Uruguay: A different Liverpool lead the way

IN URUGUAY, football clubs have a busy schedule and there’s scarcely a moment’s pause for the players after the end of the 15-round Torneo Apertura. The Torneo Intermedio has just got underway after the first stage of the season in which Montevideo’s Liverpool came out on top.

The Negriazules (black & blues) finished four points clear of Nacional and five in front of Deportivo Maldonado and Boston River. In some ways, they were surprise winners for Liverpool do not have the most packed trophy cabinet having previously won a single Clausura in 2020 in their 107-year history. They also won the Intermedio in 2019.

It may sound unusual to see a club in Uruguay named after an English city, but it is a reflection of the seafaring history of Montevideo, which would receive ships at its port from places like Liverpool. The influence of British seaman left its mark in a number of ways and some sporting institutions took on Anglicised names, such as Wanderers, Albion, Uruguay Athletic and Bristol.

Although Uruguay was a progressive football nation and won two World Cups in 1930 and 1950, it has become something of a breeding ground for young talent. In 2021, there were around 300 players from the country playing abroad. The latest Uruguayan star to emerge is Darwin Núñez, who has joined the English Liverpool from Benfica for a huge fee.

Rising from a poverty-stricken start in life in the city of Artigas, Núñez moved from Peñarol to Spain with Almeria when he was 20 and then joined Benfica in 2020. He has scored 48 goals in 85 games and with the fee from Liverpool touching € 100 million, the real winners in the transfer are Benfica, whose prowess at finding talent, developing it and selling it on to bigger clubs has come to the fore once more. Another name to attract European interest is Peñarol’s Agustin Àlvarez who has joined Sassuolo in Italy for a record € 11 million, while Barcelona’s centre back Ronald Araújo had an excellent season under coach Xavi.

However, there is a growing feeling that a golden era for Uruguay is coming to an end. The star names of the past decade, players like Edinson Cavani, Diego Godín and Luis Suárez are now veterans, but the national team qualified for Qatar 2022, although their squad for the finals is not likely to include many players from domestic football, a far cry from 1970 when 16 of the 22 came from the Montevideo giants Peñarol and Nacional.

Peñarol didn’t have a particularly happy Apertura and finished fifth although they did beat old rivals Nacional and inflicted a rare defeat upon Liverpool. As well as losing Àlvarez, they may have had to say farewell to leading scorer Pablo Ceppelini, who is returning to his club, Cruz Azul of Mexico, following a loan spell. Nacional, meanwhile, finished runners-up and were the top scorers in the Apertura with 28 goals in 15 games.

The performance of Uruguayan teams in the Copa Libertadores this year has been very disappointing and there is not a single representative from the Primera División in the last 16. In fact, their record is abysmal over the past decade, just three teams (Nacional, Wanderers and Defensor Sporting) reaching that stage of the competition.

Peñarol last made the last 16 in 2011 when they were runners-up to Santos. Uruguay’s last win was in 1988 when Nacional were champions. Less celebrated countries such as Paraguay and Ecuador have had more last 16 sides than Uruguay. Nacional finished third in their Libertadores group and have the consolation of playing in the Copa Sudamericana, where they will face Club Atlético Unión of Argentina in the last 16.

Montevideo completely dominates Uruguayan football but in 2022, Albion FC made its bow in the top flight for the first time in the professional era. Albion were founded in 1891 by students from the English High School and is the oldest football club in Uruguay. They play in the Carrasco neighbourhood of Montevideo at the Estadio Charrúa. They found it hard going in the Apertura, winning just two games and finishing one off the bottom of the table. They were only two points behind Montevideo City Torque, the club that is part of the City Football Group.

The Intermedio kicked off on June 10, comprising two groups of eight. Liverpool started with a game against Wanderers and suffered two sending offs and lost 1-0. Also in the same group, Peñarol were beaten at home by Torque 2-1. This competition is a prelude to the Clausura, which starts in July and finishes in November. Whether Liverpool can continue their first stage form remains to be seen, winning both the Apertura and Clausura is a big ask and has happened just twice, in 1998 (Nacional) and 2006 (Danubio). If they are anything like their English namesake, Liverpool Fútbol Club will relish the challenge.

FC Copenhagen win the Superliga and strengthen the brand

THE strongest sporting brand in the Nordic region – that’s how FC København describe themselves, and after winning their 14th league triumph in the 30 years of the club’s existence, it’s hard to disagree. On the day that FCK clinched the Superliga title, the wonderful city of Copenhagen was awash with supporters heading to Parken for the final game of the campaign against Aalborg, a 3-0 success that made it impossible for Midtjylland to catch the team from the heart of the capital.

