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

 

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

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

The World Cup without Italy

How the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been a great tournament for Italian football fans, even without the mighty Azzurri.

Matteo Portoghese 

How the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been a great tournament for Italian football fans, even without the mighty Azzurri.

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Italy won the World Cup as recent as 2006 ©FourFourTwo

Although they did not enter the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930, Italy quickly became one of the most successful national teams in the history of the competition, having won their home tournament in 1934 in their very first appearance and repeating themselves 4 years later in Paris, where they retained the championship by beating Hungary 4–2 in the final at the Stade Olympique de Colombes. Between this exploit and the 1982 triumph in Spain, the mighty Azzurri made a reputation for themselves winning the 1968 Euros and reaching the Mexico 1970 final. This, together with the 1994 World Cup final loss and the 2006 success in Germany, established the team as one of the international football heavyweights.
That is why is sounded so strange that they did not reach Russia 2018; 60 years before, they had failed to progress to the finals due to Peter Doherty’s Northern Ireland[1] and this was, until now, the only time that Italy participated in the qualification process and did not reach the finals.

It is obvious that the day after losing to Sweden in the second round (play-offs), the team and the whole Italian football had to stand “trial” under the charge of missing the World Cup. Their flop was considered the lowest point in Italian football history and Gian Piero Ventura, after refusing to resign, left his job on 20th November 2017. While other “big guns” like Argentina (1970), England (1974, 1978, 1994), France (1962, 1970, 1974, 1990, 1994) and the rest had failed to reach the finals before, it felt like the end of the days for Italian fans.

But in spite of that, Russia 2018 proved to be one of the most interesting World Cup ever for them, too. First, it was the first time since Germany 2006 that the tournament was entirely shown on free-to-air TV in the country, almost thanks to the Azzurri’s absence. Mediaset, the mass media company founded in 1987 by former Italian prime minister and AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi, broadcast all the games live[2]. Their journalists, commentators and pundits managed to analyse the WC without succumbing to the temptation to mention Italy or Italian based players all the time while covering the games.

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Italy celebrate their first World Cup win in 1934 ©ItalianWiki

Secondly, your favourite team being involved in a World Cup unavoidably captivate all your interest. No Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini or Daniele De Rossi on the field resulted in journalists and fans actually focused on every game and every team.
Undoubtedly, it is generally claimed that Italian sporting newspaper – with no Italy– dedicated less attention to the WC and chose to pay focus on calciomercato. This is something some would consider narrow-minded or even chauvinistic but – with Carlo Ancelotti (one of only three managers to have won the UEFA Champions League three times) appointed Napoli boss following Maurizio Sarri exit, legendary Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon moving to Paris Saint-Germain and Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid for Juventus – the same would have happened in any other country. Furthermore, sports opinion and analysis websites provided interesting, original and refreshing articles and follow-up pieces[3] on the most remarkable WC ever, with defending champions Germany booted out before the knockout stage for the first time since 1938 and Argentina, Spain and Brazil all knocked out before the Semi-Finals.

To bring it all together, a FIFA World Cup without the 4 times winners Azzurri is still an odd and unusual experience, of course.
But, as Antonio Chiaese told the Guardian, the hope is that “this “apocalypse” will bring a shockwave to the football power system, starting from its elites – the federation and possibly Serie A – to strike a new deal for the next generations of Italian players”[4].
In addition to this, surveys about what went wrong are still in process. We are perhaps at year zero of a new era for Italian football and for the National Team, with former Lazio, Inter and Manchester City Roberto Mancini appointed manager six months after the team failed to qualify, willing to anything to bring Italy back where they belong.
It is in this context that the shock provided by a so strange and unusual World Cup can teach to the fans that no place is guaranteed for no team (ask Netherland) and sometimes it is worthwhile to just watch the games and enjoy the football, even though your team is not there. Broadcasters and sports journalists showed they could survive, after all. Fans can, too.

