The Italian Mess: Italian Football’s Decline

Roberto Baggio was unable to kick start a change in Italian football

The Italian league and the administrators running the league and the teams have been accused of plenty and the teams don’t have the best reputation when it comes to promoting youth, there are exceptions but notables ones like Marco Verratti end up in France to get regular game time.

What some have recognized the Italians need is a more structured youth system. In some other countries like Spain, Portugal and Germany B or II teams of top level teams play in the second or lower divisions. It is also important that the teams realize and agree collectively that youth promotion and emphasis on it can also be cheaper and better. Much like it happened in Germany where Bundesliga teams, in partnership with the federation, took action after German national team’s failures in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As an almost direct result German football rose again and has been consistently successful in the last decade or so.

Attempts have been made in Italy to improve this and to set up such structures. The national team, the Azzurri, have done relatively well at times under good coaching and the talent that is nevertheless plentiful. Winning the World Cup in 2006 and reaching the final of Euro 2012 to name two such successes in the not too distant past. However the negatives and shortcomings have never been eliminated.

Back in 2010 Roberto Baggio, the famous and legendary Italian player, was given the task of reforms within the FIGC (The Italian federation), in particular youth development. He quit less than three years later unable to enact much, the Italian system resisting major changes. Not long after that Carlo Tavecchio was elected to be the president of the federation. Promises were made, crucially of reducing the size of the Serie A to 18 teams from 20. However Tavecchio was also of the old ways and was racist as well, using banana eating to describe some players and later conversations of him regarding gays and jews were leaked as well. His choice to appoint Giampiero Ventura to follow Antonio Conte in 2016 was seen as a mistake and so it proved to be. After the failure to reach the World Cup for the first time in 60 years they both resigned or were forced out.

The elections to replace Tavecchio have now failed to produce a result. After four ballots no one was able to gain the necessary number of votes (50%+ required for the fourth ballot) and the recognized change candidate, former Roma player Damiano Tommasi, fell after the first ballot. Sooner or later someone new will be in charge and the next federation president will have the opportunity to make changes. A proper youth strategy and set up and boldly pushing in a reduction in Serie A’s size to 18 teams to allow for more training and recuperation time plus a less congested fixture list are at least two steps forward. He would also have the important decision of choosing the next national team coach. That coach would hopefully have more ready players at his disposal and uses them well.

World Cup 2018 Serie A Based Players

Italy didn’t qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years. The administration of Italian football has been backward, racist and unable to adapt or see the problems that are in plain site. Having chosen a top level inexperienced national team coach in Giampiero Ventura to lead the national team after Antonio Conte the resulting disasters were almost unbelievably clear and many have been ignored for years before the current failure. The state of the Italian league and the larger questions facing Italian football deserve their own analysis of course.

The Serie A has fallen down the pecking order in European football, from its heights of the 1990s, but still features many stars of world football and is still ranked highly in UEFA tables.

Below is a list of some of the players that are likely to feature for their national teams this summer in Russia. The Azzurri are not going to be there but many Italian based players will be.

Juventus
Medhi Benatia Defender Morocco 30
Juan Cuadrado Midfielder Colombia 29
Gonzalo Higuain Forward Argentina 30
Mario Mandzukic Forward Croatia 31

Napoli
Arkadiusz Milik Forward Poland 23
Piotr Zielinski Midfielder Poland 23
Kalidou Koulibaly Defender Senegal 26

Roma
Radja Nainggolan Midfielder Belgium 29 (Player has been in and out of Belgium’s team under coach Roberto Martinez)
Aleksandar Kolarov Defender Serbia 32
Alisson Becker Goalkeeper Brazil 25

Inter Milan
Ivan Perisic Winger Croatia 28
Yuto Nagatomo Defender Japan 31
Mauro Icardi Forward Argentina 24

AC Milan
Andre Silva Forward Portugal 22
Cristian Zapata Defender Colombia 31
Ricardo Rodriguez Defender Switzerland 25

Lazio
Nani Winger Portugal 31
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic Midfielder Serbia 22

Udinese
Emil Hallfredsson Midfielder Iceland 33

Russian Premier League Based Players

Zenit’s Argentinian Contingent

With the 2018 World Cup taking place in Russia for the first time it is perhaps useful to look at the number of players who play their club football in Russia and specifically the Russian Premier League. It could be that a player who is more familiar with the stadiums, the infrastructure and the nature of football in Russia can feel more comfortable and confident at the World Cup and give his national team a small edge.

