Who I’m Supporting at Russia 2018

Later on today the Russia 2018 World Cup begins, and as Wales failed to qualify, I have to pick a foreign country to root for. Luckily, I’ve had lots of practice as Wales’ 2016 campaign is the only one I’ve really had skin in the game for, and it broke me.

So, the question is, out of the 32 nations in the running for the trophy, who do I pick?

First of all, I’ll address the England question. My Dad is English, so some may be wondering why as the metaphorical Land of my Fathers failed to qualify I’m not rooting for the literal one. Well, it’s not that complicated. While I may have got behind England in 1996 to the extent I wept as Southgate ballsed up his penalty, I’ve experienced a lot since then.

And a lot of that is that some English people are massive bellends. I know not all of my neighbours across the bridge are, but there are a lot that are. I went to a Welsh university, but Welsh students were a minority and dealing with a certain breed of Englishman soured me on the country, as does watching the predictable tournament circus unfold.

  • England qualify.
  • One player is singled out as the Great White Hope. If the player is carrying a knock this adds drama. (This year it’s Harry Kane, filling a role previously filled by Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Paul Gasgcoine)
  • Another player in the squad is singled out as a “gamble” or “risky” inclusion. He is also criticised for some perceived flaw- laziness, being a bit flash, not being English enough. (Raheem Stirling for 2018, but in ’90 it was John Barnes. Another player who got a lot of flak was Owen Hargreaves, which is odd as in the 2006 QF he was the only player to convert his penalty, while missers Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher are held in higher regard).
  • Some pundits advise caution, and fans talk about not getting carried away.
  • England get through the group stage. Probably second in their group or having squeaked into first in solid, but hardly amazing performances.
  • The fans begin to get carried away.
  • They win their first knock out game against a smaller nation.
  • The Quarter Finals are the end of the road with the fans utterly stunned as they are either (a) outclassed or (b) screw up a shoot out.
  • The press single out one player or referee decision to blame the exit on. They invoke memories of 1966 and we are treated to someone with a St George’s cross on their face crying.
  • The manager is fired and the players are slagged off for continuing their lives and being seen smiling because they should be walking through the streets flogging themselves and lamenting for at least six years.

Seeing this play out as an outsider is rather depressing, because it’s predictable and massively unfair. A team is eleven men, it seems unfair to pin it all on one poor bastard. It’s even more unfair when it’s clearly because the tabloids have decided to enter the “tear them down” part of the cycle.

hargreaves

Also, I don’t think I could stand an England win because I would never hear the end of it. It’s been 52 years since the last time they won and I hear about Hurst, Moore, Banks et al. frequently. Hell, the final goal is probably the most played historic footage in Britain.

And before any English fans take issue, can you say hand on heart that you’d genuinely support Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland if they qualified and you didn’t? Honestly?

This isn’t “anyone but England” by the way. If the final was England vs Russia, or Switzerland, or Saudi Arabia, I would have to concede that I’d want England to win. But I’d probably regret it within weeks.

So, who’s it going to be. Well, I’ve narrowed it down to four.

Iceland

Underdogs. Minnows. Viking warriors.

One of the best things about Euro 2016 was the success of the Icelandic team. Coming from a pretty small country they arrived with little expectation and probably would have been a footnote if not for two things. Firstly, their fans, who were massively passionate and intimidating thanks to their primal “Thunder Clap” chant. Seriously, even on TV that was awesome, in the stadium it must have been immense.

iceland2016

Secondly, they more than held their own. They passed through their group undefeated, having managed a solid draw against the Portuguese, the eventual winners. In the knock out stages they dumped out England in a giant killing that warmed the heart and while they may have been thrashed by the French, they still did themselves proud and impressed.

Germany

I’m going for the Germans because when I was asked who I thought might win it, they were my pick. I also like the fact that they could match Brazil’s five wins and they boast a decent squad. Also, I’ve never fully understood the anti-German feeling a lot of British fans have. World War II was a long time ago, people, let it go.

