December 5th, 2011
06:20 PM ET

Socrates – The day a football dream died

Socrates was the captain and lynchpin of Brazil's 1982 World Cup side -- the greatest team never to win the World Cup.
Socrates was the captain and lynchpin of Brazil's 1982 World Cup side -- the greatest team never to win the World Cup.

The anticipation prior to the 1982 World Cup finals tournament in Spain was electric.

Were the rumors true? Did Brazil really have a team to match the great 1970 World Cup-winning side? Could 12 years of hurt be finally over with the "Class of '82" living up to the hype by taking the trophy back to Brazil for a fourth time? FULL POST

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Filed under:  Football
April 27th, 2010
08:32 PM ET

Can Magath produce another miracle?

Felix Magath is now just two matches away from producing a second successive Bundesliga miracle.

Felix Magath will go down in history if you can lead Schalke to the Bundesliga title.
Felix Magath will go down in history if you can lead Schalke to the Bundesliga title.

Magath's Schalke side are battling it out with Champions League finalists Bayern Munich to see who will be crowned 2010 German champions.

It is a position that Bayern are accustomed to.

The most successful club in German football history are attempting to win their 22nd league title, as well as a fifth European Cup. Bayern are true European heavyweights.

Bayern should really lift the title again this season. Victories over Bochum and Hertha Berlin, two clubs who look poised for relegation, will see them crowned champions due to their vastly superior goal difference.

In contrast, Schalke have a tough match against third-placed Werder Bremen, before a final day visit to Mainz. Level on points with Bayern, Schalke need a shock to happen.

Ordinarily, I would say Schalke have no chance but their coach, Felix Magath, is no ordinary leader of men.

In two seasons he transformed unheralded Wolfsburg from also-rans to champions for the first time in their history.

A club previously famed for fighting relegation, Wolfsburg - under Magath - finished fifth in his first season, before stunning the elite to win the Bundesliga title last season.

You only have to look at Wolfsburg's league position this season to really appreciate the stunning nature of what he achieved.

This is the same Felix Magath who, in his first season as Bayern Munich coach, won the league and cup double in 2004-2005, unbelievably repeating that feat the following season, the only time in German history that a club has completed successive doubles.

Now the 56-year-old, who lifted the European Cup in 1983 when captain of Hamburg, stands on the verge of marking himself down as possibly the greatest coach in German football history.

Three times in the last decade Schalke finished as Bundesliga runners-up. In fact, the Gelsenkirchen side - who dominated German football to such an extent between 1933 and 1945 they lost only six league matches in 12 years - have not lifted the title for 52 years.

Can Magath end that unwanted statistic and win his fourth Bundesliga title in six years with his third different club?

I for one hope so. What a story that would be. What a story, what a coach, what a man.

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Filed under:  Football
March 10th, 2010
01:22 PM ET

Does anyone not like David Beckham?

Just what is it about David Beckham that has football fans the world over worshipping him?

David Beckham's commitment and obvious love of playing has ensured he remains a worldwide football icon.
David Beckham's commitment and obvious love of playing has ensured he remains a worldwide football icon.

From Europe to the United States, Asia to Africa, Manchester to Milan via Madrid, the England midfielder is a worldwide football icon, claiming a status that appears to be out of sync with his effectiveness on the field.

It has not always been that way. Castigated by fans and English media alike following his sending-off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals, for a while Beckham was public enemy number one in his home country.

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He was seen as a good-looking Flash Harry, too preoccupied with fashion, hairstyles and his pop-star wife Victoria.

Beckham always attracted headlines in his younger days. Some good - for his superb free-kicks and wholehearted performances on the pitch - and some indifferent, for a sometimes petulant attitude.

But while hard-line club manager Alex Ferguson grew tired of the media circus that followed his number "7," resulting in his eventual departure from Manchester United to Spain in 2003, for England Beckham could do no wrong.

His dismissal against Argentina, which prompted such vitriol and hate, gradually became nothing but a distant memory as Beckham began to turn jeers into cheers with some dynamic performances while wearing the "Three Lions" shirt.

