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Thursday, 11 March 2010

The two 35-year-olds pushing for a last hurrah in South Africa - and I don't mean Beckham, he's only 34

FABIO CAPELLO could be forced to consider two 35-year-olds when he names his initial 30-strong World Cup squad on May 11. And no, I don't mean David Beckham. He's not 35 until May 2.
Take a deep breath. These two are by no means the most popular men in football. But they may be the best we have in a defence hit by injury and off-field scandal.
If Arsenal and Manchester United continue to vie for the Premier League and Champions League crowns, the claims of Sol Cambell (18 September, 1974) and Gary Neville (18 February, 1975) have to be considered. Gasp!
Yes, I know Spurs fans hate Sol. And those at Portsmouth and Notts County have mixed views. Arsenal fans were hardly leaping about when unattached Sol became Arsene Wenger's only signing in the January transfer window.
The feeling was he would play occasionally and look for another club. But then came the disaster everyone feared - injury and unhappiness from want-away William Gallas, who looks like he's off to Roma.
Who would partner Dutch discovery Thomas Vermaelen with Philipe Senderos gone to Everton? Mikael Silvestre, the Manchester United reject? Johan Djourou, the limited stand-in? Alex Song pulled out of his midfield holding role? No. Sol got one of the toughest jobs in football, at the heart of a defence struggling behind a talented but lightweight midfield.
And the man who came so close to immortality in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina and the Euro 2004 quarter-final against Portugal - he had storming headers unfairly disallowed in both tight games - has done a stirring job.
Then look at the problems surrounding our current centre-back options. John Terry's well-documented problems at Chelsea have seen him stripped of the England captaincy while West Ham's Matthew Upson is hardly rock-solid and Rio Ferdinand has had a torrid time with injury, distractions and suspensions at Manchester United this season. With Wes Brown crocked, England could turn to Manchester City's over-priced Joleon Lescott or Everton's Phil Jagielka, coming back strongly after a broken leg.
But just this morning, after Tuesday's stirring 5-0 Champions League win over Porto which put Arsenal into the last eight in Europe, Sol said: "I'm going to give everything I've got every time I play. The World Cup? You never know. I might get a sniff if I keep on playing. Why not?"
And with Jeremiah Sulzeer Campbell - the only man ever to represent England in six consecutive major finals (Euro 1996, 2000 and 2004 and the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups) - hoping to add to his 73 caps at centre-back, how about the older of the Neville brothers, Gary Alexander, taking his tally to 86 at right back?
Neville made his England debut under Terry Venables back in 1996 and has played under five international coaches. Injury has pushed him out of Capello's plans - but fresh injuries may force the Generalissimo to think again.
Manchester United's Wes Brown - awful at right back against Egypt, but considered a utility defender who could also play centrally - has broken a bone in his foot while Liverpool's Glenn Johnson is on his way back after medial knee ligament damage. Manchester City's Micah Richards may be considered a possible but he captained the Under 21s in their defeat against Greece last week.
In that same quarter-final against Portugal in 2004 (see picture above, with Sol and Gary in turbo-whinge mode), England seemed to lose their way when Neville, always the leader when his old pal David Beckham wore the armband, went off with Wayne Rooney.
And last night, as Manchester United crushed Milan in Europe, there was Neville providing the cross for Rooney's opening header - a devastating partnership that could be neatly replicated in South Africa this summer.
Why was Neville playing? Because Ronaldinho tored Argentine diddyman Rafael apart in the first leg. Using his nouse, his mouth and his never-diminishing energy, Gary kept Ron very quiet last night, just as Sir Alex Ferguson had planned.
Look, I'm not saying either of these veterans will survive the cut when Capello trims his squad from 30 to 23 on June 1. But our best goalkeeper David James (born 1 August, 1970) will be 40 three weeks after the World Cup final at Soccer City on July 11 - so let's not rule them out on age alone.
On popularity, Campbell would struggle and the ever-moaning Neville - reviled on most terraces from Merseyside to London - wouldn't have a sniff.
But the other 31 countries at the World Cup (apart from Spain) would certainly find a place for two 35-year-olds plying their trade at the top of the Premier League and the last eight of the Champions League.
And who knows, Sol could get the chance to score that glory goal he was unfairly denied in two huge quarter-finals. Or Gary Neville could finally score his first goal for England. We can dream can't we?

