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Talking Points: Zidane & China

There are a lot of great things happening in football that everyone is talking about at the moment, so I’ve decided to chime in on a couple of the most interesting talking points.


First of all, it’s hard for me to say anything wrong about one of the greatest legends in football history.

I’ve learned so much from watching Zizou play and I had the chance to play against him a couple of times in my career and it was a joy! I even remember buying the DVD where he explains his famous roulette trick. The second thing was something I would always advise any youngster to do.

He said the quicker you have the ball under control the faster you can do what you want with it. It’s easy but you still see people trying to dribble a bouncing ball and when they lose it or it goes out they are upset. I get it, but Zizou was one of the best at it. Get the ball under control first then dribble, because then you don’t have to look at the ball but you can look over the ball to see your opponents and teammates.

Now seeing him excel as a top coach is great because I’ve witnessed a lot of top players finding it hard to make the transition from a great player to a great coach.

He’s made Real Madrid play great, attacking football. In his time as a player the Galacticos were great and a joy to watch but sometimes struggled to defend. Of course they didn’t need to worry bout that because Zidane and his colleagues would always score more goals than their opponents.

His Madrid are defensively stronger and are a strong force going forward as well. I mean it also helps having a machine in the team that doesn’t break down like Ronaldo.


You’re probably wondering what I’m going to say about the Chinese Super League because everyone has their own opinion, so that’s why I’m giving mine.

It’s hard these days for players to say no to the huge deals that are being thrown at them. That’s why China has broken the market and they knew they would. They came in and attacked the football market from every angle. They started with interesting names, people where you can see why they said yes. For example players like Pelle – he knew that offer would not come again so he must have thought I’ll take this offer and my family will be set for life.

Then Tevez came and I thought wow, that’s crazy, but again it’s understandable because it’s probably his last move. I know he said he was going home and wanted to retire in Argentina but then China came and he must have begged his wife. I imagine she must have thought very hard and long, slept on it for 2 weeks and then gave him a wink: ‘ok you can go’.

The surprise for me was with Oscar because he’s such a great talent in his peak. I know he wasn’t playing at Chelsea so it could be that he thought his price had gone down as a player, and he still managed to get an offer so he better take it.

But I would have loved to see him shine in a league that currently has more prestige. China could have in the future but I can’t be upset with him for taking it. If you think of it from his point of view, you sit on the bench, and even though he makes great money, players want to play! And bear in mind if the coach doesn’t like him at all, the club will maybe buy a new midfielder very soon and he won’t be playing at all.

Have we thought about that? Because it’s easy to judge if you aren’t in their shoes and never will be.

I don’t want to see more young players going there too early. Be patient, enjoy your football in the top leagues so the likes of me and the rest of the fans can keep enjoying your best years on TV and in the stadiums closer to home.

Did I retire too early? No, and the game has changed big time. That’s why you should enjoy your time, never be greedy or jealous of somebody else’s success. And when it’s done, enjoy watching the ones who are living it after you and making the most out of it in their own way.


A New World Cup

When the first World Cup was played in 1930, 13 countries took part and Uruguay were ultimately crowned champions. Football has grown a lot since then, and over the years more teams have been added to what is to many the greatest competition in the world.

In 1934 the competition expanded to 16 nations and involved elimination games only, with Italy becoming champions on their home soil. In 1950 the tournament didn’t even have a final. A second group phase was played and the table leader, Uruguay, were champions yet again.

Several tournaments and several changes followed until in 1982 the tournament became a group stage followed by a knockout stage with 24 teams taking part. It was 1998 when the World Cup expanded to 32 teams becoming the competition we all know today.

Overall the format has changed no fewer than eight times over the course of 20 World Cups, with more teams gradually added and the format switched. And yesterday another change was announced as FIFA members unanimously voted to add a further 16 teams to the competition, which from 2026 will consist of 16 groups of 3 teams.

This is one of the most drastic changes of all.

Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, says the main reason for the expansion is to give more countries a chance to experience joy of a World Cup. It will give many more fans around the world a chance to join in the party and cheer on their country on the biggest stage.

But an extra 16 nations means the quality is going to be diluted. The World Cup Finals have been reserved for the best nations in the world and 32 teams seemed like a sweet spot where smaller nations or countries with less football development could still qualify if they really earned it, but every game was still entertaining.

