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.

Advertisements

Jack Douglas

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

fgbgyr.png
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.

qsqwefrf.png

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

Advertisements

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.

64-Clarke-Carlisle-pa.jpg
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.

Robert-Enke_1520528c.jpg
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

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.

87l2uYn.jpg
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.

400px-01_Panam_Primary_Globe_Rings_Navy_RGB_(1).png
Cuba hosted the competition in 1991 ©Sportcommunicator

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

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

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

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

Liam Moore

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

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

Rosie Tudball

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

England_national_team_World_Cup_2018.jpg
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.

Marcus_Rashford_2018-06-28_1.jpg
Marcus Rashford is one of the recent success stories of a Premier League academy ©Кирилл Венедиктов

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosie Tudball

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

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

Liam Moore

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

mario_kindelan.jpg
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.

Cuban_National_Baseball_Team_Pitcher_Throws_Pitch_at_Exhibition_Game_Attended_by_President_Obama,_Secretary_Kerry_in_Havana,_Cuba_(25999273875)
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.

555810_476237595757009_1763362769_n-750x330.jpg
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.

GettyImages-560129479_super.jpg
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.

3327.jpg
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.

2018-06-17t170316z_1514913619_rc17781f46e0_rtrmadp_3_soccer-worldcup-ger-mex_0.jpg
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

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.

5b0ed7eff7b09d0bcf000001
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.

Kabyle-national-team-1.jpg
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.

George Fortey .png

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? 

newcastle protest
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.

Patrick hardy.png

 

Tutankhamun, Cleopatra and now Mohamed Salah – How Egypt’s new Pharaoh fired his nation to Russia

In this series we look at nations that can offer something a little different on the world stage. Episode 1: Mo and Co

Jack Douglas

In this series we look at nations that can offer something a little different on the world stage. Episode 1: Mo and Co

rfrf.png
Fans took to the streets in Cairo following Egypt’s qualification ©Reuters

Despite passing away at the age of 19 after only ruling for 9 years, Tutankhamun is perhaps the most famous of all the Pharaohs. The tale of Cleopatra’s demise at the hands of an Asp, or teeth for that matter, echo across Egyptian and Roman folklore still to this day.

But now, a new King rules the land.

In Egypt’s penultimate qualifying game, only a win would do for El Phara’ena – The Pharaohs.

In what has become quite the regular occurrence this season, Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah scored to put Egypt 1-0 up in the 62nd minute against Congo.

Aiming to reach their first World Cup in 28 years and only their 3rd ever, the dreams of the nation looked in tatters as Arnold Bouka Moutou equalised in the 88th minute.

When 5 minutes of additional time were shown, there was hope for The Pharaohs that they could go on to get a winner and restore their lead.

If there is anything the footballing world has learnt this year, it is do not, under any circumstances, give Mo Salah a chance.

When Mahmoud Hassan, or Trézéguet as he is commonly known as, was brought down in the area; Salah was given his chance. A spot-kick with the last kick of the game to send his nation to Russia.

Liverpool’s ‘Egyptian King’ smashed home the penalty to the ‘keepers left sparking scenes of pandemonium within the stadium and throughout the whole country.

Whilst the Congolese finished bottom of the group, their players looked on in despair, heartbroken, after managing to almost scrape a point against the heavy favourites.

For Mo & Co though, the victory was everything.

Africa’s most successful nation, with 7 Cup of Nations trophies to their name, have underperformed massively when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup, having previously only qualified for the second instalment of the tournament in 1934 and then having to wait 56 years before reaching Italia ’90.

So with the reward being a rare opportunity to prove themselves on the world stage, Héctor Cúper’s men delivered, giving the 96 million strong population something to be proud of following the political turmoil and unrest of recent years.

Salah’s penalty sparked celebrations so wild, it would be fair to estimate the country hasn’t seen anything like it in its history since its earliest people settled in the 10th millennium BC.

A rare positive rally in Cairo following Egypt’s qualification – Via Reuters

The man of the moment, Salah, was delighted with his country’s exploits when he spoke at the 2017 CAF awards (1), stating: “In qualification for the world cup we did very well and we qualified. We deserved that and everyone saw that, and I am excited. I am very sure we are going to do something special in the World Cup!”

Egypt’s talisman is certainly preparing very well for Russia 2018 as he has played an instrumental role in setting up a Champions League final for Liverpool against Real Madrid. The Pharaohs’ number 10 added: “I want to be the best player ever in Egypt in history. I am working hard every day on improving myself.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi congratulated his people for their wild celebrations on the streets of Cairo following the match, and the feeling within Egypt was one of euphoria and relief.

Egypt’s most successful club Al Ahly SC have won 86 domestic trophies and have lifted the CAF Champions League on 8 occasions. The country’s success continently has been the envy of the majority of Africa, and it is this continental success the nation are hoping will kick start a long stay alongside the elite of world football.

zdcfvf.png
Celebrations became heated ©EPA

Héctor Cúper, the Argentine that has masterminded Egypt’s recent resurgence puts qualification down due to hard work (2).

“What happened before in the previous 28 years I think is difficult to explain that but I’d like to talk about my era with the Egyptian national team. The philosophy of our play and especially the defensive part we’ve worked hard for. The philosophy and hard work helped us get to the world cup.”

When speaking with FIFA, he admits the tournament “will be competitive all round”.

“We’re all raring to go and no one can say they’ve got an easier or tougher draw, because it’s all about competing as the best you can and every team poses difficulties in football.

“It’s never easy in a competition featuring the best national teams in the world. I enjoyed the draw, you can avoid the likes of Brazil but then you draw the likes of Russia and we’ll compete the same way and here’s hoping it will all go well for us!”

Cúper is certainly focused on the task at hand, as he adds: “As for our draw, we know all about Uruguay’s qualities. They’ve got great firepower up front in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Russia will be playing on home turf. Saudi Arabia are in the same boat as us; we’re both going to have to dig really deep to match the level of the other teams.”

As many sporting underdog stories show, anything on the day is possible. This mentality is mirrored by the gaffer.

“Regardless of the opposition, I’m always optimistic. It’s that simple.”

If Salah can beat the likes of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez in Egypt’s first game way out east in Ekaterinburg, Cúper and the nations’ optimism may just turn into reality.

حظا موفقا لفراعنة! – Good look to The Pharaohs!

Jack Douglas

Sources:

1) True Kop LFC – YouTube. 5/1/18 Mohamed Salah: I want to be Egypt’s best ever Player. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gYH1H3XWTw

2) FIFA TV – YouTube. 1/12/17 Hector CUPER – Egypt – Final Draw Reaction. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEvibH9EKGA