The remarkable rise of one tiny island

160,000 people. 15,000 crammed into one tiny stadium. Eleven players ready to fight for their country. One dream.

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Jack Douglas

160,000 people. 15,000 crammed into one tiny stadium. Eleven players ready to fight for their country. One dream.

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The stadium can fit one-tenth of the population of the country ©DonardoVrolijk

“Man, it was not normal. Then they continued to dance: in the bus, in the hotel. The beauty is that the party follows. There was really a team here. Man, how proud and happy I am,” Curaçao national team head coach Remko Bicentini told Voetbal International after his side put ten past Grenada in Willemstad.

Grenada, the Caribbean Island that is; not to be confused with Tony Adams’ former side Granada CF of the Spanish Segunda División.

The victory in the CONCACAF Nations League came for Curaçao after a surprising friendly win over Bolivia, and the form continued as Futbòl Kòrsou then recorded a five-nil thumping of the US Virgin Islands.

Now we know what you’re thinking. Why is this relevant to anything? Well, the island of just 160,000 finds themselves sitting at a remarkable 79th in the world rankings.

China, with a population of an estimated 1.379 billion, and with the astronomical amounts that gets pumped into the lucrative Chinese Super League, only sit a mere four places above the tiny Dutch dependency.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Armenia, and Sepp Blatter’s accountant’s personal favourite Qatar, all lie lower than an island where stewed Iguana, or Stoba Yoana to give it its local name, is still a delicacy.

Comprised with players both local and overseas, the Curaçao squad are unbeaten since they were narrowly defeated by an experienced Mexican side in July 2017.

The side qualified for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, North and Central America’s equivalent of the Euros, after an Elson Hooi brace won the 2017 Caribbean Cup for his side, narrowly overcoming Jamaica 2-1 in the final in Martinique.

Captain and Stoke City defender Cuco Martina’s side were unable to progress past the group-stage of the Gold Cup however, after a tough draw alongside Mexico, Jamaica once-more and El Salvador saw them finish bottom.

Reading full-back Leandro Bacuna has earned 19 caps for the nation after switching allegiances from the Netherlands through his Curaçaoan descent. Former Swansea and Brighton central midfielder Kemy Agustien also opted to play for the nation after representing the Dutch throughout his youth.

“It’s the best feeling knowing you represent your country and when the whole island is with you and backing you up,” the midfielder tells me.

The victories over Bolivia and Grenada were brilliant for the nation says Agustien, and feels that they sent a strong message to their Caribbean rivals.

“Every game is important I guess, but winning those games really gives a signal to our people and the other nations that we are really on it and are playing well.”

The back-to-back hammerings of Grenada and the US Virgin Islands sees the side currently top of the CONCACAF Nations League. If the Whites can finish in the top six, they will be rewarded with automatic qualification for next year’s Gold Cup held once again in the USA.

“With the qualities we have got on the pitch we sure can surprise a lot of people,” adds Agustien.

“We have people that play at the highest level, and we have got lots of players that have been training and playing since they were kids so this is a good, youthful back up to have. With the support from the country and if the team unites, then we can go far.”

The Sentro Deportivo Korsou Ergilio Hato, or Ergilio Hato Stadium, is the country’s national stadium, and can host up to 15,000 vibrant Curaçaoans who cheer on their boys in almost a samba-party atmosphere when they welcome visitors to Willemstad.
Ergilio Hato, the man whose name is blazoned across the stadium and airport of the island, was a goalkeeper who played his entire career on Curaçao with CRKSV Jong Holland. The Curaçaoan Lev Yashin, with both players being nicknamed the Black Panther, received offers from Ajax and Feyenoord in the fifties.

Hato also attracted the interest of no other than Real Madrid. Los Blancos offered the goalkeeper a contract, and with a chance to play alongside the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano and José María Zárraga, Hato remarkably turned Madrid down and stayed an amateur for the entirety of his career.

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You can understand why Hato turned Europe down… Via thestar.com

The Liga MCB 1st Division is the top flight on the idyllic island and sees ten teams competing. The CONCACAF Champions League awaits the winners, if they can negotiate their way through the preliminary CFU Club Championship; similar to the UEFA Champions League qualifiers.

CRKSV Jong Colombia put on the best showing for a Curaçaoan side in the competition, as The Sharks lost in the final in 1979 to Salvadoran side C.D. FAS.

Since then, no side from the country has got as far, and in a competition dominated by the big spending Mexican and American sides, the chances are that Liga MCB fans will have to wait a while for more continental success.

Curaçao welcome Guadeloupe to the Ergilio Hato Stadium on the 19th November, with Remko Bicentini’s men keen to continue their superb form and stay at the top of the Nations League.

To quote Fidel Castro: “Good athletes do not know what tiredness is. They do not know what discouragement is. Good athletes only know what victory is.”

His fellow Caribbean Islanders certainly epitomise this spirit.

Jack Douglas

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Football: Is it worth it?

As last week’s mental health week did brilliantly to raise awareness of depression, we take a look at how the illness affects footballers.

Jack Douglas

As last week’s mental health week did brilliantly to raise awareness of depression, we take a look at how the illness affects footballers.

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Clarke Carlisle who attempted to take his own life December 2014 ©TheIndependent

Playing professional football, or other elite level sports, is to many the fantasy they dream about daily; be-it volleying that dandelion like you’re Tony Yeboah, or shouting: “I could do better than that!” from the stands as the star striker hits another wayward effort into Row Z.

But it’s that pressure, expectancy, and knowing that you are only ever one mistimed tackle away from ruin which can take such a devastating toll on players’ mental health.

The International Players’ Union FIFPro carried out surprising research that suggested 26% of professional footballers suffered from mental health problems compared to the 19.7% of the general public (1).

Clarke Carlisle, the former chairman of the PFA, explained that when players do eventually hang their boots up, this figure distressingly goes up to 40% (2).