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Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Like so many other football fans, watching Manchester United makes David Beckham sick. Tonight, he returns to add nauseum

LIKE so many other football fans, David Beckham admits watching Manchester United makes him sick.
And not sick in the way the youth of today use the word. The former England captain, who left Old Trafford in 2003 after 394 games, 85 goals and 10 years, explains: “It made me feel physically sick to even, you know, just turn the Manchester United game on the television.
“Not because I hated the club or hated the fact I’d left. I just missed it that much. I’m sure it will feel like coming home tonight. United is where I grew up and it’s the club I’ve always supported and will continue to support.
“It will be amazing because the relationship I have with the United fans is still important to me.
“I went through some difficult times, but they never stopped supporting me and I wouldn’t have got through everything without them.
“Over the years, it hasn’t felt right coming back. There was something about going back to Old Trafford as an opposition player that just didn’t sit well with me. But now, seven years on, it feels right.
Beckham, 34, returns to his old stamping ground - as a substitute - attempting to extricate Leonardo’s Italians from a 3-2 first leg deficit suffered at the San Siro a fortnight ago.
Then, two headed goals from Wayne Rooney gave United the edge. This time Rooney is recovering from a knee injury and Beckham, who came on as a substitute for Milan over the weekend when Mathieu Flamini was injured, is hoping for something better.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who hates questions about Becks in his press conferences, said: “We’ll try and do it in our normal way, I don’t think we should be confused by the score of 3-2. It’s a very difficult game and one we need to win.
“That’s the way we will approach it. We hope to kill the tie with our own attacking ability. AC Milan have to score, which should make it a really open match.
“We don’t know for certain if David is going to start. He hasn’t started a match for a while. It would be good to score an early goal.”
That was the sum total of Fergie Beckhamisms. And not much was said about United’s record against Italian teams – and Milan in particular.
Four times the sides have met, four times United have crashed out. Last season Becks played 20 times for Milan, scoring two goals. This season? Just 11 games and no goals yet. Boss Leonardo said: “For Beckham it is something very, very special. When he saw the draw, it was unbelievable. Beckham is someone very, very timeless, he is very professional.
“The most important thing is how he will react in this match. It’s not important what happened before.”
Given last night’s incredible Champions League action – Arsenal saw off Porto 5-0 with a Maradona from Samir Nasri while Bayern Munich edged past Fiorentina with a stunning last-gasp effort from Arjen Robben – it would be impolite to expect anything less tonight.
And it’s not just United - 11-time winners Real Madrid are 1-0 down after the first leg of their clash with Lyon. Another former Old Trafford idol, Cristiano Ronaldo, is expected to play at the Bernebeu.
I've got a feeling both Becks and Ron will suffer tonight.

Labels: , cristiano ronaldo, , manchester united versus milan, real madrid, , sir alex ferguson said

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It was never about Beckham. For the next six months, it will be all about Rooney

