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The Falsity of the ‘True’ Fan

There are many things about modern football that are infuriating: inflated ticket prices, jobsworth stewarding, diving, greed and a distinct lack of loyalty from players who live in their own bubble, refusing to acknowledge those who idolise them.

What grates the most, though, is the abhorrent idea of there being such a thing as a ‘true’ fan.

The ‘true’ fan, they would have you believe, is somebody who gives their club unwavering support no matter what. However, such idiocy lacks fundamental logic. Clearly, everything cannot be rosy within the garden of your club all of the time. There are problems which cannot be brushed under the carpet without so much as a passing glance or a flicker of worry.

Put simply, the ‘true’ fan either has their head stuck in the clouds or buried in the sand, leaving the manager and players immune from criticism and anyone who dares to say a bad word about either might as well not bother supporting the club. You could try and get them started on people who boo the team but they can’t hear you from their place atop the moral high ground.

The most vital quality of the ‘true’ fan is, undoubtedly, attendance at matches. Going to the game is, more often than not, dictated by circumstance – for some, is a necessity; for others, it is a luxury. Times are hard and, given the aforementioned hike in ticket prices, football will have had to take a back seat for some people.

By the same token, are those who are exiled in places like Korea, Australia and America for family or work any less of a fan than those who live a stone’s throw away from the ground because they don’t manage to get to the game? Of course not, and to suggest that this is the case is utter lunacy. It still happens, mind.

The internet has also given a new platform for the ‘true’ fan to lord themselves over the rest of us, the plastics. Thanks to Twitter, the ‘true’ fans can tell the players that they’re going to games. It is of the utmost important not to forget that a trip to an away game is not valid unless you’ve told every member of the playing squad on Twitter that you were there: “RT for me and the boys travelling down to Bournemouth? #banter #yolo #truefan” is something you see every week, repeated ad nauseam. This nonsense must stop but it shows no sign of abating.

Merchandising, too, has become compulsory for the ‘true’ fans. Thus, their conspicuous consumption is something which clubs invariably take advantage of, bringing out a new kit each year is guaranteed to reel in a few thousand people. It’s akin to a feeding frenzy: give them something fresh and the ‘true’ fans will be snapping it up faster than you can blink. Alarm clock? Got it. Garden gnome? Got one. Car mats? You betcha. The list is close to incessant and the ‘true’ fans have got it all, because the more merchandise you own, the bigger a fan you are, right?

You can make a case for Sky having to take a great deal of responsibility for the birth of the ‘true’ fan. After all, it is they who paint the picture of an adult sat in their seat wearing their replica shirt, hat, scarf and coat whilst eating a half-cooked pie and drinking warm Coke. Perhaps this is the case in their utopian world but the reality couldn’t be further away from the grotesque monster that they depict.

In essence, going to more shit games than the person sat next to you doesn’t make you a better fan. Having the club badge or motto tattooed onto you doesn’t make you a better fan. Owning more official club merchandise doesn’t make you a better fan. No supporter is better than another and no amount of attempted one-upmanship will be dissuasive otherwise.

Ultimately, all of the griping is futile, for an idiot will forever be just that: an idiot. The ‘true’ fans will always deem themselves to be superfans and we, those less fortunate, are left to wallow in our own self-pity for not making that journey to Yeovil to see a 2-0 defeat without registering a shot on target.

Maybe, belatedly, we will one day realise that the best solution is to not support a team at all…

Belgium’s new ‘golden generation’ can aim for the stars

The term “golden generation” is a dangerous label to give to a team – just ask England. Being a part of a golden generation is akin to having the metaphorical albatross slung around your neck; the pressure it brings can be crippling, paralysing one with fear; the expectation too much to handle.

Belgium have already had a golden generation; the class of 1986, who came 4th at the World Cup in Mexico, are considered to be the stick by which the current crop is to be measured.