Carlisle has made his battle with severe depression no secret to the media, often openly speaking about the multiple attempts he has made on his own life and encouraging all players from far and wide to open up about their problems.

 

Yet as many depression suffers know unfortunately too well, admitting they need help is quite a daunting prospect and only just the start of the process.

In late November 2011, the football world was rocked by the awful news of the untimely passing of the then Wales manager Gary Speed. Speed had racked up 677 career appearances, winning the old First Division with Leeds before becoming a household name at Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United.

So why did a player with such an illustrious career, and who was currently leading his country through a football revival feel that the only way to solve his problem was suicide? Unfortunately we may never know…

“He hid it from us and it stopped him asking for help,” explained Speed’s sister Lesley in a BBC documentary. “We were just so sad that we couldn’t help him through. That’s a huge regret that I didn’t get him to one side and say ‘is everything alright?”

Suicide, the biggest killer of men aged between 18 and 35, is tragically the only way that some feel is the way to end their suffering.

And now the FA, encouraged by the PFA, is finally starting to recognise the severity that mental health issues can have on their players. Every club is now required to have a mental health specialist to help deal with any issues and hard times first-teamers, or academy prospects, may be going through.

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Robert Enke tragically took his own life in 2009 ©TheTelegraph

Ex Manchester City defender Paul Lake experienced the lows of football-related depression after multiple cruciate ligament injuries saw his career cut short. Now a support manager with the club, he explains the narrow-mindness of some of those involved within his academy days (3).

“When I played, there wasn’t really any mental health provision, and there was a real lack of understanding and awareness.

 

“Anyone suffering with depression or anxiety was ignored and was seen as weak. You were told: “Roll your sleeves up and get on with it. You’ve got a great opportunity, here… what’s your problem?” adds Lake.

For many, that’s the problem. The so called ‘great opportunity’ is arguably one of the most pressurised career paths young men can follow.

Similarly to clubs now following Arsene Wenger’s desire for players to have nutritionists to boost physical health, the clubs now realise how vital a healthy mind is as well as a healthy hamstring.

Exercise is one of the key ways that any GP or counsellor will advise in order to help against mental health disorders. So why is it that footballers, who spend the majority or their working hours outside with a ball at their feet, are suffering in such high numbers?

The despair of injury, the stress and anxiety of transfers and even a slight drop in form or results can spell disaster for the pros.

When one in four footballers are having problems off the pitch, all it can take is one bad performance or one abusive chant from supporters for a player to go from stable to miserable.

Depression, which carries an unwanted stigma in society, is something that Spurs and England left back Danny Rose was praised for opening up about.

“England has been my salvation and I can’t thank the manager and the medical staff enough. It was really hard, and being referred to a doctor and psychologist by the Spurs club doctor helped me massively to cope.” (4)

Similarly to the late Gary Speed, the immediate thought amongst the general public was something along the lines of ‘he plays for England, how could he be depressed?’

But the simple truth is, like any other disease or serious condition, Depression can affect anyone.

Rose’s openness about his battle is something that could help and encourage others suffering to open up and get the help they need. The hope is that young people who look up to these footballers may try follow in their brave footsteps and get the help they so desperately need.

1 in 15 will make an attempt on their own life. Be open with how you truly feel, visit your GP or if you are really struggling, call The Samaritans on 116 123.

Jack Douglas

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/10739111/One-in-four-footballers-suffer-depression-study-reveals.html

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/23226524

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2787984/premier-league-clubs-train-employees-help-academy-players-mental-health-issues.html

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/44392337

English players in Sweden

If it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t be playing football anymore. It’s changed my life. I’ve found my love for football again.”

Gavin Willacy

If it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t be playing football anymore. It’s changed my life. I’ve found my love for football again.”

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The Player Placement Programme gives young players from this country the opportunity to taste a different footballing culture ©League Football Education

It may have been down to sheer economics, inertia, cultural narrow-mindedness or even just coincidence, but England were the only squad at the World Cup without a single player based abroad. Every other country had at least one player not earning their living in their homeland, the Scandinavian squads had barely a player each with domestic clubs. The power of the Premier League (and lack of language teaching in our schools) sees almost every top British player opt to stay at home. There are, however, dozens of Brits playing abroad in a country few Brits visit but where almost everyone speaks English: Sweden.

The primary lure is an opportunity to remain professional and the mechanism by which many get their first taste of Swedish football is Erasmus+, the EU’s social mobility programme. League Football Education, the education and welfare arm of the EFL’s youth department, have been operating the programme since 2008, and have now sent around 200 players to Sweden on three-month placements.

These players have been recently released by their EFL clubs at the end of two year apprenticeships and, without a job offer or university place lined up, are often at a loose end. As part of their extensive Progression programme, LFE reach out to these 18-year-olds, and offer them a chance to reignite their football dream in a Swedish second chance saloon.

Eighteen months ago, Zak Guerfi was playing at Under-18 level for Stevenage FC and Tunisia. A few months later he was drifting around minor non-league clubs in his native Hertfordshire.

“Last season was the worst year of my life. I thought non-league was horrible. I left Bishops Stortford because I wasn’t going to get paid and then I couldn’t get a club for two months! I thought, what am I doing? My Dad came over from Tunisia and said I should make a choice as that was not what I worked for. I rang my regional officer at LFE and he mentioned Sweden. I jumped at it and came over as soon as I could. If it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t be playing football anymore. It’s changed my life. I’ve found my love for football again.”

Despite arriving just south of the Arctic Circle at the tail end of winter, when the temperature was minus 30C, Guerfi hit the ground running. Within a month or so of joining Bodens IK, a fallen giant now battling to get out of the fourth tier but with facilities to match most English League Two clubs, he had been offered a two-season deal.

“I had no hesitation signing the contract. It’s entirely what I worked for. Going back to England would not have made sense. Non-league football is always going to be there for me back home. An agent told me not to sign here because I’d be off the radar. Being on the bench for Biggleswade is not exactly on the radar, is it! If I play out here and come back with two years full-time football under my belt, why not do that? It’s a great experience.”