Russian football is dominated by the more traditional Moscow based teams like Lokomotiv Moscow, Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow. Post Soviet big money and rich ownership has propelled teams into the heights of European football with, briefly, Anzhi Makhachkala, FK Krasnodar and Zenit St. Petersburg helping Russia to 6th place in the UEFA country ranking.

Below is a list of some of the foreign players who play for the aforementioned clubs and others in the Russian Premier League and may represent their country there starting on June 14, 2018.

Manuel Fernandes Central Midfielder Portugal 31 years old Lokomotiv Moscow
Eder Forward Portugal 30 Lokomotiv Moscow
Milad Mohammadi Right back Iran 24 Akhmat Grozny
Sardar Azmoun Forward Iran 23 Rubin Kazan
Jefferson Farfan Winger Peru 33 Lokomotiv Moscow
Emanuel Mammana Defender Argentina 21 Zenit St. Petersburg
Leandro Paredes Central midfielder Argentina 23 Zenit St. Petersburg
Matias Kranevitter Central midfielder Argentina 24 Zenit St. Petersburg
Emiliano Rigoni Winger Argentina 24 Zenit St. Petersburg
Ragnar Sigurdsson Defender Iceland 31 FK Rostov
Sverrir Ingi Ingason Defender Iceland 24 FK Rostov
Mario Pasalic Central midfielder Croatia 22 Spartak Moscow
Vedran Corluka Defender Croatia 31 Lokomotiv Moscow
Bryan Idowu Left back Nigeria 25 Amkar Perm
Aaron Olanare Forward Nigeria 23 CSKA Moscow
Branislav Ivanovic Defender Serbia 33 Zenit St. Petersburg
Andreas Granqvist Defender Sweden 32 FK Krasnodar
Sebastian Holmen Defender Sweden 25 Dinamo Moscow
Viktor Claesson Midfielder Sweden 26 FK Krasnodar
Maciej Rybus Midfielder Poland 28 Lokomotiv Moscow

UEFA Nations League Draw

The draw for the UEFA Nations League was today on January 24th, 2018. As expected League A with top ranked European teams features some hard match ups. In particular Group A Germany, France and Holland should be a good one despite the fact that the latter team has not done well recently and failed to qualify for World Cup 2018 in Russia. Russsia, Sweden and Turkey in League B’s Group 2 should mean interesting competition as well.

Early favorites for the four winners are likely Germany, Portugal, Spain and Belgium in League A. Slovakia, Sweden, Bosnia and Ireland in B. Scotland, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia in C. Georgia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Macedonia in D.

It should be fascinating to see which countries get relegated from each League. Perhaps Iceland, Poland and Switzerland are early candidates to fall off League A. Wales, Austria, Turkey and Slovakia from League B and Lithuania and Cyprus at risk in League C.

The league starts in September 2018.

The UEFA Nations League full draw:

League A

Group 1

Germany
France
Netherlands
 

Group 2

Belgium
Switzerland
Iceland
 

Group 3

Portugal
Italy
Poland
 
 

Group 4

Spain
England
Croatia

League B

Group 1

Slovakia
Ukraine
Czech Republic
 

Group 2

Russia
Sweden
Turkey
 

Group 3

Austria
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Northern Ireland

Group 4

Wales
Republic of Ireland
Denmark

League C

Group 1

Scotland
Albania
Israel
 

Group 2

Hungary
Greece
Finland
Estonia

Group 3

Slovenia
Norway
Bulgaria
Cyprus
 

Group 4

Romania
Serbia
Montenegro
Lithuania
 
 

