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Systematic cheating over many years? Gaining a clear sporting advantage by breaking the rules? Titles gained through cheating? A governing body that looked the other way?

The sporting press has been up in arms over the last two days since the World Anti Doping Agency exposed the scale of Russian drug use in athletics. A consensus seems to have developed that Russia should be banned from next year’s Olympic Games and that all tainted medals should be removed from the cheats.

Phrases like “industrial scale cheating”, “conspiracy of corruption” and “unprecedented deception” have all being used. And there is a general agreement that swift and decisive action needs to be taken for the good of world athletics.

Tessa Jowell, the former Olympics minister, perhaps summed up the need to clean up the sport after these revelations, stating, “This is what destroys public faith in the competition they see on their televisions or go to see.”

Not much room for shades of grey in this story, is there? And why should there be? When sporting cheats get caught they are punished. Just ask Ben Johnson or Lance Armstrong. They both cheated. They both got caught. They both had their tainted titles removed.

This morning on Radio Scotland there were reports of calls for Yvonne Murray’s medal in the 1988 Olympics to be upgraded because she finished behind an athlete who cheated. So time, it seems, is no barrier to doing the right thing. In athletics at least.

So why does it all seem so different in the world of Scottish football?

The former Rangers Football Club, now known as RFC 2012 PLC (in liquidation), cheated. It did it not by drugging its players but by buying players it couldn’t afford to pay and using an illegal method of tax evasion instead. It was financial doping rather than chemical doping, yet with the same outcome: titles won because of cheating.

So why are the journalists who’re so quick to call for action against the cheats of Russian athletics not also calling for action against the cheats of Scottish football?

Perhaps because of the unwritten law that seems to trump all others in the national game. The asterisk that should sit at the top of every set of rules and regulations with a link to a phrase that says “Does not necessarily apply to any club with the word Rangers in its name.”

But Scotland’s footballing authorities, the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League, are membership bodies comprising the country’s football clubs. Our clubs can force those in power to do the right thing and remove the tainted titles – and football fans throughout the country can prompt their club to take action.

In the past we’ve seen the likes of Raith Rovers, in the person of the sadly missed Turnbull Hutton, stand up to those in charge and lead the fight against special treatment for new club The Rangers. The then Raith chairman took them on with the help of other clubs – and he won.

So will come to the rescue this time? Who will take on the mantle of Turnbull Hutton? Who will stand up for the good of Scottish football?

Scotland’s sports media, the stenographers to use Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s lovely phrase, will as always refuse to their job. We know they won’t challenge anyone at Ibrox. The hard questions will be left unanswered and the press releases repeated. So once again it’s been left to Channel 4’s Alex Thomson to get to the truth of the matter. He does it with a succinctness and a directness that has to be admired.

“All the titles and silverware from all the years Rangers cheated at football, as they cheated at tax, must be null and void and wiped from the record.”

If Scotland’s football fans work together we can make it happen.

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Remove The Tainted Titles

It’s a long time since I’ve written about the nefarious tax affairs of the former Rangers Football Club. But yesterday’s decision by appeal judges Lord Carloway, Lord Menzies and Lord Drummond Young has brought the matter right back into the public eye.

In simple terms, the judges ruled in HRMC’s favour over its claim that the former Rangers were liable for a £46.2 million bill over the use of Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs) to make payments to players, managers and staff.

So what I and many others have been saying since the start of this sordid affair is now official: the former Rangers Football Club broke the law many times over many years. It paid football players, managers and ever former managers through a tax evasion scheme that defrauded the public purse out of tens of millions of pounds.

Now the financial consequences of this relate solely to the legal entity now called RFC 2012 PLC (in liquidation) – the old club. The new club playing out of Ibrox, Rangers International Football Club plc Group (formerly Sevco Scotland Ltd), has no liability.

But the sporting consequences of years of tax fraud have yet to be settled.

The Commission for the former Scottish Premier League headed by Lord Nimmo Smith back in 2013 ruled that the use of EBTs without informing the football authorities of the payments was a breach of football’s player registration rules and fined the former club £250,000.

LNS did not however look into the legality of the EBT scheme. That was a matter for the courts and beyond his remit. The Commission assumed the scheme to be lawful and therefore ruled that no sporting advantage accrued to the club from its deliberate administrative omissions.