Many English players feel the same and, once their three months is up, stay as long as they are wanted. Around 40% are offered a pro contract. Some stay for the bulk of their active career. Bodens’ star striker Jack Serrant-Green has been in Sweden for five years since being released by Burton Albion, ex Notts County youngster Lewis Whiteley has made a life for himself at IFK Ostersunds, and former Barnet striker Moses Duckrell is working his way up the divisions. Playing against them all in Division 2 Norrland is former Plymouth youngster Toby Davis. The very first ex-apprentice LFE sent out to Sweden, Davis is playing with Duckrell for Friska Viljor and monitoring the placement players as LFE’s liaison officer.

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©League Football Education

Being on the programme is similar to being an overseas student, attending training rather than lectures. The pace of life where most of LFE’s Swedish partner clubs are based is tranquil, too.

“My life is chilled out here: I wake up, go to the beach at the lake on my bike, come to training, go to the gym, all within 15 minutes,” reveals Guerfi. And yet one of the clubs who have had the most success with the LFE programme are Ytterhogdal, a well-respected fourth-tier side based in a hamlet 90 minutes from the boutique city of Sundsvall on the Gulf of Bothnia. They have taken LFE players since 2009 and now, of the population of 534, 15 are full-time foreign footballers!

There is little money in the lower levels of Swedish football. Some clubs are amateur, others have full-time players on low wages. But training in the late afternoon – usually four times a week – enables all players to work or study, operating the dual lives that many athletes are used to in other sports. The funding from Erasmus+ enables LFE players to receive a similar weekly wage to their apprenticeship – little more than £100 – but with free food and accommodation, the overall package is attractive to an unemployed teenager. And with it all funded by Erasmus+, Swedish clubs are happy to gamble on unknown young players. Neither player nor club has anything to lose.

“What you earn is yours to put in your pocket,” explained Guerfi, who shares student-style accommodation in Boden with overseas players from Bermuda, Nigeria, Canada, and America. “Your rent is paid for, gym, food and flights home. The money is not the best at this level but you have the chance to move up. If you do well you will get seen. If you can get to Superettan (second tier) you can play anywhere in Europe or the States.

“I can see why English players stay here for years. The only time it’s a bit tough is if you have a bad session or game and you’re used to going home and your mum saying ‘Don’t worry’. Here there are five lads in the house saying ‘You were rubbish today’!”

The training demands and low wages means there are few over 30s playing at fourth tier level which means a style of football attractive to Academy players deemed not good enough (yet) for English senior professional football. Juma Omar, who swapped MK Dons for the remote rural fotbal outpost of Ytterhogdal last spring, agrees: “It’s like reserve games back home, the (Under) 21s or 23s: a lot of young players, technical football, but not intense like first team games in England.”

The poster boy for LFE’s programme is Jamie Hopcutt, who was released by York City and went out to join Ostersunds FK when they were in the fourth tier of Swedish football. Three rapid promotions, a Swedish Cup triumph later, Hopcutt found himself starring in the Europa League. The adventure saw Graham Potter’s team eliminate Turkish giants Galatasaray and Hertha Berlin and draw with Athletic Bilbao, before the astonishing run was ended by Arsenal – but only after an historic win at the Emirates.

That is all an exceptional dream, but the grounded reality in Sweden is still preferable for most English players there than a string of rejections from clubs back home.

Gavin Willacy

Read more about it: www.lfe.org.uk/progression/player-placements

 

How sport revived Cuba from an economic crisis

The collapse of the USSR could have financially bankrupted Cuba, but the intelligence and the creativity of their sporting institute had other ideas.

Liam Moore

The collapse of the USSR could have financially bankrupted Cuba, but the intelligence and the creativity of their sporting institute had other ideas.

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Fidel Castro boxing great, Teofilo Stevenson in 1984 ©The Olympians

For the first two-years following the 1959 Revolution, professional sport in Cuba suffered. The country that prided itself on its sporting achievements was in decline. Yes, the Americans were removed – thus allowing the small island independence – but morale was low. The revolutionary politicians knew this issue had to be addressed, and swiftly.

They had two specific areas that they targeted and the establishment of their new sport institution would oversee the development. ‘The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation’ (INDER) was created in 1961 and the organisation was designed with two specific goals. Firstly, they wanted to increase participation in sport as they fully believed that access to exercise was a basic human right. Secondly, they wanted to continue to produce elite athletes that could compete for their country on the global stage. It’s important to note that there were no time constraints regarding these objectives or no annual goals that had to be achieved. Cuba believed that it was important to put no pressure on those who were responsible of producing these changes.

Within ten years, INDER was succeeding at an incredibly fast rate. As aforementioned in the previous article, Cuba have won 195 medals since the 1972 Olympic Games, including 67 golds. They are the most successful team at the International Baseball World Cup, achieving 30 medals (25 golds) compared to America’s 15 medals (4 golds). Okay, so the elite performance goal was certainly progressing, but how was mass participation in sport doing? Fantastic, is the answer. Not only were the numerical figures above and beyond of previous years, but the idea of the ‘community’ had returned. Citizens were socialising with one another and the health of the individuals had improved; the divide between social classes that money had brought along was diminishing.

In August of 1991, Cuba hosted the Pan America games. The Games were a success and 26 countries came to Havana to compete in the newly built facilities. There was additional success for the hosts, as they topped the medal table with 140 medals compared to America’s 130. Despite the success, criticism soon followed as one journalist from the New York Times was critical that the country decided to host the games with the collapse of the USSR looming. Thus, questioning the use of Cuba’s limited resources. Cuba’s economy relied heavily on the Soviet-Union as their sugar export profits were largely through the USSR. Worryingly for Cuba, the state collapsed on the 26th of December 1991 and an economic crisis rapidly followed. This period of time was labelled the ‘Time of Peace’ by Cuban nationals. Ironically, what followed could not have been more of the opposite.

