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.