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.


Six Nations 2017: No complaints

I worked the first week of the championship and so missed Wales get off to a winning start against Italy. And for our second game against England I was actually across the border and attending a marriage preparation day (more on that at a later date). So I missed the Irish thumping the Italians and only caught the Wales match from just before half time.

Just in time to see Liam Williams go over and Wales to lead 13-8 at the break after Leigh Halfpenny converted. 

The second half was a cracker with the action swinging both ways, each side attacking well but meeting stiff resistance. While I wouldn’t have complained had Wales romped home with a massive gap in scores, there’s something a lot more entertaining about an evenly matched affair. 

The teams traded penalties with Owen Farrell bagging two for the visitors and Leigh Halfpenny responding with one. Into the final ten Wales held a slim 16-14 lead, and every missed chance and silly error replayed in my head. Wales had been sloppy in places and could have had more points on the board, and were soon on the back foot.

Halfpenny kicked straight to a white shirt and England surged. As the Welsh defence scrambled across the park winger Elliot Daly got past Alex Cuthbert, who did himself no favours with his many critics.

The conversion was tight, but Owen Farrell doesn’t miss many and added the two, leaving Wales needing a try to get a result. With the clock quickly ticking down, Wales’ attempts grew more desperate in the face of a solid English defence.

The final whistle was no doubt a relief for the visitors, who for the second week in a row had left it late. And despondence for the hosts.

It was a tough loss but England just about deserved it, Wales had too many slip ups and can’t complain that England seized their chance when it appeared. 

There are three games left and if Wales can tighten their game and get rid of the sloppier aspects (and maybe Cuthbert?) we could do alright. The championship might be a stretch and depend on other matches going our way, but it’s not off the table completely.

I think part of the reason I took this defeat so well is because the current England team is decidedly villain free, with only Joe Marler and Farrell being players I genuinely dislike. Also, I haven’t seen the obnoxious Saeson I know, which means their arrogant posturing hasn’t riled me up.

The only real reason to actively hope it all falls apart for the English (other than not wanting more gloating and self congratulating nonsense) this year is their coach, Eddie Jones, who is nothing short of an utter bellend. Prone to being gobby at interviews and following last year’s comments about the Joe Marler racism incident, he’s claimed a special place on my hate list.

In a way he’s necessary to the tournament, as every story needs a villain and he’s embraced the role with gusto.

In the final match of the round Scotland, carrying the momentum from their victory over Ireland came back to earth with a bump. Camille Lopez knocked over two penalties in the last ten movies to hand the French a 22-16 victory. Scotland are definitely improving but appeared to take their foot of the gas.

It didn’t help that Finn Russell took the worst conversion appempt I’ve ever seen, managing to knock it under the bar from the easiest angle you’ll get. Their tournament isn’t over, but it means their Grand Slam drought extends to 26 years.

Round 3 predictions: 

Scotland vs Wales

Ireland vs France

England vs Italy

Current score: 4/6.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Superbowl LI: Meh.

I’ve not long woken up and am feeling incredibly bleurgh, so forgive me if I ramble. This is because I stayed up far too late watching the Superbowl last night. And it wasn’t worth it.

Don’t worry I’m not going to trot out the usual stupid British criticisms of “Rugby players don’t need those pads” or “why is it called football when they use their hands so much”.

No, the reason I fear it wasn’t worth it was because I didn’t really care that much about the outcome. I decided to watch because I like the sport, and because of the occasion. 

Even non football fans have to admit that the Superbowl is one hell of a spectacle. It’s like the mutant baby of the the FA Cup final (or at least what it used to be) and Wrestlemania, with enough fireworks to open and close an Olympics.

But I had no strong feelings for either side. The Atlanta Falcons were a nonentity to me and while I have picked the New England Patriots to back in the past (I forget why) I’m hardly a fan. And it’s not the kind of sport where you can develop a feel for a team midway. In other games it’s easy to pick a team- you can be won over by skill, character or an individual player or turn against a team because of cheating, attitude or a specific player.

It’s for this reason that this season just gone my only real cares concerned three teams- the New York Jets, San Francisco’s 49rs and the Oakland Raiders. 

The Raiders are probably as close to having a team as I get, and this is built on shaky foundations. They have the coolest logo and colour scheme and were the favourite of nineties rappers.

The Jets are the team supported by a friend, so I like when they do well as he seems chuffed for them. 

And the 49rs? Well that’s because of one man Colin Kaepernick. I admired his quiet protest against the violence and oppression of minorities in America and felt he carried himself with dignity amongst the backlash. For that reason, I wanted him and his teammates to do well.