The national team last qualified for a major tournament in 2002 and were unfortunate to be knocked out of the World Cup by the eventual champions, Brazil, in the last sixteen having seen a legitimate goal ruled out for a non-existent foul by the man who captained the side then and manages it now, Marc Wilmots. A decade on, he is looking to lead them back onto the biggest stage in international football.

After years of build-up, hype and expectation, this campaign is expected to be the campaign for Belgium to finally show the world that they mean business. That Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen has said that nothing less than maximum points from their two opening games – Wales away, which they won 2-0, and Croatia at home – is good enough shows the standards to which the Red Devils must now reach.

The quality that runs through the current Belgium squad is frightening and belies their FIFA ranking of 41st in the world, behind the likes of Libya, Mali and Algeria. A 4-2 victory over the Netherlands in a recent friendly suggests that the potential within the squad is finally being released into ability but the real tests lie ahead in the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup.

They certainly have the personnel to help get them there.

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, has a burgeoning reputation having kept 23 clean sheets for Atlético Madrid last season, helping them to win the Europa League in the process. His impressive development could soon see him challenging Petr Cech for the first-team spot at his parent club, Chelsea, and add to his three caps.

Stopping the opposition from getting to Courtois are two outstanding centre-halves in Vincent Kompany, the captain, and Thomas Vermaelen. Whilst Vermaelen is prone to venturing forward and leaving space in behind, Kompany will, more often than not, be their to clear up the mess. The pair seem to be a perfect match: Kompany is the more cautious of the two, an assured, rolls-royce type whilst Vermaelen is more of a roamer but equally comfortable on the ball.

It is the form of those two which means that Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Lombaerts, two quality centre-backs in their own right, are forced to play out of position. Vertonghen will hope that joining Tottenham can help him to force his way into the centre of defence, should he out-perform either of his colleagues in the Premier League.

If choosing a back four was difficult for Wilmots then the competition for places really hots up in midfield, which is arguably where the bulk of the Belgian talent lies.

The former axis of the Standard Liege midfield, Steven Defour, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini has been split up for a while at club level; all three have moved on to bigger and better things. Witsel, particularly, after his eye-watering €40m move to Zenit St Petersburg from Benfica. The volatile midfielder is perhaps best-known for his infamous horror tackle on Marcin Wasilewski, for which he received an eight-match ban but he seems to have settled into a domineering midfield role.

Meanwhile Defour, who was once courted by Manchester United, moved to Porto and has become a regular in the heart of the midfield. He performed admirably in the recent friendly with the Netherlands, succeeding in keeping Wesley Sneijder quiet for the evening.

It all gives Wilmots a huge headache with regards to selection, particularly with Fellaini being in imperious form for Everton at the start of the season with goals against Manchester United and Aston Villa in two commanding performances from the towering midfielder. In addition, Mousa Dembélé’s decision to solely be deployed as a central midfielder rather than as a forward has seen his game improve tenfold and earned him a move to Tottenham.

The real star of the team is Chelsea newcomer Eden Hazard. A player who impressed Zinedine Zidane so much that the Real Madrid icon said he would take the playmaker to the Bernabéu with his eyes closed, the 21-year old is seen as the current poster-boy of Belgian football. He has continued the form that saw him win the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award for two seasons in a row and made an immediate impact on the Premier League with a goal and six assists to his name after just three games. If he plays well, so do Belgium.

Another player who could be starring for one of Europe’s elite in the future is the fleet-footed PSV Eindhoven winger, Dries Mertens. His name has been mentioned with regards to Inter Milan and Bayern Munich in recent months and with good reason: 24 goals last season helped to cement a place in the national side and he notched his first international goal and set up two others in the friendly win over the Netherlands.

All of these flair players provide ammunition for the likes of Everton’s recent acquisition Kevin Mirallas, top scorer in last year’s Greek league with 20 goals and Christan Benteke of Aston Villa, one of the top scorers in the 2011/12 Belgian season.