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Cuba hosted the competition in 1991 ©Sportcommunicator

Cuba’s trading preferences were severely damaged, and as a result, Cuban trade crumbled by 87% as their preferred sugar trade with the USSR could not be replicated by any country. Their GDP plummeted by 35% in the following 12 months and the financial security of the state was being questioned. However, amidst the chaos that was ensuing, Cuba’s sporting power continued to grow. Their decision to prioritise the development of sport could be argued as risky – or downright absurd – but it paid off, enormously.

Sadly, funds had to be generated from somewhere and the country had to endure multiple cuts to public expenditures such as libraries or community buildings. However, alongside the success of producing sporting athletes, participation in sport did not suffer. The state viewed participation at a local level just as important as creating athletes.

Morale was high again as participation continued to be successful. Although the mass partaking was excellent and will always be regarded as a great way to keep the inhabitants healthy and active, it was INDER’s intelligence that truly helped the country depart from its ‘Time of Peace’. Baseball players were loaned out to America and Japan where the majority of their wages would go back into the Cuban state system. The Indian National Army asked Cuba if they could send over boxing coaches to help its soldiers prepare for battle, which subsequently produced further income for Cuba.

INDER guided Cuba away from a turbulent time, helping to increase their economic value and general wellbeing of their population. One aspect of INDER that has not be mentioned yet is their work in other countries. They conduct courses – and even send out coaches – to help the establishment and growth of sport development programmes. Although some countries can financially contribute to Cuba for their resources, other countries – such as Paraguay – cannot afford to offer such wealth. Despite this, Cuba still remain in those countries to help the development. The third and final article will go into more depth about INDER’s involvement outside of Cuba as well as discussing the role of ‘The Escuela Internacional de Educacio´n Fı´sica y Deporte’ (EIEFD). A university that offers free physical education tuition to foreign students.

Liam Moore

Elite football academies: Breeding grounds for success or investment pools?

After many of the England World Cup squad came from Football League academies, are the Premier League academies producing enough top flight players? 

Rosie Tudball

After many of the England World Cup squad came from Football League academies, are the Premier League academies producing enough top flight players? 

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The World Cup squad included players trained outside the Premier League ©Антон Зайцев

Making it as a professional footballer in England is one of the biggest aspirations of the youth of today. From the outside looking in, it’s an easy life, getting a high salary and playing football every day, it’s self-explanatory as to why so many youngsters aim to become the best. However, nothing in life is that easy, and when it comes to young males attempting to make it in football it’s becoming almost an impossible dream. By becoming part of some of the countries best club’s academies comes a huge cheque and in many cases an individual’s financial status can change in a second as they put pen to paper on a contract.

Professional contracts at any level of football are like gold dust and take endless amount of hard work and dedication to get into the position of signing one. So many youngsters today would count themselves lucky to even be looked at by a professional club, as academy life is though of as the gateway to a life in the spotlight of the highest level of football.

It’s unsurprising that so many young people dedicate hours to progress on their journey to achieving a spot in an academy. In today’s game, you don’t need to look far to see why young people are so inspired, as many of the World’s greatest players have come from an academy set-up. The most notable name is of course Lionel Messi, who joined one of the world’s most prestigious academies aged 13. Barcelona’s La Masia academy has produced some of the club’s, and the world’s, best players. Messi came through the ranks of La Masia, nine years after joining, the Argentine became the first graduate to win the Ballon d’Or aged just 22. Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique are two more notable graduates from La Masia, an academy that is living proof of the benefits that academy life can have on an aspiring player.

While Barcelona’s academy is something that every young player looks up to, England also produces some fantastic talent from its academies. Current Premier League players including Marcus Rashford, Alex Iwobi, James Ward-Prowse and of course Harry Kane came from their current club’s academy.

It’s not all rosy in England however, as the number of academy graduates playing in the Premier League is depleting. For one, an alarming statistic showed that the chances of a youngster playing organised football as a child becoming a professional Premier League player is 0.012%. There are many reasons as to why this is happening, I’ve highlighted three that could suggest the main culprits. Money, money and trust.

Firstly, clubs have extraordinary amounts of money and with this money, tend to look for already established players from around the world, rather than looking at developing their own. This isn’t a criticism however, as football today is all about the present, rather than future. A primary reason for this is of course the globalised nature of the Premier League, players from other countries attract attention to the league, increasing television revenue and global popularity. An example of this would be the affect that Mo Salah’s arrival in the league has had on Egypt’s following of English football. Recruiting international already-established talent is the route that the league is familiar with. Clubs, owners and fans want immediate success which isn’t a sin, but also isn’t promising to our academies.

Secondly, are young players getting too much too soon? Academy contracts guarantee lucrative wage packets, making it as a young player is only a bit about talent, the majority being about mentality and desire. Once a young player has secured an academy contract, does it become more difficult to motivate a millionaire that is under the age of 21? When you look at the academies of the top clubs, there are almost always some names that are rarely recognised, it could be argued that academy life makes things too comfortable for young players, leaving you to question whether they’re cut out for stardom. It’s not perhaps the fact that academy quality has gone down, but whether club’s are raising their youngsters correctly, keeping them out of the loop of first team football certainly doesn’t help.

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Marcus Rashford is one of the recent success stories of a Premier League academy ©Кирилл Венедиктов

This leads to the final point, trust, are managers finding it difficult to trust young players? It’s fantastic that there are stable leagues for youngsters to develop in, however, the level from youth football to first team Premier League football is difficult to even make a link between. It’s an entirely different game, not just physically but mentally for young players, who sometimes seem to struggle under the pressure when they are called into action during the season. Not many are given this opportunity, which is where the issue comes from, as some don’t even train with the first team. It seems nowadays that young players have one shot, if they don’t perform in their first premier league appearance then sometimes it’s assumed that they won’t be seen again.