We now know differently. And that changes everything.

LNS assumed omissions in administering a legal scheme. We now know that the omissions were actually part of an attempt to cover up large scale illegal non payment of taxes.

Failure to register players correctly may or may not have led to a sporting advantage. But failure to pay over £40,000,000 in tax undoubtedly did. And that’s what must now be addressed.

Every club in Scottish football lost out in some way from this long term and wide scale tax fraud. Whether through losing access to European competitions, missing out on league prize money or potential cup runs or receiving a smaller share of tv cash. Everyone lost – and only one club gained.

The former Rangers Football Club attracted players it could not otherwise have afforded to pay. It kept vast sums that should have been paid in tax while every other club fulfilled its social obligations. And it used this unfair advantage to win league titles and cups.

So today I’m calling on all football clubs in Scotland to demand action from the SFA and SPFL. Demand that the matter is looked into again in light of yesterday’s court ruling and remove all of the tainted titles from the former football club. Let the record books show that crime doesn’t pay.

And I’m also calling on fans of all clubs to ensure that this happens. Write to your chairman or chairwoman and ask him or her to act immediately. Scottish football fans have shown before that pressure can be brought to bear – remember how attempts to parachute the new club from Ibrox straight into the Championship were defeated?

If all of Scotland’s clubs call for the tainted titles and contaminated cups to be removed the authorities will have to act. They are membership organisations after all.

If we all work together we can ensure that sporting fairness wins out.

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Celtic had no need to get out of second gear to stroll past The Rangers at Hampden. The first ever clash between Glasgow’s giants and its newest club was a non event as a contest – if it had been a boxing match it would have been stopped before half time.

For the record, the final score was 2 – 0.  Leigh Griffiths became the first Celt to score against The Rangers with a fine 10th minute header and a typically accurate Kris Commons strike from outside the box on the half hour was all that needed to secure the victory. Celtic looked as if they were quite content with just the two goals, although Van Dyke and Johanssen both missed very good chances to add to the score.  Celtic played some neat possession football – or as much as they could on a pitch that looked like a ploughed field by the end.

I know the SFA has many things to worry about as it attempts to run Scottish football, but for the field of play at a so called National Stadium hosting a major semi final to look like something a Sunday league pub team would expect to play on is very poor indeed. Perhaps they could find someone currently on gardening leave to give them a hand?

And a word for referee Craig Thompson. Well, how about disgrace? Perhaps incompetent? Or maybe hapless? In all seriousness, anyone who performs as badly as this ref did deserves to find himself demoted to officiating in the North of Scotland under 10s Reserve League.

His decision to blow for a free kick to Celtic with Griffiths running through on goal rather than allowing the most obvious of advantages defied any rational explanation. The referee should really have red carded himself at that moment for denying a clear goal scoring opportunity.

And it wasn’t the only time Thompson managed to stop play for no good reason. Add in John Guidetti being brought down and somehow conceding a few kick, probably for letting Lee McCulloch to stamp on top of him. The same McCulloch being allowed to escape punishment for a forearm smash into the back of Griffiths’ head. Foster getting off scot free for hauling Izaguirre to the ground just a minute after picking up a booking. And Griffiths being booked for a fairly muted goal scoring celebration.

But still, these things even themselves up, don’t they?

Celtic performed well, although with little real challenge. Many of the players will have had more strenuous training sessions. Captain Scott Brown led the way with an inspired performance full of energy and desire. Along with the calm and composed Nir Bitton he dominated the midfield from first whistle to last. At the back, Virgil Van Dyke and Jason Denayer strolled through the game.

Anyone watching The Rangers for the first time would have wondered quite how they have managed to reach as high as second place in the Championship. Their collection of journeymen, has beens and never will bes were totally outclassed all day long. The lower league club didn’t looked like scoring at any point, and Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon’s perfectly clean jersey at the final whistle was proof of their failure to force him to make even a single save. Indeed the one shot at goal that the Ibrox club was rather charitably credited with was actually a mishit cross that sailed well over the bar.

