Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Somma-time is on the horizon

Things haven't exactly gone to plan for Bafana Bafana since Davide Somma was dealt the cruellest of blows in pre-season training back in July.

An anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained three weeks before the opening Champonship fixture has kept the Leeds United striker on the sidelines ever since, while his country spectacularly failed to the reach the African Nations Cup finals. So this week's news that Somma has started light training is most welcome for both Bafana and Leeds fans everywhere.

After a stuttering start, Simon Grayson's side have moved into the Championship's top six as they seek a return to the top flight for the first time since 2004. Somma scored 11 league goals last season - several after coming on as a sub - and that looks likely to be his role again when he finally makes his return with Ross McCormack, Lucciano Becchio, Mikael Forssell and Andy Keogh also at the club.

Yet his proven goalscoring ability could give Leeds a real edge during the final months of the season and how Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane would love to have another striker to call on when South Africa begin their 2014 World Cup qualification campaign next year.

The 0-0 draw with Sierra Leone that confirmed they would miss the African Nations Cup finals for the second time in succession illustrated a pitiful lack of attacking options. Who knows if things may have been different if Somma had been on the bench?

But that's not to say that the jury isn't still out on the player who left his country of birth as a five-year-old. A debut international goal after only 64 seconds of his second cap against Kenya earlier this year promised much but a lack of appearances for his club meant he has yet to really establish himself in the squad.

The way things are going in South Africa, it might not be long until he's back in the fold. The contenders to provide back-up to number one striker Katlego Mphela have hardly covered themselves in glory, with Bernard Parker having scored just once for Kaizer Chiefs this season.

Even Mphela - with 22 international goals to his name - was subjected to booing in last month's friendly against Ivory Coast so Somma's availability will help take the pressure off his shoulders slightly. That will have to wait for now though as he continues to rehabilitate from a very serious injury that can take up to a year to heal fully.

But the prospect of firing Leeds into the Premier League and helping Bafana make it to Brazil in 2014 give him plenty of reasons to be cheerful after a depressing six months.       

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Africa awaits Adomah's return

If you believe the hype, then it may not be long until Albert Adomah's journey from trainee painter/decorator to Premier League footballer is finally completed.

Now 23, Bristol City's flying winger has been linked with a move away from Ashton Gate in the January transfer window after some impressive displays in the Championship for Derek McInnes' side. Fulham, West Brom and Everton are just some of the names reportedly in the frame to sign the player who was born in Hammersmith to Ghanaian parents and won his first international cap for The Black Stars earlier this year against Brazil.

As footballing fairytales go, Adomah's story is hard to beat. Aged 15, he joined a youth project being run by his local council and - via youth side Old Meadonians - was eventually picked up by non-league Harrow Borough.

Almost 100 appearances in the hard-knock school of the Ryman Premier Division (7th tier) followed as Adomah supplemented his football by enrolling in a course to study Decorative Finishing and Industrial Painting at the College of North West London - incidentally also where former England international Stuart Pearce studied as an electrician in the days when it was simply known as Willesden College. 

Having caught the eye of then-Barnet manager Paul Fairclough at the end of 2007, Adomah signed a first professional contract in January 2008 and proceeded to score on his League 2 debut against Hereford United. In the two and a half years that followed, he became so popular at Underhill that legendary BBC commentator John Motson - a lifelong Bs fan - became his matchday sponsor

A move to a higher level was almost inevitable and Adomah eventually signed for Bristol City at the end of his contract in May 2010. A stunning debut season saw him voted as the club's Player of the Year and the reward was an improved three-deal to keep potential suitors at bay, plus the realisation of a boyhood dream to play for his parent's homeland.

Swansea City were among the clubs to try and tempt City over the summer but their resolve to keep him will be severely tested over the next six weeks or so. Given the club's well-documented financial problems (they reported losses of an estimated £11 million last year), boss Derek McInnes may demand a fee of around £5 million to prise him away, although a starring role for Ghana at the African Nations Cup in January may push the price up even further.

The international retirement of AC Milan's Kevin Prince-Boateng has certainly increased the likelihod that Adomah may be selected for the tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. That would create a major dilemma for a player who admitted that he couldn't stop grinning to himself when he made his debut for The Black Stars against the Selecao at Craven Cottage in September.

But with The Robins now beginning to draw clear of the Championship relegation zone, they may have to get used to being without Adomah's services for longer than just a month.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Stevie P's White Hurt Lane

Life couldn't be any sweeter for Tottenham fans right now. Sitting pretty in third spot in the Premier League and with a midfield quartet that is the envy of every manager in the land, some are even suggesting that the north Londoners could become champions for the first time in more than half a century.

However, not everyone at White Hart Lane is enjoying the ride. It's now been eight months since Steven Pienaar made his last appearance for Spurs in the Premier League as he has been relegated to a largely peripheral role at the club thanks to a combination of injuries and the superb form of his team-mates.

Defeats in both Europa League matches that the 29-year-old South African captain has started since returning from a groin operation have certainly not helped his cause, yet there is already a sense that Pienaar may have made a serious error in deciding to join a club where he was always going to struggle to hold down a regular starting spot at such an important stage of his career.

Known as more of a tricky winger in his youth at Ajax Amsterdam, the player that won Everton's Player of the Season in 2009/10 was renowned for his phenomenal work-rate from his starting position on the left flank. His combination with full-back Leighton Baines was invaluable to David Moyes's side and made Pienaar an attractive prospect for several suitors - especially when he refused to sign a new contract at Goodison Park.

The decision to join Spurs when they already possessed a player as supremely talented as Gareth Bale in his position was therefore a risky strategy to say the least. With the superb Luka Modric pulling the strings in the centre, Aaron Lennon's pace and trickery on the right and now Scott Parker's calm assuredness at the base of the midfield diamond, the best 'Schillo' can hope for is a place on the bench.

How that situation may change in the near future is hard to envisage. Brazilian Sandro is still ahead of Pienaar in the pecking order, while even youngster Jake Livermore has been preferred by Harry Redknapp in recent matches.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that it's time for him to move on just yet. Rumours of a loan move in January are unlikely to materialise given the trouble Spurs took to sign him and there is every chance that a couple of injuries may end a situation he described as 'depressing' last month.

But with his 30th birthday just around the corner, Pienaar cannot wait forever.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Mbazo set for pastures new?

If sitting on the bench every week wasn't bad enough for a player with 107 caps for his country, the news that the company who own Portsmouth have gone into administration must have made up Aaron Mokoena's mind for good.

Following last week's arrest of Vladimir Antonov - the main shareholder of Convers Sports Initiatives - the 2008 FA Cup winners find themselves in deep financial trouble once again and face the prospect of a 10-point deduction as well. Manager Michael Appleton says that wages are 'OK in the short and medium term' but with a shortage of prospective new owners on the horizon, there is no telling how long that will be the case.

His club's perilous position makes it even more likely that Bafana Bafana's former captain will be leaving the south coast very soon. For Saturday's 1-1 draw with Leicester City, Mokoena warmed the bench alongside fellow Africans Benjani and Nwankwo Kanu, with Israeli Tal Ben Haim - all big-wage earners who can expect to be the first to be off-loaded by the administrators.

I met up with Mokoena last week before the news of Antonov's arrest had broken and he seemed determined to fight for his place in the first team under new boss Appleton. But he also hinted that his future may lie elsewhere if things didn't work out at Portsmouth, although he ruled out a return to South Africa like his old Blackburn Rovers team-mate Benni McCarthy.