The direct academy route however is not always the only way to becoming a professional. Only five members of England’s 22-man World Cup squad came from the ‘elite’ academies from the top division. The remaining 18 spent time in lower leagues, or working their way from semi-professional environments all the way up to representing their country in the World Cup, and of course playing in the Premier League.

Saying this, there are many options for young players, going on loan is one that in some circumstances can work for the best. Chelsea academy member Ruben Loftus-Cheek had a successful loan spell at Crystal Palace last season. The loan seemed to come at exactly the right time for the talented midfielder, who at 22-years-old, is starting to grow into his game and turn heads. Arguably the most important head that Loftus-Cheek turned was that of Gareth Southgate, who rewarded the Englishman’s impressive form with a place in the 2018 World Cup squad. The World Cup really showcased the country, and the world to the potential of Loftus-Cheek, and also raised question marks towards Chelsea’s academy, who had failed to integrate a player of his talent around the first team squad.

Chelsea’s academy is one of the best in the country, however one of the most criticised also. The club are renowned for sending their youngsters on loan across Europe and rarely chasing up on their progress. It’s rare to see an academy graduate from Chelsea, which is a strange thing considering the recent on-going success of their academy sides in English tournaments. While the club celebrate the achievements of the academy, why aren’t we seeing these talents being on the fringe of the first team, or even getting a chance? Showcasing academy talent and potential is one thing, but excelling their careers is another, and a lack of responsibility that not just Chelsea are culprits of.

It tends to be the top teams’ academies that are in more cases failing to allow young players to break into the first team, however this isn’t always a bad thing for the player.

Manchester City had one of the countries hottest prospects in their ranks back in 2017, as English forward Jadon Sancho began to glisten in Premier League’s academy league. Questions were asked as to whether Sancho would get a shot in City’s team, however, they took to long to invest their trust in the then 17-year-old, as he was snatched by Borussia Dortmund and taken to Germany for a lesson in how to integrate youngsters amongst the company of world stars. In October 2017, he made his Bundesliga debut for Dortmund, and in April 2018 scored his first professional goal, along with collecting two assists, setting up Marco Reus. Sancho is an example of what can happen when young players are given trust and the correct advice.

Premier League clubs will continue to invest elsewhere rather then look towards their academies, the demanding and competitive nature of the league makes it difficult to do otherwise, however, it would be refreshing every now and then to see a top club introduce a young player. Manchester United took a chance when they gave 18-year-old Marcus Rashford his Premier League debut in 2016, he scored twice that day against Arsenal, and while he still continues to sit on the fence between being a substitute and a starter, he is a player that can be counted on, despite his age.

Taking a chance can make or break a player or a manager in football, whether it be a youngster trialling for an academy, or a manager willing to showcase a talent in the first team, this chance needs to be taken to keep academy hopes alive and kicking in England.

Rosie Tudball

Sporting history of Cuba: Despite its success, why is the state-driven Cuban sports module severely unknown?

This is the first of a two-article series of the rise and growth of Cuban sport development as well an insight into the elite sporting athletes that the country consistently create.

Liam Moore

This is the first of a three-article series of the rise and growth of Cuban sport development as well an insight into the elite sporting athletes that the country consistently create.

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Cuba has produced many famous boxers, including Mario Kindelan (right) who defeated Amir Khan at the 2004 Athens Olympics ©Zona de Boxeo

Cigars, landscape and plantations. Just a few things that Cuba are known globally for. Something that certainly flies under the radar – wrongly, may I add – is their sporting excellence. I’m not just talking about their consistent world boxing champions either. Between the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Cuba won 195 medals, including 67 golds. During that time period, they either matched or outperformed countries with a much healthier economy, Canada and Great Britain to name a few.

Little is reported on Cuba and their sporting achievements; their methods are largely unexplored and Robert Huish – who has studied the sport development of Cuba in depth – certainly believes that the Cuban sports model could be successfully adopted around the world. Sport has been a part of Cuban culture since the 19th century and started to flourish in the 1990s. For 150 years, Cuba has placed an importance on sport. The government view it as a tool to increase the living standard for the vulnerable citizens of their nation and they believe access to physical exercise is a basic human right. Facilities – whether that is sporting stadiums, tennis courts or swimming pools – are available to all citizens and the state conduct regular exercise classes to increase the general wellbeing of the population.

Cuba’s national sport is baseball, in which they have consistently produced fantastic players. The Cuban government have loaned players out to Japan and have taken up to 80% of the players’ wages. This, effectively, gets reintegrated into the system and more stars are created. In the 19th century, baseball was just as much Cuban as it was American. In fact, the first baseball teams that were established in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rica were founded by plantation owners who had left Cuba to expand their businesses throughout the Caribbean.

Baseball played an influential part of Cuba’s second War of Independence against the Spanish as baseball games were held to raise funds to help with the war effort – they were successful as the Spanish were finally ousted out of Cuba in 1898. Sadly, the nationalists were presented with a problem immediately after American intervention soon followed. Cuba became unrecognisable with schools teaching English instead of the native Spanish, the American dollar was the preferred choice of currency and the country became awash with US exports.

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An exhibition match that then US president, Barack Obama attended ©US Department of State

Poverty and inequality worsened in Cuba as America’s presence grew stronger by the day. Despite the decline of the beautiful country, the Cuban population still had one thing they treasured closely, sport. The standard of baseball was at its pinnacle and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) would often challenge Cuban teams in a variety of sports. The former would usually prevail victorious, except one sport, there was one physical sport that the Americans could just not beat their neighbours at – boxing. Despite Cuba being dominant in the ring, nationalism started to decrease and when Cuban baseball players were being exiled to the US to play in the Major League Baseball (MLB), Cuban sport was at an all time low. Between the years of 1947 and 1961, 135 Cuban baseball players had left the country to play in America.