Although FCK’s rivals in the west of Copenhagen, Brøndby might disagree, there’s something about the club that’s rather compelling. Maybe it is the brilliant white and royal blue colours, perhaps it is the stadium, but it could also be the identity of the club, which carries the name of one of the most popular cities in Europe at the moment.

The world loves anything Nordic: the laid-back attitude of its people, the simplicity of innovative design from Denmark, Sweden and Finland, the healthy and down-to-earth lifestyles and the rather acquired taste of new Nordic cuisine. If a Danish club is ever going to look the Germans, French and English in the eye in the 21st century, it could be FC København from the well-heeled area of Østerbro.

FCK finished just three points ahead of Midtjylland, a club owned by Matthew Benham, who is better known as the owner of Brentford. Benham’s analytical approach to team-building and transfers was tried out in Denmark before he applied his methods to Brentford, the club he had supported for many years. Midtjylland were formed out of a merger between Ikast and Herning Fremad and have won three Superliga titles, the most recent in 2020. They looked good for another championship for much of 2021-22, but FCK overtook them late on and then dominated the decisive Championship round. Nevertheless, they are considered to be one of Europe’s smartest clubs.

There was compensation for Midtjylland in the form of the Danish Cup (Sydbank Pokalen), which they won on penalties against OB. Rather uniquely, they played in all three of UEFA’s competitions, starting in the Champions League before dropping into the Europa and then Conference. Midtjylland’s relatively small squad includes half a dozen Brazilians, one of whom, Evander, netted 17 goals and was among the SuperLiga’s top scorers and finished third in the player of the year voting.

Evander was beaten to the award by Spain’s Pep Biel, FCK’s leading scorer with 18 goals across all competitions. Biel, who comes from Majorca, was the most expensive signing in Superliga history when he moved to Denmark from Zaragoza for a € 5 million fee. He took time to settle, his relatively small frame strolling to adjust to the physical Danish league, but he not only scored goals but created a few for his team-mates. “At first it was difficult for me,” he said. “I’m not the tallest or strongest, but is also played with movement and skill with the ball.”

Biel secured 25% of the votes from fellow professionals and in second place was the league’s top striker, Nicklas Helenius of Silkeborg, who scored 17 SuperLiga goals. The 31 year-old, who nudges almost two metres in height, had an unhappy spell with Aston Villa between 2013 and 2015.

One very positive aspect of the 2021-22 season were the crowds. FCK, for example, recorded the best ever average gates in the Superliga, a very impressive 24,300 and also drew 35,000 for their title-winning game against Aalborg. That game was also marred by a pitch invasion. Interest in the club appears to be gathering momentum and already they have sold 16,000 season tickets for next season.

Less successful were AGF from Aarhus, who took the bold step of hiring former Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere. He managed 14 appearances, although very few 90 minute performances, and was never on the winning side. AGF were in danger of relegation but stayed up by a single point, which was fortunate given they are about to benefit from a redevelopment of their stadium. Vejle and SønderjyskE went down to the first division, to be replaced by Horsens and Lyngby. Horsens will open the season against the champions at Parken on July 17.

Denmark won many friends for their performances in Euro 2020 and also for the way they reacted to the trauma suffered by midfielder Christian Eriksen. They have qualified for the World Cup in Qatar and will come up against France in the group stage and they will also face them in the UEFA Nations League on June 3, 2022. Although the Danes are rarely named amongst lists of possible winners, to underestimate them would be a mistake!

As war rages, Zenit become Russian champions

ZENIT ST. Petersburg recently clinched the Russian Premier League for the fourth consecutive season, making their coach, Sergei Semak, one of the most successful in Europe over the past five years. At the same time, Ukrainian football was suspended and some stadiums had come under fire from Russian armed forces.

Zenit beat Lokomotiv Moscow 3-1 on April 30 to become champions once more, losing just two league games up to May 11. The Gazprom-owned club were comfortable winners and there is currently a 12-point margin between them and second and third placed Dynamo Moscow and Sochi with two matchdays to go.

Zenit, owned by Russian energy company Gazprom, have lost just two league games this season. Gazprom’s chairman, Alexey Miller, was ecstatic when congratulating the players and management: “The capital of football continues to grow and expand.”

