By Mario Melchiot

Crisis in the Greek Game

The same weekend that West Ham made the headlines for fan trouble at the London Stadium, there were much crazier scenes unfolding in the Greek Superleague.

PAOK were playing league leaders AEK with the score tied at 0-0. PAOK defender Fernando Varela put the ball in the back of the net, but the referee seemed to rule the goal offside. When the confusion spread to the touchline PAOK president Ivan Savvidis stormed onto the pitch, with a handgun in his holster and surrounded by bodyguards, to confront the referee.

It was a shocking moment that led to AEK players leaving the field and the match being quickly abandoned.

The Greek government then decided to suspend the league while FIFA warned that Greek clubs would be banned from international competitions unless authorities took action.

It was the final straw in a long list of corruption and violence in Greek football. Olympiakos and Nottingham forest owner Evangelos Marinakis is being investigated for alleged drug trafficking, and he was at the centre of a match-fixing scandal that has just seen his name cleared, but has lead to 58 jail sentences. Olympiakos has even asked for foreign referees to be flown in for key matches due to the distrust of match officials.

In 2016 the Greek Cup was also canceled after crowd chaos, which saw fans storm the pitch hurling flares before riot police ushered them off the pitch.

Attendances average just 4,300 in Greece’s top tier and many fans say it is because of the tolerance for corruption and the predictability of the league (Olympiakos have won the title 19 times in the last 21 seasons).

The fans are very passionate and it’s never been easy for any team from outside Greece to go and win there.

That’s why it’s a sad story for Greek football after their amazing success at Euro 2004 against the odds. The whole country fell in love with football that summer.

“The target at the start was to win a game,” said Tsiartas, a midfielder who was used as a sub throughout the finals. “Just one game. It was something none of the national teams had been able to do at a major finals. That would have counted as a success: winning just once.”

They accomplished that feat in their opening game with a 2-1 win over hosts Portugal, before drawing with Spain, and progressing as runners-up. Next they faced France in the quarterfinals, a team which included Zidane and Henry in their primes. Greece won that 1-0 and progressed to the semis. That’s when they started to believe anything was possible.

Another 1-0 win against Czech Republic saw them reach the final, where they would face Portugal again. They had already beaten them once, and everyone knows what happened next.

“We did not have a Zidane, or Simao, or Cristiano Ronaldo. We only had hard work, sacrifice, determination and that family spirit.” said Takis Fyssas, who played in defence.

The league ban has now been lifted after all 16 clubs agreed to a list of government demands, including point deductions and potential relegation for violence. Hopefully it is the first step towards making Greek football the beautiful game it should be, so that it can be properly enjoyed by fans like it was in 2004.


Manager Merry-Go-Round

The Premier League Merry-Go-Round has never been so apparent. Southampton sacked Mauricio Pellegrino after just one win in 17 league games saw them sit just one point adrift from safety. With eight games to go, it was important to find the right man to keep them up.

Enter Mark Hughes, the man who had just been sacked by Stoke City after winning just five of his opening 22 games of the season and exiting the FA Cup with defeat to League Two’s Coventry City. Stoke City sacked Hughes because they had been sucked into a relegation battle, and looked to be heading in only one direction. Not an inspiring choice of manager for Southampton, who are in a similar position to the one Hughes had left Stoke in.

Mark Hughes has done great things at Blackburn and Stoke (up until this season) but that is partly the point here. Southampton don’t expect Mark Hughes to take them to new heights and European glory as a long-term manager. They just want survival, but it’s not as if Hughes is a survival specialist. He was also sacked by QPR before Christmas in 2012 when they inevitably went down, and Stoke have never been involved in any serious relegation fights under the Welshman.

He could be the man to keep Southampton up, but there’s a broader point to make: English football’s managerial merry-go-round is in full swing. It seems like managers such as Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Alan Pardew, David Moyes and Tony Pulis are hired by struggling Premier League clubs, sacked when results don’t go their way, and then hired again by other struggling teams in a never-ending cycle.

I can’t imagine they love to be at a team that is at the bottom of the table because they already showed all of us they are good at turning the corner and bringing teams up to mid-table (or higher) status. The best football I have seen their teams play is also when they are mid-table or above.

When a club near the bottom of the table hires one of these guys its a sign that they’re just hoping for survival.

Some people argue that too many foreign managers come to the Premier League and don’t give home-grown leaders the chance. But the reality is that some of the British guys who have been in the business for decades are monopolizing all of the opportunity.

Craig Shakespeare was given his chance at Leicester and turned things around for the Foxes to keep them up, but was then abruptly sacked after a poor start to the following season, and now he’s in a coaching role at Everton under Big Sam.

