Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

A Game Apart

Previous Posts


original feed Subscribe to my feed

A Game Apart


London Evening Standard



Paddy Power

Oakwood Estates

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?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Onions out, Sidebottom in... and my journey to Soccer City

WAITING for the big start at the Wanderers, just thought I'd show you a picture taken yesterday, yes that's me at Soccer City, where the World Cup will kick off on June 11 with South Africa playing Mexico.
It's also the 94,600 venue for the final on July 11, where England will play Spain. But those teams have yet to be confirmed!
Hell of a place, Soccer City. Shaped like a kalabash, an African cauldron, it's a unique, African design and the inside is coming on apace.
We sneaked in using our cricket accreditation yesterday afternoon and walked about to our heart's content. I even found the highest seat in the house, row BB, seat 1, right up behind the goal.
Outside the news is not so good. A small shanty town has appeared to service the workers, the Stadium Road sign is hanging off, bulldozers abound. The great walkway up to the stadium appears to have fallen into disrepair.
But there's little doubt it will all be ready for next year. It's not easy to find, but presumably there will be better sign-posting by the time the tournament starts - or was it my father's poor navigation?!
Anyway, back to the cricket. Graham Onions, a legend with the bat (the South Africans can't get him out, he's been the last man standing twice in this series) and not a bad bowler, appears to be languishing on the edge of the warm-ups, suggesting Ryan Sidebottom may get his first Test of the tour.
South Africa have called up McLaren for spinner Harris, reinforcing the idea that this is going to be a swinger's paradise at the Wanderers, where the crowd is conspicuously sparse for the biggest Test of the winter.
McLaren makes his debut, as does Wayne Parnell, in for the injured Friedel De Wet.
And here comes the toss... Andrew Strauss wins yet again, he'll bat. And confirms Onions has been dropped for Sidebottom. Shocker. Onions is our legend with the bat, twice standing firm at No11 for the draw. |But he hasn't had a lot of luck with the ball.
Strauss says: "Graham has done well for us but Ryan will ask a few questions of the batsmen here."

Labels: , , soccer city, , the wanderers

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Four dead and Togo say: 'We're going home.' But don't let this ruin the World Cup in South Africa

AFTER confirmation that FOUR people - including a player - died in the attack on their team bus yesterday, Togo (right) have pulled out of the African Cup of Nations and coach Hugo Velud has called for the tournament in Angola to be called off.

Overnight reports said only one man died – the bus driver – and nine were injured, two of them players, Romanian-based Serge Akakpo and Kodjovi Obilale, who plays in France.

Today comes confirmation that assistant coach Abalo Ametele, press officer Stan Ocloo and reserve goalkeeper Obilale have also died from their injuries.

Their most famous player, Manchester City's Emmanuel Adebayor, suggests the attack was a slight on the whole continent before their first World Cup, coming to South Africa in June. But it should be firmly pointed out that this atrocity happened 1,769 miles from Johannesburg, where I am now, waiting for the crucial fourth Test between England and South Africa at The Wanderers.

It's less than that, 1,552 miles, from London to Moscow. And Cabinda was always a controversial choice of venue for the Angolans. When the Portuguese withdrew from Africa in the early 1970s, leaving Mocambique, Angola and Cabinda to their own devices, the Angolans laid claim to the oil-rich enclave to their north, though it stands alone in mid-Congo.

I was on Sky News from their local studio today and I will be on tomorrow on their Sunrise programme explaining that the Cabinda shootings should not influence people coming out to South Africa for the World Cup.

The Americans, who have bought more tickets for the tournament than any other foreign nation so far (England are second, Germany third) tend to view Africa as one big country. My message? Don't panic. Nothing has happened here.

I've been in this country for a month on the current cricket tour and there's not a hint of trouble. There are no heavily armed freedom fighters in this country any more. Not since the African National Congress took charge i n 1993.

The separatists in Cabinda have been at it for 50 years, trying to take independence first from the Portuguese in 1963 and then from Angola since 1974. Three of these groups, the Movement for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (MLEC), Action Committee of the Cabinda National Union (CAUNC), and the Mayombe National Alliance (ALLIAMA), merged to form the The Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) - and this 40-year-old organisation are the ones who claim to have attacked the Togo team buses yesterday.