Mexico

I don’t know what it is about Mexico, but I’ve long had a soft spot for them. They’ve never won it before, or even come close.

Belgium

My go to international team on FIFA, and boasting some world class players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Plus, they need something other than waffles to brag about.

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Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO

 

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Book Review: The Binman Chronicles by Neville Southall

Everton and Wales goalkeeping legend Neville Southall’s career was winding down when I started watching football. I can remember him doing a decent job for an uninspiring Everton side and playing for Wales quite a few times. But it would only be later that I came to appreciate how successful his career between the posts had been.

Southall is Wales’ most capped player and won several trophies at Everton, becoming their most decorated player. This book charts his career and life after football, and is a decent read throughout.

He’s quite direct and open in his analysis of his career, acknowledging that the discipline and dedication which made him so successful also contributed to problems in his personal life, due to his selfish focus.

Southall talks about the players, managers and coaches he worked with, at times with unflinching honesty. He lifts the lid on behind the scenes politics and changing room rifts, as well as the unprofessional chaos of the Wales set up.

He’s also not shy in offering his opinions on problems in the sport. When discussing the banning of English clubs from European competition in the ’80s there is an anger which remains fresh, anger at the impact this had on the careers of a generation. And it’s hard to dismiss that UEFA’s frustration at English dominance may have had a part in the decision.

Throughout this book Southall is a down to earth narrator and seems a decent bloke, if a bit curmudgeonly. And it provides an insight into the drive needed to be a top athlete and the challenges faced, particularly with regards injury and navigating a world of big characters and egos.

And it shows the cutthroat world of football as various players and managers are cast aside unsentimentally. In fact reading about the end of Big Nev’s time at Everton after 17 years provides a sad example of how, despite a player’s contributions and history, clubs are quick to move on and replace players.

A good read for football fans, and Southall had a good life after football, using his experience to teach and help disadvantaged youths.

Verdict: An honest and direct read from a man who opens up about his career and peers. Southall is a likeable writer and provides a detailed look into what was going on in the teams he played for. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Beautiful Dream by Ralf Haley

I found myself identifying a lot with Ralf Haley. Like him I was a kid who loved football and who dreamed of being a professional. And like him, I was nowhere near good enough.

It’s a dream billions of kids have across the world, with only a relatively small number of them achieving it. I knew I was crap even as a kid, and realised that my few skills – okay in the air, hoofed clearances and hacking tackles, weren’t going to be enough. And so, my dream faded away aside from bus stop daydreams where I envision myself leading Swansea to Champions League glory.

Haley, however, reignites his dream and despite hating exercise and not having played a proper match in years decides to give it one last go. He just wants to get paid to play once. One euro, one minute, it doesn’t matter. He’ll still be able to say “I was a professional footballer”.

Haley sends requests for trials all over the world. He joins the gym, which he hates and tries to play more football. He also starts saving money from the job he hates to fund his trip to various countries.

He chooses smaller, less successful footballing nations and sets out with his brother in tow. Malta, Andorra, Latvia and Lithuania are among his destinations as he tries to get a game.

It’s a frankly crazy idea but one that is admirable in it’s ambition, naivety and optimism. Haley wants it badly, and throws himself into his trials.

The problem is that while the quest is noble, it feels half baked and left me wanting more. Haley gives himself a few months to train and save cash, leaving him a relatively small budget. I found myself wondering why he didn’t save for longer which would have helped him go to more places and got his fitness to a higher level too.

This not only would have made the book more interesting and given Haley more countries to write about, but would have helped his chances, as his low key build up leaves his mission looking pretty likely.

The writing is good, if nothing special and could do with a bit more of a polish. And the tone shifts quite a lot, with lots of moaning slightly souring the optimism of his journey. Haley is likeable enough and fairly humorous, but the banter between him and his brother grated on me, completely failing to win me over. It’s like an inside joke, with me being the outsider who views it as stupid.