Young managers are like young players. If you want to build something successful for a long period you need to take a calculated risk. Find out what makes them a great candidate because now I see a lot of managers getting turned down because they aren’t well-connected with the right person at the club. Football is based on results, but it’s also about growing the club to bigger success and status than it has already.

Today the game is largely about money so boards don’t like taking unnecessary risks. But sometimes playing it safe is the biggest risk of all.


‘Sold a Dream Given a Nightmare’

I can understand the reaction of West Ham fans. There were some quite shocking scenes at the London Stadium on Saturday, and much of it was unnecessary and unjust.

The fan who placed the corner flag in the centre of the pitch was not just performing a random act anger, but a nod to 1992. In February that year a fan walked on the pitch and placed a corner flag in the centre spot before sitting with his legs crossed. Players tried to persuade the fan to leave, but hoards more fans came and sat down in protest of the club’s board, who had proposed to make fans buy a bond before they could buy a season ticket.

The protest was successful and the bond scheme was quickly scrapped – and the fans will fee just as hard done by today.

They have been waiting for so long to bring some glory back to that club. The move to the London Stadium was supposed to be a step in the right direction, showing ambition that the Hammers were chasing European football. Instead though, the move has been full of problems. Fans have complained that they are sat too far away from the action, the open nature means there is no atmosphere in the ground, and many say they feel like the club has lost its identity. You even see fans write ‘RIP West Ham’ on Twitter.

Besides the issues with the new stadium, West Ham are in 16th place, just three points clear of the relegation zone, which is a million miles from the European football they were promised.

I’ve worked under the same board when I was at Birmingham City and their objectives were clear even if they didn’t always succeed. They are business minded people who focus on bringing their club to the next stage, just like every business person who owns a club.

But you have to remember that you won’t get as much time as you need in the world of football now. I do feel their strategy isn’t always the best in terms of who they select to lead their teams. It’s always the same – fighting for relegation should stop being a regular thing, maybe just an occasional circumstance due to a miscalculation. When it happens consistently you need to question your advisor and their philosophy.

The fans have had their fair share of bad times and don’t want to go down again. The fans were promised Champions League football in exchange for the move away from the Boleyn Ground. ‘Sold a dream given a nightmare’ read a banner at the stadium on Saturday.

Some fans see how much the players earn and think they don’t care about the club, but trust me I am a million percent sure they hate being in this situation. I’ve been there myself.

I don’t condone fans getting on the pitch and going after the owners with such aggression, and the club will get sanctions which doesn’t help anyone and should not be part of football.

They have enough experience as football club owners to weather the storm, and they should get through it. They need to be strong and shift focus to working with the right people that have the best interest in getting the most out of the West Ham project.

They need to fix the issues fast or the fan behaviour will only escalate.


Farewell Davide

“O captain, my captain. Why did you not come down to have breakfast with us all? Why did you not pick up your shoes from outside of Marco’s room and then drink your orange juice, as usual?

Now they’ll tell us that life goes on, that we must look forward and pick ourselves up, but what will your absence feel like? Who will arrive every morning in the cafeteria, warming up everyone with his smile? Who will ask us about what we did the previous night and have a laugh about it? Who will nurture the youngsters and give a sense of responsibility to the veterans? Who will form the circle to work on our ‘two-touch play’ and who will demolish Marco on the PlayStation?

With whom will we debate about Masterchef, Florence’s restaurants, TV series or games played? Who will I lean on at lunch after a tiring training session? Come on, come back. You still need to finish watching LaLaLand to analyse like you did with all new movies.

In life there are people you’ve known forever but have never bonded with, and then there are the ‘Davides’, who warm to you immediately with a simple ‘welcome to Florence, Ricky’. Wherever you are now, keep on defending our goal and enlighten the right path for us from the backline.

Oh captain, my captain. Forever, my captain.”

That was the moving message posted by Davide Astori’s teammate Riccardo Saponara following the sudden and tragic passing of the Italian international. The messages have poured out for Davide since the news shocked the world of football. Antonio Conte and Gianluigi Buffon described him as a “fantastic guy” and “a perfect person”, and it’s clear that he touched so many lives in such a positive way.

It is devastating that such a young man has left behind his wife and daughter, and the entire football family has been sent into a state of mourning.

Astori started his career at AC Milan’s youth team before representing Cagliari and Roma in Serie A. He was loaned to Fiorentina before signing on a permanent basis and becoming captain in 2016. He also made 14 caps for the Azzurri, scoring in the 2013 Confederations Cup third-place playoff to help them beat Uruguay.

