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.