In 1959, Cuba’s patience and willingness had seemingly depleted. The 1959 revolution – led by the historic Fidel Castro – pushed America out of Cuba. The following years saw a decline for sport in the country. With the sheer number of players migrating to America to play baseball the wrong message was being conveyed throughout Cuba – to be successful you must leave your homeland. Sadly, professional sport suffered as a consequence as professionalism started to dwindle rapidly. America responded by imposing a ban on Cuban players playing in their major leagues and this prohibition would stay intact until the 1990’s.

In 1961 – two years after the success of the revolution – The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) was established. The target was to increase national participation in sport. However, little did Cuba know that INDER would go on to do wonderful things not only for the wellbeing of the island, but also the country’s economy.

Liam Moore

How the tiny island of Niue is aiming to become a force in world rugby league

Sport Examined takes a look at the Pacific Island’s hopeful rise to power.

Jack Douglas

Sport Examined takes a look at the Pacific Island’s hopeful rise to power.

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Niue have announced their squad for the upcoming “Emerging Nations” later this year ©Alchetron

The Takalo is defined as a ‘traditional Niue war dance by an individual warrior or group of warriors prior to engaging the enemy in warfare’.

Throughout history, defenders of the tiny island put their nation and people first, as they often defended their land to the death. The Takalo war cry, similar to the iconic Māori Haka, was a way of striking fear into Niue’s enemies before the subsequent battles unfolded.

The Takalo is still dauntingly performed to this day, as Niue’s rugby league outfit look to emulate the warrior nature of their ancestors.

With a population of just 1,624, the Island nation find themselves somehow sitting 31st in the latest RLIF rankings. South Africa meanwhile, boasting 55 million citizens, are currently four places below the yellow and blue jerseys of Niue.

When inhabitants of Niue, painted in blood, refused to give permission for Captain Cook to land in 1774, he named the Island ‘Savage Island’, as a warning to other sailors to stay well clear of the Polynesian Rock.

This ‘savage’ spirit is epitomised to this day through the athletes that represent the island, especially in Rugby League.

The islanders played their first international in 1986, losing 22-8 to an experienced Cook Islands side in Rarotonga. It took six years and eight tests for Niue to record their first win, beating high-flyers Fiji 14-0.

For a tiny nation, Niue’s recent form has been nothing less than spectacular. Brendan Perenara’s men have won five out of their last seven fixtures, twice beating South Africa by a 44 point deficit.

Backrow Josiah Tamasi encapsulates the Niuean fighting spirit, stating: “When I put on the Niue jersey I carry my family out there with me and playing alongside my brothers in the team means a lot to me.”

The idea of togetherness is one most nations would envy, and it seems the Niuean’s treat each match like a battle as Tamasi adds: “There’s nothing like going to war and doing all you can to come out on top.”

The words of the Wentworthville Magpies man echo across the entire squad.

“To sing our anthem, perform our Takalo [below] and represent all of my family has been a dream come true. We are a small nation but with huge hearts, and one day we will reach the world cup,” adds centre Aziah Ikitule who plays his club rugby for Auckland outfit Howick Hornets.

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Although remote, Niue has a reputation of an island with beautiful hideaways ©Lonely Planet

Fullback and captain Zebastian Lucky Luisi is perhaps the nation’s most accomplished players; having enjoyed seven years in England. After a successful trial with London Harlequins, Luisi signed for the club and managed to rack up fifty appearances for the Quins before moving to Doncaster and then on to Barrow Raiders.

With no domestic competition being played on the island, coach Perenara has to look west across the Pacific to monitor his players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand. Few of the squad have made it into the NRL, with most of the players representing teams in lower or provincial divisions.

Due west over the Coral Sea, the world’s top ranked side welcome visitors to Sydney’s magnificent ANZ stadium, spurred on by a capacity crowd of 84,000 raucous Aussie fantics. Niue meanwhile, whose whole population could fit in to the ANZ 51 times and still have space for away fans, don’t have the luxury of such a world class venue.

The Niue High School Oval, more commonly known as the Alofi stadium, holds a remarkable stat of being one of the only high school ‘stadiums’ to host interntional sporting events. With a capacity of under a thousand, the proud Niueans cram into the Oval to support their warriors.

Competitions like the Emerging Nations World Championship this October will give the side the chance to play competitive fixtures against sides of similar ability which will give Niue priceless experience and belief.

The Islanders have been handed a tough draw as they find themselves drawn against two higher ranked sides in Malta and the Philippines, yet if they were to make it out of Pool A then the trophy could certainly be reachable for Perenara’s men.

Spurred on by recent successes in test matches, Niueans believe qualifying for the world cup in England in 2021 is possible; and if their last result is anything to go by this hope could well turn into a reality.

The Niue team, most of whom are based in Australia or New Zealand, were admirably beaten 32-16 to world cup quarter finalists Lebanon last time out, perhaps a sign of a golden era of Niuean Rugby to come.

With the World Cup format expanding, two more places are up for grabs meaning sixteen sides will contest the Paul Barrière Trophy. Could the yellow and blue jerseys of Niue make an appearance in England soon? Let’s hope so.

Jack Douglas

Sources: Interviews via Niue Rugby League on Facebook.

Is rugby league in Britain caught in one long Groundhog Day?

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

Steve Mascord

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

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Will Ralph Rimmer, new RFL CEO bring changes? ©BBC

 

Transfer deadline days like last week’s used to be a bit of fun for fans; instead, they now lay bare the financial failings of our clubs.

A couple of days after Salford – via a director – asked for fans to help them sign players for the Qualifiers, Leigh sold a bunch of stars and their owner announced he intended to depart next year.

All of this comes against the backdrop of a supposed battle for power between Super League clubs and everyone else, and as the ceremonial role as RFL president is handed over to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.

Sometimes the sport seems to be running on bald tires, ready to skid off the road and into a ditch.