The main hope, as he has been for the last four years, is still Romelu Lukaku. The powerful frontman, who has been likened to Didier Drogba, top-scored in his debut season in the Belgian league after an incredible few years in the Anderlecht youth team, where he scored 131 goals in just 93 games.

A move to Chelsea starved him of first-team football and, thus, hampered his development but the early signs of a loan to West Bromwich Albion indicate that an excellent player might yet be made of the man who is expected to spearhead the Belgian attack for the foreseeable future.

Some Belgians think that the happenings of 2002 still haunt the national side despite there being only two players left from that tournament – Daniel van Buyten and Timmy Simons. The current crop have an excellent chance to exorcise such ghosts and perhaps even eclipse the accomplishments of the Wilmots-skippered side.

Greece showed in 2004 that you do not necessarily have to be the best side to win an international tournament and, should the likes of Kompany, Mertens and Hazard collectively bring their club form to the international stage, there is no reason why Belgium cannot dream of not just making it to Brazil in 2014 but having a real impact upon that tournament and beyond.

The Public vs. The Press

Roy Hodgson seems to have developed an unenviable habit of picking up prestigious jobs in rather unfortunate circumstances.

Appointed as the manager of Liverpool in the summer of 2010 following Rafael Benitez’s departure amongst the clamour of the fans for club legend Kenny Dalglish to take charge, Hodgson was always going to find it tough to be a success and win the fans over at Anfield. Ultimately, he was given 191 disastrous days and then his P45 after a poor half of a season.

Now, he finds himself as manager of the England national team with the backdrop of Harry Redknapp being seen as the popular choice for the job. This, however, is not the reality of the situation, no matter how much the national press attempt to dress it up as being so.

The last few days have seen Hodgson belittled by the majority of newspapers in the country. Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail claimed that the media don’t “hound” managers, nor are they “out to get them”. Ironically, this came a day after Samuel published an article for his newspaper calling Hodgson “Mr Average” and questioning whether or not he was up to the job before he had even been officially appointed.

The Guardian ran an online page dedicated to YouTube videos of Hodgson during his career which included infamous scenes like his violent face-rubbing at Newcastle whilst in charge of Liverpool and his head-banging antics against Everton earlier this season at the Hawthorns. There is also a video on there of him showing his frustration during a Blackburn game when he was the manager at Ewood Park. You know, the same thing that most managers do every week.

Similarly, other newspapers have taken to bastardising Hodgson and glorifying Redknapp in a grossly unfair manner. The Sun has even gone as far as mocking his rhotacism, which can be classed as a disability, on their front page with the headline “Bwing on the Euwos! (We’ll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance)”. One would suspect that they had a similar front page lined up to mock Redknapp’s twitch had been given the manager’s role by The FA.

Then again, perhaps not.

It would seem that all of this vitriol is an apparent backlash towards Hodgson’s appointment; the media had considered it to be a formality that Redknapp, known for being friendly with journalists, would be given the job. With the former Fulham manager being given the role, they are now left with egg on their collective faces and are left trying to wipe it off by undermining a man who has not been in his new job for more than a few days.

The press are determined to stick by their mantra of Redknapp being “the people’s choice” when the majority of the feedback to the articles written about Hodgson would suggest the opposite: Redknapp was, in fact, the media’s choice. The Tottenham manager has offered his congratulations to the new England manager, holding no grudges about missing out on a job that he was never offered.

Contrary to what the newspapers say, most people appear to be quietly pleased by the appointment and hope that he is given a fair chance. If anything, the lambasting given to Hodgson by the press has galvanised the support for him. Whilst he may not want the sympathy, it is difficult not to feel sorry for a man who is being portrayed as an abject failure before he has taken charge of one game.

Described by the media as “a shock choice”, translated as “not the man we wanted”, Hodgson’s credentials suggest that he is capable of getting the best out of a group of players that can be seen as mediocre. In terms of international football, England sits a long way behind the likes of Germany, Spain, Holland, France, Portugal and Italy in their own continent. If you take into account the rest of the world, it could be argued that the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are also in better stead than the England team. This makes them mediocre; this makes them a working progress which Hodgson can oversee with a great deal of success -even if it is not tangible.