Matteo Portoghese

[1]           Ross McKee, Euro 2016: Italy and Ireland memories recalled ahead of game in Lille, «BBC News NI», 22nd June 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-36491302.

[2]           Alessio Caprodossi, Russia 2018 sarà il primo mondiale di calcio trasmesso da Mediaset, «Wired», 21st December 2017, https://www.wired.it/economia/finanza/2017/12/21/russia-2018-mediaset.

[3]           Marco D’Ottavi, Dzyuba è il giocatore più antipatico dei Mondiali?, «l’Ultimo uomo», 7th July 2018, https://www.ultimouomo.com/dzyuba-e-il-giocatore-piu-antipatico-dei-mondiali.

[4]           Guardian Readers and Tom Stevens, Where it went wrong for the teams who missed out on the World Cup, «The Guardian», 16th November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/nov/16/world-cup-2018-fans-holland-italy-ireland.

Swapping the Ming Dynasty for a Winning Dynasty, how football in China is developing

SportExamined’s Jack Douglas tells his experiences of the beautiful game after visiting China.

Jack Douglas

SportExamined’s Jack Douglas tells his experiences of the beautiful game after visiting China.

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It’s not the skyline that is drawing players to Shanghai ©Jack Douglas

China. The World’s second largest economy, boasting a population of 1.41 billion with a GDPR of $25.2 trillion, find themselves sitting 75th in FIFA’s latest world rankings. Iceland, on the other hand, with a population of just 350,000 are the 22nd best side in the world.

So when one of the most influential nations in the world is suffering from a severe lack of footballing quality, sees an influx of established, world-class foreign players, headlines were inevitably written.

“For a lot of the foreign players, money talks,” Jared, a young football fanatic from Wuhu, on the banks of the Yangtze, tells me. Sporting a Shandong Luneng bright orange shirt with the Brazilian Tardelli 9 on the back, he is under no illusions as to why players are flocking to the far-east.

“Particularly the South Americans. Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Hulk, Ramires, even most recently Nico Gaitán. Players like these, most being still quite young, are willing to drop out of competitive leagues in favour of money.”

“For the Chinese people this is good. Football here hasn’t always been big. It still isn’t. Basketball, badminton and ping pong are still more popular, but it’s growing.”

He’s not wrong, the photo below is Tianjin University’s sports arena; dedicated to ping pong.

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A ten thousand-seater, world class venue. For University Ping Pong ©Jack Douglas

Walking through the campus you are never more than ten yards from a student in a Golden State Warriors jersey, as players like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are idolised.

The state were keen to ensure the beautiful game spread and grew in the world’s most populous country. As a result, the Chinese Super League started in 2004 as a result of the rebranding of the then Chinese Football Association Jia-A League.

On a state visit to the UK in 2015, President Xi Jinping visited Manchester City’s new training complex, before stating that he aims to double the size of China’s sporting economy by 2025. Encouraged and inspired by the riches of the Premier League, football it would appear, is the way forward for China’s sports economy.

But the huge financial investment into overseas players has hindered the development of the country’s finest own talent, explains Jared.

“The solution to our poor league became the problem for our national team. Our government were so keen on making Chinese football a worldwide superpower, our domestic talent wasn’t getting the opportunity it deserved.

“Foreign players were taking the positions of our most talented, and our best players were not getting a chance to play. So this year, the league changed. Now, each team is only allowed 3 foreign players in a squad to play a game and must start 1 Under 23 Chinese player, as well as having 2 more as substitutes.

“This gives our young players chance and makes the league fair. It will stop teams like Shànggǎng [Shanghai SIPG] from becoming the Chinese PSG. Yes they will probably win the league this year because Oscar, Hulk and Elkeson are three of the best attackers in China, but it will be close. Shandong Luneng – my team, Beijing Guoan with Renato Augusto, Cédric Bakambu and Jonathan Soriano, or perhaps China’s famous club Guangzhou Evergrande could win it.”

Last year, the Chinese Super League was the 5th highest spectated football league in the world, but to what extent are the locals flocking to only see the flair of the overseas players? Are most supporters genuinely interested in young, home-grown talent?