Surely we have to eventually learn from clubs repeatedly getting themselves into financial bother by either trying to gain promotion or stay up that we’re stuck in a destructive Groundhog Day loop.

But there’s a deeper problem, isn’t there? There just doesn’t seem to be enough money to go around in rugby league. When we get to the back end of the year, the haves simply buy players from the have-nots and leave them the have-even-lesses.

When clubs have no reserve grade and profess to be worried about being able to muster 17 players, we have bigger issues than what play-off system works best and whether to keep the Super 8s.

Perhaps things need to get even worse before they can get better.

Currently we have teams representing mainly small towns and villages – there are exceptions – fighting over the scraps thrown to them by a TV company in return for selling subscriptions and advertising to those same small towns and villages. The less interested the next generation is in the game, the more money saved by the TV companies who’ll no longer have to fork out for the rights.

The financial way out for the Super League clubs, in particular, would seem to have been giving the likes of Catalans, Toronto and Toulouse a share of the domestic TV money and putting any overseas rights into a central pot as well.

That’s what happens in Australasia – the New Zealand Warriors are the most valuable team in terms of rights income from the Shaky Isles but they get no more from the Sky TV deal than any other club. It’s divvy’d up evenly.

But in the case of Toronto, anyway, it seems the Super League clubs won’t share the existing TV income which means their financial escape hatch is blocked – the Wolfpack will get the lions (or Wolf’s) share of any future North American contract.

Short-termism at its worst.

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Toronto Wolfpack are developing their own TV deals ©Toronto Wolfpack

If you looked at British rugby league from the outside, taking into account its regional peculiarities and national invisibility, what are its strengths?

In no particular order: Wigan, Leeds, St Helens, Warrington, Hull, rugby league being very popular and profitable in Australia, Wembley, Old Trafford and people in most of the world not knowing the difference between league and union.

Put another way, just as a cash-strapped club will sell of its players, cash-strapped rugby league still has IP of some value it can sell off – or at least leverage – to survive.

Wigan and Hull playing a Super League game in Wollongong this year is a nod in the direction of how British rugby league can buzz around the Australian honeypot and come away with a full tummy. Sydney.com is on the back of Wigan’s shirts all season, right?

Super League is on Australian TV and includes athletes the audiences there know. Why not set up a full-time office in Sydney and chase commercial deals? One or two such deals, or a free-to-air TV contract, would pay the salary of a NSW-domiciled staffer. Fish where the fish are; rugby league big fish are in Oz.

If the NRL won’t let Perth or Wellington or Ipswich or Port Moresby in, then why not invite them to join Super League?

Rugby league will probably never get into the centre of towns like Manchester and Liverpool with professional teams – it’s been trying and failing for too long and people in those cities think they know what rugby league is … and they aren’t interested.

This is where ignorance is the game’s friend in Toronto, New York, Belgrade and elsewhere they’ve never heard the term “northern sport”. Most fans at the Denver Test thought they were watching the All Blacks. If you’re a potential team owner, getting involved in rugby union at an elite level is far more expensive; the entry level in league is bargain basement by comparison.

Another advantage to exploit.

If the TV money goes down at the end of the current Sky deal, the sport might be bombed back to the part-time era. It’s time to identify the teams who can survive that apocalypse and combine them with others who can thrive outside in the radioactive no-British-TV-cash post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Everything must change; we just can’t keep going like this.

Steve Mascord

 

World Cup 2018: A summer of the highest highs and the lowest lows for migration in football

The German and French football squads are heavily influenced by migration, but when it came to the most recent World Cup, it raised 2 contrasting points on its development.

Rosie Tudball

The German and French football squads are heavily influenced by migration, but when it came to the most recent World Cup, it raised 2 contrasting points on its development.

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Ozil pictured with Turkish president Erdogan ©Theguardian

It was a highly anticipated and greatly received summer for world football. With concerns and questions prior to the 2018 World Cup regarding Russia’s suitability to hosting the tournament, the world was, in some ways, pleasantly surprised by the country’s fantastic job at playing home to a World Cup full of drama.

Despite all the talk about Russia in the build up to the tournament, the main surprises and dilemmas came on the pitch rather than what was expected to happen away from the game. For a World Cup that surpassed so many expectations and really rose to the occasion, the aftermath of football’s most famed tournament is what has people talking, and quite recently, talk hasn’t been pleasant.

Less than a month after the showdown in Russia, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil shockingly announced his retirement from international football. The news however was not as simple as the statement of ‘retirement’ seems, as the German star admitted his decision to retire was down to ‘racism and disrespect’ he had experienced whilst representing his country at the World Cup.

There was worry about Russia’s suitability to hold the World Cup, predominantly due to reports of racism, homophobia and crowd violence. Such worries have been buried with regards to the World Cup, as Russia have in the aftermath been the ‘good guy’, especially with reference to Ozil’s shock statement, as he admitted racism from the German press, fans and people from the footballing hierarchy in Germany was what made his mind up.

Taking the story out of context and pairing it with news prior to the World Cup, it would be unsurprising to assume that the deeply saddening insults he had received had come from the Russian side of things – which in some ways makes a devastating decision so much worse than it is. Imagine being so poorly treated, to the point of being racially exploited, by your own country, your fellow people, it is simply terrible and a great shame in modern day football.

The 29-year-old midfielder was born in Gelsenkirchen, a diverse city in west Germany, a city that is also birthplace to fellow Turkish-German Ilkay Gundogan. Ozil grew up in Gelsenkirchen, living their until he spread his wings in football and moved to Bremen. Despite living in Germany for the majority of his life, Ozil has been targeted for his Turkish roots coming from his parents, which has marked the saddening turn of events regarding his retirement.

It was a memorable World Cup for Germany, not for the right reasons after their group stage exit, but Ozil’s courageous statement has formed a rain cloud of German football, and a necessary headache for the DFB.

