A world away from the World Cup

This week’s World Cup semi-finals are not the first to take place this summer. Last month, the CONIFA World Football Cup brought international football and a powerful sense of belonging to a diverse group of teams and fans in London.

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Football or salsa?” asks the car park attendant. “Football or salsa?”

Staff working at the FIFA World Cup semi-final are unlikely to confuse fans arriving at the Luzhniki stadium for local Latin dance enthusiasts arriving for their weekly session in the clubhouse, nor are the team buses likely to get stuck in a too-narrow leafy lane outside the ground, but although today’s match is also a world cup semi-final, here on an overcast and muggy day at Carshalton Athletic FC, South London, we could not be further away from FIFA’s grand show.

The mostly male fans filtering through the cash-only portakabin turnstiles are a mixed bunch, but a trio of young, burly men wearing Hungarian football tracksuits stand out.

Inside, a couple of hundred fans are scattered around the ground. The teams emerge to light applause and a few cheers, and stand in line for their anthems, but these are not international teams and this is not the World Cup.

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This is the entirely separate World Football Cup, organised by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) for countries outside of FIFA, stateless people and ethnic or regional groups unrepresented by their official countries. Held every two years, this is the tournament’s third edition, nominally hosted by Barawa, a port town in southern Somalia. But as the Barawan team is based in the UK and primarily made up of members of the British Somali diaspora, the matches are being held in London.

The path taken by today’s teams to this semi-final illustrates the range of teams in the tournament. Karpatalya, in red shirts and white shorts, and Székely Land, in their all-pale blue away kit, represent ethnic Hungarians from regions in south west Ukraine and central Romania, respectively. To reach this stage, Karpatalya overcame Northern Cyprus, still largely unrecognised by the international community, Abkhazia, a disputed region between Georgia and Russia, and Tibet, which controversially remains part of China.

Székely Land meanwhile, lost to the northern Italians of Padania, but overcame Matabeleland, a marginalised region of Zimbabwe, and Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific nation, to make the semi-final.

Northern Cyprus won today’s first semi-final 3-2 against Padania and await this evening’s winners in the final, to be played three days from now in Enfield, on the edge of north London.

The first half an hour or so is played at a high tempo, but neither team can get a grip on the game. The tackles are crunching but not malicious and the few chances sail over the bar. Much of Székely Land’s best work comes through their left winger, who has the team’s star and moon symbol cut into his hair.

Less than two weeks after the Champions League final, Székely Land’s keeper, Pavel Adrian Horvát nearly has his own Loris Karius moment, gifting the ball to an opposing striker just a few yards out, but is bailed out by a defender’s goal-line tackle. It is a sign of what will be the difference in the match.

The game comes to life when one of the tough tackles goes wrong. A Karpatalyan is floored and tempers rise. From the free kick, there is an extra spring in the step of the red shirts and soon enough they have their Maradona moment, as midfielder György Toma slaloms past three defenders and places a slick finish past Horvát.

The ecstatic Ukrainian-Hungarian coaches hug and punch the air, while one of the older assistants whips out his phone to make a quick call and share the news with a beaming smile on his face.

Across the pitch, Karpatalyan keeper Bela Fejer Csongor runs 80 yards to join the players’ celebrations. Maybe he is still out of breath two minutes later when he clatters into an onrushing attacker and gives away a penalty, gifting Székely Land an immediate chance to equalise. Even in the moment of controversy, there is still enough camaraderie for him and the felled striker exchange an apologetic high five.

Csongor redeems himself seconds later, diving low to his right to palm away the penalty, then springing to his feet and hurling himself back across to the opposite post to bundle the ball away from a striker attempting to score from the rebound.

On opposite sides of the ground, standing out among the amused but detached English fans, the two most vocal sets of supporters recognise each other as fans of Székely Land and exchange chants. Those in the main, mostly seated, stand, wave a blue flag with the sun and moon symbol, while on the terrace opposite are the men in Hungarian tracksuits.