With the new format there will be a lot of these lower ranked nations and some games will feel more like World Cup qualifiers than the finals. It also makes it less of an achievement to qualify for the finals as it’s less exclusive.

I do like it when the lower ranked countries make it. Why not? But still it shouldn’t be made too easy! This comes from a man that missed out on one and made it a must to make it to a big tournament before I retired.

In the past, nations like Zaire, Honduras, Senegal, and Trinidad & Tobago have all known that special feeling of qualifying the for the finals, and sometimes they made a few surprises with shock results over bigger nations. But with the new format there will be nations like these in each group, and with just one team from each group failing to qualify for the 2nd round the competitive edge could be missing.

I know there is money involved regarding the sponsorships that come with the World Cup but I always looked at the World Cup as a tournament for the best teams in the world. If you want to be part of it you need to work. Let’s hope this doesn’t kill the quality and we can see all the top players there – we don’t want anyone getting injured because of the duration of the tournament.

Keep us entertained and money will come no matter what. The World Cup is a brand so big no one will be able to stop it from growing.


Mr Zlatan

Today it’s time to write about a player who has already achieved so much but shows no signs of stopping.

When you think Zlatan Ibrahimovic has done it all he manages to come up with something great yet again, and then again.

It all began with his move from Malmo to Ajax, where he won the Erividisie twice before Juventus snapped him up. At Juve he won Serie A twice in two seasons and then moved to Inter where he won the league a further three times in a row.

From there he won La Liga with Barcelona, another Serie A title with AC Milan and then four consecutive Ligue 1 title’s with PSG before his move to Man Utd. If you look at the league finishes his teams have had, you’ll see that in the last 15 seasons he won the league title with each club he played for, every year, except twice. On both those occasions his team finished 2nd (once with Ajax and once with AC Milan).

Those stats alone are phenomenal. And then you look at his individual scoring stats. He’s one of two players, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, to have scored in every minute of a football match during their careers. He’s also the only player to have scored in the Milan derby, El Clasico, the Manchester derby, Le Classique in France, and De Klassieker in Holland.

When he moved to Man Utd many people asked why considering his age. Isn’t his time done and shouldn’t he be playing in a different league where you go just to play out your last years? But Zlatan doesn’t listen to the rumours, he does it the Zlatan way. He’s never taken an easy route but makes it look easy.

He started off well in Manchester and kept scoring but then it stopped and the team started to struggle for a few games. It didn’t take long for him to get himself and his great connection with Pogba going again though, and Mourinho’s side are now back on track.

You can see how his influence isn’t just limited to scoring goals but also assisting teammates.

Look at Mkhitaryan’s goal that could easy be the goal of the season, or Zlatan’s header that looked so easy to set up Martial for his goal at the weekend.

I’ve always liked they guy from the first time I met him in Amsterdam. If you ask PSG players I know some will tell you he was too much because if you’re around Zlatan you have to man up or he’ll walk all over you. But be honest, isn’t he the player that can win league titles for you? Any player out there knows that all we play for is winning trophies.

Winning the league with United is maybe a call that’s not so easy to make but one thing for sure is that he will do whatever it takes to get into the Champions League.


A Wonderful Christmas Time

This is the time where we look back and think about the beautiful times with the loved ones that care some much and do so much for us.

I know a lot of us were sitting at home in front of our Christmas tree and thinking about the great food we have been eating and the classic movies we watch. My great movie was home alone. I don’t know the number of times I have watched that movie but I kept laughing every time he tricked those dumb guys when they break into his home. I was even thinking how I would use his smartness if that were to happen to me when I was younger.

We laugh, we put a smile on our loved one’s faces with unwrapping the beautiful gift under the Christmas tree and then we even laugh if you receive a bad present that doesn’t fit or has the wrong colour. We laugh and even the person that gave it to you would laugh. The presents are all based on the thoughts and not the value of the gift.

That’s why I love to work and find a way to make sure some less fortunate people have a warm meal and a warm blanket. The homeless people are my people because the appreciate the little things even more.

They have the biggest smile without having a lot to smile about and they are some of the most generous people you can meet. You give a homeless person a meal and they will find a way to share it with another, knowing that he or she could have eaten it all alone. They always think more people can or should enjoy this meal.