However, Zenit showed a distinct lack of class in trolling Manchester United on social media after winning the league, picturing defender Danil Krugovoy holding the trophy. “This is how you win the Premier League,” they posted. The club recently announced that they had become the first Russian football club to generate over 5.5 million followers across social networks.

While the ebullient Zenit faithful celebrated their title win in typical style, casualties from the war in Ukraine were mounting. The Russian state may be selective in the dissemination of news from the front line, but the harsh reality of the conflict cannot be hidden. Russia is at war and life is trying to get on as normal. As seen on TV, opposition to the war is invariably treated with aggression.

While there is no doubting their domestic domination, Zenit continue to fall short in European competition. They finished third in their Champions League group and switched over to the Europa League but crashed out to Real Betis in the last 16. Likewise, Spartak and Lokomotiv Moscow fell short in the Europa League. Zenit’s place in the Champions League in 2022-23 will be taken by the Scottish champions.

The invasion of Ukraine has made life uncomfortable for foreign players in the Russian Premier League. Some, such as Anders Dreyer, Rubin Kazan’s Danish winger, have left Russia. Dreyer has returned to his old club, Midtjylland, until the end of June 2022. Others, like Victor Moses (Spartak), Malcom and Wendel (both Zenit) are still playing for their clubs. FIFA has said that Russia-based foreign players can leave their clubs until the end of the season.

The Russian invasion has also been the catalyst for the severing of some business relationships. UEFA, for example, have ended their long-standing and very lucrative sponsorship arrangements with Gazprom and their rather sinister animated advertising that filled TV intervals during Champions League screenings. Schalke 04 have also cut their ties with Gazprom while Manchester United ended its partnership with Aeroflot. Daniel Farke, the former manager of Norwich City, left Krasnodar before he had managed a single game for the club, while his compatriot, ex-Köln coach Markus Gisdol, walked away from Lokomotiv Moscow after just a dozen fixtures.

Russian football was not in a good place before the country’s armed forces invaded Ukraine, so the decline will surely only continue.

Russia’s economy has been destabilised by the sanctions implemented by the west and factories have been closed and inflation has reached its highest level in decades.  Analysts estimate the economy could contract by as much as 20% in 2022. A number of oligarchs have lost a lot of money. Leonid Fedun, owner of Spartak Moscow, has lost some 15% of his wealth. Needless to say, this will affect football club finances, which are invariably precarious at the best of times. The story of Anzhi Makhachkala has almost been brushed under the carpet, a short-lived gold rush involving billionaire Suleiman Kerimovm, who also invested in Uralkali, a leading producer of fertiliser. Big-name hired hands were brought in – Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos among them – but the price of potash crashed and Anzhi are now in the third tier of Russian football and largely forgotten.

Over half of the Russian Premier is state-owned or backed by the local authorities. The CSKA Moscow was 22% owned by a UK company called Bluecastle Enteprises as well as state development bank, VEB. CSKA, who have been linked to former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, reported that some of their employees had returned home when the war broke out, for “family and personal reasons related to the current situation”.

The rest of the league seems to benefit from some sort of corporate sponsorship or are owned by wealthy businessmen. The league is sponsored by Tinkoff, a Russian bank owned by Oleg Tinkov, who has spoken out about the futility of the war. He sees no beneficiary emerging from the ongoing troubles and accuses Russia of being “mired in nepotism and servility”.

Russian football was not in a good place before the country invaded Ukraine, so the decline may steepen in the next few years. Given the size of the country, it is still something of a mystery why Russia has struggled to produce a consistently competitive club, although CSKA and Zenit won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Zenit have the potential to become more prominent with their strong support and excellent stadium. They were ranked 19th in Deloitte’s Football Money League for 2022, with total revenues of more than € 200 million, but if Russia becomes an international pariah, it will difficult for the club to make progress in the short-term.

As it stands, Russia is likely to become more isolated than it has at any point since the Soviet Union split apart and from a footballing perspective, we are unlikely to see their clubs in European competition for some time. The state has used sport to ingratiate itself, and as it turns out, the protests and the fears were more than justified. As academic David Golblatt said in his piece for Open Democracy, Russia’s exclusion from world football will make little difference to the Kremlin. “Football has already done its work, helping to conjure up the illusion of Putin’s Russia as a pacific member of the global community, for which many were handsomely rewarded.” And people still wonder why there is still some discomfort over Qatar being awarded the World Cup…