IN THE end, it wasn't about 34-year-old David Beckham, it was about 24-year-old Wayne Rooney. And it will be all about Rooney for the next six months.
Manchester United's 3-2 win over AC Milan at the San Siro last night left Sir Alex Ferguson drooling and the rest of the world trembling.
Three hours before Beckham's Champions League clash against his old side, I said on Twitter: 'All set for the Becks and Fergie show. My money's on Man United. And Rooney to win the day.'
Rooney's two second-half headers - unlike some England players, he's starting to use his head to some effect - were his 24th and 25th goals in a best-ever season.
He is, by five goals, the best striker in Europe right now - his 21 Premier League goals have him five ahead of next-best Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
He has stepped up following the record-breaking transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo and he is ready to spearhead England's World Cup campaign in South Africa this summer. No question.
It's not as if Beckham was that bad. He should be on the flight to Rustenburg on June 1 too. And his Milan side, as he mentioned afterwards, are not out of it after a five-goal extravaganza at the San Siro. The second-leg at Old Trafford on 10 March promises to be quite a night.
Fergie drooled: "Wayne's in devastating form, they could not handle him in the second half. He was marvellous. He has to be regarded at the highest level, along with all the other players we know about."
That's the Scotsman's way of saying: "YES, BLOODY HELL, HE'S THE BEST PLAYER IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW."
And he's not far off - though Ronaldinho looked a bit special last night too.
Ferguson points out why Rooney is more important though: "He should score 30 goals this season, over the last two months, there has been a marked improvement in his game. Confidence has a lot to do with it of course. I just felt he had to improve his goalscoring, which is what he is doing now."
Beckham, hauled off after 72 industrious minutes which provided a few scares for his old boss, said: "I've always said Wayne is one of the best goalscorers in the world and he is obviously on fire again. If you give him chances he'll score goals, that's the way he is and the way his mind works."
Ronaldinho put Milan ahead, Paul Scholes scuffed an equaliser, then Rooney struck twice to give United a 3-1 edge which was drmatically cut back five minutes from the end by a lovely back-heeled Clarence Seedorf effort fromm close range.
Beckham concluded: "Clarence's second goal has made a comeback possible. It's not easy to go to Old Trafford and win 2-0 but we have made it a bit better for ourselves."
Back in the Premier League, former Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira got himself into trouble during Manchester City's 1-1 draw with Stoke City - Sky Sports News keep showing pictures of him shoving a boot into some poor Stoke lad's privates - and tonight his old side Arsenal take on Porto with five players injured. Apparently the Portuguese have injury problems too.
I suspect it won't be quite as good as last night's European extravaganza.

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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Any Porto in a storm for Arsenal as all eyes turn to David Beckham and Manchester United

ANDREI ARSHAVIN'S hamstring. Alex Song's knee. William Gallas's back. Thomas Vermaelen's leg. Manuel Almunia's hands. Cesc Fabregas's future. Porto are laughing before tomorrow's Champions League clash against once-mighty Arsenal at the Estadio do Dragao.