The Middle East, USA and China are all potential destinations for a player who received widespread media exposure as the captain of the first African hosts of the World Cup last year. A short spell in any of those leagues would no doubt also help to boost the coffers of the thriving Aaron Mokoena Foundation - now supporting three youth teams in his home township of Boipatong.

That would probably be the end of his hopes of representing his country again but coach Pitso Mosimane had effectively brought the curtain down by dropping his skipper ahead of the crucial African Nations Cup qualifier against Egypt in March.

Mokoena's charity work has already seen him awarded the Freedom of the City of London - only the second South African after a certain Nelson Mandela. Thanks to an ancient bylaw, that means he is permitted to drive sheep across London Bridge, although 'Mbazo' admitted he has yet to take the opportunity.

The way things are going, he'd better get a move on.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Africa's gold rush relies on supporting cast

The start of the CAF qualifying tournament in Morocco this weekend is the latest step on the road to London 2012. At present, six countries have secured their places at next year's Olympic football competition and another eight teams will battle it out over the next fortnight for the right to represent Africa next year.

But while the continent has enjoyed enormous success in a competition that is viewed with contempt by many fans in the UK (especially Welsh 400 metre hurdle champion Dai Greene), the reluctance of European clubs to allow their players to compete in the qualifiers could mean the strongest countries don't even make it this time.

Since it became an under 23 competition in 1992, Olympic football has been used by many countries as a useful stepping stone to full international football. Africa's record of two golds and a silver in the last four tournaments is second only to South America in the same period as the exposure on a global stage helped launch the careers of numerous superstars including Nigeria's Nwankwo Kanu and Samuel Eto'o from Cameroon.

This time, 2004 and 2008 gold medal winners Argentina have already failed to make to London as Brazil and Uruguay beat them to it but the weakened sides that will line up next week in Morocco may mean Africa's best chance of redressing the balance is lost.

Whereas Brazil could call on the ability of Santos striker Neymar and several European-based stars as they thrashed Uruguay 6-0 booked their place in the 2011 South American Youth Championship that doubles as the Olympic qualifier, Nigeria were denied permission to use several key performers like VVV Venlo winger Ahmed Musa and captain Lukman Haruna from Dynamo Kiev.

Likewise, South Africa will attempt to emulate their only appearance at the Olympic football tournament at Sydney 2000 without the likes of Thulani Serero, Andile Jali and new Swedish Player of the year May Mahlangu. The stumbling block is that the tournament falls outside Fifa's international dates and coaches are left with little choice but to try their luck with the best they can muster.

It wasn't always like that. Nearly 12 years ago, Benni McCarthy and Aaron Mokoena - then of Celta Vigo and Ajax Amsterdam respectively - helped the South African side known as 'Amaglug-glug' famously beat Brazil in the group stages but still failed to make it out of their group.

Making it that far this may be a tall order for a squad that contains limited experience of playing overseas. Egypt and hosts Morocco will probably be the teams to beat, although the team that finishes fourth overall gets another chance to qualify in a playoff against an Asian side next year.  

Whether anyone of Africa's best will be good enough to challenge favourites Brazil and Spain this time will depend on the strength of the supporting cast.  

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Blatter: You're Fired

That Sepp Blatter doesn't half know how to makes things worse for himself. The day after the esteemed Fifa President's ill-judged comments that suggested victims of racial abuse on the football field should simply shake hands and forget about it, the Twitter feud with Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand on Thursday dragged ex-Robben Island prisoner Tokyo Sexwale into the debate.

Tipped as a candidate to take on President Jacob Zuma for the leadership of the ANC at next year's centenary conference, the man who can trace his unusual first name back to a childhood love of karate films now finds himself a central character in a real tragi-comedy.

Sexwale is well used to the limelight having appeared in the Sir Alan Sugar role in South Africa's version of The Apprentice (he famously refused to say the 'you're fired' catchphrase because he argued he hadn't hired them in the first place...) but nothing could have prepared him for this kind of situation.

The former head of the Valaisan Tourist Board has used plenty of dirty tricks in the past to cover his back but using his supposed friendship with a man who was instrumental in the struggle against apartheid is about as low as it gets. And having risen to Ferdinand's bait by even suggesting the son of St Lucian and English parents (and someone who went to school with murdered black teeenager Stephen Lawrence) was the racist for using the phrase 'black man' in his tweet, Blatter dug the hole even deeper.

Respected SABC broadcaster Velile Mbuli summed up how black South Africans felts about the situation with his message to Blatter on Twitter yesterday: "Given our background of being colonized here in Africa & incidents we've suffered we very disappointed at your statement Sir!" He's certainly not the only one who feels like that around the world - black or white.

Incredibly given the number of respected figures from football and beyond who have expressed their utter dismay at Blatter's comments, there's no reason to suspect that he actually be held to account for his actions. L'Equipe's decision to relegate the story down to a few paragraphs on page seven of today's paper and a similar attitude across much of mainland Europe's media means that Fifa can maintain their holier-than-thou attitude from the safety of their offices in Zurich and Sepp will remain in situ.

But surely there could be another way? If all of Fifa's member associations publicly stated their opposition to Blatter's comments and demand that he resigns immediately, then perhaps the weight of pressure would finally see the old man fall on his sword?

Or maybe we could just call in Sir Alan Sugar instead.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Lure of Three Lions too much for Africa's displaced pride

Home is where the heart is but it seems Victor Moses is also using his head before deciding whether to represent England or Nigeria.

The Wigan Athletic player was conspicuous by his absence from the Super Eagles squad that assembled to play friendlies against Botswana and Zambia last week, despite being given clearance by Fifa to be included by coach Stephen Keshi.

Born in Nigeria but having moved to London at the age of 11 and represented England at every junior level, his no-show had been predicted by his agent Tony Finnigan when I spoke to him on the day the squad was announced.

“I don’t know what Victor will do but if I was a betting man I wouldn’t bet he will be going to Nigeria,” he told me.

“We’ll discuss it but I know he is still hoping to get a call-up for England in the future. Because we’re at delicate stage in his career, he has to maintain the form that he is showing and there is no way I would encourage him to go and play for Nigeria. He could get badly injured and end up not playing for six months so he has to think carefully about what to do.”

Unfortunately for me, no one at the UK nationals wanted the story at the time but, 10 days later, Finnigan has now repeated his views and admitted that Moses is stillharbouring hopes of a call-up from Fabio Capello. As he acknowledges, that is an unlikely scenario given Wigan's perilous position in the Premier League at present but the possibility remains a tantalising one given the exposure playing for England would give his career.

Moses knows that a single appearance for his adopted country would draw the attention of some of the Premier League's bigger clubs and perhaps earn him a move up the ladder, whereas committing his future to Nigeria at this stage would do nothing for his status in the UK. The situation might have been different had his homeland qualified for the African Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in a couple of months but their failure means he now has until World Cup qualification begins next June to decide.

Should he eventually appear for England, Moses would become only the second Nigerian-born player to represent the Three Lions after John Salako - another alumni from Crystal Palace. But while other countries have embraced the naturalisation of players in recent years (think Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose for Germany or Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira for France), England's national team has not been so quick to follow suit.

That could be set to change with a number of African-born players currently involved in the youth set-up, including Crystal Palace's Ivorian born Wilfried Zaha and West Brom's highly-rated striker Saido Berahino, who arrived in Birmingham as a 12-year-old asylum seeker from war-torn Burundi. Meanwhile, Feruz Islam will join Chelsea in the summer having been groomed by Celtic's youth academy and the Somalian-born midfielder is expected to become the first African-born player to represent Scotland.