Think about the less fortunate ones and look over your shoulder – they are closer than you think. So reach out and share whatever you can afford. It’s great seeing them walking away with a big smile on their face and yes – you did that.


The Beautiful Moments of 2016

For all the crazy things that have happened around the world, 2016 has undoubtedly been a great inspiring year for sport and myself.

Leicester City’s Premier League triumph is one of the greatest sporting stories of all time. It’s a story as beautiful as it is absurd. Relegation favourites led by a new manager who had been sacked by Greece after losing to the Faroe Islands. Gary Lineker famously tweeted “Claudio Ranieri? Really?” after the appointment and that probably reflected the thoughts of many people.

9 incredible months later Ranieri was parading around the King Power stadium with a Premier League winners’ medal, Jamie Vardy was the Premier League’s 2nd top scorer and Mahrez was the PFA player of the year. The underdogs had gone head to head with the likes of Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd and come out on top.

Cristiano Ronaldo has also had an amazing year. Everyone said he could never win a big trophy with Portugal because his national team wasn’t good enough. But he won the Champions League with Real Madrid and then the European Cup in dramatic style. He scored the winning penalty against Atletico Madrid in the UCL final and then guided Portugal to the Euro final in France. His influence was clear, and even when we went off injured you could see the impact he had on the game from the sidelines.

It was obviously an emotional night for Cristiano but it finished with him lifting the trophy with his strapped up leg. And his year has been topped off by winning his 4th Ballon d’Or and the Club World Cup this month. He’s the first player to win all four awards in a season.

Lebron James also had a fairytale year in the NBA. Some people argued that he only became a champion at Miami because he played with champions and on his own you could never have done what he achieved in Miami. But his tears of joy were unstoppable after he lead the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to beat the Golden State Warriors, who had won an NBA-record 73 games on the road for the NBA championship.

James scored 27 points, collected 11 rebounds, delivered 11 assists, blocked three shots and had two steals as the Cavaliers defeated the Warriors 93-89 in Game 7.

So many people had doubted him, but James cemented himself as one of the best NBA players of history. It’s the first time a team has won the title after falling behind 3-1 in a Finals series, and it took one of the best performances in Finals history from James to deliver Cleveland its first sports championship since 1964.

Connor McGregor is another man that made history in 2016. People say he’s all talk but he does the walking too. The fastest-ever knockout in a UFC title fight was just the start, as he went on to be the first fighter to hold two UFC belts at the same time after beating Eddie Alvarez.

After losing to Nate Diaz everyone said he could never win again because now his stardom was taken away and people started joking about him. But look what happened! He’s since been stripped of the featherweight due to inactivity, but as he says: “Don’t mind that – I’m still the two-weight world champ!”

And finally Serena Williams caps off the best sporting moments of 2016 for me. People said she’s all power and she would be beaten one day by someone with pure technique, and that person would win more trophies than her. But in 2016 she won her 7th Wimbledon title and her 22nd Grand Slam title. Later that same day she won her 6th Wimbledon doubles title with her sister Venus.

Williams had tried and failed three times to win her 22nd major singles title but she finally got over the line in London. She’s a gift to all sport fans who get to continue to watch her add to an already amazing career.


Top of the Tree This Christmas

We’re almost at the half way point in the Premier League season and Chelsea will sit at the top of the tree this Christmas. A 10th straight win for Antonio Conte puts the blues 6 points clear at the top. Fabregas’ goal also meant Sunderland stay pinned at the bottom of the league.

It’s exciting at both ends of the league and everyone will have different opinions about how the table will look come May.

Man City made a flying start to their campaign under Pep, winning their opening 6 games. It wasn’t just the results but the way they picked apart their opponents that had many making early calls for City winning the title.

On their day City can be unplayable, and if Guardiola get’s them playing at the top of their game quickly they will cause the other title contenders a lot of trouble. As it stands though, they have won just 6 of their last 15 games in all competitions going into Sunday’s tie with Arsenal.

Arsenal have also been great to watch. Their mid-week game with Everton was the first they have lost since the opening day of the season, and Alexis Sanchez has looked particularly brilliant. His pace and finishing is causing defenders all kinds of problems and he’s adjusted to his new role excellently. The game on Sunday could be one of the games of the season with the way both teams like to play.