Guess who's gone on standby for the biggest match of the season in the one competition the Gunners could yet win to end their five-year silverware drought?
Yes, Sol Campbell. Picked up for free in the transfer window. Arsene Wenger's only signing last month. Aged just 35, walked away from Notts County, eager to extend his career, but probably not at the Emirates.
And while Wenger, ever the tightwad, was picking up one of his cheap rejects, he was allowing Luke Wilshere and Phillippe Senderos to spend the rest of the season with Bolton and Everton.
Luckily he kept the great Denilson, who will make his usual inadequate effort to help homesick Spaniard Fabregas in the midfield tomorrow night. Oh, and Nicklas Bendtner, kept while Emmanuel Adebayor was sold, may get a run too. Or perhaps the ever-improving Theo Walcott?
While all eyes will be on Old Trafford tonight and David Beckham's return to Manchester United with Milan, for belly laughs we will turn to North London before the week's European action begins.
If this were a footballing sitcom, it would be just about unbelievable. Belly laughs all round as Arsenal fly off to Portugal with a bunch of kids and the star man already planning his move home to Barcelona next season. The Carling Cup and FA Cup have already been thrown away and in the Premier League and in Europe, Wenger's comedy decisions on and off the field keep us constantly amused.
Inept in the 3-1 defeat against Manchester United, incapable of a meaningful shot on goal when they dominated possession in the 2-0 defeat against Chelsea, Wenger made a big deal of the 1-0 win which followed over Liverpool, pretending the previous fortnight hadn't happened.
But now, with the excellent Song unable to hold the midfield together, with Arshavin the pint-sized but talented striker out and problems for both Gallas and Vermaelen at the back, Arsenal are really up against it.
And so we turn to good old Sol. He last played in the Champions League in the 2006 final against Barcelona - and if my memory serves, he scored in Paris (he must have, look at the picture above).
But everything has changed since then. From that substantial, experienced squad Wenger has got rid of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva, Kolo Toure, Adebayor... and lost Mathieu Flamini, Freddie Ljungberg and Alex Hleb. The list of departures is so long, we don't have room.
Most worrying of all? Jens Lehmann has been replaced in goal by the even more unstable Manuel Almunia. Against Chelsea, when Drogba's free-kick hit the bar two feet from his head, the bemused Spaniard barely moved. Just watched it. He's still capable of great saves Almunia, but the consistency is gone. And in a goalkeeper, that's everything.
Still Almunia is another casualty tomorrow night, so you might hope to see a return for Vito Mannone, the Italian who had a good run in mid-season. But no, the Pole Lukasz Fabianski has been ear-marked for the No1 shirt.
Plenty of money has been made with all the famous "Invincible" departures of course. and Gooners must consider themselves fortunate that, despite the cost of the new stadium, Arsenal aren't among the Portsmouths and Cardiffs, struggling against foreclosure for overspending.
But somehow, Wenger, in his bid to prove the most profitable manager in the history of English football, has taken his eye off the ball. Anybody who has seen his side's last three attempts at winning will know that. Despite having Robin van Persie, Johan Djourou and Kieran Gibbs on the long-term injured list, he didn't dip into the alleged £40m Arsenal claimed he was allowed to spend in January.
Wenger seems to have forgotten what it's all about. He's forgotten about scoring goals. He's forgotten about finding young, English talent, He's forgotten about the fans, who pay over the odds without the prospect of silverware.This from Arshavin, who was exposed when he was played up front alone in the awful defeat against United: "If all goes well, I will get back on the pitch as early as the next league match against Sunderland. However, I will miss the game against Porto."
So no strikers at all then. Not really. No sign of Eduardo, who never really recovered from the ankle break. His hamstring injury, supposedly nearly better last week, remains a problem. Bendtner will lead the line we are told tonight. Mexican Carlos Vela? He's out too. But they're all lightweights. If ever a club needed a striker, it's Arsenal. But Wenger did nothing in January, other than chat about how all the goal-getters were pricing themselves too high.
And at the back, half a defence. Vermaelen, evidence of Wenger's ability to buy when he really wants to, says of his badly bruised leg, picked up against Aston Villa last month: 'It turned out that I could play against Manchester United, but after that game I had some more problems, so I went for another scan.
"We could see then that there was a big bruise on the bone, and that's all - so it is painful but that can be controlled with medicine and when it is not broken, you can't do too much wrong. It is not a big problem to play - yes it is still there and will take some time to go away, but it is not dangerous.'
Yup, just like his forward line. A big problem, but it's still there and it's certainly not dangerous.

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Friday, 11 December 2009

England 14,000 beds short in Rustenburg: Exclusive!