The whole world says the same thing in these situations, but I can relate to Saponara’s message because I have experienced something similar that will be with me forever.

RIP Davide. #mmlove

Will Grigg Scorches Pep’s Quadruple Dream

“Congratulations to Wigan for qualification, they had one shot on target.”

They were the salty words of Pep Guardiola following his side’s FA Cup tie with Wigan last night.

You can understand his frustration. There has been talk of quadruple hopes at the Etihad this season with Man City shaping up to be one of the strongest teams English football has ever seen. The talent on display and the way the team has gelled under Pep’s philosophy has been extraordinary at times, and they’re certainly not used to losing.

They had only lost two games this season going into the game. Liverpool crushed their unbeaten Premier League season hopes and Shakhtar Donetsk defeated them in the Champions League group stage. In those competitions, even in the Champions League knockout stages, you can afford to lose a game though. In the FA Cup you have no room for error.

Wigan had beaten City the two previous times they had met in the FA Cup. The final in 2013 and the quarter-final the following season both ended in Wigan victory, so everyone at the club knew it was possible. But City had scored 9 goals in their previous two games and are 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League, so it was always a long shot for the Latics.

There was some controversy at the end of the first half that saw Fabien Delph receive a red card for a strong challenge. Guardiola wanted more protection for his players because of the possession football his side plays, so he can’t complain when one of his players goes in as hard as that. I don’t like it when players swarm the ref asking for a card, but these days a challenge like that is a red.

That was a game-changing moment, but City came out and delivered constant pressure in the second half, still retaining 80% of possession. Wigan were impenetrable defensively, and the big moment came with around 10 minutes to go, when Will Grigg found himself through on goal after a mistake from Kyle Walker.

Grigg only had 19 touches throughout the 90 minutes, but one of them he won’t forget for a while. After taking the ball away from Kyle Walker, Grigg looked to have lost his balance before side-footing the ball and falling to the ground. The DW stadium held its breath, and then as the ball rippled the back of the net, the stadium erupted.

Wigan managed to hold on to their 1-0 lead until the final whistle.

City’s quadruple dream was over, but the FA Cup dream lives on for Wigan.

They have beaten three Premier League teams now in the FA Cup this season, and their next opponents Southampton know they won’t be in for an easy ride.


Swimming to Safety

Swansea City have looked destined for relegation for most of this season, with some fans already writing them off before Christmas when Paul Clement was sacked after winning just three games.

Then in stepped Carlos Carvalhal. The Portuguese manager has taken charge of 17 clubs since 1999, in an interesting career that reflects the man himself.

“If you do not play to win, then you can’t win and you can’t draw. All the time, even when I was with very small teams and we played the very strong teams, we always thought we could win and I prepared my teams to go and win,” he says. That’s why I love his approach, because you should always try to go down as a brave man rather than one that turned up without having a real go to win the game. And that’s exactly the approach Swansea have taken under his guidance.

The Swans have taken 14 points from seven games since Carvalhal took over, including wins against Liverpool and Arsenal, rising from rock-bottom up to 15th in the table.

A new face always seems to help Premier League clubs as they breathe new life into their squads. “He is a gentleman and he is witty. Sometimes he tells us the stories and makes us laugh, they are very funny… When we have a laugh, we laugh, but when we work, we have to concentrate. I want to keep this happy atmosphere and we will stay up,” says Ki Sung-yueng. Aside from his tactics and positive football philosophy, Carvalhal’s character has been a big hit in Wales.

He’s been spotted riding his bike around Swansea by fans, and treated the press to his homemade tarts last week. But it’s his colourful analogies that make his press conferences some of the most entertaining.

He’s compared subbing Tammy Abraham and Andre Ayew on to ‘putting all the meat on the barbeque’, said he would be looking for sea bass and lobster but might have to settle for sardines in the transfer market, and compared Liverpool to a Formula 1 car stuck in London traffic. But his latest remark after the 1-0 win over Burnley sums up the current situation at Swansea:

“When I arrived we were deep in the ocean, where it is very dark and just stones, no fishes. We couldn’t see anything. After we started winning, after the big games against Arsenal and Liverpool, we had only just got our noses out of the water to breathe. Last week was the first time we smelled the fresh air. In this moment we are maybe starting to swim a little. We can now look to the coast, we know the direction to swim to achieve what we want.”

You rarely see a Premier League team that throws in the towel, and I’m am sure if they keep their momentum going and the focus doesn’t dip they will definitely be the team that came from rock-bottom and survived the battle of staying up.