Liverpool have also been great so far this season, but they will need to sort out their defensive problems if they are to be serious title contenders. They’ve scored the most goals in the league but they’ve also conceded more than any of the top 7. Their 3-0 victory against Middlesbrough last night shows they can be solid at the back, but Klopp will need to make sure they stay consistent.

Man Utd have struggled a little bit and Mourinho is always under the microscope so everybody knows it. But Jose is a winner and you can never count out Utd going on a crazy run of form until the end of the season. Spurs are also in the mix and can always cause a surprise like they did last season. Pochettino has played 3 at the back a few times to great success and it looks like it suits the players. They could be a dark horse in the new year.

At the other end of the table things are quite tight for the bottom eight. Sunderland sit rock bottom but are only 6 points off 13th place Burnley. The pack includes the Champions Leicester who were always going to have a tough season after winning the league last year. The extra games that come with being in Europe was going to be tough as they don’t have as much strength in depth as the usual big four.

Hull, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Palace join Sunderland as the favourites to go down, all winning only 3 or 4 games so far. It will probably be a fight to the end and it will be interesting to see who spends in January.

Whatever happens it will be thrilling for the fans and I hope Chelsea can repeat history: Each of the four times they have been top of the Premier League at Christmas they have gone on to win the title.


Has Mourinho Lost His Touch?

Mourinho is going through a harder time than he would have ever expected.

During his Chelsea days we had a couple of great chats at the Bridge, and knowing the real winner that he is, I can guarantee you it’s not going the way he expected.

I think his style of play hasn’t been effective because United have been conceding silly goals, and they hurt more when the team doesn’t score freely. So far this season they’ve dropped 7 points from conceding goals in the final 10 minutes of the game – more than any other team in the Premier League.

If you look at his recent results you’d find that he’s earned just 36 points from his last 30 Premier League games, which if you average out over a season would give you a finish somewhere around 13th in a typical campaign.

He has a great team on paper and if you ask any player if it would be great playing with the likes of Zlatan, Rooney and Pogba, they would always say yes. The club is great – obviously one of the biggest in the world – and they have a great manager with a brilliant record. But there has to be a better understanding.

Sometimes I wonder if people realise the struggles Sir Alex Ferguson had at the beginning of his career with Man Utd – that he transformed the team to winning ways. The team he built was great to watch and play against, dominated the Premier league for years, but it wasn’t plain sailing from the get-go.

Fergie also always had a plan B, and sometimes I think that is missing with Mourinho. I remember going to Manchester and thinking we’re in the game. They would give you the ball for 5 minutes to make you feel superior and then Roy Keane would tell the lads “let’s go” and the game could change in a flash. You would be pressed everywhere and the speed of the game would be so fast that you, as the opponent, would struggle to keep up.

Mourinho hasn’t lost his touch but when you watched how they drew their last game in injury time after giving away a clumsy penalty, you could see the frustration in Jose that he can normally control better.

He’s a man that’s all about concentration until the last minute, and if you don’t have that it could be tough for you as a player. It will be interesting to see how he will treat Marouane Fellaini. I hope things change for the better because the league is always more entertaining when more teams are competing for the title, and of course your favourite team wins it.


Dramatic Turnarounds in the Championship

What a difference a month makes.

After three successive defeats before the International break, which included a 5-0 thrashing to Brighton, Norwich were under pressure to turn things around. But it was two more defeats that followed for Alex Neil’s side, who have dropped down to 8th in the Championship after their 5th straight loss.

It’s the perfect example of how fast things can change in one of the most competitive league’s in the world. Teams find themselves on hot runs of win after win, followed by spells where they can’t muster a single point for weeks.

It’s one of the reasons why the league is so entertaining. The teams at the bottom can beat the teams at the top on any given week and one good run over 4 or 5 weeks can be the difference between sitting in the relegation spots and fighting for the playoff places.

Just look at Aston Villa. They won just one of their opening 12 games and were in the bottom three until Steve Bruce took over 6 weeks ago. They have since earned 15 points and are now just 4 points outside of the promotion places. After their struggles at the start of the season it looked like promotion straight back to the Premier League was a pipedream, but now it’s beginning to look like they really could go up.

Huddersfield are another team that have had two very different spells of form. They started off with 7 wins from their opening 10 games, topping the league and proving themselves to be genuine promotion contenders. They’ve since slumped to 6th after earning just 4 points from their last 7 games.