So while his decision to turn his back on the country of his birth for now was a risky one, Moses may end up being the trail-blazer for a new generation of immigrant footballers.

Follow me on Twitter @ed_aarons

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Boo-boys no match for Killer instinct

Katlego Mphela must be wondering what more he has to do to capture the hearts of Bafana Bafana fans.
Taunted by some sections of the Port Elizabeth crowd who demanded his substitution in the first half of the Nelson Mandela Challenge against Ivory Coast on Saturday, ‘Killer’ responded by scoring with a brilliant free kick from 25 yards out to take his international tally to 22 goals in just 42 appearances.
Clearly with the emotions running high, Mphela’s reaction afterwards as he cupped his ear towards supporters and then appeared to push his team-mates away as they attempted to congratulate him told its own story. That Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane was forced to issue a plea to call on the nation to support a player who has scored more international goals than Lionel Messi actually beggars belief, especially when the 26-year-old product of Jomo Cosmos is the only South African who ever looks like scoring these days.
The lack of creativity in a side still clearly reeling from the disappointment of failing to qualify for the African Nations Cup should certainly be of more concern, with the return of captain Steven Pienaar failing to provide Mphela with enough ammunition in front of goal. A midfield of him, Siphiwe Tshabalala, Daylon Classen, Kagisho Dikgacoi and Reneilwe Letsholonyane was full of effort but ultimately lacking the crucial link in the final third. How Mosimane must have wished Ajax Amsterdam’s Thulani Serero had been fit enough to play.
But having found the net against teams like Spain, Serbia, France, Ghana and Egypt, Mphela now finds himself third on South Africa’s top-scorers’ list behind Shaun Bartlett and Benni McCarthy. Yet the fact he remains unappreciated by so many fans remains a mystery.
The equally spectacular free kick against Vicente del Bosque's side in the 2009 Confederations Cup announced his arrival on the international scene more than four years after his debut and Mphela has since 17 goals in just over three years – not bad in a team that has consistently struggled to create chances in that period.  

Granted, some of his tally may have been against lesser lights like Thailand and Guatemala but McCarthy’s record of 32 goals from 79 games also included several against minnows and to be in with a chance of overhauling that total is an indication of just how good a player Killer is. And with him only turning 27 later this month, Mphela can write his own piece of history just by letting his feet do the talking.   

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Teen sensations should heed the tale of Michael Woods

Besides being born seven years apart, Oluwaseyi Ojo and Michael Woods have plenty in common.  Both were hailed as the future of English football after starring for their respective youth teams and attracted the attention of Chelsea’s scouts.

But while 14-year-old MK Dons midfielder Ojo is on the verge of moving to Stamford Bridge (for a deal that could eventually be worth up to £2 million if you believe the newspapers), Woods is now contemplating a future away from football after being forced to retire at the tender age of 21.

The midfielder is the grandson of former Tottenham, Swansea and York player Alan who, along with current Carlisle United defender Tom Taiwo, famously turned down a scholarship with Leeds United in 2006 to move to Chelsea at the age of 16. Roman Abramovic eventually had to pay around £5 million in compensation for the duo in one of the biggest deals involving teenagers in British football history.

A few months later at the age of 16 and 275 days, Woods became the fourth youngest player ever to play for Chelsea but subsequently found his route to the first-team blocked by injury and lack of opportunity. While Taiwo went out on loan and eventually joined Carlisle in January 2010, Woods stuck it out in the reserves until his contract ran out in the summer.

Moves to Brighton and Aberdeen fell through due to persistent fitness problems, as did a last-ditch trial with League One Walsall last month. Now Woods has decided to officially announce his retirement from the game and is reportedly concentrating his efforts on a Sports Science degree in Glasgow.

His story shows Ojo just how fickle the game of football can be but Woods is certainly not the first highly-rated teenager who has failed to live up to his billing. Liverpool fans of a certain age may remember Wayne Harrison, who became the most expensive teenager in the world when he was signed from Oldham for a fee of £250,000 in 1985 and then never made a first-team appearance.

Then there’s Nii Lamptey, the Ghanaian protégé who starred for Anderlecht before suffering a series of flops across the European leagues. Or what about Freddy Adu, another player of Ghanaian heritage who was born in the USA and became a favourite of the Championship Manager generation but never really fulfilled his massive potential?

Of course, as Gareth Bale, Jermain Defoe, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wayne Rooney have proved, there are those who have not cracked under the pressure of a huge price-tag. But the experiences of of John Bostock (Crystal Palace – Spurs up to £1.25 million), Sloban Rajkovic (OFK Beograd – Chelsea £3.8 million) and Scott Sinclair (Bristol Rovers to Chelsea £1 million before being sold to Swansea City for £750,000) act as a warning to the next generation of super-kids.

Ojo may be the youngest of the current crop but there are plenty more youngsters in the academy system with massive price-tags already around their necks. Raheem Sterling joined Liverpool from QPR in February last year for a deal that could eventually be worth £5 million, while Bradford City’s George Green signed a deal to join Everton next season for a reported £2 million.

Chelsea have lured Somali-born but Scottish-raised Islam Feruz from Celtic, with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur also having spent big on John Cofie and Dean Parrett respectively. Only time will tell whether it has been money well spent but they would all be wise to learn from the experience of Michael Woods.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Swede taste of success for Mahlangu

The exploits of May Mahlangu in Sweden this week have got me thinking. Why do so many South Africans usually struggle when they go overseas?

The 22-year-old midfielder from the Mpumalanga province was the toast of the Allsvenskam after inspiring Helsingborgs to the league and cup double and picked up the Swedish Player of the Year Award on Monday night. Yet he was one of just a handful of the more than 20 eligible for Bafana Bafana selection who saw any action in Europe this past weekend.

Mahlangu's rise has gone under the radar for most observers after moving to Sweden nearly three years ago from the Stars of Africa academy in Johannesburg. But he has made a name for himself thousands of kilometres from home in a league that - although it may not be the most fashionable - will certainly attract the attention of bigger clubs.

It wasn't enough for him to be included in the latest Bafana Bafana squad to play Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, even if Safa did cover their tracks by selecting him for the under 23 squad this week. Of the nine foreign-based players who did make Pitso Mosimane's squad, only Bevan Fransman, Anele Ngcongca, Daylon Claasen and Siboniso Gaxa have started more than 80 percent of their respective clubs' games this season in Israel and Belgium.

Again, neither league is rated among the elite and suggest that perhaps moving directly from the PSL to one of Europe's top leagues remains a bridge too far. Recent evidence in the cases of Bongani Khumalo and Thulani Serero seem to back this theory up given that both were outstanding performers in the domestic league before their high-profile switches to Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax Amsterdam respectively.

Khumalo spent his first two months in England training with superstars like Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale at the Spurs training ground before going on loan to struggling Preston North End. Injury curtailed a promising spell after the former SuperSport United captain looked like he had been finding his feet in the Championship and big things were expected of him when he joined Reading at the start of this season.

Yet he has failed to appear since the end of August, while Serero has seen his opportunities limited to cameos off the bench since moving to Holland in July. Injuries have not helped either player settle in but  there's no doubt the transition has been very tough for both.

Before Khumalo's move, Kagisho Dikgacoi proved just how hard it can be to make the leap as he spent two frustrating seasons with Fulham before moving to Crystal Palace. The midfielder now appears much more at home in south London but would be the first to admit the difficulties he has faced settling in.