This culminated in perhaps the finest moment of his career, when a pumped-up, super-charged Beckham dragged a struggling England team up by its bootlaces to secure a last-gasp draw over Greece and ensure qualification for the 2002 World Cup.

Without the intervention of Beckham's stunning 93rd-minute free-kick, England were staring at World Cup humiliation. The fact that the match was being played at Old Trafford only added to the theatre.

And that was it... the nation was hooked, a hero was born. In fact, in such high regard is Beckham held that he is now viewed by the English as a national treasure, sporting royalty, a very public figurehead for England's World Cup bid of 2018 ... which, with delicious irony, falls exactly 20 years from the date a perceived arrogant mop-haired young pup kicked out at Diego Simeone to get sent off in St Etienne.

Supporters are not stupid. They can see when a player is trying his hardest, putting in that extra shift, working tirelessly for the cause and Beckham has done this throughout his career.

At Real Madrid he fitted in perfectly with the "Galactico" era. Although the club were not successful on the pitch, Beckham was adored by the Los Meringues faithful for his all action style and dead-ball expertise.

The same at the San Siro, where his appearances from the substitutes bench still create a murmur from the Milan "Tifosi."

And although Beckham's initial spell with the LA Galaxy did not get off to a perfect start, he won those fans over too, helping the club reach the MLS final. Beckham's popularity is unique because it straddles different time zones for different reasons.

In England, it is for his whole hearted performances for the national team, which has seen him win more caps than any other outfield player. In Italy and Spain, for his displays and attitude with two of the biggest club sides in the world.

And in south-east Asia, where he adorns many teenage girl's bedroom wall, it could be argued that his model good looks have propelled him to god-like status.

Rare is a man who has a fan base throughout the world that envelops young and old, male and female, black and white... but David Beckham has it. Hard work, charm, good looks, politeness that help make the both man and the persona.

But, you know what, giving 100 percent every time you step out onto the field of play is the real key.

As I said earlier... fans aren't stupid.

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Filed under:  Football
January 8th, 2010
05:44 PM ET

Why have Manchester City signed Vieira?

Before I go any further, I have to stress that, in my opinion, Patrick Vieira is, was and always will be a total footballing god.

Patrick Vieira is Roberto Mancini's surprise first signing as Manchester City manager.
Patrick Vieira is Roberto Mancini's surprise first signing as Manchester City manager.

Many a time I have seen with my own eyes the power and influence that the Frenchman can have on a game of football.

Vieira captained Arsenal's 'Invincibles' of 2003-2004; he has won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three Serie A titles, a World Cup and European Championship.

In fact, since scoring the winning penalty against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final, his final match for Arsenal, the Gunners have not won a single trophy.

That was Vieira's influence.

I chose the word 'was' carefully. Maybe Arsene Wenger did sell Vieira a year too early for Gunners' fans' liking, but he had become injury-prone and his all-action style of play was taking a toll on his body.

The slower nature of Italian football was always going to suit him more in his later years and Vieira has cleaned up in a less competitive league.

Yet Vieira's influence at Inter Milan has been getting less and less with the wily Jose Mourinho no longer reliant on his old war-horse.

So, with old Inter coach Roberto Mancini now at Manchester City, we see the return of Vieira Mark II.

Don't forget, City are the richest-club in Britain, possibly the world. They were willing to pay Kaka whatever he wanted to come to Manchester. They already have Gareth Barry, Nigel De Jong, Vincent Kompany and Stephen Ireland battling for a midfield place.

They can sign whoever they like, for whatever fee they want, yet Mancini swoops for a 33-year-old, deemed past his best by both Wenger and Mourinho (who incidentally have won five Premier League titles between them), on a measly six-month contract on a free transfer.

If rumors are to be believed Mancini was also sniffing around Juan Veron, another veteran who crashed and burned at both Manchester United and Chelsea.

Why is a multi-millionaire shopping at flea markets?

As I said before, 'Paddy' is a god and I will always love him for what he did at my beloved Arsenal, but he has had his day and the immovable colossus that he used to be, has gone.

Good luck Paddy, it's a great move for you. But all you City fans should be asking serious questions as to why the club who can get any player they want....can't.