The answer in most cases, is sadly not.

Ever since the introduction of the Super League, foreign players have dominated the competition. The introductory season in 2004 saw 3 Brazilians: Adilson, Ze Alcino and Ossi Fernando Graziano; and since then, the foreign influx has grown and grown.

When participating in a match against Wuhu University’s best 11, the skill gap in technique was evident. Buoyed only by a familiarity to the humid conditions, the locals were swept aside by our travelling party in a friendly fixture.

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98% humidity did however favour the locals ©Jack Douglas

At full time, a conversation with a student made me realise something extremely important.

“Chinese culture is very focussed on study,” explains Chen from Shanghai. “From primary school to university my day has lasted from 7am until 6pm. Then when I am home I have to study. Parents don’t allow children to play football, they have to study.”

In contrast to the majority of the world where football is encouraged in schools, China’s imposed view on the importance of studying ensures youngsters can’t just go for a kick-a-bout. The lack of grass roots development, it seems, will continually stall football’s relentless march around the People’s Republic.

“When a break from study is needed, school’s do physical education, but focus on athletics, ping pong or basketball. I don’t know why football isn’t the main sport. With a billion people we should be able to win the world cup every time.”

­China have only ever qualified once. South Korea/ Japan saw China’s single showing on the world stage, where they were heavily beaten in all 3 Group C fixtures. But the current interest in youth could be a sign that things are on the up.

Crowded around a small screen in Tianjin, some Chinese students and I watched on as a shock was on the cards in Toulon. China U21s took a surprising lead against England, to the elation of the local football fanatics. Playing superbly and defending resolutely, Chinese dreams were left shattered as Tammy Abraham put the eventual champions 2-1 up in the dying minutes.

Young players like Zhang Yuning, currently on loan at ADO Den Haag from West Brom could be part of an exciting new dynasty of Chinese football. Coached by former Inter, Juventus and Italy boss Marcelo Lippi, back in Wuhu Jared tells me qualification for Qatar is achievable.

“He won the World Cup [in 2006] managing Totti, Cannavaro, Pirlo and Buffon. He is one of the best coaches in the world! If anyone can improve China it is him. We have the most amazing stadiums and a fan-base that is growing by every kick of a ball. With the new rules stopping the use of lots of foreign players, teams like Shandong who have an interest in young players, can help the national team by supplying the next generation of hopefully world class talent.”

As China, empowered by the successes of the Chinese Super League, embarks on this footballing voyage, the foundations appear to be getting laid thanks to the increase of interest in young, domestic talent. Perhaps one of the Asian country’s most famous proverbs, 千里之行,始於足下, A Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Football, has taken its’ step.

Jack Douglas

ConiFA World Football Cup: What can FIFA learn from the people’s World Cup?

Now the FIFA World Cup is well underway, a reminder for those who missed what happened in the ConiFA World Football Cup that took place a few weeks ago.

George Fortey

Now the FIFA World Cup is well underway, a reminder for those who missed what happened in the ConiFA World Football Cup that took place a few weeks ago.

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Paddy Power got behind the obscure event

You may not be aware, but the World Football Cup has already been decided. 2800 miles west of Moscow In Enfield, London, a team named Karpatayla were crowned the winners of the third ever ConiFA World Cup. With a side completely made up of amateur players, all representing the Hungarian minority who live in Carpathian Ruthenia (south-west modern-day Ukraine) this is not your average international football team, but then again this is not your average World Cup.

Founded in 2013 ConiFA stands for the confederation of independent football associations and represents nation states and peoples who aren’t recognised by FIFA. Despite the huge amount of countries that are members of FIFA, there are a surprising number of people whose nation or identity does not fit into the organisations frame work. Perhaps the two best examples of these sort of nations would be The Isle of Man and Tibet. People who identify as being part of these places could previously only represent neighbouring countries that FIFA recognise such as China for Tibet and England for the Isle of Man. This meant that they would feel a loss of identity from where they truly came from.