Perhaps the examples of Mahlangu, Ngcongca and Lokeren's Ayanda Patosi - who all bypassed the PSL and headed straight for Europe as teenagers - gives players the best opportunity to succeed where so many have failed?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Eto'o stands alone for Africa

The release of the shortlist for the 2011 Fifa Ballon D'Or this week made for interesting reading if you're a follower of African football. Out of 22 nominees, Samuel Eto'o is the only player from the continent to be in contention for the sport's biggest individual award - an indication of what a poor year it has been for some of Africa's traditional superstars.

Of course, with Lionel Messi around, Eto'o stands little chance of following in the footsteps of George Weah back in 1995 and actually winning the coveted title. That was the first year non-Europeans were eligible and the former AC Milan striker from Liberia remains the only African player to have even finished in the top three of voting.

Nonetheless, the continent has provided a consistently high number of nominees over the past decade, with the likes Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Yaya Toure all having been regularly included. This year's total is actually the lowest since Eto'o was again Africa's only representative back in 2003 and the Cameroonian has been an ever-present since then.
The same had been true of Drogba since 2004, but the Ivorian's frustrations at Stamford Bridge that culminated with the reckless red card against QPR last week hint that age is finally catching up with him. A series of injuries have also denied Ghana's Michael Essien - a four-time nominee but not since 2009 - his place on the list, while other previous nominees like Kolo Toure and Freddie Kanoute have dropped out of the limelight.

Only Yaya Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor may feel hard done by to have been omitted from this year's selection given their performances this year, with the latter playing a major role in Manchester City's FA Cup triumph. Otherwise there's not been much to get excited about, although the performances of some of Africa's emerging generation of stars promise much for the future.

Players like Demba Ba of Newcastle United, Lille striker Moussa Sow and Freiburg's Papiss Dembe Cisse look the most likely candidates to make the ascent to superstardom in the next few years. A second hat-trick of the season took Senegal marksman Ba to 10 goals in his last 11 Premier League appearances - and fourth spot in the top scorers' list.

Compatriot Sow hasn't enjoyed such a prolific season in Ligue 1 but the pair will form a lethal partnership for their country at January's African Nations Cup finals, while Congo's Cisse is destined for bigger and better things with his current club struggling in the Bundesliga. Andre Ayew, Gervinho and Kevin Prince-Boateng may also have a chance of making the list one day but after the heady days of 2006 and 2007 that saw five Africans among the Ballon D'Or nominees, there certainly seems to have been a decline in their prominence.

And with 2010 nominee Asamoah Gyan having followed Eto'o's example by taking the money on offer away from the game's traditional powerbases, it may be some time until Africa is truly represented at football's highest table.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Fans stand up to Premier Greed

On Saturday at 3pm, fans of the Football League's 72 clubs will make a stand against plans to radically transform the academy system in England. After the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was ratified by a vote held last week, leaflets asking supporters to boycott the first five minutes of this weekend's matches were handed out across the country in an attempt to show their widespread opposition.

Entitled 'Hands off our Academies' and using the slogan 'Premier Greed', the protest will seek to highlight how the new laws could eventually threaten the very existence of clubs outside the top-flight. But while the issue briefly flirted with the back pages last week, the furore over John Terry's alleged racism and the latest developments surrounding Carlos Tevez mean this issue has already been forgotten by the national press.

And although it may be of little concern to fans of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, for those who depend on selling homegrown players every season or two just to balance the books, there is every reason to feel aggrieved.

The new rules have been devised by the FA Premier League's head of youth Ged Roddy and, unsurprisingly, there is no doubting which clubs stand to benefit. A four-tier system based purely on existing financial resources means that only the richest will be selected as Category One academies and they will be allowed to pick the cream of the country's crop to come and stay in new imitations of Barcelona's famous La Masia academy.

But it's the plans for a new compensation system that will mean a significant reduction in the fees Football League clubs can command for their young players that have caused most uproar. This means Chelsea will be able to pluck a promising youth player from a lower league club at the age of 14 and be faced with a bill of no more than £50,000 (especially relevant given they have reportedly just offered nearly £2 million for England schoolboy Oluwaseyi Ojo from MK Dons)

That is particularly bad news for clubs like Crystal Palace, who currently have 11 homegrown players in their first-team squad of 33. Of those, four are now regulars under manager Dougie Freedman but it remains to be seen whether the likes of Wilfried Zaha and Jonny Williams would have emerged under the new system.

Certainly, the most outstanding youth players will be taken away from their homes and given five-star treatment at the new academies. But with the competition for places in even the most mediocre Premier League teams hotter than ever these days, the majority will never get the chance to play at the highest level and will inevitably end up dropping down (or even out of) the pyramid.

Surely that compares badly with the progress of Williams and Zaha, who are now growing up fast courtesy of playing regularly in the Championship? Palace has been the springboard for numerous current Premier League players including Victor Moses, Ben Watson and Wayne Routledge - each of whom played more than 100 games for the club that nurtured them.

They all left with considerable experience of first-team football but this may become a thing of the past for the next generation of emerging talent.

On the same day that the EPPP vote was passed, I was at a press conference to announce a new link-up between Palace and a local school designed to increase the amount of time they can devote to coaching their most promising young players.

The irony was certainly not lost on assistant manager Lennie Lawrence and academy boss Gary Issott, although they insisted the new laws would not affect their reputation for producing stars of the future. But if the Premier League get their way, the next Wilfried Zaha will be snapped up before Palace fans have even had a chance to see him play.


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Buffoon-a Buffoon-a finally accept their fate

Just over 10 days after the debacle at the Mbombela Stadium, the South Africa Football Association (Safa) has finally done the decent thing. The withdrawal of their appeal against CAF's criteria for judging who finished top of the group in qualifying for next year's African Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea brings to an end a saga that must go down as one of the most embarrassing in world football history.

The threat to appeal against what effectively amounted to a blatant misreading of the rulebook turned Bafana Bafana into a laughing stock. The sight of Siphiwe Tshabalala and co dancing around the pitch after the fateful 0-0 draw with Sierra Leone as Safa President Kirsten Nematandani went on TV to congratulate them was bad enough.

But kicking up a fuss afterwards just made things worse. The letter sent by Safa's top brass at CAF really had to be seen to believed, particularly the jumbled phrase at the end that read: "This is the first time that three teams end equal on points and the two interpretations (ie Safa's inability to realise what the word 'between' meant) lead to a different ranking and hence it is the first time the rule is identified as unfair because in this instance, the team that performed the best got eliminated."

Eh? Try reading that sentence again and making sense of it. I certainly couldn't. So it's no wonder they decided to drop the appeal if the best excuse anyone could come up with was that "the team who performed the best got eliminated". CAF's officials must have had a good old chuckle to themselves when that letter dropped on the mat at their headquarters in Cairo.

Joking aside, however, this is no laughing matter for South African football. A second successive absence from the African Nations Cup is unexcusable for a country with all the resources there are available and the nation's top players now face a gap of nine months before their next competitive match in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

A two-month domestic break scheduled to coincide with January's Afcon in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea will now potentially be filled with a hastily arranged mini-tournament, although don't hold your breath. But at least now Safa can go some way to remedying their mistake by allowing Shakes Mashaba's under 23 side to use PSL players to help book a place at next year's London Olympics.

As in any walk of life, though, there has to be someone to pay for this astronomic blunder. Safa President Kirsten Nematandani has promised that heads will roll but it remains to be seen exactly who will get the chop.