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Germany lost to Mexico on their way out of the 2018 World Cup ©RFI

In his statement that was posted on social media, Ozil said:

“The treatment I have received from the DFB and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt. I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.”

You would assume with such strong words and such a remarkable decision from an influential player at international level would be received with a strong and ‘need for change’ response. That expected response hasn’t come, and despite the overwhelming amount of support that Ozil has received on social media, the DFB and fellow German footballing authorities aren’t quite grasping the depth of the situation.

When you think of football in Germany, you think of efficiency, success and of course Bayern Munich. President of the club Uli Hoeness gave a strong opinion on Ozil’s decision, accusing him of ‘playing the race card’ after his disappointing World Cup campaign. Interestingly, Ozil’s deeply explained reasoning for his decision wasn’t mentioned by Hoeness, who has a big voice in German football when considering his role at the country’s biggest club.

It is certainly a concerning time for German football, and the DFB who in a statement responding to Ozil’s decision were reluctant to face the reality of the situation, rather than just the surface view of football and performances.

Leroy Sane spoke too about the situation in a surprising way. The Manchester City forward was left out of Joachim Low’s World Cup squad, despite his marvellous season in sky blue. The 22-year-old has spoken out about racism previously, and the struggle that his footballing father Souleyman Sane faced when playing football due to his Senegalese background. From a family of great talent and one that has been subject to racial abuse, it was surprising to hear Sane’s verdict on the situation, when given a platform to potentially speak out about racial profiling in football. Sane claimed that Ozil ‘needs some space’ and that ‘it was his decision’ to leave, following in the footsteps of fellow countrymen who have not spoken up on the internal social issue of ‘his choice’.

Is there pressure on German players to conform to the wishes of the DFB? It would certainly seem like it with the response in the press and within football about the Ozil situation.

There is certainly now pressure on the DFB to speak up and make changes with relation to migration in football, and if there is one thing to inspire a start with, it would be the 2018 World Cup.

France’s World Cup win marked an emphatic achievement by the French, and also highlighted the importance and celebration of immigration in football. The France 2018 World Cup winning side put Desmond Tutu’s wish of ‘a rainbow nation’ into practice, as their win marked a sensational example of the success of immigration in football. 90% of France’s squad are from a migrant background, a squad hosting a range of ethnicities, social backgrounds and religion, but most importantly coming together and being celebrated by the country that they represent, France.

Whilst their success may not fix all things negative in the world when the subject of migration is around, it certainly does prove a weighty point in football and the sincere importance to integrate cultures and backgrounds in the game with respect and dignity, something which has been contrasted by the behaviours of the DFB and the German press.

Germany will not only have to adjust to life without Mesut Ozil but will one day have to come to terms with what is a unique and disturbing case of mistreatment in the modern professional game – in the hope to not only fix an internal issue, but to inspire the country, and others, to follow in the footsteps of other supporting nations and take pride in integrating migrants.

Rosie Tudball

Rugby league’s culture war explained

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.

Steve Mascord

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.

 

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Elstone is looking to make an impact in rugby league ©SkySports

AFTER hearing a recent hour-long interview with the new Super League chief executive, Robert Elstone, I think it’s possible to discern a new cultural schism in the sport of rugby league.

On one side of this chasm are the Super League and NRL clubs, spoiling for a fight to maintain the status quo – and if there must be change, to lead it in the direction of their choosing.

On the other is everyone else, streaming their games on Facebook, holding Test matches in America, Nines tournaments in Holland and posting blogs and videos and podcasts. Oh, and Leeds.

Of course, one hole in this convenient scenario is that the chat in question was actually on an independent podcast – Jon Wilkin and Mark Flanagan’s Whippets and Flatcaps.

But that platform – it’s name, anyway – does fit with one of the apparent pillars of Elstone’s vision: the re-emergence of England’s north, the northern powerhouse. Like the 2021 World Cup, Elstone’s Super League is proud of the sport’s geographical roots.

The cultural cringe is gone; Eddie Waring might end up in a new logo.

By comparison, Elstone said Toronto made him nervous, there might be a case for fewer teams in Super League, he favoured getting rid of squad numbers and the free play after a turnover and said there were too many “splintered” international teams which made that arena in league look “fake”.

He is an unabashed admirer of State of Origin, which some Australian columnists are so fearful is going to become irrelevant in the face of international rugby league’s rise that they want Sam Burgess playing for NSW. Even arch traditionalist Phil Gould is favouring a shorter season and longer window for internationals.

Elstone likes Australian ideas like video referees at every ground and two referees.

 

The paradigm he reveres so much is, as we all know, extremely inward looking. Little appetite for expansion, trying to stop players leaving Australasia to represent their countries, a giant in-house media unit, limited interaction with the outside world and a focus on competition between two states.

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State of Origin is still the pinnacle of rugby league in Australia ©Stuff

The Aussies are holding their own American event next year, “round zero” in California, with no involvement with the promoter who will take the World Cup to North America six years later.

But it makes sense that someone who has left rugby league for soccer would come back nostalgic for his childhood sport’s past and would disavow some of our game’s dreamier ambitions.

Having seen the geographic spread and financial might of the round-ball game, one wouldn’t get too excited about Toronto or an Irish team full of people who live by the M62. That makes sense.

But the Super League clubs wouldn’t appoint someone who disagreed with them.

If Elstone wants the British game more like the Australian scene then so do those who gave him a job. Challenge Cup back to May and a return for Great Britain also got a mention at the media conference where he was unveiled.

Wigan owner Ian Lenagan even said he accepted the preservation of promotional and relegation only as “a trade-off” – his words not mine.

Perhaps the aversion to the Super Eights has something to do with it being an RFL property (with them getting the money first) rather than an altruistic objection to the concept.

But pinning everything on the absolute conviction that a return to rugby league’s past will preserve its future will make many as “nervous” as the current experiments. 

It seems like an overly simplistic question and a flat end to this column but … what if it doesn’t work?

Steve Mascord