IT'S all gone mad in sunny South Africa today. Unbeknown to me, while I was swanning around in the pool in Centurion yesterday, the national radio station 702 had picked up on my story about the World Cup draw being fixed (see early blogs and youtube video, search for thenealcol).
Turns out the presenter, David O'Sullivan, a year younger than me when we attended the world-leading journalism course at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, had seen my stuff about the World Cup draw being fixed.
It got the whole nation talking and another old university pal, the World Cup communications director Rich Mdkhondo, was wheeled out to defend the draw. I've just spoken to him on the phone. We've agreed to disagree!
He's a cracking fellow Rich. I've said if he ever needs a positive British voice on the World Cup 2010, just call me.
But then the same radio station asked me to go on tonight at 5.40pm (you can listen live online, just go to and sent me a leaked interview with the tourism minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk (above). He reassured everyone two days ago about accommodation during the World Cup... but his official quotes appear to suggest otherwise.
This is the story I sent to the Evening Standard in London:
SOUTH AFRICA have admitted they have a huge shortfall of 14,000 beds in Rustenburg - and similar problems in several other World Cup towns.
England, who have been planning to prepare for the World Cup at Rustenburg's Bafokeng Sports Palace for over a year, will be shocked to learn that nothing has been done about the lack of accommodation in the unfashionable town in the North West province.
Many felt the World Cup draw had been fixed when England, already booked in to their facility, were put in Group C - with their first game against the United States in Rustenburg on June 12.
England got the draw they wanted with the town affectionately known as "Rusty" far enough away to keep the fans out of trouble but happily housed.
But when minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk was asked how the Rainbow Nationw ould cope with the expected 450,000 visitors to his country for Africa's first World Cup kicking-off on June 11, he appeared to be short on answers.
He said: "In terms of the audited database for Rustenburg, there are 134 establishments, translating to 3,489 room and 6,978 beds. We anticipate a shortfall of 14,200 beds."
And the bad news doesn't end there. He added: "Polokwane has 149 establishments, which translate to 2,794 rooms and 5,588 beds. We anticipate a shortfall of 17,000 beds.
"Bloemfontein has 225 establishments, translating to 2,677 room and 5,354 beds. We anticipate a shortfall of 14,100 beds."
And his solution? "To address this, we have extended the definition of host cities to include surrounding areas which can be accessible within an hour, Rustenburg is not far from Gauteng, and Bloemfontein is not far from Kimberley and Polokwane is also not far from Gauteng, Nelspruit and Zimbabwe. We have therefore integrated surrounding areas to accommodate the shortfall and will ensure that there is enough transport to accommodate the fans and visitors."
What the minister neglected to mention is that Rustenburg is a good hour, about 60 miles, from Sandton outside Johannesburg and Centurion south of Pretoria, the two main tourism hubs in Gauteng.
The N4 motorway - a toll road - is in good shape, but getting on to it from Sandton or Centurion is by no means straightforward. Anybody staying in central Johannesburg will be facing at least a 90-minute trip to watch England train in Rustenburg in early June.
Van Schalwyk added: "We anticipate that there will be three million visitors, a third of which will be international visitors. People will not be flying in to attend one game but will come from different games depending on which teams advance to the next round. So the expected 450 000 is not for one game but for the entire event."
Locals are hoping "ungraded" establishments and rented houses will help, but the Minister is clearly worried: "A room that is ungraded is a room that has not been quality assured by the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa. It is difficult to say how it will look like because it has not been checked by the authorities.
"Such an establishment is however authorised to work as a business because quality assurance in South Africa is not mandatory. We however encourage fans to use graded establishments since they would know what to expect from graded establishments."
The web portal for booking accommodation will open by February.

Phew! Hope they don't get too angry about that here. And anyway, my dad's got a guesthouse in Centurion, so the tourists will be flocking to Chez Collins! Off to watch PSL leaders SuperSport United play bottom side Jomo Cosmos tomorrow. It's at Loftus Versfeld, the rugby stadium which doubles as a World Cup venue. Should be interesting. I'll take pictures and tell you more tomorrow...