Coach Pitso Mosimane has been absolved of all blame so far but surely it is the coach's duty to know exactly all the permutations? You can't exactly imagine Sir Alex Ferguson telling his side to play for a draw at Old Trafford on the last day of the season, even if the league title was already in the bag.

But there's no doubt Mosimane has helped Bafana to progress since taking over last year and to sack him would probably do no one any favours. Instead, perhaps Safa should look a little closer to home and try to make sure this never happens again (incredibly there was a similar case in 2007).

The first place to start would be to put Danny Jordaan back in charge. He managed to bring the World Cup to Africa for the first time so reading a few rules shouldn't be too much of a challenge. 


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Pitso Mosimane faces day of destiny

"In the unlikely event that we don't qualify, then it will be a blessing in disguise for us as hosts of the next tournament in 2013 because it gives us time to focus all our energy towards that tournament that is just a year away," is a quote - you may not be surprised to hear - from the South African Football Association's vice-president Mandla ‘Shoes' Mazibuko.

Now forgive me if I have missed something here but surely the prospect of Bafana Bafana not making it to a second successive continental showpiece would be an unmitigated disaster for what is by far Africa's richest football body? Failure to qualify for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in January would mean that South Africa will be kicking their heels until the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign begins in June next year.

And that's what makes Saturday's meeting with Sierra Leone in Port Elizabeth so crucial, especially if your name is Pitso Mosimane. The Bafana coach enjoyed a great - if uninspiring - start to his tenure but the disastrous defeat to Niger in Niamey means it is all out of his hands now.

Whether Egypt's under 23 side are good enough to do them a favour remains to be seen, although Niger's away record is about as convincing as Arsene Wenger's excuses after the north London derby at the weekend. Safa's head henchos will certainly have their fingers crossed that things go their way but don't be surprised if you hear more statements like the one above if it doesn't.

That was the official party-line when Joel Santana's squad crashed out of the race for Angola 2010 and it didn't convince anyone then either. Carlos Alberto Parreira eventually salvaged some face for the national team at the 2010 World Cup and things looked to be progressing nicely under Mosimane until his last match in charge.

Shorn of captain Steven Pienaar and a number of key personnel who were either out of form or favour at their clubs, a first competitive defeat for 'Jingles' would now prove to be terminal if Niger come away with all three points. A draw and a South African win would be enough, however, so Mosimane will be hoping there will no need for more excuses come Saturday night. 

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Samuel Eto'o deal will take wages in football to the next level

The world’s economy may be on the verge of slipping into another recession but the prospect of a ‘double-dip’ doesn’t seem to be concerning some of football’s leading clubs.

Statistics released by accountants Deloitte show that four of Europe’s top five leagues showed a marked increase in spending over the summer transfer window compared to last year, with the exception being the German Bundesliga.  In total, around £485 million was shelled out in transfer fees by English Premier League  clubs - a figure that falls just short of the record £500 million set in 2008.

But while the global economic downturn has ensured that, for the moment, the record stays intact, the dramatic rise in salaries in the last three years has put football's superstars among the highest-earning athletes in the world.    

Having swapped Inter Milan for Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian outpost of Dagestan back in August, Samuel Eto’o has already banked four weekly payments of around £350,000 as part of a record-breaking three-year contract that is among the most lucrative in the history of any sports star.

The Cameroonian stands to bank approximately £18 million per season thanks to the riches of Suleyman Kerimov - Anzhi’s billionaire owner and coincidentally governor of Dagestan. That puts him way ahead of Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts – the highest wage-earner in the NFL with around £15 million per annum– and only just behind Alex Rodriguez from the New York Yankees (£20 million) and Ferrari’s F1 driver Fernando Alonso (£22 million).

But while Eto’o’s nearest competitors Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi still trail in way down the list (£12 and £11 million per annum respectively), with so many international investors taking an interest in the beautiful game, you can bet that gap narrow pretty quickly.  

Last year, the inaugural Annual Review of Global Sports Salaries showed that just three football clubs featured in the top 10 top-paying sports teams on the planet (Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea). That survey was based on earnings in the 2008/9 season, since when it’s estimated average earnings in the EPL have increased by as much as 50 percent.

Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi cash has certainly helped raise the bar, to the extent that a team like Arsenal simply cannot compete anymore. Samir Nasri’s departure underlines the point as his pay-packet of approximately £175,000 a week means there are now at least 12 players on City’s books who take home a minimum of £5 million per season.

Add the likes of newly-rich Paris St Germain and Malaga into the mix, and we could see a major shift when the next list is released in 2012. Interestingly, the rest of the top 10 in 2010 was filled entirely with teams from the NBA, although it remains to be seen whether the American sports can hold off football’s inexorable charge.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Why Asamoah Gyan's move to UAE is the sign of things to come

It seems there's never been a better time to be a footballer from Africa. With Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o having become the highest-paid sports star on the planet following his switch to mysterious Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala last month, Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan made history when he joined UAE side Al Ain at the weekend on a season-long loan.

A fee of around 6 million pounds - almost half the figure Sunderland paid French club Rennes to buy him outright after last summer's World Cup - makes this the most expensive loan deal ever agreed in British football as Gyan saw his wages multiplied more than fivefold overnight.
But while the circumstances behind his departure are still causing arguments at his parent club, Al Ain and the rest of the Etisalat Pro-League are celebrating a coup that could signal the start of some major changes in football's power base.

Everyone already knows the extent of investment from the Middle East there has been in European clubs (as discussed here by English-language newspaper Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/sport/football/how-gulf-money-is-changing-european-football-1.856510 ) but with the 2022 World Cup on the horizon, the focus is switching towards improving the domestic leagues in the region. And that means you can expect to see plenty more players at the height of their careers turn their backs on the tradition in favour of cash.

With a month until the new season properly begins, a list of transfer deals that have gone through so far makes interesting reading. Besides Gyan, ex-France striker David Trezeguet, 33, has signed for one season by big-spending Baniyas for a reported 1.7 million pounds after turning down approaches from Celtic among others. He joins a raft of other international stars at the club in the form Brazilian Grafite, Chilean Luis Jimenez and Australian Lucas Neill - who West Ham fans will know doesn't come cheap.

"The deal for Trezeguet is not just for Baniyas alone - it is also for UAE football," vice-chairman Saif Khaili told the team's official website on the day the siging was announced.

Bankrolled by one of Abu Dhabi's biggest property investors, Baniyas finished runners up last season and will enter the Asian Champions League this season. They are one of a number of teams who have invested heavily in their playing and coaching staff in the last 12 months and the trend looks set to continue.

Over in Dubai, a certain Diego Armando Maradona is preparing to make his bow as the coach of Al Wasl in the pre-season Emirates Cup on Saturday. An annual salary of 3.5 million euros a year, plus the use of a personal private jet (once again financed by a wealthy benefactor - H.H Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is the owner of Emirates Airlines) certainly helped persuade the ex-Argentina boss to make the plunge, even if Maradona himself has insisted otherwise.

"We did not come here just to sunbathe," he told reporters earlier this month. However, like their new boss, Al Wasl enjoyed their glory days back in the mid 1980s when they were regular title-winners and it looks like being a long debut season for El Diego.

But the team to beat will certainly be Al Ain. Already historically the country's most successful team  having become the only UAE side to have won the continental title in 2003, Gyan will join a foreign contingent that now includes Romanian Mirel Radoi and Ignacio Scocco from Argentina, plus young Ivorian striker Juma Desireh.

And having just appointed a new coach in the form of ex-Steau Bucharest boss Cosmin Olaroiu, the Romanian will know that a repeat of last season's 10th-placed finish will not be tolerated.