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Filed under:  Football
December 22nd, 2009
07:00 PM ET

How long can Liverpool keep faith with Rafa?

Two months ago I wrote a blog about Rafa Benitez's precarious position as Liverpool manager. At the time the Spaniard was bemoaning his lack of squad size and I was posing the question that really he only had himself to blame.

Rafa Benitez must do something quickly or Liverpool's season will implode completely.
Rafa Benitez must do something quickly or Liverpool's season will implode completely.

My posting came just before the Premier League match at home to Manchester United, a game I felt they had no chance of winning.

Well, what did I know...They beat the champions 2-0 at Anfield that day, a result that gave renewed hope to the red half of Merseyside and meant they were still very much in the title race.

Since then, Liverpool have crashed out of the Champions League and the English Coca-Cola Cup and, at the time of writing, they lie a lowly eighth in the Premier League - eight points away from Aston Villa, who occupy the fourth and final Champions League placing.

In a season where a new order is beginning to emerge in English football, with Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City all looking to challenge the established elite, Liverpool are being left behind.

Sure, they can still win the FA Cup and the Europa League, in which the patriotic English bookmakers have laughingly made them favorites ahead of teams like Valencia and Juventus, but does even the most ardent 'Red' believe that will happen?

The truth is that Rafa has had his time at Anfield and has to go, as soon as possible, for this great club to rebuild again. the fans have not turned against him, but so what. That is only because they reserve their ire for the unpopular American owners who many believe are at the root cause of Liverpool's problems.

Well, I don't buy that at all. Rafa has had fortunes to spend and they are nowhere nearer ending their 19-year wait for title glory.

So, why hasn't he been sacked yet...Is finance the answer?..Can Liverpool not afford to sack Rafa?..If that is true, then they'll have even less cash when they fail to qualify for the Champions League next season - and a place in the Europa League won't be a certainty either judging by their abject recent 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth.

Things have got to change at Anfield, and quickly. Look at the players Rafa doesn't use...Ryan Babel, Andrei Voronin, Andra Dossena, Phillip Degen...why not sell those four and use the money..whatever it sign a striker. Any striker who can score a few goals. He doesn't have to be a world-beater, just a good back-up for the amazing Fernando Torres.

Benni Mccarthy wants to leave Blackburn..The veteran Kevin Phillips isn't playing at Birmingham....How about Luca Toni, who Bayern Munich want to offload...Are you seriously telling me Luca Toni would not improve Liverpool's squad?..Plus he would provide company for fellow-Italian Alberto Aquilani, who is starting to look like the most expensive mistake in Liverpool's history.

Do some wheeler-dealing Rafa...Do something...But don't pass the buck or blame anybody else, because you have put Liverpool in this mess and - as seems increasingly likely - until you are finally relieved of your duties, only you can get them out of it.

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Filed under:  Football
November 26th, 2009
10:55 PM ET

Is Rafael Nadal a spent force?

Rafa Nadal's performances at the ATP World Tour Finals in London have raised serious question marks about the Spaniard's well-being.

Can Rafael Nadal ever return to his former heights again?
Can Rafael Nadal ever return to his former heights again?

Nadal began 2009 in superb style, beating Roger Federer to win the Australian Open title, taking him one tournament away from a clean sweep of slams.

His displays over the last year had taken the Spaniard to number one in the world rankings and all the locker-room mummerings were about Federer's possible demise and Nadal's increasing superiority.

Yet, the last seven months have seen a complete turnaround in the fortunes of the Majorcan.

A stunning defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling saw Nadal's seemingly invincible reign as French Open champion come to a crashing end - leaving the way open for Federer to snatch the one title that had always eluded him and take back the No.1 ranking in the process.

How had Nadal gone from this unbeatable powerhouse, to looking vulnerable, in the blink of an eye?

Well the answer soon became appearent when it was revealed Nadal was suffering from a crippling knee injury that would mean he could not defend his Wimbledon title, an absence that Federer took advantage of to take back his SW19 title in dramatic fashion.