Labels: , England World Cup venue, exclusive, minister of tourism, , south, USA

Monday, 23 November 2009

Hobbling Becks and Galaxy of stars lose in shoot-out

DAVID BECKHAM was forced to play 120 minutes with an ankle injury last night as LA Galaxy went down 5-4 on penalties in the MLS final after being held 1-1 by Real Salt Lake at Seattle.
The former England captain, scheduled to join AC Milan on loan next year in a bid to keep himself in Fabio Capello's thinking for the World Cup in South Africa next year, needed three painkilling injections on his bruised joint to make the glitzy showdown in front of 46,000 but he was clearly struggling - particularly in extra-time when he wandered up front to hobble about after the Galaxy had made their maximum three substitutions.
Beckham, who has also been suffering a "persistent cold" admits that, at 34, the "bones start to ache that bit more" and he looked like he could do with a break until the transfer window opens and he can return to Serie A action in January.
Still, Beckham was able to stick away the first penalty in the shoot-out only for the MLS's Most Valuable Player Landon Donovan to miss his first-ever spot-kick as the Galaxy threw it away.
Beckham and Donovan - at loggerheads early in the season after the American accused Becks of a lack of commitment - combined to produce the opening goal for Mike Magee four minutes before half-time.
But former Galaxy striker Robbie Findley levelled for Salt Lake in the 64th minute and, after seven minutes of injury time, the extra half-hour failed to separate the Galaxy's stars and the MLS's newest franchise.
Beckham, with his sticky-up Jedward hairstyle lampooned by the US commentators (see picture, they said "he loves to draw attention to himself", "he considers himself a fashionista off the pitch"), bravely stuck away his penalty in the shoot-out but Donovan, Jovan Kirovski and Edson Buddle all missed as it went to sudden-death and after £12m and three seasons, the former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder failed to join Trevor Steven (Everton, Marseille, Rangers) as a title winner in three different countries.
Beckham said: “It’s quite a few times I’ve lost on penalty shoot outs now. It was Russian roulette, not a nice way to lose, but we can be proud of ourselves for getting to this point. But that’s the way it is in soccer.”
And with rumours that he will buy his own MLS franchise next season, Beckham insisted: “I’ll definitely be back to win the MLS title.”
Donovan said: "What you don't see is that this guy has been hurt or sick for probably the last seven games but he just gets on with it."

Labels: , final, la galaxy, mls, penalties, real salt lake, seattle

Friday, 20 November 2009

Becks backs Thierry... but there has to be a replay

AT last, somebody has risen up to defend the great Thierry Henry after his "Hand of Gaul" assist for France against Ireland on Wednesday night.
While the rest of the world - and over 194,000 people on Facebook - call for a replay after Ireland's cruel departure from the World Cup in South Africa next year, none other than former England captain David Beckham has seen fit to come out fighting for Thierry.
Despite the obvious intent shown by Henry, pictured left in one of the many viral pictures flying around the web, and his admission of a red card offence in the build-up to William Gallas's decisive goal, England's most-capped outfield player Becks insists: "I know Thierry as a player and a person. He's a good person and a great player. It's a shame to see Ireland go out because they have such great fans. These things happen in football.
"But I honestly didn't think Thierry meant it. I don't think he is a cheat.
"I've had a few headlines in the past which have not been nice. Who knows what I would have done in that situation when you're playing in a qualifier to go through to the World Cup?
"I've been involved in big games and reacted to certain things and looked back and thought I was wrong to do that."
Beckham also admits he turned down a return to the Premier League in his interview with Sky Sports. But it is the Henry verdict which will inflame opinions on a day when Shay Given has come out complaining: "We feel cheated by both Henry and the officials. It's disgusting."
And Sunderland chairman and former Republic of Ireland striker Niall Quinn described the goal as "the biggest injustice I have ever seen in sport".
Quinn added: "People talk about Maradona's Hand of God goal but I'd say Henry's handball was the biggest injustice I've ever seen in sport. Maybe I feel it more because I'm Irish.
"All that I believe in and all that I love about sport was shattered when I saw something like that. It's possibly the lowest I've felt at any sporting moment in my life."
Strong stuff, Thing is, FIFA remain unmoved by the calls for a replay, just as I predicted 24 hours ago. And whatever Beckham feels, that's wrong. The people have spoken, play it again Sepp. Let's all email FIFA, bombard the French FA, do what it takes despite their 10.15am announcement today that it CANNOT be replayed. There is a point to be made. There are precedents. Cheats, my mother told me, never prosper.

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