"We are bringing in young players who are motivated to win and all the players we have signed have won competitions in the past," he told reporters this week.
"That is why we brought Gyan in because of what he has achieved in the past for his country.’

Following in the footsteps of his legendary compatriot Abedi Pele, the 25-year-old joins a long list of African players to have moved to the Middle East. But while Pele joined Al Ain at the age of 34 and played two seasons in the swansong of his career, Gyan's arrival signifies that the UAE is no longer a retirement home for the stars of yesteryear.

Throughout the latest transfer window, there were several approaches for other high-profile African stars being linked with clubs in the Etisalat Pro-League - including Bafana Bafana's Aaron Mokoena and Siphiwe Tshabalala. Neither ended up going but with Gyan's move in the bag, you can bet there will be more to follow pretty soon.

Qatar's successful 2022 World Cup bid appears to have been the major catalyst for so much sudden investment but that's only part of the story. As part of a general ambition to turn the region into a major business and tourist hub over the next 20 years, sport is just one recreational activity playing a leading role.

Dubai has already revealed plans to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, while the ambitious Abu Dhabi 2030 project will oversee a number of infrastrcture developments 'to ensure that the emirate is a modern, thriving place to live and work in the future, as its population grows to 3 million'. Among those will be purpose-built Saadiyat Island - a $38bn development that will house a number of enormous museums, with The Louvre and Guggenheim already having committed themselves to creating offshoots.

It's hoped that will bring in around 1.5 million visitors a year to Abu Dhabi by 2015, by which time the Etisalat Pro-League could be the home of some of world football's biggest stars. Times, indeed, are a-changing.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Testing times for 'Sicknote' Schillo

When Steven Pienaar signed for Tottenham Hotspur back in January, the name Darren Anderton was not one Spurs fans expected to be reminded of.

But with yet another injury to his troublesome groin having apparently ruled the Bafana Bafana international out of the season opener against his old club Everton on Saturday, the 28-year-old is fast taking on the 'Sicknote' moniker that was reserved for the ex-England winger during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Despite spending a large proportion of his 12 years at White Hart Lane on the physio's treatment table, Anderton carved out a solid career in north London and is widely regarded as a loyal servant to the club (even if he is still waiting on a promised testimonial). If Pienaar is to be held in the same regard then he had better hope his injury troubles become a thing of the past.

Just five starts in the Premier League so far have yet to convince most Spurs fans that he was worth all the fuss following the switch from Everton in the last transfer window. With Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon occupying the wide positions and several other options in the centre of midfield, it remains unclear exactly how Harry Redknapp sees the new South African captain fitting into his plans.

His absence will give fringe players like Niko Kranjcar and Danny Rose the opportunity to establish themselves higher up the pecking order, although the potential sale of Luka Modric to Chelsea could hand him a much-needed lifeline. 

Pienaar's withdrawal from the Bafana squad that will meet Burkina Faso in Johannesburg on Wednesday night is also the second successive  international that he has been forced to miss. That's not great when you are trying to prepare for two crucial African Nations Cup matches that will determine the fate of Pitso Mosimane's men.

Siphiwe Tshabalala has taken over the armband in his absence and has also now amassed more caps than his more illustrious compatriot but doubts remain whether either is the right man for the job long-term. Spurs team-mate Bongani Khumalo - who made his debut on loan to Championship side Reading on Saturday - is most peoples' favourite and with Pienaar's 30th birthday coming up in March, he may find himself quietly moved to one side if the injury problems persist.  

But give the number of times his groin seems to have been afflicted in recent months, the prognosis doesn't look good. The problem first appears to have surfaced back in October 2010 when he was forced to miss a month of Everton's campaign and it also caused him to have two seperate lay-offs after moving to London, ruling him out of the Champions League quarter-final aganst Real Madrid.

Rumours that he was suffering from a hernia appeared to have dissipated as Pienaar prepared for the new season, although this latest setback makes the decision for him not to have surgery back in June now look extremely ill-judged.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Too old at 26? Killer blow for Mphela

Nearly six years after he played his last match for a European club, Katlego Mphela’s 45 minutes for a Celtic second-string against Wolves last Wednesday was as good as it got.
Despite a superb record over the past two years that has seen the 26-year-old move into third spot in Bafana Bafana’s all-time top scorers’ list, Celtic manager Neil Lennon decided not to pursue his interest in signing the player known as ‘Killer’. We will never know if a superb save from Wolves keeper Wayne Hennessey from his first-half header made the difference in the final reckoning, although it must be said Mphela has already proven he can score goals at any level.
Nonetheless, Celtic’s unwillingnes to sign him without first seeing him the flesh spoke volumes about the major problem facing most of Pitso Mosimane’s first-choice Bafana Bafana team who are still based in South Africa. While 21-year-old Knowledge Musona could virtually take his pick of clubs before settling on Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, the likes of Siphiwe Tshabalala (26), Morgan Gould (28) and now Mphela’s age and lack of experience of playing in Europe have ultimately counted against them. 
Celtic have already signed Kenyan 20-year-old Victor Wanyama this close season, even though his national side are ranked almost 100 places below South Africa. But while Mphela struggled to adapt during his spell as a teenager at Racing Strasbourg in France, Wanyama made excellent progress with Germinal Beerschot and eventually turned down a move to the English Premier League with Aston Villa.
But it would be a real shame if a reputation carved from a couple of youthful seasons in Ligue Un mean Mphela never gets another chance to prove himself in Europe. His improvement in the last two years has finally allowed Bafana to move on from the Benni McCarthy era and the goal against Egypt back in March showed his class in front of goal.
Unfortunately, the rejection at Celtic will make him a less attractive option for many clubs on the market – especially with Sundowns unwilling to accept anything less than the asking price of around R15 million (£1.4 million).
 Always refreshingly honest and good for a quote, I managed to speak to Killer on Sunday and he was trying his best to be optimistic about his chances of still going overseas.
However, you could sense the frustration that a player who has scored goals against the best teams in the world for his country flew thousands of miles for a trial and only had 45 minutes to prove he was good enough to make the grade. A hefty salary like the one he commands at Sundowns certainly helps, but money is no substitute for rejection.        

Friday, 29 July 2011

Will Benni Buc up his ideas?

A mention of the word hunger in reference to Benni McCarthy usually has the headline writers rolling out all the old cliches about South Africa's most famous footballer.

'Fat Benni throws fit' was my particular favourite last May as he refused to attend a scheduled press conference at the pre-World Cup training camp after hearing a member of the coaching staff had criticised the veteran striker's weight on Brazilian TV.

But with the man who won the Champions League under Jose Mourinho at FC Porto in 2003 looking destined to return home, Benni is big news again. And this time, he claims to be hungry for silverware rather than sandwiches.

Having spent the past week training where it all began for him nearly 14 years ago, McCarthy appeared to rule out a move to Ajax Cape Town in preference for one of the Soweto giants an exclusive interview with Kickoff editor Richard Maguire. http://www.kickoff.com/news/23235/orlando-pirates-want-to-sign-benni-mccarthy.php

"I'm still ambitious to win more trophies," he said.

"Orlando Pirates are talking about winning the African Champions League – I could become the first player to win the Champions League in Europe and in Africa. That will be a special record."

And with Ajax having relinquished Thulani Serero to Europe, treble-winning Pirates would certainly offer him a  better chance of more medals, while Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns have also registered an interest. The question is whether the 33-year-old Benni would get in any of their teams having barely played a match for the last year?