So the large crowd did not get the spectacle they had perhaps hoped for. Not that the green and white half were bothered greatly as they celebrated a first victory over their new rivals. And the blue half of the stadium seemed to have found an old song book belonging to a liquidated club. Still, being just three years behind the times is probably pretty good for them, with many still appearing to be perpetually fixated on 1690.

Will much be made of the wide range of sectarian songs emanating from one end of the ground? Will mass arrests for offensive behaviour be reported in the media? I’m not holding my breath.

Ronny Deila’s pursuit of trophies in his first season in charge at Celtic Park will now take him and his men back to Hampden next month. I’m sure many will be hoping that Dundee United provide far more of a challenge and contribute to a much better game of football in the final.

 

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Why is the Scottish sporting media ignoring a great story? Because it suits its agenda better to peddle the myth of the club that can’t die, that’s why.

On Saturday the draw for the semi finals of the Scottish League Cup was made. Now the last four of the third most important domestic football competition is not usually seen as a major occasion. But this year it appeared to matter more to the media than usual. The draw, live on BBC television, firstly paired football’s New Firm, Aberdeen and Dundee United. And that left two Glasgow teams: Scottish champions Celtic and the league’s newest club.

Now surely that gave the media a story to run with: the first ever match between Celtic and The Rangers. The chance for the new kids on the block to test themselves against the country’s top club. The beginning of a fresh Glasgow rivalry.

But instead they continue to promote the Big Lie. They are still insisting that the new club formed in 2012 and now playing at Ibrox is actually the same club that was liquidated after a financial meltdown in 2012.

We all know the history. How the old Rangers fell into massive debt after years of overspending and was placed into administration. How a creditors agreement was refused plunging the financially crippled club into liquidation. How the Charles Green owned Sevco Scotland Ltd (or was it Sevco 5088 Ltd?) bought the assets of the dying Rangers to form his new football club. And how some of the players were TUPE transferred to this new club while many others exercised their right to walk away.

We all remember how the old club called a vote of the former Scottish Premier League members in an attempt to pass its SPL place to Green’s new club – a move that was roundly defeated. How an attempt to bring the new club into the top tier of the Scottish Football League was also foiled. And how the 2012 club was finally admitted to the bottom tier of Scottish football – without any of the country’s long established non league teams even being given a sniff at the vacancy.

The Rangers (formed 2012) are not Rangers (formed 1872). It is as simple as that.

And when former Ibrox director Donald Findlay becomes the one figure from the old club to acknowledge this fact, then you know things are getting very silly indeed. Findlay as the voice of sanity? Really?

In its near three year history, The Rangers have managed to win the two lowest level league championships and get themselves up to the second tier. It has cost them many millions to do so, though. Led by the oldest apprentice boy in town, the man who holds the world record for most overpaid lower league manager ever, they have also had a string of cup failures, culminating in a defeat by Raith Rovers in the final of last season’s Ramsden’s Cup. (For those who don’t follow the lower echelons of Scottish football, this is the tournament for non Premier League teams, invented to give the diddy clubs a chance to win something. It’s now known as the Petrofac Training Cup apparently.)

So reaching the semi finals of the League Cup is actually a pretty big deal for the new club. And to be drawn against the biggest club in the country should be a real opportunity for The Rangers to test exactly how far they have developed.

But instead the media is full of stories about past games between Celtic and the former Ibrox club, as they attempt to consolidate the Big Lie. The tactics are simple ones to anyone with a knowledge of propaganda: repeat the lie over and over, hoping that it will eventually become accepted. Rangers were somehow demoted to the bottom league – so those votes I referred to above must never have happened. The old club somehow came out of liquidation – a concept unknown to anyone in the legal or financial worlds. No, every piece of evidence, logically analysed, is in fact wrong, they tell us.

Yet we know that creditors of the old club never received their money. We know that the new club won’t pay them. And why should they? It was an entirely different club that ran up the debts.

So we must all challenge the Big Lie wherever it is used. We must remind the media that the original 1872 Scottish blues, like the famous Norwegian Blue, have ceased to be, have shuffled off this mortal coil and are in fact an ex football club.

Or else Scottish football enters a realm of silliness that even the Monty Python crew couldn’t have come up with.

 

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It has been widely reported today that Mike Ashley has, to quote STV, “won the battle for control of Rangers”. This is to be officially announced on Monday, we are told.