At half time, the group with the flag wander round to the terrace, exchanging pleasantries and forming one group of about ten men all singing Hungarian songs.

Eleven minutes into the second half, Horvát has his second Karius moment, allowing a low, long-range shot to bounce over him. Despite having more of the possession, his team are now 2-0 down. The genial Karpatalyan coach is straight back on his phone, still smiling.

Székely Land persist with playing passing football, with captain Csaba Csizmadia, a statuesque centre back with slicked back blond hair who won 12 caps for Hungary, firing passes out from the back.

Minutes after the goal, a Székely striker spoons a simple chance over the bar. It does not look like the Romanian-Hungarians’ night. When they do hit the target, Karpatalyan keeper Csongor shows great bravery to throw himself at the feet of the attackers and snuff out the danger.

The Székely fans don’t seem downhearted; they light three flares, red, white and green, forming a Hungarian flag made of smoke.

The game seems to be as good as over when the Székely left-back is caught in possession and gives away a penalty. Karpatalya’s number nine, the blonde Gergo Gyurki, coolly sends the keeper the wrong way to make it 3-0. Another phone call on the celebrating bench, while the Székely Land coach hangs his head.

Belatedly, his team goes route one and sparks a fightback: they score from a deep cross with less than 15 minutes to go. Then, more spectacularly, their big centre forward Barna Bajko drills home a second from the edge of the area two minutes later.

The neutral fans’ detachment has evaporated and the whole crowd is really into this dramatic finale, bellowing instructions at the players and hoping for one more twist.

But despite the Székely urgency, more chances go wide, to a soundtrack of groans, and tempers start to fray. Referee Mark Clattenburg, once of the Premier League and a bigger name than any of the players, is forced to deal with a contretemps between their dug out and the fourth official.

As the Székelys push for a dramatic equaliser, they leave themselves over-extended at the back and a breakaway puts Karpatalya 4-2 up in the 90th minute. The goal kills the game and the energy, despite a couple of late set pieces.

When the final whistle comes, the camaraderie returns. The Székely fans shrug and cheer, and both sets of players exchange hugs and handshakes. The victorious Karpatalayans form a huddle with their phone-happy coach, bouncing up and down and waving their arms.

There is one last poignant moment of inclusion and understanding. The beaten Székely team stand shoulder-to-shoulder, facing their small group of supporters. Players and fans then sing together, solemnly and in Hungarian. Their compatriots in the Karpatalyan team stand respectfully to one side and the couple of hundred English fans watch in silence. When it is finished, the players applaud and turn to leave, but the fans burst into song again. The players return and join in, but this time they are accompanied by their Karpatalyan opponents.

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Satisfied, fans and players applaud and part ways. But while the punters file out through the gate, dancers still salsa inside the clubhouse, and locals in the bar watch replays of Danny Welbeck’s goal for England in a World Cup warm up game, the echoes of Hungarian voices hang over the stadium.

Two days later, they ring out over Enfield too, as Karpatalya beat Northern Cyprus on penalties in the final.

New episodes of The Broken Wicket podcast

Episodes three and four of The Broken Wicket podcast are now available to download or stream.

Episodes three and four of The Broken Wicket podcast are now available to download or stream. In Episode three, Tim Part of The Straight Hit interviews Nakrul Pande of Guerilla Cricket about broadcasting the Ireland v Pakistan test match, while in episode four, former England internationals and current county coaches Matthew Maynard and Anthony McGrath talk us through how to select a team.

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Podcast: new episode of The Broken Wicket

Episode two of cricket podcast The Broken Wicket is now available to stream and download

Episode two of The Broken Wicket cricket podcast is now live for download and streaming. In it, myself, Tim Part of The Straight Hit and Ed Benson of Guerilla Cricket discuss 100 ball cricket, Test Match Special losing commentary rights to Talksport and Ed Smith’s appointment as national selector of the England team. Plus there’s a debate about the merits of county cricket and an interview with one of the organisers of the Surrey Slam T20 tournament.

