It’s getting messy over Lionel

LIONEL MESSI is a free agent. That news would normally spark off a wave of transfer speculation, interested parties circling the Camp Nou and non-stop media coverage. Nobody seriously expects Messi to leave Barcelona, least of all the club’s president, Joan Laporte. 

The recently-appointed top man at Barca urges fans to keep calm and assures everyone that talks are in progress and going well. Should Messi go, it would be a travesty for a club low on confidence and liquidity. The family silver – and there’s plenty of it at Barca – may have to be pawned in order to keep him in the Catalan capital. 

Where would he go if not Barca? The Manchester Evening News said Manchester City have nothing to lose if they make a bid to take the Argentinian to the Etihad. They list Messi among possible signings such as Harry Kane and Jack Grealish. Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror said Paris Saint-Germain are monitoring the situation, but they also have eyes on Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba. 

Spanish football expert Guillem Balague told the BBC Barcelona had raised the level of urgency over contract talks, but there are complications. “They want him to sign as soon as possible, but the timing will be dictated by tax issues, Messi’s wages and fitting a new contract within La Liga’s financial fair play rules.” Apparently, Barca have to reduce their wage bill by € 200 million. 

Copa, what Copa?

Messi is currently in action in Brazil, playing for Argentina in the very low-key Copa América. The wisdom of playing the competition in a covid-19 environment that has seen 465,000 deaths is one thing, but the 11th hour switch to Brazil, the timing and the format really do raise questions about CONMEBOL. 

Two groups of five, playing four games apiece in order to reduce the field from 10 to eight. Brazilian senator Renan Calheiros has been opposed to the Copa taking place, calling it the “Championship of death”.

Not surprisingly, coverage of the Copa América has been scant, even though the BBC have been showing the games. For Messi, it’s another chance for him to win something with his country, but who will notice? 

The trials of Rafa

Rafa Benitez has accepted the job as Everton coach and fans are protesting about the former Liverpool boss being named as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor. Benitez remains one of football’s most employable managers, but it isn’t the first time complaints have poured in following his appointment. At Chelsea, his arrival was greeted with jeers and banners referring to his time at Liverpool. 

Yes, Benitez was manager at Anfield and won the Champions League, but that doesn’t make him forever a red, even though the famous “small club” comment about Everton has never been forgotten. 

Benitez won the Europa League with Chelsea in 2013 and did a good at Stamford Bridge, but he was constantly abused and largely unappreciated. 

He can expect similar at Everton from some Goodison regulars judging by the early reaction. In a few months, they may start to realise that they have secured a top-class coach who knows the game inside out. He told the Liverpool Echo: “I am here, I will fight for my club, I will try to win every single game, and it doesn’t matter who the opponents are, or the rivals. It is something you have to do, it is your nature, that you have to try to do your best.”

The newspaper added: “While it is wrong to say Benitez is a busted flush in terms of management, undoubtedly his recent record has been one of diminishing returns. And, as his old foe José Mourinho is discovering, the game moves on.”

The spirit of Nuno

Finally, Spurs got their man, or rather, got a man. Nuno Espirito Santo is a decent fellow, likeable by all accounts, but he’s no more proficient than the men they let go over the past two years, Mauricio Pochettino and José Mourinho. It has been a struggle for Spurs and this may have been due to a lack of available candidates as well as the club’s lack of success.

Daniel Levy, speaking to the Guardian, said he was keen for Spurs to revert to “our core DNA of playing attacking, entertaining football” and that Nuno as the man to do it.

With 60 years now passed since they won a league title, Spurs are in desperate need of a trophy, but then so is Nuno. He has yet to win a major honour as a manager. Perhaps they can break new ground together?

Sources: The Guardian, CNN, The Daily Mirror, BBC, Liverpool Echo, Manchester Evening News.


WWC has cast the Copa América into the shadows

IF YOU want evidence that the Women’s football has come of age, then look no further than the way it has overshadowed a string of other major sporting events that are currently in progress: the Copa América, the African Cup of Nations and the Cricket World Cup. The media are besotted with the FIFA Women’s World Cup, suddenly all sorts of “celebrities” are claiming lifelong interest in women’s football and some people are even saying they prefer it to the men’s game.