But is Mr Ashley’s forthcoming position of influence with Scottish football’s newest league club in accordance with SFA rules?

We all know that Mike Ashley owns Newcastle United FC, an English Premier League club. So how can he also control a different football club at the same time?

A quick check of the Scottish Football Association’s 2014—15 Handbook clarifies the position. Clause 13 is very helpful here; its title is “Dual Interest In Clubs”.

In short, it says that no one can have a dual interest in two different football clubs without the prior written consent of the Board of the SFA. How is this interest defined? Pretty widely actually. Clause 13,1 (b) (iii) defines an interest as including having:

“any power whatsoever to influence the management or administration of a club”.

And, just in case you were wondering whether this provision on dual interest applies only to someone who might become involved in two Scottish clubs, Clause 13.5 (a) gives the answer.

““club” means any club in membership of the Scottish FA and any club in membership of an association in membership of UEFA and/or FIFA”.

So can Mr Ashley actually take control of the latest club to play at Ibrox, as he is reportedly about to do? Well, according to the rules of Scottish Football he would be required to sell his shares in Newcastle United – unless the dual interest has already been approved by the SFA.

So does Mr Ashely have the prior written consent of the SFA Board?

I have today e-mailed Scottish football’s governing body to ask the question. Wonder if I will get an answer?

 

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On Saturday a fairly unremarkable game of football took place in Scotland’s second tier. Livingston were at home to new club The Rangers for the first time and, for the record, the away side won by the only goal of the game.

But the real story came off the park. The Livingston match programme editor made several references to the liquidation of the former Rangers. It also described the club that his team were to play as a new club. Both of these are simple statements of fact.

In Scottish football however there seems to be an unwritten rule: if the truth hurts then hide the truth.

The Livingston chairman Gordon McDougall later made this statement: “I can only offer my sincere apologies to any fans who have been offended by what was written as there was no intention to offend anyone.”

But, significantly, there is no admission in Mr McDougall’s statement of any error of fact. Rather he appears to be apologising for reminding the fans of the club that now plays at Ibrox of the truth surrounding the formation of their club.

So what did the match programme actually say?

It recorded the fact that the former Rangers (in liquidation) was placed into administration back in February 2012. It stated that Duff and Phelps were unable to find a buyer. It said that the former club was liquidated in June 2012. It told of Charles Greens purchase of the assets of the former club and formation of the new club. And finally it stated that the new club was admitted to the bottom tier of the Scottish leagues.

All of these facts can be verified by official court documents. All have been reported widely in the media. The full story has been in the public domain for a number of years. So what’s the problem?

The programme also included small pen pictures of the visitors’ players, as most programmes I’ve ever seen tend to do. There made reference to the careers of several players at the now defunct club, which also appears to have angered some. But again the process of players transferring from the old club to the new, or deciding to exercise their right to leave as several did, is simple fact and was widely reported in the press and on television.

You would have thought that the fans of a new, cash strapped, lower league club would have more to worry about than being reminded of events from just a couple of years ago. Indeed with repeated court cases and ongoing boardroom strife, the new club is hardly any more stable than the one that was liquidated.

Now, in legal parlance I’m told the defence to any action taken would be “veritas”, Latin for truth. Simply put, you cannot have a legal action against you for stating facts, however unpleasant they might be to others.

But the Livingston programme editor – an unpaid volunteer who did the job out of love for his club – has now resigned, and the club is looking for a replacement. So, should you fancy a job writing a programme for the West Lothian club then give them a call.

But be clear that the job apparently involves saying only nice things about any opposing clubs. Any unpalatable truths must be hidden in case any offence might be taken.

I wonder what they might say when Hearts visit? No mention of relegation, as that would be nasty.  “A club given the opportunity to regroup in the Championship” perhaps? And what about Hibs? Let’s airbrush that play off defeat right away. “A less than satisfactory end to last season but new challenges ahead”? You get the idea.

Or is this sort of sensitivity only required in relation to football clubs that play at Ibrox?

 

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It’s all over in Brazil and the trophy is leaving a South American host country for Europe for the very first time.