That being said it was a decent read and Haley’s conclusion is strong. And I had to admire him for just going for it, despite the odds.

Verdict: Flawed but fun, Haley’s dreams surpass his abilities as a writer. A decent attempt at the dream but at times a frustrating one as you wish he had done more. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Football’s Strangest Matches by Andrew Ward

Cliche tells us that football is a “funny old game” and there are plenty of odd occurences, strange coincidences and memorable moments throughout it’s history. This book decides to collect several of these oddities.

While the book is diverting enough and there are some interesting tales it fell far short of my expectations. The problem is Ward’s rather dry writing style, which just offers a rather bland retelling of events when a punchier style might have worked.

Similarly some incidents don’t deserve a full entry and might have been better servrd by being dotted throughout as bullet points. There are far too many games that share a theme- ridiculous scores, bizarre reasons for cancellations and extensive replays, which robs this book of being truly involving.

It passes the time but it is nowhere near as entertaining or strange as a reader might hope. 

Verdict: Disappointing. Although there are interesting stories the book on a whole is repetitive and let down by lacklustre writing which seems to get bogged down in stats and facts. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2014/15 by Jim Smallman

One of my favourite books that I read last year was Jim Smallman’s first Football Neutral. This is the second season as Smallman continues his travels to various clubs. A stand up comic, Smallman decided that attending football matches on Saturdays instead of wasting time in cafes, and blogged about them, the results being collected here.

Like the first one this made me miss the experience of going to matches regularly and I’ve made a nee resolution to try and go to at least five matches in the 2017/18 season. I would especially love to go see Clapton FC, who, based on the entry here, have a great following that creates a fun, entertaining atmosphere.

The Clapton players marking their anti-homophobia match

Smallman writes with natural charm and enthusiasm. His analysis of the games is fair and unpretentious, but where he excels is capturing the atmosphere and characters of the matches. An astute people watcher and seemingly a lover of humanity, these are usually warm and funny.

Throughout the book, Smallman is enthusiastic and passionate about football and it’s infection. 

He also seems like a top bloke, and is great company here.

Hopefully, there will be more collections to come.

Verdict: A charming, fun read that gives readers a great tour around British football, with a likeable and engaging guide in Smallman. It’s fuelled by a simple, honest love of the game and its fans and gives more background to clubs I only knew from the classifieds. A nice, easy read full of charm. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Commitment by Didier Drogba

Cards on the table time, I’m not a massive Didier Drogba fan. This is probably because despite being a skilled footballer I felt he was too prone to diving and he played for Chelsea during an era when I severely disliked the team (mainly because of the tag team of tools that was Ashley Cole and John Terry).

But I received this book as a Christmas present from my big sis, who likes Drogba a lot because of his Christian beliefs and charity work. To be fair to the guy, he does seem to do a lot of good work and has donated a lot of his sponsorship cash to worthy causes. 

This book details some of this work, and the reasons behind his charitable work as well as his personal life. Born in Ivory Coast he moved to France as a young boy where he moved frequently as he lived with his journeyman footballer uncle. A lover of the beautiful game from a young age he wished to follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

Missing out on academy football he was late in making it compared to his peers, but soon made up for this with a knack for scoring goals. This is what most of the book is devoted to, with the story divided by specific sections of his career.

For non football fans it might be a bit of a struggle as it’s mainly about how he did every year, the goals, injuries, triumphs and failures along the way. The sections about family and charity are separate, and feel tacked on.

Drogba comes across well enough and it does give a little bit of background to the dressing room atmosphere and his explosions on the field. But the insights are rather limited and the writing is thoroughly pedestrian. 

Maybe it’s because of the language barrier, but there’s a genuine lack of humour or depth. It’s an easy read, but uninspiring. But as I used it to help pass time on night shifts this actually turned out to be a positive- just about interesting to keep you going and easy enough for a sleep deprived mind.

An okay read if you’re a huge Chelsea or Drogba fan, but for others might be a bore.