Hodgson has been accredited with transforming Swiss football during his tenure from 1992-1995, giving a strategy for the development of youth players in the country. They are beginning to reap the rewards with players like Stephan Lichtsteiner, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri making their mark for the national team. If he is not successful in the short-term, he may at least be able to lay foundations for potential success in the future.

It has been said by Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph that the cerebral Hodgson is a “broadsheet man in a tabloid world” and one of his first tasks as England manager is to “win over the media”. Perhaps if they weren’t so collectively dismissive of him, he’d stand a chance.

Does value exist in the transfer market?

Following the departure of Damien Comolli from Liverpool earlier this afternoon, it has been suggested that the loss of his job is directly linked to the performances of Liverpool’s signings since the Frenchman arrived at Anfield. He has taken the bullet for the mistakes of Kenny Dalglish.

With an outlay of well over £100m, 8th in the Premier League does not represent a sufficient return on Liverpool’s investment, regardless of their progression in cup competitions. Liverpool has spent extravagantly on players like Andy Carroll, Luis Suárez, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing without getting much back from any of them.

Carroll has become a figure of parody; Suárez seems to be more trouble than he’s worth following the Patrice Evra racism row; Henderson has struggled to make any sort of impact and Downing has only two goals and one assist to his name all season.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed that there was no value in the transfer market. But the real question is does value in the transfer market even exist? If it does, what defines it?

Every transfer is a gamble, regardless of the quality of the player. There are examples of players not fitting in at one club for one reason or another but it may work out for them back at where they started – Steven Pienaar’s return to Everton exemplifies this – and there are examples of players losing all form and confidence following a transfer (see Fernando Torres of Chelsea).

With the introduction of Financial Fair Play (FFP), clubs who wish to compete in European competitions have to be more careful as to how they spend their money. Expensive transfers have to be well thought-out and as risk-free as is possible (unless you’re Roberto Mancini and decide that spending £27m on the Bosnian Andy Carroll is a good idea).

The price paid for a player, however, does not necessarily mirror their quality. Newcastle United is the perfect demonstration of this. The stars of the season: Yohan Cabaye (£4.3m), Cheick Tiote (£3.5m), Demba Ba (Free), Hatem Ben Arfa (£5m) are all cut-price and have been superb in this campaign. Even the £10m paid for Papiss Cissé looks to be shrewd investment.

Had any of the above players flopped in a Newcastle United shirt, they could have easily been written-off and replaced. However, with Liverpool, the money it has spent almost gives it an obligation to try and nurture what it has bought so that it can see some sort of return before giving up and sending the lot to Coventry. After all, it’s a lot easier to write off a Toyota Prius than a Bugatti Veyron.

Carroll, who cost £35m, is stuck with that price-tag whilst at Liverpool and, you presume, for the rest of his career. It is something he did not choose yet he has to live with it. The decision was made to value Carroll at £35m during negotiations between Newcastle and Liverpool. In short: the transfer fee is simply the outcome of negotiations, not a reflection of quality.

Every manager, though, looks for the ‘bargain buys’. In a world where more and more clubs appear to be falling into administration, how a club spends its money has become increasingly vital, particularly for smaller clubs. Those funded by billionaires, such as Manchester City, can continue throwing money into a gaping hole hoping that the problem will eventually disappear.

It is rumoured that FC Basel’s midfielder Granit Xhaka, a Swiss international, is on the market at a mere £6m. A steal? Perhaps. For such a talented player it would be worth the risk of paying that fee. Clubs in the upper echelons of the Premier League would do well to bring the 19 year-old to these shores and let him prosper.

However, for every Xhaka at £6m, there will always be a Henderson at £16m. That’s just the way the transfer market has been, is and always will be.