Tibet and the Isle of Man (renamed as Ellan Vallin from their local dialect) are just two of the 16 teams that have competed over the last two weeks in the 2018 ConiFA World Football Cup held in London. Every one of the teams has their own a fascinating story to tell and are all absolutely thrilled to represent their unique identity on an international stage. The diversity of the people that have been represented is truly amazing, even for an international tournament. At one end of the scale you have teams such as Cascadia, who originally formed by people in Canada and the USA to promote an environmental Greenpeace style movement. At the other end you have teams that have had to overcome incredible hardship to have their identity recognised such as Abhekazia a nation made up of people from the much disputed and dangerous border between Russia and Georgia.

The ConiFA World Football Cup has a very similar format to its FIFA counterpart with one nation hosting a group stage followed by the knockout style tournament. Replica kits and programmes are sold at each match and the tournament even has its own official anthem. But this is where the similarities with the FIFA World Cup ends.

The main goal of ConiFA is to provide representation for every type of identity around the globe but It is also trying to set be the opposite of everything FIFA has stood for. The ConiFA World Football cup is strictly not for profit with referees and staff all working on a voluntary basis. The finances are openly displayed for all to see, with the only form of revenue coming from sponsorship from partners Paddy Power and the sale of very reasonably-priced tickets. The tournament has put honesty and legitimacy at the forefront of the game. The introduction and success of a green card is one of the most recent steps that ConiFA has taken. This card is used for any acts of dissent or diving. Once given a green card the player must leave the field but can be substituted to allow the team to remain with 11 players so that acts in the heat of the moment reactions are not too harshly punished.

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The Kabyle side that took part in the tournament ©Amazigh World News

The tournament has also got put grass roots football at the centre of its agenda something that FIFA has had no interest in doing. The green card will hopefully clamp down on the disrespect shown towards referees that is particularly prevalent at amateur level. Additionally, the use of 10 non-league stadiums across London to host these matches has gotten many fans back in touch with their own local clubs and communities. The electric atmosphere created by these, smaller more compact, grounds are a stark contrast to the huge but vastly empty grounds seen in previous FIFA World Cups.

Which all the fascinating stories behind each team, it is easy to forget that competitive football was played. Despite the amateur nature of the players and teams involved the tournament provided just as much excitement and drama than any previous FIFA competition. Almost immediately two of the better-known teams of Tibet and Tuvalu produced quite a shock as they both finished bottom of their respective groups, surprising even the most knowledgeable of ConiFA fans.

One of the early pace setters of the tournament was Padania, a minority formed from people living the Pavoy valley region of Italy left over from communist rule. They are relative veterans of the format having taken part in the previous two World Football Cups and famously even had Mario Balotelli’s brother Enoch playing for them. Padania breezed through their group with maximum points including a 6-1 victory over Zimbabwe based Matabeleland a team who have had one of the more interesting journey to get to the finals. They were formed in a small region of Zimbabwe which had undergone horrific purging by President Mugabe’s troops in the 1980’s. Through football many of the players and supporters have re-found their identity, but with Mugabe’s regime still in charge the team have had to train in secret to prepare for the cup. It was even reported that their own bus driver was revealed to be a government spy who tried to sabotage the team’s preparations.

In the quarter finals and Northern Cyprus really stood out as one of the teams to watch with a massive 8-0 victory over Barawa. Similarly, to Matabeleland, Barawa are also a minority from a war torn African nation this time hailing from Somalia. Barawa were one of the newest teams of the Tournament having joined ConiFA in 2016 and to get out of the group stages was a fantastic achievement that brought great joy to their all-singing all-dancing supporters. Elsewhere holders Ahbekazia were knocked out by the surprise package of Karpatalya whilst Padania continued their great form beating Panjab 2-0.