How to listen:

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http://thebrokenwicket.com/rss

New podcast: The Broken Wicket

Listen to episode one of a new cricket podcast

I joined Tim Part of The Straight Hit for episode 1 of The Broken Wicket, a new podcast offering ‘tough love’ for cricket. In the wake of the ball-tampering scandal, it features an interview with sports psychologist Victor Thompson about the psychology of cheating, while Tim and I discussed England’s winter, hopes for the summer and much more, all in a tight 32 minutes.

How to listen:

Via the website

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Or your podcast app of choice – either search or copy in: http://thebrokenwicket.com/rss.

How ball-tampering became the biggest sporting scandal of 2018

What started as run-of-the-mill cheating has gone beyond cricket and Australia to become political.

There have been ball tampering scandals in the past. Some have been a big deal, others less so, but all have eventually blown over. None, not even Pakistan forfeiting a test in 2006 – the first team ever to do so, has made the splash that the Australia 2018 episode has.

This is not because it is somehow worse than those past incidents, although sandpaper was spectacularly crude and blatant compared to previous tampering tools like sweets or fingernails, but because a unique combination of events have come to the boil at once.

THE AUSTRALIAN REACTION

The incident sparked such fury in Australia that it whipped the rest of the world into a frenzy too. Other countries would always have been outraged (see below) but if the Australian fans, media and board had downplayed the incident and settled for the one-game ICC ban and a lighter punishment from Cricket Australia, they could have circled the wagons.

Australia was in no mood to defend Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft though. As Brydon Coverdale pointed out, the country had a cricket team decades before it was a country, and the captain is often joked to be more important than the prime minister.

Australia’s winter sports divide along regional lines, making cricket the one team sport that unites the entire country. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined the critics, it became clear that this was more like a political scandal than a sporting one; public trust had been betrayed and the integrity of a great institution had been undermined.

Turnbull’s intervention was political opportunism – distracting the public from the his government’s real scandals, while the admission by James Sutherland of Cricket Australia, that the punishments were harsher because they needed to appease public opinion, showed that political expediency had beaten due process.

RIVALRY

The rest of the cricketing world had been waiting for this a long time. For decades, Australia has prided itself on playing the most aggressive cricket, but this has made a lot of enemies. They mythical ‘line’ of bad behaviour had become a running joke, because it was always drawn by Australia so that they never crossed it, but everyone else did.

Sledging, or “mental disintergration”, and calling on home crowds to abuse foreign players, only to cry foul when foreign crowds abuse them, has all built up great stores of resentment, so that when Australia took a fall, the rest of the world felt so aggrieved about years of perceived unpleasantness and sanctimony that it was never going to let the chance pass.

CONSPIRACY

Tamperers of the past have given the impression they were acting on the spur of the moment, out of frustration or over-eagerness, or denied wrongdoing altogether. While it is inconceivable that all past ball-tampering was spontaneous, Smith’s admission that it was pre-meditated was unprecedented. Like in any good political scandal, the admission of a conspiracy and the ham-fisted attempt at a cover-up, immediately upgraded the interest and intrigue.

BEING SO BLATANT

Ball-tampering is often in a grey area. Sachin Tendulkar was just cleaning the ball, Faf du Plessis was just eating a mint. There was no other possible explanation for what Bancroft did and being caught on camera doing something so blatant was always going to cause a fuss.

MUDDY WATERS

It has become increasingly unclear what is and is not acceptable when ‘maintaining’ the ball. Saliva is ok, but after what got du Plessis into trouble, or the debate over England’s use of sugary saliva in 2005, it is not clear where the line is. Cleaning the ball is ok, but picking the seam is not. Throwing the ball to the wicketkeeper on the bounce is not supposed to be done deliberately, but cannot be stopped from happening accidentally.

In the era before reverse swing, when cameras were fewer and lower quality, no-one was really the wiser. Now tiny incidents are being picked up and scrutinised and the game would be well-served by a review of what can and cannot be done. Some, like Mark Nicholas, are in favour of legalised tampering. Whatever the decision, clarity would be welcome.