League D

Group 1

Georgia
Latvia
Kazakhstan
Andorra

Group 2

Belarus
Luxembourg
Moldova
San Marino

Group 3

Azerbaijan
Faroe Islands
Malta
Kosovo
 

Group 4

FYR Macedonia
Armenia
Liechtenstein
Gibraltar

The Unruly UEFA Nations League

The now ousted UEFA president Michel Platini brought many ideas to the table, as a former star player his contribution on the pitch was significant and so it has been off the pitch as an administrator. Under his reign the European Championship was spread around to venues around Europe for the 2020 edition, also in an effort to give more importance to so called national team friendly dates he presented the idea of the Nations League, so friendly matches are actually a contest for a new title. Unfortunately as with his other ideas this is a complicated one that has fans scrambling to understand formats and figure out implications for their team and the European Championship tournament.

Back in 2014 the Nations League idea was presented and divided the (now) 55 UEFA members into four leagues. A for the best to D for the worst ranked teams.

Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Iceland, Croatia, Netherlands are in league A.

Austria, Wales, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine, Republic of Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Turkey in B.

Hungary, Romania, Scotland, Slovenia, Greece, Serbia, Albania, Norway, Montenegro, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania in C.

Azerbaijan, FYR Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino, Gibraltar in D.

Teams in league A will be split into four groups of three playing in a home and away format, with the draw on January 24th 2018, the four group winners will then play for the UEFA Nations League title in 2019.

Teams in league B will be in four groups of three as well. The four group winners get promoted to League A and the four sides that finish last relegated to League C.

Teams in league C will be in one group of three and three groups of four. The four group winners get promoted to League B and the four sides that finish last relegated to League D.

Teams in league D will be in four groups of four. The four group winners get promoted to League C.

One team form each group will be able – through a special playoffs in March 2020 – to qualify for the European Championships in that same year. This provides an extra incentive for both strong and weak teams to take these formerly friendly dates more seriously by giving them a route Euros via the Nations League, in addition to the normal Euros qualification process.

Platini’s legacy is still felt even after becoming a victim in the FIFA scandal.

A Look At A 48 Team World Cup

In January 2017 the FIFA Council approved a 48 team World Cup for the 2026 edition. Up from the current 32 teams.

A lot of time is left of course and the host(s) are not chosen yet, though a joint bid by USA, Mexico and Canada is the leading candidate. However increasing the number of countries is almost certain to lower the quality of matches. It is also very difficult to come up with a good format that is not as straightforward as 32 (and other numbers that are power of two)

FIFA has already agreed on the format and the plan is to have 16 groups of three teams with two team advancing. This already  makes the group stage meaningless and arguably unfair. A three group means three games per group, take for example,

Group

Team A

Team B

Team C

Matches

Team A vs Team B

Team B vs Team C

Team A vs Team C

How will a group like this be scheduled without team having more rest days than the other? Or that the last match can have both teams qualifying with a mutually beneficial result.

The allocation is another issue and as mentioned can cause a weakening and dilution of the tournament.

Asia will have 8 slots instead of the current 4.5

Africa 9 instead of 5

North, central America 6 instead 3.5

South America 6 instead of 4.5

Oceania 1 instead of 0.5

Europe 16 instead of 13

Plus 2 more slots in as yet undetermined playoffs, which can depend on the number of hosts as well.

An existing football infrastructure or hosts capable of  building it is another barrier that is at least not lessened by this kind of expansion. It remains to be seen if this effects the number of serious bids that are already few enough as it is. FIFA already requires at least one 80,000 capacity stadium and more with 60,000. The final decision on the hosts is expected in 2020.

World Cup 2018: Stars Of The Group Stage

Mohamed Salah & Harry Kane are set to star at the World Cup

Eight groups and 32 teams. Not necessarily world wide stars but some players will shine in the group stage even though their team might not make it out of the group or perhaps fade after reaching the last 16. Below is a list of sixteen such players, two for each group.