Germany’s 1 – 0 extra time victory over Argentina was the country’s fourth World Cup victory, and the first as a united nation. With a team built mainly of young stars, could we see the Germans dominate over the next few years, replacing the Spanish dynasty?

But, in truth, the knock out stage of the World Cup didn’t really live up to the promise that the group stage had offered – with one stunning exception. More of that one later.

With 16 of the 32 teams already heading home, those that qualified from the eight groups got ready for the knock out stages. The group winners each took on a runner up (from a different group obviously) and in the end all eight top sides prevailed. This rather unusual combination of results saw the big footballing nations prevailed in the main.

There was a noticeable tightening up in these games. Fear of being knocked out perhaps curbed some of the attacking play that was so prevalent in the opening half of the tournament. Only eighteen goals were scored across eight games, and seven of those actually came in extra time. No country managed to score more than twice.

Hosts Brazil opened the Round of 16 and were taken all the way to a penalty shoot out by Chile after a 1 – 1 draw. And the underdogs almost scored a last second winner for a major upset. But Julio Cesar’s penalty saves eventually took Brazil through.

Columbia had perhaps the smoothest passage, with eventual top scorer James Rodriguez starring against Uruguay, who were missing the banned Suarez. Columbia’s star player netted both goals, including a stunning volley that was acclaimed as the goal of the tournament.

The Netherlands were close to defeat against Mexico, but a stirring late comeback saw Wesley Sneijder’s equaliser followed quickly by an injury time penalty winner to secure the 2 – 1 victory.

Costa Rica were reduced to ten men in the first half against Greece but still managed to take the lead on 52 minutes. The Greeks eventually equalised to take the match into extra time but were unable to find a winner. Costa Rica finally took the tie on penalties.

France did not have an easy ride against Nigeria, who had most of the chances to score, but two goals in the last ten minutes eventually saw Dechamps’ men go through.

Germany did not have it easy either, being held to a 0 – 0 in normal time by Algeria. But the Germans took control and scored twice as the Africans tired, although they did manage a late consolation goal in a 2 – 1 defeat.

Argentina and Switzerland also failed to score in 90 minutes, and a rather dull tie looked to be heading towards penalties before Di Maria’s goal near the end of extra time saw Messi and co progress.

Belgium took the last place in the quarter finals with a 2 – 1 victory over the USA. Again all of the goals came in extra time, with the Belgians eventually finding their way past a brave American side and a heroic Tim Howard who made a string of fine saves.

 

And on to the quarter finals. Only eight teams were now left and that final in the Maracana was getting ever closer.

Germany beat France by the only goal of a fairly dull game, an early header from centre half Mats Hummels’ making the difference. France had chances but could not convert possession into goals and the Germans ran out fairly comfortable winners.

Brazil won the battle of the South Americans with a 2 – 1 victory over Columbia. Thiago Silva’s early opener and a brilliant free kick from David Luiz saw two more central defenders get on the score sheet before a late penalty consolation from that man James Rodriguez. The Columbians protested throughout about some robust Brazilian challenges, and it may have been an act of retribution that led to Neymar being carried off on a stretcher with a fractured vertebrae.

Argentina triumphed over Belgium through Higuain’s fine early strike, but this was another match that failed to entertain. The two sides could only manage three shots on target between them and it was a poor exit for the highly fancied Belgians.

The Netherlands needed penalties to overcome surprise package Costa Roca after yet another goalless draw. This match will be remembered for Luis Van Gaal’s unusual decision to change goalkeepers for the shoot out. But his tactics worked as Tim Krul made two saves to secure the win.

 

So the semi final line up – exactly as I predicted! – saw two clashes between South America and Europe and featured four of world football’s heavyweights. And they were to turn out to be very different games.

Brazil had high hopes of winning the World Cup on home soil. But they were taken apart and utterly humiliated by Germany in a quite incredible match.

Thomas Muller put the Germans ahead in the eleventh minute, somehow finding himself unmarked from a corner. On 23 minutes, Miroslav Klose break the World Cup scoring record with his 16th finals goal. And then the sky fell in. Toni Kroos added two more within three minutes and Sami Khedira scored the fifth just before the half hour.

After just 29 minutes of football the scoreboard read Brazil 0 Germany 5. The footballing world was in shock.