The Semi-finals proved to be a step too far for Padania as they went out of the competition losing 3-2 to Northern Cyprus whilst Karpatyala overcame Romanian-based Szekeley Land to reach the final for the very first time. The final itself was a tight and tense affair with the match ending in a 0-0 draw. In the penalty shoot out the Karpatyala goalkeeper Bela Fejer stepped up to become a national hero making three crucial saves to give his side victory in front of 2500 fans at the Queen Elizabeth II stadium.

The Conifa World Football Cup may be small in scale but to a selective number of people and nations it means everything. ConiFA’s messages of identity honesty and legitimacy are ones that truly need to be taken forward into the wider football world. The organisation is making fantastic strides forward by using sport in the right way. To join people together and to make them feel part of something, not just to make money or gain influence. I fear that the success that ConiFA has achieved will be lost in the media maelstrom that is Russia 2018, but at least for 10 days in June, it was shown that the magic and beauty of football can still be a beacon of hope for people around the world. It’s just a shame we have to wait another two years for the next one.

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Protest in sport: What effect does it really have?

Does collective fan protest force change or do the millionaires and the suits just ignore them?

Patrick Austen-Hardy

Does collective fan protest force change or do the millionaires and the suits just ignore them? 

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A Newcastle United Fan’s message to Mike Ashley

The right to protest is seen as being the backbone of modern democracy. For centuries, unsatisfied individuals have made placards and gathered in the masses to stand against things they do not believe in. The Suffragettes are some of the most famous protests to take place in human history.

However, organised protests and demonstrations are now becoming a recurring factor in sport as a whole. The global expansion of sport has been enormous in the last fifty years, with major sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup reaching all four corners of the world. As the viewing figures continue to soar through the roof, so too does the financial gain.

In particular, Football, or soccer depending where you come from, has profited immensely from globalisation. Billionaire owners are becoming more of a commodity and many football clubs have reached new levels thanks to the giant financial injection, instituted by these wealthy individuals. But, this has led to football fans feeling disenfranchised, excluded and most of all dissatisfied. They are struggling to afford the lucrative ticket prices, the cost of replica team jerseys and the subscription to watch their football teams on televisions.

Sometimes the dissatisfaction inspires fans to cluster together and form protest groups to demonstrate against the suited up board members. These groups seldom make a dent in these financial machines and in the end are left to force fake smiles in the stands or sit at home and watch their team’s highlights on Match of the Day at 10:30pm.

Though, there are instances where collective fan groups succeed and force change. In 2011, Newcastle United and Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, outraged fans of the Magpies when he renamed their beloved home ground St James’ Park to ‘The Sports Direct Arena’ because he did not believe the name was “commercially attractive.” The fans were incensed and this controversial decision sparked mass protests, condemnation from all respected media outlets and a furious outcry from fans of all sides.

Ashley found himself trying to control a blaze which looked to be spiralling out of his control, but Wonga.com, came to his rescue in 2012. The loan company not only agreed to invest heavily into the club, £1.5 million a year for four years to be exact, but they also agreed to reintroduce the St James’ Park title to the 52,000 capacity stadium, even though they actually owned the naming rights and could have made a lot more money if the ground was named after their company. They said “We listened over the last three days and we saw what really matters to the fans.

“Football is an emotional sport and it is obviously really important to them. We listened to what they wanted and that is why we did it.”

Not only did the Newcastle fans get their stadium name back, they also got a grovelling apology from Ashley in which he admitted “I should not have changed the name of St James’ Par.” The St James’ Park title represents a huge victory for the fans in the civil war between Ashley and the Newcastle faithful.

And then there are other situations where the fans were not so successful. West Ham United are one of the latest clubs in English football to be in civil war against the board. David Sullivan, David Gold and Karen Brady are currently public enemy number one after they moved West Ham United to the Olympics Stadium in Stratford. They were targeted in an ugly protest where a large section of supporters invaded the pitch while West Ham were playing against Burnley.

