The need to “maximize the quality, quantity and frequency of competitive matches” has pushed the CONCACAF region to create an UEFA Nations League style regular match up tournament for the teams in the North American, Central American and Caribbean regions. The idea was proposed late last year.
As reported the match ups and precise format will be unveiled soon. The dates of the matches will have to be the official FIFA international dates therefore the different countries will meet in the inaugural version of the tournament in early September 2018. There are 41 member teams and they will be placed in three leagues which like the European version will features relegation and promotion. It will also feature a chance to qualify for the Gold Cup, the region’s national team competition.
In soccer or football European and South American teams are the strongest of course. At the World Cup all winners and teams that dominate have come, with few exceptions, from these two continents. But outside of these regions which team can be considered the best or strongest?
Historically the most consistent answer has been Mexico, currently ranked 17th in the FIFA rankings. Being the strongest in the CONCACAF Central/North American zone has allowed the team to qualify for the World Cup regularly but the team’s record at the World Cup has not been much to brag about. The furthest the Mexicans have advanced is the quarter finals in the two times they hosted the World Cup, 1970 and 1986. In the last six World Cups the Mexican team has fallen in the first knock out round after the group stage. World Cup 2018 might not be any different. The team didn’t have the easiest of qualifications and even though that often means little the team’s group will be a tough one. Mexico drawn in Group F with Germany, Sweden and South Korea will likely have to settle for second at best and that could mean a meeting with Brazil in the first knock out round (Group E features Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia)
What about the other teams? The latest January 2018 FIFA rankings, such as they are, rank the other qualified teams as follows:
It is hard to see any of these teams making it far in Russia. It is not impossible that only Mexico makes it out of the group stage. Senegal, in form, could create a minor shock and survive at the expense of one of Poland or Colombia in Group H. The other groups don’t leave much hope. Perhaps Egypt can create another shock and survive instead of the hosts or Uruguay in Group A? Not very likely.
World Cup 2018 might go according to conventional form and leave all non-European and South Americans behind.
After the Giampiero Ventura era which ended with the disaster of not qualifying for World Cup 2018 and the federation’s failure to elect a new president the transitional phase for Italian football and the national team remains deep in uncertainty. For the time being Luigi Di Biagio, the former and current U21 coach, has been put in caretaker charge of the Azzurri for the up coming friendlies (against Argentina on March 23, England on March 27 and France on June 1) in the spring.
Di Biagio, the former Roma and Inter Milan midfielder, has had a relative poor record as U21 and U20 coach. Such as it is Di Biagio will is a candidate to get the job full time, his case will be helped by good friendly results but even without that the choices are not all that plentiful. Several players retired after the qualifying failure and there is room for new blood. The conditions have changed but it is debatable if the attitude has.
Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri are the big known names that come to most minds automatically.
Conte is unlikely to accept a return to a national team job. Chelsea are not at their best as of right now but even if he does quit the London team he has options such as a rumoured PSG link.
Ancelotti might seem a natural choice as he is out of a job since being sacked by Bayern Munich. He has a long club coaching career behind him but it is somewhat doubtful that a return to club football is not in the cards.
Roberto Mancini is doing well at Zenit and may be unwilling to leave a lucrative job in Russia for a rebuilding team.
Ranieri rebuilt his reputation at Leicester in England but had been a failure at national team level with Greece just before achieving that miracle in England.
The other names that are obvious in name and reputation are Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri and Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri. It is also doubtful they could be convinced to let go of a club coaching job. Sampdoria’s Marco Giampaolo is an upcoming coach who has done well with his team, currently sixth in the Serie A. Could he be one option? A surprise name perhaps but who? The answer will probably only arrive in the summer.
After 20 years working at club level (except an early time as the Holland national team’s assistant coach) Ronald Koeman has become Holland National team’s coach.
The Dutch’s fortunes have faded in recent years. The team did reach the final of World Cup 2010 in South Africa – losing to Spain – and was a semi finalist four years later in Brazil. Holland, however, didn’t qualify for Euro 2016 and suffered three losses out of three at Euro 2012 and didn’t survive the group stage. The team has had previous highs in the 1970s with Cruyff and co reaching successive World Cup finals and in the late 1980s and 1990s with Milan’s Dutch trio and Koeman himself helping the team win Euro 1988.
