Qatar scandal implications, Rooney's status and Spain's squad
By now, you've probably heard of the claims made by the Sunday Times, the British newspaper that reported it had obtained access to an enormous cache of emails detailing conversations about payments between Mohamed bin Hammam -- the Qatari former FIFA executive committee member who challenged Sepp Blatter for the organisation's presidency in 2011 -- and a host officials at various African football associations.
The allegation is that these folks basically treated bin Hammam as some kind of personal cash machine, asking him for money to fund various pet projects. Often it was somehow football-related -- like building more pitches -- and other times it was straight-up cash, no questions asked. Since few things in life are free, the alleged implication is that bin Hammam basically paid these guys for their support.
This isn't exactly a wild accusation, given that bin Hammam received a lifetime ban from FIFA in 2012 for ethics violations related to alleged financial inducements paid to representatives of Caribbean FAs.
The issue is whether bin Hammam somehow acted in concert with the Qatari 2022 World Cup bid committee to help the Gulf nation land the event. The Qataris distanced themselves from him. emphasizing that the bid had nothing to do with his run to challenge Blatter.
Strictly speaking, it's true that he had no official role. But circumstantially, it doesn't look great. He is the former chairman of the Qatari FA and, for nine years, through August 2011 when his ban became effective, he was the president of the Asian Football Confederation. Qatar isn't that big a place. Native Qataris number around 300,000. Is it plausible that a guy who worked in football administration for more than 20 years in Qatar might have nothing to do with the World Cup bid?
You be the judge.
It's true that the African FA officials who benefitted from his generosity did not get a vote in the 2022 bid process. Only FIFA ExCo members get that privilege. But it's equally true that these African FAs vote for the guys who represent them on the Executive Committee.
So what next?
There are a few points to make here.
First, these allegations have been around for a while. In fact, Blatter appointed Michael Garcia, a former U.S. Attorney, to investigate possible irregularities in the bidding process way back in July 2012.
His report is expected to be delivered later this year, and given that the Sunday Times has made its documents available to him, his conclusions probably won't be too surprising. Indeed, they could form the basis for Blatter deciding to reopen the voting for 2022 (or 2018, or both).
I wrote in September and suggested that, for Blatter -- who was in favor of the U.S. bid, rather than Qatar's, all along -- it could be an easy way to curry support ahead of his re-election bid. (And, no, it's not a coincidence that the guy many believed could best challenge him, UEFA President Michel Platini, backed Qatar ... what better way to score points should the Frenchman decide to run?)
Second, it's not as if the Sunday Times found these documents and emails while rooting through bin Hammam's rubbish. Somebody leaked them. And unless people at dozens of African FAs decided to leak stuff individually at the same time (rather unlikely, no?) the leak comes from the Qatari end, or perhaps someone with access to his emails at the Asian Football Confederation, bin Hammam's last gig. It could be a principled whistle-blower whose conscience gnaws at him. It could be a disgruntled employee. It could be some kind of attempt to pre-empt Garcia. Nobody knows, but the point is somebody wanted this information to come out.
Finally, in case you hadn't noticed, World Cup bidding -- heck, campaigning in general -- has always been based on horse-trading. Candidates make promises to voters and there are ethical lines that can get crossed. In the real world, paying somebody to vote for you is not kosher. Promising to build a factory that will bring jobs to a certain district is OK.
Football politics is not that different. FAs make choices based on what will benefit them as an organization. But when they make those choices based on what benefits them personally -- rather than what they represent -- well, we've got a problem.
My prediction is the same as it was in September: Blatter will find a way to have a revote on 2022. Maybe he'll do so for his own reasons rather than good of the game. Either way, it will be the right thing to do.
Drop the undroppable?
Wayne Rooney is not untouchable in Roy Hodgson's eyes. That seems to be one of the few things the English media agree on right now.
You can see why. Given the form of Daniel Sturridge, there's no argument about the Liverpool striker being in the starting XI. Both he and Rooney could play wide, except neither particularly wants to. (For what it's worth I thought Rooney worked well out wide when Sir Alex Ferguson tried him there years ago, but I'm clearly in the minority here.)
What this means is that if you're going to play Sturridge and Rooney together, you either go with a 4-4-2 or the 4-2-3-1 we saw Friday against Peru. (3-5-2 or 4-3-1-2 are possibilities only on paper: England lack the personnel and besides, given the pace of the wingers, you want to make sure you have two on the pitch at all times.)
Either way, you're banking on Sturridge developing the kind of understanding with Rooney that he has with Luis Suarez at Liverpool. The two of them have played a total of just 416 minutes together, or four and a half games. In normal circumstances, you'd expect Sturridge to adapt to Rooney (seniority, star power and all that), but now it's no longer so clear-cut.