Wigan handed Huddersfield their latest defeat last night, the first time the Latics have ever won a league game at Huddersfield. Wigan are still third from bottom but only on goal difference. If they can come up with the goods and begin a good run of form they could be in the top half of the table in no time.

When I met the chairman over the summer I could feel the passion and focus he possessed – to get Wigan back to the top. Hopefully the change of coach will start working because the Wigan fans would love to see some success again, that’s why so many turned up to celebrate the moment Mr Dave Whelan’s great statue got revealed at the DW stadium.

Up the tics!


Ballon d’Or

It’s that time of the year where panels, pundits and fans debate about the most prized individual award in world football. Who should win the Ballon d’Or?

Some years it seems there is an outstanding player that the majority can agree on, and other years there are a handful of players that can make a claim and it takes some consideration to make my own mind up.

This year Neymar won the Olympics and Ronaldo won the Euros, and for me, these are the ones that make the top of my list. I know people would ask, “why not Messi?”

Yes I love Messi and I’m a huge fan of his but I think that there are a couple of key factors that swing it. Both of the players I mentioned before
have helped their respective nations to a trophy that brought so much happiness to their country. These are the trophies that were missing from all three players’ trophy cabinets, and all wanted to bring that glory to their country.

Messi found it hard and even had to take a break to come back to his national side. You could argue that the genius and magic of Messi is the real question, and of course he is those things.

But I pick Ronaldo. This guy is just so strong mentally and physically. He always comes back stronger. You love him, or if you don’t it’s mostly coming from envy because he’s so good.

I know he takes off his shirt a lot and spends a lot of time taking care of himself, but I love the game and I judge players on their performance on the field, nothing else.

At the weekend he got himself in the record books again, with his triple strike at the Vicente Calderon meaning he has overtaken the great Alfredo Di Stefano as the top scorer in Madrid derby history. As person I have no bad word to say about him either. He’s always been nothing but a nice guy whenever I have met him away from the game.

I think he is really the key guy at Madrid and normally they say at 30 you start to slow down as a player, but his focus at 31 shows you that he’s still right at his prime and still delivering the goods for club and country. This guy is great and I’m grateful we are able to watch players with this level of ability. I hope it will be like this for a long time coming!

I also hope when the time comes for these guys to hang up their boots we have new ones to admire.


It’s Good To Dream

I spent the last couple of days watching the international football.

The team that caught my eye the most was the Brazilians. Now you might be thinking “Really?” after the pain the whole nation felt after the World Cup. Everyone was lost and many were reduced to tears, including the women, that some would say are usually focused on their beauty and showing their curves. “But no guys it’s a natural blessing Brazilian women possess.”

How could their dream boys hurt them like that? Some players were hated and it seemed they would never be forgiven after the infamous 7-1 defeat to Germany. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it was happening, especially in their own back garden. I’m sure the squad and the fans want to erase that from their memory.

Every player underperformed and, also not help their cause was that their wonderboy Neymar getting injured and missing their crucial games. But that all looks behind them now. They have a new team and it looks like some new stars are emerging. The team is back in full swing and once again loved by the nation.

After they walked through Argentina with a 3-0 win I started to imagine what it would have been like if I was a Brazilian.

If I was born in Rio de Janeiro, would I – rather than growing up playing football in the snow during the winter – instead play on Copacabana beach after school.

Would I be a kid from the favela dancing samba like the people from Mangueira? Why not? That would push me even more, thinking I’ve got to get out of here and bring the rest of my family and close friends along with me, even knowing that some don’t even like leaving the lively favelas.

Romario the magical Brazilian striker came from the favela. He was small but not scared of anyone because he had seen it all. And what a player he was. I would definitely try to play with flair of coutinho, the attacking instinct of Jesus Gabriel the new kid on the block, mixed with the confidence of Neymar.

Ok, maybe it’s time for me to wake up – I would have been a defender. But then at least I could use the calm and composed nature of Marquinhos and mix it with the Dani Alves attacking force.

O boy, what is life without a little imagination?

It’s great as long as you don’t only dream but act. Make it happen because it’s always nice to talk about what you’ve done and are still doing with your life, rather than talking about what others have done and what you could have achieved.