With injuries so commonplace in modern tennis, I reckon it takes a really bad one to stop somebody competing in the most prestigious tournament in the world - especially when they are the defending champion.

And since his return to the ATP Tour, Nadal has looked a pale shadow of his former self. To be beaten in straight sets by both Soderling and Nikolay Davydenko in London is not the form of a man ranked second in the world.

Nadal prides himself on his upper body strength. His power and physique is something to behold and made him the player that took the tennis world by storm.

But while your upper body can be strengthened permanently, the knee cannot. Could it be that years of pumping iron and making his upper body stronger have placed too much strain on Nadal's lower body?

Could his knees be showing the wear and tear of coming into the sport so early and generating the immense power that is needed for those stunning clay-court ground-strokes.

On faster surfaces, Nadal is now just another player. If he does not perform to his previous imperious clay-court best, following the winter break, maybe he never will.

The acid test will be Roland Garros 2010.

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Filed under:  Tennis
October 21st, 2009
06:24 PM ET

Benitez only has himself to blame

The knives are firmly being sharpened for Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez at the moment with the English Premier League giants in the middle of a nightmare period both on and off the pitch.

Rafael Benitez has looked an increasingly desperate figure on the touchline this season.
Rafael Benitez has looked an increasingly desperate figure on the touchline this season.

Liverpool go into Sunday’s home clash against Manchester United in their worse run since 1987 – and four defeats in a row could easily become five should the Reds lose to their bitter rivals, a scenario not witnessed at Anfield for 56 years.

The glory days of that remarkable Champions League triumph in 2005 seem a distance away for Benitez and the Spaniard’s body language has become more and more agitated and irritable as a crippling injury list, loss of form from experienced players and new-found defensive uncertainty have all combined to give Liverpool a distinctly fragile appearance in recent weeks.

Suddenly every aspect of the club is being scrutinized, from the continued boardroom travails involving unpopular American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to Benitez’s transfer policy which has seen him sign over 70 players since taking charge of the club five years ago.

Benitez has moaned about his squad size in recent weeks but, from where I am looking, the Liverpool squad appears as big, if not bigger, than most of their rivals’ squads.

Size is not the issue, quality is, and it is my firm belief that Benitez only has himself to blame for the current mess his club are in.

The accusation that Liverpool rely too heavily on superstars Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard is true, but it is nonsense to say they are the only class players at Benitez’s disposal.

The likes of Yossi Benayoun, Javier Mascherano, Albert Reira, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, Glen Johnson and Pepe Reina are all top quality, but the truth is the second tier of players are simply not good enough.

Who scores the goals when Torres is absent?...David Ngog?..Andrei Voronin?...How the Liverpool faithful must yearn for Robbie Keane, Peter Crouch or Emile Heskey, all experienced Premier League strikers jettisoned by Benitez.

Who provides the creativity in midfield following the sale of Xabi Alonso?...Lucas? or will the still injured Alberto Aquilani provide the spark so sadly lacking when he eventually makes his debut?

And who plays in the full-back positions?..Glen Johnson?, Fabio Aurelio?, Philip Degen? Andrea Dossena? Martin Kelly? Emiliano Insua? Jamie Carragher?...How many full-backs does a club need?

I do not expect Liverpool to beat United on Sunday, although a draw might be enough to instil some much-needed confidence…

Either way, they have already lost four league games, double last year’s total, and their title hopes will be extinguished should defeat number five occur at the weekend…

Is Benitez’s job safe?...For the moment he won’t be going, especially as the ink on a lucrative recent five-year contract is barely dry..

But if Liverpool fail to finish in the top four, don’t expect the dour Spaniard to be at the helm next season, and, you know what, he’ll only have himself to blame.

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Filed under:  Football
July 31st, 2009
04:23 PM ET

Manchester City must be taken seriously

The signing of Arsenal defender Kolo Toure, with the prospect of at least one more top center-half being signed to partner him, marks Manchester City down as genuine English Premier League title contenders for the forthcoming season.

City appear to have been signing up every available world class striker this summer in an attempt to break the current monopoly held by Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal and there is no doubt that a forward line of Adebayor, Tevez. Santa Cruz, Robinho and Bellamy will trouble even the most resolute of defenses.