Ronald Koeman has won many club trophies as player and manager. With both Ajax and PSV in his homeland and four La Liga titles with the great Barcelona teams of the early 1990s, among others. As manager he led PSV to one title and Ajax to two. His last coaching job was at Everton where the team disappointed after spending big, he was fired after lasting just over one year.
Now he ventures into his first head coaching role at national team level. He replaces Dick Advocaat who was briefly in charge in 2017 having replaced Danny Blind. Both failed to help the team qualify for World Cup 2018.
The national team’s biggest goalscorers and best players are in their 30s now with Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder very much of the past. Younger players are either not as good or haven’t convinced or been consistent. The likes of Memphis Depay (Lyon), Vincent Janssen (Fenerbahce on loan from Tottenham), Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke City) were expected to be well above their current value. It remains to be seen if others like Rick Karsdorp (Roma), Marco van Ginkel (PSV on loan from Chelsea) and Quincy Promes (Spartak Moscow) can add more to the team going forward. Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), currently the most expensive defender ever, has to as well.
UEFA Nations League starts in September. Koeman and Holland’s first game is on September 9 in France (Germany being the other team in the three team group). Before that there are also friendlies to play. Two are currently scheduled, versus England on March 23 and Portugal on March 26.
A number of high profile teams or those with history at the World Cup failed to qualify for World Cup 2018. Any World Cup includes a few such teams and this time is no different. Of course Italy is number one in this edition’s list but others like the USA, Holland, Chile, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Ghana are surprising missing teams too.
Italy fell to Sweden in the UEFA playoffs. Holland finished only third in the qualifying group that included Sweden and France. USA missed out by finishing a shocking fifth, behind Honduras, in the CONCAFAF hexagonal. Chile finished 6th in CONMEBOL qualifying. Cameroon finished third in the CAF final stage behind Nigeria and Zambia, Ivory Coast fell at the same stage to Morocco and Ghana was third behind Egypt and Ghana.
The following are some of the best players that are missing out on possible glory in Russia.
Lorenzo Insigne. Not often used by various coaches but a creative force for the Azzurri nevertheless.
Ginaluigi Buffon. Missed out on a chance to leave the pitch at the highest level.
Christian Pulisic. One of the young stars of world football, the now 19 year old could have made a bigger name for himself.
Virgil van Dijk. Lost the chance to showcase why he is the world’s most expensive defender, having just joined Liverpool (from Celtic) for €85 million.
Alexis Sanchez. Only just joined Manchester United (from Arsenal). One of the best creative and goalscorers in his country’s history.
Clinton N’Jie. Marseille striker could be a bigger star.
Eric Bailly. Not always a starter at Manchester United but a solid defender with youth on his side.
Thomas Partey. A solid defensive midfielder at Atletico Madrid who can help any team defensively.
Here is a list of the coaches that will guide the 32 teams at World Cup 2018 in Russia. A number of nations are notorious for changing coaches even within months of major competitions. For example Saudi Arabia are on their third national team coach since September 2017. The current coach Juan Antonio Pizzi succeeded Edgardo Bauza who lasted only weeks and was preceded by Bert van Marwijk.
The competition begins on June 14, 2018 and further changes are unlikely but not impossible.
