the future.


For Arsenal it goes without saying. Wenger has never felt more vulnerable at anytime during his reign in London, with the crowds baying for blood over the lack of tangible success. Not that it bothers his superiors, but there is pressure on him to deliver. The FA Cup is the easiest way to present some form of glory, as they gun for a third in four years. While they have actually regressed since those triumphs, another should offer a sweet release for the fans, if only temporary at least. And regaining their status as the most successful team in the competition from Man United is always a nice tribal bonus.


Continue reading below:


A few weeks ago the cup appeared to be a mere distraction from Chelsea's runaway form in the league. With no European football in their way they could just focus on maintaining momentum against the likes of Peterborough, Wolves and Brentford. In light of their defeat to United, however, doubts are starting to emerge. Are they as strong as everyone assumed? Will they hold on to win the league? A victory over their local rivals, the only ones who can wrest the title from them, would put pay to all of those questions.


This tie is amazing timing for both sides, but especially for Spurs. It’s a golden opportunity for the north Londoners to give them the fear, manifest that seed of doubt inside their cross city rivals. Victory might also banish the memories of last year’s late season collapse, not that it seems it’s been on the mind of the players ever since -- they have accrued the most points of any team in the league since the start of the 2015/16 season. Critically though, they have no silverware to show for it. The most important thing about this competition for Spurs is the winning mentality it can help instill.

Ideally Saturday's game would be a straight playoff for the league, but the knockout manner of the tie will give it an old school feel. Whatever happens, the FA Cup won’t just be an afterthought this weekend.



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