Toure's arrival marks City down as genuine title contenders.
Toure's arrival marks City down as genuine title contenders.

However, the capture of Toure is even more significant.

Firstly, the signing takes away a vital player from a potential title rival.  To some experts, Arsenal are the most vulnerable of the top four clubs. Selling Emmanuel Adebayor to City was seen as good business, but Toure - as the final member of the unbeaten 'Invincibles' Arsenal side that won the title in 2004 - was a key component of Arsenal's back four and his reaction speed, athleticism and ability to read dangerous situations are as good as any Premier League defender.

And secondly, Toure's arrival addresses what was an obvious deficiency in the City set-up, that no amount of attack-minded player could solve.

Defensively, City were woeful last season. Irishman Richard Dunne, a stalwart and fans' favorite in previous seasons, was exposed for his lack of pace more than ever before, while Micah Richards - who looked destined to be an England regular for many years to come under the national team leadership of Sven-Goran Eriksson - was completely overlooked by the Swede's replacement Fabio Capello, resulting  in a worrying loss of form amid rumors of petulant behavior and disagreements with City manager Mark Hughes.

While Hughes was busy assembling his dream team strike-force, the issue of City's leaking defence remained a major concern, but the moment Hughes made his intentions to snatch England captain John Terry from Chelsea known, City immediately became genuine title contenders.

Ultimately Terry opted to remain with Chelsea, but his head was undoubtedly turned, and with the seemingly bottomless pit of Abu Dhabi money ensuring the blue half of Manchester can offer whatever it takes to make their team title contendors, then a top quality partner for Toure will not be long  in coming.

Perhaps City won't win the title this season, but don't for one moment believe they cannot challenge. Hughes has signed proven champions. Tevez won the title at Manchester United, Toure at Arsenal, Santa Cruz with Bayern Munich in Germany. These are not players who are wet behind the ears, they have a winning mentality.

The rest of the Premier League should beware.

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Filed under:  Football
July 14th, 2009
05:56 PM ET

Free-food bonanza at Tour de France

I’m beginning to think that the croissant I had for breakfast was a complete waste of time, such is the amount of free food and drink being offered to me by the Tour de France organizers.

A mini-breakfast of bacon and sausage, just one of the many free food options in the Tour de France village.
A mini-breakfast of bacon and sausage, just one of the many free food options in the Tour de France village.

Luckily enough, I have the correct ‘accreditation’ to enter the Tour village, prior to the 10th stage from Limoges to Issoudun and, despite the drizzly conditions, I am certainly not alone.

It is easy to see why they call it the village. I haven’t located a bed yet, but there is a sufficient amount of food, drink, toilet facilities and entertainment, to provide me with everything I need should I, and the thousands of other privileged enough to have the ‘golden ticket’, get locked in here for the next month.

While the rank and file are being entertained by all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures who form part of the Tour de France cavalcade, I begin my feast-fest by tucking into a couple of mini-pastries.

I decline the offer of some coffee and opt out of the wine-tasting, which seems surprisingly popular considering it is only 10:30am. I am handed the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. It’s a great read, for those who speak French, but as my vocabulary is limited to ‘bonjour’, I fear it is wasted on me.

A man is offering me fruit by the handful. I accept an orange and a little green thing which I think is a sort of plum, very nice it is too, before gratefully scooping up some sweets courtesy of our friends at Haribo.

Bizarrely, I can’t find any water so I decide to partake in an apricot ice drink, which I soon realize is a huge error as my brain freezes up for a good 20 seconds.

There is a crowd gathering around a particular tent, where I notice the genial host/chef is offering up a mini fry-up of bacon and sausages. Imagine, if you will, having to create a breakfast for a doll’s house...then this was it. Bacon was a bit on the fatty side, but that’s just me being ungrateful for no reason.

Before I get stuck into the mini-pasta dishes, I hear a commotion. The riders are beginning to arrive and I’ve got to start work. With regret I leave the much-fancied diet of durum wheat to attend to business, with much food for cycling-based thought.

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Filed under:  Cycling