Russia: Stanislav Cherchesov, coach since August 2016, 54 years old. Previously at Legia Warsaw, Dynamo Moscow and others. Saudia Arabia: Juan Antonio Pizzi, 49. Previously coach of Chile’s national team and several clubs in Mexico, Chile, his native Argentina and a season at Valencia in Spain. Egypt: Hector Cuper, since March 2015, 62. Previously a successful coach in Europe with Inter Milan, Mallorca, Valencia and others, also briefly coached the Georgia national team. Uruguay: Oscar Tabarez, since 2006, 70. One of the longest serving coaches at any level. Brief Uruguayan and European club stints in the years prior to 2006. Portugal: Fernando Santos, since 2014, 63. Many years in the Portuguese and Greek leagues. Has been at all three big Portuguese teams (Benfica, Porto, and Sporting Lisbon) and the Greece national team as coach. Spain: Julen Lopetegui, since July 2016, 51. Formerly coach of Spain’s U21, U20 and U19 teams. Morocco: Herve Renard, since February 2016, 49. Coach of two Africa Cup of Nations winners (Zambia and Ivory Coast) Iran: Carlos Queiroz, since April 2011, 64. Coached Real Mardrid for a season and was assistant at Manchester United under Alex Ferguson. Also coached Portugal and South Africa’s national teams. France: Didier Deschamps, since July 2012, 49. World Cup winner as player. Coached Monaco, Juventus and Marseille. Australia: Bert van Marwijk, since this month. Coached his native Holland to the final of World Cup 2010. Replaced the departing Ange Postecoglou. Peru: Ricardo Gareca, since 2015, 59. Numerous coaching stints around his native Argentina and elsewhere in South America. Denmark: Age Hareide, since December 2015, 64. A Norwegian who has had success at club level with Rosenberg. Coached his native country in the 2000s. Argentina: Jorge Sampaoli, since summer 2017, 57. Left the high profile job of coaching Sevilla in Spain to rescue his native country’s faltering qualification for World Cup 2018. Succeeded Edgardo Bauza and Gerardo Martino. Previously coached Chile’s national team. Iceland: Heimir Hallgrimsson, in sole charge since summer 2016, 50. Previously co-coach with Lars Lagerback. Croatia: Zlatko Dalic, since October 2017, 51. Controversially replaced Ante Cacic. Nigeria: Gernot Rohr, since August 2016, 64. Relative unknown who nevertheless has plenty of experience around the African continent. Brazil: Tite, since June 2016, 56. Wanted as the coach long before he finally accepted following disasters of previous coach, Dunga. Switzerland: Vladimir Petkovic, since 2014, 54. Previously coached Lazio and clubs in Switzerland and Turkey. Costa Rica: Oscar Ramirez, since 2015, 53. Short stint as national team assistant and clubs around Costa Rica. Serbia: Mladen Krstajic, since October 2017, 43. Controversially replaced Slavoljub Muslin after the latter helped secure qualification. Germany: Joachim Low, since July 2006, 57. Succeeded Jurgen Klinsmann and has won the World Cup and been runners up and semi finalists too. Mexico: Juan Carlos Osorio since October 2015, 56. Colombian who has held on to his job despite constant pressure. Previously an assistant at Manchester City. Sweden: Janne Andersson, since 2016, 55. Previously assistant and head coach at several clubs in his native land. South Korea: Shin Tae-yong, since 2017, 48. Replaced Uli Stielike after the German was on the verge of failing to get the team to World Cup 2018. Belgium: Roberto Martinez, since August 2016, 44. Surprise choice to replace Marc Wilmots. Brought in Thierry Henry as assistant. Panama: Hernan Dario Gomez, since February 2014, 61. Colombian previously in charge of the Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala national teams. Tunisia: Nabil Maaloul, since April 2017, 55. Succeeded the highly experienced Henryk Kasperczak. Previously coached the national teams at senior and Olympic levels. England: Gareth Southgate, since September 2016, 47. Former England U21 coach appointed after Sam Allardyce resigned. Poland: Adam Nawalka, since October 2013, 60. One of the stars of the 1978 World Cup. Senegal: Aliou Cisse, since 2015, 41. Formerly the U23 coach. As a player some experience in England and France. Colombia: Jose Pekerman, since January 2012, 71. Highly regarded Argentinian with extensive experience and somewhat strange coaching style, including time as Argentina’s U20 and national teams. Japan: Vahid Halilhodzic, since March 2015, 65. Replaced Javier Aguirre after the Mexican had to leave due to match fixing issues in Spain. Had success with Algeria at World Cup 2014
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.
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.
Medhi Benatia Defender Morocco 30
Juan Cuadrado Midfielder Colombia 29
Gonzalo Higuain Forward Argentina 30
Mario Mandzukic Forward Croatia 31
Arkadiusz Milik Forward Poland 23
Piotr Zielinski Midfielder Poland 23
Kalidou Koulibaly Defender Senegal 26
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
Ivan Perisic Winger Croatia 28
Yuto Nagatomo Defender Japan 31
Mauro Icardi Forward Argentina 24
Andre Silva Forward Portugal 22
Cristian Zapata Defender Colombia 31
Ricardo Rodriguez Defender Switzerland 25
Nani Winger Portugal 31
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic Midfielder Serbia 22
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
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.