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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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

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.

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

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.

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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Trevor Bayliss: Has his reign come to an end?

After a shock defeat to Scotland and a string of poor performances, the England head coach is under immense scrutiny this summer.

Tom Foster

After a shock defeat to Scotland and a string of poor performances, the England head coach is under immense scrutiny this summer.

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©cricketcountry

As the touring Australians arrive in town for the start of a One-day International Series, last Sunday’s game against minnows Scotland was portrayed a gentle warm-up game for England. None of the Scotland side are currently employed as professional county cricketers, (Opening Bowler Omar Sherriff & Top Order batsman Callum Mcleod have subsequently been picked up by Derbyshire for the T20 Blast), and the game was supposed to be a routine win for Eoin Morgan’s men.

However, this turned out to be anything but. After a strange decision to put Scotland into bat by Morgan, England was run ragged by some power hitting from Scotland’s top order. Despite the tiny boundaries and excellent wicket, 370 was always going to be tough chase, and with a feverish crowd sensing an upset, and Scotland played the game of their lives. England ended 10 short, and thoroughly deserved to lose to a Scotland team that outplayed England in every department, including worryingly, commitment and desire. Although Scotland has improved steadily in recent years and was extremely unlucky to fail to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, this was a shock of the highest order for England, the likes of which haven’t been since a Kevin O’Brien inspired Ireland stunned us in 2011. Which begs the question, has Coach Trevor Bayliss taken England as far as he can?

England’s One Day record in recent years has papered over ever-widening cracks that have been appearing for some time in the England set-up. Their performances in Test Matches away from home has been nothing short of woeful in recent years, with a 4-0 defeat away in India in 2016, leading to the shambolic performances this winter in Australia and New Zealand, which saw England fail to win a single game in the longer format. The defeat in the First Test of summer against Pakistan at Lords further heightened the public dismay towards coach Bayliss, and if results fail to improve this summer in the Test Series against India, then the ECB must surely be considering a replacement in the longer format before Australia return to English shores next Summer for the Ashes.

Although Bayliss has proven to be a popular figure in the dressing room, a number of perplexing decisions in recent times that have diminished his credibility. His admission that he “hasn’t got time to watch County Cricket”, has hardly warmed him to English cricket fans, and it appears to be apparent with recent England selections. The unforgivable omission of Adil Rashid this winter in favour of Mason Crane, an uncapped spinner who rarely plays for his county Hampshire in the longer format, was a decision bordering on stupidity. Coupled with the unmerited recall for James Vince, whom once again flattered to deceive, and the ongoing failure to find Alastair Cook a partner at the top of the order, England appear to be lurching from one disaster to another. It is important to note these decisions don’t rely solely upon Bayliss, and the English selection panel has since changed from the Winter down under (for the better it would appear), but a more hands-on approach from Bayliss would have been not only welcome but expected in his role.

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Ex England bowler, Darren Gough has been critical of Bayliss in recent times ©givemesport

Despite the horrendous winter, England endured in Test Matches, their One Day performances remained steady, with series win’s in Australia and New Zealand to confirm their status as the best side currently in the world. Bayliss was initially brought in as One Day specialist by Andrew Strauss, and in that area, there is no doubt that England has improved significantly. Unfortunately, despite this, they are still yet to win a major trophy under Bayliss’s tutorage. As with most England sides over the years, they continue to become unstuck at vital moments, such as the last over in the 2016 20/20 World Cup Final, and with the underwhelming performance against Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy on home soil. This inability to get over the line in vital moments has become a hallmark of Bayliss’s reign, both in the longer and shorter formats of the game.

This summer’s fixtures will present a great indication of where England are currently at. The upcoming Test Series against India, the No.1 ranked side in the world in the longer format, will prove a huge challenge to England. One would suspect England should prevail in home conditions, but crazy scheduling sees all 5 Tests played after the 1st August, and this will certainly play into India’s hands. If previous summers are to go by, then dry, dusty wickets will greet both teams, and India will be delighted – not only should their spinners enjoy conditions similar to home, but England’s seam attack will be nullified somewhat.

Strangely, for a proud Test nation such as England, the upcoming ODI series against Australia, and then to finish the summer, with India, may be crucial for Bayliss to retain goodwill amongst the powers that be. A defeat against a severely weakened Australian side, with a number of key players out with due to injury or suspension, would be a huge disappointment, and if the Test team fail to deliver again, then defeat by India in the ODI series could be a knockout blow.

With such a huge year of cricket ahead of England in 2019, Bayliss needs to up his team’s game in all formats. Although he may have gained enough credit in the One Day arena to keep his job for the 2019 World Cup, one more poor Test series should be enough for the English Cricket Board to split their coaching priorities into two and appoint a specialist in that format. A more radical suggestion is to dispense with Bayliss at the end of the summer and allow the new coach time to bed the side before the summer of 2019. Due to England’s conservative nature, this remains highly unlikely, although more poor performances may be enough to see the axe fall.

Tom Foster

Italy women’s rugby league side: It all starts from the grassroots

Thanks to the growth of the women’s game and the exposure gained by the Italian rugby league authorities at the 2017 World Cup, a bright future lies ahead of the Azzurre, the Italy Women’s National Team.

Matteo Portoghese

Thanks to the growth of the women’s game and the exposure gained by the Italian rugby league authorities at the 2017 World Cup, a bright future lies ahead of the Azzurre, the Italy Women’s National Team.