Likewise, the scale of punishments has been low in the past, mostly fines or suspended sentences, despite ball-tampering being considered a worse crime than most. The ICC, taken aback by the strength of feeling over the recent episode, has already announced that it will review the penalties it can impose for ball-tampering. Although Smith, Warner and Bancroft were a little hard done by with their 12 or nine-month bans, there is clearly a desire and a need for a tougher deterrent than the ICC’s maximum one-game ban.

The reputations of du Plessis, Rahul Dravid or Mike Atherton are unblemished by their scrapes with the law and their careers were unharmed in the long run. Time will tell how history views Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.

The latter, a young player with plenty of time ahead of him may find that the gap is no great loss. But stripping of the captaincy from Smith is a stain that will take some shifting, and his emotional press conference tears may stick with him in the same way that it did for Kim Hughes with his tearful 1984 resignation. Ultimately, the best way for him to overcome it is through scoring runs and, if he gets the chance again, a successful run as captain. Five years from now, if Smith is again the top batsman in the world and has led Australia to a string of impressive series victories, the stain will start to shrink.

For Warner, given his reported pariah status among his team mates, a Kevin Pietersen-like exile seems more likely – another genius batsman whose reputation will be forever tied up with his genius for trouble.

Cricket has been in the startling glare of international publicity over the past two weeks. But sunlight is the best disinfectant and the episode offers a chance to mend some of the game’s ills, especially down under.

Slow talk brings hope of change for Premier Rugby

English rugby’s powers continue to discuss the future of the Premiership

As discussed back in May, English club rugby remains in its precarious state. Then, two contenders for Championship title had announced their intention to refuse promotion to the Premiership if they won, because they lacked the facilities.

Over the last few months, the question of the Premiership’s format has continued to simmer, as it has sporadically for the last 15 years. In December, London Irish director of rugby Nick Kennedy called for the end of relegation, arguing that it would allow teams to better develop young English players. Self interest probably played a role, with his side rooted to the bottom of the table, but his comments came just days after the RFU said that it was open to the possibility, the first time it has not rejected the idea outright.

Premier Rugby is planning to extend the length the season from 2020 so that less of its matches overlap with internationals and its best players are available more often. But reducing the already too-short off-season and making top players take part in more big games is likely to make the injury situation worse and careers shorter.

The governing body, together with Premier Rugby, had in November been reported to be considering cutting the league to 10 teams, in a bid to ease fixture congestion and make the proposed extended 10-month season more viable.

Cutting to 10 teams would also make the Championship stronger, with two established Premiership clubs coming down to join it, perhaps replacing two of the weaker sides.

However, it would also shrink top flight professional rugby at a time when it struggles for visibility in many parts of the country and whichever two clubs are sent down would suffer financially and lose their platform to promote the game.

Nor would it be easy getting the Premiership clubs to agree to a deal which would relegate two of them down, especially if one of the big clubs was endangered by the move, as Northampton would be this season.

The alternative is increasing the top flight to 13 teams with Bristol, or 14 with Yorkshire, the two Championship teams which have the facilities, and ring-fencing the division, providing the financial security clubs need to grow on and off the field, but it would be an acknowledgment that Premier Rugby will not expand beyond its traditional markets for some years to come.

The worst of both worlds, a ring-fenced 10-team league, thankfully seems remote.

This has been debated on and off over the years, but rarely in such detail, and the frequency of comments by people in high places suggests a greater appetite than before for tackling the question.

Richmond’s impressive feat in producing an effective team (they are ninth, with six wins this season), despite being only semi-professional, is admirable, but also shows the realities of life in the Championship, where money is scarce and the teams are not prepared for Premiership life.

The option of a ring-fenced two division professional game, with promotion and relegation between Premiership and Championship, but no relegation from the Championship, does not seem to have much currency outside of this blog.

Is Zinedine Zidane too good to be true, or just too good?