Reuniting with Old Friends

Last month I had one of those weeks where you sit and reminisce about your career. It occured to me that I hadn’t seen or spoken to Clarence Seedorf for a long time, so one of my Fox Sport colleagues gave me his number and I decided to give him a call.

He answered the call and said “who is this?”

I just said what’s up (in Dutch) and he immediately started laughing so loud. It was one of the funniest things, because without either of us saying anything more, neither of us could stop laughing for about a minute until he was like “yes” and I was like “yes finally.”

“10 years it’s been since I heard my bro Mario’s voice,” he said.

The last time we had seen each other was when we both played for the Dutch national team, and he was playing in front of me against Luxembourg.

We spoke quickly on the phone and he told me he was coming to LA in a couple of weeks.

Last week we met at the Fox studio for a quick interview. We both agreed that whatever happens, we have to meet up again. Not long after he text me in the evening asking where I was and I said I’m heading out with some friends and he was let me know where and I meet you there. It was one of those dinners where we were lucky that we had a nice group, so everyone was deep in conversation with each other and we could talk about the good old times.

One story came up, about the time we both got picked by Ajax on the same day when I was 9 and he was 10. I remember back then I was skinny and he already had a six-pack, so we would all ask if we could punch him in the stomach. He was shy at first because nobody knew each other, but we just kept asking until he had no choice but to stand there and take it. (I am sure you know who was trying to punch the hardest.)

We laughed some more about the crazy thing we both had with our football boots. We talked about how we struggled to keep playing with the old boots that were so broken we had to tape them up, and later one of us found glue to stick them together, because it wasn’t cheap for our parents to keep buying us new boots.

I think he was one of the earlier players to wear boots with a colorful strip on them. Back then we killed him for wearing them, but today it has changed and nearly all boots are colourful (and the players don’t have to worry about glue because they get them for free before they become pro).

Later we started talking about how he wanted to be a coach, and he said he was waiting for a call from the Spanish team Deportivo, but we had to keep quiet about it. And yesterday I woke up and texted him after seeing the great news. My bro did it!

I wish you the best and I’ll see you soon, because it certainly won’t be another 10 years before we speak again.


Taking Premier League Scalps

I had the pleasure of watching my first live Wigan game of this season, this weekend. It’s been a fantastic season for the Tics so far, and now that we get closer to the business end of each competition it’s great to see that confidence is sky high.

Wigan are now 15 games without defeat, sitting at the top of League One and through to the 5th round of the FA Cup having lost only five games all season in all competitions. And on top of that the boys have conceded just 13 goals in 27 league games (less than 0.5 per game).

This weekend’s game against West Ham shows you just how focused the club is on moving forward and getting back to the Premier League. I was really impressed with how they still stick to the way of playing that I experienced during my days at the club. They kept their cool knowing they are facing a Premier League, which on paper should have been much better.

I know people will say West Ham were down to 10-men (that incident was very disrespectful by Masuaku and thoroughly deserved a red) and that did make it easier for Wigan, but they had already done the hard work of going 1-0 up. They got pushed back sometimes but never really looked like they were in real trouble. West Ham didn’t even manage a shot on target as Christian Walton earned his 10th clean sheet in 14 games.

Will Grigg was the star of the show, grabbing both goals, but Nick Powell was also excellent and the whole team put in performances to be proud of.

“We don’t mind who we get next. Obviously, it would be nice to get one of the big boys but we’ll play anyone,” said Grigg in his post-match interview. And as it turns out the Tics do have one of the big boys as they welcome Pep Guardiola’s Man City in the 5th round.

It will be the third time the two sides have met in five years, after beating City in the final in 2013 to lift the FA Cup trophy and then beating them again the following year in the quarter-final. Wigan have the opportunity to make it a hat-trick in February. This Man City side is one of the best to ever play in the Premier League, but Wigan have to look at it like any other game and not be daunted by their task.

Grigg said they don’t mind who they face, and they will need to take that fearlessness with them into the game. They’ve already knocked out two Premier League teams, and beaten Man City twice in their last two meetings – it just comes down to 90 minutes of football.

Paul Cook’s philosophy as manager has had a big impact on how they set up and take the game to their opponents, whoever they are. “As a fan, I don’t really enjoy seeing people sit off and park the bus. We didn’t do it. For a Wigan fan you want to see your team have a go. Our lads deserve a lot of credit for how they’ve played,” he said after beating West Ham.

“We’ll always engage in a good game, whoever we play.”

They have nothing to lose in the FA Cup, so that’s exactly the kind of spirit they need and fans want to see.