FLEC say they were aiming for the military escort rather than the players. In truth they attacked the front of the two buses - carrying the kit - which may have saved further loss of life.

Now the Confederation of African Football says Togo never sought permission to travel from their Congo training base by bus. The Angolans insisted all teams playing in Cabinda should fly in. But they had a military presence with them from the border, so surely the Angolans and CAF were aware of Togo's arrival.

Either way, Cabinda is unlikely to host a game in this tournament, assuming it goes ahead.

Togo striker Jonathan Ayite, clearly distressed, said: "Obilale is dead and even if you bring the president and even US president Barack Obama himself, we're leaving immediately, we're going back home. Ghana and the Ivory Coast are in solidarity with us."

Obilale played for non-league French outfit Pontivy. Their spokesman Alain Le Dour said: "We have been called to give us this news but we have not yet had it in an official manner.

"It is very difficult to have more precise information. Yesterday we didn't know where he took a bullet. We were told that he was successfully operated on and we talked about a transfer to South Africa. Officially we don't know any more."

Coach Velud said of cancelling the tournament: "We can at least pose ourselves that question. It's an act of barbarism while we are here to celebrate African football.

"We left the hospital a short time ago to come to the centre for the teams in the competition. We stayed in the hospital a long time so that we could be very united.

"In these situations you become a bit paranoid, you doubt everything.

"We don't feel that the authorities are taking this very seriously.

"I don't mean that they want to hush up the matter, but almost. "

Midfielder Alaixys Romao confirmed the players were at the airport and were also encouraging other teams to pull out of the competition.

"We're waiting for the plane to return to Lome. We're also talking to the other teams in our group to try to convince them to boycott the competition too."

The Confederation of African Football may be forced to cancel all games in the disputed territory of Cabinda in an attempt to keep the tournament on track.

Togo’s game against Michael Essien’s Ghana on Monday in the oil-rich enclave has already been called off and the Ghanaians are reported to be considering withdrawing too.

Adebayor, one of the richest men in Africa given his Abu Dhabi-funded salary, convened a team meeting as captain last night to discuss playing on.

Adebayor, though tearful, was unhurt in the attack. The £100,000-a-week goal-getter said: "I think a lot of players want to leave, I don't think they want to be here because they have seen death.

"Most of the players want to go back to their families. No-one can sleep after what they have seen today. They have seen one of their team-mates have a bullet in his body, who is crying, who is losing consciousness and everything.

"We are still in shock."

Adebayor revealed: “We saw military people dressed like they were going to war and it was a little bit of a shock.

"We went through the border and got into Angola and close to the border we started hearing shooting on the bus, for no reason. Obilale got a bullet in his body. Our press and communications guy has got injured; he's not even conscious now, we don't know if he's going to survive or not.

"These are the things we keep saying, keep repeating - in Africa, we have to change our image if we want to be respected but unfortunately that's not happening.

"We have a chance with one of the biggest tournaments in the world, the World Cup. Can you imagine what's happening now? I'm disgraced and, I don't know, it's unfair."

"The thing we don't understand is why they shot on our bus, that's the question now. There's no-one who has got a reason for that. It's not only one guy, or two guys shooting one time or two times on our bus.

"Can you imagine, we have been in the middle of that for 30 minutes, even a little bit more. Our bus had been stopped and people had been shooting on our bus for 30 minutes.

"If you can imagine, the silence on the bus was unbelievable."

A statement on the official FIFA website said: “FIFA and its President, Joseph S Blatter, are deeply moved by today's incidents which affected Togo's national team, to whom they express their utmost sympathy.

“FIFA is in touch with the African Football Confederation and its President, Issa Hayatou, from which it expects a full report on the situation.

Labels: african cup of nations, cabinda, dead, Emmanuel Adebayor, injured, shooting in Angola, , togo shooting

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The first British journalist into England's training camp... ME (and me dad and me brother!)

YESTERDAY I became the first British journalist allowed to view the England training camp before the 2010 World Cup.