Group A
The hosts, Russia, are not favorites to go far in the World Cup and that would be a failure for the country. Alan Dzagoev could be a star and needs to be for Russia to be a hit.
Egypt’s Mohamed Salah is on fire in the English Premier League and if does anywhere near as well in Russia he will be remembered and revered even more.

Group B
Cristiano Ronaldo led his team to the Euro 2016 championship, though he missed most of the final. His World Cup form has been mixed but he will be the star for Portugal.
Isco is Spain’s rising star and primed to leave a mark at the World Cup stage.

Group C
Antoine Griezmann will likely make a very big move after the World Cup. He can also lead France in the group stage and beyond.
Christian Eriksen can score spectacular goals and his goals can come in bunches as they did in the UEFA qualifying playoffs.

Group D
Lionel Messi left his national team mark when his hat trick rescued the Argentina team. Now he can and will do the same in Russia.
Luka Modric, late in his career, will pull the strings in midfield for Croatia.

Group E
Neymar is now the undisputed star of the Brazil national team. The selecao will live by his tricks and goals.
Keylor Navas in the Costa Rican goal will inspire and lead his team in the group stage.

Group F
Manuel Neuer is the leading figure of the German team. The goalie, sweeper will be one of the headliners of the group stage.
Javier Hernandez will score the goals to lead Mexico in the three group matches and beyond.

Group G
Kevin De Bruyne is at his peak for Manchester City. His pace and talent will create and finish for Belgium.
Harry Kane is the prolific goal scorer than can over English disappointments at the World Cup.

Group H
Robert Lewandowski will star and overcome his national team’s shortcomings to be one of the early stars in Russia.
Juan Cuadrado will create and cross from the midfield and wing for Radamel Falcao, Carlos Bacca et al to score the goals for Colombia.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Top Two Forwards Of Each Team

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is just over five months away. Many bigger and not so bigger names have the chance to shine on the world stage, each of 32 teams’ forwards will try to make a bigger name for themselves and help their team advance to the knockout stages and play into July.

Below are two forwards from each qualified team with the best chance to become (bigger) heroes in their country and around the world.

Russia
Fyodor Smolov: 27 years old Krasnador forward with almost dozen goals to his name while playing for his national team. Regular scorer at club level and European club competitions.
Artem Dzyuba: Zenit player struggling with injuries. One of the stars of Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

Saudi Arabia
Mohammad Al-Sahlawi: Top scorer for club (Al-Nassr) and country with a more than one goal every two games goal scoring record over his career.
Nasser Al-Shamrani: A veteran on the team who featured for his national team as long ago as 2005.

Egypt
Mohamed Salah: One of the stars of the 2017-2018 European season leading the way for Liverpool after moving to England from Roma.
Ahmed Hassan Mahgoub: Not a regular for club (Braga) but still young at 24.

Uruguay
Luis Suarez: The infamous player still going strong for Barcelona and his national team.
Edinson Cavani: The owner of many missed chances is still a crucial part of the puzzle for the teams he plays for.

Portugal
Cristiano Ronaldo: Needs no introduction of course, heading towards the end of his career and it is his last chance to make as strong an impact at a World Cup.
Andre Silva: Young forward with a very good national team record (11 goals in 18 caps) and praised by many but struggling for minutes and goals in his first season in Italy.

Spain
Alvaro Morata: Almost super star level scoring regularly for Chelsea and his country.
Diego Costa: Hot headed but important player who fulfills certain characteristics, back in Spain after over three years in England.

Morocco
Khalid Boutaib: Regular scorer for club (Yeni Malatyaspor) and country. French born.
Youssef El-Arabi: Plays in the Qatar Stars League, also French born.

Iran
Sardar Azmoun: 22 goals in 30 caps. The hope of the national team.
Karim Ansarifard: Regular scorer in the Greece Superleague and the national team. A rising star in his mid 20s.