The Copa América has barely registered on most people’s radar, despite the fact it is hosted in Brazil and the likes of Lionel Messi are trying their best to raise public interest. Sadly for the publicists at CONMEBOL, the Women’s World Cup is far more compelling than a South American 12-team tournament, two of which (Japan and Qatar) were guests to make the meeting quorate.

While the Women’s World Cup has come on in leaps and bounds in the past four years and really generated considerable interest from a broad segment of the football audience, the  Copa América has the awkward format of an overblown tournament – eight teams from 12 going through to the second stage, and two of the four early departures were the guests, meaning that only two locals went out from the groups. On the evidence of the first phase, there appeared to be a lot of either disinterested, worn-out or sub-standard teams. A lot of players were in need of a rest given they have just come off a gruelling European season – between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, 57 of the 69 squad members earn their living in Europe. Is it a competition that nobody really fancies? The more our football schedules get packed, the greater the need to align the confederation competitions with the World Cup to reduce the number of qualifying structures.

Brazil vs. Argentina  Semi Final – Gabriel jesus celebrates his goal. Photo: PA

The Copa América was in desperate need of a big ticket game to bring it to life and they finally got it in the semi-finals, the classic Latino encounter of Brazil v Argentina in Belo Horizonte. On the whole, it has been a disappointing competition, from the lack lustre games to the poor scoring rate of 2.18 per game. Three of the four quarter-finals ended goalless and were decided on penalties. The crowds have also been below expectations, with a couple below 10,000 and five below 20,000. The biggest crowd so far did not involve the hosts, the 57,442 that turned-outt for Chile v Uruguay. The Brazil v Argentina semi attracted 55,947 – much more like it.

One of the reasons for the low attendances could be the pricing policy, with the cheapest seats for the group games coming in at the equivalent of € 40. CONMEBOL have shot themselves in both feet by rejecting a call to bring down prices – the result is that utilisation rates have been about 40% of stadium capacities. Even Brazil’s opener against Bolivia only attracted 46,000 in a 70,000 arena in São Paulo. There may still be something of a hangover from the last time Brazil opened the doors to the world. That said, the game generated a record of R$ 22.5 million in receipts, that’s about € 5.2 million, which should make the organisers happy. There has been criticism that CONMEBOL are more interest in balance sheet issues than seeing the stadiums vibrant and packed to the rafters. But it could also be that Brazilian sports fans have had too much of a good thing. After the World Cup in 2014, they had the Olympics in 2016 and now the Copa América.

So far, the crowds cannot be too happy with the fare on offer. Argentina’s Lionel Messi, on whose shoulders the hopes of a nation rested, has complained about the quality of the pitches, but one of the reasons why the games are so staccato is the high number of fouls. This just makes for scruffy, unsatisfying matches.

There’s another factor as to why the quality is sub-standard and that has much to do with the 2018 World Cup. Transition. Consider that the last teams left standing were Uruguay and Brazil who were both eliminated at the quarter-final stage. Columbia and Argentina went out in the round of 16 and Peru failed to get out of their group. In other words, one year on, most of these nations should be in the process of rebuilding for the next World Cup in 2022. The Copa may not be an immediate priority, although Messi is desperate to win something in the light blue and white stripes. It is the major disappointment of his career and frankly, he’s probably run out of time.

As for Brazil, were always anxious to avoid another seizure at home after the World Cup disaster in the semi-finals of 2014. This is only the fifth time that Brazil has hosted the Copa América/South American Championship and on every previous occasion they have been crowned champions.

The other semi-final is between Chile and Peru. Chile, winners in 2015 and 2016, have failed to score in their past two games, while Peru have only scored in one of their four. Furthermore, Peru have won just once on their way to the semi-final. The impression is that you don’t need to work too hard to reach the last four in this format.

As it stands, the Copa América has failed to capture the imagination of international football fans the way the Women’s World Cup has created a new type of tournament audience (but please, do away with kick-off countdown and other games for the proles). In theory, the South American regional competition is the second most important confederation bunfight after the European Championship, but the rows and rows of empty seats, the tepid performances, the high rate of fouls and low scoring ratio and lack of outstanding talent is worrying. The summer will probably end with people talking about players like USA’s Megan Rapinoe, Lucy Bronze and Ellen White of England and the Netherlands’ Sherida Spitse. The close season (is there such a thing?) of 2019 may yet be looked upon as a turning point in the history of the game.