Guardiola is still chasing a quadruple this season, but next he has to get past a Wigan side that doesn’t fear anyone. And history shows that can be a nightmare for Premier League giants.


The Alexis Sanchez Saga

I still don’t understand why you would let your best player go to your direct competitors. This is even more puzzling when you’re in the process of rebuilding your team.

Alexis Sanchez was getting close to the end of his contract, and it is fair that he would have wanted to leave Arsenal, but I’m sure it was not only Premier League clubs that were interested in his services.

I’ve always liked Sanchez because he’s a real force and a threat in any game. He scored 80 goals and got 46 assists in 166 games for the Gunners, and will the first Chilean to represent Manchester United’s first team after leading his country to win Copa America in 2015, their first major title. When a player has that much ability and mental strength to lead a team, you just have to make sure you keep him motivated.

That motivation is the one thing he’s looking for from his club, and who is better at giving a top player the feeling that he can win trophies and go to the very top of his game, than Mourinho?

Jose would have told Alexis things like: “If you want to win trophies and make the Sanchez brand bigger, then come and play at the biggest club in the world, with the biggest manager that has won big trophies, and always wants to add more to his collection. And as a bonus, I’ll match the amount any big team has offered you including a starting position in my team.”

I can’t blame Sanchez himself for choosing United. Robin Van Persie made a similar move back in 2012, and that turned out to be a transfer-defining switch. RVP was Arsenal’s top player and went on to win the Premier League the following season at United. That will also be Sanchez’ goal. City are 12 points clear at the top with 14 games to play, and the way they are playing makes you have to admit that the title is within their grasp. But Sanchez knows that in the long term he will have just as much chance of winning the PL with United as they continue to build and gel as a team.

I can’t blame Mourinho for being smart in making his direct competitors weaker by taking away their star player. He will fit right into Mourinho’s system because Sanchez is a great goal scoring threat, especially when it comes to fast counterattacks and running at players with high energy. The only thing I’m not sure about is if he will start him from the left, with Rashford and Martial already battling in healthy competition for that spot.

One thing is for sure though. Man Utd are bringing in more firepower and it’s clear they’re trying to bring the PL trophy back to Old Trafford next season.


King Kazu

Last week in Tokyo, a Japanese player known as Kazuyoshi Miuri put pen to paper for a contract extension with Yokohama FC, a club that plays in Japan’s second tier. Kazuyoshi only made 12 appearances last season, scoring just the one goal, which makes the announcement seem very ordinary.

But the new deal made headlines all around the world, because Kazuyoshi, also known as King Kazu, will be playing his 33rd season of Professional football. The veteran striker turns 51 next month, and despite becoming the world’s oldest footballer in 2015, is still playing the beautiful game in his native country at a top level.

Kazu’s career began back in 1986 when he was 19-years-old (that means he had already been playing professionally for twelve years when Kylian Mbappe was born), at Santos in the Brazilian League. That year Liverpool won the Premier League under Kenny Dalglish, Mike Tyson was the World Heavyweight Champion, Alex Ferguson was appointed as the new manager of Manchester United, and it was the year I was mesmerized and became a fan of the legendary Diego Maradona.

Since then Kazu has played for 12 different clubs across South America, Asia, Australia and Europe, before signing for his current team Yokahoma in 2005. He is hailed by many as the first football superstar in Japan, scoring 55 goals in 89 appearances for his country, and leading ‘The Blue Samurais’ to their first ever World Cup Finals in 1998 after scoring 14 goals in qualifying.

His website claims that he’s played 36932 minutes of football, which is around 25 and a half days of solid football. Some of his teammates are now more than 30 years younger than Kazuyoshi. He even became the J-League’s top scorer and MVP in its inaugural season in 1993, despite competition from Gary Lineker and Zico.

His career and longevity has been remarkable, especially when you consider most players retire before they hit 35, much like myself. Stanley Mathews is famous for his long career in England, playing for Stoke and Blackpool for 33 seasons in total. It was more common for players to continue to play into their 40’s in that era, but King Kazu has shown that it is still possible to compete with the super fit pros in their twenties, today.

Most pros like to hang up their boots on a high when they are still at the highest level – but maybe a lot can be learned from Kazuyoshi as he has lived and played through so many different changes to the game (when he started the back pass rule had not yet been introduced).

Amazingly, he says he still wishes to improve as a player. “I will always play with the football with all my might and hope to grow as a player,” he said when his contract extension was announced.

But he summed up his attitude best back in 2015 when he became the oldest player to ever feature in a professional match: “As long as I’m enjoying my football, I’ll keep going.”