Throw in the fact that the Manchester United striker has had an up-and-down season, that he's only just returning from injury and that Hodgson might be best served with the kind of 4-3-3 that allows him to unleash pace on the wings and you wonder whether there might not be a tricky decision ahead.
Could Spain regret a lack of variety?
Fernando Torres and David Villa made the cut for Spain's squad, while Fernando Llorente did not, which is a bit surprising given the fact that we were led to believe two things about Vicente del Bosque this time around.
The first was that he would take one big striker, just to have a different option off the bench. And, with Alvaro Negredo struggling in the second half of the season, Llorente seemed to be his guy, given that he had taken him to both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 (though he didn't appear in the latter). He notched 18 goals in all competitions for Juventus this season, which means he got his mojo back after the nightmare of 2012-13.
Instead, del Bosque opted for Diego Costa (hamstring permitting), Pedro, Villa and Torres. The latter three were all there in South Africa and would have all been there at Euro 2012 if Villa hadn't been injured. Pedro is not an option as a central striker, and neither Villa nor Torres had a great 2013-14 campaign. You wonder if, to some degree, del Bosque's heart ruled his mind here. (Either that or, if something happens to Diego Costa, he'll go back to the strikerless system.)
The other strong suggestion was that del Bosque would change roughly a third of the squad from Euro 2012 as a way of keeping things fresh and players motivated. Instead, 18 of the 23 are the same as in Poland and Ukraine (and it would be 20 of 23 if Victor Valdes weren't injured and if Villa hadn't been injured in 2012).
Spain, of course, are as deep as any national team in the world, and you felt the likes of Alberto Moreno, Isco, Inigo Martinez and Daniel Carvajal might be given a shot. Instead, the manager has gone for the tried and tested. Experience matters, I guess, but you wonder whether a genuine target man might not have come in handy in certain situations.
Villa to the Big Apple
Speaking of Villa, it has been confirmed that he'll be playing for New York City FC in Major League Soccer, while Frank Lampard, who was released by Chelsea (though a one-year deal is still reportedly on the table), could apparently be joining him when the club starts operations in March 2015.
It's tough to assess how the pair's skills may translate to MLS or what this means for the new franchise, given the league's salary restrictions and the fact that we don't know how they'll fill out the rest of the roster. In terms of publicity, though, it's a coup. And certainly both Lampard, if he goes, and Villa are intelligent veterans, the kind who could strengthen any dressing room.
You do wonder, though, what they'll do until then. It's a long time without competitive football and, at their age, you'd think they'd want to squeeze every moment out of what's left of their careers. Maybe a loan back to a European club for the first six months of next season?
Giuseppe Rossi's late cut from the Italy team was a heartbreaker, given how hard he had worked to be fit following his return from ACL surgery this past season. Cesare Prandelli, the Italy coach, had said all along that he was an automatic choice if he could be sure of his fitness.
Apparently, he wasn't (Rossi has since had his say).
When it comes to fitness, you have to defer to the specialists. We can only judge from afar, but five competitive games (193 minutes, two goals, for Fiorentina and Italy) suggest that even if he wasn't 100 percent, he was certainly on his way and that, with 12 days to go until the Azzurri's opener against England in Manaus, he would have continued to get stronger.
On Monday, the message from the Coverciano training camp was all about how the inclusion of Lorenzo Insigne at the expense of Rossi gives Italy greater tactical flexibility, because he offers the option of playing wide in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. That may be so but it's still tough to conceive how Rossi would not have been worth waiting around for.
On Sunday a comedian (I won't mention his name because clearly he's a publicity-seeker) showed up at Luton airport -- dressed in the same tailored suit-and-tie combo the players were wearing -- and tried to board England's plane to Miami. Security stepped in and he was carted off.
It's not the first time he's done this: last year he was arrested after running onto the pitch at Goodison Park and trying to warm up with visiting Manchester City players.
It's not just that this sort of thing is tired and unfunny. It's potentially dangerous too.
What if a security guy gets spooked and uses far more force than might otherwise be necessary? What if there's an accident?
I thought back to the 2010 World Cup final, when a guy calling himself "Jimmy Jump" -- a serial offender when it comes to this sort of stuff -- ran on to the pitch before the game and tried to put a stupid floppy hat on the World Cup.
All good clean fun ... until you realize that South African President Jacob Zuma was standing right there, next to Sepp Blatter. And that his security guys have guns with live ammunition. So too did many of the cops on duty that day.
My concern is what happens if those guys -- whether they're cops or private security -- use firearms in a packed 94,700-seat stadium like Soccer City. And that's what they need to do when they see a guy sprinting towards their nation's president. In a split decision they need to determine whether he's a fool or a suicide bomber strapped with explosives.
Do we trust them to make the right decision every time? I don't. And they shouldn't be put in that position.
Harsh as it sounds, these idiots need to be locked up. They're not exercising their free speech, they're not making any point apart from personal grandstanding, and they're putting the safety of others at risk.