The scenes were extremely ugly and were completely parallel to a future the West Ham board promised when they moved to the ground. The captain, Mark Noble threw down a pitch invader, another fan took the corner flag and planted it in the middle of the football pitch and David Sullivan was almost blinded when a hurled coin hit his glasses. Experienced football commentator John Motson, who has commentated through the 1970s and 1980s when English football was plagued by hooliganism, said that the invasion was “the most scariest moment” he had ever experienced at a football stadium during his 50 years in commentary.

At one point the Burnley players were allowing younger supporters to sit on the bench with them, so they could get away from the rampaging protesters. The protest got a lot of attention in Britain and in Europe also. They succeeded in getting attention, but what about their overall goal? Brady, Sullivan and Gold remain at the West Ham helm, while security and police presence was heavily increased after the shameful scenes at the London Stadium. Minor protests still take place, with small supporter groups holding up banners and flags outside the station and the stadium every match day.

Unlike the Newcastle fans, who collectively came together to protest against the stadium name change, West Ham supporters are fragmented and divided on their issues. Many fans no longer live in London with fans coming all the way from places such as Surrey, Luton and Essex to support the club. A large section of fans actually like the stadium and believe that the change was paramount if they wanted to compete with clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham and Crystal Palace who are all evolving and either building new stadiums or expanding their home grounds. Supporters of the club have now founded new traditions, meaning they have found new pubs and bars to go to before they go to the game. Unfortunately the stadium change has affected local businesses near Upton Park, who relied on football supporters on match days, but aside from this a lot of people are satisfied with the stadium change.

This situation is an example of the possible negative implications protests. The extremity of this demonstration does put this example in a different box, as most football protests are more peaceful and rely on the collective voice.

However protest in sport is a funny thing. Most people who have a problem with a vendetta with anything or anyone prefer to protest silently or with their feet, by simply not attending or buying the thing they are unhappy about. But sport is completely different. It is not like being unhappy with a restaurant or a shop. If one has a bad meal, they would not normally proceed to smash up the restaurant or stand outside it with placards and a megaphone.

Individuals outside of sport, or who do not follow sport seem to underestimate the effect it has on people’s lives. It provides individuals with an escape of the day to day stresses and problems of life. Sport can sometimes cause more stress and anger, but the stress is different and would not usually extend further than the white lines of a football pitch or the turnstiles at a ground. Overall, protest in sport is unique and as long as sport is emotional and still present in modern society, so too will protests and mass demonstrations.

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Irish born soccer players: Chasing the dream across the water (Part 2) – The big move

For Irish-born football players, signing for a club ‘across the water’ constitutes the ultimate dream. However, very often this dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Ryan Adams

For Irish-born football players, signing for a club ‘across the water’ constitutes the ultimate dream. However, very often this dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.

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The Premier League is the ultimate goal for young talented footballers

The bags are packed, passport ready, the one-way ticket in hand, travelling alone for the first time and about to embark on the biggest journey of a lifetime – the journey into professional football. This is the picture of many young talented football players from the island of Ireland, forced to migrate at sixteen or seventeen, chasing the glorious dream of one day becoming a professional superstar. The fact is, they are going into the unknown. In this second part of a three-part series for SportExamined.com, I articulate the potential challenges and encounters awaiting Irish born football players embarking on their journeys into professional clubs in England or Scotland. Drawn from academic research which focused on a cohort of players from Northern Ireland (NI), the article illustrates some important insights into what it may really be like being a migrant professional footballer.

It is not the intention of this article to paint an entirely bleak picture of professional football, there are of course numerous success stories of players who ‘make it’ in the game. However it is important to understand these cases are rare, and furthermore recognise how many dreams were crushed in the process. Indeed, according to a previous study undertaken by the Irish FA – which governs football North of the border – 87% of players who sign for, and therefore migrate to professional clubs in England or Scotland, return home within two years for a variety of reasons and without a professional football career. This means that around 9 out of 10 players who believe they are realising their dream of becoming a footballer are released from their club and unable to continue their professional career.