Beyond that I find it hard to really get behind US sports teams because I don’t have connections with any particular state or city, and many don’t have an identity that shines through to an outsider. 

Take football here in the UK. I’m a Swansea fan, but over the years have built up a whole heap of feelings for other teams. I have teams I have soft spots for (Bristol Rovers, Wimbledon, West Ham, Middlesborough, Crystal Palace) and teams I dislike to various degrees (Cardiff, Leeds, Arsenal, Chelsea). There are managers and players I like and dislike, and years of following the sport has built up these biases.

Maybe US sports fans have the same, but as a distant and infrequent observer, I’m oblivious to these quirks and the history of the teams. 

But I watched the whole first half with no real connection to either. Some were pulling for Atlanta as part of a heavy handed resistance versus Trump angle, but I wasn’t feeling it. It’s not the Patriot players fault Trump is on friendly terms with Tom Brady and the higher ups. And there are probably lots of Pats fans who hate Cheeto Mussolini. 
So, who should I pick. I could have been a glory boy and start pulling for the Falcons as they took a dominating lead in the second quarter, but I remained kind of neutral.

In fact I was more excited about the approaching half time show featuring Lady Gaga, as there was plenty of build up. Would there be guest stars? Would it be an attack on the new President? 

It turned out to be a belter, with Gaga starting off atop the stadium with an obvious dig at Trump and a call for unity. She then leapt down and descended by wire to the centre where she blazed through a series of her hits. As for guest appearances? Nope, she didn’t need any.

In the second half I continued to not care.

The Patriots closed the gap, but it still looked like the trophy was heading to Georgia. I could have gone to bed then as with Gaga done, I didn’t care.

And then in the last quarter the Patriots staged a massive comeback. They added nineteen points without any response from Arizona, leaving scores tied at 28-28. 

Still, I didn’t care. Part of me was hoping Atlanta could score as it would be a cruel twist for their fans to lose so late in the day. But on the flip side you couldn’t help but admire the Patriots for getting back into it, and does a team that throws away such a big lead deserve the win.

As it was the Patriots got the overtime winner and claimed the title. It was a dramatic finish but by this stage I was watching because I’d gone too far and it seemed silly to leave before seeing it through.

So, yeah, next year I might give the Superbowl a miss and just enjoy a good night’s sleep, and just watch the halftime show online the next day.

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: Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

In 1995 less than half a decade after it’s first democratic election and the end of apartheid South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. The nation’s triumph at the tournament was viewed as an optimistic sign for the country and helped to heal the wounds on the nation’s people. This magnificent book details the story of South Africa leading up to the tournament, the challenges it faced and the driving force behind South Africa’s rebirth, Nelson Mandela.

Carlin’s writing is masterful and the research that has gone into it is evident in the wealth of back story and the interviews with numerous figures from all corners of the political landscape and the players involved in the historic tournament.

With obvious and unapologetic admiration Carlin discusses how Mandela emerged from prison a smart and savvy politician, a man who had used his time to understand what made the Afrikaners tick and who used this insight in a remarkable charm offensive that would win over life long enemies. Mandela is portrayed as being intelligent and shrewd, and Carlin acknowledges that he played the game of politics brilliantly, but it is hard to criticise a man who used politics to promote unity and peace. A man who could easily have sought vengeance and retribution but understood that understanding and unity were better for his people.
The book details the secret negotiations Mandela began in prison and his work upon release to lead the ANC to victory. But it also shows that he understood the need to involve all peoples in the new country he wanted to make.

And rugby forms a key part of this. Mandela understood what it meant to the Afrikaner population, how the years of boycott and isolation had hurt them and how to use the return of the Springboks to the international stage as a carrot to spur them to peaceful reconciliation. But he was not bound to how the green jersey was linked to the former violent regime in the eyes of the black population and the struggle it would be to win them over to cheer for a team they had long despised.

Carlin goes to great lengths to capture this, talking to both sides and capturing the rabid, near religious fanaticism of one side and the deep rooted loathing of the other.

The rugby itself takes up a small section of the book, with the politics, and more importantly people being the main focus. The interviews with Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others reveal the emotional tumult that led up to the tournament. It is the players who are most moving, athletes who had been indifferent or ignorant of politics coming to understand that they were key players in uniting their country. Mandela awoke in them an understanding and compassion, overturning the deep seated beliefs they had been raised in. That these players became true believers, who played for more than glory, more than pride is a moving story, and the response of a tense, conflicted nation is inspiring and heartwarming. 