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“It all starts from grassroots, mate” Craig Salvadori told me, Queensland based former rugby league professional player and coach. A City Origin and New South Wales representative, he played twice for Australia but stayed in touch with his family’s Italian roots.
Italy National Team head coach in 1999, he has never lost sight of the Italian-Australian connection and in 2017 visited the Azzurri in Cairns, in the days of their fixture against Ireland in Barlow Park, Cairns (North Queensland).
It was a hot day and world-class superstars such as Mark Minichiello, James Tedesco, Paul Vaughan, Daniel Alvaro and Nathan Brown were having their Captain’s run before taking on the Wolfhounds in a match played under high humidity conditions.
Grassroots is a word I heard many times during my Australian journey with Cameron Ciraldo’s team as Social Media Officer.
Cairns, Townsville and Canberra all meant meeting the grassroots game: working hard under the North Queensland sun, meeting Northern Pride supporters/RLWC volunteers, covering a joint training session with Wales at the Townsville & Districts Blackhawks Rugby League Football Club, chatting with Raiders and West Belconnen’s fans in Canberra. In QLD and NSW, rugby league is everything: it is footy and grassroots and professional game work and grow together[1].

When asked to write about the Azzurre, Salvadori’s words came to my mind. Orazio D’Arro, Federazione Italiana Rugby League (FIRL) president, was telling him about our efforts to grow rugby league back home, about local rugby union players who switch codes during the summer[2] to enjoy the greatest game of all. And Craig insisted with this grassroots mantra.

It was impossible, due to bureaucratic and timing reasons, to send an Italian team to the 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup but it has become one of FIRL’s main aims, due to the lessons learned Down Under and the restless dedication[3] shown by the girls in their first Test Matches (Beirut 2017, Toulon 2018).  It is difficult to organize, due to geography of the country and the players’ busy personal and sporting schedule, a September to May Italian Club Championship but Tiziano Franchini (the womens’ head coach), Tino Magrì and their colleagues are doing their best to make the girls actually love the game. Have them used to the rules and gameplay of rugby league.

This is what I call grassroots and this is, somehow, what Josh Mantellato, Terry Campese and company all played for at the World Cup[4].

Now, the aftermath of the RLWC breathed new life into the Italian officials and they kept on with stages and camps from North to South of the country. The Italy women’s national team has given[5] a lot of players a chance to shine at International level, while discovering a new sport. In most cases, they are non-professional rugby union players and manage to combine their effort in both codes[6], but several experienced, with rugby league, their first ever contact with the rugby ball.

In addition to this, we all know sports authorities in England and Australia are helping the women’s game with huge investments. World Cup videos and highlights prove rugby league can be spectacular and FIRL is working hard to provide a pathway to this level.

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Some might say there is still a long way to go and the recent tour to France confirmed it is still difficult to beat opponents who play RL all year long, but “with a little more experience we could have won the game,” says Franchini[7], who has represented Italy in test football. “Losing is never fun but I am happy with how the girls played in Toulon. They put a lot of effort into the game, they are hardworking and very dedicated players. The future looks good. We have to keep working and need a long-term vision.”

This long-term vision cannot be separated from the grassroots, as new stages and special trainings are being scheduled. Anybody interested on women’s rugby league in the North of Italy cannot miss the stage being held in Stanghelle (Padua, Veneto) 9th and 10th June 2018, under the guidance of Rugby League European Federation Certified coaches. Furthermore, club fixtures in the summer should provide continuity to the projects that had been set up.

What every rugby league director, coach and referee had better remember is the link between the development of the sport and top-level. Who knows, following the example by homegrown International players Gioele Celerino (former Newcastle Thunder and Tully Tigers, now at Queanbeyan Blues, Canberra[8]), Edoardo Pezzano, Simone Boscolo and Giovanni Ruscica (Tully, Queensland), some girls may move to Australia, England or France to improve their game and help raising the national team once back home.

The pathway to the Women’s World Cup is there and, as Salvadori said in a hot training day in North Queensland, it all starts from the grassroots.

Matteo Portoghese

[1]           “’Una famiglia’: the diverse roots of Italy’s Rugby League World Cup squad”, The Guardian, October 27, 2017, http://bit.ly/2sd0tTt.

[2]           “The Rugby League World Cup is just part of the Italian rugby league story”, Cultural Pulse, October 31, 2017, http://bit.ly/2saS7fe.

[3]           “Une double confrontation France vs Italie à Toulon”, Treize Mondial, January 26, 2018, http://bit.ly/2xcazd3.

[4]           “Campese Hoping To Recruit World Cup Teammate”, Canberra Region Rugby League,

[5]           “The Italian women’s national rugby league team is looking to blaze a new trail for women’s sport”, Cultural Pulse, October 31, 2017, http://bit.ly/2xbTyQx.

[6]           “Babini e Capello in azzurro”, Il Friuli, February 22, 2018, http://bit.ly/2xct9lq.

[7]           “Rugby League – Francia-Italia e un augurio per il futuro”, MondoSportivo, March 31, 2018, http://bit.ly/2xiiLZE.

[8]           “Austbrokers Canberra CRC Round 1 Preview”, Raiders.com, April 5, 2018, http://bit.ly/2siivnJ.