How good a manager is Zinedine Zidane? Is he in the early stages of one of the great managerial careers, or just trading on his reputation as a player and acting as a stooge for Cristiano Ronaldo?

Last week’s gleeful 5-1 aggregate victory over Barcelona secured Real Madrid its first Supercopa in five years. The result showed which club is in the ascendancy, with Barcelona looking short-handed following the sale of Neymar. It was followed by a comfortable defeat of Deportivo la Coruna on the opening weekend of the La Liga season.

The Supercopa was the seventh piece of silverware won by Real in the short managerial career of Zidane and the fourth this year alone. Putting any career into context before it is over is difficult and when that career is 18 months old, impossible, but Zidane’s early achievements are so remarkable that they give pause for thought.

Retaining the Champions League last season made his Real the first team to retain the European Cup in 28 years. Real have been European Champions in three out of the last four years, beating Barcelona’s three in six under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, Madrid’s own three in five during the ‘galacticos’ era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and AC Milan’s three in six a decade earlier, while Liverpool also won three in five in the 1970s and 1980s. You have to go back to the hat-trick winning Ajax and Bayern Munich teams of the 1970s to find comparable achievements.

Zidane’s Real are also the first to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era. It has become convenient to use the rebrand of the European Cup to reset statistics to zero and ignore its past, in the same way that the launch of the Premier League has been an excuse to ignore English club football before its own reinvention. Nonetheless, the Champions League era has brought a new structure and more teams, so retaining it is a genuinely different achievement to that of the early Real teams, Benfica, Ajax and others from before 1992.

Real also won last season’s La Liga title, in Zidane’s first full season in charge, all of which makes for a remarkable run since he inherited the job from Rafael Benítez in January 2016.

Whether this makes Zidane a good manager, only time will tell. Despite being the ultimate prize in club football, winning the Champions League alone is not a sign of quality and the 2012 winning manager makes an interesting comparison with Zidane.

Roberto Di Matteo inherited a talented squad of of highly-decorated veterans who disliked his predecessor, André VillasBoas. Within a little over two months, he led Chelsea to FA Cup and Champions League titles, but was sacked only six months later. His managerial career since has been largely unsuccessful, so it seems his real achievement was to give free reign to his stars, led by John Terry. On the surface at least, Zidane’s situation has similarities. He inherited a talented squad, with major trophies already to its name, replacing Benitez, an unpopular disciplinarian, and gave players the freedom to be themselves. Knowing when to get out of the way of talented players may always not be a recipe for long-term success, but has a time and place and deserves more credit than it gets.

Certainly, Zidane’s reputation as a transcendent player buys him a lot of credit with his team, many of whom would have idolised him growing up, and he understands how to motivate them. It gives him an easier ride than Benitez, who never made it as a player and was reportedly mocked behind his back for giving strict technical instructions to players despite it. Most famously, he tried to stop Luka Modric from playing his trademark unorthodox outside of the boot passes, whereas Zidane has embraced him for it.

Zidane has done more than be a figurehead though. There was a tactical shift in his first full season, recognising the value in picking Brazilian defensive midfielder Casemiro ahead of showier attacking players like James Rodriguez or Isco. He clearly has a technical and tactical understanding, but he will need to keep evolving in order to stay ahead of the chasing pack.

It may not have been a vintage few years for European football, with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the English clubs in transition, and Zidane has had one of the most consistently great players of all time at his disposal in Ronaldo, but it would be harsh to say he has benefitted from a lack of competition. That would undersell the young and tactically sharp Juventus and Atletico Madrid teams he has overcome and if it is just down to individual talents, then Barcelona would have been in the past two finals.

Whatever he turns out to be, the great challenge for Zidane is yet to come. Unless he has the greatest managerial career of all time, he may have to struggle with peaking early, unable to get back to the summit – like to another Champions League winner, Frank Rijkaard. If his success continues, perhaps he will be the next Guardiola, moving from one super club to the next. Or maybe he is not in management for the long haul and will return to a behind the scenes role at Real when his work is done. It will be fascinating and the world will be watching.