Despite winning an unprecedented treble last season, Dutch legend Ruud Krol was relieved of his duties as the Buccaneers' coach by owner Irvin Khoza and replaced by Brazilian Julio Leal. That would give McCarthy an opportunity to stake a claim for a starting spot under the new boss, although you can just imagine the pressure quickly mounting if the reigning champions get off to a slow start.

Future Bafana striker Bongani Ndulula - who recently beat Siyabonga Nomvete's goalscoring record for the national under 23 side - has already welcomed his prospective signing and there is no doubt that McCarthy still possesses the ability to be a hit in the PSL. But with so many speedy young players emerging in South Africa's top flight, would Benni still have the turn of pace to show off his unparalleled finishing ability? 

Goal-scoring is certainly a department where the league has struggled in recent seasons and in the man who has scored 33 times at international level, whoever signs him will have a master of the art at their disposal.

Whatever happens, you suspect the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

'Smash and grab' Musona to blaze a trail in the Bundesliga

 It's almost three weeks since I wrote on this blog about Knowledge Musona's trip to discuss a transfer to Germans TFG Hoffenheim. And, after much delay and the accompanying inevitable speculation, the 21-year-old's move will be confirmed by Kaizer Chiefs at a press conference on Thursday.

Hoffenheim's sporting director Ernst Tanner was reported to have arrived in Johannesburg on Wednesday to close the deal for around £1.3 million, making Musona the first Zimbabwean to play in Germany since the wonderfully-named Newton Ben Katanha turned out for second division Armina Bielefeld in 2004. 

But whereas his dreadlocked compatriot is now plying his trade in the second tier of the Swiss League, don't expect the man his home press refer to as ' Smash and Grab' to fade into obscurity.
When the deal is finally announced, Musona will be joining a competitive and ambitious Hoffenheim squad that finished 11th in last season's Bundesliga. Less than 20 years ago, the club from a tiny village in the south-western corner of the country languished in the eighth tier of  German football but steady progression and an injection of enthusiasm and funds from software millionaire Dietmar Hopp saw them turn professional in 2007.

Immediate promotion was followed by a stunning start to life in the top flight as they won the 'Herbstmeister' title awarded to the team who are top at Christmas. Injury to Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic eventually saw them drop down to seventh but the club has since maintained its status as a rising force in German football with two successive 11th-placed finishes.

With Celtic and several English clubs also known to have expressed an interest, Musona could certainly have made more money elsewhere (Neil Lennon offered almost £1 million more a few weeks ago). However, it is Hoffenheim's track record at bringing through African players that has persuaded the young striker to take the plunge.

Demba Ba, Chinedu Obasi and Boubacar Sanogo - who incidentally pulled out of a trial alongside Katlego Mphela at Celtic this week with toothache - all played an integral part in the imaginatively-nicknamed 'Hoffe's' historic debut season in the Bundesliga, with the former having enjoyed a decent start to his career in England despite relegation with West Ham. Musona should therefore get plenty of opportunity to show what he can do.
A spectacular start would certainly be welcomed by national team coach Norman Mapeza. Warriors' fans will be licking their lips to see if he can continue to build on his excellent partnership with powerful Mamelodi Sundowns striker Nyasha Mushekwi (match-fixing allegations pending, of course) but with the team still in with a chance of qualifying for next year's African Nations Cup, it could be a first finals appearance since 2006.
Newton Ben Katanha may struggle to get an invite this time though.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Sven's loss could be Tsepo and Macca's gain

You could forgive Tsepo Masilela for being more than slightly annoyed right now. The Bafana Bafana left back was in Sweden a couple of weeks ago as he looked to put the finishing touches to his season-long loan to Leicester City, when along comes Liverpool misfit Paul Konchesky.

Despite having worked on a deal with Masilela and his club Maccabi Haifa nearly two months, Leicester boss Sven Goran Eriksson decided to pull the plug at the last minute and sign the one-time England international  instead. Sound unfair? Just a little bit - but then Sven has never really been known for his loyal streak.

While manager of England, the Swede was famously courted by Roman Abramovich to take over at Chelsea and was even fooled into accepting an apparently lucrative deal to join Aston Villa presented by the infamous 'Fake Sheikh' in a sting for the now defunct News of the World. And then there were all the women.

So it should really have come as no surprise to Masilela and his representatives that the slippery Sven ducked out of a deal at the last minute. After all, with the likes of Lazio and Notts County behind him, Eriksson is busy building yet another over-priced squad that will be under enormous pressure to achieve promotion at the first time of asking and has no time to think about niceties such as keeping your word.

All of which leaves Masilela in a very difficult situation. Having seen the move to Leicester fall through, he has been training with PSL club Moroka Swallows in a bid to retain his fitness.

Meanwhile, his club Maccabi Haifa will face a crucial third round qualifying match against Slovenian champions Maribor on Wednesday as they bid to win a place in the Champions League group stages. But with the Israeli champions having already agreed to allow the full back to depart and having finalised their squad, Masilela finds himself out in the wilderness with only weeks left to resolve his future.

Salvation could come in the form of another ex-England manager. New Nottingham Forest boss Steve McClaren served as Eriksson's assistant before infamously bungling his attempt to fill the top post as his team failed to qualify for Euro 2008.

Winning the Dutch title with FC Twente went some way to rebuilding his shattered reputation (Dutch impressions aside http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWptErAWrmQ&feature=related), even if the spell with in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg didn't end so well. Nonetheless, Forest have decided to give chance to return to his home country and it seems there is a good chance Masilela could join him after speaking to his agent Mike Makaab this week. http://www.kickoff.com/news/23184/tsepo-masilela-linked-to-english-championship-side-nottingham-forest.php

And with Forest having finished a full eight points clear of Leicester in the Championship last season, who is to say McClaren will not have the last laugh over his former boss?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Serero set for superstardom

It's nearly 13 years since a youngster called Benni McCarthy blazed a trail for South African players in Europe as he fired nine goals for new club Ajax Amsterdam on their way to Dutch league and cup double.

Several Bafana Bafana players - most notably Aaron Mokoena and Steven Pienaar - have been and gone since that 1998 season, but the arrival of the sensational Thulani Serero to the Amsterdam Arena could easily overshadow his compatriots.

The 21-year-old made his first appearance for the four-time champions of Europe on Wednesday and marked his debut with a goal in a 3-0 victory over Danish side Brondby. Having monitored Serero for some time as he learned his trade at Ajax's sister club in Cape Town, you would have thought manager Frank de Boer would have known exactly what he was paying around 2 million euros for back in May but even he admitted to being taken aback at the quality of his new signing.

“Everyone told me how good he was, but even then he surprised me,” De Boer said yesterday.

“Serero is a player with talent dripping off him. He is incredibly quick and a very clever player.”

 High praise indeed, although South African fans will tell you Serero's skill is no secret. He swept the board at the end of season awards just before the deal to Holland was confirmed, relegating treble-winning Orlando Pirates midfielder Andile Jali ( the other top-class talent to have emerged from South Africa in the last five years) to second place.

But while Jali has already become a first-choice for Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane, his good friend Thulani has been used sparingly so far at national team level. That will surely change if, as predicted by de Boer and many others, the boy from Soweto takes the Eredivise by storm.

Quiet and unassuming, Serero lets his feet do the talking on the pitch and has added the ability to score goals to his brilliant passing and dribbling ability. Yet he is by no means the finished product and could certainly have scored plenty more than the 10 goals he managed last season as Ajax Cape Town blew their chances of a first league title on the final day of the season.