In the second half Germany eased off. But substitute Andre Schürrle scored twice before Oscar’s late strike provided no consolation at all to a nation that was already in mourning. The final score read 7 – 1. Unbelievable doesn’t go far enough in describing this result.

This was a quite stunning victory for the Germans, a sporting achievement that will be talked of for many years to come. There have not been many performances so dominant, few matches so one sided in the entire history of the World Cup.

The second semi final was simply never going to be able to follow that.

Argentina and The Netherlands played out 120 minutes of goalless, and largely tedious, football before the apparently inevitable penalties. This time the Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen remained in goal to the very end, but he was unable to match Krul’s heroics. Instead it was Argentina’s Sergio Romero who saved twice to take his side through to the final.

 

So it was to be Argentina and Germany who faced off in the biggest football match of them all. The two nations had previously contested two world Cup finals, with Argentina winning 3 – 2 in Mexico in 1986 and Germany gaining revenge by 1 – 0 in Rome four years later.

The first half was an intense tactical battle that was fascinating to watch, even if few chances were created. Higuain was at the centre of the two key incidents, firstly shooting wastefully wide when put through by a rare German error and then putting the ball into the net, only to be correctly called for offside. The one close call at the other end came in injury time when defender Howedes hit the post with a header from a corner. He really should have scored.

The second half was again tense but with even fewer chances. The best of these fell to the subdued Messi, who had a few touches and runs that showed promise, but was closely marked throughout and unable to put his stamp on the game.  For once he found himself free in box, but dragged his shot narrowly wide of the post.

It seemed inevitable that extra time would be required to separate the teams. And the additional period saw two chances created for substitutes that would ultimately decide the game. Firstly Palacio for Argentina chested the ball too far in front of himself and was unable to beat the quickly advancing Neuer. And then Mario Götze controlled the ball perfectly to fire a volley past Romero and win the match for Germany.

There was very little to divide the two teams, and Argentina had made the better chances. But they did not have a single shot on target throughout the 120 minutes and that was ultimately to be their undoing.

Germany are worthy world champions. Athletic and solid, with flair from midfield and goals up front. A core of young players who will be around for a while aided by one or two veterans making their last big for glory. And all blended together to perfection by coach Joachim Low’s tactical nous. It is easy to talk of meticulous preparation and ruthless efficiency – but that’s exactly how the Germans conquered the footballing world.

So it’s all over for another four years. In my assessment this was a fine World Cup. The best ever? Possibly not. But still a festival of football that entertained and enthralled, with established stars and new names playing their parts.

A last word for the hosts. Despite stories of half finished stadia and chaotic preparations, Brazil did the world proud with a well organised and successful tournament. Now if they only had a few players who could show the Brazilian flair of old then the home fans might just have had more to celebrate.

 

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So the first half of the World Cup is over – and what a tournament it has been so far. Lots of goals, some great games and more than a few shocks. And one big name player who has disgraced himself, not for the first time.

Yes, this is definitely a tournament with bite.

Half of the thirty two teams who arrived in Brazil are now on their way home, including several very big European names. It is no shock that the countries from the Americas are doing so well – but who will be lifting the trophy in the Maracana when the tournament ends?

Luis Suarez had a very eventful trip to Brazil. Injury ruled him out of Uruguay’s opening defeat to Costa Rica but he returned to score twice against England, giving his country a route back into the tournament. Then his attempt to take a bite out of the shoulder of an Italian opponent brought him to the attention of the world’s media for all the wrong reasons. A lengthy ban resulted – although perhaps UEFA were lenient with a four month suspension given that this is the third biting incident of his controversial career.

Some of the world’s other footballing superstars have concentrated more on scoring goals than leading with their teeth. Argentina’s Messi and Brazil’s Naymar lead the Golden Boot race with four each after three games, along with the 2010 top scorer, Thomas Muller of Germany. And with other big names like Benzema, Robben and Van Persie on three there is real competition for the prize.

So just who is still in the race for the World Cup after the group stage?

Group A saw Brazil and Mexico qualify with Croatia and Cameroon going out. It was all fairly straightforward, although the host nation has still to find its top form. Look out if they do.