France
Antoine Griezmann: In demand forward likely to move from Atletico Madrid after the World Cup.
Kylian Mbappe: One of the most expensive players in the world, still only 19.

Australia
Tim Cahill: Still going strong at 38. His country is very reliant on him.
Mathew Leckie: One of the stars of his national team’s qualification for the World Cup.

Peru
Jefferson Farfan: Top scorer for country, one of the key reasons Peru are back at the World Cup.
Raul Ruidiaz: Good scorer in his native land and in the Mexican league.

Denmark
Nicklas Bendtner: Lord Bendtner is still a key player for the national team.
Kasper Dolberg: Rising star for Ajax and Denmark. In demand across Europe.

Argentina
Lionel Messi: Needs no introduction. Scored the goals that rescued Argentina from a near World Cup miss.
Sergio Aguero: Super star. Prolific scorer everywhere.

Iceland
Alfreo Finnbogason: One of the national team’s leading scorers.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson: Scorer of a historic goal – the winning goal vs England – at Euro 2016.

Croatia
Mario Mandzukic: Key man for Juventus and country. Tall center forward.
Nikola Kalinic: Poor form at club a concern.

Nigeria
Ahmed Musa: Not always at his best but crucial for country.
Kelechi Iheanacho: Some important goals for Manchester City before moving to Leicester City last summer.

Brazil
Neymar: Record transfer holder and prolific scorer, now his own star at PSG.
Gabriel Jesus: A rising star at Manchester City.

Switzerland
Haris Seferovic: Not always consistent but his goals are needed for country.
Admir Mehmedi: The same as Seferovic. Can be inconsistent and miss chances.

Costa Rica
Marco Urena: MLS player who plays an important role up front.
Bryan Ruiz: Veteran captain who has starred in several European leagues.

Serbia
Aleksandar Mitrovic: One of the stars of World Cup 2018 qualification.
Aleksandar Prijovic: A good goal scorer at club level.

Germany
Thomas Muller: Can play anywhere in the front line. Typical strong German player.
Timo Werner: At 21 a rising star of the Bundesliga, Champions League and the national team.

Mexico
Javier Hernandez: Back in England after time in Spain and Germany. Divides opinion but a pure goal scorer.
Raul Jimenez: Experienced forward. Super sub at his club (Benfica).

Sweden
Marcus Berg: Veteran who plays an important role in the post Ibra era.
Alexander Isak: Youngest goalscorer for the Swedish national team.

South Korea
Son Heung-min: Doing well for Tottenham in England. A key player for the national team.
Ji Dong-won: Not the most prolific at Augsburg in Germany but important for his native country.

Belgium
Romelu Lukaku: His country’s big hope. Strong and experienced at only 24. Subject of a big move to Manchester United last summer.
Dries Mertens: Almost a late bloomer. A star in the Serie A for Napoli.

Panama
Blas Perez: 36 years old veteran still going strong for the first time qualifiers.
Gabriel Torres: Scorer of important goals to qualify for World Cup 2018.

Tunisia
Youssef Msakni: Qatar based top scorer.
Ahmed Akaichi: Saudi Arabia based forward whose goals will be needed in Russia.

England
Harry Kane: Outscored everyone – including Messi and Ronaldo – in the 2017 calendar year with 56 for club and country.
Jamie Vardy: His pace and work ethic will be needed in Russia.

Poland
Robert Lewandowski: One of the world’s best will carry his country forward.
Arkadiusz Milik: Injury has hampered his progress but is very capable.

Senegal
Sadio Mane: An offensive star for Liverpool and country.
Moussa Sow: UAE based veteran whose contribution is required.

Colombia
Carlos Bacca: Highly experienced goal scorer. Sometimes struggles in Europe.
Radamel Falcao: Back to his best at Monaco after years of injury and falling form.

Japan
Shinji Okazaki: Valuable experience in England has helped this veteran.
Takuma Asano: Once of Arsenal now based in Germany. He can and must step forward and add important goals.