A year under the tutelage of Dennis Bergkamp - currently assistant to de Boer - should definitely help, as will his spell staying with a local family provided by the club. That should ensure Serero can do enough to force his way into a team that reclaimed the title for the first time since 2004 last term and will have designs on a place in the Champions League knockout stages.

So as McCarthy trains where it all began for him back in The Mother City, Dutch football should get ready for Mzansi's latest magician. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

As good as Gould

Being rejected is one of the worst feelings in the world. But it's a measure of the man that Morgan Gould decided to take my call earlier on today when the news that he hadn't quite made the grade at Selhurst Park was confirmed.

I've been speaking to the Bafana Bafana defender via his compatriot Kagisho Dikgacoi's phone since he arrived on trial at Crystal Palace last week and he must have groaned when the phone rang on his way to the airport. Most people would probably have just ignored it and got their head down before the long fight back to South Africa but Morgan answered, gave me a couple of quotes for Kickoff's website and tried to sound as upbeat as possible.

He was obviously disappointed having pinned his hopes on a move to Europe but it seems the price-tag of around  £500,000 was just too much of a stretch for Palace. Manager Dougie Freedman had to pretty much beg chiarman Steve Parish to release the funds to purchase KG from Fulham earlier his month and quotes from the Croydon Advertiser's website confirmed that he felt it was just too much for a player who has never played for a club outside his native country.

Pre-season matches against Basingstoke Town and Wycombe Wanderers were probably not enough to really test him, although Freedman knows he must live or die by decisions like this one. Gould nonetheless has taken the blow on the chin and is still hopeful that he may find a new club before the start of the new season, with plenty in South Africa certainly keen.

Europe remains the ideal destination though and even though he has undoubted pedigree as an established international, his age and the transfer fee in these depressed times make things difficult. Agent Glyn Binkin has often spoken about interest from Russia in the past so maybe there is some hope for him.

For Palace, the quest for a new centre back goes on. Rumours that Antony Gardner could be on his way would certainly explain Freedman's reluctance to offer Gould a deal, while French defender Francois Marque could be a much cheaper option with Champions League experience.

But, sadly, the prospect of two Bafana players turning out every week for the Eagles will have to wait.
Unless Freedman fancies a punt on fish and chip empresario Siphiwe Tshabalala, that is? Palace could certainly do with a bit of extra bite in midfield.

You can see my interview with Morgan Gould for Kickoff at http://www.kickoff.com/news/23106/crystal-palace-reject-morgan-gould-move.php

Dan Jones' Croydon Advertiser article is here: http://www.thisiscroydontoday.co.uk/Freedman-decides-Gould-isn-t-right-man-Eagles/story-12974196-detail/story.html

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

RIP Johannes 'Mzion' Mofokeng

The passing of Johannes 'Mzion' Mofokeng this week has shocked everyone in South African football. I first met the Orlando Pirates official 'Number 1' supporter a few months before the 2010 World Cup and interviewed him several times for the book I have written on the tournament.
Here is an exclusive extract in tribute to a real football fan.

Born to a local pastor in the 1950s, Johannes Mafokeng’s family been forced to move from Meyerton - a small town to the south of Johannesburg - to a newly-built township 20 kilometres up the road called Sebokeng in 1966 after the National Party introduced its Group Areas Act.
At an early age, Mzion was forced to choose between his two major passions in life– football and the church. The former won hands down, even if his nickname provided a constant reminder of his religious background.
By the time Nelson Mandela had been elected as South Africa’s first black President in 1994, Mzion was a celebrity in the world of local soccer. He became known as the face of ‘The Bucs’ and travelled with the team to Cote D’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan to see them win the CAF Club Championship in 1995, as well as throwing his weight behind the fledgling Bafana Bafana team.
On my visit to meet Mzion a month after Holland and Spain had met in the World Cup Final at Soccer City, it didn’t take long to find his house. Everyone in his part of the township knew where he lived and a massive Orlando Pirates badge painted on a stone outside his driveway gave the game away when we eventually reached his road.
The flags of the tournament’s 32 competing nations still fluttered in the wind on a warm day in early spring as Mzion arranged to show me his astonishing collection of memorabilia. The padlock to the shed where everything is kept was stubbornly refusing to open but his son Nale – aptly wearing a Spiderman costume – was enlisted to climb through the window.
A stream of colourful makarapas and vuvuzelas were handed through to his father, including one effort that featured the faces of Sepp Blatter, Danny Jordaan, Irvin Khoza, Molefi Oliphant and Kaizer Motaung.
“It’s a tribute to all the people who made it possible for the World Cup to come to this country,” Mzion told me with pride.
As we sat down to start the interview, Nale and his older sister Thuli appeared and they had changed into their Bafana Bafana shirts to match their father. The same passion clearly runs in the family.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Killer ready to become a big Bhoy

About time too. Two years after he announced himself to the world with a stunning 30 yard free kick that arrowed into the top corner past future World Cup winning captain Iker Casillas, Katlego Mphela finally looks to be on his way back to Europe after confirmation he will attend a trial at Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic next week.

Agent Glyn Binkin revealed the news to a fellow Kickoff reporter on Monday morning after a weekend that saw his current club Mamelodi Sundowns turn down a bid of around £1.3 million from Israeli champions Maccabi Haifa. Ukranian giants Dynamo Kiev have also shown an interest in signing a player who spent two seasons in France's Ligue Un as a teenager before returning home to rebuild his career in spectacular style, although it seems Neil Lennon's Bhoys are now in pole position.

And should the now 26-year-old who boasts an excellent record of 19 goals in 38 international appearances (second only to a certain Benni McCarthy in Bafana Bafana's all-time list) seal a switch to the SPL, it would finally end one of the most drawn-out transfer sagas in South African football history.

For those that don't know, Mphela became so disillusioned at Sundowns' unwillingness to allow him to test himself once more overseas that he went on strike back in January. For three weeks.

But before any Celtic fans say 'thanks, but no thanks', they should take time to consider the circumstances. Having added another goal from close range in Bafana's thrilling Confederations Cup third-place playoff against Spain in 2009 and begun the new domestic season on fire, his club were inundated with offers from Europe - including a firm £1.5 million from then Premier League side Birmingham City.

Bankrolled by the mining magnate Patrice Motsepe since 2004, Sundowns are known as South Africa's version of Chelsea or Manchester City and have a reputation for not selling players. In fact, the transfer of Bafana full back Siboniso Gaxa to Belgians FC Lierse after the 2010 World Cup (he also went on strike to force through the move) was actually the first time since 2005 that they had allowed anyone to leave the club for a fee.

So when Mphela saw Birmingham, then Russians Terek Grozny and finally Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade all have a series of bids turned down in the course of the next 18 months, he simply panicked. After three weeks of stalemate, national team coach Pitso Mosimane stepped in and arranged for the disillusioned striker to meet with Motsepe to discuss his future, with the club president eventually agreeing to allow his star striker to leave if he stayed until the end of the season.

Mphela returned to the Sundowns team and promptly scored five goals in his first three appearances back, before notching a crucial injury-time strike to lead Bafana to African Nations Cup qualifying victory over reigning champions Egypt. Not a bad advertisement really.

Blessed with searing pace and a lethal eye for goal, it seemed like only a matter if time before Killer would get the chance to put his nightmare spell in France behind him and now, finally, his chance seems to have arrived. Celtic should have no problems meeting the new asking price of around £1.5 million and if all goes to plan, Lennon could have picked up one of the best bargains of the transfer window.