Group B saw the competition’s first big shock. Netherlands v Spain was always going to be one of the highlights of the opening round, but few predicted a 5-1 Dutch demolition of the defending champions. And it got worse when an impressive Chile beat the Spaniards 2–0 to send the holders home. Tim Cahill’s fine volley, a contender for Goal of the Tournament, gave Australia something to remember but ultimately it was Netherlands and Chile who went through.

Group C saw Columbia in fine form with three wins, but the second qualifying place was not decided until injury time in the final match. Japan were out of contention and Ivory Coast looked to have secured the draw they needed against Greece. But when Georgios Samaras was brought down in injury time the former Celtic striker picked himself up and scored an ultra cool penalty to put his country through.

Group D was always going to be a difficult one for England. And a pair of 2-1 defeats to Italy and Uruguay made their final match irrelevant, giving a very early exit for Roy Hodgson’s men. The surprise side of the tournament were Costa Rica who defeated both of England’s conquerors to win the group. Uruguay beat Italy to second place but the Suarez incident left a bad taste in the mouth.

Group E bucked the geographical trend with European sides France and Switzerland qualifying comfortably, leaving Ecuador and Honduras with relatively short journeys home.

Group F was fairly easy for Argentina with three wins, although a 1-0 win over a brave Iranian team was closer than most expected. Nigeria are the one African country to retain an interest after edging out Bosnia for second place.

Group G was labelled the Group Of Death. Well, there has to be one in every tournament. Germany ended up on top although it wasn’t straightforward for the favourites. The USA, brave and organised, hard working and difficult to beat, almost secured a surprise win over Ronaldo’s Portugal before an injury time equaliser. But the Americans had the last laugh, sending yet another European team home on goal difference.

Group H was topped by Belgium, many people’s tip as dark horses in the tournament, although three narrow wins did not show them at their best. The surprise came when Algeria finished runners up, a final draw against Fabio Capello’s Russia leaving them and South Korea out in the cold.

 

The knock out stages have given us some intriguing match ups to lock forward to. The Round of 16, as it seems to be called, starts with Brazil v Chile in the first of two all South American clashes with the winners meeting Columbia or Uruguay.

France will be favourites to put Nigeria out and a clash with Germany should await as the Germans are likely to be much too strong for Algeria.

Netherlands v Mexico is an intriguing clash of two attaching sides with the winner surely seeing a tie against Costa Rica or Greece as a great chance to make the semi finals.

Argentine will likely be too good for Switzerland while USA v Belgium could be one that goes to extra time and even all the way to penalties. Both teams are strong defensively and hard to beat so there might not be too much goalmouth action.

The potential line up for the semi finals then is Brazil v Germany and Netherlands v Argentina. Two clashes of the titans, South America against Europe in both games. There are twelve other nations who will be trying to provide yet ore surprises, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the four favourites in the penultimate stage.

The knock out stage of the World Cup is when things get serious. There are no second chances now, defeat means elimination. And that will add to the tension and hopefully to the excitement. There are some fine teams left in the competition and if the attacking ethos that has dominated so far continues we will be in for a treat.

Bring it on!

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World Cup A to Z

Well, it’s World Cup time again, and the tournament has started very well. So time for something a little bit different. Rather than compiling the usual Best Of lists or looking at top players in different positions, I’ve decided to go for an A to Z of World Cup stars – one for each letter.

Now some are easier than others. Pele gets onto the list as the greatest of them all, so there can be no Platini. Passarella or Puskas here. But some letters are more difficult because of few contenders, and others for the opposite reason.

So quite a few very fine players didn’t make it – and hopefully that will lead to some debate. So what do you think?

 

Carlos Alberto

Franz Beckenbaur

Johan Cruyff

Didier Deschampes

Eusebio

Just Fontaine

Garrincha

Fernando Hierro

Andres Iniesta

Jairzinho

Mario Kempes

Michael Laudrup

Diego Maradona

Johann Neeskins

Wolfgang Overath

Pele

Ramón (El Loco) Quiroga

Ronaldo

Hristo Stoichkov

Tostao

Rudi Voller

Fritz Walter

Xabi

Lev Yashin

Zindedine Zidane

 

M provides perhaps the richest crop of players. But Maradona just had to be on the list. I rate him as second only to Pele both in terms of greatest ever player and of contributions to the World Cup. He still shades Lionel Messi, although that might yet change, and definitely outshines him in terms of contributions to this tournament. Then there’s Paulo Maldini, Gerd Muller, Lothar Matthaus, Sepp Maier, Roger Milla …

R turns out pretty well too. The goalscoring of Ronaldo beats out fellow Brazilians Ronaldhino, Rivaldo, Rivelino and Romario as well as Italians Rossi, Riva and Rivera and Christiano Ronaldo.