Several times reading I was choked up, marvelling at the story and the strength of men like Mandela and Tutu who show none of the resentment one could easily understand in men who suffered under the apartheid system. It’s no wonder Hollywood took to this story (Invictus) as it marries the themes of redemption, forgiveness and triumph so well it could almost be too good to be true.

Of course, Carlin knows that South Africa didn’t become a peaceful, perfect Utopia, but this story shows that it emerged stronger and more united than any would have believed in the early 90s as it teetered on the brink of civil war.

Verdict: Sensationally written this is a moving, involving and inspiring work which shows how sport can be a unifying factor and the skill and success of one of modern history’s greatest figures, Nelson Mandela. A great read even for non rugby fans. 9/10.

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.


Euro 2016 Part 5: Hazard Warning

Belgium vs Hungary. The winner would face Wales, so I watched with great interest.

In this kind of situation you want both teams to look poor, play extra time (so they’re more tired) and the winning side to pick up several cards and minor injuries so they are weakened when you face them.

This didn’t happen though, instead it was a decent showing from both, decided in 90 and Belgium, the victors, emerged looking strong.

They started well with good attacking moves and took the lead after ten minutes from a good headed goal from Toby Alderweireld. For the rest of the first half Belgium put on pressure but a brave Hungarian defence kept them back.

Belgium boast a squad full of talent most noticeably Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, who hit the crossbar with a sensational free kick.

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De Bruyne in action

Hungary had their own attempts but lacked a cutting edge up front and the game was open and entertaining. The second half saw more of the same, although the Belgians began to look more impressive.

As they chased a second they showed quick, fluid passing and were dangerous on the counter. Hungary gave a gritty display, holding them off, but it seemed unlikely that they could hold for the rest of the game and their own attacks didn’t threaten enough.

With twelve minutes remaining the Belgians got their second goal, effectively killing off the match. A corner was half cleared to Hazard, who knocked the ball past the defence and then whipped it across the face of goal, allowing substitute Michu Batshuayi to score with his first touch.

Hazard the bagged one of his own a minute later, after a quick counter worked the ball upfield. He ran in from the wing, running at defenders before blasting in from just inside the box.

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Hazard celebrates.

Three-nil seemed harsh on the Hungarians who had worked hard for almost 80 minutes, but Belgium showed no mercy. And a minute into added time Yannick Carrasco found the net and the scoreline was a rout.

In the end the class of the Belgian team won out and they dominated throughout, should they come into the match against Wales in similar confident form the tournament may well be over for us. Hazard and De Bruyne will pose the defence considerable problems, and while he was frustrated here, Romelu Lukaku is a dangerous presence up front.

Belgium set out their stall and after this type of performance they have to be regarded as one of the main contenders, and definitely the strongest looking team in their half of the tournament.

It was an entertaining match, but a worrying one for a Welsh fan.

Round of 16 Round up:

Poland and Switzerland went to penalties and Arsenal’s new £34m Swiss signing missed, meaning Poland advance to face Portugal.

Portugal progressed after beating Croatia 1-0 in a game which should be prescribed to insomniacs.

After a good group campaign Slovakia were sent home as the Germans thrashed them 3-0. The Germans will face the winner of the Italy vs Spain game this afternoon.

Today’s other match sees England take on Iceland, the tournament underdogs. The winner will face France after the hosts came back after an early scare against the Republic of Ireland to win 2-1.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 4: Agony and Ecstasy

“Football is football, it is cruel”- Arsene Wenger.

Gareth McAuley had to act.

When Bale whipped the ball in front of goal the Irishman knew that Hal Robson-Kanu was behind him and positioned for an easy tap in. And so McAuley dived in, trying to stop the danger and only succeeding in sending the ball into his own net.

A goal that sent his country home.

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Nobody can blame him. The attacking movie, with Ramsey setting Bale free down the left was quick and beautifully executed, the ball into the area a masterpiece. Robson-Kanu was in a good position and most likely would have grabbed his second if McAuley had just hung back.

The Northern Irish fans, devastated by the loss will probably forgive him. They’ll remember the moment, in the masochistic way sports fans never release their painful moments, but they’ll know he tried. They’ll also be able to remember a decent campaign in their first tournament in 30 years.

By all accounts Wales only just edged what was a cagey game, but either way it had gone one underdog story would have been put to sleep. I feel for the Irish players and fans, but I can’t lie and say I’m not happy with the result.

Wales’ Euro dream lives on, with Belgium or Hungary awaiting, and the team find themselves in the last eight. It has been a good run and the team and fans have done us proud, how long it will last is unknown, and I think we should all enjoy the ride while we can.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.