Verdict: It passes the time, but is rather dull and lacks the humour, scandal or insight to make it a great autobiography. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2013/14 by Jim Smallman

I adored this book, and found myself really wanting to go out and take in a football match (it has been far too long). The book is a collection of blogs that comedian Jim Smallman wrote after deciding that while he was on the rode he may as well enjoy his Saturday afternoon away from home and decided to watch a match every chance he got.

A Leicester City fan, Smallman decides that he can’t just go and watch his own team, and that he will avoid premiership matches, instead embracing lower league matches and a new team every match day.

This is what makes the book such a joy as Smallman writes with warmth and affection for the teams and fans he meets along the way. From Championship all the way down to non-league he slots games into his free time and sees glamour ties like Aldershot vs Wrexham. He appears to enjoy most of the matches, describing the action with some good football knowledge and a keen eye for people watching.

He’s a charming and funny companion in the stands and captures the atmosphere and appeal of going to live games. Every entry is well written and entertaining, with even the more dire matches written about with energy and wit. Throughout he is engaging and excited about football, interested in the clubs and their fans and stories. It’s also nice to see someone open about their oathing of certain clubs (for Smallman it’s Coventry and MK Dons, although he shows Coventry sympathy I would struggle to muster for Cardiff).

As well as being about football it’s also an interesting look into the life of a working comedian. There’s a second book available collecting the next season’s matches and it has gone right into my “to read” list. It also makes me want to go see a live match again, and so in the new year I might wander over and take in a Barry match.

Verdict: A warm and amusing read which will appeal to any football fan and captures life in the stands, and gives a snapshot of life in the lower leagues. Smallman is a funny and charming writer and his enthusiasm is infectious. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: I am the Secret Footballer by Anonymous 

Despite countless column inches in every paper what goes on behind closed doors at football clubs is still a mystery, largely surrounded in secrecy and rumour. Even more of a mystery is what the players really think.

Opening up about teammates, managers, the media and the fans would be a risky move, and that’s why the writer here is anonymous. Over several years he wrote for The Guardian and provided a look into the mind of a modern player.

The anonymity allows him to be gloriously candid, and while it’s all one man’s opinion it’s still well worth a read and an insight into the changing rooms of the Premier League.
In the book he discusses managers, other players, fans and the highs and lows of life as a professional footballer. Whoever he is the Secret Footballer is a gifted writer with warmth, humour and honesty running throughout.

It’s a solid read and a section about his own depression is especially well done and open. It’s nice to see mental health addressed in such an up front, unflinching way and offers reasons for why athletes may be so susceptible to depression and stress. It’s brave work and shows that while there has been some progress we still have a way to go with attitudes towards mental health.

If you’re a football fan it’s definitely worth checking out as it’s an unprecedented insight into the world of the modern professional and there are some entertaining stories of ego, debauchery and excess along the way.

Verdict: Well written and with engaging candour this is an entertaining glimpse behind the changing room door. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 7: Proud

said I’d cry and I did.

Wales’ Euro 2016 dream came crashing down in three minutes, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani both scored for Portugal. After the first I thought we could get back into it, but the second was a devastating blow and Wales couldn’t recover.

Ronaldo heads home

On the night Portugal were the better team and deserved the win, but it still hurt.

As the seconds ticked away and a comeback looked less likely and I teetered on the brink of despair. And then the Wales fans in Lyon started singing.

There was frustration. There was disappointment. But the emotion that pushed me over the edge was the pride. Pride in the Welsh players and fans who have carried themselves so well throughout the tournament. 

On the field there have been great moments, the victories against Russia and Belgium being the highs, but the attitude of the team has been amazing. There has been a genuine feeling of camaraderie and pride in representing their country, exemplified by the sheer joy that has followed every goal and Chris Gunter’s “chin up” gesture following the loss to England.