And believe me, it wasn’t easy. Hidden behind the faded motel entrance (pictured, right) the Bafokeng Royal Sports Palace Complex isn’t even finished yet. Exactly 6km (about two-and-a-half-miles) beyond the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which rises out of nowhere in Phokeng, just outside Rustenburg, Fabio Capello’s pre-tournament home is emerging out of the platinum-rich red earth.

England will play the USA at the recently-revamped 50,000-capacity Palace on June 12. But their high-altitude base is the key to success. Hidden behind a peeling sign proclaiming “Sun Gardens Motel” an unbelievable centre for sports excellence is being built in secret, funded by the local Bafokeng tribe, who claim a percentage of the platinum profits.

But British journalists and hopeful onlookers are kept at arm’s length between Phokeng and Boshoek, two tiny African villages outside Rustenburg. We drove for miles searching for the mystical England training complex, expecting huge signage, before a local explained: “It’s behind that tree.”

In disbelief, we crossed the N14 to Sun City, about 100km from the international airport in Johannesburg, which we had travelled for some time. And the gateman at the apparently drab “Sun Gardens Motel” told us: “The Royal Bafokeng Sports Complex is here sir. But you are not allowed in.”

But we are old hands at this. My locally-based father Bob, my brother Glynn and I have already discovered the German base at Velmore Estate, the Italian camp at Leriba Lodge and the USA base at Irene, all near the Test cricket ground in Centurion.

After much persuasion, the gateman called up the big guy. Mark Ferguson, group security in charge of keeping prying eyes away from England’s base. Built to satisfy the king of the Bafokeng, Kagosi Leruo Molotgeti, England have the prime spot for their World Cup preparations. But nobody is allowed to see it.

While Spain, Italy, Argentina and the like face bus journeys between their hotels, training grounds and World Cup venues, England have it all on their doorstep as they prepare to dominate Group C in June next year.

Ferguson confirmed: “The tribe are funding all of this, it’s going to be a sporting centre of excellence for years to come. We are the highest point in South Africa, 100m higher than Johannesburg and Pretoria at 1500m.

“It sets teams up for playing at altitude. We will have the New Zealand and Australia rugby teams preparing here for the Tri-Nations. All kinds of sports teams will come here. But at the moment, we’re trying to keep things under wraps, no journalists allowed. No visitors”

There followed a brief chat. It turns out Ferguson, from Durban, used to play football in Kwa Zulu Natal. I know his old mates. He lets us through the gate, beyond the Sun Gardens Motel, which appears to be a lowly front for what is to come.

We follow him on his quad bike, into the complex. Five plastic pitches are being prepared. Ten grass pitches, unfairly criticised by Capello for having bare patches, are taking shape. They’ll be perfect by May, the rains are good. At least 12 floodlight pylons are already up, with the actual lights still to come.

This is an African sporting paradise. Two of the four sections of the luxury hotel were released by the builders in November. Two more are still to come. The Presidential suites are fabulous, the mirrors are huge, the players will want for nothing. And there is a high-spec gym under construction, with oxygen chambers and all a modern footballer could wish for.

“Look, this is a project still under development. We can’t even confirm England are staying here,” says Ferguson with a wry grin, “We will be ready by May though. You’d be amazed what we can do here, and we are only using local labour. The overseas experts will be brought in later.”

Across the road lies the Kedar country hotel, already fully booked for the World Cup. You’d pay £1,000 a night to book the Presidential Suite here, in a hotel with game lodge attached. Beautiful.

In six months, England will be perfectly placed for their World Cup crusade, David Beckham’s final attempt to end 43 years of hurt. Wife Victoria and the WAGS will be based in a lodge like Kedar or Sun City, South Africa’s Las Vegas, 30 miles up the road.

If we don’t win the World Cup from here, in the middle of nowhere, we never will. With the African nations all suffering in the draw in Cape Town on December 4 and England facing the USA down the road before games against Slovenia in Cape Town and Algeria in Port Elizabeth. They’ll pop down to the coast for those two games to maintain their altitude acclimatisation. When you play at sea-level after training inland, you can run forever.

And then they come back to Phokeng, barely three miles from here, for their first knock-out encounter. It couldn’t be any better. England are looking good for the World Cup 2010. As long as you know where to look.

Labels: England Rustenburg, , , group c, , USA