Football is a cut-throat industry. Looking from the outside, it’s often easy to forget that players are employees, carrying out a specialised form of work in order to make a living, and this is not always as lucrative as many expect. Before achieving salary levels of thousands of pounds per week, most players must climb the pecking order at their club to become a valued asset worthy of a large salary. As the clubs see it, players constitute mere commodities, they are individuals that provide a service on behalf of the club. If that service is below the required standard, they become surplus to requirements and there are an abundance of rival players relishing the opportunity to gain one of the rare spaces in the matchday squad.

Most talented young Irish born players enter professional football in the later years of the club academy setup, normally at the age of 16-17, and sign Youth Training Scheme (YTS) or scholarship contracts. There are a small number of players who sign directly on professional contracts but these instances are rare, and the YTS route at the age of 16-17 is more common. At this tender age, the player is expected to make the life-changing decision to migrate to a new country and leave their friends and family behind. On arrival to their club accommodation they will either be greeted by a family who will act not dissimilar to a ‘foster family’, or they will live in shared accommodation with other players, known as ‘digs’. They must decide whether or not to continue their school education outside of football; they must adapt to full-time training, a new footballing culture and a new societal culture; as well as spending their new-found finances and spare time sensibly. All of this whilst trying to impress their new employer by performing on the pitch on a regular basis.

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After signing for Middlesbrough at 16, Chris Brunt was one of the successful Irish migrants ©Daily Star

With all of these issues playing out simultaneously, it is unsurprising that many Irish born players report difficulties living in their host country. Due to a lack of prior preparation for the standard of football, players often find difficulty settling into their new club and it often takes considerable time to adapt to the full time, professional structure of the game. That said, most players feel that over time they do acclimatise to the standard required of them and it is the off-field issues that contribute more to a return home.

Not only are Irish born players unprepared for football at the professional level, they are unprepared for moving away from home. Homesickness is a serious issue for many players whilst living in their host country. This contrasts with their English and Scottish counterparts who are able to live in the comfort of their own homes whilst playing in professional football, unfortunately for Irish born players, especially those living in digs, evenings and weekends can be a very lonely time. Filling the spare time is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for players who move across the water. If homesickness isn’t already an issue, many players struggle to develop meaningful friendships with teammates, whereas others fall into the wrong group of friends and may become ill-disciplined.

If players do struggle with homesickness in their spare time, or indeed any other off-field issue, further problems occur as the culture of professional football clubs means that players are unable to show signs of weakness or else they risk losing their position in the team. Every player at the club, especially those on YTS deals, is desperate to earn one of the few available professional contracts. To gain a contract they are expected to perform on the pitch, but equally as important they must demonstrate great enthusiasm for the club. To do this they must masquerade their emotions and remain quiet about their underlying personal issues. The masculine culture of professional clubs means that players must laugh along with the ‘banter’ and remain one of the ‘lads’ despite the fact they may have serious off-field issues, which of course many migrant players do. These players are afraid to seek support from the club, at the risk of the manager finding out and thinking the player is ‘weak’ or may cause problems, and thus over time these issues exacerbate, often resulting in a release from the club.

The bitter reality is that what first felt like a dream come true turns into a nightmare fairly quickly and for those who get released, a return home beckons. However this again comes with a lot of difficulties as these players who had prepared for life as a professional footballer must return home to play part time, and also find alternative work to earn a living. The main question Irish born players ask themselves upon being released is; where do they go from there?

Ryan Adams

About the author: Ryan Adams is a PhD researcher at Ulster University, Jordanstown. His topic specifically focuses on the post-migration experiences of Irish-born football players who have been deselected from their professional clubs. Ryan holds a BSc degree in Sport: Theory and Practice; and an MSc in Sports Development and Coaching. His previous research has focused on player development strategies within the Irish Football Association; and ‘pre, during and post’ migration experiences amongst Irish-born football players. He is also an amateur football manager, having previously managed in the Northern Amateur Football League and Mid-Ulster Football League in Northern Ireland.

Follow on Twitter: @Ryan_Adams11 – Any feedback, critique or questions on this article are welcomed.