Gunter gestures to the fans to keep their chins up

The passion on the field has meant that the Welsh team have connected with the public as never before, and they have been taken into the hearts of the Welsh people. The fans have sung, cheered and tweeted their support, filling fan zones across the country.

They have behaved and enjoyed, earning the respect of their hosts and opponents, and have been an important part in driving the team onwards .

They have sang the national anthem, a rallying cry, an inspiration for the eleven men on the field. The connection has been made and will endure long after the tournament, earning the team new fans.

For older fans it was a moment of glory after years of disappointment and failure. Building on the work of the late Gary Speed, Chris Coleman has built a team that works as a unite who have become a true team and who have reached heights Welsh football never has before. From ranking the wrong side of 100 to the final four in Europe it’s been a sensational story.

It may not have ended the way I would have liked, but Wales have done so well, and I feel nothing but pride and love for a team who have come so far. They leave the tournament able to hold their heads up and the future for the team looks bright, with renewed confidence before we start on the road to Russia 2018. Wales at the World Cup would be a great thing indeed.

The Wales team salute their fans

They will return to a heroes’ welcome and it will be justly deserved.

They did us proud. Cymru am byth.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 6: Oh, me of little faith

Crying like a toddler, and I don’t care. Magnificent. Utterly bloody magnificent – Gary Slaymaker

I haven’t cried yet. But it’s been a close thing ever since hearing the Manics blast out “Together Stronger” at the Liberty.

Welsh football has been a cruel mistress. Letting you down right at the end, embarrassing you in front of your English friends, never taking you anywhere nice, sometimes not even showing up at all. But then, like the hero of a romantic comedy who makes the grand gesture at the end, Wales came through.

The qualifying campaign was a dream. Making Euro 2016 a massive high.

A middle aged customer said to his friend a while back “We made it. Everything else is a bonus.”

And what a bonus.

Winning the group. Edging out Northern Ireland to make the quarters.

After dismantling Hungary, I thought Belgium were going to be too much for us. And in the early stages they bossed the game, with only heroic Welsh defending keeping them out.

But the line couldn’t hold indefinitely and finally they broke through when Nainggolan was given far too much room and fired in a cannon like strike from distance.

They could have fallen apart there, but part of their success is due to resilience and passion, and Wales not only getting back into the game but started dominating. An equaliser looked likely and arrived from a fitting source, captain Ashley Williams heading home.

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Williams in wonderland

Scenes of joy followed and Wales were in with a chance. After the break, Belgium regained a little bit of momentum but it was open play.

And then a moment of utter genius. Surrounded by three defenders and with his back to goal, Hal Robson-Kanu got the ball in the penalty area, and could have struggled. But with a clever flick he turned, wrong footing the defence and slotting the ball home.

2-1.

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Robson-Kanu

Then the tension set in, Belgium throwing everything forward and Wales surviving through gritty defending and, yes, luck. With ten minutes to go I was perched on the edge of the sofa, a bundle of nerves and anxiety.

And then Sam Vokes, on as a substitute scored his first goal in a Wales shirt, a magnificent header to seal the deal at 3-1. Cue Wales, and me going into meltdown.

The semi-finals! We’ve made the bloody semi-finals!

A lump in my throat, joy in my heart.

Whatever happens against Portugal, the players have done amazing and I’m proud of the boys.

And whatever happens, I’ll end up in tears at the final whistle.

I just hope they’re happy ones.

Quarter Final Round Up

Portugal beat Poland on penalties to go through, and it went the distance between Germany and Italy. Germany, the penalty specialists, progressed but only after a laughably bad shoot out that featured some of the worst penalties I’ve ever seen.

The quarters also saw the end of the tournament’s great underdog story, as Iceland were demolished 5-2 by hosts France. It was a disappointing conclusion for the Icelandic team, who had been a surprise package and the small nation had rallied behind their players, bringing with them a small, vocal support who’s almost primal chant was awe inspiring.

They kept fighting, but were outclassed by a rampant French team, but saluted their fans and could be damn proud of what they achieved.

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Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.