November 24th, 2008
03:28 PM ET

Welcome back Diego!

Love him or hate him, no-one has ever been able to ignore him, and you won't be able to do it now as Diego Armando Maradona is back. Few would have ever predicted that he would one day become Argentina's national team manager. After all, this is a man who is not exactly the ideal role model – a self-confessed cocaine addict whose self-destructive behaviour nearly killed him back in 2004. But he bounced back. Somehow, he managed to get back on his feet and return to the forefront in the world of football.

"How do you feel? Have you overcome your demons, your mental and physical troubles?" I asked him at a press conference in Glasgow before his managerial debut against Scotland last week. His reply was indicative of someone who has stared death in the face but who is now trying to do his best. "I get up every morning. Thank God, I get up every morning."

It was a calm and collected Maradona I saw before, during and after Argentina's 1-0 win over the Scots at Hampden Park. There were no controversial remarks, no inflamatory comments made about the "hand of God" goal he was asked about by local reporters. I was pleased to see a more mature man, one who probably realizes this is his last big shot at making a mark in world football. As a player, his biggest pride and passion was wearing the blue and white stripes of Argentina, and now he will do everything in his power to serve his beloved nation.

During his first ever game as Argentina manager, there were no signs of the exhuberant and inappropriate behaviour displayed when supporting his favourite club, Boca Juniors, at La Bombonera in Buenos aires. There was no kicking and no shouting. Diego simply followed the match calmly on the bench, getting up only a handful of times to communicate a few instructions to his players.

So is this a new man with a new attitude? For now, it seems so, and I am ready to give him another chance. Even though it's probably the 100th chance he has been given in a turbulent life.

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Filed under:  Football
November 20th, 2008
03:28 PM ET

A friendly waste of time?

So, England defeated Germany 2-1, and Brazil thrashed Portugal 6-2. There were a few other interesting results, too.

But how much did these matches really mean? Did you watch them?

While Germany had their first loss at Berlin since the 1970s and a defeat for England would have tainted an otherwise good year (apart from the fact they didn't appear at the European Championships) – the win was essentially in a game of England B versus Germany B.

The question I'm asking is: are these international "friendlies" worth the bother?

If they don't mean anything they're just upsetting the increasingly important club seasons across Europe, and if they do - then why are they called "friendlies"? If they want any kind of status then maybe they ought to be renamed as "test matches" or "ranking" matches?

You could never imagine a "friendly" in a sport like rugby union or cricket – so why should the beautiful game tolerate such nonsense?

I mean, had the England v Germany match been a crucial World Cup qualifier, do you really believe that Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would have been unable to play?

And for those who are involved in these matches - or at least the lead up to them - there is the serious risk that an injury could jeopardise their club involvement or future international involvement.

Look at Theo Walcott for instance. He gets injured training for a friendly match that essentially means very little, and now faces a spell on the sideline at a time when his Arsenal club need him most. If Arsene Wenger disliked friendlies before that happened, he must be seething now.

Now I'm not saying that the international game isn't important. It is vital to the success of football, and the value of international matches needs to be high - which is perhaps another reason why these friendly games aren't good. Could they be devaluing the international football brand by having a meaningless match where not all of the top players are involved? Maybe these games could be played by development sides in future? Or an unofficial version of the international team?

Either way, I don't believe these friendly matches should be played by the supposed elite international teams. These sides and the respect they carry should be reserved for true battles when they fight gritty encounters for World Cup places, or show their flair in regional tournaments.

I understand that international teams still need a good hit out against other sides to help prepare for big matches. So maybe it was just the timing of these matches that really irked me. Most of the important internationals for the year are long since over. England for instance has its next qualifier in April. What did they stand to gain from playing Germany, while missing their top players, in November?

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November 6th, 2008
03:01 PM ET

The mighty minnows

If there is one story that fascinates me in the early season, it's how many unheralded and unfancied clubs are holding their own with some of Europe's big boys, not only in their respective leagues, but also in the Champions League.

When Rubin Kazan clinched the Russian Premier League title, it really made me sit up and take notice, because to be honest, even though I have followed football all my life, I knew nothing about this club.

Rubin secured the Russian crown with three matches to play, finishing ahead of all of the traditional title contenders like Spartak, Dinamo and CSKA Moscow, as well as UEFA Cup champions Zenit St.Petersburg.

The side from Kazan has been built around veterans Sergei Rebrov and Sergei Semak with the well-travelled Savo Milosevic contributing a few key goals. Colombian midfielder Christian Noboa adds some South American flair and some of these names will be lighting up the Champions League next season.

1899 Hoffenheim is hoping to duplicate Rubin's historic feat in Germany.

Who could have predicted that this club, who just three years ago was playing in a regional league, would be topping the Bundesliga ahead of powerhouses such as Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen? With a squad which has no star names, Hoffenheim have defied all the odds by winning eight of their first 11 games.

In Portugal, it's Leixoes grabbing the headlines. The northern club, that was out of Portugal's top flight for over 20 seasons, is now leading the way in front of FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting. Being a native of Portugal and having followed the league all my life, it's a huge surprise to see such a power shift.

Over in the Netherlands, NAC Breda is one of the teams at the top of the Eredivisie. This is a club that has not won a single trophy in its history, yet is battling for the top positions in the league with Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord.

Even in the Premier League, where clubs with small budgets can rarely challenge the traditional fat cats, we can find a cinderella story as Hull City has been able to stay close to the top of the table. Their challenge will surely wane, but manager Phil Brown has masterminded some impressive victories, especially against Arsenal and Tottenham.

Success by the so called "small teams" has also been registered in the top club competition in the world - the Champions League.

Anorthosis Famagusta is the best example of this as the Cypriot side, making its debut this season, has beaten Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, plus, it has even managed to draw against Inter Milan and Werder Bremen.

So what does this all mean? Personally, I would like to believe that it means that although the rich clubs will always have more chances of winning titles, smaller sides with old fashioned qualities like hard work and a team philosophy can also challenge for honors. It makes me believe that money is not all you need to succeed.

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Filed under:  Football