And there are some greats on the Z list too. In the end Zidane is in over Zico and Zoff despite the head butt that ended his brilliant career in such an ignominious manner.

British players are missing entirely from the final list. King Kenny just lost out to the French great Deschampes and Joe Jordan’s goals in three separate finals don’t make the grade against Jaiirzinho. Archie Gemmell deserves at least a mention for that goal I suppose.

Gordon Banks loses out to Kaiser Beckenbaur while Bobby Charlton has to come behind Cruyff for me. Gary Linekar scored a fair few goals but Michael Laudrup was such a fine player. And Bobby Moore is yet another in the great M debate.

There were a couple of letters that posed a challenge. Not X for once, as Xabi was an obvious choice. Q was always going to be the difficult one here. But Ramón (El Loco) Quiroga deserves his place for entertainment value alone: he is the only keeper I can ever remember to be booked in the opposition’s half of the pitch!

But can anyone think of a single player whose surname begins with a U??

 

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When the fixture list for a new season is released the first thing many fans do is look for the dates of derby matches. In Glasgow this has meant a wait until the very last of the opening set of matches between teams before the big game – but it is finally here.

Yes, Firhill will once more be the place for thrills on Sunday as Glasgow’s top two clubs will face off when Partick Thistle host Celtic.

It’s been a long wait though, and not just because of the vagaries of the fixture computer. The two teams haven’t met since 22 February 2004 when Celtic secured a convincing away league win by a margin of 4 – 1. Chris Sutton and Stan Varga both scored twice, while Gerry Britton got the consolation goal for the Jags. As a footnote, two of Thistle’s substitutes that day were former Celts: Jorge Cadette and Stephane Bonnes.

With Partick Thistle spending a lot of time out of the top division, contests between the teams have been a little rare in recent times – although there have been a total of 214 matches over the years. Celtic, as you would expect, are well ahead in the series with 141 wins to their opponents 33. And you have to go back to 2 May 1995 to find the last Thistle success – a 3-1 victory in an end of season match at Hampden.

A rare goal from Peter Grant put Celtic ahead that evening but Roddy Grant equalised for the visitors before half time. Thistle took the lead in the second half in controversial circumstances, as the Glasgow Herald report explains:

“Tony Mowbray was penalised for a foul just outside the area, but protested vigorously, and while he was still making his point, Charnley chipped the free kick over the defence where Foster nipped in to shoot past Bonner.

“That incensed Mowbray so much that he chased referee Willie Young to the half -way line where, inevitably, he was booked, to be followed by McStay who was also shown the yellow card for his protest.”

Willie Young? Controversy? Hard to believe, I know.

For the record, Wayne Foster also got Thistle’s third goal, late on in a match that saw some of the floodlights go out. And Tony Mowbray’s yellow card meant that the future Celtic manager picked up a suspension that would rule him out of the Scottish Cup final, meaning he missed the 1-0 triumph over the former Airdrieonians a few weeks later.

There have been some fine performances in games between the two teams over the years. Many will remember the late Phil O’Donnell making his Celtic debut at Firhill in 1994 and scoring twice. And in 1973, Dixie Deans scored an amazing six times, a double hat trick, in a 7 – 0 Celtic home win over Thistle. I’m sure any Thistle supporters reading would want me to mention the 1971 League Cup final too … so consider it mentioned.

Will this Sunday’s match be full of thrills? I have a feeling it might be a tight affair. Thistle are sitting in mid table after making a decent start to their first season back in the top division, while Celtic lead the table and are unbeaten. And a midweek win over Ajax should have Neil Lennon’s bhoys in good heart too, although a few knocks the possibility of players being rested might see an understrength line up.

Whatever happens, it is good to have a Glasgow derby to look forward to once more. It’s been a while.

 

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